The East Bay offers many ways to live sustainably
The phrase “living lightly on the land” has been used for years, but the urgency of the climate crisis has thrust the concept back into the spotlight. How can we use less water and more clean energy? How can we reclaim and restore the land? How can we effectively reduce, reuse and recycle?
From the “Buy Nothing Project” to new “Victory” gardens sown during the pandemic, people worldwide are seeking ways to live more lightly. The East Bay, fertile ground for the “back-to-the-land” movement of the ’60s and ’70s, continues to lead in offering options for sustainable living.
One of the first leaders is still in the forefront. Founded in 1969, Berkeley’s Ecology Center continues to focus on core issues such as climate, food, zero waste and recycling, but its programs and policies now have regional, national and even international influence. One example is the Center’s emphasis on plastic policy, said Community Engagement Program Director Denaya Shorter. The member-led nonprofit will offer virtual classes, workshops and panel discussions as part of its “Plastics-Free July,” aimed at teaching people how to buy and use less plastic.
As the pandemic recedes, information about supporting restaurants that are returning to plastic-free policies and businesses that offer refillable containers will be part of the conversation, along with how to support legislative efforts to minimize plastic use. Visit the Center’s online Eco Calendar for a list of events.
The Center is actively studying “electrification initiatives,” said Shorter, aimed at freeing Berkeley buildings from fossil fuels, alongside ongoing installation of EV charging stations. Its popular “Eco House” will soon again be used for classes, such as on greywater reuse, and the Ecology Store, a major source of funding for the Center, fully reopened June 8. “The store’s products are all vetted thoroughly for sustainable manufacturing and use,” Shorter said, noting that many come from local sources, and women- and BIPOC-owned companies.
Building community by fostering eco-living inspired the creation of Oakland’s 10-year-old The PLACE for Sustainable Living. Run primarily by volunteers alongside a group of “stewards,” PLACE educates people to become more self-sustaining, teaching gardening for food and providing spaces such as The Fab Lab, a makerspace for those engaged in environmentally friendly, sustainable design, and The Makery, a co-working space for artisans and artists working with eco-friendly materials.
Silver, a PLACE steward, is a seamstress who teaches free sewing classes, encouraging people to make their own clothes and break the cycle of disposable clothing. “A sustainable lifestyle is also more autonomous,” she said.
Membership in PLACE is limited, but as the pandemic winds down, the space will open up for ticketed events. “Seventy-five percent of our space is outdoors,” Silver said, “and we’ll be encouraging the community to return.” PLACE is also actively fundraising, as the stewards would like to purchase the land on which it sits.
Nothing tastes better than a tomato fresh-picked off the vine. And beyond the scrumptiousness, there’s no Big Ag, with its big water use, and no oil or gas consumed in shipping. Yet many urban dwellers have no space to grow food plants, which is why community gardens are springing up throughout the country. These gardens are also a partial solution for the “food deserts” faced by many inner-city neighborhoods.
Richmond’s Happy Lot Farm & Garden sits on a 14,000-square-foot lot formerly used for HUD housing. Founder Andromeda Brooks began creating the space in 2010 with the help of community volunteers, building an adobe greenhouse, a chicken coop, an apiary and an aquaponic harvesting system, using a fishpond and its circulating water to grow vegetables and irrigate fruit trees. “Our chicken coop is made from screen doors that were headed for the landfill,” she said.
Brooks aims to serve everyone “who wants to watch, learn and water,” she said. Vegetables, eggs and honey are available for free or for a donation on selected days, and she hosts pre-K classes for tots, who love interacting with the resident animals, as well as “finding out tomatoes don’t come from Target,” Brooks said. Currently, she hopes to make Happy Lot part of a land trust.
510.232.2644, or find Happy Lot Farm & Garden on Facebook.
California was quick to recognize that our frequently sun-drenched state was ideal for conversion to solar power. Solar meant cleaner energy, possibly drastic reductions in reliance on fossil fuels.
But buying and installing the panels was—and remains—out of reach for lower-income communities, the exact populations who can benefit most from the reductions in costs solar power offers. In 2004, GRID Alternatives was formed in the Bay Area, and it became part of the state’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program in 2008. The nonprofit installs solar panels for free on single- and multi-family housing in designated areas where residents qualify based on income and geography. In the East Bay, these include parts of Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo and Rodeo.
Since 2004, according to statistics provided by GRID Bay Area Executive Director Arthur Bart-Williams, GRID has installed 1,898 systems, saving residents $43,210,742 and preventing the emission of 84,461 tons of greenhouse gases. When Bart-Williams joined GRID, he recognized it “was addressing all the headline issues—climate change, equity, social and environmental justice,” alongside training workers for jobs in the green-tech economy.
Yet despite this, the organization often encounters skepticism and distrust from community members, because of the fraudulent and predatory practices of other “solar companies.” To combat this, GRID works with partners, such as the City of Richmond, to offer workshops and “Solarthons,” informing people how to qualify. These are returning as the pandemic wanes.
Volunteers have powered many of GRID’s installations, including teams from local Bay Area companies, who are trained and then certified to assist. Though that aspect has also been curtailed by Covid-19, it will ramp back up as soon as safely possible.
GRID is now involved in “clean mobility,” Bart-Williams said, citing its “Clean Cars for All” initiative, which provides grants of up to $9,500 to qualified lower-income people who want to purchase hybrid or electric vehicles. It’s also overseeing the installation of EV charging stations, he said. The Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan “raises the profile of the conversation,” Bart-Williams said. “Our focus is that [the proposed funding] be used to benefit everybody.”
The wood shortage has been in the news recently. But Idan Bearman, co-owner of Richmond’s Peroba Reclaimed Wood & Live Edge Slabs, specializes in wood that’s already had at least one life and is moving on to another.
Bearman started as a “green builder,” and his partner is a woodworker. Six years ago, they had a chance to buy a large stock of reclaimed wood from Brazil, primarily from old coffee barns that were being torn down. They purchased the stock, and an eco-business was born. Other sources for their woods, Berman explained, are American barns and buildings, some older than 200 years, and for the “live slabs” section of the business, salvaged trees.
“We have a relationship with arborists, who bring salvaged logs from trees that had to be cut down,” Bearman said. “We are committed to sustainability. We only buy and use wood that has been sustainably harvested.” This includes several types of oak, elm, walnut, maple, hickory, redwood, cedar, sycamore, ash and more unusual woods, like honey locust and carob.
Woodworkers, both pro and hobbyist, can find such things as a “12-foot-by-12-foot beam that still has the adze marks,” Bearman said. Peroba custom-builds tables, sideboards, benches, mantels—all of which will outlive the purchaser; yet another phase in the wood’s long history. The company uses only eco-friendly materials—such as non-toxic, no-VOC stains—in construction.
Bearman maintains a “DIY pallet” of smaller, affordable wood pieces, that the first-timer could use to shape into a spoon, or a small cutting board. He’s keenly aware of the lure old, beautiful, aged wood has. “People often come in just to look at the wood,” he said. “And when I have a chance, that’s what I do, too.”415.993.9055, perobareclaimed.com