When you think of homesteading, sustainable living, or permaculture, what comes to mind? Does your mental picture look more like the top image — a pastoral scene of rolling fields or deep dark woods with a ramshackle country house and its sprawling gardens nestled in the centre? Or did you picture something more like the bottom image — an ordinary city street? I think most of us dream up something like the top image when we think of how to live our lives sustainably, which is too bad, because when we look around us at the neighbourhoods we live in, they are far more likely to resemble the bottom image. It seems like the majority of my friends dream of moving out of the city to live simply and take care of their own needs as independently as possible. And so did I, for that matter, until I actually tried it.
A few years ago my partner and I moved to a farm in the Kootenays. We started a market garden from bare pasture, raised chickens (for meat and eggs), ducks, pigs, and sheep, canned and root cellar-ed like crazy, and were able to eat largely self produced meals, even after the snow descended. It should have been ideal, but a few details kept nagging at me.
The main problem was the driving. The endless driving. Half hour trips to town to get to the farmer’s market and sell our produce. Twenty minutes to get to the closest grocery store. At least twenty minutes to get to a friend’s place. I went from being someone who biked absolutely everywhere all year round to someone who felt trapped in a truck an inordinate amount of the time.
The second was community. There were lots of like minded folks around doing similar projects, but you had to drive an awfully long way to find them or hang out with them. I missed being able to walk down my street and run into friends, get to know my neighbours well, and generally just feel as though I was a part of a larger community. I missed my communal house where we tore up the front lawn to plant a garden and the old couple down the street were so happy to see what we were doing that they stopped to talk and later brought us some of their lettuce starts to add to our efforts.
And that brings me to the third big problem — sharing resources. I was used to freeboxes and dumpsters and cheap thrift stores and food banks and free furniture on Craigslist and all kinds of other official and unofficial ways of sharing what people have, find or scrounge up. Lots of these things didn’t really exist in the country, and if they did, they were a long drive away. Obviously, I’m not saying it’s good if families need to eat at food banks, just that they should be available if need be, and you shouldn’t have to spend a bunch of gas money (and need a car) to get there.
When I moved back to the city I was relieved to realize that I could do pretty much everything I’d done in country in an urban setting, but that I didn’t feel isolated doing it, and I had way better access to community, shared resources, and sustainable transportation. And I’m certainly not the only one who has come to this conclusion.
Here is a great article by a woman who grew up on a 27 acre homestead and has lived in cities all over the world. She identifies six reasons why cities can sustainable places, citing their efficient uses of space and the fact that their carbon footprints are often not as big as we think.
Tobey Hemenway, who wrote an amazing home permaculture manual called Gaia’s Garden sets down his thoughts on urban vs. rural sustainability in this thoughtful article. He writes about the large footprint of rural residents, as well as the notion that when disasters or hard times strike, that while we all want to run to the hills, we may be way safer and healthier in urban centers.
I also recommend checking out Novella Carpenter’s Farm City, which is available at the Victoria library. It’s the story of her reclaiming a vacant lot in Oakland and turning it into an urban farm. She grows food and does all the basic stuff you would imagine, but also raises pigs (solely on dumpstered food, which is debatably nutritious but certainly an interesting approach) and goats in the heart of the city.
To me, it makes sense to plan for urban sustainable living simply because the majority of the world’s residents live in cities. By 2000, 50% of the world’s population lived in cities or megacities, and from what I’ve read, that number is increasing like crazy. It’s better to plan for the realities of our lives today than to put off our dreams and plans for a nebulous future day when we can move out to the country.
What do you think? Do you dream of rural living? Are you happy in the city? Which lifestyle do you think has the most potential for sustainable living?