Doha’s Toybox Skyline

Doha’s intriguing and impressive skyline includes buildings shaped like a sea cucumber, crowned by Batman-like ears, buildings with shoulders pushed out and stomachs held in. Photo/Keith Schneider

DOHA, Qatar — A decade ago Sheraton’s pyramid shaped hotel was just about the only modern building along this city’s Arabian (Persian) Gulf shoreline. Today the hotel is dwarfed by 21st-century skyscrapers designed by architects who seem to have been inspired by the shapes contained in a boy’s toybox.

Yet along with the playful shapes comes an accompanying narrative of the rising concern about how development affects the Gulf’s ecological and economic security.

We are learning quite alot about the damaged ecology of the Gulf. Referred to as “Arabian” here, not “Persian,” as its known in the West, the Gulf is quite a sizable sea. But it is bottled up by the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is 20 miles from shore to shore. Water flow is so slow that scientists here refer to it as a big bathtub.

That bathtub is stirred by the fierce turbulence of the region’s oil and gas industry, much of which operates offshore, and nearly all of which is served by constant ship traffic.

In addition, the bathtub is getting saltier and warmer. There are three primary reasons. Increased evaporation is linked to higher temperatures and climate change. Gulf nations are slowing or diverting the flow of rivers that drain into the sea. And a rising tide of concentrated brine pours from the dozens of desalination plants that supply the region’s drinking water, and from the natural-gas fired power plants that supply their energy.

Qatar’s desalination plants produce 1.5 million cubic meters of water daily, almost 600 million cubic meters annually. A third or more leaks from old pipes, which means about 1 million cubic meters daily actually is used by humans, which comprises 99 percent of the water that the country drinks and uses for industrial practices. But for every one gallon of fresh water produced in Qatar’s desalination plants, we are told, nine to ten gallons of warm and concentrated salt water is discharged back into the Gulf.

Qatar’s production represents just five percent of the total amount of freshwater produced by desal plants in the Gulf, and five percent of the salty discharge. By my calculation, confirmed by researchers at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, our hosts here, roughly nine to ten billion cubic meters of desalted water are produced in the Gulf region annually, and 900 billion cubic meters of brine is released back into the sea each year. That’s a torrent. To give an idea of the amount, China uses 600 billion cubic meters of fresh water annually. Continue reading “Doha’s Toybox Skyline”

More Evidence of Rust Belt Revival

The $48 million, 169,000-square-foot Owensboro Convention Center nears completion along the banks of the Ohio River/Keith Schneider
The $48 million, 169,000-square-foot Owensboro Convention Center nears completion along the banks of the Ohio River/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — When it’s completed next year, the 169,000-square-foot, $48 million convention center under construction in this city of 57,000 will arguably be the most striking architectural achievement on the Ohio River. With its angles and glass and cantilevered roof, the convention center dwells atop a high river bluff like a palace to the future. Which is almost precisely what it is.

Almost two years ago I first set foot in Owensboro to undertake a research project, What’s Done, What’s Next, to suggest new steps the city could take to ensure its prosperity and quality of life this century. I visited for a week a month from May 2011 to October 2011, releasing a study for Citistates that suggested achievable steps — like making it easier for women to participate as elected and civic leaders — that would strengthen the bones of a city that already was a pretty nice place to live and do business. I noticed straight away that the city’s elected leaders participated well with county leaders in pursuing projects of importance, like an $80 million tax increase to develop downtown Owensboro. The new tax was approved in February 2009, in the face of a deepening recession and in a region that had shifted from pragmatic Democratic Senator Wendell Ford to Tea Party conservative Senator Rand Paul.

Owensboro’s new convention center was paid for with those “prime-the-pump” public funds. Other public money went into a new five-acre riverfront park, streetscaping, and other infrastructure. That, in turn, prompted private investments, including the seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn under construction next door to the convention center, a new office building across the street, and a 120-room Holiday Inn that’s planned for the downtown convention center district.

I also had the chance to travel along the Ohio River, reporting for The New York Times, Circle of Blue, and ModeShift on the surprising bounce in the economic step of a six-state river corridor that had been the belt in the Rust Belt. This month two more of those reports were published in the Times.

The first, a follow-up to a piece on Louisville’s big “wellness and aging sector,” described how Louisville’s wellness and aging companies are helping to design the next era of American retirement.

The second, a report from the Utica shale gas fields of Ohio, found that many of the nation’s biggest natural gas development, processing, and services companies are investing billions of dollars in the infrastructure to prepare and transport the state’s gas reserves to market.

I want to add a note here to ModeShift readers. It’s been too long since my last post in January. My schedule has been consumed with reporting on energy, food, and water from China, India, across the United States, Ontario, and Ohio. The results of that work will appear with more regularity here.

— Keith Schneider

A Cathedral to Beer in Pittsburgh

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The Church Brew Works opened in 1996 in the then 94-year-old former St. John The Baptist Roman Catholic church, and has thrived ever since. Photo/Keith Schneider

PITTSBURGH — On the way to President Obama’s second inauguration last week we celebrated at the most confounding brew pub I’ve ever visited: The Church Brew Works. As an example of urban design serving and celebrating a new use, the pub is hard to beat.

First of all is the venue. The brew pub is in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville section, about 10 minutes from the golden bridges and glass towers of the city’s handsome downtown. The old church is easy to find on Liberty Avenue. But the entrance to the pub is deliberately inconclusive. No big entrance sign. No way-finding hints. Just a big 10,000-square-foot, 111-year-old red brick neighborhood church building with stout front doors and a dark vestibule.

Not sure where you are, you enter the vestibule, see the light coming through the small windows from the sanctuary. You carefully and slowly open the doors to a surge of crowd noise, soaring cathedral arches, a lighted pathway down the center leading straight to gleaming brew kettles set on a pedestal in a religious nave. It was like Oz. Every now and again you’re amazed by a place and exclaim, Holy Shit!

The Church Brew Works is one of those places.

The second reason to feel fortunate about The Church Brew Works is its beer and food. The menu ranges from pierogis to hummus, pasta to chops. The beer is great. Late last year the Brew Works won the Best Large Brew Pub award from the Great American Beer Festival competition, and its brewer was named “Brewer of the Year.”

The third feature of the Brew Works that intrigued me was how it defined its space and time — honoring beer, food, and good cheer in such a lavish and distinctive way. And how it seemed to defy religious convention. The church was built in 1902 and closed by the Diocese in 1993. The brew pub’s owner purchased the property for less than $200,000 in 1996.

The pub’s design incorporates the stain glass windows, much of the nave, and embraces the sedate colors and meaningful dark lighting of a Roman Catholic Church. The effect clearly meets at least part of its goal to glory, at least a little bit, in God.

It’s effective enough to shape popular views. There are more than a few of Pittsburgh’s Catholic residents who believe drinking beer in a former Roman Catholic Church is a sacrilege. I mentioned the Church Works to two Pittsburgh residents I met later that week. One said she never heard of it. The other, a restaurant owner in the city, said with a toss of the head that he’d never been to the place.

But the moral dimensions of the Brew Works also cultivates Catholics, and customers of other denominations, who spend their lives and some of their free time defying religious convention. The Church Brew Works does a good business and has since its opening 17 years ago.

— Keith Schneider

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The brew pub design incorporates the stain glass windows, much of the nave, the sedate colors and meaningful dark lighting of a Roman Catholic Church. Photo/Keith Schneider

Circle of Blue — At the Frontline of the Global Contest Over Energy, Food, and Water

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Pressed by growing demand to cool a proliferation of new coal-fired power plants in Chhattisgarh, India, workers expand and modernize a big water transport canal. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — As we’ve known for years now, the diminishment of the mainstream American media is opening fresh opportunities for more nimble and skilled newsrooms to produce first-rate reporting. Nowhere is that more true than at Circle of Blue, where I serve as senior editor, reporting from across the U.S. and overseas, and helping to guide an extraordinarily talented and committed stable of young journalists, producers, and graphic artists.

My colleague, Circle of Blue’s news desk editor Aubrey Parker, collected all of our online work from 2012. Take a look at the links below. They describe a remarkable story of a 21st century online multi-media newsroom of the future — based in Traverse City and collaborating with prominent think tanks, universities, media partners, and government agencies around the world.

In the realm of global journalism from the frontlines of the confrontation over rising demand for energy and food, and diminishing supplies of fresh water, no news and science organization is producing a stronger, more learned, more probing report. Last summer, Circle of Blue won the $100,000 Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award for our distinctive and collaborative international operating system, which produced Circle of Blue’s influential Choke Point: U.S. and Choke Point: China reports.

Continue reading “Circle of Blue — At the Frontline of the Global Contest Over Energy, Food, and Water”

Rust Rubbed Off Ohio River Valley, Narrative of Economic Revival in New York Times

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Luke Patterson, the 31-year-old pilot of the towboat Mike Weisend. Photo © Keith Schneider

PADUCAH, KY. – On a mile-wide reach of the Ohio River, just upstream from where it converges with the Mississippi, Ray McKinney, the 54-year-old first mate aboard the Mike Weisend, a year-old towboat, pounds the slack out of steel cables that lash 15 barges together in a long tow headed upriver.

The heavy pipe in his hands, and the tangle of cable at his feet are familiar equipment used by deckhands on the Ohio, a central artery of American commerce for nearly 250 years. But the load of cargo that the 6,000-horsepower towboat is readying to push upriver is not that familiar to McKinney and the eight other crew members aboard the big boat.

Instead of the usual load of coal, more than 25,000 tons of iron castings fill the barge holds. The towboat, essentially a floating locomotive, will push the 1,000-foot tow – three barges wide and five barges long — against the current for 400 miles to a steel plant in Ghent, Ky., about midway between Cincinnati and Louisville.

Business at the iron and steel foundries in Kentucky and Ohio is soaring. Vehicle manufacturers are ordering more steel. Steel pipe and steel construction equipment are needed to tap the deep natural gas-saturated shales of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The abundance of less expensive natural gas is encouraging construction of advanced manufacturing plants. General Electric, for instance, is in the midst of an $800 million program in Louisville to retrofit buildings to make new types of appliances. The company said it had hired nearly 900 workers this year and would hire several hundred more.

New supplies of natural gas also are helping to prompt utilities to replace power generated from coal-fired electric plants with newer, less polluting natural gas power plants. Coal mines are closing and less coal is being shipped on the river.

In other words, the iron castings are evidence of a seminal economic transition that is unfolding in the six-state Ohio River Valley, a region of economic revival that once encompassed much of what used to be called the rust belt. “The coal trade is way down,” notes Mr. McKinney, who’s spent more than 30 years moving bulk cargo on the Ohio River. “But we’re doing a lot more commercial cargo now. We’re seeing more steel, more rock, more cement. Somebody’s making money.” Continue reading “Rust Rubbed Off Ohio River Valley, Narrative of Economic Revival in New York Times”