Saturday, April 19, 2014

BMUC, and the idea of micro-community

I grew up in a church. In fact, I grew up in this church...

The Old Place

What I mean, this is not the building that we lived in, but, from the time I was a small child, this was the church we, my family, attended. I every sense, it was the community that we lived in, the people who went here were our neighbors, it was built with the time, sweat and blood of the people who were our relatives and friends. This building, along with a half dozen others, housed the oldest friends, neighbors and relatives that I would ever know. Of course, what we see here, is just the coat, that covers the church of my heart and mind. I realize even now, that I am separated from this place, that the real treasure is what was housed inside this building.

And still...some 15 years after I left this place, in the eyes of many, disgraced by my fall from Faith, when I received the call, asking me to come back, and ply my trade, to renew the landscape of the Church, I found the curious familiarity of a place that I grew up. The old eyes, the old faces, so many that I knew; and the building, as old, and familiar, as a coat long forgotten. I walked into the chapel, the very chapel, with the very furnishings, that I see in the wedding pictures of my parents, I wander the hall, towards the tiny classrooms that held us in study of the Bible, the social hall, where so many times we would gather and renew our bonds of community. The building was what it always was. And I was here to change it's front yard.

The Existing Entry

How long had it been, some 50+ years since the landscape was changed, innumerable years, innumerable hands, this was the end result of those 50 years, changing to fit into a new reality. The landscape, known by the neighborhood as 'the eyesore', the church having fell to a dwindling population over the years, as the congregation moved away. People like me. New codes that carved up the once generous entry, The landscape a tossed salad of attempts and failures to modernize. And so, this tiny community, an outpost of the Japanese-American community I grew up in, had faded along the way. So, then, why the new landscape, and how would they pay what surely would be $100,000 of construction costs.

And that is where this community changed, where they began to ask themselves, how do we sustain our life here, or do we move on. And the answer came in how they opened themselves up to the community that surrounds them, not being the old way, the Japanese-American church, but, being a community church, reaching out to anyone who sought a welcoming and open place to seek their time with God. And life came back into the community, and in so doing, this new energy drove them to look at the 'face' they showed to the community and how it might be more welcoming, more modern. And of all people, they called me, and I considered it an honor that they would consider me. Here is what we did.

New Plantings

Removing the old growth completely, changing to a more open and visible planting scheme, which will lighten the old entry, make a cleaner and neater public face, and use a few elements, such as boulders and grasses to allude to the Japanese heritage, while bolder colors reflect a more upbeat view. An aside, many of the people who were supporters of the churches needs in the mid-20th century were rose growers, as was my family, I had to get some roses in there.

New Access

Rerouting the ramp, both to make it closer to the disabled parking, but, also to remove it from splitting the entry in half, this routing also made the ramp much less steep. The old ramp was built using the church exemption, but, nobody used it, indeed, many of the older parishioners found getting into the old building too tiring. It became both unfriendly, and physically imposing. The new orientation, with new planting, has become one of the most used entries to the church now. Benches have also been added, to allow for stopping and sitting, In time, the landscape will provide a softening buffer and seasonal flowers to make the ramp seem more path like.

The New Sign

A new sign, simplified and modernized, to let people know the church is there, but, not so large or obtrusive as to dominate the corner. Designed with form which mimic the old country sings of Japan, the sign is just another way the site has been modernized. Clearly, a few more coats of finish are needed, but, this balances the need for readability and subtlety to the neighborhood. One of the things I take away from this, is that many of the neighbors have taken time to thank the church for paying attention to the landscape.

The New Entry

The new entry, once we removed the ramp, and started to examine what was most needed, it really came to me that the entry needed to be redone. Besides the ramp cutting the old entry in half, the concrete was worn, the planting had overgrown the area and it was dark. As you can see, this porch faces north, and at one time, a maple overwhelmed the space. It was a difficult decision to remove a maple that had been in that location for nearly 50 years, but, time had done too much damage to it, and it was in the wrong place. Worn railing were removed, grade was adjusted, a gravel groundcover, and smaller scale planting, and a new dwarf Japanese Maple, along with a nice bench, open up the light and air, making this space feel more open. My understanding that the new stairs, simpler paving pattern, new ramps and railings have already had an impact on the old place, with many people being quite pleased with the changes.

A church is the sum of far more than the building and it's grounds, the Church I grew up in was all about the old folks, their sons and daughters, so many people who formed the community that defined what we all gathered to be a part of. But, my hope, is that much like the community work I have done with streets and parks, by creating a place, something welcoming, open and aware of the people who would use the space, that my design work will lead to this community continuing to be sustainable into the future.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Food Hacking...Food Hack San Leandro?

It's a new year, and the ideas and opportunities never looked better. Just attended a dinner and chat with Tim West, the founder of a new way of looking at the intersection of technology and food. There were a lot of folks from all over the Bay Area who are looking at food, food ways and nutrition is new light. Many subjects were touched upon, focusing primarily on Tim's interest in how food is produced, what the coming issues surrounding food are, and how food and technology interface and various points in the process of feeding ourselves.

One of the focuses of the talk, was to discuss how technology can impact how we produce and consume food, and how our society, a technology heavy society can leverage that technology to create better food, safer and healthier food and more available food for a population that is heading to some serious resource limitations. Food Hackathon and Cosemble have already thrown two events that took a look at how we can use technology to create healthier recipes, using healthier ingredients without having to create and store that knowledge on our own. Mobile computing apps that search out recipes, or identify ingredients, so that healthier diets can be explored.

Another concept that was discussed was how to create a desire to eat healthier, at what point can technology, or people, hack their own culture to achieve greater health. This was round tabled, with the real idea coming out of the discussion, that the change has to happen at a local level, reaching out to people at a time when they are just beginning to consider what they are eating, and how it might be better. One of the participants in this part of the discussion was Kristin Zelhart, who works with a non-profit called Wellness City Challenge, that is focused on teaching students at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, CA. how to be healthier and how to make better choices about the food they eat. In our discussion, which we pursued after the main discussion, she mentioned how much it became apparent that many students have no concept of what they are eating, or how a healthy diet would affect them. This actually tied back in to Tim West and his discussion about time spent analyzing the dining options at Facebook, where he found that many people ate very poorly, and with terrific food, that was delicious, but, nutritionally poor, many of the employees actually became sicker. This is a pattern being discussed at many technology companies, the increase in obesity, loss of productivity and overall less healthy work force.

For me, a good discussion often raises more questions than it answers. This was one of those nights, I walked away, thinking, what are we doing to make our community healthier? How are we using the technology at our use, to create better food access and knowledge in our community? Are there other people thinking about this, and how, or would they interface with San Leandro? How can we reach out to the many young people, and how can we address the increasing obesity in our schools?

One of my main interests in the Innovation Ecosystem, is that I would love to see San Leandro have more, and better, food options. I think there are some answers that we can implement very quickly in this City.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Live Theater-The Red Virgin

Normally, I use this space to discuss innovation, and the ideas and opportunities that innovation can bring to the physical and cultural spaces that encompass our lives. And to a degree, entertainment, and arts, have an impact in that arena. But, I am certainly no expert, not even an enthusiast for theater, so anything I post here, is with the understanding that I am a complete dilettante in terms of live performance. In truth, I love live performance, the immediacy and necessary improvisation of live performance is so much more compelling to me, than movies and television. Even though any live performance is rehearsed, and certainly any theater production is scripted and produced, live theater leaves open every performance and performer to the change that something changes every time.

I attended a performance of The Red Virgin, which is a premiere play, based upon the events surrounding the Paris Commune of 1871, and in particular, following the story of Louise Michel, the titular character of the play. This is not so much the innovative part of this story, although, the story has, to my knowledge, never been portrayed, or referenced in any theater production. What was quite innovative to me, was the scale of the story, relative to the scale of the company, budget and locale with which the company sought to perform. Worthy, in large part, because it showed to me, that live theater can be a part of any community. Art, seen as the expression of creativity, is vital to a healthy expression of the self, and by extension, allows for a community to express that health through interaction and communication. Art achieves it's greatest elements, when it is shared from person to person, not held away in the dark corners of some collectors ego, and held so high, that only the elite can enjoy it. It isn't the story, but, the performance that captivates my thoughts with The Red Virgin.

To begin, you need a space, for everything needs a space, and the space should fit the actions. Yet, when I arrived to observe the story or the Paris Commune, I was immediately struck by the fact that there was no stage. In fact, there was only a room, perhaps the size of a large living room, with a beautiful fireplace, characteristic of Julia Morgans work in Berkeley. A huge fireplace, centrally placed and perfectly proportioned. And then, some chairs, in fact two rows of chairs surrounding the central space. No scenery, and indeed, there would be no scenery in the entire play. Some stage lights, but, nothing more than one might see in the most basic of high school stage settings. What was I in for? A few props, a table and chair, a drum, a bottle or two and a accordion on top of the piano.

The players, my friend Anna Ishida, and five other actors would perform a play, with a scope as large as Paris, relating the story of a political upheaval that had repercussions that carried through many decades, and questions that are still as valid as today, on a stage that amounted to a space about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. When I speak of intimacy in theater, it gets no more intimate than to have the performers at eye level, performing in arms reach, a broad story with nothing more than their performance to carry them. Great costumes, great lighting and sound, and a great story. But, performed in a box, a beautiful (thanks again Julia) but stark box. Truly, any space, an abandoned store front, a closed restaurant or coffee shop, a warehouse, could easily have been this place. It gives me pause, as it makes live theater less precious, it removed the barriers of grand space, impossible budget, and excess resources. It truly challenged what innovative theater could be, bridging forward to the idea that art can be anywhere, and bridging back, to the street performances of another time.

And to the acting, how does one act, when all one has is voice, and movement, and little else. It is often said that theater is acted large and broad, film is acted small and close. That the camera does not want the overview, and that the theater does not welcome the detail. But, what of live theater, within inches of the performer. No electronics, no distance, no camera to lie, no tape to edit. You are playing to your audience, and they are on the stage. I don't really understand what it means to perform, or act, but, I do understand the difference between the grand and the intimate, how a design for a great park differs so markedly from the design for a private garden. Yet, here was a grand play, performed in as intimate a setting as if I was sitting within the cast itself.

And yet it worked, it worked so wonderfully well. I was immersed, not in the way that I might think I was a part of the story, for surely, I was just a voyeur to the performers. But, to the audience as well, we were all one. The story, the place, the performers and the audience, all one, in one beautiful box. It was revelatory, in the idea that high art, the art of the live performance, of the story tellers, could exist in any space, as long as the welcome was there. I truly believe that this was one of the most interesting experiences of entertainment I have ever encountered.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Changemaker Central at Arizona State University

I have just returned from a four state road trip, that included a quick jaunt down to Arizona State University, a little side trip for my nephew. Yes, he is starting the search for a college and ASU is high on his list of places to attend. While he was chatting up the information desk, I saw this door, and it promised an interesting experience.

This appeared to be a part of the student union, and my hopes that this might be a hub for co-working, or innovation, were not misguided. It turns out, that this is an organization that is supported by ASU, not as a curriculum, but, as an affiliated program that students can become a part of. Intiated by the organization Ashoka U, this program has become student operated and if focused on the principals of "Inspire, catalyze, sustain and high impact entrepreneurial thinking".

In the case of Changemakers, there is the space, and then there is the focus, although it is open to all students, to become a part of the organization and mission, students are required to have an interest and plan for how they intend to change the world.

Open working zone

As with many co-working environments, there are areas for group, collaborative and individual work spaces, many of which can be configured for various uses and interactions. While talking with the person who was at the desk that day, I asked how the "cafeteria" work areas were received, and she noted that they were quite popular, as they offered the ability to both work and collaborate in a desk area. She noted that this is not intended to be a library, that the point was for people to interact, to support each other in all of the projects being incubated at this location. In keeping with Ashoka, this office is tied into an entire national network of other college campuses with similar organizations. This is not a library, clearly.

Active Whiteboard

There was this area, and a second, with electronic controls and large video monitors. This one was for more active presentations, which would be local. There was a second area, more "conference-y" in feel, that also offered the large screen, but, video conferencing as well.

Reach out and touch, well, video

And then, there is the old way, which is to provide some couches, old tech whiteboards, fun colored markers and to encourage the play of ideas, and the creation of relationships as these students begin to feel out their message and path to making an impact on the world.

It sound ridiculous, and it sounds grand, to think that students who are still in the process of getting their degrees, might think that they are going to go out there and change the world. But, what of those that succeed, and if there is a way to create an intellectual environment, where changing the world is not separate, not some 'whacko communist' ideal, but, a real, honest and doable construct, who better to dream up those pathways, than students who have yet to come to understand what can, and cannot be done. The heart of creating an innovation ecosystem lies in the ability to catalyze and enable the young people, who will inherit this planet and all of it's cultural, social, and environmental limitations and potentials, into action, to make their own future.

I can't help but wonder, what if we started with the high school kids, what if we challenged them to become leaders, and not recordings of some Wiki-esque world. What is San Leandro found a way to create activists, philosophers, makers, and leaders, from it's own children.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Innovation Culture, and what in the hell is a Chief Innovation Officer

Innovation, currently the 'buzziest' of buzz words has come to San Leandro, and it leaves a lot of people wondering what is this all about. Innovation has managed to even become main stream, with the word bandied about on national news shows and gaining momentum as a catchy phrase in government. But, what is innovation, not the dictionary word, but, what does it mean when people speak of 'innovation ecosystems' or 'innovation lifestyle'. For a city like San Leandro, that has not been a leader in the recent trends of technology or lifestyle, how does a focus on innovation manifest itself in our community. And just what is a Chief Innovation Officer, and why would we need, or even want one.

Some of this comes down to changes in the technology of our lives, the ability to communicate seamlessly and instantly, to institute broad efforts across vast spaces and to compress time in that manner. In terms of it's effect on culture, it has modified how we, as individuals and as groups are empowered, a single person can engage multiple entities, throughout the day, and as long as the technology holds up, that communication can occur over vast distances. People are more mobile than ever before, often working miles from the rest of their team, in some cases, with the team spread across continents. In my field, this manifested itself in the fact that some architects have an effective 24 hours office cycle, passing the same project across the globe, with fresh eyes picking up the work every few hours. Design and engineering seamlessly changing every minute of the day, what once took months was reduced to weeks.

The other thing that drives innovation is people, and what their expectations are from the life they live. I am one of the last of the Baby Boomers, the people who came of age in the late 1960's and early 1970's, who would change the social fabric by which society lived. Our parents believed in working hard, staying in place and building a future, many of my generation believed in a much more mobile society, more free in how their lives would be lead. This generation would ultimately become the generation that would recreate the 80 hour work week and spawn a technological revolution. Into this, walked the Gen-X and Millenials, the children of the technology revolution, and with them came a second cultural revolution, not social in it's inception, but, technological, in that they are far more connected, but, far more instant in how they view life. The old rules do not work with their new reality. And thus change.

And this is where innovation lifestyle comes to the fore, people with new definitions of family, work and experience. Who are seeking to leverage technology that was barely imagined in the time of their parents. Their ideals of what life is, or what work is, shaped by technology that has changed every aspect of our lives. And they are finding that the codes, and laws and traditional ways of governance are in the way. Cities are finding that to engage these new workforce ideals, they must become more agile, more open, or they will fall behind. Our cities are, by nature, cumbersome beasts, fed by caution and burdened by bureaucracy. Uniquely unsuited to thrive in a fast moving cultural change. And so, the Chief Innovation Officer.

San Francisco has one, San Leandro too, and many other cities are moving in this direction. A person, or small group, the special forces of the city government. A great CIO has a grasp of all of the equation, an understanding that the entire City must respond, at many levels, to the change that is occurring in the work force. A city such as San Leandro, where I live, has many disparate parts, and a lot of pluses, but, until recently, no clear path to using all of those pieces in a unified game plan to create opportunity and to understand what the City can and should become. In the case of San Leandro, a city that has neglected or mismanaged much of it's assets, this comes in the form of understanding that the change must be broad, across many parts of the cities culture. The work places, the social living places and the commercial spaces must all change, to keep the City vital.

If the City of San Leandro is to attract the businesses that will lead the next economy, then there must be places where the types of people who are going to create that economy can find food, housing, recreation, social interaction and safety, and that will be driven by the ability to focus on making innovating San Leandro and how it both is seen, and how it sees itself. Recent visits, triggered by our CIO, Deborah Acosta, has brought some of the leaders of the new guard into the City and to a person, these people have noted that San Leandro has 'the great bones' to be a center of growth. We can be the place that the next great business ideas incubate and grow organically. This is what innovation culture will ultimately be about, growing our own economy, not trying to attach our City's fate to some other economic engine.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

San Leandro Food Trucks

On Tuesday evening, San Leandro hosted it's first food truck event, sponsored by Food Truck Mafia, and located in the heart of downtown San Leandro. Although this site is eventually slated for use as a development, this location and this event, were to serve as the initial test of the idea that San Leandro could host an even such as this, and would set up future weekly visits of 8 to 10 food trucks to the downtown area. The obvious hope of an event such as this, beyond the excitement of the food, is that it offers a glimpse into the potential for a wider variety of food businesses in San Leandro, and if successful, illustrates that there is a demographic of people willing to support a broad selection of food options.

Present at this first event were trucks featuring a variety of foods, from sushi to burgers, hot dogs to ricotta lemon donuts and a lot of anything else you might want. I fear that I may have tasted something from every truck on site, something of a weakness, when I am presented with too many easy options. I hit the scene a little after 5:30 and this is what met me.

whoa, too many people

A solid crowd, to be sure, and it was good to see, despite my loathing of crowds, I wanted to see that
San Leandro would support this event, as I believe that when you create excitement in an urban core, with events such as this, you start to create an enduring sense of life in the space. One of the common complaints I hear, is that there are no good places to eat in San Leandro, and that people in this area do not want/support good food. While far from fine dining, food trucks are not cheap, and while this was novel for this location, many of the people I chatted with were familiar with at least a couple of these trucks, and were excited to be able to buy from them close to home. My interest, beyond what people thought, was how long would the crowd last. At 8:00 p.m. the crowd looked like this...

Still going strong

What of the food? Well, I am something of a food enthusiast, and I have a strong background in terms of cooking and eating. This is not elevated food, and to be sure, you can get more filling food for less money. So what is the 'thing' about what one of my neighbors referred to as 'fancy roach coaches', why have these trucks come to be so popular, and driven so much enthusiasm for a product that is neither a bargain, nor exceptional. They are a phenomenon, and something that I have yet to hear any solid ideas about, and that would include several contributions I have made to other articles about them. It is something of an oddity, many of these trucks are staffed with cook with real kitchen chops, some are producing exceptional street food, and in most cases, the food is quite creative, if sometimes kitschy. And yet, for a Tuesday night (death night in the restaurant trade), this really created buzz. Of course, going forward, over the next few weeks, will that be maintained, that is the real question.

In one way, I believe these trucks, and these types of events, appeal very heavily to the young Gen-X and Millennials, the plethora of options, the intense crowds and sense of being in the moment, I believe have a great attraction to people who have grown up in a time when technology and culture reward mobility and choice making. And to some degree, the idea that you can have it all. Looking at the crowd, there were many people with young children, and strollers, many families. In a very large sense, it appeals to people who are used to being 'on the move'. In much the same way that many of the great young minds who are becoming the new guard of our economy, people who are in love with the idea of a variety of experiences, cultures, places and times, see in these events the type of experience they seek. Not to sit down at one table for a leisurely dinner evening, but, to interact, touch and return, or move to the next group. In feeds on itself, making connections, eating fun food, turning the idea of dinner into it's own clubby feel, a shared moment. In the end, this is what our downtown needs to start providing, those moments that tie us to our City.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Community and Food

In my continuing interest about community vitalization, the idea of an innovation community and a focus on making San Leandro a center of what one might term 'New Economy' progress, the idea of where people who are drawn to our fair city will eat. There is often this sense that San Leandro is a desert (desert, not dessert) of good food options, and I will happily join in on these statements. But, with the coming of our first good truck event in just a day or so (San Leandro hosts Food Truck Mafia hits San Leandro tomorrow evening) I got to thinking about food resources in San Leandro. And I realized, there are some solid options in San Leandro, that we over look.

First off, my favorite haunt in the City, the Zocalo Coffeehouse, which my friends Tim and Mitch have run now for over 11 years, which will now be carried forward by Sara and Dan. While we will be temporarily be losing our home of great local coffee, the locally roasted beans will stay in San Leandro. I think a great city has to have it's own roasters, and Sara will continue to fill this niche. In the past, Sara and Mitch have brought us some great beans, the Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and a few other standouts, which I hope will once again become options once the roaster in located in it's new home.

There is also another old business, the Santos Spice Company, that provides both bulk and smaller consumer sizes of Indian, Pakistani and other exotic spices, that I think often get overlooked due to their being off the beaten path. So many of the people I regularly communicate with bemoan that they must buy their bulk spices from mail order, and here we are, with exotic spices of high quality, right in the center of our city.

Drake's Barrel House, another place that I think often gets over looked as coming from San Leandro, a city that has supported and been at the center of the home brewing movement in the United States. Drake's makes some of the best IPA in the country, and it has rapidly become a staple in finer beer establishments around California. Beyond that, we have Brewmaster and Williams Brewing, two home brewing shops in one city. Once again, I think we have some great resources here, and this is something that can be built upon.

I think these businesses, and many others, form a basis, for which future food industry can begin to see that San Leandro has the potential to be a food center for the innovators of the New Economy. One of the things that has come to the fore, is that there is a significant interest in San Leandro, as a potential demonstration city for urban farming and small farm product marketing. Now, this is where a city could reach out and start to create opportunities in a "new-old" model of food creation. With it's central location, tradition of agriculture, availability of open land and open buildings, a marketplace of locally grown, urban farmed and small farm curated agriculture products could become a hallmark of food economy for the Bay Area. In many cases, the key to creation and innovation is space, and the ability to link space, technology and people in such a way, that creativity is fostered. We may be the best city in the Bay Area to move forward on these ideas.