Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Summer at the Urban Land Institute: Solar Cities and the Year 2050

So I figure I have been back home in Guilford long enough and I should let you know what I was doing this summer in Washington, D.C. For two months (all of June and July) I was interning at the Urban Land Institute, an urban design and real estate development nonprofit organization focused on promoting responsible land-use policies. The mission of ULI is to "provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide." ULI boasts a membership base of over 40,000 professionals (including architects, developers, planners, realtors, etc.), has district councils across the country, and offices around the globe. It was a very engaging and dynamic place to work because there were dozens of projects taking place on subjects ranging from infrastructure and affordable housing to sustainable development and economic recovery strategies. The office itself was LEED-CI (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - Commercial Interiors) certified, reflecting ULI's commitment to the environment.

As far as my internship was concerned, I was splitting time between their Information Group (publications) and Initiatives Group (progressive urban think tank). In general, my ULI managers were great about giving me a high level of responsibility and autonomy in the office and they trusted me to respond appropriately in my work. Everyone has heard the usual intern coffee-run and copy-making horror stories, and fortunately my time at ULI could not have been more different.

I was working on two main projects throughout the course of the summer. My first task was to write up a case study for the Developments section of ULI's monthly magazine, Urban Land. Specifically, I was researching Babcock Ranch, a planned sustainable city designed by Kitson & Partners to be powered exclusively by the sun. The development will boast the world's largest photovoltaic facility (75 megawatts), a renewable technology mecca Syd Kitson, Chairman and CEO of the real estate development company, hopes will attract greentech companies and create a living laboratory for innovation. In his words, Babock Ranch will be a "place where businesses, universities, and government can test, and implement, its best ideas for the future.” Listen to Kitson talk about "Southwest Florida's City of Tomorrow" and watch an amazing computer rendered walkthrough of the development in the video embedded below (make sure to watch it in high quality!). This case study was exciting to put together because I was granted an in-depth look at a development that could very well change the composition of this country's urban fabric.

The Babcock Ranch marina and town center.

A view from the (solar panel-covered) rooftops.

Sid Kitson, Chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, guides
us on a virtual tour of Babcock Ranch

This summer I also worked to update The City in 2050 exhibit and companion publication, the former of which debuted last October at ULI's annual Fall Meeting and Urban Land Expo in Miami. The exhibit serves as a diagnostic analysis that identifies the social, economic, and environmental challenges our world will face in the next 40 years and how urban centers can be the cradles for solutions to those problems. Last year's material was especially US-centric though, and as the exhibit will soon travel internationally (first to the Middle East in early October for Cityscape Dubai, the largest real estate development conference in the world), I was in charge of spearheading the initial research and collecting data a global audience can relate to. It was incredible to know that my efforts on this project were greatly contributing to a forward-thinking urban initiative. Listen to ULI Worldwide President Rick Rosan speak about The City in 2050 project and view images from the exhibit below:

(If you have questions about these two projects or would like some more information about them, please let me know!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Copenhagen, Continued...

So in my post last month entitled A Portrait of the Future of Transportation Planning: Auto Lovers Beware, I referenced a section of Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic where he describes how more and more Copenhagen commuters are forgoing their cars for bicycles, and how city planning officials have aided this transition through their urban design decisions (you can read about it here if you missed it). Well, the citizens of Copenhagen are at it again, as this article reports. Officials plan to spend $47 million to establish a system of bicycling "superhighways" stretching far into the surrounding suburbs, allowing bicycle commuters faster avenues to get to work and hopefully persuading more residents to jump on a bike instead of into their automobiles. Copenhagen is proving itself to be the trend-setter when it comes to alternative transportation. Learn more about the proposed bicycling infrastructure at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

During my stay at Lucy's place in Chocorua, New Hampshire last week (sorry for the blogging hiatus!) I picked up an old (well, May 2007) copy of the New York Times Magazine which had a very interesting and informative article about the history of bottle deposit legislation. Author Jon Mooallem reveals the economic and political complexities behind enacting this seemingly straightforward piece of legislation.

By placing value on something otherwise valueless, bottle deposits incentivize recycling and thereby promote behavior that ameliorates the burden of disposable containers on the environment:
  • According to the Pacific Institute, producing the bottles for American consumption in 2006 required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil (not including the energy for transportation) and bottling the water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • And according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), states with bottle bill legislation have a beverage container recycling rate of about 60 percent, while non-deposit states achieve only about 24 percent.
Mooallem's article also addresses the daunting task of updating this 70s era policy to be more relevant, as the typical five cent deposit established 30-40 years ago equals only about one cent today. Imagine if all states implemented these programs (only eleven states currently have such systems in place), and if instead of the laughable five cent return, bottles were granted a 25 cent deposit. Who, then, would throw away their bottles? And what if plastic water bottles were also included in addition to the carbonated and alcoholic beverage containers that are accepted today? These improvements would at the very least stimulate a massive increase in recycling and at best would alter the relationship we have with our disposable containers and make us more mindful of the consequences of our waste (consider the implications of throwing something "away," and ask yourself if you can answer where that "away" is).

This article hearkened back to one of my favorite books, William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle. McDonough examines the contradictions and short-sightedness of the system of manufacturing established by the Industrial Revolution. He emphasizes the need to close the production loop from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) approach, to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) approach. In the bottle deposit article, Mooallem cites how in the past beverage distributors would retrieve empty glass bottles for reuse (glass was too expensive at the time to simply discard), and suggests returning to a similar system which makes producers (and not consumers and municipalities) responsible for the ultimate fate of their containers. Bottling companies resist such a regression and understandably so: why start paying the collection and recycling costs they have shirked for decades? Plastic beverage containers have become so cheap to produce there is no economic incentive for corporations to assume responsibility for the waste they create.

The current system of five cent bottle deposits is outdated and needs to be reformed if there is any hope of curbing our nation's rampant rate of waste disposal. What were once dynamic pieces of legislation that gave value to the valueless and promoted recycling have become afterthoughts in the three to four decades since their inceptions. More states need to implement such legislation and those states that already have policy in place need to make sure that it adequately incentivizes the responsible disposal of containers.

I will conclude with the following tracker from CRI, which records the number of beverage cans and bottles that have been landfilled, littered, and incinerated in the US so far this year:

That's a lot of aluminum and plastic...