City planner Jeff Speck has found the panacea for our ailing cities, something that could make even Detroit come to life again: walking.
In his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Speck lays out something he calls his General Theory of Walkability. It’s not as platitudinous as one might think -- Speck does own a car -- but the book rests on the central point that cities designed for people, as opposed to those engineered for cars, will be the places of urban, demographic growth in the 21st century. If you build crosswalks, Speck’s theory goes, they will come.
“We used to call it New Urbanism -- that’s scary. We called it Neo-traditional Design -- that offended the progressives. People talk about density -- we don’t even need to discuss that,” says Speck, who lives in Washington, D.C., and co-wrote the book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. “Reframing the whole argument under the rubric of walkability seems to be changing the game.”
OK. We’ll bite. Tell us, Mr. Speck, why it’s time to abandon our treadmills.
Q.Are you familiar with a band called The Proclaimers?
Boston is infamous for its aggressive, rude, and reckless drivers. Its streets are notoriously narrow, crowded, and pockmarked with potholes. Any Bostonian worth his salt will tell you that traffic lights are nothing but impediments to vehicular progress, and speed limits are just cash-collecting scams invented by government agencies. Beantown residents are masters at running yellow lights -- and those that were recently yellow.
Enter into the chaos a woman whose mission is to shoehorn a space for bikes and pedestrians into the Boston streetscape. Her main tools? Civility and kindness -- uncommon methods for these parts.
It’s one thing to pour money into your shmancy new gazillion-dollar, net-zero eco bungalow. It’s quite another to bring that design -- and the underlying philosophy that “green is good” -- to the multitudes of urban dwellers who are more familiar with subway schedules than they are with LEED certification or the Home Energy Rating System.
That’s where Gita Nanden comes in. The Brooklyn-based architect and co-founder of Thread Collective wants to take green building beyond the pages of Dwell magazine and into the realm of housing projects and urban farms.
“We don’t want to be the progenitors of gentrification,” says Nanden, whose firm recently completed construction on its new green office building, located in Brooklyn’s transitioning Bushwick neighborhood. Rather, she and her partners want to design eco-friendly buildings and spaces that are as likely to house people on welfare as they are to house upper middle class professionals.
Polli has spent time everywhere from Antarctica to New Zealand to Taiwan, and is currently a professor in the University of New Mexico’s Art and Ecology program.
We caught up with Polli recently and talked about chaos theory, the sounds of climate change, and her artistic version of slow food.
Q.What led you to do the kind of work you’re doing now?
A. I had been working with computers all my life and creating little programs. But I never really thought of it as art until I went to grad school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I had a mentor who caught me in the computer lab late at night and said, “What are you doing? Why haven’t we seen this stuff?”
A big article came out in Scientific American in ’85, and it had code in it. So me and my friends were typing in the code and programming these fractals. I started programming chaotic attractors to create algorithmic music: I was looking at these beautiful images of the butterfly attractor, and I thought, wow, this is just a mathematical formula and it makes this beautiful image -- I wonder if it would make beautiful music.
Q.How did you start focusing on climate science?
A. The butterfly attractor and other chaotic attractors are actually models of air moving through the atmosphere. Around 2000, I went on an art-science conference workshop, and met a meteorologist there. He said we could model something that happens historically almost exactly -- like a hurricane or a snowstorm. That led me to wonder what that might sound like. So we did the piece Atmospherics/Weather Works, which was a 16-channel sonification of a hurricane and a winter snow storm. The storm data created sound that was really dramatic, and I thought, well, would climate data create a kind of ambient sound?
[I was connected] with Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate research group at the NASA Goddard Institute [for Space Studies] up at Columbia. She’s being a scientist, very careful about what she says, and she starts telling me things that were really shocking. It made me really amazed at what was happening with climate change. So we did a project together called Heat and the Heartbeat of the City that used the climate models of their group. That’s really when I think I started to become actively involved in trying to address this issue of climate change however I could.
It’s something of a miracle that Craig Childs wasn’t in Atlantic City or New York when Sandy roared ashore earlier this week. It’s not that he lives there -- he and his wife and two young sons make their home at the base of a volcanic monolith in the Colorado boondocks. It’s not even that the author and adventurer spends a good part of his time actively courting cataclysm -- his latest book, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth took him to areas of upheaval (geologic and otherwise) around the globe. It’s just that he has a way of showing up, serendipitously, right when everything goes to hell.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Childs, who has written almost a dozen books about the desert Southwest, archaeology, and wild animals, was in lower Manhattan, on his way to meet literary agents. “I was walking crosstown so I didn’t see what was going on, but there were emergency vehicles streaming down Fifth Avenue, and I could see people coming out of the subway station and popping up to the surface and being riveted by something overhead,” he says. “I came around the corner right after the second plane had hit, and pretty much just stayed down there until the first tower fell.”
Apocalyptic Planet opens with a scene of Childs, passed out in a friend’s L.A. apartment after a trip in the wilderness, awakened by an earthquake that rattles the walls and hurls books from the shelves. “In those moments, my picture of the earth was remade,” he writes. “The floor felt as if foot pedals were pumping beneath me, a continental margin humped up on he back of a tectonic pate. Humans may have a big hand in carpeting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and dumping every toxin we can imagine into the waterways, but when the earth decides to roll, it is no longer our game.”
Nor is it our game when the earth decides to whip up a megastorm and hurl it at the Eastern Seaboard -- though we likely had a hand in creating that monster. Or when it decides to reclaim farmland and cities with desert and sand dunes, or obliterate entire landscapes with tsunamis or volcanic ash -- all scenarios that Childs explores in Apocalyptic Planet.
Sound scary? This week, I caught up with Childs, who I’ve known for a decade or so, to talk about Hurricane Sandy, our cultural obsession with the End Times, and why he thinks “things are not as dire as we think -- but they could be much more dire than we imagine.”
With just a couple of finger taps on my smartphone, I can purchase a beer via QR code or tell the people in city hall about a downed power line on my street. It’s better living through gadgetry -- and now, a San Francisco-based business accelerator wants to put the same principles to work saving the planet.
Accelerators, common in Silicon Valley since the opening of Y Combinator in 2005, work like this: They lasso up a bunch of entrepreneurs, hand them thousands of bucks in seed funding, and ask them to grow or build companies in three months (hence the “accelerate” reference). Greenstart, founded in fall 2011, is the first accelerator program in the country that pumps dollars into cleantech -- that is, technology that expands the use of clean energy.
Its founder is 40-year-old Mitch Lowe, a guy who, at 23, bailed on a “very boring finance job” he’d landed right out of college and founded his own marketing services agency -- a proposition that turned out to be “a sort of a long failure,” he says. By 28, having watched another startup founder and sink, Lowe resolved to either get a real job or figure out how to actually launch a successful business. The result was Jumpstart Automotive Media, which handled ad sales for sites like Vehix.com and CarandDriver.com. After selling Jumpstart in 2007, he decided to bring the lessons he’d learned the hard way to companies that are committed to doing good.
“I have a passion for the environment and recognize that that is a big problem we have to face,” Lowe says. “But with a big problem comes a big opportunity.”
Five years ago, artist, educator, and community organizer Zakiya Harris was at the top of her game. After years of reaching out to disenfranchised communities through her hip hop band, FIYAWATA, the Oakland, Calif.-based activist co-founded Grind for the Green (G4G), a nonprofit designed to engage young people of color in the environmental movement using hip hop, art, and cultural programs. In 2008, she became the first African American regional director of the San Francisco Green Festival, an annual expo on all things sustainable in the Bay Area, from a green careers resource center to vegan cooking demonstrations. In rapid succession, she earned a multitude of accolades (including being named "one to watch" by Grist).
Then the bottom fell out of the economy. Like thousands of other nonprofit organizations, G4G watched its funding tank. Harris eliminated a successful job-training program, cut back on events, and faced a bleak and broke future.
Rather than wilt, Harris, who signs her emails “Forever Forward” and quotes Nelson Mandela on her voicemail -- “It only seems impossible until it’s done” -- did what she does best: She hustled. To lessen G4G’s reliance on government and foundation grants, she acquired a solar trailer -- a bunch of solar panels on a trailer that generate enough power to run solar-powered hip hop concerts and more -- that she then rented out, along with electronic billboard space on the trailer.
You’ve probably seen Nell Newman, even if you don’t know very much about her.
Ever since she and a business partner founded Newman’s Own Organics as a division of Newman’s Own in 1993, the image of Newman and her father, Paul, dressed up in their best country gothic guises has appeared on the labels of everything from pretzels (their first product) to their signature Fig Newmans. After becoming an independent company in 2001, Newman’s Own Organics went far beyond the basics, bringing us surprises like organic pet food and fair trade coffee at McDonald’s.
Behind that famous image is a remarkably down-to-earth sustainable food advocate from Santa Cruz, Calif., known for her friendship with Alice Waters, and a regular gig as a judge for the Good Food Awards.
Grist had the chance to chat with Newman recently about her environmentalist roots, her father’s tendency towards wild PR stunts, and her thoughts about the upcoming election.
Q.You are a strong environmentalist, with experience working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and several wildlife and wilderness projects. Why did you decide to start an organic food company?
A. I’ve always been an environmentalist. I grew up in Westport, Conn., when it was very rural. My parents would go back and forth between Connecticut and Beverly Hills -- they would make a movie one year and then go back to Connecticut. And my time was spent running around the woods with a pack of dogs, fishing. I was fascinated by nature, particularly birds, and I was really crushed at the age of 10 or 11 to discover that my favorite bird, the peregrine falcon, fastest animal on the planet, had gone extinct east of the Mississippi. They had no idea why, and it was spreading across the United States, this mass disappearance of peregrine falcons. I knew what extinction was -- I knew that we had eaten all the dodo birds and shot all the passenger pigeons and I was really horrified. Within the next couple of years they began to figure out it was this thing called DDT, which my mother had to explain to me was something that we sprayed on our food to kill insects. So I guess that was really the catalyst.
Once a month for the past 11 years, Michael Swaine has mended clothing for free on the San Francisco streets.
At first, he did a five-mile route through the city, from dusk to dawn, with a sewing machine covered by an umbrella on wheelbarrow wheels. He loved the route, but it was exhausting and often folks didn't have their torn clothes with them when he rolled by. He eventually settled at the Luggage Store, a nonprofit artist collective in the Tenderloin District, a tougher part of town. He's so committed to the project, the Free Mending Library, that he's only missed three months out of more than 130.
Swaine is an artist, an active member of Futurefarmers (a loose collective of artists, designers, farmers, and computer programmers), and a ceramics instructor. “Most people think of me as a fibers artist. Or a social artist,” he says in a video. “There’s all sorts of strange words [that] people say to me. I try to ignore them.”
I first came across Swaine in Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, a wonderful little book about the folks who are rethinking fashion and trying to create a more sustainable clothing industry. Swaine took the time to chat with me about the beautiful things that happen on streets, our throwaway culture, and the strangest thing he's ever fixed.
Q.What exactly is the Free Mending Library?
A. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome to bring something to be mended -- and equally people are welcome to come and help mend. Those are the days that I love the most, when there’s a really wonderful balance -- people coming to help mend, people sitting and telling stories, people bringing things to be mended. It’s nice when all of those things are happening at once.
Back when he was in college, Paul Kearsley was -- well, let’s just say he wasn’t running with the cool crowd. While his classmates were doing keg stands on the weekends, he railed against consumptive American culture. When an Industrial Design professor asked Kearsley’s class to create a surveillance system, his peers designed camera networks for prisons and fancy homes. Kearsley devised a system that could monitor a forest, and the data used to make recommendations on improving wildlife habitat.
“I was on the outside,” says Kearsley, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “I’d be asking, ‘Do we need a 2012 Honda Civic? What’s wrong with the 2011 Civic? Do we need more phones? What are the resources going into this? Where are they coming from? Who is this action hurting?’ A lot of the dialog stopped at ‘make it look cool,’ and I wanted to know more.”
Then, after graduation, someone lent Kearsley a 1,200-page tome that changed his life: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. As he read about a school of design devoted to creating productive, regenerative landscapes and resilient systems that “support life in all of its forms,” he knew he’d found his calling.