by Jacob Corvidae

Listen to this show from Detroit’s NPR affiliate: WDET about Adaptive Re-Use and its moral implications.

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by Jacob Corvidae

Perhaps the most important civil rights issue facing us today is climate change. It completely changes the foundation that all our other questions, concerns and struggles are built upon.

If climate change becomes catastrophic, humanity will not die. But those with power and resources will be the most likely to survive, while those without perish. This is not because those with resources are predestined for survival or somehow “chosen”. Nor is it because those without have failed some test of fate, and must carry the label of “losers”. It is simply because resources make it easier to adapt to difficult conditions, whether those resources are political, financial, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual.

I hope that climate change does not become catastrophic, but hope, while necessary, is not enough. We must also bring together all the people of this world who care about equality, fairness and freedom to recognize that this is a threat to those principles of unparalleled proportions. And when financial, physical or political resources are not in our hands, then we must cultivate a powerful core of social, emotional and spiritual strength. We must build upon those to make the political and financial changes needed.

The struggle for social justice and freedom continue throughout the world. We know the challenges before us are many. But we are also making tremendous progress. As Martin Luther King Junior said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We have seen tremendous progress in the bending of that arc in recent years, such as the Arab Spring, troubled though that work always is.

We must unite against this threat. It is perhaps our greatest challenge as a people for it is not an enemy out there, but a threat that we ourselves have created. This causes confusion. It is not the sort of “fight” we are used to, with an external foe we can revile. Instead it requires different tactics. Instead we must build our own compassion. Instead we must create the new and better world as our first step, as opposed to tearing down “the enemy”.

While we may be unfamiliar with this tactic, and wonder how we rally without an outside enemy, we can also see the tremendous power of this dilemma. When we are the creators and short-term benefactors of this challenge, when we are at the helm of this dangerous ship, then we can also turn the wheel. It requires that we understand this threat to the future that we hold dear.

If we will raise the lantern of hope for freedom and justice, then we must shine the light on climate change. When we bring ourselves together around this wheel, then we can turn it.

[I wrote this after waking up on MLK day. Please share it. - Jacob]

by Cecil Scheib

This week, Whitson Gordon at lifehacker.com published an interesting article about troubleshooting router woes.

I actually really like Lifehacker!

While perhaps technically accurate from a narrow point of view, I had a bone to pick about the larger ecological context of his recommendation and dashed off the email below.
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Dear Mr. Whitson,

Thank you for the lively and informative article about router woes. I came across it while troubleshooting some router issues and found it helpful.

I do have a comment about one part of the article, when you are describing troubleshooting options for router connection issues:
“If your modem is a modem/router combo, you won’t be able to perform this [troubleshooting] step (we recommend having a separate modem and router for just this reason).”

As an energy geek, I’d like to point out that modem/router combos use about the same power than separate units (in fact, often less). Since these are 24/7 units, this recommendation effectively doubles the power requirement of a home connection.

With ~90,000,000 broadband subscribers and assuming an average 10W of power consumption per device, I get the following:

90,000,000 connections X 10W x 1MW/1,000,000W = 900MW.

So, the difference between everyone having a single device and everyone having separate devices is about two coal-fired power plants.

Adjust the figures as you like but my basic point is: let’s not build more power plants, let’s fix router stability. And until we do, please, manually reset our routers or find another solution. To increase our power consumption by hundreds of megawatts for the people that sometimes need to reset their routers is foolish in these days of expensive energy, limited grid capacity, and let’s face it, global warming.

Thanks for reading.

–Cecil

=====================

Whitson, any reply?

by Tony Sirna

This article is also posted on Dancing Rabbit’s March Hare Blog and we encourage you to add any comments there.

Part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants.

People often say that Dancing Rabbit is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to dispute. Rutledge, our nearest town, has a population of 100 (which we hope to surpass in the next few years) and our whole county has fewer residents than some big city high schools (4,843 by the last census).

But what we do at Dancing Rabbit is as relevant to cities as it is to small town USA, and I’ve begun to wonder: what if cities adopted Dancing Rabbit’s ecological covenants?

At Dancing Rabbit only pedestrians, cyclists, and delivery vehicles can use the roads

These six Dancing Rabbit covenants are the foundation of our ecological expectations of residents and members. Our covenants are based in the belief that radical change is possible and that it will come both through personal choices and through major shifts in physical and social infrastructure. They are based in the understanding that conservation is key, and that only with reduced consumption can technological innovation meet our needs sustainably. We’ve found that cooperation is a powerful tool for conservation and we believe a shift towards more sharing is a big part of the social change we’ll need. Our covenants don’t describe every aspect of a sustainable society, but we’ve found that these few simple rules put us far along the path towards sustainability.

In this series of articles I’ll explore what it would look like for cities, neighborhoods, or regions to adopt DR’s covenants.

Our first (and perhaps most impactful) covenant states:

“Dancing Rabbit members will not use personal motorized vehicles, or store them on Dancing Rabbit property.”

What would happen if a major US city passed a law that personal motorized vehicles were not allowed or at least seriously curtailed their use? For example, what if New York prohibited personal motorized vehicles to drive or park on the island of Manhattan? Could that really work? Would people stand for it? Would the city suffer or flourish under such a law? What exceptions would have to be made?

People have written whole books about New York City transportation systems and I can’t possibly cover it all in that level of detail but here’s a quick look at the possibility.

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

The Details

While Dancing Rabbit’s covenant is worded simply, it required a lot of work to clarify the details of what constitutes a motorized vehicle. New York would have to do the same. At DR, anything powered by internal combustion and anything much bigger than a bike is a motorized vehicle. With some careful wording you could make sure to allow electric bikes and maybe scooters, as well as wheel chairs, Segways, or electric skateboards while still regulating electric cars and motorcycles.

What about through-traffic from New Jersey to outer boroughs, upstate New York, and Long Island? To address this, New York City could create a few corridors for people to travel across the island and such travelers would probably see a speed up with no local traffic to contend with (current average cross town speed – 5.2 mph).1 Of course, this was Robert Moses’ plan, in opposition to which modern, community-based urban design was born and which still inspires spirited controversy today. Some creative thinking would be required to find a way to allow corridors to exist without disrupting neighborhoods and the robust pedestrian network that makes Manhattan unique among American downtowns.

New York would also have to define what it means for a vehicle to be “personal”. The law should allow for police, fire, and ambulances, as well as various forms of public transit. Business delivery vehicles could be restricted to certain hours and areas to allow pedestrians and human powered vehicles free access. And what about the ubiquitous NYC taxi? Taxis would likely still be allowed and their use might even increase to meet the needs of the now carless residents and visitors to the city. People with certain disabilities might be able to get special vehicle permits if transit could not meet their needs.

New York might even plan for a system like the car co-op at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Our car co-op serves the needs of 60 people with only three vehicles. Companies like ZipCar, Mint, and Connect by Hertz could provide vehicles for short term use when a taxi or transit just won’t work, or for those taking a trip off the island. (Peer-to-peer carsharing is a non-starter when no-one has a private car.) To prevent an easy loophole (“This SUV? It’s my one-person carshare!”), New York would need a clear definition of a valid car co-op or carsharing program. A good litmus test might be a minimum member to car ratio, which could be set at 40 to 1, ZipCar’s current ratio.

If New York banned cars in Manhattan, more people would park in New Jersey and the outer boroughs and take mass transit from there. This would mean increasing the parking capacity at existing transit stations, as well as creating some new transit hubs with additional parking. New York could also provide parking at each bridge, tunnel, or ferry crossing, with taxi and transit service from these locations. New York’s current expansion of the ferry system would serve the car-free plan quite well.

The Benefits

What benefits would New York enjoy in such a scenario? At present, over 35 percent of the area of Manhattan is occupied by roads.2 One reason for this is because personal vehicles are a remarkably inefficient use of road area. Therefore, it’s likely that without private vehicles, road area could be reduced by 30-60% as street parking was removed and major roads narrowed. As most roads were turned over to pedestrians and bicycles, safety and convenience would increase for more ecologically sound forms of transit. Some existing road space could be converted to parks or gardens, allowing for urban agriculture and recreation. Other space could be used for commerce such as street vendors or outdoor seating for restaurants. New York City has been doing these things already, with over 250 miles of new bike lines (including protected lanes segregated from car traffic) installed since 2007,3 and new car-free pedestrian plazas at major intersections all over the city.

Transit ridership would jump, which would mean better service for everyone as buses, subways, and trains would come more frequently to meet the higher demand. Transit systems feeding NYC would also see an increase as many people would opt to take light rail to get into the city.

Air pollution would drop drastically, as “motor vehicles contribute approximately 11% of the local PM2.5 (fine particles) and 28% of the nitrogen oxide emissions” in New York City.4 It could be reduced even further if New York mandated that all taxis and car co-ops met high mileage standards, or were electrified. Buses could also be electrified (don’t get confused by the MTA’s current “hybrid-electric” bus fleet – that’s different) or use alternative fuels with lower pollution potential.

New York’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint would also drop, since 18% of New York City’s GHG inventory is from on-road transportation.5 While only some of those vehicles are private cars in Manhattan, the effect would nevertheless be profound.

There would also be health benefits as more people would walk and bike – “New Yorkers residing in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) levels compared to other New Yorkers.”6 Local businesses would benefit as well – a New York University study, in collaboration with Transportation Alternatives, found that protected bike lanes and select bus service in Manhattan’s East Village would increase spending at local businesses, despite fears that reducing parking would hurt sales.7

Overall, New Yorkers would see significant quality of life improvements with less noise, cleaner air, more outdoor space for kids to play, and better transit systems. Not only that, New Yorkers would have more money. According to the New York Times, “American families who are car-dependent spend 25 percent of their household income on their fleet of cars, compared with just 9 percent for transportation for those who live in walkable urban places.”8

Drawbacks

A huge change like this would require large infrastructure investments, so the obvious question is, how would these changes be funded?

Revenue would likely come from a variety of sources: transit fees, taxi medallions, parking fees, tolls for delivery vehicles, leasing newly vacated roadways, tolls on through traffic, and reduced cost for roads. Care would need to be taken to prevent any undue burden on any specific segment of the population.

One option is to transition towards banning cars by implementing some form of Congestion Pricing. This is a system adopted in some European cities (e.g. London, Stockholm, and Milan) that charges any vehicles to enter certain areas of the urban center, sometimes with rates calibrated by time of day or current congestion. Such a system was proposed for New York City a few years ago9 but, while widely popular with the majority of New Yorkers,10 did not pass the New York State legislature, a required step for implementation. Using such a system to transition to car-free areas could generate significant revenue from the vehicle surcharges (after accounting for lost income from moving violations and parking tickets) which could go towards the infrastructure improvements required for a car-free city. It would also allow for a smooth transition as areas of the city are designated for a surcharge, with a ban on cars following a few years later. These areas could expand at regular intervals to allow people and infrastructure to adapt.

There would also be significant cost avoidance in a car-free city, since “traffic costs the city nearly $30 billion a year due to losses in employee productivity, traffic accidents, air pollution, traffic noise and roadway damage.”1 Perhaps some of that $30 billion could make its way towards increasing the mass transit infrastructure.

Regardless of how improvements were funded, there would be some folks who would not appreciate the change. Those who make their living off of the car culture in the dense urban center and people who simply want to own and drive their own vehicle in the city might resent or resist the plan. This type of cultural change may always have its malcontents, but as with the pedestrian riots when new-fangled automobiles killed walkers in the 1920s, once the shift occurs, the new way of doing things quickly becomes “normal” and protests are few.

Other Cities

So what about cities besides New York, could they ban personal vehicles?

New Yorkers are not your average Americans. New York’s high density and robust transit system make it an ideal candidate for a car-free city, and over half of all NYC households don’t own a car. In Manhattan, that number is around 75% almost ten times as high as the national average of 8%.4 These exceptional characteristics make New York a natural place to start envisioning a car-free urban center. Nevertheless, could other cities consider banning personal vehicles?

It would certainly be harder in some of America’s sprawling metropolises like Houston or Phoenix, which would require a major infrastructure overhaul to allow for a switch away from private vehicles. But it’s not hard to imagine cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, or Seattle banning private vehicles in major portions of their metro areas and then allowing those new areas to grow as the infrastructure and demographics shifted with the new system. While it would be harder for some cities than others, any place could make the shift if given the time for the infrastructure to change.

How Crazy an Idea is this?

There are already a number of car-free places in the world11 ranging from small towns and islands to small zones in urban centers. An experimental, mostly car-free suburb near Freiburg Germany. Car-free parks and weekly car-free days in major American cities. Pedestrian shopping centers. City centers in the developing world and the ancient world.

It is clear that car-free cities can be both possible and amazingly vibrant. I have no doubt that a move away from private cars will make our cities not just more sustainable but more livable and enjoyable for all. Hopefully our citizens and political leaders can take the brave step towards such a future soon.

This is part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants. In the next article we’ll explore eliminating fossil fuel for most significant uses.

Jacob Corvidae and Cecil Scheib also contributed to this article.

Footnotes

1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/iotw/traffic/

2 http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/goodman-cars.htm — An essay from 1961 on banning cars on Manhattan

3 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/past-route-projects.shtml

4 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/air/emissions_from_transportation.shtml

5 http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2011/pr331-11_report.pdf

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transportation_in_New_York_City

7 http://transalt.org/newsroom/media/4629

8 http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/carless-in-america/

9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_congestion_pricing

10 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/schaller_paper_2010trb.pdf

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places

by Jacob Corvidae

Lots of folks are touting a new study by The National Trust for Historic Preservation claiming that re-habbing existing buildings is far more green than building new energy efficient buildings — but it’s not at all clear this is accurate.

The study itself is an impressive effort, and I laud their rigorous attempt to dig into this question. But they might be wrong, even though reports are flying around talking about about why you need to rehab instead of build new energy efficient buildings.

My concern is three-fold:

  1. A study done at University of Michigan found the opposite result. This study compared the LCA (life cycle analysis) of new construction single family residences, one energy efficient and the not. This found that the ongoing energy use of the buildings outweighed the carbon impact of the materials used by at least 4 to 1, and that was only over a 50 year lifespan (the new study uses a 75 year span). The results clearly indicated that energy use mattered more than the material use for the LCA.
  2. The National Trust’s own study shows that in a variety of contexts (depending on building type and climate) 10-12 years is all it takes for the energy use of the building to “catch up” with the embodied energy of the materials. When a building’s anticipated lifespan is 50-75 years, then this confirms the University of Michigan study.
  3. Finally, the new study compares rehabbed buildings to new energy efficient buildings and assumes that the new buildings are a notable 30% more efficient. Depending on the age, type of building and climate, I think this number may be misleadingly low and therefore harms the conclusion of the study. Residential construction in Michigan, for example, had such horrible energy codes until 2008, that a new energy efficient home (especially one that’s built green with a low HERS or ENERGYSTAR index) could easily be 40% more efficient and possibly more.

The new results may be accurate, but there’s plenty of reasons to wait before claiming that new truly energy efficient construction is worse than rehab.

Btw, some disclaimers:

  1. I have a strong interest and dedication to rehabbing buildings and historic preservation in my personal life and career — which is all the more reason why I want to be clear where the benefits and trade-offs really are.
  2. despite being right by the University of Michigan, I have no connection to the authors or department which produced the report.

by Jacob Corvidae

I’m happy to announce that in 2011 a group of us banded together to create the Detroit Facilitation Guild. We have our work cut out for us. Meetings are everywhere and they often suck. Especially given the many efforts underway to make things better, we don’t have time to waste on bad meetings. We can save the world a heck of a lot faster if this were addressed.

So, a group of us created the Guild to create a peer group for us to learn from, and a bigger public forum for getting better meeting practices in use around our region. So far, the efforts have been a great success and we’ve heard a clamoring for more information on that topic.

We’re slowly developing a toolbox of tips and techniques for facilitators, and I just posted up a handy cheat-sheet overview of consensus basics as well as the “How are my meetings?” self-assessment tool for gauging how those meetings are going and where they might need work (based on the consensus basics).

Anyway, it’s a fun effort and exciting to see it moving forward. Personally, I’ll say it’s been a great pleasure to work with the fabulous people involved, all of whom are also tackling a wide variety of other great projects in Detroit.

by Jacob Corvidae

“Fail Faster” has become a mantra in innovation circles. And it dovetails well with our notion that Detroit can be a laboratory for the 21st century, solving problems that haven’t been solved before, in part because of its struggles.

But risk-taking is very counter-intuitive to most of us. So how do we develop this skill? Naturally, I’m thinking about games as a mechanism for learning this skill. Come join the conversation as we explore this idea in the Gameful community:

http://gameful.org/groups/the-game-collaboration-exchange/forum/topic/fail-faster-a-risk-taking-game/#post-10002

by Jacob Corvidae

I won a game to design games! The gameful online community was founded by Jane McGonigal of TEDtalk, Steven Colbert and other-such-places fame. The community is dedicated to making games that actually improve the world. They regularly host game design challenges of various sorts. Over the summer, they hosted four challenges. And I recently found out that I ranked in 3 of the four challenges, winning one by myself, being part of a winning team on another, and getting an honorable mention on a third. Happy me.

You can read the overview and other fun designs here:
http://gameful.org/blog/2011/11/01/gameful-summer-challenge-series-winners/

I designed I Am the Genie, made the graphics for the simple and sweet Tint, and also created Curse of the Lost Doll (nee Curse of the Love Doll, but that sounded a little off…).

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by Jacob Corvidae

Car-Sharing options just got a WHOLE lot better (and therefore options for many people to get rid of their current cars without completely sacrificing car access just got better).

Peer to peer carsharing is this new model. The basic idea is you can rent out your own car when you’re not needing it, or others can borrow someone else’s car when they need it — but there’s a solid structure for scheduling, insurance, and other carsharing issues.

Using carsharing services costs much less than owning a car for many situations. And lending your car through a peer-to-peer carsharing program can offset costs for car owners.

The two prime service providers right now are RelayRides and Getaround. After an initial glance, I vastly prefer RelayRides simply because they provide a lot of information upfront. With Getaround you have to join in order to actually find out any details about the program – and to join you have to give them access to your Facebook account. Even if they’re not doing anything nefarious, it hits all the right warning signs to keep me away. RelayRides on other hand provides a bunch of FAQs and information about how they work up front.

The only drawback? The services only appear to available in a few select cities so far. I’ve contacted RelayRides to find out what their criteria are for entering a new market, so we can get it started here in Motown. If I get useful info, I’ll post it here.

After starting Motor City CarShare last decade (and then watching it fizzle out because it was the wrong fit of carshare model to local context and frankly being just about 4 years too early for Detroit but that’s a whole other story) I got a lot of questions from folks about how to set up something a little simpler that allowed them to do carsharing but with their own cars or with friends. While these new services aren’t quite the same thing, they’re a big step closer to that model and open a whole new field of options for folks interested in carsharing.

by Jacob Corvidae

As the world embraces more sustainability practices and concepts, we need simple ways to sum up what this means. One of the most common ways to represent sustainability is the idea of the Triple Bottom Line, or the Three Stool Legs of Sustainability. Variations abound, but the basic gist is a Venn diagram showing the overlap of economic, environmental and social health. A particularly common mnemonic for this idea  is “People, Planet, Profits” — and in my experience, this phrase is particularly frequent in the business world and used with the concept of the Triple Bottom Line.

But it bugs me. And I think this is why: “People” is broad to the point of meaninglessness. What does it mean? I think the phrase “social sustainability” is already hard for anyone to really grasp, but  ”People”?!? If you have employees have you solved this part of the puzzle? What about people are you working on?

Correspondingly “Profits” is extremely precise. And while that saves this part from the vagueness I complain about above, it seems to narrow as to miss the more fundamental point. In my world view, we need to create a better link between profits and value. The two words  are used synonymously by most businesses, yet the reality of the world belies this equation. Economic health is not the same thing as profit.

So should we try for a phrase that’s more precise or one that’s more general? Personally, I’d rather we just had better ways of referring to this concept. Alliteration works for mnemonics, but I wish we had something better. Granted, “Economics, Environment, and Equity” is out there, but has an academic feel that makes it much less accessible than the three Ps.

So consider this a plea for more precise placeholders. And remember that the words we use for such a mnemonic would ideally be meaningful, measurable and mundane. Otherwise, we may inadvertenly create a conversation that is imprecise, imbalanced and therefore ulitmately immobilized.