We Vote With Our Gas Pedals

Photo by sanbeiji

It’s been my good luck to travel on business to many great cities in Northern Europe. And these cities–Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brugge, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg–have one thing in common: people come first, cars come second. It’s a hassle to drive but a pleasure to walk, bike and take public transit. As a direct result they are desirable places to live and be a tourist. While we could throw many American cities into this list of livable cities–San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Portland, Davis, New York come to mind–I doubt anyone would include my hometown of Los Angeles. LA, while not the worst city in the world, is the poster child for car-centric planning and general ugliness. When I’m away I question the sanity of getting back on the plane to return.

But since I always return I feel compelled to at least try to make the place more livable. Last year I joined with bike activists Stephen Box and Josef Bray-Ali to speak at a Los Angeles City Council transportation subcommittee meeting to oppose a routine bunch of speed limit increases. Here’s how the whole sorry process plays out. First, Detroit sells (or used to sell) insanely over-powered cars that turn soccer moms into NASCAR drivers. To protect the rights of these speed addled motorists, many states, including California, have seen fit to pass “Speed Trap” laws requiring cities to establish a street’s speed limit based on the 85th percentile of average speed in order to use radar or laser enforcement. In other words, as one LA Department of Transportation engineer put it, “we vote with our gas pedals.” So we engineer cars for speed, engineer the streets for speed, and then raise the speed limits to match. If the 85th percentile is 50 mph on a residential street, the city raises the speed limit. If they don’t the cops can’t use radar. Or so they say. One LADOT official said that he’d “raise the limits anyways.”

Thankfully, those of you in California can help change this ridiculous situation.

1. Write a letter to your State representative and urge them to support Assistant Majority Leader Paul Krekorian’s AB766 “Safe Streets” bill which will reform our silly speed trap laws.

2. Box and his wife Enci will be traveling to Sacramento to lobby for this bill. They’d love to have your letters of support to take with them. Email your letter of support to: [email protected]

3. Follow Stephen and Enci’s journey on Twitter, on Facebook, on their blogs at illuminateLA and at SoapBoxLA.

Let’s make our streets safe for our children and senior citizens. Support AB766!

Is Industrial Ag to Blame for the Swine Flu?

Could the swine flu be linked to industrial agriculture practices, say keeping thousands of immunosuppressed pigs in tight quarters and then carelessly discharging their effluent? A private biosurveillance tracking firm, Veretect has a timeline of the epidemic originating in the town of La Gloria in the State of Veracruz.

“Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.”

More on this story at Grist and Peak Oil Entrepreneur.

At this point we’re in the wild speculation phase of the swine flu narrative and I’ll add that the press does a particularly bad job with anything that has to do with science. However, we’ve been trying to make the point that distributed agriculture, more people tending small numbers of animals, is most likely a safer practice than large factory farms. The exotic strains of E-coli and swine flu that have emerged in recent years could be the unintended consequence of concentrated animal feeding operations. Time to call the homeowners association and ask them if you can keep a few pigs in that suburban backyard.

Is Our Furniture Killing Us?


Architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins have the radical idea that our addiction to comfort and safety is killing us. Their solution: designing houses and apartments where no surface is even, with awkward and even dangerous passages between rooms, where buying your own furniture is impossible. Living in their buildings forces the occupant to think about each and every step.They promise eternal life (an exaggeration for the sake of making a point) and a return to youthfulness.

“At least one tenant says he feels a little younger already. Nobutaka Yamaoka, who moved in with his wife and two children about two years ago, says he has lost more than 20 pounds and no longer suffers from hay fever, though he isn’t sure whether it was cured by the loft.” [wsj.com]

Having encountered Arakawa and Madeline Gins work several years ago, I’ve been haunted by the crazy idea that we should immediately get rid of all of our normal furniture for the sake of our future heath. Having done a lot of running and far too little stretching, Mr. Homegrown Evolution’s middle-aged body has gotten increasingly stiff. Mrs. Homegrown describes me as having the flexibility of a “ginger bread man.” And yet I see our 70+ year-old Chinese neighbors doing all their garden work while nimbly crouched low to the ground, in a posture I doubt most native born Westerners half their age could mimic. Their health and flexibility is, no doubt, due in part to cultural and architectural differences. Switching out our Western furniture for a down-on-the-floor type arrangement would force me to incorporate stretching as a part of my daily routine rather than separating it out as an activity (like yoga) that I never seem to get around to doing.

Arakawa and Madeline Gins heretical ideas are all about the unseen and unintended consequences of convenience. It reminds me of using a bicycle for transportation–it may be more dangerous and often takes more time than driving–but think about the benefits to both body and mental sharpness (dodging all those SUVs). How about running without shoes? I’m convinced that the arch support in the shoes I’ve worn all my life has weakened the muscles in my feet and led directly to a painful case of plantar fasciitis that took a year and a half to heal. How about running barefoot as an alternative? How about keeping bees as nature intended as the Backwards Beekeepers do while we’re at it? In fact all of these heretical notions, counter to conventional wisdom, could be grouped under the “backwards” banner.

I could go on, but don’t worry. We still like clothes . . .

See more pictures of Arakawa and Madeline Gins innovative work here.

And a video:

Sadly, according to a poorly written article in the Wall Street Journal, the couple seems to have been caught up in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme forcing them to close their Manhattan office.

Swedish Shack Attack

Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, the Unabomber, the bloggers over at Ramshackle Solid and Homegrown Evolution all have one thing in common. We’re all proud owners of shacks. We’ve posted before about the wonderful Tiny House Company and the virtues of actually living in your shack. Today we share a photo of a lovely Swedish shack we spotted in the arctic town of Kiruna. A family of five used to live in it in the early 20th century and it can’t be much more than a hundred square feet. No doubt, “shacking up” meant fewer trips to the woodpile during those cold winters (“winter” being nine months out of the year in this place). Its current location is in the parking lot of an old folks home. Looks like it’s now used for storage.

A special thanks to the folks at Dinosaurs and Robots for the term “shackitecture” and their many shacktacular posts.

Our Footprint

We’re not the types to obsess about carbon footprints, preferring a separate set of fun, pleasure and cheapness metrics with which to base our lives on. That being said, Mr. Homegrown Evolution punched in our stats for a contest over at Low Impact Living and ended up winning the contest. Read the article about us here.

There’s some irony about this, in that Mr. Homegrown Evolution is, as you read this, busting the household carbon footprint on an unexpected CLUI related business trip to a remote Swedish mining town in the arctic.

Arctic journeys aside, the way we won the Low Impact contest is simple. We live in a small house and don’t drive much. That’s just about it. We can’t afford solar panels, and everything else we’ve done, such as the washing machine greywater system, is DIY and un-permitted. We’re sure that many people in our 1920s era neighborhood would have also won this contest. Folks in apartments would have done even better. The average African would do a thousand times better.

But anyways, many thanks to the nice folks at Low Impact Living and we’ll be using that hotel stay on our next book tour of San Francisco (travel via Amtrak and bicycle, for those keeping score).

Texas Town Outlaws Common Sense

Lancaster Texas city officials have decided to enforce codes outlawing backyard chickens and Marye Audet a food writer, author and owner of nineteen heritage breed Barred Rocks has been pulled into their poultry dragnet. She ain’t happy about it.

“My dad and my father- in- law were WWII vets. I am a veteran. My husband is a disabled veteran. My oldest son is in Iraq currently, for his second tour of duty. And this afternoon, as I shut the door, in tears, I wondered…This is what we served for?”

To add to the indignities, Audet is not some tight quarters urban chicken enthusiast. She and her family live on 2 1/2 acres. Read more about her dilemma in her article City of Lancaster bans sustainable living…more or less.

How will we know when our country has climbed out of its current morass? A city will cite someone for not having chickens.

Seeds are from Mars

You gotta be a modern day Pythagoras to parse out the moral geometry of our complex food system. Our hasty blog post on growing Dragon Carrots from Seeds of Change prompted a few comments and a phone call alerting us to ethical concerns about the seed company. Knowing the diversity of readers of this blog, we’re simply going to toss out the issues and let you all make up your own minds.

Seeds of Change began as a small New Mexico based company back in 1989, launched a series of organic convenience foods in Europe in 1996 and was purchased by Mars Incorporated, a family owned snack food company in 1997. Last year Mars partnered with Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway (check out that retro B-H website!) to buy Wrigley and create a ginormous financial candy bar. Mmmm, cashy nougats!

One of the founders of Seeds of Change, Howard-Yana Shapiro, now serves as director of plant science and external research for Mars Inc. and is vice president of agriculture at Seeds of Change. He’s the well respected author of Gardening for the Future of the Earth, and is currently at work overseeing the sequencing the Cocao genome in a joint project with the US Department of Agriculture, Mars. Inc. and IBM. As for the ultimate outcome of that project, according to the BBC, “Dr Shapiro would not be drawn on whether the research might lead to genetically modified chocolate. “

As for Seeds of Change’s parent company, an article in the Ecologist, criticizes Mars Inc for opposing EU health laws aimed at curing obesity and for failing to offer fair trade chocolate. Others say the company is a model of responsible business practices. Homegrown Evolution reader Jeremy claims that Seeds of Change, “tried to shut down the HDRA’s Heritage Seed Library,” and “registered an ancient Hopi “mandala” as their trade-mark.” I’ve been unable to dig up further information on the internets about either of these issues, so I’m asking Jeremy to leave some links in the comments.

Our friend, author and neighbor Ysanne Spevack has a positive article about her visit to Seeds of Change in New Mexico. The Mars Inc. corporate promotional video, which features Shapiro at the end, can be viewed here. We have to admit that the video gives us the heebie jeebies but, like most readers of this blog, we’re not exactly in the target audience for M&Ms with printed messages.

When a visionary like Shapiro gets involved with a large company you get a bottomless rabbit’s hole discussion about the morality of “change from within” and taking a good concepts, like organics and biodiversity, to the masses. You’re all welcome to debate these issues in the comments, but here at Homegrown Evolution we’re moving on to a soon to be defined new paradigm. All we know is that it will be more local, and the seeds we exchange will be our own.

Of course, if the Skittles folks offer to pay off Homegrown Evolution’s mortgage and dental bills . . .

Looking for Urban Farmers

From the photo archives of the Library of Congress: Oswego, New York. A citizen showing his wife vegetables from his victory garden as she starts on her way to church.
Homegrown Evolution is writing a profile of urban farmers for a new magazine. We’ve got the West covered, but we are still looking for some folks to profile who:

1. Live in one of the five boroughs of New York City and grow edibles and/or keep livestock.

2. Live in Detroit. We hear rumors of folks keeping herds of goats in Motown!

3. Have photos of your activities.

Send us an email or leave a comment if you fit this description, or if you know of someone who does. All efforts, from the modest to the massive, are interesting to us.

Thanks!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year and many thanks to all of you for supporting this blog and contributing comments, suggestions and opinions. Thanks to all of you who have bought our book and thanks to our brave and innovative publisher Process Media.

We have one resolution for the new year: to tinker/experiment/garden/problem solve/explore and have fun doing all these things, laughing and learning from our failures as we go.

Compost Outlaws

Yard Trimmings being used as “ADC” at the Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley

Our neighborhood comrade Tara Kolla, who grows sweet peas for farmer’s markets in her urban backyard, has been busted for . . . composting! Specifically for composting fruit and vegetable scraps from a local restaurant. From last Friday’s Los Angeles Times:

Tara Kolla said she was doing a good thing for her Silver Lake Farms business while doing the right thing for the planet by filling a garbage can each week with produce scraps from a nearby restaurant and dumping them into her compost.

A neighbor did not see it that way and complained about the compost, which Kolla has in two wood boxes covered with black plastic.

“I didn’t put it here to offend anyone. I put it here because it’s a work area,” Kolla said one morning as she showed a visitor her half-acre urban farm, where she grows flowers as well as some other crops to sell at farmers markets in Echo Park, Hollywood and Silver Lake.

In August, Kolla received a letter from the Los Angeles Local Enforcement Agency telling her to “cease and desist” composting food waste that was not generated at her home. The letter was signed by David Thompson, the agency’s program supervisor, who declined to talk on the record. But a city spokeswoman said there would be no additional action taken if there are no more complaints.

It turns out it’s against the law to compost material not generated at your own residence. So when you take back that bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks to put in your compost pile you’re an outlaw. It’s a law that benefits the status quo, where the the city and private contractors haul away all that perfectly good organic matter that could be nourishing our neighborhood gardens, parks, and street trees and stuff it in . . . the dump.

There’s a dirty little secret with what happens to the organic matter we all some of us put in the green bin (a trash can provided by the city some municipalities to separate out yard trimmings) in the city of Los Angeles and many other municipalities. According to a friend of mine who works in the recycling business, 80% of the green bin contents in Los Angeles (county?) [Editors note: see neighborhood colleague, and fellow "trash geek" Jeremy Drake's correction in the comments section. Drake says that LA City does not use green bin contents as ADC. My friend may have been refering to LA County waste practices.] are used as “Alternative Daily Cover” or ADC. ADC, which in addition to yard waste can consist of all kinds of things including broken glass and construction materials are used to cover up trash dumped into landfills. So while our friend Tara gets busted for composting, some cities go about taking the same perfectly good organic matter and toss it into the dump along with the rest of our garbage.

The green bin is a sham, but it gets worse. According to Mayor Sam’s Sister City, classifying waste as ADC “allows dump operators to escape paying State per ton fees which in turn are used for State recycling and enforcement programs.”

There’s a opportunity in this composting kerfuffle for an elegant solution. Anyone who gardens in the city knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to get enough organic matter. How about regional composting facilities? Instead of trucking organic matter from restaurants and yards to far-off dumps (and generating tons of diesel particulate matter on those long hauls), how about we compost it closer to home? We’ll need skilled workers for this, perfect in a time of rising unemployment. This is precisely what our friend Nance Klehm does in Chicago, taking the waste from 6,000 daily meals at the Pacific Garden Mission and, with a large worm composting operation, turning that waste into prized worm compost which is sold at a farmer’s market. The operation is staffed with homeless clients from the Mission. Waste is reduced, gardeners get compost, homeless people get work and everyone benefits.

Now let’s change these silly composting laws and get to work . . .

[Editors note--Tara had a correction to the LA Times story--she does not "dump" stuff in her compost pile, but skillfully and responsibly layers green and brown materials. You can take a compost class from her at the Norman Harrington / Franklin Hills Community Garden. More information at Silver Lake Farms.]