Saturday, September 22, 2007

Global Warming, Fall, China, Frank Lloyd Wright

The sun was streaming in at curious angles on William McDonough, who is, in my humble estimation, the Frank Lloyd Wright of our time.

McDonough was speaking at Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park on Wednesday at a conference entitled "Green Town: The Future of Community." If you're going to see one seminal piece of architecture in your lifetime, this is the one. Looking like a Mayan fortress from the street, inside the space embraces you. You can sit on one of four levels and bask in the intimacy of the space as light shoots from various directions. Globes united with squares cradle the lighting fixtures, which are abstracted lions feet hanging from the ceiling. Completed almost 100 years ago, the building still feels fresh, inviting and modern.

The symbolism of McDonough speaking in a Wright space seemed to be moving for the architect, planner and visionary. McDonough is taking Wright's "organic" legacy by turning buildings into living machines. His green roof for the Ford Rouge River plant supports grass, controls stormwater and saved the automaker $35 million. Ecology and economy are part of the same sustainable formula in McDonough's universe, which is fast expanding from single buildings to entire cities in China.

When you hear McDonough's talk -- this time was my second experience -- you realize he's not just talking about green design. He's talking about human values: Saving everything that's dear to us, making it beautiful, loving children. How does he propose to do that? Certainly not by shooting endless powerpoints bemoaning the evils of global warming. His humanistic approach makes Al Gore's powerpoint seem like a beginner's effort. McDonough gives you the whole picture:

* There are 19, yes 19, cities in China with more than 2 million in population. Over the next 15 years, some 400 million will migrate from the countryside into cities. That's more than the entire population of the U.S. Global warming is the least of their/our worries. They'll need water, food, arable land and other resources. Where are they going to get them without destroying the biosphere?

* Our environment is everyone's environment. Air and pollution circles the globe and ends up in the ocean. How do we change things? Start to design better buildings that create their own power, recycle their own waste and filter their own water. McDonough has done that and he sees no reason why every building can't follow suit.

* "Design is the first signal of human intention." This is the baseline for change, McDonough says. We should be designing buildings and cities like trees: They take in carbon dioxide, absorb heat/water, protect soil and recycle their waste. "It took us 5,000 wheels to figure out how to put wheels on luggage, you'd think we could design something that works like a tree."

* Solar IS the answer. Where do you think fossil fuels came from? We get 5,000 more times solar energy every day than we need. And our solar cells are only 22% efficient -- tops. We can do better. When asked if he likes nuclear energy, McDonough replies, "sure, I like nuclear because it takes 8 minutes to get to us from 90 million miles away and it's free and doesn't pollute." One of the most innovate companies in the world is going solar: Google. At their Silicon Valley "Googleplex," they are putting solar panels everywhere -- even on carports. The more solar you build, the more engineering is needed. That lowers the cost of mass production.

* All environment is local. Yes, it starts where you live. Make a rain garden. Plant trees and native species. Shrink your lawn. Demand that politicians support a "circular" economy that treats waste as a resource and creates jobs. Tell that that new public construction should be sustainable. In Chicago, for example, 500,000 new trees were planted at the request of Mayor Daley. His Department of Environment is working with all other city agencies to develop 4 million square feet of green roofs -- the tops of buildings that absorb heat and water while growing plants! Did you know Millenium Park is one of the largest green roofs in the world? All new city buildings will be LEED certified. They have 2 megawatts of solar capacity. That's not much, but they're expanding. As the owner of the largest municipal fleet in the country, they fine drivers who idle their vehicles for more than 5 minutes. They have a jobs program that employs ex-offenders to make rain barrels. The city now has a green technology center, household waste recycling facility and an expanding bike trail system. And there's much more to come. Back in your home, start with your lights. If everyone in Chicago simply replaced 4 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, enough power would be saved to power 1.5 million homes.

McDonough's bottom line: "We don't have to choose between economic responsbility and environmental sustainability."

As I sauntered out of the Unity Temple, once again unified in my thinking about global responsiblity, I climbed back on the Lake Street el for my long ride home. The sun was beating down as summer was taking a deep sigh before autumn's grand stroll. The leaves will reveal their inner pigments soon. Will our attitudes start to change as well?

Friday, September 14, 2007

$100 a Barrel Oil: What It Means

Suburbia as we know it is going to shrink in a big way.

It's going to happen because Mcmansion heaven demands a lot of refined oil, water and electricity. But the reality is there are major water shortages in most high-growth areas. Look at any sprawling metro area from south Florida to Las Vegas and you'll see an irreversible water crisis developing. And yet spurbs (my word for a sprawling urban/suburban area) continue to go up with plenty of water-intensive golf courses and lawns around them! And how will the spurbs be powered? With more power plants? Coal- and nuclear plants all use billions of gallons of water. By 2030, utilities could account for 60% of all non-farm water use. They are costing billions to build and almost no community wants them nearby. Due to the proliferation of electronic appliances from big-screen TVs to whole-house computer systems, spurb-home power consumption is outpacing population growth. With the nation's power demand expected to grow 50% over the next two decades, there won't be enough power to go around if we continue on this course.

We've Big-Boxed Ourselves into a Cul-de-Sac.

Bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger highways and bigger retail space mean one thing: Big problems and lots of energy needed to make this lifestyle run. Spurbs that invite in big-box retailers poach traditional downtowns and established businesses. But these retailers know no limits as they constantly build larger stores to one-up the big box down the street. That leads to an economic death spiral. In order to live in the spurb, you need that SUV to drive to the supercenter and the only way you can pay for it is on credit. You can't afford any of it because salaries aren't keeping up with the true cost of living! Even more devastating is what it does to land and communities. There are now more than 4,000 abandoned shopping malls in the US and more retail centers than high schools. That's 20 square feet of shopping for every man, woman and child. What powers all of this driving to and fro and our electronic-obsessed lifestyle? Cheap oil, natural gas and coal. At least two of those commodities continue to rise in price due to unprecedented demand.

You may have noticed in the din of your life that oil hit $80 a barrel on world markets. Normally that doesn't translate into higher gasoline/fuel oil products until a few weeks after it happens. And it may not mean much unless the price stays high and commodities traders haven't locked in at lower prices. Most of the run-up has been due to the developing world and the West drinking up every possible drop of oil. China and India want their piece of the petroleum economy and are willing to do anything to get a hold of black gold. Combined with insatiable demand in North America and you have the formula for $100 a barrel oil. Any "supply disruptions" such as the hurricane that hit the refinery alley on the Louisiana-Texas border tack on even more price increases -- particularly in gasoline.

So where does that leave us? We're headed for some huge changes. Maybe the US will get wise and build more trains, particularly high-speed trains that link regional cities. They've been talking about it for decades in Florida and Texas, two states that would be perfect candidates. There hasn't been the political will because gasoline has stayed below $4 a gallon. When gasoline is priced at what it is in Europe -- $5 a gallon (including hefty taxes) -- then we'll be seriously discussing greening our metroscapes. A carbon tax also will help. Until then, the ominous headlines on the business page will be like Halloween: Scary for a day, then they go away.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Summer Sojurns & Reading

With about 10 days of summer left, it's not too late to round out your summer reading list.

What I did on my summer vacations (we took two one-weekers instead of one two-weeker), tied into some great books.

First, there was Springfield, Illinois, home of Abe Lincoln and the fabulous new Lincoln Museum and Library. This is a world-class museum that features everything from a holographic presentation to Mary Lincoln's attic, where our two daughters could play "dress up" and games of the mid-19th century. We planned the trip around Lincoln sites: His home, law office, Memorial Park, New Salem village and even a ghost tour are all in Springfield, which is easily accessible by Amtrak.

To get a flavor for the Lincoln experience, I read "Land of Lincoln" by Andrew Ferguson, who was former colleague at Bloomberg News and a fine writer. Andrew looks at the cult of Lincoln. He takes you on a tour of the new museum, travels the Lincoln Heritage route (really dull) and introduces you to folks who love, imitate and specialize in Lincoln collectibles. Imagine a book on Elvis, only it's about one of our greatest and most enigmatic presidents.

In the Lincoln museum, as in Ferguson's book, you get a feel for how much Lincoln was reviled during his time and how much Mary Todd Lincoln suffered. After Abe's murder, she was actually committed by her lawyer son Robert until she was "cured." It was believed that her "madness" was caused by diabetes. A change of diet allowed her to leave the sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Even if you're not a Lincoln buff, this is one of the most amusing reads among the 14,000 or so books written on our 16th chief executive. Since we were so close to St. Louis, we shot down there after eating lunch at an Amish Farm (the greatest organic farmers in America). We took in the fine museum under the arch, the Missouri Botanic Gardens (oldest in the US) and zoo (splendidly laid out). When we crossed back into Illinois, we discovered the surprising Lewis & Clark state historic site (featuring a detailed keel boat that they may have taken up the Missouri), a River Museum in Alton (interesting) and Pere Marquette State Lodge at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

Our second vacation was to Spain, which is no less enigmatic. When we were planning this trip, we were told several things: It will be too hot, there won't be any decent places open and nobody speaks English. Well none of it was true. It was hot, but not as sweltering as Chicago. Madrid was a delight; a walkable city with surprises at every turn. We stumbled into Plaza Mayor on a Sunday night to find Daniel Barenboim conducting the East-West Symphony in a free concert. The promoters even supplied free water bottles. While taking in the standard sights of the Prado, Reina Sofia and the palace, we were beguiled by the charm and sophistication of this proud city. It's blossoming. But if you're going to take in the full Madrid experience, you'll need to take a siesta, eat lightly and take a late dinner around 11pm. Do go to a chocolate cafe for real hot chocolate. It's a sinful delight.

We then took a high-speed train to Granada, home of the Alhambra, the ancient Moorish palace complex vacated by the last sultan Boabdil in 1492. The vision of this place, still flowing with water, light and mosaics from the height of Andalucian culture, still haunts me. I read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra" just before touring the palaces. It's a mountain filled with sagas of princesses, magicians, poets and love affairs. To get a historical perspective, I digested Maria Rose Menocal's "Ornament of the World," Robert Irwin's scholarly introduction "The Alhambra" and Chris Lowney's accessible "A Vanished World." The Alhambra is not only a UN World Heritage site, it's a masterpiece of art, engineering, poetry, landscape architecture and calligraphy. This is a domicile for words, etched into nearly every wall and column. Definitely a place to see before you die. Disney will never be able to duplicate this.

The third leg of our triangular tour of Espana landed us in Barcelona, where we lucked out and got a blind booking in the Amrey Diagonal Hotel with a view of the sea. Adjacent to our hotel was a rambla (pedestrian street) that led right to the beach. What dumb luck! We walked from one end of town to the other, taking in the organic Gaudi buildings like the Sagrada Familia and lesser-known sites such as the Marine Museum, which featured an extraordinary exhibit of Leonardo's notebooks. We did our paseo on the Rambla, the main drag, which was full of street artists and performers. After side trip to a fresh food market, we found some dinner. What was extraordinary was that the concierge of the hotel told the taxi driver about where the restaurant was, but failed to provide him a name or address. The driver got lost, apologized, turned off his meter (this would never happen in New York or Chicago) and eventually found the splendid little place. Barcelona is a great party town and Catalan hospitality is second to none.

Totally unrelated to Spain were two books that were sitting on my nightstand for some time: Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" and Edmund Morris's "Theodore Rex." Each book is a first-rate, can't-put-down bio of monumental men in American history. Caro's meticulous portrait of Robert Moses, the great builder of New York parks, bridges and highways, is stunning in its detail and puts you in the room with the power-crazed, arrogant Moses. Morris's subject is the unstoppable Teddy Roosevelt. Neither man has any counterpart in today's world, sadly enough. It's been a long time since anyone built any great infrastructure or did something truly noble for the sake of the planet. To get some perspective on how sordid our political leadership is at the moment -- or for inspiration -- read these books.

What a blessing it is to have the time to read! Isn't that what summers are for? Well, isn't that what winters, autumns and springs are for? To travel and to dip into unknown waters, whether they are of the past, present or future, that's the great grist of life. Now I'm onto Harry Potter, which my daughter Sarah has been harassing me to read for some time. Expecto petronum!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Andalucia, Tolerance and Iraq

As Congress prepares to determine whether the Bush Administration's surge policy in Iraq is working, it's a good time to look at Spain during the golden age of "Al-Andalus,'' the time in which Arabs ruled the southern half of the Iberian peninsula.

I mention this time in history -- roughly from 711 to 1492 -- because it marked a time in which Muslims, Jews and Christians could thrive on the same real estate. Like Iraq, Andalucia was a multi-cultural area that once was the seat of the caliphate -- the heir to Mohammed. Like the caliphate in Bagdad, the great cities of Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Granada were centers of great learning, poetry, architecture, mathematics and astronomy. The Alhambra palace complex still stands as a reminder of what can happen when people of different cultures, languages, traditions and religions are left alone in an atmosphere of tolerance. Jewish and Arab translators took ancient Greek and Roman texts and made them available to a Europe mired in the dark ages.

Of course, I'm not going to put an idealistic gloss on the heyday of Andalucia. There were slaves, constant conflicts and the last sultan Boabdil was ousted from Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella. But over a 700-year stretch, it seemed that three religions could prosper in an arid region that was a cultural melting pot.

Which brings us to Iraq. If the U.S. government thinks it can impose its will to suddenly make democracy blossom in an area that wasn't even a country prior to World War I, it's fooling everyone. It just won't happen that way. What's more likely is a phased withdrawal where US and allied forces act as a policeman for decades. A more plausible outcome is the creation of autonomous cantons, much like modern Switzerland. There may be a relatively weak central government, perhaps to adminster aid, build infrastructure and dole out oil revenues evenly, but it may not even have a standing army.

In reconfiguring a peaceful Iraq, policy planners may even come to the conclusion that a decentralized government that represents tribal interests may be a better model. First there needs to be some consensus on how to keep warring factions from tearing each other apart in an endless civil war.

Once again, I suggest that the powers that be take a close look at what happened in Southern Spain and why it worked for so long. It's not a perfect example -- there really aren't any. But it would be a start in healing an area that has lost so much yet has so much to gain from a reasoned insight into history.