Covering the Issues

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

Periodical Roundup

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A patchwork landscape… Designers and developers must navigate 351 different versions of planning and zoning laws in Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. That’s about 350 too many, according to Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development. In “Getting to Yes” (CommonWealth, Summer 2009), Gabrielle Gurley covers Bialecki’s current quest to “modernize the Bay State’s notoriously obtuse, decades-old planning and zoning statues.” Stay tuned.

Change a bulb, save a bird… Approximately one billion birds die in the United States every year by crashing into buildings, according to a 2008 Boston Globe article. Building trends favoring natural light (clearer glass, and more of it) and green roofs only increase the trouble, even though killing wildlife by “sustainable” architecture has obvious contradictions. Rebecca Kessler describes a similar problem of migrating birds disoriented by the bright lights of North Sea oil rigs, along with a simple fix: change the bulbs. In “Red Light, Green Light” in Conservation Magazine (Summer 2009), Kessler reports that at test locations, a mix of red and green lights has decreased bird collisions by up to 90 percent, concluding that this strategy might be adopted for other structures, too.

New Yorker

Prime people-watching… There’s been a lively discussion of New York City’s newest public spaces — the High Line and Times Square — providing fodder for Bostonians still coming to grips with our own Greenway. In “Up in the Park” (The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009), Martin Filler offers a brief history of the reuse of obsolete civil engineering works for park-like purposes, warning that our nation has lots of aging infrastructure to reckon with. The acclaimed High Line and the newly closed streets of Times Square haven’t been equally well received. As Lauren Collins quips in “Zoo York” (The New Yorker, September 14, 2009), “Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ has become a still-life.” In “The Art of Public Space” (The Nation, August 12, 2009), Benjamin Barber makes a plea for artists to help shape this new Times Square. On Broadway, as on the Greenway, eliminating car traffic is only the beginning.

The hangover… As it turns out, the fake islands, indoor ski slope, and rising skyscraper forest of Dubai were indeed not sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. In “Exodus,” Fast Company (September 2009) offers a look at this former hotbed of construction activity after the world’s financial meltdown. Lauren Greenfield’s photographs offer a sobering view of abandoned project sites, withering landscapes, and the possessions and people left behind.

The Atlantic

Undeterred… This isn’t the first time that the White House has taken an interest in all things green and eco-friendly. In “Better Luck Next Time” (The Atlantic, July/ August 2009), senior editor Joshua Green looks carefully at President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated 1977 White House solar panels, explaining what went wrong with environmentalism then, and tracing the intersection of funding, innovation, and policy to the current day. For anyone interested in or affected by the environmental legislation being debated in Congress or Copenhagen, this thoughtful, accessible, substantive piece is a must-read.

And now for something completely different… Orson Squire Fowler was the nation’s leading phrenologist when he began to advocate for octagonal houses, leading by example. Huh? Phrenology — studying the contours of the head to deduce a person’s personality — was wildly popular in 19th-century America. Like an Oprah before her time, Fowler also traveled, lectured, and wrote, commenting on a vast array of topics — memory, women’s fitness, overpopulation, sex, compost — all in the name of reform. In “The Joys of the Octagonal Home” (Believer, May 2009), author John Adamian suggests that Fowler’s interest in lifestyle and his study of shapes coalesced in architectural propositions. Fowler believed that octagonal houses promoted circulation of air and people, while maximizing area within an efficient envelope. Though Fowler’s been forgotten (along with phrenology), the octagonal structures that still scatter the Northeast countryside bear witness to his influence.

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