October 05, 2005
The Not-So-Big Way-Too-Big House
A good news update to my previous post on the up-sizing of houses: Americans may have reached their limit. The New York Times reports that the size of new houses may be leveling off. While the average size of new homes grew by around 50% from 1970 to 2001, the past few years have seen very little increase.
What could be causing the trend? According to the New York Times, people are trading quality for quantity. Not only do builders have anecdotal evidence, but a nationwide survey in 2004 found that, for the same price, 63 percent of respondents would prefer a smaller house with more amenities than a larger house with fewer amenities. That's up from 49 percent in 2000. The article also suggests that houses have finally become as large as people say they want them to be -- reality finally matches the American Dream.
I wonder if the housing boom plus the recession curtailed house sizes: people frenzied to buy a house, who don't have the money for the big house they really want, settle for smaller. But optimistically, I'll hope that people's preferences for McMansions have actually changed (not just as a fad) and that they've realized how much more giant houses cost to furnish and maintain. With rising energy prices, size can make a big difference.
October 04, 2005
Just You Weight
From today's New York Times: new results from a long-term health study suggest that 9 out of 10 men, and 7 out of 10 women, will become overweight or obese at some point in their lives. In fact, even if you've never had a weight problem as an adult, you could still at risk -- half of men who made it well into adulthood maintaining a body mass index in the normal range ultimately became overweight.
But weight, there's more! According to one expert:
"What's particularly concerning is that these results actually may underestimate the risk of becoming overweight or obese among the general population" because minorities, who are at increased risk for obesity, were not included in the study. [Emphasis added.]
That's it, I'm joining a gym...
September 16, 2005
Has it come to this? Do careful shoppers really need to bring a book to the grocery store to help pick their way through the flood of labels claiming "100 percent organic," "made with organic ingredients," "natural," and many others? Yes, says a new book titled A Field Guide to Buying Organic, which offers an aisle-by-aisle guide to a wide range of labels and tips on when they're worth the extra cash you usually pay.
When I read through the book, though, I found it doesn't quite deliver on its promise. It's certainly a thorough and even-handed examination of labeling and standards, and offers lots of comparisons of, say, pesticide residues found in various conventional vs. organic produce. But it's a bit lacking in new and useful practical advice. (This is partly because of the cumbersome way they separate tips for health-oriented shoppers from tips for environmental shoppers or socially conscious shoppers.)
The exception for me was an eye-opening chapter on dairy products: how they're regulated; the kinds of contaminants that regularly show up in conventional and organic milk; why organic butter might be especially worth the price; and many other troublesome issues, such as somatic cell count (yikes).
The authors conclude that buying milk from smaller farms--organic or not--is probably worth the extra money, because they do a much better job of caring for cows, preventing infections, and restricting drug and hormone use. (This is especially in true in western states such as Washington, which tend to be dominated by large, industrial-size dairy operations.)
And a recent article in Grist on organic food prices is worth a read. It looks at the history of the organic movement, what share of the marketplace organics need to capture before prices come down (one-third, according to one study), and the contradictions inherent in the price issue, like: Is organic food too expensive or is conventional produce too cheap?
September 15, 2005
Mobility Without a Motor: Notes From Buckley, WA
Editor's Note: This is the second post in a series by Dan Staley on land use and quality of life in Buckley, Washington, a small town near Mount Rainier. (See the first here.)
Recently I commented on Clark’s post about Vancouver, BC’s decision to create dedicated bike lanes on a bridge, where I stated I wished I could get that kind of varied participation here in my little town of Buckley, Washington.
Well, what the heck am I doing to encourage different ways of traveling out here?
First, folks have to want it--you can’t force something (anything) on anyone and expect it to be accepted unless people understand why they are doing it--be it recycling, wetland preservation, stringent searches at airports, living in compact neighborhoods. One must ensure the public understands, accepts and trusts what you’re trying to do--if you don’t have this, forget it. We’ve found that the best strategy to get acceptance is still word of mouth. In Buckley, we primarily work with homeowners, businesspeople, and decision-makers to make this happen.
It turns out that folks here want to walk, want to ride their bikes, want to have children skateboard safely to school, want to get out of their cars. It’s just that nobody gave them the chance to have this kind of infrastructure before.
We have a robust portion of the Foothills trail (when completed, some 30 miles long), a formal Park and Ride planned, some compact neighborhoods. For transit, we really need more people here before it is a viable option, but we are working on that for the future too; density and population drive transit, and we’re not there yet (our human population is about 4500). We work directly with developers to ensure their development connects to trails, bike paths, and sidewalks--which means few culs de sac and no gates. Developers appreciate knowing, early, what they need to do to get their project done--surprises cost money and establishing a relationship has positives for both sides.
In our struggles to update our Comprehensive Plan—which we take to City Council in a few weeks--we are also trying to create more walkable neighborhoods by narrowing the streets, bringing houses closer to the street, and ensuring that design guidelines don’t result in boring cookie-cutter neighborhoods that aren’t conducive to walking. We want to create something to walk TO--the neighbors’ house, parks, small businesses owned by someone we know, the river.
Is it enough? Who knows? You can only do your best, and hope. But something’s started. The five people running for mayor are discussing the plan changes, which shows people are engaged.
People seem to understand how the non-motorized ideas we’ve put forth benefit them, and also how they benefit their neighbors. And that seals the deal, because we know our neighbors out here.
August 01, 2005
Rhapsody in Blueberry
One of my supreme August pleasures is eating juicy blueberries by the handful. It’s those local blueberries, and the latest installment of The Tyee’s series on "The 100-mile diet," that are inspiring me to cook an all-local-food dinner party next week.
As we noted here, a British Columbia couple is reporting on their experience eating only food produced within 100 miles of their home for a year. Their summer report doesn’t make it sound too rough: salmon with organic sage butter, fresh fava beans, and sweet gypsy peppers anyone?
The series is a good reminder that eating locally produced food not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but puts the eater more in touch with how food is produced. As one of the writers--J.B. MacKinnon--puts it: “It is easier to make ethical decisions about sustainability and animal husbandry when you can walk onto the farm and see for yourself. Distance is the enemy of awareness.”
Eating locally also supports the economy of local producers that are using organic and sustainable practices.
Since August in the Northwest is the time for enjoying hiking and eating blueberries, MacKinnon uses part three of the series to sing the praises of the flavors, variety, and cuisine within miles of his home. And he suggests (with recipes!) we all try our hand, even if just for one evening, at the 100-mile diet.
July 27, 2005
Marketing With Trees II
A brief follow-up to Jessica’s urban forests post: urban forests have additional benefits to businesses; however this information is, sadly, not widely known.
Other research--in addition to the study by Kathy Wolf that Jessica cited--has found customers were willing to travel farther (hopefully on transit) to reach well-vegetated businesses , and the quality of landscaping along approach routes to business districts has also been found to positively influence consumer perceptions .
And a study using a detailed pricing model on existing commercial building rents found a clear relationship between quality landscaping and higher office rental rates; quality landscaping (neat, well-groomed, attractive, able to see the business) increased rental rates by 7 percent, as did good building shade .
Businesses also experience increased productivity when their employees are exposed to green spaces: Desk workers who can see nature from their desks take 23 percent less time off sick than those who don’t see any green from their windows, and they also report greater job satisfaction .
Expanding on this worker satisfaction trend a bit, social and nature researchers Rachel and Steve Kaplan have a theory (attention restoration theory) that “nearby nature” helps alleviate mental fatigue caused by directed attention-- the fatigue caused by our brains trying to filter too many competing messages. And others are noticing and quantifying the apparent fact that urban greenery has positive social effects as well.
Those are just a few of the benefits provided by urban forests. Some of my research in urban forestry included writing a lit review on all of the benefits of urban trees for a client who--for whatever reason--hasn't published it. If any of you wishes to follow up on the topic, I'll send the lit review along in its current draft form (e-mail: email@example.com)
 Bisco Werner, J.E., Raser, J., Chandler, T.J., and O'Gorman, M. 2002. Trees mean business: a study of the economic impacts of trees and forests in the commercial districts of New York City and New Jersey. New York: Trees New York. 141 pp.
 Wolf, K.L. 2000. Community Image - Roadside Settings and Public Perceptions, University of Washington College of Forest Resources, Factsheet #32.
 Laverne, R.J., Winson-Geideman, K. 2003. The Influence of Trees and Landscaping on Rental Rates at Office Buildings. Journ. Arbor. 29:5 September 2003 pp. 281-290.
 Wolf, K.L. 1998 Urban Nature Benefits: Psycho-Social Dimensions of People and Plants, University of Washington College of Forest Resources, Factsheet #1.
July 20, 2005
Driver's Ed, Hybrid Style
Much has been made of the discrepancy between the rated fuel economy of hybrid cars and the actual results that drivers get on the road. Sure, "actual mileage may vary," but that variance proved particularly wide for hybrids, and was especially aggravating since fuel efficiency was the main reason people bought the hybrids in the first place.
Now comes the Dean of Energy Geeks, Amory Lovins, to offer a solution. According to his half-page piece in the current issue of the Rocky Mountain Institute newsletter (p. 15 of large pdf), hybrid owners need to learn a new style of driving to take advantage of their cars' technology. Lovins calls it "pulse driving," and it has two main components:
- Brisk acceleration, then letting up once you reach cruising speed. "The engine is most efficient at high speed and torque," he writes.
- Gentle braking, anticipating the need to stop. This allows the car to recover as much energy as possible and feed it into the battery. If you try to stop more suddenly, the mechanical brakes kick in, and they dissipate that precious energy as mere heat.
Lovins claims that this strategy has enabled him to eek out 63 mpg with snow tires on his 64-mpg-rated Insight, and will bring in 53 to 55 mpg on the 55-mpg-rated Prius.
Not having a Prius, I can't test-drive this advice, but I'd be curious how it squares with the observations of all you hybrid drivers out there.
July 18, 2005
Sea Food, See Food Travel
Globalization in action: some locally-caught seafood is now being shipped to China for processing, and then back to the Northwest for sale. This saves on labor costs -- labor is a fifth to a tenth as costly in China as it is here -- but massively increases the amount of energy consumed.
For the most part, I prefer to buy food that's grown or caught locally. But sending locally-caught seafood on an 8,000 mile journey in search of cheap labor definitely strains the definition of "local".
But as long as international markets remain open, transportation remains cheap, and disparities in international labor costs remain wide, we're likely to see more and more of this sort of thing. Which means, unfortunately, that green-minded consumers may have to remain vigilant not just about where their food is grown, but also where it's processed.
This would make a great reality TV show: As chronicled in online magazine the Tyee, a couple in British Columbia decides that for one year they will only eat food that is grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of where they live--with a few exceptions.
Why? The short answer is "fossil fuels bad." The average American (and probably Canadian) meal, they point out, uses 17 times more petroleum products than an entirely local meal. And:
Let's translate that into the ecological footprint model devised by Dr. William Rees of UBC which measures how many planets'-worth of resources would be needed if everyone did the same. If you had an average North American lifestyle in every other way, from driving habits to the size of your house, by switching to a local diet you would save almost an entire planet's worth of resources (though you'd still be gobbling up seven earths).
And how hard could it be to eat within 100 miles? After all, they live in an area rich in fertile farmland and seas. They imagined they would eat seasonally, their table heavy with the best produce, fish, and free-range meat that British Columbia has to offer, even while their neighbors were chomping on cardboard tomatoes flown in from Mexico and California.
It turns out it’s both difficult and expensive. Local grains don’t exist, except for a few heritage grains. Yes, there are local free-range cows and chickens, but the animals are raised on non-local feed. In summer, BC's abundant farmer's markets serve them well, but many of the supermarkets still sell much shipped produce, except for, say, local organic salad mix at $17.99 a pound. Summer, of course, only lasts so long.
And here’s the kicker: Vegetarianism doesn’t work well because soy isn’t grown locally. So they’re forced to ask this question: “Does vegetarianism fit into a local, sustainable diet?” And the answer isn’t clear at all. (Part II--"Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken"--covers this tricky issue.)
Their few exceptions--and funny moments, such as an attempt to make strawberry preserves with honey--begin adding up. Their butts also begin to shrink. (Add a diet book to the reality TV show .)
Their experiment points (again) to this fact: Eating is complicated for thoughtful people who believe that everyday actions such as buying food have a heck of an impact on the world. On the other hand, just the fact that they're attempting the feat, and that they have an attentive audience, bodes well for efforts to limit our impacts.
I happened to pick up a July 2005 copy of Gourmet magazine this week, and noticed that writer Bill McKibben was trying a similar experiment in the Vermont/Lake Champlain area. Interestingly, his take was more positive than the BC couple's. Does that mean that Vermont is ahead of BC in small-scale food production?
June 28, 2005
For the last several weeks, we've been collecting comments on a series of values and principles of sustainability, called the 'Fundamentals.' Our hope is to get your feedback about the best way to frame the issues that we address in our work. Thanks to all of you who have left such thoughtful comments!
In an early focus group we floated the idea of a value called thriving commons. ("We are all trustees for a common inheritance: our grandchildren’s birthright of schools, parks, forests, rivers, climate, and even our democracy.") But some folks thought we needed to be more explicit about the environment. So we proposed the language of thriving nature, instead.
"Commons" is a word that has captured the imagination of many. How does it strike you? What does it mean to you? When you hear about the "commons" does it evoke for you the bounty of nature?
Please let us know what you think! Check out our special blog devoted to the Fundamentals and leave your comments there. Thanks!