Historic Preservation and Environmentalism

Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the union-busting New York Times:

NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.
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On the Overuse of Air Conditioning

A feature of summer that aggravates me to no end is the excessive use of air conditioning in public places and shops. I just had to flee from ERC because it was too cold in there — and I’m wearing long pants. Another great thing about Italy and Greece was that caffes only used AC enough to provide relief from the outside heat, basically keeping the indoors 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outdoors, rather than the 30 degree difference we often see here in the US. The summer I worked in DC, my office building was so cold I would walk out into the 90 degree weather and the humidity outdoors would condense on my cold hands.

Green Preservation

Finally. Word may be reaching the masses that preservation is environmentally sensitive.

Preservationists say green architecture isn’t just about building new energy efficient buildings that use solar panels, rooftop gardens and the latest cutting edge technology.

According to Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, re-using existing buildings can save more energy than building new ones. He says that’s because we often don’t consider all the energy that went into building it in the first place, what he calls embodied energy.

JACKSON: It’s basically all the energy to extract materials, process them, transport them, get the workers to the job site and build a whole building.

Jackson says re-using historic buildings also preserves a part of our culture. He says many historic buildings are also located in high density areas, which means people don’t have to use cars to get there.

I’ve been saying this for a while. But it bears repeating. Old buildings, with the embodied energy from their construction and creation of the materials, start out way ahead of new construction in terms of energy efficiency. Preservation is the original green building strategy.

The Chicago 7

This is a preservation post cross-posted at Built Chicago.

Preservation Chicago has offered its latest list of the most endangered buildings in Chicago. This year they are:

1. Chicago Landmarks Ordinance
2. American Book Company Building
3. Devon Avenue Commercial District
4. Grant Park
5. Booker Building
6. Daily News Building and Plaza
7. Norwood Park

Most notable from my perspective is the Landmarks Ordinance. As Lynn Becker and others have exclaimed in the last year since the Farwell Building controversy, Landmarks Commission decisions may mean the ordinance has no meaning, offers no protection for the landmark buildings.

However, the ordinance is going to turn 40 this year and, with the rest of the preservation movement, it is time to develop a new philosophy of preservation, new strategies, and new legal mechanisms for promoting retention of important structures and accommodating new development

The modern preservation movement was nationalized with LBJ’s launch of the Great Society programs, resulting in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act creating the National Register of Historic Places and followed by state-level legislation providing for protection of individual properties or districts based on historic criteria and development patterns. The legal basis for preservation protection, like zoning, has been the police power inherent in state and federal constitutions to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the people (see Euclid v. Ambler).

However, a large part of the strategies and justifications of the preservation movement were devised during a period of urban decentralization and urban renewal efforts that sought to modernize and redevelop buildings, sites and neighborhoods in an entirely different (and auto-oriented) mode. This period has largely ended and the middle-class has been tending to move back into central cities for the last 10 to 20 years (depending on the metro region). Within this new development and demographic context, planners and architects have been working to reforming the prevailing zoning regime to promote density and multi-modal transportation options. It is time for the preservation movement to do the same. Instead of simply focusing on protection and fighting redevelopment, it is time to better incentivize adaptive re-use and to join with the environmental movement to develop a new impetus and set of tools for preservation. There is no political movement in the U.S. (and possibly worldwide) with a bigger upside than the green movement in its many forms, with its potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and combat global climate change.

Federal research from the last energy crisis indicates a third of the energy a building will use in its lifespan is embedded in the construction materials that make up the foundation, the walls, the roof, the windows and doors, etc. Even the greenest new development can’t compete with the savings of leaving an existing building standing. Let us reconsider the landmarks ordinance and the way we go about preservation in the Chicago region in general, from something negative and oppositional to something positive and proactive.

Questioning Economic Development

I still haven’t put together my theory or at least thoughts on a better evaluation of economic development, which I promised last summer. Based on my travels in the Mediterranean (which I will hopefully revisit this fall), there is a great deal to be said for a more complex and multi-faceted evaluation of what economic development means, what it enables, and how it can be measured.

At times like this my mind drifts back to Marshall Berman’s book All That is Solid Melts into Air. In part of a larger argument about development and the creation of the modern world, Berman focuses on a surprising section of praise Karl Marx holds in his writings for the European bourgeoisie. Essentially, he praises them and the world they are creating because through their destruction of the feudal economic, political and social system, they are creating a world in which the proletariat has an opportunity to realize a whole new set of possibilities in economic, social, and political life, as well. It is this cognitive realization in addition to the physical realization that will help provoke them to socialist revolution. Essentially my thinking is that economic development must provide a better set of possibilities in terms of health, education, and social life in addition to basic needs such as subsistence living, income, and national wealth. I would submit that many of the villagers of Sicily are richer than a good number of Americans because they need not sacrifice their health or family ties for increased income or wealth, which comes with added stress, a poorer diet (and, as we have seen, mediocre to bad health care), and a worse overall family situation. The rub, of course, is if Sicilians, for example, have the chance to pursue career or wealth as the number one priority if they so choose.

Anyway, I’m revisiting this because of something I read at Economist’s View on Bill Gates.

[T]here’s more to Adam Smith, he added. “This was written before ‘Wealth of Nations,'” Mr. Gates said, flipping through a copy of Adam Smith’s 1759 book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It argues that humans gain pleasure from taking an interest in the “fortunes of others.” Mr. Gates will quote from that book in his speech today. …

To a degree, Mr. Gates’s speech is an answer to critics of rich-country efforts to help the poor. One perennial critic is Mr. Easterly, the New York University professor, whose 2006 book, “The White Man’s Burden,” found little evidence of benefit from the $2.3 trillion given in foreign aid over the past five decades.

Mr. Gates said he hated the book. His feelings surfaced in January 2007 during a Davos panel discussion with Mr. Easterly… To a packed room of Davos attendees, Mr. Easterly noted that all the aid given to Africa over the years has failed to stimulate economic growth on the continent. Mr. Gates, his voice rising, snapped back that there are measures of success other than economic growth — such as rising literacy rates or lives saved through smallpox vaccines. “I don’t promise that when a kid lives it will cause a GNP increase,” he quipped. “I think life has value.”

I’m interested to hear what he has to say this year at Davos.

Wastewater Planning in Chicago

Last spring the History Channel got the planning bug and cooked up a scheme in which architects from cities around the country devised plans for their cities for a hundred years out. The winner from Chicago was Urban Lab, whose plan, “Growing Water: Chicago in 2106,” involved passive treatment of wastewater across the city through the use of what they called “eco-boulevards.” Essentially, these are green spaces that drain and filter wastewater piped from homes, sewers, etc.

A series of 50 “eco-boulevards” spaced every half mile from Rogers Park to Roseland would run east-west from Lake Michigan to the subcontinental divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins at about Harlem Avenue—thin green ribbons running across the city that would replace pavement with green space, greenhouses, and wetland for the treatment of waste and storm water.

Each eco-boulevard would jut out into Lake Michigan and end in a man-made peninsula to accommodate solar arrays, wind turbines, and geothermal wells to power the treatment processes. “Terminal Parks” would mark the eco-boulevard’s western extremes. These large green spaces would be surrounded by residential and work complexes to accommodate returnees from the outer suburbs, who by 2106 will have moved back closer to town to obtain running water.

Normally I think these architects’ dream scenarios are annoying, but this one has really piqued my interest.


Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

This is a pretty crummy screen grab of what I think is a tremendously important image, demonstrating the continuing relevance of photography to evolving cultural discourse and human relationship to the environment. [N.B. Image replaced.]

On a couple of occasions I have noted the potential and growing importance of wind energy and the role that design can have in making wind turbines culturally significant landmarks as more old-time windmills are across the U.S. and of course in the Netherlands. Traveling around Sicily this summer where wind turbines are surprisingly plentiful, at each sighting I gazed in childlike awe at their beauty. Part of the difficulty of promoting acceptance of wind turbines in this country is getting over the design issue. Most large turbines look pretty similar and pretty spare; their modern appearance can be a superficial aesthetic obstacle to broader acceptance. “They don’t look good,” is a complaint I hear all too often.

However, we know that these culturally conditioned preferences are malleable–somebody needs to convince people that these turbines are beautiful, either because of their cultural and environmental value or, if their design be altered, because of their visual appeal. Photographer Ann Mitchell, a Californian who mixes traditional and modern photographic processes to document the contemporary landscape, created this image, “Wind,” as part of her American Triptych series. Simply put, what this image does is make the modern turbines look old-timey, lending a cultural durability and venerability to this renewed form of power generation.

While a small step, this is the first part of an important cultural effort to bring these new features on the modern landscape into mainstream acceptance and appeal. When people start responding to these turbines as the subject of art, as being worthy of artistic and aesthetic and cultural consideration and reckoning, they may begin to realize the important interconnections between the environment, science and engineering, and human needs, and the essential role that elements like turbines play in reconfiguring our landscape for the future.

Note: this is a really crappy version of a gorgeous sepia-toned image I will try to get a better image of soon. It was featured in the July/Aug issue of View Camera magazine.

Package Free/Waste Free

So this is a project, unlike the last one, that will see some results. You’ve of course heard of the 100 mile diet and other such fads, challenges, or lifestyles. One of the things my wife and I are interested in is reducing our packaging and waste. To almost zero. When we composted at our old house (meaning we just threw our food scraps in a hole in the back yard) and shopped at the Ann Arbor People’s Food Co-op, just about the only waste we had was Kleenexes and toilet paper rolls. While we went to Europe and shopped at the street markets every day, we saw how easy it is to live without much packaging (particularly if you lay off the processed stuff).

New domicile, new challenges. We’re in an apartment in a denser, more walkable area, but now we don’t have the compost hole or the PFC. These days we’ve got about one tied-up plastic shopping bag a day of waste, which I think is too much. Our apartment complex also doesn’t recycle, but we’ve found a place across the street where we can drop our recyclables under cover of night. The first solution is a free-standing composter. If you have any experience with these, send along an anecdote or a recommendation. They pretty much all look good to me online when I don’t have to smell them or wave away fruit flies. If I remember correctly, Murph has a composting drum. How much did that cost and how much trouble is it?

Next up is reducing our bottles and other plastic containers. The PFC used to have bulk olive oil, laundry detergent, and dish detergent. I had no idea what a blessing those were. Nearby we have a Wild Oats with a decent (if expensive) bulk section, but not those three liquids (which we use quite a bit). Farther away is Whole Foods where I am reluctant to shop and I don’t think those are in bulk. Generally not looking good, so we’ll have to think more about this.

In other issues, I’ve introduced my wife to paper towels for cleaning rather than newspapers, which we should get back to at least part of the time. We probably waste too much food, too, which comprises a decent part of our daily bag o’ rubbish. We take cloth shopping bags to the grocery store, but we still get a few plastic bags per trip to use as garbage liners. Most of our plastic stuff does double or triple duty before it hits the garbage can.

Anyways, given this varied activities, how have you all been reducing your waste? What are some areas I’m missing. This seems like another area that we could make dramatic improvements on without losing any quality of life (like cutting out our cars).

Flood Plain Development

The Madison House lies in a flood plain, that of the Allen Creek, which has run through a pipe underground, now deteriorating, for some 70 years. On rainy days we get a good deal of leakage in the basement, though not to the extent that you might term it “flooding.” However, there is now a long-term foundation issue. The ancient (and probably low-quality) concrete has been flaking and crumbling from the exterior walls, and that process looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Wisely, this house would not be buildable in its current location just because of these floodplain issues.

What’s wrong with floodplains, you might ask. Think New Orleans. Think Mississippi River in 1993. Think Mississippi River today.

About 28,000 homes have been built and more than 6,000 acres of commercial and industrial space developed on land that was underwater in 1993, according to research by Nicholas Pinter, a geologist who studies the region at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Building is happening on flood plains across Missouri, but most of the development is in the St. Louis area, and it is estimated to be worth more than $2.2 billion. Though scientists warn about the danger of such building, the Missouri government has subsidized some of it through tax financing for builders.

Mike Davis’ book Ecology of Fear examines the human role in creating natural disasters, illustrating that if humans didn’t develop settlements in areas of dangerous natural circumstances like flooding, hurricanes, mudslides, fires, or earthquakes, there really wouldn’t be much in the way of natural disasters for us to recover from. While flooding is a bit more problematic because of the many other economic and ecological advantages of living near water, why are we using TIF money to develop shopping malls?

THF Realty Inc. used Missouri’s tax program, known as tax increment financing, to build what is said to be the largest strip mall in the country on land in the Chesterfield Valley area of St. Louis County that was submerged in the floods of 1993. The shopping center, which cost $275 million to build, opened in 1999 and now has more than two million square feet of retail space, mall officials said.

The developers spent more than $35 million on levee and storm drainage improvements, replacing an old levee that had offered protection against a 100-year flood with a levee that met the standards for a 500-year flood. And, they said, they have brought jobs and revenue to a formerly sleepy part of the county.

Heck yeah, and there will be jobs, too, when the federal aid comes in after the next flood to help the schmucks who settled in these floodplains. Great work, everyone. Whatever you do, don’t build stuff in your existing city limits. Stay out of St. Louis.

Outdoor Clotheslines

Outdoor Clotheslines
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Our next step in cutting the costs of consumption and convenience, while being more energy friendly. This is our summer alternative to hanging wet clothes on our radiators. Next up on our list will probably be a free-standing composter, since we live in an apartment and don’t have any yard.

Any other pretty easy (and probably old-school) ideas for saving money and energy?