Monday, September 26, 2011

Placemaking on a Great Scale

I find myself on the steering committee of a new initiative: the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Symphony. That’s ‘symphony’ as in united voices, not ‘symphony’ as in orchestra. As in the opposite of ‘cacophony.’ We just had our first meeting last week. The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Symphony is a project of the International Water Secretariat (IWS), a non-government organization based in Montreal dedicated to water conservation and environmental justice related to water. The IWS noticed that while there are several organizations working on the technical aspects of cleaning up the (Laurentian) Great Lakes, there isn’t a group that works on the more human aspects of appreciation for the lakes and what it means to be a habitué of the Great Lakes/St Lawrence watershed/coastal shed. How “my water is our water.” Part of the impetus for this initiative is that the Gt. Lakes programs tend to quit at the beginning of the St. Lawrence River although obviously all the Gt. Lakes stuff washes right past (and gets added to by) Montreal, Quebec City, etc. And the beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence get it all. At our kickoff meeting, one of the other participants stated that it seems like we’re talking about placemaking, but on a wide scale. Placemaking is generally about a specific location. Even placemaking related to the St. Marys River (60 miles long) is a stretch. Placemaking for a region from western Lake Superior and southern Lake Michigan through Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and right down the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is even trickier. But what the IWS is talking about is essentially placemaking. The project wants to know: how living in this watershed/coastal shed informs your life, what’s so special about it, what do want to see as the future for it? (Then the hope is that once people see that, they will act on that new-found insight.) I’m very interested to see how getting people to work towards their local places (watersheds) but seeing it in a grand scheme (as a part of a huge watershed/coastal shed) will work out. I’ll keep you posted as this project on placemaking writ large comes together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Do you need an excuse to linger?

This morning, as we were driving in to work, we went a bit out of our way to get a better view of a rainbow. It filled the sky and was doubled on the ends. It was one of those days with rain coming in bands with sunshine between. Perfect rainbow weather. We pulled over, then took a couple block detour to get a better view. It was fun to position the rainbow over one of the university buildings or to get a view over an open field. We took pictures (just with the cell phone). We probably won’t even download them (how many pictures of rainbows does one need) but the fact that we had the ability to take a picture gave us the motivation (and an excuse) to stop and notice. A couple of days before that, it was an interesting shadow that made me stop to look at and take a picture.

Sometimes you need an excuse to stop and or to linger. If you’re sitting on the bank of a stream with a fishing pole in your hand, you have an excuse to linger. You could just sit on the bank, gazing empty handed, but the fishing pole provide a typical excuse.

A sketch pad, camera or writing tablet work, too. A paper tablet is more picturesque but, for me, far less effective than the electronic kind. In fact, the process of capturing things one sees helps develop the habit of seeing. You might not need an excuse. You might notice and linger without having to produce an artifact. But I notice more if I’m in the habit of writing about it. Either way, noticing and lingering help you know your place and knowing your place helps you notice and linger.
The rainbow anecdote started as a comment on, part of a project completed by an intern with the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities. If you want to get in the conversation tweet #ReasonsRuralRocks to @sherbani or go to

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughtful spots

I recall one afternoon that I was really dragging. I was traveling from one appointment to another and as I like to do, worked in a coffee and donut stop. About 15 minutes later I felt more energetic. I’m not sure whether it was the caffeine or the replenished blood sugar, but I felt remarkably refreshed. That’s the first time I really noticed the value of stopping for donuts, oops I mean of taking a nutrition break.

Thought breaks are just as essential as nutrition breaks. I can stay on task for a while, but at some point I need a thought break to refresh my thought center. I can’t start with the break – I need to apply some seat time to get the process started, but eventually I need a change of activity and scene to let additional thoughts emerge. How often have you sent a memo, then walked down the hall only to have thought of an additional point you should have made in that memo? So don’t send that memo until you’ve had a thought break. Before you consider some thought-requiring task done, set it aside, get a change of activity and scene, and come back to it. New ideas will bubble up.

You can make a pretty good guess about where I like to head for a change in activity and scene. Yep, a local natural-ish or uncrowded spot. We’re lucky to have plenty of them. If I had to develop a tag line for our area, I’d want to combine ‘real nature, real close’ and ‘uncrowded.’ That’s a good combination for thought breaks. Other places have forests; other places have lakes, rivers and wetlands. But we have the advantage of having all these places close by and without huge crowds to have to share them with. I guess we should be pretty deep-thinking people with all those thoughtful spots available. But then having them available and taking advantage of them are two different things. Just because they are there doesn’t mean we always use them.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I was down in southwest lower Michigan over the Labor Day weekend. One evening was one of those warm, humid evenings. The air was heavy and still. The crickets and cicadas were singing. Had it been any cooler it would have been slightly chilly, any warmer would have been unpleasantly hot and muggy. That combination of atmosphere and sounds made a pleasant ambience/context/setting/milieu (thank you, thesaurus, but I’ll not use mise-en-scène).

We don’t get that many warm evenings up here, so when I did have that sensation of a warm evening, it was nostalgic. Not so much that my favorite weather is warm and humid, just that I do have pleasant memories of such nights when I lived elsewhere. (It’s not all nostalgia, though. I also have memories from those places of nights too hot to sleep comfortably, with air conditioning making it tolerable but uncomfortable in other ways.)

Up here, our nights tend to be cool, or ‘good sleeping weather’ as the TV weather person likes to call it. In talking about this summer’s weather to a fellow resident recently, I mentioned that ‘there was that one week this summer that we didn’t sleep with a blanket.’ His response was ‘yes, it has been warm this summer.’ I forgot to insert the word ONLY or JUST in my statement to make the point that one week without a blanket in the summer is not very many warm nights. But it’s all relative. I hear back from students for which a rare cool evening where they now live brings back fond memories of chilly nights in the UP.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A nice sight

This morning I saw a dad walking is daughter to school. Nothing extraordinary about that, but it is getting to be a rare sight for kids to walk to school and especially for parents to walk along. This is only the second day of school here and the girl looked maybe 3rd grade. They were about a ½ mile from the local grade school when I saw them, so it wasn’t like a just-down-the-block walk the girl could do on her own.

It looked to me like they were having some real quality time together, conversing in a way they would not have been able to if dad had to concentrate on driving and the girl was safely seated in her booster chair in the back seat. Taking time to walk your kid to school is not practical for everyone, but it is nice to see that it’s not extinct. I also noted the ample sidewalks on low traffic streets which made it possible.

We have a complete streets ordinance here. With new construction on streets, sidewalks and other pedestrian and cycling friendly features are to be added when practical. Maybe that will help make the sight of families walking for transportation and recreation more frequent.