Friday, May 31, 2013

Lethality of Roundup 'Weedkiller' Extends Beyond Plants To Humans

A shocking new study finds that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, "...may be the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment," capable of contributing to a wide range of fatal human diseases.

A new report published in the journal Entropy links the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide known as glyphosate with a wide range of fatal diseases. Glyphosate is the world's most popular herbicide and is designed to kill all but genetically modified "Roundup Ready" plants, such as GM corn, soy, beet, cottonseed and canola. Over 180 million pounds of the chemical are now applied to US soils each year, and while agrichemical manufacturers and government regulators have considered it 'relatively safe,' an expanding body of biomedical research indicates that it may cause over 30 distinct adverse health effects in exposed populations at far lower concentrations than used in agricultural applications.

The new report, authored by Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Anthony Samsel, a retired science consultant from Arthur D. Little, Inc., brings to the forefront concerns voiced by an outspoken minority that Roundup and related glyphosate herbicide formulations are contributing to diseases as far-ranging as inflammatory bowel disease, anorexia, cystic fibrosis, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and infertility.

In fact, the authors propose that glyphosate, contrary to being essentially nontoxic, "...may be the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment." The researchers identified the inhibition and/or disruption of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes as a hitherto overlooked mechanism of toxicity associated with glyphosate exposure in mammals. CYP enzymes are essential for detoxifying xenobiotic chemicals from the body. Glyphosate therefore enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins.

The researchers also showed how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria (e.g. tryptophan), as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport, a critical biological system for cellular detoxification (e.g. transulfuration pathway which detoxifies metals). These effect, according to the researchers, can contribute to causing or worsening "...most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer's disease."

This new report may help to explain why over 30 adverse health effects associated with Roundup herbicide exposure have been identified in the peer-reviewed and published literature so far. The full report in PDF form can be obtained here. Please help us spread this information, as well as our Roundup Toxicity Research and GMO Research pages, by sharing them with other concerned individuals and groups.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes

Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, by Louise A. Mozingo, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2011. Hardback, 315 pages.
Frank Edgerton Martin

 An earlier version of this book review appeared in Landscape Architecture magazine in 2012.

 Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes explores the orgins of today’s corporate enclaves through three alluring Anglo-American landscape ideals: the “estate,” the “campus” and the “park.” In writing this new chapter in landscape history, Louise Mozingo, a professor in landscape architecture at Berkeley, offers fascinating insights into overlapping stories of technical research, the military-industrial complex, gender roles in the workplace, fear of the city during the 1960s, and fragmenting effect of the automobile.

 Landscape architects and planners should read this book for many reasons, not the least of which is that leaders of the profession—ranging from the Olmsted Brothers office to Peter Walker—played important roles in designing virtually every project discussed over six chapters. Suburban history is a relatively new field for research, but much has already been written on the rise of housing, manufacturing, and retail commerce outside the urban core. Mozingo tells the less known story of the rise of corporate workplaces outside traditional downtowns and in separation from the infrastructure of factories where many of today’s global corporations such as GE began. She argues that “pastoral capitalism” is a uniquely American invention that came into full force in the 1940s after years of suppressed investment in new building.

The Rise of Managerial Capitalism and the Corporate Campus

 One spark for this move to the countryside can be traced to the rise of managerial capitalism beginning in the 1920s. “Rather than conferring position based on ownership or nepotism,” Mozingo claims a the outset, “corporations awarded management authority to a meritocracy of salaried, professional managers.” Thus, talent attraction and retention mattered. Corporate leaders came to believe that with increasing traffic and pollution in core cities, white-collar workers, scientists, and executives might be happier in greener pastures. Yet there were deeper fears that drove leaders of such companies as General Foods and Connecticut General Life to the suburbs—including a desire to separate office workers from unionized locations, a sometimes not so subtle desire to exclude minorities from the mainline workforce, and even fear of nuclear attack focused on city cores.

 The corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park are three built responses that Mozingo investigates. The corporate campus was largely invented at the Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers in the 1930s and early 1940s, the project evoked a fairly traditional campus model of connecting buildings surrounding a central open space. In terms of sheer numbers of discoveries, we might consider Bell Labs one of the most historically significant corporate landscapes of the twentieth century. “By 1948,” Mozingo explains, “Bell Labs produced discoveries that sealed the interlinked reputations of its management, scientists, and site. Its scientists invented the transistor and the bit (the basic mathematical unit of electronic information) and fundamentally revolutionized electronic technology and, arguably, human existence.” Not bad for just a few years of operation.

 Pastoral Modernism: The Illusion of Aradia and Natural Systems

 In terms of corporate design audacity, the real leap into the future came to fruition in 1956 when General Motors opened its new Technical Center near Detroit to centralize numerous advanced operations on one campus. Eero Saarinen developed five complexes of buildings housing styling, engineering, process development and research along with the Technical Center’s administrative offices. Landscape architect Thomas Church sited four weeping willow islands in a 22-acre lake at the center of the campus. He also set out a restrained palette of linear bosques, rectangular lawns, and a forest of trees encircling the site.

 Mozingo provides a fine description of how the landscape complemented the buildings with contrapuntal vegetative patterns and reflective water. In one of her best passages, she writes that the “design result was cinematic, more art direction than urban design, exhibiting a supremely dynamic sense of space. In the huge site, dramatic vistas were oblique and did not oriented to culminating axial viewpoints.” This was a new kind of campus meant to be seen from the window of a car (preferably a GM car), a new kind of research city with soaring fountains and a metallic exhibit pavilion dome serving, perhaps, as a new kind of temple. 

 From here, the story moves to the great “corporate estates” of the Connecticut General Life campus designed by SOM and the later John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois—a collaboration of Saarinen and Hideo Sasaki. Spanning a gentle ravine, the Deere headquarters completely hides surface parking and makes the landscape itself the star of the experience. Initially, Deere’s leaders feared that their farmer customers would see the new setting as overly opulent. But, as visitorship to the model exhibit center grew, it was obvious that Saarinen’s pioneering use of Cor-Ten steel in the buildings and Sasaki’s integration of building and site sent the perfect message: Deere is a growing, high-tech international company that has not forgotten its grounding in midwestern agriculture.

 Revisiting the Googleplex

Corporate office parks grew out of early experiments by Stanford and other universities to develop sites for research partnerships near their campuses. By the 1970s, Atlanta was ringed by 39 of them and, as with many regions, they were the sites of the greatest growth in white-collar employment. Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, began in an office park that it ultimately took over. The mighty Google’s “Googleplex” is also set in an office park in Mountain Lake California.

 Life and death come fast to today’s technology companies; and many new facilities are designed with “exit strategies” in mind. The oldest of Google’s buildings date to 1997 when they were built as research and development facilities for the late SGI (Silicon Graphics Incorporated). As I read this background and viewed the Terraserver photo in chapter 6, a flash of recognition struck me. I visited this former SGI campus with its sharp angled plazas designed by SWA shortly after it opened order to write a feature story for Landscape Architecture magazine. SGI was thriving then and “Google” was not even a popular word, let alone a verb.

 Mozingo’s lasting message is that even as corporations are merging, vanishing, and evolving ever more quickly, our paradigms for corporate site plans are largely unchanged over the last sixty years. From Sprint near Kansas City to Pepsico in Purchase, New York, both of which I have also covered for Landscape Architecture, buildings are sited around courts, ringed by parking, and set off from the thin suburban growth by open lawns and berms of trees.
Corporate Solipsism

 Most headquarters today are entirely closed to the public yet provide a tranquilizing sense of peace for their employees even as they sometimes manage environmentally-destructive operations around the world. Almost fully-reliant on car commuting and set in campuses the size of small colleges, they are also highly resource-consumptive. Mozingo believes that we have descended from the pastoral landscapes for community betterment proposed by Olmsted to a new kind of quiet illusion that she calls “corporate solipsism.” She argues that corporations might “ask themselves whether an unquestioned nineteen-century taste for retreat and verdant isolation applied to the workplace is the way forward on a planet of perilously compromised resources.”

 But, this sounds more like a landscape architect’s sensible plea for reason than one that makes bottom-line sense to stockholders. Pastoral Capitalism could be much more forceful in its conclusions and provocations. The forces of secrecy and isolation that drive corporations behind green lawns are also those that inflamed the Occupy Wall Street movement. Lack of transparency and glaring social inequity cannot be concealed forever behind a nice fa├žade, even if it is LEED certified.

 It has always been fairly easy to disparage suburban workplaces as “unsustainable” or “homogenous.” But a real critique can only happen when we begin to understand the interwoven stories of business and design innovation that created the pastoral capitalism we know today. Though far from complete, this book marks a beginning of such historic understanding.



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Science for Designers: The Meaning of Complexity

By Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros

Today’s designers seem to love using new ideas coming from science. They embrace them as analogies, metaphors, and in a few cases, tools to generate startling new designs. (Computer algorithms and spline shapes are a good recent example of the latter.) But metaphors about the complexity of the city and its adaptive structures are not the same thing as the actual complexity of the city. The trouble is, this confusion can produce disastrous results. It can even contribute to the slow collapse of an entire civilization. We might think that the difference between metaphor and reality is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, such confusion pervades the design world today, and spreads from there into the general culture. It plays a key role in the delusional expectation that metaphors will create reality.

Psychiatrists speak of this as an actual disorder known as “magical thinking”: if our symbols are good enough, then reality will follow. In the hands of designers, this is very dangerous stuff. We see it at work in the failed iconic buildings that were sure to create economic development, or urban vitality, or greater quality of life purely because of a futuristic image. We see it also in the many “tokenistic” sustainability features (wind turbines, etc.) of other iconic new buildings whose actual performance in post-evaluation studies is woefully poor. From the perspective of design methodology, this phenomenon is an interesting and important design problem in its own right. We recognize it as a fundamental weakness of human thought, and need to adjust our design methodologies accordingly. In this process, the methodologies and insights of a humane science, applied by literate designers, can be invaluable.

Distinguishing physical from metaphorical complexity clarifies a presently confused and unsustainable situation, and can help us out of it (the ultimate aim of any science, and any philosophy). The topics of urbanism, architecture, product design, environmental design, sustainability, and complexity in science are all tightly interrelated. Humans “design” with much the same aim toward which nature “designs” — both aim to increase the complexity of a system so that it works “better”. “Better” in this sense means more stable, more diverse, and more capable of maintaining an organized state — like the health of an organism. We learn from the structures and processes by which nature designs, so that we can also create and sustain these more organized states. Some scientists shy away from the notion that nature “aims” for anything. But this begs the question: are we not part of nature, and do we not “aim” for something in our own designs, and in the other parts of our life (e.g. seeking our own health and wellbeing)? Then we must accept “aim” as a characteristic of at least some part of nature. Otherwise, we severely hobble the usefulness of the scientific tradition as a relevant tool for designers. (Indeed, we would set ourselves on a very dangerous philosophical path: in effect, rendering the very idea of intelligence — human or otherwise — as meaningless!)

Traditional city fabric evolved over generations as an extension of our own biology, thus representing an application of a kind of “collective intelligence” due to the system, not of any individual. Traditional Islamic urbanism, by Mustapha Ben Hamouche.

Let’s start instead from the premise that we are here, and need to make sense of our own situation and determine our aims. Then we can begin to ask, given this intentionality, what is the most intelligent approach we can take? How can we learn from the intelligence — the “intentionality” in that sense — of natural systems? This is now an urgent question because much of human production — especially since modern industrialization enabled us to do things with really big footprints — is intentional in the wrong sense. Instead of building up complex systems that work better within the natural systems that support them, they acquire a fragile, non-resilient complexity that works against nature. In this way, human systems of life, movement, production, and economies depend on ever more energy consumption just to keep running at the same pace, setting us up for an inevitable catastrophic scenario. At the same time, the design of our environment seems to be driven not so much by any intelligent intentionality as by images that are stubbornly, even religiously, adhered to, even as mounting evidence shows that those typologies are inappropriate for complex adaptive systems. How can we fix this extremely precarious situation?

What’s required is a paradigm shift in the way we perceive and act upon the systems that make our world function. Those systems are complex and adaptive — that is, their elements are mutually co-adapting and co-evolving, thereby forming an exceedingly complex pattern. Even so, such a pattern can be understood scientifically, and exploited by designers, following a new understanding of the phenomenon of complexity. This effort is part of the burgeoning, but historically recent, discipline of “complexity science” — the set of astonishing findings into topics like fractals, strange attractors, emergence, and algorithmic patterns. What these fields of investigation all have in common is the curious property of systems when a lot of elements are interacting. Complex systems take on entirely new characteristics that are very different from those with only a few elements — and usually impossible to predict. They have properties that are remarkably similar to living systems (which is no coincidence). For environmental designers and planners, knowing this phenomenon of “emergence” is the key to getting things right.

Cities, for example, are certainly complex adaptive systems, and so are most other kinds of human environments. If we are trying to solve the problems of cities, then we need to know the kind of problem we are dealing with. If we treat this as a search for simplicity, or perhaps, an artistic challenge of visual design, when it is really a problem of organized complexity obeying its own rules of evolutionary intelligence, then we are likely to make a mess of things. And yet, that is exactly what architects and planners have done in the past several decades. Complexity science was at its dawn when, in the middle 20th Century, the adaptive living fabric of our cities was gutted and replaced by a much more elementary, mechanical model of design. The result is a simplistic machine, intentionally far from natural complexity. This drastically reductive process was draped with more complex poetic analogies, which convinced society to implement crude models that substituted for a richly complex reality. Since then, the scientific discipline has advanced farther than anyone hoped, and has begun to tease out formerly inscrutable secrets of nature — the marvels of evolution, the behavior of Earth systems, even the workings of genetic processes. For geographers and planners, the phenomena of cities became more comprehensible too.

Self-generated city — disrespected by those designers who wish to impose their own will on cities, and by governments who want total control — yet representing a natural phenomenon as basic as life itself. Dharavi, India, by YGLvoices.

Many designers are still unaware of these developments. For them, design is essentially about conveying expressive meaning, symbolism, and metaphor. Others pretend to keep up with the times but don’t bother with generating adaptive structural complexity — they continue to use fashionable metaphors to build non-adaptive, dysfunctional architectural and urban forms. This is a distorted artistic heritage of design, not at all about understanding systems and their emergent properties, which has come to a frontal collision with its scientific heritage. Artists at some point became specialized cogs in the same commodified industrial machine. Their job was now to sprinkle “meaning” (metaphor, analogy, expressive character) onto top-down industrial structures, and give them an acceptable, or better yet marketably desirable, aesthetic character. Things really took off when this project came to be associated with the allure of fine art. You may want to protest here, and ask: isn’t it our job to symbolize the scientific spirit of our age, and the new cosmological view of nature? Yes, but not as a mere sugar coating, a razzle-dazzle product “theming” — the meaning should be embodied in the objectives we achieve with our designs, and the way they accommodate and improve human life.

The best architecture does not confuse these two aspects of life and art in a mutually destructive manner, but uses them to serve one another. When we paste a metaphoric “theme” over the design, after a few years, it begins to look ridiculous. That’s because the thing on the outside has no inherent relation to the thing on the inside — it’s little more than a veneer. And it works rather poorly. So the once-futuristic cases for old personal computers, the expression of another age’s romance with technology, now look absurd. The futuristic skins of famous art museums and concert halls are already stale and dated, so that now the only remaining customers for such a style are third-world countries playing catch up with Western architectural fashions. If, instead, we let the expression of the object grow from its complex relationship to its environment, and to the job it has to do for human beings, something remarkable happens: it takes on a kind of “classic” quality. The design seems almost to have “grown” that way, or to be inevitable — and then we say: “it’s a classic”. It is timeless. It will be valued by future generations just as we value (or ought to value) the greatest design achievements of previous generations. Alas, most design firms today don’t work towards this goal at all. Instead, they seek to attract attention through novelty and “theming”. They may give lip service to the approaches we discuss here, but without understanding the deeper methodological change those require. Though they are experts at glossy marketing in competing for major new projects and the practice of smooth talking to impress clients, they continue to do business as usual. A good designer is responsible for both implementation and adaptation. Do not confuse “intentionality” in a system changing itself so as to adapt — a sign of intelligence — with the intentions of a designer who ignores adaptation. The latter is a sign of unintelligent action. We see this over and over in products based strictly upon visual images. Dysfunctional satellite cities and suburbs were built in this manner.

Design “intentionality” increases complexity so as to make the system work in the best way possible, not only for its explicit function, but especially as it is embedded both within its context and its environment. The job weaves together many things — like a city does — thus the design has to embrace and encourage connectivity within diversity. The chore of design, in such a complex environment, is not to impose an overly simple order from above, but to help to orchestrate the diversity, using its own latent dynamics, into a more spontaneous kind of patterned order. When it succeeds, we recognize it as a beloved city that nourishes us in more ways than one. A model of organized complexity proposed by one of us in 1997 (and reprinted as Chapter 5 of our book A Theory of Architecture) finds a striking parallel in the “Integrated Information Model for Consciousness” later developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. Its essence is that complex systems evolve an integrated connectivity among their components so their information output is high, yet coherent. This coherence is often mistaken for simplicity, and this is the source of much of the confusion we address in this essay.

Human life on earth is creating signs of informational intelligence: an earth that is conscious because it is intimately interconnected. We can save civilization from self-destruction by understanding the underlying mechanisms. Egypt at night, by NASA.

Note that “complexity” is very different from “complicatedness”. Some postmodernist urbanists seem eager to conflate these two very different ideas. You don’t get a system when you pile up disjointed fragments, because there is no integration. Instead, a complex system arises through a process working to organize different and often conflicting elements in some way, in spite of their differences. Intentionality in building complexity sheds all “complicatedness” that is irrelevant and unconnected, just like in natural systems. It does not “streamline” processes to a single aim, but simply evolves the system to include those multiple connected cycles, however large or small, that interact in some essential way. That process is often a subtle dynamic, such as a set of apparently simple adaptive rules that each element follows. Why do people walking through a park all move along one line and not others? Why does one store get lots of pedestrian customers and another, just as good, fail? We can discover and document the socio-geometric patterns that people are following, as they make the simple human calculations that we all do: head in the direction of your destination, avoid obstructions, stop only if you see something interesting, and so on.

If we understand these patterns, we can place our pavement more effectively, or place our store in a more successful location. Other patterns of complex organization can be documented and put to work for us in our designs. The human inhabitants of even the most diverse city are, and remain, part of a complex emergent whole. Their complex behaviors and interactions must not be reduced for the city to work like some crude yet giant machine, for that would (and does) severely damage living systems. So, too, the elements of an ecosystem have a history, as do other natural systems. This is the nature of complexity — it has an inherent wholeness or whole-systems quality to it. The elements we are considering possess what the physicist David Bohm called an “implicate order” — they have a much deeper relationship within a whole system that predates our observation. We face a perceptual problem, however. The reason most people think of complexity as being more like “complicatedness” — a messy collection of unrelated parts — is that we are very good at seeing particular fragments of the world.

This view has its evolutionary benefits — we can see just a snapshot of what happens at a certain point and at a particular time, and omit all the interactions that brought those parts together in the first place. While this ability gave early humans an advantage in quick decision-making, it handicaps us when confronting the complex systems that we are now capable of building. We tend to forget that this way of looking at the world and its complex interactions is merely an abstraction, helpful for some purposes, but not for design. This is because in design, we are working with complex, implicate-ordered systems. Earth and life systems manifest design intentionality (in the sense of organizing their complexity) and intrinsic intelligence. When we treat these systems as problems of simplicity, we fail to understand the actual complex systems that we are creating, disturbing, and often destroying — a neighborhood, a city, an ecology, a human economy, or a living planet. And so, today, we find ourselves in a great deal of trouble.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fungi May Be Able to Replace Plastics

Fungi have fantastic capabilities and can be grown, under certain circumstances, in almost any shape and be totally biodegradable. And, if this weren’t enough, they might have the potential to replace plastics one day. (Credit: Union College)

Fungi, with the exception of shitake and certain other mushrooms, tend to be something we associate with moldy bread or dank-smelling mildew. But they really deserve more respect. Fungi have fantastic capabilities and can be grown, under certain circumstances, in almost any shape and be totally biodegradable. And, if this weren't enough, they might have the potential to replace plastics one day. The secret is in the mycelia.
Union College Biology Professor Steve Horton likens this mostly underground portion of fungi (the mushrooms that pop up are the reproductive structures) to a tiny biological chain of tubular cells.
"It's this linked chain of cells that's able to communicate with the outside world, to sense what's there in terms of food and light and moisture," he said. "Mycelia can take in nutrients from available organic materials like wood and use them as food, and the fungus is able to grow as a result."
"When you think of fungi and their mycelia, their function -- ecologically -- is really vital in degrading and breaking things down," Horton added. "Without fungi, and bacteria, we'd be I don't know how many meters deep in waste, both plant matter and animal tissue."
Looking something like extremely delicate, white dental floss, mycelia grow in, through and around just about any organic substrate. Whether it's leaves or mulch, mycelia digest these natural materials and can also bind everything together in a cohesive mat. And these mats can be grown in molds, such as those that might make a packing carton.
Ecovative Design, in Green Island, N.Y., is harnessing this particular mycological power and is being helped by Horton, and another Union researcher, Ronald Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Ecovative uses several species of fungi to manufacture environmentally-friendly products. The process starts with farming byproducts, like cotton gin waste; seed hulls from rice, buckwheat and oats; hemp or other plant materials. These are sterilized, mixed with nutrients and chilled. Then the mycelia spawn are added and are so good at proliferating that every cubic inch of material soon contains millions of tiny fungal fibers.
This compact matrix is then grown in a mold the shape of whatever item Ecovative is making. Once the desired texture, rigidity and other characteristics of the product are achieved, it's popped from its mold and heated and dried to kill the mycelia and stop its growth.
The all-natural products, the creation of which can take less than 5 days, have no allergy concerns and are completely non-toxic. More impressive is the fact that they're also impervious to fire (to a point), and just as water resistant as Styrofoam, but they won't sit around taking up space in a landfill. They are also more UV-stable than foam since they are not petrochemical-based, and won't emit volatile organic compounds. When exposed to the right microbes, they will break down in 180 days in any landfill or backyard.
Mycelium is comparatively inexpensive too as it can grow on farm waste that can't be fed to animals or burned for fuel. Better yet, the fungi can be propagated without sunlight or much human oversight in simple trays at room temperature -- no immense greenhouses with costly temperature-control systems needed. It also means a smaller carbon footprint and Ecovative is hoping to the point where they can displace all plastics and foams in the market.
"We manipulate one strain in various ways to see if we can make versions of the fungus to suit certain applications the company has in mind," Horton said. "For example, it might be helpful if Ecovative has certain versions that grow faster."
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ronald Bucinell and his students also offer critical support to Ecovative's research and development pipeline. Bucinell's particular expertise is in experimental mechanics and the mechanics of reinforced materials and is tasked with seeing how strong sample material is under different parameters. This includes determining whether mycelia bind better to one plant material or another; and does the way it's treated -- with heat or something else -- make it stronger or weaker.
"This is a brand new field in materials, and collaboration allows us to learn a lot, and quickly," McIntyre continued. "That's really important when you're trying to replace plastics."

Monday, May 13, 2013

U.S. Urban Trees Store Carbon, Provide Billions in Economic Value

From New York City's Central Park to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, America's urban forests store an estimated 708 million tons of carbon, an environmental service with an estimated value of $50 billion, according to a recent U.S. Forest Service study.
Annual net carbon uptake by these trees is estimated at 21 million tons and $1.5 billion in economic benefit.
In the study published recently in the journal Environmental Pollution, Dave Nowak, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station, and his colleagues used urban tree field data from 28 cities and six states and national tree cover data to estimate total carbon storage in the nation's urban areas.
"With expanding urbanization, city trees and forests are becoming increasingly important to sustain the health and well-being of our environment and our communities," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

"Carbon storage is just one of the many benefits provided by the hardest working trees in America. I hope this study will encourage people to look at their neighborhood trees a little differently, and start thinking about ways they can help care for their own urban forests."

Tens of thousands of people volunteered to plant and care for trees for Earth Day and Arbor Day this year, but there are opportunities all year long. To learn about volunteer opportunities near your home, visit the Arbor Day Foundation. The Forest Service partners with organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation and participates in programs like Tree City USA to recognize and inspire cities in their efforts to improve their urban forests. Additionally the Forest Service is active in more than 7,000 communities across the U.S., helping them to better plan and manage their urban forests.

Nationally, carbon storage by trees in forestlands was estimated at 22.3 billion tons in a 2008 Forest Service study; additional carbon storage by urban trees bumps that to an estimated 22.7 billion tons. Carbon storage and sequestration rates vary among states based on the amount of urban tree cover and growing conditions. States in forested regions typically have the highest percentage of urban tree cover. States with the greatest amount of carbon stored by trees in urban areas are Texas (49.8 million tons), Florida (47.3 million tons), Georgia (42.4 million tons), Massachusetts (39.6 million tons) and North Carolina (37.5 million tons).

The total amount of carbon stored and sequestered in urban areas could increase in the future as urban land expands. Urban areas in the continental U.S. increased from 2.5 percent of land area in 1990 to 3.1 percent in 2000, an increase equivalent to the area of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. If that growth pattern continues, U.S. urban land could expand by an area greater than the state of Montana by 2050.
The study is not the first to estimate carbon storage and sequestration by U.S. urban forests, however it provides more refined statistical analyses for national carbon estimates that can be used to assess the actual and potential role of urban forests in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

More urbanization does not necessarily translate to more urban trees. Last year, Nowak and Eric Greenfield, a forester with the Northern Research Station and another study co-author, found that urban tree cover is declining nationwide at a rate of about 20,000 acres per year, or 4 million trees per year.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Will bioluminescent trees replace streetlights?

Bioluminescent Trees Courtesy Alberto T. Estevez

Imagine taking a midnight stroll, your route lit by row upon row of trees glowing a ghostly blue. If work by a team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge pans out, bioluminescent trees could one day be giving our streets this dreamlike look. The students have taken the first step on this road by developing genetic tools that allow bioluminescence traits to be easily transferred into an organism.
Nature is full of glow-in-the-dark critters, but their shine is feeble - far too weak to read by, for example. To boost this light, the team, who were participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), modified genetic material from fireflies and the luminescent marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to boost the production and activity of light-yielding enzymes. They then made further modifications to create genetic components or "BioBricks" that can be inserted into a genome.
The team managed to produce a range of colours by putting these genes into the Escherichia coli bacterium. They found that a volume of bacterial culture about the size of a regular wine bottle gave off enough light to read by.
"We didn't end up making bioluminescent trees, which was the inspiration for the project," says team member Theo Sanderson, who is studying genetics. "But we decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively." The team presented its findings earlier this month at the iGEM Jamboree, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One major obstacle to harnessing bioluminescence is that the process relies on a class of compounds called luciferins. They emit light and are then converted into oxyluciferin, which cannot produce light. To counter this, the Cambridge team found a way to engineer BioBricks that would enable organisms to produce enzymes to recycle oxyluciferin.
Bioluminescent plants could appeal especially to people whose homes are not wired up to the electricity grid. These living lights have no breakable parts, and new lights can be made simply by growing more of them. The team calculates that for a bioluminescent tree to compete with a street light, only 0.02 per cent of the energy absorbed for photosynthesis would need to be diverted into light production.
So are glowing trees coming soon to a street near you? It's unlikely, says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a designer and artist who advised the Cambridge team. "We already have light bulbs," she says. "We're not going to spend our money and time engineering a replacement for something that works very well."
However, she adds that "bio-light" has a distinctive allure. "There's something much more visceral about a living light. If you have to feed the light and look after it, then it becomes more precious."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What’s Trending in Sports Turf Irrigation: Q&A with Jeff Bruce

Issue Date: May ST 2013, Posted On: 4/29/2013
 If you believe irrigation consultants just know sprinkler systems, you’re way off the mark. The American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC) has spent the past 40-plus years training and supporting irrigation professionals in the industry in emerging water codes and regulations, water resource development and quality, turf management, soil science, chemistry, agronomy, horticulture, business development, marketing—you get the idea.

We caught up with Jeff Bruce, ASIC immediate past president, and principal of Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company (JLB) in North Kansas City, MO. Bruce founded JLB in 1986, and has rocketed to the top of the sports turf industry since, completing about 600 professional and NCAA sports complexes in the past 10 years alone, including Alex Box Baseball Stadium at LSU, Carolina Panthers Stadium, University of Kentucky Commonwealth Stadium, and Notre Dame Athletic Complex. We asked Bruce what’s trending in sports turf irrigation. His vision of the future might surprise you—it did us.
ASIC: Tell me about the role of an irrigation consultant in overall design and management of sports fields. How has that evolved over the past decade?

JLB: Our perspective is probably a little different because we don’t just consider the playing field; we profile the entire sports complex as an integrated system. These enterprises should be completely interconnected from the bottom up; drainage, catchment, soil profile, irrigation, turf type, and so forth. Then we consider usage, safety, longevity, resilience, budget, and maintenance and management needs and capabilities. Then we look at the surrounding grounds, the plant material, the water sources, the practice facilities, the parking facilities. It’s all interrelated.
Remember that for every stadium venue there are several practice fields that are used much more intensively. Typically there are more business opportunities for those than the stadiums so we like to tie them all together.

This has evolved into a business model for us that requires a lot of specialty expertise. I’m not sure anyone else does it, but clients like managing an entire project through a single consultant.
Is it a good representation of an irrigation consultant’s role? Maybe down the road. As we see more slippage of the market—more design-build and other solutions that don’t involve just irrigation—the irrigation consultant’s role might have to expand significantly into more than effectively developing and managing water resources.

ASIC:  Any new design or business trends in athletic fields that appear to be emerging?
JLB: A couple of things. We’ve seen a shift from high-performance turf and irrigation systems to more modest projects, mostly due to restrictive budgets in this slower economy. With the popularity of artificial turf, our primary business has fallen off a bit.

Artificial turf became pretty popular in the professional ranks, and now is becoming more popular at the high school and park & rec level. More recently, however, we’re seeing an inkling of a movement back to real grass. I think it’s related to the current generation of artificial turf products. There’s really not much history or background on the performance of these newer products, and decision-makers really have to evaluate claims by manufacturers with no ability to validate them.
We’re seeing quite a few second surface replacements in fields, about every 8-10 years. Because the artificial turf safety issue is still up for debate, and certain artificial fields promote higher injury incidents, there’s a prevailing feeling that artificial turf is okay, but grass is re-emerging as the preferred surface.

There’s also been a movement to large pay-for-play facilities, like big joint county-city projects of 15-20 soccer fields where fees are charged for use. We’re starting to see the higher end of those facilities coming back to turf, as well.
So those are trends we’re experiencing. What’s to come? I absolutely believe there will be intensive new regulations in water sourcing very soon. I further expect this trend to be a great opportunity for the irrigation and sports turf industries to be a huge part of an integrated green infrastructure paradigm.

When we look toward the development of unknown irrigation technology, we see stadiums and facilities using their fields as water harvesting and water polishing enterprises, so stadium and grounds rainwater, storm water and wastewater will be collected below the sports fields, then polished in a system and reused in the facility. We’ve been looking at this for awhile.
The challenge sports turf managers have is that they’re in control of very little. Few get to decide the field or facilities they have to work with. They have to become empowered to be in position to make a difference. They certainly have the knowledge and aspirations.

These things are coming, and sports turf managers should position themselves for more control over their professional destiny.

ASIC: What about water sources? How has that evolved over the last decade? Should we be moving away from using potable water for irrigation?

JLB: Clearly, water is being subsidized; its cost still is nowhere near the cost of supplying it. There’s only one way to generate enough water for the population. Higher water rates are coming, and we’ll see dramatic increases in cost.
There remains a myopic assumption in the industry that turf managers always will have the water they’ll need. But increasingly we’re seeing big park & rec facilities that are spending a lot of money on water starting to explore developing and using alternative sources.

The high-end collegiate and professional venues don’t really think much about the cost of water; they use potable water almost exclusively. It’s cheap. But they’re starting to have storm water regulation issues, so we’re designing drainage in the fields as storage and detention basins to meet storm water requirements. There’s not a big leap of faith to move from storm water detention to harvesting water for reuse.
In the future, a prominent part of any irrigation system is going to be subsurface cisterns to secure water for irrigation, and filtration systems to render that water usable. We’ll be off the municipal water and sewer systems; off the grid entirely. I think the Green Industry is starting to understand that, as green codes continue to trend toward net-zero water. Unless the industry gets ahead of this, we’ll be walking the plank and the plank will be cutoff. We need to get off the public systems and intercept water before it gets offsite.

ASIC: What irrigation system devices most determine performance and durability in sports venues?
JLB: Sports facilities definitely offer a different perspective. We have to ensure the safety of the athletes using the facility. That absolutely affects our irrigation equipment choices.

One of the sports turf industry’s biggest challenges is that irrigation systems are falling apart because to keep costs down at the design-installation phases, piping is being undersized resulting in over-pressurized systems. We get it—irrigation is judged by upfront costs; not longer-term costs. But by small-sizing the piping, a system’s life expectancy can be cut by as much as half, and certainly opportunities for efficient water use go down.
These systems lose a lot water and turf when they fail, plus too much pressure simply deteriorates efficiency. So we’re balancing two things: throwing water a long way to keep irrigation equipment off the field, which requires higher pressures; but keeping operating pressures as low as possible to minimize physical wear on equipment. We specify larger pipe and head sizes so velocities are reduced, and wear and tear are minimized. That’s one key to extending the irrigation system’s life. It absolutely requires some salesmanship.

Another component for consideration, particularly in sports fields, is controller systems. They’re almost too sophisticated. Oftentimes the features the average controller provides are way overdone.
We like to keep it simple. Today’s groundskeepers need more diagnostic tools than features. For example, moisture content is incredibly valuable information. There’s an opportunity for turf managers to employ more moisture sensing technology in their management toolbox. Fixed or portable, they provide a quantitative measure of soil moisture content for more effective water management.

ASIC: What are your best design components, from irrigation control systems to sprinkler heads to piping and quick-couplers to pressure regulation to soil prep?
JLB: We find a full range of equipment in manufacturers’ catalogues to solve most any specific problem. If you have high pressure, then pressure regulation is important at every stage, from mains to laterals. Using pressure gauges helps you identify spikes and better understand your system.

Isolation valves reign king. Although considered a luxury by some, the ability to isolate sections of a loop system in the event of a breach saves time, turf and equipment. Strategically placed isolation valves can be a manager’s best friend in a crisis. It’s important.
And then there are the smaller details, like accessing quick couplers for spot watering or syringing; or using quality swing joints instead of funny pipe. Not every solution is a big, impressive piece of equipment. High-performance systems should include all arrows in your quill to maintain a performance-tuned operation. Certainly stainless steel risers are important on sand-based facilities.

Use the irrigation manufacturers’ catalogue for distinct benefits that address system or site idiosyncrasies. There truly is a piece of equipment for every potential problem.
When you look at big sports complexes, the upfront cost of irrigation equipment is really pretty small compared to the cost of maintaining the fields themselves. It seems short-sighted to save $100 on a cheaper controller, but pay someone $25 an hour to adjust the runtimes. You might save that hundred bucks up front, but shell out $30,000 over a 20-year period. We need to be more sophisticated in our cost evaluations.

ASIC: Do you work off a template you’ve developed over the years or is every ball field project so unique that you start from scratch?
JLB: For years we would design irrigation for a stadium thinking it looked like the previous stadium. So we’d pull out our old project plans and specifications, and tweak them.  We realized at some point that each facility just became its own project. There’s ample uniqueness to sports fields and facilities that we have to start from scratch with each one. And it’s not just the quirkiness of the sites; turf managers also are unique in their management needs and preferences.

Most fields are used a number of different ways, so the parameters change with each project. There are different needs for lacrosse, than football, than soccer, than rugby, than concerts, than car shows. Different uses are going to affect the overall design.
Luke Frank is a freelance writer who submitted this article on behalf of the American Society of Irrigation Consultants, Source:

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cities of the Future: Built By Drones and Bacteria

By Chris Arkenberg
As scientists make huge strides in robotics, natural building materials, and new construction methods, our urban architecture could take on a much different form than the rigid construction we’re used to. As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.
Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.

“Buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials.”

 Much of the modern built environment we experience began its life in CAD software. In the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter lab at Autodesk Research, engineers are developing tools to model the microscopic world. Project Cyborg helps researchers simulate atomic and molecular interactions, providing a platform to programmatically design matter. Autodesk recently partnered with Organovo, a firm developing functional bioprinters that can print living tissues. This pairing extends the possibilities from molecular design to biofabrication, enabling rapid prototyping of everything from pharmaceuticals to nanomachines.
Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing--the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
From molecular printing to volume manufacturing, roboticist Enrico Dini has fabricated a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. He’s now teamed up with the European Space Agency to investigate deploying his D-Shape printer to the moon in hopes of churning lunar soil into a habitable base. Though realization of this effort remains distant, it’s notable to show how the thinking--and money--is moving to scale 3-D printing well beyond the desktop.

While printers integrate new materials and scale up to make bigger things, another approach to construction focuses on programming group dynamics. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents towards complex goals.
The Robobees project at Harvard is exploring micro-scale robotics, wireless sensor arrays, and multi-agent systems to build robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees. They see a future where “coordinated agile robotic insects” are used for agriculture, search and rescue, and (of course) military surveillance. Taking a cue from mound-building termites, the TERMES project is developing a robotic swarm construction system. The team is working to get cooperative robots building things bigger than themselves by mapping the rules underlying emergence in autonomous distributed populations. Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, Kilobot, creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics.
All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in garage shops and skunkworks across the globe. They each recapitulate the efficiency and conservation of natural systems through the convergence of biology and computation. Looking at the threads of algorithmic chemistry, bacterial manufacturing, and swarm robotics, and refracting them through our resource constraints, environmental degradation, and human security, we can develop some intriguing scenarios for the future.

“Within a decade or so, the barriers between biology and technology will start to fall."

 Assuming a fairly linear scenario, the next decade should show steady progress in molecular modeling, yielding more breakthroughs in designer bacteria, nanosystems, and the hybridization of organic and inorganic materials. The software stack for algorithmic chemistry and synthetic biology will start to formalize, enabling better collaboration around libraries of biosynthetic design patterns. Additive printers will evolve to meet the demands of manufacturing at both volume and scale. Deployment of 3-D printers into the field for maintenance, disaster relief, and remote engineering projects will further drive their development.
Within a decade or so, the barriers between biology and technology will start to fall. At the atomic scale, nanosystems will bridge organic and inorganic structures while biologists engineer rudimentary cellular computers and bacterial printers. At the macro scale, robotic swarms will become more sophisticated, with the steady integration of bio-physiology into their mechanics, lifted by lightweight sensors and the rules underlying autonomy and multi-agent coordination.
Further out on the horizon, this scenario means a greater coupling of biosystems and computation to evolve the living city. Bacteria will be engineered to target specific materials, like aging concrete. Released into cities, they will replace the old stuff with new bacterial glue that’s structurally sound, networked, and computational. Other bacteria could perform similar maintenance by retrofitting aging utility conduits and faded solar skins. Protocell computers could also be released into ecosystems, sensing chemical properties and transmitting them on mesh networks to remote dashboards. Vats of bacteria will pump out fuels, protein resources, and water.

 “Architecture will lose its formal rigidity, softening and flexing and getting closer to the life we see in plants."

 Future architects will work in modeling systems that stream biotemplates into their designs, solving for resource dependencies by ecosystem mapping in simulated environments. Their designs will exploit responsive meta-materials to confer sensing and adaptation to biomimetic curtain walls and building envelopes that flex and fold, opening and closing pores based on environmental conditions and population movements. Fleets of swarm constructors will assemble special scaffolding that guide bacteria specialized to grow the bones of the building, the vasculature, and the skin through which secondary swarms will plumb utilities. Printers will churn out conditioning systems and appliances and furnishings in adaptive materials. Architecture will lose its formal rigidity, softening and flexing and getting closer to the life we see in plants.
These vignettes are merely suggestive of how things may unfold from current trends. But the steady convergence of biology and computation will inevitably guide our hands to more closely align with natural systems. Precision design of programmable matter and a robust environment for simulation and rapid prototyping will reveal entirely new kinds of materials to build the world of tomorrow.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Chicago’s ‘Greenest Street’ Uses Smog-Eating Cement

A solar- and wind-powered energy station and a bioswale are seen on West Cermak Street in Chicago. Image via
A solar- and wind-powered energy station and a bioswale are seen on West Cermak Street in Chicago. Image via

by Randy Woods 
In a city better known for turning its rivers bright green every March 17, a new title has been bestowed upon an unassuming little stretch of pavement in the industrial Pilsen section of Chicago. Two miles of West Cermak Road have been ceremoniously dubbed by the city as “the greenest street in America” for the long list of sustainable features lurking under and around the pavement.

While this is obviously just a little more wind from the Windy City (a million dirt roads anywhere in the world are far greener), the technology embedded in the $14 million stretch of pavement in front of Chicago’s Benito Juarez Community Academy looks promising enough to make a difference if it’s scaled up to an entire neighborhood.

First of all, the permeable pavement itself contains concrete created by Italcementi, the Italian manufacturer of “smog-eating cement,” which has been used on some buildings to resist discoloration. The cement contains titanium dioxide, which reacts with sunlight to speed up decomposition of any organic materials that build up on the surface. Tests have shown that the material actually helps clean the air as far away as eight feet from its surface.

The areas surrounding the pavement are equally impressive. On both sides of the street, bioswales have been added to absorb as much as 80 percent of storm water before it has a chance to overwhelm the sewer system. The drought-resistant trees, shrubs and grass in these bioswale belts are expected to withstand Chicago’s hot summers. They also consume CO2 and reduce the heat-island effect of paved surfaces.

Streetlamps are also lit by stored energy generated from a combination of solar panels and small windmills that are cleverly contained with slender energy kiosks sticking up from the sidewalks. Dedicated bicycle lanes have also been added to encourage non-polluting commuting. About 60 percent of the project’s construction waste was recycled and 23 percent of the new materials used contained recycled content.

According to the Chicago’s Office of Environment and Sustainability, the $14 million project cost 21 percent less than a traditional road resurfacing project and is expected to have fewer maintenance costs. The city said it is currently working on guidelines that may require many of these affordable green features to be included in all future road projects.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Robotic Bees to Pollinate Monsanto Crops

by Russ McSpadden / Earth First! NewswireScreenshot_1
Pollinators participate in the sexual-reproduction of plants. When you eat an almond, beet, watermelon or sip on coffee, you’re partaking of an ancient relationship between pollinators and flowers. But since the 1990s, worldwide bee health has been in decline and most evidence points to toxic pesticides created by Shell and Bayer and the loss of genetic biodiversity due to the proliferation of GMO monocrops created in laboratories by biotech companies like Monsanto.
But never worry, those real life pollinators—the birds and the bees, as they say—may soon be irrelevant to the food needs of civilization. Harvard roboticists are developing a solution to the crisis: swarms of tiny robot bees made of titanium and plastic that can pollinate those vast dystopian fields of GMO cash crops.

The Harvard Microrobotics Lab has been working on its Micro Air Vehicles Project since early 2009. Borrowing from the biomechanics and social organization of bees, the team of researchers is undergoing the creation of tiny winged robots to fly from flower to flower, immune to the toxins dripping from petals, to spread pollen. They even believe that they will soon be able to program the robobees to live in an artificial hive, coordinate algorithms and communicate amongst themselves about methods of pollination and location of particular crops.  
Of course, published reports from the lab also describe potential military uses—surveillance and mapping—but the dime-sized cyber-bees have yet to be outfitted with neurotoxin tipped stingers.

Green Roof Industry Grows by 24 Percent in 2012

Washington DC Is #1 - Installing Over 1.3 Million Square Feet in 2012

Toronto, May 1, 2013 – Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) is pleased to announce a 24 percent growth rate in installed green roofs in 2012 as part of the results of the Annual Green Roof Industry Survey.

 “On the heels of a huge 115 per cent growth rate in 2011, the green roof industry still grew by 24 per cent in 2012,” said GRHC founder & president Steven W. Peck. “Green roofs are being embraced around North America, by policy makers, designers, building owners and developers because they deliver multiple proven public and private benefits,” he added.

In 2012, the Washington DC Metropolitan Region installed the most green roofs in North America with 1,326,872 square feet. Washington DC adopted a number of public policies that support green roof investment.

 “The District is proud to lead the nation in installation of green roofs," said Mayor Vincent C. Gray. "Green infrastructure is an investment that is showing real benefits in the District and green roofs play a major part in turning the vision of a Sustainable DC into reality. Green roofs support green jobs, reduce and reuse stormwater, and create beautiful amenities that improve the quality of life and health of our residents."

“There are many factors that are leading to this remarkable growth,” said Jeffrey L. Bruce, GRP, Chair, GRHC, “but undoubtedly the almost 600 accredited Green Roof Professionals (GRPs) in the market are using their expertise to drive market growth.”
To obtain a copy of the Annual Green Roof Industry Survey for 2012, go to