The Second R

by Don Friedman on January 5, 2018


“Reduce Reuse Recycle” as been around for a while but it seems to me that the recycling part has stolen most of the attention. Building materials are recyclable but buildings themselves are not. What they are is reusable. That leads me to this article on Curbed about the conversion of the Brookfield Avenue Landfill in Staten Island into a park.

The difference between reuse and recycling is the nature of the thing that is under discussion. Commodities can be recycled. One piece of aluminum is the same as another, so recycling cans makes sense. The old practice of cleaning and refilling glass bottles was based on them being a commodity, as is the newer practice of melting them down and recasting them. Concrete can be recycled to some degree into aggregate for new concrete because it’s a commodity.

Buildings or landscapes are not interchangeable equally-valued commodities. They can be reused, they can be altered for new occupancy (AKA adaptive reuse), they can be demolished and replaced. With few exceptions they are unique to the people who use them even if they are physically identical to other buildings. If you were to ask people who live in a rowhouse if they would swap with another identical house down the block, assuming that the hassles of moving were taken care of for them, the answer would be “no” most of the time. Inanimate objects don’t have meaning us because we anthropomorphize them; we anthropomorphize them because they have meaning for us. People are attached to their house even if there are physically identical houses nearby because it’s theirs, not a commodity. They cannot be recycled.

Land in general is another non-commodity. New York City is short on both open space and land for development, which means that getting land available for new parks is extremely difficult. Converting a brown-field site to a park is a win-win: a polluted site is removed and a new park is created. Adaptive reuse on a large scale is still reuse and we’re all better off for it.

How Speciation Starts

December 9, 2017

This article on the rat population of New York is fascinating. There are genetic differences in the rats depending on where they live, with the relatively sparse population in midtown serving to separate the uptown rats from the downtown rats. Now that I have learned this fascinating tidbit, it’s unfortunate that there’s absolutely no place […]

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Changing The Meaning Of A Euphemism

December 6, 2017

Whatever your personal definition of “meadow” is, the New Jersey meadowlands are not it. The area is a vast swamp, barely above sea level. It’s the combined valley of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers before they empty into Newark Bay, which itself is a branch of New York Bay by way of Kill Van Kull. […]

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Nature Reclaims

October 21, 2017

Good article and pictures of the Ridgewood reservoir on the Brooklyn/Queens border: here. Abandoned as a reservoir, it’s reverted to nature in a short amount of time. This topic has been the subject of some fascinating thought experiments, but here’s a real-life example.

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Planning For Future Floods

September 30, 2017

The South Ferry subway station after Hurricane Sandy, courtesy of the MTA: Here’s a good article on infrastructure improvement, specifically on repairs to mitigate future disasters: 6 rules for rebuilding infrastructure in an era of ‘unprecedented’ weather events. The third rule, “Design for climate change” jumped out at me as it’s something we see every time we […]

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Code Intersectionality

September 12, 2017

There’s been some discussion in the last couple of weeks on the topic of Belgian Block paving – usually and somewhat incorrectly referred to as cobblestones – being impassable for people with mobility issues. A solution exists for this particular problem, which is to provide smoother pavement at crosswalks. This allows people in wheelchairs or […]

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Redundancy and Resurgence

August 11, 2017

Apparently, traffic is up on the Erie Canal. The canal has had a strange history: as the first practical transportation link directly from the midwest to the east coast, it helped make New York City what it is. Traffic, mostly agricultural produce in the early 1800s, came here instead of floating down the Mississippi to […]

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Three Thoughts In 285 Words

July 21, 2017

I read Doug Stowe’s blog regularly. There’s a pretty good size gap between his work and mine, but what he has to say is always interesting and he says it in a way that both informs and entertains. His July 4th post is a good example of why I read his blog. In a very small […]

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Peeking Through

June 26, 2017

Infrastructure is to us as the ocean is to fish: it’s everywhere around us, and we depend on it completely, but we usually don’t see it even when we’re looking at it. Sometimes it shows up as oddities that require explanation; sometimes it shows up as windowless buildings. The cute corporate-art-deco structures in the two […]

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Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

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