Classroom with Pedals

On a July afternoon I watch a man named Paul rap in the park. His song, “I Am a Fossil Fuel,” is amplified by a sound system hooked up to his bicycle. Nate “The Juice Peddler” hands out smoothies, guacamole, and hummus made with a pedal-powered blender built onto his bicycle.

Paul and Nate are from the Berkeley Center for Appropriate Transport, one of four stops on this year’s Urban Sustainability Bike Tour. The annual Berkeley tour is free, and each stop has a theme: water, waste, energy, and transportation. The USBT, in its fifth year, was organized by and for a small group of friends. This year the Ecology Center stepped in to co-sponsor the tour, with information director Beck Cowles serving as point person.

There are about 150 of us gathered mid-tour for lunch on a grassy knoll along a daylighted part of Strawberry Creek. A core group sports shirts screen-printed with a drawing of a chicken on a bicycle, USBT’s logo. The purpose, organizer Jon Bauer tells me, is “to have fun, get people together, and show people wacky stuff.” Participants also take home a comprehensive resource guide, but it is clear that’s the least of it.

Vibrant discussion permeates the tour, not only about the sites we visit, like a gorgeous garden thriving only on seasonal rainwater (the landscaping cost mostly reimbursed through EBMUD’s Landscape Rebate Program), but also about each tour-goer’s personal projects in ecological, economic, and social sustainability. Although the overall theme for this year’s ride is “no one breaks a sweat,” the atmosphere is kinetic. At lunchtime alone, I collect email addresses from four people with whom I will share resources.

After lunch we discuss urine and graywater recycling with Nick at Green Fairy Farm, a household on a seventh-of-an-acre lot in Berkeley. He calls it “The Gospel of Urine,” as he explains the benefits of fertilizing with waste. Nick’s housemate, Jim, gives a talk in the goat pen about their multi-tiered, animal-derived fuel production system. Ducks, chickens, pigeons, and rabbits provide meat and eggs while the goats provide dairy, and a flourishing garden (thanks, in part, to the great compost coming out of the animal pens) provides an abundance of vegetables.

While Jim talks about how important and easy it is to raise food as close as possible to where we live, I can’t get over the fact that I am in the middle of a city. There is nothing urban about this urban farm. Sitting on a haystack under a bountiful apple tree, I look from a table stacked with chevre logs to the porch, where a robust plant grows from an organoponic (“pee-pee-ponic”) bucket. From there, I follow the laundry line of hand-washed clothes back to a bird’s nest, perched right above my head in the apple tree. I listen to the scratching of the chickens as they aerate and debug the sawdust—soon to be compost—floor, hear the not-so-soft bleat of a goat, and take a lungful of country air before heading the few yards back out to the street.

Riding along the Ohlone Greenway to green builder and architect David Arkin’s home, I chat with Steph, a builder from Berkeley. She likes the tours because she thinks they’re a great chance to learn about ideas she’d like to try herself. Also, she says, “the main thing is to see so many people doing so much great stuff all around. I mean, you could walk by any of these houses and you would have no idea what’s over the fence.”

A couple of David’s neighbors join us for his presentation, hearing, for the first time, that his household of four consumes only five to six kilowatt-hours a day (in contrast to the California household average of 20 kwh a day). We are all impressed to hear that the house generates nearly as much electricity as it uses, sending it to the grid when there is surplus.

After we check out David’s wind turbine, photovoltaics, and electric car, I talk with Beck Cowles about the large turnout. She is excited that interest in urban sustainability continues to grow and hopes that people will be encouraged to organize similar tours.

“Community building is a huge part,” she says. “It’s vital to get people together to talk about plans and where to get things for their projects. We try to make everything as replicable and low-cost as possible to show how much people can do.”

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