The Land of Giants

The four hour drive from Los Angeles northeast to Sequoia National Park is for the most part quite unspectacular. So much so, that when we arrived at the entrance gate to the park, I was not quite sure what to expect. I definitely did not expect the incredible fairytale land, we found.... Welcome to Sequoia National Park located in the Sierra Nevada range of California.

The weather oscillated between rain and cloudy skies for most of the day. As we climbed the mountains, the roads became more twisted, the atmosphere more misty and foggy and the air thinner as we approached 7000 ft above sea level. And then, we saw them.

...A host of towering trees that seemed to touch the clouds and with footprints so large we could place a roomy house within them.(I have included a picture of myself for scale. Look closely at the bottom of the image!)

These trees are the world's largest trees. An average-sized sequoia tree weighs more than 2 fully loaded jumbo jet planes.
Most of Giant Sequoia redwood trees that we saw are somewhere in between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. According to scientists, the Giant Sequoia were once found on more continents in the world, however when the glaciers finally melted at the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago, the surviving trees were only to be found in California.They owe their longevity to their thick bark, that helps them resist disease. Unlike most trees, fire helps them regenerate and allows their seedlings to take hold. When injured they simply heal themselves and keep growing.
Fallen Giants
Despite the size of these trees, their roots tend to be rather shallow, and sometimes, quite suddenly they can lose their hold in the ground and fall over. However, given their size and their bark (which can be over two feet thick), these trees can take centuries to fully decay.
The roots of the tree and me.

Signs of human intervention
(for the millions of visitors who now frequent the park yearly)

On our way out of the park...
and back to reality.


Happy Birthday to My Brooklyn Bridge

Image from the New York Times

I am filled with a mixed sense of nostalgia, sadness, awe and joy today. The Brooklyn Bridge turns 125 years old this weekend (May 24) and I am not in New York to celebrate. During the seven years I lived in New York, I cannot tell you how many times, I traversed this bridge - looking up at its grandeur, amazed at the engineering... and after 9/11, I prayed that this bridge would always stay safe.

Ironically, it was not until the infamous blackout of 2003 that I truly appreciated how majestic it is. Having walked from Midtown Manhattan to get home to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, I crossed the bridge on foot. The sun was starting to set. By this time, I had been walking for close to five hours. Half way down the bridge, I turned around and saw against the mauve sky and Manhattan skyline and mighty cables and stone pillars, throngs and throngs of people, hundreds, thousands of people walking across the bridge. It was incredible. All colors of people, all heights, sizes, all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, walking together supported and protected by the Brooklyn Bridge. Its grand Gothic arches guarding us below. It is an image that sticks with me always; compensating for the other times, I zipped through in a taxi cab, mindless, in a rush to get somewhere else.

So to all the times you brought me home, for all the times I dined and shopped at your feet, for all the times I walked along the Promenade and gazed at your beauty and for all the memories, here's to you - Happy 125th Birthday!

© Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos


Abu Dhabi, the un-Dubai?

Just about a year ago, the emirate of Abu Dhabi unveiled the "Plan Abu Dhabi 2030." This is essentially, the vision and outline of their major urban development initiatives for the next 22 years. A few weeks ago, they released a film of how this future desert city would take shape.

(The film was made by Squint/Opera).

It seems at first brush that Gulf state of Abu Dhabi is looking to its audacious neighbor Dubai and trying to learn from some of their mistakes. While Abu Dhabi, even more flush with funds and oil, is toying with some very lavish (ie. Emirates Hotel, Saadiyat Cultural Island) and quirky (ie. Ferrari Theme Park) developments, it does seem that their primary focus is to build a more livable global Arab city. Their aim is to brand themselves as the 'cultural and stylish Middle East alternative' for the 3 million residents and approximately 8 million tourists they anticipate by 2030.

To help them develop this vision, Abu Dhabi courted for a few years, Vancouver's senior planner, Larry Beasley; finally getting him to move to Abu Dhabi, days before his retirement. Under the guidance of Beasley and an international design team, 'Plan Abu Dhabi 2030' rejigged some of the original plans for the city. "There were very worrisome proposals for new development," Beasley has said. "Proposals were out of scale with the nature of the city... had nothing to do with culture... really were not about what the essence of the city is about." Instead of creating a city of attractions for the extremely wealthy like Dubai, Beasley is focused on creating a city that is about place for all people to enjoy regardless of status.

In addition to relocating and rebuilding the port, expanding residential units and increasing tourism and medical facilities, Beasley is designing a very walkable city. Unlike Dubai where you walk at your own peril along side speeding cars, Beasley convinced Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayan to cancel their 18 lane highway (reminiscent of Dubai's 12 lane Sheikh Zayed Road), that was about to start construction through the historic district of Abu Dhabi. Instead he proposed tunnels, walkways and expanded boulevards. To ease traffic congestion, a whole host of public transportations options are now in development. They include light rail, subways and buses.

A variety of public green spaces will also be a critical element to the new developments. According to press releases, the urban development will also reflect a greater environmental consciousness and sensitivity.

A central business district will be constructed an empty island adjacent to the historic core.

Unlike Dubai, which has exploded in all directions and is suffering from urban sprawl much like Los Angeles, the emirate of Abu Dhabi will constrain its horizontal growth with a sand belt.

However, most distinctly different from Dubai's many enormous urban projects that have seemingly sprouted over night haphazardly, unconnected and isolated - Abu Dhabi is hoping that this comprehensive city plan will carefully guide its urban evolution over time. They are also using this plan to help develop a regulatory and institutional framework which is currently lacking in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi given the youth of their emirates.

It is anticipated that these developments will cost the emirate $400 billion. 40% will be funded by the government and remaining financing will come from local and foreign investors.

We will have to wait and see how successful this plan is over the next two decades. Much of the changes and development will not only require financial investments and construction, but also require a shift in Emiritis' mind-set from driving to walking, especially during the summer months of unbearable heat. Building a successful contemporary Arab city that goes beyond the usual Arabian kitsch will require serious and time consuming study and deep understanding of local society, culture and mores. It will also require the involvement and support of the local Arab population, not just foreign consultants and architects. In its haste, neighboring Dubai has failed to succeed in this area. It will be interesting to see how Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 unfolds.

* The quotes from Larry Beasley cited above were taken from the Financial Post
(www.financial post.com)


Hope for Humanity in the Depths of Despair

(Ng Han Guan /Associated Press)

It is ironic that in natural disasters amidst tremendous human suffering that we sometimes see the best in humanity. And while we (or at least try to) ignore the suffering of opponents during times of conflict or war, during times of natural disasters we are reminded somehow of our common humanity - our shared fragility. I suppose, it reminds us of the forces that are so much greater than our individual lives and that without shared responsibility, care and concern, we might just not survive.

Just this past week, I was reading in the newspaper about the cyclones in Myanmar and how the global community sits frustrated at the doorstep of the junta awaiting permission to enter to help save lives and deliver supplies. Yesterday, I read an article about the Wenchuan earthquake in the Sichuan province of China. The earthquake had measured 7.9 in magnitude and was felt as far as Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan. For the first time ever, China opened its doors to foreign assistance.

And the first teams to respond?

Japan and Taiwan. Immediately after the earthquake happened, the Japanese government officially offered assistance, promptly sending a planeload of supplies. The Japanese rescue team made up of firefighters, police, coast guards and aid officials arrived on the scene today. The Taiwanese team arrived shortly after.

Given their geographical proximity, the immediate response of these teams may not be of note. What is however, is that both Japan and Taiwan have had and continue to have hostile and volatile relationships with China. Many Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven the violence unleashed by the Japanese armies in WWII. And China has never accepted Taiwan's stand as a sovereign nation.

But now is not the time for such bitterness. It is time for hope. The hope for survivors, abundant supplies and effective global collaboration and rescue. Although, I can't help but wonder whether these efforts will somehow alter a little bit for the better, how these countries and their people view each other in the future.