Author Archives: Solarpunk Gnome

MapJam – Sharing in the city

adult book business cactus

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Shareable is a great resource for following advances in the “sharing economy,” with an emphasis on platform cooperatives and other community ownership models that you probably won’t see from the other outlets that focus on the space. One of the more interesting projects they’re working on is their Community Maps. Generated by local residents in a given region, these maps detail where you can find sharing services in the community.

The data for the maps is generated by MapJams, collaborative mapping parties where people can get together and map out as many sharing services as possible in their city. Charlottesville has a Shareable Community Map, but it is sparse and based on proprietary mapping software. I contacted Shareable about the mapping tools, and they said that new MapJams use the Open Street Map-based uMap system. uMap is an easy to use framework that allows anyone to make a custom Open Street Map and then embed it into any website.

I’m hoping to coordinate a new MapJam for Cville in the near future, so if you’re in the area, please reach out and let me know if you can help. Suggestions for places that should be on the map or help with coordinating the MapJam itself would be greatly appreciated!

Does your city have a Shareable Community Map? Are there any sharing services in your city that deserve a shout out? Let us know below!

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Discussions on Urban Planing

Solarpunk is a movement largely focused on how changes in our local environment can result in wide-ranging impacts for the world, so I’m hoping to bring you more stories that give you a zoomed-in view of one community’s journey into the future. Urban design is one of the big levers we can pull in the fight against climate change, and it’s something we’re thinking about here in Charlottesville.

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A decorative tree on a street in Charlottesville.

At a recent Charlottesville PLACE Design Task Force meeting, rezoning and density took center stage. According to a recent report by Partners for Economic Solutions, Cville needs ~3,300 more units of affordable housing in the city. The main concern expressed at the meeting was how to balance the needs of a rapidly growing population with concerns about gentrification and destruction of neighborhood character.

One approach would be to allow light densification of what is currently only single family zoning. Cville already allows Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family zoning areas, but lots that allow 6000-8000 square foot buildings aren’t allowed to have duplexes or triplexes except where they were built before the zoning regulations were in place. This means most new development in these areas results in expensive McMansions instead of more affordable multiplex homes. Facing a similar situation, Minneapolis recently passed a significant rezoning effort in their Minneapolis 2040 plan. While any effort here would be shaped by our local needs, it is inspiring to see other cities making bold progress in what is often a very wonky area of municipal policy.

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

The other approach discussed was to have special zones developed for high density apartments and condos in places that are already well-served by transit and bike/ped infrastructure. This might be a way to increase density with fewer individual projects, but it also feels like a concession to residents who don’t want new people moving into their neighborhoods. Housing is one of the key issues in the 2019 city council race here, so we’ll see what comes of these discussions.

Unsurprisingly, the current problems with zoning in Charlottesville are due to historical baggage. To quote Thomas Jefferson*, “‘The earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” What was once decided to be best for the development of the city may not be best for it anymore. Changing zoning ordinances can be an uphill battle, but if we don’t fight it then Tolkien will be right about zoning:

At the PLACE meeting, I learned that zoning in Cville mostly changed in phases. The first was the introduction of zoning in the 1920s, and the second was the rezoning of predominantly white neighborhoods into single family during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1990s, single family housing zoning was expanded to be more inclusive of historically black neighborhoods. Now that the city is growing quickly, we’re running out of places for people to live which is driving costs up and density down. It’s time to change the rules once more.

Every city is unique, with Houston not having any zoning, and Barcelona working on their “superblocks.” What’s the housing situation in your area? Is your town also facing a housing crisis? Are there any people actively working to combat it? Let us know below!


*Nothing in Cville can be discussed without first consulting Thomas Jefferson’s ghost. This seems to be a custom stronger than law.

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

Keeping the end in sight

adult background ball shaped blur

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I previously mentioned that I sometimes struggle with over-researching a topic, and I found myself doing that again this week with political theory. I keep seeing memes attacking people who critique capitalism or who think that socialism might be the answer, and I got bogged down reading dozens of articles from a variety of political angles on the subject arguing semantics about “correct” definitions of capitalism or socialism.

I rewrote a political theory post from this research several times, and still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think this is because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. All the arguments over this or that political theory don’t really have much impact on real life. One of the critiques that is repeatedly leveled at solarpunk is that it isn’t practical, and navel-gazing about political theory certainly doesn’t have much real world impact. I’m not going to say that any academic pursuit is a waste of time, but for me, I have spent far too much time in headspace and not enough in the real world.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

People from all over the political spectrum recognize that there are significant problems with most of Western society. I’m particularly focused on the US because that’s where I live, but I suspect many of these issues exist to some extent in other countries as well. Why are people dying because they can’t afford medication in the same country that has people so rich they don’t know what to do with their money? People want their families to be safe, to have enough food to eat, and to have some leisure time. I think this is something everyone can agree on, but the details can be an understandable point of contention. The problem becomes when we start identifying people by labels instead of other human beings. It’s not acceptable to compromise with “those people,” but if we just would pack these increasingly meaningless labels away we might actually make some progress on the problems that face us.

People aren’t happy with the state of healthcare in the US. No one wants to see their parks full of trash and pollution. Anyone will balk at a pipeline if it’s going to be going through their own property. It’s time we stop getting hung up on labels and work together on solutions. If nothing else, let’s decide to table the debate on a national level and help states be the “Laboratories for Democracy” and let them try different approaches without trying to force everyone to do the same thing.

The reticence of the federal government to make a firm decision that would guide the lives of 327 million people is understandable, so it’s time to flex the 10th Amendment and give the states some of their money back to tackle the problems on their own terms. I think that’s something we can all agree on.


For my part, I’m trying to become more active in my own community by joining the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) to be a part of the decision making process with regards to making Charlottesville more friendly to non-auto forms of transit.

Some more resources to check out if you think there should be more experimentation with public policy include Symbiosis, Vox’s The Impact podcast, Strong Towns, and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. What are some of the other ways we can make change real instead of just talking about it? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Wallflowers

bloom blooming blossom blur

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I’m an introvert. I work from home, so beside running errands, I rarely leave my apartment. I’m slowly coming to the realization, however, that I need to be around people to maintain my mental well-being. Humans evolved as social creatures, despite what social Darwinists think, so even introverts need some human interaction. Despite all the technology devoted to communication, we still experience loneliness which can have severe impacts on our quality of life.

Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet made me wonder about all the ways the extrovert ideal espoused by western society is what has driven a lot of the problems we currently see with society. Every person as a salesperson is an alliance of extroversion and capitalism that leaves the rest of us behind. If you want to get ahead, especially in America, you’re expected to extrovert up or fake it.

To be fair, in some ways it’s easier than ever to be an introverted, highly sensitive, or shy person. There are remote work opportunities, home delivery of practically anything you need, and a plethora of ways to contact other humans. The problem is that all of these new methods of communication and the high-productivity mindset of the world can just as readily cause us to be overstimulated.

Community is a theme that appears throughout solarpunk, but how do we balance the opposing needs of social interaction and “me” time? Can we build communities with strong social networks while still respecting the personal space of those most sensitive to overstimulation?

In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, there are vegetated nooks and crannies of the megalopolis, Palmares Tres, where the characters are able to take a respite from the book’s action. Some of these are private gardens of the more well-to-do, and others are more or less micro-parks scattered throughout the city’s multistory structure.

I think this approach of having personal space at home, and quiet zones scattered throughout a community seems to offer a chance for people to get away from overstimulating situations while still allowing us to interact with the world.

A poll of introversion/extroversion

A poll from solarpunks on Sunbeam City about their preferences for human interaction

I suspect that even true extroverts would benefit from a little “me time,” and most humans probably fall into the ambivert category anyway. A super-scientific poll of solarpunks on Sunbeam City shows a strong preference for being with other people, but only some of the time. One thing I see come up again and again in discussions of communities is the need for people to be free to interact with others (or not) on their own terms. While social isolation is a serious issue in western society today, we should seek a happy medium, not race toward another extreme of no personal time or space.

How might a society carve out both communal and personal spaces? Here are just a few ideas. Feel free to comment with your own after the article!

  • Co-housing
    • Baugruppe and other forms of co-housing allow people to come together to build residential communities where some of the infrastructure or social load is distributed to the group. There’s no one form of co-housing, but I like to think of it like fancy dorms for grown-ups (this is a gross over-simplification).
  • Superblocks
    • Barcelona is currently implementing a plan to bring streets back to the people. This will increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as help rebuild the social fabric of neighborhoods.
  • Secret gardens
    • Having small parks or gardens distributed throughout a city could help give people safe spaces to duck into when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?