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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for September 2016

Street fight: handbook for an urban revolution

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I just finished the book that Janette Sadik-Khan wrote about her experience as NYC’s transportation commissioner.  And quite an experience that was: she managed to push through an unprecedented number of bike lanes, fast buses, and pedestrian plazas, culminating into turning Time Square into a walking mall.

One of the great things about the book is that it is lavishly illustrated, with a great many before-and-after pictures, which are more eloquent than any description or statistics could be.  Here’s an example, Brooklyn Pearl Street Plaza, the first place-marking project.  All that was needed was paint, chairs, tables, and umbrellas.  Wildly popular, it became a model for sixty similar plazas installed throughout New York.  After New Yorkers got a taste of what it’s like to reclaim the streets, there was no going back.

Pearl Street Plaza in Brooklyn, before and after.

Pearl Street Plaza in Brooklyn, before and after.

One of the many chuckles in the book are the mentions of Toronto and Vancouver, as examples of what not to do.  Sadik-Khan deplores the way the transit referendum took place in Vancouver (as you read the lines, you can picture her rolling her eyes) but saves her polite sarcasm for Rob Ford’s decision to remove existing bike lanes in Toronto.  She lambasts Ford’s notion that cycling in the city streets is inherently dangerous, saying the issue is with the design of the streets: “the fault is not in our cyclists, but in our streets”.

But New Yorkers are certainly no less cynical than Torontonians or Vancouverites; so, how on Earth did she manage to push the changes through?  Part of the reason is how the city decided to hold its public meetings, and it’s worth quoting at length.

At typical public meetings, city officials lecture community members for twenty minutes, then take questions.  This format works against general public participation and in favour of the few who feel passionate enough to declare an opinion before a room of people – often the most extreme opinions, which frequently result in a polarized room.  People with moderate opinions remain silent and stay out of the conflict, which means decision makers don’t hear a full range of views.  To encourage participation and also provide a better gauge of public wishes and sentiment in programs like our rapid bus projects, we arranged planning meetings that would seat participants at individual tables in groups of ten or even fewer, each one moderated by transportation staffers who jotted down ideas  and provided details of proposed projects.  Each individual – a resident, a business owner, a representative from a local institution – now had a chance to have his say, civilly, and resolve differences among themselves.

Certainly wish we’d do a bit more of that ourselves, we of the “no towers” signs and refusals to trust TransLink. 51szrwu7sul-_sx326_bo1204203200_

But maybe there was something else in the mix, too: NYC, and everything about it, including bike share programs, is constantly in the public eye.  So when the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz appeared in a video entitled “Death by Bicycle”, which included such chestnuts as “a city whose best neighbourhoods are absolutely begrimed by these blazing blue Citibank bikes” or “the bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise”, there was a Jon Stewart who could blurt out on the Daily Show “They’re just f**king bikes, lady!”, or Stephen Colbert add “Begrimed! Befouled! Be-dirtied! Now, as you’re ambulating about the historic West Village, a gaudy blue rack of bikes will take away from the simple beauty of the Cherry Boxx discount dildo shop!”

The book is a real gem, a lot of fun even if urban transportation issues are the last thing on your mind.

Sadik-Khan, Janette 2016. Street fight: handbook for an urban revolution.  New York: Viking.

Written by enviropaul

September 17, 2016 at 2:46 pm

The David Brower Center in Berkeley

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The David Brower Center in Berkeley

The David Brower Center in Berkeley

While on a visit in San Francisco I stopped to see the David Brower Center.  It’s a simple building across from the UC Berkeley campus – I would not have noticed it if it hadn’t been mentioned as well worth visiting (thank you Sage, our AirBnB host).

David Brower, of course, was THE face of environmentalism for the longest time.  As director of the Sierra Club, he led the campaign to prevent the flooding of the Grand Canyon (before the Greenpeace era of media saturation, Brower asked “would you also flood the Sistine Chapel so that tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” – the ridicule heaped on Interior secretary Udall, at the time, was enough to kill the project).  Under his leadership, Sierra Club membership jumped from 7000 to 70,000.  He moved on to create Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute.  Quipped John Nielsen,

Calling David Brower an important environmental activist is like calling Hamlet an important member of the Danish royal court. Brower invented modern American environmental activism.

The building houses the main offices of Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute as its main tenents, as well as a host of other groups and companies, such as, say, Equity Community Builders, a private finance company that shares environmental and social values with the other tenants.  There is also an art gallery in the foyer; when I visited, it featured among others the work of Kim Miskowicz, who creates landscapes using recycled materials for texture.

"Wall with no name", artwork by Kim Miskowicz using mailing label remnants

“Wall with no name”, artwork by Kim Miskowicz using mailing label remnants

But it’s the building itself that got most of my attention.  First, the guts of it: it’s a four-story concrete structure, but the concrete incorporates slag in order to reduce its CO2 footprint.  Inside the concrete are radiant heaters and coolers that make use of the most energy-efficient mechanical systems; the roof has solar panels that have been placed to also serve as sunshades when the building needs cooling; rainwater is collected for reuse and for toilet flushing.  It is also earthquake resistant, and some of the materials used in its construction were recycled from elsewhere.  The materials used also enable the use of environmentally-friendly cleaning solvents.  In short, it is a marvel of low-footprint architecture.

None of this would matter if the building felt like a claustrophobic insulated tomb.  But on the contrary, the building just feels good.  There is natural daylight in every single office.  The air is fresh; ventilation is controlled using CO2 sensors, and windows all open.  There is also an outdoor patio integrated into the structure.  And there is retail space open to the sidewalk, so that the building avoids the monolith feel from the outside.

Many of the new “cool buildings” share these features; not only does the building design avoids the “toxic building syndrome”, but the inside environment feels better, fresher than ordinary buildings, or even the urban outdoor environment.  I was reminded that I felt the same way inside the Equiterre building in Montreal, for instance, or the HafenCity University building in Hamburg.

Modern buildings don’t need to feel oppressive – these buildings show just the opposite.  I sure hope they become the norm.

Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

Highway removal: Patricia’s Green in San Francisco

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Some people, judging by the furore over the proposed removal of the Dunsmuir viaduct in Vancouver, seem to believe that removing a highway in an urban setting is just impossible: where would the traffic go?

I happened to be in San Francisco where a highway was indeed removed – Route 101, the Central Freeway through the city, was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.  Instead of repairing it, the city decided to tear it down under the pressure of community activists led by Patricia Walkup. Instead a new ramp was built below Market street, leading to a street level artery on Octavia street.  The traffic is diverted sideways and the rest of the former highway is Patricia’s Green.

This used to be a depressed, crime-ridden  neighbourhood.  Aside from noise and pollution, highways tend to have this effect on a neighbourhood – a scar that tears through the urban tissue.



But you wouldn’t know that, looIMG_0472king at it now.  Patricia’s Green, when I saw it on a summer Saturday, was filled with kids and families.  It is surrounded by a few posh boutiques and some interesting architecture – including a modular store built out of containers.

Just south west of it, where an exit ramp used to be, is one of the latest city initiatives: the Hayes Valley Farm, an urban block devotes to urban agriculture and permaculture education.

IMG_0476San Francisco removed another, better known highway at the same time: the Embarcadero highway.  If you’ve ever been a tourist in San Francisco, you can thank the earthquake for the beautiful waterfront downtown – it used to be a highway.

One axiom about highways is “if you build it, traffic will come”; highways are rarely a solution to traffic jams and transportation issues, since they attract traffic and, at best, simply displace the problems (as anyone who commutes from Langley to Vancouver can attest: it still jams up, but now it jams after the bridge, not before.

But a corollary of this axiom is: tear it down, they stay away.  The predictions of traffic chaos, of rat-running in residential streets, never happened.  If anything, people just switched to the MUNI and the BART, the remarkable subway and tramway systems of San Francisco.  IMG_0477

San Francisco is far from the only city to have removed some highways, by the way; Alyssa Walker at Gizmodo describes six of the better examples.  A more technical document written for the City of Seattle also highlights case studies of highway removals.


Written by enviropaul

September 3, 2016 at 8:52 pm