Not everything is terrible!

As many have observed, via thinkpiece and meme and late-night scream into the void, 2016 was a dreadful, dispiriting, and often terrifying 12-month period. Many bad ideas were advanced, and some of the worst of them seem to have come true. But CityLab is a glass-half-full kind of operation, and we’ll begin the new year by celebrating the good ideas: Here’s our top-ten list of the best and brightest notions that we came upon in 2016, from the people and places around the world that are trying to solve problems instead of creating them.

If we missed a worthy idea, let us know. And here’s hoping there will be more like them coming our way in 2017.

10: Putting Preschools on Urban Farms

A rendering of Nursery Fields Forever, a combination farm/urban preschool. (Courtesy of aut- -aut)

From a group of Italian and Dutch architects comes a proposal to integrate early-learning facilities for 4- and 5-year olds with greenhouses and outdoor agricultural production in London. As we said in our original post:

The farm, Nursery Fields Forever, is the vision of aut- -aut, a group of four architects hailing from Italy and the Netherlands. Their proposal for a preschool on an urban farm took first prize at this year’s AWR International Ideas Competition; the challenge centered around designing a nursery school model for London.

Nursery Fields Forever aims to dissolve the gap between education and environment, offering instead “a real hybrid between a farm and a school where children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development would be encouraged by interaction with plants and animals,” [says architect Jonathan Lazar].

Read more here. (And for more on kids running wild outdoors, we also liked New York City’s first urban “adventure playground.”)

9: A Disposable and Collapsible Bicycle Helmet

Industrial designer Isis Shiffer dreamed up the odd-but-effective EcoHelmet while traveling Europe. Her vision: Collapsible bicycle headgear made of waterproof paper and adhesive fashioned into a hexagonal honeycomb pattern. Each folds up to roughly the size of a banana and could be sold for about $5 at bike shops or bike-share stations. Shiffer later won the 2016 James Dyson Award, giving her $45,000 to further develop the idea.

At first, it looks strange. Unfolding across the head like an accordion, the EcoHelmet is a far cry from the hard-shell headgear favored by bike commuters.

“But paper honeycomb is incredible,” Shiffer says. This is the stuff used by the military to shield supplies dropped from helicopters; for a bike helmet designed to last one impact, Shiffer says, it’s more effective than the bottom-of-the-line polystyrene options sold in shops, and she aims to make the disposable lids 100 percent recyclable.

Read more here.

8: A Public Living Room For the Lonely

Visitors share cups of tea at the Living Room. (Courtesy of Camerados)

A U.K nonprofit called Camerados that works to combat social isolation opened the first of a planned network of public living rooms—spaces where the lonely and the disconnected can meet to share conversation, coffee, and human empathy.

Looking for solace from strangers can be a tricky thing to navigate in public spaces: it can be hard to figure out how much empathy to dole out, and to gauge when you’re overstepping boundaries. [Founder Maff] Potts hopes the Living Rooms will be neutral spaces to seek and receive support. There are conversation prompts, he says, but no pressure and no to-do list. But if you’re going to hang out, you’ve got to pitch in. Potts believes in fostering empathy and agency through mutual aid; people buckling under their own stresses might find a bit of relief from helping others. “We’ll also put an apron on you and ask you to make a coffee for someone else and talk to them,” Potts says.

Read more here.

7: Turning Garden Waste into Biochar (and Energy)

Biochar being reintroduced into the soil in a Stockholm garden. (Kari Kohvakka)

Stockholm, Sweden, is upping their already strong recycling game by launching a new program to burn garden waste (like all those leftover Christmas trees) and using the resulting “biochar” to both improve soil quality and act as a carbon sink. Bonus: The combustion process generates heat that gets captured and distributed to homes.

By bringing together the parks department, the city’s waste disposal service, energy providers, and urban gardeners, Stockholm’s biochar project will create a virtuous cycle so ingenious—and ultimately so simple—that it could provide a template for cities across the world.

Read more here.

6: A Bus Built to Battle Public Health Woes

The August groundbreaking for CMAX, Columbus’ new bus line. (Central Ohio Transit Authority)

In South Linden, a low-income neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, the infant mortality rate is close to four times the national average. To help connect residents to life-saving health care facilities located in the suburbs, the city is routing its new bus-rapid-transit line through the area.

Starting in September 2016, buses are expected to arrive every 10 minutes at core stations, and the system is projected to cut travel times by 20 percent. There’s a big hope that faster, more frequent bus service—with amenities like WiFi, covered stations, and real-time bus arrival information—will plant seeds for economic development and amenities like farmers’ markets and grocers in Linden. But before all of that, it’s designed to increase access to employment centers like the Polaris neighborhood to the north and downtown to the south, with two major hospitals in between.

Read more here.

5: A No-Questions-Asked Jobs Program for the Homeless in Albuquerque

(David Zalubowski/AP)

From Richard Berry, mayor of the New Mexico city of Albuquerque, and St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a local nonprofit, comes a simple but effective way to help get residents off the streets: a program called There’s a Better Way.

As Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry was heading home from the office one night last year, he pulled to a stop at one of the interstate off-ramps and noticed a man standing to the side, holding a sign that read: “Will Work for Food.” Berry—the first Republican mayor elected in 30 years—has made homelessness a priority in the years since he took office in 2009. Seeing the man’s sign gave him the idea that would grow into There’s a Better Way, says Kellie Tillerson, who manages the program though St. Martin’s.

Berry delegated $50,000 in Albuquerque city funds to St. Martin’s to realize his vision: a van that heads out at 7 a.m. to drive around the city, stopping to ask panhandlers if they want to work. Most say yes. Those that do, Tillerson says, are driven to a predesignated site to work on an urban beautification project—usually doing trash pickup or weed clearing. The city donated the van, and also covers the cost of the driver’s salary and the workers’ wages—they’re paid at $9 per hour for an average of five hours’ work (Albuquerque’s minimum wage is $8.75/hour). Nobody who boards the van is asked for identification; there are no forms to be filled out.

Read more here. (And see also Sacramento’s Pit Stop program, which provides mobile restrooms for that city’s homeless population—and hires formerly homeless persons to staff them.)

4: The Citizen Heroes Trying to Help Atlanta’s Cash-Strapped Transit

A group of young bus-stop adopters pose at a local soccer tournament. (Courtesy Brandon English/MARTA Army)

The famously auto-centric Georgia capital is trying to engineer a major mass-transit upgrade, and it’s going to need all the help it can get to do it. TIme to call in the MARTA Army, a grassroots organization aimed at galvanizing support for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. “At a certain point, people are realizing that great transit will not come from the sky,” says organizer Simon Berrebi. “We need to start owning this system.”

Unlike your standard riders’ union or transit advocacy group, where folks vocalize and letter-write, the Army stirs up enthusiasm for Atlanta’s trains and buses by helping citizens directly improve them. Its first campaign, “Operation TimelyTrip,” encouraged citizens to “adopt” the responsibility of keeping bus stop information up-to-date; as MARTA changes its seasonal routes, the Army provides special laminated schedules for specific stops to individuals who request them, so they can help fellow riders easily navigate the system (the posters gamely advertise the names of stop-adopters). The second campaign, launched October 19, is raising funds to buy garbage bins for bus stops in East Point, a high-poverty suburb southwest of Atlanta. (The city of East Point has agreed to install and service the cans.) So far, 312 bus stops have been adopted through TimelyTrip—in neighborhoods across the income spectrum—and $5,000 in donations have been collected among community members for “Operation CleanStop,” mostly in $5 and $25 increments.

Read more here.

3: A Supermarket Full of Rescued Food, For Free

A TRJFP stall set up in a Leeds park. (The Real Junk Food Project)

In the U.K. city of Leeds, a food-waste-fighting nonprofit called the Real Junk Food Project opened a store that sells/gives away food donated by supermarkets, restaurants, and wholesalers that would otherwise end up in the trash. Coming soon, perhaps, to a city near you.

What the Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP) has dubbed an “anti-supermarket” is really just the tip of their vast iceberg of discarded provisions: The group has a created a network of 126 cafés across seven countries, all serving meals on a “Pay as You Feel” basis. The project fixes no prices to goods, but many patrons contribute, and both the project’s main website and sites run by individual cafes accept donations. TRJFP set up their first café in Leeds in 2013, serving meals made with food destined to be thrown away by stores or restaurants. The U.S. is next on their expansion plans, as the project has already opened a pop-up café in Buffalo, New York, and hopes to expand nationwide in 2017.

Read more here.

2: A Scheme to Turn Detroit’s Vacant Lots into Rain Gardens

A rendering of a vacant-lot-turned-bio-retention-garden. (Courtesy of Joan Nassauer)

The Michigan city boasts aging, easily-overwhelmed sewer infrastructure and more than 66,000 vacant parcels of land. Solution: Transform those lots into “bio-retention gardens”—essentially, big green sponges for stormwater.

Wade Rose, the vacant land restoration manager at the reforestation and farming organization the Greening of Detroit, is putting vacant land to work as part of the EPA-backed Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Greening and its partners are working on 31 lots totaling about 3 acres. (The team installed 14 lots last fall, and broke ground on the other 17 a few weeks ago.) The project deploys various techniques for soil remediation and water retention: a wildflower meadow; a tree stand, in which oak trees’ roots fracture compacted soils; rain gardens with deep depressions; and a treatment that deposits 100,000 worms at depths ranging from 2-6 feet, creating a network of tunnels that make space for stormwater.

Read more here.

1: Putting Washing Machines in Public Schools

Whirlpool workers make a delivery to a school in the Whirlpool Care Counts Program. (Courtesy Whirlpool)

St. Louis elementary school principal Dr. Melody Gunn had an idea to help boost attendance: providing free laundry services. Lack of clean clothes can make kids stay home, she knew, and the low-income households her school served often lacked washing machines.

[Gunn] reached out to the Whirlpool company to see if it could help, and it donated a washer and dryer to her school. She then invited students who had missed more than 10 days of school to bring in their clothes for laundering. Whirlpool later gave 16 more schools in districts in St. Louis and Fairfield, California, washers and dryers through a new program.

“After just one month, we saw an impact,” Gunn tells CityLab. The more long-term results of the program have actually been remarkable. The first year saw over 90 percent of tracked students increase their attendance, with those most in need of the service averaging an increase of almost 2 weeks. Teachers surveyed reported that 95 percent of participants showed more motivation in class and were more apt to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Read more here. And watch for more CityFixers in 2017. We may be needing them.

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