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Should the Experiment City Be Revived?

I find it fascinating how the writings and sketches of visionaries like Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Clarence Perry, to name a few, have influenced the development of cities around the world. I think that is the reason I was drawn to planning and engineering: I love how visions and ideas become tangible.

In late February, I had the opportunity to watch Chad Freidrich’s documentary “The Experimental City.” The film is about the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC): a planned domed futuristic city for 250,000 residents to be placed in the isolated woods of Swatara, Minnesota. Envisioned by Athelstan Spilhaus, a scientist and futurist comic strip writer, the purpose of this experimental project was to tackle the problems affecting urban centers in the 1960s (and today): pollution, segregation, sprawl, and aging infrastructure. The city was supposed to pilot the latest technologies in communications, transit, pollution control, and energy supply, learn from the mistakes, and ultimately, provide solutions to create more livable cities for the 21st Century.

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by  Athelstan Spilhaus' "Our New Age" comic. Source: Archdaily

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by Athelstan Spilhaus’ “Our New Age” comic.
Source: Archdaily

Things did not quite go as planned despite the support from public and private stakeholders (spoiler alert!). To Spilhaus and his backers’ surprise, the community of Swatara and many environmental groups, like the Izaak Walton League, rallied against the project. MXC was seen as a source of pollution; not a way to tackle it. As such, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency did not grant a permit and the project ran out of funding. MXC became a thing of the past.

However, after watching the movie, I wonder: should MXC be revived? Personally, I do not like the idea of having a domed, segregated city placed in a pristine environment. I do believe that these unspoiled areas should be conserved for the public’s enjoyment. However, I like the idea of establishing pilot cities in previously impacted areas, such as brownfield sites, to evaluate the effects of new technologies at a faster rate.  This will not be an easy task. It will require strong public-private partnership and community support as well as regulatory oversight.

We are faced with many challenges, such as the effects of climate change and aging infrastructure, which require the development of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles. Pilot cities may promote the proper advancement of technologies and its consequences at a faster pace. There is always a risk in experimentation. However, trial-and-error is how humankind has advanced over the years.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges

Katy freeway (I-10) in Houston, Tx

Discussion of Telework Continues

Last week, I discussed the April 11th Kojo Nnambi Show from WAMU, where he explored telework and further delved into some of the issues pertinent to telework. How important is telework, not only to the federal workforce, but to local and state agencies as well as the private sector?

According to a study conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), 68 percent of the employees who telework have indicated they would stay with their job versus 62 percent of those who do not telework. Employees in the federal work-force are getting older, so having someone who wants to stick with their job in the long-term is a benefit in itself.

The first question employers will ask is, “does telework make a work force more productive?” Research from the Global Workplace Analytics indicate the following

  • Over two-thirds of employers report of increased productivity among their telecommuters.
  • Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical, and many others show that teleworkers are 35-40 percent more productive.
  • Businesses lose $600 billion a year in workplace distractions.
  • AT&T workers work five more hours at home than their office workers.
  • JD Edwards teleworkers are 20-25 percent more productive than their office counterparts.
  • American Express workers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts.
  • Compaq increased productivity 15-45 percent.

I am especially interested in whether telework will reduce employee attrition and how traffic congestion plays a role in an employees’ considering another job. Research showed the following results:

  • Losing a valued employee can cost an employer $10,000 to $30,000.
  • 46 percent of companies that allow telework say it has reduced attrition.
  • 14 percent of Americans have changed jobs to shorten the commute.
  • Almost half of employees feel their commute is getting worse; 70 percent of them feel their employers should take the lead in helping them solve the problem.
  • 92 percent of employees are concerned with the high cost of fuel and 80 percent of them specifically cite the cost of commuting to work.
  • 73 percent feel their employers should take the lead in helping them reduce their commuting costs.
  • Two-thirds of employees would take another job to ease the commute.

Other benefits sited through the Analytic research included:

  • Improves employee satisfaction – Two-thirds of people want to work from home.
  • Reduces unscheduled absences – Organizations that implemented a telework program, realized a 63 percent reduction in unscheduled absences.
  • Saves employers money – Nearly six out of ten employers identify cost savings as a significant benefit to telecommuting.
  • Increases collaboration – Once the technologies are in place
  • Equalizes personalities and reduces potential for discrimination
  • Cuts down on wasted meetings – Web-based meetings are better-planned and more apt to stay on message.

The one thing from Kojo’s Show that really hit me was the revelation that if you have bad telework experiences, it is generally an example of bad management. It is a sign of not really thinking out the complexities of the modern work force and how to fairly treat all employees, whether they telecommute or not. If there are problems with telecommuting, there are probably problems with the overall workplace.

Working-from-homeWe know that some jobs just are not appropriate for telework. More collaborative and problem solving can best be achieved with all employees at one location for proper discussion and dialogue. But that is why we have conference calling and webinar capabilities that allow people to share computer screens.  Again, a clear telework policy is necessary. It’s not easy, but nothing worth achieving, is ever easy.

It is important to encourage telework where appropriate, for that matter all Transportation Demand Management (TDM) options, to reduce solo driving. TDM options include carpooling, vanpooling, Guaranteed Ride Home, employer shuttles, flex workdays/ workweeks, etc. Financial incentives are very important to encourage potential employers to incorporate TDM (including telework) into their regular business operations. There are many such program that are available, and it is always easier to use a carrot rather than a stick to initiate a positive action. More information on telework and financial incentives, in this region and across the country, is available below.

  1. !VA
  2. Telework.gov
  3. Telework: Maryland and Virginia
  4. Tax Benefits Gives Added Incentives to Telecommuting
  5. San Diego Association of Governments
  6. Commuter Connections Flextime Rewards
  7. Georgia – Commutesmart

Please provide your thoughts in the comment section whether telework has been successful, or not, in your company or agency. Yes, we want to hear from you!

James Davenport is a TDM Employer Outreach Specialist, on contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Before that, James worked for Prince William County/Department of Transportation as a Regional Planner. In that capacity, he represented the county in regional forums and worked with planners and staff from other localities and transit agencies to help the region plan for its transportation future. For many years, James worked with the National Association of County as a project manager providing education and outreach to county officials, staff and key stakeholder groups on planning issues such as transportation, water quality, collaborative land use and economic development.

LAGI Willimantic_Presentation (1)

Imagining Art for a Site in Willimantic, CT

I love public art, especially art that is functionally integrated into infrastructure. I believe that public art has the capacity to activate public spaces, generate conversations, and educate the community.

During the past months, I have had the amazing and unique opportunity of using my engineering and urban planning skills and combine them with my love for public art. In December 2017, our team -composed of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, Gray Organschi, PUSH Studio, and Nspiregreen- was selected to be one of the three groups to participate in the final round of the Land Art Generation Initiative (LAGI) Competition. The purpose of this competition is to imagine, create, and develop an art piece for a specific site that captures energy from nature and cleanly converts it into electricity. This artwork should also be constructible, use market-available technologies, and respect the natural ecosystem of the design site.

Our specific challenge was to envision a public art piece for a parcel in Willimantic, Connecticut, located 30 miles southeast from Hartford. Willimantic is commonly known as the Thread City given its history with threading manufacturing in the 19th Century. In fact, the old Smithville Cotton Mill used to be located on the property and used hydropower as its source of energy. Today, Willimantic has a vibrant cultural scene and is home to Eastern Connecticut State University.

The 3.4-acre triangular site is a blank canvas as seen in the following pictures. The parcel is located beside the downtown area, just a few minutes from the town’s commercial area. The site is owned by the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and was recently remediated for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the site grading provides beautiful views of City Hall and the rapids of the Willimantic River. The site also includes a stretch of the river, a deteriorated dam (installed when the site used hydropower), and a retaining wall.

lagi

View from south side of the site towards City Hall (left) and view of amphitheater, river, and change in grading (right). (Picture owned by Gray Organschi)

After doing research, visiting the site, having a series of internal discussions, and talking with the community, we developed Eddy Line (an eddy line is the shear plane between two directions of water). As seen in the following pictures, our proposed design is a vertical structure, visible from many areas of town, that captures the water currents seen in the river, as well as the movements of threads in historic textile processes, while harkening back to the smokestacks of old textile factories. On the south side of the structure, a 1,250 square feet array of flexible thin-film solar panels capable of generating 94 MWh of energy annually is being proposed. Some of this energy will be used to power LED panels at the back of the structure which will change in color, allowing the community to know how much power has been generated. In the addition to the public art piece, our team is proposing an overlook and an amphitheater. With this design, we hope to transform this blank space into a place for the community of Willimantic to enjoy, create recreational and economic development opportunities, and trigger conversations around renewable energy, especially solar.

The winner of the competition will be officially announced on April 24 (here is a link to all three proposals). It would be amazing to continue seeing this vision come to reality. Regardless of the results, this has been a unique opportunity personally and professionally. In addition, it makes me happy that towns are embracing public art and their cultural heritage for placemaking, economic development, and building community.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.





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