I had never heard of “urban homesteading” until April 2008 when Vermont’s Governor Jim Douglas introduced an economic stimulus package that included what he called an urban homestead proposal. The concept resonated with me because a few years ago we moved from 5 acres in the country into what is the closest thing to an “urban” neighborhood in South Burlington, Vermont. We weren’t the first people we know to do this in Vermont, but certainly it’s rare. In Vermont, the dream usually involves finding at least 5-10 acres in the country. So what is urban homesteading? In the Governor’s economic plan, it is an incentive for residential property owners to buy mixed use (residential/commercial) properties in downtown areas and live on the top floor above commercial uses on the lower floors. The concept is to revitalize downtown areas by improving vacant top floors, adding residents to the community, and making downtown commercial buildings more profitable. But I think the term “urban homestead” captures the idea of living a sustainable lifestyle downtown, to be part of a community seeking to make downtowns sustainable and to bring a homestead lifestyle to downtown.
The benefits of living in community are what attracted us to live in town ourselves: shorter commutes to work and school, lower transportation costs and the opportunity to walk, bike, scooter or take the bus to work, vibrant social activity, affordable properties, and a less hectic lifestyle lived closer to home. There are also indirect benefits of putting fewer miles on your car every year and reducing your carbon footprint. Some of the pleasures of rural living, such as vegetable gardening and my personal favorite, flower gardening, easily can be pursued on an urban homestead with a very small plot or with container gardening on a deck or roof.There are wonderful opportunities for cross country skiing and snowshoeing right in Burlington and South Burlington. In Vermont, the “urban” areas in places like Burlington, Winooski, Rutland, Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Newport, and Vergennes are so closely tied to a rural lifestyle that the term “urban homestead” really makes sense.
Rural development trends are acknowledging the urban homestead concept too. Retrovest, a Vermont developer, describes its South Village project as a “Traditional Neighborhood Development.” It features mixed architectural styles and recreational opportunities “within walking distance”, in a rural setting. Another recent Retrovest project is Westlake, a new luxury apartment building on the waterfront in downtown Burlington. Retrovest apparently has identified a market for community neighborhood living in Vermont, whether in downtown or in the country. It seems to me that a luxury apartment is not an “urban homestead”, but maybe I’m using the term too narrowly.
The introduction of CarShareVt is making it easier for urban homesteaders. When CarShareVt started operations in December 2008, I attended an introductory meeting and met a professional who had just relocated from Boston with his wife. They had lived in downtown Boston and they didn’t own a car. They joined a car share organization in Boston and used a car share vehicle when needed. They found a home in downtown Burlington and they purchased one car, which seemed to be a necessity for their new Vermont lifestyle. They were thrilled to learn that CarShareVt was starting up right when they arrived in Vermont, so they don’t have to buy 2 cars. The same is true for our family. We own 2 cars and our family includes 4 licensed drivers (two parents, two high school students). We car pool, walk, take the bus, and ride bikes and a scooter. Why own and maintain a third car, when we can use an affordable and convenient CarShareVt Prius for those few times when we just can’t get where we need to go without a third car?