Bioregions: Notes On A Design Agenda

Michelle Cockiing

Photo: Michelle Cocking

In myriad projects around the world, a new economy is emerging whose core value is stewardship, not extraction. Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient. These seedlings are cheering, but when it comes to binding diverse groups together around a common agenda, something more is needed. We need a compelling story, and a shared purpose, that people can relate to, and support, whatever their other differences. 

For me, a strong candidate for that connective idea is the bioregion. Beginning with a short reflection on the power of such a story, and what’s already out there, this text describes what the elements of a design agenda for bioregions might be. As a work-in-progress, it will evolve in forthcoming conferences and Doors of Perception Xskools. If staging an xskool could be of interest in your bioregion, do get in touch. 

1. A story that connects
2. Scope of a bioregion
3. Learning and design agenda
4. New skills and partnerships
5. Getting started

1. A story that connects

In myriad projects around the world, a new economy is emerging whose core value is stewardship, not extraction. Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

These seedlings are cheering – but binding diverse groups together around a common agenda remains a challenge. Words like Sustainability, Resilience, or Transition are evocative – but abstract. Something more is needed: a compelling story, and a shared purpose, that people can relate to, and support, whatever their other differences.

A strong candidate for that connective idea is the bioregion. A bioregion re-connects us with living systems, and each other, through the places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just  in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

A bioregion, in this sense, is culturally dynamic because it is literally and etymologically a ‘life-place’, in Robert Thayer’s words, that is definable by natural rather than political or economic boundaries. Its geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological qualities – its metabolism – can be the basis for meaning and identity because they are unique.

Growth, in a bioregion, is redefined as improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. Its core value is stewardship, not extraction, a bioregion therefore frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now.

2. Scope of a bioregion

A  bioregion is not an abstract model; it describes social as well as ecological systems that are unique to each place. The ways these social and ecological systems interact with each other are as significant as are list of species and social assets.

Stewarding a bioregion involves measuring the carrying capacity of the land and watersheds; putting systems in place to monitor progress; and feeding back results. This attention to ecosystem health is direct and ongoing; it involves diverse forms of expertise; translation skills, and open information channels, are needed to share different kinds of knowledge.

A bioregion provides livelihoods, not just amenity. It builds on existing economic relocalisation efforts that measure where resources come from; identify ‘leakages’ in the local economy; and explore how these leaks could be plugged by locally available resources.

Bioregional food – and health

One such ‘leak’ is food – and new kinds of work are involved in ecological agriculture. This work begins with understanding the soils – and growing crops, and rearing animals, in ways that regenerate them. Each farm has to be understood and designed as an ecosystem within a bioregional web of natural systems. This approach to farming is more knowledge-intensive than the industrial model it’s replacing; multiple skills, in new combinations, are needed to cope with that complexity.

At a bioregional scale, ecological agriculture also includes the development of new forms of land tenure, distribution models, processing facilities, financing, and training. With ‘social farming‘ and ‘care farming’- the direct participation of citizens in farm-based activities needs also to be enabled by service platforms.

Health and wellbeing are local and place-based, too. In place of a biomedical healthcare system designed around individuals and diseases, an ecological model of health gives priority to the vitality of food, water, air and other ecosystems, and intractions among them.

In the US, the idea of a Health Commons has been proposed as a geographical model for improving the health of ecosystems and the people who live in them. The Glasgow Indicators Project is another effort to develop tools that link community health and ecosystem health.

Cities are in bioregions, too

The thinking behind bioregions grew out of the conservation movement in the North Western United States, in the 1970s. It was inspired, then, by the notion of wilderness, and  focused on protected areas, biosphere reserves, species conservation, and ecosystem management.

But awareness is now growing that our cities are part of the bioregional story, too – that they do not exist separately from the land they are built on, and the resources that feed them.

Blogs and platforms such as Nature of CitiesEcocity Design Institute, and Biophilic Cities, although they do not focus on a bioregional perspective, do encourage a city’s citizens, and its managers, to re-connect in practical ways with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water and energy sources on which all life depends.

The urban landscape itself is re-imagined as an ecology with the potential to support us. Attention is turning to metabolic cycles and the ‘capillarity’ of the metropolis wherein rivers and biocorridors are given pride of place.

3. Learning and design agenda

Many elements of a design agenda for bioregions already exist – but they are  scattered, and can be easy to overlook. Scanning for examples of how groups have fared so far is priority No. 1.

Universities across the north-western United States, for example, have developed a Curriculum for the Bioregion that transforms the ways in which tomorrow’s professionals will approach place-based development.

The curriculum, which is taught across the Puget Sound and Cascadia bioregions, covers  such topics as Ecosystem Health; Water and Watersheds; Sense of Place; Biodiversity; Food Systems and Agriculture; Ethics and Values; Cultures and Religions; Cycles and Systems; Civic Engagement.

A impressive archive of completed projects is evidence that these are not just academic activities. Multidisciplinary teams have evaluated water quality data as indicators of the health of an ecosystem; mapped stream channels in a local watershed; learned about the geology, hydrology, soils, and slope stability of a local town; analysed the environmental costs of metal mining; studied how indigenous peoples used to inhabit their region – and discussed how best to integrate this legacy into today’s new models of development.

Although the range of topics sounds hard to embrace as a unity, a stand-alone five-day Introduction to Bioregionalism has been trialled by the Continental Bioregional Congress in the US. This programme covers ways to;
deepen a sense of place for the individual and community;
– develop a bioregional toolkit for allied movements;
– provide a way to certify a level of competence in instructors;
– provide support for local bioregional groups to establish and sustain themselves;
– strengthen bonds among different bioregional networks.

At the University of Idaho, a Masters in Bioregional Planning and Community Design draws on the expertise  of ten departments; there’s the option of a joint degree from the College of Law. The Priest River Bioregional Atlas, created by the university, is one of the more compete documents of its kind out there.

in Europe, an online course called Land stewardship: from theory to practice was produced by the LandLife EU programme. During the course, students presented case studies of land stewardship; designed a stewardship agreement; analysed collaboration methods and communication experiences; and explored funding opportunities for land stewardship.

A Soil Academy is being developed by a group called Common Soil. A Common Soil Campus is proposed as a learning centre for regenerative agriculture, land restoration, regional food systems, and land stewardship; the idea is equip the next generations of farmers and citizens the skills to become stewards of living soil.

In South West England, Isabel Carlisle, Education Coordinator of the Transition Network, has proposed the creation of a Bioregional Learning Centre for (as a first step) South Devon. A series of workshops is under way in which diverse actors – including water companies, transition groups, and universities, are launched to develop a learning and design agenda.

In Scotland, Clare Cooper leads a programme of arts and cultural activities, called Cateran’s Common Wealth, that connects together cultural, social and ecological assets using the ancient metaphorical power inherent in pathwalking and path making to do so.

Asset mapping and monitoring

In traditional place-based development, the outcomes of a site assessment tend to be lists of discrete assets. At a bioregional scale, representations are needed in which the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

A bioregion’s ecological and social assets therefore need to be investigated, and mapped: Its geology; topography; climate; soils; hydrology and watersheds; agriculture; biodiversity, flora and fauna, vegetation.

A lot of this information exists already – but often in the form of dry, de-contextualised lists. Maps therefore need to represent the ways systems interact with each other, not just  component parts. These maps also need to be dynamic and reflect change, as much as possible, as it happens. They also need to support social processes of collaborative monitoring, and feedback.

For the eminent American designer Hugh Dubberly, in his manifesto for systems literacy, whole system change is “not so much hard to do, as hard to see”. System structures are more easily described and understood as images than as words, he explains; through diagramming or mapping, we can share our mental models, our diagnoses, and our plans.

The social assets of a bioregion – individuals, groups, and networks – also need to be made visible. Social assets also include places that support collaboration – from maker spaces to churches, from town halls, to libraries.

One exemplary example known to this writer is Visible Mending Everyday Repairs in the South West. In this project, two cultural geographers and a photographer visited workplaces in South West England; their texts and images explore the practices of fixing, mending, repair and renewal. Another fine example –  Make Works, in Scotland. is a curatedf finder service and web platform for people who need to get things made.

Maps are also useful in plotting the footprints of government agencies who manage different parts of a landscape. Or not: These exercises can often reveal gaps. In Stockholm County, for example, a wetland management network crossing all 26 municipalities was found to be fragmented not just ecologically, but administratively, too.

Role models and case studies are always important. ‘Mapping’ therefore includes multiple ways to collect and tell stories from other places – and other times – in ways that are easy to find, and share.  A lot of information about a bioregion’s social, cultural and ecological assets can be discovered  in overlooked archives and databases, for example; wonders can appear when artists or actors are allowed access to these kinds of resources.


A large topic, simply stated: What would a bioregion look like, and feel like, to its citizens, and visitors?

4. New skills and partnerships

Developing the agenda for a bioregion involves a wide range of skills and capabilities: The geographer’s knowledge of mapping; the conservation biologist’s expertise in biodiversity and habitats; the ecologist’s literacy in ecosystems; the economist’s ability to measure flows and leakage of money and resources; the service designer’s capacity to create platforms that enables regional actors to share and collaborate; the artist’s capacity to represent real-world phenomena in ways that change our perceptions.

5. Getting started

Designers and artists can contribute to bioregional development in various ways. Maps of the bioregion’s ecological and social assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity. The collaborative monitoring of living systems needs to be designed – together with feedback channels. New service platforms are needed to help people to share resources of all kinds – from land, to time.  Novel forms of governance must also be designed to enable collaboration among diverse groups of people.

None of these actions means designers acting alone; their role is as much connective, as creative. But in creating objects of shared value – such as an atlas, a plan, or a meeting – the design process can be a powerful way to foster collaboration among geographers, ecologists, economists, planners, social historians, writers, artists and other citizens.

One way to begin the journey towards the establishment of a hub, or learning centre, could be a Doors of Perception Xskool.These encounters bring local actors together to ask: What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? What are the opportunities for  this city-region? How night one design in them? How does one get started?  The outcomes of an xskool, typically, include a shared perception of new opportunities; new connections between motivated and effective people; and the determination to make something happen.

Note: Up to ten residencies are available at our summer xskool in Sweden in August. If you are involved in a bioregional scale project, this would be one good moment to come and help develop this agenda.

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Food, bioregions, design: Doors of Perception Summer Xskool

house and shop

[Above: our venue for the summer Xskool is the cultural-ecological community at Hjulsjö ]

Farmers’ markets as hubs of knowledge exchange? Food waste as a social enterprise? Pollinator pathways across an ecological region? This year’s summer Xskool is about food systems as a key element in a design agenda for bioregions. We will ask: What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? How night one design in them? How does one get started? Doors of Perception partners once again with Konstfack, together with Art Academy of Latvia. For students in the 42 European Economic Area countries, the (7.5 credits) course is free apart from your travel to Sweden and food on site. The full course runs in two phases: an online element (22 June to 7 August); and a residential workshop, somewhere in Sweden, from 10-16 August. European students should apply online here. For professionals and researchers who don’t need to take the full course, but would like to join the workshop, a number of Residencies will be available. More info here.

From lighting a bus stop, to the sound of a tunnel: The Media City conference in Plymouth will focus on artistic and experimental projects that foster collaboration and sharing in the city. Saskia Sassen’s keynote follows the publication her new book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy; mine talk will be about the relationships between cities and their bioregion. There also hands-on workshops. 1-3 May, Plymouth, UK.

My new book, How To Thrive In The Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September (a bit later in the US). With chapters such as Grounding, Waterkeeping, Social Farming, Clothing, Bioregions, and Commoning, it’s about the power of small actions to transform big systems. If you’re planning a conference or lecture series from September this year onwards, and could be interested in a talk, please let me know.

I’ve agreed to be a jury captain in this year’s Core77 Design Awards, in the Social Impact category. Together with my fellow jurors – Babitha George from Quicksand in Delhi; Dr Mathilda Tham from Linnaeus University, in Sweden, and Gill Wildman from Plot, in London – we are looking for projects that benefit social, humanitarian, community or environmental causes. These might include community or environmental impact initiatives, products for underrepresented communities, or alternative distribution systems. The first deadline is 24 March.


The commons is an idea, and a practice, that generates meaning and hope. In Scotland’s ‘Big Tree Country’ a a two year programme of arts and cultural activities called Cateran’s Common Wealth celebrates the region’s social, cultural and ecological assets. Here is my conversation with its founder, Clare Cooper.

What connects a blacksmith, a digital arts producer, a land owner, a raspberry farmer, a soldier turned master mead maker, an expert on the ecosystems to be found in dry stone walls, a service designer, an artist who makes outfits that disguise you as a rock, the tutor at a forest school, a designer of water cleaning systems? Well, their work adds up to a new concept of the world. Here is more of my conversation with Allan Chochinov.


SOIL ATLAS  by Heinrich Böll Foundation. It takes several thousand years to build a thin layer of fertile topsoil, but only a generation of “production agriculture” to exhaust it. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has published a wonderful atlas to enrich our understanding of the earth beneath our feet. It’s not just about data; the atlas helps us understand who we are. It’s available as a pdf to download for free. Highly recommended.

DESIGN, WHEN EVERYBODY DESIGNS by Ezio Manzini. Ezio Manzini’s inspiring new book describes an emerging social economy in which human and environmental interests converge. We are introduced to an archipelago of microworlds in which a new economy, so long awaited, is being born. In this world, collaboration counts for more than consumption, and relationships are the true source of value.

SCARCITY IN EXCESS: THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND THE ECONOMIC CRISIS IN ICELAND by Arna Mathiesen.  The collapse of Iceland’s economy led to the deepest peacetime fiscal crisis ever recorded – so how did design-minded people cope? The book features projects by carpenters, engineers, geologists, farmers, ‘art nurses’, chemists, cooks, and ecologists. Their actions wire together ecological and human systems in ways that lead to more resilient solutions.

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Laboratory for Microclimates

Under what circumstances would we become mindful stewards of living systems, not just their expoiters? The Dutch artist Annechien Meier re-connects us – viscerally, and emotionally – with our social and ecological surroundings.

LAB 01

[Above: De-paving begins in Arnhem. Photo: Laboratory for Microclimates]

Human beings are clever in many ways, but our attention is easily distracted from the support systems that our lives depend on – food, water, soil, and climate. Paved surfaces, and pervasive media, amplify our tendency to leave living systems out of sight, and out of mind. This prompts a question: Under what circumstances would we connect with, and look after, the living systems we depend on? Read More »

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Socially Smart Sanitation

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Above: Build it and they will come? In the world of toilets, it’s not so simple.  (Photo: Quicksand)

What if sanitation is not just about the kit? If sanitation solutions cannot be mass-produced at will, like a box of software, what, then, is the alternative? 

Nearly half the world’s population lacks access to a toilet, so the desire for scale is understandable. By some accounts, eighty percent of the world’s illnesses can be traced to untreated fecal matter, and the health consequences of open defection are especially dire for poor people forced to live in densely packed urban communities. Nobody disputes that something major must be done.

Given the scale of the challenge, large-scale solutions that will improve life for large numbers of people sound like good news. India’s government, in this spirit, has proclaimed that ‘toilets are more important than temples’ and is committed to build five million toilets by September – or one every second.

If a lack of equipment were an obstacle, big breakthroughs would be near. The Gates Foundation, for example, having invested tens of millions of dollars in an ambitious attempt to re-invent the toilet, has now embarked on a similar effort to re-invent the  sewage treatment plant. The Omniprocessor, an off-grid system developed for the foundation by Janicki Bioenergy, converts sludge into drinking water, electricity, and ash. The system features sensors and webcams so that engineers may monitor an installation remotely, diagnose any problems that come up, and communicate with technical support teams on the ground.

The technical prowess shown in these projects is admirable, but a tricky question has arisen: What if sanitation does not lend itself to omni solutions, and it’s not just about the kit? If sanitation solutions cannot be mass-produced at will, like a box of software, what, then, is the alternative?

Quicksand’s Ayush Chauhan and Babitha George, who have spent four years grappling with a toilet project called Sammaan, have learned the hard way that sanitation does not  lend itself to mass-producable solutions.

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Above: The toilet as artefact, however well-designed, is a relatively small part of the story. (Photo: Quicksand).

At last month’s Unbox Festival, in India, they told me that, because every context is different, so too will be every successful solution. The toilet as artefact, however well-designed, is a relatively small part of the story. Equally important threads in the narrative concern so-called ‘soft’ factors such as social conditions, cultural norms, business models, and governance.

For an installation to be sustainable over the long term, Chauhan explained, it needs to be ‘owned’ by the local community – and for this to happen, an effective framework for their participation needs to be put in place at the start. This foundational element is missing from the Indian government’s new-toilet-every-second campaign.

Toilets also also needs to be affordable, as well as functional, if local people are to use them two or three times a day. Pay-per-use is an obstacle to many poor people, Chauhan explained – but not all of them; different business models work in different contexts. Free public provision works sometimes, but many government supplied toilets, already built, have fallen into disuse. The use of microfinance to fund toilet business start-ups also works in some areas – but not all; in other contexts, a different mix of rewards and incentives have been found to work better.

For a community-led project to put the right mix of technical, social and economic components together, different local government departments – including water, public health, infrastructure, and education – need to be co-ordinated, too; but right now, local government silos seldom even talk to each other.

Simply telling officials to be supportive doesn’t work, so fostering their empathy and awareness is another priority. That’s a tough task by itself.

For Kris de Decker, toilets are a second-order question. The priority, for him, is a
social business organization of the kind that served China and Japan for centuries before the development of artificial fertilizer transformed sanitation systems for the worse.

Although they were large and densely populated even by today’s standards, pre-modern cities were served quite well without toilets at all. City-wide economic infrastructures, often based on boats and canals, collected waste, processed and stored it to kill microorganisms, and used it as fertilizer, with great efficiency. Because human byproducts had economic value as a key input to sustainable farming, Chinese cities were a lot healthier than their contemporary European ones, too.

No-toilet sanitation solutions are not on the table in India right now, to put it mildly – but there are numerous efforts to turn human waste into viable social businesses.

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Above: Bangalore lacks a city-wide sewerage network , but these ‘honey-sucker’ trucks have emerged as a self-service alternative; private tankers empty holding and septic tanks and the faecal sludge is used productively by farmers in the fringes of the city. The honey-sucker service has emerged without any form of financial or technical assistance, but operates outside the legal framework.


For S Vishwanath, a thirty-year veteran of water stewardship projects in Bangalore, the key success factor – is that sanitation projects should be ‘hyper-local’ and led by local citizens – and a small but growing number of success stories  confirms that lesson.

Near Bangalore, for example, a community of 1,700 households in eight villages eliminated open defecation in a project that was led by a respected local woman and suppported by outside experts. For the eighteen months since the locally-owned plan was launched, the community’s infant mortality rate has been zero.

Local leadership is also key to the restoration of lakes and rivers. Bangalore, we heard from Vishwanath, was once called the city of a thousand lakes – but, thanks to the ravages of urbanization, sewage dumping, and encroachment, barely 34 remain in their original healthy state. Now, pioneering groups called Friends of the Lakes are coming together to in towns and cities across India and beyond, to help revive and protect rivers, lakes and watersheds.

Walk around Jakkur Lake Aajwanthi Baradwaj A
[Above: For volunteer groups working to restore Jakkur Lake, near Bangalore, educating communities about  the value of the ecological context is a priority. Information graphic by  Aajwanthi Baradwaj]

No-So-Ugly Indians

A hacking ethic inspires an inspiring anti-trash movement called The Ugly Indian. Started by design students in Bangalore, it’s all about cleaning up India’s sidewalks, bus stops, and illegal rubbish dumps. Small groups take unilateral action to clean up a stretch of sidewalk, for example, and then they talk to everyone involved in that street: the garbage collectors, shop-owners, municipal cleaning staff, office workers who dump trash on the street, and so on.

bove: Thanks to an Ugly Indian group, a former rubbish dump is now an urban park.

Each group uses the visible result of their initial action to start conversations – “look how clean our street could be” – and ask people who are part of the problem to imagine themselves as co-owners of a clean street, not a filthy one.

Ugly Indians don’t blame their fellow citizens, or politicians, or ‘the system’: They act first, and then they talk – to everyone.  They make it “our” problem, not “your” problem.

This combination of social smarts with systems thinking is remarkable. The Ugly Indian movement has spread to a dozen Indian cities, and a similar project has started in Karachi.

In another ultra-local project – in Shimla, the  capital of Himachal Pradesh – the focus is on the capability of local authorities to work with local communities. An EU-supported programme is helping 1,500 households from poorly served slums work together with city administrators, elected officials, and managers of various technical services, and some NGOs. Together, they are developing the plan for decentralised sanitation and water reuse in which low-cost sewerage systems are being implemented at a community level.


Suppose, as a thought experiment – and as experience seems to indicate – that the optimal size for a social change action is two to five thousand people – such as the group of villagers in Bangalore that Vishwanath mentioned; or the number of people who might have a shared interest in cleaning up an urban street, as practiced by The Ugly Indian movement.

In that case, for every 100 million people in need, 50,000 community stewards need to be identifed, trained, and supported – and on an ongoing basis. That sounds an especially tall order when one considers that Ashoka, which has a long-standing commitment to the development of local leaders, has been able to nurture  3,000 fellows since 1981.

But in other walks of life than sanitation, local mobilisations on a large scale have cropped up throughout history.  There must surely be some potential in adapting  their models to a waste and water stewardship context.

Religious orders such as the Benedictines, or the Jesuits, have grown huge congregations over centuries using a ProAm model in which priests and missionaries would recruit lay people around a shared belied system. In content terms, features of their agenda could be obnoxious – but their success in recruiting whole populations to a new social practice was phenomenal.

The growth model of religions has been updated to huge effect  in recent times  by the evangelical christian movement; at least forty million Americans participate at a local level today in a religiously based small groups. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, for example, is comprised of thousands of church cells in which groups of six or seven people who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.

As Malcom Gladwell recounted in a celebrated profile, Warren’s small groups ‘focus on practical applications of spirituality…not on abstract knowledge, nor even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves’. His innovation was to improve and supercharge the recruitment, training and support of thousands of volunteer leaders that emerged from these small groups. His website,, supports this fast-growing learning network of local leaders.

Local churches, for Warren, are ‘the biggest distribution network in the world. Millions of them are spread out around the world. Even in villages which lack a school, a grocery store, or a fire department, they have a church’.

Water wisdom

For S Vishwanath, water stewardship in general, and sanitation projects in particular, are neither a spiritual nor a practical matter on their own. We need both. The prosaic, day-to-day management of waste and water needs to be organised at a hyper-local level; otherwise it will not be adaptive to the unique properties of each social and ecological context. At the same time, water stewardship requires the mobilisation of immense cultural commitment; for that, the spiritual dimension of water needs to be rediscovered, too.

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How to be a rock

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(Above: A forest skills workshop in Big Tree Country)

Last month I spent a day in a small town of 2,000 people in Perthshire, Scotland, with the following group of people: a blacksmith; a book maker; a soldier turned master mead maker; an artist whose work explores how we interact with the ecology of the earth; a student of the ecosystems to be found in dry stone walls; a curator of artist-led walks; a man who helps youth hostels reinvent themselves; a botanist who specialises in sphagnum moss; another artist who makes outfits that disguise you as a rock; a public arts funder; someone from a field studies centre where one can see the Clouded Drab (a rare moth); a fiddler who organises traditional music festivals; a nurse who leads healing walks; a designer of natural golf courses; a raspberry farmer; an outdoor education provider; the tutor at a forest school; a felter and knitter; a man who ”hated going to the potatoes”; a breeder if ill-disciplined Hebridean sheep; a man who studies lumps and bumps in the landscape; a digital arts producer; a bare foot walker; a designer of water cleaning systems; a book festival organiser; and a countryside steward.

Our task was to imagine new ways for residents and visitors to connect with the ecological and cultural assets of The Cateran Trail. This 64 mile (103 km) circular track, in the heart of ‘Big Tree Country’ in central Scotland, has no real beginning or end. It takes its name from the feared cattle thieves who once raided these rich lands. The burial place of Guinevere, Queen of King Arthur, and a setting of stones thought to be a Viking burial site, are both in the vicinity; so too, once, was the richest abbey in Scotland.
bb balloon over Whitmuir 1

(Above: Could this become a learning farm?)

Among the ideas we came up with were encounters in which people learn: how to be still; to perform as a choir on the Trail, or how to grow speciality Scottish chillies. One group proposed a learning farm; another, an apprenticeship in how to build a dry-stone dyke.

This workshop was a warm-up for Cateran’s Common Wealth, a two year programme of cultural and ecological activities at the intersection of active learning, creative place-making, and sustainable tourism. It  begins next year. Clare Cooper, its co-founder, explained the background: “Some things belong to all of us: the biosphere on which we all depend; our cultural heritage and history; our language; our skills in managing the land;  our myths and our musical traditions. The Cateran Trail exemplifies this common wealth. By connecting the physical presence of the Trail with the ancient metaphorical power inherent in path walking, and path making, we will revalue this shared inheritance and find new ways to sustain it for future generations”.    

On Saturday 12 December, together with Mansi Gupta, I’m running a workshop at the UnBox Festival in Delhi. We will develop the programme of a Lab, to be situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, that will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. In preparation for UnBox, the leather ecosystem of Kanpur – its people, skills, and cultures – will be documented in a publication and short film.


aa GR17 Key
(Above: The key, actual size)

For the same price as a tiny bedsit in London, Stockholm or Paris, a big 400 year old townhouse  is for sale in South West France.

Posted in doors of perception portfolio, place & bioregion, xskool events | Leave a comment

Leathershed lab


On Saturday 12 December, together with Mansi Gupta, I’m running a workshop at the UnBox Festival in Delhi.

We will develop the programme of a Lab, to be situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, that will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. Read More »

Posted in place & bioregion, xskool events | Leave a comment

Shelter Without A Concrete Roof

Public performance in Kisangani. Image © Studios Kabako
Public performance in Kisangani. Image © Studios Kabako

Studios Kabako, a dance company from Africa, is the winner of this year’s 2014 Curry Stone Design Prize, an important international award. Using dance, theater, and music, Studios Kabako help local communities envision positive alternatives in a city that has known devastating armed conflict over many years. The company has pioneered a form of development that is based on social creativity rather than real estate plays.

Based in Kinsangani, the Congolese performance and theater studio was founded by Faustin Linyekula in 2001 to address social memory, fear, and hope in the aftermath of civil war. During a decade of urban interventions and cultural activities, the studio has enabled a flourishing an ecosystem of dance activities. Studios Kabako are pioneers of a new way to practice ‘rebuilding’ that ‘s based far more on human energy than on pouring concrete.

“Many world regions face terrible fratricidal wars” explained Emiliano Gandolfi, director of the Curry Stone Prize. “We must learn to envisage an alternative to the culture of destruction”. Faustin Linyekula’s work demonstrates the remarkable results that can happen when the transformative power of art is applied to the ways we practically create a sustainable future.

When Linyekula founded the studio young Congolese people, especially, were living without hope –  too preoccupied by daily survival to imagine an alternative. As recounted by the renowned theater and opera director, Peter Sellars,“Faustin is training a generation of kids to challenge everything about their surroundings. He has created an energy among youth in Kisangani that insists on moving forward. His work is never self-pitying, there’s always this alertness, this awakeness, that has the spirit of challenge in it. It refuses to say ‘Oh, poor Africa.’ It says, ‘OK, pull your life together. Lift your own game’.”

As a platform, Studios Kabako is light and mobile. Although the studio maintains studios in the city centre, it takes its work to the rural fringes and to vacant areas of Kisangani in the form mobile performances. Studio Kabako is currently working on plans for more facilities within the city that combine environmentally friendly technologies, communal living systems and new educational models, all of which are unprecedented in this region.

“Culture is one of the most powerful means of providing a shelter for a community. That shelter doesn’t have to be a concrete roof.” Synthetized Suad Amiry, founder of RIWAQ, winner of the CSDP award in 2012, and member of this year’s jury.

(The author, John Thackara, was also a member of the jury).

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Housing Without Building

The family of swallows that spent the summer in the eaves behind my office here in France have headed south for the winter. Soon, as Christmas beckons, they’ll reach their destinations: Botswana, Namibia or South Africa. After just two months gorging on insects, they’ll begin the epic journey back. The strongest among them will make it back in just five weeks, traveling 200 miles a day.

And I thought my air travel was profligate.

As an artefact, the swallows’ nest is not exactly the Taj Mahal. It’s a ramshackle structure, made of mud pellets and straw, stuck crookedly to the wall. But it seems to suit them well – or rather, the surrounding habitat does. Their physical abode is a safe enough place to park their young – but it’s not a gated community. What brings the swallows back every year is not their house but the surrounding environment as whole: open air for easy flight; fresh water from the river; flying insects to feed their ravenous young. I have come to envy how lightly they manage to live. We humans burn through billions of tons of resources, to support our our own structures and lifestyles. Swallows throw their nests together from found materials.

Preoccupied by swallows, I posed the following question last month to a meeting of Nordic Housing Association managers: Do we really need to build more boxes? Is it beyond our creativity to provide our fellow humans with shelter and sustenance without covering more of the world in concrete?

To be candid, I did not expect an easy ride from this group of experts. They have a ton of financial, legal and political issues to deal with in managing 2.4 million housing units across the Nordic countries. At the event, I was surprised: Many of these professionals shared my concern at the baleful influence of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. Manufacturing boxes may be good for GDP and construction firms, some agreed, but we can surely meet the social need for shelter in ways that that improve the habitat, not wreck it.

We discussed a variety of life-enhacing ways to inhabit the city:  the re-use of empty buildings; the potential of food hubs to improve a community’s health; the need for a micro-brewery in every neighbourhood; the benefits of pollinator pathways through built-up areas; the potential of de-paving to improve a town’s porosity to rain; how citizen action is improving the health of rivers, creeks and watersheds; how to de-motorise the movement of freight through towns and cities.

This metabolic concept of development was in stark contrast to a newsletter I received this morning. It announced that “60% of the area projected to be urban in 2030 has not yet been built”. This passive-submissive acceptance of unchecked urbanisation has become tiresome. Sure, yes, urbanisation will devour the biosphere if no alternatives are on offer – but that’s not the case. There are thousands of ways to improve life – and not just human life – in the cities we already have. Let’s draw a line in the (de-paved) sand and agree that the real-estate model of ‘development’ is over.


Why is it that shocking stories and images fail to change things? Are there different ways of knowing the world, than merely looking? I’ve posted a list here of the writers who have helped this writer understand this overarching dilemma. Susan Sontag’s conclusion stays with me: “People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling”.


“Our ancestors’ children didn’t go to school:  School surrounded them. Nature was a living teacher”. Under the umbrella title of Wild Learning, I’ve also posted a rough-and-ready list of of the nature-based education, biodiversity initiatives, and edible school gardens that are trying in diverse ways to reconnect children – and the rest of us – with the living systems of which we are a part.


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How Does This Forest Think?

soil-tasting B

Xskool on Grinda
UnBox in India

Forthcoming events


Fifty designers, artists and architects spent a week at our Xskool on Grinda last month to explore two questions: What does this food system taste like? and, How does this forest think?

One team invented the Soil Tasting Ceremony shown above. They made infusions from ten different berries on the island and displayed them next to soil samples taken from each plant’s location; the soils were displayed in wine glasses. We were then invited to compare the tastes of the teas and soils in silence. It was a powerful moment. (There are more images here).

Ahead of the event I thought soil health would be hard to sell to a cerebral group of (mostly) grad students. Today’s designers think far more about connecting with each other, I assumed, than about connecting with the soil. Why would they? Fewer than half of us ever see or touch the stuff.

My concern that living soil would not engage designers proved unfounded. It was like pushing at an open door. Xskoolers went scrabbling around the forest of Grinda like so many voles. They found ways to catch the taste of the forest and put it in a pot. They made cookies with forest berries and bartered these with tourists. They created tactile pathways so we could we feel the forest through our feet. A Latvian designer made pine cone syrup and gave it to Teacher, who was mightily pleased.

This positive energy was welcome, but unexpected. In searching for an explanation I came across a wonderful book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh.“We yearn for connection with one another, and with the soul” McIntosh writes, “but we forget that, like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding”.

Resilience and systems thinking, I concluded from McIntosh’s book, will never be transformational in the absence of systems feeling. But how? Asking researchers to empathise with earthworms feels like a big ask. For every designer learning how to think like a forest by tasting one, as we did on Grinda, thousands more spend most of their time in studios, online, or within the rarefied walls of the research economy.

Perhaps my search for a ‘solution’ to the ecoliteracy ‘problem’ is old-fashioned. In a post-Xskool reflection, Helen Silvander wrote: “If we truly want people to value nature and food from a sustainable point of view, maybe we should allow them to fight for it a bit. Instead of simplifying, maybe we should de-organise. Instead of widening the path, maybe we should explore what happens when we erase it, and let time be the currency of payment”.

Here is the Xskool Facebook page.  I also gave this year’s Xskoolers a Food Systems ReaderXskool  was a partnership between Doors of Perception, Konstfack, and FuturePerfect Festival. This event builds on a series of experimental Xskool encounters over the last three years including Xskool Grinda 2013.


For this year’s UnBox Festival in New Delhi (12-14 December) I’ll be joining Mansi Gupta for a workshop to develop the programme of the Kanpur Design Innovation Lab. The project embodies, in Mansi’s words, “a new story about the leather industry and the people who work in it”. The Lab, situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. If I have any say in the matter, I’ll also be re-visiting the subject of cycle commerce  and my modest proposal for the de-motorisation of Delhi. 


Reyjkjavik, 11 September, Nordic Housing Association
Reyjkjavik, 12 September, Iceland Academy of Arts, MA Design Workshop (Tel +354 552 4000)
Eindhoven, 15 September, Plaza Futura at Club Natlab
Växjö, Sweden, 24 September, Linnaeus University
Oslo 15 October System Oriented Design Conference
Dundee, 22 October Chiasma, Sustaining Rural Scotland
Buenos Aires, 28 October, International Design Festival
Amsterdam, 20 November, Pakhuis de Zwijger, De energieke samenleving


Contact me by email at  john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com
Twitter @johnthackara


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