Friday, December 26, 2008

Saving Suburbia (Part I): To Eco-Village or Not

For a while (OK, years) I’ve thought about how the collective we might go about “saving” that grand ol’ plan of post-WWII expansion known as “suburbia”. Clearly, at the time it sounded like a good idea, but with time comes wisdom and of course, hindsight. Alas we now know that it is at the heart of why the U.S. is leads the world in carbon emissions. You just can’t walk to the store when it’s ten miles and half-a-dozen-40-mile-per-hour-no-sidewalk roads away.

But what if you could start over? Re-architect the whole thing? Build it from the ground up with sustainability woven into every single construction-laden fiber?

I guess that’s the idea behind the eco-village concept. And last week, that hit home with this interesting announcement.

Clearly, if you’re coming to the table with this kind of plan, you’re coming out swinging. Hence you hire a PR agency to pitch it with all the fanfare and spotlights you can (those spotlights, mind you, help to blind you from the details, which many times are scant at this point in the whole thing). You have some fresh concept posters. You give it a cool name.

All that aside, this thing is massive. Six hundred and fifty acres spanning both sides of a major highway; industrial and residential mix-use areas; pre-powered with its own wind and solar arrays build in; agriculture, retail, trails; the list goes on. New zip code anyone?

Not wanting to pass an uninformed judgment, I set out to learn more about other eco-villages. What I found was interesting.

The Global Eco-village Network is a good resource for learning about and finding a large listing of these sustainable communities across the globe. Another listing/tracking site I came across was Intentional Communities.

No matter the listing, traditionally, the typical motivations behind these shared living communities are social, environmental, and/or spiritual. While there is a more-with-less approach it is kind of Three Musketeers at the end of the day – one for all, all for one. Micro-governance structures are in place with shared decision making the primary means of “law”. Many times there is strong link to permaculture.

Check out some of the specific communities I found (I tried to find ones with decent websites). All are in various stages of formation. This list is in no way exhaustive.

Abundance Ecovillage, Fairfield, IA
Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, Peterborough, NH
Sawyer Hill EcoVillage, Berlin, MA

My take-away: The new eco-development proposal for Tiverton is at a scale unlike any of the eco-villages I checked out. Is that to say such scale and size is un-doable, contrary to what a sustainable living infrastructure is supposed to be? I don’t know. It reminds me of driving through Utah and seeing new towns being build literally out of nowhere on huge tracks of land.

But the thought of clearing all that land to develop all this makes me wary. I’m all for doing more with that industrial space off of Eagleville and agree that would be great for our local economy. But adding 480 new homes and trying to figure out how to support all that with an already strapped municipal infrastructure is concerning. And then there is the “gated community” portion of the plan – that just flies in the face of what true cooperative living is all about. And finally, there are other potential placement opportunities for renewable energy structures in town (if the town could just its act in gear and push forward with all that).

So, if clear-cutting and building from scratch is not an attractive way to save suburbia, what is? Stay tuned for Part II…

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The No TV Experiment Continues!

A couple weeks ago we hit the 18-month mark with no TV. (Read the background here.) Sara and I continue to relish in the dropped jaws and half-hearted accolades of “That’s great!” when the conversation arrives at our admission of a TV-free life. Most of the time, we imagine people are really thinking, “You crazy freaks.”

Now that the kids are getting older (almost 6 and 4 with a third on the way), the conversation sometimes drifts towards debating the potential social dysfunction and alienation they might be experiencing now or could experience in the future as they interact more and more with peers at school. Let’s set the record straight: We are not militant in trying to shield the kids from watching TV; they see it when we visit friends and family; we continue to borrow movies from Essex Library and will watch some programming via online streams. Our objection has always been about the overload of crappy content and incessant marketing of products.

Unfortunately, you don’t need a TV to be exposed to a lot of media or consumer-specific stimuli these days. We continue to be amazed at some of the things the kids talk about from time to time: cartoon characters, TV shows, toys, food products, etc. Clearly they pick it up through the normal day-to-day interactions with friends, strolls through stores, riding around town, and slick product placements in the few pieces of media they do watch. In a cluttered consumer world, marketers continue to find ways to hit the mark with their messages.

These minor bumps in the road pale in comparison to all the FUN and AWESOME THINGS that continue to come about as a family with no TV. Here’s a short list:

• Playing outside (soccer, pirates, princesses, baseball, building forts, and whatever else their imagination guides them to)
• Lots and lots of reading (and learning to read in the process)
• Cooking and baking with mom
• Building cities and racetracks and castles with blocks, legos, and what ever else is around
• Jamming with the myriad of instruments we have around the house
• Learning to sing and dance
• Lots of beach days swimming, exploring for periwinkles and minnows, and shell hunting
• Visits to zoos, museums, and aquariums (with discount passes courtesy of Essex)
• Camping and hiking
• Learning where our food comes from via our garden
• Planting a sun flower “house”
• Learning to play checkers and chess and all kinds of board games (the ones you remember as a kid)
• Playing cards (Go Fish, of course)
• All kinds of drawing and painting
• Picking flowers from the garden
• Learning the names of the birds who visit our feeders and the trees they perch in
• Playing lots of dress up and “acting”
• Learning a bit of Spanish and French
• Going strawberry, blueberry, and apple picking
• Helping with “housework” (and teaching the value of saving via an allowance)
• Doing cool science experiments for kids (it’s amazing how much fun you can have with vinegar and baking soda!)
• Practicing our numbers and letters; learning to write
• Learning to ride bikes
• Eating dinner together
• Watching the stars and moon and imagining we are astronauts
• Making homemade gifts for Christmas

The list could go on…

The bottom line: We are having lots of fun doing all kinds of things that don’t involve a TV. Sure it’s a bit more work at times but it’s not boring in the least. In fact it’s amazing how much you can connect fun and learning all at the same time. The verdict is still out on if we’ll get a TV at some point. We don’t worry about it too much; if it happens, it happens.

For me, I guess I equate no TV with some kind of simpler living; a getting-back-to-basics kind of thing. Seeking to not give in to the easy out that TV provides and an opening up of so much opportunity to connect, share, explore, and learn.

Can you imagine what might happen if a few more of us ditched the magic box and freed up time for those more important things in life?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Your Local Business Wish List?

Thanks to tillerman over at Proper Course for throwing out some really good ideas for businesses in the north end of town. I thought it might be a good springboard for a more general "Hey, what kind of local businesses would you like to see all over town?"

In case you didn't see tillerman's suggestions:
1. A great little hardware shop. Humphrey's is more oriented to contractors and never seems to have what I want. I end up going to Ace Hardware in Fall River for most things I need for jobs around the house and garden.

2. A boating supplies shop. Like West Marine only 100% better than West Marine.

3. A fish and chip shop serving good old mushy peas. (Hey there's a pork pie shop in Fall River so why not?)
My own list is very utilitarian at this point: a nice neighborhood grocery store and an independent book store.

What's on your wish list?

Or is there a local business that you just can't do without?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Coming Soon: Donut Wars

As the adage says, variety is the spice of life, right? I think this is also true when it comes to economic development, especially at the local level.

So why are we having yet another donut shop in town? In Tuesday's Newport Daily News there was a brief story alluding to a Sip & Dip being put in to half of the empty structure formerly used by Sakonnet Gardens at Bliss Four Corners (Bulgarmarsh and Crandall Roads). While the crux of the story had to do with the debate on putting a drive-through window in and the growing interest in that part of town, I want to talk about how this is just a bad move altogether.

With Sip & Dip, that brings the total number of donut shops to three within a half-mile radius of one another (Dunkin Donuts and Moose Cafe being the others). Do we really need this? Yes, competition benefits consumers in terms of price, access, and variety, but c'mon, we're talking about coffee, donuts, and bagels.

To me, this is a (dough-y, sugary) smudge on our local economy.

So what IS our local economic development plan? I went to the town's website to look at minutes from the Economic Development Committee’s (EDC) meetings to see if I could find out. I will say that out of all the committees in town the EDC’s activities are fairly well documented – if you go to the town website looking for them. While there is lots of the mundane administrative stuff, here are a few things that appeared of interest:
  • Bourne Mill redevelopment and efforts to partner with a still-to-be-formed North Tiverton Business alliance to think through how to develop and maximize the retail component (Did you know that this project will be LEED certified? That is great news.). Other discussion focused on how to develop new businesses in North Tiverton.

  • Something about a “Main Road Initiative”. I believe this ties into reviewing and enhancing the “design standards” for commercial entities along Main Road from Souza Road to the Fall River Line. Of particular interest was discussion of transforming “roads” primarily used for vehicular traffic into “streets” that are much more sensitive to pedestrian needs.

  • Figuring our ways to promote the EDC’s efforts (Though the quoted costs of $2,000-3,000 to build and maintain a website on a yearly basis are way off the mark. Pick up a piece of basic web design software, get a domain name and an ISP and you’re off and running for a couple hundred dollars. Volunteer time to keep it maintained.)

Another positive note is this ProJo story focusing on how the state is stepping up efforts to develop its industrial base and invest in those small-to-medium-sized companies that make up the bulk of the local economic engine. In attendance was James Goncalo, Tiverton Town Administrator.

I’m glad to learn about these efforts and agree that the EDC should be doing more to promote themselves and their activities. That said, I do hope the town can avoid situations like the impending Donut Wars that will be taking place at Bliss Four Corners. With that in mind, here are a few of my own ideas:
  • We have a landfill close to capping. That is dead space unless you get creative. It's also a mountain of would-be energy. Find a company to come in and set up a methane gas power plant. Oh wait, there's already one making nice-nice with the state. Bet you they might also handle some of the infrastructure investment. Or perhaps using all that garbage to create organic fertilizer?

  • Production tax credits have been renewed, the state is negotiating for wind farm developers, towns are looking to invest in renewable energy projects. That's going to mean business for all the players in the renewable energy supply chain (manufacturing, installation, maintenance). How about pitching the town for some of these businesses to set up more local operations?

  • A grocery store; or perhaps a “network” of smaller-scale grocers like that of Green Grocer in Portsmouth.

  • Develop more small-scale office space to attract white collar and professional services companies.

  • Capitalizing on our natural space and attracting next-generation farmers to help further develop our (sustainable) agricultural base.

Developing the local economy is not a shot-in-the-arm, one time deal. It takes vision, strategy, synergistic public policies, and a small army of dedicated people to make it all happen.

The EDC should open its ranks to involve more people, publicize its efforts, and engage every possible link in the economic development value chain. Together we can make it happen without resorting to the Donut Death Star.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Statewide Green Building Resource

Just a quick note to plug the new RI Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. (See link under "Resources" to the right). This is a great sign that interest in sustainable building in on the rise in Rhody. Check out the recent ProJo article.

On a housekeeping note: To help make searching through old posts easier by topic, you can now find a comprehensive listing over to the right under "Explore Posts by Labels". It's certainly going to help me keep track of things! I hope it helps you too.