November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
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August 1, 2013
A few weeks ago, officials of a Chinese company, the Broad Group, posed, shovels in hand, and tossed dirt for the camera. Standard stuff—except this had the potential to be very special dirt because one day it could be beneath the tallest building on the planet.
The plan is to build, pretty much in the middle of a big open field, an implausibly statuesque vertical city that would be home for as many as 30,000 people. It would climb more than 200 stories or just above 2,700 feet high. That would make it almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building and about 33 feet higher than the world’s reigning skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Burj Kahlifa took five years to build; the Broad Group claims that, because it will use modular construction, its building, dubbed Sky City, will be ready next spring.
A few days after the photo opp, several newspapers in China reported that the project wasn’t moving forward after all. The Broad Group apparently hadn’t obtained all the necessary permits. A spokesperson for the company says nothing in the its plans has changed, although he did not say when real ground would actually be broken.
But even if Sky City never comes to be, another absurdly tall tower will take its place in pushing the limit of how high people can live in the sky. The world’s cities are in the midst of a skyscraper boom, and not with just tall buildings, but with ones officially designated as “supertall.” Nearly 600 buildings of at least 200 meters—or about 60 stories high—are either under construction or in the planning stages. That would almost double the number that height within the next 10 years. Now only three skyscrapers are above 500 meters, or more than 1,600 feet. By 2020, there are expected to be 20 more.
Up, up and away
So why now?
Some of this obviously has to do with making a statement, particularly with countries wanting to transform their images into one that’s more modern, diverse and economically glamorous. Some is driven by ego, pure and simple—the chairman of the Broad Group, Zhang Yue, for instance, has become almost a messianic figure among his 4,000 employees, who all wear matching outfits, along with name tags bearing motivational slogans, such as “Innovate Life Now” or “Perfect Oneself.”
But there are other reasons that have more to do with demographic trends and technological innovation. Here are just a few of them:
- And one day we’ll all just get stuck in elevator traffic: Already more than half the people on Earth live in urban areas; by 2050, seven out of 10 will. Growing upward is seen as a wiser, more sustainable option than sprawling outward. The truth is that seeing skyscrapers as office buildings has become so 20th century; now they’re designed as places for people to live, and do just about everything else. If and when Sky City is built, it will have, in addition to apartments for tens of thousands of people, multiple shopping malls, schools, restaurants, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts and movie theaters, not to mention its own hotel, hospital and giant vertical garden. Since residential and retail spaces require narrower floor plates than offices, mixed-use buildings can go higher with the same amount of material. And skyscrapers with a lot of tenant options are a lot easier to fill. In 2000, only five of the 20 tallest buildings in the world were mixed-use; by 2020, only five won’t be.
- So long to basic cable: Believe it or not, one of the key factors limiting how high buildings can go is the weight of steel elevator cables. If they stretch much beyond 1,600 feet, they’re at risk of snapping under their own weight. But a Finnish company has developed a cable it calls UltraRope, which is made of carbon fiber and weighs almost half as much. UltraRope, say engineers, will make a 300-story building possible.
- Like Legos, only bigger: The Broad Group made a big splash in late 2011 when it erected a 30-story building in 15 days. That’s right, two weeks. It was able to do this only because each floor was pre-fabricated in a factory, then connected on-site. While it may be hard for most of us to imagine pre-fab skyscrapers, people in the high-rise business don’t think that’s far-fetched at all. Some even envision tall buildings of the future being built in a factory, then fitted together by an army of robots. Clearly, the modular approach is catching on. More than 60 percent of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yard project in Brooklyn will be constructed off-site, including a 32-story building. And if Sky City does move forward, it would mean that the tallest building in the world would be modular. That’s how the company can plausibly talk about Sky City being finished by next spring. Speed is one big advantage. Cost is another. The Broad Group says Sky City should cost roughly $850 million to build. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai cost $1.5 billion.
- Now those are bad vibes: Even 3-D printers have played a role in accelerating the skyward building boom. Engineers can now print multiple 3-D models of a building, then test each one in a wind tunnel. The models are covered with sensors that take pressure readings that are fed into a computer simulation that reveals a building’s vulnerable spots. The engineers can even re-create the building’s future surroundings—hills, highways, other buildings—to see what kind of wind patterns they may create. What they want to avoid is a phenomenon called vortex shedding, where even a moderate wind flowing around a structure can cause it to sway and actually vibrate—not the effect you’re looking for 150 stories up. To counter it, architects create rounded edges or notches and cut-ins at the building’s corner. A great example is the design of the 116-story Imperial Tower which will dominate Mumbai’s skyline. The building is skinny and rounded, but to keep it from oscillating, its facade is broken up with random cut-outs—balconies in some places, gardens in others. The point, say the architects, is to “confuse the wind.”
Video bonus: Watch a 30-story building go up in 15 days. Yes, that’s enough to make a video go viral.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s one that’s really old school—construction workers perched on high steel as they finish up the Empire State Building in 1930. Nothing personal, but they were crazy.
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July 17, 2013
Yes, he’s the founder of Space X, the first commercial venture to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.
And yes, he’s the co-founder of PayPal and chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.
And yes, he’s head of Tesla Motors, which produced the world’s first all-electric sports car, its first electric luxury car and actually turned a profit in the first quarter of 2013.
But earlier this week Elon Musk did something that made even some of his fans wonder if he’s about to fly a little too close to the sun. Or maybe that he’s spent a little too much time out in the sun.
What Musk did was tweet about an invention he calls the “Hyperloop,” promising that in less than a month, he’ll be revealing more details, including its design.
In case you missed it, Musk first started talking about the Hyperloop last summer, describing it as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table,” and suggesting that a sun-powered tube could whisk vehicles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.
He referred to it as the “fifth mode” of transporation,” but one that, as he sees it, could leave the other four–planes, trains, boats and cars–in the dust. Here’s what else he told Pando Daily in that interview:
“How would you like something that never crashed, was immune to weather, that goes three or four times as fast as the bullet trains we have now or about twice the speed of an aircraft, that would get you from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes and it would cost you much less than any other type of transportation.”
A few months later, he would tell Bloomberg News that the Hyperloop would also allow you to leave as soon as you arrive “so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”
Sounds great. And I assume that you’ll also be able to get giant donuts that turn fat into muscle.
Okay, that’s probably not fair. In truth, Musk’s idea is not all that far-fetched. As Business Insider pointed out recently, it sounds a bit like a 21st century version of a concept pitched by a Rand Corporation physicist named R.M. Salter way back in 1972. He proposed something he called Very High Speed Transit, or VHST, which was essentially an underground tube that could shoot pods from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 20 minutes.
As Salter saw it, the vehicles would have been driven by electromagnetic waves much as a surfboard rides the ocean’s wave. The VHST would have used all its kinetic energy to accelerate, and that power would be returned when it decelerated, through energy regeneration.
It’s not clear how the Hyperloop would work–that’s what Musk will share next month. What is known is that a Colorado company named ET3 is working on a system using vacuum-sealed tubes that it says could propel capsules as fast as 4,000 miles per hour, while exposing passengers to the G-forces of an ordinary car ride. It’s been reported that ET3 hopes to have a three-mile test track functioning by the end of the year. But Musk is not known to have any connection to the company.
He promises that he won’t patent the Hyperloop concept, that he wants to keep it open source. Musk says he’s looking for “critical feedback” and that he’d welcome partners–so long as they’re like-minded.
As he tweeted on Monday “Happy to work with the right partners. Must truly share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast w/o wasting money on BS.”
There’s been news in the other modes of transportation recently, too. Here’s some of the latest.
- You are here: Researchers at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago have devised a system that allows cars to know where they are without relying on GPS. By using two cameras and software that determines when and how the road curves, it can nail down a location by comparing the layout of the route and its intersections to a map of the area from OpenStreetMap. The designers claim that in 20 seconds, the system can figure out where you are, even if you’re in a tunnel.
- Siri, I’ve met something new: GM announced recently that some of its new models rolling out later this year will come with their own apps store. Instead of living in a smartphone, these apps would be directly accessible from your car. It’s part of the accelerating trend 0f turning cars into moving smartphones, with the goal of not just creating another source of revenue for car makers, but also allowing dealers to stay connected to their customers. Among the possibilities: Diagnostic apps that can monitor your car’s condition and send e-mail or text alerts if it needs servicing, Internet radio apps for a more customized selection of music, or news, traffic, and weather apps for real-time information on what’s happening on the road ahead.
- Talk fast, this is my stop: Coming soon to the Prague subway: A car on each train that’s set aside for singles. The idea is to give time-crunched singles a chance to meet up while riding to work or elsewhere. What’s not clear is how they’ll keep married lurkers out.
- Pump it up: A team of Canadian engineers recently conquered one of aviation’s greatest challenges by designing a helicopter of sorts that is powered by a human pumping pedals. For their effort, they won the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 challenge that had gone unclaimed since it was first offered by the American Helicopter Society 33 years ago.
- Is it me or did the window just try to sell me a car?: The British online broadcaster Sky Go, along with the German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf, are planning to use a new technology that would allow windows on buses or trains to send ad messages directly into your brain. It works like this: When a commuter rests his or her head against a window, oscillations beamed into the glass are converted into sound through a process called bone conduction, and he or she will hear the ad message while other passengers remain oblivious.
Video bonus: No one’s quite sure what Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be, but the closest thing to it may be the “evacuated tube transport” concept being developed by ET3. Now this is 21st century travel.
Video bonus bonus: It doesn’t look like any helicopter you’ve ever seen, but the Atlas gets airborne through one guy pedaling.
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June 28, 2013
I’d be the first to concede that the image of Archimedes yelling “Eureka” as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse makes one fine visual for the concept of discovery.
Which is a shame, not only because it most likely didn’t happen–the story first appeared in a book two centuries after the Greek scholar had died–but also because it has long fed the fantasy of discovery as a solitary and sudden experience. Both history and research tell us that it rarely is–most of the time innovation is an iterative process that fits and starts over months, years, decades. And way more often than not, invention is the result of human friction, of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas bumping into one another, sparking fresh thoughts and collaborative visions.
One of the better examples of this messy, but fruitful dynamic played out after World War II in a nondescript structure at M.I.T known simply as Building 20. In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” published in 2010, Steven Johnson wrote about how, because the building was used to handle overflow from fast-growing science departments, it scrambled together an eclectic mix of nuclear scientists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, acoustical engineers and even linguists.
And that resulted in hallway conversations and random exchanges that made Building 20 one of the more creative places on Earth, a place that incubated an amazing sweep of scientific breakthroughs, from the first computer video game (SpaceWar!) to major advances in both microwaves and high-speed photography to the earliest attempts at computer hacking.
The beauty of congestion
Social scientists will tell you it’s that same swirl of commingled ideas and constant interactions–albeit on a much larger scale–that makes cities founts of creativity. In fact, research published earlier this month by scientists from M.I.T. concluded that productivity and innovation in urban areas grow at roughly the same rate as population, largely because the greater density of people living in a city increases the opportunities for personal interactions and exposure to different ideas.
The research team, led by Wei Pan, analyzed all kinds of factors to tabulate the “social-tie density” of different cities–that’s the average number of people each resident will interact with personally. They looked at everything from the number of call partners with whom a cellphone user will end up sharing a cell tower to the number of people connecting through location-based social networks like Foursquare to the contagion rates of diseases spread only through personal contact. And they found that the higher a city’s social-tie density, the higher its levels of productivity and patents awarded.
“What really happens when you move to a big city is you get to know a lot of different people, although they are not necessarily your friends. These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities and meetings with other great people that may help you.”
His model doesn’t hold up, however, for some huge African and Asian cities that have even denser populations than cities in the West. But Pan has an explanation for that. Generally, those cities have terrible transportation systems. If people can’t get around, can’t have those serendipitous interactions, a city’s density has less impact.
It’s all about the friction.
Here’s other recent research on what makes us more–and less–creative:
- They are, however, extremely cranky: Lose the image of the creative genius so inflamed with inspiration that he or she can go days without sleep. Not likely. According to a study at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, people who don’t get enough sleep tend not to be all that creative.
- Does “Words With Friends” count?: On the other hand, if you are staying up late, it may do you good to read a little fiction. Research done at the University of Toronto determined that people who read fiction were more comfortable with disorder and uncertainty than people who read an essay and that fostered more sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.
- Do not disturb. Daydreamer at work: And it turns out that being bored at work may not be such a bad thing. A team of British scientists found that people who do tasks they find boring tend to daydream more and that can lead to more creative thinking. The question that needs to be answered now, says lead researcher Sandi Mann, is: “Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?”
- Take a hike: It may not come as such a big surprise, but now there’s more evidence that spending time out in nature and getting away from all your digital devices sharpens your creativity. Researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah worked with a group of people going on Outward Bound excursions and found that those who took tests the fourth day into their trips showed considerably more creativity than those who did so before their journeys started.
- They also looked better: Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers concluded that people who were tested in a dimly-lit room exhibited more “freedom from constraints” and performed with more creativity than those who took the same test under bright lights.
- Pretend to smell the coffee: It was just a matter of time. Near the end of last year a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study reporting that people showed more creativity in an environment of ambient sound–such as a coffee shop–than in a silent room. And now, if you’re too lazy to go out for coffee, you can head right down to a website called Coffitivity and it will play a coffee shop soundtrack for you–minus the mindless cell phone chatter.
Video bonus: When it comes to how good ideas come to pass, writer Steven Johnson is a big believer in what he calls the “slow hunch” theory.
Video bonus bonus: But wait, there’s more. Creativity author and expert Ken Robinson shares on his take on the components of truly creative environments.
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March 14, 2013
Last week, for the first time in 75 years, the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, made the Golden Gate seem like just another bridge.
Kudos to Leo Villareal. He’s an artist who works with lights, but also with algorithms. And his latest project, The Bay Lights, is probably the most spectacular example of that mix of art and tech that most of us have ever seen.
Under Villareal’s direction, teams of electricians spent the past five months stringing 25,000 LED lights a foot apart–from the top of the bridge’s towers down to the deck–for the full length (almost two miles) of the bridge’s western span.
Drivers crossing the bridge aren’t distracted by the spectacle of all the white dots. They can’t see them. But from the shore, it’s a very different view. Sometimes the light seems to drip down like a steady San Francisco rain. Other times it looks like shadows of clouds moving over the bay. That’s the point. Villareal wants the lights to mirror the natural elements around them. And like nature, the bridge’s lights will never look exactly the same for the next two years. That’s the algorithms at work.
There are no cheap tricks–no splashes of color, no words spelled out, no images–in fact, nothing clearly identifiable. Just constantly shifting abstractions so people can see what they want to see.
Says Villareal: “My goal is to make it feel alive as possible, as alive as a sequence of numbers can be.”
Public art has come a long way from statues of white guys on horses. And it’s not just about the scale of something like The Bay Lights. It’s what technology has made possible–art that’s dynamic, that shifts mood and shape and sometimes augments reality. Some, of course, are not impressed, seeing art by algorithm as not much more than a 21st century version of parlor tricks. So be it.
But there can be little question that digital technology is now the driver in not just how we interact with our environment, but also in how we view it. And whether its method is to enhance the world around us or to change entirely how it appears, this is where public art is headed.
Like Leo Villareal, B.C. Biermann is a digital artist who wants to provide fresh visions to city life. But he does it by offering slices of an alternative reality. His art projects involve adding a new interactive layer to public spaces.
A few years ago, he co-founded an organization called RePublic and one of its first augmented reality projects, in July 2011, allowed people to point their smartphones at specific Times Square billboards and instead of viewing massive, flashing ads, they were able to see original pieces of urban art. Next came a project in which people aiming a digital device at a fading mural in Norway could see what it looked like when its paint was fresh. And then came the augmentation of buildings in Los Angeles and New York, which were were transformed into fanciful virtual murals on the small screen.
Biermann is now looking at refining his augmented reality concepts so that people could have choices of what “surface” of a building they want to see. Maybe they get an image of what it looks like inside the walls, maybe how it might look 20 years from now. He’s also working with an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis to develop a version of his app that would digitally revitalize several of the city’s buildings, with the goal of showing how better urban planning can profoundly change a streetscape’s looks.
As Biermann sees it, one day we may be taking virtual tours of cities, but what we see on our smartphones could be a very different-looking place than the one before our eyes.
That is, if we’re still paying attention to the one before our eyes.
Here are a few other public art projects built around digital technology:
- But the lights will not spell out, “Hi, Mom: Now that Bay Lights is in play, a little of the glitter is gone from Luminous, the light spectacle covering the front of a four-story building in Sydney, Australia. When it was unveiled last year, it was described as the world’s largest permanent interactive light display. And one big difference between it and the light show on the Bay Bridge is that it comes with touchscreens that give people in the restaurant down below the chance to become LED programmers.
- However, they refuse to dance to “Gangnam Style”: And in Winnipeg, Canada, they now have their own interactive art piece that makes up in whimsy what it lacks in grandeur. It’s a collection of 68 LED lights that react to sound, specifically whistling. Called Listening Lights, its inspiration is a Canadian legend that when a person whistles, the Northern Lights become more intense and dance towards the person doing the whistling.
- Finding their inner building: While it lasts for only a few days in January, the Ghent Light Festival in Belgium is worth a mention if you’re talking about doing digital magic on buildings. Here’s a video from the dazzling 2012 version of the event.
- And they should know at least a few insults: And here’s one that’s a work in progress. Believe it or not, New York City still has 11,000 payphones, which actually came in pretty handy during Superstorm Sandy. But clearly they need a 21st century facelift and now the city has just announced six finalists in a competition to reinvent the payphone. The entries will be judged on what their reinventions can do. Are they wifi hotspots? A gatherer of data, such as street level pollution levels? Or a true urban kiosk, one that can wirelessly call a cab and be able to tell you what food trucks are where that day? And they have to look good. This is New York, after all.
Video bonus: See for yourself the spectacle of the new Bay Bridge and get an explanation of how it works from the artist himself in this New York Times video report.
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