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Covering the Issues

The really big city… World Policy Journal (Winter 2010/2011) tackles “Megalopolis: The City of the 21st Century,” speculating especially about the rapidly urbanizing areas of Asia and Africa. In “The Architect and the City,” the editors talk with architect Didi Pei — son of perhaps the most famous Chinese-American architect — about his firm’s work in China, discussing population migrations, politics, cultural paradigms, and the implications of creating cities in a single generation. Meanwhile, in “Urbanity, Revisited,” graphic designer and thinker Bruce Mau argues that even the most technologically advanced cities that we’re designing today are based on outdated models, as if we’re attempting “to re-build Paris … everywhere.”

Bridging the divide… The American Interest (March/ April 2011) provides a collection of articles around the theme “Smart Infrastructure: How to Rebuild America (Without Breaking the Bank).” For a nondesigner’s perspective, check out “Re-imagining Infrastructure” by Mark Gerencser, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. While outlining the known problems of structurally deficient bridges and dams, contaminated water pipes, and an overloaded power grid, Gerencser observes that the underlying issues are ones of finance, management, and planning as much as invention, engineering, and construction. Leadership matters most. Gerencser presents a series of simple but important ideas: Government and private interest are interconnected; infrastructure must be understood as single, complex systems spanning multiple jurisdictions, rather than products of isolated fiefdoms; new systems must be designed with change in mind; and we need a clear, national vision.

Coming your way… Heat-releasing walls? Bird-friendly windows? Liquid glass? In “Material World” (Fast Company, March 2011), Rachel Arndt offers a brief but fascinating snapshot of these three innovative products. The walls incorporate a solid core that absorbs excess heat if the room is warmer and releases it if cooler. The windows are modeled on spider webs and include UV patterns that are visible only to birds. The “glass” is a spray-on microscopic silicon-based coating that is resistant to bacteria and easy to clean, and is proving especially popular in hospital applications. You can’t find these at Home Depot now, but you probably will some day.

Not quite there yet… Considering a rooftop windmill? Slate author Amy Westervelt suggests that you wait a while. In her “Rooftop Pipe-Dream” blog post (February 12, 2011), Westervelt reports on the runaway trend in rooftop windmills. Prompted by big tax credits in the federal stimulus act and promoted by positive media stories, more than half of current rooftop capacity has been built in the past three years. The problem? Much of this huge rise in “small wind” doesn’t yet match the hype. Many of these recent rooftop units simply don’t work, or they don’t work enough. To produce useful power, rooftop units must receive continuous wind over five miles per hour, which in most city settings — with cell towers, and buildings, and other urban obstacles — is simply impossible. In fairness, industry self-regulation has begun, with the first certified turbines (guaranteed to meet certain performance criteria) due out in June. Or, reconsider a tall tower windmill. So long as you have an acre of land.

No place like home… In an unsentimental reminder that the first role of architecture is shelter, writer William T. Vollmann offers a sympathetic portrait of homelessness for Harper’s (March 2011). Vollmann begins his “Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities” chronicle as a tolerant building owner with a parking lot, on which he allowed squatters to camp. Vollmann’s humanity grew into curiosity, as he, too, started to seek shelter at squatters’ settlements, sleeping on rocky ground and concrete floors. While still a fiction — Vollmann had a home to return to — this rare, in-depth investigation includes a discussion of Safe Ground (a movement to protect the homeless), the sometimes conflicting mandates of police and park rangers, the history of itinerant towns, and the mosaic of common “solutions.” Perhaps most important, he humanizes homelessness.