Growing Green - Mar. 06, 2013
Paul Stinson photo
Pedro Garcia Conde Trelles instructs a group of schoolchildre on the functional workings of a greenhouse during a tour organized by the Sustainable Living Project and Ecocentre at Craik, SK. The shift to green building and green education has helped Craik and neighbouring Rural Municipality of Craik recapture lost population as well as trigger a flow of visitors to workshops and other evens, all of which benefits local businesses, according to Hilton Spencer, the Reeve of the RM of Craik.
Somewhere around 13 years ago, Hilton Spencer came to grips with a grim truth: the rural way of life he had always known was changing.
“I could see, over a period of 100 years, the deterioration of our population, going from rural into urban.”
Young kids grew up, and moved away, and so did families, as the dynamic lure of the big city overcame any attraction a life of farming offered.
“We kept losing population,” he said. “We realized in order for a community to survive, you have to have people.”
The way things had always been wasn’t enough anymore. Small farms employing many had become big industrialized operations employing but a few. The people who used to work the small farms had either given up and moved away, or had died and taken with them the tradition of family farming.
It wasn’t just the old-time Prairie farmers who were dying: the community was dying, too, along with a way of life that so many had taken for granted. Houses in the nearby town were going for $5,000, yet despite those prices, remained on the market.
Change, in the end, came in the form of one voice, an outsider suggesting a different path.
A professor from the big city came to town, pitching a novel idea for the time: go green. Embrace recycling, urged Lynn Oliphant, then a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, embrace alternate energy sources, high-efficiency homes. Build an eco-village, he said, a centre to demonstrate green building techniques, hold courses, teach, train and inspire.
To Spencer, the long-time Reeve (mayor) of the Rural Municipality (RM) of Craik, Saskatchewan, exploring a far-fetched idea was better than doing nothing and watching the community waste away.
That was 2001, recalled Crystal Stinson, a member of the Craik Sustainable Living Project Steering Committee.
The community leaders of the Town of Craik, which was now just a blip on the side of the busy divided highway between Saskatoon and Regina, was just as aware of the loss of population as the residents in Spencer’s rural community.
“The town was looking for rural revitalization. The town, the RM councils, would look around and see towns were dying around them,” said Stinson.
Oliphant’s presentation, she said, came at a perfect moment in the history of the area. There was something in his message, a hint of going back, in a way, to the agrarian roots of Saskatchewan’s farming heritage, to save its future.
“The timing of everything was just right,” she said. “The right people were there.”
Build it green, and they will come
Inspired by Oliphant’s presentation, a group of community leaders united to create the Eco Centre, a focus for environmental awareness.
The building opened in 2004, and the building, in turn, opened the door to a new way of life centred on encouraging alternate, “green” lifestyles.
It is a “demonstration building,” of 5,000 square feet, fabricated with straw bale construction, heated by passive solar radiation, modern geothermal technology and a masonry heater (a massive fireplace that burns wood at high heat and channels exhaust through a circuitous route to achieve incredible heating efficiency.)
Located on RM land near a long body of water known as Arm Lake, the building serves as the clubhouse for a new golf course, and features a restaurant that serves healthy food prepared using low-energy methods.
“No deep fryers,” summarized Stinson.
Rick Rogers, the Mayor of the Town of Craik, said the Eco Centre has proven its worth, calling it “easy to heat, and easy to run.”
“It’s very efficient. It’s around $800 per month, the entire bill, for a 5,000-square-foot building.”
He called the cost, for what is effectively a large commercial building, is very reasonable. It is an on-grid facility (“the grills use a lot of power,” he reasoned) but energy efficient, nonetheless.
Affordable land a key enticement
The next step proved a key part in the overall vision for revitalizing the town and the RM. The RM had a section land at its disposal, property obtained when the province had built the nearby highway.
The RM subdivided the property into 10 small housing lots, and sold each for a dollar.
The catch? The new owners had to pay approximately $600 for a survey of the small, 50 x 65 metres lots, and bring to the RM council a plan to construct a low-energy, high-efficiency, “green” house.
“We didn’t put a bunch of stipulations on them,” said Stinson, but some people immediately grasped the idea. Since then, there have been some small homes built out of a recycled shipping container, as well as a palatial 5,000-square-foot straw-bale home.
The lots backed onto a large parcel of land, some 65 hectares in size. Owners were provided a lease on a part of the land and if they demonstrated some long-term commitment to the community, would be provided an option to purchase.
The green-leaning subdivision gained a name: the Eco Village. The idea of low-cost land enticed a new crop of residents, all bound by the idea of living a low-impact, environmentally friendly lifestyle.
“We’ve had some success. Some of the people are very good people, and are a real asset to the community.”
To aid in enticing new residents, the RM enacted tax breaks – delaying the onset of taxes as an extra incentive.
Many of these homes are off-grid. While not all the properties are fully owner-occupied year round, there is a demand for more, and the RM just subdivided another 10 lots.
The shift in the community has been measurable.
In the Eco Village, 10 families are likely to be full-time residents in the near future, Stinson said. Nearby, an entrepreneur has constructed a large, private school with the intent of serving visiting students from around the world: it’s an enticing thought, really, that when not so long ago, youth were leaving the village, they are now actually coming to it.
“We’re getting close to where we’re going to have to expand again,” he said. “It has attracted people, which we think is important to keep our stores and businesses open
There are new residents in the Town of Craik, too, and gone are the days of dozens of undervalued homes: the average price of the five area homes for sale on MLS.ca market is $84,000. The least-expensive home is priced at $35,000 for an 830 square-foot bungalow.
The entire community is a little greener, with recycling programs, an active composting education program in place, along with regular hands-on, nature experiences for youth.
Fear of change a major challenge
There have been obstacles, Stinson warned, including community inertia: not everyone was enamoured with the whole going-green movement.
“It’s important to get the townspeople onside with you, so you’re working as a whole community. You’re never going to get everybody onside,” she said.
Others, thinking of following in Craik’s footsteps or doing something else should take heed of a general rule, Stinson declared: 20 per cent of the populace will be enthusiastic, and nothing will change their mind. Likewise, 20 per cent of the populace will be rabidly opposed to whatever is suggested, and similarly entrenched in their view.
“If you’re going to start a project like this, try to get the 60 per cent who are neutral: talk to them.”
The plan for the future is to “keep plugging along,” with more green and environmental initiatives, such as a certificate course teaching permaculture: the technique of gardening to fully feed a household, independent of grocery stores. These courses, held at the Eco Centre, attract green-minded visitors to the area, which in turn, creates revenue for local businesses, Stinson explained.
Finding the “right people” to move to the Eco Village, a place far from the big cities, has also been problematic.
Rogers said that some in the Town of Craik found the cost of going green a challenge.
“If you start recycling newspaper ... it doesn’t generate income, but you have to pay someone six to eight hours a week to collect it,” he said. “Some people will say you could put it in the garbage, and it wouldn’t cost anything.”
The cost of such efforts, borne by the taxpayer, has created a bit of a division in the community.
“You have people who say it costs a lot of money, and it does.”
The benefits outweigh the detractions, he asserted, but the detractions and detractors must be noted.
“If everybody is not on board, it’s a tough thing,” he said.
Spencer echoed a similar view: the inertia created by community members unwilling to change was a critical obstacle.
“Any rural place ... council has to think a little outside the box a little bit. Activity – I’m a great believer in activity. If you just sit back, this de-population is going to continue. Try something new. If it fails, then it fails, but don’t give up.”
Were he to do it over again, or offer advice to another community pondering the same path, Spencer said he’d ensure a little more attention to the detail of subdivision planning and rezoning.
That, and spend more time overcoming resistance to change.
“Some people are slow to change ... nothing real serious, but there were a few comments made about the people living there.”
Communication, he said, is vital, to achieve any kind of community change.
“It’s important for either an urban or rural municipality to keep people informed,” he said.
But any challenges were worth the effort, Stinson declared, because the ultimate goal has been achieved.
“There are lots of people who have moved to Craik because of the project.”