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For the longest time, cities have been building buildings with little care for humans. Steven Cornwell has observed this and he is helping turn this around as the Global Director of ERA-co. ERA-co is a global place brand that aims to bridge the gap between the making of buildings and the ecosystem itself. In this special series, Steven joins Corinna Bellizzi to talk more about building regenerative cities and living spaces. He dives deep into what being a global place brand is and the work they are doing to provide better places to live and better outcomes for the planet. What is more, Steven discusses the current challenges of finding affordable housing, having a regionalized food system, and regenerative farming. He also talks about the importance of both systemic and cultural change and the value of community building. Tune in to gain a different perspective on creating sustainable cities and food.
About Steven Cornwell
Steven Cornwell is the Global Director of ERA-co, currently living in NYC. Over the course of 20 years, Steven has garnered an international reputation for developing leading brands from a broad range of sectors including real estate, place, culture, consumer retail, media, transit & infrastructure and professional services. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems and brand experience.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/era-co/
Guest Website: https://era-co.com
Guest Social: https://www.instagram.com/theexperienceera/
04:23 – Global Place Brand
13:05 – What Makes Steven Cornwell Steven Cornwell
21:29 – Regionalized Food System
38:26 – Growing Food In The City
47:55 – Creating Food Mindfully And Regionally
56:29 – Speed Round With Steven Cornwell
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Part 1: On Building A Global Place Brand And Regionalized Food System With Steven Cornwell
As the show has progressed over the past few years, we’ve often touched on topics like regenerative agriculture, building mindful communities, and even living more intentionally with circular communities that boast their own foraging and gardening spaces. Also, more shared spaces bettering the hippie communities of yesterday and even the one that I grew up in.
We’ve covered the fact that people in big cities have a lower carbon footprint per capita than most who live outside of cities. We’ve talked about infrastructure changes needed and what it might take to build back better. Each week, I worked to provide solutions to the challenges that we face, to expose the issues, and also, to share the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a lot of work but when I see reviews like this one from ElainaGardens on Apple Podcasts or iTunes, it makes it all worth it.
She says, “I love this show. It is the encouragement I need right now to continue to try to make a difference and it is so incredibly positive versus most topics on climate.” I’m going to pause here for a second in the middle of her review. I was listening to an earlier interview I did with Anne Therese Gennari. She’s the climate optimist.
What we share is this core tenet, this belief that we need to attack the challenges that we face with optimism. We need to be solutions-minded and we need to ultimately envision the future that we want to live in. The next few episodes are going to be all about it. I consider all of the kind words that Elaina has to share very high praise. I hope to continue to embody that message so that now we’re embarking on a journey together, a deep dive into systems and change.
It might take us a few episodes to do that or maybe even more but first, we’re going to start with a discussion about regenerative food, cultivation, and supply. We’re then going to pivot into a deeper conversation about community building, city living, and ushering in a new era of modern living. I’m honored to be joined by a master of many domains as we wander through these figurative gardens and cityscapes, Steven Cornwell. Steven is the Global Director of ERA-co who resides in New York City. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems, and brand experience. Steven Cornwell, welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here. I’m excited to be here.
Me too. We’ve had to reschedule this a couple of times due to your vast traveling escapades around the globe, working to put this important message into the world. I understand you’re now coming in from Upstate New York. How are things up there?
I’m Upstate. We had a huge storm here. If there was ever an indication that the planet’s changing its tone in terms of temperature, we are getting tornadoes here, which we’ve never had before. It’s rough up here, but it’s a great city. New York City’s a great city and Upstate is even better.
I’ve set the stage for the conversation we’re going to have. I had never heard that term before, this global place brand before you and I started this discussion and we could even bridge that into a discussion on climate change too. What does global place brand mean?
In our last conversation, placemaking is at the core of what we do, which is bridging the gap between the artifact of architecture, the making of buildings, and the ecosystem itself. For the longest time, cities have been building buildings with little care for humans, and what ERA-co does is focused on humans. It’s branding and positioning. A lot of developers think that positioning happens in marketing at the end and people have choices about where they put their money, where they grow their families, and where they build their lives.
We have to differentiate these places and provide better places to live. For the longest time, developers in cities have been using it like the stock market. They are investing in buildings. Fifty percent of the tall towers in New York City are empty. They’ve been parked as a stock market. ERA-co is here to bridge the gap between what developers do in terms of the capitalist side of making buildings and the ecosystem side of providing better places to live and hopefully, better outcomes for the planet. That’s what we do. Our positioning is advancing humanity. Anything that we do has to have that at the core of it.
One of the things that we’ve confronted here on the West Coast and many are spots that are in high demand like San Francisco or even my hometown area of Santa Cruz County. Real estate is in high demand and it’s very hard to afford the real estate. Somebody will say, “You can apply to rent this apartment, but you need to make three times what the rent is and be able to cover the first and last deposit.” That ends up being an investment of in many cases $15,000 just to move in.
I would love to know your thoughts about how, as we tackle this system, we can create affordable choices for people so that we don’t see the same present rise in homelessness and this constant buck passing where we aren’t taking accountability for the problems that we’ve seen that are essentially being created in some ways by modern living.
Economics is always difficult, but ultimately, it’s a cultural issue as much as an economic issue, which is what we’ve been bred. You’re a Gen X-er as well if I’m not mistaken. We were raised at a time when it was all about owning a home, being successful, living in the city, and putting one’s money into their primary residence. Culturally, all of that’s become a space for the super elite and wealthy and there’s a lot of disenfranchisements with younger people.
However, the reality is in America, we’ve never had a huge renting and sharing culture like other parts of Europe. We work across the globe. We work in the Middle East, in London, and in Europe. The differences in culture in other parts of the world, let’s say Copenhagen or Amsterdam or any of those other European cities that are doing better and with resiliency than most other cities. Culturally, people are renting and sharing everything. They’re not trying to own everything and they’re happier for it.
We talk a lot about affordability and it is a challenge in New York City, in particular, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but the culture’s changing. Developers are changing the way they think about building buildings. They’re developing sharing communities and shared homes. They’re developing now affordable products to tackle the new culture.
We are at a very difficult time because all the developers we work with have had the same business model for how they make money on buildings for the last many years. None of that works anymore because culturally, people can’t afford to buy homes. My children won’t be able to afford to buy a home and they’re thinking about their investments in the way they think about their lives very differently. It’s been a slow gain in the developer’s understanding of what’s happening culturally with younger people ad with anyone in a city.
The community is way ahead of what their needs are compared to cities, architects, designers, and city planners. We’ve got a cultural change to happen and we don’t stack buildings the way we used to. We don’t create communities the way we used to. We have to think about the shared community’s resiliency. New York City’s an overpopulated city. One of the great challenges of urbanism is overpopulation. It leads to things like inequity. It leads to affordability issues and a housing crisis. All of this is a symptom of a change in culture that hasn’t been met. It’s an old frame.
I did a presentation in Melbourne, Australia and the topic that I presented was place-faking. It was this idea that we had this utopian idea about what placemaking could do for the world, but no one was paying attention to all the dramatic changes that were happening. We think of cities like New York or even Los Angeles as being impervious to ruin or crumble.
I did a research piece that showed that there’s a reason that Cairo, which was one of the greatest wealthy powers in the world, turned into a third-world country. A lot of the principles of their demise were what we are seeing in New York now like poor structure, poor affordability, and inequity. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. There is a large gap between social disruption and climate change.
It used to be green.
It used to be the economic power of the world. It used to be the wealthiest. It used to be the most powerful and innovative in many ways. It was looted by the Romans. It fell over because of its lack of ability to deal with its population, infrastructure, and affordability. It became one of the great disasters that happened over 1,000 years. We don’t know that distance so we don’t think about the fact that New York could one day not be New York City, if it does flood, which we are doing everything we can not to let that happen.
However, when the Nile changed its structure, it flooded. When it was dammed, it flooded most of the city. Those things have caused places like Cairo which was a superpower of the world to become a ruin and almost the third world city now. I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility for places like New York City. We can’t see it now, but we have this terrible short-term view of everything we work on together. We’ll get to this a bit around agriculture because it is part of that story. We’re trying to fix everything now. Politics gets in the way of everything because it’s a short four-year term.
We’re hell-bent on making things a partisan issue. When you make something like the structure of how we build homes a partisan issue, then suddenly, “You’re eroding what the American dream is. How dare you?” I can picture the conversations that are up from this. Before we talk more about the structure of these cities because I intend to dive deeply into that with you in part two of this whole conversation, I would like our audience to get to know you a little bit and what brought you to this point because you have such an eclectic background.
You’ve combined so many different things to make this whole dream come together. It’s the first time I’ve heard from someone like yourself that seems to have seen the forest through the trees and built a structure that can change the way we’re looking at things. Let’s learn a little bit about what makes Steven Cornwell.
I’m not an American. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and I went to design school. Like most budding designers, I thought I was going to change the world and that was exciting. When I graduated in ’92, there was a global recession happening. The recession we had to have was what they were calling it at the time. I found myself rolled into design, branding, and marketing, but around architecture and a lot to do with architecture. We became very famous.
My wife and I started the business together. I met Jane at design school. We became a brand of choice for architects. I fell in love with architecture and I loved everything that architecture could offer the world in terms of public realm-built spaces. I enjoyed that. I then found myself in a strange way doing a lot of real estate marketing, which I found awful because it was all sales-oriented.
It wasn’t about the humans. It was about how much can we extract from this process and that disenfranchised me. I sold the business in 2012. After doing quite a lot of real estate marketing, we were working around the globe on some big projects in London, in particular, Embassy Gardens, which was a huge development on the last piece of Zone 1 land in London, on the South Bank.
In Hawaii, we were doing a 60-acre project called Ward Village, which we had branded and were doing the vision for. When I sold the company, The Howard Hughes Corporation in America, which was my client in Hawaii and other parts of New York City, asked me to come and be the Chief Marketing Officer for them and their Creative Director in New York City. I jumped at the chance because as a consultant, you don’t ever get into the boardroom to see how decisions get made.
I got a second education on how debt financing works, the problems, and the challenges with getting approvals, the notion of the politics of projects, and community engagement. There is a great community engagement both at Ward Village in Hawaii and in New York City. After many years there, I decided that I’d take the show on the road and I felt that we had enough experience both on the client side and the consulting world in understanding the problems and the gaps that existed.
I was having a martini with the Global CEO of Woods Bagot, a big architecture business. He was complaining about client briefs and I was complaining about architects and I said, “Architects don’t understand the human side of building.” He was saying, “Clients don’t brief very well,” and he was right. Client briefs are terrible and they’ve got to get better.
I said, “Let’s start a global business that can start to bridge the gap between what architecture’s here to do and what humans need. We will try and get the operational side of it and the experience side of it right. I find that when you brief architects with a few more parameters, you often get a better result for the community and you get a better result for the humans.
I have a few examples that I can draw from in my experience traveling the world, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of these things too, but you have a problem in a city. Let’s say homeless people are peeing in the streets. All the alleyways stink. What do they do outside of Paris? They build these trough-like urinals that are all shrouded in cement and that are almost like an art installation. People go in. They are shielded from the outer world. They can go ahead and urinate in seemingly public. We don’t have the same smell problem that we had before. It’s integrated into what would have been a garden, a park, or an unused space.
It’s one of the most beautiful parks in the world. That’s a Band-Aid solution, which works for that problem. However, when I was working in Hawaii, one of the things that floored me was that other cities in America were putting their homeless on planes with one-way tickets and flying them to Hawaii, which I thought was outrageous. However, the reasoning behind it was that if they’re going to live on the street in New York City or somewhere where they could freeze to death, where it’s violent, where there’s a crime, why not put them in paradise where outside being not so bad? That was the rationale, but my feeling here was that’s not solving the problem.
It’s kicking it down the road.
We do that in a lot of things and I know we’re going to talk a little bit about agriculture and food but working at the seaport, 80% of what we were doing there was hospitality and food. I got a great education on the supply chain of food and certainly, on the ideas and challenges of creating sustainable menus and sustainable food. It’s not easy to do.
Everyone has the aspiration to do it, but political costs and short-term thinking get in the way all the time. That is our greatest challenge. You said this before, but America has a very polarizing left and right political system. Australia does have left and right views, but it’s relatively a moderate culture where you can meet in the middle and agree even with the coalition government but I’ve never seen anything like it here. it gets in the way of decisions. It gets in the way of making good decisions around all things sustainability, but also, all things experience for humans. It’s too polarizing so you can’t get anywhere easily.
I have one of many ideas as to why that might be the case in Australia, but one of them is there is mandatory voting here. Here, we polarize voting even and we say, “We want to gerrymander how people vote, prevent them from voting, and make it harder to vote.” You have to show your ID and proof of where you live.
You can’t do it online and it has to be in person. There’s a whole raft of perimeters. It is challenging. I’m becoming an American at the end of the year because I want to vote. I’ve been here for years, but everyone’s vote counts. Placemaking at its core is about focusing on the human dimensions of any neighborhood making sure that it’s interesting. The only people usually left out of the process of making new developments are the end users.
Everyone’s running around designing, but no one’s talking to the most important people, which are the people that will generate the community and hand it over and be the custodians of that place long after we all leave. We often at ERA-co become the sound and the voice of that end user, the persona and the person. It’s an important role. It’s one that I cherish and it’s one that I will often lose a client for. I’ll stand up for the human before I stand up for the client.
My feeling is that you should. Let’s think about this for a minute though, as it relates to food, cities, and procurement of food because often when we talk about building sustainable communities, it becomes untenable to think about a city being its own source of its food. Everything is trucked in from seemingly far away.
We want to have apples 24/7. We want to have access to grains at all times. We seem to want to have access to things like sushi and stone fruits whenever we feel like them. How do we create what would be a more regionalized food system that can sustain these cities and what do you see on the horizon for food procurement in the modern era?
It’s a very big challenge. The thing that bothers me slightly is how much food gets imported into America. Twenty percent of its food is coming from outside of the country and agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water. What we’ve got is a huge very conservative agriculture. My greatest concern for food was that when we had the pandemic, one of the things that I thought was eye-opening about the pandemic is that everyone became very aware of how fragile the supply chain is.
When all the shelves emptied out, the stress that caused everyone was heightened. We were not in control. Corporations are in control of how we live. We’ve got to get back to thinking about how we get in control of our food. The rule of thumb is that anything that travels more than 400 miles is considered an import. Anything under 400 miles is considered local. The challenge for food is that when you think about an under 400-mile delivery, it discounts a lot of things that you get very acclimatized to like grains, rice, imported beers, wines, and lots of things that you consume every day that you take for granted, if you wanted to go local.
What I’m getting at here is it’s not only the responsibility of governments and corporations. It’s a behavioral change in people. If you decided to eat locally, then you wouldn’t go to the supermarket. You wouldn’t be buying things that are imported from across the country on trucks and planes. You’d be thinking about your own responsibility. On one hand, it’s the responsibility of governments to change the way the food supply works for us so we can get that seasonality and don’t have to rely on imports.
On the other hand, the greatest challenge is culture, which is how you change everyone’s behavior. The beauty of all this is that young people are conscious. It’s the conscious generation. They’re coming through with a lot more of a conscious idea about the planet than we ever had. We had newspapers that came out once a week. Young people are up-to-date on world happenings by the minute and they’re demanding the change that we never could. That’s a great thing for things like food. Quality of food and fresh water and access to it should be everyone’s right.Young people are up to date on the happenings in the world by the minute, and they're demanding the kinds of change that we never could. Click To Tweet
Let’s look at rice, for example. Rice feeds many people around the globe. Every culture uses rice, whether it be risotto in Italy, paella in Spain, or sushi and rice at a Japanese restaurant. It’s something that we all consume. Eighty percent of the rice that’s grown in the United States has grown in California. Let’s take New York as an example because you’re from there. You go to a local farmer’s market. What food are you able to get on a regular basis?
I’m Upstate at the moment, so I’m going to use this as an example. There’s nothing we can’t eat here. The reality is if you get used to certain foods, rice being one, you think you need it. You don’t. It’s what you’re accustomed to. It’s what you’re groomed on, and essentially, the same would be true of us developing stone fruits here, which are amazing.
There’s a great running joke about the stone fruits of Upstate New York. We become obsessed with them over a three-month period and we do export them, but it’s what’s in our backyard. What’s being developed in California is for exporting money not to service California. It’s to service the country and make sure everyone has rice. in our role as placemakers, one of the things that we look at is behavior. Culture and behavior are core and key to developing great resilient cities over time.
We can talk about Hawaii too. When you go to Hawaii, almost everything’s trucked in. What would you eat in Hawaii?
Hawaii’s challenging. It’s not almost everything. Everything is trucked in a truck including building materials. It’s an island so they have to ship everything. We struggle with that a little bit, even in development because we had to import everything, which is very challenging. I will say though, that there is a different culture in Hawaii. There’s a cultural understanding and respect of the land that I don’t think exists in other parts of the US.
If you think about the structure of Oahu, they set up kingdoms before we invaded it. The kingdoms separated the island into Ahupuaʻas. They’re these little triangles from the mountain to the sea. Every leader got access to everything like water, vegetation, and housing. Everything was in that one triangle and that’s the way they survived.
It’s like the slices of a pie. They all got access to elevation, which meant they got water from rain or whatever.
It was democratized, and it was almost like a commune, which is how those tribes often lived. It’s how that island survived for thousands of years. We came in and changed all that. We came in and did what we, Westerners liked to do, which was monopolized. We moved people out. We changed the infrastructure. We changed the food supply. They weren’t importing grains before we got there. There’s plenty of food. They’re surrounded by food.
The question for you is that you’re talking to people all day about these things and everyone has a solution but the greatest challenge technically is changing the culture of the way we live. We are accustomed now globally to everything. The industrial revolutions that happened over the last many years have happened for a reason. They’re there for progress. The industrial revolutions happened over 100-year periods. We had steam and then we had electricity. We have digital and now, we have AI and a whole new Industrial Revolution happening.The greatest challenge is changing the culture of the way we live. Click To Tweet
We have Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s.
Globalization meant that everyone now wants everything and you have access. There was a time when you could travel to Italy and be surprised by the taste, by the food, and by the types of content. Now, when you travel around the world, you’ve seen it all. You’ve either seen it here or you’ve bought it online. It’s come to your front door or you’ve accessed it in some way. The pleasure of travel has disappeared slightly. It’s become more about exploring topography and culture, and less about the content.
It’s become some kitsch of additional things you do like going to a lūʻau in Hawaii and having poi once.
Less than 50% of Americans have a passport or some terrible number. It’s quite insular for that reason. You think with that culture, they get very strong in understanding how to create resiliency within the country.
It sounds to me that what you’re arguing for is that we get to a more regionally based idea of what our food should be and start consuming food with seasonality as well so that we’re not relying on the imported bananas and rice from China or from California if you’re in New York to work with something else or to use something else.
We tried at the seaport when I was working on that to develop a thing called the 100 Mile Cafe. Everything inside the cafe could only come within 100 miles. When you start looking at that as a proposition, you run out of options very quickly about what you can do. You realize very quickly how limited New York has access to fresh food.
The concept of waterless farming or vertical farming or the idea of farming within the cities is going to help with that regenerative culture where you use less energy to get food out is the idea. We talked last time about the concept of what regenerative farming does. Regenerative farming is about less energy and better care to get better products. That’s essentially what it’s doing and we’ve not had an era where there’s been a conscious culture to push that until now.
When I asked Paul Hawken about vertical farming as an example, he brought up the case of an individual in Singapore that was working to say they wanted to go purely regenerative and have all of their food sourced from within the area of Singapore. They’re an immensely tight densely populated area and not a lot of land to farm upon. They were leaning on this idea of vertical farming and he said, “It’s a lovely idea, but it won’t work.”
The reason is that all the food that you’re used to consuming doesn’t grow well in vertical farming. He referenced the grains and things like that. there’s a practical application of this too, because we can’t necessarily survive and thrive very well in tomatoes, basil, microgreens, etc. How do we get over that piece if we’re talking about these densely populated areas and perhaps, this hydroponic style vertical farming option isn’t best for some of these foods that we need to grow?
I don’t understand why that couldn’t work. I still think about this. Regenerative farming isn’t only about bringing food closer to humans. It’s about the quality of soil and biodiversity. It’s about making sure that you’re reducing the amount of chemicals that get used. It’s about soil health. There are lots of things that go into regenerative farming.
The vertical farming concept works well for a waterless farm and there are plenty of foods that grow in waterless farms that you can use for communities all the time. It’s like a great central community garden that’s in the city. We try and boil the ocean a bit, Corinna. You’ve got someone screaming on the left like Greta Thunberg trying to create action and, on the right, you’ve got a very old stodgy government who are moving at the pace of a whale.
Or a snail. I think about whales as somewhat fast and maybe that’s just me.
Maybe they are snails. You’re right but where’s the moderate conversation? Ultimately, where are the people in government who are supportive of power? That’s essentially what’s happening. Again, I’m a huge proponent of making sure that with all the technology we have, it’s everyone’s responsibility to shift the culture of how we think. If we’re trying to do everything in black and white, we won’t succeed. It’s way too gray. Where you have trouble in the US is that you’ve got bipolar left and right.
That’s a kind way of putting it. It’s a little mentally disturbed.
I could have said psychopathic, but bipolar is neater. Watching it play out, the culture wars and the idea of it means that there are barriers to good moderate thinking that is getting in the way of achieving anything. A lot of it is propaganda too. We are working a lot in Saudi Arabia and when I read about Saudi from an American perspective, I get a very strange view of the country.
When you’re there, the innovation that’s happening in that country on the concept of regenerative agriculture because they’re lacking in rain, they’re lacking in tropical fruits, and things like that, they have this incredible biodiversity that they’re pushing through every channel of their country. It’s more innovative than what’s happening here and much more innovative than here. They do have some humanitarian issues happening in the country, but we’re having them here.
We have them around the globe, yes. The reality is that we are probably never going to get through all of them to create the utopia that we might like to live within. We might even think it’s attainable. The reality is it seems to be part and parcel of being human to want some level of conflict.
Conflict’s part of every culture. The difference is you’d think after several millennia, we’d be smarter. You would think that would be the case but in reality, we do some crazy things. We do crazy things out of politics and we don’t put the people first. I read somewhere. I was looking at cities around the globe. Jakarta is sinking into the ground and they’re thinking of building a whole new Jakarta 30 kilometers down the road. They are abandoning the city they’ve got and building one down the road.We do crazy things out of politics, and we don't put the people first. Click To Tweet
That’s been done many years before.
It was poorly planned with no infrastructure and concept of helping make people’s lives better, just day-to-day thrashing and living with no constraints. Also, untethered development goes unnoticed. It’s a crazy time in the world when we have an opportunity to pause a little bit with the right level of conversation to make dramatic changes to how we do everything. Agriculture’s one and food consumption. Culture is everything.
We’ve developed a certain way in cities and neighborhoods. For many years, it hasn’t changed and developers have been struck by the changes in rituals that people now have in how they want to live their lives because it’s very different now and they don’t know what to do. They’re in a state of shock about, “What do I do with commercial offices? What do I do with residences? No one wants to buy anything.”
It’s interest rates and affordability. Everyone’s in a state of, “What do we do next when the world’s at this level of change?” What we have to do is take stock, wind it back a little bit, and say, “These are good changes. These are positive lifestyle changes people are making. Let’s change the way we design for them. Let’s change the way we think about neighborhoods and cities.” Once we get that conversation right, everything will be great.
Let’s talk about where in a city we grow food. Where should we be growing food in a city?
In the public ground where communities can access and cultivate their own food. The idea of locked buildings run by corporations doesn’t feel right. For me, it’s got to be a community decision but in essence, there are different types of agriculture. There’s waterless agriculture where you can grow lettuce and vegetables. There’s fish farming on lots of rooftops around Tokyo in central business districts. Fish farming is easy to do with some level of care. We don’t want to overfeed fish and mass produces the same problem in the city.
Animal care is a huge part of regenerative agriculture. You mentioned in your mail to me this idea around the difference between say a vegan option and a non-meat option, those types of conversations are very odd conversations to have because everyone is thinking about that’s the way to create more sustainable food. That’s just preference and choices at this stage because sometimes the vegan option is not a great option for the planet.
We talk about an Impossible Burger and the carbon footprint of that product alone is relatively significant.
Packaging in plastic, think about this. When our parents were shopping at the butcher, it came wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper and came home. Now, everything is vac-sealed, packed, manufactured, and shipped off to a supermarket. These are the issues. In some ways, winding things back a little bit might be helpful. Young people are looking for it.
Younger people, my son’s generation is looking for a life where he can buy fresh food and where he can afford it. Where he can feed his body with things that are not full of chemicals and crap. They have a much bigger conscience than people of our generation. That might be the problem. We need more of that young people in the government.
I’ll try not to take this personally, people of our generation, but I think about some of my favorite times traveling the world and even living in a downtown area. I didn’t live in a big city because I don’t particularly like living in big cities. I like visiting them, but to me, they’re a little overwhelming. When I lived in downtown Santa Cruz, which is a smaller community. You’re talking about 60,000 people. It’s not a huge territory.
The homeless problem, we’ve got our issues too but I would walk down the street to the local taqueria to get my taco in the evening wrapped in paper. I would then go to the grocery store and buy fresh produce for that day or maybe the two days that follow and some local produce at the farmer’s market. I didn’t cook enough or eat enough to subscribe to a CSA but there are some locally available to me too that are regeneratively or organically grown.
There’s even a homeless garden project where they’ve set aside a chunk of land and homeless people are able to farm the land for their own food, which is also an incredible program. They also sell the surplus to the community. We’ve got some of these things hard-baked into what is more of a utopian way of living, yet most people don’t walk to the grocery store. They get in their car even to drive the two blocks because it’s become how we do things in our culture.
Worst, they order it at their front door. The thing that struck me about America that I’d never seen before in Australia is if I wanted a screwdriver, I ring someone and it comes to my front door. If I needed something, it could come to my front door. You get into this terrible habit very quickly of convenience where you just accept you can do that. We put a stop to that in our household.
It’s the Amazon culture. That’s what you’re describing.
We had a moment about it a few years ago, which was eye-opening. I got home from work late and I sat down. The doorbell rang. Josh went to the door and got his dinner. The doorbell rang and Jane ordered something for us. This was a spine-tingling moment about six years ago where we just went, “What has happened here? We can now have anything we want at any time at the click of a button.”
You’re not even eating as a family anymore.
There’s not even a community part to it. Your analogy or the idea of walking down the street, grabbing a taco, it’s a community activation. You’re out with other people, seeing other humans, and interacting. You’re not sitting at home having it sent to you. There’s an isolation that happens with that. Again, that’s why my earlier comment about we have a cultural problem where we’ve got very used to the Industrial Revolution that’s happened to enable us to sit at home. Everything comes to us and that’s changing culturally how we feel about each other.
Why is mental health so high at the moment especially in young boys? It’s triple X in the last few years because everyone’s isolated. Everyone’s sitting at home and that’s got nothing to do with food but all to do with food on the basis that if the access like that is only through here, you are not aware of where your food comes from, who cooked it, what establishment, the personality of the human or even if they care about the environment. It’s coming to you a door anonymously.
Part of this is getting out, seeing, talking to the chef and the hosts, and understanding their philosophy on food. Having a desire to keep them accountable is where we should be but we are not. We are living in this isolated and all-consuming order fest that is destroying the community but also, destroying the way we live. Food will suffer from it, but we can change it. That’s the health point here with the awareness and to your point, try walking down the street and talking to someone. Go out into the community. If we change the culture from the order system to being out in the community, things will change.
What more? It can do something for your waistline. We get used to being more sedentary. I walked everywhere. There wasn’t a need to hop in my car and believe me, I enjoy driving. I had a little at that time that I would zip around with a top-down but having the ability to park the car, not worry about reparking, and not worry about door dings or anything to my beautiful little sprightly being of a vehicle, I could go to a grocery store that was walking distance to my door.
I could choose produce that was grown locally at the grocery store. If I couldn’t make it to the farmer’s market, it was there. It had a prominent placard saying, “Locally grown, locally sourced,” and things like that, and within 25 miles. It wasn’t like it was coming from far away. Now granted, I’m in the Santa Cruz area. We have a lot of farming locally.
If you get an artichoke in a grocery store where you are anywhere in the United States, it probably came from here in addition to berries. On Hawaii, it’s a travesty but Driscoll’s blackberries, blueberries, and all their berries are there in Hawaii and yet you’ll see this plethora of local fruits that are spoiling because someone’s buying a little crate of blackberries for $8.
We haven’t even touched on waste, have we? The concept of waste and supermarkets picking the right fruit to be served and all the slightly damaged fruit being thrown is a travesty. We do have an issue with consumption that is again at the core of culture, but it happens on both sides. We need the industry to change the way they think about regenerative agriculture and food. We also need culturally to change the way we think about consuming or purchasing it.
If those two things can come together, we’ll have a great moderate plan, but we don’t. We have this polarizing political system that doesn’t allow it to join. The big debate that we’ll happen over the next few years is whether can we bridge the gap between the voice of a generation saying it’s time for change and a political system that’s out of touch.
Also, the behaviors that we need to shift along the way as well. Before we pivot further, you mentioned something that is critical that we talk about. There are many people in the climate space that trend towards vegetarian or plant-based who are trying to get less of their food from animals. Even if they are not a vegetarian, they might call themselves flexitarian. They have mindful choices around the meats that they’re consuming.
However, most of what Americans consume, and in developed countries around the globe, especially if you’re talking about those fast food joints that are so popular are using animal foods that have been grown in Concentrated Animal Farming Operations or CAFOs. In these CAFOs operations, everything’s about the dollar and not so much about animal husbandry. There aren’t beautiful living conditions and the treatment of the animals is brutal generally speaking. How do we take this into this story and build it into part of that shift so that we can be creating both enough food to feed humanity and doing so more mindfully and regionally? How do you see this coming into play?
When you sent me that note, I’m researching it because I wanted to get a bit more of an understanding of the scale of the industry. The issue that we are going to face is that again, the shifting culture, living off plants is not a new idea. People have been doing it for a long time. The issue here is that you have a stigma in this false idea that you need meat to survive or it’s part of your diet.
Again, you have that stigma. My feeling is there are better methods of regenerative agriculture in feeding animals that we don’t need the horrible lines of dairy cows or lines of cows feeding our troughs in mud pits with poor quality of life. Without repeating myself, we detach from those things. When you bring it to people’s attention and they’re conscious of the problem, then things change. You’ve got a couple of things happening. On one hand, vegans are thinking about two things. The ethical vegan is thinking about the animal.
You then got the health-conscious vegan that believes that plant-based is better for their diet and not always by the way. You also have a vegetarian that’s trying to do a bit of both. Some animal products but fundamentally, fruit and veg. If you could replicate meat to be sustainable, the Impossible Burger for example, if that all comes to fruition the right way and is sustainable, it will probably remove the need for any farming that’s like that, but we’re not there. That’s the problem.
The problem is that’s a long journey but I suspect with the innovation that’s happening now and the research that you can get your fillet steak and it won’t be fillet steak. You can get your T-bone and it won’t be T-bone. It won’t be an animal. It will be some other type of product that’s better for you and the planet. It’s not ready, but it’s coming. That’s the exciting way in where we are in the world is the innovation that’s happening. It is coming, but it’s not coming fast enough.The exciting part of where we are in the world is that the innovation that's happening is coming, but it's not coming fast enough for most people. Click To Tweet
I’m a lover of sushi. I love sashimi. I love fish, but I stopped consuming it several months ago because I don’t believe that our fishing operations around the globe are truly sustainable. I spent enough time talking about it that I felt like I was a hypocrite. I wanted to write a book called Accidental Hypocrite for this and many other reasons. I probably would end up getting sued by Anne Tyler who wrote The Accidental Tourist and an accidental everything.
I had this sense that I needed to stop consuming fish unless I knew exactly where it came from and I understood that to be sustainable. There might be a situation where I consume fish, but it’s become a rarity. At Expo West 2023, which is in Anaheim every March, I sampled some vegan sashimi and it literally looked like and tasted like fish. The texture was a little bit more like locks than the density that you expect from something else, but it was still passable.
There were even vegan eggs, but they were packaged in a ton of plastic and I would never touch it. Some things are coming out of food tech that are quite interesting, but whether or not they have the same nutrition power is the question. Is it just a bunch of filler that’s guar gum or whatever that isn’t going to nourish our bodies or is it a solution that will provide the nutrition, micronutrients, and macronutrients that our bodies need to thrive?
Your point is well-taken. What you’re saying which I agree with is you’ve got capitalism at play in mechanism where they’re manufacturing replicas to make a lot of money and they don’t particularly care about the packaging. They don’t particularly care about the content as long as it’s possible.
They’re getting tons of money and funding like Air Protein. There’s even a company making protein from microbes in the air.
This is the issue. Are we going to go out of one frying pan into the fire? Are we going to go from we know the problem, how do we fix it, and then capitalism gets in the way and before you know it, we are producing more carbon? We’re not sinking it. We’re not sequestering it into the soil. We are releasing it.
It’s because we’re creating a manufacturing solution.
That is a great concern. Russell Fortmeyer, who’s our Head of Sustainability at our business, is a huge proponent of these massive changes. The idea of change in culture and of ensuring that we don’t let any innovation go unchecked. We don’t accept every innovation as the right thing because there is a lot of mistrust also happening in that territory. It has to be regulated and that’s what the government’s working out. How do you regulate these changes so we get products with the right quality and everything?
When we design places and when we look at placemaking as a philosophy, our name ERA is an acronym. It’s Evidence making sure that we have the research. We don’t just jump into Response, which is our second letter. Our responses need to be measured by the evidence. Way too many people are inventing without doing the research properly and that’s a worry. It’s because then you say, “Now, we’re just inventing, and who knows if it’s right?”
This is the shortsighted piece that you referenced at the beginning of this whole conversation. We’re creating a short-term solution, but we don’t know what the long-term effect is going to be.
The last piece of our name is Action because there are a lot of dusty documents with great research and good ideas sitting with no one action on anything. I know that’s probably political more than anything, but ERA is about Evidence, Response, and Action. You can’t have great research and good ideas and not action them, or you can’t action something with an idea with no evidence. For me, that triptych culturally has to get into government or has to get into community groups, for example, who need the information. That’s the key.
To close this portion of our conversation, I’ve constructed a few speed round questions for you and then we’ll pick back up and talk more deeply about the build of these communities. Also, how people can picture them in their minds and drive forward into that conversation as a big solution for the future development of our societies. Before we get there, here’s my speed round. Would you define yourself as a pessimist or an optimist?
I am an optimist.
As an optimist, what concerns you most, and what gives you the most hope?
What concerns me the most is our city’s resiliency. I don’t know if they’re resilient and they are breaking under the pressure of change, but what gives me hope is young people. I’m wildly impressed with what’s happening with people under 25. I put myself back to under 25. I didn’t have the same level of commitment to the planet that they have. It’s an awareness thing through social media, but I’m completely floored by how committed young people are to getting things to change. That gives me great hope.
Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. I want to go ahead and remind all of our readers that we will have a part two coming out where we dive more deeply with Steven Cornwell and learn more about ERA-co. As we might’ve mentioned already, to connect with Steven’s important work at ERA-co, visit ERA-co.com. Do you like them to go anywhere else in particular like your social channels? Which are your most active on?
LinkedIn. I take a direct email as well, but our website has all my information.
It was fantastic talking to you.
I hope that you’ll leave me a review on Apple Podcasts. If you don’t like what I’m doing here, you can always reach out to me personally and give me that critical bump as well. I want to hear from you, good or bad. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m doing the show to support you and to help your learning efforts as well. If you have a particular topic that you’d like to see us dive more into, I hope that you’ll share it with us.
As I said at the top of the show, I do read every single review and each of them makes this effort worth it. Thank you, readers, now and always for being a part of this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can even transform our food systems and build a better future together, one in which people are nourished and fulfilled. Thank you.
- Exercising Climate Optimism And Shifting Perspectives For A Brighter Future With Anne Therese Gennari – Past Episode
- Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation With Paul Hawken, 5 Time Best-Selling Author and Environmentalist – Past Episode
- The Accidental Tourist
- LinkedIn – Steven Cornwell
- Apple Podcasts – Care More Be Better Podcasts