British-born, John Thackara was the first director (1993-1999) of the Netherlands Design Institute, in Amsterdam and curated the Doors of Perception conferences from 2000-2016 in both Amsterdam and India. He has been programme director of Designs of the Time (Dott), the social innovation biennial in England, and curated City Eco Lab – the French design biennial. He publishes at thackara.com and in books; his most recent title is How To Thrive In the Next Economy (Thames & Hudson, 2015). Appointed a senior fellow at the rca in 2011, Thackara is currently visiting professor at School of Visual Arts in New York, and an advisor to Chora Connection (Denmark); Konstfack (Sweden); Cateran’s Common Wealth (Scotland); The Nubian Vault Association (France); Unbox Festival (India); Upstarter (London) and Participatory City (London).
Back To The Land 2.0
A robust design agenda for bioregions
By John Thackara
Illustrations by Janar Siniloo
It’s easier to blame a Muslim than entropy.
— John Thackara
In the introduction to this volume we talked about being in a “Janus moment” and having to work with complexity in order to improve the future that we are already living in. So what better way to end this book than with a text by John Thackara, a writer and advisor who specialises in live examples of what a sustainable future can be from a holistic perspective, based on many years of experience in social and ecological design. Tired of passive conference formats and the slowness to action of academia, Thackara set up a series of professional, place-based “xskools” in 11 countries to “help change-minded people participate, interact and reflect”. His approach is all about getting together and doing something now.*
“Post-truth” politics are in fact pre-truth: populists pick up on our anxiety about the world, but divert our attention from root causes. It’s easier to blame a Muslim than entropy. Abstract words don’t make much difference. What’s needed is a new story in which care for the places where we live is a practical focus on solidarity instead of conflict. In that spirit, a series of xskool workshops called “Back To The Land 2.0” brought local actors together, in diverse locations, to flesh out this new story of place with live examples. The text below is about the lessons we have learned so far.
Why we need a new story
We are cognitively impaired by a metabolic rift between our culture and the earth, paved surfaces and pervasive media shield us from direct experience of the damage our actions inflict on soils, oceans, air and forests. A unique epoch of energy and resource abundance added zest to a story of growth, and progress and development, that put the interests of “the economy” above all other concerns.
The comforting narrative of perpetual growth has now hit biophysical and financial constraints – and we all feel it. Only 15 per cent of the global population feel that the system is working and eco-anxiety – the feeling of impending environmental doom – afflicts populations on a global scale. This is why “post-truth” politics should be described as “pre-truth” politics. In this time between stories, populists have picked up on our justified anxiety – but divert our attention from the root but invisible causes of our predicament.
But a new picture is now emerging in myriad projects around the world. Their core value is stewardship, not extraction. Growth, in this story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient. Care for place – not money, and not gdp – is the ultimate measure of value. These seedlings are inspiring to behold – but something more is needed to effect the system change we yearn for: a shared purpose, that diverse groups people can relate to and support, whatever their other differences.
Bioregion: a story that reconnects
A strong candidate for that connective idea is the bioregion. A bioregion reconnects us with living systems and each other, through the places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, food-sheds, fibre-sheds and food systems – not just in cities, towns, or “the countryside”. Bioregions are not just geographical places; they also embody the interconnection of our minds, and nature’s, at a molecular, atomic and hormonal level. A bioregion repairs the unity of mind and world that has been fractured by modernity. A bioregion, in this sense, is literally and etymologically a “life-place”, in Robert Thayer’s words1 that is definable by natural rather than political or economic boundaries. It is geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological qualities – its metabolism – can be the basis for meaning and identity because they are unique. Growth, in a bioregion, is redefined as improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. And because its core value is stewardship, not extraction, a bioregion frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now.
“Because its core value is stewardship, not extraction, a bioregion frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now.”
Scope of a bioregion
A bioregion is shaped by characteristics of the natural environment rather than by man-made divisions: its geology, topography, climate, soils, hydrology and watersheds, agriculture, biodiversity, flora and fauna and vegetation. Ecological systems are unique to each place and the same goes for the social assets of a bioregion – individuals, groups, networks and cultures. A bioregion is not a generic template. Its meaning deepens during the discovery and mapping of its social and cultural assets. Bioregional knowledge is socially created, local, experienced directly and embodied.
The embodied nature of land-based knowledge has shaped recent trends in agricultural knowledge and information systems (akis) and agricultural innovation systems (ais). With a focus on systems change towards sustainability, agricultural “extension” gives priority to participatory discovery and experiential learning. Social network analysis 2 is also being used to identify key players who can act as critical injection points in the system. A lot of information about a bioregion’s social, cultural and ecological assets can be discovered in overlooked archives and databases. This information is often dry, decontextualised lists; wonders can appear when artists or actors are allowed access to these resources.
Seen in the context of its bioregion, a city is about more than architecture and hard (or electronically networked) infrastructure. In cities, it turns out, a wide variety of emergent ecosystems are developing before our eyes. Some of these can be tiny. Biotopes – the smallest unit to be studied in a landscape, including urban ones – include hedges, roadside verges, drainage ditches, small brooks, bogs, marl pits, natural ponds, thickets, prehistoric barrows and other small uncultivated areas.
A new priority in the urban landscape itself is to connect these patches together. Green-blue corridors can transform a mosaic of discrete parts into a place-wide ecology. Attention is also turning to metabolic cycles and the “capillarity” of the metropolis wherein rivers and bio-corridors are given pride of place. In New York, for example, researchers are mapping its micro-biomes with the Holobiont Urbanism project from mit. Inspired by the power of the small to enrich the big, 45,000 vacant lots in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, are being brought back to life, one by one, by the Lots to Love projects. In that same don’t-knock-patches spirit, ioby.org is helping enliven neighbourhoods block by block in Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Pittsburgh in the US.
The bioregional approach enriches economic re‑localisation efforts (reconomy.org in the UK, for example) that measure where resources come from, identify “leakages” in the local economy and explore how these leaks could be plugged by locally available resources. One such “leak” is food. Up to 25 per cent of the ecological impact of a rich city can be attributed to its food systems. Similar constraints apply to flows of textiles and clothing. The re-localisation of regional food and fibre systems entails transition from a linear to a holistic, social and ecological approach to agriculture.
A farmer, in this story, is far more than a producer of agricultural commodities for the city. She is also the steward of an agro-ecological system in which water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, are interdependent.
With “social farming” and “care farming” the direct participation of citizens in farm-based activities also needs to be enabled by service platforms. Ecological agriculture begins with an analysis of the carrying capacity of the land, and then growing crops, and rearing animals, in ways that regenerate the soils and biodiversity. In the transition to High Nature Value Farming,3 each location has to be understood and designed as an ecosystem within a bioregional web of natural systems. This approach is more knowledge intensive than the industrial model it’s replacing – and the scale and complexity of biodiversity data can be formidable. An ecology metrics list on the Github development platform, lists more than three thousand terms – from molecular phylogenetics to ecophysiology.
A collaborative approach and multiple skills in new combinations are needed to cope with that complexity. Open information channels for the sharing of resources are a challenging design priority. At a bioregional scale, ecological agriculture also includes the development of new forms of land tenure, new distribution models, processing facilities, financing and training.
In the UK, the Ecological Land Cooperative is creating smallholding clusters. The elc buys agricultural land and seeks planning permission for new residential smallholdings as well as providing shared infrastructure. These “starter farms” are then leased to smallholders – at well below market rates – on a long and secure leasehold.
All this takes time. Industrial or “production” approaches to the land treat agriculture as an engineering challenge. But nature is calibrated to a multitude of different time scales – in cycles that are shaped by the unique qualities of infinitely diverse locations. The tempo of bioregional work needs to be guided by eigenzeiten – the embedded times specific to an organism or system.
Ecological restoration in a bioregion and ecological agriculture are of course supported, to a degree, by technology. The Climate Tech Wiki, for example, lists hundreds of mitigation and adaptation technologies – from advanced paper recycling to urban forestry.
Stewarding a bioregion involves measuring the carrying capacity of the land and watersheds, putting systems in place to monitor progress and feeding back results. Diverse arrays of networked microprocessors are being developed to this end. In the Camargue bioregion of France, for example, Olivier Rovellotti, a biodiversity telematics designer, develops platforms such as Ecobalade4 that equip citizens with the means to understand and monitor biodiversity assets on the spot and in real time.
Under the umbrella of “precision agriculture”,5 developers hope that sensor applications might also be useful for farmers; applications range from thermal imagery and current soil moisture content to soil surface porosity and water absorption capacity.
The Smart Citizen platform 6 at iaac in Barcelona enables citizens to monitor levels of air or noise pollution around their home or business. The system connects data, people and knowledge based on their location; the device’s low power consumption allows it to be placed on balconies and windowsills where power is provided by a solar panel
But monitoring – with or without tech – is most meaningful when it enables practical steps to be taken in ecological restoration at a bioregional scale. In Bangalore, for example, the revival of the highly polluted Jakkur Lake began with a mapping platform developed by Aajwanti (an ex Quicksand intern) working with the writer and educator Vishwanath Srikantaiah (aka Zenrainman).7
Developing the agenda for a bioregion involves a wide range of skills and capabilities: the geographer’s knowledge of mapping, the conservation biologist’s expertise in biodiversity and habitats, the ecologist’s literacy in ecosystems, the economist’s ability to measure flows and leakage of money and resources, the service designer’s capacity to create platforms that enables regional actors to share and collaborate, the artist’s capacity to represent real world phenomena in ways that change our perceptions.
How will these skills be learned, or accessed? If the health of people and the places where we live are connected, what kinds of business can help them thrive together? With its own unique assets, North West Wales, for example, has the potential to lead the world as a living laboratory for innovation where adventure sport, tourism, and wellness meet. To realise this potential, and turn ideas into new livelihoods and enterprise, the region’s assets need to be combined and connected in new ways. Pontio Innovation, a business hub attached to Bangor University is leading on this work.
Universities across the northwestern United States have developed something called a Curriculum for the Bioregion8 that transforms the ways in which tomorrow’s professionals will approach place-based development. The curriculum, which is taught across the Puget Sound and Cascadia bioregions, covers such topics as Ecosystem Health; Water and Watersheds; Sense of Place; Biodiversity; Food Systems and Agriculture; Ethics and Values; Cultures and Religions; Cycles and Systems; Civic Engagement. An impressive archive of completed projects is evidence that these are not just academic activities. Multidisciplinary teams have evaluated water quality data as indicators of the health of an ecosystem, mapped stream channels in a local watershed, learned about the geology, hydrology, soils, and slope stability of a local town, analysed the environmental costs of metal mining, studied how indigenous peoples used to inhabit their region – and discussed how best to integrate this legacy into today’s new models of development.
At the University of Idaho, a Masters in Bioregional Planning and Community Design draws on the expertise of ten departments and there’s the option of a joint degree from the College of Law. The Priest River Bioregional Atlas, created by the University, is one of the more complete documents of its kind out there.
Maps – in whatever medium they are made, or experienced – need to represent the ways a bioregion’s social and ecological systems interact with each other. In the past, nature conservation was preoccupied with the impact of habitat destruction on individual species. Today, there is increasing recognition that species interactions may be even more important. As Jane Memmott, Ecology Professor from the University of Bristol, explains, all organisms are linked to at least one other species in a variety of critical ways – for example, as predators or prey, or as pollinators or seed dispersers – with the result that each species is embedded in a complex network of interactions.
In a bioregion, trophic interactions among humans and bacteria are a single story. Mapping exercises can reveal gaps. When researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre9 studied a wetland management network, crossing all 26 municipalities of the city, it was found to be fragmented – not just ecologically but administratively too.
Role models and case studies are always important. “Mapping” therefore includes multiple ways to collect and tell stories from other places – and other times – in ways that are easy to find, and share. In this on-going search for new and better ways of knowing – and being – we have huge amounts to learn, particularly from non-literate and indigenous cultures whose experience of the world is more direct than our own.
Bringing a bioregion to life means connecting with living systems emotionally and not just rationally. This is where art comes in. Art can make us curious about “what we’re inside of” (Nora Bateson) and tweak our interest in “the pattern, which connects” (Gregory Bateson). Art can allow us to understand complex interdependences, and enhance our capacity to understand processes and system conditions.
Art can provoke encounter, engagement and conversation. Art can trigger attentiveness to living systems, and foster a sense of obligation towards future generations. Art can make us aware of the power of small actions to transform the bigger picture.
Makerspaces are not the factories of the future, but they can nonetheless be part of a bioregion’s infrastructure as hubs for community-based production that supports a sustainable local economy and creates a local market for local products.
Many human and technical resources – skills, workshops, or machines – are scattered around – but not known about. MakeWorks, in Scotland, for example, are changing that. They describe themselves as “factory finders” and provide an open-resource for finding local manufacturing and materials. In the United States, Farm Hack are a community for open source farm innovation. Members of the network share tips on adapting machinery via hackathons and open-hacking camps.
A purely transactional maker economy, based only on selling things, is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term. If it’s just about the thing, someone will soon find a way to source a similar thing, but cheaper. The French cooperative L’Atelier Paysan, therefore, trains farmers to design their own machines and buildings adapted to the unique needs of each small farm ecology.
Social practices, more than technical platforms on their own, are the cornerstone of bioregional governance. Paying attention to the process by which groups work together is just as important as deciding what needs to be done – perhaps more. It’s not enough to simply proclaim the moral superiority of sharing, for example, and expect everyone to fall in line. Tough questions must be confronted, not brushed under the carpet. Among these: how to define, map and name the resources to be shared, determining who is entitled to what, designing rules and sanctions, or designing how to make the rules.
Dealing with difference involves a lot of consensus building, collective participation, and transparent decision making. New ways of “doing” politics are needed that are shaped by the ways people live now – not the other way round. A wide variety of collaborative services, policies and infrastructures are emerging in support of food coops, collective kitchens and dining rooms, community gardens, cooperative distribution platforms, seed banks, hothouses, nurseries, and other enhancements of community
Nurturing these kinds of social practice is a “soft” activity – but no less demanding for that. It involves politics, governance, communications, training, empowerment – and, in particular, the ability to help people with different agendas, from different backgrounds work together. Thus stated, it lies well outside the comfort zone of most design professionals. But it’s not a matter of either social or technical innovation – we need both. Besides, examples of such new approaches already exist in other domains. The free software movement, for example, has evolved a flexible and effective culture of cooperation.
Bioregionalism is appearing with growing frequency in public discourse in European policy and among professional networks (if not always under the same name). A tolerance for acronyms and buzzwords is demanded of the bioregional explorer, but with a bit of digging she too will discover such gems as: IALE (European Association for Landscape Ecology); the “Cork 2 Declaration” (on diversification in rural development); RISE (an European plan for more biodiversity friendly agriculture and food systems); ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability); SURFNATURE (a regional development funding for biodiversity); EFRD (a big regional development fund); NATURA 2000 (a big programme about biodiversity in cities); GI (all things Green Infrastructure); URBANRURAL LINKAGES (to do with rural cohesion); LANDLIFE (land stewardship principles and tools); BiodivERsA ERA-Net (research on biodiversity and ecosystem services); EKLIPSE (support mechanism for biodiversity); IPBES (Science and policy for people and nature); GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems); ARC2020 (Seeding the Future of Rural Areas) or PEGASUS (“unlocking public ecosystem goods and services from land management”).
There are surely many more, but you get the picture.
Reconnecting with our bioregion is not about leaving home to live in a yurt. For most of us, it means reconnecting with the land and biodiversity in the places where we live now – but in new ways. These can involve social farming, place-based development and learning journeys.
In our xskool workshop series10 we learned that myriad new ways for urban people to reconnect with the land are emerging: ways that are part-time, but long-term, ways that involve an exchange of value, not just paying money, ways to share knowledge, land and equipment in new ways; ways based on historical links between town and country – but reinvented in an age of networks and social innovation. ■
* A longer version of this article, with links was first published at thackara.com, May 29, 2017. Reproduced here with kind permission of the author.
1 Lifeplace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer Jr., University of California Press, 2003
2 sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716308801, June 2017
6 smartcitizen.me/kits/ / smartcitizen.me/about