Living Sustainably in the City: Our Story

I was super encouraged when I opened the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Countryside Magazine and found that the story I wrote about our first year striving to live sustainably in the city had been published. If you are interested in any of these topics, this is a great magazine that I have been reading for years. You can read the current issue online, but not the submitted stories, so here is what I wrote. I am so looking forward to the Spring and the new year and new adventures!

Dear Countryside,
I have been reading Countryside for many years. Long before I married, or owned a house, or even understood what sustainability is. I learned many, many tings about off-grid living, canning, homesteading, housekeeping, etc. before I ever did any project of my own. The information has been invaluable and I return to those back issues now, more than ever as our life gets more involved in gardening and sustainability. It has been in my heart and mind the whole time, and as November approaches, I will take out the November/December magazines from the past and read all of the ideas for this time of year. Starting with the newest, which I read cover to cover, I then scan through past issues to mark stories that I would like to read again.  
When I first started reading Countryside, what I remember is the feeling in my gut, that instinctive knowing that I was supposed to be working in a garden somehow and that the sustainable lifestyle was something I wanted to live. Growing food, digging in the ground, chopping kindling, whatever it meant, I knew I would one day have a way to garden. I had the desire to move toward a simpler life, but I still had the impression that I would have to move to Vermont or somewhere similar to have the space to do many of the things that homesteading and off-grid living requires.
We decided to live sustainably in the city instead of moving. We started by asking ourselves what was attractive about living in a place like Vermont? It is a slower paced life – we can do that here by making better choices with our time. I want to be able to heat and cook with a wood stove – so we installed the Elmira wood stove. I want to grow our fruits and vegetables – we can do that in the city also, with a little creativity and patience. We want our commute and work day to be as simple as possible, so we bought a house near our jobs and can walk if needed, but currently take public buses and carpool to commute. My ideal would be to stay home and put my full day of effort into working in the garden, cooking, writing, and crafting and I am working toward that by paying off personal debt and saving.
I once thought that we would need a lot of space, but that simply is not true. We live in Worcester, Massachusetts – one of the biggest cities in New England and the lot we live on is only 100×50. Many people, when seeing our home, had the first response of “what a great starter home”. However, the first time we walked through, I knew it was a perfect, workable size for a family of four and there was a big enough space to spend time in the yard, and have a garden one day. When we moved in, there was extra space, and as we lived, we accumulated more and more stuff, to the point of needing a dumpster every year to cear out enough to use the house again. It isn’t dirty or verge on hoarding, but a small space filled up quickly with two growing teens at the time, and with a creative family. We simply had too much, but didn’t understand that we were participating in a consumer-based lifestyle at that time.
We started our journey of learning to be sustainable by taking care of structural and foundational work: first we replaced the roof, then we fenced in the yard. We added garden beds, fruit and nut trees last year, along with rain barrels. We also installed an Elmira Cooktop Stove, so we could heat and cook with wood. I learned about the stove in Countryside and we found a local stove place to do the ordering and installation. We stopped using the air conditioners and had the extra appliances taken away. We bought a new, energy efficient and smaller refrigerator and a new washer that is energy efficient and easier on our clothes.
It sounds like so much in a list like this, but really, we did one project at a time and then paid it off. This year we took a big leap and got energy efficient windows. Last night was only 40 degrees outside and it was still 65 inside. I am looking forward to the Winter with the new windows and the wood heat. If the house holds heat like it seems to right now. we will not use all of the wood we have stacked in the yard.
Our garden this year was an experiment in planting as many different things as we could to see what would grow best here. We were able to can potatoes, corn and carrots. We had a small amount of sweet potatoes. We also grew amaranth, peas, cucumbers, pumpkins, butternut squash, sunchokes, sunflower seeds, peppers, beans for drying and several herbs. Oh, and lots of cherry tomatoes, a few each day that we enjoyed with dinner. We learned a lot from our experiments! We will plant fewer things next year and only what we will definitely eat, with a goal of having extra to share with family and friends.
We also planted 5 different apple trees, 3 pear trees, an almond, 2 hazelnut, grapevines, kiwi vines, and several different berry bushes. They all grew quite a bit this year, but we have to be patient to see what they will do next year or the year after.
I am sharing this because I believe that we can all do something to be a little more sustainable and contribute. Rather than taking and using resources, how great it would be if we each could do just a little bit for ourselves! With each of the changes we have made, our energy usage has dropped and although it has created more work for us physically to copy wood, gather kindling, and care for the garden, the work is so rewarding.
Our city is currently working toward allowing chickens in the backyard here again REC Worcester is working for getting the approval in place. At the same time the Mass local food movement is growing. There are so many amazing pieces of conservation land that offer hiking, etc. One small place is near our home, so we became volunteer Rangers and help out that way by preserving the habitats near us. This gives us that experience of the open spaces of Vermont, while we tay right in our own neighborhood and city.
I don’t believe that my backyard garden will change very much on any big scale of food growing or consumption, but I know what it has done for my mental well-being and the encouragement of our family. It is so exciting to see wild life in our yard (toads, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, possums, many different birds, butterflies, bats, etc.) It has changed our world to be able to walk into the back yard and pick a tomato that we planted. If everyone could do just one little thing like that, I do believe that individual lives would be greatly changed. And if enough individuals are changed, then who knows what the outcome and effect could be in the world?
I am very interested in the Tiny House movement (imagine the smile on my face when I realized that I already live in a small home). I am also reading a lot about Minimalism and Simplifying my life, and at the ocre of it, for me, is the necessity to need less and have fewer requirements. I still have and use the technology that I enjoy and am currently donating extra clothing, household items, etc. to three different organizations that will get it to families that are really in need.
For me, I see that less things to care for gives me more time to spend with family and friends, more time to meet neighbors and be involved in the community and more time to garden.
I would love to talk with anyone who is interested in urban farming, sustainability, living simply and returning to the simpler way of life.
Thank you!