Category Archives: adaptive design

The Martian

It’s 4: pm on July 20, 1969 on a quiet street in the yet-to-be Yuppie-ized suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. My infant daughter is propped up in her kid carrier plus cushions on the backyard swing while her 4-year old brother keeps cool in an inflated pool. We’re building a porch ourselves off the back of the colonial house we purchased the previous year (for $28,000). While I hold a 2′ x 4′ steady, my husband hammers it into place. In case the date doesn’t immediately resonate with you (confession: I had to Wiki it for precision), it is the day three American astronauts landed on the moon. We have a small black and white TV with a long extension cord sitting on a plank-saw horse stand, and we are, like millions of other people, waiting for the words soon to be uttered by Commander Neil A. Armstrong: The Eagle has landed. Cheering broke out from houses all around us. Reading the log of Apollo 11 now still gives me goosebumps. That Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. was a Montclair boy and would next year be marching in our July 4th parade, only adds spice to the momentous occasion.

After a week that brought personal horror and loss to many people, and unleashed a firestorm of paranoid, xenophobic trash-talking that recalls the worse of the McCarthy era here, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and a sterling supporting cast, was a balm for the soul. And not only because it recalls a time when for a few days, large numbers of people put aside their national identities and petty concerns and celebrated ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap …”

Apollo 11 bootprintIn case you’ve yet to see the film, I’m not going to spoil it for you with too many details about ‘the making of…’ which you could better read afterward. You’ll turn up a lot via a Google search, but one of my favorite citations is about the central role played by the Jet Propulsion Lab in getting the details accurate. Suffice to say that: “The Martian” is steeped in decades of real-life Mars exploration that JPL has led for NASA.  If they handed out film awards for length of time on camera, Matt Damon would win hands down (though Sandra Bullock in Gravity, another plausible space adventure, comes close). But as space castaway/astronaut, Mark Watney, Damon earns his actor stripes in perhaps his best performance to date. See interview with director, Ridley Scott, for a fascinating glimpse into how the film was made.

My takeaways on The Martian (and why you must see it), in no particular order:

  • It makes a strong case for science education
  • It reinserts NASA and JPL into the public consciousness at a time when funding is falling
  • We see the important role of international cooperation (U.S. and China)  — the Russians get left out of this one
  • We are reminded of our common humanity, the risks we will take to save the life of another
  • It helps put into perspective the current political climate and reminds us we are better than media suggests we are.

It bears repeating that we owe a great deal to the space program (by-pass surgery and digital photography, the tip of the iceberg), and this Thanksgiving week seems like a good time to acknowledge that.  If The Martian gets you newly excited about and appreciative of science as a worthy human enterprise, and awakens your support for the space program in particular, mission accomplished!

Technology from space program

Apollo 11 overview

Apollo 11 log

 

Looking Back

Having reached the age when repeating oneself is a frequent hazard, I’ve been reading through this blog in an attempt 1. to keep myself and my readers as up-to-date as possible on Tips, Tools and Ideas for a More Resilient Future, and 2. to avoid embarrassing myself.  Last November, I posted about a proposal from attorney, Mitchell Chester, on how to adapt to sea level rise in South Florida, Raising Fields: What History Can Teach Us.  The last time I caught sight of Mr. Chester was at the climate march in Miami, October 14, and it wasn’t the time for a conversation. So this morning I went to his site dedicated to the topic and found that is had been closed and replaced with MySeaLevelRise.org.  The new site is more comprehensive than the agricultural focus of the earlier.  It brings up topics worth your attention, especially if you own property in South Florida now, are considering moving or investing in property here, or do business in any of these sectors: construction, tourism or agriculture to choose three biggies mentioned in State of Florida Facts.  Of course, no sector is independent of the other so let’s just say that if you are in any way betting your future prosperity on the State of Florida, you need to take the optimistic language of the state government documents and local business journals with a huge grain of salt. You owe it to yourself lend Mitchell Chester your ear:

Sea level rise is happening, it is now, and it will affect the monetary and personal financial interests of all Americans, directly or indirectly.
— MySeaLevelRise.org

His new site assumes that you don’t need convincing of the scientific facts of sea level rise (SLR) and are ready to prepare and protect yourself, your family, home, and business against the likelihood of severe financial shocks ahead. Far from gloom and doom, you’ll find a calm, reasoned and even optimistic approach to the challenges that make us Floridians, as coastal dwellers on a porous limestone landmass, exceptionally at risk from a rising ocean.  It introduces financial adaptation tools like a SLR Relocation Account to ease the financial burden of relocation should it come to that.  It argues for a more vigorous involvement from the insurance industry than has been evident so far. Industry and government partnership, Chester believes, could make necessity the mother of invention as adaptation and mitigation strategies across the spectrum of financial products become new economic opportunity.  Check out the Tools Menu for more.

SLR 2030If you are confused as some of our politicians seem to be about the difference between natural variations in weather cycles and climate change, the section Shoreline Adaptation Land Trusts: A Concept for Rising Sea Level (SALT) by John Englander, author of High Tide on Main Street (recommended) will be helpful.  In addition to proposing a new political/legal strategy for threatened coastal regions, it distinguishes between frequent occurrences of coastal flooding and beach erosion which many communities already experience, and the irreversible effects on coast areas caused by melting glaciers “which will inexorably work to reshape all the continents.” Here’s how the summary to Englander’s position paper concludes: Strategic Adaptation Land Trusts could be a useful tool and catalyst for this unprecedented transition upwards and inland. We can rise with the tide –– if we anticipate it in time.

A year ago, Mitchell Chester wanted to save Florida’s agriculture with a proven method for raising fields (“For [Florida’s] agriculture, it’s either up or out.”) With MySeaLevelRise.org, he reminds us that we are all stakeholders in what happens here in the decades just ahead.  He invites us to brainstorm on how we can face the risks as well as seize the opportunities a new geography for this state demands of all its citizens, and possibly model it for the rest of the world.

Raising Fields: What History Can Teach Us

When you come in for a landing at Palm Beach International, you pass over a network of blue waterways, canals, inlets, and bays that link pastel buildings and homes to the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal.  In fact, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway that touches my life and yours if you live and work here, is a much larger network that runs North-South, from Norfolk, Virginia to the Florida Keys, some 1,090 miles of navigable interstate.  This Blue Highway is what makes our part of the state so attractive to boat-loving vacationers and retirees alike.  It is also what puts South Florida’s future as a tourist mecca, retiree haven, and agricultural giant (second to California) at great risk from sea level rise (SLR). The experts in local government and higher education know this:

The risks from sea level rise are imminent and serious. This is not a distant problem, but one that is affecting us now and will certainly affect our children.  Sea level rise will impact millions of Americans and threaten billions of dollars of building and infrastructure. — Sea Level Rise Summit 2013

And so do the insurers and activist organizations, and all have our work cut out for us, given the denial in Tallahassee and among billionaire developers.  The latter are (for now), as one Facebook comment had it, so 20th Century.

???????????????????????????????Attorney Mitchell Chester isn’t waiting for anyone’s blessing to bring the message of SLR to whomever will hear it and act upon it. The fastest way to get up to speed on sea level rise is to visit his site SLRSouthFlorida for the latest news on the subject. It’s not good news for us coastal dwellers, but it may also represent an opportunity to save the Florida that people have loved almost to death, and to prosper in an entirely different way (and I don’t mean Waterworld).

I first heard Mitchell Chester speak at a breakout session at the Second Annual Sea Level Rise Symposium in July, sponsored by The Arthur R. Marshall Foundation for the Everglades, the Oxbridge Academy and the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County.  The session addressed the need for our legal and financial systems to “engage the shared emergency of sea level rise.”  Meaning, of course, that they are not doing so in any significant way.  Currently, for example, you will not find any warning about the threat of a rising sea to your property in your real estate disclosure documents.  Mortgage documents also reflect the same myopia.

Last week, I heard Mr. Chester making an electrifying presentation to the Climate Action Coalition meeting about his idea to save the billion dollar South Florida agriculture, “some of the best growing fields in the U.S.”  He was here, he said, “to bring reality to the recommendations” of adaptation and mitigation contained in the South Florida Regional Climate Action Plan.  Without action, our ability to grow 250 food crops (and feed the country) could end “as soon as the second term of the incoming American president.”  Whoa!  That’s within 10 years.

In a nutshell: “For [Florida’s] agriculture, it’s either up or out.” As he pointed out, the strategy of containing the sea by building up the land is nothing new. The Dutch have been doing it for centuries, and are still the masters of their dike-and-windmill system in modern times.  The Maya and Aztec also created farm lands on human-made mounds and managed excess water with canals, according to Raising Fields, the website created by Mitchell Chester to educate and make a case for adaptation of this kind.

While the ocean will advance and someday cover Southeast Florida, the use of mound farming and elevated agricultural strategies will serve to extend the life of valuable rural properties and precious growing fields.

For us South Florida residents, it could be an idea whose time has come.  And, as if to anticipate the drum beat about jobs gained or lost that plays through every political discussion, this proposal has an answer.  To build a new agriculture for a wetter, water-logged South Florida — and continue to feed all those urbanites who rely on farmers they’ll never meet — it will be everybody in, everybody working together: engineers, economists, architects, agronomists, water experts, farmers, environmentalists, mapping experts, permitting agencies, planners at many levels. And that’s before the first shovelful of soil.

Links to help you dig in 🙂

SLRSouthFlorida
Raising Fields Blog  — you can back up into the main site
South Florida Regional Climate Action Plan
EPA Climate Change Adaption SE
That Sinking Feeling – NBC Report

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Dirty

I’ve wanted to write that headline ever since Dr. Mehmet Oz did his poop show on Oprah, giving us more on that subject than we ever wanted to know. But this is about sewers, another subject we just as soon not think about. It’s just flush and forget, until something goes wrong. And then, we call the plumber. The end? Not exactly.

van-goghs-toilet-claire-wentzelI first got curious about sewers when we had a block-long pavement collapse in front of our building in New York City in the late 1980’s. It was caused (we were told) by the breakdown of an old water main, and it took over a week to replace the section of pipe and repair the road. In the meantime, we residents of adjacent buildings and passersby got a good look at the size of pipes that move water – and sewage, too – through underground tunnels in a city of that size. I could have stood up in the pipe, assuming I wanted to, and stretch my arms straight overhead. Back then, I wasn’t all that worried about crumbling urban infrastructure, let alone what could happen in the kind of flooding Sandy brought to lower Manhattan and Hoboken (another place I’ve lived) across the Hudson River.

Then my husband came across an oddball story from Dubai about waste management that curled our hair. Terry Gross zoomed in on it, too, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Kate Asher on her book (The Heights) about skyscrapers, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, still the world’s tallest building. Of course, if you’re a fan of hers, you’ll know that Terry Gross cuts right to the question that everyone wanted to ask : “When you’re on the 100th floor of a building and you flush the toilet, what exactly happens after that?” (Quick answer: about the same as what happens in a two-story townhouse, with more pipes.)

Burj Khalifa has broken all kinds of construction records, but what the official page fails to mention is that its plumbing is not connected to the Dubai sewer system. In a building designed to hold 35,000 people, this means that about 15 tons of human waste must be hauled away each day, by truck to a sewage treatment facility. Sometimes so many trucks line up this process can take 24 hours to complete, whereupon it begins again. Seems a bit cart before horse s—t, to me, design-wise. (Google Poop Trucks of Dubai if your curiosity out-weighs the eeww factor.)

Feels like the subject keeps chasing me. Found this in my inbox today: We have a “scary sewage problem,” wrote Gar Alperovitz in Alternet, due to aging, overwhelmed treatment centers and the kind of infrastructure problems I got to witness first hand over 20 years ago, in all our older cities. If the more visible roads and bridges are allowed to fall apart, chances are what is out of sight is getting even less respect and maintenance. Mix flooding from heavy rain to the runoff from agriculture, and you’ve got a sanitation and water security problem, Houston, and Toledo, too, where toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie recently poisoned the drinking water.

In his groundbreaking book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, historian/political economist/activist, Gar Alperovitz offers plenty of great ideas for addressing the huge problems with our economic system that too many people rant endlessly about on Facebook and other social media. Hint: he’s big on cooperatives. So I wasn’t at all surprised that, although he is straight talking about the challenges, he also sees plenty of opportunities, as in JOB opportunities, in fixing the monster urban sewage problem. Chief among these is prevention of storm-water runoff in the first place. He points to smart design approaches like urban forestry, green roofs, and artificial wetlands, among others. It reminds me of the ‘soft’ design approaches to an inrushing ocean – high dunes planted with dune grass vs. seawalls – that spared some Jersey Shore communities during Sandy.  It also made me think of On the Water: Palisades Bay, the architectural design project that captivated me during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 (see link below).  These are the kinds of things we need to lobby for in our cities, whatever their size, as adaptive strategies to climate change that also positively impact the economy, immediately and later on.   Check out Alperovitz’s work at Democracy Collaborative about building a more sustainable, equitable economy, and what we as thoughtful citizen can and must do.  Sign up for his newsletter.

Click for pdf intro: On the Water: Palisades Bay (Soft infrastructure aims to synthesize solutions for storm defense and environmental enrichment along the coast.)

Photo: Van Gogh’s Toilet by Clare Wentzel