As a city dweller, if there’s one concept that never escapes me, it’s space. There’s so much of it, yet it’s never plentiful. Distances are vast, and if you live in Brooklyn, your friends in the Bronx might as well live in a different state, but personal space is hardly in high supply. Our kitchens are installed in the corners of living rooms almost as an afterthought; finding free parking takes hours of toil and strife; and we measure our yards (if we have them) not by acres but by square feet.
For this reason, I never cease to be amazed by the amount of eminently viable space that goes unused throughout the urban landscape. As more and more Americans flock to urban centers, our need for a paradigm shift in how we treat city living is becoming increasingly pertinent. And while urbanites continue to moan about their cramped quarters, they continue to fail to look up!
If you live in a densely populated city, and you don’t have a garden, and you’re wondering how I could even wonder if you do have a garden, then ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the building I occupy have a “conventional” rooftop?
2. If yes, do I have access to said rooftop?
3. If yes again, is it host to a whole lot of tar paper and ventilation pipes?
If this sounds like your rooftop situation, then there’s cause to celebrate: you’re in possession of a slice of the urban landscape’s greatest untapped resource.
When I first moved to Brooklyn from a city with considerably more space, I instantly came to rely on my apartment building’s roof as a place to get away from the din and stress of the busy city streets. From my roof, I could enjoy being outdoors while still able to have a phone conversation or read a book, all within a few steps (or, as was my case, ladder rungs) from my front door. My building’s roof became a much needed replacement for the back yard that I longed for but lacked. Yet what most astonished me about my roof was that no one from the rest of the block seemed to know it was there. What went unnoticed by everyone else became the largest back yard I’d ever had!
I now have my own roof in Brooklyn, and I’ve taken my roof dwelling to the next level. With a modest $50 inventment, I’ve developed a humble little rooftop garden. And for a guy who’s pretty green in the gardening department, the greenery on my vacant outdoor space has thrived. With a few minutes of research, I found plenty of vegetables that do well in direct sunlight, and besides their daily watering, nature has done the rest.
The few vegetables I planted this season won’t be slashing my grocery shopping budget by a whole lot come harvest. But rooftop improvements in the city are some of the easiest and most productive projects one can undertake to make city living more sustainable while beautifying the concrete jungle. They can keep your building cooler in the summer and help lower your energy bills. Plants improve air quality and mood, and can provide food. Plus, maintaining a garden dozens of feet above the bustling street provides at least a few moments of peace and tranquility every morning.
There’s a very real phenomenon in cities called the Urban Heat Island Effect, which describes the noticeable increase in temperature you experience in cities compared to surrounding rural areas. Dark surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops absorb sunlight and radiate heat – the reason why the sidewalk often feels “hot enough to fry an egg”, but the grass in the back yard is always comfortable. If cities as a whole learn to promote the widespread transformation of rooftops into gardens and yards, rather than vast, desolate heat traps, our cities will become cooler, greener, and healthier. Energy consumption and pollution can both be reduced as our roof tops become the back yards of the city – and, with a bit of elbow grease, the envy of our friends in suburbia!
It’s frustrating to see so much space go to waste in the city – but it’s equally as liberating to discover that it’s easy to do for yourself. So aim to set an example for your neighbors! There’s no better way to contribute to a positive movement than by throwing your next great tiki party on your beautified roof yard and inviting the neighbors. The greatest boon to progress is proving to others that it’s fun.
In closing, I quote The Drifters:
When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowd
and all that rat race noise down on the street
On the roof, the only place I know
where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof
This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
I recently caught the R train at Prince Street in Soho on a rainy summer afternoon. The subway system and its strange ecosystem of commuters, tourists, homeless, and wildcards is hardly phasing to my wife and I anymore. We moved to Brooklyn three years ago from our humble (and quiet) home state of Michigan, but we have acclimated well to our new environment. On this particular train was a wildcard I’ve grown accustomed to seeing underground. The middle-aged man standing in the center of the car, with his worn jeans, t-shirt and backpack, felt the need to enlighten his fellow passengers. With a voice tinged with disparity, his exhausted red eyes beamed at us strangers, and the man began to stress aloud about controlled media, big business, and corrupt politicians. Then, specifically, he spoke urgently about the practice of fracking and its dangers to our water sources.
“Wake up! Wake up people”, he shouted. He tried to open a dialogue with those around him, to no avail.
With slumped shoulders, he tugged awkwardly at his grey ponytail. “I don’t like to go this route, but I see a few children on this train. If not for yourselves, can you at least think of them? Think of their future!”
* * *
Two weeks prior to this train ride, I came home from a long 12-hour day at the warehouse. My wife, Meggie, has been feeling sick and achy with a long list of symptoms that are foreign to her. We suspected she might be pregnant. My mind was a blur at work all day, constantly shifting from work to her and the impending pregnancy test we were going to take that evening. When I finally walked through the door after 9pm that evening, Meggie jumped up from the couch. Her only greeting was a sheepish smile. I knew, immediately, that she had already taken the test.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I asked. Her face went red and I knew it was true. “Holy shit.”
My daily thought process hasn’t been the same ever since. We are currently 8 weeks into the pregnancy, we have seen the heart beat, and we notice every baby and toddler in passing through the course of every day. As a father-to-be I am very excited and, strangely, very confident. Being entirely new to the world of parenting, we are devouring one baby book after another. We are pouring through online forums and even interviewing midwives. Overall, I am feeling very good about being a father.
* * *
That is, until I think of that man on the R train. Think of their future! The line struck me unexpectedly. He held up a handful of pamphlets for anyone interested in what he was talking about. My hand, almost involuntarily, shot up in the air. Grateful that anyone was listening, he rushed over and handed me the literature. However, I didn’t get off that easy. Suddenly his best friend, he began to embark on a one-sided conversation with me about the practice of fracking (already know it) and the petitions I should sign (signed them all). The train came to my stop, so I quickly thanked the man and dodged around him for the closing door.
Think of their future! The line continues to nag at me. In fact, it may be my greatest fear in raising children of my own. What kind of a world am I raising them in? I sometimes view the world as a place with an overwhelming vastness of problems (hence my participation in Vort Port International). But with as many problems as I recognize in the world, what problems will my children inherit? That is what scares me. At times, these broad questions seem utterly and hopelessly beyond my control (and as a soon-to-be parent, I don’t like it).
Thinking of their future, my role and work within Vort Port International has taken on new meaning. My reasons for nonprofit participation have new context. It is my hope that this nagging fear will evolve into unmovable purpose in Vort Port International and my role as a global citizen seeking sustainability for all.
Patrick Kwiatkowski, VPI Media Director
People have asked me what the motivation was behind starting Vort Port International (VPI). There were a number of factors including past experiences and lessons learned from working on philanthropic projects that lacked elements of social and financial sustainability. One instance, a team of people had designed and fundraised for an orphan care center in Malawi, but the work was not maintained due to lack of training and education of the members of the community. It taught me that connecting with the community and teaching them useful skills was crucial to the long-term success of the project. Lessons like that help shape how VPI currently makes decisions. And, underlying all that, the creation of VPI may stem from my experience of being part of a home that was given a chance to grow.
The majority of my early childhood was spent living in low-income, government-subsidized housing in Michigan. I remember eating free school lunches, receiving grocery bags of staple consumer goods, dumpster-diving for any furniture we could find, going to my mother’s workplace because we could not afford a babysitter. My mother, Yuyang Ye, would wake up before the sun and commute to work, and she would stay up until two o’clock in the morning to study, translating her biology textbook from English to Chinese word by word.
I recall these things and, above all else, I was happy and immensely loved. Life was focused on family, appreciation for having one another, and simple daily necessities. My mother would always say that the value of a person is not in what they own but in who they are. We did our best to make it by, while trying to live virtuously. In times of need, though, a strong network of people offered to us what we could not provide for ourselves. Free after-school programming at the local community center offered a babysitting service to allow my mother to work more hours. English as a Second Language tutored me in English, something my mother had not yet mastered. Family friends would generously take my brother and I to museums to help enrich our young minds, revealing an entire world to explore. Libraries offered a second home to further nurture our curiosity. Summer camps at the YMCA engaged children in team sports and taught us a strong appreciation for the outdoors.
I look back on a childhood full of wonders and excitement, and I have both my mother and my community to thank. Through perseverance and determination, my mother finished her Master’s degree and our family made its way into the middle-class. The support that my family received allowed us to succeed and, as a result, I strive to provide similar opportunities for others in need.
A realization grew within me as I began traveling more. When I visited Madagascar there were families content with what little they had, living simply and within their means. I realized that people, regardless of background, all want the same thing — parents want to provide for their children, children work hard to carry on legacies, and communities work together to help one another. The majority of families share a willingness to work hard and learn new things, if given the chance. Most of the world’s people are relegated to lifestyles less prone to meaningful opportunity. By providing community outlets to learn new skills they otherwise may not have a chance to learn, the less fortunate can make their lives infinitely better. And perhaps this engendered sense of greater giving will be paid forward time and time again. These personal beliefs inspired the creation of VPI, and they continue to be the centerfold of the work that we do. VPI empowers community members to provide for themselves a sustainable lifestyle, by teaching them important skills for long-term success. VPI functions by a group of young professionals who care deeply about bringing out the best in the people through smart, sustainable technologies and programs. And we understand that our contribution does not stop at the individuals we help; we’re passing on lifelong skills that can change entire communities for the better. And when their children grow older, they can continue to better the world one generation at a time.
When speaking with VPI colleagues, many of them come from similar backgrounds. Their families and communities influenced their decision to become a global citizen and contribute to something beyond themselves. We would like to recognize Mother’s day, just last Sunday, and honor the love and dedication that our mothers have provided us throughout the years. Thank you for being there for us, always giving your support every step of the way. It was you and the many chances that we were offered that allowed us to grow into the people we are today.
In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing. The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.
“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said. “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”
The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon. The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.” The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth. Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space. Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space. The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things. The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space. For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share. After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.
John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long. His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van. Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region. Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles. The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate. Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew. Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.
John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik. McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”. The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension. The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization. The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition. After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts. President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.
McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come. The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees. He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy. As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day. It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet. Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20. McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade. Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration. McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean). The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders. But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all. A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N. It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.
After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation. The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees. The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing. Upon a used placemat he decreed:
“Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.
– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s
It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then. Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment. Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet. He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado. Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day. Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message. Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”
We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home. Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth. McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day. Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen. Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet. It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.
Vort Port International, Media Director