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Sarah Goodyear's Posts


Heart of glass: Has nature healed a California beach, or does that just make us feel better about our trash?

Photo by John Krzesinski.

I am looking out at a gorgeous kelp-filled cove on the Northern California coast. Waves crash on jagged rocks, quarrelsome seabirds swoop and dive over the foam, and the tidepools around me teem with anemones, crabs, and tiny, tiny fish. This place appears as wild and pristine as any spot on the American seashore.

Until I look down at my feet. Because I am standing on an engine block.

At least I think that’s what it is. Some sort of geared mechanism is clearly visible inside a larger, rusty outline. But the whole thing is barely distinguishable from the surrounding rocks. It’s as though it’s being digested by the earth.

Read more: Cities, Living


Where the Rio action is: Behind the Earth Summit bureaucracy

Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

The sticker on the stall door in the women’s room at the United Nations had a simple message: “[stop bracketing / START DOING].”

That slogan would have made no sense at all to me just a couple of days earlier, before I sat and watched the preparations for the Earth Summit that will take place in Rio de Janeiro next month. (If you have no clue what the summit is, check out our primer.) The meetings in New York City, which will resume May 29, are called the “second round of ‘informal-informal’ negotiations on the zero draft of the outcome document.” Here’s what it looks like:

You walk into a cavernous room full of diplomats. Projected on a screen at the front of the room is a paragraph from the aforementioned “zero draft,” which will evolve into the working document that will be up for discussion in Rio. Each paragraph is picked over word by word, with delegations from dozens of countries around the world suggesting word changes and deletions, or disagreeing with other nations’ word changes and deletions. A guy at the front of the room types it all in for everyone to see, putting the suggested changes in brackets, like this:

We reaffirm support for the implementation of [national – Canada delete; Russian Federation retain] [and sub-national – US, Russian Federation] [energy – Norway] policies and strategies, [based on individual national circumstances and development aspirations – US delete, Belarus retain] [to combine as / using an – US, Belarus, Norway, Russian Federation] appropriate [the – US Norway delete] energy mix to meet development needs ...

You get the idea.


No vacancy: Unleashing the potential of empty urban land

Tia Jackson and Kristen Rapp are co-founders of 462 Halsey, a group of community volunteers who are planting a garden in a lot that has been abandoned for decades.

Tia Jackson’s family has lived on the same block of Halsey Street in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for five generations. Kristen Rapp is a newcomer. Jackson is black. Rapp is white. In a part of town where the gentrification process has been grinding along painfully for years, the two might never have met if not for a sign on a fence on a vacant lot, left there by the members of a group called 596 Acres.

Now Jackson and Rapp have keys that let them into that vacant lot at 462 Halsey. They are shoveling dirt and planting seeds. Together with a dedicated group of neighborhood residents, they are turning an abandoned scrap of urban soil into a garden.

The sign that brought them together was part of a project to identify and map all city-owned vacant lots in Brooklyn, which add up to a mind-blowing -- you guessed it -- 596 acres in total area. To give you some perspective, Prospect Park, the borough’s largest, is 585 acres. In a city where real estate is an obsession (or a cult?) the idea of so much land sitting vacant is kind of astonishing.


Raccoon invasion! Masked bandits are taking over our cities

Meet your new neighbor. He's got lots of friends. (Photo by Pip R. Lagenta.)

Raccoons are going to take over the earth. Or at least move into your apartment.

OK, they probably aren’t, but that was the impression I got while watching the Nature documentary Raccoon Nation, which I caught one recent night on PBS. (You can watch it here.)

The premise of the show is that urban habitats could actually be making raccoons smarter. Omnivorous, curious, intelligent, and super-adaptable, raccoons are turning out to be really good at overcoming every challenge that people throw at them. Cities are like giant playgrounds for them, filled with puzzles that they can solve with surprising ease -- and learn from in the process.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., where I live, one family came downstairs in the morning to find a dead raccoon wedged in their silverware drawer. The resulting picture (yikes) got passed around local blogs for days. It’s a horrible image, but it got a very different reaction than a similar picture of a rat or a snake would have elicited: People felt bad for the raccoon as much as they did for the person who stumbled down for breakfast and encountered its furry corpse.

Because here’s the thing about raccoons: Unlike other animals that people encounter rummaging through their garbage, they’re freaking adorable.

Read more: Animals, Cities


Standing to reason: Do non-believers need temples, too?

Alain de Botton's proposed atheist temple. (Image by Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson.)

Fundamentalism and magical thinking are all the rage these days. Rational scientific thinking is out, especially when it comes to climate change, and atheists are really unpopular.

But what if non-believers grabbed a few ideas from the religious set? Writer Alain de Botton, whose most recent book is called Religion for Atheists, has come up with a plan to build an enormous atheist temple in the city of London. On his website, de Botton asks “Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

De Botton doesn’t see an atheist temple as a contradiction in terms. Here’s what he told The Guardian:

Read more: Cities, Climate Skeptics


Tea Party mayor gets spanked for rejecting public transit

Troy, Michigan's Tea Party mayor, Janice Daniels, tangled with trains and lost. (Photo:

Is the Tea Party losing its mojo? It sure looks like it. Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann had to bail early from the presidential race and it’s looking more and more like they’ll have to settle for Mitt -- hardly the Tea Party ideal. To make matters worse, they’re having trouble finding good candidates for Congress. And they seem to be taking a beating on the local level as well.

Consider the case of Troy, Mich., an affluent suburb 10 miles outside Detroit, where Tea Partiers last night got spanked in a fight over public transit.

In November, Troy elected Tea Party activist Janice Daniels as mayor, and put two other Tea Partiers on the city council. Daniels ran on a platform of “fiscal transparency, integrity in budgeting, and open communication between the private and the public sector” and “limited, constitutional government.”


Bloomberg: Mayors hold key to climate change progress

"As mayors -- the great pragmatists of the world's stage and directly responsible for the well-being of the majority of the world's people -- we don't have the luxury of simply talking about change but not delivering it." That was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at the United Nations yesterday. Bloomberg delivered the remarks in his usual flat tone to a vast room filled with blank-faced diplomats, bureaucrats, and international do-gooders. But there was real urgency in the message he was delivering: It's time to give cities a substantive role in international climate-change negotiations -- because national and international …

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Locked out: Where is Occupy Wall Street without Zuccotti Park?

Protesters gathered this afternoon at 6th Avenue and Canal Street.Photo: Sarah GoodyearI woke up this morning to the news that the occupation of Zuccotti Park had been ended, and my first question was, "Where will all the people go?" The strange legalities surrounding Zuccotti Park have been a critical factor in the development of the political statement that goes by the name "Occupy Wall Street." The space itself enables, and to a certain extent defines, the action. Even as the movement has spread nationally, the New York encampment remains an important part of the movement's identity. But starting at 1 …

Read more: Cities


The creative genius of Occupy Wall Street

Photo: Paul SteinWhat are cities for, anyway? There are as many answers as there are people who love (or hate) cities. They are engines for economic growth, if you ask economist Ed Glaeser. They are breeding grounds for human innovation, if you ask physicist Geoffrey West. If you're a dictator or a despot -- or a Wall Street fat cat -- you might worry about their tendency to harbor radicalism and social unrest. Fundamentally, cities exist to serve and facilitate the fulfillment of human needs -- physiological, social, and intellectual -- and when those needs are unmet, they are often …

Read more: Cities


I'll be seeing you

My kind of town.Photo: Sarah Goodyear Today is my last day as cities editor at Grist. I am no good at goodbyes, so I'm going to make this short and sweet. For the last year, I have had the excellent fortune to have this awesome job. It's been a rare and wonderful opportunity to explore all different aspects of urban life. I've written about beautiful things, like green roofs and the global upsurge in bike commuting. I've written about horror stories, like the case of Raquel Nelson, the mother convicted of vehicular homicide for crossing the street with her son. …

Read more: Cities