Harvesting Civic Culture in a Neglected Filbert Grove

Reader Contribution by Jan Spencer
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My first blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS were about my quarter-acre suburban property. For 16 years, I have been creating a suburban permaculture landmark in the Northwest — grass to garden, reclaimed automobile space, passive-solar retrofits, edible landscaping all over, energy-saving investments, 6,500-gallon rainwater catchment system. See www.SuburbanPermaculture.org for more info and photos.

Graphic of a transformed suburban property using permaculture techniques

Vision for Sustainable Communities

During the same 16 years, the growing threat posed by a changing climate has stimulated interest in technology that is more planet friendly: solar electric, windmills, passive house, electric cars, etc.

Overall, these technologies fall short. They are still products of mainstream economic thinking. For the most part, they are still supply sided, meaning, they are still intended to support a growing demand — automobiles (eco/social footprint of a car is far more than simply carbon), energy-intensive food system, homes that are still too large (kudos to tiny houses). Advertising that claims a product to be green does not necessarily make it so.

This writer believes consumer culture, even the emerging greener version, does not honestly address the deepening trends. Mainstream “green” strategies still take too much from planet Earth. A very different set of goals and culture is called for.

Green technologies and home scale permaculture are urgently needed, but to address climate change, damage to the natural world and economic malpractice; the goal should be to trade consumer culture for a culture where humans fit within their ecological and economic means. In simple terms: to use and buy less, to live closer to home, to consume far less meat and animal products, to trade “stuff” for social uplift and human relationships.

Notably and importantly, the positive values and ideals for an eco-logical culture are the same as values advocated by the world’s great spiritual traditions – service to the community, care for the natural world, uplift of the spirit and modesty of lifestyle. A society, economy, and culture based on living within our means would addresses almost every social and environmental challenge of our time.

Over the coming several months, this writer’s blog will describe and explain a variety of real-ife examples of people who are pioneers, taking initiatives that provide a preview of what fitting in might look like. Fitting in can take place at home, work, play, anywhere — rural, urban and suburban. Most of these stories take place at the neighborhood scale. They typically involve multiple civic entities working together. The goal, to create green and resilient homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture.

Civic Culture Sparked in a Neglected Filbert Grove

The first story comes from my neighborhood here in Eugene.

The east side of our neighborhood for almost two miles is the Willamette River which includes a greenway park along both sides of the river featuring beautiful urban bike paths that go for miles. There are no cars in the greenway.

Eight blocks from my home is a 65-tree filbert (hazelnut) grove in the greenway. Planted in the 1940s, the grove predates the greenway by decades. Until six years ago, the trees were covered with a tangle of blackberries and English ivy. I passed by the grove on the bike path for years.

Finally, after close to 10 years of inaction, I realized we could do something with the grove. I found that the city of Eugene had a program to empower people in the community to take on projects on public property. The city would actually help organize work parties, provide tools and even offer snacks for the volunteers.

Early work party in the filbert grove.

So we started to restore the grove. People from the neighborhood helped. Over the years, fraternities and Chinese student groups from the U of Oregon helped. A church youth group helped two times and feasted on pizza after work.

The work parties were fun, the site is beautiful, along the river, no cars, bike path. We did cut out the black berries, did a lot of pruning, we fertilized, mowed, coordinated with the city.

Church youth group helps in the filbert grove.

The filbert grove project offers a preview of a greener future where citizens take on more responsibility for the well being of their neighborhoods and community. People learn new skills and make friends at the work parties, but perhaps most important, they learn the idea of “civic culture,” a very desirable condition where people actively participate in making where they live a better place. Civic culture is strong on building social skills, that put people and planet friendly values and ideals into action for creating green and resilient communities.

At the work parties, participants hear the story about citizen-city collaboration, the ideas of local food security, citizen initiative, greening the neighborhood and reducing our eco footprint. Our neighborhood association has been helpful. The grove is one of four areas in our neighborhood along the greenway where citizen volunteers have agreements with the city to look after public property. These are all elements of local civic culture, taking on responsibility and taking action for the good of friends, neighbors and the environment.

Most cities do not have time or money to do this kind of work and community building but it should be “regular” people stepping up anyway. A thoughtful look, even at familiar places, can reveal surprising opportunities for citizens to take initiative.

The citizen projects in the greenway have all built a trust and relationships with the city. We now have agreements with the city where we help remove invasive species by hand rather than the city using herbicides.

We have more ideas for future collaborations. These lessons and actions will only become more important as time goes on for creating more green and resilient homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture.

This past fall was the best filbert harvest in decades for the grove. I saw many people out collecting nuts. Its come one, come all.

Almost any neighborhood, suburban, rural, urban, has places people can “repair” — a stream, open space, underused buildings, community need. Upcoming blog posts will profile other places building civic culture. If you know of projects that deserve some recognition, please contact me. Finally, I have a new poster – Creating Green and Resent Homes, Neighborhoods, Economy and Culture. Here’s a link to see the poster.

Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home, including food, energy, water, and culture. Read a draft preface for his forthcoming book, Notes from the Suburban Frontier at www.SuburbanPermaculture.orgHe is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. Find his contact info, CV and more topics he can address on his website, and click here to read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts. 

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