Sunday, September 27, 2009

El Dia de los Muertos

One of my tai chi instructors is dying, and so over 25 of us went and did a set of tai chi on his lawn while he and his family watched from the living room window. It was very moving. I was grateful for the opportunity to tell him I cared and to let him know that he wasn’t forgotten.

Birth and death are two sides of the same coin, but North Americans shy away from discussing death. When I was in Mexico, I went to a wonderful craft museum in Ixmal that was full of papier mache skeletons. There were skeletons on bicycles delivering bread with their girlfriend on the handlebars and a whole funeral procession of skeletons – priests, young children, mourners. Life and death, joy and sorrow, were fully integrated.

Mexicans believe that during the Day of the Dead it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. They hold picnics at the graveside, and they build private altars with favourite foods, photos and memorabilia. That’s a foreign concept in North America; however, my family dedicated a park bench to our mother, and I like to sit on the bench and talk to Mum, to continue a conversation that has only been artificially ended by death.

Note: My thanks to ladysail for the wonderful photo

It's Not Easy Being Green

In the summer, I do the majority of my grocery shopping at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

I am trying to buy organic, local food. Sometimes it’s easy. I bought a bag of flour at the Market, and when I asked if it was Saskatchewan wheat, the vendor could tell me the four locations in Saskatchewan where the wheat had been grown, including a farm 12 miles from his home.

But it’s not always that easy. Do I buy local strawberries at the Market, which may not be organic, or do I buy organic strawberries from the United States? Do I non-organic apples sold from a van at the Market, or do I buy organic apples from New Zealand?

I try to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables, but that’s difficult in Saskatchewan. I know I would be more successful if I bought a large freezer and spent the summer canning and freezing food to eat in the winter. But I don’t want to. I will eat lots of cabbage and potatoes and beets this winter, but I’ll supplement it with fresh or frozen greens and fruits and vegetables from other parts of the globe.

Buying wine is a humorous exercise in making choices. Can I find a BC wine (the most local) that is organic, low in alcohol, one of the varietals that I enjoy, and cheap? I don’t usually meet all the criteria.

If I buy convenience foods, what should I choose? Should I stop buying soup in a can when I know that the liners in most cans contain bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to a range of human health and environmental problems? Is it okay to buy tetra paks, or do they create too much waste? And what do I know about the company's labour practices?

I try to buy organic cheese or else gourmet cheeses, which are not necessarily local or organic food, but at least they’re not being produced by huge multinational conglomerates. I’m not rich enough to buy only artisan cheeses, and I haven’t seen any Saskatchewan artisan cheeses on the market.

I care about what I put inside my body. I care about environmental sustainability. I care about supporting small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs. But I break all those principles on a regular basis. How about you?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I'll Follow the Sun

33 degrees and sunshine – surely one of the warmest days of the year, and yet it is September 19 and winter looms on the horizon.

Like a sunflower, I rotate towards the heat of the sun. (Is it any wonder after living in Africa for the first six years of my life?) So I headed downtown through Kiwanis Park to the Spadina Freehouse to enjoy a cold beer on the outdoor patio. Wedding parties and conference goers passed by on the sidewalk, and I had an up-close view of the carvings on the Hotel Bessborough across the street.

Just in passing, I should mention that the Spadina Freehouse has the most vegetarian options of any restaurant in town as well as a wide variety of beers on tap. Now, if they just had olives, I wouldn’t need to go to Spain (well, maybe!).

On my way out, I pick up an ice cream cone at the double decker bus parked across the street and then meander home along the river. The sky is turning pink, and the cormorants are settling in for the night on the power lines that cross the river near the Mendel Art Gallery.

And, in closing, a few verses from Mary Oliver’s poem The Sunflowers: “Come with me / to visit the sunflowers, / they are shy / but want to be friends; / they have wonderful stories / of when they were young - / the important weather, / the wandering crows. / Don’t be afraid to ask them questions! / Their bright faces, / which follow the sun, / will listen, and all / those rows of seeds - / each one a new life! - / hope for a deeper acquaintance; / each of them, though it stands / in a crowd of many / like a separate universe, / is lonely, the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Digging for Fresh Ideas

It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut, to base decisions on a set of beliefs and to never challenge their validity. Thinkertoys: a handbook of creative-thinking techniques by Michael Michalko is a compilation of exercises to help you clarify your problem, challenge your assumptions and brainstorm possible solutions. Here are a couple of examples. You can find many more exercises on Michael Michalko’s website.

Tick-Tock (to help overcomes fears, doubts, uncertainties)
1. Zero in on and write down those negative thoughts that are preventing you from realizing your goal. Write them under “Tick.”
2. Sit quietly and examine the negatives. Learn how you are irrationally twisting things and blowing them out of proportion.
3. Substitute an objective, positive thought for each subjective, negative one. Write these under “Tock.”

1. When you are looking for a fresh approach to a challenge, bring in a random word. The word you bring in must be truly random and not selected for any relevance to the stated challenge. Random words will spark a fresh association of ideas in your mind. The best words are simple and familiar, words you know well enough that it is easy to visualize the objects they represent (e.g. soap, soup, sand).
2. Think of a variety of things that are associated with your chosen word. What are its characteristics? What can you do with it?
3. Force connections. Make a forced connection between your random word and the challenge you are working on. Think about the similarities, connections and associations.
4. List your ideas. Otherwise you won’t remember them.
Alternative: Use a picture instead of a word. Examine the picture and look for ideas that could be applied to the challenge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

You Can Do It!

As the comments on yesterday’s post indicate, it is easy to feel discouraged about creating people-friendly cities. But Jan Gehl believes it is possible – by changing attitudes and by changing the design of your city. It doesn’t happen overnight, but he believes it can be done, and he gave his enthusiastic audience good ideas on how we can make it happen in Saskatoon.

Changing Attitudes
I took the bus to last night’s lecture, despite the fact that buses only run once an hour in the evening. The schedule doesn’t encourage people to take the bus, but there were only 3 people on my bus at 10:15 pm – the demand isn’t there to generate more frequent buses. It’s a vicious circle, and you can’t change that overnight.

Gehl says that part of the solution is to keep making it less convenient for people to drive a car – provide less roads and less parking – because the more roads you have, the more cars you will have.

Another part of the solution is to adopt a policy that says, “In this city, everything will be done to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily doings.” That seems simplistic until you realize how blind we have become to the ways in which we let cars dominate. Gehl pointed out that we are obliged to “apply” to cross the street by pressing a button. Urban planners may believe that they are protecting pedestrians by installing walk lights, but in fact, they’re reinforcing the superiority of the car.

Melbourne, Australia
Gehl used his experience in Melbourne to show that North American-style cities based on a grid system can become more people friendly. You can close the main street to cars, install wider sidewalks with trees and attractive street furniture, and put cycle lanes between the sidewalk and the parked cars so that there is a protective buffer zone.

Roads encourage people to keep moving towards a destination whereas squares encourage people to stop and enjoy. People walk slower in squares. So Melbourne created squares and turned ugly alleyways into people places with sidewalk cafes and tiny stores.

You can provide tax and planning incentives for creating more residential housing in the downtown core. In 10 years, Melbourne went from 1,000 to 10,000 residents in the city centre, and 26 corner stores and supermarkets moved back into the area.

You can insist that new buildings must be interesting to look at from the sidewalk. Gehl contrasts 5-kilometre, pedestrian-paced architecture, which is small scale and rich in detail, with 60-kilometre, vehicle-paced architecture with big signs and wide streets.

Melbourne installed more street art and used lighting to floodlight fountains or buildings. They plant 500 new street trees every year.

Has it made a difference? Yes. There has been a 40% increase in pedestrian traffic in the daytime and a 100% increase in the evening. There has been a 200-300% increase in the number of people participating in stationary activities. And Melbourne has been declared the world’s most livable city three times.

Taking Responsibility
The question period at the end of the evening focused on what we can do to make Saskatoon a better place to live. It was very encouraging to see the Mayor on stage for the first presentation and to hear that one of the councillors had taken a cycle tour of the city with Jan Gehl. The City’s urban planners were out in force and had been prime instigators of the event.

But each of us need to play a part – by telling City Council what we want, by using the facilities that are available, by leaving our cars behind.

Business owners can do so much more to make the city an attractive place to live. Gehl described a group of investors in Norway who have decided to charge little or no rent on their ground floor units so that they can ensure that they are occupied by interesting businesses (ice cream stores, florists) that will attract shoppers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cities for People - not Cars

I went to the first of two public talks by Jan Gehl, a leading Danish urban planner, last evening. It was immensely satisfying to be part of a crowd of 500 people applauding Jan Gehl as he advocating designing cities for people not cars.

Cities were originally created as a place where people could meet and sell their goods. They were also transportation hubs, but the focus was on people. But in the ‘50s, cities were invaded by cars, and city planning revolved around moving cars from Point A to Point B. Sidewalks were unnecessary; parts of Miami have no streetlights because cars don’t need them. Too bad if you want to walk your dog or jog. You can walk in the mall from 8-10 every morning.

Gehl’s home town of Copenhagen, like a handful of other cities around the world, have chosen to return their cities to people. In 1962, 18 of Copenhagen’s town squares were being used as parking lots; they are now all spaces for people to sit and talk and watch the world go by. They have outdoor restaurant seating for 7000. Copenhagen has a problem with traffic congestion, but it’s in the bicycle lanes as 36% of residents cycle to work (as opposed to 26% in cars).

And everyone rides their bikes. Gehl’s mother in law was still cycling at 82. Gehl and his wife celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary by cycling to town for a nice meal and then cycling home again – a round trip of 19.8 kilometres.

Gehl also encouraged Saskatonians to stop being afraid of winter. Hold an outdoor Christmas market; set up a skating rink; encourage restaurants to provide heaters and blankets to extend the patio season. He urged us not to follow Calgary’s example by building tunnels and walkways to escape the cold for a couple of months but are then stuck inside when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.

For someone who loves to walk, to people watch in the park or sip a beer on an outdoor patio, Gehl’s words were music to my ears.