The urban environment is inhospitable to human animals who lack shelter. Humans are animals, not separate from nature, but we depart from nature to create harsh environments of our own. Denuded of trees, stripped of native plants, hardened by pavement and concrete, the modern city is a deadly landscape. Humans who live in cities with housing and shelter shortages face life-threatening conditions during rainy and cold seasons. In the Pacific Northwest, the winter of 2016-2017 brought the most severe cold weather Portland, Oregon has seen in almost 40 years, including record snowfall and 39 nights of below-freezing temperatures.
Escalating effects of climate change, already evident at the global and continental level, could create more chaotic weather patterns and exacerbate social disparities in cities around the world. Low-income households are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including temperature extremes and rising energy costs, and have fewer resources to cope with these changes. Less predictable and more extreme weather heightens the need for shelter. In January, 2017 at least four homeless people died from exposure in Portland. They died seeking shelter: at a bus stop, on sidewalks, in a parking garage, and in a wooded park. Tragedies like this, and the suffering of many more in overcrowded homeless shelters, are preventable. While thousands struggle to survive in the urban forest, over 400 foreclosed houses in the Portland Metro Area stand vacant.
Our local environment provides a solution to the disparity of homeless humans and unused vacant structures. In the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, fallen trees called nurse logs facilitate the growth of new seedlings as they decay. Foreclosed houses could serve as urban nurse logs by providing space and materials to build multi-unit homes that shelter vulnerable humans and grow diverse communities. Deconstructing rather than demolishing vacant structures mimics the efficient natural decomposition process: it reduces waste, promotes reuse of building materials, and creates six skilled jobs for every one that demolition provides.
We envision micro-studios rising organically in multi-unit two- and three-story pods, connected by courtyards with communal living and activity space, built from reused housing stock and sustainably sourced new materials. Like young saplings, these new homes must be supported by the surrounding ecosystem in order to form thriving communities. This support could include additional building materials, connection to city utilities, free inspections and low cost rebuilding loans to ensure safe and livable conditions, and tax credits to the banks that hold the foreclosed properties.
In the urban forest, seeking safety is the first step to recovering from the damage of trauma and mental illness that plague homeless humans. Physical safety is the first step out of cycles of addiction and poverty that contribute to homelessness. Vacant houses become urban nurse logs that provide this safety for vulnerable humans, first as emergency shelter and then as permanent homes. The wisdom of the Hoh Rainforest shows us a way to efficiently house our fellow human animals. Nature gives us a way of growing home.