Archives For infrastructure

Agriculture joins economic pillars like infrastructure, waste management and energy production as one of the most important issues we need to address in order to take meaningful steps towards a sustainable culture. America is a series of broken systems. Though technically still a theoretical construct, Vertical Farms offer a new approach to our agricultural production with the potential to drastically change its effect on the environment. Not only are these visions interconnected, functioning ecosystems of their own, but they interface in numerous ways with the greater system of the city creating positive repercussions. One day in the not too distant future, Vertical Farms could be self-sustaining entities that exist as the epitome of efficiency for water, heat, power and waste. Continue Reading…

High Tension TowersWhen New York City residents awoke on Tuesday morning, forecasts already pointed to the imminent blanket of heat that was going to cover the city only hours later, enough to make the groans of stirring from bed a little deeper. Nevertheless, it was no day off for the corporate machine so the trains were still running, the lights were still turning on and the air conditioners were already humming. By the time I got into work our office received an email from the management company of the building we are in requesting voluntary support for immediate, emergency energy reduction:

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glass bottles and bagsWhile factions squabble over such big ticket political items as health care, climate change and job creation, there is an answer that could help all fronts without ramming into core partisan issues: recycling. A federal course to mandate recycling and the use of recycled content would provide benefit to numerous areas on the administration’s agenda.

Many view the recent past as not being the federal government’s finest hour. The traffic jam of partisan politics has forced numerous efforts on Capitol Hill to progress at a crawl. Congress members continue to suggest drastic, sweeping changes to different areas of the economy while the country emerges from a recession. After hours are spent pitching changes that make such a big splash the inevitable occurs and efforts at compromise are discarded in deference to a defiant standoff—which accomplishes nothing.

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Dear Mr. Droz,

I recently came across an article on that lead me to your presentation critiquing wind power. The decree that wind power is “an insult to science and mankind” seems a bit alarmist and wrought with exaggeration. I understand that you have labeled wind power as a deficient source of power generation and based this conclusion on seven points of criteria that you claim reasonable power sources should strive to meet. These points include:

  1. Can it provide large amounts of electricity?
  2. Can it provide reliable and predictable electricity?
  3. Can it provide dispatchable energy?
  4. Can it serve as more than one grid element?
  5. Can its facility be compact?
  6. Can it provide economical energy?
  7. Can it make a consequential reduction in carbon dioxide?

According to you, wind energy has failed all but the first point, after which you claim it to be an overly expensive, intermittent and restrictive form of energy production–something the world should stop devoting time and money towards. Instead, we should focus on improving our existing technologies so that they can be improved and better utilized to achieve environmental progress.

Though your individual assessments cannot be labeled as “incorrect”, I think you are unfairly painting a grim picture of wind energy while denying it both its accolades and opportunities for further improvement. Wind energy is a great industry and one of a number of technologies that will eventually allow us to reduce our environmental impact and reach a more balanced, sustainable society. I think a full critique of wind should include not only the shortcomings (which we all know exist) but the possibilities.

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Visions and promises for the “new standard” are becoming a daily attraction. Enough people have realized that for an advanced society many of our vital networks are often outmoded prompting plenty of innovators to work on replacement parts. Energy production, transportation, waste disposal, utility conveyance; all show signs of promising upgrades over the next half-century towards the endgame of efficiency. But for all the thought devoted to the new infrastructure systems, what should we be doing with the old ones?

Sustainable societal innovation is a two-sided coin. Defining a better standard should be paired with ways to allocate our existing landscape for new uses rather than simply calling it trash. Over the past century trillions of dollars have been used to construct the vast, national networks that we rely on implicitly. All of that is now latent value that should not be squandered. Like anything other byproduct of our economy these systems hold possibilities for new lives and uses along side their replacements.

Not long ago I sat in a conference room at the Green Buildings New York exposition listening to an engineer talk about improving efficiency through water reclamation and reuse. His name was Edward Clerico and he worked for Alliance Environmental as part of their team specializing on water efficiency—coincidentally, he is reportedly participating in efficiency work for One Bryant Park. From behind a wooden podium with a grainy microphone carrying his voice over worn carpet and faded ceiling tiles, he spoke with excitement about the growing trends of onsite water treatment and reuse. He pointed out that if more people take advantage of things like greywater systems and green roofs then our demand for water (and its disposal) may drop to the point that our infrastructure may no longer be completely necessary. Reservoirs, aqueducts and huge pipelines guiding water to major cities could wind up as over-built, archaic achievements of a different age. Could these things have another use in the face of drastic improvements of water efficiency? It occurred to me the design problem extended far beyond simply water.

With all hope, the future of distributing power will only hold a pale comparison to our current methods. Technologies like Smart Grid systems or completely decentralized systems can begin to shape how our new power grid could work. New steps in transporting power like high voltage superconducting lines could remove high tension wires and the scars that they cast across our landscapes. There must be countless uses for the metal of those giant towers while the land beneath them can return back to the forests, plains and wetlands that they disturbed upon construction.

coal plantPower production is another scenario where some of the oldest methods of generation are also the least sustainable—namely coal. Some of our oldest coal plants have already seen their 50th birthdays and are prime targets for retirement. Being one who completely supports ridding our country of coal-fired power, I am often asked what happens to the jobs and facilities at existing plants. Not a problem, we can still use them! Complete conversions of coal plants to accept new feedstocks, namely biomass, is already underway. recently posted an article describing how FirstEnergy Corp released its plans to convert a 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant purportedly saves 105 local jobs.

highline 1Perhaps my favorite candidate for infrastructural reuse is our road and railway systems. In response to the industrial boom, the first half of the twentieth century brought tens of thousands of miles of paved highways and metal track carving through cities across the country. The eventual decline of industrial production and shipping in the U.S. evaporated the necessity for many rail lines, so too providing an opportunity of reuse for these aging strips of land. The first section of The Highline opened only last week in Manhattan providing the first realization of a project that has been pursued by local residents for years. The elevated tracks snaking through the city’s west side that once carried freight trains up and down an industrialized Manhattan coastline now support a growing garden and a unique urban park. Having personally experienced the Highline since it’s opening, I can attest to its outstanding realization of an amazing urban project. Likewise, retired grade-level track beds are becoming perfect locations for bike and running trails, generating ties through existing communities. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is one of the movement’s strongest proponents.

Strides in mass transit could help bring about the same opportunities for our aging highways and viaducts. The Toronto Sun reported on the results of a conceptual design for the city’s Gardenier Expressway. Grown from the same seeds at the vision for the Highline, the “Green Ribbon”, designed by Les Klein of Quadrangle Architects, proposes to reclaim the elevated roadway for use as gardened parks and bicycle paths. The hypothetical model includes small wind and solar arrays to create power for the lighting systems of the gardenway. With an estimated price of $500-600 million (which is likely low), it is far from modest, but the figure becomes more plausible when one considers the estimated cost of $300 million just to tear it down.

The benefits to reuse are clear. Massive waste streams would be averted as well as the pollution and energy that is wasted on demolition. New visions mean more work, and work means jobs—which everyone loves. And new infrastructural archetypes can indirectly contribute to energy production, food growth and water management while still providing public amenities. All we need is a broader view of opportunity. Solely devoting focus to what we can create can raise the risk of forgetting what it is we already have.

Highline Photo Credit: David Berkowitz

Power Plant Photo Credit:

New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg continues to be a great example of environmental leadership, announcing yet another proactive effort to take steps towards efficiency and sustainability. His administration has suggested that two sections of Broadway, one surrounding the tourist magnet of Times Square and the other the transit heavy Herald Square, be closed completely to vehicular traffic and made into pedestrian thoroughfares. Innovative political plans like this demonstrate how vital it is to break outside traditional strategies and take nothing as a given even in a city as developed and complicated as New York. Likely to cost next to nothing (the plan is really more subtractive than additive) the initiative will yield positive results instantly experienced by the city.

time square before and after

This is not the first endeavor of its kind for this administration where pedestrian activity is placed as a higher priorty than vehicular access. Last summer another section of Broadway beside Madison Square Park was simplified to create more pedstrian public space. The renovations were completed with enough summer left for the people to demonstrate their content with the new grid. Hosts of flowering planters, tables and umbrellas were utilized by the passing crowds on a daily basis.

So why is this really so important? It’s true that this is only a handful of blocks, but their targets cannot be unrecognized. Broadway stands as one of Manhattan’s unique streets that cuts across the rigidity of the grid creating triangular, residual spaces that have evolved into squares over time. With public, open space always in short supply, these spaces have become rich with pedestrian activity and serve as neighborhood anchors for the populace. One could argue that changes made here will gain significant notice from not only residents, but visitors of the city. A broader revisioning of the grid could result in more spaces like these across the city, challenging the status quo deference to car travel.)

Let’s not forget, pedestrian activity is sustainable. The more people are encouraged to walk, bike and rollerblade around the more they are taking advantage of the density that a city provides and its wealth of reflexive benefit that comes from so many people in close proximity. Stores in the area will gain more exposure and sell more products. Conversely, designing for cars is a cyclical, self-reinforcing problem.  When car travel is made easier more people are prone to traveling by car. As a result parking availability diminishes and congestion rises, prompting the need to expand roads and parking to facilitate more car travel. Etc… Other than cabs, delivery trucks and service vehicles, automobiles have no real purpose being on Manhattan anyway.

Furthermore the Deptartment of Transportation estimates that the change will expedite uptown travel on 6th Avenue and downtown travel on 7th Avenue. Could this be the beginning of a Broadway completely closed to cars and trucks? Keep it coming Mr. Mayor.

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