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The future is in the edgelands

Kate Swade

A couple of weeks ago in Birmingham, we convened an event on #PeriUrbanFutures. Kate reflects on the day and thinks about what’s next for the future productive use of the Edgelands

 

The night before our PeriUrbanFutures event on the 20th November, I had a sudden flash of concern that I’d got slightly carried away. Buoyed by post maternity leave enthusiasm about #solarpunk visions of the future, I’d asked five experts to come along to an event on the issues relating to productive use of land on the edges of towns and cities, transport themselves to 2050, and in a measly 5 minutes, lay out a vision for peri-urban land use in the future. Surely this was a recipe for over-long, technical presentations?

We had a hypothesis that that there was not enough focus on the productive potential of peri-urban and greenbelt land for food growing and woodland management (as opposed to the debate on building houses in the greenbelt), and that it was a particular “sweet spot” for land based social enterprises. We were keen to test this and see if there was interest in working to create some different and more sustainable “peri-urban futures”. We had invited a mixture of land-based social entrepreneurs, woodlanders, food growers, planners and policy professionals. Would they even have a common language to talk to each other in?

I needn’t have worried. ImpactHub Birmingham was an ideal setting for a day of big visions and practical discussions. We kicked off with Sarah Williams from Sustain’s big vision of a peri-urban farm linked to each London Borough – highlighting the importance of context and connection, a theme that repeatedly came up through the day.

Next, Andy Reeve from Impact Hub Birmingham and DemoDev, talked about his vision for growing communities by literally growing the trees locally to construct houses – bypassing the monopolies of the big six housebuilders and unleashing the creativity of communities to build the homes they need.

Faith Pearson from the GLUE Collective (Growing and Learning in Urban Environments) talked about the importance of land for play and recreation – reminding us that children will find wonderful ways to make creative use of spaces, and of the importance of just getting on and doing stuff.

Paul Miner from CPRE then talked about the importance of the greenbelt in policy terms, and about CPRE’s vision for an expanded, better protected greenbelt, with more farming and food production. He highlighted that greenbelt areas have broadly similar land uses to non-greenbelt peri-urban areas.

Finally Julian Thompson, Shared Assets own digital coordinator, talked about the role of technology in land use (including our LandExplorer platform!) and how that will change, particularly with the impending soil fertility crisis and the increase in the use of artificial intelligence in growing settings.

 

We had an afternoon of world cafe discussions and workshops, the last half centering around three key questions:

How can we create a popular culture of land use?

Why should, and how can, Local Authorities and Local Economic Partnerships support Peri Urban productive land use?

How can we widen access to land for productive peri-urban land use?

Lots of ideas were generated, with some clear key themes emerging. The importance of ownership, of both understanding who owns something currently, and the potential and power of common or community ownership. The political nature of these kind of discussions, and of the need to recognise that other fundamental things like the voting system might need to change in order to create a new land system. The importance of narratives – of making land use more relevant to people. And the need for the planning system to take a more regional approach (again!), and to consider making plans for a longer period of time. Many of these ideas resonate strongly with the debates happening within CtrlShift, a coalition of organisations and individuals looking at how can relocalise control over our economy, democracy and resources.  

A key reflection is that we are at a moment of potential change and opportunity. The “policy & public debate is shifting our way”, as one participant put it, with the need for social value and public goods being more widely recognised. Could the vaunted “Shared Prosperity Fund” which will replace the EU structural funds after Brexit be one way of supporting a productive peri-urban future that creates shared benefits for all?

We’re going to continue working on these issues and will be convening further meetings to take some of these issues forward. Do get in touch with us at hello@sharedassets.org.uk if you’re interested in being part of the conversation.

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