Cities

A journey into the heart of industrial agriculture

  Americans live in a post-agricultural age. Today, fewer than two of every 100 U.S. citizens owe their living primarily to the land. A century ago, two of every five did. Yet even though very few of us contribute to food production, we all still eat — and food comes from somewhere. But where? In a sense, the answer is: Iowa, buckle of the farm belt, heart of the heartland. Do you know where your food comes from? Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh Accounting for less than 2 percent of the U.S. landmass, Iowa churns out a fifth of U.S. corn and …

Bikin'

Cities try to help bikers

USA Today says a few American cities are finally, at long last, taking steps to make life easier for bicyclists. This is heartening, I suppose, as far as it goes, but the measures under discussion — mainly bike lanes and some bike-sharing programs — are pretty wan. We’ve got a long, long way to go before biking is a mainstream alternative.

Safe streets

Not pedaling can kill you

My youngest son had a bike wreck this summer: a driver cut him off on a steep downhill. Peter managed to avoid the car by tumbling over the curb, but the fall inflicted some nasty road rash. It also inspired me to dig into the question of bicycle safety more rigorously than before: Is it safe for Peter to be biking so much? Here's what I learned: Biking is safer than it used to be. It's safer than you might think. It does incur the risk of collision, but its other health benefits massively outweigh these risks. And it can be made much safer. What's more, making streets truly safe for cyclists may be the best way to reverse Bicycle Neglect: it may be among communities' best options for countering obesity, climate disruption, rising economic inequality, and oil addiction. The alternative -- inaction -- perpetuates these ills. It also ensures the continued victimization of cyclists and pedestrians. It means the proliferation of GhostBikes. (Pictured here, photo by Paul Takamoto.) GhostBikes are guerrilla memorials to car-on-bike crashes that artists place at the scenes of injuries and deaths in, for example, Seattle, Portland, and New York. (View striking GhostBike photos from Portland and the whole world on Flickr (choose "view slide show").) Let's take these lessons in turn.

Slow your city

Like they do it in Italy

From Der Spiegel: It’s not easy to be punctual for a meeting with Stefano Cimicchi. Parking places are hard to come by in Orvieto, even if cars are still legal. Cars in the city center stick out like a sore thumb among strolling pedestrians, who move to the sides of the streets with studied slowness. After a couple of twisty laps though the narrow medieval alleyways of the old town center, you might find a parking place on the edge of the small Umbrian town — and pay handsomely for the privilege of parking. Cimicchi was mayor of Orvieto from …

Velib' liberates Paris

A Parisian tries out the city’s new rent-a-bike program

The following is a guest essay from my sister, Margie Rynn, who has lived in Paris for seven years. ----- It took me awhile to be willing to try Velib', the new rent-a-bike program now available all over the streets of Paris. I love the idea: anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere there's a "borne" (stand) of bikes, ride around for half an hour, and then leave it at any Velib' stand. That first half hour is free, and not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic über-bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. For me, though, there was a problem: traffic. I have nothing against Parisians in general, but once they get into a car, these otherwise reasonable people become a hoard of aggressive louts with little concern for the lives of their fellow men, women, and children. Merely driving in this city sends me into a state of extreme anxiety; now you are expecting me to ride a bike?

I had a dream

Seattle in 2020

The year was 2020 and Seattle had become the bicycle capital of the world. Visitors lined the streets to learn how we did it. Thanks to global warming, clothing had gone out of style, but thanks to genetic engineering we could alter our skin pigmentation to be any color we wanted. Racism had become a thing of the past and mustaches were popular again.

A greener economy from the grassroots

New book details successes; join a chat with Paul Hawken

At work today I received a review copy of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories From the Grassroots, which just hit the presses and looks interesting. It's a diverse roundup of grassroots efforts aimed at stewardship and urban renewal toward a cleaner economy and greener, more just communities. Green economy superstar Van Jones is interviewed, of course, but I didn't notice a nod to Paul Hawken right off the bat, whose pioneering books on the topic of greening the economy laid the groundwork for the idea, and whose new book, Blessed Unrest, details the incredible, ever-widening scope of the global grassroots movement for a better future (excerpt here). I'm planning to ask him how he envisions the role of commerce in this new civil society era during a conference call I'm hosting this Friday the 5th, for the Orion Grassroots Network. If you'd like to join this conversation on the global grassroots and pitch Hawken a question of your own, the dial-in info is here.

Corps may buy out coastal Miss. towns, encourage residents to move inland

The Army Corps of Engineers is seeking support from three coastal Mississippi counties for a proposal to buy out 17,000 homes and encourage residents to move inland. The Corps generally reserves buyouts for areas prone to river flooding; the new proposal is an indication that the U.S. may be seriously considering the risk of sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and stronger hurricanes. Intentions of safety aside, resistance to the voluntary project is high. “The whole concept of trying to remove people and properties from the coast is very, very challenging,” says Susan Rees of the Corps. “The desire to live by …

Putting your inner political superego on hold

A utopian realist agenda

Recently Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) posted on Gristmill, wrote in The New Republic, and published a book, all with the aim of offering a better alternative to the mainstream environmental agenda. In my estimation, they made three important points: Americans would respond to a positive vision of the future; global warming can only be solved if, in addition to regulatory policies, we embark on a program of public investment; and the public is quite open to the idea of public investment. Unfortunately, they didn't do much with that great start. I think I know why: the central thrust of the conservative movement since Reagan has been to inculcate the idea of "government bad, market good," and the idea of making a virtue of public investment runs totally counter to a conservative world view. So in order to be politically relevant, N&S look to the two institutions that conservatives and moderates have been able to agree are legitimate sources of public investment: the Pentagon and government-supported R&D. But that "won't work," as N&S declare about the possibility of mitigating global warming with a regulations-only policy framework. To be brief, the Pentagon is part of the problem, not part of the solution; and while R&D is always a good idea, the level of their combined program is only $30 billion per year, which would be great in this political climate but won't do much for the global climate. These negatives shouldn't blind us to their advocacy of a positive vision and a public investment approach. One of the reasons public investment is not discussed more often in the environmental community, much less taken seriously as a policy approach, is that we have what I will call the problem of the political superego: before any such policy can even be considered by the conscious mind, the political superego dismisses it out of hand. Which leads me to two of my favorite quotes: "The maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis," spoken by Al Gore at a policy address at NYU in 2006. The other, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, the authors of Our Ecological Footprint: "In today's materialistic, growth-bound world, the politically acceptable is ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is politically impossible." I want to use the phrase "utopian realism" to express this dilemma, and to point to a possible way out of it. The word "realist" means that the policies advocated are a realistic way out of our global crises, from a technical point of view. "Utopian" has two meanings here -- first, that the political chances of these policies being implemented seem utopian; but second, that the implementation of these goals could inspire action. (The sociologist Anthony Giddens has also used the term "utopian realism", in a roughly similar way.) So I ask you to try to keep your political superego at bay for a few paragraphs, as I lay out a possible positive vision of public investment.