Mayor Daley’s Green Crusade
The longtime Chicago mayor has vowed to make his city the greenest in the nation.
May 16, 2004
The Greening of the City
By JANE JACOBS
The Vancouver Central Library's "green roof" conserves energy and reduces smog.
Even the most startling cultural and economic developments do not arise out of thin air. They are always built upon prior developments and upon a certain amount of serendipity and chance. And their consequences are unpredictable, even to their originators and the pioneers who believed in them and initiated them. After all, the first financially successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us remember when plastics were useful for little except toys, kitchen gadgets and decorative touches that taste-makers derided for their vulgarity. That was before strong, lightweight plastics, reinforced with fibers of glass, boron or carbon, replaced metals in the making of springs and joints. These plastics transformed serious spectacle frames like mine. At last I have frames that never hurt my nose and ears and that last for years without weakened joints. These plastics were originated by the makers of tennis rackets and of rods for surf and sport fishing.
I don't know whether the string of encounters that led from a fishing rod to my spectacle frames included an eavesdropper excited and indiscreet enough to blurt out, ''I know somebody you ought to talk to!'' But I do know that this is the kind of thing that happens in a society where people commonly believe the business of the whole world is their business. This seems to be what the developers of the boastful old office towers thought: they invited the public in to gape at their grand lobbies, buy newspapers and candy bars, use telephones and ride in their elevators to the roof to share the stunning views.
Today, those developers are gone. Their open and inviting towers were no match for the lure of the suburbs. For some time, skyscrapers haven't been the preferred headquarters for self-respecting corporations, nor for their legions of administrators, designers, researchers, engineers and marketers. In the Toronto area, where I live, much of this work has decamped to converted factory buildings in the suburbs, and in the United States to suburban office parks. In neither instance is the migration from the towers to the suburbs a reaction to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers. In the Toronto area, the trend began two decades ago and was well established by the late 1980's. In New York, the trend began still earlier, although the city tried to block it, and sometimes did, by offering corporations, especially those with high public profiles, inducements to keep their headquarters in the city.
Of course, the movement of headquarters to the suburbs became possible, and acquired the cachet of being up-to-date, because electronic communication releases executives and others from proximity to the firms with which they do business. Economy was another driving force, although it does not explain as much as is commonly supposed. Suburbanization conceals many hidden or denied expenses: heavy costs are downloaded on car-dependent workers and their families. Many other costs, including the redundant infrastructure that comes with low-intensity land use, fall on the taxpayer. The major suburban economy that indisputably remains, after all disregarded and denied costs are stripped away, is the amplitude and cheapness of suburban car parking, with which downtown offices can never compete.
There are also nonfinancial costs to this outmigration of the office. Many suburban workplaces are now deliberately designed to maximize contact and understanding among people and departments within an organization. They have become self-involved to the point of becoming introverted. They have also become attractive and interesting to the point of becoming narcissistic, if buildings can be said to be narcissistic. I think they can. Unfortunately, such introversion reduces the numbers and varieties of unplanned, indeed unplannable encounters. Maximizing an organization's self-regard and self-involvement risks minimizing contacts with people who may have different experiences, knowledge and ambitions.
The planning profession bears some responsibility for this outcome. In many ways, the modern suburbs it has devised and constructed bring to mind the worst features of the great plantations that have dominated most of human history. Like plantations, they are organized around the large-scale, preplanned production of a single crop or product. Look at them: monocultural housing tracts, erected on ever-larger scales, like so many endless fields of cabbages. Standardized shopping centers multiplying like so many flocks of sheep. In the realm of transportation, imitations of the old plantation-to-seaport rail corridors have been inappropriately adapted for travelers who need unlimited access to countless micro-destinations -- not limited access to relatively few macro-destinations.
Fortunately, there is one planning profession that understands the vibrancy of the old-fashioned office tower and the need to liberate itself from the monotony and rigidity of the plantation mentality. That profession is landscape architecture.
The last notable fling that landscape architects took with the land was in the 18th century, when English designers rejected geometric formal French gardens and their rigid rows of drastically lopped trees and fancifully pruned shrubs. For a time the new naturalism swept all before it -- or seemed to, first in England itself, then in the larger world. But it hardly outlasted its own originators before it dropped any pretense of nature as guide and mankind as steward. Its advocates began churning out dominating manor houses, grand drives and picturesque ruins and other mere romantic contrivances.
In a sense, today's urban landscape architects are picking up the revolutionary view of nature that dissipated more than two centuries ago, but this time around they are viewing mankind and nature as partners, with nature as the senior partner and human beings the apprentices.
To see the difference in these two approaches, there is no better place to look than Vancouver, where a partnership with nature is altering the urban skyline. The glass-and-masonry downtown courthouse at Robson Square has a ''green roof'' -- meaning a planted roof where natural evaporation in summer and natural insulation in winter curb the waste of energy. The city's massive new public library has also acquired a green roof. Equally striking are the otherwise ordinary Vancouver houses now topped by plants. Nor are all the roofs flat. The building trades have learned to conserve water and energy while lending beauty to buildings with sloping roofs, gables and other complications.
Many other places -- from Long Island City in Queens to Portland, Ore. -- now display green roofs, or are acquiring them. In Toronto, a huge recycled factory building has combined the practical virtues of the roof garden with charming outdoor nooks for snacking, a site for university experiments with vertical planting beds and a supply source for an in-house cafe's fresh herbs, tomatoes and other vegetables.
The quiet revolution wrought by today's landscape architects and ecologists owes much to the environmental movement and its influence. In the 70's, landscape architects in cities like Winnipeg and Toronto took the initiative of converting lawns that were called ''meadows'' into actual meadows: they did this by leaving them unmowed and allowing native grasses, daisies and buttercups to creep in and seed themselves. The usual objectors to anything new called the vanishing of standard green carpets uncouth, messy and a sign of the loss of disciplined civilization. But eventually, a significant sector of the population formed the necessary political groupings to change entrenched bylaws and practices in some areas. Some cities supplied backyard composters at cost to households and instituted programs for picking up the compost at curbside and taking it to nearby parks. Fan-shaped drainpipe extensions have been distributed to allow rainwater and snowmelt from roofs to seep into the ground.
Meanwhile, citizens have taken initiatives on their own: they've turned to the use of native plants, often previously forgotten locally; they've created tiny gardens in what would otherwise be wasted patches of land or, worse yet, mudholes; they've made permeable pavings to drain off rainwater.
As a result of this dispersed creativity, a stroll down an ordinary city street in Toronto is a very different experience today from what it was 30 years ago. Rejecting the once-universal front-yard green carpet, permissive gardeners no longer assume that gardens already know what they want to be when they grow up. Many people now watch to see what will sprout, and then what thrives and what does not, permitting the principle of survival of the fittest to serve as chief gardener.
In all of these efforts, urban landscape architects and their progeny have been influenced by the study of ecosystems. Unlike plantations, ecosystems are never monocultural. Their ideal scale is a size capable of sustaining populations of greatly diverse natural inhabitants that offer direct or indirect benefits to one another. Their mature forms are potentially unpredictable. Who could have predicted redwood forests?
In the age of the great plantation, it was widely supposed that cities and their people were unproductive parasites, idly battening on wealth created by rural and wild places. Many a smidgen of rural pasture, minus the grazing sheep, horses, mules, cattle or swine, has been inserted into cities with the deliberate intention of combating urban decadence. But this is a misunderstanding of social life and of nature alike. Indeed, in its need for variety and acceptance of randomness, a flourishing natural ecosystem is more like a city than like a plantation. Perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable complexity.
Jane Jacobs is the author, most recently, of ''Dark Age Ahead,'' which was published last week.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
In Mayor’s Plan, the Plastic Bag Will Carry a Fee
By DAVID W. CHEN
Published: November 6, 2008
In its struggle to make New York more green, the Bloomberg administration has tried discouraging people from using plastic bags. It has taken out ads beseeching residents to use cloth bags and set up recycling bins for plastic bags at supermarkets.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Bags at a Fairway store in Manhattan.
But now the carrots have been put away, and the stick is out: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has called for charging shoppers 6 cents for every plastic bag needed at the register.
If the proposal passes, New York City would follow the lead of many European countries and become one of the first places in the United States to assess a so-called plastic bag tax.
Seattle voters will weigh in on a similar measure next year, and other places, like Los Angeles and Dallas, have studied the idea.
City officials estimate that the fee could generate $16 million a year, a figure that Mr. Bloomberg would no doubt appreciate, given the lingering and concussive effects of the global economic crisis on the city’s economy.
But while the fee would burnish Mr. Bloomberg’s environmental record, it might not be a lasting source of revenue. Just a few weeks after Ireland adopted a similar, though much heftier tax in 2002 — charging shoppers 33 cents a bag — plastic bag use dropped 94 percent, and within a year, nearly everyone in that country had purchased reusable cloth bags. Still, the mayor believes that the 6-cent fee would have a major impact on consumers’ behavior.
Environmentalists like the sound of Mr. Bloomberg’s idea. But from the corner deli to the high-end grocery store, other New Yorkers are not so sure.
At the 2000 N.Y. Deli on Second Avenue at 103rd Street in East Harlem, the owner, Sammy Ali, 30, said his customers would balk at paying for plastic. “No way,” Mr. Ali said on Thursday. “They ask us for plastic bags for free as it is. When we say no, they curse us out. They demand a bag for a 25-cent bag of chips.”
At Citarella on the Upper West Side, a customer, Anita Ramautar, said she would begrudgingly change her behavior, if only to deny the city the pleasure of collecting the money. “I’ll bring my own bag,” she said. “Why would I give them 5 cents?”
Ah, but remembering to bring that bag is another matter altogether. After all, New York is a place where people are almost programmed to do things impulsively, because it is so easy to just hop into a bodega or a deli or a 99-cent store to buy anything, anytime, no forethought required.
“You have to get used to using these,” said Lauren Robertson, 54, an occupational therapist who lives in Washington Heights, who was loading groceries in canvas bags into her car in the Fairway parking lot on 130th Street near the Hudson River on Thursday morning. “So many times I’d get into the store and realize I forgot my bags in the car.”
Bloomberg officials say the proposal remains a work in progress. But for now, the plan is to charge customers 6 cents a bag at the point of sale, with 1 cent going to the store owner as an incentive to comply, said Marc La Vorgna, a Bloomberg spokesman. The officials did not elaborate on the mechanics of how the money would be remitted to the city, or how the law would be enforced.
It sounds like a tax, but officials call it a fee. The distinction is important: A fee requires approval only from the City Council, while a tax requires approval from the State Legislature.
Unlike a number of ideas that seem to have been inspired by experiments in other countries (such as exploring wind power, based on windmills which Mr. Bloomberg saw off the coast of England, or temporarily closing off streets to cars, based on a program in Bogotá, Colombia, that the mayor had heard about), this one, city officials say, was hatched in the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.
The idea is not totally foreign to the metropolitan area. The Ikea furniture chain, which opened its first New York City store in June, on the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook, began charging customers 5 cents for each plastic bag in 2007; since then, the store says, plastic bag use has been cut in half. Several large supermarket chains in the region, like Whole Foods Markets, offer refunds when customers bring reusable bags.
Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that he was encouraged by the idea.
“It’s simple, it’s streamlined, it advances environmental objectives and it generates some funds,” he said.
And one environmentally conscious resident who applauded the idea was Richard Marshall, a retired opera director, who was shopping outside a Key Food supermarket in Astoria, Queens, on Thursday.
“I think Bloomberg should start charging a dollar a bag,” he said, clutching two reusable bags. “All this waste. All these millions and millions of bags.
They don’t decompose, and they use all this oil to make them.”
Several City Council members said they were intrigued, but needed to see more details. Several did note, however, that it was only a few months ago that the Council passed — with the help of environmentalists and plastic bag manufacturers — a law requiring all stores that provide plastic bags to accept plastic bags for recycling, with some exceptions. And during the lengthy public debate over that bill, council members heard speakers testify that fees of at least 25 cents a bag needed to be imposed to get consumers to change their behavior.
Another concern is whether the tax would hurt poor residents, as well as small businesses, disproportionately — a concern mentioned by council members, environmentalists and manufacturers alike.
“A tax on plastic shopping bags would be regressive, with the most severe impacts on those who are least able to absorb them,” said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, a manufacturers’ lobby. “There are better ways to protect the environment, to encourage sustainable choices and to support recycling without making it harder for those who are already struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy.”
Some residents, meanwhile, complained that the timing of the plan could not have been any worse, given that the mayor recently announced plans to raise property taxes earlier than expected, cut financing for a host of programs and possibly raise the sales or income tax.
“We’re paying taxes on everything else; why not bags, right?” Juana Perez, 25, of East Harlem, said with a sigh. “How many other taxes is he going to raise?”
“These people,” she continued, indicating the neighborhood at large, “they already pay so much for rent and food.”
“New York City,” she said, shaking her head.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
Maybe this will stop the idiot clerks that double bag everything, regardless of weight.
When this subject was being discussed in the UK, someone said why don't we use brown paper bags like the Americans do in their supermarkets.
But, last time I was there I went into Fairway and they put my stuff into a brown paper bag, and then put the brown paper bag into a plastic bag.
Most supermarkets in the UK now sell Jute or Hessian Bags that are re-usable.
They charge about $1.50 for them but they are very popular.
I found that you cuold get a full gallon of OJ in a single bag, even carry it up 3 flights of stairs NP, but they seem to double everything JIC....
We reuse and recycle all of the ones we get (use some as smaller trash bags, some as kitty-litter disposal, and others with holes just go in recycle), but something like this may be needd in NYC.
Even if the $$ made diminishes after people buy cloth bags, you still have a reduction of the collection and disposal of solid waste. Also, you think cloth bags are free? How many plastic bags would you need to buy to equal one cloth bag? 100? That's a lot of grocery trips!
I think this will be a PITA, but it is a good idea overall.
6 Cents Is 6 Cents, but Time? That’s Something
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Published: November 9, 2008
I once lived in rural France for half a year, in a region of southern Burgundy known to epicures for its fine cattle and wine. It was also known for being the French boondocks — we got the feeling from Parisian friends that they thought we were living somewhere vaguely akin to a suburb of Binghamton. Indeed, driving to the closest supermarket took close to half an hour, sometimes longer on the occasions when my husband and I realized, 10 minutes into the drive, that we’d forgotten our plastic bags and had to turn right around to get them.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
The logo for E.Leclerc, a French supermarket where checkout was all about speed.
My husband and I weren’t particularly green at the time, which was seven years ago. Nor was anyone else in that rural part of France, as far as we could tell. What they were was frugal. “Everyone has porcupines in their pockets,” a neighbor there once told me — in other words, it really hurt to reach for their wallets. That mattered when it came to plastic bags, because you had to pay for them at the store.
The store, E.Leclerc, was a sprawling emporium that sold household goods along with groceries — think Kmart, only with an entire aisle devoted to 23 varieties of yogurt. The store bags were plastic, but a thickish plastic, with sturdy handles. We always intended to put the empty ones back in the car for the next trip, but every once in a while, they were left behind in the pantry, and then we’d find ourselves in a bind.
The bags were maybe 30 cents each, but it wasn’t just the financial hit that made us waste all that time turning around to go home. It was shame.
You’d start loading your groceries onto the conveyor belt, and then would have to explain to the clerk that you’d forgotten your bags. She would grimace. For some reason, ringing up the bags was slightly more laborious for her, and checkout time at E.Leclerc was a precise, even tense, exercise in speed.
Our neighbors timed their grocery shops to the minute: By 11:45, the store was empty, with everyone at home cooking up whatever they’d just bought for lunch. So not only was the store clerk irritated, but the people in back of us were too. Tell the clerk you need to buy bags, and you would get the same reaction that people in New York do when they announce, in some grocery store express line, that they have to pay by check. Groaning, shifting of feet, loud, deliberate sighing.
But it was not just the extra time it took that made those sighs so loaded, those groans so embarrassing. It was the knowledge that most likely, in that entire store, we were the only ones foolish enough to be shelling out $3 for bags that we had sitting around at home, empty, in some pile in the pantry. These were a frugal people, respectful of the porcupine. And we — well, we were Americans.
None of the tsk-tsking was about the landfill. It was about common sense, and the absurdity of the uselessly new. Our neighbors had 200-year-old armoires in their homes, not because they were exquisite antiques, but because someone in their family had bought them around then and they still worked just fine. One neighbor used to come by our house with what we’d call roadpear: pears, some a bit rotting, that he noticed by the side of the road on his way over. He would peel them and sauté them in butter, and we’d all be in roadpear heaven.
Critics of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s recently announced plan to charge a 6-cent fee for plastic bags have argued that the charge could not come at a worse time, now that people are counting every penny with care. But from a green point of view, it could not have come at a better time — even the city’s more affluent shoppers, who once might have considered 6 cents per bag a bargain for the convenience, might quickly change their habits.
So much of the green movement seems to be one big push to upgrade responsibly — in other words, to shop: for green makeup, green clothing, green carpeting. Charging for plastic bags may seem to be adding one more item to the shopping list, but with useless spending going far out of fashion, the opposite might be true.
If the mayor really wants to stop people from using plastic bags, he might consider requiring that the transaction take a few minutes longer. New Yorkers have gotten used to wasting money, but they’ll never put up with wasting time. Especially if you’re standing in front of them, wasting theirs.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
I usually do grocery shopping on the run -- while returning home after a long day out.
I'm really trying to train myself, when leaving the house, to pack my grocery-ready bags in my knapsack. So far I'm hitting about 40 % success. Hard to break those bad habits.
Would you rather pay 6˘ a bag for the cheapies, or, what did they say? 33˘ a bag for the more durable ones with handles?
Paying 6˘ may discourage some, but so long as you do not double bag, that could easily only amount to 60˘ for an order getting up towards $100!
0.6%? That isn't much of a discouragement. Even less than 5˘ a bottle......
(I would like to see the European model for bottle reclaimation. When there, it was obvious that a lot of the bottles (beer) were used more than once, and they were also a bit more sturdy. Maybe if we had a program that would charge 50 cents a bottle to buy them people would be more apt to return them when getting another case.....)
i know about this things its called green roofs