An Introduction to Urban Homesteading

by Emily Guy Birken · 16 comments

Once again, Henry David Thoreau’s desire to live simply has caught American popular consciousness. What’s surprising about the modern-day Walden is that it is not in some remote area, far from the world. It’s in cities and suburbs, and possibly in your own back yard. This new movement is called Urban Homesteading, and it offers many possibilities for the frugal environmentalist.

The backbone of Urban Homesteading is the attempt to live as much off the grid as possible. This includes growing your own fruits and vegetables, using rainwater and gray water, raising farm animals for food, using alternative energy, learning to do things for yourself, and reducing waste and consumption. While some of these activities are regulars in any frugal saver’s playbook, others seem really off the beaten path, and a little…well, weird.

Take it Slow at First

Even those who practice full-on Urban Homesteading — like the family behind urbanhomestead.org — don’t advocate going whole hog right away. This family has become dedicated to living off the grid through over 20 years of experimentation. That means they did not jump in right away with raising chickens, growing 50% of the food they eat, cutting their own hair, hand-washing their clothes and only driving on bio-diesel they created themselves. They suggest you start small with your urban homestead and learn and grow as you go.

Urban Homesteading Offers Something for Everyone

But even if you have no intention of giving up air conditioning, your car and your washer, there are many lessons to be learned from the Urban Homesteaders. Growing your own vegetables is an easy way to reduce your food budget and ensure that you know what you are eating. No matter how brown your thumb, you can learn how to grow tomatoes and sweet peppers in a sunny spot in your yard. For that garden, collect a little gray water to supplement what comes out of the hose. It doesn’t have to be fancier than scooping some of your bathwater up with a bucket, rather than letting it go down the drain. Every little bit will help reduce your water bill. While you’re at it, start a compost pile, and never pay for mulch again. Each of these suggestions cost nothing, and they will reap benefits for your wallet and your environment.

Becoming an Urban Homesteader is all about learning how to be self-sufficient. While most people do not want to completely unplug from the grid — I personally doubt I will ever have the ability to give myself a decent haircut — it is worthwhile to think about how individuals who take it to the extremes manage to do it. Because many of the things we take for granted as a given of modern life are simply habits. If you want to make an impact on your home, your community and your environment, challenge yourself to try an Urban Homesteading activity. You might be surprised to find that you, like Thoreau, feel freer once you’ve simplified your life.

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  • MerCyn says:

    My husband is an environmental consultant and we have become more conscious in recent years of our impact on the planet. We belong to a CSA group and receive fresh local veggies from April through mid-December. We just started composting. We live in a town where we can walk many places and patronize local shops. Small steps, but it’s a start…

  • jennypenny says:

    My husband and I are looking into urban homesteading as part of our overall retirement plan. It’s good to focus on increasing your retirement savings, but finding ways to reduce how much money you’ll need in retirement is just as effective. I don’t see us raising chickens 🙂 But I do see us adding solar panels, having a large vegetable garden, learning to perform more household repairs, and reducing the amount of energy (all types) that we’ll need in the future.

    • marci says:

      I wish the price of solar panels would come down some… for me, it would take 20-30 years to repay the cost, let alone the maintenance… altho I would like to do it, should less expensive alternatives become available.

      My plan includes the veggie garden, and a small fruit orchard – dwarf trees, so I can handle them 🙂 And yes, reduce the need for money, and your money goes a lot further 🙂

    • Windy says:

      Your plans sound totally doable. The solar panels are expensive, but can really help the electric bill. I have my small kitchen garden now and it is great to eat fresh veg and fruits that I would not buy at the store previously. Eating my own produce tastes so much better and I can experiment on how to fix them without any fear of wasting. This plan does take time to establish and labor. Finding labor is a problem for me and it becomes more of a problem as I get older. Paying for labor just does not make this so attractive. Good luck.

  • TheInfamousJ says:

    I totally understand the weird HOA thing. My HOA won’t allow myself or my neighbors to hang our wash outside to dry. Nor will they allow hammocks or anything else they perceive as “trash”. While I have yet to receive a nastygram from them, I do put my cloths drying rack outside during the warmer months to hang my hand-washed laundry to dry.

    I also have two large pots that I use to do container gardening on my balcony, as well as a worm compost bin.

    (For what it is worth, I live in a condo.)

  • Emily Guy Birken says:

    @Marci, thank you for the Haircutting for Dummies recommendation. I have to admit that my unwillingness to cut hair at home is the exact same sort of “habit-thinking” I mention in the article. I’m used to paying someone else to cut my hair, so it must be something I can’t do. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I’m comfortable with ditching some of my habits, but it’s definitely worth thinking about where those habits came from.

    @KM, I’m sorry to hear about your Homeowner’s Association being so unforgiving. Perhaps you could find a way to make gardening a neighborhood activity–having a communal plot or sharing the wealth of your garden or inviting good cooks in the neighborhood to provide recipes for your bounty–and they might find a way to overlook their stance on “weeds.”

    • TheInfamousJ says:

      For what it is worth, I have been cutting my own hair since I was 12 years old. I tried to discern, but couldn’t, from your photo whether or not you have straight hair. If you have anything other than straight hair, then it is really hard to mess up cutting your own hair, since unevenness doesn’t show.

      My trick, as my hair is all one length with no tricky layers or anything, is to put my hair into a straight braid at my back (after showering), and then in as close to one motion as possible, to trim off the bottom 1/2″ or 1″ or whatever of that braid. I do this every 4 months.

  • NCN says:

    I recently built a compost bin and a DIY rain barrel – and I’m planning a raised-bed garden. It just seemed to make sense that growing some of our on food, and trying to do so on a budget, would go hand-in-hand with our frugal philosophy.

  • KM says:

    I don’t know if this just didn’t catch on completely yet or if our HOA is retarded, but we got warning letters because we had “weeds” in our backyard that were actually vegetables. Then again, they also send warning letters because a neighbor didn’t take down their Christmas tree before the end of January, so maybe they are just retarded.

  • Jenna says:

    I think the key to urban homesteading is to figure out how to maximize the space you have to work with and figure out what foods you like to eat. Doesn’t make sense to plant tomatoes if your family will never eat them.

  • marci357 says:

    “Haircutting for Dummies” is a real book in our library…. Check it out – if I can do it (for others) you might be able to learn also. LOL.

  • tmgbooks.com says:

    Timely post. Here in southern Arizona, the county I live in has the highest unemployment rate in the country and among the lowest average household income. The population is mostly Mexican-American. I live twelve miles from the Mexican border.

    A lot of people around here have been living the urban homestead lifestyle forever, it is common, no big thing, and part of the fabric of life for a large part of the community; lots of gardens, backyard chickens, and barter.

    I bought into the community to position myself in case I ever needed to shift in that direction; my house is on a large lot which would accommodate a substantial garden and lots of chickens. The house is small-ish with low ceilings and small rooms so it is cheap and easy to heat and cool.

    The people are not rich around here, many not even middle-class I would imagine. The predominant lifestyle here is modest, the cars are older, but mostly the people are friendly and family-oriented.

    It was different when we lived in an upscale community of big box houses where the neighbors all left at 8 am and came back towards 6 pm and stayed indoors at that.

    When the employment picture is iffy, people are home more, the community more alive at all hours, more people on the streets, on their porches, and working on thier lawns and cars.

    Better? I like it but if you asked my neighbors they would probably be OK with having more…

  • Bjorn Karger says:

    Excellent advice with incremental changes; keep a log; report findings on Twitter. My Underground Guide has logged many techniques for getting going, and I can say with 20 yrs experience that it works, is frugal & profitable

  • I think experimentation and small incremental changes is a good approach whether you’re trying to homestead, lose weight, or start budgeting. Going “whole hog” almost never works, it’s too much of a jarring change. People never stick with it, which is why New Year’s Resolutions fail so often.

    I think self-sufficiency is the most important lesson to take from trying to do the urban homestead thing. We’ve become too reliant on services and, in the event of a catastrophe (major or minor), we could be left in need of critical supplies.

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