bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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Is Suburbia Sustainable?

In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.  I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning.  It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees.  Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town.  I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station.  There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town.  I knew no one who used it.  It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere.  I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high.  My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed.  Not much has changed, except some additions to houses.  Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents.  I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school.  Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now.  They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around.  This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.

There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.  For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house.  This was the American dream.  It doesn’t apply as well as it used to.  More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence.  Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common.  Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need.  Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind.  Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers.  This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area.  That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.

Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars.  Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption.  Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas.  It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town.  Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult.  People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children.  But it’s something to think about.


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Sustainable Design and water conservation

I wanted to write one more post about water conservation and what I learned while I was in Europe.  As I was thinking about the article, I went to the library and got out a book that gave me even more ideas.  The book was Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide by David Bergman, which is a bit technical but very interesting.

There are some simple things we can do in our own homes to make them more eco-friendly.  I mentioned in my post about my parents’ house that they put in energy efficient lightbulbs.  Turning air conditioning units to a few degrees warmer and turning off lights help lower energy consumption as well.  There are also more complicated things we can do without rebuilding.  These include adding insulation (in my parents house their pipes freeze in the winter if they don’t leave the taps running which is a terrible waste) and putting in low flow toilets.  What I noticed in Europe was that almost all the toilets, public and private, had two flush buttons.  I was never one to go with “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”  because I couldn’t get over the gross factor.  I just didn’t want urine sitting there for any length of time.  But with a dual-flush system, you can minimize water usage for urine while not risking clogging the toilets all the time.  The other big difference in European bathrooms is the lack of stable shower heads.  Both of the bathrooms in the apartments I stayed in required me to hold the shower head.  It turns out I used a lot less water and got just as clean.

To get back to the book, there were two mentions of Europe in the book that I thought I would highlight.  I don’t know if you are familiar with Material Safety Data Sheets, but I have seen them a lot in theater.  They are published for all materials and contain all known hazardous ingredients and any other safety information.  In the U.S. apparently the hazard has to be recognized by the government (well-established with evidence) before it needs to be included.  Apparently in general Europe doesn’t wait for conclusive evidence and errs on the side of caution.  Practical for safety, but less practical for the bottom line.  The other mention of Europe was the Passive House movement, which apparently started as the Passivhaus movement in Germany.  The idea behind it is to build houses that don’t require as much energy rather than trying to using alternative energy sources.

The last month has made me think I should move to Europe.


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Recycling in Germany

This is my second post about my trip to Germany.  I went with my family and we rented an apartment.  It was wonderful to have our own kitchen (unlike in a hotel) and it meant that I felt more like part of the regular life of Germany.  This includes small things that they do to lesson their environmental impact.  Things I think the U.S., or at least Boston, could learn from.  On the very first day, my family ran across an example of this in the supermarket.  In grocery stores, nobody bags your items.  In fact, there are no bags except the flimsy plastic kind for produce.  Paper or plastic isn’t a question.  You better have your own bag, or of course you buy a reusable one.  This extends to other types of shopping.  In the U.S. when you buy something the cashier generally puts it right into a bag.  Not in Germany.  If it seems likely you need one, they ask.

There was also curbside pickup of compost, which does exist in some places in the U.S., but not where I live.  The recycling was also split up curbside into plastic, paper and glass.  I even saw glass bins that split up clear from colored glass.

recycling

I wanted to talk briefly about bicycling.  There were bikes everywhere and no one in the cities where helmets.  The only helmets I saw were on people on good road bikes going on obviously long rides in the country.  Part of it is must be that they are simply not afraid of being hit by cars.  This is clearly true in pedestrian zones (that mostly include bikes) and also the bike lane system is phenomenal.  In Austria, most of the bike lanes weren’t even part of the car lane.  They were more attached to the sidewalk.  Believe me when I saw the bike lanes (or lack thereof) and the drivers in Cambridge mean I’m always going to be wearing a helmet.  bike lane


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Energy Efficient Homes

One of the things I want to do with my blog is help the average person (if there is such a thing) know how to be more eco-friendly and energy efficient.  Not everyone wants to go out of their way, but there are still small things we can do.  There are also bigger things we can do, especially if we own a home.  I do not – I’m a renter with no control over the fact that my windows don’t always shut properly.  My parents do own a home.  They have recently decided to make some changes and I think they are worth sharing.

The first thing they did was put solar panels on their roof.  It was something they had thought about because of the established technology that gives clean, efficient energy.  However, they had found out that it cost $40,000 to put them on.  A friend of theirs got some help and put them on for half that, but it was still too much.  Then Vivint Solar came to their door with a proposal which they accepted.  Two of their friends who lived in the area (including an engineer who looked at the schematics) had already had the solar panel installed.  The basis for the deal is that Vivint Solar is ‘renting the roof’, and so there is no upfront cost.  My parents get a percentage of the electricity generate by the solar panels and the rest Vivint Solar sells to NStar (or whatever energy company who is the energy provider).  Their bill to Vivint Solar fluctuates based on the amount generated and the amount used but has been about $60-80.  Their electric bill used to be about $200/month.  This summer they have been paying nothing or a few dollars to NStar.  They expect to pay more in the winter, but it should still be about half of what they were paying before.  It seems like a good deal economically as well as environmentally.

Their next step is changing their heating and cooling system so that they are much less dependent on oil.  This proposal came from Next Step Living.  My parents knew nothing about this, but are interested in helping the environment and this proposal also came with no upfront costs.  Two of their friends also have this technology in their homes.  It is a Total Climate Control system made by Fujitsu that works with condensers outside of the house.  Each room gets a heating and cooling unit or a vent in the ceiling from a unit in the attic, each of which has an individual thermostat.  The oil system stays in place because the system doesn’t work when the temperature gets too cold (as in -5 degrees Fahrenheit).  Before it is installed an energy audit is required.  My parents had Next Step Living do it.  They were given a list of suggestions and free energy efficient lightbulbs.  They are only paying $500 of the cost of implementing the suggestions.  In terms of the money, Next Step Living works with Commerce Bank, NStar and MassSave, and my parents are securing a zero interest loan of about $23,000.  It will take them about 7 years to repay after which they will own the system and not have to pay.  It means that instead of paying $340/month for oil, they will pay whatever small amount they use when it gets really cold in the winter and $274/month to repay the loan for those 7 years.


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Paper or Plastic?

I think that everyone knows that to be environmentally conscious we should use reusable bags when we go to the grocery store.  I would like to say that this is what I do.  The truth is that most of the time I stop by the grocery store on the way home from somewhere else and didn’t put a reusable bag in my car.  That means that I am confronted with the question at the checkout: paper or plastic?  Today I chose paper.  And then I decided to do research.  It turns out that more energy goes into the making of and the recycling of paper bags, so plastic is the more energy efficient choice.  This was not the answer I was expecting to find.  There are negatives to plastic bags, including the well-known fact that the plastic almost never breaks down and can injure wildlife if it becomes litter.

Here are some sources:

A very concise view: HowStuffWorks

A long explanation from one of my favorite blogs: Treehugger

The New York Times weighs in: New Proposals Like Neither


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Paper Towels or Electric Hand Dryer?

I went to the gym yesterday and before working out I washed my hands.  Then I was faced with a dilemma.  It’s a dilemma that we all face whether we think about it or not.  How do I dry my hands?  The options at my gym are paper towel or air blade hand dryer.  At my house I use a towel that I throw in the wash every few weeks.  I feel good about the lack of energy and carbon footprint from that.  But a towel wasn’t an option this afternoon.  So I decided to do research.  Of course, it all depends.  It depends on the type of air dryer.  It depends on how long you take to dry your hands with an air dryer.  It depends on whether the paper towels were made from recycled paper, and whether the company replaces the trees they cut down.   But the prevailing wisdom seems to be that air dryers are in fact more green than paper towels.  And the better and newer the air dryer, the faster it dries your hands, the less energy it uses.  (Unfortunately, I also discovered that for those most concerned about the spread of bacteria, paper towels do a better job of preventing that.)

Here are some of my sources:

Slate has an answer here: How to Keep Your Paws Clean and Green

One of my favorite blogs has an answer too:  Treehugger

Here’s another answer:  The Straight Dope