Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

CPULs when bad acronyms happen to good people

June 9, 2006

It’s pronounced ‘SEE, PULSE’ and stands for Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. Architects Viljoen, Bohn and Howe’s positively radical notion of combining productive urban landscapes with continuous landscapes, proposes a new urban design strategy that would change the appearance of contemporary cities towards an unprecedented naturalism. Think urban agriculture, allotment gardens, increased biodiversity, decreased carbon emissions and strategically connected green space - and you will start to get an idea of what the authors are suggesting. Although this is in no way within the scope of the book, never have I encountered a more holistic approach to urban planning that so thoroughly takes into account our imminent plunge into energy descent and the extreme effect that this will have on our food supply.

Diagrams showing a projected development of CPULs © Bohn & Viljoen Architects, reformatted for culiblog and used entirely with permission

Despite sporting a singularly unsexy title and a graphic design utterly devoid of charm, CPULs is a compelling vision for urban planners and (landscape) architects. The book is loaded with truly useful facts and case studies yet somehow remains a rivetting read for layfolk. The authors were wise enough to begin the book with a succinct glossary defining all of the concepts so that within five pages you’re already an adept at juggling terminology like vertical and horizontal intensification and you know the difference between an organiponico and a heurto intensivo.

Farmers at the Organiponico de Alamar, a neighborhood agriculture project in downtown Havana, weed the beds. Photo by John Morgan used entirely with permission

According to people who are in a position to compare, CPULs offers a rich documentation of UK allotment history and vivid reports of successful urban agriculture in contemporary Cuba, one of the few countries to have yet experienced peak oil. In 1990 when Cuba stopped receiving cheap juice from the Mothership and subsequently lost its largest client for agricultural produce, Havana citizens suddenly found themselves without access to sufficient food as expressed in 30% fewer calories in their diet! Instead of engaging in some futile rioting, they took up gardening en masse, and by gardening, I mean organic gardening. Later the government jumped on the bandwagon and started facilitating the urban agricultural effort in the form of responsible planning and infrastructure development. Presently Cuba is considered to be a living laboratory of how small urban farms and gardening collectives can successfully provide a significant portion of the urban food supply in spite of energy descent. Listen up, everybody! The CPULs authors were enlightened enough to note that a population accustomed to collectivism is more likely to be successful at community projects and that Northern European urban agricultural initiatives of the future will need to develop a native form to ensure their success.

Oil drum lids used as markers in Havana organiponicos. Photos by Tom Phillips from CPULs used entirely with permission

CPULs’ authors articulate the benefits and obstacles to their proposal and offer cogent strategies for creating city land use policy in which urban green and brown are treated as productive space, considering the unbuilt as an event of equal intensity as the built. A vision of a thriving CPULs in London 2045 provides a powerful scenario that I can imagine myself being a part of at any stage in my life. This is something I would not characterise as a common feature in most urban planning. In CPULs city planning the well-being of people is a central and distinguishing factor. In fact, it’s completely seductive.

A map of London expanded to accomodate mini- and SUPER-market gardens, from a 1998 study © Viljoen and Bohn Architects, photographed from the book and used entirely with permission

Robert Hopkins from Transition Culture weblog notes, ‘It is only in the last 30 or so years that we have perfected the art of creating totally useless landscapes. New industrial estates and business parks typify this, planted with ‘low maintenance’ shrubs, specifically bred to be entirely unproductive.’ Bohn and Viljoen point out that though European cities have planned for a variety of approaches to open space including urban parks, urban river fronts, urban squares, urban stages, urban forests and urban beaches, there are as yet no urban fields. ‘Living and growing food in the contemporary urban space, CPULs could formally be similar to urban parks.’

I am inspired by the notion that landscape architecture could be pivotal in designing for a future in which peak oil will have tremendous impact on the urban food supply. As a massively independent researcher and writer on the subject of food and culture and as an artist/designer working with food in the public domain, and as an art and design educator, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I hope that its concepts are embraced by those who are in a position to implement urban planning of this nature. The notion of CPULS deserves to feature prominently in design and architecture curricula, informing a new generation of people designing our cities and potentially our well-being through our access to healthy food.

CPULs do not yet exist.
In type, they will be new,
in type they will be productive.

See, pulse, with a silent meow at the end.

debra at 13:51 | | post to

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