community · design · environment · Social

UW exhibit celebrates parks, public spaces reclaimed from unusual uses

A bit older news, but still interesting, and a great way to get into the unofficial summer season; from UW News:

Gas Works Park, Seattle WA

Thaisa Way, a UW associate professor of landscape architecture, and several of her design students have curated “Experimenting in Public Space,” on exhibit May 9 to June 24 at the American Institute of Architecture design gallery in downtown Seattle. The exhibit explores Gas Works and 11 subsequent parks and public spaces in a series of sketches, photographs and architectural renderings.

In 1962, a parcel at the northern tip of Lake Union was a toxic waste dump, the result of an industrial plant that turned coal to natural gas. By 1976, however, it was Gas Works Park, the result of a gutsy experiment in landscape architecture led by Richard Haag, a University of Washington emeritus professor of architecture.

Gas Works and subsequent projects established Seattle as one of the first American cities willing to recast industrial sites into places to celebrate.

“Gas Works was a radical move, especially since Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ had just been published, and people were alerted about environmental pollution,” Way said.

Haag convinced the city that not only could unusual and sometimes polluted land be reclaimed but that it should be. Instead of the wide, rolling vistas of trees and flowers created across the country by the Olmsted brothers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, Haag celebrated the city and all its right angles. The gas works boiler house eventually sheltered grills and picnic tables, and the gas compressor became a play barn, all with a water’s edge view of Lake Union and the downtown Seattle skyline.

Among the projects featured in the exhibit are Freeway Park, Waterworks Gardens and the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Read more here.

I’m excited to see a celebration of open public park spaces, especially those reclaimed from formerly unappealing and otherwise unusable spaces. I find myself at Gas Works Park a lot in the summer, and love having so much green open space in the city I live in!

anthropology · behavior · community · emotion · happiness · Social

Just how lonely are we?

Jeff Ragsdale on Location
Jeff Ragsdale, the instigator for "One Lonely Guy" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More and more studies are coming out about how Americans feel more isolated than ever, and that we have less “close” friends despite being more connected to people via social media and technology.

One book was recently released that explores that idea of loneliness and the need for humans to connect with each other through the case of one man’s ad and the voicemails he received in response. From University of Washington News:

In October 2011, former University of Washington student Jeff Ragsdale, living in New York, had hit a low point — his stand-up comedy and acting career had stalled, he had been through a bad breakup and he was living in a cheap rented room. Despondent, Ragsdale posted a flyer around the city that said, “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. (347) 469-3173.”

To his surprise he got about 100 calls and texts the first day alone, and they kept on coming, finally numbering in the thousands. In time he brought the messages to the attention of his former teacher, UW English Professor David Shields. From that came the book “Jeff, One Lonely Guy,” edited by Ragdsale, Shields and Michael Logan of Seattle.

“I had kept in touch with Jeff over the years; I knew he was always up to interesting projects,” said Shields. “Jeff kept sending me the most amazing transcriptions of phone calls and texts that he had received. At a certain point, I just couldn’t say no. The material was simply too interesting; it spoke too deeply to the culture.

“What I love about the book (and I can say this because it’s less anything any of us did, and it’s more the voices that came in on Jeff’s cell phone) is what it tells us about what it’s like to live in America right now. I can’t think of a book that evokes more specifically how people talk now (the new words and phrases and sayings are extraordinary — it’s a virtual Roget’s of contemporary slang); how much they/we hunger for connection to themselves/ourselves, to each other, to a larger community; how energized and enervated they are/we are by Big Media and digital culture; how confusing love is in a 24/7 porn environment; and how baffling transcendence is — how fame or brief flickers of fame seem to beckon out of every internet portal. This book is a remarkable document of contemporary existence.”

Read/watch more about “Jeff, One Lonely Guy” in The New Yorker, Book Forum, and The Huffington Post.

The explorations of loneliness and connectedness sparked by one simple ad is pretty incredible. The book itself is also pretty powerful in that it truly is a collaborative effort, not only edited by three guys, but the content of the book is created from the voicemails of 100’s of individuals who were looking to connect with another individual in some way.

In Seattle we talk about the “Seattle Freeze,” this phenomenon where it’s hard for newcomers to make friends, but it sounds like it’s a problem all over the U.S. Would you say you have a close friend, or close friends? Would you say you feel connected to where you live, to your community? Why do you think we feel so disconnected from our neighbors compared to 30 years ago? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

design · environment

UW students focus on how to get local food to their dining hall tables

local food madness
getting local foods to a big institution can be tricky.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I am a huge proponent of consciously choosing locally sourced food and products for consumption. Not only does it use less fossil fuels, I think buying and eating local also creates a better, healthier, and more enriching environment for us all.

It’s easy enough for individuals to choose and cultivate local food, but how does a larger institution like a university, or individuals living on campus, get access to the same local goods? One class at the University of Washington did a problem-solving project to come up with solutions to eating local. From the University of Washington:

Recipes that come boxed with fresh ingredients ready to cook? How about a monthlong incentive program inspiring a commitment to fresh local food? What would it take?

The class was Introduction to Interaction Design, Art 381, and the assignment Tad Hirsch gave his students was straightforward: Design a way to improve access to fresh local food on the UW campus.

“The students looked at how the UW community currently feeds itself,” Hirsch said, “and considered a range of factors that currently make it hard for students, faculty and staff to eat locally.” He said they took an interaction design approach to the problem, asking what experiences they wanted to provide for people. “They then had to come up with concrete proposals to make local food more accessible.”

It’s all pretty theoretical for this undergraduate class of mostly juniors, he said. “But we hope to take some of these ideas and make them tangible. There’s the notion that this stuff is meant to go out into the world.”

Hirsch is an assistant professor who came to the UW a couple of months back from Intel Corp. in Oregon. He said he is pleased to be part of the UW’s “small but mighty” program in interaction design.

So, what did the students come up with? Some pretty interesting stuff, actually:

Read their solutions at From crate to plate: Students study how to improve campus access to fresh local food

anthropology · behavior · design · health

Food, consumption, and dumpster diving

A typical dumpster in Sunnyvale, California.
Some people choose to make this their meal spot. Image via Wikipedia

One element of having an enriching, healthy environment is lack of trash and waste. We Americans throw away A LOT, especially food. The percentage of food we waste is astounding (I’ve read anywhere between 25% and 30%)!

In a possible reaction to this, several people, particularly Millenials, have started “rescuing” food from the back of restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, better known as “dumpster diving.”

For his Anthropology doctoral thesis, University of Washington student David Giles is examining how cultural assumptions of what is appetizing lead to the disposal of surplus, edible food. He’s become a pro at vaulting into Dumpsters, picking through their contents and befriending people who make a meal of other people’s leftovers.

In short: Giles is a Dumpster-diver.

The 31-year-old Australia native hopes his work will raise awareness of the volume of edible food that gets thrown out and will prompt people to think about how they might get more food into the hands of the hungry — perhaps by giving it to a food bank or handing it out to the homeless in a park.

Read more at Dumpster-diver’s thesis: Good stuff going to waste (

One problem for restaurants is they are required to throw food out after it has been sitting for a certain amount of time. Same with grocery stores. That being said, us consumers could definitely do a lot to keep food from going to waste, such as buying less of it in the first place.

Shelly Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, a food bank with offices around the state, agrees with Giles that a lot of food goes to waste.

But she thinks food banks are doing a good job of capturing food and getting it into the hands of the hungry, and that most waste now comes from households or restaurants. Rotondo said fruits and vegetables with flaws and imperfections never even reach the grocery-store shelves — they’re sent by distributors to the food bank.

“Northwest Harvest does fantastic work,” Giles agreed. And yet, he’s seen the Dumpster evidence that lots of food ends up in the trash. He has not tried to quantify the amount of edible food that is thrown out in the Seattle area.

My hope is Giles addresses some of these restrictions in his thesis, or perhaps offers different ideas for distribution. After just going through my own Masters defense, I know you’re not supposed to speculate, but after all this work it would be good to at least have some action items come out of it.

Hunger is becoming more common in the U.S. now due to the recession, yet obesity and other lifestyle diseases are also becoming the number 1 cause of death in the US. There have also been more salmonella and bacteria outbreaks in food this past decade than I can remember, which would make one think they should steer extra clear of dumpsters for food. I think how we as Americans approach, handle, and consume food needs to be seriously looked at and re-assessed.