Little Libraries Building Communities

For the last ten years of my life university libraries have spoiled me. Where else can I go browsing for cookbooks and come home with a 1951 copy of the YWCA’s “Cookery Book of Malaya,” the more academically slanted “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century,” and “Matzo Ball Gumbo” a tail of Jewish Southern food?  Although I love having access to such a wide range and diversity of books at university libraries I also appreciate the surprises that smaller libraries bring both in their content and in their ability to bring communities together in unexpected places and forms.

  Malaya SG Cookbook cover

A cookbook from Cornell’s Hotel School Library

Part of my research while in Singapore examined the programs held at libraries and their ability to help residents interact. As architects and urban planners studying this topic my team and I constantly returned to the issue of how the space used by the program, both its physical and psychological presence, affected the community. Libraries can take a variety of interesting shapes and forms from an abandoned Walmart in Texas converted into America’s largest single-story library, to pop-up libraries at beaches around the world, with each of these typologies bringing books to people and people into closer community. The smaller library typologies though have the ability to permeate more communities in more a personalized manner as come community led projects have displayed.

In my new city, I have also been intrigued by the spaces libraries occupy, how they shape them and their communities. One of my favorite spaces is a tiny library in my neighborhood that is just larger than a birdhouse. It is located in my neighbor Traci’s front yard, right along the sidewalk, welcoming all to stop by to take or leave a book as they wish. Her library happens to be around the corner from an elementary school, attracting many young readers. It is also in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, with many older readers walking past this library to and from Cornell everyday, or as part of their evening walks around the neighborhood.  Attracting many curious readers, Traci sometimes tries to keep books to a specify theme, sourcing about half adult books and half children’s books.

IMG_8398My neighborhood’s Little Free Library

Traci’s tiny neighborhood library is one of an estimated 15,000 across the world that is registered and mapped by the non-profit Little Free Library. Constructed in 2012 when her and her family moved to Ithaca, Traci estimated that their Little Free Library sees books exchanged nearly everyday and she has never struggled to keep it stocked. In a further effort to involved more community members Traci recently began bringing in “guest library stewards,” in the form of neighborhood children, to provide book recommendations or themes.

LFL close up

This week’s selection at our Little Free Library

The Little Free Library movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a model of one room red schoolhouse and filled it with books in his front yard. After constructing a few more tiny libraries in his town the idea quickly spread with the help of other community members. Today they continue to help others develop Little Free Libraries by selling kits for people to build their own libraries, as well as registering and mapping the libraries on their website, all with the mission to:

promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.

build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

While zoning rules and city right-of-way ordinances may get in the way of constructing tiny libraries in a few towns it is hopeful to see city officials and community members working together to bring libraries of all sizes closer to people, while also bringing people closer together. As cities, both large and small look to promote the dual goals of literacy and community building they should not ignore the big contributes that such small library spaces have in a place.

All pictures were taken by the author.

Urban Inspiration


Tomorrow is election day in the U.S. and for all those eligible to vote I urge you to do some research, get inspired by a candidate or cause and vote!  If you weren’t planning on voting tomorrow you are not alone, on average about 40% of eligible voters turn out for midterm elections according to The Center for Voting and Democracy. They also note this is much less than other OECD countries.  Hopefully though by now you have decided to vote, but if you are still not sure who is running in your area or who to vote for check out the League of Women Voter’s non-partisan election information at By entering your address they will give you a summary of each candidate and various amendments on your personalized local ballot. They even show you where you can vote in person tomorrow.  It may take some time to inform yourself, but its well worth the effort! 

More Citibikes for New York City

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 8.55.01 PMIn other news New Yorkers should be excited because Citibike is expanding their service. They plan to double their size by 2017, adding new neighborhoods and over 375 new stations. Unfortunately they also increased their subscription price (effectively immediately, sorry to those that missed the old price available earlier this week).  You can read more about their expansion here and also suggestion locations for new stations throughout the City though the NYC DOT website.

A Survey for Singaporeans

BetterSGFinally for readers in Singapore you also can let your voice be heard this week by participating in a survey by my friends at Participate in Design. As part of their new project: BetterSG, their goal is to “bring people together to design, build and own spaces and solutions within their neighborhoods, and enable communities to discover their fullest potential through the people they have.” Check out their beautifully designed survey and tell them about your neighborhood and your views on planning and design of spaces in Singapore.

All photos are linked to their original sources. 

Gleaning from local farms to urban tables

Food is both a necessity and a luxury for many today. In particular the local food movement, although thriving in the U.S., is still unaffordable for some compared to cheaper mass-produced items at a supermarket. Thankfully cities like New York have taken on this dilemma with programs that convert EBT and food stamps to currency accepted at more than 50 of the city’s Greenmarkets, or farmer’s markets. In smaller cities such as Ithaca, where farms are physically closer, food equity has taken on other programmatic forms, in particular gleaning.


One of our weekly CSA boxes

Living within Ithaca’s “ten square miles surrounded by farms” my husband and I are blessed enough to be able to enjoy the weekly bounty of a CSA and locally sourced ingredients at our favorite restaurants. Upon moving here I was also excited by the sheer number of organizations dealing with food issues, from canning and harvesting classes offered by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, to the research of Cornell’s Agriculture School, to local food writing and a farmer’s market that runs five days a week throughout the city. I still noticed however, that this abundance of local food choices is slightly pricey and possibly not obtainable for many lower-income families.


Our early October CSA Vegetables

Thankfully though there are organizations in Ithaca that recognize these inequalities and are working towards greater food justice. With such an abundance of local produce some organizations recognized that the process of gleaning could be useful in filling the gaps. Gleaning was the practice of purposefully leaving some crops after the harvest for “the poor and the travelers” according to the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:9-10). Today this practice focuses both on minimizing food waste and purposefully gathering donations of produce from farmers and markets for those in need.

Ithaca Community Harvest is one such group working with local farmers and volunteers to bring fresh local foods to all people through donations. One of their programs, which I volunteered with this summer, provided snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables to students at a local elementary school daily. The program sourced as much of their produce as possible from local farmers’ donations, including Cornell Orchard’s apples and greens from Wood’s Earth Farm while I was volunteering. Besides providing nutritious food options to children that may not get them, the snack program also provided a better appreciation for where their food comes from and the seasonality of their favorite items. The program has since been expanded to another Ithaca school and is under the management of Wood’s Earth Living Classroom.


 Classroom snacks from Ithaca Community Harvest’s Fresh Snack Program

In September a Food Justice Fair and Festival was also held in Ithaca hosted by GreenStar, a local natural food market and cooperative. Held at a downtown elementary school, this event differed significantly from typical academic summits on food justice issues by bringing together the community, in their own neighborhood, and advocates with family friendly events and information sessions. The party-like atmosphere surrounding this summit helped to provide an interactive element that will hopefully continue to propel the great work of Ithaca’s food justice groups.

Ithaca is also not alone in this effort to glean underutilized food in the community.  Emily Horton of The Vegetarian Times recently published an article titled “The Gleaners” on other gleaning efforts in Atlanta, Georgia; Santa Cruz, California; Springfield, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado, and other towns.  Another larger gleaning effort is organized by The Society of St Andrews across the Southeastern U.S. This non-profit organization serves as a “gleaning network” by organizing volunteers to glean food from willing farms for local food banks at a large-scale. For others interested in starting programs in their own communities the USDA also has created a “Let’s Glean!” toolkit.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 11.19.04 AM

“The Gleaners” Vegetarian Times article, illustrations by Monica Ramos

While there is much more work to be done in terms of food justice across the world the efforts I have noticed in Ithaca, and across the US, have given me hope that more equitable access to food is possible. From organizations reviving the biblical practice of gleaning to provide donations to food programs, to Ithaca’s food justice festival, the many efforts in this city are helping to reinvent how we provide food for all.

All of the photos were taken by the writer, with the exception of the screen shot from the Vegetarian Times, September 2014 Issue.

Urban Inspiration

Happy Monday!  Here are a few bits of urban inspiration to help you jump start your week.

Public Participation in Singapore Library Design

Singapore reopened its Library@Orchard last week (23 October 2014) with some beautiful new design elements. So far it has been very successful in attracting library goers into its creative space. According to some friends in Singapore it has been so successful in its first week that it has been difficult find a seat. Located in a mall, this library’s overall design is the first in Singapore to include user feedback into the design and services. According to the Straits Times of Singapore the feedback process involved the National Library Board working with about 30 students and lecturers from Singapore Polytechnic to “understand the habits and needs of library users before coming up with design prototypes.” Read more at the Straits Times.

Safer Pedestrians in Lisbon

The City Fix featured an article a few weeks ago about a whimsical dancing traffic signal in Lisbon designed by Smart. It uses a real time feed of people dancing instead of the static red man traffic signal.  The results reveal that people actually stopped because they were entertained and as a result became safer pedestrians.

Public Art Challenge

Bloomberg Philanthropies has issued a Public Art Challenge that will “grant at least three cities up to $1 million each over two years to support temporary public art projects that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development.” Applications are due Dec 15, 2014. For full application details check their website. I’m excited to see what projects result from this grant.

Small Interventions for Good

In the last six months I moved from a large Asian city to a small town in upstate New York, quit my job at a large university and now work for a much smaller organization, a coffee shop. I also became a wife. My passion for understanding urbanization though has not been completely abandon. Now that I am not focusing my working hours on large-scale urban policy issues I seem to notice and appreciate many smaller urban interventions in my daily life more than ever before.


As an employee of a third place instead of merely studying third places I have not only come to appreciate amazing coffee but also the details of each coffee shop that allow it to truly contribute to its community. From planters beautifying the neighborhood, to strategically placed outdoor tables on a sunny day, to walls for local artist to share their work, even down to looking forward to the changing artwork on our chalkboards outside, each of these aspects of a cafe helps to build community. Many urban planners note the importance of “café-culture” and sidewalk cafes as contributing to the public life of cities, but its certainly a more hands on experience helping to maintain these details as my work now instead of just documenting them as a researcher (See Jan Gehl’s related research on pedestrianization and cafes in Melbourne here).

Although my contribution to urban planning as a field may now feel smaller than it was in my previous job, I am excited to see the immediate influence of the details surrounding our cafes that shape our larger community. I am reminded also that it is not how large or influential my work is that matters, but having a heart behind it that is willingly to serve others. Be it a daily dose of caffeine to graduate students or writing a research paper trying to shape urban policies, each action contributes to the common good of a community.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 4.02.34 PM

As this next stage in my life continues to be filled with changes and many unknowns I keep challenging myself to appreciate the little things which make my city home and also to recognize more little things that I can do to contribute to my community. Today this may mean providing a hot cup of coffee and welcoming environment for people to exchange ideas inside, away from the chill of an autumn day. Tomorrow these interventions may take another form. In the mean time though I hope these thoughts challenge others to look for small ways they can also contribute to their cities.


Helping Through the Haze

Singapore has made international news lately because of last week’s historic haze.  I was in Malaysia all week for a camp with my church and missed the worst thus far, however many others were not as fortunate.  During the whole week abroad many of us were glued to this website, checking the hourly PSI readings to track just how bad the situation was back in Singapore.  Most of the news stories we read while abroad were increasingly depressing as we learned that all N95 respirator masks in Singapore had been sold out with many vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, still in need of them.

SG haze

Upon returning to Singapore late Friday afternoon, the PSI was back down below 200. Unfortunately though we have been warned that this is only a temporary breath of fresh air with more haze to be expected for quite a while.  As I began to catch up with some friends this weekend I learned that in reaction to the haze a group of helpful citizens has been mobilizing to help the most vulnerable populations by collecting and distributing N95 masks.  Although Singapore is very warm all year there is still a number of people, particularly low-income elderly residents in rental HDB flats, that live without air conditioning and therefore are very susceptible to illness from the haze.  To help these residents find a place to escape the haze there has even been some Singaporeans that have offered up air conditioned rooms in their homes for those that need it the most.

It has been amazing to see that faced with such challenges there are residents in Singapore that are willingly to go above and beyond to help their neighbors and community.  My hope is that this time will inspire more Singaporeans to be aware of how they can help those around them in need; may it be someone in a neighboring flat today or in a neighboring country tomorrow.

The best cities are not just great because of their environment or air quality, but because of the people who inhabit them.  When these people start to care for each other and the wellbeing of their city, they become more than residents, they become active citizens. Thank you to all of Singapore’s citizens that have made the choice to help through the haze.

 - Melissa

If you are in Singapore and would like to learn how you help the SG Haze Rescue group you can find information on their website or their Facebook page. You can also read more about their effort to pass out mask through my friend’s account here.

Book Review: Bumbling Through Hong Kong

I met architect, author and illustrator Tom Schmidt a few weeks ago while he was visiting Singapore on a book tour.  Our mutual friend introduced his book to me as “a travel guide of Hong Kong designed for kids.”  Although I didn’t have time to actually attend his book event that weekend I did find a copy of his book on my colleague’s desk when I arrived at work the following Monday.  To my surprise, his “travel guide for kids” turned out to be addressing much more complex urban issues in Hong Kong than I expected. The book is written as an illustrated novel, and is presented from the point of view of an American architect traveling through Hong Kong.  The story addresses many serious issues facing Hong Kong as a city, such as development’s impact on the environment and preservation of historic structures.


As another American living in Asia and a researcher that studies many of the issues Tom writes about, and deals with in his other job as an architect in the hospitality industry, I was very excited to see these urbanization issues presented in such an accessible manner.

Bumbling through Borneo  Sumatra COVER

This is the third book in the Bumbling Series by Tom.  His first books,  Bumbling Through Borneo and Bumbling Through Sumatra, use the same graphic novel approach to address issues facing these less urbanized areas like deforestation and the importance of ecosystem systems services.

For more information on Bumbling Through Hong Kong and Tom Schmidt, a full  book review was written by my friend Mallika Naguran at Gaia DiscoveryBumbling Through Hong Kong can also be purchased on Amazon or through the publisher, Kakibubu.