Tag Archives: Eco


Spring blossoms below the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland (P.M. Lydon | CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spring blossoms below the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland (P.M. Lydon | CC BY-SA 3.0)

What you see

The sensory experience
is the truly amazing part
of being a member of planet earth

It is the essence of life here

There’s human calculation
all important things

They are superfluous to the experience
of appreciating this earth
through your own naked,  non-judging sense

We know not what life is
until we can appreciate it
in these most simple and basic of ways


From this view, it is impossible to have socially and ecologically responsible practices in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics without first having such a grounding as is expressed in the above idea. There is no STEM without ROOTS, and the ROOTS are found within our appreciation for the simple delights and necessities, gifts which our planet gives us each day.

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.


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/

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


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.

Around the World in Five Minutes

Week of July 2 — People, Nature, and Place. Each Friday the team at sociecity finds all the news you might have missed this week, and compiles it into a short column you can read in five minutes. Don’t miss it! Sign up to get Around the World in Five Minutes in your inbox each week!

Olympic City is Topping Up

Although it’s less than half the height of the world’s tallest building, London’s new 95-story tower dubbed The Shard is unveiled this week, making London home to the tallest building in Europe, just in time for the summer Olympic Games. The crown will be short lived however, as Russia is planning to finish the taller Mercury City Tower by the end of the year.

South Korea to Raze Organic Farm for Theme Park
Farming club member Suhee Kang stands overlooking the fields of Dumulmeori Organic Farm in South Korea. The farm is set to be bulldozed for a theme park. (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Farming club member Suhee Kang stands overlooking the fields of Dumulmeori Organic Farm in South Korea. The farm is set to be bulldozed for a theme park. (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

At the head of South Korea’s main Han River is a small piece of land which has seen agricultural use for thousands of years. This week, after a multiple-year battle, and despite winning court cases against local and Federal governments, the farmers were handed eviction notices.

The Dumulmeori farm, part of the riverside Paldang Organic Farming area is being bulldozed in favor of a development backed by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who wishes to turn the river into a concrete-lined canal complete with a theme park on the farmland. Although an international cast of activists — sociecity included — attempted to work out more balanced and educational alternatives for the land, the Governmental leadership has not swayed from their position.

Sweaters Coming off in Hong Kong Malls

It may be hot, sticky, and wet outside during the typical Hong Kong summer, but inside the city’s indoor malls it has always been a ‘bring your sweater’ kind of affair. Until this week, when ninety shopping malls promised to raise indoor temperatures to save energy, says Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing.

As The Standard reports, Wong told the Legislative Council yesterday that malls have pledged to lower indoor temperatures from 26 degrees Celsius to 24 degrees. Wong addd that “Through this scheme, people will learn how to use air conditioners in a greener and more effective way”.

Playground of Trash Offers Commentary, Inspiration

“I shifted from doing artwork to just hang on walls, having little influence on society, to doing art that solves community needs,” says Ugandan eco-artist Ruganzu Bruno Tusingwire. GOOD reports this week that, after winning a $10,000 prize in the TED-sponsored City 2.0 Awards, Tusingwire is using a large chunk of the winnings to create a theme park for children made out of old plastic bottles which permiate the landscape (and landfills) in the small community.

“It’s helped me realize my value to society,” the artist adds. We think Tusingwire’s project is perhaps a bit more inspirational than Lee Myung-bak’s  aforementioned theme park in South Korea. The artist will also use part of the prize to help inspire the local community, expanding a loan program for female eco-artists.

Lighting Up the Australian Desert with Solar Art
Bruce Munro's 2008 installation "Field of Light" at the Eden Project in Cornwall (photo courtesy of the artist)

Bruce Munro's 2008 installation "Field of Light" at the Eden Project in Cornwall (photo courtesy of the artist)

Installation artist Bruce Munro announced plans to embark on his largest installation to date, reports the Huffington Post – a quarter million solar powered stems of light to cover one square kilometer of land in the heart of the Australian red desert at Uluru (Ayer’s Rock).

The display will make the desert “bloom with gentle rythms of light,” says the artist. More than an installation, the fiber-optic light field also hints at what is possible when nature and technology combine to transform our landscapes.

North America
America sees Industrial Opportunity in Quake-Ravaged Haiti

Two and a half years after the earthquake, Haiti remains mired in a humanitarian crisis, with 390,000 people languishing in tents, reports the New York Times. Yet the showcase project of the reconstruction effort — recently celebrated by recovery commission Co-Chair, former President Bill Clinton — is a large industrial park for foreign clothing manufacturers, all of it erected in an area unaffected by the quake.

Out of the 4,500 homes which American relief efforts have promised to build, the majority are currently not being erected in the earthquake-affected area, but instead as part of the industrial complex. Families here will have a 365 square foot concrete box to live in, which according to experts, violates “numerous principles inherent to sound urban design”.

Graphic: Are Resources of the Future Mostly Financial?

The Future We Want - counting the 'resource' types which UN members think are important for sustainability (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Future We Want - counting the 'resource' types which UN members think are important for sustainability (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Last week at the Rio+20 UN Sustainability Conference, nations of the world got together to help decide how best to conserve our natural resources and create a sustainable future for all. When sociecity thumbed through the document that the Rio+20 came up with, dubbed “The Future we Want,” we found that the most mentioned ‘resource’ wasn’t nature, but financial and political resources… with a bit of genetics thrown in for good measure.

The severe reliance on corporate and political power says a lot about how our mentality is geared toward economics as a way to solve everything. But economics aren’t built to care about life — human or nature — unless it can be assigned a monetary value.

The system hasn’t worked out too well for nature in the past century, and it doesn’t seem to be changing much at the hands of organizations such as the UN.

South Korea: Bed and Breakfast, from the Rooftop Garden

We’ve been filming in South Korea for for the Final Straw Project over the past 2 weeks, and I wondered what other “green” projects are going on in the area.

Suhee Kang, our editor for Korea heard about a new “guest house” in one of the older Seoul neighborhoods with a rooftop garden, so we scheduled a morning interview before heading out to the farm for filming.

Rooftop Garden at Segeomjeong Blues Guesthouse in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Rooftop Garden at Segeomjeong Blues Guesthouse in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Like many other guest houses, Blues Guesthouse in Segeomjeong offers a family-run homestay experience with shared “dormitory” style rooms.

The uniqueness of this guest house, however, is in the amazingly peaceful location (for Seoul) and the neat rooftop garden which helps provide food for guests when the plants are in season. It’s very early spring here, so the plants are just starting to come up, but it was nice to have a short morning chat with the guesthouse owner, Mina, who opened up for business just a few weeks ago!

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


California’s Population Problem?

CAPA Awards - Dumbest Scholarship of the YearThere really is a scholarship out there for everything. The folks at California Population Awareness are hosting an award contest for students who produce the best material on the state’s “unsustainable population problem.”

The contest declares “Think about it. More people mean more cars on the road, so more traffic, longer commutes and more air pollution.” The awards site is full of the same short-sighted rhetoric, the kind of thinking that has gotten us into a “sustainability” bind in the first place.

California is certainly not sustainable, but it’s not due to our population. Most countries/states/cities in the developed world need major changes in their consumption habits and building practices in order to solve pollution and resource woes. CAPA takes a far simpler approach to the problem: instead of eliminating our nasty habits, we should just eliminate… the people.

The CAPA quest comes across as selfish, short-sighted, and completely aimed at the wrong mark.

Compare California with the similarly-sized island nation of Japan. California has a land area of about 155,000 square miles and a population of 37 Million; Japan, with roughly the same land area, maintains a population of 130 Million.

Japan’s population is more than 3x that of California, yet for years Japan has actually complained of a declining population.

The Minato-Mirai 21 District of Yokohama, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Minato-Mirai 21 District of Yokohama, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The major difference between California and Japan — in terms of ability to maintain a certian population — is in the way they build their cities. That is, Japan builds mostly with a focused, smart, efficient density. The natural treasures of Japan are largely sustained and respected due to the concentration of populations in well-planned cities with efficient local, regional, and national mass transportation networks.

California, on the other hand, struggles even to get a bullet train built between their largest metropolitan areas. The local governments of the state to this day, continue building cities as if all the land in the world were available. Suburban housing tracts, mega malls in the middle of parking lots, and strip malls accessible only by car have replaced thousands of orchards and agricultural fields. This “bulldoze, pave, build flat” mentality has become a standard we have accepted.

Arial View of Los Angeles, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Arial View of Los Angeles, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

CAPA’s problem is that they assume our current way of developing land is inevitably locked down into a pattern of cars and suburbia; either that, or they prefer to live with this method of unsustainable development.

As a result they wish to fix our “population problem” by kicking all of the immigrants out and locking down the borders so very few can enter this state. This isn’t a fix at all, but a temporary patch which was made necessary in the first place by poor urban planning.

Dear CAPA, you are short-sighted and so clearly missing the point.

We don’t have an over-population problem in California, we have a problem with people who declare that there is a nature-destroying population problem, and then drive to the ultra-eco-mall in their SUV from their suburban homes on spacious grass lots. That, is a problem.

If we want to aim our sights at something less self-serving, addressing the dynamics of the world’s population growth would be a good place to start. Or if you are really intent on helping your state maintain its natural resources, why not look at the actions of other countries who have innovated and built their cities smartly?

If California builds all of its cities like Los Angeles, as vast suburban sea of houses, it’s no wonder we can’t deal with a measly 37 million people.

So, did I enter the CAPA scholarship contest? Of course!

And I sent them the article you just read as my essay.

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

CAPA Awards Website
Californians for Population Stabilization
Japan Warns of Population Decline – NPR
UN Bleak Picture of Sustainability – ABC News
No Train Please – Huffington Post


Eco-Friendly Consumerism

How the Marketplace Ruins the World, and Claims Credit for Fixing it at the Same Time

What is eco? Eco is short for ecological, a term that has its routes in the study of relationships between living things and the environments they inhabit.

Today, from household items to the cars we drive, one can find more eco-friendly labels plastered everywhere on the shelves than ever before. By buying these products, we are told that we are doing a part in bettering the world, but is that really the case?

Few of us ever consider whether or not consuming more actually helps reduce waste at the same time. The answer, as long as eco-friendly merely implies buying a product with an eco label on them, is no.

Let’s recall some of the places we visit on a regular basis.

The supermarket for example, while many places of the world have banned plastic and even paper bags altogether, one is never too from an array of totes. Totes printed in a thousand colors with phrases like “I love recycling,” or worse “Save the World.” No one seems too bothered by the pollution that this variety of totes have created.

Then there are “eco” products such as coffee mugs with eco-slogans that acknowledge our good behavior. There are eco-burger joints that serve “morally delicious” angus beef that is very sustainably made from cattle raised with corn, then killed, cut up, packed, shipped, frozen, shipped again, frozen again, cooked, and served with paper and plastic before it reaches the individual consumer.

Even Trek Bicycles has their eco bike Atwood. It uses biodegradable materials, yet its very existence is to entertain the eco ego because no other bicycle in Trek’s thirty-plus aluminum bicycle catalogue is built eco-friendly. Then there’s the endless pit of eco-friendly consumer electronics that come in a million colors and a trillion plastic and silicone components.

In general there is an industry-standard practice of having an entire line of regular environmentally-damaging products and just a few eco ones for show. What does that say about our eco commitment?

An Arsenal of Eco Products, Ready to be Consumed

Starbucks has recently unveiled its newest store in the coffee giant’s hometown of Seattle. While the idea of using a recycled shipping container as a store front might seemed a novel idea, the plastic straws, caps, and paper cups yet another Starbucks will generate make even the most casual of environmentalists cringe.

And by the way, it is also a drive through.

The carbon footprint created by everything we do is so astonishing, and so there is a large disconnect between proponents of all things eco-friendly and the physical reality of executing all of them. The eco-friendliness of something is only as positive as the production end, meaning however witty an idea is, it isn’t “eco” if the source of production or end result introduces more pollution.

We cannot possibly hope to reduce our waste by consuming more.

Each and every new product, eco or not, requires varying degrees of raw materials. Regardless of how eco-friendly the harvesting process is, goods for the masses demand ecologically-damaging harvesting, transportation, and storage to minimize cost and create a large profit turnout.

On the other side is tight control over production with high cost and a limited audience; a much riskier business tactic and sheltered business practice that is nearly useless from the perspective of globalized economy.

Just imagine: new products of all kinds requiring new packaging, new delivery routes, new advertising material, storage, even web based sales uses energy; and shipping a product from continent to continent just to reach a single individual shows us only a fraction of this invisible, yet very real pollution. With over half of America powered by coal, the puny savings that entertain our intellectual arrogance can hardly be called eco-friendly.

Are the contradictions more apparent today? The eco brand was perhaps invented with good conscience, but it almost immediately became the victim of the market place.

Today, the eco branding is no longer here to better the world, but to exploit consumer demand.

The question is: do we need to feel rewarded for consuming?

Marketing directors everywhere will agree that people need a big pat on the back for being good consumers, even if it is contradictory to the cause. And what’s good for business is good for the economy, and what’s good for the economy is good for the government; a very unfortunate branch of logic when policy sides with commercial exploits. With our current state of economic distress, I doubt any leader will dare to stand in the way of economic growth at any expense of nature.

But I digress.

Our chauvinism and arrogance is clear, but let’s take a moment and consider the worst case scenario which scientists claim: at the peak of global warming comes rising water levels, run away green house effect, everything dies, but the planet is still around. The lesson is that we humans, just don’t really matter. As once said by George Carlin “a planet don’t need saving from a species that can’t even take care of itself.” And so we are trying anything. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving our own asses, and we are doing a terrible job at it so far.

All of this negativity might seem a bit extreme because under this dark umbrella, almost everything we do for fun is a cause for concern. But we have a daunting task in undoing damages from the past to avoid more damage in the future, so perhaps extreme is not a good word to describe it all, and perhaps minimal is what we should consider.

Fixing the environment is not about feelings, it is about scientific examination and application of realistic solution in this finite world.

So don’t let this turn into yet another casual chat over lunch or dinner, take guilt and knowledge and turn it into action, reconsider every time you make a purchase whether it is a gas stop, a restaurant, or at school. Reconsider your purchases everywhere, all the time, and maybe, just maybe, it could be that you should not make that purchase at all.


Further reading:

National Geographic Channel: Six Degrees Could Change the World

Impact from a Cattle Waste Lagoon Rupture on a Downstream Fish Farm: A Case Study

Starbucks Opens New Reclamation Drive Thru Made From Recycled Shipping Containers

Coca-Cola Polar Bear Support Fund

Great Pacific Garbage Patch



Taking the Highline in NYC

A man takes photos of the busy street below from New York City's Highline Park (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Taken In
New York City, USA

Patrick Lydon – pmlydon.com

Image Notes
Once an old elevated rail line, the Highline park now snakes its way through the city, using not just the path of the rail line, but the actual railway infrastructure. Park-goers walk up above the traffic and fast-paced foot traffic on sidewalks.

A new Perspective
This sliver of an oasis runs in between everything from meat packing buildings to condos to art galleries, allowing people a new perspective on the city. The beautiful plantlife springing from the old tracks may be called conservation by some, but it’s even more a contemporary reminder of the resilience of nature, eventually overtaking anything man might build.

Submit your photo to be highlighted in our weekly photo feature contest!

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More on Highline Park:

The Highline Park Website


Weekend Farmers

Dumulmeori Farmers (photo: Suhee Kang)

Taken In
Dumulmeori, South Korea

Suhee Kang – vertciel.blog.me

Image Notes
“Weekend Farmers” water the grounds of their organic farm at the head of South Korea’s Han River.

Out of the Concrete Jungle
Getting out into nature — whether through hiking, climbing, or farming — is a popular weekend directive for Seoul city-dwellers, many of whom spend 5-6 days a week deep inside of the city’s concrete jungle. Unfortunately for the farmers here, the South Korean Government has put a warrant out for their farm’s destruction. Organic weekend farming remains an increasingly popular activity for young people here who want to reconnect with nature.

Submit your photo to be highlighted in our weekly photo feature contest!

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

Four Rivers Organic Education
Stadium Facts – Dumulmeori Farmers (Korean)


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


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


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.

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]


Nubija Bike System Real-Time Bike Station Capacity Map, Changwon, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Changwon: High-Tech Nubija Bicycle Share System

photos: Patrick Lydon and Suhee Kang | sociecity

It’s called “NUBIJA,” and as Government  acronyms go, this is a rather fun one:

Nearby Useful Bike, Interesting Joyful Attraction.

In Korean the word “nubija” also roughly translates to “let’s go together,” and indeed today NUBIJA was all of these things.

We were given a tour Changwon’s rather high-tech bicycle system and control center today along with about 200 dignitaries, politicians, and media. I was laughing at the site of us — a big group of smiling people in suits on bikes — the entire way. They system is the first of its kind in Korea and was developed by the Changwon government as a service to residents.

NUBIJA contains some 4,000 bicycles, and costs roughly $20 USD per year for a resident to have unlimited access to bicycles at any of the 230 terminals with the simple swipe of an RF card.

Here are some photos from the ride…

Korean Dance Performance to Start off the Conference (photo: P.M. Lydon | sociecity)

Changwon: The Future of Mobility

As part of our participation in the EcoMobility World Congress in Changwon, South Korea over the next 4 days, sociecity will be putting out a series of short reports, interviews.

Saturday, October 22 (morning)

Many hundreds of delegates are here from all over the world are here this weekend, however there is a — maybe not so curious — lack of presence from the United States, where I am one of only 8 participants.
Imagine: it’s 2050, and there are throngs of people too obese to walk, moving around the city in personal hover crafts. Statistically if we were to continue our current habits, this scene — reminiscent of the animated film Wall-E –gives us a view of the future that might not be too far off.

Bay Area Gets Blasted by Philippe Crist for Limited Public and Bike Transit (photo: P.M. Lydon | sociecity)

Bay Area Gets Blasted by Philippe Crist for Limited Public and Bike Transit (photo: P.M. Lydon | sociecity)

But if the group of global leaders, doers, and thinkers here at the EcoMobility World Conference in Changwon, South Korea have anything to do with it, our future will be a complete 180-degree about face from this. And based on the progress already made in cities such as Changwon, Bogota (Coloumbia), and Boulder (USA), it’s starting to look as if this may be the case.

This morning was bicycle-centric, and the first round of introductory speakers talked about implementations of city-wide bicycle sharing, comprehensive road-separated bicycle routes, and days where only bicycle and pedestrian traffic is allowed on city streets. They were not speaking in the future tense, either, these are programs currently happening in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.


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]