March 3, 2008
By Adam Brock
Is all the good space left in New York gone? With construction cranes and scaffolding as ubiquitous as taxis these days, it’s easy to think that within a few years every square foot of space that can be built on will be. A closer look, though, reveals that even after a decade of manic development, New York’s urban space is vastly underutilized. While condos and office towers continue to rise all over town, vacant lots with no sign of impending construction still abound in all but the densest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are great opportunities for utilizing street space more intelligently, and thousands of acres lie untapped on city roofs.
And it’s a good thing, too: the way we reinvent these underutilized spaces will be crucial in determining the long-term resilience of New York City. We don’t need more condos for rich people from other countries. We need more trees, more green spaces to get away from the daily grind. We need to start growing more of our own food. We need to provide jobs for the working class that will lift them out of poverty while restoring the quality of the air, soil and water. In short, we need to figure out how to pastoralize the city as thoroughly as we’ve already urbanized the countryside.
The difficulty with making New York City greener is not a lack of space. Rather, it’s a lack of control over the space that’s available. In a city of dense, highly-prized real estate, decisions about how we manipulate our space are left in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it. The fate of the urban environment is determined by developers: entities which, constrained by the need for short-term returns, simply aren’t designed to think about the longer-term social and environmental consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the people that do care about these things – the people that actually live in urban neighborhoods – are rarely given more than a token voice in the planning process, and they rarely have the tools to envision how development might work better than it currently does. Even city governments, which used to guide the urban form through zoning, civic beautification, and urban renewal projects, have largely ceded control of the urban environment to the free market due to ever-tightening budgets and the lure of tax revenue from big-ticket properties.
Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that there’s no grand plan for how our cities are evolving: design from the bottom up can have its merits. It might not grow the economy as much as luxury lofts and big-box stores, but elements like small businesses and owner-built houses bring vitality to a place that modernist monuments and slick corporate megastructures lack. On the other hand, only city governments have the ability to create and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning, and only government and business have the money to transform our cities on the scale that’s necessary. The challenge for the 21st century, then, is to figure out a synthesis of top-down guidance and bottom-up authenticity, applying the knowledge and capital of government and business to the desires of the community.
It’s a massively different process than the one that occurs today, and the transition will probably outlast our own lives. But while we’re waiting, I think it’s worthwhile to start imagining ways that we might, if given the chance, start to redesign our own communities. I began doing just that last semester with The Living Domino, an ecological concept plan for a vacant factory complex down the street from my house. My most recent design challenge, Metropolitan Green, takes the same values and shows how they can be applied on a somewhat smaller scale.
A few blocks south of the Bedford Ave L stop, there’s a little triangular block where the slightly diagonal Metropolitan meets up with North 3rd street. Small and awkwardly shaped, the lot contains a mostly empty private parking lot and an overgrown triangle of a garden, and has thus far resisted development. The street to the north contains a bagel store, a lumber store and a laundromat, and sees hardly any traffic besides deliveries to these retail establishments. The result is a block of wasted space, an unsightly agglomeration of pavement, cars, and chain link fence in a space that’s ideally suited for a public plaza. Currently, more than half of the surface area of the triangle is taken up by sidewalk and asphalt, neither of which get much use.
Metropolitan Green proposes an arrangement would combine biology and architecture, while giving Williamsburg residents some much-needed public green space in the process. The design integrates the block with the buildings to the north, erasing the street that divides them except for a small access driveway for the lumber store. A greenhouse would emerge from the south side of the bagel store, collecting heat to help keep the building warm and providing a pleasant space for eating outdoors and growing a small amount of food year-round. Just to the east of the greenhouse, a small pond and intentional wetland process the organic waste from the bagel store and lofts above it, while providing a home for several types of edible fish. A matrix of raised beds allow vegetables and herbs to be grown outdoors nine months of the year, while the southernmost portion of the block is left as an open park.
For all the recent excitement around the idea of sustainability, designs such as the Living Domino or Metropolitan Green are still considered too radical to be feasible – but that’s no reason not to keep working at them. There’s no doubt in my mind that the end of cheap oil and need to mitigate global warming will demand a reinvention of the built environment far beyond what’s currently deemed politically feasible, and the more we can start to envision that eventual metamorphosis the better. Indeed, that metamorphosis might just happen sooner than we think: the economic climate seems to be changing even faster than the meteorological one, and it may not be long before crops begin to take the place of condos as the newest member of the urban fabric.
November 20, 2007
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.
November 15, 2007
When GDP growth declines in the U.S., we hear about it all over the place, from the newspaper headlines to the voices of glum news anchors. Contrast our reality with the nation of Bhutan, which quantifies its well being using a “Gross National Happiness” index. The index incorporates things like the preservation of cultural traditions and ecological health, in addition to economic variables. Interestingly, just as a housing downturn threatens to send the U.S. economy into a recession, Bhutan too has seen its official level of happiness decline in recent years.
Many attribute the shift to the infiltration of western media and entertainment, which began with the introduction of television and the internet throughout the country in 1999. According to a story on the NPR program Marketplace, the country has since seen a recorded increase in the breakup of families, as well as violent crime.
The story of declining national happiness accompanying a rise in national wealth is not new. In fact, it has been observed across many economies. Economist Richard Easterlin told Marketplace that the mechanism underlying this trend is fairly simple:
Increases in income are matched by increases in aspirations for income. And the net effect is no change in happiness.
Certainly, Bhutan was never a perfectly happy, peaceful country. The expulsion of thousands of Nepali-speaking minority citizens from the country in recent years is a case in point. But if they’re not achieving total happiness, at least they’re exploring more comprehensive ways to measure it. So are myriad other countries, among them Canada and the U.K. In the U.S., apparently, official methodology remains focused on conventional economics. And despite the impression you might get from the nightly news anchor, it just ain’t that simple.
October 29, 2007
The biggest question currently confounding the human attempt to deal with climate change is not one of technology or economics. Repeated analyses have shown that we can achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions by ramping up existing technologies, for a fairly modest cost in terms of Gross World Product (GWP). Rather, the most difficult question facing us is one of ethics.
Who is responsible for dealing with climate change? This question is as old as the problem itself, and it evokes many muddy ethical issues. Should rich countries responsible for most of our greenhouse gas emissions be the ones to pay, or should rapidly industrializing nations like China and India also chip in? Such questions have undermined international agreement on the issue since the Kyoto Protocol was drafted in the late 1990′s.
But what if we could attack this seemingly subjective question quantitatively? An organization called Eco-Equity has taken an initial step in that direction by developing an index called the ‘Greenhouse Development Rights Framework.’ I saw Eco-Equity co-founder Paul Baer speak at the NYU Law School last week, where he explained the assumptions behind this new tool for allocating climate change responsibility.
Inequality of wealth is widely acknowledged as a cause of inaction on climate change, since no poor country wants to sacrifice their right to economic development to solve a problem caused by rich nations. Thus, Eco-Equity assumes that no global solution will work if it makes inequality worse. The Development Rights Framework reasons that people with incomes below a certain ‘development threshold’ (about $9,000 annually) should not be required to pay to address climate change.
The idea that poorer nations shouldn’t pay was incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol. But in allocating responsibility among individuals rather than nations, the Eco-Equity approach picks up on an important fact: It’s rich people, not just rich countries, who contribute disproportionately to climate change. Therefore, anyone with an income above the development threshold should be required to contribute, including rich people living in poor countries.
So how does this approach change the way we allocate responsibility? Take the case of China vs. the United States. China may be emitting more greenhouse gases than the U.S. at present, but becuase of historical emissions rates and per capita wealth, they are required to pay a relatively smaller portion of the bill than we are. For example, if the total cost of climate change were 1 percent of GWP, China would pay $42 billion to the U.S.’s share of $214 billion.
Given the historical role of inequality in limiting progress on climate change, the Eco-Equity approch assumes that dealing with it may be the key to a solution. As Baer put it when he spoke at NYU, rich people are the only ones with the means to deal with climate change. Unless they step up to the plate, it’s likely that no one will.
October 11, 2007
By Adam Brock
There’s a big empty industrial complex down the street from my apartment called the Domino Sugar Factory. Nobody tends to give it much notice; it’s just a row of empty buildings of in an out-of-the-way part of the neighborhood. But with the pressures of redevelopment creeping into the area, the six-square block waterfront site is a fast becoming a developer’s dream. With a project of this scale, the fate of Domino will easily determine the fate of the rest of the neighborhood – and right now, the view from where I live ain’t looking so good.
Domino is currently owned by a group called the Community Preservation Corporation, although, in typical developer doublespeak, community preservation seems to be the last thing on CPC’s mind: their plan calls for four several-hundred-foot towers, each one taller than the Williamsburg Bridge they’re adjacent to. Cumulatively, the uber-development would double the neighborhood population, stressing an already overtaxed sewer and transit infrastructure to the breaking point. And while the proposed 660 units of affordable housing are a plus, the impact of the other 1,750 units would likely displace thousands of the area’s current residents, as shopkeepers and tenants alike are booted to accommodate an influx of new wealth.
This sounds like the beginning of a sad story told a million times over. But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially with the buckling housing market making 2,400 new units seem fiscally questionable. There’s another way to develop Domino: one that listens to the needs of the surrounding community and ecology while still turning a profit. That’s the premise behind the Living Domino Project, the first cut of which I’ve shown below. From the ground up, the design I’m working on takes a whole systems approach, looking at how flows of water, waste and energy can be continuously cycled. I aimed to preserve as many of the existing structures as possible, with the new ones positioned to capture the riverfront views and take advantage of the site’s ample sun exposure.
Here’s an overview of how the project would take shape:
The southern two blocks of the site, as well as the upland block, would be devoted to a mixture of public open space and affordable housing. Ideally, Living Domino can match the 660 units promised by CPC, although this might mean building higher than the 8 or 9 stories I’ve sketched out. Similar to London’s heralded BedZed development, the housing units would have attached south-facing greenhouses to help heat the building and provide space for growing food.
The recently-landmarked refinery structure (and the iconic concrete-and-glass tower behind it) would serve primarily as an arts and cultural center, along the lines of the vision laid out at dominosugar.org. With hundreds of thousands of square feet between the two buildings, there could be extensive galleries and performing arts space, with plenty of room left over for a public library, offices, or a magnet school.
The roof of the refinery, covered in PV and solar hot water heaters, would serve double duty as a rainwater collector. After a storm, the water would flow down sculptural “green gutters” (thank you, USBK) and into a public fountain. From there it enters the site’s greywater system and could be used to flush toilets or water plants.
The northern two blocks of the site would house a Center for Urban Ecology, complete with a prototype vertical farm providing jobs and fresh local produce to the surrounding community. There’d also be an amphitheater, with the existing figure-8 footprint of two old storage towers as stage. Finally, the five blocks of public waterfront would accommodate a water taxi stop, a plaza, commercial tilapia culture, and a marina.
The Living Domino Project is, of course, quite embryonic, and the concepts presented here are likely to evolve greatly in the coming months. But more important than any of the specific features is the idea that the Domino site has massive potential for catalyzing a healthy, sustainable community. Rather than creating yet another agent of gentrification as CPC plans to do, the opportunity exists to create something truly groundbreaking, something that serves as a jewel of Williamsburg and the New York City waterfront. It’s not too late to make Domino come alive – but the clock is ticking.
September 21, 2007
As I see it, the central challenge for those of us interested in creating a liveable and prosperous world is to reconcile the need for growth with its historically harmful consequences. More specifically, we need to find a way to provide the benefits of growth–material prosperity, the right to an education, and many others–without actually growing, at least not indefinitely. The problem is that at least in the U.S., the idea of limits has not historically been a part of our national mythology. In fact, it is a powerful American cultural narrative that we are a nation of industrious and increasingly productive citizens, destined to ride the wave of expansion off into the sunset.
In Break Through, a new book that has been getting a great deal of buzz lately in environmental circles, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (the authors of the controversial 2005 paper “The Death of Environmentalism,”) argue that appealing to the American people to act on global warming cannot be couched in terms of limits, but rather should emphasize Americas own glorified vision of itself , which holds that, as they put it, we are great at “imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future.” Our spark should be encouraged, not constrained.
That spark, or whatever you want to call it, keeps burning even as we argue over what do do, and it manifests itself as growth. I’ve been seeing its consequences everywhere I turn lately. Close to home, my own university, NYU, is initiating a long-term planning process to prepare for the next 20-odd years, in which its planners project it will need 6 million square feet of additional space, and will grow by abouut 5500 students. One of the school’s strategies for controlling the student population around the central campus is to double the percentage of students who study abroad by 2031, essentially externalizing the impact of their presence across national borders.
Our growth is also manifesting itself on the scale of cities. Los Angeles is currently in the throes of its driest year on record, and has grown by 3 million people since 1990 the lack of local water nothwithstanding. Encouragingly, the Metropolitan Water District is supplying the same amount of water annually that it was in the year 1990, despite the millions additional customers. As the population has grown, per-capita consumption has fallen sharply, thanks to efficiency standards that the city imposed after past droughts. But the future looks less bright. By the year 2050, California is expected to grow by 77 percent, to nearly 60 million people. Against this background of continued growth, improvements in efficiency can only work for so long.
What do these examples teach us? Neither the university nor the city are sinister creatures; they exist to provide education, basic material well being, and jobs for their members and citizens. They are simply growing to accomodate a growing population. And while we can certainly de-materalize our economies while continuing to grow, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever achieve “sustainability” without confronting the population question head on.
But how can we frame the need to stop growing in aspirational terms? How can we inspire people about the need to impose and respect limits, in the same way they are inspired to open new factories and penetrate new markets? I certainly can’t say, but I suspect Shellenberger and Nordhaus may have some advice. That’s why their book “Break Through” will be next on my reading list when it comes out October 4th.
September 4, 2007
By Adam Brock
A couple nights ago, a friend and I were wandering around Williamsburg, trading summer adventure tales and picking wildflower bouquets from vacant lots. We rounded a corner and came upon the old Domino Sugar Factory, a hulking brown edifice on the waterfront just north of the Willamsburg Bridge. Personally, I’ve always found it comforting that Domino, one of the last major relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past, is still around. As the rest of the once-scruffy W’burg waterfront begins to take on the glitz and glamour of the skyline across the river, the Domino complex remains, stubbornly resisting the inevitable.
No more. According to Atlantic Yards Report, the site has been bought by a developer and is now slated for a gargantuan redevelopment plan – 2.8 million square feet, to be exact. Turns out that the very lot I was picking flowers from, currently surrounded by modest walkups and 1-story warehouses, is slated to be a 120-foot tower. No wonder the Atlantic Yards folks are paying attention – the “New Domino” is looking like a sequel to Bruce Ratner’s vilified megadevelopment a couple miles to the south.
Now forget, just for a moment, that the real estate industry has this town in the palm of its hand. Forget the fact that the development plans are already underway and, as Curbed put it, “prying it loose at this point will take an effort of herculean force—not to mention hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, presumably from city coffers.” Let’s just take a moment to think about what, hypothetically, could be done with this building: a major waterfront landmark in a diverse, rapidly growing cultural district, in a city that (in theory, at least) is finally beginning to support the development of green, walkable communities. If this were Europe, the municipal government wouldn’t let developers anywhere near a site with this much potential.
But this is New York, and so it’s up to us, the concerned citizens, to convince the city that the Domino site deserves more than another set of towers. A group of local artists have begun doing just that, rallying to put up a giant “save domino” sign on a nearby apartment and putting together an alternate proposal calling for a massive cultural center in the vein of London’s Tate Modern.
Sounds like a good start to me – but integrating culture into the development plan is only the half of it. I see acres of potential for agritecture, providing the neighborhood with jobs and fresh produce. I see a native plant green roof, attracting wildlife and absorbing stormwater. I see those two industrial chutes turned into children’s slides, like in Germany’s acclaimed Landschaftspark. And I still see plenty of room left over in the six-square-block site for affordable housing, overpriced yuppie housing, a museum, and performance space.
Part of the philosophy of ecodesign is to harmonize the many interests at stake in a project – those of the developers, the artists and the working class, but also those of the waterfowl, the climate, and future generations. Sounds idealistic? Look at nature. Natural systems are constantly maintaining a balance between seemingly opposing forces, creating a dynamic equilibrium that works to everybody’s benefit. Extending that approach to social systems means sitting down with all the interested parties (or their human representatives) and getting people talking.
In the case of Domino, I have no doubt that it’s possible to provide both housing and cultural amenities, to design a development that enhances the community while still turning a profit – but only if everyone involved is willing to work together. Can Domino be saved? At this point, probably not. But as an exercise in imagining what our city could become with the right support, it sure doesn’t hurt to try.