Every city needs an ending: the story of the green belt


Open City Director, Phineas Harper, writes for Icon about the green belt. We look at it's formation, it's perhaps lost public ambition and what it means to limit the city.  

The green belt has always been an unhappy mash-up – a patchwork of leftover land, neither urban nor rural. But the idea of limiting the city is essential, both for energising the space within and freeing the natural world beyond. 


Fiercely defended by some, while under siege from others, green belts are – depending on who you talk to – national treasures, arcane throwbacks, the cause of the housing crisis, saviours of the countryside, too permissive, too constraining, sacrosanct or idiotic. For nearly 200 years, they have been prey to cultures intolerant of limitation. Consequently, they are closed, unloved landscapes, bereft of biodiversity and constraining in a sense that is far more insidious than their creators imagined. 

Our resistance to limits is a foundational myth of neoliberal culture. ‘There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams,’ declared Ronald Reagan in his re-election inaugural address in 1985. He was, of course, lying. Only a decade earlier, the Club of Rome had prophetically warned that, if the physical limits to growth are ignored, society will ‘overshoot those limits, and collapse’. But life without limits was a powerful propaganda message for Reagan’s doctrine of deregulation. Today, overcoming limits is still celebrated through cringeworthy clichés: ‘Know no limits’, ‘you are your only limit’, or ‘don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon’. Even as unprecedented fires, floods and biodiversity loss scream of planetary boundaries pushed to breaking point, our relationship with limits remains antagonistic. This antagonism is played out in the quasi-rural landscapes of green belts, land designations which have shaped the relationship between the city and the rural for generations. 

Green belts, however, are not particularly green. Instead they are a patchwork of gated industrial farms, landed estates, private golf courses (golf takes up 2,500ha of green belt within London alone) and even airports. In the UK, only 3.9 per cent of green belt land is openly accessible. These paralysed girdles surrounding our cities embody the paradox of a culture both addicted to, and sick from, growth. They are an unhappy mash-up, neither commanding the clarity of an affirmative threshold to the rural, nor the generosity to be used well by those who dwell within them. Instead, could we embrace the positive possibilities of reimagined urban limits, choosing them not under duress, but in the knowledge that hearty moderation is better than sickening over-indulgence? As climate change and inequality intensify the struggle over land, green belts are becoming a critical site for political and architectural imagination. But to understand what green belts could be, we must understand what they were intended to be. 

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Header image: The view west from Tilbury Fort, Essex, 2019 by Chris Dorley-Brown.