Monthly Archives: June 2013

Jolts That Last Too Long

Image; Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wrongest Product Award nominations fall roughly into two categories. One is those in which the product itself is a contender: something that isn’t needed or perhaps goes about fulfilling a need using questionable materials or method. See banana slicers.  In the other category, the products themselves may be perfectly reasonable, but their packaging qualifies them as award fodder. More bananas, this time peeled and wrapped.

Coffee offers us examples of both. One could argue whether coffee is actually needed, but some would say much of the Western world’s productivity would be in jeopardy without it.  One wonders whether the debate could even occur without being fueled by caffeine.

More questionable might be the methods we utilize to fulfill the “need” for coffee. The way most coffee beans are grown and roasted, for example, causes a great deal of environmental and economic damage. A relatively easy solution, if you can remember all the criteria, is to buy organic, shade-grown, fair-trade, bird-friendly (am I leaving anything out?) beans.

That leaves us with packaging. Disposable coffee cups and lids have long been the scourge of the environmentally minded. The focus on them has gotten to the point where it’s no longer unusual for even non-Treehuggers to use refillable containers.

But a relatively new plague in the form of single-serving coffee pods has befallen us in the last 15 years. K-cups from Keurig were the original, but they’re now emulated by many other manufacturers. In case you haven’t seen them because you’re not one of the 10% of households that have them, they are all-in-one pre-packaged and sealed measures of coffee grounds for one cup with a filter built in. So all one has to do is drop the thing into the coffee maker, talk to your office mates for a minute (or to yourself if you work at home or are antisocial), and off you go, infused with new-found vitality, hopefully at least in a reusable cup.

My first exposure to these was at a large brunch at a friend’s home where he went on at length about how great they were while several guests in succession made their own servings (and the trash piled up). I elected to not deflate his balloon with my ever-helpful greenie insights.

The problem, of course, is all that packaging. Eight of the pods comprise many times more material than would result from a standardly-brewed 8 cup pot of coffee (even one pod may be more compared to a pot brewed with a reusable filter), and the leftover is a difficult to recycle composite of things making up the vessel, the filter and the air seal, along with the used grounds.

A few recycling programs have been started, but they usually involve shipping the stuff long distances and then downcycling them into lesser materials. As my favorite cut-through-the-BS writer, Lloyd Alter, puts it “This is the worst kind of phoney feel-good environmental marketing, designed for the sole purpose of assuaging the guilt about consuming overpriced and unnecessary crap.”

(Or you can make batteries out of them.)

Refillable and reusable pods (mini filters, essentially) do exist, though I have a suspicion they’re encountered far less frequently than their sealed-for-freshness brethren. If I didn’t already have a coffee maker, I might even go that route for my own home and office where, for the most part, I’m the only consumer and brewing a pot can be a waste of water, electricity and beans. But I’d be sure to have locally-purchased, multi-hyphenate, politically and environmentally correct beans so all the bases are covered and my caffeine jitters can be offset by a peaceful conscience.

Image credit: ZeroWasteEurope

Image credit: ZeroWasteEurope

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

Density Part 2: Height vs Delight

Wouldn’t you know it. On the heels of my recent post, “Density: It’s not the Sky that’s the Limit,” a significant new book on the topic of urban growth has emerged. A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America is written by Vishaan Chakrabarti, former director of the Manhattan office for the Department of City Planning and currently the director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate as well as a partner at SHoP Architects. Chakrabarti, with a jaw-dropping background in architecture, planning, development and engineering, has had a major role in the rezoning and, in many cases, the complete re-imagining of entire sections of NYC.

chakrabarti cover

In an online excerpt from the book (I haven’t gotten my hands on the full book yet), titled “Building Hyperdensity and Civic Delight,” Chakrabarti posits the arguments for urban density and even for “hyperdensity,” which he defines as density “sufficient to support subways.”

“Compared to most forms of human habitation, dense cities are the most efficient economic engines; they are the most environmentally sustainable and the most likely to encourage joyful and healthy lifestyles.” As you might expect, no argument from me there.

He then goes on to ask: “how do we build delightful cities that make us more prosperous, ecological, fit and equitable?” Indeed, that’s the question that’s been asked (and usually answered in one form or another) since at least the manifestos of Jane Jacobs, since we got past the necessary goals of improving defense and basic sanitation, and since we realized that automobiles are not the life blood of cities. (It’s no coincidence that, in planning jargon, urban highways were often labeled arteries.)

Much of the debate about the “delightfulness” or the life of cities focuses not just on their density, but on the physicality of their density. In plain English, is the city made of high-rise or low-rise buildings? Chakrabarti says there is a bias against high-rises, which he attributes to their being (or perceived as being) the products of private sector, wealthy interests. Here in New York, it’s a common lament that the mallification of the city is a result of pro-development planning policies coming out of an administration led by a multibillionaire businessman.

At the opposite urban scale, we have the idealized, romanticized, street-scaled Greenwich Villages and Parisian Left Banks. Chakrabarti argues, though, that those are no less the result of private interests (“built by powerful development interests and typically fueled by unsavory capital”) and, furthermore, were constructed at lower, walk-up heights only because of the technical and structural limitations of the time.

Fine, but none of that negates the apparent preference for living in, say, Williamsburg (Brooklyn, that is) over Wall Street. And here’s where, for all his post’s strong points, he really loses me: he ascribes that preference to a belief that “tacitly or explicitly, [designers and planners] consider the growing hyperdense cities of Asia as embodiments of ‘bad density.’” He continues:

They generally deride places such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore as being too congested and characterless, the products of mindless real-estate development, inept urban planning and, of course, impoverished (read, non-Western) civic culture. Implicit in such parochialism is the proposition that only Western civilization can — and will — produce superior urbanism, indicating a willful contempt for the fact that many Asian cities are outpacing European capitals not only economically but also in terms of cultural production, mass transit, environmentalism, racial integration and other key metrics. It is unrealistic and irresponsible for any true urbanist to embrace European capitals as models for future development when they are among the most segregated urban centers on earth and have increasingly unstable finances characterized by debt-driven grands projets.

I think he’s off the mark here. First, most planners would see, not Tokyo or Hong Kong, but Houston or Dallas as the “products of mindless real-estate development” and not exactly evidence of some sort of Western superior urbanism. Further, how can he refer critically to European grands projets (didn’t those pretty much end after the Louvre expansion?) in the midst of the far, far larger projets of the Chinese new cities?

These weak points, though, are an unfortunate diversion from his broader and more significant observations on the high-density, low-rise cities that predate the new millennium versus the high-density, high-rise cities we now see evolving. Amidst the diagrams of various configurations of urban density, he makes the statement: “Today the global economy demands that we embrace large buildings….” However, we’ve heard mixed messages on this. On one hand the massive urbanization of the planet’s growing population pretty much demands that urban density increases. That would seem physically obvious; urban space is often limited so there’s no place to go but up. But what of the studies showing that less vertical cities – Los Angeles is the common example – may have higher densities than, say, New York? Or that the entire population of the planet could reasonably fit in an area the size of Texas?

Not that I’m advocating we build a Texas-size Los Angeles, or anything remotely like that. Gawd, no. But I don’t think he’s quite made the case for a Dallas-sized Hong Kong either.

There’s also the argument that urban real estate and development costs require intense use of land for profitability. But some question the actual numbers of that rationale.

To be fair, when Chakrabarti talks about the demand for large buildings, he’s referring at least as much to commercial structures. Most developers and planners, as evidenced by the recent news about rezoning midtown Manhattan, believe that older office buildings, with their smaller floor sizes, lower ceilings and outdated, inefficient mechanical systems are not upgradable to modern “Class A” standards. There are complex environmental and economic equations at work here looking at, among other things, the amounts of energy and materials already embedded in those existing buildings versus their demolition and replacement. Backing up the midtown plan, Terrapin Bright Green – a notably environmentally-minded consultancy — found that for many of the current buildings, their totaled drawbacks in terms of both usability and energy-efficiency outweighed the benefits of preserving and improving them. And it’s useful to point out that this is in the shadow of the mother of all preservation battles, Grand Central Station, as well as occurring simultaneously with a new push to rectify the mistake-we-learned-from: tearing down the nearby Penn Station.

Chakrabarti’s larger point seems to be that restrictions on high-rises have a direct relation to urban economic health. “[H]eight limitations have held back the Parisian economy in comparison to the forward-looking redevelopment of London, both at Canary Wharf and within its city center, which is now marked by a series of glistening and respectful new towers by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. There is, in fact, a marked correlation between those European cities that have allowed skyscrapers and those that have successful economies.”

This comparison, though, focuses only on economic health, not social health — not what he calls “civic delight.” The gauge for that might be the simple question: which place would you rather live? As I’ve oft-stated, my own strong preference is for the low-rise, street- and community-oriented urban fabric found in places like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I live and work. The concept of urban “walk appeal” tends to arrive at similar conclusions.

But how then to incorporate urban population growth, along with its attendant office, retail and service needs, without resorting to forests of unrelenting towers — towers that serve to remove urban vitality from its place of community, the street , in favor of shepherding people through characterless lobbies to anonymous enclaves in the sky? How do we promote both civic delight and economic growth? It’s a question that demands an EcoOptimistic answer. Chakrabarti touches on one solution – what he refers to as “cap and trade zoning” – which has a strong relation to a solution I’ll outline shortly in Part 3.


A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.


© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit

Image source: Global Bhasin

Image source: Global Bhasin

In the minds of many, density is a core problem of urbanism, a huge drawback compared to the tranquility found elsewhere. Urban density has been vilified as the concrete jungle and was one of the primary reasons for the mid-century escape to suburbia. That’s even held true in my boomer generation, who were the product of urban flight for the supposed “American dream.” While many of us swore off the suburbs as soon as we were able to leave the culturally bereft nest, a surprising (to me, at least) number re-emigrated upon having children. (My source for this observation is a highly unscientific poll at my recent college reunion, but the overall growth of suburbia – until now — seems to bear this out.)

We environmentalists and urbanists know better than to deride density (and are often all too ready to proclaim so). Density is what makes the vitality of places possible, along with lowering eco impact. There’s no way I’d trade my rather tight NYC apartment for a bigger spread that required owning a car to visit a friend or buy groceries. And while I could see myself enjoying a small garden out back, I surely don’t miss mowing a three-quarter acre lawn.

But on the other hand, I also wouldn’t trade my low-rise urban digs for a cookie cutter place in a modern tower, no matter who the starchitect was and no matter how much better the view was than the sliver of sky I can see from my third-floor walkup. Even if it had the coolest new and energy-saving appliances.

Why, you ask? (At least I hope you’re asking. Unless, that is, you already know.) I love my block of walkups where I know everyone in my 12-unit building and many of my neighbors; where I know most of the store and restaurant owners. I can’t walk my dog without bumping into a familiar face.

Now I realize that’s not for everyone. There are plenty of people who prefer their privacy, and for them a secluded country house sounds ideal. But the current movement to cities, and the accompanying diminished growth rate of the suburbs – while it hasn’t yet quite reached the level of suburban flight – indicate that the trend in the 21st century will likely be different from the second half of the 20th.

And that’s all for the good, environmentally speaking. Though there are issues, such as the transport in of food and transport out of garbage, city living has a lower per-person ecofootprint due to decreased use of cars and smaller living spaces, which are often stacked vertically, thus saving land, materials, and heating and cooling impacts. My NYC ecofootprint is half the average American’s.

The Attraction of Density

Logically, then, this would seem to indicate that the more we concentrate human population and, hopefully, devote remaining land to agriculture and natural ecosystems, the better off we and the environment are.  The reductio ad absurdum to this would have us all living and working in sky-high megastructures occupying the least amount of land area possible. (The great and powerful Google tells me this is technically a reductio ad ridiculum, but let’s stick to the topic at hand.)

Many architects have tried to realize this conclusion, ranging from the late Paolo Soleri ‘s relatively earthbound Arcosanti to the more conflicted Frank Lloyd Wright, who evolved from the explicit sprawl of Broadacre City to the mind boggling (as well as budget- and structure-challenged) Mile High Tower. Which leads us to a modern interpretation called Sky City. Where Wright’s vision never made it much past the sketch stage and Arcosanti is far from complete after decades of construction,  Sky City is on the fast –and I mean really fast — track to surpassing the world’s current tallest building, the 2,717-feet high 160-story Burj Khalifa. The pre-fabricated building, located in a small Chinese city, is set to break ground and will supposedly take a mere six months to construct its 220 stories reaching a height of 2,749 feet.

Sky City, planned for construction in Changsha, Hunan. Image source: BD&C

Sky City, planned for construction in Changsha, Hunan. Image source: BD&C

The rationale for the building, which is not connected to any street grid and resides basically in a field that is nine times the size of its actual footprint, is that it’s a highly efficient use of a dwindling supply of land, and that vertical transportation (that is, by elevator)  is much more efficient than horizontal. Was this a true arcology, a self-sufficient city, that might be correct. Yes, alongside its 10,000 inhabitants, it will contain many of the elements of self-sufficiency:  shops, schools, athletic facilities and even vertical gardens. But self-sufficient it isn’t. Notably lacking is places of employment, particularly offices and manufacturing.  Schools, hospitals and offices comprise a mere 10% of its total space. That means most of its residents will be commuting to jobs outside the tower. It’s more than a little difficult to imagine the vertical and horizontal rush hours.

Can a city (or streets) be vertical?

That isn’t my biggest issue with the concept, though.  My concern comes back to the reason I wouldn’t move from my street of 100-year-old walkups to this environmental high achiever. It’s about community. As I discussed in an earlier post, community is an essential part of human dwelling as both an end goal and as a means to creating “ownership” or buy-in of environmental issues. When you feel part of a community, you also become a stakeholder in its local environment and then, by extension, in larger eco issues generally.

Can community be achieved in a building housing 4450 families, especially when that building, from the outside, appears as an undifferentiated and seemingly infinite stack of identical windows that could contain anything from apartments to offices to classrooms?

That’s not quite a fair criticism in that there is a lot going on inside the tower. The floors are not disconnected from one another and accessible only via the detaching experience of elevators as most buildings are. Instead the core, up to the 170th floor, is tied together with a six mile long ramp which is dotted with courtyards for athletic and social activities. That could help create local neighborhoods within the continuum, but my suspicion is it still won’t really result in any sense of belongingness; one could be anywhere in the tower and not identify with a subset of the 220-story whole. Living in Sky City will be not much different from the anonymity engendered in typical, less lofty residential towers where the only meeting places are in the enforced brevity of elevators and perhaps the laundry room, if the building has one. Though the interior inclined street is an attempt to recreate the vitality of streetscapes such as those found in older cities, for a number of reasons it will fall far short of those urban ideals.

I encountered another attempt at solving the high-rise community problem during, oddly enough, at that recent Yale College reunion. Together with the National University of Singapore, Yale is establishing Singapore’s first liberal arts college. Given that city-state’s density and lack of open land, the decision to build upward seemed pretty inevitable. But Yale’s residential colleges (similar to Harvard’s “houses”) have long thrived on the communities created by breaking the 5000 student undergraduate population into twelve smaller parts: low-rise clusters with their own dining halls, courtyards, common rooms, libraries, etc. (When I was there, before the days of primitive cable, each college had a TV Room since few students had their own and, in any case, couldn’t rig an aerial on the roof.)

Image source:  Yale NUS College

Image source: Yale NUS College

The high-rise interpretation in Singapore, designed by the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, puts three residential colleges on a relatively small plot of land. Each college retains the backbone of an individual courtyard and dining hall, but stacks the dorm rooms into towers. (The last residential colleges built at Yale, designed in 1958 by Eero Saarinen did much the same thing, though they’re not as tall. They were renovated fifty years later by the eco-oriented firm KieranTimberlake Architects in order to, among other goals, enhance the somewhat lacking social aspects compared to the older neo-Gothic colleges on the campus.)

To address the issue of undifferentiated vertical stacks of dorms, according to Pelli Clarke Pelli, “Tower floors are grouped into neighborhoods around skygardens.” Their description continues “The tower designs and those of the courtyards, dining halls, and common rooms will differ in each residential college.” That should go a long way toward creating individual characters for each of the colleges, much more so that the homogeneity of Sky City, but still I wonder if the mere insertion of the sky gardens every so often will truly break the towers into neighborhoods.

Image source:  Yale NUS College

Image source: Yale NUS College

The fact that an environmentally-aware firm is undertaking this challenge makes it all the more interesting that they are including social aspects in the design, in effect integrating the “people” part of the people, planet and prosperity triple bottom line. (At that Yale reunion, I also encountered for the first time the improvement on the original “people, planet and profit” definition substituting prosperity for profit. And I thought I was going just to see old friends.)

So what IS the right density?

Treehugger editor Lloyd Alter has written about the “Goldilocks density,” describing it as “Not Too High, Not Too Low, But Just Right.” His focus there is not on the social advantages of density, but on energy consumption which, it turns out is more related to walkability than height.

“[W]hat we need to do is not…make everything like Manhattan; It is more likely that we in fact want to make everything like Greenwich Village or Paris, with moderate height buildings that are more resilient when the power goes out. That’s the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.”

It’s disconcerting then to see the plans for what The Atlantic Cities calls “China’s most promising eco-city,” which, as it happens, is a joint venture with Singapore. Among Tianjin Eco-City’s environmental claims are “90 percent ‘green trips’ via walking, biking, electric vehicles and streetcars powered by renewable energy.” But judging by the photos of the model, it looks much more like a realization of LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin; its rigid composition of mid- and high-rise towers resembles Co-op City or the infamous Pruitt Igoe more than Greenwich Village or Paris. The towers appear to be completely disconnected from any street grid and, more importantly perhaps, completely disconnected from each other. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking to a supermarket or a drugstore. When you can’t distinguish one building from another because they are identical slabs arranged in some geometry that happened to look organized on paper, and when you can’t easily walk or bike to stores, schools or workplaces, there will be very little sense of identity to one’s neighborhood and, I’ll venture to guess, not nearly the degree of “green transportation” the designers and developers claim.

Tianjin Eco-City model. Image credit:

Tianjin Eco-City model. Image credit:

LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin. Image credit: oobject

LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin. Image credit: oobject

The density of Tianjin Eco-City may lead some designers to expect that people will walk rather than drive, but walkability isn’t about just proximity, just as community isn’t about density. It’s not only about walking, but about what you experience while walking. Steve Mouzon calls this “walk appeal” to distinguish it from walkability. From what is discernible in the photos, Tianjin’s walk appeal looks to be nil.

Tianjin Eco-City sidewalks as currently built. Image credit: Tianjin Eco-City

Tianjin Eco-City sidewalks as currently built. Image credit: Tianjin Eco-City

Finding models to emulate

None of this is exactly breaking news. More than 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs talked about the importance of street life and the perils of high density. But the contemporary question is: how to interpret Jacobs for a world that needs — and a market that demands — higher density? And the answer is not all that elusive. One is found in the fact that the densest cities are often not those with the highest towers. Los Angeles has a higher density (people per square mile) than New York does.  Many of the densest cities are unfamiliar names in places like Indonesia and India. (Though some of these data are a quirk of how cities’ boundaries are determined.) This tells us that building ever higher is not inevitable and that, even though Sky City’s density, by itself, is off the charts, a city of Sky Cities – for a variety of reasons — would no more be the answer than would an expanse like the Los Angeles valley.

Another answer may be in the imagery, some fantastical in the best sense and some dystopic, found in science fiction books and movies – images of continuous (but not homogeneous) urban fabrics, alive with activity.

We have ready-made answers available, as Lloyd Alter points out, in the likes of Paris or Amsterdam or small and medium size American cities (provided they aren’t of recent car-centric vintage and you don’t include their surrounding suburbs in the model). These are both dense and “livable.” They are set up for walking and biking, and do not require driving. They may or may not be large enough or dense enough to support subways, but that diversity of size is a good thing; not everyone wants to live in cities where the population climbs into the six, seven or eight digits. And for those who can’t bear even smaller populations, there should be ample space left over.

Density Part 2: Height vs Delight