Orion Kriegman on Backyard Chickens & Community Resilience

Local activist Orion Kriegman has been working with neighbors to help JP find its way in the new economy. He's one of the organizers of Thursday's "State of JP" Forum.

When Orion Kriegman and his wife bought their house in Egleston Square, they had a vision for what they could do to make an urban neighborhood more sustainable. Kriegman and others went door-to-door and drummed up interest for turning a 30-year-old vacant lot into a community orchard. The Egleston Community Orchard is just one piece of what Kriegman and neighbors are doing to help prepare Jamaica Plain to live in the new economy. As a founder of the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, he’s particularly interested in urban agriculture, transportation, energy systems and affordable housing—topics that will be up for discussion at JP NET’s second annual this Thursday, Feb. 9 at 6 p.m., at . Kriegman took some time out to talk about community resilience, backyard chickens, and turning despair into action. 


How did the conversation for the orchard and JP NET get started?

There’s the notion that the world is going through a deepening transition and we’re facing ecological disruptions and economic disruptions. Things are going to be a lot harder especially given the corporate capture of government and the inability of adaptability of our institutions that were developed in the last century. We’re trying to cope with the challenges of this century and there’s a real disjuncture there.

It must have been 2009 when the conversations began. I got introduced to Chuck Collins, I think through Andrée Zaleska, and we started talking about the work he does with the JP Forum and how he wants to bring in high visibility speakers and hold an educational forum. We also talked about the neighborhood itself and how people can re-skill selves.


So that’s how the orchard developed?

Everybody said go for it, so we held a workday and some neighbors showed up. We just kept holding workdays, cleaning up, planting donated flowers. Someone donated some apple trees, some blueberry bushes. It became the Egleston Community Orchard. Lots of neighbors have been involved with it at different levels; there’s probably core group now of about 10 of us.

We talked to the city about repurposing the land for the orchard. The land is part of an affordable housing plan the city has but it’s not being developed now, not in this economy. So the city has been working with us and now we have a license. We’ve partnered with Commonwealth Land Trust and they’re helping us with the insurance issues.


How did it grow beyond the orchard?

Then we thought about talking to different organizations about these transition themes of climate change and peak oil or the rising cost of energy and how that links to traditional social justice concerns about affordable housing and jobs. The fact is a lot of existing organizations are struggling with the funding landscape in an economic downturn and this is not something likely to resolve itself with time. We’re actually going through a fundamental transition and it looks like it’s going to be somewhat up to us to shape and determine.


How does JP fit in?

I think of JP as very fertile soil with a lot of beautiful flowers already planted in it. The question was what might we add to sort of enhance the ecosystem of the whole thing.


What were some of the takeaways from the 2011 State of Our Neighborhood Forum?

From the , we realized people had a lot of interest so we hosted two workshops following up the forum on the rising cost of food and fuel and what might we do about it as a neighborhood—recognizing that we don’t really have a lot of power over the bigger macroeconomic trends but that we can adapt to it as neighbors. 

From there, we formed working teams: one set of people wanted to focus on food and local food sustainability and one set people wanted focus on energy and energy issues. Then over the summer these groups formed little teams on different topics such as a canning workshop or creating a compost depot for the neighborhood. Other groups researched best practices that other cities were doing. Because it was summer and it was all volunteer-led, some fizzled. Rather than have separate working groups at different times we said why not do potlucks open to anyone on specific topics.


You held one on backyard chickens, right?

Chickens are not very noisy animals, and they’re not particularly smelly. They’re not difficult to learn to care for. But it’s a legal gray area with the city. In order to have them you need a permit but there’s no authority in the city to use that permit for residential use. There’s been talk with the city about a licensing process. Chicago does it and so do a ton of other cities.

Part of the vision of transition is that we have to shift consciousness about what a high-density human habitat is and how do we bring nature back into it. Recognizing that a city is always going to be a city but that it doesn’t necessarily have to be designed for cars. It can be designed for other purposes. Boston is a great example of an American city that was designed before cars came out. It’s very walkable, has lot parks, and it’s kind of windy. A lot of qualities that Boston has that are very different from most American cities, which were designed with lots of parking lots and it’s hard to even get a sense of place there.


Could you eventually have it all here, and not have to go elsewhere to get your goods?

I don’t think anyone’s talking about getting to the point where we grow everything we need. It’s about supplementing. Food is definitely going up in cost and if there was ever a severe energy shortage or we couldn’t truck food into the city at some point, it would be nice know we have something to fall back on. It’s also just to fun to supplement your source of food. I think a lot of people do it just because they enjoy gardening.


What’s the ultimate goal?

Ultimately what we'd like to see is a link between neighbors who are coming together to create a more resilient community and building relationships with each other. We'd like to see a link from there to these questions of what is the new economy? Where are the jobs of the future going to come from? What sort of policy changes need to happen at the state and city level? What sort of coalitions might we form with other community-based groups around the country to impact policy at the federal level? And how might we come to be part of this transition movement? I mentioned Transition Towns. Officially JP is like 95th or 96th transition initiative in the U.S. We’re formally registered.


Is this how it’s going to happen, all these different transition communities?

There’s a big lack of leadership on so many levels. There are people who open the newspaper and read about what’s going on in the world today and see some connections between things and get this sense of despair. Even though planting a community orchard isn’t going to save the world at least you’re taking action. You’re taking action in your own neighborhood, you’re building relationships, and you’re moving beyond despair into action and that’s helpful. The idea is to link that up in a way that can be meaningful. Rather than just going from one extreme to the other, there’s this middle ground where, as we talk about and process our fear around the real issues of things like climate change, what can we begin to do? We’re trying to be a place for people to plug in. We have a group of neighbors right now simply talking to each other about indicators of community resilience and how might we measure how resilient JP is. And they’re just collecting data: How many acres are under cultivation in JP? How many people use public transportation? Basic facts about the neighborhood that we can begin to see and measure community resilience.



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