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What Makes A City Great? [Trends
Posted on November 21, 2017 @ 11:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I am slowly making my way through Geoffrey West's book Scale (2017). I am finally getting into his discussion of cites and how we might think about them. He makes this interesting observation:

This may seem obvious, but the emphasis of those who think about cities, such as planners, architects, economists, politicians, and policy makers, is primarily focused on their physicality rather than on the people who inhabit them and how they interact with one another. It is all too often forgotten that the whole point of a city is to bring people together, to facilitate interaction, and thereby to create ideas and wealth, to enhance innovative thinking and encourage entrepreneurship and cultural activity by taking advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that the diversity of a great city offers. This is the magic formula that we discovered ten thousand years ago when we inadvertently began the process of urbanization. Its unintended consequences have resulted in an exponentially increasing population whose quality of life and standard of living have on the average also been increasing. ~ 252.

Geoffrey then goes on to define a city as follows:

Cities are emergent complex adaptive social network systems resulting from the continuous interactions among their inhabitants, enhanced and facilitated by the feedback mechanisms provided by urban life. ~p 253

In discussions of city planning, the name Jane Jacobs often comes up. She helped to derail the plans of powerful New York city planner, Robert Moses, from putting an expressway through some culturally important neighborhoods of New York - Greenwich Village, SoHo and Little Italy. She also argued that it was the interactions in these neighborhoods that made them great and that putting a freeway through the center would destroy that.

West's definition of what a city is shares alot with the definition of what ecology is. Charles J. Krebs in his book Ecology (6th Ed, 2009) defines Ecology as follows:

Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. ~p 5

This definition suggest that we might be able to use some of the tools from ecology to understand the distribution and abundance of organisms in our cities. Those organisms include humans but also wildlife like these 2 deer that visited me last week when I was working outside.

I think it is worth reflecting on what makes a city great and whether it is a quality of the interactions that it affords, the quality of the physical infrastructure or some combination?

I don't think the great cities of this world are all made from the same cookie cutter. They can be great for different reasons. They can be larger or smaller in size. Some may be a hotbed of innovation where others may be a hotbed of cultural activity, community spirit, natural beauty, or educational attainment.


Living Off the Grid [Trends
Posted on February 22, 2016 @ 09:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

What does it mean to be "Off The Grid"?

That is the question that Phillip Vannini and Johnathan Taggart explore in their book Off the Grid: Re-assembling Domestic Life (2015). The book arose from a research grant to study the lives of 200 off-gridders located in all the different provinces of Canada. Because so many different off-gridders were interviewed at different times of year, in different climates, and with different motivations, it paints a rich and diverse portrait of what life is like off grid.

This is not a book you would pick up to learn how to physically survive off grid. It is a book you would want to pick up if you wanted to understand the motivations and lifeworld of those who live off grid. Why would we want to learn about off-gridders?

Anthopologists study other cultures both for the sake of understanding those cultures and, using comparative methods, to help us to understand own culture better. Most of us take for granted all the grids we are connected to - the power grid, a natural gas grid, a sewage grid, a water grid, a communications grid, and a transportation grid are the most common grids we are connected to. Going off grid technically means removing yourself from the power grid or a natural gas grid, but many off-gridders also take care of their own sewage and water. They may also be removed from main roads and cut off from one or more types of communications (TV being a common media form they abandon). Many also grow some of their own food and disconnect to some extent from the food grid as well.

Being off grid means you have to take care of more of the basic functions of living than most of us do. It means having fewer of the conveniences and comforts we often take for granted. Why would someone want to do this?

A common reason is simply that was too costly to hook up power to the remote location where they want to live. Some want to reduce the cost of living, some do it for environmental reasons, some want to be more connected with the rhythms and resources of nature. Some net-zero off-gridders disconnect from the power grid in urban settings and speak to the advantages of being able to access necessities on a bicycle or by walking, rather than hopping in a car to access on-grid services.

The book attempts to get into the minds and environment of off-gridders using a wide array of literary sources. Many of the case-studies of off-gridders are briefer than I would have liked, but given the volume of interviewees they want to to discuss this is understandable. The case-studies are used to high-light particular aspects of off-grid life that the authors want to focus a longer critical discussion of. They assembled a vast array of interesting theories and ideas in an effort to understand the lifeworld of off-gridders. Sometimes the critical theory seems to be used as a substitute for any real insight; other times it helps to shine a revealing light on what might be unique about such lifestyles and how they differ from what we find normal.

The book is accompanied by a film that you can rent from the Off the Grid website. The film is currently being shown and discussed in many communities around the world. You can also listen to segments of their interviews at their Innovative Enthographies SoundCloud page

I'm recommending that you watch the film, listen to an interview, or read the book as a way to understand our own culture by comparison to a culture that chooses not to take many of our modern conveniences and comforts for granted. Maybe you have some romantic notions of living off grid. These resources will give your more realistic notions of what off grid living is like in its many and varied forms.

I'll conclude by suggesting that the Living Off Grid project could also be used as a case study for modern independent film making. Take a subject that most people have an interest in, get some funding to explore the topic in the field and through research, create some buzz along the way by discussing your project as fieldwork and research is progressing, create a dynamic website where people can order your film and track how the project is evolving, and offer up multimedia experiences to your audience (e.g., book, film, audio). The book also offers some insights into the trials and tribulations they experienced as they did their fieldwork which might be useful and amusing for independent film makers as well.


Small Campers & Farms [Trends
Posted on January 4, 2016 @ 08:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Checking out Kirsten Dickson's YouTube Channel last night and found this interesting video of a guy who built a microcamper using as his main building material plastic from used election signs (aka Coroplast).

One trend we might see in 2016 is a move towards design for smaller and more organized versions of things that exist at a larger scale. Living spaces may become smaller as a result of increasing ownership/rental costs and design to accommodate this may launch successful companies. Students in dorms are an existing group that is often space constrained.

Will the small truck market pick up in 2016 or will consumers continue investing in big trucks?

In the context of traditional farming, a farm of one or two acres would often not be considered a "farm" but rather a "garden". It is increasingly possible, however, to apply a systematic approach to managing one or two acres and make as much or more than a farmer who manages 100 acres or more. Jean-Martin Fortier in his book, The Market Gardener (2014), offers up a concrete example on 1.5 acres that grosses 150k (with the added benefit of supplying healthy nutrition to workers and the community).

The book includes many interesting images. One I studied a bit because of its Permacultural excellence is this map of their farm.

Again we see the importance of good layout and organization when going "small".

Another motivation for going small in 2016 would be as an adaptation to climate change. If you have a smaller house, vehicle, or farm you don't need as many resources to build and maintain it. A smaller footprint.


Creating Ecotopia [Trends
Posted on February 18, 2015 @ 06:36:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Ernest Callenbach wrote an influential future-fiction book in 1975 called Ecotopia.

References to the Ecotopia concept are popping up more often in some of the Permaculture reading I do. In Sweden, Permaculture is almost synoymous with Ecotopia. The concept of Ecotopia has the power to encompass many diverse movements from permaculture, to bioregionalism, to transition towns, to ecovillages, to urban gardening and beyond. In many ways these movements are attempts to create utopias according to ecological principles. Are we just engaged in these activities to produce food, protect watershed, live communally, etc... or are these diverse activities rooted in a deeper striving towards Ecotopia? The concept/vision of Ecotopia provides a strong counter-narrative to the prevailing narrative that we must grow our economies at all cost (Ecotopians prefer a steady-state economy instead). Ecotopia also provides a concrete vision for where society must move to in order to be more sustainable, more worthy of our toil, and more enjoyable. You can judge for yourself by watching an excellent 1982 interview with Ernest Callenback in which the Ecotopian vision is discussed. It is amazing to see how relevant his ideas still are - not just a few of them - but most of them.

The point of this blog is not to get all mushy and do-goody, although there is nothing wrong with that. It is also to identify a trend or wave to watch out for or to facilitate. I would argue that without knowing it many parents today (and our educational system) are trying to raise kids to be good Ecotopians even through they live in a world of contradictions (e.g., driving to work in oversized vehicles, eating too much processed food, creating too much waste, living in unsustainable housing arrangements, poor land use, etc...). Eventually the generation that supports and sustains these contradictions will die off (and is dying off) and a new generation, generation-e, will take over. That will be a good thing (ecologically-speaking) and it will also be a world that we can help lay the groundwork for by providing parents with better gen-e products and services at affordable prices. This may sound like I'm commercializing this, and I am, but gen-e products and services will be worth buying if they exemplify or allow for better Ecotopian living.


The Sharing Economy [Trends
Posted on September 17, 2013 @ 06:06:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Janelle Orsi is a lawyer specializing in supporting businesses and non-profits that share services and resources. In a recent Post Carbon Institute article called The Sharing Economy Just Got Real she discusses what the sharing economy is and some of the legal grey areas that sharing companies operate within. It is worth a read to learn more about this important economic trend and how it might legally evolve in the future.

Below is video promoting the idea of sharing resources at the community level and all the good things that flow from such sharing.

The sharing economy is one trend for entrepreneurs and investors to keep and eye on as it has the potential to be very disruptive and potentially economic for those developing the sharing platform.




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