Housing, trees and permaculture
Rethinking the built environment.
‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, an expression that has crashed it’s way through from generation to generation, it is and was since the first person said it, an absurdity. Little boxes on the hillside, each of us to their own, each of us inside, each of us individuals feeling protected and secure in our little box. Aspirations, climbing the property ladder, a bigger house, more space, more stuff. Imagining that comfort equals good health. Around, above and below an unseen network of cables and pipes that connect the house to the wider world. Inside the WiFi, TV, and a few windows that connect the humans to the outside world, they look at the TV more than they look out of the windows.
No, this isn’t an article that takes a position against houses. This is an article that seeks to show how it is essential today to see housing estates as a ecosystem made up of diverse elements, the houses and the people living in them. We need resilient local communties and so we need strong local social interactions, this being the case the question is how can we redevelop our housing estates to encourage these prosocial interactions?
The University of Maryland’s Survey Research Center, in a study (1992 – 1994) done to assess exposure to environmental pollutants, estimated that North Americans spend 86.9% of their time indoors. A similar figure from a study done by YouGov for the Velux group showed that of the 16,000 people interviewed 78% estimated their time indoors at less than 21 hours. The study showed that they actually spend more than 21 hours indoors which amounts to 90% of their time. The study limited it’s scope to 14 European countries and North America, it hides regional differences but shows a general trend.
Permaculture is about systems, a house is a system and a housing estate even more so. We take our inspirations from observing natural systems. These are made up of billions of individuals organized together, any waste is a resource, the sophistication of the system can be judged by the number of interactions and co-dependencies. These are between the organisms themselves and also abiotic factors, rainfall, climate, soil etc.
When we are working with the redesign of a housing estate we examine the flows that exist, for example water in and sewage and waste water out. We will also analyse how the houses are used, for what, how often and how well is the building adapted to these needs ? We will also explore the interpersonal interactions, how well does the estate work as a neighbour-hood ? This will involve exploring how the estate is laid out and to what extent does the estate encourage positive interactions between the inhabitants. The flip side of this is to examine how the layout may discourage these interactions whether or not it encourages negative ones.
A further exploration is how the well the estate is vegetalised. Is there space for vegetable gardens and community orchards? Does the vegetation reduce the need to heat and cool the houses? Do the green areas encourage social interactions?
Breaking out of the castle.
It could be said that it is normal for erstwhile ‘Cavepeople’ to now live in houses. But this gives us a skewed idea about our history. About 42,000 years ago there was a geomagnetic reversal called the Laschamp event and more recently the Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event. The Earths’ magnetic field weakened to about 28% of it’s norm and this lasted about 800 years. Not a very long period but it caused significant atmospheric and climatic changes. The Neanderthals and other mammalian species disappeared around this time and we, Homo sapiens sapiens, started to graffiti caves. The Earth’s geomagnetic field helps maintain the ozone layer and protects us from cosmic rays, the solar wind and from untraviolet radiation. It seems probable that in order to protect ourselves from this extra UV we sheltered in caves. That said caves are not our natural habitat and we need to let go the idea that Humans are cavepeople, we are not.
It seems strange that we, descended from nomadic, outdoor living hunter gatherers, now spend so much of our time indoors. We could discuss at length the negative physical and emotional consequences of indoor life but this isn’t the theme of this article. What I am dicussing is the collapse of local neighborhood social interactions caused by this type of lifestyle.
Even during the period when we sheltered in caves we continued to be social animals. People need people, we are underneath it all, a very cooperative species when compared with other mammals and even with our close cousins the great apes. There are a number of ideas about why this may be the case, for example our long infancy period which lasts much longer than other mammals. Whichever theory proves to be the best working model remains to be seen, what is certain is that an offshoot of the Hominidae line, us, discovered that the best survival strategy was to encourage non-kin cooperation and prosocial behaviour.
So today, in many countries a cooperative, prosocial animal scurries home swiches on the TV and settles down to an evening as a conjugal family, or on it’s own. This is, in effect, the opposite to what our species has been doing for 99.9% of it’s history. If we wish to have resilient local communities then we need to get out more, meet people, help people and improve our neighborhoods. We need to get back to who we are.
The broken window effect describes how when a local environment deteriorates people withdraw from their community and stay indoors. The tree effect describes how the strategic planting of trees in deprived neighborhoods increases local social interactions and reduces crime and vandalism. This latter effect can also be enhanced by building repair and maintenance and the development of local food production.
Vibrant housing estates with people wandering about socialising and lending a hand here and there. Houses refitted by the local community to reduce their heating and cooling needs and their electricity wastage. The houses surrounded by community orchards and vegetable gardens. Garages and suchlike converted into workshops providing employment and products for the wider local community. Local community owned and run carbon negative energy production systems. Children playing outside, helping out and learning.
We can sit and wait for the local authority or the national government to act or we can get on and do it ourselves, as so many people already are. We, who live on the estate, are much better placed than the local authority or the national government to know what is needed and what needs to be done.
Analyse, design and install.
We must act strategically and this is where Permaculture comes into it’s own. It is fundamentally a holistic and strategic approach to redesigning and rebuilding our systems to make them work better and be more adapted to who we are as Humans.
As I mentioned we need to see a housing estate as an ecosystem, flows in transformed by the local activities and then the subsequent flows out. Inside are all the interactions between the various elements that make up the system. An analysis will reveal those things which work well and don’t need changing, thoses things that don’t work so well but which can be improved and finally those things that damage our health and wellbeing which need eliminating from the system.
The analysis done the local inhabitants can get together to redesign the estate. They will then create a plan of what to do, when and how.
I can’t really go into details about what should or should not be done because I don’t have all the information, you have it. You and your neighbours. There is no simple magic universal solution, everything depends on the local contexts. This means that we can seek inspiration in the solutions developed by other projects but we must adapt them to our local conditions.
Working with flows.
The simplest example has to be water. It comes in from the regional water system with it’s resevoirs, dams etc. It goes out transformed into sewage water and ends up in a sewage treatment work, some, treated, is recycled back into the public water system. This sort of flow is mainly linear, rainfall stocked – sent to houses – treated and sent into rivers, and a part sent back into the system.
The organic matter carried by the water, the sewage if you like, is carried away. This organic matter is needed by your future orchards and food forests, it would be better to find a way to recycle it back rather than sending it away. Dry toilets are a solution used by some projects, others develop locally run reedbed seawage treatment systems. The former are very site specific and not adapted to all the different contexts. The reedbeds can be more univerally used. The different plants which help clean the water (it’s the bacteria that do most of the work) can be cut and used as a soil improving mulch. The sewage water comes out clean and can be used without further treatment for our irrigation needs. Reedbeds are a haven for wildlife.
The sewage and other organic matter can also be run trough a biodigestor which will produce methane gas for your cooking stoves. The digestat, the fermented material which comes out of the digestor has been deodorised and is a great fertiliser for your growing areas.
I have talked about your local orchards and vegetable gardens. You will be producing high quality and fresh food, it will be cheaper and better than the stuff which is sold in the supermarkets. You can go further and add some small livestock onto your estate, chickens for example. Sheep can be cutting the grass and their wool used to improve the insulation of the houses. You could also find the space for fish production, mushrooms and culinary herbs. For the meat eaters fish, rabbits, chickens, hamsters, lamb ….. Locally produced foods equals eating better which means we eat less because the food is of higher quality.
Government after government have shown themselves unequal to the task of creating equitable and abundant local areas. It is really time for us to take matters into our own hands. At least some of the energy we put into protesting about this and that could be better used at home getting things done with the help of all the neighbours.
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