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.