Sunday, June 3, 2012

Growing Apart: Some Trends Worth Grasping

Hey friends,

I'm currently in Stockholm, Sweden, about to give a presentation to the Industrial Ecology Department at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). My presentation is about sprawl and urban planning in the United States, with a special emphasis on the Chicago region.

I thought I'd share some of the data that I'm presenting. Most of the this data is plucked directly from the Census, so the analysis isn't particularly sophisticated, but for my friends that aren't neck-deep in these trends, I think they could be thought provoking.
I've compiled these particular data to show that even as we're living closer together in cities than we did in rural areas historically, we're very much growing apart. Our homes are getting larger and fewer people are living in them. In Chicago, the suburban population is growing rapidly while the central city population is shrinking in proportion to the State of Illinois and in absolute terms. A large majority of Americans drive alone to work, and suburbanites are even more likely to drive alone because they have little other choice (unless they live and work along the same commuter train line).

My research revolves around environmental planning and innovation strategies for combating climate change. I'm growing increasingly convinced that the solution to climate change cannot come from new technology: we must instead re-learn how to live together. Urban and suburban living provides us many luxuries, but we cannot live in cities forever and expect to have our "own" everything. As we've transitioned to urbanity, we've forgotten how to share stuff. I'm certain this in not sustainable. I believe figuring out how to share again will be the major challenge of the twenty-first century.

You can click on the images to enlarge them. Shall we begin?

1. An Increasingly Urban World

As of a few years ago, most of the world's 7+ Billion people live in or near cities.   This transition from rural to urban has happened incredibly fast, and urban populations are projected to increase well into the future. This is the result of multiple technological and economic changes, but to sum up an enormously complex trend: people are finding they can no longer earn a livelihood in the countryside. Even attempts to "digitize" the countryside have backfired, inspiring young people to migrate to urban centers where they can earn more money for their skills. How could you blame them? An increasingly urban population presents multiple challenges to city planners and decision-makers, not least of which urban migrants will live.

2. An increasingly urban nation (1850-2010). The United States transitioned to "urbanity" a long time ago, around 1917. This transition from rural to urban was accompanied by innovations in transportation and production that made life in cities increasingly attractive. "Fordism" (mass production for mass consumption) and "Taylorism" (the application of scientific methods to industrial production) were applied to manufacturing processes just as the mechanization of agriculture made human labor in rural areas less and less valuable. Urban centers, now crowding with new inhabitants, began to run into health and safety issues in addition to infrastructural challenges that accompany skyrocketing population densities.

3. Average home floorspace (1973-2000). Throughout the twentieth century, the average floor space of USA dwellings has grown, but we haven't filled this extra space with more people... The average household size (number of residents in a household)  shrunk from 4.6 inhabitants to 2.59 inhabitants between 1900 and 2010.

4. One-Person Households on the Rise. Are you living alone? You're not alone. One-person households have grown much faster than any other household size category and now characterize over one-quarter of all households in the United States. For renters, it's even higher at 36.5 percent! Only two-person households make up a larger portion of all US households.

5. Regional Variations of One-Person Households. Of course, there are some variations in the number of one-person households from state to state. Illinois nearly matches the national trend. Washington D.C. is the most solitary "state" where over 40 percent of residents live alone. Utah, on the other hand, has the fewest percentage of one-person households of all states.

6. Breaking Away! The State of Illinois is home to more taxing jurisdictions than any other FAR. If you count "general purpose" governments like cities, counties, and townships, and then add "special purpose" governments like mosquito abament districts, park districts, volunteer fire districts, library districts, etc. it all adds up to nearly 7,000 jurisdictions. The next-in-line? Pennsylvania with 4,871. What does this mean? If you want to break away from your city, you can, and people certainly do. Build a home in an unincorporated area where you have to pay less taxes, and you can pick-and-choose your services by creating smaller, special districts. Eventually, however, urban growth catches up and you get annexed by the growing metro area. This, my friends, is but one component of the Sprawl Machine!

7. Illinois is becoming a giant suburb of Chicago. Population trends in the past century show that while the Chicago metro area has leveled-off as a proportion of the total Illinois population, the population is mostly settling in the burbs. They're also LEAVING the city. While, indeed, certain neighborhoods are making a come-back, the overall central city population has  declined pretty consistently since the 1960s. It bounced back a little bit in 2000 thanks to Mexican immigration, but the city is shrinking while the counties around it are growing rapidly. The "CMAP" collar counties consist of Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Will, Kendall, and Kane Counties. Cook County is pretty much built-out. The fastest growth is taking place Kane, Kendall, Will, an McHenry. They're basically enormous growing suburbs.

8. ...and residents in the fastest growing counties are much more likely to drive alone to work. Even in the City of Chicago, one half of the entire population drives alone to work. They really have no choice.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Morning Coffee at Dancing Rabbit

**The following is a sample of my evolving dissertation.  All the individuals are real individuals,  but names have been changed unless they've requested to be called by their own names. Comments are very much appreciated. Thanks-Robby.**

 “Contributing in some kind of tangible way to creating an example, and living by example, is kind of the way I've chosen to do my activism. I'm not into lobbying and protesting, but I am into just being a certain way so that people can say ‘that's do-able.’” –Sam, Dancing Rabbit Member
It’s 7AM and still early enough to enjoy the sun’s light before its heat arrives. Over the past month, I have made a morning ritual of appreciating this time window by sitting on the porch of the Milkweed Mercantile and watching the steam roll off the edge of my coffee mug. I can hear the birds already hard at work, and I imagine they’re well aware of how hot their universe is about to become. In several hours, I will once again find that I’ve drenched my t-shirt with sweat.  I’ll curse my genetics for the sweat and blame two hundred years of climate-altering urban development for the brain boiling heat. At some point in the mid-afternoon, I’ll make a facetious comment about how “global warming” is a myth. I’ll wonder why the data collection portion of my dissertation couldn’t involve pouring over excel spreadsheets in an air-conditioned office. I’ll escape to the pond to cool off, only to find that consecutive days of heat and sun have transformed a once refreshingly cool swimming hole into a receding mud broth. When I emerge from the pond, I won’t waste my time drying off with a towel because I’ll sweat for the next four hours regardless of how hard I work. 
 And so, it is with pleasant irony that I’m inhaling scalding coffee just before breakfast and another day of dishwashing, wood-piling, and ethnographic interviews.
My perch, the ‘Mercantile’ porch, forms the eastern wall of a small courtyard near the entrance of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. During the short life of this coffee I’ll watch a half dozen ‘Rabbits’ penetrate the courtyard’s edges. I’ll see Matthew emerge from Skyhouse—the two-story straw bale building opposite the courtyard from me—to deposit breakfast scraps in his compost pile around back. I’ll see Rusty, a lanky, sixty-something Texan, beginning his daily two-mile walk to the small town of Rutledge, where’ll he chat up the locals. I’ll see Bethany and several others wander into the Common House, a salmon colored building on the north side of the courtyard and the nerve center of the village. Two hundred feet north of the courtyard (to my left), I can hear Ramona and her crew chipping away at a concrete floor that was poured mistakenly by one of her crew members the day before. They’ve been working for hours.
If this morning were like most mornings, I would sneak a look at my e-mail on my laptop before heading inside to help prepare breakfast. But today is different, and my morning trance is interrupted by a distant barreling scream: “Wall raising!” The scream is a reminder that Big John needs help raising the walls of the dance hall that another Dancing Rabbit member has contracted him to build. After one final sip of my coffee, I take a short walk toward the building site where I’m joined by an ad hoc team of Dancing Rabbit members, residents, and work-exchangers. Within five minutes, the building site is flooded with more help than can safely fit on the raised foundation, and so the late-comers sit on the adjacent gravel path and watch the process alongside some of the community’s children. This wall raising is the culmination of several weeks of detailed work by Big John and his crew. By every Dancing Rabbit standard, this construction project has progressed impressively fast, and in a moment I will join a small group of volunteers in raising the building’s western and eastern walls. The whole process will take ten minutes. It will barely interrupt my day, and yet, as the construction process continues I’ll walk past the building feeling a small sense of ownership and pride. I’ll feel the same sense of ownership strolling past a roof I helped assemble, a cob plaster wall I ornamented with recycled wine bottles, a 12’ x 12’ tent platform I nailed together, and garden beds I helped weed over a year ago. None of these items are—nor have they ever been—my property, but these otherwise inanimate items take on a strong symbolic meaning for me, as if a part of me is left in them. I can only imagine how a similar stroll around  Dancing Rabbit feels to individuals that have spent years or decades building a village.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (DR) is a community of individuals devoted to ecologically sustainable living in rural Scotland County, Missouri. During the summers of 2010 and 2011, I lived and “wexed” at Dancing Rabbit, and have visited intermittently during the Falls, Winters, and Springs. At the time of this writing, DR is home to a growing population of about 60 adult and 10 children. During the “building season” which lasts from mid-Spring to mid-Fall the community will be inundated with dozens of work-exchangers (wexers), short-term visitors, and assorted guests, some of whom will stay and become members themselves.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Within Reach, the movie

Possible Futures Film Contest Within Reach Submission from Ryan Mlynarczyk on Vimeo.

Eco-Communitarians Unite! It was great to meet Mandy, one of the producers/stars of this film last weekend.  What devotion and insight. The sustainability movement can get very depressing and discouraging sometimes, but a project like this reveals the breadth and depth of the ecovillage movement. It makes me much more hopeful that ecovillages are making an important difference.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dyssekilde Ecovillage (Denmark)

Just before Christmas, while visiting a very lovely Klara Wengman in Denmark, I had the fortune of visiting Dyssekilde Ecovillage. Contrary to every prior ecovillage I had visited, arriving at Dyssekilde (prounounced doose-uh-kill-uh) required absolutely zero driving. A forty-five minute train ride outside of Copenhagen drops you off at what appears to be an abandoned train depot surrounded by agricultural fields. Yep! You can live in a rural ecovillage just forty-five minutes outside a major cosmopolitan city.

I’d like to offer a quick description of the Danish countryside before I dive into the ecovillage itself. Riding the train through rural Denmark is a bit like traveling through rural Wisconsin—gentle rolling hills, the occasional charming farmstead, towering “Cheese Palace” advertisements…well maybe not quite, but it’s an endearing region. What’s amazing, from a planner’s perspective, is that there is no “suburbia” once you leave the metropolis of Copenhagen. By every American standard, a city the size of Copenhagen should be rung with sprawling gated subdivisions, strip malls, gas stations, and vast empty parking lots. And while there are definitely urban outskirts, Danish “sprawl” remains clustered around, well, other train depots. It puts US transit-oriented development to shame. The rural landscape is also pocked with wind turbines, and it’s not like the ominous, apocalyptic wind farms that are growing along rural interstates in the US. A turbine here. A couple turbines there. It doesn’t dominate the view, although I noticed more power lines than in the US.

Okay! Back to the ecovillage. No need to notify anyone that you're coming. Just get off the train, and you can walk around the community as if you got off the train in any neighborhood. "Just be respectful of peoples' privacy," one community member instructed us over the phone. Walk about one hundred feet beyond the depot, and you’ll find you're in one of Demarks oldest and seemingly most successful ecovillages. Dyssekilde was founded twenty-five years ago, just as the Brundtland Commission was inventing “sustainable development” for us. As a result of its relative maturity, one of the most remarkable features of Dyssekilde is that it’s built out, and the buildings are finished. That’s right! No piles of used lumber, empty five-gallon buckets, tarps, or half-finished structures. The place has the appearance of completeness and serenity that I hope its American counterparts will achieve in their maturity.

Like Dancing Rabbit (in northeast Missouri), automobiles in Dyssekilde are a part of the fringe. You can find the community’s few cars hidden in a parking lot next to the community gift shop/cafĂ©, where Klara and I stopped for a snack. The attendant at the gift shop explained (in perfect English, of course) that her boyfriend, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, was raised in the community, left for a while, but has since settled in the community as an adult member. The attendant works part time in the shop and commutes to a job Copenhagen on other days. And this, I believe is the magic of a place like Dyssekilder: you can have a city job and live in a rural ecovillage without compromising your morals by driving fifty miles a day. It is a feature that I fantasize about coming to fruition in the United States.

Now, I love my rural ecovillages. I think they’re heroic and innovative. But rare are the type that is willing to abandon their connections to urban places so they can experiment with construction and energy production in a very rural place. If low-impact living is to grow more popular, we’ll need more places like Dyssekilde.

I wish I could have stayed longer! And I have many more questions Where does their water come from? How are most of the homes heated and cooled? Where do they find building materials? Food? Are any of the buildings owned in common? What is the land ownership structure? Does their proximity to an urban area make for a less cohesive community (I can imagine for example, young folks might choose to spend more time in the city in the evenings and weekends)? From the looks of it, most of the homes take advantage of passive solar energy for heating and lighting, and seem to be using natural materials for insulation.

The website has some answers and stories that make me even more excited about the place. Apparently they all share a wind tower, which is probably easier to run your community on year-round in a windy place like Denmark. What's even more fascinating is that Dyssekilde has revived the rural town in which it is situated. The website explains, "When the eco-village was founded the village of Torup was slowly dying out as many other small villages in Denmark at that time, now however that has changed, and thanks to the eco-village people move here, not just to the village, but also to the surrounding area. The fact that there is now a school, a kindergarten, 2 shops etc. also help." 

Pretty inspiring. Perhaps we regional planners can learn a thing or two from Dyssekilde.

Enjoy the pics!

An aerial photo of the community, on a sign posted at the village entrance. The train line is on the North side, and the depot is at the northwest corner. The gift shop is on the south side.

Twins! The homes at Dyssekilde are organized into housing groups that each set their own standards for energy and construction practices.

South-facing solar devotion!  

Octagonal home, natural roof, south facing, and a nice manicured garden.

Hobbit hut? A beautiful earth berm. The north side of what I imagine is a dwelling structure.

The gift shop/cafe. 

Inside the gift shop. You can buy pretty much anything from dry lentils to souvenir slippers. It's pretty impressive inside. And, as the only space open to the unannounced public, the shop offered us a chance to talk to someone about their community.