Manifesting Your Sustainable Habitat

The future of your neighborhood could begin
next Tuesday at 7 pm in your living room

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 51
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

OUR POWER to bring our dreams into physical reality can be demonstrated through the process of futuring. First, we imagine in vivid detail the person we want to become or the world we want to live in (virtually inseparable, for one flows from the other). Next, we look backward from that point in the future to see how we got there. Once both the goal and the path to it are clear, we must immediately take the first step on that path. Whether we cautiously move one foot an inch forward or plunge in with all we have is not important. But we must set forth.

For good or ill, our everyday thoughts and actions are already shaping the city of the future. Our choice is between designing it consciously or stumbling into it half asleep. For the sheer fun of it, we might try to see the whole interacting complex of our chosen city. But to clarify our role in it, we should then narrow our focus and imagine the neighborhood we want to live in, one in harmony with our dream of the city of the future.

WE ARE NOT THE FIRST

Some have already begun. Phyllis and Robert Randle dreamed of restoring a suite of houses in a deteriorated neighborhood along the Arkansas River in the inner city of Wichita, Kansas. Back in 1965, when they were in their forties, they took the plunge rather than the cautious step, selling their home and using their equity to finance four brick duplexes and a single-family house, all on one block. All five buildings were in deplorable condition, the kind of property that slum lords exploit.

Today the Randles have created a pleasant neighborhood consisting of 16 buildings, refurbished and remodeled into 31 rental units that stay filled and have a waiting list. The grounds cover about five acres, including an unplotted area of about two acres in the center of this extra wide city block. Once an unsightly dump, the central area is now a lovely park, a spirit- refreshing retreat for the community scented by herbs and flowers and shaded by trees, some of which bear fruit that tenants are welcome to pick. Birds of many species are drawn to the hackberry and other wildlife-feeding trees and shrubs. An outdoor swimming pool, a racquetball court, and a canoe are available for tenants’ use. They may also entertain guests in a spa and plant room made cozy with fireplace and easy chair. At one side of the park are garden plots for those who wish to grow their own vegetables.

Each apartment is different, because all were existing buildings. Rather than bulldozing the old and replacing it with identical cracker boxes, the Randles used what was there and brought out the best in each building, living in most of them during the process. They gave continuity to the community by building cedar privacy fences around the back yards and by adding redwood balconies to many of the upstairs apartments.

The 30 apartments and a single family home rent for from $300 to $550 a month. Tenants are usually young professionals not yet ready to buy their own homes. Some are self-employed, operating small businesses out of their apartments. The average length of stay is about two and a half years. When people leave, it’s almost always either to buy a home of their own or to move to another city.

Phyllis and Robert had a dream twenty years ago that led to a current reality they are pleased with, though it is not identical to the original idea. Any healthy dream will grow and change as the future unfolds. In their case, the dream was shaped by necessity. Each time a deteriorated house in the neighborhood went on the market, they either had to buy it to preserve the character of the community, or let it go to a slumlord. Since the cost of hired labor was prohibitive, the Randles did the remodeling themselves. They have worked side by side over the years and still maintain the grounds and buildings themselves, relying on professionals only when necessary.

They have made a good space for themselves and others, surrounding themselves with the kind of people they like to be with. Unlike many city dwellers, they have a personal relationship with their neighbors and a common meeting ground in the central park area that encourages interactions among the whole group.

DREAMING OUR OWN FUTURE

Anyone can begin now to take conscious control of the future we are even at this moment manifesting. With a little ingenuity and resourcefulness, the possibilities are not even limited by one’s current assets. Remember the futuring process: 1) create the dream and make it real enough to touch, taste, smell, 2) invent a history of how you got there from here, and 3) take the first step toward your part of the whole.

With the Randles’ achievement as our inspiration, suppose we run through a practice bit of futuring. Let’s say we want an ecological city where citizens live in harmony, not only with each other, but also with the rest of the whole. No part of it can act as a drain on any other part, from the community level to the global. The system must be sustainable, each component contributing to the well-being of all.

We are not billionaires; we cannot build the whole city ourselves. So we begin by envisioning a small component of that city: a neighborhood. In our dream neighborhood, let’s say that we choose a model of individual ownership primarily, though it may contain some rental units. That way, no one will be burdened with the entire debt, and everyone will be encouraged to put down roots. And say that we decide to enjoy the efficiency of putting together part of our resources for an area of shared space and shared facilities that we could not afford individually.

Target date is the year 2001; why not? In that year, we see with our futuring vision a four-block area of mixed architectural styles of housing. Older homes have been heavily insulated and tightened. North windows have been provided with insulated shutters operable from the inside. South-facing walls have sun room additions wherever feasible.

Some of the larger homes have been converted into duplexes or four-plexes or apartment houses. Flat-topped buildings are crowned with roof gardens. Window boxes and balconies are colorful with flowers and vegetables in summer. All new buildings are designed to capture and hold solar heat in winter and to moderate temperatures all year with 1) glass on the south, 2) thermal mass exposed to winter sun and shaded from summer sun, and 3) earth berming on from one to three sides.

Homeowners have created a spacious commons somewhat on the model of medieval England. The short street dividing the four blocks on the narrow side has been removed, while the two longer streets have been converted to dead-end turnarounds (see drawing). Houses that were originally on the four inner corners are still there. The largest of these is owned by the community itself and has been converted to a community center serving all residents, owners and renters alike. The great room is now a ball room where square dances, round dances, couples’ dances ranging from waltz to disco are on a regular schedule, to suit everyone’s preferred tempo. Another large room has been made into a little theatre where community members produce both original and published plays. Reciprocating with other communities, they take their plays on the road and host those of other amateur theatre groups. Still another room has been remodeled with acoustical materials to fit it for chamber music provided by community members and a circuit of visiting musicians from other neighborhoods.

The community center also houses a day-care center staffed by residents, various game rooms, a library to facilitate borrowing each others’ books, a workshop equipped with power tools purchased jointly, a laundry room similarly equipped, and a kitchen/dining hall for cooking and serving fellowship dinners and for those who want to dehydrate or can garden produce using community- purchased equipment. The group has constructed a bio-mass treatment plant to convert all sewage and kitchen garbage into methane gas for cooking, with compost and irrigation water as by-products. The gas is piped back to each unit and metered, its price based on actual production cost.

The commons area serves many purposes. In it are a playground with equipment designed and built by members of the group and a large brick patio featuring a sculpture fountain at one corner and a sheltered picnic area at another. Playing fields for all sorts of outdoor activities are tucked into open places, as are wildflower prairies with berry bushes to attract birds, community garden beds, and orchard trees. Flower beds are everywhere, many designed to provide color throughout the year. Trees of various textures, forms and colors please the eye wherever one turns. The dead-end streets, no longer having to accommodate through traffic, can now give their center lane to a row of stately lindens. The ends of the commons are screened by pines. From one pine-screened end of the community to the other, people of all ages are drawn out of their individual houses into the shared space to enjoy its beauty, to meet and talk, play or work together.

Community members share the dream that has created this lifestyle, but otherwise, they are rather diverse. Some hold jobs in the city; some are self- employed out of their homes; some are employed by the joint authority to maintain the grounds, equipment, and buildings. Some of the self- employed largely serve the group, such as the daycare workers, the auto mechanic, a small appliance repair person, and a baker.

GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE

We could go on refining the details; each idea sparks another. But even this rough sketch of our 2001 community is adequate to begin the second essential part of futuring: inventing the history between 1986 and 2001. The project did not begin with perfect people, for only a utopia could have produced such perfection. All participants, however, did become better persons as a direct result of working through all the many conflicts that were inevitable in an effort of this magnitude.

Let’s say the idea was born one evening in 1986 when three couples gathered in one of their homes for a potluck dinner and good conversation. Someone suggested that the group try their skill at futuring, just for fun. Everyone contributed ideas until the dream was fleshed out in wonderful detail. The six of them could feel the sweep of a waltz in the ballroom, sense the excitement as the lights dimmed on opening night in the little theatre, hear the birds singing in the Bradford pears, and smell the lilacs blooming in every yard. Entranced, they agreed to make it happen and began to hammer out the economic and legal framework, trying to reach consensus on the details of a joint housing authority, a rotating governing board to conduct routine business, and town meeting to guide the board. They quickly became deadlocked in disagreement, with the usual emotional fallout. Rather than give it up, they decided to learn the relationship skills required to see it through. Together they attended workshops on conflict resolution. Drawing from these, they put together a practical set of techniques for handling interpersonal problems.

At last they were ready to select a site. After weeks of investigating real estate, they agreed upon a four-plex in an older neighborhood of deteriorating houses. None of them had owned a home previously, so all three moved into the apartments as they were, using their joint savings for a down payment and their rental budgets to make mortgage payments and buy building materials. Together they remodeled the vacant apartment to suit the couple (chosen by lot) who would occupy it. Energy-saving improvements were given top priority in order to make their funds go further. When the first apartment was complete, they turned their attention to the apartment vacated by the couple moving into the complete one. When all three couples were in their remodeled apartments, they remodeled the fourth and sold it to a fourth family after initiating them into their conflict resolution techniques and getting their consent to all the terms of the joint venture.

Another old house in the neighborhood went up for sale. The four families pooled their resources and bought it through their joint housing authority.

They did not purchase the third building to become part of their cooperative. Its owners asked to join them and received the group’s help in making it energy efficient. Over the years as the dream spread, some buildings were purchased and others were acquired by merger. Each person to join the cooperative was initiated into the developing methods of conflict resolution and self- government. As city regulations impeded the achievement of their goals, the group methodically took the required legal steps to remove the impediment. Their case was strong, since they were reclaiming a problem area and asking for fewer and fewer services from the city and county.

Eventually the cooperative disconnected from city sewage in order to recycle all biological wastes for energy, irrigation, and compost. Later they disconnected from city water, having dug a well in each block and installed windmills on them, each with an elevated storage tank to keep the water flowing when winds were still. They organized a food cooperative to buy in bulk. What little trash could not be recycled was compacted and hauled away as it accumulated, allowing them to discontinue city garbage pickup.

Most of the housing units are individually owned. Renters always have the option of becoming owners. Owners may sell to anyone who accepts the terms of the housing authority on ecological lifestyle and cost of services provided. Units may be inherited if the heirs either sell or live in the unit themselves; there are no absentee landlords.

Now, in 2001, the four-block community has reached what members believe to be optimal size. It is no longer expanding into physical space, though the energies of its people continue to expand into creative ventures in the fields of the arts and sciences and human interaction. The spark of their example has ignited similar housing ventures all over their city, in other cities, and even in other parts of the world. Each one, of course, discovers its own best form as it grows.

And it all began with a potluck supper back in 1986. Who would ever have dreamed it possible?


Claire Garden and her husband km Rich live in Goddard, Kansas. Jim designed the imaginary neighborhood after Claire had written the first draft of the article, which she then revised to incorporate Jim’s contributions to the dream.

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