Writing about trees

A new planning application has been submitted by New City Vision, who want to build 100 “owner-occupied units” on what is currently the North Kelvin Meadow. This is a very upsetting prospect–one that has informed much of my writing here to date–but one that had, until this re-submission, been indefinitely delayed. At the same, the Children’s Wood has submitted an alternative proposal to retain the space as a community woodland, which provides a concrete, infinitely more hopeful vision of ‘development’. While the period for submitting formal representations to the Glasgow City Council has passed, it is not too late to write to politicians. More information about the campaign to save the meadow can be found at the following two addresses.



In the process of writing my objection to NCV’s application, I was struck by how my feelings about plants and trees do not really count in the course of such decisions. You can write about about biodiversity, and the health benefits of having access to open green space, but you can’t say “It makes me happy and hopeful to walk down my street and hear birds singing.” Or at least, it is hard to imagine this getting discussed in the course of the City Council’s deliberations.

Nonetheless, I think the way plants make us feel can tell us a lot about the places we live, and our ways of being together in the city. So I have been experimenting with other ways of writing about plants, trying to make them, and my feelings about them, speak of larger questions and circumstances. This is an excerpt from a larger piece, in process, about trees in the city.

Five moments in the life of an abandoned playing field

Briefly, a pond. A homemade, old-carpet-lined pond: about five metres long, kidney-shaped and ringed by salvaged concrete, bricks and rocks. A pond of murky water that kids threw rocks and dirt into, and which kept draining out. An invitation for self-righteous grumbling by parents of small children; an attestation to the lack of consensus. A modestly audacious, some say misguided, but most importantly, unselfconscious experiment in urban design.

An empty, debris-filled, old-carpet-lined hole where there used to be a pond. An argument for oversight, better communication. A large, or at least, quite visible mistake.

A partial re-filling of the hole. No more carpet, rocks or bricks.  A somewhat magical, somewhat upsetting transplantation not of saplings, but juvenile trees—birch trees, ash and a small oak tree, dug out from other locations around the meadow and arranged in a friendly, slightly haphazard cluster, as if by a giant child playing at forest-making.

The trees drop yellowed leaves. They stand, nearly bare, in and around the partially filled hole where the pond was, markers for a graveyard of foolish intentions. “What a waste.” The trees here are born of neglect, and suffer both experimental violence (by young boys) and the threat of future violence (by development). We both mourn and resent the loss of these ones, neither broken nor burned.

But spring brings a surprise so profound it takes a while to fully register: buds, and then leaves on three of the trees. There they stand, amongst the grasses that have taken over the old pond hole, bolstered by little mounds of protective rocks at the base, so thin and vulnerable and yet alive, undeniably green. It seems a small miracle, but it is better than that: the gift of being wrong, of discovering that the world has more to offer than you supposed. These trees, once signs of naivety and recklessness, now speak in a much more mysterious way.

#northkelvinmeadow #urbanmeadow #openhearts

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collective gardening in an age of social media

The snowdrops and crocuses are up here in Glasgow which means that true spring is somewhere not too far around the corner. For me, a sometimes gardener who is also a working mother without a permanent job, it is both too soon (since I haven’t acquired let alone started any seeds), and never soon enough (after 5 months of cold, damp greyness). One way or the other though, it has got me thinking about gardening, and in particular about the small collective garden in the North Kelvin Meadow (NKM) that I helped to care for last summer.

Still some edible sprouts under there. #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons #wintergarden

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This is a garden that, though modest in its ambitions, suffered a series of organizational and logistical problems–all of which were exacerbated by the lack of regularly present volunteers. As one of the facilitators for the garden, I was undoubtedly part of the problem. I struggled to be available to participate in work sessions on a regular basis, to keep the garden watered in some fashion through the summer’s improbable (and for many Glaswegians, scarcely conceivable) drought, and to contribute to the group’s Facebook page. Then I went away for a month (which unfortunately roughly coincided with the departure of the other two facilitators). Needless to say, while we did well with the peas, greens and brussels sprouts, the garden did not produce quite as bountifully as it could have under more consistent care.


Such gardens normally survive their early days on the backs of a few hard-working volunteers who are sufficiently invested in its success to give it inordinate amounts of time and energy. Other volunteers may come and go, but such a project continues as long as those key organizers do. I would dearly love to be one of those people for the NKM garden, and in fact, for certain stretches of last season I was, but I couldn’t keep it up: it brought extra stress to my family life, and after I injured my back, physical discomfort. But this post is not supposed about me, or rather, not only me–because I am surely not the first volunteer gardener to come up short on time.

The troubles with this garden are important, since they speaks to circumstances that are increasingly common, and increasingly normalized. In times of increasing austerity measures and decreasing opportunity, where people are required to work more and more, and at the same time make do with less (renumeration, health care, job security, etc.), they don’t have the time or the energy to work on the kinds of projects that might make their lives and the lives of others better. Consequently, not only is the number of volunteers available for collective garden projects declining, but the skills necessary for their organization are also in short supply. After all, who has time for developing interpersonal relationships, let alone a group process anymore – it’s all about getting something–anything–done with the resources available.

My question as I contemplate my involvement with the garden this season, is how it might be made to respond to these circumstances without simply mirroring them. That is, how can it be made to function effectively (as a community resource and creative space) without overworking its key volunteers? How can we have something we want and need, but pay less dearly for it? In this context, and because it has been part of my ‘job’ over the last couple of years to think about the relationship between visual social media, plants and place, I have been wondering whether community gardeners (and other grassroots organizers) might learn something from social media.

In posing this question, I don’t mean that what we need is more, or better, social media. As much as people are happy to ‘like’ grassroots social endeavours and voluntary organizations on Facebook, it hasn’t done much in our case for actually getting people out to the garden. It is more because, as Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey have observed, the success of social (and other, similarly ‘evil’) media is based to a large extent, on its exploitation of otherwise wasted time–the moments where people have nothing better to do, or when they are too tired or bored to do ‘real’ work. Checking your news feed, liking a photograph, tweeting–these social actions fit into the cracks of the everyday, making life a bit more interesting and enabling the maintenance of otherwise severely compromised social relations. I am just wondering if a collective garden could be made and maintained using a similar strategy?

To the ears of serious gardeners and garden-philosophers alike, this may be a somewhat shocking proposition (because gardening is one of the quintessentially ‘slow’ human endeavours, is founded on relations of care, and so on). But my reasons for making it are serious: part of what makes collective gardening such a socially and politically empowering experience is its requirement that the people involved create and find ways of sustaining the relationships necessary to the garden’s survival and effective use. Except in situations where a garden is administered and provided with funding by a larger organization, the solutions to the myriad practical, organizational and interpersonal problems that arise in the course of collective gardening projects do not exist prior to the involvement of those who make and care for it. When time is in short supply, are we therefore to give up on the creation of gardens altogether? I am suggesting that changing times may inspire a new form of garden, and new kinds of social relation to sustain it.

To give an example, the kind of tactics I am thinking of here pertain mainly to an expansion of the possible occasions for gardening work. What if volunteer gardeners were encouraged to complete tasks in the garden in a more piecemeal fashion and at times that worked best with their schedule–on the way home from work for example, or as a short activity to undertake with young children? If information could be provided that was adequate to coordinate such contributions (perhaps a rather large ‘if’)–utilizing for example, an updated version of the community notice board, complete with garden plan, ‘to-do’ list and QR codes that link to appropriate instructional Youtube videos–then it might become easier for certain time-pressed gardeners to make a contribution. It would also change what is entailed by ‘collective’, putting a greater emphasis on communication processes, and less on physically being together.


I think it is an open question as to whether this would be a worthwhile trade-off (less time together, but potentially, a better-cared for garden and healthier volunteers). It might also lead to mistakes on behalf of less experienced gardeners, an unevenness in the pace of work, and failures to respond to changing conditions (a garden needs watering when it’s dry, after all, which may be long before someone finds the time for it). But at least in our case, where attendance at work sessions was highly variable last year, these risks are present already. More important to me, is how the processes of experimentation and refinement to make such an arrangement function effectively would offer insight into the changing social and communicative possibilities that a garden offers in an age of social media. How might the identity of ‘gardener’ change, when gardening is something you do on the way home from work? Can people still feel they are part of something bigger than themselves if they don’t spend time with the other human beings who are helping to make it happen? Perhaps most importantly, such an experiment affords the opportunity to articulate more clearly what is in danger of being lost, and to identify strategies for re-inventing the political potential that collective gardens have held in the past.

Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 4

This post has been a long time coming, and some things have happened in the meantime that have caused me to re-think what I should call the second landscape value I want to articulate. It seems worthwhile nonetheless to start from my original thinking, since the limitations I now see in it are themselves instructive.


Tree decoration encountered in the Children’s Wood. Photo from my Instagram experiment (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow)

I wanted to write about the value of ‘landscape sovereignty’, and by this I meant to highlight the surprising and bewildering qualities of neglected and unregulated landscapes. I was thinking in particular of the way different areas of the North Kelvin Meadow (particularly the Children’s Wood) change on an almost daily basis, such that any visit is likely to turn up new objects, structures and other interventions in the landscape–the intentions of which are sometimes clear (as with the addition of new gardens, ‘bug hotels’, birdhouses etc.) and sometimes not.  Overall, the frequency and the variety of these interventions turn the meadow into a vibrant as well as unpredictable and sometimes bewildering space of inscription. It is maximally inclusive of active participation in its shaping. The legibility of this inclusiveness makes it a welcoming place for a variety of experimental, marginal and sometimes illegal activities. I see the majority of these in terms of the provision of creative, safe spaces for people and activities that are not welcome or don’t have as free reign elsewhere. (Of course, this inclusivity also makes the meadow susceptible to destructive activities; I would guess that as many trees have been removed, burned or otherwise damaged as have been planted there over the last year.) Perhaps even more important, a diverse and open-ended space of inscription enables explorations similar to those described with respect to the value of visual density, but pertaining to the social dimensions of wilderness. They also invite further participation in the shaping of the landscape–even if that often ends up being preoccupied with repairing the damage caused by others.

I still believe all these things are true and important, and would attribute them equally to the woods at Kilmahew (perhaps especially the ruined seminary, which has been a pilgrimage site for graffiti artists, ravers and arsonists since its closure in the mid 1980s). Except that now a massive rhododendron removal is underway there and the landscape has been so thoroughly and violently altered, that the idea of it possessing any sovereignty seems painfully naive.

I think the mistake is in attributing the qualities I have observed and value to the landscape itself–as if it were something essential or enduring, when in reality, landscapes such as Kilmahew and the NK meadow are only circumstantially (and usually temporarily) sovereign. In most ways, their specific qualities and local significance are much more tenuous than those of a well-established and regulated landscape (though these too can be vulnerable to economic pressures, as the proposed sell-off of Glasgow’s Victoria Park demonstrates). There are so many reasons for this vulnerability that I feel slightly embarrassed about wanting to write about landscape ‘sovereignty’. However, there is something in this wish that seems worth excavating.

I think the effect or impression of sovereignty signals something important, something to do with the relations that shape a landscape while it remains unregulated. Perhaps another way of reading inclusivity is in terms of instability and indeterminancy. The ‘community’ that coalesces around use of the meadow could be accused of not knowing what it wants, just as the state of the woods at Kilmahew was seen, not to constitute but to obscure the landscape. In other words, part of what is legible in such landscapes, is the ongoing failure–or more positively, the struggle to appear–of those relationships and ways of working that might shape and care for landscapes in ways that are different from those implied in top-down processes of design and regulation. From this perspective, there is no sovereignty of landscape, just different degrees of openness and indeterminancy in the relations implicated therein.

So while I no longer think it makes sense to write of ‘landscape sovereignty’, the ongoing event of its simulation, through more-than-human social processes and investments that are contextual in the extreme, is of great interest and value in itself. What can we learn from such landscapes about the circumstances of social change and the constraints on sustained innovation? From this perspective, between a simulated sovereignty and visual density (which, due to some of the long term side-effects of unrestrained growth is perhaps equally tenuous), neglected and unregulated landscapes start to have a pedagogic or social scientific value. Recognizing this value is perhaps less a question of aesthetic appreciation and more one of social learning and experimentation.

Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 3

The value I want to describe in this post (in a very preliminary fashion), is that associated with the quality or effect of visual ‘density’. I oppose this value to that of clarity or transparency, which is often an orienting one in public landscapes–not only for the sake of facilitating different aspects of its use, but also for security reasons (since a fully ‘legible’ landscape makes people who are using it in ways other than its ‘intended’ use easy to identify… and monitor or apprehend).

Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross

Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross

These are landscapes wherein ‘the more you look, the more you see’. They tend to contain a relative abundance–or at least, a more complicated layering–of vegetative material, and also to be relatively free of external control (though not necessarily intervention). This does not however, presume diversity or complexity: a well-designed garden can present a diverse range of species, and produce complex visual effects, while also making everything clearly available to view. It is rather the number of plants, their form and growth habit, as well as the style of their juxtaposition with other elements, that produce effects of visual density. 

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility

As a value, visual density is associated with specific circumstances, practices of appreciation and experiences. I treat each of these in turn (briefly, in broad brush strokes) as a way of elaborating its importance more clearly.

Processes and circumstances producing visual density. Although I can’t claim any scientific authority in this regard, it would seem to me that, in circumstances where conditions are conducive (i.e., most importantly, adequate rainfall) all that is required to produce multiple layers of vegetative growth and an attendant density, is the passage of time, and the lack of external control over those processes. Of course some plants produce such effects much more quickly than others (e.g., the twisted, horizontal growth habits of Rhododendron), but growth in general tends to obstruct vision the more it proceeds unchecked.


Appreciating visual density. In order to really see a landscape that has overgrown, you have to look more closely and more actively. Not only is a comprehensive survey from any combination of vantage points impossible, the visual quality of density stands in opposition to the model of vision implied in the survey (that everything can be made available to sight, more or less instantaneously): it foregrounds the impossibility of ever seeing everything, let alone at once, and in so doing, exposes the artificiality of any landscape that offers as much. In an overgrown landscape, where the foreground seems a tangled, disorganized mess, the question of interest is not, ‘how does it look?’ but ‘what did you find?’ In other words, things have to be noticed in order to be seen, which implies an active engagement as opposed to a more passive reception of views.

Experiences of density. A landscape that is visually dense or deep is one whose contents cannot be quickly assessed. Such landscapes frequently make people uncomfortable, especially in urban settings, where, as research in environmental psychology has shown, people often fear that excessive growth conceals persons or activities that are in some way dangerous. However, to the extent that such fears can be allayed–e.g., by visiting the landscape in the company of others–a visually dense landscape can feel wild or mysterious in a positive way, producing an experience of heightened awareness, which can be invigorating and is certainly rare, especially in cities. At the same time, by inviting different practices of looking, it provides an opportunity to experience the pleasures of discovery, and to practice noticing and identifying different plant and animal species, or the traces of natural processes and human intervention. As will be appreciated by anyone who has attempted to weed an overgrown garden, or locate particular species of plant in the wild, these activities require a perceptual attunement which it takes time and sustained effort to develop.


Kilmahew woods, Cardross: a landscape where the lost and forgotten are found over and over again, but never returned

Ultimately the question that remains unanswered here, is how we might elevate such values–which suggest gentler, more inclusive and more enchanted ways of relating to urban landscapes–to a greater social and cultural prominence? Aestheticization of visually dense landscapes, via photography, urban nature writing and so on, is one avenue. But in the highly mediatized city, where communication seems to be more and more event-based–whether as ‘news’ in a conventional or social media sense–I wonder if it there is a need to develop more direct, performative strategies. I am just at the beginning of thinking about what those might be; in the meantime, you can see/follow my little Instagram experiment…


A footnote on landscape ‘values’

As I work through this train of thought (see previous posts on “valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes”), I realize some clarification of what I mean by ‘value’ is in order.

I want ‘value’ to encompass both specific aesthetic effects or qualities of landscape and the broader socio-economic and cultural relations implicated in them. For example, bright colours (or, at least, highly contrasting colours) are highly valued in contemporary urban gardens and landscapes. This is something that is easy to take for granted, but the horticultural valuation of colour and contrast is historically specific and has shaped not only trends of garden design, but the selection of species in cultivation by growers (though, admittedly, there is historical research still to be done to convincingly establish this claim). It is also associated with a preference in certain contexts (e.g., municipal, corporate, institutional) for annual (as opposed to perennial) plant species, which tend to require more water and chemical fertilizers than perennial species, and entail more waste (e.g., in the form of the plastic ‘cell packs’ in which they are sold). At the same time, colourful flowers and highly contrasting foliage are highly amenable to being photographed, which enables them to be incorporated in a broader visual culture (e.g., in lifestyle magazines, calendars, coffee table books and so on) that in turn helps to reinforce preferences for particular horticultural qualities and forms. Thus, as a landscape value, bright colour is reciprocally related to specific historical and socio-economic circumstances–its predominance is problematic because its suppression of other possibilities has much broader implications.

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

In this context, the search for and elaboration of alternative landscape values is a way of pursuing environmental and social change through cultural means. Or, to put that another way, of making landscape appreciation more critical. What are the qualities and effects associated with processes and circumstances that are environmentally beneficial and socially creative? I think that answering this question is a strategy for orienting intervention and communication in support of a greater diversity of landscape forms, uses and design processes in cities.

Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 2

photoI promised in the last post to write about some of the more ephemeral, hard-to-specify values of landscapes such as Kilmahew and the North Kelvin Meadow. This is still to come, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share my representation to the Glasgow City Council over the development that is proposed for the meadow in the new City Development Plan. An attempt to specify the unspecifiable… for planners!





“As a postdoctoral researcher in human geography, who also happens to live across the street from the Meadow, I have both personal and professional reasons to value this space in its current state, and to oppose the development proposed for it. I describe these reasons in more detail below.


My family uses the meadow on a regular basis for multiples purposes; it gives us all great pleasure to spend time there, and as new arrivals to Glasgow, has been the single most important avenue through which we have come to feel at home here. A partial list of things we can do in the meadow and would not be able to do elsewhere includes:

 social activities: picnics with family and friends; regular interactions with known neighbours, meeting other people in the neighbourhood

urban agriculture: vegetable gardening (we have an allotment and help with the new community beds); composting of our fruit and vegetable scraps

cultural and educational activities: attend a variety of family-friendly cultural events (e.g., storytelling, film screenings, puppet shows, concerts, parades and much more; Saturday morning outdoor learning club; exploratory play and nature education with our toddler

physical rejuvenation: the open and semi-wild character of the meadow makes time spent there relaxing as well as invigorating

Living across the street from the meadow is literally the best thing about living in Glasgow as far as we are concerned. The last item on the list (exploratory play and nature education) is particularly important to me as a mother. Though my daughter enjoys a good play park as much as any toddler, she is at her most imaginative when we go to the meadow: creating spaces in the Children’s Wood where she can act out whatever scenario she dreams up, wandering through the long grass, hiding under shrubs, playing in the willow hut, and so on. It is exactly what she needs after her more structured day at nursery. In the course of these explorations, I am able to show her different plants and bugs, help her to identify the sounds of birds, and smell different flowers and herbs. Not only is this an educational opportunity not easily replicated in more manicured urban spaces, it amounts to very high quality time for us, since she can safely lead me where she pleases (without worrying about bicycles on the bike path, or getting lost in a crowd of people at the botanic garden, for example).

Our enjoyment of the meadow as a green space has also led me to become actively involved in caring for it, which has in turn generated friendships, and participation by our family in different organized activities (e.g., composting, litter clean-ups, community gardening). I discuss the importance of these activities further below, but for now emphasize that this attachment to, and active participation in, the meadow has been crucial to us feeling happy, connected and at home in our new city.


There are two major kinds of benefit that I observe in the Meadow in its current state:

Biodiversity in-process. As a playing field unused for 30 years or so, the Meadow represents a unique site of ecological change. Here it is possible to observe biodiversity in process: as something that is still happening to the site, and which can be enhanced through human intervention, rather than something already achieved by nature, and for which the only human contribution is protection. The cultural as well as environmental value of such sites has been documented in a number of scholarly works recommending a more pragmatic, creative approach to questions of biodiversity (see examples below). As a researcher interested in relations between human beings, plants and non-human processes of growth and change, I have spent much time exploring the meadow, and the possibilities for enhancing its biodiversity (particularly in vegetative forms). Some of this work has been documented in preliminary form on my blog: http://www.communicativelandscapes.wordpress.com and will be incorporated in future academic publications of a more formal nature. I can report from my investigations that many new plants (at least eight but probably more) can be added to those recorded on the plant survey conducted in 2011. The Meadow is a site that is increasing in quantity and diversity of plant life every season. Most of these plants have arrived on their own, but some of them have been planted by community members. For example, several species of fern were transplanted there by a colleague and I this past fall, as an experiment regarding the means of enhancing processes of naturalization and colonization already in process. These ferns currently reside in areas of high traffic in the Children’s Wood but are, nonetheless, thriving. I view the Meadow as a site for continuing research into how community members might take on activities of tending semi-wild urban spaces so as to maximize biodiversity while maintaining high social, recreational and educational value.

Social learning and innovation. There is a growing body of research in human geography and other disciplines of the social sciences that identifies the social importance of a contemporary ‘commons’: land and physical resources that are held in common among members of a given community, and managed collectively (see below for a couple of examples). Community managed allotment and collective gardens are a good example of such sites: through the process of figuring out how best to share collective resources, how to acquire support, resolve disputes and solve logistical problems, community members develop forms of social organization (not to mention friendships) that are valuable above and beyond the output of the gardens. A community that can manage its collective spaces is also one that can negotiate diversity, solve problems and provide support to its members in a variety of sustainable (because pragmatic and local) ways. Such spaces are particularly important in cities, where social ties are often otherwise challenged by cultural difference and mobility. I have recently started a dedicated Instagram account (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) as a means of documenting the changing landscape of the Meadow and its social and ecological vitality.

The North Kelvin Meadow is an excellent example of an urban commons. Not only has it become the focus of a variety of innovative, extremely well-attended cultural and environmentally educational events, sharing its use has provided community members the means to address both ongoing local problems (with litter, dog fouling and vandalism), and larger societal issues around physical fitness, food security, social isolation and environmental engagement. The kinds of connection people make while participating in projects and events associated with the meadow are thus both culturally innovative and socially sustaining in profound ways. What is important to emphasize, is that the majority of these activities, and the capacities they have helped to generate, would not be possible without the space of the Meadow. As geographers Lynn Staeheli and Don Mitchell argue in their recent book The People’s Property?, building and sustaining community requires a physical space proper to that community: in the case of the meadow, an open-ended, semi-natural space provides the perfect focus for environmental learning and social empowerment.


In summary, I believe the North Kelvin Meadow to be an extremely valuable urban amenity in its current, open, semi-wild state. From a personal perspective, my family and I make frequent and meaningful use of it. Were it to be developed into condos, we would likely move, and I don’t expect we would find another space to replace its role in our lives in the city. From a professional perspective, I see its rapidly increasing biodiversity and its social and cultural vibrancy as a highly valuable urban amenity that is unique to Glasgow, but currently unrecognized as such. In many ways, Glasgow is a very green city, but this is something that was a pleasant surprise to my husband and I upon moving here. We wondered why the City Council has not made more of its abundant green spaces, impressive bird population and numerous waterways in its promotion of the city to tourists as well as businesses and employees considering relocating here. With support, sites like the meadow could become one of the cultural and environmental innovations that Glasgow becomes known for—not just beautiful museums and innovative real estate developments, but also support of more grassroots initiatives, especially ones that display the more edgy, fun side of the city’s popular culture, and which set it apart from Edinburgh. That is the city that I see from the meadow, and one I am inspired to contribute to and care for, should it be allowed to prosper.”


(a creative, pragmatic approach to biodiversity):

Clément, Gilles. (2007). Le jardin en mouvement. 5th ed. Paris: Sens & Tonka.

Clément, Gilles (2006). “Working with (and never against) Nature.” In environ(ne)ment: manières d’agir pour demain / approaches for tomorrow, 90-103. Edited by Giovanna Borasi. Milano, Italy: Skira Editore.

Marris, Emma (2011). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.

(research on the social importance of present-day urban commons)

Eizenberg, E. (2011). Actually existing commons: Three moments of space of community gardens in New York City. Antipode 44 (3): 764-82.

Staeheli, L.A. & Mitchell, D. (2008). The People’s Property? Power, Politics, and the Public. Routledge.

Tornaghi, Chiara (2012). Public space, urban agriculture and the grassroots creation of new commons: lessons and challenges for policy makers. In André Viljoen and Johannes S.C. Wiskerke, Eds. Sustainable Food Planning: Evolving Theory and Practice pp. 349-64. The Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers.




Valuing unregulated and neglected landscapes, part 1

Activists and community members who campaigned to have the North Kelvin Meadow officially recognized as a community greenspace were disappointed to learn last week that Glasgow’s new city plan still designates it a building site, with plans for 100 owner-occupied units (i.e., condos) apparently going forward, to be completed in 2019. Comment (by anyone!) is invited through the city council’s specially designated channels up until 4 pm on June 27, 2014. I will undoubtedly have more to say about this before then, because I intend to be actively involved in resisting these developments, but for now want to record some thoughts about landscape aesthetics, and the kinds of value we invest in different landscape forms.


One of the transplanted Hart’s Tongue ferns, which seems to have survived the winter (despite being temporarily relocated by some local kids).

A lot of efforts to save sites such as the meadow from development tie the value of the land to other areas of social and cultural value – most commonly environmental and health benefits. I think this is in every way a valid – and sometimes very effective! – strategy. But I also wonder about a more culturally far-reaching approach; that is, to find ways of creating or nurturing values and sensibilities that are specific to the landscape forms we wish to protect, and that might in the long run, provide a more sustainable avenue for protection. How can we communicate or encourage the perception of beauty or other values in neglected or undesigned and community-tended landscapes?


The only primrose I have found so far growing in the meadow.

To say this is a big question is something of an understatement. Nonetheless, I have been thinking about it in relation to two of the sites I have written about here – not only the meadow but also Kilmahew-St. Peters. I have been thinking of ways to articulate what it is exactly about these sites that makes them so visually interesting, and so seemingly rich in social and cultural possibility. There are least two characteristics I have identified so far, and which I will write about separately. For now, I want to try and describe something much more global and ephemeral–something which is not really at all visual. Or rather, is extra-visual.


Former Japanese Garden, Kilmahew-St.Peters

Kilmahew is an abandoned country estate at Cardross containing ruins from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, but which has been largely left to its own devices since the early 1980s. This is when the St. Peters seminary–a rather spectacular incongruity within the landscape–was closed. There are lots of interesting things going on, or about to be going on here, but more important to me right now, it is a good example of a certain kind of landscape–one that has something in common with the meadow, even though it is in many ways quite different (i.e., rural, ruinous and relatively unused). I want to spend the next few posts working through what exactly that something might be, and why it is important.

I have never been to Kilmahew alone, but somehow, that is what it reminds me of: it looks like I feel when I go on a walk or a long run in the woods on my own. The beauty you find there seems to me an offspring of the same basic but very rare freedom. While I am gone, nobody can make plans for me, or object to the route I take or whether I want to stop for a rest; it is ok if I get lost. A bit threatening and lonely at the same time that it is beautiful, this is a landscape that doesn’t have to answer to people’s expectations, that is allowed to fail. A place where everyone, therefore, can be forgiven, or accepted.

Though the meadow in contrast to Kilmahew, is a very socially active space, it also has a kind of openness or looseness that implies acceptance. Are there specific characteristics or processes that enable and sustain this quality? If so, we need a new vocabulary for describing and valuing them – a psychosomatics or ecosophy (in Guattari, not Naess’ sense) of landscape that acknowledges the bodily and political dimensions of landscape aesthetics. I don’t think we have always needed this; these are not universal human needs to which I refer, but historically specific ones. In a world where, even in rich, so-called developed countries, there seems to be less and less (time, space, love) to go around, and more and more regulations to follow, standards to be met, etc., we need landscapes that show us beauty in failure and imperfection. We need values that pertain to a quality of process and experience, as well as of outcomes and appearances.


Bridge to nowhere, Kilmahew-St. Peters

How can we identify the aesthetics that go along with and help to nurture such values? This is what I will attempt to work through in my next two posts.