Unraveling Urban Life and Space
In case you’ve somehow missed it, our public infrastructure is falling apart, especially in urban areas, especially in older parts of the country. You’ve seen the headlines, including this recent one from Philip Kennicott at the Washington Post, and some of you will have seen my previous post on Neglect as covert sculptor of cities.
If you missed the media coverage, you still can’t have missed the power outages, the crack in the sidewalk you stepped over today, or that monster pothole you couldn’t help but hit on the drive to work. We’re all thinking a little more about urban infrastructure and its discontents in recent days, because of the news of the drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, MIchigan. How could this happen in an American city in 2016? Aren’t we better than this? Isn’t it our birthright as Americans to have safe, potable running water in our homes? Well, 1)it did happen and is happening, 2) apparently not, and 3) I bet people in Flint thought that, too.
Water pipes are about as mundane as it gets - out of sight (literally, below ground), and for most of us who aren’t civil engineers, out of mind. We notice when it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work on the caliber of the Flint crisis, it’s news. But here’s bit of the news not to let slip by you in the (justified) acrimony over who should have done what when and didn’t: Flint isn’t alone. Those headlines above mean this is a problem many places, not just in GM’s hometown in the Wolverine state. Their pipes break; our pipes break. Their river’s polluted; our lake is. What’s the lead content of the pipes in your house? How about the pipes under your street?
That’s a trick question of sorts, because the location of pipes made of outdated material is not really random. Tell me how old your house is, and I can guess what your pipes are made out of, especially if you also tell me what state you live in and how old the other houses on your street are. Your house is in a subdivision built in the 1990s? Stop worrying, at least for now. Your house is in a 1920s streetcar suburb? Maybe you should worry. You rent an apartment in a converted house near downtown? Worry.
So if there are patterns in where the worrisome pipes show up, are there also patterns in who’s doing that worrying? If I’m a non-Hispanic white highly (over)educated professional person, as I am, which one of those houses is most likely to be mine? If I’m an African-American single mother working for minimum wage, which one of those houses is most likely to be mine? There’s clearly a relationship here, between income (and race, often collinear in the US) and neighborhood age and type, and between neighborhood age and type and condition of water pipes. Poorer neighborhoods, which are often non-white, suffer more problems with failing water systems. It’s not true all the time, but it’s true enough of the time in enough places to be worrying. And to be inequality.
On top of that, add this: where one infrastructure system is failing, others are likely failing nearby. Old pipes tend to run under old roads to old houses served by old power lines. Old sidewalks run by them, built long before ADA standards. Old standards for storm water management mean that the rainwater there runs into combined sewers and occasionally overflows, sending sewage into the river. A lot of this is about age - that things wear out over time, and we’ve done a poor job of replacing and maintaining systems like these over the past several decades, especially in urban neighborhoods beset by public and private disinvestment. Some of this could be about other factors that make systems wear out faster - less stable soil, perhaps, or a higher water table. Whatever the cause, there’s at least some evidence that these failures of different parts of infrastructure can occur simultaneously in certain neighborhoods, like potholes and water main breaks in Syracuse. Add to this other urban systems that are shaky at best in too many of our cities: schools, certainly. Public transportation or any kind of non-motorized transportation. Social services. Constructive relationships with police, sometimes. Ask yourself where these kinds of system failures happen, and the answer, frequently, is the same kind of neighborhood. That is a disproportionate burden on the people who live in those neighborhoods, and that is inequality.
An ugly feedback loop here is the role of household income in this, and how income level dictates your options. Individuals have the ability to make choices, for their own good and for the welfare of their families. But money gives you options: options to move to the suburbs, options to buy water filters and generators, options to get your water tested and take your kids to the doctor for preventative visits. The other side of this coin is that lack of money limits your options. So the concentration of infrastructure and other urban system failures in poorer neighborhoods concentrates the impacts of these failures onto those least able to withstand or avoid them.
If my logic is correct about how the most vulnerable among us are the ones bearing the heaviest burden, this is a dismal state of affairs. But it’s also the beginning of a remedy, or at least a powerful tool to detect hidden infrastructure failures before they balloon into Flint-sized catastrophes. If points of failure in urban systems tend to align within the same neighborhoods or areas, and these neighborhoods also tend to be those with the most vulnerable residents, these system failures and vulnerabilities could form a set of conditions that reliably occur together. If they reliably occur together, it follows that where one or two or maybe three kinds of system failure or vulnerabilities occur together, it’s likely that the other kinds of failure or vulnerabilities also occur there - even if we can’t readily see them or measure them. What we need is a way to test this out, and ultimately to detect where visible system failures align, as a watchlist for other system failures. The name of the game is predicting where the next water main break or drinking water crisis will occur *before* it occurs, and this idea - that neglect accumulates in certain urban spaces - could be the crystal ball to do exactly that.
The promise of design thinking for solving big problems outside design, plus some new ideas about neglect, urban systems, and cities like Flint. Coming soon to a blog post near you, but get it on campus first!
“[New York State’s] energy plan's goals for 2030 are a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector compared with 1990 levels, a 50 percent share of electric power from renewable sources and a 23 percent reduction in energy use by buildings.”
- from “Power projects fire up N.Y.'s 'Reforming the Energy Vision'” http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060030769
The need to address climate change and national security by transitioning to clean energy is central to current efforts at the international, national, and state levels. Our main project this semester engages with NYS’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative and energy community collaborators to identify opportunities to meet REV's goals within central Syracuse, developing a research-based framework for selection of appropriate sites for the implementation of these opportunities. Each student will then refine one of his/her concepts to a design development level, on a site selected using the framework.
Plans like REV are often composed of goals that are too large, too abstract, or too vague to direct individual projects, while the clean energy industry is dominated by technical detail, frequently at the scale of electrical circuits. In this project, we explore the middle ground, uniting broad goals with practicalities through urban design. In this era of great reluctance to invest in large public projects, tying small, implementable designs to overarching goals becomes an essential skill to enable change, one step at a time. In the process we will apply design thinking to one of the most urgent issues of our time.
How can design in urban environments capitalize on the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy to improve life for all residents?
This project will proceed in two phases: the development of a logic for selecting sites and application of that logic to the city of Syracuse, followed by designs for selected sites within the city.
Products for Phase I should:
Tu 3.1 Guest lecture in CoE 508: Micah Kotch, NYSERDA. Class discussion and directed group work at CoE.
Tu 3.8 1:00-2:00 Guest lecture in CoE 203: Richard Yancy (BEEx) (short class meeting)
6:00-7:00 “Disruption and Design Thinking” lecture by Susan, Slocum Auditorium
3.14/3.16 Spring Break – no class meetings.
Tu 3.29 1:00-2:00 Guest lecture in CoE 203: Aseem Inam (TRUlab) (short class meeting)
Th 4.1 No formal class meeting - no studio deadlines week.
Tu 4.5 NY Power Dialog: Digital sketchbook discussion of work in progress (details TBA)
Th 4.6 Upload pdf of sketchbook work to class folder
…to be continued on Part II brief…
Digital sketchbook representation of your work to date for discussion on 4.5. “Digital sketchbook” means:
Audience will be primarily professionals from other fields and students from outside Architecture.
Your digital sketchbook images must support discussion of your work-in-progress with this audience.
Digital sketchbook images must *also* be suitable for sharing via web or social media (eg: be able to stand alone with limited additional text narrative).
Copyright © 2016 Susan Dieterlen
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.