Monday, February 21, 2011

I am an urban homesteader!

[If you're reading this post on Feb. 21, 2011 (or thereabouts), and you do not instantly know why I'd be posting this today, then please click here to go to the Facebook page "Take Back Urban Homesteading" and see the (perfectly absurd) backstory.]

I am an urban homesteader.  Er.  Well, sorta anyway.  Um.  Okay, so where I live is only urban in the sense that the USDA does not consider it rural (barely, too--in fact, I haven't seen the recent census numbers yet--mayhaps we're rural now!).  We live on a city street, though, with a double-sized lot, which gives us around 60' x 140' total footprint.  On that footprint is our house, a detached garage, and a fairly sizable concrete patio/driveway in back (hey, it wasn't our fault, it was like that when we bought it).  So do the math yourself if you want to, but I don't think we even manage to crack the 1/10th of an acre.  So I'm calling it urban; or at least, sure as hell isn't 40 acres and a mule!

And we homestead.  Of course, most people wouldn't consider what we do homesteading, but I think that's the beauty of urban homesteading.  It bends the concepts of homesteading into a huge panoply of shapes, and really demonstrates the inherent diversity in such a term.

The core of homesteading, to my way of thinking, is self-reliance.  So are we self-sufficient?  Hell no.  Are we aiming for self-sufficiency?  Not on a bet.  In fact, I don't even think it's a particularly desirable goal.  Urban homesteading forces one to confront the simple fact that, unless you live on a piece of land that has enough room for all of your food crops, food animals, a salt mine, some iron ore & a forge, maybe a way to create baking soda, etcetera, you are not, were not, and will never be truly self-sufficient.

Self-reliance simply must mean something other than "can meet all of one's (or one's family's) needs without external aid", and by extension, homesteading--particularly urban homesteading--must mean something other than this, too.  Given that we will probably never even meet our family's food needs on our own land (much less things like medical tape, cookware and shoes), what distinguishes what my family does from anyone else who gardens and, perhaps, keeps some animals for food?

I think the core for urban homesteaders is not the method one uses, or the end results (i.e., how many animals you've crammed into your life, how many pounds of produce came out of your 4'square bed, how solar-heated your water is, etc.).  Rather, it is the emphasis--the whys of what you do.  Why garden?  One perfectly reasonable response is "Because I enjoy it."  Another is "Because I want to make sure we have organic vegetables."  A third is "Because it tastes better when it's fresh from the garden."  Those are great answers!  But those aren't urban homesteader's answers (or at least, they will be only part of the urban homesteaders answers).  I think an urban homesteader's answer looks a little more like this:  "Because I want to use the land/space I have in productive ways that help support myself/my family."  Obviously there are lots of ways one could express this, but the core (to me) is that we are moving ourselves back into the role of primary food provider and householder.

Years ago most people, and especially ones in the cities, ceded the various roles of householder to others--farmers and food manufacturers and grocery stores and housekeepers and accountants and electric companies and so on.  We stopped being the ones who grew our food (any of it), or cleaned our houses.  We relied exclusively on various power companies for heat and light, and trucks to bring us nearly everything we want.  We stopped being the ones who did and made, and started being the ones who paid others to do those things for us.  (And, often, started being the ones who did these things for others so that we could be paid so that we could pay others to do those things for us.  It's like the frickin' capitalist circle of life.) Urban homesteading is the conscious act of taking some of these roles back.  Maybe not all of it, and often not even half of it, but that isn't the essential feature of urban homesteading.  It's saying "I can play a role in being a primary provider for my family, even if it's just some hot peppers and tomatoes from my garden boxes on the patio, and line-drying our clothes."  We are moving ourselves into the role of producer.

Of course, this also makes one very aware of one's dependence on others.  I think urban homesteaders have an even higher awareness of our dependence on others than those who really do have a higher dependence on others--who wouldn't know how to grow a tomato if their lives depended on it and who have no idea what to do when their dryer punks out on them.  And we are aware that this dependence is necessary, and probably desirable.  Working together in community to maximize one's own self-reliance (as it were) is part of the core methodology of urban homesteading, and that's convenient, because we urban homesteaders have a lot of community around us to deal with.  Why cut oneself off, trying to do practically everything by oneself?  Maybe you live on land that can't grow tomatoes for shit (ahem) but you have a lovely flock of laying hens.  You have a neighbor with prize-winning tomatoes but no eggs.  There's an obvious solution here.  And so you rely on each other, and build ties, and now both of you are more secure due to this relationship.  That's nice, and you aren't wasting 50 square feet trying to grow tomatoes for yourself on your limited ground.

Most people regard urban homesteading--if they regard it at all--as either an eccentricity or an oddity.  Some probably think it's deviant.  But anyone who's here has probably already started to realize that those attitudes are shifting.  So think about your own role in how you manage your household and family.  Can you move yourself into the role of producer, even just a little?  Can you do it consciously?  Can you commit to producing some of the food you eat, saving some of the energy you use, strengthening some of the community you live in, with an aim of using your land/space in productive ways?  Then claim the title proudly, and tell others.  It's hard to think of an activity as deviant or eccentric when you are friends with the person who does it.  (Okay, in my case this isn't strictly speaking true.)  Put a face on it for others, let them see what the lifestyle is like.  Give them exposure to the many ways that one can be involved in the sustenance of one's household, and tempt them down the same path, just from your pride in accomplishment.  And know that, come the zombies, your community will be better off for your work.


  1. Love your blog and now I am a faithful follower. Go Urban Homesteaders!

  2. I'm happy to subscribe to the blog of a fellow Hoosier! I look forward to reading more.

  3. I'm not an Urban Homesteader...I'm very rural and live on a large farm/ranch...but I support and learn from Urban Homesteaders's a unique community of some very wonderful people. Stay strong.

  4. Great post, Robyn. I had no idea about the intellectual property fiasco regarding urban homesteading! Good grief. The hackles rise!

    I also appreciated your observation about the great potential of such loose definitions for what it means to 'homestead' in an urban area. For me, as well, it is about WHY--about consuming less and producing more, about gaining skills that give us a greater ability to do it ourselves, rather than paying someone else. It is most of all, about trying to live more in tune with my ecosystem, rather than running around polluting it and using up its resources.

    Anyway, thanks again. I'm still amazed (and irked) at the trademark business....


  5. Hi everyone!

    Aaaaaaaaaghgggghhh! I forgot to take down my blogroll link to them! Curses!

    Done now. *phew*

  6. Hurray for defining ourselves and not letting someone else own and define urban homesteading! :)

    If that family in California is an urban homestead, with a garden (not the lot, just the garden) that's 66x66', then so are you.

  7. Just like Lynda above, I have 100 acres where we grow and raise pretty much everything. I also think that urban homesteaders are forced to be more resourceful and therefore teach efficiency, creative solutions and the importance of working dependency into your plan.

    I have one other reason to add to your very good list of why people homestead: 'Because they recognize the importance of the skills that have been lost'.

    Keep on writing!


  8. I love your emphasis on community! That is exactly right. I'm glad I found your site (through Crunchy Chicken's awesome list).

  9. I just read about your great win at the Crunchy Chicken site... just wanted to stop by to say CONGRATULATIONS!!!

  10. I, too, found you through Crunchy Chicken. Congrats on the win, and really great post. Thoroughly enjoyed!

    I like Feminist Farmer's Wife's addition of "'Because they recognize the importance of the skills that have been lost". Totally true, in my case.

  11. You guys have great comments! I love the ways others cash out urban homesteading. Thank you for sharing!

  12. This made me think of your post, so I thought I'd pass along: Family Trying To Claim Ownership Of 'Urban Homesteading' Caught Plagiarizing After Moralizing On Plagiarism


  13. Found your blog via "Surviving the Suburbs". Your comment in the opening of this post caught my eye, because your property measurements are nearly identical to mine. You said your property was 60x140, right?

    My (rental) property is 60x120, and I did the math last fall to figure that I was right around 1/6th of an acre. An acre is 43,560 square feet, and your property would come to 8400 sq. feet - just under 1/5th of an acre.

    Of course, your property isn't all farmable land - the house takes up space, as does a driveway/garage/whatever you have on the property that blocks the soil. But I still thought you might find the numbers interesting (can you tell I'm a math geek? LOL).