Staring at Goats V: Ruminant Urbanism

[Opportunities in the void: locations of vacant land (orange) in central Portland, OR.  The circled 2-acre lot is the location of the now complete Goats on Belmont experiment.  The unassisted, free-growing vegetation on this single field was able to sustain a variable-sized herd of goats for nearly four weeks.]

Having completed our ‘work‘ at the 10th and Belmont vacant lot for the time being, we hope that we are at a beginning rather than an end.  We continue to be interested, and indeed encouraged by the feasibility of a large-scale, integrated system of living levelers able to capitalize on existing urban waste and undesirables as fuel for a renewed form of regeneration.  Said another way, a provisional use appropriate for idle and incubating lands.  For both cognitive and biological associations, we might provisionally refer to this ongoing experiment as ruminant urbanism, entailing a stirred program of maintenance meets land management meets county fair meets roadside attraction meets opportunistic urban agriculture and local community builder.  We see a practice that might supplant conventional maintenance systems, offering an alternative productive model of  about 1,000 goats (a shared strategic ambition of Goat Rental NW and F.A.D.) grazing and nourishing the underutilized spontaneous meadows and brambles of the city.  A system of the ruderal.

[What was left behind: increased biomass and organic fertilizer thinly distributed throughout the Belmont field.  More on this concept here.]

Above all else, we were amazed at the degree of collective synergy produced by the simple introduction of goats.  Their arrival brought about a wide latitude of effects, ranging from momentary circus-like comedies to the biologically accelerated production of soil.  The event, or temporary land use (we were there for close to a month) appeared to benefit everyone involved.  The goats themselves come as a form of (what seem to be) very grateful refugees, as Georgina of Goat rental NW gets most of her goats from Animal Acres, a shelter for animals rescued from less than ideal conditions.  The goats appeared particularly happy at the Belmont lot and to relish their exotic lifestyle of roaming around to ever-new pastures.

As an experiment, there were many surprises.  Just to mention some…from a community perspective, the ephemeral occupation activated an extended field of activity in the area.  Neighbors near and far appreciated the addition – some hoping we could find a way to keep the goats there indefinitely.  And the longer we were there the more people took on a sense of ownership, protection, and perhaps investment in the herd.  So amazing to watch.   The ‘work’ seemed to have crept into the  vagaries and intangibles of urban pleasure.  Now that the goats are gone, the lot has a very different feel and the void seems more palpable than before.

The living field became a vehicle for diving into the dynamics of the very local.  During the course of this project I must have spoken with somewhere in the realm of 500+ people, mostly on-site, as well as through the extensions of commercial media outlets.  We had the opportunity to record reactions, hear insights on the surrounding area and private aspirations for the lot (of which there were many).  We are very grateful for the shared knowledge, as we know so much more about that location and its surrounds than we would otherwise.  Another example of the value of being immersed in the medium.

One comment I remember in particular was about novelty; that if we keep doing this, the novelty is likely to wear off.  Our view is that this would be a benefit rather than a drawback.  Not that people wouldn’t still appreciate them, but if the goats become endemic and stopped making headlines, then as conduit for an existing archaic meme, we might have achieved something.  In some ways Portland is proactively experimenting with the limits  and possibilities of urban fauna (domestic and wild) and regenerating living systems in the urban fabric via directives, incentives and general public will.  All experiments really.  I see and hear chickens in my neighborhood all the time and think nothing of it.  Can goats become as everyday a productive agent in the city as our chickens?

(special thanks to Creative Woodworking NW for providing us with temporary shelters, water, fence repair assistance, restrooms and recovering my analogue day planner, and to Yu Contemporary for giving us photographic access to their splendid rooftop.  Thanks to Killian Pacific for experimenting.  Thanks to Ethan for the ruminant modifier)

**thanks PDX**

(related posts: staring at Goats I, II, III, IV)

One comment

  1. The Canadian Center for Architecture provided an interesting and brief commentary on this project. Amongst other valid points they made note of the animal as machine aspect:

    “The goats are treated as just another tool, a biomechanical system for controlling grass. This makes for unsentimental comparisons with the noisy and unfriendly gas mower (they speak of “biophilia”, like the urge to feed and pet goats through a fence). Perhaps this attitude does a disservice to goats, but it suggests a sober research into an optimal biomechanical strategy for different climates, grass types, and other environmental factors.”

    Indeed, we tried to report what we were doing and seeing from an unsentimental and unbiased distance (which of course is impossible). In this closing post we talked a bit more about the hard to quantify and qualify feelings aspect of the work – both from the goat’s point of view and for the people who participated – which in multiple ways seemed to take over the project. As we mentioned elsewhere, we are very interested in how we currently aspire to make buildings function more like organisms and in reverse, asking organisms to perform more like machines.

    Truth about the author’s bias: we became attached to the goats from about day 1. It would be pretty hard not to. And from spending part of everyday with them for over three weeks, we do miss them. I have never missed a lawn mower.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: