Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

What does sustainable development look like? (III)

18/02/2013

Part of the problem with a term like sustainable development is that it's so over-used.

So what does sustainable development look like? The following points owe nothing to the academic literature on sustainable development, in which I don’t claim to be an expert. Rather, they’re based on my recent experience of some different examples of ‘development’ in rural India – from the heavy-handed government-led road widening I saw in Orchha, to the business-oriented rural development championed by the Narmada Valley Rural Development Foundation Trust, to the small-scale organic farming model promoted by Deepak Suchde and the Lost Gardens of Khajuraho project.

1. Sustainable development is development that meets the most basic human needs at the same time as it promotes healthy, functioning ecosystems - soil conservation, clean rivers and habitat conservation. This is not a zero-sum equation. Healthy ecosystems mean healthy people.

2. Sustainable development engages with the interests of ordinary people, including the poorest and least powerful. Deepak Suchde describes what he does as 'last man' agriculture - it can be practiced by those with the least material and capital resources. In India and all over the world, the environment is under pressure from unsustainable land management - in many cases, practised by those who have no other choice. Many people cannot afford to take a sustainable approach to land management, because feeding themselves and their families is a more urgent priority. In India, the degradation of forests and soils through overgrazing by herds of animals owned by subsistence farmers is the most obvious example of this. Addressing such problems means making those who cause the problem part of the solution.

3. Sustainable development is more than just quantitative resource management. It is spiritual as well as material. It promotes a sense of interdependence with, and stewardship of nature.

Sustainable development is also about cultural sustainability – ensuring the continuation of traditional knowledge systems that were ‘sustainable’ before the word was even invented. Albert Howard, the 'father of modern organic agriculture', spent forty years in India studying and learning from these systems, which formed the basis of his organic philosophy in which "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible."

Cultural sustainability also includes the preservation and continued use of the physical cultural legacy – those buildings and landscapes that give people a sense of identity and of place. This doesn’t mean only preserving cultural heritage for its own sake, as something to fence off from its surroundings and charge an entrance fee to see. Instead, it means, wherever possible, finding new uses for historic places and buildings that preserve their essential character while adapting them to the needs of the present, and wherever possible, providing livelihoods to the people who live in and around them. This is the spirit of Creative Conservation, a term invented by the great twentieth century landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe, and promoted by the landscape historian Tom Turner.

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