Monday, May 25, 2020

Somerville Success

As part of the CitiesX course I am taking online, I very much enjoyed this 2018 with Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts.

I learned some interesting things about a city near Boston I have visited only a few times, and I recommend the discussion for anybody who is trying to imagine improving how their own communities work.

The mayor's approach to leadership is also refreshing -- it involves long-term, deep listening. His discussion with Professor Ed Glaeser is short on details, but he references another talk that provides some more specific examples of how Somerville has succeeded. That talk was easy to find -- city planner George Proakis addressing a TEDx Somerville event in 2014.

Proakis starts with a fascinating primer on the origins of urban zoning in the United States before turning to a discussion of the process Somerville pursued in changing its zoning code that year. Spoiler alert: both talks include a gem that should be obvious, but sadly is not: if we plan our cities for cars, we are going to get cars. We cannot plan for cars and hope for walkability!

Bonus: Proakis mentions Artisans Asylum as an example of an enterprise that would be difficult to categorize under traditional zoning rules. It is the first makerspace I heard of, and traditional zoning struggles with whether to call these education spaces or manufacturing spaces. I learned of Artisans Asylum when my son had an internship there -- in teaching the tenants how to use the equipment, he developed skills that have been very useful to him as an artist.

I have not gotten to them in the course yet, but at least three other videos relate to Somerville: Happiness Survey, Green Line, Gentrification.


One of the ways to tell that Somerville is succeeding is that it has an extraordinary array of coffee shops -- a friend who used to live there has introduced me to a couple of them. I look forward to visiting again after the plague, to see how coffee fits into the Assembly Square area in particular.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Nicaragua on BBC

While doing some homework for the edX course I am taking, I consulted the BBC country profile for Nicaragua. I was shocked to see that it has not been updated since May 2018, and that the update at that time does not represent the brutal reality of Ortega's crackdown on dissent. 

Below is the message I sent BBC. I hope to have a reply soon, and will update this post if I do.

I turned to this profile because I have come to distrust the CIA Factbook, as some sections -- especially in Latin America -- have been edited for political purposes over the years.

So I was shocked to see what BBC has for Nicaragua, two years after the events of April 2018. It is no longer at all accurate to consider Ortega "left wing" nor is it reasonable to end the country profile with the withdrawal of the social-security "reforms" that sparked the protests of that month. Hundreds were killed and thousands more arrested or disappeared.

Coverage of the crisis in the US and UK was late (NPR did not air anything about this until the day after I contacted them) and scant, but there have been stories on BBC itself that would help to update this page.

Thanks for all you do at BBC to provide reliable coverage throughout the world. I hope you can act quickly to amend this entry.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Guardian Women

An April 2020 post on the blog A Mighty Girl highlights the contributions of 16 women to the protection of the planet. The list starts with Anna Botstoff Comstock and Kate Sessions, born before the U.S. Civil War to Greta Thunberg, born in this still-young century.

I know the work of several of these women, but others were introduced to me by this listicle, entitled Guardians of the Planet: 16 Women Environmentalists You Should Know. I am using the list in the online summer version of my introductory Environmental Geography course. I have taught the course in many formats, using a traditional textbook by my master's advisor for many years.

Almost a decade ago, I found a book that has worked better in many ways, The View from Lazy Point by MacArthur genius Carl Safina. I have already been supplementing the book in a few ways -- it was never intended to be used in this sort of class, after all -- and decided that I should create some supplemental activities using this list. Many of the most important environmental leaders on the planet are women -- including the original tree huggers -- and their words and works have been the basis of many of my other classes.

I am having each student read this article and do just a little research about one of the women on the list. Because enrollment in the class has recently surpassed the number of women described here, I have added a few more guardians of note. (Enrollment in the course is still open, so I might add a few more by next week). These links point to Wikipedia entries, a starting point comparable to what the listicle itself provides:

I have already given the students in this class plenty to grapple with in this five-week class, so I am grateful to my favorite librarian for helping me to craft a bibliographic assignment that requires the students to explore the contributions of these women without taking on too much additional work. 

They will also be helping me to create a map that locates all of the guardians we are studying -- including Carl Safina.


As I was getting ready to share this with students today (April 20, 2021), my favorite BBC program Witness History gave me a name to add. LaDonna Harris is a Comanche woman who was married to a U.S. Senator during the Nixon years (and later ran for U.S. Vice President in her own right). The story mentions that their marriage was illegal in Virginia at the time. She is credited with convincing Congress -- and ultimately President Nixon -- to return land to indigenous people --  not her own tribe, but the Taos Pueblo -- for the first time in U.S. history. This is just one chapter in a long and interesting life -- her Wikipedia entry has a few more good stories.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Fun Final Exam

World's Longest Walk: Ciencianautas
Also from Reddit User cbz3000 by way of Brilliant Maps 

When I announced that I was teaching a new course -- Advanced Global Thinking -- many of my friends congratulated me on the title (I was really pretty proud of it) and said they wished they could take it. I offered it for the first time this spring with a great group of graduating geography majors. I very much enjoyed our conversations during the first half of the semester, which ended up including global thinking about a global pandemic -- something we were well prepared to discuss but could not have anticipated.

Near the end of the semester, I noticed an interesting post on a Brazilian science Facebook page, and realized instantly that I had material for our final exam. Before posting the exam, we had some online discussion of the 2009 ocean crossing by Katie Spotz, which our EarthView program had followed avidly. Coincidentally, Katie contacted me right after that discussion, to share her newest project - a walk across Maine. More on that later (though you can donate now).

My students enjoyed writing this exam and I very much enjoyed reading their answers, each of which emphasized very different geographic concepts. Some students even shared the challenge with their families, which inspires me to post it here publicly, so anybody with curiosity and a little time on their hands can have the same fun.

Herewith, the exam question:

Please see the link on Ciencianautas (Science Explorers or Sciencenauts -- an example of something that works better in its original language than in translation). See what you can discern from the post before looking at my translation below.


This map shows one of the longest uninterrupted walks that you can make on the Earth. A journey leaving Cape Town, South Africa, ending in Magadan, Russia. This represents a distance of 22,387 km.

Google Maps estimates that it would take 4,492 hours to navigate, which means 187 days of walking uninterrupted. If you were to decide to walk 8 hours per day (much more reasonable), it would take 562 days to make the trip.


Now the assignment. Imagine that you were going to take this trip in 2018-2019, and write an essay of 5-7 pages describing how you would use human and physical geography in the planning process. [After some discussion, we decided to take Covid-19 considerations out of the exam. Those playing at home can choose a near-future time frame if they would like to focus on the geographic implications of the pandemic.]

PLEASE know that I realize you cannot write a comprehensive plan in the coming week. To do so in reality would require a year or more. But choose a few aspects of this journey and explain how you would apply your geographic expertise to plan those aspects. Choose a couple of things -- or maybe even just one thing -- that highlights your geographic skills.

ALSO: I understand that one risk of an online exam is that you can end up spending far more time on it than the two hours normally alloted. Please do not spend all of your waking hours on this. But please give it some thought and then write an essay you would enjoy reading. And of course, please read your essay for style and grammar before turning it in.

Make sure to give the essay a good title; you probably cannot do that until you are nearly done with the essay. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


Here are some related links, including recent post on this very blog and some pages my students recommended after doing this research:

Longest Walk on Brilliant Maps -- perhaps the original source of the map above.

Tom's World Walk -- a very modest and average guy on a very long walk. Bonus: his web page starts with a reference to a very geographic song I've blogged about.

The journey envisioned above is a long-distance walk, but if it uses a designated long-distance trail, such a use is coincidental. Many long walks are inspired by the very existence of such trails, the most famous in the United States being the Appalachian Trail. My recent Trail Protection post discusses some of the legal, management, and policy questions relating to such trails, including a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Isolating During Ramadan

One of the stories I heard on PRI's The World yesterday afternoon caught my attention in several phases. The report by PRI journalist Halima Gikandi begins with a broad assessment of the likely impact of the Covid-19 virus on the continent as a whole. Almost every country has reported cases, but they have been relatively few so far. The pandemic is spreading slowly but is expected eventually to overwhelm health-care resources in many places.

The report then turned to the experience of one family in Nairobi. Like approximately 10 percent of Kenyans, this is a Muslim family, and like all Muslim families, Ramadan is a time for being together. I had been only vaguely aware of Ramadan this year, and certainly had not realized we were 3/4 of the way through the month. The reporting describes the difficulty of the neighborhood of Eastleigh, where part of this family lives.

Note that the place names are a remnant of Kenya's colonial past: they are almost equally divided between English and Swahili. 

Eastleigh is a struggling neighborhood in the best of times, and its normally limited access to food has been reduced by public-health closures. The municipal government is struggling to assure residents that it is the high concentration of virus cases and not the religious identity of residents that is responsible. As with many places -- including the United States -- the pandemic is highlighting social issues that might be present but not be widely acknowledged in "normal" times.

The full title of Gikandi's report is Ramadan in Nairobi during a pandemic.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Vermeer's Geographer, 1669-2020

The Geographer, Vermeer 1668-1669
Another Geographer, Pam Hayes-Bohanan 2020
People have found some very creative ways to make the best of the boredom that ensues when our civic duty requires us to #stayhome during the global Coronavirus pandemic. One I just learned about from a student is the Getty Museum Challenge, in which people recreate famous works of art by modeling with materials already in their own homes.

When I saw what my student had done -- and before I realized it had already become so widespread -- my mind went immediately to The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer. I have long thought that a younger version of me looked quite a lot like Vermeer's model; Pam soon started identifying props in our house. A scheme was hatched!

Before creating the scene, I had spent some (minimal) time learning more about the painting. From Dianne Durante's "A Moment of Insight" I learned that there is some dispute about whether the wall in the original is exactly the same color as the wall in our living room. We are going to say, "YES!" More importantly, I learned about the importance of each prop and some ways to think about the differences in the state of mind between The Geographer and The Astronomer, which Vermeer had painted just the year before.

Some notes on the props: As a geographer, I should -- and once did -- have the dividers (a.k.a. compass) for making measurements on the map. My father gave me his long ago, and it is probably in my office. The office is only 600 yards from our house, but I decided that this would be against the spirit both of the challenge and of the #stayhome orders. Moreover, I was not sure they would be found. Chopsticks to the rescue!

I do not have any 350-year-old maps, but I do have a 90-year-old atlas, so I opened it to a map of the Netherlands and set it upon our National Geographic pouffe. An old map tapestry that used to be in our house is no more, but I realized that the tones of one of my favorite summer shirts would be a reasonable stand-in, so I draped it over the pouffe.

The globe is one of those stone-inlay items that used to be super-expensive until they became mass-market. From a distance, its frame works well. For the books, I thought about some anonymous old leather-bound books we have, but I grabbed a handful of Tolkien instead. He was my first somewhat scholarly interest, and during her tenure at a bookstore while we were dating, Pam helped me to build a pretty complete collection of his work.

Pam recognized the importance of the scroll that the original Geographer was leaning on; not having a scroll handy, she found a serviceable shelf!

Finally, I trimmed my beard for the photo, but did not shave it. Having accidently left my razor at a friend's house in Vancouver, Washington in 1996 without turning back, I decided against giving up the beard for my art.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Food Resilience, Not

Those who protest (sometimes violently) against common-sense measures to protect public health during the Coronavirus pandemic are attacking the immediate cause of the severe dislocations they are facing: mandates from state or local government. But what really should concern them are much deeper patterns. Short-term measures to protect public health are merely exposing deep fault lines that have run through our society for some decades; it is not difficult to imagine a world in which the same stay-at-home measures would not cause such immediate and widespread dislocation.

In an interview with environmental journalist Steve Curwood, author (and one-time BSU visitor) Michael Pollan explains this with remarkable clarity in a 14-minute radio segment entitled Coronavirus Shocks US Food System. He describes the disconnect between two geographies of food in the United States: that of grocery stores and that of food service (such as restaurants and schools).

Spoiler alert: he mentions a third, much more resilient segment as well. He cites several examples of local food networks that have found ways to adjust distribution patterns -- away from restaurants and toward farm-box subscriptions, for example. This corroborates recent reporting from Australia, where planners have found that suburban sprawl has made Melbourne more vulnerable -- both to food-supply disruption and to wildfire.

All of the above has to do with what is available in the food system; sadly, another dimension of the crisis is the rapidly growing number of people who cannot afford food even if it is for sale at relatively low prices. Since the 1980s, social safety nets have eroded along with wages; a great number of people in what many still call the wealthiest nation on earth (it is not) cannot afford to eat if they miss a paycheck. 
Cars in Minneapolis queuing for food pantry (trailer in upper-right)
Photo: Mother Jones
As of this writing, the Federal government has authorized $9,000,000,000,000 that is called "stimulus" or "relief" but which is not targeted at those who most urgently need it. The result is a shockingly rapid surge in those seeking relieve at through local food banks, as documented by Mother Jones in mid-April.

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