An Alternative To Collective Rural Living
Recently on one of the prepper Facebook groups I'm a regular on, a member posted of their desire to move from their city home to a rural property and start a farm. Its a popular desire among preppers, I had a similar desire myself as recent as 5 years ago. Having a decent amount of land, where you can grow your own food and raise chickens or even a cow or two, and a home that you can walk out the back door and not be a stone's throw from your neighbor would be great. I've had access to such a property, during my time as a child (grandparents lived in a small town) and later as a 20 something (a friend's parents owned 40 acres in the Ozarks). There is something really magical about being in real woods and grassy fields.
Its a dream that is unfortunately being more and more priced out of the range of anyone but the truly rich. The cost of land fit for farming has skyrocketed. First came second homes by people with money in the country and more recently during the start of the pandemic, rural properties you could be safe from infection (and conveniently work remotely from) all have driven the supply of small family sized plots of land out of reach.
This has lead to a modification of the design into "collective rural living", where a group of families go in together to buy a larger property which is subdivided into small home lots, while a communal set of common buildings are shared by all. This has its advantages. A small farm will require certain equipment, small tractor, construction and maintenance equipment, farm sheds and food storage buildings all of which are expensive and aren't used on a full time basis. Having a slightly larger tractor, which can be shared and used on all of the resident family's home gardens, as well as perhaps a larger communal farm area, spreads the costs and makes it more affordable. Yet, the number of affordable properties of the size needed for this option are just as scarce anymore.
I want to propose an alternative, which is more readily available and I would argue more doable for a small group.
"FOR SALE: 28,000 Square Feet"
If you live in an urban area of the United States, or in a more economically downward area of the suburban area surrounding most medium to large metropolitan areas, you've seen them. The closed community grocery stores of the 60s and 70s. Bypassed now as the public desires the big box experience of 10 thousand options of every type of product. They often sit with "For Lease or Sale" signs, the once cornerstone of the small strip mall in the abandoned township center. Some have been turned into antique malls or dollar stores. Too many though sit empty with dusty windows and parking lots with a bit of trash and a few lone cars at the businesses that remain there.
I have a way that these abandoned remnants of our past could be the leaders of our future into the Long Descent and I'll explain how. Let's step back for a second.
Why do you want to move to the country?
Most will say that rural living is just "better"? More room, better environment, not having to put up with the loud noise and louder arguments of your neighbors on a Saturday night. All those are good reason. For many though, the little land they have in the backyard, if they are lucky enough to have a backyard, isn't anywhere large enough for the garden they want. Just like rural properties, urban/suburban lots have shrunk. Getting property now with a decent backyard, with the way prices have gone through the roof the last few years, is out of reach. One of the reasons I'm going to co-habit with my sister is to have access to a backyard, and even then, its going to be tiny and not as much as I'd really love to have.
There is also a big desire, and I know this one too, to have some say in the people near you. Neighbors can be a crap shoot, you have very little to no control of who moves in next to you. Bad neighbors can suck and all it takes is one asshole to ruin your enjoyment. And neighbors who were otherwise good ones, are one bad divorce or out of control teenager from turning into a problem.
For many Green Wizards and those in the prepper there's another reason. We want a place we can make better, and then share our knowledge with others. Its the reason we congregate in groups and populate online forums, posting pictures of our garden or harvest, and discussing our accomplishments and our disappointments. This I'd argue is one of the big reasons to consider an urban option. Its a lot harder to have friends or new acquaintances come over some weekend, sit in the backyard and walk through the garden, when your nearest neighbor is 10 miles away. The wide open spaces, means wide open spaces, lol.
And those distances to services and resources are going to get even longer, as we continue into Collapse. Gasoline prices are still low but they can easily spike, making the trip to the nearby town for a few needed supplies or a visit to the dentist not a $5 expense but a $20 expense. Or as we have seen in the past, a expected $500 winter heating bill turn into a $2000 bill, just at the time when you don't have an alternative.
Not just fuel price increase but the access to goods too. The hinterlands of rural America are going to be abandoned to their own, as America's Empire comes down in the next few decades. Scarce government money will be used to shore up the larger urban cities and places where the powerful and rich reside, leaving us all to fend for ourselves. Small towns will become forts where their residents have to defend themselves. We are already seeing an increase in farm equipment thefts from barns and buildings, dumping of wastes and trash on back acres lots and in some cases even organized thefts of harvests in the field.
That's if people don't just stop at the side of the road and walk out to pick a basket full themselves, thinking its all free for the taking.
Now urban/suburban areas aren't immune to these problems. Dumping trash in back alleys got so bad in the downtown depressed areas of St Louis last year a police task force was formed to deal with it. And recently we had a big rash of local car break ins, including an attempted shooting when a home owner caught the thief in mid act. They have something that rural locations lack, an active police force within minutes of a response.
With that police force comes a city government that should work for you. At least in getting access to resources from the state and federal governments, even if those resources will slowly get more and more limited. Funding to clean up in a disaster, and let's admit with climate change we're going to see more and more of those, should continue even if it becomes less for the next few decades. How well that city government works is in some measure you're responsibility. Too many of us have retreated from the civic duties our grandparents took as a given, and now only vote then ignore those in our governments until the next election. Governments, especially local city governments are a powerful tool if you learn how to use them. Get them on your side by attending council meetings and getting to know your elected representative.
Along with that infrastructure also comes businesses and resources. Stores and libraries. The hollowing out of the rural city center is a sad thing, too often in even moderately populated townships across the country. What was once a vibrant core of a community is too often boarded up store fronts, a few discount stores and a big box megastore just off the Interstate.
Urban communities suffer from this collapse as much as rural communities, but if you do what I'm going to suggest, you'll be using that decay to your advantage.
A Green Wizard's Urban Collective
Let's first look at the physical structure of what I have in mind, then we'll discuss how to make it work.
Here are two of the small ex-grocery stores I talked about in the beginning of this article. The top one, when not empty, has been an antique mall several times. The bottom one has been a grocery store, whose owner moved to a part of town with more traffic and built a bigger store. It is about 100'x160' of about 16,000 sq ft. The other store is about twice as large at 150'x175' (26,000 sq ft) but has an attached additional area to the left of the entrance (about another 4000 sq ft). Both have sizable parking lots and both have a drive up truck loading dock. Ceiling height of the smaller store is 12' while the larger one is 14-16'.
A typical two bedroom home from the 50s is around 1500 square feet. You'll be looking at an indoor area that's ten times as big. If you add in the parking lot, which can be 3-4 times as large, you end up with usable space that can be truly huge. Now true, its not trees and grassy fields BUT that can easily be changed. If you have a big box store like Home Depot in your area, then you've seen their outdoors green lot. You could build something similar, with raised beds and large containers to give your collective all the space to grow a large portion of your food needs.
With that much interior space, you could build individual family apartments for each of the members, and still have half the space for a common area of your liking. Remember, a typical small grocery store has storage in the back, access to the truck dock, and if you are lucky a deli and freezer. Larger restrooms as well, though you'd want personal bathrooms with tubs/showers in each personal residence.
But not just that. As I mentioned earlier, the people of a Collapsing World are going to need teachers who can help them learn the skills they need to thrive and prosper. While you can certainly stick to yourselves, the 3-4 families using this collective space as a just home, what really is the fun in that? I would want to share my good fortune and have friends, both old and of course new, over all the time. That means you'd want not just a communal kitchen and recreational area inside, but also perhaps a class room. Maybe a workshop too. Certainly a indoor green room for the sprouts and seedlings, maybe even some hydroponics for the cold winter months.
Here is one floor plan, using the larger of the two buildings as an example:
In this case the building is approximately 110'x150' (or about 15,500 sq ft when you include the loading dock cut out).
First thing, each of the three personal family apartments clocks in at a large 900 sq ft. The other rooms are also larger, and in practice you could build most of the common rooms smaller than shown.
Also we end up with a outdoor growing area of about 8000 sq feet though you'd be able to put in raised beds totaling perhaps 1/2 that given the need for walkways and paths. I put a small shed in the area too. You could of course size this just about how you would want to, given the parking lot area.
Governance Is Key To Surviving
Much like the idea of a rural collective farming arrangement that people envision, an urban collective would be small. Perhaps 3-4 families, with additional "volunteer" contributors. This differs from the larger intentional communities that many discuss and try to start. The urban collective's smaller size allows for options the larger communities can't use effectively for governance. I see two that are most promising, the Non-Profit and the Employee Owned Enterprise.
Both of these allow for a shared style of group leadership which I feel would go a long way in minimizing the tendency larger organizations have of a "strongman" taking over the organization. A sense of common ownership is key to what I believe would make these work.
While I have worked with non-profits before, I have not worked in an employee owned company. Further research is needed before I can give any advice.
The interesting thing about repurposing existing buildings within the community is the ability to scale this up. While a small grocery store works well with a 3-4 family group, a larger store of the size typical of big box stores has the potential to become a new city center.
The on site housing could be increased substantially and at the same time, you would have the space to bring in local professionals and craftspeople. The communal area in the smaller floor plan could be expanded into a central park of indoor trees and fountains, with seating and event facilities, while encircling the Commons with small shops and spaces. Area doctors, lawyers and other skilled professionals could be attracted to open there for 1 or 2 days a week to serve the local residents. City and County, even State and Federal government agencies could be attracted to open satellite offices as well.
Some national companies like Amazon and UPS/FedEx already do drop off locations. A larger building like this, could serve as a central point for distribution and business services. City governments could arrange local small bus service to allow residents without transportation to visit. The community garden could be expanded and even enhanced with an area farmers market one day a week. The resultant foot traffic would encourage small trades type businesses, like tailors, barbers, hair stylists and others to set up shop.
Branches of regional libraries much like the bookmobile of old as well. You could even expand the lending of resources into something like a Tool library or Seed bank.
Empty commercial space, especially the huge big box stores, are a drain on community resources and give no tax revenue. Repurposing them into something that benefits the community as a whole is going to be something that is done, either through local activist or forward looking city officials. We, the community, just need to voice our desire for it to happen.