Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rotterdam to Amsterdam

There's a saying in Rotterdam. "Amsterdam has it. Rotterdam doesn't need it." Rotterdam has the biggest shipping port in Europe. 30 million tonnes of food, 30 of oil and 30 of non-perishable goods (read: things we mostly don't need) pass through Rotterdam's ports every year. During a boat tour of the tip of the iceberg of the harbour, the dry docks stretched in all directions like the set for the second season of The Wire. The honey bee colours of the shipping containers, the largest man-made docking area for freighters in the world. Ships with freeboard hundreds of feet high, built for the waves of the north sea and everything in between there and China.

And yet, walking the restaurant=packed street of Witte de Withstraate on my birthday, 20 ducklings in tow, and settling at a Tapas bar before heading to dancing, it felt like a cozy city, international in the languages one could hear on the street, not so much the endless stretches of the Rhine as it took its last stretch to the sea amidst towering piles of hand spinners, tea cups, tupperware and rayon.

Rotterdam is all modernity and coziness, cantilevered buildings designed by the group graduates of some inspiring architecture prof who loved the overhang a skyscraper could be pushed to, perhaps. And trams and open markets and condos with giant markets within their horseshoe shaped building, so that the kitchen windows look in to the market itself, and all you could buy for supper. After the Haussmann conformity of Paris and the medieval charm of Bruges, it was lovely to see where Europe might be headed, instead of mainly where it has been. Space. Light. Ingenuity. And the most elegant and caring serving staff I've ever met.

And now, Amsterdam. I am sitting on a corner in de Pijp, drinking wine and full from a Surinamese meal of coconut beef and noodles with Cam. We've just travelled around all day with Cornelia, a freelance planner who gives tours of the city's transportation infrastructure and sustainability planning initiatives by bike. We braved rush hour on bikes, all 21 of us (one is down with tonsillitis), along with thousands of other bikes. We visited entire streets that have been freed of cars and turned into grass-lined tram tracks and wide bike lanes framed by pedestrian walkways. In the middle of the city. "Sustainability for me is not about the environment," said Cornelia. "It is about liveability." And we need to convince people to be sustainable by appealing to what appeals to them. For the Dutch, she argues, it is economics, convenience. For the Germans in Freiburg, it is the environment. For Americans, it is ingenuity. Unless you know what appeals, you will never convince people to do anything. So what do Victorians want? What appeals to them? What would make them trade their cars for bikes? What would make our government put in light rail and take the train across the bridge and put in a tram to UVic and triple the transit system? What drives us?

These are the things I spend my day thinking about. A far cry from last year's trip. We are alive, and we need to do things better. We need to love things better. It feels good to be among the living again.

Friday, May 26, 2017

DRIFT – Imagining Sustainability in Rotterdam

We walk east along the river with the sun still to our right, past industrial sculptures and cabled bridges, into the wind and past open stretches of bike path, with only the occasional passing car. It is 9:30am and 25 degrees and we are on our way to a full day session on sustainability in the city of Rotterdam, old city walkup buildings next to jigsaw post-modern skyscrapers, the city centre uncertain and spread out around us, while the barges and their shipping containers slide by.

We arrive at Blue City, a former water park and disco with crumbling steps and broken seal windows, which has been repurposed for blue economy entrepreneurs. The space has been rented by DRIFT, a think tank founded by Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2004. DRIFT works to support transitions to greater sustainability, helping industry, government and cities through research, advice, practice and education. It's a bridge between scales, science, community, industry.
DRIFT’s researchers support transition toward sustainability in culture (social norms, values, way of thinking, beliefs) and in structure (infrastructure, regulations and behaviours). They look at the different possible pathways of redevelopment: acceleration, stabilization, lock in, backlash, and system breakage. As an example, Giorgia Silvestri, a researcher with the institute, uses the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Or a social transition from high to low crime in a neighbourhood through transformation into a livable and sustainable place.

A transition arena’s phases include exploration of the challenges, envisioning of a sustainable future through imaging and storytelling and elaboration of transition pathways. No two projects are alike, and the process, as can be imagined, takes a long time, and demands involvement and participation by all stakeholders. It’s interesting to imagine this kind of process happening in BC, where voter participation in the last election was around 57 percent. It's also interesting to see what happens when we participate in a transition exercise ourselves.

After explaining the steps for a transition pathway, Giorgia leads us through an exercise with four areas relevant to the CRD – transportation, food, neighbourhoods and energy. We look at the barriers, voice our vision and think about pathways to achieving that vision. What becomes quickly evident is what Donella Meadows (1994) has pointed out: it’s very easy to list the barriers to a sustainable world, but much more difficult to put into words a real vision, to think on a grand scale, to think in terms of ideals, in terms of what we’d really like to happen were there not constraints from government, industry or an apathetic populace. We prefer to rest in the probable, in a reasonable possibility given our current constraints, rather than voice what we really want the world to look like. In fact, this kind of thinking often leads to resistance and even anger: “That’s just not reasonable. We could never do that. Visions are fantasies.” It’s the result of a culture that Meadows says “constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries.” Visioning is a skill we have as children – to imagine our ideal world where there is lots of fun, food and green space – but which many of us learn are childish, pie-in-the-sky ideas and thus discard as unachievable when we grow up.

In the end, the process of achieving sustainability might be psychological as much as practical. People will work more or less successfully with one another. They will hold one another back or encourage one another. They will allow one another to imagine or they will clamp idealism down. And it is us doing this to one another, not just those who hold the economic or political balance of power.

Eel fishing

When I walked by the fisherman gazing into one of Bruges' green canals at midnight last night, there was only one eel in his translucent, woven basket, which floated just below the waterline. "That's fishing," he told me, two of the only words he knew that sounded like English, aside from "Vacances?" and "estudente?" It was a warm night, like it also is tonight. He smiled gently, as I have seen so many Belgians do, and turned back to his floater and his pole.
With our twenty ducklings, and a hitchhiker brood of bedbugs clinging to Cam's belongings, I arrived to Bruges on Monday and will leave tomorrow for the Netherlands. Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. With a quick second stop in Belgium in Antwerp for the day tomorrow.Bruges rises out of the southern part of the North European Plain before it stops at the sea, in a jumble of gingerbread buildings and cobblestone streets, built during the medieval era and scarcely touched since. It is a monument to riches and poverty, as riches built it, when the city became the major port connection to the Mediterranean, and before the canals silted in, bringing over three hundred years of poverty. No one could afford to change a thing. It was such a minor town, even during the world wars of the 20th century, that no one bothered to bomb it. It crept through the 1900s until suddenly, Europe turned and saw it again for the first time, as a perfectly preserved medieval town, its metal boot-scraping contraptions still wedged into the bottoms of 1400 era buildings, left from when the streets were filled with shit and you wanted to be clean before you entered your friend’s house. The brick buildings have iron reinforcement bands on their outsides and terracotta roofs. The bridges stretch in minor arcs over the narrow canals, and swans glide around everywhere, just daring someone to get close. From Belgian, according to our dry-wit guide, we have the term “shit-faced,” for when you were drunk and walking on the streets at night. Upon hearing the warning signal from someone above, before they threw the contents of their chamber pot out the window, you looked up in drunken surprise, instead of deftly leaping aside. From this undercurrent, its not surprising to see Belgians enjoying their first beer at 10 in the morning, after a leisurely ride to work on their huge bicycles with beautiful panniers. Sustainability doesn’t have a particular project here; it is, instead, a beautiful part of the way most here live. Over 60 percent of the city’s population bikes to work. Beer from one brewery is piped under the city streets to its pub, rather than using trucks. Velux windows light the centuries old beams in the attic room I’m living in, and second hand shops line the street that leads to the city’s main square. Belgians are sometimes joked as lazy, drunk or without ambition by the neighbouring Dutch. A kind of southerner in a northern land. As we creep closer to Germany, of which I am mildly terrified, I appreciate these southern northerners the more. Their easy smiles, their relaxed attitudes, the person after person passing on bike this morning, who, seeing Cam sitting out in the early sun with his coffee, called out, “allo!” or “nice!” They like pleasure. They invite it. Things move slowly and gently, though even with a city that takes only 20 minutes to cross, I am managing to walk 20 kilometres a day, the same as in monumental Paris. They're down there below me now, at midnight again, drinking in the hostel's pub with the travellers, and spilling into the streets. I'm going to go see the fishermen again.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Vivre sa vie

When the art nouveau of the corner’s buildings swarm with their wrought iron balconies and scrolling balustrades, when even the lampposts scroll in waves and leaves and lilies more intricate than Canada's parliament buildings, I suppose it would be hard to grow up feeling an unquestioning sense of pride in one’s heritage. The Sun King’s rethinking of the city in the 1600s; the straightening of medieval organicism into the vista-pleasing curves and straight lines of today’s streets; the stone, moderate level apartments that still allow one to call to the top floor from the street. The creation of the first open air, accessible plazas; the first public lighting of a city and public, intra-city delivery of mail. Paris shaped the mold out of which all modern European cities emerged. It allowed for a nightlife without (usually) fear of being robbed. It mixed the bourgeois with the royalty and the commoners in its parks and public plazas. It is still as I remember it from my previous visit in 2007: one of the great manifestations of European beauty, made material in the scrolls of a door handle, the filigree of a portico, the writing on a chalkboard announcing today’s plat de jour. Livable, that is, aside from the prices. Though, in its defence, salaries are higher, so in a sense, most are better off than those in Victoria or Vancouver.

Across the intersection of Villiers and Rue de Lévis, a stone apartment of six floors, with a black tile cupola serif and slate roof, shines in the late afternoon sun of 7pm, while the prét a porter Parisians drift by like flowers. Mostly the quintessential French faces: olive skinned, slender, impeccably dressed, the top of their baguette bitten off in its bag. Occasionally, an African Parisian, Muslims, others. But the majority, with their inimitable style and their European heritage, prevails. They walk as if they own the city. They walk as if there wasn’t a bomb threat in the local train stations every other day.

Still, there is something integral missing. The stories of Paris heard by the rest of the world are of clashes between cultures; the narrow victory of a conservative moderate over a vitriolic racist. The protests and violence in the neighbourhoods outside the arrondissements. Whole communities that exist on the edge of a city which does not reflect them, despite its continued commitment to liberté, egalité, fraternité. I’m thinking a lot about Syrians while I'm here. I’m thinking of the families I see lying on the street, even as I love the calm, easy, elegance of the French. The story of a successful, identifiable culture is always, to some extent, a story of the victors. I’m looking forward to traveling to La Defense later this week, where African and Middle East immigrants have moved into one of the most modernist developments in the city – a Haussman and Le Corbousier lineage.
I am here caring for 20 duckling university students. Together with the prof, Cam, we will lead them around northern Europe, watching prices climb and climb, and listening to many who will tell us of sustainability projects they are championing – water reclamation, roof-top gardens, architectural restructurings of neighbourhoods to incorporate green and socially pleasing design, recycling, even anarchist football teams (in Hamburg). We will visit Bruges, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen. The students are lovely. They are young and hopeful and full of ideas. I mama bear them through the streets while Cam takes the lead.

We are staying in the 17th arrondissement, which has altered in recent years from a residential and plain outlier in the city to a new centre of culture. Pushed out by the tourists, the Parisians have remade this neighbourhood with a plethora of sidewalk cafes and bars, markets, and patisseries. We venture out at 11pm for dinner and find beef bourguignon and wine. It is 20 degrees and hundreds sit sipping beer and wine at outdoor tables.

I didn’t think I would be back here so quickly. And in truth, I miss Eastern Europe, despite the heartbreak of last spring’s trip. Its its sketchy small dangers, the inventiveness of a people who have long looked at the greener grass from the other side, but managed to made a rich life of sorts in the meantime, without having to charge 4 Euros for an espresso. And yet the same monochromatic homogeneity met me there, too.