You can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities – a few blocks here, a mile there, where people riding bicycles are protected from rushing cars and trucks.
Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road. Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.
“Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”
Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”
“The Kinzie project was discombobulating to the public when it first went in,” notes Alderman Margaret Laurino, chair of the city council’s Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee. “Business owners had questions. But now people understand it and we’re ready to do more.”
“Protected bike lanes are not just for diehard bicyclists – they offer a level of safety and confidence for less experienced riders,” adds Rey Colón, a Chicago alderman who first saw how well these innovations work on a trip to Seville, Spain.
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel campaigned on the promise of building 100 miles of these “green lanes” over the next four years to heighten the city’s appeal to new businesses. After the protected bike lane opened on Kinzie Street last year, more were installed on Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street on the city’s Near West Side. Thirteen more miles are planned this summer throughout the city. (The Chicago suburb of Evanston just announced plans to install protected bike lanes on one of its busy streets.)
People on bikes everywhere feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles. In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter, or slightly elevated bike lanes. But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.
“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane last year,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd. People in business suits, high heels, families out for a ride, more younger and older people.”
This particular bike lane – one of more than 50 protected bikeways built recently in at least 20 cities from New York to Minneapolis to Long Beach, Calif. – is richly symbolic for Americans. It follows 15th Sreet NW to the White House.
“This is what cities of the future are doing to attract businesses and young people,” notes Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “People don’t want to drive all the time; they want a choice.”
The Green Lane Project, an initiative to showcase these next-generation transportation improvements, was launched on May 31 in six US cities: Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore. The effort is coordinated by the Bikes Belong Foundation. Advisers to the project include New York City Department of Transportation (which has already pioneered five miles of protected lanes on six streets), the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and the League of American Bicyclists. Major funders include Volkswagen of America, SRAM, Interbike, the Taiwan Bicycle Exporters Association, and the Bikes Belong Coalition.
The name “green lane” was chosen not only to draw attention to the typical color of protected bike lanes but also to highlight their potential in improving the urban environment and saving on transportation costs. “Green lanes are not just a color on the street. They are paths to better cities,” the project’s website explains, adding that more people on bikes eases congestion and boosts residents’ health, sense of community, and economic opportunities.
The project will connect elected officials, city planners, traffic engineers, bike advocates, and citizens in these six cities to share experiences, trade data, and swap ideas, says Project Director Martha Roskowski. Until this year she ran GO Boulder, the alternative transportation effort at the city of Boulder, Colo., which built its first protected bike lane in the early 1990s.
“For cities, green lanes are like finding a whole new drawer of tools in your toolbox,” Roskowski notes. “Our mission is to expand the knowledge on how to use these tools. How to get them on the ground. How to fine tune them. How to make them work best.”
Five years ago, these designs were barely on the horizon in the US although they’ve been standard in Europe for decades. “Today, cities across the country are looking to green lanes to tame busy streets and connect missing links in the bicycling network,” she says. She points to the 2011 publication of a design guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials as a key factor creating momentum for green lanes. “The guide shows cities how to combine existing, approved design elements in new ways to create these spaces,” says Roskowski.
"The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who as Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund helped start the Green Lane Project. “It’s about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets.”
The six Green Lane Project cities will receive technical assistance and support, backed by targeted grants to help carry out their plans. Other cities around the country will soon be able to tap into a comprehensive resource center of data, documentation, and best practices compiled by the project.
Protected bike lanes are often accompanied by other safety improvements – paint that marks bicyclists’ path through intersections; designated spaces at stoplights that give two-wheel traffic a slight head start; and traffic signals dedicated to people on bikes. All these measures reduce car/bike collisions by making people on bikes more visible and clearly assigning priority at intersections. In addition, many cities around the country are also building buffered bike lanes, where wide patches of paint rather than physical barriers separate bicyclists from cars and trucks.
The proliferation of new bike-sharing systems – where people can conveniently rent bikes at on-street stations with a credit card and return them to another station near their destination – creates new demand for green lanes by getting more riders on the streets. Bike share is now running full bore in Washington, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Chattanooga, and Miami Beach – and coming soon to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. Roskowski notes that the recent rise of bike sharing and protected bike lanes are linked. “Bikeshare puts new people on bikes who want safer, more comfortable place to ride.”
The United States has witnessed a boom in bicycling over the past 15 years, proving that bikes aren’t just for kids and recreational riders anymore. They are an essential component of 21st-century transportation systems that can cut congestion on crowded streets, save money in transportation budgets, improve traffic safety, and reduce pollution.
The number of Americans commuting to work by bike has climbed 43 percent since 2000, according to census figures. And numbers are even higher in places making their streets more accommodating for bicyclists. New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have all doubled the number of people on bikes over the past five years. In Portland, Oregon, 6 percent of all commuters travel to work by bike – an achievement matched by smaller cities such as Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; and Cambridge, Mass. – and surpassed in Boulder, Colo. (10 percent) and Davis, Calif. (22 percent).
Yet overall, America still lags behind many Western nations in embracing bikes as a form of transportation. Only 1 percent of all trips nationally are made by people on bicycles today (up from 0.43 percent a few years ago). There are many explanations – some practical, some philosophical– for why most Americans bike infrequently.
The sprawling layout of many cities and suburbs is one obvious cause. The decline of physical activity among many Americans, even kids, is a likely contributing factor. Some observers point to automobiles’ long reign as a status symbol. Others suggest that many Americans view bicycling as a white, upper-middle class hobby, not as a form of transportation for average families. However, a recent study found that 21 percent of all bike trips in the US are made by people of color.
Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities – where many families don’t own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one – have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. With a 63 percent African-American population, Memphis was selected as one of the six Green Lane cities in part because of Mayor AC Wharton Jr.’s strong support for biking as essential – not a frill – for a city with one of the highest diabetes rates in the country and where 15 percent of households have no access to a car.
Danny Solis – a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago’s West Side with a high percentage of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans – says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities: “It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses and keeps the gangbangers away.”
Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans, whether they ride a bike or not, by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation as well as addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there – the more people ride, the more benefits we’ll all see.
Of course, any proposal to reconfigure the streets – even in modest ways – can stir opposition. It’s true that in some cases, carving out space for people on bikes means reducing parking spaces or travel lanes for cars. In other designs, parking and travel lanes stay the same as existing bike lanes are upgraded with the addition of bollards, or parking is rearranged so that bike lanes run adjacent to the curb,.
A follow-up study tracking the 15th Street Green Lanes in Washington found that 78 percent of people living nearby view the project as a neighborhood amenity. And in New York City, protected bike lanes sparked a heated debate in recent years when politically well-connected figures lobbied to rip them out. But a slew of opinion polls showed that most city residents approved of the changes, even if they themselves did not ride bikes, and the lanes stayed.
Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak acknowledges a “bikelash” is possible when Green Lanes are first introduced in a community, but notes that in this era of shrinking municipal budgets, “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have. It really is the idea that bikes belong.”
It’s not Utopian to think that the United States could become a world leader in bicycling. Americans are an enterprising people, who are capable of almost anything when we apply our ingenuity and technical expertise toward a goal. Who says we can’t match Germany (where 10 percent of all trips are made by bike), Denmark (18 percent), or even the Netherlands (27 percent), all of which are wealthy nations like us where most people own cars.
Protected bike lanes, commonplace throughout Europe and Asia, are a big part of how we accomplish this. Making people feel safer on the streets was how the Netherlands’ engineered a 100 percent increase in bicycling since the 1970s, as well as Germany’s even more dramatic rise from 2 to 10 percent of all trips over the past 15 years. Even a city like Seville, Spain, where almost no one biked a few years ago now boasts a 6-7 percent bike mode share thanks to a network of protected bike lanes built since 2007.
In the United States, we tend to view bicyclists as a unique breed willing to brave city traffic. Bicyclists in Europe are considered no different than anyone else. In the Netherlands, for example, 55 percent of all riders are women, compared to about 25 percent here. Dutch bicyclists over 55 ride at comparable rates to the rest of the population, which is far different than here. And 55 percent of school-age children in the Netherlands ride to school on a regular basis. In the US only 16 percent of kids either bike or walk regularly, down from 42 percent in 1969.
The ultimate goal of the Green Lane Project is to make bicycling feel as normal to Americans as shopping for groceries or walking the dog.
• Jay Walljasper, a YES! Magazine contributing editor and author of "The Great Neighborhood Book" and "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons," chronicles urban life for a variety of publications. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com.
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It’s tough to get an Internet connection in northern Nigeria. That’s why Google was surprised to see – on their user map, where they track the locations of people Googling around the world – a big bright dot of activity in the Nigerian city of Yola, right on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.
So when Google sent a team out to Nigeria last fall to figure out who was doing all that Googling, the California-based company was surprised to find a scene right out of an American college campus. In fact, they sort of did stumble on an American university – the American University of Nigeria (AUN).
According to AUN’s president, American Margee Ensign, Google was pleasantly surprised to find the campus.
“Google told us we were 55 percent of their traffic in the whole country,” Ensign says.
Latitude News caught up with Ensign as she was traveling from California to Nigeria. During a brief layover in Belgium, Ensign talked about what it meant to be an “American-style” university in a country associated in many people’s minds with spammers and Boko Haram.
AUN is the youngest American-style university abroad. The American University of Beirut was founded when Andrew Johnson was president in 1866. The American University in Bulgaria was founded in 1991, shortly after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. These schools, along with their counterparts in Rome, Cairo and the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, offer a liberal arts education – easy to come by in the US, but not so in other parts of the world.
AUN does not have an explicit connection with these other universities, although it has received critical support from American University in Washington DC. The Nigerian school, which opened its doors to students in 2005, was the brainchild of Nigeria’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who credits the Peace Corps for inspiring him to found the school.
As a child, Abubakar was orphaned in a town near Yola, right around the time Nigeria gained independence from Britain.
“[Abubakar] had American Peace Corps teachers and British teachers,” Ensign says. “He has said to me and others the British teachers slapped his hands and said, ‘Repeat after me,’ and the Peace Corps teachers actually asked his opinion.”
Ensign says Abubakar’s fortune ”is coming to the university.”
By Nigerian standards, the university is a hub for technology and infrastructure. Ensign says the campus is home to the largest building in northern Nigeria, and is the country’s only university with electricity around the clock. Students get laptops and have wireless, another unusual feature at a Nigerian university.
“We’re an entirely eBook community, all on iPads,” Ensign says, “and we’re introducing that same technology to a very poor community.”
“I would like to show the world that this technology can be used anywhere and can really allow people to leapfrog the challenges of poverty and illiteracy,” she adds.
AUN’s infrastructure is utilized by young Nigerians (and, increasingly, Rwandans, Ugandans, and Cameroonians) who are eager to pursue a liberal arts education. Like most American universities, undergraduate students study a diverse range of courses for two years, then focus on one field for their remaining two years. The campus is also home to a graduate program and a K-12 school – and a small army.
“When I was recruited for this position, like many, I was quite skeptical and worried about coming to Nigeria,” says Ensign.
Even though she feels at home now, Ensign says she faces constant, atypical challenges. Last week, there was a boa constrictor on campus.
“We had to deal with the local snake charmer,” Ensign says. She adds that in northern Nigeria, a big snake is a small challenge compared with “a terrorist organization about 100 miles from the university.”
The charmer got rid of the snake. A 350-person security force is there for the rest.
The security force, one-third of whom are women, are there to protect the 1,400 students and 90 or so faculty from Boko Haram, an Islamist group labeled as a terrorist group by the US government.
Ensign wouldn’t speak to specific threats from Boko Haram, instead saying the security force is there as a precautionary measure. She says students do not live under the constant threat of violence.
The international press, including Latitude News, has widely reported that Boko Haram literally means, “Western education is forbidden.” But Ensign claims even locals who speak the language don’t know what the phrase means.
As Latitude News has reported, Boko Haram’s rise is the result of complex ethnic, social, and political causes. In 2012, the group’s attacks have grown bolder, and the Nigerian government has had little success in thwarting the movement. In July of this year, the militant Islamist group took the lives of five people.
The State Department recently issued a travel ban that prevents its diplomats in Nigeria from visiting the north where the university is located.
Boko Haram’s existence, Ensign says, means her No. 1 goal is to keep students and faculty safe. Those students seem to have good prospects once they graduate – with an economic growth rate of about7 percent, fueled by oil exports, Nigeria was the fifth fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan African in 2011, according to the World Bank’s most recent Global Economic Prospects Report.
As Nigeria’s economy booms, the fortified campus will keep Google’s map glowing.
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It is a chilly morning in Olenguruone village on the southern flank of the Rift Valley, but Gloria Chepng’etich is warming up to the task at hand.
Spread neatly on her workbench are bamboo splices that the 21-year-old will weave into floor mats over the next hour or so.
She will then pass the handicraft to her colleague, Zipporah Sirui, who will finish it with touches of dye, blending it into a colorful mix of orange, red, and gray.
A single mat fetches around $50, enough for each of them to buy cooking flour and save some money for a rainy day.
Beyond their work, Chepng’etich and Sirui have something else in common – both are internally displaced persons (IDPs). They were among the thousands of families evicted by the Kenyan government from the Mau forest complex in 2009, following pressure by environmentalists to rehabilitate the area.
The complex, which comprises 16 blocks of forest on the western side of the Rift Valley, is the largest indigenous forest in East Africa, generating and capturing rainfall that is a crucial resource for Kenya and beyond and a significant factor in mitigating the regional effects of climate change.
The eviction of forest residents won the government national and international praise, with officials arguing that it would reduce illegal harvesting of forest resources and create space for reforestation in the complex. But the social and economic costs were high.
“We were sent to the Kurbanyat IDP camp,” says Chepng’etich. “For a long time we relied on relief food, but the officials started stealing it.”
Destitute and desperate is how officials with the BamCraft Project found the two, and hundreds of other IDPs. The project is a partnership of Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and the government of Japan.
Now the IDPs are finding a new way to make a living – without cutting trees – by turning to bamboo farming.
At the nearby Kapkempu IDP camp, Hudson Sang’ has been piecing together refined bamboo planks, which he will craft into furniture, selling a set for about $100.
“We have about an acre of land under bamboo,” says Sang’. “After harvesting [the bamboo] we make tables, chairs, floor mats, baskets, brooms, necklaces, sugar dishes, smoking pipes, and even wine cups.”
The land has been loaned to Sang’ and other IDPs by well-wishers while they await permanent resettlement by the government. As a result of the bamboo project, he no longer has to worry about the forest guards who enforce a ban that since 2000 has restricted the harvesting of forest resources from all government forests.
The legislation requires Kenyans to seek permission from local authorities before cutting down any tree from their farms, but it does not apply to bamboo since the plant is classified as a giant grass, officials say.
The legislation prompted the Kenya Forestry Research Institute to investigate opportunities offered by nontimber products and their potential to reduce pressure on forests, says Gordon Sigu, a research scientist working with the institution.
“Our research has shown that the grass … can supplement the rising demand for timber both at home and abroad,” Sigu said.
He said bamboo grows very quickly and a farmer does not need a big area of land to cultivate it.
Farmers in central Kenya are pleased with bamboo’s commercial value, and a growing number of them are adopting bamboo farming to supply industrial fiber, as well as planks for the construction sector.
“Before I came to know about its value I used bamboo for fencing,” says Moses Kamiri, a farmer in central Kenya. “But the last harvest fetched me enough money to feed my family and pay school fees.”
Kamiri now turns his bamboo harvest into finished products through a process set up by KEFRI for entrepreneurs.
The institute estimates that Kenya is home to 14 species of bamboo growing on some 150,000 hectares [370,000 acres] of land – more than a fifth of which lies within the Mau complex – but it says that a lot goes to waste because few people understand its commercial value.
According to KEFRI’s Rift Valley regional director, Joshua Cheboiywo, the country has the capacity to generate almost 25 million stems of bamboo per year without taking too much of the country’s water supply.
A 2010 government survey indicates that Kenya has a forest cover of 5.9 percent. The government hopes that the use of bamboo as an alternative timber resource, together with enforcement of the ban on logging in the Mau complex, will help the country make headway towards the target envisioned in the country’s constitution of 10 percent forest cover within the next 30 years.
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Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the United States. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices.
The US Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.
Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run, but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork, and dairy products.
Nearly half of all domestic corn production is used as livestock feed, a trend that is now encouraging larger livestock producers to import corn from Brazil while smaller farmers must reduce herd sizes by sending more animals to the market. Most immediately, poultry prices are expected to rise 3.5 to 4.5 percent due to the animals’ more rapid growth and therefore more sudden response to higher feed prices. The price of beef is projected to rise the highest – 4 to 5 percent by November – but at a slower rate, reflecting the longer growth period and higher feed requirements of beef cattle.
Higher US grain prices could have an even greater impact worldwide. The United States is the world’s largest corn producer as well as a major exporter of crop-derived agricultural products. Declining domestic production could translate into exacerbated food security problems abroad. Countries that import corn and soybean byproducts or animal feed, such as Japan and Mexico, will be affected the most.
Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought.
The Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet.org) project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make US and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable:
- Agroforestry: Planting trees in and around farms reduces soil erosion by providing a natural barrier against strong winds and rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. The 1990 Farm Bill established the USDA National Agroforestry Center with the expressed aim of encouraging farmers to grow trees as windbreaks or as part of combined forage and livestock production, among other uses.
- Soil management: Alternating crop species allows soil periods of rest, restores nutrients, and also controls pests. Soil amendments, such as biochar, help soils retain moisture near the surface by providing a direct source of water and nutrients to plant roots, even in times of drought.
- Increasing crop diversity: Mono-cropping often exposes crops to pests and diseases associated with overcrowding, and can increase market dependence on a few varieties: In the United States, almost 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished in favor of mono-cultured staples such as Pink Lady apples and Yukon Gold potatoes. Encouraging diversity through agricultural subsidies and informed consumption choices can help reverse this trend and the threat it poses to domestic food security.
- Improving food production from existing livestock: Improved animal husbandry practices can increase milk and meat quantities without the need to increase herd sizes or associated environmental degradation. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals. This also reduces pressure on global corn supplies.
- Diversifying livestock breeds: Most commercial farming operations rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs. Selective breeding, however, has also made these breeds vulnerable to diseases and changing environments. Lesser-known livestock such as North American Bison are often hardier and produce richer milk.
- “Meatless Mondays”: Choosing not to eat meat at least one day a week will reduce the environmental impacts associated with livestock as well as increase food availability in domestic and global markets. Current production methods require 7 kilograms of grain and 100,000 liters of water for every 1 kilogram of meat. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions and roughly 23 percent of agricultural water use worldwide.
- Smarter irrigation systems: The Ogallala High Plains Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to many Midwestern states, is experiencing record rates of depletion due to extraction for irrigation purposes. Almost 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water, however, is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper design, and overwatering. Installing water sensors or micro-irrigation technology and planning water-efficient gardens or farms using specific crops and locations can significantly reduce water-scarcity problems.
- Integrated farming systems: Farming systems, such as permaculture, improve soil fertility and agricultural productivity by using natural resources as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Research and implementation of permaculture techniques, such as recycling wastewater or planting groups of plants that utilize the same resources in related ways, are expanding rapidly across the United States.
- Agroecological and organic farming: Organic and agroecological farming methods are designed to build soil quality and promote plant and animal health in harmony with local ecosystems. Research shows that they can increase sustainable yield goals by 50 percent or more with relatively few external inputs. In contrast, genetic engineering occasionally increases output by 10 percent, often with unanticipated impacts on crop physiology and resistance.
- Supporting small-scale farmers: Existing agricultural subsidies in the United States cater disproportionately to large-scale agribusinesses, 80 percent of which produce corn for animal feed and ethanol. This means that small-scale producers are affected more acutely by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, even though they are more likely to be involved in food production. Government extension and support services should be adjusted to alleviate this deficit.
- Re-evaluating ethanol subsidies: Although ethanol’s share of US gasoline is still relatively small (projected at 15 to 17 percent by 2030), in 2009 the Congressional Budget Office reported that increased demand for corn ethanol has, at times, contributed to 10–15 percent of the rise in food prices. Encouraging clean energy alternatives to crop-based biofuels will increase the amount of food available for consumption, both at home and abroad.
- Agricultural Research and Development (R&D): The share of agricultural R&D undertaken by the US public sector fell from 54 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2009, and private research has filled the gap. Private companies, however, are often legally bound to maximize economic returns for investors, raising concerns over scientific independence and integrity. Increased government funding and support for agricultural research, development, and training programs can help address issues such as hunger, malnutrition, and poverty without being compromised by corporate objectives.
Although food prices will certainly continue to rise as the current drought runs its course, it is clear that the United States has the knowledge and the know-how to make its agricultural system more sustainable and food secure. It’s now a question of putting these innovations to work.
Motorcycle taxis, or boda bodas, are that East African city's equivalent of rickshaws in India or yellow cabs in New York. But boda boda drivers, however sharply they're dressed, often barely make ends meet: A big chunk of most drivers' incomes goes toward rent payments to the motorcycle owner.
For a growing number of boda boda drivers, however, that loss of income has stopped: Instead of paying 50,000 shillings ($20) a week in rent for the motorcycle, they pay 60,000 shillings ($24) a week for 17 or 18 months to become full-fledged owners of their own bikes.
Own Your Own Boda (OYOB) is a young enterprise that aims to profit by empowering people to earn more income and be less dependent on an owner who can take the bike away at any time. OYOB reinvests its profits into buy more motorcycles and expanding the program to other drivers – and perhaps eventually to other cities.
To date, OYOB has loaned out about 70 motorcycles, most of which are on the road now (25 loans are already completed). Another 20 to 30 people are on the waiting list.
Co-founder and CEO Michael Wilkerson says that once the driver owns his own motorcycle, he takes home about $100 extra per month. Drivers have used that extra income to buy homes, start new businesses, and pay school fees for their children.
OYOB was founded by Mr. Wilkerson and a friend he met while working at The Independent news magazine in Uganda, Matt Brown. The enterprise came into being almost by accident. Medie Sebi, who is now the company's manager, was a boda boda driver in Kampala whom Wilkerson trusted and had befriended. Mr. Sebi managed to get a boda boda loan, and when he took ownership of the motorbike, he was able to sell it and buy land for his mother.
"Medie took me to have lunch with his mother, in her village on the land that he bought, in the small one-room brick house, which he also helped build," Wilkerson says.
He was impressed. So Wilkerson and Mr. Brown asked Sebi if he'd want another loan; they wanted to try out administering such a loan, and they trusted Sebi as a starting point. He said yes – and pointed out that many others like him needed the same kind of help.
Soon enough, Wilkerson and Brown had loaned out seven bikes. Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, who founded The Independent, took notice. "I'll never forget the words he used," Wilkerson says. "'You are changing the trajectory of these people's lives.'"
Mr. Mwenda is not one to support just any old development program. Interested in seeing the positive impact scaled up, he invested the project. It's been growing ever since.
OYOB is currently adding about three bikes a month, Wilkerson says, all from the money it collects from the motorbikes it loans out. The goal is to get to 250, which he admits is a somewhat arbitrary number.
"But we just want to get to a place where we have to hire multiple new managers," he says. That will ensure they sort out any kinks that remain, at which point they can look into expanding to other cities in East and Central Africa.
The model could also be applied to other vocations, like sewing machines for tailors. Wilkerson says.
The plan doesn't come without critics. Milford Bateman, a freelance consultant on economic development and well-known critic of microfinance programs, says, "The poor are put in a much riskier situation when investing their scarce wealth into buying a taxi, when renting at least means they simply walk away if [there are] any problems."
He adds: "With a rental bike, if demand falls, you can simply hand it back and stop paying. But with an owned bike, you have an asset but nothing to do with it. Its value wastes away, and you lose your investment."
Wilkerson doesn't see demand for boda bodas falling. Indeed, Kampala is a bustling city, and motorcycles are a popular way to navigate the traffic-jammed streets. Plus, he says, OYOB is selecting the cream of the crop of boda boda drivers. It chooses drivers who are not only reliable with their finances ("We've only had one guy we gave a bike to run away with it, and that was a mistake on our part," Wilkerson says) – but are safe drivers, as well.
The OYOB staff has noticed a lack of accidents among loan participants – and boda boda accidents are usually common, Wilkerson says. "But we've only had two, with more than 70 guys who are on the road every day for many hours. That to me suggests that there's either something about our vetting process or about having your own bike that makes you less at risk for accidents."
If demand were to fall, OYOB drivers are likely to stay afloat because they’ve developed loyal customers who will keep calling when they need a ride.
It’s hard not to compare the OYOB formula to microfinance schemes. But, Wilkerson says, "This is better. We're not hoping that someone will be a successful entrepreneur. We're allowing them the means to own their own tools for a job they're already doing.”
The motorcycle itself is a physical asset, so if something does go wrong, the OYOB staff can take it back and give it to someone who will do better.
"At the end of the day, [the drivers] are paying us for the ability to use something they can't afford to buy themselves," Wilkerson says. "We have to invest in people who are willing to work hard for themselves."
At the Jordan Pond House, if a popover doesn’t make it from oven to table in 15 minutes, it’s toast.
Each season two local pig farmers collect more than 20,000 pounds of uneaten popovers from the famed tea house to use as animal feed.
Known as “Popovers for Pigs” this program is just one example of the many environmental steps undertaken by the only restaurant to operate inside Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island along the seacoast of Maine.
More than 2,000 people a day dine at the restaurant, whose lawn tables and chairs face Jordan Pond and the Bubble Mountains. Cadillac and Sargent Mountains rise on either side of the pond. The pristine scenery lends an "Alice in Wonderland"-like feel to the restaurant.
But in some ways the restaurant is under siege: More than 2 million people visit Acadia National Park each year (and the park is only a fraction of the size of, say, Yosemite National Park). In addition to the thousands who dine at the restaurant daily, many more avail themselves of the restrooms and water fountains there.
With so many pairs of feet walking through, the restaurant decided to act.
“Pigs do indeed like popovers. They prefer the butter and the jam, but they will eat them all the same,” says David Woodside, president of Acadia Corporation, which manages the more than 100-year-old Jordon Pond House. The privately owned and operated restaurant works with the park as a licensed concession.
Today the Jordon Pond House prides itself on its recycling efforts, which are the result of teamwork – from the wait staff who began the recycling efforts to the maintenance crew who pushed for composting.
“It is all really grass roots,” says Michael Daley, operations manager of the Jordan Pond House.
Each year the restaurant recycles more than 50,000 lbs. of cardboard, 8,000 lbs. of paper, 2,500 lbs. of plastic, and 2,500 lbs. of metal.
Every morning the wait staff peels lemons to make gallons of lemonade for thirsty hikers, cyclists, and other tourists. Boxes of rinds sit outside the kitchen, waiting to be ground.
When Les Harbur, the restaurant’s maintenance manager, saw the hundreds of pounds of lemon rinds being tossed daily, he decided to turn them into compost. Today Jordan Pond House composts approximately 30,000 lbs. of lemon rinds, egg shells (200,000 of them), coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable trimmings, and garden waste each season. The compost is spread on the gardens and lawns.
The citrus in the compost acts as a natural pesticide, Mr. Daley says. All along the building black-eyed Susan’s, daylilies, and loosestrife reach toward the sun. If one looks closely one can spot crushed eggshells in the soil – and catch a whiff of lemon in the air.
“We have the best-smelling compost in the area,” Daley says.
Another example of the restaurant's efforts toward increased sustainability comes in the little porcelain containers of strawberry jam served with popovers. The Jordan Pond House buys the jam from an Amish family who live about 115 miles away in Smyrna, Maine. The family makes the jam, fills the containers, and delivers them to the island. In the kitchens the wait staff empties them, loads them in the dishwasher, and prepares them for their return trip to Smyrna.
In another nod to the restaurant’s roots, the Jordan Pond House features local seafood. The restaurant has joined a local fishermen's cooperative. Rather than importing frozen haddock, the menu features Atlantic whiting, Acadian redfish, and other local underutilized species.
Christopher J. Brown, one of two pig farmers who use the popovers, also runs a soup kitchen in Bar Harbor, Maine. Mr. Brown comes almost every afternoon to the loading dock just outside the kitchen. There he finds an enormous garbage pail nearly overflowing with golden brown popovers. With help Brown tips the pail into a plastic bag and heaves it onto his truck.
“The pigs fight for the popovers," he says. "They will peel and eat them to get to the insides.”
The neighborhood is the basic building block of human civilization, whether in a big city, small town, or suburban community. It’s also the place where you can have the most influence in making a better world.
These suggestions, drawn from my book The Great Neighborhood Book (a collaboration with Project for Public Spaces), are focused on strengthening the sense of community and spirit of the commons by providing people with ways to come together as friends, neighbors, and citizens. That creates a firm foundation that enables a neighborhood to solve problems and seize opportunities.
This is drawn from a presentation I regularly give to community, civic, academic, professional, and business groups. For more information, see Jay Walljasper.com.
1. Give people a place to hang-out.
2. Give people something to see.
3. Give people something to do.
4. Give people a place to sit down.
5. Give people a safe, comfortable place to walk.
6. Give people a safe, comfortable place to bike.
7. Give people reliable, comfortable public transportation.
8. Make the streets safe – from crime.
9. Make the streets safe – from traffic.
10. Remember the streets belong to everyone, not just motorists.
11. Don’t forget about the needs of older neighbors.
12. Don’t forget about the needs of kids.
13. Let your community go to the dogs.
14. Reclaim front yards as social spaces.
15. Remember the best neighborhoods, even in big cities, feel like villages.
16. Plan for winter weather as well as sunny, warm days.
17. Don’t fear density – people enjoy being around other people.
18. Don’t give up hope – great changes are possible when neighbors get together.
19. Build on what’s good in your community to make things even better.
20. Remember the power of the commons: people working together for the benefit of everyone in the neighborhood.
21. Never underestimate the power of a shared meal to move people into action.
22. Start with small steps – like planting flowers.
23. Become a community booster, watchdog, patriot.
24. Learn from other neighborhoods in your town and around the world.
25. Take the time to have fun and enjoy what’s already great about your neighborhood.
With more than $2 million raised for the victims of Friday morning’s shooting rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the Community First Foundation, the main local organization collecting donations, plans to give the first $100,000 raised, plus an additional $100,000 from the foundation, to local charities by the end of this week.
The $2 million total includes contributions from Warner Bros., the studio behind the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” whose midnight screening was interrupted when the alleged gunman, James Holmes, opened fire. Twelve people were killed and 58 were injured. Mr. Holmes was subsequently arrested but has not yet been charged.
In the aftermath of the shooting, more than 2,500 individuals have donated through GivingFirst.org, the Community First Foundation’s online fundraising Web site, bringing in a total of $251,000 so far, says Cheryl Haggstrom, executive vice president. Others mailed in checks or wired their donations.
At GivingFirst.org, donors can choose from a list of 10 organizations to contribute to, or they can give to the Community First Foundation’s Aurora Victim Relief Fund. Thus far, the 10 groups have received $105,000 in total, and the fund has garnered $146,000.
The foundation says it has waived all fees used to administer the fund, which was established in partnership with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Many local organizations say they have been inundated by calls from people around the country wanting to donate. But rather than collecting those contributions on their own, some charities, such as the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, have pointed donors to the GivingFirst.org Web site, the portal through which it has long accepted donations. So far, the nonprofit, which provides support for crime victims, has received $45,000 through GivingFirst, says Nancy Lewis, the victim group's executive director.
“It’s been overwhelming,” she says. “People have really opened up across the country to help the victims in any way they can.”
Her organization is setting up a committee to help disburse the donations to the shooting victims and their families. Apart from honoring requests from donors to give directly to specific victims, the group says it will use families’ financial needs as a criterion for distributing the money. Ms. Lewis estimates the process to take a full year. The timeframe and approach are similar to the organization’s response after the Columbine High School killings in 1999.
Other organizations that have faced similar floods of donations after a tragedy took a more cautious approach. The Denver Foundation initially told the public through its Web site that it was “currently examining opportunities to provide relief” and “will offer more information in the near future.” The organization then took action Tuesday night by urging donors to give to a “Critical Needs Fund” it has set up.
So far, a few thousand dollars have trickled in, says David Miller, the foundation’s president. There’s a possibility his organization will end up giving the money to the Community First Foundation. Mr. Miller, though, prefers to give the money to needs that aren’t particularly attractive to donors, such as paying utility bills or the salary of a receptionist for a local group like the Aurora Mental Health Center, whose counseling services have been in demand.
Some charities have had to tell their donors they aren’t collecting donations. Denver affiliates of both the American Red Cross and the United Way are directing supporters to Community First Foundation’s fundraising efforts since they are not principally involved in providing services to those in need.
Those charities have given support, though. For example, the United Way set up a number that victims’ families could call to find out which hospital their relatives were in, and the Red Cross provided immediate shelter and food for those displaced by the incident, such as the residents of Mr. Holmes’s apartment building, which was evacuated
after police found explosives there.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as social networks lit up with news of what had transpired, some individuals urged others to give to the Red Cross to help the victims. Red Cross officials quickly responded on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere that the charity was not currently raising money to help the shooting victims.
Clear messages to potential donors are important at a time like this, says Robert Thompson, a spokesman for Mile High United Way. “We don’t want to muddy the waters. We didn’t want to make things confusing.”
There’s nothing like the power of a good story, says Trevor Burbank, to cross the cultural divides between countries.
Mr. Burbank is cofounder and CEO of Teach Twice, a social venture that aims to publish children's stories from around the world in an effort to spread traditions and tales across the globe. A portion (currently 35 percent) of the profits from the books goes to help schools and students in the country where the story originates.
Teach Twice's title echoes the venture's dual purposes: It provide parents with great stories to read to their children, and it provides financial support to schools and students in the developing country from which the book came. Ideally, both the author and illustrator live in the country where the narrative originated.
“Our real point is sharing the culture and the story,” says Burbank, who graduated from Vanderbilt University this spring.
Teach Twice was created when Burbank’s cofounder, Teach Twice's chief operating officer and fellow Vanderbilt student Jason Wen, approached Burbank about it. Burbank was able to bring his experience working for community-development projects, such as one that assists orphans in Africa, to the venture. The two developed the idea in December 2010 and January 2011.
Burbank and Wen then assembled a group of 12 Vanderbilt undergraduate and graduate students to get Teach Twice off the ground. The team won third place at a Vanderbilt Entrepreneur Society competition in which they were the only group using undergraduate students and the only nonprofit group, Burbank says.
Along with third place, they received a $250 prize. “It wasn't a huge amount, but it was the first one we won, so it was exciting,” Burbank says.
They later placed as semifinalists at a Dell Social Innovation competition, receiving $5,000 in prize money. Through a combination of the money they’d won, grants, donations, and money raised through the fundraising website Kickstarter, Teach Twice was able to publish its first title, “My Precious Name,” in March.
“My Precious Name” tells the story of a Ugandan boy who learns the importance of his name. It was written by Eva Baronga, with illustrations by Sam Muganga. Teach Twice found the story through its East Africa regional director, Paul Kabanda. Burbank had met Mr. Kabanda when he traveled to Uganda on a trip sponsored by his church.
Kabanda contacted the Ugandan Children’s Writers and Illustrators Association to find a local team to write the book. Money from the book’s sales will go into the construction of a school in Nakikungube, Uganda.
Members of Teach Twice find the story, market it, and design the narrative, Burbank says. The printing is handled by Worzalla, a book manufacturer based in Stevens Point, Wis.
Printing books isn’t Burbank's area of expertise, so working with Worzalla was invaluable, he says. “They were really good about holding my hand and helping me understand the details.”
The story for Teach Twice's next book, “Tall Enough,” comes from South Africa and will be published in October.
Currently, Teach Twice books are only sold through its website, TeachTwice.org, and at business presentations. Teach Twice hopes to have its titles available on Amazon within the next month, Burbank says.
The social venture also wants to continue working on another project, titled Teach One, in which volunteers teach and mentor middle and high school students in the United States. Teach One will launch at five colleges this year, Burbank says, with the hope that additional chapters will be started in other communities.
Teach Twice expects to continue publishing children’s titles, Burbank says, as well as expand to include photography and fiction books for all ages.
“After that, we really want to take off,” he says.
For the past nine years, seafood industry executives and marine conservationists have met in a European or North American city to talk about sustainability at the annual Seafood Summit.
This year, they’ll meet in Hong Kong. It’s a sign that market-based efforts to make fishing and aquaculture more environmentally friendly are spreading from Europe and the US, where eco-labeling schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) were first launched, to Asia, where most of the world’s fishermen, fish farmers, and seafood consumers live.
So far in Asia, wealthy, seafood-loving Japan is leading the way. Yes, Japanese fishing boats still hunt whales under the guise of scientific research. Fishermen continue to kill dolphins in Taiji’s now-infamous coves, and Tokyo sushi lovers still feast on endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. But at the same time, consumers and corporations here are becoming some of the first in Asia to put their buying power to work for the cause of sustainable seafood.
Signs of the nascent revolution could be found on a recent afternoon in the sprawling fish display of a chain grocery store in Nagano Prefecture, three hours from Tokyo. There, nearly hidden among the piles of attractively packaged seafood and the red flags blaring “The more you buy, the cheaper it seems!,” sat several dozen Styrofoam trays of salmon and trout roe, salted mackerel, and salmon steaks bearing the MSC logo, signifying that the fish had been sustainably caught.
Fumiko Yamaguchi, 81, who purchases fish at the store every day, said she’d never noticed the small blue-and-white label. She is worried about the state of the world’s oceans, however. “Programs about overfishing are on TV all the time lately — if we harvest too many fish there won’t be any left,” she said, adding that fishermen and government regulators, not consumers, must fix the problem.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or recovering. Like Yamaguchi, many Japanese are aware of those dismal figures. Yet eating seafood is a central part of national food culture — so much so, says Greenpeace Japan’s oceans campaign manager Wakao Hanaoka, that “some people think they have a right to eat it, and they don’t want outsiders telling them not to.” That, along with other cultural and institutional factors, means the notion of sustainable seafood still faces an uphill fight in Japan.
If more Japanese consumers embrace seafood sustainability, they could have a significant impact on ocean ecosystems. The Japanese eat 6 percent of the world’s fish harvest, 81 percent of its fresh tuna, and a significant chunk of all salmon, shrimp, and crab. Japan also imports more seafood than any other country and caught 4.2 million metric tons of fish in 2008.
“Japan is an incredibly powerful player in fisheries and as a market,” says Adam Baske, an international policy officer at the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Environment Group. Japan demonstrated its dominance at the 2010 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, where Japanese officials allegedly pressured representatives from Asia, Africa, and other regions to join them in voting down a proposed ban on international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna. Turning that power toward conservation, Baske says, represents “an incredible opportunity.”
Quite a few international environmental organizations seem to have had the same idea recently. In the past six years WWF, Greenpeace, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership have all launched seafood campaigns in Japan. Greenpeace has published a Japanese-language guide to threatened seafood, and WWF plans to release 50,000 copies of its own guide later this summer.
MSC, the world’s leading wild-caught seafood standard setter, is also making inroads in Japan. Although total market share for MSC-labeled products remains below 1 percent, nearly 30 food retailers — including four of the top 10 — carry about 250 different products from various fisheries certified as sustainable. One in six consumers recognizes the label, and three fisheries — for skipjack tuna, flounder, and snow crab — have won certification. MSC’s Tokyo office, opened in 2007, remains the organization’s sole Asian outpost.
While persuading consumers in seafood-centered Japan to purchase sustainably caught fish is a particular challenge, the fact remains that influencing the public’s seafood-buying choices remains a daunting challenge worldwide. The MSC has certified 168 fisheries — ranging from Alaskan salmon to Argentine anchovies — as sustainable, representing about 8 percent of the world’s annual harvest of wild fish. The organization is now assessing another 116 fisheries. Consumers in Europe are increasingly attuned to whether the seafood they’re purchasing is sustainable. But numerous analysts believe the most important progress is being made on the corporate front, where international giants such as Unilever, Wal-Mart, and McDonalds are buying larger quantities of certified seafood.
In Japan, a domestic fishing-industry organization launched its own seafood standard in 2007, called Marine Eco-Label Japan (MEL Japan). MEL Japan secretariat staff member Masashi Nishimura says the scheme, which has certified 13 fisheries and 45 processors and distributors to date, was a proactive response to international trends. “When it comes to managing Japan’s fisheries, Japanese actors have been doing it longer than anyone else,” says Nishimura. “There was a need for a Japanese-run scheme.” MEL Japan encourages traditional systems of voluntary, fishermen-led resource allotment called “co-management.”
But critics say co-management has done little to prevent the decline of coastal fish stocks, 40 percent of which are rated in poor condition by Japan’s Fisheries Research Agency. They also point out that MEL Japan, whose secretariat is run by an industry association and whose certifier is a nonprofit organization that includes fisheries industry representatives on its board, is hardly in a position to impartially evaluate those fisheries. (MSC, too, has been widely accused of certifying fisheries that are not sustainable.) Nevertheless, MEL Japan is a sign that some fishermen think eco-labels will help them sell fish because customers are starting to care about sustainability.
As is the case globally, Japanese corporations, rather than consumers, have provided most of the momentum so far. Aeon, Japan’s largest supermarket chain, began enthusiastically promoting MSC-certified seafood in 2006, but spokeswoman Miho Takahama says the company was not motivated by consumer demand. “Back in 2006, customers were like, ‘What’s MSC?’" she says. “We wanted to proactively introduce sustainably harvested fish as a way to protect marine resources and secure a steady, long-term supply of fish. To do that, we had to raise customer awareness about MSC.”
Greenpeace’s Hanaoka, who recently began negotiations with Japan’s top five supermarket chains to sell less of certain threatened species like eel and tuna, suggests retailers may have more near-sighted motivations as well. “The food retail market is quite saturated and competitive,” he said. “Brand image is very important.” And corporate-centered strategies for reforming the seafood industry may be particularly critical in Japan, where environmental groups have little lobbying power and are not often able to force regulatory change. In contrast, the fishing industry enjoys strong links to regulatory agencies.
“After World War II, Japan promoted its fishing industry because there was a lack of protein,” explains Toshio Katsukawa, an associate professor of fishery management at Mie University. “Catching as many fish as possible was the policy objective. It worked.” He says that while the industry has declined since its peak in the 1960s and 70s, policy still focuses on supporting rather than aggressively regulating fisheries. Retired bureaucrats regularly cycle into top posts at fishing industry organizations, and politicians compete for fishermen’s votes.
Katsukawa says most consumers don’t have the information they need to challenge overly cheery government narratives about fisheries. “It’s a problem of education," he says. "People are taught that eating many fish is a good thing because it supports Japanese culture.”
Environmental organizations do offer alternative information, but they are smaller, weaker, and poorer than their counterparts in the US and Europe. When environmental groups bring up fish, they face an additional challenge: anger over controversial campaigns by Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, and others to end whaling and dolphin hunting.
But Aiko Yamauchi, WWF Japan’s fishery and seafood project leader, sees sustainable seafood as a positive way to approach the issue. “We’re trying to improve troubled fisheries, not just tell people to avoid eating fish,” she says. “The global movement is not opposed to Japanese culture.”
That approach is slowly starting to work. Ultimately, however, trends that have nothing to do with sustainability may dwarf the progress WWF and other organizations have made in Japan. Fish consumption is falling as people buy more meat and convenience foods, and annual fish harvests have fallen by more than half since 1985 as both fishing communities and fish stocks decline.
Meanwhile, aquaculture production, fish processing, and seafood consumption are all booming in neighboring China, which now consumes about one third of the world’s fish. MSC plans to open an office there and another in Singapore in the near future. Whether lessons from Japan prove useful remains to be seen.
• Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist living in Japan. She has written about the environment for the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and other publications. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, she reported on the struggle to maintain bear populations in heavily urbanized Japan.