The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

In her signature work, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs proposed that new ideas need old buildings. To Jacobs, new buildings, with all their attendant expenses related to construction or renovations entailed cost structures – passed on as rent to tenants – that could only be met by established enterprises, highly subsidized undertakings or routinized, standardized and high-volume chain stores.  

Old, plain, low-value and even run-down buildings  on the other hand supported the enterprise of idea creation and innovation. Low rent enables experimentation and the thinking out of ideas for enterprises not fully formed. Really new ideas depend on trial, error and experimentation that is not conducive to a high-overhead economy. 

I saw a fabulous example of this a couple of weeks ago when my business partner and I were invited down to rural Pennsylvania by state officials.  

Once the source of the highest quality anthracite coal in America, this de-industrialized part of the state saw its remaining industry leave in the 1980s or decimated by the globalization of the 1990s. The town of Mount Carmel, now home to just over 6,000, once housed 30,000.  The textile mills went south and then they went overseas and they never came back.

You could tell this was once a prosperous place from the boarded up and vacant buildings, as beautiful as anything in Toronto’s Riverdale or Corktown neighbourhoods. Vintage turn-of-the-20th-century design; modest, functional, human-scaled, incredibly well-conceived by people who actually cared about where they lived and the quality of their enterprises.  

According to the officials with whom we met, there are 900 abandoned buildings in the township – homes, factories, main street stores and walk-up apartments. Their plan to revitalize the area and turn it into a sustainability hub is both inspired and imminently practical.  

Partnering with the engineering faculty of a local university, they intend on using the derelict buildings and streets as a living laboratory, teaching engineering students to rebuild homes and whole neighbourhoods, all retrofitted for energy efficiency. Once retrofitted, the houses will be used as living spaces for future engineering students on co-op work terms. As they become upgraded, retrofitted and sold, the local tax base can be rehabilitated.

As the plan unfolds, eventually supporting industries and services will emerge. The small assembler of electronic components we visited could begin assembling smart-meters, LED lighting components or some other building efficiency system. A largely vacant 60,000 square foot factory could be retrofitted as an incubator and house the heat pump and cladding system manufacturers we will need. 

Old buildings, new ideas and an entire region waiting to be re-imagined. 

July 2009 

Gabriel Draven