A very green roof in Manhattan. (Flickr photo/alykat)
NEW YORK CITY: I knew immediately this wasn't your average conference. At my table was Sherwin Gormly of the NASA Ames Research Center, and he was talking about his emergency urine recycling bag. Partly because it costs $10,000 to send a pound of water into orbit, this water engineer came up with a 10-pound activated carbon filtration device that recaptures water and, with added sugar, even turns it into a sports drink of sorts. "You urinate eight percent less than you drink," he said.
Welcome to the "Meeting of the Minds 2009," a Manhattan conference (the third annual) that aims to take a fresh look at cities. It's sponsored by Toyota, the World Bank, Zipcar, Siemens and a bunch more. The Urban Age Institute put it together and hosts it.
Because Toyota was a main sponsor, two executives spoke, using much of their time to express doubts about the coming of plug-in hybrid cars, even though the company itself is about to field 500 of them in a demonstration program. Toyota likes the utility of standard hybrids (like the 50-mpg third-generation Prius) and it isn't sure that weight-adding secondary battery packs add much to the equation.
Toyota's Irv Miller doesn't like Barack Obama's plan to get a million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. "To succeed, government regulations need to be in line with environmental criteria, not out in front of them," he said.
Paul Camuti, president and CEO of Siemens Corporate Research, offered some startling urban statistics. The average American traveler spends a whole working week per year in traffic jams. Eighty percent of global warming comes from cities, and (more optimistically) two thirds of climate abatement in London can be reached "through levers that pay for themselves."
Camuti described the future city of 2025 as using energy and water much more efficiently than we do now. "Water will be the oil of the 21st century," he said.
At least we're communicating in the new urban nightmare. Len Lauer, an executive vice president at Qualcomm, said that there are four billion cellphones in the world, and another 1.1 to be added in 2009 alone.
Jozias van Aartsen, mayor of The Hague in the Netherlands and head of the Eurocities group, said he speaks for one of the most densely packed parts of the world, but still is able to preside over a city that is a third green space, with 100,000 trees recently planted. There is geothermal in City Hall, and 2,000 self-sufficient homes being built. Some 80,000 houses are getting green roofs. How do the Europeans manage it? Their cities are for the most part lovely to look at, transit friendly and human-scaled.
Like most Euros, van Aartsen had kind words for Obama, saying he was "off to a hopeful start," particularly on global warming. Copenhagen, Denmark is host to the COP15 climate talks in December, and van Aartsen said Europe is on track for 20% emission reduction and 20% biofuel use. "We are honing in on sustainability," he said. "Climate is high on the agenda."
But for every sustainable city there are five virtually unmanageable,overpopulated mega-cities. The deputy governor of Jakarta, Aurora Tambunan, said that her city was 70% inundated by floods in 2007, and now struggles with some of the world's worst air pollution 90% of which is caused by horrendous traffic. "We need more green areas," she said. And how.
There was a lot of expertise in the room. I was impressed with talks by Dr. Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Zerofootprint (which wants to reskin buildings for greater energy efficiency); Earl E. Gales, Jr. (who rode Los Angeles' Red Cars as a youth, and now wants to bring in a new form of mag-lev monorail called SkyTran); and Jack Hidary, a co-founder of EarthWeb/Dice (who now works to reform transportation).
We need to reinvent cities, and some of Meeting of the Minds' folks are busy doing it.
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