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Amber Cortes' Posts



Street artist Swoon takes on rising sea levels and drowning communities

Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn street artist Swoon creates art that makes you feel like a kid again. She's wheat-pasted life-sized portraits on the sides of industrial buildings and transformed an abandoned warehouse into a playground for art and community in post-industrial Braddock, Pa., where she lives and works.

And then there are the rafts, whimsical floating creations that make you want to pull a Peter Pan and hop on board to start your new life as a junk boat sailor. In 2006, Swoon and the adventurous crew of the Miss Rockaway Armada built a raft made entirely from salvaged materials -- wood from dumpsters, ropes found on the sidewalk, and a vegetable oil powered engine -- and sailed down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans. Since then, she's made two more boat trips: one with a flotilla of seven rafts and one steam-powered paddleboat down the Hudson River, and another across the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia to Italy for the Venice Biennial with the Swimming Cities of Serenissima.

Click to embiggen.
Tod Seelie
Click to embiggen.

This time around Swoon's given the old rafts new life and brought them indoors to the Brooklyn Museum, for a new exhibit that addresses the loss of people's homelands because of climate change and rising sea levels. She sat down to talk about the inspiration for the exhibit, and the role of the artist in raising awareness about climate change and other environmental issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Climate clicktivism for the rich, famous, and connected

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

What do the NBA, Mark Ruffalo, Al Gore, and Guns 'N Roses have in common?

They’ve all signed on to #climate, a new "invite-only" app that connects influencers to climate causes so they can mobilize their large social media followings to sign petitions and organize actions. #climate positions itself as the middle man between the general public and changemaking nonprofits like the Sierra Club, Mosaic, and

Here's a video that explains how it works:

Read more: Climate & Energy


I don't think you're ready for this jellyfish

Diapers and tampons could soon be made from jellyfish

Spreng Ben

First there was the Diva Cup. Then came the sea pearl. So what’s next for sustainable menstrual solutions? Jellyfish! Uncross your legs, ladies, and get this: Scientists broke down jellyfish flesh and used nanoparticles (for antibacterial purposes) to create a highly absorbent, biodegradable material called "Hydromash."

According to Capital Nano, a company raising funds for the product:

The Hydromash absorbs more than several times its volume and biodegrades in less than 30 days (faster than any other bio-degradable products such as bio-degradable diapers made out of pulp.)

Take that, Playtex! Hydromash has the potential to be used for almost anything that you use absorbent paper products for -- sponges, paper towels, and even diapers.

Here are two reasons why we hope Hydromash makes it to the mass market.

Read more: Living


These little hacks make cities more sustainable and fun

Sometimes all it takes is imagination, some stealth, and a little elbow grease to turn the mundane into something playful. Rotten Apple, an anonymous art project based in New York City, turns ordinary and forgotten city objects into usable, sustainable mini-hacks. Here's how they describe where they land:

Rotten Apple

So, how does that look on the ground? They added a seat on a hinge to a bicycle rack for a pop-down chair:

Rotten Apple

They turned a forgotten newspaper kiosk into a cold weather clothing bank:

Read more: Cities, Living


Float on

This floating electric amphicar could save you from the next tsunami

Fomm Concept One

It’s a car! It’s a boat! It’s an electric-powered vehicle that bobs on the water like a jetski!

The Japanese-developed Fomm Concept One uses a water jet generator to propel through water, and has a motorcycle-style handlebar to accelerate and brake. And get this: Its wheels are lightweight, buoyant, and they can operate like fins when in the water.

Pretty neat, eh? Before you take the plunge and pack up the family for a picnic in the lake, remember that this amphicar isn’t meant just for fun. It was designed by a Japanese company to help rescue people from flooding and tsunamis and will only be sold in Thailand, followed by a larger rollout in Southeast Asia. The tiny, 1,000-pound car can only drive about 62 miles before it needs to be recharged, and can only handle one disaster at a time before it needs to be maintained again.


Cycle Paths

Why is New York’s Citi Bike losing tons of money?

Citi Bike_NYC

New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. It's only been 10 months since the Citi Bike program started, and already the "most visible bikesharing program in the world" is in trouble. Not just the can’t-get-out-of-first-gear kind of trouble -- we're talking losing-millions-of-dollars-very-rapidly kind of trouble. On top of all that, their general manager just quit.

With over 6 million trips taken and more than 400,000 memberships and passes sold, everything seemed like it was going so well. What happened?

Trouble started with software glitches in the Citi Bike map and $10 million in flood damage from Hurricane Sandy. Alta Bicycle Share, the Portland-based company that operates Citi Bike program, hasn't been so great at maintaining and repairing vandalized docking stations and damaged bikes.

Read more: Cities, Living


Track star

Is this train the “little engine that could” for clean energy storage?


In Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus endlessly rolling a boulder uphill is meant to be a cautionary tale. Gravity, in this case, worked against the poor chump. But the smart folks at Advanced Rail Energy Storage North America (ARES) asked: Why not make gravity your friend? ARES has pioneered a train full of rocks that climbs up a hill, only to roll back down again and repeat the process, Sisyphus style. But instead of a metaphor of futility, this new train technology offers a breakthrough opportunity in clean energy storage. It isn't easy to find feasible solutions for storing grid-scale renewable energy loads for when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't …


Sticky green

Can the pot industry make buds with sustainability?

marijuana plant

The first thing Scott Durkee does when he picks me up at the ferry dock is laugh. "You’re funny," he says. "You thought you could just hail a cab on Vashon Island, just like that? This isn’t Seattle!"

And indeed, Vashon is not. With its winding rural roads, vegetable stands, and slow-paced island charm, it's hard to believe that the island of a little more than 10,000 residents is only a 20-minute ferry ride across the Puget Sound from the city.

Durkee's lived on Vashon since 1990. A self-described "freelance factotum," he reuses just about everything he can find from his various jobs around the island. He makes garden beds out of old barrels from his job at a nearby winery. He powers all three of his cars with vegetable oil from his gig inspecting grease traps for restaurants. He used to build water systems and wants solar panels to make his rainwater catcher "carbon footprint free."


Uber complicated: Rideshare legal battles heat up across the country

Alfredo Mendez

For several years now, the rideshare revoluton has promised a day when we could throw our car keys away for good. Companies like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber have succeeded in connecting available drivers and hip urbanites via sleek mobile apps, offering an alternative to car ownership and the potential for reduced gridlock. But some city and state governments have sought to put the brakes on ridesharing's rapid expansion -- resulting in regulation battles across the country. Until they get onboard, it remains to be seen whether the mustachioed car is here to stay or if it'll fade away like last year's waxed handlebar mustache.

In one corner: companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, often called Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs. The TNCs provide prearranged, app-based pickup services and continue to grow in popularity with the plugged-in, smartphone-using, it's-1-a.m.-and-I-need-to-get-home-from-the-bar crowd.

In the other corner: the highly regulated taxi and cab companies that are deeply invested in protecting their industry. These past few weeks, cities and states have been scrambling to strike a balance between the growing need for flexible urban transportation solutions and protecting the interests of the taxi and cab drivers. In Grist’s backyard of Seattle, the city council votes on a new ordinance today. Heck, even Macklemore has chimed in. [Update: A modified ordinance has passed, which seems to make no one happy.]

So far regulation has been stop-and-go for rideshare companies. California set the tone as the first state to approve a set of regulations in September, giving Uber et al much-needed legitimization and the impetus to face other regulatory challenges in New York City and Washington, D.C. But a recent wrongful death lawsuit in San Francisco has drawn attention to public safety concerns.

Below is a map featuring some of the most heated legal battles in cities and states across the country. Depending on your vantage point, some measures may seem more progressive than others. Click on the purple cars to get more information:


Meet the smart farm you can control with a smartphone

Freight Farms founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara
Freight Farms

Repurposed shipping containers have long enjoyed a place in the spotlight of sustainable development and eco-dream-home Pinterest porn. They’ve even started to appear as heralds for the local food economy -- as grocery stores for food deserts and trendy pop-up restaurants. So it only makes sense that next up on the docket for urban agriculture and food independence are Freight Farms: hydroponic farms in shipping containers.

A Freight Farm is more than just a garden in a box. Each 325 square-foot unit comes equipped with high-efficiency red and blue LEDs to simulate night and day, a climate-controlled temperature system for optimal growth conditions, and vertical growing troughs. Translation: Farmers can enjoy a year-round growing season regardless of weather. Freight Farms are also sealable (no need for pesticides and herbicides), stackable, and (because of their closed loop hydroponic system) use 90 percent less water than conventional farming. And the fun part: Growth settings can even be controlled by a smartphone app.

Founder Jon Friedman calls his inventions "vessels for the next generation of food production." And the irony isn’t lost on him that these vessels may have once been clocking food miles for the global shipping industry. "It's one of those things, like, the weapon turns into the thing that saves everybody."