2 letters on Modern urbanism

Land as a Common Asset

Dear Scott,

“Urban agriculture” may be an oxymoron, but it is a rather appealing one.
The best way to conceive of a possible synergy, or new balance, between these two spheres — agriculture and the urban — is to consider the former as a “shared” field. This would mean perceiving agriculture as a surplus value to be added to our built environment, one to be used to feed urban populations and animals.
However, we know that the reality of intensive urban agriculture varies around the world.

We know that our cities and metropolitan environments are surrounded by huge rings of monocultural cultivation lacking any kind of variety in the products they yield or a biodiversity of species.
These rings of cultivation are “grey” zones that should be understood as deserts, often existing only because their owners are planning to build on them sometime in the future.
So how might we start to imagine a new kind of peri-urban agriculture?

Might we start developing the perimeters of our cities with an intense and heterogenous mix of “agricoltural transformations into food” processes? Might we imagine this “0 km” environment as a shared landscape to be used by the very different urban populations comprising our contemporary metropolises?
And what kind of social landscape or social innovations might be needed in order to transform the oxymoron of “urban agriculture” into a productive condition with the potential to improve the lives of millions?



Dear Stefano,

This is such a great, thoughtful, probing question that it way too much for one person like me. It is a question to start a debate among the many from many territories.
You and Multiplicity are authors of Uncertain States of Europe but what you say speaks perhaps even more to China than to Europe. In China like in Italy, Germany, the UK what you mention is emerging in peri-urban areas. In China particularly exciting in this context is the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Here we draw on our old friend Ou Ning, Rural Reconstruction activist and director of the last but one Shenzhen Biennale.

I think the best way forward towards the sort of innovation you are thinking about is through some sort of “commons”, or common. Rural Reconstruction is an example of such a commons. We need innovation for the sort of urban agriculture you speak of to emerge. Usually we speak of innovation as taking place on the level of individual or of the firm. But at stake is some sort of social innovation.
This said, actually the innovation-economics of the firm, in Schumpeter’s framework, is quite useful. In this a firm draws on its past for a repertoire of problem-solving solutions to deal with new problems its environment. We can extend this model to the communities you are alluding to of small farmers and ex-urbanites: the communities at stake in China’s Rural Reconstruction.

Here farmers can draw on a collective memory, not of the large firm, but of community itself for such a repertoire of ways and means of dealing with the economic and natural environment. These ways and means are indeed forms of cultural and economic life. Italian farmers will have such a collective memory such a “hidden cultural and natural infrastructure’’ which is a cultural (and natural) infrastructure, they can draw on for such a repertoire of solutions.
In China an example of this is the “Well Field System”. The Well Field system stems from the Western Zhou Dynasty some three millennia ago. Fundamental in this is the shape of the Chinese character for well, that is jing (井). As you can see the character is divided into nine parts, corresponding to eight private fields and a common or public middle field. This middle shared field was to produce food for the large land-owning aristocrats or for the emperor, but it also as a shared field was a common. The well field system was revived under the Song Dynasty (the world’s first modernity) in the ideas of the neo-Confucian Zhang Zai. Thus the social-innovation commons that can counteract corporate agribusiness monoculture is a question of rural reconstruction. Which is also urban reconstruction.

The expansion of urban property developers, on the one hand, and agribusiness on the other is a question of land use and property. Here the ideas of Henry George later adapted by Sun Yat Sen are not a bad place to start. After many years of silence, China is experiencing a renaissance of Sun Yat Sen and his Three Principles of the People. Sun was influenced by George and his ideas can help us towards the peri-urbanism or peri-ruralism of the common, of natural and social common that you allude to. Because of demographics China more than anywhere is obsessed with preserving arable land from property developers. A Georgian land tax would do some of this. The time of future-build that you mention could be heavily taxed. This has to with the life of millions — with feeding them as well as providing (eco-sector) work for the young unemployed.

I like your idea of “surplus value” and “shared landscape”. In this sense Rural Reconstruction, like you, want to override the boundary between urban and rural to produce these sorts of peri-spaces. In the same sense architecture can add a built-environment surplus-value to the rural landscape. We need to ask the question though of what kind of value is at stake. This must be something other than neo-liberal exchange-value. It must be also a question of cultural value and natural value.

The value of anything is a matter of future yield or future use. Thus the cultural and natural value of this urban agriculture is about future generations. It is not based on a quick fix. Neo-liberal exchange value is based in a Newtonian time that is reversible. It is like a clock, this time of Newtonian mechanics. You can wind it forward and backwards and it does not matter. Both (collective) memory and future value disappear. This is the erasure of time, the erasure of the cultural and natural temporality of future generations of our bio-cultural urban agriculture.

For Slavoj Zizek the “symbolic” is the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology and neoliberal economics. What we should be reaching for is not this symbolic but instead the imaginary. By the imaginary I mean the social imaginary of remembered pasts of hidden infrastructures. It is the imaginary of anticipated and even utopian futures. The imaginary of dare I say, with Carl Schmitt (and Giorgio Agamben), eschatological futures. It is such a social imaginary that is at stake in the new agricultural peri-urbanism you suggest.

Your friend,