Evolving Suburbia

Fall and winter are times of reflection and as I look into the 2011 year I am continually drawn to the question of how to best spend my time, resources, and energy.   It is very likely that 2011 will be the Year of the Home (2010 was the Year of the Soil).  By that I mean its time to Get Serious about pushing the resiliency of my .5 acre (.2 ha) suburban homestead.  The reasons are varied and complex, but the short answer is that when I look around I see adding resiliency to our existing built environment as one of the areas most ripe for change – both due to how critical that change will be, and to how little is being done on that front currently.  One of the key thinkers that I turn to when working through this problem is David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture and an advocate for the reality that we’re stuck with suburbs for the next 50+ years so lets make the best of it.  The “problem is the solution” after all…  Here is David talking through Suburbia in Energy Descent, a reoccurring topic for him.

Reality of the Burbs

This is Reality - The future is what we make of it.

Suburbs have long been maligned for their intense resource use and the simple fact that they have been designed for automobiles rather than people; of course this is all too true.  More recently, the burbs have come under intense fire for being perhaps the last place on Earth that one will want to be be in an Post Peak Oil world.  There is much emotional reaction driving this assessment.  And emotion, while incredibly useful at times, inherently clogs clear thought.   I am not going to ask that we devote time to a truly thorough list of the pros/cons of the burbs, but hitting on some of the easy, perhaps positive, attributes will be helpful to this dialogue (the cons are well known).  First up is population density.  Significantly less than urban environments, and significantly more than rural ones.  In my subdivision, we have about 50 homes in 20 acres.  Factor out roads and each property gets .3 acres (.12 ha) –and it can all be irrigated with one 100′ hose.    This is close enough for a chat over the fence during chores, but far enough away that your son can play his drums without disturbing the neighbors and if your compost pile goes anaerobic you get a few days to fix it before anyone notices.  Most kids can walk to school, but you have to drive a bit for a bite to eat or to watch a movie… but your choices are limited for both compared to a city.  Whenever we have looked at moving to the country, the LACK of neighbors and amenities is one of our biggest concerns. Then there is the scale and quality of living space. Homes here average a bit over 2000 sq ft – mine is smaller, some are rather larger.  Currently that gives us over 500 sq ft per person – luxury indeed in global terms, and should the need arise much of this space could be converted to more utilitarian use (huh, that rec room looks rather like a root cellar…), or boarders/extended family taken in.  Our subdivision is newer, so insulation and build quality is relatively good – I will see a 4 degree rise due to solar gain on a sunny 40 degree day and we only get about 1 degree of heat loss per 1.5 hours overnight with outside air temps at 25 degrees (-4 C) and moderate winds; bake some bread and the furnace won’t run for hours.  Then there are the garages.  If you ditch one or two of the cars there is a serious amount of space in there.  As Holmgren points out these could be truly useful spaces for all kinds of cottage industries.  The asphalt roofs on the two story colonials style houses are well above tree line and hence have great solar access for PV, and are also already plumbed to gather irrigation water.  Change roofing material and I have over 25000 gallons/yr (99,000 l) of drinking water with some filtering and purification.  Perhaps most important of all, as Holmgren points out – the fact that the homes are individually “owned” gives the intrepid homeowner massive license to change, tinker, and retrofit as they see fit.  No need to take it to the condo association or get your 40 fellow tenants to agree to have chickens or a PV array.  Just do it.  Do I still have to drive 19 miles to work?  Well, only as long as the job will have me.  If it doesn’t I will have to do more with less, and to that end the asset list of my suburban home has much going for it.

Retrofit Rather Than Rebuild

Natualis Earthship - passive solar heated, rain water collecting, greywater cycling, and internal food producing greenhouse.

Here is perhaps the hardest truth about Suburbia – and we need to internalize it as fact very quickly.  IT ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE. Buildings have a staying power measured in generations – most of the farmhouses around here are over 100 years old.  We hear often in the Peak Oil circles about how long it will take for any changes in automobile fleet dynamics (to more efficient power-plants) to reach critical mass for change, but cars are only around for decades and even they won’t change fast enough.  There was a time when “back to the land” was an option, but thanks to the economic crisis , unless we are willing to walk away from our mortgages and squat somewhere, most of us are now finding it nearly impossible to find a bit of land to farmstead on due to lack of finance and liquid capital.  Also, in the same vein, the capital and finance needed to rebuild Suburbia in a more eco image also does not exist.   My neighborhood will not be torn down and rebuilt in Earthships anytime soon despite the fact that it would make us much more able to thrive in the coming century.  BUT we CAN retrofit our existing structures as we respond to the growing challenges of our age.  Look around your neighborhood – that is your  reality, or at least the starting point.  Much as we can put inexpensive add-ons on the oxygen sensors of our current cars to allow us to run pure homebrew ethanol (easier than installing a new hybrid drivetrain!), we can also retro fit our homes to be far more sustainable than they are now without a complete tear down.  And the possibility of hundreds of thousands of individual responses to the Long Emergency is incredibly exciting to me.  Welcome to the greatest Open Source Human Ecology project of all time; we will literally get to actively participate in the real time evolution of our own built environment.  Bring it on.

Organic Response to Change

Holmgren nailed the likely response to the coming predicament in his assessment that the response to the this century’s changes will be diverse, organic, and individually based rather than some grand top down salvation.  There is already significant evidence to show that this is indeed already occurring.  Last year, 7,000,000 people starting gardening for the first time as concerns about food security and cost increased.  The decision by millions to stop buying gas guzzling SUV did more to change the fleet offerings of the major auto manufactures than any legislation has for the past 30 years.   As each of us is confronted with our changing environment, we will make hundreds of adaptations to allow our families to thrive.  The adaptations that add sufficient resiliency will survive, those that were too extreme, or not bold enough, will hinder that household’s ability to survive economically.  The survival of the fittest works in human ecologies too.  Each household will respond as they see fit – some will undoubtedly favor certain areas more than others based on their individual circumstances, strengths, resources, and values.  We chose to focus first on increasing the resiliency of our food supply as we are concerned about the health of our family, a desire to eat seasonally,  and I have a strong personal inclination to garden.  Others will be more concerned with energy and will focus on PV, home-brew biodiesel or backup generators.  Perhaps you live in a cold environment like we do, and home heating weighs heavily on your mind as you see your utility bills rising faster than your pay.  Still others awaken to see their careers fading before their eyes and will focus on entrepreneurial aspects first to add resiliency to their economic lives.    The responses, in pace, severity, and type,  will be strongly individualized leading to fantastic diversity, incredible ingenuity, and greater resiliency for the community as a whole as neighbors talk to each other with pride about their recently built root cellar, new woodworking shop, or the efficiency of their new wood stoves.  The cross pollination of these ideas will greatly speed the progress and spread of these solutions as our responses to the Long Emergency goes viral.  I see far more hope in this organic, diversified response to the myriad challenges of our Age than a Top Down solution.  To be sure, incentives like credits for wood stoves, upgrading insulation, and small home-scale hoop houses would have immense impacts on many levels, but the real problem solving will be millions of hard working people getting their Change On and recommitting to the future of their communities.

What is Possible

We can’t build Earthships, but damn do they make a good target to aim at.  Our goal will never be self sufficiency, but greater resiliency.  The more we can cover the basic needs of our households for power, heat, food, and income the greater will be our chances to weather crises and storms (perhaps literally) as they come.  To that end I’d like to delve into what I think is possible on my lot here in southern Wisconsin.

Food is what I have focused most on and we have every intention on producing about 2000# (907 kg) of food in our yard this year.  And that is only using a bit under 4000 sq ft (370 sq m) of space with about 3/4 of that in perennial foodscapes, and the rest in a large 1100 sq ft canning garden.  This isn’t enough to feed my family for a year, but it adds significantly to our resiliency; with 300#’s of potatoes and squash in the cellar and several gallons of jams, sauces, soups, and such in the pantry we are much better off than we had been even a few years ago.  And as the orchards come on line, we see exponential growth in yields with very little extra work.  We are able to grow much or our nutrition as well as a bit of our calories, fats, and proteins.  Adding chickens or rabbits to our system would help immensely with nutrient cycling and protein production.

81% efficient, clean burning, will heat 2000 sq ft, and will simmer a skillet of potatoes all day long.


Heat is another prime concern.  At an outside temp of 20 degrees (-6 C) my home will lose about 1 degree of internal air temp every 1.5 hours.  That means in a few nights without power we become really damn cold in January.    Currently, like most suburbanites, I have a natural gas forced air furnace and stove, and my power is grid tied and produced by coal.  My automobiles use petrol and diesel from the fill stations and there are no bio-fuel coops within 100 miles.  In other words we are completely dependent on the energy grid for transportation and power.  But, we also live in Wisconsin, and thanks to our annual rainfall if I quit mowing my lawn I would have a mixed hardwoods forest for a yard in about 50 years.   Heating with Biomass makes a lot of sense for me, assuming the stove is high enough efficiency and we take care to ensure our wood is harvested sustainably (paulownia coppice anyone?).  Retrofitting a wood stove in my home will be about $5000, and I will need to source a few face cords of wood a year.  Another feasible option, thanks to my southern exposure, would be to retrofit a cobbled together passive solar system.  By changing 4 windows, and adding 3 more windows intended for thermal gain, as well as the addition of thermal mass to our home’s main wall we could significantly cut our heating needs.  This would never “heat” our home, and would cost at least double the wood stove option, but has the added benefit of be maintenance  and input free.

Energy is an area that is well documented.  Installing a PV array is not hard, but does incur a significant up front cost –though the price is coming WAY down, if you haven’t checked in the past several years call an installer.  Again, the goal here would not necessarily be to replace ALL of your electrical needs, but some.  Also, I am a fan of having at least a partial battery backup to literally keep the lights on in time of crisis.  Transportation fuels can get harder.  There is a vibrant and thriving culture of home bio diesel brewing and as the last local BD-100 station closed its pumps this year, I may finally assemble my Appleseed Processor.  The problem with home brew BD is the fuel stock.  Waste grease is already very difficult to come by in many parts of the country and this will only become more true as we continue through energy descent.  Still, I see it as a good transitional fuel until we get  community scale biofuel co-ops up and running.  Just watch yourself with the methanol, ok?

Gardening by Bike - image used w/o permission so check out her site in the link!

Economics is the final area that can be retrofitted.  Holmgren talks about the ease of which the garage, already a utilitarian space, can be converted to supporting Cottage Economies of all sorts.  Mechanically minded?   There will be a huge push to repair rather than buy new as funds become tighter – everything from electronics to appliances to furniture will need intrepid tinkerers to stay functional.  More creative of mind?  Bentwood furniture, toys, cabinet making, weaving, tailoring, etc will need new champions.  Home repair, food production (someone has to make all that jam from our guilded orchards!), and installations of the very retrofits we have been discussing are all good candidates.  A small business in root cellar retrofitting and repair crosses the mind.  CSA’s with a twist, where gardens throughout the community are installed, tended, and harvested by a “farmer” with the produce dropped at each individual’s home are already in place in various cities.  Perhaps you can start one in your neighboorhood. Pedaling around on your cargo bike to spread good soil and good food while literally building resiliency as you go seems like a job to me.

Community retrofitting is the most important of all, and the one I am least familiar with (one can’t weld up a pot luck, nor use a mattock to sing in a choir).  Currently my neighborhood is a a bed-room community with most of my neighbors treating their homes as really expensive hotel rooms where you have to mow the lawn.  We have no community theater, no coffee shop, or many of the other trappings of a vibrant community.  But even here we are seeing changes.  In recent years we built a community center, the PTA is revitalized, and several “neighbor” groups focusing on social gatherings and do-goodery are popping up as 21st century mini-rotary clubs.  This must needs continue as we add resilency to our our homes, if the community itself is better able to withstand a crisis, the likelihood that each of us individually will do so increases.  The bonds that tie us to our neighbors are the strength of our community.  As I type this we have a 4 month old gurgling in the living room as we baby sit for a local friend, and while we were in New Zealand on vacation, my neighbor repaired our water heater which had blown out the day before we flew out.  We can’t do this alone. If you don’t know your neighbors, bake some bread or pick a buch or oregano and walk next door.  Every journey begins with a step.

Optimism is there if you look for it – even in Suburbia.  I am not saying that the next 50 years will be a picnic, nor that we are on the verge of a new re-localized utopia.  We are going to have to work really damn hard, in ways that we can’t really even fahom, to deal with the present predicament.  We’ll skin our knees, we’ll cry at times, but we also have more strength in each of us than we know, and looking back across the major societal crises of the past 50 years from Haiti, to Katrina, to Kosovo, to Iraq, to Cuba, to Somalia there are the briefest periods of rioting, and in many cases even this is avoided, and in all cases the overarching result is the vast majority of people pulling together to get shit done.  Looking around at our suburbs we must not lose sight of the fact that in no other time have so many people had access to a bit of land — irrigated, arable land– that they own.  In a purely permaculture mindset, imagine the possibilities of 20 acres of Zone 1-2.  20 acres of the most intensely designed, managed, and productive landscapes one can imagine – fruit literally hanging on every cubic foot from 6″ below the ground to 10′ above it.  Visualize 10,000 sq ft of roofs covered in PV (that’s 120 kw of energy!), and every roof harvesting 25,000 gallons of water and every home producing over 2000#’s of food with garages full of productive ventures.  Streets are no longer dead zones of concrete, but spaces frequented by greetings and bartering of services and goods in the way it was not so long ago.  I lend you a sack of potatoes because I know your plums are delicious, and your husband fixed my stove last fall.    THIS is literally what is possible within the coming decades with reasonable investments of time, resources, and energy.  And we don’t have to live in a red or blue state.  It doesn’t matter if Congress never does a damn thing (which is likely).  The future is OURS and its time to get busy.

David Holmgren’s comments on the individual, diverse, organic solutions to the coming stresses match well with what we are currently seeing, with what myself and all of you are doing in our own lives to add resiliency, confidence, and beauty back into our lives. Our answers will be different, but they also likely spring from a very similar set of principles. Again, we are patterning our response to a changing socio-economic ecosystem after nature; we’re *evolving*. Some of our ideas will be viable and appropriate, some will fail and be a waste of energy despite our gains in knowledge. A few will also have applicability to larger groups outside of our individuality and our neighbors will adapt them, likely with some tweaks. The uncertainty of our near future is troubling to be sure, there will continue to be Oh SHIT! moments, but this will be a very exciting century; we are in the middle of a paradigm shift.

Be the Change

This organic change will come about as a natural, even ecological, response to our changing environment.  But it can be aided by the active pursuit of regenerative activities that will help to rebuild our communities in the image of a more resilient future.   Even as we speak our neighbors are dealing with the realization that something is not right with the world.  As that disquiet is crystalized into a desire for action, how much faster will they be able to adapt if they can look 3 houses down to a PV array on the roof, a willow coppice in the backyard and a yard full of fruiting trees.  The world NEEDS early adopters more than ever!  If a future of more resilient communities is one that you wish to see – then you literally need to BE THAT CHANGE now to actualize that future.  The time will be that our neighbors and community leaders will look to us environmentalist doomsdayers and say …” Well shit. Now what?”  Having real world, working concepts on what is possible in our own local communities will be critical to a satisfactory answer to that question…  “Now what?  Come see my gardens!”

We can do this.

Be the Change!


21 Responses

  1. the grid electricity- does anybody need stabilised frequency and voltage 24/7 ? Could we make do with intermittent supplies, or less polishing ?
    Inverters and controllers are all around, meaning that home brew AC is realisable at low cost…… PROVIDED there is battery capacity. And this could be the family transport plugged in for the night. And batteries go sweetly with PV.
    Bear in mind that almost all appliances are powered via low or medium voltage (derived from Mains Volts) and could be powered by direct feed from an agreed universal domestic low voltage battery terminal with enhanced efficiency. No more wall warts? The camping & boating fraternity know how to live in comfort with all modern conveniences. See how they manage affairs.
    Some energy heavy appliances such as dishwashers and clothes washers could be retro- engineered to accept domestic hot water instead of boiling their own.
    This would cut peak demand by kilowatts. john p.

    • There are at least two important standards for DC: 12V and USB (5V, 500mA). I agree there should be more place in the home for these.

      Dish washing and clothes washing are inherently batch processes. In a climate like Rob’s, I think a rocket stove might be a reasonable choice to provide heat for such an appliance. I just discovered that Thor made a combination dish- and clothes-washer for the Lustron house company, many decades ago. Eventually, I want to look up those patents to see how such a device worked.

      IIRC, dish washers need a temperature of water that is unsafe for tap use (in order to also be unsafe for microbes), but clothes washers are already designed to use tap water.

  2. It is good to hear others talking about David Holmgren’s views on suburbia being at the forefront of domestic change as people are forced to adapt to the demands of the future. Australian’s are psycologicaly bound to the idea of everyone having the potential to own their own ‘backyard’. Modest/ Average/ordinary blocks are traditionally large..just under a quarter acre…and we dont have a lot of the restrictions that it seems can occur in American neighbourhoods. ie Not being able to have washing lines, fences, vegetable gardens, compost heaps, required to have certain types of house front landscaping etc. As David says we would be going back to those of us born in the 50s already grew up with…vegie patches and community in suburbia. I am doing my bit in the burbs. Maybe one day one of my neighbours will want to know how to do what I do. I applaud your efforts to bring these topics to the attention of more people and your home garden efforts. Thank You.

    • Your welcome and thank you for your kind words! The more draconian regulations in some subdivisions is not nearly as commonplace as it may seem based on the media, and are typically relegated to the much more affluent communities whose organizational structures are closer to condo associations than neighborhoods.

      It will be interesting to see the evolution of this environment from massive dependent on imported resources to perhaps one that could even be an exporter of basic goods, foodstuffs, and services to the more urban areas while still importing calories and luxury items and perhaps being near energy self sufficient given a reasonable commons for fuel wood.

      Working my way through David’s 2007 talk in Auckland on retrofitting the burbs. At that point he seems to be about where I am now – hunkering down to re-engerize the choir while building real world “proof of concepts” rather than out spending my limited time and resources trying to convince people of the need to change when they are not yet ready to see that need. Reality will force that realization soon enough… In the meantime an energized force of “fire souls” motivated to create the beginnings of a transitional system on an individual basis seems to be better able to make better use of those limited resources.

  3. One key element you are missing in regards to retrofitting the Community: Community Churches!

    These are the TRADITIONAL “third place” for America. They can fill the place of the coffee shop, the meal out, the night’s entertainment, meeting-place for friends, the group-therapy for out-of-work people, the music lessons for your kids… all these things traditionally took place in the church.

    As far as peak oil/system collapse… the local church is also the first (and at times last) line of help for the economically disadvantaged. That is a totally sustainable, local, alternative to top-down government charity… plus it works a whole lot better for the receiver, and is voluntary for the giver… WIN-WIN!

    Anyway, this blindness to community-churches-as-building-blocks-to-community-transition is something I see (or don’t see, actually) in virtually all sustainability thinkers. Church is the traditional American vehicle to achieving a coherent, sustainable, locally-focused community.


    • Hi James,
      I heartily agree that ‘the church’ and other community groups will and do play a vital role in ‘building blocks to community transition’. I am guessing that these traditional community bulwarks are assumed. The idea/role of the church in Australia, while no less appreciated and developed as in America, is less spoken about …religion is more private. Also many sustainability thinkers In Australia, Japan, India, etc aren’t necessarily Christians but come from many different religions and spiritual backgrounds. It is more a cultural thing than a deliberate avoidance of the role of the church. Do the churches in America talk about sustainability?

  4. Rob,
    After spending about an hour or more almost daily — over the past month or more — reading all your posts (even as far back as Blogger), I’m convinced that with persons such as you and your wife around, there is hope for us all.

    I have been quietly using a number of your ideas and techniques in my own tiny garden, with good results. A decent chipper/shredder here cost about three months salary though, so that’ll have to wait.

    Thank you for taking the time to share. The photos really round out, and add flesh to your posts.

    • There are ways around the use of a chipper/shredder. Whole branches can be used as mulch, or lopped down to reasonable-length sticks with a little effort.

      Goats can eat the bark of such sticks, helping to return nutrients to the soil a little faster.

      Some people like to put large pieces of wood a foot or two under the garden bed, where they serve as a moisture reserve and a scavenger of nutrients that might otherwise leach away. Their rotting also does some gentle tilling of the soil as the years pass.

    • Trini I can’t afford a decent or cheap chipper/shredder either so I do it all by hand. A job for sitting down with a big drum. It still gets done but slower.

      • Oter options would be putting them under somethng heavy to be crushed up a bit – livestock like cows/horses or a driveway for cars/trucks to roll over would break down the branches and open the space for bacteria and fungus.

        Chipping is a luxury, and just buys time or reduces space; nature doesn’t have a chipper and the forest cycles nutrients just fine. Joel’s comments for just burying the sticks would work very well. Perhaps limb them well with a machete or small axe so that they lay closer together. Goats are a great idea.

  5. I lived in a suburb of Chennai India for a while. The majority of neighborhoods there was closer to your utopia than I have seen anywhere. Coconuts on our land, the neighbor grew aloe, another chickens, another repackaged soaps. Gardens were rare but truck farms and door to door sales were very common.

  6. Hey Rob, how feasible do you think it would be for a family to grow and produce enough ethanol or biodiesel to provide for their transportation fuel? What would be the best crops for that, and how much land would a family need?

    • Very – IF they have a serious amount of land. Here is a list of the amount of ground you will need per acre. I use about 10 gallons of diesel a month, so I would need a bit over an acre of canola, which means at least 3 acres of land since I would want to rotate it. And that is only for running straight veg oil – if I wanted to make it into a true “fuel” then my acreage needs go up by 20% as I will be pulling out the glycerin and making bio-diesel. This is simply not practical in the suburbs, but is a reality in rural areas, or with co-operatively owned parcels.

      Again, it is not about self sufficiency, but about self reliance. We can cover the basics in the burbs, but calorie crops, and transportation and heating fuels will need to be imported as they take more land.

  7. Hmm, that list is pretty interesting. If you had an acre of sunflowers, after you chopped off the heads you’d be left with a ton of material for composting. You could always form a three sisters companion planting and do beans up the sunflower stalk and squash in there too.

    Also, if someone were able to get waste veggie oil from restaurants, what would be the cost per gallon to make biodiesel when methanol was added to the equation?

    • Several tons of composting material in fact, though its mostly water. Careful with the add-ons though. Poly cultures can add to TOTAL yield, but will sacrifice *at least* 30% harvest of any one item. Monoculture harvest rates, like in this chart, are very close to the maximizing solar gain (especially with tall plants like sorghum, corn, or sunflowers) on the plot leaving almost no room for polyculture as the solar energy is used up. There are no silver bullets.
      You also need to consider that the seeds must be pressed -if you are going to do an acre the press runs about $18,000, but the up side is that all you push out is about 85% of the oil, the left over meal makes excellent chicken/hog/human feed.

      Methanol is about $4.25/gallon, but that, some lye, and the energy to power the system is your only overhead once you have your processor built, which will run $750-$1500. Figure $1-1.50 a gallon but there is also a significant amount of time – you need to baby the system so at least a day is spent in/near the lab and a day or so gathering the waste grease, which is almost never free anymore.

  8. Hi
    Nice to see a positive mindset to the problems that we are all going to face.
    A really interesting post.
    Let’s hope that us early adopters can do enough.
    All of the best


  9. […] I wrote Evolving Suburbia I came across this talk on and found it interesting to here David go into more detail than in the […]

  10. […] and practice we can gather before it really matters will be very helpful.  Once again the blog One Straw has a great post about the challenges ahead and the transition of suburbia as not just a place to […]

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