Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Working to Make Walking Safer

A few weeks ago, I attended the PEDS Golden Shoe Awards, a celebratory event that recognizes people and organizations that are working to make ours a more walk-friendly region.  Co-incidentally, that very morning I had an experience that underscored just how necessary this kind of progress is.  

I’ve written about my love of long neighborhood walks and walking or biking on community trails and paths such as the Silver Comet Trail, South Peachtree Creek path or the Beltline. These are usually very enjoyable walks alone or with friends, taking in the sights, breathing the fresh air, people watching and getting benefit of the exercise.  But on this particular morning, I was footing for transportation. After dropping off my car for service I had no other way to get home.  

The distance wasn’t far, maybe a mile and a half, much less than I typically go for one of the aforementioned pleasure walks, but walking home along Briarcliff starting just north of LaVista would be a much different kind of experience. This busy state road definitely was not a route anyone would walk for pleasure.  In order to walk most safely, I found myself having to cross and re-cross busy Briarcliff several times in order to stay on sidewalks.  Even with crosswalks and signals, the traffic at major intersections like at Briarcliff and LaVista was dangerous and unnerving.  Crossing Briarcliff and Clifton, where Clifton is four lanes and cars are quickly entering and exiting the Emory/CDC corridor, was especially treacherous.  

I finally made it safely across that intersection to the corner at Pig N Chik and passed Sage Hill Shopping Center only to realize that I would soon have to cross Briarcliff yet again in order to find the safety of a sidewalk.  I got across the creek bridge, and before long there was no sidewalk at all on either side. I kept on the west side of Briarcliff since that’s where my street is, but I soon had to dodge a Georgia Power crew with a cherry picker truck working on the lines. They kindly gave me the go-ahead to pass, and I continued my journey home the last several blocks walking through frosty wet grass in ditches until I reached my street.  

As tricky as my relatively short walking trip was, it was nothing compared to people who, on a daily basis, have no choice but to walk in busy, dangerous and inaccessible areas to get to work, school, buy groceries or in order to catch public transportation. I appreciate the work that PEDS does to make our city and state pedestrian friendly for all and salute this year’s Golden Shoe Award winners, who represent a variety of inspiring projects and missions:

Walk-friendly Education: Good Urbanism 101: Ten Lessons for Designing Cities, a joint project of the Georgia Conservancy and Professor Richard Dagenhart of the Georgia Tech College of Design. Together, they’ve provided classes to over 1,700 people throughout Georgia during the past seven years. Topics include street design, land use and architecture.
Walk-friendly Advocacy: Marian Liou, for creating We Love BuHi, which is connecting people to a place and to each other. Marian has helped complete the Buford Highway Master Plan and developed numerous events that celebrate diversity, introduce new people to the community and encourage exploration.
Walk-friendly Journalism: Darin Givens, who is an outstanding storyteller and master of persuasion about urban issues, including land use, affordable housing, and transportation. Darin is co-founder of ThreadAtl and publishes in-depth stories in medium.com.
Walk-friendly Redevelopment: Walgreens, a beautiful restoration of an historic building on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The new Walgreens creates a sense of place and is a walk-friendly destination that serves downtown residents.
Walk-friendly Suburban Retrofit: City of Sandy Springs, for developing the Next 10 Comprehensive Plan, the new Development Code, and the City Springs mixed-use development project. Together the Next 10 Plan and Development Code are resulting in an urban street grid, high density development, and a true city center and sense of place.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Nature Pyramid

Much is made of diet and exercise, which are unquestionably essential to good health, but who necessarily thinks of prescribed amounts of nature as part of the better health equation? Remember the old Food Pyramid showing the kinds and amounts of food that were considered healthy? Pretty sure it’s been revised, but the power of an easy-to-digest (pardon the pun) visual is still useful. Now someone has brilliantly come up with a Nature Pyramid.  

I absolutely love this idea because the whole premise validates that nature is in fact valuable to human health and wellbeing. This concept was created by University of Virginia researchers at The Biophilic Cities Project a few years ago, and I originally read about it in Florence Williams’ book published earlier this year, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, which is an engaging exploration of research in countries all over the world that supports her book title thesis.

As described by Dr. Timothy Beatley, UVA Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, the Nature Pyramid that he and a colleague created include four components. (To get the entire explanation, read his the full blog about this). Here’s the synopsis of the Nature Pyramid’s recommended “doses” of nature (see Beatley’s graphic below):

________Bottom/Daily: The bottom, largest section, suggests that people need to have environmental experiences on a daily basis, though they need only be simple.  A breath of fresh air, sitting in a park, walking through one’s neighborhood, or even just exposure to houseplant greenery, watching birds or interacting with pets seem to be valuable to overall wellbeing.  

______Weekly: Next up, the pyramid shows the need for deeper immersions to areas like parks or waterways or generally any outdoors destination where one can, for at least an hour per week, escape the sounds and hassles of city life. While relatively brief, these excursions help clear the head and have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress.

____Monthly: The next level up calls for even more concentrated doses of nature, about once a month, to enjoy and gain the greater benefits of getaways to destinations such as forests or other natural areas, that provide even more quiet, restful (or active) escapist experiences with even longer lasting effects.   

__Top/Annually or Bi-annually: Finally, at the pinnacle of this Nature Pyramid are the less common, but essential, doses of wilderness experiences that take a person completely away from their usual environments. While excursions like this may only occur once per year or even bi-yearly, these kinds of trips, say researchers, can have profound and transformative effects on our spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing.  

So there you have it. Personally, I think the Nature Pyramid is a cool idea.  And while there is plenty of science behind its intent (Williams’ book is filled with the work of researchers that measure exposure to nature on endorphins, brain scans, and psychological responses), to me, more than anything, it’s a wonderful guide for what most of us probably know intuitively: That connecting to nature in small and big ways -- even if it’s just getting outdoors, going to a park, taking a hike in the woods or a run along the beach -- is not only simply enjoyable, but truly restorative to one’s health and spirit.  So get out there!

A hypothetical depiction of The Nature Pyramid. Graphic by Tim Beatley.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Living Large With Less

It’s an ideal lifestyle that I like to imagine for my home, my mind, and our environment:  uncluttered, leaving space for meaning and creativity, and containing only the stuff that is necessary or “sparks joy,” as Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo would say. Imagine how liberating that would be!
Living simply and with intention isn’t new, but today the idea is being popularized by people like Joshua Becker and Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves The Minimalists, and whose appropriately short book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, I’ve been reading.
Some involved in advancing this lifestyle encourage followers to reduce their clothing and possessions down to say, 100 items.  I don’t strive for that, but what I love about this philosophy is that it’s not just about owning fewer things, but more importantly it’s also about making deliberate and meaningful choices for all aspects of your life.  Simply put: less is more.
With a recent change in work status -- from full-time employment to full-time self employment, I’ve been using time this summer, as I work to launch my business (Intown Communications), to finally do a deep and thorough house de-clutter. We bought our house, a compact 1850-square foot “mid-century” (1953) ranch before we actually had children. The driving force in our choice was the neighborhood. The boundary criteria for our home search could not go beyond the zip code where we were already living in a townhouse.  
Admittedly, after our two children were born I wished for a larger house for our family to grow in, for when there are kids, there’s so damn much stuff.  The ‘50s and ‘60s era families who lived in the houses in our intown neighborhood originally didn’t need space for computers, and they didn’t have collections of videos, cassettes, or DVDs. (Now thanks to the magic of digitization, much of that older media clutter is going away -- amen to streaming!) Nor did their children have drawers full of happy meal toys. And the closets were small because they simply didn’t own so much of anything. In some ways I get why in more recent years people migrated to the suburbs to afford bigger houses to raise families.
But we never wanted to live in the suburbs, and I have never stopped loving our beautiful, established, historical neighborhood, so here we have remained for two decades, with no plans for change.  Now the kids are more or less out and, guess what, unlike those who bought humongous houses in East Cobb or Alpharetta, we don’t have to downsize! In the end, it all worked out. But back to the present challenge of clearing out to get as close as possible to the ideal state mentioned above.
I won’t lie, it’s not going particularly fast or easy. It’s a struggle to purge the accumulated stuff -- there’s emotional attachment and it takes a lot of time and energy. So I keep myself inspired by books and podcasts, and when I make progress, the feeling itself is a reward. My mom always told my kids that they would be able to think better if they straightened up their rooms.  I believe this.
I have read that Millenials are generally less materialistic and more experience-oriented.  It’s said that they are rejecting big house ownership and some are embracing the opposite extreme via the tiny house movement. They are the driving force behind many of the newer city planning models for live-work-play developments and alternative transportation because they don’t want to spend time in their cars for long work commutes.  If it’s true (and it’s hard to judge by my own Millenial children), it will be interesting to see what happens when they begin having families of their own.  
I hope, whatever the source of its current revival, that the ideas behind this so-called Minimalism movement to reduce excess and focus on a more meaningful and less materialistic lifestyle become a larger trend. Because it’s good for people and certainly better for the planet.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Sometimes the universe gives you what you need in some very unexpected ways.

Last week, I’m still aiming to please and upholding the interests of the organization in what was my second to final week in the job I’ve held for nearly 10 years. So many great things to say about the place, but one of the things that has been a source of the dip in my enthusiasm is the lack of connection I have begun to feel for some time now.  There’s buzz all around me, but no one speaking to me.  People burst into offices interrupting the boss over every type of “crisis,” but this rude and immature behavior disgusts me, and I won’t ask for attention in this way.  Consequently, I rarely get facetime.

With this predictable pattern, I don’t know why I even think twice after responses on my part to fulfill or answer several requests -- albeit simple ones -- go completely unacknowledged.  Really, why would I even notice?  I am sure it is not personal -- this person is clearly too busy even for a quick email reply of appreciation.  Hey, it happens.  Can’t be thin-skinned.  You get over it.  Besides, I’m nearly done there, right?

That evening, I decide I want a spring roll or something else small and tasty to supplement the leftover Thai food I have for dinner.  When I go to pick up the Thai Toast I have ordered from the restaurant around the corner, I am greeted by the owner and his little girl of about six who are behind the table near the cash register.  She has long black hair, is wearing a pretty pink dress and has been busy drawing thank you notes for customers.  When she earnestly compliments my hair and earrings, I thank her and tell her dad that he has a great helper there.  

As I reach for my wallet, she hands me one of the thank you notes she has been cheerfully drawing on full sized pink construction paper with colored markers, complete with hand-drawn hearts and wrapped mints taped to the bottom.  I am truly touched and I thank her -- it’s absolutely adorable. As I take my change, I offer to give it back so she can give the sweet note to someone else later.  Crestfallen, her face begins to crumble, and I know immediately I have made a mistake.  But she knows better and looks back at me with determined sincerity, and says firmly:  “No, I want you to have it.”  And of course, I take it gratefully without hesitation.   And when I do, we both break into huge smiles.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Welcoming Spring


April.  Such a beautiful month. Tulips of every hue replace the subtle colors of daffodils, and everywhere the palate of spring unfolds. Redbud trees burst with purple spuds, while dogwoods bring forth their elegant white and pink glory, and the bright yellow goldfinches return to the thistle feeder.  Jordan was born on April 4, and I will always remember with vivid clarity the beauty and wonder that Mother Nature had gifted us with on the drive home a few days later with my new baby.  An exquisite time to be born and for remembrance every year.

Come May.  Now we are really getting serious about summer’s arrival. The natural world has become fully green, bright and fresh, before the heavy heat of summer parches and exhausts. Super long walks, day hikes and bike rides are an absolute must by now.  A must as in I literally cannot stay cooped up anymore, and I cannot wait to get out and feel the warmth of the air and sun envelop me.  I will still happily get out even when the atmosphere is thick with humidity and the temps rise above 90, but May is truly prime time.

The arrival of spring also allows me to enjoy spending long stretches of time in my happiest of living spaces -- the screened in patio/sunroom we set up three years ago.  Here (where I am right now), I will take as many meals as possible, read, nap, watch the birds at the feeder, have long talks with friends and family, meditate and work.  The cats often hang out with me there, sunny or stormy, we don’t care.  Truly, life hardly gets better than that.  

I won’t link to a lot of studies here, but there is plenty of scientific proof and anecdotal evidence that being outdoors, especially in any natural setting -- whether it be your backyard, the beach, the woods, a garden or park -- lifts your spirit and calms your stress.  So set up a chair on your back porch, visit www.AtlantaTrails.com to find beautiful places to take a short walk or long hike, or spend an afternoon at The Atlanta Botanical Garden.  And no matter where you live, state parks are always a good bet for a day outside.

Hoping everyone takes time to enjoy the loveliness and inspiration this season brings.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

In Praise of a Good Walk

So I’ve written about my fondness for cycling.  But I’m also what you might call a walking enthusiast.  

Some Great Things About Walking:

  • A good walk is good for your body. Like many forms of exercise, walking is conducive to overall fitness and helpful in weight control.  And if the Kaiser Permanente commercials are to be believed, just 30 minutes of walking five days per week can help keep you healthy and reduce your risk for many chronic ailments, including certain kinds of cancer.   Read a summary of the study here.  
  • Unlike some other forms of exercise, walking is generally pleasant and can be done either alone or with others. While I often walk by myself,  I love walking with friends. This is a great way to catch up with each other and burn calories at the same time. I am lucky to have some very energetic walking partners!
  • Walking is also great for your head.  According to a study reported in the New York Times  this can be especially true if you walk amid nature. I completely agree, although I enjoy a lot of diversity in my routes,  Natural setting are very calming, but an urban or even a neighborhood walk can be interesting or even stimulating.  But regardless of where I walk, I never wear headphones!  Without the extra distraction or forced focus on music or a podcast, I do some of my best problem solving during long walks or just enjoy a more meditative experience, absorbing the sights and sounds around me, whether it’s the chirping of birds or the bustle of the city.  
  • Finally, walking is a form of transportation. Atlanta was built for cars, but now, thankfully, there seems to be a shift in thinking about the construct of our communities.They say that millennials are driving this change, but I know people of all ages are glad to see a more common-sense, healthier approach to development and community design that brings people and amenities closer together. This is good news for people who choose to walk and for those who, for a variety of reasons, must walk to get around. Besides, it’s empowering to get someplace with your own human energy.

Pedestrian Advocacy
Because walking under any circumstances should be safe, I support a small local pedestrian advocacy group,appropriately enough called PEDS. The good folks at PEDS are working on a bunch of initiatives (visit peds.org) including a Pedestrian Action Safety Plan they’re developing with the Georgia Department of Transportation. While it will take some time to create and eventually implement, this important plan started out with citizen input so it will be carried out thoughtfully and with people’s needs at the forefront. I’ll look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

But in the spirit that walking really is FUN, especially with others, PEDS has announced its first annual WALKtober event -- what they are calling 4 weeks of fun on foot.  They’ve got five organized group walks throughout October around some cool places.  I plan to do the Oakland Cemetery walk myself (on Oct. 6).  PEDS is even encouraging people to organize their own walks and put it on their WALKtober calendar so others will join.  Check it out and consider supporting the work that PEDS is doing as an important player in making Atlanta a better city.  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

An Atlantan's Impressions of P-Town

Saturday Festival by the River

Just returned about a week ago from Portland -- the one in Oregon. Until last year, when someone dear to us moved out there, I knew nothing about this trendy town with so many nicknames. So as an amateur observer interested in experiencing cities and lifestyles, here are my 10 quick and dirty takeaways from our week-long visit to Portland (episodes of Portlandia I’ve seen, including the 3 hilarious ones I saw on the flight over, notwithstanding):

  1. The city is nicely compact and generally very manageable to navigate. It is sensibly divvied up into geographic quadrants and bisected by the Willamette River. The street names in the NW area and extending into downtown are arranged alphabetically, making it easy to know, for example, how many streets over a restaurant is on Lovejoy if your hotel is on Vaughn.
  2. Portland's skyline reflects both its industrial past and revitalized present, including both heavy old and sleek modern bridges spanning the river. I believe one of Portland’s nicknames is Bridgetown.  And for a not very big city, it has a surprising number of freeways going in and around town. Listen carefully to your Google navigator and be ready for quick exits!
  3. At the same time Portland is a paradise for cyclists and pedestrians. The city doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to prioritizing safety and access for those getting around with 2 wheels or 2 feet. Their transit isn’t bad either, and at least one of those bridges crossing the Willamette was constructed just for non-automobile traffic. We rented bikes from the helpful folks at Cycle Portland and had a great day touring -- from the riverfront and downtown to the Japanese gardens to the famous city-block large Powell’s Bookstore. Coincidentally, during the week we were visiting, Portland rolled out its bike share program with bright orange bike stations (sporting the Nike swish) popping up all over the city.  Biking in Portland (in July at least) is a beautiful thing!
  4. Why do so many restaurants close at 9 pm, while the bookstore is open until 11?
  5. Portland has a serious homeless problem. Except in Portland, the homeless have tents and are politely called “campers.”  What’s up with that?
  6. Areas in and around Portland are gorgeous.  If you love the outdoors, you could spend your whole life hiking different mountains, volcanoes, and forest trails in the state. Check out Oregon Adventures. We did one incredible walk on snow-capped Mt. Hood, strolled through the city’s 6,000 acre Forest Park (one of the largest urban green spaces in the U.S.) and explored some of the rugged coastal areas. (Don’t expect to go swimming at Oregon’s beaches… unless you have an insulated wetsuit!)  
  7. The weather… hmmm… well, it was perfect during our visit with blue skies and temps around 80 degrees each day.  We are told that everything you hear about the dreary, drizzly winters is true and that summer doesn’t begin until July 5 (hard for an Atlantan to imagine), although it doesn’t seem to slow anyone down. Quite a change from the month straight of 90+ degrees we've been having here in the SE.
  8. I’m a big fan of gardens, and Oregonians have incredible flowers!  Huge colorful roses, lilies, even the wildflowers are beautiful. Portland is apparently also known as the City of Roses.
  9. Yeah, the coffee is good. Even the bar food is good.  We seriously got taken to a bar whose food menu was exclusively vegan.  Only in Portland!
  10. Portland apparently lacks great ethnic diversity. But we found it to be a generally friendly, courteous and environmentally progressive city with a counter-culture undercurrent and an accent on acceptance and tolerance. There’s a lot to be said for that. We look forward to going back -- there are 2 more floors of Powells we never got to and at least a dozen other hiking trails on our list to explore!  #PDX, #BikeTown, #RipCity
Another beautiful garden near Overlook Park

Mt. Hood
Portland's new bike share program