Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Labor shortage, Farming, and Immigration policy

The media today is focused on how immigration reform will impact our economic possibilities and realities.  Today's article from Kirk Johnson in the NYTimes highlights an American workforce not willing to take hard farm jobs. Through my best urban sociologist lens, I view people wanting more than to simply "fill jobs" -- but that is not the way the story is presented.  This article was also referenced in a spirited debate this morning on the Diane Rehm Show.

The dialogue revolves around the context of new (legally challenged and court confirmed) immigration policy and how it coerces undocumented workers back to their home country - potentially leaving crops unharvested.

I shake my head at this kind of analysis, because it overlooks the complexity of the social dimension when observing people's job selection process as well as the historical trend of people migrating to cities. The farming industry has been altered immensely through a technological overhaul that dates back to the industrial revolution.  However, new technology is usually received with mixed reviews because of how it typically leaves low-skilled workers without jobs, replaced by machinery.  This unsettling news is no comfort to the low-skilled workers in this country that are suffering most from unemployment.  Yet, despite their relatively low skill (and subsequently low wage), they have quality of life expectations that the rural farm setting does not offer.

Evidence to this fact can be seen in the affinity that low wage workers have for city centers.  It is the city that offers affordable transportation, social opportunities and a quality of life that is made interesting by the unique opportunities to urban life.  Ever since the industrial revolution and the invention of machinery that has replaced farm jobs, people have been migrating to the city nonstop.  If it were for only employment opportunity, farm labor shortage should have them migrating back -- but these people are choosing to stay in the city.  This is evidence for the quality of life that cities offer over their rural neighbors.  Despite one out of 11 people are unemployed, these folks still choose the city to the rural farm life.

So if a labor shortage in rural farm country cannot lure people out of the city, perhaps it is time to bring the farm to the city.  The vertical farm might be a viable option.  This potential solution looks to face the problem of feeding a population on an exponential growth projection and the fact that there is no stopping people choosing their home in a city rather than a rural farm.

But this doesn't offer politicians an easy way to skirt the pressing issues of immigration policy.  For too long, it seems that we've been addressing immigration with the following questions:

  • "What will it do for the benefit of our economic well being?"
  • "What stress will it put our social services under?"
  • "Why should our tax dollars pay to educate these children?"
I think these are the wrong questions and they only look at the problem under a very short timeline and avoid moral humanitarian perspectives.  My questions are more about what if we don't open up opportunities to our neighboring nation?  What will make the pressure of managing "illegals" subside?  Taller fences?  More armed guards?  Security will not add value to our economy.  Investing in human potential, immigrant or domestic, may be more productive (although I would like to see empirical evidence on the matter).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Refreshing Opportunities

Despite the economic downturn, it is exciting to see when creativity pushes through and we find innovative solutions like the ones offered in the blog post by Melissa Hege.  See the link below...

Friday, June 3, 2011


No one person, one profession, one chemist, one biologist can live in a modern city, while isolated, and consider themselves truly sustainable.  Communities rely upon common goals, common space, common infrastructure, etc.  All these commonalities mean that we share in one another’s fate.  Progress or regress is shared in some spillover.  Our environments are places where we exchange ideas, money, emotion, illness, stress, and so much more.

Our lives are interconnected.  To some, that is met with alarm and distrust.  Such reaction is usually followed by withdrawing as much as possible and they worry about getting out, becoming self-reliant, and even “off the grid.”  But even when extreme measures have been taken, a person’s water, air, and food can become threatened from far away distances.

Let’s not fall into the trap of every-man-for-himself.  I believe that the only way to confront the challenges of sustainability are to embrace our interconnectedness and work together with our own unique perspective to weave a complete vision of what our world could be.  Biologists, urbanists, psychologists, surgeons, survivalists, engineers, mothers... EVERYONE has a life to live with their own needs to meet.  With cooperation and embracing our shared existence, we can come together in ways that promote the Social Capital I mention in my Sustainability post.

What does something with that much synergy and cooperation look like?  I am not sure myself.  What I do know is that we cannot assume that we have all the answers within our own fields of knowledge.  There is a complexity to this world that no one person can put together alone.  The good news is that today’s technology has us more connected than ever.  A simple Google search eliminates many mysteries.  But even Google has its limitations.  We need a mix of expert opinions with contextual applications to help resolve the errors of our society.  Recognize failure when you see it.  Don’t be afraid to not have the answer.  Do find the strength to start (or engage with) a coalition to change it.

Build a sense of community right where you live by getting involved in community development meetings held by your local city government!  Google the name of your city and you will find that there are teams of people who are employed by your tax dollars that can work to make this happen --- but they need your involvement.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sustainability Means More Than What You Might Think

Sometimes "buzz words" take on a life of their own. Definitions become distorted, or hijacked by someone with a profit motive, or manipulated for personal gain.  I happen to believe sustainability is a big deal, but it is hard to define what it means in certain contexts. Too often I see/hear "sustainability" used interchangeably with "environmentally friendly;" or even worse, I my opinion, separating the collective spheres with descriptions such as "this business plan is an economically sustainable proposal."

I might be parsing words here, but the sustainable diagram offered as a graphic in a ton of literature (and I share with you here) offers a definition that shows all three spheres of social, ecological and economic.  It takes all three spheres, and not simply because ideas sound good in threes.  Sustainable ventures require all three "pillars of sustainability," otherwise it is something other than sustainable (perhaps viable or equitable even).  The word venture isn't haphazardly chosen either.  Venture implies action across time.  This is critical -- it's oxymoronic to say "this is sustainable for the short-run."  In fact, some of the earliest definitions of sustainability offered by the Brundtland Commission (back in 1987) understood long timelines as a critical consideration.  The Commission's famous one sentence definition is:
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Sustainability's definition is, almost 25 years later, still being refined. So here's my contribution:

There are key components of sustainability that I think can easily get lost in the definition, and while they may seem elementary, I want to be sure that these components are realized.  The three spheres of sustainability always concern:
  • time
  • need
  • activity (or exchange)
Socially, sustainability requires communities to build "Social Capital."  This means over time, and into the future, communities build bonds that foster cooperation and a respect for common goals and essential needs for themselves and future generations.  It spawns culture and friendships that build families and priceless experiences of life.  Social capital is exchanged as volunteering ideas, a helping hand, knowledge, experience, laughter, writing, blogs, movies, music, performance, etc.  Social Capital isn't intended for personal gain.  It's built up as a collective experience for those who are connected as neighbors, friends, distant pen-pals, or random acquaintances.

Ecologically, sustainability requires natural systems to operate in ways that maintain the physical health that we cherish.  Health for ourselves and health for other life.  Life is connected in a series of interdependent relationships that we have yet to fully understand.  This system has a life-supporting capacity that either can be deteriorated or invested in (this is known as Natural Capital).  There are many series of exchanges and activities that go into the clean conditions of our water, air, and food that are essential to our life and the life of future generations.

Economically, sustainability requires our own activities and exchanges between ourselves and our natural environment to not disrupt the exchanges previously described.  In fact, if it can support the richness of the previously mentioned activities, that is even better.  It is one thing to expect a business venture to respect our society and our planet, but to support those in a rich, creatively engaged kind of way.... I'd consider that Sustainability 2.0.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Glocal: What does it mean?

Glocalisation on Wikipedia

This is a very important concept that everyone should be up to snuff on.  Global economics has been a growing topic of concern for many governing officials.  If you have yet to really understand the global to local connection and the concern, now is the time to start becoming familiar.  This is simply a starting point for understanding some of the contextual challenges we'll tackle in future posts.

Tim Jackson's economic reality check | Video on

Glocal is about moving the processes and the means of our consumption from far away places to more local places.  This is seen as important due to the farther away our our consumables come from, the less connection we have to their true costs and burdens to society.  If our shoes are made by a sweatshop halfway around the world, we don't see it and are less likely to empathize with the burden our spending habits have on the population in that remote part of the world.

Additional considerations apply beyond the impact at the point of production.  The shipment from where a product is produced to it's point of sale is important too, as it was almost definitely shipped with the use of fossil fuels which pollutes and contributes to climate change.  As a rule of thumb, buying locally produced goods and food is usually better for your local economy and our environment.

However, there are examples where locally produced things actually have a downside.  For example, some food grown in the southwest U.S. (where it is arid) actually overburdens the water supply (because some crops require a lot of water) when there are already drastic engineering measures in place to ensure water for necessities.  These crops are probably better shipped in to these southwest markets from where there is an abundance of water.

Please take a moment to watch Tim Jackson's TED talk to gain a broader appreciation for this concept.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Beginning

April 15, 2011

Today starts my commitment to communicate my ideas as a "planning professional." I use the term liberally for now as a Graduate Student in the Masters of Urban and Environmental Planning program at Arizona State University. However, I feel as though my passions have paid off and my understanding and purpose are coming together.

Future posts will focus on my ideas for effective governance and for the urban planner's role as evaluator, communicator, liaison, facilitator, and guardian of the commons. Urban planners wear many hats and I want to explore such hats with an audience to hopefully inspire some community participation from anyone who reads this blog. I'll also give readers ideas on how to get involved and make an impact. Hopefully, I'll effectively communicate the importance citizen participation in the planning process and readers can gain influence within their community.