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Urban vs. Rural Sustainability

Over ten years ago my wife and I moved to the country. One of our many reasons for leaving the city was to finally pursue the dream of self-reliance: to create a permaculture homestead that would trim our resource use and let us tap in more fully to nature’s abundance. And in the back of my mind was the quietly nibbling worry that someday the overconsumption party would end—the oil would run out, and things might get ugly. I wanted to be settled where we could be less dependent on the fossil fuel umbilicus when the cord finally snapped.

We went a good way toward making that dream come true. The red clay of our former clearcut turned, in places, to chocolate loam, though I noticed that even as our trees matured I still seemed to be needing more wood chips from the electric company or manure from a stable two miles away. From the garden flowed a steady procession of fruit and vegetables, but I confess I tried to ignore how much well-water we were pumping once our rain catchment ran dry partway through Southern Oregon’s four-month dry season.

We became involved in the local community: Master Gardeners, an environmental group, town meetings. Although we were busy in regional life in the beginning, eventually I found I preferred to drive the hour to see friends in progressive-minded Eugene than fight the pro-logging consciousness that permeated our county. Over the years my few local friends fell away as I became more drawn to the mind-set of those in Eugene, and as the local economics made it necessary for me to be away for weeks to teach and do design work. We were on good speaking terms with all our neighbors, but never found much common ground with them. Local parties began with watery beer and often ended in drunken fights, and neither was to our taste.

Slowly a mild paranoia set in. I started to wonder whether, if the Big Crash came, I was really in the right place. We had the best garden for miles around, and everyone knew it. If law broke down, wasn’t there more than a chance that my next door neighbor, a gun-selling meth dealer and felon, might just shoot me for all that food? How about the right-wing fundamentalists past him, who shot Stellar’s jays for fun and clearcut their land when they suspected spotted owls lived there? Or the two feuding families beyond them—one had fired a pistol during an argument, and neither would give way when their cars met on the road. I began to sense the outlines of a pattern that replicated one in society at large. We have the technical means to feed, clothe, and house all humanity. But legions starve because we have not learned to tolerate and support one another. People’s real problems are not technical, they are social and political. Down in Douglas County, I’d solved most of the technical problems for our own personal survival, but the social hurdles to true security were staring me in the face.

Our isolation also meant we were burning a lot of gas. A simple drive for groceries was a 40-minute round trip. Fortunately we both worked at home and had no children, so we could go for days without using the car. But the odometer was whirling to higher numbers than it ever had in the city. A couple of families had moved off our hill because they were exhausted by two to four round trips each day down our steep, potholed gravel road to work, school, soccer practice, music lessons, and shopping.

We cherished our decade-plus in the country, but eventually the realities began to pile up. There wasn’t a local market for the work we did. Community events left us saddened by the gulf between our way of life and theirs. And we were still tethered to the fossil-fuel beast, just by a much longer lifeline of wire, pipe, and pavement. That the beast looked smaller by being farther away no longer fooled us.

There was a positive side, too. We had achieved what we’d set out to do: to make sense of our lives, find the work we loved, and grow into ourselves. The portents now spoke clearly. It was time to return to where the people were, and to be in the thick of things once more.

So we have moved to Portland, and into the heart of town. We love it. The first of many good omens was the bio-diesel Mercedes across the street sporting a Kucinich sticker. And it’s a pleasure to be within walking distance of a bookstore, good coffee, and Ben and Jerry’s.

During the first few days in the city I would stand on the back porch, eyeing our yard with permaculture dreams in my head. The sole tree is a sprawling European prune plum. Other than that, the yard is a blank slate, dominated by a brick patio, a lawn, and an old dog run. And it’s small. I wondered how I would I fit all my favorite fruit trees in that tiny space.

The answer soon came. The plum tree straddles the fence we share with our neighbor Johnny, who has lived next door for 55 years. One day, on opposite sides of the fence, Johnny and I were gathering a small fraction of the branch-bending loads of plums when he called out, “Do you like figs?” I said I did, and soon a tub of black mission figs wobbled over the fence toward me.

We kept returning the basin to Johnny, but it found its way back almost immediately, full of figs. “You weren’t here in time for the apricots I’ve got,” Johnny told us, “But next year you’ll get your fill of them.”

As the buckets of plums began to fill up the yard, I tried to unload some on Theressa across the street. “Oh, no,” she said, “I’ve got my own tree. But when the Granny Smith’s come on, you’d better help me with them. And next year’s peaches will knock you out.”

When I met our neighbor Will, he begged me to take some of the pears that were plopping onto his yard. The American chestnuts up the street are bearing heavily, although the Asian community is all over them each morning before I wake up. I’ve cracked a few of the local walnuts, and they’re pretty good. And yesterday I discovered a nearby strawberry tree dotted with creamy mild fruit.

This informal assessment of local resources has revised my mental landscape design. I don’t need to grow all my favorite trees, only the ones that my neighbors lack (I’m thinking Asian pears, persimmons, and some early and storage apples). My neighbor’s yards are my Zones Two and Three. [Ed's note: a common feature of permaculture design is the zoning of a property up into areas, numbered one through to five or so, relating to proximity to the house and levels of required maintainence. -AF ] Plus, Stacey and Troy on the next block have persuaded the owner of a vacant lot to let eight families create a community garden on the site. A local tree service will soon be dumping chips there for sheet mulch, and next year we’ll be awash in food.

The Big Rural Footprint

I had always assumed that cities would be the worst place to be in bad times. I’m revising my opinion. Granted, Portland is an exceptional city. (Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone!) But I can’t help comparing this neighborhood to our old one. There, we were twelve families on two miles of road, driveways hundreds of feet long, all served by long runs of phone and electric wire, individual septic systems and wells, each commuting long distances. And with political and social views so divergent that feuds, gossip, and awkward conversations about safe topics were the norm.

In the city, an equal group of twelve families use 10% of the road, wire, and pipe needed in my old neighborhood. Many neighbors bus or bike to work, or at worst, drive single-digit mileages. And our social and political views are close enough that I am fairly confident we can work in mutual support if times get tough.

This is not the place to go deeply into the question of whether cities are more sustainable than contemporary American country life, but at each point where I delve into the issues, I find suggestions that urbanites have a smaller ecological footprint per capita.

Over the last two decades, millions of people have moved out of cities. Many of them are people of modest means, driven out by the high costs of urban life. Unfortunately, they have brought their city ways with them. Our neighbors in the country all clearcut their land and planted acres of grass. Many built enormous houses, since low interest rates made more square footage affordable. Some put up glaring streetlights in their front yards. They bought boats, ATVs, RVs, and other gas-guzzling toys. Unlike earlier self-reliant country folk, these are simply city people with really big yards. And there are millions of them.

Sociologists Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford have each noted that during the Depression and other hard times, urban residents have generally fared better than ruralites. The causes mainly boil down to market forces and simple physics. Since most of the population lives in or near cities, when goods are scarce the greater demand, density, and economic power in the cities directs resources to them. Shipping hubs are mostly in cities, so trucks are emptied before they get out of town.

In the Depression, farmers initially had the advantage of being able to feed themselves. But they soon ran out of other supplies: coal to run forges to fix machinery, fertilizer, medicine, clothing, and almost every other non-food item. Without those, they couldn’t grow food. Farmers who could still do business with cities survived. Those too remote or obstinate blew away with the Kansas dust.

Survival Skills

Today the situation for farmers has worsened. Few farmers grow their own food. Agribusiness has made them utterly dependent on chemicals and other shipped-in products. The main lack of cities compared to farms is food-growing, but farms lack nearly everything else—and most of that comes from cities. Setting aside for the moment the all-important issue of social and political cohesion, for cities to survive a peak-oil crash, the critical necessity is for them to learn to grow food. For country people to survive, inhabitants will need to provide nearly every single other essential good for themselves. And since many country people are simply transplanted urbanites lacking gardening or other land skills, but having the isolation that makes social cohesion unnecessary to learn (for now), their survival is even more doubtful. If catastrophe comes, the cities may be unpleasant, but I fear the countryside may be far worse off.

One important tenet of permaculture is to design for disaster. While giving a talk on the wildfire that destroyed his cabin at the Lama Foundation (see page 14 of this issue), Santa Fe designer Ben Haggard was asked what his biggest lesson was. “Plan for disaster,” he said. “Whatever is the likely catastrophe at your site, count on it happening. Because sooner or later, it will.”

A technique displayed in good design that also happens to be a way to deter disaster is to meet destructive forces with mechanisms or attitudes that transform them into productive, or at worst, harmless energies. When this machinery of transformation is missing, even seemingly mild events wreak havoc. A gentle rain falling on bare ground will quickly sluice away topsoil and wash downhill in gullies. If instead plants carpet that same patch of earth, the rain becomes not an erosive force, but life-giving moisture whose energy is damped and welcomed by the vegetation. Instead of gullying, the water is held by the plants, stored over a longer time for them and for the animals that feed on or live among the vegetation. This is one of nature’s secrets: knowing how to create structures and systems that convert gales to refreshing breezes, change baking sun into sugars and living tissue.

What nature doesn’t do, and humans attempt so often, is to treat large forces as enemies to be vanquished and destroyed. This summer, as hurricanes repeatedly battered the Caribbean, ridiculous proposals appeared in letters-to-the-editor columns: Let’s build giant fans on the Florida coast to blow away the storms. Pour oil over the Atlantic to smooth out the waves. And (inevitably), why can’t we toss a few nukes into those pesky hurricanes? (Whether it’s replacing the Panama canal or toppling Saddam, someone always seems to propose atomic bombs.)

Sector Acceptance

The conceptual tool offered by permaculture in these cases is to view large forces as sector energies: influences from off the site that are beyond the control of the designer. We deal with sector energies by designing systems or placing elements to deflect, absorb, or harvest these forces, or allow them to pass unhindered. This is nature’s way as well, and how she does it offers, as usual, some profound lessons.

As ecosystems mature, biomass and complexity increase. Ecologist Ramon Margalef, in his landmark 1963 paper, “On Certain Unifying Principles in Ecology” (American Naturalist 97:357-374), suggests we think of biomass as “a keeper of organization, something that is proportional to the influence that an actual ecosystem can exert on future events.” In other words, we can think of biomass, complexity, and the other indicators of maturity as measures not only of the resilience of a system, but as a form of wisdom. That’s because as ecosystems mature, the aftermath of environmental tumult such as storm or drought depends more on the richness of the ecosystem than on the nature of the disturbance. A drought that withers a weedlot doesn’t faze an old-growth forest—the forest has learned what to do with drought. It has grown structures, cycles, and patterns that convert nearly any outside influence into more forest, and that protect key cycles during bad times. It has become wise.

Nature uses two principal tools to achieve this protection from catastrophe. The first is diversity in space—in size, shape, physical pattern, and composition. If all the pieces of a system are at the same physical scale—all the same size, or the same genetic makeup, for example—a disturbance occurring at that scale will wipe out the whole system. Diversity in scale brings protection. When a hurricane hits a trailer park, the trailers blow away, but the bacteria, mice, and other elements of very different size escape damage. A plague of cats, on the other hand, strikes at the scale of the mice, leaving the trailers and bacteria unscathed. Mature ecosystems have enough diversity in space that any catastrophe may knock out the pieces living at that particular scale but will almost never destroy the whole landscape.

The second protective tool of mature ecosystems is diversity in time—in rate, frequency, and schedule. Understory shrubs often leaf out earlier in spring than canopy trees, which lets the shrubs grab enough light to build plenty of leaves. Then when the trees grow leaves, the shrubs have the photosynthetic area to gather ample light in the dappled shade. Another classic example of diversity in time is the hatching cycle of locusts. Timed to emerge at intervals of years having prime numbers such as 13 and 17, they frustrate the predators whose more regular breeding period requires their food to arrive more predictably.

Permaculture designers use similar approaches to design for disaster. Instead of using concrete embankments and other brute-force tactics to resist flood, we place fences that can lie down, reed-like as rushing waters advance and then can be easily set up afterward. Rather than gouging enormous barren firebreaks into their hillside, Lama Foundation stacks roads, swales, and plantings together in a multiply functioning firebreak. When monsoon downpours arrive in Tucson, instead of standing by as flooding street runoff pours down sewers, Brad Lancaster harvests the water with cleverly placed curb cuts that lead to mulched food-tree basins. All these examples are detailed in Permaculture Activist #54 (November, 2004).

By observing nature’s wisdom, permaculturists follow nature’s lead and use patterning, succession, edge, and cyclic opportunities to convert large pulses of energy into smooth generators of structure, harvest, and nutrient flow. Permaculture design inquires into the nature of some of these “large pulses” and shows how they can teach us to use their energy, aikido-like, to benefit ourselves and the larger ecosystem.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE 31 Jan 2006. Author Toby Hemenway writes:
I was directed by a friend to a couple of blogs that were discussing an article I'd written on urban and rural sustainability, and the conversation there has gone way beyond that topic and has ranged into some interesting discussion of where permaculture fits onto society, of whether it is sustainable, its relation to earlier cultures, and even whether it can be co-opted as just one more way for elites to control people. The people writing seem remarkably intelligent and well-read (myself excepted, of course!), with no flaming. If this interests you, you should check out anthropik.com/2006/01/urbs-versus-ruralis/ ranprieur.com/index.html villageblog.blogspirit.com/ villageblog.blogspirit.com/archive/2006/01/24/attack-is-the-best-form-of-defense.html#comments And also links from those sites. I also recommend: anthropik.com/2005/10/thesis-8-human-societies-are-defined-by-their-food/ as it makes it clear why gardening is such a central element of permaculture.

This article originally appeared as "Designing Beyond Disaster," an editorial for the magazine Permaculture Activist #54, November 2004 (website http://www.permacultureactivist.net/). Toby Hemenway (www.patternliteracy.com) is a permaculture educator and author. His latest book is Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. -BA

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