Thursday, March 31, 2016

Public housing for the future

Four years ago I joined the board of commissioners for the Portland Housing Authority with a chip on my shoulder about the fact that it hadn’t built any new apartments for the city since the Reagan administration. So I'm pretty proud about this: we’ve torn out a parking lot on Oxford Street, and in its place we're building 45 new apartments with public housing offices and a Head Start classroom on the ground floor.

This is going to be Maine's greenest building when it's finished. It's aiming for "passive house" certification and we're putting solar panels on the roof. It will have a courtyard that treats runoff under the patio. Most significantly, it’s Portland’s first-ever affordable apartment building that prioritizes housing for car-free households, with no parking on-site, within walking distance of bus routes,  supermarkets, and thousands of jobs. We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not building the parking garage that city zoning typically requires, and that's allowed us to build more apartments instead. It’s already won a national competition for innovation in lowering the cost of housing.

Public housing doesn't get the appreciation it deserves. It's facile for liberals to blame it for the tragedies of structural racism in our cities; meanwhile, the right attacks it for its unapologetic Great Society socialism. And as a result we've had decades of bipartisan budget cuts for federal housing programs.

But public housing neighborhoods give millions of people the ability to live amidst the opportunities of our increasingly unaffordable inner cities. Without these neighborhoods, our cities would be even more dramatically segregated and impoverished places.

And if, instead of dismissing it, we can build even more public housing – a lot more, as the Portland Housing Authority hopes to do in the years to come – then the city will be more diverse, more successful and more egalitarian. It will be more like the city we want it to be.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Design iterations of the Chrysler building

A scanned page from a 1929 edition of Progressive Architecture shows William Van Alen's iterative development of the iconic Chrysler Building's crown and spire, which was famously constructed in secret in order to outreach a downtown rival. The spire went up to claim the "world's tallest building" title in November 1929, at the dawn of the Great Depression.

I found this, at random, from the New York Public Library's amazing digital collections, which include hundreds of thousands of scanned items. This particular item comes from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1929-08) [direct link].

Update: thanks to Neil Kelley in the comments, here's a GIF version:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The aesthetics of clean energy

My old employer, Maine Audubon, is a fairly conservative and patrician organization. It's not a strong leader on climate issues: its conservation programs are a lot more preoccupied with piping plovers (cute birds that just happen to live on the same beaches as the organization's plutocrat "major donors") than with ending Maine's self-destructive addiction to fossil fuels.

So I was encouraged and a little surprised to see, on a recent visit a few months ago, a large new array of solar panels planted in the meadows of Maine Audubon's headquarters.

Knowing what I know of Maine Audubon's constituency and its neighbors in the blue-blooded suburb of Falmouth,  I presume that this new addition to the meadows of Gilsland Farm didn't come without some controversy. Lots of Maine Audubon's members (and a number of its staff) frankly express opinions that wind farms and solar installations are ugly. They wouldn't disagree that climate change exists, or that we need to do something about it – they'd just prefer that clean energy be built someplace else, where they don't have to look at it.

Maine's community of environmentalists is strongly aligned with the back-to-the-land movement. And in the back-to-the-land narrative, rural Maine was a new frontier where a new, sustainable and allegedly self-sufficient society could be built far away from the problems of the cities.

There's a fatal flaw in this narrative, though. Rural back-to-the-landers were, and still are, cripplingly addicted to oil and private automobiles. As a rule, they don't like to be reminded of this contradiction.

I think that this is the key to what so many rural "environmentalists" find distasteful about wind farms and large-scale solar installations. What upsets them is the reminder, amidst pastoral landscapes, that we are living through a climate catastrophe.

But for those of us who will live with the consequences of that catastrophe, the reminder is overdue – and these small token efforts to avert it are welcome. 

Related: Exporting pollution to Dixie

Monday, July 21, 2014

Silicon Valley's gentrification export

Airbnb, the DIY hotel service that was born in the crucible of the Bay Area's dystopan income divides and astronomical rents, is now spreading its way across the nation. Middle-class households now have the privilege to literally rent out their own beds in order to clear escalating rents in the nation's more fashionable/expensive vacation destinations.

Nick Schroeder, who recently took over the editorship of the Portland Phoenix, has a great feature story about the mixed blessings of the Airbnb phenomenon in this week's issue. He describes how Airbnb can help struggling artists make the rent. But he also points out that unaffordable rents are mainly the product of Portland's (or New York's, or San Francisco's) housing shortages — a problem that Airbnb is only making worse, as landlords convert erstwhile apartments where families used to live into informal, unlicensed hotels for well-heeled vacationers.

Meanwhile, in Next City, a possible solution is brewing in the other Portland, where they're considering an ordinance that would require the licensure and taxation of Airbnb rentals, with tax revenues going towards affordable housing funds.

Such a policy could, in theory, let struggling renters continue to rent out bedrooms when they need to — while also giving the city the means to ensure that there will be fewer struggling renters in the big picture.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Art laundry

Postcard, c. 1900, from the Detroit Publishing Company collection. Courtesy of collection Marc Walter / published in An American Odyssey (TASCHEN, 2014). 

Central Park Gates, by Jean Claude and Christo, 2005. Photo courtesy of The City Project.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

We don't sit in trees any more

In Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, the hero, an adolescent 18th-century nobleman, renounces the earthbound life one evening when his sister serves him a dinner of snails. He spends the rest of his life living in the treetops, from where he falls in love, embraces radical politics, and participates in the political and cultural revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment.

Calvino's novel was written in 1957 — a novel about rebellion in a not-particularly-rebellious era. But a generation later, in April 1970, college students and politicians organized a "nationwide environmental teach-in" held mostly on college campuses. It would later become known as the first "Earth Day."

Historian Jared Farmer recounts one of the first Earth Day protests in his book Trees in Paradise, which I learned about recently on the Huntington Library's blog. A synopsis there recounts how "At Moorpark College, in Ventura County, 50 students laid their bodies down in front of bulldozers to protest the widening of a tree-lined road... By the time 10 students were arraigned in juvenile court on April 22, the first Earth Day, the trees were gone."
“What had been lost? Ancient redwoods? Historic oaks? No. They aren’t even native plants. Most of the trees in question are Australian eucalypts planted in the 19th century as ornamentals.”
With the benefit of 44 years' worth of hindsight, most Golden State environmentalists of 2014 would probably not risk arrest over some Australian eucalyptus trees. Today, they're generally considered an invasive species that sucks away scarce groundwater and fuels dangerous wildfires with their oily foliage and shedding bark.

But trees — especially giant Californian trees — remained a powerful synecdoche for environmentalism. Tree protests reached a peak in the late 1990s when the charismatic Julia Butterfly Hill, with support from Humboldt County Earth First! activists, spent two years sitting in a 600 year-old redwood that she named Luna.

The immediate consequence of Hill's endurance tree-sit was the permanent protection of her tree and a 200 foot buffer zone from a logging operations.

But more generally, Hill's activism attracted national attention to the regional battles between loggers and environmentalists over the fate of the Pacific coast's old-growth forests. Thanks to stronger enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, West Coast logging was already in steep decline by the late 1990s. The activism of treesitting brought the additional accountability of publicity to logging operations.

In the years since Hill climbed down from Luna, living in trees in order to save trees has become rarer and rarer — in part because it has become less necessary. In the interest of avoiding controversy, logging businesses have committed to more sustainable forms of forestry, and conservation organizations have been able to protect most of what remains of the west's old growth trees. More ambiguously, more timber harvesting has moved overseas, away from the critical eyes of Californian idealists.

Today, treesitting feels like a bit of a 1990s anachronism. We're taught, as ecologists, to think about the complexity of global ecosystems. The idea of devoting months' or years' worth of activism to save a small grove of trees can seem like a lark in the context of the world's more pressing, global crises.

But under the apocalyptic threats of losing everything, any form of activism will feel inadequate. Before we throw up our hands, it's worth noting that Julia Butterfly Hill and her tree-sitting colleagues actually accomplished most of their goals, and leveraged influence far beyond their ambitions. It's the Butterfly effect: given enough time, repeated small actions will eventually generate big changes.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Watch Charles and Ray Eames pitch Eero Saarinen's "Mobile Lounges"

Jess and I took a vacation to the Grand Canyon last week, which was fantastic — but as spectacular as it the thing that actually inspired me to post on this neglected blog was a bleak bit of airport architecture we encountered on our way home.

Our flight got diverted through Washington D.C.'s Dulles airport, and on the way through we were herded into one of these bizarre vehicles (which you might recognize if you've been there yourself) for a ride to the next terminal. They kind of resemble an open-plan double-wide trailer stacked atop a tank chassis:
(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Being in Washington, my initial guess was that these were the unwieldy product of some pork-barrel military industrial contract. But I was mistaken — these weird buggies are actually the vestigial remnants from an unfulfilled future of jet travel.

In 1958, the architect Eero Saarinen was commissioned to design Dulles, which would be one of the first major airports built from scratch to serve jet aircraft. Foreseeing the long walks and sprawling terminals of our modern era, Saarinen suggested that it would be better to employ a kind of satellite parking system for planes, with passengers shuttled from a compact, comfortable terminal onto the tarmac via these mobile boarding platforms, which he called "mobile lounges".

I could go into more detail about the details and rationale behind this idea, but luckily for us Saarinen commissioned this wonderful short film from his friends Charles and Ray Eames as part of his campaign to sell the authorities on his design, so I'll just let them explain it:

Untitled from CHRISTINA LAETZ on Vimeo.

The mobile lounges are like a horizontally-oriented elevator: a door opens, you walk in, you wait a while, another door opens and you exit somewhere else. Airport travel was more glamorous back then, though: on our short ride between the modern Dulles terminals, the mobile lounge was pretty dingy and crowded — certainly nothing like the luxury buses depicted in the Eames' cartoon.

Saarinen's concept enjoyed a brief popularity in the early 1960s — mobile lounges were also adopted at Montreal's Dorval airport and Charles de Gaulle in Paris — but like the Betamax video player, they were an innovation that never quite caught on.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Grand Canyon of Westbrook

The Grand Canyon of Westbrook is a large volume of negative space out behind the Travelodge (the landmark visible in the photo below, on the Canyon's north rim). I've been past it hundreds of times in my lifetime, but unless you walk out the railroad tracks to stand on the edge, it's easy to miss. The shopping centers and four-lane arterial roads that surround it do a remarkable job of obscuring the city's biggest hole in the ground.

Some online research reveals that the rock of the quarry is gneiss, rock that originally formed as marine clay and slate about 450 million years ago. It was the Ordovician Period, and the mud that would eventually become coastal Maine was accumulating in a shallow subtropical sea surrounding a chain of volcanic islands in the southern hemisphere.
450 million years is a long time. Enough time for seafloor mud to harden into slate, then for that slate to fold onto itself and plunge miles deep into the earth while brand-new Appalachian Mountains rise to the height of Himalayas near the equator, plus enough time for those Himalayan-sized mountains to wear away to White Mountain-sized nubs.
450 million years is nine million times longer than the amount of time it took Blue Rock Industries to make this hole. But now that we're thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of years, in terms of rocks that drifted halfway across the globe and sank four miles under long-gone mountains and resurfaced here, it doesn't seem like such a big hole any longer, in the grand scheme of things, does it?

Just a very temporary divot on a landscape even more temporarily known as "Westbrook," "Maine."