During the 1990s in Britain, a new kind of grassroots environmental awareness developed, leading to the promotion of Low Impact Development in the countryside. Manifest most vividly in the makeshift camps that were built to resist the building of new roads, such as the Newbury Bypass, Low Impact Development was not only an anti-capitalist strategy concerned with reversing the exploitation of nature for over consumption, but also a direct response to the need for low-cost housing as well as developing a more holistic way of living in communities that embrace the personal as well as the political. The Landmatters community that has grown up on 42 acres of land in southwest Devon since a group of people bought the land in 2003 exemplifies how this ideal of Low Impact Development has been realised in the longer term. After a protracted series of clashes with the local planning authorities, and two temporary permissions granted, the site was finally given permanent planning permission in April 2016.
Landmatters currently consists of 10 adults and 10 children and is based around the implementation at all levels of living of the values of permaculture, that is ‘a holistic, integrated practice that can build functioning sustainable alternatives that balance the needs of nature with the needs of humans’. Although popularly understood as a sustainable system of growing food, permaculture has in fact a much broader remit. It is rooted in efforts to live lightly on the planet and to ensure that human activities in the future will be in harmony with nature. Such a broad remit means that all human activities are implicated and architecture especially so, as architecture originates and grows out of human dwelling. At Landmatters, as at many of the other eco-communities that now exist in Britain, the majority of the eight dwellings that were originally constructed were benders. Inspired by their earlier use in protest camps, such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981-2000), benders are low-tech houses made from branches of trees that are pushed into the ground and bent and interwoven to form a canopy which is then covered with canvas and other materials. Because Landmatters is an off-grid community, the benders are powered by a combination of photo-voltaic panels and wind turbines. Over time, the benders have been reinforced to include windows and doors and each is heated by a wood-burning stove.
Since permanent planning permission was granted in 2016, more ambitious structures have been built, including a cob roundhouse and a straw-bale home with a steeply-pitched timber roof. All of the structures are built as low-impact dwellings, principally as a result of the terms of the planning permission granted, but also reflecting the ideals of permaculture. Benders, cob and straw-bale structures have both marginal visual presence in the landscape, compared with conventional buildings, and are also close to nature through the materials they’re built out of. Where possible, building materials have been sourced from renewable resources or salvaged from skips and other waste dumps. Here, there is no fabrication of materials, rather a making do with what is at hand and a concern with being able to replace what one has taken from the earth.
This conscious forsaking of more developed architectural technologies of building might seem romantic to some – an architecture for Luddites perhaps. Yet its radical eschewal of sophistication means that the buildings are intimately wedded to the needs and desire of their occupiers: as one resident put it, her home is an extension of the self, rather like a second skin. There’s also a strongly didactic purpose in such architecture – it’s meant to inspire others to do the same; and education forms a key part of the work that occupies the residents of Landmatters. Yet it’s not the replication of the structures themselves that is being promoted here but rather the wider ethos of permaculture applied holistically to every aspect of human life. Linked via the internet to a whole network of communities both near and far, Landmatters keys in closely with the Transition Network movement that is based in the nearby town of Totnes and the more recent Extinction Rebellion movement, founded in 2018. According to the founder of Transition Network, Rob Hopkins, this movement seeks to scale up the idea of permaculture to the level of towns and cities by arguing for a much more joined-up way of thinking about urban development. But it does this by bringing the focus back to the local level, clawing back urban space for greater popular control and common ownership from market forces and the state.
With thousands of initiatives in over 50 countries, Transition Network has grown exponentially from its humble origins in a small market town, but it has still yet to fully embrace cities – and particularly the rising number of global megacities – as part of its wider vision of permaculture. For that to happen, the local must be able to key into the global, without losing the holistic vision of permaculture. The challenge is to imagine how the micro-level permaculture of communities like Landmatters might be scaled up to the level of a city – not a literal translation of either their structures or lifestyles but rather a much broader application of their holistic ‘green’ vision to the sheer diversity of activities that go on in cities. If Landmatters show us how to build homes and grow food in sustainable ways, how might the same ideals be applied to the construction industry, banking, mass transit systems, catering, retail, schools, parks, libraries, religious life, culture, museums, digital communications, and so on and so on?