cjryan2000's blog

The value of speaking up

Over the past eight years, the value of free expression has been illustrated so starkly and the barriers to this seemingly simple act of democratic participation in the realm of ideas and values have become more varied and challenging. From the erection of "free speech zones" miles from the ears and eyes of their intended recipients to the illegality of wearing a politically charged t-shirt, Americans are becoming re-acquainted with the numerous cultural gatekeepers, people and institutions that for whatever reason, make it risky or difficult to stand up for your beliefs and values through speech.

Many of us have faced a difficult choice when we wanted to speak out against the Iraq War or the Patriot Act but experienced the chilling effect of our fellow citizens who may have had sons or daughters, fathers or aunts, serving in the military. It became worse when our troops came home for burial and now our speech could have the added acidic effect of challenging these people's familial sacrifice. So we kept our mouth's shut.

On other fronts, such as the immense threats we face from global climate change or post-peak oil, it took years for us once we became familiar with the arguments to gather the courage and muster a few words in the company of people who were not sycophants or fellow members of the choir. Think of the time lost while the climate of acceptability shifted slowly, gradually, incrementally so that we could, ever so carefully, begin to share our thoughts and concerns.

Some of us didn't really care and said whatever we felt. Sometimes those of us who were of that sort paid dearly for their speech. Others had a family, car, mortgage, job and couldn't venture so far out beyond the curve of public opinion. These people were more careful and waited...and waited, until recently when it became acceptable to speak out about climate change or against the war. So again, what do we lose, not only each of us individually but also our society collectively when we hold back our opinions and thoughts? It's up to each of of to answer the question of individual cost. But for society, it's clear that we lose an opportunity to circulate values, beliefs, ideas, and opinions into the realm of public opinion so that the collective sum of what we all believe can be accurately assessed.

Conversely, to not do so risks a dark cloaking of the sum total of these beliefs so that what we're left with is another reality. This alternative reality is picked up almost like radar by the majority of us as "what society thinks" since there is no aggressively competing message. The media, already pre-biased as a corporate appendage, readily picks up on the comfortably ensconced version of public opinion that does not challenge accepted norms and mores which are embedded in to the cultural petri medium of growth, consumption, expansion, acquisition, and profit.

So in the end, again what we have lost over the past eight years most significantly is an opportunity to more aggressively circulate our own ideas and concerns about climate change, post-peak oil, endangered species, community, food, and other issues in the public forum of ideas. I am not suggesting unduly risking your job, circle of friends, or physical well-being in a reckless explosion of charged words. What I do suggest is to be aware of opportunities that you might have to have a conversation with a friend or acquaintance that you might have avoided previously about these issues. Develop your points and arguments in a non-confrontational manner but build a logical, well constructed argument that may change his or her opinion ever so slightly. You don't have to go for the Hail Mary pass but perhaps you might. over time, just shift one or three people's perspectives enough to begin to change the climate on this one topic. The sum total of all of us doing this could approximate a Gladwellian "tipping point". On the other side, keeping silent on these critically important issues risks a "spiral of silence" that may marginalize the issue or at least never give it the public support necessary to compete with the economy or health care for primacy in American political discourse.

Finally, if you have any experiences of holding back your opinion or self censoring yourselves about issues you consider important, please consider filling out a questionnaire that I have developed to learn more about these acts. I am working on a dissertation designed to learn from people who have self-censored so that I can gather what their primary concerns over speaking out were. You can find the form here:

Click Here to take survey

Christopher Ryan, AICP
ConcordCAN & The Localizer Blog

Call for Front Porches

Those of us familiar with what constitutes good urban design know that the front porch plays a central role in establishing a sense of friendliness and community on a residential street. So I am putting out a call to all municipalities, builders and developers, and homebuyers to accept nothing less than a house pulled close to the street and fashioned with a nice, big front porch that can hold a porch swing, a few Adirondack chairs, a mailbox, and nice big welcoming front door. With Halloween approaching fast, what better house to pick for trick-or-treating that the warm, inviting house with the big front porch...maybe the one with the life-sized mummy sitting on the chair next to the front door.

A theme I hope to encourage within a relocalization framework is good residential urban design and neotraditional or new urbanist design principles strongly encourage houses closer to the street with front porches, sidewalks and tree lawns, and good street trees. Aesthetically there is no question that this pattern of development is more attractive, efficient, and functional. It also facilitates a return to an earlier, more community oriented design that encourages human interaction and a sense of neighborliness. This of course is one of several reasons why older residential neighborhoods in small towns and cities retain their attractiveness and value and lean times ahead will require us to reform many of the community and neighborhood ties that we jettisoned as we bought large lot homes with winding driveways leading to a rear loaded garage. We essentially never have to leave the confines of a building or vehicle in this model and this never see and greet our neighbors.

Municipalities should use their zoning ordinances and bylaws to mandate good urban design and consider form-based codes as a rigorous framework for assuring the type of design desired. Builders and developers are notoriously conservative and avoid new (old) ideas like the plague. While many larger or better informed builders are coming around to new urbanism and realize that larger profits and better sales are usually resultant, the vast majority of homebuilders are small "Mom and Pop" outfits that keep with the tried and true template. As a result, I would suggest that some form of licensing or accreditation be added as a standard to homebuilding that requires some knowledge of historical and innovative design patterns just as architects need to be knowledgeable about historical architectural schools and designs and fashion designers needs to know about the preeminent practitioners in that field. Finally, homebuyers should know the range of possibilities and not be satisfied with the narrow range of existing or new homes in their immediate area. Put pressure on developers to provide the product that satisfies your needs and desires and if no sidewalks or front porches can be found in new homes, buy a fixer upper in a revitalizing neighborhood and show the market what it needs to build.

The front porch and closer siting to the street may and hopefully will bring people back outside, sitting on the porch, and greeting their neighbors as they walk by to the corner store or library. As Putnam's Bowling Alone suggests, re-engaging with neighbors will help rebuild social capital and bring communities together again at a time when cooperation, collaboration, and just basic old fashioned civility are sorely needed.

Community Support for Small Farms

Community Support for Small Farms
From The Localizer Blog

I recently witnessed two instances of community support for local farms that were under duress and felt that these instances were good exemplars for other communities. As many believe is in our imminent future, small family or co-op farms will again likely play an important part of our local economies. Any support or assistance we can give those farms in trouble will return dividends and bring the community closer together.

The first instance relates to a devastating fire that occurred last weekend in Concord, MA destroying a farmers market associated with a long respected farm family dating back to 1922. When the Verrill Farm complex was reduced to ashes in just a few minutes, the news spread on electronic bulletin boards and via word of mouth. From what I observed, first reactions ranged from mouths agape to tears. Verrill was a veritable institution beloved by residents from Concord and surrounding towns. It provided several varieties of sweet corn, peppers, heirloom tomatoes of countless colors and shapes, flowers, greens, and more. It also had a little bakery and cheese shop. Among the popular events sponsored by the farm, the blueberry pancake breakfasts and corn and tomato dinners were the most popular. Kids loved to show off their purple fingers after an hour of blueberry picking. Verrill was among the several farms in the area practicing sustainable farming methods.

Even as news spread of the fire, long time customers and curious observers walked or drove over to gather and share stories. For days afterward, streams of cars would slow as they passed by and people would still gather nearby to commiserate. In parallel with the grief and sense of loss was a gathering movement to provide financial assistance and support to Verrill's rebuilding. Initially, the family leaned toward not rebuilding. But the outpouring of support from the community may have turned the tide. Several donor campaigns have popped up to assist the effort and Verrill is now selling from a makeshift farm stand on site. I think when people imagined a Concord without Verrill Farm, they were motivated to show support in some way. Certainly small family farms, with or without retailing components, can become important local institutions even in this modern economy. Finding ways to support them, financial or otherwise, ensures that they will be around for years to come.

The other example of community support for a local farm emerged during a regular local Board of Selectmen meeting in a small town in Massachusetts's Nashoba Valley. While the specifics of the case are not important, the message that was embedded in a citizen's short comment held out a new model for community and neighbor interaction. A neighbor to a long operating family farm filed a complaint about the condition of the property. Apparently the farmer was in his eighties and was no longer able to properly maintain it as it was strewn with rusted and abandoned machinery and trash along with the tools, equipment, and livestock directly related to farm operations. The complainant was concerned no doubt about property values and nuisance oriented impacts, many of which are not actionable due to right-to-farm laws in Massachusetts. He also was allegedly concerned about what appeared to be toxics in barrels that the owner claimed was molasses-based feed for livestock. Anyway, after the complainant was heard and neighbors supporting the property owner retorted, one woman stood up and said the following (paraphrased):

Instead of approaching this from an adversarial stance, why can't we approach the farmer and ask him if he needs any help? Maybe he needs some assistance in cleaning up his property and since he's over eighty and has no family, he can't look after the farm as diligently as he used to.

Now from the typical municipal code enforcement perspective, the usual approach is to determine if the violation is valid and to follow up with an enforcement order. In most cases this works fairly well but sometimes there is an obstinate property owner who loves to be uncooperative. Yet how many such cases may involve an owner, for whatever reason, who just can't get it together and needs help? The municipal enforcement function is not set up to consider this type of solution.

Yet perhaps there should be some accommodation or consideration of a neighbor or citizen that does need a hand. We use Boy Scouts to help rake leaves for older people so why couldn't we, both structured or unstructured, find mechanisms to help those in our community in need within the context of a possible zoning or building code violation? In particular, family farms with older owners may need a hand to maintain viability or keep their properties from becoming a general nuisance. Obviously, homeowners in new subdivisions have no legitimate gripe with operating farms as long as everything functions within the context of normal agricultural operations. You buy near a farm or airport, you should know what comes with the territory.

I'm not suggesting a one-solution-fits-all exists to help local family farms but some ideas could include having the local agricultural committee (if one exists) inventory local farms and follow up annually on needs. If your community has a Local with a local food subcommittee, perhaps one task would be as a liaison to local farms to see if they need any help for the harvest, spring cleaning, or getting ready for a long winter. This obviously extends beyond the expected support through patronizing local farm stands, purchasing CSA shares, or hosting farmers markets. I am referring to the needs that often are not visible or obvious that require us to be observant, so see each other as fellow citizens and members of a community rather than a separate group of people with little in common other than an occasional small transaction. This kind of act of civility is as important as checking on the widow down the street after a snowstorm.

Find original article at: The Localizer Blog

Bicycle Musings

Triggered by another unfortunate conflict between myself as a car commuter (still need to in current job circumstances) and a bicycle, I thought I would lay out a few thoughts related to the current state of cycling from someone who is both a cyclist and a driver interacting with other cyclists.

Firstly, let me go on record as a strong and vocal advocate of cycling as an important means to reduce VMT and commute to work. Where, weather permitting, this is feasible, infrastructure should be rapidly built to accommodate and encourage this activity. Places such as Portland, Madison, and Davis show what can be accomplished here. I am a professional urban planner who has worked for several decades to ensure that bicycle facilities are considered in the transportation planning process.

I used to cycle frequently as a teenager with a pretty nice aluminum rimmed 1975 Raleigh Super Course. After my second bike was stolen at college, I was bikeless for nearly 18 years until I recently bought a fairly affordable ($800) road bike. My first widening of the eyes occurred as I was researching bikes and noted that there was no price equivalence between the bike I owned as a youngster and anything resembling that bike today. To approximate that $400 bike might require an investment of $1100 or more.

I rode in cutoff jeans and a ragged t-shirt and a pair of Adidas Vienna's but that would only elicit stares today as one needs the entire wardrobe of jersey, shorts, socks, gloves, helmet, and shoes with an outlay of hundreds of dollars to be part of the crowd. My observation is that cycling has morphed into an exclusive club-like social activity with standards for acceptable wear, behaviors, insider knowledge, and other mores. This is problematic because to have cycling acceptable as an across the board alternative to driving would require buy-in from all social groups. As I observe it, cycling today certainly does not seem approachable to the "common" person. One last note along this line relates to how many cycling jerseys worn by roadies are plastered with commercial insignia similar to the Sunoco stickers displayed by cars owned by NASCAR fans. Do we really need to be rolling billboards for these corporations?

Another issue I want to note, and this of course will ID me as an "outsider", is that of cycling etiquette. I ride my bike as far to the right on the pavement as I possibly can both for safety on the narrow New England roads I dare travel and also as a courtesy to drivers who need to get around me. I am particularly sensitive when hearing a car approach from the rear and move to the side quite consciously. I also stop at all stop signs, observe all yield signs and obey traffic requirements as State law requires. So let me throw it out there and ask as respectfully as I can of other riders, "why do I seem to be one of the few who acts this way?"

So often as a driver, I come upon cyclists riding two or three abreast in the narrow, windy roadway, taking up the entire lane, fairly slow on the uphill, forcing a cuing of several cars for quite a while before the cars, one at a time, must find a suitable straightaway to pass by going entirely in the opposite lane (often illegally with a double stripe). Could someone please explain this behavior to me? I have experienced it too often for it to be a coincidence. Relevant to me, Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) Chapter 85, Section 11B require riders to obey all traffic laws including single file riding unless passing (but I often see this violated as noted above).

I am also curious to have someone explain to me why so many cyclists charge full speed through stop signs without so much as a sideways glance. I can only surmise that they choose to break the law to maintain the hard earned momentum that cars use petroleum to obtain. It still appears to be dangerous and careless as well as illegal, immature, and uncivil.

On occasion, I have vocalized my dismay to cyclists who have exhibited the behaviors I have observed only to be rewarded with a middle digit and some more profoundly juvenile vocalizations. This only solidifies my feelings that many (but of course not all) cyclists today are spoiled and elitist. Thus my warning....to encourage cycling to be ubiquitous and egalitarian, these behaviors and mores need to be eliminated. Otherwise I see a huge social barrier to the change in culture necessary to get people out of their cars and on bikes. One final point. If you are a cyclist and see justifications for the behaviors I describe and the gear that you display, please feel free to respond and enlighten me. However, but please do so in a civil and mature manner and not what I often observe behaviorally from many cyclists in my community.

Reaching for "Normalcy"

Normalcy

I love the term "Normalcy". It reminds me of poor, incompetent Warren G. Harding's attempt at language creation in 1920 but it also presents an image to me of a false state of balance, of a situation grounded not in reality but a contrived image of "the American way" anchored in high finance, industrialism, and consumption. As early as 1920, the idea of the "American Dream" had become a promise expected by most citizens. Not yet an entitlement, but hard-wired nonetheless.

A Return to Modern Normalcy

Harding used the new term (of which he probably meant normality) to signal a return to the pre-war America. I see the mass media and nearly everyone I speak to looking for some sign that we're on a path back to a "normalcy" that predates $147 a barrel oil, $4.00 a gallon gasoline, and Ford F-150's sitting dusty on the lot. Never mind what the few mainstreamers (Simmons, Pickens...) willing to stick their necks and reputations out to share their concern that these new times may be permanent. There is quite clearly the expected mass desire on the part of most Americans that all of this shall pass and that flush times will be our again.

Cornucopians at the Gate

As people with a cornucopian outlook tend to predominate still, posing barriers to serious cultural change to adapt to energy scarcity, the question that hangs out there is "can any significant traction be gained in aggressive energy transitioning before a cultural collapse occurs? Frankly, any data points and trendlines that counter arguments for peak oil and global climate change are seized upon by the cornucopians and skeptics as iron clad proof of the falsehoods thrust upon us by mendacious and crazed experts. Any drop in the price of a barrel (now under $125) or summertime cool spell is a great big "I told you so". Never mind the nuance of actual global climate change science, these people do not want nuance, do not want various confusing shades of gray. It either is or it isn't, black or white, you're either with us or agin' us...

Educating in the Art of Complexity

What's needed, not necessarily very achievable, is to try to educate people who are subject to simplistic linear thinking that there is a complexity to the World that humans have difficulty grasping and mostly choose to avoid even pondering. Most people with linear thinking structures often cannot even hold a conversation with someone who thinks in a more nuanced manner. So until more people are open to a different model, they will not listen to the opposing argument, read the critical article, or open themselves up to a more complex and disturbing reality in which peak oil and climate change as well a host of other maladies are firmly anchored and moving forward upon us.

See original at: http://thelocalizer.blogspot.com/2008/07/reaching-for-normalcy-in-energy...

Concord Local Member Informs House Committee on Sustainable Industrial Practices

Newburyport-based Sustainnovation, a business consulting firm focusing on sustainable business practices recently spoke to the combined Massachusetts House Committee on Science and Technology Caucus and the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on June 26 at the State House. Read the article about their company and the State House meeting below:

Article in Wicked Local

Slow Food Site Located

This site is relevant to the gastronomic side of relocalization: Slow Food Site

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