Farms in the Sky

We typically think of designing cities and buildings with hardscapes, not landscapes. We tend to construct jungles of asphalt and concrete, barely suitable for even the human animal that built them. These hardscapes typically seem to chomp up a bunch of prime farmland or natural area in favor of boxy buildings. The uses are determined and singular. Our structures are unchanging and unyielding to change. Change and adaptation is a necessity in our society and this should be reflected in our structures and urban form. Rooftop agriculture is one way to break up the norm. It is local, organic, human creativity building farms in the sky.

I personally like the idea because of what it does to a building footprint. I think of the footprint as the amount of land the building stamped out and made unusable for other purposes, other purposes including habitat, agriculture, anything green. What rooftop growing does is take this footprint and lift it up. Land lost becomes land gained.


We started planning the 401 Richmond agricultural installation in April. The building has an acre of roof between two stories but we started with a little 1,700 square foot area. In this small space we have four 4 x 8 beds for vegetables, five 4 x 8 beds with mini food forests, and some carefully placed pots and felt beds.

FullSizeRenderI can already see the benefits of this little project. It is providing food and habitat for native pollinators, spiders, butterflies and birds. Stormwater runoff is delayed as the plants and soil absorb and slowly release the rainwater. The view from surrounding buildings is substantially better than a normal rooftop. It gets local food onto local plates.

It is not perfect. It is warmer and more windy than the ground level. Shade is sparse or too much and is dependent on how many skyscrapers are being built nearby. There is a constant fear of structural limitations or scratching the roof or not walking quietly enough and disturbing a tenant below. We have a limit of 18” of soil. It is harder to get worms up there. It is hard to get anything up there for that matter.

The crane lift is it’s own story but it brought up 12 gigantic bags of Rooflite soil. This soil is supposed to be lighter because of a unique composition. It doesn’t feel any lighter when you’re shoveling but the composition is unique. They’ve added a lot of rock which I was skeptical of at first but it has dramatically cut down on how much soil blows away and is pretty ideal as far as drainage.

Urban agriculture is still a fairly new experiment, especially on a historic building with structural limitations, but so far this experiment feels successful. The felt beds produced a crop of greens, radishes and are still working on producing some beans, peas and brassicas. I started seeds indoors in April and May so I planted a variety of tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggplants, herbs, celery and squash. The mini food forest boxes have chum trees, dwarf apples, blueberry bushes and strawberries.


As an experiment I would like to see this idea grow. Toronto is a great place for this to happen. The green roof bylaw passed in 2009 requires all new buildings over six stories tall and with more than 2,000 square meters of floor space to have at least 20 per cent green roof. Studies have shown that Toronto has 6,200 hectares that could be made available for agriculture, much of which is on unused rooftops. If converted to small urban farms these roofs could provide real food security. The roof of Ryerson University’s George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, for example, produced 2 tonnes of produce on a 929 square meter farm in one summer.

We as a species of city builders and city dwellers need a new paradigm. Occasionally we seem to notice the impact we have on surrounding ecosystems but not necessarily consider how the city is an ecosystem itself, with its own systems, species and habitats that we directly impact every day. Rooftop farms and green roofs can help encourage an ecologically healthier city, provide habitat and green space, all while producing local, delicious food in a previously unusable space.

But even if you don’t have a roof space to grow crops, please plant something. It is so easy to grow your own food. It isn’t cost prohibitive. Maybe you won’t grow everything to feed everyone but you can supplement any diet with just a small window space. You don’t have to load your roof with plants. Just use the space you have, the materials you can find, throw some seeds in and give them some love and occasional water.



Reflections on Farming and Food

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do. ~Leonardo da Vinci

(This is a slightly abbreviated version of the presentation that I gave in Ethiopia in May, 2016 for the SCUPAD conference)

This reflection, I think, speaks to the power of individuals, to our growing processes, and to the way we help each other. This is a story about listening and learning how to listen and about working with people to address problems on their own terms. It’s about creating space for these little experiments that create a sense of possibility and then watching them grow.

The work I am presenting is my process of discovering agriculture and building community and I’m sharing it with you because I think what I’ve learned can help in your work and because these are the stories that I want to tell. Stories that I can embody and share for people who don’t have a voice.

I went into urban agriculture because I saw its potential to change landscapes and engage people, but it changed me more than anything. I cried with people, laughed with people, ate with people, grew with people across projects, across continents, across languages. I went into urban agriculture because I had this big glorious dream that it could change the world. It can. It does. But it is also just a tool in the larger scheme of giving people a space to be people. In these spaces I’ve seen people realizing that we belong to each other and we will take care of each other. I saw this across projects, across continents, across faces.

How does this work? What is the power in these spaces? Food brings people to the table. It’s a good starting point. Dirt grounds people. Gives them something to root into. A little space that is theirs in a world that often doesn’t provide much space. Plants make people a little more tender and a little stronger. You have to be gentle but you can also see how much plants can endure. It’s a relationship. We give them water and protection and love. They give us food. Agriculture gives you a space to experiment, to learn non attachment, to learn commitment, to learn responsibility, to learn consistency, to learn how to work with people, how to share with people, how to empower people, how to pacify people, how to choose your battles.

What we are facing is huge and I think we are all seeing it. Over 50 percent of humanity lives in cities right now and this is projected to grow. Seven out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050. As cities grow, land is consumed for development, with detrimental effects to urban and periurban agriculture.

And urbanization is not going hand-in-hand with widespread economic growth. With urban dwellers more dependent than rural populations on whatever food they can afford to buy, it’s tied closely to livelihoods. The amount spent on food in urban areas is 30% more than in rural areas but for less calories. Living in an urban area now seems to mean we lack access to land, natural systems and food. All of these are commoditized and instead of food being a right, it becomes a privilege.

So, what follows are projects that I’ve seen working to create these more resilient communities and food systems. These spaces of possibility and these spaces where we can support each other in the act of survival.

Salt Lake City


Photo credit: Wasatch Community Gardens

My work in urban agriculture began in Salt Lake City with a series of projects. I went into my projects with all of this data on urban agriculture and food and income security and a love and smattering of knowledge of plants. Straight out of school. I was prepared! I was in charge! It was all great and much of it totally useless. Agriculture is just a catalyst for something bigger. The food security I’ve seen came from people meeting each other and sharing food. The income security came from people making connections in the garden and getting each other jobs.

As a student, I sat down with the clients at a homeless shelter and asked them what they needed. I was not even totally sold on the idea of urban agriculture yet. But over and over it came up that they were concerned about the quality of food they were feeding their children. There were no vegetables. There were no fruits. So we started to grow them. It was a small project. We had no space so we adapted and used pots. Any interested residents could have a pot and a plant and start learning to grow. It gave people something that was theirs in a transitional time, something to grow into, and a seed of possibility to carry with them.

IMG_0457I pursued two other projects in Salt Lake City. At Neighborhood House, a nonprofit daycare, preschool and senior center, I organized stakeholder meetings, garnered support from the community and local nonprofits, worked with students to develop a design and plan, and had loads of support in all aspects of the project… except for funding. I received one small grant and spent a few months begging for materials. We decided on building the raised beds out of straw bales both because they were cheap and so we could mulch them back into the soil each growing season to start restoring the land. I spent $500 on this entire project that has since evolved into a thriving farm.

In 2009, we built the People’s Portable Garden. The City government has a tendency to buy land and hold it for development for years without doing anything with it. So there was a large plot of this covered in weeds in the middle of a low income neighborhood where people took good care of their houses and yards. Blight is a word that came up often in my first meetings with the neighborhood. The city was creating blight. So we changed it. I partnered with a local nonprofit, we petitioned for $50,000 in funding, a pie in the sky number, and got it. We spent a month doing a community design process, spent 20 hour days building garden beds, leveling the property and approximately one day and 100 volunteers putting it all together. It is called the People’s Portable Garden because it was meant to be temporary. We assembled everything so it could be taken apart and moved. It should have moved in 2013 and is still there and does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

The gardeners are long term residents from the surrounding neighborhood and, prior to the project, many did not know each other. Johnnie Mae and the Coopers had lived a block away from each other for a decade and had never met. While we were building the project, Johnnie Mae’s husband’s health started failing. They lived alone in a corner house and as soon as word got around they were inundated with food and offers to help. The Coopers in particular reached out and would come over at a moments notice to help Johnnie Mae with whatever she needed. Her husband passed and the community was there. Soon the Coopers started having health problems and again, the community was there. The goals of this project centered around beautification and food security but I saw that what we created was much bigger than that, much stronger, and much more pervasive. If this project does eventually move, those connections will remain.

This was my first experience with this type of social capital and networks of relationships that occur in these communal spaces. It sounds romantic. It is. And I’ve seen in happen over and over again…



Shortly after this project I moved to Guatemala. I went for a visit and ended up staying for a year and a half. I worked with two different agriculture and food security nonprofits. I learned a few good things and mostly that I didn’t want anything to do with the world of international development. I saw more awful projects than good. I saw people entering communities and telling them that their way of living was wrong. But mostly I met a lot of amazing Guatemalans. We talked, laughed, ate mangoes. I planted corn and sesame with them, and made tortillas. All very much to their detriment since my rows of corn were diagonal and my tortillas were roughly the size of a nacho.

Campesino a Campesino

One important technique that I learned in Guatemala is the Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) methodology. This methodology pushes against the condescending nature of how most community and NGO work is done. It is a simple, people-centered approach that makes this radical assumption that the people you are working with can learn by doing and come up with their own theories. It teaches them how to set up experiments, analyze them, and share the results.

The situation in rural Guatemala has been dire for years. After a 33-year civil war that essentially amounted to attempted genocide of indigenous populations, the country seems to have found some semblance of peace. The tension is still there and the distrust is palpable. People are understandably afraid to organize, speak out, and trust the government. This history is layered upon newer, interconnected problems of gangs, drugs, the unending march of sugarcane, and the third highest child mortality rate in the hemisphere.

Campesino a Campesino is a movement that is trying to bring more autonomy to farming communities. That it gives smallholder farmers the ability to access, adapt, create, use, and defend their knowledge on their own terms is huge in a myriad of ways. It empowers people on this base level of controlling their lives. It gives them information to fight against the encroaching threats of Monsanto, sugarcane, and climate change. Agriculture is a practice that is constantly needing to change and adapt to fit our changing world. It is all just one big experiment in humanity and how we feed ourselves. It is hyper local, it is sensitive, it is evolving. Campesino a Campesino gives people a voice in how this evolution happens.

So what it does is teach people how to set up experiments. But what is experimenting? If you only went to a few years of school would you know what it means to experiment? If your entire livelihood depended on a few acres would you feel comfortable with this idea of experimenting? Many of the farmers we worked with had only gone to a few years of primary school. The concept was foreign and frightening despite the fact that we do it fairly instinctively. You are always experimenting in agriculture. Trying, failing, trying, succeeding, continuing and then starting over. So we would talk with them about this process, how to do it methodologically on a small test plot, and then give them a forum to voice their results.

What this typically looked like in practice was organizing group plantings where farmers could learn about or propose experiments and help each other with planting their fields. We would follow up throughout the season and then organize a group harvest and a conference in each community where the farmers could come and ask questions, give results and suggestions. Then we would plan for the following season. If a test plot was successful, we would help them to expand it. If it failed, we would help them try something else.

In this Guatemalan context we were competing with Monsanto and government representatives who would travel from village to village and hand out seeds and free fertilizer or pesticide. For awhile their seeds and inputs would outperform other methods. But it is difficult to go back once you start. The balanced ecosystem of your soil is thrown off, leading to huge infestations of pests and weeds that can only be fought with additional Monsanto chemicals. I saw this cycle and saw farmers hooked on the inputs that often cost more than they make in the season. We would encourage them to try methods that could transition them off of chemical intensive agriculture.

This work was inspiring in many ways but most importantly how it inspired farmers to build their own knowledge and know how to use it. We would start the process in a community, ensure it was working, be there as support, and then step back and watch it grow. It again came back to this idea of building networks of knowledge and support that allowed people to imagine and implement new possibilities.

I think what this work confirmed for me is that I am not seeing industrial farming as a solution to the problems we’re facing. Farming is not and cannot be mining and we are treating it like an extractive industry. We can’t continuously deplete the soil and replace what we take with chemicals. It is not a solution and it is not something that can sustain us. Growing food in depleted soils leads to food depleted of nutrients. We get what we give and we have not been giving much. We need to see farming and do farming in a way that contributes to the environment and builds the soil. We need to hold on to the particular knowledge of our particular places because this is beyond the competence of any large agribusiness or centralized power. We need small farmers.

Women’s Groups

I also worked with women’s groups in Guatemala. Both groups of women were confined almost exclusively to the home. Both groups were able to attend our meetings because their husbands were also working with the organization. Beyond any food security measures or agricultural techniques that came across in these meetings, these women were given a voice, a support group and a life outside of the home.

We would work on whatever the women’s groups identified as an issue. Cook stoves, community improvements, healthcare and agriculture were the main themes while I was there. One women’s group I was sent to work with had requested techniques to grow without “poison.” They recognized the effect on their homes and families. Their husbands came home sick from the fields. Their children developed skin disorders. Kidney failure was a common aspect of life. The men were less likely to experiment since their crops were their livelihood. The women chose to try different methods. We built a greenhouse so the highland women could farm their own vegetables and create local markets. They worked to develop techniques without pesticides or herbicides. Collectively they grew medicinal herbs, tomatoes, greens and chilies to supplement the families’ diets and to sell excess locally.

Information was exchanged, new techniques were learned but I think the most important realization for all of us was that these women were strong alone and stronger together. They helped each other start businesses with the new crops and recipes. They supported each other through problems at home. These meetings were a place to talk, process, grow. For all of us. I again saw projects acting as a catalyst for building social capital and giving people a space to support each other.

East New York


I left Guatemala for a job in New York City to build community gardens and urban farms in East New York. I applied for the job on a whim and then had two weeks to make the transition. I was given access to four lots of 2500-5000 square feet and told to turn them into growing spaces. When I arrived, I went to check them out and found 6 lots full of years of garbage and I found a community that was ready to take them over.

So we began to build. I coordinated materials, volunteers, and cleanups. I learned more about the New York City waste disposal system than I care to know. Picture a demolished house that is plowed into its own basement and then covered with 15-30 years of garbage. We found bones, bricks, swimming pools infested with spiders. And little by little, we cleaned them up. We capped them with landscape fabric and a thick layer of mulch. We built raised beds using recycled scaffolding lumber from NYC construction. We did this together as a community, and we planted together as a community.

IMG_0244I had grant reports that would require me to weigh the quantity of food we were growing when it felt like what we were growing couldn’t be quantified. We had 26 chickens in an urban area where the most animal life kids will see is a rat or cockroach. We had immigrants from Latin America working alongside immigrants from Bangladesh. Neither of which spoke a word of English. Both would consider the other a friend. Sure there were misunderstandings and arguments. Sometimes a chicken would disappear because it was “sick” and that chicken without a doubt never recover. Read: ended up as dinner. And we worked through these issues as a community. We supported each other through mental illness, family strife, breakups, losing jobs. We celebrated each other and our achievements.

A big part of our goals in East New York was food security. One in four of the city’s children – nearly half a million – live in households that lack sufficient food. One in 10 seniors struggles against hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens are running out of food, and the food they do have is often heavily processed with high levels of high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and sugar. Healthier food tends to be more expensive, harder to find in low income neighborhoods, and more time consuming to prepare, thus forcing many food insecure families to rely upon cheaper, more highly processed, less healthy food. The economic and physical barriers to fresh food access have contributed to citywide increases in obesity and diabetes.

What I saw in East New York, and what I saw our projects addressing, was a lack of access to food. The only places available to buy food were corner stores that carried highly processed foods and perhaps a banana or two. In order to buy produce, residents would need to take the subway or bus in a lengthy commute to a supermarket. Once they arrive, the food is often too expensive. We worked with corner stores to try to get more produce into the neighborhood at affordable prices, and then grew our own. Another organization with similar goals started a neighborhood market where local gardeners could sell their produce and value added products every weekend. We were building a community food system because people don’t just need food “security”, they need food dignity. The ability to choose the food that they need to feed their families, not just settling for what they can get from the local pantry or corner store but having the ability to choose nutritious, healthy, real food.



From New York, I received a Fulbright grant to go to Mauritius. I was trying to do a community based mapping project around climate change and the felt impacts of climate change on a small island. I was there for a big goal that I placed a lot of expectations on but what I was seeing was very different. I saw that talking about climate change at a community level was not productive. I saw that if we spoke of pollution and food, that people connected. With pollution they could see the problems and see the solutions, and it honestly addresses a lot of the same issues we come across with climate change. In the end it is an over-consumption, a delusion that we can take whatever we want and it will all work out.

In Mauritius, there are these really literal examples of over-consumption that we could point to. Sugarcane for instance. This crop that is not even food that consumes all of the land and is then exported. Mauritius literally exports the sweetness of its land. There is pollution at a grand scale with one of the highest per capita pesticide use in the world, an overfilled landfill, and mountains of plastic that wash ashore. The idea is that the ocean can take it, and she does. She churns it up and breaks it down as best she can, and then sends it back ashore. The future beaches of our world are made of plastic. For me, Mauritius took all of the world’s issues and put them in miniature. These were the reasons my project shifted and I was lucky enough to have the flexibility to let it.

What I ultimately ended up doing was cleanups, community film screenings, community photography projects, presentations at schools, building gardens out of recycled materials, community based mapping workshops, consulting on green roofs and sustainability projects, writing for local magazines, and helping with a food sharing program.

The food sharing program Manzer Partazer is the work of some of my favorite people that I met in Mauritius and I was lucky to be able to contribute in small ways to this inspirational project. In Mauritius there was a break in the food distribution chain. It’s a similar problem everywhere. The rich take more than they need, they throw the rest away. Roughly 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally (1.3 million tons). We saw this everywhere. Hotels, supermarkets, etc. And we saw these areas of poverty. I worked with kids to build gardens at their schools and was told most of the kids got their food at the school, not from home. They were very quietly subsidized by the school employees. So Manzer Partazer connected the dots and closed the loop. They worked with NGOs who knew the stories that would break your heart and who knew how to distribute the food. They connected them with hotels and supermarkets through existing transport networks. So the hotels, in vehicles they used to bring employees home after work, also brought food. The NGO representative met them at a designated drop off location and collected and distributed the food. It is essentially a zero cost initiative beyond the time it takes to coordinate the connections.

This was a different aspect of food security and creating connections. Seeing a need, seeing a glut, connecting the dots. The effect was powerful. Food in bellies, people seeing that others cared, the wealthy witnessing their waste.


What I’ve seen and what I hope to leave you with is this idea of the power of building relationships. How can we use our fields and our practice to create these spaces of possibility and inclusion? How can we use our skills to inspire people to take care of each other? How can we be catalysts to start the changes we need to see in the world?

It so often feels like many of the world’s problems are too big, too complex, too scientific sometimes for any solution. But really the only way we have to tackle these issues is together, probably with a series of small steps that turn into big leaps that turn into a more equitable planet. It sounds romantic, and it is. But survival isn’t romantic and relationships are what we need to adapt to the world’s complex issues.

I’ve been overwhelmed over and over again… across projects, across continents. But I want to leave you with this: don’t be daunted by sophisticated arguments that tell you that small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow’s problems. I have seen the power and the meaning of small actions by small groups. We are given a brief moment to grow and to make things better and more equitable. So start where you are, use what you have, go, do.



People’s Portable Garden

Neighborhood House




This is a rant.

This is a rant. Trying to research and talk about climate change is the most frustrating thing I have ever done and sometimes I read too many news articles. But it is starting to feel personal. The attacks of litter, exhaust, trawling ships, spewing factories, buildings that stamp out acres of soil and trees. What if I went into a church and threw garbage everywhere while coughing in everyone’s face and destroying the alter? This is how it feels. Every day.

It does not need to be this way.  We need a new paradigm. We need to look at local change from a global perspective. Big business needs to take a hike and find some ethics and we need to stop supporting them until they do. We need creative and innovative solutions to find a balance between our lives and the environments they reside in. We need to stop mindlessly consuming and start thinking through our actions.

Planning and design theory and practice are so often reactive, but for this to work it will need to be proactive. Green roofs, energy generation, community gardens, and the preservation of natural areas are good places to start. But that is all it is… A start. Interventions will need to be small, intricate, and widespread to continue this slow process of adaptation. We need to work on connecting these localized projects to the greater whole.

I will close with Wendell Berry.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry.


Finding a Printer on Cavadee

We hopped on the motorcycle with our usual sense of rushed purpose. I had been working a bit more than usual and was starting to feel stressed about an approaching workshop on sustainability mapping. I had never met the students I was going to work with, was unclear on whether or not they could read a map or if they would speak English, and I was partnering with a woman who had a very “do everything at the very last minute” mentality. Preparations for something this vague felt a little tense, and we had waited until the day before the workshop to print out the set of materials.

And, as often happens to me in Mauritius, I was unaware that a large holiday was approaching. Someone mentioned a festival called ‘cavity’ the week prior, and something about piercings and people pulling carts. This was the extent of my knowledge about Cavadee, the Hindu festival to honor Maruga, the god of war, which turned out to be very pink, very pretty and very gruesome.

Cavadee PiercingsTraffic was stalled in all directions when we reached the main road. People were lining the streets. I felt momentarily anxious that this task was going to end up taking so long. Then we saw the first part of the procession. Large, colorful wooden structures dwarfed the barefooted, pink clad men carrying them on their bare shoulders. Some of the men were flanked by two stoic helpers who would occasionally lift the structure and allow the clearly exhausted carrier to adjust before putting the burden back on his shoulders. Children carried smaller versions of the structures, building up their strength for future Cavadees.

A water truck liberally dumped water on the street for the barefooted worshipers who followed. It did not look like it helped very much as it immediately evaporated in the mid morning sun. Residents and business owners along the street would pull out their garden hoses and set them on the street to contribute a small stream to the procession in an extremely touching offering. Those in the procession would pause in briefly, cooling their feet until the next garden hose.

Photo credit: islandcrisis.netRows of women filed by with cloths tied over their mouths to keep a complete silence. More men followed with spears through their cheeks, arms and backs. The sound of idling cars was punctuated with rhythmic drum beats. Work suddenly felt really insignificant while watching this moment of self-inflicted group pain- bare feet on hot pavement, newly pierced skin dripping with lime juice, heavy offerings carried on bare shoulders. This was clearly more important than my short-sighted printing goal.

My time here in Mauritius often feels like these brief periods of focused work, with plenty of the typical frustrations, delays, lack of responses from partners and last minute changes… all punctuated by things that feel significantly more important.

The traffic started moving again and we slowly passed the remainder of the procession. The last devotee had piercings throughout his back, with limes attached, that were pulling a trailer the size of a small car. Barefoot and trudging slowly, head down, he kept pace with the rest of the procession while we zoomed off in the other direction.

Photo credit:

(All photos in this post credited to


Right Now

Right now I am sitting at a coffee shop called Vida e Caffe. I like it here but feel a little bit bad about it, mostly because it is at a mall and I have some sort of aversion to the consumerism. They have great coffee though and it reminds me of coffee shops we would have in the U.S. I am sitting outside. The temperature is ideal- warm, slight breeze rustling the potted tropical vegetation. People are milling about with bags of recently purchased items. Kids are playing in a fountain and riding bikes around. The mixed-use office spaces are slowly coming to life. I feel like I am in an architectural rendering.

My fellow coffee drinking patrons are, like in the U.S., on computers. One has a Macbook, Iphone, Ipad, and a drone (not flying, just resting on the table). Half of the coffee drinkers are wearing saris. I can hear three different languages being spoken. There are bright orange birds foraging for scraps around the drone table and zooming in and out of the automatic doors.

I rode my bike here on a shoulderless road. Cars were respectful but had they not been I would have been run off the road into a sugar cane field. On my way home, I will take the same route. I will pass another mall before returning to the sugar cane stretch. This mall is a bit older, looking forlorn and forgotten compared to its architectural rendering of a neighbor. I will pass a bus depot and a fire station with a lookout tower, both surrounded by sugarcane fields. Afterwards, I will carefully navigate my way through a roundabout (always terrifying on a bicycle!) and then the sugarcane fields will end and the road will devolve into the chaos of Triolet.

It is a friendly sort of chaos. Cars will stop at random and park in the middle of the road to run into a store or grab a roti. Generally the stores have perfectly acceptable and completely unused parking spaces. Nobody will honk. Cars will line up patiently behind and wait for an opportunity to pass on the busy two lane road. At this point I will probably weave onto the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians before rejoining traffic.

I will probably continue on this road. The traffic keeps it exciting if there is not too much bus diesel going into my face. I will share an informal 3rd/4th lane with motorcycles and other bicycles. Cars will give us just enough space to keep us on our toes. Maybe I will pass some of the overloaded 50cc motorbikes to avoid their spewing exhaust pipes.

On this road, I will pass auto repair shops and spare parts shops. Then my favorite market: Petit Profit Market. I have never actually gone in but I giggle at the name every time. I will pass a few piles of trash, mostly plastic bags and bottles that are on their inevitable path to polluting the ocean. Then some clothing shops and Kalachand- a large showroom selling the most poorly made items and the store responsible for the complete inadequacy of the bicycle that I am riding. A few pooja shops come next, where you can buy incense and little statues of Hindu gods.

I will pass a large white and green mosque, hopefully during the call to prayer. I love the sound of the call to prayer, sung with such intense emotion through large speakers three times a day. I will also pass a few Hindu temples. They may also be broadcasting prayers if we are near one of the many holidays. Sometimes I do not know about the holidays until I bike up on a broadcast or a procession of people. The processions will be blocking traffic, with everyone wearing similar colors, carrying something large and heavy, maybe offering food, and burning great smelling incense.

I will smell the snack offerings on my ride home- roti, various fried vegetables and legumes, perhaps briani if it is Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday. I will pass people selling vegetables on the side of the road. Some will have a proper wooden structure; some will be braving the sun on the sidewalk with baskets of their offerings. A few will have set up impromptu shade structures with old tarps or bread bags. I picture them having picked and processed their goods earlier in the morning. They will stay there all day, or until their products run out. A large contingent sits across from the supermarket- a western style, windowless, big box called Winners that is complete with the florescent lighting and sterile feel that characterizes grocery stores back home. The supermarket is topped by a casino that strikes me as frightening.

Near Winners I will turn down a side street. Traffic will calm down immensely now but mostly because the road narrows and cars have to navigate groups of pedestrians. I will pass a few shops that are never open but allegedly sell clothing, phone credit and give haircuts. If it is near the time that school gets out, there will be a man selling popcorn and some women selling fried goods. A few ladies might be selling roti and mine-frite out of their front gates.

After another turn I will be on my street. There will be a group of men sitting on logs at the intersection watching the world go by. I can never tell if they are drunk or just chilling but they are always there. There are different cohorts that don’t mix but are all very friendly. The young ones are usually there in the evening and seeming drunk. The older ones are usually there during the day and seem mostly tired. It is a community-created public space where you occasionally have to tuck your knees in for a passing truck. Ladies won’t sit there but may gather nearby, standing in the street and talking with kids in hand.

Near the sitting area is my apartment. I’ll open a wooden gate that has been torn to shreds by Chiquito, the dog that really wants this to be his home. He is occasionally banished due to his intense stench but I will probably let him in if he is there. He got in some fights recently and is looking a little beat up and like he could use a rest. He will go curl up in the shade near the motorcycle or go find the water that Annie leaves out for him.

Annie, Bertie and Nicholas live downstairs. I live upstairs. Bertie built the house and works in construction. He prefers to speak Creole and smiles and laughs easily. I know he likes football and Annie’s cooking but he remains a bit mysterious due to language barriers. Annie speaks perfect English and is a friend, cultural guide and the best chef in Mauritius as far as I am concerned. Nicholas is two. He sometimes likes me, sometimes throws things at me, never has a dull moment. I call him “boss”. He associates me with Kinder- a certain type of chocolate that I occasionally bribe him with. He will come upstairs, let himself in, open the refrigerator, take a Kinder, turn off the refrigerator, turn off the water, grab Alex’s shaving razor, and go play with a fan… All in the span of about 30 seconds. If nobody has noticed he is there by then, he will go out onto our second story porch that has no railing and mess around with the mango tree. Then he will take all of the keys. He is sometimes like a demon-tornado, but a very cute one.

Nicholas loves the mall where the coffee shop is and goes there frequently on imaginary bicycle trips to buy bonbons. Maybe he will grow up to be one of these people that I am looking at now, smart phone in hand, looking business-like. But probably he will be at a different mall. By then this mall will have been forgotten and a different one will have popped up in the neighboring sugar cane field.



Beginner’s Mind

When I first arrive in a new country, my brain works on overtime trying to figure everything out. It takes unfamiliar villages, streets, apartments, situations and compares them to any and all other places that I have lived and experiences that I have had, trying to make things familiar in a place where nothing is.

Mangoes for days! I started my time in Mauritius living in Péreybère, a tourist haven for Mauritians and Europeans. Everything felt new and exciting. Mangoes were falling from the sky. Buying produce was a thrilling practice of language skills. I struggled to determine street and development patterns and if there were village centers or just endless circles of coastal roads.

It was peaceful, quiet, and confusing in Péreybère. When I first arrived, the apartment building of 16 units had three occupied. I knew little to nothing about how Mauritians live. I did not know if it was normal to have concrete palaces surrounded by overgrown forests and electric razor wire, apartments decorated with 3D artwork and fake (but somehow wilted) flowers, mongooses, packs of wandering dogs and cows, streets that abruptly devolve into dirt pathways, trees full of yellow weaver birds and their intricate basket-like nests, walls covered in gecko poop, a turquoise ocean that seemed as calm as a bathtub.

Alex compared a recent meeting to a Wes Anderson movie and this seemed to put everything in perspective. Mauritius feels vivid, distinctive, slightly absurd and full of capers, characters and staged scenery. It is never really explained why we are meeting at a cave, or in the basement of a parking garage. The Chairman of the District Council did not answer any of my questions but served delicious tea and spoke at length about his time in China. It took six employees to help with the purchase of a bicycle. Our stoic security guard in Péreybère always responded to the question “how are you?” with “I am still alive.” Cell phone towers are poorly disguised as the tallest and most awkward looking palm trees on the island.

These first few months of my grant period were challenging. I felt very isolated. I wanted to give up a few times, after starting on countless ideas and plans that I just could not get rolling. I have never done community organizing around a topic as nebulous as climate change, and in a place that I know so little about with so little support. I get overwhelmed.

The hardest part is the moments when there is nothing I can do. When the holidays have gone on for a month and I have read all of the articles that I can read and reached out to everyone who will respond during the celebrations. These were the times when the apartment in the empty vacation land of Péreybère felt particularly remote.

Things are changing now. Alex and I moved to Triolet, a place where people live and not just vacation. There is a resident rooster, or what sounds like 50 of them, that make their presence known at all hours. We can walk onto the balcony and pick mangoes.Rooster/Demon Groups of people occupy a few logs at the street intersection, in front of the football field, to talk, pass the time, observe passersby and yell jovially to neighbors. We live with the best family in the country who teaches us about shortcuts to the store and fruit vendors and how to cook incredible Mauritian food. There is a two year old who teaches us Creole, French and the importance of bonbons. It feels more like a home.

I am also beginning to like the the challenge and realize how much I believe in the research. Learning about the perceptions of people experiencing the localized burden of climate change is important. Puzzling through the cultural barriers and tools that can be used to engage people in this discussion is humbling and enlightening.

Plus, I have met some great people during the challenge of getting the project going. People who not only met with me to discuss my research, but have spent their whole day showing Alex and I around their villages and favorite places. Most recently, we explored some caves with someone IMG_2026who had grown up playing hide and seek in the extensive network. We went snorkeling in mangroves, with a fisherman to catch octopi, to a beach at night to look for over-hunted crabs. Others have invited us into their homes to meet their families and share meals. I have met some amazing young people who are creating inspiring projects in Mauritius. They are filling gaps in green building, conservation and recycling with sheer willpower and most without payment.

Sometimes my critical eye goes too far and fails to recognize the beauty of this ‘beginners mind’ aspect of being a foreigner in a new place. There is a lot of beauty and relief that comes with admitting you know nothing. Simply allowing yourself to absorb and learn without all of the judgements that come with trying to fit observations into familiar compartments. It feels important to be okay with not knowing for awhile and being open to the possibilities of how this opportunity can unfold.


Is it Climate Change?

Everyone wants to talk about the flash floods. The rains have always been fairly torrential. The water has always come on pretty quickly. But these were different.

In March of 2013, 11 people were killed in a flash flood in the capital city of Port Louis when 152 mm (6.1in) of rain fell in less than an hour. When the rain started, offices closed. People went to parking garages to retrieve vehicles and, tragically, found themselves stuck. Others left their offices and were trapped in flooded underground tunnels. Many went to the bus terminal, though no buses were running. The radio stations had no information. No one seemed to have information.

Nearly everyone that I have spoke to about climate change in Mauritius mentions the floods. Rightly so. It is a huge, climatic disaster. It is something tangible and terrible to point to and say “that is climate change.” But it is more than that. It is what happens when the changing climate meets our development choices.

Port Louis is a coastal city surrounded by largely deforested mountains. When it rains, the water drains along the quickest path toward the sea. In Mauritius, like many places, new development means impervious surfaces. To develop that new, modern look while cutting down on costs, you don’t plant trees, you don’t landscape, you create a huge slab of asphalt and top it with a huge boxy concrete building. With these conditions, drainage is going to be a problem.

Water always finds the path of least resistance. In a natural setting, flash floods occur when the soil is too dry to absorb water or over-saturated. The runoff collects in gullies and streams and joins to form a fast flowing front of water and debris. In urban areas, this path is usually pavement, and instead of gullies and streams, the water is funneled by walls and buildings. There is so little soil and permeable surfaces that nearly all of the precipitation is swept into the quickly overburdened stormwater and sewage systems. The high intensity rainfall that is frequently experienced in Mauritius causes flooding when the city sewage system and drainage canals do not have the necessary capacity to drain away the amounts of rain that are falling. The results are tragic.

Another impact of the type of development occurring in Port Louis is the urban heat island effect. This is an impact of urban development that is felt in the increased temperatures in major cities around the world and is simplistically explained in our material choices. The concrete and asphalt that make up our cities store heat energy much more effectively than the surrounding natural environment. The temperature increase that is expected in Mauritius will be more dramatic in these areas without green spaces and shade.

Climate change is a broad, complicated, all-encompassing issue. You can talk about everything from agriculture to tidal patterns under the auspices of climate change. But lets simplify the conversation. We can talk about real, doable solutions to some of the problems we are seeing. We have choices.

The interventions do not need to be huge. They do need to be handled with long-term plans. Here is what I propose: requirements for permeable surfaces and plant coverage with new developments; green roofs and/or reflective roofs and the building codes and incentives to replace and create them; replacing as much non-porous surfaces with green space as possible; expanding areas of parkland where the flooding occurs for the purpose of water diversion; gutters, canals, and drainage that can handle the water flow; no-build areas along sensitive coastal areas and natural flood plains; and more trees.

The results of these actions would be less stormwater runoff, leading to less flooding. The same actions that create permeable surfaces and reduce the urban heat island effect could also create amazing green spaces in vacant areas, along streets, and on rooftops. Even the drainage areas could be something of an attraction. Think of canals, perhaps with public artwork, shady spaces, and pathways to enjoy the area when the weather is more promising.

I am slowly realizing that all of the climate change adaptation actions are actions that we should be taking whether you frame it as climate change or not. Nature-based solutions, like planting mangroves, forests, and coral restoration projects, create a more sustainable environment and ecosystem. Development-based solutions create a more pleasant living environment with less pollution.

We do not seem to be able to get mitigation under control. We can barely wrap our heads around sea level rise, drought, or a myriad of other lurking impacts. But planning our cities and developments for a future with more pleasant surroundings and fewer disasters may be something that we can do.