Archive for April, 2009

Earth Week Reflections


What a week. Never have we heard so many say so much (and so little) about greenness. We conclude that our consumer culture has been pretty nearly completely greenwashed.

On TV we observe a young couple selecting a 4,000 square foot suburban house (with garage space for multiple vehicles) that has “so many green features.” Energy rated appliances, blah, blah, blah. “Eco-friendly.” Really?

HGTV is running a “Green House Sweepstakes.” First prize is a ‘green’ house in Florida, and a 2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid pickup truck (21 mpg  city, 22 mpg highway). 

We got tons of spam emails this week – everybody selling green this or that: United Airlines, Smith + Noble (they sell drapes), Crate and Barrel. Same contents, but now in a green package.

I guess this is good, somehow, it’s just hard to see how. Perhaps this means a basic awareness that we have a bit of a problem is now widespread. But it’s difficult not to be cynical. 

In our neighborhood, lots of veg gardens have been planted. Home improvement projects this spring feature quite a lot of tankless water heaters and other green home infrastructure. And there is a lot of conversation about what more we can do. Within the well known constructs of contemporary life, most folks are trying to live more thoughtful, less wasteful lives. Good. 

But I find myself coming back to an old question: what will it take?  We need many orders of magnitude of change in order to imagine and construct the next city. What will it take to make this happen?

There is no question about the fact that we live in a variety of forms of human community that are archaic, unsupportable, increasingly unuseable. And there is no question about the speed at which this will become even worse – really fast. Faster, in fact, than we can respond, talk about it, pass laws, remake our urban places, make a transition to what we imagine comes next.

So it was quite a week. Lots of conversations, even more greenwashing. Maybe Earth Week next year should include some kind of real challenge. Like this: sell your car(s).  Take the bus, walk, ride your bike, take the train. But sell your car. 

No bus nearby? No train? Can’t walk to get what you need? Time for the next city.

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Edison’s first lamp, by Robert Farrow.

I am not a luddite, but I do have a very healthy skepticism about technology representing our salvation. In the past 10 generations, we have succeeded in making an enormous mess, thanks to technology, a mess of such proportions that we are only now beginning to understand what we have done, and what the mess means for our future. Now we use technology to assess the damage, and the reports are grim.

Nonetheless, I was curious last week about technology and speed. How quickly can a new invention change our cities? So I took some time to do some fast research, in two categories. Take a look at this.

One. In September of 1878, the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, declared that he would provide incandescent light to New York City.  He did not have a workable light bulb, and only limited means of generating power, but he did have the financial backing of a handful of Wall Street tycoons. The race for illumination was on.

On New Year’s Eve of 1879/80, Edison demonstrated his lighting system – bulbs, fixtures, switches, wiring – to an amazed crowd of thousands, at his New Jersey laboratory. In 1882 his Pearl Street power station in Lower Manhattan came to life, and the lights went on in New York. The city, which had been in William Manchester’s words “a world lit only by fire,” would never be dark again.

In May of 1893, at the beginning of a worldwide economic meltdown of gigantic proportions, George Westinghouse’s installation of 250,000 light bulbs and 29,000 horsepower of electric dynamos (made possible in large measure by the patented inventions of Nikola Tesla) magically lit up the White City of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, pumped water in great fountains, ran moving sidewalks, and dazzled 27 million visitors. The electric city had arrived.

That’s 15 years, from Edison’s cocky boast to a city of light.


The White City, from the Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum.

Two. Equally astonishing in speed, and nearly equal in its impact on our cities is, of course, the car. In 1900 there were 4,192 cars in the U.S. Today there are 250,000,000.

Henry Ford started The Ford Motor company in 1903. That year he built 1,700 cars. In 1908 he started production of the soon to be ubiquitous Model T. In 1910 Ford built 19,000 cars. In 1911 he produced 34,500. In 1924, the 10 millionth Model T rolled off the production lines.

And so our cities became places for cars, eventually at any and all cost.


Henry Ford and the Model T, 1921.

I suppose the moral of the tale is clear. We can change our cities, and how we live in them, at blazing speed – the speed of light, if you will. Perhaps not as quickly now as then, when there was very limited regulation of any kind on money, manufacture, materials, or consequences. But fast. Take comfort in this, since we now, again, must make huge changes to our cities in record time.

And perhaps the second part of the lesson is that neither Edison, nor Ford, nor pretty much anybody else during those, or any other, boom times, took much of a measure of the consequences.

Then as now, Edison burned coal to make electricity, in cities that were enormously polluted, even without cars. When Edison was at work in Manhattan, there were 150,000 horses at work in Manhattan alone. The city stank and waste was everywhere – about 2 or 3 million pounds of it a day.

So in 1887, when Frank Sprague invented the electric steetcar in Richmond, Virginia, city dwellers were elated, and the horse population dwindled quickly. Then Henry Ford sped things up even more with the mass-produced automobile.

Electricity and cars, two of the most powerful shapers of our cities, changed our cityscapes completely in just twenty years – one generation. And they set us on a course for the mess we face today.

I am certainly not eager to return to candles and horses. But I did hear something that caught my attention as I was writing today. A TV ad said that the sun provides enough energy for the entire planet’s day in just 30 seconds.

Inventors – back to your labs!


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I want to talk about scale and size in our urban infrastructure, but it will take me a few minutes. Stick with me.

I started off last week continuing to think about the grid, or grids, that make cities work. Kind of.

Actually, our cities don’t really work very well at all, and their grids are pretty much a total disaster. One of the biggest challenges we face in constructing the next city is in retooling our broken, outmoded, under-maintained, obsolete, inadequate infrastructure – our grids.

Here in Washington, as in most US cities, we have: water problems, when the Potomac is often drained of as much as 85% of its flow during hot, dry summer days;  extreme sewage problems, with 2 to 3 billion gallons of raw sewage dumped annually into the Anacostia River during major rain events; power problems, best understood when our electricity supplier, Pepco, declares their pathetic goal of hoping to produce 20% or our energy using renewable sources by 2020; and communications problems, because we have no fiber optics and very spotty wi-fi, mostly limited to the Public Library branches and local coffee shops (We had better wi-fi in the middle of an Egyptian desert than we have here at home).

Oh, and our vehicular grids don’t work either, though as non-car people we notice this less than most of our neighbors. And we don’t care much if all the cars can’t move – get rid of them. But it is true that DC has some of the worst traffic and congestion in the country.


As I thought about these grids and all their problems, I found myself wondering what it would take to get free of this mess. And how much it would cost.

Intuitively, I suspected that getting totally off the grids at the scale of our one Capitol Hill rowhouse here in Washington would be a difficult and expensive proposition. We certainly could mount a solar array on the roof for some of our power and/or hot water, convert to geothermal by drilling holes in the backyard, install composting toilets. But getting all the way off the grids? Probably not very achievable in our relatively dense urban setting.

So what about a scale shift in my thinking? What about trying to do this at the scale of our block – 57 rowhouses with an alley that is so narrow virtually no one can use it. Take a look:


If we used the alley space communally, we could install distributed combined heating and power (CHP), a kind of district CHP system like those used on campuses and in similar places, perhaps fueled by renewable biomass of various kinds. We could close the water loop, treat the gray water or use it in irrigation and sanitation, capture the sewage for compost, and maybe to augment the district CHP, build a solar array at a scale that would be useful and install a wind turbine or two. Now we’re making some headway.

As I did research into the technologies, systems and equipment, costs, and looked at problems or obstacles, I was really struck by something interesting: there is not a lot of discussion of problem-solving at the scale of a city block. The individual house, usually out in the country, yes – or at the scale of the nation. But not much about the block. There is a group called “One Block Off the Grid,” but it’s just about solar power, not about the larger issue of all the grids that are a mess.

Most of the discussion I encountered has to do with solving the grid problem, or grids problems, at a national scale. The costs are staggering, the time needed to transition way too long – we’ll all be swimming, in the dark, by the time any progress is made – and there are all kinds of fairly virulent arguments about how to proceed.

Just one example will illustrate. Some scientists propose that we transition from a carbon to a hydrogen economy. They propose replacing the national electrical grid with a super cooled hydrogen grid. By 2050. Other scientists say this is crazy, dangerous, dirty, infeasible, requires scores of nuclear reactors. Costs are in the trillions (the American Society of Civil Engineers says it will cost $1.5 trillion just to fix the grid we already have). I hear fiddle music and Rome is burning.

So what can we afford, what is feasible, what can we implement fast? Even thinking at the scale of our city is problematic. To fix the problem of sewage dumping in the Anacostia here will cost over $2 billion. That stops sewage going into the river, but it really doesn’t fix the sewage problem, use the sewage in any way, or close the wide open water loop. A desperately needed patch, but a patch nonetheless.

Coupled with an absence of local, city-block based thinking is another flaw in thinking: lots of talk about what constitutes THE solution, when in fact we will need all possible solutions. There is no one solution to any of this mess.

At the scale of our block, we can employ all the tools in the tool bag. District CHP, mini-CHPs per house, solar, wind, geothermal, distributed water treatment and management, waste handling and reuse.

Through a nearly endless number of visits to incredibly arcane websites, I think I have a ballpark order of magnitude estimate of what this might cost us and our 56 neighbors. I am going to guess that we can get pretty close to off the grids for something in the vicinity of $2 million or $3 million. This works out to between $35,000 and $50,000 per rowhouse.

I know, I know, you will pick me apart on all the details. That is where where the devil lives, after all. As far as I can tell, there are no models or templates to examine for answers. Some new construction, yes, like the Bedzed housing development in England (100 units, district CHP using biomass, zero-energy). But I can’t find anybody that has retrofitted a city block to get it off the grid.


BedZed, in London.

The technology is now present to do this. We will have to do a bunch of tinkering to find the right combination of tools to solve the problem. But if I can wrangle up a couple of million bucks, and convince my neighbors to give it a shot, perhaps we could at least get started trying.

And, in the long run, we wouldn’t need the national grids for much any more. So the scale problem of national infrastructure and trillions of dollars gets solved by being as local as possible – the city block.

In a time of 3,000 pound personal transportation devices, and access to the globe at any moment from our easy chair, it is hard to focus on the right scale of endeavour to make progress in shaping the next city. But I am going to stick with my intuition on this one – start thinking about city blocks. Not cities, not regions, not states, not the nation. Just stick with the humble city block.

Oh, and one last thing. Amy asked me if I could calculate the time it would take to pay back the $35,000 to $50,000 investment in savings from utility bills. My reaction: very, very soon, payback time will be irrelevent. Sorry folks, but if the lights don’t go on anymore, or if you have no water when you turn on the faucet, payback doesn’t mean much at all. And that’s where we’re headed, real soon.

Talk amongst yourselves.

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Called to jury duty this week. While we’re gone, feel free have a look around.

For loyal readers, I have collected the four posts on Vernacular Urbanism, and published them in a little 30 page paperback book, which is available for purchase. Go to www.blurb.com, and search for the title “Vernacular Urbanism and the Next City.” No mark up on this for us, just their cost – it’s about $13.

Back in a few days.

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We hear every day now about the staggering sums of money being thrown at this and that sinking sector of our nation’s economy. It’s hard to understand the scale of all of this. I am just now starting to figure out what a toxic asset is, and I am struggling to grasp what $700 billion dollars means. Or $50 billion to the automakers. So I have been sitting here trying to think of ways to understand all this money talk.

Here is what I have calculated today, cast in terms that even a feeble minded architect can understand.

How much to build a real high-speed rail line from DC to New York? Gets cars off the road, shuttle aircraft out of the skies. Current estimates suggest that high speed rail costs about $50 million a mile to construct. You can quibble with me if you’d like, but I don’t think I am too far off.

                        acela-cmp        tgv_retgv-03-cmp 

Amtrak’s Acela, and France’s TGV High Speed Rail.

So the line between DC and NYC, around 200 miles, would run about $10 billion. That doesn’t seem so bad, when compared to the fact that we have just poured $50 billion down the carmaker sink hole, an amount that is clearly not going to be nearly enough to save them. DC to NYC in about an hour. Good.

Last year, Amtrak’s Acela carried about 3.2 million passengers. On a dedicated right-of-way, high speed rail could easily double this figure. So let’s say, for the sake of easy math, that the passenger count jumps to 10 million. That would mean that the system would cost $1,000 per passenger for a year. Or $100 per passenger over 10 years. Change the ridership calculations if you’d like, but the cost of the system seems pretty manageable even if I am off by an order of magnitude.

As an aside, the Eurostar high speed system in Europe carries 800 passengers per train, with 15 trains per hour. If you run this out, and figure that that capacity would run, say, 12 hours a day, that’s 144,000 folks per day. Now run that out a bit further, and figure 260 days per year, the number of work days at 5 days a week per year. That’s 37,440,000 passengers per year. 10,000,000 passengers per year doesn’t sound like much of a stretch.

Now this is sounding pretty good, after you figure out the additional cost of all the crud that wouldn’t be spewed into the atmosphere by the planes and cars that high speed rail could supplant. (High speed will save a couple of hundred million pounds of carbon dioxide pollution per year in the bargain).

Okay, what’s next. Let’s tackle energy, heat and power for homes, in lieu of repairing the national electrical grid. If we can generate all our power and heat at home, we can substantially decrease what needs to be invested in the grid. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a report card on our nation’s infrastructure every year, and most recently they estimate that we must spend $1.5 trillion dollars between now and 2030 to upgrade the grid. They give our energy system a D+ grade. Sounds high to me.


The EPA has issued a report that examines distributed CHP (combined heat and power) systems, a decentralized, local way of generating all of the heat, power, and cooling for an individual home with high efficiency, using a variety of different fuels and ultimately a fuel cell, taking the house off the grid. They are still expensive – about $15,000 per household. So do the math. That means that 100 million homes (there are about 105 million homes in the US) could install CHP in lieu of spending $1.5 trillion on the grid, and generate all the power, heat and cooling each house requires with a new unit in the basement. Not bad.


The Dachs Mini-CHP unit, manufactured in the UK.

Now what? Food. Here’s another good calculation to give you a sense of scale and economics. Scientists tell us that thanks to our system of industrialized agriculture, an average meal travels 1,500 mile to get to our plate. Now if a semi trailer truck gets about 7 miles per gallon (you can check me on this), then the 1,500 mile trip will use about 215 gallons of fuel. With diesel fuel at about $2.20 a gallon, the cost of your meal should be $473.


Of course there are 20,000 other meals on that same truck, which means that the actual fuel cost per meal is about 2 and 1/2 cents. To feed everybody in the nation for a day, say a billion meals a day, (lots of folks eat more than 3 meals a day) that comes to about $25 million in fuel costs. Per day. And requires about 10 million gallons of fuel. Now here’s the kicker.

CO2 generation for that one day of food: 22.2 pounds per gallon of diesel fuel according to the Department of Energy, thus totaling 222 million pounds. Hmmm – not so good. Average annual US CO2 generation per household: 40,000 pounds, the highest per-household average in the world.

I wanted to add something about water to finish, something that would give me some sense of scale relative to all four of the big issues facing the next city: energy, water, mobility and food. But when I got to water, I found a single fact and was so stunned, I figured I could quit.


Daily – DAILY – water usage in the US is 408 billion gallons, according to the USGS! To put that in some kind of focus, note that we use 390 million gallons of gasoline every day in this nation. So we use 10 times more water than gasoline. 65% of the water is used by industry, about 25% by agriculture, and about 10% for domestic purposes. Yikes.

I guess I am beginning to get a handle on what hundreds of billions of anything might mean. But the better I understand, the worse I feel. There seems to be a big difference between what we think we can afford, and what we can really afford.

I need a bigger calculator.

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