Tag Archives: ethics

Urban Acupuncture: Revivifying Our Cities Through Targeted Renewal

Can the localized healing concepts of acupuncture be applied to urban revitalization? Photo credit: odt.co.nz

Cities throughout the world, irrespective of their age, location, and economic vitality, are faced with a number of essential problems which are arguably endemic to the very concept of urbanization. From the provision of clean water and sanitation, to the availability of cost-effective and efficient transportation, many of these problems correlate rather predictably with population density. Some problems, however, prove far more abstract in both their causes and effects, as is the case with urban decay. Perhaps even more elusive is a reliable solution to such problems that is economically, ethically, and environmentally sound. A handful of progressive urban renewalists, however, have developed an adaptable framework which they believe may finally provide the answer.

While it is not immediately clear who first coined the term urban acupuncture, there does seem to be a broad consensus on its basic tenets. First, proponents argue that urban revitalization must begin at the hyperlocal level. Borrowing from the concepts of acupuncture, they advocate a targeted (small-scale) approach to “healing” the (large-scale) malady of urban decay. They argue that large-scale revitalization projects are not only less effective, but they are increasingly less feasible, as municipal budgets tighten. Moreover, such projects fail to meaningfully involve their surrounding communities in their planning and development, effectively discouraging long-term local stewardship. Above all, however, proponents suggest that cities must be treated as living organisms, requiring solutions as dynamic as life itself.

Gordon Matta-Clark (June 22, 1943 – August 27, 1978)
Highly influential in the contemporary discourse of urban acupuncture, Matta-Clark was an American artist with an architecture background who transformed abandoned buildings into site-specific art installations. He is credited with developing a system for identifying pockets of disrepair in the built environment—the first step in the framework of urban acupuncture.

Jaime Lerner (born December 17, 1937)
Rather uniquely among architects and urban planners, Lerner was also an accomplished politician. As mayor of Curitiba, the largest and wealthiest city in southern Brazil, Lerner instituted a number of social reforms resulting in improved public health and a more vibrant economy. His efforts were heavily inspired by the concepts of urban acupuncture, as he described in 2007:

I believe that some medicinal “magic” can and should be applied to cities, as many are sick and some nearly terminal. As with the medicine needed in the interaction between doctor and patient, in urban planning it is also necessary to make the city react; to poke an area in such a way that it is able to help heal, improve, and create positive chain reactions. It is indispensable in revitalizing interventions to make the organism work in a different way.

Marco Casagrande (born May 7, 1971)
A prominent Finnish architect, environmental artist, and social theorist, Casagrande is perhaps the first to systematize the concepts of urban acupuncture. Indeed, the core principles of UA are integral to his theory and practice, and his resultant work can be seen in the built environments of Taipei and Montreal. In an interview with Laurits Elkjær in 2010, Casagrande described urban acupuncture as:

[a] cross-over architectural manipulation of the collective sensuous intellect of a city. City is viewed as multi-dimensional sensitive energy-organism, a living environment. Urban acupuncture aims into a touch with this nature.

While his definition may be abstract, the results of his work are very real, garnering considerable attention from the architecture community.

Nicholas de Monchaux (born March 14, 1973)
Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley, de Monchaux is a prominent advocate for urban acupuncture in the United States. His “Local Code” project is not only technologically remarkable, but it provides an evocative glimpse into the potential of the UA framework. The following video proposes a UA revitalization effort for San Francisco:

While it’s easy to receive concepts like urban acupuncture with skepticism, one can scarcely reject the logic of its goals and methodology. The sheer breadth of support for the principles of UA are also reassuring, indicating a coordinated effort to seek new solutions to the problem of urban decay. Although urban revitalization is inherently a gradual process, we will perhaps see an increasing number of UA projects coming to fruition in the next few years. Hopefully, these efforts will prove not only aesthetically pleasing, but serve to categorically improve the health of urban communities.

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Food Security: With Sustenance Comes Peace

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia jointly rank 1st on Maplecroft's food security index, indicating "extreme risk." Image credit: maplecroft.com

The symbiotic relationship between between food scarcity and armed conflict is perhaps not a new one, but the latest food security index released by Maplecroft demonstrates the extent of this tragic correlation. The most critical regions of the world, including the Horn of Africa and the remainder of the Sub-Sahara, have been subjected to some of the worst drought conditions in decades, exacerbated by largely stagnant economies. Yet even regions of the world with rapidly growing economies, such as those of the Indian Subcontinent, remain extremely vulnerable to effects of food scarcity. Lest we forget, almost half of India’s children are malnourished, and one in four of the world’s hungry live there. But with international food aid disbursement at its highest, are there any indications of progress in eliminating world hunger? Will tumultuous politics and economics always preclude the availability of sustenance?

Historically, the answer to that question is an unfortunate and resounding yes, but millions of revolutionaries throughout North Africa and the Middle East began writing a new history for themselves earlier this year. The sweeping demonstrations, known as the Arab Spring, have been attributed to poverty, unemployment, and social injustice, but a recent study links the revolutions to a single metric: global food prices. Indeed, the connection may be so strong that the researchers suggest a specific price threshold can be established for any given society to indicate when social unrest becomes likely:

More specifically, food riots occur above a threshold of the FAO price index of 210 (p < 10−7, binomial test). The observations also suggest that the events in North Africa and the Middle East were triggered by food prices. Considering the period of time from January 1990 to May 2011 […], the probability that the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East occurred by chance at a period of high food prices is p < 0.06 (one sample binomial test).

Moreover, the study endeavors to explain why an increasingly globalized food market has proved damaging, rather than beneficial, to regional food security:

Today, many poor countries rely on the global food supply system and are thus sensitive to global food prices. This condition is quite different from the historical prevalence of subsistence farming in undeveloped countries, or even a reliance on local food supplies that could provide a buffer against global food supply conditions. It is an example of the increasingly central role that global interdependence is playing in human survival and well-being.

One would hope that the political reforms enacted throughout North Africa and the Middle East will include efforts to invest in a more robust local agriculture, lessening dependence on the global food markets. However, some degree of integration with world markets is essential to ensuring food security, mitigating the effects of regional agricultural crises, such as the 2011 East Africa drought. It is estimated that more than 13.3 million are in immediate need of food assistance in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, alone. These countries, like others in and around the Horn of Africa, have economies largely dependent on the success of local agriculture; when the farms fail to produce, both food and capital become scarce. While over $1.12 billion in relief aid has been pledged through the UN, one wonders if there is a concentrated effort to resolve the imbalance of agricultural dependence at the heart of such crises.

At least one organization, the Somalia Agricultural Technical Group, is working to develop a more vigorous and diversified agriculture throughout the region, perhaps more resistant to the effects of extreme weather patterns. Their first large-scale initiative has been the introduction of the Filsan Mungbean, a non-GMO variety of bean characterized by higher yield potential and early maturity. Critically, however, the organization suggests that no single crop will provide for the agricultural renaissance desperately needed in the region. Greater coordination between the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN and NGOs such as SATG is essential to the discovery and dissemination of sound agricultural practices for farmers throughout East Africa, ultimately resulting in a more robust local food supply upon which its people can depend.

While attaining a perfect balance between regional and global food supply dependence may prove extraordinarily difficult, it is essential to improving the state of food security throughout the word. Food is, after all, our most basic level of sustenance, and we owe it to ourselves to ensure its equitable availability. It may require a significant investment of logistical and intellectual capital, but one can scarcely imagine a more vital cause.

Greek Proverb on Intergenerational Welfare


Photo credit: gardinclothing.com

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Eden Project: Telling the Story of Plants and People

The Eden Project features two separate greenhouses, comprised of adjoined biomes. Photo credit: gliving.com

The final installment in the Guardian series Britian’s Best Buildings takes the viewer to the Eden Project in Cornwall, which features the largest greenhouse in the world. But the original planners of the project did not intend for the project to simply feature extraordinary architecture and design; rather, they wanted to provide a space in which people could form relationships with nature, as well as with one another. The project is truly astounding, particularly when one considers that it all began as a grassroots effort. The presenter describes the Eden Project as having rejuvenated the local community, but one suspects its impact extends far beyond county of Cornwall, inspiring similar projects small and large across the world.

The short film can be found on the Guardian’s Art and Design page, here.

The Ethical Labyrinth of Sustainable War

Military eco-chic or hollow gesture? Photo credit: GOOD.is

Earlier this week, Zak Stone of GOOD Magazine posted an article about a successful research initiative conducted at the Australian National University, the conceit of which was the integration of solar panels into the standard kit of the Australian infantryman. In the past few decades, the soldier’s repertoire of tools has become increasingly dependent upon electronic devices, such as GPS, night vision goggles, and notebook computers—each of which consumes a considerable amount of electricity. Although significant gains in efficiency have been made to the batteries fueling these gadgets, the desire remained for a more practical and sustainable solution. GOOD Magazine appropriately categorized this story as relevant to both environmental and technological causes, but it is perhaps worth considering the deeper ethical implications of such a development.

All wars, regardless of their time and place, share a number of tragic qualities: foremost, quite naturally, is the catastrophic loss of human life. Although a bit of a truism, war is counterproductive to the sustainability of our very species, much less the surroundings in which we live. Resources which might otherwise be allocated for means of fruitful production are appropriated for the purpose of destruction, to both society and the environment. The results of such devastation are occasionally  quite obvious, as is the case with a “scorched earth” policy, a tactic used as early as Ancient Greece and as recently as the 2011 Libyan Civil War. In other cases, the environmental cost of war can prove more abstract and difficult to visualize, as is the case with carbon and particulate emissions.

In 2007, an American soldier deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan consumed an average of 16 gallons of oil per day. That amounts to approximately 3.5 million gallons per day for all operations, or 5.3 olympic-sized swimming pools. But what are the consequences of such levels of consumption? Oil Change International estimates that the war is responsible for emitting 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere between 2003 and 2007. For perspective, that’s more CO2 than 139 of the world’s countries produce annually, as of 2009.

As for the aforementioned reallocation of resources, the easiest quantitative measure may be the raw investment of capital. The $600 billion that congress has appropriated to fund operations in Iraq could have built over 9000 wind farms at 50 MW capacity each—sufficient to meet 25% of domestic electrical demand. Perhaps even more sobering, in 2006, the United States spent more on the war in Iraq than the whole world spent on investment in renewable energy. These figures, of course, do not include allocations from the annual defense budget, estimated to be up to $1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2012.

It would be naive to suggest that these ineffably large sums of money fail to provide any benefit to humanity in their current form, but one wonders if a greater portion of such resources could be allocated to research and development in technology that could also benefit the civilian population. Lest we forget, it was the United States Army Corps of Engineers who accelerated efforts to master nuclear fission, leading to a method of power generation that produces 1/45th the CO2 of coal.

Ultimately, my survey of this issue has led to more questions than answers.

Are military conflicts and exorbitant defense budgets inevitable? If so, should we utilize the logistical and intellectual infrastructure of the DoD in creating sustainable solutions?