Anecdotally, at least, honey-bees are doing far better in cities like London than in the countryside, and so are foxes. I don’t think the abundance of foxes in cities is entirely due to their migration in search of Big Mac’s and KFC and nor can the thriving bee populations be attributed solely to a ready supply of flowers in parks and gardens – although these are certainly factors. There are many other animals and plants that are surviving better in towns and cities than they do in England’s greener and pleasanter lands. Kingfishers can be seen on London’s Regents Canal, otters have been spotted in several cities and there is growing support for the release of hungry lions to rewild parts of Westminster.
Clearly we can no longer equate wildlife with the countryside and a paucity of plants and animals with the bright lights of the cities, and two big parts of the problem are the industrial farming of our countryside and the creation of sterile housing estates on green field sites. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Transition Homes Community Land Trust has purchased 7 acres of farmland in the sensitive green belt between Totnes and the nearby village of Dartington where we plan to build 25 low carbon homes for local people in housing need. For six years we’ve been meeting in the offices of Transition Town Totnes and for the past two years we’ve had a list of guiding principles looking down on us from a poster on the wall. These principles are what we fall back on when we disagree or face difficult choices. Some of these principles come from the transition movement and some come from permaculture. Not surprisingly there is a lot of overlap.
Top of this list are the permaculture ethics of People Care, Earth Care and Fair Share and central to Earth Care is developing the site in a way that makes space for nature and improves biodiversity. The site is currently pasture surrounded by hedges, mature oaks and a stream. Buzzards cry overhead, there are signs of badgers in adjacent woodland, neighbours who overlook the site report deer, in boggy areas there are the sorts of plants you find in boggy areas and foxes roam in a fruitless search for discarded fast food – what else is fast food good for but discarding!
No rare amphibians or bats have made themselves known in the ecology assessment and there are no threatened orchids or other rare plants. Like most fields that have been managed as pasture, cut for silage and hay and nurtured to provide one thing and one thing only, grass for cattle, the site lacks biodiversity other than around the edges.
We plan to bring these edges into the whole site. As ecologists and permaculturists know, the edges are where it’s at. So we plan ponds and swales to capture water – slow it, spread it and sink it is our mantra for water – rather than send it quickly on it’s way to cause problems elsewhere. We plan a forest garden, orchards, coppice using native trees and food grown without chemicals and poisons. Wetland Ecological Treatment systems, much more diverse than reed bed systems, will treat grey water and provide habitat for birds and insects as a bonus.
In short, we will take a green field site that may look green but lacks biodiversity, and give nature the chance to come back in while also providing homes for 25 households and producing significant quantities of food and fuel. It is this approach that has gained us the support of Dartington Parish Council and Totnes Town Council who would ordinarily have opposed development in this location.
Will it work? Only if we can resist pressure from planning officers who want us to connect to the mains sewage system, locate the homes where using gravity to help us deal with grey water would be impossible and leave space for a road to adjacent fields where a mainstream developer wants to build mainstream homes.
And what will it look like if we succeed? Hopefully the answer to that question will surprize us all. More biodiverse certainly but who knows what particular combinations of plants and animals will fill the particular spaces we create. What plants will do well, which insects will they attract and what animals will come to feed on them? We are not designing a space to attract Greater Crested Newts or Grey long-eared bats but the site layout we propose will certainly be more attractive than the current green field. We’ll just have to wait and see what nature comes up with.
We’ve always seen this project as an example of how we can do things differently, a different story for development. Energy efficient homes built with local, natural materials, renewable energy, on-site food production and the space to create meaningful community are all key elements – but so is ensuring that we give wildlife a chance to thrive alongside the people. That way we will be good for the earth, for people and it will be fair.
* Of course this applies to Wales and Scotland as well but to say so would mess up the sentence.
Further information about Transition Homes can be found at www.transitionhomes.org.uk
Chris Bird – Transition Homes Community Land Trust