Friday, July 29, 2011

Local Humor

You know you’re living in a special place when there’s a series of local jokes. For the central and western UP, it’s Toivo and Ehno, which are a bit more colorful versions of Sven and Olie stories of Minnesota (or Lena and Olie stories for the more family oriented humor). What’s the local humor of your place (other than sports-inspired state rivarly jokes)?

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Sense of Place" Makes Public Radio International

I don’t know how long ago this segment ran, but I recently found the podcase of the segment about sense of place on “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.” Check it out:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Quantifying Your Place

Environmental scientists monitor rivers, wetlands, wildlife species, invasive species and other natural features of a place to keep tabs on the health of those natural features. But the environmental scientists can’t be everywhere. Several years ago, the natural resource agencies discovered that there is a whole group of interested people that could be put into service to provide that needed monitoring. Citizen scientists are ordinary people who have a strong interest in local nature and who receive training in documenting natural conditions and report their findings to an information network run by a professional staff. Bird counts, frog and toad counts, river watches, invasive species watches are all examples of this citizen science.

Beyond the data generated, these citizen science programs also help build ownership in natural features. Someone who has been out monitoring water quality on a river doesn’t want to see their river contaminated. I have not looked into any research about how many stream monitors who started out just as natural history buffs become politically active to protect their stream, but I do know of some anecdotes about that.

But even if you have no intention of becoming an activist, if you have any interest in helping quantify your place, look around for opportunities to participate in a citizen science project. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll have a good time, and you’ll help contribute to the knowledge base needed to manage your natural resources.

Monday, July 11, 2011

cherry picking, literally not figuratively

This past weekend, we did our annual trip to Rosenthal’s Orchards in Charlevoix to pick cherries. The orchard is 3 miles off the main road in beautiful rolling hills with farms and woodlands. It's a nice quiet setting. Yet the booming of the bird scare cannons adds to the ambience somehow.

They have large heritage trees, which also adds to the charm of the place. One tree we picked from is getting pretty old. Several limbs are missing, the bark is peeled off from the base to about 4’ up except for one narrow strip running up the tree. But it had the sweetest cherries of all the trees we picked from. Probably some kind of moral in that anecdote, but I’ll do like the math textbook authors and leave the completion of that idea as an exercise for the reader.

As I said, the trees there are large. I don't think they could shake these trees. I'm pretty sure they need to be picked by hand. Sometimes you need a ladder, which also adds to the fun. This year we were there the first day of picking so we did not need the ladder. We got the proverbial low hanging fruit. This year looks like a bumper crop. The cherries were in grape-like clusters.

We’ve been going to that orchard for 10 years or so. It makes a lovely trip and it’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours. One’s mind wanders while doing that kind of work. In addition to just taking in the nice feeling of a pleasant afternoon, I found calculus creeping into my mind. Here’s how calculus has ruined my life. I began wondering about dH/dC where H is the height of the branch and C is the number of cherries on the branch. I noticed that as I held a branch to pick it, if I were to let go of the branch after picking some cherries, the branch that was once in my reach was now out of my reach. Then I wondered if the orchard could model that for use in a pricing scheme. That way they’d get some revenue from the cherries that get picked but don’t make it into the bucket that gets weighed. Or would it be easier to weigh us before we pick and then after we’re done picking and charge $1.49 for that difference in weight as well? But I imagine the $1.49/lb already includes some loss to cherries falling into the pickers.

Fortunately this strange line of thinking lasted only until the next scare cannon blast brought me back to reality.

We traveled 100+ miles to enjoy the cherry picking adventure, and we’re not the only ones to travel some distance to take advantage of access to fresh fruit that we cannot grow up here. When we lived in Colorado’s Front Range, we did similar trips to the west slope for peaches and other fruit. Even when we lived in Kansas, we’d journey off to the nearest apple orchards. We’ve been part of the ag-based tourism economy for a long time.

Ag-based tourism includes farmer’s markets, fruit stands and U-Pick operations. People come to enjoy a morning or afternoon or evening of picking, then find they would like to go to dinner or at least stop somewhere for some kind of snack or drink. If they happen to see a unique shop, they may well stop there, too.

Some ag-tourism destinations capture that additional business by having a café on their grounds (A popular restaurant in Kansas City started as the café on the orchard grounds. I went to look it up and see that it closes its doors several years ago. Too bad.) Some farms spruce up the grounds and offer a look at how the operation works. Some vineyard/winery estates do that and make an especially fancy form of ag-based tourism (although it’s also fun to visit the straight working vineyard wineries that aren’t all fancified.). I have not looked, but there are bound to be some hops yards that are doing that with on-site brewpubs.

Some farms offer corn-mazes, pumpkin patch activities, hay rides and other on-farm activities as a way of generating some additional revenues or even just to show off the farm. Some businesses even serve the niche market for people for whom an idea of a vacation is paying to stay and do some work on a farm (the western guest ranch idea applied to farms). I have done no research on the number of such businesses and their success rate. I’ve heard of some successful ones, but also know of one in northern lower Michigan that apparently didn’t make it. The less elaborate versions of ag-based tourism are much safer bets.

Regardless of the form, ag-based tourism can be an important part of local economies and creation of the sense of place of an area.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Report from Halifax

I recently had the opportunity to spend a lovely weekend in Halifax and I can report that that’s a city that knows its place.

My hotel was on the waterfront and I was able to explore the town from the naval base to the public waterfront to the shipping terminal to all around Point Pleasant Park and up to university, the Citadel, and Public Gardens Area. (A lot of walking in three days!)

When you’re in Halifax, you know you’re in an area with a rich history and cultural heritage. And there’s no doubt that you’re in a maritime city. The sights and sites are a constant reminder, as is the seafood. There’s a wealth of restaurants from upscale to diner-style.

The city has done many things right in terms of placemaking to help visitors and residents know all about the history and culture. Of all the places I saw, two stood out as especially excellent and unique places, Point Pleasant Park and the public waterfront.

Point Pleasant Park is aptly named. It encompasses the south end of the Halifax peninsula. It’s a large park with a great network of trails. Judging by the high level of use by residents, it is an important part of the quality of life in Halifax. (Although as I was marveling about how wonderful the park was, I did overhear one young boy asking his mom ‘why am I here again?’ to which his mom replied, ‘to spend some family time.’ Kids, eh?) I greatly enjoyed sitting on the cobble beach looking out across the water and listening to the mild surf of this protected waterfront. Even mild ocean surf has a much lower, booming sound than our Great Lakes waves. But upon entering the park, I saw two familiar but unwelcome views – a beach closure sign due to bacterial contamination after a heavy rain (the ocean wasn’t contaminated, it was where a city stream empties onto a beach), and an invasive plant site (they were controlling Japanese knotweed with geoblankets). Otherwise the park was excellent, with many small monuments and other features and lots of way finding signage.

The public waterfront consists of about one mile of boardwalk/public spaces right at the downtown area, from the naval base to the shipping terminal. It features slips for tour boats (including tall ships and even Thomas the Tugboat), eateries and pubs with waterfront seating, monuments and lots of way finding signage. The downtown ares just up hill from the waterfront includes hotels, shops, restaurants and bars, office towers, and a skywalk. It all makes for a great place to spend an afternoon watching the harbor (or should I say harbour) activities and the people.

This mile of public waterfront is a small fraction of the miles of waterfront, the rest of which is mainly industrial, and includes what appears to be a petrochemical plant across the bay. What is now the public waterfront used to be industrial as well. Several decades ago, a group of forward-looking individuals who realized that the economy was shifting away from heavy industry got together to see how they could help the town thrive despite that shift. A waterfront commission was created and designed and nurtured the development of what is now a wonderful public waterfront that is an important economic asset to the town. So even in Halifax, placemaking needs to be guided. I don’t have any information on the controversies of the time or how well the plan was originally received, but it worked. The pace of construction indicates that the area is still seen as a good investment. Thousands of visitors and lots of residents appreciate the commission's work.

My area, Sault Sainte Marie Michigan and Ontario, is known as a place of natural beauty, not for boutiques and lots of fine dining and upscale nightlife. That point was made clear in the in-flight magazine I read on my flight to Halifax. Porter Airlines is a regional carrier based in Toronto with service to Thunderbay, Sault, Sudbury, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, St. John’s as well as Chicago, New York, and a few other major US destinations. The in-flight magazine offered highlights of each of the airline’s stops. For all the towns, these highlights were shops, eateries, night clubs, except for the Sault. The one spot highlighted for the Sault was Whitefish Island, a natural area on the remnant rapids of the St. Marys River. I like that.

Sault Ontario has done a great job of making a public waterfront. We on the Michigan side have a way to go. Our working waterfront offers challenges to creation of public spaces, but so did Halifax's (and like Halifax, the lovely public waterfront in Sault Ontario used to be a crumbling industrial site). We can figure out how to do it here, too.