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Covering the Issues

Suburbia RIP?… In 1958, Jane Jacobs wrote a piece called “Downtown is for People” for Fortune magazine that would eventually be developed into her seminal book celebrating the qualities of walkable urban living. In the magazine’s most recent foray into planning topics (July 22, 2013), Fortune’s managing editor Leigh Gallagher argues that we’re seeing “The End of the Suburbs,” in an excerpt from her book of the same name. Suburbanites are sick of driving, and sprawl’s health costs are now known; big grocers and spec homebuilders have begun building in Boston and Brooklyn. The real news here is this statistic: Since 2010, “the largest American cities grew at a faster rate than their surrounding suburbs” for the first time in 90 years. Jacobs would be pleased.

Windy cities… Solar panels have become common on buildings and in city neighborhoods, while wind turbines still tend to be out on the edge — of the harbor, in the ocean, or on industrial land. The most efficient systems are large — some three-blade turbines are now taller than 50-story buildings while their blades sweep more than 400 feet — and most are too loud for urban areas. This may soon change. In “Into the Wind” (Fast Company, September 2013), Jon Gertner chronicles the beginnings of a radical new turbine that is smaller, quieter, and more efficient than its three-blade brethren, inspired by the dynamics of jet engines. Now with its first full-scale test on Boston’s Deer Island, it promises to be the PC of wind power: able to be located within populated areas and to distribute power closer to the need.

Water, water everywhere… Sea levels are rising, storm surges are getting stronger, and despite the disbelief of some politicians, we can do something about it. Two substantial essays tackle the topic: Jeff Goodell’s “Goodbye, Miami” for Rolling Stone (July 4–18, 2013) and John Seabrook’s “The Beach Builders” for The New Yorker (July 22, 2013). From constructed seawalls to engineered beaches, from raising structures — or an entire downtown — by a story to abandoning cities entirely, Goodell and Seabrook explore the architectural, political, and economic aspects of addressing sea-level rise. Seabrook focuses on 2012’s Hurricane Sandy while Goodell opens with the fictitious Hurricane Milo of 2030, yet they both send the same message: It’s real. Act now.

Future tense… Meanwhile, back in the land of blissful oblivion, Carl Swanson previews Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid’s first New York City building for New York magazine (“The Zaha Moment,” July 22, 2013). Swanson celebrates her office’s glamorous future-looking aesthetic, in this case applied to a forthcoming 11-story residential condo that will overlook the High Line (a famously repurposed piece of abandoned 20th-century infrastructure). When Swanson asks about Hurricane Sandy, Hadid’s office effectively dismisses the topic. Although that response merits modified praise — sea-level rise is a technical issue, not necessarily an aesthetic one — architects need to join the discussion. This is far more a real part of the future than any swoopy curve.

Current topic… For a sea change, retreat to Lapham’s Quarterly. The Summer 2013 issue focuses on “The Sea,” including writings, maps, and images from the past 2,000 years. We continually build next to the sea, yet use it as a place to escape from all our building. From Currier and Ives’ “Port of New York” engraving to Charles Dickens’ description of an English village at the coastline, from Venice to Panama, the pieces are neither arranged chronologically nor geographically and, as such, offer the sensation of lapping waves. In his preamble, Lewis H. Lapham reminds us that “to know the sea is mortal is to know that we are not apart from it… The abyss is human, not divine, a work in progress, whether made with a poet’s metaphor or with a vast prodigious bulk of Styrofoam.”