Plans can be poetic on several levels, from simple sensual beauty to deeply embedded meaning. Great planners create profound poetry in their best plans, and while this doesn’t rise to those levels, I feel it is some of my best work. Here’s what it means:
CNU kicked off last year in Salt Lake City with a competition to redesign the Mormon Block. Salt Lake City is built of these mammoth blocks, measuring 660 feet on a side and containing exactly 10 acres. What do you do with blocks that big? Because the Original Green’s ideas on Nourishable Places had an early influence on Agrarian Urbanism, I was asked to lead a session on Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. My competition entry on Wednesday served as the basis for my presentation on Saturday.
The idea of putting a garden in the city has potential story lines that trace back thousands of years. In the Judaeo-Christian heritage, paradise at the beginning of the world was a garden and at world’s end, it will be a city. Many of the most beautiful places on earth not yet ruined by sprawl put these two ideals together, allowing you to look directly from the city out into the countryside, such as this view from High Street in Broadway, one of the most beautiful towns in England's Cotswold hills.
It is just as poetic to see the town in the distance from the countryside, so long as the town is small enough to perceive all at once, like Chipping Camden is as seen from this meadow. The trick to building a garden inside a Mormon Block is that there’s no way you’ll feel like you’re out in the countryside because you simply cannot get that far from the urbanism all around the edge of the block. And while a small patch of garden embedded in urbanism can be profound in the hand of a master, it’s easier to make an impact by pulling off the feeling of moving from city to garden in a short distance.
I set out, therefore, to try to move from the city to the garden in ten paces. It’s not as difficult as it sounds… it happens all the time in villages like St. Alban’s in England shown here. And then it occurred to me: maybe, if I could pull a few planning tricks, it might be possible not just to move from city to garden in ten paces, but actually move from city to what felt like country in ten paces. So I set out to try to figure out how to do it.
One obvious solution is to make sure that there are turns in the road. This country road winds for miles through England’s Dartmoor National Forest, but you can never see more than a few dozen yards ahead of you because the path is constantly twisting and turning along the contours of the land as it searches out the more level tracks through the landscape.
Hedgerows are another useful technique for controlling the view, and because England is famous for them, here’s yet another British image. A hedgerow is tall and thick, creating a view wall so that you cannot see into the adjacent field. Hedgerows can also be edible, planted with fruit or berry bushes. And while bedding crops often grow at more than arm’s length, edible hedgerow plants bring the fruit right up to your face if you’re walking along the edge of the path.
Street width isn’t often discussed as a technique for making the way seem longer, but it can be highly effective. It’s simple proportion: moving 300 feet along a street that’s ten feet wide seems like a much longer distance than traveling an equal distance on a boulevard that’s 200 feet from building face to building face. Take this simple test: Look at the second image above, then imagine walking from one end of Pienza to the other, then imagine walking one block in Salt Lake City. Which seems like a greater distance? So the path should clearly be narrow.
It’s not possible to completely hide the buildings at the street from within the garden, but it is possible to clothe the insides of the buildings with green. New Orleans does a fabulous job of this, adorning buildings with galleries that are practically begging you to hang a lush garden of potted plants, such as the one that is shown in this image.
So here’s how the idea developed: The first move was to decide that there should be something special in the middle, which is where you’re furthest from the city. Working edible gardens need a place for the work of the harvest, and the time of harvest has been an occasion for festivals throughout human history, so it seemed appropriate to put the place of the harvest at the center of the block. And because the block is square and urban, a harvest place that is round and green seemed to be the perfect counterpoint on several levels.
That mammoth block size was the very next thing that had to be addressed. Portland is famous for its walkability in part because of its very small block size, where block faces are around 195 feet per side. Dividing the Mormon Block in thirds creates sub-blocks with similar block face dimensions once you take out the width of the sub-block passages. And in order to create the best walkability, there should be corner entries as well, which create iconic flatiron buildings. All told, this scheme creates twelve gateways into the garden: four at the corners and two along each side.
So the basic scheme was set: enter through the city walls at the twelve gateways and proceed along narrow, curving, hedged pathways through the garden to the place of the harvest. Here’s the basic idea of one of those pathways. But should they just curve in one direction, like giant turbine blades? Doing this would give you no choices along the way from the city streets to the center of the garden, making each path pretty much identical. Once you’ve walked one, you’ve pretty much walked them all. So I decided there should be intersections along the way. But how, and how many?
Intersections are easy if you run the pathways both to the right hand side and to the left. How much should they curve? Curve too little, and it’s pretty much a straight shot to the center. Curve too much, and each of the plots of the garden becomes tiny as the block is eaten up with too much roadway. A perfect balance seemed to be to lay out the pathways for seven intersections between the city sidewalks and the place of the harvest. At each of the seven intersections, you could turn right, or left, going further out or further in. And so your path from each of the twelve gates to the place of the harvest could take innumerable paths as you selected your way through the seven circles of choices.
So that’s how the paths laid out. You’ll also notice a few more things: The twelve cottages scattered around the outer edges of the garden house the gardeners. Bio-intensive gardens this big would be full-time work for these twenty-four people (with maybe some occasional help from their children.) Just outside their cottages, at the outer circle, is the orchard border that further frames the green circle of the garden. And the innermost circle of sunburst-shaped buildings are the sheds where the tools of the garden and the tools of the harvest are stored.
There are other stories here as well, but I’ve gone on long enough. What do you see?
I dreaded the idea of moving my office worse than a root canal, but it might turn out to be one of the leanest, greenest, and all-around best things we’ve done in a very long time. At first, we didn’t even consider moving home because we simply have too much stuff. We were in a 1,500 square foot office a few blocks away from our 747 square foot condo; how is it possible to condense every three square feet into one? But late one October evening, I asked Wanda “do you think we should consider the unthinkable?” And so it began.
Moving your office to an equal or larger space is easy: you just call the movers and then spend a day or two getting set up to work again. But combining 1,500 square feet of work space and 747 square feet of living space into 747 square feet of live/work space is much more difficult because you have to look at every single thing and say “do I really need this?” It’s an intense exercise in getting lean with living and working. We spent almost the entire month of January doing exactly that, and the three months since sorting it all out. Here are some things I learned, organized by simple rules of thumb… and you can click on the bird to tweet a rule of thumb if you like.
Get lean by ditching flab, which is anything I don’t need today.
We keep far too much stuff because we might need it someday, just as our body does with fat… storing calories because we might someday need them. When we moved, we gave loads of furniture, office supplies, and the like to MakeShop Miami, the maker group I wrote about here. They can use it today, while I only might need it someday.
Sentimentality is a hard master, forcing me to carry a heavy load just to see it again someday.
Take pictures. Good ones. They take up no space at all in your place, especially if you store them somewhere in the cloud. I had several architectural models I’d kept since school. At this point, they looked like models of ruins because the models were ruined. I also got rid of a lot of drawings from school, saving only my best work. I keep all my professional drawings, of course, but the idea that anyone would want to see my lesser work from school just doesn’t make sense.
Lean by lack is poverty, but lean by choice is highly treasured.
No diet is pleasant at the moment, but the leanness that comes afterward can be great fun. Getting lean has caused a massive 4-month hit to my productivity, but it promises to pay off for years to come.
Work somewhere too small to clutter.
I once thought a space large enough to clutter was a luxury but it’s really a burden. Here’s a huge point about the images in this post: Nothing was prepped for the shoot. All “straightening up” took 30 seconds or less. This is how we work. We can’t afford not to. And it saves a ton of time cleaning up every few months and searching for stuff every day in between.
Label stuff crisply and neatly. The smaller the space, the cleaner it needs to feel.
You can get away with hand-scrawled labels in a big office, but a small office needs to feel more composed. And where would you rather be working anyway: somewhere really sloppy, or somewhere that raises your spirits? When space is small it is more important to surround yourself with things that lift your spirits.
Shred with text left-to-right so ribbons of paper include only a digit or two of an account number.
I had every check I’d ever written, all the way back to when Wanda and I got married when I was just 19. Why? Because I’d never taken the time to recycle them. The IRS says you have to keep 7 years of records, but I kept everything back to when we moved to Florida, 11 years ago. I kept tax returns older than that… or at least the ones we had. We had three back-to-back floods in our office several years ago during a rooftop construction project, and they destroyed tons of drawings and company records, so what we have is really spotty. But in any case, don’t just recycle it. Identity thieves might be able to do something even if the record is really old, so make sure you shred everything before recycling.
Never lay junk mail anywhere except in the recycle bin… next, get on the National Do Not Mail List.
In a small space, you can’t afford to handle stuff twice… especially if it’s something you’re not planning to keep. So go straight to the recycle bin when you check your mail.
Have an invisible inbox. A massive stack of stuff to do is demoralizing.
See the white cabinet just to the right of my red chair in the image above? It’s an Ikea shoe cabinet, but it makes an awesome inbox. I can pivot it open, drop stuff in, and let it close… and it stays out of sight until I’m ready to work on it.
Keep things you use each day close around, but store further away what you use less often.
People say storage units are a sign of hoarding, and an indicator of not getting rid of enough stuff. Quite the opposite is true if you’re moving your office home. We have three workplaces: the stuff we need every day is in our two tiny workspaces at home. The stuff we need weekly is in a small storage unit a bike ride from home. The stuff we need monthly or less is in a larger but less expensive (per square foot) storage unit on the mainland. All three places are set up for work. Without the two storage units, working from home would be impossible for me.
Rinse junk mail instead of scrubbing. Don’t fear the inbox.
Ever notice how something you could have merely rinsed right after you used it takes some real scrubbing if you let it get hard and crusty? Junk mail is that way. It’s more important in a small space to not feel the walls closing in around me… including the digital walls of stacks of email. So every morning, I delete all the spam that my spam-catcher doesn’t catch, plus all the emails that aren’t exactly spam, but which I have no intention of ever answering. This leaves me with a small fraction of what greeted me when I first sat down, making it more likely that I’ll actually look at what’s left… and then respond to it.
The first act of simplification is discovering which things can do double-duty… or more.
Start with your furnishings, such as these bookshelves which are actually doing triple-duty.
Next, consider your equipment. Do you really need all of it? We’re now down to just two computers: Wanda’s laptop and mine.
Then think about your digital business. Dropbox doubles as a cloud server and a backup system for me, for example. But it’s expensive, so I’m storing several terabytes of files that don’t often change on a WD My Cloud server I can access from anywhere on earth. Before saving stuff there, however, I’m organizing it all. It’s something I should have done years ago, but I’m using the move home as the reason to finally get it done.
My digital setup is an entire post’s worth of material. I’ll put that post up soon on Useful Stuff. The essence, however, is this: when you work in a small space, your biggest enemy is clutter. Both physical and digital. So you need to spend an unusual amount of time simplifying things in the beginning. You’ll thank yourself countless times from that point forward.
Small equipment can go many places that are impossible for larger equipment.
We’re down to just one letter-size scanner, which sits snugly on the end of my desk. Our old printer was a beast, but our new one sits neatly on top of my drawing files.
Take advantage of the space under a desk that's over and around your feet.
Wanda stores copy paper on a shelf above her feet, and Buddy, Tanner, and Sally make a bed around her feet. I store stuff to either side of my feet because why should all that space be wasted?
Work in a garden room whenever possible. It’s a luxury most people never get to enjoy.
I work outdoors whenever the weather is good for several reasons. It’s a change of scenery. It’s a great pleasure. On a good day, the light is excellent. It’s easier to focus if Wanda is on the phone indoors. And it gets me acclimated to the local environment so I can live in season, often not needing to turn on the air conditioning when I return indoors. I’m working inside right now, for example, with only the breeze of the ceiling fan needed for comfort.
What It Means
There are obviously many lessons here, and I’ve just touched on some of them briefly. Is there anything you want to know more about? If so, I can blog about it in greater detail… or we could just talk about it here. What makes the most sense to you? And what do you wonder the most about, if you don’t already work from home?