Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

End of the race

October 19, 2009

Team Ontario/BC’s house.

Ruthless efficiency:

The Solar Decathlon is over, and zee Germans have won.  DCist has photos here, and DC Metrocentric has a few observations:

This year, it was evident that most of the houses were designed with mainstream marketability in mind. Most of the houses were designed around a contemporary aesthetic and open plan arrangement, while others like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of Louisiana Lafayette referred to localized American Vernacular styles. The forms of the houses were primarily long thin rectangles, some had courts, while others had breezeways, but in total they were designed according to market standards for handicap accessibility and for mass production. This plan of public accessibility and marketability was definitely working. The grounds were extremely crowded and the lines to enter the winning houses wound down the main walk. Inside, the houses were obviously over maximum occupancy, and the crowds were really excited by what they saw. I overheard endless questions about fixtures and furniture from the most unlikely guests.

Also, one thing I hadn’t noticed – following on discussions of green infrastructure and urban hydrology:

What was the most striking in the engineering field was not what the teams did, but what they weren’t allowed to do, which was re-use gray water (waste water from non-sanitary means) or rainwater within the dwelling. Many of the houses had been designed with systems to reuse water, but the DC plumbing code forbids the use of gray or rain water for any domestic purpose except landscaping. Apparently, in many jurisdictions across the country using any water besides well water or municipal water for domestic uses is prohibited. The students at many of the houses made it a point to tell the crowds about their water reduction features and the specific reason why they couldn’t use it and encouraged people to contact their representatives to change this ordinance.

Water reduction is certainly an admirable goal, but it’s also one of those features that’s going to matter much more in some geographies than others.  All the more reason for codes (enacted at the local level) to take their local context into consideration.

The other thing Lepler notes above is the popularity of the Decathlon.  I stopped by several times, each visit clogged by people waiting in long lines to stand in small, crowded houses.  This level of engagement seemed both genuine and tangible – people could envision themselves living in these places, in spaces of this size, etc.


NIMBYs under the microscope:

Ryan Avent’s found scientific discussions of NIMBYism.

Available here. This is the abstract:

This paper suggests a cause of low density in urban development or urban sprawl that has not been given much attention in the literature. There have been a number of arguments put forward for market failures that may account for urban sprawl, including incomplete pricing of infrstructure, environmental externalities, and unpriced congestion. The problem analyzed here is that urban growth creates benefits for an entire urban area, but the costs of growth are borne by individual neighborhoods. An externality problem arises because existing residents perceive the costs associated with the new residents locating in their neighborhoods, but not the full benefits of new entrants which accrue to the city as a whole. The result is that existing residents have an incentive to block new residents to their neighborhoods, resulting in cities that are less dense than is optimal, or too sprawling. The paper models several different types of urban growth, and examines the optimal and local choice outcomes under each type. In the first model, population growth is endogenous and the physical limits of the city are fixed. The second model examines the case in which population growth in the region is given, but the city boundary is allowed to vary. We show that in both cases the city will tend to be larger and less dense than is optimal. In each, we examine the sensitivity of the model to the number of neighborhoods and to the size of infrastructure and transportation costs. Finally, we examine optimal subsidies and see how they compare to current policies such as impact fees on new development.

Bold is mine.

Along those same lines…

Mammoth links to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas Sugrue. Sugrue notes the problems of the ownership society and defining the American Dream in terms of homeownership – noting that renting is a far more prudent decision in many cases.

Yet the story of how the dream became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It’s not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. It’s a different kind of American story, of government, financial regulation, and taxation.

We are a nation of homeowners and home-speculators because of Uncle Sam.

I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Sugure speak on many items (including the state of Detroit), and this article doesn’t disappoint.  Mammoth notes the cultural aspects of sprawl, complimenting the economic analysis:

I tend to focus on technological (automobile), infrastructural (the interstate system, the regulatory dictatorship of the fire engine and its turning radii) and political (tax policies that favor home ownership, strict single-use zoning) reasons for the development of the form and ubiquity of the American suburb, but it is also very interesting to consider the suburb as the outgrowth of a cultural ideal, of a particular understanding of the relationship between person and home, or to consider the financial crisis as the (il)logical conclusion of that ideal, cultivated to absurd proportion and applied without regard to circumstance. That ideal is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is nearly invisible, seeming not a cultural construction but an essential and timeless rule, as deeply-embedded ideals often do.

As we re-examine the cultural underpinnings of the American Dream, we ought to re-examine the policies that biased that dream into suburban form and ask how we can give walkable, transit-oriented places a fair shake.


Eco-City Beautiful

October 19, 2009

Yes. When I was talking of green, urban infrastructure for McMillan 2, this is what I was talking about.

From the comments on my post here and at GGW, mammoth weighs in with some fantastic links.

I find the plan’s approach to the nature/city interface deeply troubling, as the plan claims to create a great deal of new land through the channelization of the river, but a quick comparison of the before-and-after plans shows that the vast majority of the “new land” is actually acquired by altering land-use patterns on existing land, which makes it hard not to think that the plan (a) expresses a deep-seated distaste for wetlands (exactly the sort of retrograde classicism which New Urbanists work hard to assure us their opponents are projecting onto them) and (b) is interested in channelizing the river for the sake of channelizing the river (because, that way, it looks more like cities built in the heyday of classicism look).

This is more or less in line with my initial critique of the plan.  To capture it in a phrase, the central element of the plan, narrowing the Anacostia River, is a solution looking for a problem.  Instead of teasing apart the elements that make Paris’ urban waterfront successful, it simply attempts to recreate it in a completely different ecosystem and context.

The affirmation of the my critique is nice, but the citation of a better way is what really caught my attention:

A comparison with Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Toronto Port Lands project, which also adds a great deal of density at the mouth of a river, but does so while “balancing.. the needs of the environment and the needs of the city” (in the words of Andrew Blum’s excellent essay) is not favorable. The Van Valkenburgh team arrived at urban form through intensive collaboration with ecologists and hydrologists; fans of the Anacostia plan seem to assume that ecology and hydrology can be safely ignored in the design of cities, thinking that so long as the overall density of the metropolitan area increases, the plan must have beneficial environmental impacts.

Toronto’s Port Lands is the exact kind of approach I’d like to see taken with the Anacostia.  Given the different context of Toronto’s port compared to the Anacostia, the form would likely be quite different, but the process the design team took (a team that includes architects, planners, hydrologists, and a litany of other experts as well) is the key.  Instead of a solution looking for a problem, you’ve got a team that’s analyzing the problem to develop the solution. From Andrew Blum’s essay, cited in mammoth’s quote:

This collaboration between landscape architects and ecologists is complex, and not without conflict. There is a basic difference in stance: landscape architects necessarily apply a design intention to a landscape, while ecologists observe and compare a landscape with an idealized theoretical framework of undisturbed nature. Landscape architects eager to respond to practical ecological concerns must reconcile these fundamentally different approaches to achieve substantial functional improvements — especially if those improvements are to operate both technically and metaphorically, for their own sake and as legible symbols of the Eco-City.

Torontos skyline from the Port Lands

Toronto's skyline from the Port Lands

Speaking of Toronto’s Port Lands specifically, Blum notes the tensions between the urban and the natural:

This is not an ecological restoration. Instead, it uses ecology as the foundation of a specific design intent. “Our shapes are related to the hydrological cycles of the river,” MVVA’s Matthew Urbanski said to me, “but we didn’t just let nature take its course. The river didn’t design the scheme, it informed the scheme.” By example, Urbanski points to the north tier of the site, which has a “mock natural” shape, like the bends of a river. It’s not meant to mimic nature, but instead is designed to create an experiential unfolding, encouraging a re-engagement with the landscape at each bend in the path.

What’s most notable here is the connection between the formal and ecological. While Urbanski may insist that the scheme is not merely imitative of nature, nature here is not fully flexible. The river may not have designed the scheme, but the scheme definitely designed the river — with the goal of creating ecological benefits. By restoring the mouth of the Don, the project doesn’t merely minimize the environmental impact of the neighborhood, but improves the ecological health of the site. And, as Steve Apfelbaum points out, those impacts are verifiable through soil samples and hydrographs. Ecology, unlike experience and aesthetics, is quantifiable.

Equally striking is the resolution of the traditional conflict between city and nature. The Port Lands proposal does not put a hard line between the park and the neighborhood, but rather intertwines the two to create a place at once more natural and more urban. As MVVA writes, the vision is to “make the site more natural, with the potential for new site ecologies based on the size and complexity of the river mouth landscape, and more urban, with the development of a residential district and its integration into an ever-expanding network of infrastructure and use.”

In my mind, the specific form of this urbanism would be different with DC’s river, its ecology, and its design heritage than it is in Toronto – with a smaller river, the lake, and former industrial areas to be redeveloped.

Simply being urban is not green enough.  Nir Buras suggested it was to a caller during his Kojo interview, and BeyondDC echoed that sentiment:

If we can focus a few hundred million square feet of development along the Anacostia by taking a few wetlands there, how many wetlands out in the suburbs will we save from development?

The rhetorical question is certainly an axiom of smart growth.  Dense, urban growth need not hurt the ecology of the river, however.  This doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition, as these concepts are not mutually exclusive.  BeyondDC also noted that the vast majority of the McMillan 2 plan is basically offering a classical aesthetic to projects that will happen regardless – Poplar Point, Reservation 13, etc.  Adding that density is more or less a given – we just need to add eco-functionality.

That kind of green infrastructure and process can truly improve the general concepts of McMillan 2.  As McMillan’s original plans embraced both the beauty and the functionality of City Beautiful infrastructure, this plan can help pave the way for the new Eco-City Beautiful.

Solar Decathlon

October 12, 2009

If you’ve strolled down to the Mall this weekend, you’ve likely run across a bunch of modern, high end trailer homes sitting out there as part of the Solar Decathlon.  I stopped by on my lovely Columbus Day holiday, and despite a lack of sunshine, the decathlon was in full swing.

ReadySetDC’s preview can be found here.

National Mall
(Between 10th + 14th Streets, Madison + Jefferson Drives)
October 9th – 13th, 15th – 18th

Some of my photos from today (again, sorry about the lack of actual sunshine):

[EDIT] DC Metrocentric has more, sunnier photos here [/EDIT]

The larger issue here, of course, is one of sustainability.  The relevant question is if ‘sustainability’ can really be captured within one single, easy to understand metric.  Building standards such as LEED assert just this.  As imperfect as they are, they’re at least a step in the right direction, so long as we recognize the limitations of those systems.  GOOD Magazine talks about ending LEED’s monopoly:

Because LEED buildings don’t have to perform up to spec in real life, LEED has contributed to a trend of showboating and point scrounging, leaving energy efficiency—arguably the most important metric—lost in the shuffle.

The average LEED building doesn’t even qualify for an Energy Star label.

Amidst a rising chorus of criticism, other standards are finally starting to get more attention. The Passive House standard, born almost 20 years ago in Germany, hones energy efficiency so finely that most certified Passive Houses need no conventional heating boiler. The overall energy use of a Passive House is around 70 to 80 percent less than a comparable conventional building.

Energy Star, like LEED, is a single rating metric, and as such, is subject to the limitations that a single metric imposes.  LEED, for example, includes points for recycled materials and water use, things that will be important for a truly sustainable structure in some locations.

Absent the larger debate on sustainability, the projects these student teams have put together are certainly worth a look.  I, for one, would love to see a discussion of how cities and the accidental environmentalists that live within them fit into the equation, as well as how these concepts and technologies can be applied to existing structures and urban environments.  However, it’s hard for me to envision how such ideas would fit within the current decathlon format.

Which is fine, so long as well all recognize the limits of these technologies and ratings.  Either way, check out these projects while they’re still on the Mall.

Burn on, big river. Burn on.

July 20, 2009

Cleveland’s most infamous image is a tremendously powerful one.  Some might say that it alone helped pushed through the Clean Water Act.   The Cuyahoga River, flanked with many industrial uses for Cleveland’s manufacturing plants, was so polluted it caught fire.

Cuyahoga River Fire.  Image from the EPA.

Cuyahoga River Fire. Image from the EPA.

The image alone was a great reminder of everything that’s wrong with the Rust Belt, but it’s also been seared into memory by Randy Newman’s song Burn On (forever ingrained in my mind from the opening credits of Major League).

Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn

The mythology around the fire almost became more important than the fire itself.  The Cuyahoga symbolized rampant pollution, the decline of industrial America, and neglect for the cities that it called home.

All of these make it remarkable that the Cuyahoga is now the symbol of a completely new struggle of urban pollution.  Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) notes how the last acts of compliance with the Clean Water Act will hamstring aging cities.

The first is a great New York Times piece on the rebirth of the Cuyahoga River. You may recall that this river famously caught on fire 40 years ago. Today, it is a totally different story.

The first time Gene Roberts fell into the Cuyahoga River, he worried he might die. The year was 1963, and the river was still an open sewer for industrial waste. Walking home, Mr. Roberts smelled so bad that his friends ran to stay upwind of him. Recently, Mr. Roberts returned to the river carrying his fly-fishing rod. In 20 minutes, he caught six smallmouth bass. “It’s a miracle,” said Mr. Roberts, 58. “The river has come back to life.”
On Monday, people who have worked for years to clean the Cuyahoga will celebrate at its banks. “It’s just remarkable,” said Steve Tuckerman, the Cuyahoga River specialist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “I never thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone in my career, such an amazing comeback of a river.”

America has cleaned up its waters greatly since the Clean Water Act. Still, the turnaround of the Cuyahoga is amazing. Once one of America’s worst polluted industrial rivers, now you can fish there. Contrast that with, say, the Indiana Harbor Canal, which remains unsafe according to every measure the EPA tracks.

Anytime you can go from the burning river pictured above to catching six smallmouth bass in a matter of minutes, you’ve made significant progress.

But this article holds a cautionary note, not just for Cleveland, but for almost every older American city. Despite remarkable progress in creating a river you can fish in, Cleveland is still facing $5 billion in future costs to fully comply with the Clean Water Act. That’s not a mis-print. It really is $5 billion.

Cleveland is far from alone. Indianapolis faces $3.5 billion in costs. Cincinnati in excess of $3 billion. And so it goes. In city after city the largest public works project by far is some sort of sewer remediation project, often involiving so-called “deep tunnels”, to eliminate combined sewer overflows.

This is not constrained to the Midwest, either.  DC has serious combined sewer overflow problems as well.  Pretty much every city of a certain age has to deal with these problems.  They’re serious issues that need to be dealt with, but we quickly run into a problem of unintended consequences.

Renn continues:

This may clean up the water to some extent but will have offsetting environmental harms that could be worse. First, many suburban areas already have separate sanitary sewers and effective stormwater management. Thus they may not have to incur any significant compliance cost in the future. With central cities like Indianapolis forced into tripling or more their already high rates, suburban districts like Carmel, Fishers, and Noblesville look even more attractive financially. Thus, sprawl is encouraged. This leads to more automobile usage and air pollution which is actually a greater danger to human health than CSO overflows, to say nothing of CO2 emissions.

I am a supporter of clean water. I believe in it. I think the Clean Water Act was a good thing and the Cuyahoga River cleanup illustrates why. But the last ten percent is the hardest to get. Looking at the cost/benefit from a purely local point of view, is there any way Cleveland will get $5 billion worth of improved public health, economic, or recreational benefits out of this project? It is extremely unlikely. And what is the opportunity cost? Huge. Think of what you could do with $5 billion. Cleveland could solve its abandoned home problem, renew a huge chunk of its infrastructure, build more transit, invest it back in lower taxes and fees, and much more – all things that could make a huge difference in that city.

Chris Bradford also chimes in on the subject:

Cleveland can’t go anywhere, but its residents can…

Renn suggests that the federal government assume the cost of replacing ancient sewer systems.  That might be the only solution.  The federal government has no incentive to weigh costs and benefits accurately when it can simply issue a mandate.  And the moral hazard risk is smaller than one might think:  the city’s main “crime” is being old enough to need a new sewer system.

Guarding against strategic behavior by a city is tricky anyway since, again, its residents can simply move when things get bad.  Rather than stick central cities with crippling legacy costs, it makes more sense for the federal government to issue reasonable regulations and pick up the tab for unforeseen costs.

Several of Renn’s commenters make great points about sensible regulations cities could enact, as well as ideas they should pursue – such as encouraging green roofs, adding greenery to parks and public space, encouraging rain gardens and bioswales – each of which can be enacted at a scale suitable to a city – rather than a $5 billion deathblow.  The case for Federal help is awfully strong – particularly when noting (as Chris Bradford does) the propensity of the feds for totally ignoring the cost-benefit implications of their regulations.

This isn’t exactly something new.   Unintended consequences are unfortunately all too common.  Discovering Urbanism noted several weeks ago the potential for stormwater regulations to undermine a holistic understanding of what makes for a sustainable community.  All too often, these well-intentioned regulations (seriously, who’s against clean water?) end up leading to some bad decisions because they focus their interests far too narrowly.  Likewise, the remedies to the problems can cripple existing cities with great infill development potential, pushing more development to the suburbs.

Putting these issues into the larger context is a must.  And given the large costs involved, Federal assistance is likely the only realistic option.  That’s not to absolve cities of their responsibility – small scale projects and efforts to reduce runoff and improve infrastructure are vital.  The Feds need partners in these enterprises, not just people grabbing the cash.