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Rebecca Messner's Posts

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‘Detropia’ takes us inside the lives of people living among the ruins

Tony Hardmon

Don’t go see Detropia hoping for ruin porn. The new film by acclaimed documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp) gives you more than pretty pictures of abandoned buildings: It gives you the story of the people who live among them.

In one of the first scenes of the film, we meet Crystal Starr, a Detroit videoblogger who trolls these buildings for fun. “What was there? Who was there?” she asks while exploring an old apartment building. “I’m picturing this place clean, and people walking around, and shit happening.” She stops in front of an open window in an apartment kitchen. “Can you imagine having breakfast right here? You know what I mean, like, look at your view.” The Detroit skyline looms in the distance, over a swath of overgrown greenery. “Like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go out and conquer the world, 'cause I can damn near see it right here.’”

“Our aesthetic approach was definitely Detroit as dreamscape,” Ewing says. “You can drive for several miles and really not see anyone -- and it’s not because there’s no one there, it’s because you have 139 square miles with only 700,000 people living there.”

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Thinking outside the parks: Green space spreads in the Big Apple

Photo by Victoria Belanger

Of everyone I saw in all the New York City parks I visited this weekend -- the cool kids eating organic popsicles on the High Line, the svelte ladies jogging the Central Park Reservoir, the older man in a Speedo sunning himself on Hudson River Park lawn -- one couple made me question my idea of what parks are and how they should be within a city.

They were at the top of a small set of white marble stairs, perched on a bench by a fountain in a tiny park on 58th Street, between 5th and 6th avenues in Manhattan, so tucked away from the bustle they (and the park) likely went largely unnoticed by busy passersby.

I’d just fought a throng of tourists for park bench space in Central Park, and it struck me, watching this couple, that parks don’t need to be grand, historic, hundred-acre, designed spaces. They can be tiny pockets, like this one, squeezed in wherever there’s room. And they can be part of the connective tissue that holds a city together – like the High Line, or Hudson River Park, which serve as both destinations and means for getting from one place to another.

Helle Søholt, co-founding partner and managing director of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, Denmark, was able to articulate this idea more clearly at the keynote panel discussion of the Greater and Greener International Urban Parks Conference, which I’d come to New York to attend. “Parks in the U.S. are seen as destinations,” she said. “In Europe, they’re thought of more as public spaces between buildings -- the green glue that holds a city together.”

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Power in numbers: Crowd purchasing brings clean energy within reach

When it comes to purchasing clean energy, the more the merrier. (Photo by Hepburn Wind.)

We join together with our fellow humans for the sake of saving a buck all the time. That’s why public transportation exists -- it’s cheaper for 20 people to get on one bus than it is for 20 people to drive their own cars. (Oh right, and buses are also super cool.) Or think of roommates -- sure, they never wash their dishes, but living with them saves us hundreds of dollars in rent.

Groundswell, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., wants to add clean electricity to the list of things that are better off shared.

Groundswell was founded by three guys who worked on President Obama’s campaign in 2008. “They had really seen the impact of community organizing in a political space,” says Elizabeth Lindsey, the group’s managing director. “And after the campaign, they were really interested in seeing how you could take that model and make a tangible difference outside the political sphere.”

To do this, Groundswell helps communities leverage their collective purchasing power to win the best possible deals on clean energy. They bring together nonprofits, community groups, churches, or individuals to make bulk purchases of wind-powered electricity, for example, or energy efficiency upgrades on homes and buildings. Buying as a group allows them to negotiate lower prices, and could potentially make this type of service available in areas where individuals and solitary community groups cannot afford it alone.

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The new revolutionaries: Landscape architects reinvent urban parks

Frederick Law Olmsted hisself -- still the only household name in landscape architecture.

Name one landscape architect. Any one will do. No, I’m not talking about the guy who does your landscaping -- I’m looking for genuine, bona fide landscape architects, the ones who analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture natural and built environments.

What was that? “Frederick Law Olmsted?” You mean the grandfather of landscape architecture, the man who built Central Park? Good. Now name a landscape architect who hasn’t been dead for more than a hundred years.

Hello? Can you tell me who designed the High Line, the most famous urban park in the country right now? You can’t. That’s what I thought. Well, for future reference, it’s this guy, James Corner -- but that, right there, is my point:

The present generation of landscape architects is doing truly groundbreaking work, building parks like the High Line in places nobody expects them. If Olmsted is a classical composer of yore, James Corner and his contemporaries are like Lady Gaga. They’re like Bob Dylan plugging in. They’re the electric guitar after years and years of classical music. BUT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF THESE PEOPLE!

Read more: Cities