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Claire Thompson's Posts

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Greening the ghetto: From survival to sustainability

Marc Bamuthi Joseph. (Photo by YBCA.)

If you live in a community plagued by violence, poverty, and health problems, it can be hard to see our collective ecological crisis as more pressing than the everyday crisis of survival. That’s the problem artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, founder of the national Youth Speaks poetry program, set out to tackle with his Life is Living festivals, which he describes as an effort to “green the ghetto” by asking first, “What sustains life in your community?” The festivals have been held in Chicago, New York, and Houston, and happen every year in Oakland, where Joseph lives. They bring together artists, philanthropists, environmentalists, community organizers, social service organizations -- “folks who share values but have different modalities -- around this one value, which is life.”

Joseph created a work of performance art based on the Life is Living festivals called red, black, and GREEN: a blues that’ll be performed in different cities over the next year. Incorporating song, dance, spoken word, monologue, and multimedia visuals, the piece tells the stories of people Joseph met who fight every day to sustain life around them -- a Chicago mother coping with the loss of her son to gang violence, folks cultivating a garden built on an old junkyard in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Joseph’s own struggle to explain the Black Panthers’ legacy to his young son. The heavy material is buoyed by moments of humor, like the depiction of hard-core enviros’ holier-than-thou approach to green living (“Are you eatin’ local, organic, non-packaged, and fresh? Are you a vegan, eatin’ in season, freezin’ what’s left?”) that made a diverse Seattle audience laugh in recognition.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph (center) at the Life is Living festival in Chicago. (Photo by Bethanie Hines.)

The show doesn’t offer an easy answer to the question of how to transform the environmental movement into a universally inclusive one. Instead, it interprets the movement from the perspective of communities where sustaining life is about a lot more than changing light bulbs -- a perspective too often missing from mainstream conversations about sustainability.

I talked to Joseph before I saw the show.

Read more: Cities

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With renovated studio, LifeEdited sells simplicity to millionaires

Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited. (Photo by kris krüg.)

Among the jet-setting elite, is downsizing the new Lake Como vacation house? That’s what Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, is banking on with LifeEdited, his nascent company catering to those striving for a life of “more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy,” as its manifesto reads. LifeEdited’s splashy first prototype is a 420-square-foot Manhattan tenement, renovated -- to the tune of over $400,000 -- to be a model of slick, hyper-functional, scaled-down living.

Overall, I’m in favor of the whole simplicity trend. U.S. homes are gigantic compared to their counterparts around the world, so I cheer the apparent decline of the McMansion if it means we’re becoming a little more like all those other countries where a huge-ass house is not the ultimate signifier of prosperity. I’ve always thought that if I ever struck it rich, I’d rather live in a normal house and spend my money on travel and fine dining and an abundant supply of Smartwool socks. (We stoic Seattleites tend to find blatant displays of wealth a bit uncouth; we prefer our millionaires clothed in Gortex, not Gucci.) So I totally respect and identify with rich people who don’t want to live in mansions.

But reading about Hill’s minimalist version of high-end living (or high-end version of minimalist living, depending on how you look at it) just makes me think that anyone who would pay $400,000 to create the 420-square-foot apartment of their dreams has probably never lived in a normal apartment that small before. It looks pretty neat in its spare demonstration form, but a little clutter and grime go a long way in a few hundred square feet.

Read more: Living

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A guide to the sweet and simple life

Robyn Jasko started her blog Grow Indie as a way to offer a guide to easy, DIY garden and cooking projects. (It’s part of the goindie.com network, which she and her husband created to encourage the support of local, independent businesses.) Now, Jasko has put together a book, inspired by information on her website, called Homesweet Homegrown: How to Grow, Make and Store Food, No Matter Where You Live. A slim paperback sweetly illustrated by Jennifer Biggs’ drawings of vegetables and raised beds, Homesweet Homegrown gives instructions so straightforward they made even this brown-thumbed author feel a little less daunted -- excited, even -- by the concept of growing some legit food.

The book is neatly divided into chapters titled “Know,” “Start,” “Grow,” “Plant,” “Plan,” “Make,” “Eat,” and “Store,” with growing tips and recipes organized in alphabetical lists of vegetables. It also includes easy-to-decipher charts of seed germination times and companion plants. We caught up with Jasko recently to hear more about the book.

Q. Why did you decide to write Homesweet Homegrown?

A. I’ve always been a gardener, whether I’ve lived in the city, the country, or the 'burbs. Even on my fire escape in Philadelphia I had a tomato garden. Every year when I garden I have about 20 different books that I use and pull different things from. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if all that information was in one book? I was also inspired by all the questions I get. So I created what I wished existed. It’s a pocket manual that covers all the basics of growing your own food, with recipes, food storage tips, garden planning, information about GMOs, organics, heirlooms, and more.

Read more: Food, Urban Agriculture

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Parks and recreation: The best American cities for green spaces

Photo by Jeremy Blanchard.

With the revitalization of American cities has come increased excitement about public parks; we may have less land to spare than in Frederick Law Olmsted’s day, but we’re finding creative ways to squeeze more open space and greenery out of brownfields, empty lots, and old train tracks. The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., even turned his unused parking space into a mini-park.

Now, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) has devised a system that allows you to keep tabs on your city’s progress, and compare your hometown to the burg next door. It’s called ParkScore, and it measures and ranks the park systems of the country’s 40 largest cities. It’s not like Walk Score, where you can type in your address and get a walkability rating for your immediate neighborhood, but I’m sure the data could be used the same way (and similarly co-opted as a real-estate selling point).

And the winners? San Francisco came in first, followed by Sacramento, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Bringing up the rear is Fresno, Calif., where more than 60 percent of the population lacks easy access to public parks. Charlotte, N.C., Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis are also at the bottom of the heap.

Read more: Cities

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New Agtivist: Meg Paska runs Brooklyn’s first urban farm pop-up

Meg Paska with one of her chickens. (All photographs by Valery Rizzo/Nona Brooklyn.)

It’s a dreamy combination of hipster clichés: an urban farming-themed pop-up store made of salvaged materials. In Brooklyn. Maybe that’s why, when Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply opened at the beginning of April, founder Meg Paska thought, “We're going to get mocked.” But mockery did not ensue; instead, an enthusiastic community response showed that Paska was on to something with this small, seasonal shop catering to the needs of people growing food and raising animals in the city.

Paska, who blogs about her own backyard garden, chicken coop, and beehive at Brooklyn Homesteader, started Hayseed’s with the folks who run Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in Queens. The store will be around until early July in a space Paska rented from the design studio Domestic Construction. We chatted with Paska recently about the project.

Q. How did Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply come together?

A. My business partners and I both kind of have our own urban farm things going on. We were talking one night over beers, and we both admitted that we had thought about opening a farm store. But we were concerned about retail spaces being really expensive. We kept our ears to the ground and hoped that something would present itself, and it did. A bunch of friends of mine had posted a Kickstarter campaign for a design studio a few blocks from my house. They were going to try and save the lot next to their studio and turn it into an urban farm. I asked them how they would feel about hosting a pop-up store, and they were really into the idea. Their studio is in a big mechanic’s garage. They rented out the front space to us and then actually built out a storefront with pallets and old wood. We didn’t spend a single cent on materials; they built it all with salvaged objects.

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And the winner for greenest building is … that old thing?

Almost all buildings have the potential to become energy-saving superstars. (Photo by Kevo89.)

In the 12 years since the debut of LEED certification, the green-building stamp of approval has become the holy grail for every earth-loving contractor and home-builder. But while brand-new, Dwell magazine-worthy eco-structures are a flashy way to highlight new construction practices, the greenest buildings, it turns out, are almost always old ones. By fixing up an old building, you’re saving the planet all the costs of growing, manufacturing, and shipping new building materials all over creation, putting yourself decades ahead of a new building in terms of mitigating climate impacts.

LEED has a special set of awards (silver, gold, platinum) for existing buildings that have energy efficiency retrofits and other upgrades, but these rising energy-saving superstars haven’t seen much limelight -- until now. Next month, the first annual EBie Awards will recognize impressive environmental performance improvements in existing buildings (existing buildings – E.B. – get it?).

“There’s not been enough recognition of the talent and skills that go into making effective change through existing buildings,” says Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, which created the awards. “By bringing these incredible case studies to light, we’re hopefully encouraging duplication. People will start asking themselves, ‘Why can’t I do that, too?’”

Read more: Cities

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Jamie Oliver wants you to join the Food Revolution

Love him or hate him, the man knows how to mobilize a following. (Photo by Scandic Hotels.)

However you might feel about Jamie Oliver -- most seem to love him or hate him -- you can’t deny that the man has a following, and he knows how to mobilize it. Since he declared this Saturday, May 19, Food Revolution Day -- calling on “an international community of foodies, chefs, parents, educators, companies, activists and celebrities to arm people with the knowledge and tools to make healthier food choices” -- that community has responded in force. So far they’ve planned over 600 events in 58 countries to answer the celebrity chef and real-food champion’s call.

The events range from privately hosted dinner parties to school excursions to cooking and gardening workshops -- anything that falls under the mantle of spreading the gospel of good food and healthy living. If you’re in Amsterdam, you can take a “Good Food Tour” of the city. Stuck in the Maldives? Attend an “outdoor fitness event.” Those in Singapore can tour the few farms that still exist in this land-scarce country. Volunteers in Lorain County, Ohio, will be planting gardens for low-income families. Multiple cities will host grocery store and farmers market tours. If you can’t find an event in your area, you can sign up to host one. The @FoodRev twitter feed includes replies like: “it’s not too late to get an event on the map. We’d love to see another event in Kuala Lumpur.”

Read more: Food

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Put it in your pipe and grow it: Former tobacco farms evolve

A sweet potato from Saura Pride Purple Sweet Potato, a fledgling business that was once a tobacco farm. (All photos by RAFI.)

Alan Flippin comes from a long line of North Carolina tobacco growers. But, a few years back, the crop just stopped making sense. His family’s operation stopped making much of a profit as the cost of fertilizer and other inputs rose. And, Flippin says, “I don’t really enjoy growing tobacco; I don’t use it. I was looking to get into something else.”

He wanted to transition to growing produce instead -- something he could feel good about cultivating, eating, and selling. But shifting to a completely different crop is a hugely risky proposition. “With tobacco, you pretty much know how to grow it; you’ve got a market, and you get insurance for your crops,” Flippin says. “Whereas for produce, it’s very scary because there’s so much you don’t know.”

Flippin’s fledgling produce operation got off the ground with the help of a grant from something called the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. The grant enabled him to build a greenhouse and experiment with several varieties of organic vegetables to sell to wholesalers, farmers markets, and at a local co-op.

The fund was created in the wake of the Tobacco Master Settlement to help North Carolina’s agricultural communities transition to new sources of income. According to the terms of the settlement, announced in 1997, the country’s four largest tobacco companies would make perpetual payments to 46 states to compensate them for smoking-related health-care costs and, in tobacco-growing states, economic losses (four other states already had individual agreements with tobacco companies).

A percentage of North Carolina’s settlement money goes to the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which is a program of the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

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‘Bitter Seeds’ documentary reveals tragic toll of GMOs in India

When home-front battles over GMO labeling, beekeeping, and the Farm Bill get heated, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that Big Ag’s influence extends far beyond our own borders. Micha Peled’s documentary Bitter Seeds is a stark reminder of that fact. The final film in Peled’s “globalization trilogy,” Bitter Seeds exposes the havoc Monsanto has wreaked on rural farming communities in India, and serves as a fierce rebuttal to the claim that genetically modified seeds can save the developing world.

The film follows a plucky 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years. As Grist and others have reported, the motivations for these suicides follow a familiar pattern: Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton. They always live close to the edge, but one season’s ruined crop can dash hopes of ever paying back their loans, much less enabling their families to get ahead. Manjusha’s father, like many other suicide victims, killed himself by drinking the pesticide he spreads on his crops.

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Southern discomfort: Tracing a region’s history through its food

Michael Twitty.

Michael Twitty is about to embark on what he calls the “Southern Discomfort Tour” -- a journey to follow his ancestors’ “foodsteps” through the American South.

This self-described writer, culinary historian, and Jewish educator from the Washington, D.C., area will be traveling with a small group for two months by car, from Maryland to Louisiana and back, covering almost 4,500 miles.

In addition to tracing his personal history, Twitty will be speaking, giving cooking demonstrations, and volunteering on farms and for food justice organizations over the course of the trip. He plans, as he puts it, to “make sure that organic, local and sustainable food in Southern communities -- particularly that produced by farmers of color -- is highlighted and supported.” He also plans to document the journey on his blog, The Cooking Gene.

Read more: Food