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Sims’ city: Urban America, as seen by Obama’s former HUD boss

Ron Sims.
Ron Sims.

Shortly after being nominated to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009, Ron Sims declared, “President Obama has … challenged his Cabinet to prepare for the age of global warming. Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas.”

Ah, those were the days! The following year, the Tea Party would sweep into the House of Representatives. In 2011, Sims, who held a major elected role in the Seattle metro area before his stint in D.C., would retire to Washington state, missing his family and frustrated with the slow pace of change in the nation’s capital.

Today, roughly two years after his return to the West Coast, Sims says he sees progress. Before he went to HUD, as the county executive of King County, Wash., he led the effort to prepare the region for the unavoidable impacts of global warming and worked to weave public health concerns into planning decisions. “We realized that we could predict life outcomes of children, health outcomes of adults, by the zip code they live in,” he says. “If you have a park a quarter mile from your home, your children are not going to be obese. If it’s a half mile away, you begin to see the early signs. But if a park is a mile or more away from a residence, obesity will be a problem. How a neighborhood is designed determines health outcomes.”

As deputy secretary of HUD, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations, he worked to bring this awareness to decisions at the federal level, arguing for housing, transportation, and environmental policies that emphasized dense, walk- and bike-friendly development rather than car-centric sprawl. And while these efforts hit roadblock after roadblock, Sims says there has been a shift in thinking in Washington, D.C. That, combined with economic and environmental realities, he says, is reshaping American cities.

Here, Sims talks about his work in Washington, D.C., how the bill is coming due for suburban sprawl, and why he believes we may see riots in inner cities.

Q. How much progress has President Obama been able to make on urban policy issues, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans in Congress?

A. There’s a lot of silo breaking. For example, the collaboration between the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Republicans in the House have attempted to put barriers to that, but you know, the fact is, the staff still meet, so there’s a culture created among how you look at urban areas.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Going, going, gonzo: A famously twisted mind tackles the extinction crisis with a wicked pen

Ralph SteadmanRalph Steadman is probably best known for illustrating the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, famous for the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson is dead and gone (per his final request, his ashes were loaded into a cannon and blasted into the air outside Aspen, Colo., in 2005), but Steadman, a Brit, is still very much alive and kicking at the age of 76.

Steadman’s latest work, a collaboration with filmmaker Ceri Levy, is a coffee table book called Extinct Boids. It’s bestiary of extinct birds, some of which are real (there’s the dodo, of course, and the great auk, and many lesser-known species) and others (the Rodrigues Blue-Back Throstle and the Mechanical Botanical Spunt, to mention a few) that hatched directly from Steadman’s and Levy’s imaginations.

Extinct Boids cover 2

It’s a strange and wonderful thing -- Steadman’s ink-splattered illustrations narrated by Levy’s comic journalings and notes. Think John James Audubon on a lot of acid. But there’s a serious message here, too -- about how little we know about the world around us, about the damage we’ve done, and the spirit and creativity we’ll need if we’re going to save a few scraps of it for the boids and other critters.

To learn a little more about the project, I caught up with Steadman and Levy last week for an hour-long video chat that ranged from trench humor to the time Steadman got vertigo while standing over a French toilet. I’ll spare you the latter tale and a few others. Hope you enjoy the rest.

Hanscom: How are you?

Levy: I’m OK. Where Ralph has got to, I don’t --

Unidentified voice: [raucous opera singing]

Levy: Ah. I’m Ceri, and the singing part of the duo is Ralph himself.

Steadman: I should have brought my bird warbler over.

Levy: Welcome to our chaotic world, Greg.

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Markese Bryant: From the mean streets to the green economy

Markese Pic 1When Markese Bryant was growing up in Oakland, Calif., his schoolyard was next to a freeway. He shot hoops at a makeshift court where tattered nets hung from power line poles. His mother died when he was 5. His father was in prison. He was raised by his strictly religious grandmother.

Then in 2005, at age 20, Bryant was arrested for selling crack cocaine. And that, he says, saved his life.

“The truth is, I had too much time on my hands and there were pressures,” he says. “I was coming of age where everyone around me expected me to take care of myself. If someone had come to me with a job or vocational school training, I would have done that. But at the time, none of those options came to me. At that time the option was to sell drugs.”

Jail made his choices clear: Become another black, male, drug-dealing statistic, or follow the rules, stay clean, stop dealing, and go back to school. After two years of passing drug tests and a year at junior college, Bryant was accepted to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King. And then his options multiplied.

He majored in African American studies, picked up Van Jones’s best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, and had an epiphany: If the environmental movement is an extension of the civil rights movement, as Jones argues, why wasn’t environmentalism penetrating the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?

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Foot forward: Walkability is the key to fixing cities

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Claire Groden/NPR

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?

Read more: Cities

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In Boston, battling for bikes with (gasp!) civility and kindness

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itdp

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.

Read more: Cities

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Gita Nanden says green design isn’t just for eco snobs

Gita Nanden

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.

Read more: Cities, Food

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This is what climate change sounds like

Andrea Polli

Andrea Polli is what you might call a climate artist.

Where scientists mine data for evidence supporting or refuting their hypotheses, Polli looks at the same information and sees the potential for beauty. With degrees in both fine arts and computing, Polli works somewhere at the intersection of science, technology, art, and media. She translates raw data into sensory experience -- producing sonifications of Antarctic weather patterns and visualizations of stock-market activity; digital projections of particulate air pollution and interactive maps of sound in New York City -- like an audio version of Googlemaps’ Street view.

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?

Andrea Polli
Particle Falls represents particulate pollution in Santa Clara County, Calif.

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.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Craig Childs: The man who’s been to the end of the world

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.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Mitch Lowe enlists an army of Zuckerbergs to save the planet

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.”

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Zakiya Harris says communities of color can lead us to a sustainable future

Bethanie Hines

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.

Read more: Cities