All posts in Sustainability

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Progress for San Francisco’s First Eco-District
If you’re looking for change in San Francisco, look no further than the city’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. Central SoMa, a 24-square-block area between the central business district and Mission Bay, has been targeted for up-zoning and other public improvements as part of the Planning Department’s Central SoMa Plan (previously the Central Corridor Plan). The neighborhood is also the site of several major construction projects, including a $56 million renovation of the Moscone Center and the extension of Muni’s T Third Line. All of the above may be affected by another potentially more radical change: Central SoMa has been identified as San Francisco’s first eco-district, as we reported last year. The district has taken some big steps since we last checked.  The eco-district concept—as realized in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, Denver, and elsewhere—takes a neighborhood-level approach to confronting environmental concerns. The goal is to maximize sustainable infrastructure by aggregating demand and coordinating implementation. In an eco-district, multiple property owners might choose to make a group purchase of alternative energy systems, for instance, or share greywater for reuse. An eco-district is a network of public and private partnerships, and thus goes beyond both planning policy and individual responses to ecological concerns. The Central SoMa Eco-District project is chugging along, thanks to a set of task-force recommendations [pdf] published in November. The task force included representatives of the city’s Planning Department, Department of Environment, Department of Public Health, and Public Utilities Commission, as well as advocacy groups and several design and building firms. It identified nine performance areas for consideration: energy, water, materials management, habitat/ecosystem function, equitable development, health and well-being, community identity, access and mobility, and economic development. In addition to brainstorming project opportunities for each area, the group recommended the formation of a steering committee to identify, manage, and measure eco-district goals. According to Kate McGee, lead planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, the Central SoMa Eco-District is in the second of three developmental phases:  The first, over the past two years, involved educating San Franciscans. The second and current phase is what McGee calls questioning. The third phase is change. Of the questions being asked, McGee identified three as the most important. The first: what does the Central SoMa Eco-District mean to me? The Planning Department is working with large-scale developers to weigh the costs and benefits of particular infrastructure developments. For smaller developers, meanwhile, the city is considering requiring an assessment to identify a parcel’s environmental potential within the context of the eco-district as a whole. The second question is what will the Central SoMa Eco-District require me to do?  To help the community along, the Planning Department has collected and is aggregating data on current district performance. “We’re going to take the first step and say, ‘here’s where you are,’ then say, ‘let us know what you want to do and how we can help,’” said McGee. The final question is how will the Central SoMa Eco-District be implemented, monitored, and managed? The task force has recommended that a steering committee consider some initial goals for the eco-district and decide how they might be implemented. The committee will consider from several oversight structures available, including forming a non-profit or establishing a Joint Powers Authority, before the city moves forward with financing the eco-district. While San Francisco’s first eco-district remains, in some sense, theoretical, its successful realization could bring tangible financial, environmental, and public-health benefits to residents of Central SoMa. “In many respects it really is quite preliminary,” said McGee. “But I feel that once we get the structure in place, things will move really quickly.” She is eager for the final phase of eco-district development. “When we get through the questioning,” she said, “we will then start to create change.”
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Colorful Carbon Footprint Maps Illustrates Energy Usage Trends
University of California, Berkeley has released a new set of interactive maps illustrating national energy usage.  The visually striking if troubling images reveal a stark urban/suburban divide regarding carbon footprint, with the latter contributing far more in emissions than their city-dwelling counterparts. Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint (Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network (2013) The maps were produced as part of the school's CoolClimate Network.  The three correspond to average annual household carbon footprints, household energy carbon footprint, and vehicle miles traveled respectively. Hovering your mouse over a particular region allows for a more detailed breakdown of the three categories.  The data suggests an inverse relationship between population density and carbon footprint size, which is to say that more densely populated cities tend to be more energy efficient. A further look at the numbers suggests that much of this correlation can be explained by the high transportation costs pervasive in suburbia. Average Household Energy Carbon Footprint (Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network (2013) Yet before New Yorkers or any other urbanites grow too smug, the net effect of this relationship may be largely null.  The denser cities that demonstrate a relatively lower carbon footprint tend to be the very areas that  spawn the extensive suburbs possessing problematically higher ones. The correspondence between usage and population density is not applicable when only suburbs are taken into account, and in fact the opposite correlation tends to be true. Researches claimed that this finding can be explained largely by economic factors. Curious users can see how their household stacks up against their own neighbors or any other region in the country by filling out the Network's CoolClimate Carbon Footprint Calculator. Average Vehicle Miles Traveled by Zip Code (Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network (2013)
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Out of Chaos, Japanese Designers Shape a Pop-Up Bar Made From Reed-Grass
Designer Naoya Matsumoto and her peers at Seian University of Art and Design have created a unique meeting space for students on the Japanese campus. Their creation, a pop-up bar, is created from six panels of locally-sourced reeds called Yoshi. The chaotic construction resembles a traditional gabled roof structure in abstract form. Each year, students of the design school are challenged to create objects from the Yoshi reeds which grow freely around Lake Biwa, an area close to the university campus. The dried reeds which form the outer skin of the structure are connected at intersecting points, and explode outwards in a controlled, yet chaotic fashion. These intersecting reeds provide glimpses of the intimate bar space within, and at night, the use of flood lights creates an enchanting, glowing effect inside the pavilion. With a production time of two days, the unique structure provides students a relaxing, breezy escape, and is also highly portable and recyclable.
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Cooling Los Angeles, From the Roof Down
What’s the coolest place in Los Angeles? It may be right over your head. Starting in 2014, thanks to an update of the Municipal Building Code, all new or refurbished buildings will be equipped with “cool roofs.” A cool roof is built of reflective rather than absorptive material. Compared to traditional roofs, cool roofs can be as much as 50 degrees cooler on the roof surface, and can lower interior building temperatures by several degrees. Los Angeles is the first major American city to pass a cool-roof ordinance. The movement to cool Los Angeles’s roofs was sparked by a recent UCLA study, which indicated a local temperature rise of between 3.7 and 5.4 degrees by 2050. Over the same period, the number of “extreme heat” days (during which temperatures rise above 95 degrees Fahrenheit) is projected to triple in downtown Los Angeles, and quadruple in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. “We sort of looked at, well, what can we do locally to offset some of that warming,” David Fink, Director of Campaigns at advocacy organization Climate Resolve, said. “The obvious thing was to...alter much of our paved surface, and that really comes down to roofs and streets.” Climate Resolve organized a one-day conference on cool roofs in March, at which time its members began working with the mayor’s office, the City Council, and the Department of Water and Power (LADWP). LADWP agreed to expand existing incentives to offset any cost increase associated with alternative roofing materials. The Los Angeles City Council passed the update of the Municipal Building Code on December 17. Climate Resolve is working towards outfitting existing low-income apartment buildings with cool roofs. While the project is currently on hold, Fink explained, it remains a priority for the organization. “They can really be good models for other multi-family housing projects,” he said. In addition, “the folks who live in these developments can use those benefits more than just about anybody else.” Cool roofs, after all, have the potential not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to prevent heat-related deaths. In the meantime, Climate Resolve’s top goal for the new year is to turn the city’s attention to street level, and the benefits of non-absorptive paving. “There’s a huge opportunity there, and LA’s the perfect place for it, because of the climate, and how much paved surface there is,” Fink said. Compared to the cool-roof initiative, a “cool streets” ordinance may be harder to come by. “The city has traditionally been fairly intransigent in terms of using something new. They continue to do what they know, and what’s inexpensive—because they own these [asphalt] plants,” Fink said. Fink and his colleagues at Climate Resolve remain optimistic, however, especially since the Bureau of Street Services agreed to launch several pilot alternative-paving projects next spring. “We anticipate that LA, like [for] cool roofs, will be the first major city in the US to use cool paving,” Fink said.
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Chicago releases progress report on sustainable action agenda
Chicago on Friday released a progress report on its Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda. So one year after the city set 24 goals for itself, how are we doing? Few goals are complete, but according to the city we've made some progress on all of them. Energy efficiency is one standout. Illinois recently placed in the American Council for an energy Efficient Economy's top 10 most energy-efficient states. Earlier this year the city passed an ordinance requiring large buildings to report their energy usage, focusing on the 1 percent of buildings that make up roughly 20 percent of the city’s energy use by buildings. (In 2011, AN looked at some of the ways Chicago architects and planners hoped to make their city a hub for smart-grid technology and clean energy.) Transportation was another standout, led by two key projects: Divvy bikesharing and the rails-to-trails project formerly known as the Bloomingdale Trail (The 606). But the city also touted progress on its goal to green Chicago’s airports, citing the launch of a consolidated rental car facility at Midway. A car rental facility, though a logistical boon cutting vehicle emissions from shuttle buses, might not seem the best icon of green transportation. But Chicago-based United Airlines made a big push this year to investigate biofuels suitable for its planes—a move that could bode well for an industry typically called out for high carbon pollution. The city also gave itself plenty of credit for its plan to make the riverfront "Chicago's second shoreline." Read the full report here.
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Austin’s ‘Ghost Tree’ is a Symbol of Drought in the Lone Star State
Austin’s new temporary art installation, THIRST, is inspired by Texas’ ongoing periods of severe drought since 2011. According to studies conducted by Texas A&M Forest Services, over 300 million trees have succumbed to the state’s extremely dry conditions over the past three years. Located between the Pfluger Pedestrian Crossway and the Lamar Boulevard Bridge, a white-ghostly tree now hovers over Lady Bird Lake and is surrounded by a floating barrier. The public art installation symbolizes the lack of water that plagues Austin and other Texas territories. Its purpose is to trigger emotion and dialogue about the tragic number of trees that have died due to a serious lack of rainfall and increased human water usage in the region. The tree was staged by Women & Their Work, a visual and performing art organization founded in 1978 and best known for their pioneering artistic spirit and commitment to the enrichment of the Texan cultural experience. Through their work, they seek to engage the community at large in issues that pertain exclusively to the local culture and the built-environment. The tree is a 35-foot cedar elm which has been painted white and stands atop a pedestal over the water. Another major component of this art piece is the installation of 14,000 prayer flags on which black trees have been imprinted. THIRST on Lady Lake seeks to acknowledge the devastating impacts of drought in Austin and to address water conservation issues in Texas. Its striking appearance and levitating stance aims to trigger a discussion about the impacts of climate change and seeks to promote action for conservation, sustainability, and the general well-being of the eco-system. This project is also unique in the sense that it did not receive any city funding. Contributing artists include Beili Liu, Emily Little, Norma Yancey, and Cassie Bergstrom. THIRST will on view publicly until December 26, 2013.  
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Testing Begins on Renzo Piano’s Dragonfly Wind Turbine Blade
You might know Renzo Piano as the architect behind many of the world's leading museums, but get ready to meet Renzo Piano, wind-turbine expert. Testing has commenced on Renzo Piano’s small-scale wind-turbine blade at the Molinetto Test Field near Pisa, Italy. Piano’s turbine blade resembles a dragonfly’s wing and incorporates elements from the insect that promote stability in flight in order to allow the turbine to tolerate gale-force winds. Piano's slender, two-blade turbine differs from the customary three-blade scheme and has proven to operate successfully in low-intensity wind. To avoid spinning too quickly during storms, larger turbines typically use particular blades that stall at too-high speeds, or computerized systems that regulate the blade angles according to wind speed. Such systems are too costly to use with small-scale turbines, as they do not generate enough power to justify the price. The dragonfly turbine, which benefits from tough, lightweight composite resources, takes advantage of even the slightest breeze—it utilizes winds of only 6.5-feet-per-second for rather endless power. It can also be used effectively even at lower elevations than its larger counterparts. Designed with transparent plexiglass panels that emphasize the internal carbon structure, the turbine has minimal visual impact. While not in motion, the blades align with the mast to blend in with the environment. Held to the ground by cables, the tower is just 65 feet tall and 13 inches in diameter. The dragonfly has generated over 1200 KWh of energy over the course of a couple months. The prototype will continue to be tested for a few more months, followed by mass production as part of a groundbreaking approach that aims for advanced performance on all renewable technologies.
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Open> Mathews Nielsen’s West Point Foundry Preserve Park Sustains Landscape, History
The Village of Cold Spring, New York is set within a beautiful landscape along the Hudson River. Strewn about the bucolic landscape are the ruins of the West Point Foundry, begun by President James Madison for metal and brass production after the War of 1812. The 87-acre site housing the foundry was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the spring of 2011 and now, with partial funding assistance from a Preserve America grant and in collaboration with Scenic Hudson, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects has enhanced the historic locale as a sustainably-designed preservation park. Last week, the West Point Foundry Preserve Park officially opened to the public. Famous for its development and manufacture of Parrott guns, the Union army and navy’s weapon of choice during the Civil War, and for its role in the United States’ Industrial Revolution, the West Point Foundry helped unite and progress America from 1817 to 1960, more than a century and a half. The site is home to housing and machine ruins, bridges, dams, paths, roadbeds, rail tracks, and a dock from the original foundry. However, the natural forest and marsh wetlands in which they stand are also of preservation significance. In the design of the Foundry Preserve Park, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects took care to “respect the site’s history and ecology.” Combining existing pathways and rail lines to create a walking narrative among the ruins and placing educational displays near important sites, the landscape architecture attempts the least intrusive path for visitors. Exhibitions at the park’s Foundry Cove illuminate on marsh renewal and the natural wildlife. Working with the Michigan Technological University’s Industrial History and Archeology Program, the firm researched for a design that allowed sustainability of the industrial history and of the valley environment. “Good design is often a matter of working with, not competing with, nature," Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects said in a statement. "The historic Village of Cold Spring marks one of the most stunning geologic expanses of the Hudson River. When Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects designed the West Point Foundry Preserve, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we let the landscape be our guide.”
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Ultra-Sustainable Mushroom-Based Packaging Wins 2013 Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, co-founders of Ecovative, want the world of material packaging to enter “The Mushroom Age” and they have the approval of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Founded in 2009, the upstate New York company has developed biocompatible, strong, lightweight, and fireproof fungi-based packaging as a sustainable replacement for polystyrene foam, widely used but made of environmentally harmful plastics. In August, AN reported Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging project as a semi-finalist in the 2013 Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge. This week, BFI awarded the entry first place in its $100,000 competition for socially responsive design. Combining agricultural waste and fungi tissue into a “mushroom material,” Bayer and McIntyre discovered that they could grow the solution into the shape of any mold, dry it, and create a strong solid with characteristics similar to Styrofoam. But, unlike Styrofoam whose production releases toxic substances, packaging made of mushrooms is net-positive and creates a closed loop production system. It is also cost-competitive. Bayer says that Evocative hopes its natural and ecologically friendly mushroom packaging will “completely displace petroleum-based packaging in the market.” He continues, “We’ve taken the best of agricultural mushroom technology, living systems technology, and paired it with serious, logical, engineer-type thinking about how we use these living systems. And then come up with a really innovative product.” After discovering the unique bonding ability of mushroom mycelium, fungi tissue with branch-like growing fibers, Ecovative has already begun expanding its use beyond packaging and into material for inexpensive housing, furniture, surfboards, and footwear. In a statement announcing Ecovative as their 2013 Challenge winner, BFI praised the initiative as a “ground-breaking enterprise” and “an extraordinary example” of “comprehensive, anticipatory, ecologically responsible, feasible, replicable, and verifiable” design for the improvement of a pressing human problem.
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Coming Soon to South Los Angeles: Green Alleys Will Promote Walking, Sustainability
Los Angeles’s alleys have a bad reputation. They’re perceived, rightly or wrongly, as dirty, dangerous places; havens for illicit activity. All that might change soon, thanks to a demonstration project planned for South Los Angeles' South Park neighborhood. Called the Avalon Green Alley Network Demonstration, the project aims to transform at least eight segments of alleyway into an inviting pedestrian thoroughfare. The Avalon project is an initiative of Parks for People—Los Angeles, a Trust for Public Land program that has been working toward a citywide green alleys program for four years, since the USC Center for Sustainable Cities released a report on Los Angeles’s alleys' potential as environmental and social resources. The report looked at green alleys programs in other large cities, including Chicago and Seattle, and concluded that LA’s 900 linear miles of alleys might be put to use solving another of the city’s major problems:  a shortage of public space. What does it mean to “green” an alley?  As Laura Ballock and Tori Kjer, both of Parks for People, explained, it’s more than just improving stormwater drainage or providing cafe seating. In South Park, alleys targeted for greening will receive one of two treatments. First-tier alleys will see asphalt pavement replaced with absorptive materials, to reduce stormwater runoff. They’ll also be planted with vegetation and fruit trees and accented with public art. The remaining alleys will be cleaned up and beautified with vines and artwork. One section of alley in the Avalon area will be transformed into a pedestrian mall, with vehicular access prohibited. As important as these physical changes to LA’s alleys may be, they won’t make a real difference unless the city’s residents embrace them.  To that end, Parks for People has already done extensive outreach in South Park.  According to Kjer, residents who hadn’t previously met their neighbors are working together, attending meetings and forming “green teams” to clean their alleys.  On the design side, the demonstration project will include pedestrian-scale elements and other graphic cues to encourage regular use.  “We want it to become something so that you don’t avoid alleys, but go down alleys because they look cool, and maybe are better than the sidewalk,” Ballock said. Parks for People chose South Los Angeles as the site of their green alley demonstration project because of the “possibility for real impact,” Kjer said.  The area, which has been neglected in previous rounds of infrastructure improvements, is notoriously park-poor.  In addition, its proximity to the Los Angeles River means that any reduction in stormwater runoff will aid the local ecology.  “We could’ve chosen alleys in a more affluent part of the city, where there would be less barriers to the project.  But for the Trust for Public Land, the mission is land for the people, Kjer said.  We haven’t even put a shovel in the ground yet, but the work already paying off.  It’s definitely worthwhile.”
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One Billion Gallons One Drop at a Time
New York City Council passed legislation Wednesday that aims to save the city one billion gallons of drinking water a year. Four bills slated to be implemented by summer 2012 will curb bottled water usage, reduce leaks, refine water efficiency standards, and ban some water-inefficient equipment. The water efficiency legislation affects new construction and changes to existing buildings and includes reducing the allowed flow rate of plumbing fixtures like faucets, showerheads, and toilets and requiring alarms and sub-meters to detect leaks in some water equipment including roof tanks. In a city that uses one billion gallons of water each day, or about 125 gallons per New Yorker, savings from these efficiency improvements add up fast. “The bills we are passing today use a multi-prong approach to increase water efficiency standards in the City," stated Council Member Erik Martin Dilan, Chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, in a release. "They encourage the use of products that conserve water,  require the installation of sub-meters and alarms to catch water leaks, and seek to increase the use of drinking fountains. These bills not only have the potential to protect the environment, they also have the potential of saving New Yorkers a substantial amount of money." These new regulations were drafted by the Green Codes Task Force, part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Urban Green Council which has been exploring ways to green the city's construction codes.

NYC Snatches Sustainability Czar from PDX
There are few places better for the Bloomberg administration to look for a new head for the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainabilty than Portland, that utopia of urban green living. (To some, it borders on zealotry.) Today the administration announced that David Bragdon, the president of Metro, the City of Roses' land-use and management body, will be replacing the recently departed Rohit Aggarwala. He has his work cut out for him, as his predecessor was the chief architect of the city's lauded PlaNYC 2030 plan, though it appears the office is in capable hands. According to Willamette Week:
Bragdon’s leadership of the regional government will be remembered for the addition of substantial green spaces to the region, bringing fiscal sanity to Metro’s budget, somewhat frosty relations with the suburbs, and an ongoing wrestling match over the issue of whether to expand the urban growth boundary.
He's also a big advocate for alternative transportation, and The Oregonian says he may even be a contender for mayor in 2012. Of Portland, that is, not New York. (Unless of course things go especially well...) As for our mayor, he said the following in a release outlining his decision: "David is an exceptional addition to our team here as we continue to implement the initiatives in PlaNYC and work to update the plan and expand it to include solid waste." Wonder if that was in the job description?