Category Archives: Sustainability

In GPS Era, Map Reading Skills a Lost Art

This article relates a tale that is no doubt being played out all over the developed world:

Two college students playing in an out-of-town hockey tournament went out to eat with their parents after a late game, but the restaurant they picked had just closed its kitchen.

“There’s another place just a few blocks away,” the hostess said helpfully. “Take a left out of the parking lot, go two blocks, turn right and go one block.”

The parents and the players retreated to their separate cars. When the players sat in the parking lot for a couple of minutes without moving, one of the parents walked over to see if there was a problem with the car.

“Not at all,” they said. “We’re just programming the directions into the GPS.’ ”

Is that where we’ve ended up, with a younger generation that can’t go three blocks without being told by a electronic voice where to turn?

Like the author, I found this story dismaying. I know GPS (Global Positioning System) and similar devices are helpful, but they can also be a crutch and, ultimately, a detriment.

According to the British Cartographic Society, high-tech maps get the user from Point A to Point B but leave off traditional features like geographic and built landmarks, and this could lead to a loss of cultural and geographic literacy.

I, too, find the GPS experience extremely limiting, especially when visual or voice commands tell me (sometimes incorrectly) where to turn just before the turn needs to be made. With a map, preferably one on paper, one can pull out to a bird’s eye view, get a complete picture, plot a route, and have true satisfaction and awareness about ones place within it.

Nothing wrong with having a GPS as a back-up, but I see far too many people who completely depend on them, to the degree that, like the boys in the restaurant parking lot, they’re afraid to travel anywhere, even a few blocks, without one.

One study, from the University of Tokyo, found that people on foot using a GPS device actually made more errors and more stops, and walked farther and more slowly than traditional map users. They also demonstrated a poorer knowledge of the terrain, topography and routes.

GPS, researchers say, encourages people to stare at a screen, rather than looking around at their environment. Also, most GPS screens makes it impossible for a user to take in both their location and their destination at the same time.

Ah, there’s that Big Picture again.

There are additional consequences to over-reliance on GPS devices. I wrote last year about Nature Disconnect in Britain. It seems that a lack of map skills is actually somewhat responsible for keeping a whole generation of children there, and surely elsewhere, homebound, fearful of exploring, playing, and being outside in the unknown. Children’s very sense of adventure is being terribly circumscribed.

Luckily, there are steps being taken to combat this. This list of ideas ranges from walking in ones neighborhood and making friends, to creating neighborhood green spaces and safe pedestrian and bike routes, to educating parents about unfounded fears. And, of course, one can and should learn basic map reading skills.

Interestingly, technology is helping with the latter, as geocaching (group scavenger hunts which use GPS devices) as well as old-school scavenger hunts continue to gain popularity. In addition, the Boy Scouts have responded to the crisis in map reading by upping their universal requirements for using a compass and map. (Girl Scouts also offer geocaching and orienteering badges and programs.)

Debi at Go Explore Nature offers some tips for getting out and geocaching.

Where is the paper map in all this? Some say it’s going the way of the phone booth and the milkman. I’m sure many of you remember family car trips, during which the map was unfolded, dutifully followed with index finger on highway line, and then folded up, yet never in quite the same neat way it had come. (We still honor this practice in our family and begin many adventures with a trip to the California Automobile Association, which stopped producing paper maps a few years ago.) Indeed, maps are on their way to becoming collectors items.

Here’s hoping that you get to enjoy the tactile pleasure of an old-school map, the inner satisfaction of locating your place, the fun of an outdoor scavenger hunt or other adventure, and the gift of knowing which way is up.

Images: Hands on Museum, Built St. Louis, Route 66 Guidebooks, Ferrell Digital

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Huffington Post: Rise, Fall & Rise of New York City’s School Gardens

Every now and again, you stumble upon what is simply a great story. Daniel Bowman Simon’s Rise and Fall of School Gardens in New York’s Past Can Guide Us Into the Future traces New York City’s early community gardens, such as the 1902 Children’s School Farm in DeWitt Clinton Park on 54th St. and 12th Ave. in Manhattan, which was planted as much for the civic virtues and love of nature it would instill in its young gardeners as it was for its vegetables and flowers.

A couple of years after its inception, there would be a whole School Farm movement, with an astonishing 80 plots in New York. In 1931, there were 302 school gardens, which accounted for 65 acres.

Over time, the gardens vanished. In most cases, their land was redeveloped. Simon notes that we need to take heed and not let that happen again. He cites some wonderful trends regarding the current uptick in school gardens – namely First Lady Michelle Obama‘s White House Garden and other programs that I’ve written about here, the new school garden at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and celebrity chef Rachael Ray helped promote, and the work of the Children & Nature Movement.

Do yourself a favor and read the article. The graphics are wonderful. And the story turns out to be the writer’s testimony in the recent public hearing held by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, which very recently completed a set of community garden rules designed to strengthen protection for gardens.

White House Photo: Samantha Appleton

Bike and Walk to School Day, Month, Life

October 6 is International Walk to School Day, and the whole month of October has been designated Walk to School Month. Schoolchildren are encouraged to walk, bike, skateboard, scooter, bus, or carpool to school — anything that is different from the one child-one car system. And they’re encouraged to keep doing so, when and if they can. The beauty of the program, which was started in 1997 and expanded from a day to a month in 2006, is that a month is long enough for something like walking to become a routine and a habit, and a special day can energize people who might not have considered walking or biking before.

As of yesterday, more than 3,200 schools had registered for Walk to School Day on the U.S. Walk to Schools web site, a figure that’s expected to both increase throughout the month and be bigger in actuality (as not every school registers its efforts.)

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is also involved in the effort.

Of course, many of us remember when walking and biking to school was the norm and didn’t require any special days or rewards. The Safe Routes to Schools website notes that 42% of all students (and 87% of students within a mile) walked or biked to school in 1969, compared with 16% (and 63% within a mile – frankly, I would have thought that number was lower) in 2001. Busy schedules, parental fears, suburban sprawl, lack of school-bus funding, and other lifestyle shifts have all contributed to a culture of driving to school drop-off zones, even in towns where walking and biking is pretty do-able. I’d love to see figures for today, because I think the norm has shifted once again.

The U.S. Walk to Schools site has a lot of wonderful information about the benefits of walking. The site’s Frequently Asked Questions page has a great checklist to help parents determine the walking and biking safety of their own neighborhoods, as well as suggestions for customizing a walk if the school is too far away for walking or biking. There are also lists of U.S. and international cities and countries that are participating in International Walk to School Day.

My community has been participating in International Walk to School Day, through our local Safe Routes to Schools program, for years. I have witnessed first-hand the increase in regular walkers and bikers to school since the program started. More people, of all ages, out on the streets make them safer for the next group of schoolchildren who comes along. Communities also benefit from getting to know one another better, as they get into the healthy walking habit together. And families, if mine is any indication, experience less stress (the school drop-off zone always seems unnatural and harried. Is it me?) — and more joyful time together when parents can walk with younger children.

The number of participating schools goes up each year — perhaps yours has already planned some events, assemblies or rewards. Let us know!

Enjoy International Walk to School Month!

Here are more great resources:

Marin Safe Routes to Schools
U.S. Safe Routes to Schools
U.S. Walk to Schools
International Walk to Schools
Why Walk and Bike?
Safe Routes Guide for Parents and Teachers (very comprehensive)
Field Notes From the Future: Safe Routes to Schools Publishes New Resource Guides
Car Free Days: Wednesday is Intl Walk to School Day (but you can walk/ride all month)
Car Free Days: Biking to School … Without Parents
Free Range Kids: Non-Sanctimonious Blog About Today: WALK TO SCHOOL DAY!
Slow Family Online: Why Can’t She Walk to School in Today’s New York Times?

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

Slow News Day: Car-Free and Carefree

Two stories recently came out about car-free living. One is from the delightful blog, New Urban Habitat, Abby Quillen’s always wonderful, inspiring and useful collection of stories about living more simply, sustainably, healthfully, and happily. Her piece, Lessons in Car-Free Living, contains a wealth of benefits and tips for getting your own family out of the car for short, simple runs.

This is definitely something we’ve been trying to do more increasingly in my household, and have been having good success. We combine bike riding for short distances with public transportation for longer commutes.

Another fan of public transit turns out to be one of the stars of my favorite TV show, the highly evocative, endlessly dissectible Mad MenVincent Kartheiser, who plays ad executive (and new father) Pete Campbell on the show. He recently revealed to the New York Times his utter joy of taking public transportation in Los Angeles, and using it as an opportunity to relax, study his lines, and commune with his fellow passengers — all enthusiasms I share (usually) when taking my local ferries, buses and trains. Said Kartheiser:

I like that my life slows down when I go places. I have all these interactions with the human race and I can watch people living their life and not just in their car.

He also mentioned a recent consumer study from Learning Resources Network that noted that motorists ages 21-30 generally don’t grant car ownership and driving with the same status that older people do. According to the study, this group favors mass transit for commuting and car sharing services, like Zipcar, for longer trips. It turns out that companies like Hertz are listening — They are expanding car sharing choices, especially in big cities and around college campuses.

At 80 million strong, the article notes that this 20-30 age group represents a very large cohort. According to William Draves, president of Learning Resources Network, “This group views commuting a few hours by car a huge productivity waste when they can work using PDAs while taking the bus and train.”

That’s how I feel! Productivity and joy far outweigh the convenience of driving my individual car, especially as I happen to enjoy walking (to/from the public transit), too  — and sometimes find driving a bit stressful. (Of course, the area in question has to offer good public transit and city planning for this to equate.)

The article also notes that, in survey after survey, 20-30 year olds say that they believe cars are damaging to the environment. Even hybrid electric vehicles don’t seem to be changing young consumers’ attitudes much.

Yay for the green young people and others who are adapting habits that are good for their own physical and psychological health and that of the planet. This young group, and the one coming up after it, offers plenty of cause for hope.

I’ll also add that, as with many personal choices, there is usually not one that is all good or one that is all bad. I believe everyone needs to make his or her own choices based on what feels right for them. Sometimes, for me, taking the car is the right thing to do. I remain cheered by the general attitudes and consciousness of the people quoted in this article, including the corporations that are following suit by offering alternative rental cars where young people are.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman: Car-Free Sundays, a Summer 2010 New York City program

You might also like: Bike to Work and School Day

Slow Family Receives Green Phone Booth’s One Lovely Blog Award

I just learned that Slow Family Online has been named a recipient of the One Lovely Blog award from The Green Phone Booth. Green Phone Booth is itself a fantastic blog, full of new, useful ideas for living a simpler, greener, more creative, and less consumerist life. Everything on Green Phone Booth is offered up with great humor, practicality, and pretty graphics, making it a real go-to in the world of green blogs.

Thank you, Green Phone Booth, for the award! It’s been fun to learn about the other chosen blogs, and I feel honored to be in their company. I look forward to passing on my own Blog Award, and letting you all know about some lovely blogs I’ve found, in an upcoming post.

From Treehugger: Frugal Green Living Posters

Canning, victory gardening, carpooling, conserving resources, living frugally — There are a lot of parallels between a whole swath of trends and activities today and those from the 1940s. In both periods, outside forces (war, the economy, the environment) have caused a lot of us to take stock and change some of our homefront habits. In the process, many of us discovered or rediscovered some relatively lost arts on the way to using less.

The always-relevant Treehugger has offered a terrific blog post, Frugal Green Living: Posters for the Movement, which features a collection of 1940s posters that, while making statements urging people to reconsider wasteful habits, are also themselves wonderful examples of message-oriented graphic design at its mid-century zenith.

I love these for their bold graphics and nostalgic style and marvel that they are fairly relevant today – except for the last one, of course. Though Treehugger makes the point that cooking fat is now collected for biodiesel fuel, rather than to make explosives. And that is undoubtedly a good thing.

Posters: Minneapolis Public Library

Mushroom Hunting in Norway

I love this video, which Kari Svenneby of Toronto, Canada’s Active Kids Club posted on the Children & Nature Network forum. Kari is an enthusiastic mushroom forager, harvester and cook, in addition to pioneering a very active outdoor play group and web resource for others. Her and her family’s joy in nature is evident in this beautiful video. Thanks for sharing, Kari!