July 26, 2013

Car-free in a small town: Wengen, Switzerland

It's relatively easy for large cities like Rome to become very livable by declaring a car-free zone: population densities are so high that it pays, on many levels, to have a dense public transportation network that operates frequently and inexpensively. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also easy for very small villages to go car-free: nothing is far away, and everything in the village is easily accessible on foot.

Very few small villages have the gumption to declare themselves completely car free: The entire planet is dotted with tiny hamlets literally embracing some throughway (the "Main Street") where cars and trucks tear through on their way from elsewhere to somewhere else, leaving only exhaust in their wake. Even Transition Town Totnes at the edge of Dartmoor, one of the most progressively green small towns, has so far only declared a single car-free day, in September 2012.

In contrast, many small towns in mountainous Switzerland have the advantage that they have always been hard to reach by car, and a few have an additional economic motivation to remain car-free altogether, peace and quiet being part of their brand. The valley of Lauterbrunnen is dotted with small villages that are completely car-free year round, like Mürren, the ski resort where Sir Arnold Lunn laid out the first competitive slalom course.

On the other side of the valley, the town of Wengen has a permanent population of 1300. It is perched on a ledge on the valley wall, 400m above Lauterbrunnen in the valley floor, and nearly 1000m below Männlichen on the nearest ridge above. You can get there by cog train, by cable car, by hiking or by skiing.

July 18, 2013

"I Go to the Gas Station Once a Month"

Welcome to the July 2013 Natural Living Blog Carnival: Inspiring Change in Others.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month, our members are talking about how they inspire others to make positive changes in their lifestyles. If you have tips to share, feel free to comment on all of the posts! And maybe you'll walk away with a few tips you can use in your own life.


"You go to the gas station once a month?" My good friend Elise, who normally takes my word for granted, is unable to hide her incredulity. I give her my usual line about how, while I like the guys at the station, I do hand over a wad of cash every time I see them; so once a month is enough, thanks. "Once a month," I hear her mutter, again. We go on to talk about other things, but I do believe I made an impression, even on my friend who is already very green.

It's not easy to spread the word about climate change in such a way that people are willing to listen. This issue is so deeply enmeshed with our security that we simply don't want to hear the bad news. It's like trying to talk to Californians about the risk of earthquakes: they just smile and change the conversation.

Denial is built into our psyche, a safe place to hide behind when we are not ready to face really scary stuff, like our mortality - or the fate of the blue ball we call home. I mean, it's so much easier - and more pleasant - to think about the next smartphone you're going to buy, than to deal with the feeling of depression and helplessness in the face of a problem that's literally the size of a planet.

I'm no psychologist, I couldn't help anyone past their denial stage; so I prefer to go around that. Instead, I like to point out that green living can save a bundle of money. This is certainly true in the long run, and very often gives instant gratification as well. Besides, saving money is something that everybody recognises as a good thing.

My favourite new line is "Green = Frugal".

July 16, 2013

Low Traffic Zones: anything but cars

Europe has a growing number of Low Emissions Zones: This generally means that access to motorised vehicles (especially those with older emissions standards) is restricted in certain areas of large cities. For Rome that's about half of the metropolitan area inside the ring (A90 and E80).

The LEZ area is served by a network of commuter trains and buses. Since a bus or train ticket is valid for 100 minutes after you get on, that can get you from the centre of Rome to anywhere in the greater metropolitan area, even well outside the ring road. Tourists taking the commuter train to Rome's ancient harbour at Ostia can get there for €1.50, the standard metrebus fare in Rome.

But if you happen to choose a sunny weekend day for that trip you will find the commuter train packed with a crowd of beachgoers headed for Lido, discreetly wearing swimsuits under T-shirts and sun dresses, and all happily chattering away. The festive atmosphere inside those cars can get pretty loud, and makes you understand why some longer-distance railway trains have designated quiet cars.

Inside the LEZ area, there are generally zones where most private cars are banned for most of the day, usually in historic city centres.

July 9, 2013

Pedestrians-Only Zone

It could be argued that central Florence is more of a museum than a city. That is one good reason to avert as much car traffic as possible. And that is exactly what the centre-city Florence has accomplished: After a while you realise that most cars you see are the white taxis - and even of those not very many. There are a few bikes plying the cobblestone streets, but mostly people get around on foot. A medieval town is walk-sized, after all.

The way Florence has accomplished this is simply by banning all car traffic between 7.30am and 7.30pm, with very few exceptions. There is apparently a steep fine for cars entering the pedestrian zone without the proper permit. I imagine that handicapped residents are allowed a car (not that there are many parking spaces: those are carefully arranged outside the old town). And there is the fleet of white taxis, many of which are hybrids or EVs: among their number are quite a few Prius+ hybrids, the kind that could in principle seat seven.

The upshot is that the city streets are pleasantly unclogged of automotive traffic: it's so quiet you can hear the flocks of swallows go by as they call to one another. The air is clean, so you can enjoy a good meal at one of the many outside venues. And I bet that the exterior of the magnificent cathedral will stay cleaner for much longer, after the current round of restoration leaves it blindingly beautiful.

Many of the city buses are electric; all are inexpensive and frequent. So it's really silly to try to come here with a car. Besides, walking around you can try to imagine what it was like to be in this city in the heady days of the renaissance, among all the art, literature, philosophy and science swirling around the place.

July 3, 2013

Healthy Eating On Vacation

I love travel: it lifts you out of the everyday, puts a fresh perspective on your life, and opens your mind and heart to new possibilities. But one thing that doesn't go on vacation is my commitment to feeding my family healthy meals. It's one of those positive feedback loops: eating well contributes to happiness, being happy takes a lot of energy - we are never hungrier than when on vacation.

Photo Silver Spoon: Who says eggs have to come in dozens?

But it's not always easy: when I'm at home I know exactly where to go for clean, whole foods: my CSA farm, my milk farmer, the local health food store. When we're travelling all that familiar routine goes out the window and I get to re-invent our food on a daily basis.

One thing I've learned from bitter experience, is not to expect real food at child-oriented venues like zoos or theme parks. I really don't see why children's taste should be so insulted that they are exclusively served fat-soaked and sugar-laden "food". I don't even see why there should be a "Kids' menu" at restaurants: my children eat what I eat, only with smaller portions.

To tell the truth, on one road trip I gave up and stopped at a burger chain, just to be different. CelloDad was surprised. CelloPlayer was bemused but tried this and that. ViolaPlayer categorically refused to eat anything. Even passed up on the bottle of water. Having gone through the Food & Health block at our Waldorf school, and having read Fast Food Nation, my child chose to go hungry rather than submit to the industrial fast food. I have to admire that.

So back we went to our wholesome food regime. This gets easier as you have more money to throw at the issue, but there are plenty of healthy food options that don't cost an arm and a leg.