Gazette: “Health, fiscal woes seed local vegetable gardens”; Freeman Dyson Sees Future Gold in Green

Today’s Gazette reports that vegetable gardens are even more popular than last year, a good reason not to infill away our urban greenspaces:

An estimated 37 percent of all United States households, or about 43 million, plan to grow vegetables, fruit, berries or herbs in 2009, according to the Vermont-based National Gardening Association. That’s up from 31 percent or 36 million households in 2008, said NGA spokesman Bruce Butterfield.

Area gardening experts say they’ve been inundated with questions from would-be back- and front-yard growers, as people try to save money as well as ensure that what they’re eating is safe, fresh and tasty…

Another draw is reducing reliance on petroleum by eating locally grown food that doesn’t need to be shipped far, said Ruth Hazzard, vegetable specialist for the University of Massachusetts Extension…

“I think the take-home message is a lot of people are thinking about growing food in small spaces,” Hanson said [Nancy Hanson is a Community Supported Agriculture manager at Hampshire College].

Looking towards the future, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and mathematician, envisions getting even more out of our green patches:

“Technology and Social Justice” (PDF, 1998, 2.8MB, pages 21-26)

To make solar energy cheap, we need a technology that combines the advantages of photovoltaic and biological systems. Two technical advances would make this possible. First, crop plants could be developed that convert sunlight into fuel with efficiency comparable to photovoltaic collectors, in the range of 10 percent rather than 1 percent. This would reduce the costs of land and harvesting by a large factor. Second, crop plants could be developed that do not need to be harvested at all. An energy crop could be a permanent forest with trees that convert sunlight to liquid fuel and deliver the fuel directly through their roots to a network of underground pipelines. If those two advantages could be combined, we would have a supply of solar energy that was cheap, abundant, ubiquitous, and environmentally benign…

The future energy plantation need not be a monotonous expanse of identical trees in regular rows. It could be as varied and as spontaneous as a natural woodland, interspersed with open spaces and houses, villages, towns, factories, and lakes…

To make this dream of a future landscape come true, the essential tool is genetic engineering… Within a few decades, we shall have
achieved a deep understanding of the genome, an understanding that will allow us to breed trees that will turn sunlight into fuel and still preserve the diversity that makes natural forests beautiful.

As soon as we can genetically engineer trees to use sunlight efficiently to make fuel, we shall also learn to breed trees that convert sunlight into useful chemicals of other kinds, including silicon chips for computers and gasoline for cars. Economic forces will then move industries from cities to the country…

Cheap solar energy and genetic engineering will provide the basis for primary industries in the countryside. After that, the vast variety of secondary and tertiary economic activities that use the Internet for their coordination–food processing, publishing, education, entertainment, and health care–will follow the primary industries as they move from overgrown cities to country towns and villages. And as soon as the villages become rich, they will attract people and wealth back from the cities…

Note the true mixed-use character of Dyson’s vision. Energy production and industry are gently woven into residential areas. There is not the rigid segregation of uses of sprawl zoning, nor the segregation of greenspace from residences found in some unfortunate variants of Smart Growth. Dyson’s vision might not pan out, but then again, maybe it will. The wise urban plan of today makes room for this kind of uncertainty.

See also:

Urban Community Gardens Flourish in Holyoke

Springfield Republican: “Victory gardens fight price wars” (6/24/08)

Gazette: “As food, other costs rise, more stake hopes on home gardens” (6/14/08)
Among those trying to be more resourceful and experiment with backyard
gardening is Karen Bellavance-Grace of Northampton and her neighbors.
[Bellavance-Grace is an aide to Mayor Clare Higgins.]

The group of six families, 20 people in all, is tending a new plot in
Bellavance-Grace’s backyard at 19 Church St., a small street that runs
west from King Street above downtown…

…group members are strengthening their street’s sense of community and producing food…

CommonWealth Magazine: “Urban greenery can bring better health, more attractive neighborhoods, and even safer streets”

Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Bozeman’s Growing Pains” (9/7/05)
space for recreation [in Portland] is at risk after 10,000 acres of parks, fields,
and golf courses were rezoned for infill development.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
1990, 60 percent of New Yorkers said they would live somewhere else if
they could, and in 2000, 70 percent of urbanites in Britain felt the
same way. Many suburbanites commute hours every day just to have “a
home, a bit of private space, and fresh air.”

Randal O’Toole: “Dense Thinkers” (Reason Magazine, January 1999)
central cities…were built in an age when primitive transportation and
communications dictated high densities; people had to live near one
another. The “decline” of cities that officials worry so much about is
due to the fact that cars, telephones, and electricity make it possible
for people to live in lower densities–and most choose to do so.

Boston Globe: “How the city hurts your brain”

The Ecological Cities Project: Greenspace in “The Humane Metropolis”
metropolis (i.e., metro region or citistate) is considered green if it
fosters humans’ connections to the natural world — an idea Anne
Whiston Spirn promoted in her seminal 1984 book The Granite Garden.
Spirn rejected the idea — easily absorbed if one watches too many
“concrete jungle” films, or even televised nature documentaries —
that the natural world begins beyond the urban fringe. “Nature in the
city,” she wrote, “must be cultivated, like a garden, rather than
ignored or subdued.”

Rutherford Platt, “Regreening the Metropolis: Pathways to More Ecological Cities”
In the 1950s, the conventional wisdom–for the affluent at least–was
that cities are where people are, and the country is where you go on
weekends and vacations to find Nature in some place bucolic or
maritime. But today, even for those who can afford it, the time and
cost of escaping the metropolis has grown with the spread of the
metropolis itself and the growing numbers of vehicles trying to leave
it… Meanwhile, those who cannot afford to sit in traffic in their
SUV–the poor, the elderly, the infirm–are sentenced to live out their
lives in the metropolitan environment, come what may…

…cities and metropolitan areas, now too large to conveniently escape, must themselves be viewed as incorporating both built and unbuilt
environments… And into the bargain, the urban environment will prove
to be more habitable, more sustainable, more “ecological”…

Topographical Map Shows How Kohl Condo Proposal Will Eat Into a Rare Stand of Mature Trees in Downtown

Our Guest Article at Northampton Redoubt: “The Kohl condo proposal and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Infill”
Kohl’s proposal calls for numerous large trees to be cut down. Urban trees provide valuable benefits in improved air quality, stormwater mitigation, the psychological well-being of residents, and reduction of the urban heat island effect. The loss of trees contradicts goals of the Sustainable Northampton Plan

Planners’ Assumptions about Future Household Size and Car Usage May Prove Wrong
Northampton’s Planning Department observes that average household size
in the city has fallen from 2.86 in 1980 to 2.14 in 2007. They believe
this trend will continue:

Average household size (people per dwelling unit) will continue to
decline. This will be driven by decreases in average family size, the
number of children and number of “traditional” families, and a
corresponding increase in the number of child-free families,
child-delayed families, and especially empty nesters and senior and
frail elderly populations.

(Northampton Schools Strategic Planning: Demographic Background and Sustainable Northampton, 2008, PDF, 803KB)

What if, however, much of the past trend was driven by the enormous debt-fueled consumption bubble that dates back to the 1980s? There are signs that this trend has stalled or is even unwinding…

While most of today’s cars damage the environment and consume fossil
fuels, prying people away from them might not be so easy. A plausible
future is one where the cars remain but their technology is changed to
make them more benign. As we’ve written before, this future may not be
so far off:

New York Times: “Electric Cars for All! (No, Really This Time)”

Energy-Efficient Personal Vehicles of the Near Future

Will households grow appreciably in size over the next 20 years? Will
the number of cars per capita stay the same? NSNA can’t say for sure,
but neither can planners. Sustainable Northampton should be implemented
in a way that stays flexible in the face of this uncertainty.
Otherwise, there’s a risk of making Northampton’s “receiving areas” too
dense, leading to serious traffic and parking problems.

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Scott proposes guidelines to reduce the potential harm from plans. These include:

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to
social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our
interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer
wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then
plan the next small move…

Favor reversibility. Prefer
interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be
mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect,
given our great ignorance about how they interact…

Plan on surprises.
Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen…
In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for
accommodating changes in family structures or living styles…

Plan on human inventiveness.
Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the
project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to
improve on the design… (p.345)