What Does Permaculture Offer To Cities and Suburbs?

Maybe it seems obvious, but most of us now live in an urban world. We can’t just walk out the back door and be in the wilderness, or even have a substantial private space. But we can improve the spaces we have with plants, and we’ll be more successful at that by using permaculture. What does permaculture offer to cities and suburbs?

Well, besides the health benefits we get from plants, we can grow plenty of food and repair our cities. The suburbs, with their larger lots, offer a huge opportunity to turn lawns into gardens.

The Permaculture Neighborhood Center

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Mark Lakeman on Urban Permaculture: City Repair, Re-patterning the Grid, Solar Cat Palace

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Cultivating A Suburban Foodshed

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Suburban Permaculture w/ Janet Barocco and Richard Heinberg

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These are hot topics right now, though the concepts are not. City Farmer got rolling in 1978. And Mollison and Holmgren were developing permaculture concepts in the early 1970s.

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City Farmer News has been a boots-on-the-ground resource for urban farmers since 1978.

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The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

copyright 2009 Christopher Leinberger, 176 pages

Author Christopher Leinberger lays out the history of suburban development in the United States, and how we got to the point where nearly all new development has been “big-box” retail, “power centers,” and “large-lot” homes. In addition to his analysis of “drivable sub-urban” and “walkable urban” development, Leinberger weighs in on the causes of the 2008 recession.

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Suburbia…where the developer bulldozes the trees, then names the streets after them. Creative Commons license by Daquela Manera.

Simply put, after World War II, the United States entered a phase of massive economic growth and embraced the “drivable sub-urban” development model with gusto, to the exclusion of other types. This type of development is familiar to us all: low density, large lots, acres of asphalt parking lots in front of chain big-box retail, restaurants, and office parks. A car is virtually required to get around, as the low density of development makes public transportation unfeasible, and the distances and interruption of freeways and multi-lane highways make biking and walking unpleasant, inconvenient, and often dangerous.

In contrast, “walkable urban” development is largely just returning to a more localized way of living, wherein people don’t need a car to live day to day. Walkable urban development has been the standard worldwide for centuries because people had no choice but to work and shop within, say, a quarter-mile to a half-mile from home.

The story gets more interesting when Leinberger addresses the link between the recession of 2008 and the “structural change” in how we build and develop. The “built environment” represents about 35% of our total economy—the largest single chunk. The recession of 2008 coincides with the “structural change” of public preference shifting from primarily drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development. In other words, the shenanigans in finance and real estate popped the bubble at the time that the public’s preference towards walkable urban development was reaching critical mass.

To be sure, drivable sub-urban development will continue to be built, and walkable urban development never completely went away. But now we know that drivable sub-urban development has done poorly in the recession, losing value, while walkable urban development has done fairly well. There is massive over-supply of drivable sub-urban property, and great demand for walkable urban property, leading, of course, to falling prices in suburbia and rising prices in the urban neighborhoods.

Leinberger references Arthur C. Nelson, professor at the University of Utah:

“There were 54 million large-lot single-family houses in 2000 and Nelson projects that upward of 22 million will not find ready buyers when it comes time to sell, which implies much lower prices.” This is the market at work.

With a surplus of obsolete drivable sub-urban housing now and for the next few decades, our society faces a few associated problems. When people fled the cities for suburbia, they left behind housing stock that was constructed more robustly than most suburban homes of today, which have been “value engineered” to look impressive from a distance, but which almost certainly will not endure over time. Vinyl and hardboard siding, vinyl windows, cheap asphalt shingles, low-end furnaces and air-conditioning units, vinyl flooring, and drywall and chipboard walls are not going to last like the housing stock built in 1915. These will be high-maintenance homes.

And because of the low density of suburbia, public transportation is not very cost-effective and so mostly non-existent, so residents need cars to get around. When gasoline prices rise, driving becomes even more expensive. So the housing itself may become cheap, but maintaining it, and getting to and from work and shopping, will become relatively more expensive.

If sub-urban housing loses more and more value, people stop maintaining it, as there’s no financial incentive to spend money on a house that you cannot recoup at the time of sale. That causes financial pain for homeowners, as their largest asset stagnates or declines in value; for banks, as lending for a depreciable and hard-to-sell asset may not make sense; and for municipalities, as the tax base shrinks and needed services go unfunded.

In the past, families with children drove demand for sub-urban housing. However, families are projected to decline to only about 25% of U.S. households in 2040, and few people without kids will want a large-lot house in suburbia. As always, demographics is destiny, and the shift from drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development has the potential to be painful for suburbia.

Leinberger concludes with five steps he says are necessary for walkable urbanism to thrive across the country. The details can get a bit dense, so I’ll summarize:

1. Zoning must change to support mixed use development.

2. Financing must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of walkable urban development.

3. Government must end subsidies for drivable sub-urban development.

4. Government must invest in walkable urban infrastructure, such as rail transit.

5. Government must intensively manage walkable urban areas to ensure that it’s done properly.

While reading this account, I began to wonder where the opportunities will be found, and to consider a niche for some large-lot sub-urban homes. Do they have the potential for supporting self-sufficiency? It seems to me that an industrious family, for example, could create a market garden, woodshop, or other home business on their one-acre sub-urban lot. I’m not the first to consider this possibility, of course, but it’s interesting so I’ll come back to it in another blog post.

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Can large-lot suburban homes have a sustainable future?

The U.S. has a massive oversupply of large-lot homes, defined as properties of 7000 square feet or more. According to studies by Dr. Arthur C. Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, and others, more than 25 million large-lot suburban homes now exist that will go begging for buyers over the next couple decades.

Demand is strong for homes in walkable urban settings, though, fueled by seniors who are leaving the suburbs and want the amenities of a city, and by younger people who crave an urban lifestyle. It looks like a fundamental shift from the drivable suburban development pattern of the last fifty years.

By the year 2030, only about 27% of American households will have children, according to Dr. Nelson, so the nuclear family of mom, dad, and two kids living in suburbia will be in the minority. In addition, Dr. Nelson predicts that single-person households will rise to 34% of all households by 2030. And with a huge surplus of suburban homes on large lots—the traditional home of the nuclear family for so many decades—and only about a quarter of all households having children, creative living options will be needed to attract people to those neighborhoods.

More from Dr. Nelson: “From the 1950s to 1990s, we designed American suburbs through zoning and subdivision codes to accommodate families with children,” Nelson said. “That kind of model is outdated. We need to redesign our suburbs to cater to people without children, and even single-person households, who have a very different perspective on what they want for housing.”

Read more here.

So demand for large-lot homes in suburbia will be weak thanks to over-supply, and other interlinked factors that will probably exacerbate the problems. Rising fuel costs make daily life everywhere more expensive, but in suburbia, where a car is almost required, residents are stuck with driving, as public transportation options usually do not provide service to all the places that people need to go to. Excessive supply and inability to sell many homes leads to foreclosures and blighted neighborhoods far from people’s jobs, so even if the prices are low, how many people will want to invest in a seemingly declining neighborhood? Who would want to borrow money to buy such homes, considering that the property may depreciate over time?

I can think of a few scenarios. Industrious young-ish people may want to use the available space for business. The contrarian in me sees many of those large-lot homes as having great potential for self-sufficiency. An oversupply means low prices; large lots mean room for gardens and woodlots and workshops and so on. With proper growing techniques, you can grow more food than you need for your own family, so you could also have a market garden and cash income.

How much land is required to grow food? It depends, of course, on the methods you use. People who promote biointensive techniques claim that only about a half-acre is needed for a family of four. The Dervaes family in Pasadena, California, has produced 7000 pounds of vegetables, in one growing season, on 1/10 of an acre, or about 3900 square feet. Adding a simple greenhouse could extend the growing season and produce even more food. It might be necessary to rebuild the soil, as many productive fields saw the topsoil bulldozed off and sold when the land was being developed for housing, but that can be done and isn’t too complex.

David Holmgren, one of the originators of Permaculture, has explored this idea here.

Another idea for creative re-use of suburban homes is “alternative” housing arrangements, such as co-housing, multi-generational housing, and multi-family housing. It seems that these uses would often require changes in zoning and covenants, but if half the homes in a given neighborhood end up vacant, people may very well be able to change the zoning, if not simply ignore it. This option would be useful for so many people, from older people who may need financial or physical assistance to be able to stay in their homes, to single parents who can develop relationships with other single parents and all look after each other and their children. Intermixing between the generations is also a positive attribute found in walkable urban neighborhoods, and could be encouraged in suburbia.

And finally, another example is artists and musicians, who always seem to flock to cheap and useable spaces. In the process, they often create exactly the kind of vibrant, creative, mixed-use—and gentrified—neighborhoods that attract families, singles, and seniors. I find it very interesting to contemplate artists and musicians re-making suburbia so that hipsters and yuppies want it again.

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

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