Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Greening the Urban Jungle

The future was 42 years ago

Michelle Obama is getting a vegetable garden going in what was once part of the White House lawn. Good for her. I hope her example has a profound effect on the 49 other states and the District of Columbia.

In Oregon, of course, we don’t need that encouragement. To be a true Oregonian, you have to get your fingernails dirty. You have to dig in the dirt , starting right about now (See Ketzel Levine over in the left column). Sure you can wear work gloves, but it’s just not the same. Wearing work gloves for gardening is like using an umbrella when it rains. It’s for wusses—aka, transplants.

I usually wait until the middle of May to plant my veggie garden, because we all know the sun won’t shine and make crops grow until probably July. I do get the flowers going and plant some seeds in pots and mess around with the compost. Last year, I dug up all the lawn in the front yard and converted it to vegetable garden, though I left the strip between the sidewalk and the street. This year, that's going, too. My back yard is really small and too shaded by neighboring trees, but it provides plenty of ranging room for my hens.

At least I have a yard. A lot of people don't. I suppose the folks who purchased condos in the Pearl made a conscious choice to live without a yard (and thus, without yard work). Thousands of others, however, live in apartment complexes where the only things growing are the ficus trees in the lobby and the intermittent shrubs amidst yards of barkdust on the berm between the parking lot and the street.

Portland's propensity for density has left some parts of the city barren of arable land. This became a sore subject over at BlueOregon a while back, with the usual anti-planning stalwarts citing the lack of garden space as another reason why there should be no urban growth boundary, so that vast suburban tracts of single family homes can spring up across the countryside and let a million gardens bloom. Some people just hate the idea of real cities and they will use any straw man argument that comes along to dispute the notion of growing a city up rather than out, never mind that growing out means replacing honest agriculture on our best soils with faux agriculture, aka well-manicured lawns.

Hate to say it, but they do have a point. With today's urban design, it's awfully hard to grow your own tomatoes in a high rise apartment complex. Some apartment dwellers are lucky enough to have space in a community garden, and they are going to cling to those little plots like a New Yorker with a rent-controlled tenement.

So let's redesign the way apartments are built. A number of small measure can be implemented and some already have. For example, the city has financial incentives for developers to install “eco-roofs” on their buildings. The primary reason for this is to reduce rain runoff and thus not overload the sewer system, but these green roofs could also support high rise tenant or community gardens. Unfortunately, most of them look as if someone threw a few bags of wildflower seeds around and walked away.

I'm not sure the city should mandate greener green roofs, but the incentives ought to go further and encourage the growing of food. The city also should mandate proper balconies on all new apartment buildings, and not those fenced in ledges like you see on the Belmont Dairy.

Useless landscaping and excessive parking can also be transformed into garden space. Recently, a very ordinary suburban-style apartment complex was turned into an “ecovillage” by Ole and Maitri Ersson The Kailash Ecovillage boasts a huge garden space in what formerly was part of the parking lot, Formerly the low-rent, often troubled Cabana apartments, the Kailash is now appreciated by its tenants and neighbors.

But even the Kailash is small potatoes compared to what could be designed from the ground up. For one thing, people with families usually prefer to live in their own houses and have their own yards. And yet, single family homes are at a premium in most parts of Portland, even in this down economy. It's a little easier to find an affordable house now than a year ago, but not necessarily in the vicinity of a good elementary school or easy access to mass transportation.

Creating houses with yards, however, will take up too much of our precious space, won't it? Maybe not. The answer may come from a 42-year-old development in Montreal, known as Habitat 67.

Picture McCormick Pier on steroids. It's a condo development with the difference that one person's roof is another person's back yard, and so on. Designed for the Montreal Expo in 1967 by the architect Moshe Safdie, Habitat aspires to be a hill town built on a flat surface.

"Safdie's dwelling complex 'Habitat' was designed to give 'privacy, fresh air, sunlight and suburban amenities in an urban location.' It was designed as a permanent settlement and consists of 158 dwellings, although originally it was intended to provide 1,000 units. The resulting ziggurat was made up of independent prefabricated boxes with fifteen different plan types."

  • Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History.

Not all of the units in Habitat have gardens, though many do and some actually have trees growing on those roof/balconies. I don't know if anyone planted a lawn but there definitely are vegetable gardens there.

Safdie envisioned Habitat as a way of building low cost housing for families. Ironically, the uniqueness of this concept has made the units highly desirable and they now are among the highest priced real estate in Montreal. Neither he nor anyone else has built anything like it since. A big reason why Habitat never reached the 900 units that were originally planned is that it cost far more to build this structure than he thought.

Yet now, with land prices being a major cost of development, one would think someone would try to improve on Safdie's design. Certainly, there must have been improvements in building materials that would lower costs, and the way the thing is so strangely configured could be loosened up a bit by departing from the cube-only scheme. For my money, the places could be built so that there's more yard in one place, perhaps by stacking just enough of each unit on the top of the other and supporting the rest of it in another manner.

So anyway, what's the deal? Does anyone have an answer as to why this concept has never been tried again?

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