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

Uneven Impacts

This past Saturday in Chicago, the UNITY journalism convention hosted a panel called "Covering Climate Change: Why Non-White Communities Could Be Hit the Hardest." Currently poor, largely ethnic, urban communities are already struggling with poor air and water quality and access to other key environmental services - climate change is only going to make that worse. Earlier this month Maplecroft (a UK based environmental risk consultancy) released a detailed report on global climate vulnerability. Perhaps not surprisingly what plays out within our cities is also true internationally: by and large the countries most vulnerable to climate change are also the poorest.

In some places that's because a more volatile climate will add stresses to poor populations already living precariously on steep slopes, in low-lying floodplains or other vulnerable spots. It is also linked to the fact that poorer communities and countries often have fewer resources to deal with calamity when it comes. Wealthier groups have the option and ability to buy alternative to public goods when things go wrong; air conditioning lets you close your windows to smoggy air, a country cottage substitutes for lacking or unsafe public parks, bottled water and diesel electric generators can take over if municipal infrastructure breaks down, a private health plan keeps you out of crowded clinics etc. etc. But most places, the majority of us don't have that kind of out. Public goods are the only goods.

Cities are such intricate, exciting, vibrant and creative places to live specifically because they can provide a home to so many different social and economic groups. But a city is a precarious accomplishment though. You don't need to go far in time or space to see what happens when outside stresses get added to unequal access to key resources. To keep our cities together and build them into something better, responses to climate change can't only be about the environment. In the end how we do will have as much to do with our relationships to each other as with the amount of greenhouse gases we emit.

(I am am still looking for a transcript or recording of the UNITY event - please let me know if you have one that I could post) Read more...

Of Loans and Limits (speed limits that is)

The importance of politics and policy is a point that I often come back to. Sure, they are not nearly as sexy as sleek prototypes, but sometimes it's bylaws not breakthrough technologies that are holding back change. Two solid examples of this have made the news this week. First, the British Colombian town of Oak Bay has announced its intentions to become the first city in Canada to allow electric cars on its streets. If you are wondering why there aren't already more electric cars on the road, you might be surprised to know that many models are in fact still illegal. It took new provincial legislation, as well as a municipal bylaw to allow slower moving and more affordable types of electric vehicles onto local roads. This is economically interesting as well, given that Canada has some great electrical vehicle manufacturers and that the traditional automotive sector is faltering.

In a similar vein, it's been announced that the State of California has enacted a law that allows municipalities to give low-interest loans to home owners and businesses that want to install solar panels or make high-efficiency improvements to their buildings. Loan repayments are then bundled in with property taxes and paid back over decades, which helps defray the high upfront costs of these types of investments. Although the plan was originally designed by the city of Berkeley (possibly based on a similar scheme in Toronto), it took the new state law to give cities the statutory authority to provide these types of loans.

So there you go, boring by true. Bylaws are where it's at. Read more...

Future Generator

Another chose-the-fate- of-the-world style climate change game has come out of the UK. Unlike the BBC's earlier version, the focus this time is urban rather than national. Hosted by the London Transport Museum, The Future Generator is a slick way to explore what our cities could become. It presents you with a variety of choices and then uses your responses to assemble a vision of what the cities of 2050 would look like if everyone thought like you. Despite some painfully obvious questions -- didn't we already know that recycling was a good idea!?! -- the real surprise is that people's responses are generating a clear split between two very different worlds.

The three thousand people who have played so far are divided almost equally between a world that is simpler, more local and more politically active, and one that is governed by high-tech surveillance systems that steer our lives (and our cars, which incidently we also sleep in!) to meet the needs of big business. As with more complex interactive planning programs like metroquest, the scenarios are rendered as simple but slick visualizations that give some substance to the abstract choices that generated them. Somehow a tall surveillance tower loomed over my city and I am still not sure how it got there.

It'll take you five minutes or so to play and is definitely worth a try. But more than the game itself, the scenarios it provides and the cumulative results are the most interesting part. The "living local" scenario seems rigged to win (did anyone else notice the man about the jump off the bridge in the walk-through of the "Always On" scenario?). The game takes a good shot at making other ways of living together tangible. Despite its simplicity, it also leaves you wondering not just about how we can avoid environmental decline, but about the social implications of the choices we make as we move towards a less destructive future. Read more...

Floating Wonderland

The LILYPAD is an amazing floating structure. A city for 50,000 people, capable of producing its own energy, water and food. It doesn't exist, but images of Franco-Belgian design firm Vincent Callebaut's eye-catching idea have been bubbling up on sustainability cites around the web for over a month now. You gotta love it.

More than a city, it was designed as a haven for climate refugees. It's our high-tech Noah's Arc: both a ship and a mountain.

Likely? Probably not: we already have a hard time supplying refugee camps with canvas tents or clean water. Titanium exo-skeletons with wind-powered desalination plants are probably a bit of a stretch.

Still, as a symbol it captures most of the key principles of environmental sustainability: it's designed to work with its environment, sources sustainable power through a decentralized local system, produces much of its own food, uses outputs - “waste” - as inputs back into the system as a whole looks great floating above air-brushed dolphins!

It's how you do bio-regionalism -- after your region has been washed away in a tide of salt water.

It's also a nice reminder of something even the most engaged North American cities have been overlooking: the need to adapt. Floating a chunk of your population off the coast somewhere probably isn't the most logical solution. But making land use and infrastructure planning decisions that take changes in climate into account is a necessity that can't wait. 

Around the globe cities are struggling to meet an infrastructure deficit caused by aging infrastructure and rapid urbanization. If it's unlikely that we will cut carbon fast enough to stave off climate change, then we'd better build infrastructure that can cope with a more volatile climate (and stop putting houses in flood plains!). 

As an emblem there is a lot going on in this little piece of eye-candy. But it's also true that the longer we wait for these high-tech wonders to save us, the more likely it is that we are going to need to be saved. The main barriers to most of the principles embodied in the LILYPAD aren't science or cost but politics, poorly designed policies, out-dated decision-making frameworks and... the belief that we need to wait for better technology before we can make major changes.

US Mayors V. Alberta Tar Sands

The big news from last week boycott fuel from the Alberta Tar sands. was the resolution passed by the US Conference of Mayors to Despite a blustery response from Albert's Finance Minister , the direct effect of the boycott will be slim to none. At the moment it is difficult if not impossible to trace refined fuel back to its source. And even if we could, the boycott itself only applies to fuels purhcasedto run minicipal vehicles -- a minute fraction of the fuel bought and burned in American cities.

Even if the boycott has more bark than bite, there is something interesting going. It is the first headline grabbing example of what could become a daily reality: carbon emissions as a costly liability for both producers and the larger economies that their industries support. The boycott is also the first time (to my knowledge) that mayors have banded together to call for action on an environmental issue targetting pollutants created - not just in another city or at a state or provinicial level - but in another country.

Suddenly what counts as a municipal enviromental resposiblity seems to have grown significantly. The boundaries of what is and isn't included when it comes to municipal greenhouse gas emissions are traditionally drawn quite narrowly. But the type of lifecycle analysis demanded by the US Mayor's resolution casts the net much wider. It both demands that Federal and State level governments pass guidelines to make this source-to-pump tracking of fuel possible, and shows their willingness to take responsiblity for the broader effects of fuel their cities consume. There seem to be many logical next-steps to this including, for example, aviation emission.

So the Mayors are willing to tangle with other levels of government and even other countries over environmental issues, and push past the limits of what is considered to be under municipal responsibility. That's good news. But as always nothing is quite perfect. Burried in the 280 page report of resolutions passed at the most recent US Mayors conference is another resolution. One that calls for increased funding to pay for airport expansions. Read more...


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.