Im-Permaculture: Hospice Care for a Dying House

March 10, 2012 at 7:29 pm (permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Looking out my kitchen window, I see a lane full of litter and a biggie-size Vancouver Special–the kind with terracotta roof tiles, where a compact fluorescent light is left on by the gate all night.  I wonder what the view was like out that very window in 1985, when I was the age my daughter is now, and that house was just recently built.  If I let my mind wander another generation back, I imagine a view of 1950’s semi-suburbanism, the vacant lots as grassy fields where neighborhood children must have played.  I wish I could’ve seen the greenhouse as Frank built it, before it was partially demolished to make room for a renter’s over-sized vehicle.  I can hardly envision the garage as it was before the paint peeled and the leaky roof was covered by an orange tarp whose tattered remains still cling to rotting batten boards.  This is life in a dying house.  The improvements we’ve made inside and out to make it livable and beautiful once again, we think of as a kind of residential hospice care, affording a bit of dignity to a well-built home in its final years.

The house roof was looking really soggy in a few places, so we copied Frank and covered it with a tarp. When summer comes, the landlord will have to decide how extensively to repair the roof on a house destined for destruction.

From the living room window, I see rush-hour commuters, city buses, and eighteen-wheelers barreling down a highway and I can’t help but think it must not have been like this when Frank moved in.  Back then, Knight St. would have been busy with now-defunct American car brands sporting tail fins and chrome, but the mass transport of consumer goods from Asia to North America had only just begun.  These days, Knight St. doubles as highway 99, a six-lane trucking route connecting the port of Vancouver to all points east.  Night and day, truckloads of cheap consumer goods roll down our street, the traffic and pollution making for some really urban homesteading.

The view from the living room. It's not so loud in the evenings and on weekends... and statutory holidays are pretty quiet.

The irony is two-fold, however: our crumbling house and backyard mini-farm may contrast sharply with the retail and high-rise condos that surround us, but we owe a debt of gratitude to the busy Knight St. for preserving this house in its original state.  If it were on a quiet residential street, this house would surely have suffered the fate of other bungalows in the area, many of which have been demolished for new construction.  Even when they’re merely gutted and renovated, Vancouver’s EcoDensity plan would see a laneway house where a garden once grew.

A house forgotten by time: Carl and Ellie's house in the movie Up, surrounded by high-rise construction.

What we have is a true gem in Vancouver: there aren’t that many affordable single-family homes (sans basement apartment) left to rent in the city.  This house is also unique in being owner-occupied for over half a century; this fact alone probably accounts for it not being torn down a long time ago to make way for commercial development.  When his family moved him to a nearby senior’s center, Frank’s house–or rather, the lot–was sold to a property development corporation.  Their long-term plans include razing the house and a few other properties on the block to make way for a mixed-use development of several stories.  The company already owns the house next door, but their plans have so far faltered on purchasing any more of the block.  So, they wait… and we wait… not knowing how long we’ll be able to live here.

In the meantime, no one cares what we do with the house or the yard–we were literally told when we moved in that we could do anything as long as we leave the house standing for them to tear down–so I continue to experiment with various (impermanent) permacultural projects without fear of reprisal by a disgruntled landlord.  It will be a sad day when we’re told we’ve got to go; I don’t think I’ll be able to watch with dry eyes as a bulldozer rips through my (Frank’s) garden.    But, the experience and what I’m learning from working with this property will always be with me.


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Zen and the Art of Natural Farming

March 4, 2012 at 7:34 pm (books, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , )

If you, like me, feel that Mankind could use a major kick in the pants, spiritually speaking, then Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution, is a must-read!  Don’t be fooled by how light-hearted this little page-turner is; it is packed full of wisdom that will appeal to anyone interested in exploring permaculture’s philosophical side.

You could call it “Zen and the Art of Natural Farming.”  Natural and “do-nothing” are the terms Fukuoka chooses to describe his approach to farming.  He does not mean, of course, that one can grow food by doing absolutely nothing, but that one should avoid doing nothing which is unnecessary.  In many places throughout The One-Straw Revolution, Fukuoka-san draws on the Taoist principle of Wu Wei–actionless action–which is a state of being in which acting becomes quite effortless because it is aligned with the ebb and flow of natural cycles:

[N]atural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature.  It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is.  It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything.

More such nuggets of wisdom, less esoteric and all the more poignant for guiding humanity:

Extravagance of desire is the fundamental cause which has led the world into its present predicament.  Fast rather than slow, more rather than less–this flashy “development” is linked directly to society’s impending collapse.  It has only served to separate man from nature. […]  The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life.

To be worried about making money, expanding, developing, growing cash crops and shipping them out is not the way of the farmer.  To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plentitude of each day, every day–this must have been the original way of agriculture.

Perhaps my favorite line in the whole book:

A natural diet lies right at one’s feet.

Can you think of a better slogan to sum up the whole local food movement?

This book is packed full of such gems.  I’m not even done with it, but I’m enjoying it so much I wanted to put it out there that I highly recommend it.  It’s not your average gardening book with instructions for growing this vegetable and that fruit and when and where to plant things.  I have seen this book referenced in so many others that I’m surprised it took me so long to get around to reading it myself, but I’m glad I finally did!

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Gentrification in Vancouver

March 1, 2012 at 6:01 am (goings-on, Other, Vancouver) (, , )

My house (on right) is owned by a property development corporation and will be redeveloped in the next few years--rightly so, given the high traffic volume on Knight St. The view from the backyard is of the King Edward Village tower.

Over 180 concerned residents of the Mount Pleasant community were registered to speak at Monday night’s Vancouver City Council meeting to state their concern for the re-zoning and development of the southwest corner of Broadway and Kingsway.  The developer, Rize Alliance, wants to erect a 19-story luxury condo tower (down from the 26 stories initially proposed), which residents contend is completely out of scale with surrounding properties and will ultimately signal the beginning of the end of affordability for the area.  For more details on Rize and this project in particular, see the Mainlander’s article on Gentrification in Mount Pleasant.

Unfortunately, since the development proposal and opposition hearing was item six of six on Monday night’s agenda and since there were so many people signed up to speak, only one of the 180 citizen speakers was given a chance to speak before the meeting adjourned.  The rest were invited back the following night to speak, if they could make it, but it must be assumed that not everyone could come back for round two.  So, while City Council goes through the motions to appear sensitive to citizens’ concerns, gentrification marches on.  Even if the re-zoning application is denied and Rize agrees to build a comparatively modest mixed-use development of only 5 to 10 stories, what the neighborhood will end up with will be a glut of one- and two-bedroom condos.  Why no three- or four-bedroom condos?  A three-bedroom may have the same floor space as two one-bedrooms, but the developer can’t double the sale price on it.

For those who do not reside in Vancouver, a one-bedroom condo priced under $500,000 is what passes for “affordable housing” here.  City Council talks a lot about creating “affordable housing,” but it only ever seems to result in more market-rate condos.  The character of a neighborhood can’t stay the same when all the families are forced to leave, which is the pattern in Vancouver: so-called “affordable housing” moves in and families stay as long as the kids are small, but inevitably move east when they outgrow a two-bedroom condo.

What’s taken for granted is that home ownership is achievable and desirable for all families; none of these new developments include affordable rental housing (except that many of the units do sell to wealthy international investors, who profit from renting them, further exacerbating the upward pressure on rental rates).  A kind of middle ground exists between owning and renting, but non-profit co-operative housing has all but disappeared from the city’s vocabulary–this, despite the fact that units in the existing co-housing developments, built in the 70’s and early 80’s, are in high demand and co-op applicants can be waitlisted for years.

I’m not proposing that development should be altogether halted; but the rampant over-development that is driving Vancouver families to the financial brink, just before driving them out completely, is ultimately going to rob this city of its designation as one of the most livable cities in the world.

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