37. Slowdown landscapes: ‘The Aer and Smoak dissipated’; learning from 1661, and from 50,000 years
What we might learn from John Evelyn’s Fumifugium, from 1661, about the use of green infrastructure to defeat pollution; And what we might learn from nature-based infrastructures of the last 50,000 years
2020’s ailments are deeply rooted, yet have somehow all manifested themselves in the air we breathe. Or whether we can breathe at all.
The smoke from January’s Australian bushfires produced the world’s worst air quality, confining inhabitants of its major cities to their homes, whilst those in small coastal towns huddled on beaches, waiting to be rescued. September’s West Coast USA wildfires paint the towns vermillion, thickening skies refracting the sunlight into a blood-red backdrop, These places also end up with the world’s worst air quality.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is conveyed via respiratory droplets emitted when coughing and sneezing, or by aerosols produced through talking and breathing. These externalities of social interaction cause millions to wear masks in order to safely breathe in public. The emergence of pandemic is clearly linked to the same patterns of the development that produce the climate crisis, again directly polluting our atmosphere. (In a further brutal connection, as police officer Derek Michael Chauvin kneeled on his neck, George Floyd repeated “I can’t breathe” at least 16 times before he died, the phrase becoming a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.)
These three core challenges underlying these events — climate, health, social justice — manifest themselves in numerous terrible ways, but here, they brutally attack or exploit one of the most fundamental requirement of life: clean air.
To achieve clean air is not difficult, of course. Stop pollution, double-down on plant life. Currently, however, we are choosing to wear masks instead. To go outside. Although it is quickly normalising as a practice in many places, is absurd, pathetic, even horrific that we have to wear a mask to go out. How has it come to this?
Those masks might even begin to wrap around not just the face, but our buildings and open spaces. Despite research showing that being outside in the open air is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of COVID-19, Edwin Heathcote described the potential return of the enclosed environment, the plexiglass screens, extending into wrap-around bubbles of controlled artificial environments. In a sense, they simply reinforce the gated, air-conditioned malls of recent decades (as noted in Slowdown Paper 16). Heathcote writes, “The bubble is also a symbol of defeat. It is a motif for a world and a society that we have destroyed. It reduces us to isolated individuals or exclusive units.”
But again, clean air is not hard. Stop pollution, double-down on plant life. That we have known this for a long time, and done little about it, does not reflect well on us as a species.
One of the first recorded complaints about air quality in a major city is around 400 years old, by the writer and gardener John Evelyn. It takes the form of a pamphlet sent to King Charles II in 1661, which Evelyn titled:
‘Fumifugium’ is a typically English whinge to the authorities, albeit with good reason, followed by a suite of creative ‘policy proposals’. (Coincidentally, Evelyn was writing 10 years after Hobbes published Leviathan, which began to outline the first forms of political vehicles that might address conceivably collective issues. Not that it did. David Runciman released a brilliant lecture on Hobbes as the first episode in his ‘History of Ideas’ podcast series, issued during the first months of the virus,)
Evelyn suggests that London’s poor air is fundamentally destroying the city, as “the Aer the Vehicle of the Soul, as well as that of the Earth, and this frail Vessell of ours which contains it; since we all of us finde the benefit which we derive from it,”
Ed. Quotes from Evelyn are reproduced in the English language of the time, more or less. Stick with it!
He continues “she (London) is to be reliev’d from that which renders her less healthy, really offends her, and which darkens and eclipses all her other Attributes.” The offender is largely “that Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEA-COAL which is not onely perpetually imminent over her head … her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuligimous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordring the entire habit of their Bo∣dies”
This “Hellish and dismall” sea coal was really just plain black coal, shipped down from Newcastle in the north east of England by sea. (Mining continued for three and a half centuries in Britain, before the government announced all mining would stop by 2025. In fact, by 2020 the country has already had several weeks without using any coal power at all, a situation previously unthinkable for a country powered by coal for generations. Meanwhile, by a quirk of fate, the other Newcastle, in New South Wales, is the world’s largest coal export port. As Timothy Morton points out, deploying air conditioning on a building does not actually make air cooler; it simply moves the warmth elsewhere.)
Centuries before the city’s more famous Great Stink, which led to Bazalgette’s sewer infrastructure, London suffered foul air pollution. Evelyn’s letter was carefully phrased, as one might expect when irritating complaints might result in losing one’s head, yet it made perfectly clear the issues with coal and wood burning, alongside other agricultural and industrial processes, such as slaughtering cattle inside the city (and then processing the carcass for tallow):
“We might add to these, Chandlers and Butchers, because of those horrid stinks, niderous and unwholsome smells which pro∣ceed from the Tallow, and corrupted Blood: At least should no Cattel be kill’d within the City (to this day observ’d in the Spa∣nish great Towns of America)”
Essentially, Evelyn proposes moving much of the dirty industry, or wood-burning furnaces, well outside of the city. In this practice of shuffling much of the problem elsewhere, this has contemporary echoes, as with in feminist ecologist Val Plumwood’s idea of ‘shadow places’, the places where the true externalities of the Great Acceleration have been shuffled out of sight. Perhaps with a gardener’s understanding of systems, as if surveying a posse of slugs encroaching on his lettuce, Evelyn was suggesting the removal of at least part of the problem at source: living amidst the horribly polluting externalities of the day’s trades.
“(A solution) requiring only the Removal of such Trades, as are manifest Nuisances to the City, which, I would have placed at farther distances; es∣pecially, such as in their Works and Fournaces use great quanti∣ties of Sea-Cole, the sole and only cause of those prodigious Clouds of Smoake, which so universally and so fatally infest the Aer, and would in no City of Europe be permitted, where Men had either respect to Health or Ornament.”
Evelyn then suggests a distributed network of low-carbon logistics to handle the classic ‘last-mile problem’—although it is hardly framed as such, of course. He outlines the possibility of “thousands of able Watermen employed in bringing Commodities unto the City, to certain Magazines & Wharfs, commodiously situated to dispense them by Carrs or rather Sleds”.
One can also detect an early indication of Britain’s complex cultural and regulatory relationships with Europe, with Evelyn both casting a covetous glance overseas and using the reference as leverage at home, as he firmly states that of course “no city in Europe” would allow such practices. (Evelyn was a well-travelled cosmopolitan, well-known in France, Italy and the Netherlands. British policymakers have used, and misused, the ‘othering’ of Europe for centuries, when making cases to politicians.)
But the more interesting aspect of Evelyn’s remedy, building on his deep knowledge of horticulture, is in his proposal for a radical increase in biodiversity as a mitigation strategy: or in his words, solving the problem “By way of plantations”, which meant sweet-smelling flowers and vegetation placed near the city.
“That all low-grounds circumadjacent to the City, especially East and South-west be cast and contriv’d into square plots, or Fields of twenty, thirty, and forty Akers or more, separated from each other by fences of double Palisads, or Contr’spaliers … That these Palisads be elegantly planted, diligently kept and supply’d, with such Shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferous Flowers, and are aptest to tinge the Aer upon every gentle emission at a great distance.”
Evelyn then carefully lists dozens of flowers, from Woodbinds and Pipe trees to Musk roses and Sweet-brier. He describes the impact of the “poisonous and filthy smoake remov’d”, in that “the City and environs about it, might be rendred one of the most pleasant and agreeable places in the world.”
Evelyn’s proposals disappeared for more than a century, before being reprinted in 1771, but are still little known, and rarely thought of as infrastructural. Evelyn’s ideas could be interpreting as offsetting or masking the deeper problem, perhaps even a form of neoliberal ‘ecosystem services’ valuation of nature (a very London approach, that). For all of its mega-structural boldness, Evelyn’s idea of obscuring pollution with fragrance does not move the science forward much beyond the Venetian plague doctor’s mask, with its proboscis stuffed with flowers to fend off ‘the miasma’.
Yet his solution of vast gardens hemming the city are a little like our 19th century urban parks; they simply hide the residual impact of pollution via a series of large green spaces segregated from industry and housing. In that suggested move, Fumifigium contained the seeds of a more recent urban vision.
It’s a form of displacement, a ‘putting off’ of the problem, rather than true systemic change. This idea is echoed in the grand municipal parks that emerged in the 19th century, as the ‘lungs of the city’ amidst the new bureaucratisation of spatial formation and function; it also presupposes large green spaces working as clear zones to counterpoint the maladies of industry, housing, and commerce. John Evelyn was a botanist rather than a biologist and did not reach for the metaphor of lungs, but after three centuries, his ameliorating green spaces were eventually transplanted into the city.
As powerful and valuable as our grand parks are—just as with Evelyn’s proposition—they still contain traces of this offsetting amelioration of ‘shadow places’, both inside and outside of the city. They do not change the game, as they are effectively zoned—literally and conceptually—and thus easy to compartmentalise (and so reduce funding to, as well, as we have seen with British parks.)
Today, we might thread gardens more thoroughly through our urban spaces, with traces of this kind of super-biodiverse environment: to take but one example of many, the work of EFFEKT Architects, such as with SPACE10 and their Urban Village Project, or the earlier ReGen Village and Helsinge Haveby masterplans, and so on. (At the opposite point of the compass, Terroir’s work in Western Sydney will be worth keeping an eye on in this regard.)
Alongside more radical ideas like Holmgren’s permaculture, these projects essentially look to recognise the condition of low urban forms like Copenhagen’s kolonihave, with its simple amalgam of allotment and summer house—which are a deliberate exception to the rule of Copenhagen—and flips the city inside out, swapping figure for ground.
In this model, the city would generally possesses kolonihave conditions of buildings set in greenery, whereas its the current state of pockets of greenery set in grey-brown hardscape, as appealing as it is, that becomes the exception. Perhaps only SPACE10’s Urban Village Project has a suitably urban feel, the other work is lower-density, almost village-like condition. Our question is whether we can develop such an intensely green and restorative—and loosely joined, loose parts sensibility—and develop this in a higher-density context. Equally, of course, under Slowdown conditions, we have now more possibility to counterpoint high-density with these lower-density environments, threading together tending tomatoes and teleworking.
Outside of these cosy Scandinavian visions, we can detect similar moves in China’s ambitious ‘sponge city’ programme, albeit at infrastructural scale. In repair mode, we might see the same thought played out by Michael Sorkin, in his written meanderings across Manhattan rooftops, a vantage point from which he wonders whether we can “imagine that the city enacted legislation requiring that the equivalent of 100 per cent of the surface area of New York were to be green … If such aerial parkland were linked by bridges or by more continuous building form, an entirely new kind of public space would be created.”
Yet there is more a profound synthesis of nature and habitation in Julia Watson’s compendium of indigenous nature-based technologies (see a previous Paper), or Paul Memmott’s landmark works on Australian Aboriginal architecture.
Ed. Memmott’s brilliant Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley was one of the first books on Australian architecture I picked up upon moving there; as transformational in its own way as Rudofsky's 'Architecture without Architects'.
Here, it is not simply the form, material, more-than-human biodiversity, and performance of these infrastructures that is instructive, but also their forms of governance and ownership, their necessary level of care and conservation, the sense that infrastructures and landscapes are also deeply cultural, and a long-term perspective that utterly denies the simplistic assumptions that humans are possessed by necessarily short-termist mental models and cognitive functions.
The idea that humans are intrinsically short-termist, reactive creatures when it comes to decision-making—and that this is why we struggle to address the climate crisis—can only be seen as a hoary trope in the light of indigenous approaches to long-term stewardship, care, and decision-making about collective or shared resources.
Along with the gaze to the East at this point, we would do well to learn from indigenous cultures in the South—such as the longest continuous cultures of the Australian Aboriginals—or North, whether Samí here in the Nordics, or the Haudenosaunee and their Seventh Generation principles, and so on. How these get framed into contemporary governance, perhaps akin to the Wales Future Generations Act, will be crucial. And how they manifest themselves in decisions about our everyday infrastructures, perhaps in that Wakanda-esque fusion of deep knowledge, diverse tech, and contemporary values I described in a previous Paper, will determine our future.
“There may not be a golden rule found in Aboriginal governance, but I suspect there are elements of agriculture, conservation, culture, and government that, having been tested against the nature of Aboriginal society for a minimum of 80,000 years, hold profitable messages for the nation” — Bruce Pascoe, ‘Dark Emu’ (2014)
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