Back To The Land 2.0
: A Design Agenda For Bioregions, by John Thackara


Amazing essay from the sustainability thinker John Thackara, about the bioregion as the new “big story” for organising communities to respond to climate breakdown. It is full of concrete examples, whose links we will be profiling in the next few weeks, but for now his overview and conclusions are stirring enough:

We are cognitively impaired by a rift between our culture and the earth. Paved surfaces, and pervasive media, shield us from direct experience of the damage our actions inflict on soils, oceans, air, and forests. A unique epoch of energy and resource abundance added zest to a story of growth, and progress and development, that put the interests of ‘the economy’ above all other concerns

The comforting narrative of perpetual growth has now hit biophysical and financial constraints – and we all feel it. Only 15% of the global population feel that the system is working and ecoanxiety—the feeling of impending environmental doom—afflicts populations on a global scale.

This is why post-truth’ politics should be described as pre-truth politics. In this time between stories, populists have picked up on our justified anxiety – but divert our attention from the root but invisible causes of our predicament. It’s easier to blame a Muslim, than entropy.

But a new picture is now emerging in myriad projects around the world.Their core value is stewardship, not extraction. Growth, in this story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.  Care for place – not money, and not GDP – is the ultimate measure of value.

These seedlings are inspiring to behold – but something more is needed to effect the system change we yearn for: a shared purpose, that diverse groups people can relate to, and support, whatever their other differences.

Bioregion: a story that reconnects

A strong candidate for that connective idea is the bioregion. A bioregion re-connects us with living systems, and each other, through the places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

Bioregions are not just geographical places; they also embody the inter-connection of our minds, and and nature’s, at a molecular, atomic and hormonal level. A bioregion repairs the unity of mind and world, that has been fractured by modernity. 

A bioregion, in this sense, is literally and etymologically a ‘life-place’, in Robert Thayer’s words, that is definable by natural rather than political or economic boundaries. Its geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological qualities – its metabolism – can be the basis for meaning and identity because they are unique.

Growth, in a bioregion, is redefined as improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. And because its core value is stewardship, not extraction, a bioregion frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now.

….Reconnecting with our bioregion is not about leaving home to live in a yurt. For most of us, it it means re-connecting with the land and biodiversity  in the places where we live now – but in new ways.  These can involve social farming, place-based development, and learning journeys.

In a series of xskool workshops called #BackToTheLand2.0 we brought local actors together to ask: What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? What are the opportunities for  this city-region? How night one design in them?

We discovered that a rich diversity of city-rural connections is emerging. These include: Maker networks; grain and fiber ecosystems; outdoor and land-based learning; adventure tourism, sport science, mixed-reality gaming; ecological restoration; civic ecology; farmer-city connections; learning journeys: and the reinhabitation of abandoned  of rural communities.

We learned that myriad new ways for urban people to re-connect with the land are emerging: Ways that are part-time, but long-term; ways that involve an exchange of value, not just paying money; ways to share knowledge, land, and equipment in new ways; ways based on historical links between town and country – but reinvented in an age of networks and social innovation.

Designers and artists, we saw, can contribute to bioregional development in various ways. Maps of the bioregion’s ecological and social assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity.

The collaborative monitoring of living systems needs to be designed – together with feedback channels. New service platforms are needed to help people to share resources of all kinds – from land, to time.  Novel forms of governance must also be designed to enable collaboration among diverse groups of people.

Another large topic, simply stated: What would a bioregion look like, and feel like, to its citizens, and visitors?

None of these actions means designers acting alone; their role is as much connective, as creative. But in creating objects of shared value – such as an atlas, a plan, or a meeting – the design process can be a powerful way to foster collaboration among geographers, ecologists, economists, planners, social historians, writers, artists and other citizens.

More here. And for another take on designing entire bioregions, see Joe Brewer’s article from Medium.