Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Yearly Bleg: What makes a "sustainability" plan?

The grapevine in Charlotte is that we're gearing for a major initiative to green our Center City. So lately, I've been really thinking hard about this question. Studying other comprehensive plans to green a city, I've been trying to come up with a simple, yet effective, way to categorize strategies to green the city proper in a single comprehensive plan. I seem to be finding in my diagrams and notes that most physical improvements to a city need to focus more effectively on three sets of interrelated concerns for "sustainability": their actual physical make-up/impact, their relation to other systems, and their temporal scale. Sustainability is the innovation and re-negotiation, both within and between, these concerns. I call these categories "Places", "Links" and "Processes".

The diagram above, taken from a plan I participated in while taking an urban design studio in college, for example, represents the 'biorhythm' of a Cambridge city street and brings the temporal scale of a street to sharper focus. It is the most effective "streetscape" diagram I've ever known, because it tells me things about a street I have never observed. Approaches to sustainability have to be smart in this way...They have to make systems in space and time more legible before they can improve them. This begs the question: has anybody really created a "sustainability" plan for a city to date? Can Charlotte create a true sustainability plan? Or will it simply be the typcial greenwased compilation of voguish wish-lists and narrow initiatives that typically passes for a "sustainability plan"?

In the hope for further input and refinement, here is my first attempt to provide a step-by-step composition to an authentic sustainability plan for Charlotte. I would gladly welcome all critique and recommendation for reformulation to make it better...

A Good Plan will need to outline “Bridge” strategies for:

  1. Places: Context Sensitive Solutions that direct & structure growth; Green Urban Design; Housing; Open Space; Water Reclamation and Resources; Brownfield Rehabilitation
  2. Links: “Complete Streets”; A comprehensive multi-modal transportation strategy that insists on facility continuity and reduces dependence on the automobile to get from A to B; Green Infrastructure, including greenways, streams and wildlife corridors
  3. Processes: (a) Development-based: a process for creating and coordinating Links – most challenging of which is how to consider and integrate all transport modes; a process to better coordinate planning for Places; a process for incremental implementation that reduces future developmental impacts – i.e. “smart” infrastructure planning and material and resource recycling / saving / regeneration / recovery (b) Support-based: adaptability of infrastructure; agency coordination for green initiatives; environmental quality of service and maintenance; continuing stakeholder and community involvement; nurturing “green volunteerism”; marketing; programming and event planning; etc.
  4. Focused Energy, Air, Water and Climate Change Initiatives (integrating all the Links, Places and Processes above as relevant).
  5. Fine-level integration, sharing, adoption and improvement of Information Infrastructure in all of the above 4 items to process and understand feedback, improve system performance, remove harmful imbalances and optimize benefits… Some say this is the most critical component of sustainability planning – we will never improve effectively and rapidly ("leapfrog") without it. Recommended quick reading on this problem is the Spring ’08 issue of the Wilson Quarterly, which focused on smarter solutions for “America’s Infrastructure”.
  6. Implementation of all the above 5 (easier said than done, esp. when there are so many agents to involve).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tamara's Sacred Benches (and the Urbanism of Paul)

My traveling companion Tamara Park just got her travelogue of our Rome to Jerusalem pilgrimage (via the Balkans and the Middle East) published! (Available already on Amazon.) On that journey she recorded interviews and dialogues recording the stories fellow travelers and locals in expounding their views of God and religion. The homage to the bench on the cover is not coincidental...Tamara considered the benches of the places we visited as places of sacred encounter. We visited these places as a pilgrim visits sacred relics.

Here is an excerpt recording our dialogue of Paul's visit in Athens (while we visited the Stoa near the Parthenon):

....Eric reminds us that Athens was world renown for the exuberance of its religious festivals. “Chances were very good that Paul had numerous occasions to view the Panathenaic Procession of priests and priestesses and devotees and revelers. He likely watched them parade votive offerings and garlanded beasts through the Agora towards the Acropolis. The procession was the apex of Greek religious expression…and the pride of Athens. Athens was the “Jerusalem” of the Greeks.
“In fact,” says Eric, “when Paul looked up at the base of the Acropolis, with its huge pylons and the ceremonial entrance of the Propylea (with the smallish Temple of Nike on its dramatic pedestal) he would have been hard pressed not to remember his beloved Jerusalem, where he was trained as a Rabbi in its most prestigious academy. I think the resemblance of the Acropolis to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is what was getting his Jewish goad.”
“I thought you said that the Athenian elite did not put much stock in religious festivities”, I respond, “so why would it appear Athenians were such enthusiastic worshippers?”.
“Well,” Eric replies, “while the philosophers held religion at arm’s length, they, of course, did not turn down the side benefits of religion, especially prodigious opportunities for festivity. Religions, even if you don’t put much stock in them, offer a wealth of side benefits. The Epicureans, for example, basically saw religion as a way of creating harmony within the culture. While ritual could be empty, it was not devoid of purpose. What mattered was that you took things in stride in your thoughts…and that you did not grant things greater importance than they’re due. Friendship and community, now, that was important!…
“And,” Eric smiles and points to the building just ahead of us, “that long building with the arcade in front of it, called a stoa, represented the happy fellowship of mankind. No doubt in my mind that Paul loved that place.”
“It was in the stoas,” Eric explains, “where strangers were expected to interact with strangers. Where common folk were expected to greet blue bloods and vice versa. Besides shopping, here it was where you headed to hear the latest gossip. It was where you debated matters of politics and war…where in fact, you cast your ballot in elections and referendums, and where you paid your taxes and whatnot. Here is the center of civic life in Greek culture…In fact, it is no accident that democracy was birthed and flowered in this space. We call this in the architectural world ‘liminal space’, where folks interact with others at the same level. It is not hierarchical space but a space of interchange.”...