With our first full day of snow since I settled back in Buffalo, I began musing this morning about my year of visiting green places. “Green” might be actual greenery and landscape, LEED certified buildings with all the technological gewgaws, a great recycling approach or excellent mass transit. I would say the number one all around greenest place I visited this year was Amsterdam. With its 600,000 bicycles, spectacular tram system and those tulips everywhere it’s pretty difficult for anywhere else to come close. But I am happy to say that there are pockets of green, both manufactured and inherent, everywhere I went. So, in no particular order…
Oh those canals, that walkability and my single most iconic image of the year – the historic windmills that ring the historic core. Bruges is that perfect example of dense, historic city core that every new city (especially those based on “New Urbanism” ) tries to emulate. But here is the real deal. Of course a sprawling suburban metro area extends out from the historic core, but we were able to spend three solid days in Bruges, walking the winding roads or taking water taxis on the canals everywhere without ever getting in a car. My sister wants to retire there and that wouldn’t be half bad! It was certainly hard to pull ourselves away from Bruges to head to Paris.
Salt Lake City, Utah
The single most breathtakingly gorgeous new building I visited this year was the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City. The museum overlooks the rest of the University of Utah’s campus and from its green roofs you can see as far as the Great Salt Lake. The evening I was there, a big televised football game was being played just below us, the sun was setting over the Great Salt Lake and the quiet and calmness of the planted green roof, solar panels and mountains behind us brought out the best in green-ness.
Like Bruges and Amsterdam, Paris demonstrates how dense streets, reused and reused again historic buildings and mass transit, make our historic city cores some of the greenest places on earth. It’s hard to choose what I found the greenest in Paris, the reused or refound landmarks like Notre Dame, the Musée d’Orsay or the Rodin Museum, the plug-in electric cars, the fabulous mass transit or the Beaux Arts avenues with real green and real flowers everywhere. The more I think about Paris, the more I want to go back. This was my first real visit there (changing trains there once before didn’t count) and I’ll admit – it wasn’t easy at first. Neither my sister nor I speak French, and we were so well treated in Bruges that we found some of the unfriendly people of Paris challenging (except for our amazing hotel). Next time I’ll bring one of my friends who does speak French!!
If you asked me when we visited Versailles whether this was a green place, I would have wholeheartedly replied “NOOOO.” But now that I’ve calmed down from the chaos of that visit – the unexpected hot weather in March, the complete break down of the visitor experience (waiting in line for over an hour), the crowds inside the most visited house museum in the world, I’ve been able to think about it in a more balanced manner. I still find the visitor experience to the palace horrific and it shocks me that any of the decorative finishes or furnishings can survive the crowds. But the glorious landscape and the ability to take mass transit directly here from Paris, makes it a green place in my book. With house museums continually getting bad raps, it is encouraging to know that a crazy, overdesigned, ostentatious old palace can bring in millions of visitors for just a few Euro from downtown.
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
A small town of less than 10,000 in northern Minnesota was the location of this year’s annual Minnesota statewide preservation conference. An invitation to open up the conference as its keynote brought me here, as well as a great desire to see one of the last constructed Kirkbride hospitals. The city is lovely, a great Main Street with reused commercial buildings, and the massive now vacant Fergus Falls Hospital occupying a restful green swath of landscape on the edge of town. The political winds seem to be changing in Fergus Falls since the election so there is hope yet that this landmark won’t be demolished. As the preservation of some of the grandest landmarks across the country have shown, sometimes patience is the best preservation tool, and here’s to hoping that patience wins here.
Now, while it doesn’t really count as a place I “visited” because I lived there, the Old Salem farmers market demonstrates the best of buying local. I could walk there in five minutes from our house, run into friends, fill my recyclable bags with more kale, lettuces, tomatoes and broccoli than I could cook and enjoy it all amidst the buildings and landscapes of a restored town. And the basil lemonade was one of the best cooling drinks I’ve ever had!
Austin has a well-deserved reputation as a forward thinking “green” city. This was my second visit to Austin and this time I was able to spend some time roaming around. I stayed at the University of Texas at Austin’s campus in a contemporary LEED certified hotel, was given tours of the historic buildings on campus soon to have green rehabs and dodged bicycles and pedestrians everywhere. The weather was divine in October – the city was green and lush, and everyone seems to think that this is a special place, whether you live there or visit. It’s hard not to get caught up with “Keeping Austin Weird!”
Every year I get to visit San Francisco for some reason, usually work related. And it is always a delight. This year sadly I headed to San Francisco for only one visit of 36 hours! Due to other circumstances I found myself flying across the continent to give a speech at the Greenbuild International Summit and then immediately heading back to NYC. So, doing something this insane is definitely NOT green and I think I’m still recovering from it but being able to spend my two free hours in San Francisco walking around very walkable Union Square until my feet gave out and collapsing in my historic hotel’s cozy room somehow made up for it.
New York City
Since I teach in NYC I get to spend a lot of time roaming around and visiting with all my friends. As the densest city in the US, I could of course talk about that. But two of my favorite green places, not surprisingly, are the High Line and the reinvented Lincoln Center, both designed by my colleagues at Diller Scofidio. Beyond the reuse of an abandoned raised rail line which has sparked copycats around the world, what I find the most inspiring about the High Line is the introduction of native flora to the gritty West side. I’ve spent hours curled up on benches there with my laptop finishing my class presentations watching birds and butterflies, and the hoards of visitors. I finally managed to get over to Lincoln Center last week and despite the cold and blustery wind found the new green roofs/landscaping, allees of trees and water features very calming.
I may have moved from DC to Buffalo this year but it wasn’t because I didn’t find the city engaging and green. I just couldn’t live in 3 places at once anymore!! I do miss being able to walk or take the Metro to anything I needed (groceries, yoga, books, restaurants). I miss Rock Creek Park visible from my apartment and some of the world’s best museums lining one of the grand Beaux Arts design features in the world. I miss my friends and chance encounters. I don’t miss the Beltway and the worst traffic in the world but the easy-to-use Metro that takes you just where you want to go (except Georgetown!) makes up for that.
My hometown of Buffalo boasts some of the most spectacular architecture in the world and the draw of National Historic Landmarks that are being remade like the Richardson Olmsted Complex (former Buffalo State Aslyum for the Insane designed by H. H. Richardson, Olmsted & Vaux) has brought me and many other expats back here. I can’t promise I’ll stay forever (I do find it hard to sit still and there are so many amazing places in this world to visit and live in!), but for now, this is one place where my friend Carl Elefante’s quote “The greenest building is the one that’s already here” really does resonate.
And Here’s to a Happy New Year With French Fries!
The most fun green place I visited this year was the Frites Museum in Bruges – or how to save a historic building with French fries!!! “Green” may be tulips or it may be French fries, but one thing is certain, people around the world are making it a better, healthier place in very creative and meaningful ways!
And if you’d like to “subscribe” or follow my blog, True Green Cities, please sign up through the “Subscribe” button at the bottom left of this page. You’ll receive a daily recap when new blogs are posted. Or Sign up for the Feed.