Friday, May 30, 2008

In the Gas Crunch, We Have the Planners to Thank

With rising gas prices beginning to change the mindset and habits of commuters, it's most fortunate that more of our newer communities and redeveloped urban spaces are livable, biker-friendly, and pedestrian-friendly.

It's not by coincidence, either.

As early as the late 80s, and into the 90s, urban planners have adopted a concept called "New Urbanism." I should know, I've been one of them since the early 90s.

The idea is to end the compartmentalization of urban spaces between neighborhoods, workplaces, and goods and services. Instead, you mix it up a bit more. For example, you might notice the return of street-level store fronts in urban spaces, with residential dwellings on top of them. That brings people closer to their needs and services, and minimizes their reliance on transportation.

When transportation is necessary, urban spaces are more friendly to alternative transportation modes such as rail, bicycle, and public transit. Much of this has to do with the philosophy of New Urbanism adopted and put into action by planners at the local level; a concept that actually trickled up to the Presidency when Bill Clinton was in office - which gave birth to Federal ISTEA funding for transportation projects that bring together multiple nodes and encourage connectivity (say from auto to light rail to the airport, for example).

This was all foreseen without the heavy specter of an energy crisis many years ago, because it made sense.

A planner by nature is trained to work with the logic of conservation when it comes to urban design, and trained to provide options for communities. That means options on housing, infrastructure, parks and open spaces, and --- last but not least --- transportation.

So now with the energy crunch knocking on our door, we hear folks making statements like: "Wow, I never thought of using that bike path as a way to get to a matter of fact, I don't think I even knew it was there."

No problem...your local city planner who was on staff 15 years ago (more than likely) fought with a slimy developer over that issue through the course of several staff meetings, and in doing so may have very likely put his job and livelihood on the line, depending on the intricate politics involved at the time.

The everyday person probably has no clue whatsoever what happens years in advance with urban planning, the politics that come into play, and the screaming matches at city council meetings over things such as bicycle paths.

Seem ridiculous? You have no idea. Very few barely have a peek into the nutty logic-defying world of planning politics.

I've seen it all, and will probably see more... inebriated Planning Commission chairs stumbling into meetings. Developers stooping to the level of name calling and cursing at Mayors during council meetings - with 50 members of the public in the room bearing witness.
150 screaming citizens in a council meeting demanding a Mayoral resignation and protesting in front of city hall for months on end, and a council vote of no-confidence for the same Mayor --- and the guy STILL refused to resign. Property owners protesting their own rezonings. NOT KIDDING OR EXAGGERATING ABOUT ANY OF THAT.

Careers actually can be made or destroyed over such things as bicycle paths...because planners, especially the ones certified through the AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) are required to follow an oath, if you will, to uphold a special concept that fewer and fewer professionals seem to know about, and very few in the world of development: ETHICS.

My ethics were challenged many a time by developers, co-workers, even my own boss in one case. What did I do to keep my integrity if all else failed? I resigned. That's right.

Why did I do that? Well, for a multitude of reasons, but first and foremost I REFUSE TO BE A WHORE TO THE SYSTEM. I went into planning for a reason; to uphold high standards for laying the framework to building a new civilization, and to include the public in the process. Not for a mayor, not for a commissioner, and certainly not to line the pockets of some fat cat developer who refuses to follow the rules and zoning laws at the expense of the general public.

Anyhow, my apologies for digressing...what were we talking about?

So it is then...that we will hopefully feel, and start taking advantage of, the fallout of decisions driven by planners from many moons ago while we go through this protracted and unfortunately painful transition from oil.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Solar-powered watercraft

Imagine the countries of the world trading with each other through the use of combined solar and wind-powered shipping tankers. Think of the fuel costs and power that could be saved as a result.

It may not be that far off, as such watercraft are currently in use.

There's one in existence right now, in the harbor of Sydney, Australia. More concepts are being developed as we speak to expand the use of this technology.

It's solar-powered watercraft; alive and well.

Using a combination of solar and wind power, the ferry in Sydney uses 90% less power than it otherwise would if it used a typical combustion boat engine.

I guess this is sorta like the aqua version of the EV-1, the electric car from the mid-90s (which wasn't solar, but it's the closest thing I could think of)...but hopefully this boat doesn't see a death like the EV-1 did...that's a story for another day.

Nevertheless, this isn't bad...a start in the right direction, at the very least.

It's encouraging to see that the solar mindset has started to infiltrate the maritime world.