Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Slow In The Suburbs?

When we talk about the challenges that we face in a future of fossil fuel scarcity and climate change, different solutions appeal to different people.

Some people react to these ideas by going back to the land and building their off-grid self-sufficient-ish dream home on a rural acreage or hobby farm; a few go even farther in the direction of survivalism. It's an attractive strategy, and it's likely that we'll need to revive local rural economies and increase the number of small farms serving local customers if food insecurity is a consequence of shorter supply chains, particularly for perishable items, in an overpopulated post-peak-oil world.

However, rural life is not for everyone, and withdrawing from city life would mean not being part of an exciting period of urban adaptation, during a time when the whole planet is becoming increasingly urbanized. It's reasonable to expect that innovation in urban planning and changes in the way we live in our cities will make the biggest difference to the quality of life of most people, and the biggest changes to our collective carbon footprint. In many developing countries, slums and shantytowns of refugees and economic migrants into cities will provide the greatest challenges - but in North America, where our relative affluence and already-urbanized population will blunt those effects, the sprawling suburbs of most of our cities will need to be transformed. A huge percentage of people in North America live in suburban single-family homes. By 2000, census figures showed 50% of Americans lived in suburbs - and by 2004 The Nation was noting that there were almost as many suburbanites as core-dwellers living in poverty, and skewering the stereotype of suburbs as rich white enclaves. The numbers are fairly similar for Canada, with about half of residents of metropolitan regions living in low-density neighborhoods according to a 2008 analysis. We also know that our buildings are responsible for 35% of North American carbon dioxide emissions, and improving them will be the quickest and cheapest way to reduce our impact on climate change.

Just maybe, being an engaged citizen living the slow life and advocating for sustainability in the suburbs will be the best way to make a difference. 

Slow in the suburbs could mean much more than this. Via D.C.Atty on flikr.
As the SlowBurbs blog says,
"The suburbs get a bad rap in the media, in rural feedlots, and at rooftop urban cocktail parties. Why? Because the ‘burbs contribute heavily to sprawl/encroachment, are prone to a sameness in architecture, and are equated with mediocrity when compared to sexy cities and bucolic rural towns. While we’re not ready to become suburban apologists – those problems above are real issues – we think it’s time we suburbanites explored how to make our lives in the ‘burbs richer, deeper and more meaningful.
Well said! On a rapidly urbanizing planet, in a part of the world where about half of us choose to live in suburbs, exploring how we can live more thoughtful, sustainable lives in suburban neighborhoods could be incredibly valuable.

(Just to clarify, I'm using the definition of a suburb as a residential neighborhood of primarily single-family homes on separate building lots; the political independence of an exurb or demographic information about residents is not assumed, since those factors vary so wildly from place to place.)

A suburb of Toronto seen from the air, via modowd on flikr

Most of the talk in urban planning circles prescribes increasing the density of cities, creating mixed-use neighborhoods with residential and commercial spaces side-by-side, and improving public transit and walkability (see the wiki on New Urbanism for more information on the prevalent approach). These are incredibly important strategies for rejuvenating the downtown core and inner-ring suburbs of North American cities. These neighborhoods were designed before or just after World War Two, before automotive use was commonplace, and so already have much of the infrastructure in place for a New Urbanist makeover. 

However, applying these strategies to newer outer-ring suburbs (on the edges of cities) is going to be more difficult work, because newer suburbs generally were not designed to be dense, walkable, mixed-use areas to begin with (There are exceptions built in the past ten years, like the subdivision I live in, but they tend to form islands of walkability that aren't connected to other neighborhoods.). Residents of suburbs will probably need to lead the way by advocating for better public transit and active transportation infrastructure and better access to key service businesses, so that their neighborhoods become less car-dependent. Cities will need to rewrite public policy so that infill development is encouraged (and affordable, and family-friendly), businesses can be established on residential streets by converting houses into live-work spaces, and school boards halt the cycle of neglecting inner-city and inner-ring schools so they can build new schools on the outer edge of town to service new suburbs. If this opinion piece is correct, we should also question the planning-policy dogma that constantly building new homes on the edges of cities is a major economic stimulator.

Urban planners will also need to proceed carefully with infrastructure upgrades and building projects in the suburbs. There are many reasons about half of us choose to live in suburbs: the ability to have pets and gardens, the increased indoor and outdoor space, and our perceptions of safety, privacy, housing affordability, and financial stability. So, any infrastructure changes we make to suburban neighborhoods should keep the positive attributes of those neighborhoods intact; for instance, even a low-rise infill development could have implications for the microclimates of neighboring properties' gardens, exposure of solar panels, and privacy of their yards. We also need to remember that the greenest brick is the one that already exists; it's much more sustainable for us to find ways to retrofit or renovate existing homes and infrastructure than to tear it down or abandon it and start over. Even with these constraints, we'll find innovative ways to retrofit car-dependent structures (like empty strip malls and parking lots) to increase  density and repurpose structures. Good examples of the sort of solutions we might consider can be found among the entries in the Reburbia design contest that Dwell and Inhabitat hosted in 2009.

A look at what's possible in a suburban backyard, via Earthworm on flikr
There are also lots of things we can do as private citizens to make our suburban lives slower and more sustainable; this isn't an exhaustive list, so please feel free to add your ideas in the comments.
  1. By supporting locally-owned small businesses in our neighborhoods, we help ensure that services remain available close by, so we aren't forced to drive to the big box district for day-to-day essentials. This is also better for the local economy, even if we shift only a fraction of our spending to local businesses. The same reasoning applies for supporting local farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture initiatives, so that local farmers can thrive and our local food security is increased.
  2. We can take a page from the urban homesteading movement (see my previous post for lots of links to resources) by growing at least a portion of our own food, in our own yards or in community gardens, using organic gardening and permaculture techniques, and pushing for carefully-crafted bylaws that allow backyard chickens and small livestock to be carefully kept on large suburban lots.
  3. By getting out of our cars and walking or riding our bicycles instead, we deepen our engagement with our neighborhoods and reduce our fossil fuel consumption. Figuring out how to bring bike networks to the burbs and make it easier to cycle there is going to be a key strategy for making our cities more sustainable and adapting as fuel becomes more scarce and expensive. Ideally, cities will have bicycle infrastructure not only for people who are commuting to daytime jobs, but also on-road sharrows and bike lanes, and separated paths on road margins or through parks, to connect with enough of the existing grocery-store-anchored strip malls to make them useful routes for suburban errand running. Better availability and affordability of practical bicycles designed to carry kids and cargo (like the Dutch bakfiets and Japanese mamachari) would also be a big step toward making bicycle use easier in the suburbs.
  4. We need to break the chain of thinking of our houses as disposable items that we can trade up for newer, bigger ones, as if they are cars (Currently, the average American homeowner moves or refinances every 5 to 7 years.). We should consider redesigning and renovating our homes to meet our needs, instead of moving to bigger spaces that are still poorly designed; and while we're renovating, we need to make our homes healthier to live in and more energy-efficient by carefully selecting replacement appliances, furniture, finishes, heating and cooling systems, insulation, and windows. If we can create home offices, studios, and workshops that allow us to work from home and reduce the time and energy we use commuting, so much the better.
  5. We can use the track record of existing schools, active community groups, mature landscaping and parks, walkable streets, older homes with character and charm, larger lot sizes, and location closer to the city core to promote living in mature communities to friends who might otherwise consider building a new house on the outer ring. 
  6. Get involved! Join community groups who are working toward sustainability goals, organizing reskilling workshops, creating community gardens, holding green festivals and social bicycle rides, or just organizing social and cultural events where neighbors get to know each other.
So, tell me: what's missing from my list? How are you making your life in the suburbs slower, more local, or more eco-friendly?

Monday, July 18, 2011

1000 Items Decluttering Challenge

I love that Daryl from Vermont Cottage has given herself a "countdown to simplicity" challenge, to get rid of 1000 items from her home this year. She says she got the idea from the 100-things-a-month challenge at the now-defunct Simple Living Network (not to be confused with the currently-en-vogue minimalist 100 Thing Challenge from Dave Bruno). There are still people posting about the challenge on that website's cousin, the Simple Living Forums - search on 'decluttering' and you'll find them. There are lots of other decluttering challenges out there, but I really like the simplicity of this approach. As a mom with kids of a certain age, I always have a box or a bag going that's collecting stuff to donate to Goodwill or Salvation Army or whoever, anyway, but keeping track of the numbers online could be a great motivator.

Maybe I'll get it together enough to have a studio that looks like this. Via: Ali Edwards on Flikr.

For my purposes, I'll not count consumables or paper as part of my item count. I have ridiculous amounts of paper to purge, as if it multiplies when the lights are off, and even with a 20 sheets = 1 item clause I'd get to 1000 before my home office was cleared out. I'd also rather focus on items that take up more psychic and visual space than a box of old papers, at least at this stage of the game.

I'm going to let myself count things that are leaving because they're being replaced - but I'll also subtract the number of items purchased. Hopefully I won't ever end the month with more items purchased than donated. =P

Oh, and for now, books will get a free pass, since (a) you can never have too many books, (b) we did a huge bookshelf purge a couple of years ago when we built-in bookshelves in our office/library open space, and (c) we're mostly buying digital editions these days.

Rather than waiting til the start of next month, I'll start counting from today. You'll be able to watch my progress in the box in the sidebar, and from time to time I'll do an update post to talk about what's working for me, what isn't, and which things I find I have real trouble letting go of.

Monday, July 4, 2011

(S)low Tech, Japan, & Azby Brown's "Just Enough"

Bicycles are the ultimate example of slow tech. Tokyo, May 2011.
There are two definitions of Slow Tech floating around out there. The first definition is a relatively recent buzzword about slowing down your electronic communications and slow blogging, limiting your time spent online, and writing letters or emails instead of tweeting or texting. 

An older definition of Slow Tech has to do with choosing simple, low-technology solutions over higher-technology solutions. Complexity can be a double-edged sword: a high-tech tool may save time, energy, or resources during its production, but it may also be quicker to break, more difficult to repair, or too expensive to be within reach for all but affluent end-users. A low-tech tool is usually hand-crafted, more durable, and inexpensive.

Slow Tech, and the related 1970s term 'Appropriate Technology', is an idea that's finding a lot of currency in the design world, both in the contexts of developing countries and the transition movement (the idea that developed nations need to move beyond our current dependence on fossil fuel in preparation for increasing fuel scarcity). Designers heap praise on the rare new designs that show a combination of practicality, durability, repairability, and affordability - particularly when they show potential to change lives in developing nations, as do the Q Drum, the D Light and Nokero solar lamps, and Design That Matters' Car Parts Incubator. Design and decor bloggers return time and again to classic products and time-tested solutions that share slow tech qualities, like bicycles, Moleskine notebooksTrombe walls, and Swiss Army knives

When you think of modern Japan, you probably think of the neon-covered skyscrapers of Tokyo
Shinjuku, May 2011: many signs are still turned off to save electricity in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.
and gadgets like the Toto Washlet toilet seat found in place of more traditional squat toilets in most hotel and public washrooms.
Luckily by the time we saw this example we had figured out ones that were also labelled in English.
Not very low-tech or slow, right? Yet we saw a lot of clever, slow technology in use during our trip to Japan. Bicycles are everywhere you look, most of the time configured to carry some combination of children and/or cargo.
A classic mamachari parked outside a cleaning-supply shop in Kyoto.
A delivery trailer attached to a bicycle with electric assist in Tokyo.
To cope with summer heat and killer humidity, folding fans and hand towels are used by everyone from schoolchildren to salarymen, and women usually carry a parasol or wear wide-brimmed hats to protect their skin from the sun instead of slathering themselves with sunscreen lotions.

Crossing a vermillion-painted bridge on a sunny late May day in Kyoto.
At the Hida No Sato outdoor museum in Hida-Takayama, we saw a shishi-odoshi, a simple water-operated gadget constructed from wood or bamboo that strikes a rock to scare wild boars away from the crops,
It operates a bit like a see-saw; smaller ones made of bamboo are often found in Japanese decorative gardens.
tools made of wood or ceramic that use a repeated thorn shape to grate foods,
You can still buy small ceramic graters for ginger that follow this design in kitchen specialty shops.
and tears in paper screens repaired by gluing overlapping paper petals to cover the hole for a solid, strong, aesthetically pleasing patch.
Can you see the flower-shaped patch on the paper shoji screens covering the closets in this tatami room?
The glue on these patches on an exterior screen has started to mildew, but they're still strong.
Ancient temples still have huge centrally-placed rain barrels and stacks of buckets as fire-fighting equipment.
These ones are at the Asakusa Kannon Temple in Tokyo.
For more examples I highly recommend you take a look at Azby Brown's brilliant book Just Enough: Lessons In Living Green From Traditional Japan. It's a fascinating account of life in Japan during the late Edo period. It's a densely written book with an academic bent, and incredibly thorough, with charming hand-drawn illustrations and notes in the margins. I'd definitely recommend it as a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in permaculture, natural and sustainable building, small-space architecture, or Japanese history.

After reading Part I, Field and Forest, on the lives of rural people engaged in agriculture and forestry, I had a much richer understanding of the artifacts and architecture I saw at Hida No Sato and in the older quarters of Kyoto and Hida-Takayama, the agricultural practices and irrigation canals and human-modified ecosystems I had caught glimpses of as we sped past them on Shinkansen and tour buses, the daily rural life depicted in the background of Miyazaki's anime masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, and even the uniquely consensus-based style of decision-making that modern western observers of Japanese politics and business describe as equally fascinating and frustrating. By the end of Parts II (The Sustainable City) and III (A Life Of Restraint), about the lives of commoners and samurai in Edo (Tokyo) itself, I was full of admiration for the internal courtyards and multiuse rooms and deep eaves still common in Japanese homes outside Tokyo, which must help immensely to make homes livable in the stifling heat and humidity of the rainy season, and much less confused by the block layout in modern Japanese cities.

However, the real point of the book isn't to make sense of modern Japan for tourists like me, but to call attention to the many ingenious solutions and strategies developed in Japan as a response to intense population pressures and resource scarcity could be brought to bear in a modern world facing similar challenges. The author also wrote a great essay for Design Observer, and did a talk for TEDxTokyo to discuss these strategies:

As Brown says, the crucial strategy underlying most of the innovations of pre-industrial Japan was that people looked for solutions that solved multiple problems at once ('multiform solutions'), and so designs were expected to live up to a number of requirements:
 Can this be done without consuming fuel (like weaving)? Can it be made from a rapidly renewed material (bamboo for baskets, or reeds for thatch)? Can it take advantage of recycled material (a broken iron pot becomes a blade)? Is it scalable and able to be customized to suit specific regions, households or individuals (like kimono)? What is the desired degree of durability — is it better to make it last for generations (like cabinetry) or remade every year (like straw boots)? Is there a way to use the material at end-of-life (use the straw as fuel, convert worn cotton fabric to pouches)? In most cases, these requirements were never spelled out in cost-versus-benefit calculations, but were inherent assumptions for Japanese of that period. Design questions were invariably viewed in the context of their implications for the wider environment and for sustaining the lifestyle indefinitely into the future.
This observation gets to the heart of the requirements for modern sustainable design, too. Perhaps, instead of lusting after shiny green gadgets, we should be looking more carefully at slow tech solutions: simple, practical, durable, repairable, affordable, and sustainable.

Let's use the comment section to brainstorm more slow tech solutions, to help each other find new slow tech to incorporate into our lives. Tell me: what's your favourite slow tech object?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fashion Diet Reflections

My first stint of Project 333 has wrapped, although truthfully I've been wearing a hybrid of my while- in-Japan list and my updated rest-of-the-90-days list for the past couple of weeks. Maybe because I'd allowed myself a different wardrobe with a completely different colour palette during my trip, or maybe because I had trial-run my list for nearly a month before starting, I found it very difficult to stick with my 33 items for the final few days. Both the monotony and the need to handwash so many of my items were really getting to me. Rather than fight that, I decided I'd experiment with what my next list might look like, ditching the winter-spring items and bringing out my summer stuff in light of the hot weather we've been having.

That said, I think a slow fashion Project 333 list is still totally doable, either if your items are carefully chosen for easy care, or if you're childless and the handwashing routine fits your schedule. I'll be aiming for the former as I amend my list of items.

I also made a couple of additional changes to my list during my final month. I bought shorter trench coat on sale, more suitable for cycling in, and swapped it in in place of the white trench coat. Here's a photo of me in it from the Critical Lass ride report on my other blog. I still haven't finished sewing my LBD so I subbed in a black wrap LBD in its place, and I still hadn't worn one of my skirts more than twice so I subbed in a polkadot one in its place. I happen to be wearing those in this photo too, with my rubber boots and black tights.

Here's what I learnt about myself during my first Project 333 stint:

  • I need to have easy-to-launder items for my core everyday wardrobe, because my lifestyle doesn't allow me to hand wash things all the time. 
  • My personal style tends toward casual, vintagey, and artsy. I basically live in tops with interesting details and either jeans (or shorts) and flats or a skirt layered over leggings with knee-high boots. I almost never wear dress slacks, and limiting my wardrobe choices does not change that tendency. 
  • As someone who frequently makes her own jewelry, I really chafed at not being able to change the look of an outfit with a different set of accessories - even if most of the time I wear the same signature items.
  • I photograph much better in navy than in black.

All in all, I loved doing Project 333 - it gave me a great framework for figuring out my personal style and my wardrobe needs, and I'm looking forward to doing it again. However, rather than doing Round 2 of Project 333 right away, I took a look at the many other fashion diets out there, and I'm going to try a 30-for-30 Remix Challenge instead. (Follow the link to Kendi Everyday for all the details on how to do it yourself - Kendi has written a cunning workbook that I kind of wish I had read before starting Project 333.)

I like the simplicity of the 30-for-30 Remix Challenge idea: take 30 items, make 30 outfits, with no time frame or other rules. You can choose to not shop during the challenge, if you wish. If an event comes up, you can take a day off of the challenge and wear something outside your list, although you might not want to. Shoes are included in your 30 items, but not outerwear or accessories, which has the potential to be a real monotony-killer and make it easier to transition the outfits that come out of the challenge between seasons. The emphasis in 30-for-30 on creating different looks by remixing what's in your closet also appeals to me. During my first Project 333 I tended to get stuck in a rut and only wear my items one way, so the challenge to find ways to wear my clothes differently will help to shake me out of that rut.

I haven't made my list of 30 items yet, but think I will keep some of my Project 333 rules going during my 30-for-30, as well. I won't count undergarments, pajamas, lounge wear, or workout clothing as part of my list. I'll keep my Bonus Rule #1, of letting myself swap out items for very similar items as the seasons change, although outerwear not being part of the list will mean I don't need to use that option much. I'll continue to strive to bring the slow-fashion cred (Bonus Rule #3) by including as many handmade, local, sustainable, second-hand, or vintage items as possible. Bonus Rule #2 won't be needed since I'm not planning any trips to exotic destinations. That I know of.

I am also adding a 4th Bonus Rule that I cannot buy anything that isn't on my need-to-buy list at the beginning of the 30-for-30 Remix Challenge - and that anything on my need-to-buy list should be part of the 30 items. No shopping FTW!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Monthly Slow News Summary: July 2011

Happy Canada Day! And of course Independence Day for our friends in the States. So many great news stories have come up, I thought I'd forego my usual mid-month timing for this and share some long-weekend reading with you now.

On Slow Design and Eco Products:

The Living Principles reported on a marvelous project in Zurich in which young designers collaborate with seniors to create new products and teach a new generation older skills and techniques. Brilliant!

Jorg & Olif reported on some bamboo products that don't rely on chemical processing to make viscose.

EcoSalon rounded up the latest green kitchen appliances. I'll have the induction cooktop, please.

Could commercial-scale urban agriculture in greenhouses designed using permaculture principles be in our future? Sure. Meet the Polydome.

On Slow Food:

The current President of Slow Food USA did a short video interview for GenConnect describing the slow food movement.

Here's a fascinating report from a Slow Food international meeting of Indigenous food communities. Imagine how much richer that conversation will be when representatives whose travel visas were denied for financial reasons are able to attend!

On Slow Fashion:

As SlowFashioned's Jessica explains, Slow Fashion is not anti fashion, it's high-quality fashion that transcends time or place. (Hmm, I'm not sure I agree about place - local materials and artisan traditions are an important part of all facets of the slow movement. But if she means choosing flexible clothing items you'll be able to wear anywhere life takes you, sure.)

Recycled Fashion asked: is slow fashion a threat to high-street fashion retailers? (I think so.)

The Green Stylist profiled the UK's DIYcouture, who are publishing a series of slow-fashion instruction manuals to help you make your own classic clothes, even if you're a total newcomer to sewing.

Bamboo introduced their readers to the principles of slow fashion.

Here's a local story from the Edmonton Journal about the unworn clothes in our closets.

After awhile, Project 333 becomes second nature.

On Slow Living:

The Slow Food masterminds in Italy are releasing a statement of principles for Slow Medicine on June 29th. Can't wait to see the actual document released by Petrini and his team, but meanwhile here are additional articles about the approach, pioneered in geriatric care by Dr. Dennis McCullough.

The Globe & Mail reported on the slow pleasures of collaborative board game Settlers Of Catan.

New coblogger Leah Moss shared her thoughts on her Slow Home on SlowMama.

Matt from Tortoise Knows Best reviewed Rob Westwood's e-book 'Simplify'.

Zoe from SlowMama did a guest post about Slow Parenting on Zehlahlum Family.

Create The Good Life! wrote about how the principles behind improv can help bring spontaneity and creativity into your life.

There is a Slow Information Technology Manifesto now, aimed at IT consultants; it mostly talks about ways to manage the vendor-client relationship so that demands on IT consultants become less unreasonable. More helpfully for the rest of us, TED curator Chris Anderson has proposed some new rules of email etiquette.

On Slow Travel:

You should check out The Art Of Slow Travel, written by Denise Pulis - I suggest starting with her amazing What Is Slow Travel? post.

Looking to disconnect from your usual routine with an outdoor holiday? Lisa Borden did a great ecotourists' camping checklist for HuffPo Canada, and Jorg & Olif made some suggestions for enjoying outdoor festivals in eco style.

Here's a story from Norway about a nationally televised slow-travel voyage.

The Winding Way mused about how it seems many rural English pubs now cater to visitors instead of locals.

Vagabondish did a brilliant post on how to have a slow-travel experience when your time is at a premium. (We used most of these strategies for our trip to Japan, so I can vouch that they work!)

EcoSalon tempted us with sustainable resorts in Bali and the Tyrolean Dolomites.

On Sustainability:

Here's a thought-provoking article on what's wrong with green marketing, and how to fix it. Couple that with these 8 lessons from Sustainable Brands 2011 for more to mull over.

Transition Voice reviewed a new book on Urban Homesteading that looks flat-out inspiring. There's an electronic edition so you can read it on your smart phone or tablet.

Finally, there's a brilliant in-depth article in Rolling Stone on how propaganda originating from certain industries is poisoning the public discussion of climate change. You just might have heard of the author.