Saturday, December 27, 2014

Forget the Motor Car

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.
—Lewis Mumford, My Works and Days (1979)

When you think about it for a minute, you realize just how wasteful and unjust cars are of space. Though celebrated for their ability to abridge distance, cars are about the least effective way to use space that can be imagined. As a result, the nature of cities is diminished.

So, as a result of car dependence, most cities blithely commit 30% percent or more of their valuable urban space not to people or nature, but to cars, counted in millions of square feet (or meters) of streets, parking spaces, garages, and parking lots.

Think how absurd it is that skyscrapers, a thousand feet high, can be found going toe-to-toe with parking lots covered in a single layer of cars, yet downtown parking persists in the midst of the most valuable real estate in the world.

Why do we put up with that?

There are three reasons. One, once upon a time, we thought it was good idea to rip out public transportation and replace it with private ways of getting around. In the United States that time was the early twentieth century, when gas was remarkably cheap (on the order of 5 cents per gallon, cheaper than water in some places, cheaper even than oil is today with the fracking revolution) and streetcars were failing because of bad deals struck by government and industry, setting in motion patterns of disinvestment and disrepair. What America discovered with the car was a new way to make a buck, by paving over farmland near town for suburban development, a process now being replicated globally.

Reason two we suffer the car is millions of people depend on their own vehicles to get into town from their houses in the suburbs. These folks value the livability of their homes more than the livability of other peoples’ homes, so demand, through their dollars and their voting patterns and their incessant traffic, that society provide conduits and parking places for their steel boxes. Other people make money off of those people by selling us motor insurance, car loans, gasoline, tires, mechanical services, road paving services, ticket-writing services, and the wheeled boxes themselves. Governments recoup costs through registration and excise taxes. One would be enraged at such uncivil behavior, except “those people” and “those other people” are the same: us!  We are all caught in the same self-perpetuating economic loop-de-loop of oil, cars, and suburbs.

Reason three we don’t change is that we have already invested so much into the roadways and the regulations and industries to support this car-mad way of life that change feels, smells, and sounds unthinkable, even if for the millions of people stuck in traffic, consciously or unconsciously, they can think of nothing else. In America, inertia reigns over the Republic. What galls, of course, is that so many other cities, in other countries around the world, are making exactly the same mistake America did and giving over lovely towns and cities and countrysides to automobiles…and their attendant problems.

Forget the Damned Motor Car (Sustainable Cities Collective)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Can Urban Foraging Make City Dwellers Healthier?

Foraging for wild edibles has grown increasingly popular over the past few years. Educational tours are widespread. The menu at Copenhagen’s Noma, considered one of the world’s best restaurants, features almost exclusively foraged foods. Two and a half miles from downtown Seattle, urban farmers and foragers are in the process of developing a seven-acre food forest meant in part to encourage foraging. However, foraging is still associated more with parks and open land, than with bustling cities. Carlson and Stark are not aware of any other systematic studies of the availability of wild foods in urban areas.

The two scientists have begun taking inventory of wild foods growing in parts of Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond where fresh food is scarce. So far, they’ve been surprised at the abundance of what they’ve found.

Nearing the end of summer and in a record drought, the team found ample plantago, mallow, dandelion, fennel, and dock. “I knew that even in the driest part of the year, there would still be some edibles available, but I was surprised by how much,” says Carlson. “We’re worried about where water is going to come from, and these plants are still plentiful.”

In addition to mapping the species occupancy of each neighborhood themselves, Carlson and Stark are encouraging their students to use the mobile app iNaturalist to crowd-source the data collection over the course of the next year. A record of what and how much they’ve found thus far can be found at Samples of the plants will also be dried and deposited into the university’s herbarium collection.

Carlson and Stark have also begun testing soil samples for contaminants. So far, none of the toxins they’ve tested for have come close to surpassing acceptable threshold levels, with the exception of lead. But Stark says, “We think that the plants growing in even the worst soil we have found are in fact safe — but we’re going to check.”

Herbicides aren’t much of an issue either. As Stark put it: “Have you ever tried to eradicate dandelion from your yard? Good luck, unless you plan on using chemical weapons.” In other words, if herbicides were present, the wild edibles they’re finding probably wouldn’t be there. On the other hand, pesticides may prove to be a concern: On a recent mapping foray into West Oakland, they observed someone spraying for ants nearby.

Although both researchers are familiar with anecdotal evidence claiming wild edibles are more nutrient rich, they’re not yet willing to make that claim themselves. They won’t begin testing samples for their nutrient value until next spring, when the plants are more abundant.

Foragers’ Delight: Can Wild Foods Make City Dwellers Healthier? (Civil Eats) H/T laureth

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bicycling culture in the Netherlands

One of my graduate professors in the Netherlands was fond of pointing out to visiting students that bicycle infrastructure didn't precede mass bicycling in the Netherlands. It was the other way around. While we often think that bicycle infrastructure is critical to bicycle growth, that's not the route the Netherlands took. It had mass bicycling and then it had great bicycle infrastructure.

I do think that good, protected bike lanes are critical. But I also think that a motivated citizenry that wants to take back its streets can do so without the infrastructure coming first. There are many ways to build a culture of bicycling in your community, and through that you can drive the expansion of bicycle infrastructure.

And one key to that, in my opinion, is making bicycling something that you do without any special clothing or style. Biking should be like walking, something you do in your normal work clothes, dress clothes, or casual wear.

Many people think that Holland has always been covered in bike lanes. It hasn't, but that never stop the masses from bicycling.

1950 Holland, before its cities were lined with bike lanes (Treehugger)

Biophilic Cities

‘Biophilia’ might not yet be part of your daily lingo, but the concept of biophilic cities, which puts nature at the heart of urban development, is inspiring innovative minds around the globe. Alongside ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘energy-efficient’, ‘biophilia’ is entering the vocabulary of the ecologically minded and is changing lives for the better amongst urban populations.

Philia means a ‘fondness of’, so the word biophilia could be defined as ‘a love of nature’. Initially described by noted zoologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson as, ‘…the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms’, the growth of biophilia in urban areas reflects our evolved, instinctive human need to connect with the natural world. Nature is predominantly seen as separate and distinct from the urban landscape, but around the world, nature is being woven back into the fabric of cities, restored and celebrated in a myriad of ways: from vertical gardens in Paris, growing organic food in a London skip, and an app that maps the urban harvest globally, to the crowds that gather to watch 1.5 million bats emerge from under Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, Texas each nightfall and the volunteer bushcare groups throughout Australia’s urban and coastal areas.

The concept of biophilic cities emerged out of biophilic design in sustainable architecture, which aims to integrate nature into buildings. Urban and environmental planning expert, Tim Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, created the Biophilic Cities project four years ago, because he wanted to take this a step further and make nature a priority in urban development. ‘All the good things incorporated into green design for healthy spaces weren’t being connected to a wider context. We need to put nature first in city design, planning and management.’ Even sustainable cities, which aspire to reduce environmental impact in terms of energy efficiency, sustainable transport and eco design, can overlook physical opportunities to connect with nature. ‘We’ve got to inspire people with uplifting places all around us on a daily basis, integrated into our normal lives, not in some park far away.’ In an excerpt of his book ‘Imagining Biophilic Cities’, Tim outlines the dimensions of a city which, as well as being quantified by the amount of vegetation, ‘green space’ and access to nature, measures the ‘sensibilities’ of the populace and city governance in terms of how it values nature and actively seeks to develop urban-nature related projects to participate in. Biophilic cities: Going beyond green (Sustainable Food Trust)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Urban Farming in San Francisco

In San Francisco, there's a new program aimed at property owners who can resist the temptations of the sky-high real estate development market and turn their vacant lots into agricultural oases instead.

Many sustainability advocates have applauded the creation of the tax incentive, announced in August. But critics say there is no room in San Francisco to devote space to corn, beans and kale when homes cost millions and rent is at least $2,000 per bedroom in desirable areas.

Here's how the tax break works: Property owners who are willing to turn uninhabited land into farms would get that land assessed at the going tax rate for the state's irrigated farmland. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that was about $12,500 per acre in 2013.

If accepted into the program, the property owner's annual dues to the city would drop from $10,000 or more to roughly $100. But the landowner would have to keep the land as an agricultural operation for at least five years or pay back the balance of the tax reduction, plus interest.

To qualify, the farm must also sell or donate produce to local residents, offer school tours or some other educational benefit or serve as a community-run garden space.

Tax Breaks May Turn San Francisco's Vacant Lots Into Urban Farms (NPR)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reconnecting architects

The essential philosophy that is taught to students of architecture is quite a frustrating thing. As someone who builds things, I work with people, I use my hands — like today there is a work party in my community where we are building things. I know how to build because of that. Most architects only understand buildings abstractly. They are taught incomplete theories, they draw pictures, but they usually don’t actually engage in the process of building or maintaining the things that they design. So this void of understanding is a problem, and it also plays out in other expressions of disconnection. You also notice that design students almost never draw pictures of people in their projects. They put them in at the last minute maybe to give a sense of human scale to the presentation drawing. I think that’s fascinating because in all cases we are designing environments that people live in, but architects tend instead to think perfunctorily, merely in terms of basic commercial functions. They don’t really think about people, don’t think of their actual experience. How strange, because the great identity that underpins the whole culture of design and architecture is that it is the Mother Of All Arts, made to uplift the human being.

Industrial modernism on the other hand is focused on objects — architects now want to create beautiful things to look at, and it is a huge unfortunate oversimplification but it applies. The models that they’ve been given include Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or in some ways even Frank Lloyd Wright, and all were considered great artists who would tend to design things but not places. In contrast, that’s why this term placemaking has arisen. It’s because architects have nearly utterly failed to provide a sense of place. We’ve learned at best that the architect is a facilitator of cultural engagement and at worst just merely a designer of objects.

Reconnecting Architects with the Community  (Permaculture Research Institute)

Shared urban yards

But the easiest way to create such a community is to design it as a shared space from the start. That’s what Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, a husband-and-wife architecture firm, do in the Los Angeles region. They have built nearly a dozen communities of courtyard housing, and Polyzoides has also written a book on the subject, “Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles.”

“We know from a social point of view that the happiest human beings live in circumstances that allow them to interact in many kinds of space,” Polyzoides said. The courtyard, he said, was “a realm where people find some sense of coming together” – a microcosm of the neighborhood and the city itself. In one of their developments in Pasadena, he noted, residents began gathering spontaneously for a glass of wine on Friday evenings – and those with no dinner plans often wound up eating together afterward.

Such collective spaces were once thought impossible to maintain (the tragedy of the commons), ill-suited to personal responsibility, and generally undesirable. But times have changed. Americans are more willing to share than ever, and technology and governance have adapted to make distributing collective responsibility easier – whether through special tax-increment zones or sharing-focused websites.

How do we create new green space in a dense and growing city? “You’ve got parking lots, but that’s basically land held for buildings,” Drayton said. “You can close streets, but there are costs of doing that.”

And then you have backyards, alleys and the rest of the city block’s forgotten innards – a great space waiting to happen.

The golden opportunity our cities are missing (Salon) Living in the city means you don't often see a whole lot of green — but it doesn't have to be that way

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Mango King

HONG KONG—It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no man’s land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover patch of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. The Mango King is one of a growing number of urban farmers in Hong Kong, maximizing the city’s tight spaces to produce his own food. He currently grows sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, and two lychee trees on 700 square feet of land.

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners (Slate)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Move to the city

When we built our new house in Washington, we, too, did our best to clear the shelves of the sustainability store. We put in bamboo floors, radiant heating, double-thick insulation, dual-flush toilets, a solar water heater, and a 12-panel, 2.5 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. A pine log crackling in our high-tech wood-burning stove supposedly contributes less pollution to the atmosphere than if it were left to decompose in the forest.

Yet all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood. It turns out that trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week. Why, then, is the vast majority of our national conversation on sustainability about the former and not the latter? Witold Rybczynski puts it this way:
    Rather than trying to change behavior to reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” is the message, just add another solar panel, a wind turbine, a bamboo floor, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the suburbs is still a house in the suburbs, and if you have to drive to it — even in a Prius — it’s hardly green.
We planners have taken to calling this phenomenon “gizmo green”; the obsession with “sustainable” products that often have a statistically insignificant impact on the carbon footprint when compared to our location. And, as already suggested, our location’s greatest impact on our carbon footprint comes from how much it makes us drive.

Stop climate change: Move to the city, start walking (Salon)

Not just asphalt

In a way, Rome's cobbles have risen from the depths of the earth. They are made of the volcanic rock that welled up in the hills behind the city. And each stone is very slightly different - each has taken different blows from a chisel as it was knocked into shape. And of course cobblestones have about them the air and feel of history - they are just the right kind of surface to connect ancient churches with famous fountains, and palaces, and piazzas.

As Roberto Giacobbi put it, the cobbles are part of the pride of Rome. He is a big man in his 50s with grey hair and dusty boots. He has spent all his working life putting down stones in the city's streets, just as his father and his grandfather did before him. And as we stood talking at the end of an alley, the air was filled with the sound of mallets clanging off cobbles. Three of Roberto's colleagues were on their knees re-laying a few square metres. He said there was no great secret to doing it right, but it did take a good eye to get every stone level with its neighbour.You get to know instinctively how many blows of the mallet each one needs.

Roberto is proudest of the work he did on Piazza di Spagna, which lies at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Every day tourists from all around the world climb them, and then look down on the square. And Roberto said that it was not that nobody else could have laid the cobbles there, but he said he had done it with passion - with care for the way it would look. But there was something I wanted to ask Roberto.

I had read that, actually, Rome's cobbles were no longer worked out of that volcanic rock up in the hills behind in the city. That these days, incredibly, the stones were being brought in from China. Could it possibly be true?

A man from the public works department at the city council said absolutely not. There was no need for new stone, he said. Old ones were being recycled - Romans were not walking around on cobbles from China or anywhere else in Asia. But when I checked with Roberto he pointed at the stones along the curb at our feet - a slightly different colour and shape from the rest. He said that they were not from China - but he insisted that they were from Vietnam.

Cobblestones in Rome are known as "Sampietrini", which translates as "little St Peters". In this most Catholic of cities you sometimes hear that there are supposed to be as many cobbles as there are souls that St Peter saved. But the stones probably got their name because the first place where they were put down was on St Peter's Square. And it remains today a vast expanse of cobbles.
Alleyway in Rome Many drivers dislike the cobblestones, which force cars and motorbikes to travel at slower speeds

It is near where I work, and I was in the piazza one evening recently when it was almost deserted. It was raining and every wet cobblestone seemed to be catching the streetlight, gleaming. The square was like a field of diamonds.

The uneven charm of Rome's cobblestones (BBC)

Its good points are:

    - it does not completely cover the ground, leaving small spaces for the water to pass through
    - it easily adapts to the irregularities of the ground
    - it is very strong
    - after it has been placed, it can resist quite big movements of the ground

Its negative points are:

    - the ground becomes irregular over time
    - if wet, it can become very slippery

Because of its peculiarities, the sampietrini are not suitable for streets where traffic travels at high speed. Nowadays its use is largely confined to historical or very narrow streets in the centre of Rome (in Trastevere for example), where the traffic is light and slow.

Sampietrini (Wikipedia)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Brooklyn Grange

“That view behind me is not a painted backdrop!” said Geoff Lawton to the camera. But the view looked great from where I was standing. Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm with a magnificent view looking over the Manhattan skyline.

Sited on a concrete roof, totaling 2.5 acres and producing over 50,000 lbs of organically-grown vegetables each year, you need to walk its length to appreciate how vast this rooftop garden truly is in scale.

We had been given one hour to film this place. The sun was setting. We were in the “magic hour” to film and needed to hurry. There was a lot to do.

Geoff walked down the narrow lanes of planted vegetables. Four to six inches of dirt was all the plants were allowed to grow in – very well drained dirt that resembled sharp river sand. It didn’t look like a normal loamy soil to my untrained eye.

The whole system looked very well managed with clean straight lines but with a diversity of plants. Lettuce, broccoli, kale, pepper, tomato and flowers — lots of flowers — interspersed with a bee hive along the path. In one corner was a small chicken coop and a few hens. I wasn’t sure the manure from these chickens could sustain this farm? There had to be inputs. But from where?

Brooklyn Grange: A Rooftop Farm in New York (video) (Permacuture Research Institute)

Urban food in Jordan

A slowly but steadily growing phenomenon in Jordan, urban agriculture has vast potential for reducing poverty and improving food security, and it has the added benefit of greening and cleaning up more rundown sections of cities.

But the success of urban agriculture depends on key components that are increasingly difficult to secure: land and water. Space for planting is growing ever slimmer in Jordan, and the country suffers from a perpetual shortage of water. While such problems are major, they have also forced those involved in urban agriculture in Amman to devise innovative and efficient ways to work around them.

The more successful they are, the more valuable urban agriculture becomes in Jordan, where two-thirds of the 160,000 people who are food insecure live in cities and 13 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. For them, urban agriculture is not a complete solution, but it does alleviate poverty, and in the long term, its indirect benefits can be even more widespread.

In Home Gardens, Income and Food for Urban Poor (OurWorld 2.0)