Nomadic Living As Social Practice
30 April 2021
Nomadic Living as Social Practice Interview with Lex Phelan of ENVELOPE
Lex Phelan, Associate Partner at ENVELOPE has just made a big change in her living situation. Early in the pandemic, she and her partner committed to constructing a mobile dwelling — converting a small shuttle bus into a beautiful new home. Douglas Burnham, Founding Partner of ENVELOPE interviewed Lex to learn more about their jump into nomadic living.
dB: Through shelter-in-place you've have been designing and building a new nomadic dwelling for yourselves. What made you decide to transition your living situation from a rental apartment to a mobile dwelling?
LP: It was the beginning of the pandemic when we were sparked to pursue this and purchase a vehicle to transform into our home. It’s so easy to settle into a comfortable life and abstractly think about future plans, but my partner losing his job a few days into the lockdown made it easier to decide to make the transition. For quite some time before the pandemic, we had been trying to figure out for ourselves how to reduce our impact on the world. We’ve also wanted to experiment with alternative ways of living, because the ones that are out there aren't working for many, many people, and they’re also kind of boring (to me). I’m interested in developing new ideas around how we live and in starting a more public dialogue about alternative ways of living on a planet that is hurting. I don't think about in a way that is like martyrdom — it’s not about taking things away — it’s about figuring out what’s important and also pursuing what brings me joy, and building a way of living around that.
There are also many other practical reasons for it, the biggest one being that more than half of my salary was going to pay rent for our former apartment and I just don't think that that's an acceptable allocation of one's resources. It’s also not a sustainable model for providing fair and equitable housing to people. I’m interested in finding new solutions and changing the paradigm that allows our capitalist system to charge people exorbitant amounts of money to just have shelter – for something that should be a basic human right!
dB: I know that you think a lot about work-life balance. In America, we work so much more than people in other countries do. It’s interesting to consider how much more you are required to work in order to pay for shelter for a home or apartment in the Bay Area (and many other parts of the country).
LP: Building on that: what is the work? If you could use your time and talents in a more intentional way, and if you can reduce the amount of money that you need to survive, to pay for shelter, then you can use the extra time that you have to enjoy life more or to expand your work to include volunteering, giving back, helping the world in need.
dB: Even before the pandemic, you’ve been talking about the embedded subsidy within the planning of American cities that dedicates an extraordinary amount of space to house/store automobiles. Could you talk more about that? How do we contest/challenge that allocation of spatial resources?
LP: There is a wider cost to having so much of our land paved for storing empty metal boxes [cars and trucks] that we don’t consider. Free parking isn't free. If you look on any normal street that has parking on each side and you assess how much space that takes up: it’s about a third to a quarter of nearly every street. This is extremely wasteful and is a huge allocation of the spatial resources of the city. Not everyone can afford to have a car — or even wants to have a car — so some people are getting the benefit of something that’s provided by the public and maintained through taxes. Parking is essentially storage and storage is a low-value allocation of space in our cities. We should be considering the use of this vast track of free public land and be proposing alternative higher-value uses — like public housing or outdoor park space for people to enjoy.
Trying to rethink how we use that “free” public space dedicated to car storage is definitely a part of the interest in mobile dwellings. However, what happens when, because of the high cost of housing, people have to live in their cars, which we see here in West Berkeley, and also across the Bay Area? Why is mobile dwelling in cities disallowed? It wouldn't cost that much to provide trash collection and minimal utility access or even access to toilets and showers for a low fee. We can creatively think about ways to support people who live in their vehicles in a more sensical way — in a way that incorporates it into neighborhoods and communities.
Ironically, the strip where we normally park our cars is also usually the strip where the sewer main and the water mains are located so, bringing that up to the surface is not an extraordinary feat of engineering and could be easily provided at key locations to support this alternative way of living. Unfortunately, the situation right now is that people don’t have access to these things and they do need to live in their vehicles. Even worse is people that don’t even have a vehicle to live in. Just like RV campgrounds in the American West, cities could provide areas where mobile dwelling is easily supported. If there was a generosity in our societal approach toward providing at least the basics of living — of access to the water and waste infrastructure — it would not be hard to convert vacant parcels in cites to places where hundreds of people could live in sanitary and healthy conditions.
dB: What are you most looking forward to once you make the transition to your mobile dwelling?
LP: I guess the simple answer would be to share our experiences with others so that they can make better decisions about their impact on the planet, to model how to live much more sustainably on the planet and to bring forward the best ideas — some of which are ancient nomadic approaches toward touching the earth lightly, while immersing oneself in it’s immense natural beauty. We all need to work together to come up with a more sustainable way of living and we need to share our knowledge and experiences to expand the universe of possible solutions.