Staring at Goats II: Deals, Code, Business

[scale of the endeavor: the urban meadow at the end of day two.  The herd of goats can be seen in the distant right hand corner]

Staring at Goats, Part II (Introduction here, ongoing Flickr set here)

We are intrigued by alternative forms of design practice.  By alternative we mean practices that veer outside the mainstream, or that might operate outside the chases for pre-structured and predetermined requests for design proposals.  Not that we don’t engage in those modes of practice, but we also seek more proactive approaches to defining design program; practices that entail more agile informal processes and inhabiting spaces of negotiation; situations that can be activated more quickly and with more effect, with minimal capital investment.

Upon observing the perennial mowing regimes at the 10th and Belmont lot  (the only sanctioned human activity we observed there), we cold-called the owners of the property to ask if they ever thought of using goats rather than lawn mowers to tame the spontaneous vegetation.  We expected to be laughed at, or politely told ‘no thanks’, but the development entity was interested and asked for more information about the benefits of using goats, which we supplied based on the best knowledge we knew of, including:

1. The environmental benefits of substantially less fossil fuel usage and emissions.  The EPA estimates that 5% of U.S. air pollution is caused by mowers.  A traditional gas-powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars, each being driven 12,000 miles.  Not sure how that pencils out for a two acre lot using industrial scale mowers, but surely its significant.

2. Decelerated regeneration of weeds via digestion, rather than dispersal.  The processes of large, four chambered stomach of a ruminant has the ability to digest most weed seeds, rendering them inert.  In contrast, mechanical mowers readily disperse viable and often encourage weed growth as part of their operation.  However this effect is not so applicable on this site, as the weeds are everywhere, and they are the only plants adapted to the site conditions.  Without them the ground would be bare, which would not be any better.  However, the deposition of goat droppings helps to enrich and accelerate the productive capacity of urban soils, which if repeated over time, could facilitate the nurturing of second stage vegetation (slower growing vegetation that tends to appear after pioneer/ruderal vegetation have prepared the ground).

[archaic, advanced, and adaptable technology]

3. Neighborly benefits: In addition to the ‘green’ branding, people tend to be curiously attracted to biotic mowers (biophilia) rather than repelled by them, unlike their mechanized counterparts.

4.  Under Portland code, goats are considered livestock along with fowl, horses, mules, burros, asses, cattle, sheep, llamas, emus, ostriches, rabbits, swine, or other farm animals, excluding dogs and cats, and thus are exempt from special provisions or permits as long as their use and occupation of an urban site is temporary.

As the owners of the lot were interested, we now needed goats.  Our initial thought was that we were going to have to cold call a lot of farmers based outside the urban growth boundary to see if one of them might be persuaded to bring their goats into the city center.  We were excited at the prospect of that endeavor, but we found that a Portland goat rental agency – Goat Rental NW – had started up in the Portland area in March of 2010.  This made the process much simpler than expected, and our role became one of facilitator.   We introduced Killian Pacific to the benefits of using goats on their property, and we presented Georgina (owner of Goat Rental NW with a very high-profile project that could help market and grow her business (two sides of the Belmont lot are bordered by primary arterial streets).  This was a win-win situation for everyone and the symbiotic benefits were used to reach a business deal for pricing the project, in which we continued to serve as 3rd party facilitator representing both interests.

To achieve the perceived benefits of speed and efficiency, conventional petrol-fueled mowers externalize and abstract their requisite externalities (i.e. the global geopolitics of oil extraction, climate change, etc.).  This contrasts to the localized system of the goats, in which most of the consumptive cycle is visible and happening right there in front of you.  Similar to other first try attempts at introduce more sustainable systems, the goats penciled out at a higher up-front cost.  A significant part of this cost was the labor needed to care for and watch over the goats while on site, which is where we came in.  We gladly offered to take up this role to seal the deal.  This arrangement was also opportune for us because we have an integral and embodied role in the process and research.


  1. Goats are definitely an attractive alternative to mowers. They’re already used in San Francisco:

    Does your little herd come with a goatherd dog?

  2. Yeah. My impression is that due to both progressive politics and the steep topography, goats are borderline mainstream in S.F.

    We don’t have a goatherd dog for this. Do you use them for guarding and such?

  3. I should clarify I’m just an observer, not a goat-owner or user. The dog apparently was supposed to guard the goats.

  4. namhenderson · ·

    This project just sounds awesome. Not so much for it’s newness (as you have pointed out already such practice is mainstream in other locales) but in the way it shows what some cold calling, and networking opportunities can result in… Citizens/designers taking an interest and making things happen. The perfect urban intervention….

  5. I read this interview with Peter Eisenman a while ago (I can’t recall where) and the interviewer asked Eisenman what he thought was the most useful tool in his office. His immediate answer was the telephone.

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