Saturday, December 26, 2009

Green Holiday Card - 2009

For several years now, I've been crafting three-dimensional "Peace Love Joy" cards for the holiday season. Assembled and hand-delivered, these little yearly pearls always seem to promote a warm feeling of, well - peace, love, and joy.

As a personal note, I love designing, fabricating, and assembling each year's card because it's a genuine outlet of pure creative expression without the parameters of a client's wish list, limitations of the contractor, budget, or the chance of a phone call with someone screaming on the other end about a roof leak. (The latter of which has, knock on cedar shake shingles, so far never transpired). This particular card is composed of a photograph I took of the rock wall at Camp Mitchell Chapel atop Mt. Petit Jean in Arkansas this past Thanksgiving. The graphics are mine - hand drawn.

Most of the cards that go out, however, are not already assembled and hand delivered; I create a master sheet with assembly instructions and email them all across the country and all over the world without using a drop of fossil-fuel. It's a simple concept with the added payoff of a little holiday craft project. Some people conscript young ones around the house (as well as the young at heart) to assemble the card, but most, I've found, love to put it together themselves. Can't help but bring you back to your childhood, if even for a moment.

Here's how it works: Print the card out on your personal printer - cardstock is best - or email the file to your local print shop and have them print out a color copy. Cut, tape, and assemble as instructed, and - voila! - a 3-D holiday card straight out of your computer.

If you haven't received a card and this particular card resonates with you, email me with a 'how-do-you-do' and I'll send you a printable file as long as you promise to accept it as a gift from me and not send it as your card or sell it to others - we're on the honor system here folks and I trust you implicitly. And if you'd like for me to personalize this card as your "whatever-occasion" card, or create a custom designed 3-D card, tell me what you're thinking about, and I'll send you a fee proposal. (I don't just design buildings and neighborhoods!) Email:

Peace, Joy, and Love to us all!

James Polk, Architect

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Spirit of Christmas All Year 'Round

Image: Movie still from the 1951 classic A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim
This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.
Everybody is buzzing now with the spirit of the holidays.

The Christmas season is when we Americans - no matter what race, religious affiliation (or none), and national origin – find a space in our busy schedules to come together and spend some quality time with family and friends. At Christmastime, we shower each other with gifts, plan parties, bake assorted sweet morsels, and find ourselves spontaneously wishing merriment to everyone we meet.

Petty grievances are set aside as diverse individuals congregate at family get-togethers and office parties. Disagreements fade as we find ourselves connecting with estranged acquaintances and saying nice things to people who we may otherwise secretly (or not so secretly) hold in contempt and avoid like the plague for eleven and a half months of the year. Festive decorations, over-the-top lighting, and Christmas carol soundtracks remind us to put away our hard feelings and celebrate the good in everybody.

All of a sudden, we seem to appreciate the value of “community.”

The young sage of Charles Dickens’ famous holiday classic of Christmas past, present, and future – Timothy Cratchit, better known as Tiny Tim – poetically captured this sentiment when, at the end of the tale, he exclaimed, “God bless us, every one!”

But how many times do we turn into hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge as soon as the tinsel is gone?

Scrooge epitomized an ethic of greed, distrust, and lack of respect for others, especially those he considered “beneath” him. His idea of a perfect society involved separating himself from people he found different, and thus, unappealing. His habit of demonizing those around him closed his eyes and ears to the value of each individual’s unique talents and contributions within the social fabric we vaguely refer to as community. In this cautionary tale, Scrooge’s intolerance, absent some not-so-gentle nudging from three convincing spirits, would have led to his undoing along with everyone else he so piously tried to bring down.

Sustainability is more popularly discussed in terms of physical objects - for example, green buildings – but the principles of sustainability apply quite adequately to the structure of our cultural and civic lives as well.

A sustainable community honors and respects diversity. Nature requires a wide variety of flora and fauna in the same ecosystem to remain healthy and viable. Nature honors and respects diversity; sustainable communities are no different. Demonizing those who have different backgrounds or ideas – a popular blood-sport in twenty-first century America – poisons the spirit of community and separates us as a culture.

Why not take this holiday spirit into the new year with the same energy and compassion? Try seeing the good in people first. Respect the differences in your neighbors, and, like Scrooge, you might wake up with a renewed love of life and a greater sense of “community.”

Too many devil’s advocates make life a living hell.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Where's Our Modern Day CCC?

This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

Over the years, I, along with millions of fellow Americans, have enjoyed the fruits of an initiative born the better part of a century ago.

In 1933, the United States was mired in the midst of the Great Depression, and legions of Americans were unemployed and starving. As part of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps came into being for the purpose of putting able-bodied men to work.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, better known as the CCC, went about constructing park facilities including campgrounds, vacation cabins, recreational trails, mountain lookouts, picnic areas, and a host of other amenities throughout the United States. CCC crews planted over 3 billion trees, took part in extensive erosion control projects, built roads, and erected fire towers. Much of that infrastructure still graces our national landscape.

(To see examples of a few CCC structures, go to my blog – the New American Village – at

CCC crews also pitched in as a ready national resource fighting fires throughout the country, and providing relief and rebuilding services after a major hurricane in New England, blizzards in Utah, and several major floods.

But far from being a “make-work” program, the men of the CCC were taught literacy and construction skills. Their hand-crafted park buildings of indigenous materials – a very green method of building - stand out today as some of the most beautiful structures in our park system, and the durability of their work is self-evident by virtue of the vast and diverse inventory of CCC facilities still in use today. As the depression waned, and jobs returned to the private sector, the men of the CCC were in great demand because they possessed practical, demonstrated trade skills, and as one employer put it, “they knew how to put in a good day’s work.”

The CCC was an immensely popular program. A Gallup poll in 1936 indicated that 82 percent of the general public was in favor of the program, including overwhelming majorities from both Democrat and Republican respondents.

With recent reports that one in eight Americans currently rely on food stamps for some or all of their food, and with millions unemployed or underemployed, where is our modern day Civilian Conservation Corps?

Look around you; there’s plenty of work to be done. Instead of us, as a society, doling out unemployment benefits, why not fashion a renewed version of this wildly successful employment and training program?

It has been popular group-think of late to say “government programs are never the answer.” But after a decade of political momentum on the side of demonizing the government and casting our economic fortunes solely with the private sector, why are so many people now suffering?

Knee-jerk platitudes and ideological clich├ęs do not help build a country or put food on the table. The Civilian Conservation Corps, in fact, did just that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

CCC Cabins

Holmes County State Park in Mississippi is just one of the many sites where the Civilian Conservation Corps built recreational cabins. I've vacationed in this park 4 or 5 times, and although newer cabins have been constructed around the corner, I always opt for staying in the CCC cabins.

As in all the CCC work of the 1930's, hand crafting is the norm creating a wonderfully rustic feel. In addition to providing jobs for the unemployed, the Civilian Conservation Corps focused on teaching construction skills. "Craft" - as a legacy of the apprenticeship way of learning - was celebrated, respected and nourished was a way of building. Combine this ethic with a lack of power tools and the result is wonderfully hand-crafted collection of structures with the feel of rustic charm seldom seen in contemporary building.

Thus, each constructed element a particular CCC site is unique, creating a variety of interesting "one of a kind" buildings even when floor plans are similar. And, every CCC site, by virtue of hand-crafting, has its own unique identity. What a wonderful way to celebrate the human spirit!

Monday, November 30, 2009

CCC Revisited

As the Great Depression shook the economic foundation of the United States, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a federal stimulus program called the Civilian Conservation Corps better known as, simply, the CCC. The CCC gave unemployed men across the country the opportunity to join work camps building infrastructure in newly formed national and state parks, and much of the work those men created - now some 75 years later - stands as a testiment to the power of intelligently targeted federal jobs programs. Today, a bountiful tapestry of beautifully crafted cabins, hiking trails, and mountian lookouts grace the natural landscape of of America.

Now, with millions unemployed, and a recent report indicating that one in eight Americans are receiving food stamps for sustanance, why aren't we revisiting this amazing program. Rather than extend unemployment benefits and expand the food stamp program, why not build this country? And as in the 1930's, we can train a new generation of craftsmen.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting images of the wonderful work of the CCC starting with this little dandy - a lookout structure atop Mt. Petit Jean in the Ozark foothills of Arkansas.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Expressions of Thanksgiving

This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

Thanksgiving, traditionally, came into being as a special time set aside each year dedicated to offering up appreciation for the bounty of the summer harvest. The modern interpretation of Thanksgiving has taken on a decidedly more eclectic flavor broadening in scope to include thanks for all things held dear. As this newspaper's "green living" columnist, and in the spirit of gratitude, here are a few of the many things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for a growing awareness of the consequences of man's actions affecting the health and long-term livability of this planet we call home, and for the growing army of citizen-soldiers who take it upon themselves to do something about it.

I am thankful for the infinite potential of renewable energies and the veritable cornucopia of creative new ideas for developing and utilizing alternative energies.

I am thankful for my bicycle. I am thankful for farmers' markets where locally grown seasonal food is available year-round. More power to the growing number of local small farmers who, bucking the tide, help educate people about the source of their food supply and make healthy fresh fruits and vegetables available for those who are determined to seek them out.

I am thankful for the changing seasons that remind us of a living planet, and for the falling leaves of autumn that provide the earth with a natural layer of protection from the cold of winter and replenish the soil with nutrients for the next growing season.

I am thankful for diverse experiences that make living more interesting, and for the diversity of people around me who, through their uniqueness, contribute richness to the culture of this community.

I am thankful that I live in a neighborhood where I can walk to a dozen restaurants, a major university, an all-night pharmacy, a grocery store, a city park, and a host of retail, recreational and cultural venues.

I am thankful for the countless daily opportunities where, by conscious choice, we all can lead a healthier, more sustainable existence.

I am thankful for good friends who offer kind words and freely lend all manner of support when they see a pressing need. The limitations of this column do not allow me to mention names, occasions or degree, but you know who you are.

I am thankful that my wife embodies the qualities of love, acceptance and forgiveness without which a sustainable relationship is impossible.

I am thankful that at a time when newspaper circulation throughout the U.S. is dwindling, this newspaper is still publishing daily local news and information about issues that impact the heart and soul and quality of life of this community.

And, sincerely, I thank you for reading this bi-weekly column. It is my hope and intention that something I say makes a positive difference in your life.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why Architecture Matters

Here's an interesting and infomative interview (by NPR's On Point host Tom Ashbrook) of New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger on his latest book - Why Architecture Matters. Great American Architect Richard Meier joins in as well.

Goldberger talks about how architecture expresses our cultural identity and laments (as I do) the absence of beauty and artfulness in "ordinary buildings" constructed in America today. (Just look at utilitarian buildings constructed a hundred years ago like barns, modest homes, downtown storefronts, even power and waterworks facilities, and you'll notice a distinct attention to craft along with a respectful public face.) Seems that the social contract that once existed between builders and the public - that every building project, no matter how ordinary, takes on the responsibility of promoting the public good - has vanished as developers go for "quick and cheap."

Goldberger and Meier explain how buildings can and should express three qualities that Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius assigned architecture over two thousand years ago - firmitas (strength), utilitas (usefulness), and venustas (beauty).

Consider purchasing Paul Goldberger's book from your independent, neighborhood bookseller. Find one near you in this handy Indy Directory.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

American Roadways: Dangerous by Design

In 2008 alone, over 70,000 pedestrians in the United States suffered injury in an accident involving motor vehicles. And over the past 15 years, 76,000 pedestrians have been killed on American roadways; that's the equivalent of twenty-five 911 terrorist attacks.

Yet US spending on security-related issues dwarfs the funding of walkable infrastructure. According to Transportation for America's recent report - Dangerous by Design - federal funding for for walking and bicycling infrastructure last year in major metropolitan areas was a meager $1.39 per person. Conversely, appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security alone amounted to about $145 per person - over 100 times the investment afforded to sidewalks and bike paths.

Sadly, almost all of those deaths and injuries are avoidable. The culprit: automobile-only street designs. Taking pedestrians and bicyclists into account when designing roadways, a concept know as "complete streets," creates a healthy and safe environment for alternative transportation.

If this country is outraged by a terrorist attack that kills 3000 people, shouldn't we be at least as concerned about the continued design and construction of unsafe streets that facilitate the needless killing and maiming of much greater numbers of US citizens?

Link here to an NPR report on pedestrian-friendly roads. And check out the Transportation for America website for tons of info on walkable and bikable streets, including an index of pedestrian safety by state and for the top 360 metro areas in the United States.

Monday, November 9, 2009

No Man is an Island

This week's newspaper column:

Sustainability – essentially – is about connections.

Take the human body for example. Life is sustained as the heart pumps blood through a connected system of veins and arteries distributed throughout the entirety of our bodies. This system works by degree in that the more those connections are disrupted, the more quality of life is degraded. Terminate the veins in the wrist and you lose a hand; block the main arteries close to the heart and you’re dead.

Translate this metaphor to all physical and social connections and you’ve got a pretty good working understanding of sustainability.

Almost four centuries ago, English writer and clergyman John Donne articulated the concept well:

No man is an Island, entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.

Now how many times have we heard the word “deserted” preceding the word “island”? Ever stop to wonder why some islands are deserted? At the risk of stating the self-evident, islands tend to be deserted when they have no clear connection to the mainland and are not big enough to maintain an ecosystem hospitable to human life.

So in considering sustainable design, it’s always important to think in terms of connections. Physical connections, social connections, cultural connections, environmental connections – all are important in the manifestation of a built environment that sustains and enhances a healthy human existence.

For example, when planning and developing alternative modes of transportation in a community (meaning other ways to get around besides the automobile), the success of those systems hinges on how comprehensively everything is connected with everything else. When sidewalks are intermittent and leave some areas of heavy human activity completely unserved, or when bike lanes are planned for some neighborhoods and not others – sustainably speaking – those are destined to be dead or ailing systems and will only be utilized to a small fraction of their potential.

Conversely (and fossil fuel issues aside), automobile transportation has the very sustainable quality of having roads connecting every home with every possible service and work opportunity. In fact, it’s the only fully connected system of transportation we have in America – that’s why so many people use it.

Naysayers to sustainable development are quick to say, “Why build sidewalks? Nobody wants to walk.”

But there was a time when people made the same arguments against the automobile. I bet you didn’t know that Henry Ford fielded universal cries of “Who would ever want to ride in a horseless carriage? Where would you go?” That, obviously, was before the universal connection of our roadways.

The more connections we make, the more sustainable we become and the more options we have. And in a sustainable world, each individual’s fate is connected to the viability of everybody else.

Donne famously concludes his profound treatise on sustainability saying:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind;

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Raold Gundersen's Organic Architecture

Photo: Paul Kelly for the New York Times

Roald Gundersen is an architect I heard about a few years ago when I lived in Spring Green, WI. His home and studio - located a few miles east of the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin - is a study in organic architecture.

Gunderson utilizes natural unmilled forest trees in the structure and detailing of his designs. He skins the trees revealing a sensuous silky-smooth finish that invites the human touch. Nature has a way of offering ready-made beauty, and Gunderson's work is a wonderful case study in expressing that natural beauty.

Beauty aside, turns out whole trees have a greater structural capacity than milled wood, according to Gundersen, about 50 percent more. And bending the trees creates an arch-like affect contributing additional strength and lateral support.

The New York Times has an informative article on Roald Gundersen's life and work along with a photo essay of his designs. Check it out.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Recycling the Recycling Business Model

Is recycling just a feel-good exercise in America?

Wild swings over the past few years in the demand for recycled waste material has presented a challenge for communities attempting to promote universal recycling and a rational for communities who are hostile to the very idea of recycling. I hear stories all the time about recycled material "piling up" outside of town because of a weak buyer's market, and I've read about instances where excess recycled stock is periodically hauled off to the landfill. At the same time, manufacturers and contractors use far less recycled material than they could as most stock is too difficult to locate and identify. Who has the time to look for something that may not even be available?

Here's a proposal: Why not set up a national database for recycled materials? The effectiveness of such a structure would hinge upon being comprehensive in nature. This could take the form of a government agency or an industry-funded consortium - take your pick - and it should cover all products, all grades of materials, and all locations withing the US.

A comprehensive database of available material open to all potential buyers will be a big step in closing the environmental loop and making recycling economically feasible in the US.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fat People Don't Walk

This week's newspaper column:

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I noticed something on the streets of the city that’s very peculiar in modern-day America – the complete absence of morbid obesity.

A little background: In 1791, President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant, a prominent French architect and city planner – to lay out the new capitol city on the banks of the Potomac River. L’Enfant envisioned the city as a series of parks connected by diagonal avenues on an overlay of a regular rectangular street grid. Each neighborhood would have its own green space and business district; the distance between each would be determined by practical walking distances. Obviously, the ease of traveling great distances quickly by car was not a factor. So Washington, like every city designed before the advent of the automobile, became and fortunately still remains a very walkable city.

Conversely, as new development in the United States has sprawled across the suburban countryside, so have our waistlines. How common is it to see an overly-ample “waddler” dropped off at the front door of Wal-Mart?

One might protest and argue, “But you can’t expect a 300-pound grandma to walk all the way across a hot, tree-less parking lot, can you?” That’s a good point, but this may be a chicken and egg -shaped question. Which came first – the weight gain or the inactivity?

Since moving from Washington, DC to Mississippi, I’ve picked up about 40 or pounds or so. Some of that extra weight is due to age and the classic fat-filled diet of the American South, but I suspect the majority of extra poundage is a direct result of walking less in my daily routine.

While in DC, I walked 6 blocks every morning to the Union Station metro, rode the train for about 15 minutes, and walked another 3 blocks to my workplace downtown. In the evening, I reversed the routine. At lunchtime, there were plenty of restaurants to choose from in the immediate area –all accessible to “foot-traffic,” and on a nice day, I could stroll over to one of many parks in the area to enjoy lunch in an urban green space before walking back to the office.

That routine alone amounted to about two miles of walking every day. Add to that a multiplicity of errands made possible by virtue of a walkable infrastructure, and each day included several built-in cardiovascular workouts.

In today’s world of city planning, walkability seems to be, at best, a faint afterthought and certainly not the first thing most politicians and planners think of when thinking of city infrastructure. Real estate developers claim that being forced to build sidewalks on street-facing building lots is cost prohibitive and nobody likes the idea of higher taxes to see to it that connected sidewalks are the norm.

But with obesity-related health care costs escalating through the roof, isn’t that alone a reason for rethinking our investment – or current lack thereof – in walkable infrastructure?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Metro Rail in Power City

When in DC, the Metro is the way to go. And why not? The Washington DC Metro is safe, clean, and efficient.

Among rapid transit systems in the US, only the New York City subway system has more ridership. With a metropolitan area population of 5.3 million, Washingtonians log a million trips each week day on metro trains, and including bus service, almost 40 percent of commuters access public transportation daily.

The rub on subways has always been 1) safety (or more to the point, perceived safety), and 2) vandalism and graffiti.

Architect Harry Weese's brilliant design transcends those issues. Concrete barrel vaults create a wide-open feel with 360 degree vision - no mysterious corners where who-knows-who can be lurking. Trains flank a central platform so walls are out of spray can range of would-be public artists.

I rode the metro almost every day when I lived in DC. In fact, the metro was so convenient, I found myself having to crank my car and let it idle from time to time to keep the battery fresh.