Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Little Boxes

Yesterday I attended the 2010 Legislative Roundtable at Georgia Tech, organized jointly by the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Technology Association of Georgia. The purpose of the event was to bring together business leaders and state legislators with academics and others to discuss matters related to science and technology policy in Georgia.

After the opening plenary, there were four sessions, one each on energy, transportation and logistics, health IT, and education. I attended the sessions on energy and transportation, and was immediately struck by the same pattern I noticed at CNU 18 back in the spring: the world of policy and practice is divided up into lots of little boxes. What is of central importance in one box may not even be of peripheral concern in the box right next to it, even if there are obvious connections between the two boxes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary and the Fragility of Place

What follows is the abstract of a talk I will be giving at the University of Utah next month; it's a further development on one aspect of my first post on the topic. I welcome all comments and suggestions.

How do we secure what we value and meet our obligations when the places we inhabit are in the grip of inexorable and irreversible change?

Human beings pursue projects in the context of particular places, which afford particular arrangements of opportunity and constraint shaped by underlying natural, social, and technological dynamics. Ethics may be understood as a form of inquiry into the motives and consequences of human projects, with environmental ethics drawing attention in particular to the impact of human projects on the non-human inhabitants of our various places, and even on place itself.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Luckie Street

I've starting riding my bike as part of my regular commute to work.

For most of the past eight years, I have strung together three modes of transportation - foot, bus, and train - in various combinations. Sometimes I would walk to a bus stop, ride the bus to one of two train stations, take one train into Downtown Atlanta, change to another train to Midtown, then walk to my office at Georgia Tech.  Sometimes I would start by walking directly to the train, or sometimes I would end by riding a shuttle bus from Midtown onto campus, but then still have something of a walk to get to my office.

Years ago, I tried adding bicycle into the mix: ride to the station, take the bike on the train, change trains downtown, then ride from the train to my office. The thing is, the routes I followed are dominated by the short-but-steep hills that are typical of Atlanta, a fact pointed out to me this past summer by an employee of a local bike shop. Coming on to campus, I would ride - slowly, gasping - straight up Bobby Dodd Way, past the stadium. I came to think of it as Heartbreak Hill.

I also found I had to deal with elevators, which wasn't so bad at the two ends of the train commute, but could be a real problem when changing trains at Five Points during the morning rush.

After a couple of weeks of effort, I gave up and went back to walking to the bus stop.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hole in the Ground

This post is a little bit off-topic, but I suppose it has to do with normative questions that arise when a small group of people is forced by circumstance to inhabit a particular place.

I am thinking in particular of the 33 men trapped more than 2000 feet below ground in a Chilean copper mine, who have already survived for more than two weeks in what The New York Times this morning described as "a hot, stuffy chamber about 33 feet by 20 feet."  The effort now underway to get them out may take as long as four months, though some have held out hope for completing the rescue in less than one month.

However long it takes, there is a kind of existential horror in the miners' plight.  I thought immediately of Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, and so did at least one other person to whom I've spoken about the story.  Even if all 33 men remain healthy and well, the heat, the darkness, the accumulating filth, the frustration, the inescapable lack of privacy, will certainly start to take their toll within days.

Friday, May 21, 2010

CNU 18: The Big Green Box

By and large, to specialize in one (sub-)discipline or practice is to regard the concerns of all other disciplines and practices as existing in black boxes. The labels on those boxes may be invoked from time to time, but the contents of those boxes, the gritty little details that may be the obsessions of other disciplines, are simply unimportant.

At this Congress, there has been much talk about professional and disciplinary silos and the obstacles they pose to good and thoughtful policy, planning, and design. In fact, the overarching theme of the Congress - “Rx for Healthy Places” - signals concerted effort to more fully integrate urban planning with public health.

"Silo-busting" is all the rage.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

CNU 18: Gettin' Schooled

So, here I am at the 18th Congress for the New Urbanism, which has come this year to Atlanta.

Yesterday, before the Congress officially convened, I attended a session entitled New Urbanism 101, which is designed to give newcomers an orientation to the history and ideas of the movement and the organization.

I’ve been familiar with the ideas of new urbanism for at least a decade: I’ve read some of the main texts, seen talks and videos of talks by some of the movement’s leaders, and I’ve followed up with some investigation of subsequent debates.

I was expecting some of the same old song.  New urbanism seemed to me, with my outsider’s perspective, to have settled into a comfortable ideological groove, or perhaps just to have packaged itself as a kind of standardized product in search of market share.

I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary: Public Participation

In Diane Campbell-Hunt's book about the development of the Karori Sanctuary, I note a persistent duality in her portrayal of "the public" and its role in the project.  This is captured almost perfectly in the title of the fifth chapter: "Public Consultation and Public Relations."

I hasten to point out that "public participation" in some deeper and fuller sense is not really part of the discussion.

The chapter opens with the following claim (Campbell-Hunt 2002, p.53, emphasis added):
Public consultation is crucial because you must have support from your local community.
In what sense, must? Is this an instrumental requirement, a necessary condition, a mere means to the predetermined ends of the project? Or is it a normative requirement, an ought, a recognition of citizens' rights to make decisions about the future of their common environment?

Is the goal to manage (or even manipulate) public opinion so the Karori Sanctuary Trust can go ahead and do what they wanted to do in any case, or is it to engage the public in a process of will-formation through which the goals of the Trust might be amended in deference to the community?

In other words, is public consultation a matter of good strategy or of political legitimacy? Or is it a little of each?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ecotechnological Environment

Here's an intriguing idea from historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes, set out in his 2004 book, Human-Built World.

People in industrialized nations have too narrow an understanding of technology, writes Hughes.
We are satisfied to see it used mostly for consumer goods and military weaponry, not realizing that we are unconsciously and unthinkingly using technology to create a human-built physical environment. We do not take responsibility for the aesthetic characteristics and quality of life in this human-built world. In short, we do not understand the range of technology and our responsibility for it. (Hughes 2004, p.152).
In short, we are creating our own environment by means of technology but, because we do not understand ourselves as doing so, we do not take responsibility for the results.

What's especially noteworthy in Hughes' conception is that our environment is never just technological.
We also fail to take responsibility for the creation of an ecotechnological environment, which consists of intersecting and overlapping natural and human-built environments.  More ecologically sensitive and technologically empowered today, we should ask engineers, architects, and environmental scientists to negotiate with one another as they design and construct the ecotechnological environment. (Ibid.)
I have two comments on Hughes' notion.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mr. Sherlock Holmes Holds Forth on Safety in the Built Environment

I have had reason recently to think again about safety and the perception of safety in particular places.

At one point, very early in The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, I discuss some of the difficulties of ethical deliberation, especially when other people are involved.
Making decisions through critical ethical inquiry is difficult, to say the very least. People who come together to make a decision may find not only that they judge particular situations and actions differently in reference to different standards, but that the standards themselves are informed by very different views of what it means to be a human being and to live a good human life. This is plain to be seen in any divisive social issue, from abortion to immigration, when the two sides often seem as though they were living in different worlds. (p. 4).
While debates over the built environment are usually less heated than debates over these particular social issues, they can still have their roots in a basic divergence of perception and meaning.  This comes out clearly in perceptions of particular places, such that:
one person can look at a picture of an urban street and see a vibrant economic and cultural life, while another can look at the same picture and see only filth and the threat of being mugged or swindled; each might think the other is deluded. (Ibid.).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coal and Oil

As I write this, an oil slick is spreading in the Gulf of Mexico, following the April 20 explosion on an offshore oil rig that left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.  The rig sank, and oil is now leaking from the well at rate - reported just this morning - of 5,000 barrels a day.

On April 5, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia resulted in the deaths of 29 workers.

Both accidents involved the extraction of resources that make modern life possible.  The computer on which I type this is powered mainly by coal-fired generators, with a bit of hydroelectric and nuclear rounding things out, and I rode to work on a train likewise powered by largely by coal-based electricity.  To get to the train, I rode on a bus powered by diesel fuel and, later, I'll need to fuel up my car for a possible weekend road trip.  Those are only the most obvious connections between my daily life and the risks involved in resource extraction.

Both accidents are drawing scrutiny to the practices of corporations involved in resource extraction, and both are drawing scrutiny to government energy and worker safety policies.

But there the similarities between the two accidents end, or so I gather from media accounts. To be honest, I have not followed either story in close detail, but I've come away with an impression that the two accidents are being invested with very different sets of meanings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


April is the cruelest month, here in Decatur, Georgia, but not for the reasons posited by Eliot.

Spring settled in a few weeks ago, bringing fine, warm days with bright blue skies and the fresh green of new leaves.  Winter has already receded into memory, and the most oppressive heat of a Southern summer is yet a month or two off.

If my family lived elsewhere, we might have our windows open all the time to take in the crisp, blossom-scented springtime air.

But we don't live elsewhere. We live here, in Decatur, a block from a busy commuter road.  When we open the windows on even the finest of spring mornings, the air is laden with the sickly smell of car exhaust compounded, we think, with mold and a simple excess of greenery.

It makes the healthy to wrinkle their noses, and the sufferer of chronic asthma to gag and reach for the inhaler.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary: Introduction

The Karori Sanctuary is an ambitious restoration and conservation project in Wellington, New Zealand.  It is a 225ha (550 acre) reserve nestled amidst suburban development, just a few kilometers from the central business district. I visited the sanctuary twice while I was living in Wellington, earlier this year, as part of a study abroad program run by Georgia Tech.

View Larger Map

I say the Karori Sanctuary is ambitious, but "audacious" might be a better term. The stated goal of the sanctuary is to restore the Karori Valley to some approximation of what it would have been the day before humans arrived in New Zealand, some 800 years ago. That's about when the Maori (often referred to as tangata whenua, "people of the land") arrived by canoe from eastern Polynesia.

According to the Karori Sanctuary Trust, completion of the project will take 500 years.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Mind Made Manifest

I'm currently reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, a mixed bag of observations and reflections woven together with his experiences bicycling through cities around the world.  Some of the observations are astute, some less so, but it is not my purpose here to write a book review.

Riding in and around cities offers what Byrne calls his "panoramic window" on the world. He writes:
Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in.  Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. (Byrne 2009, 2)
He continues, a bit further on:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedom of Choice: Behavior and Action, part 2

The distinction raised in my last post comes out of a research project I've been pursuing for some years alongside my work in ethics of the built environment. That parallel project is more theoretical than practical, drawing from a range of sources in philosophy, biology, cognitive science, technology studies, and other fields to shed some light on the experience of being a moral agent, I hope revealing something of the character, scope and limits of agency.

This theoretical project has spilled over into my more practical project before, perhaps most notably in the final chapter of The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth (p.134), where I consider the limits of ethics in light of the problem of "impure agency" (following Walker 1993, p.241).  The two projects have also begun to intertwine in academic journal articles I've written, one of which is forthcoming in Ethics and the Environment, in which I ask, "Did Americans Choose Sprawl?"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Behavior and Action

I've been attending a conference in Atlanta called Emerging Issues Along Urban/Rural Interfaces 3.  Organized by the Auburn Center for Forest Sustainability with support from an office of the USDA Forest Service, among others, the conference brought together ecologists, foresters, social scientists, and others (including two philosophers) to explore various dimensions of environmental change at the advancing edges of metropolitan regions.

From the first day of the conference, I noted a curious duality in discussions of human conduct, both past and present conduct that has led to environmental change and future conduct many at the conference would like to see from people.  In short, conference participants would sometimes talk about action, sometimes about behavior,  and sometimes about both at the same time.

They are not at all the same thing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Maumee, Ohio

In the Preface of the book, I describe a series of aerial photographs that spurred my thinking about suburban environments.  For a variety of reasons I decided not to include those photographs in the book, but offer them here for your consideration.

These were sent to me by my cousin, Drew Sager, and show the same area of Maumee, Ohio at five different moments in its history.  The first is from 1938:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Green Metropolis

David Owen. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009. 357pp.

Owen's thesis is deceptively simple: New York City, especially Manhattan, is the best available model of a sustainable human life.  Because they fail to recognize this, Owen argues, environmentalists and green-minded consumers have been marching off in the wrong direction, bringing us all that much more quickly to the edge of environmental disaster. 

There are advantages to this kind of simplicity.  From this perspective, Owen offers a number of compelling and sharp-edged critiques of popular delusions about sustainability and environmental responsibility, including the anti-urban, back-to-the-land proclivities of modern environmentalism (18-21), the false hopes of solar power (239-245) and hydrogen (260-262) as sources of alternative energy, the local-food movement (300-305), hybrid cars (99), argon-filled windows (247-255), recycling (296-297), and the frenetic green consumerism embodied in such phenomena as "LEED brain" (230).