Friday, March 12, 2010

Propounding on the documentary No Impact Man

"Can you save the planet without
driving your family crazy?"
UC Sustainability recently screened the Colin Beaven documentary, No Impact Man, with which I completely fell in love. The film documents Colin, a New York City-based writer, and his journey through a year-long experiment to achieve net zero environmental impact, which began in November 2006. Prior the the film and book of the same name, he wrote a series of entries on his blog about his decision to take personal action, instead of waiting for “the senators and the CEOs to change the way we treat the world.” Colin thoroughly acknowledged that this transformation en masse was a marketing tactic for his next book. His transformation, however, had deeper implications—it had a profound effect on how his wife-with-child and he conducted themselves on a daily basis.

This film draws parallels to my own life as an evolving environmentalist, at times emphasizing “mentalist”. Over the past two years—especially since moving to my current apartment in Clifton’s Ludlow Business District—I have made the lives of my girlfriend and my friend-roommate more difficult. First it was simply recycling and minimizing how many times I ended up taking the trash out to the dumpster. That correlated with takeout and leftover food waste taking up room in the refrigerator. Now we use 100% recycled, post-consumer toilet paper and parsley infused surface cleaner. I buy bulk grains and use UV-sensitive, biodegradable kitchen trash bags. We now have an indoor composting bokaski unit. But Colin’s experiment was the truest test of his wife’s patience, love, understanding, and willingness to learn. Perhaps No Impact Man is not the conventional love story, but it is a story about love and all those other things.

A strong critic—and there are certainly many out there—might slight Colin simply for living in New York City. However, the fact that he conducted the experiement in NYC made it entirely possible. Access to healthy food is a heavy variable for anyone to impact his or her waste. (This is not to say that the same experiment could not work in Cincinnati, but it may be entirely impossible in a suburban community.) Colin and his wife Michelle regularly visited farmer’s markets, and eventually connected well enough with one to spend their vacation at the farm (using the plentiful commuter rail in the region). The couple got rid of their flat screen television and other frivolties. About halfway through the experiment, they cut the lights. All the while, they had a large network of associates and friends, trains and buses, which is a by-product (but not necessarily guaranteed in all cases) of living densely. That network was a helpful support system to keep their marriage and project intact. That network enabled Colin and the family to balance negative environmental impact with positive impacts, and to reach net zero.

An important piece to note is that Colin’s experiment was designed to work in stages. Stage one was to figure out how to create no garbage waste, including packaging and disposable products. The second stage was to create a smallest environmental impact with their food choices (which, for a short while, included using unsuccessful, primitive cooling techniques instead of living with a actual refrigerator). The third stages involved consumption of only necessary items, and learning how to do it sustainably.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Planning for Sustainability: Six hours with Price Hill Will ... and beyond

Last Saturday afternoon I spent six hours roaming the neighborhood streets of Price Hill. The Census officer never showed up at the Corryville Branch Library, so my contention for a temporary job would have to wait. Thus I got an earlier start to working for Price Hill Will (PHW), a non-profit development corporation in East Price Hill. Through my current co-op with Community Building Institute, I connected myself to various organizational partners through the place matters Comprehensive Community Initiative they manage. My volunteer opportunity spawned from several visits to PHW Eco-neighborhood Community Action Team (CAT) meetings. Emily Horning, a community organizer for PHW, regularly mediates and delegates at meetings. The neighborhood business district is due for streetscape improvements in the summer, so this presented a perfect opportunity for some first-person fieldwork.

PHW’s Beautification CAT identified several projects that would benefit from my initial mapping of the business corridors. These included:

1. Old, painted municipal waste containers along Warsaw are fading and falling into disrepair. I was to map them and show examples of those in poor shape. The mapping would be use to identify redundancy with other municipal waste facilities and where they are current lacking.

2. The Beauty CAT is working with Metro to consolidate bus stops with benches and shelters in Price Hill. Once again though, there may be a problem with advertisement benches in locations not zoned for them. Some are zoned; some are not (“parasitic as in nature,” as Emily put it). I was to map and photograph the benches in Price Hill, who owns them, and if they are authorized. Those that are not can be relocated or eliminated altogether. This may reduce eyesores in the community and augment Price Hill’s reputation as a “Cincinnati’s greenest community”.

3. Compile a photographic inventory of each block from Warsaw and Grand through Glenway and Crookshank.

So, what were some of my findings?

  • There is an unusual oversupply of bus stops throughout East Price Hill. I would venture to say that every other stop could be eliminated. Every block?
  • Advertising benches are not as plentiful as I expected, which could be a good or a bad thing. Many bus stops simply do not have seating for waiting. However, in higher traffic areas—as I mentioned Emily stated—they are “parasitic,” abundant and redundant.
  • Near one pocket park I found unnecessary duplication of waste facilities. Four were located on park property, while two were found immediately off park property on the sidewalks. There were even recycling containers for plastic + glass and aluminum cans on park property. When the park closes, are we no longer allowed to legally recycle?
  • As I mentioned in recent business association and community council meetings throughout the city, public recycling drop-offs seem to be located in very auto-oriented areas. In Price Hill these resources are especially sparse. Behind Holy Family School are two ABITIBI Paper Retriever containers, a clothing drop, and one Rumpke Recycling ommingled container. In this case, however, the drop-off location is quite walkable by comparison.
  • No systematic scheme is apparent in the placement of municipal waste cans. Some are midblock; others are at corner bus stops. And, as stated earlier, style and condition of the facilities are inconsistent.
  • In one specific case, there is a defunct bus stop on Seton Avenue, afront the long-abandoned KFC location at Five Points (Warsaw, Glenway, Seton, and Quebec). A bare signpost still remains without a Metro route sign badge. Its corresponding municpal waste can was empty on a Saturday, even though Emily and I both believe that trash is pick up on Mondays. Many other trash facilities are located at Five Points.

The sidewalk redo on Warsaw Avenue should be underway in Summer 2010. Hope is that bus stop consolidation, augmented litter control, and bus stop safety measures will conincide with the project. I will provide you all with an update when the comprehensive inventory, survey, and index are complete.

You are always invited to any of Price Hill Will’s Community Action Team meetings. The next Beautification CAT meeting is this Thursday, March 11th at 6:30pm at Price Hill Chili. The next Eco-neighborhood CAT meeting will be held tonight at 5:30pm at PHW, as last week’s meeting was rescheduled.