2013 Field School San Francisco (Bay Area)


After a long, 16 hour train ride from Eugene, we finally made it to Emeryville, California, USA, where we hopped on a bus to take us to the fabulous San Francisco. We were then released out into the city for lunch before reconvening in the Yerba Buena Gardens, where we gave our group presentation about San Francisco.


Grinding Our Gears:

One of the most exhilarating experiences our group had in San Fran was a 11.4 mile tour through the city across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito. Keeping with the theme of sustainability we took to the streets on rented bicycles. A map of our tour can be found below.

What was explained to us as a 20 minute flat ride to a taco stand turned into two hours of sweat, hills, and a lot of laughs. A notable moment from the ride was a headwind around the second post of the bridge which was so strong that it stopped us in our tracks, and nearly blew some riders over. The group was fortunate enough to see harbor seals and pelicans in the landscape as we rode along. Biking the Golden Gate is a must when visiting San Francisco!


Daydreaming on the Golden Gate Bridge:


After being reunited with my hometown, I finally got to establish my sense of place whilst fighting the wind on the Golden Gate Bridge.  I found myself caught between the majesty of human innovation embodied by the bridge, and the supernatural landscape surrounding it.  This dichotomy was ultimately distracting as the wind almost blew me off the edge!  Joking aside, I did not hold the human landscape above nature nor vice versa.  To me, this is an essential component to sustainability.  This implies the struggle between the economy, issues of social justice, and proper resource management.   One can’t focus on the economy without considering the impacts on resources just as one can’t justify the displacement of indigenous/local populations with the establishment of a natural protected area.  Yes, after 3 weeks of Cascadia Field School, these were my ACTUAL thoughts swirling in my head.  It has taught me to think critically by quelling my cynicism and lazy-induced optimism, and instead pry everyday activities with critical questions of sustainable living.  We also discussed the concept of the distinct region of Cascadia as being ground zero for sustainable initiatives. Perhaps I’m biased as I have always wanted to reconnect with the place I only inhabited for a few months following my birth, but I would argue that San Francisco is the southernmost city in the Cascadia region.  Despite differences in vegetation, climate, and physical geography, the bay area deserves its place in Cascadia through inspiring community building witnessed in West Oakland, through familiar Victorian architecture, through the nationwide educational tool via Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff”, and through its tendency to draw in left-wing, creative, engaged, and active citizens.  



Touring the city by bike was ideal in a group of 15 because we were moving slow enough to really feel the local vibrancy and  also efficiently cover a large area. Many commuters and recreational riders were using the bridge and adjoining pathways to get from A to B. However, navigating through crowds at the Fishermans Warf and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations proved to be stressful and challenging. Improvements can be made to make bike travel more safe and efficient in high traffic areas. One of the major barriers to biking in San Fran is that bike lanes seem to start and stop without warning in different neighborhoods. Bikes and busses commonly share slower lanes in downtown San Francisco and the bus drivers can be quite aggressive asserting their right of way. A better solution to safely accommodate all types of travelers could be to separate bike and bus lanes, like we saw in Portland. A diagram of Portlands road use management, which shows bike lanes in the traditional fast lane (left), can be found below.


You will notice that bikes and busses are separated to reduce hazards that can occur as bikers travel at a slower pace and busses routinely stop. To improve biking efficiency in the downtown touristy areas, like Fishermans Wharf, a two way bike lane could be inserted into the one way streets like we saw around the University of Oregon in Eugene. Increased efficiency might also encourage more people to commute on bikes then in cars.  


People’s Grocery: An Oasis In America’s Largest Food Desert

Our second day began with an interactive tour of the California Hotel Garden in West Oakland which is an initiative branching off from the People's Grocery (http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/). Larry Davis and his assistant, Lissa Vandereck gave us a tour of the facility which featured hydroponic gardening, permaculture and biointensive fields, a greenhouse, an outdoor kitchen, and a chicken coop.


The neighbourhood of West Oakland has a history of displacement by large development projects and racism which has resulted in the area to be redlined by the banks. With no investments, the neighbourhood soon became an area of disrepair lacking necessary goods and services including access to food, creating what is known as a food dessert. Thus, the Peoples' Grocery set up the garden as a learning tool for the community and the California Hotel residents as well as a step towards food justice. Lissa stressed the term food justice rather than food security or sovereignty because food is deeply intertwined with social justice issues.

West Oakland continues to be in a state of disrepair and in order to restore community, residents and California Hotel residents are given an access code where they can come and go as they please. In a community dealing with high rates of poverty and crime this is a large step towards giving ownership back to the people.  Similar to the rebuilding center, the california hotel gardens has low economic returns and may have a questionable business model, but retains its integrity through empowering its staff/participanties.


In addition striving for food justice in terms of providing food, the garden has also set up a program called Flavas of the Garden with an outdoor kitchen right on site. The lessons and facilities are free to the community and seems like an ideal method to promote urban food sustainability, and healthier diets.  The cobb oven was built by the community in order to teach about sustainable building materials and cooking within the means of your garden. What is special about the cobb oven at the People's Grocery is that it was made largely by recycled or waste materials that the organization acquired for free. This was done intentionally because they wanted it to be a replicable example to the community. Empowerment and stories were created when building the cobb oven, and relationships were made between community members.


Throughout our tour of the Cascadia region, we have witnessed and interacted with several community gardens and have come to learn that, if done well, they can be social hubs and centers for community gathering. Sustainability, as we have come to learn, is not just about the ecological side; social and economic sustainability are equally intertwined into this conversation. The greenhouse is used for plant sales at the farmers' market which fits into their enterprise model as a health + wealth organization; the murals throughout the garden, and outside the garden walls make the space inviting to the community while combatting littering; the Flavas of the Garden program also empowers people to grow and cook food for themselves.


One of the challenges that the garden faces is a lack of manual labour which is why permaculture is an ideal setup, being a low labour and low resource intensive method. The latter half of the morning was spent giving back to the community by providing manual labour and weeding in the permaculture field and greenhouse. Another challenge many of the NGO’s we have spoken with on our trip is funding. The People's Grocery recognizes that relying on government grants and donations is not economically sustainable in to the future. For this reason the organization opted to not be considered a non-profit, but rather take the money made from plant and vegetable sales and reinvest in the gardens.


From Rags to Riches:

The second half of our day was spent in complete contrast to West Oakland in the town of Berkely California. We travled on the BART to meet with Allison Cook from The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com/‎).

Annie founded the non-profit Story of Stuff Project in 2008 to respond to tens of thousands of viewer requests for more information and ways to get involved in combating hyperconsumerism and waste. the organization creates short, easily shareable online movies that explore some of the key features of our relationship with Stuff—including how we can make things better. they provide high quality educational resources and programs to everyone from teachers and people of faith to business and community leaders.


She explained that when the movie was made in 2007 it was intended to be a one time informational video for organizers to use to put waste and consumerism on the radar. Little did they know that a bunch people were really interested in talking about waste and consumerism and that The Story of Stuff would continue on into 2013. This is of particular relevance to us on this field school as we dare to invision a better future and hopefully start our own sustainability initatives.


One of the take home messages from the talk with Allison was that environmentalists need to do a better job of communicating with people; translating the message into a form that they can understand and identify with. Currently, the common ground between people is the general knowledge that there is a problem with a barrier of not knowing where to start and how to get engaged.


Allison framed our society's mindset into two categories: the consumer muscle and the citizen muscle. The citizen muscle works on how we engage to collectively make change; living in the moment, remembering that we are all human and not just consumers. Our current framework pushes and encourages the consumer muscle and uses GDP as one of the measurements of success. as a generation it has become clear that we will be one of the first generations to be less monetarily successful as our parents. The discussion of homeownership has came up at this point, and we also heard from Matt Hern in Vancouver about homeownership as a potential relic of the past. As a cohort we have learned to question many of the traditional societal structures we have been raised to believe and support. Unlearning the unsustainable standards of success, like homeownership, has been a particular challenge of the group.


Currently, there is a gap in the market to equip people with the skills they need to invoke change and the Story of Stuff Project is working on programs, using media as an organizing tool, to turn up the volume on these types of conversations. Another great point she made, was knowing how to talk to the audience, translating the message into a form more relatable. In terms of sustainability, careful thought should go into the design and beauty of the initiative.  Otherwise, the targeted audience will be too small for significant change.  The Story of Stuff sacrificed the scholarly beauty/jargon which only reached out to a small academic community.  Annie Leonard realized this limitation and translated the important information regarding the consequences of our lifestyle into a simplified cartoon.  Because of this dynamic approach, The Story of Stuff is arguably the most influential initiative we’ve seen on this trip.  It is also imperative to conceptualize sustainability as a process, a horizon that we can only strive for.  Progressive change can be impeded if one thinks they’ve achieved sustainability.  Instead, a constant reminder that anything can and must be improved is a more enticing idea.  


Often times,barriers environmentalists face are around working to change people but perhaps this is not the most feasible and energy should be spent on the large number of those that are already on board. "Sometimes it is worth preaching to the choir because so many people are already attending church" - Allison Cook.


And They All Lived Happily Ever After:


Cascadia is anthropogenically constructed region made up of abundant natural resources, left wing politicians, coastal first nations, and creative counter cultures. Cascadia is also a hotbed of environmentalism and sustainability initiatives. when we began this trip we were asked to question the validity of a Cascadian region. Our group has come to the conclusion that the regions is socially constructed and that the boundaries of this arbitrary region are subjective to who is defining them. There are compelling physical and cultural arguments to assert Cascadia as a region, but fixating on the definition of boundaries might take away from the framework that gave Cascadia its sustainable relevance. Ideally Cascadia should serve as a model for sustainable centers in different locations, but relying on this may be a lost cause. The potential and abundance we have seen in Cascadia is not present throughout the rest of North America and many of the experiences we have had here could not be possible in other locations. For example, the Canadian plains may not have the demographic or biotic conditions to support sustainable practices like urban agriculture in all seasons. Rather than focus on the validity of Cascadia our group thinks it is more important to look at the take home messages and themes of sustainability that can be translated and applied in the real world.


San Francisco, CA
United States


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