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)