What is neighborhood ecology?

What is the carrying capacity of my neighborhood? Beginning with my own property, I’m investigating whether my neighbors and I can sustain our lifestyles exclusively on the resources already in our neighborhood — sunlight, rainfall, flora, fauna, buildings, etc.

I’m beginning this investigation by inventorying my own property. The parcel is almost half an acre in area, and has six immediately distinct areas, as labelled in the aerial photograph below: front lawn, structure, driveway, back lawn, pine tree stand and woodlot.

Aerial photograph of our property with a dashed parcel boundary and area labels

My plan is first to inventory this property quite comprehensively, and on the basis of what I find, to then design the site’s retrofit, implement the design and then monitor results.

In his book, Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition, Toby Hemenway provides a “designer’s checklist” of what to inventory (or, what Hemenway would call “observe”). It’s duplicated here:

  • History of the land: neighbors’ knowledge, library and public records, historical society, maps, photos, backyard archaeology (dig test pits);
  • Homeowners association and government activities: covenants, easements, yard waste pickup, recycling, herbicide spraying, water rationing, zoning and construction restrictions;
  • Nearby plantings that may affect your site (now or when fully grown);
  • Activities of neighbors that may affect design: noise, children, pets, visits, schools, industry, etc.;
  • Resources in the neighborhood: sources of organic matter, soil, and building materials such as sawmills, factories, food processors, stores, landfills, recyclers, nurseries, neighbors;
  • Utilities: power, phone, sewer and gas lines;
  • Areas of shade and sun, and how they change over the year;
  • Wind direction, intensity and change over the seasons;
  • Average and record temperature highs and lows, dates of first and last frosts;
  • Rainfall amounts and seasons, snow, hail;
  • Points of sunrise and sunset and their change over the seasons;
  • Topography, slope and aspect;
  • Rock outcrops, boulders, gravel;
  • Microclimates: cool, hot, wet, dry, sheltered and exposed spots;
  • Soil: drainage, heavy or light, sand or clay, rich or depleted, stable or slumping, compaction;
  • Water: flooding zones, drainage patterns, creeks, gullies, water movement during rain;
  • Views: good, bad and potential;
  • Location of structures on-site and nearby, such as houses, garages, fences and walls, and their effects on the surroundings: shade, runoff, windbreak, etc.;
  • Vegetation: species present, opportunistic or noxious plants, rare species and their state of health;
  • Animals: pets, native and introduced, pests, “scary” animals (snakes, spiders);
  • Traffic and its frequency, heavy or light vehicles, pedestrian traffic, bicycles;
  • Access: ease of bringing in materials, location of faucets, stairs, doors, garage, storage, etc.

Hemenway’s recommendation when taking this inventory is to “try to enter a Zen mind set or whatever it takes to simply observe without planning. Instead of ‘We can put a path here,’ make an observation statement such as ‘There is poor access to this area.'” His concern is that premature design decisions will “collapse the range of possibilities that remain.” I would add that observation and Zen detachment should also span an entire year, so the designer experiences the place in all four seasons before beginning to design.

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a geospatial systems integrator, cross-country runner, husband and father. For as long as he can remember, he has been fascinated by systems. This blog explores the integration of building systems and surrounding site systems such as vegetation, hydrology and wildlife.
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