Our resident philosopher Andreas Markides explore the myth of the Horn of Plenty and the lessons it holds for garden cities.

Last year my family had a short holiday in the Loire valley, France. We all fell in love with the beauty of the region. A majestic river surrounded by lush countryside with rows and rows of vineyards, golden fields of wheat or just natural woodland. Birds tweeted away, without any care in the world. Dotted around this magnificent landscape were picture-postcard villages.

This scene brought to my mind  the myth of the Horn of Plenty (otherwise known as Cornucopia). When the Olympian god Zeus was a baby his mother had hid him away in a cave somewhere on the island of Crete. A goat, named Amalthea, used to provide him with his daily milk. One day the playful baby broke a horn off Amalthea and from that day on all sorts of food and rich nourishment would pour out of it in order to provide the baby Zeus with his required nutrition. Ever since then Cornucopia has symbolised prosperity, wealth and abundance and is associated with the harvest and Thanksgiving. As a footnote, Zeus is said to have so loved Amalthea that he placed her among the stars as the constellation of Copia (which is Latin for goat). Today we know her as Capricorn.

Returning to the Loire valley – in addition to its natural beauty, the other thing that struck me about this region was its Quiet! The quiet of nature (other than the chirping of birds and the gentle sound from the flowing river) was understandable. However, what I found both puzzling and to a certain extent disturbing was the quiet in each of the villages that we went to. There were hardly any people about! There may have been a smattering of shops but (other than the odd boulangerie ) hardly any of those were open. In one village I saw a lady picking vine leaves that were overhanging her garden fence but nobody else. Where were the people?

These scenes reminded me of another trip I had made to Sicily a few years ago. I was with a group of friends and all of us remained open-mouthed at the sheer beauty of the island. Besides the natural beauty which could not have been bettered, each village was utterly beguiling in its construction and layout. Nothing appeared to be out of proportion. You just wanted to stand there and stare at the beauty of each village for ever! And yet, just like my more recent experience in the Loire, there was hardly anyone there. In one case there was one black-clad old lady sitting on the kerb outside her humble dwelling but literally no-one else. It was almost eerie. Everyone else had emigrated to either Rome or New York.

should we just accept that Cities and Countryside have two very different roles?

I was left surprised and perplexed that people would abandon such Cornucopias for the lure of a buzzling city and I discussed this matter with my son.

“why do you think there are no people in the Loire valley”? I asked him one day and the answer came back with immediacy:

“There is no WiFi here!”

So that was it. The ability to connect (whether electronically or by transport) was clearly a big factor. My son then went on:

“Plus there’s nothing to do here. I could spend a few days looking at the vineyards and listening to the birds but after a while I would be bored”

This got me thinking. If this is what people want, why do we not provide more of these facilities in the countryside? Why do we not provide more cafes, shops and some employment in places such as these that are ‘heaven on earth’ so that we end up with both natural beauty and facilities? Conversely, should we not try and re-create nature in the new human settlements that we build? I suspect this is what prompted Ebenezer Howard to start his Garden Cities movement some 100 years ago. Letchworth and Welwyn eventually emerged. How successful have these been and if not successful, what were the reasons of our failure to create ‘cities in a garden’? 

We have of course continued to experiment with Garden Cities in a noble attempt to create ‘cornucopia’. As a result we have had George Osborne’s renewed efforts some 10 years ago which led to Garden Villages in Bicester and Ebbsfleet, amongst many others, not only in the UK but several good examples around the world as well. All this has been happening whilst the perennial question of Brownfield Vs Greenfield has been occupying our profession as well as our politicians. Despite all these valiant efforts it is clear that the Garden City / Village movement has not been transformative. Patches of excellence here and there but the rest of the world carries on unperturbed. Probably the best illustration of this is the prediction that by 2050 some 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities.

More recently there has been a fresh initiative to bring nature to our urban environments.  In particular the Dutch, as well as some other north European countries, have taken to introducing orchards into new settlements. These are tended by the new residents who benefit not only as a result of the production of fruit but also because such activities are relaxing and reduce the stress of an otherwise busy existence.

The big question is – are we succeeding in our efforts or should we just accept that Cities and Countryside have two very different roles? If you want a busy life you stay in the city but if you wanted a more leisurely way of life you would need to stay in the countryside. You couldn’t bring more and more facilities to the countryside because that would most likely destroy it. If that is the case, does it then come down to a question of choice?

This dilemma is aptly illustrated by one of Aesop’s fables (yes, they were asking the same questions 2,500 years ago)! The fable goes like this.

A Country Mouse invited a Town Mouse to pay him a visit and enjoy the country life. As they ate their roots and wheat stalks, the Town Mouse said to his friend: ‘’How can you eat such dull food? In my house I am surrounded with every luxury; if you come with me, you can share my gourmet fare’’. The Country Mouse agreed and returned to town with his friend. On their arrival the Town Mouse placed before the Country Mouse different pieces of delicious food including bread, figs, honey and cheese. Much delighted at the sight of such good cheer, the Country Mouse expressed his satisfaction and bemoaned his own dreary life. But just as they were about to start eating, someone opened the kitchen door and they both ran off as fast as they could. They had scarcely returned to their feast when a cat appeared and the two mice, more frightened than before, ran away again. At last the Country Mouse, now famished, said to his friend: “although you have promised me a delicious feast, I am leaving you to enjoy it yourself. It is surrounded by too many dangers and distractions. I have lost my peace of mind here; I’d rather have my wheat stalks and roots and enjoy the peace that the countryside offers me.”  

So, it does appear that it comes down to a question of choice. However, were we to dig deeper would this presumption stand up to scrutiny? Let’s take as one simple example what has happened in the area between Vauxhall and Waterloo in south London over the last 20 years or so. I have witnessed with my own eyes the complete transformation of this area into a concrete jungle of high-rise buildings. Yes, it has been the re-use of decaying brownfield land but what has been put in its place is grotesque and the complete antithesis of the natural environment which I had experienced in the Loire. What makes this calamitous urban environment even worse is its affordability (or rather lack of affordability). Such offer means that it does not really come down to choice because most people would not be able to afford it. At the same time most people would not be able to buy a house in the countryside -therefore, economics is a significant constraint to our free choice. The irony about this is that there is a small proportion of people who are able to buy a second home in the countryside which of course has its own consequences, including additional quiet during a large part of the week!

In the last 50 years or so another factor has emerged  which suggests to me that it is no longer a question of choice -and that is Climate Change. As temperatures rise, many cities are becoming too hot for comfortable living. Buildings and roads tend to absorb sunlight and trap heat. As a result, the temperature of urban areas is often several degrees higher than the surrounding countryside. Hence cities need to fight back if they are to survive. In fact London is already following many other cities by setting up ‘cool spaces’; it is also planting more trees.  

Will this be enough? I have a feeling that ‘tinkering at the edges’ is no longer the answer and we will soon be left without any choice at all. Survival is the existential question. Therefore, the only choice left for us is to allow Nature (whether in cities or in the countryside) back into our lives. It’s not a question of one or the other; it’s a question of recognising the importance of Nature and building our settlements accordingly. Furthermore, we have entered a digitised world which suggests a possible integration of urban and rural living, dependent on both physical and virtual connectivity. This should satisfy my son!

I conclude that we should urgently agree new rules of engagement (for both countryside and city living). This will require shared principles and measures and it will  mean behavioural change and new ways of building communities. Civil Society, with not-for-profit but community interest companies, should become the platform for this new undertaking -otherwise we may become irrelevant.

So, where does all this leave Amalthea? Will Amalthea’s horn stop pouring out all the different products that make human life worthwhile?

Only Zeus knows the answer to this vital question -and now that he has reached maturity he will surely make the right decision…