I live in Los Angeles and I am a dirt farmer. I have been growing dirt for the last several years. What I mean is that I have been actively using a composting process to turn all my yard clippings and vegetable scraps into soil. You start out with grass clippings and old spinach and you end up with grade A soil. The only investment I have made so far is $20 worth of earthworms. What starts out as a big pile of material, ends up as a small lump of dirt in the yard. Once it has turned to nice dark rich soil, I redistribute it back across the yard where it came from in the first place.

Once I realized that I get to keep all the nutrients that came out of my yard in the first place or paid for in the vegetable aisle of the grocery store, I started not wanting to give anything away. Why should the City get all my dirt making material? Why would I pay to bring in soil enhancements when I can just grow them. My green trash container only makes it out to the curb every few months, when I have undertaken a seasonal tree trimming or similar high volume producing exercise. I probably could keep everything, but my yard is not that big and my family is not  that crazy about the variable sized pile of vegetation -on -its -way -to -being -dirt in the yard and I don’t think a second one would go over very well.

I’m sure this must also be reducing the carbon footprint of my yard: I don’t need the giant green truck to pick up my grass clippings, I’m not buying soil amendments that have been trucked in from somewhere else, and what is growing in my yard is capturing CO2, putting the O2 into the air and the C into the ground where it belongs. In the meantime, I’m feeding a nice family of worms.

I’m now working to manage the transition from what got planted on purpose but without much consideration to what might like to grow in the yard, to what should really be there. I am also trying to understand  succession and the difference from native plants and non-native plants that seem happy to grow wherever the birds planted them, and how I transition from what I have to what should be there without digging up the yard (yes, I have adopted a “no-till approach)

It is probably not too much to ask that most building sites undertake these sorts of operations. Certainly it would make sense for larger properties as well and be a natural for campuses, many of which have ambitious recycling programs already. If the collection agencies started charging their customers by the weight of what they send out for “disposal” those customers (you and I) would certainly start paying more attention to what we put on the curb. If you got credit for recyclables but were charged for waste, you’d also see some habits and preferences change pretty quickly. 

Also, I am sure this logic could be extended to the function of buildings and the land they use. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if buildings could be net producers of something: Energy (no problem), harvesters of storm water (absolutely!), absorbers of carbon dioxide and maybe producers of strawberries. (And maybe the strawberry plants could shade the building to reduce heat gain). With an adjustment of our expectations (that is , expect that we can do better) and the utilization of bio-philic systems or models in the design of our buildings (that is that the operation of a system produces the fuel to operate that system or other systems) significant improvements can be made in terms of the energy it takes to manage our landscapes and also operate our buildings. And rather than just expecting them to use less resources, we should be looking to them to produce something positive. That might mean that there is also a farmer as a partner in the building project, or that infrastructure changes to be collectors of products useful to other parts of the community instead of gatherers of waste for disposal. We’ve already started down this path. The ultimate goal would be to design  “Net Positive Resource Buildings” TM . Given the staggering amounts of energy and resources required to build buildings, that is pretty ambitious, but humans have been pretty ingenious at solving problems once they are identified and prioritized.

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