anthropology · architecture · community · environment · health · Social

IDEO asks how to inspire communities to care about their environments

English: Overview of Singapore's financial dis...
Overview of Singapore’s financial district; how do we make our living environments better as our cities grow? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love these OpenIDEO public challenges, so I was thrilled when I saw this challenge alert pop up in my inbox (and then unfortunately let it get buried for a week, oops!) about ideas on how to make communities more involved and engaged in their environments.

Public agencies such as Singapore’s National Environment Agency would like to envision how to rejuvenate our local environments to inspire and enable communities to make our living environments better – and are eager to collaborate with the global community to explore solutions which resonate in Singapore and across the world.

In this challenge we are looking to try and explore the following questions, both for Singapore and for communities everywhere that face similar challenges.
How might we better collectively solve problems facing our neighbourhoods?
How might communities look out for each other more?
How might we provide a safe space for positive and constructive action?
How might we help passive citizens become active contributors?
How might the role of the government evolve in the future, with regards to local neighbourhoods?
In short, what does community ownership look like in 2012 and beyond? The National Environment Agency invites you to join us in designing better answers, together.

Let’s collect examples of existing initiatives and explore the challenge topic to inform our ideas for the upcoming Concepting phase.

It’s a question that I bring up a lot on the blog, and share different examples of how communities around the world are doing just that, from adding public art to bee and butterfly gardens to building playgrounds. I am bubbling with excitement over this challenge, and have lots of different ideas, but there are only 14 more days to submit ideas and I want to make sure mine are really good, eek!

What have you seen that worked in growing communities to keep the residents and developers motivated to preserve the surrounding environments, rather than bulldoze them over for a quick couple hundred bucks? What are some of your ideas? Have you seen any story of community building on this blog that screams “Yes, this is the answer!”? Submit your ideas at the OpenIDEO website.

architecture · design · Nature

There’s a part of me that always says “well yeah, duh!” to this kind of talk, but I think it’s also one of those things that needs to be repeated over and over and over until people get it and start acting on it.

THE DIRT

Presenting as part of the TEDxWDC, a day-long discussion between Washington D.C.’s creative leaders, landscape architect Jeff Lee, FASLA, talks about the need to recognize the continuity between man and nature, striving to raise awareness of “planning and design strategies for creating new cities and rejuvenating existing mega-cities.”

Lee expresses the need for more environmentally-conscious urbanism. The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace, with “a majority of the projected 12 billion people to live in cities by 2050.” Stunningly, by this time “China alone will build 300 new cities the size of Chicago.” Given the ecologically devastating effects of urbanization to date, “we must find a better way” to build and live.

On a local level, the environmental consequences of reckless urbanization are undeniable. In the 64,000 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, urbanization has created vast impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from recharging aquifers. Additionally, runoff from…

View original post 437 more words

community · environment · happiness · health · psychology

What trees mean to communities: more than you may think | Kaid Benfield’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC

Tree - leaf canopy
Street view of a tree (Photo credit: blmiers2)

This is such a great commentary from Kaid Benfield’s Blog about the importance of trees for urban health and well-being that I just had to share:

…[recently] I was approached by someone from an initiative called San Diego County Trees.  The initiative is the urban forestry project of the Energy Center, and they have all sorts of information extolling the benefits of urban trees along with a crowdsourced inventory of street trees in San Diego.

I just spent time on the website, where the coolest feature is an interactive map of the whole county showing very specific tree locations and information, including quantified benefits to the region stemming (pun unintended but acknowledged) from its trees.  As you can see in the image, these include carbon sequestration, water retention, energy saved, and air pollutants reduced.

You can even click on a specific tree and get detailed information on its species, size, and annual economic benefit to the community.  San Diego County Trees invites its readers to add to the inventory with information on additional trees not presently counted.

If you’re interested in the subject of the community benefits of trees, you can get additional information from the websites of the National Arbor Day Foundation and the US Forest Service.  Among the tidbits I learned on one or the other of those two sites are these:

  • The net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.
  • If you plant a tree today on the west side of your home, in 5 years your energy bills should be 3 percent less. In 15 years the savings will be nearly 12 percent.
  • One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen.
  • A number of studies have shown that real estate agents and home buyers assign between 10 and 23 percent of the value of a residence to the trees on the property.
  • Surgery patients who could see a grove of deciduous trees recuperated faster and required less pain-killing medicine than matched patients who viewed only brick walls.
  • In one study, stands of trees reduced particulates by 9 to 13 percent, and the amount of dust reaching the ground was 27 to 42 percent less under a stand of trees than in an open area.

Several years ago, walkability guru Dan Burden wrote a detailed monograph titled 22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.  Among other things, he calculated that “for a planting cost of $250-600 (includes first 3 years of maintenance) a single street tree returns over $90,000 of direct benefits (not including aesthetic, social and natural) in the lifetime of the tree.”  Burden cites data finding that street trees create slower and more appropriate urban traffic speeds, increase customer traffic to businesses, and obviate increments of costly drainage infrastructure.  In at least one recent study (reported after Burden’s analysis), trees were even found to be associated with reduced crime.

I think some of the most important benefits, though, are felt emotionally…

Read all of: What trees mean to communities: more than you may think | Kaid Benfield’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC.

I am a huge proponent of urban trees for all of the reasons stated above, as well as the emotional and psychological benefits that Benfield goes into, but also including the creative and playful benefits of having trees around to swing on, climb, watch animals in, or just sit and ponder under.

Benfield also goes into how trees are often controversial in urban environments because they drop leaves and sticks, and potentially branches, on streets and houses. But to me that is part of living connected to one’s environment, even if it means raking some leaves out of places you’d rather they not be (it’s not like the tree is intentionally dropping them on your lawn).

What are your feelings about urban trees? Have you planted a tree or shrub in your neighborhood? What did you like, or not like, about the results? Let me know in the comments below.

anthropology · community · environment · happiness · health · mental health · Social

Can cities promote happiness?

Ann Arbor as seen from the University of Michi...
Can humans be happy in cities? Ann Arbor as seen from the University of Michigan Stadium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A nice article from The Atlantic about how urban designers can do things to make living in the city a truly happier place to live:

I’ve been looking at some research reports, and confirming that some of the qualities associated with great urbanism – good public transit; easy access to cultural activities, recreation and shops; connectedness – are associated positively with human happiness. I first reported on a study reaching just those conclusions back in early February. Others found the study as well, concluding that residents of “beautiful, well-designed cities” are happier than those living in suburbs.

I’ve been following this topic for some time, because I believe that factors we generally think of as “subjective” can be every bit as important to fostering great, sustainable places as those that we can measure objectively. Of course, researchers being researchers, we try to measure them anyway (Seattle’s city council president on that city’s Happiness Initiative: “Measuring the subjective happiness or well-being levels of Seattle residents is an important tool”), and I suppose it was just a matter of time before someone came up with a ranking. Indeed, earlier this year The Daily Beast measured a number of factors they believed make people happy, concluding in a widely-publicized story that residents of Washington, D.C., were the happiest in America, followed by residents of Boulder, San Francisco, San Jose, and Ann Arbor.

[Some research] points out, however, that other research contradicts those conclusions, or at least muddies them significantly.

Still another study – this one involving a bit of self-selection, since its data were generated by use of an iPhone app – finds that none of the above is true, since nature is what really produces a good mood.

There are definitely positive elements to living the city: more social contact with others, social and cultural events, potential access to a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, and more. There is also the flip side to all of those positives.

Read the entire article, and write back with your own opinion: do you believe that people can be happier in the city?

community · creativity · Social

Walking to learn about your environment better

With gas prices going through the roof, many people are taking to walking more. But after being car-focused in our navigation for decades, it can be unusual for people to know how to get around by walking and how long it will take them. One student from Raleigh, North Carolina, has an idea:

On a rainy night in January, urban planning student Matt Tomasulo and two fellow schemers positioned 27 signs in three strategic locations across central Raleigh. In bold, authoritative letters, each sign indicates the number of minutes it would take for a pedestrian to reach a particular, popular destination.

And for the directionally challenged, the otherwise spartan signs are equipped with a high-tech surprise. By scanning the signs with a smartphone, pedestrians can receive a specially tailored Google Map that will keep them on the right path.

Tomasulo and his colleagues at City Fabric have dubbed their effort Walk Raleigh, and have submitted the project to the Spontaneous Interventions competition, a contest sponsored by the Institute for Urban Design. In terms of impressing judges, the group is off to a good start: far from being displeased by Tomasulo’s guerrilla antics, the city of Raleigh has expressed interest in permanently incorporating Walk Raleigh’s signs into the city’s landscape.

see more at A Walk to Remember.

I’m glad the city of Raleigh is encouraging this, and I hope it catches on in other places. I think it’s great to share our knowledge of neighborhoods with others and let them get to know their cities and environments a little bit better. Plus it’s just fun.

Have you seen similar signs in other cities? Tell me about it in the comments below.

anthropology · architecture · community · creativity · culture · design · environment · happiness · Social

How legalizing street art made Rio de Janeiro a prettier, happier place

A recent article in the Huffington Post explored Rio de Janeiro’s acceptance of street art and how it has enriched the various neighborhoods:

Brazilian graffiti art is considered among the most significant strand[s] of a global urban art movement, and its diversity defies the increasing homogeneity of world graffiti.” – Design Week

In March 2009, the Brazilian government passed law 706/07 making street art and graffiti legal if done with the consent of building owners. As progressive of a policy as this may sound, the legislation is actually a reflection of the evolving landscape in Brazilian street art, an emerging and divergent movement in the global street art landscape.

Rio de Janeiro has been particularly progressive in its policy towards street art, with its 1999 “Não pixe, grafite” (Don’t Tag, Graffiti) project that brought together 35 graffiti artists to showcase diversity in local styles. But more unique is the evolution of a permission hierarchy, blurring the line between formal and informal. The new street art law merely reinforced these unique patterns of street art and legitimized an already flourishing form of artistic expression.

Retaining walls on the steep terrain provide canvases for artists.

In Rio de Janeiro, street art is ubiquitous. It exists in all corners of the city, from the favelasto upper class neighborhoods, from residential to institutional. It is bold in scale and aesthetics and is anything but graffiti. The urban fabric of Rio de Janeiro also figures prominently in the evolving street art scene. The high walls, whether for security or to contain the topography, provide ample surfaces for painting. But rather than location dictating art, the relationship between owner and artist has a direct impact on where street art occurs.

Owners of buildings, both residential and commercial, sometimes invite artists for commissions, which is done to protect from tagging, as an aesthetic choice or as an economic choice — painting a façade with art may be cheaper than another mode of beautification. In another case, street artists ask permission from the owner.

Tudo de cor para você, Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro (photo source: favelapainting.com)

Thanks to the city’s openness to various forms of artwork, and specifically “street” art, Rio de Janeiro is now known for its colorfulness and art. In informal studies the art has also been found to make citizens more invested in their communities and overall happier.

Hooray for public art.

culture · environment · health · Nature

‘Food forest’ in middle of Seattle will feature an urban view

Woman shopping for vegetable starts at Seattle...
Soon Seattle-ites will be able to harvest their own veggies from a large community "forest." Image via Wikipedia

Sorry it has been so long since my last post. I don’t have long, but I had to stop and share in more detail this great story about an urban food forest being proposed for a Seattle neighborhood:

A plot of grass sits in the middle of Seattle, feet from a busy road and on a hill that overlooks the city’s skyline. But it’s no ordinary patch of green. Residents hope it will become one of the country’s largest “food forests.”

The Beacon Hill park, which will start at 2 acres and grow to 7, will offer city dwellers a chance to pick apples, plums and other crops right from the branch.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the people of Seattle to be able to connect to the environment,” said Maureen Erbe, who walked her two dogs next to the plot on a recent overcast day.

Would she pluck some fruit from the forest?

“Heck yes, I love a good blueberry. You’re not from Seattle if you don’t like a good blueberry,” she said.

For health-conscious and locally grown-food-loving Seattle, the park is a new step into urban agriculture. Cities from Portland to Syracuse, N.Y., already have their own versions. In Syracuse, for example, vacant lots were turned into vegetable gardens to be tended by local teens.

Seattle is an awesome place to have an urban garden. People already replace the little strips of grass between the sidewalk and the street with gardens, and in the summer Seattle is practically overrun with feral blackberry bushes and other fruit.

This is also a great way to improve your environment and make it just a little bit healthier and happier.

This idea has been getting a lot of attention in the media (see related links below), and I hope it will inspire other cities to do the same. Even in cities where it doesn’t rain allll the time, it is more than possible to create spaces for people to garden or for crops to grow feral and let nature take its course.

architecture · design · environment · health · Nature · Social

Rehabilitating Vacant Lots Improves Urban Health and Safety

Humans are greatly effected by the greenery in their environments, but remember how a few weeks back I was lamenting that not much robust analysis or study had been done on this kind of positive impact? Well, voila!

ScienceDaily (2011-11-17) — Greening of vacant urban land may affect the health and safety of nearby residents. In a decade-long comparison of vacant lots and improved vacant lots, greening was linked to significant reductions in gun assaults across most of Philadelphia and significant reductions in vandalism in one section of the city. Vacant lot greening was also associated with residents in certain sections of the city reporting significantly less stress and more exercise.

more at ScienceDaily

Journal Reference:

  1. C. C. Branas, R. A. Cheney, J. M. MacDonald, V. W. Tam, T. D. Jackson, T. R. Ten Have. A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwr273