Tuesday, October 31, 2006

From warheads to coffee machines

From the creative re-use of former weapons of mass destruction department:

My housemate, the taxi driver, somehow came across this link and, knowing my fascination with both geography and coffee, passed it along to me.

The full story is quoted below (just in case the link goes away -- dunno if the BBC times out their stories like the NYTimes and other online publications sometimes do), but here's the synopsis: African (Ethiopian) man takes old artillery shells left over from the Eritrean/Ethiopian (civil?) war, and turns them into coffee machines.

My first thought is: "Oh man, that's pretty cool."

I wonder, though... they're pretty vague in the article about what type of machine it is that is produced. If it channels water, coffee and milk, does that mean that it's actually an espresso machine? I've never seen an espresso machine that channels milk. Espresso machines channel steam, sure, which is used to steam milk... but actually channeling milk? I kind of wonder how much this writer really knows about the subject. The finished product looks like a European espresso machine, but I wonder if the finished product photo really is one of *his* finished products, or just a generic shot of an espresso machine in a coffee

In any case, I would love to find out more about this topic, as creative re-use of any old thing into a new thing is of interest to me, whether it be turning toilets or cars into vegetable planters, or bombshells into coffee machines.

Here's the full story: (click on the link to access the original version, complete with photos)

From weapons of war to great coffee
By Amber Henshaw
BBC News, Mekele

In biblical times they said "turn your swords into ploughshares", now in northern Ethiopia a tradesman is bringing the saying into the 21st Century.

In his workshop in Mekele, just 200km from Ethiopia's border with Eritrea, Azmeraw Zekele is turning burnt-out shells into cylinders used in coffee machines.

Most of the shells are left over from the 1998-2000 war between the two countries.

The workshop is made up of three quite small ramshackle rooms that lead from one to another with sunlight coming through the gaps, but it is a hive of activity for Mr Azmeraw and his six staff.


"The shells were dropped in Ethiopia during the war with Eritrea. They were dropped so people hid them in their homes and now they sell them," Mr Azmeraw says.

He uses old mortar shells, which stand about one metre high, to make his coffee machines.

He cuts off the pointed ends, seals them and puts holes into the aluminium cylinder. The cylinder channels the water, coffee and milk.

He told me he got the idea nine years ago when he was doing maintenance work.

"I saw some shells being sold for a different purpose and I studied them.

"They were used for washing clothes or crushing things. After studying them I came up with the idea of using them as a cylinder for a coffee machine."

Coffee is a major export from Ethiopia and plays a big role in life.

After meals, the traditional coffee ceremony allows family and friends to get together to share news and discuss the issues of the day.

Coffee shops are also popular.

Fair price

Cafe owner Haile Abraha bought one of Mr Azmeraw's machines a few months ago.

"I had one other imported machine but this one is much better. It is relatively cheap. The price is fair. The machine is good and it makes good coffee."

But Mr Azmeraw says it can be difficult to convince people to buy because of the mortar shell.

"These shells have all been used. We all need peace and we don't want war but once these shells have been used, we should use our skills to do something with them.

"Sometimes I think about the fact they were used for war but I want to change them to do something good. They could be a symbol of war but I am doing something good out of the bad."

Since he started production five or six years ago, Mr Azmeraw has sold hundreds of machines - he cannot remember exactly how many.

Each one costs about $1,300. Most of them have been sold to people in the Mekele area.

But in the future he hopes to sell them more further afield - maybe even to coffee shops and restaurants in Eritrea.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/10/31 14:37:37 GMT

So, the article says that these machines are about $1300 each. That sounds like a commercial-quality espresso machine with double boilers to me, based on the current market prices of other espresso machines. For comparison, my home espresso machine, with a single boiler, is about $500, and it's made from all-new materials in Italy.

Adaptive re-use. My buddy was just in L.A., where an old pwer plant has been converted into a nightclub. The club is in the basement, with a chic bar and a stage set up apparently amidst the old generators and industrial equipment, all shined & cleaned up for the occasion.

How else can we take the out-dated relics of the 20th century military/industrial complex and re-use them for the 21st century's information society?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Urban Renewal Districts and Tax-Increment Financing

This post is all about Urban Renewal Districts (URs) and Tax-Increment Financing (TIF).

Apparently, there are some people in the community (such as Paul Edgar, a contributor to the blog Portlandtransport.com) who believe that urban renewal districts come at too high a cost, because they divert tax funding from essential services (such as police, fire, schools and homeless shelters) in order to fund "non-essentials" such as new transportation projects, like the Portland Streetcar.

This is my response to Paul Edgar and this argument:


What you point out about Urban Renewal districts requiring a temporary subsidy from the rest of the city during their lifetime, in order to cover other costs associated with their growth, may be a valid externality caused by Tax Increment Financing, but it's not a reason to discard TIF financing for transportation projects.


Because it can be shown that a majority of the increase in value, due to increased development, that happens in these districts is directly CAUSED by the transportation project in question. If that project causes the increase in the tax base, why shouldn't it be funded in part by a portion of the increase? This is a simple user fee -- those properties closest to the project, which receive the most direct tangible benefit, themselves will pay the most to make the project happen.

Cities like London are using this principle on a larger scale as they discuss options for expanding their underground system. As you might imagine, a new subway line can cause billions in increased value (new development) in areas that it travels through. Why not tap this to partially pay for the line?

Finally, I haven't seen you prove that your actual individual tax obligation has gone up as a result of Urban Renewal Districts. I don't think it has. Your tax obligation is a function of the value of your own property, as well as your annual income level. These are both set. If you happen to live in an Urban Renewal District, you may have a different (but valid) complaint, that a new transportation project has added too much benefit to your neighborhood, and your property taxes have risen beyond your means as a result.

Otherwise, your tax burden has remained the same. The only thing that has changed are the decisions made at City Hall as to where they allocate the resources of government. These decisions are always a shell game anyways -- take money from the West Hills to pay for upkeep on streets in Southeast, or take money from Southeast to pay for increased police patrols in Northeast. That's why we have a municipal government, to provide services to all according to their need, and to tax all according to their ability to pay.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Plug-In Electric Hybrid Cars & Exploding Batteries

Hmm. I've seen a lot of blog posts that claim that plug-in hybrids are a bad idea because they will charge off the grid, which has a lot of nuclear reactors, coal, oil and natural gas power plants connected to it -- all things that are, generally speaking, environmentally bad.

However, the one thing that I see little mention of -- and this is a very, very critical point -- is that most people will likely charge their plug-in hybrids at home.

At night.

When demand for electricity is at its lowest.

When most power plant operators would kill to have just enough more demand so that they could keep the plants running all night long, rather than scaling them back or shutting them off at night.

That's the reason PG&E (that's Pacific Gas & Electric, not Portland General) claims for having signed on as a supporter of plug-in hybrids, and why I expect to see other power companies sign up as well.

Tesla Motors is set to introduce a new all-electric sportscar, which will be chargeable from a wall socket (110v). They will also be selling solar kits for their cars.... not, that is, cars with solar panels mounted on them (personally, this is actually the direction I would like to see hybrids go, solar panels on the roof/hood/trunk of the car to help put some additional juice in the battery), but solar panels for the roof of your house. They'll come and install a solar system at your house if you select it as an option when you buy the car, that way you can generate your own electricity to help offset that used to charge the car.

Finally, as others have pointed out, the issue of exploding batteries is a non-starter, for three reasons:

1) Only a handful of laptops actually exploded, out of all the laptops produced with that technology. That's a pretty low failure rate for any technology, especially when compared with automobiles.

2) Cars tend to explode at a much higher rate. I know of two friends who have had exploding cars in the past -- one a Subaru, the other (two consecutive) Mercedes. Fords are also known to explode (Pintos, trucks, etc.). To my knowledge, none of my friends, or any of their friends, have ever had a laptop come close to exploding (though, I have observed the recognized issue of poorly-ventilated laptops that overheat, but this is related more to the high clock speed of the CPU and a lack of ventilation fans than anything else). While my friends represent a pretty small sample of the global populatio, I think it is still statistically significant.

3) The technology used to produce batteries for hybrid cars is improving by the minute. Given that cars have built in air/liquid cooling systems, their ability to keep their batteries cool (along with their engines) seems to be one of those things that is, well, just engineered in.

See my blog post here for more info on what I think an ideal, all-purpose plug-in hybrid vehicle would look like... and when I say all-purpose, I mean rural, urban, off-road, everything:


Let me know what you think.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

2006 Endorsements Cheat Sheet

Here's the Woodsong ticket.

I'm registered to vote in Multnomah County, Oregon, but I'll start at the top so that people in other jurisdictions will be able to read the most relevant races first. Note that I may have ommitted some races that I'm either not eligible to vote in myself, that have only one candidate running, or which just rall beneath my radar.

Also, because I'm hip to some of the issues there, I will provide a couple of endorsements for California (most notably -- NO on 90!!).

So, without further ado -- ENDORSEMENTS 2006 CHEAT SHEET (Quick Reference):
(For a more complete discussion of each endorsement, click here.


Measure 39: NO (Hamstring Local Government by Banning Private Property Condemnation)

Measure 40: NO (Allow Conservatives to Elect Supreme Court Justices by District)

Measure 41: NO (Screw the State of Oregon on Federal Tax Returns)

Measure 42: NO (Sizemore's Scam to Lower His Car Insurance Bill)

Measure 43: NO (Prohibit Women Under 18 from Having the Right to Choose for Themselves)

Measure 44: YES (Gives Prescription Drug Coverage to Uninsured Oregonians)

Measure 45: YES (Re-Approve the Term Limits for the Legislature that Career Politicians Tried to Remove)

Measure 46: YES (Constitutionally Authorizes Campaign Finance Reform in Oregon)

Measure 47: YES (Enacts Campaign Finance Reform in Oregon)

Measure 48: NO (Prohibit the State of Oregon from providing enough essential/basic services)

Statewide/National Office:

United States Representative in Congress, 3rd District: Earl Blumenauer

Governor of the Great State of Oregon: Ted Kulongoski

Nonpartisan State Judiciary, Position Six: Virginia Linder


26-81: YES (Keep the Libraries Open)


26-80: YES (Parks, Greenspaces, Habitat, Trails, Small Furry Creatures)

Portland School District No. 1JT

26-84: YES (Keep the Schools Open & Provide Quality Education for our Children)

City of Portland

Measure 26-86: YES (Start to fix the freakin' police/fire retirement/disability system)


Measure 90: NO (Prevent kooky anti-government types from manifesting their agenda)

Marin/Sonoma Counties

Measure R: YES (Sonoma-Marin Rail Project & 70-mile Bicycle Path)

My Endorsements 2006

Here's the Garlynn Woodsong ticket. I'm registered to vote in Multnomah County, Oregon, but I'll start at the top so that people in other jurisdictions will be able to read the most relevant races first. Note that I may have ommitted some races that I'm either not eligible to vote in myself, that have only one candidate running, or which just rall beneath my radar.

Also, because I'm hip to some of the issues there, I will provide a couple of endorsements for California (most notably -- NO on 90!!).

So, without further ado -- ENDORSEMENTS 2006 (summary sheet to follow in separate post):


Measure 39

Prohibits Public Body From Condemning Private Real Property If Intends To Convey To Private Party

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Dicussion: People are all up in arms across the nation about the issue right now. Ignore the hyperbole, and ask yourself where the problem is that so desperately needs to be solved. ...I'm waiting? No response? Fine. Don't approve this measure -- it will unnecessarily restrict the activities of local governments, it's poorly written, and it goes too far.

Measure 40

Amends Constitution: Requires Oregon Supreme Court Judges And Court Of Appeals Judges To Be Elected By District

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: Please read this post if you'd like to become more informed on this issue. Basically, this is a stealth measure by national conservatives to try to load the court system with less-liberal judges, Federalist Society judges like Antonin Scalia. The Federalist types think that they are more likely to get conservative justices elected by district than by statewide election. Don't let them. Oregon's current court system actually works quite well (just check out the link at the beginning of this paragraph if you're not so sure). In fact, this is the problem -- judges in Oregon tend to judge by the letter of the law, rather than taking into account idealogy. This pisses conservatives off to no end. Let them stay pissed. Also, Oregon voters already shot down this scheme in 200. Why are they being asked about it again? Let's vote ABSOLUTELY NOT on this measure in 2006!

Measure 41

Allows Income Tax Deduction Equal To Federal Exemptions Deduction To Substitute For State Exemption Credit

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: Basically, the greedy penny-pinchers who wrote this measure figure hell, they're already paying taxes to the feds, why should they also pay taxes to the state? Why can't they deduct their federal taxes from their state taxes? Well, screw those tax-dodgers, because they're trying to screw all of us. The State of Oregon provides the most essential services to Oregon residents, and it does so because it receives tax revenue to fund its operations. The Federal Government goes around invading other countries and giving pork to Halliburton. Why would anybody in their right mind want to starve the state government because they were already feeding the federal government? Now, if this measure somehow were to be the reverse -- that you could deduct state taxes from your federal tax return -- I might be more convinced (of course, that couldn't happen, because there is no national initiative system, and the national tax code can only be re-written by the Federal Congress). But, this measure seeks to screw the state government, and uses the federal tax system as the vehicle to do so. Evil, I tell you. Evil. Just say no.

Measure 42

Prohibits Insurance Companies From Using Credit Score or "Credit Worthiness" In Calculating Rates or Premiums

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: OK, I'll admit that this issue is a bit Vague. You know why I'm recommending a NO vote? Because this measure is sponsored by Bill Sizemore, and I just don't trust that slimy creep. I can't remember a single example of something that he's sponsored that has actually turned out to be a net good thing for the State of Oregon. Not one. Screw him. Plus, this insurance actuary, who claims to not do much business in Oregon, says that this measure will likely just lead to rate increases (perhaps on the order of 20%, but it's hard to say) for the 60-70% of Oregon insurance consumers who already have healthy insurance scores.

Measure 43

Requires 48-Hour Notice to Unemancipated Minor's Parent Before Providing Abortion; Authorizes Lawsuits, Physician Discipline.

Recommended vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: This is pretty basic stuff. I'm pro-choice, no matter what the age of the woman involved. If she's pregnant and 15 and she doesn't have a good relationship with her parents, this isn't the time for bridge-building. Let the poor woman make up her own mind.

Measure 44

Allows Any Oregon Resident Without Prescription Drug Coverage To Participate In Oregon Prescription Drug Program

Recommended vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: It's a small step forward towards overall health care reform. Basically, this just expands the safety net slightly to help people without health insurance to meet their care needs.

Measure 45

Amends Constitution: Limits State Legislators: Six Years As Representative, Eight Years As Senator. Fourteen Years In Legislature.

Recommended vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: Here's what this vote comes down to: Oregon is supposed to have a citizen legislature, which means a legislature composed of ordinary citizens, not career politicians. If a politician wants to make a career out of politics, they must prove themselves in the legislature, then move on to a higher office. "Four years ago, responding to a lawsuit dreamed up by legislators themselves, the courts struck down the most popular initiative amendment in state history. In 1992, term limits had earned 70% approval and 1,005,706 YES votes, but the politicians didn't care about that." (from http://www.oregontermlimits.org/) So, Oregonians have already chosen term limits, but politicians chose to ignore the will of the voters and remove those limits. It's time for the voters to say "stop f'ing with us" and vote again for term limits for the Oregon Legislature.

Measure 46

Amends Constitution: Allows Laws Regulating Election Contributions, Expenditures Adopted By Initiative Or 3/4 Of Both Legislative Houses

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: All this measure does is to amend the Oregon Constitution to make campaign finance limitations legal. Currently, the Constitution forbids such limitations. This measure does not actually enact such limitations, it just authorizes them.

Measure 47

Revises Campaign Finance Laws: Limits Or Prohibits Contributions And Expenditures; Adds Disclosure, New Reporting Requirements

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: In short? GET THE MONEY OUT OF POLITICS. Measure 47 is the companion measure to Measure 46. 46 makes campaign finance reform legal in the State of Oregon; 47 enacts such reform.

Measure 48

Amends Constitution: Limits Biennial Percentage Increase In State Spending To Percentage Increase In State Population, Plus Inflation

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: Actually, we're hoping that people will vote HELL NO on this measure by overwhelmingly disapproving it. This is really awful policy. In the first year, it would mandate billions of cuts to state government, only to be followed by more cuts later. And what is it that the state government does that is so bad that it needs to be cut and have its growth limited? Educate Children? Protect the Environment? Maintain the road system? No thanks -- I want the State of Oregon to remain strong, competitive and healthy. This measure stinks of sabotage to the Oregon political system by out-of-state political players.

Statewide/National Office:

United States Representative in Congress, 3rd District

Recommended Vote: Earl Blumenauer

Rationale/Discussion: The only problem with re-electing Earl to Congress is that we're not electing Earl to the Senate yet to replace that jackarse Gordon Smith. Earl's been our man ever since he was on the Portland City Council. He single-handedly started the Washington D.C. Bicycle Caucus, for representatives who ride their bikes to work and/or generally support the cause. Need we say more? He more or less created the Small Starts program, to help new, small, efficient transit lines like the Portland Streetcar and the Eugene/Springfield BRT project get off the ground. He's just an all-around great guy.

Governor of the Great State of Oregon

Recommended Vote: Ted Kulongoski

Rationale/Discussion: (See separate endorsement post here. Ted's just a great guy. He's holding the line, he's keeping Oregon green, he may even be a hero. Don't let the Republicans get any victories in 06, they don't deserve it. Vote Ted in 2006.

Nonpartisan State Judiciary, Position Six

Recommended Vote: Virginia Linder

Rationale/Discussion: Jack Roberts was the former GOP candidate for Governor, who then redrew his application in the face of low poll results, and submitted one for the State Supreme Court instead. Tell him to just go home and, say, retire or something. Vote for Virginia Linder -- she's already a judge, she knows what she's doing, and let's keep women on the bench, rather than replacing them with men, shall we?



Referred to the People by the Board of County Commissioners
Renew Five-Year Local Option Levy to Continue Library Services

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: Multnomah County has one of the finest library systems anywhere, bar none. This is because the voters of the county consistently back the library with their wallets. Portlanders value knowledge, books, education and community. This measure is a litmus test for whether you are a true Portlander or whether you should just move (back?) to Orange County.



Referred to the People by the Metro Council
Bonds to Preserve Natural Areas, Clean Water, Protect Fish, Wildlife

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: This measure will also help fund the build-out of a regional bicycle/pedestrian trail system. I can't wait to ride my bike all around the region on the finished product, and observe the local flora and fauna close-hand in the habitat that is preserved as a result of this measure. See above -- this measure is another litmus test for whether you are a true Portlander or whether you should just move (back?) to Orange County.

Portland School District No. 1JT


Portland Schools Levy for Teachers, Classrooms, Educational Programs, Learning Materials

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: OK, so there seems to be some tax increases on the ballot this fall. You know why? Because Bill Sizemore and other anti-tax types managed to hoodwink the voters into passing Measure 5, way back at the beginning of the 1990s, and the state, at all levels, has never found a suitable replacement funding mechanism. So, you know what? The state now has to come back to the voters, over and over again, cap in hand, in order to fund those basic services which we take for granted. This is a third measure that is a litmus test for whether you are a true Portlander or whether you should just move (back?) to Orange County.

City of Portland

Measure 26-86

Amends Charter: Changes Fire and Police Disability and Retirement System

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: This measure claims to fix the fire/police retirement system in Portland, which if left unfixed, will grow to include billions in unfunded liability over the coming decades (according to this. Virtually nobody is opposed to this measure. It's a needed fix to a broken system, not a referendum on anything.


Measure 90

Bars state/local governments from condemning or damaging private property to promote other private projects, uses. Limits government's authority to adopt certain land use, housing, consumer, environmental, workplace laws/regulations. Put on the Ballot by Petition Signatures

Recommended Vote: NO

Rationale/Discussion: This is just bad policy. Bankrupt government so that private property owners can maximize profit on their investment? Hell no. If you're such a bad real estate investor/developer that your only recourse to make a profit is to sue the government, you should just quit now. Get out of the game and let the professionals take over. If you can't win by playing by the rules, don't play. Don't make everybody else pony up out of pocket so that you can still make a profit. Government is for the citizens, by the citizens. Which means that it represents all of our money. I don't want any individual to be able to take all of our money just because they disagree with the rule of law, with particular planning decisions, or with land use and zoning in general.

Marin/Sonoma Counties

Measure R

Funds the establishment of a commuter rail system from the Larkspur Ferry Terminal in Marin County to the most Northernmost Sonoma County city, CLoverdale; also fund a companion bicycle trail along the entire length of the alignment.

Recommended Vote: YES

Rationale/Discussion: Have you ever driven in rush hour on Highway 101 in Marin/Sonoma Counties? I have. They *need* this train, just so those people who aren't already insane, can save their peace of mind by riding the train rather than going nuts in freeway traffic. On a more personal note, I can't wait to ride my bike on the bike path that will be created.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Is Ford leading the way?

Ford has apparently heard the criticism that they manufacture the least fuel-efficient fleet of any automaker in America -- and they're trying to do something about it.

I have previously blogged the specifications for my ideal all-purpose hybrid vehicle, and sent copies/links to this blog post to all of the major automakers, in hopes of either a response, or the production of a vehicle meeting most (if not all of) the specifications.

As you might imagine, I received no direct responses.

However, some of the images in this video lead me to believe that Ford may be leaning in the right direction:


I saw images of a "Ford Diesel Hybrid" and heard mention of plug-in electric vehicles. If Ford managed to put both of these features together into a small SUV, and could use them to get to the 45mpg mark, I think they would then be 90% towards meeting my specifications. Just add some solar panels on the roof and the hood, and pretty much the rest of my specifications are just a question of add-ons at that point (and they are even feasible after-market add-ons).

Which other automakers may also be contending to meet these goals?

Time will tell. I had hoped that Toyota might be, but now I'm not positive, as their Highlander Hybrid vehicle doesn't even break the 35mpg mark.

The customers are waiting. When will the automakers step up to the plate and deliver? Which will be the first to score a real hit, much less a home run?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Endorsement: Ted Kulongoski for Oregon Governor, 2006

I've got one really good reason to vote for Teddy Kulongoski: He can hold the line.

Hasn't anybody learned anything from the past 6 years? Republicans try to make it seem like there is very little difference between them and the Democrat -- like Bush did to Gore in 2000 -- in order to get their foot in the door and get elected. Then, once they're in office, they demonstrate exactly how much difference there really is (do I really need to make a list here?).

I see Saxton following the same playbook. He tries to portray Teddy K as a do-nothing Dem who doesn't offer proposals, get anything done or really even vary too greatly from Saxton himself. This is just his strategy to weasel into office. DON'T BUY IT.

Teddy K., as the Governor of Oregon, really just needs to do his best to hold the line. He needs to protect the land use system, protect the environment, keep the schools open, keep the police force staffed, and balance the budget. Anything else is gravy.

Sure, we would all love to see a progressive reformer in the statehouse, one with real vision, charisma, and the ability to make Oregon into an even better state. Don't be fooled, however -- this man is most definitely NOT Ron Saxton. At least with Kulongoski, if such a character were to come along and dominate the legislature such that it were to produce some good bills, he would sign them.

So, why will I be voting for Kulongoski, even if he's not my dream candidate?

Because he'll hold the line. He'll keep the state from sliding backwards. He'll at least carry the torch for all the accomplishments which have been made thus far.

And who's to say that he won't, like Clinton in his second term, manage to pull off some rather impressive accomplishments that just can't be predicted yet? I'm willing to take the gamble that he might.

Kulongoski -- good enough for me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Portland is the city of civility and transportation

A visitor from South Africa recently came to Portland and, upon his return to his home country, penned this article to describe his impressions.

It's such an interesting viewpoint, to have Portland described from the viewpoint of an outsider, that I just had to re-print it here in its entirety. It reminds me of descriptions that I've read of Curitiba, Brazil, or even of some of the passages from the book Ecotopia that describe that fictional Pacific Northwest (Cascadia) country/society.

So, without further ado, here it is.


begin article:
Portland is the city of civility and transportation

The Oregon city is leading the way when it comes to civil society and an environmentally friendly way of life. It is clean, green and a pleasant place to live, writes Neil Fraser.

October 16, 2006

By Neil Fraser

I WAS in Portland, in the United States, last week attending the annual International Downtown Association (IDA) conference. Portland, with a population of 550 000, is known locally as both "The City of Roses" and "The City that Works". I would offer another – "The Green City of Civility and Transportation".

Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, in his book, Putting Faith in Neighbourhoods, wrote: "The late University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils has written, 'In civility lies the difference between a well-ordered and disordered liberal democracy.' Civility is the virtue that makes civil society – that collection of voluntary associations, neighbourhood groups and other non-governmental institutions such as congregations and families – work. And a strong civil society sets the foundation for effective markets, economic opportunity and a genuine sense of empowerment and community …"

Portland resonates with a strong civil society. It is apparent in the high level of communication that takes place from the city council to its citizens; in the high level of resultant dialogue that takes place between its citizens and its council; in the pride that its citizens have in its achievements and in the mutual respect and courtesy that citizens have for one another. This latter attribute was demonstrated to me when a local resident, a family friend, took me for a drive through the suburbs. If a pedestrian steps off a pavement, the traffic stops, irrespective of whether it is a formal pedestrian crossing or not; and no-one hoots. Bicycle riders, some 2 000 enter the downtown daily, are provided with hundreds of kilometres of dedicated lanes throughout the city and are given right of way by vehicle drivers. Drivers are courteous to one another – I can't remember hearing any hooting at all. Maybe that is because there is a small taxi population; the public transport is so good that taxis are almost rendered redundant. There is a palpable lack of aggression on the roads.

The city and its citizens are the most environmentally aware of any city that I have visited. The city goes out of its way to encourage cycling and walking and provides the amenities to do so. Apart from encouraging "greening" through appropriate rates rebates, many people collect used cooking oil from restaurants which they clean and process to produce a replacement or top-up for diesel, because this is a cleaner, less polluting form of energy for their cars.

Rates rebates
There is quite a high rainfall, and Portland experienced a problem with polluted stormwater runoff into their rivers, and so offers a rates rebate to properties that have taken positive action to overcome the problem. One mixed-use building that I visited, an industrial warehouse in a previous life, had a "green roof" consisting of a soil-cover planted with a particular type of succulent. The plants absorb a great deal of water and the balance is fed into bio-sumps for other uses. Only environmentally friendly businesses may become tenants – ranging from small banks that provide financial support to environmental projects and a sports shop whose entire staff bicycle to work to a pizza-place whose extractor fans from its pizza ovens provide the hot air to warm water. The parking lot has place for electric cars to plug into. And this isn't just an isolated example; Portlanders think this way.

A former industrial area is being entirely redeveloped into a residential precinct with the old brick warehouses being converted into lofts and flats. In order to provide green lungs in the area, which will house 5 000 people, the city has done special deals with the previous developer-owners. When I visited one such new park on Sunday morning, city parks officials were working – voluntarily – side-by-side with local citizens cleaning, weeding and planting the park. In this precinct are four such new parks, each an acre in size and designed with a common theme, yet each vastly different from the others.

But it is the approach that the city has adopted towards public transport that is really refreshing. Right from its initial transport initiatives some three decades ago, the underlying philosophy has not, in fact, been one of transport for the sake of getting from A to B, but rather one of economic development. Recognising the mess most American cities have made by encouraging car access to cities and by isolating the city centres from their waterfronts with elevated freeways and so forth, Portland demolished a freeway edging its riverside and introduced a transit mall for buses through the centre of the downtown, then a light rail system and finally a tram system.

The light rail now connects the airport to the downtown. The 30-minute ride that starts almost in the airport terminal took me to within about a hundred metres of my hotel and cost $1,73, or about R14 at today's exchange rate. Had I read the instructions on the automatic ticketing machine more carefully, I would have paid less than half that as an "honorary passenger" – because of my advancing years. I like the "honorary" tag instead of the usual "senior citizen". A taxi ride from the airport to the city, by comparison, is $40, or more than R300. Stops are frequent and connect a whole series of specific precincts, introducing strong economic revival.

Other areas of the city centre are covered by "Portland streetcars" – electric single-decker trams that are smaller than the light rail tram (the light rail tram is designed to fit a city block, which is about 200 foot square). Within the greater part of the city centre, in fact over a 330-block area, light rail and streetcar transport is free. That means that if you work and live in the city centre you can get anywhere by public transport at no cost. With the city centre containing museums, markets, parks and auditoriums, getting to cultural and sporting events is encouraged and easy. While the city's convention centre is not in the city centre – it is across one of the rivers that edge the centre city – it too is connected through the light rail system and is in a no-fare zone, allowing easy access for any convention delegates who might be staying in the city's many downtown hotels.

Following a massive communication process with its citizens, Portland is about to embark on a complete facelift of its original bus transit mall, introducing other forms of transport, including allowing cars back into the mall. The objectives of this "Portland Mall Revitalisation Project" are "to make an extraordinary place through enhanced transit service, mall stewardship (which is the provision of private sector management), and vibrant streets and healthy businesses poised for new investment".

But what happens if you need to go from your office to somewhere outside the city centre that is not connected to the public transport system? Well, to encourage you not to bring your own vehicle into the city, all you need to do is to book a "Flexcar". Flexcars are dotted throughout certain precincts in special parking spots. You join the Flexcar organisation and are provided with a smart card; then you can book a vehicle online for anything from one hour upwards. Your smart card gives you access to the vehicle and the rate you pay covers the use of the vehicle, petrol, insurance, parking and so on. You simply walk up to the unattended car and your card does the rest. I understand that its use by companies for employees who may need to go to meetings and such has led to individual families going back to a one-car system.

Oh, and the parking meters are solar powered. The solar energy powers a telephone, so when you pay for your parking with your credit card, it automatically phones to get clearance for the payment. And the ticket that you buy can be used anywhere in the city, not just where it was purchased.

Internet connection
A free, city-wide wireless internet network is busy being installed. Some 2 000 antenna, about 46 centimetres high, are being erected on light poles throughout the city with service expected to begin by the end of the year. The contractor building the network will provide internet access to 95 percent of the entire city progressively by 2008, and is providing the service free to the city in exchange for advertising income generated from "1 inch (25mm) banner ads that appear across the top of web browsers". Download speeds will be one megabit per second – "slower than most cable and DSL connections, but much faster than dial up".

As I mentioned earlier, the enlightened approach that Portland has adopted by providing an incredible transport network while also encouraging walking and biking focuses on creating an environment built around and for people. As a result, it is known as one of the healthiest and most environmentally conscious cities in the world. We can learn a great deal from their approach.

Regards Neil

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Take It Back!

So, there's this great video that you should check out:


...and help to take back Congress, The Secretary of State offices, and ultimately the White House! Let's restore our democracy to the people!