Archive for June, 2009

financial chart

I’ll make this short. I am very cranky this afternoon, and I admit it. The lead from the AP wire, a few minutes ago: “Consumers are saving more than they’re spending, and that has investors worried.” What?!?!

Okay, so what, really, is the point of our economy? A rising GDP is the whole game? After a long swooning flirtation with seemingly unending profligacy, consumers are now chastened, are saving, and that worries investors? Nuts. Just totally nuts.

Investors, guess what? The growth you have in mind is not the growth anybody wants anymore. Sorry guys – the big banks are shot, the auto industry has tanked, homebuilders are dropping like flies, the malls are ghost towns. It’s over (at least I wish it was).

Hey, world of investors and makers of things, why not try investing in and making things that will help us? Local stuff, stuff that eases the frightening messes we face. Can we not replace GDP with something that makes sense, something that measures how we are doing in creating cities that are actually capable of sustaining us, and our children’s children?

What, in the end, is growth for? Riches, but then what? It’s easy to see that we have spent decades building an economy that has wrecked our cities, our countrysides, our air, our water, our food. (By the way investors, are you keeping track of how many films have been released in the last three months dealing with our food disaster? Opportunity?).

Can we get you to pay attention, please?

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I have speculated here repeatedly about taking a single existing urban block off the grids. I have come to believe that the scale of a single city block may be the most affordable, and rational, way to retool existing urban neighborhood infrastructures: power, heat, water, gardens, all in the alley. And now it turns out that I am way, way behind the curve. Here’s what I mean.

Today my sister, in Salem, Oregon (her blog is on our blogroll, at the right – On the Way), sent me this image, and I instantly fell out of my chair. Take a look.

Salem chp

This is the day, in 1937, when the cornerstone was laid for the new Oregon State Capitol. Seems innocuous enough, right? Big crowd, speechifying – a memorable day.

Ah, but let’s zoom in to the neighborhood at the lower right of this image for a closer inspection.

Salem chp crpd

A nice neighborhood of homes, across from the Capitol, right? But look more closely. See that building in the alley, the one with the chimney? That’s the steam heating plant for the whole block. All of the garages, and the heat source for all the homes, are pooled in the alley, in the center of the block. My sister’s 80+ year old neighbor remembers this well – his grandfather lived in one of those houses.

Could be that electricity for the block came from here as well, using a mini dynamo version of the one Westinghouse and Tesla used to electrify the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, in Chicago. It looks like a power pole at the left of the steam plant, but I can’t tell for sure.

Now let’s take an even closer look. I think the image will hold up for one more pass at an even lower altitude.

Salem crpd crpd

In the middle of the block, opposite the steam plant, is a huge garden.

So that makes all heat, some food, and maybe power managed for one city block. Not bad at all, for 1937. What’s old is new again, I guess. The block was torn down in the 40s to make way for what was at first a sunken garden (an area  that was used as a gubernatorial helicopter landing zone for awhile) and finally as the site of  Oregon’s cherry tree lined mall. And so this amazing and independent little community disappeared with only this photograph, and some memories, left behind.

For us here on Capitol Hill, perhaps the most telling fact that we will not succeed in reconstructing our infrastructure at the regional or metropolitan scale is a statement from Pepco, our power provider, that the utility plans to source a whopping 20% of our electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020. Hmm. Where did I leave my time machine?

Thanks, dear sister.

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We went for a stroll this morning, in lovely Capitol Hill. And to my complete delight, we discovered a wonderful surprise just blocks from our house. Take a look.


Yes, folks, those are rails for the DC streetcar. They are sitting quietly on a prepared bed, next to a slab that will extend the width of the sidewalk on this side of the street. This view is from 7th and H Streets NE, looking west. It’s only rails, and construction of this part of the system will no doubt take a very long time. But hope springs eternal….

H Street has been torn up for months as the City undertakes an array of improvements in the infrastructure, set to culminate in a new and lovely streetscape. (Full disclosure: the streetscape plan was designed by two good friends and colleagues).

The H Street corridor has seen much redevelopment in the last couple of years. Much of the street looks like this today:

H Street, north side

Photo from flickr.

Lots of board-ups, and even some vacant lots. H Street was once a booming retail strip, but the street was heavily damaged during the riots of ’68. And now the businesses that are there are being augmented by new development, and the street bustles most hours of the day. The building at the far left of this image, for example, is now open and operating, upstairs and down – progress is clear on every block. Perhaps once the streetcar is running here again, the tempo of redevelopment will increase. We’ll see – it could be a long time before there really is new transit on this street.

The City has been debating and arguing over streetcars for years. Most of the discussion has been pretty foolish – a lot of folks arguing instead for more highways, parking lots, and endless increases in the further destruction of the city by cars. This in a city rated as one of the worst in the nation for traffic and congestion. Perhaps now that the car age begins to wane, this incomprehensible auto-fetish will ebb as well.

Anyway, somehow a reduced compromise version of the proposed streetcar system made it past all the whiners and morons and into the City’s Comprehensive Plan. And so this morning, we see the fact that, unbelievably, there will at least be tracks.  Take another look.


A sight for sore eyes.

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The largest city on earth – Tokyo. Image by Altus.

I have often found myself reflecting here on matters of scale – of blocks and streets, of cities and neighborhoods. Recently I have found myself thinking about the relationship between the really, really big, and the fairly tiny. Let me explain.

We lead our daily lives in familiar, and usually quite circumscribed, places: a neighborhood, a row of houses, a nearby bus or subway stop, an office in a corner of downtown. We don’t often find ourselves thinking of a whole city at one moment, much less the even larger regions surrounding our urban centers. It can be hard to imagine that the daily choices we make inside our tiny little bubbles mean anything very much in the really big picture. But let’s think about that for a moment.

Workday morning, sometime around 6:30am. The alarm goes off – ugh. Reach over and switch on the light, and prepare for another day. Ahh – the light bulb goes on.

But is it a Pharox bulb, a new kind of lamp that lasts 35 years and is 15% more efficient than even a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL)? It should be – the manufacturer, Lemnis, tells us that if every Dutch home replaced 4 regular light bulbs with 4 Pharox bulbs, the energy saved would power Amsterdam for a year. I guess the little things add up pretty fast.


Amsterdam. Image by the City of Amsterdam.

Now let’s head downstairs to make coffee and look at the newpaper. Some of us do still read the newspaper.

Okay, got that coffee bubbling? That pound can of coffee you just opened will make something like 42 cups. How much water to make the pound of coffee? 2,650 gallons. Ouch! (Oh, and about 37 gallons of water for a pound of paper). Get out your calculator and start to do some quick math with me. Say there are 100,000,000 regular coffee drinkers in the U.S. And let’s stick with the average per capita coffee consumption figure offered by the World Resource Institute: 4.2 kilograms – 9.24 pounds. That means that we use over 2.5 trillion gallons of water a year on our coffee. Ahh – the little pleasures in life.


Time for a shower. Ten minutes? About 40 gallons of water. And think about this: 95% of all water consumed in an average American household goes down the drain. Since an average household uses about 128,000 gallons a year, that means that 121,600 gallons washes away. I’ll let you do the math on this one – 110,000,000 households in America.

Time to head for the office. Let’s say you’re 20 miles from work. Start up that Expedition on the driveway, and off you go. Weekly fuel consumption? About 17 gallons of gas. Let’s try the Vespa instead. Weekly fuel consumption: just shy of 3 gallons. Now you can use your calculator again – 115,000,000 commuters daily, times however many gallons of gas you burn to get to work. Big numbers, again. Really big. Maybe you should take the bus, yes?

After a morning of hard work, it’s time for some lunch. Stroll over to the local joint for a quarter-pounder, some fries and a diet. How much water to get that burger onto your plate? 3,000 gallons. On average, the entire population of the nation eats about 2 burgers a week. That would be nearly 610,000,000 burgers. Multiply again, please: 1.8 trillion gallons of water a week for our burgers. A week. Are you lovin’ it?

quarter pounder

Time to head home. Did you remember to turn off your computer? If you leave it on every night, that electricity wasted would be equal to more than 912 kilowatt hours (kwH) over the course of a year. If there are 10 of you in the office, and you all leave your computers on, you will have wasted the annual power consumption of an average American household.

Now let’s say that 30% of the U.S. workforce uses computers, and leaves them on at night. That would be 45,000,000 workers. Wasting enough electricity to power 4.5 million homes for a year. Chicago plus Philadelphia, with enough left over to throw in Akron. Turn off your damn computer!


Quite a day, yes? The little things we do, the seemingly meaningless choices we make, have huge implications. A little does mean a lot when you do the math.

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Off the grid 03

In April (April 12th, to be exact) I wrote a piece that explored how to find a way to disconnect from all the infrastructure grids in a context of existing urban (and historic) rowhouses. I concluded that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a single rowhouse to wiggle free of all the connections: sewer, water, gas, electricity, communications.

But after some study, I realized that perhaps at the scale of a single block, it might be possible. In fact, perhaps working at the block-sized scale would be the best way to begin to create a new kind of infrastructural network. I used our block of 57 rowhouses as an example. Here’s our block:

The hood at 700 feet

Recently a reader wrote with a list of 7 questions about my proposed one-block demonstration project. And so, Part II of the inquiry. Here are his questions:

  • What are the barriers to doing this? What would it take?
  • Would local government support help?
  • What building code changes would be required?
  • How would it be financed?
  • Could a charitable foundation help?
  • What would the demonstration project cost?
  • How would the knowledge gained be transferable?

Let me try and tackle these queries. First, to recap, for our block I proposed a District CHP plant, fired by biomass or something like that, as the main source of heating and power. And then a District Waste-water Treatment plant to recycle water. These technologies exist – nothing new here, really. Then I proposed augmenting those facilities with renewables- solar array, wind turbines, and added composting for a variety of solid wastes. All of this stuff gets deployed in the alley at the middle of our block. Perhaps with room left over for community gardens.

As far as I know, there is no demonstration project like this in an existing urban setting. Some new stuff, but nothing historic and retrofitted. But unless we tear all of our cities down and start over, we are going to have to learn how to remake the existing urban infrastructure into a sustainable set of systems. So: onward.

Barriers? Well, first I will have to achieve consensus with my neighbors. Every one of them. Since doing this new infrastructure will involve cost, disruptions during construction, a pooling of  private real estate for common use, and potential missteps as we figure this out, I suspect achieving consensus will be very difficult, if not impossible. Only when my neighbors can see and feel the compelling need for an alternate to existing infrastructure will they be inclined to sign on. It’s going to be a stretch.

While some of us feel strongly that we cannot do this fast enough, and have a pretty good idea what lies ahead for our obsolete cities, most of my neighbors don’t feel any real sense of urgency. For most Americans, as I said recently here, it’s just a matter of “Once we get through this.”

Then there are all kinds of legal barriers. Vacating the alley. Setting up some form of block-wide utility corporation to own and manage the infrastructure. Do we set the block up as some kind of condo-like legal arrangement? Lots to figure out here.

And of course, the local government, the City of Washington, could help a lot. There are utilities back in the alley underground, and these will need relocating. And all the overhead wires will have to go, once we’re ready. The City could offer financial help, too – incentives, tax breaks, grants and low-interest loans.

Washington has a program called “Green Energy DC,” set up to offer incentives for renewable energy improvements. But their whole allocation for 2009 is already spoken for, and the total amount available is $2,000,000. it will take more than that to get our block off the grids, so not this year, or next.

 The program, which passes through federal money, is aimed at solar and wind energy. Interestingly, they specifically bar utilities from participation, and since we are creating a block sized utility, this could be a problem. Programs at the municipal level really aren’t in place to assist with a project of this scope and kind. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest stumbling block of all: the building code. Here in DC every project must submit what’s called an Environmental Impact Screening Form. The form asks lots of questions about utilities, discharges, etc. Water flow in gallons per minute, sewage flow in gallons per minute, that kind of stuff. And questions about solid waste as well. And when you submit the form, it is routed to all kinds of city departments – health, police, fire, as well as the building department itself. Currently you cannot get a building permit without submitting, and review time is running about a year.

Essentially, any building permit can be issued once the city is clear that it is protecting the health and welfare of its citizens. Since nobody has ever tried this before here, and since the bureaucracy is in full bloom, I think we can either get some help and cooperation, or we can go home.

Financing the operation would be a trick too. Maybe we could try for some Stim funding. This is a pretty experimental undertaking, with lots of potential problems. Not exactly a slam dunk for yield-oriented capitalizers, I suspect. Banks? Probably not. Maybe we could find a lending institution interested in bolstering their “green” standing. Sounds like a pretty long shot to me.

Maybe the next avenue would be large corporations with an interest in or stake in our trial run. Maybe BP would actually like to demonstrate what “Beyond Petroleum” looks like, and how it works. And I guess the car guys are out.

It’s unlikely that the guys who make our packaged District heating, power, cooling and water units can afford to spot us the equipment, so that won’t work. Any other financing ideas, readers?

Of course the best route, and the most likely, is to get a charitable organization interested in the project. Since I think the cost will be in the neighborhood of $3 million plus, it will likely have to be one of the bigger charitable guys, but this seems like the best route.

Cost, as I said, seems to me to be north of $3 million. That works out to something like $53,000 per unit. I could be off by a lot – I worked up this estimate bysimply surfing the web, rather than calling my local green engineers. But if I am off, it is likely by less than a factor of 4 or so. I need to spend some more time with the numbers. Anybody got any thoughts?

As to transferring the knowledge, that’s the easiest part I think. Document every step, and misstep, and then put it up on a website, write a book, get published in magazines or newspapers (if there are any left), do a TV series, an indie film. I think many would be interested in the process of designing, constructing, and operating. 

One block of historic rowhouses in one of the largest historic districts in the nation – now off the grid. An existing city block, the most essential urban module, now free of the vicissitudes of the existing grids. Nice.

So thanks, readers, for the questions. Now, readers, answers?

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