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All Tomorrows’s Taxi

Sometime early this year, New York City’s taxi and limousine commission will announce the winner of its “Taxi of Tomorrow” competition. Or it won’t. The project was begun in 2007, and in December 2009 a “request for proposals” went out to automotive manufacturers and designers. The bar wasn’t set all that high: the Taxi of Tomorrow was meant to be “safe, fuel-efficient, accessible, durable, and comfortable.” A look at the three finalists announced in November 2010 confirms they are perhaps all of those things. They are also, well, dull. Boxy. Lacking in imagination. (Not that New York’s current cab, the Ford Crown Victoria, was one to inspire much.)

The winner stands to supply more than 13,000 medallion taxis for at least a decade, a deal that could be worth up to $1 billion. Imagine if, in turn, the yellow spots monopolizing New York’s streets could help transform the urban landscape, perhaps by being smaller and more streamlined, having less environmental impact, or providing more comfort, convenience and aesthetics to passengers. What if the “tomorrow” part manifested itself not just in the object (the car) but in new initiatives inspired by the broad national movement toward collaborative consumption, like a taxi-sharing app that could help facilitate carpooling from J.F.K. into the city?

Steven M. Johnson  The perfect solution for these recessionary times, this cab, re-envisioned as a compact=

Steven M. Johnson The perfect solution for these recessionary times, this cab, re-envisioned as a compact bus, allows passengers to pay on a sliding scale. Click on the photo to see more of Mr. Johnson’s ideas.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that “if [the taxi] doesn’t meet our needs, then we can start the process all over again, or say we just can’t find what we want and come back and visit this at another time in the future.” Well, only one of the three is wheelchair accessible, only one offers an electric option. So with the door still open, as it were, I had several conversations with the artist/inventor (and former R&D guy for Honda) Steven M. Johnson, a self-described conjurer of “ludicrous” ideas for decades. But sometimes the wildest ideas result in the best solutions. We discussed the taxi-related issues that seemed to have been inadequately addressed in the Taxi of Tomorrow competition.

There is traffic, as in the inability to do anything about it. Should there be a taxi lane? An elevated one, straight out of Rem Koolhaas’s “Delirious New York”? There’s availability — how to improve the odds of getting a cab when you need one — and also affordability: a cab-sharing program has been tried in the city already, but is there a way to improve it, or create a vehicle that allows for ride-sharing? And there’s reliability — how can you better the odds that your driver knows how to get where you want to go?

In addition, there are different and specific issues of comfort that need to be addressed for a car that hosts many passengers in the course of a day. The average taxi seems too hot, or too cold, or too loud; the upholstery sags, and cleanliness is relative. This affects the relationship between passenger and driver, and the corresponding civility (or lack thereof). Is the environment safe and secure? Are the temperature, noise level and air quality satisfactory? Should there be an enforceable dress code for drivers, as has been proposed by the city’s taxi and limousine commission?

After we talked, Johnson came up with nearly 60 different concepts, some pragmatic, some dystopic, others clearly silly. We winnowed it down to nine, tongues firmly in our cheeks. Click here to see a slide show of his ideas.

I commend the city for soliciting comments on the finalists, and the media, design and innovation firm Human Condition for creating the Taxi of Tomorrow crowd-sourcing site, which has been offering a forum for ideas and commentary since October. I hope the commission pays attention.

Can Airports Be Fun?

Few who fly — or fly coach, anyway — would disagree that the entire experience of air travel from check-in to landing carries with it an overwhelming sense that everyone involved has simply given up. Watch people as they enter airports: shoulders rise, expressions grow steely, civility erodes. Things that shouldn’t be a big deal — learning that you’ll have an on-time departure or receiving a free bag of potato chips — feel like winning lottery tickets, so low have our expectations become.

Now that we’re entering the thick of the holiday travel season and we’ve been groped, scanned, forced to eat a Cinnabon and otherwise made to suffer the slings and arrows of air travel — here’s something rarely offered of late: a positive story about airports.

Courtesy of Gensler. The Virgin America ticketing counter. T2’s design supports SFO’s goal of zero waste and will encourage travelers and employees to participate in its sustainable programming. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Courtesy of Gensler. The Virgin America ticketing counter. T2’s design supports SFO’s goal of zero waste and will encourage travelers and employees to participate in its sustainable programming. CLICK TO ENLARGE

A newly renovated international terminal at San Francisco International Airport by Gensler Architects is opening this spring and its design aims high in trying to re-set the expectations of a weary (and wary) flying public.

With its James Cameron-esque moniker “T2,” it just might be on to something. A design-build partnership between Gensler and Turner Construction, the 640,000-square-foot terminal will feature 14 gates serving the already design-savvy Virgin America and American Airlines; with its focus on sustainability, localism and comfort, it endeavors to make the best of the fact that we are spending far more time at airports and will continue to do so.

Most existing airports in the United States were designed before 9/11, at a time when it was typical to arrive 30 minutes before your flight was due to depart. Today, as Bill Hooper, aviation practice leader at Gensler, says (and we all know all too well), “We all need at least twice that to make sure we get through security in time. Plus, you need to grab food in the terminal, because meals aren’t served on flights as they once were. So we have people spending twice as much time past security, and needing more amenities while they’re there. The things that travelers need in terminals today just weren’t considerations when most terminals were originally designed, so the needs just aren’t being met.”

David Joseph, left; Nic Lehoux, right  Only three U.S. terminals have been fully designed and constructed since 9/11, and of those, two were designed by Gensler: Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, left, and JFK’s Jet Blue Terminal. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Courtesy of Gensler T2’s restrooms feature live plants, earth tones, natural light and sustainable features like toilets that use reclaimed water. CLICK TO ENLARGE

One big reason those needs aren’t being met is the fact that airports were designed to get people in and out as quickly as possible. Only four terminals have been fully designed and constructed in the United States since 9/11: JFK’s JetBlue Terminal and the new North Terminal at Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport (both designed by Gensler), the new terminal designed by HOK in Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham’s Terminal 2 (which will be completed in early 2011), designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects of Denver. T2 will be the fifth. While many of the older terminals have made modifications to address the changing realities of security checkpoints, online check-ins and orange alerts, most feel like incomplete workarounds rather than integrated solutions.

T2, on the other hand, is the first LEED Gold-registered airport in the United States. LEED really shouldn’t be big news at this point, but its fulfillment so often manifests itself in ways that make the tangible, day-to-day benefits of its green-ness too subtle to discern, even for those who enter the space daily.

Courtesy of Gensler. T2’s restrooms feature live plants, earth tones, natural light and sustainable features like toilets that use reclaimed water. CLICK TO ENLARGE

But SFO’s T2 makes the “Gold” designation mean something in this decidedly un-golden age of travel: it’s a terminal designed in part to spark ideas about how people can live sustainably, both while traveling and in everyday life. Gensler’s greening is aimed at a spectrum of airport “users,” from airport employees resigned to a work day characterized by impatient hordes, fluorescent lights and an incessant soft rock soundtrack interrupted by gate announcements, to passengers forced to run the gantlet of TSA security procedures and boarding shuffles that compete with Russian traffic jams for expediency.

In ways both visible and invisible, sustainability is a constant. Hydration stations can perhaps solve the wasteful problem of tossed half-full plastic water bottles by providing a place to fill reusable ones. An innovative displacement ventilation system will not only improve indoor air quality but use 20 percent less energy in the process. And that vastly underused building material known as natural light is here a major design element in the form of new skylights and clerestories, enhancing not only aesthetics and health but also reducing the terminal’s electricity requirements during daylight hours.

“Sustainability is at the core of so many things happening in San Francisco,” says Steve Weindel, a Gensler design director, “so it was natural to take a very forward-thinking approach to incorporate sustainable thinking into the way the terminal is both designed and operated.”

Localism is integral to sustainability, and Gensler has taken the unusual step of creating an extension of Bay Area aesthetics and culture within the terminal itself. Most American airports have a deadening homogeneity to them — identical food vendors, retail outlets and environmental design systems — making the experience of arriving in one place indiscernible from the next. At T2, that’s replaced by putting the destination in context: people will see works by local artists, for example, and will be able to purchase food and wine prepared by local organic producers. Says Weindel, “Have you seen ‘Up in the Air’? We were shooting for something that is the opposite of the airports you see there.”

Janet Echelman  The “recomposure zone,” with natural light entering through skylights, offers a place to regroup and refresh. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Janet Echelman The “recomposure zone,” with natural light entering through skylights, offers a place to regroup and refresh. CLICK TO ENLARGE

No firm engaged in airport design and renovation can alter TSA procedures, but they can create environments that make them more tolerable. T2 will have a new area called the “recomposure zone,” just past security — you still have to take everything off, but now there will be a designated and unhurried place to put it all back on, too. Says Hooper, “It’s the uncertainty of moving through airports that stresses people out, so what we can do as designers is to make the environment very clear, and very comfortable.”

Other welcome changes? If you’ve got your laptop, you’ll enjoy lounge- and counter-seating options with places to re-charge electronics, and will no longer be forced to huddle on the ground near power outlets. Parents will revel at the inclusion of well-considered children’s play areas, unlike, say, one consisting solely of a single video screen projecting Sponge Bob cartoons, something I’ve encountered while traveling with my preschooler.

An airport doesn’t need to feel like a boutique hotel, but it shouldn’t feel like a refugee camp, either. “Fun isn’t a word that people have come to expect from airport environments, and we’re looking to change that,” says Jeff Henry, a Gensler design director.

Can fun be had in airport? That security and shopping will continue to define our travel experience is not ideal, but one hopes that with the opening of T2 in the spring, clean air, fresh produce and natural light (not to mention free WiFi) might help.

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the SFO terminal will be the fourth to be completely designed and constructed since 9/11; in fact, one in Raleigh-Durham is scheduled to be completed a little before that in early 2011, which would make SFO the fifth.

The Public Square Goes Mobile

“We don’t need more leaders. We need more followers. Wherever & however you can enter public life is ok.”

That tweet by Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, is a radical provocation in our age of the non-expert. The nation is gripped by the fantasy that the least-qualified, least-experienced among us make ideal leaders. Dissatisfaction — no, real anger — with the status quo, as opposed to informed ideas or policy experience, seems to define qualifications for public service.

This shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise. I guess moms have stopped telling their kids, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Far too many of our public processes, from school board meetings to town halls, provide citizens with a forum to complain but not much else. Hand ‘em a mike and two minutes and they’ll unleash a torrent of opinion — but it’s unlikely anyone will step forward with constructive advice or proactive steps relating to budget cuts or the latest environmental action report.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with complaints — we’ve all got plenty to gripe about these days — and it is important that we have forums in which to air them. In just one recent week, for example (as illustrated in this beautiful infographic from Wired UK), New York City’s 311 number received 34,522 complaints, mostly having to do with rodents, noise and taxi cabs. So there is no shortage of problems to solve. But, increasingly, there is less time, and fewer resources and people, to do so.

What if there were a way to transform complaints into something positive and productive? What if we reframed the exchange to be less about adversity and more about cooperation and action? What if citizens were encouraged to offer their thoughts on how things from transit systems to city parks might be improved — as opposed to simply airing their grievances about all that was wrong with them?

Courtesy of Local Projects

That’s the beauty of Give a Minute, created as part of CEOs for Cities’ US Initiative by the media design firm Local Projects. Says Coletta, “We need more citizens who feel agency — that they can actually influence the future of their communities. Otherwise, there is complacency and resignation. Give a Minute encourages agency. Go ahead. Share your ideas. Change your city.”

In embracing a technology that nearly everyone now possesses — text messaging — Give a Minute provides a fast, cheap and easy way to share ideas, connect them together and make them happen. As Local Project’s Jake Barton, whose firm has excelled in previous participatory projects like StoryCorps, explains, “It’s like 311 for new ideas.”

“There are no hoops to jump through, no points to win, no fake “votes” to solicit, no games to play,” adds Coletta. “It’s a very straightforward question to citizens that treats them respectfully, as adults, and assumes an authentic relationship between citizens and their government.”

As part of its US Initiative, CEOs for Cities is hosting Challenge events in cities across the country. It is at these events that the specific needs of each particular city are identified. In Chicago, where Give a Minute recently launched, the goal was to make it possible for people to go where they need to go without owning a car, while in Memphis (where Give a Minute will begin in January 2011), says Coletta, “The ambition is to develop all of our talent and put all of our talent to work.”

In other communities, the questions will be driven by urban leaders who are hoping to engage citizens in an authentic dialogue on how to improve the community in specific ways. Other cities on tap include Indianapolis, New York, San Jose and Grand Rapids.

Courtesy of Local Projects

Give a Minute launched with the question, “Hey Chicago, what would encourage you to walk, bike or take CTA more often?” Citizens, who are learning about it from billboards, ads on the L and in the local paper, are texting their ideas and posting them to the Give a Minute Web site. You can look here to find the responses texted so far (1,000 in the first two weeks), which range from “lower CTA fares” to “organized walking groups going roughly the same route with similar interests” to “play classical music on train system” to “I need to bring my daughter with me, so the streets need to be kid-safe.”

“We’re just culling through all the different ideas that run from the specific to the hilarious to the utopian,” says Barton. “But one thing that does seem clear is that they are far more diverse and often smaller scale, and actionable on different scales including individual, neighborhood and government.”

Courtesy of Local Projects

These ideas aren’t revolutionary — but that wasn’t Give a Minute’s goal. At first glance, the endeavor does feel like just another version of the often-overrated concept of crowd-sourcing, which aspires to gather together the collective brilliance of those most qualified to solve complex problems but rarely does. Give a Minute did spring from an open exploration into existing open-source and crowd-sourcing platforms, but realized the general emphasis on finding the most revolutionary idea amidst the multitudes wasn’t quite right. Says Barton, “At meetings, Carol would say, ‘What are the experts not figuring out? What are these new silver bullets that trained professionals aren’t coming up with?’ It’s not about inventing new ideas but having those ideas phrased and framed by the public so it doesn’t feel like [the solution] is being dropped down from above.”

“It’s about people in a specific neighborhood saying let’s put in a garden here,” Barton continues. “I’d say it’s a more nuanced approach to crowd-sourcing, less the winner-takes-all model but rather getting a group to rally around something specific. The entire process is designed for maximum participation to some kind of constructive end. The basic idea was to reinvent public participation for the 21st century.”

Courtesy of Local Projects

When participants text their responses, they hear back from representatives of the local agencies, non-profits and other groups working in that area. Then you might, optimally, hear back again about opportunities to get involved with like-minded individuals and organizations. Or you might get a response to your text message back from the head of CTA, or some other expert involved in the issue. Give a Minute is aiming for a broad range of respondents — not just transit or government folks, but also grassroots activists and local celebrities (on the wish list might be, say, David Byrne or Jay-Z in New York, Steve Wozniak in San Jose/Silicon Valley).

Give a Minute wants to recruit change-minded people to do more than text for change; in tracking responses, Local Projects will be able to point to particular ideas and causes in common, and direct individuals into larger efforts through other technology platforms like Meetup or Kickstarter. And cash-strapped government agencies and non-profits understand that being open to, and willing to cultivate, these ideas — including allowing for temporary solutions, for execution and management from the bottom up — can not only be beneficial but is probably essential. This helps remove the adversary: it’s not NIMBY, it’s “how can this community work together to make change happen?” Coletta refers to this as a Declaration of Interdependence.

The localism inherent in Give a Minute makes sense for the times. Weary of the national conversation, overwhelmed by the global ones, people are turning inward to their own communities — something I’ve written about frequently in this space. From carshares to communal ovens, local currencies to walkability indexes, people increasingly understand that they can effect change in their own backyard, block and neighborhood. In this country’s quest for individuality, we sometimes forget we do need other people; this project helps facilitate that. It may take more than a minute, but it’s worth a shot.

Let the Sun Shine In

Courtesy of Laguna Honda

Traditionally, Nightingale wards like those once used at Laguna Honda contained about 24 to 34 beds, which made patient privacy an impossibility.

When I started writing this article a little more than a month ago, I hadn’t yet had two bulging disks flare up, putting me in excruciating pain. I hadn’t yet had a neck epidural where, as I sat in a hospital gown designed for someone three times my size, the R.N. inserted the IV into the arm on the side that was in such distress. I hadn’t had to spend my half hour of recovery time in a Nightingale ward — those wards with rows of beds divided by the thinnest of sliding curtains that allow you to hear all the particulars of your neighbors’ condition and all the sounds of their discomfort. I hadn’t had to sit in a row of wheelchairs (no other seating was provided) while waiting to consult with the surgeon after the procedure.

The procedure went fine and I’m slowly improving, but in my woozy post-op state I had ample time to think yet again about how the experience of health care could be so vastly improved.

So let’s move away from my story — which was unpleasant but is getting better — and toward the more positive one I had begun to prepare, the story of a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility called Laguna Honda, in San Francisco.

When it was founded in 1867, Laguna Honda was known as the Almshouse, and housed an indigent population with either no family to care for them or no money for other care. Back then, most institutions had names that seemed perfectly, and tragically, aligned with their level of care, names like the Industrial Home for Crippled Children or the Home for Orphans, Indigent, and Aged. Over the decades, some of these names have changed, but a trip “to the home” remains a fate not desired by anyone.

Usually one approaches a hospital with a sense of fear or apprehension. The bold entrance of Laguna Honda’s new pavilion building, bordered by green space, helps change that experience. © David Wakely

Laguna Honda is for people in need of long-term rehabilitation, or nursing home care, city-run and meant for those unable to afford any other alternative. There’s no doubt that for periods in its long history, it was one of those places you wouldn’t have wanted to end up. Until recently it was using the aforementioned Nightingale wards for long-term and permanent patients, something I’d always associated with triage units or British war films. But now, freshly renovated, the new Laguna Honda suggests an inspired way of thinking about not only institutionalized care but of what a truly effective health care facility might look, feel and act like.

Laguna Honda's interior courtyard features an organic garden where residents can plant and grow their own produce — and have it prepared in their "neighborhood" kitchens.

When Anshen + Allen (now Anshen + Allen / Stantec Architecture Joint Venture Partners) were commissioned 10 years ago to renovate and create a new building for the 150-year-old Laguna Honda, the firm was asked to design a campus for 1,200 beds. “From day one, we did not want Laguna Honda to be about 1,200 beds but about 1,200 places,” says Sharon Woodworth, senior architect with Anshen/Stantec, who helped lead the charge to scale the number back to a more humane 780. “The intent was always to create a ‘home,’ not an institution. Even if the project had been 120 or just 60 beds we still would have sought to create a sense of place beyond the bed the individual slept in — a place that felt like home — in a community setting. The community setting is a key difference.”

As is what Woodworth considers the defining characteristic of the project: natural light.

Home for Life

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Dangling”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Dangling”

My husband and I spent a year looking for our first home. Every Sunday, we’d jump in the car with driving directions and hope, the latter often dashed before we even got out of the car. The open houses were often short stories unto themselves: what exactly — or who — was behind that padlocked door in the hall? Who thought to put the kitchen next to the master bedroom? What sort of people suspend a suit of armor over their bed?

One constant behind all the front doors was the fast and cheap kitchen renovation. Done no doubt at the urging of the real estate agent, who warned that no one would ever buy a house without an updated kitchen, these cookie-cutter remodels featured identical green granite countertops, frosted glass cabinet doors (revealing a hint of the Italian pasta boxes inside), black and white checkerboard floor tile and wannabe Viking ranges.

In the end, we found our house, built in 1907 and featuring a fully functional and actually pretty hip kitchen, untouched since the late ’60s. All those homes we’d visited over the previous years found buyers, too — and I’ll bet that many of those kitchens were ripped out and remodeled anew.

When did “rm w/a vu” turn into Viking range, cathedral ceiling, granite countertop and four-car garage? At what point did the house become more about the future tenant than the current resident? It’s hard to trace the moment, but let’s hope it’s passed. Because for too long, home design has been hijacked by the allure of resale value. Maybe now we can begin again to think of our houses not as investments but as homes.

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Spills”

Amy Casey, Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago “Spills”

The concern for resale value was never more apparent to me than it was a few years ago when I spent nearly a year consulting for a developer of planned communities — like the ones in Phoenix or Orlando or Las Vegas with many foreclosed homes that you now see on the news. The company had asked our team of design consultants to “rethink the way we sell houses.” We interviewed numerous potential home buyers about how they made their purchasing decisions, and learned the extent to which resale concerns dictated people’s choices — about square footage, location, number and type of rooms, brand of appliances, even paint colors.

Blueprints for a Better Burb

Levittown, N.Y., c. 1950s

Levittown, N.Y., c. 1950s. Courtesy of Hofstra University’s Department of Special Collections, Long Island Studies Institute

That the Murphys, the couple recently arrested for spying for the Russians from Montclair, N.J., were described by a flabbergasted neighbor as “suburbia personified” is telling, an observation that perfectly sums up our collective notion that the suburbs are chock full of white, middle-class families, both nuclear and normal.

An ad for Levittown.

An ad for Levittown. Courtesy of Hofstra University’s Department of Special Collections, Long Island Studies Institute

But that prevailing vision contradicts the reality of suburbia today. There may be white picket fences and home owners associations in common, but beyond that, “suburb” has outlived its usefulness as a descriptive term — and as a model for future planning, at least in its current incarnation. Suburbs continue to be designed for homogeneity even though they’re no longer homogeneous at all, and in fact have become increasingly varied in type, density, infrastructure and demographics.

The Long Island- and Maryland-based Rauch Foundation, whose efforts focus on issues relating to children, leadership and the environment, knows this and has dedicated some serious energy to addressing it where they live: on Long Island, a perfect laboratory given that it’s a textbook case of suburban sprawl. Last month, I was a juror for the Build a Better Burb competition organized by the foundation, which asked entrants to consider a series of issues like housing choice and affordability, stemming “brain drain,” enhancing car-free mobility, and equity, access and public space. Here’s one example of a possible design brief proposed by the organizers (though entrants were free to focus on any area of Long Island they chose):

What would you propose for the 69 available acres along Hempstead Turnpike in iconic Levittown, where only 3 percent of the housing units are multi-family, 21 percent of the population is over 55 and virtually no new housing has been built in decades?

Aerial view of Levittown, N.Y., c. 1950s

Aerial view of Levittown, N.Y., c. 1950s. Courtesy of Hofstra University’s Department of Special Collections, Long Island Studies Institute

Levittown is (or was) the quintessential suburb, and in our collective imaginations we tend to view all suburbs in its image. But the research presented in the Long Island Index, which gathers and publishes data on the region with an eye toward moving policy, demonstrates that today’s suburbia rarely resembles the images we commonly associate with Levittown and similar communities of that era.

The Way We Design Now

It’s strange to think that just a few years ago, it felt as if design schools and studios nationwide must have been holding special screenings of “The Graduate.” Down the aisles of Target, in the pages of Dwell and the showrooms of SoHo, there was nary a natural material in sight: the future was plastic.

‘Garbino’ trashcan for Umbra.

‘Garbino’ trashcan for Umbra.

“Plastic was the material that I naively knew was the material of our contemporary world, even at the age of 10,” the designer Karim Rashid said in a 2006 interview. Rashid has certainly been plastic’s most high-profile ambassador, using it for everything from dish-soap containers to the (then) ubiquitous $7 “Garbino” trashcans that made him famous. Many other designers were similarly enamored with the way plastic could become any color or shape, and though products made from the material were offered at all price ranges, plastic delivered on the popular premise of good design for all because it could be used to create on the cheap.

Though our connected culture would be lost without it, plastic assumes a radically different role in the design world: its most high-profile usage of late comes not in throwaway consumer goods but rather in the form of the 12,500 plastic bottles (that’s about the same number consumed every 8.3 seconds in the United States) used to build the Plastiki, a wind-blown, solar-powered boat currently sailing from San Francisco to Australia, stopping at environmental hot spots like the roughly Texas-sized North Pacific Garbage Patch or Pacific Gyre along the way. The goal of the Plastiki voyage is to encourage people to re-think waste: according to Project Aware, 15 billion pounds of plastic are produced in the U.S. every year, for example, but only 1 billion pounds are recycled.

The Plastiki solar-powered boat, made from 12,500 plastic bottles.

The Plastiki solar-powered boat, made from 12,500 plastic bottles. Courtesy Plastiki Crew, top; Adventure Ecology

It would be overstating things to say that Plastiki is helping chart a new course for design, but the vessel and the voyage do provide a nice departure point for discussing the place the discipline finds itself today. Though the expedition leader, David de Rothschild, has in many ways been the face of Plastiki, the project as a whole speaks to the reality of collaboration versus individual creation. The Plastiki site acknowledges a team including diver, documentarian, boat builder and solar array designer. Designers like Philippe Starck may have turned their attention to things like wind turbines now, but most design efforts these days, whether for iPods or affordable apartments, seem to be very much the product of teams. Coming off an era where designers assumed the role of artist/auteur, that’s a big shift. Plastiki, in engaging with a host of environmental technologies and issues, also mirrors a broad cultural shift in design’s focus. Design now exists less to shape objects than to produce solutions. Instead of creating a desire and designing an object to fulfill it, a designer spotlights a problem or need and solves it. The latter has not completely displaced the former, but it has become the prevailing discourse. So it’s fitting that the newest edition of the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial questions the purpose — and future — of the discipline with an exhibit called “Why Design Now?” The Triennial, which opened in mid-May, assuages any fears surrounding the capabilities of natural materials. In fact, inventiveness around unremarkable stuff from sunflowers to banana stems has resulted in numerous greener alternatives to plastic on display here, including Bananaplac, an alternative to hardwood and Formica, produced from banana fibers extracted when the fruit is harvested; AgriPlast, made from field grass and polystyrene; Kraftplex, a 100 percent biodegradable fiberboard made from sustainably harvested soft wood fibers, water, pressure and heat; and Flax, a natural fiber typically used to make linen but transformed by designer Francois Azambourg into high-performing recyclable furniture like the Lin94 Chair. But new materials are always being introduced, and their inclusion here is just a small part of a much larger story.

How to Green Your Parents

global citizens, kids interested in nature

Courtesy of Academy for Global Citizenship. Getting kids interested in nature and their environment can help improve their test scores, reduce childhood obesity and increase self-confidence.

Thursday is the 40th anniversary of the original Earth Day. Over the years, the impact of this once seminal day has lessened. Earth Day brings people together for nice gatherings and noble efforts but has, for the most part, made sustainable action more of an annual event than a daily habit. We’ve got to change that.

Here’s a move in the right direction: launching this Earth Day is Green My Parents, a nationwide effort to inspire and organize kids to lead their families in measuring and reducing environmental impact at home. Not just on Earth Day, but every day. GMP’s initial goal is to have its first 100 youth advocates train and educate 100 peers (who will then turn to 100 of their respective peers and so on), with the aim of saving families $100 million between now and April 2011.

How? By washing in cold water, walking or biking to school/work and kicking the bottled-water habit, for example. GMP’s founders suggest that by taking simple steps like those, the average family could save over $1,000 each year.

Rebuilding in Haiti

Haiti, rebuilding, Fema trailers

Highly controversial government trailers once intended for disaster victims were recently put on the auction block. Associated Press.

The federal government recently agreed to sell most of the 120,000 formaldehyde-tainted trailers it bought nearly five years ago for Hurricane Katrina victims for pennies on the dollar. How could it not have anticipated that the sale of those units — perhaps the most visible symbol of the government’s bungled response to the hurricane — would result in outrage? And how can they sell them cheaply to middlemen who will then turn a profit selling them back to those who still remain without housing, post-Katrina?

The reintroduction of the infamous trailers got me thinking about the current rebuilding efforts in Haiti and Chile, and what lessons could be learned from Katrina. The rebuilding in New Orleans might be best symbolized by two extremes: those notoriously substandard FEMA trailers, on the one hand; and on the other, 50 or so well-constructed but contextually challenged radical modern homes in an effort led by the Brad Pitt-backed non-profit Global Green.

These dramatically different responses are the result of a plethora of disconnected parties, each intent on doing things their own way. The uncoordinated response created a situation in which the wheel was reinvented constantly. Things didn’t happen — and still aren’t happening — fast enough. Five years after the hurricane hit, Ninth Ward residents describe themselves as feeling in limbo, and voice concerns about the slow pace of recovery in their community.

There will be a similar lack of expediency in Haiti, but at this still-early stage there’s still time to apply some of the lessons we learned from the missteps following Katrina. The widespread destruction in New Orleans (and Biloxi, Miss.) starkly highlighted the need for context-specific building codes, stable construction and non-toxic materials. One has only to look at the fatalities in Chile as compared to Haiti: though the Chilean earthquake registered 8.8 on the Richter scale, the country experienced 279 fatalities, compared to Haiti’s 230,000 from their less powerful 7.0 earthquake. (Another reason for the difference, of course, had to do with where and how the two earthquakes struck.)

Though daunting, Chile’s struggles will likely resolve themselves more quickly: just a week after the earthquake struck, drinking water, electricity, communications, banking and basic commerce had already been restored to over 90 percent of the affected areas. This is in dramatic contrast to Haiti, where, explains Sebastian Gray, professor of architecture at Universidad Católica de Chile, “because of the characteristics of the earthquake and the quality of construction, the destruction and loss of life was enormous.” In Chile, he says, the country’s strict building codes “accounted for the overall good performance of modern structures after the earthquake.”

Infographic comparing the structural damage in Haiti and Chile.

A collaboration between GOOD and Karlssonwilker, originally published in GOOD. Infographic comparing the structural damage in Haiti and Chile. Click image to enlarge.

The specific challenges of places like Haiti, which has been traumatized throughout its history by natural disasters, require focused responses like the ones I’ll explore here.

Q&A with Jason Mark: Bring the Land to the People

for GOOD Magazine

The complete antithesis of the rural idyll that many might associate with farming, the 4-1/2 acre Alemany Farm is located just off the decidedly non-bucolic Highway 280 in San Francisco, adjacent to a public housing project. But its tough exterior contrasts sharply with its benevolent mission of educating, engaging, and feeding its urban constituency through the organic food it grows. I spoke recently with Alemany’s co-manager, Jason Mark, who, when he’s not harvesting carrots and kale, is editing the quarterly environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal.

So how did you become an urban farmer?

When I was growing up, my father owned a landscape design and construction firm in Phoenix, Arizona, and we always had these amazing gardens at our house. But I hated helping out in the yard (it was, after all, a chore). So when I left home for college, I never thought about gardening again.

That is, until Sept 12, 2001, when I thought: “Man, the world is going to hell fast, I better learn to grow my own food.” So I enrolled in an urban gardening course offered by the now-defunct San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), where I learned some of the basics about food production. Then I got a small (I mean, tiny) plot in a community garden in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, where I grew some pretty impressive carrots and some pathetic radishes. It was a blast.

During this time, I was working at the human rights group Global Exchange, where I ran a national campaign trying to break America’s oil addiction. I began to feel an even more acute sense of the importance of building a sustainable food system. So I quit my job, left San Francisco, and enrolled in the ecological horticulture apprenticeship at the UC-Santa Cruz Farm & Garden. It was a truly magical experience: living in a tent with 45 other industrial-society skeptics, learning to grow your own food, watching the sun set over the Big Sur Mountains across Monterey Bay. The farm gave me a visceral sense of the importance of not only sustainable food production, but also the need for people to get closer to the natural system on which we depend.