Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Social Sustainability Book of the Week

"Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century." By Randy Shaw

This is an amazing book about early environmental justice efforts by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. As Shaw argues, these early movements are not only an often overlooked part of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but they set the stage for our contemporary environmental justice efforts.

See Shaw’s book here: Beyond the Fields

Friday, December 12, 2008

Social Sustainability Site of the Week

One of the key components of social sustainability is changing people’s mindsets. Getting people to think differently is the first step toward getting them to act differently. As Sociologists, one of the things we know is that, sometimes, the best way to create the possibility to think about something in a new way is to radically alter one’s taken-for-granted reality.  It’s like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take the water away: if we fundamentally disrupt taken-for-granted reality, we can see those aspects of our everyday life that are so ingrained that we don’t even think about them. And, once we are able to look self-reflexively at them, it’s possible to imagine that things could be otherwise.

These are the thoughts that come to mind as we explore this week’s social sustainability site: Karma Kitchen. Inspired as a way to promote the value of a gift economy, several volunteers started Karma Kitchen in 2007. Today on any Sunday, everyone is welcome to eat delicious vegetarian Indian food at Karma Kitchen, which is located at a local restaurant, “Taste of Himalaya.” As with any other restaurant experience, you come in, you sit down, and you are served a delicious meal. But here, when your bill comes, the total reads $00.00. With it, comes the message that you may pay the generosity forward in any way you wish. Receiving that bill is a profound moment: an opportunity to re-examine preconceived notions and expectations. To ask oneself, How can I contribute?

"Run by volunteers, our meals are cooked and served with love, and offered to the guest as a genuine gift. To complete the full circle of giving and to sustain this experiment, we leave it to the guest to pay it forward, expressing their goodness in whatever way they wish. One immediate option is to contribute toward the cost of serving a future guest. In keeping this chain going, the generosity of both guests and volunteers helps to create a future that moves from transaction to trust, from self-oriented isolation to shared commitment, and from fear of scarcity to celebration of abundance."

The philosophy here inspires its participants to think differently about economic exchanges, to think in terms of reciprocity, trust and generosity instead of monetary transactions. Experiencing something familiar (eating out at a restaurant) in a context which has shaken up the usual rules of the game provides an opportunity to look critically at our standard operating procedures and imagine that there are alternatives to our taken-for-granted reality.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breathing a Little Easier

Asthma is a growing public health concern in North America: it is the leading cause of chronic illness among children and the rates for children are steadily increasing.  It is also an illness which disproportionately effects people in low socio-economic statuses and its symptoms are exacerbated by compromised indoor and outdoor air quality. 

One of the ways this public health problem is being addressed in Seattle is through innovations in the built environment.  In the High Point neighborhood in West Seattle, 35 Breath Easy homes targeted for low-income renters are helping to mitigate the impact of asthma and hoping to reduce asthma attacks by improving indoor air quality.  

Breath Easy Homes include:
  • Airtight construction, insulated windows and an insulated foundation, minimizing dust, pollen and other contaminants that can enter from outside.
  • Positive ventilation to remove stale air and filter incoming fresh air.
  • Hydronic, instead of forced-air heating, reducing airborne particles and organisms.
  • Hard flooring surfaces such as linoleum, replacing carpet that can trap dust and allergens.
  • Window blinds, instead of curtains, to reduce trapped dust.
  • Low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) emitting paints and cabinetry materials, reducing potentially harmful chemicals in the air.
  • A HEPA filter vacuum, efficiently removing dust and other toxins and debris.
  • Landscaping designed to reduce seasonal pollens.

At High Point, residents were chosen to live in the Breathe Easy homes based on the severity of asthma and have agreed to participate in a study that will assess what kind of impact living in the homes has on their illness.  The study is being conducted by King County Health Department and the University of Washington’s Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health and Community Medicine. 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Living Green due in stores in May 09

We are thrilled to report that the copy edits are in and Living Green: Communities that Sustain is now in press. Living Green showcases communities across North America that are living in ways that protect the environment and contribute to social justice.

The green building movement has incorporated the concept of the triple bottom line to assert that sustainable long-term progress in terms of environmental quality, economic development and social well-being needs to be balanced: One aspect cannot be emphasized over another. Yet the factors that best promote social well-being are the least understood. Living Green: Communities that Sustain, identifies and describes the ten mechanisms we found to be most central to a successful sustainable development. These mechanisms are built into communities and enhance social along with economic and environmental concerns. In this book we outline these best practices of social sustainability along with specific examples from our field research.

Through stories of extraordinary communities across North America, Living Green examines the impact living in these communities has on personal health, well-being, and the capacity for pursuing sustainability. It includes interviews with developers, architects, and residents, highlighting personal ideals and efforts to pursue a sustainable lifestyle. The book’s three parts explore:

• How community is central to sustainable living in everything from cohousing to communes (Takoma Village Community Co-Housing, Eastern Village Co-housing, Ouje-Bougoumou, Twin Oaks Commune);

• Communities that specifically integrate green building design components with social justice politics such as racism, poverty, and urban alienation (L.A. Ecovillage, Chez Soi Green Energy Benny Farm, Folsom Dore);

• Housing options geared toward mainstream living that offer individual choices to those who wish to live green (Michelle Kaufmann Designs, Cazadero Nature and Art Conservancy, Dockside Green).

This is the first book in our co-authored Social Green Series. It is being published by New Society Publishers, a publishing house that not only brings to press fantastic books on sustainability and social justice, but operates by those principles itself: it is in its third year of being a carbon-neutral operation. You can pre-order the book now at New Society Publishers. We will keep you posted about upcoming book events this Spring and Summer.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Baltimore Alley Gating and Greening Initiative

We are excited to announce that Baltimore's local NPR affiliate, WYPR, will be airing a segment on the Baltimore Alley Gating and Greening Initiative tomorrow morning (Friday the 20th of November) around 9:05 am. 

Both local and national media interest in this exciting initiative highlight how Baltimore city officials, developers, and residents are reclaiming blighted alleys and turning them into community assets. Local listeners, tune in tomorrow at 9:05 A.M. to 88.1 FM. If you miss the segment or are outside of Baltimore - you can always listen via the website of the Maryland Morning show with Sheilah Kast at: http://www.marylandmorning.org.

For more information about the community greening initiative, see www.communitygreens.org

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sustainable West Seattle

This week we traveled to the High Point neighborhood of West Seattle to begin our new research project.  The project is an NSF funded qualitative research project in which we will be investigating the mechanisms by which people are able (or not) to live in more sustainable ways in various communities and neighborhoods.  Taking off from what we learned in our book about sustainable communities (Living Green: Communities that Sustain, forthcoming in June 09 from New Society Press), we are interested in learning more about how one's built environment and community promote or prevent them from taking actions in their everyday lives that contribute to sustainability. 

High Point is a new neighborhood, a redevelopment in a Seattle suburb that has a history of vibrant cultural diversity as well as economic hardships.  It is designed to be the most progressive, environmentally friendly community in the country and is Seattle’s first Built Green™ neighborhood.  It is situated on 120 acres in the middle of West Seattle, about ten minutes by car to downtown Seattle.  When we went, we took an express bus that buzzed us into downtown Seattle in no time.  

Wandering through the streets of High Point on a spectacular Seattle Fall day, we were glad we chose it as our first site to visit. The native landscaping includes big old trees and newly planted ones lining the wide streets and many were still a-blaze in Fall color. The reds and yellows and oranges made even more brilliant thanks to the clear blue of the sky and bright sun that began to glow orange as it set on our walk.  

The neighborhood includes a wide variety of housing types--single family attached, detached, apartments, townhouses--each sharing a distinct style and most including front porches and a neighborly atmosphere. Already active and well-lived in, High Point is also still under construction: the final of its phases is slated to be complete in 2010. It is expected to accommodate over 4,000 residents in approximately 1,600 homes, about half of which will be owned and the other half rented. The housing targets a multiple range of income levels, but with an emphasis on affordability. In addition to standard single-family residences, there is a seniors' residence and an assisted living home on-site. All homes meet a minimum of Built Green 3-Star standards, with many achieving 4-Star level and ENERGY STAR® certification.

In addition to the homes, the neighborhood also includes a beautiful public library and a community health center. A grocery store and other retail stores are in the plans. These will be an important addition to the social sustainability of the neighborhood.

Interspersed amongst all of these buildings there are large areas of greenspace: grassy lawns in front of and between houses are larger and more communal than in most neighborhoods, multiple well-appointed playgrounds pepper the site, a protected greenbelt hugs one side, there is a lovely pond and wetland populated by birds, and intertwined in all of this are multiple community gardens.  As we walked, we noticed signs explaining some of the green features of the neighborhood like the porous concrete that made up the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to learning about what these and other sustainable features of the High Point community mean to the residents and what other, less visible elements are also impacting their lives.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Welcome to Social Sustainability: our blog companion to our non profit organization Social Green. Social Green is dedicated to exploring and enhancing the social side of sustainability.

This blog is a companion to our non profit organization, Social Green, and to all of the books and projects associated with our work at Social Green. It’s an informal space for us to share thoughts on all things related to the social side of sustainability and to network with others who share these interests.

In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken describes sustainability as an infinite game. We play finite games to win, he says, but we play infinite games to keep on playing. “Sustainability; ensuring the future of life on earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all.” As an infinite game, sustainability necessarily involves any and all projects aimed at preserving life or promoting justice on planet Earth. Hawken goes on to say, “Any action that threatens sustainability can end the game, which is why groups dedicated to keeping the game going assiduously address any harmful policy, law, or endeavor.”

We love this metaphor because it speaks eloquently to the interconnectedness of all efforts to make the world a better place. And, we are excited to be a voice emphasizing the social threads that run through all of these interlinked endeavors.