Native American new urbanism: How the poorest county in America created a vision for the future of cities

By Trevor Decker Cohen

This article was adapted from Bright Green Future, a book that chronicles a global renaissance in people-powered solutions to climate change.

The field of urbanism puts the European city on a pedestal. There’s a sense that if we could just paste the walkable streets of Paris onto our strip malls and highways, we’d create paradise in America. What’s lost in this conception is the wisdom from thousands of years of Indigenous placemaking in North America.

On a road trip to interview farmers and ranchers for a book about people-powered solutions to climate change, I had a chance to see a Native American vision for the future of towns and cities.

My visit began in a gravel parking lot in Porcupine, South Dakota. Here on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in one of the poorest counties in the country, an unlikely revolution had transpired. Andrew “Andy” Ironshell welcomed me at the door of a portable building. He was the acting comms director for Thunder Valley CDC: A non-profit, Native American-led real estate developer.

Halfway into our conversion, he took out a book of photographs that depicted life on the reservation. “This is the competing narrative,” he said. “We call it poverty porn.” The book, which came out of Aaron Huey’s National Geographic assignment, showed the world images of life on Pine Ridge. “He got all these great pictures of real-life on the reservation. But of course, it shows the harshness.”

There is truth to that harshness. Unemployment still hovers around 70 percent. Life expectancy is 48 years for men and 52 years for women. Many residents live in the equivalent of FEMA trailers with 15 people to a home. Yet statistics and images only tell one side of the story. Organizations like Thunder Valley reveal another.

When the spirits speak

The story of Thunder Valley began in a spiritual circle where young members from the community gathered for ceremonies with a local medicine man. In one ceremony, they were sitting in a sweat lodge, talking about their frustrations with the tribe and all the forces that had wronged them and their ancestors. “They vented ‘Oh the tribe should do this, the tribe should do that.’”

It was then that their ancestors answered back. Nick Tilsen, who’d go on to become Thunder Valley’s first executive director remembered what they said. “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.”

The message from the world beyond was clear: they had to look inward. In doing so, they’d come to find the talent and power needed for change among themselves. Some were grant writers. Some knew how to organize and speak in public. Others knew carpentry.

Tired of huddling in a small trailer, they decided to focus their first project on creating a new ceremony house because they didn’t even have that. After finishing the ceremony space, they went searching for ways to carry the message of empowerment beyond their circle. “We didn’t want to hand out propane and Pampers every month. That’s needed, and we understand how that works, but it’s a Band-Aid. It’s not systemic change.”

Community rises

It took several years of meetings to gather the collective visions of over 3,000 people on the reservation. Out of those meetings, Thunder Valley, the spiritual circle, created Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. Through fundraising, they were able to buy a 34-acre plot of land along a main thoroughfare, nestled between rolling hills. Renderings of their plans showed a mixed-use community with single-family homes, apartments, a community center, retail along the road, a vocational school, and a permaculture farm. 

“We’re looking at potentially 900 people living here,” said Andy. “Right now, Pine Ridge needs 4,000 houses just for us adults. That’s not counting all of the kids that are in high school, and 65 percent of the Pine Ridge population is under 25 years old.”

Their focus is to provide housing across the income spectrum. As Andy put it, “You should be able to live next to the college professor who makes ten times more than you.”

It’s an ambitious plan and not the kind of thing that will go up overnight. “We kind of did it backwards from how the mainstream would do it, where they say ‘build it and they will come.’ Well, that’s a very expensive model if they don’t come,” said Andy. “Ours is more like, let’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.”

They started first with a simple straw-bale house. Recruiting students from the local colleges and gathering donated materials, they were able to test what the process might look like. They figured out how to teach young people construction and how to build an energy-efficient house with simple materials. “The process is much more powerful than the deliverables that you see.” 

When I visited, they were putting the finishing touches on the first seven homes. They were arranged in a circle with an open space in the middle. “Traditionally this is how we used to camp,” said Andy. “We call it Tiyóspaye, or family. We really thought about that sense of community in a space. In order to get to the community center, you have to meet your neighbors.” The residents of each circle will get to pick what goes in the open space, anything from a garden, playground, or picnic area.

Andy led me into one of the houses. A spacious open floor plan with a kitchen, dining room, and living room made up the bottom story, with three bedrooms above. It was far different from the current state of housing on Pine Ridge.

According to Andy, the owner of this space was one of the construction trainers who taught the youth who helped build it. He was 24 and had just become the father of a baby. “He’s got the ‘Dances with Wolves’ story,” said Andy. “He grew up in a log cabin with dirt floors, no different rooms, just one big space and that’s how they grew up. Water outside from the pump. And now he’s buying this house.”

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. Grandmothers often sell handmade quilts on the side while the kids grow weed, just to cover the cost of those bills.

We stepped outside onto the farm. They designed it using permaculture principles with the intention of teaching people on the reservation how to grow their own food. Rows of chokecherries and vegetables were raised next to chickens from a nearby coop. Together the community was regenerating their land as they regenerated their food system. “Ninety-nine percent of the food here is driven in by trucks. So we want to be able to start to feed ourselves.”

At the time, they had just two-and-a-half acres of farmland, but Andy said that once they figured out the system, they aimed to scale it to 100 or 1,000 acres. To do this, they planned to start a cooperative business, Thunder Valley Farms, where the workers will also own a portion of the venture.

Thunder Valley employed 65 people year-round. In the summer during their construction training program, that number would shoot up to as many as 100. In a place where people live on as little as $7,000 a year and unemployment hovers around 70 percent, Thunder Valley was creating meaningful job opportunities.

There was a dynamic energy in the office, which was still set up in a portable building. It felt like a cross between a startup and a revolution. A mix of local people from the reservation and others from across America were coming together to make this project a reality.

An Indigenous vision for the future

Thunder Valley is just one community on Pine Ridge. There are a total of nine political districts, each with their own communities. “We’d like to see one of these in all the districts,” said Andy. The development might look different in each place. “We’re right along the road here, so retail made a lot of sense. But other more isolated communities might have more agriculture.”

They created 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.

Since starting Thunder Valley, over 70 other Indigenous communities had reached out to them and expressed an interest in doing something similar. “We don’t want Thunder Valley to be the exception,” said Nick. “We had to move beyond inspiration and start trying to build infrastructure and a system that could support a growing movement for Native people.” He would go on to found another organization, the NDN Collective, to build Indigenous power at a larger scale.

Incorporating many voices into a single community vision for the future can be a challenging experience, and at the end of one town hall meeting, Nick recalled feeling exhausted, ready to go home for the day. But right before he could leave, someone approached him.

“This unci, that means ‘grandma’ in Lakota, she ended up coming up to me. She was 91 years old. And she came up to me and she said, ‘Takoja,’ that means ‘grandson.’ She said, ‘That was the best meeting I ever went to.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Why?’

“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.’”

That’s the pursuit of Thunder Valley and community builders everywhere. It’s a vision for change that asks us what we really want for our future—and means it. 

Thunder Valley’s strength doesn’t come from any one silver bullet, but from the way its leaders have combined many different principles. 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. By coming together as the resident experts, we can begin to create places that our descendants may one day look upon with the same pride and admiration given to the great cities of the world.

For more stories like this, check out Trevor’s new book, Bright Green Future.

Biodata of a World Traveler

Meet Member Caspar Lambrechtsen

In the first year of world war II, I saw the light of day in a village near the city of Nijmegen in The Netherlands.  This city, that received its city rights in the year 104, was the last one to be liberated in 1944 under operation market garden (A bridge too far) that spared my family the hardships of the hunger winter that plagued Holland north of the rivers.

After the end of WWII in April 1945, it became time to start schooling, culminating in a diploma in tropical and sub-tropical agriculture from the college in Deventer in 1961, and immigration with a six week boat travel to New Zealand followed in 1962 to work in the Department of Agriculture. (DoA)

New Zealand and Australia Experience  –  1962 – 1980

Many eventful things happened in New Zealand.  With a family history in civil engineering going back many generations, working in the DoA did not quite fit the bill and I took a degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Canterbury, completing that in 1967 and started working with consulting engineers.  In the meantime, however fate intervened by bringing me together with my future Australian wife whom I have been married to these past 57 years and who accompanied me on many of the adventures.  Of course, it was not just a two-some but three sons were welcomed into the family over a span of four years.

First arriving in NZ meant actually stepping back in time some 15 years, and with the rather limited job opportunities we moved to Australia to work with consulting firms in Townsville and Melbourne from 1968 – 1980.  Many interesting projects were carried out, because in those days when there was a lot of infrastructure work to be carried out and few engineers available one had to find out how to do things very quickly, and this was the time before computers and the internet.  Calculations were carried out with slide rules and logarithmic tables!!

Having gained substantial experience in those days, working in Indonesia was being considered and a brief visit was made to home in Holland.  This ultimately led to the decision to return with the family to Holland in 1980.

Working in Developing countries  –  1985 – 2020 

Settling in Holland was a major challenge particularly for my wife and sons who had never spoken a word of Dutch and thus had to learn a new language as well as attending high school for the boys.  They met the challenges head on and passed with flying colors.

The first project overseas was started in Quetta, Pakistan with a 6 years assignment to improve the sanitary provisions in the town of 250,000 people, after a brief input in a tannery project in Bangladesh.  The climate in Quetta is desert like and the city and all agriculture activities relied on ground water for their water supply that was dropping at around 4 feet per year!!  The tanneries in Bangladesh are serious environmental polluters with conditions that would turn sensitive stomachs.

The project in Pakistan was completed on time and it provided ample experience to gain an insight into different cultures and their sets of values that have to be respected.  The thought should always be in the back of one’s mind: “How would I react if the situations were reversed”?

After Pakistan further infrastructure projects in Bangladesh followed initially for 6 years and then other projects on and off over a period of a total of 10 years.  Bangladesh is roughly the same size as Wyoming, but now it has 160 million people.  Being situated in the delta of the major Himalayan rivers of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, large areas of the country see serious flooding in September / October when the snowmelt reaches its peak.  The whole coast has serious problems with rising sea levels that cause saltwater intrusion into the groundwater and permanent flooding of low-lying areas, land is literally disappearing before your eyes.  

Development projects are supported for 80% by international development banks as the country is too poor, with many workers earning $1.00 or less per day.  Many of the projects focused on improving the water supply and sanitation is district towns and the capital Dhaka city, with a population of 16 million and a falling groundwater table at a rate of 6 feet per year, making it harder to keep water supplied to the people.  

Infrastructure projects in Vietnam followed with the drainage and sanitation systems in Vinh City that is situated about 10 feet above sea level prosing a challenge for the design team.  Flooding during heavy rains was a normal occurrence and in fact the entire 1000 mile coastline that is home to many people will experience the impact of rising sea-levels.  One of the unique experiences was travelling by train to Hanoi city to watch the miles and miles of rice fields and to realize that all those single rice plants were planted by hand!

The last major project was in the Kyrgyz Republic to protect the environmental beauty of the high altitude (+ 5,000 feet) of Lake Issyk-Kul.  This lake stretches for 110 miles and has maximum width of 37 miles.  It is an endorheic lake, it has no outflow, so all pollutants flowing into it accumulate over time and it is therefore of utmost importance to ensure that all effluents are treated before discharging to the lake.  The final support services were provided in October 2020.  

Lessons learned

First and foremost, one needs the support of ones’ family and having my supportive wife with me on most of these endeavors has made it possible to be able to complete the assigned projects well.  The contacts with national and international staff on these projects has broadened one’s horizon and makes one realize how vulnerable this planet is.  

It was through the interaction with a US international specialist working on a project in Bangladesh that we finally landed in Central Point in 2004 and established our base here.

The publication of the “Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 put a lot of things into context and with the data now being available on the internet, it is possible to carry out detailed analysis, all of which point in one direction, too much talk and not enough action or plans that are being adhered to leaving a planet on fire for the next generations to deal with.  The problem is that when I grew up there were 2.5 billion people on this earth and by 2080 it is projected that 10.8 billion will share the same space. 

The generations now cannot imagine a world without the internet, it is the new “normal”, however the level of social awareness and consideration has not improved.

Let us hope that the Climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021 will create an understanding that we would only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, cooperative effort.

Upcoming June Climate Events

Wednesday, June 16 at 4PM PST  (7PM EST)

Register for the June Chapter Training Series: Establishing Climate Justice Priorities

Join us for the upcoming Chapter Training Series: Establishing Climate Justice Priorities tomorrow, June 16 at 4PM PST (7 PM ET). This Chapter Training Series will discuss a framework for centering climate and environmental justice in your chapter’s work, mission, and climate action. We will discuss and workshop some climate justice and advocacy skills, explore some common pitfalls, and have the opportunity for a Q&A session at the end.   

Climate Reality prioritizes climate justice in our work and chapters program, and this workshop will give you an opportunity to start thinking through how to prioritize climate justice concepts in your chapters. Join us, and let’s get to work! 


June 24 at 4PM PST  (7PM EST)

Petrochemical Opposition Campaign Updates 
Tackling the A-Z Impacts of Plastic: Protecting Democracy 

Join the A-Z team on June 24 at 4PM PST (7 PM ET) for their June program exploring the intersection of our plastics crisis and its connection to the erosion of democracy. Learn how anti-protest bills, preemption laws, and voter suppression not only silence the voices of local grassroots communities, but also perpetuate the fossil fuel and plastics industry crisis. Hear from several guest speakers how they are organizing to protect the power of the people over the vested interests of plastic and petrochemical corporations! Register here.  

July 7- Aug 16, each Mon & Wed,  3-5 PM PST  (6-8PM EST)

In the “Strikes to the Streets: Youth Climate Organizers Take on Wall Street” political education series, Future Coalition is uniting local youth-led organizations to mobilize for the climate finance movement.

In this six-week virtual training, Future Coalition offers two free training sessions each week with some of the most skilled and experienced activists in the climate movement. The series will launch to the public starting on July 7. 

Session topics include:  

  • Stop the Bad: An Overview of Climate Finance 
  • Pay for the Harm: How to Hold Banks Liable and Shifting Power to the People 
  • Investing in the Good: Building a Sustainable Economy through Youth Power 
  • Digital tools and communications for grassroots organizing 
  • Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) 

Registration for the series will open on Monday, June 14 so stay tuned and sign up to join the movement taking on Wall Street! And, please feel free to share this opportunity with your social and professional networks to get more people involved.

Why add in-home Sprouting to your Environmentalism Toolkit?

By Robert Schwartz

If you’re reading this you already know there will be hell to pay if we don’t straighten out this climate issue.

Some people say climate change is caused by human reckless over-consumption. Some people say it’s just a natural planetary happening. The truth is even if climate change isn’t our fault it is our problem. The good news is you can affect the speed and severity that a changing climate will impact your children and grandchildren.There are 3 way that you can help heal the world and optimize the environment. The first is with your personal choices and the choices your family makes. The second is your local community, in America that’s state and local governments. The third is by advocating for national and world change, which seems like a big lift when you’re worried about making dinner and getting the kids to clean their room before they go to sleep. I try to work on all three of these points and find the most rewarding one is my own personal choices. As you know, local, state, and federal politicians have been very unwilling to make any substantial changes. I do see a glimmer of hope though, considering how the war on drugs and the war on homelessness went maybe politicians should consider a war on the environment. But all of that is for another day.  

Why I got involved in the environmental movement.  

There were three main stages to my climate journey. The first one was shock. Learning about the extent of the climate issue can really send you down a rabbit hole. The amount of information could keep you glued to your phone for literally 10 years. As I researched, I realized many people write with a political or financial agenda but even after removing biased information the real world is suffering and only the most cognitively challenged can’t see it. The second thing that happened to me was the emergence of emotional pain along with my sense of justice being offended to the point of real anger. Anger is an emotion designed to prevent bad decision making. You get angry at the kids for going in the street without looking. Most emotional anger is something that doesn’t just linger with you and over time you get less angry and settle back into a normal routine. This is the least helpful response to anger over environmental issues. The response that brought me piece was the third stage – realizing the source of the pain and responding to it.  

Learning to contribute without complaining. 

I like to think of myself as an environmentally responsible person. Carrying around my hydroflask, wearing goodwill or local made clothing, turning off the lights, rarely turn on the heat pump and having energy efficient appliances. But one day I realized my food choices nullified any positive impact I was hoping to make. Unnecessary pollution from packaging, refrigeration, and transportation. Poisoning the soil of land due to pesticides, watching the top soil get replaced with an unsustainable chemical mixture, and the massive amount of food waste from peels, stems, etc. I am luckily enough to live in rural Oregon so I can get a good percentage of food from local farmers or farmers markets but not everyone can do that year round, some people not at all.

So, what are we to do as environmental activists? 

Sprout at home!

Sprouting allows a nice harvest every 3-5 day of clean fresh organic veggies. Sprouting at home takes almost no time and very little space. No transportation, or packaging pollution and a bare minimum of refrigeration if any at all. Almost no waste and no top or any other kind of soil used and no pesticides. Best Part? Every morning and evening when I spend a minute or two rinsing my sprouts, I am reminded of my fidelity to healing the environment.

For anyone just starting a sprouting adventure, here are the simple steps that people have been doing for thousands of years.

  1. Take some organic non-gmo seeds (the only kind there was until a few years ago) soak them in cool water for 8 hours or so.
  2. Drain the water and rinse 2 times per day until little tails appear, usually in 3-5 days.
  3. Repeat with a new set of seeds.

My website, has a 5 minute video that walks you through every step of the way so you will get the best results. If you’d like to learn more, feel free to email us for tips or advice to either up your sprout game or get your sprouting adventure started. I also have a variety of entry level to gourmet vegan sprout recipes.  Please look into sprouting today and if you’d like more information, visit us at SPROUT ON!

Black Snake

I’ve taken several classes online, including a Masterclass by reporter Bob Woodward.  Woodward basically said that everyone has their own version of the truth.  What they saw, from their perspective, given their existing knowledge and underlying belief system. 

But underneath what we each believe, there are facts.  We are all entitled to our own opinions.  No one is entitled to their own set of facts. 

I started out as a documentary filmmaker.  My 1st picture was on national cable TV.  My 2nd picture went undistributed.  I couldn’t raise money for the next half dozen pictures I wanted to make, so I have a file cabinet stuffed with unfulfilled dreams.  I didn’t make any more documentaries. 

But I passionately agree with Woodward that a journalist’s job – and in a Democracy, every citizen’s job – is to come up with the best, most accurate obtainable version of the truth.  Because Democracy dies in darkness.  Because predators always hide, and human predators create a thicket of false facts to hide in.

Our founding fathers had the optimistic notion that Americans could act like good neighbors.  That we could reach smarter decisions together than any one of us could consistently come up with alone.  That we could discuss our differences calmly.  That we could look past our beliefs to find the facts.  That we would then use those facts to improve our all lives.  

Without facts there is no sustainable prosperity.  Without basic prosperity, life sucks.  A family with hungry children is the most politically unstable unit in the world.

Lately, we have seen a triumph of false facts over neighborliness.  Below is a poem I wrote about how recent political events have brought new light to a very old set of false facts, that was used to steal Native land and murder Native people.

Black Snake by Katherine Brann Fredricks 

Lay aside bitterness.
Lay aside fears.
There’s a black snake
on the Trail of Tears.

It’s been seven generations
since we took your land.
Now foreign people want mine.
Now I understand.

We all drink this water,
though we once fought to the knife.
At Oglala waters,
even old enemies have to agree,
water is life!

Cowboy boots and deerskin moccasin,
stop the black snake
with truth for medicine.
Canadian tar sands
for Chinese cars.
Stop the black snake.
Protect what’s ours.

It’s been seven generations
since we told those lies:
“We’ve come here for your good!”
Lies to colonize.

Now I apologize
for my ancestor’s lies.
Now I recognize
tribal wisdom I despised.
Now I apologize
for the genocide we legalized.
Now I cuss
foreign enterprise
come to vandalize us!

For our sacred waters,
for our farms and fields and rights.
For our children’s futures,
cowboys and Indians, time to unite,
Cowboys and Indians, fight!

Obama embalmed the KXL.
Trump raised it like a zombie:
smell that chemical smell!
Biden took a pen.  
Killed the black snake again.
Say yay! But stay tough.
Kill a zombie twice?
Twice may not be enough!

While we drink these waters,
we’ll teach our sons and daughters how
to respect each other,
and protect each other,
so they may safely drink these waters
seven generations from now!