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Local to the extreme: This project puts the farm right in the grocery store

mini-farmery.jpg
Amy Edwards of New Image Studio

Three days a week in downtown Raleigh, N.C., fans of fresh fruits and veggies can pick up their local tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, potatoes, squash, and blackberries inside a 200-square-foot shipping container. The unconventional farm stand is no rigged-together gimmick. It’s actually the first prototype of something called the Farmery, a combined grocery store and urban farm where grocery shoppers not only get a glimpse of how their food is grown, but also get to harvest some of their own ingredients; herbs and other leafy vegetables are grown on the inside walls and the roof.

“The Farmery is really a model to make the first locally sourced grocery store,” says Ben Greene, the project’s founder and one of a team of eight people attempting to reimagine what eating healthy means for city neighborhoods.

SidePanelHarvestingGreene calls the shipping container prototype, which sits on the grounds of the downtown Raleigh City Farm, the Mini-Farmery. Greenhouse windows line much of the 8-by-20-foot structure. Hanging on one wall are panels where greens are grown on-site. Shelving on the opposite side holds food grown at local farms, including the urban farm in which it sits.

In the 8,000-square-foot, scaled-up version, Greene imagines an open bottom floor that would hold the main grocery and a café for selling drinks and deli meats. Above that, eight shipping containers supported by beams and equipped with side panels for growing herbs and greens, nourished by what Greene calls the “Living River Growing System” -- a raceway tank that looks and acts like a stream, filtering and channeling nutrient-filled water to the seven-foot-high growing panels. On top of all this would sit a greenhouse roof.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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Tech support: Can we wire our cities to prevent ecological collapse?

You can tell this is a city of the future because its buildings are a little crooked.
Michele Travierso
You can tell this is a city of the future because its buildings are a little crooked.

In 2009, the city of Songdo, South Korea, scored $47 million from Cisco Systems to construct its urban plumbing the digital way. Today, roads outfitted with sensors track traffic patterns. An electrical grid equipped with more sensors monitors the movements of residents. The heartbeat of Songdo, translated into millions of sensor readings, is relayed to large data centers in the city’s center where, the thinking goes, tech-savvy government managers will discern patterns about the flow of parcels and people -- when cars are on the road, when folks are traveling in elevators -- and eventually find a way to choreograph a seemingly endless sequence of individual actions into a dance designed for optimal efficiency.

Welcome to the Smart City, a land where the internet is a friend always, and electronic interconnectivity between infrastructure and people is the rule. Anthony Townsend, director of urban research at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, extols the virtues of such a place in his new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. Townsend envisions a modern City Upon a Hill, a beacon of orderliness diligently watched over by computers and expertly administered by public officials guided by a contemporary, high-tech version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. If water, sewage systems, and gas were the utilities that powered the rapid growth and expansion of cities worldwide through the late 19th and much of the 20th century, the network will transform the cities of the 21st, he says.

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New app lets you hack the streets

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Sick of fighting for cycling space on streets crowded with SUV-wielding soccer moms? Worry not, Good Citizen: The interwebs are here to help. Now you can redesign your city’s streets, leaving ample room for bike lanes, trees, and -- fine -- cars too. It’s all right at your fingertips.

The web application that makes it possible is called Streetmix. It was built by several members of Code for America, the nonprofit organization that teams up urban-minded activists and computer coders, then drops them into U.S. cities for year-long fellowships, all with the admirable goal of making local government suck less.

Streetmix is one of a number of web and smartphone apps designed to coax voters into being more active civic participants. Past Code for America projects have made it easier for citizens to request repairs to streets and sidewalks and other public infrastructure -- and track the city’s progress.

“We’re trying to give people more of a voice, and make it easier for them to challenge plans that professional planners come up with that they might not be happy about,” says Lou Huang, a 31-year-old Code for America fellow in Las Vegas.

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Bike til it hertz: College kids spin out campus electricity

Astrid Schanz-Garbassi. Picture 10 spry undergraduates pedaling their quads into a burn on a set of stationary bikes. An 11th student leads the spin class from a bike in front, yelling that none of them need their glutes, anyway, while Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” thumps through their eardrums. Now imagine we could actually do something with all that energy they’re using to go nowhere. Like keep the lights on, for example. That’s the idea behind YouPower, a bike room that opened last April on the Vermont campus of Middlebury College. It’s the brainchild of Astrid Schanz-Garbassi, who graduated in …

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Foot forward: Walkability is the key to fixing cities

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Claire Groden/NPR

City planner Jeff Speck has found the panacea for our ailing cities, something that could make even Detroit come to life again: walking.

In his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Speck lays out something he calls his General Theory of Walkability. It’s not as platitudinous as one might think -- Speck does own a car -- but the book rests on the central point that cities designed for people, as opposed to those engineered for cars, will be the places of urban, demographic growth in the 21st century. If you build crosswalks, Speck’s theory goes, they will come.

“We used to call it New Urbanism -- that’s scary. We called it Neo-traditional Design -- that offended the progressives. People talk about density -- we don’t even need to discuss that,” says Speck, who lives in Washington, D.C., and co-wrote the book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. “Reframing the whole argument under the rubric of walkability seems to be changing the game.”

OK. We’ll bite. Tell us, Mr. Speck, why it’s time to abandon our treadmills.

Q. Are you familiar with a band called The Proclaimers?

Read more: Cities

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Mitch Lowe enlists an army of Zuckerbergs to save the planet

With just a couple of finger taps on my smartphone, I can purchase a beer via QR code or tell the people in city hall about a downed power line on my street. It’s better living through gadgetry -- and now, a San Francisco-based business accelerator wants to put the same principles to work saving the planet.

Accelerators, common in Silicon Valley since the opening of Y Combinator in 2005, work like this: They lasso up a bunch of entrepreneurs, hand them thousands of bucks in seed funding, and ask them to grow or build companies in three months (hence the “accelerate” reference). Greenstart, founded in fall 2011, is the first accelerator program in the country that pumps dollars into cleantech -- that is, technology that expands the use of clean energy.

Its founder is 40-year-old Mitch Lowe, a guy who, at 23, bailed on a “very boring finance job” he’d landed right out of college and founded his own marketing services agency -- a proposition that turned out to be “a sort of a long failure,” he says. By 28, having watched another startup founder and sink, Lowe resolved to either get a real job or figure out how to actually launch a successful business. The result was Jumpstart Automotive Media, which handled ad sales for sites like Vehix.com and CarandDriver.com. After selling Jumpstart in 2007, he decided to bring the lessons he’d learned the hard way to companies that are committed to doing good.

“I have a passion for the environment and recognize that that is a big problem we have to face,” Lowe says. “But with a big problem comes a big opportunity.”

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Green Party’s presidential candidate says it’s time to ‘take our country back’

The Green Party gathered in Baltimore last weekend to choose a candidate who will go up against Barack Obama and (barring some strange GOP catastrophe) Mitt Romney in this fall’s presidential race.

No surprises here: Boston physician Jill Stein bested second runner (and former sitcom star) Roseanne Barr by a 41 percent margin, winning 193.5 of a total 294 delegates. (One delegate was apparently split between Stein and a third candidate.) Stein, who ran against Romney in the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election and won 3 percent of the vote, is running on a platform centered on her Green New Deal, an ambitious plan that would guarantee full employment of all Americans at a living wage, develop a green economy based on renewable energy sources, tax banker bonuses at a 90-percent rate, and legalize marijuana.

In her acceptance speech Saturday afternoon, Stein railed against a two-party system that she says offers little in the way of alternatives. The U.S. is “at the breaking point, for our people, for our economy, for our democracy, and for our planet,” she said.

Stein’s vice-presidential running mate will be Cheri Honkala, who ran for sheriff in Philadelphia in 2011. In her acceptance speech, Honkala talked about being a homeless, single mom in Minnesota. After she lost her apartment, she and her son lived in her car, then, when a drunk driver totaled that car, sought refuge in an abandoned house during winter. The Green Party, with its promises of jobs and health care for all, was a natural fit for her and her values.

“We are the new and unsettling force that Martin Luther King spoke for,” Honkala said.

Read more: Election 2012, Politics

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Green streak: Green Party aims to stir up presidential race

Jill Stein, the Green Party's presumptive presidential nominee.

The Green Party came cruising into Baltimore on Thursday -- er, wait, came riding into Baltimore. No. Had party members been able to walk and ride bicycles into Baltimore, I’m sure they would have, but even presumptive presidential nominee Jill Stein found herself riding in a jumbo jet in order to get here in a timely fashion.

But they made it nonetheless, and here they’ll stay for the next three days, holding workshops, fundraisers, and nominating their candidate for the highest office in the land. Barring any magical Roseanne Barr love-fest tomorrow at the nominating convention (the former sitcom star also tossed her hat in the ring), it will be Stein’s name on the ballot in, more than likely, 45 states by November.

In some ways it seems fitting that the Green Party chose Charm City as the location for its presidential nominating convention. Baltimore is sometimes forgotten to its bigger cousins, Washington, D.C., and New York City. It’s often seen as quirky and eccentric. And it’s easily stereotyped by the images we see in popular culture. (No, not every block is straight out of The Wire.)

Welcome to the Green Party, hanging on the heels of the Republican and Democrat parties, populated by an array of disparate interest groups, and written off by state election boards as unserious, tree-hugging, dove-releasing, organic-farming, grass-fed beef-ing … you get the point.

Read more: Election 2012, Politics

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Training wheels for your Hummer? GM stamps brand names on Japanese bikes

Don’t look now, but people in Japan are driving Hummers. By driving we mean pedaling. And by Hummers? We mean bicycles.

It’s true. An outfit called Global Innovation Company is distributing a line of bicycles bearing the names of foreign and American car manufacturers: Ferrari, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Hummer, to name a few. The company was founded in 2002 by Katsuyoshi Ikeda, a man who thought younger cyclists would be more inclined to buy bicycles if they bore the logos of well-known, foreign car companies. Apparently no one told the Japanese that cars have lost their cool, because it seems to be working: Just last year, they bought 170,000 bikes flaunting the names of once-storied, combustion-powered four-wheelers.

Read more: Biking

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‘The Great Inversion’: Cities are the new suburbs, suburbs the new cities

For nearly 20 years, Alan Ehrenhalt served as the executive editor of Governing magazine, examining and writing about a variety of local and state-level trends and policies. In his new book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, Ehrenhalt outlines at length what he dubs “a major change in American urban life” over the last decade: namely, that “living patterns are rearranging all throughout a metropolitan area,” something he calls a “demographic inversion.”

Ehrenhalt is no starry-eyed urban triumphalist (like Harvard economist Ed Glaeser), but nor is he predicting cities’ imminent demise (see Joel Kotkin). In fact, compared to the prophets of urban boom and doom, he’s a whole heap of downright boring nuance. Think of him as your teetotaling uncle at the family Christmas party -- the one who doesn’t want the eggnog spiked.

Read more: Cities