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Lying fallow: the value of idleness

Matt black  2014 fallowed tomato fields corcoran california drought fallow architectural review nn11432828

In a world in constant motion there is an ecological imperative to embrace the value of idleness

By moving the concept of fallow beyond agriculture to acquire meanings that entangle it in the realm of political economy, we can begin to speculate on the relationship between capital accumulation and the production of the urban fabric. A key change that occurred over time in this regard was a shift in the imaginary when idleness went from being understood as a valuable regenerative activity to viewing ‘inactivity’ as waste. In this sense, the machinations that the forces of capitalism unleashed on society also worked to displace the centrality of fallowing in social and ecological processes. Rising to replace the process of fallowing was an ideology of progress that disparaged idleness and inactivity.

‘Viewing the planet as a kind of perpetual growth machine is churning the earth in successive waves of creative destruction’

The rationalisation of space under capitalism is one facet of the ideology of progress which has had a profound impact on the spatial organisation of society in nature. Marxist geographer David Harvey writes that ‘capital accumulation and the production of urbanisation go hand in hand’. For Harvey, urbanisation is a physical manifestation of the drive to produce a ‘rational landscape’ in which barriers to the turnover time of capital accumulation are removed. In this sense then, letting space lie fallow introduced unacceptable friction into the capitalist system. Highlighting this shift, urban and environmental geographer Matthew Gandy notes that ‘the very idea of rest, and of resting space in particular – letting the earth sleep – counters the accelerative and all-encompassing momentum of late modernity’. The incongruity, however, isn’t just a question of an anxious space of late modernity. The instrumentalisation of space is already apparent in the mid-19th century, when Ildefons Cerdà’s opening statement for urbanisation sought to ‘fill the earth’. And by the early 20th century, this programmatic vision for design was fully institutionalised when Ebenezer Howard’s seminal Garden Cities project ‘sought to maximise functionality through territory saturated with activity’.

Gilles clement third landscape dominique dubois fallo architectural review

Gilles clement third landscape dominique dubois fallo architectural review


Gilles Clément’s ‘Third Landscape’ encourages nature to colonise spaces left over by man and, in so doing, stimulate biodiversity

Time is also rationalised and subsumed under the growth imperative, which legitimates practices used to force people into reconfigured social relations. As critical urban theorist Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago remarks, for example, ‘improvers couldn’t stand idleness, regardless of whether it referred to a quality of land or to poor commoners “wasting” productive time by contemplating their grazing livestock instead of embracing wage discipline as day labourers’. It was the capitalist project to proletarianise the population that transformed social relations connected more with ecological rhythms into the realm of the abstract rhythms of capitalism. Put another way, wresting productivity from humans – and non-humans – through labour discipline has always been a central feature of the project of capitalism, from the Enclosure Acts in England until today. Capturing ‘wasted time’ also had another social dimension: the production of new forms of citizenship meant to underpin the bourgeois vision of the modern metropolis. In New York City, for example, Sevilla-Buitrago interprets the construction of Central Park as a ‘special kind of enclosure … [that was meant to] shift behaviors from one regime of publicity to another’ in a battle that pitted the elite against the commoning practices of the New York City streetscape by recently arrived immigrants. While geographer Tony Weis has shown that the slow rhythms and periodic pauses of fallowing can influence social organisation in potentially progressive ways, we see above that the devaluation of idleness has instead promoted a capitalist subject synchronised to the rhythms of capitalist time.

Taken as a whole, the move to valuing progress over fallowing signalled a regime change that rationalised space and time, which, in turn, produced radical social, ecological and continuous urban transformations that, today, are felt on a planetary scale. Viewing the planet as a kind of perpetual growth machine with a core purpose of chasing profits, an ever-growing metabolism, is churning the earth in successive waves of creative destruction. This results in both acute and chronic pathologies of devalued human social relations, diminished diversity of the biosphere and a continually transformed urban fabric at ever larger scales. What impact has the growth imperative had on the design professions? Embedded in, and arguably a tool of, capital, the design professions have been criticised as largely geared towards solving the problems of wasted space to restore class relations and processes of accumulation. Can a design culture that sees itself as inextricably linked to growth retrain its analytical lens on social and ecological value production that exists outside capitalist sociospatial relations, rather than viewing moments of inactivity merely as opportunities to promote the next growth cycle?

Within the context of contemporary landscape architecture and urban design practice, Matthew Gandy points to a fissure in design between the increasing awareness of the ecological value of ‘slow spaces’ in the design of landscapes and the ‘neoliberal impetus’ for parks to be pressed into service for capital accumulation. In addition, architect Christopher Marcinkoski advocates ‘a retooled urban design praxis’ in which the profession is aware of their role in circuits of capital accumulation, and as insiders work to exploit speculative processes towards alternative ends. There are unresolved questions, however, regarding the agency of the designer to push back against or shape the regulatory and economic systems in which we work. Can we transform project mandates within a traditional client-designer relationship? How much control of outcomes are designers willing to cede to organic interactions? But it is a start. Our systems of valuation are not immutable – we have the ability to reset the narratives we construct and the meanings we produce. How might the planning and design disciplines approach the question of revaluing inactivity and in turn our understanding of progress? That work remains to be done, and it remains to be seen if designers can yield control to true spontaneity or ‘staged non-intervention’.

‘The move to valuing progress over fallowing signalled a regime change that rationalised space and time’

While Cerdà and others sought to ‘fill the earth’ in a push that introduced urbanisation to the world stage, can a future urban world be formed around ‘letting the earth sleep’? If so, what might these approaches look like? One radical response is the Half-Earth Project proposed by biologist EO Wilson. In this scenario, half of the Earth’s surface would be removed from circulation, set aside for conservation of the biosphere. This approach is not without deep socio-ecological pitfalls, however. As environmental scientist Erle Ellis notes, if ‘implemented poorly, Half-Earth could become the greatest green grab in human history’. More, it seems plausible that without adequate safeguards, inequality could actually be exacerbated with the intensification of land use pressures in the Half-Earth solution. That said, by posing the question, Ellis and Wilson encourage us to take seriously grand land management schemes to rebuild biodiversity and ecological value in the Anthropocene.

At much smaller scales, there are also strategies for revaluing land in cultural and ecological terms while keeping it out of circulation. Advocating beyond binaries of human and non-human nature in the preservation of post-industrial grounds, cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey, for example, proposes incorporating the idea of ‘boundary work’, which engages with the careful curation of layered ecological and cultural meaning. Boundary work problematises heritage practices based on the separation of artefacts into formalised categories and advocates a method that incorporates permeable borders and the continual negotiation of nature and culture in the preservation of sites of industrial ruin. Jill Desimini navigates a third approach using the contours of fallow and wild to encourage designers to recognise the layered use values of overgrown spaces. Desimini highlights the counterintuitive outcome of increased ecological and social diversity that emerges ‘by letting go temporarily’.

Torre de david caracas venezuela 1994 fallow degrowth architectural review e44p7j

Torre de david caracas venezuela 1994 fallow degrowth architectural review e44p7j


The Torre de David in Caracas fell victim to the 1994 economic crisis in Venezuela. It now houses 300 low-income families despite its incomplete state, and the fact that at 26 floors high it still has no lift

The examples highlighted above offer three different approaches along a spectrum of human control over space with respect to revaluing inactivity that design might be able to mobilise. The first advocates a strong human-nature divide and intensive human effort to take land out of circulation to preserve ecological richness. The second advances an approach that celebrates the blurring boundaries of human and nature as a way to promote the revaluation of both cultural and natural resources through an evolving interstitial space of building and wasting that lies outside the sphere of ceaseless growth. Meanwhile, the third argues for something of a hands-off approach, allowing for spontaneous eruptions of new forms of human and non-human activity through less human intervention.

An even more fundamental opportunity for current design practice can be found in the degrowth movement. Starting through social activism, and situated in a much longer lineage that critiques the growth imperative, the concept of degrowth is at its core critical of the basic structures and functions of the capitalist economy. Rather than the ongoing dialectic of devalorisation and revalorisation as a circuit within capitalism, the vision of degrowth offers something of an off-ramp that can disrupt the mechanism of the perpetual growth machine. While not revaluing idleness in the context of capitalist urbanisation per se, a move away from the competitive pressures engendered by endless cycles of production and consumption, degrowth can promote an experimental, variegated, inclusive and lively urban fabric.

‘Designers engaging with the idea of degrowth will also have to grapple with how to prioritise use value over exchange value’

If the logic of capital is the search for, and production of, a ‘rational’ landscape, degrowth might look to exploit the irrational or strive for heterogeneity. We may, for example, want to broaden what we understand to be proper species composition in urban settings by foregrounding non-human animals in our theoretical and conceptual apparatus. We may also want to practise ‘letting go’ in spaces no longer valued by capital. In this case, Gilles Clément’s ‘Third Landscape’ provides arresting examples of humans ceding control of aesthetic production of the landscape to nature, while promoting rich biodiversity in the process. Designers engaging with the idea of degrowth will also have to grapple with how to prioritise use value over exchange value. Rethinking socio-spatial relations outside the capitalist valorisation devalorisation circuit, Torre de David in Caracas, Venezuela, offers one high-profile example of how a vibrant community can flourish in the waste of financial speculation.

A square of chicago without a circle and triangle 1979 by sol lewitt torn cut folded ripped fallow architectural review cftqngywcaes5il

A square of chicago without a circle and triangle 1979 by sol lewitt torn cut folded ripped fallow architectural review cftqngywcaes5il

Source: © ARS, NY AND DACS, LONDON 2019

Sol LeWitt’s 1979 A Square of Chicago without a Circle and Triangle, from early paper works titled Torn Cut Folded Ripped, deploys geometric shapes in his exploration of dislocation and site

However, as David Harvey argues, planners put out fires emerging from the chronic instability of the urban fabric produced under capitalist urbanisation, without concern and/or capacity to engage with the underlying conditions that produce the fires. While we view Harvey’s critique sympathetically – he does, in our estimation, a good job articulating the political-economy context in which planning and design is embedded – we nevertheless view his analysis of the capacity of design and planning to be somewhat narrow. A primary challenge for designers then will be how to mobilise a collective vision for the agency of design that is democratic and participatory and can counter the hegemony of growth without ultimately being co-opted by capital as just another accumulation strategy that maintains class and power relations. For that, much work is required to build a broad coalition of stakeholders that can organise to resist the restless energies of capital.

Moments of pause – of idleness – which were once valued, have been replaced by a paradigm of perpetual activity, but there is a theoretical and practical potential for dormancy in a world always in motion. Fallowing could offer a moment of transition out of the circuit of capitalist value creation and destruction. As we begin to recognise the magnitude of the impact that an ideology of progress has had on the urban fabric, social organisation, ecological processes and the climate more broadly, our call in this essay is for the allied design disciplines – urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture, in particular – to take seriously the idea of fallow by pursuing solutions that lie beyond the capitalist logic of perpetual building and unbuilding.

Lead image: Matt Black’s 2014 image of Fallowed Tomato Fields in Corcoran, California, documents the result of the worst drought in the history of the state 
Source: Matt Black / MAGNUM PHOTOS

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today