Tag Archives: Lloyd Alter

I Used to Love Flying

And maybe I can again. This starts out non-EcoOptimistically, but it doesn’t end that way.

I like seeing cities. I like seeing museums. I like seeing ancient ruins. I like seeing family members who live on the other side of the continent. Sometimes I need to go sit on a remote beach. (I admit, I’m not a hiking, canoeing, snorkeling kind of guy. I can see you wagging your finger: “you call yourself an environmentalist?”)

But you gotta fly to do a lot of that.

Now, I love flying. Just not the kind of flying we have to endure these days to do any of those things I like. In fact, I used to be a pilot – not 787s; just the kind with one propeller on the nose and two seats behind me. I found it fun (if intense) and beautiful, and I still love to watch planes landing. I even co-write a book back then on learning how to fly.

The problem is the commercial version isn’t fun anymore and, maybe more problematically, it’s one of the nastiest unsustainable things anyone – especially an environmentalist who doesn’t want to be a hypocrite – can do.

First, the not-fun part. You’ve been there. Crammed in a noisy metal cylinder, with a stranger six inches away and your knees practically in your lap. The food’s no longer bad because there isn’t any. Lines to get to the gate; lines at the gate; rushing to see if there’s an overhead compartment left; more lines to get out. Fly the friendly skies? It’s no wonder United Airlines had to retire that slogan.

And, then there’s the eco-pessimistic side. Some stats from the BBC:
“Around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation. Together with other gases and the water vapour trails produced by aircraft, the industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming.”

The vast majority (90%) of people don’t ever fly*, but for those who fly frequently it can easily become the largest part of their carbon footprint. “One round-trip flight between New York and San Francisco generates two to three tons of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger, more than 10 percent of the annual carbon footprint of the typical American.” I often ask my students to calculate their ecofootprint using an online calculator, and then to redo it with less flying. Since many of them come from overseas, flying to and from New York a few times a year is a major part of their footprint. But what can they do? Not fly back home during breaks? That knowledge can instill “carbon guilt” and leave them with despair, since they don’t really have an alternative.

And what’s an environmentalist to do? How can I justify flying to the Galapagos to ‘see nature?’ Or fly to a conference on sustainability?

There’s even a term for the movement to have people fly less: “flight shame” or flygskam – the original Swedish term.

* Within that remaining 10%, there’s an increasing subset that, as noted by Lloyd Alter in Treehugger, flies in private jets. The carbon footprint of those is many-fold the already high footprint of flying commercial.

And here’s another, less talked about, factor. What about all those natural resources? Think about the aluminum, carbon fiber, copper, plastic and synthetic fabrics that all those huge containers are made of, and what happens to them when the plane is retired after 15 or 20 years. Most of those massive A380s, those double-decked 600-seat behemoths, have ended up in aircraft “boneyards,” some after less than ten years of use, alongside thousands of their grounded brethren.

Aerial view of the Tucson, AZ aircraft boneyard

That’s a lot of not only materials, but also embodied (sometimes called upfront) carbon: the energy it took to make those materials. It may be trivial compared to the fuel those planes gobbled up in their short lifetimes, but the combination of that embodied energy and the “stranded,” essentially landfilled, materials is not insignificant.

Some of the parts in those planes can be salvaged, often for use in other planes. And there are designers who have been creative with what they’ve found in the boneyards, making cool furniture and even buildings.

Motoart’s “Albatross Elevator Desk”

“747 Wing House,” by David Hertz Architect

Hotel Costa Verde in Costa Rica

Recycled aluminum tiles made from aircraft hulls

Not actually part of an airplane, this was, I was told, part of a modular system used to make temporary runways on beaches in WWII. It came from a boneyard, and I explored using them to screen a carport on a project.

There is an ecooptimistic side or two. First, we don’t have to fly as much, at least for business, courtesy of our digital world; we’ve all learned how to zoom. I do almost all my meetings that way, even when I could have subway’d there. (Luckily, I live somewhere that I don’t need a car.) And one of the few positive things to arise from Covid is that I’ve discovered I can have guest speakers in my classes who are anywhere in the world.

It doesn’t mean I can do everything without flying; I can just do a lot more without it.

And there are a couple of other causes for hope on the near horizon. (Yep, that’s an intentional pun.)

  • Biofuels (Sustainable Aviation Fuels or SAFs) are getting extensive testing and are on the verge of becoming legally accepted for jet fuel. Several airlines are trialing them. But SAFs are not without controversy. Though they have several advantages – their net carbon emissions are less than fossil fuels and they emit fewer particulates and no sulfur dioxide – they are still mixed with kerosene jet fuel, and there are other associated emissions. 
  • And beyond biofuels might be this… (I love it, btw, when my interest in flying overlaps with my sustainability side – this is from a site I follow for completely non-eco reasons.)
    “Long Haul Flights Could Be Powered By Fuel Made From Thin Air”
  • And a formerly pie-in-the-(almost literal)-sky EcoOptimist part is the near-reality of electric planes. They’re only slightly behind the curve from electric vehicles. They’ll still require energy in the form of electricity, but at least they won’t be spewing greenhouse gasses into the upper atmosphere. And more and more of the electricity is going to be from renewables.

The “Wright Spirit” uses an existing airframe and transforms it with electric engines. It’s supposed to start service in 2026. https://www.weflywright.com/

United Airlines is buying 100 of these 19 passenger electric planes. (And Mesa Airlines, which is affiliated with United, is buying an additional 100.) They’re also supposed to start service in 2026.

This NASA experimental design is what the industry calls ‘clean sheet,’ meaning it’s designed from scratch, not a variation on an existing plane. (NASA.gov)

Artist rendering of Zunum Aero aircraft flying over Seattle
Source: Zunum Aero

And then there are dirigibles. Put aside those horrific images of the Hindenburg. It was filled with highly flammable hydrogen. Dirigibles since then are filled with helium, which has supply issues, but is much safer.

Otto dirigible

This 6-passenger one will get around 10x the mpg of a jet while costing, they claim, less than 1/6th of the operating costs. It will go 460 mph, more than 2/3rds the speed of a passenger jet. It will be faster than most turboprops and have a much longer range. And it’ll be a lot more comfortable. https://ottoaviation.com/celera-500l

Hybrid Air Vehicles says, “from 2026 Airlander will transport up to 100 passengers on short haul journeys, with 90% fewer emissions.” Slower than conventional airplanes (but much safer than that dirigible that everyone thinks of), it will probably be more like taking a boat.
The bigger market for dirigibles will probably be for freight, with a huge savings over the cost and environmental impact of conventional air freight.

So, while I’m sure the tin cans will still be cheek by jowl with unmasked people coughing and kneeing me, I’ll feel a little less hypocritical flying to the occasional conference to gather with other environmentalists or spending a holiday now and then with my nieces.

I wouldn’t exactly call that full-fledge EcoOptimism, but perhaps it’s closer to eco-neutral.

For New Years Day, giving credit where credit – the good and the bad – is due

I source and update the information for my Status of Plastic Bans Worldwide from many places. (Just last week I added an entry about UK schools being strongly “encouraged” to stop using single-use plastics.) But one of the most useful sites for my updates is EcoWatch and, for their end of the year wrap up, they posted “2018: A Year of Fighting Plastic Waste.” In my own end of the year post last week, “EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year,” I included single-use plastics as one of the leading topics, so obviously I agree with them.

Embed from Getty Images

There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.

Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.

On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:

[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.

The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.

The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.

Writing this weekend in The Guardian “The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference?,” Stephen Buryani goes into some depth about the origins of this:

Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.

This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.”  Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.

Monbiot continues his point:

This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.

He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:

One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.

Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.

While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.

Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)

You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?

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) EcoOptimism.com.

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: GreenLeapForward.com

Tianjin Eco-City model. Image credit: GreenLeapForward.com

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

From Our Factory to Your Kitchen. Then the Landfill.

What are the odds of two Wrongest Product Award nominations dealing with bananas? It’s not like bananas are iconic fruit as, say, apples are. Apples have played a part in the Bible, in William Tell, in American patriotism, in New York City branding and in computers and cellphones worldwide. Bananas? Aside from slapstick comedies and the occasional bad R-rated joke, their lore is lean. But I guess bananas are, um, compensating with their prolific progeny.

The second Wrongest Product Award nomination (following the inaugural nominee, plug-in air fresheners) went to a grocery chain that pre-peeled and then plastic-wrapped bananas. Presumably, it’s too much trouble to peel your own banana, and then you have to protect it because it no longer has a peel.

This nomination addresses the next step: the burdensome ritual of cutting the banana into slices for your morning cereal or for your Elvis peanut butter and banana sandwich. For my own part, I’ve perfected the method of partially peeling the banana, leaving one side unpeeled so I can hold it in one hand while safely slicing through the peeled part with the other. But I guess others are not so adept and hence the Hutzler banana slicer had to be invented.

Banana Slicer

Banana Slicer

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com first brought this emblem of modern convenience to our attention over a year ago when he reviewed it as another one of the “marginally useless things that fill our drawers and bloat our kitchens.” But then he was forced to withdraw the criticism (at least he says he’s withdrawing it; his mea culpa, I suspect, is more than a little tongue in cheek) when the many pages of Amazon reviews were drawn to his attention. The ingenious comments must there comprise some sort of gauge of both the human intellect and our capacity to waste time (while writing reviews of time-saving items).

Kitchen accessories seem especially ripe for both unnecessary and humorous (intentionally or otherwise) designs. You know, the stuff of late-night infommercials. Or Saturday Night Live spoofs. From Gizmodo, we recently received a digital gift basket of Wrongest Product Award nominees in a post titled “15 More Insanely Specific Kitchen Gadgets.” Among them, the hot dog gets its version of the banana slicer in the “dog dicer” – provided, I assume, so that, in case you don’t have a can of SpaghettiOs handy but you do have spaghetti and a hot dog, you can make your own.  Calamity averted.

Eggs must be a very inconvenient form of food. How else to explain the numerous egg devices in the Gizmodo post: hard-boiled egg molds, egg boilers and egg crackers? (Store them with your Egg Topper Cutter, also available in a more phallic and less threatening version, and your egg slicer.) Then there are several items to ease our constant battles with produce: cucumber and apple slicers to add alongside the banana guy — all stored, of course, in your drawer devoted to specialty slicers — an orange peeler thingie, a mushroom cleaner and, yes, a pomegranate “deseeder.”  My favorite, though, has to be their headliner, the s’more maker, bringing you the rewards of camping (or at least of getting the fire in the fireplace started) without the hassle, via your microwave.

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon


We have a rule in our house that anything we want to own has to have been needed at least three times and anything we keep has to have been used at least once in the previous three years. (Don’t hold me to it, though; we do break the house rules sometimes, as some of my wife’s many collections will attest.) Yes, we actually have used our fondue maker (itself purchased used) more than three times, and perhaps we’ll make s’mores at home more times than our self-imposed pre-purchase minimum. But I prefer my s’mores made with both less convenience and less plastic.

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) EcoOptimism.com.

Is “Cargotecture” Greenwash?

It’s certainly all the rage, at least in design circles, and some very interesting things are being done with shipping container reuse. Much of it was fomented by the uber-cool firm LOT-EK. But lately we’re seeing buildings in China using the containers. Problem is: one of the main rationales for reusing shipping containers is, um, reusing them. The containers are most often used to ship – literally — boatloads of goods from China to the US. But since there is far less shipping back to China, the containers tend to amass here instead of being sent back empty.

So finding new uses for them here can make sense. But building with them in China? Presumably those are virgin containers, having not yet been vessels for the overseas shipment for the “consumption of mass quantities.” (For you younger readers, that’s a reference to the Coneheads from early Saturday Night Live.)

Playz Shanghai

Tony’s Farm hotel and office in Shanghai © Playz Architects/ Bartosz Kolonko

We’ve recently seen two shipping container based projects in China. First, Treehugger posted this Shanghai building for Tony’s Farm, an organic food producer. Then, Inhabitat wrote about a LOT-EK building that is a shopping and “living center” in Beijing.  The latter design at least uses the containers in a mostly intact form, unlike the Shanghai building where, as Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter remarks (in response to a comment I posted), “many of these boxes have little more than their corners castings and a frame, and since containers are monocoque construction, without the corrugated walls the frames are not very strong, so I would not be surprised if these were custom made to order and never were full containers in the first place.”

LOTEK Beijing

Sanlitun South in Beijing by LOT-EK

So is this greenwashing? I’m not quite sure. I’m really hesitant to criticize LOT-EK, whose work I admire. Their application of the containers at least seems more off-the-shelf, lending it more credibility than the Shanghai project by Playz Architects.

And then there’s a related question that I’ve been posing for a while. Even if the containers have been used for shipping, is this actually recycling at all? I say no; it’s reuse. I’ll expand on this (perhaps nitpicking) distinction in an upcoming post, but the gist is that much of what commonly gets called “upcycled” is, in my opinion, mislabeled.

Who do designers think they are anyway?

Are you what you own? And if so, does that mean designers — the people who think up most of the things you own – are in fact designing you?

A fascinating online discussion this past week has led me to ponder this question of designers’ roles and responsibilities – and limitations. The discussion began with the posting of an essay called “Designing Culture” by Colin McSwiggen, a postgrad student at the Royal College of Art in London. McSwiggen starts out by offering that one of the standard definitions of design (“Giving form to culture”) is “delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself!”

This, he says, is a vast overstatement of designer’s roles, “a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists,” because

The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.

There are certainly elements of truth there. When I am designing someone’s home, I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) run unfettered with my own ideas because, well, there’s that client – who has interests and tastes of their own.









Who makes the design decisions? (Fictional architect Howard Roark altering his modern design at the request of his clients. Image from The Fountainhead, 1949)

Perhaps this is the difference, along with the pesky need for functionality, between an applied artist such as a designer or architect and a fine artist: the presence of a client or employer and – depending on how you view it – the limitations or opportunities in the accompanying constraints.

McSwiggen’s deflating of designers’ roles was picked up on by Cameron Tonkinwise who, until the summer was head of a program I teach in at Parsons (he’s now moved on to Carnegie Mellon and is missed here). He tweeted: “every idiot who leapt on then off the #designthinking bandwagon needs to read this.”

(I think Cameron’s digital outbursts of indignation are great and sorely needed, but when they are forced into Twitter’s length limitations they sometimes trend toward incomprehensibility in a language that I once called “websperanto.”)

McSwiggen goes on to write that the things we possess are an integral part of our cultural class definitions:

Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas. Whether prohibitively priced cars, gendered garments, or separate schools for blacks and whites, social hierarchies are always maintained with the help of physical objects and spaces designed to reflect those hierarchies. Otherwise everyone’s claims of superiority and difference would be quite literally immaterial.

Cameron’s tweet about McSwiggen’s post in turn prompted Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com (you with me still?) to post “Colin McSwiggen suggests that if [we] really had nothing, nobody would know who we are or what we stand for. Our stuff defines us.”

And therein lays, I think, a contradiction. (Sidenote: so long as I’m complimenting folks here, Lloyd is my singularly favorite eco-blogger, managing to post a range of incredibly relevant topics with a neat balance of acerbic insight and criticism. My opinion, of course, is wholly unprompted by his writing a great review of my book.) If physical objects define us, and designers design those objects, then something like the law of transitivity must apply here, resulting in “designers define us.”

But that’s not my real problem. It’s with the “stuff defines us part” and the idea that we become an indistinguishable mass of life without things to differentiate us. Now that’s probably an unfair exaggeration of what McSwiggen means, but even without hyperbole it strikes me as quite a cynical view of humanity. Yes, we live in a highly materialistic world – and that’s a topic very relevant to EcoOptimism — but I think the materialism is more about how we feel about ourselves than how we see others. A large part of materialism involves attempting to sate what we view as needs. Those needs are a result of the things available out there in the world (though perhaps not within reach) creating desire for them. It’s the combination of exposure via advertising and the breakdown of global distances enabled by the Internet, along with that old “keeping up with the Joneses” false sense of self-value.











Barbara Kruger, untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987.

The differentiation McSwiggen is writing about, I think, is not as much about cultural classes as it is about self-image. Am I successful if I don’t have the things others do? Am I really defined by how new and large and flat my television is? Or what version number iPhone I’m using? (Not being a car owner and knowing virtually nothing about current models, I’m hard pressed to come up with a vehicular interpretation here.)

Either way — whether we’re talking about self-esteem or class differentiation — we come to the conclusion that objects have an effect on us, perhaps a profound effect. And those objects get designed by someone.  So an individual or a group is responsible for the emergence of those objects.

Does this mean designers determine what we are? Of course not. That would indeed constitute a “sociocultural superpower.”  But it’s an unavoidable fact that designers have at least a very significant role in determining what kinds of objects – electronics, buildings, clothes, plug-in air fresheners — are produced.  That role can be reactive or proactive.

In a model sustainable world, we would re-evaluate the real utility and real happiness that material objects lend us. This would lead to questioning what the things are that we really need and what the best ways to fulfill those needs are. The result could well be a dramatic change in the demand for various things.

Typically, designers would react to this, adapting as best they can to the new “market.” (Only occasionally are there visionaries such as Steve Jobs and his minions who create markets.) But reacting is not sufficient, given the role of designers in the development and emergence of material objects.  This is where the proactive part comes in. It’s also where the survival of designers emerges. In short, we have both a social and personal (if we are to have jobs and careers) responsibility to use our training and experience to participate in – if not lead – that re-evaluation of the purpose – the utility and joy — of material objects.

The re-evaluation process may in some cases lead to “dematerialization” where we (designers and users, for lack of a better term) conclude that some objects are in fact not desired. Which might lead to fewer design opportunities and, hence, fewer designers. And it presents designers with a bit of an existential dilemma: if we (designers) advocate dematerializing and owning fewer (but better?) things, as sustainability requires, are we talking ourselves out of jobs? Not if we take a larger view of designers’ roles. That view, which also happens to lead to the continued existence of design and designers, involves us having a leading part in imagining and advocating for things that are truly beneficial and enable us to thrive.

That doesn’t grant us sociocultural superpowers (or the accompanying egos). But designers do have some important abilities, most significantly to envision alternatives and, as I always emphasize with my students, to question our assumptions. When those abilities are combined with a realization of ethical responsibilities (and with other values like entrepreneurship), we get the potential for the inventions and reconceptions that can transform us not only from an unsustainable existence, but past a merely sustainable one and to a place where we flourish.