38. Slowdown landscapes: Gardening tools, for convivial conservation
Beyond wilderness and ecosystem services and towards shared spaces; Gardening and scale, complexity, and uncertainty; Death to summer lawns; Derek Jarman’s garden in a desert in Eastern England, Erskine’s in an Arctic Sweden; Deploying strategic chickens.
Outlining a ‘convivial conservation’ in their recent book, The Conservation Revolution, Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher write of the need to “do away with conservation’s long-standing infatuation with wilderness and associated ideas of ‘pristine’ nature”, whilst also moving beyond what we might call the ‘Acceleration’-era ideas of ecosystem services.
With ecosystem services, natural systems are rendered as a form of quantiable ‘natural capital’, meaning that they can effectively still be plundered in extractive mode. Similarly, though they do not refer to a Slowdown in the Dorling sense, Büscher and Fletcher propose a movement well beyond Acceleration-era capitalism. Put simply, they state that capitalism’s goals cannot be aligned with this more fundamental, relational, and care-ful form of conservation.
Instead, they draw explicitly from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973), but aligning it with contemporary neo-conservationist thinking, moving beyond ‘new conservationist’ and ‘neo-protectionist’. They are describing a fundamental, even revolutionary, reassessment of how and where we live, and with whom or whom. To that end, they’re insistent that this approach should be perceived as deliberately “unrealistic”. They say that pursuing a ‘realistic’ strategy usually seems to implicitly reinforce a “capitalist political economy hell-bent on continuing destructive ‘business-as-usual’ at all costs.” They need hardly point out, given their choice of words, that this is not the form of ‘realistic’ we need. Unrealistic, in this sense, would be a better approach.
Unrealistic or not, they are not alone in this formulation of necessary possibilities beyond late-capitalism, of course. In terms of the ideas discussed here, both Dorling’s Slowdown dynamics and Chantal Mouffe’s antagonisms are challenges to orthodoxies such as rapid growth, albeit very differently. Both, one way or another, position such Acceleration-era dynamics as an alternative to social justice, public health and ecological resilience, rather than contributing any kind of solution.
“In the last two decades we have entered a new phase with the climate emergency, in which the struggle for social justice requires putting into question the productivist and extractivist model. Growth has ceased to be considered as a source of protection to become a danger for the material conditions of existence of society. It is not possible any more to envisage a process of radicalization of democracy that does not include the end of a model of growth that endangers the existence of society and whose destructive effects are particularly felt by the more vulnerable groups.” — Chantal Mouffe, 15 September 2020
Mouffe, in touching on Spinoza’s theories of ‘affects’ in her article, perhaps implicitly suggests the importance of articulating these political ideas via experiential conditions, within everyday environments. Evaluating these ideas in the context of the visceral landscapes and ecosystems inherent in Büscher and Fletcher’s convivial conservation may prove fruitful. Despite The Conservation Revolution not attempting to describe any such patterns or dynamics or environments too closely, perhaps wisely, there is a discernible, and familiar, shape emerging from their strategies nonetheless:
“Through participatory mapping with local and certain extra-stakeholders, conceptualisation of various landscape development trajectories that take human-environment conviviality as the central objective. Crucially, these will be based on the fact that many interactions between environments and people already happen in shared, fragmented spaces. Hence, we advocate turning habitat fragmentation into a spatial opportunity for convivial landscape planning.” — Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, The Conservation Revolution (2020)
“Fragmentation” is the organising principle as Büscher and Fletcher state the need to “start from the reality of currently fragmented landscapes and make these part of a political process of convivial (landscape) reconstruction.”
Fragmentation is not the overriding goal per se — some animals and ecosystems must coexist in larger, contiguous spaces, clearly. We might imagine a continuum between, on the one hand, fragments of diversely co-habited human and nonhuman living spaces in more urban environments, as compared to forms of ‘deep nature’ on the other. But fragmentation is a pragmatic platform for convivial conservation, recognising the need for negotiation and participation within the complex set of colliding needs and interests in the spaces and environments immediately around us.
This can be read, in this context at least, as another incarnation of the ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ pattern and condition—purposefully distinct and fragmented yet shared and connected discrete elements, articulated via intense participation. Moreover, these landscapes and environments are located within and around everyday infrastructures and technologies. Büscher and Fletcher write:
“Under convivial conservation we need to move away from the spectacle of nature, and instead focus on ‘everyday nature’, in all its splendour and mundane. Indeed, we argue that it is in the mundaneness rather than the spectacle that we can find the most meaningful engagement with nature.” — Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, The Conservation Revolution (2020)
Perhaps the closest analogue of convivial “everyday nature” outside of the slowly greening streets, pixel farms, and playgrounds mentioned previously, is in the simple act of gardening. As Evelyn’s Fumifugium suggests, gardens can be infrastructural, just as De Monchaux’s San Francisco pockets and Ron Finley’s vacant lot farms are. With a ‘small pieces’ sensibility, such infrastructure can be suitably diverse; gardens can the scale of the window box, the street corner, or the common; they can be highly urban or deeply rural, personal or social, ornamental or agricultural, amateur or professional.
Much could be inferred from the practices and dynamics of gardening: the richer framing of value, outside of simplistic and misleading key performance indicators of ecosystem services; these extended ideas of technology itself and the different sensibilities at work there; or the sense of ongoing care, engagement and responsibility. Gardening involves an appreciation for uncertainty and lack of control, and yet requires a shaping of the arc of an environment nonetheless. It is cultural, and can be political, yet also productive and infrastructural. It necessitates a multi-threaded set of varying perspectives.
The garden designer and botanist Gilles Clément captures part of this dynamic, one that is diametrically opposed to the fire-and-forget model that pervades urban planning and much other policymaking, when he writes, “the garden’s profile, constantly changing, depends on its caretaker, and not on an architectural plan, produced on a drawing table.”
Similarly, Jamer Hunt, in ‘Not to Scale’, usefully unpacks the modes required for the practice of engaging with this constantly changing complexity more generally. He tells the story of the shift away from planning, triggered by our increased understanding of complex adaptive systems. Complex systems “defy logic and rational means-ends calculations”, he says, with the nature of problems changing from “the manageable and predictable to the wild and the wicked”, drawing the last word from Rittel and Webber’s famous paper. He notes how challenges have shifted from the mere need to be effective—he uses the work of Robert Moses to illustrate that approach—to our contemporary requirement that solutions are just. Finally, he describes how the view of planners and policymakers has always been more partial than was assumed, or conveyed. This could be called the illusion of control, which Hunt says is “a legacy of a mechanistic worldview”.
Hunt also takes apart the narrow principles of scaling: “The scaling model of innovation won’t learn and adapt along the way if the only goal is to sell more, reach more, or convince more.” Here, Hunt is referring to a particular notion of scaling, and Paul Graham Raven’s work is also instructive here—this useful paper he co-wrote offering a typology of scaling (PDF) indicates that there is more than one kind of scaling to consider.
Instead of planning and prediction, trying to simply scale systems upwards through brute force, Hunt makes the case for deep engagement, but with a particular, now-recognisable dynamic:
“A delicate, almost Zen-like state that one must achieve between control and letting go, between setting things in motion and letting them wander where they need to. It is a process more akin to gardening than it is to design. It is not a mastery of systems we should seek out, but a higher awareness.” —Jamer Hunt, ‘Not to Scale’ (2020) (emphasis added.)
Despite his useful allusion to gardening, I would argue that Hunt is also givIng us an excellent description of design, actually; though a design practice heavily attuned to openness, adaptation, and engagement, at least.
For instance, working with the web in its early Weinbergian days, designs would evolve day by day, based on real-time feedback from data, from users, from stakeholders, or from the new techniques that would emerge each month. Websites in the late-1990s and early-2000s were things one would tune continually, and ‘gardening’ was certainly one of many metaphors deployed at the time, as our new discipline tried to find its footing. Gardening also captured the sense that websites were slightly out-of-control as forms of media, in that their appearance and functionality was heavily based on the user’s context rather than author’s desires for control of reliable reproduction or consistent experience (due to different browsers, different settings within browsers, different devices, or even in the layers of ‘content separated from the presentation’, with material re-used and re-combined in contexts one might never be aware of.) That users would have significant control on how websites manifested themselves required precisely that sensibility of “setting things in motion and letting them wander.”
Yet as well as gardening and web design, we can also reach for architecture as a useful metaphorical terrain — yet of a particular kind, the adaptive design and vernacular histories described by Bernard Rudofsky in Architecture without Architects, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, and Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn (whose most useful idea there, the ‘pace layers’ I used then and continue to use today, really emerges with Frank Duffy. Again, I adopted and adapted these theories in early-2000s digital design practice, as well as numerous urban design and strategy projects.)
For all the issues with that particular boys’ club of design theory, this adaptive design theory, which I and others extended into the digital domain, describes an intentional design practice that is open to change — in fact, it derives value from change by those who own and use the spaces. As Jack Schulze once pointed out to me, there is a politics to that kind of design practice. The agency shifts to those who own, share, use, contribute, collaborate.
It is labour-intensive, but meaningfully so. This form of design requires constant engagement, but is constantly rewarding, in multiple ways, including ‘upstream’. It is almost certainly slower, but in the best sense, as a learning practice that builds value over time. It shifts agency and ownership towards the user, or the citizen, or actor, more broadly. All these modes imply a form of ‘slow growth’ dynamic, whether gardens or cities.
Hunt draws from Donella Meadows’s directive for systems workers to “stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.” He says we can “glimpse the outlines of a subtly different method—a different angle of approach that recognizes that the combination of scale and complexity demand new and alternative strategies. We must have the patience to engage over and over again, and the attentiveness to do so in very small ways. It is an iterative process of some failure mixed with some success (solve and re-solve, design and redesign.)”
That latter sentence is the familiar mode of design practice. So perhaps the key word is in Hunt’s preceding line: “patience”. That is a quality usually in short supply, given the dynamics of Acceleration-era projects. So perhaps we can find a new sensibility for patience in the Slowdown. And from patience, we might be able to build that “attentiveness” required when engaging with the particular, local and everyday complex, rather than the general, distanced and simplistic. Hunt continues:
“We must all be fully engaged in a well-designed process that encourages our participation, draws upon our local wisdom, and defies the distant experts … We must create the conditions for a dexterous application of openness, receptiveness, attunement, new frames of reference, and the dogged persistence to design and design again and again and again. Small, nimble, recursive, and scattershot designing may not necessarily more quickly evolve a complex system in the right direction, but at least its self-correcting tendencies will overcome the temptation to give the system one big push … in the wrong direction.” — Jamer Hunt, ‘Not to Scale’ (2020)
Hunt uses Hans Monderman’s shared space principles, alternatives to technocratic traffic engineering, as examples of these ways of working across scales and embracing complexity via participative practices (I also use Monderman’s work heavily, literally and metaphorically.) It’s predicated, of course, on slowing mobility down to human speeds—that of feet, wheelchair, bike, scooter—and the lockdown has given many cities a sense of what that feels like, what it once felt like. The Slowdown will offer us the chance to lock in that sensibility; yet only if we tune our practices to that dynamic.
Using Monderman as an example also indicates that we can design systems that not only purposefully require participation, time, care, trust, and engagement, but also reveal, reward, and refine these qualities. By creating a requirement for things to work in this way, they end up working in this way. A tautology, but as Monderman’s shared space indicates, it works. Cooperative housing, shared local mobility and energy, retrofitted suburbs, intensively biodiverse places, shared streets, distributed pervasive gardens—these elements all require and refine these qualities of conviviality.
The balance of control and letting-go that we see at work in shared space systems is precisely, as Hunt briefly suggests, akin to gardening—and yes, certain strands of architectural and design practice. (Donella Meadows used the analogy of dancing; there are many options here!) These can all be seen as more care-ful practices, predicated on regenerative slow growth principles, attuned to the dynamics of the slowdown.
Human and nonhuman modern nature
The author Olivia Laing writing about Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness on the east coast of England, recalls Jarman saying “a garden locates you in eternity … It also connects you to the future. When you don’t know how much time you have left, that sense of planting something that will flower next summer is immensely sustaining.” Laing called his garden “a stake in the future”. And not just any form of future: gardening is in intrinsically optimistic act. As Sue Stuart-Smith says: “When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility.”
This wider frame, a broader sensibility of acting for others — other things, other humans, other nonhumans, other times — can be framed in both environmental and civic sensibilities; caring for the unknown others that will bear witness to, and derive benefit from, that subsequent flowering.
Jarman’s garden also represents struggle. As with his art, the garden is defiantly, vividly, and awkwardly present in a place where it ought not be, according to mainstream sensibilities. It is an “unlikely oasis”, writes Laing, as with the classic definition of weed, perhaps; a plant caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The garden is clearly beautiful; just differently so, given the conditions. Dungeness beach has so little rainfall that it has been described as the country’s only desert (though killjoys at the Met Office refute this definition.) The beach is a desolate shingly environment, as dry as a sun-bleached cormorant skeleton. It is diametrically opposed to the archetypal blowsy abundance of the English country garden — just as Jarman’s Edward II is not exactly Downton Abbey. Yet the garden at Prospect Cottage demonstrates how to work with the grain of this environment. In his diary Modern Nature, Jarman writes:
“There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain; this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take hold — paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.”
“Live with nature but improve it, not cover and exclude it”
This defiant gardening in a desert, or not-desert, also recalls the aforementioned plans by Ralph Erskine for the arctic town of Kiruna, in northern Sweden (currently on display at the Kiruna Forever exhibition at ArkDes in Stockholm), which can be seen as a very different kind of gardening in a very different kind of desert.
In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, ‘The architect who claimed the Arctic’, ArkDes co-curator Ann Maudsley outlines Erskine’s understanding of the high north, and his fusion of the standardised techniques of modernism, albeit of the regionalist variety, with an emerging understanding of the inherent, almost participative, value of the landscape, weather, and local cultures. In the decade following the late 1950s, Erskine produced much drawing and writing about the Arctic and subarctic, partly derived from studying the local Samí and Inuit buildings, and from this synthesis emerged an imperative to work with, rather than against, the local conditions and cultures. In this balancing act, it seems likely that Erskine might see the merit of Büscher and Fletcher’s ideas of ‘convivial conservation’, including their desire to reject conservation’s “infatuation with wilderness and associated ideas of ‘pristine’ nature”, finding a deeper form of synthesis between human and nonhuman life. Although he was occasionally prone of the abstracting tendencies of other mid-century modernist architects, and pragmatic enough to work in a mining town, Erskine seemed adept at finding a middle way between the pretence of the pristine and the respect for the region.
In Building in the Arctic (1960) and Architecture and Town Planning in the North (1968), Erskine wrote of his desire to “form a human mileu in the desert”. Maudsley writes “blooms are a reoccurring image” for Erskine, and In such a place, “houses and towns should open like flowers to the sun and spring and summer, but also like flowers, turn their backs on the shadows the cold northern winds, offering sun-warmth and wind-protection to their terraces, gardens and streets.”
Amongst Erskine’s beautiful drawings for Kiruna’s plans—of which only a few elements were ever built— we find the central architectonic tableau of ‘An Ecological Arctic Town’ (1958). My favourite drawings of Erskine’s are usually the tighter crops, typically populated by vividly convivial characters, as if mannequins modelling a social democratic heyday, and which allow Erskine to pull focus on the “everyday situations” he thought shaped our cities, our lives. Given the composition of ‘Arctic Town’, this scene is bereft of that—except for the solemn reindeer, perhaps—yet it captures the essence of his work for the Arctic, perhaps in its caption as much as its illustration.
There, in the bottom-right hand corner, in his artful architect’s script, we read a series of phrases in tension. As Gideon Fink Shapiro notes in Places Journal these mini-directives and design cues add up to a “climate-specific urban design template (that) puts to shame many 21st-century pretensions of ‘innovation’ when it comes to ecological urbanism.”
“Town-Wilderness. Indoor-Outdoor. Social Contact-Privacy. Artificial-Natural. Protection for Blizzards. Open to Spring-Winter & Summer Sun. Live with Nature but Improve it, Not Cover and Exclude it. Solar & Wind Energy. Protected Vegetation.”
Erskine’s Arctic and Jarman’s Dungeness are both deserts, of a sort. Either despite, or because of, their extreme conditions, we find common to both a powerful and progressive injunction to ‘live with nature but improve it, not cover and exclude it’. Although the work of architect and artist, we find common to both a gardener’s sensibility; of living- and working-with, observing, respecting, yet still shaping, forming, protecting, and guiding.
At a time of bubbles, masks, curfews, and a technologised withdrawal into our broadband-enabled caves, we would do well to recall Erskine and Jarman’s ability to conjure dreams of beautiful, convivial human and nonhuman co-habitation in complex, extreme environments, and the value of being open to the deep dark winter and continuous summer sun alike.
Hissing at summer lawns
As a sidenote, as well as many Svockdown hours spent tending to our own garden, on the daily walks and runs through my neighbourhood, Enskede, I’ve become very aware of every garden around me, and in some detail. Enskede was, and largely still is, a lovely fragment of inner-suburban Stockholm laid out to garden city principles in the first decade of the early 20th century. Here, that means that the large gardens for each house, originally for local food production, are pleasingly open to the street and to each other, often with no more than a faintly sketched line of greenery between them. Any new entrants, such as roaming deer or hares, are easy to spot, and to welcome.
Yet this summer’s newcomer species is clearly the result of a set of technologies recently converging at an everyday price-point: the robot lawnmower.
These outdoor Roombas are suddenly all around. And sadly, they represent an diminished view of both technology and garden. They represent an outsourcing of care, where gardening begins to unnecessarily develop the ‘humans in the loop’ problem similar to other forms of automation. Equally, these overly simplistic machines, the very opposite of Ditzler’s ecofeminist agri-robots for pixel farming, can only produce lawn, endless metres of lawn.
So they represent another fundamental misconception of what technology can be, describing an entirely neutered multi-species relationship — with only the most basic exchanges between human, robot, and vegetation — which ultimately produces pointless and unsophisticated, if not actively damaging, results. Akin to the narrow definitions of technology and biodiversity discussed earlier, they are merely optimising for lawn.
Cities, generally, need the opposite of lawns. For truly productive spaces, we need looser, rougher, unfinished and unresolved vegetation, urban meadows rather than lawns. This still requires participation, and local ownership, but this ‘Plan Bee’ has a different pattern of labour, perhaps even better-suited to urban communities:
“Urban land managers should mow parks, road verges and other grassland less frequently to give wildflowers a chance to bloom. Creating urban flower meadows can also provide important food and habitat for pollinators. Not only will these changes enhance pollination of plants in flower beds and vegetable patches, but there is increasing evidence that sharing our green spaces with pollinators like butterflies can improve our psychological wellbeing.”—Why allotments offer urban oases for bees and butterflies
Lawns are deeply problematic, forming a kind of invasive monoculture, a biodiversity desert. Compared with the urban meadow — of which more later — the lawn is usually a container for artificial fertilisers, as well as a drain for water and a destroyer of biodiversity. Instead, that biodiversity is best produced not by carefully tended lawns, but by the half-tended thickets and tangles typical of the edges of “near-natural” allotments and community gardens, or other richly diverse yet unkempt vegetative environments.
These forms of conditions are also good places to grow humans, recalling Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden or Patrick Barkham’s Wild Child—and a comment by Takaharu Tezuka, the architect of the quiet landmark Fuji Kindergarten: “Just as a fish cannot live in purified water, children cannot live in a clean, quiet and controlled environment.”
That emphasis on “clean, quiet and controlled environment” recalls the often-incorrect perception of what rationalist, modernist planning stands for. Yet in this context it’s worth noting that the progenitor of that movement, Le Corbusier, also tended to railed against lawns, in favour of more rambunctious kitchen gardens.
“(Ville Radieuse would be) a city in the midst of vines and dense thickets with a multitude of plant life: a city in wilderness, not a city of lawns — a co-mingling of the urban and natural worlds that has intriguing possibilities again for us today.”—’49 Cities’, Work AC Architects
Margaret Renkl writes, “We can change our preferences and train our eyes to see the “perfect” American lawn for what it is: a field of poison. We can put away our chemicals, make a haven of our own yards and welcome the wildflowers.”
Ed. I recall I first got interested in the broader questions involved in re-working lawns after hearing the artist Fritz Haeg speak about his Edible Estates projects at Postopolis! LA in 2009, converting numerous suburban lawns into vegetable gardens.
Or, as Kate Wagner wrote in her wonderful ‘The case against lawns’:
“If you’re at all concerned about climate change and what you can do to help make the world a more habitable place for the millions of plants, animals, and people that live here, start by getting rid of your turf grass.”—Kate Wagner, The case against lawns, Curbed
As Wagner points out, this is not simply about ecosystems and biodiversity; it is also about culture and politics.
A Trojan Horse stuffed with chickens
Ecosystems. Biodiversity. Culture. Politics. All these things play out in decisions about our everyday infrastructures. By way of another example, there’s a wonderful ‘small pieces’ project, around the corner from me in Stockholm, initiated by Jordan Valentin Lane and co. Jordan is an architect working at Södertälje municipality where he leads world-class work around urban food strategies, but this is a personal story from a few years ago, making a mark in his backyard.
“(Urban shepherding’s) core focus is the reintroduction of animals and agriculture back into the urban environment, at scale — as a means to influence urban development and improve social cohesion. The ambition being to establish new ecosystems in the working lives of a city’s inhabitants — beyond theory — Jordan has been putting his ideas into action.”—Ben Vickers
In short, this “action beyond theory” entailed Jordan helping solve several local problems, and create numerous opportunities, by deploying strategic chickens.
The scene is Gubbängen, a typical south Stockholm suburb, full of well-designed post-war public housing. The Macguffin was a few dying apple trees in the shared gardens between the housing. The culprit, which Jordan frames as a common enemy which could unite the neighbours, was a gang of rogue moths, intent on destroying the trees.
Jordan’s intervention was key, however; having helped people understand the common enemy, he proposted that the saviour should be chickens, rather than pesticide. The chickens eat the moths’ larvae, ultimately helping save the trees, but chickens also bring regular eggs, of course. This starts to build on the common shared enemy with the creation of common shared resources: eggs. Equally, the introduction of chickens also brings the immediate requirement for regular care, for engaged maintenance by the immediate community of the One-minute City.Thus, as I’ve been discussing in this batch of Papers, a positive dependency is created, requiring maintenance and participation in a way that leads to the production of social fabric. As well as eggs.
Jordan’s engaged approach meant that the chicken coop was designed and built together by the neighbours; this collective making is another key contributor to social fabric. Vickers describes this strategic insight as making ownership of physical assets as transparent as possible in community initiatives.
The introduction of the chicken coops meant that a Chicken Group was created, which led to a ‘Sunday Morning Chicken Tea’ (really), a regular event where neighbours could come together to hang out and clean out the chicken coop together. The Chicken Group ensured that locks were not put on the coop, so that children would learn how to handle the chickens: feeding them, playing with them, collecting the eggs, and so on. This also led to some problems with local dogs being resolved—principally, the smelly, sticky externality dogs that tend to produce (the chickens running around meant the dogs had to be walked properly elsewhere, and their crap picked up. These are unlikely second-order ripple effects, perhaps, but the kind of thing that tends to happen when the project-owners are engaged enough to guide, adapt, and resolve from within the project—a lesson for policy-making that I expand upon in Slowdown Paper 31: Tilling the soil for slow-growth.)
The Chicken Group’s work led, almost inevitably, to further community activities in these shared spaces between the buildings: more barbecues, growing vegetables, shared composting, and so on. There’s a natural trajectory emerging at Gubbängen, now moving from chickens and apple trees to bees and goats. One can almost hear the social fabric being knitted together in real-time, with all the health, wellbeing, and resilience benefits that this tends to generate, as well as the positive environmental impacts. And all via a Trojan Horse full of chickens.
“Now this is a beautiful story, of a small action in a short time leading to a fundamental change not just in the nature of people’s living environment but the sense of security and friendship in a neighbourhood. An example of how a subtle well considered action can deliver a measurable increase in quality of life without the state’s assistance.” — Ben Vickers
With regard to Vicker’s last line, I think what’s interesting here is that the state’s assistance was partly in place, not least with the considered work of the 1940s planners of Gubbängen providing a platform on which Jordan could build. The spatial affordances of Gubbängen’s design created the opportunity for Jordan’s Chicken Strategy to be prototyped and developed, at least partly. (This, in addition to all the other things the Swedish state does, at all levels, including education, health, democracy, social infrastructures, funding clubs and societies and so on—without which none of this can happen. This would be a broader interpretation of the Mazzucato agenda on what ‘states’ do.)
Vickers’s comment is also correct, in that Jordan’s intervention was initiated, facilitated, and ultimately delivered by the community itself. Yet this is precisely where ‘the state’—really the municipality, in this case—should come in, as community-led initiatives like this rely on smart, capable individuals banding together. As powerful as this is, ultimately is not an equitable solution.
The work we did at SITRA’s Helsinki Design Lab was precisely exploring this question of how the state can spot such innovation happening, and then absorb it without killing it. This absorption would enable its value to be nurtured, develop, and spread everywhere, and not only reside in those places fortunate enough to have a Jordan in them. Equally, what happens when the project evolves, moving from the Initiators to the Continuers? What happens if the Initiators leave? The state’s role can be to ensure that the project is supported, nurtured, sustained, and evolves, such that it is resilient, equitable, and scales—in a relational sense, at least. That form of support requires a delicate touch, but is invaluable, and no-one other than the state has the democratic legitimacy to perform those roles. This is beyond the idea of state as backstop or safety net, or fixer of market failure. This is a far more engaged and proactive mode, which nonetheless understands when to step back, aiming to develop shared social contracting, rather than community or municipality as mutually exclusive options. (These questions of ‘stance’ are described further in my essay Team of Teams, Railways not Sandwiches. The fact that governments have got out of the habit of this form of nuanced engagement is unconscionable, particularly as that disengagement has largely been forced, solely for ideological reasons.)
These ideas were explored in the last chapter of Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, but they essentially come down to new practices of government: how to get to chicken coops everywhere (or, well, variations on that theme), by creating resilient, well-resourced, engaging and equitable platforms that people can adopt and adapt and make their own. This entails knowing where to draw the line, such that the municipal teams understand the detail of what is happening by engaging proactively with skill and empathy, but does not step over that line, smothering the sparks with the dead hand of bureaucracy.
This is not rocket science. It is a practice that recognises that systems are complex—chicken coops in the shared spaces of a housing estate is complex—and approaches complex systems on their terms. Problems emerge when, in a flawed attempt to manage such complexity, an older mental model of bureaucracy requires a decomposition of a complex system into a few component parts. The rationale is presumably that in separating the problem as if an engineering challenge, we have transformed it into a complicated rather than complex problem. This means it can now be approached with a complicated machine, rather than a complex problem, which must be addressed on its own complex terms. Unfortunately, approaching complex with complicated creates gigantic gaps between these components, through which shared problems can fall, as well as tending to build powerful perverse incentives that resist change, as organisations attempt to preserve the apparent order and power structures of the complicated machine. Needless to say, this approach does not work, whether the complex challenge is chickens or the climate crisis.
Yet approaching a complex problem on its own terms is not hard. It is how reality is, after all. Remember Jane Jacobs’s line, “I just describe the things as they are.”
This practice of everyday life comes down to approaching people as people—and chickens as chickens. It requires deep understanding through active engagement, and thus knowing when to step back, creating participation structures that enable people to step forward. At HDL, we developed that thinking and practice with Open Kitchen in particular; at Vinnova, it underpins our Street missions. Recall the directive of Donella Meadows when working with systems: “Stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.”
Observing Jordan Valentin Lane’s work here provides a wonderful example of what a smart, engaged community can do—a Chicken Group as governance entity!—but it also implicitly asks the question, what should the muncipality do, in Gubbängen and beyond?
There is something intensely middle-class about the way gardening is often perceived. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically bourgeois about growing food, or even flowers, and the few examples chosen here reflect that, representing either the entirely mundane or the defiantly subversive.
Yet this article in the Financial Times, about the rediscovery of gardening during the pandemic (seeds sales in the UK have rocketed), was shaping up to be just about the most insufferably middle-class thing I’ve ever read. Its uncritical lack of curiosity about the privileges enjoyed by the featured gardeners, not least in terms of possessing the near-luxuries of a garden and the time with which to regularly address it, is inexcusable at a point when there is so much discussion about a general lack of access to green space, fresh air and water, or simply the time sovereignty required for growing food. (Although it’s not quite up there with a related FT article on the aesthetic possibilities of shepherd’s huts.)
Yet even towards the end of that piece, there is a glimmer of something else, the possibility of politics within the simple act of growing. It describes the active lobbying of institutions like Kew Gardens, calling for them to become actively anti-racist in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the Instagram account decolonisethegarden, set up by horticulturist Sui Kee Searle.
This welcome coda is reminiscent of the sharp skewering of another lockdown pastime of the privileged—pervasive baking—in the great essay, ‘Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over’, by Sabrina Orah Mark for The Paris Review:
“I have no real job,” I say. “Of course you have a real job,” she says. “I have no flour,” I say. “Fuck the bread,” says my mother again. “The bread is over.”
And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, are mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive.
Jarman was the very deliberate scourge of Middle England, and for him the lawn would have been a particularly irritating facet of the British class system’s prim and proper façades, and the celebration of wilful ignorance that often went with it. Jarman quite rightly hated the lawn, describing it as “against nature, barren and often threadbare. For the same trouble as mowing, you could have a year’s vegetables: runner beans, cauliflowers and cabbages, mixed with pinks and peonies, Shirley poppies and delphiniums; wouldn’t that beautify the land and save us from the garden terrorism that prevails?”
Jarman’s garden, full of grasses but without a single lawn, represents a deeper understanding of ecosystems and art, of politics and environment, of human and nonhuman ‘modern nature’.
And so the Dungeness garden was ahead of its time, just as Jarman was. Although the blasted landscape in John Lanchester’s climate crisis novel The Wall is generally cold and damp rather than dry and hot, it shares this sense of a starkly barren, salted-earth British Isles. Laing called Dungeness “a microclimate of extremes, plagued by drought, gales, and leaf-scorching sun.” It sounds like a precursor of the British environment to come.
Yet Jarman shows how to live, work, and produce beauty within that context nonetheless, understanding its potential deeply. It took attentive, continuous, and loving care and repair, both learned and practiced. With that, Jarman was able to produce culture, food, art, and communion from a landscape that at first glance appeared desolate, even arid.
“Writing is routinely described as ‘creative’ — this has never struck me as the correct word. Planting tulips is creative.” — Zadie Smith, ‘Intimations’ (2020)
So this is not a story about efficiency, sustainability, or some stolid sensibility of grim resilience. Instead it is about colour, craft, and conviviality extracted from a deserted near-desert next to a nuclear power station. This is what we are capable of.
Next: 39. Slowdown landscapes: The defiant garden produces social justice as well as strawberries
Previous: 37. Slowdown landscapes: ‘The Aer and Smoak dissipated’; learning from 1661, and from 50,000 years
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to returnIntro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here