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: 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.

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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

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.

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.


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.


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