We are used to viewing cities as having an historical-commercial heart feeding arteries that radiate through the metropolis and out into the rural hinterland. This is the model which has given us ‘Rurban’ consumerism – and most of the problems we face today. The ‘Urbal’ model suggests a polar opposite, where the heart of the city is described as the surrounding countryside with its fresh food, fresh air and fresh water, and its psychospiritual power. From here green veins inject local produce, ecosystem services and well-being into the city, while helping to encourage a new localised, productive, ecologically robust and equitable walking-based social structure.

Urbalism is the distillation of a select range of theories: Ebenezer Howard’s pre motor-car Social City provides a ‘once and future’ ergonomic, political and economic framework. Steady State Theory provides a contextual objective. CPULs provide a spatial structure plus psychological and ecological priorities. Bio-mimicry systems (Permaculture, community woodlands, SUDs) offer low impact / high yield outputs with biodiversity, ecological services and biosequestration benefits. Natural England and the NHS provide additional ergonomics and justification via health and well-being co-benefits. Incredible Edible Todmorden and other temporary, guerrilla and planned schemes in West Yorkshire provide proof and inspiration. And engagement, co-design and local empowerment imperatives demand a new multi/trans-disciplinary approach for designers and other ‘experts’ – as championed by The Urbal Institute.


In the foreword to ‘Sustainable Food Planning – Evolving Theory and Practice; [Viljoen and Wiskerke: Wagenin Academic Publishers, Holland 2012] Tom Bliss quotes Professor Lord Giddens in The Urbal Fix:”I think we’re at the outer edge of some of the biggest changes in our history across the world, Not just another industrial revolution – bigger than the industrial revolution.” and asks, “Where are the drivers (and road map) for such a major change?”

He continues; “I am in fact suspicious of the ‘bottom up’/’top down’ paradigm. It forces an unrealistic triangular structure and an over-simplistic positive/negative charge on a society which is in reality vastly complex, presenting, as it does, a set of competing pyramids (politics, commerce, academia, celebrity etc.) each with conflicting forces driving in diverse directions. ‘Top down’ is anyway only ‘bottom up’ fed very imperfectly – thanks, largely, to commercial interference – through the political machine, which is why progress to date has been so painfully slow. (I sometimes liken it to a letter G – that gap on the right represents the problem. Bottom up feeds on the left up to top down, but on the right it meets the barrier and gap where the top down system fails to connect). I prefer to think in terms of ‘centre out’ change, by which I refer to an energising of the expertise within every citizen (specially those who consider themselves to be ‘experts’ and have therefore accepted what they feel are appropriate responsibilities, and rewards, within society); be it food growing, entrepreneurship, social organising, communication, education, academic analysis, professional practice, political power, or any number of other offerings.”

Most people, when approached at the right moment, will admit to disquiet at the current situation, along with, often, an acceptance that major change is probably inevitable – and even, when pressed, a willingness to play their part. The problem is that social habits, systems, patterns and forces (laws, prices, ownerships, debts, etc.) make it easier for them (us, actually, if we are honest) to continue with ‘business as usual’ – for now, anyway. This is why we continue to hear that economic growth is the solution to the current financial/ecological crisis, when actually it’s the cause of the problem, and the solution must lie in the internalisation of the externalities which caused the system to fail. Certainly, an economy subservient to society, and a society subservient to the environment does currently look like our safest bet for the permanent safeguarding of ecosystem services (without which, no food) and an equitable civilisation.”

The delivery of an urbal society will depend on a surge of centre out energy, which will change behaviours as the legal framework is changed. This is not likely to happen soon. While there are many who are already convinced by the arguments for urgency, we are still a tiny minority (in the Global North, anyway).

Centre out change requires the motivation, education and liberation of the citizenry – and especially ‘expert’ professionals such as planners, architects, landscape architects (supported by their clients) and local authority officers, as well as farmers and food scientists and other key actors such as educationalists, health professionals and the local corporate sector, (and, ideally, national/international corporates if they are willing to engage at an Urbal level). It also requires ‘expert’ parties, such as environmental designers / managers and academics, to adopt a pro-active approach and where necessary to step beyond the safe confines of their professional comfort zones.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the effect of the unfortunately-named phenomenon ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ which especially acts upon influential groups and individuals, there are critical disconnects between the way many, even most experts (well, most people, actually) feel privately – when in a genuinely reflective mood – about the sustainability imperative, how they think typically when immersed in normal life, and how they are required to act at work. This is not only holding back change, but it’s creating huge (frequently unrecognised and therefore doubly dangerous) levels of psychological stress. Consider your own mind-set on the sofa watching a compelling documentary about climate change, your mind-set when choosing a take-away, and your mind-set in the office chair next day when the phone rings.

In the corporate field, in spite of good progress towards the establishment of ‘sustainability culture’ and systems, there is very little understanding of what the word really means, and tick-box complacency is rife.

Planning laws and development finance imperatives do not help, but many (most?) design and management professionals are locked into learned/habitual behaviours, such as interventionist/impositional design processes, ‘making places’ (instead of ecosystems), conventional high carbon specifications, low bio-mimicry aesthetics and role-trammelled multi-disciplinary methods – and very few understand the need for genuine holism or are properly literate in the ‘alternative’ low carbon / carbon-negative building, growing and engagement solutions which need now to become mainstream. They need to be willing to re-skill, to embrace systems and methods that they would have once rejected, and what is more to convince their clients and other team members to do so as well – and to press for legislative change.

Many academics, including climate scientists, geographers, urbanists, ecologists, and building scientists are locked into modes of communication suitable only for other academics. They will need to find ways of stepping beyond the peer review system (which of course still has its place) directly to communicate with, engage with, and motivate the general public, land owners and politicians. This may leave them open to peer-based criticism, because it will not always be possible to back up every idea with evidence, nor to nuance every suggestion – but they must be willing to work across disciplines, to be proactive (and not merely wait for the market to justify funding), and to think creatively and take risks.

Meanwhile, local authority officers and other providers are constrained by political, financial and legal considerations. They will need to be willing to push boundaries to help drive legislative change, to help seek innovative funding and low-cost systems, and to facilitate the local engagement and the re-skilling processes.

Above all there is an urgent need to establish, develop and share best practice in terms of genuinely sustainable techniques. Much of this knowledge currently resides with ‘un-qualified’ non-professionals, so ways must be found to seek out and include this crucial resource.

TRUG is a first step in this direction.

Discussion Document

The second initiative will be a creative cultural arts-based project: The Urbal Surge


The Urbal Institute is based in Leeds and run by Tom Bliss, who is, by turns, a writer, landscape architect, university tutor/mentor (at Leeds Beckett University), communications consultant and tv producer/director/scriptwriter and a songwriter, composer and musician. By pure chance, Ebenezer Howard was his Great Grnadfather John Howard’s first cousin.

The UI is associated with a number of sustainability-related projects across Leeds

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