Episode #9: How do we transition to clean energy?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Conversation with Robin Plaskoff Horton

Robin Plaskoff Horton is founder of Urban Gardens, an award-winning blog on all things urban and green. Robin tells us the story of urban gardens from the ground up: from seed to harvest to kitchen while serving it all up in sustainable style.


Monica: Hi, I’m Monica Laurence, creator and host of Turtle Talks. Today we’re chatting with Robin Plaskoff Horton, creator and founder of Urban Gardens. Robin, thank you for joining us.

Robin: Monica, thank you for having me. It’s great being here.

Monica: We’d love to learn a little bit about your background.

Robin: Sure, well, I was a French major at Berkeley, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne, and then at The Cooper Union in New York. After that I was VP and creative director and art director at Burson-Marsteller public relations for nine years in New York. And I had my own boutique consultancy for more than 20 years where I worked as creative facilitator and I did branding and visual communications.

When I was designing I used words to generate visual ideas and now I’m writing a blog and using images to generate words, so in both endeavors it’s been a marriage of words and images.

Monica: So when did you start your blog, Urban Gardens, and what inspired you to start it?

Robin: Well, I’ve always been interested in urban style, cities, nature, and I think it was about 15 years ago when well, green was really not much more than a color, I had this idea for a print magazine. I’d been taking Artscape’s post-professional design workshop with an iconic publication designer who helped redo New York magazine, and he had us come up with an idea for a magazine in 24 hours. I came up with Urban Gardens.

I didn’t really know at the time why I had that idea, although I do now, but I thought it was really interesting. I wasn’t just thinking about gardens, but more about creative style, living, lifestyle, and with a nature and sustainability angle. And of course gardens are a big part of nature in the city. So I presented it, and when I was done, he said, “Who would want to read that?” So Urban Gardens kind of went into storage for a number of years and then in 2009, I pulled it out again as a blog.

Monica: Well, fortunately for all of us. In fact I was reading your blog recently, Robin, and there was a post from May where you featured a portable plug and play solar panel solution, which was really interesting because you can take it with you. So if you rent your home and if you go from one place to another, you can actually take your energy supply. Could you tell us about that?

Robin: Yeah, I loved that product. It’s called a Sunflower P.O.P. It’s a beautifully designed mobile solar power system for residences who, for various reasons, the roofs can’t accommodate solar panels. What I really like about it is it fulfills the objectives many people have of being plug and play. That’s what people want nowadays, but they also want highly efficient and this fits the bill.

I’m finding that more and more creative ideas are emerging for products that either provide solar energy or employ solar to operate, and I’ve written about so many of them.

In Austin, Texas, there’s a massive public art installation of 15 flower shaped photovoltaic solar panels that provide energy for the retail area in the vicinity. Many people probably have heard about the Lowline in Manhattan. It’s a subterranean park in development and they have been very creative. They will use a specially designed solar technology system that will generate energy from panels placed on the surrounding buildings and then these powerful mirrors will reflect the sunlight down to the street level, where these light conducting tubes bring the light down to the underground. So anyway, that’s really thinking outside the underground box.

Monica: It’s amazing what kind of creativity is going on in this area.

Robin: It is. I’m a big believer in co-creation, and the power of people coming together. Co-creation of ideas is a great tool for accelerating change. I think the interdisciplinary co-mingling of ideas sparks each other. You know, the thing about it, it takes a village. When people come together for the greater good, they inspire each other, and it’s catching.

Monica: You have been telling me a story, Robin, about an observation you had in co-creation involving children. Could you share that with us?

Robin: I think any of us, parents or not, have noticed that when our children are young, and before they get ruined in school sometimes, they’re motivated by wonder and fascination and wanting to observe more closely the smallest, most interesting little details, often in nature, and they don’t know that there are any “shoulds” yet.

So I have a friend in Spain who reached out to me about his green roofs for busses technology, phytokinetic, and he’s designed, with the help of some academics from the University of Madrid and some biologists and botanists, he has a whole team of scientists that he worked with.

He’s a landscape artist, Marc Granen. And they developed, together, this system for the tops of vehicles, and it’s very interesting. So he got his children involved, his two sons. At the time I think they were five and nine. And it’s kind of about the idea of suspending our beliefs and set notions and just, again, thinking generatively, because that’s what kids do. They just think things up without inhibition and some days those are good ideas in and of themselves and some can be nurtured into fruition with the help of adults, and that’s what he did.

His children go to an experimental school where the parents come in and they’re required to work with the children, not just as aides or helping, but the children are one on one with the adults in coming up with a plan for the school. So it’s not just that the parents come in and say, “We’re going to plant a garden and you’re going to help us.” The children are engaged to decide if they want the garden, what kind, where, how they’re going to do it, and they come up with the solutions together. And they come up with some great solutions that I’m sure just the adults alone would not come up with.

Also, when people are part of the solution, they’re more engaged, right? There’s more ownership. It’s a great model for children growing up to learn that they can be the originators of something and they can take ownership in it. And they’re more likely as they get older to do more of that.

Monica: That’s very empowering to learn that at an early age.

Robin: Isn’t it?

Monica: And to be respected by adults in that process at those tender ages. It’s, I imagine, quite a formative experience.

Robin: I think so too, yeah.

Monica: In addition to co-creating, Robin, you also advocate a “thinking small” philosophy, which is very interesting. How would you describe that?

Robin: Well, we need to change our mindset and the original mindset or the more common mindset is that the person who consumes more is better off than the one who consumes less.

I just feel that if people take ownership, and they see a personal connection or feel it in their pocketbook, there are financial incentives for reducing consumption and alternative energy sources. You know, it’s about feeling personally involved, and it gets into why alternative energies… they’re more scalable and people are more engaged on a community level, and they’re decentralized. It’s all about thinking smaller, you know how a lot of small pieces add up to a big piece.

Monica: Yeah, what are some steps that you’ve taken in your own life or that we could take for ourselves if we were wanting to follow a “thinking small” way of life?

Robin: Any little thing that anyone does is useful, and adds up — consuming less, obviously, thinking about ways to utilize local labor and people, and part of the idea of growing food in cities, so many of the world’s population is going to be living in cities. So growing food collectively and individually in urban areas makes a lot of sense.

In terms of urban gardens and what people can do personally in urban areas, besides offering increased accessibility to fresh food, the more food that we can grow locally, obviously the less food needs to be transported, and that would represent a big reduction in fossil fuel use and reduce the footprint. That’s a big thing when you think about all the people living in cities. Also it brings people to the labor force, and again, it goes back to people having personal ownership in it, being personally involved, and they can visually see that that carrot they grew is going to be in their kitchen.

Monica: I was recently staying in Brooklyn, in New York, and I noticed on the streets that people had planted small gardens around the trees on the sidewalk, and in many cases they had signs up asking people to please keep their dogs away from the small gardens that had been planted by the children. I hadn’t really seen that in my prior visits to the area. Are you seeing a growth in these kinds of trends?

Robin: It’s interesting you bring it up because I was in Arkansas recently and those are called health strips, that bit of property between the sidewalk and the street. In Bentonville, they planted some really wide ones, long strips in the downtown area, with kale and lettuce. There’s a big movement now. So I love the idea of planted health strips.

Monica: Conversely, just prior to that, I had spent the weekend in downtown Atlanta and when I asked my host where I could go to pick up some groceries, I learned that there is no grocery store in that area.

Robin: Oh! Wow.

Monica: As I looked into this further what I learned is that grocery stores, and in particular, availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is very limited or non-existent sometimes in minority communities. I’m wondering if you see urban gardening as a way of, perhaps, transforming all communities to a healthier way of life.

Robin: Oh, absolutely. What you’re talking about is what people call “food deserts”, and in densely populated urban areas, especially, lower income areas, it’s a big problem, and it’s not going to get better without intervention. Such a huge percent of our population relies on fast food for dinner, partly because it’s inexpensive and they’re low income and it’s quick, and somebody works, parents work all day and the last thing they have time to do is come home and cook. But they don’t even have fresh food to cook with.

That’s where urban gardening can come in. There’s so many new ideas for how you can garden in cities. There’s urban rooftop gardens, which you’ve known about for a while and they’re increasing on a commercial scale. Gotham Greens and BrightFarms are two. Gotham Greens, which comes from Brooklyn, now they’re all commercial-scale hydroponic farms, but they’re on rooftops.

Gotham Greens is opening one in Chicago, which will be the largest in the world. It will be 75,000 square feet greenhouse, and they’re partnering with Method brand, that makes sustainable cleaning products. So it’s PR for the brand, but it also shows that businesses will support the trend.

Brooklyn Grange in New York City has a 65,000 square foot farm, so that’s equivalent to two and a half acres of farmland, if you’re looking at traditional, soil-based farming. Brooklyn Grange plants traditionally, in soil.

So compared to conventional agriculture, there are people on both sides of the fence about hydroponics. But hydroponic farming is desirable or favorable for urban areas. Part of the reason for that is it’s lightweight, so it’s ideal for rooftop settings. Proponents of hydroponic cite that there’s no agricultural runoff. So Gotham Green’s irrigation methods, they say, uses 20 times less land and 10 times less water and it eliminates any need for pesticide use and there’s no fertilizer runoff. So, those are some of the benefits that the hydroponic people espouse.

So yeah, there’s the rooftop farms and that’s already, as you can see, happening. There’s some really creative things. There’s a plant factory in Japan and it’s a large underground farm. This particular one is called Pasona O2 or zero two and it’s a high tech, organic hydroponic rice and vegetable field in the basement of an office building.

So again, it’s pesticide-free and there’s no fertilizer runoff and part of how they generate the plants, or how they feed them is there’s a carbon dioxide spray that they spray on plants. I don’t really understand it completely, I’m not a technician, but these are underground plant factories. Now we’re talking rooftops and then we go all the way underground.

Now there’s talk of skyscraper greenhouses. Columbia former professor Dickson Despommier believes that vertical farming is one answer, and when he first started talking about this, people were saying, “Oh it’s so impractical” and they found all these reasons why it can’t work.

Vertical farms are basically designed to be sustainable. They always use some form of renewable energy technology, whether it’s solar panels or wind turbines, they most often would include a water capture system and more. They also employ locals for the labor, so they’re contributing economically in that way too.

You can’t just in a wholesale way disregard these ideas, like skyscraper greenhouses. Again it goes back to the collective consciousness and collective creativity, and somebody like Despommier puts out this idea, and people reject it, but later on people say, “All right, I think we should revisit it.” It might not pan out the way that he thought of it or conceptualized it, but it might lead to some other idea. So I think that’s really interesting. I think we’re at a point where these concepts really need to be explored, and they may just serve as a jumping off point for developing more practical solutions, but again, for all creative thinking, you have to be open to being generative.

Monica: One of my friends in San Francisco had started, just as a lark really, a side project tending beehives, and what he’s been seeing is that so many of the restaurants in San Francisco are keen to have beehives on their rooftops and then be able to harvest the honey and the honeycomb for serving in the restaurants, which is kind of a different angle on urban farming.

Robin: Yeah, apiaries on rooftops, there are quite a few. The city of Chicago, Mayor Daley had started one of the first rooftop farms on the roof of City Hall, and they have apiaries. But New York City, it was illegal for a while to raise bees on the rooftops. I guess they thought it was dangerous but a few years ago they eliminated the law that prohibited it and now urban beekeeping is legal in New York City.

It’s legal in Paris and it’s a growing trend there, actually, the French government just recently mandated that all new buildings that commence construction in commercial zones be partially covered by green roofs, plants or all solar panels, so more and more communities and cities are not only getting rid of laws that would ban these movements and these types of things, like apiaries on roofs, they’re now mandating things.

Monica: Well, we’ve spoken, Robin, about three benefits of urban gardens: health, community coming together, as well as reducing carbon footprint of the food we’re consuming. I’m also curious about your perspective on what it means to be immersed in nature. We’ve had several Turtle Talks guests who have spoken about how important it is to reconnect with nature, both Leilani and Daryl commented on this, and that by connecting with something that we love, it creates an emotional response to protect that thing.

Robin: Yes.

Monica: So I’m curious if you see that dynamic when it comes to urban gardening as a connection to nature.

Robin: Oh absolutely. We’ve all heard about there’s a big rise in therapeutic gardening now. And why? Because studies have found that gardening relaxes people in the same way that being in nature does. We have a biological need to be connected with nature.

Robin: Research has shown, they call it a biophilia connection and it reduces stress and helps in the recovery of illness. They say it enhances cognitive skills and academic performance. Some scientists believe it moderates the effects of ADHD and autism and other childhood afflictions.

Being in green spaces is good on so many levels. It gets people moving, encourages physical activity and social connection and all of those things then in turn has positive effects. Being more physical and moving keeps you healthier, increases your serotonin, affects your mood. And when you have more social connection with people, you’re actually happier. It’s just a spiral effect.

Monica: Robin, when you imagine our world the way it could be, what is in that image for you?

Robin: Well, that’s a big one. I imagine a positive collective consciousness where people are attuned to respecting and sustaining the natural environment. They reject unsustainable practices that bring short-term gain to the few but long-term problems to the many.

One of the best things about renewable energy is that it’s decentralized. It puts the power in the hands of people and communities and individuals who will be using it, and it gives them more control of their future. So that’s similar to growing food right in the city or locally. It’s food justice and you have a say over it and you know where it is coming from. You’re empowered and you’re engaged in it. You have more ownership. When you have more ownership, you feel you’re in control.

Monica: Robin, if I were living in a city that was designed by you, what would be my experience of living in that city?

Robin: Oh, that’s a nice one. Well, everything would look great. I would want to experiment with all of that. The Skyscraper gardening. I mean, look at the buildings around the world. I was in Barcelona a couple of years ago and I got to tour the inside of a building that has a green façade. I think it was 12 stories high. They weren’t growing food on it, but was a really novel idea. It was beautiful to look at.

The city of Barcelona has this program now where party walls are where you take down a building that’s attached to another one, and it leaves this bare open wall and it’s an eyesore, and it’s an opportunity to do something with it. So they started by hiring local artists to do murals and things like that, and then somebody suggested planting a green wall on the side of this one building. It’s called Jardí Tarradellas, and it was really cool. The irrigation was set up so it was automatic and operated by a smart phone. That would have once sounded very futuristic.

It’s very energy friendly and very water conscious. What happens is it drips from one floor. They irrigate alternate floors and then the runoff from one floor goes and irrigates the floor in between and so forth.

I would see a lot more energy efficient public transportation, things that engage people as a community. One of the things about community gardening that is so wonderful is not just the opportunity to grow food locally, but you’re growing a collective consciousness as well, right?

Community gardens, they grow community. And then what that does in turn is it stimulates awareness and engagement about healthy and sustainable practices. So I would look to a city that had really smart design for all kinds of things that we need. There are so many great ideas out there that are already being employed but that could be tweaked and brought down to even more efficient levels and require less and less energy or are more self-sufficient, and you’re just seeing that.

You’re seeing food being grown in cities. That was such a nonexistent thing and it just seems to be spiraling.

Monica: Robin, you have really contributed so much of your creativity and co-creation on your blog, urbangardensweb.com. When you project your passion forward, what do you imagine your own contribution to be when it comes to making this new world a reality?

Robin: Well, it’s a good question. And I’ve gone over this a lot in my mind because I’m a designer. I’m not a gardener, landscaper, horticulturist, a botanist. I learned so much about all that since launching this blog. But I launched it with an interest in, like I said, urban living and style and design and with a green and sustainable angle to it. But as the blog emerged and morphed, and they always take on a life of their own.

I realize that the part that really grabs me and about which I feel passionate is the design angle, so I’ve started writing about design as involved in all these things. And I thought, “Well, I’m writing about design. I’m not really writing about new forms of energy or whatever.” But then I realized, I was, because it’s all tied in and people really love learning about these things and being inspired by them. So it’s giving them inspiration, and it comes in through a design angle that it then takes all these other forms: public arts, public design, outdoor big art landscapes and food production growing on buildings.

I think it’s food for thought and it’s visually compelling. And people have an emotional connection to images whether they’re still images or videos. It stimulates something visually and then creates an emotional connection. So if I can contribute back and inspire people to just think a little bit and be creative and come up with ideas, you just never know where that is going to take you. And it’s that far off really possibly seemingly impractical concept – green roofs on buses. That will really take people somewhere. No pun intended.

Monica: Robin, as I listen to you describing your personal passion and your potential contribution, as a result, what strikes me is that you’re really creating beauty and that you’re doing it in a way that it combines simplicity and innovation. I love that.

Robin: I love it too. Beauty is, not to sound like a cliché, beauty really is everywhere. It’s singling out little details. God is in the detail. Beauty is in the detail. It goes back, for me, to the thinking small, so thinking individually and thinking details. I’m not saying we don’t come up with big projects and big visions, but I think a lot of what inspires change and inspires people to inspire change is the details.

I think we have to be patient and open. I feel like I’m learning something every day, every single day, and that feels great.

Monica: It certainly does, and fantastic to be co-creative together. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Robin: I know. Thank you. Thank you for wanting to do this with me. I appreciate that.


About Robin Plaskoff Horton: Robin has been a creative catalyst, designer, and writer for more than 30 years, first as VP, Director of Design Services at Burson-Marsteller Public Relations in New York, then the as Principal/Creative Director of Robin Horton Design, an award-winning strategic communications design consultancy. Robin’s love of design and urban living propelled her in 2009 to launch Urban Gardens–a mix of urban style, design, and nature. Urban Gardens is a lifestyle story told from the ground up: from seed to harvest to kitchen while serving it all up in style, with cool design objects in stylish outdoor rooms and indoor gardens.

Urban Gardens was one of five blogs nominated (along with Epicurious and Mother Nature Network) in the Lifestyle category for a Webby Award–hailed by The New York Times as the “Internet’s highest honor.” Mashable named Urban Gardens “One of Ten Must-Follow Home and Garden Twitter Accounts” and Better Homes and Gardens Magazine named Urban Gardens one of the top ten garden blogs for 2015. The Garden Writers Association awarded Urban Gardens both a Silver award for best electronic media design and a Gold award for best overall design across all media categories. 

Robin is a contributor to Fix.com, Houzz, and has been a featured curator for Pickie and Luvocracy.


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