The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Construction

Time for a cleanup

dotbostonfromplaneIt’s a beautiful thing to fly into Logan International Airport in Boston. No matter which direction you come from, the plane will eventually angle over the water of Boston Harbor, ceding views of the islands, the city, and the neighborhoods nestled into the low hills near the sea.


Something else you might see are these curious eggs, arranged in what looks like a semi-industrial sculpture on an island just beyond the runway. They are the result of an environmental and economic success story – one in which an environmental disgrace actually figured into a presidential election.

The Sunday after this year’s election, we were invited by friends to see their beach house in Winthrop, a modest coastal town just beyond Logan. It is one of the last Massachusetts working class towns on the beach, with cottages crowded cheek by jowl on tiny lots festooned with funky buoy art, lobster traps, and painted Adirondack chairs. As we strolled the sand, beachcombing for shells and picking up bits of stray garbage, planes flew in low overhead for landing.

At the end of the beach, we walked onto an island that rose up with views of the Boston skyline on one side and the open ocean on the other. It was landscaped at the bottom with pretty parks with benches and trees and in the middle a berm rose up with native grasses like those that populate the marshes along Boston’s North Shore.

The berm concealed the island’s true purpose as the site of the wastewater treatment plant that was constructed to clean up Boston Harbor. And those are the eggs, which are digesters of eastern Massachusetts raw sewage that used to be dumped straight into the water.

The eggs are an engineering feat and the result of eventual political and judiciary displays of will, but they came about after centuries of avoiding the obvious. The problem of dumping raw sewage into a relatively closed harbor was first recognized in 1634 yet somehow ignored for centuries, until its solution was driven only by court order. By then, it had become Boston’s embarrassment, used by Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 campaign.

The eggs have cleaned up the harbor, and island is the pride of the beach neighborhood residents, who can walk the 2.5 mile circumference trail on a beautiful day. My neighbors, who voted for the current President-elect, loved to show it off and to tell me the biological details of how the digesters work.

During this year’s presidential campaign, both candidates promised significant investment in infrastructure, but neither mentioned any projects that might begin to tackle the enormous environmental hard stops we are coming up against. This country has a lot of resources, know-how, and creativity in engineering, finance, technology, and good old-fashioned labor. I’d love to see every city identify and apply for funds or raise bonds to tackle the latest obvious problem, engaging their eggheads, their wonks, their working class to get it done – just as Boston eventually did, albeit under duress.

Everybody knows what they are. The trashy, stinking river. The wetlands to be restored that would filter drinking water or hold a storm surge. The plastics pouring out of our landfills and into the ocean. The mountains of electronic trash. Or even, as the storied track coach would say, just start by getting the lead out.



Opening salvo: Three small trees


Since I last wrote, the yard came back to life. We didn’t have an entirely barren rectangle to start and so various plants reappeared, including weeds wherever they could. I planted the vegetable garden, pulled the weeds, composted and mulched, set up the sprinkler to water. We’ve mowed the grass that’s there, trimmed some bushes.

I spent the spring months noticing the basic composition of the yard and how I might anchor it to begin the transformation to lush oasis. The space divides essentially into three triangles, from the deeply shady and barren slope on the left, to the middle where there is mostly grass and a fair amount of sun, to the much sunnier right side that is close to the vegetable garden.

I also considered all the functions I wanted: A tranquil setting for our patio; somewhere to play with our dogs; habitat, hatchery, and corridor for mammals, birds, bees, butterflies, and other life; and a place to grow food and flowers for us to enjoy. On a trip to Vermont, when I saw this book, The Nourishing Homestead, I was inspired to think about how to get the most out of every square inch of our small patch in town.

Ambitious, right? Not really — if you give Nature an inch she will take a mile. We know this is true when battling weeds. But when we introduce just a few new biotic aspects, it is really incredible the variety of life they attract, and how quickly. IMG_0747

I knew I wanted smaller trees interspersed through the body of the yard, but I also didn’t want “ornamental.” I wanted functional, to serve all the purposes above. I was inspired by a Martha Stewart Living magazine to try dwarf fruit trees – I didn’t know that apricots and plums would grow in Massachusetts! Hooray! I had already planted a serviceberry – a wild version of a crabapple – that would host butterfly caterpillars in its bark.

We bought the two fruit trees – $45 each – from a local nursery, and planted them as two points at either end of the line shared by the sunny triangle and the middle triangle. We moved the serviceberry upslope and to the left, to make the third triangle point. Next I’ll work on rhododendrons and/or mountain laurel to fill in the understory in the shady dry slope section. My hope is that these trees and bushes will serve as the infrastructure to anchor the design of the space, attract more biota, and begin to offer shade and shelter to us all.



top right: apricot tree.

middle right: plum tree.

bottom left: serviceberry.



I think it would change the world if we reintroduced “good” to our vocabulary. As in, my good coat, my good purse. A good sweater. Good in this sense implies well made, worth taking care of, exceptionally designed, will last a long time.

We could stand to make a few more purchases that will last – both materially and stylistically, the intersection where excellent design resides. (But not last to eternity, like a Fisher Price plastic castle in a landfill or water bottles in the ocean.) I realized that I found this combination in our patio furniture, made by the French company Fermob. I bought a small cafe set after we redid this porch and painted our house – it was featured in a shop in town but cost more than I’d planned to spend.

It was so pretty I started rationalizing right away. The set was more expensive than what I could find somewhere like Target – not so expensive as to be “luxury” but not so cheap that it would fall apart in a few years. It was made in France, not China, which means a lower carbon footprint because it’s shipped a shorter distance and is made in a country that is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And best of all, that gorgeous color was guaranteed to hold through every season, for years.


I put in the order. A few weeks later, I happened to go to New York and saw hundreds of chairs and tables like mine out in Bryant Park. Sure enough, Fermob. Putting furniture outside for public use in New York
is like asking an elephant to step on a Timex. (Imagine what would happen if I put my West Elm foyer sofas in a hotel lobby for a week.)

I thought about what makes them such good design. They’re made of steel, but don’t use a lot of it. The graceful swoop of the chairs makes them pretty and also surprisingly comfortable though they are quite light and foldable. They come in dozens of other colors and chic, retro-inspired but fresh styles, including those with cushions and arms.

Fermob’s website features a section on production and “eco-design.” They point out that steel is nearly universally recycled, their colors are UV-protected so they won’t fade, and they use solvent-free paints and upholstery. As we all become more budget-conscious, climate-conscious, and overwhelmed by clutter, good design should incorporate all these considerations. I think our sensibilities may be swinging back that way – I hope more companies will find it important to make products that meet us there.

My Fermob set is now my “good” cafe set. I love it every time I look out the window, or pass by with my groceries, or sit down for lunch or a glass of wine. I’ll love it for years, probably decades, to come.


copenhagen ii: to ride a bike


Riding a bike at a UN climate conference can be more visionary than the talks themselves…

To get on a bike in Copenhagen is to enter into the stream of Denmark. You sit tall on a sturdy machine, equipped with fat tires and fenders, scarf around your face, hat on your head, boots covering your legs. You can ride, as I did, in a skirt or a suit under your coat and be dressed for work when you arrive. As one bike lane gives way to another, you are traffic itself, not peripheral to it. The bikes proceed as deliberately as automobiles. The bike lanes are delineated by concrete infrastructure – curbs or even parking areas between them and the cars.

I got on a bike in Copenhagen because it was my only means of transportation to the Bella Centre, the site of the UN climate talks in December, 2009. Protests around the talks had become violent, shutting down passage by train or taxi, but I had to bring my NGO pass to my colleagues.

The Bella Centre was built outside of the old city, on the flat former fields that support convention centers, hotels, and high rise apartments everywhere. Even design-conscious Scandinavia sports this cheap twentieth-century landscape. Yet here these wastelands -usually the sole province of automobiles – are made accessible and convenient by bike.

Biking there was not an athletic, scenic, or political act. It was utilitarian, a likely means of transportation no matter what the weather, the size of the road, or the density of the traffic. When I entered the bike lane outside my hotel, the streets were wet and cold and I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly. I was immediately swept along in the bike traffic, unable to easily stop or turn around without being run over. We crossed a bridge to the southwest of the city center to a minor highway split down the middle by the train track. The sun, already beginning to set at two p.m., was a vague smear of light over fields and small neighborhoods.

We crossed over a major highway. A windmill turned and farther out on the horizon stood smokestacks. Snowflakes flew. As I neared the Bella Center, the auto traffic stood still under beating helicopters. Giant sculptures of three Masaai rose out of the yellow grass as some sort of display for the talks. They had the emaciated, haunted look of the skeleton sculptures that protest groups had put near the doors of the convention center in somebody’s idea of inspiration.

At a UN checkpoint I saw how much I’d managed to assimilate just by biking. One of the officers approached, smiling, and addressed me enthusiastically. Maybe he was remarking on the craziness all around; I had no idea. I didn’t even know how to say “I don’t speak Danish” in Danish. I stopped, shrugged my shoulders, and laughed, pulling the pass hanging around my neck out from under my scarf. His eyes widened in surprise at a foreigner on a bike.

The people who had come from all over the world to negotiate reducing greenhouse gas emissions were stuck in traffic. Those who came to protest were behaving such that helicopters and SUVs had to be brought in and run all day. Seemingly unaware of it, they presented the world that is: noisy, clashing, exhausting of resources, inefficient. The world that causes climate change.

I continued on past the Convention Center to the Radisson, where NGOs and negotiators had decamped while waiting for their passes. I wheeled the bike up a narrow ramp etched in the concrete beside the front steps for just that purpose, parked it with the many others in the rack, took off my coat to reveal my work outfit, and went inside.

What I had just experienced was part of the vision and the infrastructure of the carbon-light world. The people around me huddled with their Blackberries while the protesters outside delighted in made-for-TV clashes with the police. But getting on a bike, within a city- and nation-wide infrastructure that made this a mainstream and convenient option, was the least act of protest and the most visionary. It was an example of structure and change we might implement to save ourselves. Nobody mentioned that.


dials, caps, and folded-up triangles

Sometimes the best design is so simple we never even notice it. The cap on the toothpaste – a slim threaded screw top. A piece of waxed cardboard folded up to become a carton for milk. A dial that turns.

Our Toyota Prius has a touch screen for all the interior controls, requiring the driver to take her eyes off the road to adjust anything. The screen is set high and is fully lit, so the white-green light is a constant glare against the black of a nighttime highway.

The Volkswagen has dials, lit quietly in red and blue circles, sitting low and within easy reach of the right hand. Everybody knows that dials mean yesterday. I don’t mean to stand in the way of progress, but the dial is a design that cooperates beautifully with the supercomputer that is the human brain. Fire up muscle memory and all you have to do is reach over, without looking, and turn up the heat or change the tunes.

The tube of toothpaste in our house right now has a “family style” top that attaches to the tube and clamps over the end. It is much bigger than a toothpaste cap. It never really closes, particularly after any toothpaste has been squeezed out and a little bit lingers on the end. It makes a mess of toothpaste where it sits, and it’s made from at least twice the plastic of a simple cap.

Many milk cartons now feature a round hole with a plastic cap on the side for pouring. When bakers want to be precise, they create a paper triangle from which to measure out flour. When you pour from a round hole you might pour more, or you might pour the same, but do you need the extra plastic? Apparently, if you have children (say the advertisers) you do.

All the extra plastic waste turns to tiny beads that are often ingested by marine life, like dolphins and whales. The constant light of screens not only takes our eyes off the road, but messes with our brains and our endocrine systems, hopping us up and dropping our levels of the cancer-fighting hormone melatonin.

Not to mention all that toothpaste lost to American sinks.

It’s enough to make you appreciate the beauty of a dial, a small threaded cap, and a folded up waxed paper triangle – still available, if you can find them, in a showroom or grocery store near you.

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