What is a neighborhood without neighbors?

A recent article in The Atlantic (online, anyway) highlights a new LEED-Platinum certified neighborhood…. yes, the entire neighborhood…. in Victoria, British Columbia. Dockside Green is a 15-acre brownfield redevelopment just across the river from downtown, powered by an onsite biomass gasification plant and treating its wastewater through a constructed waterway. The pictures certainly make it look like the coolest place to live EVER:

However Kaid Benfield (the author) said it didn’t yet feel like a “neighborhood”, perhaps due to its unfinished and half-empty status. He cites both the lack of “critical mass” and the disconnectedness to surrounding neighborhoods as reasons for the feelings of isolation, and I have no doubt that these are the main contributors. In fact, I would argue that the lack of critical mass is far more to blame than the “work in progress” status of the development. And of course, it isn’t just a matter of not having enough humans occupying the space, but enough people who are committed to the goals of the project. Bad neighbors do not make a neighborhood any more sustainable (or desirable) than no neighbors.

Humans are intensely social creatures; if we are unable (or unwilling) to socialize face-of-face, we find new and clever ways to communicate anyway, from smoke signals to virtual worlds. Regardless of how amazing and lovely our dwellings are, without neighbors willing to be neighborly we simply don’t have a neighborhood. It may be that it will take another decade or so before there are enough people of like minds who will create a community in the Dockside Green neighborhood; it seems to have taken that long in other ecovillages such as Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, IL (begun in the mid-1980’s) or the EcoVillage in Ithaca, NY (begun in the mid-1990’s). However, both of these communities have very explicit expectations for social responsibility of all of its residents, going far beyond the restrictions common to homeowner associations, and both of these communities are quite small relative to the Dockside Green effort: 400 homes in Prairie Crossing and 90 homes (60 completed) in the Ithaca EcoVillage, in contrast to the 2500 residents in 26 buildings expected when Dockside Green is completed. It will be interesting to see if this many residents can coalesce into a sustainable neighborhood!

Gen-X and the future

A while ago I finally carved out some time to read a book written by the two professors responsible for my disciplinary focus in landscape ecology: Paul and Hazel Delcourt. Their book, “Living well in the age of global warming: 10 strategies for Boomers, Bobos, and Cultural Creatives,” provides advice for people nearing retirement on how to adapt their finances and living arrangements given forecasted changes in ecosystems and the climate in the United States. It is a read that is as insightful and quirky as my former professors.

(For those of you wondering what a “bobo” is…. it’s a bourgeois bohemian, of course (!). “Cultural creatives” are those who are generally highly educated, engaged in “creative” professions, and tend to have less materialistic goals.)

While I really loved the approach that Paul and Hazel took to develop this kind of advice, I have to say that I felt the advice would serve Generation X (born roughly between 1965 and 1981) quite poorly. Much of the advice is based on how the amenities of different regions will be affected by changes in climate and species ranges, particularly from the viewpoint of real estate values. The book was written in 2001, well before the 2008 collapse of the housing market, and so much of their advice is moot at this point. But as I said, it is certainly a clever approach to the issue.

I have been thinking off and on about what sort of advice I would have for my fellow Gen X-ers, that cynical, sarcastic bunch sandwiched between the Boomers (who will likely suck Social Security dry) and the Millennials (who hate our current dour demeanors, and will certainly hate us as bitter, complaining elderly folks). Generally, Gen X-ers seem to be far more at ease when working individually, although we do spend a good chunk of energy on maintaining and growing our networks (personal and professional). It also seems that we have a propensity for the DIY activities (regardless of whether we are any good at them). This translates into a generation who may “downsize” and disappear into small towns and rural areas, with good soil and plenty of water, grumbling about all the things we miss about the big city until we visit our children in the big city (when we will grumble about the traffic, the pollution, the deterioration of infrastructure, etc.)

Of course, actually applying science to these hunches like the Delcourts did… that will require much more than the hand-waving that I’ve done here. Let’s see if this child of the Slacker Nation can actually pull that off… stay tuned!

Managed collapse

Contributed by: Audrey Mayer

Ernest Callenbach has an interesting new article in the Solutions journal, entitled “Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a smaller, stronger economy“. He discusses the ways in which we can modify our existing systems to fit within natual resource limits and avoid collapse. These solutions rely heavily on new policies (to encourage different behaviors) and technologies, with considerable assumptions about population growth and reorganization at the local scale. It’s a good (if a bit superficial) read, with many good ideas that will not work at the scale he is envisioning, in my humble opinion.

A substantial part of my research program uses statistical theory to develop indicators for when complex systems (especially human-environment or “socioecological” systems) are about to collapse. In particular, my colleagues and I have tried to apply a statistic called Fisher Information, which is a measure of the predictability of a system over time; the more predictable the system, the higher Fisher Information is. Complex systems tend to have many negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that keep the system’s behavior relatively stable and predictable. As these stabilizing feedbacks deteriorate, the system’s behavior becomes more erratic and hence more difficult to predict. At the peak (or valley?) of collapse, that system could go in one of many typically unpredictable directions. As that system begins to reorganize, new stabilizing feedbacks develop and settle the system into a new operating state, becoming more predictable again. In our work, we have seen a drop in Fisher Information just prior to system collapse, and then Fisher Information increases as these systems reorganize.

The question Callenbach poses is this: can we somehow guide our systems through this collapse and reorganization process with a minimal loss of order? He is not the only one to ask this question. There is a growing literature* which provides ample evidence that large human-environment systems (such as nations or empires) can and do undergo collapse and reorganization regularly…. the current events in the Middle East illustrate this quite well. Typically the reorganization is slow, disorderly, and unpredictable.

My short, pessimistic answer to Callenbach’s question is no: we cannot manage our large, socioecological systems through a collapse and reorganization without substantial disorder. We cannot predict how any new, large system will function, nor when it will function with any predictability. I argue that the self-organizing dynamics at the scale of, say, the United States federal government, are far too large and powerful, and we understand them too poorly, to trust that federal policies and large technological solutions will help us glide to a smarter, more sustainable future. Instead, I think these changes must occur at smaller, more manageable scales: the individual, the family, the local community. At these scales, we can understand and influence the dynamics and feedbacks, and reorganize into functional units. This is not to say that all of Callenbach’s solutions are wishful thinking: creating more durable goods and stronger social ties (and reducing the consumption of cheap products made far away with cheap labor) are solutions that have been advanced from many corners. These are solutions that are more tenable at the small scale…. they will have to propogate up to the larger systems.

*These include books such as Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies“, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed“, Dmitry Orlov’s humorous “Reinventing collapse: The Soviet example and American prospects“, Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course: The unsustainable future of our economy, energy and environment,” among many others.


This blog is a forum for the Michigan Tech community to do three things:   

1. Share important information about sustainability-related events, activities, research and curriculum at Michigan Tech;
2. Engage in a discussion with each other and the greater community on current sustainability issues, and;
3. Gain insight into the emerging sustainability problems in the world, so as to better understand and solve them.   

We welcome comments from the Michigan Tech community and all those outside of it. This is a moderated blog, so please keep your comments polite; personal attacks and abusive or disrespectful comments will not be posted. 

The blog was started by Prof. Audrey Mayer, and the beginnings of this blog may be dominated by my voice. However, as the blog matures I expect many voices to join the choir!   

For more information about sustainability groups at Michigan Tech, you can begin your tour at the following links:   

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Sustainability Certificate program at Michigan Tech   

AQIP green accounting efforts   

ETEC Student Enterprise   

D80 Programs   

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Students for Environmental Sustainability 

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Sustainable Landscapes Lab