As this year’s Burning Man draws near, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this writeup from an event I attended in NYC a couple years back. It discusses what we can learn about city planning, community, and “radical self-reliance” from Black Rock City, the ephemeral city in the Nevada desert that hosts the Burning Man festival every year.

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.

Carbon Dioxide = Food

December 7, 2007

By Adam Brock

Ecodesign is all about figuring out a way to make linear processes into cycles: transforming what’s leftover when we’re done creating something into the raw materials of something else. These “leftovers” are conventionally called pollution – but in the regeneration, they’ll be increasingly seen as valuable resources.

These days, the most pernicious leftover is the one that’s contributing to climate change. Since it looks like we’ll be stuck with emitting CO2 for the short term, it makes sense to start thinking about how we can transform it into something valuable (rather than try and stuff it underground and hope it doesn’t leak).

Sustainable Design Update reports that Cornell’s Geoffrey Coates and his start-up Novomer is developing a plastic that uses CO2 and Carbon Monoxide as a feedstock. They’ve received $6.6 million in venture capital so far, and expect their products to be cost-competitive with oil-based plastics. Sounds right on so far… but is it compostable?

By Adam Brock

Like climate change, peak oil is a difficult concept to understand, and its implications are difficult to accept. It’s no wonder, then, that the theory is still pretty much off-limits to policymakers: openly discussing the fact that we might be in for some serious economic woes courtesy of dwindling oil supplies isn’t exactly a vote-winning platform. But, also like climate change, peak oil presents a pressing and potentially catastrophic threat to our future, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.

Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book “Post Carbon Cities,” might be the best messenger for yet for the peak oil cause. I attended one of Lerch’s presentations at the NYU law school last Wednesday, and while it wasn’t quite up to Inconvenient Truth standards, I found it to be the most digestible explanation of peak oil I’ve encountered yet. Unlike Albert Bates, the engaging but decidedly forest-hued peak oiler that spoke in New York about a month ago, Lerch came across as practical-minded and sympathetic to skeptics. His target audience is planners and municipal policymakers, and he framed the dimensions of the peak oil crisis in language familiar to those groups.

The talk began with a few fundamentals: the demand for oil is accelerating, while the supply seems to have hit a plateau. Sooner or later, supply will outstrip demand, causing oil shortages that will get ever more severe as the remaining reserves become more difficult and expensive to extract. This much, to me, seems pretty hard to refute.

But why do most peak oilers predict that this energy gap will wreak havoc on the economy? Can’t we just scale back our consumption slightly for now and eventually replace the gap with energy efficiency and renewables? That’s certainly the popular consensus among politicians and grass greens. To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who hosted a peak oil conference in 2005, “I don’t think it’ll affect the consumption of consumer products. It’s not gonna have a dramatic negative impact on our economy – we’re just gonna drive less.”

But according to Lerch, oil shortages are a lot less simple than having to turn down the A/C and line up to refill the gas tank. For one thing, models predict that once production starts slipping, it’ll slip fast – far faster than it’ll take to replace our needs with wind, solar or even nuclear. And as Lerch explained, In the last five decades we’ve become dependent on petroleum in countless ways, and seemingly insignificant disruptions in supply can have far-reaching repercussions. During the summer of 2006, for example, the spike in oil prices doubled the price of asphalt, a low-grade petroleum product. Routine road repairs were suddenly wildly overbudget, and many municipalities were forced to defer maintenance on their roadways.

Another chilling example is urban food supply. Many grocery chains nowadays stock their food on “rolling warehouses”, where food comes straight out of the factory or shipping dock and onto the truck to cut down on overhead. As a result, very little food is in storage near cities, so if an oil shortage like the one we experienced in 1973 were to occur today, many grocery stores could be empty within a matter of days.

One of the key concepts in Lerch’s talk was “energy uncertainty”: the notion that peak oil won’t just make energy prices higher, but also increasingly volatile. This makes it almost impossible to make long-term plans: how is a city supposed to cut a budget for its vehicle fleet if it doesn’t know whether gas will cost $3.50 or $6 a gallon?

Energy uncertainty is, of course, analogous to the “climate uncertainty” that the IPCC’s been talking about with regard to global warming. Put the two together, and you’re left with a frightening conclusion: two of the most complex systems on earth, the biosphere and global economy, are set to become much less stable within the next few decades.

Lerch’s prescription to city governments: start planning now. First off, follow the lead of Portland and Oakland, and create a peak oil task force to determine how petroleum shortages would effect your city. Strategize on how to relocalize energy production and manufacturing, plan infrastructure investments for the long-term, and, most importantly, start adopting a nonlinear, systems-thinking approach.

Peak oil or no, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: flickr/azrainman

By Adam Brock

The last decade has seen the environmental movement shift from pointing fingers at the Man to seducing him instead. After thirty long years of trying to guilt-trip companies into improving their environmental performance, it’s now considered much more effective to meet business on its own terms by showing that cutting down on energy and other resources can be profitable.

But despite all the hubris, the alliance of business and environmentalism remains an uneasy one: for every unexploited opportunity for increasing efficiency through resource savings, there’s another instance where rescuing the planet and quarterly earnings just don’t jive. After all, there’s a pretty serious divergence in their fundamental assumptions; corporations need to grow or die, while environmentalists maintain that unchecked growth is what’s killing us.

Last week’s BusinessWeek took aim at this conflict of interest with a profile of Auden Schendler, the disgruntled sustainability advocate at Aspen Skiing Co. The story relates struggle after struggle between Schendler and his higher-ups to make improvements that, all told, barely made a dent in the company’s environmental impact. When he tried to install CFLs in one of the resort buildings, he was told that the quality of light put out by fluorescents would detract from the hotel’s five-star ambience; after a long hard struggle, he managed to get approval for a $1 million solar array to provide a fraction of a percent of Aspen’s energy needs.

One of Schendler’s most vocal criticisms is of renewable energy credits, a system currently used by hundreds of institutions (including Aspen and NYU) that purports to offset electricity emissions by paying to support development of renewables. After doing some digging, Schendler couldn’t find any renewable energy that had come online as a result of Aspen’s RECs, and was forced to conclude that, much like personal carbon credits, the whole setup was too dubious to support. The BusinessWeek article seems to agree, explaining that the current price of RECs offers little incentive for renewable producers to ramp up:

Even many wind-power developers that stand to profit from RECs concede that producers making $91 a megawatt hour aren’t going to expand production for another $2. “At this price, they’re not very meaningful for the developer,” says John Calaway, chief development officer for U.S. wind power at Babcock and Brown, an investment bank that funds new wind projects. “It doesn’t support building something that wouldn’t otherwise be built.”

The dubious economics of energy credits aside, Schendler faces a more serious challenge: trying to green a company whose very basis is an environmentally destructive luxury activity. No matter how much Aspen reduces its carbon emissions, its clients will release thousands of tons of greenhouse gases just in getting themselves there. No matter how many LEED points Aspen’s new buildings achieve, they’ll still be sitting vacant for much of the year.

If Aspen Skiing Co. is serious about sustainability, it needs to completely redefine its mission, figuring out how to profit from actively regenerating the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. Anything less is a profitable hyporcrisy. If Auden Schendler’s experience thus far is any indication, it doesn’t sound like the “natural capitalism” approach is cutting it – so how can the message get through before it’s too late? Legislation? Consumer rebellion? What are your thoughts?

The Living Domino

October 11, 2007

By Adam Brock

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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.

LivingDomino1

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 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.

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.

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