Friday, June 24, 2011

Even More Chinese Ghost Cities

Business Insider is back with an even longer tour of empty cities in China:

China plans to build 20 cities a year for the next 20 years. The unacknowledged problem is finding buyers for those hundreds of millions of new homes.

Last year we published images of ghost cities based on a report from Forensic Asia Limited. This week we asked analyst Gillem Tulloch what has happened in the past six months.

"China built more of them," Tulloch said. "China consumes more steel, iron ore and cement per capita than any industrial nation in history. It's all going to railways that will never make money, roads that no one drives on and cities that no one lives in."

"It's like walking into a forest of skyscrapers, but they're all empty," he said of Chenggong.
Tulloch described a recent visit to a fishing village near Hong Kong, where new apartments are selling for up to $80,000. "People there were joking that no one in Denaya could afford to live there," he said. If these apartments sell at all, it is to speculators.

Read more:

A related story: 18 Facts about China That Will Blow Your Mind. My favorites:

China consumes 53% of the world's cement... and 48% of the world's iron ore... and 47% of the world's coal... and the majority of just about every major commodity.

China's GDP per capita is the 91st-lowest in the world, below Bosnia & Herzegovina.

If he spent his ENTIRE YEARLY INCOME on housing, the average Beijing resident could buy 10 square feet of residential property.

The world's biggest mall is in China... but it has been 99% empty since 2005.

I subscribe to World Architecure News. I can go back into the archives and pick literally any week and find some boondoggles that are being constructed in pursuit of growth. One particular week featured two museums:

The Guangdong Museum is one of four major cultural landmark buildings for the new financial hub in Zhujiang Xincheng (Pearl River New Town) of Guangzhou. Rocco Design Architects Ltd. was announced winner of an international invited competition in May 2004 and was subsequently appointed as design architect of the project. The five-storey museum has a total floor area of approximately 67,000 sq m.

Chinese artistry, and here the practice has deliberately referenced the difference between Western and Chinese painting, the latter of which was the grounding force behind this abstract cultural complex. Steven Holl Architects relates that the design: “explores the Parallel Perspective of Chinese space. Perspective is the fundamental historic difference between Western and Chinese painting. After the 13th Century Western painting developed vanishing points in fixed perspective.

How about the recently completed Guangzhou Opera House (I wonder how many people in China attend the opera?):

See how easy that is? And those are just from this year so far. Let's not omit the granddaddy of them all - a 2.3 million square foot hotel in Beijing with a 107,000 square foot indoor rainforest!!!


Interesting article summing up Prefab in the Times:

Squeezing Costs, Builders Take New Look at Prefab

Often the word prefab conjures images of inexpensive and poorly built structures like trailer homes. But proponents of prefab, many of whom shudder at the moniker, say that modular design done well is anything but cheaply built. A modularly constructed building uses the same materials as a traditional one. But because it is made in a factory, workers are not battling the elements and can construct it more soundly and with less waste, proponents say.

“The quality of what you can assemble is infinitely higher on a factory floor,” said the hotelier André Balazs, who considered building a luxury modular hotel atop the High Line in Manhattan, but abandoned the idea when he found it too costly in New York.

Nearly all contemporary buildings rely on some element of prefabrication, with facades largely constructed off-site and windows and doors standardized. Even “bathroom pods,” bathrooms built and assembled off-site, are becoming increasingly common. But the idea of building most of the building in a factory and setting it atop a foundation simply has not taken off.

Developers also benefit from time savings. Speed aside, builders have the ability to create a production schedule that minimizes downtime. In traditional construction, a contractor is overseeing work by various subcontractors who work for separate entities and on their own schedules. Weather can cause delays and so can any number of unforeseen factors like waits for zoning approvals. But in a factory, all the various tradesmen from the plumbers to the carpenters to the electricians work for the factory, and all the pieces come together simultaneously. 

Prefabricated construction has been poised to take off for a while now. It's logical - fabricating something in a factory gives you a lot more control over construction quality and methods than building things on site. If you've ever been to a job site, you know how messy and slipshod everything looks. Prefab has been especially put forward as a way to bring affordable modernist homes to the general public. Yet, such homes are exceedingly rare. Why?

Well, one of the advantages of mass-production is a reduction in cost. Yet prefab houses actually cost more than site-built. I thin the reasons for this are straightforward. Unlike, say, a piece of electronics that everyone can buy, only a tiny amount of people can afford to build a house in any given year. So you're already dealing with a vanishingly small pool of consumers. On top of that, there is a vast amount of prefab options. When I go to Target to buy a piece of electronics, there are a few brands and maybe a dozen models. So of that small sliver of people who can afford to build a house, odds are that with all the manufacturers and designers out there in the market, each designer has the potential to sell maybe a dozen or so homes. That's not nearly enough for any economies of scale. Plus, homes last for decades, so once it is sold, there are no repeat customers. You are competing against what you've already sold, and unlike electronics manufacturers, you cannot count on planned obsolescence.

Now my solution is this - if there were one prefab company that sold all the prefab houses in America, it might have a chance at selling enough houses to make it competitive with site-built. That does not preclude multiple designers - this company would just be a clearinghouse of sorts for architects to sell their work. It would assemble all the designs of a variety of architects, allowing it to take advantage of economies of scale. It would be similar to Etsy , but rather than a single source for artists to sell their work, it would be a single source for architects to sell their designs for construction.

Of course, this would require a fairly large degree of cooperation among architects and designers with such a company. But the advantages would be many - there would be a single source for people to go to get a prefab house, it would be cheaper, there would still be a variety of designers. As long as there are multiple competing companies, however, it is a guarantee that none of them will be able to do enough volume to realize the advantages and make a profit.

Prefab Houses at Inhabitat

Prefab houses at Jetson Green

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Appropriate Solutions

A few days ago I linked to an op-ed piece in The New York Times where the author lamented that the redevelopment efforts undertaken by the United States in Afghanistan is eschewing appropriate technology and regional building methods in favor of creating an industrialized economy based upon extraction of natural resources. While low-tech solutions could enrich the lives of rural Afghans, instead they are left with nothing but grudges as pipelines are built around them, and highways are constructed through tribal lands so that international corporations can plunder them. Clealry this will not turn out well.

It's not for lack of knowledge. Here is a great site about low-tech and appropriate technology solutions to farming: Tillers International. Just imagine if these techniques were taught to Afghan villagers. Some examples:

Fodder choppers
Grasses and crop residues being brought to dairy cows need to be chopped to improve palatability and intake. A chopper greatly reduces the time it takes to prepare these feeds compared to chopping with a machete. Tillers has developed two primary types of choppers, a cutting box with a hand-operated levered blade and a more complex rotary operated blade with an automatic feeder.

Martin ditcher
Used to build road beds or make run-off ditches, simple tools like the Martin ditcher can allow people to improve their local infrastructure.

Slip scraper
A slip scraper can be used to level building sites, dig pit silos or dig irrigation and run-off ditches.

Four ox evener
An evener improves the ability of multiple teams of oxen to work together. This allows the smaller, local oxen to do heavier work. The evener allows the driver to monitor how evenly the two teams are pulling, maxmizing their power.

Of course, these would have to be modified for local conditions - soil types, precipitation, draft animals (I'm assuming yak and water buffalo in Afghanistan). I'm guessing Halliburton, are not beating down the door of Tillers International, however.

As for local architecure, they would be do well to study the works of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. Fathy, although trained in the Western tradition, began studying the traditional indiginous architecture of the Middle East - materials, techniques, etc., with an eye to using these to enhance the lives of those unable to afford Western architectural methods. I was reminded of this thanks to this wonderful post on No-Tech Magazine: Innovation & Tradition: The Complete Works of Hassan Fathy Online. Fathy's techniques and ideas, originally implemented amoung the poor in Egypt would go a long way toward inproving the lives of the rural poor in Afghanistan. I do not know much about Afghan architecture, but I do know they are an ancient land with a rich architecural tradition. Here's Fathy quoted the article:

"Sixty years of experience have shown me that industrialization and mechanization of the building trade have caused vast changes in building methods with varying applications in different parts of the world. Constant upheaval results when industrially developed societies weaken the craft-developed cultures through increased communications. As they interact, mutations create societal and ecological imbalance and economic inequities which are documented to be increasing in type and number. Profoundly affected is the mass of the population, which is pressured to consume industrially produced goods. The result is cultural, psychological, moral, and material havoc."

"Yet it is this population that has an intimate knowledge of how to live in harmony with the local environment. Thousands of years of accumulated expertise has led to the development of economic building methods using locally available materials, climatization using energy derived from the local natural environment, and an arrangement of living and working spaces in consonance with their social requirements. This has been accomplished within the context of an architecture that has reached a very high degree of artistic expression."
As Kris De Decker notes:

Fathy demonstrated how elements from vernacular Arab urban architecture, such as the malkaf (wind catch), shukshaykha (lantern dome) and mashrabiya (wooden lattice screen), could be combined with the mud-brick construction traditionally practiced in Nubia in Upper Egypt to form a distinctive, environmentally and socially conscious building style that linked the use of appropriate technologies with co-operative construction techniques and the guiding thread of tradition.

Sound like just what Afghanistan needs right now, doesn't it? Afghanistan could become the shining example of a low-tech agricultural-based society with a high standard of living for the age of Peak Oil. Too bad our leaders are more interested in plunder.

Her's a terrific blog post on architecure and appropriate technology.

Hedre's Wikipedia on windcatchers.

A windcatcher and qanat used for cooling.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Mexico The Future?

I had intended to write a piece about Mexico's drug war entitled "Is Mexico the Future?", but it seems someone at the Guardian has beaten me to it:

Mexico's war is inextricable from everyday life. In Ciudad Juarez, the most murderous city in the world, street markets and malls remain open; Sarah Brightman sang a concert there recently. When I was back there last month, people had reappeared at night to eat dinner and socialise, out of devil-may-care recklessness and exhaustion with years of self-imposed curfew. Before, there had been an eerie quiet at night, now there is an even eerier semblance of normality – punctuated by gunfire.

On the surface, the combatants have the veneer of a cause: control of smuggling routes into the US. But even if this were the full explanation, the cause of drugs places Mexico's war firmly in our new postideological, postmoral, postpolitical world. The only causes are profits from the chemicals that get America and Europe high.

Mexico's war does not only belong to the postpolitical, postmoral world. It belongs to the world of belligerent hyper-materialism, in which the only ideology left – which the leaders of "legitimate" politics, business and banking preach by example – is greed. A very brave man called Mario Trevino lives in the city of Reynosa, which is in the grip of the Gulf cartel. He said of the killers and cartels: "They are revolting people who do what they do because they cannot be seen to wear the same label T-shirt as they wore last year, they must wear another brand, and more expensive." It can't be that banal, I objected, but he pleaded with me not to underestimate these considerations. The thing that eally makes Mexico's war a different war, and of our time, is that it is about, in the end, nothing.
Ciudad Juarez is all our futures. This is the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad

The author sees this a classic war of future capitalism, because the only goal is profit. He further sees similarities between the cartels' tactics and and corporations' tactical methods, including total disregard for the welfare of either employees or the wider social fabric.

I think he's right to point to the nihilistic philosophies that animate our time - the Ayn Rand libertarian credo of "every man for himself", and the crass materialism of modern economics which sees wealth as the only measure of well-being. As pat of their calculus, economists believe there is no such thing as society; rather we are merely atomized individuals seeking to maximize our own personal gain, nothing more. Rand herself would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the kind of ruthless capitalism that such cartels represent, if this excerpt from an excellent article about her in Slate is any guide:

...Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented "the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should." She called him "a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy," shimmering with "immense, explicit egotism." Rand had only one regret: "A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough."
How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon by Johann Hari (a must read).

Not much difference between Rand's Hickman and the drug assassins, is there? Far from being an aberration, Mexico's drug war is Rand's idealized capitalism, a war of all against all, where government is powerless to intervene on behalf of the 'weak' and only the strong survive. This has become the new guiding ideology for the elites. The era of big government is over, i.e. all you are entitled to is what you can claw from the impersonal market.

The author may be more on point than he realizes. In fact, the history of capitalism is full of such examples of brute force being used in economic competition, particularly against workers. In a sense, as capital takes over power from the state, weakening it and leading us into a new form of Feudalism, we may merely be heading back to where capitalism originally was in America:

American history is replete with examples of business groups and individual firms retaining vast armies of military and paramilitary forces for long periods of time. In the nineteenth century many railroads kept private armies. The Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police ran their own Obrigkeitsstaat [authoritarian state] for decades. General Motors maintained the Black Legion; Ford sported a veritable Freikorps recruited by the notorious Henry Bennett; and any number of detective agencies, goon squads, “special consultants,” and wireta!ppers have also been active. . . . Force on such a scale potentially menaces competitors, buyers, and suppliers almost as much as it does workers.
Earth to Libertarians: Private Parties Have Coercive Power Too!

The above article goes on to point out that coercion is not always as brutal as the above examples, but exists nevertheless:

Some modern versions of coercion don’t involve actual harm, but credible threats. For instance, I know three different lawyers who have been suing banks who have gotten ugly warnings (and some follow-up action, like break ins and messages specifying where children were on specific days; one is spending $20,000 a month on bodyguards).

And pressure can be financial rather than physical. Recall the HB Gary plans against Glenn Greenwald. They clearly planned to destroy his professional reputation (not that that would be as easy as they thought) so he would have to choose “career over cause”. But in the US, where jobs are hard to come by and safety nets are frayed to non-existant, someone over 35 and/or with kids who is not independently wealthy or is self employed with a very solid franchise is economically vulnerable.

However, I see it as a quintessential capitalist war for an entirely different reason than the author. As governments everywhere adopt the gospel of 'austerity' due to bad debts, the vacuum will be filled by whatever institutions have the requisite money and organization, whether they are '"legal" or not (and they probably will not be). Violent crime is already surging in Athens. The amount of unemployed and unemployable people keeps piling up, and it's obvious that national governments will simply continue to ignore the problem as they have been, especially in the United States, where the ruling class benefits from high unemployment. If this continues, black market activities will be the only means for people to support themselves. The drug cartels do not discriminate based on your graduate degree, gaps in your resume, or your credit score. As people become useless to the ruling class as either workers or consumers, they become increasingly desperate. Dmitry Orlov made a similar point - he saw drug cartels as the natural successor to broken and bankrupt civic institutions. A strong government and the rule of law are intertwined; you cannot "drown government in a bathtub" and expect it to enforce laws. A similar point is made here:

Another reason it is the template for future wars is because it is stateless. As states fall apart due to bankruptcy, "wars" will be increasingly fought by non-state actors. In the past, this was assumed to be terrorists, but drug cartels fall into this category as well. Finally it takes place among a background of seeming normalcy. The combatants are civilians who go about their lives not knowing when or where violence will strike. These will all be features of the conflicts of the future. And they will be bloody - more people have died in this internal conflict within Mexico and the U.S. (34,612 and counting), then in some true 'hot' wars between nation-states.

This also ties into to the lawlessness at every level of the global economy. The rule of law no longer seems to apply to the elites. The bankers who wrecked the global economy with illegal scams and grifts go free, keep their ill-gotten gains, get bail-outs, and if the Republicans have their way, will get a nice tax cut as a cherry on the sundae. Even now, corporations are demanding a reduction in taxes down to five percent for repatriating all the funds they have hidden offshore. I wonder what would happen if you or I tried that - look the other way on all the hidden money I laundered, or else. Who's really in charge here? Here's economist Jeffrey Sachs:

Hardly a day passes without a new story of malfeasance. Every Wall Street firm has paid significant fines during the past decade for phony accounting, insider trading, securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, or outright embezzlement by CEOs. A massive insider-trading ring is currently on trial in New York, and has implicated some leading financial-industry figures. And it follows a series of fines paid by America’s biggest investment banks to settle charges of various securities violations.

There is, however, scant accountability. Two years after the biggest financial crisis in history, which was fueled by unscrupulous behavior by the biggest banks on Wall Street, not a single financial leader has faced jail. When companies are fined for malfeasance, their shareholders, not their CEOs and managers, pay the price. The fines are always a tiny fraction of the ill-gotten gains, implying to Wall Street that corrupt practices have a solid rate of return. Even today, the banking lobby runs roughshod over regulators and politicians.

Corruption pays in American politics as well. The current governor of Florida, Rick Scott, was CEO of a major health-care company known as Columbia/HCA. The company was charged with defrauding the United States government by overbilling for reimbursement, and eventually pled guilty to 14 felonies, paying a fine of $1.7 billion.

The FBI’s investigation forced Scott out of his job. But, a decade after the company’s guilty pleas, Scott is back, this time as a “free-market” Republican politician.

When Barack Obama wanted somebody to help with the bailout of the US automobile industry, he turned to a Wall Street “fixer,” Steven Rattner, even though Obama knew that Rattner was under investigation for giving kickbacks to government officials. After Rattner finished his work at the White House, he settled the case with a fine of a few million dollars.

But why stop at governors or presidential advisers? Former Vice President Dick Cheney came to the White House after serving as CEO of Halliburton. During his tenure at Halliburton, the firm engaged in illegal bribery of Nigerian officials to enable the company to win access to that country’s oil fields – access worth billions of dollars. When Nigeria’s government charged Halliburton with bribery, the company settled the case out of court, paying a fine of $35 million. Of course, there were no consequences whatsoever for Cheney. The news barely made a ripple in the US media.

Impunity is widespread – indeed, most corporate crimes go un-noticed. The few that are noticed typically end with a slap on the wrist, with the company – meaning its shareholders – picking up a modest fine. The real culprits at the top of these companies rarely need to worry. Even when firms pay mega-fines, their CEOs remain. The shareholders are so dispersed and powerless that they exercise little control over the management.
The Global Economy's Corporate Crime Wave by Jeffrey Sachs

Lest you think these shenanigans are confined to paper-shuffling on Wall Street, consider this example reported by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Oil trading firm Arcadia Petroleum, sued by regulators last week for allegedly manipulating U.S. oil prices, used hardball tactics in Yemen to buy the country's oil exports at below market prices, until authorities revamped their sales process to break the trading house's "long-standing monopoly", according to a confidential State Department cable

The September 2009 cable says that an internal government shift in control over the country's valuable oil exports, meant to open up oil bidding to more international buyers, threatened Arcadia's sway over Yemen's exports.

It also put at risk an alliance between Arcadia and its "local agent" in Yemen, tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar, the cable says. Arcadia, in an interview, denied the allegations in the cable, saying it did not employ al-Ahmar as an agent, although it did work with some of his companies in the oil trading business. The company said it always paid official market prices for Yemen's export oil.

What were some of those hardball tactics?

But the State Department cable, citing a highly-ranked government official, says al-Ahmar and Arcadia took this further and "scared away potentially more competitive bidders by threatening to kidnap their representatives."

On Wednesday, Reuters contacted the official cited in the cable, who repeated the allegation that Arcadia made kidnapping threats in Yemen. Neither the official nor the cable provided specific details of the alleged threats.

Exclusive: Arcadia may have rigged Yemen exports: cable

The article Naked Capitalism illustrates just how widespread violence is in "capitalist" Russia:

Let’s consider another example. A friend of mine opened the Dun & Bradstreet office in Moscow in the 1990s. That meant selling information in a country which was and is not big on transparency, making the initiative a risky proposition. She says she is the only person ever to have sued a Russian oil company, win in court, collect the money, and live to tell the tale. In her day in Russia, it cost $5000 to have someone killed, which was actually a lot in local terms. It was expensive because you had to murder three people to cover your tracks properly: the target, the assassin, and the person who made the arrangement to hire the killer. The last person was costly to eliminate, they were usually much higher caliber and hence more wary than the assassins.

Note there was no state power in this little murder ring: all were private contractors. Indeed, the sort of weak state that libertarians celebrate typically makes for fertile breeding grounds for all sorts of private goon squads stepping into a power vacuum. And thuggery works, witness the rarity of my friend’s evident insanity in pursuing an oil company deadbeat.

As one commenter to the original article put it:

...the more you deregulate the activities of capitalism, as in the Friedmanite doctrine, the more they come to resemble what we commonly define as "criminal" ways of organizing activity. Monopoly corporations, for example, start to use tactics against small competitors that resemble the intimidations of mafia pushers. A lack of consumer protection leads to fraudulent advertising and more defective and inferior products, which begin to resemble what is always being traded on the "black" market (e.g. illegal DVDs, copy-brands, etc.)

With enough deregulation, the boundary between the "free market" and the "black market" starts to fade. That seems to be one of the central premises of this article...

I think the above examples illustrate that point nicely. Mexico truly is a libertarian paradise. Everything is determined by open monetary exchanges, including the justice system - police expect bribes, and judges are bought and sold (*cough* Gabelman, Prosser *cough*). Social services are poor to nonexistent. Public schools are of low quality, and those who can afford to send their children to private schools, do so. Regulations are few and enforcement can be eliminated with bribes. There is endemic poverty and unemployment. Wages are low and unions nonexistent. Society is heavily class-stratified. Infrastructure is marginal, and preventable diseases common. Taxes are minimal, especially on the wealthy. Life expectancy is short, and health care is fee-for-service. Oh, and don't forget, the world's richest man lives there. As I said, libertarian paradise. Clearly this is the direction we are heading in the United States as workers are laid off and the social safety net is shredded. Can we not expect similar battles on our streets?

I think its important to emphasize that this is not just about drug prohibition, as so many other commentators said. It is about people being excluded from the legitimate avenues of economic activity through poverty and joblessness. If it were not drugs, some other black market would spring up - guns, copper wiring, explosives, etc. As more and more people become superfluous to globalized corporate capitalism, as governments become bankrupt and social safety nets are eliminated, and as the rule of law falls before the corruption of the money system, the Mexican drug war is truly a sign of things to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011


There's a new book out about Tomatoes - specifically how they are grown and harvested to satisfy the demand of people who expect tomatoes year-round, especially the fast-food giants. It's a sad tale about the hidden costs of our "cheap and plentiful" food supply. Boing Boing reports you can read excepts here. From the book:

From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state's tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete.
Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?
The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We're talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.
Boing Boing: The Unbearable Sadness of Winter Tomatoes

Mark Bittman devoted a column to the book, highlighting especially the awful conditions endured by the workers, who work under a literal system of slavery!

The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.
Most of the big purchasers, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, want firm, “slicing” tomatoes, because their destination is a burger or a sandwich, so the tomatoes are picked at what is called “mature green,” which isn’t mature at all but bordering on it. Tomatoes with any color other than green are too ripe to ship, and left to rot; I’ve posted a couple of pictures I took of those on my blog. The green tomatoes are gassed — “de-greened” is the chosen euphemism — to “ripen” them; the plants themselves are often killed with an herbicide to hasten their demise and get ready for the next crop.

The process, not to put too fine a point on it, is awful, but the demand is there — Florida ships about a billion pounds of tomatoes a year — and the main question has not been quality but fairness to the workers. (Estabrook profiles a successful Florida tomato farmer who’s gone organic, but since it’s inarguable that this is a locale and climate that’s hostile to tomatoes in the first place, that can’t be easy. Here’s the reality: you’re not going to get a billion pounds of good tomatoes out of Florida. Ever.)
Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid.
Mark Bittman: The True Cost of Tomatoes

Things aren't much better in Europe:

The exploitation of tens of thousands of migrants used to grow salad vegetables for British supermarkets has been uncovered by a Guardian investigation into the €2bn-a-year (£1.6bn) hothouse industry in southern Spain.

Charities working with illegal workers during this year's harvest claim the abuses meet the UN's official definition of modern-day slavery, with some workers having their pay withheld for complaining. Conditions appear to have deteriorated further as the collapse of the Spanish property boom has driven thousands of migrants from construction to horticulture to look for work.

The Guardian's findings include:

• Migrant workers from Africa living in shacks made of old boxes and plastic sheeting, without sanitation or access to drinking water.

• Wages that are routinely less than half the legal minimum wage.

• Workers without papers being told they will be reported to the police if they complain.

• Allegations of segregation enforced by police harassment when African workers stray outside the hothouse areas into tourist areas.

The situation of migrants working in the tomato, pepper, cucumber and courgette farms of Almeria is so desperate that the Red Cross has been handing out free food to thousands of them. Its local co-ordinator described conditions as "inhuman". Anti-Slavery International said the Guardian's evidence was "deeply disturbing", and raised the "spectre of de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe".

Nor is it sustainable:

The area has become one of the world's largest centres of intensive agriculture, and ecologists say overproduction is exhausting the land.

Intensive irrigation has caused the dry earth to suck in salty sea water from the Mediterranean. Salination could ultimately return this region to desert once more.

Manolo Sanchez, a banker who grew up here, spends much of his spare time campaigning - trying to stop the spread of the invernaderos, which are now approaching national parkland:

"I've known this area since I was five years old. Farming here is beyond the capacity of the soil and the water supply," he says.

"There's no limitation on the building of greenhouses, nor planning regulations. We have reached the limit."

Tensions Grow In Spain's Tomato Gardens

No Permaculture for Afghanistan

An impressive article about Afghanistan in today's NYT. If you're wondering why we're not making progress, it could be because it was never about rebuilding the country, improving the lives of the average Afghan, or delivering 'freedom'; it was all about opening markets for 'trade', economic opportunities for corporations and exploiting untapped natural resources:

MANY urban Americans idealize “green living” and “slow food.” But few realize that one of the most promising models for sustainable living is not to be found on organic farms in the United States, but in Afghanistan. A majority of its 30 million citizens still grow and process most of the food they consume. They are the ultimate locavores.
During the 12 months I spent as a State Department political adviser in northern Afghanistan, I was dismayed to see that instead of building on Afghanistan’s traditional, labor-intensive agricultural and construction practices, the United States is using many of its aid dollars to transform this fragile agrarian society into a consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy.

In 2004, the Department of Energy carried out a study of Afghanistan. It revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water.

Rather than focus on those resources, the United States government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build large diesel generators and exploit the country’s oil, gas and coal reserves. The drilling of new oil wells may provide unskilled, poorly paid jobs for some locals, but the bulk of the profits will likely flow overseas or into the pockets of a few warlords and government officials.
As an architect, this part especially interested me:

American taxpayers’ dollars are also being used for energy-inefficient construction projects. During my year in Afghanistan, I sat for hours in meetings with local officials in remote mountain and desert locations, sweating or freezing — depending upon the season — inside concrete and cinder-block schools and police stations built with American aid. These projects are required to adhere to international building codes, which do not permit the construction of traditional earthen structures.

These structures are typically built with cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings. They also last a long time. Some of Afghanistan’s oldest structures, including sections of the defensive wall that once surrounded the 2,000-year-old Silk Road city of Balkh, are made of cob and rammed earth. In England, people are still living in cob houses built before Shakespeare was born.
The author concludes:

Sustainable development in Afghanistan has taken a back seat to “quick wins” that can be reported to Congress as indicators of success: tractors that farmers can’t repair and that require diesel fuel they can’t afford; cheaply built schools; and smooth but wafer-thin asphalt, which will never stand up to Afghanistan’s punishing climate without costly annual maintenance.

If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.
Afghanistan's Last Locavores

If there was ever a place that needed appropriate technology, this is it. But, then again, it was never about improving  the lives of rural Afghans, was it? Building roads and schools, no matter how crummy or unsustainable leads to profits, and that is the real reason for the occupation. It aligns with the most cynical view of Capitalism - that it must fight wars to open markets so that it can continually expand its profits.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why We're Fat

Economix has a fascinating post documenting basically what we've known all along - bad food is cheaper than good food. Put another way, calorie-dense processed food is much cheaper than whole foods like fruits and vegetables. To my mind, this raises an interesting question: If an economic system can not deliver healthy, quality food to the people living under it, which to my mind is the most fundamental need an economic system needs to deliver, can it really be said to be a good system? I mean, unrestrained capitalism has starved half the world while making the other half obese.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Solar Power

Via Treehugger,  a new report states that half of New York City's Peak Power needs could be met with solar:

Solar power has been growing in New York City, but the installed capacity pales in comparison to the city's potential. That's at least according to a new study, illustrated by the map above, that found two-thirds of the city's million-plus rooftops are suitable for solar panels—and collectively could meet half the city's energy demand during peak hours, and 14 percent of the city's total annual use. (And that's accounting for typical weather conditions.)

The data for the map, a collaboration between the City University of New York, the city and the Department of Energy, shows 66.4 percent of the city's buildings have roof space that can accommodate solar panels. Even more impressive: that space could generate up to 5,847 megawatts of energy.

Right now, about 400 solar installations produce a mere 6.5 megawatts, and existing solar power installations nationwide produce little more, relatively speaking: 2,300 megawatts.

If it can be done in New York, it can probably be done anywhere. Of course, peak demand typically occurs during hot summer days due to the demands of air conditioning, meaning these is plenty of sunlight to harvest (although panels are actually more efficient at lower temperatures). Now really, we aren't we covering every square inch of rooftop in the country with solar panels? I get steamed when I see some new crazy idea like solar panels on handbags, integrated wind turbines in buildings or piezoelectric sidewalks. We need to go after the low hanging fruit - simple, proven technologies that can be mass produced right now and integrated into existing structures to provide power. If we can't even do that, all these newfangled fancy ideas are all for naught. We need to ge the basics right. Now if only we can make sure we don't run out of rare earth metals...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not Just Potholes

Teriffic essay on the emotional impact of urban design:

Politicians don’t want to appear frivolous and insensitive to fiscal challenges, so they say “no” to things that make a city fun, like the arts, culture, design, landscaping and events.

Instead they fill potholes, because when people are polled, they typically cite potholes as their chief concern. But filling potholes wins the politicians and cities very little love. There is no emotional capital in return for that investment. At best, people will say that the roads don’t suck quite as bad.

But invest in a little emotional infrastructure like a dog park or a piece of public art that kids can actually play on, and you get love and emotional engagement in spades.

Look at Durham, North Carolina. In early 2011, a group of private citizens, with no official city support, created the “Marry Durham” event which they described as the largest “civic union” in history. On March 19th, 1,600 brides and grooms married not each other, but the city of Durham. Their vows included promises to keep the streets clean and safe, to shop local, to protect their environment, to support their city’s arts and culture, to cherish diversity, and to elect responsible leadership. The event, done entirely by volunteers, raised over $25,000 for local charities.

Yes, we need to pave our streets and fix potholes — but there is more to a city than that. My worry in the current economic/political climate is that we will fixate only on these traditional “essentials,” and in doing so undermine the very thing that is keeping many communities going – the love, affection and loyalty that people have for their places. We need to expand our expectation of “essentials” and include that which speaks to our higher selves, and invest at least a little in beauty, fun and engagement. This does not take lots of money — it takes creativity, imagination, and an awareness of its importance.

When I ask people what they love about their cities, the answers always involve small things that often cost little or no money — a comfortable place to people watch, a favorite street corner, a local dog park, a street festival or outdoor movies in the park.

Why Aren't We Building Emotionally Connected Cities?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Are People Good For, the Sequel.

A couple of months ago, I wrote one of my lengthiest essays entitled, "What Are People Good For", where I discussed the fact that automation is an underlying factor in the jobs crisis, and that economists and politicians are completely ignoring this fact. Well, a recent article in the New York Times confirms everything I wrote, and then some:

Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people.

I want to have as few people touching our products as possible,” said Dan Mishek, managing director of Vista Technologies in Vadnais Heights, Minn. “Everything should be as automated as it can be. We just can’t afford to compete with countries like China on labor costs, especially when workers are getting even more expensive.”

Two years into the recovery, hiring is still painfully slow. The economy is producing as much as it was before the downturn, but with seven million fewer jobs. Since the recovery began, businesses’ spending on employees has grown 2 percent as equipment and software spending has swelled 26 percent, according to the Commerce Department. A capital rebound that sharp and a labor rebound that slow have been recorded only once before — after the 1982 recession.

With equipment prices dropping, and tax incentives to subsidize capital investments, these trends seem likely to continue.

“Firms are just responding to incentives,” said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays Capital. “And capital has gotten much cheaper relative to labor.”

Indeed, equipment and software prices have dipped 2.4 percent since the recovery began, thanks largely to foreign manufacturing. Labor costs, on the other hand, have risen 6.7 percent, according to the Labor Department. The rising compensation costs are driven in large part by costlier health care benefits, so those lucky workers who do have jobs do not exactly feel richer.

Corporate profits, meanwhile, are at record highs, and companies are hoarding cash. Many of the companies that are considering hiring say they are scared off by the uncertain future costs of health care and other benefits. But with the blessings of their accountants, these same companies are snatching up cheap, tax-subsidized tractors, computers and other goods.

Hiring has some hidden costs, as well as the expenses of salary and benefits, Mr. Mishek added.

“I dread the process we have to go through when we want to bring somebody on,” he said. “When we have a job posting these days, we get a flurry of résumés from people who aren’t qualified at all: people with misspellings on their résumés, who have never been in the industry and want a career move from real estate or something. It’s a huge distraction to sort through all those.”

Culling the résumés takes three days. Then he must make time to interview applicants, and spend $150 for each drug test.

Once a worker is hired, that person must complete a federally mandated safety program, which Vista pays an outside contractor a flat fee of $7,000 annually to handle. Finally, Vista’s best employees spend several months training the new hire, reducing their own productivity.

Usually economists cheer on capital spending, and have supported Congress’s tax breaks for capital investment, like bonus depreciation, which lets companies expense the full cost of purchases immediately instead of waiting several years. That is because capital and labor can be complementary: a business that buys a new truck often hires a new driver, too.

You don’t have to train machines,” Mr. Mishek observes

But with the rising costs of hiring, companies like Vista are finding ways to use capital to replace workers whose jobs are relatively routine.

If you’re doing something that can be written down in a programmatic, algorithmic manner, you’re going to be substituted for quickly,” said Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard.

To add insult to injury, much of the equipment used to replace American workers is made by workers abroad, meaning that capital spending is going overseas. Of the four pieces of equipment Vista bought last year, one was made domestically. The others came from Israel, Switzerland and Germany. (all emphasis mine)
Employers Spend on Equipment Rather Than Hiring.

I have to admit, even I was unaware that not only do we turn a blind eye to the replacement of workers with machines, we actually subsidize the process! What's even more ironic about this is that our politicians, both Republican and Democrat, believe that the problem with employment is a supply-side problem, which in English means that there is not enough capital out there for growth. At least, that's what they claim to justify tax cuts and writeoffs to corporations and businesses. But as we see above, businesses and corporations will simply use their tax windfalls to make sure they can make ever more profit with less people by buying new automation equipment. So, in effect, the proposals being put forward will actually end up subsidizing unemployment.

The problem with the economy is structural, and I do not see any way out of it. Even suggestions to stimultate demand by, for example, giving tax cuts to workers as opposed to the super-rich, willl only stimulate demand for products that are created by automation or from overseas. That may boost corporate profits, but I don't see how it will lead to more jobs. In case you forgot the conclusion from WAPGF: There will never be enough jobs for everybody. The "invisible hand" will not fix this, and the problem will only worsen.

Via The Economic Collapse Blog:

So will things get any better soon? Well, there were only about 3 million job openings in the United States during the month of April. Normally there should be about 4.5 million job openings. The economy is slowing down once again. Good jobs are going to become even more rare.

There are millions of other Americans that are "underemployed". All over the United States you will find hard working Americans that are flipping burgers or working in retail stores because that is all they can get right now.

Most temp jobs and most part-time jobs don't pay enough to be able to provide for a family. But there are not nearly enough full-time jobs for everyone.

Sadly, the number of "middle class jobs" is about 10 percent lower than a decade ago. There are simply less tickets to the "good life" than there used to be.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Architect Fail

Thanks to Boing Boing for posting what may be the quintessential symbol of the arrogance and cluelessness of today's architects:

A 105 million dollar courthouse that just opened in Ohio has a glass staircase, making it, um, a potentially revealing exercise for a woman in a dress to walk down the stairs:

Attorney Lori Johnson was startled by the transparent stairs. She worries not only about stares, but also how many cell phones have cameras attached.

"The next thing you know, you're on the internet," Johnson said, according to 10TV. "It sounds like a lawsuit in the making."

While security guards warn women about taking the stairs, it seems most are just hoping people will be mature about the situation.

"They hope people will be mature? That's not a solution," Lynch said to 10TV. "If we had mature people that didn't violate the law, we wouldn't have this building."

Now, such a staircase is only possible with some of the new recent developments in highly-tempered and laminated glass. This stair must have been exceedingly expensive to construct, and almost certainly had to go through some very thorough inspection by a code official to be permitted even as a non-egress stair (which it must be). So not only did such a stair cost a great deal of money for no real reason, but it is a liability to boot! Later the same day, Boing Boing posted this quote from famed industrial designer Dieter Rams:

Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.

Now, you would think this would be drilled into the heads of aspiring architects in school, but you'd be dead wrong. In architecture school, you would be suitably feted for coming up with such a "bold" idea. In architecture school, the stair would be rendered with the latest software and proudly displayed with a blurb explaining how the the stair "embodies the transparency of the legal system," or some such nonsense. Despite what you think, architecture school is nothing more than a complex hazing ritual where students try and outdo one another for the most outrageous conceptual scheme that will never be built in real life, even if were constructable. Given what I know about elite design schools, this does not surprise me in the least. It's just another sign of the decaying of competence all across our society.

And if the glass staircase isn't outrageous enough for you, why not a whole friggin' glass museum!:

Opened on the 18th May this year, the Shanghai Museum of Glass in the Baoshan District is the result of a collaborative effort between architecture experts logon and exhibition interior designer Coordination Asia. Sprawling over a former glass manufacturing site totalling 29,612 sq m, the 5,785 sq m Shanghai Museum of Glass is the first stage in a four-phase plan to complete G+ Glass Theme Park (Glass, Art, Research and Technology Park). The 20 year strategic plan drawn up by logon incorporates a sculpture yard, science park, and business park, with supporting commercial facilities to be completed by 2018.

You can't make this stuff up folks. Just a few posts ago I was contemplating when China would announce a Museum Musuem. It seems nothing is too outrageous to put up in China's pursuit of "growth".

Although the facility has been marketed as a museum, it is in fact a ‘Type Two Museum’. As such, its remote location dictates that the activities and entertainment on offer must be gripping enough to encourage visitors to make the long trip to the site. In response to this, the Shanghai Museum of Glass offers a themed exhibition, hot glass shows, DIY workshops, educational lectures, libraries and interactive activities. logon explains: “It’s sustainable adaptive reuse design and modern feel incorporate old and new ideas making it the first of its kind in China.” (emphasis mine)

Ah, a "Type Two Museum," eh? It all makes sense now! I'm sure it's remote location will have millions of Chinese workers traipsing out after their sixteen-hour days in the factory and paying half a week's salary to watch movies about glass making at the Shanghai Glass Museum. It's all a part of China's glorious new future! And people thought the Cultural Revolution was crazy!

Oh, but that's only the beginning! Check out one of the world's largest retail developments in Zhuhai, China:

This mixed use development in Zhuhai, China contains 360,000 sq m of leasable retail space together with commercial, hotel serviced apartment and residential units totalling 510,000 sq m of accommodation. Shoring of the site is already complete and it is anticipated that the piling of the development will commence later in 2011.

I doubt even the architects are taking this seriously at this point. Hopefully 10 Design cashed their checks after carefully filling in the amount. It seems China is the place where all the ridiculous nonsense dreamed up in architecture schools is finally given free reign. At least they're doing the dignity of not even pretending that this white elephant is 'green'.

The site of the development is unique in this growing city, as it is the meeting point between the grid of the city and the natural topography of the surrounding hill range. The design of the development takes inspiration from this with a dynamic ‘urban super wall’ defining the site’s edge with the urban grid. The super wall is made up of series of giant, stone, steel and LED blocks that are stacked to open and cantilever out across the street.

The LED blocks acts as media and light entry gateways and break out points. These breaks gates within the wall reveal the softer organic, planted terrace building and street forms within like a giant secret garden. The terraces within the heart of the site are sculpted to reflect the flow of pedestrian movement through the site along undulating terraced valleys that open to create external plazas and close to create intimate shaded courtyards.

A 'super wall' of LED lights cantilevered over the street, eh? That should provide a beautiful backdrop for the deserted streets and empty stores. Even average malls in China are already deserted. Countless millions lack inadequate shelter. But hey, growth is growth, right? I'm seriously contemplating starting a side blog just to chronicle all of these Chinese boondoggles. It should be a great archive of folly after the bubble bursts.

In case you forgot, here is where I posted about the China Comics and Animation museum:

Hangzhou urban planning bureau has announced MVRDV winner of the international design competition for the China Comic and Animation Museum (CCAM) in Hangzhou, China. MVRDV won with a design referring to the speech balloon: a series of eight speech balloon shaped volumes create an internally complex museum experience of 32,000 sq m in total. Part of the project is also a series of parks on islands, a public plaza and a 13,000 sq m expo centre. Construction start is envisioned for 2012, the total budget is €92m.

There is a pretty glaring innacuracy in the renderings here, however. The architects are showing people in their renderings. Obviously the actual museum is not intended to be ever used by people, and most likely will never host a single person. It's just a way to ensure jobs and economic growth. The mall rendering above with five or so people walking around is more accurate, as is the empty glass museum. Hopefully the architects will correct this.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


GURGAON, India — In this city that barely existed two decades ago, there are 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses and luxury shops selling Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs shimmer in automobile showrooms. Apartment towers are sprouting like concrete weeds, and a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City houses many of the world’s most respected corporations.

Gurgaon, located about 15 miles south of the national capital, New Delhi, would seem to have everything, except consider what it does not have: a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation. Garbage is still regularly tossed in empty lots by the side of the road.

With its shiny buildings and galloping economy, Gurgaon is often portrayed as a symbol of a rising “new” India, yet it also represents a riddle at the heart of India’s rapid growth: how can a new city become an international economic engine without basic public services? How can a huge country flirt with double-digit growth despite widespread corruption, inefficiency and governmental dysfunction?

In India, Dynamism Wrestles with Dysfunction

Energy poverty is defined as having little or no access to electricity and relying on fossil fuels for daily activities, such as cooking and lighting. When most people think poverty, they think of malnutrition, world hunger, lack of access to clean water, and an array of other social problems involving poverty, but usually not involving energy. Rural villagers who suffer from energy poverty are actually taking the biggest hit of all forms of poverty. The number one killer of children under the age of five is pneumonia. It's not water-borne diseases, AIDS, or any other seemingly obvious reason. Millions of children are dying every year from the basic necessity of light--every 20 seconds to be exact.

Using kerosene lamps for lighting and cooking with cow dung release toxic emissions that are directly linked to eye infections, lower respiration infections, and lung cancer. Inhaling the emissions of a kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes in a single day, which can probably explain why two-thirds of lung cancer victims that are actually non-smokers. A single kerosene lamp emits one ton of carbon dioxide over the course of five years (or the equivalent from driving your car from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington); and in total, all kerosene lamps combined release 144 million tons of carbon emissions into atmosphere each year.

Energy Poverty: India's Best-Kept Secret

Land is life. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the Third World and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy. As the resource demands of globalisation increase, land has emerged as a key source of conflict. In India, 65 per cent of people are dependent on land. At the same time a global economy, driven by speculative finance and limitless consumerism, wants the land for mining and for industry, for towns, highways, and biofuel plantations. The speculative economy of global finance is hundreds of times larger than the value of real goods and services produced in the world.

Financial capital is hungry for investments and returns on investments. It must commodify everything on the planet - land and water, plants and genes, microbes and mammals. The commodification of land is fuelling the corporate land grab in India, both through the creation of Special Economic Zones and through foreign direct investment in real estate.

Land, for most people in the world, is Terra Madre, Mother Earth, Bhoomi, Dharti Ma. The land is people's identity; it is the ground of culture and economy. The bond with the land is a bond with Bhoomi, our Earth; 75 per cent of the people in the Third World live on the land and are supported by the land. The Earth is the biggest employer on the planet: 75 per cent of the wealth of the people of the global south is in land.

Colonisation was based on the violent takeover of land. And now, globalisation as recolonisation is leading to a massive land grab in India, in Africa, in Latin America. Land is being grabbed for speculative investment, for speculative urban sprawl, for mines and factories, for highways and expressways. Land is being grabbed from farmers after trapping them in debt and pushing them to suicide.

The Great Land Grab: India's War on Farmers


In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts.

It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

Foreign firms farm the land to consolidate their hold over global food markets, the report said.

They also use land to "make room" for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers.

"This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism," the report said.

The Oakland Institute said it released its findings after studying land deals in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mozambique.

It said hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa - an area the size of France.

"The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world's food supply," the report said.

Hedge funds 'grabbing land' in Africa

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter has quickly become one of my favorite writers on architectural sustainability. His writing (most of it on the blog Treehugger) has greatly influenced my thinking about what green architecture and urbanisrm really is. I had bookmarked many of his posts intending to write a sort of manifesto of my own, summarizing a lot of his key points and adding my own thoughts.

Lloyd writes intellligently about how architecture has become obsessed with adding new gagets onto buildings - techno-fixes that are not really ideal solutions. Looking at how we designed building and cities before we had the seeming infinite and abundant energy we have today is one place to start. Another is to realize that conservation is key, and more of anything we don't need is probably a bad idea at this point.

I see that Lloyd has a post on Treehugger today summarizing his major thoughts over the years. So this is an excellent introduction to his philosophy of what sustainable building and towns really mean. Here is the post:

Heritage is Green: Lessons From the Conservancy

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why Cities are the Future 1

Green City, Clean Waters Promo from GreenTreks Network on Vimeo.

What's interesting to me is how cities are picking up the pieces as our national government drops the ball. This fits in nicely with the article from last week about how Chicago is taking drastic and concrete steps to prepare the city's infrastructure for global warming. Meanwhile, conservative politicians in the pockets of big oil and major polluters deny there is any such thing happening.

It ties in to my thesis, that cities will be the only functional level of government in the future, particularly in the US, as national governments are defunded by capital which is borderless and can flow anywhere, and as politicians are corrupted by the legalized bribery of our election "system." City planners and technocrats are able to implement their visions because unlike the national level, local politicians at the city level are less likely to be in the pockets of big energy and major corporations. While local businesses may have some sway in city government, all the lobbyists are in Washington D.C. (some 300 per legislator, I think).

Relatively free from that level of corruption and with problems immediately nearby and unable to be ignored (unlike Washington DC, which may as well be on another planet), city governments are implementing solution, whether it's the radical shrinkage of Detroit, global warming preparations in Chicago, or the above plans in Philadelphia. And it's not confined to the United States. Check out these scenes from the formerly infamous "drug capital" of Medellin, Columbia:

While it may not be quite as comprehensive as Philadelphia, or as radical, much closer to home is the following proposal:

One five-block stretch of a south-side street could be transformed into a "green street" and become an urban laboratory for storm-water management practices, under a design proposal from three Marquette University engineering students.

S. 6th St., stretching from Bolivar Ave. south to Armour Ave., would be reconstructed so it could hold rain where it falls and use it in growing trees and flowers and replenishing groundwater.

Paved roads traditionally send rainwater into storm sewers that discharge to creeks, adding to downstream flooding, said Sean Foltz, associate director of the clean water program for American Rivers, a national conservation organization.

A 1-inch rainfall on this section of S. 6th St. would yield 116,000 gallons of storm water, Foltz said. The students' design, incorporating such simple steps as planters for shrubs and flowers between the road and sidewalk, or bioswales that are specially constructed ditches designed to absorb water rather than drain it away, has a much greater capacity for water retention, said Foltz, who acted as a mentor for the students.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Esquire woman we love - Daisy Lowe from esquireuk on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Catabolic Collapse 2

When it's completed this fall, Riverside's Hillcrest High School will be a high-tech academic hub with wireless Internet, a robotics lab, digital smart boards in every classroom and a first-rate performance hall worthy of any "Glee" hopeful.

But no students.

Sapped by state budget cuts, the Alvord Unified School District doesn't have the money to turn on the lights or hire staff for the $105-million campus.,0,1584339.story

A Vision of an Oasis Beneath the Sprawl

Look, they say, at the odd bend in the six-lane freeway, the Viaducto Miguel Alemán; or on the side streets, at the thicket of especially large trees. Better yet, walk the median, stare down the sewer grates and glimpse the cause: the Río Piedad, or Pity River.

To most urban eyes, it is just a hidden canal of trash and feces, paved over since 1952. But to these three, among others, it is a symbol of history lost, and perhaps regained. Ignore the cough, cough of exhaust, the stink and the cost, they shout over the traffic — think bliss.

“Imagine kids singing, playing in the water and dancing,” said Delfín Montañana, 27, a biologist who works with Mr. Cattan’s firm, Taller 13 Regenerative Architecture. “This is the biggest opportunity the city has to create a real public space.”

Mr. Cattan has a more technical phrase for their plans: “transformational infrastructure.” A local leader in green building — a whirl of energy armed with Apple technology — he sees a revival of the Río Piedad as the first step in creating a rehabilitated city, glistening with the water that defined this capital before the Spaniards arrived.

The proposal he submitted to city planners in March is clearly ambitious. It would restore at least three rivers, replacing busy roads with a ring of water and parks around the city center. A few lanes for cars would be allowed on the outer edges, but walking, bicycling and mass transit would take precedence. There would be fish and birds living in the river, and driving across to the urban core would mean paying a congestion tax.

Empty Cities

Around the world, millions upon millions of people live without adequate shelter. Many are homeless and sleep on the streets at night. Some even die of exposure. Millions more live in substandard housing, including in the United States. Many of these homes are dangerous fire hazards, and lack even basic utilities. Not long ago, I read Mike Davis' book, Planet of Slums.

Meanwhile, thanks to the housing bubble, entire cities sit empty and abandoned. Yes, Capitalism surely is the best economic system we can possibly creeate:

These amazing satellite images show sprawling cities built in remote parts of China that have been left completely abandoned, sometimes years after their construction.

Elaborate public buildings and open spaces are completely unused, with the exception of a few government vehicles near communist authority offices.

Some estimates put the number of empty homes at as many as 64 million, with up to 20 new cities being built every year in the country's vast swathes of free land.

The photographs have emerged as a Chinese government think tank warns that the country's real estate bubble is getting worse, with property prices in major cities overvalued by as much as 70 per cent.

Meanwhile In Spain:

The collapse of Spain's booming housing market has left near-empty or abandoned residential development across the country.

Each failed development represents a loss for the banking sector, which admits to $240 billion of problematic exposure and is probably exposed to more. As home prices keep falling and unemployment soars, banks will face further writedowns.

Giant ghost towns like Valdeluz and Sesena have been profiled in the New York Times and the Guardian.

Meanwhile, back in China, ridiculous projects are being built by the government, just to stimulate growth. Perhaps the most ridiculous example yet crossed my desk last week, and that's saying a lot. The Hangzhou Urban Planning Bureau (i.e. government officials needing to meet the 'growth' targets by the central govenment in Beijing) has announced the China Comic and Animation Museum. I'm sure the need for this building was overwhelming. This ridculous monstrosity is 32,00 square meteres shaped like eight speech balloons (!!!):

The 32,000 sq m is divided into eight volumes which are interconnected, allowing for a circular visit of the entire program. Services such as the lobby, education centre, three theatres/cinemas with in total 1,111 seats and a comic book library occupy each their own balloon. If two balloons touch in the interior a large opening allows access and views in between the volumes. The balloon shape allows for supple exhibitions, the permanent collection is presented in a chronological spiral whereas the temporary exhibition hall offers total flexibility.

Seriously, I think they are literally running out of themes to build museums too. I can't wait for the Pudong Museum Museum - a museum dedicated to museums. What about the Harbin noodle museum shaped like a bowl of noodles (note: this would not surprise me in the slightest). Can there be a more ridiculous indictment for our growth-for-the-sake-of growth capitalist economy than this?

Yep, billions of people in developing countries lack adequate shelter, entire cities lay abandoned in Europe and China, thirty percent of Detroit is being bulldozed, and the world's architects are fixating on building ridiculous white elephants in China and mile-high skyscrapers in Dubai. You'd never suspect the world is running out of food, water and fossil fuels would you?