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Off-ramp: How demolishing freeways is reviving American cities

John Norquist. (Photo by Congress for the New Urbanism.)

Excerpted from a longer interview in Next American City.

One of John Norquist's best-known achievements as mayor of Milwaukee -- an office he held from 1988 to 2004 -- was demolishing the Park East Freeway, a 1960s-era expressway that restricted access to the city's downtown. Today, he is CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that promotes urban highway removal and walkable, mixed-use urban development.

Norquist, who is also author of The Wealth of Cities, an argument for using the free market to achieve urbanist goals, will be one of the featured speakers at the Congress’ 20th annual gathering in West Palm Beach, Fla., this May. Here, he discusses urban highway removal -- where it’s been done, where it will happen next, and why we as a nation must overcome our obsession with reducing congestion.

Read more: Cities, Infrastructure

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New York has a subway system just for garbage

Part of the Roosevelt Island garbage tube system. (Photo by Urban Omnibus.)

New York's Roosevelt Island is like Futurama for trash: Underneath the island, a system of pneumatic tubes whisks garbage from trash and recycling bins off to the processing center. Now the company that built the tubes, Envac, wants to expand to more of the city.

Read more: Cities, Infrastructure

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Meet the worst Senate amendment that ever lived

It’s ba-aack -- the Keystone XL pipeline, that is. The Senate is set to vote tomorrow on an amendment created by Big Oil wearing a Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) mask. The amendment would revive everyone’s favorite pipeline -- and, while it was at it, greenlight all the other oil-hungry environmental ruination that Republicans go in for.

The Senate defeated Keystone yet again last week, but Sen. Roberts included the pipeline in amendment #1826 of the Senate transportation bill (S. 1813). And that’s not the only Big Oil party favor he stuck in this grab bag of evil:

It would mandate drilling off of every coast in our nation and in the Arctic Refuge, allow oil shale development on millions of acres in America’s west, and allow the already-rejected Keystone XL pipeline to go forward.

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Goodbye-ways: The downfall of urban freeways

The golden days -- when the traffic hadn't caught up with the lanes. (Photo by coltera.)

We can say this for our Great Urban Freeway Experiment: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was the 1950s and '60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers. Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the ’burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.

When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas.

It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones. For many city centers, those highways still look a lot like lifelines.

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5 stories about the Fukushima anniversary that you really need to read

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear accident. While thousands of residents fell victim to the natural disasters, countless others are still living in fear of radiation poisoning from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s triple meltdown.

There’s a cornucopia of news in light of the March 11 anniversary, but lucky for you, we’ve broken it down into digestible morsels. Here are five stories about the Fukushima anniversary that are not to be missed:

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Rooftop revolution: How to get solar to 100 million Americans

solar on homesGet a load of this:

Nearly 100 million Americans could install over 60,000 megawatts of solar at less than grid prices – without subsidies – by 2021.

That's from a new report by John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance called "Rooftop Revolution: Changing Everything with Cost-Effective Local Solar."

It's about the spread of "solar grid parity" over the next 10 years, where grid parity is defined as "when the cost of solar electricity -- without subsidies -- is equal to or lower than the residential retail electricity rate." People often talk about grid parity as if it's some magic moment, but in fact it will happen in different places at different times, depending on local conditions and electricity prices. And it's a moving target: It depends on how fast the cost of solar falls and how fast electricity rates rise.

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Batteries could make power grid unnecessary in some countries

One and a half billion citizens of planet Earth aren't connected to the power grid, and if Aquion Energy has its way, they will remain so forever. But not because they will be turned into Soylent Green! If that's what you were thinking.

Aquion specializes in making large batteries, cheaply. They don’t look like much -- they live in a former TV factory outside Pittsburgh, and you'll probably never buy any of their products. To the world's poor, however, they're working on something that could make a profound difference to their quality of life, reports Kevin Bullis at Technology Review.

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A road made of crushed toilets

"Poticrete" is what Bellingham, Wash., is calling their new road material, which incorporates ground-up toilets. Clever! No doubt whichever worker bee thought up that one got an extra slice of sheet cake at the office party.

Bellingham used poticrete in its Meador Kansas Ellis Trail Project, which is the first road ever to be certified by the Greenroads Foundation:

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Mexico City’s urbanization threatens ancient ‘floating gardens’

A man works his plot in the chinampas of Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas De Troya.)

Chinampas, or floating gardens -- small artificial islands full of crops, built up on shallow lake beds -- once sustained the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, producing multiple harvests every year. They still exist in Mexico City, feeding its rural citizens -- for now.

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Roads to ruin: Why ‘drill and drive’ is the new motto in Washington

Photo by Daniel Pierce.

When Republicans loaded up a transportation bill with what the NRDC’s David Goldston floridly calls “a gallimaufry of bad ideas” that included the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it seemed like a cheap political stunt: The monstrosity would never stand a chance of becoming law. Sure enough, the White House has promised to veto the bill should it actually make it through Congress.

The House passed the drilling proposals last Thursday anyway, with help from 21 oil-loving Democrats. (Twenty-one Republicans broke ranks with House leadership, voting against the bill. A handful of them are from Florida, where the $60 billion tourism industry apparently trumps a few extra mil from offshore drilling.)

But amid all the debate over the transportation bill, one truth has gone unsaid -- a truth that explains, at least in part, what these proposals are doing in the transportation bill in the first place, and why the lines between opponents and supporters are not more clearly drawn: We have become slaves to our roads.