Call of the wild
Bryan Avery explores his Wilderness City vision, showing how enforcing city constraints, an argicultural rethink and making the countryside wild once more, could cultivate a green matrix that would bring back the memories we crave
With 93 per cent of the UK's population living in towns, and small farmers still leaving the land in large numbers, the notion of 'garden England' is largely a myth. At current values, the net worth of agriculture in the UK has sunk to little more than half that of the ready-made sandwich industry.Much of the countryside is now in the hands not of farmers, but of agri-business managers, whose interest in the land is solely financial.
In Britain we have had almost 200 years to adjust to this process, but in the developing world the changes have been far more rapid and disruptive. Life in the cities promised freedom from the dawn to dusk tyranny of the land, but as a growing tide of people migrated into the cities, their age-old skills and habits were no longer tolerated.
We have no adequate words to describe this process. The terms 'environmental' and 'ecological' do not capture the tensions that afflict us as the deep structures, that for millennia bound our existence to the natural world, are slowly destroyed. The dizzying feeling that 'all that is solid melts into air', with which Marx and Engels famously characterised the first wave of industrialisation, is now the almost universal experience of humankind .
As cities grow inexorably bigger, the developed world's problems are being repeated on an almost unimaginable scale. The explosive industrial growth that saw late-18th-century London transformed into the first millionstrong city since Imperial Rome is now, in the developing world, generating several metropolitan areas of more than 20 million people.
Faced with such vast, amorphous urban areas, we prefer to identify with our particular locality, and the more independent and distinctive that locality is, the higher its perceived cultural and economic value. In London we still call such urban cells 'villages'. We even celebrate them with events like Lambeth's country fair - complete with sheep-shearing and hay-making - and almost 200 years after their foundation, we still hold village fÛtes in the great London squares.
As urban aesthetes, we may increasingly be seduced by the pleasures of the hard-paved 'European city', but down the centuries in the UK we have created a different paradigm for urban living that resonates very subtly with our atavistic human instincts. We should build on this. We need to break the land-cost spiral created by the centripetal plan, and stop the mindless accretion of housing and workplaces around the periphery of existing settlements, that has devastated the hearts of our towns and created a never-ending chaos of noise, danger and infrastructural change.
We should instead create a multiplicity of centres offering a choice of desirable options; places of distinct but comparable attractiveness, framed by family friendly residential squares built cheek-by-jowl to busy manufacturing and commercial areas. Such centres would equate to small towns in their own right and - like the cells of a natural organism - each would be a condensed, living world, protected and made more urban by being confined within its own cell walls. The world's most cherished urban environments have usually been constrained in some way, as often as not by a combination of topography and water, or by defensive man-made structures, such as town walls or moats.
The 'walls' in this new model would be raised ring-roads, like 19th-century railway viaducts and - in a manner reminiscent of Louis Kahn's celebrated plan to protect the historic core of Philadelphia - at the junction with incoming routes there would be parking silos and interchanges for public transport. In a complete inversion of Ebenezer Howard's 'Garden City' model, the perimeter, not the centre, would be the busiest zone. Each town 'cell' could thus be made small, built to the scale of the pedestrian, not the car, and - like ancient Greek and medieval towns - no more than a half-hour's walk across.
Such townships could be encouraged to develop their own political and economic structures, and thus their own identity and character, but by being interlinked by rapid expressways and public transit systems, they could be aggregated to form a new kind of metropolitan region in which each 'cell' would be charged with supporting a specialised city-scale facility.
Imagine London more clearly articulated into its old constituent units - Soho, Covent Garden, Wembley, the City, etc - each with its own local infrastructure but defined by a 'moat' of public parkland, a cordon sanitaire to protect their individual identities. In time, some cells would accrete with others to expand - as Canary Wharf has done with the City - while others might be allowed to die.
Wilderness City A richer, denser and more varied city is, however, only one half of the equation. Its inverse and complement - a richer, denser countryside - is equally vital to the Wilderness City vision. A surprisingly short time ago, when cars were less abundant, it was not uncommon for many country dwellers' experience of the world to be limited to a few square miles. Knowledge of more distant parts was little more than rumour, the object of mystery and wonder. The countryside was still the great frontier in microcosm, its labyrinthine mystery proportional to its inaccessibility. For as long as this situation prevailed, the countryside retained an epic scale unrelated to its actual size, and our delight in it seemed inexhaustible.
But with the destruction of the hedgerows to create the vast fields demanded by industrialised agriculture, and all too easy vehicular access from the towns, an intensity of use has been unleashed upon the countryside with which it cannot cope. Remoteness and tranquillity have given way to congestion and bustle, bringing danger and destruction, and beauty spots worn thin by over-use.
Roads trodden out in medieval times by men's feet and horses' hooves have been widened, straightened and levelled. Distinctive ancient features, blind bends, narrow bridges and tunnelled hedgerows are all now subsumed within the common, utilitarian standards set by the city's engineers to render them safe for suburban passage. What hope now for the rural idyll of 'garden England'?
We should be resisting this seemingly inexorable tide of urbanised countryside, saying 'hold on, this isn't the countryside we came for', this no longer offers the deep connections we seek with the slow-changing natural rhythms of the seasonal order of this planet. We should insist that the countryside be beautiful, but beautiful and distinctive in its own way - as the natural antithesis of the City.
Thus the byways should be allowed to become quagmire; jostling sheep should again bar passage; and - dare one say it - it might even be allowed to become a little dangerous again.
Progressively, we could insist upon its returning to the full and unexpurgated rural idyll of our dreams. We could demand peace and tranquillity in the countryside and declassify the lanes and let them pot-hole. That would help slow things down, and also enable us to dispense with the white lines, signposts and streetlights. The environmental gains would be enormous and the inconveniences trivial, because our bicycles, motorcycles and cars can cope - indeed, to judge from the advertisements, are now positively designed to cope with just such testing conditions.
A singular, probably unrepeatable, opportunity is opening up for us. With so much farmland coming out of production, we should mechanise more inventively and use 'just in time' seasonal production methods to make efficient the small fields and coppices of a new garden England. Over time, we could restructure the entire landscape to create a new green matrix in which the cultivated countryside and new cellular cities could coexist in a mutually beneficial balance. And then we could return the rest to nature, restoring thereby the countryside to the wilderness of our imagination.
In time, the nationwide mosaic of Wilderness City might rekindle memories of that ancient world of myth and legend, of dark forests and fearsome encounters with nature that still reside somewhere deep in our minds - a world wherein the city becomes again a safe haven and from which, in this new symbiosis of man and nature, we might never feel the need to escape again. The Berber tribes of the Atlas mountains still refer to going to town as 'going to civilisation'.
Maybe - in time - we in Britain will be able to say the same.
A polemical book on this subject, co-authored with Richard Weston, will be published shortly