An Introduction to Urban Homesteading (With a Net-Zero Twist)

Have you seen Our First Attainable Home?

It’s super exciting. But one of my first questions had to do with the yard. How does it figure into all our eco-friendly, energy-efficient, green living ways?

If you’re enthusiastic about all things net-zero and energy efficiency, chances are you realize that our efforts don’t end at the back door.

And I wasn’t the only one. When I emailed Erin about it, he replied: I actually have discovered this to be an interest to many people. When they found out I’ve done a net-zero home some have instantly asked about this aspect of it.

If you haven’t come across it already, we’d like to introduce you to the concept of urban homesteading.

Beyond the House to the (Sub)Urban Homestead

If you’ve ever wondered how to start where the house ends, the idea of urban homesteading might interest you. But let’s define some terms first.

What does “homestead” mean?

Merriam-Webster defines “homestead” as
1a: the home and adjoining land occupied by a family
b: an ancestral home
c: HOUSE
2: a tract of land acquired from U.S. public lands by filing a record and living on and cultivating the tract

For my personal definition, here’s what I would add to the first entry.

The homestead residents assume they will meet as many of their own needs as possible using the resources at hand on the property or nearby.

Little House in the Subdivision

Some of my own ancestors had the kind of homestead in the second definition, the kind we all remember from Little House on the Prairie. (If that wasn’t part of your childhood, go to your library and check it out ASAP.)

Gertrude Spurr Cutts- Coming upon the homestead, 1892 Wikimedia Commons

Those kind of pioneers may have been several miles removed from the nearest neighbors, going it alone. But historically, that isn’t the norm for humans.  And for most of us, it isn’t even an option. By choice or by circumstances, we live in urban or suburban settings.

But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with just a “house” instead of a “homestead.”

Urban homesteading brings homesteading home for a new generation!

Homestead Needs and Resources

When I picture a pioneer homestead, my mind often jumps to farming and how they produced most of their own food. (I feel better somehow, knowing that even Pa and Ma bought coffee from far away when they had the chance, though.)

But settlers had to consider more than just the fertility of the land for growing crops. 

Water

First and foremost, they had to have a source of water, be it a river, stream or well.

Materials

They needed materials to use to construct a home (and outbuildings). This may have been timber or stone.  In the case of my own ancestors, it was blocks of prairie sod. They were limited to what was readily available!

File:Keldur 01.jpg
A sod structure in Iceland. Christian Bickel, Wikimedia Commons

Energy

They didn’t hook up their log cabins or sod dugouts to the local grid.  They had to have a way to meet their own energy needs for heating, cooking, washing, and more—not just immediately, but for years to come.

Stacking functions: a stream could supply both water and power. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

From the Farm to the Suburbs

With the Industrial Revolution, change happened fast, though.

Most of us grew up assuming that our homes (built of imported and often synthetic materials) and yards (mostly manicured lawns) never produced any of the water, power or food we consumed. Personally, at least, I was blissfully unaware of the source of any of those precious resources.

Photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash

Contrast that to the childhood of my great grandparents!

We can’t turn back the clock to pioneer times, and honestly, we wouldn’t really want to.  Our great grandparents were humans, after all. They probably would have been glad to drive to the grocery store for a gallon of milk instead of getting up early to milk the cows.

But maybe we can start from where we are now, take a few lessons from the past, and apply them to a more sustainable future.

Redefining Normal With Urban Homesteading

We’ve heard a lot about the “new normal” over the past year. (Surpassed only by the use of the word “unprecedented,” I’m guessing.) Members of younger generations spent a lot more time at home than ever before, and we’ve gained some perspective.

I think it’s a great time to choose what our new normal is going to be!

Here at Attainable Home, there’s a lot of focus on what’s new.  We love new tech, new methods for efficiency, new construction techniques, you name it.

Urban homesteading, for me, is the best of combining the old with the new. It’s a way to take the technologies of recent centuries and apply them to undoing the damage our “progress” has caused—to the earth, ourselves, and our communities.

Here are some thoughts.

“Self”-Sufficiency Isn’t Really a Thing.

There are things we will never be able to produce ourselves, any more than Pa Ingalls could have grown coffee beans in South Dakota. And it’s worth importing some of those things (can you tell I like coffee?) while doing our best to know where they came from. 

Most of us, like it or not, are going to be stuck with a day job so we will have cash to pay for the majority of our necessities (and luxuries).

We will also never be able to do everything ourselves.  But the original homesteaders were masters of pooling their resources: knowledge, supplies and labor. They came together as communities to ask, “How can we meet our own (collective) needs?”  This is a value we would do well to cultivate in our neighborhoods.

Needs and Resources in 2021: Water, Materials, Energy, and Food in an Urban Homesteading Mindset

Water

If you live in a typical home, you’re already hooked up to the city water supply. We don’t have a lot of say in the matter. But many areas are having trouble meeting the water needs of their residents. And it’s only projected to get worse in coming years.

source

Rainwater Collection = Free Irrigation for the Urban Homestead

One of the best “homesteading” actions you can take is to start learning how to keep the rain that falls on your property ON your property. Subdivisions are normally set up to divert all the stormwater into the sewers, and that creates a host of problems all on its own.

Then we use drinking water to keep our lawns green.

If you’re a big DIY-er, you can set up any number of catchment systems to collect the rainwater from your roof. Then you can use that water to irrigate your outside plants instead of turning on the tap.

Setting up your landscape to prevent runoff and send water where you want it is another great place to start. Good planning or a rain garden can save you the step of collecting the rainwater and then putting it on your plants.

Summer info-graphic for timing large

Materials

Again, if you already own a home, you have very little control over what it’s made of.  But you can consider, going forward, the source of materials you might need for future improvements or projects.

Our pioneer ancestors were repurposing long before it was cool.  They couldn’t run to Lowe’s for a seemingly endless supply of new materials. Let’s re-claim that value (hey, it saves money, too!). Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are great resources to find used materials, sometimes even for free! (There are even whole houses made of free/reclaimed materials.  Have you seen the Earthship?)

And when you do need to purchase something new, take into account its overall carbon footprint.

Energy

This is right at the intersection of urban homesteading and net-zero. How we meet our future energy needs is going to have an enormous impact on our climate. But it can also impact our self-sufficiency and our personal finances!

Pre-Industrial-Age, every community or household had to be responsible for its own energy needs. The massive power outages in the recent winter storms are just the latest example of the hazards of depending on energy that’s coming from a long distance, generated by sources we have no immediate control over.

Solar

Solar power is the ultimate in local energy production, and it’s come a long way in recent years! Not every roof or lot is ideally situated to take advantage of the sun’s power, though.  In that case, community solar could be a great solution.

Wind and Geothermal

Wind power is becoming more and more popular as a source for power companies; depending on your property, there might be ways to take advantage of it on a smaller scale.

Geothermal power is often a great option for houses.  Its main drawback is its upfront cost.  If you can afford it, though, you’ll have a reliable, low-cost heating and cooling source for many years.

Muscle

I’m also a big fan of using people power whenever possible.  Why buy gasoline to mow the lawn? We got a reel mower and a scythe instead. Why pay for a gym membership when I can get my workout in the garden? Which ties right into our other most basic need…

Food

Fresh Veggies

Locally produced food has gotten a lot of press lately.  Well, it doesn’t get any fresher or more local than what you grow in your own back (or front!) yard.

Salad, anyone? Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

No matter your climate or location, there is something you can grow for yourself.  And just a standard suburban lot can yield an astounding amount of food.

If you’re completely new to gardening, I love the site Attainable Sustainable. (We’re not affiliated in any way, despite the similar name! But we definitely share some similar values.) Click through for pages and pages of inspiration on all the things this article is too short for.  Composting, canning, preserving, edible landscaping and reducing your carbon footprint are just a few of the topics you can dive into. She has also recently opened up a course for container gardening aimed at total newbies. And you don’t even need a yard!

If you don’t have so much as even a driveway or balcony, you can even garden indoors!

Fresh Eggs

Now, it’s unfortunately easy to neglect a garden. If you want something more entertaining and rewarding, though, you should consider a flock of backyard chickens.  They need surprisingly little space.  And they are fluffy little garbage disposals who will happily consume your food scraps and turn them into fresh eggs! Plus, they are just so much fun.

Chickens are the life of the homestead party. Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

The site and forum at Backyard Chickens is a great place to get started.

A Garden Alternative: the CSA

Gardening is near and dear to my heart.  But there are seasons—the literal kind, and the life kind—when it’s just not working out.  Last year, frustrated by how little my garden was producing, I joined a local CSA. (Actually, for the first season, I joined two! Then stayed with the one that made more sense for us in the next season.)

CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” Local farmers sell “shares” of their crops to individuals before the season starts.  The payments allow them to cover their operating costs.  Then, each week, members receive a share of whatever veggies are in season. They might go pick up their share at the farm, or the farmer might deliver right to their door!

The value of the CSA isn’t just in the amazing veggies (and eggs, bread, salsa, herbal teas, etc.) they’ve provided us over the past year. I’m also getting a fantastic education. They are happy to give farm tours during pickup every Monday.  I’m able to see how the plantings change with the seasons, and learn what can be grown in my exact climate, and how. It’s been so much more relevant than reading articles online. Our family has tried a number of new veggies, and now I know which ones we like enough that it’s worth growing them myself.

Note: I found our CSA through our local extension office’s website.  Localharvest.org is another place to look.

Other Needs

Water, food and power are our basic needs, but they certainly aren’t the only ones.  Urban homesteading values could spill over into a community clothing swap.  Neighbors could barter other skills—childcare, haircuts, auto repair, building, animal care, etc. How many more can you think of?

Urban Homesteading and The Growing Importance of Resiliency

Really, it’s less about self-sufficiency and more about resiliency. A year ago I walked the aisles of a grocery store with almost empty shelves. It didn’t even matter whether I had money or not because there was nothing to buy. That experience was mercifully short-lived. But it was pretty sobering with a family at home to feed.  

Even without a big crisis, inflation is always going to be a fact of life in this economy. And wages are not keeping up with it.

Urban homesteading is a way to be less at the mercy of the economy. The more of our own personal and community needs we can meet ourselves, the more secure and resilient we will be.

Do You Have a Net-Zero Urban Homestead?

If you’re striving for a net-zero lifestyle, do you also see yourself as an urban homesteader? What are the values that inform what you do with your yard? How does community play into that? We really want to hear your stories. 

Leave us a comment or send us an email.

Meanwhile, here are some resources and links for inspiration:

A good overview to get started: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2017/08/07/urban-homesteading-get-started/

The original Urban Homestead: https://urbanhomestead.org/

An example of transforming a typical suburban lot into a thriving homestead, with a special emphasis on rainwater harvesting: https://vergepermaculture.ca/2019/01/24/rainwater-harvesting-transformed-urban-home-part-1/

Some real-life urban homesteaders: https://www.aberdeennews.com/farm_forum/urban-homesteaders-share-tips-for-sustainable-living/article_9687bb14-d348-11ea-a010-7ff0c08ac2ae.html

A net-zero urban homestead rental property! https://www.regenerativedesigngroup.com/montague-urban-homestead-landscape-design/

Diagram of a deep energy retrofit with an urban homesteading goal: https://www.boehmarchitecture.com/portfolio_page/deep-energy-retrofit/

Links to some top urban homesteading forums and resource sites

Here’s a page absolutely packed with resources: https://www.beginningfarmers.org/urban-farming/

Permies.com, dedicated to permaculture, urban homestead thread: https://permies.com/t/54473/Urban-Homestead

An urban farming forum: https://www.mrssurvival.com/forum/74-urban-farming/

And some further reading/listening:

In case you missed it earlier: https://www.attainable-sustainable.net/

Another one of my favorite gardening resources: https://www.tenthacrefarm.com/

A podcast from Freakonomics with some sobering statistics about lawns: https://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-stupid-obsession-lawns/

More thoughts on lawns from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/27/obsession-green-lawns-environment

An overview of rainwater harvesting: https://www.watercache.com/education/rainwater-harvesting-101#:~:text=Rainwater%20harvesting%20is%20collecting%20the,store%20it%20for%20later%20use.&text=Rainwater%20collection%20systems%20can%20be,supply%20your%20entire%20household%20demand.

Inspiration to use your lawn to produce food instead: https://www.foodnotlawns.com/


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