Vermont: A Green State or Just Green Mountains?

Vermont is known by its nickname, The Green Mountain State. (Really, it’s on our license plates.) And we are a green state. We Vermonters recycle just about everything. People are active and love the outdoors, have urban chickens or large rural, gardens. Reusable plastic bags are commonplace. People live off-grid and have solar powered houses. Living machines clean water at the rest area on I-89 in Sharon. There is a huge focus on local food and local businesses.  It’s an entirely different culture than I’ve lived in before. Sometimes the organic, granola, hippie image fits.

Yet, our towns and villages are spread far apart and many people live down winding roads, far from neighbors. Vermont is not immune to sprawl, poor development. Perhaps our population of just over 600,000 keeps it from being as noticeable as it is in other places. Vermont is not known for its public transit. Rural environments are beautiful, but it means that people often drive for every errand or outing. Small towns lack basic amenities because there is not enough population to support it. For all of the fuel-efficient cars out there, just as many or more drive larger, gas-guzzling vehicles. Vermonters drive a lot because they have to.

Overall, that doesn’t sound very green, does it? An interesting Environment 360 article from a few years back (2009) argues that New York City is the greenest place on earth, not Vermont, which is what most people think (read below).

…Vermont, in many important ways, sets a poor environmental example. Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average.

Fast forward to 2014 (5 years after the above article), and Vermont does have public transit. It’s not significant, but it’s improving and is used by many commuters. For my own experiments, I’ve been attempting to take the bus to/from work (Burlington – Montpelier) because it actually is cheaper than driving, and it uses my time more efficiently. It’s easy enough to do a few per week, but could I get along without a car. It would be a lifestyle change. Living in Burlington or Montpelier is easier than other places if you’re trying to live car-free. Some crazy, intrepid folks bike to work year-round! And with the Burlington-based CarShareVT (similar to Zipcar), more and more people are learning to live car-free or one-car-per-household. Of course, some lifestyles do not allow this. Students are often able to do this, but those of us in the working and commuting world have a more difficult time.

Lately, I’m pondering how life would be without a car in Vermont. I like to think of it as going urban: living downtown, getting around on bike or bus, staying local, traveling by plane for greater distances. It’s not something I’m immediately ready or able to do, but it’s floating around in my head. Going urban in Vermont would be a challenge, though if you’re a core downtown area with everyday services, it’s not impossible. And it would come with great benefits, but challenges, too. Perhaps the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In some places in Vermont, it would be impossible. The question that this brings to mind is: just how urban (read: environmentally friendly) can you go? Where do you live? Can you live car-free? Would you take that jump to do so? What do you think of Vermont? Green living? Green in color?

And, is living a sustainable lifestyle connected to preservation, for you? To me, it keeps the focus on the local environment and local economy, which is most definitely affiliated with historic preservation.

Changing my Transit Ways

Happy Spring, all. If Spring has arrived in Vermont, it must have found you by now. I hope! A quick question for your Monday morning: what is your preferred mode of travel in the good weather? I’ve been calling these days the happy weather in Vermont. It’s warm, beautiful, people are out and about, everyone’s mood has lifted.

And after a refreshing weekend of barely any need for a car, I’m attempting to scale down my daily vehicle use and rely on the bus, if possible for work, and my feet and bicycle for in town trips. It’s not entirely possible or easy, but perhaps a good (affordable, healthy) challenge for the next five or six months.

Have you altered your transit? How and for what reasons? Financial? Environmental? Efficiency?

Pink dogwoods for spring.

Pink dogwoods for spring.

Stuck Inside?

If it’s snowing in Virginia (according to @umwhisp), it’s certainly snowing up north.

Sigh. What will we do with ourselves? Last week, I mentioned historical documentaries as a way to hide from the cold and not feel guilty about being inside. Are you sick of the glowing screens yet? Here’s another (mostly) inside adventure. Or at least something to make you feel better about being inside, dashing from one warm place to the next.

When you walk into a building, look up. Seriously. Do this everywhere. Most of us will scan the room to get our surroundings, and never look above our eye level. Do you know what you’re missing?

Ceilings! 

Look up!

Look up!

Okay, maybe this a form of entertainment only for preservation nerds. But hear me out. Preservation ABCs: C is for Ceiling as well as Battling Poor Lighting Choices begin to address the overlooked (or shall I say under-looked, ha) importance of ceilings and lighting and all elements above our heads.

Take note of where you are: residence, business, office. How high is the ceiling? What is the material: drywall, tin, plaster, tiles? What’s your immediate reaction when you look at it? What would you rather see? How do you define a good ceiling?

This exercise is not limited to historic buildings. Are you stuck with drop ceilings and florescent lighting? Wouldn’t something – anything be an improvement? Popcorn ceilings, aside.

Recently I was with a friend who mentioned she never thought to look up in places. And now, she has been noticing ceilings. Hooray!

Give it a try. Walk into a building. Look up. Once you learn to look up, it’s fun! And how you view your surroundings will be forever changed. Or you’ll think my love for good ceilings is verging on unhealthy.

Battling Poor Lighting Choices

Look up. What type of lights do you see? If you are sitting in an office, it’s most likely florescent bulbs. Florescent might as well be called the most annoying, least flattering light source out there, right? Unfortunately most office buildings and large commercial buildings have standard issue drop ceiling and florescent bulbs.

Now consider a historic building, one that currently operates as a coffee shop or a small store. You are more likely to find softer bulbs and more aesthetically pleasing light fixtures. Smaller spaces are financially easier than massive office buildings and stores. What would these places look like if there were large rectangular (or square) florescent boxes of light clinging to the ceiling?

lighting1

Note the small fixtures in this historic store (Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury, VT).

A beautiful medallion and historic light fixture that make a statement.

A beautiful medallion and historic light fixture that make a statement. The track lighting surrounding this could be more chosen more wisely but are small enough to not detract from the center light fixture, and can be controlled independently.

Many times I find myself in a historic building where the ceilings have been dropped and cheap (not necessarily meaning inexpensive) fixtures have been added. Not only does it change the scale of the room, but it detracts from my enjoyment of the setting.

All of this is to get you thinking about the impacts of lighting. Lighting is a critically important, often overlooked detail of buildings. The next time you enter a building, look around. What type of lighting is it? Do you feel at ease in this space? Or not? Perhaps the lights are too bright, too low, or do not match with the setting. 

And what about home, where you should feel the most comfortable because you control your lighting (unless you’re a renter and stuck with what the landlord gives you). What is your lighting in your house? Have you switched to CFL bulbs or LEDs? A confession: I cannot fully come around to CFLs because I do not like how they glow, unless I have the perfect lampshade to conceal the glare. Any suggestions?

Observe, look around, and let me know. Find some good example and bad examples, and let’s resume this conversation. 

Good lighting choices in Winooski, VT.

Good lighting choices in Winooski, VT.

Your Dream House (As a Kid)

If you love houses, you probably have a “dream house” or at least elements of a dream house, compiled in a scrapbook, random folder, dog-eared pages in a stack of magazines, or perhaps on the enormously popular Pinterest. Maybe you live in your dream house. But, take a step back. What would five-year-old you or ten-year-old you say when asked about a dream house? Was it based on a book, on some enormous sitcom house (really, why did they always have two staircases?), or something entirely unique.

My sisters and I spent a lot of time playing in our large maple tree because it had just enough good “sitting spots” – as we called them – for all four of us. We never had a tree house, but we had a little playhouse in the backyard that Dad built. And if you asked us, the Swiss Family Robinson House, like the one in Disney World, would have made a fun house for us. We’d dream up crazy things like a backyard full of playground tunnels and trampolines and zip lines. What more could a kid want? Or maybe a big farmhouse with a large wraparound porch overlooking fields and meadows would have suited us. We loved to play and run outside.

Why do I ask? I love a stroll down memory lane, and while nostalgia always joins in, distorting some of those memories, I think it is important to remember what you dreamt about as a kid and what was important at various ages and phases in life. Think about it: we talk about sense of place as adults. We discuss our built environment, the intangible aspects and how to improve our quality of life. But, if you aren’t a parent or don’t have young kids involved in your life, how often do you think about sense of place and the environment from their point of view? Of course, all generations are considered in our environment, but I would guess that adults might not be able to articulate everything that children think is important.

Do you have kids? Ask them about their environment, the buildings, the landscape – what they like, what they see, what they don’t like. And if you don’t have kids, do your best to remember what you thought was ideal as a child. It will help us make our environments and community more meaningful to all.

Street Observations: 10 Questions

Sunshine, flowers, spring foliage, light rain, no more snow, more daylight hours – what more could you want? While some people love cold weather (skiers, for example), eventually, we all are craving sunshine and warmth. The streets are filled with bicyclists, walkers, runners, kids, adults, and everyone is happy in the sun.  Here in Vermont, March and April are not always the prettiest of months (some call it stick season, some call it mud season…there is a lot of brown), so we eagerly await the springtime foliage and warmer days. If you live further south, you’ve been out and about for months in warmth, I know.

Regardless of when this resurgence of green and spring is for you, it is an excellent time to take a look around your streets and your town and to really think about them.  Think about street that you like. Have you thought about why you like it? Could you describe it to someone? I’d bet that there are specific aspects of the street that help to shape why you like it over another.

For a fun mental exercise, below are 10 questions to ponder the next time you are out and about. Perhaps you think about these already or maybe it’s a new topic for you.

(1) What do your streets look like? Are they wide enough for two lanes of traffic and parking lanes? Are they narrow city alleys? Where do cars park: on grass, on gravel, formally, informally?

(2) Do your streets have sidewalks? Are the sidewalks level with the travel lane? Are they concrete or asphalt or brick?

(3) Do the sidewalks have distinct curbs? Or is it just a slab of concrete or poured asphalt with a nondescript edge?

(4) Do the streets have green strips? In other words, is there grass between the traveled lane and the sidewalk?

(5) Are the streets filled with trees or void of trees? What types of trees?

(6) Where are the power lines?  Overhead or buried?

(7) Where are the mailboxes? At the curb or on the house?

(8) What types of buildings are on the street? Is it commercial or residential or both? Can you name the architectural style? Are they one-story, two-story or more? Are they single family homes, duplexes, apartment buildings, row houses or something else?

(9) Is there street furniture such as benches and trash or recycle bins? 

(10) What do you think of this street? Is it pleasant? Loud? Quiet? Aesthetically pleasing? Ugly?

So, what else would you add? Did you discover anything new about your streets? Beware, you may never stop thinking about this now that you’ve noticed these nuances. But, that is a good thing! Understanding your environment aids in understanding your sense of place and in defining why you prefer one place over another.

Open Space is a Finite Resource

Open space is not a renewable resource. It is finite.

Open space in Vermont -- view from Mad River Glen in September 2010.

It seems like an obvious statement. Once open space is developed, it likely never will be returned to a natural state. Preservation, as a whole, understands this concept. Master plans often center growth in specific areas. Our National Parks, wildlife refuges, scenic areas, and similar conservation areas work to protect our invaluable, limited open space. Segments of land may be slated for development, but for future generations. After all, it is likely that our population continues to grow and land continues to be developed.

Will we ever run out of space? Hopefully not in our lifetime, right? But what about a few generations after us?

I heard this statement about open space at a workshop this week, the first of seven classes of Road Ecology training, The course is taught by Keeping Track, an organization that provides technical training to a variety of professionals and citizens in order to promote better knowledge of how to monitor, detect and record wildlife. The Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife  work together to coordinate this training and encourage their employees to take the class; it has been a great success.

The purpose of ecology training in relation to transportation brings us back to the fact that everything is connected. Transportation projects can impact the environment and the landscape in many ways, positive or negative, seen or unseen. When people beyond the biologists understand how intertwined the ecosystems are, it allows transportation staff to see projects differently and to develop creative, innovative solutions that allow our roads and transportation systems to be safe for humans and wildlife. In addition, those not in transportation can gain a better understanding of the safety and construction standards that must be met. Collaboration on site, like a planning charrette, brings out the most innovative solutions.

Day one was an introduction to reptiles, animals and wildlife tracking. While it is not historic preservation, it is a unique opportunity to learn more about how decisions are made beyond cultural resources. Designing a bridge or a roadway that is safe for wildlife has the potential to affect cultural resources, and vice versa.

Wildlife, open space, cultural resources, transportation — the connections are clear as a bell. Stay tuned throughout the next few months for course highlights and important lessons.

Building Aesthetics: Air Conditioners

I’m not one for air conditioning. It’s too strong and too cold in stores, restaurants, movie theaters and office buildings. I feel like I’m missing out on the summer season and living in a fake climate. Windows and breezes; that’s what I like. And that is how many historic houses were built: to take advantage of cross breezes. Historic houses certainly were not designed with central air conditioning in mind, and window units prevent the function of windows.

There are few things that can ruin a historic house like a window unit air conditioner, don’t you think?

See the air conditioner on the third floor. An example from Shelburne, VT.

Of course, the arguments and reasoning for air conditioners are many. I have lived in the south – the North Carolina Sandhills – so I understand heat and humidity for months out of the year. Working in an office without air conditioning would have been miserable. Then again, the office wasn’t designed for air circulation and cross ventilation.  Now I find myself shocked at the number of air conditioners in Vermont. It’s really not that hot here, and our summer days are so few. I can’t understand why people wouldn’t want a summer breeze blowing through their houses. To each his own?

Should we start designing buildings to work with nature once again? Then we’d spend less money on electricity. Just a thought.

In the meantime, take note of the air conditioning units on buildings that you pass. Where you would put them instead? Or, would you choose a window or wall unit rather than altering the interior to fit central air? Has anyone come across this problem? What does an AC unit do to the architectural integrity of a building?

Does anyone else feel this way? Or would you rather just have air conditioning and take it as a necessary item in today’s world?

O Christmas Tree

Choosing and chopping down a Christmas tree with my family was always one of the best days of the year. Even on Long Island we had Christmas tree farms, so all six of us would pile into the minivan and drive out east to the beautiful, seemingly rural tree farms. Those days remain among my favorite memories. We’d be bundled in jackets, mittens, and boots, just hoping for snowflakes. We ran around the trees and walked as far back as we could on the farm, figuring that was where they kept the best trees. After searching and all choosing different trees, we would finally narrow it down to two and Mom would make the final decision. Knowing how much her young daughters liked tall tress, we always ended up with a tree larger than we could handle. Luckily, our 1957 ranch house was designed with 12′ cathedral ceiling in the living room (technically called the “great room”). A few years Dad actually had to cut about 2′ – 3′ from the bottom of the tree in order to make it fit! One year the tree almost fell off the roof on our way home; we four girls watched it like a hawk after that.

Eventually cutting your own tree became much too expensive, and we resorted to choosing a tree from a lot, though we’d still head out east for it – until we got to be older and we weren’t all home from college in time to participate in the tree picking.  While we can’t all be there for tree picking, we make sure to decorate the tree all together – it’s a bit event with music, cookies, eggnog, too many ornaments, and traditions – even if we have to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate. We’ve had ugly trees, fat trees, tall trees, trees that fell down in the house, and many more. I imagine it will always be a big deal to us.

My dad is a fan of breaking shoes and bustin’ chops, as he would say, so every year he now talks about that nice 8′ artificial tree that he and Mom are going to put in the living room – forget the real trees!  I think he’s kidding, but still, I threaten to not come home if there is a fake tree. Or I’ll just haul one down from Vermont. We do have fake miniature trees in the house, but there is nothing quite like the Christmas tree smell, without which it wouldn’t feel like Christmas as my house.

Yesterday I received a neighborhood email with 5 reasons to buy a real Christmas tree that touch on the environment and the local economy – how perfect!

5 REASONS TO GET A REAL CHRISTMAS TREE

By Clare Innes, Marketing Coordinator – Chittenden Solid Waste District, Redmond Rd, cinnes@cswd.net

Thinking about getting an artificial Christmas tree this year? Here are 5 great reasons to go for the real deal:

1. The average artificial tree lasts 6 to 9 years but will remain in a landfill for centuries.

2. Think a real tree poses a greater fire hazard? Think again. Artificial trees pose a greater fire hazard than the real deal because they are made with polyvinyl chloride, which often uses lead as a stabilizer, making it toxic to inhale if there is a fire. Lead dust can be harmful to children.

3. Every acre of Christmas trees produces enough daily oxygen for 18 people. There are about 500,000 acres of Christmas trees growing in the U.S. Because of their hardiness, trees are usually planted where few other plants can grow, increasing soil stability and providing a refuge for wildlife.

4. North American Christmas tree farms employ more than 100,000 people; 80% of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China.

5. The most sustainable options: Buy your tree from a local grower or purchase a potted tree and plant it in your yard after the holidays.

Enjoy the beginning of the holiday season and have fun finding the perfect tree.