Happy Car Free Day!

Happy Car Free Day! The District celebrated Car Free Day (http://www.carfreemetrodc.com/Home/tabid/54/Default.aspx) this year on the first day of fall, September 22nd. And, ironically, I was in a car. Normally, everyday is car free for me, so it was a bit odd to be rolling along in South Jersey in a spanking new Nissan Altima (where do they get those names?) so advanced it had no actual key. All you had to do was think about driving and the engine turned on...well, I exaggerate a bit. But I was perfectly happy to surrender it to its loyal keepers at the airport, pat it on the bumper, thank it for a swell weekend and know that was the extent of our relationship.

We are a distinct minority, the car free, but we clump and gravitate to areas where the calculus of car ownership has flipped all the way from desire to disinterest. I neither need nor want one. In the Orwellian language of the auto industry and its advertising minions a car of one’s own represents freedom. Say it often enough and it will be as if true: “Americans love their cars.” But we really know better: true freedom is dropping off the rental and walking away. Freedom is tuning out the myriad traffic reports of jack-knifed tractor trailers. Freedom is thinking of the Occoquan only as a river and imagining the Springfield mixing bowl as a suburban bakery. Freedom is moving around the city without regard to one-way streets and without engaging in an exegesis of posted parking regulations. Freedom is not knowing what day your street gets swept. Freedom is no car payments, no car insurance, no repair bills, no nail-biting monitoring of gas prices, and not conflating geopolitical crises with your own personal inconveniences. Freedom is declaring yourself a conscientious objector to shopping mall culture, (and I use the latter term in its broadest ethnological sense) and refusing to spend the precious hours of the only life we have on this earth strapped into a couple thousand pounds of metal in a line of like prisoners. Urbanites of the world arise: you have nothing to lose but your car keys…and you’ve already done that at least once.

Of course, if the rhetoric of liberation doesn’t move you, how about the rhetoric of self-improvement? Save money, lose weight, improve your cardio-vascular health, make your neighborhood a better place, and help save the planet. Who can resist such a blunt appeal to naked self-interest with a delicate altruistic finish? It’s easy to become a habitual pedestrian. Too bad being pedestrian is usually considered undesirable. The word has such banal connotations: quotidian, everyday, dull, and uninspired. Perhaps we need our own organization... the Pedestrian Anti-defamation League, henceforth know as PAL, to monitor the media for degrading uses of our adjective. The pedestrian must reposition itself in the language of marketing, and we should reposition ourselves right in the center of the city. Urban sustainability begins at the feet. A single generous sidewalk, trees, an occasional bench for rest and conversation—these are the fundamentals of green and livable communities. Call me pedestrian, but it really is that simple.


Open the Windows

“What, you may ask, does historic preservation have to do with sustainability?” That was the question posed by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust, http://www.preservationnation.org/ Thursday at the morning session of the "Greening the World’s Capital Cities" conference. (http://www.ncpc.gov/affairs/pg.asp?p=capitalsalliance) The answer was pretty obvious to some—it has everything to do with sustainability—but perhaps not to others outside of the green design/construction community. The popular perception of historic preservation is one of old houses, roped off rooms, protestations against change, and loyal opposition to the future. But looked at a bit differently the historic preservation movement, the origins and tributaries of which form a fascinating history of their own, has been at the vanguard of sustainable principles for a long time.

Preservation and sustainability arose from very different cultures, and in response to very different sets of circumstances, yet they now find themselves joined in an ethos of stewardship of our resources---the cultural, material, and natural. The sustainability movement owes a debt to its predecessor, the preservation movement, for refocusing the architecture and urban design professions on the value of the existing environment and for challenging the hegemony of the new. In fact, the preservation movement was really the avant-garde of sustainability.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, neither preservation nor sustainability is backward looking. Both, along with a whole host of ideas to which they have given birth such as smart growth, new urbanism, voluntary simplicity, and transit oriented development, comprise the only substantial critique of planned obsolescence built large. It is a critique of the cycle of invention, consumption and destruction which, in the name of progress, has dominated the last century, what author Anthony Tung has called the “century of destruction.” It was the preservationists who first ventured the radical thought that there might be other criteria for value in the built environment than pure utility or economic return; that buildings and neighborhoods might be valuable because they have received generations of human energy and care. And really, adaptive reuse is just recycling on the scale of building, a confluence of sustainability and preservation.

But what seems good in theory often meets the wicked problems of practice. We’re familiar with the term “livability” as applied to cities and neighborhoods, and cites are ranked according to livability indexes. I’d like to offer a “lovability” index to show the increasing difficulties that face green changes to historic buildings. The degree of difficulty in making significant physical changes to a historic property is directly proportional to that property’s lovability score. The conflicts between historic preservation and sustainability arise at technological thresholds: when active energy technologies are proposed to augment the stalwart passive strategies of historic buildings, or when mechanized horizontal transit such as rail and vertical transit in the form of elevators presses additional densities on the pre-industrial walking and walk-up city. Where the individual building is concerned, all of that conflict often comes down to that architectural singularity, the window.

From my 4th floor office I can look down to the 2nd floor and watch the Green Community space gradually take shape. It's wide open, to both the arcade around the magnificent Great Hall and the warm, southern light on F street. This is heresy in the museum world, allowing in pure, unmitigated daylight. We can only do it, of course, because this exhibition has no actual precious objects, no sensitive works on paper, or antique artifacts. Those 8 windows have been freed to share the sun with the interior, as they have for about 130 years. As we gathered a group of designers, architects, and engineers to ponder what we could do with all that sun during the year-long Green Community run, we rediscovered the power of the passive and the challenges of the active. But that story will have to wait until next week…


Close the Door!

Blogito, ergo sum. Welcome to Gang Green. With a little over a month to go until the opening of Green Community, the exhibition I'm curating at the National Building Museum, this seemed like a good time to join the blogosphere, to share some of the backstory of the planning and development of the exhibition. And some of my thoughts on the difficult issues it raises. And just some pet green peeves...

I'm enjoying the onset of fall. I'm rarely comfortable in the summer heat unless I'm doing something where sweat is expected and acceptable. And I don't much like air-conditioning either, especially when it's set to absolute zero. So, yes, I'm complaining about the weather. Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it, right?

Well, plenty of merchants around my neighborhood in Dupont Circle are doing their part for climate change. Accelerating it, that is. One shop after another props its door open, belching ice cold air into the great outdoors. And woe be to the eco-conscious pedestrian who nudges one shut; indignant staff will rush to prop it open again, usually muttering some Nuremburg-esque defense about simply following orders: “management requires that we keep the doors open and waste the last drops of fossil fuel, foul the air, melt the ice caps, and then raise our prices to cover our profligacy."

Oblivious merchants who should have a better grasp on these matters of supply and demand are burning energy like there’s no tomorrow. We the potential customers are supposed to succumb to the cool seduction, to come in and spend some money. But I for one can’t even enjoy the vicarious cool as I walk by. I feel as if I’ve been slimed with oil or coated with coal dust.

Economists would say that those businesses probably have no incentive to change their behavior. It’s unlikely the building owners share any energy savings with the tenants, and employees probably receive no bonuses for being responsible. Besides, everyone else is doing it... This dilemma is often referred to as the "tragedy of the commons," a parable of the interplay among shared resources and self-interest most famously articulated by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. The gist of Hardin’s argument, based on writings by William Lloyd Forster in the 1830s, is that individuals will consume as much of a shared resource as they can. It’s not in their self interest to conserve because it merely leaves room for someone else to consume their share.

If your personal frugality yields no tangible benefits, why bother? Why conserve, if everyone else is going to use up whatever is left on the table? No special benefits fall to the sole merchant who closes the door. Worse yet, maybe shoppers can’t figure out that he sells shoes if the door is closed, walls of glass notwithstanding, and they might go to the next shoe store down the street where the door is open. Of course, in Dupont Circle, all the shoe stores happen to be the same. This ubiquitous chain, let’s call it Carbon One, is probably the most egregious chiller in the neighborhood and the least receptive to walk-by door closings. I freely confess: I have been a card carrying member of the Carbon One frequent shoe buyers club. I keep my carbon footprint small, size 6 in fact, by living car-free, using Smartrip benefits, and walking everywhere I can. These days the little devil of consumption on my shoulder is urging me to go in: it’s the end of season sale! But there’s a green goddess on the other shaking her head: you weak, hypocritical girl. She is more persuasive. So, I’m kicking the habit. Good bye, Carbon One.

Yet, I can’t isolate myself in a cocoon of my own cleaner air and my own stable climate. I can’t reserve my own puddle of oil and carefully make it last my lifetime. Carbon One won’t notice my absence. But, as Hardin also points out, “we can never do nothing.” That is, inaction is a kind of action, but it is the wrong kind.

The past eight years have been marked by federal inaction on energy and climate change-- the wrong kind of action--so it has fallen to states, cities, communities, and activists to take local and incremental action, whittling away at the tragedy of the commons, lowering the total bill as it were. Individual actions do indeed make a difference, and many individuals taking the same action can make a huge difference. Communities around the world have sworn off inaction, and their actions are recharging the commons, yielding tangible and measurable dividends. My decision to quit patronizing energy-wasting establishments makes a small difference. When others decide to do the same, things begin to change.

How do we get those "others" to join the effort? Aren't they us? Stay tuned...