Inside Green: Greening the City, From the Inside Out

Spider plant from Inside Green

As our cities move upward and inward, with concrete replacing much of the green space that intertwined traditional neighbourhoods, we risk losing more than just a little elbow room. Urban green spaces are the only connection some of us have to nature and when they’re farther and fewer between, we may lose that connection altogether.

At the same time, social disconnection in our cities is increasing. The Vancouver Foundation‘s Connections and Engagement report has become famous for exposing the loneliness and social isolation that many Vancouverites feel and its findings highlight the challenges of finding community in this city and others.

Sue Biely was well-aware of these issues, but she was focused on solving another problem: resistance to climate change action. There is a gap between the science and the action taken by governments and at climate summits. There’s an even larger gap in the understanding of the urgency of these issues between climate change experts and much of the world’s populace, especially in privileged regions of the world.

She began wondering, “What would be the minimum intervention that could increase awareness of environmental issues?” Activism and larger interventions won’t have an impact on people who don’t, in her words, have a lived, visceral connection to the natural world.

She was also looking for an additive intervention, as most of what we’re told around climate change action is what we shouldn’t be doing. What kind of small action would add to someone’s life, while connecting them to the planet?

Sue Biely of Inside Green
Image courtesy of Inside Green

“A wacky idea that took a while to articulate.”

Eventually, Sue found the inspiration she needed in her own home. As someone who travelled for work for many years, her first act upon returning home would be to check in on her plants. Her attachment to her plants was the genesis of Inside Green, leading her to wonder what impact plants could have as an additive intervention in city-dwellers’ lives, first as vehicles to increase climate change awareness and later as a method of increasing green space and social connection in urban environments.

From there, the idea of creating a web of plant stewards across Vancouver grew into a pilot project, funded by a grant from Arts BC and Creative BC. Inside Green started with a website and 400 plants that were selected by Brian Minter, who chose 10 plant varieties that are easy to look after and easily propagatable. Sue said she was especially thrilled to have him on board, as she’d grown up listening to him on the radio, which helped to develop her own love of plants.

Inside Green Plant Stewards
Image courtesy of Inside Green

A network of plants.

The first questions they wanted to answer were whether or not people would want to become part of a network of plant stewards across the city and then, what percentage of those people would propagate their plants.

After an initial test with friends and family, they took the project to Vancouver Farmers Markets. Just as Brian Minter had, they understood the project’s mission right away and allowed them to book community tables at four of their markets, in parts of the city that are the most urbanized. The response was overwhelming.

There are now 500 Inside Green plants in the City of Vancouver, with a 30% propagation rate thus far, and with some plants in their third generation. That more than answers their initial questions.

Over the next six months, Inside Green will be asking a host of new questions and exploring avenues for funding and expanding the project. The hope is that Inside Green will spread to cities across the world, but they like to have local impacts as well. Their first round of containers for the plants, which act as “cribs” for plant propagation, were made from tomato cans that were removed from the waste stream in a Yukon community that has the capacity to collect recyclable materials, but has nowhere to send them on for recycling. They’re also looking at working with the local binners program to collect and prepare cans, going forward.

Another initiative they’re testing is using proceeds from corporate gifting of Inside Green plants to fund plants for low-income people in places like social housing or seniors’ facilities. Making green space available to as many people as possible, regardless of socio-economic status, is something Inside Green is keen to explore.

It will be interesting to see where they’ve taken the project a year from now.

Arachne the spider plant

“Everybody deserves to have something to nurture.”

Most of us know that houseplants improve the air quality in your home, pulling out pollutants and carbon dioxide, while replenishing the air with oxygen and water vapour. They also calm the mind and provide some of the same mood and health benefits as taking a walk in the woods. As Sue points out, “people relax, heal faster, and learn better” when they live and work with plants in their spaces.

But it’s another one of plants’ benefits that is key to their role in Inside Green. They provide their stewards with an opportunity to nurture and intimately interact with a living thing. This is something that is becoming rarer in this city and in urban environments around the globe. In Vancouver, it can be nearly impossible to find pet-friendly accommodations, private outdoor green space is being eliminated with every new development, and the wait lists for community gardens can make them seem like a retirement dream.

For Sue, the idea that, in ten or twenty years, many people may have no visceral connection to how nature works is sobering. But houseplants provide an intervention against alienation from nature, one that works in the most urban of environments, across economic circumstances. Caring for a plant requires attention to natural cycles, as plants grow at their own pace, with active and dormant periods. Inside Green’s plant stewards create a relationship with their plant that gives them a reason to connect – with their plant, with other people who have Inside Green plants from the same propagation lineage, and ultimately, with nature and the environment.

To join Inside Green’s network of plant stewards, start here. Alternatively, you can make friends with one of the many plant stewards who have plant babies on the way. Once my plant babies are ready to leave the nest, I’ll be sharing a follow up post, on my experience as a plant steward, another steward’s thoughts, and more.

Thanks to Sue Biely and Regan Gorman of Inside Green, for taking the time to talk to me about the project.

I learned about Inside Green from a friend who became a Plant Steward on a visit to Farmers Market. I reached out to them for interviews and signed up to be a Plant Steward. No compensation was received for this piece.

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How to Cook a Book

Cookbooks I love

If you’re like me, you have shelves full of cookbooks, many of which look as pristine as the day you bought them. Even those of us who love to cook get distracted by busy lives and rely on the same handful of recipes, when we’re not getting take out. We all have dog-eared, bedraggled cookbooks that are full of stains, notes, and barely attached pages. We’ve learned the rhythms of the author’s techniques, stocked our pantry with the book’s basics, and have grown confident enough to improvise or adapt when needed.

It can be hard for new books to compete. Though they may be full of bookmarks from the first read through, they’re often neglected after the first one or two recipes, probably because there’s another new cookbook to peruse on the night stand. Cookbook clubs, online or off, offer a way to ensure you’re making the most of a cookbook while helping create a community of like-minded cooks.

I’ve been blogging through cookbooks since 2010 and it’s built community for me along with kitchen chops. If you’re considering joining a cook-along group, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Be True to Yourself

There’s no right way to write a cook-along post. Some people chart their experience with each recipe step-by-step. Others connect their assignments to stories and memories. You might be interested in writing about the roots of ingredients, recipes, or cuisines. Another blogger might weave these meals into an ongoing record of their lives. It’s not just structure that makes a blogging group work, it’s creativity.

Pros: Finding your voice is an enormous part of what makes blogging worthwhile.

Cons: If you’re struggling to find an angle, you won’t connect with your project or your readers.

Be Consistent

Make a commitment, whether that’s to cook every single recipe in the book or to participate every second month. Whether your goal is to make better use of your cookbooks, get into the kitchen more often, or begin a writing practice, you’ve got to have some structure. Your schedule doesn’t need to be precisely the same as your cook-along group’s schedule, you just have to find what works for you and stick to it.

Pros: Finding a schedule that works for you takes things from whim to project.

Cons: When things get tough, the tough get writer’s block.

Be Flexible

Illness, vacation, or work crunches can cause your cook-along to take a back seat. Don’t worry – that’s what ‘catch up’ lists are for. Your family’s health restrictions or food preferences might not fit with every recipe. Adapt the recipe, make one or some of the components, or skip it altogether. There’s no such thing as a cookbook that’s tailored to your needs and tastes precisely, unless it’s your own. If you can’t make a project work with your life, it’s not going to work at all.

Pros: If you’re too rule-oriented, you might not enjoy yourself.

Cons: If you’re too flexible, you just might find you’ve stopped.

Be Accessible

It can be frustrating to read through a post and find out that the only way to comment is to sign up for a third party commenting system – consider relaxing your restrictions a little and rely on spam filters or moderation a bit more. If it’s too hard to comment, your fellow cooks may give up trying. In a similar vein, when you’re posting your link for an assigned recipe, make sure it’s a link to the post itself, not your blog. If you’re not getting comments, it could be that folks got frustrated trying to find the right blog entry.

Pros: Being part of the conversation is what makes cook-along groups tick.

Cons: Managing spam can be time-consuming.

Be Generous

Comment on everyone’s blog, whether their following is large or small, even if you think you’d never cross paths in your offline lives. When done well, every exchange is a gift, allowing participants to learn from each other, have fun, and even form real-life friendships. Don’t be the person who doesn’t reciprocate – in the end, you’ll be the one who won’t want to stick around.

Pros: This is how you build online community.

Cons: If you’re part of a big cook-along, you’re going to have to schedule time for commenting, as well as cooking, photography, and writing.

Be Open

What started as a cook-along project for you might morph into developing your own recipes, writing reviews of cookbooks or restaurants, or spur your creative urges in another direction entirely. There’s value in participating in one of these groups from beginning to end, but there’s also much to be gained from joining mid-stream, or letting go of the group when your interests change.

Pros: Following the direction of your creative energies will keep your output fresh.

Cons: When you’re ready to move on, you’ll have to work harder to maintain the community you’ve created.

After all of that, you might be wondering, where do I sign up? There are a wealth of cook-along groups out there. Search by cookbook, cuisine, or meal and you’ll be sure to find some. To get you started, here are links to the groups I’m currently participating in:

And if the idea of joining an online cook-along just doesn’t appeal to you, don’t despair. That’s not the only way to cook a book.

Want to go your own way?

Chart your own course through your cookbook shelves, like Ei, of the Cookbook Immersion Project. Make your blog into a record of your hits and misses, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve yet to master. With no deadlines or requirements, you can visit and re-visit the books on your shelves as you see fit.

Pros: Explore your cookbook library at your own pace, according to your own tastes.

Cons: If you’re not a self-starter, you might be back at square one.

Not online? No problem!

Cookbook clubs are the new potlucks, according to a wave of recent media trend watching. Recruit a cadre of home cooks and plan regular dinners, with each participant bringing a dish from a cookbook you’ve chosen. Unlike other book clubs, the meat of the discussion is right on the table.

Pros: A delicious, multi-course meal, made by many hands. Conversation, conviviality, and analysis. No pressure to document each dish photographically or otherwise.

Cons: People are coming over! If a meal isn’t documented on the internet, did it really happen?

Once you’ve found your way, you’ll be a more skilled, more creative, more adventurous cook. Just don’t neglect those old favourites completely. Never repeating a recipe can be as much of a fault as making the same ones over and over.

Operation Whirlwind – A Holiday Inspiration Pass Adventure

Pass

December is a busy month, with year-end gatherings, holiday celebrations, and special events. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, baking and cooking in anticipation of Christmas, but the holidays took me out of the house just as much.

This year, though, I had an extra reason for running from one side of the city to the other. After waiting more than three years, it was finally my turn to receive Vancouver Public Library‘s Inspiration Pass. Mine came into effect on December 9th, giving me until just before Christmas to visit as many of the attractions available as possible.

Beatty

Considering the time of year, I think I did quite well. I skipped the garden tours, as the weather was stormy for most of the time I had the pass. I also skipped the Park Board offerings, choosing to concentrate on museums, exhibitions, and performances.

I went to UBC one day, Vanier Park another, then tried to fit in as many of the others as I could.

Aquarium

Some of the highlights:

Speaking of c̓əsnaʔəm, it was very instructive to visit so many exhibits on First Nations culture in a short space of time. The Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Vancouver had sister exhibitions that explored the reclamation of the c̓əsnaʔəm village site by the Musqueam people, with a third exhibit showing at the Musqueam Cultural Centre gallery (which I’ve not yet seen). The MOA and MOV exhibits centre the voices of Musqueam people, while taking responsibility for their institutions’ role in recasting the belongings of a living people as the artifacts of a dead culture.

Anthropology

At the Museum of Anthropology, in particular, there is an ever-increasing emphasis on the institution as a repository rather than a collection. On the tour I took part in, the guide emphasized that the rights and stories of the items we viewed still belonged to the families who produced them. It’s a welcome change from the museum tours of my childhood, which presented them as the remnants of a vanished culture. They’ve also transformed the way their vast holdings from around the world are presented, collecting and displaying European artifacts in a manner that does not hold them above or apart from those of any other culture.

So, when I made my way to the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was very glad to learn that there was an exhibit of coastal First Nations art there, too. The pieces displayed were part of an unexpected gift to the VAG, which has extremely limited holdings of First Nations pieces. There was an acknowledgement to that effect and on one side of the exhibition floor, strong contemporary pieces by Robert Davidson were allowed to stand alone. On the other, historical pieces were paired with vast photographs by Christos Dikeakos serving as commentary. It felt like the VAG was very much at the beginning of the process that’s been undertaken by MOV and MOA. Even the exhibition notes felt sparse in comparison to those for the exhibitions on the floors below, especially those for the show that centred artists like the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, with a number of works that were dominant culture observations of First Nations coastal communities and cultural productions.

The closeness of my visits highlighted these issues, which then followed me to Roedde House, a museum that recreates a middle class Victorian family’s environment. This was an unexpected benefit of the Inspiration Pass and a welcome one.

The downside of getting the pass when I did was that I was only able to go to one performance, as my loan period extended into the Christmas week closure of many performance groups. However, those who get the pass in the off-season can’t see performances, either, so I’m not complaining.

Victorian

I’ll end with a few observations:

  • I’d love to see the pass program extended to some of our smaller institutions, like theatre companies and repertory cinemas. One of the goals of the pass is to encourage Vancouverites to get subscriptions to our cultural institutions, so it would be nice to bring up the profile of these ones. I could envision one choice being a movie at either Vancity Theatre or The Cinamatheque and another being one play from a list of theatre companies.
  • In the same vein, I’d like to see the program stretch a little further into East Vancouver. The volunteers I spoke to at the Beatty Museum of Biodiversity had never heard of The Cultch, can you imagine? Let’s get Westsiders to cross the city, too.
  • Since performance groups largely shut down during the warmer months, it might be nice to have the option to go to a baseball or soccer game instead.
  • Finally, I’d like to see some more flexibility from some of the participating institutions on how groups of four are made up. Goh Ballet allows four adults to come to a performance, but the Vancouver Symphony insists that only two adults and two children can be allowed as a group of four. For those of us who have elderly parents and grown up children, nieces, or nephews, that’s a shame. It also doesn’t take into account non-generational families and groups of friends. I’d like to see that change.

Planetarium

Many of the people I know had no idea that the Inspiration Pass was available to any resident of Vancouver with a VPL card. I’m not sure I should have told them, because they’ve all put a hold on it. There are eight passes per library branch and the number of holds keeps creeping upward. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach 1,000 for each branch before long.

I’ve put another hold on the Inspiration Pass at my local branch. I estimate I’ll get it again in three-and-a-half to four years. Luckily, my partner has a hold on one, too. He’ll get it in two years or so. That’s not so long to wait.

Yes In My Back Yard

  

As we get closer to the holidays, hamper drives, toy collections, and cold weather clothing donations are on the public radar. But the rest of the year, though the need remains, donations subside, until the holidays come again.

That’s why year-round gestures can make such a difference. Starting a spring or summer food drive, making monthly donations to a food bank or shelter, donating clothing and other wishlist items to places like Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter – these are a few of the ways that can help people stay healthier and safer throughout the year.

Day-to-day gestures matter too, like Nelson the Seagull‘s suspended coffee program. Not only do they get food or a hot drink into the hands of someone who would otherwise go without, but it also keeps year-long needs in the public consciousness. And it benefits people who are often shut out of participation, or even acknowledgement, in the neighbourhoods where they live. The opportunity to be seen as a customer instead of a problem is no small thing. It opens the door to conversation and comfort, in place of isolation.

Today, while meeting a friend for coffee on Commercial Drive, I noticed that Renzo’s Coffee was participating in a pay-it-forward project created by four students through the City Studio program. Yimby Vancouver is a week-long experiment in paying it forward at four Commercial Drive cafés.

  
It’s not just about coffee, either. You can pay for any menu item, have it noted on one of Yimby’s cards, and pin it up on the board outside the café. Then, someone in need can turn the card in at the register.

I’d love to see this become a permanent program at businesses on the Drive and throughout the city. For now, you can participate until November 28th at Renzo’s, Eternal Abundance, Café du Soleil, and Babylon Café.

G-W Portraits: Trevor & Rowan Whitridge

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I’ve often said that there is art being made all around this neighbourhood, but much of it isn’t apparent. This has been a popular neighbourhood for artists, performers, writers, and makers over the years, but you don’t necessarily know which of your neighbours is a mid-list novelist and which is an accountant for an eco-trust.

Music is different. It wafts down alleyways and across parks, catches your ear as you pass by a coach house practice space, and greets you on sidewalks and plazas. We know who the musicians in our neighbourhood are. When I lived a few blocks away from where I do now, there was a jazz singer across the alley who’d have regular jams in her apartment. Sometimes, I see people I know congregating in the Napier Greenway as part of one band or another. And I always enjoyed hearing my neighbours’ sons practicing as I walked home.

As it turns out, Rowan and Trevor Whitridge have been accomplished professional musicians for a number of years now. They were kind enough to talk to me about their music and what they love about this neighbourhood a few days ago.

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You can find out what Trevor and Rowan are up to, along with their upcoming gigs, on their website: The Whitridge Brothers

Here are a few of the places where they play:

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Jazz Vespers at St. Andrew’s Wesley

VSO School of Music: The Big Band

Capilano University

And you can find out more about the community book exchanges Rowan mentioned in this article.

You can find the rest of the interviews in this series here: G-W Portraits

G-W Portraits: Graham Anderson

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I don’t do weekly grocery shops, as I might if I lived in the suburbs. Living near Commercial Drive, I have the luxury of shopping daily (or nearly so), making decisions about what I have for dinner based on what looks best at the markets.

Our primary grocery store is East End Food Co-op. We can get most of the staples and ingredients we need there, while supporting a co-operative business that has great labour standards and keeps its profits in the community. They focus on fair trade, local, and organic products as much as possible, while providing as wide a variety of quality products as they can.

We don’t buy everything there, but it’s fair to say we do the bulk of our shopping there. I especially love that they’ve introduced us to so much great produce from BC farmers, including heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables I haven’t seen elsewhere.

On Saturday, the City of Vancouver declared East End Food Co-op Day and there was a celebration in front of the store, including cake and Ethical Bean coffee. It was an extra-special celebration, because it’s the Co-op’s 40th anniversary this year. If that weren’t enough, it was also Co-op Week.

I put one of the Co-op’s Board Members on the spot, asking for an impromptu G-W Portraits interview, and Graham Anderson was gracious enough to agree. Here’s what he had to say about Grandview-Woodland, East End Food Co-op, and Saturday’s celebration:

G-W Portraits: Andrea Smith

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Vancouver has a reputation as a bike-friendly city, but cycling culture itself has a long way to go before it becomes equally accessible to everyone.

That’s why Andrea Smith and Lucas Gallagher’s shop, Sidesaddle, is such a promising addition to the city. A “women-focused, everyone welcome” bike shop, Sidesaddle caters to one of the fastest growing sectors of the bike-riding market, while striving to make cycling more approachable for everyone. Spaces like these are the next step in expanding cycling culture.

Yesterday, I spoke to Andrea about the shop, its mission, what she loves about Grandview-Woodland, and Bike to Work week.

You can hear more from Andrea in her PechaKucha Vancouver presentation.

Or, stop in at the shop. Andrea’s pal Rudy might just be the city’s cutest greeter.
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Bike to Work Week’s fall edition takes place from October 26th through November 1st this year. Sign up, log your kilometers, and visit celebration stations around the city. There are mounds of prizes and a number of intangible rewards, too.

Register here: Bike to Work Week

You can find the rest of the interviews in this series here: G-W Portraits

G-W Portraits: Josie Boyce

Sunflowers

Yesterday, local writer and artist Josie Boyce was my guest for the G-W Portraits series. She’s a long-time resident of the Commercial Drive area and a veteran of Vancouver’s writing, performing, visual arts, and film circles.

Josie spoke about her work, what she loves about this neighbourhood, and how she builds community here.

Here’s a link to Josie’s favourite hangout on the Drive: The Storm Crow Tavern, home of Patton Oswalt’s Sadness Bowl and some excellent beer.

And here’s a link to the Femme City Choir. If you’re planning on seeing them perform this year, buy your tickets early – their shows sell out.

Josie will be reading from her in-progress memoir and other works next week:

All My Empty Dresses: Memories of a Strawgirl
Spartacus Books
3378 Findlay Street, Vancouver
Tuesday, October 13th
7:00 p.m.

You can find Josie on The Josie Pages or on Facebook.

G-W Portraits: Kristina Zalite

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When I first met Kristina Zalite, nearly twenty years (!) ago, she was doing environmentalist work and making art. Today, she works at a landscaping architecture firm and she’s still making art.

These days, Kristina’s best known around Grandview-Woodland as a member of Orkestar Šlivovica, a lively Balkan brass band that can be seen at local events like the Parade of Lost Souls, festivals like the Ederlezi Balkan Brass Festival (which they organize), or their Šlivovica Social Club nights.

In our G-W Portraits chat last week, I was happy Kristina chose to focus on the landscape architecture work that she does, while also sharing her perspective on the ways this neighbourhood uses public space to build community.

One of the things I’m really enjoying about this project is how rich and diverse the responses to the question, “What do you love about Grandview-Woodland?” are proving to be. Thanks to Kristina for a great interview!

You can find Orkestar Šlivovica on their website or on Facebook.

G-W Portraits: Trudy Ann Tellis

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I was lucky enough to share a cup (okay, more than one cup) of tea with Trudy Ann Tellis of Trudy Ann’s Chai last weekend. She’s one of my neighbours and she’s also one of the people who work hard to help create and maintain the kind of community Grandview-Woodland is famous for.

We talked about tea and spices, music, potlucks, and all the things she loves about this neighbourhood.

Here’s a list of the organizations, people, and places Trudy Ann mentions in the video:

Pets and Friends

Whitridge Brothers

Drive Street Band

55+ Centre

Vancouver Farmers’ Markets

East End Food Co-op

Andy’s Bakery

Britannia Craft Fair

Britannia Community Centre

Napier Greenway

These are just a few of the ways Grandview-Woodland builds community. I’m looking forward to discovering more with you as this series continues.

Thanks to Trudy Ann (and Coco) for a great interview!