Posts Tagged ‘scale’

A procession begins in White City, in the summer of 1909.

We speed through the spaces of our lives as quickly as we can – rushing through the city, rushing to the mall, rushing 20 or 30 miles without blinking an eye. We have to, after all – we have spread out all over the place.

But stop rushing for just a minute. Think with me about how changes in our perceptions of time, speed, and distance have radically altered this urban place we call home.

Sooner and faster and further have wrecked us. Our cities are increasingly empty ruins. The countryside is filled with what’s left. None of this is good, none of this is our future, none of this is sustainable.

In Rochester, this shift in our perceptions of space and pace, and the physical places that are a result, has led to what I call the 40 mile life: 20 minutes in any direction, on an expressway, is the diameter of our daily existence. We all lead 40 mile lives. O, to lead a 4 mile life!

But the 40 mile life wasn’t always so, and it shouldn’t be so today. I want to explore a special place in our city, because I think this place can teach us lessons about our perceptions and our cities, lessons that we need to learn, or should I say relearn. Take a moment, please.

On the shore of Lake Ontario is a place we know even today as White City. You can find it on the 1912 map – a few streets and a dense cluster of buildings where the map reads “Windsor Beach.” 

In those days, the lakeshore was a distant 8 miles or so from downtown Rochester – about a three-hour walk. The city then was much more dense than today – at least twice as dense, and occupied much less land than the city today – about a third less. As the map will show you, there was a six mile gap between the most northerly street of the city, then Norton Street, and the beaches at the lake.

Take a closer look. Those rows of buildings along the tiny streets at Windsor beach? A canvas city, and thus a White City. And in the gap between the city and the lake? Farms. One of the city’s breadbaskets.

During the fall and winter and spring, you lived in the city. In your neighborhood. In 1910 or so, it’s pretty unlikely that you had a car. A bike, perhaps, or a horse and wagon. But the scale of this mobility, and the pace of this mobility, guaranteed that you led a local life. Close to neighbors, close to work, close to the market, the schools, the churches.

A local life. Let’s say a 4 mile life.

In the summer, it was time to get out of the city so you could enjoy the nature of the city’s wonderful larger setting, the good weather, and your friends and family. So you used the only means it was likely you had – the streetcar – and you headed to the lakeshore, and White City.

White City was filled with tiny shotgun cottages, with roofs of canvas. In reality, the tent cottages were quite dense on the six or so lanes they occupied.

It was, in fact, like being at camp. Maybe the family left at the end of school in June, and Dad commuted by streetcar from the city on weekends. Or maybe you just came out for a couple of times a summer for a week or two to enjoy the water and the solace of family and friends.

Near Windsor Beach was a range of resort  hotels – eleven in all. By the middle of the 20th century they were all gone – most burned to the ground for one reason or another. But while they were there, there were fun times….

Check these two out, at the beach at nearby Sea Breeze (great name, yes?). I love the look on his face – barely concealed smugness: “I am not at work, I am with people I care about, and I am wet. Yippee!”

Resort hotels bloomed in these times. Here is the massive Hotel Ontario.

And here the more intimate Hotel Windsor. Everybody is hanging out on the porch.

Or the Hotel Bartholmay – a giant resort complex. This is a view from 1888 – this business of going to the lakeshore went on for quite a while. Please do note the trains.

In 1910, how did you get out there? One guess – streetcars. And even when the weather turned its back on vacations.

Interestingly, the street car companies were the real heavy lifters of this story – they paid, for example, for all the electricity and water at all the hotels and resorts. All aboard!

If you were fortunate to own an early car, you could drive north on Culver Road to the beach. The road, in 1917, looked like this. Orchards on the left, farms on the right. Pretty nice drive, I guess.

And today, the view on the road to Sea Breeze looks like this. Ah, the 40 mile life. Better, right? Progress, right?

And White City today looks like this, at a point very, very near where Albert Stone took that picture of the procession of children in 1909.

Yes, the tents became cottages, the cottages homes. Go and take a stroll there if you can, and capture the slower sense of time and speed and distance that once made a city a city, and a vacation a vacation, year after year, summer after summer.

We need again to find local lives – 4 mile lives. We need to transfer our mobility from our cars to something else – like streetcars for example. And we need to take the time to see our home places building by building, block by block, in the best way possible – on foot.

The stories of our lives, and the lives that came before us, are impossible to discern at 40 miles an hour. But if we slow down a bit, the things we see can astound us. Our future is close at hand – go for a walk.

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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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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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