Urban Village Is Definitely Good Example of Permaculture!

Someone shared a really cool article today in the Transformative Adventures group, about an urban village being designed by members of a church to provide a close-knit neighborhood of homes for its congregants.

I’ll share a few quotes, but do go check out the full article, which includes really pretty illustrations. (“Church Members Propose Urban Village for Congregation“; reposted on Strong Towns website; originally appeared in Public Square: A CNU Journal.)

“They have a vision to build an urban village on eight vacant blocks near … a historic commercial district in Detroit. … ‘The intent is to offer homes for the members of its congregation who currently drive from far-flung suburbs into Detroit to worship, thus transforming the existing commuter community of worshipers into a community every day of the week, not just on Sundays’ …

“The 16.5-acre site would be divided into about 200 lots of varying sizes to provide a mix of housing types — from single-family cottages to apartments and duplexes — enabling parishioners of varying ages and incomes to live in community. The urban plan retains the current blocks intact, with the exception of a central square carved out of two of the middle blocks. …

“The square is important for social gathering and provides a focal point for the neighborhood. ‘Centering on the north south street, a market square allows for year-round activities, such as concerts in summer and skating in the winter … A small commercial strip would allow for retail and local coffee shops and have offices above for small businesses. Centered on the square, a chapel would be built for the daily devotions of the parish, but also be a community landmark and a gathering space.’ On a portion of one block, an urban farm is planned.”

Wow! That sounds like it’d be a lovely and eco-friendly place to live, don’t you think? Pretty much my ideal. (In fact, the urban seaside neighborhood where I actually live has retained its prewar bones and has a lot of that village feel, which is what drew me here.)

What surprised me was the negative reactions of a lot of the people commenting on the thread. A lot of it was anti-Christian sentiment (we admins deleted some of the comments, as it was full-on hate speech).

Besides the hate comments, there was a lot of “But this isn’t permaculture” type sentiment in the comments. Designs that are urban and emphasize the community element often seem to provoke this kind of reaction among the “homesteader” faction of people who identify as permaculture folk.

One big problem we permies in the USA seem to be afflicted by is a singleminded obsession with rural-type land-use mentality. This mode of land use chews up a lot of resources, creates scarcity, and leaves people isolated. The ancient village type of pattern like the design highlighted in the CNU article has a lot more potential to be truly sustainable than the pioneer-throwback “spread-out homestead” model where every household has to do all the tasks on its own instead of coming together in community and dividing the labor according to people’s different strengths & inclinations.

This dense village could provide mutual economic/social support to many surrounding farmers, for example! It’s been working in European towns & cities for millennia.

One commenter opined that the proposed village would be dangerous by fostering tribalism, group-think, and a sequestered existence. But as I see it, the USA “permie stereotype” of isolated homesteads poses far more of a danger in terms of being a “sequestered existence” than a little urban village like this might.

One of my first permaculture teachers, Larry Santoyo, once told our class something along the lines of “Some of my favorite permaculture designs are ones where there’s not a garden in sight!” He was not dismissing food or gardens, but rather, pointing out that sometimes the best design for a given situation isn’t growing food onsite or having lots of “green space” for each household; and that there are MANY MANY facets of permaculture design that often get short shrift because people get so focused in on the gardening/food-growing aspect.

The basic categories of human needs we talk about in permaculture are Food, Water, Shelter, Transportation, Energy, and Community. The village described in this article either addresses these needs automatically by its dense design (transportation and community, for example), or could easily be equipped to address these needs (for example, including a network of cisterns to capture and use rainwater off the roofs).

This village even addresses the food component, by setting aside space for an urban farm!

What’s not to like? I say.

An important footnote to this discussion is religious trauma. A lot of people in this world have suffered trauma and abuse at the hands of organized religion. I’m pretty sure a lot of the vicious anti-Christianity comments in the post were prompted by people’s unhandled trauma.

In my book DEEP GREEN, I point out that one major, often-overlooked impediment to building community is people’s unhandled trauma (be it from family of origin, churches and other institutions, or what have you). Inner healing is really important, and there are many ways to go about it. And so many resources out there for the all-important inner work. If you want some suggestions, drop me a line.

Regarding the legitimate concerns people expressed about a design like this becoming a hub for religious cults:

Any community design has to take into account past failures and potential dangers, and improve upon the design accordingly. For example, a “planned village” like this should best be a bit porous and have lots of ties and interactions with the surrounding community (via supporting nearby businesses, maybe sharing their facilities w the general public, etc), be proactively designed so as not to be too insular.

For me, the thing that inspires me most about this design is the great potential for people to care for each other, look out for each other. I’ve often heard it said that social isolation is the main public-health problem in the USA.

It’s also ideal for supporting local businesses in the wider community, as well as people starting various cottage industries within the community.

The transportation and home-energy aspects are great too, as is the water aspect since the houses are on tiny lots rather than each having a big yard. Rainwater collection off roofs isn’t mentioned but could easily be incorporated.

The density of this village plan (regardless of whether it’s a church community or not) makes it well-suited to human-powered transport, and maybe some other things like a few shared solar-powered golf carts. And, being located within a city, this village seems like it’d be well-situated to make use of the city’s existing public transport as well.

Regardless of what your preferred living environment is, I hope you all are finding or creating a good, vibrant, nurturing community.