After sustainability: mega-nature and infra-nature

An urban ethic of Europa Sustainability is one in a series of words to describe a process: the intensification of a long-term trend, to very large park-like cities. Sustainable "ethics" are now being replaced, by emphasis on nature as infrastructure. Written 1998.
Why sustainability is wrongArchaeo-spatial Europe

"Sustainability" is used to refer to the future. However, that does not mean the word itself will last for ever. People who think "sustainability" is now a fundamental cultural value, have short memories. Before sustainability, there was "green", and before green was "eco", and before that "conservationism". So what comes after sustainability?

On possibility is "nature development" or "infra-nature" or something similar. This guess is based on recent trends in the Netherlands - trends away for the use of "sustainable" in environmental issues. The environmental lobby is more likely to speak of nieuwe natuur, "new nature". A trend is not a law, and this is no more than a guess, at this stage. However the Netherlands is usually a good indicator of trends, in this area.

Before looking at this trend, first the question: why are these terms so easily interchangeable?

There are three parts to the answer: there is a long term urban trend, an ideology or worldview which legitimises it, and a process of continuous regeneration of that ideology.

First the urban trend itself. In its simplest version, the urban share of total population is rising, and urban density is falling. A map series in the 1991 Atlas des Franciliens are a perfect illustration. The modern "growth" of Paris went together with a relative transfer of population outwards. This process now covers much of France: the map of migration gain shows this clearly. (Every planner and urban theorist in Europe should look at this map series). If you define a suburb as "an area adjoining a city, with a net population gain from that city", then France is a suburb of Paris.

So the whole logic of "urban growth" is questionable: the mediaeval area of Paris has consistently lost population for at least a century, possibly several centuries. So why say that Paris grew? It was the adjoining communes which grew, but then they were labelled part of the Paris agglomeration, or region. It is bizarre logic, to describe the construction of houses in rural areas as "urbanisation". In modern "urbanisation", it is the rural areas which grow. The long term consequence for urban form is that urban densities will fall to equal rural densities: "cities" will consist almost entirely of un-built land.

This is the process which is politically and socially legitimised by "green", "eco", "sustainable" and so on. It is true, that there was a pre-existing cultural/ideological tradition in Europe, with Nature as a central value. It is true, that other cultures have similar traditions. However, terms like "green" or "eco" are primarily related to the diffuse general urban trend. That includes: low density housing, gardens, parks, nature reserves, car transport and the associated lifestyles. Together, these account for around half of GNP in western European countries.

When people say "We need green cars" they mean "Cars should continue to be produced". Green, ecological or sustainable thinking is applied, as a form of argument, for the continuation of the existing trend. (And therefore, for the exclusion of innovation). Modernity was already green, eco and sustainable - the urban trend is centuries old. These are not "radical alternatives" to urban modernity, they are urban modernity itself. They confirm it. This is explicitly visible, when these words are used as product labels: eco-business, eco-banks, eco-tourism, eco-fuels. (Most recently a proposed "eco-tanker" - if it hits a rock, it only loses half as much oil).

So, the environmental movement, and environmental philosophy, are not in opposition to existing social trends and networks. They are an essential part of them. If a manufacturer sells detergent as "sustainable", the concept is probably suggested by the advertising agency. But where did they get it? Ultimately, from Hans Jonas, ultra-conservative philosopher and former student of Heidegger - one of the first systematic "environmental philosophers".

Cynically, environmentalists are a sort of advertising agency. They supply slogans, to sell an obsolescent product: low-density cities. Cynically, the "sustainable" slogan is now obsolete itself. It is time to "repackage the product". So, back to the Netherlands as trend indicator for the successor, the new packaging....mega-nature.

A cluster of new terms has emerged in the last 8-10 years (during the "sustainability" phase of environmental policy). The most indicative is natuurontwikkeling, nature development. This is a deliberate analogy with "projectontwikkeling", property development and "projectontwikkelaar", developer. Among the other words in this cluster are natuuraanleg, nature construction; and natuurbouw - an analogy with "landbouw", agriculture. All are covered by the general term "new nature".

A closely related cluster includes new planning jargon: ecologische hoofdstructuur, main ecological structure, and groene netwerken, green networks. The terms imply large scale structures, and this is how they are applied - at national and Benelux level. In addition, many planners see this style of plan as a model, for European scale planning. So far it does not appear in most of the Europa 2000 studies (Regional Development Studies / Etudes de développement régional). However, the influence is already visible in the preliminary European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) - in a summary map of nature and cultural heritage. This is an important symbolic step: perhaps the first map to show Europe (at least, the EU) as a park.

A study by the Agricultural University of Wageningen proposes a Tentative Ecological Main Structure in Europe, TEMS. The TEMS would cover one-third of EU territory - perhaps the largest territorial claim in Europe since 1945. This study was made for the Netherlands government, not directly for the EU. But, in turn, it is based on a EU classification of Europe as ecosystems, for the CORINE project.

The first cluster originated largely inside the "nature lobby" and environmental studies. The second cluster comes from the planing establishment, and landscape architecture. Newer projects, especially student projects in planning and landscape architecture, indicate a synthesis of both clusters. In general, there is increasing overlap in Europe between architecture, urban design and landscape architecture (partly following a US pattern). That in turn, is the inevitable product of the long-term urban trend.

A recent example of large-scale natuurontwikkeling, is the proposal Veters Los. This is a typical "nature lobby" policy proposal, from the Wereld Natuur Fonds / Worldwide Fund for Nature; Natuurmonumenten (owner of most nature reserves); the environmental organisation Natuur en Milieu, and the national bird protection association. A few quotes from the press release, show how its language differs from the moralist style of the sustainability period ("responsibility", "duties to future generations").

8.8 BILLION FOR GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE .... a green impulse of 8.8. billion guilders. 'Veters Los' contains 11 proposals for a green infrastructure... Choosing now, for intelligent investment in liveability, spatial quality and nature, together with economic growth.....development of infrastructure goes together with nature development and landscape development. The 11 proposed projects illustrate that investment in nature is also good for economic development. For 8.8 billion guilders - less than 10% of the total investment planned in Agenda 2000+ - the Netherlands can have a green infrastructure.....
And so on. 8.8. billion guilders, 4 billion Euro - presented as a bargain in comparison with current infrastructure proposals. (The only thing missing is a claim, that Japan is investing more in green infrastructure). This language is partly specific to current Dutch politics, where infrastructure investment is a major issue. This is not new: many of the "new" proposals for roads, new cities, and land reclamation, date from the 1960's and 1970's. One classic example: every Dutch economic recovery brings a new proposal, for an airport in the North Sea. So, in general, mega-infrastructure projects are a cyclical phenomenon. Abandoned as embarrassing in periods of recession, they reappear during economic growth, until they are finally built - like the Channel Tunnel. The addition of mega-nature to this megaproject cycle, can therefore backfire in the short term. If you want nature projects, then perhaps it is a bad idea to present them as infrastructure: they might be abandoned in the next recession.

So far, I have not seen the term infra-nature as a collective description of such proposals, but its use seems inevitable. It is a new category of political argument. Yet, not everything can be argued in this way. Not every group can present their political claims as "infrastructure". The question is, why are apparently new and unconventional mega-projects (mega-nature) accepted as equivalent to airports, bridges and roads. Why can they make priority claims, as infrastructure, on the national interest? Why do governments apparently spend money on large new projects, supported by small organisations?

The answer is again, that there is no contradiction, none at all. New roads, new airports, and new nature parks, are all components of an emerging low density urban form, in this case a "city" covering almost all of the Netherlands. And, in the emerging version, almost all of Europe. Mega-nature is not in opposition to the existing economy and society: it is the same economy and society.

Some essential characteristics of the Veters Los proposal place it firmly in the existing urban trend:

It is true that in the artificial landscape of the Netherlands, this kind of linkage is inherent. But, as argument, this class of arguments can be used all over Europe: "new forests hold water, reduce flooding in urban areas, and also provide recreational nature parks". That is the probable use of these proposals...a defence of existing trends.

Despite the apparent break with the moralistic language of sustainability, the emergent urban landscape is the same:

Only the labels have changed. A motorway is a motorway, Autobahn ist Autobahn. Plant a 500-metre strip of forest along it, and you can call it a green highway, an ecological main corridor, an eco-route, sustainable transport, nature-embedded infrastructure, or a green-grey network. But it stays a road.

Barendregt, Aat en Marinka Amesz, Jaklien van Middelaar. 1996. Natuurontwikkeling - zin of waanzin?. (Utrecht: Faculteit Ruimtelijke Wetenschappen, Universiteit Utrecht).

European Commission. Regional Development Studies / Etudes de développement régional. Numbers 1 - 25 in print, or in preparation. (Luxemburg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities)

IAURIF/INSEE. 1991. Atlas des Franciliens. Tome 1: Population et logements. Tome 2: Age, emploi, modes de vie. Les cantons de province qui "gagnent" des habitants dans leurs échanges migratoires avec Ile-de-France, p. 63; Le solde migratoire per commune entre 1982 et 1990, p. 61. (Paris: IAURIF/INSEE).

Martin, D. en P. Petrus. 1995. Het Europees Ruimtelijk Ontwikkelings-perspectief. in Wil Zonneveld, Frank Evers (red.) Europa op de plankaart. (Den Haag: Nederlands Instituut voor Ruimtelijke Ordening en Volkshuisvesting / NIROV-Europlan).

Metz, Tracy. 1998. Nieuwe Natuur: Reportages over Veranderend Landschap (Amsterdam: Ambo).

Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieubeheer. 1997. Nederland 2030 - Discussienota: verkenning ruimtelijke perspectieven. (Den Haag: Ministerie van VROM).