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2007's Best: Cities
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Patrick's Remaking the Built Environment by 2030

By 2030, about half of the buildings in America will have been built after 2000. This statistic, courtesy of Professor Arthur C. Nelson's report for the Brookings Institution, means that over the next 25 years, we will be responsible for re-creating half the volume of our built environment.

The report has been around since 2004, but Nelson re-examined his own findings last year to see if the housing market's downturn impacted the forecast. The sheer volume was essentially unchanged, and the mainstreaming of the green movement that's occurred in the last two years presents a colossal challenge--and a magnificent opportunity--for the burgeoning sustainable building industry. ... Every new building built between now and 2030 should be seen as an opportunity to push the envelope and transform our structured world.

Harlem Children's Zone and the Cost of a Child's Future

The Harlem Children's Zone was established on the basis of offering multi-level, integrated community services within a designated geographical area in Harlem. Today HCZ serves over 13,000 people -- including over 9,500 at-risk children -- through traditional schooling, after-school education, skills training, parenting classes, fitness and nutrition counseling, family support programs and health services. Almost any statistic you could find about test scores, asthma rates, child development, infant health would show better than average numbers in the Zone. In this environment, communities thrive and kids excel. But the problem is, only a limited number of people have been the lucky recipients of HCZ's network of solutions. Lack of funding means that more kids are turned away from the exceptional programs and schools than are accepted.

...Holistic, preventative approaches -- ones that actually solve problems, instead of just abating them -- are possible across the range of issues that must be addressed in the pursuit of environmental justice -- namely, the deeply interconnected concerns of food, environmental quality, and health.

The Climate-Neutral City: An Idea Whose Time has Come

Urbanites already represent the natural constituency for a climate change revolution. Not only is environmental commitment highest among urban populations, the distance from present reality to future necessity is shortest. Tight-knit, compact communities emit less carbon; traveling through them on transit, bikes and foot is easier; sharing goods and participating in closed-loop product systems is dramatically easier in dense environments -- even smart grids make a lot more sense in a city than a sprawling suburb. In fact, if we end up with an electric car/ smart grid/ renewables combination (the dream of some of the smartest folks I know, where distributed home energy systems and a smart grid hooked to renewable power electric vehicles designed for urban environments), dense urban neighborhoods is where it will first take hold.

...Anyone who looks at the situation with clear eyes realizes that climate neutrality is our future, and cities which embrace the future thrive.

Normally, I'd find the gulf we face and the timeline we're racing a depressing combination, but not here. For a city need not launch itself at climate neutrality out of moral kindness: a much stronger reason for taking action might be found in pure self-interest. In a world where proprietary control over needed innovations is wealth, and where prominence in collaborative efforts is influence, and competition for everything from investment to tourism to workforces is global, the first city to commit in a genuine way to climate neutrality is going to leap to the front of the pack.


Micki's Transforming Los Angeles into a Sustainable City

Mayor Villaraigosa has made it one of his goals to transform Los Angeles into “the greenest big city in America." Plagued with traffic problems and the worst air quality in the country, LA is more often equated with urban sprawl and asthma than a model of sustainability. But that transformation is exactly what Villaraigosa and Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley have in mind. Nancy Sutley is the Deputy Mayor for Energy and the Environment for the City of Los Angeles, and is also Mayor Villaraigosa’s appointment to the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. With a long history in environmental policy at both the state and federal level, Sutley is in a unique position to lead Los Angeles toward sustainability.

Tuesday night, I joined 100 other Los Angeles residents for a talk with the Deputy Mayor hosted by the Hollywood Hill. Sutley outlined a wide range of current and upcoming environmental initiatives addressing everything from energy and transportation to waste management and the revitalization of the LA River.

Emily has written a number of great pieces on living green in the big city, including apartment composting, Ideas on Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living, NYC Building Adapted to Be Safe for Migrating Birds, What are NYC's Street Trees Worth? A cool $122 million and her exceptional Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living: Creating Urban Wildlife Corridors

Wildlife corridors: they're not just for bears and wolves in the wilderness anymore. Urban wildlife need wildlife corridors between green open spaces in cities, ideally stocked with native plants that have evolved to flourish in local soil and climactic conditions, and feed the local animals. Creating this sort of networked conservation or green latticework in the city can connect us humans to our neighbors, too, because ultimately you need to engage with the people around you to convince them to do something different with their own properties.

Creating urban wildlife corridors can be portrayed as animal welfare, or as enlightened thinking: hey, we can take the needs of other living creatures besides ourselves into account in our urban planning and living. But if this sort of soft sell fails to persuade people, note that increasing the plantings in a city neighborhood has purely practical payoffs as well: more plants cool the neighborhood in summer by helping to disrupt the heat island effect of all the stone, concrete and asphalt, ultimately lowering energy costs for cooling in the summer. If they're native plants that can tolerate local conditions better than exotics, they'll generally need less water, soil inputs, or pesticides. And unlike asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, soil absorbs stormwater runoff that otherwise ends up overtaxing our increaasingly strained sewer systems, and draining into and polluting local water bodies and waterways.

but my favorite post along these lines may be Jenny Bogo's short declaration For the Worms: Vermiculture in Brooklyn

It’s impressive, really: eggshells, tea bags and fruit and vegetable scraps in, nutrient-rich, earthy black compost out. Instead of contributing to New York City’s colossal waste stream, that mealy apple and last night’s kale stems will in three months be coaxing heirloom tomatoes from buckets on our fire escape—the remnants of which will eventually be fed back to the worms.

In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan observes that: “…in nature, there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch." My worm bin, like the polyculture farm Pollan visited for the book, mimics those natural relationships to create a closed cycle—a loop of endless energy rather than a line leading to a pile of onion peels.


Creating walkable neighborhoods ranks high on the planetary to-do list. Malu Fink's review of How to Build a Village and my WalkScore and the Great Neighborhood Book cover two of the leading new resources for doing that.

Density, done right, offers one of the most transformative tools in the worldchanging workchest. Not only does good density reduce residents' environmental impact (smaller houses are less wasteful, shared infrastructure is more efficient and living close to places you want to go reduces driving), research shows that good urbanism can battle the dire social problems with which so cities are beset. Making a good neighborhood better -- or starting a struggling neighborhood on the way to righting itself -- is one of the most powerful actions any of us can take.

Density is easy to measure, at least in most developed world cities. Livability is a little tougher. That said, there is one pretty convenient stand-in for livability that's measurable in a whole lot of ways, and that's how easy it is to walk around.

Meanwhile, Jon reports Handbook Offers Best Practices for Charrette-Style Urban Planning

Although the label "charrette" can be applied to any intense period of design activity, they've been particularly successful formats for urban planning sessions. This is largely thanks to the practice of involving all the stakeholders in a given design project. That success also derives from their transparency: anyone can take a peek at the charrette's work-in-progress.

Charrettes that work are complex manifestations of collective intelligence that's been efficiently organized and orchestrated. They require careful planning and skilled facilitation. The National Charrette Institute (NCI) has gathered best practices and evolved an effective methodology. The non-profit group is dedicated to a charrette-based approach called "Dynamic Planning," a three-part process that begins with research, education, and preparation, progresses to conducting the charrette itself, and then implementating the charrette's plan.

Sarah's Multi-Family, Affordable, Urban and Green

Little did I know that an urban market I'd been frequenting for years in SF's SOMA neighborhood sat beneath several stories of light-filled highly affordable apartments set around a courtyard. And right down the street sits Folsom Dore Supportive Apartments, one of David Baker's stand-out projects, both for catering to an urban population in need, and for being highly environmentally-sensitive. Folsom + Dore is a 98-unit complex in a brick building restored to a LEED Silver certification level, "serving households with special needs, such as chronic homelessness, physical or developmental disabilities, and HIV/AIDS illness."

The place has reduced private parking to 70% below the usual standards, and added instead a City CarShare hub and a bike parking lot. This is not only a way to keep ongoing pollution at bay and personal transportation costs low, but a tremendous cost-saver in the building process, where adding parking eats up budgets in a blink. Internal courtyards and a playground offer a safe outdoor space and the design uses open stairways and potted greenery to keep the whole place well ventilated and the air clean. A huge photovoltaic roof array offsets the use and cost of utilities in the building.

This kind of building holds incredible promise in terms of fostering urban density and livability for those who cannot afford the upscale build-outs taking over so many urban corners.

Erica's How To Fix Our Parking Problems

Roadbuilding unleashes a chain of detrimental effects on the natural world. Cars produce greenhouse-gas emissions; roads produce sprawl; sprawl necessitates more cars; more cars need more roads; the cycle continues.

What's been less fully explored is the effect of building parking for all those cars. Or, more accurately, building surplus parking. According to a surprising new study out of Purdue University, parking spaces "in a midsize Midwestern county" (Tippecanoe) actually outnumbered cars three to one. Because the study did not count every floor in multi-level parking garages, the actual number was probably higher, with those excess spots including oversized suburban lots in front of strip malls, driveways and residential carports; and parking garages to serve large office parks.

All told, there were eleven times more parking spaces in Tippecanoe than there were families -- taking up space equivalent to more than 1,000 football fields.

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