Monday, January 11, 2010

Going Green In The Motor City

I am an environmental essayist.

I write about anything and everything pertaining to the positive growth of America’s 21st century sustainable economy. This means that I write about alternative energy, alternative transportation and alternative healthcare just as much as I write about organic architecture and organic gardening and farming. As I write about this stuff, I write about proactive community development, public education reform and a host of issues that I see as being crucial to our nation’s end green goal, which is in my mind, simply being able to go out every day and work at precisely what it is one wants to work at without any ancient 20th century industrial anxieties hanging around inside of our organic 21st century hearts and minds.

I came to be an essayist after almost forty years of being an architectural designer and builder. In all of the time I was building, I was building homes that were very, very, healthy to live in. The reason why I became a designer and a builder and why I focused on the construction of very healthy homes is that as a child, I was very unhealthy. I was unfortunate enough to have been born with a very rare congenital birth defect that made breathing to say the very least a chore. As it would take the American medical profession some forty odd years to figure out what was wrong with my body and correct it on a surgeon’s table, within that same time span I figured that if a doctor could not help me, I as a designer and builder could definitely create homes that would breath far better than my own body and in doing so help myself and others do the same.

Anyway, there are so many things taking place in our nation today that are so remarkably exciting that I choose to write about them. As virtually all of these things are related to our physical environment, they are as well entirely related to our social and interpersonal dialogue within that physical environment. The more effectively we can communicate with one another, the greater the chance that the physical environments we build will reflect the whole intelligence of that environment we build through communication. If two people can through quality communication, build one healthy house together, then ten people can build five, one hundred can build fifty and one thousand can build five hundred thus, the greater and more diverse the dialogue, the greater and more diverse the outcome.

There is a project being designed right now here in 2010 in our good old U S of A. It is an urban farm. That’s right, after this project is completed, you’ll never again have to take a drive out into the country to see a farm, you’ll be able to live on one right in your own city. A group of people in Detroit, Michigan have purchased a number of acres of blighted urban decay and are intending to turn that acreage back into the farm acreage it was before our nation started building huge cities.

Not only are these folks re-naturalizing the land, they are with the application of dozens of advanced environmental technologies preparing to construct state of the art food processing facilities and a number of other structures that when completed will become a fully operational and profitable 21st century organic urban agricultural center right in the middle of a major American city.

This is cool stuff.

This is the stuff that goes right to the core of urban decay socially, economically and to this author’s delight - architecturally. In one fell swoop, this project essential states that decades of entirely wasted time spent on urban sprawl will now be challenged and within that challenge a new community architectural model will emerge and from within that architectural model a new model of sociological interaction will emerge. Like I said, this is cool stuff. The structures on the farm will be powered by wind turbines, heated by the geothermal forces of the land beneath them and heated and powered further by the use of both passive and active solar systems and technologies that convert organic plant waste into methane gas.

If you have only really read about these alternative energy technologies, there is a good chance that you will look upon this stuff as “nice”, but if you have lived and worked with them and in fact if you have lived in a house that is entirely powered by alternative energy technologies, you will know that these environments are remarkably pure, peaceful and magically energetic. With virtually no negative environmental emissions, ambient natural light, purposeful air movement only to where that air needs to go and a sense of quiet whole health throughout, one’s ability to either rest or excel is equally enhanced.

With this farm in place in the middle of Detroit, what will be grown there will of course be a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs. But the larger growth will come from the various sub industries that will form as a result of the farms’ presence. By sub industries I mean the industries that manufacture the obvious technologies and building materials and produce the construction jobs that will be required to build the project, and, by sub industries I mean those related to the growth, harvesting, distribution and sale of the food grown on the farm, but the real sub industries, the ones with the most growth potential will be the ones that model themselves after the whole farm concept itself as that concept spreads throughout the city of Detroit.

If you refer back to what I was saying earlier about the more people who get involved with building a house, the more diverse the house and community becomes. This is what will happen in Detroit as a result of a small handful of people coming together to reclaim dozens of acres of blighted urban real estate while in the process stating that it is time to begin at the beginning again, scrap what was there before that never worked in either theory or practice and replace the underlying dysfunctional social model that falsely benchmarked that theory with advanced models of organic industrial community interaction models that do work.
As the real sub industries in any community in America will be the ones that attach greenhouses to every house in a neighborhood, that attach solar collectors to rooftops and walls, that reconnect long ago disconnected creek beds to the farm fields they once nurtured. Once revitalized in this manner, communities or neighborhoods will spawn gardens along those creek beds just as much as they spawn schools of regional horticulture and neighborhood grocers and florists.

While all of this may sound as if it is coming from a storybook fantasy, it isn’t, it’s as real as the nose on our collective national face. The problem is, we collectively still don’t think it is real and as we don’t that nose continues to grow longer as we remain living a collective national lie. We still as a nation are more or less convinced that burying our noses in books is far more productive than building a community that makes the characters in those books come alive.

The people at Hantz Farms Detroit on the other hand see the storybook for what it really is, an instruction book filled with page after page of absolutely sound community reinvestment strategy. As significant and successful as this project will be, the only thing that will be sad about the outcome of this visionary project is that it is taking place only in one city in America. Even though the rest of America knows that it is taking place, our whole nation will wait to see if the project will succeed before embarking upon similar endeavors anywhere else.

The reason I am writing about this particular project is that it has an industrial all inclusiveness to it that states in no uncertain terms the need we have to bring hundreds of ideas together simultaneously in order to make a project of any size both socially and economically viable. As the day of opening up a fast food hamburger stand claiming community economic development as just one of a business owner’s altruistic goals is over, the days of opening up a chick little Bistro are over as well. The reason they are, is such shops do not have a larger organic connection to the community. They only have a singular connection to the owner’s pocketbook which of course today in 2010 is neither fat nor organic.

Now if these shops were heated by the sun, powered by the wind and built to highly advanced building standards and everything inside of these shops was manufactured locally and installed by local trades people, technicians and artisans, the notion of going out for a hamburger would take on an entirely new community economic development agenda altogether.

So, as the Hantz Farm is a remarkable example of what highly organized community economic development can be, if that development is not everywhere in our nation, ultimately it is nowhere.

M. Patrick Dahlke