The Plan2014-04-02 00:00:00
We have what seems like an impossible task ahead of us: How are we going to move the mountain of culture? I want my kids to live in a world where people spend more time with friends than devices, where everyone has the chance to really master something, and where nobody's worried about access to nutritious food and basic needs. That's a pretty ambitious goal given the state of the world today, so how are we going to do it? What's the actual, concrete plan of action?
A self-replicating retrofit
The plan from 10,000 feet is simple: turn our neighborhoods into communities. Make them vastly more self-reliant and resilient. Make them exciting and engaging places with unique character. Make them spread.
Let's start with a description of what we'll call success. I would say that a successful community is one where the people living there are connected with each other, and the structure of the community makes it easy to do things together (big porches, public spaces, tools and materials available for projects, that kind of stuff). The whole neighborhood is designed as an integrated unit so that it comprises a large, functioning forest garden ecosystem, which provides most or all of the nutrition needs (not necessarily calorie needs - more on that later) for the residents. Residents are a mixture of tenants and owners. Tenants get access to all of the features as part of their rental agreement, and owners have some other arrangement worked out.
The community is an incubator for entrepreneurship, with tools and materials available in a makerspace kind of environment (part of the rental fee for tenants, and subscription-based for everyone else). The profits from the rent payments and other fees are partially reinvested in the community in the form of free classes and workshops, equipment, and other community building resources. A futher portion of the profit is set aside as a "seed" for starting the next instance of the neighborhood plan, and when it's big enough for a solid start, a new startup team is built and started off with an agreement to "pay it forward" just like this one did. Remaining profits are used as the managers see fit for salaries and other stuff.
So, with that rough description, what do we need to change about today's neighborhoods to make it a reality? Unfortunately, it's a pretty long list:
Physical design of neighborhoods - They're not walkable, they don't have public spaces, the houses are fenced off from each other, they don't have porches, and the list goes on. There's a lot of retrofitting to be done here.
Yards are resource-sucking wastelands - In a well-designed neighborhood, there's public space for playing and cooking out, and the idea that every house needs a giant yard for private parties seems kind of silly. Most of each yard is therefore converted into a forest garden, which is a very aesthetically pleasing and relaxing place to hang out as well as being highly productive. Some space is retained for small private gatherings, but remember that in this model, your neighbors are your close friends, so there's not so much need to keep away from them.
There is no infrastructure to support people - today's neighborhoods are just houses in close proximity. If we want a neighborhood to be economically viable, it needs to be a huge enabler of productivity and collaboration. We need to add things like makerspaces and community centers so that people can actually get the most out of their living arrangements. It should be as frictionless as possible to go from concept to prototype on a variety of things, with help from your neighbors, using only stuff within your immediate reach. Economic resilience comes from tight local connections and diversity of businesses, but that can't exist if you have to personally own everything you use, like some kind of massive vertically integrated ag corporation.
Homes are awful - The houses most people live in are terrible from a resilience and efficiency point of view. They would be completely uninhabitable without constant input from grid and fossil fuel resources year round. This doesn't have to be the case though, and there are some high-impact things we can do to retrofit them.
There aren't many community catalysts - we need people who can act as mixing agents to organize events and get neighbors to actually meet each other, because the skill of introduction seems to be nearly lost. We live closer together than ever before, and we are simultaneously more isolated.
The neighborhoods we have are not lost causes like many seem to think - they just need some replanning and some work, and we can make them into what they should have been to begin with.
Putting together a strategy
Right now we have very limited resources to throw at this collection of problems, so what's the plan? If we want to have these things be self-replicating, especially if our initial investment is small, then it's pretty clear that they have to be profitable. Not just slightly profitable either, they need to make a lot of money. We also need to have a clear plan for bootstrapping, because what we're effectively doing is trying to push a very resilient (though dysfunctional) system over a threshold into something better. We'll have to not only be profitable after we're established, but also at every step along the way from zero to complete. We are also looking at some very complex things here, and it will pay huge dividends if we can simplify it, offload work onto others or other systems, and work from a clear vision and playbook.
Each community will start off with two key roles. It doesn't have to be two people, but I think the work load would be too much to be sustained by just one. With two, the work load will be nice and small, so that founders have time to be human, too. Here are the roles:
The forest farmer - this is the person who will be managing the neighborhood permaculture design as a full-time job. General responsibilities will be things like pruning, harvesting, selling produce, replanting, etc.
The property manager - this is the person who will handle keeping the properties rented and other social factors, like hosting workshops and managing investments outside of real estate (such as makerspace equipment and community common areas).
Starting from zero
To get things started, the property manager will pick a group of neighborhoods that have good profit potential from a rental property perspective. Probably, these will be older neighborhoods with a high proportion of rental properties, and many properties for sale in a small area. The reason is that this gives us the maximum potential for rapid early growth and control over the evolution of the neighborhood. While I expect that it'll be pretty easy to get the owners on the block interested in the concept and participating in the forest garden, it'll be even easier to do it on properties we own directly.
When we have a few potential neighborhoods picked, the forest farmer will check them out for potential productivity, and for interest from the residents and property owners. When the most promising neighborhood in both dimensions is found, we'll launch the project there.
The forest farmer will start by going around to everyone who was interested in having their yard terraformed and doing a quick and simple permaculture design for each, keeping in mind that the overall neighborhood will eventually be integrated into one functioning system. As these plans are coming together, the property manager will be putting in offers on some of the available houses. Money for down payments will either come directly from investors, from the property manager's private funds, or from a seed grant from an existing community (hopefully they'll mostly be from seed grants after a while). The question of debt is a complex one in this case, and I'll talk more about it in a future post.
The community design will incorporate a lot of ideas from the pocket neighborhood concept - ensuring that there is public space right in the community, making it walkable, and creating places for things like a small market and meeting center.
As the design gets put into place, the property manager will start the process of retrofitting the houses for better efficiency and better support for neighborhood interaction. This will probably include things like insulating, replacing windows, expanding porches, and removing fences. The basic retrofit should be doable for under $5000 per house. Depending on the jurisdiction, this will hopefully also include things like graywater reuse, rainwater harvesting, support for community composting, and waste management. Labor for this will be a combination of the property manager, tenants getting involved, and hired help. Hired help will be paid out of profits and remaining seed capital from the launch.
Once the initial site design is established, the neighborhood will start to transform into a community. Initially, the property manager will be responsible for catalyzing this process by arranging events to be held in the public spaces where people can meet each other and start being educated about what's going on. The farmer and manager will talk about the plans for the future, how the site will work to make everyone's life better, and how the tenants and owners can help in the process.
As growth continues, the values of the houses in the area will grow tremendously because of the strong differentiating factor of community resilience and beauty that's emerging. Rental income will increase, and eventually the community will enough profit to start considering additional larger investments. A fixed portion of the profit will be set aside for internal development, and the direction of this development will be controlled by collaboration between the tenants and the owners. Another fixed portion will be set aside as a seed fund for kicking off the next community. When a farmer/manager team submit a proposal to retrofit a neighborhood, the managers they submit it to will evaluate it, give some advice, and if they think it has merit, they'll use their seed fund to get the next community started.
This makes the concept self-replicating, and at the same time strengthens the bond of people to community, because they have a direct role in shaping where they live as well as giving the gift of independence to other communities.
So, that's the plan in a nutshell - take over existing neighborhoods, turn them into incredible communities with lots of resources for entrepreneurial success, and pay it forward. If that sounds interesting to you, stick around. This was just an outline for a much more detailed project plan!