Monday, October 4, 2010

Why I Live in the Suburbs

This blog is something of a reply to Roberta Brandes Gratz, who spoke eloquently at the recent Syracuse Center of Excellence Symposium about the need for [post-industrial, rust-belt, downsized, creatively shrunk] cities such as Syracuse to "re-densify" as a step toward sustainable growth. Excerpts from Gratz's speech can be found at

I live in the suburbs of Syracuse—in Baldwinsville, NY—and do so for several reasons that in my opinion must be addressed if a city like Syracuse's is to attract middle-class professionals of my generation (that would be "X") with families.
  • Schools—Quality of city versus urban schools is one of the most common reasons why families move to the suburbs. This issue raises deep, sometimes ugly feelings and history, and I don't pretend to be able to address them in this blog. Suffice it to say, as an Englishman, I have always found America's way of funding schools—funding directly from a local town/village tax base rather than a more equitable, centralized (county/state) system—to be structurally unfair. A re-densification movement would surely have to work to change the vicious (and for the wealthy suburbs, virtuous) circles the current system causes.
  • Gardens/Allotments—Gardeners in my very densified home town of Brighton, England make do very well with municipal garden allotments, usually on the edge of town. My need to have a large vegetable garden was a "deal-breaker" when it came to looking for a new home. A Sustainable Syracuse would need to offer what an English city-dweller considers a "basic amenity."
  • Walkable Neighborhoods & Parks—Baldwinsville's quiet street and large front lawns make up for my village's lack of real sidewalks and mini parks. But a city must have sidewalks, verges, crosswalks, bike lanes, and parks large and small if families are going to live in apartments or townhouses.
  • Safety—The British have always had a good model for community policing: the "Bobby on the Beat." The simple act of a policeman walking (or biking) on a regular beat around a neighborhood, much like a postal worker getting to know everybody, goes along way toward having ordinary citizens take control of their own safety. But much like cops all over America (and increasingly in Britain), Syracuse cops rely on intimidating, hermetically sealed police cruisers to get around. There are a few bike cops, especially in Armory Square, but we need more Syracuse Bobbies!
  • Shops—Basic stores such as a grocery and hardware/general stores are essential. Central Syracuse does quite poorly in this regard, although a downtown citizen does not have to go far (Erie Blvd) to find what he or she needs. The C.L. Evers grocery in the Amos Building wasn't all that clever, as it turns out—its foot traffic was too light and its hours not aggressive enough. In Britain, mega-grocer Tesco has a variety of store models ("Extra," "Express," and "Metro" stores), from out-of-town superstores to corner shops and even gas station stores: would all-powerful Wegmans ever do the same?
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ten (Green) Things for Syracuse

I brought my soap box into work this morning, so without further ado, here's my list of Ten (Green) Things I'd like to see for Syracuse. Forgive me if you've heard me grumble about some of these before, but I do go on, don't I ...
  • Walkable neighborhoods—My colleague Carissa Matthews walks to work, and this morning enjoyed chatting with school kids waiting for their bus and other neighbors she might not have bumped into in a car, one of whom was helped after she tripped on a broken sidewalk. Yes, walkable neighborhoods means fixing sidewalks, painting lines, making pedestrian crossings work, planting grass—not weed—verges.
  • Abandoned Office Building Law—Once an office building has been unoccupied for five years, a review must be held to determine whether it's allowed another five years on the market, or whether it qualifies as historic or significant, or whether it should be deconstructed. There are way too many abandoned office buildings in our downsized city, giving us a "rotting teeth" look.
  • Mini-Parks in abandoned lots—The mini-park on Warren Street is an excellent example of what can be done with an abandoned lot, whether short term or long. More mini-parks, less parking lots.
  • Environmentally friendly parking lots—But if Murbro or another parking company buys a lot, their contract must stipulate environmentally and aesthetically friendly features, such as rainwater capture and green infrastructure landscaping.
  • Plastic bag ban—I wrote about this in my last blog, and, amazingly, California voted down the ban. So, Syracuse, we could be a national leader if we ban the biggest symbol of our throw-away, oil-dependent culture/economy!
  • Municipal Composting & Recycling Centers—I've been longing for composting centers ever since I started traveling to Montreal, where large composting bins are all over the Outremont district, and close to garden allotments. In my home town of Brighton, England, glass/plastic/paper recycling centers (on street corners) have been commonplace since the late 1980s.
  • Pedestrian Zones—Another common feature in English and other European cities. Armory Square in particular could go completely pedestrian or allow buses and taxis only (as the main shopping street in Brighton—Western Road—does). This, of course, encourages a public transportation/walking/biking culture.
  • Return of Erie Blvd median to a naturalized state—I understand local green infrastructure experts are thinking of ways to return some areas of Syracuse to its naturalized (swampy) state, as a way to solve our storm/sewer issue. Erie Blvd east of the city is massively, stupidly wide (because it was a canal, then a railroad—much too wide for a road!) The median of this thoroughfare could be turned into a beautiful and useful pilot/demonstration project.
  • Parking rates that pay by the size of car—Economic incentives work. Until Australia-bound prison ships were paid by the inmate walking off the ship rather than onto it, death rates on those ships were as high as 50%. The economic incentive to treat prisoners well reduced it to 1%. So, stop people using F-350s and Suburbans as commuter cars and introduce "pay by the weight" (or by the class: sub-compact, compact, etc) parking in our city.
  • Tear down I-81—It will be a huge project and one that will cause plenty of inconvenience, but it will create jobs (the Obama Administration is thinking along these public works lines) and we already have the alternative north-south route in place (I-481). Let's git r done!
Got any (green) wish list items for Syracuse? If so, please e-mail them to me!

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whither Resilience?

Two recent news stories—one from China and one from Chile—has made me think about the nature of resilience. The word has become a common term in sustainability circles, where it has roughly the same meaning as it does in psychology: the positive ability of people (or communities or human-made or natural systems) to withstand stress and catastrophe.

An example of a resilient human community might be New Orleans, which is showing resilience in the face of two disasters in five years: Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It's still to be determined whether a related natural system—the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—having suffered for years from the slow catastrophe of human colonization, will have the resilience to bounce back from these recent disasters. However, the discovery of new species of oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico may mean those waters have evolved resilience, thanks to the existence of large natural oil seeps.

So, resilience usually has positive connotations, and that's the kind of resilience I hope the 33 gold/copper ore miners in Chile exhibit. As of this writing, these men have been trapped in their collapsed mine for more than three weeks. Yet despite their almost hopeless plight—they'll have to survive for as many as three months before a bore large enough to rescue them can be drilled—they were incredibly upbeat (singing patriotic songs, no less) when a lowered camera enabled them to contact the outside world.

In fact, notes sent up by the miners—short and poetic, and in one case, asking for a sweetheart's hand in marriage—have captivated Chile and earned praise around the world for their expression of fortitude, hope, and brotherhood. To put it in colloquial terms, these miners are hard as nails.

On the other hand, we have the Chinese drivers who had to live through an ordeal that, although pale in comparison with the Chilean mine disaster, would bring most of us to our knees. The "Great Crawl of China" was a traffic jam that lasted for 11 days and was 60 miles long at its peak. There are photographs of the, um, "inmates" entertaining themselves playing cards, washing themselves down on the road, getting fed and watered by opportunistic vendors, and sleeping under trucks.

That's the problem with human resilience. As a species we have a remarkable ability to suffer slings and arrows. But when stress and catastrophe far exceed what other species or habitats can resist, that spells environmental trouble. After all, humans can survive low oxygen (Tibetans), extreme cold (Inuit), and extreme heat (Tuareg), environments that kill most species—we are extremophiles. The Chinese drivers were just applying that evolved resilience to a disastrous, disgusting, and dismal human-made environment.

This is worrying. It's often said that the majority of our population will only get the message on, say, the threat of global warning when disaster strikes home. But what if—like the clueless frog dropped in a pan of water being heated to a boil—we simply and slowly become resilient to the catastrophic world we are creating?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Electric Event

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHVs) were delivered to SyracuseCoE this morning. These are demonstration concept cars that drive about 13 miles on a full electric charge before switching over to the Prius' regular hybrid system. Out of 600 PHVs delivered worldwide, Syracuse has six, with Syracuse University, SyracuseCoE, and CuseCar taking possession of two cars each. Toyota is partnering with universities and other organizations in order to get real-world driving data with the hope of improving the PHVs for the mass market.

Syracuse is a great place to test the cars, of course. We have, um, "robust four-season weather," so if the Toyota engineers were wondering how the cars will charge up when the temperature is 20 below or how the system will fare with a temperature swing of 60 degrees in a day, they've come to the right place. Thanks to some excellent lobbying by Barry Carr of Clean Communities of CNY, Toyota also know that this city has been used as a test bed for all sorts of products over the years and that our city's green reputation is growing stronger each day.

It's easy to be cynical about technologies such as Plug-In Hybrids. To some, it might be seen as "too little too late," and the 13-mile driving charge simply too small to be effective. But think for a minute about your typical driving day. For me, during the week, it's a 16 mile door-to-door commute, and if staying at home on a weekend, it's chores in the village, a mile from my house. That is, the 13-mile charge will do very well for a typical week's driving.

In fact, the average commute distance for Americans is 16 miles. And that fact might be the key to what Toyota want to achieve with these concept PHVs. It'll be awfully difficult weaning Americans off the internal combustion engine, and one drawback to electric cars in the minds of many drivers (I heard this comment more than once at today's press conference) is the fear that losing charge in a car will leave the driver stranded.

To make a bridge for the consumer between gasoline engines and fully electric cars, the Toyota PHVs parked at SyracuseCoE not only have a charge that more or less matches the country's average commute distance, they have an easy-to-use system that allows the car to be plugged into a regular 125 volt outlet (for a slow charge) as well as a 240 volt outlet (like the outlet that runs your clothes dryer, for a quick charge).

Where electric cars should get to, as I wrote in an earlier post, is an exchangeable, generic battery system and a national network of battery changing stations, ideally using locally produced energy to charge banks of batteries. We may get there some day, but for now, Toyota should be given points for developing a car that helps pave the way.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fit to Print?

Is the survival of the "serious news business" a sustainability issue? By serious news business, I mean the kind of in-depth, worldwide reporting outfit once taken for granted but that is now—in the US especially—an endangered species. In print especially: the New York Times and Washington Post are moribund, both having slashed their staffs and bureaus. Once-indispensible Newsweek was recently unload for one Yankee dollar.

On TV, the situation is in some ways more dire. A short while ago, my brother was visiting from England and wanted to watch "the news." It was 8:30 pm, and there was no news to be had. On every "news channel"—MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and even CNN Headline News—there was a talking head, the TV equivalent of the bloviating news blogger, with entertainment gossip or sports scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

TV news as it is consumed in England doesn't really exist in the US anymore. There is no 24 hour reportage of world events on American TV, no equivalent of BBC24 or, dare I say, Al Jazeera. America's 24-hour news outfits tend to focus on just a few "sexy" domestic political events, which sooner or later are turned into a horse-race-for-the-presidency story. The traditional 6:30 pm newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC are so obviously skewed to an aging audience that if I can't stand to watch them, why would a 21-year-old!

I suggested my brother go online—to the huffingtonpost, for instance—but there again, the narratives drive toward comment, not in-depth reporting, and gossip, not hard news. There are bright spots: NPR is a growing concern and does a decent job of worldwide news gathering and investigation with its limited resources and somewhat limiting medium. And let's not forget how American filmmakers have revived both the arts of documentary making and muckraking, led by the indomitable Michael Moore!

Many social, political, and cultural movements suffer from the parallel downward spirals of shrinking news bureaus, increasingly soft-edged reporters, marginalization of investigative reporters (did I mention Michael Moore), proliferation of partisan commentators, and infotainment. But consider how deleterious this death spiral is to the national conversations that surround the Four Pillars of Sustainability, serious conversations that can only take place with serious amounts of research and reporting ...

• Ecological Sustainability—Climate Change is real, is happening, and needs solutions, although the climate change story that gained the most traction recently was the one about UEA climate scientists' supposedly damning internal e-mails.
• Social Sustainability—The media has always played a crucial role as watchdog to monitor the progress of human rights, labor rights, and corporate governance, but how well is it doing when it comes to the national conversation about US immigration reform?
• Economic Sustainability—The sub-prime mortgage disaster was also a disaster for the media. They got to the story after the fact, and, thanks to news units' financial wings, actually contributed to the mess.
• Cultural Sustainability—The genius of the First Amendment of the US Constitution was that it deliberately recognized the growing power of the media and found a place for it within a democratic republic. Thus the media became a vital part of American culture, both political and social—but what happens now that the media is devolving back into partisan soapboxes, entertainment rags, and sports pages?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Bizarre Would You Be?

One of my favorite TV shows is Bizarre Foods with chef and writer Andrew Zimmern. He's smart and funny and truly adventurous when it comes to trying out local cuisine. Street food, bush tucker, state fair deep fried anything ... he'll try it all, and I believe he's only thrown up on camera once!

Zimmern's show of course is an exercise in sustainable eating and localism, and the title of his show somewhat ironic. After all, the foods that seem bizarre to Americans are simply "food" to other cultures. Of course, there are some truly strange victuals out there. I stopped watching once after Zimmern was offered a glass of sake with a beating frog's heart in it—but in this case he was at a Japanese restaurant famous for concocting weird edibles as tests of resilience and strength, a holdover from Samurai culture.

Mostly Zimmern spends his time eating head cheese, blood sausage, chitterlings, knuckle, tongue, sweetbread, etc—reminding us of a time when it was quite common to eat every last part of an animal in one sausage form or soup other. The show is also a reminder of just how narrow the modern factory farmed and processed American diet has become, to the point at which lamb or liver or hocks are as bizarre as most folks will ever get.

Growing up in England, with parents and grandparents who went through WWII (and in one case WWI), my diet still contained elements of more sustainable times, as well as times of hardship. We sometimes ate inexpensive and nutritious foods such as liver, tongue, haslet, blood puddings, pilchards, and suet—the last two are considered in this country things to feed cats or birds! If we had a beef roast on Sunday, then for evening tea we would eat drippings on toast—the beef fat cooled and congealed to a spread.

I often think of sustainable living in terms of "what era do we need to go back to?" In the case of diet—to use our food resources more frugally and to add more variety and localism—we'd need to travel back to at least 1940, the age before Kraft cheese, margarine, and Jello!

But I wonder if folks have the stomach for this? Well, how about a test?! At Wegmans in Fairmount, NY, you can go to the international foods aisle and purchase a classic British "throwback" food from the turn of the last century: Marmite. It's a sticky, brown, salty spread made from the yeast sludge left over from beer brewing. Deelish! Buy a jar and spread it on toast—if you pass the Marmite test, you'll have the stomach for other "bizarre foods!"

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Renewable Energy Alchemy

Let me tell you about the wonderful opportunity I had recently, where I spent the day with the SUNY Oswego Energy Institute. This past Tuesday, students in the summer Energy Institute took part in an engaging, day-long training at the Renewable Energy Training Center at SUNY Morrisville.

Fifteen students attended the training which began with an overview of the facility and the various training programs offered. The attendees spent the morning exploring fundamentals of wood gasification and then created their own wood gasification “stove”. Here’s an example on YouTube that is similar.

The afternoon was spent gaining exposure to the RETC’s small anaerobic digester, producing methane currently from a couple of apples that have been digesting for several months. We then took a short field trip to a more macro-example in the form of the large scale anaerobic digester linked to a 270 head dairy operation producing energy from the digestion of the dairy waste stream.

It was a very instructive day for the Energy Institute students, and led to considerable discussion on the ride home for the practicalities, and possibilities of other renewable energy projects.

Thanks much to Ben Ballard for the opportunity to see all that the RETC has to offer!

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego