16 July 2010

A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on the ideal city...

Reposted in full from the Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2009

'There’s an old joke that you know you're in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German. If it's the other way around you're in hell. In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. The permutations are endless. Maybe I'd take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney's with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it's not really possible to cherry pick like this—mainly because a city's qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place's cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream.

As someone who has used a bicycle to get around New York for about 30 years I've watched the city—mainly Manhattan, where I live—change for better and for worse. During this time I started to take a full-size folding bike with me when I traveled so I got to experience other cities as a cyclist as well. Seeing cities from on top of a bike is both pleasurable and instructive. On a bike one sees a lot more than from a freeway, and often it's just as fast as car traffic in many towns.

A "livable city" means vastly different things for many people. In Hong Kong it might mean that your family is in a comfortable apartment while you play in the exciting mercantile world in a glass tower overlooking the harbor. In Dallas livability might mean that you live near an expressway that isn't jammed up, at least not all the time, and your car runs most days. For some it might mean super fast Wi-Fi, the possibility of lucky and lucrative business opportunities and plenty of strip clubs. If that's what rocks your boat then try Houston, though to me that city, oil money made physically manifest, is my worst nightmare.

Here are some things that make a city livable for me:

A city can't be too small. Size guarantees anonymity—if you make an embarrassing mistake in a large city, and it's not on the cover of the Post, you can probably try again. The generous attitude towards failure that big cities afford is invaluable—it's how things get created. In a small town everyone knows about your failures, so you are more careful about what you might attempt. Every time I visit San Francisco I ask out loud "Why don't I live here? Why do I choose to live in a place that is harder, tougher and, well, not as beautiful?" The locals often reply, "You don't want to live here. It looks like a city, but it's really a small village. Everyone knows what you're doing" Oh, OK. If you say so. It's still beautiful.

If a city doesn't have sufficient density, as in L.A., then strange things happen. It's human nature for us to look at one another— we're social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.

Sensibility and attitude
New Yorkers are viewed as being tough as nails, no-nonsense but with hearts of gold—or maybe just gold-plated. This might not be the sensibility I would choose if I had a choice. The people of Glasgow, where most of my relatives live, are working class, blunt and free of pretenses. (They see their sister city Edinburgh as putting on airs). Their sense of humor can be scathing, though I find it hilarious. There's a wicked sense of humor associated with Berlin as well—Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Helmut Newton all shared this dark and sometimes transgressive sensibility. New Orleans is a city where people make eye contact. There's a more open sensuality there as well. I'd take that in my perfect city, minus some of the other aspects of that town, such as its tragic poverty, corruption, and crime.

Travelers return from Japan with tales of someone having left their phone or bag on the subway or even on the street and then returning to find the phone or bag exactly where they left it, sometimes the next day. I'd like to live in a city where the citizens trust one another that much- though I suspect that's the result of Japan being a more or less homogenized society, which has its drawbacks as well. But security can exist in the West. For example in parts of New York's West Village, as author Jane Jacobs pointed out, the streets are rarely abandoned and there are almost always some locals hanging out, so everyone sees a little bit of what's going on. The community has eyes and ears, and everyone behaves accordingly. In my perfect city I'd feel that sense of neighborliness—that people weren't in my business, but that I would be a familiar sight, as they would be to me.

Chaos and danger
To some, security means rigid order and strict rules. I do believe we do need some laws and rules to guide and reign us in a bit, and I don't just mean traffic lights and pooper scooper mandates. But there's a certain attractiveness to New Orleans, Mexico City or Naples—where you get the sense that though some order exists, it's an order of a fluid and flexible nature. Sometimes too flexible, but a little bit of that sense of excitement and possibility is something I'd wish for in a city. A little touch of chaos and danger makes a city sexy.

Human scale
Scale is important. In London people hang out in Soho, Covent Garden, Mayfair and other areas of mostly low buildings packed closely together. The City (their financial district), like the downtown in many American cities, is full of tall offices and it empties out at night. It isn't that bustling in the daytime either. Some sort of compromise might be more ideal—the tall towers mixed in with the modest-sized shops and restaurants.

To be honest, available parking doesn't matter to me. Parking lots and structures are dead real estate—they bring no life into a city and I'd be happy if there were a lot fewer of them in New York. It would be a pain in the neck for a lot of drivers, but unless they can be hidden underground, as they are often in Japan, lots and parking structures are simply dead zones, which hurt the businesses around them. In Japan parking structures are skinny, no wider than a large car, and a robotic system files the cars away. The Italian cities of Florence, Modena, Ferrara, where parking is pretty much relegated to the fringes of the town, are vibrant, though their appeal to pedestrians has turned some of them into tourist hubs.

If boulevards aren't too wide, like 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires, they can serve to break the monotonous pattern of streets and blocks, let sunlight in, and function as a landmark (so you know where you are). And if they are lined with trees and beautiful buildings of different types, they can even be pleasant. Park Avenue, Manhattan's widest boulevard, doesn't cut it. The green in the middle is lovely but inaccessible, and the endless sameness of giant apartment or office buildings with little else to break the rhythm inspires the eye and mind to glaze over. Berlin has some great boulevards. Karl Marx Allee, a massive boulevard in former East Germany, has outdoor cafes, wide sidewalks and weird Soviet era fountains and movie theaters. It threatens to go beyond a comfortable scale, but the business in the little shops along the street helps hold that in check.

Mixed use
This is a Jane Jacobs phrase. A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other, at different times of the day. A city isn't a strip of hotels and restaurants on a glorious beach; it's a place where there are restaurants and hotels, but also little stores, fashion boutiques, schools, houses, offices, temples and banks. The healthy neighborhood doesn't empty out at 6 p.m., as most of downtown L.A. does. In my perfect city there would always be something going on nearby.

Public spaces
In my perfect city there are ample public spaces—parks (not just vacant land, but common areas that people pass through and use), plazas (not just slabs in front of corporate towers) and, if possible, public access to the waterfront (if there is one). We don't necessarily need massive acreage in our parks. Bigger is not always better, but we do need periodic breaks from buildings. Industry abandoned the waterfronts over previous decades, and as the docks and the industry that went with them moved elsewhere our cities have begun to reclaim these areas—river walks (look how many people use Manhattan's Hudson River paths!), lakefronts (the beautiful Minneapolis lakefront paths eventually lead all the way to the Mississippi!), beaches and seashores. In some seaside towns there is no public access to the sea, which to me seems a self-injuring situation. In my perfect city there would be public access to all these areas.

The perfect city isn't static. It's evolving and ever changing, and its laws and structure allow that to happen. Neighborhoods change, clubs close and others open, yuppies move in and move out—as long as there is a mix of some sort, then business districts and neighborhoods stay healthy even if they're not what they once were. My perfect city isn't fixed, it doesn't actually exist, and I like it that way.'

We Need A New Science of Physical Economics

Reposted in full from Ecocity Builders newsletter, July 2010

'It's time we put economics into some sort of physical scientific context that makes sense. Economists have drifted off into a disconnected world where, blinded by massive amounts of money and mystery, they see themselves as a kind of high priesthood calling the shots for practically everything, then saying they were blindsided by the debacle in the real estate world and the up-trading in wildly irresponsible and, strictly honest to say, greedy derivatives. And now they are fumbling around trying to decide which theory to apply to address the world deficit situation and spreading underemployment - among a number of other deadly serious things. Meantime they seem to have no idea whatsoever what to actually build physically and thus they are not developing anything like a strategy for a recovery that actually fits the situation on our oh-so physical planet Earth at this time of its Great Recession.

Some of us, if not economists, knew something was profoundly wrong with overvalued real estate sometime around 2005 or 2006; it seemed utterly obvious. Meanwhile the economists kept pumping the bubble for higher returns to those with money to invest and for themselves in the Priesthood. From our supposedly naïve non-economist point of view, myself and my friends, it was simply a little common sense.

It has to be more scientific than that. But common sense is a good start. Get real in regard to physics, geology, chemistry, biology, ecology and psychology: "Hello Science. People calling. Is anyone listening?"

From Ecological Economics to Just Plain Physical Economics

We already have environmental economists, ecological economists, bioecological economists and so on, described in various places as "fields of academic research." Why then have they failed to focus clearly on what we need to build just plain physically and why have they failed to identify the largest thing humans build - cities - as the foundation for solving many of our most intractable environmental and societal problems? Why has concern for "sustainable development" barely scratched the surface of ecocity design, planning and development, much less identified urban layout and design as the key factors in facilitating or working against a wide range of technologies and lifestyles?

Perhaps the entire enterprise to date has been a little too academic and separate from the world of real steel, stone and mortar, energy, food and transport. Perhaps even ecologically conscientious economics needs a good dose not just of math, physics and ecology but also engineering, architecture, industrial design, technological development and business administration and, not to leave out, the development incentives and disincentives of zoning and codes, taxes and politics. Physicists and students of aerodynamics are not enough to build airplanes - you need those other guys too.

Where it starts in terms of the conditions we find ourselves in, on this planet at least, is with the massive flow of solar energy into our physical economy, mainly through plants, chlorophyll and soil at about 2.5% energy conversion efficiency, through 80% efficient passive heating and about 20% efficient solar electricity, all available with some serious investment. The sun's been with us a long time so we have two basic energy resources of enormous scale, one is the energy flow of solar income and the other is solar energy savings in the form of the fossil fuels. Solar income energy is a pretty benign source and fossil fuels are tricky as we are beginning to see with the Gulf Oil Spill, climate change and other disasters that range from the catastrophic to apocalyptic. There's a big hint here for a transition in thinking starting with physical economics: invest in solar and its derivative: wind; begin disinvesting in fossil fuels at the same time.

Another very large consideration is the mineral and metals savings account of the planet. If we don't recycle these they will become ever more scarce through rusting and frittering away in small item dispersion lost to any economically viable recovery in the longer range future. In practical terms that means we need to build a physical environment, mainly our cities, to run on about 1/10th the energy and 1/5th the land, which is proposed by a discipline closer to science than today's economics, that of ecological city and town design and planning. A super efficient built environment, the collective home the vast majority of us live in, also makes assiduous recycling possible.

The largest physical thing to consider is the built environment. What is it we actually build and what does that determine in terms of technologies and lifestyles? We should know we are in trouble when Brazil plows under virgin forests for ethanol road fuel, when India manufactures and promotes the cheap car called the Nano for its 1.2 billion people hurtling about enclosed in false security while 100,000 are killed in car accidents every year there as the Nano leaves the starting gate, when the Russian Government announces it has purchased 2.5 million acres of land to turn into car-dependent scattered development and when a Chinese gentleman sharing a cab with me in Beijing in his country of almost 1.4 billion people said, "Well if I can't have a car how can I get a wife?" Those four countries together represent 2.7 billion people hankering to live the car-city lifestyle of Americans when there are 9 times as many of them on the Earth as Americans. And Americans are trying to figure out how to have better cars rather than figure out that the car is part of a whole system like any other living complex organism and better cars promote more sprawl and dependence on cheap energy - which is going away as we begin pursuing this new idea of an economics rooted in physical realities.

Another very large factor passed over by the nervous is graduated income and property taxes. It is scientifically obvious that you have to go where the ore is to get copper, where the sun, wind or fossil fuels are to get energy in serious quantity. Similarly, following recent courageous suggestions by Jeffrey Sachs in the July 2010 Scientific American and recent comments by Hillary Clinton of all people, not known as a major economics theorist, you have to turn to taxing the rich - seriously. Not the middle class and the poor but the rich. The rich have convinced the poor and middle class to think "more taxes" means them. Smart trick, but that's not the idea here: graduated income tax with the rich paying their share of what society and environment helped them make. That's where the stored wealth to build a better world is and physical economics, if not today's mainstream economists, would identify and prioritize that very genuine resource instantly.

What would the tax money be invested in? As placed in high priority above, befitting the enormous scale of the enterprise, reshaping cities as ecocities, cities for people not cars, and getting on with renewable energy development along with the radical energy conservation of ecocities.

Limits and Hard Work

Let's not forget the two big ones this articles' physical economics* zeros in on as highest priorities of all: the reality of limits and the value of hard work. In the face of all the other supposedly "hard science," a grand compliment macroeconomists quest most passionately since they are true believers seeking their own version of Einstein's elusive General Field Theory, and with it, should they attain it, thinking themselves absolutely certain, economics promotes the wildly off base and destructive notion that constant growth is the only healthy state of the economy. It is finally time for economists to join the crowd in the real "hard sciences" that recognize the infinite growth in a limited environment is as dreamy as lead to gold and the perpetual motion machine. I won't even try to defend that statement.

And finally how do you think it is the Chinese went from famine and poverty in one generation to a stunningly productive, gigantic economy passing the United States in a number of ways? They work like demons, typically two to four hours more a day than Americans, they earn less money per hour outcompeting their competition, there are many more of them and they work on savings and investments instead of borrowing and betting on infinite growth like the real estate derivatives gamblers. Some might say its because they have a centrally planned economy but they also have some of the wildest of capitalism's enclaves as big as whole countries. All those things are not rocket science or the latest fad in macro economic's byzantine and ever changing formulas. They are pretty simple, standard old school, straight forward economics and represent very physical work. They also represent an excellent example of limits as the country is drawing down its soils, water and minerals and wiping out its biodiversity at a withering rate, transforming all that into pollution generated where the products are made and launched toward the United States and other debtor, high consumption nations.

I recently attended the Second International Degrowth Conference in Barcelona, Spain. I agreed completely with their consensus belief that constant growth is doomed or we are. I agreed that GDP, with it's destructive activities recorded on the positive side of the economic ledger - neglecting damage to the Earth, people and biosphere, even climate system of the planet - is a truly dumb, dated and destructive measure. And it is even intriguing that, as a number of their speakers advocated, if we worked four days a week instead of five or more, we would have far less unemployment and we'd be consuming less, giving the earth just a small amount more breathing room. But listening to the "relax our way into the future growing our own vegetables, renouncing specialization, and having much more time just to enjoy life" I just had to say, "Is this the way to save a planet in real distress?" Who ever faced a crisis, from escaping a sinking ship or burning house, fighting a war or struggling for survival in an environment of real poverty...by taking it easy?

Are climate change, species extinctions and eroding energy and mineral resource a real condition loose in the world today or not? So I think it is time to gird our loins for a real race to the finish and take hard work serious for survival reasons as well as in recognition of some sort of economics that makes sense. I believe that the threats confirmed by practically all legitimate scientists these days is a physical reality and I believe we need an economics based firmly in that ever-so physical conviction.

Put all the above together with reasonably prudent money management in basically traditional ways and you have the outlines of a new science we might call physical economics.

*We are aware Lyndon LaRouche and others use the term "physical economics" in similar critiques of economic policies but note many differences as well including the typical economists' omission of city design and layout and relevant policy.'

Richard Register is Founder and President of Ecocity Builders and author of Ecocities, Rebuilding Cities in Balance With Nature.

14 July 2010

Australia's National Waste Policy Implementation Plan Adopted

Excerpt from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 9 July 2010

'On July 5, 2010 the National Waste Policy Implementation Plan was endorsed by the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC)...

On 5 November 2009 Australia's environment ministers through the Environment Protection and Heritage Council endorsed the National Waste Policy: Less Waste, More Resources (the National Waste Policy).

The National Waste Policy aims to avoid the generation of waste; reduce the amount of waste (including hazardous waste) for disposal, manage waste as a resource and ensure that waste treatment, disposal, recovery and re-use is undertaken in a safe, scientific and environmentally-sound manner.

In acknowledgement of the potential to achieve wider community objectives, the National Waste Policy also aims to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy conservation, raise water efficiency and enhance productivity of the land.

The National Waste Policy establishes Australia's waste management and resource recovery agenda across six key directions for the period to 2020:

Taking responsibility - shared responsibility for reducing the environmental, health and safety footprint of products and materials across the manufacture-supply-consumption chain and at end-of-life.

Improving the market - efficient and effective Australian markets operate for waste and recovered resources, with local technology and innovation being sought after internationally.

Pursuing sustainability - less waste and improved use of waste to achieve broader environmental, social and economic benefits.

Reducing hazard and risk - reduction of potentially hazardous content of wastes with consistent, safe and accountable waste recovery, handling and disposal.

Tailoring solutions - increased capacity in regional, remote and Indigenous communities to manage waste and recover and re-use resources.

Providing the evidence - access by decision makers to meaningful, accurate and current national waste and resource recovery data and information to measure progress, educate and inform the behaviour and the choices of the community.

The 16 National Waste Policy strategies have been clustered into seven EPHC working groups...

Proposed National Waste Policy EPHC Working Groups
Product stewardship - Australian Government (Chair) - strategies 1 & 3
Markets and standards - NSW/Victoria (Co-chairs) -strategies 2,4,5 & 6
Landfill management - Victoria (Chair) - strategies 7,8 & 9
Commercial & industrial, construction & demolition and governments - Qld (Chair) - strategies 10 & 11
Reducing hazard - Australian Government (Chair) - strategies 12 & 13
Rural and regional Australia - WA (Chair) - strategies 14 & 15
Data - Australian Government/NSW (Co-chairs) - strategy 16
Implementation - Australian Government (Chair)'

UNEP Green Passport

Reposted from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 9 July 2010

'The Green Passport is an initiative of the International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development coordinated by UNEP.

It aims to raise tourists' awareness of their potential to contribute towards sustainable development by making responsible holiday choices. The Green Passport introduces simple ways for travellers to make tourism a sustainable activity. It promotes tourism that respects the environment and cultures while triggering economic benefits and social development for the host communities.

We go on holidays for pleasure, to discover new horizons, to relax, to meet people and to learn about different cultures. Most of the time, we are not aware that the choices we make for our holiday can have an impact on our destination and on the people that live there. We are often equally unaware of the implications of our travel for global environmental issues, especially climate change.

The aim of the Green Passport website is to introduce potential travelers to some of the things they can do to help make tourism a sustainable activity, by which we mean an activity that is not only respectful of the environment but that is also good for the economic and social development of the host communities.'

Working to Bring 'Hippos' to Haiti

Reposted in full from CNN, 12 July 2010

'Like so many people, Grant Gibbs watched the news unfolding in Haiti and thought to himself that he wanted to help the people of the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Unlike many, Gibbs is in a unique position to aid the Haitians in a big way.

Gibbs, a South African, is the man behind the Hippo Water Roller, a 90-liter plastic barrel with a sturdy handle that can be rolled on its side from a river or lake back to a home desperately in need of water.Gibbs' Hippo Water Roller Project has been selling the innovative devices in southern Africa for nearly 20 years.

But trying to send hundreds of barrels from South Africa to Haiti would be very expensive.

"Getting Hippo Rollers into Haiti would buy government a lot more time in terms of rebuilding proper infrastructure," Gibbs said by mobile phone from South Africa on Monday. "But paying shipping costs from South Africa would be prohibitive."

For that reason, Haiti may be a good place to try out Gibbs' new invention, a mobile Hippo Roller production plant set inside a used shipping container. The mobile plant costs $150,000 - mostly for the tool that makes the plastic molds - and can make 650 rollers a month, he said.

Two or three people could work the plant, he said.

Gibbs hopes to send mobile plants to Haiti and Uganda later this year, he said.

Hippo rollers have proved to be life-changing in Africa. By using them, poor villagers cut down on the number of trips to their water sources. Going for water is women's work, most African men think, so many young girls miss school to help their mothers make multiple trips to rivers or lakes, Gibbs said.

"We have enough money to buy them for about 100 households, but we could do with thousands," said Felicity Gibbs, national manager of Operation Hunger in South Africa. "I was in a village with a thousand households just last week, and though the government is planning to give them [a water pipeline], it won't be until 2014. So until then they will have to collect the water from the rivers [which are 3 miles away]."

The problem is financial. A Hippo Water Roller costs $100 plus shipping costs. That's a pretty steep price for a South African or for a charity that wants to buy a large amount. Most use donated money to buy them. In other cases, corporations will buy some and donate them to a nongovernmental organization or a village.

More than 31,000 Hippo Water Rollers have been distributed in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

"We think nothing of turning on the tap and pouring a glass of water," Felicity Gibbs said. "These people don't have any of those kind of luxuries. Even with a Hippo Roller, a majority of the people still have to fetch water twice a day."

Grant Gibbs said shipping costs are high because his group is charged for the volume of air inside the barrels and not by the weight.

Gibbs and his organization have worked with Engineers Without Borders and Project H, a nonprofit design group, on a two-piece design that would allow for easier shipping. The design would increase by five-fold the number of products that could be put in one shipping van.
But Gibbs said real-world use showed that single-piece construction was crucial to withstanding the stresses placed on the drums while rolling heavy loads of water (a full Hippo carries about 200 pounds) on uneven surfaces.

Anne Torres, co-leader of the Engineers Without Borders team, said her team also brainstormed with Project H a way to use the cap of the Hippo to include a water filter.

Felicity Gibbs said that now, villagers pour a capful of household bleach into the water and the rolling action mixes the cleaner in the water, killing much of the bacteria.

Grant Gibbs laments the fact that he's never had the budget to market the Hippo Water Roller. But he's excited about some new projects, including the help of Global Change, a U.S.-based charity that tries to bring drinkable water to impoverished people by funding different projects.
One of those projects would be getting a mobile plant to Haiti.

Gibbs said he stays busy trying to design improvements to the Hippo Roller. That includes the Hippo Hawker, a rack system that sets up as shelves for villagers to market their goods.
"They use it almost like a wheelbarrow," Felicity Gibbs said. "They put their fruits and vegetables [on the rack] and go into town where they set up a little stand."

Grant Gibbs said he also designed the rack to be able to carry a person to the doctor or infirmary.

But his immediate concern, he said, is getting the mobile labs out to nations that can really use the help.'