NYC asks “What If?”

November 28, 2007

After reading my post on Re:vision, my buddy Ryan over at the New School Sustainability Committee alerted me to another effort at crowdsourcing city planning – this one a little closer to home. What If NYC is a competition sponsored by the city government to develop creative solutions to temporary housing in the wake of a natural disaster.

While it might not have the appeal of designing a city block from the ground up, the What If competition is an intelligent move on the city’s part: climate change is making weather patterns more violent and unpredictable, and New York’s dozens of miles of waterfront will be put at increasing risk. And, as the site’s brief points out, conventional trailer park-style temporary housing is poorly suited to the high density neighborhoods of New York.

Can It!

November 22, 2007

By Nelson Harvey

One of the best ways to insure that important problems get solved is to make it fun to solve them. That’s the spirit behind “Canstruction,” a national competition that pits design firms against each other annually to build the most compelling sculpture out of full cans of food. Each sculpture plays on the theme of ending hunger, and at the close of the competition, all the canned food is donated to local food banks and charities. The NYC Exhibition at the New York Design Center closed yesterday, but I was able to sneak in at the last minute and get a few photos. Here they are:




The Loch Ness Monster, and rather interpretive tree in the background.




That’s a frog.


This racecar goes fast, and it’s also a pallindrome.

By Adam Brock


I just discovered Re:Vision, a San Francisco-based site intent on utilizing the power of the masses to reinvent urban planning. Started at the beginning of 2007, Re:vision sponsors a series of contests around themes like transportation, commerce, and energy, with the final competition centered on a real site where the previous ideas can take root.

So far, two of the competitions have closed, and the winners are up. First place in Re:Volt, the energy contest, was an energy-producing playground that lights up using kid-powered LEDs. Re:Route, meanwhile, yielded Sniff, a wireless network that matches public transit riders to encourage interaction, and Intelligently Integrated Transport, a networked transit system involving car and bike rentals and real-time route info. Not a bad set of solutions, overall, though some seemed a bit unrealistic – do I really want MTA peeking into my iPod so it can suggest who to sit next to? More importantly, the contests seem to have overlooked one of the core principles of ecodesign: that it is unavoidably, unapologetically site-specific.

Fortunately, that weakness is set to be resolved for the final contest, in which Re:vision intends to partner with a municipal government and developer to sponsor a competition for a real city block. If they succeed in securing such a site, the game would change significantly. The swarm intelligence of open-source design talent paired with a site to channel that talent seems like a pairing that just might change the way we think about the design process.

Or it might not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Domino project, it’s that developers aren’t too keen on visionary thinking, and it could prove difficult to find one willing to finance a project based on an online competition. But whether or not Re:vision gets it right the first time around, there’s no doubt that it’s on to something really revolutionary – putting the planning and development process back into the hands of the people, and giving our cities a fighting chance at sustainability in the process.

Bioneering in Baltimore

October 20, 2007

By Adam Brock

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons are the mixtape DJs of the sustainability movement: just below the radar of the mainstream, but with impeccable taste for what’s next. Since 1990 the pair have been responsible for running the Bioneers conference, an annual gathering of the verdiest thinkers in everything from ecodesign to indigenous wisdom, in San Rafael, California. I’ve long been a fan of their lecture archive and book series, and this weekend I get to participate in the real thing – if only slightly vicariously – from Cultivating Change, the satellite conference in Baltimore.

If the proceedings so far are any indication of what’s to come, it’s sure to be a weekend packed with fresh ideas, inspiring stories.. and pickled eggplant (wtf?) at the locally-sourced lunch table. To be sure, there’s a good deal of familiar, if well-presented, territory being covered here – the financial benefits of building green aren’t really a revelation at this point. But the presenters that have made the Chinatown bus ride from NYC worth it are the ones covering new ground, elaborating on concepts only just now getting the attention they deserve.

Like, for instance, local living economies: regional networks of locally-owned, triple-bottom-line businesses. A talk by Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia and cofounder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, turned the Forest Green aversion to moneymaking on its head: with the right approach, Wicks asserted, entrepreneurship can be a medium for reconnecting communities to nature and each other. The amiable Massachusetts green contractor John Abrams concurred, relating the story of growing his one-man business, South Mountain Company, into a thriving employee-owned corporation.

Another hot concept this year is the emerging congruence of the sustainability and social justice movements under the banner of “green-collar jobs”. Van Jones, one of the most sought-after activists in the country at the moment, gave a keynote address from California that managed to be both electrifying and stand-up-comedian funny. Now that environmentalism is moving to the center of politics, Jones told us, we have the responsibility to make it a tide that lifts all boats. This will happen by “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing” – an idea that everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Thomas Friedman seem to be getting on board with.

Van’s talk was only the last of several jaw-dropping speeches during the day, and even though half of the presentations at Bioneers are telecasted, it’s been hard not to get riled up. Bioneers makes me feel like part of a culture-changing movement at its peak – and I’m only a third of the way through. I wonder if they’re putting something in that pickled eggplant.

By Adam Brock


What if ecological city planners were given a chance to design a city from the ground up, in a completely empty landscape? What if the city was decreed to have zero environmental impact – and torn down and rebuilt on a yearly basis? While it sounds like something pulled from the journals of Paolo Soleri, this ultimate planners’ workshop actually occurs every summer at Black Rock City, the ephemeral site of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Known for its out-of-control costumes and massive art installations, Burning Man is also an annual experiment in low impact/high density human habitation: with a population of 40,000 packed in at twice the density of London, this is no mere camping trip.

I got a taste of Burning Man’s refreshingly offbeat design process at “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City”, a panel at the AIA’s Center for Architecture last weekend. On the stage were Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, Black Rock City planner Rod Garrett, The Eye, architect for one of the festival’s ‘theme camps’, and Hayley Fitchet, a city planner for London-based Gensler.

While it’s often described as “the world’s greatest party,” Burning Man is much more than a weekend of hedonism. At the core of the burner philosophy is the idea of sacredness: nothing is sold at the festival other than water and coffee, and for many, the experience is imbued with a sense of the divine. Harvey explained how the unique architecture of Burning Man heightens this sense of wonder by employing timeless concepts like site orientation, bilateral symmetry, exquisite detailing, and natural materials – concepts that the sleek, convoluted architectural forms of today seem to have left in the dust.

While Harvey played the mystic, Garrett was all professionalism, choosing to focus on the logistical challenges of Black Rock City and how it’s evolved since he came onboard ten years ago. Shaped like a C, with the iconic Burning Man itself at the center, the city plan is scaleable to accommodate a growing population, and allows people and goods to easily access all parts of the site.

Black Rock City

Well-intentioned though it may be, Burning Man is still prone to the pressures of development that threaten any growing city. Garrett related a fascinating tale of how, in the early 2000s, the theme camps (grandiose setups constructed by groups of longtime burners) were contributing to a sort of Burning Man gentrification, forming a literal inner circle around the main esplanade. In the spirit of equality, Black Rock City was rezoned in 2005 to spread them out along the radial streets. The result: the theme camps now act as attractors for “neighborhoods”, bringing together burners with similar interests.

It might seem that the very aspects of Burning Man that make it such a compelling case study – ephemerality, lack of context – would limit its applicability to real-world urban design. But Fitchett, the final presenter, convincingly argued to the contrary, explaining how her three years at Burning Man have informed her work as a planner. Want proof of the importance of landmarks? Look no farther than the Man, standing at the heart of the temporary city until the ritual burning on Saturday. Need reassurance that streets without traffic signals are actually safer? Observe the way bicyclists naturally take to the middle of the Black Rock City streets, while pedestrians cluster around the edges. Perhaps Fitchett’s most original Burning Man-derived insight was the conviction that our public space need not be mediated by commerce. “The chance to be a participant in public life,” she quipped, “should not come at the price of a cup of coffee.”

It was a comment that captured well the spirit on stage, and of the festival as a whole. In the two decades since its founding, Burning Man has become the riotous epicenter of American counterculture – a reputation it’s earned by providing a place, however fleeting, where people can relate to each other without the inevitable distortions of the dollar sign. Back here in reality, we might not be refashioning our street grids or imposing a barter system any time soon, but even so, Burning Man is well worth the consideration of those of us looking to reinvent urban life. After all, if Larry Harvey and his team can bring forty thousand people to the Nevada desert in summer, they must be doing something right.


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