A Little Insight From St. John

By on February 5, 2012.

Being privileged enough to have met great people in my life; I was recently put up in a flat on the rocky slopes of a Caribbean paradise called St. John, US Virgin Islands. Historically, I found it to be a mix of Jamaican and Puerto Rican cultures having been thieved from native tribes by Columbus and Dutch plantation owners, plundered by pirates, bought by a Rockefeller and donated for its current use: conservation land and rum fueled Jeep trails.

 ***This is a reissue of a post from earlier last year due to some website reformatting. Enjoy***


Outside of partaking in extreme relaxation my mind focused on 3 observations: water harvesting, local material construction, and home gardening. They each were so simple and so independent from the tangles of the industrialized world. It wasn’t so much that islanders carried out these simple practices, it happens continentally from NYC to Topeka, but on USVI it was consistent across the board.

Water Harvesting

Since St. John has few drillable wells, it’s uncommon not to have a water storage bin. From primitive to fancy, harvesting water is a necessity. Fresh harvested water comes in and grey water goes right back out and irrigates a papaya or jasmine tree. Beautifully simple.

Remind me why I pay for city water to drink, bath and irrigate? Especially in regions of water shortages in a state like Florida that averages over 50” of rain a year! For a modest home, with a 1200 sq ft roof catchment, that’s about 34,000 gallons of water per year. The American Water Works Association claims daily use per capita at 69 gallons, that’s 25,185 gallons a year. Now I’d rather not show off my B- in Calc I or make assumptions upon averages. So let’s agree that some could live off it, and some could just irrigate and bath in it. Check out http://www.green-trust.org/rainwater/ for the math and the means. The point is that there are options out there for every lifestyle and wallet, particularly when storage and filtration technologies are in their infancy.

Construction Practices

Just lovin’ this construction detail! Local materials with local flair make all the difference. Home gardening for American sustenance. After years of slave oppression and the lack of imports, island locals began to rely upon local foods. Sea grapes, sugar apples, guavas, breadfruit, yams, and okra provide preserves, starchy proteins, etc. From pioneering farmers to WWII victory gardens, private citizens have been cultivating parcels for centuries. Presently, there are still people out there that feed themselves, sans Local co-ops, community gardens and hippies are still loosely holding to these ideas, but the environment seems to blind us to the functions of personal, home landscapes.



I still can’t figure out for the life of me why more US citizens and designers don’t integrate and oranges, potatoes and radishes into every home and public space. I understand not everyone grow their own food. Well maybe…… instead of a maintenance crew cutting Bermuda grass and crape myrtles, you could pay some nice men and women (even a local youth garden group) to a week and tend your gardens. Even hand you a basket of eggplants with fresh basil and for your home cooked, home grown eggplant Parmesan.

My principle urge is that our government and our citizens need to take a good look at resource management practices, specifically, resources purchased vs. those untapped or forgotten. It is my belief that as technology booms, with deathly smart and equally passionate 20-somethings, private citizens will have the chance to privatize themselves from electricity and water companies while personally adding to the energy grid. It’s only a matter of time until venture capitalists hop off the grease wagon and start companies in the sustainable technology sector to improve and sell products to the masses. What does this mean for landscape architecture? only adding an entire sustainable/technological layer to Ian McHarg’s union of science and design. Our society is beginning to witness cow farms fueling methane generators, algae fields churning out cellulose biofuels and solar panels with wind turbines blanketing hectares (metric baby!). This all has an undeniable effect on the management and aesthetics of our landscapes. Why wouldn’t future professionals want to harness this knowledge and integrate these practices in the most ecologically fitting and sublime scenarios? Some may be pessimistic, like my usual self, but I foresee an America with the resolve to strengthen the country and enlightened ourselves in the ushering of a new age of growth, be it socialized or not.

As for St. John, USVI, thanks for satisfying an urge to finally see a community understand their habitat and pull from the same set of indigenous resources to displaying the magic of genius loci.