Monday, May 30, 2011

Giving Car Lanes New life

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I am sure you have had distasteful experiences walking down streets like the one pictured above.  These wide 4-6 lane roadways that are impossible to cross except at an intersection, and are often extremely windy since there are no barriers, just a block of pavement between sidewalks.  You may remember how much room the vehicles had and how little room was left for the sidewalks forcing you to step off into the muddy grass when ever a pedestrian approached you from the opposite direction.  These streetscapes are not pleasant and offer little other than racetracks for the two tonne manchines that travel the length. 

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If you are lucky you may have a slightly altered streetscape than the above, you may have curbside parking flanked with close proximity buildings.  If you are a business owner that happens to flank one of these streets, and you realize the ineffectiveness of the streetscape there are options for you.  Even if you do not own an adjacent business and are simply a concerned citizen you can rent out one of those parking stalls for a couple of hours, or a whole day depending on the going rate for parking.  (Make sure you check with your local bylaws to ensure that you will not get in trouble.)  You can turn a piece of your Siberian roadway into a slice of paradise.
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It can be as simple as barricading the parking stall to create a temporary bike parking lot to make up most likely for the lack of bicycle lock-ups.  This way people have a safe place to park their bikes and shop at the local stores.  Bikes do not end up cluttering the already cluttered and claustrophobic sidewalks.  

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You could go slightly more complicated and utilize the parking stall to create a 15 ft by 5 ft green park. You could install potted plants and seating, creating a peaceful escape from the sea of asphalt.  You give people a place to sit down, where seating is probably lacking on a cluttered sidewalk.  You give people an opportunity to stop and relax in your neighbourhood.

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If you are the owner of a restaurant, cafe, or bar you could set up or extend your patio.  If you were to do this once a week, once a month or even once a year it would give potential patrons another reason to visit your street.  Suddenly your street becomes an attraction, and people may realize what a mistake it is to be dedicating 45% of our public space to automobile infrastructure.

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You could take this a step further and organize a festival for your street, in which you collaborate with other business owners to convert your street into an entertainment destination once a year such as the Lilac festival in Calgary or the Al Fresco in Edmonton.  Both festivals utilize the surrounding businesses and have vendors for various gifts, foods, along with a beer gardens and live outdoor music.  You could also set up a weekly farmers market such as the one on 4th st in Edmonton, in which the street is taken back from the cars and the local economy is supported.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Present a Sustainable Arguement

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Leading the Way Youth Summit 2011.  One of the game changing speeches that I encountered came from Dan Dolderman a environmental psychologist from Toronto.  Dan provided us with the tools to present our environmental arguments.  In this excerpt I would like to outline some of Dolderman's main points.

Floating Head
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Environmentalism comes with a lot of finger wagging which poses the risk of coming across as the annoying parent or as the teacher from Charlie Brown whom is only heard in mumbles.  When we talk to people we tend to talk to them as floating heads.  We speak to people as if though we are trying to sink information directly into their brain, as if their brain is some sort of computer that processes information.  We assume that people are rational, and if we feed them with the information, the statistics, that the good behavior will follow.

If people were truly rational beings and were these utility calculators, then we wouldn't have problems such as drug addiction, gambling, alcoholism, and even donations to aid organizations.  I was wondering why Dan included donations in his list, upon further thought if humans were truly logical beings we would hold onto our money to further our own benefit.  None of these conditions would exist if humans were purely logical computers.  The same can be said about our imminent danger with climate change, the logical thing to do in the face of climate change danger poses is to stop it and ensure your own survival.  

What are we actually trying to do when we are communicating, from a psychology perspective we are trying to get neurons to fire.  So essentially we are speaking to their entire central nervous system, you are communicating to their entire body.  It is not just about getting words across to the brain, it is about getting the experience across.  Psychologists have found that what is going on with your body affects what is going on in your mind.  When you feel cold you tend to feel sadder, and when you feel warm you tend to feel happier, Hot/Cold go hand in hand with intimacy and rejection.  So when a patients would remember a time when they were rejected by some one, they would remember a colder room than those that were not.  In experiments where people were purposefully not passed a ball, and a sense of rejection was created, the patients were craving for heat. 

It has also been found that it only takes one word to change the entire meaning of your argument.  Dan used the example of the republican voters in the states rejecting a "fuel tax" (27%) and accepting a "carbon offset" (65%).  Everything else about the statement was kept the same, and this does not make any sense if we are strictly rational information processing utility calculators.  This indicates that it is more of an emotional reaction to the word tax. 

Rider on a Large Elephant
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So when we are communicating to people we are not really talking to this disembodied head, but rather a rider on a very large elephant.  The rider is the rational, logical component of us and the elephant is the emotional component underneath us.  At the end of the day if the rider wants to go this way and the elephant really wants to go the other way, the rider really has no choice. 

When you present people with the imagery of the world ending due to climate change, the fires, the rising waters, you are actually being counter productive.  When you wave danger in front of someone, you scare them, so when you scare the elephant the elephant does not ask what it can do about the danger.  Instead the elephant wants to get away from the fear, fear has the primary effect of people not wanting to be scared anymore.  They could solve this by saving the world, they could also do this by rejecting your message.  When people are afraid they tend to seek security, they tend to be less open minded.  The less open minded they are, the less risk there is that they might be wrong.  In the face of fear people retreat to the familiar, the status quo.  One of things that is familiar to people is their characteristic way of seeing the world, and stereotypes.

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Psychologists have found that it not necessarily the message that you are delivering, but the appearance of the person delivering the message that is important.  People overwhelmingly agreed with the same message the came from the same person in a suit than one that looked like a hippie. 

Dan also provides the a solution of the opportastrophe,  present the catastrophe as an opportunity.  This is a re-framing exercise instead of focusing on the catastrophe, instead focus on the opportunity of the situation.  Ronald Reagan had the statement that the world would be able to get over its problems, if only aliens would attack the world.  If aliens were to attack the world, the entire world would put aside their differences and come together to fight the common enemy.  Aliens would be the common enemy and would unify humanity.  Climate change is kind of like this, climate change is an enemy that is affecting all humans.  You could reframe climate change as an opportunity for change. 

Not only do you have to say that this is an opportunity to do something, you also have follow it up with something tangible such as "here's how we are going to do it".  One of the ways that we can find solutions to climate change is the idea of six degrees of separation.  With such social media networks such as Facebook, or linked-in it is relatively easier to find a connection between any two people in the world than it was in the past.  With these connections you are bound to find someone that has a solution to the problem, on the other hand you can also change the opinion of groups of people if you can change the opinion of the right person through your networks. 

When you are communicating to people there are only a few things that are important, what information do you need to get from the public, to the public, and what behaviour do you want to change.  You have to obtain feedback from communities and find out the sort of things they are willing to do, and what behaviours they are willing to change.  You can get the information from the public through focus groups, interviews, surveys or informal conversations.  Some information you may want to find out is: what do they feel like they can achieve, what do they feel like is within their control, what do they feel would be easy, would be hard, as well as how they think others would perceive those actions.  This last point is important, because it could be that people are too embarrassed to act due to the perceived notion of backlash from their peers.  It just takes a little bit of fear to hold you back, the fear of being judged.  When we beat our peers over the head with the information about climate change, it could be the fact that they are simply too embarrassed to do anything about it because they do not know what to do. 

If we can someone's foot in the door acting on sustainability, this is not negligible and we should not treat it as such.  If you can get someone to start thinking about recycling, it could evolve so that they start thinking about their other unsustainable behaviours.  It is also important to obtain feedback to your ideas, you may never know how and why people are reacting to your ideas until you ask them.   There is two main purposes for asking the public, to obtain feedback, and to create some bias.  If you can get someone's foot in the door, they are just a little bit closer to saying that they are an active community member.  You can obtain useful information such as personal motivators to getting involved (why/why not), or their willingness to get involved.  You have to make sure that when you design a program that you do not build it from the outside and try to assimilate, but rather that you build it within using the feedback of the people and ensure that it won't be rejected due to a sense of outsider intervention. 

When you are trying to get information to the public you have to avoid the "curse of knowledge."  You have to remember that when you are explaining a concept to someone, they may not have the same experiences and knowledge which allows you to understand it seamlessly.  For example if you were to clap the Happy birthday song, only 2-3% of people would recognize it.  This is due to the fact that they do not know what you are thinking about, they do not have song in their head like you do.  You have all of this extra information, so to someone other than yourself it only sounds like a clap, but they do not recognize the beat.  You know the significance of the message however your listeners in the audience do not. 

In order to get over the "curse of knowledge"  keep your message simple, emotional, concrete, and tell stories.  " Our mission is to put a man on the moon."  To make your message simple, try to sum up your point in a sentence or two.  Do not give people choices, people do not like making decisions.  When you have two good alternatives to studying, people will choose to study since they do not want to decide.  The more decisions you give people the less happy they are.  Throughout history we had fables, legends, myths, urban legends, people like stories.  Provide people with visual images as opposed to stats,  instead of telling people how much CO2 they produced show them how big of a hole in their wall it would create.  Everyone can respond to a visual, they can say they do not want that big of a hole in their wall and do something about it.  When you are telling people about all the problems in Africa you can tell them directly, or you can tell a story about a little girl named Amy who is going through hardships in Africa.  When people do this they can double the amount of money they make, tell the emotional story.  You actually make less money when you introduce stats into your emotional story, your rider is thinking about the stats and your elephant thinking about the emotions.  You are making your two parts fight, and it muddies things up. 

Frame your point as a WIIFY (Whats in it for you). Personalize your message towards your audience, include you, your.  Make your audience think about the message in terms of themselves.  Humans are built to look out for their own self-interests, and everyone can understand something from their point of view.  Make people care, not believe. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011


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My girlfriend and I have recently started composting for our very first time.  We both came from families that composted as well, with my parents owning two composting bins.  You never really know how much of an impact composting has on your waste levels.  Since we are vegetarians, basically any waste that is produced from our food can go directly into the composting bin.  Since starting our compost we have seen basically zero waste going into the trash can,  we of course still have a gross amount going into our recycling.  The beautiful thing is that we also make vegetable soup stock with left peelings, and once we are done with that we can throw it into the compost, the ultimate recycling.

It goes to show that it really should be mandatory for cities to have to compost, the city of Edmonton already does this.  When the trash comes into the Edmonton waste facilities, the compostable materials are separated and contributes to Edmonton 60% waste recycle rate.

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We also have a great mini bin for the kitchen, so that you can collect more compost material, instead of having to carry the waste out to the composting bin every day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What would your downtown be like today without transit?

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In this excerpt I would like to do a little bit of backwards thinking.  Lets imagine your cities of Edmonton and Calgary without the LRT running through our downtown.  A single LRT train running through either downtown carries up to 500 passengers every 5 minutes from two directions.  In Edmonton the LRT generates approximately 100,000 trips every day.  I acknowledge that not all trips are going to the same location along the 20 km line, however the majority of trips will terminate downtown.  For the purposes of this scenario lets assume that 75,000 of those trips make it downtown. 

Your typical automobile is 4.5 m long by 2 m wide and takes up 9 square meters of space. Lets assume that everyone takes their own car in this scenario (humans are creatures of comfort after all).  This means that you would need 75,000 automobiles in order to replace the trips normally made on the LRT.  If you were to line this many cars bumper to bumper it would ironically fill one lane of highway II between Edmonton and Calgary plus change at 335 km. 

Approximately 45% of our cities are covered with road infrastructure so this includes parking, roads, garages, overpasses, interchanges.  The downtown Edmonton area is approximately 1.5 square kilometers, and approximately 675,000 square meters is dedicated for automobiles.  Of the 675,000 square meters of infrastructure approximately 250,000 square meters is dedicated to actual roadways.  The problem is that 75,000 cars take up 580,000 square meters of room.  This is more that double the roadway capacity in Edmonton's downtown.  You would need twice the area of Edmonton's downtown just to have room for all of the cars that would have normally been seats on a train.  You would need a 67 story block sized building or 27 twenty story normal sized building to provide parking for all of these cars. 

You have to keep in mind that this is all in addition the normal traffic entering your downtown.  You can forget about having any sort of street life, you would need any available land to try and prevent the disastrous daily traffic jams.  Pedestrians would be forced of the sidewalks above, indoors or underground.  You would have massive unsightly twisting overbearing overhead freeways cutting concrete swaths into the sky.  The smog would be greatly intensified, and almost unbearable.  Your stress would never settle as you would be stuck in traffic for hours.

Thankfully this is not the case, several bright people in our cities past saw the value in transit and decided to invest in it.  You have been spared these horrific experiences due to the decisions of your ancestors.  So what can you do next time your councillor decides to invest in transit, well you can show them your support since even if you do not take transit it makes your life easier too.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cars are not local

I heard this great argument for supporting sustainable transportation, cars do not support the local economy, and this is very true.  Since car manufacturers run with very centralized factories, this means that when you purchase a new car the majority of your money is not going to stay in the region and help support local businesses.  It is very likely that your car was manufactured in eastern Canada/US or oversees in Asia or Europe, and this makes very good business sense for automobile companies as you do not have to duplicate expensive manufacturing line equipment. 

However this is one against the climate and the environment and your local economy.  Since these cars weigh 1 tonne in its final form, it is no small feat to transport a fully built out car across the world and requires a large amount of fuel to run the semi that is most likely carrying the vehicles.  The majority of the money from your new purchase went to the car companies and their overpaid CEO's.  I am going to take a guess that the CEO of Ford or GMC do not live anywhere near Edmonton, or Calgary and thus will not be spending the majority of the money from the car in either city. 

The same can be said about the fuel that runs your vehicles.  Oil companies like car manufacturing companies are very centralized, and only provide a very focused economic benefit.  Often places in the third world countries such as Africa, do not even get to see any of the money produced from the oil leaving their own country, and yet these are the poorest places on the planet.  Again the oil companies and their CEOs are reaping the biggest portion of the money made from Oil, and again I will guess that the owners of the oil companies do not live in Winnipeg, and therefore will not spend their money and support the local economy.

Sure some jobs are created such as car dealers and gas attendants, however the bulk of the money being produced from automobiles and the fuel that runs them is not being reinvested locally.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Canada's Election Results and What it Means

Tonight was very historic in several ways:

  1. Canada now has a green party in parliament, which means that the broadcasting consortium cannot pull a fast one on democracy and ban the green party from the debate again.
  2. The NDP are the official opposition party with >100 seats.
  3. The BQ cannot muddy the federal level politics as they won less than 5 seats.
  4. Unfortunately the Conservatives also one a majority.
With the conservatives having full reign of parliament for the next 4 years, this means that we will see continuing billions of subsidies for billion dollar oil corporations.  This will see further spending on military efforts as opposed to peace keeping efforts.  This means that you will not see a dedicated force for providing guaranteed transit and municipal funding which is desperately needed.  This means that conservancy efforts will not be at the forefront.  The conservatives have no motivation to change our broken first-past-the-post electoral system.  They will increase penalties needlessly for petty crimes such as the possession of crime, more prisons will be built and more people will fill those prisons.  This means that when action is needed to fight climate change, it will not be done as quickly as needed.  The rich will continue to get richer will the poor can barely get by.  Finally Canada's reputation internationally will continue to be tarnished.