Saturday, March 27, 2010

Downsizing Detroit

Can Detroit be downsized?  Can the vast tracts of land now featuring vacant, abandoned neighborhoods be transformed into orchards, pumpkin patches, cornfields, and vegetable gardens?  Can neighborhoods be consolidated? And will this, in the end, do anything to alleviate the generational poverty that has afflicted the remaining citizens of Detroit since the 1960's?

I am optimistic about this for several reasons:

1. Foundations in the area are coordinating efforts and leveraging resources with an emphasis on Detroit. Kresge Foundation is paying the salary for an outside urban planner to work with City Council to develop the downsizing plan. The foundations have historically worked piecemeal and independently.  This synergy must extend to the public and private sectors in order to avoid the same types of problems that have plagued government-led efforts in the past..

2. Local and organic food is a big deal. Even mid-level chain grocery stores such as Kroger are advertising sourcing of local products.  Done right,  there is unprecedented potential for local agriculture to be profitable.

3. Unlike earlier economic development schemes (think: casinos) the concepts of downsizing and urban farming are not designed to create thousands of jobs and enrich investors and developers.  Instead, downsizing is a rational response to existing conditions, and urban agriculture identifies a viable use for the city's main asset: land. No one will get rich, but maybe a stable and productive industry will lift some out of poverty. And unlike gambling, there is no societal cost to community gardens.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers

Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers  is the only parenting magazine I read.  The most recent issue, which I am anxiously awaiting, lives up to it's reputation for original thought and critical analysis of any parenting "movements".  The essay Guilt Trip into the Woods: Do kids really need nature? by Martha Nichols serves as a welcome breath of fresh air for those of us embroiled in guilt over TV, video games, social media and "nature deficit disorder."

Don't get me wrong; I am a huge fan of Richard Louv and the No Child Left Inside movement, as my prior post attests.  I fully intend on taking my kids backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, cross-country skiing in northern Michigan, and paddling on the Clinton River as much as possible. But I appreciate tempering the ideal with the real, and passages from Nichol's essay such as the following resonate:
No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7.  But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up. 
Hurrah Brain, Child, for earning my subscription fee.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Edible Wow Spring 2010

New issue out!  This edition contains an in inspiring piece about Peaches & Greens,  an effort to sell fresh produce in the style of an ice-cream truck to the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit's food desert.

If you don't subscribe, you will have to find your issue at one of the magazine's advertiser's locations. I found mine at Mind,  Body, Spirits in Rochester, an upscale sustainable, organic eatery with a LEED-certified building featuring, among many other features,  geothermal heating/cooling, an onsite greenhouse, and a food composter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Growing Up in a Place: No Child Left Inside

Lately, my husband and four-year old son have been obsessed with Super Mario Brothers for the Wii.    They spend hours at a time collecting coins, absorbing magic mushrooms and destroying all manner of mythical creatures. While I can remember spending hours on the original NES game myself back in the 80's (yes, I saved the princess), this development highlights a rather strong difference between my husband and I regarding our parenting philosophies: I don't think this is such great thing. He just thinks they are bonding.

Last Saturday we went for a walk in the park; it was the first nice day in a very long time. It quickly became clear how much Super Mario's landscape had invaded my son's mind.  He related inanimate objects to Mario creatures.  He equated the fire pole at the playscape to the flagpole scaled by Mario at the end of each level. As we walked, he pretended to be throwing giant turtle shells at us, and pretended to be hopping to avoid poison mushrooms.

Yes, it was all very cute,  But I do worry (I am a mom, right?). I am not a puritan about video games, but he is very young.  I think there needs to be a balance between fantasy and reality, and there needs to be space for imagination to thrive.  Exploring the outdoors, I believe, is the surest way to stimulate the imagination, and I think it is critical for children.

Raising kids in a cold climate presents some challenges.  Weather can discourage parents from getting their kids outside.We get out to local recreation ares and parks when we can, but not as much as we should.  We are blessed with a wonderful town full of trails, parks, and rivers, and we need to get out there .

The No Child Left Inside movement, which echoes the No Child Left Behind Act, was inspired by Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, and is trying to bring attention to this issue by combating  so-called "Nature Deficit Disorder."

Local initiatives abound; here in Southeast Michigan we have No Child Left Inside Days (April 20-25) sponsored the the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, an upcoming summit on the topic at UM Dearborn in June, Nature Connections out of Milford, and a locally authored book, One Child One Planet.

Because we have always been avid hikers, campers, and backpackers, I am really not too worried about my son's video game obsession. We'll get outside soon, as the weather improves. In the meantime, I try to pull him away from time to time, if only to take a breath of fresh air on the front porch.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ultimate Place: Earth

It is now March of 2010, and despite a mountain of evidence, the consensus of 97% of the world's climate scientists, and images showing ice caps and glaciers melting, many people, including those I respect and consider friends, are either not entirely convinced that climate change is real or are firmly in denial. The "climate gate" scandal certainly has not helped matters and has underscored the need for climate change scientists, like all scientists, to remain apolitical and above reproach. Anything less gives the likes of Sarah Palin ammunition to twist the facts.

I asked a thoughtful, intelligent conservative friend of mine why so many of his ilk regard climate change as a socialist plot designed to destroy capitalism. He had two responses. First, people tend to think anecdotally, and weather patterns just have not changed that much around here.

I don't believe the vast majority of us will perceive climate change first-hand until it is far more advanced.  Right now, climate change is most palpable in extreme areas- particularly in polar and sub-polar regions, and mountainous glacial areas, where retreating ice and expanded growing seasons can be witnessed firsthand and can be perceived to have altered in a generation. Moreover, it is difficult to experience averages- especially when increments are small and geographic areas are vast.  We tend to remember singular events and are less likely to notice or recall subtle shifts in conditions.

Second, says my friend,  people think there is conflict in the science. As evidence of the latter, he sent me this link to a Time Magazine article from 1974 that predicts global cooling.I was quickly able to find a counterargument to this (and other climate change skeptic arguments), which identifies the 1970's ice age predictions as more media hoopla than science, and that indeed even then scientific consensus was leaning firmly toward a warming planet.

The climate of the earth, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of the historic record knows, is extremely variable. We are certainly headed for another ice age, eventually.  They occur quite regularly; scientists believe there have been at least five glacial periods in earth history. The last one ended about 15,000 years ago, when modern humans were just beginning to develop culture.  The causes of ice ages are not fully understood, and likely relate to changes in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, changes in the orbital path of the Earth, and the position and amount of the continental landmasses. Eventually, glaciers will grow and descend upon the mid-latitudes once more.

Mass extinctions are also a regular part of human history. Five major and at least seventeen lesser extinction events are recognized by scientists as part of the historical record. The last one, as most third graders know, occurred 65 mya and did away with the dinosaurs. Reasons for these events are not fully understood and are hypothesized to include major impacts, cosmic radiation, and climate change.

I don't believe changes to the Earth's climate caused by human activity will permanently destroy the planet or avert another ice age. Only astronomical events, such as the sun going supernova or a massive impact, could bring about wholesale planetary destruction.  The systems of the earth are extraordinarily complex and have multiple feedback systems. The earth will rebound and change continuously. Whatever we do will be undone, eventually.

Does this mean that nothing should be done to mitigate the current global warming that threatens human civilization?

Agriculture, urbanization,and industrialization have occurred extremely recently, only since the last ice age.  While humans likely cannot destroy the planet, we can probably make it less hospitable to life until the next ice age arrives in another twenty millennia or so to cool us back down. We may even be able set events in motion to initiate another climate-change induced mass extinction.  At the every least, we will likely cause vast resource depletion, displace millions, and make things extremely uncomfortable.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that while climate models can predict big-picture, average conditions very well, they are less able to paint a detailed.picture.  And detailed pictures, drama, is what people respond to. It is well and good to clearly explain and debate the nuances of science, but my friend is right: people need to perceive and understand specifics to be convinced, and they need to know how those specifics will impact their lives in some way. When and where and how much will sea levels rise, will seasons change, will crops be depleted? The new NASA climate change web page is a good first step toward getting the imagery out there, but more needs to be done to paint this picture as vividly and with as much accuracy as possible.

We are in the midst of a shift in consciousness; everyone is "going green". Energy efficiency and alternative energy are closer to reality than ever. I attended a conference last week in which a U of M professor talked about her company's work to bring to market cheap batteries for drive trains. Cities are in a race to be the most "sustainable".  Yet some leaders are still loathe to use the words "climate change."

How do you solve a problem without naming it? Yes, there are many ancillary and complementary reasons to eschew fossil fuels, conserve energy and steward natural resources.As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham now says, politics, economics and legacy are enough reason without ever discussing climate change. Yes, let's create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, increase our economic competitiveness through reducing energy costs.  But in the end, I think we need to clearly identify the target, or we will be distracted.  And right now, that target needs to be very clear: eliminate greenhouse gases.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Orion Magazine | The Place Where You Live

Orion magazine, whose tagline is Nature/Culture/Place, is reviving their "The Place Where You Live" department. This department invites readers to submit a short essay or story, photo, painting, drawing or handmade map describing the place they live and how they connect to it. Entries will be published to Orion's website and select submissions will be included in the publication.

Orion has carved a niche for itself as a sort of literary journal for nature and environmental writing. Although many of it's articles address controversial issues, on the whole the magazine is not overtly political and focuses on creative non-fiction, short fiction, memoir, and poetry. It is a pleasure to read, the kind of thing you curl up with on a Sunday morning with a blanket and a hot cup of coffee.

I look forward to reading about myriad places and how people connect with them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Culture in the D

A great deal of press lately has focused on Detroit art, DIY and "homepreneurs." Detroit is wrapping up it's first Indie Film Fest this week. We are hosts to one of several Moth events across the nation. Last month saw the freezing (and thawing) of the Ice House project. The Heidelburg Project (above photo) is alive and well after 20+ years, and is hosting an "outsider art tour" on March 20th, which is Atlas Obscura day (see previous post). Matrix Theater is building community through theater in southwest Detroit. The Crofoot in Pontiac continues to put out a can't miss schedule of concerts showcasing local and national talent. Live jazz can be had at Cliff Bell's. The Scarab Club continues to present art, music and literature after 100 years. And of course, the DIA and Detroit Film Theater continue to bring art and culture to the region.

When you read about Detroit in the national media, you don't often hear about this stuff: the people and institutions that sustain a vibrant culture, and which give soul and authenticity to this place, in times of good and in times of difficulty.