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Living the Good Life in the City
Creating Your Sustainable Urban Homestead
By Karin Kliewer

Little City Farm

Imagine sitting down to a gourmet lunch of freshly picked homegrown tomatoes, homemade cheese, and thick slices of wholegrain wood-fired bread. Collecting eggs each morning from your friendly brood of laying hens. Watching native bees busily pollinating their way through your herb garden. Collecting household grey water through an interconnected system of wetland ponds. Hanging out laundry like colorful prayer flags on washday. Growing produce to sell at your local farmers market. Tapping maple trees for making precious syrup. Celebrating the harvest season with dandelion wine made from blossoms you gathered in the spring.

Where would all of this happen? Did you picture a peaceful farm acreage in a quiet country setting? All of this is possible in the city, and here in the heart of Kitchener, Ontario (population 200,000), minutes away from downtown, we have done just that. My husband and I live at Little City Farm, an “urban homestead” that is part of a growing movement of city dwellers across North America who are seeking to reconnect with the land, live sustainably, and build community – right where they are.

When my husband and I first bought this property more than a decade ago, we saw it as a temporary resting ground while we searched for our ideal rural piece of land. Although we were city-raised and university educated, we had both spent considerable time living and working on various organic farms across Canada and through these experiences knew we wanted to grow our own food and live as close to the land as possible.

The writings of Helen and Scott Nearing were our inspiration. Urban intellectuals living in New York City in the 1930s, the Nearings left their successful careers behind in order to pursue what they called “the good life.” They moved to rural Vermont where they set up their homestead, learned to farm by trial and error, and spent a good deal of time writing about their experiences. They would become known as the “grandparents” of the back-to-the-land movement in the United States, which took place thirty years later.


Gary Snyder, environmental poet and activist, has written that one of the most valuable things a person can do for the environment is to “stay in one place.”

We knew that we, too, wanted this “good life” – a slower, simpler and surely more meaningful existence than we could find in the city. However, after weeks, months, and eventually more than two years of searching for that ideal (and elusive) rural place, we were feeling weary, unfulfilled, and disconnected from friends, and decided to try a radical shift in our thinking. We decided to just stay put and, unbeknownst to us at the time, this may have been the most important turning point in our lives.

Gary Snyder, environmental poet and activist, has written that one of the most valuable things a person can do for the environment is to “stay in one place.” If we are constantly on the move, we lose connection with our surroundings, our landscape, our communities. We become disengaged from civic involvement and, because we are unfamiliar with our environment, we are unaware when advocacy needs to happen. To choose a place that becomes our own, imperfect as it may be, allows us to forge connections, take ownership, and become attuned to the needs around us – in short, it allows us to care, and through caring comes action.

By staying in one place, my husband and I decided to test out all our rural hopes and dreams on the large double-sized urban lot we had at hand. On our one-third-acre property, we wanted to find a way to live more consciously, raising as much of our own food as we could and living a life that was light on the earth. We planned to homeschool our daughter and wanted to raise her with intention, passing on valuable life skills to her by example. We decided to start our homestead, right here in the midst of the city.


Urban homesteading fuses the philosophies of simple living, permaculture design, and the slow food movement, to create a resourceful, resilient, ecological, do-it-ourselves lifestyle.

Urban homesteading fuses the philosophies of simple living, permaculture design, and the slow food movement, to create a resourceful, resilient, ecological, do-it-ourselves lifestyle. In the spirit of modern pioneering, urban homesteaders aim to provide many of their basic needs (food, water, shelter, energy, transportation), reviving traditional homesteading skills in a contemporary setting, while striving to be of low impact on the environment. Usually, urban homesteading is done with minimal means but maximum creativity.

The past eight years has seen this property develop little by little, as we’ve added permaculture-style gardens, fruit and nut trees, a passive solar greenhouse, a grey water system, rainwater collection tanks, a flock of chickens, and an outdoor oven. We have learned to make our own bread, cheese, yogurt, soap, and wine; to harvest berries, fruit, and other wild edibles in our neighborhood; to preserve, ferment, pickle, and dehydrate the seasonal bounty; to make herbal teas, salves, tinctures, and other remedies for maintaining our health naturally. We live in a small straw bale addition to our house made of ecologically sound and locally sourced materials, which we built by hand with the help of friends and neighbors. We got rid of our car and joined a local car-sharing organization.

With a desire to be largely home-based, we have intentionally reduced our income by minimizing the amount of off-property paid work. This has meant careful budgeting and what we like to call a “make or make do” attitude. We live a simple life, trying to differentiate between real needs versus wants, and to refurbish items for ourselves rather than purchasing new whenever possible. With more free time, we have been able to move more fully from being consumers to producers. We participate in a local barter network that allows us to trade or barter for many of our day-to-day goods and services.

As with any busy homestead, there are always more than enough projects to tackle and there is a tendency to feel pulled in too many directions at once. To help us stay on track, we developed a “dream page” that describes a long-term vision of where we want to see our homesteading life going. Whenever new ideas or requests arise, we can go back to our dream page and evaluate whether these projects will keep us “on the page.” That is, do they contribute overall to our vision or do they distract from it? We attempt to organize our work by using the seasons as our priority – for example, in late winter we put attention into planting and tending new seedlings; in fall we focus on preserving the harvest.


With more free time, we have been able to move more fully from being consumers to producers. We participate in a local barter network that allows us to trade or barter for many of our day-to-day goods and services.

Over the years, we have acquired many useful new skills. Navigating building permits and city bylaws is another area that we have become well versed in. When we, as homeowners/builders, initially approached our city’s building department with plans for a straw bale house addition, we did not exactly know what would be involved with using this type of building technology in our city. Although the Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition directory lists over one hundred straw bale homes in Canada, very few of these are in urban areas and, in our city, there was only one other existing example. While we had a very positive response from the City, and an excellent project inspector to work with, we still encountered various delays because of using a technology that was considered unconventional. We would strongly advise anyone starting a project like this to enlist the help of an architect or engineer right from day one, as it will make for a much smoother experience with your local building department.

Bylaws are unique to each city. An urban homesteader will do well to become familiar with the bylaws in their city, because, be it naturalizing the front lawn, planting vegetables on boulevards, keeping bees for honey, or setting up a chicken coop, every city will have its own set of rules and regulations about what is acceptable.

Urban chicken keeping is a perfect case in point. Backyard hens are becoming increasingly common as more people realize the inherent value of chickens. An article in Natural Life Magazine in 2009 states that more than three hundred North American cities (including New York City, Seattle, Madison, and Victoria) have amended their bylaws to allow for this. However, each city has its on take on the specifics – maximum number of hens, size or location of coop, and whether registration licenses are required all vary from one city to the next. Some cities, like Portland, have fully embraced the idea of urban chickens and are renowned for their extensive network of urban hen keepers. Locals there hold educational workshops on raising chickens and host public events like the popular annual self-guided “Tour de Coops.” In other cities, urban chicken keeping is still contentious. Our neighboring city of Waterloo, which recently voted on this question, came up with a council evenly divided on the topic, and had to shelve the discussion for a future year.

Nonetheless, bylaw permitting or not, if your neighbors aren’t in favor you will be out of luck. It’s wise to stay on positive terms with your immediate neighbors and respect their space by not building a coop too close to the property line. Keep a reasonable amount of hens (no roosters) and a tidy coop so there is no reason to raise complaints about noise, smells, or perceived vermin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to give extra eggs away as well – who can turn down a delicious fresh omega-rich free-run egg? After that, a relationship has started between your neighbor and your hens!


We hope to inspire others to set up their own sustainable urban homesteads, starting right where they are. No matter where you live, you can be part of this urban homesteading movement.

We have learned many life lessons as our urban homestead has evolved. We are by no means experts, but we try to share what we know through tours, public presentations, workshops, and events held at our property. The windfall we have experienced from being open to the public is that we have discovered a wealth of knowledge in our community, and the eagerness of others to share their skills. At a soap making workshop, we meet a spinner, a natural health practitioner, and a baker. At a fruit tree workshop, a beekeeper, a winemaker, and a bicycle mechanic join us. We realize one of the main assets of city living is the opportunity for these connections to happen, and to meet and share skills with other people around us.

We hope to inspire others to set up their own sustainable urban homesteads, starting right where they are. No matter where you live, you can be part of this urban homesteading movement. Prolific author and environmental activist Frances Moore Lappé has written, “Every aspect of our lives is in a sense a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.” Urban homesteading is about a lifestyle and a mindset. Any property has potential: The tiniest apartment might have a lovely balcony for growing herbs, or a warm kitchen would be ideal for making yogurt and starting sourdough. A large suburban property could be the perfect place to share with a co-housing group, to start a tool lending co-op, to plant a fruit orchard, or keep beehives for honey. Be it tending a vermicomposting bin under your sink, setting up some rain barrels, or getting rid of your clothes dryer, start where you are, with projects that inspire you and with an openness to learn from others. You will soon find that your home has become a thriving urban homestead. 

Learn More

Little City Farm

Transition Towns

The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process, 2008)

The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre! by Carleen Madigan (Storey, 2009)

Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing (Schocken Books, 1987)

Karin Kliewer lives with her husband Greg and daughter Maya at Little City Farm, an urban homestead in Kitchener, Ontario. They operate an eco bed & breakfast, and host ongoing workshops on sustainable city living. Read more about the activities of the Little City Farm homestead by visiting their website.

Ten Principles for Starting Your Urban Homestead

1) Stay In One Place
Decide to make a commitment to one place. Become passionately attached and attuned to your surroundings. Learn what your community needs, discover what you can offer, and get involved.

2) Observe, Reflect, Then Act
Take the permaculture approach of observing your surroundings and reflecting on what you can learn from Nature’s example. Although it can be tempting to quickly advance your homestead, taking your time and reflecting on the long-term goals before taking action can help avoid many mistakes. Once you know your place and have set your goals, you can act with wisdom and confidence.

urban homesteading

3) Grow Some Food
A simple way to start reconnecting with the land, cycles, and seasons, is to grow some food. The desire for healthy food is often the catalyst for making a more complete shift into a sustainable lifestyle. Plant a few tomatoes or create an elaborate edible landscape; just find some time each day to be outside with your hands in the soil.

4) Start Becoming Re-Skilled
Become well versed in homesteading skills – preserving food, making soap, mending clothes, knitting socks, chopping wood, fixing your bicycle. These are valuable life skills that save us money, allow us to move from being consumers to producers, and reconnect us with our past. Discover the wide range of knowledge that is available, often for free, in your city. Learn from your elders, set up an apprenticeship, take workshops, attend lectures, volunteer with a community project, devour resource books at your local library.

5) Get Rid of Your Car
Try an experiment by leaving your car at home for one week and making your regular commutes by alternate methods. What did you discover? Did you strike up conversations with other pedestrians? Did you feel more energized? Was your stress level reduced? Become familiar with the many transportation options your city has to offer – walking routes, bicycle paths, bus services, carpooling networks, car sharing organizations.

6) Reduce Your Energy Consumption
How much energy does your home consume each month? Get to know what the major sources of electrical consumption are in your house – washers, refrigerators, dryers, and older furnaces. Use your appliances wisely, and make a decision to reduce your energy consumption in your daily life in these areas.

7) Make and Make Do
Go way beyond reducing, reusing and recycling. Add in restoring, reviving, reinventing, repairing and, most importantly, refraining from unnecessary consumer purchases.

canning

8) Involve Your Children
Urban homesteading is a daily lifestyle filled with rich educational potential, and can be immensely fun when shared by the whole family. Allow your children to be a full part of the homestead, with special tasks that are all their own. Collecting eggs, watering the garden, baking bread, and tending the worm bin are all situations ripe for learning new skills, building confidence, and generating meaningful discussions.

9) Engage your Community
Urban homesteading is not about achieving self-sufficiency. It’s about building a network of skilled, resourceful, ecologically minded people in a community, who can share their knowledge with each other. It’s about developing a resilient city where people can rely on each other as needs arise.

10) Work with Joy
Emma Goldman has been quoted as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Amid the demanding bustle of daily life on our urban homestead, we need to remember to take time for celebrating, working mindfully, and including elements of beauty and art. Only if we do our tasks with joy will we be able to sustain the long-term goals of our homesteading life, and inspire others to join us in this movement.

 

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