Monday, May 30, 2011

Suburbs Ignored in New Sustainability Efforts

The New York Times on Sunday, May 29, 2011, published an interesting article by John M. Broder on the partnership between Former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and their efforts to fight climate change by engaging 40 of the world’s largest cities.  While I applaud this effort, my concern is that we do not have a coherent national (or global) effort to look at different types of land uses to address sustainability holistically.  Focusing on 40 cities seems limiting.

Suburban landscape of the Tampa Bay Region
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, June 2011).
Let me show you a few statistics about Hillsborough County, Florida to show you what I mean.  According to the US Census, Hillsborough County had a population of 1,195,317 people.  The county contains three cities:  Tampa (population 332,888), Plant City (33,142), and Temple Terrace (22,695).  Thus, 388,725 people are within a city governance system and 806,592 are not.  If Florida took the approach advocated by Clinton and Bloomberg by focusing only on cities for sustainability investment, it would leave out approximately 70% of the citizens of Hillsborough County in the process.  These types of statistics can be repeated for many urbanized regions of the US and the world.

Urban areas certainly have density advantages that suburban areas do not.  However, it is unrealistic to think that the suburbs are insignificant in sustainability efforts.  In academic literature and in policy discussions, they are largely ignored.

I think this happens because sustainability in cities is easy.  There is usually a top down governance system that can implement a command and control of policy to impact many people.  In addition, cities have density and infrastructure advantages.  Thus, it is easy to have a big impact by coordinating within a city government system.  New York City, therefore, can do tremendous things easily, while neighboring suburban Long Island, with its complexity of local governments, becomes a more complicated region to facilitate change.

Suburban landscape in Florida.  How can landscapes like
this be part of sustainability efforts?
Yet, suburbs have their own advantages that are rarely part of the broader discussions on sustainability.  In addition, there are many suburban communities that are doing amazing things within the realm of sustainability that are rarely captured within sustainability literature or discussions of best practices. 

I wonder what impact the Clinton/Bloomberg climate change efforts would have if they included suburban areas within their framework?  Is it possible to benchmark and coordinate suburban efforts?  While focusing on 40 of the world’s largest cities is laudable, there are many who will be left behind in this urban framing of sustainability if this is the extent of national and international investment.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Green Building I Can Love

Entrance sign at the National Cave and Karst Research
Institute.  Water drips along the limestone wall and
sounds like the inside of a cave as it drips.
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, 5/14/11)
Today, the new headquarters of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) opened in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Situated in one of the world’s most important karst regions, NCKRI will serve as the leading center for karst research and education in the country.  While NCKRI’s new step in its evolution is exciting and worthy of comment, I have to write about the new headquarters building.  It is truly a building worthy of the title, “Green Building”.  Indeed, in written comments made at the opening, one New Mexican U.S. Senator stated that he hoped the building would be a model for future buildings in the state.

But why do I love this green building so much? 

A view of the back of the NCRKI Headquarters.  The statue of James
Larkin White is in the foreground.  The bat roost is the darker brown area
below the three windows on the second floor of the building.  Note the
cistern on the base of the corner of the building on the left.
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, 5/14/11)
First and foremost, I love it because it is not a technological box.  The building is immensely interesting—while modern, it fits within the look of traditional southwestern architecture in color and style.  But, the building has so many interesting details that make it less like a structure and more like a good book one cannot put down.  There is something interesting everywhere.

Certainly there are lots of technological innovations.  For example, the building uses geothermal heating and cooling, has huge cisterns built into its corners for the capture of rainwater, and has state of the art energy and water saving systems in place.

The Riverwalk adjacent to the Pecos River near
NCKRI's new building (photo by Robert
Brinkmann 5/14/11).
But it is the design and situational elements that bring the building into a realm of greenness that many certified green buildings don’t offer.  First of all, the building is sited on a former brownfield that is part of the broader downtown Carlsbad redevelopment plan to connect the downtown area with the lovely riverwalk park along the Pecos River.  NCKRI’s headquarters is among the first to open within this area called the Cascades.  It is evident that this revisioning of a new Carlsbad is exciting for everyone involved in the process.

The building is designed to fit within this setting in an interesting way.  Its form and colors transform the former railroad switching yard into a comfortable modern landscape that adds visual appeal to the downtown Carlsbad region and that provides an interesting destination point between the riverwalk and the downtown.

Rope climbing training beams designed to integrate with
the building (photo by Robert Brinkmann, 5/14/11).
Some of my favorite design elements of the building are the rope climbing training beams for rappelling demonstrations and training, the wood carved door plates, the benches made of recycled materials, the statue of noted Carlsbad Caverns explorer, James Larkin White, and the cisterns built into the corners of the building.  The educational elements of the building are also excellent.

Did I mention the bat roost? 

There I am pointing out access to the bat roost from inside
the building.  
Perhaps what sets this building aside from any other green building is that a bat roost is built into the building to allow education and research on migrating bats.    The roost is designed so there is access to the roost from inside and outside of the building.  In addition, the roost has built in video monitoring equipment so the roost can be seen and heard to better understand the lives of these important migrating mammals.

I have seen lots of green buildings, but I have rarely seen a building put together so many innovative green technological elements while maintaining design interest.

The building is located at 400-1 Cascades Avenue in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  While the interior of the building is not 100% complete, I am sure the good folks at NCKRI would be pleased to have you visit.  The building is worth a look.

For full disclosure, I am on the Board of NCRKI, but was not on the board while the building and design decisions were made.  I couldn’t be more pleased to be involved with an organization that built one of the greenest and most interesting new buildings in the US.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

El Capitan of Karst

The three pillars of sustainability are environment, equity, and economic development.  Today, I want to write about the environment.  Specifically, I want to write about the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas and Southern New Mexico. 

El Capitan in the Guadalupe Mountains.
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, 5/13/11)
I’ve travelled through these mountains for years.  I remember driving from Florida to coastal Sonoma County, California in the early 1990’s and making small forays off the main road to see some of the beautiful landscapes of this region.  There is a stark beauty to the mountains.  In some respects, they remind me of the valleys of southern Egypt or the dry mountainous areas of the southern Arabian Peninsula.  Regardless, they are an inspiration to me.

As a geologist, it is fascinating to recognize that some of the rocks that make up the mountains were once tropical reefs not all that different from today’s Bahamas.  Made up of fossiliferous limestone, the range today is home to hundreds of caves.  The most famous of these are Carlsbad Caverns and Lechuguilla Cave.

Carlsbad Caverns and El Capitan represented in a mural
on a building near downtown Carlsbad, NM
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, 5/13/11)
These iconic landforms have greatly influenced the region.  Tomorrow, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the National Cave and Karst Research Institute opens its doors to the public to promote research and education on caves and associated landscapes.  I will be on hand to cheer on their efforts.  Karst landscapes, or landscapes of soluble rocks, are among the least understood on the planet.  Most know about alpine, fluvial, coastal, or glacial terrains.  But, few know about or understand the significance of karst.  NCKRI provides a great service to the United States and the Carlsbad region by promoting a better understanding of this unique landscape. 

To learn more about karst landscapes, please watch this.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Goats and the Suburban Lawn

Goats are cute and can cut your lawn!
My sister sent me a story from the Burlington Standard Press (from Burlington, Wisconsin) about a company that will graze your lawn with goats!  The article was not on line, but here's the website of the company.  Each goat is only $3.00 per day.  They are great for removing vegetation from overgrown lawns  and they could remove old sod prior to landscaping with native vegetation (which could be kept down by goat grazing!).  

I've always thought that urban lawns would make great pasture for small animals like goats.  The goats could provide milk and meat.  I think this could be a great entrepreneurial activity for those interested in green businesses in the suburbs.   I pay about $80.00 a month for a lawn service in my suburban community.  For about the same price, I could have goats come by and munch away.  

It would be wonderful to see this effort expand!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bee Keeping at the USF Botanical Garden as a Model of Suburban Sustainability

In recent years, we have all heard the bad news about colony collapse disorder.  The disorder is known to occur throughout the United States and is evidenced by the disappearance or gradual decline of bee numbers in a hive.  There are many thoughts as to why this is occurring.  It seems that some sort of environmental stress or pest invasion may be the main causes.  Regardless, there is one organization doing its part to reverse the decline.

It all started with a phone call.

A local Tampa Bay beekeeper, Gary van Cleef, received a call that a swarm of bees was taking place on a tree outside of the USF Library in March of 2009.  Swarms occur when a group of bees split off from the main hive to create a new hive.  Instead of destroying the hive, Gary contacted the USF Botanical Gardens to see if they would be willing to take on the hive.  The Director, Laurie Walker, was glad to start a new hive on the grounds.  Since then, it’s been a terrific partnership.

Gary set up the hive on the main grounds of the gardens.  Originally, the idea was to teach people about the significance of bees and to offer small workshops on beekeeping.  What started out small is now making a big impact in the Tampa Bay Region.

A beekeeping class at the USF Botanical Gardens.  The gardens
are located on the suburban edge of Tampa.
Since 2009, over 75 people have been trained in beekeeping and have started their own suburban and urban hives.  Last weekend, so many people were trained that Florida's Division of Plant Industry sent an inspector to inspect and register the hives.  According to Walker, the inspector said that he had never certified so many hives all in one day!

Each one of these hives produces gallons of honey each year.  Indeed, in the short time that the USF hive has been in operation, it has produced over 7 gallons of honey, most of which was sold in their plant shop.  Most of those trained in beekeeping at USF also sell their honey, some of which is available to purchase at the gardens.

Kim Hutton (left), USF Director of Volunteers and
Laurie Walker (right) Director of the Botanical Gardens.  
Within each hive there are often over 10,000 bees involved in making and storing the honey.  Imagine the impact that these bees have in our community and on our campus. 

Beekeeping is a great example of how the suburbs can reframe sustainability to make low density land an asset in sustainability.  They provide small business opportunities, add to the nutritional content of households, and help the environment.

To learn more about beekeeping at the Botanical Gardens, you can read about the courses on Gary van Cleef’s website here.  Gary’s website has lots of photos from previous bee workshops at USF.  You can also learn more about beekeeping in the Tampa Bay area here and the USF Botanical Gardens here.

There are many opportunities to make suburbs more sustainable.  What are your ideas?