Retrofitting Community

Favorite quotations, etc.
tsch
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Retrofitting Community

Post by tsch »

From https://territories.substack.com/p/retr ... -community
After our years-long, exhausting, failed attempts to unite the entire neighborhood as a conscious community, I pivoted to the opposite approach. Why not begin here, at home, where I personally live? Though I didn’t realize that was my strategy at the time, what we now call Green Acres Permaculture Village began in earnest when I made a single, seemly simple (though rare for a then 65-year-old widow) choice: to decrease my "energy footprint" by two thirds by inviting two people to share my three-bedroom home.
I advocate retrofit community, rather than building intentional community from scratch. First of all, the structures are already there, holding immense embedded energy. Why not just repurpose them and, especially, the spaces between them?
This is the kind of thing I am hoping to emulate at some point. I have been thinking I would do that after relocating further up the coast, but if I heard of something available in a midwest town like this, adjacent to an effort like this, I'd definitely reconsider my current plan. It all just makes so much sense. (Of course, it all comes down to how well you can co-habitat—even in extended space—with others. I think the effort there is easy to underestimate, and it sounds like she's really made that effort.)

J_
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by J_ »

tsch: thanks for sharing. An inspiring story..kind of ere-community in the making. I like especially that persons/families with different ages are involved.

white belt
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by white belt »

Check out David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia. It's a 600+ page book on exactly the topic of retrofitting as a permaculture solution. His focus is on Australia, but I find that most of his ideas are applicable anywhere. It's available as an ebook for free (donation only).

Also check at Brad Lancaster's work. His book is excellent and here is a tour of his house in Tucson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcAMXm9zITg

chenda
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by chenda »

Interesting. I like how it inspired others in the immediate vicinity to start doing similar things on a more independent basis.

I've been re-reading The Depression Cure by Steve Illardi, where he attributes the rapid rise in depression in part due to the breakdown of irl social networks and isolated living. Living by yourself is historically abnormal and not good for us. Although of course living with toxic people is equally dangerous.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

Great article. Permaculture is a set of design principles, so you can even, in theory, commence to do permaculture while staying in an urban chain hotel*. You definitely don't have to buy 5 acres in order to get started. I am inspired! I will take this as the sign that I should bid on the dilapidated house with big backyard in sketchy neighborhood.

*Although, it is the case that almost all of the flows on your systems diagram will quickly run off to an open loop cloud symbol meaning "I don't know." Still, you can at least figure out stuff like what water shed you are in and identify the weeds growing in between the uber-resilient perennials plantings near the parking lot.

Hristo Botev
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by Hristo Botev »

I keep seeing "toxic people" (and similar sentiments) as an argument against living within tightly-knit family-centric or otherwise intentional communities. I've no doubt been very fortunate that I've made it through life without having such toxic people in my life in any significant way (perhaps that means I'm the toxic person?), but, there seems to be a "eat your cake and have it too" paradigm going on here, with a desire to have the freedom to leave "toxic" environments (which, honestly, in some situations may just be uncomfortable or temporarily unpleasant) or people, on the one hand, with the desire to ALSO be part of the sorts of robust, deep communities/relationships that are robust/deep BECAUSE they've persevered through/beyond discomfort/unpleasantness (or, even, toxicity). @Scott 2 mentioned "loose coupling" (viewtopic.php?p=235025#p235025), and I don't think he was necessarily referring to the kind of community that's the subject of this thread/article (and I'm quoting his phrase not as some sort of straw man but only to give him attribution for a phrase I'm now going to steal), but I tend to think that loose coupling doesn't/can't get you real community.

An anecdotal experience is we've got a guy in my men's fraternal organization who probably could be described as "toxic," at least in some ways (many of our wives certainly think so, b/c of the way he is dismissive of women in general and b/c of his constant demands and expectations as to their husbands' time and energies to help with his pet charitable projects)--he tends to use inflammatory language, e.g., and he uses that language in communications with folks outside of our fraternal organization in a way that is intended to suggest that the rest of all agree with him (we usually don't--that's why we have a process for approving official org communications). The response from a number of members within our organization (too many really good members, sadly) has been to stop coming to meetings or otherwise participate in any meaningful way, all because of one person. I understand the sentiment and I've felt that urge myself; BUT, I tend to think that the organization is stronger (or, at a minimum, has the ability to become stronger) BECAUSE of the way in which we work WITH this guy, putting certain expectations as to decorum, etc. on him, while also recognizing the many positive things he brings to the table; we don't cancel him, and we don't just abandon the organization because of him. And I think we're all the better for it. (Even if secretly many of us think it'd be kinda nice if the guy just one day lost interest in our organization altogether.)

Anyway, certainly there are real toxic environments and people, and certainly there are times when the only rationale choice is to either leave the environment or force the toxicity out. But, if we go around expecting to just stumble upon "community," in its real sense, without doing the hard work involved in creating and fostering/maintaining that community (including dealing with the toxicity that comes along), we're all going to find ourselves living alone, without community.

white belt
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by white belt »

7Wannabe5 wrote:
Wed Jan 13, 2021 2:00 pm
I will take this as the sign that I should bid on the dilapidated house with big backyard in sketchy neighborhood.
Keep us updated! As I mentioned upthread, I recommend Brad Lancaster's book because he has a great section on evaluating a property to maximize solar and water resources. Although since you're in Michigan then maybe you won't find as much value in passive solar heating or solar power.

I agree with the retrofitting perspective. I never thought permaculture principles could be widely adopted if a prerequisite is for everyone to move back to the land. However, retrofitting existing structures is a scalable solution, provided that is done intelligently (maybe the biggest barrier for wider adoption).

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

@Hristo:

I think strong boundaries should be placed at the line of "self-aware self-care", as opposed to rigid boundaries at the line of anxiety or ego protection or flimsy boundaries at the line of co-dependency or neglect. If you are bleeding functional members from your organization because of this individual's behavior then it almost certainly is toxic. It's not necessary to "parent" adult members of your community. You can simply clearly describe the problem and request that he changes his behavior or leave.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

@white belt:

Will do! Thanks for the book recommendation. After several failures leading to "Ah ha" moments, I have pretty much figured out that I have to take gardening books out of England/Pacific Northwest and permaculture books out of Australia with a huge grain of salt. Unfortunately, it is now the case that due to global climate change, none of us can even count on our own particular climates and micro-climates staying the same for very long. For instance, if I'm going to plant a tree with the thought that it might still be healthy in 30 years, I'm going to have to make a choice that works for polar vortex winter in Michigan currently AND summer in Michigan become Missouri in future.

Hristo Botev
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by Hristo Botev »

@7w5: I tend to think it is necessary to "parent" adult members of your community, in some ways at some times. I think this is kind of a difference between a voluntary association (which, admittedly, this fraternal org sort of is, in a way) vs. a real community. Voluntary associations are really tools to be utilized; I'm looking for like-minded folks who can mostly take care of themselves, and which serves some end--e.g., business networking or whatever, or a book club or fitness group. And when that association no longer serves its utility, I leave. But with a real community (which is why fraternal orgs require you to take vows to one another), it's deeper than just serving some end; it is in itself a meaning of existence. And you don't get to just ditch community members because they make things difficult for everyone; even if your aunt or second cousin or whoever won't shut up about Trump or whatever. Sometimes that aunt/cousin needs to be "parented"--which is to say, loved. I.e., you really are expected to will the good of that person, beyond your own wants, needs, desires--that's why a voluntary association is different from a real community. And it's also why, as I read from Wendell Berry a few nights ago, community falls apart when it gets too big; because no one can really be expected to "love" someone on the other side of the planet who they have no connection to apart from being fellow members of the human race, to the same degree that one is expected to "love" their child, or their parent, or, even, the obnoxious blowhard at your fraternal org monthly meeting who sucks all the oxygen out of the room. You can wish that person on the other side of the planet the best, and you can advocate for policies that will make their life better, and you can send that person money or support humanitarian organizations. But there are just too many other people in between that person and you whose interests and well-being you value above that person's.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

I agree. You definitely can say something like "I love you, but you can't keep coming to the meetings if you are going to behave in that manner." Maybe this particular individual's behavior really isn't that bad, but there eventually will be an individual who exhibits behavior which is clearly destructive of community. Simple fairly common example would be repeatedly getting drunk and breaking things. No complex living organism, inclusive of human communities, can survive without boundaries and practices which maintain something like homeostasis.

Hristo Botev
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by Hristo Botev »

Can't find the full quote I was thinking of from Berry, but here're a couple snippets.
The idea of a national or global community is meaningless apart from the realization of local communities. Lacking the interest of or in such a community [it's the definition of this community that I don't have handy], private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their "right" to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the "rights" of others to act as they please.
A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to--and will have to--encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power--not invariably but as a rule--to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.
ETA: I think this is the explanation/definition of what "such a community" is that I was looking for from Berry (note that all of this is from Chapter 8 from Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community, which just flat-out blew my mind):
Community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

Okay, so have you told him a story that teaches how his behavior is obnoxious?

I agree that minimum definition of community requires ability to serve/share snacks.

Hristo Botev
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by Hristo Botev »

7Wannabe5 wrote:
Wed Jan 13, 2021 3:13 pm
Okay, so have you told him a story that teaches how his behavior is obnoxious?
Ha! Unfortunately, although he (like the rest of us) has been hearing (and teaching) those stories his entire life, in the form of Bible readings, passages from the Catechism, and so forth, in his mind it's us who aren't living consistent with those stories, or at least not acting with a sufficient level of urgency. Some time all you can do is exercise the virtues of patience and fortitude.

white belt
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by white belt »

7Wannabe5 wrote:
Wed Jan 13, 2021 2:41 pm
After several failures leading to "Ah ha" moments, I have pretty much figured out that I have to take gardening books out of England/Pacific Northwest and permaculture books out of Australia with a huge grain of salt. Unfortunately, it is now the case that due to global climate change, none of us can even count on our own particular climates and micro-climates staying the same for very long. For instance, if I'm going to plant a tree with the thought that it might still be healthy in 30 years, I'm going to have to make a choice that works for polar vortex winter in Michigan currently AND summer in Michigan become Missouri in future.
That is also what I'm finding. I'm used to solutions that can be implemented in all environments (typical solutions in the digital/modern world), but permaculture really forces one to critically assess what will work locally. Hyperlocal knowledge about climate, hunting, fishing, etc just doesn't lend itself well to the internet.

Nevertheless, I do think Lancaster makes an effort to really go through his design process for a property and how to naturally incorporate wind, solar, and water to maximize production and minimize waste. Of course, his desert environment has naturally led him to emphasize irrigation and solar power over say Wheaton's emphasis on rocket mass heaters and using sustainable wood. Even so, I do find that I can apply many of his principles to my own environment even though I'm in the much wetter/warmer southeastern USA. Holmgren's work similarly really helps me to get brainstorming on solutions that would work in my area.

I relate to the challenges of trying to plan for the climate that exists now vs 30 years vs 50 years. I think my strategy might start with only looking at solutions in a 5-10 year space, with an eye towards longer term (I think the ERE lifestyle will position you well long-term in any circumstances). This gives some flexibility towards uncertain CC outcomes and prevents one from getting locked into a long term solution that is not ideal due to unforeseen circumstances (health, family, neighborhood, infrastructure). It also prevents some paralysis by analysis and pressure to devise a "perfect" solution; perhaps also preventing over-engineering of a solution.

To offer some examples I've been thinking about:

-An alternative to a full size fruit tree is a dwarf fruit tree. These can be purchased from an orchard or even online for ~$30 at a height of ~3 feet and ready to produce fruit. Certainly more expensive initial investment than planting a tree from seed, but you're also getting immediate fruit production. If you want to maintain a more mobile lifestyle they can even be grown in containers. The downside is the tree might only live for 10-20 years, but again that is not a huge concern if we're looking at a 10 year solution space.

-Rebuilding soil on urban lots takes years and may be virtually impossible because of dangerous levels of pollutants (lead, etc). I think doing something like a raised bed hugelkulture garden is a nice short to medium-term solution to have immediate production and also work to slowly improve the soil on a lot. I wonder if a viable strategy could be to incorporate it into a rain garden basin structure that Lancaster is fond of.

-I found this guide to old school low tech energy-efficient house features very interesting (also fits well with the retrofit theme): https://www.nps.gov/tps/sustainability/ ... -homes.pdf

-I was reading today about how basement cisterns were commonplace in many urban homes prior to the 20th century, with water collected from the roof and used for cooking/cleaning around the house: https://www.oldhouseweb.com/blog/cister ... servation/
Last edited by white belt on Wed Jan 13, 2021 5:12 pm, edited 4 times in total.

tsch
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by tsch »

white belt - thanks. Those books are on my to-get list. (I think I had one of the Lancaster books a decade or two ago).

7Wannabe5 - right; I've "done permaculture" to varying degrees at three rentals, mostly very limited by landlords and such, but you're exactly right that it's not about land ownership. I am also eagerly following the development of what you do in MI. Are there other properties for sale adjacent to the one you're thinking of buying?

What land "ownership" (in the legal sense, which I guess is the only kind I believe in) gives you, though, is a lot more freedom to do what you want without interference. How much depends on the situation—how close are the neighbors, etc.

The author of the Green Acres Bloomington article mentions how resolving a neighbor dispute over a cob oven took a year. That in itself would be an interesting case study. Being willing to embrace that kind fo thing as ongoing long-term work to be done would be key.

Developing gradually by taking advantage of leverage points when they become apparent seems to have worked for them so far.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

white belt wrote:I'm used to solutions that can be implemented in all environments (typical solutions in the digital/modern world), but permaculture really forces one to critically assess what will work locally. Hyperlocal knowledge about climate, hunting, fishing, etc just doesn't lend itself well to the internet.
I have found that sources/sites meant for outdoorsman are best for hyper-local knowledge. Historical references on topics such as what Native Americans in your region ate or what the early European settlers did might also be helpful.
Rebuilding soil on urban lots takes years
Not necessarily. One thing to bear in mind is that the early settlers were more accustomed to living off the land, so the places where they first settled which eventually became cities are often not bad places to "farm." OTOH, if you are shopping for rural land in the 21st century, there's likely a good reason why nobody is already currently farming there. For instance, the urban vacant lots I bought for my project were on a site that was a dairy farm in 1905, but the site of the Northern rural project I helped with was Dunes Forest, covered with mature pine and wild huckleberries and lichen, but the black soil is only 2 inches deep on top of sand, and the 1930s agricultural report for the region described it as being best suited for forage, maybe potatoes.

Interesting sources on old home qualities. Thanks for the links.

@tsch:

Unfortunately, my bid was too stingy (it was a blind auction.) I might not be the best source for ideal locales, because I am currently hobbled by desire to not over-invest in real estate and not take on a mortgage, combined with fact that I am cash poor compared to most members of this forum. There are probably better options at 2 or 5X what I am willing to pay which would still seem quite inexpensive to those from HCOL areas. At my price point, I am looking at "roof is covered with moss, condition of septic unknown, propane heat and probably too far out in the woods to get internet signal or rely on road being plowed in winter, militia practices shooting in nearby sand pit" or "completely filled with trash, copper fixtures ripped out, only one murder in neighborhood this year."

white belt
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by white belt »

7Wannabe5 wrote:
Thu Jan 14, 2021 9:02 am
Not necessarily. One thing to bear in mind is that the early settlers were more accustomed to living off the land, so the places where they first settled which eventually became cities are often not bad places to "farm." OTOH, if you are shopping for rural land in the 21st century, there's likely a good reason why nobody is already currently farming there. For instance, the urban vacant lots I bought for my project were on a site that was a dairy farm in 1905, but the site of the Northern rural project I helped with was Dunes Forest, covered with mature pine and wild huckleberries and lichen, but the black soil is only 2 inches deep on top of sand, and the 1930s agricultural report for the region described it as being best suited for forage, maybe potatoes.
Good point to check out historical maps. I've been digging into those a bit and it is like a whole new world.

It might not take long to rebuild soil from a nutrient perspective, but I'm more concerned about contaminants/pollutants. Many soils in older cities have high levels of lead, to the point where in a lot of areas allowing chickens to forage the soil is not viable because they will get sick from lead poisoning (also means their eggs are inedible). From what I've read, how plants uptake lead is actually not that well understood, but it seems like root vegetables are a no go. Not being able to use re-use roots and soil in a closed loop system is probably more challenging than not being able to grow root vegetables. Come to think of it, there are probably lots of concerns with accumulating contaminants in a closed loop system (not sure how red worms or BSF larvae process these things), but I can see problems emerging if I'm using worm castings to fertilize vegetables and BSF to feed livestock.

Additionally, potatoes are the most nutrient dense crop by square footage, which means someone striving towards generating their calories onsite is going to have to heavily rely on potatoes. I'm not sure if lead in potatoes is as big of a concern because they are washed, cooked, and usually skins are not consumed.

Of course, when creating solutions that match a local area, it depends on the city and the population density we're talking about. My solution space for my dream ERE permaculture/bio-intensive project is looking at older cities in the northeast. For example, here's a 100 year old rowhome on a 620 sqft (.014 acres) lot that's common in an area with a population density of 26 people per acre:
https://www.realtor.com/realestateandho ... 9331-42844

This is maybe not feasible, but here's what I would do with a cheaper/more dilapidated version of a property like the one above (<$150k):

-Add roof access for $10-20k (a common addition in the region, not really able to DIY due to permits, licensing, insurance etc) and establish garden/green roof with dwarf fruit trees in containers, veggies, bee hives, PV panels with a rough estimate of actual grow space of ~400 sqft. Weight is a concern but plenty of such roofs have been retrofitted on old row homes in the region already. Utilize cold frames on all gardens to extend growing season. Runoff and soil contamination is much less of a concern on a roof.

-Add rain water harvesting barrel (downspout pipes to it), aquaculture tanks, composting worm bin, and quail cages to unfinished basement. The basement would be the "livestock" area, focused on highly efficient forms of protein that thrive indoors. Livestock feed protein is mostly sourced from BSF larvae and/or duckweed produced on site.

-Turn small backyard into rain garden and outdoor kitchen/food processing area with biogas digester to power cooking stove.

-Rent out spare bedroom or setup some kind of work exchange if more labor is required to maintain property (although I'd intelligently design my model to require only a couple hours of daily maintenance from me because I have other web of goals interests in addition to food production).

-Use window boxes and front raised bed to add another ~30 square feet of gardening space.

-Potentially get another 100 square feet of gardening space in a community garden.

-Potentially add some sort of wood stove/masonry heater and vent through existing chimney to provide heat during winter. It can double as a cooktop and oven during winter months. Not sure if this economically makes sense because you would still have to source firewood from somewhere.

All of the above are individual actions, but as time goes on I'd further improve the solution with social capital and the community in a city, inline with the OP's article. I guess what I was getting at by showing a little bit of an example, is that it is possible to make a lifestyle in an urban property more sustainable/resilient. Since the world population is increasingly urban, I feel like someone living such a lifestyle could have a much larger social impact than someone who moves to the countryside. Is the solution fully self-sufficient or scalable? Perhaps not since everyone can't afford to buy an old property and add roof access, and it remains to be seen how much food production is possible in such a small space. Then again, the world would be a lot better if more people in urban environments adopted permaculture practices and aimed to close loops.

7Wannabe5
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

@white belt:

In Detroit you could buy a whole block of decrepit houses each on its own .2 acre lot for $160,000. Of course, you might also have to spend 10x that to get them back up to code. Speaking of lead, Flint real estate is also quite affordable :(

Your plan sounds super cool. You should definitely check out “Paradise Lot” by Toensmeier and Bates. One of my favorites. Ultimately, the absolute limitation on production within any “closed” loop is going to be the total of the open flow of energy into the acreage/boundary and/or waste out. The challenge is how much complexity you can create and/or maintain given those limitations. So, a small project can definitely be just as rewarding to tackle.

jacob
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Re: Retrofitting Community

Post by jacob »

It's interesting to compare the bottom-up community approach in this thread to the top-down in the other one.

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