Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Green Building in Demand Despite Housing Slump

WBZ-TV (Channel 4) aired a surprising story on their 11 p.m. newscast last night detailing the high demand for green homes even in a slumping housing market. According to the report which was done by Mish Michaels, one of their meteorologists, these environmentally-friendly homes contain such features as recycled lumber, energy efficient appliances and bamboo flooring. The latter is better than traditional lumber because bamboo trees grow more quickly than other species and, therefore, are more sustainable.

Of course the benefits of a green home go beyond just helping the environment. These include saving money on electricity and other utilities, improving indoor air quality and enhancing the overall value of a home. A more comprehensive list of benefits is available at this Web page from the United States Green Building Research Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization which aims to expand sustainable building.

USGBC provides one of the most widespread green construction ratings systems, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. Since its inception, more than 800 LEED-certified buildings have been constructed totaling almost 100 million square feet as of mid-2007, according to a USGBC report. The report also noted the number of LEED-certified projects has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 50 to 100 percent.

Finally, as the WBZ story explains, people do not necessarily have to be looking for a new home to contribute to the green revolution. There are numerous ways they can improve their home’s carbon footprint, from simply changing light bulbs to installing a solar power system. Any of these enhancements will make their homes more valuable and attractive to buyers once they are ready to sell. And, with no end to the housing slump in sight, having a green home may be a great way to ensure there is a buyer out there when the time comes to sell.

To see some additional WBZ environmental stories, check out this link.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Debate Over Chapter 40B

Most people who live in Massachusetts have probably experienced or read about Chapter 40B, the state's affordable housing law that allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations if the community does not have 10 percent of its housing classified as affordable and the developer is making a certain percent of their project affordable.

These 40B proposals generate publicity in part because they pit developers against neighbors/residents over a project that usually contains a large number of residences in a dense configuration. So, one can clearly see why neighbors would be concerned and, because local regulations can be bypassed, feel like they cannot influence the project. But, affordable housing is certainly an important item that should be available in all cities and towns, especially given the current state of the United States' economy.

In many instances this battle is eventually decided in the courts, as detailed in this Boston Globe article which examined two recent Supreme Judicial Court rulings that sided with developers.

Ultimately, there will need to be some revisions to this law. First, as urban sprawl expands, 40B developments are spreading into communities that may not have the necessary infrastructure (from police/fire to schools to town clerk staff) to handle the large influx of new residents a 40B proposal often brings. And, there is no guarantee residents will vote at Town Meeting to provide the services the community needs after a 40B development. Additionally, from an environmental standpoint, these projects tend to consume large chunks of land and substantially increase vehicular traffic especially when not built within the reach of the MBTA.

Of course, these adverse effects can also occur from a traditional development. But, in that situation, the town at least has an opportunity to force the developer to scale down the project or reject it entirely. With 40B projects, they have virtually no control, as evidenced by the two cases described in the aforementioned Globe piece.

Ultimately, the state needs to reach an appropriate balance between affordable housing and the need for local control of development. There have been some failed attempts at change in the past but due to its controversial nature, it will surely be a topic for the state legislature to debate in future.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Controversy Over Mass. Audubon Preschool Expansion Plans

It is not surprising to read about neighbors opposing the construction of a new building or development near their property in a suburban town such as Lincoln, Mass. What is surprising is when developers are a conservation organization. But that is the case in Lincoln where Globe West reports that neighbors are in uproar over a Massachusetts Audubon Society proposal to convert a residence near their Drumlin Farm preserve into a preschool.

The problem? In order to provide adequate parking the Society says they must cut down 20 trees although residents say it could by as many as 50. Abutters are also concerned over increased traffic the school would generate on Lincoln Road, which features a bike path, according to the Globe story.

It should be noted that Mass. Audubon already runs a preschool on the Drumlin Farm property but the school has outgrown its current building and the controversial residence is the only other feasible location.

According to the Society’s Web site, the preschool serves children ages 2 years, 9 months to 6 years old and “allows children to safely explore, learn and experiment in the outdoors, all the while developing an awareness and appreciation for themselves, each other and the environment.” In the Globe article, a Mass. Audubon representative is quoted as saying “We can save it, save it, save it. Or we can use it to help teach kids to be great stewards of the earth.”

While teaching children is certainly a worthy cause and essential for successful land conservation efforts in the future (after all, they are the future politicians, scientists, hikers. conservationists and, sadly, developers), I question how much can be accomplished with preschoolers. They are probably a bit too young to grasp the environmental and social benefits of conserving open space in the suburbs

That said, this is not about the 20 or 50 tress that could be cut down. Instead it is about how widespread bad publicity for the Audubon Society could hinder future efforts to recruit members, solicit donations and conserve more land. Let’s hope this blows over quickly and, regardless of its outcome, the Society can return to doing what it does best – protecting land.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Maine Deer Population at Risk From Prolonged Winter

There is little doubt this year’s winter has had devastating effects on Northern New England, from a barrage of roof collapses due to the weight of storm after storm of snow to the flooding concerns from all that snow melting. But one impact that has not been publicized much involves deer.

Thousands of white tailed deer throughout Maine are in danger of starving from an unusually high snow pack still blanketing much of the Pine Tree State, according to this entry in Down to Earth, the Portland Press Herald’s environmental blog.

According to the blog, deer do not hibernate like bears and are not equipped to travel easily across deep snow. So, they store as much fat as possible before winter’s arrival and then congregate in a spruce stand to wait out the season. They hope their lack of movement will allow them to conserve enough energy to survive.

But, when winter drags well into spring as is happening this year, the deer simply do not have enough food stored to stay alive. And with no buds forming on trees and plants yet, even if the snow melts soon allowing deer to move freely, they may be unable to find food. The Press Herald estimates 30 percent of northern Maine’s and 12 percent of southern Maine’s herd could die in a bad winter like this one.

Interestingly, these deer, which live in one of the northernmost extremes possible, could potentially benefit from rising temperatures due to climate change. This phenomenon would likely result in longer growing seasons and milder winters, both trends that would benefit the deer population.

Hopefully, this winter does not significantly deplete the deer population as I always enjoy seeing them frolic around in the summer at my family’s place on Lake Winnipesaukee. It’s neat to be working on a path or painting a cabin and suddenly see a deer come down to the water to drink … a great look at nature in action! (The above picture was taken at Lake Winnipesaukee.)

Finally, to track the receding (hopefully) snow pack in the Northeast, check out this link. The image is updated daily.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Thoughts on NewsTrust

Yesterday in my Reinventing the News class, we were introduced to NewsTrust, a social networking Web site that allows users to rate, critique and add to stories published in the mainstream media.

While I generally am not in favor of sites that emphasize rating stories because they often drag up the ridiculously insane or fanatic celebrity stories rather than the more important issues of the day, this site seems to have avoided that pitfall. While some of the highest rated stories are not necessarily the most important of the day, they at least delve into substantive issues or cover important events rather than a young, egotistical celebrity getting drunk or having a baby.

I also appreciate the depth with which one can evaluate the stories. This includes fairness, context, evidence, balance and several other factors. This forces reviewers to think much harder about the quality of journalism contained in the article being reviewed rather than simply whether they liked the piece. I think this element attracts an audience that is interested in or has practiced journalism and truly cares about highlighting quality stories.

The daily e-mails sent to registered users are another great feature. They provide a general topic that NewsTrust will focus on for the week and offer links to some of the higher rated stories that day. The topic concept is a great idea since users can go out and search their favorite news sources for stories on the topic, then comment and review it on NewsTrust.

That said, there are still some issues with the site. First, as it is including essentially the entire world, there are some major gaps. For example, if one looks only at Boston Globe articles, there are only a few each week although there is certainly more quality stories published by that newspaper. This is probably because the site is relatively new and, therefore, does not have a comprehensive membership yet.

Additionally, I am not a fan of divulging much information online, so I am somewhat turned away by the fact that one’s ratings count more as they are more transparent. But, I realize the benefit is that it creates a more meaningful discussion of the news. Overall, this is one of the better news aggregation/social networking sites I have seen this semester and one I could see myself using occasionally.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Witnessing Niagara Falls

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my trip to Richmond, Va. This past weekend, I traveled to Niagara Falls (New York and Ontario) as part of the Northeastern Concert Band’s annual tour.

Having never seen Niagara Falls, I was looking forward to witnessing one of North America’s top natural features first hand. On our way there, we stopped on the American side at Niagara Falls State Park. This perspective afforded a side view of American Falls. Although it was neat to see the rapids and water dropping over the edge, it was not a view I would equate with other natural wonders like the Grand Canyon.

But, my viewpoint soon changed when, the following day, we saw both American Falls and Horseshoe Falls from several vantage points near the skyscraper-like hotels and casinos that dot the Canadian side. Here, the view was truly spectacular with water cascading down in incredible volumes at ferocious speeds and billowing clouds of water spray arching up towards the sky. And, at night, the falls and mist were lit in a varying array of colors, adding another element to the spectacle. This view clearly ranks with the Grand Canyon and the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington as the most amazing natural features I have seen firsthand.

It is also interesting to witness the contrast between the natural beauty of the Falls and the man-made aspects in the skyscrapers and light display. While I would ordinarily say that the latter objects interfered or ruined the natural ones, in this case they seemed to work in harmony.

One of our performances at a retirement community in Welland, Ontario was covered by the city’s newspaper, the Welland Tribune. For a relatively small city (pop. 50,331 according to Statistics Canada) surrounded largely by very rural farmland (which we experienced first hand when we made a few wrong turns – I knew I should have brought my GPS.), I was surprised to see a fairly developed Web site. It is especially unexpected given Welland is close to Niagara Falls, which has its own daily paper published by the same company that owns the Tribune, and falls within the Toronto dailies' coverage areas. Regardless, it was nice to receive a small write-up and picture of our band.

Below are several pictures from the trip:

American Falls from New York.

American Falls from Canada.

Horseshoe Falls from Canada.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Take a Virtual Tour of Yosemite National Park

In its latest update to its popular online mapping program, Google announced users can now explore Street View images of Yosemite National Park.

This is a pretty neat way to see one of America's natural treasures, so take a look. And here's a link explaining how to embed Street View although I cannot get it to embed in Blogger for some reason.