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Hacking the climate

Cool roofs offer a salve for hot cities — and the climate, too

white-roof-1
White Roof Project

From his office in the Berkeley hills, Art Rosenfeld looks out on the heart of California’s Bay Area. The 87-year-old scientist keeps a pencil and a small notebook in his breast pocket, ready to jot down a quick note or make a calculation. With these simple tools he has been able to influence state and national energy policy over the years. But for now they stay tucked away as he enjoys the scenery. “I get a pretty good view of San Francisco,” Rosenfeld says.

While his vantage point has remained unchanged since beginning his career at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1955, the view outside his window has changed considerably. The buildings are taller and more densely packed in on all sides of the bay. And from Rosenfeld’s bird’s-eye view, he sees that many of these buildings now boast noticeably brighter rooftops than they did even a few years ago.

hacking-climate-logo
Hallie Bateman

This brightening is a direct result of Rosenfeld’s vision. For decades he has promoted “cool” roofs, which are lighter in color than traditional black slabs and therefore reflect more of the sun’s heat. Cool roofs save money by keeping indoor temperatures more comfortable in warm weather and reducing the need for air conditioning. And since smog forms more rapidly at higher temperatures, reducing excess urban heat can also make city air safer to breathe. To top it off, cooler temperatures can make heat waves less hazardous to city-dwellers.

On a larger scale, the impact can be even greater. A global campaign to brighten cities could cancel out some of the warming caused by greenhouse gases. This is because reducing energy absorption at Earth’s surface decreases the amount of heat these gases can trap in the atmosphere. Of this planetary conversion, Rosenfeld says “it’s like taking half of the world’s cars off the road for 20 years.”

With the United States leading the charge, that reality may not be far away. Cities from San Francisco to New York are combating rising temperatures and improving air quality – dampening the effects of climate change in the process – by brightening their roofs. In a way, it’s as though Rosenfeld has taken his pencil to city skylines; instead of shading in the changes he has influenced, though, he uses the other end to erase black roofs.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Love train

This floating magnetic pod is the public transit of the future (we hope)

sky-train.jpg
Skytran

Usually when a defense contractor comes up with a wiz-bang gizmo, it’s the kind of thing that gives us nightmares, not think, “Man, I hope they bring that to my town!” But defense giant Israel Aerospace Industries is teaming up with California-based SkyTran to build a maglev system for its corporate campus in Tel Aviv.

The system uses small, two-person pods hanging from elevated tracks. You can order up a pod from your cellphone. Wired’s Alexander George has more:

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How to not lose your shirt when the climate goes bust

Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Hank Paulson
Jim Gillooly/PEI; Helloaloe/Wikipedia; Fortune Live Media

Much of the computing power that crunches the data for the Bloomberg financial empire lives in a building on Houston and Hudson, in Manhattan. It won't be there for much longer, though. After Hurricane Sandy, having a data center three blocks from the Hudson River no longer feels like a great idea.

"I own my company," former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "I want to sleep at night. I do some things so I can do that."

Bloomberg was there -- along with Tom Steyer, Henry Paulson, and a bipartisan League of Superfriends-style "Risk Committee" of political and financial heavy hitters -- to announce a project called Risky Business. The project, summarized in a report released today, is an ambitious attempt to spell out, in plainspoken, unvarnished business talk, the threat that climate change poses to the serious work of making money.

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MAP TO THE FUTURE

A mapping group at MIT wants to show us the way to greener cities

San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.
San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.

Walking down the street, that feeling swells up inside you -- the buildings, the restaurants, the parks, the people: THIS is New York.

Or maybe it’s San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Whatever your city of choice may be, you love it because it’s just got that je ne sais quoi, unlike any other.

But Sep Kamvar, of the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab, thinks it could be so much more interesting than that. With his You Are Here project, he and his group are on a quest to bring out all those little pieces that come together to make each city what it is, by creating a total of 10,000 data visualization maps of cities across the U.S. By doing so, he hopes that urbanites might recognize the elements that they love, and the ones they don’t, to shape their towns into more efficient, happier, healthier, and greener places.

A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass.
You Are Here
A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. Click to embiggen.

“Each map gives a different angle of what the city looks like,” Kamvar says. The group does this by collecting data from sources ranging from Google Maps to local police departments, and presenting it into compelling visuals -- which he hopes can expose the things that need to be fixed.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Buying a bike? Now you can use Twitter to find out if it’s stolen property

bike-thief-cutting-bike-lock-shutterstock
Shutterstock

Back in the olden days of 2005, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, bicyclist and web developer Bryan Hance had his bike stolen yet again in Portland, Ore. In response, he did what web developers so often do as a part of their grieving process: He built a website.

Hance wasn't the only person doing this. The rise of bicycling and everyone crowding onto the internet meant that anyone who had their bike stolen found themselves wading through a plethora of bike forums and Google groups dedicated to tracking down bikes and bike thieves. There were plenty of websites, but there wasn't a widely used database for stolen bikes, the way that there was for cars. While there was a national site affiliated with McGruff the Crimefighting Dog, it charged a stiff fee and only let law enforcement run searches through its database.

But Hance's database was particularly popular, even with people outside of Portland. When Hance announced early this week that his site StolenBikeRegistry.com had joined forces with an another bike registry -- a company named BikeIndex.org, which has ambitious plans to register bikes before they even reach their first owners -- it became, arguably, the closest thing we have to a national bicycle registry. From now on, whether you're looking at a bike in a used bike shop, or in someone's suburban garage, you can post the serial number to @isitstolen on Twitter, and a bot will report back to you on whether or not it's been reported stolen. (I just tried it and the bot told me that my bike isn't stolen, but sent me some depressing pictures of stolen bikes that look like mine.)

Read more: Cities, Living

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This magic bus recharges while you dig for your fare

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TOSA

Electric buses are great, but you have to deal with all of those wires strung through half the city, making urban kite flying a dangerous proposition at worst and an opportunity to develop lightning-like super powers at best. And while being a real-world Black Vulcan would, admittedly, be rad, (you’d never run out of juice for your Palm Pilot, for instance), an OSHA workplace study shows that less than one in 50 people who are electrocuted develop super powers [Editor's note: I was going to call bullshit on that last bit, but this guy apparently knows what he's talking about], so …

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Why liberals like walkability more than conservatives

walkable city street
Urban Grammar
All of the people in this picture are Democrats.

The wonkosphere is going wild over the Pew Research Center’s new report on increasing partisan polarization. It shows that liberal and conservative Americans are more segregated than ever: liberals are now all Democrats, conservatives are all Republicans, and both groups -- although conservatives much more than liberals -- increasingly tend to socialize and get their news only from one another. Conservatives are also found to be totally hostile to political compromise.

To anyone following political news, these findings mostly just reinforce what we already knew. One of the starkest divisions stands out, though, because it is on a topic that is seldom measured or discussed: ideological divisions over walkable urbanism versus suburban sprawl.

Pew asked whether respondents would rather live in an area where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” versus one where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.” The country is evenly split, with 49 percent choosing the former and 48 percent the latter. But the political divide is dramatic: 75 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents prefer the suburban sprawl model, and only 22 percent prefer the walkable urban design. Among “consistently liberal” Americans, the numbers are reversed.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Ah shit

Climate change could flood your streets with doo-doo and toxic waste

Oakland
Stefan Klocek
Oakland and surrounds.

Rising seas and ferocious storms linked to global warming won't just bring water to our doorsteps. In some cities, it will deliver a witches' brew of sewage from low-lying drains and toxic waste from Superfund sites and industrial areas.

That's because when seas rise, they don't just top over shorelines. They can burble up through waterfront infrastructure like sewage systems. New America Media reports from Oakland, a port city built along San Francisco Bay -- an estuary that's vulnerable to the rises in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Four reasons why Portland became a cyclists’ utopia

Portland tweed ride
Will Vanlue

When I was young, I left the Motor City for a city that I would never have to drive in again. Years later, so did my sister.

Television commercials made the relationship between cars and humans look like a romance, but from a kid's perspective, it looked like an abusive relationship. Automobiles had a way of breaking down when you needed them most, taking large amounts of your money without warning, and attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement officers. Little in the movie 8-Mile feels like a genuine depiction of Detroit life, but one thing feels accurate: the way that no one’s car will start.

I moved to San Francisco. My sister moved to Portland. I love San Francisco, the way that you do, but whenever I visit my sister I cannot help noticing that -- as far as gracious, car-free living goes -- she made the better choice. When I visit her, I don’t have to look at every car that I pass and gauge the risk of being doored, because, in a lot of places, the bike lane is wide enough for both me and an open car door. I rarely have to merge into car traffic and route myself around someone who has double-parked in the middle of a bike lane, because some traffic engineer has thoughtfully placed a barrier between car and bike traffic. All is not perfect; my sister still got doored last winter. But Portland had zero bike deaths last year (and many years before it), which is more than you can say about San Francisco.

How did this come to pass? While Portland has a reputation for being the most uber-millennial of millennial cities, it’s not that different from your average American college town. Bicycling in cities has been on the rise for years now; what made Portland so ready for it, when bicyclists in other cities have had to struggle? I did some digging, and came up with a few theories.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Airbnb thinks your apartment would make a great illegal bistro

enthusuastic-cook
iStockphoto

Airbnb, the outfit that brought you strangers-sleeping-in-your-bed-while-you’re-at-your-cousin-Maura’s-wedding-in-Connecticut is at it again! This time, the company wants you to make people you don’t know dinner, and pay Airbnb for the privilege. Where do I sign up?

Reuters’ Gary Shih summed it up this way:

Airbnb is encouraging hosts to throw dinners for strangers as part of a new pilot program in its home city. The company would take a cut of the proceeds, similar to how it makes money from its core business of letting people list spare bedrooms or homes on its website.

The startup began inviting hosts in San Francisco to participate in the dining pilot on Tuesday. A listing for one of the pilot dinners charged $25 per person for a three-course meal.

Marissa Coughlin, an Airbnb spokeswoman, said the company is "always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences" and declined further comment.

Why did she decline to comment, you wonder? Maybe because the whole set up is completely against the law.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living