All posts by Patrick E. Lydon

Shanghai’s Silent Motorcycles: What do they say About Global Pollution?

Scooters in the suburbs of Shanghai, China (photo: P.M. Lydon | CC BY-SA)

Scooters in the suburbs of Shanghai, China (photo: P.M. Lydon | CC BY-SA)

A lot of talk about China in the West is about the polution it spews, about the dirty cities, the un-breathable air.

On a recent visit to Shanghai, however, something astounding stuck out.

The motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters — all of which I imagined would be buzzing about, spouting fumes — were not spouting fumes. Nearly all of the scooters were electric, and silent. They rolled about the streets carrying old women and men, couples, families of three or more, and all with merely a whisper of sound to them.

So much for the massive noise and sound pollution I was expecting. It was eerie.

Certainly, there is something happening here in terms of consciousness of ecological impact, and certainly some government entities in China have been doing work to minimize local pollution and to make the air in cities more healthy.

From the perspective of a small street in suburban Shanghai, the Chinese … certainly seem more ecologically friendly than most Americans.

Of course, electric scooters can only do so much. There is still massive pollution on the whole here. Mostly, we hear, from factories upon factories churning out product after product. Pollution in such huge amounts that dark clouds routinely float over neighboring Korea and Japan, places where the people complain daily about the ‘yellow dust’ coming from China.

Dwell on this one with me for a second.

With the electric scooters and the factories both in mind, one has to ask, where does this pollution really come from?

It’s not the source of pollution generation which is so much debatable, but a place beyond where the physical smoke comes from. That is to say, we have to ask ourselves: where does the demand for cheap products come from?

What crazy market is demanding cheap products which can seemingly only be produced cost-effectively by poorly regulated, ecologically destructive processes?

The Chinese people certainly aren’t (on the whole) buying what they build.

China then, is really only fulfilling demand of Western consumers such as you and me, and we individual consumers are the ultimate causes of pollution, whether it comes from our driving around in big rigs to pick up kids from soccer, or buying loads of cheap electronics, new must-have fads, or other products which we’ll toss out in a few years or less for something newer.

From the perspective of a small street in suburban Shanghai, the Chinese — ranking pretty low on the consumer scale and running their families around on electric scooters — certainly seem more ecologically friendly than most Americans.

It’s difficult — even from the window of a Prius — to shake a fist at the Chinese for their pollution, and not at least give a nod to American consumerism as one of the root causes.

Local Food: Can we Ditch the Supermarket and Spend Less?

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This article is the first in a Sociecity exclusive series on Local Food, where consider some viable alternatives to standard supermarket food shopping, taking an in-depth look at what it really means to be a ‘locavore.'[/box]

Vegetables at a Farmer's Market in Scotland, UK (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Vegetables at a Farmer’s Market in Scotland, UK (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Local. Organic. In season. There exists a general growing curiosity about incorporating these concepts into our diets. We have heard these things are good for us, good for the local economy, good for the environment, but there are also many misconceptions and stopping blocks along the way. This week, we’re going to take a look at one of the biggest concerns, the money aspect.

The rhetoric often emanating from the mainstream media is that it is too expensive, or that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are just aliases for ‘elitist’ and ‘upper-crust’. Let’s get something out of the way first of all, this rhetoric usually originates, funny enough, from wealthy folks with a financial interest in keeping any kind of local movement at bay. The wealthiest of corporations are built around the concept of cheap, industrially-produced goods; with few exceptions any effort to build local economies poses a threat to them. That includes farmer’s markets. In a big way. The idea of a direct-to-consumer relationship with local food producers has sent shivers down the spine of many a corporate CEO and investor because it puts people and the environment ahead of profit. It’s a deeply troubling issue in and of itself, but I’m afraid, is a story for another time.

Suffice to say, hand-grown local food tends to cost more than the supermarket industrial variety and there are many reasons for this, some real (nature driven) and some created (profit driven). Still, this is looking at cost and/or value from a purely economic standpoint when, in reality, it is likely not the most beneficial way for you and I to see value.

For us as consumers, when it comes to food, the word ‘value’ can have two meanings 1) It is synonymous with quality and nutritional value to our body to our local community, or 2) it is value in a purely economic way, having little or no bearing on the value of our own health, or that of local economies which feed into vibrant communities.

The average UK household throws away over $1,100 in food each year, in the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, that’s more than $2,200 per family each year.

At the supermarket, at the home goods store, the ice cream shop, or wherever else we shop, we tend to choose the second of these two definitions for value. So if we are serious about our health, about living a ‘good’ life, about being even remotely caring for our environment, why not chose a different definition of value? Why not choose the definition that values ourselves, our communities, and our environment?

The largest reason for most of us, is that the system of how we buy food makes it extremely difficult to think of value in this way. Of the advertisements that come to our door for supermarkets each week, how many talk about health or quality before value? Sales and discounts permeate these ads because it is not in the best interest of these purveyors of food to talk about quality. Quality reduces profit — unless you are Whole Foods, in which case quality gives you the excuse to push your profit margins five-times higher than other food retailers.

Regardless of the difference in price between a farmers market and supermarket, it’s probable that most of us can actually lower our food bills by eating more local foods.

Bull?

It’s been about two years since I made the mental promise to switch from being a supermarket shopper to shopping as much as possible for in-season organic foods from local farmers markets. These two years have been a process during which I’ve learned more about food, eaten better, become healthier, and spent far less money than I ever have on what I eat.

How is this possible? First, it wasn’t an immediate change, and second, it took some patience and practice. In short order: I plan and learn about what I eat, take the time to cook, and don’t buy all of the extra junk that supermarkets are really good at making me think I need.

Plan More, Buy Less

If food purchased = money spent, then throwing away food = throwing away money. This one is simple: by planning what I eat a bit more carefully, a larger percentage of the food I purchase goes into my tummy, and a smaller amount goes into the trash.  If this sounds trivial, remember that the average UK household throws away over £680 (~$1,100) in food each year. In the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, more than $2,200 per family each year [The Telegraph, NRDC].

Far from being trivial. That kind of money alone could buy a years worth of organic local vegetables a few times over!

So, there’s a conversation we can have about the high price of local organic food, and then there’s what is perhaps an even weightier conversation we could have about how much money we throw away each year on uneaten food. This is not a call to finish everything on your plate. This is a call to buy less and to buy with thought to quality and the people behind the production of the food, and in turn, to enable yourself to redefine value in a way that is good for you, your environment, and your community.

Appalling as it may sound, this excessive waste is encouraged by supermarkets. It’s rather simple and profitable math: if a market can get consumers to buy 40-50% more food than they need, profits are up and investors are happy. [ Forbes | The Globeetc… ]

It’s easy for us to see these facts and realize we need to change our habits, but it’s far more difficult for us to remember this while actually inside the supermarket.

In fact, the only way I can personally manage it is by not going to the supermarket in the first place — or by going in for a few items, no basket, and only my hands to carry things out. I use this tactic because I know that if I go in there with a huge, empty shopping cart and a list of what I need, the shopping cart will magically fill itself up with a few dozen things I don’t need. I’m really bad at keeping to my list, and Safeway/Krogers/Tesco are all oh so good at encouraging this habit.

The other option? At a farmer’s market, an individual might go for some apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, pak choi, corn, a steak, milk, cheese, and dark chocolate. They can buy these things in exactly the (small or large) amount they want. For a single person or couple, this is ideal when compared to the supermarket, where the potatoes might come in a huge plastic bag on sale, the steak pre-packaged, the cheese and milk 2-for-1, and before they know it, they’re already buying and spending more than they need.

Korean Rural Supermarket (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Korean Rural Supermarket (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Nor does it end there. Whether you are a single person, couple, or family, the supermarket does its best not to let you get away with just the essentials. It springs hundreds of things you hadn’t planned on buying at you as well: sale items, new products, limited editions, buy X get X free offers, extras of items that might possibly come in handy, and when in line, well, why not a candy bar, and then some mints to take the smell off your breath after.

The goal of the supermarket is to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it…

Every trip to the supermarket is a reminder that the goal of this place is not to give you what you need in the amount that you need it. The goal is simply to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it for the necessary reason that they are a corporation and their responsibilities are to investors before consumers.

This backward-sounding responsibility is a big part of why we end up throwing out 30-50% of the food we buy.

I thoroughly reject the idea that profit is the primary motive for a business which is meant to deliver people basic nourishment. Whenever possible — I know, it’s not always possible — I opt for something else, and that something else is most often a local farmer who I can look in the eye, have a chat with, and buy directly from.

A farmer who is able to make a living on a small plot of land because there aren’t layers upon layers of industry taking profit from them.

A farmer who doesn’t put aisles of candy, sale items, pre-packaged food from factories, and other junk in between me and the food I need.

A farmer who sells me what are some of the best tools for a healthier life.

While the supermarket may seem to offer better ‘deals’ for your wallet than a local farmer, for the majority of consumers, that trip to the supermarket could easily end up costing more both in the short term (weekly food bill) and long term (hospital bill).

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Finding Farmers Markets

United Kingdom
Local Foods UK — http://www.localfoods.org.uk/

United States
Local Harvest — http://www.localharvest.org/
USDA Directory — http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/

Australia
Australian Farmers Market Association — http://www.farmersmarkets.org.au/

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Blood, Sweat, Dirt, and the City

Children smashing lead ore (David Allan, c. 1780) Children smashing lead ore (David Allan, c. 1780)

In the romantic era of our human history (somewhere around the 1780s to the 1850s depending on who is counting) we developed a hyper-romantic vision of what nature is. It was, perhaps partially a reaction to the beginning of the industrial era, mechanization of tasks, the mass movement of people from smaller settlements into larger urban areas. It was a time where we felt forced away (and in some sense we literally were) from our pastoral homelands. It was a real, physical uprooting from one way of life, which of course also had some great psychological effect on us as individuals and as communities.

You often paint a more warm, welcoming, and beautiful picture… than what the reality was.

We produced some beautiful artwork, writing, and music during this period, much of it showing a yearning for the beautiful, simple moments in the environment, moments we were gradually moving away from being able to experience. But like any situation where you are pulled apart from something which was previously such a large part of your life, you often paint a more warm, welcoming, and beautiful picture of it than what the reality was.

Hence, we the romantic era gives us portraits of immaculately clothed men standing in the midst of raging winter storms, serene forests covered in gentle blankets of snow, and even — as above — joyful bunches of children pounding lead ore. Yikes, that’s one for the health and safety regulators to choke on.

At any rate, the point in opening with a ‘romanitc era’ history reminder is that we all have some concept of what ‘nature’ is and much of it today, has been formed by our experience in a modern, often urban, environment. The very idea of ‘nature’ today is often limited to some kind of manicured park space, or a semi-maintained national forestland.

Now, it’s not necessarily our fault that we think nature is a park, or a painting on the wall, above the couch in the living room. Or that we romanticize nature and thus, trivialize what ‘it’ really is. for To our credit, we have been trained to think the way we think and to act the way we act. In my case, it was embedded in the culture around me since I could remember, with the only escapes being courtesy of family camping trips or Boy Scout adventures, thank goodness at least for those.

Today, we live in cities where the difficult, uncomfortable bits of the natural world are no longer a part of the human experience. It’s comfortable, perhaps, yet it has quite literally taken the ‘reality’ out of our perception of life.

What supports the air conditioner, the heater, the food trucked in and flown in from miles away, the feathers in our pillows, the rubber in our boots, the plastic cases of our phones. We’re not connected to the reality of any of it.

We prefer to experience the world as a pretty picture and to believe that the importance of our hard work in the office is a proper surrogate for interacting with and understanding the world around us. Some still even believe that earning of money is far more indicative of our importance as human beings, than say, being a good person, or planting a seed in our yard and nurturing it to life.

The fact that so many exceptions to this are popping up all over the world, however, is good news for us and the world we live in, and it is something that we’re actively exploring through the Final Straw project and other works which have to do with re-connecting us to each other and to the real real world.

Becoming a common sight in the USA, Russ Cole of San Jose tends part of a vertical garden which covers most of his yard. (P.M. Lydon, FinalStraw.org, CC BY-SA) Becoming a common sight in the USA, Russ Cole of San Jose tends part of a vertical garden which covers most of his yard. (P.M. Lydon, FinalStraw.org, CC BY-SA)

Still, when trying to establish our own relevance in the world, most of us haven’t been trained to look much further than the world of commerce and economics. As a result, we are on a convenient path, yet one of ignoring the reality of earth. This mindset commonly seeks to push nature further away, something separate from ourselves, just a pretty picture, a vacation, or a reservoir of oil to exploit.

If we continue on this path, we will ultimately fail as a species, and the rest of the earth won’t be too sad to witness our departure.

Words like those threaten our very idea of what we’re doing here. But we need to read them, and we need to come to terms with it in whatever ways we can as individuals. It might sound like making huge changes in our lives, in our consumption patterns, in our connection with the world, but this change can often manifest in smaller actions, such as deciding to visit the local farm to plant or harvest vegetables in lieu of tanning on the beach for a weekend.

Farmer Seong-hyun Choi and community members working on his natural rice field (P.M. Lydon, FinalStraw.org, CC BY-SA) Farmer Seong-hyun Choi and community members working on his natural rice field (P.M. Lydon, FinalStraw.org, CC BY-SA)

The point being that ‘nature’ is not only you, me, and the trees, it’s everything. And it’s not always romantic. In fact, it can be downright dirty and sweaty — which, I guess could also be romantic in some contexts.

The reality of being in that picturesque setting, that painting sitting above the couch, is more difficult than just looking at the painting and enjoying its beauty. You have to work for it a bit, too. If we’re really serious about this whole ‘living on the earth’ thing, we must not only accept that difficulty, we must also embrace it and take it on as a part of our duty as people.

Learning to work with nature, we might just realize how much joy and beauty there is for us within it, blood, sweat, dirt and all.

Freedom and Economics

Freedom, Economics, and the Law (photos + illustration: P.M. Lydon | sociecity)

Freedom, Economics, and the Law (photos + illustration: P.M. Lydon | sociecity)

In this, Part 1 of the series, we tackle issues of freedom and economics.

Living in a modern country in today’s modern world, we are able to enjoy far more ‘freedoms’ than have been afforded to just about anyone at any time in history. But what exactly is ‘freedom’ in modern society?

As described today, freedom is a very relative term.

The Thorns

In contemplating what our ‘relative’ freedoms are, where they have taken us and/or where they will take us in the future, it is essential that we first contemplate the Economic and the Legal Systems which guide these freedoms.

In the past few centuries, these two systems of human invention have become nearly indispensable to the modern way of life, to the point where — at least in times of relative peace — they dictate the general path of a population more than any other influence.

These methods of social guidance however, have always had a few little thorns sticking to them. These thorns are namely the individuals who, for one reason or another, insist on operating outside of, or otherwise ignoring the systems of money and law.

A bucket list of illuminary figures from our world’s history — from Plato to Henry David Thoreau, to the unfortunate recent addition of Aaron Swartz — all fit this description of the ‘thorn,’ and all of them had their bouts with the legal systems of their day.

In a general sense, the ‘thorns’ do what they do because:

  1. It is possible (eg: we can live without economics and without complex sets of laws, they don’t rule the world, nature does) and…
  2. They have taken issue with the way that these systems work and what they do to a society and its people.

In a society where economics and complex, ever-changing sets of laws (often created by the heads of the aforementioned economic system) dictate so much of what we do and how we live, the thorns are important points of check-and-balance outside of such ‘official’ governmental systems, yet at times the thorns can also seem quite pesky. They are pesky to us because they operate against the pre-determined, categorical, rule-based systems that the majority of us live within, and we, being the law-abiding citizens of good standing, obviously don’t like that.

But are these thorns more necessary than we know?

Part 1: Economics

From an economic perspective in the U.S. or most any other industrialized nation, our entire lives and everything we consume today — from entertainment to learning to the basics of food, shelter and clothing — are plugged into the economic machine. This is rightly so of course, as this connection ensures the survival of the economy, which is in turn a requirement of the system we know as capitalism.

Looking at how the economy puts the things we need and want up for sale is important. From this view we can see supply and demand at work, and can further examine the elements of wealth, power, and class struggles as they come into play. But looking at the economy in this way also only touches the surface of the issue, a nick to the shiny cover of the machine which drives our modern world.

Let us then, dig deeper than this, to consider the role which economics has, not just in locking up goods, services, and intellectual information — let’s call these things ‘product’ for the sake of this article — but also the role the economics has in creating these products in the first place.

How much ‘product’ is generated primarily out of economic need? And further, of that product, how much is truly useful and how much is just a means to an end for the producers and organizations who make this product?

Modern times see billions, maybe even trillions of dollars in ‘wasted’ product: mainly useless things generated by otherwise talented and perhaps even well-meaning writers, artists, designers, intellectuals, service providers, and entrepreneurs, all for the sake of a paycheck.

Possibly worse than this issue, we also see products which could have been world-changing lions, and are instead demoted to cute purring kittens under fear of losing customers, sponsorships,  advertising revenues, causing the ruffling of feathers, or otherwise being too ‘risky.’ When the young and hip use the word ‘tool’ — is this still a young and hip word? — this is pretty close to what they are referring to: the creation of product only to serve the good of the economic engine instead of serving an individual’s pure creative expression. Are the cool and the hip a selfish bunch for asking such at thing? Perhaps they are.

Uneconomics

Yet by the other hand, some of the most socially valuable created works — from Walden to Wikipedia — have been generated without economics as a primary incentive.

Some would also argue that wonderful and great inventions have been generated with a profit motive at the forefront — or at least as a conscious adviser. The MacBook Pro which I happen to be typing this article on is one popular example of a successful, useful, profit-driven project in the typical industrialized nation.

Yet while the MacBook truly is great for all of us who have the ‘privilege’ to conceivably afford one (that is, maybe around 99% of the people who will read this article) we are also the few who are bound to a life that puts value upon, let alone requires the use of such devices. The others — namely those in undeveloped areas of the world who work in the mines, factories, and garbage fields in order to give us this privilege — generally might not count the MacBook as a beautiful invention for human kind. But we all easily lose this relativity in thought while participating in the amazingness of being able to browse facebook from anywhere on earth.

It’s not that the idea of a small, well-designed computer isn’t great, but the process of building it in poor industrial towns in China with metals mined from poor villages in Mongolia only to ‘recycle’ it in a poor village in Africa presents a few issues to humanity.

This kind of product lifecycle is not only legal, but is also the most economically logical route known to the general public by the names of  ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’ This is also why it is not confined just to companies like Apple — who are at least building their latest machines in the USA, solving roughly 1/3 of the product lifecycle issue — the issue spans nearly every major technology product we use today.

What is Reality

This is the special reality of how the modern economic system, how it drives us, our society, and our world. The real danger might not be in the system itself, but in its tendancy to be so tragically blind to any kind of reality outside of the economic reality which it created.

When we neglect to interact with and understand the reality which exists outside of our man-made reality, we are inadvertently neglecting humanity…

…when the system at large neglects to recognize that the larger human and natural world has existed, does exist, and will exist without the discipline of economics, it is this lapse in cognition which causes major issues for the future of humanity and this earth.

By that same notion, the natural economy in which all life on earth trades (oxygen, water, food), and the natural laws by which the world works, will always supersede our own inventions of human law and monetary economics.

It can seem like a harrowing message, but it’s also a call to action. It’s a call for us to investigate the true realities of a world beyond our rules, regulations, and personal financial gains, for us to put aside the imaginary concepts of monetary wealth and social success, and to understand how we fit into this world without any of this superfluousness.

Only then can we see in truth.

Only then can we understand our personal possibilities.

Only then can we understand as a society, where we can go, where we should go, and hopefully, where we will go in the future.

And it may even be a call for some of us, to be those pesky thorns…

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Useful Research and Reading:

The Death of Socrates – Reading About the World, Washington State University (Excerpt)
Walden – Henry David Thoreau (Full Text)
Small is Beautiful – E.F. Schumacher (Full Text)
New Perspectives on E-Waste – Jaume Miró

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Mighty Cheeseburger Meets Lowly Cabbage

Plant and industrially-processed hamburger set into soil (Artists: Vero Alanis, Patrick Lydon | photo: Patrick Lydon)

Plant and industrially-processed hamburger set into soil (Artists: Vero Alanis, Patrick Lydon)

The mighty, juicy, cheeseburger meets the lowly leafy green… or is it the other way around? Having a curiosity about the energy required to produce different foods, Vero Alanis and I put the Cheeseburger to the energy-efficiency test, pitting it against the cabbage.

Obviously, ‘growing’ a McDonald’s 1/4 pounder with cheese presents a bit more of a challenge than growing a cabbage, but we were interested in just how much more of a challenge it is, energy-wise.

Not to be taken literally, our question for the burger was this: how much more energy is required to create a single cheeseburger, vs creating a single serving of cabbage, carrot, or other vegetable?

A graph showing the number of food servings that can be created with 20 megajoules of energy (2012, Vero Alanis and Patrick Lydon)

Our findings — illustrated in the info graphic at right — are more than a bit surprising.

It takes 20 megajoules of energy to produce a single McDonalds 1/4 pounder — roughly the equivalent of powering the average American house for 4 hours.

By comparison, farmed salmon is twice as efficient to create vs the burger, boiled potatoes are twenty times more efficient, and most fruit will bring forty more servings for the same amount of production energy.

But the winner is the cabbage — may we call it mighty now? Given the amount of energy needed to produce, deliver and cook a McDonalds 1/4 pounder, you could grow, deliver, and cook 100 servings of cabbage.

That information, while starling,  is not exactly going to make most of us sign up to eat kimchi for the rest of our lives — here at sociecity, a few of us are fans of a good burger now and then.

But it does give a little bit of context to our diets and the effect that food choices have on the planet and its all-too-scarce natural resources. A little less burger, a little more veg, we think. Or perhaps there’s a good kimchi burger out there somewhere?

Project Team: Patrick Lydon and Vero Alanis

Resources:

U.S. Energy Information Administration — Residential Energy Consumption
Elsevier — Ecological Economics: Identifying Critical Natural Capital

 

Graphic: The ‘Real’ Food Pyramid

The 'Reality' Food Pyramid

McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Wonder Bread on a food pyramid. It looks so ridiculous it’s almost funny. But then, we can’t help but wonder if this food pyramid reflects the actual daily intake of most of us in the United States. It’s at least on target to where we Americans — and a growing number of other nations — are headed based on current trends.

And it’s probably closer to reality than the current USDA My Pyramid graphic.

Is Global Warming Really the Problem?

The City 'Farm' on top of Osaka Station is about as natural as one can get in the middle of the city (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The City 'Farm' on top of Osaka Station is about as natural as one can get in the middle of the city (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

People have been playing the “environment” harp for many decades.

They have been calling out for the world’s inhabitants to save our resources because it is the only way to save ourselves, they have been predicting that this world will run out of said resources, they have told us that the earth will be submerged in water, that we will have no rain, that our oil reserves are finished, that worldwide crops will fail to drought and heat.

Those who carry this message seek to conveniently patch surface issues instead of addressing root causes (eg: they would rather have us drive a Prius to do our food shopping at Whole Foods, than create a system where we can walk to get our food from local farmers.) Neither of these scenarios is perfect, but the first one completely ignores the actual problem.

Global warming is not the problem, or the answer, it’s not the thing we need to fix, nor is it the way to go about living, in fear that we must bandage a cut in order to survive ‘for the time being.’

Both the problem and the answer are deeper, yet ironically far more simple than any of this would suggest. How so?

To Be Human

Let’s start here: you and I are humans. This is our common ground, and one thing that most of us won’t argue with, hopefully.

As humans, many of us loose sight of the fact that we are born to the world as a part of nature — well, except for test tube babies — and will also leave the world as a part of nature — okay, plus maybe some formaldehyde, antibiotics and whatnot — making us more or less, just another natural cog in this ecosystem. If that’s all fine and understood, then it’s this whole middle part between being born and death, the ‘living’ part, where we seem to have things a little screwed up.

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his farm in the Kansai region of Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his farm in the Kansai region of Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Most anyone, whether scientist or philosopher, will attest to this idea that humans are not above nature, nor are they below it or somehow exempt from it, they are an integral part of it. As much as we try to fight this idea, we cannot escape it or its implications.

Nature is a beautifully crafted system, and as a part of this system, we humans have a responsibility to understand and operate ourselves in a manner which ensures its continued success.

So then, along with this whole being ‘human’ thing, we have another deeper responsibility which is not always apparent to us while living — asphalt below, concrete beside, airliners above — in the built urban zone or suburban housing tract.

How do we make this responsibility more apparent?

Much can be said for a life which has to do with existing simply, yet in our world, simplicity is often seen as a strictly non-technological matter. It shouldn’t be so.

We should not seek to rule out technology, yet at the same time, we have an intensely important need to simultaneously cultivate an appreciation of the most basic elements and sensations in life, just as we do the artificial ones.

Doing this much ensures that we at least understand the difference between the two, and knowing that difference in our truly, uniquely, human way, helps us to appreciate, yet not rely on the crutch of modern convenience.

The Illusions of Control and Ownership

But a bitter comedy it is for us to believe that we are in the least bit in control of nature; we can see each and every day this is not true, yet most of us continue to live as if it were.

Nature gives us a bounty of food, drink, and beauty, that we might thankfully partake in it. But look to the history of our people, and we also see that Nature cares nothing about our human inventions, our awards, our accolades, our street credit, fancy belongings, money, stocks, bonds, loafers or high heels; Nature tosses us and all of our belongings to and fro at a whim, it lifts us up and throws us back down without effort, it destroys our greatest accomplishments on a whim, crumbling inventor and invention, investor and investment, all of this becomes insignificant little particles, eventually returned back to some other element of Nature.

However we fight with our lifestyles against it, Nature, is clearly in control of us, and we might do well to listen to what it has to say.

The dichotomy we have always been presented with is that a true life is so simple, we will never understand it by attempting to understand it, and so we frustratingly spend our life attempting to understanding it anyway, all the while synchronously laying to waste any chance of thoroughly enjoying life. What then, is the point?

Instead of constantly attempting to justify, explain, control, or own, perhaps it’s best to begin our pursuits first by just, simply, living.

 

Graphic: Happiness and Income in the U.S.

Happiness and Income in the U.S. from 1955 to 1999 (illustration | sociecity)

Happiness and Income in the U.S. from 1955 to 1999 (illustration | sociecity)

Often widely dispersed in their views, Economists, politicians, and academics are slowly coming to the same conclusions about the value of jobs and money; conclusions that have many re-thinking the true value of per-capita income and GDP.

Is it true, that in the years between 1955 and 1999, while we were busy concentrating on creating wealth for the American people, all we actually did was create a whole lot of misery?

More Resources:

Strength in a Smile – The Economist
France To Use Happiness As Economic Indicator
– Huffington Post
Ian McGilchrist Lecture
– Schumacher College

The Rio+20: Fifty-Three Pages to Save the World?

Dear United Nations: A Call for Moderation and Respect

As a highly developed nation, we in the United States understand that a large part of our responsibility when operating on a global scale is to assist under-developed nations in building their own staircase to the industrialized world. We take these actions so that so-called “lower” countries might make their way “higher” to being prosperous industrialized nations with abundant resources and dramatically lower rates of poverty.

But ask the world’s “developing” nations, and you might find a few people who have a slightly more sinister understanding of this process.

Many of these countries, from Ecuador to Brazil to Nigeria and countless others, understand that getting into bed with any industrialized nation is a bit like having a sleepover with vampire. Yet the situation can not be easily avoided. [1]

Gimme Resource, Gimme Labor

In a typical scenario, the industrialized nation makes excellent use of the resources and labor of the developing nation, mostly through the industrialized nation’s corporations. Labor and resource agreements are often excellent deals for the economy of the industrialized nation, but have been shown in numerous qualitative and quantitative studies to bring an overall decreased quality of life to the populations where these developments take place. [2][3][4]

Despite popular — although waning — belief, industrialized nations do not go through this process simply because they are nice people who want to eliminate poverty.

As developed nations, we step into the backyards of un-developed nations primarily for selfish reasons.

Yet this habit is a necessity for us since, over the past few decades, the typical industrialized nation has developed a consumption-based lifestyle which is unsustainable when using only its own resources. It is this lifestyle which is necessitating that each and every day, we infringe on the rights of those in other countries.

As a matter of course, in order to maintain this lifestyle, the industrialized nation must secure two things from outside its own borders: 1) natural resources and 2) labor, both of which must be bountiful and cheap, and neither of which can be had without traversing the avenues of war, exploitation, or equality.

It may sound strange for equality to be put on equal footing with war and exploitation, but equality is in fact the most powerful of the three; and strangely, although countries such as the United States preach the value of equality, they rarely contemplate using this value as a tool when dealing with the resources or the people of other countries.

The Limits to ‘Unlimited’ Economic Growth

The number of well-off industrialized nations is essentially small, limited by the overall availability of natural resources and of cheap labor, and as Economist E.F. Schumacher famously wrote in 1973 “What needs to be questioned is the assumption that the modern lifestyle can be expanded to absorb virtually the entire population…”

Today, nearly 40-years after Schumacher’s writing, industrialized nations know very well that their lifestyle is both a social and ecological impossibility for a majority of the world to ever reach. Yet it has not stopped us from spreading an unattainable dream to those who find it convenient to ignore reality.

The quandary which industrialized nations have happened upon, is that the only way to indefinitely continue their amazingly advanced lifestyles, is if there continues to be undeveloped, resource-rich nations which can be utilized for their natural resources and labor.

The world's monster example of resource usage is the United States, which hosts only 4.5% of the world's population, yet uses around 25% of its resources (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The world's monster example of resource usage is the United States, which hosts only 4.5% of the world's population, yet uses around 25% of its resources (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Unless we find another planet from which to take resources and cheap labor, it’s clear that we’ve landed ourselves in the middle of a rather large problem which pans out very badly for developing nations in the short term, and will work out even worse for the industrialized nations in the long term, as these countries have become dependent on an unlimited supply of limited resources.

As for the ‘developing’ nations today, in order to successfully make their way to a consumer-based, poverty-free, lifestyle — the likes of which is enjoyed by all except a scant 46.2 million people in the U.S. — they will also likely need to find a nation or two to take advantage of. [5]

Unfortunately, the list of nations which are primarily un-developed — at least on this planet — is rather short of late, with only sixteen countries making the IMF list as of 2005. [6]

Our world leaders understand that world sustainability problems could be solved with the application of a simple ideology based on moderation and respect (for each other and the planet), yet they also know that before this ideology stands mounds of very serious politics, business, money, and other such important matters. [7]

To them, sociecity wishes to suggest the following statement, one which might easily replace guiding documents such as the fluffy 53-page Rio+20 document:

We, the world’s industrialized nations, hereby agree to cease utilizing the resources (both human and natural) of primarily un-developed nations in the name of monetary and material gains, and instead agree to focus our efforts on global equality in all facets; furthermore, we acknowledge that this dramatic shift in policy must result in all of the world’s countries adjusting their personal, industrial, and commercial resource-intensive lifestyles so as to fit collectively within the means of available global resources in a sustainable way.

Sources:

[1] The Unsustainable Earth Summit – Bangkok Post

[2] Hammond, John L. “The Resource Curse and Oil Revenues in Angola and Venezuela.” Science & Society 75, no. 3 (2011): 348-78.

[3] Oil Turmoil in Nigeria - Journeyman Pictures (film)

[4] Amid Brazil’s Rush to Develop, Workers Resist – New York Times

[5] Poverty Highlights – U.S. Census Bureau

[6] Third World Countries List – International Monetary Fund

[7] A Cruel and Unusual Record – President Jimmy Carter

 

The Green Side of Art and Design

A Sociecity Film Production by Patrick Lydon and Suhee Kang

Professor Hoseob Yoon at his studio in South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Professor Hoseob Yoon at his studio in South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Since the 1980’s, Hoseob Yoon (윤호섭) has been one of South Korea’s most productive creative minds, having worked with Citibank, Pepsi and others to design their Korean brand images, and serving on the design committee for the 1988 Olympics Games.

In 1991, he had an experience which prompted him to make an about-face in his design and life philosophy, shortly after which he began building the “Green Design” course of study at Kookmin University.

Today Yoon spends his weeks working with students, and his Sundays at the Insadong neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, where he spreads a message of ecological responsibility through a unique — and down-to-earth as it is — brand of street art.

Visit Hoseob Yoon: www.greencanvas.com
Visit Kookmin University: Kookmin Green Design

Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 3)

This is the final entry of a 3-part series on the city of San Jose’s sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity’s April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city’s Director of Transportation.

Bikes parked at a station in Chiba, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Bikes parked at a station in Chiba, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Continuing our conversation on bicycle infrastructure, I tell Hans that I have some fun stuff for him, too, and present a private stash of bike-infrastructure photos, taken during my visits to various cities including Barcelona, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Seoul, among others. [ view full slideshow ].

The first photo (shown at right) is of a Tokyo suburb – I use the term ‘suburb’ loosely, as the density of a Tokyo suburb is about on par with the most dense urban areas in the U.S.

In Tokyo, a city where you’re rarely ever more than several hundred feet from a metro station, bike usage is not tremendous; but, I tell Hans, if you visit the stations a little further out from the city, you have these huge parking lots, not for cars, but for bikes.

Looking at the photo, Hans cracks a smile; it is — as he mentions later in our conversation — not something he had witnessed during his visit to Japan.

The next photo we look at is a mockup that sociecity produced in 2011 for an article on the Alameda Bicycle Boulevard. I take the opportunity to ask Hans about the feasibility of a center lane that is physically separated and reserved for bikes, walking, and a landscaping buffer.

I know that New York has one, Hans responds, and Washington D.C. has one in a small stretch.

It’s interesting, because we have a project on the Alameda to make it more pedestrian friendly, kind of beautification, putting a landscape buffer in the center, make crossing easy for a pedestrian refuge area…

…but this, Hans says as he looks at the sociecity illustration (seen below), this is interesting…

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Hans tell me that the main issue is how to deal with the intersections, and he gives Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples where individual traffic signals are necessary for the bikes. He also admits that, while San Jose’s goal is to be “one of the nation’s leading bike cities,” the city has lot of catch up to do.

We’re very open to looking at trying new things, he adds.

One of the assets we have is the creek trail, kind of like a bicycle freeway that provides major avenues of long distance right of ways that are safe and convenient, and we’re looking to create a network to get from the creek trails to where you are going. I call it a ladder system, where most of the creeks run north/south and then there are these east/west connectors that form the rungs of the ladder.

The east-west routes would be mostly on city streets, where Hans says they intend to foster a trail-like experience, using both physical separations and colored bike lanes.

I ask what issues San Jose has with creating new bike lanes that are physically separated from cars, such as in New York, where some lanes use parked cars as a buffer between bikes and traffic.

New bicycle lanes planned for summer 2012 in San Jose (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity, Map: Google Maps)

New bicycle lanes planned for summer 2012 in San Jose (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity, Map: Google Maps)

When we had the downtown bike plan go to council, says Hans, Sam Liccardo [City Councilman] added some direction to actually have us look at that concept, and we do have a few places where we can, like 4th street where we’ve laid out a two-way bike lane buffered by parking, running against San Jose State and City Hall.

Generally, however, Hans tells us that most successful bike lanes of this type in other cities were originally one way streets built pre-car with few or no driveways to get in the way. Unfortunately for San Jose, most of the city’s streets were built post-car and are full of driveways and parking lot entrances.

The city is planning, however, to look at a separated bike lane option for 4th street along San Jose State University and City Hall, and Park Avenue from Guadalupe River Trail to the Cesar Chavez Park.

The current 3-lane single direction 10th street near San Jose State University. One lane will be removed and replaced with two bicycle lanes. (photo: Josh Hires | sociecity)

The current 3-lane single direction 10th street near San Jose State University. One lane will be removed and replaced with two bicycle lanes. (photo: Josh Hires | sociecity)

Hans pulls out a document containing a bicycle network that will be implemented this summer. The plan shows the 3rd/4th street corridors and the 10th/11th street corridors will lose a lane for automobile travel, and each gain two bicycle lanes.

These streets are currently main north/south thoroughfares, each with at least 3 lanes of one-way traffic, so it’s an impressive statement to drop an entire lane of car travel for two bike lanes. The city is not, however, planning to create a physical separations or buffer zones between bikes and traffic when they re-stripe the streets this June, something both Councilman Liccardo and many other advocates would like to see as a safety mechanism.

After these new bicycle lanes are completed in the Downtown area, the city will launch a bicycle share program in the city’s center. The system is the first of its kind in Silicon Valley and will initially comprise about 200 bikes installed in the city core.

These projects show a city leadership that is finally making strong efforts to live up to its promise of having a serious bicycle infrastructure…

…an infrastructure that aims to move a lofty 15% of the city’s traffic on bicycle by 2040, according to the city’s general plan.

Hans tells me, that although the city has a lot of good ideas, they have been struggling for a while in terms of not having much money to implement these projects.

How about corporate sponsorship, or joint public/private developments, I ask Him, maybe the Adobe Bike Paseo or Specialized Bike Highway?

We’ve kind of kicked that around on the maintenance side, more of having somebody adopt the bike route to help with money to re-paint the bike lanes every couple years. I don’t really know how generous corporations would have to be. Specilized is actually partnering with us on the Walk and Roll program, and we also have Lucille Packard working with us on that.

Bicycle Highway in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Bicycle Highway in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Hans turns his attention to a photo I handed him of Seoul, and asks if it is a dedicated corridor… I explain that it is part of Seoul’s revitalization of the main river running through the city (Han River). The photo shows a four lane bike highway along the river.

I’ve been to Japan, he continues, but I didn’t really see that much bike use, I guess like you say, it’s not until you get out into the suburbs.

That’s the idea, I tell Hans, and even then, you have things like an underground bike parking garage at the shopping center.

Looking at another photo taken in Germany, Hans says that the city has considered separated bike and pedestrian areas on trails, where, as the trails get congested you have people walking their dog, or the stroller on one side, and people moving faster on bikes on the other side. Hans seems skeptical, however, of whether San Jose will get to the point where pedestrian/bike separation is necessary on the trail system.

People and bikes on the sidewalk in Germany (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

People and bikes on the sidewalk in Germany (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

It would be a nice problem to have, I tell him; we share a nod and smile at the notion.

Yes, it would.

Hans’ main interest in moving San Jose towards these sustainable transportation goals, he says, is that they can be driven largely by building smart around existing transit hubs.

The “station city” concept is popular in Europe and Asia, where is isn’t uncommon to see a dozen stories of shopping, corporate offices, entertainment and housing above, under, and adjacent to main train stations.

The newly built "Hakata Station City" railway station in Fukuoka, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The newly built twelve-floor "Hakata Station City" railway station in Fukuoka, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

San Jose certainly isn’t planning for a “Station City” anytime soon — although development in the city’s Diridon Station area might come close — but with a sea of parking lots currently surrounding San Jose’s transit hubs, the city does have many open opportunities to develop smaller, station-centric villages.

Hans says that the transit-oriented village is a key goal for the city, and the transit authority is essentially waiting to develop the current parking lot real estate that surrounds light rail stations into higher density shopping and housing — when the right plan comes along.

The city’s transit network is good, Hans says, but he also maintains that city land use does not support that system well.

It’s clear that there is opportunity to increase and optimize the use of existing mass transit — such as the city’s light rail system, which serves just 30,000 passengers per day — but in order for that to happen, smart, higher-density development needs to happen around the existing stations.

Hans finishes the statement by taking it back to bikes…

Having that [bicycle network] downtown, and expanding it to North San Jose, the East Side, Willow Glen, Rose Garden; building a really strong bike network is where we are going. I am optimistic in hoping that we can see some big changes.

After hearing and seeing the work the Hans is doing, I too, am rather optimistic for San Jose.

For more on San Jose development news, have a look at the San Jose Department of Transportation Website, or tootle on over to the San Jose Blog. There also seem to be some very passionate people over at SPUR San Jose.

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Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 2)

This is the second of a 3-part series on the city of San Jose’s sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity’s April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city’s Director of Transportation.

“We’re trying to create downtown San Jose as the ‘urban center’ of Silicon Valley” says Hans Larsen, Director of Transportation for the City of San Jose.

…the new generation doesn’t want to drive a 50 mile commute, to be wedded to a car, they’d rather spend their time doing other things, living close to where they work, being able to walk, bike, and/or have an easy transit trip.

I mention to Hans that, if we were to generalize, there are age groups engaged with this issue: the young group, maybe just graduated college, they want the hip, urban environment; then there are those who grew up in the valley with a house, and a car, and you couldn’t pull them out of their cars if you wanted to; they are perfectly happy to have their job, to drive home, and to have their yard.

A couple walks through San Jose's South First Street Arts District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A couple walks through San Jose’s South First Street Arts District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Hans enthusiastically interjects “that generation are a bunch of empty-nesters, that have the yard, the maintenance, and they are interested in coming to an urban environment where things are close and they can enjoy the cultural amenities in the community.”

“Someone like my grandmother” I respond to Hans, taking a break to spoon some sausage soup into my mouth with a slurp “she lives near tons of shopping, only ¼ mile away at the Pruneyard, yet can’t get to it because she can’t drive. Most people her age don’t want to walk across the 8-lane street that separates them from the shopping centers. It feels dangerous.”

“It probably is,” Hans remarks.

But if you’ve been to any major U.S. City with infrastructure built after the 1930s, you’ll know that San Jose is not alone here. In most of these cities, sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes aren’t much more than an afterthought, a technical formality built alongside roads without much thought to where they are going or to what surrounds them.

Walk around a “technically-correct” neighborhood in San Jose, California — sidewalks and all — and you’re likely to be hugely out-numbered by vehicles.

Interestingly, if you take a stroll in a neighborhood that breaks all of the technical rules — no sidewalks, small street widths, no designated street parking — such as the one pictured below in Seoul, South Korea, and people usually will far outnumber vehicles.

Perhaps we’ve gotten the “rules” all wrong? Along with building a technically-perfect-yet-mis-guided infrastructure, we have essentially removed the ability for our youth and our elders to be self-sufficient in getting themselves around to do very basic things.

Car-oriented street near Cafe Crema in San Jose, California, and people-oriented street near Rogpa Cafe in Seoul, South Korea (photos: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Even though San Jose is laden with a robust system of car oriented strip malls, Hans maintains that these are actually a very important resource that can help in creating a more sustainable, walkable city. I’m curious as to how, exactly, that logic works.

“…there are opportunities to build those up,” says Hans.

To put in a high rise, you know, a senior residential tower, and bring in a larger diverse set of services there. Of the 70 urban villages we have, many of them are looking at transforming these larger strip shopping centers, or the regional malls, to have those become mini-downtowns or communities.”

Those words are tremendous, mostly because they signal a 180-degree turn from the city’s planning goals over the past 70+ years. To be sure, Hans and his colleagues at City Hall have played no small part in crafting this plan, yet the driving force behind it can likely be traced to one of the biggest city-wide community input initiatives in San Jose’s history.

The Alameda / San Carlos Street - San Jose General Plan (Courtesy, City of San Jose)

The Alameda / San Carlos Street – San Jose General Plan (Courtesy, City of San Jose)

The development of real, walkable “urban villages” is a concept now firmly in place as part of San Jose’s Envision 2040 general plan, an initiative in which more than 5,000 citizens helped the city come up with the most important targets for San Jose’s growth over the next three decades.

Among the development goals identified by the city and it’s citizens, squarely in the top five are:

  • Creating Urban Villages
  • Environmental Leadership, and
  • Increasing Transit Ridership

I ask how bicycling as a major transportation mechanism fits into this general plan, and Hans maintains it is a city-wide concern and priority. “The city has seen a decade of budget shortfalls, but even with limited funds for simple things like road maintenance, there are ways to get creative.”

San Jose plans to bring multiple new bike lanes into the Downtown core by the end of the summer, and much of the work won’t cost the city much more than standard street maintenance. It works, as Hans tells me, by grouping bike-lane striping in with maintenance.

One of the interesting things we’ve done with the downtown bike plan, is that we’ve aligned our maintenance needs with bike system development. We’re actually going to be sealing those downtown streets (3rd, 4th, 10th, and 11th streets) which are due for maintenance, and so it’s an opportunity to essentially have a blank slate on how to re-stripe the street after you are done with re-surfacing.

The city plans to use this tactic to add multiple bicycle lanes city-wide, with the first of the lanes concentrated downtown in preparation for the city’s first bicycle share system, which will be installed later this summer.

Next installment, we talk specifics with Hans on San Jose’s new bicycle routes, a bicycle share system, and removing entire lanes of car traffic in the Downtown core.

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Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 1)

The Paseo de San Pedro in Downtown San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | soceicity)

The Paseo de San Pedro in Downtown San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | soceicity)

This article is the first of a 3-part series on the city of San Jose’s sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity’s April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city’s Director of Transportation.

San Jose, California – It’s only 11:25 am yet, so the smell of grilled sandwiches hasn’t quite saturated the cold air in this building. I am sitting at Cafe Too, a surprisingly chic space inside of a circa-1892 Romanesque sandstone masterpiece which is also home to the San Jose Museum of Art. The building, one of the lone historical edifices in the surrounding blocks, seems to defy much of what San Jose has become.

San Jose — billed as the Capital of Silicon Valley — is in the middle of one of the great innovation centers of the modern world to be sure, but when it comes to sustainable development, the city has traditionally been a perfect example of what not to do.

Arial View of suburban development in San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Arial View of suburban development in San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Which is one of the reasons why I am meeting today with Hans Larsen, San Jose’s newly appointed Director of Transportation. Hans isn’t new to the job — having served as Acting Director of the department since 2009, and being involved with the city’s transportation planning since 1985 — and he has some rather large plans brewing for the city’s transportation system, and necessarily so; bringing a city that was built for the car into the age of modern eco-friendly transportation is probably one of the most difficult tasks a guy like Hans could think of facing.

I sit down on one of the simple leather couches in the cafe and Hans gets right to the point.

San Jose’s challenge is that we are interested in being a leading sustainable city, but… we are coming from an environment that was literally built around the car. So how do you transform suburbia into a more sustainable model. There are not many leaders who have to come at it form that angle.

Hans shows me a few pages from the new San Jose City Master Plan, commenting on the transportation goals and San Jose’s goal of building over 70 walkable, mixed-use urban ‘villages’ within the city.

The plan looks nice on paper, I tell Hans. I mean, the goal is great, but what are the challenges in terms of both enforcing it, and actually making it happen?

In reply, Hans first points me to some charts showing transportation modal share (the percentage of trips taken using different kinds of transportation).

“…on the transportaion side, this is where we are now,” he points to a chart showing how 80% of people drive in cars by themselves to get from place to place.

San Jose Master Plan - Transportation Use (courtesy of the City of San Jose)

San Jose Master Plan - Transportation Use Table (courtesy of the City of San Jose)

We want that to be less than 40 percent by the year 2040. So it’s a big increase in transit, walking, biking.

No kidding.

In a meeting just last month, Hans noted that a passionate San Jose councilman named Sam Liccardo focused on making sure there were performance measurements for alternative transportation goals for biking, walking, and transit. When it comes to new development, Liccardo wants the city to consciously ask themselves “are we getting more people walking, biking, taking transit?”

But is the current status quo too far away from the ultimate goal? Hans puts the onus primarily on re-envisioning land use to fit with transportation infrastructure.

We need to change our land use. Right now, all the jobs are in the north, the housing is in the south, and you’ve got 10-15 mile distances in between the two. That’s difficult to you know, to walk, bike, and not really conducive to transit. So to mix up the land use to put jobs where the houses are and houses where the jobs are, and creating – one of the elements of this plan – 70 urban villages in San Jose that are designed to be mixed-use communities where you have jobs, housing, retail, recreation, social needs all within a compact community. It’s that land use change that’s really going to drive a lot of the mode shift, building communities where walking and biking are the most convenient ways. So it’s the land use, and also changing the transportation system and having more infrastructure, particularly for biking and transit, so we have programs oriented towards that.

I point out to Hans that the city also has many venerable ‘older’ plans for transportation oriented development that have not seemed to pan out. “In North San Jose for instance, along the light rail corridor, ” I tell him  “there’s a great looking plan, but it hasn’t happened, so how do you make sure it happens?”

Hans notes that the plan for North San Jose was put together as a 30 year master plan for the area.

The North San Jose plan brings [in theory] 32,000 new housing units into what is primarily a job center, and also intensifies the kind of office-buildings that go in there, converting from 1-3 story tilt-up configurations to more of a 10-20 story built environment. One of the challenges is just market forces.

In this respect, San Jose is in much the same situation as any other American city today. While we may have realized our follies in developing transportation systems based almost solely on the car, our change of heart comes at a poor time economically.

Good thing then, that bike infrastructure is cheap.

In part 2 of this series, we explore a trio of ‘age groups’ and look at the seeds of San Jose’s Bicycle plan…

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Death and Life of the Silicon Valley Streetcar

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Streetcar and Interurban Rail Lines, Circa 1920 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Streetcar and Interurban Rail Lines, Circa 1920 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

In the early 1900’s, most U.S. cities with populations over 20,000 or so had privately owned and operated above-ground electric rail systems.

The area now known as Silicon Valley was once home to a streetcar and interurban rail system with over 70 miles of track (see our map at right) and many lines providing train service every 7 minutes between the Downtown San Jose core and then-outlying towns including Santa Clara, Monta Vista, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Alum Rock, and Beryessa, as well as further out to Palo Alto and Stanford.

In 1920, streetcar trains reached the center of San Jose from the far points of the line in about 15-20 minutes.

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Light Rail and Interurban Rail Lines in 2012 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Light Rail and Interurban Rail Lines in 2012 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Today, Silicon Valley’s more ‘technologically advanced’ government-subsidized light rail trains can take over 1 hour to make that same trip, stopping dozens of times along the way at stations in low-density suburban neighborhoods, surrounded by parking lots.

And so the questions: What happened?  Is local rail transit far too incompatible with the layout of Silicon Valley cities? Is there hope for building transit oriented developments in a smart, forward-thinking way? Let’s take these points in order.

The Car Rises in America, the Train in Japan

Most of the electric rail services in the U.S. during the early 1900’s were run by private companies, but as part of a nationwide push — some say conspiracy — by vehicle manufacturers such as General Motors to swap the trolleys out for buses, almost all trolley lines were abandoned by the end of the 1930’s. Conspiracy or not, however, the personal automobile was becoming more widespread, and as American cities began to grow in size, they built according to the automobile.

Interestingly, while I was in Tokyo last year — shooting images for my Transport Me project — I found that, at the same time U.S. cities and towns were dismantling their metro rail systems, the Japanese were just getting started building their first lines. The first of their metro rail lines were being built in the developing metropolis of Tokyo, laying the groundwork for several massive population centers connected by multiple commuter trains and subway lines, both privately and government owned. Today, the rail system in the Tokyo Metropolitan area is the the largest in the world.

A JR Tōkaidō Line Interurban Rail line near Kōzu Station, Odawara, Japan (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

A JR Tōkaidō Line Interurban Rail line near Kōzu Station, Odawara, Japan (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

For most American cities, however, ‘suburban sprawl’ became the favored method of development, town centers became less important, and people traveled longer distances in cars to do things which were once neighborhood chores. At the time, there were several positives for this model of living, including a tempting cocktail of convenience and lower prices for consumers, as well as ease and better profit margins for investors and producers;  it seemed like a situation where everyone was winning.

It wasn’t until decades later that the numerous negative effects of our automotive-based city layouts truly began to take hold. The problems were — and still are — numerous, including:

  • loss of community/neighborhood interaction
  • pedestrian safety hazards
  • degradation of cultural values
  • higher levels of stress in population
  • increased pollution
  • inefficient use of energy resources

This list, quite unfortunately, could go on, and on. Swapping trains out for cars and buses may have been a positive economic move for the United States at the time, but these profits carried with them some bitter consequences for people, nature, and cities.

A few Decades Late to our own Party

In the 1980’s, 40 years after abandoning the last of the local rail lines in Silicon Valley, the county and local governments began to build rail lines again in an attempt to combat rising street traffic. It was a novel concept that faced one giant issue:

in the 40 year time span between the abandonment of the first rail system and the building of the second one, the majority of Silicon Valley had been covered with exactly the type of low-density suburban sprawl that is unfailingly incompatible with any form of mass transit.

There were no more ‘city centers’ or ‘town centers’ with the housing and commercial density to support a rail system of such proportions, only suburban housing, and shopping centers built to accommodate vehicular traffic. Almost nothing built in Silicon Valley form the 1950’s onward was compatible with either foot or rail traffic.

Today, many American cities are slowly attempting to build smarter developments along rail lines, but as it turns out, we’re a few decades late to the party that, ironically, we invented. We’re now realizing just how difficult a proposition it is to build smart ‘transit oriented’ developments in a valley that has spent the last 40 years building mainly for the automobile.

There is Good Growth Ahead

A light rail transit stop in San Jose, California at mid day (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

A light rail transit stop in San Jose, California at mid day (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

It’s no use crying over dairy farms crushed by housing tracts. New development plans call for human-oriented city design, where urban planners and developers again create neighborhoods with people in mind, instead of 2-ton hunks of metal on wheels.

Yet, changing the way we design transportation and surrounding urban development is not something that city governments and developers can do alone, and frankly, it’s not something we should let them do alone anyway. Good city growth calls even more on the public to be judicious in educating themselves, speaking out against poor developments, and, on the occasion a city does come up with a laudable master plan, holding that city accountable for sticking to its guns. The more each of us is involved and educated, the more the city will be shaped how we want it to be.

Is respect to all of this, it should be evident to us that, although we’ve come a long way since 1920, perhaps it’s time to 1) look back and see if we’ve dropped anything along the way, and 2) Re-examine other countries who have been pushing innovative alternative transportation solutions while we Americans have been toying around with our personal automobiles. Japan is a good place to start, but also far advanced are South Korea, GermanyHolland, and even Colombia, among others.

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/question.gif”]The way transit (both public and personal) is built and used has positive and negative effects our communities in many ways. How has transit planning (or lack thereof) effected you?[/box]

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Resources:

SPUR San Jose – Ideas and Action for a Better City
The Great American Streetcar Scandal
– About.com Report
San Jose / Santa Clara Streetcar + Rail Routes – Listing of Historic Routes
San Jose Streetcar Lines – Buena Vista Neighborhood History
Envison 2040 – City of San Jose Master Plan

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It Takes a Village

How Superstardom Discourages the Cultivation of New Creative Talent

Accordion player Isabel Douglass plays with Rupa and the April Fishes at Left Coast Live in San Jose, California (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Accordion player Isabel Douglass plays with San Francisco-based 'Rupa and the April Fishes' at Left Coast Live in San Jose, California (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

We are both amazingly fortunate, and woefully unfortunate to live this day, in a world where superstardom exists. Over the past several decades, the exploitation of talent as practiced by the modern entertainment industry has effectively demolished the ability for talented artists to make a living. The silver lining which puts us in a slightly more fortunate position, is that this exploitation has effectively begun a reversal, largely thanks to modern technology and the ability for artists to create and share their work cheaply and easily.

But is a the “self-publishing” and “self-producing” system run by the people any better than this giant behemoth of an industry? Certainly not if its proprietors have the same aims as the industry…

The “Village” Mentality

Let’s take it back to a time when superstardom had no weight in the world of music and art, where small groupings of people rejoiced in and supported their own local artists. I call this the “Village” mentality.

When the modern agricultural-based society began to flourish — and communities of people grew larger and were afforded more and more “free” time — the arts took hold not only as a way to entertain, but to communicate and explain the human condition in ways not previously possible. It was during this time that the idea of the importance of the arts (music, dance, visual, and other expressive forms) became accepted as a required part of a “good” life.

The Village mentality meant that each village supported their talented artists and artisans as such, and allowed them to live and be supported by the village in order that they should do their art and perfect their craft. It didn’t always mean that they were supported to sit in a cabin and solely practice their craft, but that the village understood the importance of creativity and talent, and would work to help support and nurture that talent for the good of the village. As a consequence of this Village mentality, it would appear that the world had a great number of artists who were supported well enough to maintain and further their craft.

Superstardom, on the other hand, sees the entire world as a village. This concept could quite possibly be acceptable if it were handled in a responsible way. But that’s not the nature of the worldwide entertainment industry.

Today, superstardom encourages the idea that only a very few in the world are talented enough to make a living from music, visual art, dance, or acting. The irony is not only in the fact that many amazingly talented individuals don’t “make it,” but that many of the ones who do “make it” are not the best, but are merely the ones who are both lucky and just “good enough.” That’s fine, but if this the case, then everyone who is good enough could be supported. Impossible?

Funding Superstardom in the Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Funding Superstardom in the Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using music as an example, in order to make it to the top, musicians must allow themselves to be controlled by an industry which is focused on making income from their talent. It sounds like a good deal for these few individuals, but the reality is that Joe Superstar alone, supports a giant industry of marketers, commercial sponsors, booking companies, giant venues, record company executives, and office workers solely based off the commercialization and exploitation of his talent (see illustration at right). In a sense, the greed and thirst for stardom fuels the greed of hundreds of other individuals who may not be talented, but are perfectly happy to make a living off of exploiting talented individuals and feeding them to the masses.

As consumers, we buy into the idea that superstars aren’t everywhere. We buy into the idea that the best will be found if they really are “that good.”

Then we sit in front of the tele and watch a 50-year-old women who has lived in obscurity all of her life belt out songs that bring us to tears. Susan Boyle is an example of someone who was “found” by the entertainment industry, a few decades late. After her appearance on Britan’s Got Talent, Boyle spent several days in a mental institution and now battles with life as a public figure. Is she better off now that her talent has been commoditized? Now that she has been subjected to public scrutiny on a global scale?

Boyle didn’t have her village for the first half-century of her life, and she still doesn’t to this day. There is no close-knit community which is invested in her talent and personal well-being, there is only a global cast of people who are either  enthralled by her story, or enthralled by the fact that they can make money from her story.

The reality is that our “system” to find talent and bring it to the masses is not just broken, it’s completely wrong in the first place.

Little do most of us know that the people who produce shows such as “Britan’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” are the very people who have created a world where it is nearly impossible to follow your dream of producing work as a talented creative individual without working against all odds for your entire life in order to do it.

Superstardom. Who Needs It?

The creators of superstardom have thrown the majority of the creative world into a ditch, all the while running around, trumpeting the Superstars they’ve manufactured, making millions for themselves along the way. Ask an industry-supported artist and you’re likley to find that, out of the millions that are made from their talents, a very small fraction of a percent ever actually gets to their wallets. The majority of the money made is filtered through giant entities which promote ideas like Superstardom. Do away with this industry-supported superstardom, and the insanely large amounts of money which currently go into global promotion, products and management, could instead be going directly to thousands of local acts and their local management, playing and making livings in their backyards.

Funding Village Stardom in the Local Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Funding Village Stardom in the Local Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

No more middle men, no more superstars that travel the world playing for millions of people. If you want to see your favorite group from Australia… why not plan a trip to Australia and see them at the local concert hall or pub instead of in a football stadium?

Our current format of introducing and supporting creatively talented individuals by exploiting them on a global scale is by and large a complete waste of time and resources.

From the point of view of the artist, and their fans — who, we assume want to hear and see a true and untainted version of that artist — it would be far more beneficial  to keep even the best talent local. It would be far more beneficial to let many many individuals shine and hone their skills instead of picking a select few that will appeal to the masses, watering down their talent, diluting their message, and making them global-industry-supporting-fancy-pants commodities. But it can’t be done by musicians alone, the fans of good music must also join suit.

In the end, it takes a Village.

Does Car + Bike = A Good Thing?

Besides gaining ultra-buff legs, many ‘part-time’ bike commuters end up with an extra  $12,400 at the end of the year.

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece about how Rush Hour can Save you Money, it compared a typical Silicon Valley commute using a car, and the same commute using a bicycle. At the end of the article, a breakdown of costs was provided.

A Twitter re-posting in several different languages followed the article, and many readers found it compelling proof that you don’t need to completely replace your car with a bicycle in order to see immense benefits. Part-time bicycle commuters come away all the better through increased health and cost-savings.

Today, we’re spelling the results out in visual form. The graph below illustrates the average cost of car ownership vs. bicycle ownership over the span of 1 year. We concede of course, that the average bike owner will also need a car on occasion, so we tack on the the bicycle-rider’s budget, around 5,000 miles worth of car rental travel through the ZIP Car service.

Perhaps surprising to many, the bike+rental car still come out on top by far…

The Cost of Your Commute | Car vs. Bicycle and Zip Car (illustration, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Cost of Your Commute | Car vs. Bicycle and Zip Car (illustration, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

How did we come up with these numbers? Check out Calculating the Savings.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Links

Can Rush Hour Save you Money? – sociecity
ZIP Car – urban car sharing / rental
Contact Your City Leaders – usa.gov
Map You Bike Route – Google Maps for Bikes
Physical Activity and Public Health – Journal of the American Heart Association
The Cost of Being Obese – USA Today

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Can “Rush Hour” Save You Money?

Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

What if our path to saving money and becoming more healthy could be as simple as applying some math and logic to our daily commutes? Well, it might take a little bit of physical effort too, but we’ve cooked up a plan that just may be the cure to that pesky post holiday “fund-drain” and “weight-gain” duo. It should be of no surprise that it has to do with one of our favorite topics of late, the humble bicycle.

The illustration below uses times for a typical Silicon Valley commute (during rush hour) on bike and by car. Examining the two commutes, we find that:

1) Car Commute: The typical car commute includes around 1/2 hour in traffic each way, and enough calories burnt to eat a scant few bags of airline peanuts. Then, if you’re still up for it after work, you’ll have to spend more time and energy to sneak in that extra cardio workout. There’s also a whole heap of added money involved (we’ll get to the details of that later.)

2) Bike Commute: The typical day with a bicycle commute often means zero time sitting in traffic, and a whole Big Mac’s worth of calories burnt each way. Then there’s also less time at the gym, with the majority of commute time often going towards a solid cardio workout.

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using cycling as a commute tool can quickly and easily reduce money spent on gas, vehicle wear and tear, gym memberships, stress management, diet plans. But there’s more to using the bicycle as a commute tool than even this…

Calculating the Savings: A Little Incentive for Everyone

One common belief when contemplating the bicycle vs. the motor vehicle is that the biggest savings is on fuel. While this may come to pass eventually given recent rises in the cost of fuel, it’s currently not the case. There are several areas in which you can save huge amounts of money by riding a bicycle, and not all of them are as apparent as one might think.

Another belief — or hardcore eco-cyclist mantra — is the “all or nothing” attitude: ride every day, and ride through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. This is fine for a select few riders, and kudos to those who get out there and do it, but it’s not necessary for all of us to think this way, especially in the beginnings of our bicycle adventures.

The reality is that you don’t have to completely replace your car with a bicycle in order to enjoy the monetary and health benefits of riding.

Even part time bicycle commuting once a week will add up at the end of the year, both in terms of health benefits and money savings. The following numbers take a balanced approach, counting out the cost of a car vs bicycle over an entire year when each method of transportation is used for commuting and short trips around town. These figures also take into account that the bicycle rider will need to use a car for a certain percentage of trips.

Cost to Purchase
Car: $6,811
Road Bike: $126

This price figures the average purchase price of a new car ($28,400) and a new road bike ($524) and depreciates that cost evenly over an average ownership time of 50 months. Figures are from the FTC, and the NBDA, respectively.

Insurance  / Registration
Car: $1525
Bike: $5

The average insurance and registration cost for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Bicycle registration is not available or not required in most states or municipalities, although in areas where it is, the cost is usually between $1 and $10 a year, we split the difference.

Maintenance
Car: $810
Bike: $400

The average maintenance cost per year for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Statistics on bicycle maintenance are scarce and vary, so I relied on the folks at New York’s Metro Bicycle store for an estimate based on their experience with customers. Because of the location in NYC, this estimate may be on the high side.

Finance Charge (interest)
Car: $796
Bike: $0

The average cost of financing your purchase, according to AAA statistics. As the cost to purchase an entire bicycle is about 1/3 the average down payment for a car, it is assumed that a bicycle purchase would not be financed.

Added Health Costs
Car: $2,120
Bike: $0

If you get your exercise some other way, it’s safe for car drivers to remove this from their total cost. The number for car commuters represents the average increase in health costs due to being overweight and/or obese, according to a study by researchers at Gorge Washington University. If you think you’re not in this boat, remember that 70% of Americans currently are! Multiple studies such as those found in the American Journal of Public Health have also found that bicycle commuters have far lower rates of obesity and/or health problems in general.

Added Fuel Costs
Car: $1,923
Bike: $0

Average cost of fuel for a midsize car driven 15,000 miles, according to AAA statistics. Although we assume that the bicycle commuter would also need to drive a car around 5,000 miles per year for trips where the bicycle was an inconvenient mode of transportation, these figures are included in the next section.

Zip Car / Car Rental
Car: $0
Bike: $1,020

Because the bicyclist can’t conceivably make all of his or her trips on bicycle, we’ve figured in an average yearly usage of the zipcar service, both for weekly trips around town and day trips throughout the year. Zipcar includes fuel and insurance as part of their flat-fee rental structure.

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]TOTAL COST PER YEAR

CAR ONLY: $13,985

BICYCLE + PART TIME CAR: $1,551[/box]

 

For those of us who are stuck all day in traffic, in a cubicle, or in a gym full of sweaty people, cycling to work begins to look like an appetizing alternative to a workweek of driving.  And call us penny-pinchers, but we’re always open to the prospect of staying physically and mentally healthy, while saving gobs of money to boot.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Links

Contact Your City Leaders – usa.gov
Map You Bike Route – Google Maps for Bikes
Physical Activity and Public Health – Journal of the American Heart Association
The Cost of Being Obese – USA Today

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The American (Fooled and Drugged) Economy

Why are there more obese, diabetic, just plain sick Americans than ever before? What causes us to be sick, and why do we pay so much compared to other nations to get healthy again?

Well, we’re not only paying more to get healthy, we’re also paying more to get sick. Confused? Follow along with the illustration below, dubbed the American Fooled and Drugged Economy and see if things start to make sense.

The American Food and Drug (fooled and drugged) Economy (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

In short, the American people make money at unnecessarily stressful jobs to help pay for fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, and various pollution-generating devices, all of which in turn causes disease and health issues for the people. So the people then pay for cures, which come from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry who make the drugs, weight-loss schemes, diabetes medication, cancer treatments and various forms of therapy.

It’s no small wonder that the U.S. is by far the world’s leading economy, no other country takes advantage of its people so efficiently…

Dirty Useless Bums, or Eco Heroes?

Homeless: The Unlikely Eco Hero? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Photo Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

Let’s cut to the chase and be brutally honest about what our stereotypical “bum” is: a dirty, drunken, frightening, socially inept creature of the urban environment, someone who has ‘fallen off the cart’ so to speak, and makes a living, well, by living off of the hard work of other people who have chosen to be productive members of society.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the street-dweller from a slightly different point of view.

Most street-dwellers don’t just stand on corners begging for money, and they don’t just walk around with all of their belongings in that stolen shopping cart. Many are active recyclers, walking about with shopping carts full of cans and glass bottles, all of which are turned in for cash at local recycling stations.

Not only do these homeless recyclers take responsibility for all of us ‘average’ persons who hastily throw away our bottles, cans, or papers from time to time — or all the time — they also happen to have an inherently low impact lifestyle to begin with. No huge house to air-condition or heat, no bathtub or shower to run, no fancy gas or electric range, no washing machine, no closet full of clothes and shoes, no fossil-fuel burning SUV. If they’re lucky, they have a small propane stove, a few changes of clothes, some blankets, a bicycle, and a shopping cart.

The lifestyle of the average homeless person — dirty and unsavory as it may seem — is a rather eco-conscious one.

Some might rightly argue, that recycling itself is a sham, that 50 years ago, we didn’t recycle anything and the planet was better off for it. I will offer no arguments against that claim. In 1950 or thereabouts, 100% of soda bottles in the U.S. were reusable — remember: reduce, reuse, recycle, where recycling comes as a last resort — and we sent the bottles to be cleaned and refilled instead of using more energy crushing or melting them to produce a “recycled” product. Indeed, re-using glass bottles is much more eco-friendly than crushing and recycling them. But that is a story for another day, and today we are in the unfortunate circumstance of living in a system that sends tons upon tons of waste to the landfill.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 82 million tons of recyclable materials to the landfill each year. By weight, that’s like taking every single car sold in the world this year, and throwing it into a giant garbage heap. One wonders how much more recycling would be sent to the garbage dump if it weren’t for the street collectors we see on the streets during the day, or rummaging through the local dumpster at night.

What would happen if we stopped looking at the homeless problem as a “problem,” but instead as a “solution.” To clarify, I’m not advocating that banks continue to push people out of their homes and into the homeless lifestyle, nor am I saying that it’s a positive thing to have people who are forced to sleep on the streets. Rather, I’m advocating that we look at the homeless population — many of whom willingly choose to live this kind of lifestyle — in a different way, that we help them do the work of recycling instead of making it more difficult or illegal for them, as is the case in multiple municipalities.

But if that all seems like too much work, the least we might do is respect them a bit more.

Much of the homeless population are the unlikely eco-heros of the urban sphere. The ecosystem impact of the local garbage rummager is not only far less than the average person, but is further offset by their cleaning up of our mess so to speak. These people — largely unwittingly and largely unrecognized — do our cities a service every day, and our standard repayment is often to look down on them, or perhaps to take pity and toss them a few coins.

So the next time  you walk out of a fancy restaurant towards your car and  you see a some unkempt person in ratty clothes collecting recyclables from the trash, perhaps you should fight that urge to turn your nose up in repulsion, and thank them instead.

After all, isn’t it the homeless person who should presumably be repulsed by the prodigal masses?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]References and Further Research:

EPA United States Recycling Facts – EPA.gov (PDF)
World Car Production Count – Worldometers
Homeless Recyclers Screwed – PlanetSave.com
Pennywise, Dollar Foolish – YouTube

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The Dark Future for America’s Brightest City

An Empty San Jose Center for Performing Arts (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Frank Lloyd Wright designed San Jose Center for Performing Arts sits empty (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Like Many U.S. cities, the San Jose, California is in damage control mode, struggling with crippling budget shortfalls and making cuts in multiple areas. At an economic development meeting this week, it was said that although the police force lost over 60 officers to layoffs recently, the city still has over $3 million on their books sanctioned for art.

$3 Million to ART!?

Many would argue that any such superfluous funding should be cut before police officers are laid off, and that is precisely what the City of San Jose intends to do.

The Current Paradigm

The City of San Jose, as with any other large U.S. City, has a governmental structure built on a simple paradigm: tax the population and city visitors, and use that money to provide essential services. The issue with this paradigm is, has always been, and will likely continue to be in the way our government defines “essential services.” The standard fashion for defining these services, is to do so in a reactionary way. That is, to combat the negative things such as crime — which are seen as a fact of life — with a controlling force.

By this way of thinking, we have police to protect and serve, emergency medical services to save lives, and art to take us away from the dreary day-to-day grind. But isn’t there more to safety, health, and life, and don’t we have other options in creating a safe, healthy, happy environment in our cities?

The issue with reactionary definitions is that they do not address the source of the problems they seek to solve.

Reactionary thinking only serves to treat surface conditions, and often assumes that these conditions (crime, poor health, boredom) are unavoidable.

This type of thinking will lead to, at best, a constant struggle between affliction and methods of protection; at worst, and almost certainly eventually, it will send any society into an unending downward spiral.

As a case study, the City of San Jose has closed libraries, and shortened their hours in order to maintain budget that will save police jobs. This is a reactionary move; the city needs money to maintain police in order to protect us from the crime which they assume will always be there.

What reactionary thinking does not look at, however, is the root of our problems, such as crime, and where these problems come from. In doing so, our government not only ignores many causes of crime, but often inadvertently helps these causes, in turn creating a need for large numbers of police officers.

Unfortunately for us, this problem — creating bad things that we should have a reason to battle these bad things — is not a unique problem in our world today, or historically.

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, sits in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Reactionary thinking patterns do not take into account that extended library hours and engaging youth programs are things which keep crime rates at bay, that the more engaged youth we have, the less crime there will be, and that dollar for dollar, spending on preventative measures to stop crime before it begins is much more effective than fighting crime after it has had a chance to breed.

Part of the reason that this thought is not accepted so easily is that when we see immediate problems, we look for immediate solutions; and let’s be quite clear here, the correlation between library hours and crime is not an immediate one. This does not mean, however, that the tie does not exist. A seemingly small detail such as library closures is just one of the roots of the larger issue of crime; closures here and there, or even shortened hours are all actions which will give freely and plentifully to a slow but constant upswing in crime rates.

Into the Dark?

At this very moment, Charles Reed, the Honorable Mayor of the City of San Jose — along with like-minded leaders across the country — is unwittingly planting the seeds which have the very real potential to become immense root-systems of crime and civil unrest.

Historically, when civilizations have made the decision to cut arts, community, and cultural activities, those civilizations have seen crime rise and quality of life drop.

It won’t happen overnight of course, not likely until our mayors and government officials are long out of office. But as long as they balance the budget during the current term, our leaders can afford to let it be the next one’s problem.

If our leaders were to do the opposite at this juncture, to put more money into the arts and culture, to increase after-school programs and library hours, and to invest more in cultural facilities and festivals, the effect would also be the opposite. A slow, but unstoppable path would be paved to lower crime, safer streets, and better quality of life.

Let me be very clear in saying that if your goal is a safe, happy, and healthy city, the arts are not a nice-to-have, they are a must-be.

I understand it would be very easy to write off these words as not addressing the technical aspects of the problem at hand, as not being complex enough to fully realize the breadth of the situation. But in fact, these ideas supersede all of the technical aspects, and they do so because they are the building blocks on which these technical aspects are created in our society.

San Jose and other cities can continue to proceed with their plans to cut funding for the arts, close more libraries and cultural facilities, remove funding for parades, festivals, and cultural celebrations, and it won’t look too terrible next month, or even next year.

You won’t see the effect immediately, but with the final pen stroke that would cut arts and culture funding, the end result will already be irreversible. Citizens will leave for greener, perhaps smaller and more vibrant communities, crime in large cities will increase, and the police force will really need to grow exponentially in numbers to take care of the long lasting ill-effects of this budget “solution.”

With a shiny new balanced budget and dwindling support for arts and culture, the road to the downfall of our cities might be relatively quick. The recovery however — even in simply returning to today’s vibrant, culturally rich landscape — will require a hard many decades.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Further Research and Reading:

The Leading Innovative Cities – Forbes
Cultural Facilities Plan Update – City of San Jose (PDF)
Art Facts for At-Risk Youth – Americans for the Arts (PDF)

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When Cycling is a Crime

Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Riding a bicycle on the side of a busy street with traffic buzzing past at 35-50 miles-per-hour; it is one of the most uncomfortable, undesirable ways to get around town for the average person, yet many cities encourage it. Not only that, they are also proud of their accomplishments in painting white lines on the sides of main roads.

Even leading bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. such as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco exhibit the same bicycle infrastructure  inadequacies. Yet many planners and riders alike in the U.S. are under the impression that a bike-friendly city plan begins and ends with lines painted on the side of a busy road, riverside paths used for recreation (but not as commute routes), and fragments of good separate right-of-ways that do not create useful routes.

In fact, none of these elements make for a bike-friendly city; they only maintain a car-centric city in which bicycles are both a marginalized and dangerous form of transportation, along with a nuisance to drivers.

Cyclists who care about their safety, as well as motorists who are weary of driving next to bicycles should put their cities on notice: Cycling is not share the road signs, it is not a brand new riverside bike path, and it is certainly not lines painted on a road built for cars.

Cycling is a complete infrastructure, it is a dedicated system, and it is a culture; and it is something that most U.S. cities sadly do not have.

Dr. Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation — a man who you might hear a lot about around these parts — reminds us about the dangers associated with high-speed traffic and on-road bicycle lanes. Dr. Ensink states that in a car/bicycle collision at 20 mph the cyclist has a 5% chance of death; raise that vehicle speed, and the chances of death rise sharply from there, with an 80% chance of death by the time you reach 35 mph.

Safety in Helmets?

Many think it’s not infrastructure, but helmets that are the answer, yet while the U.S. already has one of the highest percentage of riders wearing helmets (an estimated 1 in 2), it also has one of the highest cyclist fatality rates (110 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The Netherlands, by comparison, sees only a small number wearing helmets (1 in 1,000 riders), yet it has one of the lowest percentages of bicycle-related fatalities (17 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The reality is that, helmet or not, nearly all of the people who die in bicycle accidents are being killed by motor vehicles. Bicycles have no business being next to motor vehicles and vehicles have no business traveling next to bicycles.

Despite the logic, statistics, and common sense which would tell us otherwise, we seem to think our system is quite reasonable. Someone from Amstersam, however, might tell us:

“A 3,000-kilo SUV traveling 55kph beside a 10-kilo bicycle traveling 15kph? Are you Americans fu***ng nuts?” — Jaques Brissot, a Frenchman living in Amsterdam.

Okay, well if it’s not helmets, what do the Dutch have that we don’t?

Digging Deep Roots

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

For starters, the Dutch have a proper infrastructure, a safe and dedicated system, and a deep-rooted culture of cycling.

Deep roots must start somewhere, and for the U.S. to grow them, we must realize that, if the majority of bicycle lanes are placed alongside fast moving traffic, people will ride their bicycles less, and fatal accidents will happen far more often. This is especially true if said lanes are not separated from traffic, not respected by traffic, and not given their own infrastructure including the bicycle traffic signals common in much of Europe and Asia.

This is not an issue we can squarely blame on any one entity, both the government and people alike have made the current system acceptable; the government by their actions, and the people by their collective inaction. A few mid-sized cities in the U.S. have become unsung heroes, Boulder, Colorado being one of the notables in the fact that they have a large network of bicycle-only roads, underpasses for safe cycle and pedestrian passage, and they spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle, pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects during 2007-08.

Boulder successfully changed their way of thinking about the bicycle, and was able to make it a viable transit option.

If we want to make a positive change on a large scale, more citizens and municipalities must begin to look at bicycling in a completely different way, as a healthy form of transportation, a serious form of transportation, and quite frankly, as a big part of the future of local transportation.

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

As citizens, we must demand from our cities, that if a person chooses to keep themselves and the planet healthy by riding a bicycle, they should no longer be punished for their efforts in this cruel way, essentially gambling their lives each time they ride. Proper bicycle infrastructure is a necessity for the health and safety of citizens, there is no other way to say it, and there should be no excuses to squirm out of that fact.

We are moving forward into a new found “green” age, and if our world civic and business leaders would like to come along for the ride and support green transportation, they must also make the pledge to do it smartly by placing cycling as a priority, not an afterthought.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Resources:

Bicycle Crash Facts – Bicycling Info
The Boulder, Colorado Multimodal Transportation System – Bicycling Info
Getting Cyclists to Use Helmets – Wall Street Journal
Bicycle Fatalities Data and Map – Mercury News
National Bike Helmet Use Survey – U.S. CPSC

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Editor’s Note: When this article was published on Nov 29, 2011, it incorrectly noted that Boulder spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle infrastructure. This number also includes pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects.

Why We Need an Unhealthy Population

Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Recenly, a photographer friend Wei Hwu gave me a huge cake, it was left over from a photo shoot she had earlier in the day. With the cake sitting on my kitchen counter, I realized it didn’t really fit in its container with the lid closed. So I did the only logical thing: I started eating until it fit.

This cake was slightly mangled – it had a rough photo shoot – and was swimming in frosting at certain places, while naked in others. During the process of eating it, I realized my personal quandary of cake eating: I don’t like it when there’s too much frosting, it overpowers the cake, but when there’s too little, I crave for more. Like most people, I desire balance. I attacked the cake with relative precision in terms of how much cake accompanies how much frosting.

Although not all of us are quite as OCD about their cake eating as I, we all have the desire for balance to varying extents.

We humans require a certain balance in the things we directly interact with, and the things we directly consume.

In this way, we are connected with our environment and the resources we consume, just as, for instance, plants are connected when they take nutrients from the soil.

Which brings me to one Andre Woodward, a rather unique artist I had the pleasure of meeting a few months back.

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo, Patrick Lydon)

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo: Patrick Lydon)

Andre, artist in residence at Montalvo Arts Center, has a habit of growing plants in very strange conditions and contortions, perhaps most famously encasing the roots of small trees in concrete to form sculptures. Living sculptures. The first plants he created about five years ago are still healthy, he simply ‘waters’ the concrete blocks. It’s a slightly disturbing yet amazing sight.

During his experiments with these plants cast into concrete, Andre noticed something very special: plants won’t grow too fast if there are not enough nutrients to sustain themselves. It seems self-explanatory, but the point here is that, even though these plants  – Andre uses ficus and maple in particular – are placed in what look like dire situations, they don’t die. Instead, they simply cut consumption, living on a rather conservative diet.

Humans used to be much the same way. Recently, however, something has disrupted this balance and we are growing to insanely unhealthy proportions.

But We’re Living Longer!

Some organizations such as the United Nations, seem to think all that a statistic of primary concern is length of life, and thus applaud nations who can keep their people alive the longest. Yet even though our lifespans are much longer than they were decades ago, they are also riddled with far more shiny-new health problems. We’re seeing people live to be 80 and 90 years old, yet they have a constant need for medication their entire life. We’re seeing people who have serious mobility issues by the time they are 30 years old and they end up spending the majority of their adult lives in a wheelchair or hospital bed, not from unfortunate physical accidents, but from circumstances which could be helped simply by proper eating habits.

Long life does not equal quality of life.

All for Sugar and Sugar for All

Remembering the profit-margin banner under which our corporate world functions is important at this point, as in the U.S. in particular, researchers point fervently to sugar (and high-fructose corn syrup) as the main ingredient, not only in diabetes, but in obesity.  Dr. Robert H. Lustig believes he has pinned the issue with our current obesity epidemic squarely on fructose.

Essentially, the market found a sweet, cost-effective substance that was readily available and could make even the most horrible cardboard diet crackers taste good… and they poured it into just about everything we ate.

In his speakings on fructose, Dr. Lustig would have us know that not even our own government understands the real causes behind the obesity issue. In fact, he claims that in our quest for the perfect diet in the U.S., we’ve been attacking the wrong enemies altogether. Lustig’s surprise hit 1.5-hour lecture (with nearly 2 million YouTube views) shows us how our sugar and fiber intakes are unbalanced, and how even chomping down on fat might be preferable to eating anything laden with sugar and its unfortunate cousin, high-fructose corn syrup.

While he’s at it breaking down the role of sugar as a poison, Lustig also pokes some huge holes in current thought when it comes to obesity. Most amazingly — amazing because it seems so simple — he notes the fact that the U.S. government built decades of health education and diet recommendations on a thought process that does not even hold up to the most basic logic. It’s a “duh” moment for anyone watching.

Yet whether sugar turns out to have been the magic bullet or not, our own critical eye and mind remains the key in rounding that corner to a more healthy lifestyle. Corporations are not inherently evil entities, but we must remember that large parts of the industries who feed us and who treat our diseases are focused on profit first, and handling public backlash second; and the most successful ones can do both simultaneously.

Tell Me What to Eat!

Through a combination of advertising onslaughts — and according to researchers such as Dr. Lustig, through the prevalence of sugars and high-fructose corn syrup in our diets — we’ve lost the ability to control our eating habits. If we were one of Andre’s plants, our roots would have destroyed the concrete and reached out down the street for some burgers, coke, and fruit juice.

And this is exactly how the market needs us to be.

If major food and drug companies could help it (and they are trying), they might just enjoy seeing the entire world as a bunch of obese, diabetic, terminally ill beings who live relatively long lives in pain and are profusely medicated.

Why would any food or pharmaceutical company wish ill on you and I?

It’s nothing personal, it’s just good business. What use is a healthy, fit world to companies who sell unhealthy food, or to companies who sell drugs to combat the effects of unhealthy food? The majority of these business entities would catastrophically fail if all of a sudden we became a healthy, responsible, controlled population.

We are not, and the green-eyed thrive on that fact.

At last count, there were about 238 million Americans (about 70% of the country) who abide by advertisements, clean off their plates, empty their soda and juice cups, and are now categorized as overweight or obese.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Information and Research:

CDC Obesity Statistics – PDF
United States Census Quick Facts – Web
Health Affairs Report: Who’s Paying for Obesity? – PDF
Dr. Robert Lustig: Sugar, the Bitter Truth
 – Video

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Photo Illustration Credit: Patrick Lydon, with works by Mikael Häggström, FatM1ke, Erich Ferdinand, James Heilman, MD.

Burgers to the Grid: Fat-Powered City

From Burgers to the Grid (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

From Burgers to the Grid (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

What is the largest source of stored energy in the U.S. today?

Is it in battery bays adjacent to wind-power facilities? The undercarriages of the 1 million Prius vehicles on our streets? The coal mines and oil reserves yet to be tapped into?

Or is it in the bellies of 238 million overweight and obese Americans?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. citizens either eat or waste an average of 3,600 calories per day, that’s 1,600 calories over the 2,000 calorie recommended daily allowance. Because calories are essentially energy (which soon get converted into fat) we began to wonder: What if we were able to convert all of that excess caloric energy into power? Perhaps we might do well to introduce America’s renewable energy needs to our bellies.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement of course, but looking at the numbers, if that extra 1,600 calories were converted into energy, that would make (1,600kcal x 317,000,000 Americans) = 185 trillion kcal. Convert those kcals to joules and you come up with a figure of around 250 Million Gigawatt/hr of power.

All told, Americans eat or waste enough excess food-energy in a single year to provide power to 7.95 Billion households, or enough to power every house in the U.S. For 70 years at current power consumption rates.

Of course, the results of these calculations would only be possible if every American burned off all of the excess calories they ate (about 4-5 hours of cycling per day) and if those calories were able to be directly (losslessly) converted to energy. It is at this point that any vision of an electricity grid powered by cyclists at the gym begins to seem impossible at worst, and unlikely at best.

There are glints of hope, however: using bicycles for power (either for direct mechanical power, or to produce stored energy) is not a new idea. We’ve been powering everything from lightbulbs (electrically) to blenders (mechanically) with bicycles for quite some time, and recently, a few students at MIT even developed a bicycle-powered laptop.

MIT ‘innovation’ aside, a very small amount of time, research and funding has gone into making human-power energy generation technology more efficient, especially when compared to other ‘sustainable’ energy creation methods.

Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration | sociecity)

Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using human energy for electric power would do more than just provide exercise and energy however, it would give Americans an important reason to come together for a common goal and, of equal importance, would help us attach a tangible activity to our consumption.

Conceptually, the idea has much in common with projects such as the Victory Gardens during WWII, also a lot of manual work, yet hugely successful on many levels. Given proper intellectual and financial resources, human-power could be a big win for the United States, perhaps making us one of the leanest, greenest nations, instead of the fattest and most wasteful.

While powering all of the houses in the U.S. for 70 years may not be possible, just visualizing those 185 trillion calories as watts gives us a very real glimpse at the amount of raw excess energy (yes, food is energy) that we put in our mouths each day.

So then, until our local neighborhood bike generator farm arrives, perhaps we should just start making smaller plates?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Research:

The Nutrition Transition to 3020 – Schmidhuber/Shetty (pdf)
Population Clock – U.S. Census Bureau
Installed Capacity of World Power Plants – Steam Tables Online
Household Energy Savings – Silverman/U.C. Irvine
U.S. Energy Consumption – U.S. Energy Information Administration

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Changwon: Why the Bicycle isn’t About “Saving the Planet”

Bernhard Ensink speaks in Changwon, South Korea (photo | sociecity)

Bernhard Ensink speaks in Changwon, South Korea (photo | sociecity)

This Saturday in Changwon, Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation claimed that the attitude of young German adults is changing, that they are less inclined to feel the need or even ‘want’ for a personal automobile, and more inclined to want the latest iPhone. According to Ensink, a staggering 80% of young Germans believe that people don’t need a private car anymore. His words have striking relevance, not just in Germany or the EU, but throughout industrialized nations around the globe.

It was a finding echoed most often during the EcoMobility World Congress, there a very real change in mindset happening, and a distinct movement away from the car in most developed nations.

Whether it’s gasoline, electric, hybrid, ethanol, nitrogen, or CNG, cars as a form of transportation have already hit or will soon hit peak usage in most developed nations, and the numbers are slowly shifting towards human power and public transit.  Although the “eco-conscious” wave might have helped us get here, in the end it’s not only about saving the planet, not about less CO2 emissions, not about global warming; it’s about a better quality of life for every human being, and the cities and transportation methods necessary to achieve that quality of life.

When examining multiple quality of life issues, transportation comes up in relation to nearly every single one of them and can have a very negative or very positive effect. EcoMobility enforced that notion, and it’s apparent that may of the world’s transportation leaders have found their field to be most relevant to daily life improvements. And as Eric Burton notes, compared with other large-scale changes, transportation is not so difficult a change to make… out of all the technological improvements which touch our day to day life, transportation is the easiest to impact.

Freedom, What is it Good For?

Early on in the conference, Ensink took us back to 1919, where the average ‘safe walking distance’ for a person was around six miles. That is to say, mom would generally tell her sons: Going fishing boys? Just make sure you don’t walk too far that you can’t make it back before dinner time.

Safe Walking Distance (illustration | sociecity)

Safe Walking Distance (illustration | sociecity)

By 1950, the distance viewed as safe for walking had been reduced down to 1 mile, mom would now say: boys, I don’t want you crossing the main road to hang out with those filthy Lehman kids, and be sure to make it back in time for dinner.

Today’s average, safe walking distance? It’s around 300 yards, or to the end of the block. Mom is now saying: if I can’t see you kids from the window, you’ve gone too far, and come in for dinner when I blow the dinner whistle.

Kids want to rome, explore, learn, and parents want them to be safe doing it, the same limitations apply to elders who can no longer drive, who stand at the doorstep of their home, looking out at a system which fails to help them meet simple needs such as walking to the store on their own.

Gil Penalusa, Director of 8-80 Cities makes the point in the very name of his organization, asking us to think of an 8 year old, and think of an 80 year old, both of whom are very close to you, then ask if you would let them walk across an intersection to the store alone. If your answer is yes, you live in a walkable city. If the answer is no, you must ask, why not, and what improvements should be made so that your neighborhood is more safe, and more walkable?

In essence, everyone deserves to be able to answer yes to Gil’s question. How free do we really feel if we can’t safely walk further than the end of our street?

From Vehicle Traffic to Crime

It’s interesting that many people’s minds will jump to crime as the culprit, as the cause of this shortened ring of safety. But you can’t blame the the smoke for pollution, and while crime may be a factor, it is not the root cause of our inability to walk through a neighborhood.

The root cause is 100% in the design flaws of the modern city, or more specifically, cities designed for the car. Humans, bikes, and rail be damned, they are all afterthoughts in most city design.

Our cities are currently geared towards one thing: a 1.5 Ton metal box hurtling down a street at 45mph, carrying a single person 1/2oth its weight. The problem with this design? We are not a society of cars, we are a society of people who unfortunately have chosen to embrace the automobile as our main method of transportation.

Nubija Bike System Tour, Changwon, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Nubija Bike System Tour, Changwon, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

The needs of the person and the needs of the car are not synonymous, and by design, the city must return to servicing the needs of the person first.

To anyone looking in from outside our society, our reliance on the automobile would seem completely ridiculous, but we have grown up with the fact that is is ‘normal’ and thus it has become an acceptable part of life for us. However, many of us are now challenging this thought, and asking ourselves “would I rather drive a metal box that weighs 20-times my weight and be confined to that box for 99% of my travel, or would I rather reject the car and move about freely through walking, bicycling, and public transit for 99% of my travel?”

We’re beginning to ‘get it’ finally, and as most acts of cultural re-programming go, it starts with our youth. Attitudes are changing, and the sticking point is now largely in infrastructure.

But this new infrastructure won’t build itself, and it won’t appear for the good of the citizens alone, it must be demanded by those who want a better quality of life.

Today, the question isn’t if, but when today’s school children, university students,  housewives, and commuters will stand up and force our cities and our transportation industry to change for the better.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More Information:

EcoMobility Alliance: http://www.ecomobility.org/
Nubija Bicycle System: http://nubija.changwon.go.kr/english/english.htm
European Cyclists’ Federation: http://www.ecf.com/
8-80 Cities: http://www.8-80cities.org [/box]

 

Dumulmeori Four Rivers Alternative Farm Plan

South Korean Four Rivers Project gets “Organic Education”

Despite a heavy downpour of rain, and with their fate still resting on a court ruling November 9th, it was mostly smiles and celebration in South Korea’s Dumulmeori farmland this weekend as hundreds came to watch 25 bands play on 3 stages. The Dumulmeori Music Festival is part of a bid to create awareness for a new way of thinking about farming and riverside ecology in the midst of a controversial river construction project.

The Dumulmeori farmers are in a perilous place, representing what is essentially the last piece of land holding up completion of the $19 Billion Four Rivers Project.

Although South Korea’s Minister of Environment, Yoo Young-sook, says the project will “secure abundant, clean water… and pass on a beautiful ecology and a future of sustainable development to the next generation,” you’d be hard pressed to match those words to anything in the government’s plan at Dumulmeori.

The organic farmers at Dumulmeori say it’s all lip-service, claiming that the environment — at least around their piece of the river — does not suffer from flooding and is actually cleaner than the proposed government standard.

Dumulmeori Organic Farms Music Festival, Korea

Dumulmeori Organic Farms Music Festival, Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

The interesting part of this story — and the part which may help farmers reach an accord with the government — is that the piece of land at Dumulmeori is not slated for dams, weirs, habitat-reclamation, or other water-control type development.

Instead, Dumulmeori is targeted for an amusement park, government-managed parkland, and bicycle paths; not exactly the type of development that would be highlighted as part of a “green vision” for the South Korean mega-project.

Working with architects, urban and regional planners, farmers, and community members, the Dumulmeori group have come up with an interesting alternative solution that blends the current organic farmland with educational public farming facilities and bicycle/walking paths.

The plan that the farmers bring to the table is not so much a compromise, as it is an innovative use of one of South Korea’s few remaining riverside treasures. It’s the kind of plan other countries could use as a rubric.

Dumulmeori Farm Alternative Model

Dumulmeori Farm Alternative Model

Standing between Dumulmeori’s natural riparian corridor and its lush green farmland, the view of the river and surrounding land is spectacular. One could imagine groups of International eco-tourists, and local school children arriving at Dumulmeori to learn about natural river ecology and organic farming methods, all while taking in the famous vistas at this point of confluence where the Han River begins.

The farmers feel that their forward-thinking 100+ page plan is a good bit more appropriate than the current development plan of a ferris wheel and roller coaster, and my feeling is that you’d have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with their sentiment.

For the sake of the beautiful slice of land that is Dumulmeori, hopefully the South Korean Courts, along with President Lee Myung-bak, agree, too.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More on Four Rivers and Dumulmeori Farm:

The Four Rivers Project and the Future (Korea Herald Article)
Restoration or Devastation (Science Times Article)
South Korea’s Four Rivers Project (sociecity)
Court Backs Farmers over River Scheme (UCA News)
Dumulmeori Organic Farm Committee [/box]

 

Sanri Urfa Old Market (Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Looking for Happiness in GDP

Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity

The world’s industrialized nations have long looked to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an indicator of a country’s prosperity and well-being even though, well, it’s not an indicator of anything but money. And although money can buy you anything — except love of course — it is simply not a direct measurement of well being.

This general concept of ‘prosperity’ existed a few thousand years before GDP came into use, yet the latter is still used to define the former on a regular basis.

GDP vs Life Satisfaction (Gallup Poll)

GDP and Life Satisfaction (Gallup Poll)

In a perversion kind of like brushing your teeth with a hairbrush, GDP has been subject to years of misuse, eventually bringing us to a point where it’s simply acceptable practice to use it as a quality of life indicator. The trend continues in spite of the fact that many countries with a low per-capita GDP have equal or higher ‘quality of life’ than those countries with a very high per-capita GDP.

But what then, pundits argue, would be a more fit measurement for determining national well-being if not GDP? Should we resort to measuring raw happiness?

**insert hearty laughs**

Happiness as a Metric

The country of Bhutan, a small kingdom in between China and India, isn’t laughing. In fact, they find the measure of happiness rather useful. So useful in fact, that they use a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index as their primary determinant for quality of life, not GDP.

And why not?

Despite the seemingly interpretive nature of GNH, a measurement of happiness has the potential to provide far more direct and meaningful indications of quality of life than any financial measurement.

There is a general belief that consistency is a problem in measuring happiness, but when GNH is compared against GDP in this way, several merits of consistency in favor of GNH actually begin to show themselves, including that:

  • The value of happiness does not fluctuate widely between countries
  • The value of happiness can not be traded nor can it be valued and devalued on a stock market
  • The value of happiness is not controlled and handed out by a central Bank of Happiness
  • The value of happiness does not lose value over time due to inflation

Monetary wealth is of course, subject to all of the above limitations.

Who’s Laughing Now?

If our interest is truly aimed at measuring important national development metrics, then GNH should not only be a contender, but a primary factor in our study, measurement, and understanding of our development. This is especially true when it comes to quality of life, where one could argue that GNH should be the only metric.

Yet to date, only a few world leaders — namely Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and French President Nicholas Sarkozy — are on board with the idea of elevating the importance of GNH. Of the two, Sarkozy has been ridiculed, while the Bhutan King has an entire Gross National Happiness Commission at his disposal.

Perhaps the Kingdom of Bhutan is laughing after all…

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Reading on GDP and GNH:

Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission
Moving Beyond GDP
Sarkozy Wants ‘Well Being’ to Replace GDP 
GDP: One of the Great Inventions of the 20th Century
Money and Happiness (Gallup Poll PDF)

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Why We Shout About Poverty

Photogrpahs by Suhee Kang
Words by Patrick Lydon

Smiling Children (Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

We shout about poverty

use it to define those
who ‘do not have’

But before our influence spread

These people didn’t know of
money, wealth, extravagance, poverty

They only cared  of
family, earth, food, shelter

Smiling Children (Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

So how is it

that a nation
who puts family and basic necessity
above all else

is more ‘impoverished’

than a nation
who puts wealth and material possessions
before anything

Which is the country
truly impoverished

Smiling Children (Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

A simple life does not mean
a low quality life

what use is complexity
if stress is heightened
quality time is diminished
and true connection with life is unheard of

A tin roof does not mean
an unhappy family

what use is a comfortable, cavernous living room
if father and mother are at work
children are at day care
and there is no family to speak of

Mother and Child (Photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Are those in less industrialized countries crazy
for living in simplicity
and connecting firstly with the earth and eachother

Or are we crazy
for ignoring simplicity
and connecting firstly with technology and our possessions

The Typical American Farm, Fred Meyer Grocery (Photo: Lyzadanger)

If Humans Had Roots to Eat By

(Photo: Lyzadanger)

The supermarket is the new farm. And what a colorful field-day of sweet seduction it is.

Although humans have always maintained the ability to rationalize food supply vs consumption, there several slight glitches in our system as it stands today, beginning with a rather large glitch: we have no roots.

What does it mean to have no roots?

While we still maintain a direct connection with what is on our plate, what is in our kitchen cabinet, or what happens to be on the shelves at the  supermarket, the connection rarely goes deeper than this. It does not reach under the soil, so to speak.

Unlike plants, we are no longer truly connected in any direct sense to our sources of our food. We have effectively been uprooted by a culture of convenience built on processed, packaged foods and supermarkets.

Despite standardized government labeling, the average person in the average city or town still has little opportunity to see what is really in their food, let alone where it comes from, the scope of resources used to create that food, or how their eating habits affect the future of human sustainability. The human-food connection is nearly extinct, and it’s causing all sorts of problems ranging from health issues to environmental issues.

Plant Food Sources v. Human Food Sources (Graphic: Patrick Lydon)

The conventional idea that our food comes from the supermarket, or from a glorious green pasture, is a shiny and colorful falsehood that separates us from reality.

The truth, of course, is that our food comes from a delivery truck, which comes from a distribution center, which comes from another truck from a processing plant, which comes from a slaughterhouse, which comes from another delivery truck from a farm, which gets its feed from another farm that gets its seeds from a global manufacturer, and gets its antibiotics from another global manufacturer, most of which are essentially held hostage by rather large and wealthy corporations such as Monsanto.

This scenario is a bit heavy on the doom and gloom perhaps, but there is an amazingly bright side to this story, and it is in the choices you have, and the power you wield as a consumer of food. For now, you, your friends, and your neighbors still have the ultimate power and say in what you eat.

Here are a few simple solutions for a human/nature re-connection that are available to us, namely:

  1. Researching where food comes from and what is in it for yourself instead of trusting the shiny ‘healthy’ sticker on the package
  2. Buying more local food (see link below for help finding local producers)
  3. Growing your own food when possible

[box type=”download” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/iconplant.gif”]Useful Links:

Take Part Food Blog – http://www.takepart.com/food
The Eat Well Guide – http://www.eatwellguide.org
Local Harvest Finder – http://www.localharvest.org
What is Organic? – http://www.nongmoshoppingguide.com/what-is-organic.html
The World According to Monsanto – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH4OwBYDQe8[/box]

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/question.gif”]What are your favorite sources for local and healthy eating?

Share your answer[/box]

Old Canning Factory in Martha's Gardens

Martha’s Gardens: The Half-Gentrified Gem

photography: Patrick Lydon

The plan for Martha’s Gardens neighborhood in San Jose, California is a relatively bold development considering the makeup of the city in which it sits. For the past several decades, the neighborhood has been a half-bungalow, half-industrial mix with an art metal foundry (the San Jose State University) and few artists holed up in a nearby former fruit-canning factory called “The Citadel”. Until recently, the “Martha’s Garden” neighborhood had no real identity, and was curiously devoid of a garden.

Today Martha’s Gardens is home to the Art Ark apartment complex, Bestor Art Park, Art Ark Gallery, and a block of mixed-density apartment dwellings, half of which are street-facing, engaging the neighborhood streets. The Art Ark complex itself, hosts monthly gallery openings year round with a mix of artists from the surrounding community and often group shows featuring various SJSU art programs. The apartment complex also hosts weekly movie nights during the summer months.

The Art Ark development seems unlike our standard vision of the average low-income development, it’s clean, well maintained, loved by its residents, and often a vibrant beacon of creativity for the neighborhood.

A woman browses art at the "Coyote Creek" show opening in the Ar

A woman browses art at the "Coyote Creek" show opening in the Art Ark Gallery.

The neighboring Bestor Art Park, although curiously devoid of art for the moment (a statue commissioned by the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs is due to be installed in the coming months), boasts a small basketball half-court, playground, and an extremely green and active community garden.

The whole development brings to mind how amazing a housing development can be when its mission is clear and focused. Some developers may set their priority too greatly on making a profit, while others have no focus, save for creating housing for ‘lower income residents.’ The latter of these two can create a  mix of incoming renters far too dispersed to create any real sense of community. Like it or not, the only common thread in many of these projects is that all of the inhabitants are low-earners.

At Art Ark however, the focus is on ‘artists,’ and it works well for the apartment residents and neighborhood, just as focusing on ‘teachers’ works for another local housing complex, or how ‘technology’ could work for a yet-to-be-built development. There are many ways in which developers, cities, and builders can begin to build more cohesive communities, some of them rely on finding a single common ground for tennants, others put emphasis on mixing disciplines in a strategic way with general common goal in mind (art and technology in pursuit of inventions for a better world, for instance).

The people in these “focused” low income developments are regularly found to be ecstatic fans of their homes and communities, so much so that the wait to secure an apartment in developments such as this can be many months long.

And that’s here in San Jose’s “Martha’s Garden,” a yet only a half-gentrified gem. One can imagine the wait list if the neighborhood transition were to  be completed. Maybe for the artists and creatives living here though, a half-gentrified neighborhood is preferable to a completed one.

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/question.gif”]If an organized and cohesive community is something so loved and sought after by people, why is it so difficult to find in many major cities?

What’s your answer?[/box]

Martha’s Gardens Photo Gallery

Alameda Bicycle Boulevard, San Jose, California (Illustration: Chiaki Koyama)

Alameda Bicycle Boulevard

illustration: Chiaki Koyama

I am truly excited about San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s vision and his backing of healthy transportation alternates such as cycling. But while the current bicycle plan calls for about 250 new miles of bicycle routes, they mainly consist of painted lines on shared roads. Other cities throughout the U.S. and world are building true, dedicated bicycle infrastructure.

This presentation was created on behalf of all of those who would like to cycle around town, yet find it difficult to ride in tiny painted lanes through debris, on roads where traffic is passing within inches at 5x the speed.

This theoretical design presents the Alameda as a true bicycle boulevard, as seen in Netherlands, Spain, France, Korea and Japan among others.

These slides are not meant as concrete plans, but rather to help facilitate new discussions. Special thanks to San Jose State University Design student, Chiaki Koyama for the beautifully painted site illustration which you will see on the final slide.

Press the play button below to move through the slides.

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori South Korea

South Korea’s Four Rivers Project

photo: Patrick Lydon

During my time in South Korea last month shooting for Project Transport Me, I had the opportunity to work with a delightful young woman by the name of Suhee Kang. Suhee and her group of friends had recently begun taking part in ‘weekend farming,’ an activity that is rather popular in South Korean cities whereby urban workers trek out to farms (often by train) and work on a plot of land for the weekend. It’s one of the ways people here in South Korea re-connect with nature in a productive way, and after a hard week working in between concrete and asphalt of the city, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be out in the dirt, pulling weeds and sowing seeds.

Through my involvement with these organic riverside farms, I learned of plans by the government to pave them over with concrete and add recreational facilities as part of their highly controversial “Four Rivers” project.

The following report is based on interviews with various farmers in the Dumulmeori region, not far outside of Seoul. This is a joint photography/interview project with Suhee Kang, although in fairness, Suhee conducted the majority of the interviews, in Korean of course.

The Dumulmeori Organic Farm Complex

July 28, 2011, Paldang South Korea

A worker relaxes at Dumulmeori Organic Farm near Seoul, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

A worker relaxes at Dumulmeori Organic Farm near Seoul, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Dumulmeori Organic Farm, located where the Namhangang and the Bukhangang Rivers meet to form the Han River, is a beautiful slice of nutrient-rich land which has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Government construction in this area began in 1973, when the Paldang Dam was completed and 12,240,000m² of paddy fields and dry fields were submerged along with the destruction of 10,000m²  of ‘vinyl houses’ (green houses made with plastic sheets).

Along with the loss of farmland, troubles for the residents of Paldang – now the source of clean water for the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area – began during this construction project. The area had already been designated as a ‘Green Belt,’ or development restriction area, in 1971, and was subsequently designated as a Service Water Source Protection Zone in 1975, a Nature Preservation Zone in 1982, and ultimately as a Special Measures Area in 1990.

The regulations eased slightly with the development of semi-agricultural land in 1994, but these developments were hastily carried out with not much thought to impact on the surrounding environment – many recreational facilities were installed with the development – and led to water pollution. As a result, the regulations tightened once again with the designation of Waterside Zones in the area. Throughout all of these steps, proper compensatory measures were never taken for the residents, and their discontent and grievances continued to accumulate.

Over the next several years, however, the residents of Paldang turned what seemed to be divine punishment into opportunity. With the responsibility of protecting their ‘Service Water Source’ and at the same time make a living, they turned to organic farming and urban-rural direct dealing, founding the Center for the Organic Farming Movement in the Paldang Service Water Source Area.

The movement was replete with difficulties in the beginning as the produce-buying public in Seoul and surrounding cities were largely indifferent to organic produce. The movement, however, persevered.

Today approximately 200 small organic family farms supply almost 70% of the demand for environmentally friendly produce in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, the farms maintain an annual revenue of over ₩10 billion KRW ($10 million USD.)

But the residents of the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area have more to thank Paldang farmers for than just organic produce. Faced with the public opinion against the lifting of the regulations in the area for the last 20 years or so, the organic farmers have acknowledged the necessity of the preservation of the Paldang Service Water Source and argued for the strategic harmony of ‘protecting the water and keeping the local economy alive.’

There is no doubt that the Service Water Source for the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area enjoys the highest priority among all the water management policies and has received immense investments. During the 13-year span from 1996 to 2008, investments for the improvement of the quality of water of Lake Paldang amounted to 11 billion US dollars.

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Today, however, all of the money and efforts that have gone into Lake Paldang stand a very real chance of going to waste if the Four Major Rivers Project is carried out as planned.

The Project area currently includes Lake Paldang and surrounding water resources, although not in terms of securing water and preventing floods. Instead, the Four Rivers Project will replace the organic farm complex on the riverside with outdoor performance stages, picnic areas, exhibition areas, ecological gardens, and lawn parks.
To this day, the Korean Government contends that the organic farming complex is the main culprit behind the pollution of Lake Paldang, yet according to the farmers and independent analysts, the biggest contributor to the pollution is firstly from domestic sewage, and secondly sewage from the land. The proportion of the land used by organic farms in the area as compared to the total land mass is insignificant, and although the organic farmland is close to Lake Paldang – presenting a possibility that its pollution effect might be greater – the government’s label of the farms as the ‘main culprit’ is laughable at best, and scientifically improbable at worst.

The plan to remove the organic farmlands echoes hundreds of other planning mishaps and oversights in the Four Rivers Project, a plan being painted by international activists and planners alike as a full-fledged assault on the environment.

Even according to reports issued by the Korean Ministry of Environment: Land for Sports Activities, Public Recreation Areas, Public Roads, etc. pollute 30-50 times more than other types of land do, not to mention performing stages and exhibition areas to which many people tend to flock. Restaurants and recreational facilities, which have already been increasing in number, will also only increase more due to the influx of people visiting this area for the water-friendly facilities.

Meet the Farmers

Yo-wang ChoiMr. Yo-wang Choi graduated from college, got a job in the city, ran his own business for some time, and came to Dumulmeori to settle down in 2004. In the beginning he came alone without his family and did whatever he had to do to make a living, including working as a hired hand. 2 years later, his wife and 2 children joined him, and now his children are in 6th and 4th grades. His wife still commutes to Seoul and although the commuting is demanding for her, the family are satisfied with the rural life at Dumulmeori. Mr. Choi grows cabbage, kale, and cucumber.

Mr. In-hwan Lim came to Dumulmeori in August 2005, the year he became 40 years old. He had always wanted to return to farming when he got older. He thought if he were to become a farmer anew, he’d better be an organic farmer. He settled down in Dumulmeori, thanks to Mr. Choi’s recommendation. For the first 2 years, Mr. Lim lived with Mr. Choi, learning farming. He also worked as a delivery man at an agricultural cooperative to which other organic farmers belonged.

 

Mr. Gyu-seop Seo settled here in 1999. Mr. Seo would have his fortune told from time to time, and the fortune tellers always told him that he was destined to ‘live with soil.’ In fact, the whole time Mr. Seo was working in the city, he missed the soil. Therefore, to him, Dumulmeori was ideal. Mr. Seo got married and had his 2 daughters ‘Gaeul (Autumn)’ and ‘Haneul (Sky)’ here.

 

Mr. Byeong-in Kim worked as a military officer for close to 10 years, was discharged following an accident, and started working as an auto mechanic. Over the years, Mr. Kim then grew skeptical and pessimistic about competitive society and an increasingly polluted urban environment. After an acquaintance told him about organic farming, Mr. Kim began learning farming in Dumulmeori, working the land every weekend for 1 year in 2003. The next year, he settled down here. He said, “I had seen only people who lived for their own interest, not anyone like these young people here who live sacrificing their own interest. I was mesmerized by them and joined the agricultural cooperative to share my life with them.”

Report from Dumulmeori

A child carries water to the field at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

A child carries water to the field at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Organic farming means not only safe and clean farming, but more importantly healthy relationships with consumers. City dwellers trust Dumulmeori organic farming and deal directly with the organic farmers. Many of them come in person to experience farming and harvesting firsthand and feel nature. In other words, Dumulmeori is land not only of the farmers, but also of the consumers who trust Dumulmeori and cherish it.

In 2009 Dumulmeori farmers filed a suit against the Korean Government, which plans to expropriate the Dumulmeori farmlands for the Four Major Rivers Project, and were awarded a sentence in their favor in February 2011, a victory which stands alone as the only successful case against the South Korean Government regarding opposition to the Four Major Rivers Project.

The celebration was short-lived, however, as Yangpyeong-gun almost immediately appealed. The final decision from the appeals has yet to come, but in the meantime, the Four Rivers Project has continued forcibly. The construction for the Project is expected to begin in early June, right after the farmlands are placed under public trust on May 25th.

Receiving the Government’s compensation and moving to another place is not so easy as it seems. On top of the compensation coming in the form of a low-interest loan granted by the Government, it is nearly impossible to find land comparable to that of Dumulmeori in Gyeonggi-do with the money given to the farmers. Because land prices in Gyeonggi-do are so high, no farmer from Dumulmeori expects to be able to pay back the loan farming on another piece of land.

There is an uncanny tension in Dumulmeori, it is the calm before a storm, and a foreshadowing of the farm’s fate can be witnessed in the adjacent, larger ‘Jo-an-myeon’ Organic Farming Complex

In neighboring Jo-an-myeon, more than 40% of the construction for the Four Rivers Project is finished. Farmers there are experiencing increasing economic hardships because the Government, which promised the Jo-an-myeon farmers alternative farmlands, has so far failed to keep that promise.

Weekend farmers at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Weekend farmers at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

“When the Government executes its policy forcibly, there is nothing we, the powerless farmers, can do. If we lie down in front of a backhoe to block it, will they not just lift our bodies out of the way with the backhoe and throw us into detention cells? Of course, after we get out of the detention cells, we will go on working the land and farming. They can take our bodies in custody, but our spirits will not be overcome.”
The farmers, or the ‘site experts’ as some call them, who have experienced this area and nature in person, point out the unrealistic nature of the Four Major Rivers Project point by point.

“As you know, the purpose of the Four Major Rivers development is quadruple: flood prevention, revitalization of the local economy, the securing of sufficient water for use, and the improvement of the quality of water. But it is clear that all of these are a bunch of crap. Local economy? They say that 100,000 jobs will be created because of the public works, don’t they? But just take a look at Buyeo.

There are 1000 farm families on 3300 acres of land. Usually the husband and the wife are the workers in each household, so you can say there are roughly 2000 workers working per day, and if you translate that figure into a year’s time, there are 720,000 local jobs per year. You revitalize agriculture, then the local economy is revitalized. But with the public works, outsiders take all the profits.

And flood prevention? There are no floods here. If this area is flooded, then it means the water level got so high that it spilled over the Paldang Dam. In fact, when damages occur, they occur not so much around the main course as around the tributaries. You have to service those parts, if you want to service anything at all. Lack of water? Here we store 94% even in the driest of seasons.

new government standards show intent to increase the level of water pollution

Improvement of the quality of water? If you build a reservoir, enclosing a body of water with walls, sedimentation occurs, which pollutes water eventually. If you block water there, rotten water flows right to the Paldang Dam, which is fatal to the Service Water Source.”

What the site experts say is proven by the recently amended River Statute Enforcement Ordinance. The Ordinance forbids greenhouses (vinyl houses) and grants permits to mayors and governors of provinces to install floating moorings in order to revitalize water recreation businesses. To the organic farmers who have contributed to the improvement of water quality, the Ordinance makes no sense. Furthermore, they are at a loss of words at the Government’s proposal to “set the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD, water pollution measurement) to 3 ppm by 2020.” With a current reading of 1.5 ppm, essentially the Government intends to increase the level of water pollution.

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Restoring a dirty, industrialized riverside is acceptable to many of us, but if you ask the farmers who have settled and stuck around in Dumulmeori, or the city-dwelling volunteers who come out in droves to work the land each weekend, this area of riverside is working perfectly well without government rehabilitation. In this situation, the Government’s stern rule seems quite far from the rest of the world’s idea of “Democracy,” yet the Government of South Korea – democratic though it may call itself – argues necessity and apparently has the upper hand, with seemingly unlimited power to ensure their project is completed without proper local government or citizen input.

Dumulmeori farmers are still holding out this month, but if the courts fail to uphold the farmers rights through the current appeal process, it could mean the end of organic farming in this region, as well as the end of hundreds of miles of natural rivers and lush riparian corridors.

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Report and Photos: Suhee Kang and Patrick Lydon
Translation: Taekyun Chung