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Great book, terrible title. Andre Viljoen has put together a book of the most profound importance at this point in history. How will we feed our cities beyond the age of cheap oil? Does the old concept that the cities are for people to live in and the countryside is for growing food in still have any relevance when our cheap transport system is no longer able to function? Viljon argues not. We should view our cities as much in terms of being productive spaces as we view our rural areas.
‘The city as a farm’ may appear a fanciful notion in our 21st century industrialised society, yet if we look to the only country thus far to have experienced peak oil, Cuba, we can gain some insight into how we too will have to rethink some basic assumptions. This book contains some of the best literature on the Cuban experience I have yet read. In essence, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s oil imports were reduced practically to zero almost overnight. It had, up to that point, developed a Western style intensive agriculture model, which became rapidly unworkable. Agriculture was redesigned, and is now more than 80% organic. What is perhaps more exciting was the explosion in urban agriculture. Havana now produces half of its fresh vegetables within the city, from a series of community gardens, as well as on balconies and rooftops.
These gardens bring fresh affordable food into the city, improve the climate, create work, and look, as can be seen in some of the pictures here, quite amazing. ‘CPULs’ sets out in detail how the transition to this way of feeding people was managed. There is much we can learn from the Cuban example. Perhaps one of the most important things when we consider some of the more lurid and apocalyptic peak oil scenarios we encounter, is that despite the fact that food became scarce and much of industry closed, there was no societal breakdown, no riots, no collapse. People adapted and they responded with creativity and imagination (some counter this by arguing that Cuba is by nature a more co-operative society, and point to New Orleans as a more relevant example of societal breakdown).
So what does all this mean for the UK? This book is written by an architect for other architects. In spite of this (many such books are utterly incomprehensible to the lay reader, and, one suspects, to many other architects) it is a hugely readable, passionate and visionary book. It aims to put productive land use at the centre of urban design. Our cities, Viljoen argues, should be farms. He has coined the dreadful term ‘Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes’ (I kinda prefer ‘permaculture’, don’t know why, it trips off the tongue a bit easier…) to describe his approach. He advocates creating networks of green spaces throughout the city (he takes London as his case study), which are connected by cycle paths and walkways, which combine urban agriculture, recreation and a wealth of other uses.
He argues the case for urban food growing compellingly, although his context is more rooted in issues of embodied energy and food miles than in disruption of supply and relocalisation caused by peak oil. ‘CPULs’ contains the best history of urban agriculture in the UK I have yet read. The authors have found some great old photos of Clapham Common dug up for allotments, and people growing food on the rooftops of London during World War Two. The UK has a long and rich history of urban agriculture, during the War 10% of the national diet came from allotments and gardens. The decline and recent revival of allotments is also chronicled.
This book’s importance is in its communicating to those (architects and designers) who shape our built environments on a daily basis, a profoundly different way of seeing urban space. It is only in the last 30 or so years that we have perfected the art of creating totally useless landscapes. New industrial estates and business parks typify this, planted with ‘low maintenance’ shrubs, specifically bred to be entirely unproductive. I could never see the use of flowering cherries, fruiting cherries do make flowers too. CPULs offers a profoundly radical vision of how such space could be used. It also offers a glimpse into the near future, where local food is produced in diverse and abundant landscapes and where cities become net producers of food rather than importers.
I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is practical, deeply rooted in the experience and history of allotment holders, community gardeners and urban market gardeners around the world, and it offers a radiant new vision for our cities. At the same time it uses language and a format that makes it accessible to those who design such spaces. It represents a quantuum leap forward for architecture and landscape design.
Despite not calling its approach permaculture, the book has a substantial section on permaculture, and is clearly deeply informed by its principles. It is interesting to reflect upon why it is, therefore, that the editor felt that he needed to come up with a different (and not very good) name for his approach. This is exactly the area where permaculture needs to be, as it offers a complete design approach for addressing the challenge of designing ‘edible’ cities. Why do so few professional landscape designers call their work permaculture, and apply these principles? Might it be that coining a new terms, albeit a clumsy one, these ideas might make more of an impact? I don’t know the answer, but it is interesting to chew it over, and to consider why, more than 25 years after its inception, permaculture design is still little reflected in mainstream architecture and design.
In the video ‘In Grave Danger of Falling Food’, Bill Mollison makes the point that as the environmental crisis bites, those in the South will be increasingly in demand in the North, coming to teach us how to grow things. ‘CPULs’ shows that this is closer to becoming a reality, and that food security is becoming seen as as much of an issue for the developed West as for the rest of the world.