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.
My mom used to organize the annual 'Street Party' on our cul-de-sac.
Culs-de-sac have made an appearance in my brain a few times this week as I gorge on Christmas readings. This commonplace design feature is hotly contested around the world. Jonathan Barnett (City Design, 2011) documents that an act of parliament was required to legalize the use of culs-de-sac in the garden suburb of Hampstead, UK. Fancy that! That particular controversy stemmed from different circumstances, but even today there are lovers and haters. On the one hand, the safety and privacy of the 'court' generates increased housing values which developers and owners appreciate. On the other, the lack of thoroughfare is disruptive to walkability, connectivity, and flow.
Personally, I side with walkability. But while the function of the cul-de-sac can be fulfilled with more people-friendly alternatives, I still relish childhood days running around 'the circle,' fond memories of which are divulged in my interview with The Inside Agenda Blog.
Today in particular, I've been reading all about public space. Don't you find it emotionally delicious when research quantifies, validates, and shines a light on all those things you intuitively know or do but could never put your finger on? GO [social] SCIENCE!
Here's one on kids in the neighbourhood:
The major pattern of activity clusters occurred in the five cul-de-sacs. [...] The high observed densities in the cul-de-sacs occurred primarily because they were relatively free from vehicular traffic that would interrupt the predominant street activities of ball playing. The cul-de-sacs were so distributed throughout the site that they served as meeting places since they were easily identified and described by children.
- - Sanoff and Dickerson's "Mapping Children's Behaviour in a Residential Setting," quoted in Randolph Hester's "Neighbourhood Space," featured in Larice & Macdonald's "The Urban Design Reader." Aaannd I need a nap after that citation.
See, I love this:
1) I can still hear my childhood friend from down the street, "Wanna meet in the cul-de-sac after dinner?" Obv.
2) Snow piles. Can you imagine if snow piles were included in this study? Ball playing doesn't hold a candle...
3) A child could have told you exactly what this study discovered in a simple: "Yeah, there are no cars and everyone knows where it is." In fact, children probably reported as much when asked. I have a hypothesis that children are great detectors of place. The truffle pigs of place! One day, I will test this.
4) Culs-de-sac are massive slabs of radiating asphalt, yet kids always make the best of them.
Chances are, a third of you grew up near a cul-de-sac too. What I've gathered from my readings today is that people demonstrate remarkably similar patterns of behaviour in public space. Let's hear it from you though, for curiosity's sake, because it's fun to reminisce, and because as an aspiring placemaker I want to know what kids love.
How did you make use of your cul-de-sac as kids and a community? Comment here or catch me on facebook/twitter :) Thanks!
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.
New to my list of things that I never thought would actually happen but I'm really glad happened...
Walking home at night (so we know I'm loving life already at this point) and there's a piano. It's just me, a streetlight, a footpath, and a painted piano. I know just the song.
This is all an initiative of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas and I suppose it falls under the domain of public art in which I have absolutely no expertise. I'll be self-indulgent anyway. What I find most striking about the pianos is the blend of premeditation and spontaneity. Often when I think of public art, I imagine city commissioned sculptures or Banksy-esque street creations. These pianos feel like a marriage of the two - sanctioned and supported by the city but brought to life by an unregulated interaction with people. I don't really have any more to say about it other than I'm sure offering these rescued pianos to the public has resulted in a lot of people feeling like I do: grateful, happy, and attached to this place. Sometime (hopefully after I've got a planning degree) I'll feel qualified to talk about the value of place - executive summary: place is a big deal - but the night wears on and rowers retire early.
Unrelated, but I thought I'd update you all on the tree situation. In my first England post I wrote about the noticeable lack of forest here. One of my profs illuminated this, although I haven't been able to find the research he referenced. Assuming I understood correctly and can take his word, England went from something like 80% forested to 20% forested in the 11th-12th century. Culprits included cathedral building, the growing demand for silverware (heat-intensive industry), and a climate-related reduction in agricultural yields which encouraged further consumption of arable land. <<-- Stories Canada can learn from, except silver is oil.
I took late nights at Starbucks for granted in Canada. Cambridge closes shop early every day. Like, 6pm early. Good luck finding easy food, coffee, or a place to work past 7pm. For someone who is accustomed to midnights at the library and evening cafe trips to refuel or hang out with friends, having this otherwise perfect little town shut down at 6pm is a tough adjustment for my student lifestyle.
I haven't quite figured out where everyone goes. Do they sit in their homes from 6pm-7am? That seems impossible to me, but at the same time I haven't discovered anywhere comfortable outside of my home to just go hang out and work, particularly in the evening. It's a bit of a conflict, actually. For example, when you go to a food joint there are usually two prices listed: takeaway, or eat in. To my surprise (as in Canada any price differential is usually an incentive to avoid wasteful takeaway containers), the eat in option is more expensive by a considerable margin. However, if you choose takeaway, there is nowhere to go eat. This leaves me thinking that I'm paying (quite willingly) for space, for the ability to sit somewhere warm and dry that doesn't demand silence or hassle you out the door... Until it's 5:50pm and you're finally getting into your reading. Sigh.
Maybe that's wrong though. I have two non-mutually-exclusive hypotheses that I'd love some insight on. Are you English? Do you understand these things?
H1: Eat in is more expensive because cleaning the dishes is a nuisance and labour/utility cost.
H2: Eat in is more expensive to encourage turnover in the store. If fewer people are taking up space at tables, more people can pass through. If you get a takeaway container you can pick up and leave at any time, but if you eat in you have to stick around for the duration of your coffee.
**This just in: I've been informed that the difference in price is due to the Value Added Tax being applied to eat in, but not takeaway food. Thank you, Kyle! Reviewing the list of taxed and exempt items is interesting in itself. This discovery negates the suggestion that I'm paying for space, but the discussion is still worth having.**
Public space can be a tricky urban feature to get right. There's no knowing how people will use or maintain the space and how that will change over time. Often, public space becomes disproportionately filled with people who have no private space to speak of, which carries its own set of problems and in my experience dissuades a variety of people from wanting to spend time there.
Trinity Bellwoods. Creative Commons image by flickr user saltyseadog.
The best example of public space that I've experienced is Trinity Bellwoods park in Toronto - a place so loved and dynamic that you can barely find a place to put down a picnic blanket on a Saturday without dodging a high velocity frisbee. The park is highly valued by the community, resulting in a careful respect and maintenance from locals and visitors alike. I refused to put up posters in Trinity Bellwoods last summer for no other reason than it felt like sacred territory. However, public space can come in much smaller packages and aesthetics. What matters is that it's welcoming. You shouldn't feel guilty being there or feel like you're getting in the way (think of the difference between: a) sitting on a bench in public courtyard to eat your lunch; and b) sitting on a sidewalk bench to eat your lunch). In my mind, public spaces are like bees. If you love them and nurture them they'll love you back and... you know, honey and stuff. If you treat them as a threat to public safety and a liability, as is the case in the suburb where I grew up, then they might just sting your silly face. Healthy public spaces, like bees, happily buzz in the background to power some of the best, most important bits of civilization. They are where the magic cross-pollination happens and we'd be in pretty rough shape without them.
I'm still searching for my special spaces in Cambridge. Mostly, I just want somewhere dry to sit down and read or eat a packed lunch close to my classes. You can't walk on certain grass here, so university greenspace is a no-go (don't get me started). At times I wish I could just take to the river and float the hours away at peace. If you've got any tips or insights on where people go to work, please let me know. Not only do I want to study there, but it will help me conceptualize the different needs of English vs. North American cities.
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.
I moved to Cambridge, UK for grad school. Since it's a fairy tale village, there are a lot of cool urban/system design and lifestyle features to make note of. Here's Part I of my observations, starting from flying into Heathrow:
That's it for now!