Tuesday, December 28, 2010

William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle, the Importance of Delight and Celebration in Design

Andrew Michler of Inhabitat recently caught up with green architect and materials life-cycle guru William McDonough at Greenbuild 2010. My first exposure to McDonough came in the spring of 2009 when I read his acclaimed book, Cradle to Cradle, in one of my environmental studies courses. In the book, McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart advocate for a "transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design," or reimagining our current system of cradle-to-grave production into one where "waste equals food" and materials are upcycled to maintain their chemical integrity.

Michler and McDonough touch on many topics covered in Cradle to Cradle in the interview, and I've included some of the highlights below.

When asked about the difference between recycling (read downcycling) and upcycling, McDonough said that traditional recycling techniques not only take a tremendous amount of energy to operate but also degrade the material inputs into inferior accessory products. There can be tremendous value in keeping materials in their current form:
It’s like a Herman Miller chair that ends up in Mexico City fifteen years from now, if somebody throws it out the back and into the dumpster. Well, the scavengers will just come and grab it. It’s worth something. The reason it’s worth something is that’s steel, and that’s aluminum, and that’s polycarbonates, and that polyethylenes. It’s no longer a chair, it’s part of the materials intelligent pool. So the design is that aluminum can come off and go back to aluminum, the steel goes back to steel. They’re not monstrous hybrids that can’t be separated.
He also explained how these principles and the Cradle to Cradle product certification system he's developed are about more than solving environmental problems:
To me this is also a stewardship issue, but the great part is that it reaches beyond the construction site – it touches on health care, education and wanting to make buildings better.
Howard Williams, VP of Construction Specialties, agreed with McDonough and offered the following insight: "Ten years from now, this may still be GreenBuild because it’s going to be the original name, but no one is going to be talking about green. The reality is that it’s going to be either good design or bad design."

There are a lot of other interesting tidbits covered in the interview - including how McDonough has incorporated a butterfly sanctuary into a recent building design in Barcelona - that I don't cover in my synopsis above. McDonough is one of the most captivating environment thinkers of our time and recommends some pretty straightforward but radical changes to our current way of doing things, so click here if you're interested in learning more.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I've Been Reading and Watching This Week, 12/10

1. In this Grist article entitled "Confessions of a recovering engineer," Charles Marohn explains why the priorities of the general public when it comes to street design are fundamentally at odds with the factors first considered by the professionals who design them, and the consequences this disconnect has for road safety.

2. In this Brown Daily Herald Op-Ed, my good friend and fellow environmental leader at Brown, Spencer Lawrence, spells out why fighting climate change is the greatest challenge of the 21st Century and why you should pitch in even if you could care less about tree-hugging.

3. The CNN clip above highlights a small house in Tokyo the size of a parking space. In a city where density is already high and space is limited, seemingly extreme measures like these are necessary for further growth. (Seriously, it doesn't take long cruising around Google Earth to figure out that Tokyo may have just used about every square foot available.)

4. The above video is also about reducing something's typical scale, but instead of a house the size of a car, it's a car the size of a, well, small refrigerator. From the geniuses at TopGear (the BBC version, the US one is pretty awful), 6-foot-4 Jeremy Clarkson drives this Peel P50 microcar to, and through, BBC headquarters. You have to see it to believe it.

5. According to this TreeHugger article, Rhode Island may become home to the first offshore wind farm in the United States, boasting 200 turbines and a 1,000 Megawatt capacity with transmission lines stretching from Massachusetts to New York. This project is one of the largest in development anywhere in the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lock it Up... In the Air?

A few months ago I put together this post entitled Lock it Up, in which I explained my excitement over my then-new (well, then-new-used) red Schwinn 10-speed. I also made some comments about how and how not to lock up your bicycle properly to prevent theft.

If you remember (or just read/reread) my previous post, longtime NYC bike mechanic Hal Ruzal graded the locking jobs of bicycles he found on the streets of the Big Apple. You remember Hal, don't you? The guy who looked like a perfect cross between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Bob Marley?

Don't believe me? See for yourself:

Celebrity lookalikes aside, one of Hal's main points was that in reality, any bicycle thief can steal any bicycle secured with any amount of hardware, it's just a matter of how much time they want or feel comfortable taking to jack it. More locks = more time = less likely to be stolen. Pretty simple right?

I think I may have found something that might just buy you all the time you could ever need, and that Hal would give an A++ for its security and creativity.

Designed by the German company Conrad, this lock puts your precious two-wheeler in a place only ninja thieves and roving bands of monkeys can access. Lucky for you, the last time I checked there weren't very many ninjas or monkeys in the market for bicycles.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reclaiming the Streets: NYC

One of the very first posts I wrote on this blog was one about the future of transportation planning, in which I documented several large-scale changes being made in cities around the globe to rescue streets from the grip of the automobile.

The following video from EMBARQ (the Center for Sustainable Transport at the World Resources Institute) profiles the tremendous progress that has been made in New York City since the release of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiative in 2007. From reinforcing cycling infrastructure, to bus rapid transit, to closing off a section of Broadway to vehicular traffic and instead reserving it as public space, NYC is well on its way to becoming the "greatest, greenest big city in the world."


Monday, October 11, 2010

Creating a Better World by Design

Last weekend (Oct 1-3) I attended A Better World by Design, a three-day student run conference co-hosted by Brown and RISD. Most loosely organized under the banner of the inspirational, influential, and regenerative power of design, the conference featured an array of speakers, panels, and workshops as well as special events on Friday and Saturday nights.

This was the third annual conference, but only my first experience at BWxD (What was I thinking these past two years?!). Unfortunately there would be far too much to talk about if I gave you a play-by-play of the entire weekend, so I'll just touch on the highlights (and if you're hungry for more, maybe you'll just have to come next year).

My favorite event on Friday morning was a panel called "The Future of Urban Transport," moderated by Anne Tate, a professor of architecture at RISD who I took a great urbanism seminar with last fall. Panelists included Ryan Chin from the MIT Media Lab, Marc Alt of the Green Parking Council, Al Dahlberg of Project Get Ready, Sonia Hamel of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and Amy Pettine of RIPTA. Something Sonia said really resonated with me. She spoke about how transportation makes up roughly 27 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions and how 5 to 20 percent of our emissions reductions moving forward can come solely from better planning. "Whenever you build something new emissions will go up," she said, "But if you place it properly net emissions across its life-cycle can be reduced dramatically." Marc Alt had this to add about the fate of the automobile, "One of the things we export as a country is our culture and for better of for worse we've exported our car culture." This reality has particular relevance as China rapidly industrializes and car ownership is expected to increase dramatically.

But the most eye-opening presentation was that of Ryan Chin from the MIT Media Lab. He spoke about the fate of personal urban mobility for the 21st Century, and introduced us to the CityCar, a two-passenger electric vehicle concept. Watch this video to see how it works:

Friday night included a social mixer at the grand opening of The Box Office, an office building constructed entirely of repurposed shipping containers. I had seen this cool time-lapse video of its assembly before, but it was so much more exciting to see it in person with all of the finishing touches in place and the energy of the evening keeping things lively.

Can you believe it only took them five days to put this together?

And here's the finished product:

The standout event for me on Saturday was undoubtedly a presentation during the first speaker session by Ben Hamilton-Baillie of Hamilton-Baillie Associates, a traffic engineering and consulting firm based in Bristol, England. In his presentation, Hamilton-Baillie challenged conventional traffic design principles and offered solutions to many of these problems with a concept he called shared space. We clutter up our spaces with signs, signals, and barriers that we assume create a safer and more orderly world, he said, but instead result in spaces that isolate those who populate them. Taking down these barriers is paramount if we are ever to reclaim these areas and foster better spaces and stronger communities. Here he's speaking about the absurdity of a pedestrian safety ad campaign in England:

He gave an example of people flowing around a crowded ice rink, itself an incredibly complex and chaotic system, and pointed out how efficiently humans can read these cues and avoid collision and injury. He argued that we need to relay more on these instincts in the way we design our roads, and by blurring the traditional boundaries between pedestrian and automobile street layers, we can dramatically lower speeds and reduce pedestrian injuries. Here's a recent StreetFilms video that captures much of what Hamilton-Baillie was talking about:

Saturday night included a Better World Gala at the Steel Yard, an incredible art studio and expo space. I caught up with Hamilton-Baillie there and spoke with him for about an hour and a half, trying to pick his brain about the research he's done and the ways he has incorporated his findings into real-world design. Perhaps the most incredible anecdote he told me was his occasional tendency to step off a sidewalk into the street and walk across to the other side. Walking completely backwards.

Sunday's highlight was a conversation between Brown President Ruth Simmons and RISD President John Maeda. The most notable quote from this session I thought was when Simmons said, "Success is empty if we don't contribute something lasting."

This sentiment represented for me what the conference was all about, and it's the thought I will leave you to contemplate now.

For more pictures from the weekend check out the Better World by Design 2010 Flickr page!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bike Lane Graffiti Makes Cycling (Even MORE) Fun

I've found a few examples of bike lane modifications that I think will have you saying "Wow, there's really nothing like a little guerrilla bike lane creativity."

The first is an image that breaks down the fundamental differences between bicycles and automobiles:

The message is clear and simple: Not only are bikes cheaper to operate, but they are also better for your health, and this dichotomy is especially stark when the two options are juxtaposed and worded as they are. Environmental and quality of life benefits aside, these are two very compelling reasons to switch your usual vehicle choice.

Next up is Toronto's Urban Repair Squad. I'll give you a little hint about what they do:

No, no, no they're not Batman and Robin fighting evildoers on a submarine. Terrible acting, fight choreography and 1960s videorecording technology aside, the important thing to focus in on are the Pows and the Swooshes. Still confused? Take a look at what the Urban Repair Squad is doing to potholes in Toronto:

Tagging the urban obstacles in this way is not only a creative means for alerting other cyclists of the perils that lie along the path ahead, but also of expressing discontent with the current road conditions and hopefully generating enough of a following to influence legislators to do something about it. In many ways I think Providence needs its own pothole-tagging squad, but perhaps that would make the streets too colorful...

(For a full portfolio of the Urban Repair Squad pics, a collection dubbed Pothole Onomatopoeia, click here.)

And finally, for all of you Mario Kart lovers out there check out this modified bike lane in Portland, Oregon:

How great would you feel on your ride home from work if you hit a speed boost or were invincible for a few blocks? Sure trying to avoid a banana might make that Monday morning commute that much more difficult, but I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons here. Just don't go thinking that mushroom means you can play chicken with the car in the opposite lane...

I don't have much else to say other than I think each of these examples shows how a little creativity can go a long way to promoting good behaviors and healthy lifestyles.

(To the powers that be, 1. Thank you for reading this, I'm flattered, and 2. This post is not meant to encourage vandalism of personal property.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lock it Up

In June, after getting by without a bike at school for almost two years, I purchased the above beauty from a local mechanic up in Woonsocket, RI. Affectionately dubbed Big Red, this bike has revolutionized my life off-campus (I can't walk to campus from my house and back anymore because it feels like I'm wading through molasses in comparison).

Living in a quasi-urban area, though, I have been very aware of the risk of theft in my neighborhood. One of my buddy's bike's was swiped from his backyard just around the corner from my house. One of the subletters living in my house this summer had his bike lifted from the side of our house one night in July. A bike is not only an investment, it's also an expression of personal pride, so it hurts more than just your wallet when it disappears.

Though I've never had my own bike (or pieces of it) stolen, I can sympathize with those who have. The fall semester of my sophomore year I emerged from my residence hall and hooked around the corner of the building to where I had locked my bike to the first-floor window grate (a product of not having enough bike racks on campus, at least near my dorm). To my dismay I found my bike in ruins - the rear wheel was completely bent and the frame was distorted and buckled. What I had initially thought was the product of drunken vandalism, I soon learned was caused by something far more unusual. The next morning I noticed a pink note from Facilities Management attached to the handlebars which read something along the lines of: "Hit your bike while mowing the Main Green. Contact so-and-so for more information." Yes my bike had been run over by a lawn mower and was damaged beyond repair.

So quirky accidents aside, how can you protect your bicycle? A lock is surely a start, but how you lock your bike can be just as important as locking it in the first place. Streetfilms and longtime NYC bike mechanic Hal Ruzal produced a series of tutorial videos in which he grades the locking jobs of bicycles left on the street. I've included the last of three below.

Hal is quite the character:

Bicycle thievery, like any form of crime, somewhat depends on where you live. I don't think you'd need the same level of bike security in Providence as Hal prescribes for NYC, but proper bike-locking etiquette can't hurt, right? On the other side of the locking spectrum, when I visited my brother Asa at the Aspen Music Festival this summer in Colorado, there were bikes left downtown completely unlocked and unattended. Asa would also routinely "borrow" other students' bikes from the music school campus if he had left his in town. The key may be knowing your local bike thievery patterns and planning accordingly, or even using a little more security than you think you need to thwart that extra ambitious bike-jacker that comes along every now and then.

One of the most interesting points I think Hal makes is in his first tutorial (if you're interested, watch it here). He says, "Locking your bicycle, a lot of times you are just buying time, and that's important. If you put enough locks on your bike, where even if they're not the most secure locks, it just takes a thief too long and he'll give up and go on to the next bike." Anyone can cut through a lock with the proper equipment. It's just a matter of how long they feel comfortable sitting out in the open with a pair of bolt cutters or a small handheld saw. More (better quality) locks = more time = less likely to be stolen. Because of this, it's always a good idea to keep your bike inside overnight if possible, and avoid leaving your bike always locked in the same location where someone can scope out their grand theft velo.

So if you're concerned for the safety of your favorite bicycle, and if you take nothing else away from this post, remember these three important words...

Happy riding!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Innovation for Today, Innovation for Tomorrow

Nissan has recently come out with a series of TV commercials to promote their new line of automobiles. They are varied in their approach, but all of them rally around a common theme of innovation. Let's take this one for example:

Sure, it's chock full of technological improvements that really have no bearing on the environment (this is a car commercial after all), but there are a few nuggets of value to focus in on. The first is the seats being made from recycled water bottles. Though we don't know what percent of the material is post-consumer plastic, the idea of extending the life-cycle of the water bottles is certainly unusual for a car company. The second portion of interest is obviously the line, "[Wouldn't it be cool] if you never bought another gallon of gas?" coupled with the amazing time-lapse of the pump disappearing. This is the true innovation, a groundbreaking change to something we often take for granted (more so than the addition of a step on your Xterra that you can use to hoist your mountain bike on the roof). Can you imagine a world without gasoline?

On the topic of groundbreaking, let's move on to this next 30 second spot:

Narrated by Lance Armstrong, this commercial stresses the significance of a certain technological improvement in the Leaf - it has no tailpipe (and thus, no GHG emissions). Finally after it's 100+ year existence, the automobile (or at least this one) has given up a former staple of it's design, allowing not only Lance to breathe easier but the planet to as well. Again, this is innovation at its finest - Nissan has done away with this technological convention and improved the environmental health outcomes in the process.

Finally let's take a look at this commercial (I've saved what I think is the best one for last):

Simple. Moving. Poetic even. I'll be honest, though I'm not usually one to buy into the whole "environmentalism for polar bears' sake" argument, this clip was powerful in a way I don't know that I can adequately articulate. For me the embrace at the end of the long and laborious journey from arctic to suburbia signifies a solution to one of the most symbolic crises of a changing climate, and in doing so a solution to climate change itself. The embrace is also charged with a mixture of gratitude, relief, and forgiveness that I think most of us are searching for in our own personal pursuits for a cleaner, healthier, and happier planet.

One final point: Yes, Nissan still sells cars that consume gasoline and pollute the earth (and will likely do so for the foreseeable future), but progress is progress and any little step in the right direction counts for something.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill McKibben on Letterman

Last week environmental activist Bill McKibben appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to discuss everything from the science of climate change and the obstructive power of the oil, coal, and gas lobbies, to China's rapid economic expansion and our political logjams in the United States, to the genesis of 350.org and the upcoming 10/10/10 Global Work Party.


After the clip cuts out, there are another 30 seconds or so of dialogue, continued below.

Letterman: "But is what you're talking about adaptability really rather than correcting any of this?

McKibben: "You can adapt, maybe, to one or two degrees. You can't adapt to four or five degrees, so we've got to do both."

Letterman: "Special hats. Have you thought about special hats?"

McKibben: "There you go. Those'll help."

Letterman: "That's where my money is, ladies and gentlemen, special hats. Well Bill, thank you for just scaring the crap out of me."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Celebrating One Year+ of the Green Lantern

On July 8th, 2009, I sat down and wrote my very first post on this here blog. I didn't know what form it would end up taking, what I would be writing about, or who in their right mind would want to read what I had to say - a veritable leap of faith to stake a claim in my little corner of the Internet. In the intervening months I'd say I've discovered my voice (or at least taken a big step in the right direction) and continued to develop my passion for sustainable design and development, among other related topics and issues. I've read a LOT, written considerably less - for every post that appears here there are at least three or four more that lay unfinished, either in my head or logged somewhere in cyberspace - and produced an end product that I hope has been informative and provocative for you, the reader.

Speaking of readers, I must extend a thank you to everyone who has given me feedback in the last year, either through comments here or in person. Your spot-on advice and probing questions have been instrumental in this process of academic exploration and personal growth (because there is something inherently transformative about broadcasting your opinions and observations for the rest of the world to see). If this blog has been half of the learning experience for you as it has been for me, then I think I've accomplished part of what I set out to do.

So after an extended period of radio silence these past few weeks, I'm back in action. Tomorrow I officially start my senior year at Brown, and I'm excited for what will surely be another year of deepening my understanding of and appreciation for all things sustainable urbanism. Rest assured: there are many many posts waiting in my cerebral pipeline, so stay tuned in the coming days, weeks and months for more commentary.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Friday, July 2, 2010

2010 Summer Reading List: One Down, Ten to Go


Here are the books I hope to get through before school starts up again in September. Sure, it's a little ambitious, at least by my recent standards of not really reading for pleasure at all anymore, but I'm going to shoot for the top anyways and see where I end up.

The complete list of eleven includes (in no particular order):

Building Suburbia, by Dolores Hayden
Food Rules, by Michael Pollan
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
What's the Worst that Could Happen?, by Greg Craven
Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, by Witold Rybczynski
Water, by Steven Solomon
Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape, by Michael Hough
The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
Our Choice, by Al Gore

(more books may be added/substituted in the coming weeks, so stay tuned)

As you can see there's a pretty wide array of titles and topics, though all of them fall beneath the general umbrella of either sustainability or urbanism (or both). I'll keep you posted periodically on my progress and will try to comment on at least some of them. I've already finished Hayden's Building Suburbia and am almost 100 pages into Last Harvest.

Wish me luck...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We Need Our Oil... (Part 2)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I said I wouldn't say much about the Gulf oil spill last time, but I found some interesting posts which complement the point I was making last week about how deeply embedded fossil fuels are in American culture, and how design can dictate our mobility choices.

The first is an article by Jonathan Hiskes of Grist entitled, "Can we just drive less after the Gulf spill? If only it were so easy..." Hiskes comments on interviews of gas-station customers conducted by NPR reporter Brian Mann. Mann concludes that despite the fact that many customers have been very concerned about the spill, "they also don't see a real connection between the spill in the Gulf and the decisions they're making about the cars and trucks they drive, and the number of times they fill up the tank in the week." Hiskes is quick to point out what I was getting at last week, which is sometimes (oftentimes?) Americans lack viable alternatives to automobile transportation, especially in a place like semi-rural upstate New York where these customers were interviewed. None of what they're saying suggests they don't understand the connection between their consumption of oil and the disaster in the Gulf, he says, "They're saying they lack good alternatives to driving. That's the real problem: Our cities and towns (and lives) are built around the assumption that we'll be driving our own cars and trucks to get where we need to go."

Don't believe that urban design and car use go hand-in-hand? Check out the following graphic:

Also linked from Hiskes' piece, this graph from Left for LeDroit depicts the relationship between pre-autocentric design in the Washington DC area and the ability of residents in these places to forgo car ownership. As you can clearly see, in the neighborhoods established before the rise of car culture it is possible to get around without an automobile. Hiskes concludes:

Conversely, people aren't going to walk or bike when amenities are too far away. They're not going to ride mass transit where it doesn't exist. They're not going to buy electric cars when they're not affordable, and when we don't have a network of charging stations. The way to help people drive less is to give them alternatives.

So if it is impossible to avoid car travel in some areas of the country, what else can people do in these places to stick it to BP? Boycotting BP is unfortunately not as straightforward as simply not fueling at their stations. Quite seriously, they have their hands in everything. As Ronald White of the LA Times reports, "Few foreign companies have ever become as deeply rooted in the U.S. economy as BP." Chris MacDonald of The Business Ethics Blog has even called a BP boycott "futile and unethical."

So even though tempers are hot right now and we want some sense of immediate retribution, we must shift our attention to longer-term strategies like investment in renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure, as well as legislation to promote this shift and hold the oil companies responsible for their actions. A little good urban design never hurt anyone either, but again this is obviously a long-term strategy. It took a decades for the oil companies to obtain the power they now have, and it will take a sustained, concentrated effort if we are ever to defeat the monster that we helped create.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We Need Our Oil...

I'm not here to say much about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I've kept quiet since the Deepwater Horizon sank almost two months ago today, and to be perfectly honest, there has been so much written and broadcast about it in the interim that any more would be beating a dead horse, or a dead pelican/sea turtle/sperm whale as the case my be. (Too soon? Yeah, I think so).

Also I spent the first week or so of the disaster glued to my TV and laptop, hoping for some shred of good news, but when that good news never came I did what any other sane person would do when trying to rationalize that which cannot be rationalized: I disassociated myself from it emotionally. There have been too many conflicting feelings bouncing around in my head to tease out a coherent narrative or opinion even if I wanted to. So let's keep it simple, shall we?

I came across the following video a few weeks ago and I think it sums up the situation in the Gulf pretty nicely:

Aside from being adorable and pretty darn funny there's an important take-away at the end after the CEO's faux change of heart. As justification for doing nothing to help those who are suffering, he tells Cooper, "It's f**king oil man, they'll need us again." As sad as this is, I can't help but agree. Over the last hundred years or so, we've built our society on a foundation whose success and stability depends on oil, and lots of it. This is also one of the reasons I actually don't believe this oil spill will have any measurable impact on investment in renewable energy technologies and the like. Oil (and the oil industry for that matter) is too entrenched in our way of life to disappear overnight, even in the face of the current catastrophe wreaking havoc on the ecosystems and local economies of the Gulf.

There's one more noteworthy nugget in the video above, and that's the message that comes up on the screen at the very end of the clip. In case you missed it, it read: "You're not mad enough to not drive your car." (Which also relates well to a political cartoon I came across in Newsweek a few days ago)

Though this perceived consumer hypocrisy is a closely related matter, and my support for consumer-based activism is well documented throughout this blog, to me this falls under a slightly different category precisely because of the role that oil plays in our lives today. In many cases there is only so much we can do to limit our consumption of it. What if there are no alternatives to driving our cars from Point A to Point B? (And in many places across the country, there are no alternatives, believe me). We can be as angry as we want at BP and still be justified in filling up the tank and driving to work because we live in a broken system that needs much more attention before these types of behaviors can be changed, and these types of judgments levied appropriately. (If you think this is a cop-out let me know and we can talk about it.)

For now we need our oil, we need our oil, and there is no escaping that reality. Yes, a transition away from fossil fuels is currently underway, but it has been painstakingly slow and it will take much more than an oil spill, even a really really REALLY bad one to accelerate that process.

I said I wasn't going to say a lot about the oil spill and here I've rambled on for far too long. Alright, that's all for today - I'm off to try and find myself some of that marmalade...

Friday, June 11, 2010

We're Stickin' with LA, and Cars Still Don't Rule the Road

Two weeks ago I posted a video by Ross Ching depicting the streets of Los Angeles devoid of automobile traffic, which created an equally eerie and visionary display of what life would be like without our primary form of transportation.

This time, I've found something a little different. As you'll see in the following creative transformations of our beloved built environment, the cars remain but much of the infamous LA asphalt does not.

La Cienega Blvd and 3rd Street (Before)

(And after)

Who is the wizard behind this disappearing act? His name is David Yoon, a self proclaimed "urban planning geek" curious enough to investigate the question: Could the entire mood of a neighborhood depend on something as simple as street width?

Look at the following images and answer that yourself.

Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way (Before)

(And after)

Third Street Promenade (Before)

(And after)

One of the reasons these images are so powerful is because of the emotional response one has when looking at them. Wide streets are alienating physically and socially, not only limiting pedestrian mobility but also making it more difficult to meet with friends and even have basic interactions with other city goers. These images play with our impulses, as our reactions to the dichotomy displayed by them can be reasonably attributed to personal experiences we've had in similar spaces.

On his blog, Yoon describes how his work exposes the asphalt elephant in the room, so to speak, and how we got into this mess in the first place:

As a writer, street-narrowing to me represents an act of fictionalization, with fiction itself being an attempt to make sense of the randomness life flings our way. The grander absurdities of Los Angeles have already been well documented — its optimistically-named enclaves, phantom star maps — but its smaller, more micro-level oddities go mostly unnoticed: sunning at an outdoor cafe just steps from the edge of a six-lane, 50mph road; eyeing the 30-second countdown when crossing an intersection; bidding farewell to friends after dinner in dreary parking lots.

There's a yearning for a more human scale out there, and a growing realization that hey, this world wasn't created by some petulant, eight-armed Deus Urbanus but by people — ordinary people, struggling to make the best design decisions they could. Los Angeles, located at Manifest Destiny's terminus and born from a mad Levittown landgrab amid giddy postwar prosperity, was not designed badly per se; it was never really designed to begin with, at least not in a coherent fashion.

Yoon also hopes that his work will spark a debate about how we can further reimagine our cities and reinvent these broken and isolating design practices, hearkening back to a question I have asked myself many times before. If design dictates how we interact with the built environment, and the extensive infrastructure now in place has contributed to so many of the problems we face today (environmental degradation, social inequality, etc.) then what can we possibly do with all of that asphalt and concrete to improve the situation? Unfortunately we can't just slice out the middle of every major boulevard and reassemble the remaining pieces as Yoon has done. There may be some ways to adapt what exists to achieve different outcomes, but that discussion must be reserved for another day. For now, let's consider Yoon's work as a vivid look into what's possible through responsible urban design, and the reactions we have to it as the proof that design matters to each and every one of us.

For a full map of all of his LA transformations (as well as images and the significance of each one), click here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

New Video, No Cars

So it seems like I've been on a little bit of a video tear lately, and what's one more to add to the list? After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words than a moving picture must be worth a heck of a lot more than that, right?

I'll tell you what's NOT moving, though, and that's anything on the (in)famous highways and byways of Los Angeles in the following clip made by Ross Ching and posted on Good (which happens to be my new favorite blog, fyi. you should check it out).


Eerie, right? It's hard to imagine streets without their primary occupants - cars - yet here is that vision realized. The following is Ching's motivation and inspiration for the video (from his website):

I live in Los Angeles. I drive in Los Angeles. I think about traffic a lot in Los Angeles. A few months ago, I discovered Matt Logue’s Empty LA photographs. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but every time I was stuck in rush hour all-hour traffic, I found myself thinking, “What if tomorrow everyone’s car disappeared.”

What would that scene look like? How would people react? How quickly would the atmosphere rebound from centuries of fossil fuel emissions?

So I took Matt Logue’s still photography concept and applied it to something that I do best — time lapse. I built a story around the idea of us being shackled to this ball and chain; this love-hate relationship with whom we spend so much time with here in LA.

This is a very cool concept, to be sure, and speaks volumes about how much we take our current primary mode of transportation (and the infrastructure needed to support it) for granted. An eight-plus lane highway looks a lot more bleak, and not to mention imposing, when there aren't cars whizzing along it, filling the empty space and distracting our wandering eyes.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Collaborative Consumption

I just came across a link to the following video on Colin Beavan's (aka No Impact Man's) Twitter. Made by the folks at Collaborative Consumption, it depicts the growing support for sharing programs like Zipcar and CouchSurfing, founded on the principle that use of a product does not have to be dependent on ownership of it. I think the essence of the movement can be summed up by this quote from the clip: "To reinvent not just what we consume, but how we consume."


This video reminds me pretty distinctly of the book Cradle to Cradle in which designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart advocate for a "transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design," or a shift away from our current cycle of cradle-to-grave disposable culture. They devote an entire section to examples of manufacturers who lease the use of their products to their customers instead of selling it to them, thereby assuming full responsibility for the product and it's eventual disposal or recommissioning. We don't need a chair or a car, they argue, we simply need the services they provide: a place to sit and a way to travel from point A to point B. If the movement documented and promoted by Collaborative Consumption is any indication, the seeds planted in McDonough and Braungart's 2002 book may finally be taking root.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Interview with Tom Vanderbilt

One of the first posts I ever wrote on The Green Lantern included commentary on Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What it Says About Us. Late last month Vanderbilt was interviewed by Mark Gorton, founder of OpenPlans, on Streetfilms, the visual media arm of the Livable Streets Initiative. Watch the full segment below:

Gorton does a good job of capturing some of the major points of Vanderbilt's work, and the author's comments shed additional light on what is already a groundbreaking book (Traffic was a National Bestseller, after all). One of the main points of the book, and something he outlines heavily in the interview, is the psychological complexities of automobile use on everything from lack of feedback while driving (we drive more and more recklessly because we've gotten away with it before) to the lack of eye contact between drivers and pedestrians above 20 or 25 miles per hour. As Vanderbilt argues, it is not until we understand these complexities that we will be able to fix our transportation system.

At the end of the clip, Gorton says, "And once again, an excellent book for anyone who is interested or having to deal with the topic of traffic." I'm going to take this a step further, well maybe a couple of steps further, and more directly state what I think Gorton was getting at. If you have driven or ridden in a car, ever, this book is relevant to you. Go read it!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

UPDATED: Breaking News: Cape Wind Project Approved

In what is being hailed as a landmark victory for the prospects for future wind power development in the United States, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today approved the Cape Wind project, a 130 turbine farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Read the full report from the New York Times here.

UPDATED 4/30/10 7:49 PM

Here's a video that describes just some of the controversy surrounding this decision, and why it's taken almost a decade to approve Cape Wind:

UPDATED 4/9/10 11:19 AM

As this NYTimes Green Blog article details, the second in a series of major steps necessary to make the Cape Wind project a reality was completed on Friday, when Cape Wind reached a power purchasing agreement with National Grid, a local New England utility company. National Grid agreed to buy the electricity produced by the wind farm for 20.7 cents a kilowatt-hour, an arrangement Tom King, President of National Grid, estimated would raise the average monthly utility bill by $1.59. The next challenge for the future of Cape Wind will surely be to get Massachusetts regulators to approve the contract.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day From The Green Lantern!

"We are as gods, and might as well get good at it."

- Stewart Brand, 1968

Humanity has the power to change the world, for better or for worse. It's our job now to work together and make sure there's some Earth to speak of long after we're gone.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

He's Baaaaaaaack...

I am, of course, talking about AccuWeather meteorologist Joe Bastardi, previously featured in this debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy on the O'Reilly Factor. This time Bastardi appears on the Colbert Report opposite Brenda Ekwurzel, a climatologist from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For his part, Colbert prefaces the weather versus climate debate with some classic satire and hilarious (though equally disconcerting) soundbites. He also does a solid job of mediating the exchange while poking fun at both sides. My favorite moment is when Bastardi makes a claim and Colbert says, "Now I don't know if that's true, and I don't care."

Watch the full segment, entitled "Science Catfight," below:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Science Catfight - Joe Bastardi vs. Brenda Ekwurzel
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

The only further comment I want to make is that I find it interesting that Bastardi makes the case that we'll all know the truth about the "climate hoax" in 15-20 years, suggesting that the natural oscillations of the earth's climate will return to roughly 1970 levels. This notion is of particular significance to me because I brought up this very logic in a conversation with my close friend and super-star environmentalist Ben Howard last night, but for the complete opposite argument. Ben was expressing his frustration that our society hasn't done more to mitigate the causes of climate change, and I explained that we will all likely be forced to change our behaviors in the coming decades as the predictions about global warming become realities. We won't be able to ignore the signals when they're staring us in the face. So yes, Mr. Bastardi, in 15-20 years, we will find our answer, but I'm afraid it won't be the one you're looking for...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Can We Improve the Connectivity (and Vibrancy) of Our Neighborhoods?

In a recent article on Grist.org, one of my favorite staff writers, David Roberts, conducts a step-by-step critique of his home turf, the Bitter Lake neighborhood in Seattle (Walk Score 71). By exposing the limitations of the current orientation of city streets and lack of adequate access to public spaces, Roberts identifies the reasons why he and his wife don't feel comfortable letting their children walk to the local park and why they have never met their neighbors who live less than a stone's throw away.

Roberts then embarks on a multi-stage redesign of his neighborhood (complete with maps and colored lines denoting areas of interest, see his initial one on the left) and offers some well-though-out and reasonable changes to the current urban fabric.

By engaging in this exercise, Roberts offers an answer to a question that has largely dominated my pursuit of sustainable urbanism in the last year: What can we possibly do to the miles and miles of unproductive infrastructure already in place?

Roberts concludes his post by addressing this very issue. He writes: "One of the biggest challenges in years ahead, as we attempt to densify and green our communities, will be retrofitting existing neighborhoods to increase walkability, sociability, sustainability, and safety. It's worth a minute of anyone's time to ponder how they could make their own surroundings more amenable to spontaneous, non-commercial, human-scale social interaction."

To see the rest of his neighborhood diagrams and a more detailed analysis of the proposed design elements, read his full post here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day: The Story of Bottled Water

Today marks the 18th annual World Water Day. In honor of this initiative which tries to raise awareness about the injustices and inequality, not to mention the outright absurdity, of our current water system, I want to share this great video from The Story of Stuff Project:

SSP Director Annie Leonard narrates this simply-animated but fascinating history of our system of bottled water in this country, and profiles the lengths to which corporations will go to "manufacture demand" for a products that we don't inherently need (tap water is free, after all). By playing on our fears and spreading misinformation, companies have turned bottled water into a $5 billion-a-year industry in the US alone. Unfortunately, it's also one that creates unnecessary waste (the burden of which is heaped onto faraway populations), pollutes our planet (including, ironically, our waterways), and contributes to the paradox of a world in which some can afford to spend millions on portable water, while one billion others lack sufficient access to clean water every day.

So the next time you have the opportunity to choose tap over bottled water, make the informed choice. Your body, your wallet, your neighbors (near and far), and your planet will thank you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quote of the Day: 3/14/10

"When our own ability to analyze and understand the details of a situation fail, we are left to fall back on our value judgments."

From Treehugger's Christine Lepisto

Image: Flickr beautifulcataya

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Follow Up: Times Square and the Cheonggyecheon River

Last July I profiled efforts by city officials to deconstruct automobile-centric urban design and reclaim these spaces for pedestrian use. Two of these projects, the conversion of Times Square to the world's most famous patio (complete with lawn furniture) and the daylighting of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea, are supreme representations of the power of place.

The first video below describes pedestrian reactions to the transformation of Times Square, as well as the motivations on the part of NYC transportation officials and Mayor Bloomberg to make the drastic change. It also includes striking before and after shots of the automobile-dominated streets in 2005 and the pedestrian-only block it became last summer:

In this second video, urban designers comment on what the daylighting of Cheonggyecheon means for the people of Seoul, and how the creation of public space reshuffles the urban transportation hierarchy and forms the "glue that keeps the city together":

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Watch Charlotte, NC Unfold Before Your Eyes

Artist Rob Carter made the above video back in 2008. Using stop-motion animation, a stack of paper, and a heck of a lot of patience, he managed to profile the development of Charlotte, North Carolina from it's origins as a Native American trading path to the bustling metropolitan center it is today.

From Carter's website:

Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, primarily due to the continuing influx of the banking community, resulting in an unusually fast architectural and population expansion that shows no sign of faltering despite the current economic climate. However, this new downtown Metropolis is therefore subject to the whim of the market and the interest of the giant corporations that choose to do business there. Made entirely from images printed on paper, the animation literally represents this sped up urban planners dream, but suggests the frailty of that dream, however concrete it may feel on the ground today. Ultimately the video continues the city development into an imagined hubristic future, of more and more skyscrapers and sports arenas and into a bleak environmental future. It is an extreme representation of the already serious water shortages that face many expanding American cities today; but this is less a warning, as much as a statement of our paper thin significance no matter how many monuments of steel, glass and concrete we build.

The video I've included is only the final three minutes of Carter's work. To view the full ten minute video, click here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Is Too Much Evidence Delaying Action on Climate Change? Climate Skeptics and the OJ Simpson Trial

Have you been frustrated or perplexed lately by how effective global warming skeptics have been at casting doubt on the mountain of evidence that suggests the climate is changing? How about the fact that they are getting away with it? If so, I have an article for you.

In a recent op-ed on Mother Jones, 350.org co-founder and Middlebury College Professor Bill McKibben compares increased confusion about climate change to the OJ Simpson trial, i.e. where a preponderance of evidence wasn't enough to let justice be served.

McKibben says, "Without hard evidence to support their claims, climate denialists are attacking the process of climate-change science." The skeptics' search for the error in the integrity or validity of climate research is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But a bigger haystack means the potential for more needles.

McKibben also stresses how we can't rely on straight science to solve this issue for us, and we need to become more politically savvy in order to convince the American public that this is something they should be concerned about. "Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world," he says, "And feelings count at least as much as knowledge."

Since McKibben is far more eloquent and well-versed on this issue than I am, I am going to let him do the rest of the talking. Read his full article here. Seriously, click on the link. It's one of the best pieces I've read in recent weeks. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bill Nye Falls Victim to "He Said, She Said" Climate Banter

Do any of you remember Bill Nye? You know, the Science Guy? If you're like me and you were a geek growing up you probably skipped around the halls of your elementary school singing the catchy "Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill" theme song from his show on PBS. For all you true fans out there (or for those of you who have no idea who or what I'm talking about) watch below:

On every show, Bill and his team of the coolest teenage cast members on cable television would investigate a scientific question and design an experiment to test their hypothesis (and in doing so educate their young audience).

But it seems as though Mr. Nye has upped the ante in the last 10 years since I was a regular fan of his show, and graduated from the signature baking soda and vinegar volcanoes to something a little more complicated: Climate change.

Nye recently entered the "No Spin Zone" on the O'Reilly Factor to take on Joe Bastardi, AccuWeather meteorologist (aka NOT a climatologist, and yes there is a difference). Watch the segment below:

I think this is actually the most "fair and balanced" exchange between two people expressing differing viewpoints I have ever seen on Fox News. But I might go so far as to say that it's too fair and balanced, to the point where what they're saying doesn't really mean anything. I'll explain.

Both Nye and Bastardi present the data that supports their view on the changes to the climate system. Bastardi has his high-tech TV screen and Nye has his little placards, god bless his heart. But in the age old game of human competition, it is impossible to answer the question, "Who wins?" Even though Nye presented the most scientifically sound data from the IPCC (aka the most well-renowned climate scientists in the world), his efforts are equally weighted with Bastardi's on the air for no other reason than they are given equal time to talk and at least Bastardi seems like he knows what he's talking about.

It's for this reason that I strongly disagree with the headline of a recent article I saw about the Nye-Bastardi segment which declared: "Bill Nye Schools Bill O'Reilly on Climate Change." Bill Nye didn't "school" anyone, O'Reilly or Bastardi, in this discussion on Fox News. Sure he presented scientifically sound facts, but it's up to O'Reilly's viewers to believe them - a tall order to be sure.

I listened to a fascinating piece on NPR this week about how what individuals consider to be the facts about climate change (and what they consider to be the lies) depends heavily on their personal value systems. The main point I got out of the story was that people believe what they want to believe. When talking about a subject as complicated as climate change, and one with such high stakes, it is imperative that scientists and activists alike find a way to communicate the scientific facts in such a way that it is impossible to deny the negative human impacts on our climate system. Until then we'll just be mired in the "He said, she said" climate banter through which no one wins, which in the scope of our impending climate crisis, means we all lose.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What I'm Reading: 2/21/2010

1. In this New York Times Magazine feature article, Daniel Smith profiles the emerging field of eco-psychology. This form of psychological research explores how environmental degradation effects personal anxiety, despair, and depression.

2. As the World Burns: How Big Oil and Big Coal mounted one of the most aggressive lobbying campaigns in history to block progress on global warming. From Rolling Stone Magazine's Jeff Goodell. Your one-stop-shop for the complicated history of climate policy in the United States.

3. Plastic or Plastic? Brown University student Alyssa Ratledge beats me to the punch and writes an op-ed in the Brown Daily Herald (allbeit better written than anything I could have ever put together) expressing her bewilderment at a recent Bookstore's policy requiring, yes requiring patrons to take a plastic bag at the checkout counter. Don't want one? Already have a reusable cloth bag or backpack with you? Too bad...

4. Global Weirding is Here: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wonders "if we can have a serious discussion about the climate-energy issue anymore" and emphasizes four key arguments for a national response to climate change (mostly paraphrasing his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded with a climate-weather twist thrown in).

5. In this The American Prospect article, Grist.org writer David Roberts reviews two automobile-oriented books. One, Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us?) I read last winter and loved. The other, Reinventing the Automobile, is co-authored by William J. Mitchell, the head of the Smart Cities program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lawrence D. Burns, the recent vice president of research and development at General Motors, and Christopher Borroni-Bird, GM's current director of advanced vehicle-technology concepts. This trio attempts to address current transportation problems and argues that reinventing automobiles means reinventing cities (music to the ears of a sustainable urbanist).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

REVISED: Dylan Ratigan Understands the Difference Between Weather and Climate, Do You?

UPDATED 2/17/10 10:36 AM (see original post below): So apparently I've fallen victim to the very misunderstandings about weather and climate that I've been trying to shed light on in recent weeks. I'll explain:

While Ratigan was correct, scientifically speaking, in his description of warmer air = increased moisture = increased precipitation, he was wrong to argue (and I was wrong to agree with him) that the massive storms the DC area experienced last week were proof of climate change. As we discussed in one of my environmental science classes last week, science doesn't prove anything, it can only disprove things. Sure these storms are consistent with the hypothesis that global warming will produce more severe weather patterns, but it is important to note that no single storm, no ten storms, no twenty storms would ever prove (or disprove) the existence of climate change because of the difference in time scale I described a few weeks ago. Climate is a decadal system, while weather operates in a much shorter (i.e. day to day) period.

Seems like I got caught up in the "he said, she said" banter that has dominated the climate debate recently. I read a comment on a blog the other day that said something along the lines of, "These [climate/weather] anecdotes are cute, but let's stick to the facts." I agree: Let's let science do the talking and formulate our opinions based on these facts, thereby avoiding the impulse to impose our existing beliefs on what we observe in nature.

ORIGINAL POST 2/10/10 5:26 PM:

Finally, FINALLY someone in the mainstream media has demonstrated a basic understanding of scientific principles. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how some have taken record low temperatures and increased snowfall this winter in the US to discount the impending realities of climate change. I focused primarily on this clip from a Fox and Friends broadcast:

But this week MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan has set the record straight, and he explains why these record snowfalls are, in fact, proof of climate change. Watch below:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

How to Build Community

Read and be inspired:

I received the above poster for the holidays this year. Imagine if we all aspired to these ideals...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Weather versus Climate: What's the Difference?

(image via NASA)

Somehow in the chaos of the climate debate, skeptics and supporters alike have misunderstood the fundamental distinction of what is actually happening to our planet. If you are one of the many people unclear about the difference between weather and climate then this post is for you.

To illustrate the confusion (or willful misdirection of public discourse), please watch the clip from Fox & Friends below:

One sentence in particular should have jumped out at you. At second 32 co-host Steve Doocy quips, "Yeah that global warming thing is really kicking into high gear, isn't it?" after reporting freezing temperatures across the United States last week. Some (achem, Jon Stewart) are quick to jump at the hosts of Fox and Friends for the way they misinterpret and dumb down issues to push a conservative agenda, but I think this example may speak to a deeper lack of understanding that extends beyond the boundaries of liberal and conservative media wars.

Have you ever wondered about the integrity of the climate debate when you hear reports of a record snowfalls or sub-zero temperatures? Have you ever asked yourself how the climate can be changing and the globe can be warming if it still gets really really cold?

Let's set the record straight...

The essential difference between weather and climate is a matter of scope and timing. Simply put, according to excerpts from an elementary school primer included in this recent UN Dispatch article, weather is "the conditions in the atmosphere in a certain place during a certain time. Weather is always changing." Climate, on the other hand, is "what the weather is generally like over long periods of time, such as years or decades in a particular area. A place that has little rainfall has a dry climate, and a place that has high temperatures has a hot climate."

To further highlight the distinction between weather and climate consider the following quote from How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, written by blogger Colby Beck and vetted by the climatologists at Real Climate. In his series, Beck outlines the many climate change denial arguments and offers responses to each one. Read his response to a weather-versus-climate oriented objection below:


Scientists can't even predict the weather next week, so why should we believe what some climate model tells us about 100 years from now?


Climate and weather are really very different things and the level of predictability is comparably different.

Climate is defined as weather averaged over a period of time, generally around 30 years. This averaging over time removes the random and unpredictable behaviour of weather. Think of it as the difference between trying to predict the height of the fifth wave from now that will come splashing up the beach versus predicting the height of tomorrow's high tide. The former is clearly quite a challenge, as your salty, wet sneakers will bear witness to, but the latter is routine and reliable.

This by no means says that it is necessarily easy to predict climate changes, but clearly seizing on the weather man's one week failure to cast doubt on a climate model's 100 year projection is an argument of ignorance.

Now that we've clearly established the meanings of weather and climate it is important to note that, as this Met Office article points out, although some regions have experienced lower-than-normal temperatures recently, it is not cooling everywhere. From Met Office: "North-east America, Canada, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and south-west Asia have all seen temperatures above normal - in many places by more than 5 °C, and in parts of northern Canada, by more than 10 °C." See the map below for the global temperature trends above and below the regional averages:

As it turns out, not only was Steve Doocy substituting weather patterns for climate trends, but even if we do use his logic, parts of the earth were warming during the same period. So the next time you hear your local weatherman remark, "It's going to be another cold one out there today folks!" don't make the same mistake Doocy did. Even if our days are colder (albeit in winter) and snowfalls are higher, the climate is still changing.