Max Zahniser doesn’t usually make house calls. As a leader in sustainability and integrative, systems thinking he lends his expertise to wide ranging building projects and organizations. He promotes green practices on a national level and has been at the inception of advanced thinking in that arena.
Zahniser doesn’t just paint with a broad brush. Son of two psychologists, he knows more than most that “relationships matter.” When it comes to collaborations, he wisely encourages “enlightened self-interest rather than right or wrong.”
To give you a better idea of his philosophy Zahniser will tell you that systems thinking is his foundation for understanding the world. He rejects a fragmented, specialized worldview and ascribes to the dawning “Age of Integration,” anticipated decades ago by Buckminster Fuller and Lewis Mumford. In contrast to healthy interdependence, Zahniser sees Philadelphia as an example of “dispersed environmental initiatives.” His new Sustainability Nexus enterprise aims to pull that all together.
PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE
I asked Zahniser to pack up the best of his design insights and conceptual diagrams into a tool kit he could take to any neighborhood to foster grass roots green initiatives, so to speak. As with the famed “Powers of Ten” illumination of scale by Charles and Ray Eames, presumably, what can heal a neighborhood, can heal a city and so on.
“This diagram (above) is used to demonstrate that, at some level, the understanding of interdependent systems is innate because every culture in history has had a version of these elements. When we ‘remind’ people of them, they immediately unlock the ability to identify a pretty holistic set of impacts and even system dynamics.” — Max Zahniser
“Green Traffic Triangles” Grays Ferry, Philadelphia
Triangles at Grays Ferry is an organization that Zahniser sees as a potential “patient” (or client). They are pushing for the greening and enhanced safety of 3 small, bleak traffic islands in their neighborhood. I met up with Andrew Dalzell, program coordinator for SOSNA (South of South St. Neighborhood Association) heading the Triangles project, for coffee at the tiny Ants Pants Cafe near the Triangles site. Dalzell is a sharp, energetic guy who built upon his background in European history and a stint working for the City Planning Commission on zoning reform, attaining a salaried position as a neighborhood advocate.
IDEAS INTO ACTION
Andrew Dalzell (left) Max Zahniser (right) before a recent SOSNA board meeting Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2013
My plan was to bring Zahniser and Dalzell to the table to see how they might initiate progress at ground level. Previous efforts at the Triangles had fallen short of the city-required unanimous neighborhood support and, thus, grant funding for implementation.
From his laptop Zahniser quickly reveals how his concepts are eminently scalable. “They’re vector,” he says. The diagrams, with their streamlined, fundamental approach to collaboration, analysis and implementation, can easily tune from mega building complexes to humble traffic triangles.
Zahniser already sees the Triangles as the locus to capture and reuse everything from storm water to solar energy, contributing directly to city services. Essentially, they become nodes to purify water and generate energy, propagating a new, healing network for the city.
Amiable and approachable, Zahniser projects ahead to the not-so-distant future when there are crises of available resources and climate induced calamities. He has adjusted his thinking to focus on life supporting, “regenerative” systems – even little bits of leftover space are now to be marshaled for service and comfort. Such a fine-grained approach, I believe, allows us to truly appreciate and gain a handle on the enormity of the environmental tasks we face.
Incidentally, though Zahniser is passionately consumed with sustainability, he is not entirely sanguine that the public and governmental will to succeed is guaranteed. Indeed, that may be what drives him forward – bringing both himself and Dalzell up against opposition to change. “It will take education,” asserts Zahniser. Dalzell adds enthusiastically, “If we can show you that you don’t have to be content with the status quo, that would be a powerful demonstration!”
Professor Zahniser is about to engage Dalzell and the Triangles at Grays Ferry group as a case study for his built-environment design course at Drexel University, a cross-disciplinary application of his sustainability principles. He will guide 5 student teams to study the “5 key subsystems” applied to the Grays Ferry neighborhood. All teams will then contribute to 3 outcome categories.
The real challenge facing Zahniser’s students, however, is not just visionary design. It’s about “buy in,” motivating people with the right incentives to achieve consensus. Reconciling system dynamics with human dynamics is at the heart of any breakthroughs. His students will need to learn, early on, how to walk that line, not putting it off until later when they may have lost the audience they needed to reach. At the very least, to become good, responsive designers they will have to become acute listeners.
At another time I will bring you into the classroom as the students begin to assimilate knowledge from their contact with and study of the Grays Ferry community. Lofty ideas will be put to the test, critiqued by the very people who would live with the resulting designs.
Above: Current proposal for south triangle | Campbell Thomas & Co. Architects
Below: North triangle – Past, present & future
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
SOSNA literature describes the hidden potential of the traffic triangles they are championing as “one small link in a chain of public spaces,” ripe for improvement.
The effort the Triangles represent promotes healing for this or any other city with a combination of resourcefulness, teamwork and, hopefully, money. The care invested in this postage stamp sized real estate will ripple outwards setting new standards for larger scale usability, sustainability, and safety. A stronger, green connection can then blossom between disparate urban neighborhoods.
When it comes to traffic, no island is an island.
Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia. Brin has just completed his first graphic novel, on legendary gangster, Alphonse Gabriel Capone.
We interrupt our Tree Tagging series to bring you this special post…Our Green Team wanted to share some of the more interesting holiday plant facts we’ve uncovered so you can impress your family, friends, and colleagues while sipping on a poinsettia (1/2 ounce Cointreau, 3 ounces cranberry juice, and a champagne float) and enjoying a handful of chestnuts (Castanea sativa) at your festive upcoming gatherings.
The Holiday Tree Tradition
Evergreen trees have been a symbol of the season since the sixteenth century, but the Germans were not likely thinking about the evergreen tree market as a booming winter business. Approximately 30 million trees are sold over the holidays each year in America. Where do all of these trees come from? The bulk of the U.S.’s crop (98 percent, to be exact) comes from tree production farms, with Oregon topping the list of acreage dedicated to holiday trees. In 2007, the total farmed acreage was equivalent to nearly 40 New York Central Parks!
The Mystery of Mistletoe
Much like an overeager paramour kissed under the mistletoe, the seeds of this plant (Viscum album in Europe and Phoradendron serotinum in North America) “stick” to a host plant after being transported by birds. Mistletoe is parasitic and lives off a variety of tree species by extending a proboscis-like root structure into a branch, through which it pulls nutrients and water. This sapping of nutrients can weaken the host plant and occasionally results in death. Due to its parasitic nature, mistletoe can only be cultivated by seed. So, be careful who you kiss this season, or you might find yourself with a draining new attachment of your own.
More Than Just Candy!
Royal ambassadors in ancient Rome were known to carry mint sprigs in their pockets, because the aroma of peppermint (Mentha x piperita) was thought to prevent a person from losing his or her temper. Today, peppermint oil is used in a variety of home remedies, mainly as a calming agent to soothe an angry person or upset stomach. Remember to have your peppermint candy cane in hand to keep your cool while holiday shopping!
The Fashionable Holiday Sweater
The holiday tradition of ugly sweaters wouldn’t be nearly as irritating if it weren’t for their scratchy wool. When Australian sheep farmers started planting non-native species of clover (Trifolium sp.) in the 1940s, they observed a heartier clover crop, but at the cost of decreased sheep flock sizes. It turned out that the more vigorous, non-native clover contained an endocrine disruptor that lead to the sterilization of the sheep and therefore, notably reduced flocks. The clover’s self-defense mechanism, while extreme, is certainly something to ponder over a glass of eggnog at your yuletide family function.
On-site assembly began just three days before our deadline for completion. Up until the last day, it rained steadily but there was no delaying our progress. Initially about two-thirds of the 26 aluminum “bricks” were brought to the site, while the rest were kept in storage until they would be needed. Two box trucks were used to move the bricks, sometimes only one or two pieces could fit in a single truck due to their size. The largest brick is nearly eight feet wide and fourteen feet tall. Most bricks required a minimum of four people to lift and the better part of one day was spent transporting the majority of the pieces to the site with the remainder following slowly over the next day.
The foundations were laid out on the site in advance. Three raised platforms create the footprint of the pavilion and are made with a plywood box and metal feet on adjustable base plates. As a requirement we could not make any holes or punctures in the ground, so the platforms had to be raised in order to be leveled. Each platform is slightly narrower than the minimum width of the wall to help hide the edge and suppress its impact visually. When the pavilion was finally completed a black cloth skirt was used to conceal the feet and base plates. Each platform had been set to a consistent height before fabrication began.
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