Modern society is transfixed with labels and definitions. Our children receive labels, our personality traits receive labels, even our personal preferences, like a desire to protect the Earth, fall under numerous labels that really are often interchangeable. Some for example include sustainable living, green living, and environmentalism.
Urban homesteading is just one of these many definitions created within the past few decades as more and more urban dwellers rethink their habits of consumption and environmental impact. Homesteading refers to a type of self-sufficiency, formerly associated with rural America and of course, urban refers to any location within a city or even suburb.
Urban homesteaders seek to apply the principles of old-fashioned self-sufficiency to their lives within a city or suburban setting. Erik Knutzen and his wife, Kelly Coyne, are authors of the popular book "The Urban Homestead" about the couple's urban homesteading journey in Los Angeles. It's a kind of resource guide and how-to manual for urban dwellers interested in the homesteading movement. Knutzen recently spoke on May 21 at Experimental Station in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood on urban homesteading and what that concept means to him.
Plain and simple, the ideas for him come down to "common sense". Knutzen, with a dry wit and a conciseness of phrasing, spoke to the crowd of about 50, (made up of what appeared to be mostly nearby University of Chicago grads and undergrads) on several activities that are highlighted in his book. Those activities, when done from scratch using common ingredients, very often naturally bring forth a superior outcome. He illustrated each point with simple and lighthearted reflections from his own experiences.
-On bread making: "I'm not a luddite, I've got my Kitchen Aid mixer"
-beer making "If you can make soup you can make beer"
-pickling: (he uses lacto-fermentation to "get a living food")
-urban foraging: "we were hunter-gatherers at one point after all"
-guerilla gardening: "you begin to see the wasted space in America"
-raising animals like backyard chickens and ducks "we need to be in touch with [animals], we're out of touch with them"
-beekeeping "ideal for rooftops"
-bicycling (he rides an Xtracycle): "I will go several miles out of my way not to get into a confrontation with angry SUV drivers, I've been there, done that"
-and greywater systems: his favorite source is the couple's washing machine.
But, Knutzen took note of his failures, like the time the couple's large canned stash of sun dried tomatoes was discovered infiltrated with moth larvae. He also recounted an episode of "exploding chestnuts" caused by his failure to pierce the nuts prior to roasting them. However, he emphasized the importance of celebrating those imperfections as learning experiences.
"You've got to keep plugging away, you've got to keep trying," he said.
Knutzen returned time and again to the theme of urban homesteading and self-suffiency as a very powerful endeavor, his favorite description of urban homesteading activities being "cultural alchemy".
He ended the evening's talk by touching on "community building" which he believes is one of the most important aspects of urban homesteading. He referred to "timebanking", something that he and Coyne participate in frequently with their fellow neighbors in and around LA.
Timebanking is a process in which members of a local community organize to share their time and skills in a barter and trade agreement and no exchange of money. The process not only allows members of the community to reap the benefits of help from their neighbors on household projects, personal services (like child care), wellness services, education, business services and sharing transportation, but it also forms strong bonds within the local community as residents learn about and from one another.
Knutzen said he hopes that others will learn some of the same skills that he's discovered and reach out to their neighbors to share their skills in positive ways through timebanking, community gardening or other collective actions. His philosophy is that community building and working with your neighbors is a more effective action to help the environment.
"What's most important is what's going on at the neighborhood level."