Doctors Inventing Auto Safety

Editor’s Note: This post is by Lemelson Fellow Lee Vinsel. Lee is an Assistant Professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

This summer I am a fellow at the Lemelson Center, where I am researching the history of automotive safety, focusing on the story of safety in the early period of auto history, from 1900 to 1940, which remains underexplored by historians. My research here has brought me face-to-face with a theme that scholars at the Lemelson Center are currently exploring, namely the role that geography and local networks play in innovative thinking.

The Lemelson Center is developing an exhibition called, Places of Invention, which examines the roles that places and communities play in fostering inventive and innovative activity. Places of Invention focuses on some neat examples of hotspots of innovation: the growth of scientific communities in Washington, DC, in the late 1800s; the rise of manufacturing industries in Hartford, CT, during the mid-19th century; inventive activity around Cambridge, MA, spurred on by World War II military spending; the emergence of Silicon Valley in California and “Medical Alley” in Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s; the birth of Hip Hop in Bronx, NY, which forever revolutionized popular music; and contemporary research in energy research in Fort Collins, CO.

With my research focus, it’s no surprise that I am particularly interested in the role locality has played in influencing automotive safety. Detroit is a famous example of the power of place in shaping technological change, as reflected in works like, Robert Szudarek’s How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital. Often historians focus on the kinds of inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs who play a direct role in improving the technologies and companies at the center of the local economy. In Detroit, for instance, this central focus would be on the famous automotive firms and the people that worked for and with them. I argue that this focus is too narrow—people of seemingly unrelated expertise sometimes become involved in innovative hotspots. My research includes the role that medical doctors played in improving auto safety.

One example is Dr. Claire Straith. Straith was a plastic surgeon at Detroit’s Harper Hospital who played an important role in improving the practices of reconstructive surgery. According to Straith’s family, on weekends he often went from hospital to hospital, working on people who had been injured in automobile accidents. Most of the people injured were women and children who were sitting in the right-front passenger seat—what Straith called the “Death Seat.” Straith’s experiences led him to become critical of automotive design of the day and to create safety technologies.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Straith installed homemade seatbelts in his own car. He then created and installed crash pads on his car’s dashboard, especially on the passenger side. Straith patented at least two of these devices—the Smithsonian has one of his crash pads in the national collections. The pads were marketed directly to consumers, though few people bought them. However, Straith remained a vocal critic, and he fought tirelessly to get automakers to install safety technologies in their products.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor's daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor’s daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

Some companies listened. Walter Chrysler met Straith, which led to Chrysler engineers building some of Straith’s ideas into the company’s 1937 line of cars. Straith continuously criticized the sharp metallic knobs on cars, which frequently gouged and disfigured people in crashes. The 1937 Chryslers featured recessed knobs on the dashboard. Straith also influenced Preston Tucker, who built safety features into the 1948 Tucker Sedan.

The auto industry was heavily focused on the annual model change during this period, and companies would introduce safety features as part of the publicity of one year’s models, only to backslide and remove the features the very next year. It was not until the mid-1960s—when the federal government created mandatory safety standards—that safety technologies became a permanent fixture of American automobiles.

Straith was not the only medical doctor in the Detroit-area to innovate around auto safety. Another leader in the field was neurosurgeon Elisha Gurdjian, who worked at Wayne State University’s hospital. Gurdjian was also bothered by the kinds of injuries he saw coming into hospitals. He realized that doctors knew far too little about the biological mechanisms of concussions and other trauma-induced brain injuries. He also realized that investigating concussions would involve the study of forces, which lay well outside his own expertise. For this reason, Gurdjian teamed up with a young Wayne State professor in mechanical engineering named Herbert Lissner. The two men began conducting experiments on how forces acted on bodies, using both human cadavers and living, anesthetized, non-human animals (mostly dogs).

While Gurdjian and Lissner’s fundamental contributions were to medical science—especially a field known as impact biomechanics, which they helped found—they also created some innovative experimental apparatus and technical procedures involving already existing technologies. For instance, the two researchers used strain gages, which were usually used to test industrial materials like metal and concrete, to study the strength of bone. They also removed an elevator from an elevator shaft at Wayne State and put an ejection seat in it. They then proceeded to “drop” bodies down the shaft and use pneumatic systems to shoot bodies up it to study the effect of forces on biological systems. No doubt this is innovation, even if it is innovation that we would rather not think about.

Many of Gurdian and Lissner’s experiments were quite grisly, so I will pass over the details here. (For some entertaining accounts of biomechanical studies at Wayne State, see Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; interested readers can also contact me at leevinsel (at) gmail (dot) com for a paper I wrote on the topic.) I also believe that some of their experiments on living animals were clearly unethical, but it is impossible to deny that their research played an important part in improving automobile safety. Indeed, when the U.S. government created automotive safety standards in the mid-1960s, regulators built Gurdjian and Lissner’s findings of how much force the human body could tolerate directly into the new federal rules.

Medical doctors in Detroit, the automotive capital, made fundamental and early contributions to auto safety. In the end, it took a whole movement, including safety advocates like Ralph Nader, to create national safety standards in the United States, but we owe the innovations of Straith, Gurdjian, and Lissner a great deal.

Calling Smithsonian Affiliates!

IMAGE EXP

APPLY NOW BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER 1ST DEADLINE!

Become a part of this new model for the co-creation of exhibition content!

Join other Affiliates eager to share the different ways people, resources, and geography came together in their communities to forge hot spots of invention.

THE PROJECT

Selected Affiliates and their community partners explore the central message of the  Places of Invention exhibition—that invention is everywhere and sparked by unique combinations of people, resources, and surroundings. Teams, led by Affiliates, are asked to apply these themes to their own communities and create multiple deliverables, including videos, oral histories, and public programs.

Video deliverables include one or more short pieces synthesizing team findings. These pieces will become featured stories on the POI exhibition’s dynamic, large-scale interactive map in the center of the gallery. The map will be accessible from both the exhibition and web, allowing it to grow exponentially as visitors read, tag, and comment on Affiliate stories, even make use of the option to add their own images and videos.

Current stories being developed include:

The Illinois River, one of the most consistent and powerful influences on Peoria, IL innovation

Newark

One of the major glass companies in Newark, OH: The Holophane Co. Inc. Works

The Bronx, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Hartford, CT
Hollywood, CA
Huntsville, AL
Lowell, MA
Medical Alley, MN
Newark, OH
Peoria, IL
Pittsburgh, PA
Seattle, WA
Silicon Valley, CA

With your participation, we hope to have videos representing all regions of the United States when the Places of Invention exhibition opens in 2015 at the National Museum of American History.

WHAT KINDS OF INVENTION? ALL KINDS!! We’re interested in any new or improved way of doing things; in interdisciplinary stories of STEM-based invention and innovation through cross-pollination, including the bustling social spots where people shared and refined ideas; in the ways local people lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.

We’re interested in a wide range of innovation: in green energy, medicine, education, transportation, and robotics; in the ways that art and music can intersect with technology, as with the electric guitar; in civil engineering, architecture, and construction; in agriculture—from seed cultivation to harvesting processes; in biotechnology that changed the way we eat, treat disease, and create alternative fuels; in communications and fiber-optics; in fabric technology—from 19th-century textile mills to high-performance synthetic fabrics worn by athletes today; in computers, software engineering, web technology, and social media; in business and advertising; in aeronautics, military production, and urban planning; and in the mass production of any kind of goods. Stories can be about current and historic innovation, as well as cycles of innovation spawned by a community’s infrastructure and natural resources repurposed over time.

REQUIREMENTS

Must be a Smithsonian Affiliate to be eligible

IMPORTANT DATES

Application Deadline: September 1, 2013
Winner Notification: October 4, 2013
DC Training: December 6, 2013
Final Deliverables Due: December 8, 2014

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contact Anna Karvellas, Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator, via email or by calling 202-633-4722.

Access her presentation from the Places of Invention panel at the 2013 Smithsonian Affiliations Conference, as well as those by the following Affiliates:

Documenting Gaming in Greater Seattle, Julia Swan, Adult Public Programs Manager, Museum of History and Industry

Inventing the Pittsburgh Sound, Kate A. Lukaszewicz, Lead Educator, Senator John Heinz History Center

NSF

Places of Invention has been made possible by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation 

Bob Casey: Beyond the Podcast

I recently interviewed inventor Bob Casey for the Lemelson Center’s podcast series. As with many people I’ve interviewed, Bob had many interesting stories to share—far more than can be contained in a 20-minute podcast. Although our podcast focused on the debut of the dual turntable system, Bob also told us how he ended up donating objects to the National Museum of American History and about his military career.

Bob shadowed his father Edward P. Casey (a pioneer in commercial sound system design and installation) on many of his sound system projects.  His father built a rectangular box with two multi-speed transcription turntables inside for a religious event. After the event his stored it away. Years later, Bob took the discarded box and used it in 1958 to present prerecorded music at teenage dances by combining his father’s dual turntable box with two special Hi Fi horn speakers. This was the first time that dual turntables were used at a dance to play prerecorded music—introducing a whole new format of entertainment nearly ten years before the technology became the standard of every DJ. The equipment gave Bob the advantage he needed to put on some of the best dances in the area and he was asked to run “Record Hops” in other venues including country clubs and parks.

casey 1

Now retired in upstate New York, Bob was cleaning out some old equipment from his shed, separating it into “throw” and “keep” piles. That first dual turntable system went into his “throw” pile. Fortunately, one of Bob’s friends told him he was crazy if he threw it out. After photos of the dual turntable box appeared in books about DJs, Bob was encouraged to contact someone about finding it a good home. Upon contacting the National Museum of American History in 2012, curator Eric Jentsch requested a few photos of the turntable. Eric assumed he would get a few photos of the device sitting on a tabletop, but Bob took this opportunity to photograph it in the environment it originally debuted. He reassembled the entire system in the same high school gym he first played it at in 1958—St. Eugene’s in Yonkers, NY. It was a wonderful way for Bob to have one last experience with the equipment before giving it to the national collections.

casey 2

While interviewing Bob, I discovered that the inventiveness and resourcefulness demonstrated by his invention also shaped his military career. While stationed in an infantry outfit in Germany in 1967, Bob’s reputation earned him an audition—though he didn’t know it at the time. One day, while visiting the flagship station (network) of the American Forces Network –Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, the Head of Network Production, who had previously met him, casually asked Bob to put together a few promos for radio. Bob furiously put some things together on reel to reel tape but the officer started to play it before Bob thought it was completed.  Bob tensely watched as the officer listened to his improvised radio intros. The officer said he loved it and offered Bob a position at the network.  After only six days on the job, another twist of fate redirected Bob. As part of the military “lottery system,” he was given orders for Vietnam. However, by taking an audition that was so bad that it was good, and with many letters of commendation from the European station, his abbreviated position in Germany allowed him to serve his time in Vietnam as Head of Radio Production for AFVN. Without his skills to invent and create on the spot there’s no telling where he might have ended up.

Listen to our podcast with Bob Casey.

Inventing the Future: 3D Printing

It is hard not to look back to the history of printing, see how far we have come, and what the purpose of printing technology has done for society. It all started as the necessity of sharing information and passing knowledge to others. Even though the first printing process started back in the form of woodblocks used in China for printing on textiles and paper, it was a way to reproduce information for the masses and fairly fast. Not only was it a way to share information, but also to make art and design attainable by everyone.

A 3D printed cast.

A 3D printed cast. Image from http://jakevilldesign.dunked.com/cortex.

The technology of modern day printing has changed so much in the last few decades—without these advances cool things like the custom 3D cast pictured above may have never happened. A Victoria University of Wellington grad student, Jake Evill is pushing the boundaries of couture casts with his Cortex cast. Each cast can be customized and fitted for the patient—based upon the injury, X-rays taken, and a 3D scan of the surrounding limb. These casts are not only lightweight and airy, but they are designed to be able to be removable, worn with clothes, and be shower-friendly. No more gross, stinky plaster or fiberglass casts. Granted, this thing may take a while to print—24 to 72 hours to fully set—but we at least have these possibilities.

Advancements in printing have even enabled people to even get their face—and life—back. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, restaurant manager Eric Moger had lost a third of his face to an aggressive tumor that was growing underneath the skin on his face. Now he has had an opportunity to get his face back through advancements in printing technology. By taking scans of what was left of his skull and using computers to recreate the other side of his face using nylon plastic, Moger is now able to drink water without having liquid running out of one side of his face. The social value of printing has a positive impact on people’s lives; it is amazing to think that in the near future, printing could function on a cellular level, printing real skin or even body parts.

A life-size 3D print of Thomas Jefferson.

A life-size 3D print of Thomas Jefferson on exhibit at The National Museum of African American History and Culture (temporarily located at The National Museum of American History. This exhibit is now closed). Photo via Smithsonian 3D Digitization Facebook page, photo by C. Thome.

Even the Smithsonian has jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon. Printing advancements have enabled the cloning and sharing of pieces with other museums around the world. Thanks to Redeye, a company that specializes on 3D printing and rapid reproduction, the Smithsonian was able to recreate a large 3D reproduction-quality historical replica statue of Thomas Jefferson. The team here at the Lemelson Center is even thinking about the implications 3D printing might have in our revamped Spark!Lab (opening 2015).

Three-dimensional printing has rightly been referred to as a “disruptive technology,” and I, for one, am greatly intrigued to further explore the opportunities and challenges of this new technology. These days we can get custom dental braces, custom T-shirts, custom iPhone covers, and more. What’s next?

Interning at Innoskate

Editor’s Note: This post is by Joel Pelovitz, an intern working on the Innoskate and Places of Invention projects. Joel is a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College with a degree in history and business. 

As a returning intern this summer, I had the pleasure of aiding in the preparation and materialization of the museum’s first ever Innoskate event, which occurred Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. By gathering together some of the world’s most pivotal and influential skateboarding icons—both riders and industry gurus—the Center hoped to gain valuable insight into key innovative strides in technology, skating technique, and cultural impact/adaptations since the sport’s inception. What resulted was a captivating and thought-provoking experience that drew crowds of all generations and backgrounds. The participants—a group consisting of skaters, including famed skaters Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen; designers; media personalities; and engineers—donated their skateboarding history to the National Museum of American History’s collections, held discussion panels on invention, and gave skateboarding demonstrations on a ramp built specifically for the event!

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Traditionally, skateboarding has not been considered academic and is often negatively represented in conservative culture as a result of its association to punk movements. The nature of the event—a supercharged fusion between scholarly inquiry and heart-pounding visual display—allowed for the participants to be accurately represented as inventive minds by sharing their collective knowledge and experiences. As a former skateboarder, Innoskate intertwined my interests for history and skateboarding, creating new perspectives that I had never before considered! My involvement has also evoked further interest into the themes of progress and ingenuity that skateboarding embodies. As for the participants, I have never met a more compassionate, down-to-earth, and appreciative group of people. For the future, I hope that this event not only helped the public reevaluate skateboarding as a constructive endeavor, but also compels us to recognize and appreciate the creative qualities that exist everywhere, especially those beyond our conventional perceptions.

Inspiring Bicycle Innovation

One of the best things about meeting inventors where they work is getting to see their spaces of inventions. How do companies design their buildings to encourage employees to be creative and inventive? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed with an “Infinite Corridor”—a hallway that runs through the main buildings of MIT—whose design encourages workers to bump into each other on their way from one place to another and share ideas. Keeping this in mind, I took special note of building design on a recent visit to Trek Bicycle’s headquarters in Waterloo, WI.

ExteriorTrek has created a bicycle-filled environment where employees always have bicycles on their minds and within sight. It begins even before arriving at work. Trek highly encourages its employees to commute by bicycle—a definite motivational challenge once the snow begins to fly. They also have an exercise room on site so that employees can continue to bike even when it does snow.

Trek emphasizes green energy, so it seems natural that the building uses on natural materials such as wood, natural lighting, and earth tone colors to create a comforting space and to help their workers think along ecological lines.

A cubical-style layout facilitates conversation among employees. If you think that this type of layout would have no room for bikes, think again. Almost every cubicle has its occupant’s bike parked outside of it. Not only are bikes typically parked outside them, but the work spaces also have bike components hanging above them. The building also offers many cork and white boards in public spaces for employees to quickly share their thoughts and ideas—and for others to read and be inspired by them.

APicture 001

APicture 002Trek’s headquarters contains a manufacturing section that allows designers to rapidly prototype ideas and concepts. Manufacturing on-site also allows them to wheel newly completed models next door to their photography studio. Housing their marketing and PR team alongside everyone else allows for and in-depth understanding of the products they market. Also, being located on the limits of a small town gives Trek employees the advantage of easily wheeling out new bikes for a test ride.

Trek has created a space to inspire bicycle innovation—literally surrounding employees with bicycles, from the individual components to the final, complete form.

Trek was the first company to incorporate carbon fiber into their bike frames and is also the first bicycle company to explore recycling carbon fiber bike frames. In our latest podcast, Jim Colegrove, senior composites manufacturing engineer at Trek, describes the evolution of carbon fiber frames at Trek and discusses how Trek inventors work together to create a better ride.

Safekeeping

For more than a decade, every morning I opened the doors to the Archives Center’s vault. The doors, made by the Mosler Safe Company of Hamilton, Ohio, have protected portions of the national collections since 1964 when the National Museum of American History (then known as the National Museum of History of Technology) opened. Behind these heavy, solid, gray doors are hundreds of collections documenting the history of American technology, invention, consumer culture, music, and popular culture. Among these collections are manuscripts, posters, sound recordings, visual ephemera, motion picture film, historical photographs, and oral histories.

20130404_08004620130404_080104The Mosler Safe Company was created by Gustave Mosler (1816-1874), an Austrian immigrant who came to the United States in 1849.  Mosler joined the safe manufacturing firm Diebold, Bahmann and Company in 1859 and began to see other possibilities for safe manufacturing. In 1869, Mosler formed Mosler, Bahmann and Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company, which was run primarily by four of Mosler’s sons (Moses, William, Max, and Julius) was renamed Mosler Safe Company in 1876. In 1891, the company moved its operations from Cincinnati to Hamilton, Ohio, where it has been ever since. Numerous patents were issued to the Mosler Safe Company, beginning in 1880 with Moses Mosler’s US Patent 229,905 for a safe. Mosler appeared to have a good share of the “safe” market and was a trusted brand among banks, not to mention our museum. After all, the name Mosler meant safety.

moslerfactory_SMALL

Mosler Safe Company factory, Hamilton, Ohio, 1932. “Mosler Safe Company Catalog,” 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler insulated flat sill vault doors, Mosler Safe Company Catalog, 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler insulated flat sill vault doors, Mosler Safe Company Catalog, 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler-Corliss patent fire-proof bank vault doors, The Mosler-Corliss System of Security against Burglary, Mobs and Fire, 1897. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler-Corliss patent fire-proof bank vault doors, The Mosler-Corliss System of Security against Burglary, Mobs and Fire, 1897. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Trade card for Mosler Safe Company, undated.  Safes and Vaults, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

Trade card for Mosler Safe Company, undated. Safes and Vaults, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

I’m waxing sentimental over these vault doors because they were recently replaced by a new door that uses modern access control card reader technology. There was something wonderful about spinning the combination lock, hitting all the numbers just right, and then hearing the familiar sound of “click” that signaled success. For anyone who struggled with a combination lock, you can appreciate my joy. Once open, the vault began another day of service to the numerous archivists who crossed its threshold, seeking collections for eager researchers. The new door and technology was inevitable, but I already miss those Mosler doors. To learn more about our remarkable collections visit the Archives Center.
door_before_cropped_SMALLdoor_after_SMALL

Sources

Boyer, Mike. “Mosler slams door on 300 workers,” The Cincinnati Enquirer http://enquirer.com/editions/2001/08/04/loc_1mosler_slams_door_on.html (last accessed April 8, 2013)

Encyclopedia of Biography, “William Mosler, Manufacturer, Man of Enterprise,” pages 568-171.  American Historical Society, 1920.

Spencer, Jean E. “Queen City History, Willie Sutton’s Nemesis,” Cincinnati Magazine, October 1973.

Nikola Tesla’s Place of Invention

Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:

Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California.  Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device.  For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.

Read more about Tesla’s relationship with New York City.

Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

I was saddened to read about the death last month of Paolo Soleri, the Italian-American architect who was one of the godfathers of the eco-city movement. I feel fortunate to have known Soleri, and treasure the memory of the personal tour he gave me in 2001 of Arcosanti, his experimental town in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. He began building it in the late 1960s and was still working on it at the time of his death. Designed to be free of cars and bound closely to nature, Arcosanti was to reach a maximum population of 5,000, concentrated into the smallest comfortable area. Soleri believed in building up and not out, leaving as much land as possible to nature and farming.

Soleri’s principles for Arcosanti are part of a continuum of sustainable urban planning that began with the garden city movement of the 19th century, designed to address the physical and moral problems manifested in industrial cities. They are also still evident today in the development of eco-cities in the U.S. and around the world. But to call Arcosanti a successful eco-city would be a stretch; its population numbers less than 100. Are there places where the eco-city concept is faring better? Is it possible to apply these ideas to larger, established urban centers? What variations on the sustainable development theme are in play today? In this two-part blog, I’ll explore these questions with examples first from overseas (specifically, India and China), and then from the U.S., where eco-cities are offering solutions to a range of challenges, from natural-disaster recovery to the revitalization of established neighborhoods within existing cities.

Part Two: Eco-City Movements in the United States

Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, created in an unsettled area and rooted in the beliefs of a visionary, is an early example of an eco-city in the United States. As the eco-city movement in the U.S. has matured, other paths toward sustainable development have gained ground.

For cities rebuilding after a natural disaster, for example, the eco-city strategy is offering an appealing alternative, especially when federal and other financial incentives are factored in. Greensburg, Kansas (one of the towns included in Eco-Cities: A Global Survey 2011, published by the International Eco-Cities Initiative, in which the Lemelson Center participates), is rebuilding sustainably after the devastation of the town by a tornado in May 2007. The decision to “go green” was made by the community within days of the disaster, and a grassroots community-based organization called Greensburg GreenTown has been collaborating with local government, businesses, and residents on the rebirth of Greensburg as an eco-city.

The GreenTown group sponsors a variety of programs, from tours of green sites around the city, a farmers market, and a lumber reclamation project, to educational presentations and volunteer opportunities. A sustainable building database, developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), documents Greensburg’s new energy-efficient buildings. Today, Greensburg uses 100% wind power, boasts the most LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S. and the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas, has sustainable water and waste management systems in place, and is the first city in the U.S. to install LED streetlights throughout the city.

The Greensburg model is also being adopted in other disaster-stricken towns. Greentown Joplin has been established to help guide the recovery of Joplin, Missouri, victim of a tornado in 2011, and organizations as diverse as the NREL, Global Green USA, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation are supporting sustainable rebuilding projects in communities hit by Hurricane Sandy last year.

It has undoubtedly been challenging for these cities to reconceive themselves in the eco-city mold and they are to be commended for embracing the future with responsibility and optimism. Those same characteristics are also being applied in the creation of “eco-districts” in existing cities around the U.S.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s Sustainable Development Program, for example, is tasked with facilitating “the implementation of sustainable infrastructure systems by coordinating private development and public improvements through community engagement.” The goal is to balance plans for the city’s future growth with the city’s and state’s priorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water and energy use. One way in which the Program is meeting this mandate is by establishing eco-districts—sustainable “neighborhood scale public-private partnerships that can strengthen the economy while creating a stronger sense of place.”

An eco-district is planned for Treasure Island, an artificial island built by the federal government in 1939 (it has been the site of a world’s fair, a naval base, and the San Francisco International airport). The San Francisco Treasure Island Development Authority sees the project as a “comprehensive approach to sustainability—environmental, economic and social equity,” with green buildings constructed, in part, of recycled and locally-sourced materials, solar- and wind-generated electrical supplies, waste management including composting, and enhanced public transportation to reduce the use of personal vehicles.

While Treasure Island is still in the planning stages, five eco-districts in Portland, Oregon, are in various stages of realization. Defined as “essentially a neighborhood working together on things like waste management, transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and even district heating and cooling toward overall better sustainability,” Portland’s eco-districts are planning or implementing energy efficiency programs for businesses and residents, bike facilities, neighborhood waste strategies, energy retrofits for older buildings, and more.

The eco-district concept has reached Washington, D.C., as well. The SW Ecodistrict Initiative, announced earlier this year, is “a comprehensive effort to transform a 15-block federal precinct just south of the National Mall into a showcase of sustainable urban development. In addition to accommodating the future space needs of the federal government, the Ecodistrict will extend the civic qualities of the National Mall, create new places to live, and promote a vibrant, open, and walkable neighborhood and workplace.”

From new construction to retooling existing cities and neighborhoods, it seems clear that the idea of the eco-city is gaining ground in the U.S. and abroad. With the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese model, some common themes emerge in the initiatives described here: a shared philosophy of environmental stewardship, collaboration between private citizens and government, and an understanding of the economic and social advantages of sustainability. Paolo Soleri, I believe, would be pleased.

This post was originally published on EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.

Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality

I was saddened to read about the death last month of Paolo Soleri, the Italian-American architect who was one of the godfathers of the eco-city movement. I feel fortunate to have known Soleri, and treasure the memory of the personal tour he gave me in 2001 of Arcosanti, his experimental town in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. He began building it in the late 1960s and was still working on it at the time of his death. Designed to be free of cars and bound closely to nature, Arcosanti was to reach a maximum population of 5,000, concentrated into the smallest comfortable area. Soleri believed in building up and not out, leaving as much land as possible to nature and farming.

Soleri’s principles for Arcosanti are part of a continuum of sustainable urban planning that began with the garden city movement of the 19th century, designed to address the physical and moral problems manifested in industrial cities. They are also still evident today in the development of eco-cities in the U.S. and around the world. But to call Arcosanti a successful eco-city would be a stretch; its population numbers less than 100. Are there places where the eco-city concept is faring better? Is it possible to apply these ideas to larger, established urban centers? What variations on the sustainable development theme are in play today? In this two-part blog, I’ll explore these questions with examples first from overseas (specifically, India and China), and then from the U.S., where eco-cities are offering solutions to a range of challenges, from natural-disaster recovery to the revitalization of established neighborhoods within existing cities.

Part One: Eco-city Movements in India and China

Bangalore, India

India has a long-standing eco-city movement. For example, Auroville in southern India traces its philosophical roots to the 1920s and the teachings of Indian scholar Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa. Its formal organization came later, first with a 1966 UNESCO resolution that supported Auroville as “an international cultural township designed to bring together the values of different cultures and civilisations [sic] in a harmonious environment,” and then with an inauguration ceremony in 1968 attended by representatives from 124 countries. Seeing itself as “a universal city in the making,” Auroville strives to be a place where people “live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities” in an ecologically sustainable way. Endorsed by the Indian government, the township is still growing with a current population around 2,300 from 49 countries.

More recently, the Indian government has begun to look at ways to superimpose an eco-city model on existing cities. As Ted Bardacke of Global Green USA has pointed out, “There is only a net reduction in emissions if you also retrofit existing places.” Bangalore, India’s urbane and burgeoning IT and biotech hub, is testing the feasibility of this idea.

In the 2000s, Bangalore’s population grew rapidly from five million to eight million. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, though, the city’s infrastructure has not kept pace with its population and economic growth. Bangalore is plagued with clogged roads, accumulated trash in the streets, opportunistic construction, contaminated water supplies, severe water shortages, and environmental degradation. Adding to the challenge of transforming Bangalore into a beacon of environmental responsibility is India’s fractious political scene, with competing, sometimes clashing interests, at the national, regional, and local levels. This political chaos has bred a culture of government corruption, with a consequent lack of responsible urban planning.

Refusing to accept this unpleasant reality, a newly formed Bangalore Political Action Committee, led by IT entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and other public figures, is trying to muster the public will and the votes necessary to turn the situation around. They want to reinvent Bangalore as an eco-city. The success of Bangalore’s green initiative will partly rise or fall with such local, grassroots groups and their ability to harness the political forces needed to build citizen consensus and create regulatory change.

Governments and political discourse, though, are not the only factors affecting the success or failure of eco-city initiatives within existing cities. Inherent cultural dynamics also play a role. Built around a technology-oriented economy, Bangalore presumably has attracted citizens with a natural drive towards innovation and progress. Clashes between the local government and Bangalore’s predominantly young, pub-going populace also seem to point to an openness to change confronting cultural traditions. India’s democratic system of government, of which the Bangalore Political Action Committee is a prime example, should work in favor of positive outcomes to the city’s problems. And if the eco-city concept can be realized in an existing mega-city like Bangalore, its viability in other parts of India should be enhanced.

Tangshan, China

Chinese eco-city initiatives provide an instructive contrast to Bangalore. In 1976, the city of Tangshan was devastated by one of the country’s worst-ever earthquakes, followed by 30 years of reconstruction, revitalization, and new development. In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao made an inspection tour of the city on the 30th anniversary of the great earthquake and announced his strategic vision to reconceive the city as a demonstration region for scientific development. Following President Hu’s instructions, Tangshan’s people are accelerating the process of transformation away from a resource-dependent city and toward a new ecological city.

It is important to note the Chinese approach also includes completely new development initiatives like Caofeidian, a new eco-city near the city center of Tangshan and about 250 kilometers southeast of Beijing. Initiated in 2009, Caofeidian is designed to be climate- and carbon-neutral with a projected population of 1 million citizens (my visit to Caofeidian has been the subject of some of my previous column posts). China’s goal is to build hundreds of new eco-cities in relatively short order—in just one to two decades—while simultaneously superimposing eco-city imperatives on some of its existing mega-cities. In this iteration, the national government has created a top-down planning model for eco-city development that can be seen as a driving force for rapid development.

However, as in India, cultural traditions are affecting the adoption of the eco-city lifestyle. In fact, there are already clear signs of resistance among ordinary Chinese city-dwellers, who complain about the lack of sensitivity to Chinese vernacular styles and the practices of feng shui, for example. New buildings are generic, bearing little resemblance to traditional Chinese styles, a factor of the dominant roles of Western designs firms like Sweco in environmental redevelopment in China. While China’s government may be able to build many eco-cities rapidly, the question remains: will they be socially sustainable?

This post was originally published on EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.