Agriculture – Skyscraper Farms aka Vertical Farming

See the video.

I loved the idea of urban skyscraper farms. I loved it so much I called the professor in New York who invented the plans for them. We had a nice chat about his retirement and I accepted his sales pitch to purchase his book on the topic.

Links to illustration design detail shown above is here and is called “The Living Tower” by SOA Architects.

Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier instructed his students to design solutions to the impending world hunger crisis.  His motivation to take agriculture indoors in order to allow the land to heal is a result of the notion that the earth’s soils are too toxic and abused. By growing fish, poultry, vegetables, and  fruit in buildings using aeroponic, hydroponic, and other energy greenhouse technologies, his designs would be equipped to feed about 50,000 people regularly. Designs are multi-purpose and house residential units, recreation facilities,  and business offices.

Construction and design firms, scientists, and engineers bought into the idea and presented models all over the world to implement this expensive undertaking. The first was to open in Las Vegas in 2010. However, none have been constructed. They are very costly to build.

A concern is that in urban areas where such skyscrapers would address a multitude of healthy food challenges, in addition to eliminating the transport of foods to cities, is that without subsidies these units would only be affordable for the wealthy. Food would still be sold to the community by wealthy stakeholders, and in terms of reducing overall food costs, I am skeptical. There’s no evidence that  this alternative agriculture would allow middle and low income communities to benefit financially.

Climate & Air – Particulate Matter and Ultra-Fine Particles

I like the analogy that weather is like your mood and climate is like your personality. Certain weather conditions, such as hot, dry days, in urban areas with high construction or vehicular traffic can be very harsh on the body. It can literally kill you. In areas of the country with climates  like Texas, we are more susceptible to be exposed to certain air pollutants from a variety of sources, simply because it gets hot & sunny and stays hot & sunny.

This area is my baby. My research deals with outdoor ultra-fine particles and the effects on human  health in urban areas, then I tie it in with policy-making. So I will talk a little bit about one portion of it.

Aerosol particulate matter and ultra-fine dusts are air pollutants. They can be so tiny that 100 particles can fit inside one red blood cell. Some are smaller. Current research shows that absorption into the skin and inhalation leads to a number of altered body and organ functions, with some leading to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cardiac arrest, asthma, autism, and a host of other related illnesses associated with the autonomic nervous system.
Air pollution is very bad for us in ways we have traditionally never associated.

It reduces visibility, contributes to climate change, damages buildings and structures, and causes adverse impacts to ecosystems, vegetation, and water quality.   It can easily form with the right combination as illustrated in the picture above.

Direct formation of particulate matter is generated by the combustion of fossil fuels and traveling on unpaved roads as well.

One example is a condition that develops in veins and is called Deep Vein Thrombosis.   If particulate matter settles in it, an overclotting may occur, resulting in serious health conditions such as breathing problems and even death.  A particulate matter  increase of 25% increases the risk of blood overclotting by 70%.

New technologies such as self-sensing nanoparticles, nanosensors, and nanotechnology designed to optimize certain features in building materials and roads are promising.  The technology can help building materials work in conjunction with the climate and atmospheric conditions to reduce the emissions of potentially harmful particles.

*Sustainability Lecture Series. UT-Fort Worth campus, Tuesday April 17, 2012

I attended the lecture the other day.. The speaker was Ft Worth’s Director of Transportation and Public Works, Douglas Weirsig.

My understanding of sustainability that evening was not enhanced by the notion of cost being the major constraint for any project except the buttons in the roads. Those are expensive but people like them. I did learn al lot about city operations and projects. Here’s a summary:

He talked about the affects of changing curbs in the medians from straight to mountable styles and shrinking them in order to reduce vehicle and road damage leading to more maintenance. Also, placing trees in medians look nice but create road damage as the roots suck up water, create cavities under the roads, and crack the cement or asphalt.

The asphalt roads do reduce noise pollution but is not as sturdy as the smoother cement. They have gaps between the pebbles that suck in noise. The larger the gaps, the more noise it reduces, but also the less permanent the covering is.

Other topics included signage and multi-municipality cooperation. School zones have multiple signs: One indicating the zone and then another indicating the change in speed limits. This can be combined to save money. When roads cross over into other municipalities, a lot of haggling over construction and maintenance might occur, but it is up to the departments involved to hash it out depending on available funds.

Traffic circles reduce gas consumption because traffic flows easier if the circle is large enough. Circles too small are ineffective and restricts traffic flow. The department is looking to install more traffic circles in the city.

Built Environments – Social Media Networks Contributions to Sustainable Built Environments

“Crowdsourcing is the act of reaching out to a large, usually meshed network to solicit members’ ideas that may help us solve a problem or address an opportunity.”  – Larry Hawes, Forbes, 4/3/2012.

The assertion some industry professionals are making, that social media networks might be leading the charge for sustainable built environments, has some meat. 2degrees is the world’s largest community for sustainable business. They boast more than 20,700 sustainability professionals, from more than 6,000 organizations and 90 countries around the world. It is solutions-based, combining the expertise of the community in order to offer a collective insight into sustainability issues. For example, suppliers visit The Tesco Carbon Reduction Knowledge Hub to learn  useful ideas and tools through webinars, case studies and forum discussions to help reduce carbon emissions using the 2degrees online platform.

The assemblage of this massive number of industry professional in one active online space illustrates the potential impact of social media on built environments.  While the March 2012 Ecobuild was the world’s largest event for sustainable construction and was an in-person event, the online B2B MatchMaking Event  allowed users to arrange  the most suitable, effective meetings and view the online catalog which contains profiles of each attendee. This type of networking efficiency is in itself, a sustainability gem.

Social media networks do put companies in some unique and perhaps, skirmish positions. They have less control over the flow of information and may be exposed to a multitude of risks. Company policies and strategies may easily be exposed, placing the social user right in the center of a design process.

Admn & Operations: Hangstrap shopping?


Using your bar code app on your smart phone, while in the subway in South Korea, you can snap a pic of the product you want delivered to your home after work.

It’s a hit, claims grocer Tesco: Homeplus. Over 10,000 new online shoppers signed up and new registered members rose by 76%. Online sales increased 130%. Globally, they have over 500,000  customers in 14 countries, however the South Korea subway adventure is a first for them. But they are not alone.

Giant Food Stores parent company, Ahold, USA, installed 15 poster shopping stores in Philadelphia rail stations. Shoppers can download the shopping app and begin shopping on the spot.

Obvious challenges are working with wifi spaces. If this virtual grocery-store is to take off, public spaces will require either a free wifi service or some type of intranet for users to download apps and transmit their orders. Space requirements for posters are needed for the digital market spaces. Woolworth virtual stores in Sydney, Australia may sometimes offer table top touch screens to explore product information and make purchases as well. Interactive ads allow users to “like” and “dislike” product offerings on social networks.


Other than bringing quality groceries into existing ‘food deserts’,  environmental benefits to virtual shopping include reducing carbon footprints created by transportation, material and fuel waste reductions, and reduces over-consumption. Land use planners can change parking lot designs and leave shopping areas greener. An abundance of economic benefits include insurance savings, overhead costs, inventory reductions, and gives suppliers the ability to fill order from local sources. Shopping posters eliminate the need for paper advertisements.

What could go wrong?
Many shoppers are unaware that they have the right to return unwanted purchases. 60% of shoppers in a recent UK KNOW YOUR RIGHTS survey were unlikely to return goods purchased online. Reading return policies is always a good idea.

Waste Reduction – Freeganism

All hail the dumpster-divers!

Well, not really. One marked quality of the San Francisco hippie movement prior to the disastrous Summer of Love was the creation of free stores. It was a free swapping ground where you could bring unwanted items and also pick up things you’d need free of charge.  Some aren’t exchange network. In fact, current freecycle networks forbid exchanging goods. Goods change hands but to  tit-for-tat swap is bartering and this is not allowed.

Regular participants, dumpster divers included, are considered Freegans. One motivation is to keep items out landfills.

“ Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.”

And so let the diver beware. The problem with freecycling and free gifting is that there’s no accountability. The freegan must use common sense when accepting used items. Some things, like car seats or motorcycle helmets, may not be safe for regular use and deficiencies might not be detected via a visual inspection.

Some of the popular networks have tens of thousands of participants and span the globe in active networking circles.

A good example of an active international group is The Freecycle Network.

Freecycle Network
The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 5,035 groups with 8,917,299 members around the world. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by local volunteers. Membership is free.


Here are some tips to start your own free store, Really Really Free Market, or swap:

Find a location. Organizers recommend finding a central location where everyone will feel comfortable, such as a community center, house of worship, school yard, public park, or empty city lot. You might have to pay a permit fee to hold them in city-owned lots, but you can creatively fundraise to cover the cost.

Attract volunteers. Colleges and universities are great recruiting grounds for volunteers. Also, don’t be afraid to approach religious congregations, given that many houses of worship focus on helping the poor. And reach out to any local groups that support the creation of an economy based on sharing and reuse.

Advertise in the community. Passing out flyers and hanging posters is a good start, but also visit your neighbors personally and canvass local apartment buildings. Hang banners at major intersections and in community hangouts like libraries and fitness centers. Consider printing materials in more than one language to help non- English speakers.

Get items to “sell.” Post “wanted” notices in every local gathering place, from libraries to supermarkets to local shops. Take advantage of the changing seasons when many people are cleaning out their closets and drawers preparing to make room for their summer or winter clothes. Offer to pick up items or have one dropoff location to make it easy for people to donate their stuff. You might even accept drop-offs on the same day as the market. Make sure the goods you are “selling” are of good quality. New York’s Real Really Free Market has a group of volunteers to screen items.

Attract attention. If your market is going to be outdoors, ask volunteers to set up activities and entertainment that may pique the interest of passersby. Music, dancing, juggling, activities for children— you’d be surprised at the talents that people in your community can showcase. You might also ask volunteers to make deliveries by bike or have some on standby who can deliver large items in a van.

Have a plan for leftover items. Talk to your local Goodwill or charity shop in advance to see if it would like leftover donations. Or, volunteers may be willing to store items for the next market.

Transportation – Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Stations

Coulomb’s ChargePoint America Program now has over 4500 electric car charging stations in ten regions.  Additionally, if you purchase a Chevrolet Volt, Ford Transit Connect Navistar eStar® Electric Truck, Ford Focus Electric, BMW ActiveE, Nissan LEAF™, smart fortwo electric drive or Fisker Karma, you may be able to receive a home charge station at no charge made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Users may

Some of the charging stations, delivering between 250 to 500 volts of DC current,  use one of three connectors and/or a charging option without the use of a physical connection  using parking spaces equipped with a charge mat. Charging at home using a standard electric socket might take about 10 hours but the charging station can fully charge a vehicle in less than 30 minutes.

The deployment of charging stations is a massive infrastructure undertaking. However, the environmental benefits are far reaching. Traditional petroleum gas stations are classified as brownfields because of the presence of underground storage tanks. The tanks  potentially leak and are therefore automatically classified as potential hazardous clean-up sites. Brownfields are classified by the EPA as potentially harmful physical sites that may contain contaminants, hazardous substances,  or pollutants.

The downside of EV’s and the charging stations is the use of lead-acid batteries in the vehicles. Leaks can expose passengers and by-standers to dangerous accumulations of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is known to impair development in children and in severe cases, cause coma, convulsions, and death. Lead particles can travel long distances. Other technologies to produce batteries with substitute materials is currently hampered by power demands in vehicles.

Rather than pumping up the old jalopy with unleaded gasoline, we look forward to charging stations fueling her  unleaded batteries.

Habitat Conservation – Coastal Hypoxia remediation

2006 Seamap Hypoxia Map overlaid with June 2006 Chlorophyll OC3 MODIS derived image product from NESDIS Coastwatch

Hypoxia occurs when oxygen levels fall below levels to support life. The largest hypoxic zone in the U.S. is the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi river dumps into the gulf. It is also called The Dead Zone.

Four activities create the dead zone. First, the Mississippi delivers concentrations of nutrient rich freshwater into the gulf. The nutrients are gathered from about 41% of all the land mass in the continental US, in the Mississippi Basin. Consider agricultural use of pesticides and herbicides draining from Idaho to Massachusetts into one river basin, then deposited into on Gulf.

What promotes growth on land also promotes overproduction of some species in the gulf. When nutrients reach the gulf, algea growth is increased, tiny organisms called zooplankton eat the algea, the presence of bacteria that eats this byproduct increases,  the bacteria depletes the oxygen in the water, and marine life flees or dies.

Hypoxia affects important fisheries and food webs. Over the past five years, the size of this dead zone has grown to be about the size of lake Ontario. It persists until the colder weather in fall and winter months arrives.

The changes in the continental shelf also affects the concentration  of nutrients in the basin. Until the river’s flow was altered because of dams and agriculture, the continental shelf grew and only small sporadic areas of hypoxia were observed. Having the river dumping into the gulf in fewer places increases the concentrations of nutrients into a smaller area.

The human activities  contributing to hypoxia are air pollution, untreated waste-water runoff from treatment plants, and runoff of nutrients used in agriculture.

Remedies include reduction of agricultural nutrients, better watershed management, and increased water infrastructure research.

Energy – Hydrogen Energy


Like a modern day medieval alchemist, Texas A&M distinguished professor John Bockris spent some time meddling with cold fusion and transitioning metals into gold. In 1993, his colleagues petitioned the university to strip him of his title and to have him removed from the department. Fortunately, his academic freedom defense worked. By 1998 he’d received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work with cold fusion, and the Jules Verne award for hydrogen energy research. In 1970, he coined the term ‘hydrogen economy’ in a speech given at General Motors while discussing new ways to deliver energy.

A hydrogen fuel cell is not the ideal Carnot Engine where zero heat is lost, or better understood as 100% efficient. In fact, it is thought to achieve 38% efficiency. A typical hybrid gas/electric car is about 30% efficient. So why don’t we convert? It’s expensive.

Harvesting enough hydrogen, storing adequate amounts of it in vehicles, and constructing a delivery infrastructure are the major constraints. Current production methods use fossil fuels to decompose water, releasing carbon dioxide. Often, the energy yield from the available hydrogen is less than the energy it took to produce it. Technology can lower those costs with more research and investments, but the carbon problem remains.

Supporters claim that carbon sequestering and carbon capture at production sites can address the CO2 issue. Water can be dissociated using high heat, and this can be achieved through concentrated solar power.

On March 13, 2012, The Department of Energy donated $2 million for hydrogen energy research. The money is meant to support research for commercial fuel cells, storage facilities, and delivery tanks. Other decent proposals that avoid fossil fuel consumption study wind-to-hydrogen methods.

Water – The National Giant Bathtub and District Parks Redux

I think I’m going to miss the duck poop.
The hop-skip pool tour around fears of catching avian influenza or arsenic poisoning when enjoying the  reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument , otherwise known as the “giant bathtub”, are days of the past. To be honest, I’d never noticed how much duck poop typically accumulated on the ground bordering the pool until I took my son for his first visit a couple of years ago. Granted, it was a mess with all these little feathered terrorists flapping about, but we took some great photos and was mostly amused by the number of tourists pretending not to be stepping in bird droppings.

Fast forwarding the story to my most recent visit during the first week of April 2012, I was eager to capture new poop configurations and transmit them home to kiddo via mms messaging. I was unaware that on November 9, 2010 a sustainability contract had been signed by the Department of Interior and the National Park Service Director to clean up the mess. Water that used to sit stagnant gathering trash, other delightful and potentially harmful chemistry experiments, and supplied by potable water will now circulate through the Tidal Basin. Erosion prevention efforts include building new walkways.

The final national mall plan and environmental impact statement, ,  is available in a convenient(?) downloadable 2-volume pdf  complete with pics of the conditions prior to renovations.