John Goekler hopped aboard the time machine and reported back from his future life in a Sustainable Urban Village…
It all started several years ago when a few of us got together and decided we had to create a new way to live. It was tough at first, because most people couldn’t imagine it or thought it couldn’t be done. “You guys are on drugs,” they said. “The City won’t let you. Americans will never give up their cars. Developers will crush you. Get over it!”
We were kind of discouraged until someone reminded us of what Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We decided that meant we had already advanced to Stage 2. We were progressing!
We figured out a way to involve folks through events like potlucks, dances, picnics and soccer games. People came for the fun and stayed to envision and design the kind of lives they wanted to live and the communities they wanted to live in. We used a self-organizing model so people could choose areas that were important to them and invite others with interest and knowledge to participate.
Teaming with local architects and green builders, we worked through a community outreach and design process. Then we worked with planners to adopt necessary zoning changes. The City did push back at first, but they came on board after we helped realtors and investors recognize the economic potential of redevelopment. Once the City saw the opportunity to increase the tax base, reduce traffic and pollution, save water and avoid the infrastructure costs of sprawl, they adopted the model and it became the centerpiece of the mayor’s economic development program.
Now people can hardly imagine that we ever used to live the old way. As I write this, I’m sitting in the shade of a blossoming peach tree in our cluster’s rooftop orchard, listening to the buzz of bees pollinating and the laughter of children working in the gardens with their parents and friends. Several Blue Energy wind turbines are silently producing electricity. (They’re so beautiful most visitors think they’re art mobiles! In peak production times, we sell the excess power to PNM.)
In fact, the community owns our “commons” of water, power, communications and food production. We collect all our rainwater and recapture all our greywater, processing through “living machines” that provide both pure water and habitat for birds, frogs and small mammals. Our “digester” plant for human, food and garden waste takes 14 days to turn input into perfectly pure compost. We use it in our gardens and landscaping, and sell the balance to a local garden center. The whole thing is powered by the methane it produces.
Our communications collective offers voice, cable and data services for a reasonable fee. We own the fiber optic “pipe” and charge content providers like Comcast to move their product over our network. This data/communications system is managed by a local board and maintained and operated by a crew of “tech monsters” from our local school. They get educational credit and some cash, and we get top quality service.
Folks are healthy here. The low stress lifestyle probably has a lot to do with it, since we don’t spend our time being stuck in traffic or scuffling over silly things. Now if we wait in line, it’s a social occasion. With the time we once spent commuting and scuffling, we walk, jog and bike along the trails, hit the gym, do yoga and Pilates, play music, create art and just play. Local organic food from our “edible landscapes” and close relationships are healthy, too. We have primary and urgent care facilities in storefront locations when we need them, and lots of holistic wellness practitioners. And we have excellent elder care services and housing, so our seniors can age in place.
A lot of people have created wonderful “neighborly livelihoods” – a day working in the library; a day or two in one of the shops; some child or elder care; a bit of gardening or landscaping; maybe some writing or web design. Because our facilities are co-located, it’s easy to work in a variety of places if people choose to.
Annika and I live in 600 square feet. It sounds small to some people, but we designed the interior with a boatbuilder pal, and he utilized every square inch, so everything fits and works perfectly. It’s oriented to gain solar heat and light in the winter, and to be shaded and cool in the summer. It’s so efficient that we use almost no energy for heat or cooling. When we need more space, we utilize the community facilities – laundry, yoga studio, guest quarters, music room, art loft . . . We also spend a lot of time outside in the community green spaces. We don’t own a car, since we can walk, bike or take transit almost everywhere we want to go. If we need a vehicle, we rent a “Flex Car.” It saves a ton of money and we never worry about parking.
We’re very involved in community process, but in a loose way, because the neighborhood is largely self-governing. We have a very effective communications network that lets us know about issues and opportunities. When information goes out over it, the people who are most interested band together to respond. Groups coalesce to deal with emerging issues, then disband when the work is done. In all group processes, we adhere to the principles of Non-Violent Communication to make sure everyone is respectfully heard.
Our young people are healthy, happy and delightful to be around. Because they’re known and valued members of the community, the alienation and suspicion we used to see between kids and adults just doesn’t exist. Crime is unknown in the village. People know each other and look out for each other.
We had to laugh the other day when some policy wonk argued that we needed to distribute our critical infrastructure to protect it from terrorist attacks. We distributed ours because it’s more efficient, good for the environment, creates jobs and saves us a lot of money! That’s what we call security.
John Goekler is a “systems meddler” in Santa Fe. He believes we have to tell stories of the future we desire in order call it into being.