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Ditch your car this week! We double-dog dare you

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Happy Car-Free Week, America!

What? You hadn’t heard? Well, maybe that’s because Car-Free Week is one of those things that the rest of the world celebrates -- but us? Not so much. That is, unless you live in Massachusetts, the only state that challenges its residents to spurn the automobile for seven days each year.

Of course, not everyone in the commonwealth got the memo. Take, for example, all of the people one local TV reporter interviewed at a gas station. (If she was really looking for people who’d drunk the car-free Kool-Aid, she probably could have found a better spot, but who are we to judge?)

Not to fear. A week of riding buses, bikes, or walking may be too much for the U.S. of A., but cities across the country do recognize Car-Free Day, held every Sept. 22. (And for the faint of heart, may we suggest Car-Free Hour?) Car-Free Day is this Saturday, and festivities abound:

Read more: Cities, Living


Mr. ‘Shrink the City’ goes to Washington

Photo by Dan White, Dan White Photography.

Barring some bizarre political mishap, Dan Kildee will be settling into a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3. He’s a shoo-in for Michigan’s fifth congressional district -- the well-liked Democratic candidate in a majority blue district, and the nephew of the guy who has held the seat since 1977.

Kildee is one of the few candidates this election season who isn’t afraid to talk about giving U.S. cities a leg up. The longtime treasurer of Genesee County, Mich., home to the moribund auto town of Flint, he is best known as the leader of the “shrink the city” movement, a cadre of city planners and academics who argue that the best way to save shriveling manufacturing towns is to bulldoze abandoned neighborhoods to make way for parks and urban gardens -- and new development when the economic tide turns.

Read more: Cities


Stacey Champion took on the Tea Party — and won

Stacey Champion sits in a tree she helped save from the bulldozer. (Photo by Ross Hendrickson.)

Imagine living someplace where the political hijinks are so outlandish that people refuse to believe that they’re really happening. (Oh, right.) Stacey Champion lives in just such a place. It’s called Arizona.

“We have these extremist legislators -- some of the shit they say would blow your mind,” says Champion, an environmental consultant and PR specialist who lives in Phoenix. "'Al Gore created climate change' -- they really believe this stuff."

You laugh, but for those who care about the Grand Canyon State, it creates a conundrum: Recent proposals from Tea Party Republicans -- to raise money for the state’s schools by making the state the nation’s nuclear waste dump, for example -- have stretched the popular imagination to the breaking point.

People assume that such spectacularly bad ideas will run up against political checks and balances and die early deaths -- and often they do, even in Arizona, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. But sometimes they don't, and sometimes these proposals are pushed through in such a sneaky fashion that no one has a chance to shoot them down.

That’s where Champion came in.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Urban naturalist: Molly Steinwald challenges city kids to find the wilderness in a sidewalk crack

Molly Steinwald (right) with a group of high school interns (Photo by Julia Petruska.)

You can take Molly Steinwald out of the city, but you’re never, ever going to get the city out of Molly Steinwald.

Trust me. She’s tried.

Steinwald grew up a free-school-lunch kid on the outskirts of the old mill town of Manchester, N.H. She came from a large, religious family. Her mom died when she was young. “I didn’t do the skiing and mountain climbing thing,” she says. If you’d told her she’d grow up to raise a ruckus in the nature-education world she probably would have thought you were nuts.

Read more: Cities, Living


The carbon tax, demystified

Photo by Grist / Shutterstock.

"Carbon tax": There’s something in that term for everyone to hate. For lefties and climate hawks, carbon -- as in carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to climate change -- is public enemy No. 1. And we all know what folks on the right think of taxes.

Yet the notion of creating a carbon tax in the U.S. refuses to die -- maybe because it’s a creative idea that also holds some appeal across the ideological spectrum. It’s a practical scheme to alleviate global warming -- and it’s market-based!

Here are some answers to the carbon-tax questions we know you have.

Read more: Climate & Energy


What other cities can learn from Seattle’s troubled ‘deep green’ building program

The Bullitt Center will feature 100 percent solar power, a rain garden, and composting toilets.

In 2009, Seattle set out to to create the next generation of cutting-edge green buildings and inspire other forward-thinking cities to follow suit. Three years later, only one of these space-age structures is under construction, with just two more in the planning stages. What happened to the Emerald City’s “deep green” dreams?

Under the Living Building Challenge Pilot Program, which went into effect in 2010, the city offered special incentives to the first 12 developers who managed to meet at least 60 percent of the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, a program that leaves the LEED green building standards in the dust. To win official Living Building status, a structure must, among other things, generate all its own electricity and only use water that falls on site. (The latter would be a piece of cake in Rain City. The former, not so much.)

But by the middle of this summer, with just months remaining before the program was set to expire, the city had found only three takers.

Read more: Cities


Elephants in the room: Urban poverty, climate change, and other problems we love to ignore

Tusk, tusk: It's time to stop ignoring tough problems like urban poverty and climate change.

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, longtime education writer Paul Tough has an insightful treatise on President Obama’s policies regarding poverty -- the issue that, more than any other, holds American cities down, and one that we seem incapable of addressing in any rational, lasting way.

Tough is the author of Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a trailblazing program that offers poor kids a web of services designed to carry them out of the ’hood and into the middle class. On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama promised to pour a few billion dollars a year into creating Children’s Zones in cities across the country. Here he is in a speech at the community center in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.:

We know this works. And if we know it works, there's no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem. It's time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America.

The proposal, which Obama later dubbed Promise Neighborhoods, sent waves of excitement through American cities. In 2009, dozens of communities hastily compiled proposals to be one of the first 20 test cases.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Agenda 21: Everything you need to know about the secret U.N. plot, in one comic

Agenda 21: It's the biggest threat to your freedom, and unless you regularly attend yahoo-filled local planning and zoning meetings, you've probably never even heard of it. Until recently, this 20-year-old United Nations plan to promote "sustainable development" was known only to stalwart defenders of Liberty and Freedom like the John Birch Society. But the underground resistance is about to go mainstream. GOP intellectual it boy Ted Cruz leads the counterstrike, and the Republican Party is even considering a public flambéing of Agenda 21 in its official 2012 platform.

Looking to help break the siege of bike paths and high-quality education on our freedoms? Here’s what you’ll need to know.

Read more: Politics


Next-level sh!t: Bill Gates has seen the future, and it is craptacular

Bill Gates watches a researcher from the University of Toronto feed fake poo into a NASA-worthy, next-gen crapper. (Photo by Gates Foundation.)

The first thing that strikes you about the “Reinventing the Toilet” fair at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle this week is that the scene looks more like a wing of the Air and Space Museum than the bathroom section at your local Home Despot. Toilets here incorporate solar panels and collectors, windmills, and gizmos that look like jet engines. They generally look like something you’d get in trouble for taking a shit in.

The second thing that strikes you is that no one here is talking about taking shits. (George Carlin would no doubt be relieved.) No crap, no No. 2, no dookie: It’s all  "feces" and "urine." Even the toilets get referred to as “user interfaces.”

We’ll forgive the gathered scientists and engineers for their lack of scatological slanguage (or just candor) given the gravity of their undertaking. The Gates Foundation has committed more than $3 million in prize and R&D money to redo the loo for the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who have probably never heard the term “sewer trout” because they don’t even have a sewer.


The great cities vs. suburbs rivalry, and why it matters

The story seems to change every five minutes. One recent report found that, for the first time since the advent of the automobile, cities are adding population faster than suburban areas. “Cities grow more than suburbs, first time in 100 years,” trumpeted the Associated Press.

Now comes news that the most suburban of all suburban areas, the exurbs, have been the fastest growing places in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas  -- yes, even after the housing crash. The headline in The Atlantic Cities: “Exurbs, the fastest growing areas in the U.S.”

I’m sorry. Come again?

Read more: Cities