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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

September 22, 2000

Air Date: September 22, 2000


Disney World Goes Green / Pippin Ross

Reporter Pippin Ross examines some innovative moves in reducing, recycling and re-use at Disney World. Disney says it hopes to become a role model in sustainable living. But, some area residents say the giant resort's uncontrolled development is setting a bad example for the rest of Florida. (09:45)


Living On Earth dips into our mailbag to hear what our listeners have to say about recent stories. (02:00)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on research that uses sound to banish the smell from hog waste. (00:59)

Whale Meat

The United States is up in arms about Japan’s insistence on hunting whales. Host Laura Knoy talks with Tom Reid, former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post, about the Japanese love of whale meat. (05:00)

Spirit Houses / Sy Montgomery

On a recent trip to Southeast Asia, Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery discovered the meaning of "spirit houses" - miniature buildings that are erected to appease displaced entities in the wake of human encroachment. (03:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about The Blessed Rainy Day. The holiday marks a period of cleansing, in both body and spirit, for the people of Bhutan. (01:30)

Philadelphia Urban Blight / Julia Barton

During the past fifty years, the City of Brotherly Love has lost nearly a quarter of its population as many residents moved to nearby suburbs. That’s left Philadelphia with, what is perhaps, the largest problem of urban vacant land in the country. WHYY’s Julia Barton reports on what city officials and neighborhood residents are doing to attack the “urban blight.” (06:00)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study on the dangers of sleep depravation. (00:59)

No-Car Day, U.S.A. / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Car Free Day focuses on the environmental problems of cars and alternative forms of transportation. Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum caught up with a coalition of cyclists who organized the event in Boston. (03:30)

No-Car Day, European-Style

Host Laura Knoy talks with Radio Deutsche Welle reporter Sabina Casagrande in Cologne, Germany about Car Free Day in Europe. The European Union sanctioned the event, with over 20 countries participating. (03:30)

Fuel Cells / Emilia Askari

Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press reports on the search for cleaner, cheaper fuels. Both auto companies and industry are hoping that fuel cells are the answer. (09:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Pippin Ross, Julia Barton, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Emilia Askari
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: Tom Reid, Sabina Casagrande
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery


(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

People who live near Walt Disney World say the giant resort is leaving a nasty footprint on Florida's environment. But many visitors say they're impressed with Disney's efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

PYLE: It's so clean. It's so fun. It's so beautiful. I mean, just listen to Mickey sing.

KNOY: And when it comes to hunting and eating whales, Japan tells the U.S. to mind its own business.

REID: The Japanese kill and eat about 400 minke whales every year, and Americans go crazy about this. Americans kill and eat about 10,000 elk every year, but they're not sending, you know, environmental groups to America blasting us for killers.

KNOY: Those stories, and the spirit houses of Southeast Asia, and your letters, this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Disney World Goes Green

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Each year about 20 million people visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They take home a slew of memories and they leave behind a million tons of trash, three billion gallons of wastewater, and otherwise, put a massive strain on the area's environment. To manage all the debris, Disney World recently began to recycle and compost much of its waste. It's also putting many of its fast land holdings into preserve. But some of Disney's neighbors aren't impressed. They hold the resort responsible for devastating acres of wetlands and introducing sprawl to what was once the headwaters of the Everglades. Pippin Ross reports.

ALBERT: (Laughs) Good afternoon. (Laughs) A pleasant day to you.

ROSS: Dressed in his impeccable blue and white admiral's uniform, Albert the Doorman at the Beach and Yacht Hotel embodies Disney's panache.

ALBERT: (Laughs) I like your smile. I like your smile. (Laughs)

ROSS: A flawless attention to detail, where music pipes from invisible speakers inside flower beds. Everything is spotlessly clean, freshly painted, and every setting designed to take the visitor from day to day reality into a fantasy world. Since opening in 1971, 600 million people have made the trip. And, like Ed Pyle of Wisconsin, are downright evangelical in their affection for the massive resort.

(Music in background)

PYLE: Hey, it's the perfect escape from reality. I mean, it's so clean. It's so fun. It's so beautiful. I mean (laughs), just listen to Mickey sing.

(Mickey sings)

ROSS: Walt Disney began building his perfect world in the mid-60s by secretly buying up 37,000 acres of central Florida swamp and cedar forest. Engineers dredged, drained, and back-filled the land. Two artificial lakes were built to supply water to four theme parks, three water parks, six golf courses, 17 hotels, and 48 swimming pools. But so many people come to Disney World, they easily soak up the water and generate tons of trash.

(Mickey Mouse music, fading to engines up and under)

ROSS: Under pressure to stop overwhelming Orlando's landfills, Disney built its own recycling facility and wastewater treatment plant eight years ago. Standing amid ceiling-high mountains of debris, recycling center manager Jerry Vollenwider says the company currently recycles about one third of its waste.

VOLLENWIDER: Well, we recycle steel and aluminum, cardboard, newspaper, plastic, and glass. Most of that is our baled cardboard. We average about 32 tons of that by itself a day.


ROSS: Just down the road from the recycling plant is 15 acres of silty brown compost, the nutrient-rich leftovers of thousands of resort meals, sewer sludge, and the clippings and cuttings from the resort's spectacular gardens and lawns. The compost pile, the waste and water treatment plants, all of the messy stuff, is called "backstage" and strictly off-limits to visitors.

(Ambient voices; a child cries)

ROSS: On stage, visitors are shown how Disney is good to the environment.

DR. BUG: All right, I'm Dr. Al Bug. How are you all doing this morning?

CROWD: Good.

DR. BUG: Good. I work with Disney's pest management. I've been working here for three years. We do a lot of work with beneficial insects. Who has held a ladybug before?

ROSS: Dressed in a lab coat, Dr. Bug, in real life a pest control technician, explains the concept of integrated pest management to a group of children.

DR. BUG: The pests they eat are aphids, mealybugs, scale, they'll take care of those bugs on your plants so you don't have to spray a lot of harsh pesticides. And then it's better for the environment that way. So, we do a lot of that at Disney World. We do a lot of beneficial insect release...

ROSS: Integrated pest management and the use of botanic sprays have reduced Disney World's pesticide use by 70 percent, although considerable quantities continue to be used at the resort's golf courses. The bugs, recycling and composting, and donating surplus supplies to the local community are all part of what Disney calls "environmentality." The goal, says horticulture director Katie Moss-Warner, is to be eco-friendly and profitable.

MOSS-WARNER: In each one of them we look at, from a business perspective, is there a way to be both a good business and push forward setting a model for the world?

ROSS: Other Orlando resorts have taken Disney's lead and begun their own recycling programs. But Al Malatesta, the conservation specialist with the local Audubon Society, says before Disney became a role model, it set a bad example.

MALATESTA: There's a lot of filled wetlands here. There's a lot of ecosystems that have just been devastated as a result of all the sprawl around here.

ROSS: Malatesta sits in his car at one of hundreds of strip malls that crowd Orlando and feed off of Disney's success. In his lap, he holds an old scrapbook from the local Audubon Society.

MALATESTA: Here's an article from January of 1966: "Audubon Society Will Attend Reedy Creek Hearing."

ROSS: The Reedy Creek hearing was part of a local effort to figure out who was buying up such a massive chunk of central Florida. The mystery buyer turned out to be the Walt Disney Company. That surprised the local community, but they were stunned after discovering that Disney had convinced the Florida legislature to give it complete control over its land. Malatesta says no other corporation in the nation has ever been granted such autonomy.

MALATESTA: Disney started the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is essentially their own water management district. And Florida water management districts have a lot of power. By having your own water management district, you permit your own developments. So it's always worked out pretty well for them, I think, to do that.

ROSS: Disney's elaborate digging and filling set the standard for development throughout central Florida that is now exacting a price. Back-filling low-lying wetlands destroyed nature's own system of storing and recycling water, and central Florida now faces critical water shortages. Local environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club's Sue Eberle, says if Disney wants to sustain its success, it's going to have to do more than recycle.

EBERLE: Because our air quality is going down the tubes. Our waters are being degraded. And our land, of course, is quickly and rapidly going away. So I think it's too bad. We've got some very good minds and lots and lots of money that needs to be used in the right direction. Hopefully, Disney can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

ROSS: But the goodwill Disney had generated with environmentalists fizzled about two years ago when the company dug, drained, and paved natural habitat to build yet another theme park.

WOMAN: The Savannah in front of us is part of the Serengeti grassland system...

ROSS: Covering 500 acres of pasture land, Animal Kingdom recreates an African rainforest and Savannah. The big draw at Animal Kingdom is the Kilimanjaro safari ride.

WOMAN: You see lots of trees that have been pulled out. Well, the elephants are the bulldozers of the Savannah...

ROSS: Disney admits it displaced more than 100 native species and imported 200 other plants and animals to the land. Wrapping this Disney-style zoo in the theme of conservation seemed to many Floridians, such as Cecelia Height of the Sierra Club, the ultimate hypocrisy.

HEIGHT: I would like to see a real initiative to preserving the real Florida and not paving it over with concrete and saying, well, we're going to be parking at Gopher Tortoise Ten, and knowing that there's a distinct possibility that you may be actually at a tomb of gopher tortoises.

ROSS: The gopher tortoise is one of Florida's most endangered species. Disney's Moss-Warner is appalled at the suggestion the company is destroying local habitat.

MOSS-WARNER: When people come to Walt Disney World, they see the development because we channel them into that corridor. But surrounding this development base is an unbelievable amount of conservation. Again, at full build-out, 50 percent of our land will be natural native lands.

ROSS: In addition, Disney recently committed millions of dollars to preserve an 8,500-acre ranch located on its periphery. Disney watchers, such as the Audubon's Malatesta, say Disney knows it's good for business to be perceived as environmentally correct.

MALATESTA: Disney is very successful at making money, and they have also been successful at finding ways to make money lately that are environmentally sensitive. I would hate to see it come down to a contest between dollars and the environment, because I think the environment would surely lose.

(A golf ball is hit)

MAN: Good ball. Very nice.

ROSS: Despite the company's promise to keep a quarter of its land in preserve, environmentalists are wary. Six years ago, an area that Disney called a wildlife sanctuary was turned into two golf courses. In homage to the birds who live there -- and Disney is trying to lure back -- the courses are named Osprey Ridge and Eagle Pines.

(Another golf ball is hit)

ROSS: For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross.

(Another golf ball is hit)

MAN: That's red stakes. I played up there...

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KNOY: Now, time to hear from you, our listeners.

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KNOY: The folks who run Save Our Streams in Glen Burnie , Maryland, appreciated our recent coverage of environmental issues in Russia, including our interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. They wrote to tell us about a related project they're involved in. "Last month, a group of American environmentalists traveled to Russia to train Russian NGOs, academicians, and scientists in community organizing and watershed protection efforts. Now, a Russian delegation is arriving in Maryland, and will stay for two weeks to continue to learn about water quality monitoring and how to effectively use scientific data collected by volunteers. It's a good example of a continuing global partnership."

Clay Commons heard our discussion on environment and politics in the presidential race and he thinks we didn't give one third-party candidate enough credit. Mr. Commons called us from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where he hears us on WRNI.

COMMONS: Ralph Nader was essentially dismissed as somebody who can't win, and there was no discussion at all of how his views might pull Al Gore to be a bit more of an environmentalist. To dismiss him just because he can't get elected is a little bit lame, I think. He has a lot more effect on the campaign than just electability.

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KNOY: We welcome all your comments. Our listener line is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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KNOY: Coming up: Japan's yen for whale meat may lead to a trade war with the U.S. We'll find out what's behind the craving when we return to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

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Technology Update

GRABER: Hog farms don't usually make great neighbors. Noxious odors drift off lagoons of animal waste, plaguing people who live downwind. Now, scientists are using sound to help get rid of the smell. A vibrating machine sends sound waves at about 20 kilohertz through wastewater. The force of these ultrasound wavelengths create small vacuum bubbles in the water. When these bubbles collapse, they release pressure and heat, activating certain chemical reactions. Scientists aren't exactly sure how it all works, but somehow this pressure speeds up reactions already occurring in the pig waste, helping speed the transition of stinky hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into significantly less smelly sulfur and nitrogen. Vacuum bubbles collapsing in water do emit a faint shriek. You'll have to get close to hear it. But those lagoons may let out a yelp as they're being scrubbed clean. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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KNOY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Whale Meat

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Japan has raised the ire of the international community by increasing the number of whales it hunted. The fleet has so far this season landed 40 minke, 43 brides , and five sperm whales. Meat from these whales, caught on what are called scientific expeditions, is sold as a delicacy in Japanese markets for prices up to $200 a pound. In response, the United States has denied Japan fishing rights in U.S. waters, boycotted Asian environmental meetings, and is threatening economic sanctions. Joining me to talk about this is Tom Reid. He is the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Washington Post, and a long-time resident of Japan. Tom, what's behind this dispute between Japan and the U.S.?

REID: Many Americans genuinely believe that this is a beautiful animal that's endangered, and therefore, it's awful to kill and eat it. As long as the Japanese were only killing minke whales, which there are a lot of on Earth, the U.S. was willing to kind of put up with it. But now the Japanese have decided they're going to kill a small number of bride whales and a small number of sperm whales, and we don't have as good a count of those species of whales. And I think the U.S. has taken a position, doggone it, you know, that population may not be safe. So stop it.

KNOY: Why are the Japanese willing to stand up against the world and say we want to hunt whale?

REID: Well, I think there are a couple of things. For one thing, they have this sense of tradition. They've always done it, their great-grandfathers did it. I think another thing , as a Japanese fellow explained it to me once, the Japanese kill and eat about 400 minke whales every year, and Americans go crazy about this. Americans kill and eat about 10,000 elk every year; the Japanese think the elk is a lovely animal. They would never dream of eating it. But they're not sending, you know, environmental groups to America blasting us as killers. So, I think part of it is, we don't have any right to tell them what to eat.

KNOY: So, Tom, is there a deep cultural identity with the whale? Or is it more, hey, you can't tell us what to do?

REID: There is a deep cultural identity with the whale in the same sense that a very small group of Americans have a cultural identity with killing and eating seals up in Alaska. It's a tiny little portion of Japan and a tiny little portion of the population even in those villages has a cultural affinity for this. I think it's more the notion, what we're doing is sanctified by the scientific committee, the International Whaling Commission, and we don't want a bunch of international environmentalists pushing us around.

KNOY: You know, Tom, I read that during World War II whale meat was very important to the Japanese diet. I wonder if part of the push comes from older Japanese who learned to love it during those lean years after World War II and are still attached to the taste.

REID: Love it? They ate it because it was a source of food and they didn't have any food. I mean, people were eating silkworms back then just to get any kind of meat. That was a really starving country. It was used up in northern Japan in school lunches because it was an available form of protein. But I've never known any Japanese person who was dying for a piece of whale. I mean, it's kind of an exotic taste. It's not a common thing at all.

KNOY: What does whale meat taste like?

REID: I've had whale. It tastes like some generic fish. It's very fishy. The whale that I had was pretty tough. It was hard to chew. And not worth going out of your way for.

KNOY: How do they cook it?

REID: Cook? Oh, come on. No, no, no. It's raw. You eat it as sashimi or on sushi. They may cook it but, you know, the Japanese feel that if you spend a lot of money for a really good piece of fish or whale, as the guy said to me once, "I don't understand you Americans. You take this delicious tuna and then you fry it up with pepper and lemon. You can't taste it any more." No, you just eat it.

KNOY: Tom, do the Japanese feel that there's a racist element to all this?

REID: Yeah, they definitely think that. They think that if they were blond Christians that nobody would be on their case. I never bought this argument when I was over there. I mean, I'm American and most Americans don't feel any racist disregard for Asians. But I'll tell you this. I live in Britain now, and there is a very strong anti-whaling campaign here. And all the posters and brochures you see talk about Japanese whaling, and they always show Japanese whalers, they are the killers. They never mention Norway and Iceland, which they kill more whales than Japan does. But, of course, they're blond Christians. So maybe the Japanese have a point.

KNOY: Tom Reid is former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post and a long-time resident of Japan. He's author of "Confucius Lives Next Door." Tom, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

REID: Thank you, Laura. It was fun.

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Spirit Houses

KNOY: On a recent trip to Southeast Asia to look for an unknown species of bear, naturalist Sy Montgomery found a world full of other beings as well. Beings you can't see. They're spirits. And, as Sy learned, just like us, spirits need a place to call home.

MONTGOMERY: You'll see them at the edge of shopping center parking lots. They're outside restaurants, gas stations, and hotels. An Internet cafe in Bangkok even has one. All over Thailand and in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, you find little structures atop short pedestals that look at first like elaborate bird houses. But they're not for birds.

These structures are called spirit houses. Some are quite well-appointed. The one by our hotel in Jomtien Beach, Thailand, for instance, was flanked by two tiers of flower boxes and had a whole herd of stone and carved teak elephants massed outside the house proper. Another spirit house outside a travel agency in Chiang Mai had tiny Christmas tree lights strung all over its pagoda-like roof. At night they winked like fireflies.

In Southeast Asia, where ancient animus belief thrives alongside Buddhism, spirits are everywhere. There are river spirits. There are mountain spirits. At least one hill tribe in Thailand believes there's a spirit who presides over the cooking of tofu. Unlike gods who are worshiped and ghosts who are feared, these sorts of spirits are -- well, rather ordinary. They're like neighbors. But neighbors who you don't want to offend.

And that's why the people build these spirit houses. They're for the spirits who animate that particular place. These spirits might include, say, the one who lived in the tree that used to grow where the house now stands. Or the spirit who might have inhabited the soil now paved over for the gas station or parking lot.

And that's why they need houses, you see. Because as it was explained to me, all these spirits had a perfectly good home until some human came along and usurped it. The spirit houses, I'm told, provide alternate housing, so they won't haunt the old place that the person has taken. So, as well as providing a handsome structure, the property's new human owner also makes daily offerings to the spirit. Fresh rice, bananas, sweets, flowers, and fragrant incense.

To some, this ancient animus practice thriving amid modern hotels and Internet cafes might seem a bit odd. But one could argue that we need spirit houses more than ever in this crowded modern world. Spirit houses remind us of an ancient truth: that resources are finite. That space is finite. And that in our hunger for more houses, more hotels, more shops, more gas stations, we continually disrupt and displace other beings. Beings perhaps as varied and complex and needful as we are.

Another thing I noticed: the food offerings are usually gone by morning. My scientist friend ,Gary, says that birds, bats, and ants eat the offerings, not spirits. But what matters to me is that the offerings are taken, nourishing souls who live among us like neighbors. And who, like us, are hungry and eager to go home.

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KNOY: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of "The Curious Naturalist: Nature's Everyday Mysteries."

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Town Creek Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

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KNOY: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: making something out of nothing. Philadelphians reclaim their abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

(Singing up and under)

KNOY: Deep in the hills of the eastern Himalayas lies the last Shangri-La. That's the name given to the kingdom of Bhutan, a relatively untouched nation on the border between India and Tibet. This week, the people of Bhutan are waiting for the rain, and not just any rain, but the spiritual drink of the gods. It's the Blessed Rainy Day, or Thue , meaning cleansing rain. And on the eve of this holiday, families set out bowls under the night sky. They are expecting the heavenly star Rishi to pass over the land on its annual journey to meet the universal Buddha. The merging rays of these celestial bodies create the elixir of the gods, called Amrita , which falls to the ground as rain. In the morning, people use this holy water to cleanse themselves in body and spirit. The celebration then moves to the local archery field, where women bring baskets of food and men compete in Bhutan's national sport. Later, they gather for masked dancing and music, as night closes in on another day in paradise. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Philadelphia Urban Blight

KNOY: With about 50,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings, Philadelphia has more decrepit, unused property sites than any other major city. In the last month, there have been 59 full or partial building collapses, and the city has spent more than a million dollars in emergency inspections and demolitions of these and other properties seen as likely to fall. Philadelphia Mayor John Street won office last year on a promise to tackle this urban blight, and the mayor says he'll unveil a plan soon. In the meantime, though, neighborhood residents are already starting to turn abandoned properties into assets. Julia Barton of member station WHYY reports.

(Children yell)

BARTON: On the corner of Belgrade Street and Frankfurt Avenue in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, about a dozen people are planting rose bushes and black-eyed Susans. A century ago Fishtown was packed with factories and row houses, but now almost every block has an abandoned lot or building. This corner had been an eyesore for years, says resident Ed Ellis.

ELLIS: And right next door is a sheet metal shop, a recycling plant where they take all the metal -- what they wouldn't buy was dropped right here. People coming along on Franklin Avenue were making sure it drops here, dumping stuff.

BARTON: Ellis and his son got tired of the mess. One day they were hacking weeds from mounds of trash when a member of the local community development corporation noticed their efforts. Sandy Salzman heads the nonprofit New Kensington CDC. Like others who grew up in the neighborhood, Salzman has seen the problem of vacant land spiral out of control.

SALZMAN: It's land that people have just walked away from, that the city has not taken responsibility for. That the properties have been demolished, and over a period of time people have come in, they've short-dumped there. Trash just builds up. Cars are dumped there. In some cases they become polluted by oil, and they're just horrible messes.

BARTON: New Kensington CDC has managed to clean up 350 lots in its neighborhood, including the one near Ed Ellis's house. It estimates the area has at least 700 more. The group works with government agencies and the community to find creative solutions for abandoned properties. For example, New Kensington helped turn the lot next door to Ed Ellis's home into a community park and garden. Elsewhere, a former factory site contaminated with chemicals was cleaned up and transformed into a hydroponic farm that grows vegetables on above-ground tables. Philadelphians are demanding more programs like New Kensington's. Patricia Smith is the city's director of neighborhood transformation. She says Philadelphia has to develop a range of strategies for each neighborhood.

SMITH: It's almost like an onion with layers. We probably need a long-term and intermediate and a short-term strategy, all at the same time.

BARTON: Some neighborhoods simply need shoring up, Smith says. Other areas have so many abandoned properties that their life as residential neighborhoods may be over. Smith suggests the city would save money by moving the remaining occupants and cutting services to the area.

SMITH: There may have to be some strategic relocations in some instances, where you may have one or two or three occupied residents on the block. I think you’re going to be working closely with those individuals. There are laws and regulations that govern relocation, and we have to abide by those. But really, to try to look at that creatively.

BARTON: Smith says the goal is nothing less than re-envisioning the city's future and acknowledging that its glory days may never return. University of Pennsylvania urban policy professor Mark Alan Hughes says with enough foresight, the city may be able to turn its vacant land into an advantage, especially as surrounding suburbs find themselves sprawled to the limit.

HUGHES: The thing that is less expensive to us is land. The thing that's more valuable to developers is land. The fact that we've got a lot of it and it doesn't cost us much, and that developers need this and it's worth a lot to them, that creates the basis for a deal.

SHUTKIN: Community organizations working hand in hand with local government need to get a message out that vacant lots are an opportunity to be exploited. Not randomly, not haphazardly, not blindly. But with a plan, with a vision.

BARTON: William Shutkin is president of New Ecology, a nonprofit environmental group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says inner-city development isn't an issue for many environmentalists. But, he says, it should be.

SHUTKIN: To the extent, and here's the challenge to mainstream environmentalists, to the extent we can rebuild urban neighborhoods, our hardest-hit places, into ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable units, sustainable places, well, then, we can do it anywhere.


BARTON: Back in Fishtown, residents continue to clean up their corner of Philadelphia. Ed Ellis says the Belgrade Gardens project has changed more than just a trash-filled lot. It's also changed him and others who live nearby.

ELLIS: Before, we were neighbors. All right? Before, we were acquaintances. Now we're friends, which is the difference. So this little thing, everybody, a whole lot of good things come out of this little thing here.

(Children yell)

BARTON: Across the city, neighbors and policy makers are hoping such small changes can add up to a solution for a city with too much unused land on its hands. For Living on Earth, I'm Julia Barton in Philadelphia.

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KNOY: Some car makers say they've seen the future of the automobile, and a fuel cell is making it go. The story of this fledgling technology is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: Driving while you're tired isn't a good idea. Now, a new study shows just how dangerous it can be. Scientists in Australia served a small group of people alcohol until they were legally drunk. Then they had these people perform a number of computer-based exercises designed to test memory, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time. The next day, scientists didn't let the same group of people sleep, and then they repeated the tests. On average, people who were kept awake about 18 to 19-and-a-half hours, performed as if their blood alcohol levels were point one percent. That's at or above the legal definition of intoxication throughout the U.S. The subjects in this experiment all got a good night's rest before they were sleep-deprived, but many people suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, which may enhance dangers on the road. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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KNOY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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No-Car Day, U.S.A.

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. People all over the world this week left their cars at home in celebration of Car-Free Day. The goal: to call attention to pollution caused by cars, and to push for alternative forms of transportation. In Europe, some 700 cities and towns participated. Here in the United States the effort was a bit less coordinated. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum caught up with Boston bikers who did take to the streets, and has this report.

(shouting, whistling)

Car-Free Day USA

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's Thursday rush hour in Boston. Hundreds of bicyclists are riding back and forth across a hairy intersection where two bike paths do not meet. Cars aren't moving.

KURZ: Get out of your car folks, and breathe oxygen!

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Boston cyclists saw the call for International Car-Free Day on the Internet, posted by a group in Prague. The idea is to take to the streets. To take back what they claim are cities built for, ruled by, and choked with cars. Activists here in Boston say the point isn't to BLOCK traffic, it's to BE traffic.

KURZ: It's essential for America to begin looking at us as a real means of transportation.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Carl Kurz founded Bikes Not Bombs and helped organize the day's action.

KURZ: We're not just recreational people, we're getting to work just like everyone else, we're coming home, we're doing the same errands that everyone else is doing, we just happen to do it on a bicycle.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kurz is big on bikes, but he'll tell you, this isn't just about rights for those who pedal. It's about pedestrians, and people who want to ride a bus or a train -- anything other than a car.

KURZ: I think Car-Free Day is a nice idea, but we really need to give people the way as well as the will to get out of their cars.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Barbara McCann directs the quality of life campaign at the non-profit Surface Transportation Policy Project. She says most Americans aren't ready to leave our cars at home, and it's not because of our psyches. People would be stranded.

McCANN: We like to talk about the love affair we have with the car, but in many cases it's just an arranged marriage. People have no choice but to be married to their car.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: McCann says change is happening gradually. She points to a study showing that since 1990 federal funding for public transit has almost doubled. Funding for biking and walking facilities has grown by about thirty times. But McCann cautions that's still a drop in the bucket compared to the total transportation budget. Cindy Burbank, at the Federal Highway Administration, says money can only do so much.

BURBANK: Ultimately, it is the decision and the responsibility of the state DOT and the local jurisdictions to decide how they want to spend their money and how they want to deploy their transportation program.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Burbank says the feds encourage state and local policymakers to take car alternatives into account. But activists like Carl Kurz say their attempts to work with city officials haven't brought enough change.

VOICES: Car Free Day! Car Free Day!

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It turns out Boston was one of only a few cities in the U.S. that recognized Car-Free Day, though grassroots groups committed to transportation alternatives have sprung up all over. Carl Kurz says Car-Free Day itself doesn't really matter.

KURZ: I wouldn't hold Car-Free Day and participation at the city wide level across the U.S. as some kind of litmus test for what's going in the U.S. I think transportation activism is happening, it's here to stay, it's an issue in everyone's mind, whether you're carpooling or worrying about the price of gas, all the way to the person who's said I'm not going to use the car anymore.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Boston.

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No-Car Day, European-Style

KNOY: Sabina Casagrande, a reporter for Radio Deutsche Welle, joined me via cell-phone from the streets of Cologne, Germany. Sabina, how is Car-Free Day being observed in Europe?

CASAGRANDE: All over Europe, in most countries of the European Union and also in Switzerland, major roads in the inner cities are being blocked off so that people can have the chance to share a space that's usually reserved for automobiles and their drivers. There are different activities going on with music and demonstrations and it's a chance for everyone to get out and for people to be able to walk or skate or bike on the street.

KNOY: It sounds like a big deal there.

CASAGRANDE: It is a very big deal actually. What is really important about this day is that it's the first time that it's a EU wide activity, and that the European Union in Brussels has taken the initiative to call for this action.

KNOY: The news here in U.S., Sabina, is all about the European gasoline shortages. We have pictures of motorists protesting high fuel taxes, how does that fuel situation fit in with Car-Free Day?

CASAGRANDE: It's more of a coincidence, actually, because Car-Free Day was already decided on last year and the fuel debates have only erupted in the last few weeks. So, it's a coincidence, but I think it will give critics of these high fuel prices a chance to see what sort of possibilities they have to live without a car.

KNOY: Do you think Europeans are less wedded to their cars than Americans are?

CASAGRANDE: I think they are in a way because they are not as dependent on their cars as Americans are, the countries here are simply smaller. It's easier for you to do your shopping with your bicycle. I do, though, have to add that in Germany, people are very attached to their cars, but that cars are more of a status symbol than they are for practical use.

KNOY: Do you think, Sabina, that Car-Free Day will effect European transportation choices in the long run? After this day is over does everyone just jump back in their car again or do they make changes?

CASAGRANDE: Since this day has been very very successful in other countries such as France, Italy and Spain, which originally started with these movements on a local level. In many of these cities, especially in France and Italy, its now one Sunday a month – car-free. One problem though is that European car drivers will not in the long term change their habits unless the governments change the infrastructure. There are still improvements necessary in public transportation in Europe.

KNOY: Sabina, how did you get to work today?

CASAGRANDE: Well, today I rode my bicycle as I always do. It's not a big problem here, because Germany and Europe offers an infrastructure for people who do want to ride their bike or in-line skates or something to work. There are bicycle paths everywhere, you don't have to risk your life to get to work in an environmentally friendly way.

KNOY: Sabina Casagrande is a reporter for Radio Deutsche Welle in Cologne, Germany. Thanks, Sabina.

CASAGRANDE: You're welcome.

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Fuel Cells

KNOY: People have been talking for years about some day replacing the internal combustion engine. Now, some day is near. First, everyone was talking about battery-powered electric motors. Then, the focus shifted to hybrid power vehicles that combine electric motors with gas engines. In the long run, though, many companies and investors are betting that hybrid engines will be a bridge to an even more revolutionary source of power: the fuel cell. Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press reports.

(A factory floor)

ASKARI: You can hear fuel cells being made at Ballard Power Systems' factory here in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada. But you can't see them. Ballard executives have blackened the windows that used to give them a view of the factory floor. They don't want visitors to steal any company secrets. Billions of dollars could go to the first companies which figure out how to bring cheap and powerful fuel cells to market, and Ballard is a leader in the race.

LANCASTER: I'd say we're a bit more than a nose ahead. That said, I don't think we should be complacent. This is a marathon and at the end of the day we intend to be first to market and to win.

ASKARI: That's Ballard's Vice President for Finance, Paul Lancaster. Lately it seems like everyone is looking for cleaner fuels that won't pollute or contribute to climate change. Auto companies hope fuel cells will power cars. Factories want them to power generators. Camping equipment companies want them to power portable cappuccino makers. Ballard's Paul Lancaster says he expects his company to get a lot of this business, but by no means all of it.

LANCASTER: This is a new industry. There are going to be other competitors. I think that the fact that Toyota and GM are working on this, although GM is one of our customers as well, the fact that there are other companies, serious companies like International Fuel Cells, which is part of United Technologies, is working on this technology, is all a good thing. Because we want to create an industry.

ASKARI: It's a new industry, but fuel cells themselves aren't a new technology. They were invented in 1839 by a British magistrate, Sir William Grove. And it's a deceptively simple technology. Sir William observed that by passing electricity through water, you could separate the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen, producing gas. And he wondered if the process worked in reverse. Could you combine hydrogen with oxygen to make electricity and water? He found that the answer is yes, and that's the essence of a fuel cell. The process starts with hydrogen, the simplest element. It's made up of just one proton and one electron. Fuel cells use a special membrane to peel off the electrons and create an electric current. Kip Smith is Ballard's president and chief operating officer.

SMITH: The magic in the fuel cell is the membrane in the middle. The protons from the hydrogen can transverse the membrane. They can go right through. But the electrons can't. So the electrons have to come around through a circuit, and that's how you create an electric current.

ASKARI: And when fuel cells use pure hydrogen, the only waste product is water, as Sir William observed. That's what makes them so attractive. The problem is, there is virtually no pure hydrogen on Earth. You need electricity to produce it. That's one reason fuel cells have only been used in specialized situations where other energy sources aren't available, such as submarines or space shuttles. But in the last few years, pressure to reduce fossil fuel pollution has grown. And so the pace of innovation on fuel cells has picked up. Today, many people are optimistic that fuel cell's day has nearly arrived.

BYRD: And we see the fuel cell vehicles being commercialized, first half of the next decade.

ASKARI: Christopher Beroni Byrd is a senior manager at Daimler Chrysler, which is working on fuel cells with Ballard Power Systems.

BYRD: Clearly, the numbers will ramp up as we get to economies of scale, and as performance continues to improve at a faster rate than we expect the internal combustion engine to do. So at some point there will be like a sea change, and it should take over rapidly once that happens.

(A car reminder dings; voices; a door shuts)

ASKARI: Another Ballard partner is Ford Motor Company. Ford recently tried to prime the pump for interest in fuel cells by inviting a pack of international journalists to a fuel cell dog-and-pony show at its Michigan headquarters. It featured lavish free food and test drives in a prototype fuel-cell car.


MAN 1: Just drive?

MAN 2: Just drive.

MAN 1: And this, the fuel gauge, is that how much hydrogen we have?

MAN 2: We have half a tank left.

MAN 1: How do you measure that half a tank?

MAN 2: Based on pressure.

ASKARI: At the same event, Ford's Director of Environmental Vehicles, John Wallace, also unveiled a new hydrogen fueling station.

WALLACE: It's the only hydrogen fueling station in North America that can provide both liquid and gaseous compressed hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles. So they've simply hooked up the hose and now they've started the refueling process. You can hear the gas going into the vehicle.

ASKARI: This promises to be the big advantage of fuel cells over electric batteries, the other much-heralded replacement for gasoline engines. Even the best batteries have limited range, and they take hours to recharge. But potentially, fuel cells can be refilled, just like a gas tank. Of course, if it were as simple as that, fuel cell power would already be common. There are still a lot of problems with fuel cells, and they start with the fuel itself. Hydrogen gas is the same stuff that filled the Hindenberg, the zeppelin that exploded in the 1930s. It's highly combustible. Ford's John Wallace insists that any problems with hydrogen fueling have pretty much been solved.

WALLACE: I don't honestly think that there's any danger. There may be some regulations. That wouldn't be too surprising. But I don't think there's anything really dangerous here about this refueling process.

ASKARI: Still, when Ford unveiled its new hydrogen filling station, the company was cautious. News photographers were told to shoot from a distance for fear of sparks from their equipment. Clearly, some details remain to be worked out. Pure hydrogen is also difficult to store. Right now, you either have to keep the gas under very high pressure or make it very cold to liquefy it. And it's also not readily available. You have to produce it with electricity. And most electricity today is generated today with fossil fuels, which cancels out the benefit. To get truly clean hydrogen, you'd have to use solar or wind power to produce it, and that would require still another whole new infrastructure. So along with pure hydrogen, companies are researching other potential fuels for fuel cells. Methanol, for example, is high in hydrogen and relatively easy to deliver at corner gas stations. But finding a workable power source isn't the only problem. Despite the enthusiasm of companies like Ford and Daimler Chrysler, some auto industry analysts think the technology is a long way from working in a real car that people will want to buy.

COLE: There's sort of a consumer hype, media hype about it. It's sort of the great hope that we're looking at, that will bring us all of what we have been wanting for a long time.

ASKARI: David Cole is director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. He thinks fuel cells may be pushed onto the market before they are really ready, like electric cars were a few years ago. Cole says there's still along list of challenges facing fuel cells in cars.

COLE: For example, cold start. Do you want to wait a couple of minutes before you can go, or do you want to get in, as we do today, and go? What about range? And this is probably one of the most important things, what about that system level economics? How does it match up with our current system? Developments are occurring, inventions are being made. But it is not where it needs to be, and probably is not going to be there for some time, particularly in terms of the economics.

ASKARI: But the economics of automobiles are changing as the threat of climate change grows. Companies are under pressure from governments and consumers to build cleaner cars. And they're going all out to try to perfect fuel cell vehicles. Many people believe they're as close as we're going to get to non-polluting cars in our lifetimes. Bill Powers is Ford's Vice President of Research.

POWERS: The opportunity for fuel cells is so high that it is worth us working the problem.

ASKARI: For Living on Earth, I'm Emilia Askari in Detroit.

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KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: The Olympic Games may be Australia's present, but the continent's past is just as exciting. It's an old, old land that biologically has only recently caught up with the rest of the planet.

MAN: You've really got to get back to the age of dinosaurs, you know, to Jurassic Park, to find cold-blooded reptilian killers of that size anywhere in the world. But here in Australia, they've been an element of the fauna right up until the time people arrived on the continent.

KNOY: Australia's ancient landscape next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from New Hampshire Public Radio and Deutsche Welle, the German International Broadcasting Service. Alison Dean composed our theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on sustainable development and environmental issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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