Category Archives: Tidalpunk

COVID-19 links

COVID-19 is taking the bulk of people’s mindshare right now, and I wanted to put some of the links I’m finding useful, interesting, or hopeful in one spot. I’ll be updating this as things progress and hopefully be getting it more organized.

Just to be clear, while emissions have fallen due to reduced travel during the crisis, we should be doing everything we can to help our fellow human beings right now. Some people are saying that the crisis is an opportunity to “thin the herd” or some other nonsense. Coronavirus is not the way to a brighter future for everyone.

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Last Updated: 3/28/2020 @ 5 pm

Agile City Development

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An apartment building in Charlottesville

Last month, I talked about how seeing the city as an ecosystem is an important element of urban planning. Treating every project that happens in the city as an isolated event doesn’t take into account possible interactions with other existing or future work. We can’t reasonably account for every interaction, but we should try to maximize the number of synergistic interactions and minimize unintended consequences.

 

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The Horizon of Predictability from Agile Advice

As a project grows larger and its timescale increases, it grows more difficult to predict its interactions with the surrounding environment. One way to keep projects within a “horizon of predictability” is to take “small bets,” as advised by Strong Towns, instead of always pursuing that next multi-million dollar development project.

If we take an Agile Development approach, then we can start with what identifying issues within a particular area, ranking them in order of impact, and selecting the one or two that would have the biggest impact that we could accomplish in a short time frame.

A city’s sidewalk network is one place we could apply this technique. In 2015, Charlottesville published it’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan identified major corridors for walking and biking in the city and prioritized areas in need of improvement. Looking at the 2019 update of the Master Plan, however, it becomes clear that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on most of these projects.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the sidewalk ends

There are plenty of places where our sidewalks cut out for a few yards or even a few blocks. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the road or across someone’s lawn. This isn’t ideal, and it’s much worse if you need to find a route with a wheelchair or crutches. If we started by identifying areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, we might find places where a small investment in concrete could make great improvements to pedestrian safety.

The traditional approach to development in cities can result in incomplete buildings or infrastructure that are actually worse than if you hadn’t started the project at all. The obvious example of this for Charlottesville residents would be the Landmark/Dewberry Hotel on the downtown mall. Construction began shortly before the Great Recession hit, and ten years later, its partially completed skeleton still looms over the most expensive part of town.

I’d really like to see the city move toward small, incremental projects that slowly fix problems we see. This allows us to expend fewer resources at a given time toward solving a problem, as well as allowing us to test different approaches and course correct as we implement plans. One refrain I’ve heard several times since moving here is that the city has “analysis paralysis.” We expend millions of dollars toward study after study, but the citizens just don’t see anything come from it. People in city government then get frustrated when there’s a lack of engagement from the community. It’s hard to get buy-in when the past has shown that the city lacks follow through.

I think future work should include more small area plans that bring neighbors together to shape how their neighborhoods will look in the future. There should probably be some oversight to make sure that these small area plans are welcoming, not exclusionary, but people from the neighborhood will be closer to the ground truth of what small actions might create the biggest effects in people’s day-to-day life.

At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be a better place. By coming together and figuring out what small changes we can make, we can get started right away. We don’t need to wait on the next four year plan to make things better.

City Council held a work session on zoning, and city staff made recommendations on how to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or split existing homes into duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes. These small changes to the existing zoning code are happening independently of the larger zoning rewrite that is part of the Comprehensive Planning process. These changes aren’t going to solve our housing crisis, but they will make a dent. This small zoning change to allow small increases in density by allowing more small development is the perfect example of how many small steps can add up to a big one.

I hope that this new City Council will be open to more small bets in the future. If they are, I think we’ll make progress more quickly by taking a lot of small steps than taking big steps that might not always land on solid ground.

Are there people in your town working on small bets with or without your local government? Let us know below!

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Questioning capitalism

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Since the heyday of McCarthyism, any suggestion that capitalism is flawed has been met with overt hostility. In the United States, capitalism has become more a religion than an economic system.

There’s recently been much ado about millennials preferring socialism to capitalism, but what many commentators are overlooking is that people aren’t railing against markets, they’re sick of living with “cancer as the model of our social system.” You can wrangle definitions, but at the end of the day capitalism isn’t the only way to have a market.

Citizens from all over the political map see problems with increasing economic disparity but are laying the problems at the feet of different political scapegoats. The left blames the rich, and the right targets government as the source of their woes. If we take a step back and look at the situation, a clearer picture emerges. The collusion of big government and big business has formed one of the strongest corporatist government/economic hybrids the world has ever seen, excluding perhaps the Dutch East India Company.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

In the richest country the world has ever known, why are there people dying because they can’t afford their medicine while billionaires have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all? I don’t believe that taxing the rich is the answer. Rethinking our economic system is. As one person said, “If you’re talking about wealth redistribution, you’re already too late.”*

Capitalism as it’s currently practiced in the United States, where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is reaching a breaking point. Cutting back federal programs could allow subsidiarity to guide more tailor-made policies crafted at a local level. Even environmental protection can be carried out as compacts between states as has been done with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Our current reliance on the federal government for regulations has led to a regulatory monoculture that allows national and international megacorps to grow out of control. This would be a lot less likely if companies had to meet 50 different sets of business regulations or even more in state’s that don’t restrict municipal regulations through use of the Dillon Rule.

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In 1888, Benjamin Tucker defined two forms of socialism: state socialism, and what is today known as anarcho-socialism. His essay reads as a prophecy of the horrors committed by the USSR in it’s pursuit of “equality.” It also shows that even 130 years ago, socialism didn’t have one “correct” definition. A lot of the tension in US politics right now is from people using the same words to mean different things. In a living language such as English, this isn’t unexpected. If we spent a little more time listening before opening our own mouths, we might find we have more in common than we think.

As someone who grew up as a devotee of free market capitalism, I’ve grown more and more suspicious that any one economic ideology is really suited for something as complex as human society. Maybe capitalism can be reformed, but dismissing alternatives out of hand is not a responsible way forward when we’re discussing something that so greatly influences the outcomes of people’s lives. No one is suggesting Soviet-style socialism, so conservatives should stop using the USSR as a bogeyman to distract from good-faith conversations regarding postcapitalism. Capitalism served us well for a time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of economic evolution. As they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Capitalism as it is has failed marginalized groups as it was designed for wealthy white people. This is evident in prison slavery and the continued existence of tipping for service work in the United States. I think we can do better for a solarpunk future.

Are you critical of capitalism? Do you still believe that markets are an effective tool for managing scarce resources, or have you seen something else that could help us manage those things that still can’t be produced in abundance? Let us know below!


* I heard this attributed to the CEO of Mondragon, but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so consider it apocryphal for the time being. It might originally be in Spanish or Basque, so if anyone out there has seen the original, let me know and I’ll update this article.

A moment for empathy

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As a neurodivergent person, I’m not always the best at empathizing with other humans. I sometimes get into the trap of thinking everyone else thinks the same way as me, so when they make a different decision or conclusion, I’m flabbergasted. I sometimes get so caught up in how wrong they are, I don’t stop to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Even when I take the time to listen to another persons perspective, I don’t always grok it deep down. While reading How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker, I had an emotional epiphany. I’m not a person of color, and while I understand that living as a white person is living life on easy mode, I didn’t really get how microaggressions can really erode at your mental well being. In the book, however, they point out how cyclists are singled out and stereotyped because of their mode of transit. You can be a 50 year old construction worker, a mother of three, or a rich tech bro, but motorists are going to treat you the same way on the road.

This isn’t meant to be a comparative analysis of whose struggle is more difficult, but only an observation that, as a cyclist, I often feel like a marginalized road user that is considered little more than a criminal by many drivers. Police blaming the cyclist when a multi-ton metal box crushes them to death is the same kind of victim-blaming that sexual assault or police shooting victims face. How dare anyone try to go about their life how they choose if it inconveniences the more powerful? The War on Cars is a great catch phrase, but in a face off between a 100 kg cyclist and a 1000 kg vehicle, it’s not an apt description. Might makes right on the roads just like it does in society at large.

I think solarpunk offers a hopeful way forward for everyone. Where previous social movements often simply accepted domination as a given, I feel that we’re on the cusp of seeing that we don’t just need to change the people playing the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed. We need to reexamine our relationships with our neighbors and see how we can build communities of mutual respect, not say now it’s someone else’s turn to rule the world. This starts by seeing other humans as people too, and listening to their stories. If we put on a little more empathy, we’ll be able to do a much better job moving into a solarpunk future.

Is there a time when you suddenly were hit with understanding? Let us know below!

Digital Minimalism – A Review

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I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from my local library expecting to read more of the same information I’d seen before: social media companies use slot machine psychology to hook users; in-person communication is higher quality; spending so much time on our phones is hurting our relationships. This was all in there, but beyond the facts of the matter, Newport opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my relationship with technology and how it’s designed.

Minimalism at its core isn’t based on asceticism, where one denies earthly pleasures for the sake of austerity. I often find myself strongly trying to resist any emotional impulse to make purchases. I think this self-imposed austerity may have been causing undue stress by saying “you can’t have that,” instead of the healthier question of “is this something that could bring value to my life?”

In respect to technology, and apps in particular, Newport revisits calls by friends to join social media because it might be useful. He counters by saying that any tool should have a clear benefit to warrant your time. It’s not that any of these tools are bad per se, but since you only have so much time and attention, do you really want to spend it on something that might be useful, when there are so many other things that definitely would be?

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I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to balance my thirst for new information and time to be creative and thoughtful. It’s something I feel I still haven’t worked out, but Digital Minimalism helped me find some new tools to use in this quest.

Digital Minimalism also deals with some of the more sweeping issues resulting from the unique types of distraction available in the 21st Century. There have always been more things to do than time in the day, so distraction is nothing new. We have reached a point, however, with the introduction of the smartphone, where corporations vying for your attention via the “attention economy” have unfettered access to your eyeballs. Even our work is becoming more fractured and distracting with the advent of the gig economy.

Even after the advent of the internet, people were relatively alone in their own heads when they were mobile. Sure, you could listen to a personal soundtrack on your Walkman. With a computer in your pocket, you’re only a quick tap away from whatever information you seek. The end of the bar bet was also the end of pondering.

The book doesn’t preach throwing away your smartphone, although it does suggest methods of using digital tools so they help you achieve your aims instead of those of the advertising companies. For some people, that might mean going back to a phone that only supports calling and texting. For many others, removing social media apps from your phone will suffice. The key is knowing yourself and what you want to accomplish with theses tools.

Digital Minimalism wasn’t what I expected. While it did have some of the same information I had read before regarding the distracting nature of digital technologies, it was neither alarmist nor placating. It presented a well-reasoned and tested set of tools for using digital technologies in a reasonable way that can help you feel a little less discombobulated in this distracting world.

Do you have any thoughts on practices to keep technology from distracting you from what’s important? Do you find it ironic I wrote this post predominantly on my phone? Sound off below!


Disclaimer:  This review is my honest opinion of the book, but I may get financial reimbursement through the affiliate link in this article.

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!