Happy Camper

I recently found myself stuck in a Marriott Residence Inn in Orange County with a baby and no car.  (Don’t ask.)  On day one I pushed a stroller to the South Coast Plaza, one of those mega-mall fortresses with identikit department stores for turrets.  As a New Yorker, I thought the novelty of the enclosed retail playground would be a welcome way to while away the hot summer days, but in reality I had “done the mall” in half a day and was bored to death before the sun even set.  Thankfully it turned out that there was a much better retail experience nearby that I didn’t even have to cross a freeway to get to.  It was called The Camp, and was an exceptionally well-executed “eco mall”.

One doesn’t typically think of a strip mall across from an El Pollo Loco as cutting edge, and yet here this was, a ten minute walk from the Residence Inn.  The Camp’s sustainable architecture was both beautiful and utilitarian, with green roofs and beach grass growing in the sandy walkways.  Patagonia held court over a number of refreshingly unique retailers and restaurants, the most interesting of which was the Seed People’s Market selling an eclectic hodgepodge of well-designed sustainable and socially-conscious wares like “wildcrafted” Juniper Ridge soaps, Kauzbots, Sseko sandals from Uganda and Lunchskins.  In short, this place sold cool shit that also happened to be environmentally and socially responsible.  Score!

What most impressed me about The Camp was its attention to detail: succulents growing atop garbage bins, crunchy little phrases like “eat tofu” and “say hello to others” written in each parking space, breezy semi-outdoor seating that made the most of minimal air-conditioning.  It came as no surprise that the developers behind The Camp are also the same people behind The Lab, its sister strip mall across the street known as “the anti-mall” — the O.C. hipster’s alternative to the South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island.  Ultimately I was able to survive a couple more carless (that’s CAR-less, not careless) days in Orange County without losing my mind, thanks to the retail therapy and ghost chili tacos at The Camp.  It ain’t Magic Mountain, but these pair-o-malls are definitely worth checking out.

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A.P.C. Quilts

Nice upcycling by A.P.C. Got a lot of leftover fabric from last season?  Make some awesome limited edition quilts out of it and voila! — you can charge $515-$955 a piece for the results.  Very nice, very smart.

Tokyo in Bloom

Back from Tokyo where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and everyone was in a particularly good mood.  Grateful to have got the timing just right, as if we’d arrived a week later it would probably have been too late to see this:

Or the sight of this poor dude whose sole responsibility for the day must have been to secure a good location under the blossoms, hours in advance of the drinking and debauchery scheduled for later in the evening:

But as this blog is not supposed to read like the travelogue of some JET, I will refrain from indulging myself further in posting pictures of the Nat Geo variety.  I didn’t have too much time this time around to “braille the culture” as we used to say back when I worked at Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, but I did manage to sneak in my usual tour of the design floor in the Matsuya department store in Ginza, where they had their usual selection of stunning housewares by Yanagi Sori and ±0 with a smattering of neat new things I hadn’t seen before like these memo sheets from D-BROS designed to look like wedges of apples and pears.

Also got to check out the much buzzed-about store  called Pass the Baton that just opened a few months ago in the new Marunouchi Brick Square complex.  Started up by the same entrepreneur behind Soup Stock Tokyo, Pass the Baton takes the concept of recycling to a whole new level by combining the trend towards all things vintage with the public yearning for storytelling and community.  The way it works is that customers can submit “formerly loved” items that they want to sell at Pass the Baton, alongside a requisite introductory description of who they are, what they are selling, why they want to sell it and what the item meant to them, etc.  Once accepted as resale-worthy, the merchandise gets posted online alongside the owner’s profiles, and select items get chosen to be displayed in-store.

So instead of the experience of merely coming across old knickknacks at a flea market, you get a much more comprehensive sense of the “life” each object on sale had before ending up in Pass the Baton’s exquisitely curated shelves.  The prices are relatively high, but the sense of specialness that the stories of prior ownership imbue each item makes the experience worth the premium.  Pure genius!

Pass the Baton in Marunouchi Brick Square
A new type of recycle shop.

Coca-Cola’s Green Bottling

There was an article in yesterday’s WSJ that discussed Coke’s new “PlantBottles” which are partially made out of sugar cane.  They hope to sell two billion of these by the end of this year.  I would hope that by now most of us are aware that plastic bottles are a problem.  There’s a toxic island of plastic twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific, and the chemicals found in PET bottles have been linked to infertility in women among other bad things.  The world’s major bottled beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have all been responding with technology, like plant-derived plastics and “lightweighting” — a strategy that involves using less plastic in each bottle.  All this helps to reduce their carbon footprint, but given that much of the problem is the sad fact that a majority of these bottles don’t end up recycled, I don’t see it having nearly as much impact as encouraging people to refill their own bottles à la Brita and Nalgene.

Last summer, Coca-Cola Japan launched a new brand of water called ILOHAS that is packaged in super-lightweight plastic bottles.  LOHAS,which stands for “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability,” has been a huge buzzword in Japan for the last few years and it’s frankly rather misleading (and predictable) of Coca-Cola to appropriate that term for a line of bottled waters.  As much as I think that these easily crushable bottles that contain less plastic than conventional bottles are a step in the right direction, it seems dishonest to generate such a green aura around something that is so inherently un-eco as drinking water out of petroleum-based plastic bottles in a country that has perfectly fine drinking water coming out of its taps.  But hey, an improvement is an improvement, and as long as people are going to continue to buy bottled beverages it might as well be contained in something that will take up less room when smashed up in a landfill or floating in the ocean somewhere.  I predict that once the price points come down on home carbonators like SodaStream, we’ll start seeing some real progress.  Let’s hope that starts happening sooner rather than later!

Scrub in Style

It’s toshikoshi time and in Japan that means furiously cleaning the house to welcome the new year sans dirt and grime.  In with the new and out with the old, right?  Here are some miraculous little helpers to make the purification process easier.

Spaghetti Scrubbers
Spaghetti Scrubbers designed by Hiroki Hayashi

These genius scrubbers are made from recycled corn cobs and peach pits. They are re-useable, require very little detergent and last a very long time. And they look positively edible!  Available at the Shop at Cooper Hewitt.

Kamenoko Tawashi
Kamenoko Tawashi (Japanese scrubber)

These Kamenoko scrubbers have been around for 100 years and are found in every Japanese kitchen.  Classically good design — simple is always best! Made from palm fibers and sold in an adorable paper wrapping that has the turtle brand logo on it.  Kamenoko means baby turtle in Japanese.  They’re kind of hard to come by here, but I’ve spotted these at Kiosk in NYC as well as at an Anthropologie store once though I can’t locate it on their website.

Natural Solutions Cleaning Kit from Green Depot

This is a great starter kit for the eco-minded cleaner, available from Green Depot.  It’s all the stuff your grandmother used to use, like baking soda and vinegar.  There’s nothing a little Arm & Hammer can’t handle!

I know, it’s all a bit daunting but I promise you there’s nothing like starting the new year off with a literally clean slate.  Just turn on BBC America and watch “How Clean is Your House?” if you need encouragement.

Why Taxi When You Can Bixi?

Enjoyed a fantastic long weekend in Montreal to see Betty M Park’s (literally) ass-kicking documentary, Mamachas del Ring, make its North American premier at the Montreal World Film Festival. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Québécois city ever since spending a glorious collegiate summer there once to escape from the high NYC humidity and rents.  It’s got the perfect combination of greenery, waterfront and urban density that reminds me a lot of a francophone Barcelona.  While the winters are notoriously harsh, Montreal summers are usually known for endless sunshine without the icky stickies. As a result, there are a million festivals happening there throughout the summer months that attract a ton of visitors from around the world.

One of the first things I was curious to check out was the city’s new BIXI system of public rental bikes that launched in May of this year. The system is currently in Phase II, with more bike stations being installed to cover a larger part of Montreal.  Montreal was the pilot city for BIXI’s  urban bike-sharing system, and its success has led to recent mandates from both London and Boston to begin operating similar bike systems in those cities.  Paris currently boasts the largest network of public bikes, with its system of 20,000 bikes operated by Vélib’.

As you can see from these photos, the bikes look great and are super durable.  Their convenient placement outside metro stops and large public facilities like the convention center and public squares make them ideal alternatives to taxis.  Not only is it a great transportation solution for locals, it’s a great option for tourists who may not want to bother booking bike rentals in advance. You can just rent a bike on a whim if you happen to come across a docking station, and park it at another station near your destination. The price for usage subscriptions is $5 per day (at a pay station), $28 per month or $78 per year — which includes the first 30 min of bike rental for free, followed by $1.50 for the next half hour, and $3 for the half hour after that.  The price can go up to $6 per half hour if you don’t return the bike after 2 hours.  This is intended to prevent people from holding on to the bikes longer than they need to and to ensure that as many bikes as possible are available for circulation throughout the day.

I can’t wait for NYC to introduce a similar system.  Even though I recently bought my own bike, I would love to have the freedom to pick up a bike at point A and drop it off at point B and just take the subway home if I want to.  It also solves the problem of being constantly worried about someone stealing your bike while you’re indoors.  Not only is it environmentally friendly, it also promotes physical exercise and makes the city more walkable/bikeable by reducing congestion and prioritizing people over cars.  Like Zipcars, I’m sure these types of public sharing systems will become the norm in most cities over the next few years.

BIXI in Montreal
BIXI in Montreal

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Self-Sufficiency and the City

The Waterpod (Photo by Michael Nagle for the NYT)
The Waterpod (Photo by Michael Nagle for the NYT)

Living on a sustainable floating barge for the entire summer sounds like a complete nightmare to me as I tend to require the finer things in life like flushing toilets, air conditioning, and the occasional burger.  However, a leisurely visit to observe a bunch of other people doing exactly that?  Well that sounds like a dreamy way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Currently docked near Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Waterpod is an eco-artistic experiment in sustainable living that was launched in June by photographer Mary Mattingly with the help of funders both public and private.  A cluster of white domes made from recycled materials like old billboards provides shelter for the people and plants living on-board, and all power is generated through solar panels and bike-pedaling.  Nourishment comes from what they grow themselves, and the freshwater supply is collected rainwater.  A few egg-laying hens are the only source of non-vegetable food they have on the Pod so it’s definitely no picnic for the carnivorously inclined.

The recent NYTimes piece by Melena Ryzik provides a more complete picture of what the past couple of months has been like for the rotating cast of pod-dwellers, as well as some interesting trend commentary:

Situated at the intersection of recession escapism, do-it-yourself culture and ecomania, the Pod neatly sums up many current lifestyle trends — the compost container gets a lot of “this is how we should do it at home” comments from visitors. “It’s navigating our relationship with the environment in a capacity that doesn’t occur when you live in the city,” said Matthew Aaron Goodman, 34, a novelist from Brooklyn who visited the Waterpod when it was docked at Governors Island in July. “The advancement of technology has limited our ability to know what we can do with our own capacity. Something like this reminds us.”

While few of us would be willing to live on a solar-powered barge anytime soon, it’s undeniable that an increasing number of urbanites are finding ways to be more self-sufficient.  Even if you’re not raising chickens in the back of your apartment à la the current craze, you’re probably behaving a lot more eco-frugally than before and discovering that there are a lot of things you can do without.  The convergence of the forces of recession and environmental urgency has resulted in a trend towards conscious consumption.  Even if it’s led more by a concern for the wallet rather than concern for the planet, what matters is that more people today are actually stopping to think before they consume.  Why pay for a cab when you can bike or take the subway? Why own a car when you can share ZipCars with your community?  Why buy herbs when you can grow them on your fire escape?  Why buy a new pair of shoes when you can resole the ones you have?  (Unless of course, the purchase of a pair means someone else who really needs them also gets a pair.)  You get the point.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the vast majority of us still love to have things as much as ever, but as the recent popularity of farmer’s markets, flea markets and crafts fairs suggest, I think the types of things we’re buying are shifting.  We care a lot more about where the stuff is coming from and where the stuff is going…not just from an environmental point of view but from that of desiring human connections.  This shift is pretty fundamental and I don’t think it’s just because that happens to be the trendy thing to do right now.

In any case, if you’re in NYC this Sunday you can head over to the Waterpod to experience all sorts of urban gardening fun and games like a lesson in hydroponics by Bushwick’s very own Boswyck Farms, and a DIY window farm building workshop by The Window Farms Project.  God, I love this city.

One Less Car

Commute Bike Shop in Grand Rapids
Commute Bike Shop in Grand Rapids

I recently bought a Strida collapsible bike and finally made my very overdue entry into the world of urban cycling.  My apartment building’s unfortunate lack of bike-locking space made it impossible for me to buy a bike of the non-folding variety, hence the Strida — a British bike designed with the urban commuter in mind.  It looks very snazzy but you won’t see me off-roading on these tiny wheels any time soon.

While bicycling has been a growing trend in cities around the world for years now, I hadn’t really paid close attention to just how rapidly it was taking over our car-centric culture until recently, when two bike shops opened in my neighborhood just months apart.  There was Brooklyn Bike & Board‘s opening at the end of last year followed by Bespoke Bicycles around the corner from me in May.  Both shops are literally crawling with bikers on weekends with people of all ages looking to fix up old bikes, buy parts and get free air for their tires.  Given that NYC boasts more bike lanes than any other city in America (with a reported four times more lanes in the works thanks to Bloomberg), it’s not surprising to see why so many people are taking up cycling as their preferred method of transportation.  What is surprising though is how popular it is in American cities that don’t necessarily have hundreds of miles worth of bike lanes.

017Take Grand Rapids, for example, which my colleague Susan and I recently had the pleasure of exploring.  GR is definitely still a very car-centric city.  To give you an anecdotal sense of this: the bellhop at our hotel told us it would take about 15 min to walk to a local coffee shop, which in actuality took less than 3 min.  And yet even in this very auto-focused Michigan city, the bicycling movement was going strong.  We met with Daniel Koert, a young entrepreneur who very recently opened Commute GR Bike Shop on downtown GR’s Division Ave.  He’d been open for about two weeks when we talked to him, and seemed optimistic about the spread of biking culture in his city.  Every Wednesday night he organizes a group ride that has been growing in popularity, and he told us that he thought more and more young people were choosing not to have cars — quite a big thing to give up in a city without much in the way of public transportation.

It’s exciting to see that 17 years since the first Critical Mass event in San Francisco, cycling as a viable alternative to driving has taken hold of American cities in this way.  While the recent collapse of the American auto industry has been a very sad story to follow with regard to laid-off auto workers, the silver lining is that more and more people are going green by giving up their multiple cars and coming back to cities after decades of suburban sprawl.  It marks a dramatic turning point for the revitalization of many American cities.

Free Bikes @ Commute GR
Free Bikes @ Commute GR

Locavore Pioneers

Ryan Tate & Peter Hoffman of Savoy
Ryan Tate & Peter Hoffman of Savoy (Photo by Christopher Smith for the NYT)

A quick shout-out to our favorite foodie, Ryan Tate, for the awesome write-up by Frank Bruni in today’s New York Times. Ryan is the executive chef of Savoy in SoHo, which has been quietly delighting downtown diners with greenmarket goodies since 1990, years before locavorism became hip enough for the Obamas.  We regularly spot Tate at the Union Square farmer’s market snapping up local seasonal ingredients.  Originally hailing from the great state of Michigan, Tate’s laid-back demeanor and midwestern modesty manifests culinarily in the form of well-crafted dishes that are supremely satisfying without screaming for attention.  Or, to quote Bruni, the Savoy experience is “more folksy than glitzy, more bluntly nourishing than madly exhilarating.”  And given the current climate, don’t we all just want to be well-nourished these days?

“This Septic Tank is No Longer Free!”

baby-orangutansI highly recommend trying to catch a screening of Cathy Henkel’s The Burning Season at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Not only does the documentary provide the most intelligible explanation of carbon trading I’ve seen to date, it presents climate change not as an unavoidable doomsday scenario filled with drowning polar bears, but as a problem with practical business solutions that can be tackled through the leadership of some extraordinary people.  One of these people is the charismatic young eco-entrepreneur Dorjee Sun, who aside from perhaps the adorable baby orangutans in nappies, ends up stealing most of the show.

The camera trails Dorjee as he races around the globe with a backpack in an effort to convince one Very Important Person after another to support his plan to monetize the forests of Indonesia as a sort of global “septic tank” to absorb all the carbon in our rapidly warming atmosphere, rather than to exploit it as a source of highly polluting palm oil.  The argument goes that by incentivizing farmers to protect their forests through the sale of carbon credits instead of burning it off for palm oil profit, we can bring about a reduction in greenhouse gases that is far more significant than trying to get people to give up driving and flying.  As a gentleman from the organization Forests Now puts it, forests are essentially a global utility (a massive carbon-absorbing machine) that benefits everyone, and should therefore be viewed as a service we need to pay for, similar to other utilities like water and electricity.  Dorjee talks the ears off of everyone from Howard Schultz to Paul Wolfowitz about his carbon trading scheme without anyone committing the big budget backing he needs–until a besuited knight on a bull saves the day in the form of…Merrill Lynch!  Fantastic cinema!  Only wait…this stuff really happened.  Did I mention the film is narrated by Hugh Jackman, a.k.a. Wolverine?

Hopefully this inspiring film will get a wider cinema release and be seen by a lot more people.  Also, if you’re interested in learning more about what you can do to help, check out the site Ten Things You Can Do, scheduled to go live in June.  As Cathy explained, it will be a list of things you can proactively do, not a laundry list of guilt-inducing things you shouldn’t be doing.  Finally, props to Crumpler for sponsoring TFF and hosting a great post-screening reception at their West Village store, complete with Aussie meat pies and Lamingtons.  They even had a shuttle bus transporting guests to and from the screening that ran on vegetable oil.  Serious greenie points!

Dorjee Sun & Cathy Henkel
Dorjee Sun & Cathy Henkel
The Crumpler Shuttle Runs on Veggie Oil
The Crumpler Shuttle Runs on Veggie Oil
TFF/The Burning Season Crumpler Bag
TFF/The Burning Season Crumpler Bag