Political Science

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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Can one river change the world? With the science and political skill behind the Charles River Watershed Association, you wouldn’t bet against it.

Jay Wickersham: As a former headmaster with a degree in Middle English, you have certainly followed an unusual career path. You are now one of the leading authorities on water issues in this region, and your organization, the Charles River Watershed Association, is similarly known today for its leadership in statewide environmental policy. How did that transition occur?

Bob Zimmerman: Curiosity, I guess. That and the fact that there were about six jobs available in the US at the time. I got into water policy after I joined CRWA as executive director in 1990. Looking back, I would say that I was fairly naïve as far as environmental nonprofits were concerned. I thought that everybody knew what was wrong with the environment, that the only question was finding the will and the funding necessary to go out and fix it. I quickly became aware that that’s not the case.

Photo by Christine Fernsebner Eslao

Photo by Christine Fernsebner Eslao

I attended lots of extremely contentious meetings with federal and state agencies, municipalities, and consulting firms about combined sewer overflows [CSOs], a function of stormwater and wastewater using the same pipes and overflowing into the river and harbor when the stormwater volume is too great for the pipes to handle. It became very clear that there was this notion that the Charles River had always been dirty — the “ambient pollution” theory — so it wouldn’t really matter if the CSOs were cleaned up because the river would still not meet any water-quality standards. It occurred to me that perhaps we needed to take a broader look, so we launched the Integrated Monitoring, Modeling, and Management project in late 1994, to figure out how the Charles watershed really works. Where does the water come from? How does it get in the river? Where are the sources of its pollution? How do they all mix? When things go bad, why do they go bad? That’s remained the focus of the organization ever since.

CRWA has become a unique regional watershed organization; I don’t believe there’s another like it in the country. It has its own engineering and science staff and legal capability, and virtually all of the work we do is based on our own science and computer-modeling capabilities. Since 1995, we’ve been monitoring every two miles of the Charles River every month, so we have a fairly deep and broad dataset. It’s pretty easy for us to figure out whether our actions are making the river better or worse, or if things are staying the same.

Jay Wickersham: Can you talk more about this concept of a watershed? People think of themselves as residents of a particular city or town, but most probably don’t even know what watershed they live in. Why have you chosen a watershed as a territory to watch over and defend?

Bob Zimmerman: From an environmental perspective, a watershed is that area of land that can be expected to survive pretty much on its own as long as there is rain. In the case of the Charles, it’s the 308 square miles of land that drains to the Charles River. The nice thing about the Charles is that it’s only 80 miles long. So it’s relatively easy to study and to understand the interactions between humans and nature and the issues that we create. A lot of the work that we do is applicable to virtually any urban river system in the world.

Jay Wickersham: The Charles has long been associated in the public mind with severe pollution. Back in 1995, EPA regional administrator John DeVillars announced a goal that within 10 years, the Charles River would be fishable and swimmable; a year later, then-governor William Weld made his famous dive into the river to underscore the state’s commitment to the goal. We’re now five years past DeVillars’ deadline. How are we doing?

Bob Zimmerman: Currently, the river meets the swimming standard in the 10 miles of the lower basin up to 70 percent of the time, and the boating standard, which is five times lower than the swimming standard, virtually 100 percent of the time. Polluted runoff during wet weather is the remaining big issue.

Early on, assumptions about pollution in the river were driven by the mistaken notion that a tremendous amount of raw sewage from the entire watershed was coming over the Watertown Dam into the lower basin. Our monitoring showed that one outfall, slightly upstream in Watertown, was continuously dumping raw sewage into the river — a number of buildings had illegal cross-connections tying into a storm drain instead of a sanitary sewer. Once that was fixed, it became clear that most of the sources of the problems in the lower basin could be found in the lower basin itself: combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, illegal cross-connections, collapsed interceptor pipes — failed infrastructure all. In the first three years of the DeVillars initiative, a million and a half gallons a day of raw waste dumping directly into the river was eliminated — a huge impact on water quality.

Jay Wickersham: Were those problems primarily the result of bad engineering or of inadequate maintenance over the years?

Bob Zimmerman: A combination of the two. Boston started laying large interceptor sewage pipes in 1854. And to save money, it was decided that, rather than put the storm drain and the sanitary sewer in separate pipes, they’d be combined in the same pipe, which is great, as long as it doesn’t rain. As the city grew, the capacity of those pipes was exceeded. A lot of the pipes were made of brick; brick has mortar; mortar fails over time. Nobody was checking the pipes: once you bury a pipe, it’s easy to ignore it. And that led to another significant concern for the region. Once the pipes start to fail, they leak in — they don’t leak out. So groundwater that the pipe passes through actually leaks into the pipe, because the pressure inside the pipe is so much lower than the pressure in the ground. In effect, what we’ve designed is a system that has created tremendous environmental problems for us.

Today, 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system. We’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away.

Now I have to admit that the technology available to us in 1850 and 1900 didn’t really allow us to do much other than create large centralized systems to take the water that we use in our homes and throw it away someplace a long way away from us, to make sure that we protected ourselves against cholera and typhus. It made perfect sense. But it’s not 1900 any more.

Jay Wickersham: You’re critical of the idea of a large centralized wastewater treatment system. Yet the enormous Deer Island treatment facility is considered by most people to be an environmental success story, responsible for the cleanup of Boston Harbor. What’s your concern about that kind of centralized system as a model?

Bob Zimmerman: One concern is the approach it promotes to the problems that we face with environmental issues. We tend to look at these problems in isolation. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency brought suit in the early 1980s because of the condition of Boston Harbor, which violated the Clean Water Act. The issue was cleaning up Boston Harbor; and the solution was to create this enormous centralized system, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority [MWRA], with this new enormous wastewater treatment plant. So we’ve ended up taking water from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs to serve communities in the MWRA district, using it, collecting it, and throwing it away, after treatment at Deer Island, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.

On top of that, half of the 43 communities that the MWRA serves actually pump their water locally instead of receiving it from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs. But that water also gets dumped it into the big pipe and thrown away, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.

Photo by Paul Keleher

Photo by Paul Keleher

And then there is the fact that 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system; groundwater alone accounts for 47 percent of every gallon. So we’re de-watering eastern Massachusetts. This has enormous consequences. We’ve all learned over the last decade or so that we’re running out of water and there are going to be water wars. I’ve got to tell you, we’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away. That 47 percent of the water in those pipes represents, every single year, the same flow as the Charles River. So there’s the equivalent of one Charles River captured and thrown away. Then there’s the stormwater that we collect off impervious surfaces in the 43 towns of the MWRA that gets thrown away. That amounts to a second Charles River. And if you add in the wastewater itself, there’s a third Charles River. So every year, through Deer Island, we throw away three Charles Rivers from those 43 communities.

Jay Wickersham: And that must have huge implications, both for the environment and for our economy.

Bob Zimmerman: Yes. The bottom line is this: you’ve got parts of rivers like the Sudbury and the Ipswich that actually run dry in the summer because whatever groundwater is available is being taken for human demand. In urban rivers like the Neponset and the Charles, the impacts are in abnormally low flows, so what you get in the river is concentrated pollution. And when there’s less water in a river, the temperature goes up, so its carrying capacity for fish and wildlife is reduced. Have we felt it at the tap, in our kitchens? No. Will we? Yes.

Jay Wickersham: So what would you suggest as an alternative to the large centralized systems?

Bob Zimmerman: At CRWA, the first part of our strategy is to buy time. It’s going to take decades to effect broad change. In the meantime, we want to make sure that things get no worse than they are right now.

Virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built.

Associated with that is the work we’ve done in getting conservation-based water withdrawal permits and registrations, so that we cap the amount of water being taken from the ground, so that the rivers get no worse. With the new conservation-based permits, towns that would have had to seek new sources of water supply beginning this year, 2010, won’t need to seek new sources of water supply until 2030. So we just bought ourselves 20 years.

Jay Wickersham: You mentioned earlier that CRWA takes a science-based approach. But you’ve also got an active and aggressive legal arm. How have you been trying to effect change through the law?

Bob Zimmerman: On the time-buying front, CRWA, representing the Ipswich River Watershed Association, the Essex County Greenbelt, and Mass Audubon, sued the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2003 under the Water Management Act for failure to balance human demand with natural resource need. When one-third of the Ipswich runs dry for more than a month every summer, something is clearly wrong in the way we allow water to be used. That suit was ultimately set aside because DEP agreed with us and started writing conservation-based permits. When those came out in early 2005, 11 of the 15 towns affected immediately appealed, and our general counsel remains in court defending DEP and continuing to make the case for the permits. So far, we’ve won in every venue, and I would expect that we’ll win in the end. In the interim, those permits are in place and they do help.

We are also examining policy and regulation. We build these enormous centralized systems because somebody demands them. We know the environmental damage they create — virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built. So we’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies. We can restore trout streams, even the Charles River, and provide for human demand pretty much regardless of growth.

Jay Wickersham: What would that mimicry of nature look like? And how would it affect the way we build today?

Bob Zimmerman: First we need to understand how nature works here in New England. Nature wants to hold on to precipitation, so water infiltrates the soils and collects in underground aquifers with tremendous storage capacity. What we typically do instead is to collect the water off impervious areas — parking lots, buildings, roadways, sidewalks, heavily compacted soils — in a storm drain in the side of the road and then throw it away. And of course, in the process of running across all of this pavement, the water also gets pretty heavily polluted — a regular pollution cocktail. If we were to mimic nature, we would not let that water get away. We would use techniques such as swales, rain gardens, and porous paving — techniques associated with Low Impact Development (LID) — to let it run through the soil to clean up the vast majority of those pollutants. In the summer, it would support plant life and trees, which provide cooling and sequester carbon, and in the winter, it would percolate back into the ground to recharge the aquifers, as it would have 300 years ago.

The idea can be applied in other ways as well. When we pump water from town and private wells for use in our homes, we can cycle it back rather than throw it away. We’ve created a computer model at CRWA to locate areas in cities and towns where that water can be cleaned up and then discharged back to the ground, so it goes back to the surface water bodies it would eventually have fed if it had not been pumped. So you get a big recycling process that restores in-stream flow, protects us against drought, and reduces flooding.

Jay Wickersham: But you well know that local treatment can sometimes lead to local opposition.

Bob Zimmerman: No matter what you do in the United States, the “not in my back yard” attitude is going to remain a problem. In the end, however, we need this infrastructure. The nice thing about these wastewater treatment plants is that they’re not the kinds of plants that currently dot the landscape — with the smells and the big surface water separators and tanks. These are, in effect, huge septic systems. Most of the discharge occurs underneath the ground. You could build playing fields over the surface. They’re not huge. The other nice thing about groundwater discharge is that you eliminate the problem of releasing pharmaceuticals and personal care products into waterways. The University of California Berkeley has shown that, within 90 feet of filtration through the ground, that stuff is eliminated.

Jay Wickersham: So the ground serves as a natural filtration and cleaning system?

Bob Zimmerman: Absolutely. It allows you to replicate, technologically, the kinds of systems that nature created before we built Boston.

Jay Wickersham: What kinds of changes should we be asking for, as citizens and consumers, as homeowners or tenants? In the face of large, complex problems like this, people often think there is little they can do as individuals.

Bob Zimmerman: The first thing we need to do is buy time. We need to reduce water demand so that we have the time to test, investigate, and put in place water infrastructure that’s restorative and sustaining.

We can demand that our municipal leaders and the consultants and contractors they hire think about the larger system instead of isolated one-off solutions. We can push for local zoning modifications to allow Low Impact Development. We can ask how we want our towns to function 20 years, 100 years from now. How do we provide for and sustain water resources? How do we provide for growth? Where do we want the growth to happen? Can we create infrastructure that causes smart growth?

One of the things we’re working on now is a process we call “spot sewering.” Many suburban and exurban communities don’t have any wastewater treatment plants. And they want to guide and control growth; they want to create a walkable village center. So let’s sewer that village center, but only the village center, to direct development to the core.

We’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies.

Jay Wickersham: I’ve been working on a project in North Easton, Massachusetts, which is looking at a plan to redevelop a wonderful historic factory complex. And in order to support that, the developer, with funding from the town, would provide an onsite wastewater treatment plant with enough capacity to pick up the rest of the downtown in order to foster exactly that kind of redevel-opment, while discouraging growth along the outer arterial roads.

Photo by Alex Budnitz

Photo by Alex Budnitz

Bob Zimmerman:

And if they use an anaerobic treatment process to capture the methane, they can burn the methane, spin a turbine, and generate energy for that downtown district. Methane, by the way, is 23 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so burning it is actually a good thing because it removes it from the atmosphere, a form of climate-change mitigation. If they do this right, if they run our computer model and figure out the best spot to discharge that water to the ground, and if they use an anaerobic treatment process to generate energy, they will create a profit center for a town that’s probably struggling with property taxes.

Jay Wickersham: Looking back over 20 years of stewardship of the Charles River watershed, are you optimistic about our ability to make the kinds of broad changes that you’re talking about?

Bob Zimmerman: Sometimes I feel like we’re just not moving fast enough. But then I reflect on what’s actually been accomplished, which is remarkable. I think we’re going to see some changes in the next three to five years in eastern Massachusetts that will show the way for the rest of the country and, in my opinion, the rest of the urban world. The rest of the world, particularly western Europe, is still pursuing perverse solutions, by which I mean human-managed river systems. I just can’t go there. I’m for restoring wild rivers. This is America, you know? We don’t want to go see a Yellowstone that’s in a pipe. I would love to see a Charles River where unnecessary dams are removed in Hopkinton and Milford and Dover and Sherborne, where we can fish for trout again. And that’s within our grasp.

Recycling 2.0

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.


The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.

The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”

Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.

Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.


Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.

The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.

In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.


For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.

It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.

Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.

Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”

For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit:


It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.

They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).

Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).

So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.

Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.

Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.

As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.

Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.


In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.

The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.

In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.

Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.

Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.

Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.


Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?

A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.

Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.

The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.

Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.

What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.

What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.

After Life

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

The former Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado (recently redeveloped as Belmar, a mixeduse district). Photo courtesy Continuum Partners.

Designing what comes next

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Suddenly everyone wants to recycle the mall (even if no one wants to preserve it).

When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “there are no second acts in American life,” it may still have been largely true — at least with regard to the built environment. The remark is attributed to notes Fitzgerald made while working on his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, in the 1930s. And at that time, the United States was still plowing westward. There was enough frontier spirit left to keep Americans from dwelling too much on the past, when there was still so much of the country left to be settled.

After the long deprivations of World War II, and with so many people coming home and into the housing market, Americans wanted new and more expansive living situations. An explosion of suburban development began to satisfy this desire for modern, clean, new housing. It wasn’t a time for reusing the old.

But attitudes about reuse have changed. There is still a lot of land, but we have settled a great deal more of it. And the sense of endless abundance that once animated this country has surely come to an end. A recent article by John B. Judis in The New Republic, referring to the deluge of economic, political, and environmental difficulties facing our most populous state, asks “Is California Finished?” There may be no question which points more succinctly to the changes since Fitzgerald’s time than that one. The role that California has played in the American imagination cannot be overstated. If we no longer see a mythical California — a place where we can all reinvent ourselves — at the end of the highway, then perhaps we have to start thinking more about how to improve where we are.

So Americans have begun to think about fixing what we have. For 50 years at least, we have been coming to the realization that there is much of value in our existing built world, even if it isn’t perfectly aligned with current needs. We are learning to salvage, restore, and reinvent our buildings, neighborhoods, and historic sites.

But the scale of our reuse is changing. We no longer seek to salvage only unique historic buildings and neighborhoods, but also to retrofit suburban landscapes, malls, industrial sites, and other less obvious choices. There are new kinds of engines driving these decisions. What were once questions of cultural patrimony, as in the failed attempt to save the old Penn Station in New York, are now about environmental and economic issues.

A flurry of books in recent years has helped to shape, clarify, and occasionally question this changing attitude about reuse. Anthony Flint’s This Land and Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl each had different takes on the consequences of our everbroadening metropolitan areas. Sustainable Urbanism (Douglas Farr) and Suburban Transformations (Paul Lukez) addressed in greater, and more actionable, detail, how we might alter our existing suburban building stock and settlement patterns. Farr’s book links policy and case studies, while Lukez’s provides a collection of formal operations on specific buildings and community types.

Addressing one part of this phenomenon is a recent book, Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. It is a comprehensive effort at defining the problems facing our suburban landscape, and proposing specific strategies for solving them.

Dunham-Jones is a longtime member of the faculty at the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, and Williamson is on the faculty at the School of Architecture at the City College of New York. They owe some of the clarity and straightforwardness of their approach to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which has been encouraging architects, planners, developers, and public officials to work together to change the way American cities and suburbs are built for more than 20 years.

CNU has represented the single most comprehensive critical approach to influencing the character of our built environment of any architectural movement since World War II. By bringing together so many different participants in the development world, it has created a complete system for making suburbs more compact and urban — regardless of what one thinks of the results.

But what makes Retrofitting Suburbia particularly important is that it addresses the issues with which the New Urbanists have been least successful. Most New Urbanist projects have been either all-new suburban developments on so-called greenfield (completely undeveloped) sites or overly simple (and not very responsive) insertions into existing cities. But as Dunham-Jones and Williamson point out, the biggest challenge we face is how to make our existing suburbs more connected, dense, and heterogeneous. And that requires specific tactics.

In addressing this large task, the authors begin by defining urban versus suburban conditions. They also make clear why adapting these existing communities is so important. But this book is entirely about how to change them, not whether we ought to. And this allows it to become a very useful manual of techniques.

Retrofitting Suburbia addresses fine-grain issues like adding detached accessory dwelling units (DADU) on the one hand, and thinking about how we change scale across an entire metropolitan area, on the other. The authors make use of the CNU “transect,” a diagrammatic section cut through a hypothetical city from the dense downtown to mid-rise multifamily neighborhoods, bedroom communities, suburban centers, and on to agricultural land. They take on the myriad challenges to altering the entrenched patterns and habits that shape our world and turn their attention to everything from the large retail giants, to transit-oriented development, new live/work prototypes, and, especially, retrofitting shopping malls as denser, mixed-use developments and “new downtowns.”

It’s true that many of the best-case examples shown in the 16-page color portfolio at the book’s center include some of the faux-historical, cartoonishly-detailed stucco buildings that have come to stand as the reason so many architects are wary of New Urbanism. But the truth is that these critics must learn to distinguish between the scales of planning, urban design, and architecture. If we learn nothing more than that from this serious, detailed study of how to reuse our suburbs, it will be a great leap forward. It is the changing of long-fixed patterns of planning and development that is the real change proposed in Retrofitting Suburbia, and not really a question of building taste, which will inevitably evolve.

Another recent entry in the genre of reuse publishing is Julia Christensen’s Big Box Reuse. Here the focus is on the now vast expanse of giant retail box stores spread across suburban and rural America. Though many of these structures are still in use, many of these very large, low buildings have already outlived their original economic usefulness, and Christensen is looking at the ways in which they have been re-purposed.

But it is a very different kind of approach. Instead of looking at functioning malls as engines for new kinds of market-driven development, Christensen is more interested in the sociology, or even the relative authenticity, of the new uses. Big Box Reuse documents how big-box stores have been razed to accommodate a new courthouse, reused as an indoor raceway, adapted as schools, chapels, libraries, flea markets, and even a Museum of Spam.

The implication in this selection is that these new uses are more organic and more locally relevant. That may be. Certainly there is value in large buildings with plenty of parking in our car-dominated suburbs and rural areas. And there are needs in our less affluent rural communities that can be met in these older big-box stores. But the fit is often less than ideal from an architectural standpoint, and the uses that end up in these big boxes are ones that often would do much better somewhere else.

Using a big-box store as a library (with significant natural light demands) or a church or a day-care center makes obvious economic sense. We are reusing an asset — and that is better than not doing so — but some of these uses make much more sense than others. One senses the author is making a kind of architectural fetish out of this kind of building.

Big-box stores have a very finite economic and functional life. They are not built for the ages, and while it may make sense to temporarily reuse some of them — and some of these reinventions can be very clever (the indoor race track, for example, makes a lot of sense because there are few other building footprints that could accommodate such a use). It doesn’t seem like a rational plan for dealing with our suburban and rural landscapes moving forward.

The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course.

Perhaps while we learn to adaptively reuse large swaths of our built environment, improving quality and efficiency along the way, it may also make sense to determine that some building types are by their very nature transitory, and that we can plan for them to be replaced as needed. It may actually be more environmentally reasonable to do so. The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course. We have the choice of either building on existing shopping malls and creating denser, more vital, mixed-use communities from them, or razing them and being more conscientious about the patterns of development that replace them. But saving cheap, throw-away structures and treating them as heritage material doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Margaret Crawford, in Everyday Urbanism, has very intelligently focused our attention on the urban landscape of everyday uses. And she has identified a number of ways which buildings, streetscapes, and spaces have been reused by new constituencies. But these lessons can also be misread. Describing organic changes in use is not the same thing as prescribing new patterns. In Boston, for example, we have many single-story neighborhood automotive uses (garages, repair shops, machine shops) where cars have long been accommodated. These uses have often been rendered obsolete by market forces, like the arrival of regional chain repair shops. But these existing automotive buildings, usually masonry structures, could serve as the parking base for new denser multifamily housing. This kind of reuse may lack the cultural The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course. specificity of some of the examples in Everyday Urbanism, but it is a more prescriptive approach to dealing with a real problem facing our area: how to provide the new parking demanded by neighborhoods and consumers without adding to the amount of blacktop already in place.

At the end of the day, reuse will succeed because it makes economic sense. The locations, large windows, and dimensions of early 20th-century municipal schools made them tempting targets for reuse as residential condominiums. Developers are again calling on architects to help them identify the next phase of easy transformations from one use to another, more profitable one. Not all buildings will meet those exacting criteria. Some will be saved for cultural reasons, but others won’t. And that’s probably a good thing.

The second acts that we see occurring in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities are not all the same. Infrastructure has always been the greatest challenge, both to build and to maintain; reusing and building upon this asset should be a priority. But individual buildings represent more complex decisions. In the growing vogue for reusing everyday structures, we must distinguish between those structures whose future life holds real promise, and those whose promise is really nothing but a mirage.

Caption: The former Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado (recently redeveloped as Belmar, a mixed-use district). Photo courtesy Continuum Partners.

Industrial Strength

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 20, 2009

When creativity is your stock in trade, there is strength in numbers.

Greater Boston is home to the second largest industrial-design community in the country. Largely invisible to the public, industrial designers (also known as product designers) are responsible for the design of mass-produced products from consumer goods to computers and high-tech equipment. Above: Zarafina Tea Maker, designed for Jarden. Design: Continuum; West Newton, Massachusetts. Photo by Sal Graceffa.

Greater Boston is home to the second largest industrial-design community in the country. Largely invisible to the public, industrial designers (also known as product designers) are responsible for the design of mass-produced products from consumer goods to computers and high-tech equipment. Above: Zarafina Tea Maker, designed for Jarden. Design: Continuum; West Newton, Massachusetts. Photo by Sal Graceffa.

Elizabeth Padjen: I’ve come to think of the Creative Economy as the purloined economy — something that’s been hidden in plain view. It’s been with us for a long time but hasn’t really been considered a cohesive economic sector until recently. As a result, there seems to be a lot of confusion about definitions — everyone seems to have a different opinion. There’s the cultural-tourism piece, which has to some degree hijacked much of the public understanding of the Creative Economy in this state. There’s the “applied art” definition — putting creativity and the arts to some functional purpose. That would include architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, product designers. But it also includes advertising, film, videogames, and media — the reach of this sector into all aspects of our lives is remarkable. And of course there is an enormous population of what might be called “embedded creatives” — the people who are tallied up as working in the financial or life-sciences sector, but are writers or designers on staff. What accounts for this confusion? What exactly is the Creative Economy?

Beth Siegel: The concept is relatively new. Even a decade ago, people tended to look at the importance of the arts and culture in an economy in terms of economic-impact studies — such as reports comparing the presence of cultural institutions to a sports stadium. In the late ’90s, Mt. Auburn Associates was commissioned by The New England Council and New England Foundation for the Arts to look at the cultural economy of the entire region. We believed it was a sector that should be examined as an industry, just as we look at biotech or the software industries. Somehow that led to the terminology “creative economy.” We defined the Creative Economy as having three elements: creative industries, a creative workforce, and creative communities. We started to look at industries in which creative content defines competitiveness — much the same way people have defined technology industries broadly to include biotech and computers and software, because technology is the common competitive element of those industries.

The idea of innovation and creativity and entrepreneurship as a core part of the Massachusetts economy is not new. Michael Dukakis was promoting this back in the 1970s. What is new is that we’re looking at a set of industries where the creative content is the defining element. That is where we get some blurriness in thinking about the word “creativity.” But there’s really no right or wrong definition.

Karl Baehr: The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Our economy is getting lighter: we’re going from steel to software; we’re seeing physical GDP decrease; patent activity has increased 75 percent from 10 years ago. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of just about all of these definitions.

Anita Walker: Something else that distinguishes this industry is that it embraces the nonprofit sector, which other industries typically do not. So our symphonies and our theaters are part of an industry that also includes a commercial or profit-making sector.

The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of all of these definitions. Karl Baehr PhD

Elizabeth Padjen: My impression is that people initially thought of the Creative Economy as comprising only the nonprofits, the cultural institutions. The recent push has been to make them understand that there is also a for-profit component. Is that dichotomy still there?

Beth Siegel: When we began our work, we realized that the old divide between nonprofit and commercial really didn’t make sense anymore. There are too many hybrids — such as museums running retail shops — and the sectors have merged. For example, we tend to think of the media industry as for-profit, but it includes National Geographic and NPR, which are nonprofits. The focus is the product, not whether it’s delivered by a for-profit or nonprofit.

Karl Baehr: The business functions are essentially the same whether it’s a for-profit or a nonprofit entity. Some of the mechanics and strategies are different, of course, but you still have to operate effectively.

Anita Walker: The nonprofits enthusiastically embraced this broader notion of the Creative Economy because they understood the value of being perceived as a significant part of the economy by state legislators and those who fund their work. Being seen as a real economic engine rather than just a nicety has made an enormous difference over the last several years.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: We’ve been lucky in the Berkshires to have a long tradition of art and culture. Everybody there has come to realize, especially over the last 40 or 50 years, that our nonprofit cultural organizations contribute incredibly to our economic vitality, and also to fostering the creative communities. But not everyone is aware of the role that the for-profit creative businesses play. It’s still really important to bring these two sectors together in people’s minds. For years and years, state government has been geared toward a different kind of industry, and a lot of politicians and policy-makers still don’t understand what the for-profit creative industry contributes. There’s a lot of work to be done.

I’ve recently become aware of the importance of homebased businesses to the Creative Economy and the economy as a whole. My parents started a home-based business, Country Curtains [now a mail-order company with retail shops in 12 states]; I confess I had to be convinced that it is in fact part of the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy doesn’t necessarily develop products only for the most sophisticated people. It also produces things that mainstream people feel comfortable with and love, things that are sold at a very affordable price. We really have to embrace everybody. Tattoo artists. Doily makers. Anybody who can make a living by doing something that is creative.

Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to employers — some of whom might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy. Anita Walker

Jason Schupbach: We’ve seen a sea change in just the last year around the way this state addresses the Creative Economy. We already had one of the most advanced Creative Economy policies in the country supporting the nonprofit sector through the work of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Now we are also developing a complementary policy around the for-profit creative industries, because they often do have different needs. That’s what resulted in the creation of my job. I have counterparts in the Office of Business Development who focus on the manufacturing, life sciences, IT, clean energy, and defense industry sectors. By creating my job, Governor Patrick has said the creative-based businesses, such as entertainment — which includes film, TV, videogames, music, and publishing — design, digital media, and advertising businesses, are every bit as important to the state’s economic growth as those other industries. We want to make sure that the for-profit creative industries are aware of the resources we have for them right now, and we want to understand what we should be doing in the future to develop these parts of the economy.

Beate Becker: I believe the more important debate is the question of creativity versus innovation, and why the Creative Economy is different from an Innovation Economy. I really want to stress that, when we’re talking about the Creative Economy, the creativity is about creative content. For example, engineers are creative, but they’re not producing creative content. Creative content is based in culture or the senses: song, drawing, theater. The economist Richard Florida has brought attention to the notion of a “creative class,” but his class is so inclusive that he’s talking more about a knowledge-based class. He includes accountants and lawyers, who certainly use their minds, but are not necessarily creative workers. They’re different from actors or graphic designers.

Elizabeth Padjen: Along with the idea of a creative class, we have to give credit to Richard Florida for popularizing the understanding that creativity has a physical component — that some places nurture creativity better than others.

Anita Walker: Our understanding of what we call “creative communities” is already expanding. Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to the companies who want to employ them, companies that will bring jobs and wealth to a community. And of course some of those companies might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy sector.

Elizabeth Padjen: Some cities have been quick to understand this. New Bedford, for example, has been getting great press in the last year as a community that is trying to develop its creative sector as a way of defining itself. Matt, what were the roots of that initiative?

Matthew Morrissey: About three years ago, we were pitching a foreign company that was considering New Bedford for a new manufacturing facility that would employ more than 600 people. We were on the short list and had developed a package of incentives that made us as competitive as any other place in the world, really. Halfway into the presentation, the site-location consultant stood up and said, “Wait a second. I get all of this, but I’m originally from Newton, and I can’t imagine building a workforce in the city of New Bedford.” We had it all, but we were saddled with an outdated perception of the city. And ultimately, we lost out.

So we had to do our homework. The mayor and I sat down and asked, What is it about that experience that encapsulates the challenge facing New Bedford? We don’t sugarcoat the reality of a city like New Bedford, but we wanted to figure out how we as a city could use our assets to better tell our story. What came forward was the sense of place.

The idea of the Creative Economy works pretty naturally for New Bedford. For 10 years now, AHA! [Art, History & Architecture, a cultural organization] has been promoting the possibilities of New Bedford to the scores of people who come to its free Downtown Cultural Nights on a regular basis. And when people sense possibility, you inspire their imagination. It is a very important part of retaining folks who are more educated and more prone to civic engagement on their block, in their neighborhood, and at other levels of government. If you can tell that story to a large enough population, eventually you hit a couple of investors, a couple of site locators, and CEOs.

The direct economic impact of businesses in this sector, however we define it, is real. We have 48,000 jobs and 2,300 businesses in the city, and about 10 percent of that can be attributed, in a broad sense, to the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy isn’t going to become our largest employer. But we know that it can be an enormously important, if not the most important, inducer of job creation in the city of New Bedford.

Anita Walker: This has important implications for public policy: cities like New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Worcester — and, of course, Boston — have recognized that they want the Creative Economy to be part of their city plan and have named individuals who are part of city government to coordinate these efforts. They understand that it’s about business development, but it’s also about community development. You really need a holistic approach.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: Something that we’re grappling with in the Berkshires is the fact that there is no leadership. In cities, you have a mayor who sets an agenda and pushes for it; you can go talk to this one person. But in the Berkshires, we have two cities and 31 towns, and the towns usually have volunteer leadership. There might be one overworked, underpaid town manager, aided by salt-of-theearth elected people who are doing their jobs for nothing. You have to try to raise their awareness about the assets that they often don’t even know they have.

One of the additional challenges that the Berkshires faces is that there’s so much traffic across the borders with Connecticut and New York, in terms of where people live and work, but also in terms of business relationships. We need to find resources that will support this reality. If, for example, we get a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we can’t use it to support a Connecticut enterprise.

Beate Becker: That is an enormous challenge for New England in general; there are many cross-border opportunities. A maritime trail, for instance, doesn’t stop at the Massachusetts borders. Nor do the clients or employees of a design firm. How do you find something effective that’s more of an overlay, that crosses towns and states without political jurisdiction? And though we don’t have a real answer for that, I think that Massachusetts has started to pursue an effective model, focusing on industries themselves as the overlay. The film industry, for example, cuts across jurisdictions, as does the design industry.

Jason Schupbach: Some regional organizations are stepping into this role. Berkshire Creative is certainly one, and the Creative Economy Association of the North Shore has also emerged as a real leader.

Karl Baehr: I think New England has other challenges. I came to Boston from Santa Fe, which is one of only a handful of UNESCO-designated Creative Cities. I sometimes think people here have to overcome feeling bad about monetizing their creativity. But there are also regional differences that parallel some of the differences Beate mentioned earlier between innovation and creativity. A famous example is Xerox Corporation, back in the beginnings of Silicon Valley in the ’70s. Xerox hired a bunch of high-bohemian, high-tech kids from Berkeley and Stanford. These kids considered themselves artists. It was actually Xerox that invented the mouse, the scanner, the fax machine, the graphical user interface, all that stuff that we’ve attributed to Apple. But the reason Xerox didn’t monetize it was completely cultural — a disconnect between West Coast high-bohemians and East Coast boardroom suits and ties. Xerox would never sell anything called a mouse.

But there’s a corollary to the Xerox story: as we consider what a developed Creative Economy could mean, we should also include its influence on creative thinking in other sectors as well. Can you imagine what the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] would be like if we had a creative thinker in there anywhere? It would be a radically different organization.

When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. Carole Walton

Beate Becker: I recently visited Switzerland, which is pursuing some very exciting initiatives. The Swiss are actively bringing together schools of art and design with schools of technology, developing joint curricula and joint laboratories, with some extraordinary results. I’m really concerned that we’re not doing enough of that here. Yes, there’s the MIT Media Lab, but that’s one little node. There’s tremendous potential, particularly in the Boston area, for technology companies and design companies to do much more collaboration, both in classroom laboratory settings and in commercial settings.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: We need to take advantage of the naturally collaborative tendency of younger people: I see it in my own children and the people I work with. There are no barriers. There are no secrets. People aren’t possessive about their ideas. They share openly. These young people have a new view, and I think it’s going to have an enormous, positive influence.

Carole Walton: We can try to support that tendency by providing programs, places, resources — whatever it takes — to encourage cross-pollination. The BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] is currently exploring the development of an incubator building for people working in the creative sector.

Jason Schupbach: Metro Boston has the advantage of having so many creative people in a relatively small area. We’re seeing a lot of “bump” or “spark” events that get all the creative people in a room to see what happens. Real collaborations and business deals are coming out of these meetings.

Elizabeth Padjen: One of the problems we often hear is that the creative people tend not to be joiners. Or they join organizations that were conceived of years ago that don’t recognize the sorts of blurry borders we are discussing here. If we have architects who are also doing textile design and Web design and God knows what else, there’s no God-Knows-What-Else Association for them.

Beate Becker: DIGMA [Design Industry Group of Massachusetts] addresses exactly that problem. It’s an association that’s been heavily supported by the state, with seed funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and the Boston Foundation — a significant investment in what they see as an emerging design cluster. DIGMA’s goal is to bring creative people together to create a common identity and voice, people who are unified by the fact they are all designers despite their individual skills and expertise.

Jason Schupbach: DIGMA is especially valuable because of the exposure it provides for the industry. Most people have no idea of the size or range of the design industry in Massachusetts or how many companies are right here doing amazing work. How many people know that Greater Boston is home to the second-largest product-design community in the country? Look at a firm like Continuum, which is based in West Newton, Massachusetts, with offices in Seoul, Milan, and Los Angeles. They have a billion-dollar product-design wall, with three or four products they designed that have made a billion dollars each.

Massachusetts is actively promoting entertainment-based industries, which the state Office of Business Development defines as film, TV, digital media, videogames, music, and publishing. Local institutional resources, such as WGBH, WBUR, MIT Media Lab, Emerson College, Berklee College of Music, and Mass College of Art and Design — among many others — have fostered a creative community that is at the forefront of new entertainment media. Above: Arthur. Creator: Marc Brown Studios; West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Image courtesy WGBH.

Massachusetts is actively promoting entertainment-based industries, which the state Office of Business Development defines as film, TV, digital media, videogames, music, and publishing. Local institutional resources, such as WGBH, WBUR, MIT Media Lab, Emerson College, Berklee College of Music, and Mass College of Art and Design — among many others — have fostered a creative community that is at the forefront of new entertainment media. Above: Arthur. Creator: Marc Brown Studios; West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Image courtesy WGBH.

Beate Becker: Visibility is a very important thing. Here’s one simple thing that could be done by the state: Terminal E at Logan Airport, the international terminal, is featuring an exhibition called “Science Swiss.” It consists of 25 panels of beautiful photographs and stories of scientists in Switzerland doing incredible work — everything from entomology to geology to genome projects. I walked down there and thought, Wow, this is beautiful graphic design, beautiful photography, beautifully written. All sorts of creative skills employed in the presentation of the stories of these scientists. And I said to myself, Why are the Swiss advertising in Boston’s Logan Airport? Why isn’t Massachusetts advertising Massachusetts creativity and industries in Massachusetts airports? We can make better use of existing resources to promote our Creative Economy.

Matthew Morrissey: There is another kind of visibility that also has enormous value, which comes through the film industry. There’s the promotional aspect, of course — tourists see Boston in a movie and want to visit. But just as important is the promotional aspect for the residents. New Bedford has had 15 shoots in the last 24 months — all of them small, for indies and cable. But the value for us isn’t so much in the money spent by the crews. It’s in the impossible-tomeasure pride the whole community feels when someone says you’re valuable enough to film. When you’re dealing with Gateway Cities that have been in a virtual depression for 50 years, you can’t overestimate the energy that is created. Film provides a validation — you’re cool! — that in itself promotes the Creative Economy.

Carole Walton: One of the things that we’ve done with the Create Boston program is to identify the creative industries in Boston that show significant growth potential. For the last three years, I’ve been focusing on the videogame industry, increasing awareness of Boston as a digital-media hub and laying the foundation for its continued growth. People are now viewing Boston as a videogame hub; there are currently about 76 companies located in and around Boston. We created the first game-industry steering committee, pulling in video companies from around the state, and convened focus groups to learn more about the challenges facing the industry. They told us that they needed a way to better communicate with each other and asked if we could develop a website. We applied for and received a grant from MCC to do just that.

When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. A lot of it has to do with us not marketing ourselves properly, as an industry and as a place. Boston needs to re-brand itself as the fabulous, creative epicenter that we truly are.

Karl Baehr: If Boston’s really going to be a creative city, we’ve got to understand what’s important to these people who aren’t joiners. As a city, we need to be creative comprehensively. Not just in terms of infrastructure like roads and WiFi. We need to be creative with bureaucracy. We need to create an environment that we can market. Boston is one of the greatest cities for entrepreneurship in the country. The creative minds are here, but they leave. Why is that? Because we have yet to create this genuine creative environment that these folks are looking for. They’re looking for stimulation. They’re looking for individuality. They’re looking for openness. They’re looking for something beyond a job, something beyond even a career. It’s cultural.

Jason Schupbach: I would like to debunk the myth, though, that all creative people are outsiders. I think that’s almost completely false. If anything, they’re very interested in being part of a community of people who have similar interests. One reason why international companies are starting videogame companies here in Massachusetts is because we have the fourth largest gaming community here, and they want to be part of that community and connect with the talent that’s already here. It’s a highly networked community where everybody knows each other. That is what people are really looking for when they’re looking to be part of a creative industry.

Carole Walton: It’s important to remember that the whole gameindustry influx here was not organic. It was part of a definite strategic plan. All of a sudden Boston is seen as the premier location for videogame events, but that didn’t just happen overnight.

Elizabeth Padjen: What do people who are starting Creative Economy businesses want most? What do they ask for?

Carole Walton: They’re looking for affordable space. They’re looking for funding. They’re looking for an opportunity to be with other folks in creative industries who think the same way they do.

Jason Schupbach: The BRA has been really innovative on that front — it’s one of the few entities in the country that actually started a fund specifically to support Creative Economy businesses.

The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One linkage that would create enormous opportunity would be to lift the current $50-million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. Matthew Morrissey

Carole Walton: We also have Marine Industrial Park, which is owned by the BRA, and right now we’re creating a cluster of creative businesses there. So we can give them space at an affordable price and get them all together in that environment.

Matthew Morrissey: The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One thing that the current state administration does very well is to understand linkages, and one linkage that would create enormous opportunity for the Creative Economy in cities outside Boston such as New Bedford would be to lift the current $50- million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. When you look at the seven states that have uncapped historic-preservation tax credits, you see an enormous spike in investment capital. When you dig deeper, you discover that the Creative Economy is fueling a huge part of the demand for space in historic buildings — businesses and nonprofit offices, residences for the people who work in them, and services for the residents and businesses. I think we would see similarly enormous spikes here in terms of redevelopment of old mill buildings. I’m working on a 300,000-square-foot mill project right now that would house a printing and digital-media firm, a high-tech firm, and artist live/work space. About 200 jobs, many of them in the Creative Economy, would be brought in or created as a result. But holding all three of those interests together over a period of two or three tranches of funding under the current historic tax credit program might be too hard. No one’s fault — that’s the system. But if the cap were lifted now, that building would be filled.

Elizabeth Padjen: Except for Gateway Cities like New Bedford — the former mill cities of Massachusetts — this region is not known for affordable space or affordable housing. How can we be competitive relative to other regions of the country?

Beate Becker: If we’re debunking myths, I want to debunk the one that people leave because of affordability. Where do all these creatives go? They go to New York and San Francisco, which are not exactly havens of affordable real estate.

If you ask people what they need and why they move, the answer is jobs. Work is the real issue. It’s not just about educating creative people and getting them in a room together to generate a lot of ideas. If there is no market for those ideas, for those companies or products, then they can’t continue. That’s an issue that we’re especially seeing now, with creative industries taking a big hit in this economy. If people aren’t buying those services and those goods, it’s a problem. So it’s not just about growing the Creative Economy itself, it’s about growing the demand for the Creative Economy.

You do that in part by developing awareness of the added value that design can bring to an industry. Introduce designers to healthcare people and raise the issue of return on investment. What’s the value of design to healthcare? Ask Apple the value of design, or Procter & Gamble. That billion-dollar wall at Continuum? Continuum developed the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble. Getting the other industries here — healthcare, financial, bioscience, high-tech — to employ creatives is what will keep people here. We’ve got the talent. We need the work.

Massachusetts is considered a hub of footwear design. Brands with local presence include Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Clark, Stride Rite, and Saucony — as well as many smaller companies. The footwear industry employs many in-house designers, as well as independent product designers and footwear design consultants, who often also design for well-known fashion labels. Above: Puma Hawaii XT. Design: Puma; Westford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Puma.

Massachusetts is considered a hub of footwear design. Brands with local presence include Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Clark, Stride Rite, and Saucony — as well as many smaller companies. The footwear industry employs many in-house designers, as well as independent product designers and footwear design consultants, who often also design for well-known fashion labels. Above: Puma Hawaii XT. Design: Puma; Westford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Puma.

Elizabeth Padjen: And in fact, if you look at the websites of many local product-design firms, in addition to what you might expect — household goods, electronic devices, consumer goods — you will find an astonishing number of sophisticated medical devices, which is no accident.

Beth Siegel: That’s right. There are some fascinating crossovers, such as a company in the Berkshires that used to do computerized special effects for the movie industry that now employs 100 people doing medical simulations for the life-science industry.

Anita Walker: I also want to do a debunk. Every state worries about the brain drain. The fact of the matter is, young people move. One of the distinguishing features of the Creative Economy is that it’s highly mobile. It’s not agriculture, which is stuck in the ground; or fishing, which is stuck in the ocean; or oil wells, which are under the ground. You have to accept the mobility factor and work with it.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: I concur with Anita. I cringe every time I hear the president of Berkshire Community College say that we need to keep our young people in the Berkshires after they graduate, because I as an employer do not want to hire somebody to work at the front desk of Porches who’s never been anywhere else, who can’t get him- or herself down to New York and back. I think it’s great that new people come and young people go; they might come back and they might not. Mobility is something that we need to learn to value; we don’t necessarily want to keep people where they grew up. That’s almost un-American.

Elizabeth Padjen: In this economy, a number of people are launching businesses on their own, but what do they really know about entrepreneurship? It may even be worse for creative people, who often seem to believe that being creative and being successful in business is oxymoronic. On the other hand, the Creative Economy seems to present an opportunity to create a different business model — to work in very fluid ways that are outside traditional corporate structures. Karl, your students come to Emerson because they have a love for some kind of creative endeavor. How do they respond to the idea of entrepreneurship? How can we encourage creative people to think about the opportunities that they have in the business world?

Karl Baehr: The fundamental problem is that rule number one of business — “it’s business, not personal” — does not apply to an entrepreneur. It’s very personal. It’s not their business education that compels them to put their life savings into a business and work 15 hours a day, 12 days a week to make a go of it. What motivates them is the passion for an idea. And the moment that inherently right-brained, artistic, emotional element enters into the equation is when an entrepreneur can get off track. So you have to do the reverse: artists can already envision the house that they want to build, but you have to teach them how to use a hammer and nail, and when it’s appropriate to use a screwdriver, and what the pliers do. Those nuts and bolts — the law, management, learning how to network and partner, communication, finance — are all essential. Artist-entrepreneurs come to realize that, in order to make their vision become real, they need to learn these things, just as they need to learn how to use Pro Tools software if they’re musicians or a paintbrush if they’re illustrators. It’s the same creative passion; it’s just a different tool. And that makes it less foreign to our students. Our program is full, because our students realize that there is this thing called business out there that they need to understand.

This economy is a great time to be an entrepreneur, to be in charge of your own destiny. It’s especially true of those who are part of the Creative Economy. What better way to make your way in the world than by doing what you love and creating something, whether it is software or art or music? And understanding enough about how to navigate the waters of business allows you to do that. “Brain lateralization” is the technical term: it’s making the right brain work with the left brain, and learning how to shut off the right brain just long enough to say, Wait a minute, I’m injecting too much of my emotion into this; I need to think a little more critically. Because the passion can blind you.

Anita Walker: We can’t disconnect the Creative Economy from K-12 education. If we relegate children to rote memorization and high-stakes testing, they’re not going to be ready for the Creative Economy of the future. Increasingly we’re seeing art and music squeezed out of the curriculum in favor of high-accountability subjects. These kids will need to be both critical and creative thinkers, to be comfortable with ambiguity and with tackling a problem that doesn’t have a right answer and has never been solved before.

Jason Schupbach: Another important piece of the youth workforce-development picture is validation — helping parents understand that if their kids are interested in videogame development, for example, they can have a job in it someday. Sometimes people don’t know that these are real and, in many instances, high-paying [jobs]. Economic-development folks can create the jobs but we need people to fill them. We have some empty jobs locally in the Creative Economy even now. We can’t staff every firm that wants to come here.

Elizabeth Padjen: John Maeda, the new president of Rhode Island School of Design, said that one of his great challenges is dealing with the parents’ reaction to a kid who wants to go to art school.

Beth Siegel: It would really fill a gap if all the art, music, communication, and design schools got together and asked, “How can we help people understand the occupational opportunities?” — and then took that show on the road to high schools. Because, I can tell you, high-school counselors are not telling these kids about the career potential of these creative disciplines.