Sutures in the City
This article’s about where, I think, the best place to invest our energy toward creating positive change lies in repairing community and the planet. We all have the power to be just as positive an influence on this planet as we are the negative element many environmentalists make us out to be. The thing is, the power of being positive is truly empowering; feeling negative is totally disempowering. Read on and learn about the case for making positive impact, and a strategy for doing so. This article starts off pretty stark, but I promise, you’ll reach the end of this post hopefully as charged as I am writing it!
I always like to tell my students that there’s at least two options anyone, or any organization can take: to take from a cycle, or to be part of a cycle. Ecology has evolved to become the best community planner on the planet, with over 2.3 billion years of experience on its resume! It has figured out all sorts of problems that current-day planners and engineers are getting paid to solve. Such problems include flood and drought control, fertility, pest management, sense of community, sustainability, resilience and a whole host of others.
Writes Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the permaculture concept: "When the needs of a system cannot be met from within itself, we pay the price in energy and pollution." I love this quote, because it’s so true. I’m going to attempt to explain really quickly what he means because this understanding will help set the tone and purpose of this article.
Think of a “system” as a community of “elements.” An element is some living or non-living thing — greenhouses, chickens, ponds, hot dog stands — these are all examples of elements. A system is thus an arrangement of these elements. There’s a really famous system called the Three Sisters, a plant guild consisting of corn, beans and squash. All three of these plants do really well when planted together, compared to if they were planted separately. Here’s why: Each of these three plants has innate needs, and innate yields. One of the many yields of corn, for example, is a pole for a plant like a bean to grow on. So, of course, one of the innate needs of the bean is a trellis. But the corn is a heavy feeder, requiring lots of nitrogen. The bean is a legume, and so it actually fixes nitrogen into the soil. So you can quickly see that the corn and the bean pair up quite nicely. The same cooperative relationship exists between the squash as well, which shades the system from the sun and drying winds, benefiting the other two plants in exchange for nitrogen. I love this example, because it clearly exemplifies cooperation, which is the core identifiable characteristic of any ‘sustainable’ community. So, at the end of the day, everything that each of these three plants need is actually being provided by the same three plants. That’s a pretty sweet situation!
Some Sutures in the City
Front Lawn Food Forest – In the fall of 2009, Rob and Michelle Avis of Verge Permaculture turned their lawn over into a food forest. This project had an unexpected but really desirable outcome — it created a whole bunch of opportunities for people to connect. Not too long after their project began, they began receiving useful building materials from around the neighbourhood. As the garden flourished, Rob and Michelle had such a surplus of zucchinis, that they had to give them to their neighbours! A whole lot of knowledge was exchanged, with of their neighbours itching to tear out their lawn and turn it into a food forest too. In 2010, Rob and Michelle constructed a mass oven in their back yard, built through a hands-on workshop by Dirt Craft Natural Building, and quickly held a series of backyard meet ‘n greets, bringing together a whole bunch of people from the block and beyond for bread and pizzas fired in the oven. Fantastic!
Calgary Harvest – This is a project conceived by myself in 2009, but had its first official season in 2010. The aim of this project is to glean unused fruit from trees growing on the properties of residents who do not have the capacity to harvest the fruit. The harvest is split three ways: a third goes back to the tree owner, another third goes to volunteers who pick the fruit, and the last third is divided further between local farmers markets and charitable organizations. In the project’s first season, approximately 6,000 pounds of fruit was harvested, 250 trees registered and 150 volunteers. This year the numbers are already 600 trees, and 250 volunteers! What was unexpected was the degree that this project brought people together. So many new friendships and relationships were made on the harvest weekends, as well as people coming to our booth at the farmers market for our apples! We are gearing up for a “grown in Calgary” apple harvest festival this year in October. Who knows what positive effect this will have on the community! Can’t wait! Here’s the project’s website: www.calgaryharvest.com
Calgary Permablitz Network
A Permablitz is an intense and beneficial transfer of energy where members of the community converge on a host’s property to work together and replace a lawn with a food forest, garden, or some other system designed to the principles of permaculture. Think barn-raising, but for a landscape! People come to these events for all sorts of reasons – they are jam-packed with skill-building workshops delivered by the participants themselves, hands-on experience, and meeting new people. People come to Blitzes for another important reason too: when you volunteer on at least three other people’s Blitzes, you are eligible to have a Blitz crew come to your house and provide the labour in putting in your own permaculture system! The Permablitz is going to be one of the strongest community-building sutures known to man! All the details will be on the Calgary Permaculture Guild’s (another suture!) website at www.permaculturecalgary.org
Now, let’s take those same three plants and separate them into monocultures. Let’s focus on the corn for a minute. You’re in the middle of your big corn field, and there’s nothing in there except corn. In a monoculture, there is only one kind of plant, and so there are no opportunities for cooperative needs and yields-based relationships like in the Three Sisters guild, because there is no diversity of plants in monocultures. Corn, being a heavy feeding plant, eventually takes up all the available naturally-occurring nitrogen in the soil, which is moved offsite via every truckload of corn. So then, one year, you suddenly realize your corn crop isn’t doing so well anymore. After chatting with some farmers in the area, you decide to go to the store and purchase some synthetic macronutrient fertilizer, containing nitrogen derived from fossil fuels. You then apply it to your corn field, and boom! Your corn field is doing better than it ever had. After successive years, however, you start to notice that your corn crop needs more and more of this fertilizer every year. Had the fertilizer solution actually solved the problem?
Synthetic macronutrient fertilizer takes a lot of energy to make. The only reason why it’s affordable to you and I is because of economies of scale — that is, it’s worth making if there’s a whole lot of people who need to buy it. So, think again about your nice green corn stands. All this embodied energy is needed to make up for the nitrogen that’s no longer in the soil. It’s like the corn field is on intravenous therapy! As soon as the IV drip is broken, the corn field dies. Now think again about Bill Mollison’s quote above. To keep this system going, all this energy and pollution from the petrochemical industry is required to keep that corn field system alive. In other words, because the needs of that system can no longer be met from within, we’re all paying the price. There is a connection missing in that system, and until it’s replaced, that corn field is always going to be dependent on increasing amounts of that energy and pollution-intensive macronutrient fertilizer. And the missing connections are beneficial elements like the beans and the squash.
Believe it or not, human communities are increasingly being built in the exact same way as the monoculture corn field — there’s really no difference between our bedroom communities and corn fields. Just as there are no functionally beneficial connections between identical corn plants in the monoculture, there are no functionally beneficial connections between people in these ‘communities’, which are single-use zoned monocultures of people and houses. These communities are merely a collection of individuals, and as long as this is the case, there is no possibility for these communities to meet their needs from within themselves. Instead, these communities require energy, water, food, people, entertainment, money, products, jobs, fertility, insurance, from outside their boundaries, and these are supplied by fragile supply lines. In essence, our communities are also on an intravenous drip, and there’s a bed pan to take their wastes away. I recently found out that the City of Airdrie (a quickly growing community of about 150,000 people located 15 kilometers north of the City of Calgary, Canada) receives 100% of its potable water supply from the City of Calgary, sends 100% of its municipal solid waste back to Calgary, and 55% of its residents commute to Calgary for work every weekday. Consequently, it takes over 10 calories of energy to put food on the dinner table for every calorie of energy that dinner provides. Clearly a problem!
Here’s another example: major debt-based fiat currencies, such as the Canadian Dollar, are monocultures. This money has become “legal tender” and is the only federally accepted unit of exchange. So, across the country, this is the only way for people to engage in economic exchanges. This literally restricts peoples’ ability to exchange based on their power to earn Canadian Dollars. If you don’t have access to this currency, the current economic system does not value you. Yet I cannot think of any person who doesn’t have value. Every human being has innate yields as well as needs, and therefore can benefit from each other in a local economic relationship. Fortunately, alternative forms of currency are popping up everywhere, including Calgary Dollars, and a bunch of other Local Energy Transfer Systems (LETS) that value human beings for who they are and all their unique skills instead of merely their dollar earning power.
But here’s the really cool part and the good news
It’s the connections that count. Like in the Three Sisters, the strength of our communities is directly related to the diversity of functional and beneficial connections between people and organizations, which are essentially exchanges of value. Let me put in a plug on the power and importance of connectivity: most people I know love to be around other people and benefit from connection. We spend billions of dollars on tourism to European cities to see great public spaces and quaint streets, which are relics of strong communities from times past. Cell phone sales today are at record heights, and over half of us have a Facebook account and are addicted to email (I’m definitely including myself here – I’m hooked!). In fact, according to Mark Anielski, author of the Economics of Happiness, about 40% of our personal happiness is attributed to the quality of our relationships with other people. Let’s face it, as much as we may want to deny it, we fundamentally require meaningful human connection with others. We are hardwired to create community, and it’s really only an archaic fear-based political and bylaw system that inhibits the formation of community these days.
So this becomes the prescription for the solution! In fact, every problem we face is actually the prescription for its solution if we apply our imagination. Just as ‘weedy’ dandelions in a garden indicate soil compaction, monoculture communities are simply diversity deficiencies. Most of the ‘problems’ we see today were inadvertently manufactured, and so we created entire industries and institutions dedicated to solving their symptoms. But the solution is simply to create opportunities for beneficial and functional connections to flourish again. And this solution doesn’t rest on waiting for our dream mayor, politician or government to be elected and sustained. We don’t have time for that. This is something you and I can do together right now with each of our two hands.
So, the solution and directive for action for any community is: create sutures in the city that allow community to form, and build more of these sutures after every success. Then make it really easy for others to join in and take ownership of the process.
The Power of the One-Rock Dam
Image courtesy of The Quivira Coalition
This is no different from repairing the water cycle in the driest places in the planet. To re-green the desert, all you have to do is find an erosion gully and build a little rock dam there. In the next rainstorm, silt and sediment carried by the rush of rainwater will pile up behind that little check dam. Then you come out and plant it to seed and make that check dam a little higher. More sediment will build up and the plants will sprout because the erosion will be eliminated. All that sediment will sponge water, and the plants will take root, capturing even more sediment during the next rain event, causing the water to infiltrate even deeper in the soil. At the end of the day, you have an upward spiral on your hands. That check dam becomes a suture in the landscape, creating an exponentially reparative solution at the most fundamental level. On this subject, you should check out The Man Who Planted Trees. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, in a good way.
This same pattern of earth repair applies to community repair. This is what I mean by ‘suture in the city.’ It’s about creating a meaningful and functional edge that accumulates community. I’ve seen everything from front yard gardens that brought people around the block to a first-name basis, to community projects such as Calgary Urban Harvest Project, which saw 6000 pounds of local fruit growing on residents’ trees diverted to those who made good use of them, all harvested by teams of community members who left with each other’s cell phone numbers heralding the beginning of a host of new friendships. These are all little edges that ‘mere’ individuals created and that had such a profoundly net positive effect on building this thing called community. All these new connections are emerging exponentially. The City Repair Project is one such a clear example of a suture in the city.
So, if there’s anything I want you to take from this read, it is this: You can make just as positive an impact on community and the planet as the environmental movement has us believe we are a negative impact. There’s an important strategy to apply however, and that strategy involves creating these “sutures” in just the right places. But when you get the strategy and the design right, you’ll be amazed at the change just a single person can make. So go ahead, open up your imagination and engage the reparative process and create a suture in your city (and don’t forget to tell us about it!)!