How Alice in Wonderland thinking can win over City Hall

by Franke James

Franke James speaks at University of Cincinnati

University of Cincinnati photo by Franke James

photo of franke james presenting at Univ of Cincinnati May 18, 2009 by Shawn Tubb

On May 18th, I spoke at the University of Cincinnati as part of their Climate Commitment 101 lecture series. Below is an excerpt from my talk: Paradise Unpaved: How nurturing your inner Alice in Wonderland can win over City Hall.

My whimsical, but very serious thought, is this: What would our cities be like if we asked more “Alice in Wonderland” type questions that challenge the powers that be, conventional wisdom, and the old ways of doing things?

I opened by reading my Paradise Unpaved visual essay.

snapshots of Paradise Unpaved visual essay by franke james

(Note: If you haven’t read Paradise Unpaved, please take a few minutes to read it and then dive back into this post.)

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

“Challenge Authority” is about speaking up when something doesn’t make sense.

Challenge authority is the first of five ways to nurture your “inner Alice.” So, why encourage students to challenge authority? (Which could include University teachers too!) Well, it may be our best hope for surviving and adapting to climate change. If we’re very lucky some fresh, innovative thinking could just set our society on a healthier and more sustainable path.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

When the North York official told me that we must build our driveway out of concrete, asphalt or interlock, I had what I refer to as my “Alice in Wonderland moment.”

I felt like I was in an upside down world. What he was telling me didn’t make any sense — because I’d researched the requirements calling for semi-permeable driveways on the website. See Impacts of Front Yard Parking on Wet Weather Flow.
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

But challenging the City official directly didn’t get me very far. He basically patted me on the head and said, “Lady, you don’t live in Toronto. You live in North York. And those are the rules here.”

I didn’t argue back (much). But it did seem odd and contradictory when the Mayor of Toronto, David Miller, was promising that Toronto would be the greenest city in North America.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

How could the City say one thing in the media, and yet City officials were telling homeowners to do something that was totally opposite! (And anti-environmental.)

Challenging authority will only take you so far. To be effective you need to amplify your voice.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Strategize getting your message out: Who has power? What power do you have? Who can help you?

I knew I had to shine a bright light on this situation to make change happen. The law required that we must have a functional driveway, but I was determined that it was going to be environmentally friendly and very green.

In terms of power, obviously the City holds the most power. But as citizens, each of us has power, too. We have to be willing to speak up and take a stand. And if we can reach out to others to join us collectively in taking that stand, then we can gain even more strength.

In early May 2007, I phoned the Toronto Star and asked how the Mayor could say he wanted Toronto to be green, and yet City officials were saying we couldn’t have a green driveway. The Toronto Star article which resulted, Eco-friendly driveway is rejected by the city, summed it up as, “Franke James is caught between a rock and a green place.”

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

As you can see in the slide above, the article caught the attention of other news media. CityTV News, Treehugger and many bloggers also questioned the wisdom of banning eco-friendly driveways in a “green city.” Awareness and support for our green driveway grew.

However going to the media is not the right response in lots of situations. There are times when we’ve had issues with the City where I phoned, filed complaints, wrote letters, took photographs and/or contacted my City Councillor to get action (more on this later). The media would not have responded to those concerns. They are not going to report a story unless it is “newsworthy.”

As I point out in Paradise Unpaved, once the City understood what we wanted to do, they found a way to approve our green driveway as a pilot project. I don’t know if the media attention helped persuade them, or it was simply because I reached someone at City Hall who agreed that building green driveways was a good idea for a green city. In effect the stumbling block for us was an old North York bylaw which was bumping up against the more enlightened bylaws in Toronto (which require the use of semi-permeable materials).

Having been through the experience now, I can say that it’s important for citizens to speak up and take action when misguided policies threaten our environment. We have to let government know what we want changed.

What bylaws need changing in your area? Your first goal may be to get your town or municipality to consider a pilot project for your green idea. Although North York has not changed the “asphalt, concrete, interlock” bylaw, it is now easier for others to get approval for a green driveway because we’ve unpaved the way.

How did we get around the rule that you can only plant one tree?

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

It was a matter of being creative within a set of “rules.”

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Being able to design creatively within the rules is a great skill to develop — whether you’re doing an academic essay or a landscape plan!

If you look at the green landscape plan above you’ll see a horizontal dotted line dividing our front yard. That line is the division between what the City technically “owns” and what we as homeowners own. Most homeowners think of their front yard as entirely their property, but in Toronto, the City owns the first 12 or 13 feet for services such as water and sewer. Allowing homeowners to plant multiple trees on that portion (known as the City Boulevard) would cause lots of headaches for their municipal services — which is why they have the “one tree” rule.

So the solution I came up with was to plant a row of five Hornbeam trees close to the horizontal dotted line, but on our property not on the City Boulevard. (We also planted five small evergreens closer to our house.) It has worked out beautifully. Now we have ten trees helping to improve our air, not just one.

Below is the view now when we open the front door. The row of trees also provide natural shade and privacy.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

So can “Alice in Wonderland thinking” help in the real world?

Let’s go for a walk and see.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke JamesUniversity of Cincinnati lecture by Franke JamesUniversity of Cincinnati lecture by Franke JamesUniversity of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Can Alice imagine a better world?

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke JamesAn existing concrete alley with sewers could be
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke Jamestransformed into an alley of Permaturf and drought-tolerant grass
University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke Jamesor a Turfstone alley and drought-tolerant grass with no sewers.

But are green alleys just whimsical Alice in Wonderland thinking?

No. We only have to look at the Chicago Green Alleys program to see this thinking applied in a real-world project. Chicago’s goal is to make 1,900 miles of their alleys permeable. It was started in 2007 and has attracted interest from other parts of the United States as well as Canada.

“Imagine if all of the alleys in Chicago were green alleys. Up to 80% of the rainwater falling on these surfaces throughout the year could pass through permeable paving back into the earth, thereby reducing localized flooding, recharging groundwater and saving taxpayer money that would otherwise be spent treating stormwater.” Chicago Green Alley Handbook

Chicago green alleys project cited in University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

When we were planning how to build our green driveway in 2007, Gary Welsh, General Manager, Transportation Services for the City of Toronto, told me that Toronto is looking at materials to make roads permeable in the future. But finding the right technology requires more R&D.

The concept stunned me. Wow! Permeable highways and roads?

Permeable pavement could save the City a lot of money in stormwater management by directing the water into the soil and keeping it out of the sewer system. Upgrading Toronto’s stormwater storage and sewer treatment plants carries a price tag of roughly $400 million to $500 million. Doesn’t it make more sense to let the stormwater run into the soil rather than into pipes which then deposit it into our lakes? And then require expensive water treatment facilities to clean?

Chicago was motivated to take action on the 1900 miles of alleys because they do not have sewers in their alleys (Toronto does have alley sewers). Nearby homes were being flooded, and the excess stormwater was putting more pressure on their existing treatment facilities. The slide below shows a “before” photo of a flooded Chicago alley, and then the “after” photo with permeable, recycled pavement.

Chicago green alleys project cited in University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

So, you may be thinking, “Why does Franke care about stormwater management so much?”

Because we’ve had personal experience and know the damage that can be caused by stormwater. Below is a 2005 photo I took of the flooded alley next door to our home. It looks even worse than the flooded alley in the Chicago handbook, doesn’t it? (Especially when you consider we are 2 feet lower than the raised alley! That water only had one direction to flow — our house.) This was my first lesson in dealing with the City. It took over one year of phone calls, emails, photographs, inspections… and more to get action.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

How did we solve it?

We hired an engineer to write a drainage report and submitted it to the City. Then the City finally issued an order for the three commercial building owners to repair their eavestroughs. Persistence (and gathering evidence) paid off.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

The example of our next-door neighbor’s alley is very much like the “passing the buck” we see happening on larger environmental issues. None of the three commercial building owners wanted to take responsibility. It was only when they were legally forced to by the City (prodded by our engineer’s report) that they decided to work together and make the necessary repairs.

Many people (including politicians) talk about the “Environment” as though it is separate and removed from the “Economy.” It is as though they want us to believe there is no direct financial impact for mistreating the environment, which Alice would say is “ridiculous and upside down thinking.”

Just recently I happened to read this Letter to the Editor in our local paper (see below). The writer is urging that government invest in upgrading our water and sewer systems rather than build fancy sports stadiums. I thought it was an excellent letter — and then I noticed who wrote the letter!

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Isn’t it interesting that Don Forgeron, President & CEO of the Insurance Bureau is concerned about climate change and is urging that the government spend money on “invisible” infrastructure? The next slide about a storm in 2005 gives us a clue as to why he’s so concerned.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Yep. $400 million for flood claims from 1 storm is pretty memorable.

No wonder the Insurance Bureau is concerned about climate change.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

I wrapped up my talk by reviewing my personal reasons for wanting to do the hardest thing first for the planet. (I referenced parts of my past essays My SUV and Me Say Goodbye, The Real Poop on Social Change and To My Future Grandkids in 2020.)

My thinking on doing the hardest thing first is this:
I don’t think changing lightbulbs is very inspiring. It’s not going to make you feel like you made a difference. If we could just raise the bar a little and do something ambitious and a little bit hard I think people would find going green more rewarding — and more fun. But I also believe that each person has to decide for themselves what the hardest thing is that they are willing to tackle (nobody could have told me to sell my SUV or build a green driveway. It had to come from within).

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Climate change is coming faster than anybody expected. The polar ice caps are melting, the massive Wilkins ice shelf in Antarctica broke apart just a few weeks ago. Even Mount Everest is melting. I strongly believe that the next generation is going to judge us very harshly for our inaction on climate change. They will say, “You saw the writing on the wall and you did nothing. Why were you so stupid?”

I know I can’t change the world, or force governments to take action, but I can take personal responsibility for my own lifestyle.

So what is the hardest thing you could do to help the planet?

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke JamesUniversity of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

The audience laughed at unplugging the beer fridge… But one student said he is trying to eat less meat (he currently eats meat at every meal). That is a great idea! Mark Bittman in Food Matters says that commercial meat production causes more CO2 emissions than transportation.

University of Cincinnati lecture by Franke James

Use your inner Alice to make a better world.

1. Challenge authority
2. Amplify your voice
3. Play with rules
4. Imagine a better world
5. Do the hardest thing first.


ADDENDUM: It’s not just green driveways that can help reduce stormwater runoff. See this press release about a pilot project giving away 1,000 rain barrels — sponsored by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Ontario town chosen for innovative pilot project to reduce sewer overflows and conserve water

Insurance Bureau of Canada to roll out 1,000 free rain barrels to Wingham homeowners

Wingham, ON – March 16, 2009: More than a thousand free rain barrels will soon be made available to Wingham homeowners to participate in a pilot project to be conducted by Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) and the Township of North Huron. The IBC/Wingham Rain Barrel Pilot Project will determine whether the use of rain barrels is one effective way of keeping basements dry during intense rain storms…

Intense rainstorms, which are occurring more frequently in many parts of the country, including Wingham, are widely attributed to climate change. Typically, sewer back-ups and flooding occur during these periods of intense rainfall because outdated municipal infrastructures do not have the capacity to handle the downpours. This can result in damage that is costly for homeowners, municipalities, and the insurance industry, as well.

Read entire news release

16 Responses: 9 Comments and 7 Tweets

  • As usual Franke it is an AWESOME post.

    Many many thanks for it !

  • Timothy says:

    That was fun! I love your illustrations, and have to say you got your message across with Alice.
    Do the hardest thing first is what I have been wondering about here in Seattle. We have spots that are permeable, but most of the city is not.

    Let me know when you come visit. I am connected to a lot of stormwater educators.

    best fishes,


  • Franke James says:


    Thanks for your comment on my UC talk: “How Alice in Wonderland thinking can win over City Hall.”

    Considering that you are a publisher of beautiful natural history posters I will take extra pleasure in your compliment!

    I appreciate your offer to introduce me to Seattle stormwater educators. If I get an invitation to speak in Seattle I’ll take you up on it. (Two US-based professors, Joan Chadde and Dr. Alex Mayer, from Michigan Technological University helped me with the stormwater calculations.)

    By the way, Portland Oregon (about 3 hours from you?) has a very neat initiative where they rip up concrete and asphalt (


    Franke James, MFA
    Author, Bothered by My Green Conscience
    Artist and writer

  • I wish I could have been there. What a message you share! I like how you take serious situations and find the ridiculousness in them. The alice in wonderland wondering and what if things could be different doesn’t seem so impossible when you have actual examples in action

  • Daharja says:

    Thanks for yet another great post.

    Here in Dunedin (NZ) we’re currently battling against a council keen to build a stadium we don’t need and don’t want – and they’re wanting to build it at sea level!

    In the meanwhile, the city is in desperate need of a new sewerage works – beaches are closed regularly due to raw sewerage fouling our beautiful coastline. But I guess a sewerage treatment plant isn’t as glamorous as a stadium – no-one wants a sewerage works named after them, after all!

    It seems like the only thing to do is throw the whole council out of power – which may just happen in the next election. But in the meanwhile, the deals are signed, and we may be legally bound to build this travesty of a stadium. I don’t know. The whole situation is shameful.

    Any ideas?

  • Franke James says:


    It sounds like those politicians need a good-natured whack in the head (non-violent of course!!) See this online polling game my husband and I created to roast politicians who were running for Prime Minister of Canada in the last Federal election.

    Satirists — following in the tradition of the court jester — can often help society to see flaws in public policy. Perhaps someone in your circle of friends can create a work that will make people say, “This deal stinks!”

    In terms of legal contracts, never underestimate the power of doing your homework. My suggestion is to have a nit-picker (ideally a lawyer) comb through the contract, all supporting documents, and all emails/communications looking for errors. One technical error can overturn a contract. Believe me, it’s amazing what you can find when you start to dig. (You don’t need to be a lawyer to find mistakes — but you do have to be willing to dig, dig, dig.)

    Let me know what happens,


  • BLOGGED by Edouard Stenger:

    In a recent article Franke James was wondering “Why do we cover up the earth with impermeable materials that stop the rain from going into the ground and require expensive sewers?”

    According to the Chicago Green Alleys Handbook quoted by Franke, unpaving our streets would bring many advantages such as reducing localized flooding, recharging groundwater and saving taxpayer money.

    This brilliant idea reminded me of my post on green roofs as well as the series of pictures showing what would Tokyo look like if it unpaved its streets…

    Read more…

  • […] — in that I had just returned from speaking at the University of Cincinnati where I did a lecture and two climate change art workshops on the theme, What’s bothering your green conscience? Below […]

  • […] I also gave the example of the Chicago Green Alleys program, which sees the same benefits as our green driveway but on a much larger scale — 1,900 miles in fact! (See: How Alice in Wonderland thinking can win over City Hall.) […]

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