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Archive for January, 2008

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What? In the Nation’s Capital, in a region that the Federal Government has scolded and threatened because of its car generated air pollution (remember, government is our industry here in Washington…) at a time of record congestion coupled with rapidly rising fuel costs and climate change, the Federal Government is refusing to fund a desperately needed extension to our transit system. Are they nuts? Yup.

As you will recall from my post of 18 January, Washington, DC has the third (some lists say second) worst traffic in the nation. Because of the pollution generated by all the vehicles sitting in jams, the city, and the region, have been cited by the EPA for violating the Clean Air Act, threatening Federal funding for transportation projects. The traffic has driven up real estate prices in the District, as folks simply refuse their lengthening commutes and move into town. (We have often spent at least an hour getting from Capitol Hill to the Beltway, a distance as you can see of less than 10 miles).  Since 2000, thousands of new housing units have been (and are being) constructed downtown for new DC residents.

Here’s a few other tidbits. Washington has the second highest rate of residents without cars: 34% compared to New York’s 40+%.  Washingtonians enjoy access to an excellent transit network, and in particular one of the best subway systems in the U.S. But:

YOU CANNOT GET TO OUR INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT ON THE METRO

Washington, I heard yesterday on the news, is the only national capital in the world not connected to its international airport by rail. I suppose this is true, but even if it’s an exaggeration, the airport, and the rapidly expanding western portion of the metropolitan region, needs transit to reduce the stupefying congestion on our roads. Tysons Corner, the Schaumburg of our region with a huge shopping mall and office buildings, and all of the new office buildings built in what’s called the Dulles Corridor, have no transit access. The Metro system currently stops in Vienna/Fairfax, as you can see. The system needs to go 6 or 7 miles further west to get to Dulles.

Now none of this is a news flash. Connecting Metro to Dulles has been discussed since the origins of the system, over 40 years. And now – guess what? The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) this week said that it would refuse to fund the connection.

The main controversey in the Metro extension, which has been going on for years, has to do with whether the system should be extended above or below ground in the vicinity of Tysons Corner. Recently, in spite of very heated debates, local authorities decided to run the system above ground, to make it cheaper to build. This is not the best long range solution for a whole range of reasons, but they decided this, and they started spending tens of millions to get the project ready for construction. All with the understanding that the FTA would kick in about $1 billion of the estimated $5 billion price tag.

Other controversies have raged as well, like who will be in charge of the extension. But this was resolved some time ago when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, MWAA, said it would take charge, since most of the route would be on the roadway right of way that they own. MWAA understands the need for connection.

So in order to recognize this progress, and to express leadership in a time of environmental crisis, and to show the nation the critical role that transit must play in preparing for the next city, the FTA pulls the plug. They say there are too many unknowns, and have decided to duck instead of lead, stand and fight.

In time, this is sure to get untangled. Local authorities, and MWAA, will huddle, and eventually further compromises will be reached. And the cost will go up, and the clock will keep ticking on a region that is already an environmental timebomb. 

Throw the bums out.

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Today in the press there is a good example of what the world is up against in the struggle to make places that make sense. First, on his website at www.hughpearman.com, the critic Hugh Pearman (I guess you could figure that out…), a Brit, writes a recap on the status of making sustainable buildings and cities around the world. It’s a good piece, and he balances optimism with a (too brief) description of what we’re up against. Whistling in the dark, I think, but he does say, as I did the other day, that we know how to do what needs to be done – we just have to do it, and really fast.

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Dongtan, China, by Arup and SOM, a sustainble city now in construction

Next comes a review of a building in Munich. The review appeared in today’s New York Times, and was written by their architecture critic, Nicholas Ouroussoff. The building is called BMW Welt, and was designed by a firm called Coop Himmelb(l)au (no, not a typo). The building looks like this:

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BMW Welt, by Coop Himmelb(l)au

Ourousoff says: “the glittering forms of the BMW Welt building appeared, and immediately rekindled my faith in architecture’s future.” Oh? Not mine.

So there, in a nutshell, is what we are up against. The New York Times architecture critic has fallen head over heels for yet another in the latest line of designer label shapes and forms from the starchitects, who are so irrelevant it barely bears noting. Meanwhile, I read this the other day:

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport,” says Dr. Lester Brown, founder and director of the Earth Policy Institute, and founder and former director of the Worldwatch Institute. “We have reached a point in the deteriorating relationship between us and the earth’s natural systems where we all have to become political activists. Every day counts. We all have a stake in civilization’s survival.” 

It is a very, very difficult road ahead. And so many of the most famous architects, and critics, are completely irrelevant in shaping a usable future.

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Let’s unplug all of our buildings. Think of it! Right now, we’re plugged in to water, sewer, electricity, gas, telephone (though fewer and fewer of us), cable. The technology exists to care for each of these systems unplugged – photovolatics for power and heat, wireless, water systems that can collect and recycle. Imagine your neighborhood unplugged. We can do this, people.

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The founder’s cabin remains.

Studies have shown that if we unplug the Pentagon for one year, we will save enough power to run all the public transit in the United States – for fourteen years. Not bad.

 

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Best and Worst

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Richmond, Virginia

There is a group you can find on the internet, at http://www.sustainlane.com. They rank cities every year for levels of sustainability and environmental friendliness. I was taking a look the other day at the top ten most sustainable cities on their list (sustainlane is now cited by all the media as the experts in this matter – I guess all you have to do is make a list…), and the winners look like this:

1. Portland, OR
2. San Francisco, CA
3. Seattle, WA
4. Chicago, IL
5. Oakland, CA
6. New York City, NY
7. Boston, MA
8. Philadelphia, PA
9. Denver, CO
10. Minneapolis, MN

These then, are our brightest urban lights, the cities most likely to succeed. These cities point the way to the Next City. But as I looked at this list for a moment, I was struck with the fact that it looked very similar to another list I bumped into a while back.

After a few minutes of thought, I remembered that other list – the top ten U.S. cities with the worst traffic congestion. Compiled by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M, this list shows cities with the biggest challenges to sustainability – cities with big carbon footprints, generating lots of greenhouse gases, fraying nerves, wasting energy. The TTI 2002 list looks like this:

1. Los Angeles, CA
2. San Francisco/Oakland, CA
3. Washington, DC, and don’t we know it!
4. Seattle, WA
5. Houston, TX
6. A tie: San Jose, CA and Dallas, TX
7. New York, NY
8. Atlanta, GA
9. Miami, FL
10. Another tie: Chicago, IL, Boston, MA and Denver, CO

Very interesting. Of sustainlane’s honorees, only three are not also on the worst traffic list: Portland, Philly and Minneapolis. Unfortunately, in the TTI 2007 study, Minneapolis ranked 21st, Portland 27th, and Philly 34th for Most Wasted Fuel per Traveler.

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Portland, Oregon Traffic, image by Bruce Ely, the Oregonian

Perhaps we Americans need to rethink our criteria for what makes a place sustainable and environmentally conscientious. Walkable, compact, dense, with lots of transportation options besides cars – this might be a place to start for some criteria that might help to shape the next city. Can your city survive without cars? Can any city survive without cars? (Maybe only Venice).

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In the end, we have found horrible traffic jams all over the world. Take a look – the challenges are all around us.

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Istanbul                               Varna, Bulgaria                      Giza

“We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.” Pogo

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Lisbon, Portugal

In recent months we have had the extraordinary opportunity to visit many cities around the world, from Istanbul to Cairo, Lisbon to Rochester, New York to Portland. Some we have visited many times, some for only a fleeting moment. But we have tried to think about each place, tried to get to know a little of the story of each, and to witness how life in each city proceeds.

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Istanbul, Turkey

We have seen these cities growing and changing, some very quickly, and we have wondered about what’s next. What is the next Barcelona, the next Houston? Every city, even an ancient one whose only traces are a few piles of stone, is made of many layers of different versions of itself. As wars are won or lost, new technologies arrive, rivers run dry, fires rage, cities change, adapting themselves to the forces exerted upon them.

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Priene, near Kusadasi, Turkey

Thus one way to understand the next city is to understand the forces shaping it. These forces are extraordinarily diverse, of course. But today there are some common forces that will change every city, and will change every city soon. To meet these forces, and to adapt to them, our cities must change rapidly. The livability of cities, their basic sustainability as human communities, will be conditioned by how imaginatively, and how quickly, each city’s citizens can alter their metropolis.

What are these common forces? First, many of the world’s leading scientists agree that we have now seen oil production reach its peak. Even U.S. government analysts now agree that this is true. This means that while the population of the world continues to expand, and as development expands in places like Asia and Africa, the supply of oil will not increase, or may decline. It is easy to speculate about the impact of this circumstance on world politics, and on world events. And with half of the world’s population living in cities, about 3 billion people, it is easy as well to see that the cities we need are almost certainly not the cities we inhabit.

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Giza, Egypt – the City Encircles the Pyramids

Questions come to mind quickly. If gasoline costs $7 a gallon, what is the next L.A., the American city with the worst traffic congestion, going to look like? Our food, now shipped great distances in trucks (current studies suggest that the average American foodstuff is shipped 1,500 miles) will quickly become too expensive. Will we still be able to get to our jobs? Can we still take the children to school? How will the next city need to change to meet these forces?

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Rochester, NY, the Inner Loop

The second common force that the next city must address is our changing climate. Cities are now, many scientists agree, and will continue to become warmer, and wetter or drier, and increasingly subject to greater swings of extremes of climate. Examples are close at hand: Atlanta, Georgia is on the verge of running out of water. How should the next Atlanta be arranged to adapt to this force?

In the weeks ahead, we will examine the next city, trying to find clues to what the next urban layers will look like, feel like. How will our next cities hold our pasts, support our everyday life, and prepare to be home to future generations? Are we about to experience a very different world?

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Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government on the City, Siena, 1340

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