Radiant Cities: Here comes the SUN

Growing small houses for the recession age

Taken individually, the economic meltdown and the burst housing bubble are both, to use a technical term, bummers. But together, for certain problem-solving designers, architects, urbanists, and planners, they present an opportunity, especially when meshed with a rising environmental awareness. Besides building too many houses, we made them too large (not to mention too far away from centers of employment and commerce): they are essentially stick-framed gas-guzzlers. But if advocates have their way, the small house will be the next big thing.

It's bus-ness time

Creating transit-oriented communities addresses many different issues

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives Last November, Seattle-area voters gave a resounding shout-out to mass transit. Building on that support, a new bill in Washington state focuses on sustainable development near transit stations. This "Creating Transit Communities" legislation calls for dense, walkable communities in transit hot-spots. It would provide local jurisdictions with resources and incentives for sustainable growth and strengthen existing provisions about making low-income housing available near transit centers. Think those are unrelated issues? No way, say bill supporters from Futurewise, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, and Transportation Choices Coalition. "Our state may face no challenge greater than the threat of global warming and the lack of sufficient affordable housing," they argue in a recent Seattle P-I editorial, "and we can't solve either unless we solve both." They go on to illuminate the connections:

Changes we can all believe in

Reducing regulatory interference and barriers to clean energy — all at once

Creating a 21st century electrical grid is finally a priority and the possibilities seem enormous. Despite the grand potential, though, many of the most important decisions will involve painstaking regulatory and tax reform rather than sweeping mandates. What's politically intriguing about these reforms is that at least in principle they ought to appeal across ideological lines: Conservatives like less regulation and more rational tax policy, and progressives like removing barriers to renewable energy, so this seems like fertile territory for odd bedfellows. In that vein I recommend two pieces, both adapted from reports from the conservative Manhattan Institute. The first is "Growing NYC's Grid," an excellent piece in the New York Post from Hope Cohen of MI's Center for Rethinking Development. It notes a simple barrier to expanding the city's grid: transformers, the facilities that take high-voltage juice from transmission lines and convert it to lower-voltage juice for distribution lines, can only be built on industrially zoned property, which is increasingly rare and expensive in urban areas. But today's transformers are smaller, quieter, and cleaner than they were when zoning regs were passed, and can be integrated into the urban landscape. (There's one in the base of 7 World Trade Center.) A simple regulatory change -- allowing transformers in commercially zoned areas -- can boost the reliability and efficiency of NYC's power. Imagine how many more rules and laws there are like this across the country. For more on this, see Cohen's full report, "The Neighborly Substation: Electricity, Zoning, and Urban Design."

Everybody loves stimulus

Obama doesn't need to back away from investment to appease conservatives

Conservative pollster Frank Luntz takes to the pages of the L.A. Times to share the news that everyone loves infrastructure: Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment ... The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade. Iraq, healthcare, taxes, education -- they all predictably divide and polarize Americans into political camps. Not infrastructure. Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities. This demonstrates yet another reason why Obama's attempt to appease conservatives by bumping transit infrastructure investments to make room for tax cuts is pointless. The people want infrastructure, they want stimulus, and those two happen to be the same thing, so who gives a f*ck what Republicans want? Nate Silver follows up with this excellent point: I'm not sure why Obama isn't doing more to highlight the green portions of the stimulus bill. The public seems to tolerate the spending on bridges and highways -- but they also see it, perhaps not wholly improperly, as make-work. The long-run benefits of the alternative energy programs, on the other hand, are far more intuitively appealing. If the central critique of the stimulus is that the debt we're creating will be burdensome to future generations, that concern could be mitigated if the spending in question is portrayed as a down payment made on behalf of those future generations toward cleaning up the environment and mitigating dependence on fossil fuels. It also provides for some sense of purpose to the stimulus: we'll come out of this, Obama can say, with the greenest, most energy-independent major industrial economy in the world, etc. etc. Exactly. I really don't see why Obama has to trim his sails one bit on this stuff. It's overwhelmingly popular and substantively correct policy, a combo that doesn't come along very often.

Starving artists

Art and environment panel discusses price of public art

Photo: talldrinkawater3000 I was staring out the window at the Olympic Sculpture Park's beautiful landscape when, about 30 minutes into a panel discussion about art and the environment, moderator Lucia Athens finally mentioned the elephant in the room -- or rather, the sacred cow. It came in the form of a question thrown out to the panelists -- architect Tom Kundig, style expert Rebecca Luke, and artist Roy McMakin -- about a new bill that would cut the money funneled to public art projects (about one-half of one percent of state building funds). Proposed by Washington Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who has said he considers public art to be a "sacred cow that should be put out to pasture," the bill would save the state $5 million in the next budget. "Absurd" was Kundig's response. Stand back and look at the proportion, he advised; this bill doesn't look at the big picture of how much money is put toward other, more wasteful projects. It's not just about the money, McMakin said. Public art is about culture, and it's about jobs. "Art is woven into the culture of the built environment around us." Why should you care about this public art battle?

Off-road and off-base

Utah ORV trail system a poor model

The Paiute ATV Trail, in central Utah's Fishlake National Forest, and adjacent BLM land comprise a network of roads and "motorized trails" that have been linked and promoted for off-road vehicle recreation by public lands agencies. The routes range from custom-designed ATV-only tracks to paved roads through small towns. The majority of the trail uses ordinary dirt roads on federal public lands, sharing them with general traffic. Its supporters promote it as a win-win model for public lands throughout the nation, bringing in tourism dollars and resulting in less damage to the landscape overall: Theory has it that when you build and sign roads for off-road use, there's no need to go off-road. Only not. As this story in Wildlands CPR's journal The Road RIPorter states, it doesn't lead to less damage, only more: the Fishlake has a higher density of "user created" routes than do many other forests without a designated ATV-trail system. And the economic benefit to the local area is overblown: The study on its fiscal impact does not stand up to scrutiny. My advice to these guys: Take a hike.

Big Rail

A pro-rail coalition should be much larger

As a big supporter of rail and transit, the creation of the OneRail coalition is quite heartening. It is, in a nutshell, a group of rail advocacy organizations that have banded together to lobby for rail investment. The Hill reports: Several trade and issue advocacy groups are part of OneRail, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Amtrak, the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, the Association of American Railroads, and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. If I have a complaint, it's this: A broader coalition is necessary. When highway funding is on the table, the heavies get into the game -- the oil companies, automobile companies, and chambers of commerce. Rail activities should also work to exploit the economic spillovers generated by rail investments. Transit-oriented development has proven lucrative for city governments as well as many commercial and residential developers. Producers of products from steel to electric and diesel engines to upholstery could benefit from new transit projects. Power companies, which helped develop the first generation of streetcar networks a century ago, might conceivably benefit from an increase in electricity demand or from the grid improvements that could accompany creation of improved national rail corridors. The point is this -- rail investment is good environmental, energy, and economic policy, but it's also good business. And if OneRail can get business on board, then we can expect real legislative progress.

Andy Lipkis: Rebel with a cause

TreePeople founder discusses his Ashoka fellowship and green infrastructure

Andy Lipkis founded one of the largest independent nonprofit environmental groups in Southern California, TreePeople, which is famous in Los Angeles for helping battle the floods of 1978 and 1980, planting a million trees in the 1980s, helping teach the city to recycle in the 1990s, and, recently, working to green its schools. Lipkis just returned from a briefing trip to Washington, which he took because he and his team at TreePeople are concerned that President Obama's vaunted economic stimulus program will go mostly towards roads, bridges, and airports -- gray infrastructure -- and prolong some of the problems caused by it, such as flooding, water shortages, and pollution. Lipkis sees an extraordinary opportunity to invest in greening cities, adapt to climate change, reduce energy dependence, and relieve the chronic unemployment of urban youth. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Yet what's interesting about Lipkis, to this observer, is the nature of his advocacy. He finds ways to make his point without demonizing or dismissing his opponents. When a Los Angeles columnist named Bill Boyarasky warned in the Los Angeles Times that environmentalists could stall Obama's reconstruction efforts, Lipkis disagreed forcefully in an op-ed, but at the same time wondered out loud if he could find a way to bring Boyarsky over to TreePeople's side. He sat for an interview last week. Kit Stolz: You were just honored with an Ashoka Fellowship, which is an award given to social entrepreneurs to help bring their work to greater numbers of people. How did this feel for you, and where do you want to take your work next? Lipkis: It's encouraging. I've been in this business for 38 years, and it's a nice pat on the back. Ashoka gives a three-year, stipend-funded fellowship that's intended to lead to bigger things. It's saying we're investing in you because of your track record as an activist, and because we think you could make a bigger difference. In the application process, Ashoka asks for a five-year plan. This meant we [at TreePeople] had to think hard about the next five years. Because a group of climate scientists had announced a deadline for [acting against] climate change, which is now 94 months, I made that part of my process. We now have 94 months to make a difference. We're facing severe weather now because of climate change. We have to radically reduce our carbon output. For me, the missing link is not just to make my city sustainable, but to work profoundly to improve all cities, to protect people from climate change. OK, I say, that's my charge. What can I do to take these innovations, which we have piloted in Los Angeles and shown to be viable, to a larger arena? How can we scale this up? We can't just move along as we have been doing -- we don't have that luxury. We have had some success, but now we have to move much more rapidly towards climate protection and adaptation. So I said, that's what I'll do. They've given me this award, now I need to make use of it.

Finish what you didn't start

As housing starts slump, green building gains steam

Amid news of an epic slump in housing starts -- they fell 15.5 percent in December, to the lowest rate on record -- this tidy round-up of studies says green building will save us! OK, it doesn't quite say that, but it does show widespread support for green building, including for those sexy retrofits. Which is either my new band name or a column I'll be writing this year. Stay tuned.