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Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

An article by Zach Beauchamp in ThinkProgress explores the effect of income inequality on disaster impacts.

Inequality was, the researchers found, the single most important predictor of vulnerability to storm damage — variation in the wealth of individual counties alone explained 12.4 percent of the differences in the impact of natural disasters between counties.

And from Kathleen Tierney at the University of Colorado:

The lack of affordable housing in U.S. metropolitan areas forces the poor to live in substandard housing that is often located in physically vulnerable areas and also to live in overcrowded housing conditions. Manufactured housing may be the only viable housing option for people with limited resources, but mobile homes can become death traps during hurricanes and tornadoesdisaster evacuation scenarios are also based on other assumptions, such as the idea that in addition to having their own transportation, households also have the financial resources to leave endangered communities when ordered to do so. This is definitely not true for the poor.

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Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic

We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.

On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.

Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)

Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue  and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:

just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.

OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?

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Justin Gillis, of the NY Times Green blog, is encouraging readers to watch the PBS 3-part documentary titled, EARTH: The Operators’ Manual, which is being broadcast by stations across the country this week. The part that caught my attention is where Gillis says that the series is not gloomy!

The host of the miniseries is Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State with a gift for talking about his field in terms that ordinary people can understand. The basic idea is to lay out the problem of climate change in the first episode and then talk about how to fix it in the others.

Several points distinguish this documentary series, created with financial support from the National Science Foundation, from others on the subject. For starters, it is not gloomy! While Dr. Alley certainly conveys the sobering facts about rising emissions of carbon dioxide and what it could mean for the planet, he does it with a light touch and from interesting locales rather than beating people over the head with portents of doom.

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Seems fitting for a Sunday afternoon post – a long quote from Leonie Sandercock. These are the opening paragraphs from her chapter in Story and Sustainability (Eckstein and Throgmorton, 2003).

I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work 16 hours a day 6 days a week; where boys carry guns to make them feel like men, suspicion oozes from plaster walls, and white neighborhoods call the police if they see a black or a stranger on their street. I don’t want a city where the official in charge refuses to deal with the man standing at his desk because everything about him is different; where immigrants are called “blackheads” and forced to find shelter in the industrial zone; where whites pay more and more of their private incomes to protect themselves from “strangers” and vote for officials who will spend more of everyone’s tax dollars on more law and order rather than more schools and health clinics; where political candidates run on promises of cutting off services to “illegal immigrants”; where the media teaches us to fear and hate one another and to value violence in the name of “patriotism” and “community.” I don’t want a city where the advertising men are in charge and there are no circuses for those without bread. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and “youth” is a problem to be solved with more control. I don’t want a city where my profession – urban planning – contributes to all of the above, acting as spatial police, regulating bodies in space.

I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are wooed by it; where only after consultation with us could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barbed-wire fence around our carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my “expertise” into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.

I want a city where the community values and rewards those who are different; where a community becomes more developed as it becomes more diverse; where “community” is caring and sharing responsibility for the physical and spiritual condition of the living space. I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, buskers (street entertainers) don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors coexist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in the community gardens. I want a city where my profession contributes to all of the above, where city planning is a war of liberation fought against dumb, featureless public space; against STARchitecture, speculators, and bench markers; against the multiple sources of oppression, domination, and violence; where citizens wrest from space new possibilities and immerse themselves in their cultures while respecting those of their neighbors, collectively forging new hybrid cultures and spaces. I want a city that is run differently than an accounting firm; where planners “plan” by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.

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Call them the 1%, the 2%, or even generously extend the designation to 20% as Andrew Ross does, people at the upper end of the income scale are the people who can afford to be green – IF green means hybrid vehicles, solar voltaics, and LEED-certified buildings (yes, there are some exceptions). In Ross’s new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City, Phoenix is the context for an exploration of the relationship between income inequality and sustainability. Ross discussed this part of the book in a New York Times article this week titled The Darker Side of Green.  Ross cautions that a low-carbon lifestyle among the affluent will not be enough to slow climate change. The lessons that Ross uncovered in Phoenix are ones worth heeding, IMO.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent.

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The Urban Land Institute released an important report today on real estate trends to 2020, asking the question that is on everyone’s mind – what’s next? The report is tied to the 75th anniversary of ULI. Two years ago, prognosticators were looking for green shoots. Today, organizations like ULI are finally acknowledging the effects of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression as “fundamental societal change.” The major findings of ULI are summarized as:

  • Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
  • Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
  • The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
  • For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
  • The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
  • Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.

On Asia and Europe:

  • Nearly all Asian countries are going through a radical urban transformation, and many believe that the next decade of Asian urbanization will drive the global economy. By 2020, China alone will have 400 cities with populations over 1 million. Asia’s surging middle class is projected to reach an amazing 1.7 billion in 2020. Water availability—and the maturation of real estate capital markets—will be major issues.
  • In Europe, the global financial crisis has made investment capital increasingly hard to obtain. Resilient cities, those with a strong city government and high degree of market trust with investors and businesses, will be most attractive to investors. With companies operating in increasingly global markets and citizens expressing a desire to reduce their commute times, European cities must place an even greater emphasis on effective, state-of-the-art transportation systems.
And the effects on urban planning and design?

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The new documentary film, Urbanized, by Gary Hustwit premiered in Toronto on September 9. It may be coming to a city near you – check out the list of screenings here. Otherwise, you have to settle for the trailer and wait for it to be televised or become available in DVD format.

Two Norwegian bloggers, Lise Breivik and Kjersti Hagen of buildinghappiness.org, paired the Urbanized trailer with the following clip, and the result is an amazing contrast in the urban design issues/challenges facing cities in our globalized era. Detroit Wild City, by French filmmaker Florent Tillon, has been making the rounds in film festivals this year, and it is said to capture both the haunting images of ruin as well as the human dimension of people living and working in inner city Detroit. There’s an interesting interview with the filmmaker and Detroit locals here.

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