Learning to create sustainable communities

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During my 12 years in Memphis, TN I had one general goal: Create a community project, we’ll call it a counter-institution, that would function as a working example of urban sustainability. Of course within this all sorts of mini-projects with their own objectives sprouted up. We grew front yard gardens, study groups, newsletters, and even a micro-radio station. We grew co-ops for bicycle repair and community media creation. There were some successes and some failures. Today I look at what we did and wish we had done better. I wish cities and the people that live in them were more open to change. If we survive the future we have set up we will have to adapt. Strange to think that we have created a future that is likely to produce the opposite of what most people would say they want: health, happiness, freedom. In short, if we are to survive we will have to turn a societal u-turn.

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Some folks are already doing it. Writing for Metroactive R.V. Scheide details the work of folks in Northern California to create a sustainable town:

Past the Peak: How the small town of Willits plans to beat the coming energy crisis

A few miles north of Ukiah, Highway 101 shoots upward into Northern California’s coastal mountain range, climbing and weaving up the Ridgewood Grade, leaving the vineyards of Mendocino County behind on the valley floor. The four-lane section of superslab peaks at Ridgewood Summit, the highest point on a road that stretches from Mexico to Canada. It then gently slides down into Little Lake Valley, where, at the first stop light on the highway north of the Golden Gate Bridge, it reaches the city center of Willits.

A boyish 37-year-old with a Ph.D. in biology, Dr. Jason Bradford only relocated to Willits from Davis with his wife, Kristin, a medical doctor, and their two children last August. Initially interested in energy issues while studying climate change in the Andes several years ago, Bradford didn’t really know what he was getting into when he decided to sponsor several screenings of The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream just two months after arriving in town. Hosting a film that proclaims human civilization is going to run out of oil and is therefore doomed doesn’t usually guarantee a visit from the welcome wagon. But then again, Willits isn’t most towns. Bradford’s initial invitation to view the film has blossomed into a popular movement that aims to, in the words of one member, “reinvent the town.”

“Thirty people showed up the first time,” he says. A number of people stayed to chat after the movie, and sensing local interest in the topic, he hosted another showing. Sixty people turned up that time. Ninety came to a third presentation. Bradford, who’d never really led anything larger than a small research team, could feel the momentum building. “Oh, shit!” he thought. “What do I do now?”

As it turned out, Bradford didn’t have to do too much to keep the ball rolling, other than volunteering all of his spare time. That’s because there’s a current running through Willits that harmonizes exactly with what needs to be done to prepare for what petroleum experts call “peak oil.” That current is supplied in part by the very same ecotopians who flocked to the region in the ’70s. Under Bradford’s leadership, they’ve teamed up with concerned professionals, local government officials and ordinary citizens to form the Willits Economics Localization (WELL) project. It appears to be one of the first civic groups in the United States dedicated to preparing for the coming energy crisis. But if other communities are to have any hope of retaining some semblance to the lifestyles they’ve grown accustomed to during the age of cheap oil, it definitely won’t be the last.

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Bradford and the core members, working as a steering committee they jokingly refer to as an “ad-hocracy,” originally identified 14 key areas of interest pertaining to peak oil and the community’s survival that seemed to match up well with the interests of the overall membership. Eventually, these 14 areas were consolidated into six working groups: food, energy, shelter, water, health and wellness, and social organization.


To address topics as complex as localizing food supplies, WELL invites guest speakers to talk to the group. Some, such as world-renowned bio-intensive gardening innovator John Jeavons, author of the perennial bestseller How to Grow More Vegetables, didn’t have to travel far: Jeavons lives in Willits. Others, such as Stephen and Gloria Decater, had to come over the hill from Yolo County, where they operate the Live Power Community Farm near Covelo.

The Decaters practice community-supported agriculture. Their 40-acre farm provides food for 160 member families, totaling some 300 people, over a 30-week growing season. The families pay a subscription that provides operating fees for the farm and a modest income for those who work it. And when the Decaters christened their farm “Live Power,” they meant it. Five full-time farmhands and an array of draft horses do all the work on the farm with the exception of hay baling, which is done by tractor because the farm has been unable to acquire a horse-driven baler. Apparently, they don’t make them anymore.

During their presentation to WELL in April, the Decaters used simple math to solve Willits’ potential future food shortage, at least on paper. Divide the town’s 13,300 immediate residents by the 300 people Live Power Community Farm can feed, and it’s easy to see that all that’s required to feed the town is 44 similarly-sized farms. These plots would only take up a modest 1,733 acres in total–roughly the same area as the 2.8 square miles within Willits’ city limits. Because the Decaters’ numbers are based on a partial diet–an unintentional vegan slate that doesn’t factor in dairy or meat–the actual acreage might have to be doubled or even tripled. Still, it’s doable, and in fact, it’s the way things were done not too long ago, before the automobile came along. Since then, Gloria Decater told the audience, “We have not thought of farms as permanent places. As the next generation left farming and development encroached, the farms have been cashed out. . . . With peak oil, we now have a new perspective. This may not only be sad, but it’s also a matter of future survival.”

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