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Archive for February, 2012

Summer in the Blue Ridge

Standing in front of the organic coffee display at my local co-op, considering the choice of Organic Mind, Body, and Soul or Organic Love Buzz, I was reminded that my favorite self-service food store also offered these coffees. My favorite store of all time is one that assured me that goodness prevails in the world and that we can trust each other more than we think. This magical place is the Greens Garage, located 1 mile down a dirt road in Floyd, Virginia, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was my privilege to shop there for several years, getting to know the owner, Tenley Weaver, a bit when I would occasionally see her there.

I moved from Virginia 4 1/2 years ago now, so I search online every now and then for signs that the Greens Garage is still there. My last visit was around 2 years ago. Checking today, I see a January 2012 blog post from another fan, Jes of the food blog, Eating Appalachia. Check out Jes’s blog for some great pictures of the inside of the Greens Garage – and the recipe for spaghetti squash with Brazil nut pesto!

Tenley Weaver’s business is Good Food, Good People, which says it all really. She brings local food to her region, coordinating the sale and distribution from her own farm as well as from the farms of many of her neighbors. Greens Garage is a kind of community farm store that offers much more than the common vegetable stand -like organic coffee, grass-fed beef, dairy products, and other staples for the organic household (tahini, anyone?). What sets this place apart is that it is run on the honor system. No staff is there during the day, apart from deliveries by Tenley and other miscellaneous operations. The shopper selects whatever he or she wants to buy, weighs vegetables on a scale, and then tallies the amount due on a receipt pad, with the aid of a calculator and a sales tax chart. Cash is requisite, and exact change is desirable. There is something very satisfying about this process!

Trust is obvious at the Greens Garage. But trust also drives my local co-op, the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. Since 1972, it has been serving my neighborhood. Community members can join the cooperative, and their trust (and faith) in the enterprise is what has kept it going for 40 years. These communities of trust are important. As someone concerned with community planning and neighborhood revitalization, I would like to find a way to capture the magic of these places and spread it around to other communities where trust left a long time ago. The example of the Greens Garage tells me that what I might have once called impossible perhaps isn’t so impossible after all.

Be it ever so humble, the Greens Garage

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Take a look at this Next American City review of the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibit.

Curated by Barry Bergdoll and produced in less than three years (lightning-fast for large museums like MoMA), Foreclosed presents five architectural projects that rethink the suburbs from their economic underpinnings to their aesthetic character. But while the exhibit’s thesis that sprawl is toxic jives with that of many urbanists, the architectural remedies on display seem almost as problematic.

And the crux of the criticism:

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). …snip… This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them.

Follow the link for the full review, and see some images from the exhibition here. And while you are at the Next American City site, check out the article titled, What Legos Can Teach Us About Civic Participation.

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Researchers from the Royal Horticultural Society, the University of Reading, and the University of Sheffield published a paper this month (Cameron et al., 2012) in the journal, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, called “The Domestic Garden – Its Contribution to Urban Green Infrastructure.” The article attracted attention from the UK newspaper, The Independent, because of the seemingly counter-intuitive claim that gardening can actually be harmful to the Earth, or “eco-unfriendly” according to The Independent. For a mere $39.95 US, you can read the article yourself from Science Direct! Among the indicted are peat, pesticides, petrol lawnmowers, and hardscape materials with high carbon footprints. Even a newly planted tree has a carbon footprint that may not be overcome for as much as a decade. Anyone with knowledge of sustainability already knows these things, but it is good to see it in mainstream publications available to the general public for far less than $39.95.

via The Independent

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Just ran across Urban Ethics and Theory, the blog of my friend and former colleague, Lisa Schweitzer. Brilliant, quick-witted, no BS, Lisa is just as I remember. Add her blog to your reading list, if you do not already follow her work. And, Lisa, a few feet away from where I am sitting is the Tiki cup you gave me when I last saw you – its fierce face is strangely encouraging. We’ll have to get together again soon!

Of all things, I choose this random post to pass along. Enjoy the Schweeb!

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what direct effects have flowed from Paolo Solari’s experiment in the Arizona desert I’ll leave to others. But my musings on the relationship between ecology, design, and, perhaps, greenwashing were prompted by an article on Arcosanti in this week’s New York Times. The article is titled An Early Eco-City Faces the Future. A few lines in particular caught my eye. The author, Michael Tortorello, describes how some recent trends, like “the national food-gardening craze,” have not caught on at Arcosanti, an intentional community of 56 people who would otherwise seem like exactly the type of people who would be excited about sustainable food production. Tortorello goes on to say:

Meanwhile, the project has only dabbled in popular technologies like solar panels, rain barrels and composting toilets, off-the-shelf gear that can be applied on a small scale.

“I should have them,” Mr. Soleri said during a recent visit to the project. Yet for most Americans, he maintained, chasing these technologies can become a game unto itself. “We are passionate collectors of gadgetries,” he said. “We can’t resist.”

This reminds me of a quote from the architect, Glenn Murcutt, that I often share with my students. I found this quote in a conference paper by Christopher Theis called Prospects for Ecological Design Education. Theis cites a Raul A. Barreneche (2002) article in Architecture magazine where Murcutt’s Pritzker Architecture Prize was announced.

If I were a young architect today looking at supposed eco-architecture, I wouldn’t want to do it; it’s a one-liner. When ecology becomes the major issue, you’re left with a scientific box that does nothing for the spirit. I cannot separate the idea of the poetic and the rational. If there’s not a junction, we’ve got merchandise, not architecture.

And this is from an architect renowned for what some would call eco-architecture. I think Murcutt speaks directly to this issue of “getting real,” of going beyond green gimmicks and gadgets, as Soleri suggests. So what is the role of the gadgetry? In this age of recession, one could argue that green building and green infrastructure, commonly reduced to checklists and engineering-based techniques, have been some of the few areas of growth. What are the implications of this?

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newgeography.com

For years now, I have attempted to unite ecological theories and principles with design decision making in a class that I teach to undergraduate landscape architecture students. It’s no easy task! The goal is to have students move beyond a limited understanding of physical and biological site conditions, which, in studio, are typically investigated through the development of site analysis drawings, and toward a more full understanding of ecological function and its implications for design. It has been my experience that traditional site analysis drawings (1) almost always depict landscape structure alone, and (2) are incomplete, often missing crucial details. Achieving a more full understanding of landscape structure (which I describe in simple terms as the things that you can point to in the landscape – buildings, trees, soil, plants, etc.) is a great accomplishment, for students and maybe even for some practitioners… Adding an understanding of landscape function, flows of energy and materials – the often unseen ecological processes in the landscape, is really quite difficult. Recent professional projects identified as “landscape urbanism” do appear to be reaching for a better understanding of ecological processes, especially of landscape dynamics, or change over time, but a more full expression of ecological knowledge still largely eludes landscape architects, IMHO. (Feel free to counter this opinion by commenting!)

People with an interest in “ecological design” or “ecological planning” have been discussing this challenge for a long time now. The 2001 book, Ecology and Design: Frameworks for Learning, edited by Kristina Hill and Bart Johnson, explores the topic through essays by landscape architecture faculty and practitioners who had come together for the Shire Conference in 1999. Hill and Johnson urge landscape architects to “get real,” to go beyond lip service to ecological principles in ways that include follow-up monitoring of built work.

So, you could say that we have been talking about this since the 1960s, from the time of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and McHarg’s Design With Nature. And we’ve become more sophisticated in our thinking. Add to this the rise of LEED certification from the marketing juggernaut called the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It seems like heresy to criticize LEED, at least in landscape architecture circles, but plenty of people have criticized it (see here, from 2005, and here, from 2010, for popular press/media accounts), with criticism mainly directed to building performance and energy performance in particular. And how does LEED relate to the long-sought integration of ecology and design? I see it as an umbrella for a set of techniques (especially low impact development (LID) and/or green infrastructure (GI) stormwater management techniques) that could improve the ecological performance of landscape design. These techniques are essentially codified in checklists for design, including the newer LEED program, LEED-ND (follow this link for an enthusiastic description). But it’s the distillation of ecologically-sensitive planning and design into a checklist and set of easily understood techniques that is the problem. It can be seen as an oversimplification of the design process.

Back in 2009, when LEED-ND was introduced, Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described the program in a series of three posts, the first of which is here. The NRDC was one of two organizations that worked with the USGBC to develop the rating system. The Congress for the New Urbanism was the other. The American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA) was not at the table, to my knowledge. (Readers, correct me if I am wrong.) I base this on the fact that I was in discussion with ASLA representatives about becoming involved in LEED-ND development back in the early 2000s and was told that no landscape architects were involved at that point. Planning for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a partnership between ASLA, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden, got underway about the same time.

At this point, I’m asking myself why I am opening up this giant can of worms in a blog post! Well, I’d like to raise the issue and see if anyone would like to discuss it (in the comments or offline, praxislandarch (at) gmail (dot) com). There are many directions in which such a conversation might go. For now, I will conclude with a couple of quotes in a follow-up post.

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Visualizations of  large data sets are hot, hot, hot these days! As is everything else related to data crunching. In a New York Times article from 2009, Steve Lohr (and a Google exec) whispered the word statistics into the ears of new graduates. Today, there is new demand for statistics classes on college campuses everywhere. From the Times:

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

The rising stature of statisticians, who can earn $125,000 at top companies in their first year after getting a doctorate, is a byproduct of the recent explosion of digital data.

(Update: Steve Lohr’s article on Feb. 11, 2012 called The Age of Big Data, also in the NY Times.)

A class at Columbia University recently mapped trip data for 10,000 taxi rides in Manhattan in a 24 hour period. The result is what they call a ‘breathing’ map of Manhattan. The video is set to music by Rob Viola.

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