Whine Festival

‘Tis the season to sweep out the old, and pledge to the new. It’s also a good time to vent, to do a little mental housecleaning. So, here are a few of my green peeves and wishes for their resolutions:

For the local TV anchors: Please resolve to stop conflating “mall” with “shopping.” I can’t count how many times chirpy unreflective anchor people would say “what’s the weather going to be like for everyone heading out to the mall for that last minute shopping?” One can shop in places other than the mall….downtown for example. I swore off Tysons Corner back when I had a car after suffering a Sartre-esque bout of existential nausea one Christmas. And that was it. Never went back. Never wanted to. Never needed to. Georgetown, innumerable stops on Connecticut Ave all the way up, Gallery Place, Columbia Heights, Eastern Market, all offer plenty of things, usual and unusual, for purchase. And it’s so much more interesting! When all else fails, order on-line.

Another one for the media: Please resolve to acquire a critically reflective editor to eliminate the "exquisite corpse" sequencing of stories. Best not to follow a story on how Americans are to blame for not buying enough cars with a traffic report showing a back up near the proverbial Occoquan. It begs for ironic commentary. Looks like we have plenty of cars. Maybe that’s why we’re not buying them? And don’t follow stories on the environment with a “human interest” story on an ice skating rink in southern California where people skate in bikinis. Those crazy Californians. Aren’t they something out west? It’s obscene. Where’s the FCC when you need it?

For planners and politicians: No more iatrogenic solutions to environmental problems! Adding lanes to highways does not cure traffic congestion, but causes it. Building houses one per 5 acre parcel does not preserve open space, but consumes it. Ethanol…well, just watch Frontline’s episode, Heat.

And for me? I have the usual set of resolutions involving weight maintenance, flossing, being a better person, et al., but I have a few new green ones to focus on. Pay better attention to where stuff—food, energy, clothes-- comes from. What regime am I inadvertently supporting with my purchase? Have I contributed to the removal of a mountaintop just to light my living room? Do I really need strawberries in the winter? Also, make regular use of those SmartBikes. They’re so convenient and so inexpensive and only burn calories (see weight maintenance above). Finally, keep the sarcasm and snarkiness to a socially acceptable level.

But, I still have a reservoir of snark to discharge before the end of the year, so here’s hoping we can enjoy 2009 without: bumper stickers supporting environmental causes; the passive voice; “complementary” not “complimentary;” shops with doors wide open and mechanical systems roaring; FUV’s with bumper stickers supporting environmental causes. Now that I got that out of my system…

The New Year really starts on January 20th. This Wednesday night is just an abstraction, watching a clock tick and toasting its continued ticking. The whine festival is over. It’s clean up time and we have a lot of wonderful, fulfilling, important work to do. See you next year.

penultimate post of 2008

Before I post my year-end whine festival, I have to encourage everyone to see a recent episode of Frontline. I’m a big fan of that series on PBS (even if the narrator’s mellifluous voice makes me drowsy every time) and I finally got around to watching Heat, which we had recorded from its October airtime. It did not disappoint. At 2 hours it seems like a long haul but it was an extremely thorough look at the full range of causes of climate change. It drilled down deep—in a geothermal way, not a Giuliani way—into complexities that are rarely addressed, including even the carbon footprint of cement production weighed against the benefit of construction of nuclear power plants. There was a clip from an astonishingly prescient film made in the 1950’s with two scientists warning of the clear evidence of human generated carbon and its impact on climate change. Somehow the satisfaction of wielding the world’s largest “I told you so” doesn’t quite compensate for being dismissed for half a century. You can download the whole thing and follow all sorts of useful links at:



The heartbreak of TIA

The sun is in the gallery. This is not in itself a surprise. We knew empirically that the sun would come in when we uncovered the windows, given that the space is on the south side of the building. Besides, if we doubted our own perception, the software proved it. If Ecotect says the sun will do this in December and that in June, then it must be true. We now trust our instruments, our technology, more than our own perceptions. But the sun is really in the gallery...and really bright on these first days of winter when it can’t muster enough energy to get very high in the sky. Thus the end wall touch screen is washed out in the morning, and entry wall is washed out in the late afternoon. At midday the future looks so bright, you could wear shades. Now we’re trying to figure out what to do to mitigate the problem...what a nuisance.

Stop that (slap)...it’s neither problem nor nuisance! That was just a rhetorical set up. It is what it is: the change of seasons gradually requesting of us humans a little bit of accommodation. When we realized that our exhibition content gave us the freedom to uncover the windows, we also accepted the responsibility to attend to the constantly changing consequences. This is the existential heart of the sustainability contract: with freedom comes an equal measure of responsibility. It’s two for one, a package deal, BOGO. It’s easy to forget that contract, because the terms of collection can be very subtle. You are free to set your thermostat wherever you like...but don’t forget the responsibility you share for climate change. You are free to live wherever you like...but remember that you are responsible for all consequences in equal measure to your freedom. You are free to open up your gallery to the southern light and warmth, but don’t forget that there will be consequences for legibility, interactive operability, widely differing experiences of the exhibition. And oh yes, there will be constant tinkering.

We considered all sorts of strategies early on and decided to wait and see what would happen. It’s not like we didn’t know—aforementioned Ecotect, and empiricism—but we couldn’t entirely predict how it would really be. We had no cultural memory of a year in light for that space in the building, so each day is a new experience. And yesterday, the first day of winter, it seemed about time to implement one of the shading strategies. We’ll be putting scrims on the windows in the first and last bay and then revisit the issue around the vernal equinox.

There’s something wonderful about thinking in these big seasonal chunks, these ancient milestones of solar time that lie deep under every calendar and cultural ritual on the planet. The winter solstice, Saturnalia, Christmas, Hanukah, et al., all cling to this dark time that so worried our primitive ancestors. It’s getting dark...too dark to see. Didn’t this happen last year? But the sun came back, and everything was okay. What did we do last year to make that happen? Well, we better do it again. The answer to that question is the origin of myth, ritual, and the whole package of communicating, appeasing, and cajoling the forces greater than ourselves.

There are plenty of smaller rituals that our parents and grandparents used to practice seasonally and they weren’t all aimed at the gods. Shuttering and un-shuttering windows, putting up and taking down awnings, planting and harvesting the garden, even spring and fall cleaning—all these are rituals of adjustment to the seasons. How few of these do we do now? Why? It’s not as if the solar system itself shifted to a low maintenance schedule. No, it’s us. We think we don’t have to, that all of those activities are somehow old fashioned. Our buildings now are often smarter than we are. They adjust the lights or heat on some mysterious electronic schedule in secret communication with the atomic clock. A smart thermostat never lets you shiver. The truth is we are suffering, individually and collectively, from TIA: Technology Induced Amnesia.

A heartbreaking chronic condition, TIA manifests itself in a spectrum of symptoms which vary from patient to patient. Like obesity and happiness, TIA is a social contagion, spreading rapidly through networks. Onset of TIA is marked by involuntary reaching for calculators to perform operations involving fractions and percentages. Later, spelling ability vanishes along with memory for phone numbers. More insidious are the subtle losses which can easily remain hidden from others: affixing shutters to building exteriors and forgetting the hinges; opening windows when the heat comes on too strong; driving to get a quart of milk. Fortunately, there is treatment for TIA and it requires nothing more than renewing the existential contract with the environment. The math and spelling problems, unfortunately, appear to be irruversable.


Is it just me, or is it getting warm in here?

I so wanted the Eagles to lose on Monday night. It was 3rd and goal, looking bleak for Cleveland, and I said aloud, “McNabb is going to turn it over.” And he did! If I were a primitive person, I would think that my wishing, my energy, had made it happen. I would perhaps be frightened by my own powers, yet I would immediately try again considering my feelings for the Eagles. Each correct or near correct prediction would reinforce my sense of my own power, and each miss would make me doubt my mojo. No amount of wishing, in fact, could make the Eagles lose, but that inconvenient fact didn't stop me. Although we like to think we are not primitive peoples, in many ways we are. Temporal proximity can always be reframed as causality. And causality can strain credibility, especially when the distance in time and space between the action and the result gets distended. So, I offer three simple examples from the irrefutably clear to unavoidably complex.

Clear cause and effect: throw your shoes at a world leader, become a hero...and be hustled away in your stocking feet. Did he have a back-up pair? Did he have an accomplice? Action yields reaction...and then a chain of reactions unanticipated by the Lone Shoe Thrower.

Reasonably clear cause and effect: smoke, develop cancer. Smoking’s relationship to cancer is official scientific truth, even though there are people who don’t smoke who do get lung cancer and people who do smoke but don’t. But it took a long time for the link to be established, and even longer for it to be accepted. On one side stood scientific reasoning, on the other wishful thinking; the former is no match for the latter, but the human mind has an almost infinite capacity for cognitive dissonances.

Unavoidably complex cause and effect: belch CO2 into the atmosphere, change the climate. But, like the stubborn, chemically-addicted smoker, we offer a collective shrug and mutter something about Chicken Little. If the local weatherperson says there is a 100% chance of rain tomorrow, most of us take an umbrella. We believe that the swirling colors and big blue arrows on the map carry some precious information about our future. We can actually see it coming...oooh, it’s already in Cumberland! It’s easier to believe small science than big science. It’s easier to act on something that has immediate and minor consequences than on something with diffuse and distended consequences.

It’s almost too obvious to bring in the old frog in boiling water story. (I personally harmed no frogs in the construction of this aphorism) The story is that a frog tossed into a pot of boiling water will leap back out immediately, but a frog put in a pot of tepid water will just sit there as the temperature is gradually raised (By whom? That’s not in the story, thus the awkward passive voice) until the frog finds itself, if frogs are sufficiently self-aware to find themselves, cooked. We are all individual frogs whether dialing up our daily caloric intake one cookie at a time or ratcheting up the acceptable price on some coveted item. It’s just a little more, a little bigger, a little warmer...what’s the harm? We’re also a nation of frogs, letting our city and town boundaries creep outward, adding one more lane, loosening one more little regulation. What’s the harm?

If we were frog-tossed into our future, the one we are blithely and blindly constructing for ourselves, like time travelers in a sci-fi film, we would return sobered. We would immediately regret the time and creativity squandered in pointless arguments about veracity and blame. We would suffer unprecedented anguish at what we had done. But ours is not the world of science fiction, only science. Tiny, incremental, inexorable change stalks the background of our sensible experience, and we just don’t believe that all of this will affect us. It must be somebody else’s problem. We continue our quotidian habits reassured that every day seems to be pretty much like the last one, as if wishing could keep change at bay. But that’s an idle wish, one that can not be realized. Example, a physical impossibility: I wish I were tall. Another example, any wish to change the past: I wish the Browns had beaten the Eagles. The one we need to avoid is to wish we had done something about climate change when we still had a chance. Hey, is it getting warm in here?


All I want for Christmas is a gas tax

Last week the Royal Danish Embassy sponsored a program at the Phillips Collection on sustainable urban development, “Urban Development - Global and Local Challenges for the Modern City.” I was honored to be among the speakers on the program (my remarks were the basis for my last post) and share the stage with the incomparable Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl. The next day he gave another talk to a capacity crowd at the National Building Museum as part of the on-going EPA-sponsored series on Smart Growth. I estimate that several hundred of us are now suffering from acute onset of Copenhagen-envy, and additional symptoms associated with Gehl-withdrawal. Gehl’s firm (http://www.gehlarchitects.com/) accurately describes itself as “urban quality consultants.” The conventional nomenclature of “architects, urban designers, and planners” seems too dry and insufficient to capture what he and his colleagues do. Like an urban Johnny Appleseed, Gehl has been around the world sowing urban sweetness on every continent. New York is the most recent U.S. city to benefit from his advice.

As he reminded both audiences, the mission of a civil city is to be sweet to its people, and to invite walking and biking. A city’s mission is not to sell it civil soul to the private automobile. And I mean all of them, whether gas guzzling, sipping or battery powered. Its worth remembering that as the media is saturated with images of penitent auto execs promising to make better cars and politicians extolling the duty of the tax payer to guarantee them the opportunity to make amends…and more cars. With all due respect to the disruption that a GM meltdown would engender, I do not believe our future prosperity should depend on automobile manufacturing. It’s ultimately a dead end. As another eminence gris of the design professions, Paolo Soleri, has said: the car is itself pollution. It eats land, requires miles of paving to be useful and acres of paving to be useless.

The incoming administration is promising a huge new infrastructure program, which I absolutely support in principle. What concerns me is the lack of imagination reflected in the language used: “road-building,” fixing our “aging freeways” …Excuse me? Roads? We don’t need no more stinking roads, Mr President-elect. What we need are streets, avenues, boulevards, alamedas, boardwalks, parkways, mews, lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes, steel rails—heavy and light--, piazzas, plazas, greens, fora, markets, bazaars, and an authentic ranges of choices about how to move about among those. A choice between a Chevy Volt and a Toyota Prius is no choice at all. A choice between feet and a bicycle, a bus or a shared car, a street car or a subway: those are real choices. And they make us, our cities, and our planet physically, socially, and culturally healthier.

If we’re going to dig deep into our already empty pockets for a New New Deal we should be sure that it’s a New Green Deal. We don’t have to suffer Copenhagan-envy. We can simply decide to do more and better. Oh yes…we can.


Streets or Rivers?

I took an old friend of mine through the Green Community exhibition a few weeks ago. She’s a card-carrying environmentalist; she pays her dues to Sierra Club; she recycles; she drives a hybrid. But she’s not an urbanist. She lives in an Arcadian, curvy, woodsy suburb well outside of a small city the core of which has suffered from all too typical disinvestment of the last 40 years. Like many older, smallish American cities, it’s become a donut: thick on the edges with nothing in the middle. And, to continue the pastry analogy, even the thick stuff is not healthy. She saw the image the Highlands Gardens project in Denver and said: “It all looks so regimented, the straight streets, and dense packed houses. It looks so urban. Where’s the green?”

Her green paradigm just couldn’t handle it. And she’s not alone. Traditional environmentalism often carries the expectation that green is going to look a certain way...and that way is not this way. We can blame Jefferson for a lot of this (see 10.31.08 post, “they all live in cities”) We are still burdened with a set of green synonyms and antonyms that set urban improvements against nature: Arcadian vs. urban, photosynthetic vs. synthetic, open vs. bounded, expansive vs. dense, naturalistic vs. artificial, organic vs. technological, curved vs. straight, transcendental vs. contaminating...add your own. In this context the phrase “off the grid” means more than just opting out of big energy, it also means a rejection of the grid as a symbol of urban organization, of the hand of man. What could possibly be green about a grid? Yet, the word “green”, in whatever form—verb or adjective—has become a synecdoche for the larger complex of sustainability. And it’s within that new paradigm of sustainability that these two worlds have to find a literal common ground.

To Sustain: To strengthen or support; to keep (something) going over time or continuously; to confirm that (something) is just or valid. ORIGIN Latin sustinere, from tenere: “hold.”

To put it simply: sustainability is an end, green is among the means, which is where those old oppositions show up. In his prescient book, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx talks about what he calls “2 kingdoms of force”-- the Arcadian and the technological, the natural and the human made-- as being the dominant themes of 19th c. American literature and painting. Of course, the desire to escape the 19th century industrial city for healthier pastures, literally, had very real reasons behind it: cities were dirty, diseased, and dangerous. That’s no longer the case—at least in the developed world-- but our cultural narrative still lags behind.

I call this the “Streets or Rivers” problematic. Streets and Rivers represent those two kingdoms of force in all their contradiction and opposition. The resolution of these contradictions resides more in the world of rhetoric and demonstration than in design and construction. By that I mean that we in the planning, design and construction worlds should brush up on our reading and art history to find a richer language to frame the changes we are trying to make. The education and enlightenment of the public, the citizens of the environment, is antecedent to changing public policy; changing public policy is antecedent to planning, which is antecedent to design, and eventually to construction. The issue is the conjunction: the problem is the “or”.

There are several communities in the exhibition that prove the value of other relationships between streets and rivers: in Mendoza, the river in the street; in Greensburg, the river and the street; in Bogota, the river of the street. The founders of Mendoza didn’t set out to get LEED ND status when they rebuilt their city in the 19th century after an earthquake. They just wanted to make a viable...sustainable...city. They designed as if their lives depended on it, because they did. And they still do. Mendoza reminds us that these are not new issues. History, as much or more than technology, contains the essence of sustainability.

Greensburg, Kansas is a world away from Mendoza geographically, but a kindred community. This farming town of 1400 was flattened by a catastrophic tornado in the spring of 2007. Only the grain elevators remained standing. As often happens, the disaster strengthened the community and gave them an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the town’s relationship to the elements of earth, air, fire and water that sustained it. Greensburg is where it is, and is a town at all, because of water. It is the site of deep well that served first passing stagecoaches and then steam trains on their way west. But like many towns Greensburg had taken its water for granted. Its new streets are designed and constructed to be part of a treatment train to capture, clean, and return rain and runoff to the aquifer beneath. Just like Mendoza’s acequias, this is clearly an engineering solution. And just like the acequias, the prosaic task of water management has been poetically revealed, celebrated, and made an essential part of the character-defining experience of the place.

In Bogota, the street has become a river, metaphorically. Only a tiny % of Bogotanos own cars but their needs had dominated the transportation spending priorities for decades, leaving the majority of less affluent citizens to fend for themselves, walking in unsafe conditions and hitching rides in the patchwork of private bus services. Under the leadership of Mayor Enrique Penalosa, that all changed. The money was redistributed and the infrastructure was redesigned. Cars got a little bit, to reflect their population, but pedestrians, cyclists, strollers, public transportation got most of the funding...and the design attention. As a river needs biodiversity, a street needs socio-economic diversity. A monoculture, whether in a street or a river, is by definition unsustainable. It is neither just nor valid.

Leo Marx wrote about the “current flight from the city”--current being 1964 when The Machine in the Garden was published--which had many contributing factors supported, he argues, by the deep cultural biases revealed in our synonyms and antonyms. He describes the “inchoate longing for a more ‘natural’ environment” and the resulting contempt for, and thus disinvestment in, cities. This, he claimed 40 years ago, was the great issue of our time. Our challenge today is to get these two kingdoms of force—the natural and the human-made, the urban and the Arcadian-- to converse...and reverse. The old model of fleeing the city for the Arcadian fields has been proven unsustainable, in the full richness of its definition. The new model has to bring the fields into the city, the garden into the machine, as it were, for both nature and culture to sustain and thrive.