Thursday, December 31, 2009

Message of Hope for a New Decade

In an LA Times article today, Michael Hiltzik discusses corporate responsibility and how it's crucial to corporate success, rather than the common short-term-profit-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else model currently driving our economics and our society, to disastrous results. He outlines the philosophy of Peter F. Drucker and its strong empasis on corporate survival as a result of its contribution to society. This incorporation of social capital as a benchmark of corporate standard practice, as well as a sustainable approach that incorporates natural capital, is an approach that is gaining new appreciation in the global markets.

The diagram above, from Frances Moore Lappe's book "Getting a Grip: c
larity, creativity and courage in a world gone mad" is that of the empowerment process that engages society in the creation of constructive business processes and generation of financial capital as a result of a sharing process. It is a process version of Drucker's approach based upon business principles. It's the antithesis of the existing cycle of powerlessness that has gripped the national and global economy as a result of abusive business practices and corporate political favoritism. That diagram is here to the left. It needs to be put out of its misery.

On her website, she speaks for herself:

Because we are creatures of the mind, says Lappe, it is the power of “frame” - our core assumptions about how the world works - that determines outcomes. She pinpoints the dominant, failing frame now driving our planet toward disaster. Then, with fresh insights, startling facts, and stirring vignettes of ordinary people pursuing creative solutions, Lappe uncovers a new, empowering frame emerging worldwide.

One "frame" that will have to be reversed is that of monopoly capitalism, which has evolved in this country and broken down the structure of anti-trust law that used to restrain this economic vector. The mega corporations have fostered this dysfunctional merchandising system which has divorced product and sales from their customer base, as well as created a global transit network that is burning fossil fuels at unprecedented rates.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Smith and Williams



Decided to clean out my files at the end of the year, and came across a small treasure trove of snapshots of the 1414 Fair Oaks Office Building, the original design complex for the collaborative, taken in about 1960 or so. These are truly historic photos of the condition of the structure before the later remodels were done in the 1990's. (click to enlarge photos)

A current outdoor space and landscape renovation of the patio is planned. The present owner is taking great care to respect its heritage and original design intent.



Signpost                             The Pond               Roof under the steel shade trellis

Monday, December 28, 2009

And More Gas

The accurate tally of the sources of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which are driving our public policy formulations and hence all legislation, is critical. The chart above, and the link from it, is to the Edgar Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research. It's pretty clear that the vast majority of it is from industry, business and power production. A large chunk of it is from residential development and consumption. The vehicular emissions are not a big part of the total picture, so a serious reduction in coal power plants and oil consumption in industry, manufacturing and agriculture is critical to getting the global carbon number down to 350.

The site has some database files and analysis that can be downloaded to examine the specific numbers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When We Were Young

A view of us architects on the AIACC Board at Yosemite during our retreat that year. Only the top dogs got to stay at the Ahwanee, the rest of us were down in camp, but we enjoyed the dining and collaboration anyway.

The AIACC Sustainable Architecture Taskforce prepared the following principles as a measure to review and propose legislation and agency practice. The principles emerged out of a day-long roundtable where the Taskforce discussed issues, principles and case studies that could be applied to AIACC’s efforts to advocate for laws and regulations that support sustainable building practices and more livable communities.

Issues like affordable ownership, Infill housing, and schools as centers of communities. It was a community-centered vision that was starting to incorporate sustainable practices in buildings and move away from the urban sprawl model to walkable urban areas. We especially noted that Prop 13 had shifted financial responsibility and capacity for schools away from local districts to the State, and felt that local community support for the schools was important. Our five issues were:

Issue 1: Project funders, public agencies and tenants, do not recognize the economic benefit of green building design.
Issue 2: Many agencies and institutions do not incubate a culture of innovative application of sustainable design.
Issue 3: Sustainable design is not being applied at city and regional scales.
Issue 4: Our use of natural resources is not sustainable and imperils our economy, health and political stability (water, air quality and climate)
Issue 5: There seems to be a lack of awareness among policymakers of benefits of sustainable design.

What a difference a decade makes. From the first small voices in 2001 to a 2009 global summit on warming and carbon reduction, with water a critical issue as the global weather changes and creates critical shortages of food and fresh water. All as a result of development, transportation and industrial wastes. Who's in control of this juggernaut? It's slipping out of the hands of the large developed societies and is necessarily becoming a consensus with the third world countries at the table which are struggling to survive in a new global era of limits.

This global dialogue (who knew?) is critical to addressing the development that has brought us to this unimaginable brink. The first world will need to concede tremendous resources to other countries in reparation for the carbon dump of the industrial revolution that has resulted in our situation today. Our lives are irreparably changed, and the sooner the corporate world gets that, the better chance our children will have to inhabit a decent world.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Grand Canyon Regeneration

The Grand Canyon is an extraordinary place for those of us who go back to it for rafting and camping; it's a place I return to every few years to reinvigorate my thinking and immerse myself in its powerful spaces. I began in this area with Arcosanti, and came back again and again with friends to explore the river and its canyons, and of course run the rapids (Lava Falls is a 10).

The Glen Canyon dam has a 50-year history of controversy, not only over the dam itself, but how to manage the river, the fish, the ecosystem and subsequently deal with the invasive plant species that have encroached into the Grand Canyon's ravines and along the river. A prime example of this is the tamarisk, or saltcedar trees, that are degrading the environment along the riverbanks and up in the plateaus of the ravines. They consume tremendous amounts of water as well as overgrowing other native plant species.

The story of radical environmentalism as well as the original exploration of the Canyon by John Wesley Powell spans the arc of the southwestern colonial era to the present day issues of water and environmental preservation.

So it was with relief and hope that I found that the Grand Canyon Sandbar Restoration experiment in 2008 has paid off in a new protocol by the Department of the Interior for experimental releases of high water flows to restore the sand beaches and ecosystem that were essentially cut off by the Glen Canyon dam. This is the start of a new approach to integrating natural processes and the controversial massive public works projects like the dam in order to minimize the environmental degradation that occurs with large dams.

Ultimately, perhaps, we can learn to use resources and integrate systems in a way that makes brute-force engineering like Glen Canyon Dam unnecessary. At least as it stands now, there will be no more Federal dollars put towards dam projects because of the consequences of damming rivers and disrupting the natural benefits of the rivers and their ecosystems.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pioneer Square at Pacific Northwest Ground Zero

Pioneer Square is in the news again these days, due to its volatile history and aspirations as the core of Seattle's "grunge" identity. At the base of Yesler Way, the original Skid Row, I experienced it every day working for Ralph Anderson and Partners in the Pioneer District during the mid-70's. We'd have to call the paddywagon in the morning after the denizens of the streets started to cut each other up over some issue or another during recovery from the previous night's repast. I'd also have to fight my way through those guys, along with the pigeons, to get to work from the bus stop across from the square. We'd all climb upstairs in the summer via a small ladder out onto the roof to "catch some rays" and inhale the asphalt fumes from the pitch-tar roof.

There's now a civic discussion about "saving" Pioneer Square and its authentic qualities, which is being impacted by the proposed Viaduct replacement, proposed tunnel and Waterfront redevelopment.

However, the spirit embodied by Pioneer Square, and Ralph Anderson and Associates (right there in Pioneer Square in the Union Trust Building and Annex) is more about the authentic restoration of character and scale to integrate the vibrancy of urban scale and interaction. This stems from the earlier work of Victor Steinbrueck at the University of Washington architecture department, which celebrates the uniqueness and character of the Seattle indigenous architecture, including that fascinating Richardsonian Romanesque architecture found in the downtown area's older structures.

Ralph and his firm mentored the careers of many local Pacific Northwest architects.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Building Community


That was my theme when I served as AIA Chapter President in 2000, and it continues to serve as the part of the social capital component of my approach to sustainable urban planning and architecture. The other component, also missing in the calculations of the development community, is natural capital. One vision that integrates all of these elements is continuing to evolve out on the mesa above Scottsdale, Arizona. This is the Arcosanti "arcology" by Paolo Soleri that's shown in the video above.

I was a workshopper for a summer in 1978, and it was concurrent with coursework at SLO that involved the investigation of evolutionary concepts related to "Omega Point" and extensively elaborated graphically and textually by Soleri in his monographs. It's resulted in a form-based solution to human habitation at a different scale that incorporates landscapes and structures based on community and natural capitalism, i.e., living with the means of natural and human resources. It's about connections and how art, community, urban design, construction and site-based design come together in novel ways.

This vision is grounded in understanding place and form, as well as natural processes. It's about the special experience of a place and its nature, rather than the imposition of generated forms into the urban fabric or natural environment regardless of scale. These are the valuable lessons that arise from understanding a place and the needs of the people and institutions that inhabit this place. Sometimes the answer, after all the solution-seeking, is not "a building".
(Note that you might have to switch to Internet Explorer to view this video)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blowback

AB 32, the precursor and foundation of SB 375, has caused consternation as its implementation becomes imminent. Thanks to The Tattler for raising the issue repeatedly. This blog points to a news article on Fox & Hounds which has a copy of a report by the CSBR raising issues of cost and realistic implementation methods. There are major disagreements with the State's method of estimating Green House Gasses (GHG).

The California Small Business Roundtable has commissioned a report to examine the further costs of the California law passed in 2006 by the legislature. The implementation of this law, as directed by the California Air Resources Board, has been seriously compromised by the building industry special interests. We're now seeing tremendous blowback from this legislation because of the hijacking of its intent by these special interests, the construction and development sector. The CSBR has other issues with this legislative intent as well:

The economic analysis completed by ARB fails to address several key economic issues and variables or the uncertainty surrounding their costs. Examples include:

• Costs or disruptions to prices of crops arising due to changes in land use.
• Costs of reporting, monitoring, and enforcing compliance.

• Future availability of alternative fuels or any major fluctuations or disruptions in the demand supply equation and resulting prices.

• Availability of vehicles utilizing alternative fuels, and costs associated with technology advancements needed to make the vehicles commercially affordable and reasonably priced.

• The cost of financing of the new production facilities, or of the required investments for both production and distribution.

• Volatility in forecasts of prices of crude, gasoline, and diesel.

• Research and development costs for lower carbon intensity alternative transportation fuels.
Initial estimates suggest that billions of dollars of costs will result from the implementation of AB 32.

In addition to the costs suggested by ARB, others include infrastructure and capital investment costs upward of $60 billion, $5 billion for new home construction, $36 billion for more fuel-efficient cars, and billions in higher food costs due to higher transportation costs and change in land use. In summary, the implementation costs of AB 32 could easily exceed $100 billion upfront.


The Pew Center has also put out its own position in climate research related to this legislation. Many cities are in the process of developing ways to measure their GHG emissions through their own benchmarks (see pdf download on the Governor's Office of Planning and Research site). This is about devising a way to report the numbers, not a mandated formula for implementing solutions to the GHG problem.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen

From the article at "The Independent":

The most progressive US president in a generation comes to the most important international meeting since the Second World War and delivers a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speaker-phone from a beach in Hawaii. His aides argue in private that he had no choice, such is the opposition on Capitol Hill to any action that could challenge the dominance of fossil fuels in American life. And so the nation that put a man on the Moon can't summon the collective will to protect men and women back here on Earth from the consequences of an economic model and lifestyle choice that has taken on the mantle of a religion.

Then a Chinese premier who is in the process of converting his Communist nation to that new faith (high-carbon consumer capitalism) takes such umbrage at Barack Obama's speech that he refuses to meet – sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager's house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.

Late in the evening, the two men meet and cobble together a collection of paragraphs that they call a "deal", although in reality it has all the meaning and authority of a bus ticket, not that it stops them signing it with great solemnity.

There is an accord developing off the table, however, as reported in the New York Times.

And from Thomas Friedman: "Still, I am an Earth Race guy. I believe that averting catastrophic climate change is a huge scale issue. The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming. And no market can do that better than America’s."


Bay Delta Crisis

From the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, this 10-minute video and essay on the critical water issues in California.



This is part of the larger issue that includes the big farming interests and the demands of the urban areas developed on a water system engineered for a climate that no longer exists. The Bay Delta is the critical asset in this picture, and the picture needs to include not just the land and water supply issues, but the entire ecosystem of the Pacific. To cite the article:

Feinstein, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who collectively have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Resnick for their political campaigns, are also pushing for a peripheral canal and the destruction of the Bay-Delta Estuary in order to benefit Resnick and other rich corporate agribusiness tycoons at the expense of fish, fishermen, coastal communities, California Indian Tribes, Delta family farmers and environmental justice communities.

Resnick is one of the biggest, most wasteful "water hogs" in the state. The Beverly Hills billionaire "farms" 120,000 acres, which would use around 480,000 acre-feet of water every year. By comparison, the residential use of the city of Los Angeles is 432,594 acre-feet per year, according to the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

In reaction to the State's "business as usual" approach in its Draft Vision for the Bay Delta and the allocations to large, wasteful agribusiness practices, these groups are finding "common cause" to share water equitably and protect the resources that are the source of prosperity for people and businesses throughout the state. At some point, the will to craft a solution to the Bay Delta, and pay for it, must emerge.

Soon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Year Later

Exactly a year to the day, another rainstorm, another morning, the trees glowing gold and shedding their leaves. Christmas season here in the Pasadena area is cool and sunny, with the occasional downpour, famously on Jan. 2, 2006 when our Rose Parade got rained out but kept on going anyway. But our rain is going away as the decades pass and the temperature rises...

This is the kind of garden to keep building on, replacing the water-intensive plants with those that are hardier, opening up paved areas and using stone and gravel beds, each year is an experiment with its rewards and casualties, as any gardener knows.

But the shade is a huge relief in the summer, the strategic tree planting has paid off. I'm ten degrees cooler than unshaded yards, the tradeoff being that I now need to water the trees themselves about once a month in the spring and early summer except for the oak tree.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

High and Dry

The epoch of water scarcity has begun, and more strategies that rely on local holistic water management are now necessary. The big water projects have proven to have their limits and downside in the environmental damage they create. An article from Planetizen discusses the shift in water supply and management that will need to place conservation and watershed integration front and center in the southwestern USA. This massive population growth and need for water has created a distinct issue with respect to the finite limits of water resources. We are now built out beyond the capacity of these big systems to provide adequate water to the cities that currently exist.

Other low-key strategies that work effectively at small scales, away from the big brute-force engineering approach are being applied in other countries. A good example is the use of check dams in India for retention of rainwater. This has refurbished the aquifers and provided the water needed for the trees to stay alive and grow, providing shade, oxygen and humidity in hot climates.

This concept has its application in myriad ways in suburban and urban environments. It's entirely possible to do and is actually a necessary approach in order to capture the rainfall we do get. There are all kinds of creative and pragmatic approaches to this at the small scale, and city zoning regulations can be tweaked to encourage less paving, smaller building footprints and more landscaping. Pocket parks are a good way to integrate this function and provide access to natural environments for people, famously championed by Thomas Hoving in NYC during his tenure as a NYC Parks Commissioner.

California's Central Valley and Sierra has lost a lot of water over the past six years and is heading for "high and dry" very quickly. This data has been traced by GRACE satellites. UC Irvine engineering professor James Famiglietti states that drought and excessive pumping of groundwater have combined to cause the water loss. This kind of issue, created by overengineered systems as well as climate change, can be mitigated by using the approach of replenishing aquifers using both low-tech and high-tech methods.

Postscript: This has triggered a critical reaction against pending water legislation that will make the problem far worse by allowing water agencies to profit from subsidized water sales:

The alarming new findings also demonstrate the urgency of stopping Dianne Feinstein's Water Transfer Facilitation Act of 2009 (S 1759), a dangerous piece of legislation that will enable corporate water contractors to make even more profits than they are now by marketing subsidized water. The bill will allow the federal government to approve water transfers and fast-track the environmental review process at the expense of collapsing fish populations.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Copenhagen: Climate Justice?

Today marks some progress in the climate talks, as protesters - reminiscent of the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle - stand up for the global community in freezing rain. Along with virtual demonstrators blogging across the globe. The REDD agreement raises hopes that the forests of the planet can be preserved and allowed to regenerate. The agribusiness industry is at the table, which is what makes this agreement all the more important, since those activities are at the heart of the deforestation problem. As is ever-increasing human population.

CSR Wire has a report today that's written around a clear description of Climate Justice, and how it needs to involve all the small nations of the globe as well as the big global powers. This is truly a shift in the power balance and the idea that a few big conglomerate-based nations can carve out the pie for themselves. The New York Times article goes into a comprehensive discussion of how this agreement can help all countries preserve what are now disappearing natural assets.

Beyond those strategies lies the "regenerative" path that needs to be taken by the large industrial countries to severely reduce carbon production in all aspects and help bring the ecosphere back into balance. This presents unprecedented opportunities for innovation and creativity to drive a true prosperity for the human race and this planet.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is Green Political?

This quaintly humorous map of the USA in 1998 was rather a harbinger of things to come. It showed quite accurately where the political battlefields were to be with respect to the "Green" movement, which became crucial factors in the elections which led to an administration that undermined environmental regulations for the sake of the "old oil" business bottom line. It also points out that California is a Republican state despite its liberal-progressive bent.

Remember the election of 2000 that the Florida Supreme Court's order for a recount of the disputed Florida vote was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a politicized 5-4 decision, of which dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens remarked: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

Remember the election of 2004 in Ohio, the critical battleground state that clinched Bush's victory in the electoral college. Officials there purged tens of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, neglected to process registration cards generated by Democratic voter drives, shortchanged Democratic precincts when they allocated voting machines and illegally derailed a recount that could have given Kerry the presidency.

So Al Gore never had a chance to save the polar ice cap, or the bears. Unfortunately, this also allowed the entrenched power structure to craft structures that kept old, polluting industries and development in place and force the expansion of more pollution and carbon into the environment. Under the guise of "green". So, of course, the politics of Green are even more powerful than its so-called socialist or revolutionary components. This "manifest destiny" continues as the driver for the consumption of more and more resources, having transmutated from a vision of freedom and liberty to the ethos of marketing and consumption.

This is surprising, given that the true vibrancy and creativity in new enterprises is at the forefront of science and innovation, which is what built this country into a global power during World War II. That character of "yankee ingenuity" and "can-do" has been smothered by the old power base in order to protect its earning power and enhance its assets. These early signs of decrepitude don't bode well for green industries here in the USA, so be on the lookout for new initiatives elsewhere on the globe. The next power structure will be...?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Water Redoux

As our water issues become more significant due to climate change and increasing population, not to mention the politics of rebuilding the Bay Delta system, the priorities need to shift to water efficiencies and reuse. As I discussed in an earlier post, municipalities and counties will, in the future, be required to micro-manage their water resources alongside such new strategies that include water recycling, water conservation, groundwater recharge and banking, conjunctive management of surface and groundwater resources, treatment of contaminated groundwater basins, water transfers/marketing, and brackish and ocean water desalination.

Strategies being put in place locally now are water replenishment of aquifers in order to prevent incursion of sea water, using spreading basins over a large area. This allows existing wells to provide water without overdrafting the aquifers, and is a regional approach. A different method of re-using water, applicable on a smaller scale, is water recycling for use as greywater in local home landscaping, commercial and industrial uses. This requires some area for water holding and treatment prior to supplying it in the common "purple pipe" supply system, so it's not just re-using collected rainwater, for example. The latest scramble in Southern California has now become access to sewerage systems as a source of water reclamation. Maybe we can get paid to flush the toilet like we do to put in solar panels?

Unfortunately, the overseeing agency for these Water Districts has consistently found overspending and a lack of accountability with all of the districts and water suppliers, as I've pointed out here. This kind of thing is always rampant in bureaucracies, natch. Public money turns into play money, as well as a lot of unneeded construction projects. Old-boy dealing at its finest.

One of the simplest ways to get water into the ground in smaller residential lots is to direct rainwater into "dry wells" and landscape areas away from the house foundation, such as I've demonstrated here. This avoids a lot of the red tape issues, and keeps normal rainfall out of the storm drains which just take it out to sea with a lot of debris and pollution. A solution such as permeable driveways is also very doable at the residential scale, as long as cars are not parked on it for long periods of time without an oil pan.

All of these methods can improve water supply and ground water conditions, as well as maintain landscaping that tempers the heat and prevents the absorption and re-radiation of sunlight. This is becoming critically important in the Southwestern United States as the climate dries out and the temperatures increase. This is necessary direction to take in upgrade, maintenance, redevelopment and infill development so that natural processes can be incorporated to re-establish the natural systems in spite of our human presence.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is Transit Rapid?

Not in LA. The metro busses lumber about on a semi-regular basis, and the light rail is also light-years from being a functional system. You can't get here from there on the Light Rail system; it's transfer, transfer, transfer.

While this transit system is still in its infancy, some local and regional efforts have started to pay off in changing the car culture. UCLA has managed to reduce traffic with careful coordination and planning to relieve a nightmarish parking situation on campus. It takes advantage of incentives, strong management, and strategic planning that targets the existing bottlenecks and increases service to cut down on automobile traffic.

Some local community planning efforts have also integrated the LA light rail system to good effect, with some small-scale infill development centered around the rail stops. This takes several years of planning and integration to achieve effective results.

Now California is about to put transit-oriented development on steroids by forcing housing and commercial/retail quotas into the city General Plans via SB 375. There should be careful study of transit linkages as well as a consensus on sustainable growth in communities. Unfortunately under this legislation the development gets ramrodded into any areas considered to be transit ways; it requires build out of large masses of mixed-use development within 18 months of adopting the SCAG quotas in the General Plans.

This makes no sense.

Slamming this kind of overdevelopment into urban areas does not change the form of sprawl, it just magnifies the problem and dumps tremendous amounts of traffic into one area as well as intensifying regional traffic. The linkages have to be in place, designed for the transit load. If the volume is increased drastically, the "pipe size" has to be quadrupled and replaced immediately, and the "outflow" impacts both ends of the pipe. There is also the major question about the effectiveness of public transit itself; it's just not that effective.

So there is a serious fallacy in this legislation, which unfortunately will be very destructive to communities and urban areas with the overdevelopment load on their infrastructure and available land. One would hope that the legislature will be brought to its senses before this becomes implemented.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Biodiversity is Key

One thing I loved about the ecovillages in Kerala is the commitment to the preservation of biodiversity and its integration into an ecological view undergirded with spiritual and social values held by the community. The diverse species of this earth are critical to its balance and ongoing vigor of life, which our Western way of life is gradually extinguishing. The human carbonization of the environment aside, the abundance of nature relies upon a vast interaction between all levels of the chain of life, which humanity (and all sentient beings) rely upon to exist.

The degradation of this web of life is poignantly examined by Jeff Corwin, who adds to the extensively published anecdotal archive of degenerative changes to the biosphere from across our planet. I've seen it too, as have many of my friends around the globe who care about the changes they see happening so very, very quickly now.

Another observation in today's local paper, Pasadena Star-News:

Stop overfishing

I have been scuba diving Southern California for 18 years and witnessed first hand the rapid decline of many species.

Canary rockfish are seriously depleted. Black rockfish are seriously depleted. Pacific angel sharks are seriously depleted. Bocaccio are seriously depleted. Sheephead are seriously depleted. Red abalone are seriously depleted. Black and white abalone are endangered. Kelp forests have been reduced by 80 percent or more in the last 100 years.

Sadly, many areas of the Channel Islands and the coastal regions of Los Angeles and Orange counties have been dramatically transformed by overfishing. Today, they hardly resemble what they were just two decades ago. It is irresponsible to allow this to continue unchecked so that a few individuals can have so-called "fun" hunting and fishing for recreation.

On Wednesday, the Department of Fish and Game was meeting in Los Angeles to consider adopting a map of marine protected areas along our beautiful Southern California coast. Although the proposed map leaves many key habitats unprotected from unregulated and indiscriminate exploitation, including essential hot spots in Palos Verdes and Catalina, we must be there at the meeting in order to prevent further erosion of the proposed map.

I'm concerned that the Department of Fish and Game will give in to fear-mongering from fishing interests and anglers and weaken these protected areas that only amount to approximately 10 percent of our coast. The science is clear and tells us the need for action in order to protect many of these species from permanently collapsing. We now have a unique opportunity for conservation that may not come again for many years.

Billy Arcila
Pasadena


Monday, December 7, 2009

Who is Vera Schultz?

From an endorsement on the back of the book, "Vera, First Lady of Marin": Vera took Marin County Government out of the hands of a small powerful oligarchy and made it into a truly representative government. She was an exceptional public servant, and a gracious lady. It was a privilege to know her. From William T. Bagley J.D., former California Assembly Member and Board of Regents, University of California.

Vera had followed Frank Lloyd Wright throughout his career with a shelf full of books on his work, and convinced him to produce plans for a new vision of a facility of open, transparent government that includes the Council Chambers, the Courthouse facilities, a library and administrative offices. She was instrumental in maneuvering Wright into agreeing to do a design for the Marin County Courthouse, which proved to be his last design comission prior to his death after a long, dramatic and interesting life. His death was the turning point for the political impetus from the community needed to wrest control from the old guard and finalize the contract to construct the building.

Carefully integrated into the site, this building displays classic elements of the FLLW lexicon, including the illuminated ceiling forms and the dramatic internal curved walkways. Its roof and spire are visible indicators of a fresh vision of the County of Marin that the citizens were successful in bringing about. It's a dynamic building that has accepted some modifications (such as the skylight spine to keep the rain out) with grace.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

That Little Jewel


San Francisco, California, on Maiden Lane. Forerunner to the Guggenheim Museum in NYC and the Marin County Courthouse. Frank Lloyd Wright's other passions include his women, as indelibly portrayed in a book by T.C. Boyle. The book captures this indomitable will that became legend among clients, students and his contemporaries.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

With Gas?

We're used to having to answer that question at restaurants in France. They make Shirley Temples with it. Pretty country, and they're really very nice to everybody nowadays. Particularly since all these english-speaking people now come across the Channel in the Chunnel and shop in Paris before going back home to their quaint British pubs.

Here in the USA we're asked a different question about Gas. It starts with our Uncle Sugar wanting to know how much Gas there is. So Uncle Sugar passed a law that makes us tell him, how very nice of him to ask us so politely.

This Gas is what heats up the planet, and we must not do this. So we must tell how much we're doing something that we're not supposed to be doing. Usually we cross our fingers when we hafta tell. In California all our politicians are doing this and fibbing to their little brothers and sisters who elected them. So what shall we say that we're supposed to tell them today?

That we will not be making this Gas if we build more and more houses and shops. And they scold us and scold us if we don't build these houses and shops faster and faster, so that we won't be making Gas anymore. We asked Mommy why all those houses stop us from making Gas, and she said it's because they don't actually stop the Gas, they just make so much more heat and trash that it looks like there's no Gas. This will also be expensive for us, we'll have to give a lot of our nickels to Uncle Sugar and Big Brother legislature to not have Gas.

So we'll just go outside and play and not worry about Gas except at French restaurants.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Those Greenhouse Gasses

One of the best articles I've seen to actually implement CO2 reduction and energy/water conservation is here. It lays out strategic approaches to all aspects of conservation in a brief summary. It's written by Steve Burrows, the leader of the Arup Property Business in the Americas. Arup is one of the top global engineering companies in the world with a hugely innovative practice. He discusses an important principle in carbon reduction: recycling existing commercial buildings.

Note that:

70 percent of the average city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings (includes traffic emissions to deliver its components, equipment and products) LEED standards quantify this interconnection.

Since cities consume 75 percent of the world’s energy and are home to 75 percent of the world’s population, the upside becomes that with this increased population density comes a reduction in gasoline usage and energy costs per capita. (This applies to dense city cores) Its "converse" is that suburban sprawl is unsustainable, but the older "grid" communities relatively close to city centers are not a problem, especially if they have not mansionized .

This is the concept that SCAG is completely missing the ball with. Their solution is adding traffic to areas that don't have the ability to densify due to their old infrastructure and scale. Then this adds a load of traffic to arterials and freeways that did not exist before, since older communities are not linked directly to downtown. It's different on the east coast, for example, where the old grid communities were built up around the commuter rail into NYC. That is a form-based configuration that can't be imposed on vast tracts of suburbia.

Thus Southern California will need to try to adapt some "hub" concentrations in the medium cities like Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank, etc. but they're pretty much at their limits now. There's a huge backlash building in Pasadena and adjacent communities over the amount and density of growth that has already occurred, mostly due to the major increase in traffic. Which this configuration was supposed to solve, but frankly is simply a justification for more square footage, and that always adds CO2 no matter what you do.

Remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the five emotional stages of dealing with approaching death? Collectively we're still in denial about what the impact of human societies are on the planet, moving into bargaining. Hope it's not inevitable that humanity moves into acceptance and death, which is a fatalistic response to a solvable problem. You can't have it all without a cost, so you shrink Bigfoot.

Such sacrilege.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Living Walls Chill Out the Heat Island

A major contribution to the heat and drying out that many cities are experiencing is due to building structure and the paving over of the landscape. The re-radiation of sunlight as heat creates a "heat island" effect that contributes to planetary warming and prevents water from going into local aquifers. The strategies of UNpave, green roofs and urban reforestation are several ways of counteracting this problem. Another is the "living wall" incorporated into exterior multi-story building facades, such as the tallest living wall yet in Sydney, Australia.

Another living wall in Madrid (photo above) is also by Patric Blanc.

This is a creative approach that is used as an artistic statement, and an incremental one that can help mitigate the impact of construction in urban areas. It's a very visible application of plant material used as part of a dynamic urban environment, and puts in high profile the drip irrigation and grey water systems that recycle water and make it available to the environment again.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Light of Advent

Entering the holiday season brings us into the traditions of honoring the ancient events that marked a sea change in human history and spiritual self-awareness. We're perhaps approaching another one of those epochal moments as we start to understand the importance of humanity's role in this global environment. Advent is the traditional preparation for the birth of Christ, considered to be Christmas day. From that point forward, we have Epiphany, the twelfth night, celebrating the visit of the three kings or wise men to the Christ Child, signifying the extension of salvation to the Gentiles.

Now shall we extend this salvation to all people, the creatures and life that inhabit our home, the planet?

When we begin to see, to understand, the vast tapestry of nature and its critical balances and complexities, it's then time to make some decisions together as a human race. For example, the study of natural sciences leads to kind of a "natural understanding" of what global realities we're dealing with, which is undergirded by the scientific method of study and rigorous analysis. A remarkable interview with Jane Goodall by Bill Moyers cuts to the heart of the issue:

Moyers: You even wrote once that it was your study of chimpanzees that crystallized your own belief in the ultimate destiny toward which humans are still evolving. What is that? What is that ultimate destiny? And how did the chimps contribute to your understanding?

Goodall: Because, when you have the thing that's more like us than any other living thing on the planet that helps you to realize the differences. You know, how are we different. And so, we have this kind of language. So, that's led to our intellectual development. That's led to refining of morals. And, you know, the questions about meaning and life and everything. So I think we've moving or should be moving towards some kind of spiritual evolution. Where we understand without having to ask why.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Social Justice in Sustainable Trade

This is how the yarn is spun in Nepal for the rug production and weaving here locally. In this particular shop, great care is taken to hire only adult women and men at decent wages, not children and young girls as has famously happened in the industry and its suppliers to the Western markets.
The yarn is spun in this shop, then sent out for the dyeing process. It is later woven by skilled labor that produces rugs of all kinds of designs, both traditional and modern. I was struck by how similar some of the designs were to the Navajo rugs produced here in the American Southwest for sale in the trading posts. The only difference was the pattern form and the colors of the dyes. The weaving process produces very similar patterning templates that generate the designs.

That's the beauty of craftwork and the labor of design; it's universal. And priceless.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Scale of Ecology

An exceptional example of incorporating sustainability in all of its aspects is being implemented by the CGH Earth Resorts in southern India. It addresses not only low-impact principles of living within the ability of the land to support human occupation, but also includes local food supply sources, social capital and natural capital. This comprehensive approach to sustainability is modeled on a system that is appropriately scaled to its local ecology and its community, as I discussed earlier as a "regenerative approach".

This chain of resorts has received awards and commendations for its approach to eco-tourism, setting a very high bar for its development and preservation of local culture and ecology. The resorts consist of seven developments that are recycled or native construction materials, provide local food, captured rainwater supply, recycled water supply (for garden watering) and captured methane for cooking gas in the case of Coconut Lagoon.

At the Coconut Lagoon resort in Kumarakom, Kerala, it begins with the Vechoor Cow. This is a rare breed of Bos indicus cattle that was nearly bread to extinction by cross-breeding with larger cow varieties that produce more milk. It's the smallest breed but a real efficient cow, producing a better volume of milk relative to the food it consumes, which happens to be the lawn on the property. The milk from this cow is used in traditional Ayuervedic medicine, and thus provides an incentive for protection of this native species and its biodiverse habitat. Not to mention that the waste recycling process doesn't work without the facilitation of its dung in order to "boost" the digestion process in the recycling tank that produces the methane used for cooking in the staff kitchen.

The water reclamation process begins with rainwater harvesting from the roofs, which is channeled to holding ponds for treatment and subsequent tank holding for supply of the water in the resort. There's sufficient water for all uses, but this is achieved by conservation principles of low water use by the staff and by guests. This manages to include a pool as well as adequate shower facilities. No bathtubs, however, since they're not necessary in a place where Ayurevedic medicines and massage therapies are available on an almost constant basis, including a resident physician. The staff is from the local community, which is an important aspect of partnership values in the social capital component of sustainability.


I found all of the CGH resort developments that I visited to be very well integrated into an appropriate scale of development that doesn't degrade the environment or destroy the culture. They essentially provide one of the best examples of living within the means provided by natural ecology, and minimize the "brute force engineering" approach to development by adapting time-honored local means and methods of living in these communities.

They have more information in their newsletter, "Earth Calling".

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Green Strategy

Archweek Green, an online AEC industry "green" newsletter (archives here), is posting weekly summaries on sustainable news to the entire industry. The latest discussion concerns pollution and greenhouse gasses, and they make a very clear and important point.

In cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we not only have to do a lot of things right - we also can't afford to do any big things badly.

This principle applies equally well at the individual building level. For instance, even a terrifically conserving net-zero energy building
can have a large effective carbon footprint in operation if the building is built in a location of geographically high vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) - otherwise known as a sprawl location.

These important principles and simple strategies are outlined clearly every week, with discussions related to relevant topics in the news from many sources. It's part of the Architecture Week e-publication network (digital publications to save paper) which tries to "walk the talk" in not only building design, but also urban design approaches and natural systems.

Sustainability is about the whole systems view of things, and this publication approaches it in that way very well. A bit of a contrast to the BD&C angle that the construction side of the industry tends to focus on.

And to clarify matters now evolving in the State of California, this does not include overriding community guidelines by using this concept to force huge housing developments into cities and counties all over California for private profit and support for the banking industry shell game. That's an absolute sacrifice of any conservation or sustainability principles, reducing it to act as a "cover" for overdevelopment.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

BD&C White Paper - Water Performance

A building industry newsletter, Building Design and Construction, has come out with another white paper in its excellent series on sustainability in construction and development.

Prefacing the introduction to the water issue, the statement is made that "the U.S. will be adding another 100 million to its population over the next three decades, adding further to water stress". This kind of single-line projection is not substantiated or connected to public policy which will likely change with respect to immigration, the single biggest factor in US population change. Like California's RHNA numbers, these assumptions are generated by paid consultants based upon a pro-growth scenario which is unsustainable in the face of the directly related impact of the carbon dumped into the environment at this scale. This is what happens when financial equities are generated by construction growth for profit rather than need or actual integration within the allowable natural scale of the environment; the disconnect happens both financially and ecologically. That ubiquitous yardstick of profit, GDP growth, relies on the production of more and more "stuff" regardless of the systemic risks that approach creates, driving unsustainable consumption for the benefit of corporations.

California, especially, is construction-dependent for its own GDP, which informs all of its regulation. To cite John Mauldin's latest financial newsletter (pdf format) about the Dubai meltdown, "
Construction and real estate were as much as 25% of the economy. Let's see. Large leverage with maybe $5 billion in interest in a $50 billion economy that is 25% construction? A construction and real estate-driven economy. A real estate bubble. Sound like California, Florida, Spain? How can this be a surprise, except that everyone expected big brother Abu Dhabi to pick up the check?"

Having said that, here are the Principal Findings of the Water Performance White Paper:

1. Virtually every region of the U.S. and parts of most states likely will experience water shortages in the next 10 years. Some are already feeling the effects of water scarcity.
2. More water is consumed outside buildings and homes—for landscape irrigation and cooling towers—than is used inside for toilets, faucets, showers, and the like.
3. Somewhere between 15% and 20% of the nation’s water never makes it from the filtration plant to the property line, thanks to our decaying infrastructure.
4. Manufacturers have significantly improved the efficiency of plumbing, irrigation, and water reuse technologies in recent years, but long-term conservation also depends heavily on how people use these products.
5. There may be limits to water efficiency. In some cases, saving water can lead to “unintended consequences,” such as pipeline drainage problems, health and safety concerns, and negative impacts on the environment.
6. Improvements in water performance can have a bonus: reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
7. The reuse of water may be “the next big thing” in water conservation, efficiency, and performance.

The direction the building industry is taking at the moment is to capitalize on conservation and infrastructure reconstruction. As it stands right now, it's still a brute-force engineering approach that focuses on existing practices rather than taking a long view of watershed management and incorporation, the means of obtaining the water sources in each state, and the potential for the design of projects that create more energy and water than they consume.

I think if we were able put a man on the moon forty years ago within eight years of making the commitment, we can design urban environments that don't consume natural resources the old way. Industrial society needs to give way to a synergistic approach that includes population management and far more return of resources to the natural environment. That presupposition that the human race has a right to devour everything in sight will necessarily need to be reversed, since that only leads to a dead end.

Literally.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ecology by the Numbers

The global system that we define as "ecology" is a complex web that is fragile due to its complexity, since a more interdependent system - or web - is less able to withstand external shocks than simple systems. This kind of systems view used in mathematical ecology is the basis of analysis that has gone on for several decades, and shows that systems have tremendous feed back sensitivities as they become more complex. Thus a grassland or savannah is more robust than a tropical rainforest, which collapses more easily under external stress, human impact, increased temperature gradients, and so forth. This is why forests - a highly complex and evolved system of life - turn into deserts.

A good discussion of mathematical ecosystems is here under "Science of Everyday Things: Ecosystems". It includes a discussion of Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel as an accessible narrative of how complex systems produce more varied and responsive opportunites for diverse evolutionary strategies and production of new advantages that can dominate the ecologies of simpler systems which are their precursors. At the same time, these more complex systems are not as stable as the simpler ones that they have emerged from.

An included excerpt on this page is from the Encyclopedia of Public Health: Ecosystems talks about systems stress:

Stress from human activity is a major factor in transforming healthy ecosystems to sick ecosystems. Chronic stress from human activity differs from natural disturbances. Natural disturbances (fires, floods, periodic insect infestations) are part of the dynamics of most ecosystems. These processes help to "reset" ecosystems by recycling nutrients and clearing space for recolonization by biota that may be better adapted to changing environments. Thus, natural perturbations help keep ecosystems healthy. In contrast, chronic and acute stress on ecosystems resulting from human activity (e.g., construction of large dams, release of nutrients and toxic substances into the air, water, and land) generally results in long-term ecological dysfunction. Five major sources of human-induced (anthropogenic) stresses have been identified by D. J. Rapport and A. M. Friend (1979): physical restructuring, overharvesting, waste residuals, introduction of exotic species, and global change.

A short review of Systems Ecology on Wikipedia outlines the nature of the study of ecological systems and how humanity is part of this living system and must work within the framework of its laws.

An example of simple and evolving ecologies is famously the Galapagos, which requires a pristine environment to maintain its balance. It's a fundamentally simple system that can't support the demands of mamillian or human life on the islands, but yet has a highly interactive marine and rocky shore which provided Darwin with his clearest resource for his argument for evolution. Most of the third world countries have populations that subsist within a very narrow range their local ecology, and subsequently are more balanced within the system, but not living anywhere near Western standards. In India, this is true of much of the rural subcontinent, with some very interesting eco-village developments being established that do not demand more resources for human habitation than the environment is capable of balancing. More on that in a later post.

Meantime, further resources on environmental monitoring and mathematical ecology are here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving

Here in the United States we celebrate this holiday to be thankful to God, in principle, for the freedom and safe passage in the New World of the original Virginia colonists.

Here's what Wikipedia has to offer: Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day, presently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, has been an annual tradition in the United States since 1863. It did not become a federal holiday until 1941. Thanksgiving was historically a religious observation to give thanks to God, but is now primarily identified as a secular holiday.

The First Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the pilgrims survive the brutal winter. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days providing enough food for 53 pilgrims and 90 Indians. The feast consisted of fowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. However, the traditional Thanksgiving menu often features turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.


And so we feast. But more interestingly, what meanings remain extant within nature, God and our current habitation of this country? The connection between man, nature, and contemporary spirituality informs our built cities, our commerce, our view of what the world should be and our role in shaping it. Or in effecting its disintegration. A paired article in the Wall Street Journal poses the question in the form of "Man vs. God", very intelligently argued by Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong.

But I think our world view is moving beyond this dialectical thinking and into an understanding of how the entire web of life and its critical biodiversity is linked, and informed with grace, leaving us with the large responsibilities of stewardship. Ironically, science and database analysis, the arts and religion are beginning to converge on a view of our lands and seas as things to be nurtured and worked with, not conquered. We're just beginning to see, and comprehend.

Such hubris.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Polar Ice


Flying back via Dubai from India recently over the polar route gave me an excellent chance to see the icebergs and glaciers from 40,000 feet. Emirates provides a great service and a bearable 16-hour flight which most folks use as a "sleeping car". But I had to follow the flight plan on the monitor and shoot a few glaciers and icebergs, the topic of some discussion on the change in the ice sheet in the polar region, particularly Greenland.

It's a marvel to see the world from this perspective, and hope that this will not be sacrificed to human encroachment. New studies and findings about the changes here present a real concern about the impact this will have on the global warming process. Ilulissat Icefjord, in northern Greenland, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the focus of studies on the impact of climate change in the arctic. President Obama has just decided to address the Copenhagen summit on Dec. 9, and provide US commitments to the climate change discussions, with the hope that this will spur global discussions and commitments to lowering carbon output immediately.

The monitor shot shows where the photos were taken, after a flyover of Iceland, approaching the eastern coastline of Greenland.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Whistling in the Wind

The Copenhagen meeting on global warming and carbon reduction is fast approaching in December, and the prospects grow dimmer for a deal. The world's top three carbon polluters — the United States, China and India — have not indicated whether their leaders will attend the meeting, and that could have a big impact on its chances of reaching a consensus on action, as this article warns.

This, in the face of documentation that this phenomenon has occurred three times faster than predicted, much worse than anticipated back during Kyoto which the Bush administration refused to attend. In fact, it's deteriorated so rapidly that some scientists are taking the position that it's now unstoppable.

Because these negotiations are driven for the need to protect economies and cash flows, they are not able to focus on the real issue of simply taking large-scale, effective action which would reverse our human environmental impact in time. If the global leadership is in denial, then the whole ship goes down with the captain when the inevitable takes place.

I wouldn't have wished this for the world, but now things will play out in a way that must necessarily restore these unbalanced systems.

Monday, November 23, 2009

UNpave the City

Our predilection in US cities for spreading asphalt and concrete everywhere is taking its toll. The New York Times talks today about how the decrease in unpaved surfaces - due to development - has led to dangerous sewage overflows during rainy periods.

"
But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs."


What this means for many older urban areas is a massive rebuild and configuration of existing infrastructure, transportation and public areas that is most likely beyond the budget capabilities of the old-fashioned industrial model of development.

This would then leave it to a new model of development that uses the arcology concept to build a completely self-sufficient project that incorporates its own waste processing and water conservation and reuse, and including landscape and natural terrain restoration. This keeps the load off of an aging municipal system and restores the ability of the natural systems to respond to weather and provide oxygen. This is beyond "Zero Carbon" models and part of the "Energy plus" model that is appropriate for large projects and development.

Urban reforestation and watershed restoration that brings the natural environment back into existing cities, such as UNpave, is another path that can balance human needs with the carrying capacity of the planet. For example in the picture above, the brick paving is perforated in several places with round green 'pockets', planted with pine trees and seasonal flowers. The trees, which can stand the extreme temperatures of Moscow, are reminiscent of its surrounding birch-pine forest. The designer, West 8, is based out of Netherlands, and is an urban design & landscape architecture firm established since 1987.