Thursday, March 29, 2007

Changing tires in a changing climate

Dr. Turbo at "May Shrink Or Fade" has collected an impressive climatological data set in a long-term study of how soon after the vernal equinox he removes the snow tires from his car.

Actually, in the grand scheme of climate studies, this really isn't a huge collection of data. Nevertheless, with only eleven degrees of freedom, this data rejects the null hypothesis that the tire-changing date is not getting earlier every year with 90% confidence. Which is basically the conclusion that thousands of scientists working for years on the UNIPCC came to.

Good work, Doctor! The government might take bold steps to reduce carbon pollution or it might do nothing at all; either way, this tire changing chore won't last much longer.

Monday, March 26, 2007

MaineDOT wonders, "What if we build our cities around places?"

Coming from the Maine Department of Transportation, the Pine Tree State's own little Kremlin of Socialized Motoring, this might only be a rhetorical question. But it's heartening to hear it from them nevertheless, and even more heartening to see that the MDOT will send its traffic engineers to two days of workshops on "Context Sensitive Solutions" to road design. They'll even be forced onto a bus to a placemaking exercise on the USM campus on Friday morning.

On Thursday evening there will be a public forum with Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, an awesome organization that advises cities and towns on creating more of the vibrant, pedestrian-oriented places that strengthen our communities. Since streets are the biggest, most prominent public places in most of our cities and towns, MDOT bears a lot of responsibility to the state of our communities. The speed of automobiles, width of sidewalks, and even the timing of traffic lights can make the difference between a desolate stretch of abandoned buildings and a vibrant Main Street full of businesses, residents, and visitors.

One of the PPS's "greatest placemaking victories of 2006" was the New Hampshire DOT's long-range strategic plan, "an unprecedented statewide effort to link transportation and land use, with the explicit aim of preserving and enhancing places." Which leads to a question that isn't just rhetorical: if our live-free-or-die neighbors can do it, why shouldn't we?

Thursday's public forum will be held at USM's Hannaford Hall in Portland from 7 to 9 pm.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Developers at Work: Pointless Solar Panels Proliferate on Paper

In this model of the revised Maine State Pier proposal from Ocean Properties (see yesterday's post below), the parking garage in the foreground seems to be abandoned, overgrown with jungle vegetation and capped with a tropically blue lagoon. I think that the plastic foliage is supposed to indicate that the garage will be a "green" building. It might generate hundreds of additional vehicle trips which will spew literal tons of air pollution into downtown Portland's air, but turn the place into a gigantic duck blind and maybe people won't notice.

If it were that easy, Exxon could have installed an eco-toilet on the sinking Valdez and called it good. Besides, there aren't many plants that could survive the notoriously toxic air inside every parking garage - plastic varieties excepted. This new green-building focus in the Ocean Properties proposal definitely suffers from the simplistic mindset of a quick fix, though. Just look at the solar panels.

This placard at last night's meeting showed some of the new "green" features being considered. Among the promises are a "carbon neutral project," "eco-pavers" on the surface parking lot, and the "largest solar collector installation in [the] region." The latter will be distributed among the rooftops of the project's buildings.

All well and good, but in all of the models and renderings, many of those solar rooftops slope down towards the north - i.e., away from our scant northern-latitude sunlight (take a look at the photos of the models to see what I mean). Since we're not in the southern hemisphere, that design isn't going to generate much power - a fact that leads me to the conclusion that this idea isn't about generating clean electricity as much as it's about generating warm and fuzzy feelings.

The rest of the green promises - the carbon-neutrality, the eco-pavers, etcetera - fall similarly flat as soon as you consider the massive amounts of socialized parking in this plan. The lead architecture firm for Ocean Properties, which specicializes in McMansions and gaudy hotels, looks like it needs a crash course in green design. Ocean Properties' sustainable cred hangs in the balance.

Ocean Properties plays catch-up

So tonight was the first official public hearing for the Maine State Pier proposals (see previous post and follow-up). The City of Portland Community Development Committee, which oversees development proposals that involve city-owned property like the pier, hosted presentations from each development team: first Ocean Properties, with a significantly revised plan, then Olympia, with the same plan wrapped up in some strong "we're from Portland, they're not" themes.

Since Olympia has been much better about putting their proposal out for the public to see (here and here), this post will focus on the more enigmatic Ocean Properties plan.

Unfortunately, I missed the beginning of the meeting and most of Ocean Properties' proposal. If anyone has anything to add, please comment. But I did take a long look at their fancy new architectural model (see photos) and renderings, and I'm happy to report that there seems to be significant improvement from their design submitted to the city last month.

As mentioned before, this proposal does have one strong public good that the other lacks: a public market. According to Bob Baldacci, the governor's brother, this one will engage in wholesale trade (which the failed Portland Public Market on Cumberland Avenue never did), and it could take advantage of its waterfront location to promote new markets for local fisheries. Note to Olympia: the first floor of your proposed office building fronting Commercial Street would make a fantastic space for a wholesale/retail market, too.

Other than that, though, the initial plan from Ocean Properties had plenty of room to improve. They're now sincerely flattering their competition with a familiar-looking waterfront park on the land side of the pier and a committment to LEED-certified buildings. Where the first proposal put the huge parking garage right next to the existing Casco Bay Lines structure, such that the entrance to the pier would have been dominated by a gauntlet of ugly vehicle storage buildings, the new scheme opens up a sliver of park at the pier's entrance and moves the garage down the block.

The newer proposal also makes broad and slightly clueless gestures towards "green building" (stay tuned to the next post for details), probably a response to the Olympia plan to certify their project with the US Green Building Council.

Many deficiencies still remain nevertheless, including a surface parking lot with waterfront views in two directions and a questionable financial plan. And the Ocean Companies people still seem clueless on a number of fronts - from placemaking to transportation demand management to making their plans available on the web (only part of the old proposal, still riddled with amazing amounts of grammatical errors, is on their architects' web site).

There's still plenty of time for both teams to improve their plans: the CDC will meet again next month and accept some public comments, and a number of public forums will probably happen in the meantime.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The new economy

An adaptive reuse of a smokestack: moving electrons instead of steam. In the former Scott Paper mill complex, Winslow, Maine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Wall Street Journal would like to inform you...

... that "Maine is at war" -- over freshwater fishing bait. From the front page of yesterday's paper:
RAGGED LAKE, Maine -- An ice fisherman fishes when it's cold; a fly fisherman fishes when it isn't. An ice fisherman uses fish to catch fish; a fly fisherman uses ersatz insects. Maine ice fishermen are mostly born here; fly fishermen are mostly "from away."

These differences have gotten an airing this winter in a legislative debate about bait. Fly fishermen for "bait control" say live bait fish -- especially non-native ones -- get loose in lakes, glom all the food and drive the native trout out. Ice fishermen for "bait choice" say they must fish with live bait or be driven out, too.
Although the worst violence that war correspondent Barry Newman encounters consists of lame jokes and soft putdowns that fly-fishermen tell about ice fishers, or vice versa:
"Ethically, the fly fishermen don't like ice fishing," said John Whalen, who farms bait in Canaan and has led the ice-fishing outcry. "They view it as consumptive, removing 'resource' from the environment -- fish that they want to be able to catch three or four times in the summer."

...Thom Watson, a Bath Democrat, sponsored the other bait bill. He was born in Louisiana.

"My dad was a duck hunter," said Mr. Watson. "He used to say ice fishing was like a hunter sitting by a fireplace looking up the chimney waiting for a bird to fly over."
Newman is clearly fond of the irony that "non-native" fishermen are advocating for laws that regulate non-native fish: he cites the out-of-state pedigrees of the bill's sponsors and supporters, and even mentions that one bait prohibitionist was on his way to a "Thai dinner" after closing his fly shop for the evening (a subtle accusation of elitism, I suppose: "If the ice fishermen are starving, let them eat Pad Siew!")

Funny stuff, but in reality, there are probably at least as many native Maine fly anglers as there are out-of-state ice fishermen. If howling at "out-of-staters" is how the ice fishermen are going to respond to these proposed regulations, they're going to lose, and also foment a lot of useless resentment on the way.

The ice-fishermen argue that bait fish that have inhabited our lakes and ponds for decades are essentially native: "How long do they have to be here before they're called native?" asked Norman Chick, a retired apple grower. They might have come "from away" originally, but they're useful and they've lived here for years without doing much harm.

The man seems oblivious to the fact that his defense of bait might also apply to the legislators proposing the new regulations. But that doesn't invalidate the argument: in fact, a legislative committee had to weaken the bill when they discovered that no one could figure out when or how the allegedly invasive shiners arrived in Maine.

Which reminds me of Alan Burdick's book Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. The book mentions that there are hundreds more known alien species in the ocean along the west coast than there are on east coast, in spite of the fact that the Atlantic coast has been exposed to alien species from foreign trade for centuries longer. It's not that the east coast somehow repels invasives. Everything that marine biologists know about the Atlantic coast is based on an ecosystem that has already assimilated hundreds of new species since colonial times: we just can't tell what's "alien" from what's "native" anymore.

Truly, some invasive species pose big problems when they're suddenly introduced into a new habitat (look at what happened when Mr. Chick and Mr. Watson's ancestors met the first native Mainers). But a lot of non-natives arrive in new places without causing catastrophes, and sometimes, they can increase an ecosystem's diversity and resilience. Fly-fishermen should keep this in mind before they anguish too much over bait fish, and ice-fishermen can do likewise before they deride their neighbors "from away."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Daylight savings

Mud season has begun (and if you're not from the northeastern USA, here's the wikipedia article).

This past weekend was also the start of the new daylight savings time, which itself was a product of the Energy Bill of 2005. Back in the mid-1970s, Daylight Savings supposedly saved the nation 1% of its energy costs every day it was in effect. Allegedly, people used the extra daylight to enjoy the outdoors instead of sitting inside and running appliances.

Even though I think that DST is a little bit silly, I'll admit that it does have that effect on my own behavior: suddenly, it's warm enough and light enough that I can take walks and bike rides until seven in the evening. But I wonder if it has the same effect on our national energy consumption as it did thirty years ago. By all accounts, our work schedules are less uniform and more flexible, we spend a lot more time in front of television and computer screens, and we're a lot less likely to spend our leisure time outdoors.

A more recent paper from the California Energy Commission (which has a comprehensive web page about the history and theory of daylight savings) concluded that "there is no clear evidence that electricity will be saved from the earlier start to daylight saving time on March 11, 2007, but the 7 p.m. peak load will probably drop on the order of 3 percent for the remainder of March, lowering capacity requirements." The evening "peak load" is when home dishwashers, laundry machines, and other energy-suckers require the additional use of highly-polluting, short-term power generators. If the early DST reduces the need for those, even if there's no overall energy savings, there would at least be some benefits to air quality. For those enjoying the daylit evening outside instead of on the sofa, that counts as one more thing to like about daylight savings.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Bayside Glacier

While glaciers all over the world melt away, we have one here in Portland that is growing, thanks to the efforts of the Department of Public Works.

The DPW has been piling up the snow from the last two big storms in this empty lot in the Bayside neighborhood. In spite of recent warm weather, the glacier continues to grow as dumptrucks and bulldozers move snow from downtown streets and curbs to this designated snow storage site.

Like any glacier, this one scrapes away a great amount of detritus as it moves across the city. Any garbage and dirt that was on the street or nearby curbs gets buried in the snow and subsequently moved into the glacier. Then, as the top layers of the glacier melt, the revealed detritus leaves clues about the glacier's path and origins. In this photo, for example, a Big Mac wrapper suggests that this layer of snow might come from the vicinity of Valley Street, where downtown Portland's only McDonalds is located.

If this snow had fallen as rain, all of this debris would have instead washed into the city's sewers, and much of it would have overflowed into Casco Bay. In the glacier, however, it is collected and concentrated in one spot.

This characteristic also makes the glacier an attractive destination for the city's dominant bird species.

From Chestnut Street on the eastern side of the glacier, one can see more clearly the formative processes behind its growth. Here, dumptruck loads of snow (visible just to the right of the center in this photo) wait at the bottom of the glacier for the bulldozer to push them into the pile.

The glacier actually sits on a city-owned lot targeted for large-scale redevelopment, as indicated by the hopeful olde-timey streetlights here on Chestnut Street. The glacier, an agent of geological renewal, resides in a context of ongoing urban renewal. It remains to be seen where the glacier will move to in future winters, after office buildings and condos take its place on this empty lot.

More photos of the Bayside Glacier are available here.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


I was working two jobs this past week, so please pardon the dearth of posts. The good news is that I've settled in at GrowSmart and am daily adding interactivity to their web page, and the better news is that we're building some serious bipartisan momentum behind the recommendations of the Brookings report. If you'd like to receive our electronic newsletters and action alerts, sign up at the web page and enjoy the electronic scenery while you're there.

Besides that, I've got a six-shooter full of bullets saved up from the past week's news. Let's just wait for that tumbleweed to clear the street, and... draw!

  • Last Thursday's planned forum on the proposals for the Maine State Pier turned into an Olympia Companies promotional opportunity when Ocean Properties (the competing developers) bailed out of the event and stood up about a sixty concerned citizens. I dropped in for a few minutes and watched the end of Olympia's development presentation - they included side-by-side renderings of the two developments in their slide show, and left copies of the competition's proposal booklet next to their own at every table in the room. These guys seem pretty confident that their proposal will only benefit from side-by-side comparison...

  • ...and now that the competing Ocean Properties proposal is finally available from their architects' web site, detailed side-by-side comparisons are possible. This possibility does not serve Ocean Properties well: as it turns out, citizens would generally rather have a big waterfront park than a big waterfront parking lot. Then there's the fact that the writing in the Ocean Properties proposal seems to have been outsourced to Mrs. Altantsetseg's 6th grade English class in the Ulaanbaatar Primary School:

    From a passage describing a project in Palm Beach (page 10 of the RFP):
    "The City's convention center lacked the hotel rooms nessarry [sic] to attract conventions that required immeditae [sic] access from an attached hotel. The RFP attract [sic] serious international competion [sic] from which OPL was selected and will shortly be building [sic]."
    I am not making this up - the proposal is worth downloading just for the spectacular grammatical train wrecks. But my favorite passage comes when this prose crashes into the biographical details of the prestigious public figure who lent his name to the proposal:

    From Senator George Mitchell's bio in the "About the Developers" section:
    "He established and currently serves an Honorary Chairman of The Mitchell Institute... [imagine that: "Senator, fetch my Honorary Slippers!"] While [co-developer] Tom Walsh and George Mitchell have gone on to do other things they have never given up their mutual intrests [sic] in working together on an economic development project for their native state."

  • Finally, former Planning Board member John Anton has published his thoughts on the development proposals in an excellent essay on The Bollard. He cites a "key value expressed in the city waterfront planning documents – 'surface parking on the waterfront is the nightmare scenario,'" and also argues that "it is unacceptable that a public body constrain waterfront non-marine development [i.e., with working waterfront zoning] in its capacity as a regulator, while actively promoting [non-marine development] in its capacity as a landowner."

  • Enough about the Pier. Here's a new Maine-focused environmental blog from the Portland Press Herald: John Richardson's "Down To Earth". The Vigorous North is glad to have the company, and our readers will be glad to have an alternative that isn't distracted by Turnpike expansions and waterfront development proposals.

  • And here's what looks like an awesome PBS series about restoring nature in our cities: Edens Lost and Found. I can't find it on the MPBN schedule, but their web site is a fine read on its own.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Not with a bang but a whimper

If an entire order of species were undergoing a mass extinction, as the dinosaurs did 65 million years ago, people would notice, right?

Well, it's not exactly burning up the news cycle like the mass extinction of Britney's hair, but hundreds of species of frogs have died out in the past two decades, and most remaining species are currently threatened (see Emerging Infectious Diseases, "Emerging Infectious Diseases and Amphibian Population Declines", and LA Times, "'Amphibian Ark' seen as species' last best hope").

A big culprit seems to be a toxic fungus that spread worldwide after African frogs were exploited for use in pregnancy tests.