Biophilic Cities is a group trying to create “cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites. Biophilic cities value residents innate connection and access to nature through abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy the multisensory aspects of nature by protecting and promoting nature within the city.” This seems a bit big picture and visionary, but they also have some practical resources such a collection of codes and ordinances used by various cities.
Most frightening stories:
- I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
- We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
- A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.
Most hopeful stories:
- Donald Trump does not appear to be trying to destroy the Federal Reserve.
- You can get a good robot vacuum cleaner now for about $200.
- In discussions of urban green infrastructure, provisioning ecosystem services have been largely ignored, but the potential is there. Permaculture is still out there.
Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
- You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included.
- “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
- It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
I like this list from Todd Litman on Planetizen of the groups of people who are left behind (quite literally, left at home or waiting for buses and taxis or friends or relatives that might never come) by car-dependent urban form.
Non-Automobile Travel Demands
- Youths 10-20 (10-30% of population).
- Seniors who do not or should not drive (5-15%).
- Adults unable to drive due to disability (3-5%).
- Lower income households burdened by vehicle expenses (15-30%).
- Law-abiding drinkers.
- Community visitors who lack a vehicle or driver’s license.
- People who want to walk or bike for enjoyment and health.
- Drivers who want to avoid chauffeuring burdens.
- Residents who want to reduce traffic and parking congestion, accidents and pollution emissions.
I like this list because it is crystal clear that there is not any one political orientation, ethnic group, or income level disproportionately burdened. It is a large swath of the population cutting across all these groups. Reducing all the hidden subsidies and incentives to remain car dependent would not be a reduction of freedom for the population, as some self-styled “conservatives” would have us believe. It would be an increase in the options and lifestyle choices available to all of us.
The only thing I would change on this list is to start youths at age 0. Plenty of young families where I live (a very-walkable, somewhat-bikable-for-the-brave community with dirty-slow-but-reliable-public-transportation) put children in daycare by age 1, and almost all put them in preschool by age 3 or 4 because there is no public preschool provided. Then, starting at age 5, many people choose not to send their children to the public school within walking distance of their home because they believe a public, charter, or private school farther from home will provide a better education and give them advantages in life.
One more overlooked factor is that state law provides no flexibility on car seats and booster seats for children when using taxis or ride hailing services, or when driving on low speed urban streets vs. highways, or flexibility on helmet laws when safe protected bike infrastructure is available. (Mostly) well-intentioned politicians from car-dependent areas of the state pass these laws without considering the non-car-dependent portion of the population they serve.
NACTO has a new guide integrating stormwater management and multi-modal transport ideas on streets. This is significant because NACTO is not just a bunch of hippies or even hipsters, but a transportation industry group that has real influence on the design approaches that end up getting incorporated into federal, state, and local design criteria and technical specifications. And this is how engineering business gets done – once design criteria are written into the codes, whether they are good or bad, engineers are going to follow them because this is the most efficient and lowest risk thing to do, and in some cases there are no alternatives.
I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.
3 most frightening stories
- Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
- The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
- “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.
3 most hopeful stories
- The theory of island biodiversity gives us some clues on how to maximize the biodiversity that a given amount of natural land can support.
- Commercial supersonic jets may be back soon.
- You can sue your city for not designing safe streets.
3 most interesting stories
3 most frightening stories
- The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
- The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
- Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.
3 most hopeful stories
- The FDA is finally banning antibacterial soap.
- An MIT professor thinks he has found an effective anti-aging pill.
- There is still hope for fusion power.
3 most interesting stories
- Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
- Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
- There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.
3 most frightening stories
- There are scary and seemingly reckless confrontations going on between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Indian Ocean. And yet, it is bizarrely humorous when real life imitates Top Gun.
- The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
- Obama went to Hiroshima, where he said we can “chart a course that leads to the destruction” of nuclear weapons, only not in his lifetime. Obama out.
3 most hopeful stories
- There are some new ideas for incorporation of sustainability criteria in economic planning. Also, “hybrid infrastructure” as “infrastructure systems that are integrated within buildings and landscapes that also provide non-infrastructure uses”. And there is new evidence on the health benefits of green space, including mental health. Also, the value of trees. And also, one can never get enough Donald Shoup!
- Maybe the clean energy miracle is here!
- The latest in the war on cancer is to turn the body’s immune system against it. Although this doesn’t work for everyone, it is what cured Jimmy Carter.
3 most interesting stories
- I try not to let this blog get too political, really I do. But in an election season I just can’t help myself. This is a blog about the future of civilization, and the behavior of U.S. political, bureaucratic, and military elites obviously has some bearing on that. In May I mused on whether the U.S. could possibly be suffering from “too much democracy“, Dick Cheney, equality and equal opportunity, and what’s wrong with Pennsylvania. And yes, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, TRUMP IS A FASCIST!
- The world has about a billion dogs.
- It turns out coffee grounds may not make good compost.
I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.
3 most frightening posts
- Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
- Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
- Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.
3 most hopeful posts
- The new Michael Moore visits other countries and collects their best ideas on policies that work well and we just don’t know about.
- Urban transportation is evolving. Self-driving vehicles might travel slower, and we might be okay with that. The economics of commuting and parking also seem to be favoring denser urban living.
- The science of wildlife corridors is progressing, potentially allowing us to preserve/restore more ecological function in less space amid human disturbance. Eric Toensmeier has articulated nicely a vision that human-altered landscapes could be positive rather than negative.
3 most interesting posts
- There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
- Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
- The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”
City Observatory has a long article arguing against the idea that a right-left consensus is emerging against zoning, making the obvious point that existing homeowners fight zoning changes when they perceive they might affect their investment, which often makes up a large part of their savings.
homeowners dominate local development politics in large part because their homes make up such a large proportion of their total wealth that any decline in property values could devastate them. (Or, conversely, cut into huge capital gains, if they are lucky enough to own property in, say, San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.) As a result, they’re extremely wary of any change to their surroundings that might reduce their property values—and zoning gives them the legal ability to stop those changes.
So even to the extent that there’s a consensus about the damage of zoning among policy wonks, part of that consensus is also that zoning is incredibly difficult to change, because the interest local homeowners have in preserving it is so powerful…
When housing decisions are made hyper-locally, the only interests taken into account are those of nearby residents, who may have worries about their property values, the visual “character” of the neighborhood, or even more directly exclusionary concerns about the type of people who will leave near them. It also creates a sort of “prisoner’s dilemma” in which no neighborhood wants to be stuck with “undesirable,” or costly, land uses. But when decisions are made at a broader geographic level, the people who stand to gain from new housing—renters and potential buyers who want more housing options, businesses that might gain more customers, and people thinking about how more density might support the regional transit system—also get to have a voice. Scholars of zoning and segregation have argued that more local fragmentation in decisionmaking is a crucial part of using land use laws to impede integration.
The basic idea the “policy wonks” are proposing is kindergarten simple – when zoning restricts the supply of something, the price of that thing goes up, and some people who would like to have that thing have to do without. So what we need to do is find ways to promote zoning rules that allow residential density to increase, and commercial intensity to increase along with it, without allowing drastic, sudden changes in the character of the neighborhood.