Category Archives: Environment

Malaysia Welcomes Me!

Malaysia was as mysterious to me as Gaza is probably mysterious to many others.

I knew nothing about its history, geography, politics and people until I accepted an invitation to speak at the Freedom Film Festival. After a month in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Borneo in East Malaysia, I have a new appreciation for the value of travel. FFF

“Naila and the Uprising” was the perfect opportunity for me to prick the public’s conscience about the plight of the Palestinians. Naila and the Uprising (here’s a list of future screenings in the U.S.) is a true story about the role of women, and one woman in particular, who leads her people under very difficult circumstances with strength and moral courage.

My host – Viva Palestina Malaysia – arranged an interview with Juliet Jacobs on BFM Radio’s Feminist Fridays. What a treat that was! Juliet had obviously done her homework before I entered her studio. Our conversation about Gaza, the Freedom Film Festival and my interests in social justice advocacy flew by quickly.  Here’s the link to the interview.

The power of filmmaking to spur social change must not be underestimated. I didn’t fully appreciate that fact until I heard Joakim Demmer, an internationally-acclaimed documentary filmmaker, speak about how to bring a local story to an international audience. His most recent film “Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas” is about the new green gold, the massive global commercial rush for farmland, in this case in Ethiopia. My conscience was pricked.

“Hoping for export revenues, the Ethiopian government leases millions of hectares of allegedly unused land to foreign investors. But the dream of prosperity has a dark side – the most massive forced evictions in modern history, lost livelihoods of small farmers, harsh repression and a vicious spiral of violence. Contributing to this disaster are the EU, the World Bank and DFID, providing billions of dollars in development money.”

During a break at the festival, someone pressed a copy of (the just published) Sarawak Report into my hands. I couldn’t put it down! Investigative reporter, Clare Brown, uncovered massive corruption with a trail leading all the way up to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who was ousted from office just a few months before I arrived. The corruption involves the deforestation of Sarawak, Borneo on the east side of Malaysia, and a global money-laundering scheme worth USD Billions, with the U.S. now seeking extradition of an ex-Goldman banker from Malaysia.

Penang Hill view 4

From Kuala Lumpur, I took the train north to Penang Island near the border of Thailand. The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) by Tan Twan Eng had captured my imagination and I wanted to see for myself how this area had survived the Japanese invasion in WWII.

I learned about the delicate dance between the Chinese (about 60% of the population of Penang Island) and the Malays (32%). There’s a national law giving Malays preferential treatment over the Chinese in education, jobs, etc in an attempt to equalize the perceived inequities between the two groups.  I met some serious high school students at the public library quietly studying on a Saturday morning amidst displays promoting study abroad in the USA, including at my son’s alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The construction cranes were perched everywhere on Penang Island, a testament to the rapid growth and development occurring there. I met with representatives from Think City, a “community-focused urban regeneration organisation working closely with the local authorities, communities, institutions, private entities, and global experts to rejuvenate cities and solve contemporary urban issues with an emphasis on historic city centres.” I walked, walked, walked everywhere in the old center city of Georgetown and felt the energy of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In addition to the amazing hawker stalls selling an extravaganza of food with names I can’t begin to pronounce, I also tasted the infamous Durian, a native fruit with such a malodorous smell that hotels, airlines and public buses warn people not to bring the Durian inside!

On my last day in Georgetown, I was invited to attend a press conference where a local environmental group (Penang Forum) was challenging the environmental impact report prepared for the new highway proposed to cross the island. Astonishingly, no alternatives to this mega-project had been analyzed even though it appeared to have already received the stamp of approval from the authorities. I expressed my dismay and shared that an EIR with no alternatives wouldn’t pass muster in the United States. Of course, as the “expert,” my opinion made it into the local paper the next day.

During my last week, I decided to visit Bario, a community of 13 – 16 villages in the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak East Malaysia. I was drawn to Sarawak because of the book by the same title, but I was also blessed to have an introduction to a family in Bario by my hostess in Kuala Lumpur.  Bario arrivalI was routinely asked throughout my travels about my age and whether I was traveling alone, which must have struck many as very strange. I told everyone that I had angels with me everywhere I went. Flying into the remote Borneo highlands in a small plane full of men required no courage at all.

Bario farmer woman in rice field

The Kelabit are an indigenous people in the Borneo highlands whose agricultural practices and rice paddies are very much the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Their families live together in longhouses built above ground on stilts to avoid the flooding.

I learned that most Kelabit are Evangelical Christians. On Sunday I attended a long church service and sat next to an old Kelabit woman who asked me to pray for her (through an interpreter) because her husband died recently. She also asked me to send her a copy of the selfie we took. I was captivated with the youth group’s singing. Lora and friend

The next day I walked down the road to the school and asked if I could visit a classroom.  As luck would have it, many of the teachers in this secondary school were away attending a conference and I was enthusiastically welcomed to teach three classes (in English of course) that morning.  The students come from the surrounding villages and live at the school except for the holidays when they return home to their families.

I learned about their dreams and aspirations and was surprised how much they knew about the U.S. — both politics and popular culture. Some were shy, others were inquisitive, and all of them were very polite. Bario school students 2

After school, I walked to the public library near the school to donate my copy of The Sarawak Report. I was disappointed to see only children’s books on the shelves and asked the librarian why there were no adult books. She said the adults aren’t interested in the library, and only the children are patrons who come regularly with their classmates. It still seemed appropriate that The Sarawak Report should end up in the Bario public library.

Leaving Bario, I flew over Sarawak and saw the devastating impact of deforestation and introduction of palm oil plantations. It seems to me that the Kelabit have so much to teach the world about sustainable farming and living gently on the land in this era of climate chaos, but outside forces are rapidly overwhelming the landscape and the people, I fear.

Sarawak aerial view 5

The people I met, even more than the landscape and places I saw, were the highlight of my travel to Malaysia. Alhamdulillah!

3 Comments

Filed under Environment, Peaceful, People, Uncategorized

I think I can, I think I can

Day 1 Lora shadow

Lora’s shadow on the trail at the Grand Canyon

Life is about trying.

Easy or difficult, a smooth path or a journey strewn with obstacles, there are no guarantees. We must try or never know what could have been.

I first learned that lesson from my Grandfather when he drove my young sister and me up the hill to his house every Sunday for dinner, chanting “I think we can, I think we can!” as his old Buick inched up Pill Hill in Rochester, Minnesota. (We always made it to the top.)

Thirty years later, I learned that lesson from my Mother when she counseled me not to walk away from the Bar Exam in Albuquerque, NM after the first of three grueling days of testing. “You don’t know if you’ll pass,” she said, “but you certainly will know that you failed if you don’t try.” (I stayed and I passed!)

Now at 63, I learned that lesson once again. I hiked down and up the Grand Canyon, telling myself “I think I can, I think I can.” (I did, with the help of an angel.)

Reservations were made 13 months in advance for a bunkbed at the popular Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. At the time, I didn’t give it a second thought. As this adventure drew near, my hiking partner decided to cancel, and my doubts crept in.

Could I scale the 4,380-foot elevation drop from the rim to the bottom and back out? A sign on the South Kaibab trail warns hikers: “Hiking down is a choice; hiking back up is not optional.”

I enjoy walking city streets and flat paths, and I consider myself of average weight and fitness for a newly-minted senior citizen.

10504923_10204540030726655_4157503886049640483_o

Lila and Oma at the Grand Canyon 2014

I’ve been to the Grand Canyon many times, as a child and then again with my own children and, most recently, with my grandchild. The splendid sunset from the South Rim is incomparable anywhere else in the world, but never have I considered hiking down and up myself.

If I didn’t try now, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t get another chance.

I didn’t spend weeks or months preparing. Instead, I decided to crowdsource among friends on Facebook for ideas. Walking sticks to steady me, good hiking boots that were well-worn, a headlamp in case I was out on the trail after dark, moleskin for the inevitable blisters, an emergency blanket to keep me warm, a whistle if I fell and needed to summon help, and water. Carry plenty of water.

The night before my descent, I slept like a baby at the historic Bright Angel Lodge. I didn’t have butterflies or any second thoughts. “I can do this!”

Bright Angel Cabin where I stayed

Bright Angel Lodge – South Rim of the Grand Canyon

The next morning, the young man at the front desk told me about his experience “slipping and sliding” down the South Kaibab Trail — the trail I was set to embark on after breakfast!  The waitress who served me a hearty meal of eggs, hashbrowns and bacon at the Harvey House Cafe told me she had tried to hike down but turned around when she realized how difficult it was. She took the day off from waitressing the following day because her legs were still wobbly.  Both these young people were in their late 20s – early 30s. Uh oh!

I waited alone for the bus to take me to the trailhead, with the butterflies beginning to stir.  At 8:30 AM I checked my backpack one last time, clicked my walking sticks together, and started down the South Kaibab Trail.

Day 1 Lora beginning the hike down

Lora looking confident as she starts down the South Kaibab Trail

The day was sunny and the Grand Canyon looked just like every postcard I’ve ever seen – perfect!  The South Kaibab Trail (7.1 miles) was all down hill and appeared easy to negotiate. No problem!

Nearly everyone I passed on the trail asked me if I was hiking alone. Although my first step was taken solo, I never felt alone on the trail. There were people of all ages with me going in both directions; everyone watching out for each other.

Day 1 hikers 2

Hikers on the South Kaibab trail

My notion of a peaceful, meditative hike was promptly discarded when I realized the trail was narrow, rocky and dangerous in many spots. My full attention was needed for nearly every step of the way.

Months earlier a woman let her concentration slip for a moment, and it cost her, her life. She politely stepped aside for a hiker to pass her on a ledge, and she fell 300 feet to her death at Ooh Ahh Point.

Day 1 trail 7

The trail follows the path originally carved out by animals but it is certainly a miracle of human ingenuity and skill to maintain for hikers year round.

Since I was probably one of the slowest hikers, I was frequently stepping aside as hikers approached from either direction. I never forgot where the edge was, choosing to step to the inside when possible.

Day 1 mules

Everything that enters or leaves the Grand Canyon is carried by mule or horse on the same trails that hikers follow.

Day 1 half way downHalfway down the South Kaibab Trail, I was feeling strong and confident. When I saw this sign, I had no doubts that I would succeed. I certainly didn’t think about turning back and climbing out.

The temps rose as I continued down. First, I took off my outer shell, then took off my inner jacket and scarf, and I sipped my water.

I stopped to rest and ate a protein power bar for energy even though I wasn’t hungry. Someone mentioned that it’s important to eat when drinking water because too much water can throw a hiker’s electrolytes off kilter.

I learned so much from my fellow hikers. I was so thirsty!

A ranger approached me. He was hiking up as I was headed down. He called out to me “You must be Lora!” The women hikers I had shared some of the trail with earlier must have alerted him to my solo hike. He asked if I was OK. I told him I was thirsty and mistakenly thought that I could refill my 48 oz bottle along the way. Although there is potable water on the Bright Angel Trail, there’s none on the South Kaibab Trail.

He offered me some of his water but I refused, telling him that he must save it for his long hike up the trail. Imagine having to commute to work on the South Kaibab Trail! Thankfully, they don’t do it every day, but spend 4 or 5 days down in the bottom and 3 days up on top. You’ll never see overweight rangers or other Park Service employees at the Grand Canyon.  They get a lot of exercise!Day 1 Colorado River and the trail

The ranger convinced me that he regularly carries extra water and wouldn’t need it. In fact, it would “lighten his load” if I took some. So I did, and then told him I felt refreshed after taking a deep swig. He reassured me that Phantom Ranch wasn’t far beyond the Colorado River.

And then I saw it – the Colorado River.

It wasn’t much further, but distances can be deceiving!

I was tired but not hurting anywhere. My feet, legs and back all seemed to be working just fine.

The most arduous part of the hike down on that first day had been the strong winds. At one point, I had to stop in my tracks for a few minutes to brace against the wind; it was simply too strong to continue hiking.

I was very thankful for my walking sticks. They kept me upright the whole day. I passed athletes running in both directions (crazy people are everywhere) but I took it nice and slow and never lost my step going down.

 

Crossing the Colorado River in the late afternoon felt like a huge achievement, until I realized Phantom Ranch was somewhere beyond, not sure how much further. I was really tired. The National Park Service brochure estimates the hike down the South Kaibab Trail is 4-5 hours, but for me, it was 9-10 hours. Nevermind, it wasn’t a race and I was feeling really good.

Day 2 Bright Angel campground

Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Since I arrived later than everyone else, I had a top bunk in the cabin shared with 9 other women. We all sat around sharing stories of our day; fortunately they were all positive.

When I took my boots and socks off, I saw the blisters. The skin on the tip of one toe completely fell off. I thought it was strange that my feet didn’t hurt during the day. I didn’t feel any blisters forming, and they didn’t really hurt now.

Phantom Ranch dining hall

Main Mess Hall at Phantom Ranch

At dinner in the main mess hall, I sat next to the semi-retired attorney from Philadelphia with whom I’d shared part of the trail. She bought wine and beer for everyone in our group and then whispered to me that she was celebrating her 81st birthday. Further down the table, a girl (10- 12?) was also celebrating a birthday with her family. The staff brought out a birthday cake with candles, and we all sang “Happy Birthday”.

The stars in the sky that night were the brightest I’ve ever seen because it’s so dark at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When I climbed into my bunk, my legs were cramping with currents of electricity. I took some Tylenol and was out like a light before the cabin lights were turned off. The next morning, we heard the wake-up knock at 4:30 AM on our door announcing “5 AM breakfast”. It was still dark outside, and I wasn’t interested in eating at 5 AM!*!*!*!  So I stayed in bed while most of the other women got up and dressed magically without turning on the lights.

 

With my flashlight on, I followed the path to the main hall about 5:30 AM and waited outside with everyone else while staff checked to see if there had been any cancellations.  I wanted to spend a second night at Phantom Ranch but no such luck!

After breakfast, I headed out about 7:00 AM to climb the Bright Angel Trail, about 10 miles to the top. I’d been told the hike down on the South Kaibab Trail was more difficult because of the steep descent. My feet were ready, the blisters covered with moleskin.

Colorado River Day 2

Colorado River

The Colorado River mesmerized me that morning, I didn’t want to leave it. I stopped every few feet to take another photo with my phone/camera, and pretended I was one of the early indigenous peoples who saw this mighty river hundreds of years ago. There truly is a life force in nature – the Colorado River is my proof.

 

When I crossed it, knowing this is probably the last time I’ll ever see it so intimately, I said a quiet prayer of thanks.

Then the climb out began. It was another perfect day, with less wind and no aches or pains. I didn’t even feel my blisters. Strange!

Day 1 step by step
Step by step, I think I can, I think I can.

Honestly, the Bright Angel Trail is easier even though it’s a good cardiovascular workout. I wasn’t in a race, so I stopped and rested whenever I felt the need. My goal was to make it to the top before dark, before 6:30 PM.

 

 

There were streams to cross, and at one point I stopped because I thought I’d lost the trail. Many hikers passed me in both directions. I spent the day alone, but never alone … really.

Day 2 friend near Indian Garden

Everyone who passed had something positive to share with me, and words of encouragement. I don’t know whether I looked old and tired, but I certainly didn’t feel it. I met young people hiking rim to rim (IN A SINGLE DAY!) and others hiking for the pure pleasure of being in nature.  I saw riders on horseback, preferring blisters on their butts rather than their feet, I suppose.

The hours ticked on. About 1 PM, I realized I probably wouldn’t make it to the top before dark because I’d been following my progress on my map. Every switchback led me closer to my goal.

A friend had warned me not to look up, just look back down the trail I’d traversed. That was very good advice.

 

Day 2 horses again 2

Visitors riding up Bright Angel Trail on horses

Day 2 rim to rim athletes at 3 mile rest house

They hiked Rim to Rim in a single day

Then at about 3 miles from the top, my exhaustion set in.  I didn’t feel any pain, but I felt very, very tired.

Day 2 path to 3 mile rest houseThe trail gradient most of the day had been “manageable” for me, but as I got closer to the top, it became steeper and steeper, almost like climbing a difficult staircase without the stairs or railings.

I started moving slower and slower.

At sundown I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll be stuck on the trail tonight, maybe I can’t make it to the top.”

Then my grandfather’s message came to mind – “I think I can, I think I can.”

And I remembered my mother’s encouragement during my State Bar exam.  And I told myself, “step by step.”

A few moments later I saw a young woman (early 40s?) walking down the trail towards me. She looked so energetic and full of bounce.

She walked up to me and said, “I passed those guys ahead of you on the trail and they told me that you’re one bad ass lady!”  I didn’t know how to respond, I was too tired to speak. She asked me how I felt, and I told her I was tired. She said she was headed down the trail a bit to refill her bottle with water, but said she would carry my backpack for me when she returned.

Annette turned out to be the head housekeeper at the Bright Angel Lodge where she has worked for 20+ years. I’m sure she could have hiked the final 1.5 miles up the trail in less than an hour, but she stayed with me for the next 2 hours, shining her flashlight ahead on the trail. I wore my headlamp, and had a flashlight too. We walked slowly, step by step, talking about family, about our youth (her father was a florist and had 12 kids … they visited national parks in their stationwagon every summer). I tripped once, and had difficulty breathing. I frequently stopped to catch my breath. Annette never left my side. We finally reached the top about 8:00 PM —- thirteen hours, ten miles, and nearly 5,000 feet.

Annette was my angel. Maybe I could have climbed out on my own, probably in tears from exhaustion, but I know Annette’s conversation and encouragement made the final ascent memorable and safe for me. And no tears!  I’ll never forget her. My singular regret is that I never got her picture.

The next morning, I made a donation to the Grand Canyon Association in Annette’s name.  If you want the beauty of nature to be available for your children and grandchildren, I encourage you to consider making a donation too. I heard stories about shrinking federal funds for the Grand Canyon and our other federal lands. They are relying more heavily now on this nonprofit for basic research, trail maintenance and education.

Day 1 Lookout Studio Mary Colter

Mary Colter’s studio

 

9 Comments

Filed under Environment, Peaceful, Uncategorized

A Livable Gaza

At the International Making Cities Livable Conference in Rome, I presented a paper about how to make Gaza a livable community. Two colleagues in Gaza and I collaborated on this paper earlier this year. They were not present in Rome because Israel would not allow Yaser (an environmental engineer) to leave the Gaza Strip, and Italy rejected Eman’s (an architect) request for a Visa.

So with a heavy heart, I began the presentation by telling the audience about these travel restrictions and reminding them how privileged we are to travel and sit together to talk about building livable communities. My presentation included five lessons.

Lesson #1 – Include the people from the community in building a livable community.

I shared some brief facts about the Gaza Strip. It’s relatively small, only 139 square miles or about the size of Detroit or twice the size of Washington, DC., with a rapidly growing population of 1.8 million people in 2014 and a density about equal to Boston. Unlike Detroit and Boston however, the Gaza Strip has been isolated from the rest of the world for nearly 10 years.

Gaza Strip

Travel in and out of Gaza is very restricted. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to return for the past 2+ years. There’s a “youth bulge” in Gaza with 51% of the population under the age of 18.  There’s a high literacy rate (96% in 2011) and the majority of the youth speak 2 languages, if not more. But 85% of the 677 schools in the Gaza Strip are running double shifts, and some are running triple shifts.

Unemployment in the Gaza Strip was 44% in 2014. Food insecurity is high (80% of households receive assistance) and 39% live below the poverty line. OCHA estimates that roughly 20% of Gaza’s population need treatment for mental health conditions.

Lesson #2 – Communities are not on a level playing field; they begin the path towards a livable future from very different baselines. 

I shared some caveats (warnings) about our paper because many of the reviewers have told us our recommendations are good but won’t succeed until some preconditions are met, including the end of the blockade and occupation of Gaza. We agree, of course. We believe Israel’s occupation will end, either by design or by default, but we must not wait until that day comes.

Our recommendations for a Livable Gaza are premised on the belief that Palestinians can plan and prepare today for a Livable Gaza, absent any resolution of the serious political challenges that exist.

Lesson #3 — Don’t wait until every impediment has been removed to begin building a livable community.

Then I discussed our methodology. The Gaza Strip has been studied and examined by NGOs, by the United Nations, by sociologists, and a whole plethora of professional disciplines.  The focus of most of the research has been how to prioritize projects to sustain the population and repair the damage caused by nearly 10 years of a brutal economic, political and cultural siege, as well as 3 military assaults. My colleagues and I decided to filter this research through a new lens — Kate Raworth’s economic doughnut.

doughnut_full_white400x400

Raworth’s economic doughnut situates a livable community in a safe and just place between the planetary boundaries and the social boundaries.

The planetary boundary is the environmental ceiling which humans must not exceed in order to maintain earth’s life support systems.  That includes such things as climate change, freshwater use, chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, and land use changes. The social boundary is the bedrock of human rights which we must not fall below. That includes such things as food, water, jobs, health, energy, voice, education, etc.

Where is Gaza within the economic doughnut?

The Gaza Strip has exceeded the environmental ceiling: (1) climate change vulnerability – rising sea levels and significant warming, (2) freshwater use is just a memory (UN predicted the aquifer would be unusable by 2016 and irreversibly damaged by 2020), (3) land use change – military operations have flattened entire neighborhoods, buffer zone policies restrict agricultural production, (4) pollution – more than 100,000 cubic meters of raw sewage are dumped into the Mediterranean from Gaza every day. The Gaza Strip has fallen below the social foundation: (1) public health (2) education (3) energy (4) water (5) food (6) jobs (7) shelter (8) voice.

gaza-2020

Can a livable community be created from such a deficit?  Of course, the immediate needs must be addressed and met.  That is the focus of the international NGOs and many governments that are trying to keep the Gaza Strip functioning, but they are not focused on building a livable Gaza.  They are focused on survival.

Gaza Unsilenced

Yaser, Eman and I wrote about our potential vision for what a livable Gaza might look like, but I didn’t describe that during the presentation. I told the audience that the “process” of building a livable community is more important than our “vision”.

Lesson #4 – Process is more important than the vision or the goal.

The three biggest challenges to building a livable Gaza are:

  1. Lack of voice. A failure to hold elections in over a decade has neutered the Palestinians’ voice in a representative government in both the West Bank and Gaza. The donor community contributes to this problem. Even though donors oppose the occupation in principle, they are financing it; and they are indirectly implicated in a relation of domination that they were supposed to help dismantle. A Livable Gaza will empower the Palestinian to regain their personal agency and power.
  2. Lack of movement. The Israeli/Egyptian/US blockade and siege have resulted in Gaza’s de-development and political/economic/social strangulation. A Livable Gaza must have complete freedom of movement and this must be a top priority for both the international community and for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
  3. Finally, I mentioned the antiquated laws and regulatory framework. Palestinian legislation is extremely complex and contradictory, a hodge-podge of different traditions which lack coherency for the 21st century. Building a livable community will require a significant reform of the regulatory and legal framework in Palestine.

Picture4

There must be two tracks working simultaneously but separately towards building a livable community in Gaza.  One is already underway, and has been working for decades since the establishment of the State of Israel and the forced expulsion of many Palestinian refugees to Gaza in 1948.  This track includes 12 UN organizations, 36 international NGOs and 31 national NGOs working in the occupied Palestinian territories. They are monitoring the facts on the ground, distributing aid and resources, and financing development projects such as housing, schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure. The express purpose of these organizations is to keep Gaza from falling below Raworth’s social foundation, but they are failing miserably.

The second track must address the three biggest challenges, unencumbered by the planning and actions occurring on the first track.

COMMUNITY DISCUSSION

Picture5

RESOURCES                                                                       PLAN

Building a livable community requires the active support and engagement of community leaders; but in the absence of political engagement and leadership, it’s important to remember that there are many different types of leaders, unelected and elected, at all levels (household, neighborhood, associations, districts and on up.) Many actions can be undertaken today at the local level to build a livable Gaza, regardless of what’s going on in the political sphere. We believe it involves three key components.

The youth are at the center leading a broad community discussion, gathering the resources, and preparing the plan. The youth should be acknowledged as the change-agents for this process. Most came of age after the last election, have experienced multiple wars and tragedies, and many have never left the Gaza Strip. The future belongs to them and to their children.

Lesson #5 – Recommendations must be sensitive to the challenges.

Our current concern for a livable community needs to be replaced with a new and broader concern for ‘environmental sustainability and justice’ in Arabic – ءدل

Justice is the cornerstone for good governance and a sustainable community. The Gaza Strip could be the turn-around example that shows the world by example, how to transition from the brink of collapse to a safe and just place for all life.

Please send me an email to request a copy of our paper.   LoraLucero3@gmail.com

 

5 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Economic Development, Environment, Gaza, People, Uncategorized

Sustainable, Healthy, Just Cities and Settlements (IMCL conference)

The International Making Cities Livable Conference in Rome spanned 4 days and was chock full of ideas, information and energy. I met people from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Turkey, England, Ireland, India, Slovakia …… and even someone from north of the Arctic Circle. Really!

There’s certainly a yearning for this type of information, but I wish there had been 3 or 4 times the attendance.

I summarized Day #1 here.  Here are a few of the key take-away messages for me from the rest of the conference:

A livable city must work well for children. Children don’t have the same opportunities to play, socialize and recreate as I did when growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s. Lamine Mahdjoubi from Bristol, UK pointed out how children have vanished from the public realm, living lives of isolation at home in front of their computers and TV. The children in the Mediterranean countries are particularly suffering from obesity because of this rise in sedentary lifestyles.

IMG_4638

Mayor James Brainard, City of Carmel, Indiana

A strong, healthy town knows how to leverage public-private partnerships. Mayor Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, USA, explained that when he ran for election, he knocked on many doors to ask people in the community what they wanted. When he synthesized all of their comments down, he realized they were all wishing for a livable community. So he’s succeeded in creating the Carmel Arts & Design District where he’s leveraged public-private partnerships to implement many of the design principles we know make livable communities. He shared amazing before-and-after photos, explaining how tax increment financing (TIFs) have succeeded in putting much of the parking underground. He’s a firm believer in the use of round-abouts too, so much so that the local newspaper made a cartoon of him. IMG_4639Carmel has added 187 miles of bike trails in the city, and between 14,000-15,000 people use them every day. Wow!  I was thinking of Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns as I listened to the Mayor.

Old people and the youth are the indicator species for a livable community. If it works for them, it works for everyone. I didn’t know much about the age-friendly movement, but was pleased to hear a panel discussion about it on Wednesday. Phillip Stafford from Bloomington, IN, USA shared some depressing statistics about our aging population in the US, and noted that our market economy has commodified old age. The disastrous planning of the past few decades, along with unbridled capitalism (the market economy), have actually put most of the aging population in homogeneous sprawling suburbs where they’re stuck, isolated and can’t remain independent. However, there’s a glimmer of hope with a recent APA publication on the topic.

Stafford recommends we focus on collaborative consumption where the aging population has many assets to share including: time, talent, and treasure. By treasure, he wasn’t suggesting their pocketbooks, but rather their community gardens, house share, tool share, car share. How do we make these shareable assets known and connected with others?

IMG_4692

Maxim Atayants, St. Petersburg, Russia

An architect from St. Petersburg, Russia discussed how to create a new classical urban fabric by sharing some of the projects he has worked on. In 1984, I visited St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Moscow, Alma Ata and Tashkent and recall the Soviet-era buildings that were such monstrosities. Retrofitting those ugly utilitarian blocks will require new ideas, and new architects, such as Maxim Atayants. What impressed me as much as his design ideas, was his talent as an artist and his obvious passion for his work. I Googled him and found some of his sketches here.

IMG_4688

Stefano Serafini, Italy

“Urban designers and architects are a big problem … creating machine-like cities, computer-like cities, Internet-like cities.” Stefano Serafini, a philosopher and psychologist, challenged us (me?) to think outside of our design silos about our communities. I found this interdiscplinary presentation was one of the strengths of the conference, but I’ll have to read some of his ideas here to try to grasp what biourbanism is all about. Honestly, alot of it was over my head.

I was very pleased that he referenced the work of my friend from Albuquerque, architect and planner Besim Hakim.

Besim’s book — Mediterranean Urbanism “brings together historic urban/building rules and codes for the geographic areas including Greece, Italy, and Spain. The author achieved his ambitious goal of finding pertinent rules and codes that were followed in previous societies for the processes that formed the built environment of their towns and cities, including building activities at the neighborhood level and the decision-making process that took place between proximate neighbors.”

Human health and the built environment — go hand in hand. I thought about the environmental engineers I’ve met in Gaza. Mariano Bizzarri from Rome shared alot of statistics showing the links between the built environment and health. It was all a bit overwhelming for me to absorb, but I hope to learn more about this topic if his paper is posted on the conference website. The bottomline is that we easily understand the relationship between the natural environment and human health & disease. There’s a direct corrollary between smog and air pollution and breathing problems. However, now there is more research being published about the impacts of the built environment and human health.

IMG_4685The most alarming fact shared at the conference came from Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation.  “At the current pace of development, we will build more urban fabric in the next 50 years than we have built in all of history.” OMG!  

Clearly, we’re doing a lousy job of building livable communities now. At this pace, do we have time to unlearn the bad lessons, repair the damage, and move forward on a better path? The Habitat III conference will be in Quito, Ecuador in October this year. “Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. I’m going to learn more about that and see if there’s an opportunity to participate.

Mehaffy talked about the need to change our models of global development, change the tools we use in this process, and also change the rules. What we’re building today is functionally segregated and resource inefficienct — the “crack cocaine” of economic development is the origin of sprawl. He mentioned the work of Christopher Alexander and The City is Not a Tree. I didn’t really understand it until I found this pdf.

IMG_4728

A selfie with my team working on the last day of the conference to distill some principles of sustainable, healthy, just cities and communities.

Many of the points Mehaffy made (rather, all of his points) resonated with me from my education and experience as a city planner, a land use lawyer, and an observer of urban life and politics. I’ve been talking for years about the professional silos and group think that pervades the planning and urban design professions. Mehaffy was speaking rapidly, and every point he made deserved some thoughtful elaboration. He ended by saying there’s no need for cynicism and despair that only serve the powerful. “We” need to take the power.

Yes! I want to be on his team.

(Caveat: There were other presenters who contributed dynamite presentations. My head is still swimming. I hope the conference organizers will share everyone’s papers and powerpoint presentations.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate Change, Economic Development, Environment, People, Uncategorized

IMCL conference day #1

Rome is an excellent location for an international conference about making cities livable. If my first impressions are any clue, this city has a mixture of both what works and what doesn’t (yet) work as a livable city.

IMG_4487

Rome, Italy

On the positive side, I count the historical buildings, monuments and architecture, along with the great public transportation, delicious food, and very kind people. On the other hand, the graffiti is a big distraction (it’s on every surface visible to spray paint). The homeless sleeping under the bridges, and the urban poor are clear reminders of the inequities that exist. I rode a city bus to the end of the line on the far west side of Rome and saw poor neighborhoods that most tourists won’t see.

An Italian architect who helped make the local arrangements for this conference lamented that his colleagues didn’t even bother to show up. “They could learn so much from IMCL speakers,” he said, “but instead we [architects] are making life worse and worse in our cities.”

The four days are jam-packed with presentations. Participants (I’m guessing 100+) are a mix of architects, urban designers, planners, policy folks and elected officials from around the world, and the venue (Pontificia Universita Urbaniana, Vatican City) is well-equipped for the program.

I presented a paper about Gaza on the first day (more in a future blog post) but my two colleagues from Gaza are not here. Israel wouldn’t allow Yaser to leave the Gaza Strip, and Italy wouldn’t give Eman a Visa to enter the country. (More here about the travel restrictions.)IMG_4555

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, IMCL Co-Founder and Director, opened the conference with words that easily resonated with me about what’s wrong with our city-building today. There are two competing value systems at work, she said. The first is based on GDP, where the city is seen as an economic engine, and its function is to fuel growth and raise the standard of living; while the second is based on the Quality of Life. In this model, the function of the city is the “care and culture” (Lewis Mumford) of people and of the earth.

Some of the highlights from her presentation:  Extreme capitalism creates a consumer society where we find hundreds of ghost cities in China; vertical sprawl in cities like Hong Kong (the least affordable housing in the world); and New York City with its “safe deposit boxes in the sky” (investors are stashing their $$ in high-rises, seen as good investments). In Tokyo’s housing, there are high levels of hikikomori — people who suffer from severe social withdrawal. Some estimate there are more than 700,000 hikikomori in Japan. Teenagers will not leave their bedrooms for days, weeks, even months at a time while their meals are left on trays outside their door. High-rise living can be detrimental to physical and mental health, and we see higher rates of obesity and related chronic diseases. Paris has a population of 20,000 people per square kilometer in 6 stories, but now is considering adding high-rises to its skyline.

Suzanne summarized the IMCL Principles of TRUE URBANISM: (as opposed to new urbanism?)

  1. Facilitate community social life. Key to achieving a high quality of life for all is the way we treat the public realm. The most essential task is to make it possible for people to come together, to form friendships and face-to-face social networks, and to develop social capital and community, but we seem focused on over-investment in private property and under-investment in the public realm.
  2. Facilitate contact with nature, including nature everywhere in our cities, and make nature accessible to children. My ears perked up when Suzanne mentioned community gardens. I wish my defunct community garden in Albuquerque was growing and active.
  3. Facilitate independent mobility. We must focus on balanced transportation planning that first prioritizes walking, second on biking, third on public transit, and lastly on the car. Living streets (“Wohnstrasse” designated by the international blue sign) have been traffic calmed and are safe for children and elders.
  4. A hospitable built environment that frames social life. Human-scale and mixed use environment instead of the mono-culture zoning districts in the U.S. which divide uses.

“Profit is privatized

Loss is socialized”

IMG_4561

Richard Jackson (r) and Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard (l)

 

Richard Jackson, a physician and professor of environmental sciences at UCLA, shared some provocative thoughts when he asked “will we merit gratitude from our grandchildren?” Dr. Jackson says the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has been right about everything it has projected for the past 20 years with the exception of one thing.  The pace of change is occurring much faster than the IPCC experts thought it would. He used many of the same climate change slides that I have used when I talk about climate change —- but one stood out for me.  The IMF tells us that the fossil fuels industry is subsidized to the tune of $10 million/minute!! Estimate of $5.3 TRILLION for fossil fuels, much greater than our total expenditures for healthcare.  (At that point, my blood pressure was rising.)  He said there are 20 Attorney Generals in the U.S. filing a lawsuit against Exxon, similar to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

Are we guilty of child abuse?  Maybe, but certainly we are guilty of child neglect by our acts of omission — our failure to protect our children and grandchildren from the ravages of climate change, and subjecting them to a life of inactivity, in large part by the way we’ve built our cities.  There’s a lot of research out about the impacts of the built environment on our children’s health. I’m going to look for the May 2016 JAMA issue when I return home. Finally, Dr. Jackson mentioned British Columbia’s carbon tax which has dropped carbon use by 16%.  It’s working and others should follow their example.

Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, Pontificia Universita San Tommaso, Vatican City, addressed how the Pope’s Laudato Si relates to city planning.  I read the Laudato Si last summer when it was released, see here. Father Crosthwaite said The Holy See was shocked with the impact of the Laudato Si, especially among non-Christians. A number of good questions followed his presentation. Someone observed that the church hierarchy has been slow to teach and speak about the Laudato Si, another thought the Vatican needs a good marketing campaign to spread the word. Father Crosthwaite acknowledged that a lot more needs to be done and applauded the laity for taking the leadership around the world. The “structures of sin” didn’t come from outer space, they came from each of us as individuals, and so we need to do this both as a community and as individuals. Key for the Pope is “dialogue.” The Vatican city-state is now carbon neutral. They bought a forest to offset the carbon use within the Vatican as well as transitioning to solar energy. The Vatican also works closely with the United Nations, influences the meetings and discussions about climate change.

Richard Economakis, architect and professor at the School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame, shared a presentation entitled “Streets of Hope: Outlining an Urban, Environmentally Responsible Approach to Housing EU Asylum-Seekers”. I want to visit some of the refugee camps on the Greek Islands and was keenly interested in how Richard proposed to meet the challenges presented by this “migration of biblical proportions”. He mentioned that IKEA is producing housing for refugees using PVC components, non-degradable materials and designed to last 2 years. The Swiss government rejected IKEA’s housing as a fire safety hazard.

Professor Economakis stressed the “principle of repurposability” – meaning that designing and building human settlements for the refugees should consider the future reuse or repurpose of the structures once the refugees have moved on. Richard and eight of his graduate students prepared a Master Plan for the creation of temporary Refugee Villages to serve as processing centers for the refugees seeking asylum in the EU. He was kind enough to give me a copy. I hope I can find a way to send it to my colleagues in Gaza.

Statement of Intent

Let us build modest homes to serve as temporary shelters for the dispossessed in those ports and towns of their arrival. We must do so responsibly, using natural materials which have no carbon footprint, and in such a way that buildings can easily be torn down when they cease to be useful, without significantly impacting the environment – or else they should be able to stand for generations. Let us arrange the houses to form real communities of hope, villages that dignify the waves of tired men, women and children while they wait for their asylum requests to be processed. When the crisis abates and the refuges have moved on to new places and new lives, these towns may serve the hosting nations by being converted into affordable neighborhoods, academic villages or resorts.

Are there ideas here that might be applicable to the Gaza Strip?  I think so.

IMG_4587

2 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Gaza, People, Spiritual - Religion, Uncategorized

Gaza in the Doughnut

Government leaders, a number of international NGOs, activists of all different stripes, and many more have been scratching their heads to figure out how to help Palestine and the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Some focus on the politics vis-à-vis Israel, others focus on the economics (jobs, imports, exports), while others are trying to address the social challenges (such as food and shelter). Many of my friends focus on the deteriorating environmental conditions.

The typical response or solution I hear most often from Western politicians and the mainstream media is — “Address the security needs of Israel first and, miraculously, the remaining challenges will be solved.”

With all due respect, they have it backwards. Completely backwards.

No one will live in peace and security until everyone has the basic social foundation for life. No one will have a truly sustainable future until we live within our planetary boundaries.

Israelis may think they can avoid the consequences by building a large “security wall” but that is very short-sighted and they’re only condemning themselves to a future of growing insecurity and instability.

Kate Raworth’s doughnut captures my point. Or, more honestly, my thinking was directly influenced by her doughnut of social and planetary boundaries.

Watch her TedTalk and let me know if you agree. I’d like to hear some feedback.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Economic Development, Environment, Gaza, Israel, People, Video

CIP for Gaza reconstruction

My city planner friends will appreciate this.

Almost every community in the USA has prepared a CIP (capital improvements plan). In the “old days,” the CIP was merely a wish list of infrastructure that the municipality hoped the state or others might pay for —- like water & sewer pipes, roads, sidewalks, parks, and other things that might be considered a “public improvement.” Planners and engineers typically put their two-cents into the preparation of the CIP, and sometimes they actually consulted the community’s master plan for development.

The CIP evolved into a budget process. How much would the city need next year? in five years? and even 10 years into the future to pay for all of the infrastructure it anticipated it would need, and to repair the old pipes and roads? Most cities found it much more tempting to build new infrastructure sprawling out to the suburbs, rather than repairing any deficiencies in the existing system. Now they’re beginning to pay the piper.

The biggest challenge any American planner might have had in preparing the CIP was collecting all of the estimates (how many new wells or pipes? and how much would it cost?)

getting water in Shujaya 2

Gaza – August 2014 credit – Denny Cormier

Planners in Gaza just completed their CIPs and the documents would look very familiar to any American planner, take a look here and here and here — but there are a few big differences.

  • There was a military assault on the Gaza Strip this summer which lasted for 51 days. Imagine the damage that was done during that time.
  • The sole power generating plant was bombed by Israel. Imagine trying to run pumping stations, sewage treatment plants, wells, hospitals, and anything else that requires power when there’s no power.
  • Israel monitors (approves and denies) everything that goes into the Gaza Strip. Imagine if your CIP depended on your neighboring community to provide the material and equipment for implementation.
  • Israel periodically shells the Gaza Strip (no place is safe) and destroys what was recently repaired. There have been three major assaults in the past 7 years. Imagine if the city council and state legislature issued G-O bonds for your infrastructure projects with a 10-15-20 year repayment schedule, but the project was destroyed in 3 years.

Really, there is no comparison. None at all.

Shujaya 6

Gaza in August 2014 – credit Denny Cormier

Preliminary findings from some communities interviewed during the assessment include the important information that water services which are being delivered by municipalities are not always reaching the affected communities despite the best efforts. This is most likely due to hidden damages and frequent power cuts interrupting network pressure. For instance, in the Ash Shuja’iyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, one carrier line that was not classified as damaged was found filled with mud and debris on Tuesday. Although water was being pumped into the system, households along the street were not receiving any water. Other areas of Ash Shuja’iyeh were reported to only receiving water on alternating days for 1-3 hours, although the service providers were pumping water into the network daily for up to 8 hours.

Shujaya 5

Gaza in August 2014 – credit Denny Cormier

Planners and engineers in the USA don’t have much experience preparing CIPs in war-time or for communities under occupation and a long-term siege, like the Gaza Strip. Can you imagine ever writing the following in one of your CIPs?  “Thanks and appreciations are forwarded to the technical teams who have risked their lives to maintain some of the serious damages and had kept to the extent possible the operation of some facilities during the war.”

I don’t know any city employees or public works officials who have been asked to risk their lives to repair a broken water main while under shelling and missile strikes. Several engineers lost their lives in Gaza this summer when they ventured out to fix busted water pipes in critical areas of the community and were shot and killed by the Israeli military.

Water resources and water supply in the Gaza Strip: The majority of water is pumped from 205 groundwater wells (tube wells) that tap into the Gaza underlying aquifer. Only a small amount of water is imported from Mekorot. Due to the deterioration of the aquifer, the water from the municipal network is not potable because it is too saline. Therefore potable water (i.e. water for drinking) has to be supplied separately. In areas where CMWU has already constructed desalination plants, the water is ‘blended’ with the saline groundwater and then becomes potable. However, in all other areas, potable water is produced by the private sector and is supplied by water rucking. The fact that this water trucking depends on an unregulated private sector has led to major problems in emergency response. An Emergency Water Tankering Working Group, led by the Palestinian Water Authority has been established and PWA drafted a “Quality Standards for Drinking Water in Emergencies” tip sheet. This will help regulate the distribution process and control the prices.

Figure 1: Gaza Strip blockade. Source: UN OCHA

Figure 1: Gaza Strip blockade. Source: UN OCHA

Any rational response to the CIPs prepared by the planners and engineers in the Gaza Strip in August 2014 would be:

  1. Demand that Israel lift the siege.
  2. Demand that Israel absorb the costs of rebuilding and reconstruction. (“You broke it, you fix it.”)
  3. Demand that Israel abide by international law and the 4th Geneva Convention which prohibits collective punishment.

How will donors, meeting next week in Cairo, respond?

  1. How much $$ do you need?
  2. Whose palms do we need to grease before the equipment and materials will be allowed to enter Gaza?
  3. How can we benefit our well-meaning NGOs and donors — their contractors and agencies — in this process?

And the voices of Palestinians in Gaza will not be heard or considered. Forget about an open and transparent public process.

Photo 1: Water crisis in Gaza Strip, Palestinian Childs packaged drinking water from a UNRWA school due to the interruption of water from their homes during the recent war in July-August 2014.

Photo 1: Water crisis in Gaza Strip, Palestinian Childs packaged drinking water from a UNRWA school due to the interruption of water from their homes during the recent war in July-August 2014.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Environment, Gaza, Occupation, Uncategorized