Redeeming the Land

Keynote Lecture given by John Rodwell at Doing Justice to the Land, a Day Conference held at St Paul's Cathedral on 24 February 2009


This image on your invitation card illustrates much that is amiss with the outworking of the sustainability process and regeneration in Britain today. The last surviving colliery spoil heap in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire, a one-time heartland of coal-mining was not unstable or dangerous and, over ten years, by natural processes and at no public cost, became colonised by native oak and birch and a variety of woodland herbs.

As a professional ecologist of 35 years, understanding this kind of ecosystem is the stuff of my calling. Yet, this place, where things have happened and were happening, is seen here being destroyed, graded by heavy machinery to a low mound ready for covering with topsoil, and planting with trees, the same species as were there already, at enormous public expense. Its survival as it was, according to a senior local authority planner I spoke to, was ‘a disincentive to inward investment’.

The Project

To explore such attitudes and the impact they have been having on the regenerated landscapes of this country, I have been working over the past three years with key players in the wider scene of sustainable development: a Development Agency (Yorkshire Forward), Groundwork, the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, attempting to parallel-track the sustainability process in which they - and we - are all involved. I did this through interviews with executives and groups of staff and engagement with their ‘customers’. In particular, I was concerned to ask what it meant to ‘secure the future’ as the UK government calls the quest for sustainability.

As an Anglican priest (for as long as I’ve worked as a scientist), I was also interested to know whether securing the future was seen to have a non-material aspect to it, whether there were less quantifiable, indicators and targets for sustainability. So I have asked essentially the same questions of leaders, ministers and congregations of Christian communities to see whether understandings engage, pass parallel or diverge with never a hope of engaging with those of the social, economic and environmental players.

I began with a case study in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire where questions of sustainability are posed very acutely. The communities there have lost the economic and social cohesion and purpose that came from coal-mining and are challenged with recovering material security, identity and self-respect in scene that has changed dramatically and very fast. Sustainable development there is thus strongly charged with the particular character of the regeneration of business, communities and landscape.

The conclusions

There and subsequently more widely, in this project for the MB Reckitt Trust, whose results you can find published in various journals, I have had a gathering sense of some serious deficiencies in the assumptions lying behind the sustainability process. First, there are some very partial and impoverished understandings of ‘place’. Second, it has become increasingly hard to see how it is possible to secure a future in places like the Dearne Valley when there is such a deficient comprehension of their ‘past’, or pasts.

A third point is this: that, generally, faith communities are regarded as clients or partners in delivering a sustainable future; and it is clear they can themselves connive in this, partly because they can be singularly successful in projects that help achieve necessary socio-economic goals. By and large, sustainability targets and indicators remain resolutely material and in fact there is a widespread assumption that there is a natural fit between the beliefs and values of religious faiths, Christian and others, and the principles and practices already thought appropriate for sustainable development. Even when it comes to the notion of ‘well-being’ - a relatively recent addition to the UK government’s measures of the quality of life - a religious contribution is usually construed as providing another form of capital that will articulate social, economic and environmental sustainability.


What is not so easy is for the faith communities – or others conceived as clients and partners - to articulate any substantive engagement with critical deficiencies in the sustainability process itself. My own purpose in this presentation is to see what one kind of religious perspective might bring to the challenge of securing the future for all of us. Such a critical gift may be the capital that faith communities have to offer.


Place and land in the sustainability process

Generally, economic and social goals dominate the sustainability agenda and regeneration initiatives and, in so far as development agencies and businesses possess an environmental ethic at all, it is strongly anthropocentric. Environmental interests themselves are often more sceptical of the power of human technologies to remedy the economic and social problems of post-industrial areas and they have a more ecocentric approach to securing the future, assigning some sort of intrinsic value to the natural world … while yet trying to secure environmental benefits as instrumental of social and economic objectives. There is, in fact, no single vision of the future for places like the Dearne Valley and daily business in the sustainability process is done through a kind of pragmatic convergence in which the environment delivers a variety of ‘ecosystem services’.

In fact, different environmental interests are themselves quite partisan and more integrative views of how all this might cohere, and what our responsibilities might be, are rare. Among the people I’ve listened to, they invoke something like the idea of Aldo Leopold, the North American ecologist whose ethic lodges concern for the environment at a collective level – soils and waters, as well as plants and animals and people – what he would call ‘the land’ whose overall integrity, stability and beauty are elevated to moral status.

Christian communities in places like the Dearne Valley rarely get to grips with the sustainability process at this level, though it is actually home ground to them. Quite apart from owning widely dispersed and stable pieces of property which can be placed at the service of the community, the notion of ‘land’ is a central theme of their own religious heritage and can give powerful critical purchase on the how regeneration plays itself out. In such light, land is a reassertion of the importance of place in a community’s sense of identity and purpose. Place is space with meaning: where things happen, experiences are had, important words are spoken, demands issued, promises made, and (we could add) promises broken and disappointments felt. Land is therefore freighted with meanings derived from shared experience there – spiritual experience, religious people would say.

Some of these experiences in place, are unquantifiable, trusting, unpossessed - and a substantial challenge to the culture of outcomes and deliverables: ‘Unmeasurable results with unattributable causes present us with a problem’. And the meanings of place are charged with a local distinctiveness that is a powerful threat to the claims that anonymous and repetitive landscapes can ensure the future of human communities.

The core of this challenge is that land is gift, neither a deserved inheritance, nor an anticipated reward for achievement, nor the result of prudent planning. By contrast, land which exerts demands, which coerces, land with task-masters whose power orders the shape of the ground and the pattern of our lives: these are the marks of a land of slavery, from which all people may rejoice to have escaped. Such environments are ‘space for brands’ as one redeveloped colliery site is called by an advertiser involved in its development. Are regenerated places liberating then, or coercive, that’s the test? Are they, indeed, places at all?

At the heart of such relationships to land which faith communities can gift to sustainability lies the potent Hebrew play on words which links humankind -‘adam - with the land from which we spring -‘adamah, a word that also means partner or mate. Such an ethic of environmental concern, then, does have an anthropocentric strand but it is about responsibility – a burden which humankind alone, among the created order, is able to articulate rationally, through our imagination and in our moral purpose. How seriously is land taken, then, as community, as place, as gift, as partner?

Dereliction and giving the land a break

In the process of regeneration, the identification of Derelict, Underused and Neglected Land (DUNL for short) has become an essential pre-requisite. In places like the Dearne Valley such an estate is considerable. The government guidelines tell us that general indicators of DUNL are patchy and rough vegetation cover, encroachment of scrub and unmanaged and awkward site boundaries. Now, for an ecologist like me, all of these could be taken as markers of vigour, interest and value in the land – favouring as they do high biodiversity, dynamic processes, distinctiveness vis-à-vis the surrounding landscape.

Generally speaking, however, such a perspective is lacking from the professional skills that are marshalled for regeneration. In assessments of the environmental assets of post-industrial landscapes, for example, such developments are seen as untidy, incomplete, of low quality, ‘wasteland’, a hindrance to ‘the credible upward positioning’ of an area. In fact, visions of our future in regenerated landscapes are in the hands of a hegemony of landscape architects whose speciality is neat, zoned scenery, repetitive and anonymous. Here, securing the future is actually more about social control and risk-management than about securing a future for lively land and the communities, human and natural, that might together make a living and a home there. The only thing that is at risk in many regenerated landscapes is your imagination.

Getting to grips with this set of privileges is difficult since they are embedded in professional standards, educational traditions, market demands and complex questions of taste but there are awful lot of assumptions there that deserve to be questioned and at bottom a deep, underlying fear of movement and process in the landscape and the unmanageability of nature …. and of human nature.

As a sign, meanwhile, we could resolve to give the land a break – declare a Sabbath as it would be called by the Judaeo-Christian faith communities – and so add moral purchase to our perspective on the use and neglect of land, by setting strict limits to our most intense efforts, even our best efforts, to plan, organise and manage it and its life for our own security and well-being alone. Where such signs are absent, we might expect that the land’s assets are being relentlessly bought and sold and put to work for purely human ends. Maybe the environment is on our side in this particular argument.

Land Restoration and Redemption

We shall hear more shortly from John Handley about dereliction and restoration. For the moment, let’s note that ‘Restoration’ of land means repairing the disturbance, damage and dereliction which results usually from human activity, particularly from industrial development. In its narrower application, ‘restoration’ implies some sense of a return to a former state or to the ‘historic trajectory’ of a dynamic landscape. In fact, it is clear that how far the past should be restored and made present again in such situations, and which past this should be, present problematic challenges for regeneration.

We can describe landscapes as palimpsests, upon the surface of which the signs of former occupation, activity and culture may show through like hazy fragments of older scraped-off texts on a parchment. Such ‘landscape memories’ provide prompts to our recall of what has happened there, what has made places what they are and whose significance we might inherit and pass on to the future. In fact, regenerated landscapes have a degree of forgetfulness of the past which in people would be considered a pathology.

In the technology-driven scenarios for the future that are developed, much of the previous industrial infrastructure is heavy-engineered out of existence. Remediation is generally assumed to require the obliteration of more recent industrial infrastructure on the grounds of making safe poisoned land, removing dangerous buildings - sometimes vital, of course - or because of the impossibility, economic or otherwise, of reuse or because of assumptions of ugliness. Restoration tends to be more sympathetic to such an inheritance where age has lent some venerable weight to what remains, such that what remains sits comfortably. Or it may be commodified as ‘heritage’.

Of a different view of pasts, we shall see shortly from Lou Wilson. And, as Christopher Woodward has reminded us, ruins can be important in provoking a dialogue with loss and decay. Given the complex contested histories of many post-industrial landscapes, such a sentiment could hardly be called nostalgia, but a reflection on the sense of continuity and discontinuity in belonging, between how things are now and how they were once. And one of the most striking aspects of the vision of the future we are offered in regenerated landscapes is that they are devoid of any such stimulus to moral dialogue about whether justice was done there in the past. Contested histories to which landscapes bear witness remain unspoken about and the ends of former lives are poorly handled or ignored. A neurologist has made me think that there is perhaps an intimate relationship between the well-being of forgetful people and the well-being of forgetful landscapes.

Faith communities, to whom ‘restoration’ has some biblical weight, would expect to see here some concern for putting things right within and between communities, and release from what might be described in terms of captivity or internal exile. The need to regard human communities as an integral element in land restoration and regeneration projects - as partners in, rather than just clients of, the process - has actually found favour only relatively recently, though now ‘Sustainable Communities’ has become part of the programme of the responsible government ministry. Generally, however, community consultation remains a shallow process that does not wish to hear about contested histories, nor help communities that themselves fight shy of such encounters with one another or their pasts, as they do.

Among certain restoration practitioners, there is sometimes talk of land ‘redemption’ and in Judaeo-Christian thought, ‘redemption’ takes its original meaning from Hebrew words used for commercial land transactions that satisfy prior obligations or which maintain justice into a future where a line of inheritance threatens to be broken or is uncertain. Doing restitutive justice to past wrongs wrought is thus an integral part of faith in the future.

Remembering and belonging in the landscape

Janet Johnson will be talking later about some who are at risk of exclusion. Among those without standing ground in regenerating landscapes, denied a present claim on the land, made absent by controlling powers or institutional histories, we might number past generations who paid the price of making places their own and of whom few reminders are allowed to remain, either in infrastructure, or ruins, as memorials or signs within regenerated landscapes. Like the image of the seam map on your programme, the underground dead are but ghosted on our memory. A secure future cannot but involve the satisfaction of our obligation to these forgotten, such that memory becomes a key part of the inter-generational equity without which the future line cannot be secured.

An interesting contrast to the fate of post-industrial landscapes is provided by what has happened to the sites of military conflicts and the signs of the communities and events which found a home there, before, during and after the events. Here, Paul Gough, from whom we shall hear this afternoon, has provided for us some very thoughtful reflection on how the invisible past can be rendered visible and the burden of memory relieved. In regenerating landscapes, there is rather a great forgetting, a speedy and resolute return to some notion of the former shape of the land that obliterates recent history. Regeneration marches to the beat of institutional or elite time, a smooth linear dimension, whereas in fact memory collects in ‘uneven drifts’.

The faith communities to whom I have been listening give particular weight to remembering as a key resource in the face of temptations to regard land as a commodity and life together as forgetful and cheap. Shared and voiced memory is a confession of past dependence and gratitude for the place where they find themselves, uncomfortable though this history of dependence might be. Eucharistic worship may look like an inward gathering of the faith communities in sacred space. It is in fact a vital interruption to the linear march of time, a resistance to generality and homogenising, a ‘snap time’ as the miners would have called their own break for refreshment underground. Repeated over and again, such a hermeneutic of place promises to reveal more and more meanings in a kind of conversation between landscape, memory and the presence of people at any given moment. In other words, it re-members the land.

In Germany, where there are some imaginative refusals to amnesia in the regenerated landscape, the word Heimat expresses something of the complexity of such of recalled belonging. And in one of the heritages of this Reckitt work, the Heimat project at the Lincoln Institute is exploring the dialectic between real memory and idealised hopes, the ‘ever thus’ and ‘not yet’ that expresses a reciprocity of relationship to time and place, where neither appropriation, nor passivity are adequate to describe how we might belong. Thus might we articulate social change even in situations of profound uncertainty and offer salvation to built environments. In Wales, from where we will hear in a moment from Ruth McElroy, the word for home-ground is Cynefin and here too we shall continue our reflections with St Deiniol’s Library.

Making such sense, making signs, of past and place - such richer longer narratives tend not to be expected or to remain unheard within the sustainability process. Yet the faith communities have a distinctive role to play beyond the narrow script and dominant rhetoric in service of the land and the people for whom these places are, have to be, home, past, present and future. Where people really belong - here and now or there and then? – is a complex question and the stuff of the religious life. The present challenge is not to see why some believe and belong to an organised religion, and those who believe without belonging. More problematic for places like the Dearne Valley is what a sense of belonging might be at all.

Fuller details of this project can be found in Studies in Christian Ethics (2008) 21/2, 269-286 and Crucible (Oct-Dec 2008) 5-16.

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