Friday, December 28, 2007

Forest Succession in Manhattan: The High Line

On the West Side of Manhattan, an old elevated railway that's been abandoned for twenty-five years shows us how urban plants and trees can re-colonize and thrive in the middle of the nation's biggest city.

Succession typically works this way: after a large disturbance, like a fire or windstorm, fast-growing weeds and shrubs move in to stablize and reinvigorate the soil. These give way to fast-growing trees, which in turn get crowded out by slow-growing, shade-tolerant climax species.

The High Line ceased its railroad operations in 1980, and even though it started with no topsoil to speak of, the abandoned viaduct has come a long way towards growing a forest.

Even while the railroad was operating, meager scraps of dust and soot gathered amidst the railbed and began supporting mosses and a few hardy grasses. Over the years, more dust, leaves, and soot blew in. Each fall, the topsoil gained another layer of dead grass and leaves from pioneer weeds like goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, and Ailanthus Altissima.

Given a few more years, the High Line might have begun to support larger trees, including birches and oaks. But the High Line's succession is taking place amidst the parallel succession of the Meatpacking District, where pioneer nightclub and art studio species are losing their habitat to multi-million dollar condos and Frank Gehry's masturbatory late-empire architecture. A few years ago, artists looked down on the green ribbon of the High Line and proposed a public park. Developers saw dollar signs, and so this is how the High Line looks today:

When construction is finished, the new High Line park will have benches, new concrete paths, easy access from the street level, and drought-tolerant landscaping that mimics the wild weeds that inspired the park.

It might seem like an interruption and commodification of the wild successional process, but New York is nothing if not habitat for homo sapiens, and the new High Line fits in perfectly with New York's typical neighborhood succession: places once run-down and diverse inexorably become unaffordable and boring. At least until the next large disturbance, anyhow.

Visit NYCviaRachel's Flickr page for more High Line construction photos.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Plum Creek and Paranoia

This past Saturday, Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission held a public hearing in downtown Portland to vet public concerns over the massive development project that Plum Creek proposing for Maine's Moosehead Lake region. Several hundred Mainers turned out, and the majority came to declare their opposition to the project.

Frankly, Plum Creek's plan doesn't get me all that riled up. Environmental groups here in Maine have made much of the company's plan to subdivide 975 houselots in the remote Moosehead region - which sounds like an awful lot, but really, it's roughly the equivalent of adding another Limington (1141 households) or Readfield (867 households) into the north woods (source: US Census). I grew up next to Limington, and to tell the truth, those 1141 households across the Saco River were pretty benign.

So until Saturday, I'd been inclined to look at the Plum Creek "debate" as yet another instance of well-to-do, self-styled environmentalists getting worked up about the quasi-mystical Nature on the frontier in order to avoid thinking about the nature we use and abuse every day. After all, while the hearings were going on and street thespians were prancing around in moose costumes, international diplomats in Bali were struggling to drag the United States to sign a watered-down agreement that may end up being little more than an eleventh-hour doomsday pact. How's that for perspective?

But then I met the Plum Creek supporters - or rather, two particular supporters - who reminded me that as foolish as the environmental movement can sometimes be, at least it's not as blatantly desperate, greedy, and stupid as the fools who swallow and serve the gospel of a corporate panderer.

Upstairs from the big hearing room, Plum Creek had set up a hospitality room "for supporters only," and naievely thinking that I might have an intelligent conversation there, I moseyed inside. Within five steps of the door, a grumpy old man with a rental-cop authority complex stopped me and told me I had to leave, because the room was only for supporters.

Now, the guy's little bulldog demeanor was funny enough, so I laughed him off and asked him how he was so sure I wasn't a supporter. He essentially told me that I fit the profile, which I can only assume to be someone under thirty years old (I don't think my clothing - a hooded high-school football team sweatshirt, Dickies, and an olive green jacket - screamed "environmental terrorist"). I explained my position, gave him the name of my employer, which has adopted a neutral position to try to negotiate a consensus compromise, and generally assured him well enough to leave me alone for a while.

I took a picture of the room and helped myself to some coffee. But the geriatric bouncer really didn't like the photography, because he stormed back over and told me to use a styrofoam cup. This confused me - was my choice of a reusable ceramic cup how he was profiling me as an antagonistic Earth Firster? But no: he just wanted me to leave, immediately.

This was at the head of the buffet line, and within earshot of everyone in the room. I wondered loudly how Plum Creek could have its reputation as a steward of public access when this was how it treated sympathetic members of the public in its "hospitality room."

A second fellow came over and tried to lead me away from the small knot of supporters in the buffet line - the "good cop." His name was Ron. We had a slightly more productive conversation, but at one point he complained that "you people" want to cut off public access to the northern forest. I told him that I wanted no such thing, but that Plum Creek's sale of one thousand McMansions would fairly certainly restrict public access to large portions of the forest immediately, and introduce thousands of future complaints about hunting and industrial forestry from newly suburban neighborhoods in the forest. After about five minutes, he ended the conversation fairly amicably, and also asked me to leave.

Thinking back on it, I came to see these guys and their paranoid lack of perspective as representatives of all the things that are terribly wrong with Plum Creek. The corporation and its supporters have been working hard to establish an "us against them" mentality in northern Maine, and they were particularly resentful that they were subjected to a hearing in Portland. But these divisions are bullshit, and counterproductive.

The two men I spoke with, like many Plum Creek advocates, act as though they are defending a terribly abusive relationship. Plum Creek has worked hard to promote the idea of Greenville as a struggling town in need of a savior. As a result, Greenville and its more gullible citizens have resigned themselves to low self esteem and a slavish devotion to the company's plans. Sure, Plum Creek knocks us around sometimes, but we deserve it. We need it. And damn anyone who thinks otherwise.

The Plum Creek bouncers have a lot in common with the working stiffs who want George Bush to keep burning coal until we've got the Inferno on Earth. You could say "screw 'em," but they're already screwed beyond all hope.

Listen, Greenville, you've got a lot going for yourself - Moosehead Lake, mountains, and millions of acres of wild Maine forest. Stick up for yourself and don't take any more crap from Plum Creek's political machinations.

The Photo They Don't Want You to See

PS - This is the forbidden photograph of the inside of Plum Creek's "hospitality room" (read the previous post for the hilarious story behind it).

It looks innocent enough, but as I left I could have sworn I heard them start chanting in tongues. On my way down the hall I passed some shaved sheep that were being led back to the room I'd left. They were completely shaved and tattooed in unintelligible symbols that nevertheless filled me with a vague sense of dread. The weirdest thing was a few minutes later, downstairs in the big hearing room, when a big bloody mass of entrails just fell through the ceiling onto the LURC commissioners' desk. Probably just a freak accident.

Just kidding! Totally joking! Haha. You Plum Creek guys have a great sense of humor, you know?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Farmadelphia, the Havana Cornucopia, and the Fire Escape Garden

Check out these Pennsylvanian urban-rural photo mashups, from an landscape architecture project called Farmadelphia:
(these images are courtesy of Front Studio, as seen on BLDGBLOG):

(The one above actually reminds me of some out-of-the-way neighborhoods of Houston.)

Granted, community gardens have been springing up in the empty lots of rundown neighborhoods since back-to-the-hood urban homesteading movements (now known as "gentrification") began in the 1970s.

You might think that Farmadelphia's most innovative idea is that it treats these community plots not as hobby gardens, but as serious, profit-oriented agriculture to feed the city. But even this is nothing new: Havana, Cuba has been doing it for nearly 20 years now.

An urban farm in Havana (source)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its imports of oil, fertilizer, and grains - the things that sustained and justified the country's sugar-plantation agricultural system. The entire nation had to very quickly switch from a sugarcane monoculture to a distributed food-producing permaculture among small urban plots in order to avoid famine - and by and large they've succeeded.

So if our own Soviet sugar-daddies abandon us - if Wal-Mart shuts down, say, or China embargoes us - Farmadelphia might stand a chance.

Last but not least, here's the fire escape garden that Jess and I tended this past summer, as it was in the halcyon days of August.

Who needs an empty lot? Or Fidel, or fancy architects, for that matter?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hike CanCo Mountain

It's been a while since I've posted an inner-city wilderness tour here. So here, for your enjoyment, is a trail description for CanCo Mountain, also known as Rocky Hill, in the Deering neighborhood of Portland.

Begin your hike from the dead end on Quarry Road off of Read Street, near Morrill's Corner. Continuing around the fence and up the dirt road, you'll get your first view of the dramatic southern face of CanCo Mountain. Avoid the cliffs by climbing the rubble on the eastern end of the hill, then climbing the gentle ridge to the summit.

CanCo Mountain offers spectacular views of the City of Portland, Casco Bay, and, on clear days, the White Mountains. Below: the view over CMP's maintenance lot towards Back Cove.

The thin soils that cover over the granite in patches support a limited community of plants that thrive in dry, sandy soils: mostly red pine and blueberry, with some white pine. This type of forest is actually typical along much of Maine's rocky coast - so even though CanCo Mountain is two miles inland, the water views and the flora give it a nautical flair.

Also visible in the middle distance are some vestiges of Portland's twentieth-century industry. Chief among these is the big factory west of the summit, which was once the home of the American Can Company, Canco Road's namesake (Can Co – get it?). This was once the place where Maine's agricultural bounty arrived by rail to be packed into American Cans, then shipped forth on a nonperishable journey to the nation's grocery stores.

But not anymore. Fewer people eat Maine produce, and those who do certainly don't want it to come from a can. By the looks of it, the old factory is now some sort of warehouse.

CanCo Mountain also has two huge gouges cut into it - presumably the quarry for which the road was named. If any readers have any more information about the can factory or the quarry, please comment.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Real green construction is affordable construction.

The Press Herald's environment reporter John Richardson published a feature today about a 4-unit LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -certified subdivision being built by Habitat for Humanity in Portland's North Deering neighborhood.

John writes that the LEED "stamp of approval... often equates to expensive," but I'd strongly disagree. Green building is inherently frugal, because it makes more sensible and practical use of our natural resources. It's true that a huge LEED-certified McMansion in South Freeport, Maine is going to be expensive - just like every other huge McMansion in South Freeport. But applying LEED standards to more sensible homes isn't that expensive - in fact, taking long-term savings in transportation and energy savings into account, a LEED-certified building is going to be considerably less expensive than it would be without green building features.

For example, Portland's new LEED homes will focus on using recycled materials, many of which are donated from older homes through Habitat's ReStore. And energy-saving features may have more expensive up-front costs, but most typically pay for themselves within five to ten years - and that period will only get shorter with rising energy costs. "We're providing affordable houses to those who can least afford electricity and oil, so it's a natural for us to go there," said Stephen Bolton, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.

The fact that lower-income people spend such a big proportion of their income on heating and electricity, especially here in northern New England, makes green building features a natural fit for affordable housing. And since residents of these homes are more likely, by necessity, to live frugally without indulgences like 'great rooms' or four-wheel-drive minivans, affordable housing should be a natural fit with the LEED framework.

But while more and more affordable housing construction projects will incorporate green building features, it's still going to be some time before LEED certification becomes standard for them: certifying still requires a lot of extra work from architects and contractors, and that added expense means that your million-dollar shrines to jackass environmentalism are more likely to get certified than a truly sustainable, middle- or low-income apartment building. In other words, the "stamp of approval" might cost a bit extra, but everything that justifies that stamp will lead to big savings for the homeowner.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Exporting pollution to Dixie

As someone who lived (happily) in Houston, Texas for a year, it kind of gets on my nerves when northerners pick on the South - Houston or LA or the sprawl around Pheonix and Atlanta - as being the cause of the nation's environmental ills. It's true that these cities have big environmental problems - especially air pollution. But these problems are largely caused by industries that Northerners don't want in their own backyards, although we don't mind buying their products.

Let's start with Houston's ship channel (photo at right), home to the largest concentration of oil refineries in the United States. These refineries produce tons of air pollution and greenhouse gases daily and are largely responsible for Houston's notoriously poor air quality. Because of the refineries, Texas's per-capita greenhouse gas production is nearly double that of most northern states.

But we in the northern states are still buying and using those refineries' products. In fact, in the last year that data was available, the average Maine motorist drove 11,348 miles: over 1,000 miles MORE than the average six-shootin', hollerin' Texan (source). Back-to-the-land Vermonters drive even more on a per-capita basis. So not only are we actually responsible for more pollution, we're also doing the dishonorable deed of producing that pollution in a poorer part of the country where more minorities and immigrants live. How could anyone possibly be self-righteous about that?

Similarly, Los Angeles is well known as the smog capital of the nation, but that's largely because of its port, where millions of containers from China get transferred from diesel-burning ships to diesel-burning trucks to supply stores and warehouses all over the country. Without the Port of Los Angeles and its pollution, it would be a lot harder to come by your organic pears from New Zealand, or any of the thousands of other things you buy from across the Pacific.

The Port of Long Beach is starting to assert itself, though. As detailed in this article from the Times, California is placing new regulations on the shippers and truckers who converge on LA to move Asian products to American store shelves.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said, “We’re not going to have kids in Long Beach contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.”

Actually, Mayor, that's been our arrangement for decades now. But best of luck to you, from a well-wisher in the vigorous North.

Monday, December 03, 2007

US Chamber depicts a frigid future for SoCal

The United States Chamber of Commerce has produced a truly terrifying short film to advocate for swift enactment climate change legislation. In it, Southern California's climate has apparently crashed to frigid conditions, and the survivors, living in a world depleted of oil and without viable alternative technologies, are left to run along abandoned freeways for mobility and for warmth. It's like "The Day After Tomorrow," but there are no Army helicopters flying in to the rescue at the end: this is a world out of gas.

I guess the voiceover actor and title copywriter wanted to tone down the horror-flick footage, though, since their message contradicts everything you see in the video. Nevertheless, the US Chamber provides a handy link for us to write to our Senators. Again, their version is full of errors, so I've drafted up a handy actual version for you to send:

THEIR version (don't use - you'll look like a bozo!)

I am writing this letter to urge you to oppose S. 2191, the “America’s Climate Security Act of 2007.” S. 2191 is a flawed bill that, if passed, would have a negative impact on every American’s daily life. This bill will cause millions of Americans to lose their jobs, businesses to move overseas, double electricity bills and cost Americans trillions of dollars in compliance costs. S. 2191 does not recognize climate change as a global issue, fails to promote the technology needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and does not address the potential problems it would cause for American businesses.

The potential economic consequences of S. 2191 are striking. Earlier this month, Dr. Anne Smith at CRA International testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and predicted that by 2050, S. 2191 could cause the following:

1. Up to 3.4 million American jobs lost;
2. $1 trillion decrease in GDP;
3. Increase in wholesale electricity prices by over 120 percent;
4. Up to $6 trillion cost to American consumers to comply with carbon constraints; and
5. Reduction in household spending of over $2,600 per household.

S. 2191 also contains serious flaws. First, it does not fully address the fact that climate change will have to be an international effort. The domestic emissions constraints this bill imposes, without long-term cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions from other nations – particularly developing nations – will not only fail to make the required impact on levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but could also irreparably harm our country’s ability to compete in the global market. Any long-term climate change action plan absolutely must include developing nations such as China and India.

Second, S. 2191 does not promote greenhouse gas reduction technology at a fast enough pace to compensate for the bill’s aggressive emissions constraints. There is little funding for technology research and development in the bill, and because of this, carbon capture and sequestration technology will not be cheaply or readily available by the time the caps are in place and begin to decrease annually.

Finally, S. 2191 does not adequately preserve American jobs and the domestic economy. The bill requires American companies to undertake dramatic emissions reductions regardless of whether its economic competitors do the same, at least prior to the year 2019. By then, much of the United States’ energy-intensive industry could be gone, having either shut down or moved overseas. The chemical industry has already largely moved overseas because it cannot compete in the world market while complying with domestic energy constraints and emissions controls; how many other American businesses will be forced to follow suit?

For these reasons, I ask you to oppose S. 2191. Unless the bill can be modified to address the issues outlined above, it will not only be harmful to the American economy, but also ineffective in addressing current climate issues.
CORRECTED version (cut and paste this one!)

I am writing this letter to urge you to support S. 2191, the “America’s Climate Security Act of 2007.” S. 2191 is a much-needed bill that, if passed, would address the enormous economic risks posed by greenhouse gas pollution. This bill could cause millions of Americans to gain new jobs, grow new businesses, and save tens of trillions of dollars in energy and natural disaster costs. S. 2191 recognizes climate change as a global issue for which America bears substantial responsibility. Its market-based cap-and-trade mechanism will promote the technology needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution while creating tremendous opportunities for American businesses.

The potential economic consequences of climate change are striking. By 2050, climate change could cause the following:

1. Millions of lives lost;
2. Increased GDP variability and frequency of global recession;
3. Increase in resource warfare and price instability on global commodities;
4. Trillion-dollar expenses to American businesses coping with greenhouse gas externalities; and
5. Wholesale devastation of tens of thousands of households in droughts, flooding, and wildfires.

S. 2191 is a promising way to avert these consequences, and it also contains serious benefits to the American economy. First, it recognizes the fact that climate change will have to be an international effort with American leadership. The domestic emissions constraints this bill imposes will demonstrate the viability and necessity of long-term cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions from other nations. The investments that this bill will incentivise could also establish our country’s prominence as a leader in the rapidly-growing global market for "green" technology. Ultimately, any long-term climate change action plan absolutely must include developing nations such as China and India, and this bill is a necessary first step toward a viable international agreement.

Second, S. 2191 will promote greenhouse gas reduction technology at rapid pace: the bill’s aggressive emissions constraints will drive the power of the free market instead of weak, expensive subsidies to promote this important new industry domestically. There is little government funding for technology research and development in the bill. Investors, not politicians, will decide whether projects like carbon capture and sequestration technology are worth pursuing.

Clearly, S. 2191 will preserve American jobs and bolster new industries in the domestic economy. The bill ensures stability to American companies while its economic competitors abroad are left to fend for themselves in the face of increasing climate risk, at least until those nations also adopt meaningful climate change legislation. By then, much of the United States’ new, lean, and innovative industrial power will have already reestablished itself here. It's true that some old, lumbering industries that can't adapt to the changing conditions of the 21st century may try their luck by moving overseas, but good riddance. This bill gives us the framework we need to grow a more innovative and more powerful economy here.

For these reasons, I ask you to support S. 2191. Unless the bill is weakened to pander to the dinosaurs of our industrial past, this bill will not only be beneficial to the American economy, but also effective in addressing the current climate crisis.