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Gene Structure of Fruit Fly Brains Studied

OXFORD, England, March 23 (UPI) — U.K. researchers say they have identified the gene determining the structure of the male and female body in the fruit fly, as well as sex-specific behaviors.

The scientists from the University of Glasgow and Oxford University said the finding suggests the brains of males and females, and how they use them, might be far more different then previously thought, at least in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

The scientists led by Stephen Goodwin at Oxford said they discovered a gene known as “doublesex,” which determines the shape and structure of the male and female body in the fruit fly, also sculpts the architecture of the brain and nervous system, resulting in sex-specific behaviors.

“The dogma was that (the doublesex gene) made fruit flies look the way they did and fruitless made them behave the way they did,” said Goodwin. “We now know that this is not true; doublesex and fruitless act together to form the neuronal networks — the wiring — for sexual behavior.”

The findings, the scientists said, provide insight into how male and female nervous systems might be established and how that may coordinate the sex-specific physiology needed to create the complete, integrated adult sexual state.

The study is reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

Posted in Architecture, Other0 Comments

Hurdles to New Climate Change Pact Proposed by China and United States

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) — Money and politics remain big obstacles to setting firm emission targets for a legally binding treaty to replace the Kyoto agreement, U.S. authorities said.

Emission targets proposed by China and the United States — the world’s two biggest greenhouse-gas emitters — have boosted prospects for a deal at the summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, next month, negotiators said.

Wealthier countries, however, remain likely to balk at giving money to poorer countries to help curb climate change, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

Some members of the U.S. Congress also have said they cannot endorse an international treaty unless there are ways to assess the emission commitments of China and other countries who plan efficiency targets rather than absolute cuts, the Post reported.

Even under a best-cast scenario, the summit in Copenhagen is not going to solve the problem of climate change, said Keya Chatterjee of the World Wildlife Fund.

“But it is a deal that’s going to create a foundation and an international architecture for resolving this issue over time,” Chatterjee said.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Architecture, Global Warming & Climate Change, Other0 Comments

Scientists Study Finds Unique Wasp Brain Abilities

SEATTLE, Oct. 15 (UPI) — U.S. scientists studying the tiny brain of tropical paper wasps have found how the brain architecture changes as the wasps engage in specialized tasks.

Researchers at the Universities of Washington and Texas say previous studies had determined parts of the brains of the wasp species (Polybia aequatorialis) enlarged as the animal engaged in more complex tasks.

The new research describes how that occurs as dendrites, or extensions from individual neurons, reach out to receive information from other brain cells and form a dense network of connections. The networks help the wasps integrate information from visual, olfactory and touch sensory systems, the scientists said.

“I was astounded when we found that some of the individual neurons had dendrites that were seven to eight millimeters long in a brain that is roughly the size of two grains of sand,” said study co-author Sean O’Donnell, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology.

The researchers said they found the biggest changes in brain neuron architecture occurred when the wasps shifted from working on the nest exterior to foraging.

The study that included Associate Professor Theresa Jones and research associate Nicole Donlan, both at the University of Texas, appears in the early online edition of the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Animals, Architecture, Other0 Comments

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living Raises The Bar

Located in New York, The Omega Center for Sustainable Living has literally raised the bar for what it means to be green. The building itself is an exquisite representation of green architecture and is also a prime example of what it means to be environmentally self sufficient.

The facility utilizes green powers, like geothermal and solar to produce 100 percent of it’s own energy rendering day to day operations completely carbon neutral. The Omega Center doubles as a learning facility of what it means to be green and is also a natural water treatment facility, providing four different stages of water purification.

“The OCSL demonstrates the critical intersection of environmental sustainability, renewable energy, and the new green economy,” said Skip Backus, chief executive officer at Omega in a press release.

For more information on The Omega Center for Sustainable Living please read the full article.

Posted in Architecture, Energy, Geothermal, Solar0 Comments

Green Neighborhood Design ala "Prefurbia"

After spending 25 years designing over 600 communities in 45 states and 10 countries, we wrote the book Prefurbia to make an awareness for those involved in the processes of land development about new ideas, techniques and methods that we had discovered relating to suburban site design. In addition to these new methods, the book explains problems with the current regulatory systems, mostly caused by our minimums based regulations, and ending with an example of a new type of “rewards based” ordinance.

No matter how great it may be, any development plan is secondary to the presentation. The site plan is only part of the process to approval – the best site plan is only as good as the presentation to convince council or planning commission for a “Yes” vote.

These critical public meetings are the most important part of the entitlement process – no “Yes” vote: no deal – simple as that! Each presenter deals with the dog-and-pony show in their own ways with an endless variety of styles (or lack of style).

All of these public meetings have one thing in common –the neighbors (if any) will be there to oppose to the new development. Perfurbia is written from the perspective (needs) of these various parties with the process to approval, the planning commission and council members, the developer, and the design team.

In the old days there were three factions – the developer presenting the plan, the neighbors opposing the plan, and the council listening to both sides. If the development was high profile, someone from the local press might also show up to write an article about the controversy. The planning commission and council are fully aware that all plans will be met with neighbor opposition and they will have to listen to their lengthy complaints along the route to approving (possibly) the developer’s plan. In the past the citizens sitting on these boards would most likely dismiss Elwood and Betsy Smith’s complaint on how a development in their back yard would invade their privacy, and would vote in favor of that new master planned community instead.

Today there is often an additional audience – the entire region of neighbors – when the meetings are televised. The televised council listens to the neighbor’s objections, no matter how absurd they may be, then answers to the camera – the general community watching at home with answers that show they really care about every citizen’s opinion. The televised council member must never appear too much in favor of the developer as it can be misconstrued as not caring about the citizens they represent.

A televised Council member hears the Smith’s complaint and may look into the camera with a very concerned look explaining on how maybe we have too many new homes in this town and proceed to tell viewers that the developer might want to consider a buffer and dropping density. What is happening is that concerns go from developing economically sensible neighborhoods, perhaps to: “please elect me Mayor when I’m on the ballot.”
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Coving reduces surface runoff, enhances privacy, and
exchanges road surface for increased lot sizes, allowing
higher density without punishingly small homesites.
(Image: Rick Harrison Site Design)

The design catalyst for Prefurbia is “coving,” a method created in the mid-1990’s that relies on new technologies to create a more efficient pattern of land development compared to conventional and traditional methods. Without lengthy explanation (the book is the best source for explanation) a by-product of Coving is that for any given density, the length of street is typically reduced by 25% with a corresponding increase in average lot size. Another side-effect is that the lot sizes vary greatly and rapidly from minimum to maximum to create the effect along the streetscape to pulloff the art of coved design.

With the new “green” movement towards environmentally responsible development – coving can be the perfect solution as a reduction in the run-off from paved surfaces combined with the increase in organic area is a perfect foundation for Green Design.

In the early years of Coved design, virtually all the work was done in the USA. Our first large site plan done outside the States, was in Freeport, Bahamas. We designed Heritage Village, which began as a TND layout (by another planning firm) and ended up with our new method of Coving. In 2000 when we were first contacted to design Heritage Village we asked about doing presentations to the city council and planning commission to help move the approval process along. We were told that the development company and the regulating entity were the same, if they liked the plan it would be built! That is exactly what had happened.

Our next attempt of the Coving outside the USA were not so easy. In Mexico City we were told to keep the minimum and maximum range of lot sizes under 20% – a regulation which essentially kills the use of coving to be efficient, however later we found the Monterrey region of Mexico more progressive to work with.

In Puerto Rico, the horizontal regulations were no problem to work with, but the vertical (slope) regulations were problematic in Coved design in steep slopes. These slope regulations did not have alternatives which would have made more sense – they were untouchable. On relatively flat sites – no problem, steep sloped sites are very difficult to comply with (not impossible but difficult) when coved.

Since then we wrongly assumed that planning outside the USA could have similar problems with restrictions that were absurdly prohibitive for designing great neighborhoods. In Puerto Rico, when we asked to sit down with the government officials to change policy to create better neighborhoods, the developer said – no. At the time we did not understand why it was so critical that we were rejected to suggest changes.

It was only when we worked in Bogota, Columbia that we realized their systems may not be so backwards after all… Last year we were hired to do some significant planning work in Columbia. My first request was that we meet with the authorities to show them new ways to design neighborhoods and start working on changing the regulations, and were given (like Puerto Rico) an absolute – NO!

Unlike Puerto Rico, the basic setback and engineering minimums were not as restrictive and did not limit the design process. We then asked to present the plan to the authorities – and were told that was not necessary. Being it was Columbia you can imagine that at first we thought: Cartels? Corruption? The reality was much simpler. Since our plans met the minimums (they actually exceeded them), they were automatically considered approved! Imagine that – no neighbors to complain! If everything conforms – it should be approved – right? Just plain old common sense! That was exactly what was going on in Puerto Rico – in Mexico City, in fact in many countries we would think were backwards were in fact very forward thinking. Developers who follow the zoning – who follow the minimums do not need public meetings!

When you think about it, in this country if the development being submitted meets or exceeds the zoning (and the subdivision regulation minimums), why does it need to go through any of the public approvals at all? The American Developer often faces months or years of delays, enormous interest payments, the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars) spent on consultants and legal help for plans that conform. Instead that massive sum of money could go towards making a better neighborhood, better architecture, better landscaping, less environmental impacts! What a concept!

Reducing minimums would still require public meetings, however. The public would still have plenty of input when the regulations and zoning changes. Those types of meetings should be public to get citizen input. If the developer is proposing something that goes below minimums or does not conform to zoning, then it is reasonable to go through the more time consuming process that we currently have.

So this brings up the question – how would the developer introduce something different to the written law? This could be a particularly bad problem under typical PUD (Planned Unit Development) regulations which typically give blanket changes to the minimums when alternative designs are not covered by straight zoning. This PUD Pandoras box, once opened can have devastating results when the staff and neighbors both agree that the plan is simply not good enough.

When the developer thinks the plan is just fine a battle of wills ensues that can last years of revisions and legal battles – in the end these expensive delays increase lot costs – the home buyer ultimately pays. The problem is that most PUD’s are simply too vague.

If a PUD ordinance, or any special ordinance such as Cluster Conservation, or Coving was specifically spelled out – developers would get rewarded for great plans complete with open space and connectivity(typically density and setback relaxations). Simple and somewhat easy to administer.

Perfurbia’s hundreds of new concepts, methods, and industry bullet points are a wealth of information useful to anyone involved with land development. But what we began to realize after writing Perfurbia, is a new thought – how did we take something so simple and let it get so out of control?

These “third world” countries that are so progressive as to actually allow developers who comply with the rules to quickly build their neighborhood – maybe are not so third world after-all. Perhaps we have the regulations and systems as it exist is to keep the system “busy” with many billable hours. Imagine if we could simply get a plan stamped and the next day construction could begin. How many billable earning hours are eliminated, how much less construction and land holding interest saved? That would be very hard to calculate, but it’s most likely significant.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it…
Al Gore – “The Inconvenient Truth”

The inconvenient truth won’t win me many friends in the consulting industry who’s income depends upon generating billing time (meetings), but can we afford to continue down the path we are presently in?

Rick Harrison is the President of Rick Harrison Site Design (, and author of Prefurbia, published by the efforts of Sustainable Land Development International, and available directly from

Posted in Architecture, Art, Conservation, Engineering, Homes & Buildings, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Landscaping1 Comment

Moses Project Planned to Part Venice Floods

Venice floods more than one hundred times a year. At the beginning of this month, Venice was caught in another onslaught, as the sea level around the city rose higher than most people can remember. The last time locals and countless visitors had to wade through water this deep was over thirty years ago. It is floods like the most recent one that make it clear how important a flood barrier really is.

Things were different a century ago when floods occurred at an average of ten times a year, but Venice has always been sensitive to changes in water levels because the city itself is built on hundreds of small islands. It doesn’t help that Venice is sinking a few centimeters every year, as well.

One proposed solution comes in the form of a barrier that would use hydraulic pressure to raise steel plates that cut off the rising water flow. This controversial Moses Project-named after the religious figure who parted the red sea-was originally shelved because of the 4.2 billion dollar price tag and the millions (if not billions) of dollars it would take to maintain the structure annually. The hefty price tag isn’t the only cause for concern, environmentalists worry that the artificial barriers will harm protected ecosystems. They claim that closing off the tide flow will cause water to stagnate and kill off marine life.

In an in-depth article by the Times, journalist Richard Owen explains that the project “involves 79,300-tonne hinged steel panels or “buoyancy flap gates”, which most of the time will lie beneath the water but will fill with compressed air when the high-tide alarm sounds, closing off the three inlets. There are 700 workers at the three construction sites, a workforce due to double as completion approaches in 2012. A €1.5 million simulator at Malamocco shows how the locks will allow shipping to pass when the lagoon is blocked off.”

Any barrier that affects the natural flow of floods and tides will obviously have an impact on the underwater ecosystems. The question is how much of an effect? Not only that, but shouldn’t the ancient historical architecture be protected as well? Either way, Moses is currently scheduled for completion in 2012.

Overall land subsidence in the region surrounding Venice has
been 1.5 to 2.0 meters during the past 70 years, making high
tides far more problematic (ref. Wessex Institute).

Posted in Architecture, Homes & Buildings, People, Shipping0 Comments

Upgrading Electric Grids: The Cost of Mitigating Power Grids for Smarter, Utility Scale Consumption

For years engineers and utilities have been waxing on and on about the future of the utility grid and the economic importance of having a smarter, more flexible infrastructure for distributing electricity. But the conversation goes silent when it comes to the price tag: $1.5 trillion.

There’s no doubt that a radical improvement needs to be made to the aged infrastructure that carries electricity from generation plants to homes and businesses. Some places on the grid, like stretches between L.A. and San Diego, are as congested as the freeways at rush hour.

This is where energy intelligence comes in. Energy intelligence is often defined as a subsector of traditional energy efficiency, focused on utility-scale distribution, grid connectivity and two-way communication with end users and devices. It becomes part of the nervous system that helps connect and make the grid more sentient.

By using energy intelligence technologies, grid-connected utilities and providers will be able to manage their generation and supply in accordance with end-user usage patterns. And that means power is distributed more intelligently to minimize load and enable active power-distribution management to optimize resources.

It may cost the U.S. $1.5 trillion to upgrade to a smart grid.
(Source: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission)

With the new infrastructure in place, customers can make informed decisions about their energy use, so they can purchase it at times when it’s cheapest. The way to make much of that happen is with smart meters and power management dispatched to homes and businesses where they will deliver savings and improved efficiency.

Trouble is, the next phase of bringing solar and wind energy sources online will require more engineers trained in power electronics. Unfortunately, power electronics was taught widely at universities 20-30 years ago but now few teach it.

“Power electronics is really going to be the critical area, along with interface technologies for converting AC current to DC and vice versa,”

says Dick DeBlasio, laboratory program manager for electricity programs at the National Renewable Energy Labs in Boulder, Colorado.

It is part of an evolutionary process that aims to bring a grid built on 50-year-old analog technology up to speed with the 21st century shift to digital. “Interoperability is really the big part of the focus for researchers and engineers,” says DeBlasio. Part of the problem is where to place sensors in buildings and on the distribution system.

The control and monitoring of the smart grid it is not easily done, as an estimated 10-15 percent of energy is lost in delivery. Another critical item for the future of the grid is storage and government R&D in this area has been abysmal for a long time.

The targeted areas for smart-grid R&D activities are in four basic categories: architecture and communication standards; monitoring and load-management technologies; monitoring and control for demand-side management; advanced components and operating concepts. . “We have a chance to be an early adopter of this technology,” said John Kunhart, managing director and co-founder of American River Ventures in Roseville, CA., at a recent panel discussion on Energy Intelligence: Investment, Risk and Regulation for Advanced Connectivity and Infrastructure sponsored by the VC Task Force.

Standardized architectural designs and interfaces are important to stimulate developments toward a smart grid. As part of that effort, universal standards have been proposed, like the IEEE 1547 series of standards on interconnecting distributed resources with electric power systems by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

So what will it take for energy intelligence to reach its potential and simultaneously reward investors? Successful growth in this area will require a detailed understanding and navigation of the complex interplay of risk mitigation, regulation and regulatory influence, and infrastructure development.

Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Electricity, Electronics, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Energy Efficiency, Infrastructure, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Wind2 Comments

Principles of New Suburbanism

The essense of New Suburbanism is to support a clean, but wider human footprint – which is anathema to much of conventional environmentalist wisdom. In many parts of the world, such as within the state of California, there is abundant open space. California, especially within its vast interior, has hundreds upon thousands of virtually vacant square miles of rolling foothills, rangeland, forests, farms and fields. The Golden State is a whopping 158,000 square miles in size, with only 36 million people, most of them already crammed quite amicably within reasonably dense urban areas. California will always have plenty of available land, and the mantra that the personal residences of humans must be consigned to ever higher densities is not natural law or indisputably moral. A wider human footprint is not necessarily anathema to the health of the environment.
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Low density communities can spread along roads and highways, with
small scale commercial agriculture and wildlife corridors, independent
of expensive utility scale energy, water, or information infrastructure.
(Photo: EcoWorld)

New Suburbanism, despite this emphasis on treating land as abundant, does not have to be in conflict with the ideals of New Urbanism. The roots of New Urbanism are to promote architectural and urban designs that create a sense of place in new communities; its roots are are not in environmentalism or open space movements – New Urbanism is a movement of architects and urban planners with an aesthetic focus.

For this reason, New Urbanism, at least in terms of its origins, does not necessarily require a focus on high-density development. But today, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) promotes themselves as “the leading organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl.” Another group,, has adopted the following eight fundamental principles:

Principles of New Urbanism“:
1 – Walkability,
2 – Connectivity,
3 – Mixed-Use & Diversity,
4 – Mixed Housing,
5 – Quality Architecture & Urban Design,
6 – Traditional Neighborhood Structure,
7 – Increased Density, and
8 – Smart Transportation.

New Urbanism today promotes ultra high density human habitation as an accepted priority. As New Suburbanists, we would claim this bias is often counterproductively applied. We believe’s, principle #6, increased density, is being given excessive weight by New Urbanists. Their principle #7, smart transportation, in practice means mandating light rail and/or streetcars, and ultra high-density housing concentrated along these corridors. These principles, and others courtesy of New Urbanism, such as “mixed housing,” and “mixed use and diversity” now inform civic subsidies and other zoning policies. But are they always cost effective – and equally important – is this really where the New Urbanists wanted to go, when they began promoting a return to aesthetically conscious civic architecture and design?

Also coopted by high-density ideology is the U.S. Green Building Council, who define the the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) building and urban development standards. But leadership in energy efficiency and design has no intrinsic connection with high density. Instead of developing LEED criteria focused on promoting optimal resource efficiency and zero pollution or toxicity – current LEED standards inordinately emphasize ultra dense housing within a maze of other earth friendly and sustainable criteria, some of them obviously great ideas, and others that appear more ideologically derived.

For example, according to local sources, in California, to get basic LEED certification for a home, you have to earn 45 points. There are plentiful ways to earn points, since the LEED “Platinum” certification requires 90 points. But nothing earns LEED points like high density. A builder can get 4 points by building “high density” housing, and another 10 points are available simply by building a home within a LEED certified neighborhood. The high-density points from just these two criteria earn up to 14 out of the 45 points required for LEED certification for homes, with numerous other criteria driving additional point incentives towards high density. If you refer to the USGBC’s LEED certification for buildings version 2.2 “LEED for New Construction,” you will see their criteria awards points for measures such as not building on farmland, wildlife habitat, or near water. Additional points are earned if developers build near light rail stations, construct plentiful public bike racks, and never build in excess of the mandated minimum parking spaces for automobiles. And of course, the minimum average density of a LEED certified community of residences must be ten homes per acre.

Along with LEED for homes and buildings, as described above, we now have LEED for Neighborhoods, or LEED ND, also emphasizing high density as a fundamental criteria for certification. Review USGBC’s May 2008 draft of LEED ND standards “LEED ND Draft Project Checklist” to see where the big points are scored. Basic LEED ND certification as it is currently proposed requires 40 points, with a “platinum” certification requiring 80 points. There are some good ideas reflected in the LEED ND criteria, such as 5 points for storm water management, or up to 3 points for energy efficiency in buildings. But most of the big point earners in LEED ND simply scream high density: 10 points for “preferred location,” based on proximity to mass transit, 8 points for “reduced automobile dependence,” and 7 points for “compact development” (to get 7 points here you must develop seventy units per acre); if you build an ultra high density development, you have already earned 25 of the 40 necessary points for LEED ND.

About one year ago, we published one of many critiques of the high density bias of conventional environmentalist wisdom, in particular, a critique of new urbanism, making eight claims challenging the principles of new urbanism. The only amendment to these criticisms is that they are leveled more generally against the entire “smart growth” ideology, variously advocated by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU),, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBG), friends of smart growth at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), and every analyst, activist, academic or policymaker who is convinced that higher density is always better.

Eight Criticisms of Smart Growth Policies:
1 – Artificially and selectively inflate land values, making housing less affordable,
2 – Emphasize public space over private space,
3 – Make war on the car,
4 – Promote high-density infill in low density neighborhoods,
5 – Prefer open space to homes, but not to biofuel crops, solar fields, or wind farms,
6 – Presume that social problems will be alleviated through forcing everyone to live in ultra high density, mixed neighborhoods,
7 – Incorrectly claim there is a shortage of open space and farmland,
8 – Pretend they have the final answer; that their precepts are beyond debate.

Rather than expand yet again upon these criticisms, our intention here is to present an alternative ideology – one that embraces much of new urbanism and LEED concepts, but from an entirely different perspective, one that believes a diversity of privately held, lower density human habitation over wider areas can manage ecosystems as well or better than the tightly managed manifestations of high-density ideology, while furthering property rights, innovation, initiative, and economic pluralism with respect to land development.

So herewith we offer “Principles of New Suburbanism,” not to refute the virtues of high density, which we believe always have and always will effectively emerge, but to extol the virtues of low density. In this philosophy we believe human stewardship and pluralistic private land ownership, combined with 21st century clean technologies, can enable a suburban and exurban landscape that would spread bucolic and utterly clean low density communities across thousands of square miles. And wildlife would flourish, farms would flourish, and homes would tuck into the folds and fissures of the land like the farmhouses of Provence.


(1) Compatible with New Urbanism: Both of these architectural and urban/exurban planning ideologies place the central emphasis on aesthetic imperatives – both are equally committed to creating a sense of place in new communities. New Suburbanists support high density zoning preferences in the urban core of large cities. New Suburbanists enthusiastically support building 21st century cities, with high-rises and plentiful car-independent transit options and everything else inimical to the central cores of megacities.

(2) Land is Abundant: There is abundant available land for low density suburban and exurban development. New Suburbanists encourage zoning that recognizes the importance of progressively lower density zoning from urban cores, instead of draconican “urban service boundaries” that arbitrarily restrict development, especially low density development.

(3) Car Friendly: Personal transportation devices are tantalizingly close to becoming ultra safe conveyances that can drive on full autopilot and have zero environmental footprint, and we are within a few decades at most of having abundant clean energy. The age of the personal driving machine has just begun.

(4) Road Friendly: Roads are the most versatile of all mass transit corridors since people, bicycles, cars, busses, trolleys, and trucks can all travel on or alongside roads. Commercial areas should be car-friendly as well as bike and pedestrian friendly – fortunately since land is abundant, this is not all that difficult.

(5) Decentralized & Off-Grid Friendly: New communities can have neighborhood-scale groundwater extraction and distribution systems, as well as water treatment and irrigation systems, or complete and independent systems for single homes. Using new off-grid technologies, clean and cost-effective water & energy autarky can be achieved at a household or neighborhood basis, often allowing lower taxes through avoiding more expensive public facilities.

(6) Farm & EcoSystem Friendly: Via the economic pluralism fostered by implementing new suburbanist inspired highly flexible and low density residential zoning, i.e., small independently owned, often independently constructed homes on large lots of .5 to 20 acres, with frequently modest interior square footage, you create the potential for a vibrant market in small property leases for specialty farming. Through zoning (or protecting) vast tracts of outer suburb and exurban lands according to new suburbanist precepts where low density home building and road building is encouraged or enforced instead of squelched or abandoned, you create a market for relatively cheap abundant land, making more affordable acquistion of land set-asides for agriculture or nature conservancies.

(7) Aesthetically Committed: By adopting new suburbanist zoning, permitting more diverse, progressively lower density developments based on the distance from existing urban concentrations, many of the excesses of over-regulated, artificially dense, supposedly “green” contemporary suburban developments could be avoided. There is a beauty to simply letting development take its natural course, yielding penumbras of habitation following the roads and the landscape like a life affirming circulation system, instead of something that is malevolent and must be contained.

All the essence of New Urbanism, all of its inspiring call to create the 21st century’s version of cities and buildings that are welcoming spaces are still within New Suburbanism, with none of the stridency and coercion or pork of the powerful high density coalition, without the need to make of us nothing more than punitively taxed, eco-pentinent sardines.

At its heart, New Suburbanism is the necessary counterpart to New Urbanism as it has become, constrained as it is by an imbalanced, unnecessary bias towards high density. New Suburbanism gives back to our cities and towns their freedom; gives us abundant land; gives us affordable homes; gives our cities turned suburbs turned exurbs the unforced, organic, natural and easy transition from dense to sparse. If New Urbanism defines the aesthetic of our new and renewed cities, than New Suburbanism helps define the aesthetic interface between city and country; it gives us back the smooth transition from urban chic to country soul.

Posted in Architecture, Bicycles, Buildings, Cars, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Other, Philosophy, Policies & Solutions, Policy, Law, & Government, Solar, Transportation, Wind11 Comments

Hypothetically Optimal Transportation

Are the Studies We Rely On Reliable?

We discovered “The Antiplanner,” Randall O’Toole, a few months ago, and ever since we have been publishing selected works by this prolific author and researcher. His findings, carefully documented, contradict important pillars of the conventional wisdom that informs modern urban planning – transportation options in particular. O’Toole’s work deserves as large an audience as possible because his conclusions, if correct, or even partially correct, have profound implications when determining how best to allocate taxpayer funds. If light rail, for example, is not nearly as cost-effective or even fuel efficient as cars and busses, for example, why are we building them?

In Sacramento, California, not only have hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars already been spent on light rail systems that have done virtually nothing to take traffic off our freeways, but city planners are proposing the downtown streets get ripped up to make room for streetcars. Why on earth would anyone lay tracks onto a street for a streetcar that, unlike a bus, cannot even pull over and get out of traffic during stops? Randall O’Toole has developed compelling data to support what many of us feel in our gut – light rail and streetcars are not solving our transportation challenges.

This feature length investigation by O’Toole compares the benefits of streetcars vs. trolleys, and his conclusion is diametrically opposed to findings in a recent and authoritative study on the topic. Trolleys, busses with wheels and tires that drive around among cars and can, for example, pull out of traffic to make frequent stops, are probably far cheaper than streetcars. Instead of having to rip up the roads and install miles of steel rail for streetcars, you string overhead power lines that provide electricity to the trolleys. One still must wonder why a simple bus – modern and clean and green of course – would not be a far more versatile and cost effective solution than streetcars or trolleys.

Is it nostalgia that makes urban planners so fixated on anything but cars, busses, and roads to meet urban transportation challenges? Is it the thoroughly debatable yet rarely debated notion that cars and busses consume more resources and can never be “clean?” Is the preference for transportation solutions that rely on rail pushed by powerful special interests who love the ongoing pork and patronage such solutions require? Is it motivated by a sincere but misplaced utopian desire to force everyone into communal transportation arrangements? Whatever it is, renewed and vigorous debate on the subject of the car and bus vs. rail options is long overdue. Sometimes rail solutions do make sense, but not nearly as often as we are led to believe.
- Ed Ring

Hypothetically Optimal Transportation – Are the Studies We Rely On Reliable?
by Randall O’Toole, October 22, 2008
Vancouver Trolley Bus
A trolley bus in Vancouver, more
cost-effective than streetcars.
(Photo: Flickr: Jeffrey Beall)

“What is the optimal relationship between land use and transit,” asks Patrick Condon, “and what transit mode would best support this optimum state?”

In his research paper “A Cost Comparison of Transportation Modes,” published in September 2008 by the Foundational Research Bulletin, Condon concludes that cities should invest more in “trams” (streetcars) rather than in long-distance, higher-speed rail systems. Condon is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, where he is also involved in Sustainability by Design, which is trying to create a sustainable “vision” for the Vancouver region.

Condon’s answers to the above questions differ greatly from from the Antiplanner’s. This is partly because Condon bases many of his calculations on hypothetical numbers rather than actual data, and partly because his definition of “optimal” seems to transmogrify from paragraph to paragraph so that, in the end, it means whatever he wants it to mean.

Condon’s previous research shows a regrettable tendency to rely on myth and hearsay rather than actual facts. For example, a 2004 paper on urban design says, “National City Lines, a ‘transit’ company owned outright by GM, Firestone, and Phillips Petroleum was formed to purchase urban streetcar lines, notably in Los Angeles, with the intention of dismantling them. In 1949 GM was convicted of anti trust violations for this practice.” There are so many errors in this statement it is hard to know where to begin.

Start with the incriminating quotation marks around “transit,” which imply that National City Lines was not really in the transit business but in the transit dismantling business. In fact, National City Lines operated more than 60 transit systems between 1920 and the 1960s. General Motors and the other so-called conspirators only owned the company between 1936 and 1949. During that time, only 23 of the transit lines owned by National City replaced their streetcars with buses (and many of them had started dismantling their streetcar lines long before National City bought them).

National City owned only one of the two major transit systems serving Los Angeles, and that system still operated streetcars when National sold it to Los Angeles County in 1958 — it was the county that finally dismantled the streetcars. General Motors was convicted (and fined $5,000) for trying to monopolize the market for buses, but none of the other conspirators were convicted of anything, especially not for trying to dismantle streetcar systems.

The General Motors streetcar conspiracy has been repeatedly debunked by academic researchers who are willing to look at the facts and not just the myth. Condon’s willingness to perpetuate myths and hearsay is further revealed in an 2008 paper called The Case for the Tram: Learning from Portland. The thing I learned from the paper is that Condon doesn’t know much about Portland. He claims that Portland decided to build a streetcar line “for compelling reasons: it was inexpensive and the areas to be served were not dense enough to justify the more expensive MAX light rail system.”

Forest Fire
A modern streetcar – part of the new urban,
politically correct and “sustainable” solution.
(Photo: Flickr: NeiTech)

In fact, Portland’s first streetcar line connected the densest census tracts in the Portland area — Northwest Portland — with downtown. And, at $15 million per track mile plus a close to $2 million per vehicle, the streetcar was far more expensive than buses, which could have traveled through the area far more nimbly than streetcars. It is also worth noting that the streetcar was planned by the city, while the region’s transit agency thought so little of the streetcar route that it had never run bus service in that corridor.

Condon goes on to say that the decision to build the streetcar “was provoked by the electoral defeat” of light rail, which “left the city with only two options: forget transit or build it with their own money.” In fact, Portland decided to build the streetcar line in July, 1997, while the light-rail line was defeated at the polls in November, 1998. (And the transit agency is building the light-rail line — which did not go anywhere near the route of the streetcar — anyway.) Note also that Condon commits the common strategic misrepresentation of conflating “transit” with “rail transit.”

The Antiplanner’s suspicion that Condon relies on Portland official propaganda rather than actual facts is confirmed by his later claim that streetcars promoted urban redevelopment. As the Antiplanner has previously noted, Portland gave developers $665 million in subsidies to build along the streetcar line — something Condon fails to mention. But it is also interesting that Condon’s definition of “optimal” slips from “cost efficiency” in the first part of the Portland paper to “promoting economic development” in the last part.

In contrast, Condon’s more recent paper starts by considering dollar costs in the first paragraph, then shifts in the same paragraph to “sustainability” (which, in context, must have something to do with energy), but then in the second paragraph shifts again to greenhouse gas emissions, and finally in the third paragraph goes back to “long term cost efficiency.”

Condon’s fundamental problem is that you cannot “optimize” multiple variables. To find an optimum, you need to put everything in the same terms. This is what dollars are for: a medium of exchange between different goods. But planners often resist measuring everything in dollars, perhaps because they fear that if they do their preconceived notions will lose out.

In any case, Condon then says he wants to rate transportation choices using “three key sustainability principles”: “shorter trips are better than longer trips,” “low carbon is better than high carbon,” and “choose what is most affordable.” (Although he cites Sustainability by Design for these principles, that site has six principles, not three, and none of them are the same as any of his three.)

Note that his first principle immediately biases the results in favor of trams, which carry people short distances, rather than other forms of transportation that tend to carry people longer distances. Just why is this principle so important, and how are people supposed to apply it? People travel longer distances because the benefits they gain are greater than the added costs of travel. Condon simply ignores these benefits, which are crucial to any attempt to find an optimum.

For example, a major long-term economic trend has been the increasing specialization of work. Many people today have such specialized expertise that the local demand for their products or services could not possibly support them. Should we dispense with such specialists and rely instead on people who can’t do the job as well? Or should we concede that longer distance travel is sometimes worth the cost? And, if the latter, who gets to decide when it is worth it: the traveler or some planner?

In any case, Condon’s analysis of this first principle is skewed by the fact that North American streetcar lines tend to be very short. Based on his assumption that shorter trips are better, he asks: what mode works best for shorter trips? But, really, he is asking: what is the average length trip by mode? Lo and behold, streetcars have the shortest average trip length. That’s because most streetcar lines are short, so you can’t take longer trips. That doesn’t mean that streetcars are better for those short trips.

The longest trip lengths, Condon’s figure shows, are for automobiles. An economist would say that this indicates that autos give people access to more opportunities. But Condon’s strange, shorter-is-better criteria makes autos appear to be the worst choice.

Condon then asks which modes are the most energy- and carbon-efficient per passenger mile. Here he commits a whopper of a strategic misrepresentation by assuming that transit vehicles are, on average, half full, while autos carry, on average, only one or slightly more than one percent.

Both assumptions are wrong. In the U.S., the average car has 1.6 people in it, while U.S. transit vehicles run only about one-sixth full on average. Canadian transit agencies do not publish as detailed statistics as we have in the U.S., so we don’t know what the numbers are for Vancouver, BC, Condon’s target area. However, I suspect they are not much different. Per-capita transit ridership is higher in Vancouver than in comparable American cities, but per-capita vehicle kilometres of transit service is also higher.

Low occupancy rates are inevitable given transit’s fundamental characteristics. First, transit serves many outlying areas, but the vehicles only get full when they approach urban centers. Second, most transit ridership takes place during four to six weekday rush hours, but transit agencies typically offer services for 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

This means that buses or trains that look full in urban centers at rush hour are relatively empty on other parts of their routes and at other times of the day. The only transit services that have higher occupancy rates are commuter buses and trains that only run during rush hours, and Condon did not include these in his analyses.

For basic energy data, Condon also relies on “Strickland (2008),” but his references do not detail the name of this book or article. Condon probably means this Strickland paper, which is also based on a variety of questionable assumptions and sources.

In contrast to these hypothetical numbers, the United States has fairly precise data on actual energy use per vehicle mile and passenger miles per vehicle mile by mode, all of which were used in the Antiplanner’s paper on this subject. These data show that energy consumption for most modes of transit is not significantly lower than for automobiles.

For example, U.S. data show that buses consume about the same energy, per passenger mile, as SUVs. Buses and SUVs use about a quarter more energy than cars, which are about the same as light rail. Subways and commuter trains are about a quarter more efficient than the average car but much less efficient than the Prius.

These results are a sharp contrast to Condon’s largely hypothetical numbers, which show buses to be much more efficient than a Prius, and all forms of transit to be many times more energy efficient than either cars or SUVs. Once again, Canadian data may vary from the U.S, but unless we see actual numbers (passenger miles and vehicle miles by mode) from Canadian transit agencies, it is foolish to simply assume that Vancouver transit occupancy rates are three times higher than U.S.

Finally, in answer to the affordability criterion, Condon compares the capital and operating costs of various modes including a Prius and an SUV. “For detailed methodology,” he says, see the appendices — but these appendices are not available on line. Because the numbers Condon reports differ so much from actual numbers, I suspect that, like the energy data, his costs rely on hypothetical numbers.

For example, only in the screwy world of urban planners, where light rail is the default solution to just about anything, would streetcars appear to be cost effective. Condon points out that streetcars can carry more people and have longer lifespans than buses, which, he says, balances out their high capital costs.

This is a stretch. Portland’s streetcars have more standing room but only one more seat (41 vs. 40) than the average Portland bus. If they last twice as long and carry twice as many passengers, they are worth four times as much as a bus. Yet Portland paid more than five times as much for each of its streetcars (about $1.9 million) as the cost of a basic, 40-passenger bus (about $354,000 for a 40-foot bus — which typically has 39 to 43 seats — in 2005, several years after Portland bought its streetcars).

Even if the cost of streetcars per seat-year was lower than buses, this ignores the cost of the rails themselves. On top of that, Condon uses the absurd argument that, because streetcars can carry more people, “one tram driver is more than twice as productive per hour than is a diesel bus driver.” But the driver is only a tiny part of the cost of operating rail transit, most of which has to do with maintaining the rails and electrical facilities.

Condon’s other costs are as ridiculous as his energy estimates. In 2006, U.S. drivers spent an average of about 24 cents per passenger mile, including both capital and operating costs. Condon reports capital costs of 45 to 60 cents per passenger mile and operating costs of 60 to 75 cents per passenger mile. Canadian auto and fuel taxes are higher than in the U.S., but not sufficiently high to more than quadruple total costs.

In 2006, U.S. transit agencies spent 56 cents per passenger mile operating light rail. Condon says the cost is about half that. That would be consistent with his hypothetical assumption that occupancy rates are much higher than they really are.

Finally, Condon notes that fuel costs are likely to rise in the next 50 years, which causes the difference in operating costs between streetcars and SUVs to “skyrocket.” However, he fails to consider that automobile fuel efficiencies are certain to increase in the next 50 years as well. Historically, they’ve increased at a steady rate of about 1 to 2 percent per year, while transit energy efficiencies have declined.

Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the standard for autos (including SUVs) will increase to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. As new cars replace the existing vehicle fleet, the average auto on the road will be more energy efficient than any mode of rail transit by 2035.

Vancouver trolley bus: more cost-effective than streetcars at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Flickr photo by Jeffrey Beall.

Condon also fails to consider the high energy (and greenhouse gas) cost of constructing rail systems. If he were truly interested in reducing greenhouse gases, he would advocate the use of trolley buses, which have all the benefits of his trams without the high energy cost of construction.

Further, if Condon were truly interested in the long-run optimal solution, he would not be so quick to prescribe an inflexible technology that, once installed, is very hard to change. The great thing about autos is that the fleet turns over about every 18 years, so new technologies can quickly be implemented in response to changing needs such as higher energy costs. Rail systems last about 30 years, so if you build one that turns out to be less than optimal, you are pretty much stuck with it for a few decades.

In short, Condon’s analyses make three serious errors. First, his studies of streetcars rely on myth and rewrite history. Second, his comparison of transport modes relies on hypothetical data when real data are available (and very different). Finally, his definition of “optimum” changes so fluidly that he can come to any conclusion he likes (“shorter is better so therefore trams are best”) based on whatever definition he happens to choose.

About the author: Randal O’Toole is the author of Reforming the Forest Service, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, and The Best-Laid Plans, and edits the website The Antiplanner. This article originally was published on The Antiplanner on October 22, 2008, and is republished here with permission.

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Posted in Architecture, Buses, Cars, Causes, Consumption, Electricity, Energy, Other, Science, Space, & Technology, Services, Transportation8 Comments

The Living Tower

Getting fruits and vegetables onto the kitchen table is a stressful affair. Farmers constantly deal with pests, weather changes, pesticides, droughts, increased costs of running equipment and crop diseases. For example, the moth, Helicoverpa armigera, causes crop damage in excess of 5 billion dollars worldwide per year, while the 2008 floods in the U.S Midwest have already soaked through thousands of acres of farmland.

Losing a crop is extremely frustrating; especially to farmers who excitedly bought land and then purchased the popular $110,000 180-PTO horsepower diesel tractor to maintain the now demolished harvest. Architects and agriculturalists believe that many of these issues can be solved with indoor agriculture. Not only that, but by incorporating farming into high rise buildings protected from outside variables, the volume of produce harvested increases dramatically. In fact, one indoor acre may yield up to 6 times as much of a crop as a traditional outdoor farm.

The Living Tower, a theoretical 30 floor high rise farming community designed by Paris based SOA architects, would house;
130 apartments on the first 15 floors, 9000 square meters of office space on the remaining 15 floors, a 7000 square meter shopping center, a library and even a nursery in addition to the gardens distributed throughout the building. Link to the Press Release for more information.

Living Tower architects have focused on specific crop productions and believe the following estimates will represent respective crop yields:

63000 kg of tomatoes per year
37 333 feet of salads per year
9 324 kg of strawberries per year

The building design keeps efficiency and alternative power in mind as well: two large windmills rotating on the roof will generate 200-600 KWH of electricity per annum and will assist in pumping recovered rainwater throughout the complex. Photovoltaic panels will cover the outer walls while inside the tower, ventilation shafts draw in underground air keeping temperatures comfortable throughout the year., a website devoted to vertical farming (VF) architecture, provides a list of benefits associated with the technology:

• No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
• All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
• VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water
• VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services
• VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface
• VF converts black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of Evapo-transpiration
• VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of plants and animals
• VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)
• VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers
• VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers
• VF creates new employment opportunities
• VF may prove to be useful for integrating into refugee camps
• VF offers the promise of measurable economic improvement for tropical and subtropical
• VF could reduce the incidence of armed conflict over natural resources, such as water and land for agriculture

There are few things more satisfying than picking a ripened tomato from your own tree and enjoying the fruit knowing that you don’t have to worry about pesticides, importing problems or other issues involved with the agriculture business. With vertical farming on the rise, it won’t be unheard of to enjoy homegrown strawberries while snow piles up on the busy city streets below.

Posted in Animals, Architecture, Buildings, Causes, Composting, Electricity, Energy, Homes & Buildings, Office, Other, Recycling, Science, Space, & Technology, Shipping1 Comment

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