#WeAreStillIn...First Place and We Like It There

What do you get when you harness peoples' desire for a safe future with their conditioning to follow big corporations' leads? You get a path to a low-carbon future that may or may not run as straight or as fast as a path set by policy would. 

This week I got to cover events at Climate Week for GreenBiz, an authoritative source for executives building sustainability into business strategy. As you'll see, I learned that low-carbon costs constitute a prize in a new great game for transportation, finance, energy and consumer-goods companies. Many corporations co-signed the #WeAreStillIn pledge after Donald announced the US would be moving away from international leadership on climate. I went to events trying to chart how the corporate take on progress differs from the political one. 

And I thought to ask whether the frame that holds climate readiness as a moral must can fit inside the one that holds decarbonization as a profit strategy. I'm pretty sure the frames do fit together- but that a depressed, divided or misinformed citizenry can shatter the frames and the picture emerging inside. 

No Puns Please. We're Discussing Power

Of all the domains where turning information to bits can pay off for the ecosystem, electricity excites me most. If people can efficiently produce, swap and tailor their electricity, you can imagine all sorts of positive loops beginning: less power dies along transmission lines, leading to less carbon buildup. More low-income families can afford or finance the power they need to start businesses or support a shifting schedule  And small companies can prime multibillion-dollar utilities to provide clearer information about cheaper and cleaner products. 

This article in GreenBiz peeks at how these changes might speed up and spread out. It's the sort of scene I could imagine students or screenwriters creating, but it's all there for you to explore. 

Controlling Your Energy

The center famously can't hold in post-digital society: magnets of admiration from presidents to movie stars to CEOs all reveal a habit of sliding to the edge of reason. One source for this discord may spring from an improvement in how we run our buildings: it's more feasible than ever to store power when you don't need it and run it down when you do, saving wear and tear on the energy grid. 

I'm looking harder at how owners and neighbors trade power at what experts call the "grid edge." It seems like a metaphor for how we can organize our neighborhoods, our budgets for money and carbon, and our ideas of whom to trust in a crisis. This story in GreenBiz looks at one approach. Stay tuned- more will follow. 

The City Trade: Trading What You Know for What Others Ask

Why put up with the inequality, the noise, the lumbering traffic and the stink? The answer depends on what you consider valuable. In my curriculum, I guide kids to the premise that collaboration across skills, interests and attitudes creates the strongest odds for sustaining  human society peacefully as climate and employment churn. 

In this essay just published on the Atlantic's redesigned CityLab, I dig into what I hope my wife and I are teaching our kids each December when we send them on a scavenger hunt that obliges them to talk to strangers. The essay runs to the sentimental, but the ideas it stirs should get you uncomfortably close to questions about fairness, access, and bias. 

It should also work as a fun read. If it clicks for you, and/or if it prompts hunts of your own with partners of any age, I hope you'll let me know. 

Living With the Difference is the Hope

These days, sidestepping the shadow of hate feels like bathing in sunshine. So when Emmanuel Macron became president of France, besting a candidate who seemed sure to turn immigrants into victims, I took it as prompt to breathe easy. That betrayed my bias, of course, and I bet it shows more about my need for comfort than my command of Euro geopolitics. We humans mainly feel more thoroughly than we assess - but maybe we can find a way to turn that feeling to productive ends. 

That's because one application from France amounts to acting as if people will support the idea of living with people unlike themselves.

I don't know you, I probably never will meet you, but I can't escape knowing you're part of my day. 

I don't know you, I probably never will meet you, but I can't escape knowing you're part of my day. 

the crises trapping our politics might seem impossible to square without volumes of study and boatloads of luck. Few among us can map how to shore up health insurance or stoke business without coddling big banks. Unlike times of slavery or cold war, we scrape against differences of degree and design. Can you replace coal jobs with solar ones? Can you draw wealthy young families to cities without edging out older low-income ones? Can America snap the opioid epidemic? The answer always comes back to: well, I think so, but I dunno...

And here's where a simple jolt like a pluralist victory in France can act like a flashlight in whatever course you're trying to manage. Because the course toward brokering compromises on public policy might just start with the commitment to live with people unlike yourself. 

We've read about the "great sort". The finding shows that more Americans cluster among people who share our attitudes in virtual life - but we also live, work and go to school with think-alikes. Small wonder that a guy comes along and succeeds by exploiting electoral math with the message that nobody has to try to understand people on the divide's other side. 

In that chilly context, the commitment to design cities and schools so that people live and learn with people of different backgrounds feels like a radical vision. Programs like free (you know, subsidized) college tuition, or urban codes that downplay parking, or incentives for communities to set up their own solar networks turn negotiation on and leave it on. They make for at least some conflict, some adjustment, and some progress. 

And so the faith in urban design that sustains these pages sticks with me, even as politics challenge my faith in psychology. Poke around this site and see how you can make use of the premise that designing places for contact ups the odds of governing places with confidence. 

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Context for Caring, Caring for Context

I learned, with tens of thousands of other marchers this past weekend at the People's Climate March, that you can travel by human blob from the US Capitol to the White House  in about 80 minutes. A normal mile's walk takes a quarter that time, and an earlier march moved more slowly. In this case, temps reached 91 degrees and marchers carried parachutes. The heat and the breeze offset each other.  My son, pounding his heart outside the White House, judged it all worthwhile. 

 

Did we change anybody's mind about how to address climate change? The fact that I set up a dangling rhetorical question betrays how thinly I can tease out an answer. For sure I saw more signs decrying offenses than proposing compromises. Compared to what I try here, the march drew a line: government that claims to represent the American people will not get away with lying about what pollution does to our habitat. 

But how do you get people ready to engage in the dealmaking, restating, listening and experimenting that can make the debate about "coal jobs" into a work session about safe jobs? It starts by understanding what it's like to live in a town where coal built schools and streets, and by understanding what it's like to still believe everyone deserves a livelihood that absorbs what we've learned from science about coal's effect. You can sympathize and stand firm at the same time. It feels itchy, but with good health and lots of company it feels motivating. 

A piece I wrote in January gets at a relevant principle: when you speak to traumatized youth about their trauma in the course of training them for jobs, those jobs become easier to keep and often become the seeds for careers. 

It turns out the insight driving Hopeworks, the organization I covered, spreads throughout funding and reform in public health and job training. Everyone you meet, a learned friend tells me, comes from a context he or she can't unwire- and to steer all of us onto terrain we can co-use, you'd better find ways into that context before you presume to get anyone out of it. 

I hope this page, this story and this writing help us before the heat makes more of us weak. 

Learning to Steer (Without Fear)

FastCoExist, part of the Fast Company network, runs my article today on the New York Harbor School and its partnership with the Billion Oyster Project. Of all the fascinating ideas in this model, I think most about Pete Malinowski's contention that kids can learn to communicate and manage with "authentic problems to solve." 

That requires knowing strangers, knowing your style, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses. All of which can feel plodding or lonely on dry land as well as on water- but all of which can come through any effort to connect systems so that everyone in them can get healthier. 

Read the article and let me know what you think about how we should steer learning on the coasts and upland. 

"I solved two problems with one answer!"

I lucked out this week and got to bring a mini-version of the AllBeforeUs role-play curriculum to a rigorous public high school in Brooklyn that focuses on community responsibility and perseverance. My kind of place.

I learned how ready kids are to redraw the canvas that surrounds their school building.  Kids came up with savvy ideas on day one for making a public space up the street more resistant to floods and more conducive to good moods. Without much prior training in urban planning, they latched on to what planners call cobenefits- those single changes on the landscape that can free a wave of changes in daily life. These cobenefits become cost-effective under climate change because they can reduce stress and encourage trust, which people can cash in during fast crises (like hurricanes) or slow ones (like power outages). 

I also saw how much space we can find in science education for learning about how governments fund things in the real world. On day two I prepared roles for kids to assume at their tables. Some were stay-at-home parents, some were politicians. All instantly got that they could bargain from different points of influence. The parent spoke out loud for better lighting, confident that the system would respond. The activists appealed to kindnesses to fundraise and organize. The mayor appealed to a broad audience. Nobody took the bait and offered to pay for the whole operation. This is not so different from what happens in real life. 

Next week the students will vote on a compromise plan. A cue comes from the discussion on day one, when students reasoned that replacing asphalt with spongy pavement could create jobs. And when they got to the idea that a roof, maybe green, over the playground could absorb water and increase park use- which could reduce health problems and promote trust in the neighborhood. 

"I solved two problems with one answer!" said one student in this discussion. Climate change, as it plays out, looks more like a systemic shakeup than like a separable problem. The more goodwill we can wring from each investment we make to live with climate change, the safer we can be. And the more we can learn. 

 

 

Talk (or Comment) of the Town (and Towns)

I had the good luck last week to work with Sommer Mathis at CityLab, the site where people who think about urban issues go to learn and teach. I wrote a piece reviewing zoning, court and economic data to raise and linger on the idea that the rules restricting what you can build in most towns end up enforcing racist practice. 

I expected the piece to come and go in a day. Instead, it took root. 

I humbly saw more than 900 people share it (no more than 15 of whomo could have been my dad) and watched comments unfold. The comments got into that hairy I-can't-see-you-so-I'll-egg-you territory we know too well in cyberspace. Someone called me a racist, others called each other names, and many people said the choice they faced as to where to live indeed turned out narrower than they'd hoped. 

My conclusion remains that higher sea level and heavier storms will force Americans to live in closer, higher buildings than most places have seen in a century. The reaction to this story about what preserves single-family spread shows that we could all stand a few drills in how to talk productively with each other. Please read and react as you see fit. 

 

 

 

Learn to Feel Stronger

What would you think, if you were between nine and fifteen,  and the person you trust told you on your way out to throw on a jacket because you'd be cold? Probably you'd think: I can tell how cold I feel. And probably you'd be right-- but the adult would have the final say.

How you feel matters to how you decide- but how you keep yourself healthy probably matters more to how you learn.  

So it is with climate education. When we learn to tune the places around us- check that, when we learn that we have the rights and the tools to tune the places around us- a third path pops up alongside the road to perdition and the trail of tears. The work of teaching young people how the earth's systems work picks up a parallel. That's the work of teaching young people how the systems in their heads map to the systems in their cities, so that the questions they wrestle become  measurable in their daily lives.

How will the nations stop climate change? goes into the penumbra, with such maze-olas as where does language come from? and why do elephants go weak-kneed when they see mice? Confronting these unknowns amounts to the challenge facing our species. For individuals, rising to face that challenge becomes more feasible when someone feels a warm hug in the morning as well as a warm jacket through the day. 

I've learned in testing and adjusting my curriculum that a chief portion of good teaching comes in good mapmaking. And questions like how hot does the route from my school to my house get on hot days? open a series of doors to a series of questions with answers that you can tick off in finer slices. . 

You know: wicked hot at the corner by the police trailer, cooler in the shade by the hotel, just nothing by the jail, and so forth. These answers trip bigger questions about how something got where it is and why it needs to stay that way...

And those questions can chill the conscience, and fire up the imagination. Imagine if they built on each other into an idea that kids can bring to physical form together over a term. 

It could almost be heartwarming. 

The Making of a Room Where it Happens

In my house these days, dish cleanup and homework groove to the bop of the Hamilton cast album. The album conveys the musical's tale of what happens when a person cast aside from the elect yearns to make history. You get tragedy, heroics, and this ongoing experiment we call democracy.  It bolts some lift into your heels when you have to snap on Tupperware lids, to remember that wars and compromises led us to overuse fossil fuel, overbuild sprawl, and grapple in stretches and struggles with the mandate to treat all humans with respect. 

The plot turns on a moment when Alexander Hamilton, the ferocious and far-thinking immigrant, cuts a deal with plantation-bred theorists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Aaron Burr, the show's narrator and the man who killed Hamilton, busts out a show-stopper about craving access to deals like this- knowing how to lay out the terms and arrange the perks to make an agreement among rivals. "I want to be in the room where it happens," croons and growls Burr- and so does my family, with a broom or a pencil or a toothbrush for percussion. 

Well, as in the muddy young republic so it is today in the contracting one. With coastlines shrinking and solar power spreading, more talk turns on who gets a deal then on how the deal assembles. And that flows from the human longing for safety- we need to first feel protected before we can yield up the brain cells to figure out how to build the shelter. This time, though, the tragedy involves millions losing out on paths to durable urban living because they don't get to tap into political calculations.

And in that morass, a quote from architect Louis Kahn points toward some of the agreement techniques we need to teach our kids and ourselves.  An immigrant like Hamilton, Kahn explored how light can bring complex stories to simple walls. My architecture prof in college - or at least my notebook from that prof's lecture- quoted Kahn as saying that "a street is a room by agreement." The architect's romance in this quote never meant to describe political reality, of course- it sets forth goals for public design. When people share a space, they should be able to treat it as a space to which they claim equal rights and for which they divvy responsibility. 

All that depends on education, wellness, rule of law, a sense of history, and a sense of hope. And those psychological assets require a confidence that the systems determining your lot can open and can change to provide more safety, more light and more hope.

How do you teach that confidence? One method involves training young people to read the ecology as one of several systems affecting their well-being. Another involves teaching history, social studies and STEM with callouts for the ways one opinion can mesh with another opinion to produce a third approach. I've tested role-play means of getting kids to think critically about where they can intervene. Schoolwork can also include critical reading, reenactments, projects, service and applied science. Excellence in school- and in internships and in jobs- should reflect how thoroughly a student reads the systems around her and how precisely she pinpoints a way to make those systems more inclusive and stabler. 

Our kids and thousands of others thrill to Hamilton in part because it gives a rush to see the story of making America as a chain of ideals and deals, mutable and full of passion at all times. 

They stick with it because the play's final songs (no spoilers) bet firmly on the possibility of accord. People realize they can share space with their competitors and share credit with people who take different paths. Facing down climate change means laying bare some painful secrets- that prosperity burned our coastline, that safety for a few heightens danger for the many. The more we can use words and models and tools to open those secrets, the sweeter will be the light in all our (water-tight) rooms. 

 

 

 

 

It's This. It's That. And The Other Thing Is...

Now let’s explore together how the pushmi-pullyu of peoples’ fears and designers’ skills brought us to this breach. The rivers and the oceans and the land will in our lifetimes bleed together. That will spur the rich to scramble higher and the rest to action of one kind or another. That action takes physical form as city roads and bridges and buildings and on and on, and this affects the future melting.

Take my grandfather, Phil, as an offstage prod. “Why da ya wanna study cities?” I imagine him asking. Why do we want people to know about and care about urban design? It’s a fair question, acutely so given how little Americans leaving school know about how water boils or how a bill becomes a law. And urban studies can equate to studies of cities, which can admit of reading the Instagram feed in a popular espresso bar or writing about how hard some moms in Milwaukee worked to mount a production of Godspell in a downtown park. Why do I drop terms of art and frames as if this topic earned due thought alongside organizing systems like law or engineering?

The answer is that we exist together - we bring each other into the world and sustain each others’ spirits afterward. Nothing happens alone. And the way we affect each other, in nicks and gashes and patches and resuscitations, affects the way we go forward and the way future-we affect future-everyone-else, and on and on.

And cues that lie deep in the city’s workings affect our moods and habits, as well as our worldviews and our health. We care about urban design for the same reason that we care about clothes or free speech. They imbue the way we assess and react, in ways whose lines of impression and decision blur, and if we are facing a situation that will call on more stores of calm and compassion than we tend to show -

Well, then, we should know at a scale beyond any individual body or self--selected group how to root on accommodation and principle.

And it turns out we are facing just that kind of situation, only worse.

What I really love in my veins and memories comes from what you call urbanity- the fact of complexity. I leave a school where I volunteer on a CitiBike during a brilliantly sunny spring day, I pedal south through Hudson River Park and I see an older, pearier guy in a black crewneck sweatshirt executing a perfect 90-degree leg stretch on a fence. Who is he? What time does he start work? What does he like to smell in the morning? I have no idea. Keep going, his pointed foot suggests. Some people use this park, traveling or relaxing, and others face blank walls or metal detectors.

I can’t absorb it all, not even close, but it challenges me to sort out what I do see and move through the startlement to a sense of appreciation and then a commitment to change.

It obliges me to sort it out in my head, or to contend with the dizziness. But sorting it out by boxing different experiences under different labels makes the whole deal brittle.

I have at various points stood up for energy efficiency, waved the standard for parks, stumped for green design laws. All these quicken the conversation and brighten my eyes. But what I’m coming to realize, as that guy probably finishes his third tisane or third tracheotomy or whatever he’s doing today, is that my task seems to blink in patterns I can’t always define.

Does the noisy but clear path I love persist as a luxury until we straighten out transit routes and home prices for people who just get by? Or for people who don’t? Do the cars inching down Washington Street at the end of my commute, looking like dinosaurs fighting around the pippy CitiBikes I and a stranger are navigating, lock everyone in a choking haze? Do you need to devote time and careful thought to one strand of the city life that needs straightening or tautening ? Probably if you can afford to, you need to- otherwise you end up doing a lot of riding your bike and calling it “research.”

But knowing that you love the complexity of the accidental systems as they overlay built systems can keep you moving when gravity would suggest you bog down.

The city itself, as a complex mess of systems, probably rewards creative thought from people who love it for the complexity it forces on us. And the challenge involves naming and showing systems that make kindness, cleanness and democracy govern the complex rules and conventions. 

 

 

That leaves one answer: there is no one answer.

 

 

Reflections in a Cold Brew

I had the surreal experience yesterday of drinking velvet-smooth espresso and cold brew to match, on a Modernist table, with service by someone in an Australian accent. These usually land me in the sea of signifiers of a "frontier" neighborhood just becoming unaffordable. But this time they found me in the tweedy neighborhood where I grew up. It's surreal to begin with to consume so much carefully harvested coffee in a carefree spending habit. But this neighborhood, Manhattan's Upper East Side, looked like a refraction of itself. This was Manhattan's "safe" neighborhood when I was a kid, while industrial zones of Brooklyn and Queens registered for me like soundstages for the urban horror movies my parents wouldn't let me see. 

Wake up in 2016- former industrial zones have become prime ground for real-estate investors. Big quick glassy towers rose there in the past few years, with the result that renters no longer can afford the numinous "edge" of these coasts. And they make their way to the six-story walkups of the neighborhood where I grew up safe. And coffee vendors open branches where these renters land. On one front, it's the least remarkable "trend" story you could brew. 

Look deeper in the cup, though, and you see some patterns that can cause jitters. (And that's plenty of coffee puns, for today anyway.)

We participants in the market for land, such as it is, have sanctioned a pattern of marking territory in New York.  A lease to an espresso bar, a pilates studio, a food store selling "essentials" like sriracha and salmon- these show a place caters to folks whose income either will grow geometrically in the near future or doesn't need to grow at all. No disdain for those goodies or their vendors comes with that observation. But neither does a sense that a neighborhood's full breadth, or anything like its potential social strength, plays out in its commercial changes. Developers and owners look for income security- which comes from promising lifestyle security.

Somewhere in there a chance for neighbors to meet and build something that enriches everyone's health turns to steam. (Oops. That's a metaphor, not a pun.)  Drinking coffee in a neighborhood that bored me as a teen excited me because it reminded me how human work can change the city's stock of services. But the excitement faded. It would have stayed if I'd found a workshop teaching kids art or coding, or a space like the Lower East SIde Girls' Club, or some hint that the mix of aging German-speakers and faithful Silk Stocking dwellers and newcomers were finding ways to work together on coastal design or street cleanup or programs for youth. 

They may be doing all these things, or they may yet. (The espresso's smooth enough that I will come back alert.) But the visit reminded me that neighborhoods change thinly when they become cool. They risk becoming brittle if that's all they become. 

And with more heat waves, floods and cracking infrastructure on the way, they need to become fuller of skills, lines of communication and open exchange. The market can recoup human investment in these things- even if it takes a little while to steep.  

That pun seemed worth going out on a sweet note. 

The Gift of Constraint

Earlier this spring I published an article on an experiment in Westchester, where a stalemated settlement over fair housing became the occasion for a day-long role play with a software that helped adults see what changing one variable in urban design would do for other variables. 

My sources for the article, academics and designers and public servants, all talked about the energy they drew from looking at limits rather than from asserting their wants. 

I can relate every day, as I commute to work along the eastern flank of the Manhattan Bridge. I have a lane, sometimes less in glorious sunshine like New York's seen this week, and a steep pitch. I grimace when I'm pedaling hard, but the shape of my head configures the grimace as something that suggests a smile to people coasting downhill in the other direction. So they smile back, and I smile back back. 

For me, riding to work brings on the alert eyes of a new adventure and the relaxed spine of a hometown stroll. It's a slice through a lot of systems I can't singly change, and a chance to focus on what I do want to change in the next day or two. 

And the context for this experiment consists in a condition most places in America: a lack of easy places to build. (I'd write more here, but I'd love for you to read the article. ) The lingering suggestion leaves me humble. It's that in an America without frontiers, we haves need to get as fluent with the uses of constraint as 20th Century planners were with the uses of want. 

And what I work on here aims to test the idea that most of us really want something that becomes clearer with constraint- a chance to play a game, a chance to share an ideal, a chance to redesign what's brittle around us. 

I hope the article and its heroes help clarify your own useful constraints. 

Streetcars and Streetlamps

New York's Mayor has decided to find money for  a streetcar to run through the resurgent (ie, gentrifying) neighborhoods along the east side of the East River waterfront. I'm all for more mass transit and for more waterfront living, but it got me thinking about why streetcars feel so romantic to many folks who think about urban design. 

I think they strike the same note that streetlamps and neon signs do: they prove you're not alone, someone new is there, you can find your way. 

In a book proposal I'm working on, I’m going to argue here that urban design shows, in physical form, human efforts to shrink loneliness. When fossil fuel was cheap and we couldn't know its true cost, we flowed between that resistance to loneliness and a desire to settle. We got big cars, big tracts and big urban entertainment zones. 

Now, I'm going to show, the onset of climate change means that we have to couch our anti-loneliness surgery in a campaign to provide support to each other in disasters and in chronic shortages. 

It will get too hot, too chaotic, too crowded. That means our urban forms should guide patience, attention to the quiet, consideration for the old and young. 

And it means those forms should trace new lines - along the water and upland- now that we live in a century of weather we can’t predict and fuel we can’t treat as cheap. 

Uphill Learning

We city-dwellers have made a lot of progress since the horse-and-buggy days, but we have yet to budget for designing cities that can handle snow. We also haven't figured out how to train most people in cities to become fluent in urban design.

This plays out in slush piles and squandered school days. It also shadows the urban celebration of snow, as I realized after leaving a whoop-filled afternoon in Central Park with friends and family and realized how closely the population there mirrored what you'd find in SoHo House. But weigh no heavy matters on a sled run. Snow comes rarely, feels transporting and builds on itself before it goes away. We needn't rig public space to absorb it. 

We do need to rig public space to absorb differences and aggression, and turn these emotions reliably into productive energy. That means we need to teach kids -and voters- how different design and material choices predict different patterns of play, temper and commerce. 

Models for this kind of training come from big cities and small. In this week's New York Observer, you can find my opinion piece about New York's project to smooth barriers between sidewalks and public spaces. It's a climb to change how we assume cities disperse the kinds of goods we can't price. But it's a thrill to imagine the changes we can carve once we learn the techniques for making that change.

 

All before AllBeforeUs (or, the story so far)

When I ejected myself from staff jobs and landed in freelance territory in 2001, I admitted to no fear. Rather, I made of myself a myth. I nursed a vague feeling that my mission as a writer entailed finding the scaly, spiky malware driving fossil-fuel addition, roping it out with eloquence, and hurling it with gigaton paragraphs into the beyond. 

Honest. And, honestly, thanks in no small part to reliable editors, some of my journalism from those days holds up strongly. The stories I still link to with pride get at my current core question: how can people who don't share language or privilege design cues to advance common health and resilience into public space? 

One real estate feature for New York magazine gets at this. Enjoy it here.

Some (not all) of what I'm writing

It's been exciting to write in the past six months for the New York Observer, Medium - in partnership with Sports IllustratedCity Limits, Salon, CityLab, Curbed and others.  

The pieces aim to dive in to experiments in civic life, show how people tack to new ways of coexisting with those unlike them, and surface with tools any city can contain. 

I'll be posting more links as I publish more. 

 

 

Thoughts Grow in Groups

I've treated blogs over the years the way some people treat houseplants: with a rush of intention and then a trickle of nutrients. Down the line, I may learn to sustain a conversational voice with the screen and the cloud. For now, I assert that my ripest thoughts come from interaction with sources, clients and students. 

It's these groups whose array of ideals and experiences forge new solutions and require new patience in public life. And it's the particulars of these groups that I'm in the business of clarifying, celebrating, and helping to strengthen. 

Let's leapfrog over the blog.