Parking to Paradise: Depave Portland in Action

Asphalt – why do we love you so?  From mega-parking lots, to medians, to that little foot wide space between the road and the sidewalk -- the black stuff has oozed all over our urban spaces. In some spaces it has a purpose. But its uninterrupted reign also leads to serious problems. The dark impermeable surface is behind both the urban heat island effect and floods of storm water that overwhelm old sewers and pump waste into waterways (or, if you are unlucky, your basement). Some cities are pioneering ways to breakup the tar-scape. But I'd also heard rumours of a community based group in Portland that was taking things into their own hands.

Earlier this month I got to see Depave Portland in action and I put together this short video of a project to they were running at a local school. Starting early one Saturday volunteers started prying loose pre-cut squares of asphalt and carting them off. By the end of the day a few hundred square feet were open and ready for the gardens, play, and educational spaces the school had planned.

If you think you'd like to try something similar, Depave has put together a 9 page guide (pdf). In this case, it was the New Day School that started the ball rolling. The school took care of getting the permits to remove the asphalt and developing a plan for the space. Depave raised funds to cover costs and coordinated volunteers. A week before the event a dozen or so Depave volunteers spent a day with concrete saws cutting the asphalt into about 2 ft x 2 ft sections (affectionately known as “brownies”) that you see being removed in the video.

What caught me was how much fun it was. It may not be the quickest way to remodel a site, but there is something amazingly satisfying about getting together, making new friends and transforming the landscape. Now every time I pass an unused and unnecessary bit of asphalt, I can't help asking myself “what else could we do with that spot?” ...

Research & Publications

For those who are interested in more than what I put up here on openalex, here is list of my research publications (with .pdf links where possible).

- Book Chapters:

- Articles:

- Reference:

  • Aylett, A. (2010) “Cities for Climate Protection” in Paul Robbins and Kevin Cohen eds. Green Society Reference Series Volume 4: Green Cities. (SAGE)
  • Aylett, A. and T. Barnes  (2009) “Language,” International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography , Thrift et al. eds.   Oxford: Elsevier.

Freedom + Passion beats Carrot with its Own Stick: what really motivates people

It's been a busy few weeks, but I finally have a chance to break radio silence and put up some new content on the blog.  I've recently been introduced to the RSA's brilliant series of animated conference presentations.  These quirky hand-drawn animations are an informal way to absorb interesting ideas by some of today's big thinkers.

They have one on Jeremy Rifkin's Empathic Civilization that I blogged about earlier.  But the one that grabbed my attention is an adaptation of a talk given by Dan Pink on what motivates people - particularly what motivates them to innovate and excel in challenging circumstances.  Apart from general interest value, I was hooked by the fact that I've seen the dynamics Pink describes play out in much of my own research on urban sustainability (see here for a good example).


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Solar Sisters: The Avon Lady of African Renewables

[This piece is also running over at worldchanging.]

Solar Sisters, a new solar entrepreneur program, has taken Avon's social sales model and is using it to spread solar powered lamps across Uganda.  Avon cosmetics began as a failed 19th century book-selling venture.  It's “Avon Calling” approach, where saleswomen sold directly to other women, helped it grow into one of the 500 largest companies in the USA with annual global revenues of over US$ 10 billion. 

Both energy and cosmetics have a lot to do with gender.Solar Sisters -- like the Barefoot Solar Engineers that I've written about earlier -- uses the special place that women have as procurers and managers of fuel use to take on the social, environmental and economic impacts of energy poverty.

In the developing world women are primarily responsible for gathering, purchasing and using household energy:  wood, coal, kerosene or gas. Smoke from using these fuels indoors causes serious long term health problems. Poor households also spend a greater percentage of their income on energy than wealthier ones, and are charged more for energy. This unreliable and costly access to energy, especially electricity, is one of the key factors that drives migration from rural and semi-rural areas to expanding cities.

Now starting their first pilot projects, Solar Sisters approach to these issues is relatively simple:  they sell two different models of solar lamps (a basic model, and a larger one that also recharges cellphones).  The lamps can replace both kerosene lights and long trips into urban areas to get phones recharged. In a recent ChangeMakers article, Katherine Lucey, former banker and founder of Solar Sisters, explains the multiple benefits of the lamps:

“With solar, they don’t have to breathe in tadooba toxic fumes. When they look at the black walls of their house, they realize that if the walls are black, the inside of their lungs are black. ... Economically, it makes sense because within two months, they they'll recover the cost of having to buy kerosene. This immediately frees up 20 percent of their income.”

Last year, Oxford business professor Linda Scott argued that the Avon model might even be better then microfinance when if comes to lifting women out of poverty.  Initial results from research that she has been doing in South Africa show it to be more accessible than microcredit and well suited to dynamics of local communities.

Whether lessons learned from lipstick in South Africa will hold true for solar lamps in Uganda is an open question.  But Lucey claims that for the female entrepreneurs working for Solar Sisters, the lamps offer a rare economic opportunity and can bring in up to $US450 a year.  Solar Sisters covers the upfront costs of the women's first solar light inventory, and they then use their earnings to purchase more inventory.  

The biggest hurdle may be the price of the lamps themselves.  The two models sell for $US15 and $US45.  That may simply be out of reach for many families.  The Solar Sisters blog discusses one community that came up with a way of collectively financing their purchases (something also done for livestock and other larger purchases).

In interview, Lucey talks about the difficulty of convincing women to think of the lanterns as a long-term investment.  It is about more than a change in thinking though.  The same factors that stop women from saving money by purchasing larger quantities of kerosene or coal also apply to solar.  A lack of savings, unpredictable finances and in some cases concerns over theft steer women to purchase energy (and many other daily commodities like rice and oil) in small amounts.

Solar Sisters is a promising project – and the image of solar “Avon Ladies” spreading across across Africa is hard to resist.   Solar Sisters is addressing the same issues as the impressive Indian  Barefoot Solar Engineer program.   That program's success depended both a clear understanding of women's role as energy managers and a smart approach to financing.  That second part seems to be the one thing missing from the Solar Sisters project.  Before Solar Sisters really takes off, I have a feeling that they will take the lessons learned from their early clients' community financing arrangements and build them directly into their business model.

[images from Avon and Solar Sisters]


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.