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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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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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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feels like 1973 all over again

My faith in this city has been restored. David Miller’s the new mayor. On balance, the changes to council look good: Glen de Baeremaeker is in in Scarborough (diss Scarberia all you like - I’ll take it over Etobicoke any day) and most of the other new faces are promising. And now we’ll have an actual leader at the helm - and not a vile embarrassment of a furniture salesman elected on name recognition and blabbermouthedness alone who knows jack about the city and no longer even gives a crap about his job.

Out in the 905, things aren’t quite so pretty: same old suburban developer-sponsored louts, for the most part. In Hamilton, the new mayor backs the Red Hill Valley Expressway. Construction is underway, so short of a minor miracle (say, new provincial premier Dalton McGuinty pulling a Bill Davis), things don’t look too good on that front.

Beyond that, a federal election is looming, and I think Chretien’s slow-motion retirement might have pissed off people in sufficient numbers that a right-wing landslide is conceivable (if the Conservatives and Alliance do indeed manage to unite).

But for now, I am optimistic and highly relieved.

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Rivers and rebirth

Read in the Star the other day: there’s a hidden river flowing through a good stretch of southern Ontario, way below the surface. Not too long ago, they found out where it comes out, somewhere under High Park (very roughly, our equivalent of Central Park). I love stories like that - the idea that there’s all sorts of stuff we still don’t know about, like buried rivers and tiny 500-year-old cedar trees and squid the size of houses.

I’ve noticed that in any animated film, one sure way to get me crying is to show a bleak landscape suddenly suffused by some elemental Power and come bursting to life: happens in Yellow Submarine, Princess Mononoke, the Firebird piece from Fantasia 2000, even that silly Lemonjelly video. There’s something about that symbolism that really nails me deep down: the idea of rebirth, of the world healing itself, of the power of Nature to regenerate.

I’ve seen pictures of the bleak, rocky landscape where I grew up (near the mining town of Sudbury, where according to Canadian urban legend the Apollo astronauts trained because of its similarity to the moon) turning into pine forest again, and it brought a smile to my face. So did word that parts of the Ukraine and Belarus, uninhabited by humans since the Chernobyl accident, have become refuges for wildlife. And I’m realizing that principle - that life keeps coming back, if only we quit messing with it and let it happen - is essentially how I conceive of God or the divine. It was that force that some in Hiroshima and Nagasaki feared was dead after the atom bombs fell. It says - even if we screw up utterly, there is hope; something new and wonderful will arise in time.

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