Category Archives: Urban planning

EcoVillage at Ithaca

This book, lent to me by a friend, tells the story of the creation and first ten years of the Eco Village at Ithaca, New York.  EVI was the first eco-village on the east coast of the U.S. (only the third in the entire U.S.) and is still going strong in 2016. An eco-village is an intentional community which combines sustainable design with co-housing. The concept originated in Denmark and there are many different models used in eco-villages worldwide. The one in Ithaca is a 175 acre community with 60 households residing in two clustered neighborhoods (as of 2005); the majority of the land is used for organic farming and open space. EVI is especially strong in the community aspect of an eco-village, with residents eating regular meals together and participating actively in community governance and events.  Although some houses use solar panels, EVI is still on the grid and uses town water and sewer systems. With the proximity of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, educating the wider community about sustainability and co-housing plays a significant role in the life of EVI. Liz Walker, founder and director of EVI, tells its story fairly without glossing over negatives like financial issues and interpersonal conflicts. Even so, this is an inspirational book.

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The Transition Companion

The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times by Rob Hopkins (Chelsea Green, 2011).

This book by Rob Hopkins is the follow-up to the Transition Handbook that started the Transition Town movement. Transition Towns try to re-localize economies and make communities more resilient in the face of climate change and peak oil. Although it was published in the United States, and Hopkins is fully aware that this is now an international movement, very little effort was made to edit it for American audiences. He really should have found a collaborator to write an American version, because in its current format the book is nearly useless. It’s great that the Transition Town movement has been so warmly embraced by people in the United Kingdom, but their situation is so completely different from ours in the United States that most of his examples are irrelevant to us. Even if large numbers of Americans were on board with the idea of recreating a local economy (which they’re not), the descriptions of how people in various English towns and cities worked with their local “council” (whatever that is) to implement all sorts of fabulous programs and projects would be of limited usefulness to Americans who have completely different forms of local government. There are a few examples from Transition groups on the west coast of the United States, but no real analysis of how these groups overcame the high levels of resistance and lack of interest from both ordinary citizens and elected officials that we face in the United States.

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The Very Hungry City

The Very Hungry City : urban energy efficiency and the economic fate of cities by Austin Troy (Yale University Press, 2012).

The premise of this book is that as the cost of energy goes up permanently (due to climate change and exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies), cities that use significantly more energy will lose economic competitiveness to better-designed, more energy efficient cities. Troy doesn’t explore the more radical possibility that the cost of energy could go up so much that cities would become economically isolated. However, he does make a pretty good case that energy efficiency (defined quite broadly to include water supply and public transit) is going to be a major factor in economic success of cities in the rest of this century. He provides some interesting historical background on how transit systems developed (or were not developed) in major metropolitan areas of the U.S., and the issues around suburban sprawl. Troy also offers some comparisons to urban planning approaches in Europe, particularly Sweden and Denmark, where he interviewed bicycle commuters and residents of impressive planned urban housing developments. Throughout the book Troy highlights ideas that reduce urban energy costs (tree planting, congestion pricing, LEED architecture) as examples of what the more successful cities are doing right.

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Rebuilding the Foodshed

Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to create local, sustainable, and secure food systems by Philip Ackerman-Leist (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The author of this book has an unusual combination of perspectives: he is both a college professor and a farmer. That means that his approach to creating locally-based food systems comes from a great deal of practical experience, not just idealistic theory. Ackerman-Leist understands the economics of farming, and the chemicals and energy requirements involved. He devotes a whole chapter to the possibilities of using human excrement as a fertilizer (yes, he went there). He explores the connections between people who lack food security and the organizations that try to help them, such as food banks and soup kitchens. Several times in the book he relates stories about people whose job it is to feed large groups of people (school, hospital and prison food service staff). These organizations, often ignored in sustainability literature, are actually good places to start going local with food supply. This is not the book I was expecting, but it made a lot of excellent points that got me thinking in new ways about our “foodsheds.”

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Life Place: Bioregional Thought and Practice

LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice by Robert L. Thayer, Jr. (University of California Press, 2003).

This book is both a memoir of a professor who embraced a new community, and a guidebook for a new way of looking at where you live. You don’t just live in a city or town, you live in a bioregion. Thayer defines a bioregion as “a unique region definable by natural (rather than political) boundaries with a geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological character capable of supporting unique human and nonhuman living communities.” From Colorado originally, Thayer settled in the Sacramento Valley of northern California as a young professor and raised a family in that bioregion, primarily known for the food that ends up in our grocery stores. Bioregionalism, first named by Allen Van Newkirk in 1975, is a perspective which emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions. “Bioregionalism opposes a globalized, homogeneous economy and consumer culture, preferring consumption of local foods and use of local materials.” In addition to the sustainability angle, bioregional thought and practice also includes understanding the original inhabitants of the place (human and animal) and how they fit into their environment. This can mean embracing local art, poetry and music, and even spiritual practices of native inhabitants. Bioregionalism is better known in the western part of North America, with many adherents in California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Columbia. Thayer is a wonderful guide into a different way of seeing and appreciating your everyday surroundings.

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Public libraries and resilient cities

Public libraries and resilient cities edited by Michael Dudley (American Library Association, 2013).

This book explores “the roles that public libraries can play in the promotion of ecologically, economically, and socially resilient communities in challenging times.” Each chapter tells the story of a public library in the U.S. or Canada which went beyond providing access to books and information to addressing an unmet community need. These needs ranged from childcare for government workers after a hurricane and a summer feeding program for poor children, to targeted literacy and technology training programs, to public gardens and programming for the homeless and socially excluded. This book also demonstrates that even without any specific programs, the public library provides a public place for democracy to flourish in an increasingly privatized world, and can model ways to build or renovate using environmentally friendly practices. Michael Dudley, a librarian and urban planner, makes a great case for public libraries to be active participants in the Transition Town movement which promotes local resiliency in the face of climate change and peak oil.

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Human Transit

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker (Island Press, 2011)

Most books about public transportation immediately become mired in jargon and tedious math. This book is refreshingly different. Walker explains the why and hows of public transportation  in a simple and clear way that anyone can understand. He believes that we all should be able to weigh in on how best to serve our communities with public transit, whether that involves buses, trolleys, or rail systems. Walker takes apart the intimidating complexity of transportation systems by focusing on only one aspect in each chapter: routes, connections, fares, frequency, density, and so on. By the end we can see clearly how the pieces fit together, what tradeoffs are unavoidable, and where some of our cities went wrong.

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