Tag Archives: Housing

Bottles to Bricks: An Idea Worth Spreading

Of Elephants and Castles

When I am in the US, I am admittedly a bit of an anti-soda humbug (“anti-pop” for my readers in Minnesota). It’s not just that soda is gratuitously unhealthy, but the bottles that contain it are as bad for the environment as their contents are for your body. Even if you recycle your plastic bottles, they’re still wreaking environmental havoc.

In Uganda, I’ve become much less anti-soda. This is due to no less than three factors: 1: Soda here is not made with high fructose corn syrup, as it is in the US. 2: It is much more common to find soda in glass bottles than plastic bottles here, and the empty glass bottles are ultimately re-used. 3: There is a delightful, gingery soda called “Stoney Tangawizi” which can only be found in East Africa (to my knowledge).

And now there’s even better news: SOMEONE HAS FOUND A USEFUL AND…

View original post 508 more words

Advertisements

Gardens in the Sky!

While January 13 may seem rather late for my first post of 2012, the subject of this post will seem rather early in the year for the majority of my readers who are in the northern hemisphere. I’m leaving plenty of time to plan and scheme to make this happen…

A few years ago, I saw a church in North Minneapolis that had expanded its community garden to cover part of its parking lot. No, they didn’t tear up the parking lot and replace it with the garden, they just created a garden on top of the asphalt.

I don’t know why this was so surprising to me at the time — if relatively tall and healthy plants can grow in pots which have less than a foot of dirt on top of plastic, why not on at least a foot of dirt mounded in rows on top of asphalt? In any case, the fact that people were growing food on top of a parking lot demonstrates the popularity of community gardens, but also the dwindling amount of space for such gardens in densely populated areas. Community gardening is more than just a fun weekend activity. As the world becomes more populated and more urbanised, urban agriculture is being recognised as a important component of food security.

So far, the amount of available land seems to be the main constraint on the growth of urban agriculture. But the garden-on-asphalt suggests there may be a way around that.

Green Roofs are already growing in popularity for new construction projects. Community gardens are already popular on the ground. But as far as I know, these two concepts have not been merged on the scale I now propose:

The Idea: Gardens in the Sky!

Rather than suggest that we start installing rooftop gardens on new buildings, I believe there are already plenty of existing garden-ready surfaces in places where people already live. I would suggest that there are three criteria a surface must meet to be viable for rooftop gardening:

1. It must be flat. Sorry, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Door County is not a suitable model

2. It must have a large, continuous surface area. If it is to be viable as anything more than a hobby garden for a few individuals, the surface needs to be large, and if it is to be functional, the area needs to be mostly continuous

3. It must be in a densely populated area. This isn’t necessary for the rooftop garden per se, but if it’s not in such an area, then it wouldn’t have much advantage over the conventional ground-level garden.

There are a few places that meet these criteria for sky gardens. The first that came to mind was the area in Loring Park near downtown Minneapolis where I lived several years ago. Here’s are screenshots from Google Street View and Bing’s Bird’s eye view of the street on which we used to live:  

As you can see, these apartment buildings are the same height, probably because they were built around the same era in the early 1900s. They are all relatively close together, making it possible to join them with walkways to make an even larger continuous area. There are plenty of areas with this same characteristic (concentrated apartment buildings of almost uniform height) in older neighbourhoods in most American cities. For example, these rowhouses in Washington, DC would make a good candidate:

Another category of rooftop suitable for sky gardens is the mass-produced concrete apartment blocks that sprung up in every country the Soviets touched. What these buildings lack in style or charm, they more than make up for in sky garden-suitability!  Once again, uniform height and close proximity would make it possible to link several buildings’ roofs together to make one continuously accesible surface.

One of these pictures is from Mongolia, and one from Latvia. Can you tell them apart?

Sky gardens in those parts of the former Soviet Union with heavy groundwater and soil contamination would have an extra advantage over ground-level agriculture.

So far I’ve been focusing on groups of buildings of uniform height that could be amalgamated into one large growing area. But, there’s one more category of building that rivals the Soviet apartment blocks in both architectural elegance and sky garden-readiness. These individual buildings are suitably massive by themselves, without any need to be  adjoined to adjacent buildings. I’m talking, of course, about the big box stores.

Here are a few stats to consider: the average Super Target covers 174,000 square feet or 4 acres. The largest Wal-Mart (in Albany, NY) covers 260,000 square feet, or almost 6 acres! That’s plenty of room to grow anything. Heck, even I might be convinced to darken the doors of a Wal-Mart if I could buy the most local produce possible — grown directly above the place where it’s sold.

There might be some other surfaces that meet the criteria for sky gardening: public housing projects in the US? Certain airport terminals? I don’t know, maybe you can help me think of more.

I’m also aware that there might be some technical challenges to sky gardening that wouldn’t bedevil conventional green roofs. Maybe you can help me identify those and find a way around.

THOUGHTS???

No Gentrification without Taxation!

I’m beginning to realise that “Social Enterprise” might be too narrow a category for  the focus of this blog.  Perhaps a better term would be “Social Economics”?

In any case, today’s post is not actually a proposal for a new tax but rather for an alteration in how property taxes are collected.  I’d like to provide some context for my thinking here through a personal reflection.  If you find such introspection in blogs tiresome, skip ahead to the picture of a Cuttlefish.

What are you thinking?

As a white person in a predominately African-American neighbourhood, I realise that my very presence portends gentrification to some.  Among neighbours with whom I’ve built a relationship, I’m treated as “one of us,” but I realise that perception is not universal.  Granted, I don’t drive a Subaru or Prius, and I don’t own skinny jeans, so that probably helps.

Since a tornado devastated our block on May 22, I’ve had quite a few conversations with neighbours about what will/should happen next to North Minneapolis.*  There seems to be a range of feelings:

Some are afraid that with so many houses destroyed and residents demoralised, outsiders, or the City itself will take the opportunity to buy up lots of property, level old houses and build new condos or some other yuppie-magnet.

Others are hopeful that all the tornado relief money coming in from government and non-profits will present an opportunity for revitalization of an area that desperately needs it.  To some, though “Revitalization” is a code-word for “Gentrification.”  There’s a range of feelings in between, but it has presented a conundrum for me: Can an economically-depressed neighbourhood prosper and develop without driving out low-income residents who have lived there a long time and who often are the heart and soul of the neighbourhood?

Get on with it!

I don’t really want to start a debate over the merits of gentrification, but I do want to highlight one negative aspect of gentrification that I’m trying to address with this proposal, and one positive aspect that I’d like to preserve, and indeed, enhance.

The Bad: Many of my friends and relatives who live in the suburbs can’t understand how rising property values (and gentrification) could ever be a bad thing, especially for property owners.  One reason is that, as property values rise, so do property taxes.  This is true everywhere, but in low-income neighbourhoods, property taxes often account for a much higher percentage of mortgage payments–or put another way, the T is a much bigger part of the PITI.

Now, if your mortgage payment is already a sizable portion of your monthly income, and your property taxes are a sizable portion of your mortgage payment, a steady increase in property taxes could bust a tight budget.  As the process of gentrification gains steam, more and more people in this very situation are forced to move away.

To me, the loss of affordable housing is problem enough.  But there’s also a cultural loss that can’t be quantified — neighbourhoods take on their own character because of the long-term residents.  Williamsburg and Park Slope might be trendy and popular right now, but Harlem and the Upper West Side endure as strong communities because of the people and families who lived there long enough to feel that they had a stake in their neighbourhood.

The Good: A potential benefit of gentrification and revitalization is that it allows an asset (property) to give a very good Return on Investment to people who bought homes before the neighbourhood was gentrified.  Of course, if they can’t afford the increasing property taxes, they won’t be able to stick around long enough to see the value of their house appreciate as much.

So: My proposal is that municipalities levy property taxes on a sliding scale based on how long the current owner has owned the house.  All properties would still be assessed each year and the taxes would change based on the assessment, but the baseline would be different.

Different municipalities would have to determine their own formulae, and this proposal would probably only need to be used in low-income neighbourhoods where property values are rising rapidly. One problem I see that would have to be worked around is that this could be disadvantageous to younger homeowners.

This is obviously a very rough idea, and maybe it could be expressed through some other mechanism, but property taxes seem to make the most sense.

THOUGHTS???

*It’s worth noting that in the days after the tornado, some people mistook me for a volunteer who’d come to help with cleanup efforts, and were somewhat surprised and relieved to learn that I was actually a resident who’d been affected by the storm.