Seen + heard: zero-waste, cities as startups, and funding flashy urbanism?


Aerial view of Fresh Kills Park, NYC: from the NYC Park’s website.

Is a zero-waste society possible? Or is it just a pipe dream? So asks Terry Tamminen on Fast Company’s new Co.Exist blog. For trivia nerds: old carpet remains one of the biggest contributors to landfills, and in America, we dump more than 3 million tons of used disposable diapers into landfills each year. As landscape architects, urbanists, and city futurists: where should we focus our energy? On creating beautiful land fills (from Treasure Island in San Francisco to Byxbee Park in Palo Alto to Fresh Kills in New York City)–or do we need to use our design skills to solve deeper problems, such as the ubiquitous use of plastics and other disposable materials in modern life?

Are smart phones changing our public spaces into private ones? Emily Badger on Atlantic Cities looks at the effect of smart phones on the perception of public space–suggesting that the ever-present smart phone may “degrade the way we recognize, memorize and move through cities.” She writes:

Smart phones have miraculously enabled people to stay connected, informed, and entertained, even in transit. We can now text, tweet, Skype, check Facebook updates, email in-boxes, Pandora channels and news feeds from a subway stop or street corner. The distracted walker has become both an urban menace and an April Fool’s laugh line.

From changing the way strangers communicate to creating a perceptual “private space bubble” around the person, she wonders: are smart phones helping us be any smarter? Initial surveys suggest that people forget, or don’t know, about their surroundings and fail to take information in when distracted by the computer in our hands. (I know this to be true–since getting my phone, I’ve had a terrible time of remember where I parked, mostly because as soon as I step out of my car, I get on my phone). And are smart phones making us ruder in public as social beings? And what does it mean to be in public when you can carry your private life around in your pocket?

Are we seeing the end of our love affair with the automobile? Shifting trends in the younger-than-30 demographic suggest that we might be entering an era of tepid acceptance of cars as opposed to delirious engagement. The Washington Post documents some of these shifts: From the expense of roads to the environmental implications of owning a car, coupled with the enormity of college debt, fewer people are getting drivers licenses and more are moving to transit-friendly cities. Certainly the explosion of car-sharing services such as Get Around, Relay Rides, City Car Share and ZipCar are helping this trend change. Can cities–and developers–keep up with the changing demand, or are we slated to occupy a post-suburban world that requires teenagers and twenty somethings to pile into cars just to be get to the mall?

Cities as products or startups? The wild popularity of kickstarter and some of the recent urban-based interventions suggests that this may be a new model for funding urban projects. Yet one of the problems with the kickstarter model of financing grassroots efforts is that it’s weighted heavily towards products or consumer-focused outcomes, and those that are flashier are more likely to succeed. Quoting critic Reyner Banham in his essay “The Great Gizmo,” Alexandra Lange writes:

 “It wasn’t massive infrastructure projects that changed our world, but devices. Urbanism would lose out to industrial design. And that’s just what’s happening on Kickstarter. You wouldn’t Kickstart a replacement bus line for Brooklyn, but you might Kickstart an app to tell you when the bus on another, less convenient line might come.”

In a separate essay, Greg Lindsay on American Cities’ new Forefront magazine suggested that cities today can be created and launched in much the same way that technological companies are created–dubbing cities of the 20th century the next start-up. In looking at the speed of city creation and the bias of new finance possibilities, what is the appropriate way to design cities? And what will be the result of kickstart urbanism and the massive number of new cities being built in Asia and other developing countries?

What is next? 

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  1. Seen + heard: zero-waste, cities as startups, and funding flashy urbanism?

    “ubiquitous use of plastics” Who decides how plastics can be used? Who decides what plastics can be used? Who decides who can use them? Perhaps it sounds good, in the abstract, to reduce dependence on (fill in the blank). However, in implementation, it always comes back to that pesky question: Who decides? The choice between ANY subset of people and We, the People, is (obviously) we, the people. Or dictatorship. The choice between government and market is (obviously) market. Or tyranny. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

    Posted at 12:47 pm on
  2. Seen + heard: zero-waste, cities as startups, and funding flashy urbanism?

    “younger-than-30 demographic … tepid acceptance of cars” I wonder if this group of people will be able to overcome the climate/energy/population/waste misinformation that they’ve been fed relentlessly (by some) throughout their young lives. Whether the planet warms or cools, we humans need energy. Reduced energy capacity results in death: High temperatures without AC and the most fragile among us die. Low temps w/o heat and … same thing. Richard Feynman: ‘Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.’ Have kids without cars? Hmm. Have no kids? Then our way of life will be no longer. Ask and keep asking questions.

    Posted at 12:59 pm on

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