What is Development. Mike Hannis.

Mike Hannis investigates the history and politics of ‘development’, and asks whether it has always involved separating people from land.


Back in 1994 the British government promised to “bring sustainable development to bear in all areas of policy and in all sectors of society”. Land-use planning was expected to play a key role in this, and over the intervening years “sustainable development” has been enshrined as the primary objective of the planning system. As readers of this magazine are well aware, the same period has also seen many DIY efforts to build ecologically sustainable lifestyles. But while these have often been promoted as examples of sustainable development, few have been embraced as such by planners. Sadly the planning system still routinely frustrates attempts to devise lifestyles which actually reduce ecological impact at source rather than paying to offset it elsewhere.

‘Low impact’ projects vary widely in the balance of priority between housing and agriculture, but usually share some version of a permacultural ethos which seeks to integrate humans, dwellings, and food crops with local landscapes and ecosystems. A range of agricultural and construction methods, craft skills and lifestyles cluster around this central principle. Practitioners aim not only to reduce dependence on imported materials but to (re-)create a local ecosystem with an ongoing role for human beings not just as beneficiaries, or even as managers, but as members of what Aldo Leopold famously called a “biotic community”. Sustainability is interpreted as the achievement of a ‘steady state’ in which the necessities of human life can be reproduced indefinitely within the ecological capacity of the local environment1. All this entails a rejection of the view, deeply embedded in planning policy, that human presence in the landscape is necessarily destructive.

Planners’ resistance is almost always focussed on on-site residency, which is a core aspect of permacultural land management. In a sense, the roots of this resistance are built into the ‘official’ definitions of sustainable development. In the canonical words of 1987’s Brundtland report, which adorn the front page of so many statements of planning policy:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This definition was a clever diplomatic compromise between new environmental concerns and existing demands for continued economic growth.2 This heroic balancing act was achieved by dodging the crucial question of what constitutes “needs” as opposed to desires or expectations. Rather than looking at what kinds or levels of human activity might actually be ecologically sustainable, it has always been focussed on sustaining development. The question immediately arises, as it does in so many other contexts, what is this thing called ‘development’?

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