Friday, August 19, 2016

Salt Life

On vacation here in Marathon, in the Florida Keys, sitting on the patio facing a canal, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window as I watch the neighbors across the canal hefting a cooler onto their boat, leaving, and returning with their catch. They celebrate a big wahoo, clean it, grill it and eat it all the while in full view.  Of course, they also see my family and I while we eat our meal on the patio. 

In Marathon every house has a boat.  The car is parked in the driveway in front and the boat is parked in the canal behind.  The house faces neighbors across the street and the back yard faces the neighbors across the canal.  No one expects privacy in either direction.  Perhaps that is part of the spirit of the salt life.  A fantasy of leisure, fishing, and socializing, without the hard edges of trying to make a living.  I imagine that salt life is lived almost in quotes, as a demonstration of the good life, a spectator sport that invites others to watch.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A circular sense of time

Here’s a hypothesis…
Is it possible that sustainability will give back to us a sense that time moves cyclically, and give us a new idea of “progress?”

“Progress,” the idea that human society advances ever forward into a better future, is tightly associated with modern thinking.  In particular the brave-new-world notion that progress in technology will always make our lives better and will always leave the past behind to be remembered but not repeated, is now almost a caricature.  The forward thrust of modern ‘progress’ mirrors the cradle-to-grave manufacturing model of making new things (out of ‘raw materials’ or ‘natural resources’), using them up and throwing them away (where they disappear).  The process moves always ahead toward the new.  Several squirrelly ideas and a fatal irony are embedded.  First, what’s new about something new? I’ll just leave that one to ponder.  Second, using things up suggests that nothing is left behind, an obvious falsehood – even food eaten up leaves poop behind and fuel used up leaves CO2 at least.   Thirdly, throwing things away doesn’t get rid of them, just takes them out of sight.  We clearly know by now that there is no ‘away,’ everywhere is somewhere and the more we insist on an ‘away,’ the more it crowds in on us.  In Freud’s terms, denying things or feelings by putting them out of sight or “foreclosing” them simply embeds them more deeply in our mind and body, until they infect our every action.
And the irony… progress implies a utopia or state of perfection always ahead like a mirage.  There, presumably everything is perfect, progress stops and time becomes cyclical again.    Hmmm.  So cyclical time is the goal.

Sustainability however proposes that we live in the world without diminishing it.  No graves.  No ‘away.’  No using things up.   It embraces the fact that everything exists before we ‘use’ it and continues to exist after.  Technology may transform materials and move them from place to place, but nothing is left as waste. Everything is recaptured and returned to the cycle.  Progress means innovation that improves the cycle in all its phases, not just the ‘making stuff for our use’ part of the cycle.  Life can be excellent, and everything returns, so that it can go around again and again.  

Thinking of materials in this way implies a cyclical sense of time: that all things return, in different forms, with an accumulation of memory perhaps, but always already present.  Same, same, but different.  We are part of the cycle of the natural world, and progressively innovate new ways to keep it strong and healthy, year after year, century after century, and millennium after millennium, always changing and, if we do our jobs well, always the same.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Rooftop Solar could generate half of Miami-Dade County's Electricity

Solar panels on the roof power both house and electric car
The solar train is leaving the station (with or without FPL).

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

The total area of roofs in Miami Dade County is:  116 million square meters. Or 1.244 billion square feet.  Or 44.6 square miles. Thanks to Jeffrey Onsted, an FIU colleague, who wrestled this figure out of the Miami Dade County Property Assessors map of 2011.

Electricity use in Miami Dade county in 2008 was about 27.3 billion KWh.  Here's the source: Greenprint
I’m sure it’s more now, but that’s a figure I could find.

A solar panel in Miami generates about 216 KWh per square meter per year, more or less. 
This figure comes from from the universal formula for solar yield:  E = A * r * H * PR

E = Energy (kWh)
A = Total solar panel Area (m²)
r = solar panel yield (%)  (usually about 15%)
H = Annual average solar radiation on tilted panels (shadings not included) (Miami is about 5.25 kWh/ sq m/day, or 1916kWh/square meter/year)
PR = Performance ratio, coefficient for losses (range between 0.5 and 0.9, default value = 0.75)

Therefore, take the total square footage of the roofs, 116 million sq. meters then reduce it by about 40% (I’m guessing) because panels must be 3’ back from the edge and roofs are populated with air conditioners and stuff.  That comes to about 69 million sq. meters

Multiply by 216 KWh/sq.m/yr.  Equals 14.9 billion KWh.

Therefore, Miami Dade County could generate about half of its electricity use from rooftop solar.  Hmmm.

I did a similar calculation for all of Florida’s energy use, including electricity, gas, oil, jet fuel etc, to figure out the area of solar panels needed.  It came out to about 2,200 square miles (47 miles per side of a square)  Here’s the map:
Area of solar panels needed to power all of Florida at current energy usage

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Half of Urbanism

Last Friday I went to dinner with some colleagues to Wynwood Kitchen at Wynwood Walls, the original group of warehouses painted in changing murals.  Always spectacular.  To walk from courtyard to courtyard surrounded by mammoth-sized Art is both stunning and urbane.  And lots of people walking around, filling restaurants and galleries that have moved into the raw warehouse spaces.  It's as much of an urban scene as Miami can produce, like Lincoln Road used to be.  
However, no one lives there.   Everyone drives in to participate in in urban life, then they drive home again.  Is that really urbanism?  Perhaps not yet.  The scene in Wynwood is just a half of city life, adrift with neither infrastructure nor a residential population, like one of Miami's many attractions invented by clever investors.  However Wynwood is now sparking development that will bring housing and perhaps offices and transit and the other elements that fill out a city, bit by bit, by popular demand.  Some residential towers are planned but none are under construction now.
Some of us in front of "Codo a codo" (elbow to elbow) by INTI

Here's the irony.  Some people drive to Wynwood from their apartments in new high-rise buildings on Miami Beach or Biscayne Boulevard.  Bus service is miserable, walking is unpleasant, and transit non-existent.  In fact, they drive everywhere, pouring out of the parking garage in the morning on their way to work and returning at night.  The towers have a few amenities around them, but not much.  They are the other half of city life, detached and adrift, tethered only by traffic.

In the fullness of time both Wynwood and Biscayne Boulevard might accrue enough of the qualities of the other to become fully urban.  But can Miami wait that long?

Expensively Empty

Last week a group of Italian students and I were chased off of the property of the "Apogee" condominium tower in the southernmost tip of South Beach.  The security guard told us it was a "private, very private building."  In fact we were not allowed to step off the sidewalk onto the circular driveway.  Geeez.  Four condo towers stand between the urban grid of Miami Beach and South Pointe Park, a beautiful terminus to the island designed by Hargreaves and Assoc. Landscape architects.  The public has access via two streets that cut between the towers, a beach walk and a bay walk. 

Entrance to Apogee, a very private residence
What struck me was that this well-defended private property, standing so aloof from the city, was also empty.  Luxury condos are often kept as pieds-a-terre for wealthy people who live elsewhere.  The buildings remind me of multi-story boat storage scaffolds, which hold hundreds of boats that people rarely use.  The condo towers similarly stand waiting for their inhabitants to return. 

The city responds in kind, offering very little to the zombie towers.  A few pricey restaurants have set up either inside the towers or nearby, but one cannot find a cup of coffee or slice of pizza short of several blocks away.  The location is so exclusive that almost everyone goes elsewhere.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bethesda and Balzac

One puzzling thing about Bethesda Row, a short alley converted to a pedestrianized shopping street, is how much it recalls much older urban types.  It feels more like a nineteenth-century French passage than like an American main street or mall or marketplace.  The form of the street as well as the look of the buildings seems to roll back to a nostalgic past, when window-shopping first became an urban pastime and the streets of Paris became characters in the novels of Balzac.  It all seems quaint, albeit expensive.

Just down the street, the metro station built in the 1970s opens onto the requisite urban plaza with a fountain, surrounded by scaleless highrises with sealed strip windows and a concrete ‘arcade.’   Even when the plaza is full of people, it seems empty.  

Here’s my question: Why do we seem stuck between these two options? Nostalgia or modernistica? 

Of course we are not.  Clever architects are out there working to remake the city once again.  The challenge is to design buildings with character that make a street street worth walking.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Questions of Scale - Bethesda Row and Sunset Place

Bethesda Row on a rainy morning in winter
Indoor-outdoor dining

In Maryland during the holidays, Philip and I toured Bethesda Row on a rainy day with two developers from Federal Properties, which owns the project as well as a significant part of the commercial downtown.  Federal recently bought the Shops at Sunset Place, South Miami’s faltering mall, and will renovate the building to make it more urbane (good for us) and more profitable (good for them). They described the process of transforming Bethesda’s tatty suburban downtown into a thriving, walkable shopping/residential district centered on a metro stop of the Washington DC system.  South Miami holds a similar position with a commercial main street on the metro line, serving a large, well-heeled, suburban population.

The two developers spoke of how the design of the ground floor of the buildings of Bethesda Row establishes a human scale for the street, creating the ambiance of the place, which invites people to walk, and linger, and shop.  As good urbanists, they study questions of scale carefully and worked with their architects to be sure that the street felt right for pedestrians, shoppers, and residents in apartments above.  On narrow Bethesda Row, formerly an alley, Italian lights are strung overhead define the street as a public room, with doors and windows that open generously to create places for people.   The developers teach urbanism to their architects.

They criticized Sunset Place for its lack of scale.  OK.  But, in truth, it took me until I went back there yesterday to really understand what they meant.

Sunset Place is a stage set.  We know this already.  Its preposterously grand staircase overlooks a “street” decked out in Classical/Mannerist/Who Knows What? trim and leads to upper level walkways that cross the street on picturesque bridges.  It has plenty of architectural decoration.  The entire panorama, which unfolds as one walks, was designed to be seen from a certain distance like a set, not up close. Indeed, the scenery of Sunset Place looks best from the distance of an architectural drawing - an elevation - to be specific, which notoriously has little sense of material or joinery.  Inhabiting the mall, one feels like a figure added by the draughtsman to an architectural rendering.  Up close, the “details” of Sunset Place are ridiculous. 

That's what the developers meant by human scale: real details that do something useful and interesting, developed thoughtfully in real materials that reward the eye and the touch of the hand.  Good.

Now that they own Sunset Place, I look forward to seeing what the developers of Federal Properties will do with it.
Sunset Place, South Miami