All posts by ioby

AWESOME PROJECT: Pedestrians and cyclists to storm West Colfax Avenue, Denver, on August 16th!

Jack Kerouac, who spent time on Colfax Avenue in the course of his travels, called it the “longest, wickedest road in America.” It may not be the wickedest, anymore, but many do say that it’s the longest commercial street in the world. Lined with historic hotels still sporting their fantastic midcentury modern neon signs, Colfax has welcomed lots of new businesses in recent years. Bus lines and a new light rail station (finished in 2013) on Colfax have made the Avenue more accessible than ever.

“Colfax Avenue is this major east-west connector in Denver,” says Jill Locantore of pedestrian advocacy organization WalkDenver. “It’s pretty storied in Denver’s history; before the interstate system was built, it was the major travel corridor through Denver. So there were tons of people who came across the country and were doing road trips and went along Colfax Avenue. But it’s really continued to evolve over time.”

Despite all the development and redevelopment happening on Colfax right now, though, it’s still not a street you’d really want to walk or bike. Not yet. It’s too massive and car-dominated. Even crossing the street on foot can be dangerous. That’s why WalkDenver – along with partners like Place/Matters, and an army of planning students from the University of Colorado – started collecting data last year on pedestrian-Colfax interactions. They created an app called WALKscope (which invites users to enter location-specific data on sidewalk quality, pedestrian counts, etc), to help them identify specific interventions that might make Colfax more bike and ped friendly.

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The findings led to meetings with public transit agencies, which in turn led to the creation of a HUGE AWESOME REIMAGINE WEST COLFAX EVENT coming up right around the corner, on August 16th. Picture one solid block of Colfax Ave transformed into pedestrian/cyclist/donut lovers heaven for the day, and that’s about what you’re gonna get:

1. Tito Malaga will be playing live gypsy flamenco.
2. The Klez Dispensers (best band name in the history of band names) will be playing, yep, Klezmer.
3. Pop-up parklets on the sides of Colfax – sort of like the ones in NYC’s Union Square.
4. Three City Councilmembers will be in attendance to celebrate and make some remarks.
5. Expect food trucks, pop up shops, Little Man ice cream, Great Divide beer (donated by the local brewery), AND
6. IF you complete the Tour De Donut pop-up protected bike lane loop – which will demonstrate three different kinds of protected bike lanes – you’ll get to nosh on free Voodoo Donuts. By the way, cyclists – City Councilman Paul Lopez has promised to bike the Tour De Donuts, so if you’ve ever wanted to enjoy a Captain my Captain with a local official, now’s your chance.

Not gonna lie – we’re kind of jealous.

OH WHAT A DIFFERENCE A LITTLE LIGHT MAKES
What feature are the folks of WalkDenver most excited about? “It may not sound that exciting,” says Locantore, “but we’re really excited about an enhanced pedestrian crossway that we’re putting in for the day. It’ll simulate a pedestrian activated traffic signal, so pedestrians push a button, a light flashes, and cars stop. We’re going to actually have rainbow colored crosswalks, to really highlight this as a pedestrian crossing area.”

How’s that for pedestrian visibility? There will also be a planted median refuge area in the middle of the street, so that you don’t have to make it all the way across in one go, as well as “bulbouts” at the ends of sidewalks, to further shorten the distance a pedestrian has to cross to get to the other side. It’s all about shrinking carspace and growing peoplespace.

And what about cars, you ask, if pedestrians are going to be crowned king for the day? “Cars are welcome as guests, but they need to slow down and respect the people on foot,” says Locantore. Awesome. That pretty much describes our dream city, here at ioby. If you see any crazy community organizers charging the streets of Brooklyn with signs telling cars that they’re “welcome as guests,” that’ll probably be us.

GUYS, THIS IS NOT A PIPE DREAM
The best news of all is that this stuff is not pie-in-the-sky. The changes that WalkDenver and their partners are implementing on Aug 16 are totally, completely, 100% feasible as long-term, permanent solutions.

“We didn’t want to demonstrate things that were just a fantasy and could never actually happen,” says Locantore, “so we very deliberately did a design workshop where we invited representatives from Denver Public Works, from the Regional Transportation District (the local transit agency), and from C-DOT (the state transportation agency). And we put them to work. We gave them an aerial photo of the block of Colfax that we we’re focusing on, and we told them to draw what they thought we could do to Colfax that would make it more pedestrian friendly that would actually be realistic and could be implemented down the road. So a lot of the ideas we’re testing out are ones that came directly out of that conversation with the agencies that would be responsible for permanent implementation.”

So come enjoy the day, meet some neighbors, eat some donuts, drink some beer, and then share your feedback via the video booth and story board that’ll be set up for you. YOUR VOICE MATTERS, and the organizers can’t wait to see you.

If WalkDenver’s work inspires you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Some great streets in LA are upping their games, too, and we’re helping them raise money to do it.

2014 Giving Report

That’s right: Our  2014 Giving Report  is now out! (We promise you, it was worth the wait.)

In it, you’ll find:
• Stories from our 2014 ioby Heroes, awesome ioby Leaders who worked to improve their neighborhoods from Denver to Livonia, GA;
• A look at 2014 by the numbers (Wondering how many new projects were launched? How many BBQ restaurants our staff tried in Memphis?);
• Why we’re excited to look beyond the grassroots to the “Deep Roots”;
• A one-stop shop for ioby resources, with how-to guides covering everything from Green Infrastructure to Throwing Killer Galas!
…And much more!

Click here to view the 2014 Giving Report.

 

AWESOME PROJECT: Protected Bike Lanes Coming to the Mile-High City… Sooner Than You Think

Oh hey, people who want to bike safely to work, and people who hate traffic, and people who like clean air, and people who want our coastal cities not to be underwater in 100 years:

Would it surprise you to know that Copenhagen itself, that shining eco mecca of robust and teeming protected bike lanes – bike highways, really – was not always so? That up to the 1960’s, Copenhagen, too, according to People for Bikes, was just as jam-packed with smelly cars as the rest of the developed world is?

Well, yes. It was that late in the game that the bike-heaven of the world turned it around, creating vast networks of protected bike lanes and clearing public squares of cars. Think we can do it, too?

Signs point to yes. In fact, lots of the cool kids already are. New York is doing it, Chicago’s doing it, Minneapolis is doing it. Memphis, a city particularly dear to our hearts, is doing it. And here’s some very exciting news: up next to the plate is a city that for many of us probably still calls up images of SUV’s packed with outdoorsy gear, rather than of bicycles. Time to throw out your old ideas about the mile-high city; cyclists, meet the new Denver.

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By this summer, two major protected bike lanes will have opened, with many more to follow.

The imminent changes are thanks in part to Aylene McCallum, Transportation & Research Manager at non-profit Downtown Denver Partnership, and her D.D.P. colleagues. About a year ago, McCallum and her boss approached the city of Denver to say that they planned to crowd-resource money to design some protected bike lanes for downtown. City officials immediately jumped in to partner on the project, and to greatly expand its scope.

“The city said, well, wait a second. Why don’t you let us do a protected bike lane plan. We’ll fund it,” says McCallum. “We’ll focus on downtown, but we’ll do it for the entire city. And how about you use the money that you raise to accelerate the implementation of one of the corridors that we identify in this bike lane plan? So we said ok, we’ll do that.”

In an incredibly streamlined and speedy fundraising push, McCallum personally approached local businesses that stood to benefit from the increased bike and foot traffic the protected lane would bring them. She approached, in other words, people who were already stakeholders in the project, but didn’t know it yet.

“You can’t just get a story on a blog or just get a story even in the newspaper or just get a story on TV,” says McCallum. “That’s not going to bring you to your goal. You have to set aside some time to send out personal emails and personal phone calls, and that’s really what makes the difference. We pulled lists of companies that were directly on the route, on Arapahoe Street and on the adjacent corridors, and did the majority of our outreach to those companies.”

The money was raised in no time, at which point a community meeting was held, and a straw poll taken to determine which major roads residents wanted to tackle first. McCallum says it was the most fun she’s ever had at a public meeting; the poll was a hit. Arapahoe Street won, and a summer 2015 opening is slated for the new protected lane, along with it’s sister lane, which will run on a parallel street, in the opposite direction.

McCallum is herself exactly the kind of Denver resident and hopeful cyclist that she wishes were out pedaling on the roads. She’s what she calls an “interested but concerned” cyclist. She’d like to bike to her work in downtown Denver, but with two young children and a husband at home, it simply isn’t worth the risk. The city still doesn’t quite feel safely broken in for cyclists.

“I’m a mom now, I have two kids,” says McCallum. “A lot of people that work in downtown have families and are really worried about their safety, but they want to ride bikes because they’re active people and they want to use active transportation more. They’re concerned about their safety in Downtown with the high volumes of traffic, and distracted drivers. You want a little bit more protection.”

Looks like McCallum and her many interested but concerned peers won’t have to wait long; maybe we’re not as far behind Copenhagen as it seems. For a map of the new protected lane site, and lots more info, check out the Arapahoe Street Protected Bike Lane ioby campaign page.

ICYMI John Bela, Tactical Urbanism, City Government & the Role of Citizens

Tactical urbanism projects serve the public good, from making it safer for families in Memphis to cross a busy street to giving bus riders in Lithonia a more enjoyable commute. In case you missed it, John Bela’s piece in Next City last week gave a fantastic look at how cities like San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia are incorporating some of the tenets of tactical urbanism into their capital programs. Here at ioby, we’ve been following this trend with keen interest, and have been particularly inspired by local government support for inspiring citizen-led projects in the City of Memphis and Shelby County.

Tommy Pacello, Director of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team in Memphis, says that the city is interested in taking up the role of tactician in placemaking projects. “What we have seen in Memphis is local government embracing the idea of testing ideas before they invest in them,” say Pacello. “From re-tooling intersections to be more responsive to the needs of pedestrians to temporary road diets that slow down traffic while prototyping new bicycle infrastructure. The city is using inexpensive materials, typically just paint and plastic bollards, to allow the public to engage with the proposed improvements before they become permanent.”

Pacello points to two examples that illustrate the city’s approach to iterative placemaking. At an intersection in South Memphis that sees heavy pedestrian traffic, the city used paint and plastic bollards to temporarily enhance a highly trafficked intersection with a better crosswalk and bump-outs. Then, after a year of studying the effects of the treatment, the city is planning to make the improvements permanent. In Downtown Memphis, the City used similarly inexpensive materials to test a road diet – complete with protected bike lanes and additional pedestrian space – on Riverside Drive. Now the City is measuring community response for a year and plans to make permanent improvements based on community feedback.

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In acting as a tactician, Memphis has established itself as a leader among cities looking to incorporate design thinking into its approach to problem solving. At the same time, citizens in Memphis have demonstrated the same level of commitment to taking a measured, incremental approach to public space transformation.

Back in 2010, neighbors in Binghampton – a neighborhood that suffered from severe disinvestment after the construction of I-40 cut right through the heart of it – came together to reimagine Broad Avenue, the community’s historic main street thoroughfare. Inspired by the Better Block method, the community planned “New Face for an Old Broad,” a two-day intervention followed by a series of many more small, low-risk projects meant to help neighbors, businesses, and government imagine this stretch of Broad Avenue as a thriving commercial corridor. They painted protected bike lanes, staged pop-ups in vacant storefronts, and invited musicians and artists to provide cultural programming. The event was a tremendous success, and heralded $2.5 million in private investment in the next year alone. Four years later, the commercial district boasted 95% occupancy and a total of nearly $40 million in private investment.

The city, inspired by this citizen-led movement, worked with local cycling advocates, businesses, and the team at Livable Memphis to raise the funds to make that bike lane on Broad Avenue permanent. This two-way protected bike lane is part of what is now known as the Hampline, and the majority of it was paid for by a combination of federal, state, city, and private funds. But in late 2013, when the team behind the Hampline realized that they were about $70,000 short of meeting their target, they turned to neighbors on ioby for support. Later that year, the team had raised enough in citizen philanthropy to begin the timely installation of the bike lane.

Bela poses a series of questions often posed by those who are skeptical of government involvement in guerrilla interventions:

But what happens when city bureaucracies and private developers adopt the tactics of guerilla artists. Do they lose their potency and radical potential? Do they actually result in more resilient and just neighborhoods? Can tactical urbanism catalyze institutional change?

Bela outlines concerns that skeptics have voiced about the public sector turning to tactical urbanism. Namely, some are worried about governments that are increasingly relying on private partners to supply the resources, while communities have always relied on government to ensure the equitable distribution of public resources. This messaging problem poses some challenges for proponents of tactical urbanism, which is founded in principles of equity and the importance of broad civic engagement.

At ioby, we believe that an important role of government is to facilitate and encourage citizen-led interventions in neighborhoods with histories of disinvestment. Municipal government is uniquely positioned to create a permitting and regulatory environment that is favorable to the tactical urbanist, and eliminate barriers to would-be leaders in priority neighborhoods.

Based on nearly five years of working with more than 750 leaders, we’ve learned a few things about the psyche of the self-starting urbanist. Specifically we have found that people with great ideas to improve their neighborhoods are put off by two significant barriers: First, a lack of confidence, bred by a limited knowledge of permitting procedures and a fear being penalized for staging a public space intervention; and second, a lack of timely, right-sized funding.

ioby’s crowd-resourcing platform funnels capital from the neighborhood – financial, social, and in-kind – to citizen-led projects. ioby offers neighborhood leaders the tools and guidance that they need to bring their ideas to life. Still, even equipped with resources and support, onerous and intimidating permitting requirements are roadblocks that prevent leaders in underinvested neighborhoods from taking on tactical urbanism projects.

A year into our partnership with Memphis, we are excited to build on this innovative way that we have worked with government to support tactical urbanists. Right now, ioby is working with the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability to find ways to find, encourage, and support Memphians looking to make their neighborhoods stronger and more livable. Together, we hope to build a system that will integrate ioby’s crowd-resourcing platform into a neighborhood visioning process.

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Thanks to StreetPlans for this useful graphic about the Top Down, Bottom Up cycle of citizen and government interactions in tactical urbanism.

As communities work with the Office of Sustainability and their partners to develop long-term goals for their neighborhoods, ioby will equip them with fundraising and organizing tools they need to take on shorter-term projects toward their visions. If successful, city and county government will be able to keep an eye on these initiatives taking form, deploy resources where needed, and expedite approvals where possible. Through our partnership, ioby hopes to facilitate the “measure, test, refine” model made famous by pioneers like Bela.

As they aim to encourage tacticians engaging in iterative placemaking, cities like Memphis could reorient their procedures and policies to accommodate leaders in neighborhoods where obstacles to civic participation are most significant. To sum our reply to Bela’s questions, the involvement of city government does not threaten the integrity of the tactical urbanism movement. In fact, we boldly suggest that with the right kind of thoughtful public investment and policy adjustment, governments can grow and diversify the legions of tacticians that are taking root in cities across the country.

 

AWESOME PROJECT: Save Farm School NYC!

Onika Abraham, dubbed one of “Mother Nature’s Daughters,” in a recent New York Times piece on the booming NYC urban agriculture movement, came to Farm School NYC as a teacher, initially. She’d been in food justice circles for some time, and knew a little about the school, about the 20 urban ag courses – ranging from botany to irrigation to animal husbandry to advocacy – that they ran each year. She knew that they hired wonderful farmers to teach those much-needed courses to a socio-economically diverse student body, and that they ran a certificate program for their most committed students.

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It made perfect sense that she was pulled in a few years ago, by some of her food justice peers, to co-teach a Farm School core course called “Transformational Leadership”: an intense, retreat-style course that explores the idea of leadership as service, and marks the last time that a particular cohort of certificate students will be together, before they disperse to complete their apprenticeships around the five boroughs, and then spread out to disseminate their newly acquired urban farming expertise.

The surprise for Abraham was that the course transformed her. The students, quite simply, wowed her. She was bowled over – moved by their passion, and by the strong support network they’d formed with each other. She was sold on Farm School NYC; these were, no question, the kinds of people she wanted to work with.

“The people who are drawn to the mission of Farm School—the mission to use agriculture as a means of building communities, self-sustaining communities, communities that address inequities and social-economic and racial injustice—people who respond to that type of mission are some really incredible human beings,”says Abraham, “And that’s what really drew me in.”

Just Food Farm School Visits Brooklyn Grange

So when she learned last year that the director of Farm School was leaving to pursue her lifelong dream and become a farmer, Abraham rushed to apply. “Sometimes we walk by community gardens and we think, ‘oh that looks so beautiful,’ and ‘what a lovely smell,’ and ‘isn’t that better than seeing an empty lot,’” says Abraham. “And those are important benefits of these gardens, but people who see the potential of those spaces as being places to create equitable community as well as wonderful, healthy, affordable food. I think people who are drawn to that really come prepared to work hard.”

She came prepared to work hard, too, which was a good thing, because as fate would have it, Abraham found, just a few months after taking up her new position as director, an enormous challenge sitting on her desk, staring her down. Farm School NYC had hit a rough spot, financially. A very rough spot. The U.S.D.A grant that had sustained Farm School NYC by covering nearly 90% of its budget for the first three years of its life had, to everyone’s shock and dismay, not been renewed in 2014.

The school needed to come up with another way to survive, to move ahead with the 20 courses slated for 2015, to continue to pay their teachers and farmers the same good salary as ever, and to draw up a blueprint for a completely new operating model for years to come. It was an opportunity to create a more financially sustainable business model for the school, to be sure, but a daunting one.

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The good news is that that passionate community that drew Abraham in is as alive as ever – as evidenced especially by the army of volunteers who show up to do everything from enter teacher evaluation data to scout out floating classrooms around the five boroughs. After the bad news hit, some of the school’s teachers and farmers even stepped up to declare that they wanted to teach for free, this year. And though the school has had to put its certificate program on hiatus – they don’t want to accept the next class of certificate candidates until a clearer picture of the school’s future is in place – dozens of people not in the certificate program are signing up to take courses on an individual basis this year, and most of those students already on the certificate track have made the decision to keep right on with their courses of study, undeterred.

Meantime, via an emergency ioby campaign (“Save Farm School NYC!”), the school has turned to its own community and to the larger food justice community in an effort to bridge the gap, while it brushes itself off and gets back on its feet. So far, almost $11,000 of the $25,785 goal has been raised, which means that, at the very least, classes will run in 2015.

“We’re operating regardless,” says Abraham, “and we’ve reached the target that’s the absolute bare minimum target in order to operate in 2015, but we still need the funds.”

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So, the rest of that $25,000, you ask. Why’s it needed? Abraham explains: “The issue becomes, what is suffering because of the cuts we have to make in order to survive? What would be suffering is really the opportunity for us to build a sustainable model for the school. Farm School has such a committed and passionate community behind it, but that is nothing to take for granted and nothing to deplete, and it’s not a sustainable way to grow the school. So I think what we’re really aiming for by naming the $25,000 target, and exceeding that target hopefully in the next year, is to build the capacity for us to be able to really think through a visioning process that can create a sustainable model for the school, for 2016 and for the years to come. That’s what I mean when I say ‘save farm school.’”

If, on the other hand, fundraising stopped right here, and the school were forced to go absolutely bare bones for 2015 – nothing but the usual 20 classes, and paying teachers – then the longer-term future of the school starts to look shaky.

One of the reasons that it’s so important to save Farm School NYC is that the school truly serves the city. All of the city. “We try really hard to reflect the demographics of New York City, and the five boroughs. We mean that geographically, racially, and socio-economically,” says Abraham. “Part of our mission is to serve those communities that are most impacted by food injustice and other types of injustice in the city, so we work hard to support people in lower income brackets.”

The school calculates tuition on a sliding scale, based on household income, the result of which is that about 50% of their students come in at the most subsidized level, or lowest income bracket. “We’re totally committed to that,” says Abraham. “We feel like people who come from these communities are going to go back to their communities and spread this work.”

As valuable as the actual learning that Farm School graduates take away is the support network they gain. One student in the very first Farm School cohort, Raphael, moved out of the city and up to Ithaca upon graduation, and now runs a goat farm. He’s in his second season; it’s hard work, but he was prepared. “He definitely went in with his eyes open,” says Abraham. “I think that having the  education, the foundation and the community of Farm School was helpful for him in establishing himself up there. Having that network to help him find land and finance things I think was really helpful.”

But the staff at Farm School NYC don’t want to be prescriptive about how their graduates go on to put their educations to use. “I really want to see that people are bringing this back to community in some way,” says Abraham. “To me, that’s the most important part of what we’re trying to convey. I think that’s one of the reasons that the first class that students take in Farm School is something called Training of Trainers, and the whole point of it is that we really want to make sure that people understand that we have every expectation that they’re going to be sharing the trainings.”

Making a living in urban ag is a tough row to hoe. No two ways about that. “It’s definitely possible, but it’s hard, as a lot of labors of love are difficult,” says Abraham. All the more reason to save Farm School NYC, and support those who support our urban farmers; it’s some of the best help they get. To donate, and to learn more, click here.

Lastly, if all of this is making you want to dip your own toes into urban ag, here’s a little taste of some of the courses that’ll be on offer (and open to the general public) in 2015:

  • Food Justice
  • Botany – Taught by a Brooklyn Botanic Garden curator.
  • Propagation – everything you ever wanted to know about SEEDS.
  • Growing Soils – composting, soil science, microbes, and more.
  • Irrigation – you’ll get to build an irrigation system in a community garden.
  • Carpentry – Taught by a power-tool-wielding woman! And you’ll leave having built raised growing beds in an NYC community.

 

 

 

AWESOME PROJECT: Help send passionate NYC cyclists to Seattle, for Youth Bike Summit 2015, to connect with their larger community!

Joe Matunis is a lifelong cyclist; he grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where he had the wide-open space to discover the joys of biking very early in life. So after 20 years as a science teacher at Williamsburg’s El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, it made perfect sense that he launch a bike club for his students. Most El Puente scholars commute from East New York – that’s over an hour on public transit, even on a good day – and don’t have access to a culture of fitness. The girls especially, Matunis says, because they don’t tend to be as interested in basketball as the guys are, are coming into the high school at healthy weights and leaving overweight. He wanted to get his students moving, and he wanted them to experience the sense of freedom, mastery, autonomy, renewal, confidence, and clarity of mind that he’d always known a good ride could bring.

Cut to two years later, and already the El Puente bike squad is unrecognizable. Kids who’d never stepped onto a bike, who’d been leery of all the gear changing and signal-giving and hectic traffic, who’d been maxed out after just a couple of miles in the saddle, are identifying as cyclists. They’re talking about going to colleges where they can bike. They’re joining in for the one weekday morning ride that Matunis guides (before classes start, as the DOT won’t let students ride with teachers during school hours) and the long weekend ride. They’re logging hours upon hours taking apart, tinkering with, and learning to fix up old frames donated to Recycle a Bicycle, and eventually earning their own first bikes to keep. They’re racing the 40-mile Tour de Bronx. And they’re asking for more.

IMG_9641A  critical turning point for his students in that journey, says Matunis, was attending, last year, the annual Youth Bike Summit. The 2014 summit happened to take place at home, here in New York, so they took the leap even though they were just getting started. “A lot of them had just started riding,” says Matunis. “They were really novices. And a lot of the other kids at the summit really clearly identified as bikers. They wore biking gear and were talking about all the rides they’d done.”

That exposure to youth bike culture, says Matunis, was hugely important for his students, and absolutely inspired them to up their game. They started taking longer rides, reaching higher. They started to feel a part of a larger movement – one that’s unquestionably heating up in NYC right now. One rebel El Puente cyclist, who’d always refused to join in for the long group rides because he didn’t want to wear a “dorky” helmet, even began to change his tune there. Here were hordes of kids at the summit, from all over the country, comparing this helmet to that one as if there were no cooler headgear on the planet.

This year, the Youth Bike Summit is taking place in Seattle, which is a long way away for a school with not a lot of money to burn. But Matunis and the El Puente squad won’t be deterred. They’re forging ahead, and they need your help. Here’s their ioby campaign, which includes an awesome short video with interviews from core quad members.

Here’s why they really, really need to get to Seattle this year: they have an important message to share with the youth cycling community. In fact, they’re already on the docket for an El Puente presentation on how biking reduces stress. It all started when Matunis began asking his students to do a little journaling after their school-morning rides, and noticed an incredible trend. These kids were completely, intuitively aware of all the science on biking and on exercise. That is to say, they wrote – unprompted – about how the rides were reducing their stress levels. They wrote about how they looked forward to the rides, how biking was helping to relieve their stress with family, with schoolwork. And these students are no strangers to stress. “There’s a lot of single parents who are struggling with bills,” says Matunis. “All of them live in East New York, which is a long commute. Trains are unreliable.”

Matunis brought his observation to the students, who decided to formally investigate the relationship between stress-relief and biking. A core group of four girls and one guy went ahead and polled the entire high school, compiling and analyzing their research. Tellingly, this is all extra-curricular work. They’re doing it not for credit, but for passion. They’ll present the fruits of their labor in Seattle on the weekend of Feb 13-15.

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It’s a real thrill, says Matunis, to see his students going back to the summit this year as pros now, not just as cyclists, but also as knowledgeable bike policy and fitness advocates. “They’re pretty knowledgeable now about the environmental benefits, the physical and mental health benefits. They know about the issues with the education system and the need to advocate to get bicycling in schools. So I think they’re really excited to share what they know.”

Also on the docket for this year’s Summit – they’ll be presenting a documentary titled Bicycle Stories: what my bicycle means to me, my family, my community, my planet – is another group of NYC students racing against time to raise funds for their trip to Seattle. The International High School at Union Square is a fascinating place. With students coming from literally all over the world, many from regions of conflict, you’ll hear more than 30 languages spoken in the corridors of the ambitious school. That makes biking, for those students involved (roughly ¼ of the 300-something student body are involved in the cycling program in some capacity, whether that be taking the actual rides, or working on the bikes, or getting into cycling advocacy) something of a universal language, and certainly a bit of relief from the enormous stress of recent immigration.

“This is an immersion program, so it’s really exhausting for students to be in school that’s conducted in a foreign language all day,” says Meredith Klein, the math teacher who founded and runs the bike club. “I think a lot of them feel like when they can just go do something physical outside with their friends, where they’re not being asked to be constantly producing language, I think that’s a really cool way for them to relate to each other, and for us to relate to them.”

Klein herself grew up in New Jersey, but didn’t really discover biking until she moved to the city to teach. She remembers one particularly transformative ride, which saw her soaring through Chinatown at night. She sounds awe-struck when she describes how different the city suddenly looked to her, from her new vantage point. It wasn’t long before she was a fully-fledged convert, commuting to work by bike, along with many of her fellow teachers.

“The kids see us with our bikes in the halls,” she says. “One day, a student asked me if I could teach him how to ride a bike. Any time a kid asks for something like that, I try to find it. So I was just emailing all over the place, and ended up in touch with Bike New York. That’s how it started.”

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For Klein’s students, a bike is often not just a way to get from A to B, but a way of going back in time – to childhood, and to the bikes they’ve had to leave behind in their home countries. One student, originally from Senegal, arrived as a ninth grader with almost no English, but immediately approached his teachers to say: “bike, I need a bike.” He’d had to leave his at home, and desperately missed that feeling of being able to map his own course. He’s now a 10th grader, and in the process of earning a bike through Recycle A Bicycle’s earn-a-bike program, and (see the photo below of him tuning it up!) could not possibly be more devoted to his new friend.

It’s precisely because of that kind of devotion and kinship that Klein’s students decided to make a documentary about their relationships to their bicycles, and to share their stories with the national youth bike community. They’re making the film on a budget of exactly zero, but desperately need to raise the rest of the money that they need to see them through the weekend in Seattle. Airfare is bought and covered, but they need $1,500 more to cover rooms at Hosteling International (which has given the group a generous discount) and meals. Imagine sending two teachers and four students to Seattle for an entire weekend – on only $3,000 total! That’s what we call some serious budgeting, so you can feel super confident that your donation will go a LONG, long way. Like, 40-mile, Tour de Bronx long. Click here to donate, and to read more about the documentary.

Matunis and Klein come from such different schools, but ask them about why they launched their respective bike clubs, and you’ll hear the exact same unbridled enthusiasm in their voices. They are beyond proud of their young cyclists, beyond thrilled to have been able to bring the much-needed joys of biking – and the biking community – to their schools.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Klein. “I love teaching math, but I just love doing this. We’re building this together. It’s coming out of a need that the students have. I feel really lucky to be in a place where the school is supportive of it, and the kids are excited about it, and want it, and that we have these great community partners. That Recycle a Bicycle and Bike New York even exist is changing lives.”

The summit this year falls on Valentines Day Weekend – Feb 13-15. What could be more fitting, given how these young NYC cyclists have fallen for the freedom of a simple bike ride? Something tells us that this’ll be a lifelong love affair for them, so please consider helping Matunis and Klein reach their goals just in the nick of time. This week’s the final crunch. $150 covers hostel fees for one of Klein’s students at Hosteling International, and $200 covers meals for one of her students. But every little bit counts. It’s in the name of true love!

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Getting Good Done in the Cold & Snow

Those of us in the northeast are currently bracing for Winter Storm Juno, which is slated to pummel us tonight and into tomorrow. But even if you’re not facing a blinding blizzard, late January is still a perfect time to hunker down with a cup of hot cocoa and catch up on your reading.

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To this end, we’re very pleased to drop our latest resource guide to getting good done tonight. The ioby Getting Good Done Guides illustrates five projects any community can accomplish together in five steps.

This one is all about the unique opportunities winter affords for cool communal involvement; it’s called In The Cold. Where else can you learn how to build an all-season outdoor pavilion, throw a successful winter event in your community garden, and harness snow to help your city make improvements to pedestrian infrastructure?

That’s right: nowhere.

We recommend letting it download while you mix up your cocoa, then enjoying both from the comfort of a warm set of flannel pj’s.

We’re always grateful to the esteemed contributors who make our guides possible, and to our readers, who send us actionable feedback and heartening stories about their experiences. Please keep your messages coming!

Please stay safe during the storm, too. There will be a great need for snow-person building later this week!

AWESOME PROJECT: Lifting Prince George’s County out of poverty and into the green job economy

You wouldn’t know it yet, to look at the empty storefront at 825 Southern Avenue SE, but there’s a green movement afoot there. Soon to become the face of Prince George’s Green Hub, a new non-profit devoted to green job training, the space is situated in a struggling commercial development in the primarily African American Washington Highlands area of Prince George’s County, Maryland. It’s a short 20-minute drive from the White House, but socioeconomically speaking, it’s worlds away.

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It’s also worlds away in terms of awareness of issues around sustainability, in terms of environmental justice, and in terms of inclusion in today’s green economy. Green news site Grist.org recently ran a piece full of abysmal stats that pointed toward all the ways in which African Americans have been locked out of the green economy. Just for starters: African Americans make up 12% of the US labor workforce, but (in 2013) only about 6% of the solar workforce. Prince George’s County is a perfect example: green jobs simply have not been on the community’s radar.

Resident Lisa Lincoln has a big problem with those numbers. She’s the woman behind the operation at Prince George’s Green Hub, and she’s on a fierce mission to bring green job training to her community. “For people in Prince George’s County who are suffering from a bad economy,” she says, “this is an opportunity that they’re just not necessarily aware of. So I decided to launch a non-profit to do some green awareness building and some workforce development training, and help some entrepreneurs get started with new green businesses.”

A green consultant with seven years of experience in grant writing and green project management, Lincoln knows the field inside and out. She recently worked on a massive weatherization program in the community, with a budget of $200,000 in its first year, $400,000 in its second, $600,000 in its third. “It really makes a difference for folks when their energy bills go down and their home is more comfortable,” she says of that project.

But before she can really get going at full throttle with the new green hub, it’ll need to be outfitted with the basics. A former laundry and cleaning operation, there hadn’t been a need before for an HVAC system, so right now there’s literally no heating in place. “If I want to run classes and help start up businesses, we need to have heat,” says Lincoln.

The hub will also need a storefront renovation, as the space still bears the scars of the multiple break-ins it’s seen over the years: broken glass, and a facade in desperate need of repair. Lastly, it’ll need classroom furniture. For all three, Lincoln has turned to crowd-resourcing, and to ioby. The project is past its halfway mark, with just about $2,000 to go. The space itself has been generously donated, for the hub’s first year of operation, by the mall’s developer.

Lincoln already knows which part of the green economy she’ll hone in on first: storm water management training. And for very, very practical reasons. The Chesapeake Bay region, which includes Prince George’s County, is currently under a federal mandate to clean up its watershed. “Right now there’s a lot of emphasis on urban storm water management,” explains Lincoln. In response, Prince George’s County has helped to develop a $100M public-private partnership with Corvias Solutions, through which it will be implementing and retrofitting 8,000 acres for storm water management, over the next 30 years.

“This is a big project,” Lincoln says, “because not only is it the design and the building of rain gardens and green roofs and things like that, but it’s also the maintenance of those storm water utilities. So that’s where the hot jobs are. The hot topic right now is storm water management.”

What does it all add up to? The county is predicting 5,000 new green jobs. That means landscaping, building rain gardens, building green roofs. Installing cistern to collect rainwater. It means all the construction work that goes along with installing paving systems that can handle storm water. It means knowing what’s a beneficial native plant, and what’s a weed that needs to be pulled because it’ll interfere with water filtration. And it means a lot, a lot of maintenance.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust has already awarded Lincoln a grant to develop a clean water class, which she’s slated to teach at the Prince George’s Community College this spring. She’s hoping that the new green hub will, in addition to being a classroom in itself, draw new students from the community into that clean water class.

She’s also slated to start offering green jobs training in a nearby correctional facility, preparing inmates to interview for jobs in, of course, storm water management, but also clean energy, the local food movement, and recycling. “That has the added benefit that when you give somebody a job,” she says, “they are much less likely to go back into the correctional system. So it’s a win for the environment, it’s a win for the economy, and it’s a win for decreasing crime.”

Lincoln’s green agenda is new to the community, no doubt about it, but it’s quickly garnering excitement. She remembers one particular day – a very cold day, so cold that in the absence of a heating system, they had to cut the class short – when she happened to be down at the hub teaching a green careers workshop. “There was one kid,” Lincoln remembers, “26 years old, and he said ‘Lisa, I’m working at Walmart on the night shift, and I cannot feed my family of four.’ So I said, ‘well, you need a green job!’” That student is now considering taking the clean water class, and looking into training for storm water management jobs.

Other folks have stopped by when Lincoln’s been puttering around the hub, fixing things up or making plans to install solar power on the roof, and asked her what she’s up to, how they can get involved. “So I think that once the doors are open, they will come,” she says. “If I build it, they will come. We need to have clean water everywhere, and water is such a precious commodity. It’s probably next on the horizon for the world crisis, and so we need to protect our water as much as possible. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurial activity. I’m excited about all the possibilities.”

To learn more, and to donate, visit the Prince George’s Green Hub campaign page. Let’s keep Lincoln and her students and entrepreneurs toasty warm through this cold winter, and then see what good green things sprout up come spring.

AWESOME PROJECT: Friends of Van Cortlandt Park Are Giving Their Garden a Makeover

Hey New Yorkers, did you know that there are over 20 miles of hiking trails in Van Cortlandt Park, up in the Bronx? That its 1,146 acres contain a golf course, a stable, and a house that George Washington slept in? That you can still go there and find green spaces that are actually wild?

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New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing their city like the back of their hands, but few of us know that the third largest park in the big apple is the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park. A New York Times article shed light last year on why most New Yorkers don’t know parks like Van Cortlandt as well as they should, and why parks in the outer boroughs have historically gotten so much less attention – and money – than Central Park has. In a nutshell: wealthy donors tend to live near, and therefore feel most invested in, the parks that are already doing quite well, which has left the others pretty much out in the cold.

That hasn’t stopped the tireless Friends of Van Cortlandt Park (FVCP), a nonprofit founded in 1992 in response to exactly that problem, from giving Van Cortlandt the TLC, the respect, and the use that it deserves. They do incredible work in sustainability, forest restoration, and urban gardening in their beloved green space, and have evolved over the years to become the park’s primary free educational organization. Each year, they teach more than 5,000 students – and not just children, but adults as well.

Of the many programs they offer, one in particular is skyrocketing right now. “Our garden program has quickly become our most popular program,” says FVCP executive director Christina Taylor. “We get more volunteers on our garden days than we do on our forest restoration days. Everyone loves it.” FVCP’s garden is an ideal place for parents to bring their kids and show them how tomatoes come from soil and sun, not from the grocery store; it’s a controlled and contained, and yet wild, natural classroom. The perfect balance. “Something as simple as counting the cucumbers that are growing – they love it. With the compost bins, they get to see worms and hold worms,” says Taylor, of the sheer delight that the garden has brought to its littlest stakeholders.

Older kids are getting in on the fun, too. FVCP, through a partnership with Grow NYC, helps to run green markets for youths in the neighborhood, scraps from which come back to the garden to be composted. There are other signs that the neighbors want to get more involved with FVCP’s garden: they’re showing up with their own kitchen scraps at Taylor’s office door. Literally. “People will show up at the door with food scraps,” she says, “and be like ‘hey, is there room in your freezer?’” In the summer, if she happens to have been offsite for a few days, unexpected compost drop-offs can result in pungent mishaps. But Taylor laughs when she talks about it; carting spoiled compost to the trash may stink, but it shows that people are hooked. Garden-mania in the neighborhood, in other words, is at a fever pitch.

The problem is that the current garden needs a face-lift. Its first 400 sq. ft. raised growing bed was built on the cheap, of low-quality wood, in 2008, and is badly rotted. Well-loved shovels, rakes, and other tools are breaking down left and right, literally losing their handles. From our perspective, this is all a good sign: FVCP’s garden has run through its first round of equipment and is going stronger than ever. We can imagine the hundreds of stories of positive community change told by each dent, each missing handle, each rusted piece of equipment.

But new shovels don’t grow on trees, so FVCP is raising money through ioby for round two. Hand pruners, rakes, wheelbarrows, you name it. “We’d also like to get a new storage container to put these tools in that we’re buying,” says Taylor. “Right now our storage for the tools ends up being that we lay them on the ground and put the wheelbarrow on top of them, and that’s how we protect them from rain.” Not a rust-proof system. For the raised bed that needs rebuilding, the money will go to fresh lumber (of a much hardier quality, this time), brackets, and soil to mix with the compost.

“We’ve been thrilled with the response,” says Taylor, of the campaign. “We’re about two thirds of the way right now, we just have to meet another $700. We’ll definitely be able to replace the garden bed, and at this point it’s just determining how many tools we can buy.”

So pitch in a shovel or a rake for the holidays, all ye New Yorkers who talk about there being no green space in our city. This is one of those wonderful cases in which you can see very concretely how far your donation will go: $10 or so for a new shovel, which will see the fingerprints of hundreds of happy Bronx gardeners over the years to come. And check out the hugely exciting 20-year master plan recently put together by NYC Parks for Van Cortlandt; it includes plans for a community garden at least five or six times the size of the current site. Onward!