Dirt!

I watched the film Dirt! last week. Many of us don’t really consider dirt, and when we do, we look down upon it. We don’t like it when we are “dirty” or when other people treat us like “dirt”. Dirt is the lowest of the low.

But in reality, there is nothing more important that dirt, as it is the cradle of life here on Earth. We need high quality dirt, or soil, to grow food. Without any dirt, we could not grow any food, and without any food … well you get the picture.

Many of us think that dirt is limitless. This is not true. Not all areas of the Earth have dirt, and some areas that have it, only have a few inches. This dirt took a long, long time to develop. Once it is gone, it will take a long, long time to develop more. Poor countries that don’t have dirt, or have lost their dirt, do not have an effective way to feed their people. So they go hungry, or migrate to areas where there is dirt. These migrations can cause conflicts among those who do not want to give up their dirt to newcomers. Countries that have dirt, even poorer countries, have a way to feed themselves and enjoy much higher food security.

Here in the West, we are paving over a lot of our dirt. Cities continue to sprawl, roads continue to be built, and less and less land is available for farming. But here we don’t notice the impact that this has on our food supply; it does not impact where our next meal is coming from. We just go and buy our food at the grocery store, much of it imported from other countries.

But wait a minute. We know that we are using almost all the arable land on this planet to grow food. Is the land attributed to feeding us, land that is way off in other countries, poor countries even, now not available to feed the local people that live there? Does our requirement for the next mall, the next suburban development, trump another country’s ability to feed its people?

Map of world percentage arable land.

% of Arable Land by Country - Image via Wikipedia

  So given how important dirt is – how are we treating it? Not very well I am afraid. A lot of our dirt has been lost due to conventional farming practices. When a farmer tills a dry field on a windy day, a lot of the dirt is taken up by the wind, blown into the sky, never to return. Dirt is also lost due to irresponsible irrigation practices that allow dirt to wash away into our streams and lakes and oceans, never to be used again. When we tear down a forest on a mountain, the dirt that remains can very quickly be washed away, without the network of trees and roots and plants to sustain it. On top of all of that, much of the dirt that we do have remaining is subjected to a host of chemical additives, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Unfortunately, nitrogen in fertilizer isn’t even completely absorbed by the plants – up to 70% of it gets carried away to lakes and oceans, creating algae blooms and reducing the oxygen content in the water. Fish stocks decline, aquatic life suffers. This is what has directly caused the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated now to be the size of New Jersey.

We also add pesticides of course, as we don’t want those pesky pests eating up our crops. But pesticides kill more than just the pests; they also kill beneficial bugs and organisms that provide some of the life giving properties of the soil.

On top of all this, we plant vast mono-cultures of single crops. This ensures that the same nutrients are continuously drained from the soil, decreasing its health. Mono-cultures also invite more and more pests, as they provide a limitless feeding ground. So, we add more and more pesticides.

The result? We now have less dirt. We have dirt that is not nearly as healthy as it was 2 generations ago. We are using almost all of the arable land on Earth, yet continue to sprawl our cities, growing out instead of up. We buy food from a world away, perhaps impacting the food security of the local people of that country. We don’t know where our food comes from, and we don’t know about the importance of dirt

We are treating dirt, well – like “dirt”.

Alternatively, organic farming cherishes the dirt. It is all about dirt! Everything begins and ends with the quality of the dirt. Dirt that has been farmed organically has much more life within it, holds much more water, and releases its nutrients much more slowly – just how the plants like it. Organic dirt also holds much more carbon. If we all farmed organically, just think of the carbon sink we could create! Organic farming could contribute to reducing the carbon from the sky, which we so desperately need right now.

As for managing pests, that can be done organically as well. Instead of applying chemicals, there are several other natural alternatives:

  1. Grow strong, healthy plants in strong, healthy dirt, so that they are more able to naturally defend off pests
  2. Plant companion plants that deter pests (like marigolds and onions around your vegetable patch)
  3. Rotate plants every season to mix it up and confuse pests
  4. Introduce pest predators, such as ladybugs, into the mix
  5. Watch over and care for your plants, noticing early when there is a pest problem, so that action can be taken

So the next time you see a pile of dirt, do not scoff. Be happy and thankful for it!

Green City

Just when you are getting frustrated and discouraged by the lack of vision and action on the part of politicians on climate change, they totally surprise you.

Guess what? There are two amazing projects going on right now in my city!

The first one is a long-range environmental plan called the “The Way We Green“, which will be put in front of city council for approval by early 2011. The proposal defines specific objectives to accomplish in the following 7 areas:

  1. Energy & Climate Change
  2. River Water Supply & Quality
  3. Food Security
  4. Air Quality
  5. Biodiversity / Healthy Ecosystems
  6. Waste Management
  7. One Planet Living

I am so excited by this plan. I had no idea that our city was so progressive. We have always been top notch in areas of recycling, but a bit behind the times when it came to things like urban sprawl and efficient public transportation. The fact that this plan could change all that is so inspiring and refreshing and just what I needed to see.

One of the areas of this plan that I am most happy about is the creation of a Food Policy Council for the city. I know that many Canadian cities have this already, so I am glad to see that we are finally getting one too. I am hopeful that this will encourage new ventures of local food production, and increase the food shed of the city and surrounding area. I would love to see a day when local food is widely available and readily accessible by all.

The second development is a big one. Huge. Have you ever sat there and daydreamed about what sustainable green living would look like in the future? What kinds of homes would we live in, how would we transport ourselves, how would our energy needs be met? Due to the massive infrastructure changes that would be required, sometimes I think that this really is only a dream (but one worth having). Perhaps my children or future grandchildren would live in different types of homes and use energy differently, but can I expect to see these kinds of changes where I live in my lifetime?

In short, YES!

There are plans underway to redevelop the city centre airport lands into an environmentally sustainable community to house over 20,000 people in a carbon neutral environment, with no cars. Just think of the urban sprawl that will be averted! Five companies from around the world, including the US, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and the UK, submitted proposals for the vision for this space. These proposals are now up for display and comment at City Hall and online.

I went to City Hall last week to take a look in person. The displays were amazing. I came away so happy, so excited about what was in the realm of possibility for my city. My favourite proposal, by Perkins + Will of Vancouver, includes these features:

  1. Renewable energy production to power the community and still have enough left over to export electricity to other parts of the city
  2. Urban Farm and greenhouses for local food production
  3. Extensive water recycling system
  4. World class green space and park
  5. Large hill with views of downtown, used for tobogganing in the winter and music festivals in the summer
  6. Cross country skiing circuit
  7. Ice skating rink
  8. Large water feature with a 1 kilometre rowing course
  9. Several community gathering areas
  10. 4 community neighbourhoods, with green “fingers” reaching in from the large central park
  11. Links light rail and bus transit, no cars
  12. Cycling and hiking route that connects the community to the city’s river valley park system
  13. Residential buildings that feature lots of windows and solar panels
  14. Commercial areas to provide services to residents, as well as local jobs
  15. 4 schools – 2 elementary, 1 junior high, 1 high school

Take a look at the master plan! Can you see how the plan plays homage the former runways, respecting the history of this space in the design? 

I think this is a beautiful model of sustainable development. I really feel that this submission, more than any others, celebrates my town as a winter city, and provides many venues for an active social and community gatherings. I was also so pleased to see that it goes beyond net zero, and incorporates local food production as well! If this is built, I would love to live there!  Here is their video submission:

My second favourite submission was from KCAP of the Netherlands.  Their video was fantastic:

If you live here too, you have until February 28th to submit your comments on each of the submissions online. I did this last weekend. The city will be choosing a winner in a few months, and then will embark on a 15 month process to consult with the public and refine and develop the plans. They expect to break ground in 2013.

Bring on the green!

What do you think of these developments? What exciting things are going on in your city?

Bus Ride

Transit bus
Image via Wikimedia

If you have not already noticed, I am worried about climate change.  Everyday I learn more, read more, hear more; every day I am more worried.  It seems crazy that we have gotten ourselves into this situation, and even more crazy that most of us are content to sit idly by while it happens all around us.  However, I do understand why people choose to be bystanders – I was one of them only months ago.  What could I do?  How could I make a difference?  These bad things are going to happen regardless of what I did.  All I could do was just watch it unfold and hope for the best.  Right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. 

Maybe not.

I can do things to effect change in my own life.  I can inch things forward, little by little, by adding my voice to the thousands that are already on the cause.  I can “be the change you want to see in the world”.

It is pretty hard to openly complain about the BP oil spill or the Alberta oil sands, and still jump in my car every time I want to go somewhere.  But it is just so easy to jump in the car.  But how can I complain about oil and still be a rampant user of oil?  It is a double standard and I know it.

But it is hard.  I wrote before of our car culture and its hold on North American society.  I live in a city that is especially spread out, almost the worst urban spawl in Canada according to a recent study.  This makes it difficult to get around without a car.

I was thinking about it, and there are four main areas where I use my car:

  1. Work
  2. Shopping (for just groceries due to my current shopping ban)
  3. Friends and family gatherings
  4. Family activities (for example, my kid’s swimming lessons)

Where could stop using my car?  By far, the easiest to tackle is going to work.  There is a bus that goes through my neighbourhood that heads straight downtown and can deposit me one block from my office. So, beginning in 2011, I have committed to taking the bus to work.

I have not taken the bus in about 10 years, so this was a really new way of transporting myself.  After about 5 weeks, I am happy to report on my experience:

The entire trip takes about 35 minutes, as compared to about 15 minutes by car.  This includes walking 10 minutes in my neighbourhood, and another 5 minutes downtown to my office.  I am enjoying the bit of exercise this provides each day (30 minutes total).  I especially enjoy walking home at night in the quiet streets of my neighbourhood.  I reflect on my day.  I notice how the snow beneath my feet sparkles in the street lights.  I pass by houses, looking warm and cozy inside. I look up at the stars.

However, I am especially enjoying my time spent on the bus.  For the most part, I read.  I seem to never have enough time to read everything I want to read, especially now that I am greening my life from top to bottom.  I have all sorts of books out from the library right now, ranging from gardening, to preserving food to making homemade cleaners. I want to soak up as much information as possible.  My daily bus ride gives me time to do this.

I also enjoy making new connections with strangers.  This may sound odd, I know.  But I have made a commitment to strengthen my everyday connections.  I want to be part of the of glue that holds us all together; so that we can better realize our shared humanity, our shared stake in this world.  So I have conversations.  I recently talked to one man who lost his house in a fire.  I talked to another woman who I happened to work with 10 years ago.  I often talk to the people waiting at the bus stop in my neighbourhood.  I think it is healthy to connect with others, to not just live our separate lives in our separate cars. 

All in all, it has been a good experience.  I will gladly continue to take the bus.  I have even started taking it for other types of trips as well.  It does take longer, yes.

That’s okay.  It gives me more time to relax, reflect and read.

Car Culture


Image: EA / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

North American cities are built around the automobile, with few exceptions.  Where I live, everything is spread way out, and the city has a relatively large geographical footprint. Plus it is cold.  It is hard to commit to walking or biking when the temperature gets below -15 °C (5 °F).  So people mostly drive.  Everyone drives here.  Even those who cannot afford a car, have a car.  Without a car, you feel trapped.

We live in such a car culture.

Lately, I have been rethinking this.  It started when we all heard out the massive BP oil spill in the gulf.  Everyone blamed BP.  “Plug the hole already!” we cried.  As hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil continued to spill into the ocean, we got angrier and angrier.  But then we started looking at ourselves – BP is only out there extracting that oil, because I drive, you drive and we all drive.  So aren’t we also to blame?

I recently went and saw an amazing art exhibit called Burtynsky Oil. Edward Burtynsky is a world renowned photographer. His exhibit led me through a visual journey of oil extraction, oil refinement, car culture, and the waste left behind. He offers up images of things we know about, but don’t really see in our day-to-day lives. Have you ever wondered what a million discarded tires look like? How about a collection of oil filters, or car engines? Have you ever seen an aerial view of a tailings pond, or an oil field? What about the circuitry of our freeways? His images are massive, and overwhelming. When I walked out of the exhibit I felt emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and process what I had seen.

But people love their cars. They spend lots of money on them. They insure them, maintain them, gas them up. For some, they are a status symbol. For others, they are convenient people movers. Those that live deep in the suburbs spend an hour or two in them per day, so they want them to be nice. For many families, a large percentage of income is spent on their cars.

Cars can also be very frustrating. They are big pieces of mechanical machinery that most of us do not understand. When they break down, it is expensive and annoying. For example, we got stranded with the kids on Christmas Eve, because our van would not start. We got stranded today; because our annoying van would not start (it now has a new battery). Just this week I unknowingly drove my husband’s car on a low tire, and destroyed the tire. We just got it fixed today. My sister was without a car last week because her tires deflated. Last month I went down to the parkade after work and was greeted with a flat tire. That was fun – trying to change a flat tire in a skirt and heels. My other sister recently got rid of her lemon-y vehicle because it was such a “piece” (her words) and she could not take it anymore. When she went to go deliver it to the dealership, guess what? The damn thing would not start. My other sister hit a guardrail two weeks ago in blizzard conditions and crunched the back corner of her car. In addition, she cannot open her trunk for fear it will not close again. It is all so annoying and frustrating and expensive. Why do we do it?

I don’t know. Our cities are set up wrong. The further out you go, the fewer things you can get to without a car. We don’t have great transit, and here at least, transit is looked down upon. Why take the bus when you could drive?

Hello… have you ridden the bus lately? I used to, back when I was a student and did not have a car. It was actually nice. I will go so far as to say relaxing. Coffee in one hand, reading material in the other, and perhaps a little snooze mixed in there as well. Why did I trade that all in for rush hour traffic?

Let’s face it, cars and transportation make up a huge chunk of total CO2 emissions. HUGE. We cannot reduce the emissions to the extent we need, without reducing the driving. We have to reduce the driving.

So how about you – are you also in a love-hate relationship with your vehicle?

Footprints

This evening I was walking outside as the snow fell. I was going to a meeting. I was staring down at the sidewalk as I went along, noticing how the untouched snow sparkled under the dim street lights. The sky was pink and dark, as it often is when it snows at night. I felt a sense of peace, and like the situation reminded me of something. Then it hit me. It reminded me of being a kid; walking outside, snow in my hair and on my eyelashes, enjoying the moment.

Earlier today I was chatting with a couple work colleagues, both of whom have older children. One of them just had both his children move out on their own, each straight into a brand new built house. Someone else remarked how kids these days go out into the world expecting the best of the best right off the bat. They don’t go with the second hand furniture or hand-me-downs. They buy brand new houses and brand new cars and top of the line appliances. Then we started talking about appliances we had. Someone asked me about my dryer. “I don’t use it”, I replied. “Why!?!” they asked. I paused, smiled, and then answered, “I am trying to walk more lightly upon the Earth”.

Hmm, I bet that got them thinking.

Tonight walking back from my meeting I noticed that the footprints I had made 2 hours earlier were now covered over with snow. I walked over it again and made new ones.

The problem is not walking upon the Earth. The problem is walking so heavily that the footprints never fade.

Urban Sprawl Y’all

I first started thinking about this topic when I heard that they were considering closing our neighbourhood elementary school. We live in an older area (my house is circa 1956) and there are demographically less kids (but more seniors!) here than in other areas. Nobody wanted to see our school closed, it was a vibrant force in the community with over 220 children. It was next door to one of the best daycares in the city. It shared the same field as an indoor ice rink, an outdoor rink, a baseball diamond and a spray park. It had been operating for 46 years. Most importantly for me, it was just down the street.

The potential closure of our school really brought the community together. I met a lot of my neighbours. I talked to a lot of other moms. I learned things about our community that I did not know before. I slowly started to feel like an active citizen, as I got more involved in this process. I attended public school board meetings. I attended roundtable meetings. I attended town hall meetings. I wrote letters.

In the end, our school closed anyway, along with 4 other schools nearby. There are many reasons why it closed, but many residents blamed the short-sighted views of some of the public school trustees in not considering how community adds value to the quality of a school. The school provides the community with an anchor, a gathering place. A sense of community – the feeling that you belong and are part of something – I think it really does enhance quality of life, happiness even. You watch out for each other, help each other. Crime goes down.

The main reason our school closed, though, was urban sprawl. That really is the root of it all.

So why do we live so spread out? I suppose many young families prefer to live out on the edges of the city, where they can get a bigger, nicer house for less money. But what about the new infrastructure that is required – roads, power cables, phone lines, natural gas conduits, water mains? Obviously, a city with a large geographical footprint per capita takes a lot more tax dollars to run. Usually also, transit is bad. Basically, sprawling cities are inefficient.

The most efficient cities are ones like New York, where people can walk to any service they want and most don’t even have to own a car. Higher density living lessens the strain on the infrastructure, the tax base and most importantly, the environment. In sprawled out cities, people have to get in their cars and drive for a long time multiple times a day. Farmland and natural areas are lost.

Now don’t get me wrong, we did not purchase our house 8 years ago with the environment in mind. Back in 2002, I recycled but that was about it. The location was determined by triangulating ourselves between work, my parents and his parents. We did not want to drive more than we had to. But now that we are here, what we really enjoy are the huge mature trees (see our big tree)…

…not to mention the local schools (despite the closure), and many services like the library, grocery store and restaurants within a 10 minute walking distance. Plus it only takes 12 minutes to drive to work, and better yet, the bus is super easy to take from here. Add to that, our heating and electrical bills are lower than that of a big house, and I don’t buy as much stuff we don’t need, since we really have no place to put it.

In short, living in a smaller house that is closer to the places we need to go, gives us a lower carbon footprint. This makes me feel good, and mostly offsets the annoyance relating to small closets and not enough cupboards.

There is another serious issue though – urban sprawl can have devastating effects on a city if left unchecked. The core starts to rot. More schools close. Families move out, crime moves in, and it is a hard cycle to reverse.

Today’s resolution is to continue to advocate for limiting urban sprawl in my city. I will do this by talking about it, voting for city councillors that advocate higher density communities, and learning more about the topic as it relates to my city.

I can feel that little inner active citizen acting up again…

Here is a great song by Arcade Fire. The video montage of 50s suburbia makes me realize that my house would have been located in the suburbs during this time!