What’s wrong with the 1970s vision of getting sustainable, growing food and raising kids with a few (or a few hundred) of your closest friends? Only one thing, says Andrew Millison: “The idea you have to leave society to do it.”
A Prescott College instructor, landscape contractor, homeowner and self-described permaculture activist, Millison is helping to spearhead a community sustainability initiative in the Lincoln-Dameron Street district of Prescott, Arizona (pop. 40,000) that’s become increasingly known as “the EcoHood.”
Andrew Millison and I are long-time friends, but I wasn’t aware of his work on Dameron Street and the EcoHood as a whole until I came over one day and found him across the street helping a neighbor, Catherine “Wind” Euler, install a new greywater irrigation system in her backyard. As I got the tour of the place and the rundown on other projects in progress throughout the neighborhood, a picture began to emerge. Here was the sustainable community we’d all been talking about for so long, and it wasn’t out on some remote tract of land. It was growing–literally–out of peoples’ backyards, right here in the low-rent section of town.
Andrew’s background in permaculture is extensive. He was first introduced to the principles of permaculture in 1996 through the work of Arizona’s Tucson Permaculture Guild. A year later, he had a chance to deepen his studies with Tim Murphy, one of the fathers of permaculture in the Southwestern US. “That was the turning point for me,” he explains. “After that, I basically immersed myself in it.” With an undergraduate degree in Ecological Design and Sustainability and a Master’s in Horticultural Preservation, Andrew has taught Permaculture at Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment since 2001.
Prescott’s “EcoHood” is a mid- to low-income neighborhood situated around the flood plain of nearby Miller Creek. It encompasses roughly two blocks, two apartment buildings and 30 houses, the majority of which were built in the 1930s. Fifty percent Hispanic/Native American, it’s also home to a significant number of retirees and college students–as well as six greywater systems, two rainwater cisterns, five organic gardens, 25 heirloom fruit trees and (at last count) 57 chickens.
Andrew has been a Dameron St. resident on and off for the past eight years and always had the idea that the area would be a prime location for an urban ecovillage. “But I still had this idea of a community out on the land somewhere,” he tells me. Managing the organic farm at Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti Urban Laboratory for two years had shown him the challenges involved with a traditional “back to the land” scenario. But it wasn’t until he purchased a home 20 miles outside of Prescott that the concept for the EcoHood began to emerge.
“Here I was,” says Andrew, grinning, “burning up a quarter to half tank of gas every day, reading about the concept of Peak Oil. That’s pretty much when it hit me the age of cheap oil was coming to an end.” At the same time, three ecologically-minded friends moved to the Lincoln-Dameron district with the intention of getting more community-oriented and sustainable. “I could see the vision I’d had was starting to manifest,” he says. “When there was an opportunity to move back to the neighborhood, I jumped at the chance.”
Since that time, the EcoHood has grown to encompass seven area households. While Andrew has contributed expertise in areas such as greywater systems, rainwater catchment and permaculture design, the process has unfolded organically, so to speak, with neighbors swapping skills, information, tools, and, at times, even child-care, chickens and compost.
Watching the EcoHood take shape has been an amazing process, and one of the most inspiring aspects has been simply the way life in this emerging ecovillage has helped to transform its residents’ concepts of space. By modern standards, the houses in the Lincoln-Dameron district are small–750 to 1000 sq. ft. on average. But those who live in the area obviously don’t feel limited by conventional standards of space. The other day, for example, Andrew and I had a meeting planned at his house on Dameron. In a regular neighborhood, we would have had no choice but to compete with the decibel level of a DVD his daughter was watching in the next room. But in the EcoHood, an alternate solution was available. “Hey,” said Andrew, “why don’t we move across the street?”
Across the street, Leigh (a mutual friend and sometimes EcoHood resident) was sitting with her baby in the living room of Andrew’s neighbor’s house. (The neighbor was at work.) When she found out what we were up to, Leigh smiled and said, “Hey, no problem.” She gathered up her baby (Caleb Sage, aged six months) and walked across the street to watch the DVD with Andrew’s daughter while he and I went on to conduct our meeting, distraction-free, in his neighbor’s living room.
Both the tangible and intangible aspects of the EcoHood seem to have attracted attention. According to Andrew, response from neighbors not directly involved with the EcoHood project has been, for the most part, either neutral or positive. He relates how his next door neighbor has commented on how friendly everyone is, how great it is that people in the area like to garden and “be outdoors.” On the other hand, an elderly woman who’s lived on Dameron for the past 35 years has been known to place calls to city officials regarding the legality of her neighbors’ roosters and “unsightly” piles of woodchips.
With or without her support, though, Prescott’s EcoHood seems to be gaining ground. Last year, the local ECOSA Institute (a training program for sustainable architecture and design) purchased a plot of land in the area slated for development as green student housing in the summer of 2006, ECOSA’s permaculture design certification course will center around designs for public space in the neighborhood as a whole. A presentation on the EcoHood last year at a local satellite of the Bioneers Conference also succeeded in capturing the attention of two investors instrumental in a number of Phoenix-based permaculture developments. Plans are now in the works for a permaculture apartment/condo complex centered around community gardens and supported by greywater, rainwater and solar energy systems.
All of which would probably be baffling to a real estate agent assessing the area, traditionally known as Prescott’s “barrio.” But while the EcoHood would hardly top the charts of the booming local real estate market, Andrew maintains that from an ecological point of view–Lincoln-Dameron truly is the wealthiest neighborhood in town.
“These ritzy new houses up on the hills,” he tells me, “are situated high off the water table on solid rock. They’re exposed to wind and wildfire, isolated from town, and they’re huge–which means they’re costly to heat and cool.” The EcoHood, on the other hand, has water at 12 to 20 feet (with old wells situated throughout the neighborhood), sits on an average eight feet of topsoil and is sheltered from wind by the surrounding topography as well as large, established cottonwoods. The more modest size of the older homes also makes them accessible to a green retrofit.
“The native people of this area lived around the flood plains of the creeks,” Andrew explains. “When the settlers arrived, they did too. In a lot of Western towns like Prescott, it’s a similar scenario; the area was settled around some type of fertile pocket. Which means that some of the oldest and most affordable neighborhoods also have the greatest potential for sustainability.”
The biggest hurdle faced by Andrew and his eco-minded neighbors? “Pollution,” he says. “It goes along with the fact that we’re not out on pristine land. We’re downstream from the K-Mart parking lot–and wherever you dig around here, you find garbage. Bioremediation is a key challenge.”
Still, Andrew maintains that the advantages of the EcoHood model of community sustainability are far-reaching and fundamental. “By working in a mid- to low-income neighborhood, you make the concept accessible. By working within the existing human footprint, you preserve wilderness, cut down on fuel consumption and give yourself access to the waste stream of the city for recycled materials.” Additionally, the EcoHood model doesn’t require a large initial investment on the part of its participants or a shift from mainstream models of family and home ownership. “Really,” says Andrew, “the concept is about bringing traditionally rural values like self-reliance, respect for the land and community into the city.”
As for those of us in Prescott, there’s a mailing that goes out to a list of interested parties whenever a house in the EcoHood hits the market. Guess what? I’m on it.–NL–
How To Spot A Potential EcoHood
First, identify an area in your city or town with existing ecological resources. These resources will vary from region to region–in the Southwest, for example, shade, topsoil and water are important, while in the Northwest, being outside the flood plain and having access to seasonal sun might be deciding factors. Ecological resources are any and all conditions that increase the potential for sustainability in the neighborhood.
Next, ask yourself the following questions:
A) Could my eco-minded friends afford to move here?
B) Is this neighborhood within walking or biking distance from town/grocery/school/work?
C) What is the culture of the neighborhood? Would it be receptive to the concept of an EcoHood?
D) Does the area have an existing Homeowner’s Association? Would the visual and structural changes involved in an EcoHood (i.e., rainwater cisterns, solar panels) be acceptable under its terms?
E) Is this a place I (and my community) would like to call home?
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, you may have identified the next EcoHood–yours.
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren (Holmgren Design Services, 2002)
Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann (New Society Publishers, 2003)
The Permaculture Activist, Winter 2005-6 Issue, “Urban Permaculture” PO Box 1209W, Black Mountain, NC 28711 http://www.permacultureactivist.net
The City Repair Project PO Box 42615, Portland, Oregon 97242 http://www.cityrepair.org
Arizona Uplands Permaculture Andrew Millison http://www.millisonecological.com
ECOSA Institute’s Permaculture Certification Course 212B S. Marina St., Prescott AZ 86303 http://www.ecosainstitute.org