Archive for economy

Community Glue: differentiating urban communities by their social emphasis

Since leaving college in Atlanta and “going West, young man!”, I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, the former a lot longer than the latter (15 vs. 3 years). People have asked in both places what I see as the big differences between the two urbanities, geography and topography aside. Usually I just respond that they aren’t terribly comparable; they’re just different. One isn’t “better” than the other. They each offer wonders and frustrations.

One of the key differences I do point to is social focus. I like to describe the Bay Area as a very “event-oriented” culture, where emphasis is placed on doing things together. Check out this event. We’re going to that event. Get your tickets now, they’ll sell out. I’ll see you there! Oh you went to that show? We danced our butts off! The social glue tends to bind itself around outwardly focused events, the places where people meet to talk, drink, dance, laugh, and have a good time together. “You mean you didn’t see my invite on Facebook?” I often hear. (Nevermind not getting a good old-fashioned call, that takes too much time and we’re all just, well, busy!) If you want to “keep up,” you’d better grok social media, babe.

San Francisco Skyline and iconic Golden Gate

And it comes at a price – for me anyway – physically, monetarily, and I dare say even psychically. I looked at my calendar today and was exhausted just thinking about it – every evening this month filled with the possibility and promise of something to do.  And don’t get me wrong, I love going out – well, sometimes anyway – and have a wonderful and supportive community of friends and beloveds. But even as my own single, unattached bread-winner, I’m starting to feel a pang in my pocketbook. I tallied up over a grand in event expenses in just the last few months. I balanced my checkbook and realized I don’t “go out” for under $50 any more – and usually not under a hundred if there’s a ticket to an event involved. Stuff’s gotten spendy in the nation’s most expensive city. Event halls are raking in the bucks to pay corporate landlords and performers who can either barely or completely not afford to live in the city’s confines. The home of the $5 happy hour cocktail has been evicted and now migrated as far away as Kansas City.

And as an introvert (my friends reading this will continue to turn their heads askew in disbelief) it takes a psychic toll. Going out takes a lot of energy for introverts. It’s refreshing and fun only in temporal (and short at that) and metered doses. The law of diminishing returns lives on a steep downward curve. Getting around this city has always been a bit challenging, and becoming more troublesome – parking always sucks, biking is increasingly dangerous even along the quieter bike-designated corridors, on-demand cars add up and are having mixed impacts on the social and physical fabric of the city. Surely you can walk anywhere if you have the time! But who does; the show starts in ten minutes!

Oops, it’s easy to slip into critique and kvetch about San Francisco. What about Portland? After my recent visit back to the fair City of Roses, I noticed immense changes in the six years I’ve been gone, both to the physical space and to the community dynamic. Economic pressures from heightened real estate investment are driving long-time residents away, making it challenging for new folks to establish root in a job market I never found terribly robust. The rental market is tight – places I knew rented for under a thousand a month are now double in price – and there’s no rent control measures.

The Goddess Portlandia lends a helping hand to Her denizens


But I want to focus instead on the Community Glue – the binding force that brings people together, strengthens relationships, and builds community capital. And Portland has that in spades. The emphasis is less about events – certainly Portland has plenty, albeit in much lesser magnitude and frequence than the Bay Area, it still remains culturally rich. People value relationships and connections. The “event” is usually just a means to the end of building and enjoying those connections. Jokes about having potlucks in Portland are endless. “Portlandia” did get many things right about the quirky social nature of the city’s rosy denizens (they’ll tell you it’s way off base, usually out of resentment for their own quirks being hyperbolically characterized; the show also way misses the mark in other ways, but that’s a different topic).

I remember when the markets crashed in 2008 and the mortgage debacles unraveled. I was standing in my kitchen in the cute Buckman neighborhood of Portland, discussing the implications with my economist housemate, when another housemate brought in the day’s Oregonian newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle headline might have read very scientifically and policy wonky: “Fannie Mae Lending Strategies Collapse in Market Debacle”. The Oregonian above-the-fold article was more likely, “Family Homes Lost in Mortgage Woes.” I remember such a front page article that centered primarily around a family in Gresham who had lost their home because they could no longer afford the underwater mortgage rates. It highlighted the same aspects of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess that the SF Chronicle did, but with a completely different frame: it was about people. Not events, not market mechanisms, not corporate greed. It focused on the hardships of people. And that story resonates much more deeply with Oregonians than the other.

The question I’m most often asked in San Francisco is “Do you want to go to [insert event here] this weekend?” The question I was most often asked in Portland was, “Do you want to take a walk up Mount Tabor?” People are connecting in both situations, but the emphasis and dynamic in which that connection occurs is, to me, very different.

Again, one isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different. They each have value. But I truly miss ending my week with a potluck of homegrown treats and singing together around a cozy fire. Seems like it’s high time to ignite that type of glue in my San Francisco living room.


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Teaching Our Children Well – Not Wasteful Behavior

A few days ago I had a ripped plastic bag in my hand that I picked up from the ground. As I walked past a dumpster, I tried to throw it away, present to the strange feeling of throwing plastic toward a landfill. It literally stuck like glue to my hand, whose fingers would not unfurl to release the plastic item in an “away” direction. I puzzled over the plastic bag for a moment, wondering if it had become possessed with some kind of intelligent mind. I tried again to assert control and toss; same result. Some kind of program had written itself into my neural pathways that knew good and well: polyethylene plastic film is recyclable. Maybe that program got written during my classes in the City of Portland’s Master Recycler program. Perhaps it started writing itself when I helped my friend Jennifer restart our high school’s environmental club. However the viral program found its way in, the difference between leaving a plastic bag blowing in the wind across a sidewalk to eventually clog a storm drain, sending it to a thousand year doom in a landfill, or returning it into the resource stream seemed pretty profound.

On the walk home, I mused on behavioral change and the adoption of environmental values. Especially as I prepare myself to work more with youth in environmental programs and build “green job” skills and training, I am interested in the process by which we make the kinds of decisions I had to face with the “intelligent” plastic bag. Indeed, the intelligence doesn’t belong to objects; it belongs to the humans who make, consume, and eventually dispose of them. Every step of product stewardship is a choice. Our ancestors certainly build their homes, cities, and whole civilizations without plastic. The notion that we “need” material goods is competely debatable, yet I still hear children telling their parents they “need” a particular toy or good that doesn’t contribute directly to the “hierarchy of needs” – food, water, shelter, clothing, nurture, support. Why, then, are children absorbing the “other” kind of viral program early on, the one that eventually, among many other actions, allows the plastic bag to be produced in the first place, and then end up in the storm drain?

I’m not a psychologist, an expert in human behavior, a sociologist, anthropologist, or any such “learned scholar” that hones his/her skills around answering these kinds of questions. I do care about how we use and waste energy and resources at an alarming rate, and demonstrate to our children that it’s perfectly fine, no harm no foul, to live out of balance. Far be it from me to project my value system onto the rest of the world, but evidence of the outcome of turning a blind eye is so striking and so commonly publicized these days that they almost don’t bear mention.

What’s our children’s place in this situation? I believe it’s to generate the solutions and demand a different way from their parents. If the problem can’t be solved in the same level that created it, then parents running about inventing tradable carbon credits seems hardly compelling. At a time when kids are dropping out of high school at ever increasing rates and falling into apathy, it hardly seems fair to project our “solutions” into arcane corners of the intellect that require a Ph.D. to unpack, understand, and meaningfully apply to the real world. I had to pause for a moment listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash on the matter:

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

What’s our job? Encourage them and show them our dreams. Kindle their interest in nature, the outdoors, animals, plants. As they grow older, teach them about stewardship, care, community, and gardening. Explain the importance of reducing consumption, reusing items and finding durable alternatives, and recycling and composting what’s left. Leave the question open why we make things that must be disposed of “permanently” for their own inquiry. I see how that song’s lyrics change around:

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Our children are the ones who are most likely to rise to the occasion and make our dreams real and manifest.

There are many resources online about plastic bags, factoids, and ways to reduce consumption. Here’s one from Worldwatch Institute.

Here’s a video my friend Geoff and I made on plastic bags (please excuse the harp).

I also kicked this thread off awhile ago in a post about the role of mentoring in sustainability.

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The Story of Stuff

Yesterday I finally got around to watching “The Story of Stuff.” Even at its totally ADHD-digestible 20 minutes, I hadn’t made it a priority because some part of me kept thinking, “I already know that.” But Annie Leonard’s disarmingly simple presentation hits home the message that our linear, unsustainable relationship with Stuff is coming apart, for better and for worse, and that we have a fundamental opportunity right now to redefine that relationship, close loops, create sustainable cycles, and change the way we do business. If we don’t, the results will cause (and to some extent already are causing) cultural indigestion and crises of gargantuan proportions in the health of human society. Alarmist? It only sounds alarmist to anyone who’s addicted to the functioning of the linear model of Stuff and who, like an ostrich, pretends not to see what comes out the back end.

Click here to watch The Story of Stuff, and please leave a comment with your thoughts and impressions.

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Plastic Not-So-Fantastic

plastic_productsIf you think you consume and throw away a lot of plastic at your home, you probably do. Many people frankly don’t even get that far (i.e. thinking about it). But the business park you casually drove or biked by yesterday probably generates more in a day than you toss in a year. It’s amazing how much plastic is produced, consumed, and discarded in our “economy.” It’s petroleum, persistent, and in some cases, quite pernicious. The $1M question – can it be recycled?

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Green America’s Solutions from the Green Economy

I haven’t written much about the national economic situation, stimulus package, solutions, etc. so I’ll let Alisa Gravitz of Green America (formerly named Co-op America) do it for me for today! Read Green America’s Solutions from the Green Economy.

Green America focuses on increasing investment in clean tech and building local economy. Good things indeed, and an important way to channel money in the right direction. They don’t delve much into the currency-less community-building environment. Community to them seems to mean spend local, and not so much on spending nothing. Localizing economy is a good thing, but more importantly, demonetizing your transactions is a great practice to develop – and get used to – especially as belts everywhere tighten.

Host a potluck. Grow food together. Guess what, now’s the time to start community gardens and gardening with your neighbors and friends. And installing rain barrels. For free. You’ll need food and water before you need a Prius. Trust me.

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Rewriting the program of America’s economy: speculations on the long-term inefficacy of the Obama stimulus plan

There’s no shortage of perspectives on the state of the economy and proposals for the federal stimulus plan. I don’t claim to be an economist, but I’m an American and I have an opinion. And a blog. Watch me go.

I’m not clear whether Facebook is an enhancement or a detriment to my life. I might be causing myself undue stress reading popular analyses of our bad-weather economy. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to give Robert Kuttner’s article on the Obama stimulus plan any further airplay, because it’s conventional economy version 1.0 dressed up as a progressive 2.0 version – or perhaps just 1.4 or 1.5. Anyway, his article is here:

Below is the comment I posted to his article. As with all reader comments on the Internet, they’ll fade into obscurity in about 3.7 minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sustainable Economic Development and Policy. Where do communities fit in?

What are the biggest needs and gaps in business and economic development policy, here in Portland, in the state of Oregon (quite a different industrial base on the whole than Portland’s entrepreneurial and small business enterprise)? I see a need to engage groups of small businesses around sustainability, and to refocus policy, investment, and capital on building community and community-scale resources (i.e. vs. the standard model of individual, competitive businesses). There are so many discussions happening among neighborhood groups, non-profits, business alliances, and non-profits about community building as a response to economic downturn, and creating new and non-monetary means of exchange. Where does that leave local and state economic development agencies in the long term? Or even the short term, as communities move further away from conventional economic development models and create new localized economies of exchange? The challenge for the state may not be as much in raising and distributing capital as it will be adapting and responding to what communities create in response to the economic downturn/crisis that could make large-scale economic development efforts less relevant. Maybe I’m not entirely on target and/or missing a key piece of this puzzle (quite likely!), but it’s an interesting and active conversation in Portland right now. Read the rest of this entry »

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