NYC’s Lowline Underground: The Future of Parks?

Just another sunny day in the hood..

You may have heard of that unusual new idea to create an underground park in NYC.  Nicknamed the LowLine (formally Delancey Underground), the project was trending on kickstarter.com (155K raised) to create a full-scale demo this spring.  The thinking is to transform a 1.5 acre abandoned trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park.

It’s a nifty idea, replete with the requisite tech-fixes, i.e. gathering sunlight via fibre optic cables to reflect light and enable photosynthesis underground.  The community component is also pretty cool, as you can imagine what opens up to people when you have a year-round green public space available in the hood.  Re-purposing derelict urban areas to augment green space and amp up community vibrancy is a pretty fantastic thing to do in general.

When you step back a bit though, an underground park is bit of a curious idea. It kind of flies in the face of getting fresh air, feeling the sun on your face, and squishing the grass between your toes.  For those old enough to remember, the concept echoes The Secret World of Og, a fantastic underground place populated by green men and um.. mushrooms.

Now, one can definitely argue that the creators of the Delancey Project are prescient, thinking ahead and planning for how the future of how urban design will play out as the human population expands and resources shrink.   In fact, one phrase on the DU website speaks to this very idea, which states that the LowLine is “essentially part of the next phase in urban design, in which human scale and increasing resource scarcity force us to imagine smarter, more creative use of public spaces.”

That’s kind of a scary statement.  Not the LowLine project per se, but the presupposition that the future of urban design is one that “forces us to imagine smarter and more creative use of public space”.  Surely there exist immediately available opportunities for public space that don’t require only a “technology as panacea” epiphany, or some other creatively convoluted approach.

Take High Park for example, Toronto’s little above ground gem.   What a lot of people don’t know is that this park is the result of one guy (John Colborne) thinking ahead, perhaps musing as follows: “Hmm… I wonder what happens if x city grows by y amount.. and if so, perhaps it would be good for the city to have z greenery”.  As High Park was a pretty hefty trip from downtown Toronto at the time, city planners thought his suggestions unnecessary and Colborne had to do a lot of convincing to get the City onboard.  The happy result was that Colborne bequeathed the Park to the City in 1873, and now we have this great green space that over a million people a year visit.

(When you really stop to think about it, Colborne’s legacy is pretty amazing. The foresight of one man way back in the 1800s created a place that so many people enjoy in different ways, and also one that hosts a number of native species.  If you’ve ever spent a few hours in the park, and many of us have, we all recognize how rejunevating it is to spend a few hours au plein air.)

Now, there’s some differences between the context for High Park as it was created then, and NYC LowLine as it’s being envisioned now (i.e. massive growth in population, transportation, urbanization, densification, etc.). And it stands to reason that LowLine may be an indicator species for a new conceptualization of green space that can flourish underground, which would be pretty great.  This said though, it would be a shame if the only solutions available to the future of urban planning – as implied by the Delancey project – were seen as those involving some kind of cool new high tech approach instead of boring old low tech conservation – especially given that it’s these latter projects that tend to stay the course over the longer haul.

Just look what Colborne did over 100 years ago.  Thank you Mister Colborne, you rock!

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What Dilbert has in common with oil pipelines

About time we oil got serious around here

You have all heard of Dilbert right?  Yes, that Dilbert, the cute, muzzy-headed engineer king of the nerdworld.  What you might not have heard of though is his free-flowing hydrocarbon sidekick: “DilBit”.  Yep, you read that right.  There is a character called DilBit living large on the world stage out there, and he’s worth noticing.

Who, or what, is Dilbit?  Basically DilBit is short for Diluted Bitumen, a relatively new arrival on the Alberta tar sands scheme. DilBit was created in order to get thick viscous oil like bitumen to flow through pipelines (by adding fun stuff like naptha). The problem with Mr. DilBit – aside from his suspect origins – is that he is even more toxic, explosive, and corrosive than previous generations of his oily brethren.  Wait a second, corrosive you say?  Yes, and unfortunately DilBit is the prime stuff planned for the two big pipelines making the headlines these days: TransCanada’s Keystone XL through Alberta and the Northern Gateway through British Columbia.

(As a brief backgrounder, the planned Keystone XL is expected to transport on order of 550,000 barrels of this DilBit per day over a 2,000 mile stretch.  Unfortunately much of this pipeline passes through sensitive areas in the US and in Canada, as in Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer, the most heavily used aquifer in the US.  Similarly, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project is expected to also carry 525,000 bbl per day.  This route crosses more than 785 rivers and streams and the headwaters of three of the continent’s most important watersheds – the Mackenzie, the Fraser, and the Skeena.  The route also traverses.. wait for it… a seismically active area).

Ok, so this is where it gets interesting. TransCanada estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline could see – hmm, maybe about 11 spills over the next half-century, with each spill releasing an average of 50 barrels of oil or so.  Doesn’t seem so bad right?  Keep in mind though, that TransCanada’s current Keystone pipeline had 35 leaks in its first year in operation – 21 in Canada and 14 in the US. Other precedents exist, including four large Enbridge spills just between 2009 to 2010, which ranged in scale from 3,000 barrels of syncrude up to 19,500 barrels of tar sand oil.  It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that these are orders of magnitude and frequency higher than the projected “11 spills or so, 50 barrels of oil, next half century, tops.”

When you combine this context and history with Mr. DilBit’s little personality quirks, as he is rather a corrosive type with toxic tendencies, what could possibly go wrong?

P.S.  I decided a P.S. was warranted as the above only points out a problem.  Setting aside the bigger issue of tar sand oil extraction (as we are principally dealing with oil transportation here), other alternatives to pipelines exist. CN rail for example already ships oil and coal – did you know that 5 – 7 trains alone can match the daily capacity of the Keystone XL, and move five times faster?  Each railcar can carry ~ 660 barrels of bitumen.  What’s more, because the bitumen does not have to be diluted to be transported = no DilBit.

Lastly, because bitumen does not flow at ambient temperatures (unlike Dilbit, which does) – any sort of “spill” would be quickly contained, as opposed to the scenarios posited above.

Makes one wonder…

Why David Eddie’s cool

Where to, Your Highness?

So, I happen to think that the advice columnist from the Globe & Mail – David Eddie – is a pretty top-notch writer (yes, I’m admitting I read advice columns, ok moving on!!).  Not only that though, he generally gives good advice – warmhearted, empathetic, yet also cuts to the chase when someone’s not being a class act.

For example, last week Mr. Eddie posted a little spiel by somebody who was upset their sister rudely canceled on attending a family dinner party.  The hostess was upset given the amount of work hosting can entail, yet was unsure of how (or if) to convey her displeasure.  Mr. Eddie’s response to this dire social conundrum?  “Well, you know, we advice columnists are always counselling people to take the calm, rational route, adopt the long view, be the better person, and la la la.  But in this case, I think you should let your sister have it, right between the eyes.”

Ha, ha!  Way to go, Mr. Eddie!

But then, he blew the whole kind of trite-advice-on-social-mores thing to a whole other philosophical ballpark by going on to quote: “We teach people how to treat us”.  That pulled me up short.  Now when it comes to small fry things like getting mad at dinner party cancellations and such, of course there are a lot of people that wouldn’t be fazed one whit and go on with their lives (as many of the G&M comments pointed out). However, to me anyway, the quote supersedes its arguably shallow origins because it’s one of those deeper truths – we do teach other people how to treat us.  And that’s the bigger lesson he’s delicately imparting, whether we’re talking about little things or far bigger ones..

So, next time I’m ranting about why so-and-so did or didn’t do x or y, I’m going to take a little look in the proverbial mirror first (but just a short one, as ranting is fun!)

Why is email addictive?

Alllooo? Where's my email?

A while back, the bloggers at MindHacks posted a theory as to why email is so addictive. (i.e. “I must hit the ‘get mail’ button at least a hundred times a day. Sometimes, if I don’t have any new mail, I hit it again immediately, just to check. I interrupt my work to check my mail even when I know that I’m not going to find anything interesting and that I should just concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing….”)

Ok, that sounds way too familiar for my liking!

Now, although there are varying theories as to why email can be an incredibly addictive pursuit (for some), MindHacks base their conjecture on the principles of operant conditioning, which is the theory that what we do and how we act depends on the rewards and punishments resulting from what we did last time around.

The salient angle here lies with the concept of intermittent or variable reinforcement, which occurs when we receive rewards only some of the time for performing certain behaviours.  What’s curious is that intermittent reinforcement has actually been shown to be the most effective way to ensure repeated behaviour.  Loosely translated, if a kid gets a candy only some of the time, that kid is more likely to repeat the potential candy-resulting behaviour than a kid that gets rewarded all of the time (i.e. mucho candy, all day long).

Why, you ask?  Well, because the kid is never sure as to whether the reward is coming or not, not only do they get used to performing the behaviour without reward, they also take longer to stop the behaviour even if the reward is removed!  Sort of a cruel but effective trick really.

Now, in the context of email, the authors suggest that a possible “reward” could be when one gets an email from a friend, or a funny joke, or some kind of fun distraction, like say a blog of some kind :).  As you never know when one of those bundles of joy will be in your inbox, we hit send/receive ad nauseum..  And thus, because the infinite ‘next time’ just might be the occasion that produces sweet reward, so hope springs eternal and off we dash after that elusive – oh hang on sec – I just got an email!!

P.S.  One of the classic examples of experimentation in this area is the so-called Skinner box – which may recall Psych101 for some.  The Skinner Box in its most basic iteration is in effect an operant conditioning chamber.  In one particular experiment, rats were given food pellet rewards when they pushed a lever in the chamber.  True to the tenets of intermittent reward, rats that were given food pellets only once in a while (as opposed to rats given pellets every single time they depressed the lever), went ballistic on the lever, pushing it as many times as they possibly could, in the faint hope that this time the pellet cometh!

Too much of a good thing?

I'd like the orange one please...

“These are momentous times for the British potato crisp.”  And that’s the delectable start to “The tyranny of choice: You choose”, a great article that touches on the behaviourial science behind making choices in a world where – doggone it all! –  there are just too many options.

The basic premise to the piece is that the sheer exhaustive number of possibilities that the average North American has at their disposal makes choosing just one, well, paralyzing.  Witness the typical stroll in Shopper’s Drug Mart looking for say… toothpaste.  Who hasn’t been stricken dumb by the options, mouth agape?  i.e. Tartar control!  Whitening!  Natural!  Organic!  Natural AND organic!  With fluoride!  Without fluoride!  Bourbon-flavoured!  Anti-calculus!  (I must have been using this last one my whole life judging by my math grades).

The funny thing is that sometimes, providing more choice can result in no choice at all. A Californian study showed that shoppers, faced with multiple varieties of a product, were much less likely to make a purchase when the number of varieties increased. Moreover, other examples show increased satisfaction when choice was made from smaller selection samples – this was particularly shocking given the sample in question was chocolate.

What does this all mean?  Essentially, too much choice reduces us to a state of torpor, where we’re rendered immobilized and anxiety-ridden all at the same time.  Basically, while some choice is good, this doesn’t mean that more choice is actually better, as expressed by Barry Schwartz in his TED treatise “The Paradox of Choice”.

Psychologically speaking, it seems we’re better wired for a simpler and perhaps more binary type of existence, as opposed to the infinite decision tree that confronts us upon walking out the front door, wallet in hand.  As per one commenter on the site: “I am constantly stressed about taking the wrong choices in life. I wish I had been born a peasant in the middle ages. Tend your field, get married, have kids and die. No social mobility, no options. Easier life. Voila.”

P.S.  The idea of choice overload can be traced back to Aristotle, Ortega, and the French philosopher Jean Buridan, who theorized that an organism faced with the choice of two equally tempting options, such as a donkey between two piles of delicious hay, would delay the choice.  This is sometimes referred to as the problem of “Buridan’s ass”, as the ass, not able to choose between the two, supposedly dies of hunger.  Poor little not so bright guy – he must’ve been using anti-calculus toothpaste too.