CityBuzz: The “Mushroom Garden” underground park

January 19, 2013

The High Line Park in Manhattan–an old elevated railway transformed into a snaking park trail–has officially sparked a frenzy of excitement about rehabilitating old transit areas into green space, even through the idea has actually been around for a while (Paris’s Promenade Plantée debuted in 1993). But what happens when you’ve got an out of commission rail line–underground?

The defunct “Mail Rail” tunnel — a narrow gauge railway used for transporting mail around London–closed in 2003 and UK’s Landscape Institute, in partnership with the Mayor of London and the Garden Museum, has run a design competition to decide what to do with it. The 170 entries included some wonderfully creative ideas, from public swimming area to rehabilitated wetlands and a floating park. The winner: London-based Fletcher Priest Architects created a plan to turn the tunnels into an urban mushroom farm and pedestrian stroll. The pedestrian walkway would be lit at street level by glass-fiber, mushroom-shaped sculptures and the ‘shroom crop could supply pop-up “Funghi” cafes at the tunnel’s entrance and exit.

Check out the plans for the “Pop Down” here: http://www.fletcherpriest.com/High-Line-for-London/competitions/. Fungi are truly wonderful and under-appreciated organisms. In addition to providing food and visual delight for the visitors, the colony can help clean toxins from the soil. This is a wonderfully creative concept for a public park and truly unique–hopefully it will will be built!


New Study: Cyclists and pedestrians still getting shortchanged

February 4, 2010

Okay, so we know that despite troubles in Detroit and Toyotaland the automobile is still king in the US of A. But sometimes it takes some raw numbers to bring home just how much the entire country’s infrastructure is stacked against non-driving traffic participants.

The Alliance for Biking and Walking just released the 2010 Benchmarking Report on bicycling and walking in the U.S. The 192 page report collected and analyzed data from all fifty states and the 51 largest U.S. cities.

From bicycle and pedestrian staffing levels to bike racks on buses, this report is a tour de force of numbers, data and statistics concerning the millions of trips taken every day by foot or bike. The bottom line though is this: While 9.6% of all trips nationwide are people powered, a mere 1.2% of federal transportation funding is spent on bicycling and walking.

Read the rest of this entry »


Moving in the City: A Promise For Better Health

October 8, 2009

The recent healthcare debate has highlighted many problems with the current U.S. healthcare system. Escalating costs, denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and the lack of health insurance for almost 50 million Americans all point to the need for some revisions. While some deep systemic changes are needed, the healthcare debate must also include discussion of some of the underlying causes of the widespread health problems that are taxing the healthcare system.

When we talk about healthcare we usually think of the interaction between patient and doctor when the patient is sick. However, we often fail to acknowledge that healthcare starts long before this meeting. According to a recent report in Archives of Internal Medicine, four healthy lifestyle factors—never smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and following a healthy diet—together appear to be associated with as much as an 80% reduction in the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases.

What’s truly stunning about this number is that, smoking habits aside, these factors are heavily dependent on collective structural decisions we have made about how to live together and move around. It is true that a person can choose to join a health club and work off the extra pounds from sitting idle in their office and car all day. But how did we ever arrive at a situation where little to none of our daily activities involve that most basic of human functions, moving our bodies?

The connection between city design and public health has become a popular topic among public health officials for good reason. Several recent studies show just what a toll car-centric lifestyles have taken on the American population.

A study entitled Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found this: “People living in counties marked by sprawling development are likely to walk less and weigh more than people who live in less sprawling counties. In addition, people in more sprawling counties are more likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure). Physical inactivity and being overweight are factors in over 200,000 premature deaths each year. Meanwhile, rising health care costs are threatening state budgets. Getting decision makers to consider how the billions spent on transportation and development can make communities more walkable and bikeable is one avenue to improving the health and quality of life of millions of Americans.”

Another study of nearly 11,000 people in the Atlanta area found that people living in highly residential areas tend to weigh significantly more than those in places where homes and businesses are close together. The effect appeared to be largely the result of the amount of time people spend driving or walking. Each hour spent in a car was associated with a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of obesity and each half-mile walked per day reduced those odds by nearly 5 percent, the researchers found.

“The kind of neighborhood where a person lives clearly has an effect on their health,” said Lawrence D. Frank, an associate professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, who led the study.

The CDC’s statement on climate change and public health states that “walking and bike riding are more than alternate forms of transportation; they are steps to healthier lives. Automobile traffic contributes to air pollution, which in turn means more illnesses related to breathing problems such as asthma. Furthermore, every additional car on the road can lead to increases in the numbers of injuries and deaths from vehicle crashes, which already kill more than 40,000 people each year die.”

Clearly, the way we have sprawled across the landscape is at the core of our health problems with our planet and our own bodies. High-density cities that connect housing, commerce, urban parks and farms using public transit, bike paths and pedestrian walkways hold promise for vastly improving our public health. Such an approach addresses the cause instead of treating the symptoms of our healthcare woes.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of public health in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.


West Coast Green tackles a sustainable future for West Oakland

October 7, 2008

The concerns of West Oakland got a hearing at the latest edition of West Coast Green, the eco-builder conference held last week in San Jose that otherwise featured the usual suspects: a trade show floor packed with green building goodies and speakers such as Al Gore and environmentalist David Suzuki, host of the long-running Canadian TV show “The Nature of Things,” talking the righteous green talk.

 Tucked away in one corner of the conference, though, a discussion was going on about the future of West Oakland, a place not commonly thought of as having much of a bright future, green or otherwise.

The people doing the talking weren’t green movement celebrities, but a collection of more than 160 developers, government officials, designers, architects and community activists – all stakeholders in the future of an industrial and residential part of Oakland that has long suffered from high crime, pollution and neglect.

They were gathered together as part of what’s known as a planning charrette, a term used in urban planning circles (and other disciplines) to describe meetings designed to elicit input on a project from a wide range of affected parties.

Organized by Oakland’s Ecocity Builders, a nonprofit involved in the theory and practice of sustainable city design, the charrette was to help flesh out a report dubbed “The Sustainable Urban Villages Project.” Ostensibly a blueprint for a sustainable makeover of the area, the report is being funded by a $73,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board. When completed in late 2009, Ecocity will share it with other cities such as Richmond.

Ecocity’s idea for the future of West Oakland, an area surrounded by freeways and streets full of big rigs going to and from the busy Port of Oakland, is to create affordable homes within “urban villages” in the area.

Executive Director Kirstin Miller defines an urban village as a neighborhood about a half-mile long where residents can easily walk or take public transportation to just about any activity – work or school, shopping and recreation. The idea is in keeping with Ecocity’s mission of “thinking through how to re-design cities more for people rather than cars,” Miller said.

The nonprofit also wanted to study a place that needed help. “That’s why we didn’t go to Montclair,” Miller said, referring to Oakland’s pricey hillside neighborhood north of Piedmont with a vibrant shopping district.

By contrast, West Oaklanders don’t even have a supermarket. An area that Ecocity foresees as a possible urban village is on Seventh Street across from the West Oakland BART station where there is currently a retail strip.

Another reason for choosing West Oakland is that Miller foresees a return to cities by suburbanites no longer able to afford their commute or McMansions. While it usually leads to the development of expensive urban lofts, Miller said community leaders she’s talked to want to make sure development in the area doesn’t leave local residents priced out.

To lead the charrette, Ecocity brought in developer John Knott whose company, the Noisette Co., is in the process of building affordable housing units on the site of a former Navy base in North Charleston, S.C. – an area similar to West Oakland, where residents wait and wonder to hear the fate of the nearby vacant Army base. Created with the help of community leaders, the development is seen as an enhancement to existing neighborhoods and property values are rising.

Among the ideas bandied about at the charrette were proposals to grow bamboo in West Oakland’s soil, long contaminated by local industrial runoff. Apparently, bamboo doesn’t need pristine dirt to grow and can be irrigated with reclaimed water. Bamboo is in demand for products such as flooring and rows of it would also break up the industrial landscape of the area. Another idea was to raise food crops in elevated beds to avoid using the toxic soil.

If an urban village is built in the area, activists made it clear that they want zoning laws enacted to preserve the many newly remodeled Victorian homes, such as those in the Lower Bottom, a part of West Oakland where a housing development is being built on the site of the Central Station, the former West Coast terminus of the transcontinental railroad.

Perhaps the greatest asset attendees came away with from the charrette was a sense of empowerment over a process they normally would feel left out of. The process showed them that by “thinking through the big picture vision an urban village has a logic to it. It’s not something that’s too obscure to figure out,” Miller said.


Worldchanging reports on renewables

August 6, 2008

Mapping the World’s Renewable Energy Potential

by Sarah Kuck

http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/008318.html

As renewable energy technologies become more competitive, investing in them is becoming a more viable venture. Yet, uncertainties about cost and ROI are still keeping some investors at bay.

Wind blows, rain falls and the sun shines, but differently at different times and locations, making wind, hydroelectric and solar power dependent upon weather and climate systems. A new Northwest-based energy efficiency company, 3TIER, is using their science skills and computer smarts to remove some of that guesswork.

Over 90 percent of the renewable energies used for electricity generation are weather-driven; in other words, they are completely dependent on the weather/climate system for their fuel. So while these sources of renewable energy have the capability to liberate us from our dependence on fossil fuels, they introduce another complicating dependency: the weather. This dependency affects all aspects of weather-driven renewable energy projects: from proper placement to ongoing operation and integration.

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This map of the United States shows the amount of available solar power, ranging from from 4 (blue) to 5.5 (red) kWh/m/day.

The 3TIER team uses their technology-assisted powers of analysis to calculate the weather and climate and its impacts on renewable energy. The group customizes their forecasts with data from each client’s site to help them save money and optimize power. They take multiple readings from the site, for an extended period of time, and combine the reading with weather and climate knowledge for that region to tell wind farmers, for example, an estimate of how much energy they’ll be generating, and at what time.

The group recently finished helping oilman turned renewable energy propent T. Boone Pickens illustrate his national plan to help propel the U.S. energy economy with wind. Using wind maps from 3TIER, the Pickens Plan explains how the U.S. can use wind power to meet more than 20 percent of its electricity demand within 10 years. (View a video about the plan here).

3TIER is currently working on a project called REmapping the World, which combines their prediction technology and analysis with Google maps to assess solar and wind energy potential from locations around the world. So far, they have mapped North America, but they plan to map the renewable energy potential of the entire world by 2010.

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Take a FirstLook at the project’s “Find Wind Fast” function. Here clients from renewable energy project operators to developers, financiers to marketers, can select the height of a proposed turbine and its location to get an estimated read on how much wind power is in that area. For more exact details, clients can order custom reports that provide information like monthly windspeed and power capacity, hourly windspeed and power distribution and more.

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But you don’t need to be one of their clients to play around with the maps, and it is pretty fun to look at the potential from afar as well as to click around and see how much specific potential lies where.

Potential just happens to be the perfect word to describe this project, this company and the renewable energy movement. Being able to more accurately estimate how much we can depend on renewable energy systems will only aid in their much needed proliferation, and hopefully, forecasting where the wind will blow will only become more valuable with time.

Image credits: The 3TIER Group


Green Collar Jobs, Industrial Policy and a Society with a Future

July 2, 2008

This article on Green Collar Job recently appeared at www.BeyondChron.org, San Franciso’s Alternative Online Daily, and was written by Bernard Marszalek

“Green Collar Jobs” have gone mainstream. Obama endorses it. And a plank in the Democratic Party Platform calling for green collar jobs would solidify it as Democratic Party policy. Even if that expectation is premature, the popular reception of this program is a remarkable achievement for what began only a few years ago as an under-reported campaign uniting a few progressive labor leaders and some politically astute environmentalists. Despite its popular appeal, or maybe due to it, “Green Collar Jobs” lacks clear definition. The term arose from the groundbreaking, alliance between labor and environmentalists to create a massive national effort to “jump-start” an alternative energy program. They modeled it after John Kennedy’s well-funded Apollo Project to get an American on the moon, fast.

(link to rest of article)


“Nothing More Important” By Richard Register

June 26, 2008

The following is a short essay written by Richard Register as the published introduction to the companion book for the “Theory and Model of International Ecological City” subconference of the “20078 China International Architecture Design & Scene Planning Exhibition and Forum on Urban Planning of Senior Government Officials” in Langfang, Hebei Province, China, June 19 and 20, 2008. The book, called “The Living Land,” was published by the Shanghai International Investment Company which is building five “ecocity” projects including Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Wanzhuang, about 80 miles east of Beijing near Langfang.

There may be one or two things as important for humanity’s future, but nothing is more important than ecocities.

If human beings are stressing planet Earth to the breaking point, and we are, it is because of our vast numbers and our enormous rates of consumption of resources and production of wastes in the process. This stands as something broadly accepted in a world of climate change, the coming end of cheap energy and collapsing species diversity on a global scale.

But what is most often missed is the design and layout of our built environment of cities, towns and villages. Could we build cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well? That’s the promise of ecocities and in China some of the most important efforts in exploring cities are underway in places such as Wanzhuang Ecocity Project in Langfang. There we see the strategy of “leading by government, operating by market” which means that there needs to be a design of the incentives to assist and enable the design of the physical thing itself, the physical city as an ecocity.

First, just how important are cities? We have been hearing for some years now that “this year more than half the people in the world will be living in cities.” The figures keep shifting because the data gathered by the United Nations simply accepts and uses the various nations’ wide ranging definitions of what constitutes cities. But what is important to notice is that probably 90% or more of us – almost all of us – live in either cities, towns or villages and at all those scales our built community can be either designed upon the foundation of ecological understanding or without it. In other words, ecocity design relates to practically all scales of development and, if it were applied across those scales would be a solution of sufficient power to preserve and restore the health of the whole planet.

Second, how well recognized is the fact that ecocity design holds this enormous potential for health and happy solutions to crucial problems? Practically not at all! We are dealing with something almost a complete secret when the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December, 2007 fails to mention the largest things human being create when debating solutions to global heating. Not a word was said about city form or urban design. Certainly some of the world’s best scientists and most conscientious citizens and politicians were doing their best in all the ways they normally go about their work. But somehow they all missed the connection between the design, layout, planning and building of the largest creations of our species – cities – and their impacts on climate. If one kind of city puts out massive quantities of CO2, but a city built in a very different, ecologically informed way would put out one tenth as much, that is enormously important information. That building a different kind of city has this potential for good is simply an insight that is currently so new as to be almost unheard of. People have gotten used to the idea that an ecologically healthy city is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. The fact that cities do pollute has completely obscured the fact that they can pollute much less, very much less by design – and perhaps the “waste” products of that better design could actually be used for benefit instead of cast off as damage to land, life and society. We have simply not been paying attention to building the best we possibly could.

Third, why haven’t we been moving much more quickly toward ecocities? I’ve been wondering why something that sounds so good – cities designed on the measure of the person, rather than the machine, cities designed to leave room for nature in all its glory, cities to enrich soil as is done in China in a number of other countries in an older kind of agriculture that recycles organics thoroughly, cities conserving energy so well that only a modest flow of energy from the sun or wind could power the whole thing – have not been developed right along with all the other clever humans inventions. For more than forty years I’ve been working on ecological city design, and there have been others in the field too, but practically nothing until very recently has been built, and then on a small scale, as just a building here or there or a small part of city.

Lately we have been recognizing healthy “ecological” patterns in the essence of a much older way of building cities, as we see in the model of old European cities, Nepalese large towns, and traditional villages of compact design in China and around the world defining streets and bringing the full variety of mutual services close together. Why haven’t we earlier extracted the basic principles and techniques from the many pieces that seem to indicate where we should be going? Why has only recently Curitiba, Brazil assembled enough pieces of good layout and design that people are beginning to bring the picture into focus? It would seem strange that Dongtan, now said to be the “first ecocity” could actually be the first or something close to a first when we could have been building right for decades or even centuries. Maybe most important, is there something in the way we are building cities that makes it very difficult to actually progress toward cities good enough to be a positive ecological presence on Earth, a built environment in harmony with the natural environment?

I think there is an answer to this puzzle and it is that we have not been looking at things in their true proportion and we haven’t been exercising imagination fully. We stop thinking halfway to the answer.
Regarding proportionality, for example, the car is a key player in shaping contemporary cities – and disastrously. There is good theoretical basis for seeing the automobile as intrinsically extraordinarily damaging to urban health in simply noticing that the average car is approximately 30 times as heavy as the human body, ten times as fast and about 60 times as big in volume. Designing for something that overbearing in cities has been a mistake few are willing to face. Attempts at making cities healthier come up against desires for speed and bridging distances that have only been possible in an age of very cheap energy and machines that muscle their way across town while completely redesigning it. That’s one big problem in the way.

Another is a notion exemplifying lack of imagination and unwillingness to think through options more thoroughly. That problem exists even in many of the best of European towns and taught in architecture and city planning classes and that notion is that “good urbanism” doesn’t have nature in it. Why not? Who says? In what form and design? Why the lack of imagination here? This idea, embodied in, for example, the compact “walking streets” of old Europe and Asia and the squares and plazas with no plants at all and only pigeons for wildlife, or parks with 100% grass and non-native plants is an idea that has been around for so long it is taken as some sort of rule without thinking through how a much better relationship to nature could be even better urbanism, enriching urban life even more. It’s time to wake up – before nature strikes back for our lack of attention to her.

Another notion is “human scale” in cities – meaning small and often tagged to a four or five story height limit – though many people in China and larger cities everywhere take the notion much more realistically. The benefits of compact, three-dimensional form with real diversity of facilities and services means people can walk and take bicycles and transit very easily, saving enormous amounts of energy, land, time, material investment and money. There is a core of truth to the notion of human scale as small scale but it exists in a dynamic with the larger scale, which is a human product too, and which can be designed very differently than we see generally expressed now. For example, the vital pedestrian city could be one with many taller buildings with terraces linked by bridges, with large sheltered interior passageways on the scale of cathedral interiors, with sunny public space arranged around small waterways and native plants attracting native birds to high places.

I’ve seen people move small steps in the right direction and stop, satisfied that they have arrived. They, for example, might recycle better and buy an energy saving automobile, but they still live a long way from work and their friends and drive anyway. I’ve seen them freeze up the city, opposing any new “density” in already existing neighborhoods or resist adding diversity of services and jobs to a neighborhood, clinging to the segregating single uses of zoning that helped the car scatter the city of car dependent and cheap energy dependent distances. But in projects now being planned in China, such as Dongtan and Wanzhuang, the notion of “access by proximity” – being close to a wide variety of what you need in the city is finally taken seriously and will be the world model for our fast approaching future when cheap energy is gone forever.
But even there, what is missing is going for the full spectrum ecocity now. We need to be thorough. We need to see all the parts connected and understand that to have a better car actually makes a worse city because it perpetuates the same anti-ecocity form with all its excesses. It is time for imagination to explore the whole notion in its fullness. Only then can we get beyond the compromises and the habits of stopping way short of… cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well.


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