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Research Students - Material Culture
Jane Dickson  

Working Title: Greenroofs, phyto-materiality and ecotopia

Primary Supervisor: Dr Victor Buchli
Secondary Supervisor: Professor Yvonne Rydin (Bartlett School of Planning)
Start date: January 2010
Completion date: December 2013


My research is multi-sited but largely conducted within a council sustainability team. They work on many projects, such as solar PV, eco-house construction and combined heat and power projects. However, the thesis concentrates on the material culture of green (deliberately vegetated) roofs, of which there are now approximately 700 in London. Roofs have been made visible as 'wasted' spaces and re-interpreted as a 'valuable asset' in the adaptation to climate change with inclusion in the London Plan (2008; 2010). This specifically links neoliberal governance of the urban environment with environmental concerns about the city, so it can be said that greening the built environment is central to the way contemporary London is being conceived of politically and economically.

This thesis examines how greenroofs are capable of being understood through different registers. Both resistant and amenable to, digitization, standardization and quantification, greenroofs exist in databases, photographs, architectural plans, as policies and through notions of biodiversity and ecosystems services. Plants produce people, policy, roofscapes and ecotopias. As they move across geographical and organisational boundaries, they re-shape the governance of the urban environment of London under the conditions of a changing climate. Behind these manipulations of materiality is the recognition, by respondents, that plants are biologically alive and that they possess agentive capabilities independent of contact with the human social. In recognition of these points, the thesis proposes the notion of phyto-materiality.

Phyto-materiality is explored through Gibson's Affordance Theory (1966), one of the pillars of material culture studies. Affordances produce the conditions for agentive capacities and just as the greenroof layers provide affordances for plant-life, so do the plants provide affordances for other forms of life. These developing webs of biodiversity become entangled with and central to the desire to regulate London's built environment. Phyto-materiality becomes both the ends-in-sight vision of (McKenna:2002), and the methodology for, ecotopia.


2013. “Agency, Sustainability and Organisational Change”. In Anthropology in Action. Special Issue on Organisations: Structure and Agency.

with Buchli, V. 2011. “Green Houses: Problem-solving, Ontology and the House”. In Designing for Zero Waste: Consumption, Technologies and the Built Environment (Eds) Steffen Lehmann and Robert Crocker. Earthspan: London.

2011. Review of Domestic Cultures: Issues in cultural and media studies by Joanne Hollows and Gay Suburban Narratives in American and British culture: Homecoming queens by Martin Dines and Women, Privicy and Modernity in Early Twenthieth Century British Writing by Wendy Gan. In Home Cultures Vol: 8 issue 3 pp 341-346.

Academic Conference Papers

Green Roofs: Changing the urban environment, changing policy-making. Panel Presentation on Environmental Policy. American Anthropological Association 2012 Annual Meeting, San Francisco, USA.

The Only Way is Up: Green Roofs, Nature and the City. 1St International Conference on Urban Sustainability and Resilience. University College London. September 2012.

The Only Way is Up: Claiming Roofscapes, Utopia and Nature. Green City Promises. Annual Conference of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) Conference, University of Manchester. September 2012.

“Job with the Council - Job for Life?”: Strategies and networks at work. Presentation at Structure inside Organisations Workshop, UCL. July 2012.

Green Roofs: The materialization of nature and nature as a material. Panel Presentation. Anthropology In The World. Royal Anthropological Institute Annual Meeting, London. June 2012.

Up on the Roof: Roofscapes, Sustainability and Visibility. Centre for Home Studies. Geffrye Museum, London. November 2011.

Retro-fit, Future-fit: Enabling and resisting the sustainable future. Panel Presentation. American Anthropological Association 2011 Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada.

Up On The Roof: Greening culture, greening people. 1st National Green Roof Student Conference, Sheffield, UK, 2011.

Conference Organisation

2012. Sustainability: Concepts and Materiality. UCL, London. (In conjunction with the Sustainability Reading and Research Group of the Anthropology Department and sponsored by the Environment Institute, UCL).

Conference Chair

Panel Chair at 1St International Conference on Urban Sustainability and Resilience. University College London. September 2012.


Sustainability consultant on team Mastodon C, winner of the top prize for Best Hack and the award at the 2012 AMEE and London Green Hackathon.


2013. UCL Institute of Making Professor Heinz Wolf Materials Bursary.
2012. UCL Anthropology Department Travel Bursary.


Sustainability and Strategy Consultant. January 2012 – present

Consultancy and Research with The Urban Wild Project. June 2012 - present

Membership of Professional Bodies

American Anthropological Association (AAA)
Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI)


Visual anthropology, contemporary social movements, urban food production, crafting and creativity, smart cities, eco-houses, material and technological utopias

Ongoing Biography Blog:

And be sure to look up The Urban Wild Project, which is an exciting community greenroofing project, the first of its kind (we believe) anywhere in the UK:

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