Urban Agricultural Systems Inspired By Nature Can Mitigate Climate Change
Almost by definition, cities are active, busy, bustling, ever-changing places where short-lived beings go about their busy days. Fast fashion, quick commerce, short election cycles – the world around us takes on various pace layers.
What better way to slow to slow things down than to seed cities with beings capable of living centuries or millennia? In what ways might a walk beneath ancient giants and twisted ancestors place us in a bigger here? A longer now?
Artist and musician Brian Eno once said that he wants to live in a “big here” and a “long now”. How long is your now? That is to say – what’s the timeframe in which you view our day to day? What timescale informs your decisions? Days? Months? Centuries?
In 01996, the LongNow Foundation (named by Eno) formed to “provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and [to] help make long-term thinking more common”. They define they now – the longnow – as the last 10 000 years and the next 10 000 years.
How differently would we act if we lived in a longer now? In what ways would our decisions change and in what ways might out priorities shift?
The point of slow landscaping is to provide continuity in a fast paced environment – to provide pause and contemplation – to remind us that we are the result of circumstances that extends way before (and after) us – that we’re living in the LongNow. Slow landscaping asks us to act in ways – and is an act in and of itself – that leaves future generations with more options than we inherited.
One strategy may be to plant long-lived trees on sites unlikely to be disturbed. A second more devious strategy might be to plant long-lived trees to protect existing and vulnerable sites from future disturbances or development.
Living longer than most buildings, slow landscapes would dictate the shape of the built environment – as opposed to the other way around. Cities and buildings would bend and shift to fit slow landscapes like geological features. Each tree would shape the fabric of the spaces it occupies. Poor architects and planners will hate them, but good ones will incorporate them into their designs.
There are many long-living species to choose from – a quick google search yields a list of the world’s oldest individual trees – many of which are slow growing conifers living in high alpine environments. I’ve selected a handful suitable for growing in my local (Edmonton) environment. I encourage you to see what will grow where you live.
One of three bristlecone pine species, P. aristata, can be found at local nurseries here in Edmonton and is a small to medium sized tree (20 feet tall and 25 feet wide) native to the Blackhills of Colorado.
Koren Pinenut is a slow-growing giant that produces edible nuts. Reportedly hardy to USDA zone 3, the Korean Pinenut is native to parts of Korea, Manchuria, Eastern Russia, and Japan. The tree can reportedly reach 100 feet, though, 30 to 50 feet is more typical for trees under cultivation. Plant one now and you’ll be harvesting pine nuts in 15 to 45 years – expect a yield of 10 to 20 pounds per tree. Bring a ladder.
Native to the high elevations of Alberta’s mountains, the whitebark pine is a long living Alberta tree with significant ecological value for wildlife (having coevolved with the local Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) who bury and inadvertently propagate seeds. Like the Korean Pinenut, the seeds are edible, though, smaller.
The Whitebark pine is slow growing and can take on various forms depending on the harshness of its location. At high elevations, it sometimes grows as a multi-stemmed shrub but has the potential to get as large as 70 feet tall and 45 feet wide in more favourable conditions. The oldest recorded tree is 1200 years old.
The Whitebark Pine is currently a species under threat due to white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, and the ill effect of fire suppression. The most comprehensive sources of information on Whitebark pine that I could find is an Alberta Conservation Association report from 2007 and a profile on conifers.org.
A native Alberta tree found at high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains. Alpine Larch can grow anywhere from 30 to 80 feet tall depending on elevation – growing shorter at higher elevations. Soft green needles turn golden and fall off each year.
The oldest Alpine Larch is in Kananaskis and reported to be over 1900 years old. More information at conifers.org.
The trembling or quaking aspen grows locally in Alberta is has the potential to live for tens of thousands of years due to its massive underground root system that perpetually sends up new trunks. Though individual trunks – that present as individual trees – are short-lived, the plant as a whole can grow to be ancient.
The oldest know trembling aspen is named Pando growing in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. Pando is a single male aspen tree estimated to be over 80 000 years old. Pando covers a staggering 106 acres, has over 4000 trunks, and has a mass around 6 600 metric tonnes.
A watershed is the area of land that captures, soaks up, and channels water towards increasingly large bodies of water. We think about watersheds as wetlands, streams, creeks, lakes, and rivers but they’re also forests, trees, soils, animals, and you.
You are 60% watershed – you’re a small pond capturing water from the environment – a small pond with legs. From this perspective, a 150-pound person walking hill is 90-pounds of water flowing against gravity.
Each day, a few litres of watershed passes through your body via foods and liquids you consume – even bread is 40% water.
Much of our food is imported from distant watersheds – the banana I ate for breakfast, as an example, was 74% Ecuadorian water. In fact, in 2013, Ecuador smuggled 4.11 millions tonnes of water disguised as 5.55 million tonnes of bananas out of its local watersheds.
Here are some numbers that I managed to dig up:
Wheat – 12% water
Meat & Eggs – 75% water
Milk – 87% water
Fruits and Vegetables – 80 to 96% water
Honey – 18% water
Exporting food between watersheds has an ecological impact. Globally, patterns of trade could be seen as wholesale changes to weather and rainfall patterns – causing rivers to dry up. California, a state prone to droughts, exported over 378 billions litres of water to China for cattle feed. If you consider all of the food it exports, especially fruits and vegetables, one could argue that California’s main export is water.
A foodshed is a geographical area in which food is produced and consumed. So here’s my question – since the food you consume is mostly water, might a watershed diet be a useful way to think about local a desired local foodsheds? How closely should your watershed and foodshed align? As a geological feature, it’s less arbitrary than political borders or imaginary circles drawn concentrically around your kitchen (see 100 Mile Diet).
In truth, I’m not entirely sure what a watershed diet might look like. I’m not even sure that I could tell you what my watershed produces – probably not a lot of bananas. What would a watershed meal look like?Could it even be done? How would it change seasonally? If anything, it brings up more questions.
If 60% of me is North Saskatchewan Watershed, how does that change my relationship to the North Saskatchewan River? To the wetlands, ponds, lakes, forests, and animals I share it with?
If food was produced low in the watershed (downstream) and consumed high in the watershed (upstream) would the height of the river increase? – essentially giving us more water to grow more food?
Contrary to our cultural narrative, cities are good for nature. Why? Because cities are natural and governed by same processes that created ecological systems. In fact, cities may be the most useful tool we have for tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems. One study out of Yale University reported:
“New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. Manhattanites generate even less.”
I’ve been wanting to attract more urban animals to my backyard and was researching different ways to go about it. Besides being a joy to watch, urban animals provide important ecological functions such as pest control and pollination. [Read more…]
From 2012-2016 students and I designed, built, and ran an aquaponics system at Jasper Place High School. The aquaponics system was great for a school but way too big and expensive for the average home. The whole project was a fantastic experience, but I’ve been thinking about how to scale its size and design for home use. The goal – to create an elegant, home aquaponics system from a standard fish tank and off the shelf parts for as little money as possible. Here’s are my five design criteria:
When it comes to getting that perfect cut and keeping a healthy, natural lawn, you can’t beat one of these. Seriously, this is a grass powered lawn mower with a fertilizer attachment.
If you’re continually using the garden hose, there’s a chance that you’re doing it wrong. Actively and continuously needing to water your garden is a sign that you may have overlooked some simple but powerful water harvesting techniques. Here are [Read more…]
The following is an edited transcript from the Sustainable Me Podcast recorded in the summer of 2016. Over the course of twelve and a half minutes, we touch on permaculture, biophilic design, and an ecological approach to education. Sustainable Me is a web/video series and podcast that explores sustainability in the province of Alberta. For more on Sustainable Me, visit SustinableMeYEG.ca.
My name is Dustin Bajer and I work on a variety of sustainable, urban agriculture, and biophilic projects. I’ve been teaching at Jasper Place High School and am passionate about project-based sustainability programming. Since 2010, we’ve put in a couple food forests in at the school, built an aquaponic system, living walls, and have raised tilapia. It’s been a fantastic adventure; exploring all these topics with students and trying to grow food at the same time.
On Learning From Nature
Gardening was something that my parents were into. I hated it. It was work. You’d come home from school and have to weed the garden. When I wasn’t reluctantly gardening, I was running around the forest building forts. I think that was a formative time for me. I didn’t realize it at the time but in hindsight I was observing two parallel systems. The fist was a garden. It was a lot of work. You’re out there weeding, tilling and making sure that there aren’t any pests. Then you’ve got a forest (literally across the road). Nobody watered or tilled it. Nobody weeded it. The whole thing struck me as odd. Two systems both growing things. Why was one so much more work than the other? What is it about a conventional garden that makes it so much work and what is it about a forest that allows it to manage itself? Can we apply the lessons from nature into human-built systems? Whether a garden bed, an education system or a food system, what kinds of lessons can we draw from the natural world and apply to the built one? These early memories really shaped my thinking later on in life and I ultimately came to view sustainability as a design problem with nature as the perfect toolkit.
On Education And The Benefit Of Project-Based Learning
Right off the bat, the education system has to exclude a lot of interesting stuff. Things that could make a real difference in the life of a student who hasn’t found their thing yet. It’s not out of malice. There are only so many hours in the day so something has to give. It’s the unfortunate reality. Then we teach this narrow subset knowledge in a very linear way. Kids go to class, the bell rings, they move to the next class. It’s a very industrial model. It simplifies and compartmentalizing knowledge but fails to show how knowledge can bridge disciplines. Students can’t easily transfer knowledge and skills out of context. Setting up our discrete subjects is artificial. I wish we could depend more on projects. Project are inherently cross-curricular. If you’re building an aquaponic system you can say it’s a biology but we can also talk about food security, animal husbandry, and plant science. We can create a users manual so now we’re developing communications skills and design. Projects inevitably touch on a variety of outcomes.
Schools As Ecosystems
A forest is stable because of its connections and relationships. It’s a mess but it’s very resilient mess. You can cut connections in the forest but the forest stays intact. Forests, like brains, are networks. If a forest taught a lesson it would consciously link each skill to as many other concepts and disciplines as possible. It’s this network, this jumble of information that makes concepts stick. If you learn about and use the quadratic equation in math class and physics class and social studies the more relevant and useful it becomes. If you can tie meaning to it from multiple disciplines then that become a resilient idea in the mind of the learner. The only way that I really know how to tackle that is through projects. I want to garden like an eco-system. I want to teach like an eco-system.
On School Food Security
At Jasper Place High School, one in five students come to school hungry. Provincially it’s sometime like 1 in 7. And there’s a lot of different reasons for that; a lack of skills, finances, transportation, cultural capital, etc.
I’ve been the most interested in growing food with students (especially if we can grow food like an eco-system). Though, in 2015, we received funding from Breakfast For Learning (supported by Loblaws) to create and run a breakfast program. Each morning, students would convene in the kitchen, take raw ingredients, and make free breakfast for students. What’s great is that we’re also working on food literacy. Students are learning about safety and hygiene, food prep, and sanitization. They’ll be able to take those skills home with them.
On The Future (Of Everything)
I’m pretty optimistic about the future. I believe that we can work with the natural world in ways that benefit it and ourselves. There’s a dangerous cultural narrative that humans are bad and only making things worse. You hear kids talking about how the planet would be better off if people disappeared. It’s unfortunate to hear. People can do some pretty amazing things. Food in schools has been a really good context for me to explore our relationship to the natural world. Everybody eats. And if you can grow food in a way that benefits the natural world that’s pretty inspiring. In an ideal world, we’d flip the narrative and see ourselves as forces for/of nature. That future looks so much brighter to me.
I can’t help but think that an education system that embraced the natural world would inherently be modeled after aspects of it. If schools worked more like forests we could creates abundance. That’s sustainable and inherently more interesting to me.
End Edited Transcript
For more about the ideas above, I’ve included Sustinable Me – Epidode 5 – Econo-Me.
Teacher, permaculture designer, master gardener, hobby beekeeper, consultant, and network nerd living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Read More