Carbon Garden


If the war effort as the rally point for collective responsibility could produce Victory Gardens as transformations of private space into public space; then how would sustainability, as a contemporary rallying point for collective responsibility, transform private spaces into public spaces?


Plants fix carbon from the atmosphere into their biomass. Plants eventually release carbon back into the enviroment when their biomass decays, however by generating a sustained increase in biomass atmosphereic carbon is reduced. Carbon Gardens do two things. They grow plants: which fixes atmospheric carbon into biomass, and instead of composting, they produce Biochar. Biochar is created by taking dead vegetation and heating it slowly without oxygen, in a process called pyrolysis. This locks carbon into solid form keeping it out of the atmosphere for longer. Biochar takes decades to decay, and is simple to produce.


All plants can be used for the carbon garden. So long as plants grow they will transform atmospheric carbon into biomass. However if we look at the Carbon Garden as a system for locking away atmospheric carbon as effectively as possible we can create plant selection criteria. Carbon Garden plants should be fast growing, perennial, and they should be easy to propagate through vegetative reproduction. Of all potential candidates, Chrysopogon zizanioides, commonly known as Vetiver, is best suited to the job. It is hardy, can tolerate a wide variety of climate conditions, and has many other useful applications. This program of growing Vetiver biomass, cutting, drying, and then firing the biomass into biochar is the most effective atmospheric carbon locking procedure for a Carbon Garden. Biochar could then be used to fertilize land, but in terms of carbon locking should then be stored for as long as possible.


We can all calculate our own personal carbon footprint, and the carbon footprint of our own personal space. So it is easy to take personal responsibility for our own personal carbon footprint. However the carbon footprint of collective spaces such as schools, offices, and universities, as well as hospitals, hotels, and swimming pools, etc. specifically require collective responsibility. Carbon Gardens are by their nature community gardens. Everyone that uses a collective space; that takes part in the community of that space, bears a part of the burden for the collective  responsibility for the carbon foot print of that space. Carbon Gardens therefore function on a rotational labour basis. Where everyone must contribute a percentage of time defined by their share of the carbon foot print. This size of the Carbon Garden needed for each building can be calculated by finding its annual carbon footprint and defining the quantity of Biochar the Carbon Garden should produce each year to be carbon neutral.

After researching the time line of the function of plants in the human habitat, I wrote a reflective analysis.


Plants are a thermometer of spatial responsibility. Plants within the human habitat require human responsibility. On the level of the individual, within our private space, our house plants will not last long if we do not take personal responsibility for them. On through greater and greater levels of public space; from neighbourhood to city, province, nation, towards the planet’s ecosystem as a totality, it remains true that if we do not take collective responsibility for our collective habitat it will also not last long. So wherever plants are deliberately present in a space, they point to and indicate who has responsibility within and for that space.

Within this time line, charting the evolving functions of plants within the human habitat, plant functions act as tide marker that delineate the fluxuating boundaries of private and public space. They also reveal the prevalence of, and changing balance between, private and collective responsibility within society.

In England, the Enclosure Acts of 1773 and 1801 were historic first steps in a process of land privatisation that continued up until 1914. Prior to the Enclosure Act, the majority of land in the England was “common”: under some kind of local collective control. The Enclosure Act empowered major land owners and forced subsistence farmers and peasants with traditional rights to the common land to move into the city to work in industrial factories. The great symbol and tool of this process of land privatization is the hedgerow which functioned as a fence to define and privatize the now private space from common public space.

From then on, the general trend within the time line is for plants and their functions to move from private space towards greater and greater theatres of public space, and from individual responsibility towards greater and greater levels of collective responsibility.

At the beginning of the main Colonial era from 1770 onwards, Exotic plants imported into Europe were some of the first potted plants. The first recorded potted plant was potted in 1775 at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London. The Glass technology previously used in making Wardian boxes that kept individual privately owned specimens alive would develop to the point of making glass houses and eventually National Botanical Gardens. The Crystal Palace of 1851 marks the apex of this glass house technology, and was of National public importance as the setting of the world fair or ‘The Great Exhibition’ of 1851.

In the Mid 1800’s we see a move from the preservation of Royal Parks as private spaces, towards the generation of urban public parks such as New York’s Central Park. Here the function of the green space moves from being theatres of private to public life. In 1857, Central Park’s designer, Olmstead, is quoted as saying “Central Park was of great importance as the first real park made in this country” calling it “a democratic development of the highest significance.”

At the turn of 1900 the industrial revolution had run its course. Urban populations had soared, and entire cities were designed as machines to house workers and communicate them, as well as other factors of production, to their factories. In 1898 Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the Garden City movement was a Humanist reaction to the industrial slum city. Intended to reduce the over-crowding, pollution, and slum conditions of the industrial city, the garden city used green spaces to ameliorate and democratize urban space. Ebenezer’s garden city vision was essentially an urban re-imagination of the social principles of “common land”: a green space held in common by a community of workers for their own benefit.

The Garden City movement essentially failed in its social objectives, because by ameliorating urban spaces, their value rose, creating a process of gentrification that then excluded the working class it was intended to benefit. Therefore through these market mechanisms public green spaces essentially became private spaces.

In contrast, Victory Gardens are an example of private space becoming essentially public space, or in some cases, where private spaces were governed by policies of collective responsibility.  In war time Britain, America, Canada, and Germany, public parks were planted with vegetables and vacant lots were commandeered for the war effort. Owners of private land were encouraged to produce their own food for the sake of the nation’s collective responsibility to reduce public demand on the nation’s food supply. These victory gardens collectively produced up to 40% of theses nation’s supply of vegetables.

Merging utopian visions with the ideals of progress and efficiency of the industrial revolution, modernist architects and designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier believed new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete.

Le Corbusier was himself heavily influenced by the socialist ideas of the Syndicalist movement, which in 1920, led him to formulate a new vision of the ideal city: le Ville Radieuse. Within his plans for the Ville Radieuse we can see Corbusier’s beliefs about the politics of spatial responsibility. An individual’s private space is reduced to a minimal unit within a larger vertical tower block. In contrast to the highly concentrated private spaces, the public space is a vast green single unity. Instead of a city as a jungle of competing private spaces, the city is seen a single system of public space. As a modernist and a fascist working for Nazi-allied Vichy government, Le Corbusier believed in the machine. He designed his buildings as machines for living, and his cities as machines for urban living. Even so, regardless of issues of ownership or what the ultimate function of a city should be; be it a machine for commerce or a humanist sanctuary, his vision was that urban space should be single unified green and public space.

In contrast to the tabula rasa approach of La Ville Radieuse, the Abercrombie plan of 1944, dealt with London and all its pre-existing conditions. It sets forth a plan for an interlinked park system for London. The design goal was to provide “adequate open space for both recreation and rest as a vital factor to maintain and improve the health of the people”. So in contrast to La Ville Radieuse, private space is not vertically concentrated, but rather a balance is created between open green public space and built up private space. As part of this plan to keep urban sprawl from spreading a ‘green belt’ was implemented around London, on which no new buildings can be built. This marks a switch from urban expansion to urban intensification.




The 1950’s mark the advent of wide spread central heating in the US, and a little later in Europe. Central Heating revolutionized the climate of the home, and so opened the way for exotic plants to be house plants. Previously exotic plants could only be kept in green houses or conservatories, but the some of the first to migrate into the living room were Bromeliaceae, “air plants”. By the end of the 1950’s orchids could be found on every window sill. Central Heating also had huge design implications. The fire place was no longer the focal point, and rooms could be bigger and open plan. Bedrooms started to be used for living in rather than just sleeping. People wanted to improve their private space with plants. In terms of the work space, the post war period saw a great change in gender roles, with women coming to work. This marked the beginning of office plants as women started to make the work environment more human friendly.

Though New Urbanism as an organized movement would only arise later, in the 1960’s a number of activists and thinkers soon began to criticize the modernist planning techniques based on growth and renewal. In his award winning book, The City in History, Lewis Mumford wrote “the physical design of a city and its economic functioning is secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the spiritual values of the human community.” This marks a shift in the politics of spatial responsibility from top-down planners to a bottom-up grassroots approaches based on a the local community. Figures like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs went on to inspired the new urban visions and theoretical models of Leon Krier, and others. New Urbanites believe that the physical and economic forms, as well as the legislative and cultural order of a city are a coherent manifestation and extension of the local civil community within that city. Krier argues against the gigantism tendency of urban growth and top-down planning when he says: “the whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works, because it is adaptable, something the new creations of the 20th century will never be. A city like Milton Keynes cannot survive economic crises, or any other kind of crisis, because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project. If that model collapses, the city will collapse with it.” New Urbanites believe in a Human scale city, where one can walk across a quarter in less than 10 minutes, cities designed and based around local industries, local communities, and local landscapes.

New Urbanism can be best seen in action with plants in gorilla gardening projects. Established by her group the Green Gorillas in New York in 1973, the Liz Christy Garden is one of the first examples of gorilla gardening. Gorilla gardening is usually a grass roots based activity. Local community members take responsibility for their own urban habitat; planting window boxes, throwing seed bombs in vacant lots, as well as assorted green interventions in the city. They can work both inside and outside the law. The Liz Christy Garden was started on a rubble-strewn derelict vacant lot. Through a process of petition that resulted in a one dollar a month contract for the vacant lot ‘official’ permission was given to lease the land. The garden was rehabilitated by volunteer work, and donated topsoil, and is still maintained to this day by the local community. Such community gardens reflect the social principles inherent in pre-privatized common land. Community gardens are run on land that can be privately or publicly held, and is either squatted or used with permission. They are run and maintained by the local community rather than professional staff, and produce food for their members. They can be either open or closed.

In the example of the gorilla garden, responsibility for an area of urban space which has fallen derelict (because no one was taking responsibility for it), is taken over by the local community around that space. Ownership, as a concept, seems only to hold currency from a top-down perspective. The reality on the ground is that those who have the most legitimate authority over a space are those that live in that space. In this example we can see how responsibility for the plants, and therefore the space, is in the collective hands of the public community.

Since London’s Great Smog of 1952 and the passing the Clean Air Act, Environmentalism has been growing as movement. It is an attempt to sustain the natural systems on which human existence depend, by balancing their use and maintenance. In 1972 the Club of Rome issued one of first important reports to bring sustainability to the attention of the world stage. The Club of Rome is a global think-tank that is made of many heads of state and experts. Their report in 1972 started a movement in the UN that led to a series of reports and finally policy changes to try to create a sustainable future. In 1987 the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations gave the world one of the first definitions of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Finally in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) established Agenda 21 as a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development.

From Agenda 21 onwards, sustainability and climate change become the most important world issues as humanity becomes aware that its current model of civilization is unsustainable. This slow bureaucratic process of acknowledging and then implementing environmentally sustainable policies eventually trickled from the top-down into architectural practice and how architects used plants. It also influenced urban planners to shift from urban growth to intensification, and to try to use architecture as a tool for environmental sustainability.

The 1998 EDITT tower by architecture firm TR Hamazah & Yeang is one of the first major examples of architecture using plants for urban ecosystem restoration. A function that goes beyond the sphere of private space and take responsibility for the urban ecosystem of the collective space. It was designed with “vegetation from street-level that spirals upwards as a continuous ecosystem facilitating species migration, engendering a more diverse ecosystem and greater ecosystem stability and to facilitate ambient cooling of the facades  …”

In 2000, the Hannover Expo produced a lot of examples of environmentally conscious architecture. Notably MVRDV produced a conceptual building showcasing many different Dutch landscapes on different floors. The Bill of Rights for the Planet or “Hannover Principles” developed by William McDonough Architects for the expo reveal how the principles of Club of Rome’s report were finally adopted by mainstream architecture. The Bill of Rights for the Planet layout rights for sustainable and environmentally friendly planning and architecture. These principles have already been formally adopted by the International Union of Architects (UIA) and the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA.

The two most recent examples of new developments in the function of plants in architecture are Bosco Verticale produce by Boeristudio in 2007, VetiVertical City in 2013. Bosco Verticale “is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city. It is a model that operates correlated to the policies for reforestation and naturalization of the large urban and metropolitan borders.” It is another example of urban ecosystem restoration where private space takes on collective responsibilities for the collective habitat. The VetiVertical city does this by using plants in a different way. It is designed for City-scale Carbon dioxide reduction through the absorption of large amounts of CO2 contained in the atmosphere. To do this is acts a mass plantation for the Vetiver plant that has special properties that allow it to filter a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. This is an extreme example where private space takes on planetary scale collective responsibility.

To return to my thesis, wherever plants are deliberately present in a space, they point to and indicate who has responsibility within and for that space. So a historical analysis of the functions of plants in the human habitat is also an analysis of the changing politics around spatial responsibility.

 Spatial responsibility defines what we actually mean by public and private space. Ownership, as a concept, only has currency in application to space from a top-down view of space. In reality it is those that live and function in the volume of space, rather than those that own the surfaces that define that space, that have actual responsibility for the space, and therefore authentic authority over that space.

This intuitive and self-evident truth is the foundation for ‘gorilla’ urban interventions and grass-roots movements. Gorilla gardening is the expression of local collective responsibility for local spaces.

Prior to the privatization of land and modern capitalism there was far more collective responsibility than private responsibility, and far more public space than private space. The social principle of community only manifests through collective material or spiritual responsibility; and such collective responsibility can only arise through collective space. When space and responsibility is private, community cannot exist.

This is the insight behind the visions of the garden city and new urbanist movements. That public space is not merely open and accessible space, it is a space in which and for which the public has a responsibility and an authority. Only when such a social space exists can there be community.

Collective responsibility is the one thing a capitalist social system cannot generate. This is why cities built as machines for commerce, where urban growth and urban renewal are based on purely economic interests, cannot produce living public spaces, because they cannot produce communities. There must be a balance between private and public space; a community garden or forum must have equal importance as shopping high-streets, if there is to be a healthy equilibrium between self-interested personal responsibility and collective responsibility in the social life of the city.

Confronted by climate change, sustainability has become the new rallying point for collective responsibility. In the past, when the war-effort was the collective rallying point for collective responsibility: in the shape of Victory gardens, we saw how private space could be transformed into essentially public space in the name of that collective responsibility.

My design question is then this: If the war effort as the rally point for collective responsibility could produce Victory gardens as the transformation of private space into public space. How would sustainability as a rallying point for collective responsibility transform private spaces into public spaces?



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