On Green Urban Living

A few years ago I wrote about sustainable urban living. Three and a half years later, it’s still a pretty big ideal of mine. There are countless people, pagan and otherwise, who dream of going to live out in the middle of nowhere, a handful of people per square mile. Some even consider intentional communities, or at least extended families, on farms and fields and forests.

I used to be that way. However, after over a decade of city living, I’ve found I can handle urban life pretty well, and I enjoy it quite a bit. I still like having quick access to a variety of grocery stores, antique shops, and more types of cuisine than I had imagined. Admittedly, I do still occasionally miss the small town life I grew up with. I live in a place that doesn’t have a particularly good view of the sunset, though I can catch a gorgeous sunrise if I wake up early enough–or stay up late enough. I miss seeing stars at night, and deer in the back yard. And for my sanity I need regular trips out into more wilderness areas, in the Gorge and elsewhere.

And yes, cities have gotten a bad reputation among environmentalists and others. Cities are seen as sources of crime, pollution, hectic lifestyles, and the like. And, to be fair, many of them are. Even in Portland, which is a fairly laid-back city, we have our crime and our drugs and our traffic and pollution. But a lot of that is a matter of design. Cities could be re-designed to be more efficient and eco-friendly, to be more aesthetically pleasing and psychologically supportive. It would take a lot of work, from better infrastructure to better social services. The people and the environment both need more resources to achieve “healthy” status than they’re currently getting. I have faith in us, though, as a species. I have hope that we can figure it out before it’s too late, and there are already plenty of efforts to find better alternatives to the unhealthy ways our cities have evolved over the past several decades.

So why bother with all that work? Why don’t we nature-lovers just run out to the middle of nowhere, have our acreage and our farms and our permaculture and our peace and quiet and starry skies and all the other things we can’t have in the city? Well, you’re welcome to do so. And yes, there’s a part of me that would be happy picking up and moving to a more rural area. I can live a quieter life, and it has its benefits. But it would come at a pretty serious cost, and I’m choosing to not take that route. Having that pagan commune or earthy intentional community seems like the greener option, but is it really?

Let’s look at transportation for example. If I remember anything from growing up small-town, it’s that things are more spread apart. The next town over might be a dozen miles away–or more. And there’s no bus service; the closest thing to public transit is the taxi cab, or riding into town with a friend. Not particularly efficient, and not particularly green. So just getting myself from place to place has a strike against it, and that’s not taking into consideration getting other resources like gas, food, and the like trucked in from here, there, and everywhere. The more remotely you live, the more fossil fuels you rely on to get to and from anywhere that isn’t home, and to get even your most basic needs met.

Furthermore, for every acre we humans take up in wilder, more rural areas, that’s another acre that we’re pressuring more sensitive wildlife away from. Sure, deer and coyotes are pretty adaptable, but what about the elk and wolves that were pushed further out, or the cougars and pronghorn antelope? Some species simply will not live close to us, and our presence affects them deeply. Our roads and fences interfere with migration routes that are thousands of years old. Our farms and yards destroy habitats that provide food and shelter, and which grow endangered species of plant and fungus. Our cattle and other livestock out-compete wild grazers and browsers. Our cars and other vehicles create noise and smells and pollution that interfere with the ecology in numerous ways. Our septic tanks leak, and we cannot live lightly on the land.

And we keep spreading out, taking available land or suburbs and golf courses, for turning small towns like the one I grew up in into wannabe metropolises. We turn more and more land to farming and ranching every year. And every person who leaves the city for rural living just increases the strain on the wilderness, hems it in a little bit more. Your “getting away from it all” takes more space and resources from beings that absolutely cannot live in a city. There’s no sign of us reversing that trend, either, with more people fleeing urban areas every year.

But I have to try bucking the trend and modeling a greener way to be an urbanite. I am more committed than ever to the idea and the reality of eco-friendly, sustainable cities. While someday, yes, I’d love to own a house somewhere in Portland, right now I’m content in my apartment. The shared walls mean less energy usage for heating and cooling, and my partner and I take up less space than we would if we lived in a house together. The location my building is in is one that’s been paved over for well over a century, so no new ground has been broken here in my lifetime. I’m right in the middle of a hub of public transportation, which means I can catch a bus to anywhere in the area. And I live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city, which means I can get my groceries and other goodies on foot. I have a little porch on which I garden, and earlier this summer I got a spot at the community garden down the road from me (after three years on the waiting list!)

This is just as good a canvas for painting a green life as a farm. I can’t grow all my own food, but I can support movements for urban farming (like my community garden and more). I do have to deal with more pollution, but I can contribute to efforts to clean up the sources of said pollution and find better alternatives. I sometimes still have trouble with the noise, but so much of that is from traffic, and by promoting public transit I can hopefully help urge people toward cutting down on the number of unnecessary cars on the road. I know very well that even “safe” neighborhoods have crime, and some people are living in parts of the city where their lives are on the line every time they step outside the door. But I can advocate for better services to address poverty, public health, and social injustices that are the basis of high crime rates.

Cities don’t have to be places of pollution and ill health and crime. I see a better future, where humans are more concentrated in healthy urban areas, and the wild beings of the world have more land and space to roam, including places we’re given back to them. I’m committed to helping bring that to life, and it all starts right here, for me, in Portland.

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14 thoughts on “On Green Urban Living

  1. I like this post, not only because it encourages people to change cities into something better, but because I have always had a soft spot for cities, especially ones full of history. The book called Urban Primitive spoke of working towards a deeper bond with the city, but you raised points I never considered, like how humans moving into the wilds pushes out indigenous wildlife, and damages the local flora,

    Thank you for sharing this, I try to fix my town instead of running away too.

  2. Sort of a tangent, but I’ve had this beef with a lot of back-to-nature/buck civilisation type movements which tend to meet in the middle of nowhere. I am disabled – therefore anywhere that doesn’t have easy tracks to get to and comfortable seating and warmth may as well just hang a “no disabled allowed” sign up. There are man-made medications which have managed to give me a relatively suffering-free life; a life which was a nightmare for me until I had that medication, so turning my back on all things human-made is not the One True Way that many think.

    Living in harmony means just that; and I don’t think it requires either us wiping everything out nor us having to live in the middle of nowhere eating roots. Here is to balance!

  3. As a fellow urban homesteader, I agree whole-heartedly with what you say here. We are in a much smaller city, and in Vermont, so the “wild” is both less wild and geographically easier to get to than if we were in, say, Portland…but I love being able to walk to work, and to downtown, and being woven into the fabric of this place and its people. I have a tiny garden at home, and bigger gardens on the outskirts of town. I want to not live on the busiest street in the city, but we make due…and soon the motorcycles will be gone for the season, which I look forward to each year!

  4. This reminds me of one of Thorn Coyle’s podcasts from a few years ago with John Michael Greer, where he says similar things about this desire people have to “get away from it all” and the ecological strain it can have. In the traditional foods community, there are many people who want to homestead and just as many arguing for urban homesteads. I am all for this. In fact, yesterday, on the way home from the fish market, there was a chicken out in the middle of the road of the suburban area. Those hens looked so healthy and I hope no one hits them!

    Lupa, have you read Avant Gardening? I think you’d enjoy it.

    • I haven’t read it, but I just added it to my wish list!

      We used to have three hens down the street from us, til their person moved to another neighborhood. I do miss them, and wish I had a yard myself 😦

  5. Your post has given rise to a number of interesting reflections. After living in New York City for 58 years, 3 years ago I retired to a small town on Lake Michigan. I don’t dislike the city, but after all that time living there, I think I’ve seen enough of it for now (actually, Brooklyn was a great place to grow up in. Talk about a liberal education! I got one evey day I walked out my door.) Now I live on the outskirts of town (shades of Jimmy Reed) and bike into the local market for much of my stuff. We pretty much bike everywhere–especially to the beach. Do you bike around town? We buy as much local produce as we can, and try to grow as much of the rest as the deer will let us. Yes, they have to truck a lot of the stuff into the stores around here; but then, they do the same to get all that stuff to stores in the city–and usually for much greater distances. Don’t kid yourself: city dwellers, no matter how conscientious they may be, have as much impact on the environment as the rural community does. You may not be standing there looking at it as it happens, but a whole lot more land is given over to farming and ranching to feed all those urbanites than is taken up by local homesteaders’ garden. As crime goes, it has been my experience that the incidence crime in the country is statistcally proportional to what it is in the city, it’s just spread out more–as is the population. Crime in the country is just as sorry, just as stupid and just as savage as anything in the city. You are right when you say that cities don’t have to be “places of pollution and ill health and crime”. NYC was a perfect example of that; though, considering all the fatties with oxygen bottles I see in the prcoessed food isles at the local supermarket in the next town, I don’t see how you can equate ill health specificaly with cities. Most city dwellers are much more active on a daily basis than their rural counterparts. In rural America going for a walk is a novelty, not simply a way of getting around. I rode the subway everyday, starting from when I was about 8 years old, and am a great proponent of public transportation. I wish we had a decent railway system in this country; what we have now is so bad it’s embarassing. Unlike you, I’m afraid I can’t say that I see a bright future for humanity. Humans are wild animals living their wild animal lives; no one has domesticated us and we are doing as we damn well please. And most of what we do is without any consideration of the results, long term. Sure, we TALK a lot about what we SHOULD be doing, but nine out of ten times what we actually do is another story. This last item is a subtle clue that informs us that maybe we’re not quite as important as we like to think we are, and pretty much lets us fit comfortably in with the rest of the lifeforms on this planet–and like 99% of them, we too will one day become extinct. No big deal: Natural Selection at work! As far as Spirit (don’t ask me what its true nature is, because I don’t have a clue. I have ideas, but certainly don’t claim to be in a position to make any calls on this) and its manifestations (I have a better grasp of the nature of local spirits) go, it”ll all be there and will remain long after humanity is gone. This is a good thing. This gives me hope for the future.

    • Biking assumes physical ability. I cannot bike because of my knees, and there are people who are much more physically disabled than I am who couldn’t live in a bike-only world. That’s one of my gripes with the back to the land movement–it’s quite ableist in a lot of ways. For those who can bike, it does open up a lot of green possibilities.

      Crime in the cities tends to be more concentrated, which is why it seems worse, though you’re definitely right it’s a rural issue, too.

      I do have some optimism for our species; we have a lot to overcome, but we’re not down and out yet. So I maintain that hope that we’ll turn our ingenuity to more constructive solutions before it’s too late.

  6. Hi there- been reading your blog for awhile and feel comfortable to take part in the conversation/comments finally 😉

    I love your insights about so many topics on here- they resonate with me or help me reflect on issues I haven’t looked at from particular angles yet. As far as this subject goes, I love the insight. I recently was thinking about how many people I know have the “dream” to a) move to portland (lol. but seriously, many of my friends and peers have moved there. it’s a NW thing.) or to head out to the wilderness and sustainably farm/homestead. I DO live in an area with lots of nearby country, forests, and decades-old farms and homesteads, so If I truly wanted to to do that it would just be like buying any other home in my area, just more rural. HOWEVER, a lot of people come here to build, or people who want the rural lifestyle build rather than buy a pre-existing homestead. Due to the beautiful nature surrounding our city it happens frequently. To me it’s crazy- I understand the allure of designing and building your “dream home” in an ideal and pristine setting, but recently I read something like there are enough vacant homes in the US to house every single homeless person? Or something like that! It really made me take pause, and at that moment I decided I was never going to build a home from the ground up- think about it, people want the perfect “green” eco-home, so seek to buy land and construct one- but in reality another home that already exists, takes up space, used resources to create- stands empty. While necessary new construction should be more sustainable, I see a dilemma in the act of creating a “green” home from scratch while letting a perfectly inhabitable home go to waste. Another issue with living rural- if you’re not willing to truly let go of the city, or jobs and frequent trips to- using a lot of fossil fuels to commute. Living a rural/homesteading life was one of my friend’s big ideals, but when she got to the meat of it- he husband would still work in the city and have to commute, she’s very social and would want company often (people commuting) or go to the city herself to socialize often (several times a week). I asked her why she wanted to live in the country and it was really just based of an ‘ideal’ that fit with her image/lifestyle/community, and also that she wanted to have a massive, productive garden. I pointed out she could do that in the city- they eventually bought an old house here and are working on urban farming 🙂

    For my circle/ peer group, the big dream seems to be homesteading or moving to Portland. It makes me sad that people want to “get away” from the city rather than stay to improve it or start a revolution here and contribute to a community that NEEDS contributing to and change. They’d rather join another functioning ideal or escape to a homestead… or build a new home… instead of reclaiming what is readily available here.

    • Ack, sorry it took me so long to respond to this!

      Thing is, there are lots of ways to live green. I’m partial to green urbanization for the reasons I stated. There are ways for at least some people to be green in less populated areas, but probably not if all 7 billion of us do it. And yeah, it is easier to be green in places like Portland; I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I went back to Pittsburgh and tried it there.

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