Blog: entries tagged with "environment"

Life in the valley

Evergreen, where I work in Communications, has now upped stakes and moved to a brand new office at Evergreen Brick Works.

Lower Don Trail

This is my new commute (via my preferred biking route, Beechwood Drive).

The Centre for Green Cities

And this is our new office, still under construction but taking shape fast.

A century ago the Don Valley Brick Works began churning out the bricks that built a good part of Toronto. After it shut down in the 1980s, the city and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority filled in the yawning open-pit clay quarry and eventually created a naturalized park in its place. The factory buildings, meanwhile, lay abandoned and became a magnet for urban explorers (try looking up “toronto brick works” on Google or Flickr).

Over the past few years Evergreen has been restoring the old buildings to create what we’re calling a “community environmental centre” – a place for urban-dwellers to get in touch with nature, as well as an event venue, a destination for schools and families and a hub for like-minded organizations. There’s art popping up all over the site: giant flowers bursting from windows, historic photos, diagrams from our patron saint scientist, geologist A.P. Coleman (1852-1939) – there’s even a sculpture of Coleman’s muddy boots.

Grand Opening is this weekend, with the ceremony and tours on Saturday, and a big Community Festival on Sunday. Be there!

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Running in the family

Willow Park Ecology Centre mapLots of funny little coincidences today.

I’ve been working at Evergreen for a few months now. Not long after joining, I stumbled across my father’s name on one of our pages, listed as a contact for the Field Botanists of Ontario. And today, in the big list of projects we’ve helped fund over the years, I found my mother’s name, in an image credit for a hand drawn map of Willow Park Ecology Centre in Norval, near where I grew up. (There’s a better, non-coloured version on the WPEC site.)

Evergreen Brick Works bus route mapThat also means both of us have done maps on our site (I did a bus route map a few weeks ago, partly as a change of pace from staring at HTML all day). A neat reminder of where I got a good deal of grounding in visual communication, not to mention my appreciation for the natural world. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Happy birthday to me.

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On returning

Desert near Zagora, Morocco I just spent a week in Morocco. Not somewhere I would have gone of my own accord, but for my partner it was something akin to a spiritual mission. And what an incredible, overwhelming, intense, emotional week it was - Sean likened it to gestalt therapy. (Some day I may even write about what we actually saw and did there!)

We’d planned the trip for quite a while, and as it turned out, it came at a moment of big change for us. About a week previously, Sean had made the decision to fold the little company where we’ve been working for the past few years. It’s been a tough time, getting everything in order, helping one another find new work, and finishing up a few last projects.

The biggest question: what next? For me, at least, the journey provided some time to think, and opportunity to contemplate our place in the grand scheme of things, from our vantage point on the edge of the Sahara.

The desert is a powerful symbol for me: it represents Death; the end of all things. It’s what happens to ecosystems when they go belly-up, when the soil dries up and blows away. And as we consume more, as the climate shifts, as more water is drawn up from the water table for irrigation, for the cities, as less snow falls every year on the Atlas Mountains to melt and feed the valleys below - our deserts grow.

It didn’t help matters that we’d flown across the Atlantic to get there, leaving high-altitude jet exhaust in our wake. I hate thinking about these things, but I can’t turn away. The coming decades are going to be hard ones for humanity. What we’ve got ahead of us is nothing short of a war effort - a war against chaos and collapse. I would rather not live to see half the species on the planet disappear. I would rather not live to see modern civilisation break down. I would rather not see haves and have-nots pitted against one another in a struggle over dwindling resources. But these are the possibilities we face, and I’d rather be doing something constructive than sitting in a hole pretending everything’s fine.

Far too much of our way of life has come at the cost of misery for other people and other creatures, and the destruction of ecosystems around the world. But at the same time, we’ve accomplished a lot that is great and meaningful, and I don’t believe the solution is to roll back the clock. I don’t believe that life in the past was better - merely less precarious on a grand scale.  We have to move forward, not back. We have to innovate like mad - not just mere technical innovations but ways to connect with each other and with the world around us, to find our place, to recognize the part we are playing, to find opportunities to make the world better.

The day after we got back, I spied a copy of GreenTOpia at Grassroots (very much awesome) and bought it on the spot. In the opening pages Pasha Malla writes:

What can you do? You can do what you can do. Can you type? Type something. Can you walk and talk? Walk around and talk to people. Can you use your Ph.D. in environmental science to test for and uncover the alarming release of polyvinyl chlorides from shoreline industry into the Great Lakes, then publish a report, coordinate a media campaign and pursue legal action based on your findings? Then by all means please do that, too. Ride a bike, write a letter, save a plant. We are not powerless against the They we’re up against.

It echoed perfectly what I’d been feeling (if in slightly more combative terms). I’ve decided, now that it’s transition time, that I want my next job to be in the sustainability sector, something involving permaculture, or appropriate technology. I need to be working with people who are thinking along the same lines.

I’m also hoping to have a lot more time to write and devote to creative projects, and to post more here. There’s already a section on this site called The Big Here which I intend to write for much more in the coming months. Ecology, both human and non-; architecture and design; how people relate to each other and how they adapt to different situations… it’s all part of a greater whole.

I feel like I’ve just awakened from a long sleep. I’ve got a lot of tangled underbrush to get through now, finishing up the last few projects before we close up shop, not to mention two gigs coming up. But already my head feels clearer.

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Bringing back the Don

Artist's conception of a renaturalized Don River mouth, from the MVVA proposal.Monday night I caught the presentations by the four design teams chosen as finalists in the TWRC competition to create a plan for the Lower Don Lands - the area west of the Don Roadway, between the railway yard north of the Gardiner and the shipping channel. All four presentations had some great elements, and some were downright inspiring. (It was a stark contrast to the city’s street-furniture tender, a shabby excercise that seems to get worse the more we hear about it.)

The mouth of the Don River was once the largest wetland on the Great Lakes, according to one of last night’s presentations. 19th-century development and industry reduced it to a cesspit, and engineers finally confined it to a narrow concrete-lined ditch to prevent floods and channel sewage straight into the lake. Goal one of the competition, therefore, was to renaturalize the river mouth - a task that most of them handled well.

Here’s a rundown of the four proposals:


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Naturellement c’est un concert

Naturally 7 on the MétroSpacing Wire points out this lovely “concert sauvage” by NYC a capella group Naturally 7, favouring bemused Parisian commuters with a rendition of “In The Air Tonight”. I’m reminded of my first visit to Manhattan a few years ago, when three guys wandered onto our train and started singing a couple of gospel numbers (“It’s gonna rain! It’s gonna rain. Or maybe snow…”) - I’m guessing there’s much more of a tradition of singing on the subway in New York?

Makes me want to do some busking this summer. It struck me, for example, strolling around during last year’s wonderful Nuit Blanche, that it’d be even cooler with street music…

I almost missed this one: Zunior recently released the Our Power Solar Music Compilation as an exclusive download album. It’s a fundraiser for solar power initiatives in Ontario, and has tracks by Sexsmith & Kerr, Steven Page, Snailhouse, Gord Downie and others.

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Incensed enough at the headline in today’s Globe (about Stephen Harper’s government seeking easements to the Kyoto accord, because, you know, it’s just so dang tough!) that I wrote a letter. Took far too long, mostly because I kept second-guessing myself every step of the way - I think I have to do this more often so it comes more naturally. And I dunno that it’ll do anything, not with Harper in and an Ayn Rand fan as federal environment minister (Christ, she’s chairing the UN Convention on Climate Change meeting next week), but I said my piece, and got it out of my system for a bit.

Meanwhile, here’s a worthy climate-aware project: The Eat Local Challenge. I do my best to buy food from Ontario, but it’s not always easy, especially in winter. When it comes to vegetables, there’s not a whole lot of choice in our supermarkets, it seems - sometimes it’s Mexican imports or nothin’. Hmm… maybe I should be writing to Loblaws and IGA next. And going to farmers’ markets too.

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Dan Gibson, nature sound recordist. He actually died over a month ago, but I hadn’t heard until now. When I was a kid, we had the very first Solitudes LP, back before his son talked him into adding music (a smart commercial move, I’ll grant you, but no thanks - I’d rather have just the sounds).

Jane Jacobs, author and champion of neighbourhoods and cities as vital entities. Her book The Death and Life Of Great American Cities spurred me to study urban planning (I discovered it, in turn, through Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn). (via Spacing Wire)

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get a grip, Glenn

Back on election day, 2003, I was delighted when Glenn De Baeremaeker won a seat on Toronto city council. An environmentalist who campaigned to save the Rouge Valley and the Oak Ridges Moraine, representing the heart of Scarborough — wonderful! Bit of a grandstander, but hey, that’s not always a bad thing.

It wasn’t quite so wondrous when I learned he’d voted against youth events being held at Scarborough City Centre after some kids had a bit of a scuffle there. But whatever. He was still on the right side most of the time. Right?

And then he became champion of the godawful ‘megabins’ - essentially six foot high billboards with a garbage and recycling bin squeezed awkwardly between them. Was he just so wowed by the fact that it had a slot for bottles and cans that he overlooked how annoying and poorly designed they are? Was there money involved, or what the heck?

Well, if we’re to believe the Spacing Wire kids, this latest news is one more nail in the coffin as far as I’m concerned. The man really really needs to be turfed this fall. I’d heard him referred to as the “class clown” before, but good flippin’ god. O.o

But I dunno. Maybe we do need a clown or two. Where would we be without Rob Ford to make fun of?

I also picked up a copy of the new book uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, and the new Fembots CD, The City... and I can’t help but notice a certain similarity between their cover art (here and here), though they’re done using totally different techniques. I’m enjoying them both.

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Recently Sean, Stephen and I visited Everdale, an organic farm/education centre near Erin, this side of Guelph. We may be doing some neat work on their web site, and part of the visit was to discuss that. Part of it was just to see the place, though…  which was quite thrilling.

We’d never seen a real straw-bale built building before, and they have several. The main one is Home Alive!, a cozy little two-story house with a well thought out heating and cooling system, a rainwater catchment system, plus photovoltaic and wind power, and radiant heating in the floors and bathtub(!) The thick walls give it a wonderfully snug feeling, and deep reveals for the windows… so much of it is straight out of Christopher Alexander and co.‘s A Pattern Language. The beams are made out of recycled timbers, for an extra rustic touch.

Floor planAnyway, that got us excited all over again about the idea of building. Sean’s started talking about building a small set of offices that could serve as an “incubator” for green businesses. Sean suggested a music studio too. I’m picturing a network of people to hang out with, a room for coffee and hanging out, perhaps a little quiet space for people to do yoga or nap… I still have reservations about moving out of town, but all these ideas have me a bit more optimistic about the prospect.

Of course, the more elaborate it gets, the more time and money it takes. So I’ve been wondering what sort of stages we could go through to build something. We could start by getting land with a conventional building on it and living there, or using it as a retreat.

The initial buildings could be little detached cabins, usable later if we decide to offer the place as a retreat… but simple enough that it’s not a catastrophe if there are some mistakes. We’ll learn as we go.

The office could grow piece by piece too: one room, with some tables and a comfortable couch, a desk. Then build a second section, this one with plumbing, a two-piece bathroom and kitchen. And keep growing from there. The third section might be two stories… and so on.

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Cottage life

Sean and I just got back this evening from spending a weekend with our officemates - the five of us trekked up to a cottage about three hours north of town, and hung out, ate lots, strolled around, had a bonfire, and talked big crazy talk about the company. They’re a cool bunch (two partners plus three freelancers, the latter including me), and I’m really glad we’re all working together.

I’m such a city kid now. I hadn’t been looking forward to the trip at all. But in all, it was a lovely time.

SketchesOn a little hike through the woods, it struck me that I’m especially fascinated with fungi, ferns, lichens, mosses… non-plants, proto-plants, primitive things. Things that can survive on bare rock. Beautiful things that grow out of dead trees. Things that might have around when the dinosaurs ruled. I was filled with glee when I found a boulder maybe the size of a chest freezer, which was covered in several sorts of moss and lichen, and a unique species of fern. Everywhere else, a more complex-looking fern had out-competed it, but this one had found a niche in the thin soil atop this rock.

And the fall leaves were quite gorgeous, too. As the years go by, I’m slowly starting to appreciate autumn.

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