Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

September 16, 2017

Just when you thought this year could get no more strange, difficult, or unexpected… hurricane season hits with a vengeance. This post won’t have any real focus, but my head is buzzing with so many thoughts that I needed to write some of them down, to share with others who may also need a moment to reflect (or just to distract themselves).

I should start with the note that I am very grateful that my family came out of Hurricane Irma unscathed, but grieve for everyone affected by both Irma and Hurricane Harvey, including Puerto Rico, the Antilles and the Virgin Islands. If you want to donate to relief efforts, the best suggestion I’ve heard thus far is to donate directly to local organizations, like the local chapters of the Red Cross, since they can use the funds immediately. Or if you just don’t want to donate to the Red Cross, but still want something that goes to local communities, try Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. And don’t forget there are many other hurting places in the world that could use some support. We Americans are fortunate in that rebuilding is nearly always an option, no matter how great the damage.

And now: here are the latest news articles to linger with me after they cross my screen:

1. Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!

As someone who works on school facilities, long-term maintenance is a common topic. Currently I’m working on a nearly 70-year-old campus, built in the 1950s, which is the oldest school in the district. Without proper maintenance, eventually everything leaks, rusts, breaks, or gets abandoned, and sometimes it’s not until years later that the forgotten infrastructure comes to light. Everywhere we dig or uncover today, we find things we didn’t expect, from completely blocked storm drain lines made of paper (yes that was a real thing), to water lines (oops), to sewer lines (sorry about that, we’ll fix your bathrooms eventually), to abandoned gas lines (good thing it didn’t still have gas in it…). We plan our new work with an eye to how frequently it has to be maintained, and how it will perform if, inevitably, maintenance is neglected or “deferred” (just a fancy word for neglected). 1950s schools are no different from most of our infrastructure, which Americans notoriously underfund and wear into the ground. One of Pres. Voldemort’s only good suggestions has been that we should put together a large infrastructure spending bill - and let no one say that I am against a good idea, no matter where it comes from. Let’s just make sure maintenance on our country’s transportation infrastructure, water and sewer tunnels, digital infrastructure, and power grid, and not only new stuff, gets included.

Contractor: “Wait, we’re supposed to re-use what again?  We demo’d that weeks ago…”

Contractor: “Wait, we’re supposed to re-use what again? We demo’d that weeks ago…”

2. I pretty much hate the suburbs, which is so millennial of me

Did you know that not every millennial (25 to 29-year old) wants to live in a city? Well, the Times is on it! And frankly, they should be - while we all know the statistics that 80 to 90% of Americans now live in an urban area, that statistic includes suburbs as urban areas. According to this article by Alan Berger, actually 70% of Americans live in suburbs, which leaves only 10 to 20% in “real” cities. And I, for one, would like us all to recognize that suburbs are not cities, and have their own quite distinct set of urban (suburban?) problems and issues. Lately, there’s been a trend of young people moving to cities faster than previous generations, but that’s only a relative measure - this MIT professor claims that most millennials are still moving to suburbs, even if the main news item of the day is that a lot of them are also moving to cities.

I live in a suburb. I don’t really like it here. But I recognize that most of my peers do like it, and that the several generations before us who built the suburbs are still here and like it too. So I think we urbanists need to continue to reckon with suburbs and their less-than-desirable effects, including over-dependence on cars, lack of alternative transit, wasteful use of land, proportionally greater carbon pollution and energy use than cities, lack of public services and lack of social justice, etc.

Berger’s points about how technology can save us from some of the ills of the suburbs are not wrong, but I think he misses some major points about how we can continue to have suburbs without losing the fight against climate change. He argues that the “suburb of the future” will have fewer cars, since no one will drive their own vehicle - that will reduce pollution and energy use, and is a better use of land. He says communities will be able to share land better and include better infrastructure for flood control. Currently, I don’t see what kind of legal mechanism will foster this change, but perhaps he’s thinking of REITs or stronger local governments that will require land to be used for public benefit. Bizarrely, he cites drones as part of this vision – I’m not sure why we care about drone delivery, and he doesn’t say why this is important – but ok, fewer cars on the roads, I guess.

But he misses big moves. If we don’t need personal cars or parking lots anymore, we have the opportunity for a wholly new kind of urbanism, which isn’t really new, but old – more densely-built downtown shopping districts that cater to walking, for example. Without cars, we won’t be as likely to drive short distances from place to place; it will be easier if we just build things closer together. I get that people want privacy and space, but we could still build more densely (via infill construction) if we can get rid of garages, narrow the streets, and eliminate parking. A more dense suburbia is, I think, a more sustainable one. Train transit becomes possible, biking becomes easier, and carbon pollution becomes manageable, possibly even if everyone keeps their energy-inefficient, standalone, single family homes.

At any rate – let’s keep thinking about this. If our grandparents could build the suburbs in a single generation, then surely in our generation, we can turn them into a place that isn’t killing the environment as well as our souls. Or my soul, anyway.

I don’t have a photo that really screams “suburbs” to me, so instead, please enjoy this image of the Stanford Central Energy Facility.  Mmm heat recovery yes

I don’t have a photo that really screams “suburbs” to me, so instead, please enjoy this image of the Stanford Central Energy Facility. Mmm heat recovery yes

3. Art people are hilarious

Some choice quotations:

“Florida’s arts institutions work hard to prepare for hurricanes: The Dali Museum’s new building in St. Petersburg, which opened in 2011, was designed with 18-inch-thick hurricane-proof walls. The Pérez Art Museum Miami, completed in 2013, was designed by Herzog & de Meuron with the area’s mercurial weather in mind. Outdoor artworks required planning as well. The Mark di Suvero sculpture outside the Pérez was safe. “It can handle up to a Category 5 because of its cement base,” Franklin Sirmans, the museum’s director, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta.”

Translation: Yes, I always design my enormous steel sculptures for hurricane-preparedness, don’t you?

“Ms. Rubell said she and her husband, Donald, were traveling when the storm landed, but that her staff hunkered down in the Rubells’ home behind the gallery, which she referred to as a concrete bunker. “I said, ‘Listen, guys, there comes a point where your life is more important than any piece of art in the collection,’” Ms. Rubell said. “‘Stay if you think you’re going to stay safe, but don’t stay there to protect the art.’” Norman Braman, whose home on the east side of Biscayne is filled with an impressive collection, removed all of the paintings from the house’s first floor, confident that the outdoor sculpture would be resilient. “We did not expect the Richard Serra to move, or the de Kooning,” he said.”

Translation: I know you want to save the art, but don’t forget to stay alive. Also: Steel is heavy.

This Richard Serra sculpture is not going anywhere.  It’s too stubborn.

This Richard Serra sculpture is not going anywhere. It’s too stubborn.