“Design for a Vulnerable Planet” Explores Our Physical Environment and Its Future

Vulnerable-Planet-cover1-231x300The recent horrific events in Japan were a brutal reminder of just how fragile the human race is. Mother Nature has always been a force to be dealt with; now with our burgeoning population and the rapid urbanization of the planet, her power over our wellbeing is undeniable.

The tragedy in Japan is the most recent on record; however, it follows a decade of destruction. In 2001, the United States experienced a cataclysmic man-made disaster on September 11; in 2004, Asia suffered a debilitating tsunami; in 2005, the Gulf Coast was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina; and in 2010, Haiti was pummeled by a catastrophic earthquake.

Our planet is fragile, and in his just-released book, “Design for a Vulnerable Planet,” Dean Fritz Steiner of the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin tells us why.

Urbanization and population growth contribute to our frailty; however, so do unlimited resources and a vast overuse and misuse of natural resources critical to our survival, such as air, water, land, gas and oil.

According to Steiner, part of the solution toward healing our planet is that architects and planners thoroughly understand the landscapes in the regions in which they work.

“We must understand the full costs — economic, social, cultural, ecological, and environmental — to design and build a better planet,” Steiner says.

In his book, four simple steps are outlined in order to build a better world for future generations. Those steps are:

  • We must acknowledge the relationship between our health and the built environment.
  • We need to build green.
  • We must stop sprawling and do a better job restoring and conserving our current built environment.
  • We need to think, and build, regionally.

The last one is a theme woven throughout the book. Designs and plans that are suited to their place are more sustainable than conventional approaches. By understanding climate and water flows within a region, architects and planners can design more appropriate, more sustainable, buildings, parks and communities.

With the birth of modern design, the age-old concept of regionalism was slowly abandoned. Refrigeration, air conditioning, central heating, television, radios, computers, automobiles and cell phones — those things that connect us — also disconnect us from one another and from nature. Physical and emotional health are connected, and there is nothing more physical than the environment in which we live and work.

Steiner believes that suburban sprawl is an unnecessary evil and that, as American cities continue to sprawl, Americans grow fatter. In 2009, the American Academy for Pediatrics reported that 32 percent of U.S. children are overweight. Their report linked the growing number of overweight children to the physical inactivity and to the lack of safe neighborhood design that supports walking to schools, parks and recreational facilities.

More people live in cities now than ever in our global history and continued urbanization is inevitable. What this means is that natural and man-made catastrophes have and will affect millions more than they would have decades ago. We must learn to adapt our cities and buildings to build a healthier today, tomorrow and future. It is something designers and planners can, and should, be doing now.

The Heart and Soul of Our Poetry Community

smDYcolorOn Friday, April 8, poets from across the country will read at Austin Museum of Art downtown in a benefit honoring The University of Texas at Austin’s  Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry Dean Young, beloved poet and teacher who faces a heart transplant.

Nationally acclaimed poets Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, Dobby Gibson, Barbara Ras, Stuart Dischell, David Rivard and Joe Di Prisco are volunteering their time to fly in for the free event and will read along with a raft of local poets, including visiting professors Tomaz Salamun and Mary Ruefle, and members of the University community Kurt Heinzelman, Judith Kroll, Roger Reeves and Malachi Black. Each reader will read a favorite poem by Dean and a piece of their own.

Dean joined the university’s permanent faculty in 2008 as the first of two distinguished chairs created by the Michener Center for Writers and Office of Graduate Studies.  A professor in the Department of English, he teaches poetry workshops and seminars in both creative writing programs.  Among one of the most prolific poets of his generation, celebrated for his energetic and inventive style—a mercurial blend of  tragedy and joy, the surreal and the minutely observed—he has more than a dozen books of poetry and prose to his credit, including “Fall Higher,” forthcoming this year; “Primitive Mentor,” shortlisted for the 2009 Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy on Toy Piano,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Embryoyo,” as well as a critical work on poetry, “The Art of Recklessness.”

Dean’s imprint on the poetry program in English and the Michener Center has been immediate and distinctive.  English chair Elizabeth Cullingford calls him a “consummate teacher who’s brought dynamism and new ideas to our Creative Writing program.”   Leanna Petronella, a poet in her second year at the Michener Center, says that Dean uses “an odd and brilliant metaphorical language to get at what poetry does.”  MFA candidate Zebadiah Taylor, whose thesis Dean is supervising in absentia this spring, says “No other person I’ve encountered understands poetry as deeply.”

But the heart Dean Young puts into his teaching and mentoring is in trouble.  For the last dozen years or so, he has lived with congestive heart heartimageDYfailure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease of the heart muscle.  Naturally spry and athletic, he was, until last year, able to spring back from periodic episodes of weakness.  Last fall, his condition worsened dramatically, until this spring he required surgery to place external mechanical pumps to take over the work of his heart.  He’s spent much of the last several months hospitalized, fighting infection and setbacks, and still he has kept up with his students, texting and answering emails, and meeting in person, when his health allows, to discuss their poetry.  He is at the highest priority on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center at Austin, and awaits only a suitable donor.  Despite his health insurance, out of pocket expenses are enormous.

Among Friday night’s readers is Joe DiPrisco, Dean’s longtime friend who chairs a fund-raising campaign through the National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.  The organization will have information available at the reading about how supporters can help with Dean’s medical needs.

Donations are welcome, but the reading is free at AMOA Downtown, 9th and Congress and begins at 6 p.m.

“Everyday Information” Views How We Seek and Use Information

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All day, every day, Americans seek information. We research major purchases. We check news and sports. We visit government Web sites for public information and turn to friends for advice about our everyday lives. Although the Internet influences our information-seeking behavior, we gather information from many sources: family and friends, television and radio, books and magazines, experts and community leaders.

In  the newly-published “Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America,” co-edited  by William Aspray, professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, the editors discuss how patterns of information seeking have evolved throughout American history and are shaped by a number of forces, including war, modern media, the state of the economy, and government regulation. This book examines the evolution of information seeking in nine areas of everyday American life.

Chapters offer an information perspective on car buying from the days of the Model T to the present; philanthropic and charitable activities; airline travel and the complex layers of information available to passengers; genealogy, from the family Bible to Ancestry.com; sports statistics, as well and fantasy sports leagues and their fans’ obsession with them; the multimedia universe of gourmet cooking; governmental and publicly available information; reading, sharing and creating comics; and text messaging among young people as a way to exchange information and manage relationships. Taken together, these case studies provide a fascinating window on the importance of information in the past century of American life.

A number of students in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin contributed to the volume including Rachel Little, Arturo Longoria, Sara Metz, Beth Nettels, Jameson Otto, George Royer, Gesse Stark-Smith and Cecilia Williams.