The ‘Unhappy Truth’ About Montreal Bagels

Re “Canadian Bagel Rivals Unite Against Environmentalists” (Montreal Dispatch, Nov. 27):

The story of two rival bagel makers in Montreal who have joined forces to oppose the demands of “anti-bagel radicals” — those local residents and policymakers who want to ban their wood-burning ovens because of the environmental risks they pose — sounds like something straight out of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Seinfeld.” But it’s no laughing matter.

While wood-burning ovens help make Montreal bagels the best in the world (sorry, New York), the scientific consensus is demonstrably clear: Wood smoke, whether from an industrial oven or a home fireplace, is a major health hazard and contributor to urban air pollution.

Because of this unhappy truth, I now know what it must feel like for religious people to be told that their cherished beliefs collide with reality. The alternative — in this case, making Montreal bagels in non-wood-burning ovens — is sacrilege.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Photo by Chris Wattie for The New York Times

Plant based is anti-human

Re: The end of meat

I was vegetarian/pescatarian for almost a decade for ethical reasons. However, I started to eat meat again from a growing recognition that the act of eating involves more than just reflexively labelling entire groups of foods as “good” or “bad,” or reductively calculating a food’s associated carbon emissions. It’s much more complicated than that.

Eating is a social and joyful act that carries with it cultural and aesthetic values that cannot be as easily dismissed as many plant-based advocates would have you believe. It’s undeniable that the treatment of animals in the industrial agriculture system is inhumane and efforts should be made to improve their welfare. But I think a plant-based diet is anti-human: it is a denial of the fact that we are creatures embedded within a complex (and messy) social and environmental ecosystem.

Like most issues worthy of deeper reflection and consideration, deciding what to eat isn’t so black and white.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the National Post

The Map is Not the Territory

“I have rivers but no water; forests but no trees; cities but no buildings. What am I?”

It took a few seconds to realize that the question being asked of me was actually a riddle.

I was in Hong Kong, dining at a cha chaan teng. Literally translated as “tea restaurant,” these humble, retro diners have been serving no-nonsense comfort food since the 1950s. To the uninitiated or unprepared, eating at a cha chaan teng can be a jarring experience. You are made to share an impossibly small table with complete strangers. Servers can be a bit too brisk, too impersonal. Upon entering, one immediately feels the pressure to quickly sit, order, eat, pay and leave. Servers have no time to engage customers in idle chit-chat, let alone issue existential challenges. The fact that this server was bending these unwritten rules to ask me a riddle — so calmly and so nicely — was a surprise.

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You Are Now Disconnected: Smartphones and the City

Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?

We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.

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Is Travel Ethical Amid Climate Change?

Re “Travel’s Climate Problem,” by Andy Newman (Travel, June 9):

The “tragedy of the commons” — the term used to describe a situation in which individuals act in accordance with their own self-interest at the expense of the common good — is often used to explain the persistence of modern environmental problems. If only we had more data, facts and knowledge of the unintended consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, we would make better choices that would benefit everyone.

I’ve come to realize that this is wishful thinking. Even with a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions, a vast majority of people will still seek to have their desires satisfied rather than extinguished. The desire for travel is no different.

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. “Grant me chastity and continence,” he pleads with God, “but not yet.”

To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, “I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet.”

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Image by Antoine Maillard

Engineering Eudaimonia

The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.

The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.

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The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading