Community-Scale Technologies

Fruitful options open up in between
the scale of the household and that of the city

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 36
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

A contemporary sage recently quipped – "Technology is the answer … but what was the question?" Much of the discussion of sustainable living centers on technologies that improve efficiencies and conserve species. However, technological innovation requires some form of social organization to support its application

The appropriateness of technologies varies with scale. A successful collaborative micro-community, such as a cohousing community, offers an intermediate scale between the single family and the town or municipality, thereby expanding the palette of technologies that can be applied. The following are just a few examples of what becomes possible at the community-scale:

Central heating and cooling – A central heating system for a small group of attached clustered houses is cheaper to install and maintain and will operate more efficiently than a collection of individual heating systems.

An annual-cycle solar thermal heating system requires clustering and large thermal storage. Such a system can only be done economically at this scale as Swedish prototypes have so far demonstrated.

Large, fast burning combustion and gasifying devices are cleaner and more efficient than their smaller wood-burning cousins.

Transportation efficiency – Residents of cohousing communities or of neighborhoods with close social cohesion tend to use their carsless. Less time is required for driving children around in search of playmates. Carpooling, and even car sharing, is a reasonable prospect between households that have close ties. When the community supports opportunities to work at home or offers a telecommuting center, fewer people have to drive to work.

Food production – The close clustering of building in support of shared common facilities creates potential for retaining larger chunks of arable land.

There is a natural marriage awaiting community-supported agriculture and clustered residential communities. Farmers with a secure, long-term tenure over the land can confidently invest the years needed to build up the soil. The organic wastes of the community are easily returned to the land.

The community, as both producer and consumer, is close enough to both provide the casual labor at critical times during the season and to guarantee a market for much of the produce. A community kitchen is a convenient and lively setting for processing the harvest for storage through winter and spring.

Bioshelters – In Europe, some cohousing communities, which began as courtyard arrangements focusing on a common house, have today evolved to become integrated structures. Attached houses face each other across glazed "streets" or galleries, which act as spinal, sun-tempered common spaces providing sheltered access to shared facilities as well as play spaces for children and year-round community living rooms.

It is a small step to imagining, and then adjusting, these spaces at least in part to work as community bioshelters in which food could be produced, plants started in support of seasonal agriculture, and biological waste treatment processes accommodated in a temperate, year-round environment.

These projects may sound ambitious to groups that are struggling just to build functional communities. However, we should think about what might be in 30 or 40 years when we are operating on a completely different energy and resources basis. We should be thinking about how conventional wisdoms might change, and how we can at least retain options for the additionof technologies that we can now reasonably predict as intelligent and sustaining.

We can keep options open by:

  • orienting buildings and sloping roofs appropriately;

  • locating buildings at higher elevations;

  • knowing where future cisterns or ponds will be located and how roof water will be gotten to them;

  • thinking about how access to potentially productive land might be maintained.

Clustered communities with sufficient social cohesion to plan and carry out technical innovations at the community scale are fundamental to achieving such a transformation to a self-reliant, sustainable, productive society.

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