Book Reviews

**** must read ;    *** very interesting ;   ** provides  insights / background ; * ok, but read critically ;    – save your  time
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The well tempered city , Jonathan Rose, 2016

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Cities will have a prominent role in our future. Whether they are the best solutions for us to live in, is also written in the future. In general I regard people living in cities as trapped: if any system fails to deliver, think of water, food , energy, materials, people are trapped and have hardly any option to supply their own needs. It was a few years ago when in Greece the money tap failed to deliver due to the economic crisis, that many fled to family in the countryside, since they could not survive in Athens. They where the lucky ones that still had family living in the countryside. Anyway, cities are here to stay in some form, and growing. Which comes with opportunities and problems.

And then there is this book by Jonathan Rose, ‘the well tempered city’ : a wealth in examples, cases initiatives , all meant to improve our life in the urban jungle.

Rose touches upon nearly any issue related to cities you can think of. However at the same time thats the shortage, the issues are touched upon, but not in depth explored. “ The answer is urban” , is how the book starts. For the moment that is reality, but will that sustain in our climate and resource threatened future? And whether ‘Cities behave like natural organisms’ , might be true, but the case is not in depth explored. Also the statement: ‘ urban areas use resources more efficiently than suburbs because the are denser’ is not supported by analyses: Its one of the long lasting debates in urban planning. Recent work by for instance Salat shows that the Paris layout in the inner city area might the most optimal from a resource point of view.

There is a section that hits deeper, about the metagnome of cities, but just when it gets to the climax, the text moves away to describe more cases and explore examples .

Nonetheless, it inspired me to get new thoughts about cities and proceed thinking where the book stopped.

In summary: the book will not provide a solid case for specific urban developments. However. Assuming we have to deal anyhow with dense mega-cities, the book offers a wealth of insights, examples and strategies to follow, to make life enjoyable and comfortable. As long as it will last.

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The economic growth engine , Ayres et all, 2009

How energy and work drive material prosperity

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Ayres in this book attempts in a immense complicated task to connect economical science to physical science. And its a massive piece of work. Economy is usually based on two inputs : of capital and of work . And the rest is regarded as “ manna from heaven” .

Like technological progress: it s nowhere explained in the economical theories, and just happens to happen, at a rate of 2,5 % per year….

At least, thats how it was explained by a person called Solow: at the time the data for the period 1900 -1945 could not explain economic growth as it happened: 85 % of growth could not be explained by capital or labor. So he introduced a proxy: technological progress and assumed exogenous, and named it total factor productivity TFP, and it was assumed to raise 2,5% per year. Now thats economical science….. Maybe some ‘dark money’ capital is out there somewhere. Like dark matter and dark energy in physics…..

However Ayres makes the case for a more solid approach, introducing a third production factor, the unvalued input of natural capital in the form of exergy , multiplied with a conversion factor ( efficiency rate of using exergy).

And this could explain a large part of otherwise unexplained economical growth. Advantage could be that this production factor should be valued, and prevent free ride exploitation of goods. ( Like in GDP, that rises with bad constructed buildings increasing maintenance turn over)

Any way, its partly beyond my knowledge but makes sense: economy is not a science , as he expresses stating: perpetual economic growth is an extrapolation from history and a pious hope for the future , not a law of nature.

The system goes to equilibrium if we don’t value the system itself, the resources, in the economical system. At least thats what Ayres tries. There is another way: get rid of that economical system and just calculate in physical values…. take resources as the base value of society., but thats a long way to go. Anyway, highly interesting and if your into economics, read it..!

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Triumph of the city, Edward Glaeser 2011
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Right from the beginning its clear: this is a hymn for the city. Not only describing urbanization but encouraging and worshiping it. No problem, and I start reading wondering how Glaeser would build a solid case for urbanization, always interested in new arguments and facts.

Soon to be disappointed . Like when reading this phrase: “ Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones , and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emission-reducing urban growth” .….

I can imagine the regional argument he uses: build where there is water and moderate climate, but the call for tearing down low rise does not make sense and the arguments of density are very weak or not even documented. Nothing about for instance destroying resources, or impacts of new construction.

Arguments are even contradictory. Like the urban advantage of concentration of information and networks, and questioning if silicon valley can continue to exist, outside urban metropolitan area. However, then he continues to argue that direct connections are maybe not necessary, due to the Internet revolution, which undermines his case. The book is full of these contradictions.

Another example is using lively and pleasant cities like Paris and London as case in favor of urbanism. However the metropolitan area in Paris is nowhere over 5 or 6 levels. He argues however that in such a case its ok to to move the desired high rise to areas that border the metropolitan area. Pointing at la Defence in Paris: If you have ever been there, you will know its the most desolate part of a city I have ever been, and want to get away from it as soon as possible. I hope never to live and work there. Its not by coincidence that the view from beneath the arch of la defense is a grave yard, move to la defense and its one step away from the end…

Yes, there is a section where he deals with ecology , but then can only deal with this in terms of costs : “ if buildings shadow each other blocking light or views: estimate the costs and charge the building.” No word about livability or resource resilience or whatsoever.

The economical case he makes is right, cities attract people and chances of work are larger, and average income higher. But that does not imply that in the long run this is the best way forward.

The only relation explored in depth is between distance and gasoline use, for transport and air conditioning. Which would be lesser in dense urbanities as in suburbs. Again: Paris inner city is the most optimal energetic architecture, as shown by the works of Serge Salat, having compared the urban structure of many cities.

As well as leaving out a lot of other factors related to density. He only assumes the unchangeable current practice of US inhabitants, using cars. Walking, bicycling and public transport is left out of the comparison. Holland is pretty urban, as well as pretty flat (in height of buildings) , at the same time one of the most densely populated areas per km2 in the world, yet most people use public transport and bicycles. Its not by definition that suburbs are bad regarding the use of cars.

In short, a very superficial plea for urbanization, making no sense and even wrong in some areas.

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Michael Pollan : The omnivore’s dilemma, 2006

“At its most basic, the story of life on earth is the competition among species to capture and store as much energy as possible, either directly from the sun, in the case of plants, or in the case of animals, by eating plants and plant eaters”. That’s how Micheal Pollan starts his quest for a search for the perfect meal. What would be a natural plate of food? Pollan explores our food chain, and concludes that in fact corn and mais have done a terrific evolutionary job, since they are the most abundant food, direct and indirect ingredients in the majority of our industrial processed foods, and as a species succeeded in having mankind working for the plant to flourish. That’s the way Pollan looks at it, turning fixed mindsets upside down.

And continues to analyse the whole chain of ingredients, visiting a range of farmers, to show that integrated farming concepts can produce more with hardly any disruption to the land, to end with a perfect meal on his plate during a dinner for friends.

In the mean time, some astonishing insight is given in that chain and market: Which in fact cant grow: There is a limit to what people can eat, and the market in the US grows in principle with one percent: the population growth. That leaves only two strategies for food industries to grow: Make us want more processed foods, which will cost more, ( and spent 10 calories of energy for 1 calorie of food) or make us eat beyond our need: “to pay a high price in the end: obesity, diabetes type 2 ,heart disease. “ Highly recommended for some insight in the food chain.

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Technofix , Huesemann & Huesemann, 2011

its a matter of framing ; if you state long enough that technology is good, people start believing it. And technology avoids solving a previous problem created by technology by using a technology to solve the new problem . Which makes people happy since they dont see the real problem. Or as Huessman&Co state: people are not likely to exploit people close to them, but are more or less be unconcerned of those who are unknown and far away . And many technologies facilitate exploitation, by creating a safe distance between exploiter and exploited.

So its hidden, and remains hidden. Even in journalism, by keeping saying that many countries are underdeveloped. They are not , as Huesmann concludes: they are overexploited.

On behalf of our wealth , by technology after technology . The bill will come in future .

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