Transition Man. Interview with John Steere, Environmental Alchemist / Planner
by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine
“The 37’ goodwill wind mill swirls, scoops and directs concentrated dirty air from the East Bay Tribal zone into the interconnected bowels of Che-Lou’s Air Purification Machine. Grey water circulates and filters the air, powered by the battery house. Che-Lou cleans the unfiltered residue from wing #5 to make printing ink for the community paper. At the base of wing #6 the so-called gold soil dumps out of the system at the rate of 2 cups per day. A super compost and a highly prized eco-alchemic stew by the gardeners around him, Che-Lou forms bricks of this material for the local barter fairies and coop groceries in Berkeley and SF. He also makes extra barter by charging folks batteries through a special station in the corner of the compound. Here “sustainability” is secured only with a high barb-wire fence and a slow electrical drip. Sacred… just a memory.”
Source: New Myth #8: Che-Lou’s Black Bricks & the First Supper, by Willi
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Interview with John by Willi
How does your self-described label of “bio-regional being” juxtapose with so many calls for localization?
I see the ideas behind bioregionalism and localization as convergent rather than juxtaposing. Perhaps the label is a bit glib; what I meant here was really about being “bio-regionally oriented.” It comes from seeing oneself first as a citizen of a place, and a citizen of a locality or a nation second. It’s about putting the qualities and nature of a place ahead of considering our abstract allegiances, which always get us in trouble, since they divide people around competing ideas and ideals of cultural identity. Learning to become a citizen of a place is the crux of the philosophical parent of deep ecology, i.e., “bio-regionalism.” This philosophy has informed my motivation and outlook, thanks to the work of Peter Berg and Planet Drum that I began to read when I moved to Northern California in 1983. Being bioregionally oriented, an ecological citizen, encourages you to attend to attuning with your “life place” which is not one place really but occurs in connected, concentric circles — with ones immediate home (dwelling) being the first ring, with ones greater home in a physical community or neighborhood being the next, and finally with the bio-region with all its natural and climatic particulars.
These are the contexts of place and I would say the ground(ing) of our personal and collective identity. Of course, our society remains ever more ego-logically driven rather than ecologically oriented, but even so it’s clear that many people are craving a deeper sense of connection with where they live and a more sustainable and authentic economy, with localization and the food justice and slow food movements being outgrowths.
Localization in relation to creating an economic system that is more locally-based and driven is to me a way of manifesting a bio-regional vision, in which people try to incline their lives, what they eat and how they work with the intent to reduce their impact and to cultivate a more ecological understanding of relationships, webs and patterns throughout their lives.
That’s the essence of being bioregional, to take initiatives on personal and on cooperative levels to orient your actions in a place-affirming and immediate way. This principle has been translated for me over the course of the past 25 years into a host of initiatives in park and commons making, neighborhood cultivation, urban creek restoration, community and personal gardening, and visioning a green city. It is human to have a yearning to belong to something greater; applying that principle and a sense of belonging to place is one of the most natural and enduring ways to experience it.
Define alchemy in your context more fully.
I resonate with and ascribe to your way of regarding environmental alchemy as a kind of transformational and transmutative process, which allows people to experience a more profound sense of “biophilia”, after EO Wilson’s philosophy regarding having a deep love of and kinship to life in its many forms and species. Alchemy, regardless of the context it’s placed in, has at its root ever been about the transmutation of the dross physical, symbolized by lead, into the spiritual, as inferred by gold. The threshold between them is a leap not so much of faith but of perception. It seems to me that alchemy is what occurs at this threshold: that is, of going from seeing the world linearly and analytically to holding it synergistically and holistically; and of consciously turning away from competing ego-centric positions, and toward more collaborative, eco-centric understandings; and of regarding commonalities and paths of including and integrating as more essential than making distinctions and divisions between people; and of focusing more on connecting than isolating; of cultivating vibrant, community-based life rather than a commodity-framed perspective that transforms every relationship into a transaction or an extortion.
What’s on the other side of this threshold therefore is the contradiction to our commercial cultural dictates and the remedy for its abuses to our individual and collective psyches. For me, environmental alchemy is the process by which any one can reconnect with the roots of human nature, which is really nature itself in all its complexity; expressed through weather, and geography, natural history, encounters with plants and animals (including pets), and the way we can translate and express these primal/primary relationships through song, crafts, arts, poetry and myth. This connotes your adage that “Alchemy is Transmutation is Action & Communication.”
I have grounded my practice of environmental planning in environmental alchemy in the sense that I believe that we need nature or a form of it woven into our urban fabric and into our lives for our cities and ourselves to be healthy. And much of my work has been in service of this understanding, which draws from my affinity for eco-psychology and appreciation for urban ecology and countering the effects of “nature deficit disorder” in children and adults, a la Richard Louv (and his seminal work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder). It has thus informed both my professional and community work – e.g., in helping plan the path of the Bay Trail 400 miles around the San Francisco Bay. The attitudes has also served me in guiding the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture from its formative stage to becoming a formal and formidable collaboration for incentive based habitat conservation and restoration around the SF Bay Estuary.
It has also informed me in helping to create a neighborhood, Halcyon, through co-leading the grass-roots based planning, design and implementation of a park in its center – built out of a parking lot, a park the neighborhood built called Halcyon Commons, along with co-planning/planting more than a 100 street trees in the neighborhood, and the co-organizing of regular social gatherings around the Halcyon neighborhood and work parties in the park to maintain it. The transformation of a parking lot into a park, was all about alchemy and how this transformation of a place also forged a neighborhood with a strong sense of place and community.
Do you think that “placemaking” can be a positive force in a mythologists toolkit?
“Placemaking” is a kind of deep environmental planning, landscape architecture and/or urban design; placemaking is what is achieved when any of them are practiced as intuitive crafts or arts, as all of them were in their vernacular forms in pre-literate, tribal societies. I have been primarily concerned with maintaining or creating a spirit place or genius loci. The making of Halcyon Commons in the middle of a wide street called Halcyon Court through participatory design and effort over a four-year planning period is a prime example how a spirit of place can be created over time and with consistent intention to bring nature back into the city (and nearby from one of the busiest intersections of Ashby and Telegraph Avenues).
This effort of unpaving paradise and bringing back a bit of nature was connoted in the words of commemorative T-shirt given out to park makers when the park was dedicated, which read “planting a park and growing community.” Which is basically true, since the Halcyon Neighborhood, which didn’t exist two decades ago is a vital and cohesive one today; the Halcyon Neighborhood Association is among the most respected such associations in the city; it is also one of the most active and constructive in Berkeley, as we focus on making common projects and good will and neighborliness. So the making of Halcyon Commons is really a creation story, which has taken almost two decades to unfold, about the creation of a sense of place in a corner of Berkeley, and with it a neighborhood and the constellation of positive qualities that goes with a safe and solid one.
Another form of alchemical placemaking I’ve helped to lead was in urban grassroots creek restoration that I was an early exponent of it the late 80’s through the mid-90’s, where I started and coordinated a group called East Bay Citizens for Creek Restoration. We not only conducted creek restoration and revegetation projects in Berkeley and Oakland and El Cerrito in partnership between community groups and city officials but also held bi-annual “Creek Weeks” to educate people about the importance of creeks to the community and encouraged and “commissioned” art installations to celebrate “creek consciousness” and care. I also created some of the art myself, i.e. creek banners with riparian animals painted on them atop bamboo poles planted in rows to symbolically mark and celebrate the course of underground and culverted creeks. So I definitely identify with placemaking as a form of myth-making, its’ telling the new story of a renewed relationship with the planet as Thomas Berry so eloquently describes in his influential opus, Dream of the Earth.
What was your role at the Cave Concert? Please see my interview with promoter / shaman Alan Tower.
Alan has become a very close friend of mine; I met him almost two decades ago, many years before he started Green Music Network (GMN). He founded GMN in 2001; it was originally called Octave Alliance and I became the first member of its board and have subsequently stayed on to help with its transition into its new incarnation, Samavesha), but that’s another story.
My first role with GMN’s signature event, the Cave Concert, was to establish a working partnership between GMN and the National Park Service through Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s supervisor, Brian O’Neill, whom I knew. I also led other co-sponsorship and partnership initiatives to support the Cave Concert, provide insurance coverage and broaden its promotional outreach for potential audiences. I frequently brainstormed with Alan about the sonic-influences on the psyche of natural resonances/scales as were played in the cave, which was actually a military munitions tunnel from early in the prior century, and that covered at one end with a tarp. It had a mural painted on it that I helped to paint. On a more practical note, I was the always ticket collector at the concert itself which was always a unique acoustic instrument and voice adventure into the transformative power of music in an acoustically perfected space.
How do Occupy, permaculture and Transition inform your environmental planning, if at all?
Of the three movements, I would say that permaculture is the one that has influenced my work as an environmental planner most, simply because it has been around and evolving for longer than I’ve been a planner; I began reading the work of Bill Mollison, permaculture’s founder, a couple years before I became an environmental planner and it definitely influenced my orientation to the field its emphasis on ecology as a foundation for the design of agriculture and community. Occupy and Transition-town are movements that I believe in and subscribe to philosophically, but as they are relatively new and somewhat derivative, they have not influenced me as much as green design and sustainable planning. In these cases as with permaculture, I have been informed by their adherence to ecological principles applied to the planning of residential and community spaces, from the use of nested systems and plantings, with their attendant multiple functions and benefits.
Can you describe the tensions and outputs in your career and the synergies between art and science?
Probably the main tension in my career, as I suspect it is for many environmental planners, has been in reconciling the expectations of clients for greater emphasis on human uses and increased development with the value of protecting or restoring environmental qualities and/or habitats as part of any given project. It’s always a balancing act between the scale of urbanization or development and the natural environment that remains. And in my work, I have generally regarded that natural environment as an active, living presence that calls for human engagement. So for example, when I was the Resource Management Planner for the Contra Costa Water District, charged with implementing the environmental commitments of the district toward the 18,000-acre plus watershed around the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, I saw this an opportunity to create partnerships between the District and non-profit and institutional organizations.
So in managing the preparation of a resource management plan to govern the uses and restoration/mitigation of the landscape around the reservoir, I focused on not only integrating and overlaying different resource topics – biology, hydrology, recreation, cultural resources, grazing and fire management, to create a more holistic management plan, but I also emphasized the integration of partnerships with school environmental education programs and with environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the California Native Plants Society for the restoration of plant communities and creeks and in developing interpretive programs.
As for the synergies of art and science, the science is in the findings one receives from a robust investigation of the character of places and habitats, their species composition, their energy inputs (water, sun, slope), etc. The art is in weaving these factors with human imagination and creating a theatre for participation.
Are humans, community building and parks more important to you than the animals and plants there? How do you foster a holistic balance for all life?
I can’t say that humans and parks are more important to me than what draws me to parks in the animal and plant beings also present in them. In my mind both sets of relationships are intertwined and are what make for a re-connective, holistic open space experience.
Please define ecology and sustainability in the context of the South Berkeley – Santa Fe Right of Way vision. What are the dominant patterns there?
I have been working under the auspices of Berkeley Partners for Parks, an organization that I helped to found) with members of the community and Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative (Beebo Turman) for over six years in creating a dynamic program of public open space – a linear commons out of the Santa Fe Right of Way (ROW) that has been in the City of Berkeley’s hands since 1977 but has been behind cyclone fencing this whole time. The ROW is an unmaintained and weedy space, hemmed in by housing in South Berkeley, one that has need for more active open space and community gardening, so the idea of a garden greenway or linear urban farm has been surfacing in this period. So the ecology of the space is really a human ecology to sustain the community and the space through a set of community gardens connected by a greenway that itself will connect up to the existing 6 mile Ohlone Greenway to its immediate north, enabling this greenway to go from South Berkeley to Richmond. This is a good and green future for t, but one needs patience and a generational view to get there…
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John Steere – Bio
John Steere is a 30-year Berkeley resident, environmental activator, and environmental and sustainable planning consultant. He has for over two decades been creating and supporting partnership-oriented community/arts/environmental causes. His outlook informs his career as an Environmental Planner (of environmental plans, resource management plans, trail and open space, and recreation studies) and his avocation as an environmental “alchemist” to foster collaborative “placemaking”– as a means to creatively cultivate community through several mediums: 1) park making and stewardship, 2) urban creek restoration, and 3) supporting community sustainability projects.
He sees himself as a bio-regional being and works to cultivate this awareness in others.
Toward these ends, he’s been working for the past 6 years co-leading the community-based visioning and implementation process to establish a “garden greenway” along the South Berkeley Santa Fe Right of Way. This has involved a winning a few grants including two from the UC Chancellor’s Partnership Grant program, one for a “mobile mural project that depicts the community based vision for the right of way (ROW), and most recently another for establishing a “Bioremediation Garden and education program along two blocks of the ROW for uptake of arsenic.
He is also the cofounder and current president of Berkeley Partners for Parks, a non-profit established in 1993 as a fiscal and technical support umbrella for local parks, paths and creek groups) and he has facilitated the creation of two parks in Berkeley including Halcyon Commons and Presentation Park.
He also founded and led East Bay Citizens for Creek Restoration (1987 to 1994) and was a founding board member of Livable Berkeley, a smart growth NGO). He’s a founding board member of both the Green Music Network and Samavesha, non profits which promote the synergisms of art in nature, sponsor nature-based art and music events, including the annual “Cave Concert” in the Marin Headlands and the “Art in Nature” Festival in Redwood Regional Park.
Finally, he’s the co-chair and founder of his local neighborhood and its governing association, the Halcyon Neighborhood Association – which does neighborhood tree plantings, cleanups, park care, and potlucks. He led the community-based planning effort to design and build “Halcyon Commons,” the City of Berkeley’s first neighborhood planned and implemented park. He has helped establish 3 parks/open space areas including the California Shakespeare theater in Orinda, Presentation Park and Halcyon Commons in Berkeley. He speaks widely at conferences on green planning and has organized and led many tours and interpretive rides, among them the annual “Hidden Gems of Berkeley” tour.
John Steere, AICP
Environmental and Sustainable Planning Solutions
Berkeley Partners for Parks