Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: Sustainability

City of Smarts

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to the Institute for the Future’s Technology Horizons 2011 Fall Conference for a workshop on the bottom-up innovations of the smart city. I will be writing my honors thesis on the smart city, so this was an incredible way to leaders from nonprofit organizations, corporations, activists, and government officials come together around the issue of the future of the smart city and its implications for the future.


From inside one of the hackathons; source

The evening presentation was led by Jay Nash, the Director of Innovation for the City of San Francisco, and Peter Hirschberg, co-founder and chairman of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. Their talk was on the Summer of Smart, a city-wide project designed around three hackathons and months of development and prototyping, culminating in a 9-member mayoral debate setting new precedents for the way that citizens interact with their government.

Each of the hackathons was centered on a particular topic: community development and public art; energy, sustainability, and transportation; and nutrition and public health. While clearly social problems, three areas also have in common a relationship with the environment. While not explicitly related to green behaviors, environmental sustainability is perpetuated through clean streets, waste tracking, and food source monitoring. The winners of the last two categories presented at the conference and shared their innovative ways of addressing chronic problems in the city through mobile phone applications. The SMART Muni app solved problems that the City thought would take 5 years to tackle by combining a GPS feed of Muni buses with an interface that allows MTA managers to fix problems when they occur. The Garden Guardians app gives Bayview-Hunters Point residents real-time information about the availability of healthy food, even incorporating a game function that incentivizes youth leaders and adult mentors to gather data about their local food supply.   Read more of this post


The Triumph of the City in a weekend

I am reading Edward Glaeser’s new book The Triumph of the City, which argues that the city is humanity’s greatest invention and is our best hope to make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” He explains that despite technologies that have, in a certain sense, made distance irrelevant, creativity and innovation still benefit from face-to-face contact. Furthermore, cultural and social richness are things that can only be approximated in a virtual world. 

This weekend, events in San Francisco did a great job of proving Glaeser’s thesis. I was up in the city this weekend to run the Nike Women’s (Half) Marathon, and my excursion through the area reminded me of the vitality of city life that cannot be replaced by email, Facebook, or Skype. As I stood in line in Union Square to check in for my race number, the other side of the sidewalk was filled with protesters continuing Occupy San Francisco for the fourth straight week. There were apparently 5,000 demonstrators between Civic Center and Union Square, using the city’s density of both people and financial institutions to make their political statement. 


About three miles away, a social gathering of a completely different character was taking place. The Treasure Island music festival was in full swing, featuring bands including Cut Copy and Friendly Fires. The lineup attracts visitors from all over California, and being located in relatively small venue, the festival is manageable and allows visitors to see all of the artists since there are no overlapping set times. While music festivals by no means have to take place in a city (see Coachella), there is something about having the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop to an event like this and city restaurants, hotels, and transportation that enhance the experience. 


The Nike Women’s Marathon itself was a lesson in the power of the physical group. With 22,000 participants, it is the largest women’s marathon in the world and shuts down the city’s busiest streets for hours. The marathon promotes health, raises funding for charity ($13 million this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society!) and provides local restaurants, hotels, and retail stores with one of their most profitable days of the year. And when seeing the faces of those crossing the finish line, there is no doubt that this San Francisco event makes people happier. 


A criticism of events like these is the amount of waste they produce. Cities, while more efficient than suburbs, are still huge producers of waste and consumers of energy. Putting on huge events or hosting demonstrations generates large amounts of trash and encourages the purchase of single-use items. On the other hand, these events are great platforms for showcasing green practices like composting and taking public transportation. Both Treasure Island and the Nike Women’s Marathon made this a great focus of their planning. 

These three events certainly benefitted from digital technology and social media–there were surely countless Facebook picture uploads Twitter updates–but it was the power of shared emotion that created memories for the participants. Whether it was outrage, enjoyment, or pride, the act of sharing an experience with a crowd of thousands of strangers has a tendency to leave a greater impression than watching an event streaming online with a “crowd” of millions of strangers. 

These were only the main events happening this weekend in San Francisco. Other concerts, performances, museum exhibits, restaurant openings, athletic games, and other events also took place, like usual. This alone is an argument for eliminating measures that subsidize suburban growth and favor rural citizens. Long live the city. 



Food for Thought with Bay Area Experts

The UN estimates that about one-third of the world’s food is wasted—there is enough food to feed the world population of nearly seven billion.  Maybe I was just out of the loop, but this information came as a shock when I first heard it Tuesday night from the Food Summit 2 keynote speaker, Frances Moore Lappé. The Summit was held at Stanford, and included a day session with presentations, activities, and info booths and an evening session split between Lappé’s talk and a panel of local food experts. Lappé sat on the panel along with D. School Professor Debra Dunn, owner of Flea Street Café Jesse Cool, founder of Full Belly Farms Dru Rivers, and Stanford Professor of Nutrition Christopher Gardner (also the organizer of the Summit). The theme of the night was “lessons learned from 40 years in the food movement,” and the consensus among the panelists is that we are headed in the right direction.

Lappé recently published a book called EcoMind that explores what it takes to think sustainably and make changes in our food system. One of the key components of an ecomind is the ability to think less about limits and more about alignment.  This goes back to the idea of waste and it turns out that most people (I was not alone in thinking there isn’t enough food) think about world food production in terms of quantity rather than quality or distribution.  MORE is not necessarily the answer though; we need to start thinking about “how” rather than “how much.”  Nature magazine just published an article called “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet” that did some serious thinking about the “how”.  The twenty or so scholars who co-authored the piece came up with the following as some strategies to reduce waste and the hunger epidemic: “Halt farming in places like tropical rainforests and wild lands, which are ecologically valuable but have low food output, make underused expanses of land in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe more efficient, and stop eating so much meat, especially in developed countries.” 

The Food Summit panelists stressed the importance of small farmers, and pointed out that it is a common error to pity the small farmer, when in reality, they provide the best example of food system alignment possible. Small farmers are doing better than many commercial farmers in terms of cost efficiency without pouring on the pesticides, degrading the land, or wasting surplus crops. Even more encouraging is the positive consumer response to locally and organically grown food. Last year alone the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S increased by 17%; Dru Rivers, the Founder of Fully Belly Farms near Sacramento, CA said that she can choose from over 300 farmers’ markets around the area to sell at each weekend. When she first started, there were only 10 within a reasonable driving distance. Below, a Full Belly employee helps customers at a local farmers’ market. 


It is hard to know where the movement will go in the future. Lappé said that she does not consider herself an optimist or a pessimist, but a “possiblist.” Anything is possible—if you want to see a change make it happen, and if someone else accomplishes something amazing, don’t be surprised.  


Rage, Remember, Repeat.

Urban Studies has gotten me thinking about not only cities, but also my everyday environment and interactions within and among structures, in a whole new light.

As an urban studies major, with concentration in urban society and social change, I am more interested in the people within cities, as opposed to infrastructures and edifices. I am currently taking URBANST 115: Archaeological Aspects of Sustainability, taught by Professor Shanks, which focuses on the human components that foster sustainability, in past, present and future cities. With just three weeks into this class, my outlook on buildings and their relation to and relationships with people within cities has changed.

According to 20th century Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe, one of the key components of cities are monumental public architecture, which engender of wonder and spectacle. In a later class, talking about monumentality, Professor Shanks went on to talk about monuments, a key characteristic of cities. This architecture is more than its edifices. It has an effect on imagination and “the cultural imaginary”. With monuments elicits mystery, grandeur, myth and attraction. 

Professor Shanks used the example of Stanford campus, during one lecture, to demonstrate the history and presence of this unviersity’s architecture. Take the Masoleum, for instance, within which the remnants of Leland Stanford Jr., along with his parents Jane and Leland, rest. The sphinxes in front of the Masoleum were a deliberate Egyptian connection to death. In fact, the Stanfords set up the whole university the memory of Leland Stanford Junior.  

As Halloween approaches, Stanford students plan to carry on the Halloween tradition of dancing outside the Mausoleum among the sphinxes, strobe lights and the sea of fellow students, basically dancing within armsreach of the Stanfords’ gravesite. Last year, leading up to the 2010 Masoleum party, bro tanks with the insignia “Party With Leland” sold to students. Now, what would Leland and Jane Stanford think about this tradition? Disrespect or tribute? Arguably both. Has it become more about raging, and less about remembering? Not necessarily. 

Campus tours, word of mouth, and Stanford classes, such as URBANST 115, mention of how this academically, athletically, and visually impressive institution came to be. Through these various means of communication and ecuation, Leland Stanford Jr.’s legacy lives on. Arguably, these “Party with Leland” tanks, pay tribute to his memory at once. This bro tank encompasses current college culture and the Stanfords’ intentions behind the university’s creation – a celebration of Leland Stanford Junior’s life. On Halloween, year after year, students dance to the DJ’s dubstep and hip hop beats, while remembering they are among the Stanfords’ spirits, who built this university for their son who met a premature death. Rage, Remember, Repeat.

Though nicknamed “The Farm,” Stanford is the largest university in the country and the second largest in the world.  I mean, it even has two zip codes.Rather than a rural, I view Stanford campus as a city, which is often called “The Stanford Bubble.”

Through URBANST 115, I have acquired a deeper understanding my immediate surroundings and traditions here on campus. This has given me a critical eye with which to view the rest of the world, cities, edifices and infrastructures I encounter. 

Sustainable Transportation Seminar: An Interdisciplinary Wonder

Last Friday Gerad blogged about the challenges inherent to interdisciplinary programs. The Urban Studies program deals with an issue rather than a discipline, and it is often difficult to fit professors trained and classes developed within a narrow discipline to encompass the major’s range of interests.  This Friday, however, I would like to provide an example of an interdisciplinary forum that reinforces the need for the collaborative format. The forum, “The Sustainable Transportation Seminar on Systems and Policies” is not an official subset of the Urban Studies major, but is extremely relevant to theissue we study.  The seminar is hosted by MS&E (a fellow interdisciplinary program) and is open to the public every Friday from 2:30 to 4 in Y2E2 RM101.

During the first meeting, we all introduced our area of work or study.  The breadth was astounding from professors in civil engineering, to members of the Stanford Energy Club, to director of Stanford’s P&TS, to graduates at the law school. Every meeting features a different presenter, who is usually the world’s leading expert in his or her niche of sustainable transportation, followed by at least an hour of informal question and answer.  I say niche, because while these people are experts about their topic it would virtually impossible to know all there is to know about the interdisciplinary issueof sustainable transportation.  Without fail, the question and answer period has supplied the group and, more importantly, the presenter with a fresh perspective on the day’s topic.  Someone from another discipline predictably offers up a comment to which the presenter responds, “I hadn’t thought of that. I’m excited to run through my tests again with that adjustment in mind.”  You may think that world experts (and they truly are) should have thought of everything.  This puzzled me after the first couple seminars, until I realize that a majority of the academic world operates in disciplinary spheres, which rarely overlap.  This seminar is special…Urban Studies and the other IDS on campus are rare.  I wasn’t aware that urban studies was something I could take for granted, but after witnessing the excitement in the seminar interactions, I see my mistake.

Today’s seminar (5/13) was a bit more action packed than normal and solidified my appreciation for the interdisciplinary aspect.  The group of us met at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (the CARS lab) for a presentation on GM’s new Chevy Volt.  We were greeted by opening remarks from former Secretary of State and Secretary of Treasury, George Shultz. What does he have to do with the Chevy Volt? Well, nothing directly although he was on the Board of Directors at GM during the 70’s (man, this guy’s got a packed résumé).  He was really there for the same reasons that everyone else came to the presentation—sustainable transportation is just as much an engineering issue as it is a political issue, as it is a social issue, as it is a economic issue and so on. I’m beginning to see that some issues require great minds that don’tthink alike.     

~Taylor McAdam

Sustainable streetscape model breaks ground in Bayview

Via SF Streetsblog:

“You see a vision right in front of your door,” Mayor Lee told an audience of residents and agency officials who collaborated on the project. “A vision that’s going to bring about slowing the traffic, trees, permeable landscaping – all kinds of things that you see other neighborhoods get.”

Read the full story here.

Olthuis Floats a New Idea

A week ago Gerad posted about the difficultly of building massive, supposedly sustainable, structures that are then left in disuse after they’ve served their purpose. He gave the example of the Cape Town Stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which now struggles to find a host team capable of filling and paying for the venue.  Events such as the World Cup or the Olympics do require facilities of extreme proportions, and it is often the case that building these new venues is beneficial for the local economy.  I racked my brain for a good 5 seconds for a solution that would allow host cities access to adequate facilities while ensuring that these facilities would actually live up to their sustainable potential and be used for years afterwards. I have found the solution!

To be fair, I did not come up with the solution out of thin air or really as a result of my brain racking—I found it via the always trusty Google search. I realize that you are not supposed to believe everything you read on the internet, but Koen Olthuis’s floating structures are one thing I am willing to throw a considerable amount of belief and, by way of this post, hype behind. Olthius is the founder of Waterstudio, a world-renowned architecture firm that specializes in floating structures with the goal of “sustainaquailty.”  No, I did not spell sustainability wrong; “sustainaquality” is the term Olthuis has coined to refer to the environmental and economic benefits afforded by structures built to float entirely on water. Floating solar fields; wind cooling effects; wind, wave, and tidal energy production; no lasting physical footprint; and a negligible carbon footprint all contribute to the sustainaquality of floating structures or even entire floating cities.


A floating stadium “app” taken from Koen Olthuis’s new book Float!  (source)

But again, how is this helpful for the leftover stadium dilemma?  Well, Olthuis actually proposes floating stadiums as one of many possible uses of water development in his new book called FLOAT! (yes, there is actually an exclamation mark in the title)  The most obvious benefit of constructing a floating structure is that cities would not need to reserve land space years in advance that might end up as dead space after the event is over anyway. The second, more mind-blowing proposition made in the book is the concept of using floating structures like rental units. Essentially, London could build a floating track and field stadium for the 2012 Olympics and then Rio de Janeiro could simply tug that same stadium across the Atlantic for the 2016 Olympics. Olthuis has named these transportable infrastructure pieces “apps” and you can add them to your city just like you add “Words with Friends” to your smart phone 😀 It’s crazy, I know…but something crazy has got to happen if we are aiming for truly sustainable cities.    

~taylor mcadam 

Sustainability! Unsustainably?

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Taylor’s post on Monday got me thinking about what happens when sustainability is pursued unsustainably.

The beautiful Cape Town Stadium, originally called Green Point Stadium, was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the chic, gentrifying Green Point neighborhood.  It was constructed to be a “green” stadium—95 percent of the materials from the old Green Point Stadium were “salvaged, recycled, or reused” in its construction, it used less than half of the water that is benchmarked for a stadium of its size, and boasted a 95 percent reliance on local labor.  They even released a fancy report about the stadium (along with four of the other World Cup stadia).  GREAT!

Not great.  Since the World Cup, Sail Stadefrance Operating Company, which had signed a thirty-year lease to manage the property, reneged and left the stadium to the City of Cape Town.  The Western Province Rugby Association, which runs the Western Cape’s Super 15 team the Stormers, has also refused to move the team to or even play matches(!) at the new stadium—Newlands Stadium, where they play now, apparently tugs at the heartstrings.  And no local soccer team has the draw to make a profit by using the stadium—crowds over 10,000 occur only when the big South African teams, the Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs of Soweto, come to town.  This means that the three local teams, Vasco da Gama, Ajax Cape Town, and Santos F.C. have continued using the older, cozier stadiums on the Cape Flats except for those rare big occasions.

Without a reliable tenant (or tenants) the stadium’s upkeep costs are simply unsustainable.

There was a U2 concert that filled the stadium in February, though.  Perhaps they should play every week?

-Gerad Hanono

SFO’s New Terminal


As Stanford students, we live in the midst of a never-ending construction project and thus construction outside of the bubble seems routine and unremarkable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if those of us who use SFO Airport as a gateway home failed to notice the enormous, and really quite remarkable, project that has been going on there for the last 3 years. The project is a brand new domestic terminal—housing American Airlines and Virgin Airlines— and was finally opened to the public this past weekend (April 9th). 

It is a bit misleading, however, to call it brand new, when 90% of the building materials were recycled from the old terminal built in 1954. This is a remarkable feat given building codes and energy efficiency requirements.  The new terminal, called T2, does not only pass the energy efficiency test, however, it jumps way beyond all California codes and will most likely become the first LEED Gold-certified airport terminal in the US. Cool! Well actually I didn’t know what LEED was at first, let alone what it takes to become “gold” certified. I looked it up though and found that LEED provides certification, through a neutral/outsider party, about how “green” or eco-friendly a building is.  The LEED website points out that achieving gold level certification is a huge challenge and very impressive for a commercial site. 

The reused building materials are not the only eco-friendly components earning SFO the recognition.  The new terminal recycles 75% of solid waste (meaning all the utensils and food will be recyclable like it is here at Stanford), uses recycled water for toilets, provides pre-conditioned air to all of the gated planes, saving 15,000 tons of CO2 emissions/yr (WOW!), and incorporates energy efficient lighting, including row upon row of skylights. Currently, these measures are only implemented in T2, but SFO says that it will soon extend these measures to apply to the whole airport.

A final feature of the terminal is what SFO is calling “hydration stations.” Essentially this is just a clever way of saying they are going to place fancy water faucets around the terminal where you can fill up reusable (or presumably any sort of) water bottles.  Yes, this is just a gimmick, cherry-on-top feature, but I am sure I will have a goofy smile on my face the first time I go to fill up my bottle in the terminal 😀  

~taylor mcadam