Revisioning City Planning, Open Source Style

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

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.

Burning Bright: the Black Rock City Experiment

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.

The Living Domino

By Adam Brock


Siteplan Small

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:

AffhsgThe 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.

CultcenterThe 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 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.

VfarmThe 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.

Williamsburg Rises Up…

By Adam Brock

WBurg Units small

Click to view full-scale

I wonder what it would feel like to suddenly find myself with three new roommates, or if one of my classes jumped from 20 people to 35. I suppose I’ll find out soon: that’s the shift that’s set to take place in my neighborhood over the next couple years, as a series of sleek, Big Money condo towers rise along the low-slung Williamsburg waterfront.

As part of the Domino Project, I’ve been analyzing the current demographics of my neighborhood to better understand of who lives here and how the proposed development at the Domino site would alter the streetlife and resources. I threw together the map above yesterday to demonstrate what the area looked like in terms of housing in late 2004: a mix of walkups, townhomes and warehouses, with the occasional yuppie-priced loft thrown in the mix.

But thanks to a 2005 rezoning, my map is already out of date. Williamsburg’s overstuffed L trains and continually backed up sewers will be seeing about 5,000 more people arrive in the next several years, as construction commences on a wall of luxury condos (with a helping of affordable housing thrown in for a tax break). Towards the Bedford stop, there’s the Edge, with 892 total units, and Northside Piers, with 290 in the first of three towers to go up. South of the bridge, the 350 apartments and condos at Schaefer Landing have been open for a year or so. These projects, the largest 3 of many medium-to-large new developments in the area, will bring to Williamsburg a combined total of 2,000 units of housing – 5,000 people or so – by 2010.

And then there’s Domino. According to the CPC’s current plans (PDF alert), the development there would create two 400-foot and two 300-foot towers along the water, dwarfing the Williamsburg Bridge and generating a further 2,400 units of housing.

New Domino rendering

Can it really come down to doubling the population of an already overtaxed neighborhood in order to turn a profit? There’s got to be another way – one that works not just for the market, but for the community and the ecosystem as well.

Agritecture Evolves

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.

The Slow Metropolis

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