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Rural manifesto

By Simon Brown
Practising in a multi-disciplinary rural practice could be the way to start changing the world for the better.

My wife and I recently relocated to Frome in Somerset in pursuit of a dream. We moved to embrace a vibrant and supportive local community and a peaceful way of life, far from the growing intensity and strain of London.

We decided to move to Frome, which is an interesting town with a rich culture and heritage. It has, over the years, attracted a large number of creative and progressive thinkers and doers. The town council is run by a group of independent councillors who have the town’s best interests at heart and seek to employ a true democracy to support its future.

As a result of this supportive local political system, Frome is a mélange of innovation, excitement and initiatives that seek to empower local people, build local resilience, create meaningful work and build a town for the future.

I spent last year on a rollercoaster of an adventure working with a group of committed individuals in the process of prototyping a user-generated design service – ‘Landstory’. It is a new story of people and place, its purpose being the regeneration and revitalization of landscape resources for future generations.

Landstory is a response to the critical state of the living systems on which we depend. We acknowledge the interconnectedness of life, and recognise that the health of the biosphere and of all living organisms is linked to our own health and that of future generations; thus our responsibility is to work towards the regeneration of these systems. We aim to work with landowners and local authorities to cultivate abundance through landscape-led development.

Our belief is that in order to sustain life on earth we must reimagine the rural and tell a new story of our land.

Were we not promised that industrial agriculture would feed the world; that GM food would end starvation and the risk of pests; that mechanisation would give us more time and higher yields? Can we acknowledge that these methods are failing us – our soils have become so thin that some estimate only another 50 harvests are left; our rivers so polluted that we cannot drink from them nor can they sustain once diverse ecosystems; our forests so decimated that they are a fragment of what they once were; our livestock so ill-treated having become nothing more than commodities, reflected in spread sheets and slaughtered on conveyor belts. Who knows that half of the nitrates applied on fields silently pollute, leaching 25% into the air and 25% into the water? Can we not understand or feel what we are doing to our beautiful lands? If our health is linked to that of living systems, then beyond doubt it is time to try something different.

Thus we must consider the rural. Not only must there be a shift in current agricultural practices towards methods which are more diverse, productive and sustainable that already exist; but also a re-ruralisation, or appropriate rural development which is landscape- led and driven by community.

Many believe we have a global crisis of overpopulation but consider the fact that only 1% of the global population is engaged with agriculture. Imagine if it was more like 30%. I have long believed that redeveloping an intimate working relationship with nature is key to a future in which land-based enterprises can offer meaningful work, build community and local resilience whilst regenerating our land in a new and ancient story.

My interest in the rural is linked to the global, shaped by the experiences of my 29 years of life. Studying for a degree in archaeology and anthropology in Bristol shaped my world view. It illuminated the effects of the global forces fragmenting and breaking local and indigenous cultures in pursuit of economic growth, political agendas or resource extraction. I even had first hand experience of this, spending time in Kenya with the Maasai looking at the commoditisation of culture.

It was a fascinating degree but my calling came several years later when I was questioning my way forward in life, in search of new fields into which I could focus my energies. I discovered the landscape profession. To me, it seemed unique, inspiring and well placed to work towards a common goal of simply a better world. I enrolled on the postgraduate and masters programme at Greenwich and remember devouring the work of the early visionaries Jellicoe and McHarg, whose visions for the profession and state of the world were enough to affirm my choice and stir my blood.

I split the summer between programmes into an internship at a prestigious London practice and furthering my education with a permaculture design course. It was a distinct and abrupt shock going straight from an organic smallholding in the depths of Cornwall with themes of local materials, biodiversity and resilient design, to the City of London and paving detailing using Chinese granite. This harsh contrast was formative and I finished my masters with a scheme to design a rural Mediterranean smallholding that aimed at being economically, environmentally and socially resilient.

"There has, in recent years, been a growing recognition of the power of story to frame how we understand the world around us and our place within it."
Jonathan Dawson, The Ecologist

Shortly before finishing I was given an opportunity of a lifetime, to go to Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya and work on the design and delivery of a landscape vision for the Druk White Lotus School (DWLS). This proved to be a deeply influential experience for me as I was to learn so much from the beautiful people of Ladakh.

Ladakh, the land of the high passes, lies within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, isolated by the Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges. It is a mythical and ancient kingdom once accessed only by mountain pass. Classified as a high altitude desert, summer temperatures can be above 30C and winter temperatures below -30C whilst rainfall is almost non-existent; an unforgiving climate indeed.

The Ladakhi people – closer to Tibetan both physiologically, culturally and spiritually – have, despite these extreme conditions; created a paradise, a 2000 year old Buddhist kingdom that was prosperous, abundant and peaceful.

Ladakh, thanks to its inaccessible location, was isolated from the rest of the world until 1976. Today it remains inaccessible by road for six months of the year due to the high mountain passes. As a result of this and of the underlying strength of kinship structures, the culture of Ladakh has remained remarkably strong.

As I began to research the landscape work for DWLS I started looking for plants, inspiration and local knowledge. At that time I also read a seminal piece of work by anthropologist Helena Norberg Hodge, Ancient Futures, which documented the rapid change that came to Ladakh since the road opened in 1976.

In the book she portrays a portrait of Ladakh – of a people’s rich existence with an ecological balance and social harmony. Ladakh was a psychologically balanced society with no depression, crime or homelessness, where society was based on reciprocity and cooperative value. There was no money, no concept of waste and everything had a purpose or place. The people’s working relationship with the land meant that they did not exceed its carrying capacity.

As I read this work I experienced first hand the sheer joy and utter generosity of these beautiful people, where old lived with young and young with old, each and all helped with the harvests and the land based-activities; yet despite the workload there always appeared to be time to relax, take tea, laugh, and share in the joy of life. It was a truly beautiful experience to be welcomed into this humbling culture.

The change that came after the roads were built began to fragment social and kinship structures as the Western culture and monetary economy brought an influx of goods, pressures for economic growth, unemployment and conflict where there had once been none. Agriculture, the basis of the traditional society, began to break down due to cash-cropping, subsidies and agrochemicals. These threaten regional food security and the once local resilience through increasing dependency, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility. For example, a bag of flour that had been transported thousands of miles became cheaper than flour from the local mill, and local mud-brick became more costly than cement imported from the other side of the Himalayas.

"The Ladakhi’s remarkable contentedness is the product of close and intimate connections to other people and the land."
Helena Norberg-Hodge

Worse still is that those who do still farm now believe it is a primitive occupation and can no longer depend on their neighbours for support – the culture moved from a history of cooperation to the present of competition and exclusion.

The work I carried out at the school attempts to provide children with a landscape with which they can still have a working relationship, bound within a masterplan and vision ‘To create a unique living and learning environment through a productive and sustainable landscape that will be resilient in the face of climate change and a model for landscape and education in Ladakh’ The work continues today.

Returning to London, I managed to get a job working for Farrer Huxley Associates where I stayed for a short but happy year. I was lucky to work on the development of Bicester EcoTown, a dream job for a young landscape architect. Yet if truth be told it was one of the reasons why I left the position. Exposure to the apparent lack of commitment of developers to be truly innovative and create a place for the future, to me amounted to an old story that serves nether people or place.

Since leaving London and stepping into the unknown and building a business I have been supporting myself with freelance work with a local practice called Roundfield who have a keen interest in the rural landscape. I have also been fortunate enough to have won two collaborative competitions with an artist colleague friend. We have worked in France and in Bristol on a school’s roof garden aimed at growing food and ecology. These are good but temporary measures as Landstory, despite aiming for powerful social and environmental impact, has ambitions to become a strong design network with a clear business model.

This is grounded in the belief that appropriate investment in productive landscapes will have long-term financial gain in addition to stimulating rural economies and building local resilience. We assume most landowners lack the resource to implement a landscape strategy so our design service will tailor investment packages bound within the strategy to take to our network of social investors or alternatively look to collaborative funding. The intention is to imagine a future where pension funds or even the global funds that are currently divesting from the hydrocarbon market could have viable and long-term investment alternatives that are ethical, regenerative, local in scale and land-based.

At Landstory we are currently in the building and prototyping phase. We have one client lined up and future possibilities in the pipeline. Our pilot project – a 900 acre organic farm in Oxfordshire – is an ideal scenario in that the challenges are great and resources limited, but critically there is a client who has vision and needs no convincing of the great importance of enhanced land use and the need to look towards the future. Of course a major constraint here is planning, yet the legislative framework for a paradigm planning shift exists; through the Localism Act and Community Right to Build Orders. Despite very few examples of successful projects in the UK, this represents a huge opportunity to address major issues such as the housing crisis and grossly inflated house and land prices, by empowering citizens to self/custom or co-build. Landstory, combining an event-led participatory design process with a cohesive landscape strategy, aims to leverage these opportunities and in theory overcome rural planning constraints.

This is just the beginning of a long road for us. We hope to work on projects all across the world in due course.

We have a diverse network including – event producers, software wizards, landscape architects, finance gurus, designers, planning consultants, communication strategists and more – so we aim to be able to respond to multiple briefs, whilst at all times sharing learning and resources through open source toolkits.

I recently became the licentiate representative on the LI advisory council. This is an attempt to understand the profession and organisation better, to connect with other professionals and experts, to find those who know that things can be much better and want to work together towards just that. I would also like the LI to have a voice, to make a stance, be political, stick its multifunctional head above the parapet and ruffle some feathers and perhaps that is the way to a more active membership.

My hopes for the future are simply for a better world or, as a colleague puts it, the desire to tell meaningful stories to our children. I would like to imagine a world where collective and public pensions are spent on building a commonwealth, on services that can greatly enhance our lives – sustainable and affordable housing, transport and connectivity, renewable energy, forestry, farming and abundant multifunctional landscapes. I hope that young and old may once again live and play together, that the old do not die alone, that we may have more time to love laugh and live.

Ultimately design can have a huge part to play in all of this, in creating the places of the future, so let us design intelligently with and for nature and for our children.

The landscape profession is needed now more than ever in this volatile, uncertain and complex world. We, as designers of the interface between humans and living systems, will play a vital role in the shaping of this world in the coming years as we transition and adapt to an emerging culture of cooperation and collaboration.

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