Monday, December 20, 2010

Pedal Power

Why can't the drivers of cars and bikes get along, as they do in the crowded cities of Europe?

From bicycle-mad Paris to rush-hour New York and the back alleys of Toronto, the CBC documentary Pedal Power takes a ride through the changing world of bike culture. Watch it online here. It's worth it!

Bicycles and automobiles have to share the same roads - a recipe for conflict - and many potential cyclists just won't ride in the city because they see it as too dangerous. Add in the plague of bike theft and a lot of cyclists are simply leaving their bikes at home.

In Canada, bicycles "don't get no respect." From the story of Igor, and the anatomy of the underground world of bike peddlers in Toronto, this film spins out to how other cities are making riding safe. Using innovative "bike-cam" techniques to convey, up-close, the sensation of bike riding, a series of character-driven mini-narratives propel the film through a study of what makes a city "bikeable". Whether it's the public bike program in Paris, bike mega-garages in Amsterdam, bike paths in Vancouver and Montreal, or the surprising leadership of New York City, we follow the story of this remarkable little conveyance as it wheels though the first decade of the 21st century.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Waste is a human-made concept

In nature, everything exists is a continuous cycles. There's no such thing as a landfill. Everything gets recycled. We need to remember this, and design our systems and processes like nature does, sustainably.

from Arthur Potts Dawson's Ted Talk on sustainable restaurants.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

They don't make 'em like they used to

Great toys are played with for months and even years. They engage the child's mind and imagination. And they get passed down for generations. I find nowadays, many toys are made of cheap plastic, shipped from China, require lots of batteries, and just don't have that sturdy and satisfying feel. They end up in the landfill too soon. My mom kept many of my toys from when I was a child, and my kids are now enjoying them.

Here's a list of some top kids toys

-Audubon birds by Wild Republic are stuffed plush birds that play their actually bird call when squeezed. Really cool.

-Grassroots store has some environmentally friendly toys and games

-wooden blocks

-wooden train set (planes, trains, and cars provide hours of enjoyment for my boys :)

-mini cars (the metal ones)


-sports equipment

-art supplies (kids love playdough.. you can make your own)

-create-a-design with felt


-tricycle (Noah loves taking his to the park)

Fisher price music box, c. 1980. Still works great, and no batteries!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fun at the Zoo

Recently, I had a great time with my family at the Toronto Zoo. During the winter months, it's far less crowded (and the best time to go, in my opinion). But the best part is seeing the reactions of my kids to the incredible biodiversity that we are privileged to have and enjoy on this earth. Zoos do important work with conservation and education.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Slow death by rubber duck

Earlier this year I heard a talk by Bruce Lowrie, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. It was really alarming to find out that all kinds of things in my home like hand soap, shower curtains, microwave popcorn bags, and even my son's squishy rubber duck are poisoning me and my family.

Here's an ad from 1946 about DDT, which was later banned in the US in 1972 because of it's harmful effects on the environment and human health. Most of us don't think twice about the products we use, but the reality is we don't know the effects from most of the chemicals they contain. Don't assume they are safe.. get educated.

When you go shopping for cosmetics or personal care products, read the labels and try to avoid these 7 ingredients:

Fragrance/Parfum - often contain phthalates, a group of man-made chemicals that disrupt hormones and can cause birth defects of male reproductive organs

Triclosan – an antimicrobial/antibacterial agent that can weaken the immune system, disrupt the hormonal system, bioaccumulate, and convert to chemicals known to cause cancer when being used

Sodium lauryl sulfate - a lathering agent in cleaners that is a known skin irritant and suspected liver toxin

DEA (Diethanolamine) - suspected of causing cancer and being toxic to the respiratory and nervous systems

Cyclomethicone and ingredients that include the word “siloxane” (e.g., cyclopentasiloxane) – these chemicals stick around in the environment for a long time, have the potential to accumulate in organisms up the food chain, and may cause cancer and reproductive toxicity

Ingredients that include the word “paraben” (e.g., methylparaben) – can cause skin irritation, may cause cancer and disrupt hormones

Ingredients that include the letter-combo “-eth-” (e.g., polyethylene glycol) – means that the product likely contains 1,4-dioxane, a chemical that may cause cancer and is a suspected kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant

See the Guide to Less Toxic Products and Skin Deep for more information about toxicants in your products. The Environmental Working Group is a reliable source of information.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The future of transportation in urban life

I recently came across a booklet Our Cities Ourselves. Visionary urbanist Jan Gehl and Walter Hook, Executive Director of the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), have together set out ten keys to creating more sustainable cities. It might just be the best sustainable transport report ever!

The Ten Principles of Sustainable Transport

1. Walk the walk: Create great pedestrian environments.
2. Powered by people: Create a great environment for bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles.
3. Get on the bus: Provide great, cost-effective public transport.
4. Cruise control: Provide access for clean passenger vehicles at safe speeds and in significantly reduced numbers.
5. Deliver the goods: Service the city in the cleanest and safest manner.
6. Mix it up: Mix people and activities, buildings and spaces.
7. Fill it in: Build dense, people and transit oriented urban districts that are desirable.
8. Get real: Preserve and enhance the local, natural, cultural, social and historical assets.
9. Connect the blocks: Make walking trips more direct, interesting and productive with small-size, permeable buildings and blocks.
10. Make it last: Build for the long term. Sustainable cities bridge generations. They are memorable, malleable, built from quality materials, and well maintained.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Greening the Ghetto

Majora Carter is the Macarthur-winning founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization dedicated to holistic community development, sponsoring projects that create jobs, protect the environment and bring beautiful green space to the inner city. In this charismatic presentation (which received a prolonged standing ovation), she explains her commitment to environmental justice and her vision for a renewed South Bronx. [Recorded February 2006 in Monterey, CA. Duration: 19:14]

She speaks with passion and conviction. Kudos to Sustainable South Bronx for what they've already accomplished. There’s so much destruction going on out there that it can be overwhelming. But truly great accomplishments are never easy. As Sonia Johnson said, “we must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wish List for Transforming the Planet (in a good way)

I attended a Going Greener forum last Thursday by the Council of Ontario Universities. It was inspiring to hear from people like Sandra Odendahl, director of corporate sustainability at Royal Bank of Canada. Here are a few points from her wish list.
    • Price externalities (using the environment should not be free); still don’t have a real price on polluting, no price on carbon (still), no price on generating tons of packaging; it has a cost on the environment and someone should pay for it.
    • Knowledgeable consumers: people have to make the link between stuff and pollution; everything you buy is going to be in a landfill someday; do you really need more stuff?
    • Multidisciplinary education: Take your passion and embed it in your field that you work in; we need everybody to have a basic understand of how their lives impact the environment and it doesn’t matter what field you are in.
Minister of Environment John Wilkinson said that biggest thing that we can do as a government is to embed sustainability into the curriculum in all of our schools. It will be the young people who get us out of this mess we've created.

Here I am with my kids on the Oak Ridges Moraine Trail. Being out in nature engages all of our senses.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Redefining Success

A new way of thinking is struggling to be born. It is defined by cities with fantastic public spaces and smaller private living spaces; by walking, cycling, and taking transit more, and driving less; by living sustainably, and not off the backs of future generations; and by your health, relationships, and leaving this place a little better than you found, not how much money you have.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Follow-up to Active Communities Pledge Campaign

Candidates who have taken the Active Communities Pledge in Vaughan:
Ward 1: Robert Irwin, Basil Marcello, Peter Meffe, Marilyn Iafrate, Teresa Chiappetta; Ward 2: Tony Carella, Darlo Di Giannantonio; Ward 4: Mary Ruffalo, Sandra Yeung Racco; Ward 5: Bernie Green; Local and Regional Councillor: Joanna Cacciola-Lionti, Robert Craig, John Ross Harvey, Krystof Klabouch, Deb Schulte, Carrie Liddy; Mayor: David Natale.

Here is the follow-up article:

Vaughan candidates take up riding challenge

By Adam Martin-Robbins

October 22, 2010

Several candidates in Vaughan’s municipal election race have committed to transforming the city into a bike-friendly community. Sixteen out of 45 political hopefuls — but only a few incumbents — have risen to Shawn Smith’s challenge and taken the Active Communities Pledge. “It’s a great sign that people, especially some of the new people, are supportive of cycling,” the Maple resident said. “I think of all the municipalities, Vaughan has the most or second most (signatures).”

The pledge is an online initiative by the Share the Road Coalition. It asks candidates across Ontario to support Bill 174, which would require motorists to give at least one metre of clearance when passing cyclists, commit to making their municipality a bike-friendly community by applying to the Bike Friendly Community program and promote “active transportation” such as biking and walking.

Mr. Smith e-mailed candidates at the beginning of October inviting them to take the pledge.
Regional council candidate Deb Schulte took the pledge then went one step further. Her supporters joined members of the Woodbridge Cycling Club to ride around Vaughan Oct. 17 for a first-hand look at the challenges cyclists face when peddling throughout the community.

“We are not a suburban city anymore,” she said. “We are turning into a urban city with real urban problems and if we’re going to get congestion under control, we’re going to have to look to all of the options.” There are also health and environmental benefits to having a city that is easy to travel around on foot or by bicycle, she said.

“It works elsewhere so it could work here, if we got it done properly,” said Ms Schulte, who was born in England and has travelled extensively for work. “It’s really about health; it’s for trying to provide another option for people and building a more complete, holistic city. And it’s not that difficult to do, that’s the frustrating part. It really just takes a commitment. We have a plan already. We did the plan years ago but where’s the political will to make it happen?”

When it comes to providing infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, Vaughan is lagging far behind cities such as Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and towns such as Markham, Mr. Smith said.
“Vaughan certainly needs better pedestrian and bike infrastructure: a network of sidewalks, pathways and bike lanes that take you anywhere you want to go,” said Mr. Smith, an avid cyclist who regularly rides to work. “It is too often treacherous for those who choose to travel in Vaughan by bike or two feet.”

Mr. Smith said the city has failed to consider the needs of cyclists and pedestrians when designing and building roads. He points to the McNaughton Road extension, which was built “with only the car in mind,” and the Teston Road Hwy. 400 interchange, where an opportunity to add bike lanes was missed. “There are many other things that can be done from encouraging businesses to have end-of-trip facilities, like showers, so people can bike to work to promoting the Safe Routes to School program so parents feel comfortable letting their kids bike and walk to school,” Mr. Smith added.

Candidates can take the Active Communities Pledge right up to Oct. 25. A list of those who have signed on is available at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Discover more on your bicycle

My family recently spent a few hours cycling the Bartley-Smith Greenway from our home in Maple all the way to the north part of Toronto's G. Ross Lord Park. The Bartley-Smith Greenway is a hidden gem in the City of Vaughan. The newest section, from Jacob Keffer Parkway to the end of Planchet Rd has yet to be discovered except by a few keen nature enthusiasts like myself. There were almost no footprints and we didn't pass a single soul. The section south of Langstaff had some joggers, dog walkers, and families out for a stroll, though once south of Steeles Ave in Toronto, it got noticeably busier. We stopped for a picnic lunch at a park, thoroughly enjoying the splendors of this beautiful Fall day.

The challenge to political candidates has been made in Vaughan. Let's build a bicycle friendly city! [from Vaughan Citizen, Oct 10, 2010, pg 5]...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cycling at the Speed of Life

This morning I participated in a "Ride for Change" bike ride through Vaughan organized by the Deb Schulte Campaign to show support for cycling. Deb has a history in athletics and is very pro-cycling. She would like to build a city that includes everybody, including cyclists - whether they cycle for transportation, or for leisure. Deb is one of 13 municipal candidates in the upcoming Vaughan election who have so far taken the Active Communities Pledge to show their support for making Vaughan a bicycle friendly community.

An article in the National Post on Saturday, July 24, 2010 entitled "Gridlocked in Suburbia" noted a recent MoneySense survey that ranked Vaughan dead last out of 179 Canadian cities in the category of "walk or bike to work", relying on Statistics Canada data that found less than 2% of the population used either method. The City of Vaughan and York Region need to get moving with implementation of their bicycle master plan.

York Region is planning to issue a bike map in 2011. I have taken the liberty of starting my own online cycling map of Maple. The green lines are good cycling routes, yellow take caution, the red need improvement, and I've also added some comments about pedestrian issues at various locations.

Vaughan certainly needs better pedestrian and bike infrastructure: a network of sidewalks, pathways, and bike lanes that take you anywhere you want to go. It's not a war against the car... it's about getting more people on bikes. It is too often treacherous for those who choose to travel in Vaughan by bike or two feet. Pedestrians and bicycles should be considered in all future road planning, and not just leave it up to the developers to decide. The 4-lane McNaughton Rd extension that was built a few years ago, which passes the Maple GO Station, was clearly built with only the car in mind. Also the Teston Road / 400 interchange that I rode through today.

My favourite part of the ride today was seeing Keele Street teeming with bicycles on both sides of the street. Amazing! Perhaps, some time in the future, Vaughan will be like that every day. The culture will have to change, and it starts with our City's leadership. Until then, I cycle on, and I can't help smiling along the way.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The beauty of autumn

(Hiking the King City trail system with my family on Thanksgiving weekend)

As a birdwatcher, photographer, and nature-lover, autumn is like a dream for me. Crimson, auburn, and golden hues are ablaze, a cool fresh breeze sweeps a flurry of leaves across my path as a breath in deeply. Ahhhh, I love autumn. A feeling of nostalgia hits me: I recall, as a child, pressing leaves between wax paper, and hiking a leaf-covered forest path, swishing beneath my feet. We have but 100 autumns to enjoy, if we’re lucky. Do you have your eyes closed to the beauty around you? One of the biggest legacies of our provincial goverment is the Greenbelt. Get outside and live it. Be like a three year old and discover your world again for the first time.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

World's Longest Traffic Jam... 100km and 10 days

Chinese authorities are battling to end the world's longest traffic jam, a 100-kilometre-long gridlock stretching from Beijing to the northern province of Inner Mongolia.

The jam on the main north-south motorway into the Chinese capital has lasted 10 days and has been blamed on the construction of a road that will not be finished until next month.

Trucks joining the back of queue in Inner Mongolia were travelling at an average speed of only 3.5 kilometres a day.

The jam has spawned a thriving local economy with opportunists and some extortionists selling fruit, nuts, water and instant noodles to the marooned drivers, many of whom spend their time playing cards.

China is undergoing a huge expansion of its national road system.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who Grows Up Happier?

The kids in suburbs or the kids in the slums of Dhaka?

[photos from Adbusters magazine]

Wealth is not nearly as important as social networks. Children in the suburbs are losing the freedom to explore their world due to protective parents who are fearful of traffic, strangers, and other worries.

Happiness and economic growth are independent. Perhaps we should invest more in relationships than growing our portfolios. After all, what would you rather have on your tombstone: successful businessman, or beloved father and cherished friend?

I learned this phrase from the relatively poor people of Costa Rica: Pura Vida (pure life)!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Seven Generations

Many of us will have the opportunity to meet our great-grandparents and great-grandchildren, a timespan of seven generations in our lifespan. All of our decisions should be based on the impact of the seventh generation into the future. This is our legacy.

"What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?"
[photo taken at the Bruce Peninsula National Park Visitor's Centre]

Friday, September 24, 2010

Time for a change in Vaughan

I am dismayed and bewildered at Vaughan Council’s historic decision to approve the urban boundary expansion and remove any timing restrictions for developers. From the polarized views of Council, it is evident that there is a lack of shared vision for the future of our City. The priorities of Mayor Linda Jackson, Regional Councillors Joyce Frustaglio, Gino Rosati, Mario Ferri, and the Chair of the Official Plan Review, Peter Meffe, are out of touch with the needs of our City. It is time to draw the line in the sand when it comes to more unsustainable sprawling development, and rather, focus on intensification. Vaughan is well below Provincial density targets as it is. Imagine our City with dedicated lanes for buses and light rail that come every five minutes, so people would choose not to drive. Imagine a network of bikeways throughout the City that would take you anywhere you want to go, with vibrant public spaces to walk and socialize in the absence of noisy traffic. What a wonderful place it would be. We need decision-makers with guts to champion a transformative and compact City of Vaughan that all of us can be proud of.

Mayor Jackson says “we’ve had planned, controlled growth for 25 years and we are known for that”. Far from it. We’re one of the cities in Canada most frequently criticized. Take a look at a map of Vaughan from 1984 and you’ll see how much has changed. Huge swaths of agricultural land have been converted to low-density housing. Development brings a great deal of money to Vaughan, but at what cost? Cars make low density development possible, and low-density development requires cars. Distances between destinations are too far to walk and public transit systems can't operate efficiently.

The 886 hectare expansion has been cleverly marketed as the smallest urban boundary expansion in the history of Vaughan. Maybe, if you ignore the rules of exponential growth. A 3% expansion now is much bigger than a 3% expansion years ago. It should be looked at in terms of land area. 886 hectares is more than double the size of Maple’s urban area in 1984, and it had taken Maple a century and a half to get there. The entire island of Venice is 517 hectares. But we’re not looking at building another Venice. It’s same old, same old in Vaughan, plus more traffic.

It’s been said that “we will never know the worth of water ‘til the well is dry”. Please vote wisely. Vaughan Council has been plagued with controversy and scandal for the past decade. It's time for a change! The future of our city is at stake.