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Cold Climate Design: Challenges or Opportunities?

February 26, 2012

The snowy landscape of Vermont's Green Mountains; inspiration for this post.

Last night, moist air condensed somewhere in the atmosphere above my roof and gloriously deposited a thick layer of trillions of tiny ice crystals onto the Green Mountains.  It’s a wonderful thing.  I witnessed the hardy mountain folk as they donned their wool and down, and flocked to the hills. With shaggy dogs and skis in tow, one can follow their caravan of Subaru’s up the snowy roads and to the trailhead.

I myself participated in this wintery affair, and felt kinship towards other who have an affinity for the winter season. There is something about being in a silent forest, blanketed in snow, that conjures unique emotions and thoughts: both the grounded and the romantic, the peaceful and the adventurous.

It was in this mindset that I got to thinking about these people of the mountains, and why it is that they remain, despite the challenging climatic conditions. From a permaculturist’s perspective, regions with minimal seasonal variations and lengthy growing seasons don’t impose the design challenges that other regions do. But then, are these characteristics of cold climates actually “challenges,” or just poorly understood opportunities?

Yes, cold climates lack a long growing season, and winter conditions without protection are severely inhospitable to humans and tender plants. But, regions of high latitude also enjoy several key benefits, including extended sun exposure in the summer, amongst others. Understanding the challenges as opportunities unlocks a creative process that sees systems as whole, where outputs of one component can meet the needs of another component.

One very important aspect of cold climate comfort is warmth. To accomplish it, you must design for maximum energy capture and containment. Douglas Barnes describes his home design in southern Ontario, and like so many others who see the potential in this climate, use what resources are offered in an appropriate way so as to passively gain heat.

For productive cold climate landscape design, the key seems to be this: microclimates. Microclimates take advantage of nuances in the landscape, thus form their own little climate. In this area of Vermont, landscape designers alter locations of  wind breaks, building aspects, colors, materials, plant locations, and vertical masses to harness solar energy into a specific area, say, the southern wall of a home. This little microclimate can be the difference between a successful growing season and a failed experiment. Either way, its a good lesson.

Unfortunately, you may not have luck growing kiwis and plantains on your snowy landscape. But, that does not mean that the food yields of the native plants of these northern regions aren’t plentiful. There are many resources to discover native plants that provide you with something useful; food, medicine, nitrogen, habitat, material, windbreak, screening, wood, etc. EarthFlow Design Works came out with the Useful Species List for Cold Climates, which can be a good start from which you can design a hardy garden to match your hardy lifestyle.

I’ve come to understand this: living in a cold area is not inherently unsustainable. However, the way in which many have come to live in cold areas is unsustainable, as they are products of incomplete design. Living in a cold climate, or any climate really, just requires better, whole design.

Bill Mollison made a nifty little video on cold weather permaculture, and tours several different sites and case studies. Worth the watch, not to mention the fantastic Australian accent.


Urban Regeneration

February 25, 2012

Before I took my class, entitled ‘Urban Regeneration,’ I naively thought of only superficial ‘going-green’ type solutions (i.e. sexy green-roofs and solar panels slapped onto a poorly designed and constructed building.) But I’m happy to report, I was wrong.

Starting from my early childhood education, and through to the completion of my Environmental GeoChemistry degree, I had always been taught that nature is sacred, and humans impose a threat to that sanctity. But permaculture designers will challenge that belief.  Humans are very much a part of all of the ecologies that we have either created or impacted. Nature is of course sacred, but humans are a still a part of nature.  So, why do we separate humans and ecology?

Humans are capable of incredible things. Whenever I’m in a city, I still waddle around like a toddler, my mouth opened, I stare straight up at the buildings. If we can create enormous metal boxes that have huge engines on them that combust hydrocarbons that were extracted from thousands of feet in the earth, which can send humans into the atmosphere, and plop them down on the other side of the planet, in another big city, we can certainly learn to productively interact with the ecology around us.  And so, I’m hopeful! Humans are amazing, a wonderful untapped resource.

Enter urban regeneration: where designers begin to develop solutions that utilize human resources.

Urban centers have what so many communities lack: a seemingly endless supply of people. Where rural, and even suburban homesteaders may lack the man-power to complete projects, urban communities can join their efforts into a collective site, and share the profit.

In Holyoke, MA, an organization called Nuestra Raices began by starting a community garden in an abandoned lot in 1992. With time and the collaboration of the large immigrant population in the neighborhood, it grew to be a large urban agricultural center, that now promotes environmental justice and community development. The New Urban Farmers out in Rhode Island are doing similar things, with wonderful community gardens, urban aquaponics systems, and neighborhood greenhouses. And did I mention Seattle’s new food forest?

People, inherently, are not the problem. The problem seems to be that we’ve created unintentional ecologies around us, or broken and unhealthy environments.  But recently, we see that people are contributing to intentional ecologies, or intelligent designs that generate biologically productive systems. Systems that yield food, habitat, materials, beauty, oxygen, soil, and inspiration.

Cities don’t have to be the grey, infertile landscapes that we so often associate with them.  Many designers and activist groups are developing inspiring means to regenerate the ecology around them, and create spaces of natural beauty, with a little creativity and the help from many, many neighbors.

Want to know more? There’s some wonderful material out there, one being the blog Permaculture for Renters: “Regenerative design for the landless many.” Easy and fun permaculture buffoonery for all!

There’s also a great book out by Scott Kellogg, Toolbox For Sustainable City Living, which I’d recommend to those DIY-ers looking for real how-to’s.

Yes Mom, it’s a REAL thing: Ecological Design Degrees

February 25, 2012

At this point in my life, I’m starting to consider higher eduction. It’ll be a little while until I muster up the strength to commit, but I believe that it will happen.

As more and more people understand that regenerative landscapes are not only possible, but overflowing with incentives and benefits, Ecological Design programs are in higher demand. In the short time I’ve been looking, I’ve even witnessed some new ones pop up.

So, here’s a short list of findings, hopefully it’ll lead you to something grand:

  • Yestermorrow Design/Build School – (VT) Where I’m currently enrolled, and I don’t have enough good things to say. It is not, however, accredited. And they only offer certificates.
  • University of Vermont – (VT) Program is partly overseen by John Todd, and part of UVM. They offer a ‘Certificate of Graduate Study.’
  • Ecosa Institute – (AZ) Offering both a Certificate and Masters in Regenerative Ecological Design.

Also, TreeHugger posted a great list of eco-design programs, most of which are over-seas.

The Origin: Rootstocks and Charrettes

February 25, 2012

In between classes, I have time and energy to devote to sharing what it is that I am learning. I feel that my interactions with this material (in regenerative design, permaculture principles, living landscapes, etc) will be whole once I spend the time to release it back into the universe.

And thus, I find myself here, hunkering down by the wood stove on this cold February day, while the snow is still falling. The Green Mountains surrounding this little valley provide a shelter of sorts, where my cell phone is useless and big cities are far away. In this little valley, my friends, I hope to cultivate as much material as I can. And in the true nature of grass-roots activism and community design processes, let it have free reign in the wild terrain of the internet, available to those who look for it.

It would also be naive of me to assume that small groups or individuals can be the leaders in this world-wide design challenge.  To develop appropriate living landscapes, ones that restore ecological and human health, communities must unite and collaborate, with the principle that solutions come from place. For a landscape, the best designers are those who live there, who know the patterns, the anomalies. And so, I believe the most efficient way to quickly improve the quality of our landscapes is to scatter the little bits of knowledge that I can find, and leave the rest to the perennial people.

Finally, I suppose I should give mention to the name decision. I hope this explanation is sufficient:

Rootstock: a plant, and sometimes just the stump, which already has an established, healthy root system, used for grafting a cutting or budding from another plant.

Charrette: any collaborative session in which a group of designers draft a solution to a design problem.