Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Digital Urban: A Revolution in Development Praxis

"What we are witnessing here is more important than might appear... After the long, long development of 'dynamic' moving vehicles, we are now entering the era of the static vehicle: an audiovisual vehicle, vector of apparent motion, of that sense of inertia induced by travelling vast distances -- which is a substitute for physical displacement that has become more or less redundant with the immediacy of tele-communications technologies. Hence the spontaneous generation of videodiscs, and of interactive screens simulating visits to all sorts of places -- cities, stately homes, museums. Simulator of a thoroughly eccentic course, the statis of [the computer screen] becomes a palpable metaphor for time travel, a time capsule for movement without displacement, a temporality of running on the spot."
-- Paul Virilio, 1990 p. 170 in Alien Zone, edited by Annette Kuhn.

In my last post I introduced the Solar CITIES Tour of Cairo, and put a link to a .kmz file that could help you plan your trip and navigate using Google Earth. But even if you can't come and visit the real Cairo, there are powerful reasons for why you might think of visiting Cairo in virtual reality, with Digital Earth Earth technology, and getting involved on the screen, if not on the scene.

Here I will make the argument for why it is so important to get the world community on-line helping to complete the Digital Urban landscape in detail.

When I was at Harvard my professor E.O. Wilson impressed upon us the need to use the computer to catalouge every living thing to stave off what he called "The Eremozoic Era" -- the awful age of loneliness that this great extincition spasm is plunging us into. Years later, when I worked as GIS/GPS coordinator for the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, we presented our work plotting all the vegetation at the Zoo and along jungle trails in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize at numerous Association of Zoological Horticulturists (AZH) conferences and met with Dr. Peter Raven, who is E.O. Wilson's partner in the biodiversity cataloguing and mapping effort, to see how we in the zoo and garden world could better assist in the effort.

In order to preserve life on earth, we not only had to begin mapping the biological landscape, but the hardscape of the built environment as well, for as humans and our sprawl take up more and more of the habitable earth we need to find creative ways to use land and space so that multiple uses can coexist in a non-competitive way.

The current debate over biofuels production and land use, and the furor over the placement of wind generators and solar electric fields, is intimately linked to the need to know where all the life-forms are, who and what they are, and how they can co-exist in time and space. For this we need the kind of virtual time and space travel machine Paul Virilio talked about. And that machine exists today on your computer.

Just as the SETI project helps us link up all our computers to lend processing power to the effort to search for life elsewhere, I'm calling for us to link all our computers together to make the built environment more livable here on Earth and use digital urban technologies to construe new ways of using our cities, particularly all that wasted but solar inundated roof space.

I used to look down on the planet with fascination and dismay every time I rode in an airplane, marvelling at how much surface area there was available for growing food, producing power and creating wildlife habitat all over our cities and suburbs. Now I do it voyeuristically in Google Earth, jealously eyeing warehouses and shopping malls and parking lots (oh the parking lots!!) and wishing I could paint solar panels and vegetation and windparks and biodiversity hotspots on top of all that tar and cement.

Well, now we can.

We can model the city and the sprawl and get up on those roofs and figure out how to use them best, and share our results with others, build consensus and then get out there and DO IT.

Last time I was at UCLA, advancing to candidacy and applying for the fellowship I'm now on, I had an inspiring couple of meetings with my professors Robin Liggett and Donald Shoup.

They shared with me ideas and papers they had written about the virtual modeling of urban environments -- integrated environments for urban simulation -- and told me how they had used projections of these simulations on a big screen in planning meetings with the mayors office in L.A. to demonstrate how one could green the city without simultaneously providing cover or hideouts for criminals. This was particularly important in ghetto areas where there is a paucity of much needed tree cover and vegetation but reluctance to invest in beautification. As we were installing Second Life on his office computer, Don Shoup said "all we had to do was change the species of trees in the simulation during the demonstration until everyone could agree which trees or shrubs could be placed where."

The subtlety of the approach ended the usual binary division between yay sayers and nay sayers -- it is hard to argue with something you can see, walk around, and test at different times of day and night and under different lighting conditions. They even showed what greening the city would look like from the mayors window.

At the time when Liggett and Shoup and Jepson were doing all this landmark work in the mid 90s, such tools were not available to the general public. But now that we have Google Earth and Google Sketchup and Second Life and a host of online multiplayer gaming environments connecting kids and adults from internet cafes in the slums of Cairo to computer labs in first rate universities, it is time to devote our design attention to bringing the digital urban to the masses, and what better way than in the form of MASSIVE MULTIPLAYER ONLINE ROLE-PLAYING GAMES?

When Karl Marx dreamed about putting the means of production into the hands of the masses, he couldn't have conceived of the possibility of the MMORPG as a gentle, nonviolent tool for eutopian revolution, and I am sure that the fact that so many MMORPGs do involve simulated violence frightens a lot of policy makers who can't see the bright side of detailed interactive models of the ghettoes of places like L.A. or Miami or Cairo (many only know them as the backdrops for Grand Theft Auto).

But the Digital Urban is here, and for those of you who want to participate in this (R)Evolution, there is an excellent blog filled with tutorials and stunning examples over at in England. It is one of our particular favorites.

From DigitalUrban's site I have recently learned how to take the architectural models of Darb Al Ahmar provided to Solar CITIES by Kareem Ibrahim, Naveen George and Mahmoud Qotb, export them from ArchiCAD 11 as .obj files, import them into Blender and retexture them, combine them with Google Sketchup Models and Google 3DWarehouse models of solar panels, set collision properties and bounding boxes, export them as .NIF mesh files with .DDS texture file associates, import them into the Elder Scrolls Construction Kit, and save them as .esp expansion pack files to be opened in Oblivion.

Now I am able to have my avatar walk up the ancient stone stairs through the Ayubbid wall at the base of Al Azhar park into Darb El Ahmar, climb up into building 72 across from the Darb Shughlan Community Center Complex, inspect the solar hot water system we have built on the roof, and, by pressing the T key and setting the slider, see how it looks at 10 in the morning or at 4 in the afternoon or any time of day or night because the game engine MODELS THE SOLAR CYCLE.

Yes, that's right, without buying an expensive SOLAR PATH FINDER or visiting our construction sites every hour of the day to see if we are getting shading or sun, I can now march my avatar up onto the virtual roof of the building models the AKTC architects have given me and WATCH. I can watch the shadows from walls or adjacent buildings every hour over 8 hours and do it all in less than 5 minutes.

Now THIS is a revolution! When I had gone to Zamalek with Roberto to see if we could put solar panels on his roof I had to get a boab (security guard) to let me into the tallest building across the street three times during the day so I climb up to the roof and look down on Robertos apartment. It took all day to determine that the movement of shadows would not favor any location on his roof to justify the cost of a solar hot water system.

If the Solar CITIES team has to spend a day every time they want to assess the potential of a roof for solar power we will never get the job done. Even if we could justify the expense of buying solar pathfinders we would still have to commit to going out to every site and talking the residents into letting us on their roofs and besides the time and energy that takes we face the dilemma of disappointing them when, after convincing them to let us invade their property with the promise of this great technology, we have to inform them that their roof is not suitable because their neighbor decided to add an extra story to his building for his son's marriage.

We have seen horrible altercations break out between neighbors when we have done this and are reminded that in ancient Rome there were laws against blocking your neighbor's sunlight.

To avoid all that and pre-determine the suitability of a roof for solar energy, all we, as urban planners, need now do is take the superb models the architects give us, bring them into Oblivion and virtually climb up there and look. And nobody has to lose time or heart.

It truly is a revolution, this Digital Urban thing.

And I invite all of you -- and yes I also mean you, the gamers, the modders, the Second Lifers and Google Earthers and Sketcheruppers, to get involved in this revolution with us and help us get this digital earth modelled in detail fast -- with the wartime urgency Al Gore challenged us to engage in to fight Global Warming, so we can get the digital urban simulating out of the way and get out there and turn all that real urban roofspace into the powerhouses (literal "POWER-HOUSES) that are going to end our obsession with and addiction to oil.

Seminal papers to read on the subject from UCLA:

Jepson, W., Liggett, R., and Friedman, S., "Virtual Modeling of Urban Environments," Presence, Volume 5.1, 72-86, Winter 1996.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W., "An Integrated Environment for Urban Simulation," Environment and Planning b, Vol. 22, 291-305, 1995.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W.," Implementing an Integrated Environment for Urban Simulation: CAD, Visualization and GIS," In A. Koutamanis, H. Timmermans, and I. Vermeulen (eds.) Visual Data Bases in Architecture: Recent Advances in Design and Decision Making, Avebury, Aldershot, U.K., 145-160, 1995.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W., "Use of Real Time Visual Simulation Technology for Urban Planning/Design Decision Making," Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Computers in Urban Planning and Management, Melbourne, Australia, 51-64, July, 1995.

Liggett, R., Friedman, S., and Jepson, W.,"Interactive Design/Decision Making in a Virtual Urban World: Visual Simulation and GIS," Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual ESRI User Conference. Palm Springs, CA, May, 1995.

Jepson, W., Liggett, R., and Friedman, S.,"An Environment for Real-time Urban Simulation," Proceedings of the Symposium on Interactive 3D Graphics, Monterey, CA, ACM SIGGRAPH, ACM Press, 165-166, 1995.

The International Conservation Trail - Extending the Methodology: The Role of L. A. Zoo's GPS/GIS/Database and Mapping System in Real World Conservation Initiatives by T. H. Culhane
in Branching out : AAZK 29th national conference (held jointly with the Association of Zoological Horticulture), October 6-10, 2002

American Association of Zoo Keepers. Conference (29th : 2002 : Kansas City, Mo.)
ISBN: 1929672098


Bruce F said...

It's not solar, but it dovetails nicely with it.

A few of us who live in the city of Chicago are trying to grow heirloom vegetables on our rooftops in cheap homemade earthboxes. In response to huge environmental problems, it's a small but rewarding way to push back. Also, we think they're a great way to build connections in a fragmented social/political landscape.

Not selling anything, I'm giving "it" away.

Here's the , alongside the pics is a little how-to guide with plenty of links.

T.H. Culhane said...

Bruce, thanks! This is superb stuff you are doing -- and to think you are doing it in my hometown of Chicago! (I was born at Weiss Memorial, lived at 5491 Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, my dad worked for the Chicago Daily News as a reporter, my Mom was an administrator at HeadStart and I got turned on to science and engineering at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium and the Lincoln Park Zoo.) It is great to see that Chicago people are keeping it the innovative city so many decades later.
As for rooftop Gardening not being solar -- our philosophy at Solar CITIES is that all forms of agriculture and horticulture and indeed all living organisms (with the exception of those benthic organisms at the hydrothermal sea vents) are examples of solar energy, for it is the sun and nothing else that provides the power for their growth and existence. So when we talk about Solar Cities we are talking most definitely about rooftop gardens. Indeed one of our active projects in Cairo is creating integrated rooftop gardening/solar hot water systems to go along with the solar powered plastics-drying-roofs the recyclers already use.
What you have shared is really exciting because we also made the mistake of going down the PVC path for our hydroponics systems.
When I get back to Cairo next week I will immediately share your website and techniques with my Egyptian colleagues and start implementing your Chicago experiences.
By the way, have you thought of using Polypropylene as the safe, durable, inexpensive solution to replacing PVC? We use exclusively recycled polypropylene green pipes in our systems now -- the beauty is that you "weld them" with a heat machine so there is NEVER any use of toxic PVC glue (a known carcinogen that is always inhaled and gets on skin when connecting PVC). Try out polypropylene -- it is amazing stuff -- and don't let anybody tell you you can't use old discarded poly -- just drill out the old fittings and reweld.

Thanks again for your comments and great work!

Go Chicago!

T.H. Culhane said...

Hey Bruce, a question for you: Do you think we could use the Hudson Valves you describe in place of the float valves we use in our solar hot water systems? We would need to extend a pipe from the bottom of the hudson valve to the bottom of the tank because the cold water coming in to the top of the tank (for the Hudson valve to shut off) has to really enter at the bottom (i.e. it cannot mix with the hot water collecting at the top of the tank). What do you think?



Bruce F said...

I've never actually used a Hudson valve, so I'm far from qualified to answer the question.

It sounds like it would work, but you might want to contact the Hudson valve people directly -

You also might like to get in touch with the man we labeled "the Distinguished Professor" on our Flickr site, Dr. Willem Van Cotthem.

His site is called Desertification and it's full of useful info.

Bruce F said...

Not sure if this went through the first time.

I don't see why you couldn't use the Hudson valve in that way. You might want to ask them directly though -

You might get something from the site of an academic who sent me an email -

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