Big City Oasis

1200px-SFParkletAs a supporter of green spaces, especially so in urban environments, I was intrigued by the concept of parklets when I first read about them in this recent NYT article.

Parklets are defined as pavement/sidewalk extension that provides more space and amenities for people using the street. Usually parklets are installed on parking lanes and use several parking spaces. These “pocket parks” are all different, but tend to include a number of key features such as cycle parking, seating, planters, trees and flowers. This simple concept seems such a great idea in high density areas, where there is a lack of greenery and relaxing outdoor seating areas are virtually none existent.

While a new concept to me, it seems it has been around for a while. While other big-city planning concepts, like roof gardens and green walls, claim environmental benefits, this seems to be the first concept that is just about social improvement. My view is that they provide a little oasis of calm in the extreme pressure of the city. These simple opportunities for just relaxing are a really welcome introduction in urban spaces, and I’d be pleased to see them being  introduced more widely.

 

Advertisements

Floating windfarms?

statoil hywind

Love them or loathe them, wind power is growing as an energy source for us here in the UK. Wind Turbines (those tall white things that look like modern windmills) currently generate about 12% of our electricity and is set to grow to 20% by 2020. Currently over half of that is generated by on shore wind farms, but more investment is now heading towards building large off shore wind farms, and this should see off-shore wind contribute much more to that capacity.

The latest innovative concept to take shape is the world’s first floating wind farm, off the east coast of Scotland. The Hywind £200m project initially seems far-fetched, but the pioneering technology could open up a whole new development in renewable energy.

Hywind

 

So how big is this industry?

Well, the world’s largest off shore windfarm is being built off the Yorkshire coast. Hornsea 2 is being built after nearby Hornsea 1, and this multimillion-pound project will see 300 turbines, each taller than the Gherkin, span more than 480 sq km in the North Sea. It is expected to deliver 1800 MW of energy, enough to power 1.8m UK homes. Dong Energy, a Copenhagen-based company responsible for many off shore wind farms, and working on this project, recently floated for £10B on its recent stock flotation. And the world’s largest wind turbines have just gone live off Liverpool.

So this technology is important. Wind energy as part of the renewable energy industry (this includes the likes of wind, solar, biomass and marine sources, like the proposed Swansea Tidal Lagoon) provided about 26% of the UK’s electrical needs in 2015, and is set to grow to 30% by 2020. While there can be criticism of their looks, and where they are placed, the biggest barriers are the cost of developing them and the cost of the power they generate.

A recent Mckinsey report suggests that these barriers are being eroded….

For many years, 3- to 4-megawatt turbines were standard; now 8- to 10-megawatt models are common, and by 2024, 13- to 15-megawatt models will likely hit the market. This reduces the cost per megawatt. Even as turbines have become larger, they have also become better. In the 1990s, the expected lifetime of offshore wind parks was only 15 years; now it is closer to 25 years, and new sites project an operational lifetime of 30 years.

 

 

 

 

Glorious Silverstone

When under Bernie Ecclestone’s fiefdom Formula One (F1) did exactly what he wanted. Now Liberty Media have taken over with the intention of even grosser global billing for F1. But a cold, wet, drab racing circuit in Northamptonshire, England seem to have provoked them, with Liberty Media trying to sound almost trump-like with outraged faux-innocence that a “deals a deal”, even if it wasn’t done with them.

It seems like other race circuits around the world get financial support to host the smart, glossy world that is F1. While the British Grand Prix resolutely loses money every year. Now in a bit of negotiation lifted from other high spending sports like football, the small upstart has announced they would like to re-negotiate the deal. In a bit of machiavellian mischief they actually managed to time this at an opportune moment. Directly before this year’s F1 British Grand Prix, and while Liberty Media themselves were courting yet-again the idea of holding a grand prix around the streets of London.

Q: Is a Grand Prix around London an entertaining concept that will attract hordes of visitors: Yes.

Q: Will it happen: No.

Even better, while the entire F1 circus turned up to trumpet the idea with a day in London, Lewis Hamilton was missing. Giving a valid excuse, much like the old “I can’t do PE, here’s a note from my mum” Lewis claimed he was getting prepared for the race. It would be far too slick and un-English to imagine that this could possibly be a slight to the concept and tacit support for the British Grand Prix continuing at Silverstone, a circuit with such a racing history long admired by true racers such as Lewis Hamilton.

And then, even better than that, Lewis Hamilton started in pole position and thrashed the others to win this premium brand event, and just about catch up to Vettel who is currently leading the championship. Blimey, I never knew we could pull off a show like that. We’re well worth the money! Liberty Media give in now, charge us threepence for the race and be done with it.

LewisHamilton

 

Googling Quarters

google-landscraper-exterior

Plans for the new Google building in London have been released, and while the computer-generated images don’t exactly entrance the eye, it is significant for two things. One, the continued leviathan nature of these corporate temples , and two, the attempt to add a new descriptive word to our language – Landscraper! The term refers to the stated belief that this is a “building on its side”, rather than one just going up. I can’t help but think that someone just tilted the image on their computer screen and thought “OK that will do” and started to add stuff to it, rather than a design philosophy. And no, I don’t think much to the term either!

Following the Apple campus spaceship, these corporate beasts seem to suggest there is no work-life balance, as you can actually live here. With gardens, swimming pools, sports and medical facilities, they create their own gated community of hip young things. Of course, once built they will probably fill it with cubicles, so Dilbert-like. Or maybe worse “hot desks”, though that term is a bit too 90’s, maybe they are referred to now as “co-sharing incubators”. Although that concept defeats me, who gives a damn about the desk, we wanted our own chair! Your floor probably has the latte and chai tea dispenser, so you probably have to wander a few floors up and down, a bit like Tom Hanks (The Terminal) lingering around the place to find a desk, or a coffee machine that does plain black coffee.

These mini-citadels, may not be easy to Create but can be as impregnable to those who work there, as they are to those of us who will never grace their corridors. The sheer scale and complexity defeating the efforts to feel comfortable and familiar. But then you are there to work. So stop staring out those windows!

Two hours and…not done

Something quite remarkable happened at the weekend, a Kenyan runner nearly broke 2 hours to run a full marathon. That’s taking 4 minutes and 35 seconds to run one mile. Mile after mile. For 26 miles. It was only in 1954 that the 4 minute mile barrier was broken, and that was just for one single mile, not 26+ miles. That’s running at about 15 miles per hour, or about the same as running the 100 metres in 17 seconds, x422 times!

This amazing athletic feat saw Eliud Kipchoge clock 2 hours and 25 seconds for this marathon attempt. For much of the time he was on pace to attain the 2 hour target, but the later laps saw the strain take its toll. While missing the target, Eliud did break the current world record for the marathon, which is held by a fellow Kenyan, Dennis Kimetto, of 2 hours 2 minutes and 57 seconds, set at the Berlin Marathon back in 2014. The other runners, the Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, who is the current world-record holder for the half-marathon, and Lelisa Desisa, from Ethiopia, two-times winner of the Boston marathon, also both finished, in the finest tradition of athletes, with a true epic effort to continue, despite knowing they were well outside the record attempt, the older Tadese at 2:06 and younger Desira at 2.14.

The slightly controversial part was that this attempt was run by Nike, with its Breaking2 programme. For this they ran early morning with repeated laps of the Monza racing circuit. The three runners had a phalanx of other elite runners as their vanguard, sheltering them as well as acting as pacemakers, as well as car beaming a green line to show the target pace, and were re-fuelled by moped riders. Because of these factors this record attempt was not recognised for any official record by the sporting authorities. Nike was also promoting its  restricted (up to now) new Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes, which use a special carbon-fibre plate in the soles to make runners 4% more efficient than Nike’s previous fastest marathon shoe, boosting their running economy.

_95931270_kipchoge
Eliud Kipchoge (in red) going for the 2 hour marathon record

 

But regardless of the corporate PR spin the actual running feat is truly impressive. So maybe it was outside 2 hours, but you know what, they did just do it.

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?

Clock

So central Birmingham is spending £2 million on a clock. Ignoring the contentious fact that this is part of the controversial HS2 project, it does once again raise the question of what public funds should be used for.

The PR spin will say this is a worthwhile project that will provide footfall to Birmingham, based on in-depth analysis that an additional XX visitors will spend YY, that means it will generate Billions and make the £2m a paltry insignificant sum. Except that they are spending an actual £2m, that could be spent on hospitals, libraries, other public services. Any exponential visitors are hard to measure. So here’s a competition – Hull, is the current European city of culture, this year they will get loads of extra visitors. Name one thing that all those visitors are coming for? Thought not, it’s the overall events and activities. Had they spent £2m on a clock, that wouldn’t be bringing in any additional visitors, it would just be one more attraction for those visitors to go too.

But there is another problem with these grandiose schemes. These huge art competitions tend to create a culture of international artists trying to implement challenging schemes to win. And thankfully some of these were overlooked, the train crash one, possibly all too apt with HS2! They are international, they are not local. This clock has nothing to do with Birmingham, it is just an anodyne artwork parachuted into that location. Of course by the time it gets built and modified it will have a developed a local flavour, local voices, but does this really make it unique to Brum? Not really.

Another possible public folly is the garden bridge in London, currently being reviewed to evaluate if it justifies the expense. Couldn’t they just put flowers and greenery on all the existing bridges? Well they could, and that might look really nice. But it wouldn’t be a “concept” would it, so that won’t count.

 

Cycle-less in Seattle

The recent failure of the bicycle hire scheme in Seattle has highlighted the issues of what defines a successful scheme, once seen as the de rigueur approach for mayors in the big cities following New York, London and Paris.

So what exactly do these schemes do? The vision seems to be one of reducing traffic jams, creating a greener city, and helping support a population with better health. However. what seems a simple proposition at the individual level, takes on added complexity and cost when ramped up to a large city scale. Bikes themselves aren’t that low cost, they need maintenance, they need replacing when they get lost, stolen or misused, they need moving around to fit patterns of use, and they need a simple system to use them which can be complex behind the scenes. Plus if it all goes wrong, people are then put off and become reluctant to use the scheme again.

While there has been a “me-too” adoption of such schemes by major cities, some seem to be a success, others like Seattle seem to fail. So is the concept flawed? At first view you might expect that anyone who wants to cycle will already have their own cycle, and that these cyclists might demand things like secure bike parks and safer roads, which are cycle-friendly, rather than cycle hire, especially as these cycles seem to of the “heavier and slower” variety.

Alternatively, “novice” cyclists will be more reliant on dedicated leisure routes, well away from negotiating city-centre traffic, to be safe and enjoy their ride. It’s no use just having stacks of cycle and no safe routes to ride them, so a cycle hire scheme needs to include some degree of supporting infrastructure. And it seems that it is this wide variety: of users, of needs, that make a successful cycle hire scheme so difficult to achieve. 

The other issue on assessing such schemes is that they can be hard to measure, how do you measure the impact of improved health and enjoyment? So are such schemes mere planning indulgences and wasted taxpayers money?

Any cultural social change requires high investment, similar changes in behaviour have required massive investment and financial support, such as renewable energy schemes, and currently investment in electric cars and driverless schemes. To make these step-changes in behaviour requires considerable investment, probably over a longer period of time than many “sponsors” (of cycle hire schemes) realise with their two or three-year funding platforms. So when the funding stops, or is considerably reduced, the scheme collapses. That doesn’t equate to it not being a success though!

No-one wants full cycle racks and few users, maybe for some the numbers just don’t add up and aren’t sustainable, and while low tech does not equal low costs, there are exemplary models of successful schemes. And besides in Europe, we have Centre Parcs, who for many years have provided a cycle hire scheme at their leisure holiday parks, they seem to make it a success. And you don’t need to wear a helmet.

CYCLE_95208444_hi010168924

 

 

Up the workers…

The Royal Academy of Arts is now showcasing “Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932”. While this at first seems a fairly innocuous retrospective, when you re-consider those dates and the consequences of that title the reflection is one of a momentous period of change and upheaval. While that timeline could probably be dragged pre 1917 and post 1932, those dates do somehow capture that period of significance.

Artwork that initially resembled the appeal of 19th century railway posters, bold colours, striking iconography, transcends into evocations of the tumultuous history of the period. Far-reaching and shattering in its consequences.

Curiously some of the work seems to go beyond the boundaries of time and space. Look at Alexander Deineka’s Textile Workers, 1927. They resemble robots, blank and automated, that conjure visions of the mindlessness of the coming late 21st century rather than a historic period piece.

textile_workers
Deineka’s “Textile Workers”

Or Kazmir Malevich, ‘Peasants’, c.1930, a kaleidoscope of colours and the inhumanity of those staring figures with no facial features, breathtakingly prescient.

russian-revolution-2
Malevich’s “Peasants”

And if you are able to get to the exhibition and it fascinates, then follow that up later this year with the Tate’s Red Star over Russia. Up the peasants, up the workers!

Capsize!

Canoeist on his own
River Wye, England/Wales

Somehow one thinks of solitude as being a state that one consents to enter into. The quiet time for reflection, or the need to be alone for some introspection. But sometimes life just throws itself around you and you find yourself in a situation that would be so much better if you were not alone or in Solitude.

Just a note for sensitive souls: Other paddlers did help out and all was well.

Hand-Built DB’s 4 GT

Aston Martin’s iconic model the DB4 is over 50 years old, but a new version of it is now to be hand-built at its original site in Newport Pagnell, England.

img_8957
Aston Martin, Newport Pagnell, Bucks, England

Currently the site restores Aston Martin Cars, so this will be returning the hand-built craftsmanship that has been missing for many years, albeit only 25 new cars.

But does the fact that this is a pastiche mean there is less Craft involved? Probably not, and its charming to see that hand built cars can actually still be produced in this over-mechanised world.