Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City PART 3

Phew, I finished "Bird on Fire" just in time to get it back to the library. I try not to upset the librarians, they can be pretty intimidating.

Overall, I found "Bird on Fire" to be a good read. The book was well written and researched. It had it's boring moments, but that had more to do with the content than the writing ability of the author.

The biggest issue for the book is the title. I find it to be inaccurate. The "Bird on Fire" part is nice enough, but the "Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City" ruins it. By claiming that Phoenix is the world's least sustainable city, the book attempts to sell itself as universally important. I assume this was added on so that people who live outside of Phoenix would be tempted to buy it. In reality, I doubt that a reader who has not spent significant time in Phoenix could actually finish this book. It deals with local issues that are Phoenix-specific. Additionally, calling Phoenix the most unsustainable city in the world probably discourages local readers who feel that an outsider is singling them out unfairly. This is especially damaging because I think that the importance of Bird on Fire for residents of the Valley because it acts as a source for their local environmental history.

In respect to our garden, Bird on Fire provides a good reminder that being sustainable is a complex goal. For example, our garden would be viewed as unsuccessful if someone looked at the pounds of produce we grow. However, the garden is more than just a field. Escalante Community Garden also acts as a positive community space, it can provide education for students in the area, and it greatly improves the look of our corner of the park. It also has environmental value because of the diversity of flowers and plants we have growing. Each of these other goals certainly decrease the amount of produce we can grow, but help connect the food we grow to the outside community.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Environmental Justice in Phoenix

Approximately a week ago, Phoenix held a panel discussion on the sustainability of the valley. The panel was organized in response to "Bird on Fire" and the author, Andrew Ross, was one of the panel members. Inspired by excellent timing, I decided to attend and see if I could get any new insights on "Bird on Fire."

I found the panel to be quite eye opening. After the experts on stage gave opening remarks about topics ranging from how to plan your landscaping for maximum environmental benefit to historical preservation in the city, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. Much to my surprise, the audience proceeded to drastically shift the course of discussion. By the end, I decided the audience was the most memorable and educational aspect of the event. A number of audience members told about their neighborhoods and how unsustainable practices in Phoenix are harming not only their future, but their present survival. The epicenter for these issues is South Phoenix. Fortunately for me, I was in the middle of reading the equivalent section in "Bird on Fire" so I will now try and give you a quick summary of the problems South Phoenix faces.

South Phoenix was not originally settled by pioneers because it is prone to flooding by the unpredictable rivers that run through the valley. As the city of Phoenix expanded, however, groups began to settle in the area. These groups were either those that could not afford land or were barred from buying in the more affluent northern areas of Phoenix. This began with Mexican farmers and diversified as new groups were brought into Phoenix as a source of inexpensive labor. This included African Americans, Native American, various Asian populations, and recently Latinos. This resulted in a large low income and politically under-represented area of the city. Because of their lack of political and economic muscle, South Phoenix has become the Valley's (and sometimes even California's) dumping ground for pollutants and toxins. Here are a few examples:

-An asphalt mine was built in a residential neighborhood in South Phoenix and released arsenic and formaldehyde for 4 years without a valid permit before being shut down by the city.
-The city's first sewage plant was placed in South Phoenix in 1921 despite the fact that neighborhoods in the area lacked indoor plumbing.
-40% of all toxins released by industries in Phoenix occur in one zip code in South Phoenix (85040). This zip code is known as one of the dirtiest zip codes in the nation.
-In 1992, a factory caught fire in South Phoenix and burned for twelve hours, burning off thousands of pounds of sulfuric acid. Over a year later, houses nearby were tested and found to have elevated levels of toxins circulating through the indoor air.
-In 2000, a warehouse caught fire and burned for 2 days. None of the authorities were aware of what was in the facility. Multiple deaths occurred because of noxious gasses. A month later, water tests in the area revealed arsenic levels 100 times higher than allowable drinking levels.
-Death from heatstroke, asthma, and cancer are most likely to occur in South Phoenix compared to more northern areas.
-As a side note, your neighborhood is also more likely to get bulldozed if you live in South Phoenix (see Golden Gate Barrio).

Nor does this history of lax environmental laws and enforcement limit itself to South Phoenix. South Phoenix is where it is the most obvious and uneven. In the rest of Phoenix, modern industry has been leaving it's mark. Even our community garden is a stone-throw away from multiple polluted sites that are currently being cleaned up by the government. I should note that these sites are under control now and no longer pose a threat to the nearby neighborhoods.

I hope that this panel changed the way many residents of the Valley look at environmental issues. Since the economy has been doing badly, many see environmental laws and restrictions as a luxury that can be curtailed in hard times. However, for some neighborhoods, environmental laws are not luxuries. They are the last barrier between their family and asthma attacks, poisoned water, and sick children.

In our neighborhood, where the soil is safe and the water is clean, it is easy to forget that environmental damage does not distribute itself evenly and our choices can damage the well being of those who have to live near industry.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City PART 2

Well I've reached the halfway mark of "Bird on Fire." Here are a few insights I have gained about the book and about the Valley.

The most important piece of advice I can give is to read "Bird on Fire" with a healthy dose of skepticism. Like all books, the author has a clear bias and I found Andrew Ross's bias to be a little extreme. Almost all opposing arguments are left out and a few of his environmental beliefs seem to distort his conclusions. Despite this bias, however, the author provides a well researched history of the city of Phoenix and I have already learned a lot from it.
The author's history of Phoenix can be divided into two parts. First, the history of Phoenix on a large scale. This includes the ancient Hohokam settlements, the Anglo arrival, the development and boom years of Phoenix, and lastly the effects of the "Great Recession." These facts are apparent to a local who was taught them in school or has lived through them. As one would expect, there is particular emphasis on water use. The water section is a little dry, but would be worth while for anyone who wants to find out more about where your tap water comes from.

The second part of Ross's history lesson is much more interesting. In it, he focuses on the recent history of downtown Phoenix* with an emphasis on the local government's attempts to "revitalize" it and lure businesses back into the urban core. In these chapters, he covers local facts that help open the eyes of the reader to how the downtown developed and the significance of certain buildings, neighborhoods, and businesses. His information on downtown Phoenix is far from comprehensive, but it gives the reader a peek into the stories behind the headlines and events that occur in downtown Phoenix. Some of his topics include the background for the light rail, First Fridays, the construction of the stadiums and convention center, and the politics in the new downtown artist community.
One topic I found interesting and will look into is the author Jon Talton. He is a Phoenix native who wrote, among many other pieces, a series of mystery novels that take place in Phoenix. His novels do not simply use Phoenix as an arbitrary backdrop to the actions of the characters, but apparently his writings draw inspiration and ideas from the culture and history of Phoenix. I can imagine his books being interesting reads for any local residents. (Don't worry. If I pick up one of his books, I will resist posting any more book reviews)

Overall, the first half of "Bird on Fire" has had some ups and downs. So far, I would say that this is worth reading for any resident of the Valley.

Now I have to try and finish the rest before it's due back at the library...

*Unfortunately, Tempe is only mentioned occasionally, so definitely no mentions of Escalante Neighborhood.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Cost of Community Chickens

As we approach Day 60 of chicken ownership here at the garden, I guess I am due to give the neighborhood a progress report. Since their arrival, the five terrified hens we first let loose in the chicken coop have grown considerably. They also have gained a lot of confidence with their surroundings. In the picture below, they are taking the high ground against a perceived threat (me with a camera).
As many of you know, one of our goals as a community garden is to act as an area to experiment on what works and what doesn't in this climate. In light of this, I have been recording our total costs of chicken ownership. My final goal will to be obtain an exact cost per dozen eggs, but they have not laid any eggs yet. Despite this, I will (in no particular order) list the start-up cost and feeding cost for our chickens in their first 60 days:

Purchase 1: 5 young silver laced wyandottes=$25
Purchase 2: 10 lb bag of chicken feed=$10
Purchase 3: 1 box of deck screws=$7
Purchase 4: Chicken wire: $20 worth

Total: 62$

This calculation is, obviously, missing a few important pieces of equipment. Fortunately, we did not have to purchase a lot of what we needed because we received them from around the neighborhood. I think that is the biggest lesson I learned from trying to get chickens at the garden. Most of what you need for chickens is probably sitting unused somewhere in your neighborhood or frequently is about to be thrown away. When reading this list of gifts we've received from the neighborhood, try thinking of your neighborhood. Most traditional single-family-home neighborhoods probably have all of these. The residents just need to put it all together.

So here we go...

Gift 1: One empty fenced in lot.
Ok, so this might not have been the easiest gift to start with. I mention the lot first because this area was the reason I started to look at urban chickens. Please don't be intimidated, the lot you are looking at is much, much larger than the area one would need. In reality our five chickens could be content in a large coop (5ftx8ft maybe). Their food costs will be lower if they can graze around an open area, but in a city where open space is a premium, it's not really necessary. In reality, all you need is a small open area.

Gift 2: A chicken coop.
Finding a coop is not nearly as rare as you would expect, it just takes patience and creativity. For example, this is not actually a chicken coop. This was a children's playhouse. Children, fortunately for chicken owners, grow up and this means that these frequently are left without a purpose. So with that in mind, do you know anyone in the neighborhood with one of these?

One caveat, you do want to plan how you are going to collect eggs. We fortunately have windows that we've attached crates near to act as nest boxes.

Gift 3: Food scraps

Tempe Community Action Agency has a food bank, so it generates a lot of food waste. A group of very generous grocery stores offer produce to us that has gone slightly past the date when it should be sold. This is great! However, there is a thin window between when produce can no longer be sold and when produce can no longer be eaten (by humans). Fortunately, our chickens are more liberal in what is considered fresh.

Once again, this is far more than our 5 chickens will ever need. The extra scraps go onto our compost pile. Such a shame the limit for the number of chickens a community garden can have is five (sigh....).

When thinking about your neighborhood, I certainly doubt you have a food bank within 100 yards of you, so you can't exactly follow our model. However, if you are lucky, you might have a small grocery store nearby. If you are not blessed with either of these, I certainly hope you have neighbors. A group of neighbors will certainly provide enough food scraps to lower your feed bill.

Gift 4: A bucket.

They need water. We might eventually invest in something more technologically advanced eventually.

Overall, I would have to conclude that raising backyard chickens is a fairly easy and very rewarding hobby. The key to making it affordable is to work together with your neighbors. Also, the neighbors should have a lot of incentive to help once the chickens start laying eggs.

Thanks for reading everyone!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City PART 1

Phoenix gets a lot of attention from the rest of the country. Some is positive; some is negative. If you want to read an eloquent summary of the negative aspects, read this book:
"Bird on Fire" is a recently published critique of the city of Phoenix from an outsiders perspective. The author, Andrew Ross, is a Professor of Sociology at New York University. I will be reviewing this book to see what lessons can be learned from it and how we can use his suggestions and ideas at the garden.

First things first, the author neglects to define how he defines "sustainability." Since it is a pretty loaded term, I will give you a common definition:

The most common view is the environmental aspect of sustainability and, for the most part, the author of "Bird on Fire" describes that aspect. This includes long term issues as water depletion, air pollution, loss of plant and animal life, etc.
However, it is worth noting that there is a proportion of the population that believe that humans don't have a significant effect on their environment. So, if you are reading this and don't particularly care for the environment, please bear with me. Why? Well, non-environmentalists should be interested in this book because there are two other important aspects of sustainability that you should care about: social and financial.

Social sustainability is based on the needs of the individual person in environments increasingly built for other goals. This includes the effects of large isolated houses and car based transportation that results in very limited face to face interaction between individuals. Without face to face interactions, individuals can feel less connected and socialized with the people they they live near. This is just one example of how a society can be socially unsustainable.

Financial sustainability, the final pillar that societies need, is a fairly straightforward but frequently forgotten aspect of sustainability. If a system can't make enough money to sustain itself, it won't last very long.

Now that you have a working definition of sustainability and a New York author has published a 200 page book summarizing how Phoenix is "the world's least sustainable city", you should probably be pretty defensive. The author's response is two fold. First, he states that Phoenix might not be the least sustainable city, but it's so close to the bottom that it will work for the sake of starting an important discussion. His second point relates to his core inspiration for writing the book. He argues that most environmental literature focuses on the cities that are doing well environmentally (Portland, Seattle, Austin, San Fransisco, etc.), but those are the low hanging fruit of increasing sustainability. He wants to focus on the cities that are the least sustainable because if the most important lessons will be learned while trying to turn the most difficult cities around.

Basically, he wants the United States to look at Phoenix, with it's harsh desert environment and spread out infrastructure, as an experiment on how to turn society around in the most difficult of circumstances. In the end, the topic of this book is dire, but provides the average Phoenician with an inspiring challenge to fix their city.
Hopefully I can find some new ideas for the community garden and for our little corner of the Phoenix area.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lessons from the Phoenix winter

Since we are now deep into our first winter here at the garden, it's time to give an update on what is going well and what we won't be trying next year. As always at the garden, we hope to act as a community resource for what grows and doesn't grow in our area.

Lesson 1: Radishes are easy
They germinate quickly, they are harvestable size in around 3 weeks (carrots don't even germinate for 2 weeks) and they don't take up that much space. All of these characteristics are great for a plant growing in an urban garden where space is at a premium. The lesson to take home from this for us is that we don't need to dedicate a growing bed to radishes. They grow so quickly that we can inter-plant radishes with nearly any other crops. By the time even a moderately quick growing plant is large enough to cause a problem, the radishes will be completely harvested.

Lesson 2: Greens are amazing in the Phoenix winterAbove are pictures of our kale and escarole. Both did quite well and we plan to plant more of both of them next fall. Many of our greens were harvested multiple times and recovered quickly. The arugula set the record with 5 cuttings.

One trait is worth noting when taking multiple cuttings from these greens: each successive harvest will be a little different. This is because the plant thinks some animal is
wandering past and eating it (which is true, of course). Therefore, the plant will make the next regrowth a little tougher so the next animal won't be as hasty to eat it. That is bad because everyone likes greens that are a little more tender. On the other hand, the plants will also raise the amount of defensive chemicals in the leaves. Although this sounds bad, the defensive chemicals in domesticated plants do not effect humans. That's why (or because) we domesticated them. In fact, many plants are preferred because of their defensive chemicals. What does this mean for the extra cuttings of greens in your garden? Well, your mustard greens will be more mustard-y and your arugula will be more peppery.

Also, I have failed to mention the "sturdier" greens such as collard and chard. These are doing very well at the garden and are definitely worth planting in a small garden or container.

Lesson 3: Root vegetables are ok....
I wish I could give more definitive advice for the home gardeners out there. Instead all I can say is that root crops like carrots, beets, and turnips take up more space and take longer to produce a harvest. If you either really love these vegetables or have a lot of space, than it's worth growing them. However, here at the garden, we might have better luck raising other crops.

The turnips have already been harvested. Overall, they took up a lot of space and produced only about a dozen good sized turnips. However, they did also provide a lot of turnip greens from when we had to thin them.

The carrots seemed to take an eternity to finally establish. However, now that they have formed a thick canopy of greens, the roots are growing quickly. We planted the carrots pretty close to each other with plans to thin them and the carrots we are thinning are now big enough to eat. Overall, our carrot bed is going to quickly pass up our turnip bed in production. Plus, I think everyone at the food bank prefers carrots.

Lastly, the beets have been looking quite pretty, but also very very slow growing. It may be our variety (bull's blood beets), but these beets have had low germination, slow establishment and small tuber size.

Lesson 4: Cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli...coming soon.
Two weeks ago, I would not have much positive to say about our brassicas, but recently our broccoli and cabbage have been growing faster than anything else at the garden. As of yesterday, we had our first broccoli head sighting.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jerusalem Arti"CHOKED"

Ok, so that pun might have been a little rough but bear with me:

Just under a year ago, we planted one of our beds with a few jerusalem artichoke tubers. I describe these plants as being a sunflower above ground and like a potato below ground. These plants are especially interesting because they are native to the continental United States and were a common source of food for Native Americans in temperate regions. These plants are known for having high yields up north. In fact, this plant is so productive that sometimes it's hard to get all the tubers and too many come back the second year.

As you can see from the picture above, the jerusalem artichokes grew well and were a nice splash of color all through the hot Arizona summer. So we have been getting very curious about how much growth is occurring below ground. This week, curiosity finally got the best of us and we decided to dig them up:

....well no amount of zooming in will make this look like a lot of food. Overall, I would say we pulled around 2 pounds of tubers out of the bed. This is especially sad since they took up a garden bed for 10 months. Oh well, not every crop is built for the desert. Please leave a comment if you have any suggestions on what might have gone wrong. Has anyone out there tried growing jerusalem artichokes in Phoenix?

The good news is that since they added such nice color, we are adding these few tubers to our wildflower bed.