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  • Posted June 24th, 2015
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    Low-impact & the city 1: introduction – how possible is it to live in a sustainable, non-corporate way in a city?

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

    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.

    Cheers

    Dave


    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    8 Comments

    • 1robertalcock June 24th, 2015

      Whew! Just looking at this list make me feel tired. And you moved to London because you can’t fit two days a work with your job?! Where does number 19 (downshifting) fit into that?

      Seriously, though. I guess one of the main benefits of living in a city is the ability to do economic/social/cultural exchange with a lot of other people, thus allowing everyone to do what they’re good at/most interested in/enjoy (in theory). In practice, of course, these exchanges are mediated by money and are thus very unequal and unfair.

      If you can build (or find yourself a place in) non-monetary networks of exchange, most of that stuff should take care of itself, leaving you time to perfect whatever you’re best at, and work to change the world (which may well be the same thing!)

      Just one opinion…

    • 2Fran June 24th, 2015

      Great post, thanks. I live in a terraced house in a city centre and I’m on a journey trying to live sustainably. Nice to have a list of suggestions to use as a guide of things that can be done. My friends think im potty for big bowls of used cooking water thats cooling before watreing my house plants. I still have lots to do, its a journey. Thanks.

    • 3Dave Darby June 24th, 2015

      Yeah, really, I suppose we’re unlikely to do all those things – I was just trawling through our topics, thinking about what you can and can’t do in a terraced house in a city, and it just kept expanding.
      About money – I used to think it was the root of all evil, and in some ways I still do. But we know really good people working in community energy, land trusts & co-ops, credit unions, community-supported agriculture and loads more – and what they really need is money. They can’t give away what they provide for anything but money. So I think that people who have a bit should park it with them instead of with corporate banks. We’re going to change the home page soon to reflect that. Almost everything we’ve done so far has been for people who are time-rich and money-poor, but there are plenty of concerned people who are money-rich(ish) and (definitely) time-poor. Actually doing new things is not for them, but they could certainly park their money in better (i.e. sustainable and non-corporate) places.

    • 4Dave Darby June 24th, 2015

      Pleasure Fran. Come back and let us know how you get on.

    • 5robertalcock June 25th, 2015

      Yeah, no question that we need money as the world is set up in favour of people who’ve got it… And (to clarify) I do think all the things you mention are interesting and worthwhile, just that you needn’t try and do them all yourself!

      By the way, on no. 62, we often bring a pressure cooker to the boil and then wrap it in an old down parka for a few hours. Works a treat!

    • 6Dave Darby June 26th, 2015

      I don’t think you should try that on the bus Robert! (failed attempt at humour – but yes, that will work)

    • 7robertalcock June 26th, 2015

      Oh, I get it. no. 62… bus…
      Actually, why not? Call it stacking functions. You can also cook food (suitably wrapped) on the engine of a motor vehicle!

    • 8John Meek June 28th, 2015

      Agree, Robert, it’s more ‘fun’ and encouraging to do low impact living in a local economy with other like-minded people and, hopefully, spread the low impact living.

    • 9Peter Richardson June 29th, 2015

      Re: idea number 64, have you ever heard of beards? Very low-impact. Maybe there should be a topic page about them on lowimpact.org…

    • 10Dave Darby June 29th, 2015

      Yes, beards are good, but they’re trendy in London at the moment, which I find problematic.

    • 11robertalcock June 29th, 2015

      Not if you wear a neckbeard like the patron saint of low-impact living… ” his neckbeard may have been a way of shouting to the world: “I don’t give a fuck.” ”
      https://historicalfacialhair.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/henry-david-thoreau-and-the-neckbeard-mid-1800s/

    • 12Dave Darby June 29th, 2015

      Good call. He was a hero already, but he’s even more of a hero now.

    • 13Dani Austin July 25th, 2015

      Great to read your extensive list. We have a similar list we are working away on.

      Our most recently endeavours have been making kombucha, and setting up the garden with all raised wicking beds (needed for the hot Summers here in Australia).

    • 14Lee Renouf July 28th, 2015

      Hi Dave. As you have stayed with us in our home in a small mining town in Scotland, you will know our situation. I love your list and admire your enthusiasm and have a few thoughts about your list.
      As a co-founder of Ayrshire LETS & Ayrshire FOE I have experienced the benefits of local networking. A simple survey in LETS told us that most members were in it primarily for the social contact with like-minded people. The exchange of goods and services was in fact secondary. Both groups are now defunct for various reasons and we miss them dearly. One of the reasons was because of geography as members were spread far apart. I wonder if they work better in cities with more members closer together.

      The thing my wife and I have always aimed for is work-life balance and Robert Alcock alluded to this in his first comment. Being low-impact is very tiring and you find you just can’t do it all. One solution is for example, if you knew somebody local who already has bees, or scythes grass, then exchange makes sense. It also might mean that your impact is less because you are not buying more equipment or having to cost the environment by travelling to a course somewhere.
      Regarding heating a home, the first thing to consider is how can I reduce energy use by insulating and wearing appropriate clothing. Maybe buying a stove, chimney liner, log basket etc etc plus fuel costs of getting wood (chainsaw or vehicular) would be less green than having the thermostat down.

      Sometimes I think I am a failure, because I am not famous or done something that has improved the world. Then I realise that we are sometimes like the proverbial pebble in the pond. People in the street see things we are doing, like growing vegetables and the next thing, a neighbour asks us if we have some spare leeks to put in their garden. My wife Janet is cycling round Scotland just now and this has inspired a friend to get back on her bike. I feel pleased at our ‘local’ effect and maybe this is systemic in a smaller circle and the way we live our life plants seeds in others.
      On a personal level, I always try to think how I can meet a need firstly without money or buying something to solve a problem. Maybe take a step back and ask, do I really need it in the first place?
      At the same time, I don’t beat myself up if I can’t achieve this. Guilt can be a real waste of energy!

      Dave, you already know most of the answers and have ‘got the t-shirt’. It all comes down to balance & principles; reviewing and reviewing more; keeping healthy in mind, body and spirit.
      Good luck with this new stage of your lives and I look forward to following your progress.

    • 15Dave Darby July 29th, 2015

      Thanks Lee – are you missing Janet?
      Yes, you’re right about sharing, and you’re right about insulation/ turning the thermostat down – which we’re quite good at. Trying to find someone with a scythe locally might be interesting! We do try to support local people doing things already though, rather than trying to do everything ourselves. Local bakery is good, for example.
      And yes, the more people do low-impact things, the more good examples there are out there. We were a bit disappointed that our pv panels on our flat roof can’t really be seen except from maybe a couple of bedrooms in the houses opposite. But everyone can see the gooseberries, blackcurrants, strawberries, rosemary and apple tree in our front garden where there used to be slabs! We don’t even mind a bit of scrumping.
      So are you an expert on LETS systems? I heard that the government found a way to tax them, even though no money changes hands (shows their priorities I suppose – leave offshore tax havens for the rich alone, clamp down on local LETS groups), and that really did for them. Any truth in that?
      D

    • 16Lee Renouf July 29th, 2015

      Yes I am missing Janet but will be meeting up for a few days in our micro caravan on Friday.
      Our LETS days were a long time ago. The government were talking about taxation at the time, though I don’t know the current position. Towards the end of our group, there were many trades happening informally, ‘off-system’. I would like to see them taxing those!
      Keep up the good work and make sure you call in if you are up this way.

    • 17nane September 16th, 2016

      A dehydrator is great for preserving foods. Yes, I know, you have to be a consumer and actually buy one (unless you have the right weather) but it’s a healthy way to live – not just for preservation, but you could add more raw foods to your diet too

    • 18John Harrison October 16th, 2016

      One idea for you – quail. They take little room and are prolific egg layers. Since they’re very trendy, you could easily sell any surplus (legally a farm gate sale!) and cover the costs. A hobby that pays for itself.

    • 19Dave Darby October 16th, 2016

      Great idea. Do they turn a garden into bare earth, like chickens, and will cats kill them? Better still, do you know someone we could interview for a new topic introduction on quail? ?

    • 20The Big Garden and Croft August 9th, 2017

      J > A scythe blade has to be razor sharp, and as it is large and the sweep is gentle but powerful, it’s a potentially dangerous thing. It needs room to be safe, and the safest place to use it is in a hay meadow, well away from other mowers, and especially kids. An urban lawn is, in my view, too small, and your energy and talents would be better directed towards other things. There’s so many good eco-sustainable things you can do in a city which are impossible in remote areas like the Outer Hebrides, so you’ll not be short of things to do!

    • 21Dave Darby August 10th, 2017

      Hi – our alternative is a lawn mower, which uses electricity, and involves plastic. And they break. A scythe is for life, no plastic, no electricity – and no noise (most people round here think that it’s compulsory to use noisy machinery in their garden every weekend).
      It seems like the most sustainable option, so why not? I asked Simon Fairlie and he said a scythe is fine in an urban garden (he sent me the photo on this page – http://www.lowimpact.org/low-impact-and-the-city-2-what-are-urban-gardens-for/). Plus we don’t have kids and there are no other mowers around. Imagine if most people used a scythe instead of an electric mower – there would be an enormous environmental benefit. (plus, we’re doing the other things as well).

    • 22The Big Garden and Croft August 10th, 2017

      Push cylinder mower. When I was a child, in the 1960s, that’s how most folk cut the lawn. To keep the effort manageable, the grass needs to be cut frequently, and the blades kept very sharp. These machines last a lifetime, and a good one will last several lifetimes.
      http://www.homehardwaredirect.co.uk/ProductInfo?ProductID=16775&source=googleps&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIvP3C0bbM1QIV67XtCh0Fow-tEAQYAiABEgJeEvD_BwE

    • 23Dave Darby August 10th, 2017

      Yes, we had one of those too. Didn’t work too brilliantly as I recall, but that was probably because the blades needed to be kept a lot sharper than my old man was prepared to keep them, as you say.
      But:
      1. it requires a lot more metal, manufacturing and embodied energy to produce than a scythe, which is a piece of wood and a piece of metal.
      2. I’d have to get it from a large corporation like Home Hardware Direct instead of from Simon Fairlie’s little scythe shop.
      3. I could only use it for a tiny lawn, whereas if I ever needed to cut a larger area of grass, the scythe would do that too.
      4. I’ve got friends with smallholdings – I could go along and help them cut hay with a scythe, but not with a push-mower (although I’m having a chuckle thinking about that).
      5. it’s much more fun.

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