In the United States, the food that we consume has traveled between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before we eat it. That distance is up to 25% longer than it was in 1980. As we think about creating and living in more sustainable cities we need to be conscious of the systems and networks that support cities. Our food system is one urban support network that has changed drastically in the past 40 years. We are aware of the consequences of eating and living this way and many are interested in changing those patterns.  Incorporating more urban agriculture into our cities is part of the methods we can use to create sustainable food systems. Urban agriculture is the practice of growing, processing, and distributing food in or around a city.

Monoculture of potatoes in Maine. Photo by NightThree

Monoculture of potatoes in Maine. Photo by NightThree

Modern industrial agriculture involves practices that are resource inefficient, for both nutrients and water. The methods of cultivation like monocropoing and factory farming increase our exposure to heavily processed foods. The dual impacts of our current food system and climate change can been seen in the increase in algal blooms from runoff or droughts impacting production and consumers.

We can begin to integrate urban agriculture into the fabric of our cities to address the growing demands on consumption and the limits on production. Urban agriculture isn’t limited to P-Patches or rooftop garden retrofits. Planning to include urban agriculture in our cities has to expand to encompass the entire spectrum of potential urban agriculture presents. Urban cultivation can happen in soil or water; volunteers or employees can preform labor; it can benefit the community or a corporation. The range of possibility presented by urban agriculture is what it so challenging to incorporate into the fabric of our cities.


We need to embrace the gamut of urban cultivation from the low-tech, soil based programs that enrich community bonds to the tech heavy, commercial rotating tray systems. Understanding there isn’t a one size fits all approach on how to grow food in cities will help us plan and design a flexible system that encourages these projects to be built. It’s easy to conceptualize how organizations like Growing Power could fit into the voids in urban fabric. However, it becomes more challenging when we try to quantify the rent per square foot for hydroponic growing in new construction. Time will present developments in technology that allow us to move beyond the examples we currently grasp and see built. Completed projects like the Bio Intelligent Quotient building are helping us see that conceptual projects like Weber Thompson’s Eco Laboratory could be feasible in our cities.

In order to create a food system that sustains the cities and region it serves as well as the environment we need to incorporate the spectrum of urban agriculture into our cities.  We have examples from other cities to draw from. The seedlings of urban agriculture business here in Seattle are planted in Seattle Urban Farm Co. or Urban Harvest. The next step is to begin to think about the place urban agriculture has in the process of creating our city. By approaching the incorporation of urban agriculture from the perspective of retrofit, reuse, and new construction we can help produce the food to feed our cities more sustainably.


This was originally published on Sightline Institute’s website,
Written by Alyse Nelson, a Sightline Writing Fellow.

the entrance

A Jay Shafer Tiny Home. Flickr: nicolas.boullosa.

My husband and I think we’ve found a way to pay off our mortgage early, without taking on an extra job or working nights. We’ve decided to construct a rental unit—a “mother-in-law suite”—within our home. If it pans out as we hope, the rental income will let us pay off our loan 10 years early. And who knows: it could give us a chance to live closer to family as we, or they, get on in years.

Jason and I are not alone; lots of folks across Cascadia and beyond are experimenting with adding a second (or third) dwelling to an existing single-family home. And in perhaps the most interesting development, more and more people are choosing to buck the “bigger is better” trend in North American housing. They’re taking small spaces—back yards, side lots, or freestanding garages—and using them to build tiny houses.

Ranging from 800 square feet to less than 100 square feet—a far cry from the 1000 square feet per person that has become the North American norm—these “doll houses” take many shapes and sizes. And the people who live in them are as diverse as the homes themselves. Some hope to save money on housing; others hope to “live green” by choosing a smaller space; some are trading living space for a neighborhood they love; and others want to live closer to family or friends.

Here are some of their stories.

Jay Shafer, a founding father of the tiny home movement and a co-owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, told the BBC: “People are thinking more about what really is a luxury now. Is it a 30-year mortgage, or is it just living simply and having the time to do more of what you want? And I think a lot of people are starting to really change their idea of the American Dream.”

Dee Williams decided to rethink her American Dream after building a school in Guatemala, and having a close friend get cancer made her reevaluate her priorities. “He was getting sicker and sicker, and I didn’t have the time or the money to really throw myself into helping him. I was spending a lot of time and money on my house. So the house was the easiest thing to try to get rid of,” Williams told Yes! Magazine. So she sold her 1,500 square foot Portland home and built an 84-square foot tiny home for $10,000. Now she lives without a mortgage, giving her the time and money to invest in her friends and community.

Akua Schatz and Brendon Purdy’s dream was to live near relatives, but they couldn’t afford a home in Vancouver, BC’s Dunbar neighborhood. Instead of moving to the suburbs, they decided to build a 500-square-foot laneway home in Brendon’s parents’ backyard. In a city where the average home price is $725,086, Schatz and Purdy spent $280,000 to build their home.

Brendon and Akua's laneway home, view from the alley, photo used with permission from

There’s another plus to their backyard home: Schatz and Purdy have babysitters just feet away from their front door. “It’s really a North American concept to have success tied to moving away or distancing yourself, so maybe we’re reinventing what it means to be successful, and that means keeping family close,” Schatz suggests in this video from CTV news.

The laneway home sites in the backyard of Brendon's parent's home.

But unlike Schatz and Purdy, who plan to eventually switch places with Purdy’s parents and live in the larger home as their family grows, Jon and Ryah Dietzen moved from their 1,500 square foot home to a 400 square foot cottage with two toddlers. They made the move for its financial freedom, but the benefits didn’t stop there. “We realized after a few months how much time, freedom, and peace we were gaining by not collecting and spending our time taking care of more ‘stuff’,” Jon Dietzen told me. By choosing a smaller house, they found a better balance between work and home life.

The Dietzens remodeled a garage into a cottage. Here is the “before” shot. Photo credit Royce Tillotson, used with permission.

A view of the remodeled space. Photo credit Royce Tillotson, used with permission.

The Dietzens prove that tiny homes can work even for a family of four, and that they’re not just for couples, seniors, or singles.

A lot in a small space: kitchen island, living room, and a bedroom behind a curtain. Photo credit Royce Tillotson, used with permission.

Small homes combat neighborhood decline brought on by shrinking household sizes. Adding people can revitalize a neighborhood, allowing schools to stay open, giving neighborhood businesses more customers, making transit service cost-effective, and saving on infrastructure costs. Infilling neighborhoods with backyard cottages helps add more people to a neighborhood, without altering its character.

Cities and towns across Cascadia are beginning to permit backyard cottages. Seattle andVancouver both adopted rules for backyard cottages in 2009. Portland has allowed accessory dwellings since 1998; but when the city relaxed size restrictions and waived development charges in 2010, it unleashed a renaissance in small home building. Today, thousands of properties qualify for accessory units in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver—leading to hundreds of tiny houses, typically built on a small scale by individual homeowners.

As homeowners build small dwellings, they provide lower-cost housing within the existing fabric of their neighborhood, with no government support necessary. Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, sees this as the essential value of the trend towards small homes: “[It’s] about ordinary people. Thousands of individual homeowners can do it, one by one by one. It’s publicly propelled, not corporate-propelled densification. It’s gradual. It’s discrete. It’s green.”

Now that many cities have figured out backyard cottage rules, they face a new challenge: dealing with homes even tinier than the typical accessory dwelling. Some cities’ regulations set minimum size requirements for dwellings. Others say a recreational vehicle can’t count as an ADU, which means “you can camp in your little house, but not live in it,” writes Dee Williams. Tiny houser Lina Menard suggests that “people should have the right to a tiny house as long as it accommodates their needs and desires.” But for people to exercise that right, cities will have to rethink the zoning rules that stand in the way of tiny homes.

Lina Menard with her possessions, sitting outside a tiny home she lived in for 10 months.Photo credit Lina Menard, used with permission from her blog,

After a year in a 120-square-foot tiny home, Menard has a good idea of how to live well in a small space. “I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that I’m much happier when I live with just the things I like best. My relationship to stuff has shifted dramatically over the past year and a half. I’m much less materialistic than I used to be. But I really appreciate the little touches, too. It’s not about deprivation, but about intension,” Menard told me.

Lina’s tiny home includes a sleeping loft that she shares with her cat, Raffi. Photo credit Lina Menard, used with permission from her blog,

She recognizes that tiny home living isn’t for everyone, but thinks there’s a way to broaden their appeal: the “cohousing” model, where tiny homes would be coupled with shared kitchens, laundry facilities, guest rooms, and even amenities like barbeques, workshops, and gardens. “Tiny cohousing would just push the envelope,” Menard writes in her blog. “People who lived in a tiny house community would have access to all these things, but they wouldn’t have to own all these things themselves,” Menard explains.

A view down from the sleeping loft into Lina’s main living space. Photo credit Lina Menard, used with permission from her blog,

There are a few small home cohousing communities popping up in Cascadia. Eli Spevak, owner of Orange Splot, LLC, has developed several innovative housing projects in Portland. “My goal is to keep modeling new ways of providing affordable, community-oriented houses,” Spevak told The Oregonian.

The Sabin Green cohousing community brings Spevak’s goals to fruition. Sabin Green includes four homes, built on a 75- by 100-foot lot. The lot had a single-family home and detached garage. The single-family home remains, but the detached garage was converted into a 600-square-foot cottage. A second home and a 600-square-foot accessory dwelling were built as well. The four homes face onto a central courtyard, but they also have access to shared gardens, a community room with space for visitors, and a bike storage shed. The sharing doesn’t stop with physical improvements: residents also use just one Internet service, share a newspaper subscription, and meet for weekly dinners.

Sabin Green before its transformation. Photo credit Eli Spevak, used with permission.i

The new view from the street. Photo credit Eli Spevak, used with permission.

The project is home to a diverse group, including a young couple, retirees, a single woman, and a small family. Residents Laura Ford and Josh Devine paid just under $150,000 for their 530 square foot home. They downsized from a 700-square-foot apartment, but see the loss of square footage as worth the cost. “If you live by yourself, you might not be able to afford the brick plaza, the teahouse, the gardens,” Devine told The Oregonian.

The detached garage was converted into a separate residence. Photo credit Eli Spevak, used with permission.

Back deck from one Sabin Green home shows the view into the shared courtyard. Photo credit Steve Hambuchen, used with permission.

Ruth’s Garden Cottages—covered by Sightline here—takes tiny home communities to another level. On a 50- by 100-foot lot in Northeast Portland that housed one small dwelling, Orange Splot added two tiny cottages, each less than 200 square feet in size. The miniature structures have room for a sleeping loft, a bathroom, and a well-proportioned front porch. The cottages make use of the kitchen in the main home. A shared garden takes up the front 50 feet of the lot.

The view of Ruth’s Cottages from the street. Photo credit Mike O'Brien, used with permission.

The main house contains a full kitchen that all Ruth’s Cottages residents can use, but the cottages also have modest kitchen facilities for quick snacks. Photo credit Mike O'Brien, used with permission.

Front porches and a common courtyard provide outdoor living “rooms.” Photo credit Mike O'Brien, used with permission.

The recession and housing crisis, combined with changing demographics, have led many of us to reevaluate what we want in a home. More and more folks are looking for homes within walking distance of jobs, stores, and transit—and have proven willing to trade square footage for a vibrant neighborhood. At the same time, millennials increasingly look for alternatives to the car; baby boomers have reached the age where they don’t need a big home in the ‘burbs; and more and more families are choosing to live in multi-generational households.

Tiny houses are a great solution for all these needs. So whether you are a recent graduate wanting to be free from high rent, or a family looking to live without a mortgage, or you want toturn your detached garage into a mother-in-law suite, a small home might be for you. As Marcus Barksdale, who built his own small home in Asheville, North Carolina, said in this interview: “It would be really neat if more people sought to have smaller spaces, because it would free them up for a larger life.”


The Seattle Design Festival is underway and continues throughout the weekend with great programming. One exhibit that caught my eye is called Tight Urbanism:

This is a mobile exhibit by AIA Seattle’s 2010 Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship recipient Daniel Toole. Daniel travelled to Chicago, San Francisco, Melbourne, Osaka and Kyoto – cities that continue to transform their alley networks – to study the potentially vibrant in-between spaces of the built environment. The exhibit will connect Daniel’s findings to the less-travelled paths of Seattle’s own abundant alleyways.

Utilizing several mediums, including photographs and sketches, the exhibit is mounted on shipping pallets and casters to keep it mobile and modular. It has been displayed around the city at the AIA gallery, and several alleys including Firehouse Alley in Pioneer Square, and Canton Alley in the International District.

Copies of Daniel’s book, Tight Urbanism, which documents his travels through alleys in writing, photography, and sketching, will be available… (Continue Reading: Tight Urbanism | Seattle Design Festival)


Please join us for lunch at GGLO today as we welcome Nancy Bird, Sandy Fischer, and Mike Kent. Nancy, Sandy, and Mike will present neighborhood streetscape reinvention projects and participate in a Q&A about lessons learned and the potential for more creative thinking about how we use our rights of way. Our Streetscape 2.0 series continues in September; we’ll take a look at two exciting “green street” projects in development.

But first, here’s a bit more on Mike and the Melrose Promenade project he’ll be presenting today: 

Mike Kent Photo.jpgMike Kent has lived in Capitol Hill since 2009 and founded the Melrose Promenade project in 2010. He currently works as a Project Manager for Pastakia & Associates, and prior to that he worked for more than 10 years in the non-profit and public sector. His background is in urban planning, and he presently serves as chair for Leadership for Great Neighborhoods. Mike also served for two years as Vice President of the Capitol Hill Community Council.

Project Description:

The views from Capitol Hill’s Melrose Avenue are among the best in the city, but the poor quality of the street itself threatens the public enjoyment of them. Since 2010, a group of community members has been working to remedy this. The Melrose Promenade project aims to create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly street by widening and extending the sidewalk and adding benches, trees and other landscaping, pedestrian-oriented lighting, and public art. The project has earned the support of numerous community and civic organizations, property owners, businesses, and residents.


Hear directly from Crosscut Contributor, Historic Preservationist and Architect Patricia Tusa Fels at our upcoming July 12 Brownbag, also featuring Liz Dunn, Dennis Meier of DPD and Great City Board Member and Architect Jeff Reibman. We’ll be taking a look at Development activity in Seattle’s Pike/Pine neighborhood and strategies to retain the dynamic and diverse culture that makes it such a hotspot to live, work, play, and build.

Nearly all talk of the environment in and around Seattle is about the mountains and the sound, rivers and hiking trails. Yet most of us spend a big portion of our time in the urban environment, which has an effect on all of us: our wellbeing, our outlook, our family life, and prospects for our work and leisure. There is a serious disconnect between our collective reverence for the outward “environment,” and our willingness to let the city’s own environment be shaped by developers.

It is especially ironic that Seattle, situated amidst glorious and gloriously complicated ecosystems, leaves the guidance and stewardship of its experiential environment to private developers and their tendencies towards monoculture. It is naïve and irresponsible that we assume their focus is on the overall vitality of the streets and neighborhoods in which their buildings sit.

Instead, the city should be looking creatively and deeply at the land use rules on the books, with an eye towards eliminating or modifying those that don’t foster the complexity of the place. Diversity by design is the key to creating a city that can be seen, experienced, worked and lived in by more of its citizens and visitors… (Continue Reading: Why Seattle needs a new urban environmentalism |


via Apartment Therapy

Cool! But, probably illegal; so don’t try this at home.


The small, portable, and frankly genius Sky Deck table is a mini table designed to “wrap” itself around the rails of balconies or fire escapes, giving you just enough horizontal surface space for a small plate and something refreshing to drink… via: The Sky Deck Fire Escape Table | Apartment Therapy.


He’s no Bob Loblaw, but Foster Pepper Attorney Colm Nelson dives into case history and comes up with some salient points for designers and developers:

Eye for an eye, really? Irresponsible developers pay heed to the Code of Hammurabi!

Since the dawn of civilization, irresponsible builders did not survive in the marketplace. They did not survive, period. Under the ancient Code of Hammurabi of Babylon circa 1800 BC any builder who negligently built a home that later collapsed and killed the home owner “shall be put death.” Recently, citing to the Code, the Supreme Court of Washington recently, sternly reminded owners, engineers and contractors of their responsibility for worker safety.

In 2004, a digester dome at Spokane’s sewage treatment plant collapsed, killing one City of Spokane employee and injuring two others. The massive digester had a capacity of 2.25 million gallons. Its purpose was to take raw solids, circulate them for several weeks at a high temperature in an anaerobic process, and turn the solids into fertilizer. The injured parties, who were standing on and adjacent to the digester when it collapsed, sued CH2M Hill Inc., the project engineer that had contracted with the City as a consultant for the 10-year capital improvement project to upgrade the plant.

The Plaintiffs alleged, in part, that CH2M had failed to properly advise them and the City, in writing, of the downstream effects of altering the direction of sewage flow at a valve-like transfer station leading to the digester. Prior to the accident, the workers noticed pressure rising in the digester and, in an attempt to relieve that pressure, began conducting a transfer to move sludge from that digester to another. However, CH2M had recently suggested a design change for that valve and related system, which had been implemented, and the effect of that change was significant. Instead of transferring sewage out of the digester, the new system simply transferred the sludge to a “deadhead”, causing no relief in pressure whatsoever. Unfortunately, the City workers did not know this and believed the transfer would relieve pressure. Ultimately, the digester’s dome collapsed, causing one of the workers who was working on top of the dome to fall into the digester and die, while the other two were blown clear by a wave of sludge and suffered serious injury.

via Eye for an eye, really? Irresponsible developers pay heed to the Code of Hammurabi! : Better Building: The Responsible Developer’s Blog.


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