Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Some Good (Green) Ideas!

My colleague Carissa Matthews and I manned (and womanned) the Syracuse Center of Excellence Booth at the Syracuse Chamber Show last week. We were in the Green Business section, along with NY's Creative Core, The Clean Tech Center, and many others.

We had the SyracuseCoE "Green Ideas Tree" up and encouraged anyone who stopped by to "leaf" a green idea for Syracuse, in exchange for a squishy Creative Core apple. Young and old alike left us some pretty good ideas, and the tree—appropriately enough seeing as it's spring—got well covered in "leaves."

Here's a few of the ideas posted on the tree ...
  • Establish a "sustainability cooperative" for local businesses, to explore sustainable innovations such as green supply chains, community purchasing, etc
  • Walk to your neighborhood store, don't drive
  • Grow vegetables on city roofs
  • Have bicycle rentals in downtown Syracuse
  • Less buildings falling apart, more parks
  • Biodegradable plastic bags for supermarkets
  • Plant more trees around Onondaga Lake
  • Put recycling bins on every street corner
  • Reclaim rain water
Given Central Upstate New York's history of environmental and engineering innovation, it's not surprising to find folks rising to the challenge of the new industrial revolution. Don't forget, if you know of a "hidden" green business, entrepreneur/inventor, or school/college group, enter them (and/or yourself) in the Green of the Crop competition (deadline: April 9, 2010).

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, March 19, 2010

They blinded me with science!

I had the opportunity yesterday to talk with some very exciting environmentalists—a group of middle school students who were taking part in the 8th Annual Environmental Challenge at SUNY ESF. According to the organizers, something like 600 students from the Syracuse City School District participated and over 140 community members volunteered to help judge the exhibits. I was proud to serve among the latter, reviewing the various exhibits containing myriad hypotheses and scientific experiments, some fun (like the student who wanted to know if house plants could survive in a world without people), many focused on solutions.

It was extraordinary to me, to see so many students cranked about science. I thought in a world of facebook and Miley Cyrus, that somehow science would be déclassé. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Maybe it’s just middle school hormones, but they were on fire for their projects. Some of the exhibits had a clear environmental focus; others less so. One young man was trying to see if he could render a magnetic field apparent with simple home objects, another tried and managed to magnetize a nail. Two young women created an experiment to see if they could determine which antacid had the greatest palliative power (note to self: the generic brand does not work better—you apparently get what you pay for), and another pair created a unique experiment to see which home objects could best help purify water (a t-shirt works pretty good, better than a coffee filter, on a certain range of indicators). Finally another pair of young men tested to see which sled (foam or plastic) met the need for speed. Turns out…foam’s the ticket.

With so much buzz, and so many engaged students, it was to me a stellar example of what we are hoping education, and co-curricular offerings can provide as we seek to develop scientists and problem solvers equipped to meet and address 21st century challenges. The most remarkable thing to me was the capacity for young people to understand and implement experiments utilizing the scientific method. Kudos to all the Science Teachers mentoring these students! The joy and commitment the students evinced was moving, and as I considered the future for my young daughter, I thought positively of working on similar science projects with her as she grows to explore her world.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sustaining Happiness

The recent national, as-objective-as-they-could-probably-get survey of happiness wasn't good reading for New Yorkers. Downright depressing, actually. The list of happiest states, originally published in Science in December 2009, has New York dead last. Louisiana, Hawaii, and Florida apparently have the happiest folks, despite, in order, hurricane devastation, expensive gas, and crazy politics/spring break/girls gone wild/bad traffic/alligators/etc.

First off, a quick defense of Central Upstate New York (yes, maybe our downstate friends were skewing the survey!) from the perspective of a British native who moved to Syracuse from West Lafayette, IN, where, apart from Purdue University, they ain't nothing but corn, soy, humid summers, and cold winters.

My wife and I certainly were happy to move to an area where outdoor recreation is second to none—fishing, kayaking, hiking, skiing, sledding—and some of the world's greatest cities are a car ride away. Yes, on this bright spring day (after a pretty hard winter, no question), I'd say I was pretty happy. Maybe not Louisiana happy (?!) but surely up there with Wyoming (#13), North Dakota (#25), or Kansas (#32).

Second, the objectivity of a survey such as this has to be questioned. Even the word "happiness" is pretty difficult to define. For instance, "pursuit of happiness" in the Constitution actually means something like "pursuit of things that make a life comfortable and prosperous" not necessarily "pursuit of an inane grin and beer hats."

Looked at with the Constitutional happiness in mind, the list of What Makes Us Happy makes a lot of sense. It was also interesting to view the list with sustainability in mind. Some of the criteria, as my gloss below attempts to make clear, address key points and/or goals of sustainability, healthy communities, smart growth, and environmentalism ...
  • Commuting time less than 20 minutes (that is, smartly grown cities and no urban sprawl)
  • Low rate of violent crime
  • Good air quality (inside and out, I hope!)
  • Low student/teacher ratios
  • Low tax rates (this criterion begins a bit of a rough patch in the list for Syracuse!!)
  • Less than 35 inches of rain annually
  • Temperate climate
  • 59% days of sunshine
  • Access to coastal or inland water (that is, clean and abundant water sources)
  • State and national parks (green, natural spaces—and I would hope this extends to green spaces within cities)
  • Environmental regulations (need I say more!)
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Monday, March 15, 2010


This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the 8th Annual Green Building Conference at the OnCenter. The presentations were outstanding, and among the luminaries present were Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, and Rick Fedrizzi, President, CEO, and Founding Chairman of the US Green Building Council.

I’d like to spend a few moments sharing with you what developed as the “takeaway” for me. These thoughts gel around three presentations: that of Diane Brandli of dbdesign, Sarah Susanka’s Plenary Kick-off, and Rick Fedrizzi’s Keynote. I’ll call this the products, place and projects confluence if you will.

The concept of green and sustainable building is complex. As we evaluate products, our homes, and larger building projects like schools it is easy to become lost in the details, and in the certification process. It is also difficult to weigh all the contingencies in a complete evaluation of whether a product or process balances environmental, economic, and equity considerations. As homeowners, architects, designers, and engineers, it can be challenging to know if we are making good choices.

Susanka’s presentation set the tone for how to assess quality in homebuilding. With an emphasis on “less is more,” and on quality over quantity, and supplemented by photographs of completed design/build projects she articulated a vision of home (and other building projects) where a sense of sanctuary prevails. Through modifications of design, small spaces are configured in ways that promote comfort and security, and we are able to live more richly in less space.

Through a careful articulation of criteria, Brandli effectively evaluated the relative merits of products for sustainability. She explored profit, people, and planet considerations--"do no harm” and relative positive impacts, but also did a fine job of detailing how to navigate the certification process for products, and the difference between certifications labeling, levels and consensus standards. Bottom line: a product might not only not cause us harm--through intentional manufacturing we might even see a net positive benefit.

Finally, Fedrizzi’s riveting speech encouraged us to consider, among other topics, existing buildings as an untapped spring of future green jobs. For those unfamiliar with it, Fedrizzi outlined how retrofitting needs in current buildings are actually untapped suppliers of future jobs, providing not only economic development opportunities, but calculable savings opportunities as well. He described a “Pay from Savings” approach to renovations, that I think over a 20 year span was projected to provide 7.9 million U.S. jobs with over 554 billion dollars in savings of which 396 billion is wages.

All in all, some very succinct, clear presentations on what green can mean for these different categories, and for our lives.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Diggin' the City

It's good to see that new Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner's 50-Point Plan includes provisions for developing a city "green code," promoting urban agriculture, developing green infrastructure, improving walkability, and other "smart growth" ideas.

That our new mayor is including these ideas in her transition platform is a positive step and will do much to consolidate Syracuse's reputation as a green and clean hub that could become a template for smart growth for post-industrial cities.

Those who wish to hear more about the 50-Point Plan should head to City Hall Commons at 7:30 am Friday, March 12, where F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse will host Miner and ask her to elaborate on the plan.

Things have come a long way quickly in Syracuse since my first early morning F.O.C.U.S. meeting, hosted by the indomitable Chuckie Holstein. I recall that urban planning was the topic of that meeting, some three years ago, and I brought up the issue of a lack of green space in downtown Syracuse.

Some in the audience took umbrage when I pointed out how few green spaces there are in the city. But I come from a country where there are parks large and small every few blocks. In my hometown of Brighton & Hove, there are three significant parks within five minutes of my house, and this in a town notorious for its lack of space, hemmed in as it is by a national park on one side and the sea on the other. Compared to Brighton, downtown Syracuse (I'm not counting Thornden Park: it is too far from downtown to be a walkable option) is a true urban jungle.

But former Mayor Matt Driscoll did something about this that Mayor Miner should continue. A couple of years ago, on the corner of Warren and Washington streets (I think I have the intersection correct) an old building was torn down and, this is significant, not turned into a parking lot—a small park with benches and public art was created on the lot.

Many Syracuse buildings are on the verge of falling down, long unoccupied. One brick building next to I-81 just north of the city has fallen down recently, closing down the highway. It looks as though the Syracuse winter finally did that building in.

By deconstructing long-unoccupied and decrepit buildings in the city and coverting them to parks, community gardens, recycling/composting stations, bioswales, and the like, Mayer Miner could check off much on her sustainability wishlist, and improve the quality of life (and economic development prospects) of Syracuse to boot.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sustainability Fair Planned

This April 21st, SUNY Oswego will host a unique Sustainability Fair for the greater Oswego community. The Sustainability Fair will be a one-day exposition on green living for students, homeowners, and community members and will focus on environmentally friendly building products, energy systems, and green ideas. Over 20 vendors will display, discuss and in a few instances provide demonstrations of green products and services.

This is the first sustainability fair at SUNY Oswego, and in the greater Oswego Community. Local and regional vendors will offer products focused on green lifestyle, green home renovations and improvements, and services for community residents. Displays are slated to include energy efficient home products, alternative energy production, and green indoor products.

It will feature the most relevant service providers available to talk about wind, solar and related alternative technologies. The goal this year is to get sustainability and green products and ideas on people’s radar screens, and to create an event that will be a focal point for sustainability discussions among students, homeowners—and all community members.

The Sustainability Fair is sponsored by an ad hoc group of SUNY Oswego staff, faculty and students, and committed Oswego area residents. The event is free and open to the public. Parking will be available. The event is sponsored by SUNY Oswego and underwritten with support from the American Chemical Society. For more information, contacted Thad Mantaro at thaddeus.mantaro@oswego.edu.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego