Saturday, December 26, 2009

Portlandhenge: Winter Street

These photos were taken the morning after the winter solstice - December 22nd at about 7:30 am - on Winter Street in Portland, Maine.

As you can see, the length of Portland's "Winter Street" is almost perfectly aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice (as well as on the days immediately preceding and following).


More on Portlandhenge, Manhattanhenge, and other city-henges here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Using Bikes, and the Social Web, for Environmental Monitoring

MIT's Senseable City Lab has a lot of great projects loosely organized around the idea that a proliferation of cheap sensors, hand-held electronics, and mobile networks offers people more ways to collect and interpret data about their city.

So, for instance, you can embed a cheap radio beacon into a piece of garbage and learn about your city's waste-handling practices (something that city governments rarely like to talk about publicly). The Senseable City Lab did it.

The Lab has a new project they're launching in Copenhagen now, in conjunction with the global climate suicide pact treaty negotiations.

Copenhageners love riding their bikes: it's the dominant mode of transportation in the city, and how 57 percent of workers and students commute. The Senseable City Lab designed a new bicycle wheel (pictured at right) that includes a small electric motor and a 3-speed internal hub, which can transform any bike into a hybrid human-powered/electric bike.

But the hub also includes a GPS unit and an array of environmental sensors that measure levels of pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, plus temperature and weather conditions. As users ride through the city, they can share their data online with others, and offer real-time environmental transects on a daily basis.

As more users use the wheel and share their data, the city can get a bigger, more complete sense of environmental hotspots, how pollutant levels change over the course of a day, and how to better-manage pollution sources.

I want one. Imagine being able to do your environmental ground-truthing on a leisurely bike ride, or a crowd-sourced revelation of the embarrassing hotspot of volatile organic compounds (from the basement laundry) next to the luxury hotel downtown. I'm hoping these come to the mass market soon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Boom: Portland's Spoils of the Naughts

The naughts are almost over. This was the decade of the real estate bubble, but it would be easy to assume that the bubble passed by Portland, Maine. After all, the city's skyline, as viewed from Falmouth or across the harbor in South Portland, hasn't changed much in the past 10 years.

But take a closer look, by walking along the city's main streets and through its neighborhoods, and it's clear that Portland is substantially newer and more vibrant than it was in 1999, when I graduated from Bonny Eagle High School and left for college in that other Portland. Many of the buildings are the same, but they've been refurbished and re-inhabited with households and businesses that care more about them. And elsewhere, abandoned lots and under-utilized parking spaces have given way to new housing and businesses.

The Portland peninsula has sprouted dozens of new buildings in the past decade. Here are five of my picks for the best, in no particular order (I'll post five more in a follow-up post next week):

  • Bayside East. Corner of Smith and Oxford Streets, East Bayside. Designed by Scott Teas, TFH Architects. Completed 2008.

    While prosperity arrived in most of Portland's neighborhoods during the 2000s, East Bayside was largely left out. The neighborhood is centrally-located geographically, but it remains isolated thanks to the lousy ideas of 1960s urban renewal: a monopoly of government-owned housing and dead-end streets cut off by the wretched Franklin Arterial. It's Portland's most Detroit-like neighborhood.

    Bayside East is a another affordable housing project, but unlike its older neighbors, it doesn't look like one. The south-facing patio works well as a pleasant public space for the building's residents, and the solar hot water heaters take a prominent place as a sort of awning on the top floor.

    It's not at all flashy, but of all of Portland's new buildings, this one might be the most successful at integrating itself into the scale and context of Portland's central-city neighborhoods. It goes a long way towards healing East Bayside's tattered urban fabric.

  • 280 Fore Street, by SMRT Architects. Completed 2004.

    There was a time when banks invested in good, quality buildings to establish a public trust in the solidity of their institutions.

    During the 2000s, though, most banks were content to put up cheap offices ringed with drive-thrus. Banks literally sought to emulate fast-food joints, both in the facile idiocy of their products and in the shittiness of their architecture. And then they collapsed.

    Bangor Savings Bank wasn't immune from this impulse - they built Burger Bank franchises out on Brighton Ave. and over the bridge in South Portland's Mill Creek Strip Mall - but at least they put some effort into their downtown Portland branch and corporate offices. It's a quality building, and the curved acute angle of its northern corner adds a dynamic presence to the corner of Franklin and Fore Streets. I don't mind admitting that my admiration for the building led me to choose this bank over its competition.

  • 490 Congress St., by Jim Sterling. Completed 2007.

    Like the W.L. Blake Building addition below, this is an attractive modernist structure that fits in well with its historic surroundings on Congress Street. It's even more striking in the context of what it replaced, a pair of half-abandoned 2-story hovels that stuck out like a missing incisor in Congress Street's smile.

    The wide glass windows and striking metal siding probably make this building the city's most stereotypical example of naughts architecture. It's clearly making a hard sales pitch for "loft living" - you can even buy Eames chairs and contemporary art from the ground-floor retail tenants. Still, it's a damned attractive sales pitch, and even if it's a bit cliched I much prefer this to the urban abandonment that prevailed in the latter half of the last century.

  • W.L. Blake Building Addition, 79 Commercial St. By David Lloyd of Archetype Architects. Completed 2001.

    This was one of the first new buildings of the naughts, and it set a good precedent. The new building respects its historic neighbors on either side by adopting the same scale and massing. But it stops short of imitating their brick cladding and granite sills and lintels (unlike most other new buildings in the city, regrettably) with fine-looking building materials of our own era.

    The view from inside the offices must be incredible. But the view from the street ain't bad, either.

  • Unity Village, Stone, Oxford, and Cumberland Streets. By Winton Scott Architects. Completed 2001.

    At the beginning of this decade, the city was in the midst of a severe housing shortage, thanks to decades of pointlessly-restrictive zoning and a resulting lack of investment.

    Unity Village was one of the city's first proactive efforts to turn things around. City Hall offered up three city-owned parking lots behind city hall to developer Richard Berman (disclosure: I helped build his company's website) for a new, mixed-income housing complex. Today, it's a place where the newly-homeless can live comfortably and unassumingly next to white-collar downtown office workers and immigrant families. The homes have abundant porches that mesh the private life of the households with the vibrant public life of the narrow street and a nearby playground.

    If Unity Village hadn't been as successful as it is, the City could easily have slid back into the old habit of Not-In-My-Backyard zoning, which would have effectively stymied most of the other projects listed here. Instead, it helped spark the broader revitalization of Bayside. Unity Village demonstrated to Portlanders that new development - even if it brought poor people into the neighborhood - could be an improving asset for the community.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Condemned to Repeat It

Jess and I spent some time in Odesa, Ukraine last month. There are a few posts I'd like to write about the visit, but for today, I'd just like to share this photo of the city's memorial to its casualties of the Afghan War.

Out of sight to the left is a black marble monument (similar to our Vietnam War memorial) engraved with hundreds of names of the dead:

The figure depicted in the statue isn't merely a Soviet soldier. It's an allegory of a weary, disillusioned superpower facing its own mortality.

So, my fellow Americans - how does it feel?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Five Minutes on the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus, the narrow strait that connects the Black and Mediterranean Seas through the city of Istanbul, have been a critical shipping channel for millennia: a connection point between the historical empires of Europe and the Middle East, which in turn made Istanbul a capital of several of those empires.

Today, the strait is no longer the exclusive crossroads of global trade. But the Bosphorus is still busy, especially with container ships carrying goods to and from the busy ports of Odesa and Sevastapol in Ukraine, Novorossiysk in Russia, and Poti in Georgia. The chief exports of the latter two ports are petroleum products from the gas and oil fields of central Asia, bound for the West.

These Black Sea ports send huge tankers freighted with highly explosive compressed natural gas and oil to mingle with hundreds of fishing boats and passenger ferries carrying passengers between Istanbul's intercontinental neighborhoods. So far, somehow, there have been no major accidents.

Here's a five-minute time-lapse of the Bosphorus's shipping traffic from the middle of a weekday morning in October: