Red Shoulder Hawk

Red Shoulder Hawk

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Permaculture vs Traditional

Steve asks me to "compare and contrast" permaculture housing versus a traditional neighborhood. On the face of it, this looks like a simple enough request; unfortunately, it's so full of assumptions as to make it unanswerable.

So, I'll muse a bit about the observations that drive that question, and see where I end up.

I've noticed a great hunger for community. Our father recognized this too, and built community wherever he went. As I move forward in this permaculture project, I see that I'm simply carrying his work forward. Steve cites several examples of "being community" in his neighborhood: sharing heavy equipment, caring for a widow, and so on. He and I have a huge gift in that we expect that neighbors should build these invisible structures.

Sharing resources and responsibility for each other is a big part of urban permaculture. It's one of the end products, but it's also one of the seeds. It can be planted in suburbia. It's just that suburbia is like rocky soil; with garage-door openers and mega-malls, getting to know your neighbors is a bit tougher. In a village model, there's more opportunity to become friends.

My friend Joe has an innate comprehension of "intimacy gradients." In urban permaculture design, there's a smooth gradient between fully private space and fully public space. Suburbia fails this dimension. The fully public space of the road butts right up to the fully private space of the home. Therefore humans invented garage-door openers. Now the car becomes a blended semi-private/semi-public space we drive right up into the fully private space. Face it: we ask an awful lot of our cars, as we over-featurize them with all the comforts of home... making them into mobile living rooms.

I could write of earth care, people care, and fair share, crenulation, small slow change, obtaining a yield, and so on, but much of it would be meaningless. Why? From our current "natural" state of constant stress, the words don't have anywhere to settle. If you're someone who works a stressful job, commutes on the freeway home, hits the door-opener and "escapes" from the world into the privacy of your home each evening, the idea that parking at the end of the street and walking past shared neighborhood spaces, spending a few minutes with a friend who is finishing up building a trellis for pole beans, could be even more relaxing than turning on the TV and going numb, probably sounds crazy. If you're in an elevated state of stress 24 hours a day, you really can't imagine what it's like to operate in another way. Your mind is addicted to the thrum of stress chemicals. You need a brain-washing, of the most beneficial kind.

That's why demonstration projects are so critical. What is the "optimal" size for an urban permaculture neighborhood? It's a fractal dimension. It's not reducible. A demonstration project should be large enough that we can glimpse all the parts: some earth care, some people care, some fair share. The optimal size is therefore a gradient, a fluid, evolving "space" that blends from the private, internal work of "zone zero" self-care, through to the observed but untouched "zone five" of natural wilderness.

A "traditional" (meaning, culmination of 50's style thinking) neighborhood is popping up here in central Alameda. A whole slew of energy-efficient homes are getting built. Big boxes in tiny yards, fences all over the place, streets out front and alleys out back, it's one of the ugliest things you've ever seen. Asked what kind of homes should be built out on the naval base, the highly conservative Alamedans overwhelmingly rejected that model, in favor of something with more diversity, more "village" like. This brings me hope that people are finally tiring of this style of development.


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