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Creating “urban-rural bioregions” in India: a self-sustaining regional planning alternative

Didier Prost writes: Development impacts on the climate, the way fertile land is used and  on ecosystems are catastrophic for the environment. A “return to (the notion of) land as a common good” requires us to raise “awareness or consciousness of place” in order to rebuild relationships of co-evolution between human settlements and the environment.

Didier Prost, Architect, France

This summary paper results from a need for clarification and presentation of the urban-rural bioregion approach following the Energy Vikalp Sangam held in Bodh Gaya in February 2016.  These ideas are being explored through the Vikalp Sangam process. If you are interested in contributing, please click here.

Post-urban and post-rural development around the world is responsible for an anthropological transformation with disastrous implications. Furthermore, its impacts on the climate, the way fertile land is used and ecosystems are catastrophic for the environment. A “return to [the notion of] land as a common good” requires us to raise “awareness or consciousness of place” in order to rebuild relationships of co-evolution between human settlements and the environment and to promote user-friendly forms of living, producing and of self-managing land assets that can generate sustainable wealth.

Planning such a “return to land” relies on the “constructive elements” of the urban-rural bioregion: local cultures and knowledge, hydro-geomorphologic equilibriums and the quality of ecological networks, poly-centric conurbations and their public spaces, local economic systems, local energy resources, multi-purpose agro-forestry areas and institutions of participatory democracy. Bioregional planning is incompatible with the mega-city concept; its vision is one of a world full of interconnected urban-rural bioregions, promoting globalization from below, for which land must be managed socially in each area.

Defining the urban-rural bioregion in territorialist terms:

The urban-rural bioregion is a series of local land systems that have been significantly transformed by man and that are characterized by the presence of multiple urban and rural centres organized into a non-hierarchical network, and in dynamic equilibrium with the environment. These systems are linked to each other by environmental relationships which tend to create a closed loop of water, waste, food and energy cycles.

The urban-rural bioregion, made up of numerous local land systems, which are themselves organized into clusters of small and medium towns in ecological, social and productive equilibrium with the land, can be said to more powerful that the metropolitan centre-periphery system. By enhancing these peripheral nodes and connecting them into a network, urban-rural bioregions produce more sustainable wealth while reducing energy costs and contributing to the development of local ecological equilibriums. Such strong sustainability lessens an area’s ecological footprint, therefore reducing the need for the unsustainable practice of procuring resources remotely which impoverishes far-off regions. (A Magnaghi-2010)

The foundations of bioregional approaches:

Self-sustainable local development, which is at the centre of the territorialist vision of the urban-rural bioregion, requires a radical paradigm change both in terms of how we assess situations and how we plan. It provides an alternative strategy to traditional development theories focused on economic globalization and on the metropolitan region form which is the direct expression of the latter. This so-called “territorialist” approach is an anti-economics one which favours local rather than global development and considers the enhancement of local land resources and identities as the keys to alternative development models. This is to resist the deterritorialisation phenomena driven by the economy of globalised chains of values, clearly based on a total lack of consideration of social and environmental externalities.

This erroneous econometrics must be responded to with a democratic and socialised approach to social and climate justice based on self-sustainable local development. This opens a new field of study for social sciences which must consider economy as one of them. This territorialist approach starts with an overall archeology of various locations in the bioregion. The local society gathered around the territory of the project leads to a kind of participatory awareness of places.

The return to places itself is an experience, an onto-geographical project that expresses the relationship of humanity to the Earth, this awareness being the first step towards other development models, other universalities. This socialised  territory project redistributes the powers to act, opens to instituting and a revitalising praxis of democracy. Its strength and radicalism should allow the development of a right to territory, to imagine not a devastating modernity but a creative one that would be a “democracy of the living”, to establish a genuine political and metaphysical project that can renew our understanding and our place in a redesigned World.

Places or regions are living subjects produced by long periods of interaction between human settlement and an environment transformed by the various societies and cultures that have lived there over time. This vision emphasizes the need to establish rules of settlement (environment, urban planning, production), which can ensure a sustainable equilibrium between human settlements and the environment. Regions have historical depth; this approach therefore requires us to analyse an area’s long-term identity in order to understand invariance, continuum and physical and psychological sedimentation.

The urban-rural bioregion signifies a return to caring for the land—seen here as a common good—in response to the ever-increasing privatization of property and the de-localization of production and consumption. The urban-rural bioregion is a socio-territorial system which allows human settlement and the environment to co-evolve in equilibrium.

The ability of the local system to organize or govern itself through its capacity to produce “added regional value” is challenged by a number of factors: the local land system, the local network of stakeholders (its historical and anthropological features), and the local environment (physical, ecosystem and socio-cultural resources).
The bioregion takes an integrated approach to economics (local territorial system), policy (self-governance), the environment (regional ecosystem) and the living environment (functional spaces and living spaces in a series of towns and medium and small villages).

The strategic goal of the bioregion’s networks of towns and villages organized into multi-polar, networked and non-hierarchical urban systems is to achieve an overhaul of the centre-periphery model and real territorial fairness between towns and rural areas. “Living places” should encourage combined inhabitant–producer–consumer figures to develop within them and become the centre of economic governance for a bio-economy producing “added regional value”.
The collective use of land assets should challenge any regulation governed exclusively by the State and market stakeholders who confine land management to a private ownership philosophy.

The bioregion has a significant social dimension. Regional policies cannot activate the “constructive elements” of the urban-rural bioregion without implementing forms of self-governance. It is impossible to have a bioregion whose production, culture, consumption and information are managed from different places. It would be fair to talk of a socio-ecological and municipal vision, of consciousness of place and of regional self-governance (Eco-Swaraj).

Alongside local authorities, the participatory political process is evolving towards “social plan production” in order to ultimately achieve “social regional production”. The territorialist approach seeks to enhance democracy, to bring political debate into the sphere of civil society, to manage common goods socially and manage social matters locally, to re-establish a social focus in institution-establishing praxis within regional planning and development strategies. It takes the form of a globalization from below.

The constructive elements of the urban-rural bioregion in “glossary” form:

Environmental structure as a constant and the physical foundation of settlements.

Cultures and knowledge of the area and the landscape as the cognitive foundations of the bioregion.

Local eco-socio-productive systems which highlight the heritage of the bioregion.

Urban centres and their non-hierarchical polymorphic and polycentric systems of settlements.

Local energy resources (energy mixes) for self-reproduction of the bioregion.

Within open spaces, outside of human settlements, agro-forestry structures and their multi-purpose value for the new “town and country pacts”.

Integrated in the polymorphic network, integrated productive districts and integrated sectors providing “added regional value in terms of value of use and value of existence”.

Self-governance and social regional production structures for a participatory federalism, fostering globalization from below.

How do we define the scope of the urban-rural bioregion? Some qualification criteria:

Re-territorialization, regional self-governance, social landscape production, town and country pacts, and self-sustainability are the general conceptual elements for the creation of urban-rural bioregions.

As a first step, the territorialist approach aims to define the identity of an area through consciousness of place. This collective cultural process undertaken by local society involved together in the planning of the bioregion, links together a broad set of knowledge (physical, cultural, linguistic, ecological, political). Using a sort of all-encompassing archaeology, its main goal is to piece together the geographical and historical reality of the area (including the social or collective unconscious)—this is referred to as consciousness of place—which will result in a regional identity and strategy that can be connected with the current context.

A sort of participatory consciousness of place then takes place among the local society involved together in regional planning. The local planning stakeholders—who although from different backgrounds and of varying status share the desire to bring about this “return to land”—become a collective body during local development planning. Incorporated in a “new municipality”, their power to act (individually and collectively) can contribute to the creation of new legislation, foster institution-establishing praxis, and “produce common ground”.

However, every initiative is specific and contextual in nature. Strategies co-produced by the stakeholders of “the new municipality” provide strong bases for power to act, reflected in the development of a general will or desire.

The territorial dimension of the bioregion is not predefined. Its outline does not necessarily match existing administrative divisions, but may be dominated by a particular feature, such as an integrated and consistent local land system, a system of districts, a water basin, a regional ecological network, a coastal system and its hinterland, an urban-rural region or a landscape unit. The boundaries of the bioregion are defined collectively. This requires an internal perception (the living place) or a consciousness of place, coupled with an initial cognitive assessment of the area’s environmental, economic, social and political aspects.


Ecology: A consistent and integrated set of ecosystem-based features, a regional ecological network.
A water basin with a pivotal role establishing a primary geographic area.
A set of ecological distribution conflicts of low or medium intensity.
A historical area with long-established cultural and/or linguistic features.
Significant regional heritage.

Economy/Politics: A sufficiently sized demographic area (5 million people on average, for example) to allow the ecological conversion of the local economy, to create a “integrated productive district” connected with local heritage understood for its value of use and value of existence; capacity to create multi-purpose agro-forestry areas; a regional energy mix; a multitude of sustainable low-carbon business activities, a social and solidarity economy. Also, primary, secondary and tertiary low-carbon activities connected with national networks.

Society: Human and academic resources including in the human, social and physical science fields: anthropology, politics, geography, history, philosophy, archaeology, architecture, urban design, ecology, agroforestry, hydrogeology and law.

Local and national political support, local authorities that are open to constructive debate.

Deployable local NGOs, with strong ties with civil society.

Local community groups such as self-help groups, women and gender groups, human rights advocacy groups.

Developing case studies: collective definition of the boundaries of urban-rural bioregions:

Boundaries must be collectively defined with the area’s various concerned stakeholders (for example, by involving Vikalp Sangam participants), NGOs, academic researchers (not forgetting social scientists, historians, anthropologists), politicians and experts in various fields of knowledge, since interpreting the identity of an area can sometimes be a complex task.

Some stakeholders will be able to make their initial proposals for the end of 2016.

The qualification criteria listed above are given as an indicative framework to help local planning stakeholders to establish the boundaries of the multi-issue initiatives they wish to propose.

Would it not also be logical to imagine bioregional alternatives incorporating the cities chosen for inclusion in the 100 Smart Cities programme? (E.g. Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, etc.)

Would it not also be possible to study the idea of grafting associated bioregions to wetlands or water and energy policies conflicts, Ganges regeneration programme as well as considering them as alternatives to “big, pointless projects”, such as hydraulic river interlink projects. (E.g.: Bundelkhand and Marathwada regions—Ken-Betwa river link, Damanganga-Pinjal river link and Par-Tapi-Narmada link)

Spatial morphologies of the urban-rural bioregion – Indian regional planning between social regional production and regional public policy – Regional research centres:

The bioregional paradigm links environmental features and human settlements in a dynamic interpretation of co-evolution to define identity of place. The polycentric urban-rural bioregion requires a radical change in regional planning in that it establishes reciprocal relationships between the urban and rural worlds.

The local community in charge of monitoring bioregional planning must ensure that a local and participatory observation network is quickly set up in order for dissenting energies to become a constructive form of agency, to promote information provided by resident-producer-consumer figures and the voiceless, and manage conflicts of interest connected with the project. Building open local communities, linked together by a common project, with just the right dose of dispute and cooperation is the key to self-sustainable development. Indeed, self-governance requires a culture of otherness, that is a culture which manages complexity and handles conflicts of interest as a political resource for promoting agency.

To successfully implement this project of “concrete utopia” based on a globalization from below, the “new municipality” must establish a permanent observatory, encouraging an extensive study to identify the major social issues. This “social construction site” should deal with aspects including public health in relation to the area, study of structures of control-oppression and social psychoanalysis. Local development agencies should be set up within territorial laboratories in order to deal with socio-economic strategies and socio- environmental externalities surveys. This call for territorial laboratories, kind of regional research centres is to facilitate models of cooperation, the construction of commons and citizenship.

In this context, closer links between institutional policies and social practices will be possible, leading to an encounter halfway between local initiatives and institutional initiatives.

These bioregional centres will be coordinated by Indian researchers and practitioners—architects, urban planners and mapping experts, economists, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, political scientists and legal experts—and will be equipped with a geographical information system (GIS). This regional observatory will be tasked with listening to society and defining identity of place.

Initially, this body will have to coordinate the creation of local atlases that will be the basis for defining identity of place. Indeed, we must move from describing how space is used to describing the identity of places, the environment and its systems; here, places are understood as heritage and as highly complex living systems.

This local territorial atlas can be broken down into three parts:

Environmental and built heritage (ecosystem analysis and regional assessments, historical processes and sediment connecting with the long-term territorialization, value of the land, landscape, urban design and development).
Socio-economic and cultural heritage (long-existing socio-cultural identities and stakeholders who, in interacting with the environment, transform the value of the land into resources.

Social geography of the area, with the aim of encouraging new social practices (“social construction sites”, neighbourhood research centres, new communities, study of relations between “subversive” citizenships and local land systems, ecological distribution conflicts). We must therefore study the confrontation between these societal, distribution-related tensions and the long-term identity through a sort of all-encompassing archaeology of the area.

Central to the bioregion project is the notion that improving and regenerating environmental systems across the entire region (including the hydro-geomorphologic equilibriums of water basins) is a prerequisite condition for good quality systems of human settlement. This requires a project that regenerates regional multi-purpose eco-networks enabling ecosystem services to be considered as a rule in projects (agriculture, forest, water, energy, waste). We can talk of a process of repair or care, taking place over very many years.

Using the identity atlases, the observatory will also help, in a concrete way, to foster the emergence of visions and develop project scenarios, strategies and rules for the transformation and regeneration of the land. Using human and social sciences, it will help to shape the general desire or willingness in the form of an eco-citizenship and an Indian culture of space and land, and to initiate a methodology for transforming public policy via the decentralization established by the 73th and 74th constitutional amendments.

Within the framework of the local Agenda 21s, devised at bioregional level and accompanied by operational rules, this body will be able to sign regional pacts and contracts and produce tools for measuring and monitoring climate change. We know that climate is a global issue on which action is highly regionalized. It will be important to collectively build new indicators with a focus on a “democracy of the living”.

The bioregion approach is the first step in restructuring regions. It reveals new productive and environmental relations between towns and the rural worlds and between built and open spaces.

The concept of the agricultural park with its agro-forestry areas is an example of how new rural centres can be built by creating self-sustainable models of local development. Rural development plans become instruments for integrated open space planning with its concepts of multi-purpose, social and economic farming: market goods (short supply chains, local agri-food sector, local energy production), as well as public goods and services that are remunerated as such (hydro-geological protection, ecosystem-based services, production and maintenance of ecological complexity, local connection of cycles (water, waste).

At the same time, rules must be established to strengthen the polycentric urban system with its policy of creating public spaces or urban commons, situated at nodes intersecting urban flows. To succeed, the bioregion approach to planning human settlements must resolve a dual tension: the need to strengthen the identity of each network node, without which multi-polar relations cannot multiply and the need for this strengthening to be achieved in dynamic balance with centres.

The local community, driven by a general willingness co-developed during regional development projects, thus becomes capable of creating a local and living land heritage. These land management stakeholders guide the development of charters, land-use pacts, co-produce regulation by reconciling institutional policy and social practices and develop, via this institution-establishing praxis, a “right to land” with its rules of transformation (action impacting the environment) designed, in return, to incite regional and state-level public policy.

We can now speak of producing territoriality, of social production of territory, of living heritage, of public science and of territory as a piece of work.

These local self-sustainable development policies, which call for a policy of advanced decentralization, must be coordinated with responsible macro-economic, fiscal and monetary policies at national level. These public policies should help to build, in India, alternative, more endogenous and fairer approaches to development, to restructure wealth indicators and to lay the foundations for strong sustainability.

Agenda 2017-2020:

Identify the perimeters of five to ten urban-rural bioregions between 2017 and 2020;
May be if possible implement a first collaborative seminar in Auroville in February 2018,
as part of the 50th anniversary of the creation of Auroville.

Methodology note: this summary paper results from a need for clarification and presentation of the urban-rural bioregion approach following the Vikalp Sangam held in Bodh Gaya in February 2016. It has been written based on the author’s own works (*) and on works by Alberto Magnaghi, most of which come from the work entitled ‘La biorégion urbaine’, published in 2015 by Eterotopia France Rhizome and from ‘Le projet local’, published by Mardaga. The author extends his warm thanks to Alberto Magnaghi and the publishers of these works.

(*) Author Didier Prost, Architect, France (+33) 633330447 didier.prost.architectes@gmail.com
May 2016.


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