Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities


I know I live in a community because on a Friday night it takes me 45 minutes and two beers to get from the parking lot to my front door. - Trudeslund resident quoted in Creating Cohousing.

Nearly two decades after the show ended, I still find myself referencing moments from Northern Exposure. In an episode from the fifth season, Maggie gets fed up with the way the washers at the town laundromat are tearing up her clothes and decides to buy her own appliances. She doesn’t count on the psychological and social effects of privatizing this chore and somewhat manically and comically tries to get her old friends from the laundromat to come to her house to do their laundry. When they don’t, Maggie decides the social world of the laundromat counts for more than the quality of the washers there and purposefully breaks her own machines in order to return to her old routine.

For decades, Denmark (it’s always Denmark, isn't it?) has recognized this fundamental human need for community by pioneering the practice of cohousing. Cohousing communities, as the architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant explain, have diverse flavors but share some basic characteristics: Residents, rather than developers, drive the design and planning process and therefore have more invested in their communities; common areas, especially the common house, are prioritized; residents share much more than in contemporary housing: maintenance responsibilities, childcare, tools, cars, laundry facilities and crucially, meals; and homes are typically smaller, clustered closer together and implement sustainable building design and practices (even in areas with abundant land).

Durrett and McCamant highlight cohousing communities around Denmark and in the US, where interest is also growing. They also interview residents and provide a rough blueprint for those interested in starting their own communities. Cohousing tries very intentionally to turn the tide of isolation that has Americans camped out in ever more ginourmous caves. It’s an ideal situation for parents with busy careers, children with their need for space and playmates, older folks and others with mobility issues and single people. The community benefits greatly from this multi-generational pool of wisdom and energy as well.

FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati, CA
Naturally, such novel communities have faced initial resistance from local governments and lenders but their reluctance has proven time and again to be unfounded: cohousing units tend to appreciate faster than other homes in the same region and, especially in the case of infill projects, to rejuvenate the community around them. Infill developments seem to be the most desirable from a sustainability perspective but it’s difficult to purchase the space required for 20 or more households in an existing neighborhood. Is there an easier way to retrofit a community atmosphere out of a neighborhood that's already there? It's not easy to do without that collaborative design process.

Making cohousing affordable is probably the biggest dilemma with these developments. While many homes, because of their small size, tend to be reasonably priced, they still require upfront financial commitment from residents. Most of the people pictured in the book seemed to be middle-aged WASPy types. Cohousing is also geared primarily toward homeowners over renters, although rental units have proven successful too. Near the end of the book, the authors highlight a few projects they designed specifically with low-income households in mind.

A site plan for Clearwater Commons near Seattle, WA
Because the book is written by a firm specializing in cohousing, it has a slight marketing brochure quality to it that might be glossing over some of the stickier issues. Still, it’s pretty incredible that housing developments like this aren’t the norm: they provide so many social, environmental and practical benefits. The idea seems to be catching on though: Durrett and McCamant say that even in places where cohousing isn’t feasible, developers are using aspects of cohousing (say, by putting parking at the periphery), a cohousing-lite, if you will.

We also obviously need new models in a housing market that’s been decimated by the financial crisis. Something in the way we’ve designed our neighborhoods these past decades is clearly not sustainable. Cohousing, along with other community-oriented and driven development ideas (under the larger umbrella of “intentional communities”), provides a great template going forward. The participatory approach also goes one step beyond typical smart growth plans in tapping into the growing vitality of hyper local decision-making. You look at a place like Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage in Maine where a cohousing neighborhood abuts a working farm and you can’t help but feel you’re seeing the future of housing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Terraset Elementary School Green Roof

During one of my neighborhood walks, I decided to take a path I hadn't followed before and was delighted to stumble upon one of the coolest green roofs I've ever seen. "Green roof" is a bit limiting though: it might be more appropriate to say that the elementary school is built under ground (hence "terra set") like something out of The Hobbit. In fact, you can walk right onto the sloping, grassy roof from ground level on both sides. The roof features trees, a vegetable garden and pedestrian bridges that connect to the school's parking lot.

According to the school's website, Terraset was built in 1977 at the height of the energy crisis and originally featured solar panels (they weren't sited properly and ended up succumbing to weather damage and were removed). Decades later, the school still benefits from energy savings due to its unique design.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Environmental Podcasts

I discovered the joy of podcasts a few months ago. Here's a list, in no particular order, of the environmental podcasts that I've enjoyed (Living Planet and BBC's One Planet being my faves). The links take you to the RSS feeds.

Living Planet - 30-minute program on environmental issues from a largely European perspective. "Living Planet looks at new technologies, visits innovative projects and keeps you up-to-date on the state of the earth."

PRI's Living on Earth - "A weekly environmental news and information program."

BBC's One Planet - "Covers environmental, development and agriculture stories, dealing with the impact of humankind on the natural world."

Smart City with Carol Coletta - Urban development and planning issues (no longer broadcasting, but archives available).

NPR's environmental podcast - A collection of environmental stories from many different programs under NPR's umbrella.

NPR's Climate Connections - "How we are shaping climate. How climate is shaping us." In partnership with National Geographic.

Nature - "Features highlighted content from the week's edition of Nature including interviews with the people behind the science, and in-depth commentary and analysis from journalists covering science around the world."

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies - Video podcast.

Science in Action - From the California Academy of Sciences.

OnEarth - From the people at NRDC

Michigan Radio: The Environment Report - Twice-weekly short radio program devoted to environmental issues in the Great Lakes State.

Earthbeat Radio - "An hour-long broadcast providing environmental news and views you won’t hear anywhere else. Syndicated to over 60 stations in the U.S. and Canada."

Have I missed anything? Leave a comment and I'll add it to the list.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another Anti-Nuclear Protest in Japan

This one had anywhere from 20,000 (police estimate) - 60,000 (organizers estimate) protesters. Renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli hung an anti-nuclear banner from their HQ earlier this summer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Turnpike-Eye View of Environmental Impacts

Drove from my family's place in Michigan back to Virginia today - about 550 miles. A trip like this gives me a quick snapshot of a variety of human impacts on the environment (and the irony of making the trip in my own little carbon polluter isn't lost on me):

Coal Plant in Monroe, MI on the shores of Lake Erie run by DTE Energy. DTE recently got in trouble with the EPA for not doing a better job to curb emissions at this plant. "Monroe Unit 2 released 27,230 tons of sulfur dioxide and 8,205 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2009 — tops in Michigan, according to the EPA." DTE claims it's too costly to make the upgrades EPA has asked them to make and calls the concerns of public health officials "alarmist".

Somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike near Toledo?

Continental divide point along the Ohio Turnpike near Mantua, OH (I believe).

Roof of the Lordstown GM Assembly Plant in Ohio which is currently producing the Chevy Cruze.

There are lots of creepy, skeletal "ghost trees" along the Pennsylvania Turnpike east of Pittsburgh, for miles and miles. It's a chilling sight. Foresters quoted in various articles attribute the damage to the de-icing salt that's applied to the road in winter and the resulting runoff. Even trees far from the road, on mountaintops, seem to be affected.

The nine-megawatt (MW) Somerset Wind Farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Here's a factsheet from the operator. By June 2011, the U.S. wind industry had 42,432 MW of cumulative wind capacity.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Where Art Thou, Sterling Heights?

My mom gets lost every time she drives to my sister’s house in Sterling Heights, MI. We were running late driving there yesterday, stuck in construction traffic on Mound Rd, driving around my sister’s neighborhood trying to figure out where her street was (my parents, lifelong residents of the Detroit Metro region, haven’t considered buying a GPS), and turning around on busy roads after realizing we’d overshot the place.

How does one get lost in Sterling Heights? The city, after all, is laid out in a very simple, very logically labeled grid of roads. The problem is that the landscape, if you could call it that, is so thoroughly paved and homogenous that nothing stands out.

Google Maps identifies the marker below as the “center” of the city. To the SW of the marker are Chrysler’s Sterling Stamping and (now-defunct) Assembly Plants, a building complex which covers nearly 300 acres. To the NE is Sunnybrook Golf Club. To the immediate NE is a strip mall containing a Burlington Coat Factory and Rite Aid and to the SE is another parking lot with a restaurant and sleep disorders clinic. Off the main roads are many neighborhoods of single-family homes.
Sterling Heights, an epitomal suburb of the Motor City, is a place designed primarily for cars: gas stations, wide roads, copious parking lots. From a human perspective, the place is daunting, even threatening. We saw two pedestrians crossing the middle of 15-mile, five lanes of traffic, with plastic bags. Everything on the main roads is concrete colored and expansive.

As we drove around, I wondered what would become of a place like Sterling Heights, the 4th largest city in Michigan, after cheap oil runs out. Can a place like this possibly be repaired for human-sized use or will it be largely abandoned decades from now as people leave in search of greener pastures?

16 Mile and Van Dyke Ave. (Google Maps)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Afternoon View: Waste-to-Energy Plant in Detroit

Detroit Thermal plant (formerly the Beacon Plant) on 541 Madison St. was built in 1926 and recently renovated.*
A parking attendant flags customers outside Comerica Park on a Tiger's game day in Detroit. Behind him stands the stacks of a Detroit Thermal plant which, "Provides steam for heat, hot water and cooling services in over 140 buildings in Detroit's central business district. Customers use district energy as an alternative to operating their own steam boilers, electric chillers or other energy systems." The facility, a waste-to-energy (WtE) plant, burns solid waste --trash -- to create the steam.

WtE plants are more common in Europe than in the US, according to the New York Times. Most modern plants are good at filtering pollutants in the process of burning the garbage, but some environmentalists object to burning rather than recycling or reducing trash (check out the Sierra Club's problems with incineration in Detroit). Overall though, the benefits seem to outweigh the costs (as long as plants produce low emissions). Methane capture in landfills is not nearly as efficient at converting waste to energy and retrofits can clean up older plants. The NYT chart below compares waste treatment in the US and Denmark, one of the biggest users of WtE (click for more detailed chart).


*Note: the photo is somewhat misleading. The plant building is actually behind the white building on the left, although it looks like the stacks are connected to this newer building. Here's another view.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Environmental News Roundup: South Africa

Durban, South Africa by cdngrlnaomi
"In the course of her work, Coleman-Adebayo traveled to South Africa, and said that she discovered an American company there was ignoring the health complaints of its South African workers. They were mining the substance vanadium, and many of those miners suffered from serious health problems." - High Price Of Blowing The Whistle On EPA

"Naidoo, a 46-year-old human-rights activist from South Africa who has held the top job at Greenpeace for two years, has always shared with the organization a taste for direct action. But his willingness to negotiate with multinational corporations is a new and controversial direction for the organization." - Can This Man Save the Planet?

“In a recent TED talk, deNapoli describes how in June of 2000, the oil tanker Treasure sank off the cost of South Africa, during the best breeding season on record thus far for the then-threatened (now endangered) African Penguin. The effort to save oiled penguins became the largest animal rescue effort ever recorded. - TED Talk: How Over 40,000 Penguins Were Rescued From An Oil Spill

"As intensifying publicity about the environmental risks of fracking has spread from the United States to South Africa, opposition to hydrofracturing in the Karoo has grown, prompting the South African government to place a moratorium on all future fracking permits until the practice’s environmental impacts can be evaluated." - In Arid South African Lands, Fracking Controversy Emerges

"2011 is shaping up to be one of the worst years on record for rhinos… llegal hunters have been taking advantage of South Africa's border with Swaziland in order to avoid detection." - 193 Rhinos Killed in South Africa So Far This Year

"The report condemns suburban sprawl and much post-apartheid planning. It endorses the “polluter pays” principle, which, if ever implemented, would radically improve the city’s environment. But what hope is there for implementation given our rulers’ pro-pollution bias?" - South Africa: Durban's greenwash ahead of climate conference

"The City of Cape Town yesterday completed an oil spill clean-up operation at Bloubergstrand after oil seeped from the wrecked hull of the Seli 1 which had broken into three pieces." - City seeks legal advice after oil spill clean up

"Rising demand from the international market has made the charcoal industry a vital part of the Nigerian economy, with local suppliers scarcely able to meet demand in Europe and America. The demand is also huge within the African continent. For many South African barbecues, for instance, charcoal is essential." - Rising global demand fuels charcoal production

"South Africa has been sending top officials to Beijing's Communist Party School to learn how to run state-owned companies more profitably." - In Africa, U.S. Watches China's Rise

"City officials and activists are concerned that Durbanites should be leading the green campaign and be ready to show off how environmentally friendly the city and its citizens are as eThekwini prepares itself for what everyone who is anyone is describing as “the biggest conference the country has hosted”" - Environmental eyes of the world on SA