“Cultural dimension of urban agriculture” – Prof. Raffaella Laviscio, Politecnico di Milano

Earlier this year, Adjunct Professor Raffaella Laviscio of the Dept.of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering at Politecnico di Milano was hosted by Assoc. Prof. Pat Brown of the School of Architecture and Landscape, Kingston University to complete research for a Short Term Scientific Mission Report for COST – Action Urban Agriculture Europe. COST is supported by the EU Research and Technological Development Framework programme.

This first extract from Raffaella’s report, “Cultural dimension of urban agriculture” is detailed below. One case study is discussed here with future posts focusing on further case studies carried out during Raffaella’s stay in Kingston.



The aim of the Cost programme is to develop a common European approach to urban agriculture in a spatial context that, according to local opinions and standards, is categorized as urban on the basis of existing research projects and reference regions in the partner countries.

The subject of this research is the London metropolitan area, developing a methodology to discover cultural heritage in urban agriculture and specific descriptors that guide the enhancement of this specific landscape, testing it on sampled case studies.  Research was conducted at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Kingston University in collaboration with Assoc. Professor Patricia Brown and Carine Brannan whose support has been of great importance in the selection of case studies and in making contact with stakeholders and other scientific institutions that are interested in the topics of urban agriculture, landscape and historic farmstead.

The proposal of this research  was to study the existing methods for the description and evaluation of agricultural landscapes (with particular refers to the cultural dimension of the landscape), and to understand which indicators allow us to recognize it in the different Urban Agriculture types by using case studies.  England was chosen as it has a long tradition studying landscape; in particular two landscape reading methods elaborated in UK are very common and valued around the world:

  1. The Landscape Character Assessment (LCA): “The tool that is used to help us to understand, and articulate, the character of the landscape. It helps us identify the features that give a locality its sense of place and pinpoints what makes it different from neighbouring areas.” (Landscape Character Assessment: Guidance for England and Scotland, the Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, 2002).
  1. The Historic Landscape Characterization (HLC): The Historic Landscape Characterization programme is a powerful tool that provides a framework for broadening our understanding of the whole landscape and contributes to decisions affecting tomorrow’s landscape. (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk).

This study aims to define which aspects of the English landscape reading methods are more relevant to urban agricultural landscapes and, through the application on some case-studies, which are the more suitable descriptors of the UA cultural dimension.

London map

Research methodology

Initial desk-top research was carried out and the following institutions contacted:

  • English Heritage
  • Natural England
  • Campaign to Protect Rural England
  • Capital Growth
  • Sustain
  • University of Reading
  • Newcastle University

The research aims to describe several case studies and how their cultural heritage is a significant component of the agricultural activity.  Cultural heritage has been investigated by field visits and interviews structured to understand the cultural components depending on:

  • tangible heritage;
  • sensory perception (visual, olfactory, sound),
  • intangible heritage

Case studies were chosen in different area of the London metropolitan area that refer to different landscapes; all of them have a strong relationship with the city, due to short distance but also due to pressure of the urban area on the countryside.  Interviews have been mainly conducted with the farm manager but also sometimes involve other people of different provenance (visitors, other workers).

A check list to understand cultural heritage in urban agriculture

About tangible heritage

  • What is the landscape in which we are?
  • Which is the history of the place?
  • How has the place changed over time?
  • What are the aspects of continuity and those of discontinuity over time?
  • Were there special events that have transformed the place?
  • Are there historical traces of the past?
  • Is the place a listed, protected place?
  • Are there specific public protection schemes like landscape parks, agricultural parks,….?
  • Are there traditional materials already observable?
  • What about the ages of the rural buildings?
  • What about architecture? Are there traditional building types?
  • Are there other cultural values?

About intangible heritage

  • Today what ís special about being here?
  • Have you particular family relationships with the area?
  • Is there a special memory or story of the place?
  • Is there a specific place linked to it? Can you show this on a local map?
  • Are there special meanings attributed to the place by people?
  • Are there traditional agricultural techniques?
  • Is the place connected with special events?
  • Is the place connected to people of special importance for history?
  • Is the place well-known by people?
  • Is the place mentioned in books or are there other references?
  • Do agricultural activities support or conserve traditional/historical landscape?
  • Are there specific local breed of cattle?
  • Are there typical products?
  • Is there a quality label for your food production?
  • What is most important to conserve and protect?

About sensory perception

  • What are your everyday experiences of the land? Your regular routes?
  • What are the special sights, sounds, smells, taste and things to touch?
  • How does the landscape change during the seasons?
  • What is the visual perception of the place?
  • Is the place well recognizable from the context? Is it emergent, different from the context?
  • Is the landscape a complex, differentiated landscape or not?
  • What are the predominant colours? Are there many colours or just a dominant colour?
  • Is the visual picture of particular significance?
  • Does the place give you a sense of tranquility or not?

Case study 1: 

Great barn

Tangible heritage

The Great Barn’s landscape reflects the typical character of the High Weald- a huge woodland forest, until circa 800AD.  It remained as woodland as the soil was heavy clay, very wet in places and not easily accessible. It has remained a secondary area for agriculture ever since. The landscape is the product of the interaction between physical conditions and historical evolution.  Physical conditions of highly varied topography, cold, ill-drained soils and cold winters have always favoured tree growth. Nevertheless, between 1086 and 1346, 50% of the woodland cover was removed by farmers to create landscape which largely remains intact to this day: small farms characterized by small irregular closures or fields set within a framework of remaining small woodlands and shaws (wooded field boundaries).  This ancient landscape derives from a once highly integrated and labour intensive land management system where agriculture and woodland management were in a mutually beneficial economic symbiosis on every farm holding.  The layout is therefore medieval and identifiable from the very first maps of the area, largely unchanged. The heavy soil type meant that ploughing the land was generally very difficult with a few exceptions. Growing high value horticultural crops, particularly hops which need the shelter provide has developed and large volumes of timber for the hop gardens are plentiful to fire the kilns.  Today the landscape of the High Weald is a small-scale and highly diverse landscape and combining great intimacy with open views from the major ridge lines.

It is an archetypal medieval landscape with a unique patchwork of wood-bounded fields.

Agricultural characters:

  • Small farm size
  • A high percentage of part-time farms
  • Farm types dominated by grassland enterprises (dairy, beef and sheep)

Halden Place has some of the better and easier soil types in the area and was able to support a significant farm-house built in 1742 from the mix of arable, livestock and hops.  That wealth is reflected in the Great Barn constructed 250 years ago. The Great Barn is a listed Kentish Barn dating from the 18th century; it forms part of a range of traditional brick and timber farm buildings last used for agriculture in the mid-1980s.  It is constructed entirely of a heavy timber frame with the outer walls clad in weatherboard under a tiled roof.  Hops would have been the major income earner for the farmers of the day, a process continued until 1995 when agricultural mechanization has required different and bigger buildings with the construction of new, modern buildings.

The Great Barn is now functionally detached from the land that surrounds it which is now occupied by a tenant farmer based 15 Km away. The land around retains its Medieval character and is well maintained. The farmer maintains the fields, hedges and woods in good condition. The maintenance of the traditional character of the landscape is due to the existence of specific EU& UK law and regulation but also to a great sense of the place by people who manage and live it.  The maintenance of this landscape system is guaranteed by a unique landownership that allows different functions in the same place.

Intangible heritage

The Great Barn is mentioned in several documents and a large bibliography is available – some of them link Halden Place to the name of Sir John Guldeford,  Knight arms of Guildford still remain, carved in stone, on the stables belonging to the Great Barn.  Nowadays the farm is well-known as wedding place and many people use the landscape for open-air recreation. The sense of the place is strongly felt by the population that has also launched specific studies on the site and its parish.  It is a landscape recognized to be of national importance – it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To many it is quintessentially English.  Also measures on the historical buildings to allow adaptation to new functions are minimal.  The Great Barn is a listed building and reflects the special meaning attributed to it.

Sensory perception

The landscape of the Great Barn is a highly distinctive area with a mosaic of small hedged fields and sunken lanes which together with the wooded relief provides a sense of remoteness within lowland England. It is a small-scale landscape, quite enclosed with a complex texture characterized by wooded boundaries and irregular fields that create a harmonious overall picture.  People value the scenic beauty of the landscape: its ancientness and sense of history enhanced by the presence of the historic building and wonderful views. They enjoy the relative sense of tranquility and intimacy that this human scale landscape provides; the ability to get out and about through myriad public rights of ways and the opportunities to get close the nature.

Great barn 2Image: Raffaella Laviscio



  1. Pingback: “Cultural dimension of urban agriculture” report: Case Studies | Landscape Interface Studio
  2. Pingback: “Cultural dimension of urban agriculture” report: Further case studies | Landscape Interface Studio

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