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Artists in China strike blows against the smog


When Kong Ning left her studio on Jan. 16, 2014, she was fed up. Pollution levels in Beijing had shot up to more than 18 times what the World Health Organization deems healthy. Outside, every other person wore a face mask to protect against the haze clinging to the city.

Before leaving, Kong Ning impulsively snatched one of her canvases and brought it with her. “The smog is really bad -- I want people to see my painting,” she remembers thinking. The piece she'd grabbed, one of a series of 11 works in oil called “Smog Baby,” depicted a girl with different-colored eyes wearing a face mask.

In the nearly 14 years since she left her career as a lawyer, Kong Ning has devoted her life to creating art that expresses her feelings toward the environment she has watched deteriorate around her. That day, she wanted to make a statement.

“I thought that Tiananmen [Square] is the place all Chinese people feel the most strongly about [as a symbol],” she said of Beijing’s heavily policed central square, built by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 and known for the protests that took place there in June 1989. “The pollution was bad so I just went there to document it.”

With the help of a tourist she encountered when she arrived there, she managed to take several photos of herself holding the painting in front of the iconic Chairman Mao picture that hangs on the Forbidden City. Then she was kicked out by armed guards. She immediately posted her photos on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media site, where they spread quickly. They plainly hit a nerve among frustrated Chinese netizens.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


This giant hamster wheel is cleaning up Baltimore Harbor

Lucy Wang / Inhabitat

Trash-clogged Baltimore Harbor might actually be swimmable in six years, thanks to what is essentially a giant sun-charged hamster wheel.

The Water Wheel Trash Inceptor (as it’s officially called) uses power from 30 solar panels to spin in the harbor. The wheel can scoop up an impressive 50,000 pounds of garbage every day. “I was tired of always hearing tourists say ‘ugh, this harbor’s disgusting,’” co-creator John Kellett told Inhabitat. Built by just a handful of people, the wheel was up and running in seven months.

Lucy Wang / Inhabitat
Read more: Cities, Living


The economic crash brought Vegas to its knees; climate change could do it again

The Fontainebleau under construction in Las Vegas
Jay Bonvouloir

This is part of a series of stories about Las Vegas and climate change. Find the whole collection here.

Next time you fly into Las Vegas at night, take a close look at the casino-studded carnival in the center of the city. You'll notice something odd. Amid all the glitter, there are a couple of black spots, like patches of dark matter in a star cluster. These are the dead zones, reminders of the 2007 economic collapse that brought this city to its knees.

The largest one is the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, a gleaming, blue-black skyscraper that stands at the north end of the Strip. The $3 billion project was to be the tallest building between Dallas and L.A., a 68-story, 3,889-room hotel-casino that would out-glitz all the rest. It was two-thirds complete when the economy crashed, and time seemed to grind to a halt.

In 2010, billionaire Carl Icahn bought the bankrupt project at a fire sale for $150 million. Since then, it has become an eyesore and a destination for urban explorers. Icahn has been mum about his plans for the development, but the recent disappearance of the construction crane on its roof gives credence to rumors that he plans to dismantle the structure and sell it for scrap, possibly to the Chinese, who seem to still be building skyscrapers.

What a fucking world we live in.

And that’s the thing about Las Vegas. I was in town last month searching for chinks in this city’s armor -- signs that it is vulnerable to climate-driven catastrophe. What I found instead was that the obvious weak spots -- the dearth of water, for example -- are pretty much under control, at least in the near term. The real and present threats to this city are economic ones. If I were a betting man, I’d say Vegas is going to run out of money long before it runs out of water -- and climate change could have a hand in that.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Feeling defeated? These solutions fight climate change and empower people


A couple months ago, I wrote about the tepid approach scientists insist on taking when communicating climate change dangers. They keep taking this undashing, New Jay Z #factsonly approach to their messaging instead of taking it back to the Old-Jay-Z and letting the song cry. Others caught this, including Stephanie Bernhard, who’s written about climate for blogs like The New Inquiry and Salon, and called it out in her review of Kristin Ohlson’s book on “no-till farming,” The Soil Will Save Us, in the May 5 edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here’s what she wrote: Climate writers …

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


We need old buildings to make great cities, but we need new ones too

old building and new building

In January I was delighted to come across a post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog containing the following sentence: “Prominent urban thought-leaders such as Edward Glaeser, Ben Adler, and Matt Yglesias have argued that cities need towers and skyscrapers if they are to remain (or aspire to be) innovative, affordable, and sustainable.” Me, a “prominent urban thought leader”? I promptly emailed my parents.

Unfortunately, I was being put in that category as a way of setting me up as a proponent of a supposedly wrong-headed trend toward pro-density thinking among urbanists. The post ended with this toss of the gauntlet: “This spring, the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab will release a report that builds upon extensive city mapping and analysis to demonstrate the important role that older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage commercial corridors play in fostering vibrant communities. We will show, with data, just how right Jane Jacobs was: Older, smaller buildings and diverse urban fabric play a critical role in supporting robust local economies, distinctive local businesses, and unforgettable places where people connect and unwind.” [emphasis in original]

The report, released on Thursday, seeks to empirically demonstrate that human-scaled buildings create a better urban experience than skyscrapers. For example, the National Trust writes, “Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.” The report uses a rather odd metric to bolster its point: “San Francisco and Washington, D.C., city blocks composed of mixed-vintage buildings host greater cellphone activity on Friday nights.” Even so, the group is obviously right. One need only walk around D.C.’s low-scale, historic Georgetown neighborhood at night, followed by its sterile neighbors, Foggy Bottom and Arlington, which are full of taller, more modern buildings, to see that this is true. It seems as if virtually every city’s biggest nightlife district is in a historic quarter. It’s also true, as the report points out, that older buildings tend to house more independent businesses and fewer chain stores than new buildings.

Read more: Cities, Living


Cities to suburbs: Where’s the transit love? Suburbs to cities: Where’s the bus?

Oran Viriyincy

By now I know all the tricks of my morning bus commute: Walk a few blocks out of the way to another stop in order to grab a seat before the bus gets full (which it always does). If the bus is already packed to the gills (which it sometimes is), hover over someone sitting down who might get off the bus soon. Don't do it menacingly, but subtly let others know that if this person gets off the bus, that seat will be mine, suckers! Hey, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there in the land of public transportation.

And here in Seattle, it's about to get worse. Our bus provider, Metro, faces an ongoing budget gap of $75 million and, if we can't find a way to close that gap, it will cut at least 72 routes starting in the fall. With the completion of a light-rail extension still years away, commuters who rely on public transportation here will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, much like a certain tunneling machine in another ill-conceived Seattle transportation plan fail.

Like a lot of other cities in this country, Seattle’s public transportation story is a sad tale of post-recession budget shortfalls, outdated urban planning, and a not-so-efficient bus system with a PR problem. And like a lot of other cities, its problems run deeper than just figuring out how to keep the buses running.


Dream of cradling a beaver in your arms? Live vicariously through this Colorado hairdresser!


In case you needed it, here's something to celebrate: You now live in a world where the sentence “I’m a hairdresser and live beaver trapper” has been uttered in earnest.

Sherri Tippie is just an ordinary Colorado jail barber who happens to love beavers – so much so that she’s become one of the top live trappers in North America. As of 2010, Tippie had safely rescued and relocated 1,000 beavers over the course of 25 years. In all of that time only two beavers died, and that was because she was caught in a flash flood.

What’s so great about an animal that’s essentially just a cross between a really ugly cat and an oversized spatula? According to Tippie, beavers are essential to supporting life in creeks and rivers:

Read more: Cities, Living


LEED it ain't

Enviros bash industry-backed “green” building program

a green-colored building
Not every building that looks green actually is.

Corporations that stand to lose the most from a widespread shift toward genuine green building practices are doing what they can to preserve the status quo. For years they've been smearing LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, the nation’s preeminent green building certification program. They have lobbied lawmakers to ban the use of LEED certifications for government buildings — and they have succeeded in some states, such as in Maine. And they've cooked up their own green-building certification program: Green Globes.

The Sierra Club and Greenpeace are now counterattacking. They've launched a new initiative, Greenwash Action, to expose the forces behind Green Globes. From a Greenwash Action report:

Green Globes is a creature of the chemical, plastics and conventional timber industries. It is being peddled as a cheaper and easier alternative to the better-known LEED green building rating system, and claims to deliver the same environmental results. But if you really want to understand Green Globes, you need to know who’s behind it.


60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, segregation is poisoning young minds

Ron Zmiri | DVARG

Before May 17, 1954, there was a public and legal understanding that black kids could go to exclusively “black schools” with black teachers, and that their learning experience would be equal to that of the exclusively “white schools” they were forbidden to attend. But on that day, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a different understanding in the Brown v. Board of Education case. A bunch of badass lawyers led by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP LDF) convinced the justices that racially segregated schools are both innately unequal and also lead to unequal outcomes that will almost always benefit white Americans while disadvantaging black Americans.

Sixty years later, we’re still finding racially segregated schools with unequal outcomes. This is probably because we’re not dealing with the root cause of the inequality. That root was identified by the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark whose “doll tests” of the 1940s convinced the Supreme Court justices in Brown v. Board that segregation affects African Americans’ “hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The Clarks were happy that their studies were used to undo segregation, but they were perturbed that the ruling did not address the two issues that were central to their findings: That racism is inherent to American institutions, and that school segregation also inhibited white children’s growth and development.

When looking at segregation today through the lens of environmental justice, we see that racism is still inherent. However, contrary to Clark’s other unused finding, it’s children of color whose development is most inhibited, in terms of their exposure to toxic pollution and the accompanying health risks.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Alec Baldwin gets cuffed for biking the wrong way: Here’s how it (maybe) went down


Alec Baldwin may seem cool and collected on 30 Rock, but he’s known for blowing his top IRL. This morning was no exception, when the actor rode his bike against traffic in Gramercy Park and got busted by cops at Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

Two female officers asked Baldwin for ID, after which he “became belligerent,” CBS says. We can only imagine it went down something like this:

Cops: Sir, please pull over. You’re biking the wrong way down this street.
Baldwin: Of course I am. Jack Donaghy makes his own rules.
Cops: Sir, we need to see some identification.
Baldwin: Do you KNOW who I AM? And by the way, Lesbian Frankenstein wants her shoes back.
Cops: Excuse me? Really, sir, your ID, please.
Baldwin: You’re truly the Picasso of lameness. Save this for your iVillage blog.
Cops: We’re gonna need you to come with us.
Baldwin: Good God. I guess I can’t say no to two old spinsters. In the right light, you two might almost be sevens.

Read more: Cities, Living