Archive of category "Urban"

by Jacob Corvidae

Listen to this show from Detroit’s NPR affiliate: WDET about Adaptive Re-Use and its moral implications.

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by Tony Sirna

This article is also posted on Dancing Rabbit’s March Hare Blog and we encourage you to add any comments there.

Part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants.

People often say that Dancing Rabbit is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to dispute. Rutledge, our nearest town, has a population of 100 (which we hope to surpass in the next few years) and our whole county has fewer residents than some big city high schools (4,843 by the last census).

But what we do at Dancing Rabbit is as relevant to cities as it is to small town USA, and I’ve begun to wonder: what if cities adopted Dancing Rabbit’s ecological covenants?

At Dancing Rabbit only pedestrians, cyclists, and delivery vehicles can use the roads

These six Dancing Rabbit covenants are the foundation of our ecological expectations of residents and members. Our covenants are based in the belief that radical change is possible and that it will come both through personal choices and through major shifts in physical and social infrastructure. They are based in the understanding that conservation is key, and that only with reduced consumption can technological innovation meet our needs sustainably. We’ve found that cooperation is a powerful tool for conservation and we believe a shift towards more sharing is a big part of the social change we’ll need. Our covenants don’t describe every aspect of a sustainable society, but we’ve found that these few simple rules put us far along the path towards sustainability.

In this series of articles I’ll explore what it would look like for cities, neighborhoods, or regions to adopt DR’s covenants.

Our first (and perhaps most impactful) covenant states:

“Dancing Rabbit members will not use personal motorized vehicles, or store them on Dancing Rabbit property.”

What would happen if a major US city passed a law that personal motorized vehicles were not allowed or at least seriously curtailed their use? For example, what if New York prohibited personal motorized vehicles to drive or park on the island of Manhattan? Could that really work? Would people stand for it? Would the city suffer or flourish under such a law? What exceptions would have to be made?

People have written whole books about New York City transportation systems and I can’t possibly cover it all in that level of detail but here’s a quick look at the possibility.

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

The Details

While Dancing Rabbit’s covenant is worded simply, it required a lot of work to clarify the details of what constitutes a motorized vehicle. New York would have to do the same. At DR, anything powered by internal combustion and anything much bigger than a bike is a motorized vehicle. With some careful wording you could make sure to allow electric bikes and maybe scooters, as well as wheel chairs, Segways, or electric skateboards while still regulating electric cars and motorcycles.

What about through-traffic from New Jersey to outer boroughs, upstate New York, and Long Island? To address this, New York City could create a few corridors for people to travel across the island and such travelers would probably see a speed up with no local traffic to contend with (current average cross town speed – 5.2 mph).1 Of course, this was Robert Moses’ plan, in opposition to which modern, community-based urban design was born and which still inspires spirited controversy today. Some creative thinking would be required to find a way to allow corridors to exist without disrupting neighborhoods and the robust pedestrian network that makes Manhattan unique among American downtowns.

New York would also have to define what it means for a vehicle to be “personal”. The law should allow for police, fire, and ambulances, as well as various forms of public transit. Business delivery vehicles could be restricted to certain hours and areas to allow pedestrians and human powered vehicles free access. And what about the ubiquitous NYC taxi? Taxis would likely still be allowed and their use might even increase to meet the needs of the now carless residents and visitors to the city. People with certain disabilities might be able to get special vehicle permits if transit could not meet their needs.

New York might even plan for a system like the car co-op at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Our car co-op serves the needs of 60 people with only three vehicles. Companies like ZipCar, Mint, and Connect by Hertz could provide vehicles for short term use when a taxi or transit just won’t work, or for those taking a trip off the island. (Peer-to-peer carsharing is a non-starter when no-one has a private car.) To prevent an easy loophole (“This SUV? It’s my one-person carshare!”), New York would need a clear definition of a valid car co-op or carsharing program. A good litmus test might be a minimum member to car ratio, which could be set at 40 to 1, ZipCar’s current ratio.

If New York banned cars in Manhattan, more people would park in New Jersey and the outer boroughs and take mass transit from there. This would mean increasing the parking capacity at existing transit stations, as well as creating some new transit hubs with additional parking. New York could also provide parking at each bridge, tunnel, or ferry crossing, with taxi and transit service from these locations. New York’s current expansion of the ferry system would serve the car-free plan quite well.

The Benefits

What benefits would New York enjoy in such a scenario? At present, over 35 percent of the area of Manhattan is occupied by roads.2 One reason for this is because personal vehicles are a remarkably inefficient use of road area. Therefore, it’s likely that without private vehicles, road area could be reduced by 30-60% as street parking was removed and major roads narrowed. As most roads were turned over to pedestrians and bicycles, safety and convenience would increase for more ecologically sound forms of transit. Some existing road space could be converted to parks or gardens, allowing for urban agriculture and recreation. Other space could be used for commerce such as street vendors or outdoor seating for restaurants. New York City has been doing these things already, with over 250 miles of new bike lines (including protected lanes segregated from car traffic) installed since 2007,3 and new car-free pedestrian plazas at major intersections all over the city.

Transit ridership would jump, which would mean better service for everyone as buses, subways, and trains would come more frequently to meet the higher demand. Transit systems feeding NYC would also see an increase as many people would opt to take light rail to get into the city.

Air pollution would drop drastically, as “motor vehicles contribute approximately 11% of the local PM2.5 (fine particles) and 28% of the nitrogen oxide emissions” in New York City.4 It could be reduced even further if New York mandated that all taxis and car co-ops met high mileage standards, or were electrified. Buses could also be electrified (don’t get confused by the MTA’s current “hybrid-electric” bus fleet – that’s different) or use alternative fuels with lower pollution potential.

New York’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint would also drop, since 18% of New York City’s GHG inventory is from on-road transportation.5 While only some of those vehicles are private cars in Manhattan, the effect would nevertheless be profound.

There would also be health benefits as more people would walk and bike – “New Yorkers residing in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) levels compared to other New Yorkers.”6 Local businesses would benefit as well – a New York University study, in collaboration with Transportation Alternatives, found that protected bike lanes and select bus service in Manhattan’s East Village would increase spending at local businesses, despite fears that reducing parking would hurt sales.7

Overall, New Yorkers would see significant quality of life improvements with less noise, cleaner air, more outdoor space for kids to play, and better transit systems. Not only that, New Yorkers would have more money. According to the New York Times, “American families who are car-dependent spend 25 percent of their household income on their fleet of cars, compared with just 9 percent for transportation for those who live in walkable urban places.”8

Drawbacks

A huge change like this would require large infrastructure investments, so the obvious question is, how would these changes be funded?

Revenue would likely come from a variety of sources: transit fees, taxi medallions, parking fees, tolls for delivery vehicles, leasing newly vacated roadways, tolls on through traffic, and reduced cost for roads. Care would need to be taken to prevent any undue burden on any specific segment of the population.

One option is to transition towards banning cars by implementing some form of Congestion Pricing. This is a system adopted in some European cities (e.g. London, Stockholm, and Milan) that charges any vehicles to enter certain areas of the urban center, sometimes with rates calibrated by time of day or current congestion. Such a system was proposed for New York City a few years ago9 but, while widely popular with the majority of New Yorkers,10 did not pass the New York State legislature, a required step for implementation. Using such a system to transition to car-free areas could generate significant revenue from the vehicle surcharges (after accounting for lost income from moving violations and parking tickets) which could go towards the infrastructure improvements required for a car-free city. It would also allow for a smooth transition as areas of the city are designated for a surcharge, with a ban on cars following a few years later. These areas could expand at regular intervals to allow people and infrastructure to adapt.

There would also be significant cost avoidance in a car-free city, since “traffic costs the city nearly $30 billion a year due to losses in employee productivity, traffic accidents, air pollution, traffic noise and roadway damage.”1 Perhaps some of that $30 billion could make its way towards increasing the mass transit infrastructure.

Regardless of how improvements were funded, there would be some folks who would not appreciate the change. Those who make their living off of the car culture in the dense urban center and people who simply want to own and drive their own vehicle in the city might resent or resist the plan. This type of cultural change may always have its malcontents, but as with the pedestrian riots when new-fangled automobiles killed walkers in the 1920s, once the shift occurs, the new way of doing things quickly becomes “normal” and protests are few.

Other Cities

So what about cities besides New York, could they ban personal vehicles?

New Yorkers are not your average Americans. New York’s high density and robust transit system make it an ideal candidate for a car-free city, and over half of all NYC households don’t own a car. In Manhattan, that number is around 75% almost ten times as high as the national average of 8%.4 These exceptional characteristics make New York a natural place to start envisioning a car-free urban center. Nevertheless, could other cities consider banning personal vehicles?

It would certainly be harder in some of America’s sprawling metropolises like Houston or Phoenix, which would require a major infrastructure overhaul to allow for a switch away from private vehicles. But it’s not hard to imagine cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, or Seattle banning private vehicles in major portions of their metro areas and then allowing those new areas to grow as the infrastructure and demographics shifted with the new system. While it would be harder for some cities than others, any place could make the shift if given the time for the infrastructure to change.

How Crazy an Idea is this?

There are already a number of car-free places in the world11 ranging from small towns and islands to small zones in urban centers. An experimental, mostly car-free suburb near Freiburg Germany. Car-free parks and weekly car-free days in major American cities. Pedestrian shopping centers. City centers in the developing world and the ancient world.

It is clear that car-free cities can be both possible and amazingly vibrant. I have no doubt that a move away from private cars will make our cities not just more sustainable but more livable and enjoyable for all. Hopefully our citizens and political leaders can take the brave step towards such a future soon.

This is part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants. In the next article we’ll explore eliminating fossil fuel for most significant uses.

Jacob Corvidae and Cecil Scheib also contributed to this article.

Footnotes

1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/iotw/traffic/

2 http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/goodman-cars.htm — An essay from 1961 on banning cars on Manhattan

3 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/past-route-projects.shtml

4 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/air/emissions_from_transportation.shtml

5 http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2011/pr331-11_report.pdf

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transportation_in_New_York_City

7 http://transalt.org/newsroom/media/4629

8 http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/carless-in-america/

9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_congestion_pricing

10 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/schaller_paper_2010trb.pdf

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places

by Jacob Corvidae

2010 was a tipping point for Detroit’s sustainability movement. And tip it did. It will still be a long time coming for the effects to be apparent, but I think the shift has now begun. If you talk to many people in the area, they’ll be lost the miasma of bad news which still plagues our city. Economic woes, population loss, various crises of poverty — it’s all still happening. But two things of note changed, and I believe that they will set the wheels in motion for the renaissance that has eluded Detroit for decades.

The first is the media attention. Media attention alone won’t do much for our city. We’ve had media attention before, but that’s not always helpful! What’s different this time is that the media attention is positive. It’s questing. It’s curious and pondering possibilities. This is a sea-change from the constant string of devastation affirmations that we’ve usually seen. They show that across the world people are beginning to realize that Detroit is a land of great potential. For people anywhere to realize this potential is the first key step to enacting a better future. And it’s directly connected to sign number two….

Young people are moving here.  The 2000′s saw a leap in our brain drain as college graduates fled the whole state in higher numbers. And of course, Detroit’s population continues still to hemorrhage. But the popuation of young educated folks is increasing in Detroit for the first time in quite a while. And I hear the stories frequently now of empassioned young folks from around the country who were inspired to move here after hearing about the meanginful work that’s possible here.

In years past if I went to a national conference and mentioned that I was from Detroit I got a response that ranged from “I’m so sorry” to “So what are you doing here?”  Now, when I mention coming from Detroit I’ll usually get a response like “Really? Tell me more about it? I’ve been hearing about some really intriguing possibilities there.”

The UN declared 2008 as the year that a majority of the world’s population began living in cities.   I think many of us will remember 2010 as the year that Detroit started its return to health.  Which year will be remembered as the year that Detroit showed the world what a 21st century city should look like?

by Jacob Corvidae

Here are a few videos and articles that I showed up in recently. I promise – a real blog post will come soon — but for now,  I figured this might be fun to share.

1. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with someone who was a big early influencer of my thoughts on urban sustainable development this past Summer. Richard Register (who literally, in both senses of the word, wrote the book on eco-cities) was in Detroit, and he writes an article about his experience here.

2. A good series (videos and an article) from the Powering the Nation folks (for whom I did a blog post earlier) about the growth of Green Jobs in Detroit. It’s a nice set of stories, though the last video makes us all look a bit like idiots — but not unreasonably so! Their central point is solid: when it comes to green jobs, clear meaningful definitions are few and far between.  Still, I’ll post the video where we all look like idiots here, because who doesn’t love that…

What is a green job? from Powering a Nation on Vimeo.

Bringing these two topics together, I’ll note that Richard Register’s take on the green jobs movement was basically this (in paraphrase):

People are working on all the wrong concepts. A barista at the local coffee shop has a green job if she can live nearby in a multi-unit apartment building and walk to work.  The infrastructure that emerges out of truly dense and vertical urban development makes any job more significantly green that what most people are talking about now.

by Jacob Corvidae

I’m on a panel with Mitchell Joachim of Terreform Tuesday, Sept. 13 at Lawrence Tech University. Mitchell has some sci-fi-esque notions about future urban design — yet swears it’s all with current day technologies. His focus is NYC, but we know that Detroit’s a different creature with lots of room for redefining the American City. What would a Terreform approach look like in D-town? Should be a fun discussion.

Of course, I’ll be focusing on the human and social interface — new exciting technologies or no will still account for and integrate with real people to succeed.

Check out these images:

Detroit-folks might particularly appreciate their strong transportation focus and ideas:

by Jacob Corvidae

Dug up from the vaults! I just came across this piece I’d spoken, then jotted down a couple of years ago.  I figured it might be appropriate to pop up here,  since nothing else is going up this week. While I’d roll these concepts out differently now, it’s still fun to see how some of us in the Detroit scene were rolling out these ideas only a couple of years ago — and now to see how dramatically the national conversation about Detroit has changed. What seemed pie-in-the-sky only two years ago is now being seriously discussed around the globe. How quickly things can change. Anyway, here’s the piece:

This is a paraphrase transcript (written after the fact) of a brief talk that I gave in Ann Arbor as part of the Sustainability Salon series at the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in April, 2008. I liked how it came together and so I wanted to capture the thoughts in written form. I believe this is a pretty accurate representation of what was said – and I think I squeezed it all into a 12 minutes introduction, which is surely a sign that I could have another career as an auctioneer. That’s partly why I wanted to try getting it down into written form where there’s more room for absorption and debate. Thanks for letting me share it with you.

Good evening, everybody, and thank you for having me here. It’s an honor to get to be up here with the rest of the panel and to share this time with all of you here. Sustainability is a topic that I’m passionate about, and I’m honored to have this chance to join you in discussion about it.

I live in the nuts and bolts of green buildings and sustainable development on a daily basis, and I talk to people about the practical things they can do to green their buildings. But today, I’m going to step back a little bit and share some of my views on the bigger picture. I’m hopeful that this will help us in our discussion about how we collectively tackle sustainable development.

I think there are primarily two major tasks ahead of us today in the world of sustainable development. The first is to take all the good work happening around green development and expand it. The truth is that a tremendous amount of good work is happening around these topics, and we just need to grow it in a BIG way – on steroids! We know what the things are that we need to do, we just need to do a lot more of them. That’s a big part of our task, and bravo to moving it forward.

The second task is that we have to solve the impossible problems. Because there are certain things that we haven’t figured out how to do yet. We need to find the answers to those things, and that’s what I want to focus on tonight. Besides, it’ll be fun. So this is our second task: to solve the impossible. As an example, I’d like to offer some of the work that I do, and talk about why I think Detroit can save the world.     [laughter]

by Jacob Corvidae

Cities are where it’s at. Or at least, it’s where we’re at. Collectively, as a species, we’re majority city dwellers. Over half of us humans are urbanites. Cities may also be where it’s at for saving the environment. Cities allow people to reduce their footprint more than rural or suburban living do for most people living in industrialized nations.

David Owen, author of Green Metropolis (great cover design by the way), decries the notion that cities represent the antithesis of environmental living – and the impulse to move toward nature in order save it. This isn’t news to any New Urbanists out there, but it’s still a deeply ingrained cultural notion for most of us: that cities represent the anti-thesis of a lived in respect for and in honor of nature. The book’s a fun read (I’ll admit I’m only part way through it), but two ideas in particular struck me.

Making green space can ruin your city

The first notable idea Owen lays out is that the environmental strategies that many urban enviros push will be a net-loss for the greening of cities. Specifically, he cites urban agriculture and tree-planting as a problem. In a nutshell: these strategies become infused with a general push for more green space, which in turn reduces density, increases walking distances and contributes to the sprawling infrastructure that makes auto-free living and multi-unit dwellings disappear.

As Detroit rises as a leader of the urban ag. movement for the nation, this warning bears a prominent place. Obviously, for Detroit, it’s a matter of making use of otherwise “blighted” spaces. But we must carry this reminder forward as we consider how to integrate green space in Detroit. It affirms that what we should be shooting for is not complete integration of green space into all portions of the city as much as focusing on creating dense urban clusters surrounded by green space. However, the organic development of space use makes this goal almost impossible to achieve well without very aggressive zoning.

While the right-sizing conversation floats forward in Detroit, this level of aggressive zoning is not currently on the table. While I agree that we have to have a graduated approach to this effort, and I’m dubious about top-down planning that thinks it can predict where everything should happen, unless we set the patterns and filters for creating the infrastructure to create actual density and keep it from sprawling into our green space, then our potential glory will pass us by.

Also, we must be aware of this difference of context when offering up Detroit’s solutions to other cities. Our context of extensive existing green space is different from most other urban centers.

Just to be fair, Owen is not anti-tree. He notes:

Planting tree along city streets, always a popular initiative, has high environmental utility, but not for the reasons that people assume: trees are ecologically important in dense urban areas not because they provide temporary repositories for atmospheric carbon–the usual argument for planting more of them–but because their presence along sidewalks makes city dwellers more cheerful about dwelling in cities.

However, the production and transport of food is one of our largest contributors to green house gases and other environmental degradation. Urban agriculture lends itself particularly well to providing organic, local, vegetable-based diets. As such, if properly integrated with urban density, it can still be a key solution for how cities and other communities address environmental issues.

Reducing crime to cut Green House Gases

Owen’s second striking notion is the need to focus on reducing crime and improving schools is a top environmental priority. These are key factors in determining whether people live in cities or not, and since dense cities offer lifestyles with smaller carbon footprints then getting people to live in them becomes an environmental priority.

His point is solid. City life is good both reducing green house gases, and for preserving true rural and wilderness green spaces (and all their accompanying benefits, social, environmental, and otherwise). So getting people into cities is a good environmental goal.

But Owen, like so many other analysts, fails to take into account the effects of a life separated from nature. He brings up the concept of “nature deficit disorder”, but also suggests that nature-based recreation is more damaging to the environment than playing video games. Still, people tend not to value the natural world if they do not interact with it. And studies have shown the multiple benefits of nature-based play spaces for kids and adults. This needn’t run counter to Owen’s pro-city stance. Rather, it reinforces the need for development that make it easier to access natural areas from dense urban zones. Again, Detroit’s right-sizing model could create a template for urban development which doesn’t yet exist in this country.

And clearly more progressive activists who get all excited about solar panels and urban gardens need to tackle these key urban-improvement issues of improving schools and reducing crime. Fortunately, those ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Chicago studied the effects of their decades old tree-planting efforts and found that crime rates were lower in neighborhoods with trees. And the literature on biophilia suggests that integrating gardens and other nature experiences can be one important lever in improving educational settings, brain development, etc.

Owen’s point, while valid, nonetheless misses the motivational import of creating a sense of progress and not simply creating remedial improvements. Crime and education are foundational points. When we neglect them, we undermine all “visionary” efforts. But a foundation is insufficient to build a temple. For the environmental movement to stay strong, thrive and continue to guide us toward wiser choices, it must address our basic foundations, but it must also address our highest aspirations in art, innovation, spiritual growth, political frontiers and more.

In fact, I would argue that this is part of why the sustainability movement offers so much success: the solutions that can both address a progressive and visionary edge while also addressing core, foundational needs will be the most successful. Those solutions will survive memetic evolution. Owen’s text is a useful reminder of these often unaddressed foundational issues. Let’s keep filtering for the solutions that are visionary and foundational in order to build greater success for our communities.

by Jacob Corvidae

image from themotorlesscity.com

The nation’s been watching the “right-sizing” discussions around Detroit, and appropriately so. This is one of the areas where Detroit is living up to it’s potential as a laboratory for the 21st century. Which experiments work and which fail may help shape national dialogue. One big threat of failure is still looming in this area, but I have a solution to propose. First some more background.

Here in the city, the debates have been very contentious. There is a palpable fear on the ground. Concerns about eminent domain are widespread, with memories of Poletown still fresh. Some of these fears seem founded, while others fly wildly off into irrationality. These latter fears fuel a lot of speculation and spread like wildfire, and they are sometimes as understandable for a population that has felt out of control for so long as they are regrettable.

The Danger

One big concern has been that the Mayor’s office will simply take a map of Detroit, get a big red marker and start circling some areas for investment, while crossing off others for abandonment. It’s a realistic concern for a common political approach. Fortunately, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework seems to be catching on as a solid alternative proposal for how to approach this issue. This community based approach is crucial for two reasons:

1) even if it results in the same end decisions it will come with community buy-in and support. This is not mere glossy marketing. It’s important for people to have had a chance to think through the options themselves and get a say in the results. Even if the results end up the same. And they might! But they also might not, which is part of the importance of this step.

2) The community knows more about the city than the city government can. This is a big city. There’s lots going on it, and the Mayor’s office runs the risk of obliterating great developments, projects, community resources, etc. if it doesn’t use a system that allows the residents to weigh in on this decision. Those very same development, projects, community resources, etc. are a key piece of knowledge in prioritizing what happens where in the ongoing strategizing for the city’s future.

It looks like the plan from CDAD is gaining ground and being considered. If it is followed, it will help address many of the worst risks of the “right-sizing” strategy. Still, the fear that grabs hold of people’s heart and digs their heels in is the idea of losing their homes or being relocated. This fear strikes deep into issues of personal control and even to the heart of the myth of the American Dream.

It always struck me as highly unlikely that any one in the right mind would possibly propose moving anyone. Stopping services like garbage pickup and frequent police patrolling to certain areas of the city, yes. Perhaps stopping streetlighting or even paved road maintenance. These are urban amenities, and it seems perfectly reasonable to me to cut financial losses and not provide those assets for people who wish to stay in areas of the city that are increasingly rural when no city could realistically support those services for such spread out areas.

The Water Problem

Then a story by Noah Ovshinsky on WDET opened up another can of worms: water. The Detroit water infrastructure is aging. It’s in need of repair and upgrading, which is an expensive undertaking. Other cities are facing this same problem – this is not unique to Detroit.  But with a shrunken population and a need to invest in building vibrant, functional urban pockets within the city, it doesn’t make sense to maintain, much less upgrade, the water infrastructure for the remaining open spaces. And thus, this becomes a large reason why people think that eminent domain might be invoked to move people from these spots.

Such a move would be a nightmare. It shouldn’t happen. And it doesn’t have to.

The cost of moving someone to a new home is high. The cost of fighting a legal battle over it is also high. And that’s just the finances. The cost the culture of the community, the political process and the creative energies of the community are also very high (if harder to measure).

But Detroit can still lower it’s investments in those neighborhoods while not forcing anyone to leave. It can pay for those homes to become water self-sufficient. I call this approach Rightsizing with Rainwater.

Rightsizing with Rainwater

I recently gathered some information, available at the Go Green blog at WARM Training Center, on the cost of adding full water catchment systems to homes in similar climates. We’re a water rich region, so this isn’t as challenging as it would be in other parts of the country (another reason why Michigan’s going to be a great place to live in the 21st century). The cost of adding a full water catchment system is only about $12,000. While we might see higher costs for overflow raingardens, roof adjustments, etc., we could also see lower costs for building many of these systems at once. Let’s give ourselves some reasonable  (and possibly generous) wiggle-room and assume  $20K as a general cost placeholder.

Sewage is a bigger problem, but also surmountable. Creating the option for composting would dovetail very nicely with the move toward more agriculture in Detroit’s open spaces. Out of the box home composters cost between $1200 – $6000 for a family of 4 (Check out this great overview from the EPA). For our estimate, we should assume something on the higher end, to make certain that needs are adequately met. We don’t want to have a system that only meets 95% of the need! Therefore, let’s assume a $6,000 system.

(Another option would be building septic fields. It’s what they do in the country, and that’s some of the model we’re looking at for these areas, if the concentration of homes is low enough. Septic fields cost about $1,000 – $2,500, making this a cheaper option than the composting toilets, but it probably wouldn’t work in most settings. Homes would need about an acre to accommodate the field, and even in “rural Detroit” this is more land than most property owners are likely to own. )

So combine water catchment with composting toilets for a total cost of approximately $26,000.

All of this would cheaper than the cost of making someone move from their home when they didn’t want to. And it models better use of remaining spaces. I can easily imagine some people feeling that it’s not fair for the city to buy these expensive self-sufficiency systems for people who are being “uncooperative”, but it really is a win-win. Remember, that this would be coming at the same time as offers for assistance to move people into more functional parts of the city with the benefits of real urban density, while also severing many existing city services to the “disinvestment” areas. Most people would probably choose to relocate. But there’s no reason to force relocation at a higher financial, personal, community and political cost if it’s not necessary.

Of course, some legal barriers would have to be removed, with special codes being developed for dealing with water catchment and on-site water treatment. This is no small task. But the future will demand that we need to do these things anyway. This could become another example  where Detroit’s hardships could help pioneer a new trail for the rest of the nation. It is but one way that Detroit could become a model green city for the world.

by Tony Sirna

Jacob and WARM Training Earn a FreePress Green AwardOur own Jacob Corvidae  is being honored with two different awards for Earth Day this year the Detroit FreePress Awards and the Michigan Earthday Expo awards.

The Freep says:

Its leadership is important because of its close affinity with small, fragile communities across Detroit. Where government has been tedious and bureaucratic, where private companies have been inconsistent and distant, WARM has been accessible and relevant.

And don’t miss the slideshow in the FreePress article.

Rock on Jacob!

by Jacob Corvidae

Why can’t I rent a small apartment in Detroit? I mean a really small apartment. I know that space is cheap these days with the collapse of the housing market, but spaces are still too big and low-cost isn’t always low enough. While they’re not the right choice for everyone, tiny apartments could improve the community by bringing greater density and simultaneously give more people access to that increasingly thriving part of town. What do I mean by tiny? I mean tiny: say 150-250 square feet. Like I said: not for everyone.

Does this sound completely crazy? Check out these great stories and photos of 84 square foot to 400 square foot dwellings for a look at how it can work.

And note that while the 84 square foot home is in Olympia (mild weather), it’s a stand-alone home (therefore without the great heating benefits of an apartment building) and still only has $6 / month heating bills. Starting to sound a little better.

I know it sounds anethema to the elbow-room spirit of the Midwest, but frankly that’s not working so well for us anyway in the ever-expanding rustbelt. Besides, small spaces just pack in the beauty and intensity of life into a more concentrated form. Remember that trick from childhood where you spread food out on the plate so it looks like there’s less of it on your plate? That’s the same thing that happens with our population. We’re spread out and it feels like we’ve got less life on the plate than we actually do. Bring those folks closer in together and magic starts to happen. In San Fran, people are buying 250 square foot condos for almost $300,000. This isn’t news to any urban planner or most eco-geeks – dense living builds upon itself. But it doesn’t just create livelier neighborhoods: it’s also more affordable.

Affordable Housing still isn’t all that affordable for many people. Even in Detroit, where the affordable housing industry has been strong for decades and does great work, it’s still primarily serving the needs of people above the poverty line. And in Detroit, there’s a great many people below that line. So it can serve a low-income population that’s not well served while also serving singles, hipsters, young folks, etc. who seem to be one of the few populations growing in Detroit.

Imagine a very reasonable $1.33 per square foot rental cost. A 150 square foot apartment would only cost $200 per month. That’s half the cost (or less depending on who you ask) of the cheapest rent you can find anywhere near downtown now for even a studio. Of course with that small of a space, you really need to customize the space to fit your needs precisely. But with only 150 square feet to work with, that’s a very manageable task.

The truth is that I’d move in next week if I could get that — and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Many of us talk about the idea of Detroit as a laboratory for the 21st century. With all the empty building space downtown, I think this experiment is worth the try.