Archive for the ‘community’ Category

One of my favorite websites: Project for Public Spaces

The Project for Public Spaces website is one of my new favorite places to go on the web for information about placemaking. If you’re interested in creating community or great spaces for people to live and spend time in, it’s very worth a browse.

Project for Public Spaces is a nonprofit organization dedicated to design of and education for creative and inviting public spaces that foster community and sustainability. The website has all sorts of resources to this end, including white papers, blog posts, and – my favorite part – pictures. They have pictures of both good examples and bad examples of public spaces. While the “bad” examples are most often filled with cars and blank-walled buildings and devoid of people, the good examples are filled with happy smiling people, enjoying the outdoors in all seasons, farmer’s markets, boulevards closed to all vehicles excepting public transit, colorfully-painted intersections closed off to traffic, and many more wonderful examples of people enjoying public spaces.

It’s inspiring, for me, to browse through their photographs, or just stare at the homepage for a few minutes as the pictures flip through automatically. Looking at these great spaces and people enjoying themselves makes me want to make all cities this way – makes me wonder why all our cities aren’t already this way. Wouldn’t we be a happier society if we had public spaces in which to be with one another – strangers and friends alike? Imagine streets in which we actually wanted to spend time in as pedestrians and travelers, instead of wall to wall traffic, dust, noise and pollution? Here is just one of the many examples of great public spaces (that happens to be one of my personal favorite public spaces): State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.

Check out the PPS website!

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The most transformative week of my life: The Byron Fellowship

It’s hard to convey in words what I have just experienced and how I feel. I am still me, but I am in a completely different mental, emotional and physical space than I was a week ago. This past week at the Byron Fellowship at Turkey Run State Park has been the most inspiring, transformative, freeing experience of my life up to this point.

The word ‘cathartic’ comes to mind. I went to the Fellowship with the hope that the week could be a relaxing experience that would help me transition from a semester in academia to summer internships with the City of Bloomington and the Indiana University Office of Sustainability. The week was far more than just a transition – though it was an incredibly relaxing week that did allow me to decompress from the academic semester. However, I learned so much about myself and those around me, and about creating sustainable community and place that I find it limiting to attempt to put the experience into words. I consider myself a verbose individual, but there was something about the Byron Fellowship that has made me feel I lack the language to describe it. I feel almost as if the words don’t exist to describe the feeling I have right now – at least not in English. But nonetheless, I will continue to try.

I have never felt such a deep sense of peace, calm and connection to the natural world and all the living and none-living things in it. I feel as if all my cares have not gone away, but been intensified by the hope that knowing the people at the Byron Fellowship has given me. Never have I felt so open, so completely free to bear my heart, mind and soul to a group of people, and so confident that they will trust in me as I will trust in them, that they will not judge me in any way, that they will listen and care with the most amazing grace and compassion people could possibly have. I have been blessed with being shared such wisdom this week – the wisdom of those possessing many more years than I, the wisdom of those younger than me, the wisdom of those with different interests and skills, the wisdom of those with incredible experiences and knowledge – I have been humbled by all that they have been willing to share.

Each of those I have known at the Byron Fellowship this week has inspired me in a different way. We have shared the things that inspire us, that give us hope, that make us strong, that we believe in, and that we love. The connections with the places at Turkey Run State Park – the past and present, the old and new – and with one another – I know I will carry these with me for a lifetime.

I hope that throughout my life I can continue to be as inspired and feel as trusting in the future that we all will create as I feel today. The Byron Fellowship has given me hope that we will create a sustainable world. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but maybe in our children’s lifetimes or our children’s children’s children’s lifetimes – we will be able to find those things which matter most, those things that sustain us as a people, and that sustain our natural world. We can make a real difference in individual and collective lives. The stories we tell, the way we listen and trust and hope, the compassion and love we show for one another, and the faith we have in what we believe will lead us to a better place – a more sustainable world for all.

The most wonderful and beautiful definition of sustainable community development

I have been reading a book called How Green is the City? for a term project and I just came across the most wonderful definition of “sustainable community development” I have ever read. It’s apparently paraphrased from a book by Maser (1997) called Sustainable Community Development: Principles and Concepts, which is a very text-book-like title, but the following definition is just so wonderful and beautiful that I had to share it:

Community sustainable development is

a community-directed process of development based on: (a) transcendent human values of love, trust, respect, wonder, humility, and compassion; (b) active learning, which is a balance between the intellect and intuition, between the abstract and the concrete, between action and reflection; (c) sharing that is generated through communication, cooperation, and coordination; (d) a capacity to understand and work with and within the flow of life as a fluid system, recognizing, understanding, and accepting the significance of relationships; (e) patience in seeking an understanding of a fundamental issue rather than applying band-aid-like quick fixes to problematic symptoms; (f) consciously integrating the learning space into the working space into a continual cycle of theory, experimentation, action, and reflection; and (g) a shared societal vision that is grounded in long-term sustainability, both culturally and environmentally.

(From p22 in: Devuyst, D., ed. 2001. How Green is the City? Sustainability Assessment and the Management of Urban Environments. New York: Columbia UP.)

I’ve printed it out and put a copy on the wall above my desk, I like it so much.

Book Review: The Ecology of Hope, by Ted Bernard and Jora Young

Image credit: Indiebound.orgI’ve been meaning to write about this book for a long time. Though first published in 1996, its relevance extends beyond the decade or more since its release. Ted Bernard and Jora Young have written an inspirational manifesto for a sustainable world of all that’s wonderful, resilient, and, ultimately, hopeful in our communities. The book, fully titled, The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability, provides both an outline of the need for sustainable community action as well as an array of case studies from the United States.

The book begins with a brief but eloquent history and critique of the current worldview/paradigm merged into the context of American environmental history. The authors posit that our current worldview is individualistic and not community-centered, and that in order to create a sustainable world we must restructure our thinking to be more other-oriented, to focus more on community responsibility. Like other authors I have mentioned in my posts on community and sustainability, such as David Orr, Paul Theobald, and Wendell Berry, Bernard and Young are part of a growing sustainability movement that expresses the discontent and malaise that we feel with our current world, and works to engage people in their communities and their environment in an attempt to create a positive and sustainable future. This movement, instead of focusing on the negative effects human civilization and our consumer lifestyles are having on the environment and the great peril the earth is in due to anthropogenic climate change, encourages individual and collective action in our own lives to actively change our mindsets, our situation, and our world. In The Ecology of Hope, the authors cite examples of successful engagement and action, where people have worked to create sustainable communities – a holistic, economic, social and ecological version of sustainability.

The kind of collective action, cooperation and consensus these authors cite will be necessary as population grows, the climate warms, and human society exerts greater and greater pressure on our ecological life support systems, coming up against the limits of resource scarcity and pollution. Many authors have discussed the link between environmental scarcity and violent conflict (Homer-Dixon, et al.; a topic for another post), and as we face the limits mentioned above, we will be at an increased risk of war with one another. But building community through collaboration, cultivating a sense of responsibility towards one another, and encouraging communication and connection between human beings on a level that crosses both geopolitical bounds and psychological, perceived differences can allow us to transcend the risk of conflict and rise up like a phoenix from the flames into a just and sustainable world.

The Ecology of Hope is aptly titled. The word “ecology” in the natural sciences means the study of the interconnectedness of all things living in a given place, the study of relationships. In the study of climate change and world systems, this concept of “ecology” and interconnectivity can be extended to the entire biosphere, because we are all related to and interacting with one another and the earth somehow. In sociology and ecopsychology, the concept of ecology is sometimes applied to a community of human beings in a place – the intersection of humans and the natural world in that place. Where the concept of “ecology” is a scientific one, the word “hope” connotes spiritual and emotional ideas . “Hope” is a feeling of change, of progress, of better things to come, of optimism. The phrase “Ecology of Hope,” to me, means the interconnectedness of change, and optimistic phrase that makes me think of people and nature working in harmony to create a better world for all. This relationship component of change, this “Ecology of Hope” will be critical to a sustainable future.

And it will all start with action in our communities.

Yes! Magazine: Building a Just and Sustainable World

Yes Fall 2009 issue cover

Image credit: yesmagazine.org

Last week in the mail, I received the Fall 2009 issue of Yes!, a magazine I’d never heard of, and to which I did not subscribe. However, this magazine may be the best piece of unsolicited mail I have ever received. Subtitled “Building a Just and Sustainable World,” this magazine was filled with articles on building stronger community, retooling our education system to really educate people instead of just schooling them with how to stay afloat in the current everyone-for-themselves world, and inspiring stories of grassroots environmental activism. I don’t think I have ever been so accurately targeted with a piece of junk mail (unless someone secretly sent me a subscription to the magazine).

The Yes! Magazine website describes the goal of the organization to provide “inspiring solution-oriented journalism” and “connections with like-minded people.” If I may be allowed to judge from reading their Fall 2009 issue cover-to-cover, they have clearly succeeded in meeting these goals. The articles published by Yes! cover topics ranging from the holistic alternative education efforts in the place-based education movement, the community revitalization efforts of programs such as Detroit Summer, and the innovative inner life and education ideas of Parker Palmer. This issue is chock-a-block full of inspiring articles filled with real-world solutions to the problems of our communities, our schools, and our environment today.

This issue of Yes! reminds me what is truly important and amazing about our world: the capacity for change in the status quo. Our current, individual-, consumption-based society struggles with creating healthy, mindful, strong individuals committed to their community and the betterment and sustainability of our world. In an educational system and corporate climate based on test scores and competition, we seek to groom individuals for obedience, prejudice, competition, and to remain just far enough removed from the natural world so that we can destroy it without it weighing too much on our conscience. We can change this status quo. We can educate with the aim of cultivating individuals who know how to sustain healthy relationships, are not afraid to voice their own opinions and beliefs or to challenge others’ opinions, are intelligent but also mindful and think before they speak or write. The place-based education movement, with its aim of providing students with relevant experiences so that they are learning for a purpose and not just memorizing facts for a test, uses the community as a classroom and laboratory to encourage individual exploration and also connection with and responsibility to those around us.

These are the values key to creating a society that will work together to transform this planet into a “just and sustainable world:” a belief in lifelong education that comes from within and is nurtured by a vital community, a healthy sense of responsibility to others and to the earth, and a desire to see and create the positive change needed in the world. Yes! magazine tells the stories of change we need to inspire sustainable action in our own lives.

*Post script: My mother has fessed up to sending me the “unsolicited subscription.” Thanks, Mom! Now I can look forward to the next issue of the magazine.

Knowledge of place taken for granted

When you live in a place for a very long time, you can sometimes come to take things for granted. Little things, like knowing where the grocery store is and the best way to get there (even if there’s road construction), and knowing how to find the sugar and milk once you’re in the store, become second nature, and so we don’t even think twice about them day to day. But these many little bits of local knowledge – and the mental geographical map of the place where we live – are truly and vastly more important than we ever consciously realize.

Because I’ve lived in Appleton my entire remembered life, I take the knowledge of where the grocery store is in my home town for granted. So a small task, like running to the corner store to get milk when we run out, is no big deal. Just a quick trip, in and out. The location and layout of the store are familiar to me, the cashiers are my neighbors and friendly, the milk nearly the exact same price as always.

As I contemplate moving to a new place soon, I find myself wondering casually how long it will take me to gather the same knowledge of my new town as I have of Appleton. For instance, how long will it take before running to the store for milk in Bloomington is second nature?

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Still, I likely needn’t worry too much. While the Walgreens in Bloomington will be in a different location, its layout will be probably be the same as the Walgreens in Appleton. Perhaps this predictability is part of the reason national chain stores such as Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and others have such success and universal appeal. Apart from their considerable purchasing power, these national chains have nearly the same layout in every town across America, and so they look familiar and appealing no matter where you are. In a fast-paced world, where people commonly move many times in a single lifetime, knowing where the milk is in every single Wal-Mart across the country contributes to the easing of displacement.

In a way, this is a way of bridging towns and cities together by the similarities they possess (though many would argue that having a Wal-Mart in common is hardly a cause for uniting in celebration). However, a supermarket with a common layout and appearance also means less uniqueness is preserved in the smaller stores in the area. Smaller stores serving local neighborhoods, where we meet our neighbors working at the counter, share a conversation with our elementary teacher while reaching for apples, and greet the old widow from the local Rotary Club over at the deli, offer greater opportunity for engagement between individuals than do giant Wal-Mart Supercenters with entire aisles of only bread, that serve sometimes multiple communities, where people rush through the over-sized store in order to get their shopping done quickly.

Should we trade familiarity in space (knowing where the milk is) for familiarity in people (knowing the person behind the deli counter)? Knowing people in your neighborhood, I think (and many experts would agree), leads to healthier, happier people. The more connected we are to one another, the more chances of having extended relationships,* of becoming friends, of knowing we can rely on one another when needed. And the more we recognize others we may need, the more we see the possibility of them needing us, too, making us feel purposeful, included, needed, wanted. The more communal we are with those around us, the more of a community we will have.

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Because I believe it is extremely important to know the place we live in, I will likely start gathering bits of local knowledge the moment I move to Bloomington. Indeed, I have already started logging away on a miniature map in my head knowledge from my two visits to the city: where the farmer’s market is, where the university and my apartment are, that there are in fact two branches of the Bloomington Bagel Company. Paul and I will be taking a local paper when we arrive, both for the purposes of learning about our new town and to get the coupon deals in the Sunday edition. The day after we move in, we’ll go knock on our neighbors’ doors and introduce ourselves. I plan to ask people familiar with Bloomington in my master’s program for recommendations for doctors, the best place to get shoes or books, and where’s the best cup of coffee in town. I want to start building connections with those around me, and indeed, as I’ll be so far away from my family, I’ll inevitably need these connections.

I am excited to move to a new place, to have a new city to explore. My mind is like a sponge when it comes local knowledge. We’ll just have to see how long it takes me to navigate the nearest grocery store to find the milk.

[*This term is used in holistic education literature to refer to the encounters occurring between teachers and students in places outside the classroom (for instance, the grocery store). I use it here to refer to outside encounters between individuals of all types (for instance, seeing your coworker at your son’s Little League game, seeing your music lessons teacher walking her dog, seeing the woman who works the deli counter at the gas pump next to you, etc.).]

Conkey’s Bookstore is closing, the world is changing

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.  Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey’s Bookstore – the oldest independent bookstore in Wisconsin, a critical part of downtown Appleton, my place of employment through my four years at Lawrence University, where my mom took me for a cup of hot chocolate after the Christmas parade when I was a little girl, the place so many Appletonians rely on year after year for their Christmas gifts, birthday cards, and unusual book orders – is closing after 113 years of business.

An article in the Appleton Post Crescent last week gave the details of the store’s reasons for closing, so I will not go into those here. For me, and for many, the closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is much more than a news item.

The closing of Conkey’s is more than the loss of another independent bookstore in a community. It’s the loss of a way to make a livelihood for the store’s many full-time employees. It’s the loss of a neighborhood bookstore alternative to heading out to the mall for the residents of downtown Appleton. It’s the loss of a place to get cards, books and gifts for its thousands of loyal customers. It’s the loss of an anchor store for the many local businesses located on downtown College Avenue.

The closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is also a symbol of the direction this world is going in. The McDonaldization of America is often used by sociologists as a metaphor for the takeover of the so-called standardized, predictable, mass marketable, and “economically efficient” in modern American society. McDonaldization as a concept could have just as easily been termed WalMartization. The Big Box stores and chain fast food dives are beating out the small local businesses and ma and pop restaurants. Add this to the recession that is taking its toll on all businesses, large or small, local or chain, and the closing of another independent bookstore doesn’t seem so unlikely or surprising to today’s reader.

But the loss of independent businesses of all types means the loss of the individuality and character that comes with the businesses. Conkey’s has been in Appleton for over one hundred years. It has that charm of an old business, and it used to thrive on the services it provides, such as out-of-print book ordering, and the knowledgeable employees who can recommend a book for anyone. There is an one of those old rolling ladders inside, the kind that nowadays is only seen in movies or in pictures of old libraries. It has the charm of a bookstore that has been there forever. Conkey’s has been in downtown Appleton for longer than living memory.

Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the benefits of independent businesses to communities. One of the more often sited facts I’ve come across is that for every dollar spent at a locally owned business, approximately 60 cents returns to the local economy through wages, investments, and more. Compare this to every dollar spent in a Big Box or nationally owned chain, only 40 cents of which returns to the local community, and it’s clear that locally-owned, independent businesses support community much more than chain stores. Local businesses are also more likely to give donations to charitable causes than chain stores, because there is less corporate mumbo-jumbo to hurdle to get the donation to go through. Local businesses also collaborate frequently with each other, creating a social network of individuals and businesses that can support and cross-publicize one another.

Customers have come into Conkey’s over the past weeks, since the news of our closing was published, and all have lamented the fact that we will be closing our doors after so many years. It really is a tragedy. The oldest independent bookstore in the state of Wisconsin is closing after over a century of business. I think deep down we’re all sort of hoping for a miracle, that some one will be interested in buying the place and keeping it in business. Or that by some sort of divine intervention, business will take a drastic upward turn and we’ll be able to stay open. Or someone will come up with a brilliant business plan to turn Conkey’s into a co-op, like a bookstore in Shorewood, Wisconsin will hopefully soon become.

For me personally, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. It can’t be really happening. The community will find a way to keep Conkey’s open. It’s been such a downtown icon for so long. I’ve had two dreams since I found out Conkey’s was closing. In the first, I’m walking down College Avenue in Appleton and nearly every store is closed and boarded up. In the second dream, I’m talking to customers in the store and I finally start crying, letting out all the welled up grief and tears I have for the fate of the bookstore. I woke up sobbing.

It’s especially disheartening to find the store to be closing as I embark on schooling for a career in sustainable communities. Integral to the health of a community is the health and sustainability of its local businesses. Without places like Conkey’s to provide valuable services like book selling in downtown districts close to where people live and work, residents of communities are forced to get into their cars and travel to large shopping malls for their everyday needs. Local grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing shops, schools – in a sustainable community, these every day places should be within walking or biking distance of every resident. But as more and more local businesses and shops close and are out-competed by the malls and the Big Box stores, community citizens become more and more dependent on their fossil fuel powered vehicles. How can we be otherwise, when stores are farther and farther from our homes, and public transportation in most smaller cities and towns is awful?

It’s easy to sit and lament all the things that will be lost as Conkey’s closes. To berate the Big Box stores and the economy and the internet for forcing the little guys out of business. However, when I become angry at the whole situation, I have to remind myself of what one of Conkey’s loyal customers said the other day. We should have a big party here, she told us. It’s sad that we’re closing, but Conkey’s has had a great run of it for 113 years. We should have a big party, with all of the community invited, to celebrate a century of life. When a 113 year old dies, she said, you don’t have a funeral, you have a party, celebrating a good, long life!

I will miss Conkey’s. I had been planning on coming home to visit the place when I come home for Christmas during the next few years for my yearly walk down memory lane. With the store closing, residents of Appleton and graduates of Lawrence will all have to rely less on the store as a place to conjure nostalgia for our childhoods, and more on the fond memories inside our heads.