This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.
Giambattista Vico, The New Science
‘What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?’ raged Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, when served with a notice to move his caravan from its woodland clearing, in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 anti-arcadian play, Jerusalem. The kids who come there, he claimed, are safer than at home. This is where the wild things are. The opening stage direction: ‘England at midnight’.
Butterworth’s explosive ‘state of the nation’ drama raised many questions about the state of the nation. In a highly urbanised society, talk of the ‘meaning’ of the forest today might seem anachronistic. Yet it raises anew the spectre of waking up to find that many historic freedoms – about rights to roam and freely associate (and on occasions run foul of the law) – have been subtly suborned, or deleted. As the 1215 Magna Carta is being celebrated, it is a good time to remember its significant addendum, the 1217 Charter of the Forest. The Forest Charter formalised the right of unbonded men to access and use of the goods of the royal forests (grazing, fuel, food), while implicitly assuming the right to wander freely in the landscape as well as providing a place of refuge for those cast out of the social order. Forest sentiments still run deep, it would seem. It was public protest against the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands which prompted the first political turnaround of the present Coalition government in 2011.
Since 1215 such rights have been subject to political reversal. ‘Claim and counter-claim have been the condition of forest life for centuries,’ wrote historian E.P.Thompson, in his forensic dissection of the 1723 Black Act in Whigs and Hunters (1975). That Act introduced nearly 50 new capital offences, and was brought in to come down hard on poachers in the Windsor Forest. It resulted in a flurry of executions at Tyburn of villagers who had gone into Windsor and other forests in disguise (blacked up, hence the Black Act) or armed with staves or guns, poaching for deer.
Much of what we know about forests is owed to Oliver Rackham, intrepid historian of the woodlands of the world, who died last month. Rackham would have been sceptical to say the least about any attempt to conflate natural history with political symbolism, writing on several occasions that he had no time for any discourse which assumed ‘that trees are merely part of the theatre of the landscape in which human history is played out.’ ‘Trees are the actors in the play,’ he asserted, and from what we know today of the dire results of de-forestation around the world, he was right.
Yet the symbolic threshold between ‘civilisation’; and ‘the forest’ still holds fast – even in an age of CCTV, satnav, and satellite-tracking mobile phones. Mythologically, the forest was a place of alchemy and transformation: women become men and men become women; children turn into beasts, as Max does in Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are, and as Butterworth’s unruly youth do in Jerusalem. In the modern world, however, it has been the city which has provided the role of the forest, as a space where people can appear and disappear at will, associate with whoever they choose, and where a plurality of lifestyles, beliefs, and timetables co-exist, licensed or not. Yet if the young are demonised in rural England, as Butterworth’s play suggests, they are under even greater threat of containment or dispersal in the modern city, where the presence of young people in groups is today perceived to be a social problem.
When Danish architect and urbanist, Jan Gehl, was invited to undertake a study of the quality of London’s public spaces in 2003, his final report, Public Spaces and Public Life – London (2004), noted a particular absence of children and the elderly on the streets of the capital: of all people observed in the case studies, 95% were between 15 – 64 years of age. In a subsequent interview, Gehl said he thought the absence of children on London’s streets was not only surprising, but worrying, as it evinced a narrowing of the urban ‘public’. Anna Minton’s 2009 book, Ground Control, and the 2011 London Assembly Report, Public Life in Private Hands, both highlight an increase in surveillance and control in the public realm as the management of newly designed public spaces is ceded to developers, rather than retained by elected local authorities, resulting in a winnowing out of people thought ‘undesirable’.
For this and other reasons, when the architectural practice, Witherford Watson Mann, won a competition in 2007 to develop a public realm strategy for London’s Bankside, they chose to develop the project under the rubric of ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’. The final proposal, on which I also worked, is still being implemented. It imagined the Bankside public realm strategy as developing an urban forest rather than a park. There is an important difference. The term park originates with the Latin parricus or French parc, meaning enclosure. The early deer-parks were royal hunting grounds and strictly policed, whereas the forest came to be regarded as a place of liberty, without boundaries.
In recent times ‘forest space’ has acquired a set of architectural and topographical associations, signifying open-endedness and permeability, as a terrain which can be entered or exited at any point at the edges, and which visually changes and re-configures itself as the traveller moves through it. Because of their organic origins, forests offer a multiplicity of paths, routes, changes of direction, as well as clearings, copses, streams, rides and allées. ‘A person should be able to walk through a forest on the way from home to work,’ the architect Alvar Aalto once said. The American literary critic, Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation, has made similar claims for the forest as an abiding element in human experience, even when transplanted into modern conditions:
‘If forests appear in our religions as places of profanity, they also appear as sacred. If they have typically been considered places of lawlessness, they have also provided havens for those who took up the cause of justice and fought the law’s corruption. If they evoke associations of danger and abandon in our minds, they also evoke scenes of enchantment. In other words, in the religions, mythologies and literatures of the West, the forest appears as a place where the logic of distinction goes astray.’
Though the forest idea introduces elements now associated with ‘greening the city’, and largely determined by ecological imperatives – to counter CO2 emissions, to lower ambient temperatures, to increase surface water retention and avoid flooding – there are equally important social and economic imperatives in the forest strategy too. By adopting a more ecological approach to urban space strategies, there are greater opportunities to support local economies and conserve historic street patterns and connectivities. The forest idea is not based on centre-periphery economies and spatial hierarchies, but on equitable networks of livelihood and exchange. It embodies many historic associations with freedom and social justice.
Urbanists have for some time now been drawing attention to the ‘over-scripting’ of public space in modern urban regeneration schemes, so that all conflicts and loose ends are designed out of the development, and people are subtly organised and choreographed into patterns of use and timetables decided by others. This disallows for that sense of wandering, of going off-piste, and of discovering a neighbourhood or district by serendipity. The very qualities for which we admire historic European towns and cities have often been designed out of many new urban quarters in the UK. ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ was intended to resist this over-inscription of public space.
The notion of the city as a forest is not a new idea. The idea of creating forest-like conditions as the basis for a new kind of urban public realm, builds on the past, but also embodies new ecological imperatives for making cities more sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. At its heart lies the historic ideal that both the forest and the city (Stadtluft macht frei – city air makes you free) are realms of individual liberty, and need be defended as such.
Illustrations from ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ are published by kind permission of Witherford Watson Mann.
This short essay was commissioned by OpenDemocracy as part of a series on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and is published simultaneously on their website at: