Dr Susannah Hagan

Increasingly, the environmental case for urban compaction is taken as given. It is even rolled out to defend the perfectly straightforward commercial exploitation of valuable inner city sites, for example, at London Bridge. Suddenly this intensification is beneficial, not only financially, but environmentally, and the injection of thousands more people through a hypodermic high rise into an already overstretched infrastructure is left unexamined – at least by those standing to benefit from such development.

Others, however, are questioning compaction as necessarily beneficial environmentally. The concepts of ‘productive landscape’ and, more specifically, ‘urban agriculture’ are indicative of such question­ing, and can be part of a very different way of conceiving of city and non-city. It requires thinking about the unbuilt as potentially an event of equal intensity to the built, where the built is indicative of cultural intensity, and the unbuilt of ecological intensity. The unbuilt, the uncompacted, can be viewed, not as a ‘waste of space’, but as productive space, space that is ‘used’ in different but equally valuable ways from building on it.

Since the Second World War, northern Europe and the USA have consistently lost urban population to the suburbs and beyond. Though this trend is now stabilising, and in some cases reversing, it is still difficult to keep families in cities in these parts of the world. It may one day be equally difficult in the devel­oping world, as its urban populations mature and become more prosperous, able to choose where they want to live. The drift away from cities in areas of the West is only in part to do with cost, crime and inadequate schools. It also has to do with space, par­ticularly space for children. In pushing for higher den­sities in existing cities, two things happen: more of the very thing people seek is lost – space – and attention and resources are concentrated on the city at the expense of the suburbs and the countryside, which are also problematic environmentally.

Urban compaction requires higher densities, but higher than what, and when is higher too high? This is impossible to quantify. What is desirable for one culture is intolerable for another, and what is chosen by one economic class might be another’s lack of choice, because the desirability of increased densities relies heavily on how they are designed and maintained. Few Londoners would find the density of Kowloon acceptable, but then given a choice, a resident of Kowloon may very well not find it so either. In part this is because as densities increase, so too does the need for decompression space. Which returns us to the idea of unbuilt space and its relation to urban compaction, since it appears, even after a cursory discussion like this one, that compact-is-good is only good if it can at the same time incorporate space as well – space as parks, sports fields, squares, gardens, allotments or whatever.

Environmentally active urban space needs trees to clean and oxygenate the air. This in itself is produc­tive – of air quality and the lowering of fossil energy demand to counter adverse environmental condi­tions. A virtuous circle. Does environmentally active urban space also require urban agriculture? Like most things environmental, it depends – I’d suggest more on the culture than the economic system. A city full of people who have recently migrated from farms, as in China, will find it easier to culti­vate urban land than a population that has been urbanised for generations and doesn’t know one end of a carrot from the other. So, too, a population accustomed to communal ownership, and/or com­munal activity, might find the idea easier, as urban land would often have to be shared and developed by groups of cultivators.

The ‘who’ and the ‘where’ of urban agriculture are therefore crucial. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that individuals start planting cabbages in Manhattan. I hope not, as trees would be much more environmentally ‘productive’ in such a context. But once you begin looking elsewhere than at very dense nodes with very high land values, urban agriculture begins to look more viable. It could also begin to include peripheral and suburban agriculture as well, and vitally so. As a term, ‘urban agriculture’ is a vivid description of what it aims to do, but it is also a limiting one. For an ostensibly radical idea, it continues the western tendency to create meaning and make decisions through the establishing of binary opposites. ‘Urban agriculture’ is innovative as it stands in contrast to ‘rural agriculture’. Consequently, the interstices are left out of this opposition – the often slack and inchoate outer rings of cities and the suburbs beyond, with under­used parks that produce a sense of unease which guarantees further underuse, and rubbish tips, and low rent industrial parks and warehousing, and derelict lots. In the case of London, there is also the green belt, a vast divide between city and country­side, but an empty divide, like a ditch or a moat, an absence rather than a presence.

If we were able to think of this and the other spaces I’ve described being potentially as intense, if not more intense, than the areas of settlement with which they are interlaced, then urban agriculture becomes one of several strategies for intensifying, without necessarily compacting, one among many landscape interventions. For instance, more wood­land for biofuel, dumps turned into all-weather ski slopes, reed beds for filtration, fishing and nature centres, plant nurseries, weekend camping sites, walking trails, and model farms, so that people from the city and the suburbs and the countryside are as likely to mix and participate here as they are at an event in the city centre or some country town. This productive land, some of it more productive environmentally than socially, some the reverse, would be woven in and out of the city, the suburbs and the countryside, with urban agriculture an important thread in this; important because in this country, at least, the demand for organic produce outstrips its local supply. Urban agriculture, as I’ve extended its catchment area, would be well placed to contribute to this local supply – organic market gardens that would be part of a larger system of cir­cular production and consumption – and it would be well placed to knit up types of settlement typi­cally viewed as mutually contradictory, through its appearance in all of them.

The acquisition of appropriate sites, and the culti­vation of those sites, would require considerable organisation, perhaps on the basis of some kind of charitable trust, or as a local or regional govern­ment initiative. But then, so would any intervention seeking to turn unused or underused land towards environmentally productive uses, like biofuel or wildlife habitat. The essential prerequisite of any attempt at change in this direction is that we begin to conceive of city, periphery, suburb and country­side, not as discrete, and for the most part, hostile categories, but as parts of a continuum that stretches from the most densely inhabited areas that are least active ecologically, to the least densely inhab­ited areas that are most active ecologically. I mean by ‘ecologically’ inclusive of all conditions and scales. For urban agriculture to work, it is vital that we think of

. . . simple regulations which ensure that soci­ety protects the values of natural processes and is itself protected. Conceivably [lands where these processes occur] would provide a source of open space for metropolitan areas. . . Urbanisation proceeds by increasing the density within and extending the periphery, always at the expense of open space. . . This growth is totally unresponsive to natural processes and their values. Optimally, one would wish for two systems within the metro­politan region – one. . . natural processes preserved in open space, the other. . . urban development. If these were interfused, one could satisfy the provision of open space for the population.

Ian McHarg, Design with Nature, 1969

Ian McHarg, and his predecessor, Patrick Geddes, were prophets in an enduring wilderness. Enduring because we have yet to acquire governments with enough political will to think about social and ecological processes inclusively. To bring them to the point of doing so will require, in democracies, bottom-up pressure from the electorate. To bring the electorate to the point of exerting such pressure will require the communication of what’s in it for them.

Urban agriculture tends to define itself as a bottom – up, grass roots movement with no time for the top-down elitism of designers. This is mis­guided. Environmentalism, in whatever guise, demands both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Freeing up or reclassifying land for urban agriculture requires more than a desire to hold hands and plant vegetables. It requires top-down intervention by planners and local authorities. If urban agriculture is viewed as one of many ways of achieving environ­mentally productive landscape within, around and outside cities, then those whose business it is to contribute to the design of those cities, their open spaces as well as their built fabric, are vital allies in this project. Urban agriculture in a highly urbanised Western Europe cannot be reproduced in the ways it is being pursued in countries like China, with a much more widespread and direct connection to its tradi­tional farming roots, or even the USA, with its newer immigrant populations from agrarian economies. For urban agriculture in Western Europe to get past the cultivating of one’s own city garden, a wider coalition of interest groups needs to be not only tolerated, but welcomed. Anyone with an interest in promoting the more complex, inclusive models of development put forward by Geddes and McHarg, in whatever way, should be able to find a place within discussions of urban agriculture. The environment needs all the help it can get, from as many quarters as it can find.


Geddes, P. (1968). Cities in Evolution. Ernest Benn Ltd, London.

McHarg, I. (1969). Design with Nature. Natural History Press, New York.

Updated: October 5, 2015 — 2:02 pm