Friday, January 31, 2014

Why cities need intact ecosystems

City mouse, meet country mouse.
So, you never leave the city? Here’s why you should care about intact ecosystems. The ecological services ecosystems provide keep your taxes low. They provide services for free that you couldn’t afford, if you had to pay for them.
Take water, for example. Cities can’t get by without it.
In 2007, New York was on the verge of being ordered to build a filtration system costing $10 to $15 Billion Dollars to protect their water supply.
To avoid the massive costs associated with filtering all that water, they, opted instead for a watershed protection plan. They set aside $241 Million to acquire land in the watershed, in order to prevent watershed pollution.
A protected, natural watershed is accomplishing, the same job as $10 to $15 Billion worth of filtering equipment, and it protects forests and recreational opportunities in the Catskills that would otherwise disappear. Even though the cost to protect it is in the hundreds of millions, it’s a bargain compared to the alternative.
Sustainable natural environments provide ecological services that we take for granted, but which would be costly if we had to replace them with mechanical systems.
Water, evaporated from the oceans carries water to the tops of the continents, where it drops the rain and the snow that fill our rivers and streams, irrigating the continent, for free. The cost of desalinating the ocean water and distributing it would be steep.
Cities can’t feed themselves. They rely on food from far and wide, and that needs water on the farmland, just like cities need to drink it. Farmers praying for rain? How do you suppose the rain gets there?
This may sound far hairy fairy, but considering the cost of replacing the free natural services, it’s in our self interest to protect the intact ecosystems. They do things for us that we can’t afford to do for ourselves. That’s right: It’s selfish to protect the environment.
New York would be justified in saying ‘We’re keeping taxes low by protecting the natural environment’. Both the fiscal hawks and the outdoor enthusiasts would rejoice in that sort of decision.

This is only one example of how the economic payoffs of intact ecosystems are subtle and real. The psychological payoffs of being in touch with nature can be profound. Intact ecosystems provide benefits, like clean air and water, that we can’t live without, even if we never leave the city.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Deadlining? Don't panic. Ship it early

Deadlines are invigorating and can provoke herculean effort into accomplishing a task on time.
However when you back yourself into a corner on a deadline, you don't have time to have problems.
If you're submitting an essay for school, you might be able to talk the teacher into accepting it late, though that might cost you some marks. It's a bad habit to get into. Ship it early.
If you're submitting a bid for a tender, lateness will disqualify you. Higher stakes, with no partial credit. Ship it early.
Deadlines decay. Any planning strategy is fundamentally about what to do in the present. Once they're in the past, they lose their power. A deadline tomorrow can cause a panic, a deadline of last week is irrelevant.
Since you can't predict future problems lock in your results early. If you send that email now, you won't be out of luck if the power goes out later. Ship it early.
Being done already eliminates unpredictable obstacles. If you're done early, you're immune to unexpected problems and you avoid the stress associated with running out of time.
Imagine this, all your deadlines are now one day earlier.  Meeting that schedule won't take any additional effort, but it will come with much less stress.

This applies to big things too. Write your will before you need it. Go on adventures while your body still can. Stick to the important activities, and do them now. You're on a deadline.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The role of arts, culture, and recreation in community

Communities are more than just houses with a fancy neighbourhood sign at the entrance. They are a framework for how we interact with each other, both directly and indirectly. 
Direct interaction keeps the social fabric of the community alive with festivals, cultural groups of all kinds and sports and recreational activities.
Strong communities have lots of opportunities for interaction, whether that's festivals, sports leagues, or even just great public space. Make sure your community has these opportunities for everybody.
Indirect interaction takes place when we experience public art or architecture, whether it's a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, a community ice sculpture, christmas lights, or an edgy new art gallery.
We build what we care about, then we care about what we've built.
Before mass media, architecture was the primary means for communication with an illiterate public. Even amidst modern distractions, it remains a permanent fixture in our culture.
Public Art, including the houses, power centres and public buildings is the constructed manifestation of the spirit of people who live there. It makes a statement about the values of the community, demonstrating what we care about and what we value.
We maintain what we care about. The barn that's falling down? We used to care about that. We don't anymore.
The arts, culture, and recreation elements in a community have a major role to play in helping communities endure. The arts show us who we are. The culture informs what we do. The recreation elements keep us healthy and active.

You can't have a thriving community without these opportunities.
Build carefully, because your community becomes what it builds. You are a part of the community. What's been built affects you, and you affect what comes next.
Communities are about interdependently enhancing people's lives. The more you're involved, the more you make it come alive. Take advantage of the arts, cultural, and recreational opportunities right where you are, or if that's not your cup of tea start something of your own.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Neil Young isn't a scientist. Shall we shut him up too?

Neil Young @ Nottingham Trent FM Arena 2009-06-23
Neil Young (CC BY 2.0 - 6tee-zeven )
He's a rocker and an activist. He can say what he wants about the oilsands. So can Harper, and so can everyone else, unless you're a Canadian scientist.
The people whose viewpoints would be the most valuable are the people who can't share them anymore.
When you run out of gas, you don't blame the gauge.
If your car's engine is overheating, there's a gauge that tells you so. Same if you're low on fuel.
The gauges aren't the problem.
The gauges warn you about problems in advance.
Fix the radiator. Fill up with gas.
Unfortunately for the government, scientific conclusions point out inconvenient problems with business as usual.
It's disconcerting enough to fill a book. Indeed Chris Turner's recent book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper's Canada explains how the Canadian Government under Harper is disconnecting the gauges, as if the facts were the problem.
By defunding, muzzling, intimidating and ignoring scientists we accept 'post-reality' governance, including an Economic Action Plan to convince you everything's ok. Would you like unicorns with that?
When Neil Young says it's not ok he's saying the emperor has no clothes. Our economy is so tied up in extracting non-renewable resources that it's sacrilege to suggest restraint or alternatives. If you do, the fossil fuel media machine will take you down.

Mr. Harper, Ignoring reality is not a responsible approach to governance. Support science. Get facts. Govern based on reality, not just economy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Social Sustainability: Five Close Friends

Do you have five close friends? If not, try to find them. They’re a great support network; the first line of defence against all sorts of social problems.
In order for a community to be socially sustainable, people need a place to live, protection from danger, and social contact. Fundamentally, social sustainability is about the support networks that allow people to thrive.
Take affordable housing for example: If you look at supply and demand, the only real way to bring down the cost of housing is to ramp up the supply.
Continued expansion at the edges is economically unhealthy for communities, as well as the people who have to live there. The maintenance costs on the infrastructure will never be recouped and the increased travel costs for the people who live there don’t go away.
Instead of sprawling, you can use this to your advantage in continuing to shape your city for the future. Include lots of high quality apartments close to your community center and major nodes within the city. The infrastructure is already there. The pedestrian density will help businesses in those areas, creating a great space for both business and impromptu community interaction and involvement.
That sort of impromptu connection with neighbours and friends is what makes the small town feel possible. Housing close to a vibrant urban core, will be attractive compared to a big house in the suburbs.
Social sustainability also means freedom from danger, which makes a clear case for police, fire, and ambulance. Services like the food bank, counselling services, and social services are also critical here. These help people in situations where the problems may be less acute, but can really benefit peoples’ lives when they need a hand.
But affordable apartments and avoiding disaster isn’t enough to build a community on. It helps to have something to shoot for. One of the reasons we come together in cities is to take advantage of the social interaction cities provide, both impromptu and intentional.
The closer people are together the easier that is, due to the friction of having to get around. It was easy for Kramer to drop in on Seinfeld because he lived across the hall. It’s much harder to drop in on someone who lives across town. The harder those connections are to make, the quicker they’ll fade.
Good communities also provide the opportunities for those intentional interactions that take place within organized groups, sporting clubs and events, and community festivals. The city doesn’t need to run them, but using the shape of the city to make them possible enhances the social sustainability of the communities.
Ultimately, the city should be designed in a way to facilitate friendships. Building big anonymous houses in far-flung subdivisions isn’t the way to do that. 
Instead, what percentage of the population has five close friends? The support network that comes with 5 close friends can preemptively solve more problems than great social services can. Like most preemptive things, it’s hard to track. Think of the social services as a great backup plan, like a seatbelt. You’d rather not need it.

Cities aren’t about stuff, they’re about people, and people look back on their friendships, not their stuff. Design and manage the community so that everyone can have five close friends, and that will give you the socially sustainable community you're looking for.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How limited Olympic roster space can teach you about priorities

There's only 25 roster spots on the Canadian Olympic Hockey team.
Some picks are easy, some are hard. Unless you bring home the hardware you'll be second guessed forever.
Picking someone means not picking someone else, in the service of putting the best possible team on the ice.
There are lots of options, but when it's time to select the final roster tough calls have to be made.
The same thing goes for the hours in the day. Sleeping is like picking your goalies. If you neglect your health, the rest of your team suffers.
Your work life is like picking forwards. Revenue. As revenue increases, the better chance you have of achieving your goals.
Your home life is like picking defensemen. Spend less than you make and you'll thrive. Otherwise? Bad news.
Then there's you. The GM. The Head Coach. The Trainer and the Waterboy. You get to pick your forwards: how you make your living. You get to pick your defence: how you structure your life. You get to pick how much and how well you sleep and take care of your body.
Only pick the best. Forget the rest. Your daily roster time is limited.
So bring home the gold or the guilt. It's up to you.

You'll be second guessing your choices as soon as you make them. Don't let that paralyze you. Pick the combination of activities that's most likely to achieve your goals. Then perform.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Community Building: How to develop your community

If we're going to build communities that have a shot at the long term, you can't get stay on the 'lets grow forever' track. The sprawl math doesn't work.
But that's fine, because you and your community can do better. Here's how:
Lock in an urban growth boundary. Everything outside that is for growing food. The tighter the better.
Now to keep the agricultural landowners from being upset, allow them to transfer their development credits to suitable developments in the community core, for a fee of course. This allows farmers to realize the value they expected from their land, while focusing the development where you your community can best take advantage of it.
Economically, this is great for the community, because the roads in question are already there and you were going to plough them anyway. You don't need to build new infrastructure, the services are nearby. The people living there are closer to the amenities they need.
Tighter environments also stimulate more incidental interactions with people you know that lend a community the small town feel we cherish.
The agricultural land gets to stay in production. You don't have to build or maintain new roads. You increase the tax base with proportionally fewer new expenses, relative to a greenfield subdivision.
Target your population near community nodes, with a little shopping, a place to sit or play and a transit hub. Link the nodes to each other with transit that you wouldn't be embarrassed to use you get a community that works. A little walking on each end will get you anywhere you want to go.
Specifically, you'll get exceptional mileage out of four storey walkup apartments, with stores or offices right on the street.
Don't worry. You can stick with houses between the nodes, but give people who want the amenities and transit links right nearby is a powerful way to reinvigorate your community centres.
New suburbs don't ever pay for themselves. Municipalities can't get enough tax revenue to maintain the roads and other infrastructure forever, once the longer term maintenance costs come due.

Instead, build tight communities within an urban growth boundary. Transfer the development credits. Create community nodes within the existing community. We build cities so we can be closer together. Let's do it well, keep our infrastructure maintenance costs down, and maintain that small town feeling we love.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is it useful or beautiful? Keep it. If not...

Maybe you really need a cheese cutter. Then again maybe you don't.
The additional stuff that shows up around Christmas is wonderful. Gifts are fun to give and receive.
Now it's going to take up residence in your house, in your life, and in your mind.
Storage: You need a place for it, and your closet is already stuffed. You're only going to wear one shirt at a time. You can clear out space in your closet by donating clothes you don't wear.
To try to keep stuff manageable, try to donate or discard at least one item for everything you let into your life. If you're trying to simplify, go for two.
For example, if you receive a t-shirt as a gift, get rid of another one. If you buy a t-shirt for yourself, get rid of two.
You have a bunch of stuff already. Knowing you'll have to get give up something else can help curb your spending and make you decide whether you need what you're looking at.
That's how you keep room in your closet. Keeping room in your mind works the same way.
Every object you let into your life brings psychic weight and needs to get handled somehow. You become the custodian. The more stuff you have, the bigger your job taking care of it all.
Make your job easier. Get rid of stuff that you don't know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. That's the criteria for letting something into your life.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Community Economic Sustainability: Accumulating value

Consider the value balance.
For any community to be economically sustainable, the value created in or brought to the community needs to exceed the value sucked out. If the value all gets sucked out, it'll decline and disappear.
We come together in communities for trade, economies of scale, and social connections. For example, villages sprung out of a landscape of family farms in large part to process the harvested bounty and facilitate trade. 
Trade, along with the specialization of labour, means that we don't need to all work on family farms in order to eat. Someone else will grow the food. We can specialize in some other kind of work, confident that we'll be able to acquire food elsewhere.
Economies of scale show up when you don't have to go so far to get to school, we can all share the same fire department or we can all use the same water and sewer systems, rather than needing one of your own.
The social connections are valuable, and lead to some of the other emergent properties of cities, like artist communities, sports teams, and music festivals.
But if you can't make the economics work, by generating or acquiring more value than is sucked out of the community, your community will wither.
Be aware of the value balance. The balance sheet for this is complex, and includes food, taxes, income from other communities and expenses to outside. It's not just about money either. 
It also explains how lucrative housing development is. People add lots of value at the front end by taking on mortgages, but then send that value back out of the community plus interest as they pay it back. The interest in particular is a drag on value accumulation. It takes more than it gives.
Growing food and generating electricity with solar panels are both clear examples of how value can be generated within a community.
Value is also created when the systems within a community make something easier or cheaper for a group than it would be for people to do on their own. Farmers sharing a grain elevator, for example. 
With all the specialization and trade, it's tricky to calculate the economic balance of communities, because every transaction figures into it, but if on balance your community isn't accumulating value it will wither.
Since you obviously want your community to be economically sustainable, look for ways to generate value and keep your value within the community.

Practically speaking, that means: Supporting local businesses and industries, growing some food and staying conscious of the value balance.