Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on run for first time in a year

1. Nothing like waking up in Vermont to see one's op-ed essay about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses has been published in The Boston Globe:
2. Need to get life insurance.
3. Gorgeous hawk in the swaying trees overhead, peering down at me, hopping from branch to branch like a parakeet. Usually only see them soaring.
4. This isn't so bad.
5. I think I might need an oxygen tent.
6. Do sweat flies have any useful purpose in the ecosystem?
7. What do they do when I'm not here?
8. Around here, it's like the real estate equivalent of a red light district.
9. Does this vacation have to end?
10. Downhill ... margarita ... nachos.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Back to Boch

Faithful readers may recall my bittersweet experience at Boch Toyota for the premium-price purchase of a hybrid Highlander. Today I drove my 1998 BMW 238i 4-door sedan down to the dealership to get what I could for it -- I couldn't qualify for "cash for clunkers" because the car is listed at 20 miles per gallon at 130,000 miles, and the threshold is 18 miles per gallon. Pulling off Route 1 with steam billowing from the hood wasn't exactly a position of strength. I said at my book party Thursday at Tory Row in Harvard Square in Cambridge that it was the ghost of Jane Jacobs, scolding me for using the car so much; accordingly I took the T to get my seersucker suit at Brooker Brothers, and lugged a jerry can of coolant in a tote bag. Anyhow, Boch granted me a pittance for the beemer, and I must say I was a tiny bit emotional leaving the old rig, 10 years later. The car served me well, and I loved the peppy way I could drive it, the singular and slightly smug feeling, pulling up to a valet. It's a window into American culture -- car as identity, the vehicle you love to care for and pull through the car wash. As of today I have moved from car that symbolizes other things, to car as transportation. From the vehicle I dabbed with Armour-All wipes, to the car that keeps my eye on the Tie-fighter like readout, displaying how I'm getting 50 miles to the gallon, how I'm on battery power, emitting no greenhouse gas emissions. I'm finally walking the walk. It's a new era, and one I think we're all going to have to enter.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eyes on the street

So my neighbor locked herself out of her house two doors down tonight, and her two-year-old is inside, thankfully occupied watching TV. We were having Chinese takeout when she rang the doorbell. I went over, surveyed the locked windows and doors, and discussed the options: breaking in (a sensitive subject these days in Boston), calling the police, or calling Broadway Locksmith in South Boston. I loaned her my phone and we opted for the latter and they were there in five minutes and the shaggy-haiored locksmith picked the lock in about a minute. This could have happened in a subdivision, I suppose, but our urban neighborhood, with the kids out on their scooters and us on our stoops, naturally made me think of Jane Jacobs, and the way that neighbors are around and close by in the city. "I owe you," the neighbor said. But not really. We're there for each other, just like the 75-year-old man next door shovels the snow in front of our house when in winter. It's our own kind of sidewalk ballet.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jane Jacobs Way

The block between 11th and Perry Streets including 555 Hudson Street, Jane Jacobs' home from 1947 to 1968, has been renamed Jane Jacobs Way, the New York Times City Room blog reports. I submitted this comment: "I’ve spent a lot of time on this block researching a book I’ve written about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. I went into 555 Hudson Street and took some pictures out the second floor window. It’s a fascinating stretch of urbanism, and one marvels at how Jane Jacobs moved there in 1947, how the neighborhood has come to be some of the most desirable real estate anywhere, and how it’s beome a role model for human-scaled, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly environments that we could use alot more of these days."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Duany: No mas

DPZ principal and New Urbanism founding father Andres Duany, reflecting on his experiences building the Katrina cottage on the Gulf Coast and modular housing, told the Congress for the New Urbanism gathering in Denver today that he had reluctantly come to a surprising conclusion -- that the design professions should give up on everything else on economical home design and concentrate efforts into designing a better mobile home. Trades contractors and government-imposed permitting and inspection requirements obliterate the savings achieved in low-cost housing construction, he said. The comments came as the New Urbanists wrestled with issues of infrastructure, going green, and financing of projects in these dark economic times. I presented the Lincoln Institute report, Smart Growth Policies, in the session "Selling the Green Urban Advantage," as an example of what can happen when the impact of sustainable development policies are measured (results are not the home run most would hope for), alongside Carol Coletta from CEOs for Cities, Robin Rather from Collective Strengths, and the intrepid Steve Filmanowicz from CNU. Another fine session looked at New Urbanism's focus on transit-oriented development and President Obama's high-speed rail initiative holds much promise with the group.
-- LEED-ND in the works. Standards for the green good-housekeeping seal of approval for entire neighborhoods and not just individual buildings are coming together, and several Denver-area projects, such as Stapleton and Bel-Mar, were put to the test. Interestingly, the Highlands Village neighborhood scored low on some measures because a street was deemed too wide and there was only one floor of street-fronting retail in one section.
-- Dark age ahead. Author James Howard Kunstler was in fine form with his analysis that the US financial system is broken "at every level," making it impossible to return to the oil-based arrangements to which we've grown accustomed. He argues that a much more locally based economy is on the horizon, with small cities depending on proximate farmland.
Blog posts and tweets are abundantly available via the conference Web site,, plus dispatches at The Huffington Post.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Expect more

Big-box retailers are an easy … target, when it comes to the window-dressing that’s often done on sustainability. “We’ve heard a lot of that … that word,” said our guide on a dazzling tour of Target’s corporate headquarters on Nicolett Mall in Minneapolis, where some 5,000 planners and others have descended for the annual American Planning Association. We were in the company’s 60-person architecture and engineering division, which if it stood alone would be the fourth largest such firm in Minnesota, after strolling through the Café Target and the art-adorned Great Hall, where pairs of employees talked earnestly on simple fabric furniture. What of the green innovations? The ubiquitous green roof, of course, skylights, recycling plastic hangers, tote bags to replace those bright white bullseye-dotted plastic bags, minimizing and decking parking, and plantings (Japanese maples, red of course, and “perennials with a neat appearance that align with Target’s brand image,” according to guidelines). Our guides were subdued about the greenest thing Target can do, which is to build or rehab in urban locations – the Minneapolis store is a nice example, with its slightly Dutch-feeling shopping-cart escalators, very well used when I was there. Depends on the cost of land, the market analysis, and whether it’s part of a development project, they said: “It has to be practical.” One factor is the delivery and handling of products in cities – from more compact loading docks to the need to move goods to multiple floors – which can raise labor costs. Over the nearly 200 projects in the works, most were conventional big buildings with big parking fields (though I did spot a nice roundabout drawn in to replace an intersection in one set of plans). The claim is that more building rehab is being done; no word on ending the practice of tear-downs after 10 years. Through a program of overhauling libraries and in other ways, Target proclaims interest in building communities. Truly harnessing its branding power could broadcast a message of green amid all that red.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Buckminster Rem

Rem Koolhaas was at Harvard tonight, and did not disappoint. He was the keynote for the Ecological Urbanism conference at the Graduate School of Design, a role he confided he first thought was some kind of "cruel joke." He suggested that green sensibilities began at least with Vitruvius, and continued with Ian McHarg and Buckminster Fuller, in a co-existence of culture and nature, and the ventilating walls and other features of "tropical architecture" he learned about as a young man. He was scornful of the "apocalypitc streak" of those predicting environmental calamity, citing the Club of Rome's "Limits of Growth." Showing a collage of contemporary skylines including Dubai, London and his own CCTV building in Beijing, he acknowledged that "that's out," in terms shortcomings in green performance. But he said "our responses are not that deep, equating responsibility with literal greening" -- green roofs, lining walls with grass -- and pilloried Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Piano's defense of the grassy-knolled creation was either "outrageously innocent or deeply calculation, and probably both," he said. In a house-of-mirrors moment came when he criticized Nicolai Ouroussoff's praise of the building. A more effective approach that goes beyond "good intentions and branding," he said, was the Nordzee wind power project in The Netherlands, in combination with the harnessing of tidal and solar power southward across Europe. That was the kind of marriage of "politics and engineering" that Buckminster Fuller was getting at some 40 years ago, Koolhaas said. Fair enough. I regard Koolhaas much the way that Jane Jacobs appreciated Louis Kahn or Mies van der Rohe; the Kunsthall and Seattle Library are certainly compelling. His take on the green mandate and architecture's response was nothing if not provocative.