Monday, October 29, 2007

RETROFITTING SUBURBIA: a positive standpoint to the impossible

As America continues its sprawling behavior, will it be possible to attain a sustainable future? Will global warming and the energy crisis result in an unprecedented suburban-to-urban holocaust? Are there any paradigmatic design solutions which could bring hope to the residents of these places? Can some sort of natural order be imposed over areas where intellectual order is causing irreversible damage? Pondering around these questions, from the point of view of sustainable design and with a great deal of curiosity, may result in potential design strategies generating hope for a better future.

In truth, the last 75 years of American city building show a complete abandonment of our urban memories and a disregard for our collective culture; with very few exceptions, every place touched by professional urban designers and city planners has become a dwelling of damnation and a clear expression of their lack of understanding. The city has NOT been understood as the product of democracy but as the result of despotic dictatorships expressing their formal authority through the repression of our human desires. City building has turned into a non-ending battle between rationality and common sense; as a result, it is manifesting as a project for the transformation of society into individual beings with the capacity of executing one AND ONLY ONE single task at a time.

If we could truly understand our current predicament, the reconstitution and retrofit of American suburbia would be one of our most urgent projects.

In America, where property rights are protected by the National Constitution, the idea of retrofitting suburban areas may find splinters upon our legal and economic systems. According to William Whyte (1968), "…our fee simple structure has never been absolute or indivisible, nor have landowners inherited license to do anything they please with the land." Plus, the power of "eminent domain" is a threat in the hands of politicians or designers with rhetorical powers i.e.: Robert Moses in New York or Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia. Therefore, the successful retrofit of the American city depends on our understanding of individual property rights; on the comprehension of our cultural expressions, egotism, and lack of voluntary cooperation; and, on our capacity to work within the rules of constitutional law.

On the verge of despair, five healing design strategies may still allow us to deal with our desires to bring about an awareness of sustainability, ecological growth, and community building. It should be emphasized that the strategies here proposed are not a utopian choice, a dream, or an intellectual exercise but the only way to achieve a better future in suburban America.

The five healing strategies are: the development and densification of no-man’s lands, the redevelopment of under-utilized areas (such as parking areas in malls and strip shopping corridors), the creation of complete interconnected neighborhoods and neighborhood centers in the midst of suburban communities, the permanent and immovable demarcation of urban boundaries, and the reduction of urban areas in accordance with sustainable transportation principles. The projects here presented correspond to five scenarios for paradigmatic areas within suburban America. Hopefully the beauty of their graphics and the accuracy of their intentions will allow the readers to experience a promising future for areas with very little hope of survival.
God may help us all!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

URBAN FARMING: Community gardens and neighborhood agriculture

Urbanism is not just about city form. It also involves the understanding of our human choices, the healthy ecology of our urban and rural environments, and the creation of thriving communities -where sustainability and the production of prosperity and excessive renewable sources can be shared by all of us. Food production is inherently tied to the short and long-term economic, social, and environmental health of the cities where we live and, consequently, it is a matter of urbanism and design.

Unfortunately, our basic understanding of how our food is grown and processed, how far it travels, and what happens on its way to our dinning tables seems to be irreparably lost. In the middle of December, in New York or Houston, we may walk into any supermarket and buy avocados, ripe peaches, or cherries. It has happened for so long, that nobody questions their primordial base anymore. Avocados, peaches or cherries travel approximately 1,500 miles between their point of production and the typical American dining table. Psychologically, it seems to be that if we can buy them anywhere, they may also come from nowhere. But, in true mindfulness, those avocados, ripe peaches or cherries represent the entrepreneurial idea of a foreign agribusiness owner, wages from foreign workers who produced them, tons of chemicals to preserve and keep them intact, lots of packaging crates and boxes, and gallons of fossil fuels from the planes and trucks that delivered them; and most importantly, in this lengthy process, freshness and taste are usually sacrificed.

There are a lot of reasons to be grateful for our locally grown food: it is fresher, tastes better, more nutritional, cheaper, and has skipped all of the processing stages endangering our global environment. But, what can we do to reverse this trend? How can we participate in the production of local food?

Despite the fact that most urban farming is still an illegal activity in many American cities, the production of herbs, vegetables, soft fruits and flowers is slowly becoming the metropolitan panacea of this century. Urban farming is gaining widespread acceptance and it is being manifested in the form of residential backyard plots, herbal gardens in balconies and courtyards, greenhouses, green roofs, community gardens on vacant lots, industrial rooftops, mini-farms along Federal highways and transportation corridors, and locally-supported farms in the fringes of our cities.

The excess supply generated by local urban farmers is typically sent to nearby Produce Markets or Food Co-Ops where employers and customers have a say in the content of the shelves or where it comes from. Although it turns out to be a little bit more expensive, the money stays locally; everything tastes better, decreases the amount of fossil fuel emissions, results in a greater variety of products, and synchronizes itself to the local seasons.
Urban farming can also help to feed the poor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and under the American embargo, Cuba has developed an informal system of sustainable urban agriculture benefiting approximately 70% of its urban population and generating 50% of the country’s vegetable production. Havana’s vacant lots and collapsing buildings are slowly turning into community gardens and urban farms in response to the food crisis.Similar projects have been implemented in Bulgaria, China, Brazil, South Africa, Peru, etc.

In North America, the "Eating Local" movement is becoming a matter of fact. Farm-to-School programs, Farm-to-College or Farm-to-Hospital programs are healthy choices in places where food consciousness is not only essential but a matter of high priority; in Canada, the "100 Mile Diet" includes food found at no more than 100 miles from home; in Westchester County, New York, a local restaurant includes a working farm that supplies its own produce and meat, and a classroom where cooking and farming demonstrations give visitors a better sense of the food origin.

Urban farming can be further improved under the realization that it decreases long-term energy costs, reduces urban heat island effects, increases urban wildlife habitats, improves drainage, acts as an indicator of ecological diversity and health, increases community gatherings and gives a sense of place by enhancing the overall aesthetics of a region, saving our money, and connecting us back with nature.

If you eat, urban soil should be your business!

Friday, October 26, 2007

smart© IS COMING: Changing America's Driving Etiquette

An automobile revolution is on the making and the leading spot has been taken by a small two-seater with one of the most fuel efficient engines in the market. The smart® car (an acronym for “Swatch Mercedes ART”) has conquered 750,000 drivers in about 36 countries worldwide and is expected to appear in the American automobile market in the first quarter of 2008.

The smart® car is one amongst the six cars which have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York -and the only one still in production. Mercedes Benz and Nicolas Hayek, the inventor of the Swatch watch, brought this innovative museum quality idea to fruition around 1998. As an “ultra-urban” car, it is short enough to allow it to be parked “nose-in” where a conventional car would have to parallel park. Two or three smart® cars parked in the same parallel parking space has become the standard etiquette all over Europe -bringing significant results in the triplication of parking revenues in historic cores and commercial streets. In the standard American block (200’ x 300’) there will be either 37 smart® car parking spaces on its longest side or 12 spaces for conventional parallel parking; although they force municipalities to rethink their parking policies and their parking fee structures, the dimensions of the standard parallel parking space do not have to be modified to accommodate them.

The diesel or gasoline versions of the smart® car will be sold for no more than $17,000; these types will be: 8.8’ long, 5.1’ tall, and 5.1’ wide –in fact, two 6’ 5” plus people can sit side by side with plenty of shoulder room to spare at a top speed of 90 miles/hour; apparently, this is not a car to be driven in everyday highways. The smart® cars are designed to achieve 40-45 miles per gallon under normal driving circumstances. They come equipped with five airbags, an electronic stability program and one of the most sophisticated security frames in the world.

Its most important version will be the electric vehicle (EV) which will have an introductory price of $35,000. Although it is called a “hybrid”, the vehicle is completely electric. As a city commuter car, it will have a top speed of 80 miles/hour, a charging time of 5-6 hours using standard 110 AC outlets, and a range of 120-150 miles per charge; and, it runs on a lithium battery –the same battery used by cell phones, computers, or pretty much anything we use that is a portable electronic device.

Some of the smart® cars most important advantages are: reduced petroleum consumption, reduced noise emissions, reduced air pollution emissions, increase of health with regard to respiratory and other illnesses, reductions of 80-90 percent in the production of carbon monoxide and reactive hydrocarbons, durability, ability to maneuver easily, smallness and easiness to park; plus, they will qualify car owners for a federal income tax credit of up to $3,400; they will be allowed in HOV lanes while singly-occupied (Florida, Virginia, California, New York); in cities like San Jose and Los Angeles will be offered free parking permits when purchased in local dealerships; in Baltimore they will be considered for free meter parking spots; and, in states where it is still required, they will be exempt for smog emission inspections.

Let us welcome the green choice of the decade!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

WORLD CLIMATE: Redrawing the Map of the World

A climate crisis of astounding proportions is affecting our planet. The warming of the earth’s atmosphere, by burning fossil fuels, and the depletion of global petroleum and natural gas reserves is one of the greatest tragedies of our era. And as these events increase, we will be forced to modify the way we live and how we interact with the natural world.

In normal circumstances, the sun’s energy enters the atmosphere in the form of light waves and manages to heat up the earth; some of that energy is used and some of it is radiated back into space in the form of infrared waves. However, our thin atmospheric layer is being damaged with the presence of billions of tons of human caused gases. Our atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of dense gases and, as a consequence, the infrared radiation is trapped and cannot continue its natural path into the rest of the universe; America is surprisingly responsible for the yearly emission of 22 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) -or about 6 times the global average; and most importantly, the building sector is one of the major global greenhouse gas emitting sectors –in the US alone, 76% of the plant generated electricity is used to operate buildings while only 1% is used to operate means of transportation.

The average temperature of the earth is getting warmer and it is projected to continue in that direction. Global average temperatures have stayed fairly constant over the years, until recently; during the past century alone, the global air temperature rose 0.7 degrees Celsius -mainly due to burning fossil fuels and anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. Although this increase in temperature may not be very noticeable to humans, it is significant if compared to the recent average increase of 0.7 degrees Celsius during the last millennium. In other words, the same increase of average temperature of the last millennium was achieved during the last 100 years of human history; and, the increases are forecasted to continue.

If we don’t take immediate action to reverse this trend, the so-called "Global Warming" effect will carry devastating glacier defrosting consequences and the newly created water levels will require us to re-map every single one of the world’s coastal lines. A simple water level increase of 3-4 feet will flood the eastern coast line of the United States about half a mile in depth; an increase of 12-15 feet will erase some of the State of Florida as well as substantial portions of the cities of Boston, Manhattan, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Corpus Christi; most strikingly, according to conservative scientists this catastrophe is "almost irreversible". We may begin to see these effects between 2015 and 2030.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

TRANSFORMING OUR PLANET: Crusade for Smaller Ecologial Footprints

As the new millennium progresses, our planet is getting denser than ever before. Our human presence is increasing at staggering rates, consuming more, producing greater economic capacity, demanding mind-boggling comfort and creating a superior degree of mobility. Such quandary does not come at a discount; we have managed to transform the world into a homogeneous collection of anonymous places, a conglomerate of banal environments, an endless domain of colonization and urbanization and an absolute threat to our human survival. Our current predicament is blighted and requires massive change. Bringing about a universal sense of unity amongst humans, the natural environment and the man-made is becoming our most challenging human crusade.

The production of sustainable food sources, the discovery of new energy supplies, the ecological compensation and the reverse of our most recent actions is turning into a matter of
emergency. International consortiums, independent countries, regions, cities, small towns, neighborhoods, citizen groups and individuals are fed up with the cheapness and banality of the available strategies. But, fortunately, a group of positive heroes is emerging; innovation, appropriate technologies and smart alternatives will entrench our human race with a new sense of responsibility and preservation for the sustainability of our planet.

Today, everyone is trying desperately to obtain more space; but, our ecological capacity is putting constraints on our ability to grow. At home, our ecological footprint requires a piece of territory equivalent to 4 times the size of what is currently available. If everyone in this planet would start behaving like us, we would need three additional Earths to deliver our most basic supplies. Therefore, the construction of a new world is of the outmost necessity.

A new city is of the essence; the kind of city that acknowledges these challenges and incorporates them as part of our communal desires; a city which increases our capacity to grow within its current territory; a city which makes use of under used and incapacitated areas; one that will not only extend horizontally but also upwards and downwards; a city which will become denser in some areas and will loose density in others; a city where alternative modes of transportation decrease the production of CO2 gas emissions; a city which makes amends with its surrounding country side; a city where unconventional energy resources contribute to our collective freedom; a city of optimism rather than consumption; a city driven by moral ambitions and facts rather than biased by its political opinions; in short, a city of real human opportunities.

Apparently, we are unable to understand the force and power of design until everything fails. But, should we wait until the next accident, the next hurricane, the next disaster, the next crisis to be aware of the irrefutable damage we are causing to our environment? Or should we establish an immediate agenda for the global reconstitution of a planet in danger? More importantly, how can urbanism, architecture, landscape, design, art and their associated professional friends help in the development of this massive change?