Archive for September, 2008

Man on Ledge

It’s getting pretty rough out there…

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You may recall this image – a one mile walking circle around us here on Capitol Hill. I wrote about this last February – Valentine’s Day to be exact. I was thinking then that what most urbanists use to define a walkable neighborhood – a quarter mile radius – seemed kind of wimpy to me. A mile only takes 20 minutes for most – though not all – of us, so I advocated, and advocate, raising the bar to a radius of half a mile. Since the next city will be a walking or biking or something else city, and not a car city, it seems like we need to think more seriously about living in urban settings where all of what we need is around us – within a mile.

Placa Reial, in the very walkable city of Barcelona.

Today I scored our neighborhood, rated as one of the most walkable in the nation, using a wonderful website called walkscore. At www.walkscore.com, you can see how your neighborhood performs. (There is also a link on our blogroll, below at the right). We scored an 88 out of 100 – “Very Walkable.” Turns out that the algorithm they use is a one mile radius from the address you type in. I guess I wasn’t ambitious enough.

Capitol Hill, image from flickr.

Now living on Capitol Hill without a car is an eminently achievable – notwithstanding an occasional round of errands with the local Prius Zipcar, as today. This whole city is pretty walkable (only 63% of Washingtonians own a car), but Capitol Hill is a paradigm of walkability.

While I was at it, I thought I would test out a few addresses, and the first I tried was our old place in Lakeview, in Chicago. And surprise of surprises: the old ‘hood scored a 94 – “Walkers’ Paradise.” Harumph.

Lakeview, in Chicago, image from flickr.

Give walkscore a shot – it may open your eyes to new possibilities. And while your at it, fill in the petitiion on their front page, telling Congress to get with walkability. (Hah! The next city is a closed book to these people – they want to give $25 billion to the car guys. Maybe the bailout will table that idea…).

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The arch in downtown Willits, California, from flickr.

Here is an article that is fairly astonishing, so I thought I would share. I found this at www.urbanism.org, a great site, and listed below on our blogroll. I apoloize for all the links, and for the resulting raggedy appearance of this post. But the data here are quite engaging. 

Take a look:


Download the Excel spreadsheet and look at the energy assessment. It’s very revealing.

Engineer Brian Corzilius, of Willits, California, a town of 5,000 or so in Mendocino County, decided to make a survey of energy use in his town, as part of an effort there called WELL, Willits Economic LocaLization. Some of the citizens in Willits are trying to make their community more conomically sustainable, and are focusing on localization of resources and assets.

You can visit WELL at their website: www.willitseconomiclocalization.org.

Anyway, the results of Corzilius’ study, which are donwloadable, indicate that nearly 25% of the net (after-tax) revenue in town goes out of town to pay for energy. And this is calculated at lower than today’s rates for gasoline and diesel fuel. 25%! Out of town!

I found his audit fascinating, but equally interesting is the fact that Willits is trying to plan for an economically and environmentally sustainable future. I will have to keep watch to see how they progress. I’ll bet they’re further along than my city, or yours, thanks to Engineer Corzilius’ analysis.

Willits, California, photo from flickr.

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Enough said.

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Icemen, on the rocks.

Recently I have been working to try and understand food history and the development of various milestone food technologies in the last few centuries, with the aim of getting to know what has enabled a global food industry. This is a very complicated matter, and understood and written about by much wiser heads than my own – I have some great books open on the work table. But when we can longer afford to send food across the country (1,518 miles for the average American dinner), or when we can’t shop in a supermarket with its 45,000 items from around the globe, there will be very significant implications for the next city, so I read on.

Being able to enjoy fruits and vegetables, or meat and fish, from around the world is first, last, and always about keeping things cool, Louis Pasteur notwithstanding. Being able to ship your beef from the U.S. to London, as Timothy C. Eastman was doing in 1873 (10,000 tons a year), meant having holds in ships that were cold – really cold. They were filled at first with ice, then with all kinds of machinery employing all kinds of nasty chemicals.

Not surprisingly, the story of cool food is filled with all kinds of cranks and goofballs. But I was surprised to find out how old this cold shipment business was, and how big. It ends up being pretty interesting. Take a look at what I’ve found so far.

-In 1806, Frederic Tudor bought the brigantine Favorite and started shipping ice, harvested during the previous winter, to the West Indies. It didn’t work very well at first, but by 1833 the “Ice King,” as this Bostonian became known, was shipping ice to Calcutta, a 4 month journey. He would load 180 tons in Boston, and 100 tons would make it to Calcutta. One source for his ice: Walden Pond.

-By 1856 U.S. ice was going to China, the Philippines and Australia, among many places. Interestingly, meatpacker Gustavus Swift invented the reefer for rails in 1857, in Chicago.

The USS Arctic, a Navy reefer used in the Spanish-American war, in November of 1898.

 The Brazilian Reefer, a contemporary refrigerator ship.

-In 1900 there were 356 reefer ships sailing on the oceans. Today there are 1,013 (CIA Factbook, 2007) reefer ships. I thought this seemed like a modest increase across more than a century, until I discovered that most cold or frozen shipping these days is done in shipping containers. The China-based Coscon Company owns over 22,000 of these containers alone.

Refrigerated shipping container.

So far, I have not found any way to figure out how much energy all this cooling takes, but intuitively it is a very big number. Between the ships, the containers, railroads, aircraft, and reefer semis, there is a vast armada of hardware making it possible for you to have white prawns from Thailand or cherries in January from Chile.

Food for thought.

Carl Larsson, Harvesting Ice, 1905.

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And the walls come tumbling down. This afternoon I am trying to calm down, without much success. Let me explain – it’s kind of complicated.

Congress has just passed an energy bill, which among many things provides for opening U.S. coastal areas to offshore drilling. Only a moron could think of this act as anything except rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Hey folks – drill all you want, we’re still sinking!

But as if that wasn’t enough, the other bill likely to pass through Congress before they recess for elections this fall is one that will provide $25 billion to U.S. automakers. The funds will be awarded to the auto industry as a wonderful thank you gift for failing to make environmentally oriented (there is no such thing as a sustainable car, but I will go on) products that people actually want to purchase. Since the automakers are all getting badly thrashed by overseas competitors, they want taxpayers to help them become competitive. This blindingly absurd and preposterous turn of events would be hilarious, except one thing – it’s going to happen. Oh, how the mighty have fallen – Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Lehman’s, Merrill Lynch, GM, Ford, Chrysler.

And now comes the punch line. GM CEO Rick Wagoner, on the occasion of GM’s 100th anniversary, yesterday unveiled the Chevy Volt.

Wagoner, on the left, and the Volt.

It won’t be available until 2010. It’s an electric hybrid, and they really haven’t gotten the technology unkinked yet. But what terrific timing – now we can all see that GM’s heart is really in the right place.

But just for fun, let’s do a little comparison. Chevy Volt: range on a single charge of the batteries (before the 1 liter, 3 cylinder turbocharged gasoline fired engine kicks in) 40 miles. Weight: in the range of 3,200 pounds. Cost: expected to be between $30,000 and $40,000.

The Segway i2.

Segway i2. Range on a single charge: 24 miles (60% of the Volt). Weight: 105 pounds (1/30th of the Volt). Cost: under $5,000 (1/7th or 1/8th the Volt).

Segway inventor Dean Kamen must have gotten something approaching $25 billion to develop, manufacture and market the Segway, right? Probably not.

I mean, that’s how it’s done in the U.S., right? If you are a failure, can’t figure out what the hell you are doing, and have run your business into the ground because you are led by morons, then you put out the old tin cup, and presto! And you can be in almost any business – finances, banking, insurance, cars. All you need is greed, stupidity, shortsightedness, deceitfulness and selfishness and just look at how far you can go. Amazing.

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The Algonquin town of Pomeioc. Watercolor by Captain John White, 1585.

“…comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.” Paul Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.

“From food and water, then, we may learn whether (city) sites are unhealthy or healthy.” Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture.

I continue to reflect on my search for sustainable shapes and forms that can help us create the next city. I am trying to find a more precise and useful way to describe how to think about making places that respond to specific and local environments and circumstances: vernacular urbanism.

Before the industrial revolution, most urban lives, and city forms, were entirely focused on all things local. The principle forces shaping cities –  food, water, mobility and energy – were necessarily resolved in quite direct and legible ways. Whether in the ancient gridded Ionian city of Priene on the Maeander River in Anatolia (about which we have written here previously), or the winding streets on the hillsides of Lisbon, the forms of the city were frequently organized around a simple idea: access.

The Alfama, in Lisbon. Photo from flickr.

Citizens led the best good life (which is not to say without misery, war, chaos or pestilence – I do not mean the “good old days,” I mean simply a sustainable, thus good, urban existence) in places that offered easiest access to energy, food, water and transit (on foot or by horse, but almost always by boat on rivers, before the advent of the railroad). Using locally available resources, the city was constructed to be as durable and accommodating as possible – warm in winter, cool in summer, dry in the rainy times, with easy access to plenty of food, water, and energy – usually wood – for warmth, cooking, and making things.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, mass production gave us access to resources and materials that were almost never local in derivation, and available in an increasingly dizzying variety. Suddenly a wooden city or a stone city built near forests or mountains could become an iron city, a steel city or eventually a plastic city. As railroads emerged, we Chicagoans (my native place) could begin to enjoy a Florida orange, or a potato from Idaho. As the lights came on we could begin to ignore the cold, the lack of sunlight, and ultimately even the heat.

And when we could sit behind the wheel of our 3,000 pound personal transportation devices, things got better yet. Now we really could ignore where we were, and where things came from. We could drive to the shopping mall or the supermarket, where goods and foodstuff from across the globe were stockpiled – some 45,000 items in a typical supermarket alone. Every city became the shape and form of every other city – freeways, seas of parking lots, skyscrapers, strip shopping centers, subdivisions. What was once a unique urban response to local particulars and resources had almost totally disappeared. Everywhere.

And now this era of access to excess comes to a close. The patterns of living that we have evolved, and their corresponding urban shapes and forms, we are suddenly discovering we cannot sustain. Now what?

What have we learned? Now we can begin to recover our past, our history, how we once lived in places in ways that worked for the long haul. We must begin to look again at how we get our energy – sun, wind, tides, or other means, depending on where we are. We have to realize that we cannot afford to transport our food from every corner of the world – it just costs too damn much as oil prices rise and then rise again. We watch as cities all over the world run dry, their lakes disappear, and droughts rage – we must change the way we think of our water systems.

So we get out of our cars, stop building highways and parking lots and use other forms of transit instead, move closer together, capitalize on our local resources and assets. We craft regions so that we can grow food instead of subdivisions. We build new public markets, in neighborhoods all over our cities, to offer access to fresh foodstuff.

Shopping malls disappear. Supermarkets shrink. Now we spend much more time on foot – perhaps our city blocks become filled with pathways and snickets so we can meander. We live where we work. If we have to build, we build more simply – less tall, more durable, in the kind of self-contained fashion of another age. So, as we once did, we use local materials as much as we can.

We remember how to make and repair things. We use what’s at hand in materials to create what we need, and we now must rely on new ways to share what we know. Since we always build what’s in our heads, we will have to fill our heads with how to build.

And perhaps we can rearrange things – change the city’s blocks or add new spaces and places. Here’s an example you may have seen here once before: 

And we can engage in a kind of vernacular version of what are some calling micro-urbanism – the extremely local, circumstantial and provisional reclaiming of urban spaces – the space beneath the viaduct, the cloverleaf interchange, a repurposed gas station. Spaces under and between and abandoned or unfinished. Take a look at the results of this idea in a course called “Urban Landscapes” taught by Professor Jeff Hou at the University of Washington in Seattle: http://microseattle.wordpress.com.

We begin with historic forms, materials, methods, because these have succeeded for a very long time. But we add new ideas and attitudes and renewable materials that extend and build upon these foundations. In the end, vernacular urbanism for the next city is not about the cutting edge, or the old fashioned and traditional. Instead, I think, the best vernacular urbanism for the next city is an integration of old and new, for the purpose of providing cities that can sustain us for more than a generation, and can provide access to the best good life in a changed world.

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