Autumn’s Invitation

GS-Newsletter-Autumn-photoFall has never been my favorite season. Going back to school, shivering in the first snowfall, darker and darker evenings, watching the trees become stripped and gangly… it all seemed so depressing. But as I’ve slowly learned to listen to nature’s patterns, I’m starting to see autumn as a time of precarious abundance, a time when we can live off summer’s bounty as we re-assess our past year and prepare for the cold months.

Sure, I’d rather be biking to work in a t-shirt than a down coat, and I’ll take peaches fresh off the branch over homemade preserves any day. But when I’m surrounded by a culture addicted to perpetual growth, the end of the harvest gives me a much-needed reminder that contraction is just as important as expansion. Indeed, it’s the way all life operates. Without dead leaves rotting on the ground, the soil would eventually be robbed of its nutrients. Without fallen trees, there would be no light on the forest floor for new seedlings to sprout. And without a nightly dose of sleep, our bodies and minds would lose touch with reality and crash.

Still, as an entrepreneur, putting that understanding into practice can be mighty tough. When I’m on a roll with the Wild Green Yonder, I’m almost constantly pushing past my own limits: sending one more email to that awesome contact I just met at a conference, composing one more tweet about a revolutionary gardening technique, promoting my classes in one more place.

To be sure, success in a new venture depends on being ridiculously dedicated and thorough. But paradoxically, I’ve found that my biggest insights, my most creative moments, come when I force myself to unplug. Like fallen leaves breaking down into rich humus, the fertile grounds of innovation are only nurtured when we drop our temporary commitments, take a deep breath, and reflect on the larger picture of which our current situation is a part.

To me, that larger picture would seem to place our cultural zeitgeist in an October of sorts, as well: though we continue to reap the fruits of the great fossil fuel harvest, the first of chills of a different season are here. Does the coming winter of energy descent spell the end of the good times? Certainly not. It merely invites us to use our foresight and maturity to with the roll with the changing season, and preserve the precarious abundance we’ve gathered for the future.

In the meantime, though, there’s still leaves on the trees, and the sun is warm on my shoulders. I’m called to put away my laptop, take a deep breath – and marvel at the bounty.

Repost: The Pitchfork Collective

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, when I first encountered Pitchfork’s inspiring brand of anarchy as a visitor to Denver. Today is Pitchfork’s last day as a functioning collective – the murals have all been painted white, the rooms lay bare and eerily clean. I’m reposting this essay as a tribute to the incredible impact that Pitchfork has had on Denver’s now-thriving urban homesteading community. It will be missed.

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with the fact that everything that mattered in the first two decades of my life – all my achievements and disappointments, my aspirations and concerns – occurred under conditions that are fast becoming obsolete. The economic meltdown that’s currently underway only serves to underscore the fact that the growth-centric society in which I grew up is poorly suited to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate and declining supply of energy.

Fortunately, I’ve never been one to shy away from change. Instead, I’ve spent the better part of the past year trying to figure out what it might mean to live in a way that works with, rather than against, natural systems. Do l I have to renounce the urban lifestyle to live sustainably? Will it make me happier, or more stressed out?

For now, these questions are largely hypothetical: as long as I’m at school in New York, sustainable living remains little more than an abstraction. Sure, I can refuse plastic bags, buy local food, and use compact fluorescent bulbs in my apartment, but in the end these are only gestures at leaving a lighter footprint, greening the edges of a way of life that is fundamentally against nature. But with graduation fast advancing – and the prospects of finding a secure career seeming less attractive by the week – I decided to use the generous break between my final two semesters to seek out a Forest Green way of life in my hometown of Denver.

Which is how I found myself living in the Pitchfork Collective, a cooperative living space founded about a year ago in central Denver. The three-story house, in the historic Five Points neighborhood, is home to an ever-shifting cast of characters, all between the ages of 17 and 27. During the course of my stay, I met couch-surfing hipster vagabonds, transgender wiccans, crust-punk anarchists, and many other folks too unique to slap a label on. What united them all was a respect for diversity, defiant individualism, and a belief in sustainable community.

Like any group of activist youth, the Pitchfork Collective wasn’t without its downsides: the industrial-sized sink was rarely without a pile of dirty dishes, and during the course of my stay, more than a few non-residents took advantage of the house’s open-door policy by overstaying their welcome. Still, I continually found myself surprised by the amazing things going on around the house – at any given time, collective members might be busy making crafts to sell on Etsy, planning for the springtime permaculture garden, teaching a class on positive menstruation, or cooking burritos to hand out to migrant workers. Despite the griminess, the constant flux of residents, and the youthful naiveté, I had to admit that Pitchfork was thriving. And it’s not alone: at least five or six similar houses have formed just past the frontiers of central Denver’s gentrification, all of them connected in a tight-knit community of young radicals.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Pitchfork was its role as host of Denver’s Food Not Bombs, a program that cooks and serves recently expired food to needy communities across the country. Every Saturday morning, volunteers made the rounds at several local grocery stores that have agreed to donate unwanted food, delivering dozens of boxes of produce, baked goods and leftover bulk goods to Pitchfork’s front lawn. An ever-shifting crew of residents and friends assembled to sort, prepare, and cook the food, working with whatever was in abundance that week. Once the dishes were ready, they were loaded into an old biodiesel pickup and driven to a nearby park, where a crowd of eager customers awaited.

The long train ride back to New York gave me some time to assess my stay at Pitchfork. Is it sustainable? Probably not – even Food Not Bombs is based on a surplus of produce grown far, far away. It’s also not for everybody; with such a diverse set of roommates, collective living can strain the most open of minds. Still, I don’t think Pitchfork really needs to be a universal template to be successful. After all, the whole point of the regeneration is to move away from universal templates in favor of new ways of living based on local climate and culture. Under these criteria, then, I’d say the Pitchfork Collective is a damn good first attempt at urban sustainability. In a society filled with cookie-cutter neighborhoods and lives that lack meaning, Pitchfork proves that diversity can succeed, that you don’t need stuff to be satisfied, that community is key – and that doing it yourself can be a whole lot more fun than letting others to do it for you.

Metropolitan Green and the Regeneration of Urban Space

By Adam Brock

Is all the good space left in New York gone? With construction cranes and scaffolding as ubiquitous as taxis these days, it’s easy to think that within a few years every square foot of space that can be built on will be. A closer look, though, reveals that even after a decade of manic development, New York’s urban space is vastly underutilized. While condos and office towers continue to rise all over town, vacant lots with no sign of impending construction still abound in all but the densest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are great opportunities for utilizing street space more intelligently, and thousands of acres lie untapped on city roofs.

And it’s a good thing, too: the way we reinvent these underutilized spaces will be crucial in determining the long-term resilience of New York City. We don’t need more condos for rich people from other countries. We need more trees, more green spaces to get away from the daily grind. We need to start growing more of our own food. We need to provide jobs for the working class that will lift them out of poverty while restoring the quality of the air, soil and water. In short, we need to figure out how to pastoralize the city as thoroughly as we’ve already urbanized the countryside.

The difficulty with making New York City greener is not a lack of space. Rather, it’s a lack of control over the space that’s available. In a city of dense, highly-prized real estate, decisions about how we manipulate our space are left in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it. The fate of the urban environment is determined by developers: entities which, constrained by the need for short-term returns, simply aren’t designed to think about the longer-term social and environmental consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the people that do care about these things – the people that actually live in urban neighborhoods – are rarely given more than a token voice in the planning process, and they rarely have the tools to envision how development might work better than it currently does. Even city governments, which used to guide the urban form through zoning, civic beautification, and urban renewal projects, have largely ceded control of the urban environment to the free market due to ever-tightening budgets and the lure of tax revenue from big-ticket properties.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that there’s no grand plan for how our cities are evolving: design from the bottom up can have its merits. It might not grow the economy as much as luxury lofts and big-box stores, but elements like small businesses and owner-built houses bring vitality to a place that modernist monuments and slick corporate megastructures lack. On the other hand, only city governments have the ability to create and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning, and only government and business have the money to transform our cities on the scale that’s necessary. The challenge for the 21st century, then, is to figure out a synthesis of top-down guidance and bottom-up authenticity, applying the knowledge and capital of government and business to the desires of the community.

It’s a massively different process than the one that occurs today, and the transition will probably outlast our own lives. But while we’re waiting, I think it’s worthwhile to start imagining ways that we might, if given the chance, start to redesign our own communities. I began doing just that last semester with The Living Domino, an ecological concept plan for a vacant factory complex down the street from my house. My most recent design challenge, Metropolitan Green, takes the same values and shows how they can be applied on a somewhat smaller scale.

Existing
A few blocks south of the Bedford Ave L stop, there’s a little triangular block where the slightly diagonal Metropolitan meets up with North 3rd street. Small and awkwardly shaped, the lot contains a mostly empty private parking lot and an overgrown triangle of a garden, and has thus far resisted development. The street to the north contains a bagel store, a lumber store and a laundromat, and sees hardly any traffic besides deliveries to these retail establishments. The result is a block of wasted space, an unsightly agglomeration of pavement, cars, and chain link fence in a space that’s ideally suited for a public plaza. Currently, more than half of the surface area of the triangle is taken up by sidewalk and asphalt, neither of which get much use.

MetroGreen
Metropolitan Green proposes an arrangement would combine biology and architecture, while giving Williamsburg residents some much-needed public green space in the process. The design integrates the block with the buildings to the north, erasing the street that divides them except for a small access driveway for the lumber store. A greenhouse would emerge from the south side of the bagel store, collecting heat to help keep the building warm and providing a pleasant space for eating outdoors and growing a small amount of food year-round. Just to the east of the greenhouse, a small pond and intentional wetland process the organic waste from the bagel store and lofts above it, while providing a home for several types of edible fish. A matrix of raised beds allow vegetables and herbs to be grown outdoors nine months of the year, while the southernmost portion of the block is left as an open park.

For all the recent excitement around the idea of sustainability, designs such as the Living Domino or Metropolitan Green are still considered too radical to be feasible – but that’s no reason not to keep working at them. There’s no doubt in my mind that the end of cheap oil and need to mitigate global warming will demand a reinvention of the built environment far beyond what’s currently deemed politically feasible, and the more we can start to envision that eventual metamorphosis the better. Indeed, that metamorphosis might just happen sooner than we think: the economic climate seems to be changing even faster than the meteorological one, and it may not be long before crops begin to take the place of condos as the newest member of the urban fabric.



A Sense of Place: The Pitchfork Collective

By Adam Brock

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with the fact that everything that mattered in the first two decades of my life – all my achievements and disappointments, my aspirations and concerns – occurred under conditions that are fast becoming obsolete. The economic meltdown that’s currently underway only serves to underscore the fact that the growth-centric society in which I grew up is poorly suited to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate and declining supply of energy.

Fortunately, I’ve never been one to shy away from change. Instead, I’ve spent the better part of the past year trying to figure out what it might mean to live in a way that works with, rather than against, natural systems. Do l I have to renounce the urban lifestyle to live sustainably? Will it make me happier, or more stressed out?

For now, these questions are largely hypothetical: as long as I’m at school in New York, sustainable living remains little more than an abstraction. Sure, I can refuse plastic bags, buy local food, and use compact fluorescent bulbs in my apartment, but in the end these are only gestures at leaving a lighter footprint, greening the edges of a way of life that is fundamentally against nature. But with graduation fast advancing – and the prospects of finding a secure career seeming less attractive by the week – I decided to use the generous break between my final two semesters to seek out a Forest Green way of life in my hometown of Denver.

Which is how I found myself living in the Pitchfork Collective, a cooperative living space founded about a year ago in central Denver. The three-story house, in the historic Five Points neighborhood, is home to an ever-shifting cast of characters, all between the ages of 17 and 27. During the course of my stay, I met couch-surfing hipster vagabonds, transgender wiccans, crust-punk anarchists, and many other folks too unique to slap a label on. What united them all was a respect for diversity, defiant individualism, and a belief in sustainable community.

Like any group of activist youth, the Pitchfork Collective wasn’t without its downsides: the industrial-sized sink was rarely without a pile of dirty dishes, and during the course of my stay, more than a few non-residents took advantage of the house’s open-door policy by overstaying their welcome. Still, I continually found myself surprised by the amazing things going on around the house – at any given time, collective members might be busy making crafts to sell on Etsy, planning for the springtime permaculture garden, teaching a class on positive menstruation, or cooking burritos to hand out to migrant workers. Despite the griminess, the constant flux of residents, and the youthful naiveté, I had to admit that Pitchfork was thriving. And it’s not alone: at least five or six similar houses have formed just past the frontiers of central Denver’s gentrification, all of them connected in a tight-knit community of young radicals.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Pitchfork was its role as host of Denver’s food not bombs, a program that cooks and serves recently expired food to needy communities across the country. Every Saturday morning, volunteers made the rounds at several local grocery stores that have agreed to donate unwanted food, delivering dozens of boxes of produce, baked goods and leftover bulk goods to Pitchfork’s front lawn. An ever-shifting crew of residents and friends assembled to sort, prepare, and cook the food, working with whatever was in abundance that week. Once the dishes were ready, they were loaded into an old biodiesel pickup and driven to a nearby park, where a crowd of eager customers awaited.

The long train ride back to New York gave me some time to assess my stay at Pitchfork. Is it sustainable? Probably not – even food not bombs is based on a surplus of produce grown far, far away. It’s also not for everybody; with such a diverse set of roommates, collective living can strain the most open of minds. Still, I don’t think Pitchfork really needs to be a universal template to be successful. After all, the whole point of the regeneration is to move away from universal templates in favor of new ways of living based on local climate and culture. Under these criteria, then, I’d say the Pitchfork Collective is a damn good first attempt at urban sustainability. In a society filled with cookie-cutter neighborhoods and lives that lack meaning, Pitchfork proves that diversity can succeed, that you don’t need stuff to be satisfied, that community is key – and that doing it yourself can be a whole lot more fun than letting others to do it for you.

Grounded

By Adam Brock

In a society obsessed with efficiency, the miracle of crisscrossing the planet in a matter of hours has become mundane. Every day, from Duluth to Dubai, millions of people shuffle through metal detectors, pack themselves into cramped metal tubes, doze off, distractedly watch a movie or two, and disembark, sore, bleary, and suddenly somewhere else. All in all, it’s a pretty depressing cultural dance: like so much else in the overdeveloped world, our contemporary paradigm of transporation is high on quantity and short on quality. We might be able to travel between any major city in a matter of hours, but that freedom comes at a dear cost – not only to our climate, but also our mental health and our sense of place.

This summer, I made the decision to stop flying altogether. When I explain my decision to people, I think most assume that I’m caught up in footprint mania, on some kind quest for carbon martyrdom. But while the emissions thing is indeed a part of my decision to stick to the ground, what’s more important is my desire to make long-distance transportation something that nourishes rather than drains me. I want to experience what it really feels like to get from place to place, to travel in a way that’s as much about process as product. Being able to take note of the subtle shifts in culture and landscape on the way from A to B gives me much richer sense of place when I get to my destination. What’s more, moving at a more human speed allows me the time to reflect on where I’m coming from and where I’m going – something I hardly ever get to do in my supersaturated life.

I’ve been practicing this philosophy of “slow travel” for a few years now, but I hadn’t made the explicit decision to avoid the airplane until this winter break, when I convinced a few friends from my hometown of Denver to take the train back from New York with me. I went into the ride expecting a certain dose of adventure, and there were certainly some hitches: a snowstorm on the way to Chicago stretched what should have been an 18-hour ride into a 23-hour one, and the circa-1981 seats were much better to look at than sleep in. But I also enjoyed great conversation, met some fascinating folks, and saw with fresh eyes a part of the country I’d long written off.

I’m fortunate that the trip I wanted to take was relatively simple and cheap to make on the ground. Of course, it won’t always be that easy: trains might be an underrated way to traverse the USA, but much of the travel we’re accustomed to can’t practically happen without the miracle of flight. From volunteering in remote African villages to attending business meetings thousands of miles away, the fact of cheap and easy air travel has opened up all kinds of doors for citizens of the overdeveloped world, and few people (myself included) would like to see those doors shut.

But whether the remarkable ease of mobility that aviation creates is a good thing or not, the reality is that it natural limits, filtered through policy and economics, won’t allow it to exist for much longer. Carbon legislation and ever-climbing fuel prices are all but certain to make air travel a luxury in the near future – and an un-PC one at that, like wearing a fur coat.

The implications, as they say, are vast, for the way we get around shapes our experience of the world. The successive transportation revolutions of the fossil fuel era laid the groundwork for a global society, enabling unprecedented migration and cross-cultural dialogue. The regeneration, in contrast, will bring about a rediscovery of the art of inhabitance. Grist reader naught101 made a good case for staying put in a comment a few weeks back:

I’d like to point out that it’s quite possible to spend decades in one place, and still not discover everything that’s within walking distance. And the biodiversity in your local ecosystems (assuming they’re not completely destroyed) is more complex than anything you’ll ever learn from travelling for a short period to any other ecosystem.

The fundamental answer to this question is another question: why travel?

Naught101’s question might be overdoing it slightly; I still believe in the value of experiencing a place fundamentally different from the one you’re used to. But his point remains: the end of easy aviation will challenge us to rethink what it means to explore the world around us. Perhaps we’ll a have a smaller menu of destinations to choose from, but we’ll be afforded the time to enjoy the journey – and the opportunity to rediscover the wonders that lie a bit closer to home.

photo credit: flickr/cjelli