September 25, 2007
By Adam Brock
The weather was too beautiful yesterday not to spend the sunset outside, so I decided to longboard to East River Park, the newly opened state-park-in-progress on the Williamsburg waterfront. I rolled up just in time to catch the last rays reflecting off the Empire State Building – worth every uphill push. As I was making my way to leave, I noticed that the northern edge of the site, a good three acres or so, was covered in thick green vegetation. It looked like the start of a riparian zone, with smallish cottonwoods, chest-high grasses, and a variety of stunning purple wildflowers. It occured to me that the spot would make a great site for a bioblitz, and I made a mental note to return to it in the next couple weeks.
I approached the forest ranger on duty and asked him if all the plants were endemic.”I’m not really sure,” he told me politely, “but in three or four days, we’re gonna mow ‘em all down.” According to the ranger, what I’d mistaken for a permanent, progressive feature of the park was just the site of the next phase of construction. He explained that they were keeping the cottonwoods, but razing most of the rest to build a playground. I mused aloud that they should have thought to surround the playground in the native vegetation, so that the kids felt like they were walking into the forest to play. “You know,” he said, “that’s a great idea. But, well, it was Albany’s decision, not mine, so…”
The activist in me wanted to do something, make a last ditch effort to make this beautiful patch of land thrive amongst the jungle gym. But the pragmatist in me knew that the ranger’s resignation was well-founded. Three days might be just enough time to catch the attention of the NYC Parks Department, but the extra layer of bureaucracy of State would probably make any desperate pleas laughable.
So I did all I could do: listened to the crickets, watched the skyline fade to grey and blue, and paid my respects to my neighborhood’s best – and shortest lived – plot of open space.
September 24, 2007
As we seek to reintroduce natural systems into the urban landscape, and rising energy costs make local food increasingly desirable, intensive urban agriculture is shaping up to be a critical component of self-sufficient cities. Jetson Green reports on the latest vertical farming proposal, this one from Seattle: the Center for Urban Agriculture, conceived by local firm Mithun.
The winner of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s Living Building Challenge, Mithun’s proposal deftly integrates human and natural systems to function like a living organism. The proposal aims for self-sufficiency in energy (via PV panels with hydrogen storage) and water (via rooftop rainwater harvesting), while providing more than 300 affordable housing units and 40,000 square feet of vertical farming – all on a 3/4 acre footprint.
Of course, the Center for Urban Agriculture is just a proposal, and even if it were to be self-sufficient in energy, water and food, the details of how it would work from a financial perspective are far from clear. As I delve deeper into my ecological site plan for the Domino Sugar Factory, I’ll be taking a close look at proposals like Mithun’s and Dickson Despommier’s Vertical Farm Project to see just how workable they are.
September 19, 2007
By Adam Brock
Last Saturday I attended “Environmental Awareness through Ecovisualization,” a panel talk put on by Eyebeam as part of last weekend’s Conflux fest in Williamsburg. Defined by panelist Tiffany Holmes as site-specific, often dynamic displays of environmental data, ecovisualizations present the often obtuse statistics of sustainability in an easily understandable manner – and many of them are damn cool to look at, too.
Tiffany began the proceedings with a brief rundown of some of ecoviz art’s influences, from Richard Long‘s earthworks to Jackie Brookner’s Prima Lingua, a sculpture of a giant tongue covered in moss that cleans polluted water. Next, she introduced her current project, 7000 Oaks and Counting, which uses the combination of an interactive website, a kiosk animation, and sculptures of trees to raise awareness of the environmental impact of everyday action in an Illinois research center.
Next up was Michael Mandiberg, creator of the Real Costs Firefox plugin I covered a few months back. Michael used most of his alloted fifteen minutes to introduce Eyebeam’s Ecoviz Challenge, an open contest to create graphic icons or ecovizualizations to raise awareness about an environmental issue.
Brooke Singer of Preemptive Media spoke next, introducing a couple projects of her own: Air, which gathers data from portable air-quality monitors roving the city and sends it to a centralized database; and Superfund365, a website that profiles the backstory of a different superfund site every day.
By this point, I’d noticed a conspicuous pattern: nearly all of the examples from the panel were grassy to the max. Of course, with Eyebeam’s mission at the nexus of art and emerging technologies, this makes a certain amount of sense. But the way I see it, there’s no reason why ecovisualization has to entail GPS, air sensors or plasma displays – objects that can incur significant environmental impacts in their own right.
Which is why I thought the best ecovisualization presented was the last: Eve Moscher’s “High Water Line“. As the name implies, the brilliantly simple project involves drawing a chalk line at the 10-foot-above-sea level point throughout the entire five boroughs, to highlight the impact climate change will have on the city.
Interestingly, Mosher described it as a perfomance piece, with passerby as the audience. While the chalk might only last a day or two, the psychological impact Mosher incurs on pedestrians by explaining the piece lasts far longer. That’s why, to me, “High Water Mark” is so successful: the understanding that the ground beneath your feet will one day be submerged is something that no website, no matter how slick and interactive, can replicate. Here’s to hoping the other panelists, and the participants in Eyebeam’s contest, will take note.
Image credit: superfund365.org
September 10, 2007
By Adam Brock
Back in April, I mused on the idea of examining social systems as if they were single organisms, comprised of networks of human cells. “The Living City,” a provocative article by Jonah Lehrer in last month’s Seed Magazine, is a perfect example of how we can use this lens of the social organism to design a more ecologically sound society. The article profiles the work of Geoffrey West, a scientist at the Santa Fe Institute comparing city life with the metabolism of animals. Unfortunately, it’s not available online, but here are some of the points I found interesting:
In the early thirties, biologist Max Kleiber discovered that animal metabolic rates were directly correlated with the animal’s mass: the larger a species is, the more efficiently it uses energy. Working from where Kleiber left off, West and his colleagues have been searching for similar patterns of metabolism in urban centers. Using a multitude of variables like per-capita gas consumption and total length of electrical cables, West’s work has shown that, just like animals, cities invariably get more efficient as they get larger.
So far, this just reinforces what’s more or less common knowledge among greens; verdy New Yorkers have been bragging for years about how their city’s density makes it inherently eco-friendly. But the article really starts to get interesting where it starts talking about how the tendencies of urban metabolism break with those of animals.
In the biological realm, metabolism decreases with mass; an elephant, for example, has a far slower heart rate and gestation period than a mouse. But cities, as we all know, work just the opposite: the bigger they get, the faster the activity within. As Lehrer explains, this results in a feedback loop, whereby growth in a city’s activity encourages more growth (if you’re familiar with critiques of modern capitalism, this is probably starting to sound familiar). In order to maintain that growth, cities must constantly innovate, and do so at an ever faster pace, in order to avoid collapse.
This, to me, gets very close to the crux of our predicament. An animal that needs to keep growing larger just to stay alive dies out very quickly – a lesson that we would do well at this point to heed. What would it look like if urban metabolism were to decrease with mass? If cities, instead of being buzzing epicenters of human activity, were actually slower (but still more efficient) than the countryside? This notion runs completely counter to our ideas of what cities should be. But if West and his colleagues are right, cities as we currently idealize them are out of whack with the laws of biology.
Perhaps the idea of the “slow metropolis” is taking West’s comparison too far. After all, cities and creatures share at least one fundamental difference: animals need to move while, Archigram’s wild concepts aside, cities don’t. Regardless, it’s clear that our cities are in desperate need of an organ transplant or two. Like a stately oak whose branches are all facing the wrong way to capture the sun’s energy, the centrally planned, asphalt-smothered 20th century city is ill-equipped to take advantage of natural forces. It’s up to us, then, to figure out how to give our cities an ecological retrofit – and in the process, sync up our urban metabolism with that of the rest of the planet.
Photo credit: flickr/pbo31
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.