Archive for April, 2010

Not many folk have listened to the jazzy notes of the Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line” with a rooster crowing in the background. Indeed, those that have were likely all present a few Sundays ago, on the site of a several hundred year old homestead, at the Simpson’s Point Children’s Theater in Brunswick.

Never heard of it? That’s because it’s not the kind of happening you see a poster for or read about in the newspaper. You catch wind of it through the grapevine, the mallards flying by, the rooster’s crow.

Four years ago a few little girls who liked to sing and dance, recruited a bunch of their little friends and directed a musical in their barn. Now, sophomores in high school, they’re still at it. With little adult help and even less money, they’ve put on one or more shows every year, gleaning their cast from the crop of local elementary school kids. Participation is free, they tell everyone to bring a friend, and they’ve never turned anyone away.

This spring, my kids joined in for the first time. They rehearsed over twenty hours. We usually biked to rehearsals, a bit out of town, up a steep and narrow driveway, between the duck ponds. Back home, they sang during dinner. They shouted lines in the shower. They blared their songs on the kitchen CD player until I couldn’t stand the music.

The experience was enchanting: the kids were enchanted, I was enchanted, the rooster was enchanted. Part of the spell, at least for me, was woven by the idyllic rural setting in which this production took place. As a city girl who grew up roaming construction sites for fun, I’m highly susceptible to being blinded by the romantic glow emanating from places like duck ponds, two hundred year old houses, and chicken coops.

Part of the spell was created by the inspiring energy, dedication, and talent shown by these girls who have been coordinating casts of 10-20 kids since they were in middle school–a feat that would challenge most adults.

But part of the magic was surely the refreshing simplicity. We dropped our kids off and they created something amazing, on their own, with other kids. Adults were rarely spotted. Costumes were as close as the kids could get to dance slippers, white tights, a leotard, and a dance skirt, which meant they showed up in what they had: tights of all colors, a bathing suit, street shoes, and a motley collection of short skirts.

The set was a green drop cloth, the music a CD. At the show, we squished into folding chairs set so close to the performance area we couldn’t cross our legs. The kids did not get free water bottles or certificates.

It reminded me of, well, the way things used to be. Kids used to do more on their own, they organized baseball in the park, they showed up in what they had, they invented and excelled on their own terms, they never, ever got free water bottles.

Not coincidentally, the way things used to be was a lot less resource-intensive. There was less wealth, fewer cheap goods to be handed out, less time to spend driving kids around, less money for lessons and activities, less willingness to purchase lightly-used items such as costumes for a single play or soccer jerseys for a single season.

I doubt these girls were trying to stage an environmentally friendly production, but when there are few adults and little money, the result is something that is simple, free, utterly magical, and unintentionally good for the planet.

When I’m done swooning over the mallards glittering like emeralds in the duck pond, I recognize that I have no desire to go back in time–to when kids died from complications of strep throat, when eating well during the winter was not guaranteed, and when washing your clothes took up an entire tedious day every week.

Yet, if we are to avoid the terrible environmental threats with which we are clearly faced we will need to simplify our lives and use up less of the planet as we go along. We’ll need to drive less, buy fewer things, and change what we eat.

To the extent that we are proactive, we might be able to make some choices about how to simplify: we could learn to recognize the circumstances in which more stuff, more money and more driving don’t correlate with a better experience. We can look back in time and find the places where using less energy can improve quality of life even in our own time. Without doubt, it will be ever so much better to pick what to pull out of the past rather than be forced back by the dire dictates of our changing climate, dwindling resources, and ailing oceans.

The image of the rooster crowing during the Broadway production is the right one for the future. That spicy juxtaposition of simple and modern, old and new–that is the path we can follow with enthusiasm and optimism.

After the show, as we lingered in the spring’s fat baby sunshine eating fruit and cookies, one mom commented, “The best people come from garages.” Maybe instead of expensive lessons reached by long car rides we just need to give ourselves some more time in the backyard with the girls next door.

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One day this winter I was walking down Maine Street in Brunswick, my two children trailing absentmindedly behind me, when I was suddenly filled with a distinct sense of unease. I waited for my kids to catch up, took one in each hand, and contemplated the source of my disquiet: the new Station Avenue street crossing.

A year ago, this spot marked the edge of a large abandoned swath of downtown land, which, depending on your mood, or perhaps your age, was either an unsightly glass-sharded blemish or a beckoning plot of wildflowers and train tracks. Over the past year this lot has transformed into the buildings and sidewalks of the Maine Street Station development.

Cutting through the development, and joining Maine and Union Streets, is a crisp new side street called Station Avenue. This street must be crossed by anyone walking into or out of downtown along the west side of Maine Street.

What set off my Mommy radar as I strolled along on that winter day? What was the problem with this innocuous little street, its sassy striped crosswalk signaling to all the rights of the pedestrian over the motor vehicle? The problem was that the street was designed primarily to make the motor vehicle happy, not the pedestrian.

Let me explain. The corners of intersections are not sharp, like a piece of paper; they are always curved. These curves enable vehicles, especially those turning right, to turn more quickly. They also help larger trucks and busses avoid riding up over the sidewalk or crossing into another traffic lane.

Yet, curved corners have some drawbacks. In allowing faster speeds, they increase the likelihood of cars hitting people in the crosswalk. Further, even small increases in vehicle speeds cause significant increases in severity of injuries to pedestrians in the case of an accident.

Large curves also dramatically increase crossing distances for pedestrians. Indeed, the curve designs found on many city streets can result in a doubling of street width at the crosswalk.

The problem, then, with Station Avenue, is that the curve on the downtown side of the intersection is disturbingly large. This design resulted from the need for big vehicles, such as delivery trucks, to be able to safely turn right off Maine Street.

But the large curve also means that smaller vehicles can fly around the corner with hardly a brush on the brakes. It is the kind of intersection that makes pedestrians feel unsafe. Walkers, especially those with children in tow, are highly tuned to the structural aspects that control traffic speed and sight lines. They may not be able to articulate the sources of their discomfort, but they know when to call their kids closer. I find it troubling that a new street on a major walking route into downtown is not comfortable for pedestrians to cross.

I don’t blame the town; they are trying as hard as they can to balance the needs of pedestrians with the needs of vehicles. Brunswick’s downtown exemplifies many design elements that make people on foot feel happy, welcome, and safe. The sidewalks are wide, they’re often buffered from the street by trees, the storefronts are close to the sidewalks (not separated from foot traffic by parking lots), and there are center islands along Maine Street which make it easier to cross.

The town is operating, with the best intentions, under a set of constraints that are as much the impositions of culture as of street design standards. We all want to park close to our destinations, we all want emergency vehicles to have easy access, we all want delivery trucks to supply our stores, we all want roads that are wide enough and fast enough to eliminate traffic jams.

Yet, we act as if these desires have no costs. The reality is that what is good for us when we’re behind the wheel is not usually good for us when we’re on foot. Entire books have been written about why designing for walkers is critically important to quality of life in urban neighborhoods, but I will offer just a few enticing tidbits here.

Canadian researchers Ray Tomalty and Murtaza Haider found that independent of age or income level, folks who lived in walkable areas weighed an average of seven pounds less than those who didn’t live in such areas. They also walked and biked more, liked their communities better, and interacted more with their neighbors.

Economist Joe Cortright, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, found that very small differences in a community’s walkability resulted in very large differences in home values, sometimes on the order of tens of thousands of dollars. He factored out the effects of income, distance to downtown, nearby job availability, and house size.

It may seem as if there are no alternatives to designing for vehicles (after all, who could argue with the fact that trucks need to turn right onto Station Avenue?) but there are. Cities around the world are experimenting with reducing, slowing, and sometimes even eliminating vehicle traffic.

Not surprisingly car-free places are universally beloved: think of Disney World, of bustling pedestrian malls from Boulder to Sacramento, of old city centers such as Copenhagen and Jerusalem, and of watery sanctuaries like Venice and Monhegan Island.

Improving conditions for walking and biking is imperative as we struggle to reduce our use of fossil fuels. However, we won’t be able to see the full range of solutions until we fully see the costs of designing for cars and the benefits of designing for people. If the Station Avenue crossing is the best we can build when we follow the rules, it might be time to change the rules.

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