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Austin dims its lights, everyone + science wins

This is a map of light pollution in the area around Austin, Texas.

Those purple markers (which are clickable at the map's website) indicate how much or how little night sky is visible. For the ones near the city core, the emphasis is on "little." In 2007, the city passed regulations aimed at reducing the amount of light that brightens the night sky, but old fixtures -- and the city's highways -- were grandfathered in until 2015.

Via rutloPhoto by rutlo on Flickr.

Yesterday, they took more direct action. The city council approved spending up to $15 million to replace or upgrade half of Austin's streetlights. The decision will result in the removal of existing plastic domes from under the lamps, which tend to diffuse the light broadly (and inefficiently). More importantly, it will also buy 35,000 LED lights, which use half the power of the existing bulbs and which last up to 15 years.

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Coming this August: You, made of garbage

At least, if you're a man living in America.

[T]he average American man, weighing 175 pounds, produces his weight in trash every three months.

This quote comes from The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, who wrote a simple and solid overview of a report released this week by the World Bank. The report, "What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management," is a thorough assessment of the world's current and future garbage production.

Garbage is one of those things that's part of our invisible infrastructure for the most part. We put our garbage outside, it goes away. This is not the case everywhere else in the world.

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Jobs taking the last bus out of Pittsburgh

Photo by dok1Photo by dok1.

Bill Griffin manages a call center in Pittsburgh. He'd planned on expanding his business, adding 150 jobs. He didn't.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County plans to cut 46 of its 102 bus lines in September, while raising fares by about 10% to 15%, to help close a $64 million budget gap. The fare increase and historic service cuts have drawn fire not only from angry commuters but also from business groups, which want the state to help out. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett says the transit agency needs to put its fiscal house in order first.

More than half of DialAmerica's 300 Pittsburgh employees travel to work on a bus line slated for elimination, said Mr. Griffin, a vice president. "When we moved into this complex, the No. 1 consideration was to be near a public-transportation line," he said.

Public transport plays a central role in local economies, but tight budgets and hefty pension obligations are pressuring transit systems, just as the economic recession and sluggish recovery have depressed the state sales-tax receipts that fund many transit systems around the country.

Without bus lines, even existing employees couldn't get to work. Expansion, then, was out of the question.

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Detroit turns a freeway into a river

Venice, Italy. Not Detroit -- yet. (Photo by Arian Zwegers.)

On Thursday, Detroit tried a little Venetian experiment, turning one of its freeways into a river.

This would have been great if it had been intentional, like an artistic statement about transportation and modern society or something. But instead, it was another statement: We should probably spend some money on infrastructure every so often.

Early in the afternoon, a four-foot water main ruptured on the city's west side, sending what one resident described as "a little tidal wave" rushing through the street and swamping the nearby Lodge Freeway. Water reached the windows of cars trapped in the lower part of the roadway.

Freak occurrence, right? Not really. A few days ago, there was a break in nearby Shelby Township. In February, a water main break in a residential neighborhood flooded for a month, the freezing water leaving icy obstructions across the paths of neighbors.

Read more: Cities, Infrastructure

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Ithaca mayor turns his personal parking space into a mini-park

After Svante Myrick, 25, became the youngest-ever mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., he gave up his car to join the estimated 15 percent of his city's residents who walk to work. As mayor, however, Myrick has a prime downtown parking spot reserved for his exclusive use. So instead of letting it stand empty, last week he began to, as he put it, “turn the Mayor's parking space into a park space.”

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Obscure-but-awesome energy law getting shivved by natural gas lobby

This house is extremely efficient.

Wouldn't it be cool if we passed a rule mandating that all new federal buildings had to be carbon-neutral by 2030? The feds buy and build a lot of real estate. An effort to wring fossil-fuel energy out of those buildings -- by increasing their efficiency and supplying them with renewables -- would seriously bolster domestic markets for efficiency and distributed energy. Beyond that, it would serve as a proving ground and an example for the communities where those buildings are located. It would be galvanizing.

"But," you're protesting, "we would never do something so radical. Germany might. Denmark, maybe. Not us."

Hark! I say to you. Hark to this sh*t: We do have such a rule!

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Meatpacking plant turns into net-zero-energy vertical farm

Photo by Plant Chicago.

Soon, a former meatpacking plant in Chicago will replace carcasses and rendering vats with bakers and brewers and fish farmers and mushroom growers. The Plant (ho ho, a double meaning!) is gathering together a bunch of food-makers to create a self-sustaining system in the 93,500-square-foot abandoned space. As Fast Company reports, a former meatpacking plant is the perfect place to start a food business of this kind: It already contains "food-grade materials" which are safe for food preparation.

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Ad men illegally hack down trees for billboards

Photo by Ryan Tir.

Watch one episode of Mad Men and you'll see just how shady the advertising biz can be. But apparently the red-headed stepchildren of the advertising industry -- outdoor billboard companies -- are taking douchebaggery to new lows. An investigative report from Fair Warning details how billboard agencies illegally chop down trees to ensure that potential viewers get unobstructed looks at their signage. Don Draper's womanizing and debauchery isn't looking so bad now, eh?

Take Robert J. Barnhart, a former employee of Lamar Advertising Company, the largest outdoor billboard company in America. When trees got in the way of the company's Tallahassee, Fla., signs, Barnhart says his boss instructed him to kill them off using a mega-lethal herbicide. When Barnhart said he'd no longer act as a tree hit-man, Lamar gave him the axe. Barnhart's allegations are backed up by his former supervisor, and they're part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

And apparently Barnhart's tale is just one in an industry that's rife with illicit tree removal.

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4 out of 5 top transit cities are on the East Coast

Walk Score put together a list of the country's top transit cities, based on the company's transit scores for more 1 million locations in the largest 25 cities with open public transit data. (Lack of data meant Atlanta and Phoenix were left out.) And, surprisingly, four out of the top five are on the East Coast: New York (No. 1), Boston (No. 3), D.C. (No. 4), and Philadelphia (No. 5).

San Francisco (of course!) is the one West Coast spoiler. (You can check out the full list is below the jump.)

I was surprised to see Boston and, in particular, Philadelphia come out on top of cities like Chicago and Seattle that I think of as public-transit friendly. One interesting wrinkle in the Walk Score methodology is that it measures not just the extent of public transportation but its "usefulness." 

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Surreal, weirdly beautiful photo of planetary destruction seen from space

Some things that look awful up close can look kind of beautiful from space. Like this enormous open-pit copper mine in northern Chile.