I'll be joining a panel and delivering a 15-min presentation at UNB next week to discuss the role of farming in our cities. If you're in town, I hope you'll join us!
I suppose I should probably make this public by now. I've just launched a live vlogumentary sort of thing to share stories of young people and old places. I'll be releasing videos over the year as a new grad and urbanist moving across the country to the Maritimes. No need to talk your head off here though. Just check out the first video and its homebase at Another Place for Me.
I subscribe to a weekly produce delivery box that would appear to be an elitist, luxury indulgence. (And truthfully, it is. There are too many people out there struggling to put food on the table at all. But if you are someone who has the privilege of choice in your groceries, consider the following.) Top quality, organic produce is carefully selected according to my tastes and delivered to my doorstep. The eggs, milk, and yogurt come from farms where cows have names and chickens run free and scratch to their hearts' content. Each week, an insert tells me (with remarkable wit and personality) how the farmers are doing and what meals I can make with that week's bounty. The delivery boxes are reused and equipped with cold-packs and natural wool insulation to keep things cool. This service makes me feel like royalty and I can understand why people might see it and think, "That, my friend, is a luxury I can't afford. I am a poor student and I must eat crappy things until further notice."
Ok, so here's what actually happens when I order this box:
Unfortunately, this provider (Abel & Cole) isn't all local, which was my preference in Toronto (Green Earth Organics and Mama Earth Organics will set you up). But in Europe, you can fill in the blanks with beautiful things from Spain during February delivered by freight ship rather than air, which is maybe a good first step? It slightly reduces your typical carbon from food miles while not alienating the vast majority of 2013 northerners unwilling to eat root-veg all winter.
In conclusion: Maybe you can save money, eat healthier, and be happier with a produce delivery box too.
I love cities. I study how they work, how they're designed, how they're paid for, how people and goods flow through and between them, and how they become places we love. If you've ever talked to me over a meal or drink, you probably also know that I love agriculture. While I grew up in the suburbs, it felt like every weekend worth remembering was spent on the farms where my parents grew up.
The other day, I pulled The Essential Agrarian Reader off the library shelf as research for my dissertation. The foreword of the book is written by Kentucky-raised author, Barbara Kingsolver, who so powerfully evoked my own gratitude to a semi-agrarian upbringing that I need to share. Kingsolver resuscitates a memory that I believe provides a better social and ecological blueprint for us moving forward than any dreamy idealism presented by technology-evangelists or the LEED/Green Building crowd. I'm no luddite and I think we should make use of and advance technology as appropriate, but we need to enlist a resilient form of social organization as well and there are some excellent lessons to salvage from the agrarian lifestyle. Admittedly, there's a history and risk of unnecessary hostility to difference when we form insular communities - I don't want to romanticize - but I believe truly thinking like a farmer embodies openness and connectedness if there are channels to exchange ideas with the wider world. And there now are.
On to Barbara. I've chopped up the foreword into my favourite excerpts.
First, she lays out the demise of family farmers, the common indifference demonstrated by some urban folk, and the difficulty in explaining why this disconnect is harmful.
Once in the early eighties, when cigarette smoking had newly and drastically fallen from fashion, I stood in someone's kitchen at a party and listened to something like a Greek chorus chanting out the reasons why tobacco should be eliminated from the face of the earth, like smallpox. Some wild tug on my heart made me blurt out: "But what about the tobacco farmers?"
Then she goes on to explain the importance of an agrarian frame of mind to her life now. Even though she left the farm years ago and remains grateful for her urban experiences, she found herself returning to the land as a way of rejecting the 'hallucinatory fantasy' that is our everyday world. (emphasis mine)
Most of our populace and all our leaders are participating in a mass hallucinatory fantasy in which the megatons of waste we dump in our rivers and bays are not poisoning the water, the hydrocarbons we pump into the air are not changing the climate, overfishing is not depleting the oceans, fossil fuels will never run out, wars that kill masses of civilians are an appropriate way to keep our hands on what's left, we are not desperately overdrawn at the environmental bank, and really, the kids are all right.
Then she cracks some jokes.
Our gustatory industries treat food items like spoiled little celebrities, zipping them around the globe in luxurious air-conditioned cabins, dressing them up in gaudy outfits, spritzing them with makeup, and breaking the bank on advertising, for heaven's sake. [...] I'd rather wed my fortunes to the sturdy gal-next-door kind of food [...]
Then she explains one of the million reasons I love my parents. Although, I have yet to make the cheese and would probably need some supervision with the hens.
Our agrarian education has come in as a slow undercurrent beneath our workaday lives and the rearing of our children. [...] Our children know how to bake bread, stretch mozzarella cheese, ride a horse, keep a flock of hens laying, help a neighbour, pack a healthy lunch, and politely decline the world's less wholesome offerings. They know the first fresh garden tomato tastes as good as it does, partly, because you've waited for it since last Thanksgiving, and that the awful ones you could have bought at the grocery in between would only subtract from this equation.
Finally, she describes a calming awareness, almost spiritual in nature, which underlies the agrarian mindset.
Before I had read this book you're now holding in your hands, I would have hesitated to suggest that one's relationship to the land, to consumption and food, is a religious matter. But it's true; the decision to attend to the health of one's habitat and food chain is a spiritual choice. It's also political choice, a scientific one, a personal and a convivial one. It's not a choice between living in the country or the town; it is about understanding that every one of us, at the level of our cells and respiration, lives in the country and is thus obliged to be mindful of the distance between ourselves and our sustenance.
Every once in a while, I catch myself departing from the kind of thinking that becomes natural on the farm. Rather than the 'if it ain't broke, reuse it until you can't fix it anymore' mantra of my grandma, I'll walk by a store display and think, "Hmm... I would really like a pair of pants in a mildly different shade of blue to add to my collection." Or I'll find myself consuming 'nature' as if the trees and landscape that outlive me by multiples are a decoration to my life, not the other way around. That's when I know I need someone to hand me a shovel and bucket again, pointing to the horse stalls.
I find more peace, mindfulness, and meaning from trying to think like a farmer (or gardener for that matter) than I do from the highest moments in the champagne world I occasionally inhabit. So Barbara, it moves me too.
Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.
Creative Commons image from flickr user UrbanGrammar
Well, no... consuming more energy than we expend makes us fat, but let's talk about how our neighbourhoods play a role in that equation.
Academics have long been exploring the relationship between neighbourhood characteristics and obesity. There are many variables to either examine or control for, including physical layout of the built environment (suburban, rural, urban, and the myriad sub/cross-categories), socioeconomic status, availability of healthy and affordable food, etc. Depending on what you measure and which statistics you employ, you could probably make the needle swing any way you'd like. However, there are established links between daily hours spent in a car and obesity, and likewise between neighbourhood design/location and hours spent in a car. So we can reasonably suggest that if your neighbourhood forces you to spend more time driving and less time using active transportation, then you are more likely to struggle with obesity.*
OK, academic tip-toeing aside - time to make this real. Consider this passage from Shaping Neighbourhoods:**
The importance of neighbourhood design is highlighted by the fact that, for most obese adults, weight gain has been accumulated over a number of years. A small daily or weekly imbalance in this energy account [intake vs. expenditure] over a decade can lead to major weight gain. The Institute for European Environmental Policy has calculated that the decline in walking itself is enough to account for much, if not all, of the recently observed upsurge in obesity. [...]
I find this both bleak and exciting. The sad-face arrives when I think of all the layers stacked against walking in the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. There's the distance - just a little too far to carry a litre of milk and bag of apples home let alone groceries for a whole family. There's the noise of 60 km/hr x4 lanes, drowning out pleasant thoughts or conversation and passing uncomfortably close to the sidewalk. There's the general ugliness of it all - asphalt by the acre protecting architecturally vacant blah. There's the fact that there isn't really anywhere worth going within walking distance unless you loooove chain store shopping or unhealthy food. To put it lightly, the cards are stacked in favour of driving and when every day of your life you have to stare down that imbalance or else put on gram after gram of unused energy... that's tough.
On the other hand, the solutions to this - active lifestyles (not just an hour of gym time you tack on the end of your day) and healthy food - are beautiful. Is this not what we want anyway and were somehow cheated out of? Put it that way and cutting down population level obesity sounds like a really nice vacation not a strenuous and miserable slog on the treadmill.
Another fine quote:
To tackle population level obesity, whilst taking into account health inequalities and promotion of communties, the first urban agenda is to build activity back into every day lifestyles and movement patterns. The promotion of gyms and organized sports may be effective for some individuals, in some socioeconomic groups, for a limited period of time, but as a response to population level obesity, is not an adequate or effective strategy. The second urban agenda must be to ensure access to good quality fresh food including food growing opportunities at the local level (Barton et al, 2003).
When I read this, I think of my mom. She's an athletic lady who grew up working on the farm and playing sports. Even today, she walks my dog when he starts pawing at her face at 6 am and bikes to work despite the environment I depicted above. My mom does not want to buy a gym membership or run like a maniac five times a week and she shouldn't have to, especially as she is aging gracefully into a beautiful grandma (newly minted, not my doing). She's a naturally active person so it just makes way more sense to build activity in the fabric of life. That said, where would you rather walk and get healthy food?
For most people I speak to this is a very easy question. The tricky part is getting from Exhibit A to Exhibit B (which by the way has better, cheaper local produce than chain grocers - I used to live and shop there). Fortunately, I wrote a little book all about it!
More on this discussion later, especially the bit about Boomers like my mom.
Until then, thanks for reading!
- - -
*There are dozens of published studies on this topic, but Frank (2004) does a great job summarizing the findings and points to many other references. Still, remember that transportation is not the only potential source of physical activity. Recreational exercise can obviously offset an imbalance in energy intake vs. expenditure. In fact, Rodriguez et al. (2006) studied the differential physical activity levels in a conventional car-dependent suburb with a neighbourhood designed to increase walkability. They found that while the walkable neighbourhood walloped the conventional suburb in terms of walking and cycling trips per week within the neighbourhood, these were almost exclusively in utilitarian travel. Recreational activity remained much the same and so physical activity between the two settings was not statistically significantly different. Just one study in a sea of many offering varying accounts...
Frank, L.D. (2004) Economic determinants of urban form: Resulting trade-offs between active and sedentary forms of travel. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3),146–153.
Rodríguez, D.A., Khattak, A.J., & Evenson, K.R. (2006). Can New Urbanism encourage physical activity? Journal or the American Planning Association, 73(1), 43-54.
Barton, H., Grant, M. and Guise, R. (2003) Shaping Neighbourhoods: A Guide for Health, Sustainability and Vitality, Spon Press: London, p.18.
Frank, L.D., Andresen, M., Schmid, T. (2004). Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 27(2), 87–96.
Creative Commons Image by flickr user mkrigsman.
I just walked my bike back from town. It didn’t occur to me that this was odd until I ran into a buddy en route who instantly started laughing. “What’s the use of the bike if you’re just going to walk it,” he asked. I pointed at the cargo in my basket and said, “To carry my helmet.”
I’ve come to realize that a long walk alone with some music or falling snow is essential to my happiness. I make an effort to place myself at least 20 minutes away from home daily because the walk back invariably ends up being total zen, quite often constituting the best moments of my day.
If you feel the need to slow the world down walking is just the ticket. When walking, the only thing you can do is enjoy the journey. For me, this means the minute I set out any deadlines or pressures are momentarily lifted. The world stops moving and nothing else matters except one foot in front of the other. There is no point fussing and fretting about how much work you need to do when you reach your destination or feeling guilty about wasting time. Walking is progress. It’s a satisfying accomplishment: point A to point B. It's an opportunity for my mind to release and flit around to all the thoughts that I’ve been trying to block out while staring at a screen or page of writing. Walking fills me with gratitude: for my warm jacket and the cool air; for the people and moments that have conspired to put me here; for the chance to spend my days slowly chipping away at big problems. Walking forces me to appreciate what’s up with the trees today and how the air feels on my cheeks. I become very aware that I’m human and every day is just a day. Walking makes me want to drop off my bag and keep walking forever.
As a planning student and urbanist, I’m a huge proponent of walkability. Generally, it is accepted that people are willing to walk to places within a quarter-mile radius (half-mile radius if centred on a transit hub) which is perceived as a five-minute-walk.* This metric is sometimes disputed on the basis that good urban design and interesting streetscapes can generate a greater willingness to walk.** Also, I believe university towns can get away with more dispersion because young people are willing to walk further.*** When it comes to groceries and a corner store, I totally support the quarter-mile walkability goal. Carrying heavy bags of yogurt and canned chickpeas for miles is the pits. To be honest though, I’d prefer my classes or library to be a good 40 minute walk away (if it’s a pleasant, quiet walk). I think it makes me a better person and provides a reason to reflect and explore the area.
Obviously this is easy for me to say as a young, healthy, mobile person. I don’t propose making commuting distances longer than they should be, but I would like to put the question out there: how do you feel about walking? How does it affect your relationship with your immediate built and natural environment? Are you a happier, calmer person because of your commute, or does the trip from home to work/school stress you out (and do you travel by foot, bike, car, bus, streetcar, etc.)?
* This is pretty widely acknowledged, but I came across it in the Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva.
** There are a number of studies that have explored this. Steve Mouzon does a great job explaining.
*** I recall hearing or reading this from Andres Duany but I can't find the link, so don't hold me or him accountable to that until I identify the source.
My lucky summer job has afforded me the opportunity to craft a sustainability program for a sizable number of people. We've developed some fun ways to build momentum before the launch, and this is one of our priming tools. By all means, roll your eyes at this 'personality quiz' - it's not meant to be taken too seriously. However, know that this preteen slumber party favourite has a purpose! My goal is to use the mysterious attraction of a personality quiz to affirm and encourage the good, sustainable behaviours that we already practice. I'm looking for feedback from people outside my work department. Please look out for any typos, step into my office and tell me... "How does this test make you feel?"
Retrospect is a beautiful thing. Do you ever find yourself gazing back into the foggy mist of the last 450 or so days of your life? It's comforting to me that each of those days seems to start the same way - with a cup of coffee - and then whips itself into a small piece of an ongoing journey. Whether acing an exam, reading a life-changing email, or discovering you wore your shirt inside-out all day and then committing to be more prudent, everything plays out one day at a time.
Let's just air my laundry now: I'm an overthinker. That fact makes retrospectating (sounds like a potential verb and makes the activity seem more sportive, so we'll take it!) all the more fun because I can take all of my seemingly divergent experiences and fit them into a pretty straightforward process like ducks in a row, waddling adorably to an end goal.
In elementary school, it was the only world I knew, where walking to the library required a snack break and chaperone. In high school, it was referred to as the "Masonville Bubble," our studentshed, the territory you needed a car to escape from. When I took a more dedicated interest in urban geography, I identified it as just the right size.
Last weekend, determined to show up a bunch of little kids who clearly have not mastered scissors and glue like this girl, I decided to overhaul the Masonville region of London, Ontario. No clue where that is? No problem. Just bring to mind in your head any suburban region of any mid-sized Ontario city. Stick a big mall in the middle that has valiantly tried for years to be a mini Eaton Centre; it's nice, but the UWO students from Toronto are still unimpressed. Throw in a bunch of gas stations (front and centre), grocery stores, strip malls, a Chapters, a handful of aging public schools, a handful of brand new Catholic schools in the new subdivisions, and a bombshelter of a high school (with a damn good soccer team, mind you). Picture a pretty crappy restaurant on a stripmall corner called Richie's that people go to simply because it's locally owned and has a weird sense of historical permanence. Oh, and that building sitting uncertainly in the parking lot used to be a Blockbuster.
The sidewalks are mostly empty because the mainstreet is a lazy highway, six lanes at junctures. BUT there's a cozy library by the mall and a pop-up farmers' market that occasionally graces the gigantic parking ocean on sunny afternoons. A YMCA with a living roof was unhelpfully built out of reasonable walking distance, however it does in fact exist. There's a big park north of the community and great farmland surrounding. Much of the city's water is stored just north of Masonville and the community is divided by a beautiful ravine system and the Thames River, although you'd never know it unless you've got a lucky backyard.
With a blank slate in front of me, I pictured Masonville and said, ARGH! I AM A WRECKING BALL.
Partly kidding - I just had fun with possibility.
Here's a reminder of how it works - you have to use all of the post-its provided:
I turned Masonville Mall into a town centre with shops facing the streets, apartment units on top, a seniors' section, and inward facing housing as well. In the middle of all that, sits a big park, pavillion, and garden (every park has a garden). The Bay and Sears stayed put in the adjacent block, but I built things that are actually pretty around them, like mews housing and row housing.
As for 'industrial,' calm down, it's not what you think. Lots of industry in Canada these days would make a fine neighbour. I've got an engineering firm, logistics centre, furniture maker, food outpost, food processor (baking delicious bread, providing local meat, etc.), toolshare workshop (since fewer people will have huge garages and since very few people need to own their own personal table saw but it's handy to use one), a workshop and training centre by the highschool, an auto shop, a co-working hub, and a shared design shop. What this amounts to is that people can actually work in Masonville (beyond poorly paid service jobs)! I reserved space for offices too.
I kept some neighbourhoods quiet and away from the action, but even they get a local park and corner store/café/pub.
I also took the liberty of drawing in permaculture and urban agriculture wherever there was extra space because I had a marker and it should be there.
So that's my Masonville Recreated... Affordable housing, permanent farmers' market, bike lanes inherent, streetcar to downtown, live-work-play all together within walking distance, etc. I picked up the mall retrofits from Duany and the 'keep it small' attitude from Gehl, both of whom were featured in the previous post.
The kids at the Science Rendezvous had a lot of fun with this too. I was pretty impressed that they knew what they wanted enough to imagine cities that simply don't exist in their reality. It resulted in a lot of cookie factories, playgrounds, and water parks.
In preparation for Science Rendezvous and Doors Open Toronto with the MPI, I've been doing some arts and crafts at work. If you're a planning nerd like me, let me know how I did. There are the same number of Post-Its used in each. You can come build your own city, and learn about famous city builders if you visit the MPI on May 12 (Science Rendezvous, Bahen Centre, University of Toronto) or May 26-27 (Doors Open Toronto, the office is at MaRS).
Red/Pink = commercial
Purple = municipal
Green/Yellow = park
Blue = industrial
Light Yellow = residential
New Urbanism – modelling new development after traditional small towns. Like Jane Jacobs, this embraces mixed use and mixed income. More recently, Duany has been applying New Urbanism in the form of Sprawl Repair, retrofitting suburban neighbourhoods to provide functional mainstreets, town squares, and higher density housing (including affordable units).
Some specific recommendations:
Jan Gehl is famous for his focus on “People Scale,” and is largely responsibly for the vanguard urban design of global livability hotspot, Copenhagen, Denmark. In order to determine the best urban formula for vibrant street life and economic activity, Gehl uses a quantitative data-driven analysis to see how people interact with particular features of the built environment. Number crunching on pedestrian traffic allows for rebuilding on a human scale, which he calls Reconquest – the reclamation of urban spaces from the dominion of the automobile. Copenhagenization happens incrementally, with improvements driven by data on how people like to use space. The process focuses on expanding pedestrian and cyclist options for transportation and providing abundant outdoor seating and public spaces. Vehicle traffic is moved to the periphery and the square becomes a vital space for cultural and political activities, the meeting place, marketplace, and connection space. A secondary network of ‘pedestrian-priority’ streets is available where cars are allowed but they have to drive slow and yield to people on foot and bicycle
Sources: Chris Turner's, The Leap & This Video
While Vancouverism cannot be applied and simulated everywhere, it demonstrates the values that Larry Beasley seeks in an urban setting. Beasley considers density, diversity, and citizen engagement essential to planning, but only the first step. His success is largely attributed to seeing the inhabitants of a city as consumers of the city, not just stakeholders. This led him to the practice of "experiential planning: fostering dialogue between citizens and planners in order to understand the desired living conditions of a city." Experiential planning means that streets, buildings, public spaces, and neighbourhoods are designed with an intense focus on how they would feel to the average citizen experiencing them block by block. Acknowledging the culturally specific needs of cities around the world, the outcomes will no doubt vary from Vancouverism, but Beasley’s claim to fame was the transformation of downtown Vancouver into a mecca of condos and density.
Here are some of the features exhibited in Vancouver: