Smart Grids... in Texas!

The New York Times' Green Inc. blog has a piece up on Austin Energy's plans to put in place a smart energy grid in the City of Austin and parts of the surrounding counties. Work begins with plans to have smart-meters capable of calculating time-of use pricing (and I assume feed-in rates for onsite generated electricity) installed in every home by the end of next year.

The gradual (or perhapse rapid if economic stimulous money kicks in) roll out of smart electricty grids could be the start of a new energy culture. The article provides a good summary of the specifics for those not familiar with smart grids. But the general idea is of a grid where home and business owners are both producers and consumers of electricity and pay rates linked to the current overall demand on the system. That is exciting not only because of the gains in efficiency, resilience, and energy independence. It will spell the end of the current "it just comes out of the plug" relationship that we have to electricity. From that, potentially, will come a re-evaluation of the many needless ways that we all consume energy. You may not own one, but don't forget, we are the species that invented the electric turkey carving knife.

It's also refreshing to see a publicly owned utility taking such a strong stance. There is similar action at a provincial level in Canada; Ontario has pushed the hardest to roll-out smart grid technology, followed by British Columbia. By 2010, All of Ontario's 4.5million customers should have smart meters.

The meters themselves are clearly only a first step. But fully implemented smart grids have the potential to increase overall efficiency and so reduce the need for the construction of future major generation capacity. They can also more evenly distribute peak time loads and to make grids better able to integrate intermittent power from various sources, two of the supposed "immovable factors" that commonly acts against renewables. If Austin carries through on its plans, and more cities and regions begin opening their grids to decentralized locally generated power, we could (finally) start seeing municipalities having a real, and positive, impact on climate change. Read more...

LEED for Neighbourhoods (ND): Open For Comments

The new LEED Neighbourhood (ND) rating system that has been in pilot since 2007 was posted for comment yesterday. There have been many critics of the LEED rating system, but the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) ability to respond constructively has helped it to continued to play a transformative role in the construction and realestate markets.

Early versions of LEED applied only to individual buildings. Ignoring issues like land-use, density, and transportation produced uncomfortable contradictions. You could build a new building on a flood plain at the outskirts of town, miles from the nearest public transit line, and still get LEED gold if you did the numbers right. Even more familiar are the LEED certified landmark buildings that totally ignore their surroundings. The focus on individual buildings also ignored the fact that it's not buildings, but systems of buildings that offer some of the best opportunities for innovative high-efficiency design.

District heating and cooling, distributed generation grids, walkable mixed-use communities... all those things take place at a neighbourhood level. If we are going to build sustainable cities in any real way, not just put up a few flashy exceptions to business-as-usual, we've got to work at the neighbourhood scale.

The new LEED (ND) system looks promising because it begins to take these and other variables into account. As the most widely recognized brand for ranking sustainable buildings -- and now settlements more generally -- LEED is hugely important. It really defines what "sustainability" is for many buyers and builders. If their rankings don't correspond to the seriousness of the problem, then a lot of us will be left tilting at windmills. So get your comments in! The USGBC will be accepting submissions until January 5th. All the details are here.

(images from:

Electric Mobility Charging Stations

I blogged earlier about the roll-out of trial charging stations in a variety of cities. If you were wondering what the charge points might look like, here are some photos from my trip down to Portland.
The recycled tire as lampshade is a nice touch:Photos courtesy of Lunatica. Read more...

The New American Republic: Efficiency Is Infrastructure

Micheal Lind has an interesting piece in arguing that Obama's presidency augurs the beginning of a new American Republic; the refounding of the nation driven by drastic changes in the economy and technology. The second republic, begun under Lincoln, saw the transition from farm animals to the steam engine and railroads, for Roosevelt's third republic it was the spread of both electricity and the internal combustion engine.

In both cases these transitions meant the beginning of a new era of economic modernization driven by state spending on infrastructure and economic modernization. The question, for Lind, is what new technologies will form the foundation for this new American Age. In the short term that means asking, what will the new president spend money on in his plans to rebuild America's infrastructure?

But it's not just about the US. The combined economic and infrastructure crisis have spurred spending both here in Canada, and around the globe. In that context I want to make an obvious but important point : Efficiency is Infrastructure. Lind asks what the future holds: " Nuclear? Solar? Clean coal?" All of those are yesterday's answers (or red herrings) and have the familiar big government bias for big investments in monumental projects. The major shift that we need to see is one where we move away from major capital investments in large single projects to ones that increase the efficiency of the multiple systems that we already have.

Clearly money is going to have to go into crumbling roads and bridges. We know how to do that. But the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to tap into the millions of smaller targets (the energy hungry homes, offices and factories that fill our landscape) and turn those into targets for infrastructure spending. Again and again we've seen that efficiency is miles cheaper than building new generation facilities. Given our wasteful past, the economic and employment potential of the efficiency sector is huge. And every dollar spent on efficiency means less money spent on imported energy and more money that stays in the local economy.

Efficiency retrofits are only a sliver of what we need to do to respond to meet our pressing environmental crisis. But if we want to get closer to a solution, we need to recognize that efficiency retrofits deserve infrastructure dollars just as much as bridge repair. Otherwise there is a real danger that we'll wake up a few years down the line and realize we've spent all our money and have nothing to show for it but more asphalt and overpasses. Read more...

You are Here (The Bailout Meets Climate Cange, pt. 2)

The two biggest systems in the world, one that we made (the economy) and one that made us (the biosphere) are both staggering. An amazing amount of government money is looking for a way to fix the economy; but no one is quite sure how to do it. The head of the IPCC has warned that the credit crisis could block the road to dealing with climate change (itself just the capstone of an interlinked set of ecological problems that range from biodiversity loss to desertification).

This is par for the course, considering that we have a prooven record of opposing the economy to the environment as if some how you had to choose between them. But, like once accepted wisdom about the self-regulating power of the market, this could be the day where we let go of that old fight to look for something new.

What if we could use one problem to solve the other? What if all the problems and inefficiencies that we've built up over the years could actually be what saves us economically – and what if our need to rethink the economy could be the chance we've been waiting for the fundamentally change a system that has had us burning through fuel, through species and through ecosystems at record rates? What we know about the environmental situation is pretty dire, and no one seems quite sure what we know about the economy these days – but, for a few paragraphs, let's pretend that we can do it. What would that look like?

People have talked about the wheels having come off the economy. George Soros, a savvy financier and no stranger to making money, is closer to the mark. It's not the wheels, it's the motor that's the problem. Risky mortgages where simply the last gasp of an era where American consumer spending drove everything from record profits on Wall Street, to China's rapid industrialization (in fact, we spent so much that they had to lend us more money so we could keep spending).

With the US now definitively in a recession, that motor has driven us our last mile. Today's report on plummeting US consumer confidence is just one more indication that something different needs to power our economies. A gathering of voices, including Soros, columnist Thomas Friedman, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman have an answer – we go green.

But what does that mean? I'm not going to give a breathless ode to the investment opportunities in solar startups. Technology? Sure. But primarily it has to do with changing the way we make decisions. What it doesn't mean, for example, is building more highways – something already on the table following an earlier bailout of the highway fund. That worked great in the 30s – but a lack of highways is not our problem.

If we want a target for government spending that will create employment and buoy the economy what we need are transportation systems. Hybrid cars a great, but the auto industry isn't going to drive this recovery: economic or environmental. It would take years for each individual automobile owner to make the switch to more efficient vehicles.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a demand for alternatives – especially with gas the way it has been and where it is likely to return. If you have got a car in the driveway (and are probably increasingly worried about making your payments) you aren't going to rush down to the dealership to trade it in for something even more expensive. But chances are you'd leave it in the driveway if there was comfortable bus service at you street corner and good commuter trains servicing your region.

The demand for public transportation continues to grow in both Canada and the United States. With almost 30% of our emissions coming from transportation, it is a big ticket item for reducing emissions. Expanding or establishing transit systems can be a source of well paid jobs for everyone from machinists to train conductors. Also, if you match good transportation systems with land use planning we can shift away from the sprawling bedroom communities that have locked us into wasteful (and soul-crushing) daily commutes.

This isn't about technological breakthroughs. It's about using things familiar to all of us to build more livable communities. (Incidentally, it seems that homes well serviced by transit and within walking distance of shops and services have weathered the current collapse with much more of their value intact.) This is an example of the kind of solutions we need: ones that we can start now and that create more solutions, not more problems, for us down the line.

As we've seen in these past few weeks, getting things rolling in a time when private money is skittish requires government involvement. But beyond traditional infrastructure projects (the bread and butter of the economic recovery of the 30s), we are surrounded by opportunities for investment, employment and emissions reductions that we haven't managed to reach because they are split up across multiple private owners.

So far most of these have fallen into the value/action abyss that we call “collective action problems.” Private buildings are a perfect example of this. Even getting people to change their light bulbs has been hard. Try to get everyone to carry out basic but effective efficiency renovations to all buildings in the country and you'll find that people will only go so far on their own.

As well as providing capital, governments (federal, regional, and local) are in a position to spur action. “Taxes, regulations or incentives?” That pretty much summarizes the approaches that governments have considered so far. But they are in a position to do more. What if, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, cites brokered funding to retrofit all private buildings? At that scale the aggregated costs would be at a level where the municipality could attract private capital. Efficiency would become just another utility funded through bonds or other sources of capital that are happy with a secure 5 % to 6% return on investment. The city in turn repays the investments from the energy savings that result from the efficiency improvements.

And homeowners? They pay nothing other than the inconvenience of having the work done. For the first 10 to 20 years they get a percentage of the savings, and from that point on the savings are theirs in full. All property owners would by default be included in the program, but could opt out.

Plans like this are already being put in place by some American cities. But that's not the end of the road. We don't have the workforce to do retrofits on this scale. Government training agencies have a role to play in training the workers needed for this new economy. In Portland, for example, it would mean an extra 1,500 full time jobs for the next 20 years. The program would need about US$150million of investment per year. The savings would be more significant that just money off your monthly bill. Money that we don't spend on energy is money that stays in our local economies. Factor that in, and you are looking at a potential economic benefit on the order of US$500million. Not a bad deal.

Opportunities like this also exist in neighbourhood and city scale renewable energy grids. Which, incidentally would also be better equipped to withstand disruption by extreme weather events, or rising international energy prices. Transportation, and Housing represent 45% of US emissions and electricity related emissions represent a good portion of Housing, Commercial and Industrial emissions. The situation is similar in Canada, and these are also key sectors in EU. Apply a similar approach to international transportation and overall industrial emissions and we'd be off to a good start both economically and environmentally.

It sounds good, and influential voices talking about greening the bailout show that we may be about to start down that road. It will need public support, and partnerships between NGOs, Governments and business to put together the required skills, resources and jurisdictions. If an ambitious reorientation of our world toward efficiency is our goal, we have what we need to succeed. Whether pursuing efficiency is enough is a serious question.

But standing where we are right now, at the intersection of our economy and our environment, and feeling the ground moving beneath our feet we have an opportunity we have never had before. Right now, the possibility is there that we could rapidly start to reduce the impacts of decades of inefficient development, and build communities, and countries that will be livable and resilient homes for us in the future.

Even in these extraordinary times, business as usual is still pulling us away from this path. There is a real possibility that we'll start doing what we know where are good at: trying to jump start consumer spending and building more highways. Those of us who care have to encourage, to support, and to demand that we start going down a better road.


Where Are We?( aka The Bailout Meets Climate Change)

It's time to take stock.

We've all been keeping track of the faltering pulse of the financial markets, and now understand more than we'd like about the fragility of the global financial system. But something else came up in September – another game-changer. Since 2000 we have been working in a world where the most widely used tallies of recent carbon emissions came from models – projections based on past trends continued into the future. They were the basis for key documents, like the 2006 Stern Review, that have guided climate politics and policy. They were also – we now know – way off.

Stern worked from the assumption that emissions were increasing at roughly 0.95% per year. New empirical data shows that emissions are in fact rising at more than two and a half times that speed.

That conclusion comes from a September report released by the Tyndall Centre, one of the UK's most respected climate change research institutes. Combing the best available data on emissions, they calculate that the actual rate of increase is closer to 2.4% per year. That's no small difference. Even more than in the markets, a few percentage points here can change the world.

What it means, in a nutshell, is that we are at – or beyond – the worst case scenarios proposed so far by any reputable source. If we've been comforting ourselves by thinking that we'll probably fall somewhere in the middle of the range, we need to realize that we won't.

On the lips of politicians and policy makers worldwide, 2 degrees Celsius has emerged as the consensus on how much warmer things can get in the next 100 years without causing real havoc. Anymore warming and our children and grandchildren will see really unpleasant consequences: dramatic flooding, increases in severe weather events that endanger both settlements and global food supplies, astounding biodiversity losses and major disruptions of national and global economies. To keep us below that point, the new Tyndall report concludes, emissions will have to level off in 2015, and then decrease globally by about 6% per year.

How do you make sense of those numbers? For comparison, that means reductions larger even than those that took place in Eastern Europe when the former-Soviet economy collapsed, and well beyond the reductions that resulted from the 40-fold increase in France's nuclear capacity over the past 25 years, or Britain's massive conversion from coal to gas-fired power plants. These are cuts we are unlikely to make.

Even levelling off by 2020, and keeping temperatures from rising more than 4dC, means rapid action in the short term, an “urgent decarbonization” of the world's energy systems, and cuts in the developed world that go beyond 6% so as to make room for increased emissions from developing nations. The report concludes that short of a “planned economic recession” it is unlikely that we will manage to meet even these reduced targets.

Well, the recession is here. And how we deal with it will have as much effect on climate change as it does on national economies around the world. To see positive change, we need to be working from where we really are – not where we wished we were. The early years of climate policy were defined by good intentions, eco-fashion and a broader cultural acceptance of environmental values. Pushed by our new understanding of the problem, and the opportunity presented by the need for concrete projects to support our economies we've entered a new phase. A phase that has to be defined by results. In the next post, I'll try to trace the outlines of what that might look like.

Welcome to Phase II.


Refugees From Your Own Backyard

A UK report has landed climate refugees back in the news with scenarios that include the establishment of settlements in the Antarctic to house those escaping mid-century disasters. This is not the first fantastical solution to the impacts of climate change I've covered (remember those floating titanium cities?). Visions of Polar cities adds a gloss of fantasy over a very real problem; estimates peg the number of people displaced by a 2 degree rise in temperature to be somewhere close to 200 million people, or about 3% of the World's population, by as soon as 2050.

This has been discussed in the media for some time, largely in terms of international flows of migrants from Small Island States or vulnerable coastal areas of countries like Bangladesh. But it was a surprise to hear officials in Portland (OR), where I'm doing research, talking about the city's own concerns: it's inter-regional, not international, displacements, that they are worried about. More than one official here has pointed out that with recurring extreme droughts in Georgia and increasingly severe forest fires in California, the Pacific Northwest may soon find itself as a prime destination for homegrown environmental refugees.

These would be movements of people that would outclass and outlast those that resulted from hurricane Katrina. They would be not so much temporary escape as permanent resettlement, and people in Portland are starting to consider what that would mean for their region's development. There was an excellent article in The Oregonian a few weeks ago covering the story. The specifics of Portland's case aside, the city is clearly not unique. In countries, like the United States, whose regions have varying exposure to climate change the impacts of internal migration on urban development will be considerable. For many cities who have only just begun to consider how they will adapt to climate change, this adds a further and even more unpredictable variable to the mix.

One of the larger debates around calling environmentally displaced people "refugees" is whether or not it weakens the standing of people seeking protection from political persecution. The rights of political refugees are increasingly coming into question and it would be a bitter pill if the practice of using the term to emphasise the seriousness of climate change ended up further watering down our commitments to other kinds of refugees. By calling them refugees we are in fact aguing that the principles of care and protection which we currenlty extend for political grounds need to be expanded - not cut back. It is also worth asking -- in a time where natural disasters uproot more people than war -- if our failure to reduce emissions isn't infact a form of persecution.

Calling them "refugees" also frames the problem as an international one. It's now clear that it is also a regional and municipal one. How cities will address it will be an issue to watch in the coming years. What will be do when we have more refugees coming from both far away, and close to home? And, the question that is top of mind here in Portland, where will the money come from to build all the infrastructure we are going to need? Read more...

Electric Cars: Public Private Plugins

With the Canadian election over, the American electoral debates wrapped up, and our shock at the financial collapse under control... it's time to uncover some of the interesting stories that may have gotten lost in the shuffle. One of those is that this Fall has seen some significant steps toward building infrastructure to support electric car use in major (and some more minor) metropolises. Beginning with an announcement this summer by Portland General Electric , charge-points for electric cars are being installed in London, Westminster and Coventry in the UK, as well as Berlin and Tokyo.

So far electric cars have been held back, in part, by the lack of adequate and convenient infrastructure to support them. With electric vehicles slated to enter mass production in the 12 months in some countries, companies and municipalities have started to prepare for an expected wave of demand from consumers. The question of course is how to address both the costs and the risks of this kind of venture. The answer so far seems to be commercial partnerships. In both London and Berlin the impetus behind the programs has come from collaborations between large auto-manufacturers (Toyota and Daimler) and large power utilities (French owned EDF and German RWE). In Tokyo it is the Tokyo Electric Power Company which is readying itself to support cars produced by Japanese manufacturers Mitsubishi and Subaru – set for release sometime this year.

These are major players. EDF is the largest electricity utility in the world and and Tokyo EPC is the third largest. Clearly they are preparing themselves for a dramatically increased market as the world begins a transition away from fossil fuels. But is that transition really happening? Electricity, like Hydrogen, is a carrier of energy, not an energy source. The source of RWE's electricity in Germany (and many of its other European operations) is dominated by coal, and in 2007 renewables accounted for a grand total of 0.08% of EDF's British generation capacity.

Something else of note is the lack of action on the part of US automakers. Although Ford has delivered a small fleet to Southern California's major electricity utility, it is clear that European and Asian automotive and electricity companies are moving much more quickly to open up this market. The Portland initiative, for example, relies on a partnership between Portland General Electric (PGE) and a local electrified parking space company called Shorepower and is not linked to any specific automotive company. This seems unfortunate given that if electric cars are going to make a difference anywhere, it is going to be in the United States, where sprawling development patterns have locked large portions of the country into mobility problems not easily addressed by transit.

So even though it exciting to see action on this front, there are clearly some issue here if all we are doing is moving the source of emissions from cars inside European cities, to Coal plants in their hinterlands. One more inspiring bit of news comes from the fact that both PGE and RWE/Daimler have bigger plans for vehicle-to-grid technologies which would allow cars to feed power back into the grid if they are parked at peak times – as they are, for example, when commuters return home from work – and recharge over night when demand is low. This would help flatten the spikes in energy demand and stabilize the grid in a way that could open the door for more intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

If electric cars are to make a positive contribution, it will be as a bridge technology. They will allow us to reduce emissions associated with the choices we made in the past about how we live and work, while we retool the shape of settlement to center around walk-sheds, and transit. If used as a crutch to continue old patterns of development, or support fossil fuel based electricity generation we are in for a rough ride.



Thanks for the people at for pointing out that there are are also plugins on the books for San Jose and San Francisico. The EV site has excellent links for those looking for more on this issue.

And Treehugger reports that Greenpeace Germany has protested what the site calls the "nightmare of coal powered cars." "In fact, Greenpeace argues, running a car on diesel is cleaner than an electric car powered by coal-burning power plants, which do dominate Germany's generation capacities." The discussion there picks up the pros and cons of this argument. As always you have to keep your eye on the ball, which in this case is reducing emissions and changing mobility patterns, and make sure that the projects are aimed in the right direction.


Election 2008: Cities in the Parties' Platforms

Canadians concerned about our cities were doubtless disappointed by the Leaders Debate last week, and won't get much satisfaction from the long awaited Conservative platform that came out yesterday. It's not as if the Conservatives didn't have enough time to prepare: we've known about the seriousness of the infrastructure deficit since well before the last election, and during that campaign Harper was often accused of having a bias against cities. 
The fact that the new Conservative platform gives over more space to a photo of people standing in front of a campaign bus than to municipal issues will not do much to change that impression.

80%? part.II: Arguing for Inclusive Inventories

David Satterthwaite's full report on Cities' Contribution to Global Warming is now out and as I guessed last week, the debate centers around where you draw the boundaries of “the city” and assign responsibility for pollution. If we are talking specifically about emissions physically produced within cities and metropolitan regions, the report estimates that their contribution is closer 40% than 80%.

But is that fair? Another way to count would be (in the fashion of an eco-footprint analysis) to also hold them accountable for the emissions generated while producing the resources that they consume. Everything from electricity that we use to the consumer goods that churn through our shopping malls have to be made somewhere, and usually not in or cities. Include that, and Satterthwaite estimates that cities are back up near 60% to 70% of global emissions.  Not bad.

"Blaming Cities" or "Walking the Walk"?
Satterthwaite argues that past over-estimates “blaming cities for greenhouse gas emissions” distracts us from the role that they have to play in finding a solution. I disagree. The 80% figure became popular precisely because it was sensational enough to be used by municipal leaders to spark debate and push for action. But he is right to be critical about how inventories are used: our inventories and our policies have to operate at the same level. You can't design narrow policies and pretend that they will have broad impacts. "If you are going to talk the talk, then you better be ready to...." you know the rest.

If organizations like the C40 are going to embrace a broad vision of municipal responsibility in their press releases, then policies have to have to operate at that same level.  That means making sure technological and managerial solutions act aggressively to get the big ticket items (like transit and land use planning, building efficiency, and local renewable energy) right. But it also means acknowledging that they are only a part of the picture. We also need to engage with cities as places that steer and encourage a culture of wasteful consumption. That's a bit trickier.

Satterthwaite's report emphasizes something that we all already intuitively know: that the force behind most anthropogenic carbon emissions is “the consumption patterns of middle- and upper-income groups, regardless of where they live and the production systems that profit from their consumption.” That is a cultural problem and a problem of how we act collectively, as much as one for technology or environmental policy.

Splitting Consumption and Quality of Life
Given that, cities (particularly wealthy western cities) are a privileged place to start dealing with GHG emissions. Not just because they offer opportunities to increase basic efficiency (the target of most of the policies in place so far). But because they also group together high-intensity consumers in a setting that offers multiple opportunities to begin de-linking quality of life and resource use.

Arts, culture, sports, festivals and spontaneous gatherings that nurture public creativity rather than consumption -- and the safe and vibrant public spaces needed to support them -- all of these are all also relevant to climate change.

The Argument for Inclusive Inventories
So how to assign responsibility? By the location where the emissions are produced? By the site of final consumption? Why not according to the opportunities that a place offers for intervention?

I would argue against low-balling cities implication for climate change. While it may be difficult to clearly divide emissions between producers and consumers, one thing is certain: city's offer amazing opportunities to create change, change that is both technological and cultural. Change that has as much to do with how a city is designed, as with how it is governed and lived.

If we are going to unhook quality of life and wellbeing from high patterns of resource consumption, we are going to do it in cities. So let's keep our estimates on the high side, and use those numbers to engage with the full reach of what cities can accomplish.
UPDATE: For those who would like to read the report (but without subscriptions to Environment and Urbanization) send an e-mail to alex.aylett (at) and I'll pass it on to you.

80% ?

It's been on the lips of mayors from New York to Sydney and quoted in numerous reports: cities are responsible for 80% of ghg emissions. I haven't managed to track that figure back to a reliable study, and now it seems like better minds than mine have taken a closer look. A new report in the journal Environment and Urbanization is claiming that the figure is closer to 40%. The details are still unclear: I haven't been able to get a copy of the report yet, and because the journal is predominantly focused on Africa the story hasn't had any coverage in the western media.

That said, I am guessing that the discrepancy comes from where you draw the boundaries of responsibility. I've talked a bit about that before in terms of inventories and targets. It's important to remember that inventories are as much political as scientific; how to count has to be based on a solid methodology, but what you count (and where you stop counting) often has to do with political decisions both good and bad. The interconnectedness of our economic and environmental systems means that disagreements over boundary drawing are inevitable. Interestingly, the new report points the finger at the 80% figure for blocking effective urban climate change action. On the flip side mayors, particularly those in the C40, have used exactly that figure as a tool to push for stronger action.

Expect a follow-up once I have a copy of the report.  See part II here. Read more...

Rankings with Teeth: Livable or Liability?

New rankings of urban sustainability seem come out almost every week. The SustainLane rankings are one of the best established and best regarded though, and their 2008 assessment of America's 50 biggest cities (released Monday) is attracting a fair amount of attention (here, here, here and here). Everyone likes a good fight and this year Portland came out on top again, with Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Mesa, Arizona trailing the pack. The ranking covers indicators from transit and green economic development to energy policies and air/water quality. Portland scored its third consecutive win thanks to high scores in Energy and Climate Policy, Green buildings and Planning and Landuse (see graphic for full breakdown).

There is a new edge to this years rankings though. In the past they have stopped at celebrating success and inspiring some friendly competition. This time James Elsen of the SustainLane foundation is drawing some more serious conclusions:

"We're beginning to see the top and bottom-ranked cities move farther apart, with the cities taking sustainability seriously increasing in desirability nationwide and enjoying better odds of long-term economic prosperity. ... Specifically, the top 15 cities are creating more vibrant city centers and offer higher quality air, water, food and transportation choices ... We predict that the lower-ranking cities will increasingly struggle to sustain their resident and business populations and local economies."

Elsen's comments about vibrant city life are a green echo Richard Florida's now familiar arguments about the social and cultural characteristics needed to attract the “creative class.” But they open into another issue that, just like Florida's arguments, is changing how we think about cities -- changing it in a way that re-establishes the importance of well designed infrastructure for long-term prosperity. For municipalities (and regions and countries) poor environmental performance is becoming a liability.

A carbon intensive economy vulnerable to tariffs, taxes, and fuel price hikes; a city infrastructure poorly prepared for a more violent climate; a sprawling un-walkable metropolis with poor transit – all these things (carbon intensity, environmental risk and exposure, and livability) are more and more coming together to class a city as either an environmental liability or an oasis/safe-harbour for both residents and investment. These issues are partly about culture and lifestyle, but they are also about the shape of our cities and the design of their infrastructure. Dealing with them in any real coherent way is going to mean real work and will rub some stains and grit into the shiny green luster that often covers environmental politics.


Access to Information II : CarbonTax Improves GDP

It's been a busy week with not much time to write - but the recent discussion of yet another report (the 4th so far) silently shelved by the Conservative government has gotten me in the saddle again. A report commissioned in 2007 by the Harper government has shown that carbon taxes benefit both the environment and the economy (exec. summary, full report. Prepared by the consulting firm headed eminent environmental economist Mark Jaccard, the report directly contradicts the Conservative's recent claims that a carbon tax would have apocalyptic effects on both the economy and national unity. Green Party leader Elizabeth May quickly jumped in at the end of last week and re-released the report saying:

“Mr. Harper’s ridiculous claim that taxing carbon will bring about economic ruin and a recession is starkly contradicted by his own research. In fact, this report shows a positive impact on GDP beginning in 2015. With this in the public domain it is clear that Mr. Harper is deliberately distorting the evidence. Mr. Harper’s fear mongering on a carbon tax is a deliberate and premeditated effort to demonize a sensible plan."

The Green Party also drew attention to the report after obtaining it through access to information provisions shortly after its release in 2007. Their re-release is a timely reminder of the Conservative government's practice of covering over reports that it dislikes. As I said the first time I covered this theme, this is no time to be wasting good research. We have got huge challenges ahead, but one of the biggest challenges at the moment is uncertainty, uncertainty about what policies to put in place. Sweeping valuable research under the carpet is totally irresponsible and just plain stupid. So far coverage has been limited to the blogsphere but hopefully the mainstream will pick it up this week (see here, here, here and here)

Port Electrification: Vancouver

International shipping exists in the Bermuda triangle of climate change initiatives: it's nowhere in the Kyoto protocol and similarly absent from municipal initiatives: I don't know of any municipality that has included ports in it's Climate Change action plans. Both airports and shipping ports have complicated relationships to the city's that harbour them and are governed by interlocking federal and provincial regulations. Both are also significant contributors to local air pollution and to an area's CO2 emissions. For shipping, it's not just the coming and going that causes problems; ships in most ports also have to keep their engines running even while docked to generate electricity for on board lights and systems.

With an election on the way, the Metro Vancouver environment and energy committee is hoping to get the federal money it needs to address the issue - at least in part. Marine emissions make up a bit over 5% of the Vancouver region's emissions (as well as being the main source for a variety of air pollutants including NOx, and SOx). Starting with cruise ships, the plan is to provide plug-ins for docked ships supplying them with power either from the BC Hydro grid or from on-site wind and tidal power projects potentially on the horizon. In 2002 Juno, Alaska was the first to set up a shore plug system, but interest has grown internationally and we will likely see more similar projects ahead. The question of course is whether grid-power is any cleaner. In coal burning regions, it won't be. Read more...

West Coast Density: Seattle & Vancouver

Both Seattle (WA) and Vancouver (BC) have plans to make important decisions on density this Fall. In Seattle, city council is preparing to decide how to expand their downtown density-bonus plan, in place for the past two years, to cover the rest of the city. As well as difficult questions about preserving the "human scale" of existing residential neighbourhoods, the main quibble is over the economics of affordable housing. According to the projections they are using, only very large height increases (85ft to 240ft, for example) boost developers profits enough to create an incentive for them to include affordable units. Developers themselves seem to be split on the issue though, with some arguing that the city could demand more affordable units, while others are asking why they should have to meet any affordability requirements at all seeing as their condo towers are already performing a valuable ecological service (adding density).

I've argued before that density has to be coupled with affordability and mixed-use to realize its environmental potential. Developers trying to argue that density is enough miss the fact that lower transportation distance will only arise if a variety of income groups can live and work in the same neighbourhood.

Another question though is whether large developers are the only people we should be turning to to help densify our existing housing stock. Vancouver will be tackling that question, beginning at the end of this month with the first open house on laneway housing in single family areas. Laneway housing (the conversion of garages and coach houses into self-sufficient apartment suits) was a popular item during public consultation for the city's Ecodensity plan. Beyond density, in Vancouver's pricey real estate market allowing homeowners to add rental suits serves a double purpose: it makes home ownership slightly more accessible, and adds a new supply of much needed rental housing to the market.

Whether enough homeowners will add laneway housing (and its close cousin: secondary basement suits) to make any real density difference is uncertain. But the number of illegal suits currently on the market makes it seem likely. While the tall towers proposed for Seattle may make sense in certain areas (near transit hubs for example), Vancouver's engagement with individual homeowners opens up another productive way to retool our current urban form. As with the ReCode Portland program, the question then becomes about how to facilitate densification and green building not just for large new developments but for existing communities as a whole. TreeHugger covers some of the hurdles that these types of construction can face in Canada and links to a short documentary about the experience of two architects working in Toronto.

More Info on Upcoming Vancouver open house on Lane Way Housing:

Date: Sunday, September 21st

      Time: 12 - 4 pm
      Location: Polish Community Centre

4015 Fraser Street (at E. King Edward Ave)

      Date: Wednesday, September 24th
      Time: 4 - 8 pm
      Location: Hellenic Community Centre
      4500 Arbutus Street (at W. 30th Ave)

For more information:
See EcoDensity Initial Actions - Action C-5:
Call: 604-871-6302

Urban Agriculture 2: Agri-Sewage

I've written before about the importance of urban agriculture, particularly during the current food-price crisis. That we are also going through serious water shortages in many parts of the globe begs a question that I had wondered about while I was in South Africa: where are urban farmers getting their water? The answer, according to a report by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), is Sewage. The World Health Organization tells us that 10% of the world's population relies of food grown in fields watered and fertilized with untreated human waste. The IWMI report argues that not only will that be an inevitable reality for the conceivable future, but that it might not be all bad -- if we deal with it constructively.

The Guardian excerpts a section from the report that lays out the situation:
"As long as developing countries lack suitable transport to deliver large quantities of perishable produce to urban areas, urban agriculture will remain important. In the face of water scarcity generally and a lack of access to clean water, urban farmers will have no alternative except to use … polluted water." That polluted water can produce significant yields. In Ghana's capital Accra (pop. close to 2 mil.) 200,000 residents purchase vegetables produced on just 100 hectares of urban agricultural land that is irrigated with sewage. That is a lot of food, but it is also a direct vector for dihoreal diseases and cholera. The pratice, they go on to say, is not limited to Africa but is also found in China, India, Vietnam and Latin America.

So what to do? The IWMI makes clear that outlawing the agricultural use of nutrient rich waste water is simply not an option. Shortages of both clean potable water and affordable food make it a necessary reality. They are happy that cities are finally willing to discuss what had been a tacitly accepted practice. Instead of introducing strict standards or restrictions that will be impossible to enforce, the report recommends promoting practices like drip-irrigation (which keeps bacteria off the edible parts of the crops), creating infrastructure in markets to carefully wash produce before sale, and the use of settling pools and other low-tech forms of water filtration. (Some of these same simple biofiltration technologies are used in Canada and elsewhere to provide low-cost sewage treatment and storm water remediation services from smaller centres like St. Stephen (NB) to larger cities like Edmonton (AB). As search for "wetlands" on The Federation of Canadian Municipalities Green Municipal Fund database turns up a number of examples.)

Distasteful as it may seem, there are multiple advantages to using waste water for irrigation; it relieves stress on fresh water supplies (agriculture currently consumes close to 70% of global fresh water supplies), it is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium and provides an alternative to costly chemical fertilizers, and it supports both a needed source of food and the livelihoods of urban (largely female) farmers. It also serves an important ecological function; in the same way that settling pools and wetlands can clean waste water before agricultural use, the fields themselves serve to further filter the water reducing its impact on surrounding rivers and streams.

To rethink cities as productive parts of our ecosystem, not just monstrous consumers of resources, is the challenge that we currently face. We also have to address the pressures placed on our cities by rapid population growth, urban poverty, and deficits in needed or aging infrastructure. Looking for linked solutions to these problems guided by principles like "Zero Waste" is something that we are comfortable with, up to a point. Waste water agriculture might be a bit beyond that point for some of us. (But so might other aspects of "accepted" agri-business practices if we knew about them - case in point, the regular scandals that plague industrial meat manufacture, this time in Canada.) But from the IWMI report it is clear that "sustainable" practices can be born of necessity and test some of our preconceptions about what is possible, practical and safe. It also shows that while necessity may push innovation, careful guidance and support is necessary to minimize risks and maximize returns.

The best summary of the report that I have found is here (although not as easy on the eyes as the National Geo. piece linked above).

UPDATE: Sustainablog has just put up an interesting post, excerpted from Lester Brown's Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, on the need to raise the productivity of water used for agriculture. They don't touch on the waste water issue though. Read more...

ReCoding our Cities

Building codes and zoning bylaws can often be a major barrier to sustainable building and planning. If they don't block a project completely, added costs and red-tape can deter all but the largest or most determined developments. While I was in Portland last week, I discovered an interesting group called ReCode Portland. Their aim is to review the city's zoning and building code and to identify and remove barriers to sustainability. But surprisingly, perhaps, they are not based out of a municipal office...

Nestled in the buffer zone that runs around Tryon State Park there is a small farm. The people of Tryon Life Community Farm grow some of their own food, raise goats and chickens, run a kindergarten and an ecological education centre, and live communally in a variety of quirky artistically designed structures. Like many alternative communities it is equal parts hard work, idyllic dream, and zoning nightmare. Simply trying to combine so many different land-uses (residential, agricultural, educational, commercial...) on one small plot put them at odds with state and municipal regulations.

Thanks to support from the community and the city, the farm got a variety of site specific permits to allow them to do what they do. But that didn't satisfy them. Other attempts at creating alternative communities are often based on a certain amount of escapism and a desire to start from scratch (Paolo Soleri's beautiful project is back in the news, for example). Often they get marginalized as a result. Tryon Life went in another direction. Aware of that existing codes and regulations blocked new forms of sustainable urbanism, instead of trying to escape the code, they decided to help change it.

Since being set up a little over a year ago, the ReCode Portland project has attracted a broad base of support beyond the farm, including the local green builders guild, consultants, planners and community members. With a core membership of 14 council members and various other partners, they have successfully applied pressure and worked with the State to begin legalizing greywater use (already permitted in other States like Washington and Arizona). Their sights are now set on State and local codes that block homeowners from adding secondary dwellings, or using sustainable design principles or new materials like passive ventilation or AirKrete walls.

More fundamentally, they are looking for ways to shift codes to support innovation and experimentation. This includes putting in place experimental and owner-builder class permits that would allows greater freedom to chose and test new materials and designs. All of this is geared towards making increased density and efficiency accessible to individual homeowners, so that we can begin to transform the housing stock we already have without depending entirely on major new redevelopments.

The city has recently given ReCode a grant worth close to $10,000 to support their work. While I was there, some joked that it might seem a bit odd for the city to be funding people to be their critics. From what I saw, it was money well spent.

More here.

Get Ready 2 : More on "Building Resilient Cities"

Unsurprisingly, most of the media seems to have stopped reading about two paragraphs into the executive summary of the new UN-World Bank publication ""Building Resilient Cities." As a result coverage is based on the dramatic statistics about the size of Asia's cities and their vulnerability to extreme weather. On that front it doesn't offer up much news (although it does fit nicely with other similar coverage closer to home, this time from New York City). But "Building Resilient Cities" is a beast of a very different sort.

While it does provide a useful synthesis of sectoral risks and case studies of responses, the real meat here is in the sections dealing not with what to do, but how to get it done. Unlike your usual report, the primer is designed as a tool to help cities start doing. The materials are laid out to guide a city through the processing of forming a Climate Change Team and bringing together silo-ized departments, evaluating the level of risk faced by the city, and then identifying ways to address those risks. The crucial step here is the first one.

The primer returns in various ways to the fact that climate change is a challenge, not just to our infrastructure, or our buildings, but to the structure of our municipal institutions and how we have organized ourselves up until now. Responding to climate change -- whether by reducing our emissions, or reducing the risks we face, or both -- is a crosscutting project that fits badly into the traditional divisions that structure a municipality. Creating a strong institutional home for climate change, one that helps coordinate action across multiple departments, is the number one priority for action cited by the report.

While Canadian cities face different natural risks than cities in Asia, we will face risks all the same. Here as well we need to worry about silos as much as sewers. Given that, the resources compiled in "Building Resilient Cities" should be of interest here as much as anywhere else. Even if the dramatic stats and case studies may be familiar to some, the excercise in institution building that the primer lays out charts a well designed path for cities trying to plan their approach to climate change. Read more...

Get Ready: Building Climate Resilient Cities

In the same vein as the Federal Engineers report discussed earlier, a new UN-World Bank report released last week aims to point the way to climate proofing our cities. "Building Resilient Cities" is focused on the large cities in the Asia-Pacific region. Up until recently the majority of our attention here in the North has been focused on reducing emissions. The publicity value of committing to GHG reductions has attracted many municipal politicians and media outlets. But results have been slow in coming - see the US Mayor Climate Protection Agreement for example.

Increasingly though adaptation is starting to get the attention it needs. Initially the key guidelines seem familiar: Don't build on floodplains or unstable slopes, protect coastal defenses, build more resilient infrastructure... I'll be giving a closer look to the report later in the week and am curious to see whether the report tangles with why such seemingly common-sense ideas are often so hard to put into practice.


Eco-Density / Condo-Destiny

I was a guest of Radio-Canada's national afternoon show "Ailleurs c'est ici" on Wednesday. They had me in to discuss Eco-Density, Vancouver's trade-marked take on denser mixed-use developments. You can listen (in French) here. It was a basic introduction to the plan and the environmental advantages of livable dense communities. A trickier issue that we didn't get a chance to cover though -- and an important one -- is the way these environmental and social benefits are being undercut by Vancouver's poor track record when it comes to protecting both office space and lower income housing downtown.
Cities are dynamic places. When you throw a new gear into the works, the behaviour of the whole system can change. In this case, the opening of progressively more zoning to residential development and the resort economics of Vancouver's real estate market has meant that high end condominiums have rapidly choked out all other forms development in the downtown area, often displacing existing offices. 5 to 1 returns on condos compared to office space has meant a 10 to 1 imbalance in new developments. While city officials are supportive of office space, the actual square footage being built hasn't changed in the past three years.

Non-market rate housing is in the same boat. By definition it is not meant to turn a profit, and the city government has been either unwilling or unable to competently defend either against the tide of condos. See for example the Mayor's 2006 reduction of -- already agreed upon -- affordable housing in the Olympic village, and the CCPA's excellent report on the links between affordability and sustainability.

This started years before the recently released Eco-Density Charter came into effect, and some say there's no need to worry. Matthew Kahn, an economist at UCLA, argues that cities win when they attract high-payed (and high-property-tax-paying) professionals to their downtowns. And if they buy property but don't live there (as is the case for many vacation-home condos in Vancouver) "It's a free lunch, with these people moving in, paying taxes, and demanding no services at all."

Common wisdom about free lunches aside, his argument stands up in a very limited way. But as soon as you look beyond the tax base you realize that this type of development undermines the key principles now used to justify it: Eco-Density's commitment to build more sustainable and livable cities. What you end up with instead is a dormitory resort downtown whose residents reverse commute to suburban office parks, crossing paths in the sky train with the suburbanites who are commuting into the core to work low-paid jobs as coffee clerks in so-called mixed-use towers. I simplify for effect, but you see my point.

The balance is a tricky one, and the (real estate) market is certainly not going to sort it out for us. This seems like a clear case where the question is not whether the government should intervene in the market, but how. It is also makes a good example of the need to combine social and environmental sustainability. Often, as here, you can't have one without the other. You can't have the truly mixed-use localized communities that Eco-Density stands for unless you protect the ability of a variety of income groups to live, work and play there.

UPDATE 08.19.2008: WorldChanging has recently put what is happening in Vancouver in a broader context of a shift that is taking place in cities throughout. The discussion was sparked by this interesting article by Alan Ehrenhalt in The New Republic the "demographic inversion" that is once again turning cities centers across North America into homes for the wealthy rather than the poor. Read more...

Access to Information

Vancouver is awash with climate change news today (and may soon be awash in sewage). The Vancouver Sun published details from a Federal Engineers Report (link to report) detailing the vulnerability of infrastructure in seven communities across the country. The most consistent finding is that more concentrated periods of heavy rainfall threaten to overwhelm old combined storm water/sewage systems and flush raw sewage into local waters. (see why here)I've written about the problems and opportunities of aging infrastructure before and will again. The real story here though seems to be about access to information.

The Sun reports having "unearthed" the report - assuming this is not an exaggeration this makes it the third important climate related report to be swept into a dark corner by the federal government. Last week the Globe & Mail reported that a major report on the health impacts of climate change (Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity - not available on-line) is scheduled for the same treatment as a Natural Resources Canada report (From Impacts to Adaptation) that was first delayed and then covered over last year. All this while in May the Tories shut-down the access to information database that streamlined public requests for information from government agencies. Some are comparing this to similar treatment of climate research south of the border.

The ridiculousness of all this is pretty plain to see. The main challenge to planning for climate change is the lack of good research done at a regional or local level. Hiding work that has been done gets us nowhere - or worse.

UPDATE: While the federal government announced the beginning of the infrastructure research in early 2007, it chose not to publicize the reports once they were completed (at a cost of $1 million in public funds, good research is expensive.) Take a quick look at the rest of the NRCAN press release archives if you are interested.

UPDATE 2: Scott Simpson, author of the original piece in the Sun, wrote: "I'm probably the only reporter in Canada who had even an incling of their existence.
That's not vanity. . . . I spoke with PIEVC folks last year before the project got started. . . And promptly forgot about it until my memory was jogged last week at a conference where a PIEVC representative spoke." --Thanks Scott!

Future-Proofing Urban Energy: Germany

In an interesting bit of synchronisity today, both the Victoria Times Colonist in Canada and the Times of India run stories today about local energy generation in Germany towns and cities. The centre of the two stories couldn't be much more different: Freiburg is a city of 200,000 that has been winning prizes and attracting attention since the early 1990s for its environmental efforts, Freimat on the other hand is a lesser known cluster of agricultural villages of 4,300 people in the Black Forest. Both generate an impressive amount of power from solar or wind power, often generating a surplus that they can sell back to the grid. The result is both the self-sufficiency and low-transmission losses of locally produced power, a decreased reliance on imported carbon-heavy energy, and a financial profit for those involved.

The Freiamt difference, and what has got it into the papers, is that the region has not only achieved total energy self-sufficiency, but has a net energy surplus. By pooling their money local residents purchased first a series of wind turbines, a array of solar panels which is distributed across rooves in the area and now a series of biogas digesters that both process agricultural waste and generate energy.

Support from local citizens is part of the equation that has made these successes possible. In Frieburg it began with opposition to a proposed nuclear power plant close to the city. In Freimat it was local farmers looking for another way to make ends meet. But the other crucial component is the support these local groups got from Germany's federal energy laws. The national "feed-in tariff" not only make it possible for small renewable energy producers to feed energy into the grid, but also guarantees them a premium price for their juice. The tariff went in in 2004 and since then enough solar has gone up on houses and business to replace 6 conventional power plants ( 3,000Mw).

Newsweek quips that: "Freiamt is no hippie commune trying to shut itself off from the world." Maybe that still needs to be said, but the idea of towns and cities that produce as well as consume is loosing some of its old cultural associations. In both the developed and developing world local energy generation can do a lot to tie the crucial knot between more livable and more sustainable cities.

more here


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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