‘Edgelands’, urban agriculture and climate camps: towards a future of prosperity without growth.

Posted on November 13, 2012

My reflections on a  couple of great books on some of my favourite subjects,  by Paul Farley and Michael Symmonds Roberts  ‘Edgelands: Journeys into England’s true wilderness’, and Owen Hatherley, ‘A guide to the new ruins of Great Britain’.

‘Edgelands’ are those spaces where the veneer of civilisation peels away. They are the debatable spaces where city and countryside fray into each other, these most despised and ignored of landscapes which are part of our common experience. The late Colin Ward, along with various collaborators, researched and celebrated them in a series of books on plotlands, caravan sites, camping grounds, smallholdings, children’s hiding places and allotments. While other countries have their desert, jungle and tundra, this is arguably, Britain’s wilderness.

As a gardener I have recently visited several National Trust properties as diverse as Stowe, Tyntesfield and Farnborough House. All in their different way have gardens to die for, temples, lakes and magnificent trees abound, in landscapes that are artfully designed to look ‘natural.’ But of course our countryside has been carefully shaped, not just in these particular gems but over moorland, weald and downs by many hands, over generations. But between our intensively managed urban and rural landscapes, has grown up a strange no-man’s-land. It is this that Farley and Symmonds Roberts examine, in twenty eight essays with titles such as; ‘landfill,’ ‘sewage,’ ‘mines,’ ‘airports,’ ‘containers,’ ‘canals,’ ‘masts’ and ‘pallets.’ Nothing could be more different from those National Trust properties.

The authors are both poets and poets have always been attracted by the overlooked, the telling detail, the captured moment. If parts of our managed countryside feel (deliberately) timeless, the edgelands feel anything but. Come back a year after your last visit and the empty factory will have been demolished, a business park constructed, the waste ground cleared and landscaped with those artificial waterfalls that only work on weekdays. The ‘new ruins’ of Great Britain even. Overlooked as they are, these areas play an increasingly important role in conserving biodiversity. Think of the scale of motorway verges almost undisturbed by human hands for decades.

As a waste-management professional, I was particularly struck by the essay on landfill. I have never come across such an accurate evocation of ‘the end of the road’ for our consumerist society. ‘Live landfill sites are an assault on the senses. Even from a distance you can hear the two tone klaxons, the constant roar of diesel engines straining up a system of slopes and the gulls panicky and urgent. Then there is the smell: if you’ve been stuck behind a bin wagon in traffic on a hot day, then you have experienced its harsh contours, though nothing prepares you for the cloying relentless reek of household waste close up.’

Once they are full and capped they become landfill-as-history. The authors visit one outside Lancaster and report: ‘Beneath our feet lie over fifty years worth of decomposing material, unknowable subterranean shiftings and settlings, slow collapses and fermentations. Grease and bones, paper and wood, glass, metals, solvents, rubber, dyes, fly ash, fat trap waste…. Here we can clearly see the fine veins of Christmas tree needles marking Januaries…..the gradual inundation of plastics and particleboard as we rise through the layers of years. Deep down at the lowest levels lie the peelings and scrapings of teatimes when Clement Atlee was Prime Minister.”

Being poets, and Farley having edited a 2007 edition of John Clare’s work, they manage to pepper the book with poetic references, even to landfill. Swordy Well in Northamptonshire is the remnants of an old quarry in an area of limestone grazing that Clare knew well. He grazed livestock there. It became a landfill site for a time, and like many former landfill sites is now enjoying an afterlife as a wildlife conservation area. This is now known as Swaddywell Pit Nature Reserve. It isn’t entirely pretty. They record that in its lower reaches, ‘the ground is iridescent with shiny discharges oozing from the earth.’ Nevertheless the orchids Clare celebrated 200 years ago ‘are still evident, and in abundance, the meadowland where the tip was capped is carpeted today with bee and pyramidal varieties.’

Swordywell was common land when Clare was a young shepherd, but he grew up to see the landscape disintegrate and his connections to it severed as enclosure changed ancient boundaries and landmarks, diverted water courses, and grubbed up old trees and hedges. The substitute for the common land enclosed was allotments for the displaced urban proletariat, another topic of this book. ‘Allotments signal that you are now passing through the edgelands as emphatically as sewage works or a power station. They thrive on the fringes the in between spaces, on land left over (or left behind) by the tides of building and industrial development in pockets behind houses or factories and in ribbons along the trackbed of railways.’ Seen from the train they do indeed seem to hark back to that feudal, swineherd England. The subsistence strips for the poor, that Clare grew up with. The utter antithesis of the privatised shiny surfaces of the city you have just pulled out of, they flaunt their functionality, revealing an infrastructure of water butts and pipe work, plastic groundsheets and transposed carpets, sheds and greenhouses that, cobbled together from leftovers, look like a refugee camp from those fleeing the consumerism of the city.

This is where Hatherley comes in. Before the crash, British cities were the laboratories of the new enterprise economy, glowing monuments to finance, property speculation and the service sector. New Labour heaven made flesh. Then reality rudely interrupted. In A Guide to the new ruins of Great Britain Hatherley sets out to explore the wreckage, mapping the derelict Britain of the 2010’s and the buildings that epitomised an age of consumption and greed. Its structure is similar to Edgelands, a series of discrete essays, this time about specific cities; Southampton, Milton Keynes, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cambridge and half a dozen others. Hatherley’s point of departure is where Farley and Symmonds Roberts leave off. Near the end of the book he visits the Greenwich peninsula, home of the Dome, the defining monument to New Labour. Once, he writes, ‘This place was a Blairite tabula rasa… an area the size of a small town, freshly decontaminated and waiting to have all manner of ideas laid down upon it’. But instead of the green, inclusive, continental-style new city quarter promised at the start of the area’s regeneration, he finds ‘a transplant of America at its worst – gated communities, entertainment hangers and malls criss-crossed by carbon-spewing roads, a vision of a [British] future alienated, blankly consumerist, class ridden.’

But the crowning glory of these ‘new ruins,’ and the one that really gets Hatherley’s goat is, Manchester. ‘More than any other city in Britain, Manchester has become a flagship for urban regeneration and immaterial capitalism. What other cities have dabbled in with piecemeal ineptitude, Manchester has implemented with total efficiency.’ The city has repositioned itself as a ‘cold, rain-soaked Barcelona.’ While acknowledging that there are some good buildings that have been absorbed into popular affection – the Beetham Tower, the Lowry – demonstrated by newsagents selling postcards of them, his real complaint is the effort expended in turning the city from one of production to one of consumption. Regenerated cities, he argues no longer produce any great pop music, or great art, let alone industrial product. What they do produce, is property developers. Or immaterial capitalism.

For him, Manchester is the opposite of ‘edgelands’ – those parts of the city now demolished like the Hulme Crescents which in the 1980’s became the home for Manchester’s young bohemians, art-house cinema and soon-to be-famous Factory Records and all. While city centre stores like Selfridges and Harvey Nicholls may in time, like the Lowry Centre, become monuments to their age, the huge half-finished housing development called New Islington already looks doomed. When the crash came, New Islington consisted of ‘one (apparently very hard to sell) Alsop block, two small closes of houses and a whole lot of verbiage.’ But the promised self-build enclaves, high streets, parks, schools, and health centres weren’t built during the boom, and the creation of a low-rise suburbia in the heart of a huge city, surrounded by the levelled area of former social housing, sounds to me as if it has all the ingredients of an edgeland-in-the-making. Hatherley even reports that the detritus of regeneration ‘street furniture’ includes, ‘a cuddly little fibreglass bear, two fibreglass birds and a hedge trimmed to resemble a dinosaur.’

If these books sound like a couple of dystopian visions shot through with poetical and polemical humour, as the gloomy inevitability of a post-industrial, post-globalised society, with the city as focus for consumption, collapses into the edgelands-as-badlands of urban social disaffection and a consumer society turning in on itself, all is not lost. Both Hatherley and Farley/Symmonds Roberts find optimism in the bleakest of contexts.

Hatherley contrasts the Dome and those gated communities on the Greenwich peninsula with the nearby Climate Camp of 2009, an attempt to carve out some independent oppositional space. Cynic that he can be, Hatherley remarks that ‘What’s intriguing about the Climate Camp is its interest both in protest and an actual proposition of another way of living. In a time when utopianism of any sort is thin on the ground other than as an object for nostalgia, this alone makes it worth taking seriously Many in the camp are clear that [it] provides at least a potential model of a post carbon, post growth world.’ The camp recognised the need for enormous structural changes, both in the wider of politics and everyday life and by implication in the way we design our lives. In one leaflet produced at the Camp, explaining why they chose that site, the campers list as number one, the tall buildings of Canary Wharf – monuments to the feral rich to which their ad hoc, low-rise settlement is such an explicit alternative. Hatherley comments ‘There is an instructive contrast between the good will, intelligence and participation in these marquees and the viciousness, atomisation and stupidity that occurs in the glass and steel blocks they look out on.’

Farley and Symmonds Roberts take allotments as their ground zero of practical utopianism. Noting that ‘Dig for Victory’ has a long and honourable lineage in the canons of sustainability, they see the allotments of the twenty-first century as more ‘Dig for Planet Earth’, whose objective is to turn over as much wasted or underused land as possible to the beauty and utility of growing fresh fruit and vegetables. The authors rightly globalise this phenomenon, pointing to the urban agriculture movement, stretching as it does from Detroit to Havana by way of ‘Incredible Edible Todmorden’. London’s ‘Capital Growth’ initiative which plans to have 2,012 community growing projects up and running in the metropolis by the end of 2012, relies heavily on bringing edgelands back into productive use, right there in the midst of the ‘new ruins’. Allotments, urban agriculture, climate camps, they all speak to a future where prosperity without growth is within reach. These books both chart the decline and fall of our current society in graphic detail and almost incidentally, record some of the green shoots of new growth.

A version of this review first appeared in the Journal of William Morris Studies.