Sunday, March 15, 2009

Take A Green Challenge

Recently I told my sister that cows are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions because of their release of methane into the air. So, don’t eat beef, less cows, less methane, less greenhouse gas emissions. She didn’t believe me, thought I was making it up. Yesterday as I was driving around in the sprawl of Rockville, MD, doing my big box shopping (okay, even a green preservation architect needs an occasional fix at Target and Bed Bath & Beyond) and I was listening to a piece on NPR about that very topic – expanding the methane problems to sheep and goats as well. The reporter was reluctantly asking rhetorically how these pretty fluffy creatures could be doing more damage than Hummers and SUVs. (See the goats above at the National Zoo -are they really more damaging than an RV?!) When I got home I had a message on Facebook from an equally green friend challenging me to take the 2009 Green Challenge - From Green Day (St. Patricks Day) to Green Day (Earth Day), make ONE change in your lifestyle to live more sustainably. When I looked at the list wasn’t sure there was anything new on it I could do (or want to do) so here’s what I thought when I read it, and what I decided to do.

*Ride your bike to run errands. Get a basket. – This just isn’t happening. I will take the Metro, I will walk and I will ride my bike 30 miles for exercise but I’m not turning my expensive bikes into commuter bikes. And with the economy, buying another bike is not an option.

* Learn how to compost. – I would like to do this, not sure if you can in an apartment? So I will research this.

* Bring your own bags when you shop. – I do this, when I don’t forget. Very proud to say that I didn’t forget them yesterday and used my own bags for 8 hours of shopping.

* Recycle ALL plastic bags at the bin in the grocery store (most have them). – Haven’t done this yet, I keep plastic bags for cat litter. Not sure what else to do for the cats, living in a city, they can’t be roaming on their own.

* Eat regional food only. – I try my best here, but I have to say one of the issues with this whole “regional” thing is I am concerned that it will make us all very isolationist. (The "heritage apples" at Filoli in Woodside, CA are served local restaurants in Silicon Valley.)

* Stop using styrofoam. Refuse it when out and about. – I never use styrofoam personally. And don’t encourage it.

* Start a food garden. It's spring! – While it’s impractical in DC, I could certainly help John plant more in North Carolina.

* Plant 10 trees for each vehicle you own, even better if they also produce food! - This I can consider. I do pay for carbon offsets each month, and my “indulgence” goes for wind energy. (The trees at the tree-line on Mt. Rainier below help clean up excess greenhouse gas emissions.)

* Buy fresh veggies, grass-fed beef, free range eggs, hormone-free dairy products. – Since I don’t eat beef I think I’m well ahead of the game here.

* Put down the Round-Up. Pull weeds or spray clove oil on them. – No problem, I have no grass or garden, so no weeds either!

* Clean your house using only baking soda, lemon, vinegar, and water. – I have tried this and wasn’t happy with the results, but I do use only Method, Clorox Green Works and Seventh Generation products.

* Buy cloth napkins in different patterns (for different people) and reuse use them all week. – I use recycled paper napkins and question whether washing more cloth napkins each week is actually better than using recycled paper.

* Own less stuff - for every item you buy, recycle or give away something else. – I should definitely do this and think this will be my big attempt before Earth Day, maybe I could even sell some things on eBay!

* Unstick your windows. An open top sash can cool your house fast ...and keep it cool. – Already do this.

Can I get more points since my job includes making the world greener? Ok, I know it’s not about getting “points”, but it did make me think that I should take a survey of my life and make an honest list of the good green things I do and the not-so-green, so I can make a better attempt at helping save the world. Of course, things we think are green today, we discover 6 months later aren't as good as they could be. Which makes me think more and more lately that "going green" is more a state of mind than a state of reality.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Take It Out Back

As my week of writing in Old Salem came to an end, the snow melted away to reveal daffodils and I found myself very introspective about the level of productivity pure quiet can provide. My federal house retreat on Factory Row in Old Salem was warm and embracing (see above image). Every day I moved around the kitchen to capture the best light as I wrote and even found myself out on the porch only two days after the blizzard, refereeing our cats. I kept my iPod on shuffle all week and never even missed CNN or the Sci-Fi channel, which is something I did not anticipate, being as obsessed with TV as I am. I did have a few meltdowns - over one site calling me about a "green" carpet, about the loss of an email regarding a contract and about my perceived lack of progress earlier in the week. But now that I am back in Washington, busy at work and the usual non-productivity, it appears I actually managed to write quite a bit and feel mighty fine about it. And even had a full day of summer-like weather on Saturday hiking in the mountains and no guilt about not writing.

Old Salem blog on True Green got a lot of coverage, including getting picked up by Kaid Benfield on his "Switchboard" blog. The evocative images of Old Salem with snow and the promise of a friendly "hello" seemed to find a wide audience. I took another walk around town later in the week when the snow melted, this time to observe and consider the phenomenon I call “urban sprawl”.

My last couple of days
of writing were spent luxuriating on the back porch, admiring the expanse of green yard and trying to ignore the rows of condominiums that line the "gateway" to Old Salem, wondering why so many people with money have such bad taste and lack a sense of place. (See image above.) I thought about these really poor attempts at architectural synchronicity on Friday night when we went to a concert to hear a folk singer, Chuck Brodsky, weave his tales of irony.

One song called “Take it Out Back” resonated:

Take it out back and dump it in the river
Take it out back and throw it in the woods
Take it out back and chuck it down the hillside
Keep the front yard looking good

Let’s Look At These Poor Attempts at New Urbanism

So, I’m no fan of
New Urbanism as I’ve reported in other blogs. But I would sing its praises if New Urbanism could have come to Old Salem rather than the relentlessly banal and poorly done attempts at sympathetic design found in the developments that back up to the historic town, specifically backing up to Factory Row where I was staying on my retreat. Look at the image above of individual Federal era houses on Main Street which date from the early 1800s. Now look at the image below of the attached “rowhouses” behind Factory Row. What’s wrong with this picture?

Cultural Irony

So, we have developments that are completely out of scale, show no understanding of why the
original place they are mimicking so poorly works so well, and are located next to the original because it increases their property values and desirability. A developer takes some abstracted details from the original 5 unattached houses and places them all over a few pale copies, connects them all and multiplies them by a hundredfold. Now, an original street that has 5 individual houses is backed up to a street of the same length with 50 attached houses. It is both scary and sad. The development’s property values are high because they have views of our grand heritage, while the heritage is diminished in almost every way – their views, their context, their authenticity, the massive increase in traffic.

Banal Developments Push the Boundaries

Somewhere in the past fifty years we have gone astray and lost our way. Our rural wide-open spaces have been transformed into Levittown after Levittown. And our small historic urban cores are surrounded by urban sprawl.

And it’s not just in Old Salem; we see it everywhere.
Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico is ringed by suburban developments that have virtually destroyed the pristine views that inspired the early petroglyph painters – developments actually called “Petroglyph Park.” At Drayton Hall in Charleston, the National Trust has spent millions of dollars buying land to protect the viewshed and hire lawyers to battle zoning changes that would encourage suburban development along one of the great scenic highways in South Carolina. And the road to James Madison’s Montpelier is lined with suburban developments of builder homes with names like “Poplar Forest”.

One of the most important things the National Trust for Historic Preservation has done in its 60 years
has been to promote smart growth and battle sprawl. Encouraging urban growth and adaptive use is one of the core reasons that preservation equals sustainable development. And at the heart of this are our historic sites – the places that matter to all of us, the reason we travel to New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, Albuquerque and Old Salem. The unquantifiable “social metrics” that make us feel so good to be there
. (See Old Salem College and the town green in the image above)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sabbatical in Old Salem

I took a bit of a blog sabbatical over the holidays, which my close friends like to remind me is also the same time that I got rather involved with my new beau!! Which proves that new love and blogging seem to be mutually exclusive! But I have started blogging again on my usual work blog, Beyond Green Building (for esoteric, sustainability big-picture views) and now a new work blog I have started on the National Trust Historic Sites Weblog called "True Green", which focuses on greening historic sites.

I have the delight of being on a one week sabbatical in Old Salem, North Carolina to work on a Best Practices Manual for work. (Writing in an early Federal house pictured here, which was offered to me by a close friend who lives in Old Salem.) I wrote a blog on the joys of saying hello in snow-covered Old Salem. And will continue to write more this week in "Cities and Memory" about the beauty of taking a time-out in small cities where people you don't know offer you a ride home and locking your car door and home door is optional.