Friday, November 13, 2009

Toxic Housing and Health

An article in today's SFGate recounts the struggles of children living with asthma caused, in part, by overcrowded, run-down, aging buildings in one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods. The plight of kids with asthma in the Mission district is but one example of ways the built environment has serious consequences on health and well being.

Last Winter we wrote here about Breathe Easy homes in the High Point neighborhood of West Seattle. These ultra-green homes are built for low-income families where some members are asthma sufferers and they have been successful in improving asthma symptoms and decreasing hospital visits.

Integrating some of these green features into other low-income communities where aging, toxic buildings are taking a toll on health would make an enormous difference. But, as the SFGate article suggests, there are some steep obstacles: corrupt landlords and indifferent public policies have led to overcrowding and to an unwillingness to meet even the minimum standards of healthy housing.

Situations like these occur everywhere and in response, groups like those that make up the Alliance for Healthy Homes are working to make healthy homes a reality for everyone. Among other things, they are providing residents of toxic homes with the tools to document their situations and advocate for change.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Citizens Housing to Close

We just learned that Citizens Housing, the management company responsible for running the Folsom/Dore Apartments featured in Living Green will close and be taken over by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Economic issues forced this closure and while we congratulate the reputatble low-income housing developer, TNDC, for surviving the economic crisis facing the housing industry, this is nonetheless sad news for us.

Above all, we hope that TNDC will work hard to ensure a smooth transition including excellent continuum of care for the residents at this property and the others run by Citizens. We are concerned that the social justice mission of enhancing the lives of residents, not merely sheltering them, that has been at the heart of Citizens' mission, may be at risk.

Citizens Housing has been a model for providing people's right to housing with a strong commitment to residents' health, wellbeing, and overall life success. When we interviewed Nina Berkson and Kevin Edelbrook we were touched by their personal commitment to the staff and residents at Folsom/Dore: These two staff members have worked relentlessly to build a management team from janitors, desk clerks, to office staff who understand they are part of an innovative program designed to enhance the lives of formerly homeless, at-risk of homelessness, and market rate tenants; they are part of the solution to a world that is increasingly apathetic to those in need; segregated by socio-economic status; and aware that environmental concerns must take center stage to reverse local environmental health exposures and global climate change.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sharing Solution

This morning I had tea with Janelle Orsi, co-author (with Emily Doskow) of the book, “The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify your Life and Build Community.” I already knew I liked the idea of the book when we decided to meet—the promotion of the values of environmentalism via sharing resources is one which resonates with Living Green. But, boy was I in for a treat when I sat down to read the book after our tea was over.

The Sharing Solution is a well-written, straightforward and inspirational book, overflowing with great ideas for ways we could all share with each other. There are chapters on specific things that can be shared: sharing food, sharing housing, sharing household goods, sharing care for children, family and pets, sharing transportation, sharing work; and, along with inspiration, the book provides concrete steps for forging connections with like-minded sharers and steps to making it happen.

The authors are attorneys and the book includes agreements, check-lists, forms and sample contracts that provide the average person with the tools they need to create protected, mutually beneficial sharing relationships. It also highlights the triple bottom line benefits for each type of sharing—benefits like reducing consumerism, forging community as relationships begun for practical sharing purposes grow into trusting bonds, and saving money.

I could feel my own excitement mounting as I read the book and couldn’t help thinking, “I can do that!” The Sharing Solution should be required reading for all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vlogger discusses Living Green

Margaret Fabrizio, the land artist featured in our book, Living Green, has posted a Vlog on YouTube and Vlogger Heads. In it, she says, "I don't know how I got into this book." It's the sub-title, 'Communities that Sustain' that most puzzles her. Why include an artist living lightly on the land? Why use the term "community"?

Community is a concept that is quite undertheorized in North American cultures and scholarship: It is largely taken-for-granted. It can be used to signal kinship, affinity, proximity, inclusion, and to erect borders and boundaries. We use it in our book to demonstrate that "community" is many things to many people. It can emerge from the concrete or the ephemeral; it can be shared through virtual or "real" place and time, or through ideas and dialogue. There is no single or correct use of this term or ways to be a community.

As soon as Margaret posted this Vlog, many people left comments. This technologically-mediated set of contacts is another way in which Margaret participates in bringing people together whether or not she intends to. And it is not only sharing that signifies community: Margaret communes with the trees, the animals, the meadows, and all things that pass through, plant seeds, or spend time on the land. Her Nature and Art Conservancy is a form of living on and with the land that inspires human emotion, creativity, and action. Treating the earth with respect and love is not new, but it is something that often goes unrecognized as a significant and important way of acting that is a form of "living green," providing a lesson for how to stop some of the destruction done to the climate and the earth. Thank you Margaret for making this comment and, for creating another work of shared art.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Community Cat makes a Neighborhood

I would like to introduce you to Olivia. Olivia is an SPCA feral rescue cat living on Pacific between Van Ness and Franklin Streets in San Francisco. I met Olivia last March. And then I met Omar, Kathleen, Virginia, and at least twenty other human neighbors who live on the block. I like to joke that Olivia should have a facebook page for all her "friends." I wonder if others out there have stories about neighborhood cats creating social interaction on their blocks? Since I met Olivia I have heard neighbors offer to shop for one another if someone is ill, to check in on each other's partners, kids, dogs and lives and I have been a part of time spent just sitting outside, talking together and watching the people and pets go by. Olivia, of course, is often a main part of the conversation but in between we seem to learn about each other's jobs, health, and lives. On an urban block this is unusual. Do you have stories like this? If you don't know the story of "Pretty Boy," an East Village Cat who recently passed away, you can read about him here. If so, let me know. I'm all ears.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

e-waste and global health inequality

In a follow-up to our recent post, "Place Matters" on place and health inequality, we bring your attention to last night's global frontline story, "The Digital Dumping Ground" based on research by producer Peter Klein and a group pf UBC graduate students. The Digital Dumping Ground reports on the route of e-waste from the U.S. to some of the poorest communities in Ghana, China, and India. Watching the footage and its images of roads, fields, and workshops full with the industrialized world's waste is frightening enough, but to see the people forced to eek out a living "recycling" this waste is downright horrifying. While the story depicts an environmental crisis of waste, it also painfully reveals the disproportionate burden of exposure to contaminants among the world's poor and vulnerable (as a reminder watch the video series Unnatural Causes on Health inequality). Although the health consequences are already felt by those working in this unregulated disparate economy, the extent of the exposure is largely unknown to them. The story demonstrates the importance of thinking globally as we work to create more sustainable local communities.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sustainable Community...on a barge?

Mary Mattingly is an artist with a unique vision for a self-sufficient community on the water.  By "on the water" we don't mean waterfront, but literally floating on the water.  She is building a sustainable, navigable living space on a barge called "Waterpod".  Not quite ready yet, the barge already contains a windmill and will include gardens for food growing, chickens, the capability for composting waste and will secure drinking water through purified rainwater. Check out today's story in the New York Times and be sure to go to Mary Mattingly's website for a glimpse of her amazing work including her "wearable homes". 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Living Green Book Launch

We had a great time last night celebrating the publication of our book, Living Green, at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was a thrill to see the book in print and to have so many of our friends show up to mark the occasion. Margaret Fabrizio was our honored guest and we were thankful she was there to talk about, and show images of, the amazing land and art featured in the book.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Book Parties!!

We are excited to announce three upcoming Bay Area events to celebrate the publication of our book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain.

On June 2nd, we will be celebrating at the San Francisco Centre for the Book where we will be joined by local artist, Margaret Fabrizio whose art and land are featured in the book. There will also be wine, cheese, good friends and good times.

On June 25 at 7:00, we will be at the Green Arcade in San Francisco. The Green Arcade is a new and fantastic resource specializing in books on the environment, politics, sustainability, the slow food movement, organics, urban planning nature, and children's books. Even if you can't make our event, we highly recommend making a trip to this fabulous independent bookstore.

And, speaking of fabulous bookstores, on June 29th, we'll be across the bay at Berkeley's amazing Builder's Booksource. An institution on fourth street since 1982, the Builder's Booksource was at the very cutting edge of the green building movement and continues to be a vital resource for anyone interested in green buildings or sustainable living. We'll be there June 29th at 7:00.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Linking Communities and Built Environments

Building Magazine has just released our first web exclusive promoting our forthcoming book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain. Building magazine is a leading voice on the news and issues of Canada’s building development industry. We are thrilled they have chosen to discuss our book on their website. The excerpt selected summarizes the scope of the book and our effort to sketch the best practices for enhancing community through the built environment. We, at Social Green , are currently explanding this research with a specific focus on the ways community + built environment influence health. A place based approach to health and health inequality, we believe, needs to be understood and incorporated into current building designs to best meet our 21st century goal of environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Commons, Part II

The International Forum on Globalization distinguishes between three types of commons. First, the natural resources of the planet. These are the commons we spoke about in our post last month: water, forests, mountains, wildlife. Second, they talk about a social commons: health care, social security, education and the other social goods that many believe should be basic human rights. Third, they talk about the cultural and knowledge commons. It's this third one we want to expand on here.

As medical sociologists, we have written extensively about the ways knowledge can be viewed as a resource. Knowledge about our bodies, how they work, what we need to do to keep them healthy; knowledge about what kinds of services are available to us and how we can access them; knowledge about the impacts of our daily practices on our health; knowledge about signs and symptoms and how to respond to them are all important for overall well being. Lack of access to such knowledge is often cited as a major culprit in health inequalities. 

These same principles extend beyond medical and health-related knowledge to knowledge about any number of subjects. Access to knowledge is a resource. Period. Those with greater access to knowledge can learn about things that matter to them and take actions based on that knowledge.

The Internet is a major resource for promoting the knowledge commons. Wikipedia, Craigslist, YouTube are examples of extremely popular websites which enable people to freely access--as well as contribute to the creation of--knowledge and information. The popular photosharing website Flickr partnered with the Library of Congress to create The Commons--a free and accessible library of publicly-held photography collections (the above photo of the New York Public Library circa 1911 is from there). The concept of knowledge as commons is also alive and well in public radio, television and the people actively fighting to keep the airwaves free.

Alongside examples of keeping knowledge free and readily accessible are pressures to do the opposite. Copyright laws and corporate ownership of knowledge limit access for many. The group Creative Commons is working to counter these pressures and provide an alternative to the private ownership of ideas. They provide free licensing to artists, scientists, engineers or others who may want to copyright portions of their work, but also provide access to some or all of it for others to use, re-use, build upon, etc.

Another champion of the knowledge commons is Carl Malamud, a long time activist for public access to knowledge and information, who has accumulated vast amounts of government documents, films, court proceedings and raw data to ensure free availability on his website Public.Resources.Org. He also fights against attempts by governments or others to copyright what is in the public domain.

This spirit of activism and sharing of knowledge and ideas as well as tools has been a vital part of computer engineering, where alongside the corporate, private sphere an alternative, free and open world of computing has grown. For example, the Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 to promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users. Among other FSF provides free licensing and software for people who want to share, develop and use software. They say, 

“To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software is the foundation of a learning society--where the tools we all use are free to share, study and modify.”

Perhaps the quintessential example of the knowledge commons is the public library. In addition to the holdings of the library itself, libraries are places where people without other access can freely use the Internet, they often serve as community centers, venues for free lectures and group gatherings. At the library you can search for a job, figure out how to fix your car, learn how to manage high cholesterol, delve into ancient history or access SAT study guides: Libraries provide people with free access to knowledge and resources that can make a difference to their everyday lives. For these reasons, we think strong public libraries--and the knowledge commons more broadly-- are essential to social sustainability.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Obstacles to Living Green: Illegal Clotheslines

Photo by Willow Poppy

On our recent trip to the High Point neighborhood in west Seattle, one of the folks we talked to pointed out a significant way his capacity for green living was hindered: local ordinances that forbid the use of clothes lines. It turns out that High Point, like many planned communities, cities and muncipalities across North America is a place where line drying clothes outside is banned as an unsightly nuisance to neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that close to 6% of electricity generated in the United States comes from clothes dryers.
Project Laundry List estimates that the average resident could save up to 15% on their utility bills by line drying instead of electric drying. Their website features a calculator where you can see for yourself how much money you could save by greening your laundry practices. Using the power of solar energy and wind to dry clothes seems like such a simple way to live greener in our everyday lives. Why would it ever be restricted or banned?

The restrictions may come from citywide architectural regulations or, more commonly, from Homeowner's Associations (HOA) which are charged with protecting the value of homes in planned communities and condominiums. Restrictions on line drying stem from the perception that laundry on a line is an eyesore. And that isn't the only thing that's being restricted: many HOAs forbid the use of solar panels, forbid small houses, large vegetable gardens, native gardens or require the use of lights from dusk to dawn, the use of water and/or pesticides on your yard. It seems HOAs may be acting as significant barriers for many people to improve their carbon footprints.

Luckily, slowly, governments are taking action to ensure that every citizen has the right to live green, regardless of what their HOA says. In Florida, for instance, legislation ensures the right of all of its citizens to erect solar panels on their homes and also, happily, to dry their clothes outside.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Commons, Part I

In our forthcoming book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain, we describe ten principles, derived from our research, that are key to making a community sustainable: We call these the Ten C’s of Social Sustainability. One of these is the principle of the commons.

The model of the commons understands the Earth and its resources as shared gifts, rather than private property. Perhaps the most practical and specific lesson we learned about what makes a community sustainable over time is the way that sharing resources enables each person to live higher quality lives with less of an environmental impact. From shared spaces and car shares to clothing swaps and shared infrastructures, the possibilities for commons abound and the impact on people’s everyday lives can be profound.

We found this video on YouTube and it inspired us to investigate a bit more the ways activism around the idea of the commons is emerging at different sites.

Many of the planet’s natural resources--water, forests, wildlife--have traditionally been commons, shared resources. Historically, in Europe, the commons were shared agricultural, grazing and open lands and they were steadily enclosed and privatized over the course of many hundreds of years. The privatization of public resources is not new, but it is expanding through regressive politics and policies and as new technologies enable different kinds of enclosures: patenting seeds, genetic materials, claiming parts of outer space and cyberspace and probing more deeply into the earth’s core.

Protecting the water commons has become a particularly intense site of activism. Many believe that as a non-renewable, essential resource, water should exist outside the realm of private property. But, as the planet’s water supply dwindles, private sector interest in it grows. The Blue Planet Project asserts that over one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and more than one million children die each year of diseases caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation. In response, the organization and others like it around the world are working to protect water from commodification and maintain free access.

For an excellent articulation of the water commons, the group On the Commons has published an extensive report which you can download here. In it, they describe some of the ways private interests have encroached upon the water commons. One of these is the bottled water industry which has taken, virtually without limits, from the water commons and then sold it back to us at enormous profit. Also at a signifiant environmental cost. Another pathway to privatization is through the industries that have emerged around cleaning and reclaiming water--these provide an expensive and easily privatized solution to the water crisis, which might also be addressed by stopping pollution and ensuring the safety of the water commons for all.

Champions of the commons argue that if we see water as a commons, we are more likely to feel shared ownership of it and be invested in keeping it clean or cleaning it up. This is evidenced in the many victories of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an alliance of organizations that empowers citizens to get involved in protecting lakes, rivers and streams in their own communities.

The air we breathe, the atmosphere, the sky, outer space can be seen as another commons. In his recent book, Who Owns the Sky, Peter Barnes proposes the idea of a “sky trust” to protect this commons. The Sky Trust would require companies to pay for the right to release their carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The money would then be placed into a Sky Trust owned by all citizens--thus providing financial incentive to reduce emissions. The money from the sky trust would belong to the public to be used for common benefits.

Perhaps the most powerful example of protecting the commons can be found in the work of Vandana Shiva and her organization Navdanya (which literally means, nine seeds). Central to their work has been protecting the rights of farmers to freely use seeds, protecting seeds from patents and privatization at the hands of large corporations and in the process, protecting farmer’s rights to earn their livelihood as well as protecting all of our rights to biodiversity.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Clean Coal Outed

We are LOL at This is Reality's spoof, directed by the Coen brothers, on so-called clean coal. While we are behind him, even President Obama uttered this term in what was an otherwise green-friendly address to congress. Please Obama, money for green-tech innovation not clean coal.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Importance of Recess

As a follow-up to our previous post about kids in nature, here's an excellent article about the importance of recess. Reporting on the results of a recent research study published in the journal Pediatrics, this New York Times article articulates the importance of recess to children's learning, their behavior in school and their overall health and well-being. Kids need to be outdoors everyday, need some unstructured, free-play time in order to be at their best.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Place Matters

We recently returned from another site visit to the High Point Re-development in West Seattle. We collected reems of data on the community aspects of this project and are in the process of developing research questions to hone in on the complex ways place matters to health and well-being. 

Our approach as medical sociologists focuses on the "the social determinants of health:" The idea that one's social class, immigration status, language, race/ethnicity, education, neighborhood and other social factors shape exposure to health risks (i.e., toxic chemicals, discrimination, stress, anxiety) as well as access to resources that can help mitigate the effect of those risks (i.e., education, health care, healthy foods, social mobility).  These social determinants directly correlate with health inequity as many of us are disproportionately affected by these social inequalities and their corresponding adverse health effects. 

One of the benefits of green communities, particularly those with an environmental justice component, may be to intervene into these inequalities. The High Point re-development is a great case study for exploring this and we aren't alone in thinking so: you can see High Point in the amazing 7-part documentary series Unnatural Causes.  The documentary series and accompanying website is an excellent resource into understanding health equity and the way that place matters in health and illness.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Children and Nature

With the release of his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv ignited concern about young people's disconnection from the natural world. Children spend an increasing amount of time indoors and the time they do spend outside is typically in structured environments like playgrounds or engaged in structured activities such as organized sports. Direct experiences with nature are rarer.

The buzz created by Louv's publication and its subsequent second edition, was followed by attempts to understand, through research, what effect the phenomena Louv called "nature deficit disorder" was having on the health and well being of young people. Some notable findings include research by University of Illinois scholars demonstrating that children with Attention-Deficit Disorder have an enhanced ability to focus after outdoor activities such as camping and fishing (Faber Taylor et al., 2001; Kuo and Faber Taylor, 2004). Other researchers have confirmed a correlation between play in nature and children’s developing imagination and sense of place (Manuel 2003; Louv 2005).

Louv sites multiple reasons for the lack of time spent in nature amongst children: diminishing wild spaces that are accessible and/or considered safe, overscheduled lives, shifting values, and others. One way his and others' work on this topic has been turned into concrete action is to target schools as a site where environmental education can be emphasized and time outside can be built in.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed by the Bush administration in 2001 standardized the expectations for what children should be learning in school and implemented testing to assure every school met those expectations. Set goals for reading, math and science have been articulated and schools whose test scores fall short are penalized. A consequence of this has been that schools have, out of necessity, focused a vast majority of their time and energy teaching for the standardized tests. A 2008 Center on Education Policy study reports that since NCLB has taken effect relatively large shifts have taken place in the amount of instructional hours allotted to various subjects: Increases in math and english have occurred while decreases in most everything else.

For those concerned about the time children spend outside and their opportunities to learn about nature and the environment, these changes have been disheartening. In response, a far reaching coalition of citizens, politicians, environmentalists, parents and educators have initiated the No Chid Left Inside Act. This act would add environmental education to the things that we agree all kids should know and would provide new federal funding for outdoor learning activities and high-quality environmental education. 

No Child Left Inside is one of multiple initiatives to reconnect children with nature. To find out more about some of the remarkable efforts afoot, the Children and Nature Network has an amazing website that includes a map of North America highlighting places where efforts have been initiated to get kids outside and bring natural spaces back into cities.

Given that large swaths of green open spaces are not available in most inner city communities, we are not only heartened by these efforts, but we are also interested in learning more about how conservation of small urban spaces might improve the health of children and adults who reside near them. For example, we've been spending time lately with the Urban Creeks Council, a group dedicated to the restoration of creeks within urban settings and we hope to conduct research that can tell us what kinds of benefits are occurring in the lives of people who live, work or play in the restored environments. We'll keep you posted.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Green Alley Projects

Among developers and city planners, there is an increasing emphasis on building green neighborhoods, not just green buildings. New Urbanism has been a force within urban planning and architecture to bring the components of a village - walkability, mixed-use, neighborliness - back into North American planning. As medical sociologists, we study and document the connections between communities and human health and well-being. At the center of sustainable urbanism is an intention to, among other things, create, support or revitalize neighborhoods where the requirements for achieving a high quality life can all be met without ever getting into a car. When sustainable communities happen, they not only improve environmental conditions, but they get people exercising, experiencing nature and breathing clean air both indoors and out. As creatures of the planet, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what’s good for the planet’s health is also good for ours. Douglas Farr documents this well in his book, Sustainable Urbanism.

Green Alley Projects are one such way to increase human health and wellbeing. And they are popping up in most major cities across the United States, Canada and elsewhere. As featured on Planetizen in collaboration with grist, these projects are designed to convert concrete alleys used mostly for garbage disposal, parking, and as throughways through urban areas into shared community, green spaces. In Los Angeles, for example, the city's alleyways account for more than 900 linear miles of pavement. Research by the University of Southern California's, Center for Sustainable Cities has shown that activity occurs in alleys only about 20% of the time – and much of that activity involves either driving or walking through.

But today, city alleyways are being converted into shared green spaces that provide community space, planting areas, and for some cities, permeable areas that absorb stormwater. For the cities of Seattle and Vancouver such projects have shown to reduce stormwater flooding and facilitate groundwater recharge. In a two-year study of one pilot project, the amount of stormwater leaving the street was reduced almost completely.

South Los Angeles is home to a high concentration of alleys found in dense single-family residential neighborhoods. The city's Green Alleys Program has the goal of converting these from unsafe, dirty alleys into shared green areas. Similar to Baltimore’s Community Green: Shared Parks in Urban Blocks project that we study, the Green Alleys Program is currently in the process of establishing design and project selection criteria to begin alley conversion.

The importance of these urban alleyways to human health and well-being must be better understood. It is not only the benefits to the aethetics or the improved water or air quality of the neighborhoods, it is also the impact of these gardens on what urban planners and sociologists call social capital. By getting people walking in their neighborhoods, by encouraging participation in local economies, people become more tightly woven into their communities. In our research, we found that having social connections and meaningful bonds facilitate environmental sustainability at both an individual and a community level. In our current research and book project, Healing Green, we are exploring the health impacts of built and non-built environments.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Green Google

This week, several news sources reported on a study of the carbon emissions produced by Googling. The oft-cited analogy (strongly denied by Google) was that the carbon emissions of two Google searches is the equivalent of the emissions produced by boiling a kettle. To put this number in context, Google performs about 200 million searches a day--so, imagine the energy required to boil 100 million kettles every day. Google retorted that your computer will emit more carbon in the time it takes Google to perform your search than Google emits doing the search.

Either way (and especially if both of these things are true), there’s something eye-opening to the facts of the environmental impact of our personal computing and Internet use. The Internet, in particular, tends to seem invisible and thus, benign, in terms of resource consumption. In sociology, we call this a black box phenomena--input goes in, output comes out, and we don’t pay much attention to what goes on in between.

So, what DOES go on in between? And, more importantly, what are companies like Google doing to improve their environmental track record?

The IT industry produces approximately 2% of the world’s carbon emissions; a figure that puts it on par with the airline industry. But, while turbo jets tend to capture our collective imagination with their very obvious display of power and energy-use, our computers and Internet, while pervasive, tend to buzz along below our green radar.

In the 2008 Economist World Report, Tom Standage reports that 49% of these emissions come from personal computers and printers, 37% from telecoms networks and devices and 14% of data centers. The magic that enables us to type the name of an old friend into a search engine and be instantaneously rewarded with a list of Internet sites featuring a matching name, is magic which requires vast amounts of power and energy; it requires mind-boggling numbers of servers and computers; computers that are stored in warehouses that need to be cooled, powered and maintained. It also requires our own personal computers and the power necessary to maintain and ultimately dispose of them. All of this is after the mining for resources that will go into manufacturing electronic devices and the manufacturing itself and all of the attendant energies and waste that THAT generates. It turns out the magic isn’t magic at all but a lot of hard work and non-renewable resources.

So, what’s being done to mitigate the impact of all of this on our planet? Well, as it happens, it is particularly ironic that Google was singled out by this week’s news reports for the carbon emissions produced by their searches because they are sustainability leaders in the IT industry. Google has launched a series of green initiatives that target everything from their commitment to making it easy for their employees to commute to work, to the food they serve at their campuses, to their commitment to using recycled water onsite. Google is leading the way in the creation of zero-carbon data centers: typically, data centers are powered by dirty energy, like coal. But, because data centers for the IT industry can be located literally anywhere in the world, they can be located in places where they can take advantage of clean energy sources such as wind power or geothermal. See Amelia Williamson’s article for how Google and others are venturing into zero carbon data centers. Google is also a board member of a new coalition called Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which is organizing the industry to reduce computer power consumption by 50%.

Ultimately, while the recent news on the energy intensiveness of Google searches may have unfairly targeted the wrong company, we see the media flurry as a positive thing for drawing attention to the too-often-invisible impact of the ubiquitous IT industry on our collective carbon footprint. We know that we will be following the greening of IT much more closely from here on out.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Social Sustainability Site of the Week - Fort Mason Community Garden

Urban community gardens have long been in existence as ways to promote community and alleviate the challenges of social and economic downturns. The Bay area of San Francisco is home to a vibrant community garden movement. While many of these emerged out of the City of Berkeley's Peoples Park movement of the late 1960s, community gardens have been in existence since at least the 1890s as increasing numbers of people moved to urban centers. In her history of the U.S. urban garden movement, City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura Lawson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, details the the evolution of urban garden programs from cultivation and charity societies, to depression era food gardens, to post WWII victory gardens, to todays community garden movement.

On a windy yet sunny day in San Francisco we visited the Fort Mason community garden in San Francisco. When we arrived, we found a garden protected from the ocean and bay winds by a hillside leaving a warm, quiet valley for gardening, social interactions, and strolling through the built-in paths throughout the site. We met two volunteers, Loraine and Joel, both on the four year wait list for a garden plot to call their own. We chatted about their love of gardening and they told us that although there is a four year waiting list anyone can volunteer, meet other gardeners, and work in the dirt. Joel and Lorraine did not know each other prior to volunteering at the garden. Now they talk and work side by side on many days each month and they seem to have become friends and neighbors.

The community garden at Fort Mason was organized in the early 1970s by artists and community activists, with a goal of bringing gardening to public school children and to create gardening jobs. In a history of the Fort Mason garden written by Alexander Dixon in 1988, the story is told of the original garden as a "poet's garden", a "culinary exchange", and a budding "populist arboretum." Today the garden is well organized. It is self-supported, managed by its members, and home to over 125 garden plots. The bulletin board on site lists the names of those on the waiting list, announces activities and upcoming meetings and work days. It also announces the recent deaths of a few men and women who spent many years as members of the garden enriching their lives and clearly touching the lives of others.

We found a community garden movement in San Francisco still going strong, with more gardens being established every year. Our visit enforced for us the importance of building gardens into community development projects not only as a way to provide open green spaces, but to meet many of the differing needs of residents. Gardens provide educational opportunities for school-aged children on food sources and organic cooking as well as environmental stewardship. For adults, gardens provide both recreational activity and economic relief from food prices. Gardens enhance social sustainability as commons, meeting places, intergenerational programming, and opportunities for community involvement.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Living Small

“Better living through simplicity” is the motto for the small house society, an organization dedicated to the promotion of smaller homes. Their mission is “to support the research, development, and use of smaller living spaces that foster sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities worldwide.”

Jay Shafer, one of the groups founders, has lived in tiny houses (all less than 100 square feet) for over ten years now. On his website you can view videos of some of these remarkable spaces and hear Shafer describe what motivated him to embark on this small living adventure. Sustainability was high on his list of reasons: recognizing the impact any sized house has on the environment and wanting to minimize that impact by minimizing the space to what was absolutely necessary. He also hates vacuuming.  Shafer’s philosophy is “dream big, build small” and his company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, creates an array of models of truly tiny houses.

We saw how living in smaller spaces makes a huge difference for environmental sustainability at many of the sites we visited for our book Living Green: Communities that Sustain. Places like Los Angeles Eco-Village emphasize higher quality lives with less space. When you live in less square footage, you consume less energy and, importantly, by necessity, have less stuff. At a place like an Ecovillage or a co-housing community, the downsides of having less space (i.e., no guest room for when Aunt Mildred comes to visit) or less stuff (i.e. no table saw when you need one) are tempered by the ample shared space and shared stuff.

And, the benefits of living with less are not only environmental. A growing number of people are finding themselves drawn to the “small house movement” because of the economic implications. Less square footage and less stuff is cheaper to maintain.

Andy Thomson, founder of Sustain Design Studio has created the miniHome. In an interview by David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Thomson described how the fact that we in North America currently consume so much energy that we would need ten additional planets to sustain ourselves, led him to try and create a house that would use one tenth of the energy of a standard house--thereby reducing our consumption to a sustainable, one planet level. The result is the miniHome.  It's an off-the-grid, prefabricated, modern home that stands at just 325 square feet.  Thompson lived in one (may still live in one) with his wife and two young children. Check it out on the Sustain Design Studio website.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome Michael Meneer

We are pleased to welcome Michael Meneer to our Social Green team as our communications consultant. Michael brings to Social Green over ten years of public affairs, strategic communications and political experience in Vancouver and Washington D.C. Michael will be spearheading the book launch of Living Green: Communities that Sustain the first book to be published in our Social Green series. We look forward to working together to share our research findings about the best social practices of green building design and developments.