Thursday, November 29, 2012

Farming on the Rooftops of Brooklyn

From a 10,000 square foot rooftop greenhouse to an acre+ sized rooftop farm, Brooklyn's skyline seems to be coming increasingly agricultural. And it's a concept that makes sense.

While high-tech vertical farms may be more technophile eye candy than a working model for our food system, it seems hard to argue that many of our city's have vast acreages of flat roofs that could become productive, food growing, community-building spaces.

Farming on the Rooftops of Brooklyn (Treehugger)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Chicago's Urban Farm

Chicago’s Black Belt area, on the historic South Side, was once a hub for jazz, blues, and literature, but today is riddled with vacant lots, poverty, and blight. Now, a new plan envisions the area as a thriving urban farm district.

In the coming weeks, the city’s planning department is expected to approve the creation of a green belt with a strong focus on urban agriculture within the neighborhood of Englewood. The plan is an element of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (DHE) Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, designed to shepherd and foster redevelopment in 13 square miles of the South Side. Years of disinvestment and population decline have left the area riddled with 11,000 vacant lots totaling 800 acres.

At the core of the blueprint is the three-mile long New ERA (Englewood Re-making America) Trail, which will serve as the “spine” of the farm district, Strazzabosco says. A former railroad line, the three-mile-long trail will become a linear park with foot and bike trails and farm stands. The area designated as the district begins directly across from the trail, as that’s where an estimated 100 acres of city-owned, vacant parcels are located. Over time, they can be converted into farms and other agricultural projects.

Not only will the farms bring healthy and affordable food to the community, the hope is that they will also create jobs and attract new housing, industry, and businesses. Two half-acre job training farms already exist in the district — Growing Home’s Wood Street and Honore Street farms — as well as the 1.7-acre for-profit Perry Street Farm. All grow seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and beets. A fourth half-acre educational farm run by the Center for Urban Transformation and Angelic Organics Learning Center will be planted next spring.

Farms, however, are just the beginning of an overall urban planning project to rebuild the South Side from ground up. Think of it, says Brandon Johnson, “as a 21st-century community that just happens to have farms.”

Chicago’s urban farm district could be the biggest in the nation (Grist)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Big Is Too Big?

Many people have the misguided belief that cities are energy efficient. Cities compared to other environments are often more efficient with respect to transportation, because fuel use actually drops off in city centers due to the availability of mass transit. But the embodied emergy as a whole in the infrastructure, people, and information in cities suggests the opposite. Cities are actually energy hogs, that concentrate energy. In a future of waning energy, are our biggest cities too big to fail? What size city is sustainable?

Cities: Too Big To Fail? (A Prosperous Way Down)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Urban Roof Gardens in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY — Climb to a rooftop and scan the horizon of this metropolis, and you’re likely to see nearby rooftops or balconies with vegetable gardens.

Urban rooftop gardening is on the cusp of a boom here, sponsored by a City Hall that sees gardening as a way to alleviate poverty, provide residents with their own healthy food and add some green to one of the world’s most populous cities.

In a program begun five years ago, Mexico City’s municipal government has given grants to 3,080 families to build gardens on their rooftops, sometimes sheltered by simple greenhouses to protect from nightly mountain chill and occasional hail. Many more families have attended urban gardening classes and struck out on their own to grow tomatoes, lettuce, chilies, scallions, guava, passion fruit and other edibles.

“There wasn’t anything up here before,” Sergio Hernandez Rodriguez said from his rooftop in the Coyoacan district, where 2-foot-tall garden beds now display an array of corn, celery and chilies alongside aromatic herbs and lavender.  Off to the side, his wife puttered inside a greenhouse made of plastic sheeting and clear mesh and supported by a metal frame where tufts of romaine lettuce peaked out from holes in horizontal PVC tubing.

“I’m hoping to grow strawberries in here before long,” Estela Lopez said as she showed off the simple hydroponic system using a pump made for a fish tank. The couple spends hours each day tending to their rooftop garden, building compost and nursing seedlings. The project is already paying off – literally. “I can sell to my neighbors,” Lopez said. “They know it’s very clean.”

On Mexico City’s flat roofs, tiny gardens help feed families, provide an urban respite (McClatchy)

Regenerating Urban Centers

A lecture by permaculture instructor, Andrew Faust, on using permacultural design principles to make incremental upgrades to the urban landscape to help move the city in the direction of self-sufficiency and create an environment in which people can live and thrive. He suggests that broad, abstruse issues like global weirding and peak oil distract us from the very real, immediate, and achievable actions we can take to improve our situation. This lecture was presented on Friday, 29 September 2012 at The Commons Brooklyn in NYC.

C-Realm Special: Regenerating Urban Centers (C-Realm Podcast)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Urban Wildlife

A mountain lion roams the streets of downtown Santa Monica until it is shot by authorities.

A black bear searches Glendale neighborhoods for meatballs until it is captured and caged.

Episodes of large carnivores entering urban areas are seemingly on the rise, and scientists say the beasts may be following a path worn by urban coyotes, as well as skunks and raccoons before them.

"We used to think only little carnivores could live in cities, and even then we thought that they couldn't really achieve large numbers," said urban ecologist Stan Gehrt. "But we're finding that these animals are much more flexible than we gave them credit for and they're adjusting to our cities."

Is the success of urban coyotes a sign of bigger things to come? (L.A. Times)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chicken Of The Trees

Sullivan is, in theory at least, a dauntless omnivore. There are plenty of invasive and overpopulated plant and animal species in and around the city for which persuasive arguments could be made for promoting them in our diets: Asian carp, Louisiana crayfish, and garlic mustard greens, to name a few. "The fact of the matter is that we have made a cultural decision to self-limit protein," he says. "That's a very arbitrary decision, and it's silly, ultimately. We have all these other options. Let's use 'em!"

Sullivan doesn't suggest this without caution. He points to the familiar case of the passenger pigeon, once so populous that its flocks blotted out the sky. The species was driven to extinction by habitat loss and hunting, and the last one died in captivity in 1914.

"We as humans have an amazing ability to destroy everything in our path," he says. "As a preindustrial and then industrial society we had a strong need for regulation of firearms and hunting and things like this within our cities. As cities have evolved, as species have adapted, as landscapes have stabilized, we've come to see that there are certain species that do really well amongst us: deer, Canada geese, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. If we could really get over the cultural hang-ups, darn it, we should be eating rats too. And I'm excited about the idea of changing regulations and helping people realize that consumption of wild-born, wild-grown meats is OK, and harvesting of said meats in an urban environment is something we can do in a regulated way, safe for humans and humane for the harvested animal. We can't just have an anarchical harvesting of any game, under any circumstances, in any place. But I don't see why we can't have a regulated harvesting regime of all game of all species in all places, with the understanding that some species will be taken off the list."

Chicken of the trees The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin? (Chicago Reader)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Urban Agriculture In The Third World

Urban agriculture helps improve nutrition and incomes for city dwellers, providing food grown locally, eliminating transportation from rural areas and creating job opportunities. But it is crucial to improve health-related practices so that food is safe to eat.

Tyres and old plastic pots planted with vegetables and sacks rigged up to make vertical gardens. These are just some of the techniques being used by a new generation of urban farmers, who are developing inventive ways to make the most of limited space to produce food. Jennifer Daley lives on the outskirts of the densely populated town of Mandeville in Jamaica. With no access to agricultural land, she uses wheelbarrows and just about anything that can contain soil to grow her crops. Sheila Hope-Harewood farms in a suburban area of the parish of St Michael in what is becoming the newest urban centre in Barbados. She has a drip irrigation system and grows guava, lemon, pomegranate, ackee, sugar apple, mango and banana, as well as a variety of vegetables that she sells at a stall in the local market. Other ACP farmers are producing livestock in urban settings. Husband and wife John and Betty Msowoya have set up several small fishponds on the outskirts of Mzuzu in Malawi. They also keep a few pigs and use the manure to fertilise their ponds and promote the growth of the fish that they supply to city markets. In Nairobi, Kenya, a number of people who lost their jobs as a result of layoffs have turned to urban chicken farming, making an average of €6 per bird and earning additional income from eggs.

For decades, poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition were viewed as rural problems. But with the populations of many ACP countries becoming more urban, poverty and poor nutrition are emerging as growing challenges for city dwellers. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and 3 billion more city dwellers are expected by 2050. A recent World Bank and IMF report showed that the growth in urban poverty is now rapidly outstripping that of rural poverty, with the urban poor particularly vulnerable to food price rises since food accounts for 60-70% of their income.

Urban agriculture (UA) offers some solutions, ensuring supplies of fresh vegetables and other nutritious food to urban dwellers where poor roads and weak supply chains make it difficult to transport highly perishable produce from rural areas. It has been estimated that some 200 million people are engaged in urban agriculture and related enterprises. For the poorest urban dwellers, the share of income derived from UA often exceeds 50%. UA, which includes peri-urban farming on areas close to cities, may take place on homesteads or at plots some distance away, in parks, along roads, streams and railways and in the grounds of schools and hospitals. It can involve the cultivation of food crops, rearing animals including poultry, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, guinea pigs, grasscutters and fish and producing non-food products such as medicinal plants. It can also encompass a range of other services such as processing, packaging, compost and animal health services.

FAO estimates that 130 million urban residents in Africa alone engage in agriculture, mainly horticulture, to provide food for their families or to earn income from sales. Advantages include low start-up costs, short production cycles and high yields per unit of time, land and water. UA can be an effective coping strategy when times are hard. In the slum area of Kamae, Kenya, families have been allocated small landholdings by the local administration and given training in growing crops and rearing small livestock. In Havana, the capital of Cuba, urban agriculture developed after imports and exports collapsed following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. With no access to oil, tractors, fertilisers, pesticides or other inputs, urban Cubans turned to organic farming to feed their families. Today, more than 26,000 gardens cover 2,439 ha in Havana and produce 25,000 tonnes of food annually. In Mozambique and Sierra Leone, urban farming developed as a way of feeding the influx of refugees who flocked to the cities during civil wars. In both countries, it continues to be an important source of food, income and employment and has spurred an entire value chain, including processing, packaging, transport and retailing.

City Farmers (Spore)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Trees and Bushes Cut City Pollution

More greenery would be good for our lungs.
    Trees, bushes and other greenery growing in the concrete-and-glass canyons of cities can reduce levels of two of the most worrisome air pollutants by eight times more than previously believed, a new study has found. A report on the research appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

    Thomas Pugh and colleagues explain that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and microscopic particulate matter (PM) — both of which can be harmful to human health — exceed safe levels on the streets of many cities. Past research suggested that trees and other green plants can improve urban air quality by removing those pollutants from the air. However, the improvement seemed to be small, a reduction of less than 5 percent. The new study sought a better understanding of the effects of green plants in the sometimes stagnant air of city streets, which the authors term "urban street canyons."
Climbing ivy cuts nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution.
    The study concluded that judicious placement of grass, climbing ivy and other plants in urban canyons can reduce the concentration at street level of NO2 by as much as 40 percent and PM by 60 percent, much more than previously believed. The authors even suggest building plant-covered "green billboards" in these urban canyons to increase the amount of foliage. Trees were also shown to be effective, but only if care is taken to avoid trapping pollutants beneath their crowns.
Plants are good for our health. Cities should plant more of them.

Trees and Bushes Cut City Pollution (FuturePundit)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Urban Foraging

Urban foraging is a lot like angling in New York Harbor: you can catch barking sea robins that you have to toss back all afternoon, and then at some point, usually at the end of the day and when the boat is about to head back to port, there’s a tug on your line, and then voila! A fluke or flounder, depending on the season, appears. And before you know it, everyone else in the boat is pulling fish out of the water too.

All the seasons I went being blind to lambsquarters cumulated in my finally discovering it recently at Cuyler Gore Park — where spriggy stalks of goosefoot-shaped leaves were growing happily next to patches of lady’s thumb and mugwort. Then, an hour later, while heading towards Lafayette Avenue, I found lambsquarters again growing at the base of a tree.

Chenopodium album, also called white goosefoot, pigweed, and in Britain, fat-hen, is in the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family, making it related to quinoa, beets and spinach. Like its cousin quinoa, it’s sort of a super-food — high in Vitamins A and C, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, manganese, potassium and iron.

The best way to identify lambsquarters is by a very distinctive mealy white or lavender powder present in the center whorl of the new growth’s tip or just underneath the leaves — and of course by the alternate tell-tale leaves themselves, which vary from the older diamond-shape to the younger goosefoot ones.

Like many weeds, it’s a foreign invader (European), and grows throughout the country. In Brooklyn, it flourishes in parks, lawns and any open patch of sunny green space it can find. This time of year, the young shoots and leaves are flavorful and tender, and the plant is edible until winter’s first frost.

Remember to pick from the top and to take only quantities that you will use, making sure to leave enough for others to enjoy. (Note: lambsquarters absorbs nitrates readily, so avoid gathering in contaminated soil. And beware of malodorous lookalikes — safe-to-eat lambsquarters does not emit a bad or resinous smell when you crush its leaves between your fingers.)

Urban Forager: Sheepish About Lambsquarters (New York Times Blog)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Our Newly Lush Life

WHENEVER you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.

This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.

It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.

In Urban Parks, Our Newly Lush Life (New York Times)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Industrial Reuse

The Plant, as it is known, is a complex food production system for raising tilapia, growing mushrooms and nurturing aquaponic vegetable gardens. It is also a hub for small artisanal food businesses like a bakery, a kombucha (fermented tea) maker and eventually a beer brewery. On top of that, this unique set-up will soon be running solely on green energy thanks to an anaerobic digester that will transform organic food waste — both from within The Plant and businesses in the surrounding community — into biogas that will power a turbine generator.

 This bright project blooms from an unexpected spot: an abandoned pork processing plant in a huge infamous former stockyard that was essentially the birthplace of today’s industrialized meat business. From the mid 19th through the first half of the 20th century, Union Stockyards was the site that spelled death for an estimated 400 million animals, as it was accessible to all railroads serving Chicago.

Symbiotic urban farming and industrial reuse in Chicago (Our World 2.0)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is That a Forest Downtown?

Since 1979, Eddee Daniel has been hiking Milwaukee’s Cambridge Woods, part of an 800-acre swath of wilderness now called the Milwaukee River Greenway. Back then, the forest, which cuts straight through Wisconsin’s most crowded ZIP code, was largely shunned by the public. “There were vandals and drug dealers,” says Daniel. “It’s changed in a big way, and mostly in a healthy way.”

Today, on any given summer weekend, the Greenway teems with hikers, canoers and mountain bikers. But it’s still more wilderness than anything, with few of the accouterments of an organized park. In it, you can see one of modern urbanism’s most unexpected traits unfolding: a renewed appreciation for wild space in cities — not just “green space,” but actual swamps, forests, wetlands and streams.

Part of this is the result of changing demographics — the growing number of “urbaneers” dragging kayaks into aqueducts, the same city dwellers who prompted REI to open a giant store in Manhattan. But it’s also part of a growing realization that the earth’s natural processes can be harnessed in ways that benefit even the most urbanized area.

Is that a forest downtown? (Salon)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Urban Agriculture in Los Angeles

In a dry and sunny city like Los Angeles, planting grass is one of the more useless ways to use your property. It takes a lot of water to grow and it's expensive—but beyond that, what's the point when the climate supports much more interesting flora, like succulents, and delicious ones, like fruits and vegetables? A company called Farmscape is proving that there's enough of an appetite for farming on residential land to turn the proposition into a high-growth business. The less-than-four-year-old company has 12 full-time employees—including seven farmers who receive a living wage plus healthcare—and is looking to keep growing. "

One of the things that people don’t talk about when they talk about the food system is who is working," says Rachel Bailin, Farmscape's marketing manager. It's often poorly paid and vulnerable migrant workers. But the company is changing that by bringing farm labor out into the open, into the yards of city-dwellers and businesses. So far they've installed more than 300 urban farms throughout the L.A. area and maintain 150 of them weekly.

Projects range from a rooftop garden on a downtown Los Angeles highrise to small plots for families. An exciting project in the works is a three-quarter acre-sized farm for a restaurant in the West San Fernando Valley. And the diversity of the projects is echoed by the diversity of their clients. "When we first started, we expected that our clients would be of a higher income level and would be two-parent working families," says Bailin. Instead, Farmscape has been delighted to build gardens for preschool teachers, single mothers, and institutions and businesses that want employee gardens as perks.

Bailin says the challenges of farming in Los Angeles are manifold. "You have to account for spaces that haven't had life or biodiversity for decades and then you kind of have to bring it back." The company uses raised beds to avoid contaminated soil and drip irrigation systems to provide water.

Farmscape Brings Urban Agriculture to Los Angeles (GOOD)

Wild Urban Plants

Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast serves not only as an absorbing field guide to spontaneous urban plants but also as a razor-sharp critique of how we value urban plants in general. In clear, jargon-free language, Del Tredici lays out his challenge to our ecological assumptions in the book’s introduction. He describes how we have a tendency to negatively judge plants that grow without human intention. Indeed, most of the plants described in this book are traditionally dismissed as weeds. Furthermore, we negatively judge plants based on their place of origin, labeling non-native species as “invasive.” Del Tredici argues that by automatically tagging these spontaneous urban plants as ecologically harmful, we ignore their potential benefits.

 The entire concept of native and non-native becomes complicated when we consider the reality of urban conditions. Del Tredici challenges the notion that native plants can always be restored in urban landscapes, writing “(1) most urban land has been totally transformed from what it once was; (2) the climate conditions that the original flora was adapted to no longer exist; and (3) most urban habitats are strictly human creations with no natural analogs and no indigenous flora.” Cities represent entirely new conditions that native species are not necessarily adapted to. For this reason, native plants often require extensive human management to survive. Accordingly, Del Tredici dismisses the concept of urban ecological restoration as “really just gardening dressed up to look like ecology.” Instead, the plants that thrive in cities are already evolutionarily adapted for harsh conditions. Because they grow in cities without human input, they are, in a sense, the natural urban flora. These species can deliver significant benefits to urban ecosystems and should not be disregarded. For example, these species reduce the urban heat island effect, protect against erosion, stabilize stream banks, manage stormwater, create wildlife habitat, produce oxygen, and store carbon.

The Easily Ignored Plants of Daily Life (The Dirt - ASLA)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bringing the Forest to the City

"The master planning process here is extremely important because it connects to the president's Great Outdoors Initiative," Mr. Blazer said. "When people think 'great outdoors,' they think of places like Yosemite. They need to start thinking about places like Pittsburgh, too. Eighty percent of our country's population is in urban areas, and we know the importance trees have on the psyches of humans."

The master plan reports the city has more than 2.5 million trees that sequester 13,900 tons of carbon dioxide a year, saved residents $3 million in energy bills last year and remove 519 tons of pollution at a savings of $3.6 million a year. Street trees alone diverted 41.8 million gallons of stormwater last year.

Danielle Crumrine, executive director of Tree Pittsburgh, said the plan will spur tree advocates to increase the size of the canopy, improve its condition, diversify its species and plant in neighborhoods that have been neglected. Although 42 percent of the city is covered in trees, most of the canopy is in parks and more affluent neighborhoods.

At the nursery, high school students from Homewood's Junior Green Corps, an Operation Better Block job training program, were harvesting seeds and planting under a tent at the back of the nursery, which was established two years ago in part with a grant from The Sprout Fund.

Kahlil Morris, a supervisor of the Green Corps, said all 21 participants are training to be Tree Tenders, a volunteer program run by Tree Pittsburgh to teach residents about the proper care and pruning of trees.
"We want to keep this partnership," he said. "It's a cool program and it's close" to Homewood.

"I'm excited to see the work these young people are doing and the things they are learning," Mr. Blazer said. "As you implement your plan and improve upon your urban forest, we on the federal level can work with the city and local organizations to create more opportunities for young people."

The maple plan: Bringing the forest to the city (Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

Date Palm Houses

Date palm leaves are an important resource in the Middle East: the trunks, fibre and leaves are all used in the construction of these buildings. They have provided shelter from the extreme climate of the Arabian peninsula for 7,000 years. The astonishing thing is that only 60 years ago most of the housing in coastal cities consisted of small clusters of these houses, with private courtyards in the middle. They housed market stalls, airports, and shops. Now there are none.

The buildings are simple but sophisticated in design, practical to transport, and yet strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the desert. Even when the houses were made out of stone, the roof was still made of the palm leaves.

Palm leaves are similar to bamboo in that both are sustainable and easily grown and can be used as construction materials that are indigenous to the culture. In the last fifty years, with the onslaught of new development and destruction of the old, these traditions are in jeopardy of being lost.

Palm Leaf Architecture is Both Historic and Contemporary

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Parks as Urban Food Forests

Sandwiched between 15th Ave. S. and the play fields at the SW edge of Jefferson Park in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle are seven acres of lonely, sloping lawn that have sat idly in the hands of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) for the better part of a century. At least until this spring, when the land that has only ever known the whirring steel of city mowers will begin a complete transformation into seven acres of edible landscape and community park space known as the Beacon Food Forest.

The end goal is an urban oasis of public food: Visitors to the corner of 15th Ave S. and S. Dakota Street will be greeted by a literal forest — an entire acre will feature large chestnuts and walnuts in the overstory, full-sized fruit trees like big apples and mulberries in the understory, and berry shrubs, climbing vines, herbaceous plants, and vegetables closer to the ground.

Further down the path an edible arboretum full of exotic looking persimmons, mulberries, Asian pears, and Chinese haws will surround a sheltered classroom for community workshops. Looking over the whole seven acres, you'll see playgrounds and kid space full of thornless mini edibles adjacent to community gardening plots, native plant areas, a big timber-frame gazebo and gathering space with people barbecuing, a recreational field, and food as far as you can see.

The entire project will be built around the concept of permaculture — an ecological design system, philosophy, and set of ethics and principles used to create perennial, self-sustaining landscapes and settlements that build ecological knowledge and skills in communities. The concept of a food forest is a core concept of permaculture design derived from wild food ecosystems, where land often becomes forest if left to its own devices. In a food forest, everything from the tree canopy to the roots is edible or useful in some way.

"If this is successful," explains Margarett Harrison, the lead landscape architect for the Beacon Food Forest, "it is going to set such a precedent for the city of Seattle, and for the whole Northwest."

Nation's largest public Food Forest takes root on Beacon Hill (Crosscut)

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Vertical Gardens of Patrick Blanc

Plants have found a home on walls for centuries, but are sometimes incongruous with architecture, often breaking down the structural integrity of a building’s facade. Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Garden System, known as Le Mur Vegetal in French, allows both plants and buildings to live in harmony with one another. The botanist cum vertical landscape designer is probably best know for his gorgeous living wall on the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (shown above). But Blanc’s Vertical Garden System can be implemented anywhere: indoors or out and in any climatic environment.

The three-part system consists of a PVC layer, felt, and metal frame, providing a soil-free self-supporting system light enough to be hung on the wall, and even suspended in the air, weighing in at less than 30 kilograms per square meter.

The Vertical Garden can be used as an impressive outdoor system, or can be used indoors, with the help of artificial lighting. The natural benefits of the Vertical Garden are many: improved air quality, lower energy consumption, providing a natural shield between weather and inhabitants. No matter where you live, urban or suburban, cold or hot, indoors or out, the Vertical Garden brings a little bit of green to all.

Read more: Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Gardens (Inhabitat)

Patrick Blanc has always been fascinated by plants. He was a child he created his first tropical aquarium filled with exotic species. 

As a teenage student, the French botanist visited Malaysia and Thailand and noticed how plants grew vertically up cliffs, with their roots spreading inside the mosses on the rocks. 

Blanc tried to imitate what he had seen when he returned home. He covered walls with old clothes and encouraged plants to take root and climb, with the aid of an irrigation system at the top of the installation. He called it Mur Vegetale, the Vertical Garden. 

Mr Blanc has created hundreds of vertical gardens around the world, including a vertical Orchid Show, which has opened at the New York botanical garden. 

Walking among 4,500 blooming orchids and 30,000 plants - while wearing green shirt, shoes and even green hair - Mr Blanc told the BBC about his passion for design.

The 'vertical gardener' on creating urban rainforests (BBC)

Culture, Not Contraptions

Barcelona is a hot, humid seaside town where people have been deferring to heat for thousands of years....rather than rely on machines, and wreck their old architecture with window units and ducts, they design their habits, hardware, clothes, and attitude to cool themselves off. Now their deference seems sustainably avant-garde.

The secret to Catalan comfort is not a gadget, but a self-induced, mind-body state of discomfort suspension: heat tolerance. Accordingly they plan their seasonal vacations, daily routines, food, drinks and wardrobes for maximum cooling. In other words, it is the culture that cools, not the contraptions.


It is the antithesis of American life, which offers up every day as a shapeless continuum of snacking, working and shopping at 24-hour stores with season-free air.


What happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass?

Civilization declines.

The proof is in Barcelona. Spend five glorious weeks in its barely mitigated heat, as I did last summer, then return home and refrigerate yourself in the relentless mono-temperature now anesthetizing the continent. Conclusion?

A/C is the killing frost sure to wilt the last fragile shoots of American culture. 

Keep Cool With Culture, Not Contraptions (Treehugger)

From Gangs to Gardens

Quesada Avenue, the block once known as the most dangerous in the area, has been transformed completely and now serves as a hub of community life. At the top of its hill, Jeffrey showed me the beautifully designed food garden for educating kids. Behind the chain-link fence, stalks of corn stood at attention beside a glowing patch of leafy greens.

At another garden a few blocks away—a patchwork of small plots that had previously been an improvised trash dump—a sandbox and rope swing indicated that the garden was for more than growing food. Kids, in fact, had painted the signs that ringed the garden’s perimeter with such slogans and quotes as “Don’t dump on my garden” and “If you want to change the world, start in your own neighborhood – Harvey Milk.”

Quesada Initiative’s success arises from the project’s appreciation of gardening as the means to an end more profound than a harvest of lettuce and peas. While the plants produced are of course a key motivation for any gardening enterprise, growing food can also—should also—serve other important social purposes, like cultivating a culture of civic engagement and an ethos of community participation.

“The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners,” Jeffrey told me. He stopped to greet a neighbor as we rounded the corner back onto Quesada Avenue. As we continued on our way, he smiled at me with satisfaction.

“We realize we have done something right here,” he said.

From gangs to gardens: How community agriculture transformed Quesada Avenue (Yes! Magazine)

Urban Permaculture Strategies - Part 3 (Bill Mollison - Global Gardener)

Waste = Food

Once we start thinking in these terms, a possible solution can be expressed using a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, shown here.

It is an elegant and compact way to express the concept that the industrial system must be conceived as an ecosystem. You know that the ecosystem doesn't run out of minerals, even though it uses minerals as nutrients for metabolic processes. That's possible because the ecosystem is a nearly completely closed cycle, that is what is "waste" for some organisms is "food" for others. Nothing ever can be 100% recycled, but the ecosystem comes close to that. The tiny fraction that is lost is slowly returned into the cycle by tectonic processes powered by the Earth's hot nucleus. The continents have been colonized by plants some 350 million years ago and plants have been "mining" minerals from the ground for all that time without ever running out of anything.

This is the way life works on this planet and if we want to survive we must learn from that. That is, we must learn that waste is food. Once you have that in mind, then you start understanding how wrong is almost everything we do with our waste. For instance, why do you want to incinerate your food? Why do you want to throw your food at the bottom of a pit and cover it with thousands of tons of dirt? You see, there are lots of things we must learn.

The other side of the peak: Long term tendencies of waste management (Cassandra's Legacy)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

When urban beekeeping gets too dense

Bees need a certain amount of nearby green space in order to find enough pollen to survive. Without that, bees can starve. They can also end up subsisting on a diet of syrup that's about as healthy for them as a diet of burgers and fries would be for you and I. London has had die-offs of bees in the past, when beekeeping got more popular than the city's limited green space could support. Some people are now worried that New York City could be headed toward that problem.

Two Years After Legalized Beekeeping, City May be Running Short on Forage (WNYC)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Elephant Underpass

Road to Recovery?, National Geographic: An African elephant approaches an underpass beneath the busy Nanyuki-Meru road in northern Kenya...

 The first of its kind for elephants, the underpass will ideally provide a safe corridor for the large mammals to move throughout the Mount Kenya region (map), where highways, fences, and farmlands have split elephant populations, according to Geoffrey Chege, chief conservation officer of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a Kenya-based nonprofit.

    Without the underpass, animals that try to move between isolated areas often destroy fences and crops—leading to conflicts with people.

    Since its completion in late 2010, the underpass has been a "tremendous success"—hundreds of elephants have been spotted walking through the corridor...

    At first, only adult male elephants ventured through the underpass, and then only at night.

    But before long whole family groups were passing through during the day...

 Currently the region's elephant populations are divided into two isolated groups: 2,000 animals in Mount Kenya and 7,500 in the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem, according to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

    The elephant underpass ... could improve the genetic health of northern Kenya elephants, since more genes will mix as the animals move into various territories and find new mates.

    The corridor may also mean that elephants will move around more, reducing pressure on habitats—and possibly helping other species that use the same resources, such as the black rhinoceros, according to the conservancy. ...

Elephant Underpass (Economist's View)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Cross-Laminated Timber

Developed in Europe in the 1990s, cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is among the latest in a long line of “engineered” wood products that are strong and rigid enough to replace steel and concrete as structural elements in bigger buildings. Already popular in Europe, CLT is only beginning to catch on in North America, where proponents say buildings made with the panels could be a cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative to structures made with those other materials.

The panels use a lot of wood: A typical eight-foot-high wall can contain more than six times as much as one made with conventional framing using two-by-fours. But with proper forest management, trees are a sustainable resource.

Moreover, the buildings have a low carbon footprint: Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, the carbon stored in all those panels helps offset the greenhouse gases released in making and hauling the other building materials and in the actual construction.

And by using so much wood, cross-laminated timber buildings might also help solve a vexing problem in North America: what to do with millions of pine trees that have been killed by a widespread beetle infestation but are still standing in Western forests, posing a great fire risk.

A tall wooden structure would seem to be a collapse waiting to happen, but a building made from cross-laminated timber is stronger than a conventional wood-frame structure, in which two-by-fours and other relatively small components are tied together by materials like plywood and plasterboard.

“That’s one of the things we found difficult to get across, that timber panel construction is completely different from timber frame,” Mr. Thistleton said. “It’s got more in common with precast concrete construction.”

The panels are built up from narrow planks, about an inch thick, that are laid side by side to form layers. Like plywood, each succeeding layer — there can be as many as 11 — is laid perpendicular to the preceding one. The layers are glued and the entire sandwich is pressed and trimmed. Then, using computer-guided saws and drills, it is cut to the precise dimensions in the architectural plans, including window, door, plumbing and ventilation openings. Channels for electrical wiring can be cut into the panels.

At the construction site, the panels are hoisted into position and bolted together with metal brackets to build up the structure floor by floor. Construction can proceed fairly quickly — the Graphite Apartments were built in about two-thirds of the time it would have taken to construct a similar building in steel or concrete.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Living Technology of Christopher Alexander

Let’s start with the insight, Alexander says, that living systems are able to make extraordinarily coherent structures, like dragonflies, or roses, or humans. These coherent structures are remarkably well organized, and remarkably beautiful. (As we will see, that’s not a coincidence.) Biologists call this process “morphogenesis” — the generation of structures, in this case living ones.

Alexander proposes (on the basis of many others’ work in physics, biology, and cosmology) that these morphogenetic processes generating coherent structure are going on all the time — in fact, are at the heart of living processes, which are themselves more elaborate forms of the same kind of structure generation. So the capacity for morphogenesis is deeply ingrained in the structure of matter (both animate and inanimate) and nature, even if living organisms seem to be relatively rare phenomena.

Morphogenesis is closely related to ecological sustainability — the ability of organisms to maintain stability in the face of very dynamic and even hostile environments — because it is nothing other than the process by which living systems adapt to the changes that would otherwise destroy them. So it’s very important that we understand this kind of process, and understand how we do and don’t incorporate it into our own actions. Can our technologies and our way of making things reflect living processes? This includes our making of buildings, cities, and landscapes — Alexander’s primary focus as an architect.

If we don’t do this, then we risk creating fragmentations, rifts, disordering mechanisms. Up to a point, this may not matter — our environment has sufficient resilience to absorb minor disruptions. But at some uncertain boundary — perhaps a sharp threshold — we risk the collapse of critical systems on which our human well-being depends. That’s because fragmentation destroys the morphogenetic ability itself. There is ample reason to be alarmed that we are approaching just such a state today.

How did we get into this predicament? We humans are very good at assembling large complex structures from lots of standardized parts. We started doing it with rifles, where one rifle design was broken down into parts, and we could make thousands or millions of identical rifles from sets of identical parts. Following essentially this technique, we have built our world today.

Nature occasionally does something like this too, when it makes, say, billions of individual blood cells that are largely interchangeable — so much so that we can even swap them between certain people, and they will continue to carry out their complex processes and functions. In a similar way, a soldier can swap out his bolt assembly with another rifle, and it will still function.

Yet nature seldom works this way: every creation of structure is embedded in a context, with its unique circumstance, adaptation, and evolutionary history. Even in the rigid realm of crystals, there is mind-boggling variety among snowflakes, for example. If we could somehow swap out the arms of one snowflake with another, we would find that they never fit symmetrically. The context, not the thing, is the key. We might say: nature is complex — and all complexity is local!

When we create the parts of rifles or buildings, we treat the whole as being “composed” of its parts. But this is an abstraction: a whole is not simply the sum of its parts. Leaves do not “make” a tree. In fact, the tree makes the leaves! Each step of morphogenesis transforms a previous whole, in which the connected parts go through some kind of patterned restructuring. They may group together, they may differentiate, they may form various kinds of structured sets in relation to one another — but always, they do so in characteristic patterns, based on fundamental properties of space and the physical structure of the cosmos. The more important evolution occurs in the connections, though these are much harder to visualize.

The Living Technology of Christopher Alexander. Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros. Metropolis Magazine

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

NYC Gardens Urban Permaculture 1 (Bill Mollison - Global Gardener)

Roman Lighthose Still In Use

The Tower of Hercules (Galician and Spanish: Torre de Hércules) is an ancient Roman lighthouse on a peninsula about 2.4 kilometers (1.5 mi) from the centre of A Coruña, Galicia, in north-western Spain. Until the 20th century, the tower itself was known as the "Farum Brigantium". The Latin word farum is derived from the Greek pharos for the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The structure is 55 metres (180 ft) tall and overlooks the North Atlantic coast of Spain. The structure, almost 1900 years old and rehabilitated in 1791, is the oldest Roman lighthouse in use today. There is a sculpture garden featuring works by Pablo Serrano and Francisco Leiro.

The Tower of Hercules is a National Monument of Spain, and since June 27, 2009, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain, after the Faro de Chipiona. The tower is known to have existed by the 2nd century, built or perhaps rebuilt under Trajan, possibly on foundations following a design that was Phoenician in origin. It is thought to be modeled after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. At its base is preserved the cornerstone with the inscription MARTI AUG.SACR C.SEVIVS LUPUS ARCHTECTUS AEMINIENSIS LVSITANVS.EX.VO, permitting the original lighthouse tower to be ascribed to the architect Gaius Sevius Lupus, from Aeminium (present-day Coimbra, Portugal) in the former province of Lusitania, as an offering dedicated to Mars. The tower has been in constant use since the 2nd century and is considered to be the oldest existing lighthouse in the world.

Tower of Hercules (Wikipedia)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Greening Main Street Buildings

In the late 14th century, England's King Richard II commissioned a new building, College Hall(1), at Oxford University. The carpenters who built College Hall knew that the massive oak beams spanning the great hall's ceiling would probably need to be replaced in a few hundred years, so next to the building, they planted a row of oak seedlings from the trees they used for the beams. Sure enough, the beams needed to be replaced about 300 years later, and the new carpenters had mature oaks right there, ready to be milled and turned into new beams.

Among the typical environmentally friendly features of main street commercial buildings:

Shared party walls: Traditional main street storefront buildings are narrow and deep – 20 to30 feet wide by 100 to 150 feet deep – with shared side walls. For a 20-by-100-foot building on the interior of a block, 83 percent of the building's wall surface is shared with other buildings. The shared walls conserve heat, limiting the amount of wall surface experiencing significant heat loss to less than 20 percent.

Thick masonry walls: Solid masonry walls store heat and cooled air very efficiently, helping regulate the temperature inside the building.

Operable awnings: Awnings that can be rolled down when the weather is hot can reduce heat gain by more than 65 percent, and rolling up the awnings when it's cold outside increases heat gain inside the building.

Operable windows: Windows that open, as opposed to windows with fixed frames, help circulate air and regulate interior temperatures. For example, opening the top sash of a typical double-hung window on the sunny side of a room permits hot air near the ceiling to escape; opening the bottom sash of a double-hung window on the shady side of the room lets in cooler air.

Operable shutters: Just as awnings help regulate temperature gain through storefront windows, operable shutters on upper-floor windows keep rooms cool during hot weather by shading out the sun while still permitting ventilation.

Reflective ceilings: Shiny ceilings painted a light color, such as white or silver, reflect light back into the building, reducing or even eliminating the need for artificial lighting during the day.

Transom windows: Transom windows help magnify light shining into the building, providing more ground-floor ambient light while intensifying heat in the area immediately behind the storefront window.

Skylights: Like transom windows, skylights boost the amount of natural light in the building, thereby minimizing the need for artificial lighting.

Tall ceilings and ceiling fans: Hot air rises naturally. Tall ceilings in commercial buildings help keep the lower six feet or so of air space cool in warm weather, while ceiling fans circulate the air above, moderating temperatures in the store.

Passive solar: As sunlight shines through storefront and transom windows, the masonry flooring inside the storefront window absorbs heat, radiating it back into the ground-floor space when the temperature cools.

Water tanks: Roof-mounted water tanks collect rain water; and gravity, rather than a pump, delivers it to toilets and for other secondary uses inside the building.

Recessed entryways: Recessed entryways help prevent hot or cold air from rushing into the store when the front door is opened.

Atriums: Whether protected by a skylight window or open to the sky, an atrium illuminates the interiors of multi-floor buildings, lighting all the rooms and hallways facing it.

Embodied energy: The energy it took to manufacture the materials used in buildings, transport them to the construction site, and construct the building has already been spent and is embodied in the building itself.

Materials created locally: Historically, most main street building materials were purchased from local or regional sources, rather than being shipped in from long distances.

Walkability: Probably one of the most environmentally friendly characteristics of older and historic main streets is that they are walkable.

Durability: Unlike most of today's commercial buildings, whose lifespans are driven largely by taxable depreciation schedules, older main street buildings were built to last for decades, if not centuries, with durable materials like stone, brick, copper, and dense heartwood.

The list of the energy-saving characteristics of traditional main street commercial buildings could go on and on. But, unfortunately, the list of ways that property owners have mutilated main street buildings over the years, inadvertently eroding their green characteristics, is equally long. Among the more common energy-inefficient remuddlings:
  •     Enclosing upper-floor windows or replacing them with new ones. Some seem to think that replacing the upper-floor windows in a historic commercial building is an energy-wise improvement. The R-value of a double-glazed window, however, is only nominally better than that of a single-glazed window; and the historic window's heartwood frame will last decades longer than its replacement. It is usually more environmentally responsible, and less expensive, to simply repair the original window, seal any gaps or cracks around the molding to prevent air infiltration, and install an interior storm window.
  •     Installing suspended ceilings. Suspended acoustical tile ceilings erase several green characteristics of traditional main street commercial buildings – particularly in ground-floor storefront spaces. By lowering the ceiling height, they disrupt vertical air circulation. By blocking the transom window and covering up the bright, shiny original ceiling, they significantly cut the flow of natural light into the building.
  •     Enclosing storefront windows. Some businesses – especially professional offices and bars, it seems – have a tendency to reduce the size of their storefront windows by partially enclosing them. This disrupts the passive solar benefits of large storefront windows and, incidentally, disrupts the visual rhythm of the overall streetscape.
  •     Replacing functional awnings with fixed awnings. It seems as though awnings are now frequently used as business signs, rather than for the energy-conserving purposes – allowing or preventing heat gain – for which they were originally intended.
  •     Removing rooftop water tanks. Unfortunately, rooftop water tanks are only a distant memory on most main streets now; but, by collecting rainwater and using it to fill toilet tanks, they helped manage the district's storm water, reduced demand for treated water, and saved property owners money.

At its simplest level, making main street buildings more environmentally friendly involves just two things: using less energy and using fewer materials. Using less energy means consuming less energy, primarily through passive methods such as using natural sunlight and heat gain or generating more "green" energy, or both.

Here are some major actions that can make main street buildings greener:

Undo inappropriate alterations.

The first step in(re)greening main street buildings is simply to undo the alterations that have, over the years, reduced their energy- efficiency. In a few instances, the alterations may be so extensive that undoing them would be prohibitively costly. But, in most cases, the alterations are relatively simple, and it is usually possible to reverse them for a few thousand dollars or less: removing a suspended ceiling, for example, uncovering transom windows, or restoring a storefront window.

Seal air leaks.

Air leaks are one of the biggest energy-related problems in older commercial buildings. By most estimates, leaks around storefront and upper-floor windows through ducts and vents and around doors can waste 20 to 50 percent of the energy spent on heating and cooling commercial buildings.

Sealing air leaks in a main street commercial building is similar to sealing air leaks in a house. Make sure the weatherstripping around doors and windows is tight and that any cracks or gaps around doors and windows are caulked. Use duct insulation to wrap heating and cooling ducts. If the building has a basement or crawlspace,
be sure it is adequately insulated. If the building has a wood frame, make sure the external walls have adequate insulation in the cavities between the exterior siding and interior wall finish.

Certain types of blow-in insulation, such as rock wool, cellulose, and fiberglass, are environmentally friendly and can be installed without removing the interior sheetrock, plaster/lathe, or other interior wall finish. Be sure, however, that the insulation contractor checks the wiring in the walls first to make sure it can be encapsulated; some older types of wiring, such as "knob and tube" wiring can become a fire hazard if encapsulated with insulation.

Older masonry – stone, brick, concrete block, etc. – absorbs moisture from outside air and must be able to "breathe" to let moisture evaporate. Hire a contractor who has worked on older and historic buildings and understands how to install insulation and seal windows and doors in a manner that won't trap moisture inside walls or allow it to condense on wall or trim surfaces.

Repair or replace inefficient heating and cooling units.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) consume 40 to 60 percent of all energy used in commercial buildings and houses in the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cooling interior spaces alone accounts for 15 percent of all the electricity used in commercial buildings across the nation, second only to lighting. Of all the ways in which the energy efficiency of main street buildings can be improved, HVAC is without a doubt the most significant.

There is no single solution for all main street buildings. The best HVAC system for a particular building will depend on its size and materials, its orientation, the local climate, and the availability of nearby energy resources, among other factors. The good news is that more options for making main street buildings' HVAC systems energy- and cost-efficient are available now than at any point in history. Among some of the newer options:

High-efficiency, gas-fired rooftop units: By combining the condenser, compressor, and evaporator in a single unit and by using pulse combustion, these units control temperature better than older gas-fired rooftop HVAC units. Some newer units also modulate air flow, preventing the energy loss that results when an HVAC unit cycles on and off frequently.

Boilers: Many mid-size and larger commercial buildings employ boilers to heat interior spaces by using natural gas, oil, or coal to generate steam or hot water. New, energy-efficient boilers tend to be smaller, which enables a building owner to use several small boilers to heat different parts of the building to different temperatures, depending on building use. Also, boilers that use solar energy and biomass energy are now appearing on the market.

Generate on-site energy.

The range of options available for generating on-site electricity has expanded dramatically in the past few years. For older and historic main street buildings that have roofs with access to direct sunlight, roof-mounted photovoltaic solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity are becoming a practical option. Solar panels can provide part or all of the electricity required to operate a main street building, depending on how much sunlight the building receives and how much electricity it consumes.

Solar panels work through a chemical reaction triggered when sunlight hits a silicon wafer treated with phosphorus and boron. Each treated wafer is a solar cell; cells are joined together to form modules; and modules are connected to one another to form arrays. An array plus the other components needed to turn the solar energy into a usable form comprise a solar panel. Energy from a solar panel can be fed directly into a building's electrical panel for immediate use or can be stored in batteries for later use, or both.

During the early decades of solar energy use, wafers used crystalline silicon. Unfortunately, there is a finite supply of crystalline silicon in the world, it's relatively expensive, it's somewhat bulky, and it only passes along about 15 or 20 percent of the energy it harnesses. Today, several new advances offer solutions to these problems – using copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS, for short) instead of silicon, for example – and increased demand is gradually driving down prices.

Some historic preservationists worry that solar panels will spoil the appearance of a historic building. This is usually a greater concern with residential buildings than main street buildings; on a typical commercial building with a low parapet wall at the front roofline, the parapet may be tall enough to conceal the solar panels and thus minimize their impact on the design integrity of the building. For buildings with pitched roofs, solar shingles – thin-film solar panels that look like somewhat shiny asphalt shingles – might be the solution.

No other mechanism for generating on-site energy offers as much promise for main street buildings as solar energy – yet. Roof-mounted wind turbines can vibrate so much that they jar loose masonry and mortar, which makes them a poor choice for older and historic buildings. But researchers are constantly experimenting with new forms of energy generation, from harnessing the energy created when someone uses a revolving door to converting the heat absorbed by masonry surfaces into electricity.

Improve window efficiency.

For years, the windows of older and historic main street buildings have been closed in, punched out, and narrowed down by building owners who think that doing so will make the building more energy efficient. But, while it might be tempting to replace old windows with newer, double-glazed windows, window glass is not a major source of heat loss.

Studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute(4), the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation(5), and others have demonstrated that the energy savings that might be gained by replacing historic windows with new double-glazed windows is inconsequential. Glass, whether single-or double-pane, is a poor insulator. The environmental costs of manufacturing new windows and sending old ones to the landfill are far greater than the benefits to be gained in energy savings. Window efficiency can be improved, though. Be sure the weatherstripping on operable windows, usually those on upper floors, is tight and that any gaps or cracks around windows are securely caulked. Building owners can install interior storm windows, if desired, by attaching them to the interior window casing with magnets or brackets.

Obtain building materials locally.

A few years ago, contractors removed the stucco-like cladding that had covered a historic commercial building in downtown Dubuque, Iowa. Underneath, they found several cast-iron columns framing the storefront, all in good condition. Like most cast-iron columns made in the early 20th century, the name and location of the foundry where they were manufactured was stamped near the base: they had been made right there in Dubuque. At the time they were made, it was commonplace for building materials to come from manufacturers within the community or the region. Today, unfortunately, building materials are usually trucked in from many miles away. Buying materials locally or regionally cuts down on the amount of gasoline needed to transport materials and, ultimately, on costs.

Improve interior and exterior lighting. Compact fluorescent light bulbs have been commercially available for years now, and their cost and energy savings are well known. Other choices are on the horizon as well; LED light bulbs, in particular, could surpass compact fluorescents in light quality, bulb longevity, and cost efficiency. Until now, LED lighting has not been bright enough to replace traditional incandescent bulbs for interior lighting, but a few manufacturers are now producing LEDs powerful enough not only for interior use but also for streetlights.

There are many other things building owners can do to improve the energy efficiency of a main street building's lighting. Installing timers and occupancy sensors can ensure that lights are turned on only when needed. Removing the covering from a transom window and putting it back in use will dramatically boost interior lighting. Be sure the ceiling is painted a light color – better yet, with a glossy finish – to maximize natural light transmission.

Install green roofs.

Technologically, a green roof is pretty simple – it's basically just an engineered layer of vegetation on top of a building – but it helps the environment in two major ways: it improves air quality by absorbing carbon and releasing oxygen; and it absorbs rainwater, reducing runoff into the municipal storm water system. A typical green roof also has key benefits for the building. For instance, it helps prevent heat loss when it's cold outside, and it helps keep the building cool when the weather is hot, both of which lower utility costs. And, by protecting the roof surface from harsh sunlight, a green roof lasts longer than a conventional membrane or built-up roof, thereby reducing replacement costs.

There are two ways to install a green roof on a main street building: it can be integral to the roof structure itself, or it can consist simply of shallow planting boxes placed on top of the roof.

Green roofs that are integral to the roof structure can be extensive, which means that the growing medium is relatively shallow, that it is used primarily to insulate the building, and that the roof isn't usually employed as an outdoor room; or intensive, meaning that the growing medium is relatively thick, the roof can incorporate large plants, and the roof functions as an outdoor room. Green roofs that aren't integral to the roof structure but consist of planting boxes are generally referred to as roof gardens.

In either case, the rectangular, gently sloping roofs of most main street buildings are ideal candidates for "greening."

When a green roof is part of the roof structure, it includes an edge-to-edge membrane, similar to the rubbery membrane many main street commercial buildings already have, topped by a layer of rigid insulation; a planting tray; a growing medium, such as gravel, a shallow layer of soil or engineered soil, or a hybrid mixture; and a layer of vegetation. Sedum is the plant favored by most green roof engineers; rugged and durable, with a low profile, it absorbs an enormous amount of water. There are over a thousand varieties of sedum. Some work better than others in certain climates; but, for every climate, there are several varieties of sedum that will thrive.

Given that conventional membrane or built-up roofs have useful lives of only about 15 to 20 years, odds are that, every year, at least a few roofs in your district will need to be replaced. The cost of an integral, extensive green roof is only slightly greater than the cost of a conventional roof; so, within a few years, many of your district's buildings could be sporting new, green rooftops.

Greening Main Street Buildings

By Kennedy Smith | From Main Street Story of the Week | April 2009 | 260