Housing Post-Disasters

In 1999, the state of Orissa in eastern India was hit by a “super-cyclone” that devastated its cities and villages. Millions were left homeless. Poor and marginalized populations, who make up a disproportionate part of Orissa's population, were particularly affected. In the wake of the storm, relief agencies appeared on the scene to offer much-needed post-disaster aid. For emergency needs like food, clothing, medication and basic provisions, the welfare model employed by these organizations worked well. However, for all its good intentions, this model — in which outside agencies are providers and the poor are beneficiaries — needs re-evaluation when it comes to housing.

The difference between housing built for people and by people is clear in Mundasahi in Cuttack and Chandrabhaga in Konark - two "urban villages" that suffered in the cyclone. In each of these settlements, the Lion’s Club International Foundation, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, built around 20 uniform, ground-floor, one-room structures under their Orissa Cyclone Rehabilitation Programme. These were among 360 rehabilitation housing units for which the club donated US$500,000 in 2000.

These are essentially boxes with cookie-cutter designs that appear to have been air-dropped in the settlements. Designs lack provisions for a toilet or kitchen area. They are totally out of touch with local lifestyles and livelihoods: In the fishing village of Chandrabhaga, there is no room for storing or processing fish. In Mundasahi, a tribal settlement, there is provision for a traditional outdoor earthen stove. The houses are small compared to area standards. In Chandrabhaga, two families must split a house no bigger than 150 square feet, at least half the size of typical huts. Based on community norms, sharing a house undermines the status of these households. In Mundasahi, the structures are nine-feet short of the size of the plot that households hold — a terrible waste when every inch counts. Inside, the NGO erected a simple partition that does not use space well. Taken as a whole, the standardized structures give an impression of lifelessness compared to the rich atmosphere of the organic villages. As a result, many of the houses lie vacant. In Mundasahi, where they are somewhat better integrated, households have done their best to adapt the structures by building extensions.

In the same sites, homes that residents themselves designed and built after the disaster stand as a vibrant counterpoint. Some of these houses were built with the support of loans from the Orissa Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, grassroots group of the poor who, with the support of an NGO, manage savings groups and slum surveys, take on precedent-setting housing and infrastructure projects and negotiate with the government about evictions, basic services and other shelter and planning issues. In this case, households took out loans against their own savings, designed their homes (many learned affordable construction techniques through exchanges with peers in other cities and a few worked through a participatory process with a volunteer architect) and hired local labor for construction — contributing plenty of sweat equity of their own.

By any standard, these are better homes. The families use space in a way that maximizes its efficiency according to the family's structure, activities and culture. A home in Mundasahi includes a covered stoop used for storage and traditional cooking. There is also a kitchen, a toilet area and a courtyard at the back. The interior is also organized in a way that considers the sleeping arrangements, privacy and storage needs of the family. It connects onto a communal roof terrace used for drying laundry, storage, livelihood activities and festivals. These homes become an important asset for the family.

They can be extended over time, as the household grows and more finance becomes available. Because the family helped pay for and design the home themselves, it's a marker of pride and status. Individualized, crafted with attention to aesthetics and in tune with the local typologies, these houses make for better maintained, more interesting, and thereby better functioning neighborhoods. They adapt better to the climate and use money well, as people know what materials are available at what prices.

Post-disaster situations, in which large amounts of relief funding must be spent quickly and affected populations are viewed as victims, accelerates the tendency to build from the top. This will become a bigger issue as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of large-scale calamities. However, the model of addressing shelter deprivations by treating the urban poor as beneficiaries is not limited to post-disaster situations. Many government schemes and development programs are oriented around this paradigm.

One can argue that beggars can't be choosers, but that's missing the point. Poor people aren't beggars, and they have the skills and knowledge to produce the housing solutions that work best for them; in fact, self-construction has always been the primary way of producing affordable housing, despite lack of access to housing finance and rights to land.

Although the cyclone left people in a terribly difficult situation, a crisis is often the perfect opportunity to build or strengthen community-led efforts. The available pools of money are the perfect chance to invest in sustainable and affordable housing — which was an issue before the disaster ever hit. Money is wasted if houses are left vacant or will be obsolete tomorrow. Orienting funding and systems towards supporting local construction processes — before or after the storm — is a more cost-effective investment, creates better homes and neighborhoods and does more to create sustainable shelter and lift families out of poverty.

Photos by Katia Savchuk


Economic Stimulus: Not a Spectator Sport

Long before President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, municipalities across the United States had already begun salivating, and understandably so—the bill promises to spread CRAZY moolah across this economically-troubled country. Unless you’ve been on an extended camping trip, of course, you already know about the stimulus bill.

A variety of websites have emerged lately to solicit stimulus project suggestions and feedback from the masses. Stimuluswatch.org, for example, aggregates specific projects that are candidates for funding via the bill while acting as a forum for discussing their merits and drawbacks. As Catherine Rampell puts it, the stimulus is being crowdsourced. This is a manifestation of civic involvement that no one could have envisioned in the New Deal era. We can only hope some folks in Washington take a look at the message boards.

It may seem silly to nitpick about where the stimulus funds go, as long as they create jobs. Your city wants to secure the biggest chunk of cash it can get, and it wants project proposals that will attract that cash. During another economic upheaval, the Great Depression, Robert Moses demonstrated the pitfalls of that mentality in New York City. Moses noticed that Washington was handing out New Deal money and that few cities had projects on which to spend it. By catching on to this before many others did, Moses managed to almost single-handedly execute public works projects like the Triborough Bridge while elevating himself to an autocratic level of power in New York. Many of the New Deal projects he oversaw helped to choke the five boroughs with automobile traffic, and his influence—good and bad—is still felt in New York City today.

An individual with the power Moses had is unlikely to appear again in a U.S. city, but his legacy reminds us that large-scale federal funding enables the kinds of mega-projects that induce seismic change in cities. Under the guidance of mere mortals, those projects have the potential to harm cities just as easily as they can help them. As your city works to secure its stimulus money in 2009, examine the use of that money with a critical eye.

(Photo from Flickr user Tracy O.)


Americans Dream On

It takes more than an economic crisis to put a damper on the American Dream when it comes to habitat. A recent Pew Research Center study about where and how Americans want to live (summarized in David Brooks's column in the New York Times) found that although the suburbs have receded as an ideal, Americans are still motivated by the geographic tendencies that have characterized the nation since its emergence: a mentality of mobility, conquering the next frontier and combining the best of town and country living. The study also found that Americans would still prefer to live by a McDonald's over a Starbucks; with San Francisco, Seattle and Denver among the five most desirable cities to live in, I hope the Pew Center can reformulate the question.


Urban Research Sites

Cities all over the world face the challenge of providing healthy and attractive places to live. A recent post by Jackson titled Bringing Soil Back offers a striking example. There is a need for solutions that are ecologically and economically sound. One approach might be the establishment of local research sites to monitor and improve the health of urban ecosystems. While I don’t know of any exact precedents, there is a related concept in a translated Soviet planning document from 1967. *

The translation was made for a study on “the provision of social facilities for large-scale housing developments.” Given the history of such initiatives in Russia and the U.S., it would seem an unlikely source of inspiration. However, the section on “Tree Shrub Nurseries and Flower Greenhouses” is especially interesting. It calls for a certain amount of space per person to be allocated for planting on the periphery of cities. I wonder how these sites fared in Russia. Could they possibly be established on abandoned properties within cities and used for ecological research?

Setting up research sites in city neighborhoods might be a good way of integrating the sciences into urban governance, making it easier to monitor and improve local environmental conditions. With sufficient financial support, they could become important laboratories for advancing public health. I’m not sure how they would be funded, especially given current economic conditions. Ideally they would become self-sustaining, like the nonprofit Environmental Concern. If anyone has information or ideas on how this might work, I would be very interested.

* Guidelines and Standards Regarding the Planning, Layout, and Facilities of Settled Areas in the Soviet Union. Published by the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. on Construction (Moscow, 1967). Translated by Kathryn Rumsey and Kathleen Quant (Ithaca, NY, 1974).

(Photo of Larkspur Greenhouse in Mill Valley, California from Flickr user Live2Ski)



Go figure, but the “feel-good movie of the year” is apparently Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Things must really be down when the filmic fairytale of choice has a sprawling slum built on a dump as a backdrop, when its protagonists are two poor little buggers turned orphans after their mom is clubbed to death in the middle of religious rioting, and when its highlights include mobsters blinding a kid with acid to earn bigger beggar bucks, caste prejudice, underage prostitution and a full-body dive into a brimming latrine. Sweet!

So where’s the feel-good? I guess part of the movie’s success at the box office has something to do with a lingering taste for the exotic. People seem to love Slumdog’s blasts of color, frantic pace and raw spurts of life; they agree that “slums never looked this cool”. Yes, the Third World keeps filling the promise of a relentless lust for life, an irrational drive that keeps the poor folks south of the equator going, even when faced with dire conditions and painful obstacles. What “westerners” don’t realize is that all this seemingly exuberant vitalism has little to do with joie de vivre and is actually a crude survival strategy.

Slumdog is a watered-down version of the slumsploitation genre that grew popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, revealing the violent drag of Parisian banlieus, digging into the favelas of Rio and hovering over vecindades in the outskirts of Mexico City. Aside from the continental displacement (the sizzling streets of Mumbai and the swollen alleys of its informal appendix, Dharavi) the most notable shift is from the dominant dark undertone of the previous films to a cut-up, fast-track mode where darkness is reduced to “spice” and sideline for a puerile plot the masses can relate to: good guy vs. bad guys, rags to riches and love (and money, let’s not forget) conquers all.

As for the urban milieu, which even in slumsploitation flicks has a relentless and sobering presence, Slumdog reduces it to scenery, a collection of common places and fundamentally passive container. Even when the dogs turn to kings standing on the thirthy-somethingeth floor of soaring skyscrapers built on the margins of their rundown birthplace, viewers have no idea of how this massive urban change came about, what it means or how it relates to the squalor. And no one (outside of India) cares, really. It just seems to be part of the slums and the exotic “catching up” to the West. Part of the charm of the “escape” is that in the end we are confirmed that we know best and that our ways still hold their power and value (even at times like these, when the developed world’s own sense of power and value is failing). It’s actually funny, because in reality the First World appears to be falling closer to the Third, as global dynamics dissolve boundaries and hierarchies and everyday life gets messier, and connections with the “faraway” and “underdeveloped” reveal themselves closer to our own doorsteps that we ever thought, and the divide between city and suburb and exurb and slum is disappearing in both North and South.

The only feel-good I got from Slumdog was M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” playing in the background. The song succeeds were the movie fails: in dressing up the contradictions and the piercing realities of the “underdeveloped” in a way that hits “developed” sensibilities without them even knowing it. Despite the fact that M.I.A.’s song immediately makes you want to smile and dance and enjoy the bustling creativity and rhythm this beautiful big-eyed brown-skinned girl from some faraway corner of the world has to offer, the minute you start the music leaves you with this weird aftertaste, this nagging realization that there’s something you’re missing, something you don’t quite understand, something that’s not completely right. The track, with its infectiously charming yet chilling kids-gunshot-cashregister chorus, is the type of “friendly dirt” that actually makes you think.

(Photo from Flickr user marcusfornell. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo. M.I.A. portrait by Napoleon Habeica, from babybabybaby magazine)


Posh to be Poor? Housing

You've probably noticed a recurring theme throughout this series: the state of the economy sucks, and we need to learn how to deal with it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the foreclosure crisis that is engulfing the United States, where many people have lost their homes or are very close to losing them. In Toledo, Ohio, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has publicly told residents facing foreclosure to simply stay put and not leave their foreclosed homes, forcing the bank to file paperwork and produce the note of ownership. There is a program in Miami that is working to move homeless families into recently foreclosed homes.

Squatting is nothing new, but the fact that government officials are basically encouraging it and, in some cases, creating programs for it somehow makes it seem more acceptable than it once was. Squatting has typically been an act of necessity for the poorest of the poor: there is nowhere else to go, so you find an abandoned house and make it your own. It has certainly never been considered an option for the middle class American, until now. So what happens when a society or a government begins to recognize squatting as a real option -- not just for the poor, but the middle class as well?

With this mainstream acceptance, the more opportunistic among us will go for the gold: mansion-squatting. Even the wealthy are getting hit with foreclosures, leaving mansions of the Mc- variety as well as sprawling Hamptons estates vacant. One art collective in London known as Da! took up residence in a 30-room mansion on Upper Grosvenor Street, one of the UK's most expensive neighborhoods. They lived in the house for nearly a month before attracting media attention. Surely, this would be difficult to pull off in many of the suburban gated communities or tight-knit small towns, because neighbors, worried about their homes' worth, would quickly call the cops. However, in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where the once-prevalent upper crust is now long gone, mansions sit vacant by the dozens, with prices lower than most suburban atomic ranches. It's easy to see, in places like these, people just moving in and creating a new life. Who is going to stop them? In these neighborhoods, residents are just happy to see a new face on the block!

A great deal trendier than the opulent mansion, though equally desired, is the warehouse loft. Though the warehouse loft has been in the public eye since the 1970s, it became a real estate frenzy at the start of the new millennium. Developers began making "soft lofts," and authentic exposed brick and beams became luxuries. Poor and homeless people have taken up residence in abandoned warehouses as long as such buildings have existed; the fact that raw warehouse lofts have become such a hip environment to reside in is a clear trend toward the aesthetic appeal of poverty. Which brings me to the interior design movement that has been growing in the US known as Boho Mod, or Bohemian Modern. Basically, it's a mix of classic furniture and thrift store finds. If you open up any Urban Outfitters catalog from the last 4 years you'll see what I'm talking about. It appears that younger generations are turning away from the notion that everything has to be new, toward a more sustainable vision based on using what we already have and what is readily available.

One might say that living in a warehouse isn't the same as living in a warehouse loft, and they would be right. However, artist James Westwater is working to change that with his Homeless Chateau. This tiny wooden room provides a bit of privacy and elegance for the abandoned warehouse dweller. Maybe we all don't want to live in a box, or even in a warehouse, but the fact that so much attention is being paid to the concept is evidence enough that people are taking more and more interest in the aesthetics of poverty.

And it's not just artists and developers, architects have taken a keen interest as well. Architect Teddy Cruz has designed a multi use housing model for Hudson New York which draws heavily from the favelas of Tijuana.

"Where others saw poverty and decay, he saw the seeds of a vibrant social and architectural model, one that could be harnessed to invigorate numbingly uniform suburban communities just across the border." -NYTimes

For one reason or another, the aesthetics of poverty have slowly begun to permeate mass culture. Whether through an innovative housing model, a warehouse loft, or an abandoned mansion, there is something compelling about using what we have and turning that abandoned space into something functional and beautiful. Though many of these ideas remain tied to certain subcultures and demographics, the amount of media attention they have gained over the last decade certainly suggests that the masses are at least curious.

Posh to be Poor? Introduction
Posh to be Poor? Transportation
Posh to be Poor? Food

(Photos from Wisebread, The Guardian, Domino, James Westwater, and the NY Times. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)

Think Big. Freak Out.

Daniel Burnham's line "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood" is probably one of the most famous quotes to come out of the field of urbanism. It's also one of the most thoroughly abused. Burnham's maxim about aiming high is used by proponents of megaprojects like Atlantic Yards (the poster child for megaprojects, you see) in defense of superblocks and devastatingly overbearing towers. In truth, Burnham did not stop where the quote does. The quote is almost always truncated, cutting off much of the great planner's intent. The full quote reads:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. (via)

The idea of a noble, logical plan becoming a living thing is about as far from the logic of the contemporary commercial megaproject as you can get. Giant developments that have become commonplace in cities like New York, London, and Chicago over the past two decades are designed to eliminate risk, to minimize mess. They are, in a word, sterile. Burnham was talking about creating plans that are dynamic, and that improve their surroundings, not wall themselves off from them.

So if it's not the four-tower 3,000-condo 250,000 square-feet-of-retail megacomplex, what does a grand plan look like? What can we do to stir mens' blood, to re-engage the many millions of people who have become disconnected from the urban environment, who have willfully or accidentally removed themselves from the discourse? In the face of increasingly grave problems, how can citizens be energized to turn their cities into the viridian green, environmentally-restorative engines that we have heard so many advocates call for them to be?

There are no small changes that need to be made. I refuse to parrot, any longer, the absurd myth that changing your lightbulbs or using a fabric bag to pick up groceries will save the world. The words "hogswaddle" and "poppycock" come to mind (apparently climate challenge turns me into a Dickensian lower-class Brit). It's true that these things add up, but public opinion on fighting climate challenge is waning; people are growing tired of the issue. The public is, of course, fickle, so this should come as no surprise. The bite-size formula is not going to work. The ante must be upped.

For planners, architects, and urbanists, this necessitates a call for big plans. We need so many more Burnhamian Big Ideas. It's time to re-think infrastructure, and architecture, and every tiny component of every city. All things can be re-imagined; we're starting to see these kinds of big ideas in playful fits and starts. Defunct airports can become magnificent tree-covered mountains; parks can be used as psychological and environmental rehabilitation centers; whole cities can become stand-in icebergs; we could build rivers in the sky, and fill them with floating classroom-ferries. Nothing about our cities is set in stone -- not even their geography. And as nature starts to change our cities in new ways, we need to re-think how our cities interact with nature.

Perhaps the greatest piece of infrastructure that cities have at their disposal, in terms of reimagining and regenerating the cityscape, is often also the last remembered. People -- the citizens that use the city, kick it, punch it, pull it down and lift it up a hundred million ways each day -- are brimming with ideas about how to make their cities better. The images in this post, for example, are from a collection of entries to a public call for the reinvention of Coney Island. This is the crazy shit that people come up with; it follows that what they want to start seeing more of, in addition to genuine, solid plans for making cities work better, is some freaky, crazy shit.

Here's a proposal; the seed of a big idea, perhaps: let loose. Think about the most unchangeable features of your city, and try to imagine them changed. Don't just daydream; come up with Big Ideas, grand plans for revolutionizing the way that your city works. Get crazy, and put down on paper the ideas you wouldn't dream of bringing up in a meeting at work. Then upload them and share them with everyone who has a computer and a set of working eyes. We need more sky rivers, more radical civic interventions, and more acid-trip theme parks. More than ever, we need very, very Big Ideas. And if we try hard enough, if we come up with enough crazy shit, maybe we'll be able to shock more people into caring about how their city works, and what it looks like. No one cares if you tell them the airport is being turned into condos and a dog park. Heads turn when you suggest that it be geo-engineered into an urban Matterhorn. It doesn't have to happen. It just has to get people to pay attention.

Burnham wisely noted that each generation's sons and grandsons would do things that would stagger their forebears. Make your grandparents proud; go freak out on your city.

(Photo from MASNYC's Flickr gallery.)


Against Transportation

“More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody's daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip farther and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips.”

Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (1974)

* * *

Urban transportation: What are we going to do about it? Fewer cars? More mass transit? More bikes? Fuel taxes?

It's tempting to try solving transportation problems with more transportation. The sight of rush hour traffic jams in cities, or the experience of riding an overcrowded bus or train, suggest the need for increased transit capacity. As a short term solution, that may indeed be the best remedy. In the long run, however, it’s more like supplementing a junk food diet with a few healthy snacks.

Modern industrial societies are addicted to mobility—something Ivan Illich points out in the passage above. Most of us have always lived within this milieu and it’s hard for us to equate less movement with better movement. Our cities embody the assumption that individuals will gladly bow to the demands of transportation systems. New York, Chicago and London all enjoy “strong centers” complete with roads and trains that can pump hundreds of thousands of people into their central business districts every morning and back out again every evening. An hour a day is generally a normal amount of time to spend commuting in these cities—I can live six miles from my job because the infrastructure exists to move me there quickly.

Interestingly, the strong-centered cities with great transit are paragons of urban form in western society. They certainly look great in comparison to the sprawling, decentralized megalopolises that have followed them. I can’t imagine wanting to live in any other kind of city, but the utopian in me wants cities where people spend less time moving from place to place. Christopher Alexander describes such a city in A Pattern Language, writing that the separation of residences and work create “intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives.” He suggests that cities use zoning laws and tax incentives to spread workplaces throughout cities.

Unfortunately, urban transportation is not planned in a way that favors less transportation. Individual agencies generally have one main task, and no agency can be expected to argue against its own existence. A transit planner would never decide that less transit ridership would benefit the city as a whole, unless transit planning was only one component of a broader job description.

Nevertheless, it might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities using the types of policies that Alexander describes, along peripheral transit lines or within walking and biking distance of neighborhood residences. A lot of work disappeared in 2008 and plenty more is sure to vanish in 2009. If and when that work comes back, it doesn’t all need to end up downtown.

(Photo from Flickr user truffes.)


Infrastructure Book is Heavy, Useful, Beautiful

Under the Obama administration’s stimulus plan (whatever precise final form it takes), the federal government will likely soon be spending billions to repair and improve America’s infrastructure. To give some hint about what “infrastructure” refers to, reporters often use a shorthand phrase like: “things such as roads and bridges.” Which is fine, because we all know there’s a lot more to infrastructure than roads and bridges.

But what else is there exactly? What besides roads and bridges does the term encompass?

One way—a very rewarding way—to find out is to read Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes.

But beware: this is a book of substance. Its ambitious goal to serve as a “guide to the common sights of the built environment…that we pass every day yet seldom really notice” is taken seriously. The result is a tome of 536 oversized pages, which include hundreds of full color photographs. The hardcover book, published in 2005, weighs a little more than four and a half pounds. (That’s a lot less than the 100 pounds or so that a typical manhole cover weighs, but it’s more than four times the weight of the hardcover edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

From the chapter titles alone—Out of the Earth, Waterworks, Food and Farming, Oil and Gas, Power Plants, The Power Grid, Communications, On the Road, The Railroad, Bridges and Tunnels, Aviation, Shipping, and Wastes and Recycling—you’ll see that “infrastructure” applies to a whole lot more than roads and bridges.

Although the book calls itself a field guide, the chapters are mainly devoted to narratives about a particular infrastructure topic and are not—as are many field guides—mainly illustrations paired with brief descriptions. For example, while the chapter on the power grid does identify and describe the various types of wires—electricity distribution lines, cable television feeders and guy wires—that you might find on a typical utility pole, the bulk of the chapter is a detailed narrative account of how power lines, substations and local distribution networks work together.

Do not despair: this narrative stuff is easy-to-follow, and is studded with interesting observations that give life and historical context to all the technological detail. For example, in a section about underground mining, Brian Hayes, the book’s author, tells how stables were built deep within the earth to house the armies of animals harnessed to pull ore cars. These animals, he notes, spent their entire lives in the dark.

Hayes is a veteran science writer (he’s a senior write for American Scientist), editor and blogger; he knows how to write about this stuff. I actually read the whole book, from cover to cover, and gathered lots of suggestions for further reading from the very detailed “further reading” appendix.

For me, the chief pleasure of this book is that between its covers one can be immersed in the vocabulary of infrastructure—a vocabulary that’s an odd mixture of the euphemistic, the intimidatingly scientific, playful crudeness and utilitarian directness. Here’s a very small sampling of terms you’ll find:

Air-blast switches
Lighting arrestors
Choke coils
Hot sticks
Grit chambers
Settling tank
Trickling filters
Activated sludge
Sludge digestion
Pig launcher
Floating roof tanks
Fractional distillation column
Crude units
Catalytic cracking unit
Splice case
Lobster pots
Sugar scoop antennas
Cloverleaf interchange…

…and there are hundreds more.

After you surface from your immersion, you may—as the author hopes you will—know a little more about the industrial landscape that surrounds you. As Hayes writes in the introduction: “[Y]ou might as well get to know what it’s called and what it does.”


This book—like manhole covers, bridges, water towers and other examples of infrastructure—is both useful and beautiful. It would be handy to have a word that highlighted this particular combination of virtues. One possibility is
beautilitarian--obviously, from a mashing together of beauty and utilitarian. Another is utiful, which mashes the same two words together in a different way. Beauty and utility both have Latin origins in English, so their marriage shouldn’t be offensive to etymological sticklers.

Beautilitarian has a significant advantage over utiful: it’s already being used, is constantly being “invented” by people looking for a word to combine these qualities. Still, I prefer utiful. I prefer it even though its spelling doesn’t reveal its origins and even though it’s not being used. It sounds better. Said out loud, it’s more suggestive of the word beauty. That is, as long as you pronounce the first syllable correctly—“yute,” not “uht” (as in “utter”).

By contrast,
beautiliarian has a savor of bureaucracy, utilitarianism and proletarians—none of which is necessarily bad but none of which immediately makes you happy like when you see a well-designed cable-stayed bridge or cleverly decorated manhole cover. But wait! Don’t bureaucrats decide where bridges are built and manhole covers placed? Isn’t some ethic of the greater good behind pretty much all actions of government, including the building of infrastructure? And who actually builds the infrastructure? Who lifts the manhole covers? Aristocrats? The bourgeoisie? The creative class? Metrosexuals? I think not. So: beautilitarian!

(Photos--in order of appearance--from Flickr users mag3737, akicQ and Jim Frazier. The original full-sized color versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Posh to be Poor? Food

Food is a hot topic these days and will continue to be in the next few decades as Earth's population grows to record numbers...every year. Food has taken the spotlight high atop the green podium due to the massive amounts of chemical pesticides used for agriculture as well as the enormous amount of transportation-elated energy that is required to provide us all with raspberries in January. Terms such as organic, locavore, CSA, and most importantly community gardening have become common language for many progressive westerners. Over the last decade there has been an increasing trend toward growing one's own food. This can be attributed to the rising costs of food as well as to light being shed on CAFOs and the massive amounts of media attention focused on the conditions in which our foods are grown and nurtured.

Overall, food prices are rising, which isn't exactly helpful to the middle class worker. This is leading to a movement toward homesteading: if you can't afford to buy food, grow it yourself. Shrinking cities are filled with abandoned lots waiting to be developed; however, seeing the state of economy, one can figure that won't be happening for a while. In the meantime, residents in these neighborhoods can capitalize on this open space by planting and harvesting a garden, thereby reducing their grocery costs. There is a significant movement to convince the Feds to plant a garden on the White House lawn. This symbolizes the American movement toward urban gardening and sustaining oneself with the land that one maintains. You don't even need a lot of land to hop on the garden train: some folks in New York have started a Chicken Coop Co-op in their tiny backyard. It's apparently become quite the hit as the local breakfast spot offers a specialty dish using only eggs from this co-op. According to UrbanChickens.org founder K.T. LaBadie,

Their [eggs] production cost is cheap: you can buy chickens for as little as a couple of dollars, and three hens will likely average about two eggs a day. You can also use their waste to help revitalize a garden...There've been recalls on everything from beef to spinach, and I think people want to have peace of mind knowing their food is coming from a very trusted source.

Another trend that has garnished a lot of attention in the last 10 years is the growth of the Freegan Movement. If you aren't familiar, the concept is to eat only what you can find for free. This usually includes scavenging through bakeries' and big box stores' dumpsters for bagged and canned goods. In New York, there was a Freegan group who would throw rooftop parties and everyone was required to bring some found food. I'm not saying it's a great idea, but people are doing it, and loving it. In the western world we tend to undervalue what goes into our bodies. Rarely is a plate scraped clean, and a massive amount of organic waste is created. Likewise, bakeries and grocers overstock, causing outdated items to be pitched. This group capitalizes on the waste of others. For some, dumpster diving has taken on a new image in the 21st century as a rouge sport as opposed to a last resort for the poor. Many of the people taking part in these events have jobs and don't need to dumpster dive. They do it for the experience.

Posh to be Poor? Introduction
Posh to be Poor? Transportation

(Photos from Eat the View, New York Times and Freegan.Info. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)