Cities

Notable quotable

Will the McMansion ever die?

"The McMansion has almost become embarrassing to some people. They're listening not just to their wallet but their conscience." -- Illinois builder Scott Van Duzor on the slowing of the McMansion trend (forgive us if we're skeptical -- we've heard this one before)

Metro drain

How urban life hurts your brain … and what you can do about it

A fascinating little article in Sunday's Boston Globe Ideas section highlights some recent scientific studies on the psychological effects of city life: Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control ... "The mind is a limited machine," says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations." So is it the sensory overload of being in an urban environment or the lack of nature that does the damage? It seems to be a bit of both: Numerous studies have shown, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows and that apartment-dwellers function better when their units overlook a grassy courtyard. Green spaces provide a mental break, according to the article, from the "urban roil." But what if the urban space isn't roiling? I mean, it stands to reason that walking through Times Square during a power outage at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning would tax the brain less than doing so on New Year's Eve, but would it be less taxing than hiking through a riotous rainforest? Interestingly enough, the answer is probably "no." The article goes on to explain that when it comes to nature, the more sensory stimulation, the better. Although [Frederick] Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis," which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks. OK, you say, so now surprise me. I don't need a psych study to tell me that a walk in the park is good for the mood. Or that traffic jams are less fun than lakes and butterflies. Point taken. But to the extent that scientific studies can help make the case for innovative urban design, including greener, airier homes and apartments, wilder public parks, and less concrete in between, then I'm all for them. And hey, it's a good argument for a corner office.

Amtrak arrests its own contest participant

Getting a grip on climate chaos is going to require a functioning rail system -- one that people will willingly use. Would such a system arrest photographers participating in its own annual photo contest? Every time Amtrak falls apart -- which typically occurs on days ending in "y" -- it hurts us all. If Obama wants to make concrete change fast, he could do no better than to make rail revitalization a high priority. He should aim to create a system that he would be happy to have Malia, Sasha, and Michelle use. Meanwhile, we've got Amtrak ... because the federal government doesn't think the DMV inflicts quite enough suffering.

Got resolutions?

Some ideas for green resolutions that are achievable, meaningful, and maybe even novel

New Year's resolutions, as we all know, are almost entirely pointless -- made in one breath, forgotten in the next. So in that spirit of general futility, I offer a few ideas for green resolutions that, either through novelty or just ease of use, may inspire more than a passing commitment. Please leave your own ideas below. Idea #1: help make "livable streets" a reality in your community All politics is local, said Tip O'Neill, but most of us still don't pay much attention to local politics. Issues at a community level are often driven by the triumvirate of homeowners, business owners and car owners -- good people, no doubt, but narrow in their interests. This won't change if you don't help make it change. Happily, a thriving network of community organizers is doing great work to promote a people- and environment-centered development agenda, ranging from this new bus system in Cleveland to this bike-sharing program in Tulsa to this massive street festival in New York. Support their good work! A few ideas for getting involved: Get smarter about development issues by spending some time with the great resources at the Livable Streets Network. Subscribe to their blog, subscribe to an affiliated blog focused on your community, watch their films, or read and contribute to their wiki. Find or start a local group using the Livable Street Network's online tools. Get involved with a local organization like Transportation Alternatives (based in New York). Or support them financially by attending some of their fun events. Idea #2: eat more plants

Polishing turds is expensive

Great piece on why LEED-certified houses typically come at a premium. (h/t Sam Smith)

Stimulus spending going to roads?

Reason to worry about the stimulus bill: Missouri’s plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn’t square with President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation’s infrastructure. Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways. While many states are keeping their project lists secret, plans that have surfaced show why environmentalists and some development experts say much of the stimulus …

Making Bulgaria look good

James Howard Kunstler, oft derided as seeking to return America to a pre-industrial state, actually wants to return the country to the glory years of the industrial era, when the major components of our industrial infrastructure were in place and flourishing while Progressive Era reforms were making cities more habitable and humane. This allowed us to build great cities while ameliorating problems that had overwhelmed earlier cities, such as hypercrowded tenements, which were relieved greatly by the streetcar suburbs, which allowed people of modest means to escape. The cities "sprawled" a bit, but on the whole remained quite dense and …

Detroit goes green

If the automakers won’t, the city leaders will

Introducing the Detroit Office of Energy and Sustainability. Who woulda thunk it?

Fighting congestion, RAND-style

Study finds that tolls and parking charges are key to ease traffic

Earlier this year, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, put out a report on how to get traffic moving faster. They considered lots of the standard solutions — improving signal timing, clearing accidents quickly, encouraging telecommuting, and so forth — and found that many of them could, in fact, provide some temporary congestion relief. But here’s the rub: RAND found that over the long haul, these kinds of solutions simply don’t have much effect on congestion. They can briefly get traffic moving faster, but just about every improvement in travel time results in … more people taking to the …

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