Thursday, May 28, 2009

Earth at Day: Edge of Instability

This is the famous "Earth at Night" from NASA in reverse to illustrate the black hole problem described in very elementary fashion earlier (click to enlarge). The disease progression shows very clearly here, and note that it follows the advance of human civilization as well as the map of climate desertification shown earlier. It's a basic, fundamental problem in physics that the human global culture is not prepared to deal with yet, because of the apparent "triumph" of commerce and technology over natural processes. What's really happening is the approach of most of the developed world to points of instability across the globe.

The USA is noticeably energy-intensive east of the Missisipi. As noted in an earlier post,
the eastern US is heavily reliant on older fuels, such as coal, burning wood, oil heating, etc. as opposed to the western US which has the cleaner fuel development. There is vast potential here for reversing the progress of environmental deterioration through changes of energy use and a hub-structure type of rebuilt infrastructure, such as distributed power and mass transit linkages. This creates the opportunity for regenerative design in community development and urban reforestation, and restoration of the natural environmental processes. This is also clearly a local means of generating business profits in the course of these activities. But this will require cooperation from the business and development sectors.

Again, an urgent call for leadership from the global community.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Water hits the Wall

The official public battles have begun. Rationing, much higher rates, private water company monopolies have resulted in an uproar in front of the CPUC. The Star-News documents "blaming the customer" in an article, attempting to re-define landscape watering as "unreasonable use", allowing claw-backs of the traditional allocation systems based upon development of early infrastructure.

Water officials push water saving
Voluntary conservation measures considered in wake of drought
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer, Pasadena Star-News

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 18 million people, is expected to adopt a water supply alert resolution at its board meeting on Tuesday.

"We are hoping people will ramp up voluntary conservation with the idea of saving water for this year," said Bob Muir, spokesman for the MWD. "This is the last action before the board starts allocating supplies."

An allocation plan gives member agencies a limited supply of water resources. If the agency exceeds its supply, it could pay up to four times Metropolitan's highest priced water, depending how far they exceed their allocation.

District officials are hoping that extraordinary conservation will reduce demands throughout Metropolitan's service area, and would help preserve the region's reserves.

This year, MWD expects to tap into its water reserves and use a quarter of the 2 million acre feet it has saved since the 1980s. An acre foot, which is enough water to supply an average family of four for one year, is equivalent to about 326,000 gallons.

"Everything is geared to try to maintain reserves through the summer and next fall so that we have water in the bank for next year," Muir said.

The next level of conservation would still be voluntary, and could include the district encouraging its member agenciesto call for a reduction in water use, increased rates for consumers that use too much water and turning to water schedules.

On Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.

Southern California is grappling with increased demand, record low rainy seasons and a reduction in imported water supply in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta and the Colorado River.

MWD pumps water from both the delta and Colorado River. The MWD board of directors earlier this year voted to increase 2009 water rates by 14 percent.

"Now, more than ever, it is time to conserve," said Tim Jochem, general manager at the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which is headquartered in El Monte. "With voluntary reduction in water use, that will prevent us from going into a water crisis."

MWD is encouraging all of its 26 member agencies, such as Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, to adopt drought ordinances and enforce conservation ordinances.

Such measures could include tiered rate structures that promote conservation, restrictions on the hours of outdoor watering, prohibitions on landscape irrigation runoff, hotlines for the public to report inefficient or prohibited water use, and more rebate programs.

"In order to prevent us from rationing, we would like people to do extra ordinary conservation," said John Morris, an MWD director who represents San Marino. "I think this is the right approach to take."

Among the recommendations are cutting back outside irrigation.

"In San Marino, 75 to 80 percent of water is used outdoors," Morris said. "Lets say you are watering your lawn four days a week. Reduce it by one day. It won't hurt your plants."

MWD officials predict that if the conservation efforts are adopted, then it could result in a 25 percent savings, or 195,900 acre-feet.

Some cities and water companies have already taken action in finding ways to cut back water use. Since November, Azusa Light and Water has called for its consumers to cutback outdoor water usage or face a fine.

Last month in Glendora, the City Council adopted a mandatory water conservation, which gives the city the power to enact mandatory water conservation in the event of a drought.

City officials also made plans to shift city cash reserves into a "catastrophic reserve" fund in case of a water crisis.

The REALITY of this is that the State infrastructure never faced the future maintenance or population growth issues.

"The current State Water Project was designed to handle a population that peaked in California in 1990. The Peripheral Canal of the early 1980s was actually Phase II of the original State Water Project. When it was ultimately defeated by the voters with no new plan put forward, the practical impact was continued growth unsustainable under the current infrastructure."

Add to that, this was designed using rainfall projections before climate change kicked in, reducing anticipated natural available resources such as rain and snowmelt. The environmental conditions going forward are now considered permanent drought.

According to Norrie Hunter: It is clear that whatever future plans are adopted, SWP contracting agencies 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.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Buildings or Trees?

A very simple comparison of the coverage of earthscape and the respective properties of trees vs structures in response to natural forces can clarify the debate about what human settlements are doing in the local ecological footprint. On the face of it, a tree requires only the natural energy of its immediate environment versus the immense embodied energy required for a house. This doesn't include any arguments about traffic, energy production and consumption (of everything, including plastics) for the moment. (Click the image above to enlarge it)

This is analogous to spending large amounts of energy (heat) to create what are essentially environmental black holes - wherever human settlements exist. The fabric of nature is thus pockmarked with systems that drain the productive energies of place in order to supply a single species with energies subtracted from global water and earth resources - oil, gas, minerals - that destabilizes the environmental sand pile. The human "escape" from natural systems (i.e., technology) is, unfortunately, an illusion that will not last much longer. We can't geo-engineer our way out of this global situation.

It's clear from this simple comparison that structures are destructive to the environmental processes that trees and plants respond to. Therefore these structures have to be balanced with large areas of natural environment just to accommodate their existence. Buildings contribute nothing to the ecosystem no matter how "green" they are. Therefore, to balance the negative impacts of structures, more natural environment must be set aside, integrated or created, particularly in urban areas. The resulting waste products have to be broken down and made available to either the environment or reused in the urban cycle.

This has to be done somehow without adding energy or carbon to the atmosphere, the soil, or the rivers and oceans. Our human systems are too primitive right now to accomplish this. All power generating systems create additional heat, with renewable energy sources producing the least impact. But we're still a long way from achieving any kind of balance, lacking the will to address the fundamental problems.

Nature will inevitably produce solutions with their breakdown of the physical and social structures that have been created without comprehension of the consequences of development and its scale. It has become an obvious global trend of environmental destruction, and unless leadership is asserted in dealing with this, there won't be much left to show for it all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

California High Speed Rail?

Given my experience riding the TGV between Paris and Lyon back in 1997, I'd have to say that socialist countries are much more efficient at planning large-scale systems using standard state of the art equipment. Not sexy, but reliable, although the labor union does tend to shut things down with strikes. Which is why I find, once again, that local USofA democracy-based planning decisions result in trying to please the big special interests at the expense of effective system development. Need we say more about why the LA Metro Green Line doesn't make it to LAX? (Taxi and bus driver unions) Which we are now considering extending to the airport at a vast increase in cost for this "new phase". The effectiveness of high-speed rail in Spain - another socialist country - has even cut into local airline revenue.

We have some successes. BART in San Francisco works extremely well, interconnecting with busses and cable cars. However, it is a local regional transportation system. We do have some good ideas for local transit; a design competition for LA by Sci-Arc and the Architect's Newspaper produced some innovative approaches.

Now, with the funding on its way for California High Speed Rail, the plans for this TGV-style project are threatened with political decisions to create a fast, expensive train with but so many stops that it's as slow as BART until it hits the open rails in the central valley. What a waste.

In the picture below from the CHSR website (click to enlarge), I've marked the fairly obvious BART extension from Oakland via Pittsburg Bay Point to Sacramento's central light rail system. The Oakland line runs to SFO, which is a logical
place to start an actual high-speed rail train. Then, using only the blue route mapped out, it's 2.5 hours to LA from SFO. We can skip the central valley cities on the grey route lines (Stockton, Modesto, Merced) because they are not destinations that demand this kind of transit, and they're depopulating as we speak. Skip Visalia, and the remaining cities on the blue route are legitimately large cities with connecting airports and local transit feeders. Interesting discussion on the Palmdale stop is here, as an expansion of LAX service and a connector to Bakersfield.

The cities south of Los Angeles should develop a regional rail, not a TGV-type of transit infrastructure because that's not appropriate for those kinds of short runs.
Way too big and expensive. We need to take advantage of the light rail system that's already been started. The integrated transit system in Los Angeles is a legacy system that should be enhanced with streamlined infrastructure and extended to serve existing communities.

Updates on the HSR debate are linked here. An overview published in Infrastructurist is here.

My two centavos

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All Things Renzo

There's quite a love affair going on with Nicolai Ouroussof, the NYT architecture critic, and Renzo Piano, the world-famous, Pritzker-Prize winning architect based in Italy. Selection of articles below.

The trip to SF for AIA National Convention of course included a new iconic structure by Renzo Piano, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park. The photo above is not a glamor shot, but rather looks at the elements of the structure from the back side, which are steel, glass and precast concrete used with a very industrial vocabulary. The gulls are quite fond of it. The glamor shots of his projects are here at Piano's building workshop web site. Ouroussof's review of the Academy structure is here.

Also note that the De Young museum, a notable structure by Herzog & de Meuron
, is across from the Academy.

Here's the links to reviews of other Renzo projects. One that's local here in LA is an intervention - "The Transformation" - to the much-remodeled and added-to LACMA. The museum had wonderful displays of his entire work 2 years ago - including models, slides and photos, as well as the project models and study drawings for the entire process for the LACMA project.

The Art Institute of Chicago,
as well as other projects in slideshow are to be found at the NYT site. Here's a review of the Paul Klee Center in Bern, Switzerland. The New York Times headquarters, NYC. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, at another website.

Monday, May 18, 2009

SCAG forces overdevelopment

It comes as no surprise that the areas in California that have lost the most real estate value are those areas that were targeted for high-buildout, cheaper homes in areas remote from city centers and infrastructure. The "policies" that instigated this buildout were the opportunities for developers that SCAG targeted for assigned growth areas in a classic sprawl pattern (see the sidebar on this page, "SCAG forces overdevelopment"). This leads to the interconnected demand for water that has no existence except on paper, as well as pressure to design and fund the billion-dollar high-speed rail project from Sacramento to Los Angeles, thus creating demand for real estate around the proposed rail stops. There's also a blog on rail projects here.

Statistics from show how this strategy has imploded.

An article here from Yahoo Finance discusses this issue and continues to follow the real estate implosion. The human side of the story, how suburban sprawl is driven by the banking and real estate industries, is here in The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Precautionary Principle: San Francisco Ordinance

An AIA National Convention presentation by Debbie Raphael, San Francisco Department of the Environment highlights its ordinance passed in 2003 that offers a model for decision making in the face of uncertainty. Known as the Precautionary Principle, it allows for the use of scientific research as a basis for decision making about the risks of certain courses of action, without demanding specific causality. In this way, the model follows Principle 15 of the Rio Earth Summit 1992:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

It offers a decision making process that is explicit about the values of:
Preventing harm
Right to know / Full Disclosure
Public Participation
Expands the pool of people asking the question: Is it necessary?
Strengthens the foundation of existing precautionary measures.

This is an example of benchmarking the public policy process around the urban environment that includes all facets of a problem. The presentation can be downloaded here.

San Francisco has also developed an Urban EcoMap. It
will be made available to the general public at the Connected Urban Development conference in Seoul, 21st May 2009.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mauldin Posts on the Carbon Cycle.

In his financial blog, John Mauldin re-posts Peter Huber's article about the factors that circumscribe the carbon debate - fuel, emissions, carbon sinks, and the bottom line. The article concludes with the following:

If we do need to do something serious about carbon, the sequestration of carbon after it's burned is the one approach that accepts the growth of carbon emissions as an inescapable fact of the twenty-first century. And it's the one approach that the rest of the world can embrace, too, here and now, because it begins with improving land use, which can lead directly and quickly to greater prosperity. If, on the other hand, we persist in building green bridges to nowhere, we will make things worse, not better. Good intentions aren't enough. Turned into ineffectual action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Zumthor Wins 2009 Pritzker

Peter Zumthor wins the Pritzker Prize. All the more amazing because he disowns the whole "starchitecture" system.

How does one explain the fascination with Peter Zumthor? It is not because of an architectural style. As the architect himself once said, “It is better not to talk of style but of a particular approach, a specific conscientiousness, in finding the solution to a task.” His projects are few in number, small in size, and located mostly within his own neighborhood, the Swiss Canton of Graub√ľnden, or in Germany, Austria, and Italy. His range is similarly restricted to noncommercial, individual residences or housing groups, and community, religious, or cultural institutions.

Note in the photo above the incorporation of the old remnants with the new work. Like Scarpa, he uses "raw" and indigenous materials rather than manufactured skins and frames. All the way back to the FLLW tradition of local materials, which is a key ingredient of sustainability in architectural design now (avoid embodiment of transported materials and oil-based mfr of building systems like steel and window wall - high energy to produce as well as import). Hopefully someday he will inspire a song, as well.

Slideshow: recent works

Friday, May 8, 2009

Italy's Silent Spring

In his novel "Gomorrah", Roberto Saviano writes about Naples and southern Italy:

The most concrete emblem of every economic cycle is the dump. Accumulating everything that ever was, dumps are the true aftermath of consumption, something more than the mark every product leaves on the surface of the earth. The south of Italy is the end of the line for the dregs of production, useless leftovers, and toxic waste. If all the trash that, according to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, escapes official inspection were collected in one place, it would form a mountain weighing 14 million tons and rising 47,900 feet from a base of three hectares. Mont Blanc rises 15,780 feet, Everest 29,015. So this heap of unregulated and unreported waste would be the highest mountain on earth. This is how I came to imagine the DNA of the economy, its commercial transactions and profit dividends, the additions and subtractions of accountants. It is as if this mountain had exploded and scattered over the south of Italy, in particular in Campania, Sicily, Clabria and Puglia, the regions with the greatest number of environmental crimes. These same regions head the list for the largest criminal associations, the highest unemployment rate, and the greatest number of volunteers for the military and police forces. Always the same list, eternal and immutable. In the last thirty years, the area around Caserta, between the Garigliano River and Lake Patria - the land of the Mozzoni clan - has absorbed tons of ordinary and toxic waste.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Treasure Island

The AIA National Convention last week presented some terrific opportunities to examine a new approach to human settlement. Here's an example based upon San Francisco's plan for Treasure Island: The creators and designers of this idealistic platform see this city being less the threat to the planet, rather, an opportunity. Instead of devouring the natural resources and spitting the waste out in the form of sewage and garbage in what is typically called the linear flow. This island environment intends to produce its own energy and recycle its waste transforming the traditional city environment from a factory, in a sense, into an ecosystem. By integrating smart eco-friendly systems a city like this one will be able to support a larger number of citizens with far less resources.

This project is participating in the Climate Positive Development Program. USGBC is working with the Clinton Climate Initiative, a project of the William J. Clinton Foundation, to provide technical guidance in support of CCI’s business and financial expertise. USGBC will help develop and establish the standards and metrics by which the participating sites can measure their climate-positive outcomes. In January of this year, it received an AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design. Designed by SOM, it has far-reaching strategies in planning and sustainability. See the design and the firm's image gallery here.

There's also an article from the Urban Land Institute about its development from a former naval base.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Story of Sprawl: A resource

A clever new polemic submitted to the Congress for the New Urbanism has earned first place in that organization's 2009 video contest, video above.

In planning circles, it is fashionable to debate the merits or drawbacks of the spread of suburban living that happened in the 20th century. What isn’t up for debate is that it happened- that from the early '40s until the beginning of the 21st century, the American pattern of development changed radically.

This 2-disc set is an unprecedented visual document of how sprawl happened, told through a series of historic films ranging from 1939's The City, created by famed planner Lewis Mumford, to No Time For Ugliness from 1965, produced by the American Institute of Architects.

From Planetizen: The story on DVD