Tag Archives: sustainability

What can we do to fix the ‘burbs?

The economic and environmental side effects of suburban living have gradually become more and more apparent, but what’s less apparent is what we can do about it. Here’s a suggestion: let ’em fix themselves.

Rigid zoning laws have created many of the problems typically associated with suburban sprawl. Possibly the largest of these problems is the segregation of residential and commercial spaces. The problem is fairly straight forward. When people do not live, work, shop and eat within walking distance of where they live, extensive transportation infrastructure is needed to allow people to regularly travel greater distances.

In Entrepreneurbia, such problems do not exist. Entrepreneurbia abolishes poorly conceived zoning laws to attract forward-thinking small business owners and start-up companies. The result is a community of entrepreneurs who transform inefficient single-family dwellings and purely decorative landscape spaces into intelligent home-based businesses. From chic shops & showrooms to designer offices, award-winning restaurants, and even boutique farms the new residents of Entrepreneurbia infuse once sterile suburbs with a distinctive sense of character & community.

OK, sure, it’s a design competition entry, there’s more than a hint of the ecotopian about it, and given the current backlash against anything that smacks of letting emergent markets have free rein (which I’d give greater credence to if I thought any of us had ever experienced a truly free market) this probably won’t be a popular idea.

But it sure is elegant in its simplicity, no? [via Inhabitat]

Charlie Stross on the future of nuclear power

power_plantCharles Stross has made an interesting point on the view that there is only a very short supply of useable nuclear fuel:

firstly, the supply of known uranium deposits will only last 80-100 years if we don’t recycle it and start burning MOX. I’d like to note that today’s light water reactors are horribly inefficient — they only extract 3% of the available energy from their fuel before it is considered “spent” and reclassified as waste. If we use high burn-up reactors such as the EPR, we can get a whole load more energy out of the same amount of fuel. And if we use fast breeders and run a plutonium cycle we can convert U238 into Pu239 and burn that instead of U235: there’s 500 times as much U238 lying around.

Secondly, we haven’t even tried to build a thorium reactor yet, although we’ve got good reason to believe it would work — and thorium is considerably more abundant than uranium.

As I have mentioned before, nuclear really should be part of the future energy mix of any industrialised country. Renewables can provide a large chunk (depending on local availability) of our energy needs but that still leaves a gap that needs to be plugged with something reliable and non-carbon-dioxide emitting.

David JC MacKay has more on nuclear power in his excellent free online textbook Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.

[image from christian.senger on flickr]

High-altitude urban windpower: not just blue-sky thinking

Energy sources don’t come much cleaner than wind power, but there’s no way of deploying it in large urban areas, right? Well, not so; if you can get the turbines away from ground level, you not only avoid the problem of siting all those windmills but also get access to the much richer store of power that exists at higher altitudes.

The first rigorous, worldwide study of high-altitude wind power estimates that there is enough wind energy at altitudes of about 1,600 to 40,000 feet to meet global electricity demand a hundred times over.

The very best ground-based wind sites have a wind-power density of less than 1 kilowatt per square meter of area swept. Up near the jet stream above New York, the wind power density can reach 16 kilowatts per square meter. The air up there is a vast potential reservoir of energy, if its intermittency can be overcome.

Even better, the best high-altitude wind-power resources match up with highly populated areas including North America’s Eastern Seaboard and China’s coastline.

“The resource is really, really phenomenal,” said Cristina Archer of Cal State University-Chico, who co-authored a paper on the work published in the open-access journal Energies.”There is a lot of energy up there, but it’s not as steady as we thought. It’s not going to be the silver bullet that will solve all of our energy problems, but it will have a role.”

According to that article, there’s a handful of start-ups beavering away at making workable prototypes to take advantage of all that wind and promising their first sales in a year or so. It’ll be good to have another non-vaporware option on the renewable energy table, but I imagine any city that has a lot of aircraft traffic passing through isn’t going to be too keen on the idea…

Bright-greening Dubai

Whatever you may think of Dubai (and however much of it is actually true), you can’t deny that those people know how to dream big. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce has apparently green-lit a plan for a self-sufficient off-grid ecotopian zone, dubbed (with what one presumes is as much hope as anything else) “Food City”. And here’s the proposal from architectural outfit GCLA:

Dubai "Food City" concept

GCLA has described their proposal for Food City as the “the marriage of landscapes and urbanism”. Their project integrates a variety of proposals to decrease overall energy use — concentrated solar collectors, towers covered in thin-film photovoltaic cells, piezoelectric pads in pedestrian areas, and methane harvesting through sewage percolation tanks.

GCLA also proposes water conservation measures critical to off-the-grid survival in water-starved Dubai, like atmospheric water harvesting, solar desalination through concentrated solar collectors, grey water recycling, and application of hydroponic sand to minimize water loss. Essentially, GCLA’s vision is an amalgamation of nearly every urban sustainability initiative in the past few years. It’s certainly utopian, but it may ultimately prove necessary.

Necessary, perhaps; but plausible, practical or realistic? Even assuming the best about Dubai, I’ll be surprised if the application of money and architectural talent alone can build a self-sufficient garden city in one of the dryest places on the planet… but it sure does look pretty. [image copyright GCLA; reproduced under Fair Use terms, contact if takedown required]

Furniture with character

How can we fix our relentless habit of buying new stuff to replace perfectly functional older stuff? James Pierce of Indiana University has an idea: design household objects to interact with us periodically and engage our attention beyond their established roles:

For instance, he has designed a table with an embedded digital counter that displays the number of heavy objects that have been placed on it during its lifetime. The counter becomes blurry or erratic if someone drops a heavy object on the table, only later returning to the correct count.

Another approach is cheeky misbehaviour, such as a lamp that dims if you leave it on for too long; shaking the lamp “wakes” it again. Or a clock that occasionally shows the wrong time, only to correct itself and display a message that it was just joking.

There’s more than a hint of Philip K Dick in that idea… and as much as I can see where Pierce is trying to go, it’s surely a bit too playful and arty to actually swing in the real world. I don’t know about you, but if I had a clock that periodically lied about what time it was, I’d replace it sooner rather than later!