Way back at the Strong Towns National Gathering, a handful of people gathered in the backyard of Jim & Faith Kumon (rain barrel enthusiasts) to compile a shortlist for the Strong Towns Strength Test. In that discussion, we bounced around various forms of the question "Do you have a sustainable supply of potable water?" In the final list, I believe the spirit of that question was somewhat wrapped into #8 on the Strength Test: If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?

That point doesn't account for irresponsible water extraction, but it does suggest that we should think twice about geography and the natural limitations on a Strong Town.

Given how important food production and water use are to the strength of a place, one of the best things we can do as Strong Citizens is to plant a garden and catch and store the rain. I've been slow to the rain barrel game, but it finally happened and I'm delighted.

I love my rain barrel, in photos.

Watering the garden patch outside used to be a small fuss. As renters, we haven't been given access to the hose so I'd have to fill up my 2-gallon watering can in the kitchen sink instead. Then I'd haul it across the apartment and down the stairs taking care not to slosh all over the place, get it through a spring loaded door, and then watch it disappear quickly into the ground. Time for round two...

The chard coming to life.

The chard coming to life.

I never knew how much I'd love a rain barrel until this procedure was eliminated. Life is so much easier now and I have my neighbours to thank. We love our downstairs neighbours, a young couple here for school. They make no qualms about getting things done. Every weekend, the woodshop is roaring and last week this rain barrel happened.

It all started earlier this spring when we noticed a spot where the rain was pouring off the roof so hard that everything beneath it was dead. We wanted in on that water. Now, I was under the impression that rain barrels had some arcane and expensive installation process so I never felt comfortable messing around with them on my own. Our neighbour solved that one for me. He just got an old barrel from work, installed the tap, built a table for it, cut out a hole in the top and slid it over the downspout. Done.

Well, not entirely done. It turns out our eaves are sagging in the wrong places and we're not getting much flow into the barrel. That's a job that unfortunately we're not allowed to address ourselves as renters. However, we are getting buckets full of water under that particular spot on the roof!

This weekend we had an intense amount of rain. It was too good to be wasted. So we dumped this bucket out repeatedly into the rain barrel. Yes, it's a roundabout and labour intensive way of doing it but, hey, the rain barrel is full! One weekend of bailing out this bucket in my rubber boots and rain jacket is still so much easier than the alternative of filling up a watering can in the kitchen all summer. This is all to say, even in the scenario where a rain barrel doesn't work all that well, it's still amazing. All of this water! For free! From the sky! 

The experience has been grounding for me. I've got loads of plants growing in pots on my porch and they're all still alive and well, but the plants I pay least attention to out in my little pig farm in the boulevard are thriving better than any. I water them only occasionally and had doubts whether the soil would even work (heavy clay in areas and probably pickled in road salt from winter). And yet, there they are drinking up the rain and the sunshine that I can't substitute for on the porch. Now they'll have plenty of rain even in the dry spells of July thanks to the rain barrel.

Kale just killin' it.

Kale just killin' it.

Despite being pretty in tune to this stuff, there are not that many areas in my life where I feel like me and "nature" or the laws of physics are on the same team. But it's so great when we are. I feel it when I'm riding my bike and it's so easy to go so fast and the wind cools my face and I want to yell "How is everyone not biking all the time? This is amazing!" I feel it when I look in the compost bin and see that the worms have just happily munched my kitchen scraps into fertilizer. I feel it when it's a hot day and I find a bench under a tree. Now I feel it with the sound of rain on the tin roof, filling that bucket one more time. 

Rain-activated art. See how I did it: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/rainworks

Rain-activated art. See how I did it: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/rainworks


GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.