Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Lessons of the Great Beaufort Skedaddle

View of Beaufort, SC, Dec 1861
The American Civil War can be viewed through many lenses, but a perspective rarely employed is that of the South's refusal to make what was essentially an energy transition--from slave labor to nascent fossil fuels. A small, moneyed elite, who made most of the economic and political decisions for the region, feared loss of wealth. If an orderly transition away from slavery, say over twenty years, had been negotiated between the North and the South, with a gradual introduction of Constitutional rights for former slaves, the great wealth of the antebellum South would undoubtedly have diminished, but much would have remained. Instead, half a million Americans died in war, and the entire South, black and white alike, experienced violence, hunger, and massive destruction of property and infrastructure, to be followed by a hundred years of grinding poverty, during which many of the worst abuses of slavery--racism, segregation, confinement of blacks to the lowest economic strata, black disqualification from voting, and white control of the black population through violence--remained intact. (The decade of Reconstruction was only a partial respite.) Even today, seven of the ten poorest states in the nation are former Confederate states. 

Sometimes history plods along slowly. Sometimes it turns on a dime. On the 157th anniversary of the Great Beaufort Skedaddle, it's worth remembering that sometimes doubling down on one's way of life brings about catastrophe from which there is no recovery.

They were at church when the word came. In the pews of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina, master and slave alike heard that an enormous Yankee fleet was massing off Point Royal Sound a mere ten miles away. If Confederate defenses didn’t hold, the town would have to evacuate in a matter of hours. It was time to pack and to pray.

Beaufort antebellum charm
In 1861, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest, most cultured cities in America. The town boasted not only a library of three thousand volumes but also some of the most erudite, educated men in the South. Having built their elegant Greek Revival mansions with ballrooms, chandeliers and two-story piazzas, planter families gathered here each summer to escape the heat and ague of their Sea Island plantations, as well as socialize and talk politics.  Secession politics. For more than a dozen years cries for secession had risen from Beaufort, much of them led by its native son, rabble-rousing, fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, remembered as the “Father of Secession.”

The Confederacy knew full well that Port Royal might be a target for a Northern base, but they couldn’t be sure other sites weren’t also in the running and so were somewhat lackadaisical in establishing defenses for Port Royal Sound. During the summer of 1861, local plantations reluctantly provided slaves to begin construction of two forts to guard the Sound’s entrance: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. But not only were the forts still incomplete by November, the artillery installed fell far short of what was originally proposed and even farther short of what was needed when the Yankees came calling.

Plans had been underway in the North to take a Southern port since early summer, with Lincoln himself involved in the selection. After all, to implement the “Anaconda Plan”—a tight blockade of the Southern coastline intended to cripple the Confederate economy—U.S. Navy warships needed a place to refuel with the coal that gave them power. Port Royal was one of the choicest deepwater ports on the Southern coast. That a massive Northern fleet was poised to sail was common knowledge to anyone who could read a newspaper once The New York Times published the details in the article, “The Great Naval Expedition,” on October 26th. The only unknown was the destination, a secret that, remarkably, was successfully kept.  It wasn’t until they were at sea that the captain of each vessel opened a sealed envelope telling him where his ship was headed.

The Great Naval Expedition en route
The fleet that set out on Oct 29th would prove to be the largest U.S. naval and amphibious expedition in the entire nineteenth century.  It included 17 warships, 25 colliers, 33 transports, 12,000 infantry, 600 marines, and 157 big guns. Port Royal, with its two cobbled-together forts supplied with only 2500 men, 4 gunboats, and 39 guns between them, didn’t stand a chance.

Bombardment of Port Royal
Nature came to the South’s aid in the form of a storm that sank some of the Northern fleet along the way, and then rough water delayed the day of the final attack. But when November 7th dawned clear and calm, the water so still it was glassy, enough of the North’s warships were available to commence battle. Union ships concentrated their enfilade on Fort Walker. To the soldiers inside, the sound of artillery was deafening. By noon, only three of Fort Walker’s water battery guns were still operational; by 2:30 p.m., all powder was gone. The time had come to abandon the fort. The command at Fort Beauregard, concerned about being trapped on Phillips Island with no line of retreat, quickly followed suit. Thankfully, casualties on both sides were light. Accounts vary, but the Confederates finished the day with between 11 and 59 killed and an equivalent number wounded or missing, while the Union fleet saw 8 dead and 23 wounded.

Even with the enormous attacking naval force, Sea Island planters had been so confident in the defending forts manned with recruits from their very own Beaufort Volunteer Artillery that many watched the battle from shore on nearby Saint Helena Island. But when Confederate cannons grew silent and cheers reverberated from the Northern ships, they knew something had gone dreadfully wrong. They hurried home to evacuate, no doubt pained to leave bolls of valuable Sea Island cotton still unpicked in the fields.

When news of the battle’s outcome reached Beaufort, a kind of panic ensued. Facing an invading army of Yankees was too dreadful to contemplate; flight was of the essence. But what to take, what to leave behind? The daguerreotypes? The silver? Of course the family bible must be packed. Some loaded up carriages, hoping to stay ahead of the Yankees on the long overland route to safety. But Beaufort was lucky that day—there was a steamer anchored in the river that could take hundreds swiftly to Charleston. However, it had only so much room. Furniture, clothing, horses, and the vast majority of their most valuable property—slaves—would have to be left behind. In the tumult, even food and dinner dishes were abandoned on dining room tables, testament to the haste involved. That evening the steamer departed overflowing with Beaufort’s white citizenry along with every jewel and sentimental item they could squeeze on board. Legend has it that when Yankee forces arrived two days later to occupy the town, they found just one white man remaining in Beaufort, and he was dead drunk.

What must the deserted slaves, who spoke Gullah, their own Sea Island patois, have thought as the laden steamer chugged away from Beaufort’s dock? Did they realize that history had unexpectedly turned a corner right in front of them, and that now, after centuries of captivity as a people, they were suddenly free? Perhaps the political ramifications didn’t sink in that night, but before the first Yankees arrived, clothing and other finery had been looted (liberated?) from the grand homes, and food and liquor thoroughly consumed in an understandable celebration of events. 

Five generations now free (1862)
It is estimated 8-10,000 slaves were left behind in the Sea Islands when the white population fled. They were soon joined by thousands of others who escaped to the region once they realized that Northern occupation meant freedom.  They all needed food and shelter, and since the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to happen, their legal status, beyond being “contraband,” was unclear. The Army asked for help and received it in the form of the Port Royal Experiment. Financed and organized by Northern abolitionist charities, the Experiment worked as a test case to create self-sufficiency among the former slaves. Its success points to what Reconstruction might have been if less corruption and more competence had been at its helm.  Northern missionaries and teachers flocked to the Sea Islands to create schools and aid societies. Former slaves were allowed to farm the confiscated plantations and were paid $1 per 400 lbs of cotton they were able to harvest.  The Penn School on St. Helena Island was one of the earliest schools established for freed slaves and can be visited as part of the Penn Center today.

Yankees at home on a Beaufort piazza (1862)
The Union Army found Beaufort a pleasant setting for officer’s quarters, administrative offices and hospitals.  Because the Army occupied Beaufort until the end of the war, the fine mansions, while suffering damage, were not burned to the ground like so many other Southern towns and surrounding Sea Island plantations. To this day Beaufort’s centuries-old live oaks and antebellum charm remain. Port Royal turned out to be as advantageous a harbor as the Union had hoped and did much to strengthen the potency of the blockade. After the war, most planter families—their sons dead, their plantations burnt, their Beaufort homes sold in government auctions for back taxes (often without their knowledge)—never returned. The civilization that was antebellum Beaufort vanished into the night with that last steamer.

It is rare that the wheel of fortune spins as violently as it did on November 7, 1861. The town that had advocated so fiercely for secession was the first to feel the brunt of an occupying army. A people remarkable for their wealth lost almost everything in a matter of hours. A region that so defiantly insisted that its way of life—slavery—was non-negotiable ended up being the first to have a colony of former slaves experiment with what it meant to be free. The Great Skedaddle indeed.

Beaufort 1849 is a novel by Karen Lynn Allen set in Beaufort, South Carolina, at a point when the Civil War might still have been avoided.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Come Plog With Me. (Yes, Litter Matters. A Lot.)

Results of island plogging
Plogging, or picking up litter while jogging, is a new fad created by the Swedes. One might think the Swedes are a tidy enough lot that litter wouldn’t be a concern, but after watching videos of bags of trash collected by enthusiastic Swedish joggers, I guess the craze has utilitarian benefits even there.

I started plogging a few months back on my morning runs in San Francisco. I’d been sweeping the sidewalk and picking up all litter in front of my house (and three of my neighbors’ houses) for some time. Devoting one morning run a week to plogging meant I extended my caretaking to five kilometers. And boy have I collected trash. It was so bad at first that I ignored the gutters and just focused on the sidewalk. Even then I filled up five bags each run, emptying them at public trashcans as I went along.

As time has gone on, I’ve noticed that due to prevailing winds, trash tends to collect on the western side of north-south streets. I’ve also noticed that some people keep their sidewalks tidy and others are slobs. There is one particular apartment building that is invariably the worst spot on my entire route. I’ve noticed that if the winds are bad after recycling bins are set out, wind whips the tops of the bins open and all sorts of recycling blows far and wide. (Bad design!) Though eliminating plastic straws might be a good idea, I have to say I haven’t encountered all that many while plogging. What I do pick up is an endless number of candy wrappers, convenience/junk food wrappers and cigarette butts. In the weeks preceding California’s primary election I also picked up an absolutely ridiculous amount of campaign material, inclining me to despise the glossy faces smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I’ve also noticed that since our trash collection fees in San Francisco rose significantly, the public trash cans are now often very, very full.

When candy is not dandy
As I write this, I am currently on an island where my family has spent the last twenty-five Julys. This largely rural community with vacation homes along the water is a very crunchy-granola, environmentally-conscious haven where many citizens participate in an all-island clean up twice a year. But even here when I plog, I am picking up candy and junk food wrappers galore from the ditches, and an extraordinary number of cigarette butts from the roadsides. The cigarette butts are especially mystifying since no one here appears to smoke. In terms of litter, this is no San Francisco: during a 5K run, I collect only half a bag of trash instead of five. Still the level of litter surprises me. While the disposal fee for household trash is pricey (after all, it has to be carted off-island on a boat) collected street trash is free.

I encourage you to join me in plogging or plalking. First off, plogging and plalking is good for you! I’ve written many times before about the benefits of walking and walkable neighborhoods. We all need thirty minutes of exercise a day for just basic health, so plogging (or plalking) is a great way to get outdoors and accomplish two positive things at once. Plogging burns more calories per hour than straight running and can offer as good cardio if your route is not so crazy bad as to slow you to a crawl. (If it does slow you to a crawl the first time you do it, I promise it will get better.) Squatting and leaning over when plogging nicely trims your waist, and the stopping and starting can be a form of interval training. Secondly, plogging is good for the environment. Thirdly, plogging is good for humanity on a physical, social and even spiritual level.  Let’s examine why. 

Unplogged litter
Plogging and the Environment.  Surely everyone has heard by now that there is an entire continent of plastic floating in the ocean, and marine animals are dying en masse from ingesting human detritus. If you live anywhere near water, be assured that plastic on your streets gets blown and washed out to sea. However, know that human litter is also toxic and hazardous for your local fauna, from insects to birds to mammals. Cigarette butts in particular contain toxic chemicals like arsenic that contaminate soil and water. Yes, we should reduce or even eliminate single use plastics, but we should never use our streets, roads, parks and beaches as trashcans and ashtrays. The only species that really benefits from litter is rats. If your city or town has a rat problem, litter is a serious business.

When I plog, I pick up everything except needles and dog poop, even the tiny bits of plastic that are on their way to becoming microplastic. I also even pick up paper that, in theory, is biodegradable. The problem is that a lot of “paper” is coated with plastic that won’t break down. Beyond that, studies have shown that litter begets litter. When people see litter, consciously or unconsciously, they absorb the message that no one cares, that this place doesn’t matter. That throwing a wrapper, can or bottle on the ground is no big deal. Paper litter sends this signal just as much as plastic or metal litter. If you want to reduce litter on your route long term, all of it has to go short term.

This brings up another prime benefit of plogging. You are showing that you disapprove of litter. Again, because we humans are such imitative, peer-driven creatures, studies have shown that this disapproval actually creates social norms that make people feel constrained not to litter. You don’t have to howl and shake a fist at the sky. The fact that you are spending time picking it up speaks loudly enough. 

From the road
Plogging and Cigarette Butts. Before I address why plogging is good for humanity, I want to specifically address the issue of cigarette butts. First off, they’re toxic to wildlife. Secondly, the butts contain plastic that doesn’t break down. Thirdly, they’re ugly and smelly. Fourthly, they’re a fire hazard. After picking up a good thousand or so butts, noticing along the way that many have clearly been thrown out car windows, I began to give this particular form of litter some thought. Now, I don’t smoke, nor do my parents, children or siblings. My grandfather smoked and died at age 89, although, tough old bird, he probably would’ve lived to 109 if he hadn’t. I don’t like the way cigarettes smell, and I detest breathing in secondhand smoke. In fact, I think one of the few genuine advancements of the last forty years is how much less I have to deal with cigarette smoke in my daily life.

Smoking cigarettes takes an average of ten years off your life. Plus it will likely make the five years leading to your death unpleasant. But there are reasons not to smoke besides an early death: it’s an expensive habit, you are profiting nasty corporations, it ages your skin terribly, it makes your clothes smell bad, etc. I bet every smoker has heard all these a million times. Still they smoke. It’s addictive. It meets a need.

Cup-holder ashtrays (self-extinguishing!)
In society’s push to condemn smoking we have ostracized and condemned smokers. We have pushed them to the margins to do the deed: parking lots and cars. Beyond this we have tried to make smoking inconvenient (i.e. not “enabling” smokers) by taking away ashtrays. I have to admit that during my crazy sixties/seventies childhood, one year in elementary school my class made ashtrays as Christmas gifts for our parents. Mindboggling. I am not suggesting we go back to this. But by taking away every single freaking ashtray in existence, we have forced smokers (or at least made it extremely convenient) to use the world as their ashtray. To the planet’s dismay. If we provide ashtrays, cigarette butt littering decreases. It’s a fact.

Two-thirds of all cigarette butts end up as litter, making them the most littered item in the world. Trillions find their way to the ground every year. If there is litter already on the ground, smokers toss and flick their butts at an even higher rate. A significant proportion of littered butts find their way to the ocean where they are ingested by unsuspecting animals, or they join the mass of plastic that lurks like a giant Portuguese man-of-war of retribution that will swallow us someday.

Recyclable plastic!
Surprisingly (at least to me) cigarette butts contain high quality plastic, the kind that can be turned into pellets that can be turned into benches and plastic lumber. One company is doing this. They even offer free shipping to send collected cigarette butts to them. However, the resulting pellets don’t quite pay for the recycling and mailing costs, and so this enterprising company organized a subsidy from a tobacco company. Now this particular tobacco company is one of the least evil ones out there. Still cigarettes kill, so at first I suspected this subsidy to be bogus greenwashing. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m wondering if this is a valid attempt to move towards a circular economy, where the entire lifecycle of a product is designed to create zero waste.

Portable butt collection
Perhaps by shaming and vilifying smokers we have done some social good. But the fact is, sitting on your human butt all day is flat out as bad for you as smoking. Do we shame and vilify that? Or does our society aid and abet it at every turn by making driving super convenient and walking and biking dangerous and unpleasant? By not accommodating smokers in the most basic way (with a few measly outdoor smoking areas with ashtrays) what the heck are smokers supposed to do with their detritus? These days many cars don’t even have ashtrays. Yes, non-smokers should not be exposed to second-hand smoke. Yes, smokers can and should use personal ashtray pouches and receptacles. I totally support this and I encourage you to buy them and gift them to all your smoking friends and relatives. But a few strategic self-extinguishing ashtrays here and there would go a long ways towards reducing our toxic litter problem. Collecting and recycling cigarette butts would 1) tell smokers that throwing their butts on the ground is not the natural, most acceptable way to dispose of their cigarette even if it is convenient, 2) acknowledge that smokers are part of our society and their actions matter, and 3) give smokers an avenue to participate in a different, more conscious approach to human waste. It’s time to reintegrate smokers back into civic life. 

Litter has impact. (Center for Active Design)
Plogging and Humanity. Humanity benefits if our planet is not destroyed. I hope that’s obvious. But there’s more. Litter is expensive to clean up. Indeed businesses and government in the US spend tens of billions of dollars each year trying to keep up with litter and still fail. There is strong evidence that litter diminishes community pride, creates the belief that community members don’t care about one another, erodes civic trust in general, and in particular erodes trust that both local government and even the police will do what’s right. It also reduces the likelihood of citizen participation in public life. People loathe litter. In one survey of over five thousand respondents across the United States, 23% listed litter as the one thing they most wanted to change about their community. Wow. They chose litter over crime, noise, and traffic. (Personally, I would choose noise, another form of pollution, but that’s because I can plog and pick litter up myself. Can’t clean up noise myself.) Litter in a neighborhood or community significantly decreases property values. Litter can injure, from slipping on it or stepping on broken glass, etc. Litter is a fire hazard, especially half-extinguished cigarette butts. Litter can bring both rats and disease. Parks and beaches strewn with litter are less psychologically restorative to the human psyche than litter-free ones. But far more importantly, litter is both a symptom and a cause of not right relation with oneself, with one’s community, with nature, and with the planet as a whole.

Not right relation. Let’s explore it.

Ditch before plogging
One of the most necessary tasks for human beings over the next two decades is for us individually and collectively to become conscious of and responsible for our waste. At the macro level, nations must take responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions (among other waste) and drive the net amount to zero. At the micro level, individuals must become aware of their personal waste stream, reduce the amount, and dispose of the remainder in a manner that does not harm others or the planet. It is possible to design the potential for litter out of many of the products we consume, but remember, even if we were to replace all plastic packaging with paper or glass, when tossed on the ground, even paper and glass harm the environment (just less so than plastic), decrease civic trust, encourage more litter, create safety, health, and fire hazards, etc. To truly address litter we have to make littering unacceptable.

Either we change human consciousness so that no one litters because they understand the impact, or we change behavioral norms so that no one litters because it is socially unacceptable. I posit if someone is unconcerned or unconscious about their micro-waste, it’s nearly impossible to get them to become conscious and concerned about their country’s macro waste. I also posit if we can change the behavior of micro actions, larger consciousness has a chance to follow.

Ditch after plogging
Littering is a small crime, a small act of aggression against society, the planet and the future. The litterer consciously or unconsciously expects “someone else,” whether it be the government or nature, to deal with the paper, metal, or plastic that they find convenient to toss to the ground. Maybe they were taught dilution is the answer to pollution (seriously, people used to say this) and that nature can take care of any trash they care to throw. Maybe they feel society doesn’t treat them well, so dealing their trash is the least society can do for them. If they believe powerful and important people don’t have to worry about their waste, maybe strewing their waste makes them feel powerful and important. Maybe they are children who are imitating their parents. Maybe they are smokers who mistakenly believe their butts are made of paper or feel society has given them no other choice for their butts.

The thing is, these small crimes make it impossible to live in right relation to nature and to society. All but the very youngest of us know we do a wrong when we litter. We may tell ourselves it’s no big deal, but consciously or subconsciously we carry guilt for the mini-transgression. This is why people litter much more frequently when they think no one is looking. It is also why in interviews with observed litterers, 35% denied having littered in the past month even though the interviewers had just seen them do so.

But it’s just litter I hear you say! No one is dropping atomic bombs. Stay with me here. Because littering disrupts our right relations with nature, it closes our heart to it and causes us to lose our ability to be rejuvenated by nature. We can’t hear its whispers, we can’t feel its inspiration, we can’t absorb its solace. Maybe you think this is craziness, but if you have a right relation with nature, you know what I mean, and you know what a terrible thing it is to miss out on this. Once you have a right relation with nature, you can no longer endorse its destruction. This is huge. Yes, something as insignificant as littering gets in the way of this.

Bag of not-right relations
When we litter, we shift the burden of our waste from ourselves to some other entity. We know we are making a mess. (Studies have shown 80% of litter is intentional, not accidental.) We know we are diminishing our community, making it more unpleasant for everyone. Knowing that litter harms those around us produces guilt and gets in the way of our relationship with others. Can you say hello cheerfully to someone in whose garden you’ve just thrown a chips bag? Can you smile at a child after you’ve just let your dog poop in her playground? Even if you can, I suggest your actions do get in the way of genuine human interaction, that they prevent you from receiving the gifts of community. We share our parks, our streets, our planet. Even if our laws don’t reflect this the way they should, shirking your duty for your waste violates a basic contract between human beings.

Think of all this little guilt building up like plaque in the arteries of our soul. Slowly, invisibly, inexorably, it clogs things up until you’re not in right relation with anybody or anything. Believe it or not, most people fundamentally want to believe they are a good person. This desire to do good, to be good, is what makes redemption possible and is why we don’t need to be absolutely hopeless about the human race just yet. Does one piece of litter make you a bad person? Of course not. But I would say littering gets in the way of being a good person. Good people have integrity. They take responsibility for their actions, and they try not to harm others. Refraining from littering is a small thing, but it’s easy to do. Sure a napkin or a scrap of plastic might get away from you once in a while, but on the whole, carrying an empty bottle to a recycling bin (or, better yet, bringing your own water bottle) is just not that hard. So failing to do it is a transgression.

Eventual circle of life
Since we know litter begets litter, the best way to keep people from littering is not to scold and guilt trip them, but rather to provide them with a litter-free environment and plenty of receptacles so not littering is reinforced and easy. Yes, eliminating plastic bags and plastic straws help, but they are a small part of the litter I currently pick up. Yes, designing consumer products to be litter-resistant is a step-level advance that we should advocate for. Yes, we must head towards a circular economy where waste is avoided entirely or productively reintegrated by design back into raw material for future products. But that's going to take a while. By plogging and plalking you not only keep toxic crap out of nature today and make your community more pleasant today, you also gently nudge people along a path of right relations that will hugely benefit them.

But why should you plog in particular? Why not instead pressure your local government to do a better job keeping your parks and streets picked up? After all, the result is the same, a litter-free park or street.

Yes, the end result is the same. But how it is achieved makes a hugely different psychological impact. If a person prone to litter observes a local government maintenance crew picking up a park, that person will think, yeah, that’s what my tax money is for. To clean up after me. And so that person will continue to litter. The litter-free park will discourage littering in general (good!), but the fundamental social norm won’t change. If that same person observes you picking up litter with slight moue of distaste, the person will read from your body language that you think littering is bad. He/she might not agree with you, might think you’re some kind of environmental lunatic, but his/her littering habit has been challenged, not reinforced. That person will get the message that some other human being thinks less of them for their action. You’ve just given them a gentle nudge to life-affirming right relations that may transform their life.

By now you think I’m nuts or you’re intrigued. So let’s get down to the basics of plogging, how I do it anyway. I use a lightweight nylon bag that is both strong and washable. I pick up everything I see that is both man-made and obviously not supposed to be there. Literally every single thing, including small bits of glass and plastic. You should be able to eat off the sidewalk after I’m done. I’ve never seen a needle on my plogs, but if I did, I wouldn’t pick it up, nor do I pick up dog poop. (I have a friend who does pick up dog poop left by irresponsible dog owners in his neighborhood. He is a saint. If you are also that generous, I applaud you.) I also don’t pick up hubcaps (seriously, I see more than a few) or other items that are too heavy to jog with. But aluminum cans and plastic bottles find their way into my bag, as does the odd pizza box, clothes hangers, or even, once, a full box of cereal. In San Francisco, I put most of the trash I collect in public garbage bins. Sometimes, if it’s garbage day and lots of recycling is on the ground, I’ll pick up the recycling and randomly put it into people’s bins. Trash near my house goes into my own compost/recycling/garbage bins.

I don’t wear gloves, but you can if you choose. I pick up things gingerly, I’m very careful with glass, and I consciously don’t touch my face until after I get home and can wash my hands. I don’t confront people who are littering, and I advise you not to either. Guilt can make people defensive and nasty. Just pick up the item and move on. They’ll get the message. When you get to a park where people are around, you can say brightly to an accompanying friend (or the world in general) “What a nasty mess!” before you cheerfully go about picking it all up.

The first time you plog a route, it may take you a while, but don’t despair. It will get better and eventually you’ll get some good stretches of running in. If your route is really bad, just plog the last two blocks the first time, the last four blocks the second time, the last six blocks the third time, etc. until you get your route into shape.

Once you start plogging, beware. You will now always need to bring a plogging bag with you as you walk to the store or other errands because the litter you see will annoy you. When I’m walking with others, I don’t pick up every single thing because it would try their patience, just the stuff that bugs me the most. But once you start plogging, you’ll discover the rewarding secret. Even though clearing litter from a block or a park is not permanent, even though no one may thank you, even though it will seem as if people throw down cigarette butts and fast food wrappers just to spite you, once you’ve got it all picked up and that block or park looks great, even if just for a moment, the result is satisfying. You’ve done one small but mighty act to get human beings in right relation with the planet.

Monday, June 4, 2018

10-Minute Neighborhoods: The Low-Tech Solution to Almost* Everything

Health. Energy. Climate. Crime. Education. Happiness. Water. Housing. What if it were possible to make headway on all these issues with simple changes to our neighborhoods?

10-minute magic. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
What if we could cut our medical costs in half? What if we could give the average American an added five years of healthy life? What if we could cut our energy use, our water use, and our greenhouse gas emissions by more than half while improving our happiness and prosperity? What if we could provide affordable housing for millennials staggering under student loan debt? What if we could help elders age gracefully in a connected community, with their mobility and cognition intact? What if we could create communities where children can experience both safety and independence? What if we could cut in half the cost of essential services provided by cities and towns? What if we could prevent prime farmland from becoming suburbs and McMansions? What if we could create biodiverse greenbelts and wildlife corridors around our towns and cities? What if inside our cities we could create calming tree canopies, community vegetable gardens and open spaces for all to benefit from?

The missing housing we used to build. (opticosdesign.com)
All this can be achieved with 10-minute walkable neighborhoods, neighborhoods where everyone can step out their front door and reach a wide array of goods and services within ten minutes by foot. All it takes is enough density within a half-mile radius of a commercial shopping street to allow the businesses and services there to prosper. We’re not talking Hong Kong or Manhattan density, just 16 or so housing units per acre, which can be easily achieved by allowing again the “Missing Middle” of housing that was so common before World War II. What is the Missing Middle? Duplexes, townhouses, courtyard apartments, small multiplexes, and accessory dwellings units. Sprinkle this Missing Middle on the corners or edges of single-family neighborhoods where they can form transitions between single family and commercial districts. Allow homeowners to create accessory dwelling units by converting garages, basements and carriage houses to small apartments. Replace parking lots with townhouses, community gardens, and communal green spaces. On commercial streets, add a couple stories of residential apartments over ground floor shops and services. Suddenly you have enough density to support a thriving commercial district. Suddenly you have housing in a range of sizes and affordability that can host people of different incomes and at different stages of life.

The prime benefit of a 10-minute neighborhood is that it motivates walking. This is vital because we are born to walk. Indeed, the result of millions of years of evolution has not only made us excel at getting around on two legs, our body actually needs to walk in order to be healthy. This may come as a surprise to most Americans, given that the last seventy years we’ve treated walking like polio or malaria, a scourge to be eliminated at all costs. Happy motoring was the answer, but car dependency has turned out to be disastrous for American health and happiness. 

Unlike the circulatory system, the human lymphatic system has no pump and so requires muscular movement to push lymph around. You likely never learned about lymph at school, but it does critical double duty in our bodies distributing nutrients and removing cellular waste. This means we must incorporate substantial movement into our daily lives or pay a high price. You can be a little overweight and be healthy. You cannot be sedentary and be healthy.

If walking were a drug, it would be so potent you could sell it for $1000 a pill. Walking 30 minutes a day not only prevents but reverses the following conditions and diseases: type-2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, knee pain, Alzheimer’s in its early stages, chronic constipation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, edema caused by being sedentary, and fatty liver disease. It can slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease. It prevents strokes, vascular dementia, osteoporosis, varicose veins, breast cancer, colon cancer, and cognitive impairment. It reduces stress and all the health problems that go with that. It boosts your immune system. People who walk at least 20 minutes a day have 43% fewer sick days. It helps you sleep. It enhances balance, making it less likely you’ll fall once you hit old age. A short walk fifteen minutes after a meal evens out your blood sugar and improves your digestion. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are among the most common and costly of all health problems. These diseases not only kill people, they make them miserable along the way. And they are preventable. By walking. For free. (It also helps not to smoke and to eat more vegetables and less crap food. Also free.)

The free part is important. 86% of annual health care expenditures in the US are spent on people with chronic physical and mental health conditions. Much of this expenditure is avoidable simply by people walking 30 minutes a day. On top of that, chronic diseases make people unhappy. By making people healthier, you make them happier.

But there’s more! Apart from inducing chronic disease, a sedentary lifestyle increases odds of depression by 25%. Walking, on the other hand, is proven to prevent depression. If you’re already depressed (it’s estimated that 1 in 11 Americans share your condition), walking is as effective as anti-depressants in treating depression in the short term and more effective in the long term. And it has no nasty side effects. People who walk or bike to work consistently have higher well-being scores than those who drive. The more time you spend in your car, the more miserable, fat, and unhealthy you are. Moderate exercise such as walking reduces both anxiety and stress better than medications, but it should surprise no one that walking in nature, or along a tranquil tree-lined street, is more effective than walking next to a six-lane traffic sewer. The combination of nature and walking is so powerful that even a five-minute walk in a park will substantially elevate your mood. Walking boosts energy and reduces fatigue. It reduces chronic back and joint pain. It increases creative thinking and cognitive function. It improves memory and attention span, especially valuable for the elderly and school-age children. Moderate exercise such as walking is the number one way seniors can retain their health, mobility and cognitive function as they age. Staying connected to friends, family and neighbors of all ages is number two. If you want a happy old age, a 10-minute intergenerational neighborhood will do far more for you than an expensive, car-dependent retirement community.

Of course, will you even get to old age? No doubt you’ve read that American life expectancy has been declining the last few years, causing us to trail even further behind a substantial portion of the modern world. This is not good news, but even more troubling are our years of healthy life expectancy. On this measure, France and Spain leave us in the dust. Their citizens can expect five more healthy, active, happy years than we can. And this is after we spend nearly double the money on health care than they do. And this occurs even though they smoke at far higher rates, which should be killing them off younger. (Smoking generally reduces one’s lifespan by ten years.) The French and the Spanish don’t eat crap food in the quantities that Americans do, to be sure, but they also walk way more. The average European walks 237 miles per year, while the average American walks just 87 miles. If you walked 30 minutes a day, (1.5 miles) that would put you at 548 miles a year. You would be on track to be healthy and active well past age 74, instead of your body failing you at 68.5, as the average American experiences currently. And you would feel good in all the intervening years, not to mention need many fewer meds, uncomfortable medical procedures and time-consuming visits to the doctor. Daily walking does not mean you will never get ill and die. It means you will postpone and reduce the number of years of debilitating illness at the end of your life. And it means you will drastically reduce your lifetime medical expenditures, whether it’s paid by you or by society at large.

A reason to walk. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
It’s been proven that the best way, hands down, to get people to walk is to give them something to walk to, or destinational walking. This means our built environment is enormously important. And this is where 10-minute neighborhoods come in. We can make walking a normal, useful, enjoyable part of everyday life again.

What’s needed to produce a thriving 10-minute neighborhood are 20,000 to 22,000 people, all living within half a mile radius of a commercial shopping district. A ten-minute walk is long enough to give people exercise and short enough not to tire anyone in reasonably good health. Three-fourths of all trips made in the US are for purposes other than commutes—mostly errands and socializing. A commercial shopping district, if designed correctly, acts as the hearth of the neighborhood, a place where people gather, hangout, and connect. Where they get an opportunity to feel a part of something larger than themselves. A 10-minute neighborhood should not only include shops, it should include cafes, mom and pop restaurants, dental offices, medical clinics, a library, a post office, a couple of K-8 public schools, a few child care centers, a community garden, a park with a children’s playground and sports field, a once-a-week farmer’s market, a dog park, a senior center, a public plaza gathering space, an indoor community meeting space, therapists, alternative medicine practitioners, and, very important, at least one grocery store. A hardware store, a pharmacy, a bakery, a shoe repair shop, a bike shop, a barber, a few hair salons, a used clothing store, and some offerings for kids (art classes, tae kwon do, dance, etc.) will round out a 10-minute neighborhood nicely. Even with the trend towards internet shopping, 22,000 people can support this much commercial activity if they all live within walking distance. People on foot tend to buy more locally than people in cars, and a “sticky” attractive commercial street, the kind people want to hang out on, guarantees foot traffic. If you’re going to be passing by the hardware store anyway, you might as well pop in and pick up an LED bulb there rather than order it on-line.

Duplex density (missingmiddlehousing.com)
A 10-minute neighborhood should include all kinds of housing—housing for different income levels, different ages, different phases of life. The Missing Middle of housing not only increases the price points and range of affordability, it provides for greater social equity and intergenerational living in a community. Young people just out of college might be very happy in an affordable apartment created out of a garage, basement or carriage house in the back. Young families might appreciate starting out in a duplex with a small back yard. Downsizing babyboomers or recent widows/widowers might be quite content in a townhouse with just a patio and a flower/vegetable bed to take care of.

When we talk about affordability of housing, we really need to talk about the affordability of one’s living arrangement. This should include housing + utilities + transportation. And if we care about the actual health and happiness of our population, the hours of life sacrificed to commuting should also be considered. Say you are a family of four, both parents working. A 3000 sq. ft. house on a large lot on the suburban fringe might seem cheaper than a 2000 sq. ft. house on a small lot in a 10-minute neighborhood. Indeed, the 10-minute neighborhood house might cost 20% more. Your mortgage company will likely approve your suburban fringe home loan with alacrity, and it might seem like you’re getting a lot more house for your money. But the calculations change when you factor in utilities (1/3 higher heating bills, 2 times the water bill), and the cost of owning an additional car, including maintenance and repairs, gas, registration fees, insurance, tolls, parking, carwashes, traffic tickets, and parking tickets. In a 10-minute neighborhood at least one spouse can likely walk, bike or take transit to work, so you can get by with just one vehicle (or none!) Public transit is far more likely to be available in a 10-minute neighborhood because its density makes public transit cost-effective.

Big but distant.
But there’s more! Add on ten additional hours a week spent commuting between the two parents, additional childcare or afterschool care costs while the parents are commuting, maintenance on a yard you and your kids are never in except to mow the grass, the cost of fast food dinners because you’re too tired to shop and cook due to your stressful commutes, higher healthcare bills and hours spent visiting the doctor due your family’s lack of exercise and questionable diet. Since your neighborhood is strictly zoned for single-family use, most of your neighbors are families in the same boat, but you don’t know many of them because all of you are so rarely home. Because your neighborhood is often empty, it’s targeted by thieves for break-ins, and even though everyone has an alarm system that blares when set off, the police don’t seem to be able to get there fast enough because they’re stretched thin due to budget cuts. Your kids are overweight, taking ADD meds, and struggling in school, but you haven’t been able to meet with their teachers because you never get home from work in time. You don’t know what to do about it anyway, since doing better in school was what the ADD meds were supposed to be for. This evening traffic is more terrible than usual due to a rear-end collision ahead. As you creep past you see angry people yelling and gesticulating. You wish everyone would just get out of the way since your wife is on a business trip, and it’s up to you to pick up the kids at the aftercare program. (Your fifth and seventh graders can’t be trusted to hang out at home alone, especially not with all the break-ins.) You honk and pound the steering wheel, but still you don’t get to the school until 6:10pm, which means you incur a $20 late pick-up fee. The kids are tired and grumpy, and getting burgers, fries and sodas for dinner doesn’t seem to cheer them up. When you get home and ask about homework, your daughter melts down in tears; your son says his school is a prison, and all the teachers and kids are jerks. When you yell that school is important, the kids flee to their rooms, banging doors on the way. You sit down with your bills, frustrated that your mortgage plus utilities plus transportation eats up almost two-thirds of your household income. And although you have health insurance, paying for all the deductibles and copayments is killing you. It seems like the kids are always sick, and you and your wife have had a couple visits to the urgent care clinic lately as well. Exhausted, you plop down in front of the TV. Tomorrow you have an early start (5:30 am!) so you can pick the kids up early and take your son to the orthodontist. It’s a never-ending treadmill. You look forward to your business trip the next week when it’ll be your wife’s turn to deal with this mess.

Smaller, but within the magic radius.
In the 10-minute neighborhood, your kids can safely bike to and from school and to afterschool activities. (You can keep track of where they are with an app.) On leaving work you hop on a light rail line for 15 minutes and then walk to the store to get fresh vegetables and tortillas for tacos tonight. After that you swing by a games cafe to pick up your son where he’s been playing board games with friends. He tells you yes, he remembered his orthodontist appointment and gives you a grin to show you his tightened braces. Next is a short walk to the park to pick your daughter up from soccer practice. As you walk home with the kids under a leafy canopy of trees, (they push their bikes the short distance so they can accompany you) the three of you joke and laugh as they tell you about their day. Because you’ve met most of your neighbors, you say hi to quite a few on the way. Jack Boodle, a widower who rents out his basement to pay for his kids’ college tuition, tells you there’s been a break-in and theft one street over. You and the kids are alarmed but then reassured upon hearing that a neighborhood watch group was formed at last night’s neighborhood community meeting. (You apologize for not attending. Whoops! Your wife is on a business trip and it slipped your mind.) Myrna Roodle, an artist who lives with her son in one of the new duplexes built on the site of the old strip mall, asks your kids if they’d like to help paint an outdoor mural this coming Saturday. (The son would; the daughter has a soccer game.) Sally Coodle, a new teacher just out of college who lives in Ms. Noodle’s converted garage, hands you a flyer for her babysitting/tutoring service that you read with interest because your son could use a little help with algebra. Once home, your kids start on their homework at the kitchen table while you make dinner. After dinner your son’s classmate who lives down the block comes over and the two of them finish a diorama of Machu Picchu while you work on bills. You note with satisfaction that your mortgage plus utilities plus transportation costs come to well under half your income now that your wife is riding her electric bike to work and you’ve sold your second car. You’re thinking of lowering the total even further by putting solar panels on the roof. A week later, Mrs. Toodle, a retired school librarian who lives in Mr. Boodle’s basement flat, calls a suspicious van into the police, a tip that ends in an arrest. At the next neighborhood community meeting (that you do remember to attend), Sam Voodle, a dedicated activist who lives frugally in a studio apartment in the multiplex on the corner, lets everyone know that your neighborhood’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions last year were one-third of the US average, right around Sweden’s. The Swedish grandmother knitting calmly in the front row next to the Somalian grandmother, both of whom live in courtyard apartments just down the street from their grown children, says Sweden has just added dozens more miles of pedestrian-only streets, and that their emissions will fall further, just wait and see. You reflect that you haven’t driven your car in two weeks and wonder if you should sell that one, too? If it weren’t for visiting the kids’ grandparents in the suburbs you could just rent a car the few times a year you need one. Hmm. Maybe the grandparents could move into one of those new townhomes going up six blocks away . . .

In the end, which house is more affordable? Which is the better value?

The Missing Middle need not be huge. (missingmiddlehousing.com)
These days, it seems everyone wants a walkable neighborhood—millennials, young families, retirees. In fact, these neighborhoods are in such demand that they’ve become quite expensive. If the number of 10-minute neighborhoods quintupled overnight, it still wouldn’t meet all demand but it would make millions of people healthier and happier before the year was out. Again, skyscraper density is not required. Missing Middle housing need be no taller than three stories, with no greater footprint than a large house. Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people,” but living in fewer square feet near neighbors need not be hellish. Good fences may make good neighbors in the countryside, but in a 10-minute neighborhood, good design and good soundproofing will do the job.

 Words fail. (urbanmilwaukee.com)
As we’ve seen, walking is so important for human health that it should be considered a fundamental human right. Instead, in almost all American communities driving is what is encouraged and optimized for. Walking is an afterthought or, worse, made completely impossible by streets designed solely for cars. A proper 10-minute neighborhood puts walking first, biking and transit second, shared cars third, and private cars last. This is because cars are huge beasts, and making room for them pushes everything so far apart that the density needed for a 10-minute neighborhood becomes impossible. 10-minute neighborhoods instead repurpose car storage and car infrastructure into more socially useful space. Parking lots become townhouses and green spaces; street parking becomes trees and bike lanes; garages become apartments; car dealerships and auto repairs shops turn into mixed use residential over ground floor retail. But what about people who still really need their cars, you ask? One, 95% of everyone under 80 in a 10-minute neighborhood can get around very well by walking, biking, electric biking or electric triking.
Fun! (cozytrikes.com)
If you don’t think so, then you’ve never ridden an electric bike or trike. An electric cargo bike can carry two kids and four bags of groceries uphill, no sweat required. They are true game changers. Two, ridesharing and taxis are great options for those over 80 who probably should be weaning themselves from driving anyhow. Three, drivers could be provided with a parking lot—one!—on the edge of the neighborhood commercial district that encourages them to park once and then become pedestrians for the rest of their visit. Four, if you’ve got true 10-minute neighborhood density, then the shops and services will flourish without the need for any car-driving customers. Those who insist on car-dependency can drive to the malls that want to cater to them. Yes, this might cause a few extra miles worth of greenhouse gas emissions, but making a walking lifestyle possible for tens of millions will reduce emissions far, far more than this small amount of extra driving will produce.

There are other benefits to 10-minute neighborhoods. They put more eyes on the street, reducing crime. Since sprawl is costly, they’re good for the bottom line of cities and towns, especially those teetering on the edge of insolvency. Indeed, it costs less than half as much per capita to provide public services such as police, fire, public transit, roads, sidewalks, clean water, sewer and waste water services to 10-minute neighborhoods than it does to suburban neighborhoods. And studies show that children who walk or bike to school are able to concentrate the first four hours of the school day far better than children who are driven. Not only do they have better test scores, they have improved cognitive performance all around.

* As the title of this post indicates, 10-minute neighborhoods don’t solve everything. They  don’t address the widespread corruption that is strangling our democracy. They don’t address the burgeoning wealth inequality that is burning through the fabric of our society like a slow-fuse time bomb. They don’t address the need, worldwide, for young women to have access to birth control and education through high school so that the world’s population can peak and then gently decline 1% a year to a level the planet can reasonably support. They don’t address the changes needed to create sustainable, or better yet, restorative agriculture. They don’t necessarily make the awful American diet, full of sugar and junk carbs, any better. But they can make us healthier, happier and more connected. They can cut crime and create social cohesion. They can improve our quality of life while reducing our cost of living. They can help children become more independent and do better in school. They can cut healthcare spending, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. All it takes is getting rid of parking lots and other car infrastructure, and adding the Missing Middle forms of housing, something that human beings have known how to do for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This is not rocket science. Mostly what needs to be changed are little lines of writing in your town’s planning and zoning codes. Low tech, indeed. 

Just a hunch
A note about biking versus walking: You may wonder why this article emphasizes walking rather than biking. I am an urban bike rider and use my bikes (one regular, one electric) extensively for trips over half a mile. It should be more widely known that electric bikes are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to humankind. Regular biking is second. But when it comes to bone health, walking beats out biking because it's a full weight-bearing exercise, while biking is only partially weight-bearing. Walking creates gentle motion in your arms and shoulders, areas that tend to be immobile during bike riding. In contrast, riding hunched over can develop considerable tension in the neck and shoulders and strain the lower back. Since the whole body movement of walking promotes more optimal circulation of lymph and blood, it has the stronger claim for overall health, especially as you age. Your quads and abdomen will no doubt be more impressive with intense biking, but you'll probably live longer if you incorporate a good amount of walking in your daily life. The good news is that the people I know who bicycle for transportation (as opposed to pure recreation) tend to get plenty of daily walking in. So it doesn’t have to be a choice. Do both!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Gasoline--Such a Big Bang for the Buck

Are you a fan of beheadings? Are you fond of autocratic regimes? Do you want to help those kooky, lovable Koch brothers purchase another member of Congress? Do you yearn to support Saudi Arabia, Iran, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, but it seems so difficult to give them direct, individual donations? Lucky for you, there’s an easy answer! Just buy gasoline!

Yes, it’s that simple. Oil is a worldwide commodity. Any gallon you purchase props up the price as a whole, enriching international oil companies and oil-exporting nations, with a handsome portion trickling to the politicians they’ve bought. (Oops, “support.”) Your money is guaranteed to enable stonings of adulterous women and beheadings of political prisoners, not to mention facilitate juicy environmental damage from oil spills and toxic fracking waste. In fact, you can rest easy knowing that every dollar you spend on gasoline works hard to attack human rights, cripple the environment and enable political corruption. A three-fer!

But there’s more! On a local level, the gasoline you burn has the happy side benefit of inflicting asthma and cancer on the poorest in your region since it’s the poorest who live along freeways and traffic sewers where tailpipe emissions are highest and the rent is cheapest.

Make them richer and more powerful! It's easy!
As a bonus, it’s easy to double the impact of your gasoline purchase by doing your best to make miserable the lives of anyone traveling without a car. With a little persistence, you can force them to get their own car and buy gasoline just like you. So honk at bicyclists as you pass them. Rev your motor loudly to show them who’s boss. Don’t stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Yell rude things at them instead. From time to time even come close to hitting them. (If you actually do hit them, no problem. As long as you aren’t inebriated and you cooperate with the police, there will likely be no consequences to you.) Complain loudly and frequently at public meetings about how bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects take away parking. Refuse to fund public transit because you don’t take it. Turn purple with rage at any bicyclist who delays you by half a second. Lament the unfairness of pedestrians jaywalking and bicyclists rolling through stop signs while ignoring that car drivers routinely disregard stop signs, run stoplights, speed, kill people, and occupy ninety percent of the street space. And be sure to belittle and jeer at anyone who attempts to make their life less oily. After all, taking trains and drinking from personal water bottles won't buy anyone's seventeenth or eighteenth house.

Fun guys! They'll do great things with your money!
If democracies annoy you, rest assured your gasoline money will go to some of the least democratic countries in the world. Let’s look at the top oil exporters and where they fall on the Democracy Index. For comparison’s sake, the United States (which is the #2 oil importer in the world, not exporter) is 21st out of 167 countries on the Democracy Index. (Don’t worry, we’re doing our best to become more autocratic and drop!) As you can see below, most of the top exporters are in the bottom third of the Index, if not the bottom tenth, Yes, Canada, at number 6, is an anomaly, but don’t let that distract you. Most of the rest are either totalitarian autocracies or nearly so. They totally deserve your money.

Oil Exporter
2016 Oil Income (Billion US $)
Democracy Index Ranking (out of 167 nations)
1. Saudi Arabia
2. Russia
3. Iraq
4. Canada
5. United Arab Emirates
6. Kuwait
7 Iran

And one last benefit you get from your gasoline purchase. No, not an Esso tiger tail or an Arco Noah’s Ark animal, like the gas station giveaways of yesteryear. This is the big kahuna. Climate change! Every gallon of gasoline you burn is another nail in the coffin of humanity! Though you’ll likely not be around to witness it, you can go to your grave knowing that you personally helped billions of people die from famine, drought and disease. Another billion refugees bobbing up and down in their little boats across great seas will have you to thank. There will likely be wars and social chaos. If we get really lucky, there’ll be total extinction of the human race. So fill up those tanks! Every dollar you spend on gasoline packs a punch. As bargains go, it doesn’t get much better.