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Cleveland: Will the Republican National Convention Muddy the Waters of a Green City on a Blue Lake?

Delegates are beginning to arrive in Cleveland and party leaders have been meeting here to establish a platform for the general election. The 15-month $50 million renovation of Public Square is finished. The media has arrived and is broadcasting from the historic Cleveland Mall. Newly painted artwork has been installed along the Red Line tracks leading from the airport to the Terminal Tower, giving convention goers an aesthetically pleasing first glimpse of Cleveland. The Rock Hall is pumping inductee’s music into the streets along E.9th. Many downtown businesses have either shut down or modified their schedules, encouraging employees to take vacations or work from home to ease transportation challenges. Hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues are eagerly awaiting the influx of over 50,000 visitors expected to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention. This town has rolled out the red carpet in hopes that when the international media spotlight shines on Cleveland, our true colors will show.

Back in July of 2014, members of the Cleveland Host Committee were triumphant after edging out Dallas for the 2016 Republican National Convention. However, I don’t think they could have foreseen the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.  In recent months, lines have been drawn and sides taken with Cleveland at the crossroads of an epic political power play. Many of the well-known Republican “establishment” politicians have opted out of the 2016 convention, leaving a void filled with Trump’s divisive and racist rhetoric. Protesters on both sides threaten “Cleveland will burn” if they don’t get their way. What was once seen as an exciting opportunity to showcase Cleveland’s renaissance and eliminate bad press from the past, is now viewed with an equal measure of dread due to the looming threats of violence.

So why does it matter so much? Because one person, one political party or event does not and will not adequately reflect the good works that have been occurring here for more than a decade. So before tens of thousands of people from all over the world converge in Cleveland and we are once again defined by what happens next, I think it is important to note who we are when no one is looking.

The Comeback City

Once dismissed as “the mistake on the lake”, today downtown Cleveland is booming. The city’s 21st Century renaissance has been remarkable, rebounding from being the first US city to default on its financial obligations in 1979, to the city that was awarded Standard & Poor’s third highest AA credit rating in October of last year.  From a city in industrial decline throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, to the robust growth of health care and other service sectors resulting in the rebirth of downtown living that has fueled an economic comeback.  From a city with a river so polluted that it caught fire in 1969, to becoming “A Green City on a Blue Lake” today.

Sustainable Cleveland 2019

In the fall of 2009, Mayor Frank G. Jackson and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability announced Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a 10-year initiative that engages residents, corporations and institutional partners to work together to design and develop a thriving and resilient Cleveland that leverages its wealth of assets to build economic, social and environmental well-being. With nine action areas including renewable energy, clean water, energy efficiency, local foods,  sustainable transportation, vital neighborhoods, zero waste, engaged people and vibrant greenspace, the vision of Sustainable Cleveland states,

“Cleveland will surprise, amaze, and inspire the world with its transformation to a bright green city on a blue lake. Determined people from every walk of life will work together to shape vibrant livable communities, innovative businesses, and a flourishing natural environment that will result in health, wealth, creativity, and economic opportunities for all.”

And so it has begun.

A Place to Live, Work, Play

Originally cities were often seen as places that served a variety of purposes. In the 30’s architect Le Corbusier outlined four roles of a functional city as a place that provides dwelling, work, recreation and circulation to its people. However, in the latter half of the 20th Century, trends in city building moved away from this mixed use approach with the increased development of suburbs. People could live away from the crowded central business districts that were also affected by pollution from industrial areas near the urban core. In Cleveland, a series of parks dubbed the Emerald Necklace managed by the Cleveland Metroparks were set aside in suburban areas circling the city, but provision for green space and lake front access were limited and neglected in and near downtown.

Today, trends have once again shifted toward a unification of day-to-day activities in downtown Cleveland. Neighborhoods are being designed with space for living, working and entertaining, with accommodations for the circulation of residents between the three via public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure. Here, the tenets of Le Corbusier’s “Live, Work, Play” theory still ring true. According to a study commissioned by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance,

“A main channel of Downtown Cleveland’s growth into a mixed-use neighborhood has been the increase in residents living in the central business district … According to the latest figures, the number of people in Downtown Cleveland increased by 69% since 2000.” It further states, “Downtown Cleveland residents are more likely to be college educated compared to the rest of Cuyahoga County. Nearly 44% of Downtown residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 29% in 2000 … With the rise in college-educated residents came a high rate of change for upper- and high-income households. The amount of households in Downtown making at least $75,000 annually increased by 260% from 2000 to 2014, while households making at least $150,000 increased by 389%. These findings echo a recent Brookings report that showed that the highest percent increase of highest-income households occurred in the cities of Seattle and Cleveland between 2012 and 2013.”

These changing demographics have increased the demand for Downtown real estate which now boasts an occupancy rate of nearly 98% with more residential space being developed each year. Rental prices have seen an increase of 47% from 2010 to late 2015.

A Green City on a Blue Lake

Green space also improves the quality of life for urban residents and supports sustainable development of the city. While Cleveland already boasts an extensive Metroparks system surrounding the city and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the south, the expansion of natural areas in and around Downtown will provide environmental, economic and social benefits and help to attract and retain urban residents. Part of the Sustainable Cleveland initiative includes the development of parks and natural areas along the lakefront, in addition to urban farms, green roofs, landscaped boulevards, bike paths and green school yards. These efforts will reduce the city’s footprint, preserve natural habitats, improve air quality and raise the overall quality of life for residents.

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Public Square 2016

A Great American City

The popularity of urban “live,work,play” environments is not just occurring in Cleveland or the US , but has become a worldwide trend. Cities like Cleveland want to attract the best businesses to their urban core. Global businesses want to attract the best employees, and to do that they need to offer lifestyle amenities and proximity to similar types of businesses and the network of services that support them. Cities that strike a balance between the “live, work, play” triad, will surely benefit. Thus, if the international media spotlight shines favorably on the city of Cleveland during the Republican National Convention this week, it will leverage existing public, philanthropic, corporate investments, and help to make our comeback a sustainable win for the City of Cleveland.

So convention visitors to Cleveland … we hope you will bring your solutions for peace and prosperity, not division and violence. As you will see, most Clevelander’s already know what makes America great. Take a page from our playbook and treat our city with care. Because after you leave, this will still be our home.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth

 


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(A Review) “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman” by Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

crowbar-studios-let-my-people-go-surfingWith a title like “Let My People Go Surfing” you wouldn’t expect to find this book in the business section. However, as the saying goes … don’t judge a book by its cover. Dive in and you will find that the unique and common sense business philosophy of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, is anything but common.

In recent years, there has been a surge of companies from all business sectors that are discovering that embracing environmentally safe and sustainable business practices is not only good for the planet, but it can give them a competitive advantage and benefit their bottom line. In fact, it turns out that “going green” is saving companies hundreds of millions of dollars according to corporate leaders and a recent report released by the nonprofit, Environmental Defense Fund. However, this is not new news for Patagonia’s Chouinard, who has been walking the talk for several decades now.

Chouinard Equipment
Chouinard got his start as a mountain climber at age fourteen when he became a member of the Southern California Falconry Club, which trained hawks and falcons to hunt. Their leader taught them to rappel down cliffs to reach the falcon nests. The boys loved climbing and began to practice on the sandstone cliffs on the west end of the San Fernando Valley in California. From there, they set their sights on Tahquitz Rock in Palm Springs, and eventually Yosemite. At the time, climbers were using soft iron spikes, called pitons, which were driven into the mountain to secure their ropes. Unfortunately, the soft iron variety had to be left in the mountain, and often hundreds of pitons were required for each climb. Chouinard resolved to find a better way. After meeting Swiss climber, John Salathé, who made hard-iron pitons from Model A axles, Chouinard decided to start making his own reusable equipment. In 1957, he bought a used coal-fired forge and taught himself how to blacksmith. He made his first pitons from an old harvester blade and tested them on Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite.

He could forge two pitons an hour and charged $1.50 each. Soon, the word spread and friends were buying Chouinard’s steel pitons as fast as he could make them. He built a shop in his parent’s backyard, forging pitons during the winter and spending the rest of the year climbing. He sold his gear out of the back of his car to cover his expenses. Eventually, the demand overtook his supply and he had to start using more sophisticated machinery. He partnered with Tom Frost, a fellow climber and aeronautical engineer, and they refined their manufacturing process further and also sold their wares from a catalog.

Ironically, this business was to thrive and grow, despite his dim view of consumer culture. In “Let My People Go Surfing” Chouinard admits, “We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society.” He and his fellow climbers were rebels who believed that “corporations were the source of all evil”. In the book, he explains, “The natural world was our home. Our heroes were Muir, Thoreau, and Emerson and the European climbers Gaston Rebuffat, Ricardo Cassin, and Herman Buhl. We were like the wild species living on the edge of an ecosystem – adaptable, resilient, and tough.” … all important attributes this “reluctant” businessman would later use to build a wildly successful retail empire, beginning with Chouinard Equipment, and later Patagonia.

By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing gear in the United States. However, an unforeseen obstacle lay in their path. Their climbing equipment was beginning to chip away at the rock walls, leaving each climber with a less natural experience than the one before; and leaving the mountain permanently scarred in the process. This would be the first true test of Chouinard’s environmental resolve. Although pitons were the mainstay of their business, they eliminated them completely. As a replacement, they introduced aluminum chocks (wedges that can be inserted into cracks by hand rather than hammer). They included an editorial on the environmental hazards of pitons in their 1972 catalog and also added a 14-page essay by Sierra climber, Doug Robinson on the proper use of chocks, whose clarion call for clean climbing was met with enthusiasm by customers around the world. Almost immediately, the demand for pitons declined and they were selling chocks as fast as they could make them. They had taken a risk and customers responded to their authenticity with ever-increasing loyalty. They realized they were on to something.

Patagonia Clothing
Although Chouinard had been making corduroy knickers and double-seated shorts for years, his first true venture into the clothing business started with a rugby shirt that he bought on a winter hiking trip to Scotland. Constructed to withstand the rigorous game of rugby, it was perfect for climbing. The jersey was visually appealing with brightly colored stripes, and tough, with a collar that protected his neck from the climbing equipment. Back in the States, Chouinard wore it around fellow climbers and everybody wanted one. A new trend emerged. Soon they were also selling polyurethane rain ponchos and other outerwear suitable for climbing. 
They began to realize that clothing sales might be a way to support their marginally profitable hardware sales.

Patagonia Clothing was incorporated in 1979, and later became Patagonia, Inc. Named for the sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America that encompasses the southern section of the Andes Mountains; Chouinard felt this was a fitting label for his new company. He writes,

“To most people, especially then, Patagonia was a name like Timbuktu or Shangri-la — far-off, interesting, not quite on the map. Patagonia brings to mind, as we once wrote in a catalog introduction, ‘romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.’ Our intent was to make clothing for those rugged southern Andes/Cape Horn conditions. It’s been a good name for us and it can be pronounced in every language.”

The next decade proved to be pivotal for Patagonia. The company gained popularity, not only in the outdoor community but also with mainstream fashion consumers as well. Chouinard notes, “From the mid-1980’s to 1990, sales grew from twenty million to one hundred million dollars. Malinda (his wife) and I were not personally any wealthier because we kept the profits in the company. In many ways growth was exciting.” He adds, “We were surrounded by friends who could dress however they wanted. People ran or surfed at lunch or played volleyball in the sandpit at the back of the building. … We never had to make a break from the traditional corporate culture that makes businesses hidebound and inhibits creativity. For the most part, we simply made the effort to hold our own particular tradition.”

However, new challenges lay ahead for the free spirited Patagonians. At home and abroad, they were seeing the devastating effects that human activity was having on the wilderness they loved. They became increasingly aware of the efforts being made by small groups of individuals to save these areas. To make matters worse, the 1990-91 recession hit, and Patagonia’s sales fell far short of established goals. In 1991, the firm’s primary lender drastically reduced its credit line, resulting in a severe cash pinch. After first freezing hiring and nonessential travel, the company was forced to lay off 20% of its work force.

The Patagonia “Philosophies”
During this time period, Chouinard became increasingly uncomfortable with Patagonia’s direction and he searched for a business philosophy that would work for their company. Patagonia had grown beyond its original niche as an outdoor marketer and Chouinard was concerned that it no longer matched his personal values.

Chouinard and his wife began to rethink Patagonia’s direction. Seeking professional advice, they flew to Florida to meet with a business consultant. A naturalist at heart, Chouinard explained to the consultant that he was concerned about the fate of the environment and was using Patagonia primarily to make money to use for environmental causes. The consultant advised that if this was his true goal, he should sell the business, keep a little for himself, and set up a foundation with the rest. The consultant’s suggestion was unsettling to the Chouinard’s, who returned to California with more questions than answers.

Chouinard took a group of his top managers to Argentina for a “walkabout” in the real Patagonia. As they roamed the mountains, they asked themselves questions like – Why were they in business in the first place? And, what kind of company did they want to be? And, most important, what could they do to minimize the environmental harm they caused as a company? They concluded that the money the company was contributing to environmental causes barely made a dent in the world’s problems and that the greatest good they could do would be to develop Patagonia as an example for other companies to emulate. Their idea was that companies could educate consumers to become environmentally responsible and, in turn, consumers could influence government policy.

Upon their return, they formed a board of directors comprised of trusted friends and advisors, and one member, author and ecologist, Jerry Mander, put into words the values that would became the foundation for the Patagonia “philosophies” as they applied to every aspect of their business, including product design, production, distribution, image, financial, human resource, management and their environmental philosophy. All future endeavors would be guided by their mission statement, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

“Build the Best Product, Cause No Unnecessary Harm”
Patagonia’s financial setback was a reality check that forced them to take stock of their operations across the board. Through the process of self-examination, they realized that if they were going to be part of the solution, they first needed to take responsibility for their own negative impact.

Chouinard vowed to examine everything Patagonia made, and resolved to do it all more responsibly. He even changed materials, switching in 1996 from conventional to organic cotton because it was less harmful to the environment – even though it initially tripled his supply costs. He created fleece jackets made entirely from recycled soda bottles. He vowed to create products durable enough and timeless enough that people could replace them less often, reducing waste.

“Use Business to Inspire and Implement Solutions to the Environmental Crisis”
No matter how well intentioned, Patagonia’s founder realized that everything they made created some waste and pollution. Therefore, he felt that the company had a responsibility to “pay for their sins until such a time that they hope they can stop sinning”. Patagonia had already begun pledging to give 2% of their profits (before taxes) to select non-profit environmental groups in the early 1980’s. As they became aware of more problems, they increased that amount until they had reached 10% by 1985. At that time, other companies had followed Patagonia’s lead and began similar programs, but this approach had many loopholes and ways for these companies to avoid giving. In 1996, Patagonia decided to increase the challenge by pledging 1% percent of their sales (not profits), whether they made money or not. This led to the creation of the 1% for the Planet initiative, an alliance of businesses pledging to donate at least 1% of sales toward active efforts to protect and restore our natural environment.

The “Let My People Go Surfing” Philosophy
Over the years, Chouinard has not only made waves in the marketplace, but his innovative human resources philosophies and management style have also overflowed into the workplace. The Patagonia employees who work in the offices, stores and distribution centers are paid fairly and receive good benefits. Many share the company’s values and are active in environmental and community causes.

Today, Patagonia is well known for its progressive work environment which includes generous health care, subsidized and on-site child care, flexible work schedules (yes, employees are encouraged to surf on company time when the waves are high at the local surf point – as long as deadlines are met) and paid time off for environmental internships. In fact, Patagonia supports environmental causes to the extent that they allow employees to leave their jobs for up to two months to work for an environmental group while still receiving a Patagonia paycheck and benefits. Furthermore, on the outside chance that an employee is arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience while supporting a cause, the company will even post bail under certain circumstances. Chouinard notes in his book,

“A certain void exists now with the decline of so many good institutions that used to guide our lives, such as social clubs, religions, athletic teams, neighborhoods, and nuclear families, all of which had a unifying effect. They gave us a sense of belonging to a group, working toward a common goal. People still need an ethical center, a sense of their role in society. A company can help fill this void if it shows its employees and its customers that it understands its own ethical responsibilities and then can help them respond to their own.”

Common Sense Conclusions
So what’s the bottom line? I believe the true bottom line of any business should be made in terms of common sense, as well as dollars and cents. As Chouinard notes, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” The continued viability of a business is unsustainable in the long-term if the resources it relies upon to stay in business are not managed responsibly … and that includes its human resources. And as every good surfer knows, balance is key. Companies should care about that more.

I hope you will consider reading this wonderful book. Chouinard’s philosophies and anecdotes will remain with you long after the last page is turned. His authenticity has inspired me to examine my own.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his own vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” -Francois Auguste Rene Chateaubriand

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The City of Shaker Heights: Going green can be gorgeous!

FCBlog_House 2_Bay WindowThe weather in Northeast Ohio has been incredible this spring. Temperatures have been in the 70’s, with cool nights and just enough rain to keep everything green. Mother Nature delivered another picture-perfect day for the 10th annual Gracious Gardens of Shaker Heights garden tour, hosted by the Shaker Heights Historical Society.

The “Garden City”
The city of Shaker Heights originated as a planned garden community on the east side of Cleveland. Located on a plateau six miles from Lake Erie and 1050 feet above sea level, this parcel of land was formerly inhabited by the organization commonly known as the “Shakers”. Thus, the name Shaker Heights. Purchased and developed by railroad moguls, O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen, the city was formally incorporated in 1912.
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The community was loosely designed after the Garden City model of development created in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard. This concept of urban planning featured self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts” containing a balance of residences, industry and agriculture. However, while Howard’s Garden City combined the elements of town and country in order to provide the working class with alternatives to farm life or crowded urban living, the Van Sweringens designed Shaker Heights for the affluent. They kept a tight grip on the architectural design of each home and reserved the right to reject any plan that did not adhere to their ideal.

The Van Sweringen brothers envisioned the community with large lots, winding boulevards and plenty of green spaces – a suburban retreat from the industrial city center. They built model homes and allowed ample space for schools and churches.

The Better Homes Movement
The Better Homes Movement was launched in 1922 by the well-known women’s magazine Better Homes and Gardens. It set out to prove that moderately priced homes could be built in first class neighborhoods, increasing family protection from unsafe and unhealthy living conditions, while at the same time elevating the character of these residential areas. Further, Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary of Commerce, believed that the construction of better-built houses was “a civic and economic asset to the community” and made possible “a higher and finer type of national life deriving its strength from well-managed, self-reliant homes and wholesome family life.” (Sounds like today’s green mantra, right?) The Shaker Heights Master Model Homes were built in keeping with these lofty goals and served as an example to Clevelander’s that an attractive home in a safe neighborhood was an attainable goal.

A backyard view of Green LakeThe Gracious Gardens of Shaker Heights
Naturally, garden design during this time period adhered to the same philosophy of “form following function”. Not only were the gardens of Shaker Heights an extension of the architectural design of each home and an expression of an individual’s private status, but as people adopted more active lifestyles, the landscape surrounding their homes provided residents with “outdoor rooms” to enjoy the healthful benefits of nature. Further, the planned parks and green spaces added aesthetic value to the community and provided residents with additional opportunities to enjoy their natural surroundings. (This seems so logical! Makes you wonder how urban planning ever got so off track.)

Over a century later, much remains the same in the “garden city” and the Gracious Gardens Tour was a rare chance to step back in time and experience life during the early twentieth century, while also observing the latest ideas in modern landscape design. I think the original owners would be pleased to see how their beloved homes have been preserved.

Homes featured in the 2014 Gracious Gardens Tour were as follows:

A Meade & Hamilton Mansion

A Meade & Hamilton Mansion

Zen-sationsal!
The first house on the tour was a magnificent Tudor Revival complete with the original English perennial garden that concealed a hidden surprise behind a wall of manicured evergreen hedges. A red torri (a traditional Japanese gate) was the first to clue to the delightful Japanese garden beyond. Winding pathways and a meandering stream divided traditional plantings of Japanese maple, rhododendron, azalea bushes and bonsai specimens to create serene vignettes – perfect for a peaceful getaway.

Outdoor Rooms with a View
My next stop was a stately home on Green Lake featuring well-placed porches and patios that created outdoor living spaces amid lush perennial beds of roses, astilbe, lupine, peonies and a variety of giant hosta plants. The highlight of this property was the backyard that sloped to the lakefront where a gazebo provided a tranquil place to enjoy the view.

Hidden Treasures, Hidden PleasureFCBlog_Golf
Next up was a majestic Meade and Hamilton mansion featuring plenty of green space to experience and enjoy. Lilac trees framed a welcoming statue of St. Ignatius at the entrance to a pear tree allee. Gravel pathways criss-crossed through an expansive back lawn to reveal a sunken garden, water feature, private patio and a putting green complete with sand traps. Wow! Suits my taste to the t (or tee, depending on your perspective).

Classic English Cottage LivingFCBlog_House 4
The fourth stop on the tour was a departure from the first three locations. I enjoyed the appealing mix of traditional and modern elements that complimented this classic English cottage. Formal arrangements of boxwoods, topiaries and lush planters overflowing with annuals, blended nicely with the updated, yet traditional design of the home. However, all formalities were dropped as the brick-lined circular drive gave way to a crushed gravel path leading to the backyard. A patio complete with a porch swing and pretty pillows was set amidst plantings of roses, hydrangea, iris and a lavender hedge. A guesthouse and potting shed provided additional space to enjoy the gardens, giving the property a relaxed, bed & breakfast vibe. The icing on the cake? The homeowners … who provided visitors with pleasant conversation, lemon flavored ice water and cookies. Nice!

Poolside Permaculture
FCBlog_Private Pool & PergolaMy final stop was the horticultural highlight of my tour. Every inch of this summertime oasis was covered with dramatic combinations of colors, textures and blooms. The backyard featured an azure swimming pool flanked by a rose-covered pergola that housed a Jacuzzi framed in stone. Elegant beds of permaculture, including native plants, pollinators, edibles, organics and more, surrounded the pool. Proof that going green can be gorgeous!

There were two more stops on the tour, but I was running out of time and due at a gathering across town. The sixth location was a beautifully landscaped home set back in the woods, with perennial gardens surrounding a curvilinear pool. The last stop was the Unitarian Church that featured a “nibbling garden” of tasty edibles like asparagus, persimmons and berries. This unique garden was created by a large group of volunteers and donors from the congregation. The Unitarian belief in the Interdependent Web of Life served as an inspiration to what is now one of the largest permaculture gardens in Northeast Ohio.

All in all, I had a wonderful afternoon and learned a lot. I met a nice group of people and left with many new ideas that I want to try in my own gardens. But as I pulled away from the last house, it occurred to me that many of our “new” ideas about sustainability and “going green” aren’t new at all. The seeds were sown long ago and then in many cases abandoned and neglected in the name of progress. But not here.
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Today, Shaker Heights is still known for its strict building codes and zoning laws, which have not only helped to preserve the community’s housing stock and historical significance, but also retain the original gardens and green spaces that make this such a special place. As a result, approximately 75% of the city is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Shaker Village Historic District.

Once again, nearly 100 years later, this city serves as an example to Clevelander’s and people everywhere, that an attractive home in a safe and healthy neighborhood remains an attainable goal.

Spread the word… let’s make it so.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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What is a Food Desert?

I was planning to write about urban gardening next. However, as I began my research, I ran across a term that was unfamiliar to me…food deserts… so I dug a little deeper. I wondered. What is a food desert, exactly? On the surface, it seems to be a contradiction of terms.

By some serendipitous twist of fate, later that same day (really), I took a break from my work and made a quick trip to the grocery to pick up a fresh loaf of bread. My local store was busy with people stocking up for an impending stretch of extremely cold weather. I quickly completed my shopping and made my way to the exit. I walked past the first few cashiers, swamped with customers, to the last checkout where the line was surprisingly short.

As I began to empty my cart onto the conveyor (I can never leave the grocery with just a loaf of bread), I realized that the young woman ahead of me was paying for her groceries with food assistance checks (a rarity in my suburban neighborhood). The cashier kept up a friendly conversation with the woman, complementing her on the beautiful baby that was wrapped in blankets and sleeping in her cart. It took a little longer for her to complete the transaction, but the cashier’s pleasant demeanor never wavered. An older woman, who I presumed had accompanied the mother and daughter, stood off to the side and watched. When the cashier was finished, she wished them well and the three women left, smiling.

As I continued to unload my cart, the older woman returned to the cashier, gave her a big hug and thanked her for her kindness. It turns out that she was a Good Samaritan who offered to drive her neighbor to the grocery when she ran out of baby food. She had been stranded without a vehicle and the woman offered to help. In the parking lot, I saw them again. The wind was howling and blowing the snow sideways. I thought about the baby wrapped in blankets. As I pulled away, I noticed that my car thermometer read -2° F.

Right then and there, I reminded myself to be more aware of the people around me. I also realized that food insecurity isn’t just a problem reserved for the urban poor or developing countries; it exists in communities all across the United States… sometimes in places where we least expect it.

Food Deserts in the United States

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According to a report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 2.3 million households in the United States are more than a mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.

That’s not 2.3 million people… that’s 2.3 million households. Think about that. Your refrigerator is empty and the nearest food store is more than a mile away. Now, if you’re living in the city, you may have the option to take a bus or the train to restock your food supply. But what if you live in the suburbs or in a rural area? What if it’s -2° F and you have a hungry baby and no car? What then?

The main measurement used to classify a food desert is the distance from nutritional food retailers. Further, proximity is not the only factor, as individuals may live close to a retailer that provides nutritious food, but the healthy food selections may be more expensive, creating an additional barrier to access. The physical distance from full service supermarkets also leaves residents of these areas more likely to purchase food from convenience stores or fast food restaurants that offer mainly processed foods that are high in fats and sugars.

In 2010, Michelle Obama brought national attention to the problem of food deserts during the launch of her Let’s Move! campaign. This initiative is dedicated to giving parents helpful information about maintaining a healthy diet and links to programs that promote active lifestyles. It also advocates for nutritional menus in our schools and is working to ensure that every family has access to healthy, affordable food. Recent findings show nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. If we don’t change our current habits, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and asthma.

Solving Problems at the Local Level
Part of the problem stems from the fact that we have become a nation dependent upon others for our food production. We rely on imported products and ship domestic produce thousands of miles from its original source. This has not only increased our transportation needs and carbon footprint, but it has also put local farmers out of business. Although we will realistically never return to the agricultural roots of years past, we can all make an effort to increase the amount of locally grown products we consume. This is not a problem that has a one-size-fits-all solution. We need to address the issue at the local level and tailor solutions according to each region and specific growing season. As the trend toward sustainable lifestyles continues to grow, seasonal farmer’s markets, home food delivery programs, backyard gardens and urban farms are cropping up in communities across the country.

Creating a healthy relationship with food doesn’t have to be all work and no play. It may quite possibly serve a dual purpose. Researchers recommend that creating a direct connection between fresh produce and the consumer is an excellent way to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles. Examples of this include urban farm programs; learning how to a start backyard or patio garden; and school programs… all great ways to experience nature and get outside and active.

Green Schools Can Play a Role
Schools can play an integral part in developing sustainable food delivery systems within the community. One of the most efficient ways to implement wide-scale change to society is through our education system. There are many ways a green school can work with the community to address important issues that affect the health and welfare of children and their families, including:
• teaching students about the impact of their eating habits on their bodies and on the environment
• incorporating healthy food choices in the school cafeteria
• creating edible gardens in schoolyards and local parks
• building kitchen classrooms within the school to demonstrate healthy food preparation
• using green curriculum to give kids hands-on experiences in growing a garden
• utilizing the insights and resources of business leaders and other community stakeholders to meet the needs of the community
• making school the center for community activities and an example of sustainable practices

As Americans, we are blessed to live in a country where the rights and privileges of its citizens are protected by law… Where nearly anything is possible if we are willing to work hard in order to achieve our goals. However, the system and its citizens are far from perfect, and with these rights come responsibilities to each other. Unfortunately, we are often quick to defend our rights, but much more reluctant to live up to our responsibilities. There needs to be a more equitable balance between the two. There is no reason that a young mother should wonder how she’s going to feed her baby in the middle of a snowstorm. It takes a village to raise a child and that should still be the number one priority of communities not only here in the United States, but around the world.

I know this may sound like an antiquated notion, but I took a couple of minutes to go online and read our Declaration of Independence. I was reminded of the monumental effort and risk the signers of that document put forth with no assurances they would ever succeed. The last line sums it up best for me:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I hope you will join me in helping others in need. CBG_Desert FlowerI believe they come across our path for a reason. At the very least, offer a smile to someone who could use a little encouragement. Like a flower in the middle of a desert, it may just brighten their journey.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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Environmental Education in the Flipped Classroom

Throughout my childhood, our family farm in Pennsylvania was not only a summer getaway from city life, but also a place to host extended family and friends. Many times we were allowed to bring classmates from school. One particular friend shared my affinity for horses and was a frequent guest. We spent long summer days playing in the creek, exploring the woods and tending to the horses and cattle on the property, all without issue until one fateful evening when she learned the truth about the origins of beef.

My brother and I with one of the calves we raised at the farm.

My brother and I with one of the calves we raised at the farm.

We were sitting down to dinner, and quite by accident my father revealed the truth…beef comes from cows…and we were having a roast. The chaos that ensued remains vivid in my memory to this day. My friend let out a scream, fled from the table and out into the wilderness, imagining that she was about to consume the calf that we had played with the summer before. In truth, the calf (of milking variety) was grazing peacefully in the neighbor’s pasture. I tried to explain, but there was no consoling her. We all watched, dumbfounded, as she ran up the steep hill behind the house and disappeared into a stand of spruce trees.

Now the terrain at the farm isn’t rugged in most places, but it is remote. If you stray too far from the road you could walk for miles and not encounter another house or human for quite awhile. The hills and hollows all begin to look the same and you could pass within a few feet of any number of wild animals and never know they were there.

After my father recovered from his shock, he simply turned to me and said, “Go find her and bring her back.”

I thought for a moment and then headed out the back door. Judging by the direction she took, I had a pretty good idea of where she was going. I wasn’t so worried about finding her. I was more concerned about what I would say once I did. It wasn’t like a 12-year old kid could do much about beef consumption, right? I climbed the hill and tracked her footsteps through the crushed clover and alfalfa that she left behind on the mountaintop hayfield. I was still contemplating my argument as I reached the summit and looked out into the second hollow. Sure enough, there she was sitting on Table Rock, a big shale formation that cropped up from the valley below, about 4 feet high and 10 feet in diameter…the perfect place to go and think things through when faced with life’s many dilemmas.

Just as I began my descent, a flash of black and white emerged from a hole underneath the rock. From my vantage point, I watched in horror as a mother skunk and her babies appeared, one-by-one, as my friend sat on top of the flat rock with her head in her hands crying. Now the problem had gone from bad to worse. I approached carefully and tried to wave a warning, but she misinterpreted my actions and prepared to run again, still clinging to her misperceptions. I inched closer. At this point, I could even smell the danger. Finally, in desperation, I yelled, “skunk” just as she was about to jump from the rock. Luckily, she saw the danger for herself and retreated until the skunk family disappeared from view.

The Need for Environmental Awareness

The story may seem comical in retrospect, but it has larger implications that mirror a current trend in today’s youth. Our children have become disconnected from nature at a time when understanding the natural world is paramount. We cannot escape from ecological truths, nor can we run headlong into the future without a clear perspective of where we are headed. In the face of ever increasing environmental challenges brought on by climate change, combined with a rapidly increasing population growth due to reach 9.6 billion people by mid-century[i] and an alarming slip in the academic standing of American students on the global stage, we need to seriously reevaluate not only what type of information our students are learning in school, but also how that information is being delivered, in order to utilize valuable class time to the students best advantage and adequately prepare them for the future.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative

In 2010, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers established a new set of educational standards that are now consistent across all fifty states and provide clear expectations in reading, writing, speaking, listening, language and mathematics. By transitioning from individual standards unique for each state to the Common Core, the new objectives “promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.”[ii]

However, new challenges have emerged while attempting to raise the bar. How do teachers find enough time in the school day to deliver a 21st century curriculum within a 20th century classroom structure? The reality is…they can’t and don’t. Many schools have eliminated what they deem as non-essential subjects and concentrate only on the subject matter being assessed on standardized tests. Other districts are eliminating recess and reducing the time spent on physical education and outdoor activities…all at a time when children need environmental education, physical activity and exposure to nature the most.

No Child Left Inside Legislation

A growing body of evidence reveals that direct exposure to nature is important to a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical development.[iii] Additionally, physical activity, such as outdoor play, has been linked to increases in students’ grade point averages and more efficient classroom learning, as well as positive associations with children’s physical fitness, concentration, memory, behavior, and school satisfaction.[iv]

As a result, on July 16, 2013, bipartisan bills were reintroduced to the Senate and House that would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and require states to provide environmental literacy standards and associated teacher training for students in classrooms PreK through Grade 12. Continuing education for teachers is expected to include educator resources necessary for providing high-quality environmental education, as well as ideas on how to make use of the local environment as an extension of the classroom.

However, the problem remains. How do we fit a curriculum expanded to include the objectives of the Common Core along with the NCLI environmental education requirements into an already packed school day and still remain globally competitive? The answer? Why not make use of the technology that we are already using in every other aspect of our lives?

Technology Empowers People

We must be careful not to demonize technology in our quest to expose children to the nature experiences we remember from our youth. As parents, if we are honest with ourselves, we enjoy the benefits of technology as much as our children do, and they learn from our example. Electronic devices don’t turn on by themselves. It is our responsibility to monitor the amount and type of media exposure our children receive, just as we mold other time management and social behaviors.

In truth, technology and connectivity are making lives better. Take for example the mission of Worldreader, a non-profit seeking to eradicate illiteracy among the world’s poorest people through delivering quality, culturally relevant content by way of a special app available for mobile phones that the majority of these populations already have. The premise of the Worldreader Initiative is based on considerable data demonstrating that education and literacy have the power to change lives and empower people. If it’s possible to deliver quality content to remote areas of developing countries, surely we can use the wealth of digital resources at home to bridge the gaps in our own education system.

Teaching Green in the Flipped Classroom

In my first article about the flipped classroom, I made a case for an emerging educational model where teachers assign the lecture for homework, reserving valuable class time for problem solving and hands-on learning experiences. The beauty of the flipped classroom is that it allows teachers the luxury of utilizing differentiated instruction, providing students with different ways to acquire and make sense of information and ideas. It also allows time for project-based lessons where students can apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce real results. The flipped classroom structure dovetails nicely with an eco-friendly curriculum by allowing teachers the freedom to engage students in a variety of ways that will get them outside and active, utilizing all of their senses to interact with the environment as motivation and context for learning.

In fact, school is an excellent place to introduce nature and ecology… and I’m not just talking about an occasional experiment or an outing on Earth Day. They need to live it and make it theirs. Kids want to feel like what they do and say makes a difference. So if it’s becoming more and more difficult to get kids to nature. Why not bring nature to the kids? It might not be the exposure that we experienced. It might be even better… They can still experiment and play and get their hands dirty. The difference is that their play will take on new meaning.

Green Schools

I highly recommend watching the PBS documentary, Growing Greener Schools. The excitement of the children featured in the film left a lasting impression on me. For these kids, school is no longer four walls that close them in for the better part of the day. For them, school has spilled out of the classroom into the hallways where natural light or energy-efficient bulbs kindle a new sense of purpose. It has permeated the school roof, where solar panels help reduce energy costs and free up resources for other innovations. Learning flows out the door and into the schoolyard where open spaces (even urban spaces) can be used for outdoor exploration and experimentation. For these fortunate students, school has become a hub of innovation and collaboration…and above all a source of pride for their contribution to its ongoing success.

Edward T. McMahon who holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, D.C. explains what makes a place worth caring about.

Place is more than just a location on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. A community’s unique identity also adds economic and social value. To foster distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents.[v]

Green schools do just that. However, as one teacher wisely cautions in the film, kids can go to school in a green building and without the tools to understand the implications of sustainability, they will have no way of connecting the building to the environment or to their daily lives. She compared it to a tree falling in the forest, that no one hears. In order to have a true cultural transformation that will make a significant ecological impact, our schools need to become models of sustainability and use the environment as a context for learning across the curriculum.

One expert in the PBS film states, “Our timeline as a country in terms of greening of schools was probably about 50 years ago. So the work that we have to do is catch up. Because, if you look at the way the world presently exists with the major issues we’re being affected by and influenced by… carbon expansion, climate warming, those kinds of things. We really should have been dealing with this several decades ago.”[vi]

Teach Green, Think Green, Live Green

The time has come for us to stop looking for answers to outdated questions and start asking new questions. Questions like… What kind of citizens do we want our children to become? And, what tools do they need to be successful when facing an uncertain future?

It has become increasingly evident that all of us must learn to live as part of earth’s ecosystems, not apart from them. We especially don’t want our children to be caught unaware or unprepared to face environmental issues that are sure to challenge them in the coming years. We want them to be innovators and collaborators that are well versed in the cycles and connections that support life on earth. I believe that using our education system as a conduit for change is the fastest and most pervasive way to improve the eco-consciousness of our country. It is also a win-win situation for our children. It will get them outside and active and will prepare them to think green in a global economy.

Food for thought…

Oh yes, speaking of food. As for my childhood friend … Fortunately, the cow incident didn’t spoil her appetite for nature. Today, she and her husband live in the country with an assortment of farm animals on their property. However, to the best of my knowledge, she remains a vegetarian to this day.

Happy Holidays!

Elizabeth


[i] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013).

World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Highlights and Advance Tables. Working

Paper No. ESA/P/WP.228.

[ii] National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors.

[iii] Kellert, S. R. (2005). Building for life: Designing and understanding the human-nature connection. Washington, DC: Island Press.

[iv] Trudeau, F., & Shephard, R.J. (2008). Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5(1), 1-12

[v] McMahon, Edward T. (2012). Character is Key to an Economically Vibrant City. The Atlantic Cities.

[vi] Wiland, H., Bell, D., (Producers & Directors). (2010). Growing Greener Schools. [DVD]. United States: PBS.


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My Take on the Flipped Classroom

There’s a grassroots movement trending in communities across the country. It started with a handful of tech-savvy pioneers and a few innovative educators. Slowly, it moved in to the mainstream, catching the attention of parents and kids searching for a better way. Forward-thinking businesses and avant-garde entrepreneurs saw the immense, untapped potential and jumped on board. Now, it’s cropping up everywhere.

No, people aren’t protesting on the city green or picketing the statehouse. But don’t be fooled, these demonstrations are no less transformative than the acts of dissent that you read about in the headlines today. Don’t worry … the demonstrations that I am referring to are peaceful (far more effective) and available online for participating students. Watch and learn. Once this movement goes viral, it just may change the world.

So what’s going on?

An increasing number of educators are experimenting with an innovative learning model using technology to streamline the delivery of subject matter, increasing access to quality curricula and also freeing up valuable classroom time for creativity, experimentation, collaboration, remedial work and further exploration of topics that can help students better understand the world around them and their place within it.

A caveat before I continue … It’s not my intention to be overly critical of our current education system. I was raised in a family of educators and know first-hand the positive influence that they have had on their students. But I truly believe this is a topic worth exploring. Here’s why …

The world is changing faster than we can understand it. To make matters worse, too many of our children are not receiving the education they need to be personally successful, let alone the information they will need to make a positive contribution to complicated issues of global significance. Salman Kahn, a former hedge fund analyst turned online educator, states in his book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined,

“To be successful in a competitive and interconnected world, we need every mind we have; to solve our common problems regarding relations among peoples and the health of our planet, we need all the talent and imagination we can find. What sense does it make to filter out a percentage of kids so early in the game, to send a message that they have nothing to contribute? What about the late bloomers? What about the possible geniuses who happen to look at the world differently from most of us and may not test well at an early age?”

It is important to realize that the traditional American education system was modeled after the Prussian philosophy of the early 19th century. Among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and mandatory primary education, the Prussians did not create their education system to produce independent and innovative thinkers…quite the opposite. They wanted a uniform population of capable workers prepared to fill the jobs of the early industrial age and to produce loyal and law-abiding citizens with strict instruction in duty, discipline and obedience.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all important qualities that should be instilled in our children as part of their education. In truth, the current education model served our nation remarkably well up to this point in time. American democracy has been one of the greatest experiments in human governance that the world has ever seen. I believe our education system played a vital role in unifying our nation of immigrants, while preserving the rich diversity of our individual cultural heritages. It has encouraged us to live peacefully under one system of government through many challenges that could have just as easily divided us. However, as Thomas Jefferson once said:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions … But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their …ancestors.” – Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816

So, here we are in the 21st century. Human minds have certainly progressed since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Our nation has matured and become more enlightened. Many new discoveries have been made. In fact, Jefferson never could have imagined the transformative power of the Internet, but he certainly left provisions for change when the need arose.  Well, it is no longer a question of when? That time is now. The U.S. education system has already been slipping internationally over the past three decades, according to the Council for Foreign Relations’ Renewing America Initiative. The more relevant question is, how?

Today, the stage has been set for digital learning. The Internet pervades our society. Social media has been dubbed “the single most disruptive innovation in the history of industrialized civilization”. It has changed the way we interact with each other, how we access information and get our daily news, the tools we use to conduct business and shop for consumer goods … even how we express our approval or dissatisfaction with everything from people and popular trends to government policies. However, when it comes to how we educate our children, we are still surprisingly behind the curve.

Fortunately, more and more educators are using technology in their classrooms, but challenges still remain. How do they successfully cover all of the requirements of the Common Core State Standards in the time they have allotted for each subject, and still adequately address students with different abilities and learning styles? Some have suggested extending the school day, or even the school year. However, many legal and logistical obstacles stand in the way of these changes, which may take years to implement. Meanwhile, kids are falling through the cracks year after year. Why not rethink the way we engage students within the existing system to ensure that they assimilate the information more efficiently?

The flipped (or blended learning) classroom is one such alternative where students first study the topic by themselves, typically using video lessons prepared by the teacher or third parties like the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational website created in 2006. In the classroom, students apply the knowledge they learn at home by solving problems, participating in discussions and doing practical work. The teacher has an increased amount of class time to tutor students when they become stuck, rather than lecturing the entire class period.

Complementary techniques used in a blended learning environment include differentiated instruction, providing students with different ways to acquire and make sense of ideas. Teachers develop lesson plans and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively regardless of differences in ability. Online resources allow teachers to tailor instruction to student’s individual needs, providing real-time measurements of achievement and concept-level proficiency. The flipped classroom structure also allows time for project-based instruction where students first learn the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce real results.

Both of these methods incorporate digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative instruction; refocusing the motivation to learn on the student, promoting a greater depth of understanding of concepts, a broader knowledge base, enhanced communication and leadership skills, increased creativity, and improved writing proficiency.

For most of the students who now populate our schools, the Internet has always been a part of their lives and social media is their preferred method of communication. So it makes sense to reach (and teach) them where they live. Refitting the classroom with innovative technologies is a powerful way to customize the learning experience and promote increased engagement with subject matter, to ensure that all students are prepared to meet the rigorous demands of an ever-changing world.

Elizabeth

“Education is a powerful instrument of change. Let it be the first tool that we reach for in our arsenal of solutions, when facing life’s many challenges.”

Up Next:
Environmental Education in the Flipped Classroom, and
Making a Teach Green Nature Journal


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Earth Day Resolutions to Boost Your Environmental Awareness

Have you ever wondered how your personal lifestyle may impact the environment? Earth Day is Monday, April 22nd …the perfect time to take stock of our ecological footprint and create a list of eco-friendly resolutions. Especially since our New Year’s list has most likely been lost in the shuffle by this time.

Five Easy Ways to Get Started

1. Experience Nature – No, I’m not talking about cutting the grass or firing up the grill in the backyard. Take the time to roll up your sleeves, put on your hiking boots and go exploring. Find areas near you to experience the natural world firsthand and learn. It’s human nature to care about things that you know and love. Connect with the parks, preserves and nature centers in your area and discover the cultural and natural history that has helped to shape the place where you live today.
2. Share Your Experiences (Past and Present) With Others – As we become more and more technologically advanced, we frequently rely on digital images and information to satisfy our curiosity about the world. However, remember…nothing can take the place of the actual experiences that stimulate our senses, spark our imagination and energize us. Take the time to experience nature wherever you may find it; and share your experiences with others, especially children. Our culture is enriched by the oral histories of people and places that are passed from one generation to the next.
3. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – I know, I know. No eco-lecture is complete without the three R’s. Beyond the obvious benefits of reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills and conserving natural resources, the actual act of recycling is a daily reminder of our responsibility to the environment and the impact of our actions. If I throw even one metal can in with the regular garbage, I immediately feel remorse and imagine it sitting in a massive landfill that future generations will have to clean up one day. Feeling the guilt already, aren’t you?
4. Volunteer – Become a steward to your local environment and you’ll get as much as you give. Environmental volunteers participate in a wide range of activities from organized clean-up efforts to wildlife monitoring, habitat restoration and educating others about the natural world. Volunteering not only helps preserve the environment, but it also benefits the volunteers themselves by promoting civic pride, social interaction with like-minded people, personal development and an attachment to a particular place which fosters a general ethic of care for the environment overall.
5. Learn Something New Every Week – If all else fails and you’ve gone a week without a moment to spare, take fifteen minutes to go on the Internet and learn something new about the environment. The world is filled with amazing wonders that will lift your spirit, broaden your perspective, and hopefully, encourage you to reconsider making time for the first four resolutions. I know you’ll be glad that you did.

Sometimes it seems like the relationship between human activity and the Earth is too complicated for one person’s actions to make a significant difference. I have felt that way many times myself. But, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Happy Earth Day!

Elizabeth