Trowels and Podiums

Garden at the ATS

So a couple Sundays ago I volunteered through Arlington’s Community Volunteer Network, or CVN, which is a social network centered around young adults in their 20s and 30s who are looking to get engaged / involved with the community. I signed up in the winter time when I tried to battle my “seasonal affective disorder” by motivating myself to jump start my self worth. Inconveniently I signed up for a half marathon for the end of March so the majority of my days, including weekends, were dedicated to training. Just thinking about it makes me tired…but the runner’s high sure did a number on my “SAD” (my boyfriend thinks I’m a hypochondriac, which may very well be true…).

Anyways, I finally made time for CVN and signed up for one of my “favorite” past times – gardening! Of course gardening can be fun, but I have many memories of “gardening” with my mom which consisted of me squatting for 5 hours straight and picking out minuscule weeds with my tiny child labor hands (now I know why my parents had 3 kids). But the end result was a well manicured and thriving garden! Sunday’s experience ranked much more favorable in my memories of gardening and consisted of, well, weeding, but also interacting with interesting people. As a 20 something year old, I have a little more tolerance for dirty work so the weeding wasn’t so bad this time around…

I eavesdropped on some interesting conversations and met some even more interesting people. The girl who organized this specific volunteer opportunity had recently gotten her Master’s in Urban Environmental Leadership and creating this project was part of her program.

Mary and the young gardeners

The woman (Mary) who ran the gardening project, which is actually a project geared towards getting children and students involved in the natural environment, hailed from England and had some very interesting stories to tell about her recent (and not so recent) involvement with the Arlington Public Schools (APS)…more on this later.

Turns out she is the chair of the Arlington Traditional School Grounds and Gardening Committee, which is presumably how she was able to start this project.  The garden was very impressive and included a variety of different plants, flowers and shrubs…I’m not going to pretend like I know their names.  But there is also a vegetable patch where just a couple weeks ago the 4th grade gardeners harvested 12 lbs worth of potatoes, fava beans and snap peas and donated them to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.  How sustainable!!  Mary maintains the ATS Garden Blog, recounting all the activities involved with the garden.

Well, while getting my hands dirty, I chatted with Mary about her current efforts with APS to inject sustainability into the school system – that is, to add Sustainability as a Core Value as well as focus on environmental stewardship and sustainability throughout the APS Strategic Plan.  Once she realized I had recently gotten my Master’s degree in “Sustainability” and wrote my final 15,000 word disseration on sustainability initiatives in the higher education sector (p.s. 15,000 words are A LOT of words), I could see a light bulb flash in her head.  She graciously asked if I could attend the School Board meeting that Thursday, as they would be discussing the draft Strategic Plan (SP), and if I could speak on the topic, as a whole time slot of the meeting is dedicated to Public Opinions on the SP.  I was honored to attend, and was happy to speak.  So, for the first time since October of last year, I revisited my lengthy dissertation.  Of course the major link between me and the board meeting was that I had actually researched what works and what doesn’t work in terms of implementing environmental programs in schools (albeit universities, but education is the same across the board).

Maybe it was the knowledge I had about this topic that empowered me, but I didn’t hesitate to follow-up and attend the meeting, though it may have also rendered me unprepared to really speak my mind when the time came.  I wouldn’t say I’m a great public speaker, but with careful preparation, and after the longest 30-60 seconds ever of a quivering voice and shifty eyes, I can normally relax and provide a quality presentation to a crowd.  After a few days of re-reading sections of my dissertation about barriers to environmental sustainability, I threw together a brief speech that would first and foremost request the board to add Sustainability to the Core Values (as discussed with Mary).  I also threw in some other points to prove I had done my homework and read the SP.  I have always learned that when giving a presentation or a speech, it is not good to read directly from your notes.  So in being loyal to my studies, I prepared myself in such a way that I would use my notes to guide me through my comments.  Turns out, every single person that prepared comments on the SP did exactly what we learned in school not to do – they read, verbatim, from their notes.  So it was obvious that I was the rookie in the room and since we weren’t being graded on our comments, the veteran speakers knew it was best to have thoughtfully pre-written the comments to present to the board.  So after seeing 6 people go up to the podium and offer well read comments, it was my turn to face the board.

Why was I so nervous?  I wasn’t speaking to more than 20 people, I knew what I was talking about (hell, I wrote 15,000 words on the topic), and I was only supposed to speak for less than 3 minutes.  180 seconds.  Well I stood up there and followed suit in thanking the board for the time to comment on the strategic plan and started my comments NOT reading from my notes.  Already I had lost my place when I started to add in thoughts that weren’t on the page.  Why didn’t I just pre-write my speech?  This isn’t hard, I was thinking, control the shaky vocal cords and focus.  After forgetting what Goal 3 was, even though I had read it countless times, I uneasily shifted through my notes to refer to it in my speech when asking to add “environmental accountability” to the list.  Well, there goes my confidence.  I resorted to reading straight from my notes, which wasn’t very much as I had scribbled down some other points in the margins of my notes that I not so tacitly omitted.  I finished rather abruptly, thanked them again for their time, and after being told that they are always pleased to see someone speak who is not involved in the public school system, I flashed a genuine, yet nervous smile at them and sat down.  Of course Mary and the other sustainability supporters were pleased that I came because, well, power in numbers.  I’m glad I did it, but now I know there are a few things I have to work on before I stand in front of another podium…

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I feel a revolution coming on, not just any revolution…but a Velorution!

Creative bike rack - Brooklyn, NY

What in the world is a Velorution, you ask?  Why, it’s a bike revolution, using the French word “velo” for bike, silly!  I feel like up until just recently, biking in the US has been widely under-rated.  Of course, as a wide eyed child with the sky as the limit, you can probably remember thinking that biking was the crème de la crème…or at least most kids did that grew up in the 90’s.  I must admit, though, that after a child is introduced to the wonders of a bicycle, it is only a matter of time until the child is presented with a myriad of [possibly] more exciting and independent activities like dirt biking, skateboarding, snowmobiling, etc.  But let’s not get off track here.  In this sense, I would say that bikes are a “gateway vehicle”.  Once a child learns how to control and navigate a bike on their own, a gate is thrust open towards a more independent individual.  Ok, so the gate isn’t “thrust” open since this doesn’t happen immediately, but my point is that bikes are not just toys, and biking has and will continue to play a pivotal role in our society.

Timeline of the Bicycle

For centuries biking has been used as a vehicle to get from point A to point B.  (Fun fact:  Not very far from here was the very first bike shop in the United States, in Baltimore, MD).  Biking was (and still is) much faster than walking, and once people mastered the art of balance it became a more popular alternative to the horse and buggy (who wants to travel with all that baggage anyway?).  In some countries, biking is the primary means of transportation(those Dutch LOVE biking). 

Suffragette Cyclists - 1912

For us women, however, the bicycle holds a much deeper meaning as, unbeknownst to many women today, the bicycle was our vehicle to freedom. In the 19th century, the bike “inspired women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance….”.  “Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)” by Sue Macy can provide a wealth of information on this topic.  So it’s pretty clear that bicycles empower all people; men, women and children alike.  I remember the very moment when I not so gracefully mastered the seeming impossibility of riding on 2 wheels, not 4.

After learning how to ride a bike, I remember gaining more freedom, or at least I felt more empowered by the possibilities that being able to ride a bike gave me.  My brother, sister and I would ride our bikes down to the end of our cul-de-sac, by ourselves, to play in the massive piles of pine needles and leaves with our neighbors.  The speed at which we could reach the end of the cul-de-sac was a thrill in its own right.  As we got older we only became better and more knowledgeable about riding bikes and were thus granted permission to ride our bikes to the local ice cream parlor (yeah, it was just Dairy Queen, but it seemed fancy as a kid) that was a whopping 3 miles from home!  Our bikes were our personal vehicles that took us just about anywhere we wanted.  We didn’t have to wait for our parents to get home from work to drive us to a nearby friend’s house; we didn’t need a chaperone to guide us to the local convenience store a mile down the street; we were free to explore the off road paths in the thicket of the woods of Maine.  We were learning at an early age that we are independent beings and that we don’t have to rely on other people, or things, to get where we want.

Now my previous statement might get the philosopher inside of you thinking, but I meant it literally.  Today, as a fresh quarter centurion and a proud owner of a fully functional yet slightly oversized Mongoose bike, I can proclaim that nothing is stopping me from getting me to where I want…i.e. from point A to point B.  Which brings us to what spurred me to write this long winded post in the first place:  bikes are making a comeback…we are witnessing an American “velorution”!.  And it’s not just because they are becoming fancier or better looking (though they have come a long way since 1817), but it’s because they are becoming accepted as an alternative mode of transportation.  Hallelujah!  Cycle sharing schemes are popping up around the US, though they have existed in other places around the world for decades now. 

DC Bike Lanes - Penn Ave

American cities are reforming their streets to accommodate bikes, like adding bike lanes.  Some European cities that use biking as a primary means of transit have already incorporated cycling into their city’s infrastructure and can boast about having a wide and efficient network of not just cycling lanes (sometimes separated by a curb), but also cycling traffic lights and most of all, a plethora of cyclists! 

Think “power in numbers” and you’ll understand how increasing the number of cyclists on the road can have a positive effect on developing an appropriate infrastructure for cyclists in an urban area.  First of all, if cars are not used to having bikers in the road, they won’t think to look out for bikers as they do for other vehicles and for pedestrians.  If there is a higher demand for safer biking conditions then perhaps the bike lanes will be supplemented with their own traffic lights.  Of course this requires a good bit of funding, as well as time, to integrate the systems…but it’s still possible!!  I hate hearing Americans say that it’s an impossible feat because they don’t even consider the abundance of options that we have to develop our network. 

Inaugural Ride in Sep 2010

It won’t happen overnight.  We will be taking baby steps, but at least we can start on the right foot, and go in the right direction.  In less than a year DC’s bike sharing program, Capital Bikeshare (CaBi), has acquired more than 10,000 users, and it’s the largest bikeshare program in the US…that’s positive progress right there!

It’s funny how bikes were originally created for a single purpose but they quickly became multi-functional and came to represent empowerment, freedom, independence and even innovation.  They can be used for fun, for exercise, for adventure and for leisure.  As an amateur photographer (slash photographer wannabe) and bike enthusiast, I have captured interesting images of bikes across Europe and the US during my travels.  The pictures speak for themselves but they offer even more functions a bike can have if you just open your mind…

Bikes and food…

Onion Bike - Marylebone London

Bratwurst Bike - Berlin, Germany

Bikes and advertising…

Ice Cream Bike - Oxford, England

Candy Store Bike - Brighton, England

Good Tea Bike - Prague, Czech

 Bikes as relics…

Hanging Bike - Gary, Indiana

Beatles Relic - Liverpool, Beatles Museum

Vintage Bike - Lyon, France

Sea Swept Bike - Gent, Belgium

 Bikes as art…

Fish Bike - San Francisco, CA

Enchanted Bike - Brighton, England

Bike Mural - Georgetown, DC

Finally, bikes as good ol’ transportation!

Bike Share in Lyon, France

Flower Power Bike - Santa Monica, CA

Capital Bikeshare in DC (CaBi)

Now get on out there, hop on a bike, and get experienced….

Experience the bike

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So fresh and so clean clean

Over the past few months, I have become more concerned with ingredients than I ever have been before.  Not ingredients in food (but yes, I am still concerned with that), but ingredients that make up the concoctions that I use on a daily basis – that is, skin and hair care products.

Some of my daily routine...

Thanks to my older sister who, though grew up wanting to be a vet, has spent a significant amount of time studying the likes of biological sciences and organic chemistry and is now going to Osteopathic Medical school, I can proudly say that I’ve been conscious about these things for a few years now.  She turned me on to organic or natural products (like EO or Avalon Organics) because they had less of the chemical stuff and more of the stuff that I could actually eat…in their more natural form that is.  Grateful Body goes the whole 9 yards and makes 100% natural skin care…they are marvelous.  Still, I never bought these kind of products religiously, mainly because of the price premium, but also because I felt that the other skin and hair care products worked much better.  But if the mood struck me, then I’d surrender the extra bucks for a guilt-free shower but a less satisfied feeling about my hair (which, for the record, is really the only part of my body which has not worked well with these products).


So what’s changed?  I’m not entirely sure, but I have to give a lot of credit to two authors of a blog I’ve been frequenting as of late:  No More Dirty Looks.  Of course they, Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, are the authors of the book with the same title, but with a talent for articulation and a passion for a clean (and more natural) shower routine, they have graced us with a daily blog about clean beauty products.

The truth about your beauty products...

A friend introduced me to the book and I was only able to read the first few pages (and I must admit I still have yet to buy the book and finish it) but I got far enough to know that they both decided to go clean – they not only made the switch to clean products, but they came clean with the dangers of some of the most common ingredients in normal beauty products (ranging from shampoos all the way to make-up)!  They also reveal a list of products that have passed their very strict ‘clean test’ – from my understanding, even the everpresent ingredient ‘fragrance’ is scourned upon (because it usually is not naturally derived).

Needless to say, I was impressed with their bold move to lay off the chemicals and I felt a strong urge to follow suit.  So since my friend had to go back to Chicago, she took her book with her and I was left wanting more.  I decided to scour the internet for anything with their names on it and came across their blog.  The first post I read was about using apple cider vinegar on the scalp after shampooing.  This was entirely new to me, but already I felt another sudden urge to go clean and was almost compelled to go out and buy some apple cider vinegar.  Well, I didn’t.  Why not? You ask?  Partially because I wasn’t entirely ready to make the switch (both mentally and financially).  Not to mention I still had bottles of some organic shampoo, conditioner and body wash that despite their organic label, still contain the naughty ingredients and wouldn’t pass Siobhan and Alexandra’s clean test.  I hate waste and decided to wait until they were empty before making the switch.

Hey, it’s paraben-free!

When they were just about empty, I regressed and bought shampoo and conditioner that I’m not sure qualifies as ‘clean’ (Yestocarrots).  It’s 99.4% natural and paraben-free (I have no idea what paraben is or why it would be used in my shampoo and conditioner).  It has a lot of ingredients that I recognize (carrot juice and olive oil) and a few that are questionable (sodium benzoate? lauryl glucoside?).  But as I’ve expressed regarding adopting a meat-free diet, why have the mind set that if you can’t do it 100%, dont’ do it at all?  I’m taking baby steps here and have been for a few years now.

Thanks to Siobhan and Alexandra, I feel like I’m taking the necessary leaps to get to their level sooner!  Today I actually bought a conditioner recommended on their blog…but it took a couple days of research before I decided on it.  A recent post of theirs was about not washing hair and as you would come to find out from reading their blog, Alexandra does not wash her hair.  I learned that shampoo basically strips our scalp of its natural oils, which in turn causes us to produce excess oils, inevitably causing us to wash our hair more often…and the vicious cycle continues.

I’m actually interested and quite anxious to do a wash-free trial of my own because my hair is dry and I have been told that by a couple different hairdressers (dammit!).  On top of washing my hair less often, and using less shampoo, I plan to indulge in my recent purchase of Siobhan’s recommended Alaffia Coconut and Shea conditioner (but since my hair is kinda wavy/curlyish, I got the one for curly hair).  I’m so excited to try it out because not only does it pass their clean test, but as Siobhan mentions, the Alaffia company is committed to giving back to the community from which the shea is derived, Togo, West Africa: the shea butter is Fair Trade certified and 10% of sales contribute to the Alaffia Community Empowerment projects.

Alaffia Bicycles for Education Project

Alaffia Deforestation Project

So I feel very good about this purchase and I can NOT wait to get so fresh and so clean, clean!


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Confessions of a vegetarian

Food.  Food is delicious, beautiful, mysterious, and most of all, completely necessary for survival.  Personally, I love food.  I’m obsessed with it and I would never try to hide or deny these feelings.  But of course, we all have an innate “love” for food because we need it in order to live.  But I have a fascination with food, an undying allure to the colors, the texture, the shapes and sizes, the smells, the origins and of course…the taste.

Colorful veggies straight from the garden

This [healthy] obsession has led me down some interesting paths and has got me thinking a lot more about food – where it comes from, how it’s grown and the relationship it has with our bodies – which has led me to such authors as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and T. Campbell.  This type of thinking is probably foreign to most Americans, and the time to ponder such questions probably non-existent.  Which brings me to my first point:  Despite our reliance on food, I feel like we (meaning the U.S. and most Western Nations) are no longer thankful (not the saying grace as a habit before eating a meal thankful, but I mean, really and truly thankful) for the food on our plates.  Today, only a small percentage of people actually maintain that natural and organic connection with food through growing, farming or raising food.  Instead of reveling in such phenomena as photosynthesis which helps our plant food grow, or the special relationship a cow shares with the grass it eats, we don’t even think twice about it.

Not thinking twice about it is somewhat understandable in today’s society when over 80% of Americans live in an urban environment and therefore don’t have the exposure to the origins of food like Farmer Joe in rural Vermont.



But the fact that our society has almost willingly become ignorant to basic knowledge about food raises a few flags in my head.  The first flag is that we have become so concerned with limiting the “bad” ingredients in foods, that we forget that the best way to do this is not by buying low fat ice cream or chips with no added salt but through replacing these foods with real food, like vegetables.  Mark Bittman, a contributor to the NYT Opinionator, frequents the topic of food and recently wrote an article about this highlighting the fault of the U.S.D.A. in carefully presenting the Dietary Guidelines so as not to upset the meat and sugar lobbies.  And we thought they were giving us the best information out there.

Which brings me to the second flag, as a result of being bombarded with studies proving this and discounting that in a contradicting manner, humans constantly turn to science to confirm any hypotheses about food.  I say sadly because I think it’s sad that we have come to need science to tell us what we should and should not eat instead of using our intuition.  For instance, have you ever wondered why tomatoes are red?  Or why they taste so damn delicious drizzled in extra virgin olive oil?  Most people just accept these facts because it is what they grew up eating.  Why would they question it when, a) it is a delectable combination and b) they’ve never gotten sick from it?  Michael Pollan covers this topic in The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he goes into great detail dissecting America’s food culture, or rather, lack thereof.  He believes this is America’s biggest problem.  Sure, it’s great that we take cuisines from countries all over the world, but we don’t have a cuisine we can really call our own.

Californian Olive

Most countries have very identifiable cuisines (I say sushi, you think Japan) that are completely connected to their geographical location.  Certain plants and animals thrive in different climates, which means that some climates will be more conducive to providing certain foods than others.  You probably wouldn’t find an orange tree growing in Maine, nor would you find an olive tree growing in Montana (naturally that is).  Olive trees are native to subtropic climates and are known mostly to grow in the Mediterranean.  Do you think that the Greeks and Italians consulted scientists to provide them with chemical evidence, or even nutritional studies, to support their consuming them?

The answer is obviously no and only begs the question, then why do we?  Why do we question the consumption of food that is fresh or natural?  Why do we blindly heed advice fed to us by organizations such as the milk industry, when it’s almost certain they are acting on behalf of their benefit, not yours?  Milk may be an anomaly in this situation because for as long as we can remember we have drank milk, and most countries drink it, and no one has really gotten sick from it unless it’s been contaminated (or unless you’re lactose intolerant like me).  But still, we welcome advertisements like the got milk? campaign, beaming with all the health benefits of milk which we assume are scientifically proven.  But do you know any other animal that consumes another animal’s milk after it’s passed the age of breastfeeding?  No other animal actively seeks out another animal’s milk, so why do we?  Maybe it’s because they use beef cakes like Hugh Jackman in their ads….

Beef cake

Through my reading I have discovered other, more reliable and consistent scientific evidence which begs to differ with the got milk? campaigns.  Notable researcher Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, is a proponent of a whole foods, plant based diet as a direct result of his own research, which has been supported by a number of other studies.  Milk, or the protein casein, has been found to not increase your body’s intake of calcium but deprive your body of it.  The casein makes your blood and tissues more acidic and so they use calcium in order to neutralize this affect, and essentially rob your body of calcium.  But again, as much as I believe in Dr. Campbell’s studies, I am relying on scientific evidence to tell me that milk is not as good for me as is widely believed so in essence, I’m being rather hypocritical.  Who am I to believe?

So this is where Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan enter the picture.  Though Michael Pollan contributes his fair share of scientific studies, he emphasizes the importance of food cultures.  Most countries have a specific cuisine that is unique to their location and which has followed traditional recipes and ways of cooking for centuries upon centuries.  So why have we suddenly begun to question the nutritional value of a tomato or of leafy greens?

Farmer's Market @ Courthouse

Probably because America has no sense of a food culture, and so we have no traditional way of cooking to rely on.  Barbara Kingsolver entertains this idea of a “food culture” based on geographical location, and challenges her family to live by it for one year – that is, to only eat locally produced food.  So the Kingsolver family grew most of their own food, and procured the rest of it from farmer’s markets or neighbors who had farms.  Barbara and her daughter write journalistic entries about their experiences during this “year of food life” describing both the benefits and the difficulties associated with trying to do this in today’s society.  She isn’t afraid to divulge in the details of killing, plucking and gutting a goose either.

As someone who has vowed off of meat (including seafood – for the lay people out there, the technical term “pescetarian” is someone who vows off all meat EXCEPT seafood as the prefix pesce is derived from the latin word for fish piscis), I have struggled with my eating habits and their contribution to society.  By this, I mean that my decision to rid my diet of meat is a stand against industrially farmed meat for both environmental and ethical reasons.  Since producing your own food or producing food on a low scale can be considered to be beneficial for the environment, I often ask myself why I don’t follow in the Kingsolvers’ footsteps and vow to be a locavore instead of a vegetarian?  I justified my choices because at the time of conversion, I was living off of an internship stipend which would not be able to support the premium cost of locally or organically produced food.  I decided that I could make more of a difference by steering clear of meat.  Still, I run into the problem I talked about earlier how food is connected to location – so the orange juice I drank, and most of the soy products I ate, were being shipped several thousand miles just to reach my mouth.  Now that’s not environmentally conscious is it?  But I can’t deny that industrial farmed meat is extremely more energy intensive than mass producing and shipping vegetables.

A friend of mine wrote an article about animals in the industrial society which sheds light on the ethical and environmental implications of eating animals.  In regards to the latter point, he reveals some statistics that are hard to ignore – half of America’s water supply and 80% of its agricultural land is needed to feed industrial farmed animals (i.e. livestock).  Not to mention the soil erosion and inevitable pollution associated with it – that is, run off into the water table contaminating streams and our drinking water, and the enormous release of greenhouse gas emissions, which actually accounts for more than all the cars in the world combined.  Some of these statistics weren’t new to me after reading my friend’s article – as a concerned individual, I have sought out this information.  Also, my studies in sustainable environmental management provided some insight into climate change…

But alas, I regress.  I try not to “impose” my views on others but I can’t help but share some truthful facts about industrial farmed meat.  Sure, I have been criticized by others for not being a locavore since it helps support local farmers and not the industrial farms.  But, why have the mindset that if you can’t do it 100% don’t do it at all?  Any step towards limiting the number of people who support the disgusting “manufacturing” of meat from industrial farms is, in my book, very worthwhile.  But what boggles my mind most about this situation is why people get so defensive and sometimes hostile about the food other people choose to eat.  I’ve encountered a range of people who are just curious and ask questions.  My favorite question is “but where do you get your protein from?”

The inevitable protein question

Most of the people asking have no idea how much protein we actually need, nor do they understand the intricacies of protein which involve amino acids, 8 complete and 20-22 incomplete, nor could they tell me why meat is [falsely] considered to be the best source of protein.  But these people are the least of my worries.  It’s the people who want to impose their views on me because they don’t agree with my eating habits I find abrasive.  I’ve found that some people get very upset that I, or anyone else like me, doesn’t eat meat.  How does MY decision not to eat meat affect anyone else but myself?  Why do other people care so much about what I do and do not eat, especially when my choices are supposed to reflect my conscious decision to contribute to the environment?

A simple answer to this is probably because most people fear what they do not understand.  I briefly knew someone who publicly patronized a vegetarian because she felt victimized by the way he chose to project his opinions on her omnivorous habits.  In this case it seemed as though this omnivore had perhaps felt violated by the vegetarian imposing his views on her…yet her open criticism about him doesn’t stray far from his path.  I have found, in every encounter I have with people about eating habits, that people choose to eat the way they do because they wish, or hope, that others will do the same.  People hold an ideal for everyone, one that we subconsciously wish for all of society to follow.  In this instance, the vegetarian made an attempt to convert the omnivore to drop meat from her diet because in his ideal world, everyone would.  Likewise, the omnivore wanted her choices respected as she had respected his (before the public insult that is).  No one is perfect.

For the majority of the population, this works out well because they share similar omnivorous lifestyles.  But for those of us who veer off the path, we encounter people who view our eating habits as a threat to their ideal, and we are met with hostility.  I’m fine if you eat meat.  But please, don’t criticize me for choosing not to.  If you’re curious, ask questions, but don’t be surprised if I tell you some facts that you don’t want to know.  If you’re not curious, then please, spare me and don’t open your mouth.

Please, spare me.

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Arlington, Smart or Selfish?

Arlington, VA, often seen as a valuable model for smart growth development, has conjured up some recent controversy over its rejection of prospective highway projects which would widen lanes on I-66 and develop “HOT” (high occupancy toll) lanes on I-95/395.

I-66 Traffic at 6:30 pm on a Tuesday night


This opposition has left tax payers wondering whether Arlington county is making a “smart growth” decision, or whether they are merely protecting their local community at the expense of outside regions like DC.



I recently had the misfortune of traveling on I-66 when I took a guilty, gas fueled, personal day trip to Shenandoah National Park, which was beautiful.  Of course the only feasible way for me to get there was by driving, but I still felt guilty about hopping in a car for personal leisure.

Shenandoah at Hawksbill Summit (4051 ft)

Anyways, the journey out of Arlington was fine.  But the journey back was not so fine since I sat in gridlock traffic for about 30-45 minutes (not long in the grand scheme of things) but long enough for me to swear off driving (as I’ve done countless times).  Despite the undesirable traffic I experienced at 4:30pm on a Sunday night, I still defend Arlington County in opposing those highway projects.

America doesn’t need wider highways.  It needs to revamp its whole highway system (infrastructure) and provide better alternatives to driving to keep cars off the road.  We can’t keep side stepping our obligation to end our addiction to oil by using tax payers’ money to fund major highway projects which only foster our reliance on fossil fuels.

What do you think?

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Public Transit, A Love Affair

After living in London, England for the past 2 years, I have become enamored with public transportation, so much so that some might even consider me to be somewhat of a public transit “snob”.  This love affair with public transit began very early on when I first rode Boston’s Subway (or as it is most famously known, the “T”) when I was about 10 or 11 years old.

The T in Boston

Growing up in a very small city in Maine, I was not exposed to this type of transportation and it was love at first ride.  I even have a picture of me hanging from the support rails with a wide grin on my face.  When I moved to Connecticut at age 13, I learned that there was a train that ran from New Haven all the way to NYC.

Union Station, New Haven

My first trip to NYC was unforgettable mostly because it was my first time on an above ground passenger train. I made sure to take the window seat for that hour and 45 minute ride.  From that point on I knew I needed it in my life.  Unfortunately, public transportation and I couldn’t maintain a long distance relationship and we were on and off throughout high school and college.  During this time I would occasionally take the train down to NYC, or I would take the commuter train to New Haven for work.  I won’t forget my first encounters with European public transit when I visited the Netherlands and Barcelona when I was 17 and again when I studied abroad for 5 months in a little city located in the French Alps known as Grenoble, France.

My feelings for public transportation grew and I was even able to experience it in the Nordic country of Norway.  But it wasn’t until I moved to London just over 2 years ago when I fell head over heels for London’s underground system, or the “tube”.  What drew me most to the tube wasn’t its convenience, or its cost efficiency, or the fact that the tube is also supplemented with a more cost effective and extensive bus system, but it was actually the fact that it contributes to limiting the number of cars on the road.

(from left to right) Bus, bus, bus, bus, tube.

London has one of the most extensive underground train systems in the world, and is the world’s oldest underground dating back to 1863.  Despite its antiquity, vast amounts of fiscal resources, time and man power have been directed to maintaining London’s underground so it can continue to serve the public as it has been for almost 150 years.  I actually had the good fortune of wandering inside one of London’s older stations which has been closed since 1993 and was in operation for 86 long years, Aldwych station.  Transport for London (TFL) held an exhibit inside the station which exposed the long history of every tube line, almost every station, along with some interesting yet useless facts about the tube and future improvements and developments that are currently underway.  You can imagine that I was in heaven.

Aldwych Station

I learned that Aldwych station was originally opened as Strand station (as it falls on the Strand) and was used to commute passengers to the theater district at Piccadilly Circus.  It also featured in such cinematic adventures as V for Vendetta, among others.

It’s clear that my love for public transit runs deep, and during my time in London, I was able to travel around Europe and in every country I visited that had public transit, you better believe you’d find me on a train, tram or bus.  But alas, my 2 year relationship with the tube ended in early August of this year when I returned back to the states.  I recently moved to Arlington, VA and have been pleasantly surprised by its connectivity to our nation’s capital, DC, with its bus and metro systems.  DC’s metro is the second largest after NYC in the United States, but it hardly compares with the tube.  Why is that?  Why is public transportation in the states so inefficient when we have the technology and man power to make it just as good as London’s?

Vintage Rail Poster

Well back in the early 1900s, public transportation was actually widely publicized as a popular and convenient mode of transport in the U.S.  I recently visited an antiques market in Arlington and found a plethora of old posters dating back to the 1920s which depicted images of happy couples and families traveling on trains.  The posters promoted train lines that ran between cities like Chicago and St. Louis, trains in Pennsylvania and along the Eastern Coast all the way to Florida. Today, the pleasant images of people traveling that we see advertised revolve around luxury automobiles or first class flights.  Passenger trains are rarely used in the United States anymore and it is rare to see any type of advertisement for them at all these days.  So what happened??

The cause of this drastic decrease in passenger trains occurred in 1956 when our President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, approved the Interstate Highway System.  From that point on it became more convenient to drive yourself everywhere than to take public transportation. Passenger trains decreased and a consequent lack of funding to maintain them resulted in their ultimate closure.  Now, tax payers’ money is spent on maintaining our roads and highways instead of on investing in research and development to reintroduce public transportation to the nation again.

Streetcars @ Pennsylvania Ave


A trip down to old Georgetown can remind visitors of this as some of their oldest streets are still cobble stones, and the tracks that were laid for the streetcars which were in operation for almost 100 years remain untouched!  Even the lines that ran down Pennsylvania Ave can be found today.  You can imagine around what time these streetcars became out of commission…a mere 6 years after the Interstate Highway System was approved.  What a tragic loss.

Then again, I must admit that there has been some recent talk of “high speed trains lines” being developed between DC and Boston.  However plans for this (according to a CNN news report I watched about a month ago) will not start until 2015, and it will not be completed until 2025 and it will cost some billions of dollars to complete.  I’ve heard rumors that these “talks” are actually rumors themselves and that these plans aren’t actually set in stone.  About 2 years ago, right before I left for London, I heard a similar report on NPR discussing the possibility of introducing passenger trains again in the Midwest, connecting major cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis.  The report interviewed the public asking their opinion about these plans and if they would be likely to take a train as opposed to flying.  I was surprised that the general consensus was overwhelmingly supportive of taking the train.

Despite this support, there remains one little detail that my dear father, after my 20 minute rant to him about how such a high speed rail is necessary to end our addiction to oil, reminds me by asking:  “once the passengers reach the city, how would all of them get around without a car?”  He is right in asking such a fundamental question because these Midwestern cities don’t have the mass public transit system that would be needed to escort passengers from these trains to their destinations.  Chicago is an exception as its underground and bus system is pretty large, however there are only a handful of cities in the U.S. that have such systems.

What “Infrastructure” looks like to Europeans

So you’re probably thinking, what is she ranting about now?  Well, having spent time in London, while at the same time having the good fortune of exploring other countries in continental Europe, I have made note of how and why public transportation is used almost all over Europe, even in the smallest, most remote cities.  The magic word:  Infrastructure.  The infrastructure of most European cities lends itself well to public transit systems.  It makes sense since these cities had existed centuries before the thought of an automobile had been conceived.  Though the automobile and trains were being developed around the same time, the density of these cities had created an infrastructure which would eventually be ripe for public transit systems.  But it should not be ignored that after WWII, there was a dire need for reconstruction of the general infrastructure of the cities that were blitzed away during the war.  This provided an opportunity to possibly recreate these cities into urban hubs for public transportation.  Another factor, which is another major difference between our beloved country and Europe, is the generous public funding that is allocated to public transportation development.  However the older U.S. cities like Boston, NYC and DC were designed in a similar fashion to European cities, and all have relatively efficient (in American standards of public transportation) underground train and bus systems.

What “infrastructure” looks like to Americans

Nonetheless, that is only 3 of hundreds of metropolitan cities in the U.S.  The infrastructure of U.S. cities is less dense and better designed for cars (wider roads, further distances between main points in the city) and continues to be developed in this manner.  My new home, Arlington, although across the Virginia border, is considered to be a subdivision of DC.  The planning commission in Arlington was aware of its proximity to DC and capitalized on its ability to foster an urban yet also suburban and residential city for its inhabitants.  Plans for this began about 40 years ago when approval was granted to construct DCs rapid transit system, the Metro.  Careful planning was required to make this idea a reality and began with the placement of the metro lines.  The 7 main metro lines in Arlington (there are 11 but 3 of them exist on Federal land and cannot be considered in Arlington’s development plans, and one has different development plans) are placed along a continuous line from which the ‘redevelopment’ of the city would deviate.

Metro station areas (MSAs) were coined as the area of land a quarter of a mile (in every direction) from a given metro station.  These MSAs would be densely developed with commercial buildings closest to the stations, moving towards smaller residential buildings further out.  The further away from the station you went, the more residential the area would become.

Arlington MSAs

This is the basis for how Arlington was developed and they have been able to successfully reduce the number of cars on the road by providing a widespread bus system connecting Arlingtonians to their nearest metro.  Not to mention the buses are affordable and reliable with a “real time arrival” feature which allows passengers to see exactly when the next bus is coming (provided you have a computer or mobile device to get the information).

That being said, it is clear that America has to reconsider the development of its cities in order to bring high speed rails back into the mix.  Smart Growth America is an organization which promotes this type of development and which supports the need for a reform to our current transportation plans.  Educating yourself on these matters is the first step, but we must become involved to see what we can do together to help end our addiction to oil.  Arlington is one example of how careful planning and development of city’s infrastructure yielded positive results, and I know there are other models out there which bigger cities can learn from.  We have to work together, to move forward together.

If you’re a fellow public transit lover like myself, I would highly recommend watching this presentation given by the President of LOCUS – Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors.  It’s 43 minutes long but well worth it if you want to learn more about how there has been a structural shift in the built environment which is leading up to a higher demand for sustainably viable development, which essentially means public transit because transportation drives development.  I would also recommend checking out Transportation for America which is a coalition of  housing, business, environmental and many other organizations who are campaigning for a change in our country’s transportation system.

And last but not least, for anyone who is interested in public transit, but not necessarily a public transit enthusiast, this website may satiate your appetite without overwhelming it.



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