Wednesday, March 28, 2012


One way this place informs my life is the weather. This week, we’re back to more seasonable temps with some light precip. So being the fair-weather bike commuter that I am, I am not on two wheels this week. Harsh, cold winds and rain? No thanks, I’ve been out in that weather on a bike and and it really wasn’t enjoyable at all. But the probability of what I consider cycling compatible weather should be on the rise right on through the fall so I do look forward to many days of round trip cycling fun – perhaps stretched out to a training ride from time to time. Just not this week. Some people seem to think that since they wouldn’t ride or walk to work everyday due to weather, they can’t do it any day. Seems to be too much trouble to decide that morning what mode of transportation to use. (One drawback to switching modes is that one can forget how one came in that day. At another place when I lived closer to school, I did walk home one day only to hear the family: “where’s the car.” Me: “Oops!”.) There are people out there for which it just doesn’t occur to them to do something different from what they’ve always done. For those in that category, a local group offers ‘Walk and Roll to Work and School.” This year it falls on Earth Day. How convenient! As I tell people, it’s not to be the only day you walk or roll to work and school, but it is an excuse for people to try it. Who knows. They might like it. So thanks Building Healthier Communities Coalition and Sault Trails Group for sponsoring this event.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Slowly, Insidiously

I recently had occasion to meet up with someone I had not seen for several years. I didn’t think he wanted to hear “wow, you sure are starting to look like your dad,” so I did not say that. And he was polite enough not to say ‘wow, you sure look a lot older than you did last time I saw you.” When you see someone everyday, you don’t notice them aging. Similarly, you may not notice small gradual changes in your place. Another small pocket of woodlands converted to a development. Another creek paved over, hidden from daylight. Another piece of farmland taken out of food production. Someone who had not been there for a while notices the changes, but those that live there every day might not. After the losses build up enough people ask “how much nature do we need?” Is it at all like the aging person asking “how healthy do I want to stay?”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rainy day

“Loves long walks in the rain along the water.” No, that was not my profile for an on-line dating service. I like walks along the water rain or shine. This morning I dropped the car off for a small maintenance job and walked to school along the water. First I walked along the river, then I switched to walking along the canal. This afternoon I get to repeat the trip. I’m looking forward to it. This morning’s walk was nice, as walks always are. The pace of walking lends itself to a different kind of thinking than cycling does and walks in town lead to different thinking than walks in natural areas. Town walks seem to lead me more to getting tasks mentally arranged and helping develop better ways to handle the upcoming steps that need to be handled for ongoing projects. The rain was just a minor drizzle so the Frog Togs may not have been completely necessary. Still it was nice to arrive completely dry. Rain suits are fun that way, makes me feel like I’m in a protective cocoon. Waders are even more fun that way since one feels completely invulnerable to water, or at least to a particular depth with surety of footing and not too much current (hmm…what happened to invulnerability?) Walking this morning, I recalled a particular day as a kid playing in the pools of water standing in our neighbors back yards. The back yards were not cross fenced and it was OK with the neighbors to play in what was virtually a large commons. The water drained into one persons yard. Of course as kids we didn’t worry about that standing water leading to water in the basement. We were kids, not middle aged homeowners. I also recalled a day in college where several of us went out and literally frolicked in a warm afternoon rain shower, even body sliding through standing water. It was the 70s but yes, we did have all of our clothes on. I get a special feeling while looking out over a river or lake on a rainy day, seeing the top of the lake or river -- the surface water -- and the water in the atmosphere. Looking across a great lake when one cannot tell on the horizon where the water in the air stops and the water in the lake begins makes for an even more special feeling. Rainy days, gotta love ‘em even if March should still be XC Ski season.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Healthy Places

My academic/professional interests are wide ranging. They include epidemiology/public health as well as environmental conservation. It doesn’t sound that wide ranging, but it does cross several academic disciplines. That says more about how artificially our academic disciplines are set up than how expansive my outlook is. In Epidemiology class today, we’re talking about how city planners/designers and public health professionals work together in making sure places are designed to encourage healthy living. We’ll be talking about how viewscapes enhance mental health, how public spaces and neighborhood layout can enhance development of social capital, how walkability enhances physical activity and thus promotes cardiovascular health and healthy weight, how neighborhoods can even promote access to healthy foods. One of the references I’ll point the students to is “Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability,” Dannenberg, Frumkin and Jackson (eds) Island Press (2011). Across the two disciplines, city planning folks are talking about how they can act as public health officials, the public health folks are talking about they can act as city planning officials. For example, last fall’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting was titled “Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies” and featured scores of sessions tying community design – urban and rural – to health. Placemaker sites generally have some description of how better planning around public spaces will enhance the health of the residents of those neighborhoods. Researchers are working on quantifying that link and are able to show that the new walking path has led to more physical activity in that community or better access to more diverse restaurants led to better food choices. A tool to guide that kind of thinking is a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Based on the concept of an Environmental Impact Statement, the HIA shows how a development plan might affect public health. The HIA process can provide stakeholders with a chance to voice their concerns and make recommendations about how the plan or project could be modified to improve health and, according to the CDC’s fact sheet about Health Impact Assessment, “brings public health issues to the attention of persons who make decisions about areas that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.” The HIA process is in use in the UK. Canada is starting to use it and a few counties in the US are using it. Placemaking and public health. Huh.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

local connections

After that most recent post, I'd better lighten the mood! Last week I had a business meeting with someone I had not yet met from our town. Before our meeting could get going, I felt compelled to find that local connection that's always there in a small town. It took a few minutes but we were able to establish that his sister was HS friends with my daughters. OK now that that's settled we can go on with the business. It really didn't occur to me that people feel such a strong need to do that until I overheard a colleague that was talking to a local person she just met and they took a few minutes to establish that her neighbor was his cousin's ex girl friend. Whew. Glad we go that straightened out! The local connection can have more immediate, practical value, too. Years ago, when the only credit cards I had were CONOCO and AMOCO (OK that was several decades ago), I found myself low on gas in a rural area without those brands. I was in a neighboring county so I had to ask whether the proprietor would take a check from the town in which I lived. He saw the last name, presumed I was actually from that town, and asked 'who's your dad?' I told him my dad's name and he said 'sure, I know him, you're check's good.' I did not correct him to say that my dad lived clear across state and he probably was thinking of someone else by that name. So incorrect local connections can work, too. Fortunately in that case, it was a positive connection. I'd have been out of luck if he would have responded "That #@!%? Get out of here!"

Odd thoughts

Sunrise has gotten early enough so that this morning I was able to get in a backwoods ski out our door this morning before even getting ready to go to work. There’s just something about skiing, cycling, running, etc., first thing in the morning to set the tone for the entire day (even if that tone is ‘I’m tired – but it’s a nice tired!’) I have not availed myself of the opportunity to go out for a paddle before work simply because it’s not quite as convenient as a ski, run or ride but I should try that sometime this summer. Out in a beautiful natural area after a snowfall in favorable weather. It was wonderful. Out by myself, my thoughts took an odd turn. After a series of thoughts that began with ‘my isn’t this a pleasant scene…,’ I thought of my grandma-in-law who died on her farm. (“You better move to town,” her friends and neighbors told her “or you’re likely to die on this farm.” Her response: “I hope so.”) Or my grandfather who died while walking to the post office in his small town. I thought of most of the rest of us who are likely to die connected to various monitors and tubes in a hospital room. I won’t be able to die out in a natural area with a spectacular view as my last sight. I probably wouldn’t want to anyway since someone would have to find the body. Instead of thinking “I could die happy here,” I thought “I’ll live happy here – and enjoy it as much as I can.” [this entry was written last week but I didn’t get around to posting it until this week. Now we have warm temps and rain. I think XC season is over. Time to move on to the next season]

Monday, March 5, 2012

Local Knowledge

I recently learned of the environmental disaster area on the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan. I was at a meeting at Alma College and heard one of the Alma profs (Ed Lorenz) who works with the Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAG) on this superfund cleanup. Velsicol manufactured pesticides at the site, leaving behind a site that had, according to the CAG website, “the highest levels of DDT contamination ever measured in the US.” Again, from the website, “The Task Force has become a national model for establishing a forum linking government experts and concerned citizens, with much local knowledge, to secure appropriate environmental-health policy responses…The Task Force believes that such community groups can improve the effectiveness of any technical work, research about risks, and decisions about remediation. A failed remediation of the Velsicol site in the 1980s, done with conscious exclusion of the public by officials, seems to be proof of the validity of the Task Force's assumptions regarding citizen involvement. The Task Force and College are determined not to allow similar mistakes to occur today.” ( The urging of the local citizens, along with effective use of their local knowledge, is driving this cleanup. I work with the Binational Public Advisory Council for the St. Marys Area of Concern. Our environmental issues are not as severe as those on the Pine River and, unlike the Pine River, our restoration/cleanup was designed from the beginning to include local knowledge. As with the Pine River, our council has been the main advocate for maintaining interest in the restoration/cleanup work during the years of little attention by the agencies. Our council has had a good working relationship with the agencies even through those lean years and is happy to report that the agencies now are making good progress on restoring the St. Marys River, Local knowledge – the knowledge of place on the part of those that live there -- is important for science. Sometimes when community X has a problem, whether an environmental problem or a community health issue, scientists design a study in their lab, descend on the community, take their measurements, return to the lab to analyze the findings and then issue a report. The community members are subjects of the study with a clear line of demarcation between subjects and researcher. The study is done for the community but in some ways it’s done to the community. If the study goes on to design and implement remedies, that’s done externally as well and imposed on the community (sounds like the first round of Pine River cleanup). It works much better when the community members partner with the scientists from the very beginning of the study. The study is designed in part based on what the community members feel they need to know to improve their situation. The study incorporates local knowledge and helps build community capacity to address the problem. The study is done with the community, not just for it and especially not to it. Remedies are designed and implemented with the full involvement of the community members. Research projects based on this concept are called community-based research or participatory action research and they are gaining favor in the environmental health arena. Local knowledge does not always meet traditional tests of scientific rigor. But it does contribute to understanding the problem and finding a remedy. It’s especially important in finding a remedy that will work in the local community, whether in developed countries or developing countries. Sense of place includes local knowledge of the place that pays off in science.