Living downtown seemed illogical at first to the young parents of twins, but the apartment building with its deep south-facing balconies, rooftop farm and easy elevator access won over Mathias and his wife Louise. Now he takes his coffee mug and steps onto the patio and opens the extra large windows that convert it into a green house during the winter months. The fresh damp smell of spring floats in on the breeze, redolent of spring show- ers and the blooms to follow. The dappled light filters through the bright chartreuse green of the new leaves. On the sixth floor they are looking out into the top of the trees in the courtyard below. Purple crocus and yellow daffodils are blooming in the window boxes. The strawberries are starting to come up too.
Suddenly a small boy, with curly dark hair and bright eyes races in and grabs him by the legs –Hey Buddy, look at this, he lifts the toddler and holds him up to the see the bird’s nest in the high branches of the maple tree. A red- breasted robin is tending his nest just a few feet outside the balcony. The boys love to watch the activities of the squirrels and the birds just out of their reach. Over the season each of the tree dwellers will be attributed a name and a personality. Next week, they will remove the window panels and the patio will become a screened porch, play yard and tree house all in one.
Max has squirmed out of his father’s arms and turned his attention to Margo, the new bunny, placidly chomping on her salad in her pen next to the com- post bin. She gets the pick of the leftovers before they are turned into fertil- izer for the planters of herbs. Time to plant the spring vegetables next week, he thinks. Just have to make sure Margo can’t harvest them prematurely.
Suddenly Theo, a fairer version of Max, with reddish hair and a quieter tem- perament, emerges from behind the hanging laundry, precariously holding one of the two family cats. He sets her down next to the litter box – a small contraption that harvests the methane from the pet waste and puts out just enough heat to warm the rabbit quarters all winter. Matthias picks up the toy trucks, tosses them casually into the brightly colored toy bin and grabs both boys by the hands, Time for the park, he announces, AND, I think its going to RAIN! The boys slip out of his grasp and gleefully tumble after each other racing for their boots.
He loves that his work gives him a day and a half off a week to be with his kids. Louise’s job at the hospital has a similar accommodation and they alternate, each staying with the kids a day or tow a week, and together they cover three days a week. The other two days they go to the community day- care center at the library, where they have a grand time with other kids. The daycare centers also brings them into contact with their elders through the many retirees who volunteer at the centers.
They leave through the courtyard so the boys can check on the workshops that use the ground floor of the building. Omar and Chelsea, the cabinet- makers, are loading up a truck with a new pine table. The smell of the wood chips and varnish drift out into the courtyard through the open giant double doors. Next to their shop, the Ruiz brothers repair all manner of engines and electric motors. The whirring and whizzing of the machinery always draws Max into the shop but there is no time today if they hope to get to the play- ground before the rain starts to fall.Getting the twins past the corner store with its array of enticing snack food is always a bit of a project, but at least it is all healthy, not the way potato chips and soda were when he was a kid. The late 20th C. epidemic of obe- sity transformed the “junk food” industry – somehow they have managed to preserve the illusion that it is still junk so as to attract the kids, but in fact it is all healthy, whole grain chips, dried fruits, and natural sodas.
The stream of busses and taxis in the downtown core stop at the corner light and he easily maneuvers the double stroller across the raised crosswalk which signals to the cars and busses that pedestrians come first in this city. Even Matthias’s mother Marion, who sometimes takes the kids out, has re- ported that the ergo-dynamic stroller and the street design mean that she can manage the twins. It is only two blocks in either direction to a park – one is a quiet sitting space under the big trees with one of the many fountains that grace the city. Today they head for the active playground on the edge of the bigger greensward park that splays its fingers into every neighborhood. The playground is packed with innovative equipment designed by the local art and engineering students to inspire a fascination with the elementary physics of cause and effect.
While he pushes the kids on the merry-go-round they watch excitedly to see the lights powered by their spinning. Jumping on the bouncy mounds forc- es water jets up in the adjacent flower garden, and a complicated contrap- tion installed against a long retaining wall takes a tossed ball and drops it through a long series of reactions to the endless delight of all ages of kids.
An older couple is walking their dog. They pause at the canine pit stop – a sand pit with posts in it. They pick up the messes with their degradable bag and drop it in the Poop Power methane composter, the public version of the home contraption. This always amuses the boys who sing a poop-power song they made up whenever they get the chance. Many things change, chuckles Matthias, but kid humor seems to stay the same.
When the rain finally breaks it startles their play and the three retreat to the jungle gym under the park canopy and standing in the muted light, they watch the raindrops drizzle across the glass roof and gather in the down- spouts and fill the rain barrels. On a dry day they will come back to water the flowers using that store of water. Now, with the moist air cooling their faces, they watched transfixed as the rain pours down and the play areas shed the water. The downpour stops as suddenly as it began and in moments the play areas become dry islands among the swales and retention ponds. The sudden spring storm works a transforming magic that makes this a favorite place of theirs.
A spring shower is something to be celebrated, not a cause to give up a trip to the park. Matthias stoops down and teaches the twins how to make boats out of sticks and leaves and they launch them and watch them float down the swale streams toward the ponds that appear throughout the park like magic as the water fills over the grasses. One sunny day and the water will all be gone again and they will roll in the grass where today they watch their tiny fairy boats capsize.
The pond lets the water sink into the ground and return to the aquifer that supplies the region’s water supply. He can remember a time when the play- ground would have been designed to “shed” the water, channeling it across impervious surfaces and into gutters and storm drains, washing all that pre- cious rainfall out to sea. How silly the old ways seem now. The swales that catch the water are bright green after a rain, providing cool grasses, water- ing the street trees, and sheltering tiny creatures of great interest to two young kids.
Remembering that he promised to take them fishing at the river next week- end, he pulls out a cardboard soup container and sets the kids loose dig- ging worms for bait in the muddy swales. Sure beats the old concrete curbs and gutters of before. Good thing he put on their rubber boots.
It is raining again when they choose the route home, through the shopping district where they can walk under cover for several blocks, stopping in the stores and loading up the carriage with groceries.
In storms the water pours down on the city washing every surface clean and bright, creating a symphony of sounds. The drops hit the smooth shiny surfaces of solar panels and slide down oversize downspouts into under- ground storage tanks, wash across stone plazas into carefully designed channels, to expanses of green planting beds engineered to hold water, clean out pollutants and return the water to the ground. Busy pedestrians can keep walking the city streets watching the waterfalls, sheltered under the continuous arcades. The big trees lining the avenues seem to breathe more deeply, soaking in the rainfall, protecting the spaces underneath until the storm reaches its peaks and the water finally breaks through the giant canopies. As the street darkens in a storm, the glow of streetlights automati- cally increases, turning the rainfall into a glittering lightshow.
People hurry down the street, pushing their covered grocery carriages, stay- ing under the arcades, keeping their feet dry in clogs along the impercepti- bly canted sidewalks, where puddles are never seen. An older woman with her shopping cart huddles under the brightly lit bus shelter, that sheds water into a cistern that irrigates the vines covering its roof. The new wheelchairs, first designed by a Iraq war vet, have built-in umbrellas, their bright colors glowing against the rainy day, and the puddles that once collected at the base of every wheelchair ramp are gone because the street crossings are all at sidewalk level. The cars must bump up and down instead of the wheel- chairs and baby-carriages.
The water sheets across the streets and fills the green verges that mark the transition from roadway to sidewalk; these are bridged several times a block for safe (and dry) pedestrian passage. Narrow channels line the small streets and wide green medians run down the middle of the avenues and all are engineered to handle storm surges. The cities fountains fill up, marking the water rise for all to see. The banks of canals likewise swell to handle the temporary increase in water. No dirty water runoff from streets ever reaches the rivers or seas. All is caught, cleaned and recycled. City dwellers value the rainwater. Every neighborhood has a network of dry wells designed to catch and keep extreme levels of rainfall. Even in a hurricane, only a small percentage of rainfall is ever swept out to sea.
Years ago, a big storm would mean that sewage was dumped into the rivers and the ocean. For the younger people, that is equivalent to the days when horses and their manure filled the streets. The idea that once storm water and sewage water were treated together is nonsensical to them, as now each has an extensive and transparent treatment process using greenhouse tanks and wetland systems. Similarly inconceivable is the idea of chemi- cal treatment to create clean water often then dumped into the sea. Every schoolchild has visited these facilities and their adjacent bird sanctuaries.
Matthias and Louise visited an elementary school last week to check it out for their kids. Because the park system of the city is also the water treatment system, it weaves through all the neighborhoods, even the dense downtown ones, and the elementary schools can all be located in the parks. They were a little concerned at first because this school is adjacent to a sewage treat- ment facility.
A large percentage of human waste is composted now before it even leaves a residence or workplace. By the time it is removed from a building it is a valuable fertilizer not a noxious waste. The municipality circulates two sets of waste removal trucks, one for separated recyclables, one for waste fertil- izer and compost. Non-recyclable non-compostable trash is incinerated for energy, but those plants are being phased out since there is so little of that trash nowadays.
Many of the larger new developments were built with their own mini sewage treatment facilities- various innovations have drastically reduced the volume of water to be treated and the incorporation of gardens and composting in each complex has encouraged the evolution of new cheap and clean tech- nologies. The waste streams have been separated out in the new buildings and the grey water irrigates the roof-gardens and greenhouses. Waterless urinals and low flush and composting toilets cuts the water use from gallons to cups and it is easily treated using living machines. The water treatment centers look just like the other greenhouses that cover the roofs of many of the downtown buildings.
Near the school though, the larger greenhouse that treats the outflow of an older neighborhood, sits at the edge of a cascading terrace of wetland pools. By the time the treated water flows through the system it is clean enough to nourish the natural ponds. And when it reaches the end of the cycle, it is totally potable. Because the elementary school studies the cleansing pro- cess with the school garden; the children come to understand the entire set of natural processes. In addition, the school benefits from the abundant wildlife that live in the wetland pools. During class the children draw pictures of the herons and hawks, fish and frogs they can see from their classrooms and gardens.
Max can expertly identify the distinctive kinds of trucks the city circulates to collect waste. Blue for separated recyclables, brown for waste fertilizer and compost. Once a month, the blue trucks sport red flags while they collect non-recyclable non-compostable trash to be incinerated for energy. Those plants are being phased out since there is so little of that trash nowadays.
At a kid friendly café, Matthias pauses before lining up the carriage wheels with the grooves in the steps and pushing the carriage up the four stairs into the café. The space is filled with parents and babysitters with pre school age kids. The widely spaced tables and rubber-tiled floor allow the carriages to maneuver easily. He spots their elderly neighbor with her shopping cart at a table nearby and smiles at the thought of a helpful passer-by who must have stopped to give a quick shove to her cart to get it up the grooved steps. This simple inexpensive innovation has allowed the café owners to repur- pose the old industrial warehouse into an accessible neighborhood hang out. Even the bikes wheel right in.
“>Hot Mac and cheese for the kids, made from local cheddar, reminds him that they plan to take the kids to see the cheese making at the farm next week. The kids love to pet the animals, watch the cows get milked and especially chase the chickens around the yard. That farm has the most tolerant chick- ens he’s ever heard of.
Across town On the patient floor at the hospital a few blocks away, Louise notices the storm coming as the light changes at the nurse’s station. Looking up, one of the nurses scans the skyline, watching the dark clouds approach. As the rain begins to fall they feel the refreshing damp breezes through the open windows, shielded by the overhangs that double as light shelves, bouncing the daylight deep into the building. Just as the wind turns and the water starts to hit the windows an LED signal alerts the staff to close up before any- thing inside gets wet. With a touch of a button the windows crank closed. Meanwhile the plants in the patient’s window boxes soak up the extra water gratefully. As the rain increases they can see the window box overflow filling up to store the water for a drier day. A patient in a wheelchair returns to the dayroom from tending the flowers in his window.
The ward is quiet, and peaceful in the rain. The tapping gentle drumming of the rain on the overhangs creating a “white noise”. Louise remembers how noisy and chaotic hospitals once were, with patient’s doors always open, TV’s blaring and equipment beeping. It’s a miracle anyone ever got better, she reflects. Now, nurses monitor the equipment directly with their beepers so as not to disturb the other patients. With private rooms and headphones for watching movies, the ambience is restful and recoveries are quicker. Louise notices that most of her patients are resting and she looks up at the clock and thinks of her boys – everybody’s having naptime she muses.
Naptime After lunch the kids are quiet, drowsy and full. And still a bit muddy. He wheels them home quickly and after some quick wiping down, puts them down for a nap in their bunk beds. He draws closes the shutters on their big windows, leaving the casement windows open a crack for the soft spring air to circulate through their dreams. Ah now, perhaps I can get some work done, thinks Matthias, as he closes the sturdy soundproof door.
He fills the crock-pot with vegetables and starts the dinner stew cooking, then remembers to put away the worms still in the stroller. He then retreats to his “office” to check in with his co-workers. In this small corner of the apartment are floor to ceiling bamboo shelves, stained a warm pecan color, matching the floor. They are lined with old-fashioned books, while a bank of drawers hold more contemporary data. A brightly colored handmade hook rug defines the area and a small monitor in the upper corner, over his desk, lets him see the boys sleeping in the other room. No kid toys allowed here, though a few of Theo’s bright sketches are taped to a shelf. A bank of screen illuminates when he comes near and several projects show up. In the center is a view of the lounge at the office and he can see what his co-workers there are doing, Hi guys, have I missed anything? He asks of the screen and one of his colleagues looks up and replies, only a new client. He pulls up the bright red swivel chair, rests his feet on the desk edge and gets down to work – Tell me all about it, he says as he starts to go through the mail stacked up on the screen.
Dinnertime: At home, dinner is also fresh and healthy, as the whole interest in food pro- motes home cooking as well. Long ago, it was established that the best predictor of kids’ success in school was whether they eat dinner as a family, and dinner gatherings are a priority in many homes. Even those working long hours can dine together since the cooperative urban kitchens provide easy to heat up fresh healthy meals for affordable prices. Add a few pota- toes from the balcony garden and some herbs and a healthy and delicious meal is ready.
Louise is home from her job as the nutrition advisor at the hospital by around 4:30. The boys have woken up and are playing on the patio smashing up the trucks Matthias put away earlier in the day. Some things don’t seem to change over the generations muses Louise when she comes in. She finishes the dinner prep while Matthias keeps working. She calls the couple next door to check on their plans for the evening, since she is hoping to get some quiet adult time tonight.
When the family sits down to eat, the dinner is ritualized but hardly formal, since getting two small boys to sit still is too much to ask. It is however one of Louise’s favorite times of day. The dining room bay juts out of the building next to the patio and forms a column like stack with all the other dining rooms for the apartments. Looking out she can see the other families preparing their tables and coming together for their meals. It is almost like a big community picnic, she thinks, each of us at our table but all supping together. The boys wave excitedly across the courtyard to their friends on the other side.
After story time, Louise’s turn since Matthias had the boys all day, the boysare tucked into their cozy bunks, whispering softly about frogs and salaman- ders. Louise takes a glass of red wine and proposes to Matthias – Mark and George will listen for the boys – we could go up to the roof for a bit. The neighboring apartment has a connecting door to theirs and its solid construction keeps the units private, but it does allow for a great babysitting deal. Matthias can hook them up to the same monitor that appears on his screen and they can watch and listen for the boys from next door. And we will be just upstairs, she continues.
They exit the elevator onto the roof lobby. The big open room is designed to hold large parties and anyone in the apartment house can sign up to use it. Tonight in the middle of the week it is quiet. Mark and George use the space for their singing group’s rehearsals once a week, and Matthias has suggested they sign up to have the boy’s third birthday there next month. Right now they walk out the double doors onto the “porch” a covered trellis, just coming into bloom. The pungent scent of the lilacs is intoxicating mixed with the damp sweet spring air. The city lights are coming on, illuminating the skyline, and the stars are just starting to come out. They take each other’s hands and walk out into the farm garden, strolling between the rows of newly turned damp dark dirt, planted with lettuces and corn. The spicy jalapeno peppers and cilantro line one patch while bok choi and pea tendrils are peeking up in another. The spiky stalks of the raspberry bushes are just turning green. Matthias is especially grateful for the genetic breeding that produces three crops of raspberries all summer long. They walk the perim- eter of the U-shaped building. Looking out over the furrows and down onto the tree tops at the same time, Matthias remarks: you know the boys think this is totally usual, to be in the treetops and down on the farm at the same time, but I still think it is really fun.
I love the smell of spring, she replies, squeezing his hand. The Fishing expedition:
This city was known to have been one of the founding sites of the first in- dustrial revolution, when small mills were built along the river to capture he power of the waterfalls turning the big wheels that powered the primitive spinning machines and looms to weave cotton and wool. The behemoth brick buildings still stand along the waterways, converted many many years ago into workshops and housing, shops, and offices. They stand as remind- ers, to those who bother with the local history, of an era of industrial devel- opment and mass employment in rote physical labor. It amazes Matthias to think that these huge buildings once held hundreds and hundreds of people, young farm girls and whole families, kids included, all standing and doing the same 3 or 4 tasks for 12-16 hours a day. Now they are beehives of activities with hundreds of small entrepreneurs, designers, mini manufac- turers, all experimenting and looking for new ideas. Each strand of activity learns from the proximity to other, seemingly unrelated, endeavors, creating new, unexpected synergies and inventions. Ideas are the looms of our time, he thinks.
For half a century, the mills stood empty, hulking silent and sad. Even after they began to be repurposed as housing, the river suffered the effects of the dams, with the fish stocks depleted, their migrations and breeding patterns disrupted. Now his favorite spot to take the boys is just below the fish ladder that circumvents the first historic dam. They sit in the shadow of the original mill building from the 1700’s carefully preserved as a symbol of the regions history, and let out their lines. On a Saturday morning, a dozen others are fishing in the same spot, some quiet and apart, concentrating meditatively, others gregariously bragging about last week’s haul. The river has been restored to health and the fishing is good for the recreational anglers.
Matthias’s father had been a fisherman, weathering the long drought when the stocks of fish were so depleted from over fishing that bans on strict regulations on the catches were imposed and many of the old fishing fami- lies lost their livelihoods and their connection to the sea. Eventually the fish did come back, protected by the regulations and ironically by the return to old-fashioned fishing technologies. The huge commercial vessels were re- placed by smaller, more adaptable, boats with high-tech gear. The men and women who still plied the sea could find and catch their quota in a fraction of the time it took a hundred years ago. The higher prices the wild fish bring make it worth their while. The appetite for fish was partly met by the sophis- ticated fish farming operations, once the problems of overstocking, using antibiotics creating imbalances in the ocean ecologies were solved.
Now the wharves are again crowded with small fishing boats, in the early afternoon when the boats come in. And the market is humming with patrons and restaurant chefs jostling househusbands for the first view of the fish as they tumble off the boats. When the market managers switched off the piped in music and video advertising that had been built into the market shed by the developers there began a revival of the old fashioned sing song hawking. Now deep baritone voices call out fresh lobster, mussels here and higher sopranos, mackerel and cod. The tables display the glistening irides- cent colors of the fish, laid out in rows, pink and red in one row, blues and green in another. The pier is lined with restaurants and the sous-chefs just wheel their selections back to their kitchens in rubber-tired carts down the middle of the brick paved streets.