To find space in the UK, blur the lines between town and country

Posted on Thursday 10th July 2014

Two substantial contributions to the debate on how we use land in the UK have come out in quick succession; first came the Best Use of UK Agricultural Land from the University of Cambridge’s Natural Capital Leaders Platform, then the UK National Ecosystem Assessment follow-on report, calling for an increase in UK forest land cover of 700,000 hectares to increase the quantity of natural benefits provided by the UK’s land. The headline from the Cambridge report was a forecast shortfall of 2 million hectares of UK agricultural land in food production by 2030, arising from increased food demand from a growing population and increased land-take for housing, energy and the kinds of ecosystem services advocated by the UEA (University of East Anglia) report. Although there is much common ground between the reports, especially in their discussions of the subtle and multi-faceted values attaching to land, social imperatives – for food, for places we cherish, for a functioning environment – seem to be pushing us in opposite directions.

Let’s be clear from the outset, there are no simple ways to square an ever-increasing human demand for resource with the closed-loop molecular economics of environmental systems: not in the UK, not on Earth. The best we can hope for in this scenario is to accommodate as much human well-being as possible without causing the planetary system to tip into an uninhabitable or ungovernable state: scholars of thermodynamics or systems theory or hill-walking will recognise the description of a highly unstable saddle-point, a place on which it is not easy to stay when buffeted by the strong winds of natural events and intrinsic variations. Engineers usually prefer to set things up so that the system they design sits at the bottom of a behavioural ‘valley’ – buffeting then simply pushes the system uphill only for the system’s intrinsic ‘gravity’ to bring it back down to the valley floor.

Earth-system researchers consider the whole Earth this way – as a complicated system set up by nature and man. The Earth-system ‘valleys’ are often described in Gaian terms of homeostasis; the cliffs and saddle-points are often described as ‘tipping points’. Recent and ongoing controversies about geoengineering emphasise how difficult it is to define the workings of the Earth system sufficiently well that you can have confidence tinkering with it.

Working with a small piece of the world, the rural UK, say, might appear to make things simpler at first glance, but in fact the opposite can often be true. This is because we are now considering a much more ‘open’ system than the whole Earth, for which solar photons are pretty much the only input of consequence and infra-red radiation the only significant output. At the University of Birmingham, we have been grappling with cities as massively open systems for some time now: Designing Resilient Cities captured much of our thinking in this area, and the final report of the University of Birmingham Policy Commission on Future Urban Living expands on this.

Cities are much more like the countryside than we often seem to think. It is often not that easy to say what is going on in any one patch of land, because there’s usually more than one thing going on, and our classifications system can’t capture the detail. Vegetation in and around cities delivers significant natural benefits, as the UEA report recognises, and our own work has pointed out, albeit with important caveats. Parcelling our land up into one kind of use or another may be overly simplistic, therefore. Even the distinction between town and country may not be that helpful, because it encourages us to think of places where people work, where businesses are located, where change is embraced, where young single people live (all common conceptions of ‘town’ in the evidence given to the Policy Commission) as distinct from places where nature and older people live and change is resisted. Biophilic Cities have space for nature, places for all kinds of people, and an experimental attitude to change, each step carefully weighted to test how sustainable is the socio-environmental-economic ‘terrain’ on which the city is moving. Birmingham has just announced itself to be the UK’s first biophilic city, joining the likes of Oslo, San Francisco, Singapore, and Wellington. A similar movement towards ‘biophilic countryside’ would not be oxymoronic, but better still would be a recognition that all the precious land in the UK is more complicated, more beautiful, and more full of potential than the simple badges of ‘town’ and ‘country’ imply. The newly established Birmingham Institute for Forest Research takes just such
a line.

Rob MacKenzie
Director, Birmingham Institute of
Forest Research,
University of Birmingham