Monday, July 1, 2002

Sustainable urban living

Published in BackHome Magazine

I live in an apartment in a small city. The building I live in doesn’t have much of a lawn, but I’m grateful to the neighbors, who keep a nice garden on the other side of the driveway. I can’t choose how my place, or my water, is heated, and electrically, I’m very much “on the grid.” It’s not ideal, but I’m not despondent.

Living close to the land is an important goal. But it’s not fully achievable by everyone. Some of us, myself included, are restricted by financial or family obligations to be in places other than our own back-forty in a hand-built cabin.

That doesn’t mean we should give up, or that we are forced to contribute to urban wastelands. We can still eat whole foods, conserve water and electricity, and try to think green. But there are other things renters can do, within the limits of being tenants, to live more independently of traditional city infrastructure:

-Compost. Someone you know has a garden, or a yard, or even a farm. That person probably has a compost pile. Or ask at your local natural-food store if there’s someone looking for additional compost. Find a container to store your material in. I use an empty spackle can under my sink, and in a previous apartment I used a five-gallon paint bucket I kept on the porch. When the container gets full, take it over to the compost pile and empty it.

-Change built-in bulbs. When I moved in, my apartment had three overhead lights with regular incandescent bulbs. I took them out and saved them, installing instead compact fluorescent bulbs. When I move out, I’ll take the efficient ones with me and put the incandescent ones back in. Or you can leave the efficient ones there and help others see the benefits of saving electricity.

-Walk or bike. City dwelling is great. Some cities, like mine, Portland, Maine, don’t have great public transport. There are a few buses around, though. It’s a small enough city that I can walk or bike nearly everywhere I need to go. I have to drive to work, but when I’m not working I’m not usually driving.

-Turn off the heat. Some apartments don’t really need to have their heat on all the time. Especially in larger buildings, latent building heat can be more than enough to keep an apartment warm through many cold days. If it’s a real cold snap, or you do get chilly, turn on the radiators just a little. When my radiators are on, they pour out heat. I keep them turned down, and use a small, efficient space-heater to bring the temperature up when I need it.

-Grow things. Plants spruce up an apartment and help keep it cooler in the summer. They also enrich the air and improve your health. Herbs are excellent indoor plants and can often fit on windowsills. They’re usually quite hardy, so they can stand up to moves or harsh light and temperature conditions.

-Have a community garden plot. Many cities have community gardens, which allow you a certain amount of space to plant vegetables and flowers for a small annual fee. You get a plot of ground and often access to tools and supplies for raising a small number of crops. It’s not necessarily organic, but at least you know where your food is coming from. It won’t be right in front of your house, but you’ll take a walk every day or so, to check on things. You get to go outside and get your hands dirty, even if you live in a building, like mine, without much greenery around it. Gardens can be great places to meet people, as well.

-Recycle. Many cities have a curbside recycling program. If yours does, participate. If not, start one. You’ll not only save space in your apartment, by no longer storing recyclables until you can drop them off, but you’ll help others in your area become more aware of ways they can help the environment.

-Skip the elevator. You may already do this, but don’t make those exceptions for heavy loads. Take a couple of trips to get your groceries upstairs, or get a friend to help. But be sensible: When you’re moving into or out of a building, don’t try to carry the couch up the stairwell!

-Talk to your landlord or building manager. Explain to prospective landlords that you’re interested in living lightly, and talk about ways you can do so in an apartment building. The landlord may give you a break on the rent if, for example, you say you’ll keep the heat off most of the winter. Suggest that those always-on hallway lights be equipped with energy-saving bulbs. Suggest that the hot water heater not be set so high (many landlords do this to be sure everyone has enough hot water). If your building has laundry machines, suggest that they be replaced (when they need to be) with more efficient models.

-Ask for what you want. If you decide that you really would like to install a low-flow toilet, or no longer need a built-in space heater, say so, and arrange to do the work yourself or have a person approved by your landlord to do the project. Don’t do this without consulting the building’s owner, but remember that if you speak up, others will benefit too.

-See the larger picture. You’re already aware of the impact humans have on the planet. Remember that you can do things to help the planet, even if they don’t help you directly. I try to save heat, though it’s included in the cost of my rent. I use less water, though that’s included too. I’m not saving myself any money, but I am helping the environment. I save cash on electric bills, and that’s nice to see. I also make maximal use of my parking space—I leave my car there when I’m around town.