Guest Post: The Digital Garden on Leetsdale

This guest post comes our way via WGY ally Leo Kacenjar, a DU graduate student developing a community garden that will be informed in equal measures by digital media and permaculture. If you’re intrigued by the concepts he presents, be sure to check out one of the upcoming events listed at the bottom, or visit digitalgardenleetsdale.com.

Human environmental interaction, public health and accessibility of technology are some of the most formidable social problems of the twenty-first century. Community gardens and metropolitan agriculture initiatives lower the rate at which food and supplies must be introduced into a city, provide an abundance of nourishing produce, and empower individuals to become engaged citizens.

The last two decades have also ushered in the creation of faster, lighter, more agile, ever connected, and cheaper technologies. Digital media offer the possibility for new realms of public discourse and participation. To optimistically read these changes, posits new realms of digital democratic public dialogue. Despite technologies’ reduction in price, not everyone can afford them. In addition, our nascent digital devices are worthless without ubiquitous connectivity, or the necessary media literacy to effectively and critically engage with media. The result of the digital divide is a discourse, which has not reached its full potential.

The Digital Garden on Leetsdale is an experimental space that works to combine the positive environmental and individually empowering effects of a community garden with the discursive potential of digital media. The goal will be that digital installations like a wireless hub, computing lab, online communal space (content management system) and various thematic digital art pieces, in combination with a working sustainability park and community garden, will bolster dialogue. Sustainable structures, serving as common area and storage will be functional testaments to environmentally friendly building techniques. The conversational potential of this juxtaposition promises to be beneficial and unique. Topics like sustainable design, networked civic engagement, and urban reclamation will all arise in context of the green space.

The project will work with Kinda Collective – a Denver area artists’ collective – and their immediate community to build a teeming collaborative gardening environment that is informed by the digital media. The gardens will improve the urban environment, provide fresh, locally grown foods, bring the diverse groups of the neighborhood together, and empower its participants.

In combination with this person-to-person and environmental interaction, the digital media will grant anyone opportunities to bridge the site-specific conversations into the digital realm, where greater human/environmental themes might be discussed. The free connectivity, computers, and literacy training through on-site classes and the community website will ensure that no one is left out of the dialogue. The digital art installations will pose questions about human-environmental interaction, though sensorial experiences.

The space will also work to demonstrate alternative lifestyle, building, and food production practices to the community by example. The weekly gardening routine and exposure to the space will suggest a lifestyle symbiotically connected to the environment. The straw bale buildings and construction workshops will teach beneficial home sustainability tactics. The permaculture-steeped community gardens will inform the community about new modalities of agriculture.

Free programming throughout the life of the project will include topics like gardening, sustainable living, environmental, community organizing, digital art, and technological literacy. These elements will make the sustainability park a thriving and vital community resource.

The Digital Garden on Leetsdale has two events coming up that are free and open to the public:

Community Meeting

March 31st 2010, 7pm

4500 Leetsdale

Join us for a community meeting to learn more about the space, discuss what you could get out of the garden and what’s at stake for the local community. Garden plot and permaculture guild applications will be available. There will also be free dinner.

Sheet Mulching Workshop

April 10th 2010, 10am

4500 Leetsdale

Learn the basics of sheet mulching first hand as we prepare the Digital Garden for planting. We will transition the workshop into a potluck BBQ and lawn games as the day progresses.

For more information, visit digitalgardenleetsdale.com.

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Repost: Burning Bright – The Black Rock City Experiment

As this year’s Burning Man draws near, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this writeup from an event I attended in NYC a couple years back. It discusses what we can learn about city planning, community, and “radical self-reliance” from Black Rock City, the ephemeral city in the Nevada desert that hosts the Burning Man festival every year.

What if ecological city planners were given a chance to design a city from the ground up, in a completely empty landscape? What if the city was decreed to have zero environmental impact – and torn down and rebuilt on a yearly basis? While it sounds like something pulled from the journals of Paolo Soleri, this ultimate planners’ workshop actually occurs every summer at Black Rock City, the ephemeral site of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Known for its out-of-control costumes and massive art installations, Burning Man is also an annual experiment in low impact/high density human habitation: with a population of 40,000 packed in at twice the density of London, this is no mere camping trip.

I got a taste of Burning Man’s refreshingly offbeat design process at “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City”, a panel at the AIA’s Center for Architecture last weekend. On the stage were Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, Black Rock City planner Rod Garrett, The Eye, architect for one of the festival’s ‘theme camps’, and Hayley Fitchet, a city planner for London-based Gensler.

While it’s often described as “the world’s greatest party,” Burning Man is much more than a weekend of hedonism. At the core of the burner philosophy is the idea of sacredness: nothing is sold at the festival other than water and coffee, and for many, the experience is imbued with a sense of the divine. Harvey explained how the unique architecture of Burning Man heightens this sense of wonder by employing timeless concepts like site orientation, bilateral symmetry, exquisite detailing, and natural materials – concepts that the sleek, convoluted architectural forms of today seem to have left in the dust.

While Harvey played the mystic, Garrett was all professionalism, choosing to focus on the logistical challenges of Black Rock City and how it’s evolved since he came onboard ten years ago. Shaped like a C, with the iconic Burning Man itself at the center, the city plan is scaleable to accommodate a growing population, and allows people and goods to easily access all parts of the site.

Black Rock City

Well-intentioned though it may be, Burning Man is still prone to the pressures of development that threaten any growing city. Garrett related a fascinating tale of how, in the early 2000s, the theme camps (grandiose setups constructed by groups of longtime burners) were contributing to a sort of Burning Man gentrification, forming a literal inner circle around the main esplanade. In the spirit of equality, Black Rock City was rezoned in 2005 to spread them out along the radial streets. The result: the theme camps now act as attractors for “neighborhoods”, bringing together burners with similar interests.

It might seem that the very aspects of Burning Man that make it such a compelling case study – ephemerality, lack of context – would limit its applicability to real-world urban design. But Fitchett, the final presenter, convincingly argued to the contrary, explaining how her three years at Burning Man have informed her work as a planner. Want proof of the importance of landmarks? Look no farther than the Man, standing at the heart of the temporary city until the ritual burning on Saturday. Need reassurance that streets without traffic signals are actually safer? Observe the way bicyclists naturally take to the middle of the Black Rock City streets, while pedestrians cluster around the edges. Perhaps Fitchett’s most original Burning Man-derived insight was the conviction that our public space need not be mediated by commerce. “The chance to be a participant in public life,” she quipped, “should not come at the price of a cup of coffee.”

It was a comment that captured well the spirit on stage, and of the festival as a whole. In the two decades since its founding, Burning Man has become the riotous epicenter of American counterculture – a reputation it’s earned by providing a place, however fleeting, where people can relate to each other without the inevitable distortions of the dollar sign. Back here in reality, we might not be refashioning our street grids or imposing a barter system any time soon, but even so, Burning Man is well worth the consideration of those of us looking to reinvent urban life. After all, if Larry Harvey and his team can bring forty thousand people to the Nevada desert in summer, they must be doing something right.

The Atriplex Project: A Permaculture Database for the Front Range

One of permaculture’s hallmarks is polyculture: the mixed cultivation of a wide variety of bioregionally-appropriate species. In a process called “guild building”, permaculture designers select plants that will mutually enhance each others’ growth while providing their human stewards with a yield. In the classic Native American polyculture of maize, beans, and squash, for instance, the beans add nitrogen to the soil and use the corn stalks for support, while the squash act as a groundcover preventing weeds from competing with the other plants. The resulting yields of these “three sisters” are greater than if each were grown on their own.

Fortunately, a wealth of information exists in print and online for researching and selecting guilds – check out Plants For a Future and the University of Minnesota’s nursery database for starters. Still, this species information is spread across several websites, it’s difficult to sort through, and it’s rarely specific to the climate you’re in. As a result, guild building isn’t always as user-friendly as it ought to be.

In response to this challenge, I’ve begun the Atriplex Project – an attempt to create a comprehensive open-source database of useful plant species for Denver’s bioregion of the shortgrass steppe. Its current incarnation is a google spreadsheet that anyone can edit and export, although down the line it would be great to develop it into a more user-friendly standalone website.

Modeled after Dave Jacke’s exhaustive plant species matrix in the back of Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2, Atriplex is sortable by climate zone, light/soil preferences, size, and a host of other attributes. So far I’ve got about 100 species listed, though not all have complete information. Because the google spreadsheet link is rather cumbersome, there’s a url alias at http://tinyurl.com/atriplex for your sharing convenience.

Forestgarden screenshot

As an open-source document, I intend for Atriplex to eventually reflect the collective wisdom of all growers in this bioregion. The more data that comes from our direct experience, the more accurate and useful it will be. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • If you’ve grown or observed any of the listed species, add locations to the “Local Examples” column.
  • If you know of a reliable local source of a species (whether a nursery, a yard, or a wild patch) write it in the “Seed/stock Sources” column.
  • If you have tips on how to grow or eat a species, or just want to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down, add your thoughts in the last column and be sure to write your name afterwards.
  • If there’s something you think is missing from the list, add a new species by right-clicking on a number on the far left side and selecting “Insert 1 below”. No need to fill out every column or worry about the order.

Thanks for your support – and good luck guild-building!

Why I Don’t Buy New Electronics

By Adam Brock

This Indian news segment profiles what happens to a good deal of our “e-waste” after we take it to get recycled. Workers in the global south – in this case, India – strip the electronics apart, and burn the plastics to get at the small amounts of precious metals inside. In the process, they inhale some of the nastiest smoke imaginable, pollute the air, and contaminate the groundwater with toxic chemicals. Keep in mind that recycling your electronics is considered the green thing to do, as opposed to throwing them in the landfill. (from the Sietch Blog via Celsias)

Why Cityfarming?

By Adam Brock

The following is the first in a four-part series on the current state of urban agriculture. In this and the next three sections of the series, I’ll be showing the ways in which urban agriculture is quickly spreading its roots, and assessing the potential of cityfarming from the perspectives of business, equity and leisure.

Environmentalists have been warning of the fragility of our food systems for years, but the recent spike in food prices has made more mainstream outlets take note, as well. The December 6th cover story of the Economist declared the “end of cheap food”, while a recent Guardian article warned that “the risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years.”

There’s no avoiding it: like many other aspects of industrial civilization, our current agricultural system is in a state of crisis. In California and the Midwest, factory farming is eroding thousands of square of miles of topsoil every year, slowly drawing the nutrients from some of the world’s most fertile farmland. What’s to blame? Overproduction and chemical fertilizers, which, being petroleum based, are themselves nearing the end of their shelf life. Add to these concerns the possibility of herbicide-immune pests and land competition from biofuel production, and it becomes pretty clear that, within a generation or so, we’re going to have to completely reconfigure the way we cultivate and transport food.

The first line of defense, of course, is family farms, which are back on the upswing after decades of decline. But the small farms currently in existence won’t provide nearly enough to feed the massive appetites of our large cities, and rising fuel costs might make even a trip of several hundred miles uneconomical. In that case, it might make sense to procure our food from even closer to home – as close, perhaps, as our own backyards and rooftops.

How much food are we really talking about here? Is it possible that we’ll soon be feeding ourselves entirely from the city limits? I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a class last year that tried to estimate how much land it would take to grow all of New York’s produce within the five boroughs. The Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which handles most of NYC’s conventional produce, has a throughput of 2.7 billion pounds per year. Growing that amount using permaculture techniques would require about 100,000 acres, or three times the entire parkland in the city. Possible? Sure. Feasible? Not so much.

That is, unless you take the farming indoors – and go up. The vertical farm, a high-rise building solely dedicated to the intensive cultivation of produce, has made headlines recently as the answer to the food crisis of the 21st century. Its main proponent is Dickson Despommier, a Columbia professor that’s led courses examining the feasibility of vertical farming for the last few years. His students have explored the viability of everything from buildings full of gourmet lettuce to complicated ecosystems of chickens, tilapia and dozens of crops.

As crazy as it sounds, the vertical farm isn’t completely without precedent: greenhouses like the massive Eurofresh complex in Arizona have been utilizing hydroponics to grow high-yielding indoor crops for years. But in its stacked growing rooms, use of cutting edge materials, and of course its location, the vertical farm is indeed something entirely new. Theoretically, a vertical farm has the potential to provide for a neighborhood of 50,000, making our cities agriculturally self-sufficient. But getting one off the ground would take an investment of hundreds of millions, and it’s bound to be decades before they start proliferating.

Food security is a vital and oft-overlooked component of sustainable cities, albeit one that might take decades to acheive. In the meantime, though, there are a host of other reasons why cityfarming makes sense in the short term. In fact, the urban ag revolution has already begun: from backyards to rooftops to vacant city-owned lots, urban farms are popping up all over the place – and in the process, they’re transforming not only food systems, but underprivileged communities, urban economics and even our brain chemistry. If the twentieth century accomplished the urbanization of the countryside, the twenty-first will see the pastoralization of the city, proving once and for all that crops and condos can peacefully coexist.

Rare Earthtones

By Adam Brock

At one point last spring, I became obsessed with finding a recording of a bird call that I could use as a ringtone… and gave up after a couple hours of coming across bad recordings and paywalls. But now my search has finally come to an end: the Center for Biological Diversity has come out with Rare Earthtones, a collection of free ringtones of the sounds of rare and endangered North American animals.

After perusing their selection for a couple minutes, I ended up springing for something even better than a bird call: a killer whale.

Three Times the Signs

By Adam Brock

Three recent articles from the New York Times are WGYworthy in their Forest Green implications. Let’s connect the dots:

Tom Friedman, of all people, finally seems to be catching on to the fact that we’ll have to seriously retool the economy to save our species. With Bali more or less a wash thanks to the Bush Administration’s anti-diplomacy, Freidman seems to have decided that market forces are more powerful at raping the planet than any kind of diplomacy can be at saving it:

Indeed, today’s global economy has become like a monster truck with the gas pedal stuck, and we’ve lost the key — so no one can stop it from wiping out more and more of the natural world, no matter what the global plan.

And this from globalization’s prime hype man… perhaps there’s a downside to all that world-flattening, after all.

In the Magazine, meanwhile, Michael Pollan weighs in on the overuse of the term “sustainable” and the inherent fragility of mass-produced monocultures. The MRSA scare and Colony Collapse Disorder, he explains, are symptoms of the same impulse: treating living things like machines in an effort to widen those profit margins just a little bit more. The last couple lines say it all:

…whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

Finally, on a somewhat more encouraging note, consumer critic Rob Walker has a lengthy piece on the revival of craft culture as self-conscious antidote to soulless consumerism. Thanks in large part to Etsy, an ebay of sorts for crafty types, tinkerers worldwide are able to connect, trade entrepreneurial tips and hone their artistic skills.

To sum up: a free-trade cheerleader admits that globalization is destroying the earth, the hero of sustainable agriculture points to signs of the industrial food system nearing collapse, and the internet is being leveraged to launch a mass movement against mass production. Sounds like the first rumblings of a paradigm shift to me.