Category Archives: Sustainability

David Holmgren on Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and PathwaysThere is so much in David Holmgren’s Permaculture that I am sure I will return to it, but I wanted to capture the basics in one post. One long post.

Way back when I had a house and a garden, I found out about permaculture and read the huge manual by Bill Mollison and was immensely impressed and tried to grow all my own veg. I failed, and learned a lot in the process. It is many years on now, of living in rooms and flats and no access to gardens and moving and a publishing endeavour and a thesis. I am quite excited to come back to it in thinking about urban and public space and how we live, how we create community, how we leave every place we inhabit, and the earth itself, better than we found it. That’s rarely talked about.

Uncertainty about our place and our future and our knowledge, however, is more and more talked about.

We live in an uncertain age — theoretical science has opened up a whole world of uncertainty, modernity clashing with traditional values, crisis undermines possibility of certainty about the future, and the pace of technology-driven change

Even so, what surprised me — and shouldn’t have because it is a reality that we must face — is that this book starts with, and doesn’t bother to argue for, the reality of climate change, peak oil, crisis. In fact the permaculture movement started with that foundation forty odd years ago

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as “alternative response to environmental crisis” to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. (xvii)

It argues for a true sustainability, looked at in different ways as befits a key principle for organizing life. One is ‘as a set of coherent system priorities’. There follows an interesting set of binaries that contrast industrial with sustainable culture —

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

I am trying to think more along continuums rather than through binaries, but this is useful I think.

So on to definitions.

Definition:  Expanded from Permaculture One: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for porvision of local needs.” People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

A second definition: the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. (xix)

And then there is this

Permaculture is a whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline, which are as natural and creative and those of growth….The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent. (xxix)

and if you didn’t quite get that, he writes:

I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves our even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent. (xxx)

Yes please, let’s do that. I wish everyone from now on could just start right here.

David Holmgren’s Ethical Principles of Permaculture

Three broad principles — pretty easy:

Care for the earth
Care for people
Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (1)

I liked this:

In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional–even destructive–in a world of limited and declining energy. (2)

I loved this:

The stewardship concept demands that we constantly ask the question: Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship? One cannot go far in this process without challenging the ethical validity of the ownership of land and natural resources that lies at the heart of our legal system. Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history; in a low-energy future it will again become the primary focus for ethics, politics and culture. Indigenous land right and agrarian land reform in poor countries are two issues that continue to challenge the prevailing ethics about land. The ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control of land in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture. Efforts to do this over the last hundred years show that it is not an easy task.  (5)

It is part of care for the earth: understanding the living soil, stewardship of land, preserving biodiversity, seeing all living things as intrinsically valuable and minimising our impact on them.

Care for people? It means understanding the massive structural inequalities, doing what we can to undermine them beginning with ourselves and our families, our neighbourhoods, our communities. I think missing here is a little deeper thought into social and racial justice and how those intersect with environmental justice —  the words environmental justice don’t appear at all, but I think will have to be intrinsic to a wider movement. Graham Haughton‘s work is a start among that of many others I am now exploring.

And hell yes to redistributing surplus.

There then follow twelve principles:

Each of course links to the others, ‘In this sense, each principle can be thought of as a door into the labyrinth of whole-systems thinking.’ (xii)

1. Observe and Interact

icontreeThe icon for this principle is a person as a tree, emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. (13)

A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. (13)

And lo and behold, a popular education spiral — I use this all the time to think through things:

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

2. Catch and Store Energy

iconcatchenergyThe icon of sunshine captured in a bottle suggests the preserving of seasonal surplus and a myriad of other traditional and novel ways to catch and store energy. It also reflects the basic lesson of biological science: that all life is directly or indirectly dependent on the solar energy captured by green plants.

The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. (27)

Energy is stored in landscapes — water, nutrients and carbon. This is what our presence should be working to rebuild. This means we think about the land we can manage, we think about catchment and regional planning, and we think about households and the built environment as stores of energy.

When considering the development of the tools, buildings and infrastructure , we should aim to emulate, where possible, the characteristics…for natural storages of energy. The following design criteria are relevant:

  • modest in scale
  • well-designed for long life and/or made frmo easily renewable materials
  • simple to maintain (not necessarily maintenance-free)
  • multi-purpose and easy to adapt to other uses. (46) 

3. Obtain a Yield

iconobtainyieldThe icon of the vegetable with a bite taken shows the production of something that gives us an immediate yield but also reminds us of the other creatures who are attempting to obtain a yield from our efforts. (55)

Then he goes on to talk about Kropotkin‘s refutation of the Darwinists in arguing that cooperation is as prevalent if not more than competition. Yay. It means understanding where and how we are dependent on social relationships — harder to see sometimes in the modern world, just as our interdependence with the other creatures in our world is obscured.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

iconself0regulateIn modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.

The Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism, makes the whole earth a suitable image to represent this principle. (72)

This is really hard, because it’s been a really long time since we’ve done it. That’s all about to change.

Learning to think wholistically requires an overriding, or reversal, of much of the cultural heritage of the last few hundred years. With little experience of whole-system thinking and such cultural impediments, we need to focus our efforts on simple and accessible whole systems before we try to amend large and complex ones. (85)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

iconusevlaueThere is no more important example in history of human prosperity derived from non-consuming use of nature’s services than our domestication and use of the horse for transport, soil cultivation and general power for a myriad of uses. (93)

I love this, it encapsulates everything wrong with consumption, and a lovely definition of use value, evocative of William Morris somehow:

Appropriate use:

How well we use the products from natural resources is as important as the way those products are made. The dining table that is used each day to feed a large household is very different from the one used for the occasional dinner party in an otherwise empty house. One will become imbued with the memories and marks of living. The other will occupy space that is locked, insured, maintained and heated, doing little. (95)

6. Produce No Waste

iconearthwirmThe earthworm…lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms and for the plants. Thus, the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another. (111)

A critique of privatisation, of built-in obsolescence. A recognition that the world’s poor know more about this than anyone else living, and instead of being looked down upon they should be held up as teachers and examples.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

icondesignThe spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. (127)

I don’t think it surprises me that he references Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language here, looking at the regular patterns to be found in our built environment. I quite love that he tries here to look towards beginning a similar pattern language for permaculture design.

This is all about thinking how energy is stored in the landscapes we create, but its interesting to think of ‘site design as cellular design’.

We can think of a permaculture-designed garden (Zones 1 and 2) as a human rural settlement cell. There is a limit to efficient garden size before we have to jump up into a more complex production system. Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and human knowledge that help to establish new gardens.

Despite the great challenges in recreating community, the expanding interest in eco-villages and co-housing as part of the permaculture vision is implicit recognition of the problem that the nuclear family is too small in scale for many aspects of ecological living. (138)

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

iconintegrateIn every aspect of nature, from the internal working of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus “the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character. (155)

Then there is this:

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasize mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity. (156)

There’s a section called rebuilding community, and god knows we need that.

…almost everyone active in the permaculture movement would agree that stronger development of co-operative relationships between people, families and communities outside the large institutional structures is the perfect complement to personal and household self-reliance. Without this alternative, political strategies for taming the global institutions are like King Canute telling the sea to retreat.  (172)

I like too the list of characteristics of a sustainable community:

  • Local and bioregional political and economic structures

  • cross-fertilization–biogenetic, racial, cultural and intellectual–giving natural hybrid vigour

  • Accessibility and low dependence on expensive and centralised technology

  • capable of being developed by incremental steps with feedback and refinement (172)
    Because the design of sustainable culture is beyond the capability of any mortal, the process must be organic and iterative. Each small step and stage should be immediately useful and workable and should provide feedback for refinement, and even changes, of direction. (173)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

iconsmallandslowThe spiral house of the snail is small enough to be carried on its back and yet capable of incremental growth. With its lubricated foot, the snail easily and deliberately traverse any terrain. (181)

Lovely — though the use of the word lubricated still makes me giggle like a twelve year old.

I also love how clearly this stands in opposition to Le Corbusier’s paean to speed adhered to by planner after planner.

The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimised. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. (181)

10. Use and Value Diversity

iconbirdThe spinebill and the humming bird both have long beaks and the capacity to hover, perfect for sipping nectar from long, narrow flowers….

The great diversity of forms, functions and interaction in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systemic complexity. the role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. (203)

It’s also interesting that emerging from nature, this value of diversity is connected to place and it is the cultures most attuned to the places where they live that hold the most wisdom.

Permaculture uses the patterns that are common to traditional cultures for design principles and models. the diversity of design solutions, strategies, techniques and species are a toolkit towards new cultures of place. Wherever we live, we must become new indigenes. (211)

This is particularly interesting in thinking about cities, the new cultures of place that grow in them, and how their connections to the land surrounding them can be made visible and healthy.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

icontrailThe icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of edges. (223)

I like that he looks at ‘marginal’ neighbourhoods, cites Jane Jacobs as noting that they are where space and low rent allow new things to grow and thrive. Also the ways that we see the edges between rural and urban, where it is the connections that are interesting.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

iconbutterflyThis principle has two thread: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and cooperative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. (239)

We need to break out of the delusion of apparently linear acceleration of human material and numerical progress to a world view in which everything is contained by cycles, waves and pulses that flow between polarities of great stability and intense change, all nested one within another. (270)

Permaculture is a dynamic interplay between two phases: on the one hand, sustaining life within the cycle of the seasons, and on the other, conceptual abstraction and emotional intensity of creativity and design. I see the relationship between these two as like the pulsing relationship between stability and change. It is the steady, cyclical and humble engagement with nature that provides the sustenance for the spark of insight and integration (integrity), which, in turn, informs and transforms the practice. The first is harmonious and enduring; the second is episodic and powerful. The joyful assymmetric balance between the two expresses our humanity. (271)

I find all of these useful starting points for thinking about cities, planning, building communities. It is built for praxis, and while much of this book is highly detailed about how these have been concretely implemented in terms of household design and agriculture, I think it will be quite fruitful to explore how they can be usefully applied in a broader movement to help create a better world. All of these things fit together, and I am enjoying exploring the potential of this.

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

 

Food is Free: A Practical Lesson in Community Gardens

In my day job we are looking at creating a community garden among other projects — which seems like it should be easy enough if we get the right people together and just figure it out. Better yet, I have asked for a little help from local organisations of people committed to growing food in the city, and there are lots of people working in the East End on just exactly this. But I thought I would also just see what the internet had to offer, doing a little more research on projects to learn from when we come to build our own gardens.

Besides going a little overboard on permaculture books, which I’ve been obsessive about for a long time, but without much chance to do anything at all about for the past few years. I’ll be writing about those as I go through them, I am so glad that my garden-drought is ending.

Food is Free

If not free now, perhaps some of it can be free in the near future — with food banks on such a steep rise, I think we should be doing all we can to work with people to grow their own healthy veg. Only yesterday through a friend’s post, I stumbled across the Food is Free project, which seems to me to have a particularly lovely way of both framing the project and breaking down the process of bringing people together in urban spaces to grow food not just for themselves, but for neighbours.

This is making me wish I had made a little time to do this ages ago.

In explaining who they are, they write:

The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach you how to connect with your neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.

The gardens are built and offered for free using salvaged resources that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. By using drought-tolerant, wicking bed gardens, these low maintenance gardens only need to be watered every 2-4 weeks. This simple tool introduces people to a very easy method of growing organic food with very little work. A wide variety of vegetables along the block promote neighbors to interact and connect, strengthening our communities while empowering them to grow their own food.

workday4construct

They work with people who have brought friends, family and neighbours together to build bed gardens in a whole variety of available places. They’ve even put a how-to booklet together to allow others to do what they do. The simple steps summarised:

1. Declaration – let people know what you’re doing so they can get involved!

2. Location – find a spot

3. Discover Resources – look at what you have and what you need to get — and don’t be afraid to ask for things that can be reused and recyled

4. Planting! – pretty self-explanatory, just know you will make mistakes.

5. Sharing – share the harvest, it’s nicest that way.

We love how this breaks everything down, makes it sound easy to start up something in any neighbourhood. I like the way this opens up the city so that food can be integrated into improving everyday life along every street, not just for those with allotments or a car or a garden.

food is free7

What is great about this is that these kind of projects can be done almost anywhere, even in very small spaces, so they complement our amazing local city farms like Stepney and Spitalfields, as well as existing allotment spaces.

Other Examples of Street by Street Awesomeness

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There are people doing this everywhere. From Ron Finlay in Los Angeles, who helped changed LA’s laws to allow people to plant vegetable in medians and along sidewalks, to the Yorkshire village of Todmorden growing its own food all over the place, to Growing Communities in Hackney, with its patchwork farm made up of 12 market gardens.

There are also incredibly beautiful and creative ways of making plants that we normally only think of as being grown for food both decorative and inspiring. Like this wonderful archway of squash:

pumpkin_gourd_vines_trellis

Or this spiral of flowers (that could have been strawberries or tomatoes or herbs):

572a60bcc1ec59723da4e25f63098174

From the community gardens we hope to grow on our community site now to the rooftop gardens that could lie in our future, there is so much to learn from and be inspired by as in joining this growing movement.

For more ideas, look at the amazing collection of stories about what people are doing here, on the Community Lovers Guides site. But this is probably the first of many a post on local food growing.

I like the idea of Food is Free. It should be. Especially the food that is so good for us, both as something to eat, but also something that gives us joy to plant collectively, tend and grow.

 

Parkland Walk — and the transformation of every unused track

Parkland Walk is an extraordinary thing to find in London — it removes you from the city and carries you through it at the same time. You catch glimpses of buildings through the trees, everywhere little paths join it, allowing people to enter and exit from their streets of concrete and brick and stone. Each such path or stairway stands as a tantalising road not taken.

Never do you lose the feeling you have somehow escaped the city for a while into a cathedral of green.

It carries you along with quite a number of other people.

Parkland Walk, London

Past these wonderful ruins of the old train platforms

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of leaves

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of stone and brick, covered with a generally higher quality of graffiti art than I am used to in this city

Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, London

past alcoves with sprites [as we found out later, a spriggan] smiling down on you

Parkland Walk, Londonrounded towers and stairs Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonTrees intertwined with brick Parkland Walk, London

And nearing the end in Highgate, a meadow, with a dirt trail that invites you along

Parkland Walk, London

To find the bats:

Parkland Walk, London

Surely we can do this with all of our disused railway lines. A welcome breath of peace and beauty, a place for birds and wildlife, and a safe place to walk that many people can integrate into their daily routines, and the rest of us can enjoy from time to time.

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Buildings of Earth, Chalk and Clay: J. St Loe Strachey & Clough William-Ellis

St Patrick’s day. My dad’s birthday. I am missing him so much. Him eating his big chocolate cake and my family all around and all of us in the adobe house my parents built in the desert. In my sadness I remembered this short book I found on Project Gutenberg I’ve been meaning to read forever. Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay (1919) by Clough William-Ellis. I knew it was right when I read this from the introduction by J. St Loe Strachey:

My deep desire was to find something in the earth out of which walls could be made. My ideal was a man or group of men with spades and pickaxes coming upon the land and creating the walls of a house out of what they found there. I wanted my house, my cottage in “Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” to rise like the lark from the furrows.

Or like our dream in the desert:

May 1982

I never knew how deep this kind of building tradition ran here in England, or that some architects looked towards it for a brief time in the 1920s to help overcome the lack of materials and the desperate need for housing after WWI (I greatly enjoyed Strachey’s overblown rhetoric):

In this dread predicament what are we to do as a nation? What we must not do is at any rate quite clear. We must not lie down in the high road of civilisation and cry out that we are ruined or betrayed, or that the world is too hard for us, and that we must give up the task of living in houses. Whether we like it or not we have got to do something about the housing question, and we have got to do it at once, and there is an end. Translated into terms of action, this means that as we have not got enough of the old forms of material we must turn to others and learn how to house ourselves with materials such as we have not used before. Once again necessity must be the mother of invention, or rather, of invention and revival, for in anything so old and universal as the housing problem it is too late to be ambitious.

It is the object of the present book to attack part of the problem of how to build without bricks, and indeed without mortar, and equally important, as far as possible without the vast cost of transporting the heavy material of the house from one quarter of England to another.

The Beginning of a Pisé Fruit-house.
The Beginning of a Pisé Fruit-house.

In the spirit of the time, he began work on the fruit house above, building it of rammed earth (pisé de terre) following a manual for Australian settlers. It worked and they built a dinning hall. Built it collectively, which also reminded me of my house, and how homes can and should be built:

Everyone worked at that wall; the nursing staff, the coachman, an occasional visitor, a schoolboy, a couple of boy scouts, members of the National Reserve who were guarding a “vulnerable point” close by, and even some of the patients.

There is, of course, a fairly large distance between the two of us. He was a member of Brook’s Club, known to me only through my long-ago reading of my grandmother’s Georgette Heyer regency romance novels, he writes:

Happening to be sleeping in a bedroom at Brooks’s Club in 1916, I noticed a charming Regency bookcase full of old books. Among them was a copy of a Cyclopædia of 1819. I thought it would be amusing to see whether there was any mention of Pisé de terre. What was my astonishment to find that what I thought was my own special and peculiar hobby and discovery was treated therein at very great length and with very great ability, but treated not in the least as anything new or wonderful, but instead as “this well-known and greatly appreciated system of building, etc., etc.”

And even better:

At the end of my researches and experiments I found that Pliny has got it all in his Natural History in six lines! There is no need for more words.

Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as ‘formocean’ walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind, and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even at this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal.”—Pliny’s “Natural History,” Bk. XXXV, chapter xlviii.

A part of Portmeirion, the real-life filming location for exterior shots of the Village
A part of Portmeirion, the real-life filming location for exterior shots of the Village

It all started in Africa, of course.

Architect Clough William-Ellis (he built The Village from The Prisoner) doesn’t have quite the same gift of words or the happy enthusiasm, and as he starts in on the housing question he set my back up right away:

In a recent speech the Registrar-General said: “War does not only fill the graves, it also empties the cradles.” This is no less true of bad and inadequate housing.

Only the most reckless and thick-skinned of the poorer population will adventure on marriage and the bringing up of a family whilst the odds against decent and reasonable housing persist as at present.

It was that embarrassing period for the upper classes when open discussions of eugenics were floating around, and they blamed the poor for their own poverty with a little more directness than they do today. Much of this little book is made up of letters from around England and the colonies giving precise details of other projects — very useful indeed actually, for those experimenting, but also serving to show the casual racism of Imperial Britain:

My experience of all black labour is, that they won’t put any ‘guts’ into it. They therefore want fairly heavy rammers, which they can lift and drop, say a foot, and which will do the rest for them.
–Major Baylay, Peter Maritzburg, Natal, South Africa

This signals the larger problems of Empire and the resulting oppression, exploitation and consumption that have played such a large role in getting us into the current ecological crisis that bears such similarity to the period immediately after WWI when this was written, but I shall note them and then set them to one side.

This passage shows the effect the war had on building, and probably exactly the kind of development rules we should have today:

Formerly, he who wilfully carried bricks into Merioneth or the Cotswolds, or slates into Kent or ragstone-rubble into Middlesex, was guilty of no more than foolishness and an æsthetic solecism.

Under present conditions such action should render him liable to prosecution and conviction on some such count as “Wasting the shrunken resources of his country in a time of great scarcity, . . . in that he did wantonly transport material for building the walls of a house by rail and road from A to B when suitable and sufficient material of another sort and at no higher cost existed, and was readily accessible hard by the site at B.”

That indeed is our one chance of salvation, the existence and use of “the materials of another sort hard by the site.”

If only we had really taken that on board in the 1920s, our towns and cities would look completely different (though he makes the point, and it’s a good one, that this kind of architecture is better suited to the raw materials found in the countryside rather than an urban setting, this requires more thought).

He starts with cob — only recently I saw an article about a man who had built his home of this, but had no idea quite how far back it went or what beautiful homes you could build:

cob house
COB HOUSE BUILT BY MR. ERNEST GIMSON, NEAR BUDLEIGH SALTERTON, DEVON

It is a mixture of shale and clay and straw, well-mixed through treading and then built in courses upon a stone foundation, lifted on and then trodden well down. It is allowed to project over the foundation, and then pared down and left to dry.

It creates places of beauty built of the very earth they sit on:

pic36b
A Cob-built Village.

Clough-Ellis’s design has a bit of the fairytale about it — ruined a bit by the assumption that its tenants will have servants. This search for alternative building materials has not quite yet joined with a deep desire to live better on the earth:

Model of a Pisé de Terre House to be built in Three Successive Stages. The right wing is planned to be built first as a complete small cottage, eventually becoming service and servants’ quarters. Clough Williams-Ellis, Architect.
Model of a Pisé de Terre House to be built in Three Successive Stages. The right wing is planned to be built first as a complete small cottage, eventually becoming service and servants’ quarters. Clough Williams-Ellis, Architect.

You can imagine what it would be like inside…and no corridors or hallways. Interesting.

Plan of Cottage designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Mr. Alban Scott.
Plan of Cottage designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Mr. Alban Scott.

The versatility of it as a building material is clear, though this is rather too grand for just one person — it could be one of the future hostels like in News From Nowhere:

A fine Specimen of a Devonshire Cob House.
A fine Specimen of a Devonshire Cob House.

If well built it keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and stays lovely and dry…living in a block house of the 1840s, I can’t tell you how much I like the sound of that.

I particularly loved this sentence:

Cob, like every other material, should have a certain say in the design of any building in which its use is intended.

And quoting an unnamed but old authority:

In Devonshire the builders of cob-wall houses like to begin their work when the birds begin to build their nests, in order that there may be time to cover in the shell of the building before winter.

There are some interesting historical touches in here as the authors collected every reference they could find:

There is this on the astonishing lateness of the use of wheeled carts,  the methods of payment, and the skills passed down from generations:

Mr. Fulford, of Great Fulford, near Exeter, whose own village and estate can show as many good examples of old cob work as any place in Devon, writes as follows:

….Wheeled carts which began to creep in about the beginning of 1800, were not in general use until twenty or thirty years later. As a boy I knew a farmer who remembered the first wheeled cart coming to Dunsford. In 1838 the Rector of Bridford (the ‘Christowell’ of Blackmore’s novel) recorded the fact that in 1818 there was only one cart in the parish and it was scarcely used twice a year…In the northern part of the county the common price of stonework, including the value of three quarts of cider or beer daily, was from 22d. to 24d... Cob-making was, like many other local trades, carried on in some families from generation to generation and developed by them into an art, but apart from these specialists, practically every village mason and his labourers built as much with cob as they did with stone.

A second, the quality of the buildings:

Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his Book of the West, writing on the subject says: “No house can be considered more warm and cosy than that built of cob, especially when thatched. It is warm in winter and cool in summer, and I have known labourers bitterly bewail their fate in being transferred from an old fifteenth or sixteenth century cob cottage into a newly-built stone edifice of the most approved style, as they said it was like going out of warm life into a cold grave.”

Another example of the comparison between old and new — and my retrospective fury with utopian planners (as unfair as that may be, yet they surely should have paid attention to these things — besides, it burns me up to thing of dockers being ‘imported’):

I can endorse from experience the comfort of these old buildings, and the affection of Devon people for them. The thick walls give all that a house should—protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. For the contrast, visit the new Garden City at Rosyth. Many of the houses are attractive, but their thin brick walls, tile and slate hanging are not suitable to the north and east coasts. Ask the opinion of the occupants of these new houses. Many of them are Devon born and bred, and imported from the dockyards of the three towns. They nearly all complain of the cold, and their views form an interesting comment on modern construction.
–Extract From a Letter to the Editor of Country Life, July 27th, 1918

A third is that Sir Walter Raleigh was born and raised in a cob house — this cob house:

Hayes Barton
Hayes Barton

Writing of Raleigh and his home, Mr. Charles Bernard says:

Sir Walter Raleigh’s House.—“He had great affection for his boyhood’s home—the old manor-house at Hayes Barton where he was born, and did his best to secure it from its then owner. ‘I will,’ he wrote, ‘most willingly give you whatsoever in your conscience you shall deme it worth . . . for ye naturall disposition I have to that place, being borne in that house, I had rather see myself there than anywhere else.’ But alas! it was not to be, and the snug and friendly Tudor homestead passed into other hands. The house at Hayes Barton was probably not newly built when Raleigh’s parents lived there, and it says much for the character of cob that the house is as good to-day as ever it was; though for all that it has, to use Mr. Eden Phillpotts’ words, ‘been patched and tinkered through the centuries,’ it ‘still endures, complete and sturdy, in harmony of old design, with unspoiled dignity from a far past.’

You can see the outside but not within, and it troubles me that Raleigh too was exiled from the home of his childhood.

Cob has one curious downside though, that honestly I wasn’t expecting:

Rats.—Where the surface rendering of cob-walls has been omitted or has been allowed to fall away, an enterprising rat will sometimes do considerable damage by his tunnelling.

A little powdered glass mixed with the lower strata of a wall will discourage any such burrowing…

This made me think immediately of an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, or Terekhov’s The Rat Killer, but neither has been enough to put me off these wonderful homes.

Now, to move on to Clough William-Ellis’s second method: ‘“Pisé de terre” is merely the French for rammed earth, and rammed earth is an exceedingly good material for the building of walls.’ You built a stout form of wood and ram earth down into it and it is as strong and impervious to weather as anything.

Sketch of a Pisé House in Course of Erection. With acknowledgements to The Sphere.
Sketch of a Pisé House in Course of Erection. With acknowledgements to The Sphere.

The kind of earth is key of course — unless you’re actually building, much of this section is a bit boring — but then there is this:

The material used for the walls at Empandeni is one-third sand, one-third ant-heap, and one-third soil, all pulverised and put through a sieve.

Ant-heaps seem to provide a perfect leaven, and there is more discussion of how to keep ants out. I can attest to the importance of this.

There was a demonstration building put up at Newlands Corner, near Guildford…I am curious if it is still there unsung, I can find no mention of what happened to it. But there is a lovely article in the Spectator from 1919.

The Spectator 25 OCTOBER 1919, Page 15
The Spectator 25 OCTOBER 1919, Page 15

The coolest thing, though, is that you can do this with chalk, as well as build of chalk blocks.

Those who may wish to see buildings in chalk conglomerate, both old and new, would do well to visit some such typical chalk district as that lying about Andover in Wiltshire.

It should, however, be constantly borne in mind that most of the old cottages were somewhat unscientifically erected by their original jack-of-all-trades occupiers, that damp-courses and Portland cement were unknown, and that the advantages of proper ventilation and the causes of dry-rot were discoveries yet to be made.

Secondly, a large number of these cottages have been sadly neglected either recently or in the past, and they bear the disfiguring marks of their ill-treatment upon them now.

But a chalk cottage that is well found in the beginning, and that is reasonably well cared for subsequently, has nothing to fear from comparison with cottages built in the most approved manner of the more fashionable materials.

Chalk Construction at Amesbury, Wilts. (From a sketch by W. R. Jaggard, F.R.I.B.A., the copyright of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.)
Chalk Construction at Amesbury, Wilts.

(From a sketch by W. R. Jaggard, F.R.I.B.A., the copyright of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.)

I particularly love chalk because

In its purest form chalk consists of over 95 per cent. of carbonate of lime in the form of fine granular particles held together by a calcareous cement, its organic origin being clearly traced in the remains of the minute sea creatures with which it abounds.

I am looking forward to hunting some of these old buildings down, it never occurred to me you could build with it.

At Medmenham there are cottages both old and new of hewn rock chalk, and both the Berks and Bucks banks of the Thames have many buildings to show of this beautiful material.

Marsh Court, Hampshire.
Marsh Court, Hampshire.

Gertrude Jekyll did the gardens there. And then there is:

 Brick-and-chalk Vaulting at the Deanery Garden, Sonning
Brick-and-chalk Vaulting at the Deanery Garden, Sonning

The Deanery Garden, Sonning — another place you can no longer go, because it is owned by Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zepplin. Yet another odd resonance with my youth, and I felicitate him on his choice but damn, I’ll never get in there now.

And finally — there are buildings of adobe! They may be known unflatteringly as ‘lumps’ at this point but still, amazing find unburned clay bricks here.

Mr. Skipper of Norwich writes of the material as follows:

“Who, travelling from Norfolk to London, whether by the Ipswich or Cambridge line, has not noticed the numerous colour-washed or black (tarred) cottage, farmhouse and agricultural buildings scattered practically all along the countryside? Some of these are of studwork and plaster, some of wattle and daub, but many are built of clay made up into lumps, sun-dried, and built into the walls with a soft clay-mixture as mortar.

 A Row of Clay-lump Cottages. The front has been plastered and panelled out. In the upper part of the stable building, seen in the foreground, the clay-lumps are shown exposed.

A Row of Clay-lump Cottages.
The front has been plastered and panelled out. In the upper part of the stable building, seen in the foreground, the clay-lumps are shown exposed.

These made me happy, I will go find them also. Wish my dad could’ve seen them, because there is something about living in a building made of the earth itself, and this was my parent’s gift to me.

Coach building a house

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Graham Haughton’s Principles of Environmental Equity

We’re in environmental crisis. Everyone knows it, though maybe only really deep down. Everyone knows cities are central to it. I’m coming back to Graham Haughton, because the more I read in general, the more I feel that what he presented here encapsulates a helpful way of thinking about urban sustainability. A term now used to mean all kinds of things, a term thrown around happily by the World Bank and the IMF even, but not defined this way:

For humans, it specifically requires achieving a position that allows us to live in harmony with the rest of the planet, so that we neither destroy ourselves nor the systems that support lifeforms. The essential threat to sustainable development is that the human species is attempting to live beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain both humans and other species, most notably as we destroy the natural balance of critical natural protective systems… Moving towards sustainable development requires economic and social systems that encourage environmental stewardship of resources for the long term, acknowledging the interdependency of social justice, economic well-being, and environmental stewardship. (234)

We need some definitions of this off course, and I so much appreciate this work in bringing environmental justice  together with a more mainstream environmental discourse around sustainability that often never mentions justice at all. I think this is key in thinking about cities, because the environmental justice movement in the U.S. has primarily been an urban movement. In the words of Robert Bullard:

We are saying that environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds. So we have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar on a lot of the large environmental groups.

I think providing a framework, a set of principles by which different approaches to imagining how we shape the city can be judged, is a good way to do this. Graham Haughton proposes the following:

  1. Intergenerational equity, or the principle of futurity as it is sometimes known.

  2. Intra-generational equity, or, more generally, contemporary social equity or social justice — the emphasis here is on the wider conception of social justice–that is, seeking to address the underlying causes of social injustice, not simply dealing with redistributive measures. (235)

  3. Geographical equity or transfrontier responsibility. Transfrontier responsibility requires that local policies should be geared to solving global as well as local environmental problems.

  4. Procedural equity. This principle holds that regulatory and participatory systems should be devised and applied to ensure that all people are treated openly and fairly.

  5. Inter-species equity, which places the survival of other species on an equal basis to the survival of humans. (236)

I’m not sure that I fully agree with how he defines or expands upon all of these–particularly thinking about procedural equity, how participation and direct democracy fold into this and how that is managed–but I think they are precisely the things that matter. This is where discussion should start, when most of the time I think it falls far short of this and gets us nowhere fast. Reading this from 1999 is like reading Jane Jacobs, filling me with frustration that nothing seems to have moved in the meantime, that discourse proceeds and so does practice and our cities are crawling along to where they need to be — if they are not falling back.

Justice? We still have a hell of a long way to go. And every day it is still poor communities, especially communities of colour that bear most of the costs. That will only get worse as crisis grows. To return to Bullard:

Environmental justice is not a social program, it’s not affirmative actions, its about justice. And until we get justice in environmental protection, justice in terms of enforcement of regulations, we will not even talk about achieving sustainable development or sustainability issues until we talk about justice. A lot of the groups that are trying to address these issues in the absence of dealing with race may be fooling themselves.

And to return to the importance of cities, and the reality of cities now:

So we can’t just let cities buckle under and fall into this sinkhole. We have to talk about this convergence of urban, suburban and rural and talk about the quality of life that exists and talk about the issue of urban sprawl. Basically everybody is impacted by sprawl. People who live in cities face disinvestment, in suburbs with the trees being knocked down, chewing up farmland. So you talk about this convergence, a lot of it is happening now, but it has to happen with the understanding that we have to include everybody, that it has to be an inclusive movement or it won’t work.

So to move forward to practical solutions. I like Haughton’s look at the possibilities that have been put forward — in more dispassionate terms than the fire with which a seasoned and passionate campaigner (as well as academic) can speak in an interview.

Self-Reliant Cities

The self-reliant city approach centers on attempts to reduce the negative external impacts of a city beyond its own bioregion, seeking to: reduce overall resource consumption; use local resources where possible; develop renewable resource-based consumption habits, always in a sustainable fashion; minimizee waste streams; and deal with pollution in situ rather than sending it to other regions (Morris 1982, 1990). (237)

Ooh you say, bioregion. You like the sound of that. So do I. I like most things about this idea.

The bioregion is usually seen as a central construct, replacing artificial political boundaries with natural boundaries, based typically on river catchment areas, geological features, or distinctive ecosystem types, although it is readily conceded that precise boundaries are usually difficult to define (Register 1987; Andruss et al. 1990). (237)

This also envisages a more democratic politics, which is part of the vision of Murray Bookchin (who I’ve read some of, not enough, but going all the way back to Kropotkin and his vision of co-operative society founded on a federation of non-hierarchical groups) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia (I still haven’t read this, I should, I will. It’s short). The danger is that they could become too isolated, folded in upon themselves. That they cease to contribute to the global work required to live well on the planet.

One city alone won’t save us, can’t alone challenge and transform many of the terrible oppressions operating at higher levels. We’re at war, we’re exploiting the resources and the labour of the world, we’re destroying forests and wetlands and … well. To return to cities, it would be nice to have one or two really trying to look to.

Redesigning Cities

This is what we do in the meantime, right? This is the dominant approach — just fix what is broken:

In essence the environmental problems of cities are seen to be linked intrinsically to poor design of the urban fabric, in particular 20th century additions predicated on the assumption of cheap and readily available fossil fuels for homes, work, and transport. Of special concern are the problems associated with the rise of the motor vehicle, from the spread of low-density residential development to the need to build substantial specialized infrastructure, including road systems and parking lots.

This focuses on the city itself, making it better, more liveable, more vibrant, without much attempt at a better integration with nature and the wider region like the first, much less global connections. The other question is just how well this can tackle the social and economic justice issues. You can see a design approach possibly taking the foreground, and of course new urbanism and smart growth that all too often (though not necessarily I suppose) have served as partial justifications for the mass and brutal displacement of the poor and people of colour from central city areas as part of redevelopment. Reshuffling the urban deck hardly seems ideal, but this approach has real trouble tackling the underlying causes of social injustice, particularly racism and, I would argue, capitalism itself. It’s probably not going to.

Externally Dependent Cities

The externally dependent city essentially follows the conventional or neoclassical view that environmental problems can be addressed effectively by improving the workings of
the free market. (238)

He gives this approach a lot more attention than I would, because honestly, look at the world. Just look at it. If the free market, or the government-supported and funded neoliberal market even, addressed environmental problems we would have nothing to worry about. Those semi-socialist Scandinavian countries with their heavily managed economies and regulated industries would be venomous and polluted cesspools, and the developing world where unregulated economic growth is being pushed and funded by the IMF and World Bank would be paradise, just like England was in the middle of the industrial revolution.

Fair Share Cities

The final approach to sustainable urban development is one I term fair share cities, which sets out to ensure that environmental assets are traded fairly, with a particular view to ensuring that exchange docs not take place in ways that degrade donor environments, economies, and societies.

This is about flows of resource exploitation, flows of waste. An equal distribution of benefits and costs. Yet ultimately this hardly seems to bring us anywhere  near an actual goal of becoming sustainable, actually minimizing our weight upon the earth, actually avoiding environmental crisis. Just spreading our weight evenly. I don’t even quite understand this as an approach, it’s more like a neoliberal shell game, but perhaps I am missing something.

Ultimately, the trouble is, much as I like the first option best, none of these go far enough do they. And even though it does not go far enough,  how do you create a self-reliant city from a terrible sprawling one?  I sit and think about what could be done to make LA just for example, to make it sustainable. Land reform I think. A total redistribution of wealth and an end to segregation. A mass construction of social housing in straw bale and adobe, in all parts of the city. Perhaps a return to the old urban form of wheel and spokes that facilitated walking and public transport, a clustering around train stations and the land returned to gardens in between. Perhaps slowly, over generations, I would not wish the trauma of eviction on anyone. A tearing down of walls and erasing of municipal boundaries and tax shelters. An end to suburban subsidies. Some return to the mixed use and narrow streets of the old pueblo. Pedestrianisation. More and more and more public transport. Bike lanes and more bike lanes. A tearing up of concrete and freeing of the river and reclamation of the parks and empty lots. Solar panels everywhere and good jobs making them (but that shit still has to be mined somewhere else, so we need more ideas). A mad planting of the right wildflowers for bees, vegetables, fruit trees. A living wage. Free education. Bilingual education. Sanctuary.

Dreaming is nice. Sometimes I wonder, why not? What could we do if we tried? Yet even with imagination unleashed, can these things happen just at the level of the city? Probably not.

Still, I think I like these principles of equity as way to collectively imagine and then judge our imaginings for moving forward with, in steps as big as we can make them.

For more posts on environmental justice…

The East India Company and the Natural World

22572408Given the single-minded purpose of the East India Company, it is hardly surprising that it should put everything in service of its profits — everything. I am only now learning the full contours of its terrible legacy: the millions dead of famine in Bengal, the industries destroyed, the conflict fomented, the culture and knowledge denigrated, the uprisings horribly put down. Impossible to summarise the damage that transformed Bengal from one of the wealthiest regions to one of the poorest or what that has meant to its people.

Could the colonised natural world have survived such an onslaught untouched?

What I appreciated about many of these stories, is that nature, on the whole, held its own. But not every time.

Frustratingly for me, being fresh and new and autodidacting this subject of Empire and the natural world, the principal theorisation for much of this, and the work that all of these authors are building upon, lies here: Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove. The strength of this collection lies in the well-researched detail and the breadth of subjects and disciplines represented. Not so useful for a theoretical overview though, so I am looking forward to Grove.

Still, this was enjoyable and I pulled out a few quotes, like this from the intro by Alan Lester, on John Mackenzie who I also have not yet read:

‘Rather than thinking of core and periphery as two interacting but discrete spatial containers, each maintaining its own essential identity, he saw that one of these containers was actually constituted by the other’ (2).

That seems common sense to me, perhaps more in the sense of each acting upon the other…but I’ve never much liked ideas of core and periphery. CLR James is most effective in theorising the intensity of these connections in a different way through his work on the Haitian Revolution and cricket for example. Interesting, though, to think of scale as socially constructed projects:

Like gender, race and class in post-structuralist historical thinking, we might productively think of scales as entities constructed through particular projects with real effects in the world. These are the ‘effects of networked practices’. (12)

Not sure what I can do with that, but interesting.

Deepak Kumar is another among several writers here who seem to me to be forced to state the obvious:

Colonial discourse, it is true, is neither dictated nor possessed entirely by the colonizers. Postcolonial theorists find ample instances of ‘ambivalence’, ‘hybridization’, and ‘mimicry’ within it. (20)

But I loved how the various works in here explored this through diaries, log books, letters. They traced the movements not just of human beings (and some of their words echoing from the past have an unexpected emotive power), but of plants and animals, both from the colonies to London, but also from colony to colony. I sit here in my London room, which is full of cactus because a piece of me will always long for the desert, and I wonder that academics had to ‘discover’ the way that people traded both within and without officially ordered botanical practices in familiar crops and familiar plants, to fill their homes and gardens, their medicine cabinets and their bellies. This in spite of the undeniable fact that ‘official’ botanical knowledge and classification resided in the major city of the colonizing power. Still, it is fascinating to read of the ways New Zealand was landscaped along broad and sweeping lines first practiced in India, and the close trading ties between the two that did not involve the home country at all.

I liked the examination of the roles of men of science, both amateur and professional:

They had a dual mandate, one to serve the state, the other to extend the frontiers of knowledge. The state claimed superiority in terms of structure, power, race and so on. Science claimed superiority or precedence in terms of knowledge and, inter alia, helped the colonial state ‘appropriate’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘dismiss’ other epistemologies. (Deepak Kumar, 28)

It was fascinating how these shifted over time, from a much more respectful position of mutual learning in the early days, yet where knowledge was still appropriated and almost never credited. These early days of botany and medicine are most interesting to me, but so much is lost, not valued thus silenced, despite the vast amount of documentation the company produced. I also wanted to know more of men like Richard Blackwall – a surgeon who turned against the East India Company and joined the Mughals in their struggle against it.

I learned a little, but not enough, of Mughal traditions:

gardens designed to introduce new crops and to provide materia medica for local hopsitals had existed for a long time in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and had spread to Europe in the form of the ‘physic gardens’ and ‘acclimatisation gardens’ that emerged in Italy, Portugal, later Holland, and finally England and France and their colonies (60) In Mughal towns of the period, ‘householder gardens’ were common, along with royal gardens and tomb gardens and the leasing of gardens could provide civic revenue (Anna Winterbottom, 44).

The article closest to what I was expecting was Rohan D’Souza’s ‘Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals’, detailing the East India Company’s immense and ultimately wasted efforts in attempting to control the mighty delta in Lower Bengal. A textbook in everything that is wrong with this approach to the world and how we live in it:

Despite the delicate nature of the drainage pattern, colonial rule had, during the course of the nineteenth century, inaugurated a number of projects for road, railway and embankment construction in the region. These modes of transport with their emphasis on permanent all-weather structures and mostly built in unrelenting straight lines marked a sharp break from movement in the earlier era, which was predominantly based on circuitous rough paths and ‘crooked’ routes. The colonial transport network in Bengal, in fact, radiated along the East-West axis, while the region’s natural drainage lines, in contrast, dropped from North to South (139).

The river won, but the decades of struggle, and the resources used by engineers is sobering, as is their despair or resignation. Yet the real tragedy is in the human cost of flooding and famine as older, more flexible methods of navigation, cultivation and agriculture working with the changing river are lost or no longer possible. I don’t know that there is enough rage in this book for me.

One consolation was an entire chapter on the rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world and proof of a true ‘Malaysian encounter’ when sited by a tourist, also known as a corpse flower for its smell of rotting flesh and parasitic nature:

h1dkeUB Rafflesia-arnoldii

 

In 1819 Robert Brown was Secretary of the Linnaean Society, and it was his task to identify the flower, and he faced a conundrum. Should he name the flower for Raffles, who oversaw the expedition and was well known in scientific circles in London, or Arnold, who had been the chief naturalist, and the first white man to see the flower on the expedition? Brown spent the next eighteen months confirming whether or not it was a botanical novelty and contemplating it’s official classification (Barnard, 160).

This encapsulates so much of early botany — carried out for profit, subject to strict hierarchy and structured by racism, still partaking of adventure and a scientific excitement (on Arnold’s part) not fully tainted by the colonial enterprise of which it was part. Arnold would not survive to see the final classification.

My favourite Raffles is still this one, and I can’t help but think of Arnold as Bunny. But that is absolutely doing my favourite dynamic duo a disservice.

Christopher_Strauli_and_Anthony_Valentine

 

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Shipping Containers: Industrial Present, Sustainable Future?

Is it nice to live in them, work in them, learn in them, play in them? Are they part of the answer to both the housing and environmental crisis?

Long and narrow rectangles of steel, containers are a part of my childhood, forming the long trains that snaked across our landscape. 417989_10151168966670974_951735433_n

When I moved to L.A., they became part of my landscape in a new way, though I confess I rarely made the trip to the port:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

This is the MSC Fabiola, the largest container ship — it’s scale is almost lost in this picture, at 1,200 feet long it can carry 12,500 containers, and only a handful of ports have the capacity to handle its size and depth:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The second series of The Wire exemplifies the size, the feel, the tragedy of automation on the docks. Containers are symbolic of trade, the industrial side of consumption. Now, increasingly they are being used as building blocks for places that form part of our daily lives.

I was surprised to find multiple projects in London, beginning with the Container City Project:

Devised by Urban Space Management Ltd, the Container City™ system re uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and can be adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.

This modular technology enables construction time to be reduced by up to half those of traditional building techniques while minimalising on site disruption and remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.

What does significantly more environmentally friendly mean? In looking deeper I found this way to measure the impact of building that takes into account not just the sustainability of heating and cooling it over time, but also the materials involved in its construction, the idea of embodied energy:

There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:

· Initial embodied energy; and
· Recurring embodied energy

The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components:

Direct energy the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and

Indirect energy the energy used to acquire, process, and manufacture the building materials, including any transportation related to these activities.

The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.

This reflects all the costs of mining, processing and transporting of building materials, while also the cost of construction and then the ongoing cost of inhabiting and maintaining the building.

Recycling containers in this way is not only far more energy efficient than melting them down and attempting to reclaim the metal, but also far more efficient in terms of construction materials and process. This makes them ideal for building genuinely affordable housing. This is a project from Arkatainer (more pictures here) for a YMCA scheme to provide housing for homeless teens:

© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com
© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com

This is stripped down and simple, but there is a huge list of container architecture projects from around the world here at inhabitat,  here at altdotenergy, and here at designcrave. Some of my favourites (though surely the more ornate they become, the more glass they involve, the more energy they use):

Tony's Farm is the biggest organic farm in Shanghai, Tony's Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai
Tony’s Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai

 

Dachi Papuashvili's Cross-Shaped Micro Home
Dachi Papuashvili’s Cross-Shaped Micro Home

 

 

Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)
Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)

1185232_659747480732660_1776861262_n

 

And finally London’s own Container City:

Container-City

Fascinatingly, Container City was also the title of a 2009 video game (see a walk through here), where the container city was instead a shanty town, a makeshift ghetto built of port detritus, filled with criminals that need to be hunted down and destroyed.

container-city-brinkbrink-videos---giant-bomb-c3a1lfps

It is the same kind of look but on a massive scale, rusted out, grafittied. It provides a vision of a possible future far removed from the brightly painted and hip constructions now decorating London, and being built around the world. Given a widening inequality, I’m not sure which is a more realistic depiction of our future.

I’ll definitely be exploring London’s container building and this concept further…

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Mining & Housing

I never really made the connection between new housing development, mining and the environmental impacts that both have on the earth.

Then the other other day I stumbled across this: ‘Zinc in London Climbs for Second Day Before U.S. Housing Data‘, and it contains this startling information:

Housing starts in the U.S., the second-largest metals consumer, probably climbed 1.2 percent in December from the previous month, according to a Bloomberg survey

New housing, the second largest metals consumer? (What is the first?)

But of course — look at the kind of new luxury housing that is being built (in the face of the enormous unfilled need for social housing, Lambeth’s waiting list of 21,000 people)

A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.
A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.

I didn’t know much about zinc, most commonly found with nickel and lead (another staple of the construction industry), I found more than I ever wanted to know from the Australian government — where zinc mining is big business.

A large part of the world’s zinc is used as protective galvanised coatings for iron and steel. In Australia, this use accounts for well over half of the domestic sales of zinc. The widespread use of zinc as a protective coating is mainly because of its resistance to normal weathering, and the protection given to steel by the preferential corrosion of zinc when the underlying iron or steel is exposed.

The biggest mines are found in Rahasthan India, Alaska and in Australia. I don’t pretend to fully understand the processes, but it is extremely toxic:

The flotation process is then used to separate the zinc and other valuable sulphide minerals from the waste rock particles or tailings to form a concentrate….Electrolysis and smelting are the two processes used to produce zinc metal in Australia. The electrolytic process is … where zinc concentrate from various Australian mines is roasted to eliminate most of the sulphur as sulphur dioxide and make impure zinc oxide. The roasted concentrate is then leached with sulphuric acid to form zinc sulphate solution…The smelting process …. Zinc and lead concentrates from various mines are blended and sintered or partly melted to combine the fine particles into lumps and remove some sulphur as sulphur dioxide. The sintered product is mixed with coke and smelted in a blast furnace to produce zinc vapour (gas), which is condensed by cooling with a spray of molten lead to form impure molten zinc metal (98.3% zinc). To remove the small amount of lead and cadmium impurities the liquid zinc is twice boiled to zinc vapour and recondensed to produce high purity zinc metal (up to 99.95%).

Zinc is mostly mined underground, unlike copper which is also mentioned in the article and widely used in building for wiring and plumbing. It is pulled from great pits like Morenci in my own Arizona, swallower of whole towns, of graveyards:

Morenci Pit

Or Bisbee:

lavender pit

My 1004844_10151917281020974_710944858_nfamily’s fortunes were tied to mining (my dad made the most wonderful maps, and we helped him) — a terrible thing, being mostly a life of poverty and uncertainty. This is what my dad got from his coworkers when finally laid off by Kennecott after refusing to move to Reno. The golden screw.

Mining provides a livelihood for many, a job that is dangerous but also one of pride, and a love of working underground. In my own part of the world, their history has been based on land stolen by force from Native Americans, the low level violence of prospectors and high level violence of powerful owners running towns, decimating organising work (and often killing or exiling union organisers), discriminating against non-whites. It has meant a boom and bust cycle that has built towns, then destroyed them. Similar violence, greed and exploitation has been repeated in mines worldwide. Pit mining unquestionably destroys the environment, creating the vast, desolate, toxic and terribly beautiful landscapes shown in the pictures above.

All this to build homes on the other side of the country, the other side of the world that will mostly sit empty. Towering boxes of steel and glass that are the least sustainable kind of architecture in terms of energy use, maintenance. Towering boxes of steel that are used as investments toxic to communities being displaced, and toxic to the people who still live there amidst a largely uninhabited wasteland.  This is the feeling on Paddington Basin, along much of the Thames both North and South.

In the struggle over mining and environment my dad always said (quoting a bumper sticker prevalent at the time), if it’s not grown it’s mined. We need metals, they are in everything we use. But by god we should mine them as safely as possible, pay the workers well, use minerals and metals responsibly, be working to reduce our use of them more and more, to reuse and recycle, to replace lost jobs through the creation of new jobs in improving our world to make it greener and more sustainable. This is necessary for our survival.

Instead we strip the earth to build monuments to greed, as unsustainable as the mining practices that make them possible.

 

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To Market To Market

It takes some work finding your way to Covent House, New Covent Garden. A bit of adventure in fact, walking down a residential road taking on faith that there is a gate at the other end of it, though you can see nothing until you are there. At the gate. Tucked down just before you hit the dead end. You walk through it and into an industrial world of large buildings and wide asphalt spaces and trucks. Pedestrian wanderers feel out of place, even after hours — I imagined the busy chaos it must be at peak times. But I arrived easily and safely and the talk by the lovely Helen Evans was so interesting, and opened up so many things I want to look into further.

It was immigration — the arrival of the Huguenots and the Dutch — that saw the real beginnings of intensive horticulture along the south bank of the Thames, and a shift from house gardens to growing produce for market. South London for many years was known for produce: the famous Battersea bundles, or asparagus, the growth of ‘simples’ or herbs like lavender on Lavender Hill. Artichokes, saffron, musk melon, even grapes and the now little known medlar tree (apparently for good reason as the fruit can’t be eaten until it is rotting off the tree and even then it was said it’s not very nice. I need to find some) grown as cash crops and easily transported to the old Covent Garden market by boats, which brought ‘night soil’ back to be used as fertiliser on their return journey.

Medlar Tree

I liked the sound of musk melons as well, what are those I asked myself? Turns out it is a general term for a variety of melon, cucumis melo, that includes the canteloupe and honeydew. Not as exciting as I’d hoped, but delicious, even if I’m slightly allergic to them.

This system of growing vegetables on one bank of the river, transporting them by boat to the city on the other side, and bringing back fertiliser underlines the sustainability of past systems of food production that we have left far behind — but should probably consider returning to again where possible. Interesting that climate change has already had enough of an effect that more crops are being grown in the UK for market that never used to be, like figs. Instead the New Covent Garden is part of a worldwide food system that is a little bit crazy. With the huge growth of London, the fruit/vegetable/flower market by the 1960s had long outgrown old Covent Garden, where essentially all produce was being brought, bought up by local produce shops, and redistributed again. The suburbanisation of South London meant that trucks rather than boats became the main vehicle for transportation. I can’t even imagine the chaos on the Strand. So it was moved to this new site, developed for access by large trucks moving produce from large farm to large clearing center to growing supermarket.

This all changed again very shortly after the new site was built (they moved in 1974). Ever larger supermarket chains developed their own increasingly globalised delivery system (talk about unsustainability), and dealt directly with large market farms around the world for their produce, cutting out New Covent Garden almost entirely. So the customer base is now almost entirely smaller consumers of bulk fresh fruit and veg: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools. I started to get really jealous when she described the multiple varieties of fruit and veg the market deals with, not tied down to the ‘perfection’ sold by the supermarkets. The stuff grown because it lasts longer on the shelf and looks most like the ideal and always picked too soon. Instead you can buy tastier and messier mangoes, apples of multiple varieties, small and sweet strawberries — oh, delicious delicious! But only in bulk, and only early in the morning.

She had a fabulous chart of food fashion over the decades as well, the shifting trends in consumption, the date that Jazz apples were first introduced, when kiwis became a ‘thing’, when peppers and courgettes were still marginal (known as queer gear in the trade — curious). Apparently there is a move by cauliflower growers to bring it back into everyday cuisine because sales have fallen so steeply (so go buy some cauliflower!). There are now tourist trails through the rhubarb sheds of Yorkshire ( I am so on that). I learned so much, not least from the awesome little notebook we received that has the fruit and veg in season month by month — you can get a chart here. There are so many reason to buy seasonal and locally-grown food, taste and the future of the planet principle among them.

She had alluded to the Nine Elms development and the development of the market itself several times, which made my heart sink because I hate everything about the Nine Elms development and didn’t want to hear about the market getting moved on because the real estate it’s sitting on is too valuable for just fruit and veg. I was relieved to hear that it’s not getting moved on, though it is getting redeveloped. I’m always suspicious of that, but undoubtedly the market needs a thorough updating given the changes in food distribution systems. It seems like they’ve worked out a fairly good deal, financed through selling 20 of their 57 acres (where the flower market is now). I need to look into it more, and the plans and such are all here on their website, but from their perspective it will better cater to their actual clientele, have more capacity to sell direct to the public, and have a better venue for education and their own garden. I still hate that it’s part of this massive influx of cold high rise luxury development, I wonder what will happen to the very nice estate I walked past to get there, I fear that the new ‘public’ the developers at least are preparing for is a very different one than the folks living there now.

cgma1

But these fears are all for future posts. At the least I am glad the market is remaining, is redeveloping. It is an awesome place.

[the image at top comes from the New Covent Garden food blog, which is also awesome]

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Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

chickens

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

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Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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