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Archive for the ‘Social opportunities’ Category

I may be heading to some kind of Pedestrian Hell: I have enrolled my daughter, a first-grader-to-be, in a charter school.

Actually, The Watershed School, which opens this fall, has a component that should make pedestrian-types long to send their kids there: it focuses on “place-based” education, in which students focus on their local communities to start with, then move outward.  That is, history, literature, civics, and the sciences will be taught with a Fairbanks focus, and after that grounding they will include studies of other places.  With the school only four or five blocks from the Chena River, the students will get to study a lot of river ecology.  They’ll get to participate in their school’s own landscaping and the upkeep of the land, including the maintenance of a school garden.  While the school will be open on the School District’s calendar, the day-to-day schedule will be structured around local events like the Yukon Quest or the Festival of Native Arts.  Students will spend a great deal of time outdoors, and they’ll meet more than twice the School District’s physical education requirement.

As someone who considers local community participation to be one of the highest goods, I’m really excited about the possibilities of The Watershed School.  (And, as a parent of a girl who often doesn’t like changes in routine, I’m a little surprised that my daughter is excited about it, too.)  However…

Some readers may remember my concern, about a year ago, over another charter school, Chinook: that the location was ugly and distant, and that (in part because of the distance) the student body was selected for privilege and homogeneity.

The Watershed School suffers some of the same problems.  It will be located off Dale Road, near the airport.  While not hideous the way Chinook’s bleak, industrial surroundings are, it seems neither surrounded by the idyllic wilderness nor in the thick of civilization.  Since it’s not a neighborhood school, there is no school bus to take kids there — but, worse than that, there is effectively no public bus, either.  While the Yellow Line goes within a few blocks, the schedules of the bus and the school are incompatible.  Thus it’s a school for children whose parents have the money and the time to drive them to and from school.

They will not provide the School District’s hot lunches, so parents will have to pack lunches for their children.  For our family, providing nutritious lunches is no problem.  However, this puts a serious hardship on the nearly 30 percent of students in the school district who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.  (Estimate based on 2006-07 data from the Common Core of Data at the National Center for Educational Statistics.)  So our daughter will not be rubbing elbows on a daily basis with Fairbanks’s less fortunate, as she does at her neighborhood kindergarten.

My wife asked — maybe as a devil’s advocate — “Why is it important that our daughter go to school with poor people?”  Of course, it isn’t, in itself.  I’m not striving for some environment that represents all facets of our population equally; that’s nothing more than tokenism.  However, I feel a little guilty about taking advantage of a supposedly public service that in fact (though not by intent) discriminates against an already disadvantaged group.

Perhaps I should be happy because it’s more likely my daughter will make good friends from among the students of Watershed.  Since the families whose children go there all share an ideological bent — we think place-based education is a good thing — our children will probably have more in common.  Of course, there’s the sinister twist to that, as well: in time, she may find herself less able to make friends with (or simply interact with) people who are different from her.  I myself went to an alternative high school, founded by hippies and attended by freaks and nerds of various stripes.  While I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, I may have suffered in my ability to get along and make friends with most people.

Of course, the perfect solution for our family would be a place-based school in our neighborhood (within walking distance) and serving the neighborhood families equally.  But that’s not what we’re offered.  It’s fine to be an idealist, but you’re sometimes given competing ideals to choose from.  This is the best path we can walk — or drive — for now.

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Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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I often think that, in Fairbanks, I must be seen as some kind of pervert.

At a recent work meeting about re-visioning our reference services, we were asked to describe our ideal reference service.  I suggested that we should offer, in one place, all the things students would want to hunker down and study: not only computers and books, but comfortable chairs and couches, spaces for group work, all the software students would probably need already installed on the computers (they currently lack even basic office applications), video viewing rooms, and a coffee bar with drinks and quality baked goods.  (In the library world, such an environment is known as an information commons or a learning commons.)

“But you could have all that at home,” said one of my colleagues.  “If you can sit in front of the fireplace with your laptop and your coffee, why would you want to come to the library?”

“Because not everybody is a misanthrope,” I snipped, “and many people actually enjoy the company of others.”

My colleague’s suggestion exemplifies what I see as a faulty rationalism at play not only in the planning of Fairbanks, but working in corporate planning of services and in people’s selection of services.  She has taken all the elements that she perceives as significant — computer, Internet access, comfortable furniture, available food, and the options to watch videos and to work with others — and decided that, since an individual can have all these things in his or her own home, and since home will (presumably) be more comfortable than an institutional building, and will also allow one to play music, drink beer, and stroll around naked, any reasonable person would choose to study there rather than in a necessarily shared space that comes with some greater restriction.

The unstated assumption in this thinking is that human company — at least, the unpredictable presence of other people who are not always chosen — is not worth anything.  The rationalist reasons, “If I wanted company, I would invite to my house (or to some neutral location) the people I wish to see.  Anybody else would be a detriment, or at least a distraction.”

This reasoning overlooks a few things:

  • The cost of a shared resource is usually less, and is often vastly less, than the cost of supplying that resource to each individual that might use it.  A case in point: in my job, I occasionally use Adobe Photoshop.  The version I use is currently priced at $999.  To purchase enough copies to be installed on every single campus computer — or even just every staff and faculty computer — would be prohibitively expensive.  I just can’t imagne how much it would cost.  Fortunately, the University doesn’t have to buy that many copies of the software.  Instead, they buy a site licence that allows them up to 100 concurrent users.  Perhaps they paid $99,900, but more likely they pay a much smaller annual fee so that all UAF-affiliated persons, while on site, can use the software.  I certainly could not afford it on my own.  Many people cannot afford their own personal computers, VHS or DVD players, and espresso machines — but those things can be shared in a neutral third place.  If either the public library or my own workplace offered fancy-pants espresso drinks and tasty pastries (on site, mind you, not in a nearby building), I’d probably hang out there a lot more.
  • While, in principle, all the features of the learning commons can be had in the home — if you have enough money — the isolation of home makes it unlikely that you’ll get them all as frequently there as at some shared place that can offer them all easily.  Sure, you can drive out to get a latte and a muffin — but are you really going to warm your car up when it’s twenty below, then drive ten or fifteen minutes each way, to get them?  Chances are, you’ll go without.  Similarly, you can invite all your collaborators on a project to your house.  But then you have to keep a clean house, provide refreshments, and (hardest, I think) invite people you may not like very well into what is supposed to be your sanctum, where they get to see just how you live, and from which they may not leave when you think the time is right.  Guests are necessarily intrusive, and not everybody welcomes them; people will often choose to go without company at all rather than invite relative strangers into the intimacy of their homes.  In the learning commons — and in public space generally — you can have company as long as both of you are interested; then it’s very easy to part and find privacy again.
  • One of the chief benefits of good public space is its unpredictability: you do not know exactly whom you’ll meet there.  Those of a rational bent believe that they are (1) aware of all their social needs and (2) able to meet those needs through their own deliberate planning.  They know who the required people are, and forced contact with any others is an inconvenience.  This thinking resembles what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism” — a belief that the health value of food can be reduced to its nutrients.  It assumes that (1) all of a food’s nutrients can be known; (2) a diet that ignores whole foods but includes all the (known) nutrients of natural food can be equally healthy as one based on whole foods (mostly plants); and (3) equipped with knowledge of the necessary nutrients, people will choose correctly and meet their nutritional needs.  The chief problem is that food is complex and not that easily reduced: we don’t know all the nutrients contained in natural food, and various attempts to reduce the human diet to the essential nutrients have resulted in poorer health, not better.  What’s more (me speaking, not Pollan), real food is tastier and more interesting than nutrients: for example, would you rather take vitamin C tablets, or snack on some red peppers and guava?  The human soul is also complex, and its needs are not so reliably known.  Surely one human need is privacy.  Another need is society — but it cannot be reduced to a series of planned exchanges with preferred parties.  The chance to meet unexpected people — many of whom we barely know and some of whom we may dislike — is good for us.  It improves our social skills and broadens our sympathies.  And it’s just more interesting.

When I talk about corporate planning of services and people’s selection of services, I’m saying that they share this flaw.  When shopping is viewed merely as a means of buying goods, then comfort, aesthetics, and human interaction don’t matter any more.  So corporations are free to create drive-in mega-stores free of any beauty and uninviting to those who would loiter and socialize.  When people view restaurants merely as outlets for tasty food, then take-out becomes as good as dining in.  So people deprive themselves of the chance to enjoy a meal with ambiance, good conversation, and human variety.

As I said at the beginning, I often suspect that Fairbanksans think I’m some kind of pervert.  The desire to escape from human society — say, to one’s cabin in the middle of a twenty-acre wilderness — is more pervasive here than I’ve seen anywhere else.  Or perhaps it’s not the desire that’s abnormal here, but the opportunity.  Land is cheap and plentiful in the Fairbanks area, as I’m sure it once was all across the American West, so Fairbanks attracts those who wish to make a reality out of their dream of avoiding unexpected human company.

But as for me — give me some more of that guava.

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Why do we hate teenagers so much? What made them an acceptable target for disenfranchisement?

On one of my professional e-mail lists, somebody brought up a problem with teenage skateboarders: they love to use the covered walkway in front of a facility frequented by senior citizens with visual and mobility challenges. Too often (I presume) they’re not paying close attention their surroundings, so they create a safety hazard to others who would walk there.

Somebody in the discussion mentioned the “Classic 7-11 or mini-mart approach”: pipe classical music or adult “easy listening” music along the walkway. Apparently it drives young people batty, so they leave. The writer called it “worth a try.”

CNN recently reported on a device called “The Mosquito” (sold in North America under the name “Kids Be Gone”) that is “designed to drive away loiterers with a shrill, piercing noise audible only to teens and young adults”. Some municipalities have banned them, but others seem to have embraced them outside of stores or movie theaters as a way to drive away crowds of skateboarders and other loiterers.

The blog Architectures of Control (via Boing Boing) reports that Councillors in Sutton, Surrey (England) are preparing to redesign a public stairway specifically to make it difficult for young people to sit there. The original article reports:

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it….

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

One thing these places — the ones we would forbid to teenagers — have in common is that they are places where lots of people, and not just young people, spend time. It seems that young people actually want to spend time in places full of adults! I’ve previously quoted sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who wrote about the time a relative

complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town – right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside.

Time and again, we read that what teenagers really need and want — often by their own admission — is for adults to pay attention to them and to set limits on their behavior. Do you hear this, adults? Teenagers, even if they seem like mouthy, disrespectful little monsters to you, actually seek your company and want you to guide them into acceptable behavior!

Indeed, we have to wonder: if young people are constantly barred (either through subtle, psychological means or more overtly) from adult places, how can we expect them ever to learn adult behavioral norms?

If their behavior in public seems horrid (and, as a former public librarian, I’ll say it sometimes does), then it seems to me that they need, not fewer places to bother adults, but more. Not actually to bother adults, of course, but they need more adult-filled places offering worthwhile activity — or just quality loitering. Such places should be cheap, since young people may not have the money for fine dining. They should be not only safe, but comfortable. And they should be ubiquitous, or at least easily accessible.

Young people need ways to be meaningfully incorporated into our lives. What do we, as a society, have to offer them?

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This Saturday (May 17), join me at Clucking Blossom for a discussion on the future of neighborhoods and city planning amid rising gasoline prices.

Clucking Blossom is an annual festival of music, art, and ideas. It is absolutely free of charge — in fact, no cash is allowed to change hands on the day of the event. It will have over 50 bands playing, activities for children, art projects, a community picnic, workshops, and more. This year’s Clucking Blossom will be at the Birch Hill Recreation Area this Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight.

Here’s the description I’ve submitted for my program:

Fairbanks After $10-per-Gallon Gasoline: The future of neighborhoods and community planning.

Paul Adasiak, author of the blog The Fairbanks Pedestrian, will talk about neighborhoods, downtowns, and city planning. What benefits are there to living in neighborhoods? How does current land use make us isolated and car-dependent, and how might we use land differently to help equality, encourage community, and save money? How can we keep access to untouched wilderness as our population grows?

I’ll be leading the discussion at 1:00 in a venue called “The CluckHaus” — I don’t know just where that is.

Please join me — or if you can’t make it to my discussion, come later in the day! Naturally, feel free to bike, jog, or carpool there.

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As you may know, I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. (In fact, I’ve been reading it for months. Now that I’ve started biking to and from work rather than riding the bus, it’s taking me longer. But I’m near the end.) It’s full of delightful passages. In lieu of a real review, I’ll give you some:

One of the most laughably erroneous characterizations of contemporary American society is that it is a “convenience culture.” Convenience is a persistent theme in our lives and in advertising media only because there is such a crying need for it. But only by confusing trivial conveniences with essential ones could we delude ourselves. In a genuinely convenient culture, the necessities of life are close by one’s dwelling. They are within easy walking distance. In a convenience culture, one’s European guests would not remark, as ours do, “My God, you have to get in the car for everything!”

(p. 287)

The more that class of people who used to provide community leadership turn their back on community, the worse things “public” become, with people finding more and more cause to retreat from them if only they can afford to do so. The rejection of responsibility for facilities all are meant to share and, beyond that, the identification of the “good life” as an escape from common Americans, may well be the system flaw that can cause the collapse of the American experiment. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself?

(p. 222)

Some time ago, at one of those holiday gatherings of the clan, a relative was describing to me the problems with the teenagers in his community. The community in question had grown up around new mining technology and didn’t have any places for kids to hang out that older traditions supply elsewhere. The man complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town–right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside. The old accept their lot more gracefully. The young resent their undeserved shunning by the community, and they have ways of showing it.

(p. 114)

An unsuitable habitat fuels the desire to escape it. Private acreage, offering as much “splendid isolation” as one can afford, looks doubly good when viewed against the deteriorated condition of the public domain. But will an unsuitable human habitat also, eventually, fuel the desire to change it?

(p. 285)

By the way, I’ve now added The Great Good Place to my “Further reading” page.

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As you may have learned from the News-Miner or elsewhere, it is currently TV Turnoff Week (April 21-27) — a chance for us to power down the tube and do something a little healthier or more creative. But what to do?

Based on the readers of this blog whom I know, turning off the television for a week should be no great task for most of you — if you even have a television. But perhaps it is difficult to pull yourself away from American Idol, The Simpsons, or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for an entire week. Or perhaps you think it’s a great idea, and you’re just looking for ways to convince others that it’s feasible. Some may wonder: “But if I’m not watching TV, what is there to do in the evening? Stare at a wall?”

I have a few suggestions. Some of them are kind of nerdy, to be sure.

  • Go with a friend or loved one on a “garbage walk” through your neighborhood: bring a couple of plastic grocery bags and pick up all the garbage near your house, then work outward. You are permitted to enjoy each other’s company on this walk. Children are great companions, here, because to them it’s like a treasure hunt.
  • Got a spouse or partner? Spend a while taking stock of your relationship and the course of your life together. What’s working well? What not so well? What do you want to be doing with your lives that you’re not doing right now? Make lists.
  • Bake a cake. (Today I’m partial to pineapple upside-down cake, but you can find a bajillion recipes at Epicurious.) Pretend to be missing one crucial ingredient — say, a cup of sugar — and ask a neighbor you haven’t met before if you can borrow it. Later, bring the neighbor a piece of your cake.
  • If you belong to a church, volunteer for one of its committees. Surely your church has committees. Make sure it’s something that really interests you.
  • Apply for (and get) a position on one of the Borough’s many boards and commissions. If you don’t want to join, then just attend a meeting you’re interested in — perhaps the City Council or Borough Assembly, too.
  • Feeling gregarious? Go to a bar after work and chat up somebody you’ve never met. (Not your bartender or waiter.) Have a conversation about politics or religion. See if the two of you can find some point of agreement.
  • If you live on a paved street, get a push broom and sweep up all the gravel that street maintenance crews have laid down over the winter. It’s going to be weeks before the street-sweepers come by, and you might as well make your neighborhood streets nice-looking and safe.
  • Take a walk through your neighborhood. Look at people’s houses (and any stores or offices, if you’re lucky enough to have them) and redecorate them in your mind.
  • Join a book group, a poker club, a baseball team, or a bowling league.

The long and short of it is: do something for other people or with other people — and ideally in your own neighborhood. Build some bridges. Be a do-gooder nerd. Be sure to enjoy yourself.

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