Low-impact & the city 1: introduction – how possible is it to live in a sustainable, non-corporate way in a city?

Blog home
Posted Jun 24 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

I lived at Redfield Community for 13 years – it’s where Lowimpact.org was born – but now I live in London, and so I’m assessing my options for living as low-impact a life as I can. The idea for Lowimpact grew out of the things that were happening at Redfield. Redfield is a registered housing co-op of usually around 15 adults and a smattering of kids, based in a huge Victorian house with 20 acres. All members are joint owners and all owners are members, decisions are made by consensus and evening meals are eaten together – people take it in turns to cook.

Back in 2001, when Lowimpact was born, we’d just installed solar hot water, I’d built a compost loo, we had a few straw-bale, lime-rendered sheds, we kept chickens, sheep, pigs and bees, we had organic gardens, orchards and soft fruit, we produced about half of our own food, used lime instead of cement, did our own repairs and maintenance, heated the house with wood stoves and one member was making his own biodiesel from waste cooking oil. Perhaps the most important low-impact aspect of life at Redfield was the internal economy – people swapped things, recycled things, made things, fixed things. Most furniture was (and still is, I think) second-hand or home-made, and there was a healthy internal trade in second-hand books, clothes, music and bits of kit. I don’t think that’s changed much since I left.

I now live in a normal, terraced house in London. I’m still in contact with Redfield (went to a party there on saturday night, in fact – and Redfielders stay over if they’re in London), and they still do all those things – and now they also have 2 roofs covered with 22kW of solar electric panels, and the house is heated with a biomass boiler rather than individual wood stoves. I still get involved in their ‘Living in Communities’ weekends.

I left Redfield because part of the rent there is two days per week work (garden, animals, fences, splitting logs, maintenance, visitors, cooking, admin etc.), which I loved, and it makes it very cheap to live there, allowing members to have part-time jobs that gives them the time to do the two days per week work. However, Lowimpact took off to the point that it soaked up all my time, and I wasn’t able to keep up with Redfield work. That wasn’t really sustainable, and so I moved out.

So I’m not going to be able to live such a low-impact life in London, am I? People sometimes say ‘yes, but what can I do? I live in a city, so my options are limited.’ I’m not so sure about that. Of course, you’re not going to be building your own cob home, planting up a few acres of wooodland, charcoal burning or keeping a flock of Jacob sheep – but so what? There’s still a lot you can do to live in a sustainable way that doesn’t support the corporate sector (or at least doesn’t support it very much – it’s virtually impossible to avoid corporations entirely).

Here’s a list of the low-impact topics my partner and I intend to do. I’ll blog about them all individually, and I’ll be honest – I’ll write about the disasters as well as the successes.

  1. veg growing and garden generally: there’s not much nature in the city, so we wannt to make ours as natural as we can, by planting trees and bushes and reducing concrete, fossil fuels, using hand tools rather than power tools etc. I can see from our upstairs window that plenty of other neighbours feel the same way, and some don’t (spotted a couple of gardens that are completely astroturfed)

  2. composting: of all kitchen and garden waste

  3. Transition: we’re involved with our local Transition group

  4. local networking: and we’ll get involved with others – we’re already part of a local ‘philosophy club’, where we do…
  5. philosophy: (sort of)
  6. cycling: my partner has a bike that she doesn’t feel completely safe using in London, so I might resurrect it and use it myself

  7. baking bread: partner did a course at Monkton Wyld, and is keen to knock out healthy loaves; there’s also a small, independent bakery up the road that produces really good, fresh bread every day

  8. herbs: we’re going to grow lots of different herbs in pots on the back patio

  9. sprouting: and sprout some beans & seeds in the kitchen

  10. wild flower meadow: we’re going to sow a small one where the concrete used to be

  11. low-impact shopping: supporting local businesses

  12. Fair Trade: including Fair Trade
  13. wildlife gardening: no nettles, no peacock butterflies

  14. solar electricity: we’ve got a south-facing flat roof

  15. open source: going to change over completely – including operating system

  16. low-impact IT: so we don’t have to keep buying new laptops when Microsoft brings out upgrades
  17. credit union: going to find our local credit union, and invest some money with them

  18. cryptocurrencies: going to look into accepting bitcoin for Lowimpact, and researching where we can use them
  19. downshifting: anyone can do this any time
  20. recycling: I’ll blog about our Freecycle adventures – we’ve already got rid of tons of stuff, and found some bits of furniture for free

  21. soft fruit: growing gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants

  22. fruit trees: and planting a couple of fruit trees

  23. soil management: as important in a small garden as it is on a smallholding
  24. scything: I asked Simon Fairlie if scything will work for an urban lawn, and he assures me it will, so I’m going to get a scythe and go on a course to learn how to use and sharpen it. I’m trying to persuade my partner that it would be good to hand it on the wall indoors, near to the patio doors – it would certainly be a talking point. Not sure how that’s going to go down yet

  25. wood stove: going to check if we can have one first of all, then find a sustainable source of wood, and away we go. Not just for show though – in other words we won’t have it on as well as gas central heating. We’ll use the central heating as a back-up

  26. water meter: we don’t have one at the moment, but we think it’s a good idea, as we can monitor use, and be rewarded for reducing it

  27. energy saving: there are lots of things we can do, in conjunction with solar panels

  28. like installing LED light bulbs
  29. low-impact holidays: we don’t fly, and we like to get into the countryside and stay at small, independent places. This year we’re going to stay in a yurt in Wales at the beginning of August – I’ll blog about that when we do, although the lack of electricity and wi-fi is going to be a challenge

  30. wild swimming: this is something we do on holiday, and of course we can continue to do it wherever we live

  31. walking: and this is something we definitely do on holiday – but also in London. I don’t have a car, and actually, I probably walk more now than I did at Redfield, where everything I needed was on-site

  32. wild food: and collect wild food – personally, I’d like to learn to identify a lot more than blackberries and wild garlic

  33. wild mushrooms: these too

  34. nuts: and these – plus we’ve got a hazel tree in the garden that was almost definitely planted by a squirrel

  35. low-impact homes: second-hand furniture

  36. rustic furniture: and some home-made stuff

  37. green electricity: we’ll change to a green provider, who get some or all of their supply from renewables

  38. land reform: we’ll invest with a group or groups involved in land reform

  39. community energy: and in a community energy group

  40. rainwater harvesting: we’ll get a barrel with a diverter from a gutter downpipe

  41. natural cleaners: we’ll either buy them or make them if we have time – white vinegar as a toilet cleaner is a start

  42. natural soaps: we already get these from Katrina of Small World Soaps, based at Redfield

  43. natural skin-care: I’ve made natural moisturisers before, so I’ll make them again and blog about it this time

  44. mushroom cultivation: I’ve always wanted to give this a go

  45. vegetarianism: my partner is, which means I almost am by default

  46. raw food: I often have raw days – usually just because I feel like it, not as part of any regime. In fact I often have fruitarian days, eating only raw fruit (which includes avocadoes, tomatoes, broad beans, nuts etc.)

  47. herbal medicine: we’ve got friends who make them, and we’d rather support them when it comes to remedies for headaches, pain relief, inflammation etc.
  48. earth-sheltered house: we’ve got friends who built one, and we sometimes house swap, or we look after their place when they go away – I’ve already blogged about this one

  49. DIY: I have a go – I’m probably an average DIY-er, as I worked in factories and on building sites for several years in my twenties, and picked up lots from living at Redfield and working for Lowimpact, including…

  50. plumbing

  51. yurts: yurt holidays (see above)

  52. chickens: well, we’re thinking about it – there’s a little brick structure that could be a chicken house, but the two main problems are foxes and the fact that they’d completely scratch up everything in the garden

  53. bees: after talking with Gareth and Heidi at the Natural Beekeeping Trust, I fancy setting up a little top-bar hive at the bottom of the garden – even if we don’t get very much honey, we want to support bees. There are plenty of flowers for them in the city

  54. worms: already in our compost bins (grabbed some from the Redfield compost), but might look into keeping them a bit more scientifically. Special compost worms rather than earthworms

  55. urban / small-space gardening: learning about the plants that are easy to grow in pots or small gardens

  56. preserving food: and preserving them if we have a ‘glut’. Hmmm – maybe we’ll have to buy food in to do this, because I don’t think we’re going to have much of a glut

  57. ponds: yes, definitely going to build one at the end of the garden, and get a few tadoles from Redfield’s pond, to raise frogs for a bit of….

  58. natural pest control: will encourage pest predators, and drop snails into the compost bin. Definitely no pesticides

  59. electric vehicles: partner works in various hospitals, and needs a car to get between them quickly. Her car is over eleven years old and making funny noises; she’s looking into an electric car to replace it – lower carbon emissions over its lifetime, no road tax, congestion charge, parking fees, and free charging at hospitals.

  60. green woodworking: not us – but we might get talented friends to make pieces of furniture

  61. cider-making: might have a go – a friend does it and really, it tastes much better than I thought it would

  62. brewing beer: ditto

  63. retained heat cooking: we should do it really. We have friends who do it, so we know it works

  64. systemic change: I’m going to keep banging on about the need for this of course, and networking with people trying to bring it about – I’ll obviously blog about anything interesting that comes out of that
  65. and one more: I’ve always fancied using a cut-throat razor – no electricity, no plastic, not disposable, not corporate

I’ll let you know how we get on with these things via this blog. We’d love to hear from you below if you have any advice or relevant experiences.