Monday, December 20, 2010

The Battle for Control of the "Smart City"

Very intriguing article on technology and the city.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Less Optimization. More Imagination!

"...we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that swapping our current car for a Prius or replacing our incandescent lights with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs will strike a meaningful blow against climate change. The real fix to this problem will come when governments focus on research and development aimed at boosting the proportion of green-energy sources in overall consumption." -Bjørn Lomborg

I just read an article in Slate about the counter-intuitive effects of induced demand. Induced (or "latent") demand is the increase in demand for a service as it becomes cheaper or more accessible. A great example is the long-term increase in commuter traffic when lanes are added to the highway. This may seem like a strange notion: If you wish to solve automobile congestion on the highway, an intuitive solution is adding more lanes. Right? Wrong! While the additional lane frees up space and reduce travel times in the short term, the extra lane ends up increasing traffic because destinations (e.g. offices) take advantage of the lower transportation costs induced by the additional lane. It's like quick sand, or a Chinese finger trap: the harder you resist, the more perilous the situation grows! The same can be argued for energy efficiency and automobiles: our cars are more fuel efficient than ever, but many many more people world-wide are driving. The net effect eliminates our efficiency gains completely.

So how do we escape the energy-efficiency trap of induced demand? Instead of optimizing a flawed system, we must make radical changes to the way we consume and produce energy. This, as I've argued in my previous posts, will require more than mere advances to existing artifacts. We will not reduce greenhouse gases by driving hybrid vehicles or replacing our light bulbs. We must change our expectations about transportation and household energy consumption, retrofit cities for a pedestrian economy, retrofit existing buildings to take advantage of the sun's free light and the earth's free warmth/coolth, localize food systems, eliminate "waste" through composting and whole-system efficiency. Contrary to the article's contention, individual actions CAN make a difference, but individual action has to be bold and radical. You should NOT “go ahead and guzzle.” We should try to imagine a world in which “guzzling” is no longer necessary, so that a transition from gas guzzling to no-guzzling seems as natural as walking to the store.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Overcoming Discursive Barriers to Sustainability through Experiential Learning

“Off a road with no name, near a town you’ve never heard of, is a place you’ve surely never heard of: the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, where life is just one big green party.” –Fox News St. Louis, 2007

Many ecovillage inhabitants I have encountered are well aware of the lingering similarities with the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s: social egalitarianism, shared resources, a heightened concern for nature. But contemporary ecovillages are in many ways quite different than the hippie communes that “dropped out” of society. Many contemporary ecovillages have taken a firm activist stance, engaging aggressively in mainstream society through the internet, visitor programs, national conferences, and publications that evangelize the social and technical innovations emerging in these new communities. For example, Dancing Rabbit’s mission is twofold:

To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably.

To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research [emphasis added].

This type of mission statement is not uncommon amongst other communities. Contemporary ecovillages are engaged in mainstream society to an extent unprecedented by their hippie commune predecessors. Yet the legacy of disengaged hippie communes pervades the portrayal of ecovillages in the popular press, and the remembered legacy—correct or not—is alien, irresponsible, and delusional.

A 1998 Washington Post article sets the scene:

Vashon Island is a natural place for people who want to start a new life. Home to about 10,000 people, it has a working-class hippie feel, with many a young woman clad in velvet curtain-like skirts and woven hats making espresso for a living (Quart and Kushin, 1998).

Certainly, the discourse regarding ecovillages has evolved in the past decade. Much of the popular press surrounding ecovillages offer positive coverage—often in the form of a quirky human-interest story. Many articles begin with a disclaimer, a sort of cultural pardoning of ecovillages as places that have transcended the wayward hippie era.

A 2009 article from the Canwest News Service (Montreal) explains:

While touring an ecovillage here, a few features you might expect from a rural communal dwelling are noticeably absent: no hippies farming in the nude and no daisy chains or peaceniks in tie-dyed clothes smoking weed...Rather, many ecovilles, like the one in Caledon, are home to business-minded people such as architects, doctors, and teachers, working together to run an environmentally sustainable co-operative .

Similarly, 2004 article from the Washington Post begins:

To many, the marriage of community and ecological principles brings to mind the 1960s—an association that makes the residents of EcoVillage cringe. They say it’s important to note they are not hippy freaks; they do have private lives .

The authors of these pieces have identified that ecovillages are different than hippie communes, yet in each of these samples ecovillage inhabitants are framed as acceptable “others”. We are signaled to look out for such similarities as we proceed to explore these strange new places. While far from outright condemning, the authors in each of these articles refer to a “normal” mainstream audience (“…you might expect…” and “To many…”) against which to contrast the qualitatively different norms of ecovillage residents. Community members are allegedly not “hippy freaks,” but the invocation of hippy freaks is still fruitful to the author.

Almost every article identifies the activities of ecovillages as relevant and noteworthy, but simultaneously alien and outside the comfort zone of their readership. Rarely, do they acknowledge that ecovillage practices are important to society—a contention that drive ecovillage inhabitants. If anything, popular media signals that ecovillage activity has good intentions but is ultimately irrational as indicated in a 1991 article in The Post Standard (Syracuse) which begins, “For the gung-ho environmentalist who wants to do more than write letters and recycle, a movement taking shape in Ithaca promises a more responsible way of life [emphasis added].”

The coverage of ecovillages extends into the realm of television comedy, a fascinating discursive medium. On Earth Day (April 20) 2009, Nickelodeon aired a special entitled “A Kid of the Grid” which featured the daily life of one ecovillage youth who explained some of the surprises of moving into the community including, “…pooping in a bucket.” Elaborating on the community’s excrement management system, the young man’s father explained that the buckets were eventually emptied, and the contents used to create “humanure” which, like cow manure, can be used to fertilize gardens after proper composting. The same evening, comedian Lewis Black, on his special segment of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show replayed the clip, and commented, in his exasperated and acerbic tone, “Humanure! You can call it the big rock-candy mountain. Kids still know a bucket of shit when they see one!” The crowd responds with roaring laughter. Black’s mocking retort and invocation of the “big rock candy mountain” is a plain signal that the objectives of the humanure system are a fantasy, and that the adult users of the humanure system are delusional.

Why was Black’s joke such a hit? He highlights a strong normative/cognitive/regulatory contradictions of the humanure system. The system’s adherents keep and even use human excrement, which has been discursively constructed as a dangerous “waste” product. This construct is enforced firstly, by building codes and zoning law and it is reinforced each time we flush our excrement out of sight and out of mind. Through present-day, the flush toilet is associated with prosperity and modernity: to live without one is considered backwards and unsanitary. The construct is further enforced by historical accounts of excrement mismanagement and the ensuing cholera epidemics, which eventually spurred the modern urban planning profession. Finally, the construct is emboldened by “potty humor”, and humorous accounts of individuals that transgress the normative rules of excrement management. Indeed, proper excrement management ought not be overlooked, but even human excrement is part of an organic cycle that modern plumbing has effectively severed. Ecovillages have adopted a remarkably sanitary system that both avoids bacterial plague and nourishes soil—for free. In the process, the system avoids consuming water and replaces petroleum-based fertilizers and their accompanying environmental, economic, and geopolitical consequences.

Overcoming Barriers to Change

I can personally assure you that the humanure system doesn’t smell like shit. But you probably would not believe me. You could read on blogs and other websites that the humanure system doesn’t smell like shit, and you might accept it, but you’d probably still find the concept vile. You might even read a scientific report that confirms that the humanure system is safe and sanitary, and you’d still reply, “No thanks. Not for me.” Indeed, overcoming the normative and cognitive barriers to one of the strongest societal constructs is not easy. Ultimately, the discourse surrounding the humanure system and ecovillages, in general, will remain one of fantasy and otherness until individuals experience the places personally. The barriers to radical ecological change are so deeply embedded in our daily lives that nothing short of hands-on experience will change our conceptions of nature and community that continue to destroy our finite, life-supporting ecosystems.

If urban planning wishes to achieve the radical changes that approximate “sustainability” –an admitted utopia (English translation: no-place)—then our epistemological approach must shift from one of synoptic scientific rationality to one of experiential understanding. I am not the first to champion this approach. The public policy field has debated the merits of incremental versus strategic planning for decades (Behn, 1988; Golden, 1998; Hartley, 2005; Lindblom, 1953; Potts, 2009; Sanford, 2001), and the case of ecovillages reinforces the argument for incremental “groping along.” As an example salient to the sustainability debate, Abram Kaplan (1999) demonstrates that public utility managers are more likely to invest in solar photovoltaics if they have experience and familiarity with them, versus only technical understanding.

The public can grow familiar with ecovillages and their accompanying innovations if, and only if, a much larger portion of the population sees, smells, and experiences them. Ecovillages have taken the first step through their outreach. If the public wishes to achieve “sustainability”—as a tidal wave of local and regional “sustainability” plans now indicates—planners ought to accommodate such niches and community experimentation by nurturing innovative spaces close to home.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding Sustainability in Ecovillages: An Untapped Socio-Technical Niche

“The prevailing assumption is that we can adopt better technologies like hybrid cars, solar collectors, and compact fluorescent lights and change little else. We will need all the technological ingenuity that we can muster, but the science indicates a much more precarious situation and the need for deeper changes that will require substantial alterations in our manner of living.” –David W. Orr. Down to the Wire (2009).

Last week, while making my obligatory Thanksgiving-break visit to the dentist’s office, I was encouraged to see a full-page magazine advertisement that emphasized, in bold green type face: “The solution is negawatts, not megawatts.” This, of course, is an allusion to whole-system energy efficiency as a means to solving our energy crisis rather than choosing between one lethal energy source over another. Negawatts aren’t a terribly new concept (Amory Lovins has been preaching about them for decades), but amidst the flurry of green capitalism that seems to pervade every type of consumer product, it’s refreshing to see that someone out there is trying to accomplish more by actually doing less. The concept is simple: if we used energy ten times more efficiently, we’d need to burn ten times less coal, and engage in ten times less mining to access the coal. Astonishingly, ninety percent (yes, that’s 90) energy produced in big power plants is lost through inefficiency between the energy source and an average American home. Nearly eighty (80) percent is lost at the plant itself and the power-lines between the plant and your home. We could eliminate these “leaks” in the system by localizing energy supplies, say, on residential rooftops or neighborhood wind turbines, and make up for the lower energy yield by consuming energy more efficiently on the demand-side. The same “conserve-and-load” mentality can be extended to other resources like water, food, and lumber. If we find ways to waste as little as possible on the demand side, we don’t have to worry about costly and polluting infrastructure to deliver, process, and recycle it.

Much of this resource efficiency can be achieved through simple changes in routine: turning off and unplugging appliances when they’re not in use, walking/cycling to destinations when possible, taking shorter showers, buying food in bulk, turning off lights when daylight will do. When combined with efficient technologies, these behavioral changes make a big difference. But we’ll need to make yet bigger changes if we are to neutralize our carbon footprint and ultimately reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy will require a process of socio-technical innovation: changes in both technological artifacts and the social discourse that surrounds them. These changes are mutually-dependent—one will not occur without the other. Although we tend to think of technology in terms of physical artifacts that spontaneously emerge, new artifacts are highly dependent on complementary technologies that support new artifacts as well as our willingness change our behavior and sometimes laws to support these new technologies. Technology is also highly symbolic: think about the socio-political impact of the 1957 launch of Sputnik, a basketball-sized Soviet satellite that resulted in a decades-long “space race” in a addition to advances to atmospheric science.

Researchers in western Europe, specifically in the UK and the Netherlands, have begun to apply a new model of “socio-technical innovation” to policy-making and planning that considers how novel technologies emerge and infiltrate rigid “socio-technical regimes”— stable economic rules and networks. Whereas traditional, neo-classical economic models see innovation as exogenous to the economy (as originating outside the system), socio-technical systems see innovation as originating within society, in protected spaces called “socio-technical niches.” Niches protect novel, unprofitable ideas from market competition, allowing them to thrive in a sheltered space with different “rules of the game”. Governments create niches all the time: The US government creates a very special and lucrative niche for novel military technology, medical technology, and communication technology, mostly through direct funding or tax incentives. Niche ideas infiltrate and ultimately change regimes when combined with pressure from the “socio-technical landscape” or signals from society at-large. The whole process is similar to biological evolution—when pressure and diversity combine, new configurations emerge!

Radical new socio-technical configurations are desperately needed to improve resource efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Climate change has been forecast by some as the most threatening national security emergency of the twenty-first century. I believe it may be, and so do the many national, regional, and local governments now considering climate change policies in their published plans. It’s time that urban planner begin thinking about creating niches for energy and resource efficiency. Fortunately, one such niche exists.

Ecovillages: An untapped socio-technical niche

Ecovillages are intentional communities that achieve remarkable ecological efficiency by applying radical new “rules of the game” to community life. While no two ecovillages are the same, many ecovillages are able to dramatically reduce overall resource consumption (relative to “mainstream” American communities) by combining both new and very old technologies with changes in norms and behavior.

My experience living in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage exposed me to several of these practices (you can read about this experience in detail in past blog posts). The human “waste” system at Dancing Rabbit, for example, closes the loop that modern toilet systems leave open by composting human excrement and re-integrating as fertile soil it into local gardens. You may cringe, but managed correctly, this system is completely sanitary, water- and chemical-free, and provides rich, organic fertilizer for the soil. The urine and feces that most Americans consider “waste” becomes a very valuable agricultural input.

Of course, implementing a system like this outside an ecovillage faces enormous legal, normative, cognitive, and technological barriers. Even if human waste recycling could turn a theoretical profit (which I imagine it could), we have been trained from an early age that our bodily waste must be flushed “away” as quickly as possible. The infrastructure doesn’t exist to recycle waste on a large scale, and most municipalities would probably frown upon the composting of human waste in our backyards.

In short, there are normative, cognitive, technological, and regulatory barriers to this safe, clean, and potentially profitable practice. We can extend this same logic to other energy-conserving practices like cooperative kitchen facilities, natural building techniques.

Another normative barrier I have encountered in the discourse of ecovillage life is a cultural stigma associated with “hippie communes” of the 1960s and 70s. I am not an expert on the hippie movement nor on the socialist utopian communities of the middle twentieth century, but in my recent perusal of newspaper articles and other mainstream media surrounding ecovillage life, I find that contemporary ecovillages are fighting an image of disengagement and laziness that seems to follow hippies around (Patton Oswalt, my favorite comedian, hasn't helped). Popular discourse views ecologically-oriented intentional community with the counter-cultural movements that encouraged young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” detaching themselves completely from societal conventions.

My experience living in and researching ecovillages contradicts this association completely. In fact, many contemporary ecovillages are aggressively engaging mainstream society through websites, educational seminars, and opportunities to visit and experience ecologically-oriented practices. I believe the contemporary ecovillage movement has a lot to offer cities, regions, and nations that are trying to develop more sound environmental practices. While neither I nor the ecovillage inhabitants I’ve met have any intention to transplant ecovillage practices exactly onto mainstream society, I think that exposure to these practices and experience engaging in them will allow for mainstream integration of radical resource efficiencies into daily metropolitan life. I have tried over and over again to explain to friends and colleagues the merits of the humanure systems or the benefits of shared facilities. But until they experience these alternatives themselves, I’m confident they’ll be relegated to the realm of foreign or extreme.

This returns us to the theory of socio-technical transitions. If city and regional planners want to create more “sustainable” places, they have an opportunity to take advantage of localized, existing ecological practices. “Sustainability” will not succeed if we apply a single prescription to every community of the world: every community exists in a distinct bio-region that will require different sets of human behavior if finite ecosystems are to be sustained. Instead of planning rationally, synoptically, and comprehensively (as most cities and regions continue to do) we can experiment with sustainability locally—in ecovillages. This approach to engaging the future is admittedly humble and incremental: it acknowledges that we cannot know the future before we try it out.

Urban and regional planners can begin this process by visiting existing ecovillages, which are often marginalized by strict metropolitan land-use regulations, high land prices, and a stigmatized reputation. We can proceed by removing some of these barriers and encouraging ecological practices that the general public can see, touch, taste, and experience first-hand. Increasing energy and resource efficiency will require radical shifts in technology and behavior. If the majority of people haven’t experienced radical shifts, even briefly, they will continue to feel uncomfortable about them, or even reject them as alien.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rain gardens 'go with flow' in Northbrook

Every now and then, I'm surprised by my little environmental victories in my hometown. I discovered this one recently. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Autumn images from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

Hey all,

After a multi-month hiatus, I've returned to the blogosphere with some autumn updates from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Over Halloween weekend Cynthia and I headed west, winding through rural roads, just in time for Friday lunch in the village. We were met with big hugs and a beautiful landscape, made more visible by the thinning trees. It was wonderful returning to the community and it felt as if I had fallen asleep one day in the summer and woken up to find that the leaves were gone, my project had progressed, and my girlfriend present. In other words, it was like I had never left. Dancing Rabbit has been on my mind pretty consistently since August, and I have made a point to integrate into my studies. I've also made multiple presentations on the place, nesting it as an untapped "socio-technical niche"- a place in which radical new "rules of the game" allow for innovative technological and sociological arrangements. I'm sure you'll hear more from me on this a dissertation.

One my favorite changes in the community from summer to fall is the ability to see a much larger portion of the village at once. As trees tend to concentrate in the center of the community, they block the line of sight during the summer, but they open up in autumn, and I've captured the sight in the photos below (click to enlarge).

A view from the northwest. On our walk back from the pond, we came across the full view of a corner of the community. During the summer, it's hard to ever see an entire cluster of buildings from a distance.

A sacred place at Dancing Rabbit, the pond. Unfortunately, the source of all summer hygiene was hyperthermic. Temperatures in the previous week had descended below the freezing mark, rendering the pond too cold for most humans. This didn't stop us from hanging out on the dock in the very amenable 60 degree weather.

It was wonderful to see progress on Ted and Sarah's house. This may look like World War I trench warfare, but in fact, it is earth bag construction which requires barbed wire between each layer of earth bag to keep the structure from slipping out of place. The depressiong that you see will be a root cellar and storm shelter, kept cool by the constant temperature of the earth. In the background, you can also see some visible progress on the main portion of the addition. This has really come a long way since June, when we hadn't even inserted the posts in the ground.

Bear, Alyssa, and Zane's new home, with walls! The interior still has a ways to go, but the finished exterior walls allow for winter time progress. When complete, the home will have a fully functional kitchen.

Skyhouse stocks up on wood for the winter. Stay warm!


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NY Times: Urban Farming for Cash Gains a Toehold in San Francisco

"Even as the hype around urban agriculture and the local-food movement has exploded, laws governing land use are still stuck in another era, one that frowned on farming in the city, especially in residential areas, experts in urban planning say." (Link here to article).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Community Innovation Incubators?

I'm a proud generalist, but in my years as a student of urban planning, I've focused on a few topics that really excite me. One is Regional Innovation Systems (RIS) Theory, a branch of regional economic development that tries to build associations amongst different bodies of knowledge within a region to stimulate- you guessed it- private sector innovation! The logic behind this is that regions that actively nurture innovation through investments in education, research, collaboration, and/or facilities like business "incubators" will also attract employers, jobs, and all the goodies that come with it. Another topic- sustainability, or more directly addressing how human behavior results in global environmental collapse- has fascinated me long before I even considered urban planning as a discipline. In the past few years, but in the past year especially, I've taught, studied, lived, eaten, and breathed sustainability, especially as it relates to community development.

I am very convinced that urban planning can play an important role in solving our existing global environmental-social-economic crises. I've devoted most of this blog to this very topic. So many of our problems are the result of poor or zero planning* and I think that if the American public invested as much in innovating the way we plan and build communities as we do in innovating for the market place, we could build communities that are comfortable, meaningful, healthy, just, and ecologically regenerative.

Over the summer, I lived in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. Dancing Rabbit (DR) is an intentional ecologically-oriented community. Members of the community have actively chosen to reject many of the conventions that we expect to find in most American communities. Sewerage, grid energy, supermarkets, gas-powered vehicles, and "new" construction materials are amongst the many conventions DR has opted to live without. Susan Love Brown (2000) describes intentional communities as places that are “purposely and voluntarily founded to achieve a specific goal for a specific group of people bent on solving a specific set of cultural and social problems (5).” While I love the concept of intentional community and think that DR and similar communities make important contributions to society, I think there is much untapped potential in recognizing places like DR as sites of important innovation. This fact is very apparent to me: ecovillage residents are discovering new, comfortable, rewarding, and ecologically friendly ways to live. They can do so because they are sheltered from the conventions that are seeking to transcend. In a way, DR and other ecovillages are "incubators" for community innovation. The RIS literature focuses heavily on the ability for innovation to occur in sheltered "incubators". I don't see why community innovation can't be incubated as well.

What if we, as a nation, state, or region, decided that community innovation was important. Important enough to invest time and talent into discovering and enacting new, sustainable, and valuable ways to live? Now, I'm not going so far as to suggest that the government pay for the establishment of ecovillages (although it'd be nice), but I DO think our regions and cities can help spur community innovation by supplying the legal mechanisms to build innovative communities. Overcoming land-use and subdivision regulations are amongst the biggest obstacles to ecovillage formation- usually because such communities require unconventional buildings and settlement patterns and must therefore endure expensive and time-consuming appeals processes (this is one reason why DR is Scotland County, Missouri).

What if Champaign County, Illinois decided that community innovation was as important as economic innovation? Instead of having to jump through hoops to build a carbon-neutral settlement, eco-communities would be invited and encouraged to experiment in sheltered sites within the county. Of course, not all sites would "succeed" but the successful experiments could be applied throughout the region.

These are my's getting late. Goodnight!

*There are very important differences between planning as I hope to use it and "regulation" or the command-and-control of the human environment. Briefly, planning has been described as "providing information about related decisions (Hopkins, 2001)" and applying "knowledge to action (Friedman, 1989)". While regulation can result from planning, it is only one of many outcomes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ground Zero Islamic Community Center: It's just a land-use issue...

I'd rather not write too much on this issue. Much like the Blagojevich trial, it's a media event I'd much rather just disappear. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and all the House candidates making this an important election issue just seem desperate to me. I see no reason why an Islamic community center cannot site itself several blocks from ground zero, or anywhere it doesn't interfere with the health, safety, and welfare of the area. Blocking its establishment (which can probably only be done by NYC officials anyway) solely because it's a Muslim establishment has no legal all. The moral argument that it will "offend" the mourners of 9/11 and our post-9/11 nation is, well, absolutely racist. I can fathom no other justification. I think I can demonstrate this with a pretty simple analogy.

The United States suffered terrorist attacks on its soil before 9/11. Tragic as it was, 9/11 was novel only in its enormity. On April 9, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed to the ground by Timothy McVeigh, a militia movement sympathizer, who requested a Catholic chaplain when he was executed years later. The attack killed 168 people and injured close to 700. So, should Oklahoma City ban the construction of a Catholic community center blocks away from the federal building site in Oklahoma? The mere idea would be ridiculed. It would be ripped apart by political conservatives and property rights advocates everywhere. Why?Because it's a ridiculous idea.

Of course, there are those that might argue that Muslim fundamentalists are very different from Timothy McVeigh because they were motived by their religion, Islam. True. I think Palin et al. would have an easy case if the proprietors of the "Mosque" in question were supplying weapons or aid to terrorists. But no one, including Palin et al. are claiming this. Islam is an enormous religion with 1.5 billion adherents, the vast majority of whom are as innocent as the rest of us. What about its practice would cause pain to the mourners of 9/11? I'm confused. The only conclusion I can reach is that certain Americans are conflating terrorism (i.e. the attacks 9/11) with all adherents of Islam- a concept which is factually and ethically incorrect.

I think Michael Bloomberg, NYC Mayor, makes the case most eloquently:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Really Northbrook...? or On The Merits of Urban Gardening

OK, Northbrook. Take a seat and let's talk for a second. In the past few years you've made a few decisions that have surprised me-in a good way! Like that time you purchased wind power to offset the energy for your water treatment plant. That was pretty good! Or the prairie you've restored and I jog through when I visit my parents. That's great! The bike lanes on Techny- what a great start! But now, I'm kinda confused about this decision. A family puts a garden on their front lawn so they can enjoy fresh veggies in the summer. Sounds fine to me.

Oh wait, what? It's a zoning violation? Really? Are the veggies bothering the neighbors? No? Oh wait, it's an "accessory use?" Like a farm? A FARM? And they need to restore it to lawn by November first? To LAWN? For the water, pesticides, and mowing it takes to maintain lawn you could just as easily have a garden that produces something delicious, nutritious and free. You can't find that at grocery stores anymore, Northbrook. But instead, this family will return this gasp of productivity to the sterile impotency of suburban turf grass. It will become the habitat of next to nothing, serve little functional purpose, but at least it won't be an "accessory use."

Okay. Arguments over accessory uses have caused ripples throughout the historical landscape of land use for over a century. One of my favorite insights into the practice of urban zoning comes from a case that dealt with accessory uses. The judge from Goldman v. Crowther, a 1925 case in the Maryland Court of Appeals suggested that zoning laws, "at a stroke arrests that process of natural evolution and growth, and substitutes for it an artificial and arbitrary plan of segregation..." Indeed, the defendant in this case- I believe a recent immigrant to the US-had been running a sewing shop out of his basement and was forced to leave.

I can see the merit of these types of regulations if, for example, your "accessory use" results in a line of cars around the block, noxious fumes, loud noises, or toxic runoff. I couldn't protest if a regulation prevented my next door neighbor from smoldering steel in her backyard. I can also see why such a regulation might apply if the accessory use results in some kind of supplementary income, although I'm not sure I always agree with its application. But I simply cannot reconcile why a garden, which earns the homeowner zero extra income, nor results in any nuisance, would be regulated away. It's retrograde and draconian. It's time for Suburbia to advance.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Map of Ecovillages in the USA: This is what I do with my freetime...

Q: What does an urban planner do when s/he develops a passion for ecovillages over the summer and returns to campus where s/he has access to data and mapping software?

A: S/he makes a map (click to enlarge).

It was only a matter of time. With an easily accessible data source thanks to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (, some tinkering with MS excel, MS access, and ArcMap, I managed to map existing and forming ecovillages in the USA. The colored forms are individual counties, which makes states with geographically large counties (e.g. Arizona) seem rife with ecovillages. Arizona has no shortage, to be sure, but that entire big green blob is home to one "existing ecovillage" and one "forming ecovillage."

Of course, much more aggressive analysis awaits, and I imagine there exist ecovillages outside the FIC directory that have to appear on the map. Nevertheless, we see some patterns emerge. I've enlarged three interesting areas of the national map: the Pacific Northwest, where it seems ecovillages are forming like wildfire around the Portland area; Missouri, the home of Dancing Rabbit (note to DR fans: Skyhouse appears as its own "community" in the FIC directory. Hence the existence of four (4) communities in Scotland Counties.); and the Northeast, where there are lots of existing and forming ecovillages.

The map raises some interesting questions worth further investigation: 1) To what extent to do ecovillages form near existing ecovillages? I know this is absolutely the case of Dancing Rabbit which settled intentionally near Sand Hill Farms and later sparked the foundation of Red Earth Farms. It also seems like many of the counties that host "forming" ecovillages are also counties with existing ecovillages. In other words, formation doesn't appear random with respect to existing communities. 2) How does proximity to urban areas influence community formation? 3) How does proximity to universities influence community formation? It seems like there are many forming in central Massachusetts- there are colleges there, right?

I, of course, am interested in how local and regional land use regulations influence the formation. This will take some extra data and probably some on-the-ground investigation. Which means I'll have to travel to these places. Excellent! Enjoy the map. Remembers, it's only a start.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sunday meetings, public participation, and municipal democracy.

Following an ecstatic farewell party (a three-hour acoustic jam/ sing along) and an emotional departure from Dancing Rabbit, I’ve begun to settle back into the read—write –meet—re-write rhythm of academic life in Champaign, Illinois. I’ve had more trouble than I anticipated leaving DR; even the uncomfortable summer heat feels hotter “off the farm.” Thankfully, my academic advisor is pretty enthusiastic about integrating intentional community and ecovillage life into my research, and I intend to run (briskly) with the opportunity!

This afternoon, while seated alone in a vacuous, air-conditioned computer lab, surrounded by droves of humming Dell desktops, I skimmed through academic articles describing the unfortunate state of public participation in American and British planning processes. One after another decries the inefficient, unjust, often self-legitimating public hearings that strip citizens of any efficacy in their local government. One author, Kathleen Halverson of Michigan Technical University, explains that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. That is, citizens ought not have to strain themselves to arrive and sit through a meeting, their opinions ought to be heard and acknowledged, they ought to engaged in (at least) two-way dialogue, and they ought to feel as if their contributions have made a difference in the outcome of the proceedings. Attend most municipal public hearings, and the critiques of Halverson and many other authors become instantly evident.

Contrast this with the Dancing Rabbit Sunday meeting. I hadn’t until a few days ago considered the Sunday meeting a form of public participation. Perhaps its lack of Robert’s Rules of Order and its unquestionable relevance to daily life in the community clouded the comparison. I think it’s worth a blog entry to discuss why the Sunday meeting seems to work so well.

Each Sunday at 12:30, Dancing Rabbit members, residents, and visitors of all sorts gather in the common house to discuss the week in preview, or “the WIP.” Sitting in a circle, dressed in their daily casual attire (shirtless perhaps), the Rabbits begin with an open call for announcements. People announce anything from lost items, to found items, to surplus garlic they’ve harvested and are willing to sell, to a workshop they’re offering the following weekend. Ah yes, and just in case someone realizes they’ve forgotten to announce something important, they have another chance at the end of the meeting to let everyone know that there’ll be a work party to fix the mailboxes after the meeting. After announcements, the meeting shifts to “Guests and Tours” during which hosts announce the guests that will be arriving in the coming week. This, I imagine serves a dual purpose: 1) to avoid confusion about strangers walking around and 2) to make sure that guests aren’t greeted with confusion. This also explains why one woman, who had no official association with my arrival at DR, knew my name, “You must be Robby,” the instant I left my car back in June. This is followed up with a list of people “Off the farm” or who’s leaving the village during the week, also an important undertaking as to avoid any unwarranted worry or search party.

Next, important events and committee meetings are announced for each day of the week. Finally, a similar discussion revolving around car usage lists the day, departure/arrival time, and destination of the three cooperative vehicles. This allows members to schedule their use of the cars AND to notify drivers of potential errands that they can help with. If, for example, Joe was scheduled to drive into town on Tuesday afternoon, I could ask him to pick up a box of nails for me. I would, of course, share the cost of fuel with Joe.

After the WIP is finished, members sometimes engage in potentially more important business meetings, during which members discuss and decide on issues such as community energy production and grid connections—a topic that was decided during my stay.

Although I did not take attendance or count the number of members present, the “participation rate” at the DR Sunday meeting was probably about 80 percent of active members. Far exceeding the paltry, undocumented participation rate in Champaign, Illinois, a city of over 75,000 residents. Even if every seat of the City Council Chambers were filled, participation would still lag behind that of DR. I feel safe in extending this reality to most other American municipalities. It’s certainly not because Champaign residents have no stake in the proceedings. I’ve witnessed multi-million dollar investments and major ordinances pass the city council without a single public comment.

Let’s take Halverson’s requirements—that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. Without venturing too far into criticizing the City of Champaign, for which I serve as a public appointee, let’s take a look at why Sunday meetings attract such a robust crowd. First of all, it seems as though the Sunday meeting is a great place to catch up with neighbors and friends. Indeed, it’s not hard to run into other people at DR—most everyone spends the day outdoors and there are wonderful common spaces. But some people remain pretty isolated to their work, so it’s nice to know that you can see your neighbors face to face at least once a week. Residents have to make the tumultuous journey of 1,500 feet (maximum) to arrive at the meeting at which they can wear whatever clothes they want. They sit in a circle, know they’ll have an opportunity to speak, and they’ll receive a response if they need it. They information they gain at the meeting is usually relevant to their daily lives and if it’s not, it could become relevant later.

Contrast this with a traditional municipal meeting that is usually scheduled on a weekday evening- sometimes during work hours. You stand before officials you probably don’t know. They look down on you from an elevated and decorated podium. They have no obligation to respond to you and while you’re guaranteed an opportunity to speak, you’re limited to a relatively short amount of time (yes, I’ve been effectively “shut up” at a plan commission meeting before). The matters of discussion are often esoteric, presented in legal jargon, and publicly televised, so don’t trip or stutter or ask a question that might spur the perception that you’re ignorant or uninformed! And this is only if you choose to attend in the first place. More than likely, the decision has been made a meetings prior to the public hearing by very qualified professionals (in the case of Champaign) or by corrupt politicians (in the case of Chicago). The silence at the municipal meetings I’ve attended are, on one hand, a sign that the professionals at the City are doing their job well. I really think they are. Having worked with them, I am convinced they are some of the brightest professionals around. But they are entrenched in a system that discourages dynamic public discourse. Public participation is, by design(?), an intimidating and uncomfortable process. I don’t think it should be this way.

The contrast between DR Sunday meetings and the municipal public meetings I’ve witnessed provokes all sorts of questions: at what scale and about which topics should weekly public meetings engage? Could a city of 75,000 conduct a “Sunday meeting” with facilitators that change from week to week? At what cost should public officials try to “engage” residents that don’t have an immediate moneyed interested in a topic? Where should public meetings be held? What should the layout of the room be? What are the merits of having an elevated podium in the first place. I certainly don’t think that a city of 75,000 or even 1,000 could conduct their public meetings like a 50 person ecovillage. But I do think there are lessons to be learned regarding conditions that make for a healthy democracy.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My little projects!

Hey all,

My postings have slowed down recently and while an eager reader could attribute this to sloth or lack of devotion to my blog (the shame!) I've actually been stalling so I could post some pictures of my projects at the work site. The majority of my work this summer has involved the addition to Ted and Sara's house, but I've also been lucky to design and lead the construction effort on some smaller projects around the kitchen.

The Arbor!

This is a project that Ironweed Kitchen has meant to complete for some time now. The arbor in this picture is the slatted extension of the roof. The rafters and slats are supported by two osage branches connected by a 2x8 beam. Over time the earthen wall in this picture has been battered by high wind and rain from the northwest, increasing the risk that the strawbale insulation will be exposed to moisture- a circumstance that MUST be avoided. The arbor shields the wall from heavy horizontal rain while the newly applied layer of cob plaster can withstand light rain for years.

Sandy and I constructed the arbor over the course of a week and she finished the project with some ornamental carvings on the edges of the cross-beam (see below.) In the past few days someone has hung a solar shower (basically, a bag with a hose) and a towel from the rafters, thus endowing Ironweed kitchen with a full bathroom!

The Hexagonal Table

It'd certainly be a shame to avoid eating outside during the summer. All Ironweed Kitchen needed was a place to do it! My final construction assignment at Dancing Rabbit was a picnic table for outdoor eating. Of course, no ordinary rectangular table would suffice, so I took the time to research and re-design a hexagonal table with built-in benches. Despite a couple small mistakes and "re-starts" (a gentle phrase Sandy uses to convey that I've completely messed up), I was able to complete the project using almost all scrap lumber from the house construction.

I finished the project at the end of the workday on Thursday, just in time to enjoy an outdoor Thai-style dinner courtesy of my buddy John. Although I didn't anticipate eating at the table until I water-proofed it, there was an overwhelming desire to escape the heat of the kitchen and enjoy dinner as the outdoor air cooled.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How fresh is your milk?

I've never been a milk drinker. In fact, I cannot remember a time in my life when I actively pursued consuming milk. This didn't preclude me from milk duty yesterday, when I was asked to travel two miles east to the local dairy to pick up milk for my kitchen. The entire ten minute experience was a trip. The dairy, Zimmerman Farms, is run by a Mennonite family that seems to run just about everything in Rutledge, Missouri. To be sure, the Zimmerman family is more than one family 'unit', but the name labels the local grocery/hardware store/cafe as well as most of the local businesses that come to help with the more laborious tasks in the ecovillage, like removing buildings from the earth.

You know you've entered rural America when milk is purchased on the honor system. While I did encounter one of the younger Zimmerman sons at the farm, it was of no relevance to my extraction of milk. As I entered the farm, I was welcomed by a several baby goats massaging each other and stretching out their legs in a small open-air enclosure. Just across the road from the dairy building is a line of cow dormitories, small A-frame enclosures each with a fenced-in porch, and a single calf inhabitant. As they age, it seems, they roam in what appeared to be a pasture down hill from the dairy.

Entering the dairy buildling, there's an enormous metal tank, a disheveled desk, and a sink. The system could not be more simple. You place you cash on the desk ($2.50/gallon), fill your own container with milk directly from the tank, and leave. Milk for all!

More posts to follow soon! I've got some great pictures of progress on the home and arbor construction.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tent Collapse! and Karma

Around age eight, I developed an intense and irrational fear of strong weather. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Mattingly, recently reminded me that on day one, I requested to sit far away from the window as to avoid proximity to stormy weather. Sometimes, even subtle rain showers would compel me to retreat to the basement. I'm not sure how this phobia evolved, but I imagine it had something to do with the Principal of summer school making very deliberate and serious announcements over the intercom every time a tornado watch was declared for my area (which basically happens any time it's cloudy in the spring in the midwest) and instructing teachers to "open the windows a crack" to offer relief from the sheer force of gusty winds on the building walls.

I have long since overcome the irrational part of this fear- I no longer cower at clouds. However, truly strong midwest storms still rank amongst my biggest fears. On the second evening of my stay at Dancing Rabbit, my tent/tarp structure kept me bone dry during a particularly wicked thunderstorm. "How reassuring." I thought to myself, and I suspended my fear of strong weather for the summer.

There is one grown woman here who, having grown up outside Tornado alley, is particularly afraid of storms. Usually, I sympathize. But last night when she was begging my friends and I to stay with her in her home because of the slight chance of a strong storm, I commented, "Get over it. You'll be fine. It's not even gonna storm." Indeed, Karma arrived to kick my ass when the storm arrived about 5:30 this morning, beginning with what seemed like an innocent rain shower but evolving into total Zeus-vengeance and spastic gusts of wind which snapped a pole in my tent, causing the entire tent apparatus- tarp included- to collapse on top of me. Buried in a sea of swirling nylon, illuminated by the lightening that flashed around me like a synapsing brain, I thought, "Wow. This is really happening." For about a thirty seconds I just crouched in a ball, waiting for the right moment to bolt to the nearest building. When that moment arrived, I fled shoeless and shirtless to Ironweed Kitchen.

Moments later, an equally drenched Sandy (my French co-worker) arrived at the kitchen. Gesturing with a sweeping motion of her hands, she proclaimed, "Zee tahnt..." Yes. The tent. Fortunately for her, her tent managed to stay mostly up. In my wanderings around the village since, I've found several others who experienced a similar fate.

Fortunately, all is well. My stuff is still mostly dry. The storm has subdued, and I've gotta find a new pole.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

More pictures from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

I'd like to believe I'm a good writer, but there some ecovillage images that even the most eloquent prose cannot adequately describe. I thought I'd devote this entry to some of the more intriguing structures in the community- with more to follow.

1. Thistledown

This is the most "fully equipped" home at Dancing Rabbit. It currently serves a family of five (three boys) that moved to the village from New York State several years ago. In this picture alone you can view many of its most important features. The photovoltaic panels on the roof supply energy to a full kitchen that most American families would regard as perfectly normal. It's one of the only 'single-family' dwelling with its own kitchen. You can also see a small portion of the home's garden on the left. The north side of the house (opposite this face) is bermed (bascially, built into an earth mound) from which the family extracts much of their produce for the year. On the right, that rolling cart looking aparatus is a solar dehydrator used for drying foods.

The pipe protruding from the roof is the exhaust system for the wood burning stove. Heat from the stove circulates throughout the floors and walls to heat the surfaces that people use instead of the air with which we never come in contact. It's also much more energy efficient. This concetp is called "radiant" heating. According to the owner, heating the building through the winter requires "about $20 in firewood per year." Between winters and summers, the house doesn't fluctuate much beyond 68 and 75 degrees with the exception of a few extreme days during the year. This is all accomplished through VERY tight insulation and thermal mass systems.

2. The Gnome Dome, or "Gnome Castle"

Your eyes are not fooling you. Enter that small brown door, and you'll immediately descend four feet into a circular room, about 12 feet in diameter, with cob walls and gravel floor. I regret not getting a photo of the inside. I'll get one soon for all my loyal readers, but suffice it to say that space is tight in Gnome Castle. A wood stove takes up most of the center of the room and there's maybe enough room to lay down and store some stuff. Currently, devoid of any personal belongings, it makes a great hangout spot. The builder of the dome has set up a small loft for storage and my friend Aaron, who plans to inhabit the dome in the long run, has mentioned that the loft will work well as a desk at which he cand stand. The dome light at the top lets in light all day and, on a clear night, you can star gaze from inside. Since it's embedded in the ground, it remains a pretty constant temperate with minimal regulation during the summer. It's a great escape from the heat. It probably does a decent job in the winter, but I'm not positive. I do know there are some mold problems that will need to be fixed pretty quickly. But this problem may have something to do with the places unfinished state. Nevertheless, it's a GNOME DOME, and who can't get behind that?!

3. The Pooper

I've mentioned the pooper in previous blogs and I believe a picture is due. This is where the magic happens. This little enclosure is attached to the northwest side of Ironweed Kitchen (see entry from a few weeks ago). As described in prior entries, the process isn't desperately different from operating a flush toilet. Hiding inside that wood barrel, below a very normal toilet seat, is a five gallon bucket. You drop your contribution (liquid and solid) into the bucket, whipe, and then cover it all with a scoop of sawdust which you can find in the bucket on the left. The poop bucket is switched with an empty bucket once it's they're nearly full, and full buckets are delievered to a compost pile on-site during each week.

You might be surprised to find that the most pungent smell this very small room (which serves as the chicken coop when there are chickens) is sawdust. With the lid closed and the poop covered, the stench is really no worse than a flush toilet.

Interestingly, during the summer the pooper is the coolest room in the entire building. It has super thick strawbale walls (which you can see on the left edge of the photo) and no windows. As long as the door stays shut during the day, there's really no way for heat to get in. During the night, we open the door (place the bucket over the toilet seat) and allow the cool air to infiltrate. Therefore, bathroom breaks have become a sort of a literal "cool down."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Social Proximity, Shared Responsibility, and Limited Privacy

I’m finding that life in an ecovillage more closely resembles summer camp and fraternity life than I’d have ever anticipated. Admittedly, comparing an eight-week all-boys summer camp and/or a group of sixty college-aged man-friends to an ecologically-friendly village of full-time residents of all ages is a bit like comparing a tropical fruit with a sub-tropical fruit. Nevertheless, summer camps and fraternities are institutions with which I am personally very familiar, and life at Dancing Rabbit reminds me of them in several ways. Many of the similarities, I imagine, are simple consequences of close-proximity living.

Dancing Rabbit inhabitants share aspects of daily life that conventional urban dwellers access to the exclusion of their neighbors. I’ve discussed shared kitchens and gardens in prior postings, but sharing extends much further. There are relatively few toilets in the community. A “toilet” here is colloquially called “the pooper” or “the humey”, which is short for humanuer. It’s a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat. When enclosed and properly decorated, it doesn’t look terribly different from a conventional toilet. Each person, however, is responsible for covering his or her “contribution” with saw dust or dirt to cover the smell, and the contents of the bucket are emptied into the bed of some unfortunate resident.

Not really. They’re emptied into a compost bin. I’ll cover the intricacies of the sanitary process on a later date.

So, not only does everyone share the relatively few number of poopers, but we all share the responsibility of muting the smell of our poop, emptying the buckets when they’re full, and like anywhere else, washing our hands when we’re finished. Hand washing is especially important because of the manifold shared kitchen appliances, doorknobs, garden tools, construction tools, books, and musical instruments in the community.

Community social life centers around the common house, which is cleaned each Sunday morning—a duty I executed last week. My fraternity would take time (almost every) Sunday morning to clean common areas of our house. Similarly, at camp, we’d take time to clean the cabin each day and other parts of the camp on other occasion. While most urban areas today uphold littering laws and enforce nuisance laws, but common areas like streets and parks aren’t necessarily cleaned by residents (the mess makers), but rather by municipal employees or outsourced cleaning companies.

Finding privacy in the community isn’t always a simple endeavor. Indeed, I enjoy the privacy of my tent, but the instant I leave my 6’ x 4’ containment unit, I encounter a construction site and a couple working hard to build their house. The few Skype conversations I’ve arranged (my phone has no signal here) have all been interrupted by someone peeking into the small office at the common house where I can pick up an internet signal. This morning I sought a quiet moment before beginning work and sat down on the porch of what I thought was an uninhabited cottage, when someone—a new renter!—surprisingly emerged from the door. While I’m sure I could easily find time to myself if I worked hard, most space in this village is shared and visible. Privacy is the exception, not the rule. I just left a dinner conversation at which someone explained, “One week at Dancing Rabbit feels like one month.” I agree. I feel like I’ve known some people here for much longer than 2 ½ weeks. This isn’t to say that I’ve sparked deep, spiritual relationships with everyone here, but it’s easy to learn a lot about a person when working and eating with them all day long. Even those with whom I don’t work all day or eat every meal, I see most nights night or at least at weekly activities. The intensity of relationships given the relatively truncated time reminds me of the very meaningful relationships I established cabin mates and fraternity brothers in similar living scenarios.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Garlic Galore!

The garlic harvest is upon us, and the aroma around here is inescapable. The Ironweed kitchen maintains a 5000 sq. ft. garden, much of which consists of garlic. Two days ago, I spent the morning with five others plucking about 2,500 bulbs of 12 different varieties of garlic from the earth. Today I helped to peel and hang the garlic where it will cure before Ted and Sarah sell it to the village. The couple also sells homemade yogurt and kimchi to the village for extra income. Peeling was tedious but relaxing: a welcome respite from home construction and hauling lumber. In general, I've really enjoyed working with my hands here.

Above: The Ironweed garden. Lots of garlic, kale, mint, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cabbage (soon to be planted) and more. All organic! No petrochemical biocides allowed!

Above: Ted basking in piles and piles of garlic.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A glimpse into Dancing Rabbit.

Hey everyone! As promised, I've uploaded some pictures. A big THANK YOU to John Caldwell, who helped me with the computer gear I forgot at home.

1. My Humble Abode

I sleep in a two-person tent sheltered by an additional tarp tied to surrounding foliage. It's pretty swanky. The whole system has managed to weather a few significant thunderstorms and although the gusty winds cause some serious shakin', the floor and all my belongings have remained completely dry. The log on the left-hand side of the picture is serving as kind of violin bridge, wedged into the ground and supporting the majority of the tarp. I don't do much more than sleep and store my stuff in the tent.

2. My Project

Ted, Sarah, and Aurelia currently live in a two-room house with a small greenhouse. The house is made of recycled lumber insulated by blown cellulose and recycled shredded blue jeans. You can see the top of the house's four solar panels peeking over the roof. Their kitchen is another building entirely (see next photo). Aurelia is getting bigger (today is her FOURTH birthday) and the folks have decided to slap on a pretty big addition. I arrived with most of the foundation already in place. The beams that you see in this photo are part of the work I've accomplished with Ted and another work-exchanger, Sean. The process is slowed significantly by the hard osage wood and our recent lack of solar energy. We should be back on track soon.

3. Ironweed Kitchen

In my previous entry, I explained how the village is divided up into several eating cooperatives. I eat at "Ironweed Kitchen." This building showcases many of the ecological building techniques that Dancing Rabbit residents often employ. Firstly, you can see that four solar panels on the south-facing roof. The southern wall has the most windows and is further sheltered by a translucent tool shed. This shed doubles as a temperature shield during the extreme months. The walls are made of cob, a combination of clay, sand, and straw sealed in cob plaster, all of which was excavated from Dancing Rabbit Property. The walls are also very thick (up to 16 inches) in order to provide the building thermal mass. This allows the building to adjust slowly to changes in temperature. Therefore, when it's a punishing 90 degrees outside, the inside of the building is warming up relatively slowly from the cool evening. While it's no air conditioning, the air is certainly "conditioned" and done so for next to free! Notice also the rain barrel. All water in this facility is provided by the clouds. Our drinking water is filtered, but our dish water is basically rain water and is powered by good, ole' fashion gravity.

4. Brand New Wall!

I spent this afternoon finishing this wall on Ted and Sarah's balcony. The wall is made of cob and decorated with empty glass bottles. Besides looking really cool, the bottles also let light in through the thick wall. Cob is pretty amazing stuff. I actually extracted the clay for this cob and mixed it with sand and straw using my own two feet. The hairy looking stuff is straw that will be plastered over at a later date. Cob serves as both structural support and insulation, and will protect a building from moisture if sealed thoroughly. My hat, by the way, is hanging on a bottle sticking out of the wall.

5. The Common House

One of the first buildings you see when driving into the village is a large, salmon-colored building called the Common House. This serves as an all-community gathering place and is used for meetings, musical performances, movie-watching, cooking, dining, houses an excellent and comfy library, internet access (the building I'm currently sitting in), showering, and laundry. It's a lot of stuff in one building. Of course, all this activity requires ENERGY, which is provided by an enormous solar array. The energy level is constantly monitored and displayed in a green-to-red color code (not unlike the homeland security terror alerts). It's been sunny, so we've been on "green" for the past few days. Long term plans for the community involve constructing an even larger common house to the north. But for now, this building seems to be serving the village pretty well.

6. Ziggy and April's House.

This house was too cool not to show in the blog. It's a circular cob home with a living roof. Ziggy built the home about a year ago and apparently it's been featured in many ecological building websites in the web. And yes, that's Ziggy taking a break from a hard day's work. His garden is in the foreground.

More pictures to follow!