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The City Journals

Local landscaper shares water-conserving wisdom in TED Talk

Feb 17, 2020 03:00PM ● By Alison Brimley

A localscape designed by Cynthia Bee for a Daybreak home featured in the Parade of Homes. (Photo courtesy Cynthia Bee)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of a TED talk? West Jordan resident Cynthia Bee can tell you. 

Salt Lake City’s recent TEDx event took place in September, but hopefuls begin the application process months earlier. They submit a short description of their talk, which focuses on an idea related to technology, entertainment or design. The first round is a completely blind process. 

Those who advance to the second round submit a 90-second video of themselves making a presentation. In this round, the TED committee determines, “Is this person the right person to make this idea real for people?” Bee said. If you stutter, they can work with you on that. But they can’t give you passion you don’t have.”

Bee, a landscape architect and outreach coordinator for Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, was just one of 14 chosen from a pool of 363 applicants to appear on the TED stage.

The TED experience was one of the most amazing of her life. But she didn’t come to the stage without reservations.

She taught her in-person and online audience about “localscapes.” She and her team coined the term in 2015 to describe a yard that looks traditional but works for Utah’s climate. Because 75% of what Jordan Valley delivers goes to residential use, not public spaces, helping residents save water is the most efficient approach to water conservation. The five elements of a localscape, outlined in Bee’s TED talk, are: a central open shape, gathering areas, activity zones, paths and planting beds with climate-friendly plants.

Bee has taught landscaping classes to homeowners for years. Teaching has taught her a lot, too. It’s taken time to learn that when people come to a class, they don’t just want information—they’re trying to solve a problem. It was an approach that came in handy when preparing her TED talk. 

Bee used to teach xeriscaping to conserve water. The reaction from homeowners was less than enthusiastic. People tended to think they had a choice between extremes: either “a yard full of grass with meatball-shaped shrubs or a yard full of cactus and lava rock.” Localscapes embrace the idea that the best thing for Utah’s climate is something in between.

She said it also wasn’t motivating to preach about saving water, because most people already think they’re doing as much as they can. 

“Of course, they’re not accepting our solution; it’s a problem they don’t think they have,” Bee said.

Instead, Bee learned to ask, “What do you think your problems are?” People would answer that their yards lacked privacy or were too high maintenance. They worked to develop solutions to these problems while conserving water, so that “by solving their problems, we’re also solving our problems.” 

Though Bee often speaks in public for her job, writing the TED talk was a challenge. She wasn’t just representing her own ideas but the collective knowledge of everyone she works with. The final presentation is 10 minutes. 

“You’re a hundred hours into that 10 minutes,” Bee said. The TED committee, which selects and prepare speakers, puts in even more time. Bee met multiple times with the committee, which helped her whittle her message down. Workshops taught the speakers how to bring emotion into their talks.

“By the time we stepped on the stage, all of us could give our talks in our sleep,” she said.

Working with other presenters was part of what made the experience rewarding. “We have nothing in common when we start, or think we don’t,” she said of the diverse group of speakers. But by the end of the experience, they were close friends.

But Bee had one challenge she didn’t feel her fellow presenters fully understood: the struggle of appearing in public as an overweight woman. 

“There were a couple times in rehearsal when I got emotional because I thought, “Oh no, people are going to see me,’” she said.

Others reassured her it wouldn’t be a problem. She told them, “Oh no, you don’t understand.”

TED talks are available on YouTube, where the comment section can be toxic. Bee credits her employer for encouraging someone who’s “not a Barbie doll” to represent the organization. 

“You can’t be overweight and not ever have been made fun of,” she said. “You know it’s coming.” 


 

If you look at the number of overweight people in this country versus the number of overweight TED presenters, Bee says, you might see a disparity. 

“It’s not because we don’t do and know stuff; it’s because we self-edit,” she said. 

Bee felt the urge to self-edit but applied to present anyway. Even after she’d committed to appear on the stage, she fought the instinct to “shrink herself,” to hide, to wear black. Bee consciously chose a pink dress—her way of saying she wasn’t hiding.

Still, she was unprepared for how much the virtual insults she received would hurt. “I did cry,” she said.

But even though she got “nasty” comments early on, what happened after “restored [her] faith in people.” Many commenters affirmed the value of the information she shared. Bee’s talk has more than 32,000 views.

Bee has a message for those who “self-edit” for whatever reason: “Get over it.”

“Yeah, I did get made fun of on the internet, just like I thought I would,” she said. “And guess what? I’m still here; I’m still fine. The idea is still good.”