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Herbert Girardet and the plastic concept of sustainability

James Heartfield

Cultural anthropologist and ecological advocate Herbert Girardet’s influence on urban theory – and on Urban Task Force chief Richard Rogers – is profound. Born in Germany, Girardet has lived in Britain since he came here to study in 1963. He helped put environmentalism on the map with the television series Far From Paradise, made with John Seymour for the BBC in 1985. After working with the United Nations on the environment, he received a UN Global 500 Award for Outstanding Environmental Achievements at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Girardet’s growing interest in urban planning was reflected in the 1994 television programme Metropolis (Channel 4), about London’s metabolism. The following year he wrote the report Getting London into Shape for 2000, for London First, and in 2000 he was co-curator of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ exhibition London Living City. Girardet’s many books include Blueprint for a Green Planet (1987), The Gaia Atlas of Cities (1992), and Creating Sustainable Cities (1999). He was a contributor to the Urban Task Force report.

The core concept running through Girardet’s work has been sustainability, both in its original sense of a sustainable relationship with the environment, and in its enlarged sense of a sustainable society – an idea that he helped to formulate. The concept of sustainability is itself something of a compromise between the (deep green) ideal of a no-growth, or ‘steady-state’ economy, first mooted in the 1970s, and the practical difficulties of getting that idea heard. Realising that an absolute brake on development was too extreme for most people, environmentalists moderated the message to emphasize ‘sustainability’ instead. The idea could be defined as meaning an aspiration to leave the world in no worse a state than this generation finds it. It puts the onus on renewable resources, over non-renewable, and, insofar as it elevates a far-greater sense of caution about development, it is difficult to reconcile with, for example, the aspiration to build millions more homes. Instead, Girardet asks ‘can modern cities reduce their impact on the biosphere by processes of enlightened self regulation and self limitation?’

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Gaia and Humanity

Girardet’s special contribution to ecological thinking has been to humanise it. Deep green ideas like the concept of ‘Gaia’ (from the Greek goddess of nature), had imputed purpose to nature, in a desire for equilibrium, regardless of human design: ‘the theory states that earth acts as a living thing, a super-organism served by it constituents – living and nonliving – in the same way that the organs of the body serve the person.’ This is to anthropomorphise nature, and correspondingly to diminish man. Failure to serve nature’s greater purpose threatens the equilibrium, which might forcefully reassert itself, in the form of famine or disease.

Girardet, on the other hand, reintroduced human settlement into the Gaia concept, proposing a metabolism between cities and their hinterlands. Girardet’s concept of ‘metabolism’ draws on the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who capitalised it to mean the symbiosis between man and nature.

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Ecological Footprints

Highlighted in the television programme Metropolis and in books such as Sustainable Cities is the relationship between the City and its hinterland, or what Girardet calls its ecological footprint – which is to say the area of land that the city draws upon for its sustenance, in food, water, fossil fuels, metals and so on, as well as the land that it uses for the disposal of waste, human and man-made, including greenhouse gas emissions. Girardet adopts an estimate of Londoners’ ecological footprint of 6.63 hectares per habitant. As he points out, this means that Londoners effectively need an area twice the size of the United Kingdom to sustain them. If all people in the world lived at this rate of consumption, Girardet argues, we would need three planets to sustain us (around 40 billion hectares, rather than the 14 billion hectares of landmass on our earth).

Girardet’s calculations, though, have some weaknesses. First, he adopts a value of 6.63 hectares from the City Limits report, rejecting his own earlier estimate of three hectares – indicating that this is a far from an exact science. Second, the ‘ecological footprint’ calculation suggests that with both population and consumption per head rising, the ecological footprint ought to be increasing. But in plainly measurable dimensions, it is not. Since reaching its record high of 732 million hectares in 1981, the grain harvested area of the world shrunk back to 690 million hectares in 1998. How is that possible? The element missing from Girardet’s ecological footprint estimates is the increasing productivity of the land.

Between 1950 and 1998 the grain harvested area per person halved from 0.23 hectares to 0.12 hectares, while actual consumption increased.

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Production and Consumption

Behind these lacunae in the theory lies a problem of method. Though Girardet’s reading of ecology seems to include humanity in nature, it does so in a way that reduces human-kind one-sidedly to consuming (and polluting), all but ignoring our creative and productive side. So the estimation of ‘the city as parasite’ is a curious inversion of reality. Far from being parasitical, cities are creators of wealth. How is it that Girardet can see the city as net consumer? The answer is that he accounts for all resources, but one, labour. Everything but humanity is precious to Girardet, but humanity is not precious, at least not in its productive aspect, and not to be accounted for. His analysis of ‘the Metabolism of London’ registers ‘Inputs’ under heading one as oxygen, water, food and so on, but heading two is not ‘Outputs’, but ‘Wastes’, including CO 2, SO 2 and NO x. The only city product that counts is pollution.

Successive schools of economic thought have often privileged one kind of labour as truly productive over another. In eighteenth century France, the school known as the Physiocrats thought that only agricultural labour yielded a net-product, while town-based crafts only reordered the materials that the countryside supplied – a view that persisted until 1776 when Adam Smith showed that industry yielded a net-product. Now it seems that Girardet and the school of the ‘ecological footprint’ are aiming to reverse that advance, dismissing all city activity as a waste of natural resources. No doubt Girardet would dismiss this inference as unfair, but it is pertinent that the aspects of city living that he does cherish are those of conviviality and interaction, rather than production, which is absent.

Girardet’s ethos of ‘sustainability’ whilst seeming humane, aims to put limits on humanity. He wants to see cities ‘improving their metabolism’ with nature, by which he means ‘reducing their ecological footprints’. It is the thinking behind the ‘carbon neutral’ houses of Beddington Zero Energy Development – BedZed – in Sutton. Carbon neutrality is achieved by a mix of recycle materials, planting trees, photo-voltaic cells and limited parking spaces. But resource neutrality, or a light ecological footprint is a chimera. People’s lives are secured by enlarging their ecological footprint, not reducing it. The greater the metabolism between man and nature, the larger are human possibilities, and therefore security. Resource efficiency does not come from limiting industry, but expanding it. ‘Sustainability’ is just another word for austerity. The easiest way to build a ‘carbon neutral’ house is not to build one at all.

None of this would matter if it were only the prejudice of a handful of eco-warriors, but in 2002, RIBA President Paul Hyett made it clear that would campaign for government to legislate for a ‘sustainability imperative’ upon architects, just as he was drawing up a voluntary code of conduct on the same lines. The knowledge that architects could be held liable for damaging future generations would be a considerable constraint on new building.

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Cultural Pessimism

Girardet’s cheerful presentation of the material belies an underlying pessimism about the planet, which has not always proved to be justified. In 1976 he warned that ‘ Britain now produces just over 50 per cent of the food it consumes’. Dependency on food imports, put Britain dangerously at risk, he argued. Yet in 1998 Britain produced more than 100 per cent of its sheep, pork, milk, wheat, barley and oats; more than ninety per cent of poultry, and eggs, more than 80 per cent of beef and veal, and potatoes. Only butter (77 per cent) cheese (65 per cent) and sugar (64 per cent) were lower. And though the Ministry of Agriculture did estimate self-sufficiency in food at just 55 per cent in 1976, the figure was lower by ten points because of the inclusion of non-indigenous food-types, and had been in any event improving year on year. Furthermore, the method of calculating food was changed in 1998, after it was discovered to systematically over-estimate the value of imported foods in processed goods. More important than the bad estimate is the underlying paranoia: so what if we import food?

In 1986, researching the influential television series Far from Paradise, Girardet was once again inflating problems. He went with the film-makers to West Germany where he discovered that the forests were ‘dying’. The problem was a consequence of industry: ‘ West Germany’ was after all ‘the most intensively industrialised country in Europe, perhaps in the world’. The problem was not restricted to Germany, he thought. Rather ‘symptoms of serious forest decline are being experienced all over Europe’. But in fact forests in the European Union are growing 486 million cubic meters every year.

Girardet’s persistent pessimism needs explaining. The doom-laden estimations do not arise out of empirical findings alone, but are shaped by his own situation in relation to economic growth. In a memoir, Girardet recalls being a part of a back-to-earth movement in the 1970s when ‘tens of thousands of people abandoned large cities such as London and Birmingham for the countryside’ – not long after intellectuals in China had been sent to work in the fields as part of Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’. Their spur, in this account was ‘a world of rampant materialism and the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation’. It was around this time that Girardet advocated ‘new villages’, in ‘an expansion of agricultural production with the aim of food self-sufficiency’.

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The Good Life

Not all the new villagers were working the land. In North Wales, Clough William-Ellis recruited philosopher Bertrand Russell, Marxist historians E.P. and Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Sinologist Joseph Needham, Nature editor John Maddox and Nobel Prize winning physicist Patrick Blackett to populate his run-down lands. 'The incomers were a scattering of middle class British intellectuals and a scattering of attached bohemians', mostly friends of Williams-Ellis' wife Amabel. There, they struggled to learn Welsh, and study local labour history.

In retrospect, Girardet described his ambition to ‘build houses that were largely self-sufficient in energy with built-in solar greenhouses, surrounded by vegetable gardens and orchards, and set in new villages where we could bring up children in peace and tranquillity’. Though reminiscent of Tom and Barbara Good in the feel-good 1970s BBC comedy, The Good Life, what Girardet is really describing is the push to suburbanisation: ‘finding an escape hatch from cities whose dependence on fossil fuels and long-distance transport systems seemed increasingly ominous and unsustainable’.

Unfortunately, the good life turned out to be a bit too rustic for Girardet and his comrades. ‘Many rural resettlers found it hard to make a living on a few acres, beyond the most basic subsistence’, he recalls, while ‘many were also made less than welcome by the locals in their adopted areas, who were bewildered by newcomers who had little understanding of the traditions and realities of rural living’. Eric Hobsbawm recalls that 'Clough's Kingdom… was an unstable and unhappy place full of underlying tension' that 'found expression in a growing, resentful and sometimes rancorous anti-English feeling', until eventually, Williams-Ellis' grandson declined to renew the leases on the incomers' cottages. Conveniently enough, the green activists were released from the souring of their dream by more pressing ecological disasters in the wider world – ‘reports about burning rainforests, oil spills killing millions of birds and sea mammals, squalid squatter settlements on the periphery of the new megacities of Africa, Latin America and Asia’. And ironically ‘in between escapist programming of all kinds, television helped give birth to a new global consciousness’. So it was that ‘in the late seventies, many new rural resettlers were beginning to question whether getting away from it all was a realistic option’. Moving back to the cities, these ecologists were not chastened by the failure of their 'new villages', but on the contrary, determined to impose their ideals but now on the city itself.

Of course, this double movement out of the city in the seventies, and back into it in the nineties was not restricted to the environmentally-inspired, but mirrors the essential movement of the professional classes who fled urban decay in one era, and returned twenty years later to re-colonise Shoreditch and the banks of the Thames in East London. But for Girardet, this is the origin of the ‘urban village’ concept, now neatly dovetailing with the embourgeoisement of pockets of inner London. Even in 1976, he kept his options open: ‘as new settlements grow in the rural areas, as people move from urban employment to rural co-operative villages, the big cities will continue to shrink – as they have done for a generation – to a more realistic size, a more sustainable size’. What this turned out to mean, though, was, the sooner all you oiks move out of Islington to Watford, the sooner we media types can colonise it.

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Re-introduced into urban planning, Girardet’s concept of ‘sustainable cities’ proved useful for all kinds of political goals. That is not surprising given its elasticity. Girardet was careful to include a social dimension to sustainability. Considered as ‘sustainable communities’ cities would have to meet standards of social equity and inclusion, as well as standards of environmental protection. However, these were always sketched so vaguely as to constitute no literal promise to citizens, and at the same time, almost any ambition imaginable for policy makers. Girardet poses the question ‘Can cities be sustainable?’ It is a complex question, since cities, by which Girardet means all human settlements above the village, plainly exhibit all the signs of unsustainability according to the theory.

Girardet comes close to proving that human life is impossible. The combined populations of the urbanised countries, the USA, the EU 15, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong are 859 million. If each of these people had an ecological footprint of 6.63 hectares, that would amount to 5.7 billion hectares. The world’s total land mass is 13 billion hectares, of which more than a third is desert, leaving only 8.35 billion hectares. The remaining five billion of the world’s population, according to Girardet’s method, ought to be living on the remaining 2.65 billion hectares, or half a hectare each. And yet cities do sustain themselves. In fact they more than sustain themselves, they sustain pretty much everything else as well. According to Girardet, this is only because ‘we are able to maintain this global overdraft on a temporary basis by eating into the earth’s capital stocks of fish, forest and fertile soils’.

Beyond empirical verification, sustainability becomes something like a religious belief in humanity’s limitations, which can be turned up when the need to restrain arises, or down, when the urban villagers need their creature comforts.

James Heartfield (heartfield@blueyonder.co.uk) writes and researches regeneration and Creative Industries in Europe. He is based at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Westminster University

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  1. See James Heartfield, ‘The economics of sustainable development’, in Abley, I and Heartfield, J (eds), Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, London, John Wiley, 2002, p 94
  2. Girardet, Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefing 2, Fox Hole, Green Books, 1999, p 19
  3. ‘ Gaia: Goddess and Idea’, Laurence Levine, Humanism Today, Volume 6, 1991, p 166
  4. Herbert Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for sustainable urban living, Gaia books, 1996
  5. ‘In contrast to Japanese architecture, which merges with nature and favours continuity with the natural surroundings ’, Kurokawa thought ‘European architecture stands in opposition to nature and emphasizes its own independence and separateness.’ ‘The West, Conqueror and Domesticator of Nature’ in Chapter Ten, The Symbiosis of Man and Nature, of Philosophy and Symbiosis, viewed on 20 December 2004. Girardet may also have been interested in the concept of ‘social metabolism’, which features in Karl Marx’s early works, meaning man’s exchange with nature through labour (Grundrisse, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, p 489, 705; Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1981, p 86, 95) as contrasted with the metamorphosis of goods in exchange. In Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling’s translation of Capital, the term was changed to the less loaded ‘social circulation of matter’ (Moscow, Progress, 1974, p 106). But even the original anti-capitalist had a more optimistic view of agri-business than Girardet: ‘Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.’ Grundrisse, p 705.
  6. City Limits (2000) report by consultants Best Foot Forward, for the Greater London Authority
  7. Lester Brown, ‘Feeding Nine Billion’, Brown, L and Flavin (eds) State of the World Atlas, London, Earthscan, 1999, p 120-1
  8. Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities, Gaia Books, London, 1996, p 86
  9. Girardet, Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefing 2, Fox Hole, Green Books, 1999, p 33
  10. See II Rubin, A History of Economic Thought, London, Pluto Press, 1989, for an account of the Physiocrats
  11. Girardet, Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefing 2, Fox Hole, Green Books, 1999, p 12
  12. Girardet, Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefing 2, Fox Hole, Green Books, 1999, p 14
  13. BedZed brochure, Peabody Trust, London, undated
  14. Paul Hyett, ‘If sustainability isn’t a moral imperative, what is?’, in Abley and Heartfield, Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, John Wiley, London, 2002, p 30
  15. ‘New Towns or New Villages’, in Girardet (ed), Land for the People, Crescent Books, London, 1976, p 99
  16. Office for National Statistics, Britain 2000, London, HMSO, p 446
  17. Herbert Girardet and John Seymour, Far from Paradise – the story of human impact on the environment, Marshall Pickering, Green Print, 1988, p 152
  18. Herbert Girardet and John Seymour, Far from Paradise – the story of human impact on the environment, Marshall Pickering, Green Print, 1988, p 149
  19. Britain 2000, HMSO, p.463, and above
  20. ‘Overview: A Quarter Century by Herbert Girardet’, Resurgence 201, July/August 2000
  21. P’eng Shu-tse, The Chinese Communist Party in Power, New York, Monad, 1980, p 290
  22. ‘New Towns or New Villages?’, in Girardet (ed) Land for the People, London, Crescent Books, 1976, p 105
  23. Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, London, Abacus, 2002, p 238
  24. ‘Overview: A Quarter Century’, Resurgence 201, July/August 2000
  25. ‘Overview: A Quarter Century’, Resurgence 201, July/August 2000
  26. Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, London, Abacus, 2002, p 244
  27. ‘Overview: A Quarter Century’, Resurgence 201, July/August 2000
  28. Herbert Girardet (ed) Land for the People, Crescent Books, London, 1976, p110
  29. Herbert Girardet, Cities People Planet, London, John Wiley, 2004, p 7
  30. Herbert Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities, p 13
  31. Herbert Girardet, Cities People Planet, London, John Wiley, 2004, p 116

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© 2004·06

Perhaps Orwell himself was the first of these people when he moved to Islington in the 1940s. The movement really started….with the colonisation of the western side of Camden Town…. Then they went steadily eastwards, across Camden, into Islington, Lower Holloway and Barnsbury. Now they are working in a pincer movement south of the Thames, through New Cross, Camberwell, Clapham and Battersea.
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