The suburbs get a makeover
These days suburbia is pretty much synonymous with what’s wrong with America: sprawl, obesity, dependence on the car culture. Scratch that. The 21st-century suburbs could be society’s savior.
With their green landscapes and open spaces, the suburbs are a perfect place for a cultural revolution called permaculture – a simple approach to growing food, recycling, reusing and rethinking the world around us.
Suburban permaculture – seeing nature as if we were part of it, not against it – could help us gracefully adapt to climate change, soaring food prices and a looming water crisis.
Drought early in 2013 caused global dairy prices to soar, pushing food costs two percent higher. That unlikely dry spell forced New Zealand farmers to cull herds or stop milking cows, producing a plunge in milk production, says the U.N. Meat prices are way up, too, caused by record drought in the U.S. West.
But lucky suburbanites, if they only knew it, live on potential mini-farms. With little effort, the third-of-an-acre encircling suburban starter castles can be converted to Victory Gardens, like those planted during World War II – providing an organic fresh fruit and vegetable buffer against escalating food prices.
Suburbanites simply need to rethink: Give up the roar of Saturday morning lawnmowers, and discover that carrot tops make a great pesto. Trade in dandelion digging for the harvesting of beefeater tomatoes!
Permaculture offers a template for the banishing of lawns and the planting of gardens.
It starts with observation – there’s no rush. Take a year to figure out simple things like where the sun shines in your yard through the day. Then organize the landscape into zones: Zone 1, for example, is closest to the house, a place to grow food you visit daily, like salad greens or herbs. Zone 5, my favorite, is a small patch of yard wilderness left utterly alone, a wild place for the birds, a place to sit and do nothing.
NASA scientists, observing decades of satellite data, say we’re fast using up world resources. Our consumption of nature (for food, fibers and fabrication) is rising, with current annual consumption of the planet’s plant materials at about 25 percent, and expected to shoot to 55 percent by 2050. Yikes!
Suburban permaculture shows us how not to run out of resources, how to ease pressure on the planet’s limited land by using our yards and reusing our trash wisely.
To the uninformed, for example, it may appear that permaculture junkies collect junk. They don’t. They know that used PVC pipe and wood scrap lying behind the garage can be crafted into a nifty storage unit for gardening tools. Rakes and hoes slide into the piping and stack vertically in a neat wooden frame. Space saver! Suburbanites can creatively reclaim their trash, skipping the gas-guzzling drive to the dump.
You may not know it, but the freshwater pouring from your tap is an endangered resource. Freshwater demand will exceed supply by 40 percent by 2030, says the U.S. State Department. Double yikes!
Yet again, permaculture to the rescue. Remember those zones? Home is Zone 0, where a permie conserves energy and water. And conserving doesn’t need to mean pricey solar collectors. It can be a strategically placed rain barrel that makes watering the garden cheaper and easier. Check out Costco for its nifty line of rain barrels, ranging from 100 to 400 liters, and just under $100 to $400.
What’s old is new
Sure, permaculture critics call it pseudoscientific because it lacks a presence on university campuses or in peer-reviewed journals. But that just gives today’s suburbanites more elbow room with which to experiment and explore its principles.
Permaculture is a blueprint for living based on common sense. It echoes the do-it-yourself lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents who planted Victory Gardens, threw nothing away and darned socks.
But unlike our elders who lived on isolated farms or in crowded cities, we can enjoy the best of both worlds. Suburbanites have neighbors from whom they can learn and share, and space in which to change and invent. The suburbs just might be a launch point for the Next Big Thing. Bring it on; we’re gonna have fun!
Jude Isabella is a science writer and pseudo-permie in Victoria, British Columbia.