EcoHood, n: permaculture retrofit of a mid- to low-income neighborhood with a high potential for ecological sustainability.
What’s wrong with the 1960s vision of moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle by growing your own food and raising kids with a few (or a few hundred) of your closest friends? Only one thing, says Andrew Millison: “The idea that you have to leave society to do it.” A Prescott College instructor, landscape contractor, homeowner and self-described permaculture activist, Millison is helping to spearhead a community sustainability initiative in the Lincoln-Dameron Street district of Prescott, AZ (pop. 45,000) that’s become increasingly known as “the EcoHood.”
Andrew Millison with a rainwater cistern and his rooster, Soft Crow.
Permaculture (a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture”) was first developed in Australia in the 1970s as a design system for local self-reliance based on patterns found in nature. Combining principles of homescale agriculture, environmental stewardship and community design, permaculture has captured the imaginations and energies of a new generation of environmentalists worldwide in the years since its inception. With an undergraduate degree in Ecological Design and Sustainability and a Master’s in Horticultural Preservation, Millison has taught permaculture at Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment since 2001.
What is Prescott’s “EcoHood”? It’s a mid- to low-income neighborhood situated around the floodplain of nearby Miller Creek that encompasses roughly two blocks, two apartment buildings and thirty houses, the majority of which were built in the 1930s. Fifty percent Hispanic/Native American, it’s also home to a significant number of retirees and college students. The district now has six systems that reuse household graywater for irrigation in the landscape, two rainwater cisterns, five organic gardens, 25 heirloom fruit trees, and (at last count) 57 chickens.
“I’d always thought of this area as a prime location for an eco-village,” says Millison, a Dameron St. resident on and off for the past eight years. “But I still had this idea of a community out on the land somewhere.” Managing the organic farm at Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti Urban Laboratory for two years had shown Millison the challenges inherent in a traditional “back to the land” scenario. But it wasn’t until he purchased a home 20 miles outside of Prescott that the concept for the EcoHood began to emerge.
The mid-income “EcoHood” in Arizona.
“Here I was,” says Millison, “burning up a quarter to half tank of gas every day, while reading David Holmgren’s book about peak oil [Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, which suggests that permaculture is the best way to confront the challenges resulting from peak oil]… That’s when it hit me—the age of cheap oil was coming to a close.” At the same time, three ecologically minded friends moved to the Lincoln-Dameron district with the intention of becoming more community and sustainability oriented. “I could see that the vision I’d had was starting to manifest,” says Millison. “When there was an opportunity to move back to the neighborhood, I jumped at the chance.”
Since that time, the EcoHood has grown to encompass seven area households. While Millison has contributed key expertise in areas such as graywater irrigation, rainwater catchment and permaculture design, the process has unfolded organically, with neighbors swapping skills, information, tools, and, at times, even child-care, chickens and compost.
Response from neighbors not directly involved with the project has been, for the most part, either neutral or positive. Millison relates that his next-door neighbor has commented on how friendly everyone is, and how “great it is” that people in the area like to garden and “be outdoors.” On the other hand, an elderly woman who’s lived on Dameron for the past 35 years has been known to place calls to city officials regarding the legality of her neighbors’ roosters and piles of woodchips, which some consider unsightly.
Pollution is the biggest hurdle.
However, Prescott’s EcoHood seems to be gaining ground. Last year, the local ECOSA Institute (a training program for sustainable architecture and design) purchased a plot of land in the area slated for development as green student housing. In the summer of 2006, ECOSA’s permaculture design certification course will focus on plans for public space in the neighborhood as a whole. And a recent presentation on the EcoHood at a local satellite of the Bioneers Conference succeeded in attracting the attention of two investors instrumental in a number of Phoenix-based permaculture developments. Plans are now in the works for a permaculture apartment/condo complex centering on community gardens and supported by graywater, rainwater and solar-energy systems.
Even though the EcoHood area is part of a region experiencing a booming real estate market, complete with tony new developments, Millison maintains that—from an ecological point of view—Lincoln-Dameron truly is the wealthiest neighborhood in town.
“These ritzy new houses up on the hills,” says Millison, “are situated high off the water table on solid rock. They’re exposed to wind and wildfire, isolated from town, and they’re huge, which means they’re costly to heat and cool.” The EcoHood, on the other hand, has water at 12 to 20 feet (with old wells situated throughout the neighborhood), sits on an average eight feet of topsoil and is sheltered from wind by the surrounding topography as well as large, established cottonwood trees. The more modest size of the older homes also makes them cheaper to do green retrofitting.
“The native people of this area lived around the floodplains of the creeks,” says Millison. “When the settlers arrived, they did too. In a lot of Western towns like Prescott, it’s a similar scenario; the area was settled around some type of fertile pocket. This means that some of the oldest and most affordable neighborhoods also have the greatest potential for sustainability.”
The biggest hurdle faced by these eco-minded neighbors? “Pollution,” says Millison. “We’re downstream from the K-Mart parking lot, and wherever you dig around here, you find garbage. Bioremediation is a key challenge.”
The neighborhood is sheltered by older cottonwood trees.
Still, Millison maintains that the advantages of the EcoHood model of community sustainability are far-reaching and fundamental. “By working in a mid- to low-income neighborhood, you make it accessible. By working within the existing human footprint, you preserve wilderness, cut down on fuel consumption, and give yourself access to the waste stream of the city for recycled materials.” Additionally, the EcoHood model doesn’t require a large initial investment or a shift from mainstream models of family and homeownership. “Really, the concept is about bringing traditionally rural values like self-reliance, respect for the land and community into the city,” says Millison.
His advice for others seeking greater sustainability? “We need to take matters into our own hands,” says Millison. “It’s time to start where we are.”
More information on Prescott’s EcoHood and other Arizona-based permaculture projects is online at www.azpermaculture.org. Information on the ECOSA Institute’s summer Permaculture Certification Course: “Permaculture and Water for Drylands” is available at www.ecosainstitute.org.
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainabilityby David Holmgren (2002)
Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoodsby Dan Chiras, Dave Wann (2004)