Friday, May 23, 2008

The High Price of Doing Nothing

Here on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of summer when people traditionally take long weekend vacations - mostly driving or flying to their destination – and gas prices keep going up and up and up. The whole country is complaining (except for oil and gas companies) because it’s affecting everybody’s bottom line.

I can’t help but wonder what things would be like if we had acted over the past decade to wean ourselves from an oil-based transportation system. But instead of proactive planning, our national leadership took the position that we should let the “market” determine our energy policy. Whenever the idea of raising gas mileage standards on cars was advocated, American automakers fought back and blindly pumped out the SUV’s. And when the notion that the federal government should incentivize the development of alternative energies was presented, oil companies cried foul and Congress caved. Aided and abetted by a backward-looking Administration and a Congress hostile to visionary thinking, no action was taken (until last year’s upping of CAFE standards) to begin lessening this country’s dependence on oil.

As a country, we’ve drifted aimlessly – no rudder, no oar - oblivious to the consequences of our actions. The status quo prevailed as world dynamics changed; and the dynamics changed drastically. Now here we are.

Some say “it was impossible to see this coming.”

Just one problem: we did see this coming.

In the 2000 election, the candidates’ positions were clear. And yet, the issue of energy independence and moving away from an oil- and gas- and coal-based economy was given very little play in the press, and was not taken seriously by the American public.

Al Gore famously went on Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago and opened the show (from an alternative universe) as president addressing the American people from the Oval Office. Among other things, Gore deadpanned about how, because of his insistence on aggressively pursuing alternative energy, there was now a glut of oil and gas prices were at record lows. Gas was 19 cents a gallon, and oil companies were hurting. He urged the public to help out the ailing oil companies because 'if it were the other way around, I'm sure they would help us.'

Hyperbole aside, if indeed we had aggressively pursued a proactive energy policy over the past 8 years rather than leaving things to chance, we would not now be in the grips of a gas crisis. Low mileage vehicles, sprawl, and the lack of alternative energy options have backed us into a corner and, increasingly, is lowering our collective standard of living.

What if in 2000, instead of deriding candidates over how many times someone said “lockbox” (it sounds so silly) or hyperventilating over “exaggerations,” we engaged in a national discussion about the issues that surely would affect our lives in a meaningful way in the years to come. And what if we had considered who best would lead us in the complexities of a changing energy economy?

People said "it’s either jobs or the economy." They have been proven wrong. Turns out green collar jobs expand wildly when the environment is respected and preserved. Alternative energy-related jobs are now expanding as other sectors loose jobs.

This year we have another chance. Will we rise to the occasion, or will we get bogged down in ‘who I’d rather have a beer with’ and risk another national hangover?

Here’s a link to Gore’s satirical opening to SNL. Enjoy!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bike-To-Work Day

May is national bike month, and today is national bike-to-work day.

Here's a link to the American League of Bicyclists website where you can find useful information about all-things-bicycle in your area and nationally.

Also, a link to "50 ways to celebrate bike month."

So hop on your bike and ride!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Forward to the Future

Have you ever driven an automobile forward while looking in the rear-view mirror? Don't tell anybody, but I've tried it a few times. Doesn't work very well.

Sure, if the road is perfectly straight with no oncoming traffic, you could feasibly travel short distances, albeit very, very slowly. But I think we could all agree (including our friendly Highway Patrolmen) that driving any distance in a car with your eyes glued to the rear-view mirror is unfeasible and, in fact, dangerous.

Prudence tells us we need to steer our vehicle based on what we see in front of us. What's coming up over the horizon is the determining factor in how we choose to direct our course of action.

So why would we plan for the future by imitating the past? Why should we base decisions about how we build buildings and infrastructure, about how we design our cars and factories, by mimicking old paradigms?

We know what's coming up on the horizon, at least to some degree, and we certainly have a clear focus on our immediate future. The distant future may be a little murky, but that's no reason to discount it, no reason to throw up our hands and say 'I don't know what the road looks like around the curve so I'll just close my eyes and lock the steering wheel in place'.

Here's one thing we know. Some energy sources are finite - oil and coal for example. Some energy sources are infinite - solar and wind and geothermal fall into this category. What does this tell us? In the future, renewable sources of energy will come down in price, and thus be more feasible to employ, and non-renewable sources of energy will become ever more scarce, and the price of utilizing non-renewables will go up and up and up. Already, the trajectory is apparent and playing out right in front of us.

And with the earth's growing population (estimates are in the next half decade, world population will increase from the current 6.7 billion people to over 10 billion), we know we must design for accomplishing more with less.

Transportation planning must recognize that the automobile is one option of many, not the only option. Public transportation infrastructure takes years, if not decades to implement; that makes it all the more important to design for what's on the horizon.

Cars must be dramatically re-designed to meet the obvious challenges of the future. For years, American automobile manufacturers have been resistant to change because they've been focused on what sold last year. Now big gas-guzzling SUV's sit on the lot while dealers place hybrid buyers on long waiting lists.

Buildings must be designed to be more energy efficient, some even for energy independence. Ease and economy of construction is a must. The McMansions that popped up like mushrooms as recently as a year and a half ago, are already dinosaurs.

Doesn't it make sense to design for where we want to go rather than parody where we've already been?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Man with Nature, not Man over Nature

If Mother Nature gives you a tree, enjoy the shade.

How many times have we seen a beautiful piece of land clear cut and flattened to make way for a new building project? One day - a beautiful forest. Next day, it looks like a World War 1 battlefield. Ouch!

And how many new developments are named after the unique natural landform that was destroyed in the process? In Hattiesburg Mississippi, once-natural Turtle Creek flows through a big concrete pipe buried under – you guessed it - Turtle Creek Mall.

Now I'm not at all against new development. In fact, I am very much in favor of new building projects, especially when I’m designing them. (An Architect against development is like a priest who doesn't believe in God). New projects on a beautiful piece of land are exciting and full of ultimate potential – for good or for bad.

Many developers I’ve met think this way: Step 1 – clear the site, Step 2 – decide what to build, Step 3 – build it. I call this process “Fire, Ready, Aim!” Exactly backwards.

But in the green ethic, the land tells us what to do, not the other way around. It’s not an either/or proposition when it comes to development versus sustainability. Both can coexist when holistically planned.

Preserve unique landforms and look for ways to create a relationship between those natural amenities and the built environment. The goal is to create a dynamic balance between manmade and natural. Integrate the new with the natural and new opportunities to passive environmental control; a healthy patch of deciduous trees can drastically reduce the energy cost of cooling during a hot summer if the new building is oriented properly. And what a view!

So it’s, Man with Nature, not Man over Nature.