To Create a Sustainable City, We Must Re-Engineer our Thinking

Reader Contribution by Christopher Nyerges

Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, I did not have an immediate knowledge of where our food and water came from.  I turned on the faucet for water, plugged cords into the wall for electricity, and went to the store for food. Yes, my city had been engineered for me, and I was just mindlessly playing my role.

At a young age, I felt that there was something wrong with my ignorance. Even worse, no one else seemed to be aware of our unawareness.  Everything came from somewhere else.  One salvation for me was that my mother grew up on a farm, and would tell tales of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl where many people had no food, and some starved to death. My mother’s family were poor by most standards, but they had 51 acres in rural Ohio and they fed themselves and many others. My mother’s stories inspired me to become an ethno-botanist, and to learn about how all plants were used in the past. 

Though I did not pursue the path of “urban planning,” I realized that I had many choices within the framework of my suburban life where I could ecologically engineer my life.

Personal Choices

My first teenage forays were into backyard urban gardening and raising chickens in a tiny space.  I didn’t want to be dependent on commercial fertilizers and bug-sprays, so I learned the ages-old methods of agricultural, methods that people today call “organic” or “perma-culture.”  I learned that anyone could indeed produce at least some of their food in the least amount of space. 

Even in my late teenage years, I had critics who told me it was not practical to grow foods without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  Really?  I followed the path of Fusuoka and his “One Straw Revolution,” and the Rodale family, and insisted on growing everything with nothing artificial. I learned to keep down the bug population with natural methods that had been practiced world-wide for millennia.  I knew that the so-called Green Revolution, based as it was on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides was partly a fraud, and was not sustainable into the future centuries.

I continued my botanical studies by learning about the uses of wild plants of the Native Americans. I found to my surprise that all the foods used by the indigenous population could still be found throughout my homeland, though it was necessary to hunt a bit more because of all the houses, roads, and modern landscaping that has taken over the land.  Yes, the engineering of the concrete city has destroyed much of the territory for these native foods, but they were not entirely gone.

I began to eat these wild plants that had sustained people for millennia, and I incorporated them into my regular diet.  When I first began to share with others my excitement of these floral treasures, I  was treated with mostly apathy, sometimes scorn, and even pity.  I was amazed! 

Re-Engineering My Own Mind

In the mid-1970s in Los Angeles County,  I began publicly teaching and writing about the practical skills of self-reliance and practical survival in the city.  I was not engineering the city, but I was working to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city.

Today, there is a renaissance and a great interest in the knowledge of our ancestors.  And it’s never too late to begin to seek our roots, and to turn around some of habits of ecological suicide.  I believe that we can solve many of our problems today by looking to the past for some of our solutions.

Here in Southern California, we have barely gotten over a four-year drought, which has finally inspired politicians and water department movers-and-shakers to encourage the millions of people who live here to consume less water.  With water usage averaging about 131 gallons a day for Los Angeles residents, and an ever-growing population of about 5% a year, water must always be a concern, as it will always be for most major cities of the world. 

The mayor of Los Angeles, and water department officials, are encouraging people to tear out their lawns and install drought-tolerant plantings.  I encourage people to go even one step further. Actually, a few steps further.  Yes, learn about the wild plants which are edible and medicinal, and encourage them. They will grow without your care.  And never merely plant “ornamentals,” that is, plants who do not provide food, or medicine, or good mulch from their leaves.  Plant with a purpose to feed your body  and your soul. 

To help irrigate these useful plants, I’m a big proponent of simple grey-water recycling, where your sink and washing machine water are piped into your backyard garden or front yard orchard.  Not every single city dweller can do this, but enough can do it to make a large difference.  Yes, certain changes are essential, such as buying soaps that contain to dyes, colors, or harmful chemicals. Continuing education is a big part of self-reliance and sustainability.  Recycling your grey-water means that you are getting at least two uses from water which previously you used only once.  Practically speaking, for every gallon of water you recycle, you have effective created another gallon of water for your use which does not have to be imported from somewhere else!

With the population of Southern California that continually grows, there is the growing need for more food and more water, as a function of increased population.  This unfortunately means even more land paved over for more houses or apartments.  Thus, the very soil which all ancient civilizations knew was the foundation of a healthy society becomes more and more rare. This should not be the case, even though it seems all but inevitable.

Our very lifeblood is dependent on the soil in so many ways.  Water, food, everything.

However, urban people need to re-learn these very basic ecological principles.  Our very laws, and attitudes – especially in the more-“developed” countries — work against our long-term sustainability.

Urban Sustainability

Here in Southern California, the green lawn is still the norm in the sprawling suburban flatlands.  Never-ending flows of water (from somewhere) is the expectation.  The mindset must turn around, and it will begin with enlightened individuals who see that inappropriate lifestyles in an over-populated dry terrain are the antithesis of survival. As attitudes change – and slowly they are – the laws of the land need to support the water-wise practices that support sustainability. 

As a lifelong-educator in the uses of common wild plants, I cringe when I see television advertisements for such products as Roundup, and others, designed to kill off the unwanted vegetation of urban gardens and landscapes.  You know, such plants as dandelions and other healthful herbs called “weeds” which they picture in their ads.

To me, a student of the wild plants and the things growing in the faraway and neglected places, using a chemical like Roundup to “clean up” a wild area is a sacrilege.  Further,  bankers and land investors do not necessarily see the land as a source of life, recreation, fulfillment, and community. Rather, increasingly, the desire is to extract the greatest financial benefit from the land. Land that has nothing built upon it is all too often described as “non-performing real estate.”  That is the mentality which has caused the urban sprawl to sprawl even further, while diminishing the very sustainability from the land that we all need.  “Engineering” the city should not be simply building ever-more structures on the diminishing landscape. We should be re-engineering our thinking so we can get more from less, in ways that are both healthful and ecological. 

The Quiet Revolution

I am a pioneer of the path of the green and sustainable revolution.  You won’t find me protesting in the streets for changes, but you might find me in a city council meeting, or in a garden, or in a wilderness area.  I work with people one at a time. I have found that once an individual sees that the so-called weeds in an empty field are actually great nutritious food or medicine, they suddenly take a very personal interest in protecting and care-taking the land. Once individuals learn that the water from their very households can water their own garden and herb-patch, they become quite alert and aware of the quality of any soaps they are using, and they begin to use only those that are biodegradable, as a result of enlightened self-interest.  Suddenly, living an ecological urban life becomes very personal.

There are many paths to urban sustainability. This is the path I have chosen.

Christopher Nyerges works to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city. He has taught self-reliance and sustainability his entire life through the teaching of ethnobotany and principles of permaculture. Nyerges is the author of 23 books including Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money, Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City, How to Survive Anywhere, and others. He is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance, and works actively with various non-profits for the goals of urban sustainability.


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