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No Matter What We Possess In Life, In the End All That We Have Is Time

It's Tuesday evening in Rieti and locals and regular visitors stop in the bars for a sparkling aperitivo. In the hilltown piazze, their children make friends with the Pomeranians, Bichon Frizes and spaniels who've escaped, with their owners, from Rome in August.

Amatrice is in festa. And so are these families. The light is changing, the nights are cool, the conkers are about to split their spiky reptile-green pods, there's a hint of orange in the leaves of the tigli. Which means one thing: school.

Italian earthquake 

A woman and child sit on a bench in the center of Amatrice, Italy, in the wake of the August 2016 earthquake. (Photo by Getty Images/Carl Court)

The writer Elena Ferrante isn't kidding. In Italy, school is gruelling, operatic. And it starts in three weeks. Along the peninsula, kids are rushing to finish their summer homework, cursing chemistry, sweating over Greek verses, looking up the web, hopelessly, for hacks, buying homework diaries in glossy black, pastel or neon. Since there is no half-term, this is the last good break until Christmas. Families are making the most of it.

But as the men and women sip their cold, glittering Negroni, Campari or Aperol Spritz, and their sons and daughters in their Converse and shorts and fake tattoos and plastic chokers play with the Roman toy dogs, Death invisible has arrived and is marking them out. She looks north to Accumoli, nods here, smiles there, cups a small warm head at the level of her cold hand. She passes the Hotel Roma with a sweep of her arm. The marketing video ignored her when promising "precious contact with nature".

So, the men and women finish their drinks, head home or out for a pizza, stroll with their ice cream, kiss the children goodnight. All of it for the last time. Within hours, a 6.2 magnitude quake will dismantle the Apennines. And with them, the families, their happiness and futures.

In Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata del Tronto, Pescara del Tronto, life will be classified now into Before and After 03.36 on August 24, 2016. The rough latitude 42 and longitude 13 were not alone the co-ordinates of their lives, they were concealing death and what will pass now for a life thereafter.

I know the Rieti mountains. With no head for heights I dread the road from Terni that, kilometre after kilometre, shrinks the regional hydroelectric plant to the size of a light-up stove for a Sylvanian Family cottage. Heart in mouth, I inch around bends that play chicken with the sky. Across the province, hamlets cling like Hitchcock blondes to the edges of cliffs, the sides of vertiginous mountains.

My friend has a summer villa there designed to be earthquake-proof. This week he calls it his 007 place: shaken, not stirred. In his village, around 30km south of the epicentre, the news is good. Everyone is safe.

But in Amatrice, where the village clock has stopped at the time of the earthquake, nobody is safe. Everything, every life, is ruined.

In the night, invisible armies have swept through, pounding it from the ground, the air. In this Mediterranean Dresden, three elderly people sit on a terrace at a white plastic table with a pink umbrella. Rescuers call out to them. Their home, exposed, is like a dollshouse where you can take the side off to see into the rooms. It is an island in an ocean of rubble. They are its sole inhabitants.

In Accumoli, such is the damage even to remaining structures, every house is off-limits. Apart from the volunteers, rescue teams and media, it is not even a ghost town - its soul is taken.

For the emergency services, though, the opposite is the case. If you are fated to live through a disaster, Italy is the place to do it. Yes, there is criticism of the delays in getting help to places such as Illica but generally the Italian response to a crisis of such magnitude is magnificent. While the rest of Italy is fleeing disaster, the rescuers are racing, with a plan, towards it.

Before dawn last Wednesday local people dug with bare hands through the masonry, calling out to family, neighbours, listening for voices, phones, under rubble that revealed itself as apocalyptic in the dawn.

All day and every day since, the same local people call out "Dai! Dai!" - meaning, "Come on! You're doing it!" - to the men and women of the Vigili del Fuoco lifting the barely living, grey and dusty from mountains of cement.

Parents, children, wives, husbands, siblings who see bodies of their beloveds removed, are silent. Speechless. In this hell that was their home, or the place they came every year for their holidays, they see the Vigili working miracles. But can anyone ask them to raise the dead?

It's a time of certainty, uncertainty, questions. In those last moments when a grandmother shoves her grandchildren under their beds and saves their lives, or families find themselves separated, entombed, or thrown out windows, we can probably say for sure that none of them is thinking about work, the mortgage, the bank loan, or wondering how the neighbours manage the new car, the extension.

Chances are a woman who sees her children disappear into rubble and eternity isn't fuming about the savage sexism of a road-race sign reading, "Run like you've left the immersion on".

A teenager calling for her dad isn't seething about the man who opened the door for her at the restaurant the previous night, 'reducing' her as a woman. The gobshite thought he was being polite.

A man digging with his bare hands for his wife of 50 years isn't cursing that bollox next door who cuts their climbing roses on his side of the party wall and throws the clippings into their garden.

A teenage boy tunnelling for his sister and mother isn't thinking, "Christ, I didn't get my first choice" from the Italian equivalent of the CAO.

A young man scrambling through bricks to get at his father isn't smiling; "that'll teach him". But more likely, "Dad, why didn't I talk to you for the last five years".

Twenty years ago when I started the most important job I will ever do - being a mother - I decided I wouldn't lavish my children with things. Instead, I would invest in experience. So they never got the Playstation, the iPod, the Xbox, the new game at the same time as their pals. But for free they got baking, gardening, crab fishing, fox feeding, bird saving, jam making, the first day of the Luas, mindmaps of the stars.

When I could manage it, they had trips, concerts, theatres, exhibitions, family meals out, hotels, days and weekends away. Things could be lost, stolen, broken. But an experience was forever. It was always theirs to be relived.

On Wednesday, the people of central Italy lost everything in a blink. The roof over their head, everything they owned - worked for.

There are questions of poor or illegal building, the legacy of Italy's lax planning laws. All for another time. For now, proverbially, those who lost their homes and parents, lost their past. Those who lost their children, lost their future. They found perspective.

In a world where trash seems to fascinate us more - where we seem primed for fights or slights, where it's easy to take and express offence, not alone for ourselves, but on behalf of others - events like the earthquake give perspective.

No matter what we possess, in the end all we have on this earth is our time. We are. And in a single moment we will cease to be.

For the people of Rieti, it was 03.36, August 24, 2016.

But somewhere on that clockface in Amatrice and in the collected dates and days of the kitchen calendars and assorted technology buried under the rubble, is our moment.

Until Death, invisible, slips her cold hand in ours, how will we be? What will we do?

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest-selling newspaper.

Walking Makes Strides in All Kinds of Communities

Imagine living in one of America’s great walkable communities.

Your day begins with a stroll—saying hi to neighbors, noticing blooming gardens and enticing shop windows, maybe stopping for a treat on your way to work.

Weekends are even better. You step out your door and join the hum of activity on the sidewalk en route to a coffeeshop, park, shopping district, friend’s home, recreation center or house of worship.

More time on your feet provides an opportunity to reflect on your life (you feel more energetic and creative now that you’re not driving all the time) and your community (it feels more alive now that everyone walks more). Even driving is more fun than it used to be with fewer cars clogging the streets.

And the really good news is that you don’t need to move to another town or a more expensive neighborhood to enjoy these pleasures. Any community can become more walkable if people are willing to get off the couch to make a difference.

That’s what my colleagues and I at the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks discovered researching our new book America’s Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded here for free.

Seattle Walk 

Feet on the Street, Coast-to-Coast

We found inspiring stories from places across the US where people got things started in communities not so different from where you live.

• In Baldwin Park, a racially diverse suburb of LA, high levels of childhood obesity are dropping as the result of a community-wide effort to make walking more safe and comfortable.

• In Batesville, Arkansas, and Albert Lea, Minnesota, improvements to boost walking around town are paying off in new residents, businesses and hope for the future.

• In Birmingham, a growing network of walking trails helps address problems arising from decades of economic decline, racial inequity and declining public health.

• In Arlington, Virginia, an innovative plan to transform neighborhoods into foot-friendly villages made it America’s Most Walkable Suburb.

• In Phoenix, ambitious programs to encourage walking are part of a push to become America’s healthiest city.

• In St. Paul, a multicultural community torn apart by freeway construction seeks revival and healing through better pedestrian connections.

• In San Francisco and New York, neighbors are teaming up with public leaders to end all traffic deaths on city streets.

• In Northeast Iowa, small town kids are growing excited about walking to and at school.

• In Seattle, groundbreaking policies curb speeding motorists and prevent traffic crashes.

• In African-American communities coast-to-coast, GirlTrek encourages women to take charge of their health by walking regularly.

• In California’s Central Valley, Latino parents are organizing campaigns to make streets hospitable for people on foot.

• In Indianapolis, leaders from around the world study the Cultural Trail, a 21st century walk-and-bike corridor that has reinvigorated struggling business districts.

• In Greater Philadelphia, a network of bike/walk trails link the entire region—300 miles so far with 450 more planned.

• Even in Oklahoma City, once named America’s “Worst Walking City”, big plans are working to make walking easier, less dangerous and more fun.

Why is Walking Suddenly Popular?

Improvements like these are popping up all over because Americans want to get back on their feet—for better health, stronger communities and happier, more relaxing lives.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found the number of people who regularly walk rose six percent between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available), a jump which translates into 20 million Americans stepping up.

But we still have a long ways to go. Only 48 percent of adults met the CDC’s minimum daily recommendation for walking or other physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week (60 minutes daily for kids).

That’s the magic number that cuts your chances of suffering from depression, dementia, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure and other serious diseases by 40 percent or more. The American Heart Association lauds walking as the exercise people stick with the most over time. It’s free, requires no special equipment and can be done anytime, usually right out your front door.

Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy singled out walking as a powerful health solution in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. “Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy declared. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”

The rise in walking for recreation, transportation and exercise is also being fueled by new research showing it’s good for us in many ways besides better health:

• Going out for a walk is one of the best ways to meet people and strengthen community connections, which is fun but also boosts our mental and physical health.

• Kids who walk to school do better in their classes, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA’s Director of Programs and Partnerships. Walking improves students’ concentration, mood, cognitive performance and creativity, explains Dr. Richard Jackson, former Environmental Health Director of the US Centers for Disease Control.

• Metropolitan regions with many walkable neighborhoods perform better economically than those with just a few, according to a new report from the George Washington University School of Business.

• Reduced anger, increased self-control and a greater sense of well-being are other documented benefits of walking , according to 100 Reasons to Walk, issued by Walk with a Doc, an organization of physicians working in 29 states.

Signs of the Times

You don’t have to look far to see signs that Americans are rediscovering the joy of walking.

Real Simple magazine declared it “America’s untrendiest trend” in a cover story.

• Soul Singer Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, which highlights the sheer pleasure of strolling down the street, has been watched 850 million times.

• A recent national poll from the National Association of Realtors finds that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s important to live “within an easy walk” of the places they want to go.

• Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has announced an all-out effort to make walking safer in communities everywhere. “Bicycling and walking are as important as any other form of transportation,” he declared at a major transportation conference.

• More than 10 percent of all trips in America are on foot, according to Paul Heberling, Policy Analyst at the US Department of Transportation—and 28 percent of all trips under a mile.

Everybody Has a Right to Walk

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Dr. Robert D. Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement in a keynote speech at the National Walking Summit in Washington, D.C. “All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”

Yet it is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more frequently while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs or motorized carts).

• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.

• African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

• The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, poor lighting, or the lack of stores and public places within walking distance.

Poor conditions for walking among low-income households limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.

“A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. He notes that the average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 a year, even taking into account recent dips is gasoline prices.

The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America. In fact, Secretary of Transportation Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, has made it one of his top priorities with the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative.

Adapted from the book America's Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded for free.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks and consuslts about how to create healthier, happier communities. He lives in Minneapolis and his website is JayWalljasper.com.

America's "Worst Walking City" Gets Back on its Feet


Oklahoma City has recently worked to improve pedestrian conditions throughout the city.

The US gave up on walking in the mid-20th Century — at least planners and politicians did. People on foot were virtually banished from newly constructed neighborhoods. Experts assured us that cars and buses (and eventually helicopters and jet packs) would efficiently take us everywhere we wanted to go.

Thankfully, most Americans refused to stop walking. Today — even after seventy years of auto-centered transportation policies — more than 10 percent of all trips are on foot, according to Paul Herberling of the US Department of Transportation. That number rises to 28 percent for trips under one mile.

Indeed, we are in the midst of a walking renaissance as millions of people discover a daily stroll can prevent disease, boost energy, ease stress, connect us with our communities, and is just plain fun. The number of us who regularly take a walk has risen six percent in the last decade, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a new study from the National Association of Realtors.

79 percent of Americans — even higher for those under 35 — want to live in a place that’s walkable.

Walking’s popularity is now reaching beyond older city neighborhoods into suburbs and the Sun Belt. 

Even Oklahoma City — which was named as the “worst US walking city” in a 2008 study of 500 communities by Prevention magazine and the American Podiatric Medical Association — is embarking on big plans to become more walkable.

“Bleak” is how Jeff Speck, urban planner and author of Walkable City, describes walking in Oklahoma City seven years ago. “Traffic sped too fast … for pedestrians to feel comfortable on the sidewalks … oversized traffic lanes encouraged highway speeds,” he wrote in Planning magazine.

Oklahoma City also suffered from perhaps the worst sidewalk network in America. Most other towns conscientiously built sidewalks until the 1950s, but Oklahoma City abandoned the effort as early as the 1930s in some neighborhoods.

Mick Cornett, the city’s Republican mayor since 2004, notes, “We had built an incredible quality of life, if you happened to be a car. But if you were a person, you were seemingly combating the car all day.”

“We probably were last in the country for walking,” Cornett admits.

This rock-bottom rating really stung in a community that had earlier been passed over by United Airlines as the site for a new maintenance facility because, despite the city’s generous financial incentives, the company’s CEO said he couldn’t imagine asking his managers to move to Oklahoma City.

Then, a year after the walk rankings, the city again found itself in the harsh glare of unwanted media attention. This time Men’s Fitness magazine stigmatized Oklahoma City as the “#2 fattest city” in America. Among the country’s 100 largest cities, only Miami was more corpulent.

That’s all changing now. An ambitious $18-million sidewalk improvement fund was approved by voters as part of a tax increase that also included money for parks, transit, bike trails and senior wellness centers around town. Four busy streets heading into downtown are now being narrowed, with new “smart intersections” that provide walkers more safety with “refuge island” medians in the middle of streets and clearly marked crosswalks.


Making progress with sidewalk networks encourages pedestrians and bicyclists to explore the city car-free.

So what’s driving all this pedestrian progress?

Mayor Cornett, a former sportscaster, bristled at his city being called fat and sedentary. Yet he knew that he couldn’t credibly deny these charges since he’d gained enough extra pounds while in office to be labeled obese, thanks to endless rounds of breakfast and lunch meetings.

Cornett launched an initiative to get the city back in shape. Over the past seven years, he notes, Oklahoma City has added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks, built eight miles of bike lanes on the streets (there were none in 2008), added 100 more miles to the recreational trail network, built new gyms at many public schools, created a public rowing center and started work on an whitewater kayak and rafting course on the Oklahoma River. Low-income neighborhoods, where health and obesity issues are most severe, are the biggest focus of the city’s programs for healthy eating and active living.

Cornett also issued a successful Challenge for Oklahoma City residents to lose one million pounds. Over 47,000 people signed up, and lost on average 20 pounds. Cornett himself shed 38.

One major thrust of this campaign was working with fast food restaurants to offer healthier menus. Cornett is proud of this partnership and during our interview slipped into his office closet to fetch a life-size cardboard cut-out of himself posing with Taco Bell’s low-fat options, which was displayed in the chain’s 40 Oklahoma City restaurants.

This all seems to be making a difference — the growth in Oklahoma City’s obesity rate has slowed significantly from six percent annually to one percent, with the stage set for reductions in the future.

The mayor is quick to share credit. First and foremost, he applauds local citizens, who in 2010 voted to continue a one-cent addition to the sales tax for seven more years to pay for health initiatives. Oklahoma, he points out, is a very conservative state — the only one where Obama did not carry a single county in either 2008 or 2012. Yet Oklahomans are willing to support taxes when they know where their money is going. “They like projects where they can see the results,” he points out. “And this is not debt and it’s not a permanent tax — it’s up for renewal every few years.”

Cornett views this spending as a smart business move, noting that the 2010 tax referendum, and two earlier ones under previous mayors focusing on downtown revitalization, public education and overall quality of life, amassed $2 billion in public investment which in turn spawned $6 billion more in private development.

“Ever since we decided to make this a great place for people to live, the jobs started coming here and young Millennials, who want to bike and walk, are arriving in numbers we’ve never seen before,” he says. “We are creating a city where your kids and grandkids will choose to stay. They used to go to Dallas or Houston.

“It turned out that one thing people — especially young people — wanted was better sidewalks,” Cornett explains. That’s why the city now builds new sidewalks as part of most repaving projects and kicks in half the cost for any homeowner or neighborhood that wants them. Developers are now required to provide sidewalks in all new projects. As for the $18 million earmarked for sidewalks from sales tax revenue, “most of it goes where we know we need sidewalks, connecting schools and shopping centers with neighborhoods,” the mayor says.


Walking and bike trails make more areas of the city accessible to pedestrians.

While most people consider walking essential to a good neighborhood, there’s still a lot of opposition. “We hear from those who say, ‘We don’t need sidewalks, because no one walks here,’” Cornett says, noting that the absence of sidewalks is a big reason people don’t walk.

The city is in the early stages of initiating a Safe Routes to Schools program, making it possible for more school kids to walk or bike, and a Vision Zero campaign, aimed at eliminating all traffic fatalities in the city, says Dennis Blind of the city’s planning department. The city also holds Open Streets events — festivals where a street is blocked off to vehicles so people of all ages can reclaim the streets (temporarily) as public space.

“We’ve come a long ways in a short time,” says Cristina Fernandez, who moved from Santa Monica — one of the most walkable communities in California — for an executive position at a local firm. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

Walkscore, which rates the walkability of any address in America, still ranks Oklahoma City in the lower 15 percent of cities over 200,000, which is nonetheless a big improvement over last place. The city’s low score can be partly explained by the fact that sprawling subdivisions, which would be classified as separate municipalities elsewhere, are inside the city limits here.

The epicenter of walking in Oklahoma City is downtown and nearby neighborhoods, which exhibit all the signs of urban vitality: sidewalk cafes, new loft apartments, refurbished old neighborhoods with local business districts, indie shops and restaurants, nightlife, sports and entertainment venues, well-populated parks, riverside bike trails, and sidewalks alive with people of all ages walking between all these spots.

An old warehouse district with a pedestrian promenade along a canal thrums with activity. A 70-acre central park is being developed that will connect downtown with a largely Latino neighborhood on the South Side via a new pedestrian bridge. A streetcar line debuts later this year that will loop through many of these neighborhoods. Protected bike lanes, which physically separate bicyclists and pedestrians from rushing traffic, will soon appear on major arteries coming in and out of downtown.

Oklahoma City’s mission now is to widen the walkable section of the city outward. Local transit service has been improved (including new Sunday and evening buses), resulting in a sizable jump in ridership. The Wheeler District, a new pedestrian-focused infill neighborhood south of downtown, breaks ground this year with plans to create 2000 homes.

North of downtown, things are already picking up. “You have a lot of young people moving into the area because they can walk,” says Fernandez, who lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Business districts scattered throughout this part of town, some of which once harbored crack houses and brothels, now flourish with restaurants and shops catering to local residents.

Fernandez, her husband and kids are still waiting for sidewalks on their street but already are walking more “because there are now more places to walk to.” An attractive streetscape to improve the pedestrian ambience of the Western Avenue business district near their home makes walking more fun.

“When we go anywhere in the neighborhood now, we usually go on foot,” she says.

Jay Walljasper writes regularly about public health and healthy communities. The former editor of Utne Reader, he is author of The Great Neighborhood Book. His website is JayWalljasper.com.

Top photo by Fotolia/justinbrotton

Middle photo by Fotolia/Laiotz

Bottom photo by Fotolia/lazyllama

The City as a Commons

The disaster with Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, incited by political leaders more devoted to fiscal austerity than the common good, illuminates why it’s important to think of our cities as commons — human creations that belong to all residents, not just the wealthy and politically well-connected.

The commons itself means all the many things we share together rather than own privately — a list that starts with air, water, parks and streets and expands to include more complex entities such as the Internet, civic organizations and entire communities.

Typically the commons evokes images of the countryside: sheep grazing on communally-tended pastures, people frolicking on a town green, untrammeled wilderness open to all. Even in the modern context, commons champion (and Nobel Prize winner) Elinor Ostrom is best known for research on the management of forests, fisheries and agricultural irrigation systems even though one of her important studies focused on police departments in metropolitan St. Louis.


Despite pastoral images of the commons, urban commons are much more widespread now.

Yet the recent resurgence of commons projects is happening in urban as well as rural areas, witnessed by the City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Good and City Governance conference held last November in Bologna, Italy — a city taking big steps to integrate commons-based collaboration into its own policies and operations (more on this below).

The strong pastoral association with the commons makes sense from an historical perspective. Individualism and market economics were embraced first in urban areas as enlightenment philosophies and industrialization spread throughout Europe and eventually the whole planet. It was in rural communities where cooperative traditions endured and in some cases expanded, said Dutch historian Tine De Moor, president of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, one of the conference sponsors. Cooperatives, for instance, grew up in the countryside of many nations during the 19th and 20th centuries because many rural communities’ needs could not be profitably met by private businesses.

In England, many villages once held Beating the Bounds parties in which folks hiked the boundaries of their local commons together, ripping out private encroachments on their collective land. US commons scholar David Bollier suggested urban and digital activists might update this custom to preserve commons of our own time.

The social alienation and crushing poverty associated with early industrial cities can be explained by the sudden loss of commons connections and resources by rural refugees forced off the land into factories, said Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives, based in Thailand. Cities lacked the free common spaces where people could raise food, gather firewood or gather outside with their neighbors. These human necessities must all be purchased.

The Rise of Urban Commons

Urban commons like parks, sanitation systems, public schools, public transit, libraries, hospitals, labor unions, private and public social welfare agencies emerged throughout the 19th century in response to squalid urban conditions. And the commons movement today stands on the shoulders of people’s continuing efforts to improve urban life by addressing issues like racial and economic inequality, environmental problems, neighborhood vitality, community organizing, walkability and biking.


Does a city belong to its business owners and legislature, to its people, or to a mixture of both?

“The city as a commons is designed to be disruptive — to question who owns and controls the city,” explained Sheila Foster, Fordham University Law Professor at a post-conference conversation convened in a bustling Bologna park by Shareable.net magazine. “It’s a claim that the city is open to how we exchange goods and services. It’s not just elites who should have power.”

“The idea of the urban commons is still very much in development,” said Foster, who wrote a groundbreaking paper on the city as commons with her conference co-chair Christian Iaione.

Foster outlined four major tenets of the city as commons in conference’s closing session:

• The city is an open resource where all people can share public space and interact.
• The city exists for widespread collaboration and cooperation.
• The city is generative, producing for human nourishment and human need.
• The city is a partner in creating conditions where commons can flourish.

What Does the Future Look Like?

The form urban commons might take over the next 25 years was vividly sketched by Berlin activist Silke Helfrich. She described a convivial community living according to the African philosophy of ubuntu (“I am because you are”). Many people live in cooperative co-housing communities, and work at home or co-working spaces. The streets are alive with people on foot, bike, transit and in shared cars. Every neighborhood proudly sports community vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, flower patches, herb commons, sanctuaries for birds and bees, greenspaces, cafés, a cultural center, library, ballroom and open source hub.

“The space of the commons will expand, and the space of the market will shrink,” Helfrich envisions, because systems are designed to allow commons to happen. Commoning will be as easy to do then as shopping is today.

The conference’s workshops zeroed in lessons learned from local urban commons projects around the world, including US inner cities.


Even in New York City, in Brooklyn, there are 596 acres of unused land available to create commons spaces.

A struggling neighborhood on the west side of Buffalo, New York became a laboratory for applying Elinor Ostrom’s eight commons principles to community revitalization efforts. Ronald Oakerson, a political scientist at nearby Houghton College, and Jeremy Clifton, an AmeriCorps organizer, experimented with how to activate low-income renters in tackling crime and disinvestment problems on their blocks.

“What doesn’t work is flyers and knocking on doors,” says Clifton, who is now studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  What worked is identifying the community’s natural leaders and helping them create block clubs. “People take action when they feel ownership, but not necessarily home ownership but ownership of the street where they live.”

In Brooklyn, local activist Paula Siegel discovered the borough harbored 596 acres of vacant land (more space than Brooklyn’s beloved Prospect Park). Under the banner of “this land is your land,” she launched 596 acres to explore how residents can claim it for public use as gardens, playgrounds and learning centers.

Barcelona is moving toward participatory democracy with new commons policies tapping citizen’s ideas “to create the conditions for social initiatives to flourish”, according to Miquel Ortega, the city’s Commissioner for Commerce, Consumer Affairs and Markets. Airbnb was recently banned in the city because it was jacking up rents in many residential neighborhoods and forcing families out in favor of tourists.

Hitting the Ground in Bologna

The City as Commons event, which attracted more than 200 commoners from around the world to a refurbished factory, closed with a panel featuring Bologna’s Deputy Mayor Matteo Lepore who outlined some of the more than 100 collaborative projects with citizen groups the city has undertaken in its pioneering plans to incorporate commons thinking and practice into municipal governance:

• Neighborhood regeneration projects, which he emphasized, are “not on behalf of citizens but with citizens, who are a great source of energy, talent, resources, capabilities and ideas.”
• An experiment where restaurants and bars work directly with neighbors to set rules for their businesses and cooperate on regenerating the community.
• A program to draw upon parents’ ideas and skills in improving kindergartens.
• A civic crowdfunding prototype to support projects that the city cannot wholly fund, such as restoration of Bologna’s 24 miles of arched porticoes over sidewalks.
• An ambitious program of urban gardens.
• Creation of digital platforms to support commons projects of all varieties.
• A citywide conversation “about what is collaboration, and how the city government can work in new ways.

“Commons aren’t just something we protect, but also what we invent,” declared Lepore.

Bologna’s urban commons initiative began in May 2014, when the city council passed landmark legislation, Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons. “A new era was dawning where citizens are active co-managers of the resources they use in cities instead of passive recipients of services,” wrote Neal Gorenflo in Shareable after visiting Bologna at the first anniversary of the project.

The origins of the idea date back to 2011 when a group of local women contacted the city about donating benches to their neighborhood park, which lacked any place to sit. The women grew frustrated as their generous offer was bounced from one municipal department to another until finally they were told it was impossible. In fact, it was illegal for citizens to contribute improvements to their hometown.

As one of Italy’s most progressive cities, home to Europe’s oldest university and with a regional economy based on cooperative enterprises, this incident caused a stir around Bologna and spurred city officials to partner with the Rome-based organization LabGov (Laboratory for the Governance of the Commons) which applies the work of Elinor Ostrom to city life. Conference co-chair Christian Iaione, a legal scholar, was instrumental in bringing the project to life. Similar projects sprouted in the Italian cities of Palermo, Montova, Battipaglia and Rome. In North America, Toronto is looking at implementing Urban Commons policies and LabGov is partnering Fordham Urban Law Center to launch a project in New York City.

Top photo by Fotolia/mimadeo

Middle photo by Fotolia/Sergei

Bottom photo by Fotolia/nikla

Kids' Questions on a Lockdown Planet

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch. 


Schools around the country prepare students for vocabulary tests and mass shooting drills alike.

"What did you do at school today, Seamus?" It’s a question I ask him every day.

"Well," my proud preschooler begins, "we did not have a lockdown drill today." And that’s about as far as he gets in the art of storytelling. Sometimes I'll get something about "bim" (gym) or how "Bambi" (Jeremy) pinched him during free play. But the thing that preoccupies my precocious three year old every single day he goes to school is the lockdown drill he and his classmates had in their first month of school.

At a parent-teacher conference in November, my husband Patrick and I got a fuller picture of this episode from his teacher. When the lockdown began, she says, Seamus and his classmates were in the hall on their way to the library. Amid the clangs, they sought refuge in the gymnasium closet. Eighteen kids and two teachers sitting crisscross applesauce on its floor amid racks of balls and hula hoops. Seamus, she tells us, sat on her lap with his fingers in his mouth and cried the entire time.

"Does he talk about it at home?" she asks.

"It’s as though nothing else happens at school," my husband replies. "He talks about lockdown drills all the time."

She informs us that the drills happen about once a month, and that Seamus remains easily startled long after they’re over, running for shelter between an adult's legs whenever he hears loud noises in the classroom.

At that moment — not exactly one of my proudest — I burst into tears. I just couldn’t square my son’s loving exuberance and confidence in the people around him with the sheer, teeth-hurting terror of children being stalked by an armed killer through the halls of The Friendship School. How, after all, do you practice for the unthinkable? This is a subject that’s been on my mind since I was hardly older than he is now. I look over at him playing contently with his sisters, Madeline, almost two, and Rosena, almost nine, so proud to share his classroom with them.

"At home," I tell the teacher through my tears, "we chant 'Gun Control, Not Lockdown Drills!' whenever he talks about them." And then I add, "It makes me so angry that he and his friends have to go through this trauma and the big men get to keep their right to bear assault weapons. He should be scared of lockdown drills. They sound terrible. He shouldn’t have to practice surviving a mass killing episode at one of his favorite places in the whole wide world." I wipe my tears away, but they just keep coming.

Our kids ask us all sorts of questions. Why? Why? Why? They are tiny existentialists. Why is the sky blue? Why do people die? Why does grass grow? They regularly demand that we explain the world to them. Good luck!

His teacher is so earnest and so young and I feel so brittle and so extreme as I cry, folded into one of the small seats at a quarter-sized table in her cheerful classroom. "I am sorry," I finally say.

"No, no, it’s okay," she replies with all the kind politeness a teacher learns. "It is hard," she continues, "but this is real. We have to practice for this kind of thing."

Thinking the Unthinkable

I wonder, of course. I know that so much of this is based on fears — not quite irrational but blown out of all proportion — that have been woven into our American world. My husband reminds me of how his parents' generation had to practice surviving a nuclear attack by doing "duck and cover" drills under their desks. I was too young to duck and cover, but my parents were ardent anti-nuclear activists with no inhibitions about describing to a child just what such a war would mean so I learned to be terrified of nuclear war at a very young age.

I came to believe that the only thing keeping Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles from decimating our cities was the activism, organizing, and witness of my parents and their small band of friends and fellow travelers. We would stand in front of the Pentagon — this was in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s — holding up signs with slogans like "You can't hide from a nuclear bomb" and the old symbol for a fallout shelter printed below it. I was taught that there could be no security, no safety in a world full of nuclear weapons, that the only way to be safe was to get rid of them.

Imagine how I feel all these years later in a world still chock-a-block full of such weapons. These days, I wonder why the fear of them has disappeared, while the weaponry remains. Is that better or worse for Seamus’s generation? And what about our present set of fears? What about our twenty-first-century whys?

Assuming there are more Adam Lanzas out there (and there obviously are), that more gun shops will sell ever more implements of rapid-fire death and destruction, and that more gun lobbyists and promoters will continue to cling to this "God-given, constitutionally enshrined right," my son does need to endure more lockdown drills.

The consensus of school security experts is certainly that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (only 80 miles from our house), would have been much worse if the students and teachers hadn't been practicing for exactly the nightmare scenario that struck on December 14, 2012.

But how can I explain any of this to my little boy when it makes no sense to me? When it makes no sense, period?

Why? Why? Why? As a kid, I got an earful every time I asked that question. My parents were comfortable exposing my brother, sister, and me to the horrors of our world. In first or second grade, my activist parents involved me in a UNICEF slide show about world hunger. We would go to churches and schools where I would recite the script, full of sad (and still, sadly, largely on the mark) statistics about how children throughout the world suffer from malnutrition. I could tell you why kids were hungry all over the world, since my mom had tacked on a conclusion to the slide show that lay the blame squarely on the U.S. military-industrial complex.

My parents did, however, try to protect me from what they found most fearsomely destructive in American life. We were not allowed to watch television, except for the evening news (somewhat less hysterical than today but no less bleak). Like any self-respecting American kid, I would always ask, "Why no TV?" and always get the same answer. “Because it teaches racism, sexism, and consumerism, because it fills your head with wants, because it gets in the way of your own imagination and creativity.”


Like nuclear fears in the 1970s, school shootings are relatively rare events that leave indelible impressions on our cultural consciousness.

So instead of Knight Rider or The Cosby Show, we watched black and white documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki projected onto our living room wall. I couldn’t tell you about the latest plot twists on Full House, but I could tell you why nuclear weapons were wrong. Those grainy images of destroyed cities, burnt skin, and scarred faces were etched into my young brain by the age of five. My heroines were two young anti-nuclear activists. Sadako Sasaki was a Japanese girl who contracted leukemia after the atomic bombing. She folded hundreds of paper cranes as a prayer for healing and peace before dying at the age of 12. Samantha Smith, a young girl from Maine, wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov with a plea for peace. He, in turn, invited her to tour the Soviet Union where she connected deeply with young Russians. She died in a plane crash at the age of 13.

I wonder now about my childhood fears. They helped me support and believe in the anti-nuclear work of my parents. But nightmares, morbid fascinations with young martyrs, a fixation on the tick-tockings of the Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsDoomsday Clock — these are not things that I want to pass on to the next generation. I guess I’m happy that they don’t know what nuclear weapons are (yet) and it’s one more thing I’m not looking forward to explaining to them.

The questions are already coming fast and furious these days and they are only going to multiply. We have to try — I have to try — to answer them as best we — I — can. It’s a precious facet of parenting, the opportunity to explain, educate about, and even expound upon the wonders and horrors of this world of ours, and it’s a heavy responsibility. Who wants to explain the hard stuff? But if we don’t, others surely will. In these early years, our kids turn to us first, but if we can’t or won’t answer their questions, how long will they keep asking them?

Why do we practice lockdown drills? Why do people kill kids? Why is there war? Why are all those weapons, the nuclear ones and the assault rifles alike, still here?

“Why Do the Police Kill People?”

At some preschools, it’s protocol to explain lockdown drills in terms of preparing in case a stinky skunk gets into the building. No one wants to get sprayed by a stinky skunk, do they?

Somehow, and I can’t tell you quite why, this seems to me almost worse than the truth. At Seamus' school, they don't talk explicitly about an armed intruder, but they do make a distinction between fire drills where they evacuate the building and "keeping safe from a threat" by "hiding" in it.

In the month since our parent-teacher meeting, Seamus has endured another lockdown drill and our country has continued to experience mass shooting events — San Bernardino and Colorado Springs being just the most horrific. While at breakfast, Patrick and I read the news about healthcare offices and social service agencies turned into abattoirs, and yet we speak about such things only in code over granola and yogurt. It’s as if we have an unspoken agreement not to delve into this epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings with our kids.

Still, it’s strange not to talk about this one subject when we talk openly in front of our children about so much else: Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian refugee crisis, hunger and homelessness, Guantánamo and climate change. We usually welcome their whys and jump over each other to explain. Patrick is much better at talking in a way that they can all take in. I forget myself easily and slip into lecture mode (next slide, please).

After the police killings of Lashano Gilbert (tased to death in our town of New London, Connecticut), Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, we took the kids to candlelight vigils and demonstrations, doing our best to answer all Seamus's questions. "Why do the police kill people?" followed, of course, by "Are they going to kill me?" Then we somehow had to explain white privilege to a three year old and how the very things that we encouraged in him — curiosity, openness, questioning authority — were the things black parents were forced to discourage in their sons to keep them from getting killed by police.

And then, of course, came the next inevitable "Why?" (the same one I’m sure we’ll hear for years to come). And soon enough, we were trying desperately to untangle ourselves from the essentially unintelligible — for such a young child certainly, but possibly the rest of us as well — when it came to the legacy of slavery and racism and state violence in explaining to our little white boy why he doesn't need to cry every time he sees a police officer.

And then came the next "Why?" and who wouldn’t think sooner or later that the real answer to all of his whys (and our own) is simply, “Because it’s nuts! And we’re nuts!” I mean, really, where have we ended up when our answer to him is, in essence: "Don't worry, you're white!"

And then, of course, there’s the anxiety I have about how he’ll take in any of this and how he might talk about it in his racially diverse classroom — the ridiculous game of "telephone" that he could play with all the new words and fragments of concepts rattling around in his brain.


Talking about mass shootings with children is frequently an exercise in a bizarre existentialism: "Why this?" and "Why now?"

My stepdaughter Rosena was a kindergartner when Adam Lanza killed those 20 little kids and six adults in their school just 80 miles west of us. Her school upped its security protocols, instituted regular drills, and provided parents and caregivers with resources on how to talk to their children about what happened. For five and six year olds, they advised not initiating such a conversation, nor allowing them to watch TV or listen to the radio news about the massacre. (Not exactly the easiest thing in our 24/7 media moment.) They also suggested responding to questions only in the most general terms. Basically, we were to sit tight and hope our kids didn’t get enough information to formulate a why.

Good luck on that these days, but sometimes I do wish the same for myself. No news, sit tight, and pretend nothing’s going on. After all, like so many of our present American fears, the fear that my kids are going to be gunned down in their classrooms is pretty irrational, right? Such school shootings don’t exactly happen often. Just because one did occur relatively near here three years ago doesn't mean pre-schools and elementary schools are systematically under attack, yes?

Unlike so many people on this planet, we don’t live in a war zone (if you put aside the global destructiveness of nuclear weapons). And given the yearly figures on death-by-vehicle in this country, my kids are unbelievably safer in school, any school, than they are in the back seat of my own car any day of the week, right?

Of course, there’s another problem lurking here and it’s mine. I’m not there. My three-year-old son is having scary experiences and I’m not there to walk him through them. And then there are those lockdown drills and what they are preparing him for. They couldn’t be creepier. They’re a reminder not just to our children but to their parents that, after a fashion, we may indeed be living in a kind of war zone. In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,636 people were killed by guns in this country; in that same year, 127 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.

Some Questions Are Easier Than Others

Why is the sky blue? I have no idea, but it takes only a minute of Googling to find out that it has something to do with the way air molecules scatter more blue light than red light. Why do people die? Because no one can live forever, because they get sick and their bodies get old and their organs don't work anymore and then we cry because we miss them and love them, but they live on, at least until our own memories go. Why does grass grow? Well, Google it yourself.

The problem, however, is with the most human of questions, the ones that defy Googling and good sense — or any sense we may have of the goodness of humanity. And maybe, kids, we just have to wrestle together with those as best we can in this truly confusing world.

And keep one thing in mind: the very same litany of questions our kids never stop asking and that we struggle to answer, or wonder whether to answer at all, is always running like some strange song through our own adult heads as well, largely unanswered.

Why this particular world? Why this particular way? Why now?

Why? Why? Why?

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Frida Berrigan

Top photo by Fotolia/Monkey Business

Middle photo by Fotolia/vician_petar

Bottom photo by Fotolia/mario beauregard

Carbon-Free Commute in the Sky: Can London Finally be Safe for Cyclists?

The concept of a bicycle-only expressway sounds like a cyclist’s futuristic daydream, but a team in London hopes to make a real-life network of elevated bike paths in a city notorious for dangerous cycling conditions.

SkyCycle began as the student project of an employee at the London landscape architecture firm Exterior Architecture. The company’s owner says the concept became the office “hobby” until an elevator encounter with Mayor Boris Johnson gained his instant support. The proposal, backed by Network Rail and Transport for London, is the joint venture of Exterior Architecture, Space Syntax, and Foster and Partners. The Foster in question is, of course, Sir Norman Foster, the prolific designer of the Hearst Tower in Manhattan and London’s Millennium Tower.

SkyCycle routes would eventually comprise of 135 miles of bicycle-only tracks constructed on platforms above the overground rail line. Fully realized, the 10-route network could accommodate up to 12,000 cyclists per hour. The first proposed route would run from Stratford in east London to the central Liverpool Street Station, a four-mile stretch that comes with a $250 million price tag, arguably SkyCycle’s most difficult imminent hurdle.

Mayor Boris Johnson is no stranger to taking on ambitious bike-friendly projects. In 2013, he publicized plans to spend over $1 billion on cycling infrastructure in the next decade. Johnson oversaw the implementation Barclays Cycle Hire, the city-wide bike share program known colloquially as “Boris Bikes,” though initially proposed by his predecessor Ken Livingston. Much like CitiBike in New York City, Boris Bikes have caused their share of backlash, and even namesake and backer Barclays is planning to step away from the program in 2015.

Another of Livingstone’s proposals expanded by Johnson is the network of “cycle superhighways,” London’s bright blue bike lanes that have garnered a mixed reception. Unlike SkyCycle, the superhighways require cyclists to constantly interact with other traffic and pedestrian activity. Making room for cyclists this way is an often dangerous give and take between pedestrians, cars, construction and public transportation. Some even blame superhighways for creating a false sense of security for cyclists, and the death of a 20 year-old woman riding a Boris Bike in one of the superhighways has done little to quell safety concerns.

It’s not hard to make a case for SkyCycle. The number of daily bike trips in London doubled from 2000 to 2012, according to studies by Transport for London. Like many things in the most expensive city on the planet public transit isn’t cheap. A recent rail price increase means that some London commuters will face annual costs of up to $5700. London is also a notoriously dangerous city for cyclists. The congested streets notoriously claimed six lives in a two-week timespan back in 2013, and Johnson himself experienced what he called a “near miss” while cycling.

Necessity and civic backing aside, innovating transportation in old cities is still an uphill battle. London was recently crowned the most expensive city in the world to build in, and construction crews must account for centuries-old infrastructure and the occasional discovery of ancient artifacts. Though SkyCycle would utilize existing rail lines, it is still an ambitious and expensive solution. The growing pains of bringing metropolitan spaces into a greener and more efficient future can be overwhelming. Progress, as usual, is far from painless.

Image provided by Foster and Partners 

Righting Wrongs Without Retaliation

That a perpetrator fairly pays for his actions is the aim of most modern legal systems, including the United States’. May the punishment fit the crime, every time. And for the most part, it appears people are on board with this narrowed concept of justice, as previous research tends to show strong numbers demonstrating a common desire to punish offenders. One study even revealed that people are willing to forgo up to three month’s salary to ensure a perpetrator is dealt with fairly.

But forget the bad guy for a second and consider the victim instead, because studies rarely do. Typically researchers provide its participants with only two options: punish the transgressor or accept the transgressions—“an eye for an eye” or “turn the other cheek." One study, however, chose to offer a non-punitive path to justice by focusing on the needs of the victim, and found that 9 out of 10 participants preferred compensating the victim to punishing the offender. Further evidence supporting this alternative approach to justice are the programs that prioritize victims’ needs while encouraging communication with the perpetrators, which tend to have the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.

When righting a wrong is left to a third-party judge or jury instead of to the victim, however, the change in perspective proved to breed a more unforgiving attitude. A series of follow-up studies had participants act like juries by having them either punish the offender, compensate the affected, or both, despite having no “skin in the game.” As third parties, they proved to be more vindictive than as victims, choosing the most retributive option of simultaneous punishment and reward.

But our system thrives on third-party sentiments, where a victim’s opinion is considered partial and therefore dismissed in the deliberation process. Those who conducted the study wrote in Scientific American, “Our notion of justice seems to depend on where we stand. This leaves us with a challenge: there may be a gap between what we as victims want, and what third parties decide for us, calling into question our blind reliance on the putative impartiality of judges and juries.”

When considering other studies—such as Harvard’s findings that rewarding others boosts cooperation more than punishment does, or a paper suggesting that restoring justice by punishment only increases one’s desire to punish—the sociologists concluded that “punishment, while certainly desirable in some instances, should not always be considered the gold standard of justice restoration.”

Image by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons.

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