Homeless in the Park (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I described a typical scenario in city parks. A park gets “taken over” by homeless people and other so-called “undesirables,” and then the so-called “good people” or law-abding citizens don’t feel comfortable using the park anymore. And so, in an effort to get rid of the “undesirables,” the city removes park benches, drinking fountains, and other amenities. But this backfires, as a park without benches and other amenities is only attractive to “undesirables” (people who have no better place to go).

I suggested the solution might lie in the opposite direction: Rather than remove amenities, we should be adding amenities. In other words, rather than try to make the park less attractive to “undesirables” (a futile endeavor), we should be trying to make the park more attractive to people who have many choices of where to hang out.

But if you think about it, that’s a tall order! Even average-income people these days seem to have fancier homes than ever. Big fenced yards; souped-up decks; patios and pools. Cable TV, internet. And that’s just their houses! They also have other leisure options, such as going to a movie or theme park, or shopping.

So, what amenities might we add to a park, to make people feel inclined to come out of their comfortable nests and spend time there? The answer is different in different places and times.

In a downtown area with lots of offices, just benches along a sidewalk might be enough. People enjoy eating lunch outdoors as long as the weather isn’t too extreme.

In a residential neighborhood with a significant population of young people, it could be a basketball court, offering the potential of a pick-up game. Of course it all depends on the size of the park.

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s a pocket park in your neighborhood. What would you add to draw people out? Here’s my beginning of a list. Drop me a line with your suggested additions!

– chess and checkers board table with chairs

– mini food-forest, tended by residents

– Little Free Library

– seed bank

– picnic tables, grills (many of which have been removed from parks “to keep out the homeless,” leaving the park utterly devoid of appeal)

– native plants, with informational signage about the local plants, insects, wildlife

– drinking fountain, and water-bowls for dogs

– rainwater pool, pond

– race-track with various levels, chutes, etc., for toy cars and marbles

– solar oven; Rocket oven (twig-fired oven for making pizza, etc)

– giant chalkboard for anyone to write or draw on

– kiosks for local residents to sell arts, crafts; offer informal classes

– skating ramp

– funhouse mirrors

– dog gymnasium (not sure what-all this would be — but, different fun stuff for Fido and Spot, which would also serve as conversational icebreaker for their humans)

– climbing wall; climbing tower; rope ladders etc. (let’s stop carping about “liability”; this is what insurance is for, and city legal departments)

– tree house

– some kind of light-fountain (motion-activated feature that only works at night; people dance and move around it and watch the light change colors and speeds). (Wait, what?? Encourage people to be in a park at night?? Yes! What better way to discourage unsavory activity in parks at night, than to create a draw for wholesome activity, creative play 24-7?)

– Allow artists and buskers to set up in the park and sell/perform (I believe this may be the most promising idea. Artists and performers are relatively less reluctant than the general population to venture outdoors in public spaces, even in “edgy” neighborhoods, because they have the extra motivation of needing to earn a livelihood. In turn, the steady presence of artists and performers could well be the magic key to draw other people to the park)

If a lot of these ideas make you think, “But the City would never allow that!” — you are not alone. But I’m making a list of things that I think would entice people out of their cozy houses. Run-of-the-mill amenities alone will probably not be enough to do that.

(And who knows, maybe at least one or two of the druggies and downtrodden people would be uplifted by the improved atmosphere of the park, and would come there and actually enjoy the amenities without engaging in antisocial behavior.)

Getting local government approval would be the next frontier.

So — what next? What more would you add to this list?

Acclimating to Cold Weather

I’ve always felt that acclimating to cold weather (or to hot weather) is mostly a mental thing. But, there is a strong physiological component, and there are things we can do to help our bodies tolerate a wider range of temperatures.

A few days ago, the extreme cold that’s been hitting a large part of the country came to Florida in milder form. There have been a couple of cloudy days with highs just in the low 60s, which is chilly for here.

If I thought the arrival of cool weather here would bring out all the people who had been shutting themselves indoors all summer against the heat, I was mistaken. This past Saturday, on a tour of a few small city parks with one of the civic boards I’m involved in, we didn’t see a single person actually out using a park. (Granted, it was still early in the morning.)

There were eight of us in a city van. We stopped at each park and looked at it from behind the van windows, only getting out at one park. It was a good chance to get a look at some of the lesser-known outdoor assets of our city.

For me, the reason for not getting out of the van at each stop was expediency (it’s not all that easy for eight people to get in and out of a van, and really the purpose of the trip was just to get an overview). But for the others, the main factor for staying inside the van seemed to be the cool temperatures (it was in the low 50s).

(Side note: I seem to find it bothersome and a bit laborious to get in and out of cars. It feels like descending into a small pit and then having to muscle myself back out. And I am a relatively fit person. I wonder if this is a common malady of people who mostly get around by foot and bicycle, or if it is just my own unique malady. For the record, I don’t at all have the same problem getting on and off public buses or trains.)

For the park tour, we met up at City Hall at 8:30. I walked from my house; it’s about a 30-minute walk that includes a high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. (Our high bridges are the closest thing we have to hills in this part of the state, and a lot of people use them for exercise.) Since I had warmed up from the walk, my windbreaker jacket was tied around my waist. One of my fellow citizens was already standing out front of City Hall when I arrived. She seemed surprised that I was warm enough without a jacket, but of course I had just walked briskly for 30 minutes. Once I’d been standing still for 10 minutes I was ready to put the jacket back on.

Cold weather is not my favorite, but I have become more able to tolerate it over the past few years. At some point, I think it was back in 2007, I quit using heaters in my house. I lived in Austin at the time, in a 19-foot travel trailer in an RV park (a magnificent RV park, cocooned in ancient oaks and bursting with creative energy — but that is a subject for another post). The winters there are generally a bit colder than here, with more nights below freezing, and more hard freezes. Yet it wasn’t all that hard to do without heat once I set my mind to it. (However, although doing without heat has vastly increased my cold-tolerance, this post is not about doing without heat per se. You can use heat in your home and still significantly boost your cold-tolerance.)

Most of the friends I met up with on Saturday said they had already turned their heat on. As for me, I had just closed my windows — for the first time since April (other than hurricane boarding-up times). A lot of people I know rarely or never open their windows; they just go straight from air-conditioning to heat.

None of this is to brag about how fabulously heat- and cold-tolerant I am. What it is, is to point out a vulnerability in our mainstream culture. A vulnerability at the personal and household level, that you can take steps to reduce, if you feel so moved.

People fundamentally want to feel safe and secure in the world. How secure are we, if we are so dependent on artificial climate control? Never mind eco footprint for now … This extreme dependency is not good for our bodies, our peace of mind … or our wallets! (Artificial heat and cooling are incredibly expensive and make up a big part of one’s energy bill.)

Besides making you more resilient and freeing up your wallet, exposure to cooler temperatures can also help you boost your metabolism, which is great news for people who want to lose weight and feel more energetic. (Interestingly, I’ve also read that exposure to hotter temperature extremes can give the same benefits. Widening our temperature tolerance envelope at both ends is good!)

Those of us who live in milder climates are obviously in an easier situation, in terms of reducing dependency on artificial heat and cooling. But even those of you living in more extreme climates have much potential to adapt and expand your envelope of temperature tolerance if you would like to do so. I just read a novel set in Alaska; the protagonist, a young woman whose husband had been killed by a bear, routinely tent-camped in sub-zero weather, and felt warm when it was “only” a few degrees below zero. (Due North, by Mitchell Smith. Great read!) Yes, this was a work of fiction but it was obviously based in real life.

After our parks tour, I walked to the Saturday farmer’s market to pick up groceries, and then walked back over the bridge to home. I was toasty warm at that point, but as I sat down to do some desk work, I piled on a few layers. Later in the day, feeling a bit low-energy and at loose ends, I took a walk across the river to one of my favorite parks, a little island offering a bit of unmanicured nature. Despite the chilly air, I warmed up quickly. (Walking does that.) I also felt a lot more energetic and alive. (Nature, as well as walking, does that!)

Here are some of my personal favorite tips for boosting cold-tolerance (other than the aforementioned “doing without heat”):

– Exercise outdoors rather than indoors whenever possible. And in general, make a point of spending at least 15 minutes outdoors every day, in all seasons.

– Turn your thermostat down a degree or so at a time. Find the envelope of your tolerance and push it.

– Find things you deeply enjoy that are outdoors. Places you love to visit, like a park or garden. Activities you love, like walking, running, photography, collecting rocks or shells. If you love a place or activity that gets you outdoors, you’ll be more likely to partake of it year-round.

– Make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the season! This is key. I’ve heard Norwegian friends say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing!” Multiple thin layers are better than one thick layer. They trap more air; you can peel them off or put them back on as needed; and they feel less clunky and cumbersome on your body. Hats and socks are key; we lose a lot of heat through our heads and feet.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I always thought acclimating to temperature was mainly a mental thing. But I’ve learned there is a strong physiological component as well. Here are some resources I hope you’ll find helpful.

Further Reading:

What Happens to Your Body When You Adapt to Cold (The Runner Dad) (written for runners, but useful for everyone)

How to Help Your Body Adjust to Cold Weather (Time Magazine) (mentions short cold showers as one method for acclimating very quickly, but I have my own much milder version of this that is plenty effective: simply being willing to sit and endure chilly air for a minute or a few before putting on socks or a sweater)

Cold Acclimation and Acclimatization in Humans: Science of the Cold (Cool Antarctica) (mentions the role of perception and will-power)

Lesson in commuting: Kids in Finland continue to ride bikes to school in -17C (1.4F) temperatures “It’s normal; always been like that. I cycled and kicksledded to school when I was a kid, too,” he says. “And it’s the same thing even in minus 30 C.” (A reminder that what’s considered “normal” has great power to shape our lives. Which is why I have set out to normalize low-footprint living.)

Homeless in the Park

It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeatedly. A city park gets “taken over” by homeless people, druggies, and other so-called “undesirables,” and the so-called “respectable” citizens feel uncomfortable. The city responds by removing benches, picnic tables, and other amenities from the park. Or roping off the picnic pavilions and prohibiting their use without a permit.

Removing drinking fountains; closing restrooms, cutting down shrubbery … the idea being to get rid of any features that attract “undesirable” people.

For good measure, the city puts up a sign with a list of about a hundred rules including “No Sleeping” and “No Loitering” as well as forbidding alcohol and illegal drugs.

Can you see the problem with this? Is the park then suddenly packed with wholesome activity? Office workers sunning themselves at lunch; families carrying picnic baskets and pushing baby strollers at night and on the weekends; people of all different nationalities coming together for pick-up soccer games after the work day winds down; upright citizens walking their dogs in the early morning?

Of course not! Why? Because amenities have been removed, making the park less desirable. The park is as devoid of citizens engaged in wholesome activity as ever! In fact, it’s worse, because now that the benches are gone and there’s less shade, no one in their right mind wants to be here. So the old man who used to come sit on the bench and read a book once in a while, or the solitary office worker who’d come with her bag lunch sometimes, or the jogger who’d stop for a drink from the drinking fountain and maybe take a moment to enjoy the shade … No one like this ever uses the park anymore. (I’m not talking about a specific park here; this is a scenario I’ve seen played out repeatedly in many places.)

Meanwhile, the “undesirable” people are still there in full force. The only people who have nowhere else to go. The druggie shooting up or sleeping it off (so much for the “No Drugs or Alcohol” rule); the bedraggled man and woman engaged in some kind of transaction you don’t want to look at too closely; the filth-encrusted guy with his equally filthy backpack (we’re talking a level of filth that even a resolute non-germophobe like me can’t help but want to keep a distance from) … those folks are all still using the park. From their viewpoint, the benches and all were nice, but when push comes to shove, they’ll make do with the hard concrete, because they have no better place to go.

Maybe their numbers even grow, as whatever paltry civilizing influence used to be there is gone.

In her mind-expanding book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows brought up the concept of “levers.” Levers are things you can push or pull to make some kind of change in a system. In the scenario described above, the park and surrounding area could be considered a system, and “amenities in the park” constitute a lever. By pushing the lever (in this case removing amenities), citizens and city officials hope to drive “bad” people out of the park, supposedly making it more desirable for “good” people.

Unfortunately they pushed the lever in the wrong direction, which not only didn’t fix the problem but made it arguably worse. Ms. Meadows points out that human beings are prone to do this: We see a problem, and we intuitively zero in on an appropriate lever … but we then push the lever in the wrong direction.

A big part of the solution is to retrain our minds and expand our thinking. I highly recommend Ms. Meadows’ book for this. I’ve been carrying the ebook around with me in my smartphone for years; it’s an invaluable reference. I’m finally thinking of buying a print copy for my permanent collection. Her presentation of a “hierarchy of leverage points” for effecting change is something I consider essential reading for activists, or anyone else looking to make a difference — in any arena.

So — amenities in the park. Obviously removing amenities didn’t produce the intended result. In fact, it made things worse.

So how about pushing the lever in the opposite direction — How about adding amenities? Might that work? What amenities might we add? What would entice Joe or Josephine Average Citizen to leave his or her cozy home, with its climate control and its cable entertainment bonanza, and go spend time in a little neighborhood park or a bigger city park?

I’ll write more on this later. In the meantime, think about what kinds of things would entice you (or already do entice you) to use your local park(s).

(By the way, it’s always funny to me to see a “No Loitering” sign in a park. I mean, if you can’t loiter in a park, where can you loiter?)

Further Reading:

Donella Meadows website. A trove of riches!

Radio Show on Nature Deficit Disorder

If you’d like to hear the recording of my “Green Daytona” radio show yesterday on Nature Deficit Disorder, here’s the link. Since the recording of the shows is done via Facebook Live, you can see me talking with the show host, Dr. L. Ron Durham, Director of Community Relations for the City of Daytona Beach. Dr. Durham is a delightful host, and I am deeply grateful to him for his commitment to promoting environmental awareness in our city.

The show (and my public talk last week on the same subject) were inspired by Richard Louv‘s excellent book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Here also is an Amazon link to Mr. Louv’s book.

If you enjoy the show, you can scroll down the Facebook page to see/hear recordings of our past “Green Daytona” shows.

Failure, or Information?

Oftentimes, what seems like a failure can be seen in another light, as useful feedback; information.

Following is an example from my professional field, permaculture design.

I am on the organizing committee for a state-wide permaculture event that is shaping up to be possibly not-a-success. It’s looking like we will manage to get enough registrations so at least we won’t end up owing the venue money, but by the true measure of reaching and inspiring people, our event is failing.

Or is it?

Actually I think we are getting valuable information, which can guide us in future events. For example:

– People are getting more locally focused — which I think is a healthy thing. Local and regional events are doing well. (A smaller, regional permaculture event with a higher ticket price, that’s being held a couple weeks before our event, is attracting more registrants than our statewide event.)

– People want convenience and comfort. The smaller regional event is being held at a venue that’s well-known in Florida permaculture circles, and the ticket price includes healthy cooked meals. Our event is on rough rural land, and it’s BYO food. (Both events require camping, which I see as another factor limiting the appeal of permaculture events. Not everyone wants to camp, and besides, permaculture isn’t about camping, or making a human footprint on rough rural land. It’s about optimizing the human-built environment while restoring ecosystem health.)

– And, thinking in a permaculture mode: A state border is an arbitrary political line. For permaculture events, maybe state-wide isn’t the way to go; maybe bioregion is a better fit.

– People want value. (Duh.) I put an announcement out on a big eco-oriented Facebook group (several hundred members) in my local area, offering to pay for five people’s tickets, and got not a single taker. Can’t even give it away? That means I have failed to communicate the value of a permaculture convergence (or even failed to communicate what permaculture is) to people in my local area, and will therefore, yet again, most likely be the only person from my area at this statewide event.

– Quality not quantity! Yeah … this is something I am repeatedly forgetting and having to relearn. I initiated one-on-one conversations with a couple of my fellow organizers and have learned some things I wasn’t aware of. Reasons why this year’s site is actually great for us right now. Also, got reminded that several of the people I most love and respect, personally as well as professionally, are going to be there, and that is enough for me… AND enough to ensure that the event will be worthwhile to anyone in attendance, because these are some first-rate teachers and inspirers!

– Comparison is death. Another one I’m often forgetting and having an opportunity to relearn. Too much peeping into shiny Facebook versions of other people’s achievements (or other movements, other groups, other places) can make a person not even feel she deserves to take up space on the planet, let alone feel she has any business trying to make a difference. And yet, other people’s successes can inspire us to learn and stretch. The best advice I can give is, Know thyself. Learn to recognize the signs of “too much social media”; know when it’s time to gently back off/unplug and simply go about your work, putting one foot in front of the other. I see ants at work, just taking their next step and their next, knowing what they are about, without reference to what others are doing. Same with the beautiful orb-weaving spider building her web outside my studio-office-bedroom door. Working diligently, just being. As humans, we have the opportunity to borrow from and build on one another’s successes. We also have the opportunity to take lessons from other life forms; admire and emulate them.

– Attention is powerful! There are healthy and unhealthy modes of attention. As of a couple days after I originally made this post, our registration numbers are climbing.

What examples can you think of from your occupation, or your life in general, on how you have chosen to turn “failure” into valuable information?

J2ZW Goodness

Those of you who have already joined the Journey to Zero-Waste community, I trust you are finding it a rich enjoyable forum for practical tips! I’m a regular contributor as well as avid reader. It’s so helpful to share information with tens of thousands of people from all over the world. Lots of fresh perspectives.

If you post a question on J2ZW, you will get good answers. And many questions you already have, have very likely already been answered on there, and you can do a topic search. And the admins are pretty good about cracking down on rudeness.

My favorite threads in the past couple of days:

What’s in your trash right now? Let’s work together to find solutions! (You can find my answer, including a creative idea for dealing with Halloween candy wrappers, along with many other folks’ comments.)

Also: What are your favorite ways to store freezer meals? How can I get away from using paper towels? News of a Repair Cafe’ opening in Berkeley, California … and lots more good stuff!

Check it out, and I look forward to having an additional channel for supporting and connecting with more of you! Thanks for being my fellow-travelers on this low-footprint path.

And on that note, did you know that there are Zero-Waste festivals being organized by people all over? I just found out! There was one in St. Kilda, Victoria, Australia in October; and there’s one happening in Montreal as I write this! Maybe some of you will get inspired to organize one where you live.

Apparently the one in Montreal is the third annual ZW festival there. The one in 2017 was attended by 7,000 visitors, and the one in 2018 drew 11,000. This year’s festival has 90 exhibitors! People all over are getting serious about reducing their footprint and cutting out waste.

Showing Up

When I let more than a few days go by without giving you a post, I feel like I’m neglecting you. And after all, “green” is a big topic; there should always be lots to write about.

A chapter of my book Deep Green is dedicated to the importance of mental wellness. If we want to help the world, we have to keep our own minds in order.

Life is filled with storms. Minds are prone to all manner of mind-weather. Deluges, tornadoes, deadly slack doldrums.

About 20 years ago, back when I lived in Austin, I got into fire-spinning for awhile. It started when I saw some celestial-looking woman doing a performance at a party I’d stumbled into where I didn’t know anyone. And this mysterious girl was literally swinging balls of fire on the ends of two-foot-long chains.

I was hooked, and wanted to do it. But had no idea how to approach this woman. The very next day, as I was running errands on foot downtown, I crossed paths with her on the sidewalk! About once a week for a few months, we met in a park and she taught me essentials of her craft.

She was a superb teacher, not only in terms of technique but also in terms of imparting a mind-set. One thing she said has really stuck with me. What she imparted to me me is, it’s possible to do an excellent performance no matter what state of mind you’re in. You can be feeling sad about something in your life; anxious; angry; even checked-out, and still you can give a great performance, provided one thing: that you are in touch with however you are feeling at that moment. (And yes, it is possible to be in touch even with “feeling checked-out.”)

That advice has never failed me, whether at firedancing (for the few years I was a fire performer), or at going on the radio, or giving a talk, or meeting up with friends, or consulting at a client’s property. Or writing this blog. Or going through a divorce.

Or, in the funeral parlor before the cremation, paying respects to the physical form that had housed the spirit of the woman who birthed me into this world.

The mind is ground zero. We have to be willing to know ourselves and face inner stuff that isn’t always pretty. Regrets, self-reflection. Memories of our own cowardice or unkindness or whatever else. We need tools, and most of us also need support of some kind from other people. Getting out into nature is essential too.

This month it’ll be two years since my mother’s passing. It still feels fresh in some ways; I’m still picking up some pieces of my life and my mind that shattered or came unglued with her illness and passing. Actually, it was more like her transition switched on a spotlight in me, illuminating some pieces of my self and my life that were already shattered or unglued that I had not noticed before. Death of a close person has a way of illuminating those places in me.

Mental wellness is not the absence of struggle or difficult feelings. It took me a long time to learn that. I was ashamed of having apparently been born with “mental-health issues,” and for a long time I resisted the idea that I needed to make mental wellness the core of my life. Once I stopped resisting (as much), things got a lot better, and I became more able to show up in the world and contribute to the change I wanted to see.

There’s a whole chapter of my book dedicated to the importance of cultivating mental/emotional wellness. It’s called “Get Your Mind in Order.” Getting our minds in order isn’t like mopping or sweeping or disinfecting a room, or shutting out the rough weather; it’s more like learning to trust ourselves and navigate the storms and open our whole heart to what is.

The mind feels like a muscle to me. As I practice being present with difficult feelings, it seems to stretch and become more resilient. I can tell when I’m on the right track when I feel my heart getting stronger and softer at the same time.

Stretching is a challenge. Many times my first reaction is to shrink back from the task of stretching. But that leads to a dry airless place I don’t care to inhabit.

This morning, Saturday, is the day of our local farmer’s market. I am going with the friend I usually go with. Time to get up (because I’ve been typing this in bed on a sweet cool gray morning), get dressed, and get my shopping bags out.

Enjoy your day, dear reader. Whatever storms it brings, know that you can navigate them and become stronger. And know that you are making a difference in the world.

As always, I am deeply honored by your presence here on this blog. Thank you for reading. And thank you for guiding me — because you do, although silently and anonymously, give me guidance on what to write next. You are like a secret source of light.