The PLACE organization will be leading a charge to convince the Trump Administration to take action to halt the destruction of the environment and the disruption of the global climate. And while many of you may think this is a fool’s errand, there are actually many reasons for Mr. Trump to embrace such measures.Read more
At this end-of-year, when winter is dark, spirits are flagging, and uncertainty is high, let us undertake to build something amazing together.
Corporations and Kickstarter were invented because pooling many individuals’ “small” money acts as a powerful engine for big endeavors. In this society, we do not believe that better things are achieved if individuals only spend alone; we create more by also investing together.
Donating to PLACE is investing in public goods that we all use, which need to be properly maintained and grown for the generations to follow. As Chris’ recent message brought home, donating to PLACE is investing in opportunity for people whose path in life has been difficult and yet who create beauty and give back to their communities. And it is investing in the dedicated, hardworking team that rolls up sleeves each day to make big visions come true on your behalf.
It might seem that there are too many worthy causes and not enough resources. Please keep investing in PLACE and in the other causes you care about—making the world a better place isn’t a competition, it’s a collaboration. Many hands make light work. Thank you for reading this message, and for being part of realizing PLACE’s mission.
Happy New Year from The PLACE Team!
Founder of PLACE
To donate electronically, click here: Donate
Learn more about the future PLACE community in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
If I could write the perfect fundraising letter, would you make a donation?
The perfect fundraising letter. What would that look like?
The perfect fundraising letter would touch your heart.
I remember one day I was walking around one of our sustainable communities. It was dark, and I wanted to see what it looked like at night, families moving around inside in warm light and safety. Then I heard someone call my name. She told me to wait right there.
A moment later she emerged from the building, ran to me, then threw her arms around me and hugged me. She said she knew who I was, and she wanted to thank me. Then she asked if I might like to see her new place. I did.
Even though she had just moved inside after a long period of chronic homelessness, her place was beautiful. She had a designer’s eye. “Everything here I found at garage sales,” she said.
“But that’s not what I wanted to show you.”
She took a photograph of a young boy off the shelf and showed it to me. “This is my son. He’s eight. Because I was homeless, they took him away from me. And now, because of you, I’m getting my son back.” Then we hugged again for a long time.
She made me realize why I do what I do, in fact why I have dedicated my life to the work we do at PLACE. I am the child of a single parent. My older brother, my mom and I were homeless. We were together, though.
In those days, I mostly remember the arts in my life, PBS, music, books. I was a misfit; a homeless, mixed-race boy from a broken home. The arts showed me a world that was possible, something inspiring just outside the window. The arts saved my life.
I knew that I wanted to make sure that others got the opportunities I did. I went to work for public television, producing the kind of programs that inspired me as a young person.
PLACE gave me a chance to bring it all together, to build entire urban villages where people could live, work and create, to put a roof over people’s head, to fill their lives with art and imagination. That mission is built into our name - Projects Linking Art, Community and Environment.
My work with this charity allows me to give back in the way others gave to me. It’s my way of expressing my gratitude.
PLACE communities provide a comprehensive approach to helping people and the planet to thrive. Within one place, we bring together healthy homes, food, jobs, transportation, energy, education and access to the art and culture that inspire people on to their best selves. We must address these challenges simultaneously in order to make lasting change. Shelter is not enough. Food is not enough.
If there is a part of a perfect fundraising letter that engages your mind, then this is it; comprehensive solutions that allow people and the planet to thrive. With a single bold action—building a community—we can solve multiple problems at once. We must.
Hearts and minds, the perfect fundraising letter should reach both. The letter that moves everyone to chip in.
Your donation will help us to launch our flagship project in 2017. Without donations like yours, more single mothers like mine will struggle, and their children may never get the chance to flourish like I did.
Thank you for your generous support.
Founder of PLACE
To donate electronically, click here: Donate
Learn more about the future PLACE community in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
You are still who you are. I think that is crucial to remember.
Today is a day of soul searching. I can see it on the faces of people I meet. Whether they look vindicated or distressed, they all appear as if they feel alienated from the other half of America.
No matter how you feel about the election, it hasn’t changed who you are as a person. Nor has it changed the other people around you.
If you cared about the environment yesterday, you still do today. If you thought education holds the key to a better world, for you, that is still true. If you believe everyone deserves a fair chance, you will continue to work to that end.
We must stop believing that there are two Americas; red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals. These false dichotomies are brought to you by the two-party system, and they are as meaningless as they are unfortunate. Perhaps the greatest disservice The Political Machine has done to us is to convince us that there are two groups of people; those who think like we do, and everyone else, who must therefore be stupid, greedy or Un-American.Read more
America has an affordable housing crisis. You might not know it from our national dialogue. We don't like to talk about poverty, and homelessness and lack of opportunity. It seems we would much rather talk about how to make more millionaires than how to make fewer poor children.
When we do talk about poverty, it often comes with judgements and stereotypes that are repugnant, yet difficult to confront; that affordable housing will diminish your property values (the data indicate it's not true), that poor people commit more crimes (also not true), that poor people are lazy (not even close), or that affordable housing is heavily subsidized (homes in wealthy neighborhoods receive far, far more subsidies).
Here is the state of things. Since 2000, income has either declined or stagnated for all but the very highest income households. The households with the lowest incomes experienced the greatest change, a change that was all downward. This happened at the same time as housing costs have risen precipitously. These facts are not in debate.
As a result, the number of households that are "Housing-Cost Burdened" (paying more than 30% of their income for housing) has ballooned, plunging more lower-income households into homeless, and causing middle-income households to slip down to lower-income status. For the lowest wage earners, their housing cost over 80% of their income in 2014.
Can you imagine? That means that if you're working hard—full time—at minimum wage, earning $15,000 per year, your housing costs you $12,000. The actual data show that the lowest twenty-five percent of wage earners in America have just $423 per month to spend on everything else, food, transportation, health care, child care, etc., and that paltry sum has been going down. Compare that to the upper twenty-five percent who have nearly $9,000 a month to spend, and that number has been going up.
This is the reason we need more affordable housing to have a strong economy. A significant portion of Americans are putting nearly all their money into housing, leaving no more money to feed the rest of our economy, let alone to feed themselves. The rich cannot go it alone. They still eat just three meals a day. They still take one body to the doctor. They simply cannot purchase as many goods and/or services as the bottom seventy-five percent of the economy. This is "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" economics. Too many low-wage earners means a bad economy. And that's what we're seeing. We cannot fix the problem by creating more millionaires.
Of course, this discussion ignores the question of morality, the morality of letting millions of our fellow Americans—including children and seniors—endure squalor and deprivation and the fear that accompanies them both. Because we don't want to talk about those things. We're only discussing economic self interest here. However, if you believe that we need to do the right thing, because we are a moral people, because we care, then this is one of those beautiful instances where we can do the right thing and benefit our economy and therefore ourselves at the same time.
Originally published May, 2013
What is “Sustainability?”
Sustainability is a difficult word to define, or more precisely, is difficult to reduce to a single definition. American Heritage defines the term as “capable of being continued without long-term effect on the environment.” This definition certainly does not solidify the linguistic ground beneath our feet. It is a sort of negative definition, partially defined by the absence of “long-term effect.” I don’t know exactly what “long-term effect” means. Everything that exists has a long-term effect on the environment. For that matter, everything that stops existing, or goes extinct has a long-term effect on the environment.
Sustainability as a construct owes a great deal to the Brundt Commission report to the United Nations in 1987, entitled, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. The report establishes three pillars of sustainability: Ecology, Economy and Equity (often referred to as the Three Es). You can also find the three pillars at work in the notion of the triple bottom line business, with the three bottom lines being People, Planet, Profit, as attributed to John Elkington.
The work I do for the nonprofit PLACE promotes the Three Es. We’re community builders, known for developing sustainable places for the arts and economic development. PLACE often uses the shorthand, “we build sustainable communities,” prompting questions like “what is sustainable?” and “what is community?” Even as an organization actively engaged in “sustainability,” we throw the term around as though everyone agrees on its meaning. It’s almost as if the term has come to be defined by its very absence of definition; like Justice Potter Stewarts’ definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
I’ve come to see the lack of a strong definition for the term “sustainable” as a structural impediment to our work as a society to prevent environmental degradation, habitat destruction, pollution of our air and water, mass extinction of species and global climate disruption (and the disruptions in economy and equity that follow). Yet, those of us working on a more sustainable future for society tend to assume that at the very least, we professionals know what we mean by “sustainability,” right? We know it when we see it.
PLACE often uses its own negative definition. Instead of defining “sustainable,” we jump to define the word “unsustainable,” as “that which destroys the very resources on which it depends.” Therefore, we know what is unsustainable and we’re not going to do “that.” But, without a strong, understandable definition for sustainability, and a good story to go with it, we create a crack in the pavement through which opportunistic weeds can grow.
Organic Melt™ ice remover advertises itself as being "environmentally safe" and an "agricultural-based product" using sugar beets. When CBC Marketplace contacted the company, they discovered that only 3% of Organic Melt™ is sugar beets by weight, and the rest is ordinary rock salt — even though the ingredient list puts beets first. It’s hard to see how this product is advancing ecology, let alone equity. As for economy, I’m not sure profiting from your disingenuous eco-claim counts.
There are many such specious claims for the “eco-ness” of products and companies that strain credibility. These sorts of misrepresentations, often referred to as “greenwashing,” make people cynical about sustainability efforts, and by association, sustainability professionals. Do we need new terms that support the work we champion?
In my experience, we need a more inclusive approach to addressing our most pressing challenges. Rilke said, “I live my life in widening circles,” and so must we, if we are to live sustainably. Everything we do touches on something else, and we must consider to the extent possible all of the adjacencies. We must widen the circle. The built environment impacts the natural environment. That is unavoidable. To build and live sustainably, we cannot focus exclusively on being environmentally sustainable— which often grabs all the headlines. Each new place must be seven kinds of sustainable:
Environmental sustainability is the first thing we think of when we think of sustainability. We are not maintaining our environment. Those who study the rate of consumption of the Earth’s natural resources estimate that we are using them up faster than they are being replenished. We’re spending down our reserves. The know-how exists to reverse this trend, but it is not widely distributed; a well-known market failure. We can design buildings that waste far less without costing any more. Yet, only a fraction of buildings are being built to these standards. Sustainable building techniques have been advanced by the network of professionals working with the U.S. Green Building Council, the BREEAM assessment, the International Living Futures Institute, The EPA’s Energy Star Program, and many more. Not only are there serviceable road maps to environmental design, but protocols for the measurement, tracking and evaluation necessary for the ongoing process that is environmentally sustainable buildings.
Often assumed to be mutually exclusive, PLACE believes that a development must be economically sustainable to be sustainable. Indeed, in developed nations, the economy is held up as a sine qua non for everything: “sine qua non, stupid!” Although it is true that sustainable design will improve your long-term operating costs, projects without balanced economic models may find themselves empty, sold, repurposed, or even demolished. In my experience, you’ll know that you’re on the right track when you find that careful mix of uses that improves your project’s sustainability and its economic resilience at the same time. For-profit businesses will play a leading role in the shift to economic sustainability, and so will nonprofits and NGOs.
Sustainable developments must find a way to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. PLACE is a fiercely nonpartisan organization, and we receive invitations to build our communities from both major parties. We begin each project with a collaborative, community-driven process of development, and that process lays the political groundwork for support from both sides. Despite the current rhetoric, I believe that nearly all of us recognize the need to prevent the wasting of resources, the spoiling of the Earth, and the proliferation of poverty and desperation. We want to be inspired. It is merely the means to move forward about which we argue. Bring your sustainable development to the community in a spirit of high-performance design, strong economic fundamentals, and a collaborative process, and you will find support across party lines, and more importantly, a more balanced and enduring support.
A very small percentage of the population wishes to live in a spirit of long-term sacrifice and deprivation — I’m guessing roughly similar to the number of people who choose to wear hair shirts. People who can afford it tend to seek comfort, safety and convenience. Thus it is that the richest places in the world also consume the most resources. Sustainability cannot disregard psychology. We ignore the need for comfort, ease of use, and pride of ownership at our peril. But can we all live in eco-hedonism? This is a design problem. Our design must incorporate our intent to produce inspiring places for people without wasting anything, and if possible, create abundance. At the very least, we must design our built environments to be psychologically sustainable, or our best efforts will regress into waste and inefficiency.
The built environment is, by definition, built for people. Yet the design of communities is driven by economics, vehicle parking, and many other things to which people often take the back seat. Communities are often designed to isolate people in a misguided attempt to provide privacy. When PLACE was designing its WĀV community in Ventura, California, we asked MIT’s Adele Santos, Lead Designer, to create the opportunity for people to have privacy, but also to foster interaction – the buildings should not get in the way. The end result is a model community for facilitating meaningful connections between community members. The bonds of trust and friendship, and the opportunity to share resources and inspiration may prove to be the most important factor in the sustainability of the community. In my experience, happiness does not come from having things; it comes from being a part of things. Has it not always been this way? Like many of our techniques for sustainability, the importance of meaningful human relationships for a sustainable future is the remembering of forgotten wisdom.
Great design must occupy that improbable intersection between purpose and aesthetics. Ugly places breed ugly habits. Beauty is an even more potent influence, with the capacity to elevate our actions, inspire us and even heal us. If beauty, in its deepest sense, is not a basic human right, than it is certainly a basic human need. While many will cry foul at the idea of including something as subjective as aesthetics in our prerequisites for sustainability, we must make it essential nevertheless, in much the same way as we do ethics in our leadership, or social responsibility in our businesses. It may be difficult to stipulate how aesthetics may manifest, but it must be our goal. Certainly, that which we have undertaken to make beautiful will be cared for and preserved, even as the reality of its beauty nourishes us.
Our cities are changing dramatically, along with our buildings. In turn, our buildings will change our cities. Developments designed to be adaptive will be sustainable in a changing ecosystem. Can components be removed and replaced when necessary, or reconfigured for a different use? Can housing become office, and office become light manufacturing or assembly? Increasingly sophisticated tools for life-cycle analysis can assess the costs and impacts of the manufacture of a product, from its maintenance and useful life through to its eventual demolition or recycling. Soon we may have modeling tools that can look at the labor standards and working conditions of the workers who make the product, and the mining and transport of each of its raw materials. However, the flexibility of the building’s original design may determine its reuse or destruction. I have been involved in the reclamation of schools, warehouses and department stores, all of which had been originally designed for durability and flexibility. Reusing these buildings prevented the release of their embodied carbon, and their transportation to landfills and recycling centers. We probably know we need to be adaptable to survive. We must build our buildings with that in mind.
I acknowledge that these seven ways of looking at sustainability constitute an imperfect lens through which to view a complex subject. Moreover, the limitations of the word “sustainability” are far exceeded by the limitations of sustainability as a concept. Architect William McDonough once clearly summarized this notion when he said “less bad is not good.” Sustainability is not enough. Ultimately, we must work toward development that is beyond sustainable, that seeks not merely to be less damaging, but to repair. PLACE is working on what we call “Restorative Development:” development that seeks to restore vital resources, both human and planetary. Restorative development must ultimately generate more energy than it consumes, be open and affordable to everyone, demonstrate universal design, produce its own food, offer multiple transit options, create places to live, work, create, learn, and play, celebrate its historical and cultural resources, empower people to participate in its creation, use waste as a resource, facilitate interconnectedness, and be healthy, beautiful and inspiring. We must build buildings that give back.
Chris Velasco is Co-founder & Executive Director of PLACE, a community builder specializing in sustainable places for the arts and economic development.
As a PLACE supporter, you probably realize how important it is for more live/work communities to be developed all around the nation - especially affordable and mixed-income live/work spaces that are designed and built to be sustainable, and with the needs of creatives in mind.
The PLACE team is hard at work on creating a new affordable living community in St. Louis Park, MN. Even if you are not from MN or the region, we encourage you to tell us what your ideal living and working spaces look like -- we have a survey that will be online for just 12 more days. It only takes 5 minutes to complete, and your answers truly help us to design these spaces with your needs in mind -- for this particular project, and for all future PLACE projects.
Can you take our survey now, and share this link to help us get 150 more responses in the next 12 days?
We have joined a Princeton project, All Our Ideas, to generate data that we can use to build better communities. Just take our one-question survey. Answer as many times as often as you like, and see the results in real time. It's fun, and it will help us improve our important work.
Share it with everybody, because everybody's opinion about community is valuable.
Thanks in advance.
The Metropolitan Council approves a $2M grant to fund a landmark, transit-oriented development in the heart of St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
On December 9, 2015 and after overwhelming enthusiasm and support from a rigorous application and vetting process, the Metropolitan Council approved funding for PLACE’s St. Louis Park Community. The Council approved 2 million dollars in funding from its Livable Communities Account for a Transit-Oriented Development (LCA-TOD) grant after the proposed project demonstrated a breakthrough approach to meeting housing and economic development needs in the Twin Cities. The funds will be used to help secure site acquisition at the former McGarvey Coffee property, pioneer alternative energy sources, and integrate stormwater improvement with infrastructure like green roofs and an urban forest.