Posts Tagged ‘community’

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!

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.

What children’s books say about the human-nature relationship

My mother loves children’s books. She collects them, really. Ever since I was little – and even now that I am not so little – she often will come home from the bookstore with a new Caldecott winner, a collection of children’s Christmas stories, or a treasury of children’s classics for a friend who’s having a baby. From beautifully illustrated read-to-me storybooks to beautifully written chapter books, there is no end to her love of children’s literature. In her retirement, she says, she wants to write children’s books.

So it’s only natural that I should inherit from her the same love of children’s books. However, for the longest time, I laughed at her every time she brought home a new book, saying that we, her children, had grown too old for this. We were too old for her to read us stories, too old to look at the pictures, too old to listen to the rhymes of children’s poetry. And yet, a year ago, I fell in love with children’s books all over again.

It started in a college course I took from the education department. In this course, the professor read to us several familiar children’s books that spoke of nature and the environment. He read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, of course, but he also read Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumpius, and showed an animated interpretation of the French children’s story, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono. It was these titles that got me thinking about the books I remembered and loved from my childhood. I thought of Bill Peet’s The Wump World and Cristina Bjork’s Linnea in Monet’s Garden. This summer, while working at a local bookstore, I also discovered a wonderful new children’s book by Peter Brown, called The Curious Garden, and it is now one of my favorites. And I re-discovered Frances Hamerstrom’s touching Walk When the Moon is Full while visiting my parents’ cabin in northern Wisconsin.

These were my favorites as a child – or have since become my new favorites – but also, or perhaps because of this, they influenced the way I think about the world. These books, as do all good books, say something about the way we as humans interpret and interact with the world. The more obvious messages to be found in The Lorax and The Wump World speak to our human pattern of overconsumption and destruction of nature – but also about nature’s resilience and ability to come back after humans have gone. Nature will always be there, and will always able to rebound, these books say. The Man Who Planted Trees, Miss Rumpius and The Curious Garden illustrate the power of one person to shape and change the world, to find and create beauty, and the ability of nature to influence people. Linnea in Monet’s Garden and Walk When the Moon is Full laud the redemptive and educative power of curiosity, particularly of the natural world.

The messages in these books are not lost on even their youngest readers. Inspired by The Curious Garden, the children to whom I gifted that book last spring started a garden in their mother’s backyard. And I can recall discussions about the need to “save the rainforest” motivated by readings of The Lorax in elementary school.

These on-the-surface meanings are not at all difficult to integrate into discussions both in the classroom and in the living room, because the fit nicely within the tenets of our modern worldview. The value of creativity to progress, the primacy of human influence on nature, the emphasis on the individual to affect change – these are all principals of our society in which progress is always good; bigger and more are always applauded; and individual effort is always better than group work.

But there are deeper messages between the pages of these books that are much harder to cultivate in either children or adult readers because they go against the grain of the modern paradigm. The Man Who Planted Trees presents an intriguing statement about the effect the condition of the natural world has on the human psyche and on human society. In the story,* there is a man who plants and cares for trees on a barren, human-created desert, ultimately resulting in the repopulation of the area with a community of people who live gently and in harmony with the land. Clearly, this is a much deeper sort of message than the superficial “power of one person to change the world.” This book cultivates ideas of stewardship of the land and repair of the human and natural environment, similar to Aldo Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic.” The true story behind The Man Who Planted Trees, I believe, is one that promotes an ideal relationship between humans and the land we live on that is healthy for both society and the environment.

The Man Who Planted Trees has a second message in its pages. The people who had lived in the desert prior to the growth of the man’s forest had been poor, miserly unhappy. But when people come to live in the valley where the man has planted trees, they are a happier people. They work, live and laugh together. This sentiment of happiness nearer to nature and greenness has been well-documented in the literature of preventative medicine, and much echoed by popular writers, such as Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, on the benefits of nature to personal health and well-being. The Man Who Planted Trees conveys this deeply rooted relationship beautifully and simply in story form.

The idea of living sustainably with the land is not a new concept, but it is far from becoming an ideal valued by mainstream society. It used to be, however. The Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian man was part of the creation of our nation. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of small farmers, where everyone cultivated the land sustainably. This agrarian ideal included principles of crop rotation, community collaboration, and living in balance with the land around you.

Somewhere in our society’s history, however, we lost our communitarian, agrarian ideal, and farming became the backward rustic’s job or the task of machine-wielding industrial farmers. People moved city-wards. We began working in factories and cubicles instead of fields. We lost our connection with the land and much of our knowledge of the workings of nature. We stopped being stewards of the land, and instead began to exploit it for profit, like the characters in The Lorax and The Wump World. We stopped being people who planted trees, and instead became makers of concrete and buildings, and consumers of “thneeds.”

Our modern worldview dictates that this was a change for the better. That no longer being directly dependent on the earth was a good thing. That going to the supermarket alone instead of the fields with each other for our food was progress. But there were always those who resisted. There have been counterculture movements since the beginning of industrialization that attempted to move society back towards nature. There were Utopian communities interwoven with the Populist movement of the 1890s. Intentional communities and co-ops sprung up in the 1960s and later, dedicated to self-sufficiency and a connection to nature and community. These movements questioned whether society’s movement away from nature was necessarily progress.

Children’s books and stories have always aimed to convey what society values in a simple, easily understood, often allegorical fashion for young readers. What our children’s books say about the way we as humans treat the natural world has an important affect on the way children grow up thinking about the world.
Nature, by instinct, I think, is intriguing to children. It is the world around us: the sky, the birds, the trees, the grass, the soil. The Lorax, The Curious Garden, The Man Who Planted Trees – these books have powerful messages, and can, perhaps, help endow our children with Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” or perhaps with Rachel Carson’s “sense of wonder” about the natural world. If we can use these books as a spring board for a discussion in living rooms and classrooms – to teach our children to be curious about the natural world, to teach them that a healthy environment means healthier and happier people, to teach them, ultimately, to be stewards of the land and the earth – then perhaps we can begin to shift in how society affects the environment. Perhaps we can stop wanting “thneeds” and instead be those who plant trees.

No one is too old for children’s books. As adults, we often have just as much to learn from them as children do. I reread The Wump World the other night. I had forgotten the ending of the story: after the “Pollutions” have finished turning the whole world to concrete and buildings, after they have used up all the green space, after they have dirtied the air and water, they leave. And through their cracked concrete streets, a small seedling emerges. Nature is still there, if we are willing to see it. Maybe we can plant a seed in our children, in hopes that someday, through a crack in the modern worldview, a land ethic will emerge.

*English translation, from Peter Doyle, available here. (This version lies in the public domain.)

Sustainability as a learning endeavor

More often than not in life, we wait until something ends to look back and reflect. History is just that – a look backwards at what has happened, a chance to comment on the implications of an event or experience. A chance to see just really what have we learned from the past. People wait until they near the end of their lives to write an autobiography. We wait until the end of a war to write into history books the winners and losers. We wait until the end of our schooling to look back and see just what have we learned.

But why should we necessarily wait until the end to reflect? With education in particular, waiting until the end to look back only leaves us dissatisfied with our experience. We think, I wish I had taken advantages of more opportunities in college., or I wish I had known about that in the beginning. It appears we could learn a lot more if we simply took time out to reflect on things during the process. I think the best education can come from constant reflection and thought during an experience. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but nearsightedness is better than being blind. Looking while you are in the thick of it is better than not looking at all.

As this first semester of my graduate education concludes, I am taking the chance to reflect on my experiences thus far. As a dual-degree student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, my chosen concentration is Sustainable Development, or Sustainability. “Sustainable development” has always been a favorite pet phrase of mine, since I first came across the term while writing a high school history paper on the current situation of the global environment in the context of American environmental history. “Providing for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” is the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission definition of “sustainable development” I read. While researching global climate change, resource depletion and environmental conflicts worldwide, the idea of sustainable development was a breath of fresh air amidst all the pollution. It seemed to be a solution with real potential to create a healthy, livable planet, an idea with the scope and interdisciplinary aspects needed to focus the ingenuity and creativity of the world on a sustainable future.

Sustainable development has proven thus far to be an interesting subject and context as a learning endeavor. For me, sustainability is a necessity for any future our planet and the human species is to have. This term, I have learned that ecological economists and sustainable developers might say that sustainability is about limits – limits to growth, limits to resource availability, limits to planetary capacity, limits to consumption. But I say, it is also about embracing the a profound challenge and tremendous opportunity that these limits bring. Sustainable development, I think, is about using our immense human capacity for creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship to create a sustainable future in which all people can live. This is bigger than the “weak sustainabilist”* idea that all inputs to current economic systems of production can be substituted for with enough innovation and creativity. This is about thinking of a new way to live, about rethinking our individual, consumerist, unsustainable lifestyles, about rethinking the entire socio-economic system in which we operate. It can be done. People are starting to think. Activists, writers, thinkers like Will Allen, Paul Hawken, Anna and Frances Moore Lappe, Annie Leonard, Bob Doppelt, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, even New York Times columnists Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman are thinking this way. Organizations and thinktanks, more than I can list, are thinking and doing this way. It is possible.

But sustainability is also personal. Not only have I begun to attempt to live my own life sustainably in my first semester on my own, but I have also come to realize that sustainability has a more personal meaning for me. If, in my life, I could contribute to creating a sustainable world in which there is abundance for all, I would have lived a life worthwhile. If I could live to see a world where people live in safe, sustainable, healthy and happy communities, where people have lots of meaningful, sustaining relationships, where people eat good tasting and nourishing food grown without harm to the environment, where people engage in worthwhile work that doesn’t degrade the environment or come at the expense of another person, where people live in harmony with nature – if I could live to see that kind of world, I would have lived a good life.

Sustainability for me is not just about overcoming the myopia of consumer culture, or about living on a farm and raising chickens, or about shopping only at thrift stores, or about buying organic vegetables from the coop. Sustainability is more than just living my own life sustainably. It’s about contributing to a sustainable whole. And teaching others about the merits of sustainability.

This is where my final point comes in: the educational opportunities presented by sustainability. Sustainable development and sustainable living provide immense opportunity for educators and people globally to teach creative thinking, community-mindedness, ecological connections – a potent antidote to the business-as-usual philosophy promoted by the corporate world and most conventional educational institutions. If we are to create a happy, livable world for all, we need to start thinking differently, and we need to do it now. Using the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable living as a teaching and learning module in classrooms, living rooms, and coffee shops, at workshops, faith gatherings, and fire circles, on front porches and street corners worldwide will help us begin to care for one another and for the earth. We need to think both globally and locally, to value relationships and social contact more than flat screen televisions and mansion-size homes, to learn to take time to enjoy nature and its awesome beauty and wealth. If we can begin to learn and teach these things, then perhaps we may all live to see a sustainable world.

*A note on “weak” versus “strong” sustainability: These terms are used by people in ecological economics and sustainable development to depict two different views on sustainability. “Weak sustainabilists” hold that the concept of sustainability can be worked into our current socio-politico-economic system via substituting newly discovered resources, capital, technology, and human innovation and labor for limited resources currently used in the capitalistic, production-based system. “Strong sustainabilists,” on the other hand, hold that true sustainability does not come from infinite capacity to substitute, and that there are some resources that are inherently limited on this planet and for which there are no substitutes (e.g. clean air or fresh water). “Strong sustainabilists” believe in a deeper, more inclusive and conclusive concept of sustainability that diverges significantly from the current economic paradigm described above.

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.