Native American new urbanism, a vision for the future of cities

Quick preamble: I love everything about this story. It’s probably an understatement to say that there’s been a lot of failure across the Americas and much of the world when it comes to governments taking part in the wellbeing of indigenous peoples, when it hasn’t been outright malfeasance.

Thankfully, finally, some headway is being made in various places, sometimes through civil society, sometimes through governments, and sometimes through inspiring displays of leadership in reservations, such as this great vision and execution in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

“How long are you going to let other people decide the future for your children? Are you not warriors? It’s time to stop talking and start doing—to not come from a place of fear, but to come from a place of hope.”

That was the call to action that got the group to go on a multi-year consultation of the more than 3000 people on the reservation, which lead to Thunder Valley, the spiritual circle, creating the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, then the purchase of a 34-acre plot of land, and the building of the first seven homes, built in a circle around an open space, and construction being done by young locals who learned skills as part of the same initiative.

[L]et’s build the capacity of the community champions and figure out what they think their needs are, and then support that and build an ecosystem around it.” […]

“The process is much more powerful than the deliverables that you see.”

Interestingly, the first thing that drew my attention to the article was actually the header image featuring the design of the small, minimalist, and colourful homes.

All the homes were designed to use very little energy from the grid, through tight insulation combined with solar panels. Thunder Valley owns the panels to cover the maintenance, but lets residents reap the benefits of utility savings. It’s an important service, as electricity on the reservation can be expensive.

From a challenge to think about the future of their children, the group has thus: taught valuable skills in a high-unemployment area, assembled the community (and supporters across the country) around common projects, built houses that reflect the needs of the people, a community center, given much better places to live to many families, helped them get access to property, made the county more sustainable with locally produced food, provided more sources of revenue, local energy generation, gave purpose to the participants, and inspired “over 70 other Indigenous communities [that] reached out to them and expressed an interest in doing something similar.” ​In other words, great success, and:

[A] template for what a 21st century, regenerative community could look like. It’s not meant to be copy-pasted all across America, but to serve as inspiration for how one might go about creating a development process that’s reflective of the people in each place.

The whole process and the true, honest involvement of people of all ages also resulted in the beautiful feedback that it deserved.

“And she said, ‘91 years I lived on this reservation … But in those 91 years, nobody ever asked me what I wanted for my children’s future and my grandchildren’s future. Nobody ever asked me those things and meant it. And today, people asked those things to me and they meant it, and I shared them.’ And she said, ‘That’s why this is the best meeting I ever went to.’”

Near the conclusion of the linked article, this series of tactics, usable by many on a multitude of projects shows how successful projects are built.

They’ve grown incrementally, building off each success to create a time-tested and cost-effective process. They’ve rooted everything in the desires and culture of the community. They’ve combined tactical bottom-up action with a long-term vision. And they’ve bridged the divide between places to live, work, and play, and the land that supports them all.