Monthly Archives: July 2006

Merry-Go-Rounds in Western Africa

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Playing For Water

“Together, our mission is to provide rural communities throughout Africa with a uniquely sustainable, free supply of clean drinking water. “

Trust someone to take a serious like water scarcity and flip it on its head by turning the search for water into schoolplay. Literally. PlayPumps brings water to rural African schoolyards in the form of a merry-go-round. The idea is that as children spin on a merry-go-round, water pumps from below the ground. The water is then stored in a tank just a few feet away, making a safe supply of water available for the entire community. PlayPump is a positive example of a collaboration with NGOs, corporations, governments and international agencies.

Given the demographic gap (many children, many grandparents without the parent in between) in much of Africa due to the devastation of HIV/AIDS, it’s amazing that someone thought of converting children’s laughter and energy into the fuel needed to draw water. Images of women carrying heavy pitchers of water dot my free associations with Africa. PlayPump seems to lift the severity of the water crisis and invite children to help out in their communities. While I am not sure that the children see the direct impact of their “play”, at a certain point the realization of what they once did as children hopefully registers. And we can only hope that this understanding of their ability to influence and help out in their own community without needing to rely on external aid all the time becomes an important life esson as well.

To date, PlayPumps International has installed nearly 700 PlayPumps in South Africa, benefiting 1million people. Over the next three years, PlayPumps International and Roundabout Outdoor intends to expand their operations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of reaching 10 million people.

Did You Know:

Water-related diseases are responsible for 80% of all sickness in the world.

About 4 billion cases of diarrhea per year cause 2.2 million deaths.

1.7 million children under the age of five die from diarrhea each year.

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Urban Mobility Patterns

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Urban Mobility Mapping Project

A few days ago I met with a friend who is an engineer. He told me of his brother’s involvement in a project studying urban mobility trends in the city of Vancouver. It was just an idea that nine friends had inspired by the Waag Society’s real-time project in Amsterdam, decided to act on, and the result was an interesting intricacy of lines mapping out the busiest intersections, cross-patterns of traffic, and the normative patterns that we also seem to take on as urban dwellers and workers.

I am not sure whether they began the study with any assumptions, and whether the outcome subverted initial hypotheses. I was impressed by their innovative spirit but disappointed that they didn’t carry on the project for longer than a month, or perhaps involve other cities. This is not a judgement of the group’s initiative but serves more as a suggestion to municipalities and urban planners that certain technologies might assist in anticipating potential changes to the urban network. Jane Jacobs talked about the lack of evidence-based proof or work that was done by certain urban planners before they decided to change a city’s traffic grid, this seems like an innovative way of testing patterns without sinking down a lot of money for fixed capital.

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NASA Challenger

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A Note From Our Future

“Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality. Armstrong describes it as a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit, ‘always…seeking to know more and to extend…areas of competence and control of the environment,’ to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.

A fortress of fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.

Jolts from inside and outside are not basically different. What is lost from Jared Diamond’s (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) erstwhile science of human history when we factor in human decisions in the aim we had in creating a genuinely hard science. Bringing in human decisions, as he did and as we must, changes the science itself, from a hard science to a soft one.

Some people think optimistically that if things get bad enough, they will get better because of the reaction of beneficient pendulums. When a culture is working wholesomely, beneficient pendulum swings – effective feedback – do occur. Corrective stabilization is one of the great services of democracy, with its feedback to rulers from the protesting and voting public. But powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers – through deliberately contrived subsidies and monopolies, for example.

The human causes of Rome’s collapse have been studied minutely, and one thing that can be learned is that everything is connected with everything else, not only in its consequences but also in its causes”.

Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

Jacobs is one of my favorite critical writers. Reading her book I am struck by references she makes and parallels she draws between collapsed former empires, and what I take to be a warning to the United States and to some extent Western culture (this includes Canada and Western Europe). It is hard not to see the relevance and connections between her critique of fundamentalist tendencies, the dangers of such isolationism and the impact it can have on a culture and a society.

In my studies of demographics, I am sometimes stumped and at a loss to explain certain numbers. At the end of the day sometimes statistics prove very unsatisfying explanations. The fact is a statistic is more of a end result than an explanation of the circumstances that lead up to the outcome. And for someone who is deeply interested in human behaviour and the causes that create certain dynamics, statistics can prove very unreliable sources of explanation. Demography is a science of human history that sometimes omits what Jacobs describes as the behavior of human beings. In her eyes such an omission is absurd. For her it is a limited description of what is going on within a culture, and I tend to agree with her.

Her words serve as a bell toll. Much in the same way that the film An Inconvenient Truth, and Why We Fight , try to alert us to the breakdown in a culture that denies the truth of what is going on, that takes liberties for granted, and that thwarts the truth by shifting focus to a very narrow view of the world. I am afraid for our culture. I don’t see us doing enough to reverse what appears to be the crumbling of our most significant pillars; family, community, higher education, science and “self policing by the learned professions”, as Jacobs lists them in her book. I am reminded of the Challenger mission back in the eighties. I am also reminded of Enron. People within NASA were so intent on getting the shuttle up into space that they disregarded clear signs of trouble in the mechanics of the ship. I can’t help but wonder given all the tell-tale signs whether we are not doing the same.

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Temporary Urban Planning

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Urban Spaces: Temporary, Ageless and Ageing

These two books caught my eye. One is on the creation and adoption of temporary urban spaces, and the other is the first book of design focusing on ageing populations entitled Inclusive Urban Design. Temporary Urban Spaces draws on extensive examples from the US and Europe to explore the emergence of ehpemeral spaces instead of long-term urban planning. An editorial excerpt goes on to say that “The focus is no longer on the master plan, the strategy, and the making of long-term arrangements. Instead, the ephemeral, trial and error, and the unplanned are gaining legitimacy. ” Interesting indeed. While the nomadic approach to urban planning seems unlikely to gain permanent legitimacy, it is good to see that it is theoretically being discussed and that there are case studies. Inclusive Urban Spaces addresses the design needs of the elderly but specifically in the outdoor environment. Yet again the design community displaying that they have always been engaged in solving social questions and dilemmas.

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The Rich get Richer photo by the Economist

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Chinese Market from Flickr

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