Tuesday, 22 September 2009

10 Steps We Take To Live Sustainably In The City

Ellis on our apartment's rooftop deck

By Melinda Briana Epler, 

A few weeks ago, I was asked what my husband and I do to reduce our impact on the earth in the city (thanks to Chookie for asking).  Let me start by telling you all that three years ago, we lived in the middle of Los Angeles and thought we couldn't live sustainably in the city.  We believed that so steadfastly, that we moved to the country and lived on a vineyard outside of a little rural town, where we grew most of our own food and made nearly everything from scratch.

We loved it.  At first.  We became healthier, we relaxed after a stressful few years in the film industry, I started writing, and we watched the sun set and the stars rise nearly every night.

But slowly different realities began to set in:  we didn't quite fit into our town no matter how hard we tried.  Worse, we couldn't find work that paid enough to live on.  Worse still, we couldn't get anywhere without driving very long distances.  And worst of all, it turned out the vineyard we lived on (and just about every farm in the US) heavily sprays pesticides several times per year - our cat nearly died, and I'll guess we took a couple months off our own lives.  Our carefully cultivated organic garden was not really organic, it turned out.

While we learned a great deal, we realized that for us, back to the land was not the answer to sustainable living.  So we began to search:  across the world, we sought a place where we could live sustainably.  And it was a tough search, because sustainable now meant economically, socially, personally, and environmentally sustainable.  

After researching for several weeks, we settled on Seattle.   The Emerald City has made major changes to become a greener place to live, focusing on walkability, public transportation, recycling, community gardens, green spaces, community building, and much more.  Seattle will also fare fairly well as the climate begins to change.  We also chose to live not just anywhere in Seattle, but the densest area of Seattle, so that we could live almost completely without a car.  

Here are the most important steps we take to live sustainably in the city:
  1. Walk.  If you can't walk, Bike.  If you can't Bike, take Public Transportation.  If you can't take Public Transportation, Carpool.  If you can't Carpool, don't go.  Or at least think twice about it.
  2. Stop watching television.  Cruel, isn't it?  I know, but listen:  not only does the television suck up a lot of electricity, but it also sucks up a lot of your time.  That's time you could spend gardening, cooking, cleaning, or talking and laughing.
  3. Eat fresh, local foods.  You can find them in your garden, the farmer's market, a local farm, a CSA, a local co-op, a natural foods store, or a local grocery store - but the more you eat fresh, local foods, the less packaging you use, the less refrigeration you need, the less gas is used transporting your food, and the better the flavors and vitamins within the foods.
  4. When not in use, turn it off.  That goes for water, lights, computers, televisions - you name it, if you aren't using it, turn it off.  It's amazing how much money you can save this way, let alone resources.
  5. Take advantage of thrift stores.  Suss out the best ones in your area - you just might be amazed at what you'll find!  I wear nice, fashionable office clothing and about half my wardrobe came from thrift stores.  Including some nice pairs of shoes!  You can also find some household items this way, and even decent furniture.
  6. De-complicate.  There is no reason to have twenty different cleaners in your cupboard, when vinegar mixed with water can do just about everything.  And if vinegar doesn't work, try baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, or good old soap!  Cheaper, easier, and better for the environment too.
  7. De-stuff.  Stop buying stuff because society says you need it.  Instead, do without or buy it conscientiously - buy something that will last.  And by the same token, go through your cupboards and closets and garage and start to give away stuff you don't need.  Someone else probably does need it, and right now it's probably unnecessarily complicating your life in little ways.
  8. Become a part of your community.  It's an amazing feeling when the small world around you is somehow tied to you, and you are tied to it.  When you're connected to your neighborhood you create an informal barter system by learning and sharing both things and ideas.  You can also work to improve the neighborhood together, and become a unified voice in political campaigns.  There are a number of ways becoming a part of your community can reduce your negative impact and increase your happiness.
  9. Compost and recycle.  Of course, right?  It's amazing how little garbage we have each month because just about all our waste can be reused in one way or another.  If you don't have regular recycling pick-up, collect your recycling in your garage and take it to a local recycling center - almost every city has one.  And composting is easy in your own backyard or under the kitchen sink!
  10. Plan ahead.  Plan ahead for the holidays by making things to give.  Plan ahead for work by making your lunch in the morning.  Plan ahead for tougher economic times by putting a bit of money away.  Plan ahead for the winter by canning, freezing, or drying foods in the summer.  Plan ahead when you're buying an appliance or a piece of furniture - make sure it will last a long time and work in different locations.  Plan ahead on your trip to work or your trip across country, so you don't have to buy anything at the last minute.  Plan ahead when you go to the grocery store - plan your meals, or at least write a list before you go - so you know what you need later in the week.  Plan ahead.
I hope this helps some of you.  Most of these things are probably no different than what you all do in the country or in suburbia to live more sustainably.  

Please add your most important steps to living sustainably in the comments!


Olive Tree Guitar Ensemble said...

Hi, it's a very great blog.
I could tell how much efforts you've taken on it.
Keep doing!

Emily @ Under$1000PerMonth said...

I totay agree with turning off the TV. I think I need to turn off the computer too, to make mysef more productive.

Bellen said...

Your ability to choose where to live is something most of us do not have. That being said, all your tips will work wherever you live - some better than others.

For instance, we can no longer walk to stores, hairdresser, hardware store. We opted to move about 1 1/2 miles so we could have a garden, solar, rain barrel, etc. We simply plan ahead so we do not use the car more than every 10-14 days.

Chookie said...

Thank you so much for posting about this! A modest, low-consumption lifestyle can be lived almost anywhere.

Mickle in NZ said...

Brillaint post, so encouraging.

All I can add is - be truely realistic about conditions where you live. I'd love a huge veggie garden however, my southern hemisphere garden faces south so it can only be a Summer/Early Autumn one.

And realistically I have to do a lot of work to get the compacted clay and weathered graywacke soil ready. So will be a step by step over many months, maybe a couple of years. In the meantime I'll grow herbs and (new this coming summer) radishes in pots. The mint from two years ago is growing again. Even a little is a step along the way.

great tips, sending care and love, Michelle and Zebbycat in Wellington, NZ

Melinda said...

OTGE, thank you for reading.

Emily, yes - I ran a challenge a while back on my blog, to go technology free one day per week. It definitely changed the way I think about technology - it was difficult at first, but boy it became very nice to have that one day off!

Bellen, I understand that most people do not feel as mobile as we do but there is nothing unusual about our ability to move. It is certainly not wealth that allows us that mobility - in fact, had we stayed where we lived in the country we would have had a very tough life with such low incomes as the economy got increasingly worse. It's a life choice to find a place where you are comfortable living, and where you can live a sustainable life (economically, socially, personally, and environmentally sustainable).

However, you can make where you live comfortable and as sustainable as possible. And you are so right, that all of these things work equally well no matter where you live. Instead of emphasizing #1 (Walking), you can emphasize #10 (Plan Ahead) for example.

Also, just wanted to remind everyone that I'm not saying urban life is right for everyone, just that it was right for me. My last post Live The Life You Want To Live, And Live It Sustainably is what got us started on this topic!

Chookie, you're welcome!

Michelle, great points - thank you for your lovely comment.

Diana's said...

Great post !
Yes, it just goes to show that anyone can live anywhere and still make difference and try to live naturally and organically as they can.
All of us who are as "Green" as we can be should be commended as there are so many others who are not trying at all.

I would love to have many acres, but I just have one so i do what I can too.

Organically yours,

nicola said...

excellent post. thank you so much for sharing a little of your story. we live in another very "green" area on the west coast and while i still long for a little rural plot of my own, i realize that we are able to remain frugal and near so many resources (of all sorts) by remaining in an urban environment. there are definitely check boxes on the list of why urban living is very sustainable!

Nick said...

Best way of going green I have found is to switch from high energy ways of doing things to low energy ways. Like you could switch from using a gas mower to a manual reel mower (and get some good exercise) or stop using the electric clothes dryer and use a good old fashioned drying rack (and also not adding unwanted heat to your home in summer = less AC)

Rebecca/CUpS said...

Great list of tips! Easy enough to get one started and varied enough for anyone who has begun making sustainable changes in their daily living.

One of the ways I cut down on my waste is to get creative with leftovers. If it's too much to be used up in the next 2 days, I freeze it for a future meal. Like you, I compost my most of my food scraps and I was amazed at the lesser amount going out to weekly curbside pickup. All these little steps add up!