Nye Bevan Commons 3

3. The valley of glass


To help re-image the sustainable city within the bricks and mortar of a modern housing estate we can go back in time. The map of Clapton 1800 where Nye Bevan stands in Millfields by the river Lea shows nothing but fields. By 1830, it was full of Victorian terraces. And glasshouses, growing vegetables for the city. The lower Lea valley was known as the bread basket of London, as much for its fields as the 'valley of glass'. The open marshes were for most part commons land or lammas land which were open to commoners during the winter months. At the time, city and country had in place systems of reciprocal exchange. A million tons of horse manure and other organic waste went with the barges up the Lea back to the countryside.


With the industrial revolution such systems became redundant diminishing the role of the waterways as a conduit between the city and countryside.
The railways, the modern sewers along with the introduction of fossil fuels in agriculture brought about what Marx called the 'ecological rift'. A rift emerged between city and countryside, between humans and nature. The countryside and much of the commons were enclosed with unprecedented urban growth and long distance trade: the hallmarks of industrial capitalism.


The challenge of contemporary mass housing is how it relates to the ecological rift through the idea of a sustainable city.
Within modernity, the 'sustainable city' as an idea is not new; it was there at the start of the 20th century. Paul Geddoes in 1915 wrote about possibility of the 'garden city' being everywhere; replacing the slums with an agri-industrial environment that combined factory work with mass housing and agriculture. But neither technology, nor capitalism nor society evolved in that direction given the scale at which these things were transformed along with the very idea of 'who we are' as modern subjects.

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