Posted by Carolyn on July 27, 2009 at 11:56 am

Last week I gave a talk at TEDGlobal, the Oxford-based version of the international ideas conference dubbed the ‘Davos of the Mind’. TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a truly extraordinary phenomenon, bringing together lateral thinkers, movers and shakers from all corners of life, putting them together for a week and seeing what happens. Speakers this year included Alain de Botton, Gordon Brown, Rory Bremner, as well as the director of the world’s biggest fusion reactor, the astrophysicist who proved there is a black hole at the core of our galaxy, and the neuroscientist who has discovered the part of our brain that makes moral judgments. But the amazing thing about TED is that you not only listen to people speak, you get to have dinner with them too – I chatted to all of the above over the course of the week, (apart from GB, who arrived and departed with unTED-like haste). After a week like that, many people apparently experience a TED-Crash, but I must admit I am still on a TED High. It really was the most extraordinary experience. I am still pinching myself.

You can read a summary of my TED talk on the Guardian digi-blog here

Dairy Farms

Posted by Carolyn on July 10, 2009 at 12:30 pm

The recent collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain (DFB), one of the country’s largest dairy co-operatives, has left 400 small dairy farmers in some of Britain’s most beautiful rural areas struggling to survive. The farmers, based mainly in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Lancashire, must now either find alternative buyers for their milk in an already saturated commodity market, or receive 10p a litre for their milk – less than half the cost of production. As choices go, it is a double-Hobson, since neither option is likely to result in the farms’ survival.

DFB’s demise comes at a time when growing sections of society, from eco- and political groups to social movements such as Transition Towns, are waking up to the fact that such local networks are bound to play a crucial role in our future adaptability. Quite apart from their value in addressing the many-headed monster we face in the shape of climate change, population growth and peak-everything, such infrastructures represent the warp and weft of society without which further resilience is useless. Far from letting such networks go to the wall, we should be redoubling our efforts, not just to preserve them, but to augment and replicate them.

No political speech today is devoid of references to community, sustainability, and the desirability of nurturing both. But to state such aims without addressing the hidden obstacles lying in their path is nonsensical. The demise of small and medium-scale dairy farming in Britain is just one example of our failure to recognise the value of local economies, or the damage that global market forces have wrought on them. Our ability to effect social change has been paralysed, because the intellectual, commercial and political elements of our society are hopelessly out of kilter.

Which is where architects have a vital role to play. We architects are forever drawing visions of a better world, imagining the structures and processes that might bring them about. Now we must employ our spatial imaginations and lateral thinking, not just to describe possible future worlds, but to critique existing ones. We must use our skills to expose the invisible structures that truly shape our world and so often block our capacity to act: the political and economic power-lines, rules and regulations, patterns of ownership, denials and opacity. Only then will we meet the true design challenge of our times: to create a synthetic vision of a future society in an era of unprecedented complexity.

To a casual visitor holidaying in the Yorkshire Dales this summer, the absence of a herd of cows contentedly chewing the cud in a nearby field may seem (if noticed at all) mildly saddening. Milk, sold at eight times what the farmers were paid for it, will no doubt be for sale on supermarket shelves. But something of immense value to the region will have been lost. Twenty years from now, who knows? It may not just be the absence of cows, but the absence of milk itself, that is in question. Then people might start to take a bit more notice – but then, it will be too late. If we are to build a resilient society capable of withstanding future shocks, we must act now. Preserving local networks like DFB is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

The Thames Gateway

Posted by Carolyn on July 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

The Thames Gateway, billed by the government as ‘the UK’s largest regeneration project’ and its ‘first ever eco-region’, is in a mess. Conceived by Terry Farrell in the white heat of the property boom, the masterplan was supposed to turn this pock-marked semi-industrial landscape into a blossoming ‘eco-region’ of wetlands, parklands, and160,000 new homes by 2016. But, according to the Gateway’s development chief Peter Andrews, the mechanism expected to deliver that fairytale transformation is ‘effectively broken with no apparent replacement’.

The problem, as spelt out by Andrews in his recent evidence to the All Party Urban Development Group (APUDP), is that the vision never had any serious economic backing. Instead, it was expected to piggy-back on London’s seemingly unstoppable ‘growth’ as the star at the core of an ever-expanding economy. But now that the star has become a black hole, its local galaxy is no longer expanding. According to Mr. Andrews, the only projects now under construction in the region are those initiated before the autumn of 2007, or those supported by the public sector. Since that date, just six projects have gone on site, capable of delivering just1,800 new homes between them.

So far, so doomy and gloomy. But could it be that this unforeseen hitch in proceedings is actually a blessing in disguise? A moment to reflect what the APUDP really means when it states its mission is to ‘conduct a holistic review of all the constituent elements that combine to create genuinely sustainable communities’?

The Thames Gateway, after all, is ‘gateway’ to London, currently one of the least sustainable communities on the planet. In this context, calling the capital’s fluvial hinterland an ‘eco-region’ seems a bit of a stretch. Creating a few parks and ‘ducklands’ to absorb the inevitable flooding that will hit the region due to global warming, does little to alleviate the effects of the vast, pullulating metropolis just a few miles upriver. Surely a more ‘sustainable’ approach to London’s gateway would be to acknowledge its ancillary role as neighbour to the biggest, baddest city in Europe and address some of the latter’s more genuinely unsustainable practices?

Here’s an idea. Plans for the Gateway have stalled because people have stopped paying ridiculous prices for houses. But Londoners still need to eat. So, rather than wait to build more dormitory towns at the edge of an already bloated, non-productive metropolis, why not grow food for it instead? Not just on the odd token site for a few years, but all over the region, long-term, on a commercially viable scale? Stop flogging publicly-owned land to developers so that they can sit on it until it becomes profitable again, and make the land available at token rents to anyone who wants to farm it? Generate jobs for local people growing, harvesting, packing and cooking food, and sailing it upriver to sell at markets along the Embankment? Use the city’s sewage to fertilise the soil? Return the Thames Gateway, in fact, to what it was for centuries: London’s market garden and breadbasket? That way, the region could become an exemplar, not of urban renewal, but of rural, making London a model of post-industrial sustainability in the process. Just a thought.

Hungry New York

Posted by Carolyn on July 10, 2009 at 12:06 pm


This amazing event took place over a month ago, but it’s still worth writing about! It was organised by my dear friend Claire Hartten, together with new friends Yetsuh Frank, of the New York branch of the US Green Building Council, Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheeses, and Carlos Suarez of Bobo restaurant. Hosted by City Bakery (the first organic bakery in New York City) it was an evening meal themed around the links between food, cities and sustainability. One hundred and twenty mostly invited guests, including food producers, policy-makers, eco-builders and restaurateurs, enjoyed a four-course meal, all of which (apart from one of the cheeses!) was sourced from within New York State. As each course was served, the producers and chefs responsible for them spoke about the issues they faced in supplying a city such as New York. For instance, local oyster-catcher Mike Osinski talked about sending his oysters by Fed-Ex, and Anne Saxelby (who went on a 100-mile round trip to a local farm to bring us some delicious raw milk for the event) talked about how such products have been marginalised or made illegal by the scaling-up of food supply chains. It was my job to introduce the event, putting all of these issues into a broad context. It was quite some evening. Many new connections were forged and friends made, and the founding team are staying in touch, looking to do some follow-up events. Watch this space!

For more photos of the event, see here: http://www.malcolmbrown.net/citybakery