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WarkaWater Towers

March 31, 2014

While there are some really interesting projects and organizations working to get clean, fresh water to parts of rural Africa, I love the WarkaWater towers for their simplicity in concept and design. Arturo Vittori and Andreas Vogler of Architecture and Vision developed the structures for water collection and named them after the Warka, an endangered species of wild fig tree native to Ethiopia.

Fog present in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia is captured as condensation in the 30′ tall WarkaWater towers, which are capable of collecting up to 25 gallons of fresh water a day. Each tower is built with two sections: the framework which is usually built from stalks or juncus or bamboo, and an internal mesh of nylon and polypropylene fibers. Condensation follows the mesh down into the basket structure and into a basin at the bottom of the structure.


Each tower can be made from local materials (any sort of reed for the framework, and mesh for the interior element) and constructed within about a week with a team of four people. In addition to capturing water and providing a much need resource, the towers are designed to function as social hubs as well, cultivating and strengthening community much as the Warka trees do by providing shade and fruit.




photos via Architecture and Vision


A Year Later: ReBuild by Design

November 4, 2013

Just about a year after Superstorm Sandy landed on the east coast causing an estimated $50 billion in damages, a project called ReBuild by Design is entering its second stage to help guide us towards recovery. An initiative of Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the design competition is soliciting ideas to increase resiliency across the Sandy-affected region. The first part of the competition was just completed; each team presented several opportunities in a public forum based on a three month research and analysis period. From this feedback, each will narrow the focus to one idea and work with stakeholders and communities to develop the design solution. The final proposals will be evaluated in March, and winning teams will receive funding for implementation with disaster recovery grants.


The proposals range widely. One that stood out to me include the team of MIT + ZUS + URBANISTEN, which imagines resiliency districts at the edges of flood zones. Looking at a range of data, the team discovered that flood zones at river deltas are particularly vulnerable in that those areas often contain critical infrastructure, sacrificed ecosystem services and polluted land. As the team points out “39 of the 52 liquid fuel storage terminals in the NY/NJ area are located within the flood plain and these contain 80% of the total area fuel. 75% of the net annual generation comes from 27 power stations that are in flood zones.” With 2.5 million people living in the flood zone in NYC and greater New Jersey, it makes sense to focus on this fragile areas, particularly with the pressures of development as the urban population grows.

Another that I thought was interesting was from OMA: it looks at a comprehensive approach for Hoboken, one that merges infrastructure, landscape, policy and drainage solutions. It includes a greenway around the city that would function as city-wide drainage via the pumphouses, and using the city’s canals for water storage and recreation.Image

Many of the proposed solutions offer a new view of looking at urban spaces, one that precludes private development from the shoreline and flood-prone areas in favor of community protection. I also love that most of these solutions embrace the inevitability of change; hard infrastructure won’t keep the water out for long, we have to work with the probability of extreme weather and design something that is as flexible and adaptable as possible.

Many more design opportunities can be found here.

images via OMA.

SR Sandy Project

August 24, 2013

Stefan Rurak of Brooklyn-based SR Furniture has initiated a project called the SR Sandy Project to reuse debris from the storm. After salvaging a sugar maple, he began making pendants, and is now building stools like the ones below and taking custom furniture orders. A portion of the proceeds all go to the Mayor’s Fund to help with the relief effort.



I’m also particularly fond of this table, made from reclaimed wood from a New York water tower.


Imageall images via SR

Mt. Everest’s Pollution Problem

June 24, 2013


photo via Martin Edstrom

It’s been just sixty years since the first ascent up the venerable Mt. Everest, but during that time, things have shifted dramatically: It’s no longer just the climbers that face danger, but the Himalayan ecosystem as well. With greater numbers of visitors to the mountain and hundreds of climbers every season, comes accumulating waste and pollution. 


image via

Climbers clog passes like the Hillary Step (shown below), some waiting as long as two hours before they can continue to the summit.


As climbers ascend, roughly 50 tons of trash is discarded every year including oxygen tanks, food packaging, climbing equipment, and human waste. 


Thankfully, people behind projects like Saving Mount Everest are working to draw attention to this growing pollution problem and to begin to put clean up efforts and plans in place. Waste bins, toilets, and a must-sign Code of Conduct for climbers are just some of the ways the project hopes to keep the mountain cleaner. In 2011 alone, team members brought 8 tons of garbage off the mountain. 


It’s a tricky balance between the tourism and money Mt. Everest brings into the local economy, and sustaining the environment and ecosystem that draws people to the place to begin with.

Incredible timelapse shows changing planet

May 19, 2013

Using Landsat satellite data, Google Earth has compiled global timelapse GIFs of our planet to show how it has changed over the past 29 years. From looking at the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to the drying of the Aral Sea to the urban growth of Las Vegas, these are fascinating compilations of data that visualize our impact on the planet. My only wish is that you could slow it down a little bit more.

aral sea 1985Aral Sea 1985

Aral sea 2012Aral Sea 2012

To get a better sense of how much growth and change has occurred over the past 29 years, watch these. And imagine what we would see if we had satellite imagery from the past hundred or even thousand years. The coolest part is you can search anywhere in the world and watch a timelapse!

A Bright Future: the MwangaBora Lamp

May 2, 2013


Hundreds of millions of households in rural areas without electricity rely on the light provided by kerosene lanterns, but these also have an adverse affect on health and the environment. Between 7 -9% of the kerosene in wick lamps is converted into black carbon when burned, a major driver in climate change (right up there with CO2). People also inhale the smoke causing myriad health problems, among them respiratory issues and eye damage.

Evans Wadongo grew up in rural Kenya where much of his studying and work was done by the light of a kerosene lamp. He grew up seeing a disparity in education between those who had access to electricity and those who didn’t. When he was just 19 and studying at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, he designed an alternative to kerosene lamps: He engineered a solar-powered LED lamp, called the MwangaBora meaning “good light”.

Evans Wadongo is now the Chairman and Executive Director of Sustainable Development For All-Kenya (S.D.F.A-Kenya) where he continues his work under the initiative ‘Use Solar, Save Lives‘ to help promote the use of clean sources of energy in Kenya. He also heads the Just One Lamp organization, which he says aims to “directly impact at least five hundred thousand people by 2015 and raise a million people out of poverty by 2018.”


The lamps are now part of a display at a New York gallery, Friedman Benda, where sales are helping to raise awareness and money, and provide thousands of lamps to households in rural Africa. Innovation at its best.


One Week Later

April 22, 2013


The news has been my houseguest for the past week. First, images of explosions, marathoners stumbling over their last strides, chaos, and raw emotion intruded into an otherwise beautiful, relaxing Patriot’s Day. I watched the news splashing across the tv screen, trying to wrap my mind around what was happening, and perhaps more to the point, why. Then I became glued to my iPhone as friends, family, and people from all corners of my life were trying to figure out where I was and if I was ok.

In the aftermath of the bombings, I turned once again to the tv, but also to twitter, facebook, news websites to keep up with the developments, but many of those days seemed a blur and only to reiterate what I had seen so many times on Monday afternoon. As the week went by, I streamed eloquent speeches by numerous city officials, and by the President, happy to put words to all that I was feeling. By Thursday, when the FBI showed two suspects in hope that crowdsourcing would help draw them out, the news had made the transition from a welcome short-term visitor who provided useful information, to an emotional, needy one who caused me stress. How many times must I be confronted with images that reinforce the fragility of life? The proximity of hate?

After a walk to try to help absorb (and simultaneously remove) the images I had seen so many times throughout the day, I ended up on Boylston street where a makeshift memorial to the victims has forever implanted in my mind. TV be damned, this actually made those hairs on my arm stand up. Finally Friday morning I awoke thinking I might go for a run but instead heard my phone buzzing filled with messages to stay safe and stay home from work. Good thing the media had pretty much moved in; as fast as my fingers could go I was on Facebook and Twitter, the tv a constant noise in the background telling me that the two bombers had been living a mere 10 minutes from where I was sitting in my pajamas.

And, lockdown. Just me, my roommate, and as much information as the internet can contain. We watched the news for 11 hours straight, hoping minute by minute, that this would all be over. After what felt like a bad mashup of CSI, criminal minds, and Homeland, it was over. Videos of people celebrating in Boston Common took over large chunks of the news websites; patriotism lit up the city like fireworks on the fourth of July.

But the news remained a permanent fixture in my life, even as I ran out of the city, it was all anyone wanted to discuss. Who are these people? Why did they do this? Where is Chechnya?

Today marks one week since the bombings. I can say that thankfully, the news has pretty much moved out. I no longer feel trapped under its heavy addicting presence, like if I moved away I’d surely miss some crucial development or public safety concern.

As the events of the past week settle in and I’ve had the chance to reflect, I can join the symphony of voices to say that I am proud to be a Bostonian. I have come to realize the power of community. The immediacy with which people turned to help is astounding. A google doc detailing free places to stay was viral in no time, chalk messages of strength and love are all over the back bay, anyone with any medical training or inclination jumped into the fury to bring people to area hospitals . . . the sense of community was palpable. Boston is a strong community; one that believes in the power of sports to instill spirit, one full of generosity and and one that finds strength among loss.

So yes, it is perhaps more dangerous to live in a city and congregate in large groups as many people did around the Boston Marathon finish line, but it is perhaps nearly as dangerous to avoid that risk. Recently, a number of thoughtful articles have articulated both the danger and the resilience that stems from us living in such close proximity and interacting as we do in cities. The Boston Globe published a great article about the vulnerability of urban living, stating that within that risk may also lie the seeds of recovery. An MIT urban planning student published a thoughtful post about the systems we’ve created and perhaps the ripple effects those systems may create. The Atlantic Cities describes the psychology of a city lockdown and how the city actually locked itself down.

Cities are constantly changing, and hopefully in the face of natural disasters and horrific events like the one a week ago, we can help cities become increasingly resilient. As was echoed across the Commonwealth today at 2:50pm, just a week after the bombings, we are #BostonStrong. I believe in the power of people now more than ever, and I believe in the power of community. Happy Earth Day!


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