Public Works: Urban Homesteading Infuses City Life With Traditional Skills
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Public Works: Urban Homesteading Infuses City Life With Traditional Skills

A U.S. web series hopes to teach city slickers about farming, preserves, and DIY crafts. Here in Toronto we're already on the way, thanks to a growing passion for the "authentic."

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by Kendra Spencer, from Flickr.

“Grow, raise, preserve, recycle, conserve.”

That’s the tagline of The Urban Homesteader, a new media project that aims to expose viewers to traditional skills that provide a more hands-on, sustainable, and less expensive city life.

In the demo reel, the show’s Oakland, California-based hosts visit a vacant city lot–turned–community food garden, a chicken coop built from an old shipping container, and a backyard bee hive. There are snippets, too, of pie-making, woodworking, and the promise of 101 uses for baking soda.

The idea is to create a series of episodes, online how-to guides, and a directory of experts, all to encourage Americans to adopt age-old talents like growing your own food, making your own preserves, building furniture, and raising animals in a dense urban environment.

But to produce at least two online episodes, the producers are looking for $20,000 USD (of which over $15,000 has already been raised) via the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo. They hope that, with enough success, their series will be picked up by PBS for television broadcast.

The series has a lot going for it. The team behind Urban Homesteader includes executive producers from the celebrated PBS shows Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Biz Kid$, and they have support from Whole Foods Market, the upscale, organic-focused grocery store chain.

Perhaps most valuable of all, The Urban Homesteader is also tapping into a cultural trend that’s burgeoning in cities all over the world—not least of all in Toronto.

Traditional life skills are hotter than ever out there. There’s The Shop, at College and Dufferin, where Torontonians can dive into woodworking and ceramics, with access to tools, workspace, and educational workshops. The West End Food Co-op on West Queen West offers a hands-on canning program, and has hosted classes on everything from sausage-making to pickling and bread baking. Community gardens abound, and there are more yarn stores and knitting classes than you can shake a needle at.

As Urban Homesteader co-developer Susan Hopp says in their promotional video, “the sustainability movement is happening all around us: Handmade, homemade, urban gardens, do-it-yourself, reuse, don’t throw out.”

A big part of the credit for this traditional skills groundswell belongs to a segment of society accused so often of being vacuous and indifferent. The modern, young-ish, so-called creative class who, for lack of a better term, we call hipsters, embrace in large numbers a lifestyle more in line with old-fashioned, blue-collar living.

Kids these days are crazy for “authenticity”—a fickle concept, sure, but one that ensures that anything traditional, hands-on, and homemade piques some interest.

It’s not exactly on par with marching in the street, but adopting these traditional habits help make cities into better places, bit by bit. It builds community interaction, reduces waste, promotes healthy eating and a connection to the physical environment.

The Urban Homesteader is trying to facilitate what so many Torontonians have already achieved, a kind of historically tinged modern city life that encourages a passion for learning and doing.