The End of Suburbia?

Suburbia1 The morning air is filled with the mingled odors of honeysuckle and gas-powered riding mowers as I walk through an upscale neighborhood of old trees, shaded lawns, two- and even three-garage homes, and very few sidewalks, where the Northern branch of my immediate family lives. It is a peaceful village/suburb of Providence, RI, a city of greater economic diversity than you will find here.  This is one feature that makes a city like Providence a more interesting place to live for empty nesters, especially those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, and for the Millennials which, urban planners say, will have smaller and/or very different families, and prefer cities as hubs of creativity and innovation.  There will always be people who prefer big homes and lawns, of course, just fewer of them than there are now.  And even here, a few signs of change coming, as this small act of  food independence in the neighborhood suggests.  Suburban acupuncture?Suburbia 2 tomatoes

We raised our own kids in the similar suburb of Montclair, 11 miles from New York City where we both worked, for similar reasons: good schools and safe neighborhoods, among others.  In our day, doors were locked only at night, you knew your neighbors, and milk, even eggs and butter, were delivered from a local dairy in glass and paper packaging.  Boys AND girls could, in many cases, walk safely to school, and pretty much had the run of the neighborhood.  You always knew where they were by the collection of bicycles and skateboards in the driveway.  Our kids got a very good start here, and express nostalgia for this time in their lives, even recreating it for their own offspring.

As a visitor to my former hometown, I was glad to see the Upper Montclair shopping hub holding its own on this sunny Tuesday.  We worried about how the proximity of Willowbrook Mall and the Outlets in Secaucus would affect business locally.  We shopped at Saunders Hardware and Keil’s Drugs instead of the Big Box chains out of a sense of hometown loyalty.  Climate activism wasn’t on the radar quite yet.

Keeping your local merchants — food growers especially — in business is an even better idea now as community resilience  becomes the new measure of thriving.   It remains possible where relative affluence buys some time and a wider range of life options.  So chances are that the Dariens and Maplewoods may adapt reasonably well to changing demographics that skew urban, plus the energy crunch and other impacts of global warming to come.  Suburbs less well-designed and with fewer advantages, not so much.  They may be the first to falter.

We who were fortunate enough to live in the leafy child-centered suburbs of a great city got through the OPEC crisis of the 70s and kept right on driving.  We know better now.


Reading ‘People Habitat’

Interesting experiment, blogging from a moving train enroute Lorton, Va, where we and our Honda Civic de-train and start the drive to Weehawken, NJ. There are no carbon-free ways to travel fast but this is somewhat lighter than two seats on a jet, lower on stress, and so far, very civilized. Dinner included — our seating at 7 — and the movie, Frozen, in the lounge at 9:15.

I’ve been reading F. Kaid Benfield’s People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, on this trip. His collection of essays makes a very persuasive case for a new urbanism, in particular Chapter 18: Walk, Drink, Walk Back. It reminds me of how important a neighborhood hangout, the pub, tavern, or bar, can be in nurturing community coherence, resilience, and even much more.  After all, it was exactly this sort of gathering place in Philadelphia where our Founders met to launch a new nation.

We had such a pub, Ted and Jo’s on 11th and Garden in Hoboken in the 90s. A genial host in Gerry Farrelly, comfort food of high quality, always someone to talk with about what was going on in our town. It was our hub, our safety net in an — at the time — edgy, not quite gentrified neighborhood, our home away from home. It had what Kaid Benfield (quoting community development consultant, Michael Hickey) calls a high ‘lingering index’, a measure of good old hanging out ‘that’s really at the heart of place-making.’ I’ve been looking for that kind of spot ever since. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Why does it matter even more today? “The more complete our neighborhoods, the less have to travel to seek out goods, services, and amenities. The less we have to travel, the more we can reduce pollution from transportation.”

Well, the lounge car is but steps from my seat tonight. With a little bit of luck there might be a craft beer available and perhaps a conversation with an interesting fellow traveler.

Check out Kaid Benfield at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he writes a blog on place-making and related subjects. Have a look at the newer LEED – ND standards.  Tell me about your favorite watering hole.

Sharing Resources in an Intentional Community

So much to like here!

Zero-Waste Chef

flower garden

In 2005, I moved to an intentional community. My best friend’s husband calls it a hippie commune. That’s not quite accurate, but it’s getting warm.

The Fellowship for Intentional Community defines this type of community as:

An inclusive term for ecovillagescohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living and other projects where people strive together with a common vision.

A new-agey church with an eastern bent runs the intentional community where I live. Now before you start thinking “cult,” this church focuses on yoga and meditation. It’s not the zombie-sex cult as a local paper once described it (too bad—zombie-sex cult sounds fun).

Although my kids attended the church’s school, and I live in the community, I’m not a member of the congregation. As a recovering Catholic, I can’t fathom under what circumstances I would ever join any church…

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Personal Energy Descent Plan

Relocalizing, resilience and community-building are hallmarks of the Transition Movement, but at the heart of it all is energy descent. This recognizes that 1. global warming is real and threatens not only our way of life but life itself, and 2. easy energy is history (aka Peak Oil).  Absent a technological breakthrough that can be scaled quickly enough to fill current needs, energy shortfall is the reality we are all facing, sooner rather than later. Energy, including our own human energy, is something we have some control over, so it behooves us to experiment, here and now, in order to become better able to handle it and other challenges, e.g. food and potable water shortages, that could arise further down the road.

‘Cheap’ energy has created our civilization and continues to drive it forward (although the costs will soar once externalities become accounted for). So in one sense, people who already ‘make do’ with far less energy have a leg up on us. To take one example: as difficult as it is to imagine in the Southeastern U.S., with millions of square feet artificially cooled, many people around the world have developed other strategies for dealing with extreme heat. Think mud walls. Strategically placed trees and landscaping. Minimal clothing. Communal watering holes. Siestas. Evening strolls (paseo). Even spicy foods. Hold these in your mind while you recall that the thousands of people who succumbed to the ‘killer’ heat wave of 2003 were all in the developed parts of Europe, many housed in apartments during power outages, many isolated from family and friends.

What might we be able to learn from our ancestors and extant native traditions about cooling it?

As I sit here in my home office, feeling over-cooled though the thermostat reads 79°F, I find myself thinking about fellow Transitoners and artists, Beju Lejobart and Sherryl Muriente – he from France, she from Puerto Rico – who defy conventional wisdom that AC is best and have devised any number of methods to cool their single-family home in a neighboring town, including strategic positioning of fans to encourage cross-ventilation and a swimming pool they happily use in the middle of a hot night.   Sherryl also teaches urban planning at FAU, and dreams up ways of making small urban spaces more human-scale, walkable and liveable. See C’est La Via.

solar chargerAlthough we’re far from a Net-Zero existence, we keep adding to our personal energy descent plan in as many ways as we can. This morning, we got an invoice for $108. from Pear Energy, the renewable resources company that powers our home and EV.  In May, our power was supplied by Superior Wind Project, in Iowa, which came on-line in Spring 2009. We have previously been powered by Lakota Wind, also in Iowa, and now have the opportunity to switch to solar energy via Gainesville Regional Utilities for an extra $.01 per kilowatt-hour. When people who attend one of my rants, uh, presentations on global warming ask me, What can I do? I suggest the 10% local foods challenge, composting, and switching to Pear Energy as three very doable choices. No martyrdom here.

We cannot wait to see how the White House initiative on ‘carbon pollution’ will play out (or what kind of reframing will make global warming more easily digested by more people.) There is much we ordinary citizens can do about our own energy usage, and in Southeast Florida, that means paying attention to AC. Here are a few random facts and observations

  • Most indoor spaces are too cool for comfort (ask most women). We need smarter thermostats and zoned HVAC in our homes, and more responsive retailers, restaurateurs and public officials.
  • “Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We’re cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that’s still habitable.” William Saletan
  • Refrigerators and air conditioners are the largest consumers of energy in American homes today. Find ways to cut down.
  • AC use for the average American home emits over 6,600 pounds CO2 a year. Maybe smaller spaces are an answer. See LifeEdited. Or the Tiny House movement.
  • The U.S. uses more air conditioning than the rest of the world combined, but that is about to change as the developing world catches up. Let’s hope not.
  • Even Eskimos are purchasing AC units.

Final note: I added a Solar Charger to my sunny East window this morning and plugged in the iPhone I’m trying to rely on less. Two hours later, 100% charged. One small step for energy self-sufficiency…

Other Sources:

EPA, Clean Energy Calculations — very useful for an energy audit

Carbon Rally — take the challenge