Vernacular Sustainabilities

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Sites Keywords Projects
16th & Mission Bicycling Bicicultures
Beach Flats Community Garden Google Bus Descanso
Cesar Chavez Street Locavore No Place to Grow
CicLAvia Sustainable Yield People Live Here
Haight Ashbury Recycling Center
Integral Urban House
La Mesa Verde, San Jose
Los Angeles Eco-Village
Mandela Marketplace
North Berkeley Farmers' Market
West Oakland

Perhaps the most common and widely practiced form of sustainability is that rooted in human beings' vernacular approaches to living and working with nature and their environment. These everyday approaches emerge out of historically sustained, materially based, and culturally shared ways of life—from community gardening to home building, fishing to forestry, knitting circles to collective transport. Though they tend to not be conceived of in classically "ecological" terms, they are "low impact" in the sense that they seek the most efficient use of available resources and the most for the sake of social reproduction. Often linked to infrastructure, they can contribute to the sustainability of small settlements and large urban populations.

We may divide vernacular approaches into two main categories: the formal and informal. In terms of formal approaches, we can think of the large-scale, public infrastructures, both "grey" and "green," that people have created for food, water, energy, recreation, shelter, and travel. They have evolved over time with urbanization, their roots traceable to the first cities and settlements. Since the rise of the modern city they have been associated with the "collective consumption" of large urban populations, and tend to be supported or subsidized by the state. Examples include mass transit and high-rise architecture—among the most affordable and energy efficient forms of housing and transport. They include public parks, beaches, and greenways, as well as food and water systems.

Informal vernacular approaches are typically smaller scale, and wider-ranging in terms of the history behind and conditions of their practice. Groups that practice these approaches may include indigenous peoples, traditional farming communities, rural and urban migrants, tightly-knit immigrant neighborhoods, public-housing residents, religious communities, or collectives. Their sustainabilities operate outside large-scale, formal markets, and do not make a significant profit. Rather they are associated with the "informal economy" and/or "commons." They provide, augment, and/or help to support peoples' livelihoods, often "off the books." They make possible the social reproduction of particular communities, cultures, and ways of life.

The vernacular knowledges associated with these informal approaches often go unstudied by scientists, scholars, and city planners. They are documented instead through ethnographic accounts, community histories, and other qualitative methods, and have informed emerging fields such as "street science" and "ethno-botany." These "everyday environmentalisms" contain valuable understandings of sustainable ecology, technology, and urbanism. Some, built up over generations, provide unique insights into environmental history. Some, having been brought from place to place by migrating groups, incorporate knowledge that is applicable to multiple geographic, ecological, and cultural contexts.

The diversity of vernacular approaches to sustainability makes them hard to categorize. Sometimes informal approaches become formalized, as with the creation of public bike lanes, now standard practice in cities around the world. Sometimes they operate in conjunction with justice and ecological sustainabilities—as in food justice organizations that work with ecologists and local communities to sustain traditional agricultural practices. Sometimes they have been transformed into profit-making ventures in conjunction with market-oriented sustainabilities, such as when vernacular architecture based in low-cost materials like bamboo or adobe become the building blocks of green enterprise. But as often as not they are of primary significance to the communities that keep them alive and depend upon them, and through which they sustain ways of life.

Image: the Beach Flats Community Garden in Santa Cruz, CA