Monday, February 17, 2014

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mutual Adoration Between Community & Citizens

Buying Local is hip. It's starting to be a "thing" people do. It's out there on bumper stickers, t-shirts, reusable grocery bags, and kitchen magnets. Like catch phrases before it, Buy Local is relishing in new-found glory and fame. And I couldn't be happier. Nothing starts my eco-heart a flutter then hearing people talk about shopping at locally owned stores, buying local foods direct from the farmer, and exhibiting a bit of care and concern for their community and its members. Truly makes this hippie girl go all mushy inside.

BUT....ever the one to question a good thing, I've been wondering lately what keeps people moving on that train? How does it keep gaining momentum and not lose the newness value? If we are selling the idea of supporting your local community, shouldn't we be making sure the community showing its appreciation for all the love and affection by giving back to the people? How, you may ask, could something as inanimate as a community do such an amorous act? Sustainable Urban Design and Planning. It's the logical choice, really. If you want community members to go downtown and shop, get their daily needs met, and show their appreciation for the shop-owners, then the appreciation has to be reciprocal for it to work. The design of our communities needs to be focused on clean air, green spaces, and proper management of roads and traffic flow. It has to be welcoming in order for people to keep coming back. Who wants to spend their money in a place that is directly opposing the values of the community members choices? They are shopping downtown, and keeping their money local, to say that they appreciate their community - let's make our communities worthy of this appreciation!

A design weblog,, takes a look at what we can do to create sustainable, inviting and people friendly urban communities by incorporating 8 different techniques.

1. SUSTAINABLE LAND USE PLANNING - This will eliminate urban sprawl, keeping cities compact, with a definite distinction between urban and rural. With this step, it's important to make the city walkable, provide excellent public transit, and provide clear bike lanes. The key is to not rely so heavily on our automobiles by making "alternative" transportation choices comfortable and effective. Take a look at this picture of NYC - love the walking lanes AND bicycle lanes!

Read "Walkable City" author Jeff Beck's letter to Waterloo Illinois about how to design for foot, bike, and contained automobile traffic.

Find out how your city ranks in walkability.

2. INNOVATIVE HOUSING DESIGNS - Mixed use buildings is the key here. In urban centers, incorporating a variety of housing options to handle the population is important - do not get stuck on high rises. Place apartments and condos over shops and build co-housing residential areas. Basically, you want to make sure that people of all income levels and lifestyles can live within urban limits, thus preventing urban sprawl. Take a gander at One Louden Place in D.C.

3. SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORTATION & MOBILITY - If we are going to be planning cities less around the automobile, then I suppose we could incorporate better public transit. Driving your own car around town is not sustainable, but you can trust it to be reliable. That's why when designing urban centers, a solidly reliable public transport system is ideal - tram, rail, bus, metro - that runs on a sustainable energy source. Perhaps we could combine them all with this human powered cycling transport system.

4. GREENING THE URBAN ENVIRONMENT - Cities have eco-systems, they are not devoid of life, therefore we need to protect and encourage these healthy systems to thrive, even in urban settings. Sustainable planning would include strategies that nourish these systems by incorporating urban gardens, green rooftops, fruit trees, and more green spaces. A healthy community is a happy community. Lush greenery on roofs will help trap water and help with gray-water runoff.

5. RECYCLE & UPCYCLE - We have too much stuff, and it just keeps growing. We are becoming a world of single-use products....but where does all that junk go? sit....and rot.....and let off disgusting gases that are making us ill and infiltrating our water and soil. Recycle when you can, and upcycle if you're crafty. Check out Freecycle to unload items you no longer want - one humans junk is another's art. Also, do yourself a favor and watch this 20 minute film - you won't regret it.

6. ENERGY CONSERVATION & RENEWABLE ENERGY - We need to get up to speed on this. Using coal and petroleum as an energy source is silly! Not only are these fossil fuels a finite resource, but they are also the leading cause of pollution. Sustainable communities should include energy systems that are both efficient and affordable. Whether it's solar, wind, or water (or something else), writing these into city planning and retrofitting older buildings, will save the urban community in the long run. Also important to remember: the city government should lead the way in this charge, setting the example for the rest of the community. These wind turbines are called power flowers.

7. SUSTAINABLE BUILDING PRACTICES - Yes, yes, and yes. If you build it they will come. Urban centers that utilize LEED certified building practices, build with recycled materials, and use design that encourages less heating/cooling costs, will be inviting to residents and shoppers. Get hip to new design techniques by visiting the Green Building website. Check out this design guide from the Eco-Friendly House.

8. GREEN GOVERNANCE & ECONOMY - When the city government is "green," it paves the way for the rest of the community. To achieve this, the government has to evaluate how it delivers it's services and how it invests its money. A few examples: have all city buses run on biodiesel; switch out all city lights to solar-powered LED lights; turn off lights when the sun is out; reduce water usage; encourage employees to walk/bike or use alternative transportation. 

We are all part of the solution, as much as we are all part of the problem. These steps are just a few ideas on how we can create, design, and redesign communities to fit our changing lifestyles and planet. What are your favorite ideas to make your community give back to you?

Friday, August 2, 2013

What the Downtowns aren't getting right.

On my way to work today I was thinking about how the local consumerism movement is failing. Not like a fall on your face failing, but like a head in the ground feeling of everything is fine if I don't see how it isn't. Downtowns all over the country are trying to recapture their essence by forming business alliances that encourage shopping locally versus shopping at the mall or your local box store. And for the most part, these downtowns are seeing a resurgence, but at what cost? Are they marketing their downtown businesses to meet the needs of the residents, or are they trying to grab visitors and passerby's, to offer gift items not everyday items? The reality seems to be that these downtown revitalization programs are focusing on getting those with expendable income to buy up goods and services, ignoring the vast majority of Americans who are then forced to shop at Walmart and Target because the stores in their downtown are selling children's clothes for $50 a piece. If the downtowns are trying to revitalize themselves, why are they not selling goods and services that are needed daily by the majority of people?

I feel like the point of rebuilding a downtown is to get the people who reside in your area to think of downtown as their one-stop shopping location, much like many of us see a Mall. The idea is to make a mall like feeling, where you can buy clothes, groceries, cell phones, pay your utilities, learn exciting new crafts, and go to the library, all within the downtown, all locally owned. Don't give people the reason or need to go elsewhere to live their daily lives.

Unfortunately, the marketing that is happening at organizations like Main Street is for the upper-crest of residents - the ones that will go and buy an expensive dress for their grandchild, or a new painting to hang in their dining room. But are these people still doing their daily shopping downtown, or are they reserving those purchases for gift items, making their daily purchases at the box stores that local businesses are fighting against? This is my theory: the residents that support a downtown that offers high-priced goods are not spending all their money there. They couldn't. If you have a small child, you are not going to buy clothes that cost $50 a piece for every single item. No, you're going to buy a nice Easter dress there, then head over to Target to buy up some more reasonably priced clothes they can play in and get dirty.

So the question is this then, who are these downtown business alliance programs actually marketing to? The visitor, the tourist, the passerby? The money that comes in on its way through town, that's seasonal, and that doesn't stay around to maintain support. With the economy consistently struggling, and knowing that chain retailers are not going to benefit our local economy, the business model that is encouraged through downtown business alliances needs to change. Start offering stores that sell goods and services that everyone needs to live locally. Try to serve the many instead of the few.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Lesson of Easter Island

The desire to survive and make changes that will benefit the human species and the Earth is a key element to life. The only limitation is our lack of knowledge. Life is a constant and changing circle of repetition and surprise, and the tools that have long been lost due to modernization are the ability to sense the path of this circle and eke out a successful existence within it. The first step to doing so is looking around you and grounding yourself in your location. Knowing where we live and who we live with can help build a stronger community because we learn to care about those we know and the place we call home. This will then transpire into a global community as we learn to understand the importance of not only where we live, but the importance of the places others live.

The world is an intricate system that is full of moving parts, with each dependent on the other. If one part goes off course, the rest of the system must either learn to adjust or will begin falling apart in a succession of breaking pieces. Think of the inside of a clock - each individual piece moving on its own path yet working in union with the other pieces to run a bigger system. Our existence is similar to this. There are seemingly millions of individual pieces of the earth - plants, soil, water, animals, mammals, insects, minerals - and connecting them at times can be difficult, but each piece requires the other in order to keep the earth moving and improving, and the destruction of one could mean the collapse of an entire system.

The Easter Island Effect
Easter Island is about 2,000 miles to its closes neighbors, the Pitcairn Islands to the west, and South America to the east. In A.D. 400 some seafaring Polynesian families came to easter Island and found 64 square miles of forest lands with a thick mix of trees, woody bushes, shrubs, herbs, ferns, hauhau trees (rope-yielding), toromiro trees (used for mesquite-style firewood) and palms. These palm trees were straight and tall, similar to the existing Chilean Wine Palms, which grow taller than over 80 feet, and they covered the island. They would have also been a valuable source of food, producing edible nuts and a sap that would have been used for syrup, sugar, honey and wine. The Polynesians quickly planted gardens, built homes, settled down on this subtropical island and flourished into a population of 10,000. In 1972, when Dutch Admiral Roggeveen landed on the island, he found a wasteland. The few people, who lived in huts, were at constant battle with each other. They lived in the shadows of enormous stone statues (Moai) that had been erected all over the island. Some of the Moai are as tall as 33 feet, with up to 82 tons and are placed on stone platforms that are more than 500 feet long and nearly 10 feet hight. Roggeveen was baffled at how a "savage" group of islanders had erected these nearly 200 statues without any trees to make machines and strong rope, or any draft animals or source of power besides their own muscles.

What happened in those 1300 years between the Polynesians' landing on the island until the rediscovery by the Dutch? The original Polynesian group grew and prospered, splitting off into tribes. They survived by eating local fish, porpoises, seabirds and land birds. The islanders grew and prospered on this land and before long started erecting the statues, replicas of smaller ones their Polynesian forbearers would have carved. Lugging these statues from the quarries to their final resting place on a hillside overlooking the water would have meant cutting down the palm trees to act as rollers and the hauhau tree for ropes. The statues got bigger and bigger as each tribe tried to rival the others, and more and more natural resources were cut down. They were also burning up the wood as fuel, shelter, equipment, canoes and clear-cutting for gardens. Once the forest was gone, the underbrush that was protected by the canopy of trees now became exposed to the warm southern sun. The plentiful land and sea birds that used the trees for nesting started to die off or go elsewhere and the soil began to erode as a result of it being exposed to the climate. Along with the desolation of the island's natural resources, the population began to exceed the island's capacity. The island could no longer sustain its inhabitants.

What happened on Easter Island is not an isolated case, but it is one that is being re-lived worldwide over the course of history. What's to say that we will not suffered the same consequences as the residents of Easter Island as we chop down our trees faster than they can be replenished to build suburban neighborhoods with bigger houses that burn vas amounts of fuel? It doesn't stop here, though. We blow off the top off mountains to extract coal for our ever-increasing energy use. We drill deep into the earth's core in a rabid quest for oil. Our factories dump extraneous amounts of chemicals into our waterways while pumping toxins into the air. What is the effect of all this on the planet's ecological system? Easter Island should be a warning to all other developing nations, to show us to not make the same mistakes, where ego and social stature become more important than caring for the land that is providing us with food and shelter.

(Excerpt from the introduction of The Maine Conscious Consumer, pp. ix-xi)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Re-defining The Main Street Organizations

The Main Street Organization was started by the National Historic Preservation Society as a program to reinvigorate the fledgling downtown districts. They take a Four Point Approach to revitalizing downtown business districts to create more sustainable and vibrant communities - Promotion, Organization, Design, and Economic Restructuring. Each of these principles are intended to create vitality within the community through programs events, and activities. What seems to be happening with the 10 official Main Street communities in Maine is that they at replicating the same programs instead of building individual events that cater to the characteristics and strengths of each town. Also, the different programs focus more on the tourism based events and marketing, rather than focusing on getting the local residents into downtown businesses rather than box stores and malls.

This latter issue should be reevaluated first. Who does the Main Street Organizations serve? Is it tourists? Business owners? Local residents? The ideas behind reviving the downtown districts are to create a community that can sustain itself economically whilst preserving the historic aestheticism. If the Maine Street organizations are more focused on shoppers and visitors from away, then they are not only missing out on fulfilling the mission of Main Street, but also on an economic opportunity. In a town like Bath there are 9,000 people - that's a lot of consumers. However, if the downtown revitalization organization is ignoring them, that's 9,000 consumers that are going to turn to Walmart, Target and other box stores. And once box stores start taking the money from the downtown, that's when the downtown's end up add ghost towns.

Even if the Main Street organizations did focus their marketing on local residents instead of visitors, there is still the problem with the Main Street events ignoring the individual social identities of the community they represent. When there are 10 Main Street organizations in Maine, one would expect to see 10 unique set of events and programs. A community like Skowhegan, which has a history steeped in mills and wood products, should have events that represent that history in order to speak to the residents. just like a community like Bath, which has a rich and long history in shipbuilding, should focus on that in their programs and events. When these communities start replicating programs, they start losing that piece of the mission - the piece that speaks to the local residents.

These two problems combined, along with a sense of elitism that can emerge between business owners and the organization, has distanced the Main Street program from its original mission. Revitalizing the downtown districts is supposed to make them a more economic viability for the community, an answer to the revenue drain off box stores. The program is also supposed to promote what makes the community unique, so as to create a sense of pride among its residents. When people feel pride for the places they live, and a responsibility to its success, they will do more for the community, get more involved and help to create a stable economy.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Step 12 - Share!!

We have done it. We have reached the twelfth and final step of the "How & Why to Buy Local" 12 step program. The entire year of 2012 has been dedicated to breaking down the process into 12 relatively simple steps that can put you on the path to being a more conscious and aware consumer. We have discussed Increasing our Knowledge, Understanding Necessity, Defining Your Region, Familiarizing Yourself with Local Businesses, Boycotting Box Stores, Chain Retailers & Restaurants, Buying Less Stuff, Finding a Local Farmers' Market, Re-purposing, Reusing & Recycling, Getting Out in Your Community, Getting Involved, and Voting with Your Dollar. All of these have brought us to this final step, the journey comes full circle right now. We have to share our knowledge, and all that we have learned this past year, with others so that they may begin their journey.

Share your journey with your friends, family and coworkers. If you score a great find on freecycle, tell people about it, and encourage them to sign up as well. If you have switched your shopping habits to local businesses, share  your experience with family and friends. When asked where to get a certain product, suggest local businesses that you know of first. Invite a friend to the farmers' market with you, encourage them to buy a veggie they have never tried, introduce them to any of the farmers you know.

Creating a dialogue and opening the lines of communication are instrumental in sharing this knowledge with others. Explain the concept of voting with your dollar. The most important tool we can give others is to educate them - they will take the lesson and apply it in their life as they see fit.

With the holiday season upon us, I charge you all with the task of sharing this knowledge, the 12 Steps to Buying Local, with everyone and anyone that will listen to you. We are consumers, just like every other species on the planet, but unlike them, we produce massive amounts of waste. Each American leaves 1600 pounds of waste in their wake every year. That waste sits and lingers, poisons are soil and water, leaches toxins into the air, and clutters about our natural environment. A lot of that waste is in packaging. Think on this this holiday season, share that number with your friends, family, and coworkers and encourage them to modify their shopping habits.

Every person counts, every act matters, no matter how big or small.

You can buy The Maine Conscious Consumer at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I recognize the irony of selling my book at those large retailers, but  until people read it and bring it to the attention of local book stores and library's, this is a necessary evil. I also have copies on hand, for anyone looking to get one signed. Message me at for details.