Book Review: The Urban Homestead

In their book The Urban Homestead: your guide to self-sufficient living in the heart of the city, authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen challenge your concepts of the urban household.  The book is a how-to guide on living in a self-reliant and resource-conscious manner, suggesting ways to live sustainably, ranging from fermenting one’s own beer to keeping chickens as pets to pooping in a bucket for compost. Not only is it a practical guide, providing projects that one can take on, but it also instills a sense of excitement in the reader about reconnecting with the natural world.  Urban homesteading involves appreciating the beauty of natural processes, such as the creation of nutrient rich soil from food waste via decomposition, and the appreciation of the quality, such as that of one’s home-grown fruits and vegetables that isn’t afforded by supermarket varieties.  “Urban homesteading is an affirmation of the simplest pleasures of life,” Coyne and Knutzen write.  “Homesteading hooks us into the natural world and the passing of the seasons, and reminds us of our place within the greater cycle of life.”  (pp 17)

The book’s main sections provide background and information on how to farm, forage, raise livestock, transform and preserve food, sustainable manage water and power use, and sustainably use transportation.  A number of themes run throughout these sections, most notably sustainability and self-sufficiency, biomimicry, and utility.

The authors strongly advocate for sustainability and self-sufficiency in this book, breaking away from the traditional capitalistic material consumption and resource overuse.  Coyne and Knutzen put forth the idea of a “new urban economy” where individuals are conscious of resource consumption and the environmental impact of their lifestyle, and there is an interchange of goods and services within a community that understands that “there is more power in creating than spending.” (pp 16)  The section on water and power also provides how to’s on water harvesting and reuse, and power generation and conservation.  The section makes readers rethink how they use and value these resources, and gives them a way to efficiently use them.

Biomimicry, or modeling something based on natural systems, also has a strong presence.  These systems often involve natural symbioses, interdependencies, cycles, and closed loops.  The gardening section introduces permaculture, which is agriculture designed based on a sustainable human environment.  The process involves engineering agricultural practices based on natural interdependent systems processes, such as crop rotation based on the nitrogen fixing or consuming nature of plants, or the physical protection from harsh sun or rain afforded by larger plants to smaller plants, or one plant’s attraction of beneficial insects which prey on pests that infect other plants. Mulching is another exemplary case of biomimicry suggested in the farming section.  This process involves the layering of leaves and compost which imitates the natural deposition of material that occurs in an ecosystem, such as a tree shedding its leaves, a dying plant decomposing, and a native animal pooping.  These, and a number of other processes that the authors describe use natural processes to help the urban homesteader create sustainable, symbiotic systems.  It is a stark contrast to today’s industrial agriculture which refutes natural principles, intensively extracting soil nutrients to create produce which is transported across the country and results as waste in landfills where rather than returning to the soil it came from to replenish the soil health.

Lastly, utility is a huge component of the book.  The first of Coyne and Knutzen’s principles is “grow only useful things.”  “Water is a resource.  Time is a resource.  Space is a resource.  We no longer squander these resources on merely decorative plants.” (pp 34) Though this may be a point of contention with some, particularly the urban resident whose ideal garden consists of a yard of grass lined with roses and a white picket fence, it is a sensible rule nonetheless.  Not only do Coyne and Knutzen describe the productivity of plants, but they elaborate on the productivity of owning livestock.  “Your household produces food waste.  Farm animals eat this waste and make fertilizer out of it, accomplishing overnight what would otherwise take weeks of decomposition in a compost pile.”  (pp 132)  The couple also challenges our idea of raising animals for slaughter ourselves, pointing out that we are so disconnected with our food sources that the slaughter of animals is shocking, yet chickens you raised yourself are the most sustainable and humane meat you can get.

The guide concludes by expressing a hope for a “consciousness shift” in the public, where city dwellers become more connected and aware of their resource use, and embrace urban agriculture and sustainable homesteading. The fascinating and innovative how-to’s that the authors provide are not only practical, but they push our boundaries of what we consider a “normal” household.  This couple truly is pioneering a consciousness shift, and the reinvention of the urban dweller as a resource-conscious and self-sufficient urban homesteader.

-Maya Bruguera