Week 2: System Thinking

1. System Thinking/Reflection from class:

As I dive deeper into the research of Albedo Effect, I found myself – exactly like what we discussed in class – trapped in different systems.

In the discussion of “how much light is Earth reflecting back to the space”, one can easily associate the topic to ice and snow due to their bright white color. Consequently, my first thought on the “situation of concern” is we could either stop ice and snow melting, or create more ice and snow. This was when I found myself in the first dilemma, or “wicked problem” as we call it. Neither Albedo Effect nor ice/snow melting acts on its own. Rather, they are both reacting to each other and at the same time being parts of a larger cycle:


(More ice melts, less bright surface on Earth, Albedo goes down, Earth absorbs more heat, more ice melts…)

This does not only reflect on system thinking that all systems act in loops (non-linearly), but also systems contain different cycles within them, as well as being parts of bigger cycles/systems. When talking about such big issues, I try to remind myself constantly: Who am I talking to? What systems does this issue contain? Which part of the systems am I addressing? My biggest question of all is that if there are no “solutions” to these wicked problems, and if we are only trying to display our “situation of concerns”, does this mean our art can only serve the purpose of raising awareness? Is it just another “info session”?


(Systems within systems, happening in loops)

2. Research, Citation, Experts

The idea of a participatory performance where every participant paints their rooftop white (to increase Albedo) has been planted by Marina’s joke in my head since class. Because of this idea and my everyday surrounding in a giant urban jungle, my research has eventually led me to the relationship between urban planning and Albedo Effect. If the melting of the Antarctic ice feels too distant, then what can we do to increase Albedo right around where we live?

I became familiar with the Urban Heat Island Effect from The effect of using a high-albedo material on the Universal Temperature Climate Index within a street canyon (P.J.C. Schrijversa, H.J.J. Jonkera, S.R. de Roodea, published in Urban Climate, Volume 17, September 2016, Pages 284–303), which pointed out that low-Albedo structures in urban cities do not only absorb more heat for the Earth, but also cause more heat for the residents in the city. The article also recommended the use of “high-albedo pavement as a substitution for black asphalt” will effectively counter the local heat buildup.

I found more proof of urban heat cause by low-Albedo materials in High-Albedo Materials for Reducing Building Cooling Energy Use (Haider Taha, David Sailor, Hashem Akbari, published in January 1992). “On clear sunny days, when the solar noon surface temperatures of conventional roofing materials were about 40 degrees C (72 degrees F) warmer than air, the surface temperature of high-albedo coatings were only about 5degreesC warmer than air. In the morning and in the late afternoon, the high-albedo materials were as cool as the air itself.”

However, if “painting rooftops white” sounds impractical, how likely will I get the city to paint the pavements white? This leaves me to look more into both public space in the city as well as architecture
itself. The same article also pointed out research has been done in the past to prove that different exteriors of buildings (which lead to different Albedo levels) affect the indoor air temperature (darker material raise the indoor temperature higher than lighter exterior). Then I was thinking, can we change something about the buildings (surface, structure, material, etc.) to increase Albedo and at the same time reduce heat? Interesting enough, at the end of article, the authors mentioned “it might be worthwhile to investigate artificial shading measures, which provide shading during the day but can be opened during night “.

In The impact of building density and building height heterogeneity on average urban albedo and street surface temperature (Yang, Xinyan, Li, Yuguo, published on Building and Environment, Volume 90, August 2015, Pages 146–156), I read that urban Albedo values are controlled by more than the colors of the architecture surface. The average building height, how much they differ from each other in height, and the areas of horizontal surfaces all play important roles (which mean cities like New York have particularly low level Albedo).

My thoughts were caught by the words of “artificial shading measures”. How much could shading really help with heat? I then stumbled upon Cool surfaces and shade trees to reduce energy use and improve air quality in urban areas (H Akbari, M Pomerantz, H Taha, published in Solar Energy, Volume 70, Issue 3, 2001, Pages 295–310), which suggested “incentive-based programs” need to be developed for both planting shading trees and using high-Albedo materials in urban planning. Another interesting fact from the article, however, was the relationship between smog and urban temperature. According to research, in L.A., “smoggy episodes are absent below about 21°C, but smog becomes unacceptable by 32°C”. I wonder if the same theory would work in China today, where I’ve personally experienced some really severed smog days in the winter. Now I definitely want to make something to link Albedo and air pollution together… Or is that a stretch?

3. Project ideas

Urban heat, high Albedo materials, roofs, walls, colors, trees, pavements, shading, smog… Where do all these leave me? I carried these questions into class, and had an inspiring conversation with my partner. Victoria studies sustainability and urban planning, and she told me about a case study done by Columbia University and CUNY she once read where all residents in one neighborhood in NYC planted vegetation on their rooftops and bus station roofs. The vegetation 1) absorbs air pollution 2) reduces indoor temperature.

Something like this:

(Maybe combining this with the “artificial shading”?)

Furthermore, after explaining the “dark color – low Albedo – more heat” urban effect, I was recommended by cities in Spain that are called “white villages” where people have been building white-surfaced architecture to reduce heat for a long time.

I was very much excited about the idea of “planting things” and “comparison of cities in different colors”. Apart from both, I have been thinking about art works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude which I read about a long time ago. In a few of their projects, the artists cover large space of landscape with monochrome materials:

Not sure how much this is related to my project (except light-colored materials) or how practical it is (not at all), I was simply excited about its aesthetic…

To conclude, I now have a few branches of ideas I could potentially make use of:

covering of space, surface, or landscape;
plants that can open and close during different times;
some comparison between cities based on Albedo level.

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