Friday, July 19, 2013

Urban fabric and noise: the art and science of being considerate

Our urban fabric is woven from mutual respect we have for one another. If not respect at least we understand there are conventions of self-restraint that we adopt in order not to impose on one another's space. The urban space is crowded so in general, these conventions are carefully observed. We try to be considerate. 

In the case of urban noise the boundaries are less established. What is the source of noise? How to control it from spilling into other peoples' space? Noise isn't something you can keep to yourself.  Here the urban fabric may falter. Recently the New York Times published a series on urban noise. The sources of noise are often far from the "recipients." In a word, hard or impossible to control. There's not much you can do about noise that is generated from a distance. For close neighbors, the only solution may be restraint and consideration. "Neighborliness." Is it too much to ask?

Here in Cambridge we have a dense urban fabric and in some cases, like in the big city, noise is hard to find and control. In other cases it's easy. We live in a small space with two other households immediately in front of us. On all sides there are lots more households. We have a small green space that we maintain as a lush and generous garden, somewhere we can cool off and enjoy the flowers, something everyone can enjoy even though it "belongs" to us. 

One neighbor's wall, unfortunately windowless, faces our open space, which we share with the two families in front. The outdated in-wall air conditioners spew their clatter whenever the temperatures warm up. Some days they're roaring at dawn, when it's cool, in the otherwise peaceful moments of the morning. It's a shame, because if we want to catch a breeze outside we also have to catch a few unwanted decibels of mechanical clatter. 

Living together in the city is an art and a science. It's an experiment in mutual constraint, an opportunity to develop respect, or at least consideration, for other people who live close by. A bit of a challenge as temperatures approach 100, but maybe worth a try. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cognitive Bargain

"A well-designed object or experience is a cognitive bargain with unusually high return-on-use." These words of John Maeda resonate with me, perhaps because I've been thinking about design most of my life. As luck would have it, or maybe because I'm aware of design, I feel like I've spent most of my time immersed in a world of designed things. As a botanist and gardener I'm shoulder-high in the wonders of plant form. As a cook I get to handle kitchen implements, throw pots around, and make seltzer from my wonderful "sodastream"--a cognitive bargain if ever there was one (thank you Ben and Molly!).

Somehow the built environment, the urban landscape, the local "lay-of-the-land" are always high on my radar, I guess because I'm always out there on my bike. In my neighborhood there's one place I keep going back to, the magnificent Northpoint development in East Cambridge. More important than the buildings, the position of Northpoint is its strongest asset. Steps away from the scruffy Lechemere T stop, on top of the great dynamic waterways of Boston, and spitting distance from the roar of bridges and highway, Northpoint sits like a gem in the setting of the city. 

Its planners tried, and to an extent succeeded, in bringing nature into this place, high berms with lawn and birch trees, weedy sun drenched prairies, and stretches of wetland, looking less artificial as the months and years pass. The other day I was over at Northpoint on a quiet hot morning and for the first time I saw the culverts they devised as part of the wetlands. Normally I suppose you wouldn't notice them. But these days, because I'm so busy writing grant proposals to get me back to Sri Lanka, where I want to study their ancient engineered irrigation systems, the culverts stood out. 

Nothing that super special about them I guess, but the designers dressed them with heavy stones, gave each one a bit of personality, and imbued the site with just that certain touch of design gravitas. Incidentally the culverts resemble the ancient massive stone anicuts, invented by the Sri Lankans about 1500 years before Europeans learned to make them. A long-lasting cognitive/ecological "bargain" that well befits John's description of good design. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wildland-Urban Interface

Earlier this week 19 firefighters were killed trying to protect the real estate of people who decided they could build McMansions in the wilderness. Boy am I mad. In today's Washington Post there was a column by a firefighter and geography professor who said, "no one should die to save a house." I agree with her. Why should anyone sacrifice to save a few houses that were selfishly, expensively, unsustainability plopped down in the wilderness?

Here in civilization we do things a little bit differently. We are working on solutions that combine quality, dense housing with urban/natural landscapes.  In the process we are rehabilitating huge tracts of land that were abused in the making of our cities. We are working to provide a just environment where everyone has access to resources like housing, nature, healthcare, and the rights.