How To Make Toast

I’m teaching a first-year course on “Sustainable Systems” at Parsons School of Design this spring. It’s a cafeteria-style course meant to nurture hundreds of new students with a mental diet rich in complex concepts like systems thinking, resilience, and wicked problems—all topped off with a decadent sprinkle of skills in scientific literacy and critical inquiry. Students shuffle along the conceptual cafeteria line with their trays stretched out for a scoop of this or a spoon full of that, and by the end of the semester they should be loosening their belts to make room for all the environmentally enlightened knowledge they’ve bolted down in sixteen weeks.

Like real vitamins and minerals, though, there may be a hidden danger to ingesting a handful of good ideas all boiled down into sanitized and uniform pills. Apparently it’s a lot healthier to get your nutrition from whole foods. Something similar might be true of all the important (albeit stripped-down) concepts we’re supposed to cover in a course like “Sustainable Systems,” all so easily inserted into a syllabus like a list of Supplement Facts on the back of a bottle of Centrum. My challenge, I think, is to find the whole food version of a sixteen week experience in thinking about, caring about, and creating Sustainable Systems.

I’ve veered a little off task with this two-paragraph tirade about adjunct teaching in 2016. But this detour does help explain my excitement at recently finding Tom Wujec‘s wonderful TED Talk on How to Make Toast—making this my second weekly TED Talk review of 2016 and, likely, a central theme in the first session of “Sustainable Systems.” [Spoiler alert: if you are one of my eighteen students reading this after Googling your professors at the start of the semester, you should skip the rest of this post and get to work watching that documentary on Ray and Charles Eames I assigned by email. There may be a quiz.]

Wujec’s talk introduces us to some of the most basic skills in systems thinking: 1) using simple images to codify and communicate complex concepts; 2) creating moveable modules of thought to support shuffling, sorting, coding, and categorizing; 3) practicing the process of “one, some, and many” in collaborative brainstorming, and 4) iterating through a few rounds of critical review before settling on a solution. I won’t try to replicate Wujec’s method; it’s difficult to improve on his presentation in the video, so just take the fifteen minutes and enjoy it for yourself:

Thinking with Images

Why are images arranged in diagrams more effective at representing nodes and flows than descriptive text? Images seem to offer an efficient way of packaging a lot of nuanced and complex data into relatively simple bundles for our brains to process (for more about this, check out Chapters 1 & 2 and page 14 of David Rock’s (2009) book Your Brain at Work).

Our “Mind’s Eye” wastes less energy than our Mind’s… Teleprompter? Word processor? You get the picture. This is a good excuse for finding the time to take some drawing classes, which might be as good for your brain as learning a second language.  You don’t need really need formal training, though, to tap into the power of images in using systems thinking in your work. Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin (2008) shows that even simple stick figures will suffice. If that’s still too intimidating, you can always grab an old magazine, a scissor, and a glue stick and collage your thoughts in a notebook. Just save the words for later when it’s time to tell a more detailed narrative story about what you’ve discovered by rearranging images.

Working With Moveable Ideas

One of my colleagues came up with a new nickname for me after a day-long brainstorming process last summer. It was “3M,” an homage to the company that made the hundreds of sticky notes we used to collaboratively overhaul the first draft of an environmental education program. We individually scribbled idea after idea on note after note, spending hours sorting, rearranging, removing, and supplementing our results. After weeks of struggling to verbally communicate a tangle of ideas in meetings, we found ourselves liberated to make new associations and create outlandish solutions simply by manipulating a thicket of stickies on a wall. We had a lot of hard work putting our ideas into action after that session, but it really felt like the point when we were all finally working toward the same vision for the new program.

Community organizers and action researchers are well aware of the power of capturing ideas in bite-size bits when brainstorming as a group. They call it a “pile sort“—a tactile and graphic way of discovering and developing themes and concepts that are held in common by the individual group members. Wujec argues that ideas expressed in modular form invite us to tinker and go through multiple rounds of re-thinking instead of marrying ourselves to the first solution that pops into our minds. Making ideas mobile helps us make ideas better over time.

One, Some, Many

Wujec urges viewers to collaboratively sort their ideas in silence. There’s something about the complex argument that can result from verbal communication that stifles the process. Stick to quietly comparing, contrasting, and collating the ideas on each note and you’ll likely arrive at a richer and more inclusive collection of new ideas.

There’s a similar practice in adult education that I first learned as the rule of “One, Some, Many.” Jane Vella, a leading thinker in adult education, proposes that that safety and sound relationships are two of the core principles of creative learning in groups. Adults exploring a new skill or concept  will experience a greater sense of safety to experiment if they can start with a quiet moment to work on their own. Afterward, participants can work in small groups to compare, synthesize, and summarize their individual ideas before moving on to do the same a whole large gathering—one of many ways to foster sound relationships in a vulnerable creative process.

Giving people some time to work on their own may help prevent the worst kinds of group-think  typically found in brainstorming sessions chaired by a manger wielding a chunky dry erase marker shouting, “Come on, people, there are no bad ideas!” Turns out there really are bad ideas, and recent research suggests that traditional brainstorming practices are really good at churning them out. So give the One, Some, Many approach a try if you take a stab at diagramming how to make toast.


It seems silly to belabor the benefits of iterative problem solving. We’ve all been told that if at first we don’t succeed, we should try and try again. Complex problems almost always result in unintended consequences that create even more complex problems (they wouldn’t be complex otherwise). Circling back to tweak and improve ideas can help solve those new puzzles that pop up and make the solutions to the initial problem more impactful.

Most of us had a very linear experience of learning, beginning in Kindergarten and intensifying as the years went by. Our schoolroom lessons were arranged to follow chapters in a text book, moving progressively from one topic to another without ever taking the time to revisit and unpack a particularly thorny idea. Miss a beat and you’re left behind. There’s just no time to go back. This is why web-based video tutorials like the popular Kahn Academy have become so popular in recent years. They start from the radically simple idea that students should be able to rewind until they get it.

Learning is a lot like the creative processes involved in problem solving through systems thinking. They both involve taking apart and rearranging our understanding of the world, coming out with a changed perspective in the end. Wujec seems to agree that making time and space to return (and return and return) to first ideas is an essential part of the process.

So why are so many organizations so awful at figuring out how to make toast? That’s probably a question best left for another time.




52xTED in 2016: Begin With the Brain

My colleague Errol Mazursky is the Executive Director of the Environmental Leadership Program. He is one of those incredible people who always seem to be smiling and laughing and finding the silver lining on the edges of a Category 5 hurricane. At the start of 2015, Errol resolved to watch a TED talk every day for the next 365 days, sharing what he learned through the occasional post on Facebook. This year I figured, “If it’s good for Errol, it’s good for me too.”

I’m tweaking the resolution to accommodate for the dissertation that I’m trying to write in 2016. Instead of 365 TED Talks, I’m only committing to 52—one per week. Instead of posting my take-away on Facebook, I’ll do it here and simultaneously get more blogging done in the new year. And, in the style of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog, I’ll add a few links to complimentary books, videos, or articles when I can easily dredge them up from memory. And so here goes…


52 TED TALKS, Take 1: What Is So Special About the Human Brain?

From TED: The human brain is puzzling — it is curiously large given the size of our bodies, uses a tremendous amount of energy for its weight and has a bizarrely dense cerebral cortex. But: why? Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel puts on her detective’s cap and leads us through this mystery. By making “brain soup,” she arrives at a startling conclusion.

My Take:  Human brains are caloric hogs, burning at least a fourth of the energy we get from eating a 2,000 calorie diet each day. Cooking food makes more of its energy available to us in digestion, which means we don’t have to spend all 24 hours of the day shoving raw kale down our throats to keep the lights on in our noggins. Human brains have an abnormal density of neurons for their body size in comparison to other primates—especially in our cortexes, where all that fun higher-order thinking happens, like making plans to take a vacation in New Orleans or worrying about whether you left the stove on before you left the house. More neurons, more connections, more thinking… and more calories burning. I love the link this scientist makes between cuisine and cognition and anyone who does work in a wet lab will appreciate her clever method for tallying up the number of neurons the brain.

Also check out: Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (2009) by David Rock—an accessible introduction to making the most of your brain in even the most stressful of circumstances.

The Soft Dictatorship of Meetings


Have you ever actually been happy to see a group meeting coming up on your calendar? How many times have you said “I wish I didn’t have to go to this meeting so that I could get some real work done”? Worse, how many times have you walked out of a conference room muttering “well, that meeting was pointless”?

Today I offer a little list of articles on the insidious depravity of meetings—just so I can say, “Hey, I’m not the only one saying it.”

Meetings: More of a soul-sucking waste of time than you thought [The Guardian]

Why All Meetings are a Huge Waste of Time [The Skool of Life]

Why Most Meetings are a Waste of Time, and What To Do About It []

Office Life: Why Meetings are Bad for You [The Economist]

Seven Symptoms That Your Meetings are Awful [Business NH Magazine]

Here’s Another Reason Meetings are Awful [The Context of Things Blog]

Parsing Participation in Outcomes Monitoring

There are thousands of environmental non-profit organizations operating throughout the United States. Many are found in cities. Most are focused on advocating for cleaner air, water, and soils, pushing for new legislation, regulations, and municipal services aimed at improving the local environment.

Some environmental groups go beyond advocacy and organizing. They roll up their sleeves and play an active, day-to-day roll in stewarding the local environment. They start community gardens, care for newly planted street trees, or serve as auxiliary horticulture staff at public parks. These mostly volunteer-led initiatives end up becoming part of the local environmental governance scene, collaborating with municipal agencies and other big-name groups to make a demonstrable impact on the health and function of urban environmental resources.

I recently co-authored a research article on the steps that some of these hands-on stewardship groups have taken to measure and monitor the impacts of their work, looking mostly at cases from NYC. It turns out that most small groups struggle to bring environmental science into their regular stewardship practices, but they all dream of being able to see, in real time, whether or not their efforts are actually working. The article, published online in the peer-reviewed journal Local Environment, explores the different ways in which groups are participating in the science of outcomes monitoring whenever they actually can find a way to make it work.

Most groups are creating their own D.I.Y. methods and metrics for measuring the outcomes of their work. Though they may be simple in scope, these homegrown efforts are an important first step toward collecting and analyzing data about the efficacy of small-scale stewardship programs in cities throughout the world. Though all of the groups I interviewed struggled, to some extent, to measure their impacts, they all wished they could do more to self-assess their efforts. Future research may show ways to make outcomes monitoring more accessible to small stewardship groups.

A lot has happened around this topic since I collected field data for this project during the summer of 2012. During the summer of 2013, the Design Trust for Public Space launched the Five Borough Farm initiative to begin helping community gardeners and urban farmers in NYC measure all the good things happening at their various sites. If I were to do another round of field research for a follow-up article, I would need to take into account the dozens of gardens and farms now collecting outcomes data through Five Borough Farm. As more projects like Five Borough Farm come online, we may see more and more opportunities for stewardship groups to easily and confidently measure the outcomes and impacts of their work.

If you belong to an environmental stewardship initiative in your city, I would love to learn about the ways you and your neighbors are collecting data about your work. Drop a line and let me know what you’re up to!

Note: The research article referenced above is behind a paywall but is freely accessible to most library patrons through online journal databases—particularly those at colleges and universities. If you are having trouble accessing the article, please contact me directly.

Silva, P., & Krasny, M. E. (2014). Parsing participation: models of engagement for outcomes monitoring in urban stewardship. Local Environment, 0(0), 1–9.

Prevent the Poonami

They say that the solution to pollution is dilution. But sometimes there’s more poop than there is water in our creeks and streams, resulting in what some call “poonami.” 

greenSo begins the Guide to Green Infrastructure: 5 Projects Any Community Can Do—a handy little how-to for gregarious greenies in neighborhoods across the United States. The guide is short and sweet and full of useful tips for transforming any urban community into a sponge for stormwater. It includes instructions for building bioswales, rain gardens, and simple rain catchment systems. It also offers advice on tearing up sidewalks asphalt to create more permeable soil surfaces for soaking up the stuff that falls from the sky.

I contributed a one-pager on street tree stewardship for stormwater management. My first tip? Phone a friend and have some fun. The best street tree stewardship events are those that could easily be mistaken for 4th of July block parties. Download the Guide to find out more! And if you live in New York City, you can up the ante with your street tree skills by enrolling in a “Citizen Pruner” course with Trees New York. 

The Guide to Green Infrastructure is published by IOBY, a fantastic group that helps D.I.Y. do-gooders find the funds to launch exciting new projects in their own backyards. Check them out and consider giving some cashola to an initiative in your area today.

Mahoras Brook and Waackaack Creek

The recently overhauled Google Maps seems to draw on a deeper and broader inventory of geographic data. This is good news for anyone who wants to find the name of a tiny creek or an abandoned rail line without having to sift through inaccessible physical archives at a local library or planning commission. Mapheads rejoice!

I’ve often toggled around in both Google Maps and Google Earth to trace the lines of a small creek I enjoyed exploring as a 14-year-old in suburban Monmouth County, New Jersey. Up until recently, these blue squiggles remained nameless on the map, too small to justify a cartographic tag. Last night, while taking a break from studying, I was pleased and surprised to find that the liquid landscape from my teenage memories suddenly had a name in the new Google Maps.

Map1Mahoras Brook flowing into Waackaack Creek near Allocco Park at the northern edge of Holmdel Township along the Bayshore in Monmouth County. There it is. Nothing special, really. Yet I’m overwhelmed with excitement over the possibility of learning more about this little watershed, forgotten on most maps (up to now) and beleaguered by nearly thirty years of suburban sprawl. How did native Lenapi interact with this brook? Was it of any use to Dutch and English colonists, or just another minor drainage ditch in this coastal county? Maybe there’s nothing much to learn about Mahoras or Waackaack, other than the vagaries of how they came to get these names. That’s fine, though. Every little bit of extra information helps tie me back to that unnamed creek where I spent hours building bridges out of fallen logs and bushwhacking through meadows of phragmites.

Thinking About Grandpa and the History of NY Harbor


I’m a sucker for the history of New York Harbor. I horde old maps and postcards like this one of the Verrazano Narrows long before there came to be a Verazzano Bridge. Every year, I re-read Joseph Mitchell’s stories about old sailors and fishermen and oyster farmers and saloon keepers centered around Fulton Fish Market. I slowly make my way through his tales about Old Mr. Flood, a bona-fide curmudgeon hell-bent on living forever that puts his faith in the restorative powers of oysters and cigars and pretty girls. I follow Mitchell down beneath the shallow waters of the harbor in the first half of the 20th Century and discover shipwrecks, sea-worms, and an undulating current of sewer-borne slime that continues to pollute the harbor to this day.

I was born and raised in New Jersey, along a crescent of land just beyond the periphery of the area charted in Mitchell’s stories. We lived in Newark until I was two or three years old, whereupon we moved to the suburbs near the southern reaches of the harbor. Every weekend, we re-traced our steps and wandered back to the familiarity of our old neighborhood in Newark, an enclave of Portuguese immigrants living as if some chunk of Lisbon had simply been copied and pasted into a corner of northern Jersey. That weekly journey back and forth, driving through the wetlands of Cheesequake Park, over the Raritan River on the Driscoll Bridge, along the industrial oil-swamps of the Arthur Kill, past the patchy remnants of the Newark meadows, and into the arms of the Passaic River, etched the geography of the harbor deep in my mind and my heart.

My personal history—and a good chunk of my family’s history in its exile from Portugal—is dissolved in the streams and rivers and wetlands that make up the harbor and its estuaries. Tonight I find myself thinking about my grandfather and his relationship to the harbor. After retiring from more than forty years of hard labor in an iron foundry, grandpa found that he liked to pass his time hanging out in a fish market on Ferry Street in Newark. Up at dawn, he would tag along with the proprietor to make the daily wholesale fish purchase at Fulton Market in Manhattan. Like Mitchell’s Mr. Flood, he found solace in the rows and rows of bass, flounder, skate, squid, octopus, sardines, and everything else trawled up from the sea. Dinner, more often than not, had fins.

Sadly, grandpa didn’t live as long as his fictional counterpart. A lifetime of sooty foundry work gave him lung disease and a weak heart, with no hope of finding a few extra years at the bottom of a bag of briny clams. Fulton Fish Market would eventually pull up stakes and relocate to Hunts Point in the South Bronx, leaving behind a defunct mall and promenade of boarded up buildings where Mitchell’s characters once roamed.

Grandpa in his garden behind the fish market.

Grandpa in his garden behind the fish market.

The Artistry of Urban Forests

TreeJames Serafino, a long-time friend and incredible children’s book illustrator, drew this picture of me at work after hearing about some of the stuff we find stuck in street trees while mapping with TreeKIT volunteers.

The book and the toy train came from James’ imagination, but we really did find a red stiletto dangling from a Honeylocust tree in Brooklyn a few years ago.

James’ illustration resonates with something I wrote for The Nature of Cities blog a few months ago, making a case for seeing urban forest stewardship as a form of creative street art. What do you discover when you start paying attention to the trees in your neighborhood?