About the Commons

the commons, Kaid Benfield

Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote this though-provoking post about “the commons,” why they’re important, and what works. Interesting to tie together the commons and sustainability.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Low-Tech and High-Tech Homes—At A Low-Cost

Substandard housing is a worldwide problem—and opportunity. Some places face natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, that wipe out peoples’ homes. Other places face huge population growth, with more and more people packed into crowded slums every day. How do all those people provide shelter for themselves?

As we’ve always done, many people build a home themselves, in the vernacular style. You also see plenty of creative options for healthier, more sustainable housing. Some make use of new technology, such as re-working shipping containers. Others use manufactured materials in creative ways. And still others use mostly low-tech methods with a dose of technology. But all over the world, people are building low-tech and high-tech homes—at a low-cost

Examples of Low-Cost Homes

This one is called The $500 House.

YouTube Preview Image

Masonry Homes in the Vernacular Style

Locally made bricks are used all over the world.

YouTube Preview Image

 

High-Tech But More Expensive

This M.I.T. project has been built. It looks good but the cost came to $5925.

 

Here’s a very impressive shelter made from a shipping container. With two fold-out wings, it goes from approximately 160 square feet to about 480 square feet. Great engineering!

YouTube Preview Image

 

Not quite as cheap, but uses standardized components and goes together quickly.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Low-Tech and Slow But Cheap, Functional, Durable, and Sustainable!

Here’s info about poly bags for earthbag building. Just $.06 each!

YouTube Preview Image

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Greener Cities Are the Future of Sustainable Living

You’ve probably seen some of the lists of “best places” compiled by various magazines. Outside, Money, and others compile their lists based on their idea of relevant criteria. You see a lot of repeat winners, with Madison, Wisconsin, as a perfect example. It routinely wins a place on both lists.

I like the Outside list, as it shows cities and towns developing new amenities for recreation. What’s especially interesting is towns like this year’s winner, Richmond, Virginia, that have cleaned up previously polluted land and rivers. The James River, for example, was closed to fishing for 13 years due to extreme pollution. After extensive cleanup work, it’s now a recreational hub.

 

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Another approach to list-making is evaluating and improving the sustainability of cities. As more than 80% of Americans and Canadians are now urban dwellers, it’s clear that cities have a major positive impact on the environmental health of our world, and on our people. Greener cities are the future of sustainable living

It may seem counter-intuitive that cities can be centers of sustainable living—in contrast to living on the land and growing your own food, and so on—but it makes sense when you think about it. When people live in dense cities, they need to drive less—or not at all—to reach all the places they need to go. Delivery of goods and services is more efficient when more people are clustered together. Housing is more efficient on multiple levels with shared walls, for example, than having a home with four walls losing heat to the outside. Food is grown where there’s room to grow a lot efficiently, then transported to the mass of buyers. Waste is a resource and can be re-used or recycled. And cities draw people from the countryside and lessen humans’ daily impact on some rural areas.

So looking beyond simple measures of what we like in a place, such as good schools, outdoor recreation, and short commutes, what makes a place sustainable? And what are the most sustainable cities?

Siemens Green City Index rates 9 criteria

One measure is the Green City Index, developed by Siemens Corporation and the Economist Intelligence Unit. They applied these 9 criteria to cities all over the globe:

  • CO2
  • Energy
  • Land Use
  • Buildings
  • Air
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Transport
  • Environmental Governance

In North America, the top four most sustainable cities, of 27 evaluated, were San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and New York City. This is a useful metric, but cities also have a huge negative impact on the natural world. Bulldozing an entire field and building apartments and offices, even densely, removes wildlife habitat, as well as plants that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. How do cities mitigate this destruction?

 

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

What’s missing from sustainability ratings

This blog at the Sustainable Cities Collective discusses adding more green elements to those sustainability scores, such as green-space percentage, natural areas, and biodiversity. Adding those elements to a sustainability ranking will add to people’s consciousness of their importance.

And why are they important? Green space not only makes our cities look better, people feel less stressed, the heat island effect decreases, plants clean the air of pollutants for us, trees add to property values, and provide a host of other benefits.

Green space, street trees, and natural areas can remediate pollution to create healthier, more enjoyable, more sustainable cities, while they also become the places where we play.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

On Designing and Building Solar-Oriented Cities

This article from Low-tech Magazine is an intriguing overview of designing passive solar cities, or solar-oriented cities, going back to the Greeks and the Anasazi, and with a lot of attention on Ralph Knowles.

Here’s a presentation with some of the same information:

YouTube Preview Image

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

What makes a livable community?

Community seems to be a popular concept right now. People all over the United States are realizing that sprawling, monolithic, and unsatisfying development—the kind that has been dominant for the last half-century—can be modified and improved. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and from many different perspectives, such as transportation, health and fitness, land use, and so on. What is happening to drive this awareness and desire for change, and what makes a community livable and pleasant?

Well, from my perspective, the desire for a real “community” springs from the crap so many Americans have to live with. In between the “bucolic” countryside and the walkable urban downtown is a mess of development that is entirely car-focused. Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, calls it “drivable sub-urban” development. We also call it sprawl.

It’s made up of gigantic neighborhoods of similarly styled houses, and nothing but houses. Then across a busy four-lane highway, a “big-box” retail center, with acres of asphalt parking lots. It’s low-density, large-lot development that gobbles up open land. Walking or riding a bike in these areas is either unfeasible because the distances are too great, or the heavy traffic on multi-lane streets and highways discourages anyone not driving a car. It’s either too far or doesn’t feel safe. It’s not healthy, either.

Since 1960, “the overweight population has doubled, the obese population has increased 5 fold and the population with extreme or morbid obesity has increased by a factor of nearly 12!” (Downey Obesity Report)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2000), “In the USA the proportion of children who walk or bike to school declined between 1969 (42%) and 2001 (16%) resulting in less exercise.”

Why we ended up with this development is a topic for another blog post, but people can see that drivable sub-urban development is not healthy, and for many it is not pleasant. Let’s look at an alternative model for development, one that is designed for humans and not cars.

The American Institute of Architects has created 10 Principles for Livable Communities that help us make our communities pleasant, functional, and human centered. Check out the Center for Communities by Design for more information and more detail on these principles.

1. Design on a Human Scale
Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities allow residents to walk to shops, services, cultural resources, and jobs and can reduce traffic congestion and benefit people’s health.

2. Provide Choices
People want variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation, and employment. Variety creates lively neighborhoods and accommodates residents in different stages of their lives.

3. Encourage Mixed-Use Development
Integrating different land uses and varied building types creates vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and diverse communities.

4. Preserve Urban Centers
Restoring, revitalizing, and infilling urban centers takes advantage of existing streets, services and buildings and avoids the need for new infrastructure. This helps to curb sprawl and promote stability for city neighborhoods.

5. Vary Transportation Options
Giving people the option of walking, biking and using public transit, in addition to driving, reduces traffic congestion, protects the environment and encourages physical activity.

6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces
Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public places to stimulate face-to-face interaction, collectively celebrate and mourn, encourage civic participation, admire public art, and gather for public events.

7. Create a Neighborhood Identity
A “sense of place” gives neighborhoods a unique character, enhances the walking environment, and creates pride in the community.

8. Protect Environmental Resources
A well-designed balance of nature and development preserves natural systems, protects waterways from pollution, reduces air pollution, and protects property values.

9. Conserve Landscapes
Open space, farms, and wildlife habitat are essential for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.

10. Design Matters
Design excellence is the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

It’s interesting to note that most of these principles, if not all, are simply a return to the way we used to build cities. Not all of us have forgotten what makes a livable community.

***

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

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.

***

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities