Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cars do not belong in cities

Cars do not belong in cities.  A standard American sedan can comfortably hold 4+ adults w/ luggage, can travel in excess of 100 miles per hour, and can travel 300+ miles at a time without stopping to refuel.  These are all great things if you are traveling long distances between cities.  If you are going by yourself to pickup your dry cleaning, then cars are insanely over-engineered for the task.  It’s like hammering in a nail with a diesel-powered pile driver.   To achieve all these feats (high capacity, high speed, and long range driving), cars must be large and powered by fossil fuels.  So when you get a few hundred (or thousand) cars squeezed onto narrow city streets, you are left with snarled traffic and stifling smog.

Even if you ignore the pollution, cars simply take up too much space.   Next time you are stuck in traffic behind what seems like a million cars, try to imagine if all those cars where replaced by pedestrians or bike riders.  Suddenly, the congestion is gone.

Cars Kill Cities (Progressive Transit)

Permaculture suburbs

Once upon a time, all the talk in hippy circles was of the end of suburbia. But what if we could create suburbs that are designed to function in harmony with their surroundings?

That's the concept behind Village Homes in Davis, California. From passive solar housing through neighborhood fruit orchards, chicken coops and beehives to a carefully designed system of swales which is intended to let rainwater percolate into the ground, this 70 acre, 225-home site is about as harmonious as one can image any suburb to be.

How to build a permaculture suburb (Treehugger)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wastewater treatment

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living may be the most beautiful wastewater treatment plant in the world. Invented by Dr. John Todd, the building is powered by solar and geothermal power, so it requires no additional power to operate. Unlike other wastewater treatment plants, the OCSL does not use chemicals to treat the water, but rather mimics the processes of the nature world, such as using a combination of microorganisms, algae, plants and gravel and sand filtration to clean sewage water and return clean drinkable water back to the aquifer.

In addition to doing all of this, the OCSL also functions as a classroom, to help educate and inspire people about the power of nature to provide solutions.

The world's most beautiful wastewater treatment plant (Treehugger)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sharing cities

Imagine a city where everyone’s needs are met because people make the personal choice to share. Where everyone can create meaningful livelihoods. Where fresh, local food is available to all. Where affordable housing and shared transportation are abundant. Where the poor are lifted up, the middle class is strengthened, and the rich are respected because they all work together for the common good.
Imagine a city where the people decide how the city budget is spent. Where the people own the banks, control credit, and create their own money. Where the people own the utilities that make green energy and internet access available to all.

Imagine a city where all this is possible without relying on the government or big banks. Where we don't have to beg leaders for change or sell ourselves out to “make it” at the expense of others. Where the more we share, the more we have. Where everyone wins.

Our dream at Shareable is that everyone gets to live in such a place. While ambitious, our dream is grounded in reality. Everything that's imagined above already exists. We know this because we’ve written about these pockets of sanity nearly every day for the last five years.

Join the Sharing Cities Network (Shareable)

Ancient Roman bathhouses

We were standing next to the smaller bath, its circular rim beautifully shaped by large white blocks of stone worn smooth over centuries of use. Complete with a ledge on which to sit, it resembled a sort of ancient hot tub.

"The Romans built them, before Jesus," shouted one man, shampoo bottle in hand. Another piped up: "But they were damaged in an earthquake and that's when the Ottomans came and repaired it."

Indeed there had been an earthquake in the 14th Century. Even if their dates were a little out, you couldn't fault their enthusiasm and glowing pride.

In fact, as I stepped over the stretched legs and passed reclined bodies dangling their legs in the sea-green water, I got the impression nothing had really changed since the baths were constructed in the first century AD. Only the more recent Ottoman brickwork, the newly constructed changing room doors and the numerous brightly coloured plastic buckets gave the game away.

The important social function of a bathhouse has also been retained - family issues are discussed and resolved and jokes and stories are told to echoing laughter and the sound of a slapped thigh, back or hand.

Sport is heatedly debated, politics perhaps less so in this country - suspicion of who is hearing what remains a hangover from the civil war when careless talk cost lives. Few have the stomach or wish to risk more conflict - one of many plausible explanations as to why the Arab Spring went largely unnoticed in Algeria.

A Roman bathhouse still in use after 2,000 years (BBC News)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The taberna in modern times

A taberna world is a personal world, not plastic, generic, bland, and abstract, like today’s world. Pattern 87 gives us a society where shopping doesn’t rob the individual and the community of dignity and choice and enables more localised transparency for the true costs of the transactions made. I’m sorry that today’s consumer culture, if not turned around, will just enlarge this hole of emptiness, just like sugar does for the hole in your tooth. The more you get, the worse the pain. Pattern 87 offers a new kind of shopping, where shopping sustains both community and personal relationships. And this is what we really need!

Surely, the ancient taberna belongs to a future world of joy, sustainability and freedom!

When shops are too large, or controlled by absentee owners, they become plastic, bland, and abstract.


    Do what you can to encourage the development of individually owned shops. Approve applications for business licenses only if the business is owned by those people who actually work and manage the store. Approve new commercial building permits only if the proposed structure includes many very very small rental spaces.

    The profit motive creates a tendency for shops to become larger. But the larger they become, the less personal their service is, and the harder it is for other small shops to survive. Soon, the shops in the economy are almost entirely controlled by chain stores and franchises.

    The franchises are doubly vicious. They create the image of individual ownership; they give a man who doesn’t have enough capital to start his own store the chance to run a store that seems like his; and they spread like wildfire. But they create even more plastic, bland, and abstract services. The individual managers have almost no control over the goods they sell, the food they serve; policies are tightly controlled; the personal quality of individually owned shops is altogether broken down.

    Communities can only get this personal quality back if they prohibit all forms of franchise and chain stores, place limits on the actual size of stores in a community, and prohibit absentee owners from owning shops. In short, they must do what they can to keep the wealth generated by the local community in the hands of that community.

    Even then, it will not be possible to maintain this pattern unless the size of the shop spaces available for rent is small. One of the biggest reasons for the rise of large, nationally owned franchises is that the financial risk of starting a business are so enormous for the average individual. The failure of a single owner’s business can be catastrophic for him personally; and it happens, in large part because he can’t afford the rent. Many hundreds of tiny shops, with low rents, will keep the initial risk for a shop keeper who is starting, to a minimum.

    Shops of Morocco, India, Peru, and the older parts of older towns, are often no more than 50 square feet in area. Just room for a person and some merchandise – but plenty big enough. — Pattern 87, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, page 432 – 434
The Ancient Taberna in a Future World (√ėyvind Holmstad,

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Community Fruit Trees


A global grass roots movement has identified a very effective ingredient for building community: Fruit. Even while the price tag on organic fruit causes many to go without, it's much more abundant than we may think.

Fruit falls to the ground uneaten, all over the world. In the same backyards and orchards we pass everyday on our way to the grocery store or farmers market. Sure, a bit of fallen fruit is good—for the soil, for the animals and bugs, for the perpetuation of more fruit trees. But as summer turns to fall, it's often more than just a 'bit' of fallen fruit. Next time you walk through your neighborhood, take note of abundant fruit trees, and the ground under them. See it?

The organization Oakland Trees, provides an online map of 40,000 fruit trees on public property within the California city, which you can filter by season. And Fallen Fruit, an organization that uses fruit as the common denominator that changes the way you see the world, generates maps of fruit in public spaces all over the world.

How Fruit Trees Are Growing Communities (Shareable)

Urban Cycling

Cycling is so common that I have been rebuked for asking people whether they are cyclists or not. "We aren't cyclists, we're just Dutch," comes the response.

The bike is an integral part of everyday life rather than a specialist's accessory or a symbol of a minority lifestyle, so Dutch people don't concern themselves with having the very latest model of bike or hi-tech gadgets.

They regard their bikes as trusty companions in life's adventures. In that kind of relationship it is longevity that counts - so the older, the better. It's not uncommon to hear a bike coming up behind you with the mudguard rattling against the wheel. If anything, having a tatty, battered old bike affords more status as it attests to a long and lasting love.

The famously flat Dutch terrain, combined with densely-populated areas, mean that most journeys are of short duration and not too difficult to complete.

Few Dutch people don lycra to get out on their bike, preferring to ride to work, the shops or the pub in whatever clothes they think appropriate for their final destination.

Of course, the cycle paths lend themselves to sauntering along in summer dresses in a way a death-defying, white-knuckle ride in rush-hour traffic does not. It is also partly because of this that people don't need showers at work to be able to commute by bike - it's a no-sweat experience.

Why is cycling so popular in the Netherlands? (BBC)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Urban versus rural sustainability

I had always assumed that cities would be the worst place to be in bad times. I’m revising my opinion. Granted, Portland is an exceptional city. (Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone!) But I can’t help comparing this neighborhood to our old one. There, we were twelve families on two miles of road, driveways hundreds of feet long, all served by long runs of phone and electric wire, individual septic systems and wells, each commuting long distances. And with political and social views so divergent that feuds, gossip, and awkward conversations about safe topics were the norm.

In the city, an equal group of twelve families use 10% of the road, wire, and pipe needed in my old neighborhood. Many neighbors bus or bike to work, or at worst, drive single-digit mileages. And our social and political views are close enough that I am fairly confident we can work in mutual support if times get tough.

This is not the place to go deeply into the question of whether cities are more sustainable than contemporary American country life, but at each point where I delve into the issues, I find suggestions that urbanites have a smaller ecological footprint per capita.

Over the last two decades, millions of people have moved out of cities. Many of them are people of modest means, driven out by the high costs of urban life. Unfortunately, they have brought their city ways with them. Our neighbors in the country all clearcut their land and planted acres of grass. Many built enormous houses, since low interest rates made more square footage affordable. Some put up glaring streetlights in their front yards. They bought boats, ATVs, RVs, and other gas-guzzling toys. Unlike earlier self-reliant country folk, these are simply city people with really big yards. And there are millions of them.

Sociologists Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford have each noted that during the Depression and other hard times, urban residents have generally fared better than ruralites. The causes mainly boil down to market forces and simple physics. Since most of the population lives in or near cities, when goods are scarce the greater demand, density, and economic power in the cities directs resources to them. Shipping hubs are mostly in cities, so trucks are emptied before they get out of town.

In the Depression, farmers initially had the advantage of being able to feed themselves. But they soon ran out of other supplies: coal to run forges to fix machinery, fertilizer, medicine, clothing, and almost every other non-food item. Without those, they couldn’t grow food. Farmers who could still do business with cities survived. Those too remote or obstinate blew away with the Kansas dust.

Urban versus Rural Sustainability (Resilience)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why we need to bring nature back into cities

Cities will need to incorporate the natural world in new and innovative ways. Parks and green spaces will be multiplied from ground level upwards, attracting birds and wildlife to sky-gardens, tens of floors up. In Singapore, for example, the Marina Bay Sands hotel features a skypark on the 56th floor, with trees, leisure facilities including a pool, and far-reaching views. It’s an example of how specific elements found in the natural world, such as a mountaintop view, a lake and palm trees, have been cherry picked and combined to provide an easy, entirely artificial landscape for the city.

Vertical farms are also being planted in Anthropocene cities, although the energy involved in irrigating and maintaining such farms makes them impractical for food production on a larger scale. However, growing food in the urban environment on regular multi-storey plots is likely to increase as hobby farmers, beekeepers and specialist growers take advantage of cleaner air, water and soils of Anthropocene cities, and vacant sites are used more effectively. In Berlin, rooftop fishfarms have been started, with the waste going to feed agricultural plots in the city. Creative growers are already converting industrial spaces, street corners and rooftops to micro-wildernesses or manicured into formal gardens. A disused raised railway in New York City has become a popular park, self-styled “guerilla gardeners” are planting flowers and trees in plots among the tarmac and traffic of London’s highways, and once-polluted industrial wastelands now chirp with birdsong, rivers swim with fish and populations of animals that have become rare in the countryside are thriving in urban niches.

Why we need to bring nature back into cities (BBC Future)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Urban Minds

Human populations have lived a rural lifestyle through most of history, depending on agriculture or hunting and gathering. As abundant oil reserves fueled the rise of modern civilization, urban life grew along with it. In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 1900 that number reached 14% which increased to 30% in 1950. The majority of our species became urban in 2008 as more than half of humans are now living in cities. Because of petroleum powered agriculture we’ve supplanted increasingly more humans from food production into other activities. With the exhaustion of our biosphere and the end of cheap oil can we draw on examples from cities of the past to shape the human population centers of the future? Will lessons before economic growth provide a context for life after growth?

In Extraenvironmentalist #48 we speak with archaeologist Paul Sinclair about the Urban Mind project. Paul discusses a new field of archaeological research that is discovering the role of urban gardening throughout history and during wartime in ancient cities. We ask Paul about the role of cities in shaping the way humans think and he tells us how he survived a food crisis in Mozambique. After discussing a world before economic growth, Donnie Maclurcan of the Post Growth Institute tells us how we can start building a post-growth world [1h 14m]. Donnie describes the benefits of asset mapping your community and why you should participate in Free Money Day on September 15th. Last of all, John Michael Greer joins us [1h 58m] to answer listener questions and to talk about David Korowicz’s FEASTA study, Trade Off: A Study in Global Systemic Collapse which details how a cascading collapse could lead to rapid end for the global supply chain.

[ Extraenvironmentlist #48 // Urban Minds ]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Esozoic City

A growing worldwide movement is looking at cities through the lens of living systems. In countless practical projects, city dwellers are re-connecting with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water, and energy sources on which all life depends.

For the moment, this movement is mostly bottom-up, small-scale, and low-budget. It’s a barely visible mosaic in which rivers are restored by volunteers, car parks are depaved by activists, trees are planted by community teams, rainwater is harvested by neighbours, gadens are tended by school students, and nesting boxes for birds are installed by twitchers.

A lot of this work is carried out by community groups working street-by-street. As more small projects are completed,the to-do list expands. People notice that there are neglected parks to transform, gardens to revive, roadside verges to plant, empty roofs to green. There are vacant lots, abandoned buildings and empty malls to put to new use.

The fact that most of these actions are small does not diminish their significance. Change bubbling up from the bottom is how complex systems change – and cities are no exception. Besides, this proliferation of green shoots creates new work for for city managers and policy makers to do: Nurturing these thousands of tiny patches, removing obstacles, linking them together.

A startling question begins to be heard: Pull that weed out of its crack in the sidewalk – or let it grow?’

The Esozoic City (The Doors of Perception)

Greening the Concrete Jungle

Whether the cities of the Anthropocene will be environmentally sustainable or not depends on how the slum districts of developing world cities evolve. Will cities follow the inefficient North American model: suburban sprawl of highway-linked satellite towns, or rather the closely packed high-rises of Hong Kong and Singapore? Seoul is one example of how a city can transform in a couple of decades – from a filthy slum in which one-third lived in low-rise squatter settlements, to a shining functioning city of metro-linked skyscrapers in which most of the 25 million population live in healthy surroundings.

Apart from a few examples, most cities were never designed or planned, they grew - sometimes over thousands of years – in an ad hoc pattern. Occasionally, sections would be entirely rebuilt according to architects’ plans, but these opportunities were usually the result of disasters, such as earthquakes or bombings, or because of grand schemes, such as slum clearance, industrial development or large-scale municipal constructions, such as a new highway or transport system.

Now architects are having to re-think the city in the age of high population, strained resource use and global environmental impacts. In some places, such as Tianjin in China, planners are designing entirely new cities for the Anthropocene, trying to avoid errors of the past and achieve a sustainable solution from the outset.

Sustainability in the new urban age (BBC Future)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Urban Aquaponics

Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.

I had first heard about aquaponics from a friend in Nashville, Tenn., where I ran the North American branch of Franke, a Swiss espresso equipment supplier. I was intrigued by the method’s natural resource efficiency and its potential for large-scale urban cultivation. But it took me until this moment in Graber’s lab to recognize how dramatically aquaponics would change my life and that it could radically change how we feed the booming cities around the world.

The Farming Technique That Could Revolutionize the Way We Eat (The Atlantic Cities)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Sky Farming In Singapore

With a population of five million crammed on a landmass of just 715 square kilometres, the tiny republic of Singapore has been forced to expand upwards, building high-rise residential complexes to house the country’s many inhabitants.

Now Singapore is applying the vertical model to urban agriculture — experimenting with rooftop gardens and vertical farms in order to feed its many residents.

Currently only seven percent of Singapore’s food is grown locally. The country imports most of its fresh vegetables and fruits daily from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as from more distant trading partners like Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Chile.

An influx of immigrants has resulted in a rapid crowding of Singapore’s skyline, as more and more towering apartment buildings shoot up. And meanwhile, what little land was available for farming is disappearing fast.

The solution to the problem came in the form of a public-private partnership, with the launch of what has been hailed as the “world’s first low-carbon, water-driven, rotating, vertical farm” for growing tropical vegetables in an urban environment.

The result of a collaborative agreement between the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and a local firm, Sky Green, this venture aims to popularise urban farming techniques that are also environmentally friendly.

Farming in the Sky in Singapore (OurWorld 2.0)