Saturday, January 2, 2016

Anchorage Neighborhoods' Identity Crises

I co-wrote this blog with my friend Eric Van Oss, whose blog, The Arctic Urbanophile, is a great read on urban planning and development in Alaska. 

Q: What is a city?
A: A collection of identifiable, individual neighborhoods that make up pieces of a greater community.
When people talk about cities, they often refer specifically to the neighborhood in which they reside, like Seattle’s Capitol Hill or Washington DC’s Georgetown. These neighborhoods have iconic attractions, well-defined borders, and a shared common identity.
While Anchorage does have a few easily-identifiable neighborhoods with their own personalities and cultures, these are (unfortunately) exceptions to the rule. What dominates instead is a sense of confusion in our neighborhoods’ identities, which discourages community engagement, ownership, and pride. In contrast, a sense of belonging to the community and the physical location in which one lives encourages residents to put down roots and invest in their shared space. Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon or Government Hill neighborhoods are such examples, each having engaged communities with a long-term perspective on their neighborhood’s development.
Anchorage is relatively new city that developed due to a mix of automobile dependency, lax zoning, and rapid growth. This mix has contributed to the blandness that many commercial and residential developments in town are known for. To illustrate this lack of identity, when asking for directions in Anchorage, people often refer to cross streets or proximity to the highway, as opposed to naming their specific neighborhood. Too often referencing a neighborhood triggers nothing more than the image of a site condo or drab duplex with T-1 siding opposed to an actual destination with character. Too many neighborhoods in Anchorage are simply places to dwell; and not a place to “Live. Work. Play.
There are several solutions that will move us toward more defined and cohesive neighborhoods, and a more connected community in general:
1. Agreement on Geographic Boundaries and Names for Neighborhoods. Anchorage is riddled with neighborhoods that have multiple monikers. There is a mismatch between the names and borders of community council districts, historic districts and colloquial names, and other prominent landmark names that come from parks, trails, and lakes. For example, Valley of the Moon is both the name of a park and a colloquial neighborhood, but is split between two community council districts (South Addition and North Star). North Star has no symbolic or literal meaning to residents apart from being a community council district. This dichotomy creates an undefined sense of place and makes coherent planning for the Valley of the Moon area difficult. A city-wide effort between community councils, businesses, residents, community groups, and the Municipality to address these naming and border discrepancies would help create more definitive neighborhoods.
Perhaps one of the best examples of how this can work well would be Mountain View. The geographical boundaries, community identity, and unique features are very clearly encompassed within a generally accepted area. In stark contrast is a neighborhood in East Dowling. At one time the intersection at Jewel Lake and Raspberry Roads, commonly referred to as “Four Corners,” was poised to be developed as a Town Center. The area includes a promising mix of commercial and public space with nearby residential development, but it suffers from a generally nondescript aesthetic and is lacking in public infrastructure such as appropriate sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting. Despite its potential, this areas sits in a planning no man’s land, lumped in the geographically expansive Sand Lake Community Council. More targeted branding and investment could facilitate the growth of Four Corners as a distinct sub-community with unique amenities. As the gateway to Kincaid Park, the area could be transformed into a destination in its own right opposed to an area to simply drive through. Resuscitating the Town Center concept from the original Anchorage 2020 Comprehensive Plan would do wonders for refocusing community activity in smaller subareas of Anchorage and encourage neighborhood-oriented commercial hubs.
On the flipside, these borders and identities cannot be arbitrarily assigned, such as the “SoNo”(South of Nordstrom) debacle, where in 2005 local businesses and the Municipality tried to unsuccessfully (in our opinions) brand a district of downtown. Downtown is one of the few well-defined and accepted neighborhoods in Anchorage; the failure of SoNo and the district concept in general was due to lack of meaning or buy-in from residents.
2. Prioritization of Multi-Use Zoning. One of the best ways to create unique neighborhoods is to incentivize connection and community through self-contained, walkable places. Zoning in Anchorage often creates strict lines between residential, commercial, and recreational areas that often do not overlap. It is difficult to create a community identity in an area that is solely comprised of duplexes or is just an expanse of mini-malls. Mixed use development through zoning should be prioritized. The Wisconsin Street area, split between Turnagain and Spenard neighborhoods, is a largely unremarkable residential development. The Rustic Goat restaurant, which opened in 2013, challenged these assumptions by creating a small commercial area that encouraged social interaction within the neighborhood, provided a landmark, and encouraged economic development. Although the neighborhood still lacks key infrastructure like sidewalks, adequate lighting, and bike lanes, this mixed use zoning (albeit limited), has made it a more attractive place to live and put down long-term roots. The removal of a playground to install increased parking for Rustic Goat may have upset some residents, but with the proximity of the Coastal Trail, Barbara Street Park, Muriel Park, and Fish Creek Park, the loss of this streetside playground is more palatable.
3. Lack of Neighborhood Identity Does Not Facilitate “Live. Work. Play.” Related to multi-use zoning is the issue of comprehensive placemaking. Anchorage’s neighborhoods today essentially forces residents to own a vehicle. Like many U.S. cities, we have been built around (non-public) motorized transport and there seems to be little appetite to change the paradigm. For example, “Ms. Aurora Borealis” lives in the Bayshore/Klatt neighborhood. She works in at the University, shops downtown, goes to the gym in Spenard, eats at restaurants in midtown, and skis at Bicentennial Park. She has accepted the fact that her Bayshore/Klatt individual neighborhood cannot provide her with the amenities she desires to fully “Live. Work. Play.” in a walkable distance from her home.
This reality has hampered neighborhood development throughout our city. Having both lived in cities where our favorite bar, restaurant, coffee shop, gym, pharmacy and grocery store were within a 15-minute walk (or a shorter bus ride) from our homes, we know there is an alternative. Unlike the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas, Anchorage could realistically be a bikeable and walkable city with effective public transport and amenities located closer to homes. As residents, we have the power to change this by demanding comprehensive planning from our Community Councils, Assembly Members and Mayor that incorporates multi-use zoning and neighborhood planning. Neighborhood residents should not simply be complacent and accept a sub-par built environment. Instead, they need to change the neighborhood-wide culture to one that promotes placemaking.
Perhaps one of the most identifiable features in our city is our robust park and trail system. Increasing awareness and access to link up with these mini-highways, as the Anchorage Park Foundation is trying to do through their Signage and Wayfinding Plan, would go a long way toward facilitating living, working, and playing near one’s home. However, the Park Foundation’s naming efforts, including unique signage for individual neighborhoods, only adds another layer onto an already confusing amalgam of neighborhood names. This further demonstrates our first point: the need for communities, nonprofits, businesses, and the municipality to partner together to rebrand and name our neighborhoods.
As young residents of this city who both live in relatively undefined neighborhoods, we become frustrated as we are forced to make up names for the places we live when explaining their locations to others. Penny lives in “Spenardigan,” the unnamed space in between Spenard and Turnagain, while Eric lives near Sullivan Arena, an area he affectionately is trying to rebrand as “The Arena District.” We understand that as a young city, Anchorage’s lack of history posits a challenge to the creation of these ingrained identities. But on the other hand, this also presents an opportunity for us to co-create our neighborhoods’ identities, increasing citizen engagement, ownership, and city pride.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


I am not a natural storyteller. I listen in awe as people who I admire for their storytelling skills regale large groups with accounts of even the most mundane of activities. These people, like my friend Alana, or my Uncle Sam, can make a story arc and have you on the edge of your seat as they describe their most recent meal, or even their drive over to see you! As a more analytical and "to the point" personality, I struggle to draw out the suspense, fully describe moments and pull the listener into the story. So, naturally, I decided to participate in a monthly storytelling show in Anchorage, Alaska in front of an audience of 750 people.  Yikes.

The monthly show is called Arctic Entries. Why that name? Homes don't usually have porches in Alaska, but we do have something that's called an Arctic entry (an area between the front door and the door to the main house where you take off your layers, strip off your snowy boots, and also sit to gear up before going outside). Since stories are often told on porches in the lower 48 states, it makes sense that stories should be told in our Arctic entries in Alaska.

The show consists of 7 storytellers, who are just normal people from the community, each telling a 7 minute story, with no notes. The story must be true and about something that has happened to them. The show is wildly popular; the 750 seats in the theater sell out within 10 minutes of going on sale.

I love attending Arctic Entries as a spectator, and for the past year, I've thought about telling a story of my own on that stage. A lot of practice and preparation go into the preparation of a story, and Arctic Entries volunteers help you immensely through this process.  When I approached them this summer, they turned into my therapists/coaches/motivators/friends as they helped me refine and perfect my chosen story. The process of creating a story arc; getting the audience to relate to me and "like" me in the first 15 seconds of the story; presenting the conflict; and showing how I resolved the conflict took me weeks.

In the days before the show I was so nervous. The story wasn't in the shape I wanted it to be. Despite my outgoing personality and love of people, I really dislike being directly in the spotlight, so I was nervous about all the attention and potential for failure. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that my story was about one of my best friends, Alana, and the birth of her first daughter in 2012. I saw my story as a tribute to her and our friendship.

I won't give away too much here, since you can listen to my story online here!  Some photos of that night are below...

The 7 storytellers of the night, and our hosts

If you live in Anchorage and are interested in telling your own story on stage, visit 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

South Sudan Trip Cut Short - Back in the U.S.

Hello to everyone (or jambo as they say in Kenya, where I just returned from),

I arrived back in the U.S. last night.  Flights out of Nairobi, Kenya were difficult to get.  I was lucky because the airline didn’t charge me for changing my flight from January to December.  Delta waived the fee for travelers affected by the conflict in South Sudan.

By now, I’m sure that most of you have noticed South Sudan’s situation in the news.  I saw that NBC Nightly News and other major news agencies have been covering it.  President Obama has made statements, as has the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power.  A few stories on the continuing conflict are here:

The Sudan Tribune has some good updates, also Twitter (#southsudan #southsudancrisis #juba are some good hash tags to search).

The Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP) has pulled all volunteers out of South Sudan.  We chartered private small planes from Kenya directly to the village of Old Fangak, in Jonglei State, where ASMP works, and back to Nairobi, Kenya.  Other volunteers and I were in a holding pattern in Nairobi for several days waiting to see if we could go in after all, or if the violence would get worse.  UN Peacekeepers from India were killed last week during an attack on a UN compound, and an American plane was shot at while trying to land in Bor, South Sudan and 4 U.S. military members were wounded in the incident.  It’s been a stressful past couple weeks, and I feel great sorrow for the people of South Sudan.  Their 2.5-year-old country has so much promise (The Economist magazine named it as one of their finalists for “Country of the Year 2013” due to its impressive economic growth). 

While there is no way of knowing how this will progress and when nonprofit organizations, Embassy staff, and aid groups will return to the country, I wanted to emphasize to those who donated to ASMP through my fundraising project, it was not in vain!  ASMP has been at work this year since October in the village of Old Fangak, and this money was able to go toward multiple projects that were completed before ASMP evacuated.  During the 2013 building season (October-December), the following was accomplished, thanks to donors' generous support:
  • Five water wells were drilled.  In the previous two years, one and two wells were drilled respectively.  This large increase in productivity was due to new drilling equipment, personnel, and the generous support of donors.  Each well costs around $5,000 to complete, including the well casing, pump, pipe, personnel, etc.
  • The foundation for the new tuberculosis clinic was substantially progressed.  The foundation is being built out of concrete and steel.
  • Some repairs were made to the main health center.
  • ASMP’s agriculture project made great leaps forward this year.  The farmers participating in ASMP’s micro loan and farmer training program had a good harvest, ensuring food security this season (main crops are sorghum and maize).  Notably, several women are participating in the program.
  • Numbers of those suffering from Kala-azar are lower this year in the village.  This parasitic disease that is spread by mosquitoes normally affects the very young and the very old, and is a debilitating, deadly sickness.  The reasons for the low numbers of infections are unknown at this time.  It could just be part of a multiple year cycle, or due to increased education and work by ASMP in this issue.
  • Two medical incinerators were purchased.
  • Volleyball equipment, cotton balls, syringes, tuberculosis medicine, and various other medical supplies were purchased.
  • Many of Dr. Jill Seaman’s local South Sudanese staff (around 60 individuals) were sent away to training and school to increase their knowledge in public health and medicine.
  • Three South Sudanese men were trained in well-drilling and how to repair the wells.
I was able to meet and spend substantial time with this year’s ASMP volunteers, most of whom had already been in South Sudan for 6-8 weeks when I arrived.  It was wonderful to hear about Old Fangak and ASMP's work from these people.  There is substantial need there, but also lots of progress.  Dr. Jill Seaman (who has worked in South Sudan and this village for over 20 years) has been evacuated (pretty unwillingly) to Nairobi also, but is standing by to return as soon as the violence calms.  If ASMP continues to operate in South Sudan, I will definitely be returning.  My experience in Africa was amazing and cemented in me the fact that I want to volunteer there and be a part of ASMP.  

The volunteers that work in this region are gifted, selfless, and generous... I met David who works as a peony farmer in the summer outside of Anchorage, and for 3 months a year in South Sudan with ASMP.  Elyse is an EMT in Colorado currently and spends 3 months per year in the village with ASMP taking care of everything from cancer to tuberculosis to snake bites.  Denny is a construction worker most of the year in Anchorage and spends 1-2 months annually in South Sudan.  Rob works for a contractor for oil companies in Alaska most of the year, and this is his fourth year volunteering with ASMP.  They all had to return to the U.S. earlier than expected, like me. 

I will keep you all updated on developments for ASMP and South Sudan.  I still have hope that this crisis can come under control, or at least stabilize, and ASMP can get back to work.

Here is a photo of Patrick, a Kenyan who works for ASMP as a well driller.  One of the nicest people I've met, with a real heart for helping others.  He's sporting one of our team shirts.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I have my South Sudan visa! Countdown to trip: one month

My trip to South Sudan with the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP) is fast approaching!  I will be there December 15 - January 11 doing public health work in the village of Old Fangak, South Sudan.  This week I took another step closer to the trip; I applied for and received my visa to travel to South Sudan!

ASMP Program Director Jason Hahn is already in Nairobi and has been coordinating the arrival of building materials for the health clinic and other supplies, many of which were donated by Alaskans (bicycles, medical supplies, medicine, watering cans for the agriculture project, canoes...) 

Boeing offered to transport ASMP humanitarian supplies to Africa in an empty, new 777 it is delivering to Kenya Airways in Nairobi, Kenya. Here is a photo of Jason Hahn receiving the humanitarian cargo with South Sudan Deputy Head of Mission, Mariano Deng Ngor. 

In the village of Old Fangak, where ASMP works, they've also begun to drill a water well, using a drill purchased with ASMP funds. 
Having access to clean water is a struggle in the region, and many villagers use river water for cooking which can lead to disease.  While I'm in Old Fangak, I may work on a water use survey that was started by an Alaskan volunteer last year.  The survey will help determine why people choose river water over well water or why not, how they deal with waterborne disease, and asses the best locations to drill a well for the community.
That's all for now.  More updates soon.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Security in South Sudan

On the news recently, there have been stories of violence, border disputes, and killings in South Sudan.  Many people (including my parents) have asked me if I'll be safe when I go to South Sudan in December to volunteer with the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP).  The Program Director for ASMP provided some good background on the security situation in the small village I'll be staying in for 3.5 weeks.  I feel that I will be safe when I travel there, and I really trust the ASMP team.  See what he wrote about security below:

"The area that we work in has been safe for several years. In the past this is area has not been a particular security risk. Most of the risks related to any miiitary or militia activity is far to the north near the border, and far to the south near Pibor county.

'The government of South Sudan has been aware of Dr. Jill and ASMP's prescence in Old Fangak for many years. There is a small contingency of government troops in Old Fangak whose job it is to provide peace and security in the area. 

"With that said, this is South Sudan, and as many places in the world, security can not entirely be guaranteed. To mitigate risks, ASMP is in constant communication with those in the village including Dr. Jill to stay apprised of any developing security risks. We have a rapid evacuation plan in case anything should arise, which includes rapid, immediate deployment by planes operated by Mission Aviation Fellowship, who can reach Old Fangak in a relatively short period of time. This safety plan also covers medical emergencies. Also, if we anticipate security risks, we will not send in volunteers. About three years ago we did this for one group, however it was only out of extreme caution."

I hope this puts you at ease; it certainly helps me feel better about the trip.  From my experience in Peace Corps, I know that often violence can be concentrated in urban areas and in the small, rural villages, there are no issues.
To date, I've raised $4,400!  I'm going to increase my fundraising goal from $4,500 to $5,000; just for the challenge!  Please pass on my Fundraising Web Page to anyone you think might be interested in my project!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

$1,000 left to fundraise! My South Sudan trip inches closer...

It's time for another update; I'm about two months away from my trip!  To date, I've raised $3,575 (WOW!) out of my goal of $4,500.  My fundraising website is here: My ticket to South Sudan via Nairobi, Kenya has been purchased by the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP)!  I will be there December 15, 2013 - January 10, 2014.  I'm taking off a few days early from school (I've arranged with professors to take a couple final exams early), and will miss the first two days of the spring semester, but I'm making it happen!  I'm preparing my South Sudan visa materials (this process should be pretty easy since I know the South Sudanese woman who processes visas at their embassy here in DC), and starting to think about packing.  Lightweight tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, antibiotics...  I feel like I'm returning to the Peace Corps!  I'm going in for some vaccines and to pick up preventative malaria medicine next week at the Georgetown student health center.  It's really happening!  Although, I still have a little bit to go to reach my fundraising goal.

I am SO grateful to those of you who have donated to my project thus far.  As I prepare to travel and after my trip, those of you who have donated will hear much more from me as I write blogs and share my experience.  I encourage you to pass on my fundraising page to others! I've been amazed that people who I don't even know have seen my page and donated; I'm feeling very empowered by your trust and energy, and excited for the trip.  For reference, here is a map of Africa highlighting South Sudan's location:

And here is a more detailed map of South Sudan, with a red arrow at the top pointing to the Old Fangak region where ASMP works and where I will be visiting:

I couldn't help but think about those less fortunate this week when the the annual Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) checks were disbursed to eligible Alaskans.  Many of you who read my blog are friends and family from back home in Alaska who receive this yearly check ($900 this year), which is a distribution of the oil wealth our state enjoys.  This check was undoubtedly a needed boost for many families dealing with the high cost of living in Alaska and rising heating and travel costs.  As Alaskans debate whether or not to raise or lower oil taxes, and how to best develop our resources and plan for the future, I am reminded of the similar struggle happening in South Sudan.

South Sudan is also endowed with oil reserves, however their journey to develop those resources has been fraught with war and fighting with the north.  Most of the oil is now produced in South Sudan, but the country is landlocked and remains dependent on Sudan because it must use Sudan's export pipelines and processing facilities. In early 2012, South Sudan voluntarily shut in all of its oil production because of a dispute with Sudan over oil transit fees.

Last month, two oil fields in South Sudan came back 'on line', 21 months after they were shut down.  South Sudan’s Petroleum Minister said the reopening of the fields will not only lead to an increase in oil production but also signaled a warming of relations with Sudan.  According to the Oil & Gas Journal, Sudan and South Sudan have 5 billion barrels of proved crude oil reserves as of January 1, 2013. According to BP's 2013 Statistical Review, approximately 3.5 billion barrels are in South Sudan and 1.5 billion barrels are in Sudan.
I hope that the development of these resources can be a force for development in South Sudan, rather than a catalyst for division and fighting over borders and wealth-sharing between the north and the south.  As I've mentioned in previous blogs, South Sudan is just over two years old - having declared independence from the north in July 2011.  Last month in New York City at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, South Sudan's Vice President James Wani Igga spoke to delegations on his country's relations with Sudan. Igga said that it has been “a mixture of cooperation and squabbles” but acknowledged that there is “no alternative to lasting peace other than harmony and cooperation.”
That's all for now.  Please pass on my fundraising page to those you think might be interested in this project; I have about $1,000 left to raise for ASMP (of course, I can go over this goal, also) :)
Thank you for reading this blog and for supporting this project!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Peace Corps and Sexual Assault

I received an email update this week from Peace Corps on their efforts to reduce sexual assault and the risk faced by Peace Corps volunteers abroad.  This is a highly relevant issue in Peace Corps around the world; especially in Central America where I served.  During my Peace Corps service, there were several incidents of sexual assault involving fellow female volunteers.  It was a traumatic experience that I am still processing.  I'm glad Peace Corps is taking steps to reduce sexual assault, but there is still much more that could be done.  The message from Peace Corps below:

Dear Peace Corps Family,

On September 1, the Peace Corps formally launched the final stages of our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, which has been developed over the past few years in consultation with post staff and Volunteers worldwide, as well as nationally recognized experts, including recommendations from the Department of Justice; the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); and the Peace Corps’ newly developed Sexual Assault Advisory Council.

With their help, we have developed a two-pronged approach. The first part is to reduce risks through training for Volunteers, including bystander intervention, risk assessment, and other skill-building sessions during pre- and in-service training; the second part is to ensure that Peace Corps staff responds effectively and compassionately when incidents do occur, through staff training, the new Office of Victim Advocacy, and the appointment of trained sexual assault response liaisons at each post.

This new strategy incorporates more than 30 policy changes, extensive training for Volunteers and staff, and new clearly defined procedures for reducing the risk of sexual assault and responding to Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault. The program exceeds the requirements of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by President Obama in November 2011, reflecting our ironclad commitment to the physical and emotional well-being of every single Volunteer.

We are working hard to make sure each and every Volunteer is familiar with these program changes. As with any new policy, there will be some adjustments, but I strongly believe the steps we have taken will result in better outcomes for our Volunteers. We will continue to evaluate the impact of this program as it is fully implemented and make adjustments as necessary.  For more information on Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, visit this link.

With warmest regards,
Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Acting Peace Corps Director
RPCV/Western Samoa, 1981–83