Archive for September, 2010

Vienna, Austria. Source: Wikimedia

Streetwalls are a fundamental component of the built city, which is what we advocate for here at Build the City.  What is a streetwall, you ask?  A streetwall is the “wall” made by continuous multi-story buildings flanking the edge of a street, on one or both sides.  It is the wall the defines the street space.  Streetwalls provide a feeling of shelter and security to pedestrians; shade on a sunny day or possibly a shelter from the rain.  Continuous buildings, doors and shop fronts keep the walker entertained when walking through the neighborhood, making the walk feel shorter.  Street furniture such as sidewalk cafe tables, trees, bike racks, newspaper racks, street food vendors and bus shelters creates both destinations and diversions.  Eyes on the street provide safety.

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Source: Wikimedia

Most large cities (outside the United States) consist primarily of neighborhoods with continuous streetwalls.  Wherever you go, you know you are in the city.  Your viewpoint is limited to streets lined with four to seven story buildings in all directions, and to all the public life contained in those streets.  Paris, Bangkok, London, Guangzhou.  The photos along the left show the variety of streetwall forms, streets and architectures, drawn from four continents.

Tokyo, Japan. Source: Wikimedia

North American suburban environments, however, eschew the streetwall.  Minimum setbacks are the norm, to prevent a building from ever touching a sidewalk.  Who knows what could happen, claustrophobia?  But over the past 60 years the suburban has crept into the city.  Cities all across the U.S. have land use codes similar to suburbs: setback limitations, parking minimums, no requirements for curbs or sidewalks.  The result is that many U.S. cities resemble suburbs more than the cities of the rest of the world. 

Lagos, Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia

Building the city, a process which thankfully has begun in many places in the U.S., requires building streetwalls.  “Breadloaf” apartments or condos – 4 floors of residences over street level shops – are a common building form.  A form that has become hated by many due to bland architecture, repetitive chain stores and a lack of street amenities.    But the advantages of urban density and the creation of streetwalls far outweighs the downsides of these developments.  Due to a combination of poor materials and poor installation, most multi-story residential buildings, particularly here in Cascadia, require replacement of the building facade (“envelope”) within 10 to 20 years to correct water damage.  The building, its 5 story streetwall and all its residents will remain as a permanent feature of the city, while the bland architectural elements will be replaced many times.  They can always to upgraded to something more aesthetically pleasing in the future.  Meanwhile, building by building, block by block, the city is built.


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I should do a Citymusic post about Arcade Fire’s new album entitled “The Suburbs” like everyone else.   The Montreal-based indie band has some great tunes.  But it is not primarily about cities, but about growing up and remembering childhood in the suburbs where most North Americans were raised.

So instead I will leave you with a track from Sharlok Poems off a 2006 mix tape “Heavy Rotation” — City Music

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The Seattle City Council hosted a community forum tonight regarding one of their sixteen priorities: making the City of Seattle carbon neutral.  Community-based workgroups gave presentations of their findings and recommendations to Council in each of 8 categories: land use, neighborhoods, energy, green careers, transportation, food systems,  youth and zero waste.  It was an inspiring and thought-provoking event, looking at the issue of carbon neutrality from a wide variety of angles.  I am glad to see that a carbon neutral goal has taken off in Seattle, starting from Alex Steffen’s vision at a talk in Seattle last November (viewable here).  The environmental community is now abuzz with discussions and initiatives for carbon neutrality.  I am particularly encouraged that the City Council has picked up the gauntlet, and is funding technical plans (the Stockholm Environmental Institute is involved) and organizing community groups. 

Yet no one has produced a vision of how a carbon neutral city would actually look.  Yet no one is grappling (at least out loud) with the very significant policy initiatives and cultural changes required for carbon emissions to go to zero… or with the size of forest the City would need to purchase and forever protect to offset our carbon emissions. 

The City commissioned an inventory of the City’s carbon emissions in 2008.    How did the recommendations proposed tonight address the largest categories of current emissions in that inventory?

1. Cars and Light Duty Trucks (1.4 million tons):  The transportation, land use, youth and neighborhoods proposed policies to make biking, walking and transit the most convenient ways to travel.  The land use group recognized that dense neighborhoods reduce the need for travel-miles.  No one could estimate a %reduction in carbon emissions by implementing these policies, or describe the infrastructure needed for zero carbon emissions from personal transportation.

2. Trucks (1.2 million tons): Not explicitly addressed by any group, although the food system presentation recommended increasing local food production, which would reduce food being trucked into the city.

3. Sea-Tac Airport (1.1 million tons): The transportation presentation noted that these emissions will need to be addressed eventually (no plan yet).

4. Commercial Buildings (0.9 million tons): The energy presentation was the most visionary of the 8 committees, promoting self-sufficient  energy districts and Passivhaus construction.  The presenters went beyond carbon neutrality and proposed net clean energy exports.  Short on practicalities however.  Converting our commercial buildings to Passivhaus standards (is that possible for existing buildings?) and converting all building energy away from natural gas and oil and towards clean electricity can actually lead us to carbon neutrality.

5. Cement production (0.7 million tons): One presentation (I’ve forgotten which) noted the definitional challenges for reducing cement batch plant emissions.  If the goal is carbon neutrality within Seattle city limits, regulating the cement plant out will eliminate these emissions within city limits.  However, the owner of the plant is likely to ramp up cement production elsewhere, so the emissions have only been displaced, not eliminated.

6. Residential buildings (0.6 million tons): The land use presentation noted that dense living results in lower energy consumption due to shared walls.  And the discussion of commercial buildings above applies here: district energy production and passivhaus construction can lead us towards zero.

The City of Seattle has made a great start in even studying carbon neutrality.  But we need to move beyond short-term 5% to 10% reductions and map out a feasible plan to reach actual neutrality.

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Build the City will cover climate change, because I believe that it is one of the largest threats humanity faces, and that city living is a significant way to mitigate climate change.  

Instrument Temperature Record (NASA). Source: Wikimedia commons


But not everyone agrees with me.  Debate has raged, but much of it has not expressed a complete worldview of problems and solutions.  I have summarized the logical categories of climate change views below, with the most common responses.  

Category 1 – Climate change is not real
     Response: Status quo.  

Category 2 – Climate change is real, but is not caused by humans
     Response: Since humans are not causing climate change, we have no need respond; so status quo.  

Category 3 – Climate change is real, primarily due to human activities
          3A: Climate change will be beneficial on average, or at least less damaging than preventing it.  [UPDATE: The primary proponent of this view, Bjorn Lomberg, has now moved into Category 3C.]
          3B: Reduction of carbon emissions is unlikely, so we need to adapt to climate change.
          3C: Reduce our carbon emissions to prevent continued climate change.
          3D: Geo-engineering to reverse the climate change trend.  

The response to Category 1 is reasonable; if the climate is not expected to change, then we do not need to have a response.  Yet there is a need to scientifically explain variations in temperature, glaciation, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over past hundred years, which has been attempted more by isolated anecdote than with an all-encompassing theory.   

Category 2 is more problematic; if you accept that the climate is changing or is likely to change in the future, you should propose some sort of response, such as those listed for Category 3.  Yet I could find no evidence of these views online.  Those who deny that climate change is caused by human actions generally also oppose any political efforts to respond to the changes, such as adaptation or geo-engineering.  

Category 3 reflects the balance of opinion of the world’s governments, international organizations and scientists.  Most online commentary focuses on responses 3B and 3C.  Climate change appears to be accelerating, and political solutions (or easy technical solutions that do not require political change) have not yet materialized.  More and more commentators are realizing that we need to proactively adapt to the changes that are already occurring and will continue to occur, even under the most optimistic carbon reduction scenarios.  

The governmental, organizational and scientific communities are virtually united in their views on climate change.  Those who deny climate change do not present a logical and consistent scenario that explains all the evidence and proposes a rational response.  Yet public opinion is sharply divided, due to fear of change and aggressive FUD campaigns by those who see themselves as having something to lose.  As I saw when developing the 60 Greatest Cities post, 7 of the 10 largest Fortune 500 Global corporations in the world are based on fossil fuels (oil, automobiles, electricity).  They will not give up their cash cows without a fight.  And therefore the fight continues.

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