Sprawl No Fun For Kids!

I loved this article by Laura Stone in yesterday's Vancouver Sun. A new study by Ottawa's Vanier Institue has uncovered one of the hidden costs of sprawl: it's no fun to BMX in! From the article:

Kids these days: they rarely walk anywhere. They don't ride bikes, they don't play outside -- not like they used to, anyway. But can we blame them?

Lots of it has to do with urban sprawl. ...

"We have built cities that actively discourage walking and biking among children, certainly when we compare the experiences of today's children and those of their parents," writes Juan Torres, an urban planner and professor at the University of Montreal, in his study titled Children & Cities: Planning to Grow Together. Aside from being environmentally problematic, urban sprawl has also taken its toll on the bodies and minds of children, Torres said.

"The biggest problem presented in the report is the fact that cities are being planned especially for cars and for adults," he said. "This is an important issue because alternative mobility is part of the things that children need in order to develop properly. Not only in terms of obesity and this problem of public health -- that, of course, is deeply related with physical activity and the fact that children don't walk as much as before -- but oftentimes of personal development."

Children gain a sense of independence and can better understand the concept of common space when they can navigate themselves outside, he said.

read the full article here or the report here.

Obama's Smart (Grid): Where's Harper?

The big news south of the border today is President Obama's announcement of a new federal program to encourage the greening of the US energy grid.

In a speech in Florida at what is now the nation's largest and newest Solar PV power plant, the President promised "100 grants totaling $3.4 billion, grants that will go to private companies, utilities, cities and other partners who have applied with plans to install smart grid technologies in their area."

The Washington Post is running a transcript of the speech, and I've posted a few excerpts below. It's a great feeling to see the President speaking the praises of a smarter grid. (I'd swear he'd read some of my previous entries...LOL.)

Here in Canada, the main leader in smart grid so far has been the Province of Ontario, which has been attracting American attention for its rapid roll out of smart meters and green energy incentives. Federally though, we are still holding our breath.

Two years after delivering a speech calling for Canada to become a "green energy superpower" the prime minster has done little to get us there. All we have got to show for it is a transmission line in Northern BC whose green credentials are less than stunning (see the Globe's Mark Hume's balanced look at the project) and Harper's opposition to the US climate change bill. Great stuff!

In a related US piece , American Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that "When the gun sounded on the clean energy race, the United States stumbled. But I remain confident that we can make up the ground." If the U.S. stumbled, Canada's federal government hasn't even shown up. Besides Ontario, we've got other great leaders: cities like Vancouver and Toronto, alternative energy companies like AAER or Canadian Hydro and private companies like ZENN electric cars, to name a few. It's time to give them the same support that their peers south of the border are getting.


OBAMA: [To] realize the full potential of this plant and others like it, we've got to do more than just add extra solar megawatts to our electrical grid. That's because this grid, which is made up of everything from power lines to generators to the meters in your home, still runs on century-old technology. It wastes too much energy, it costs us too much money, and it's too susceptible to outages and blackouts.
To offer one analogy, just imagine what transportation was like in this country back in the 1920s, 1930s, before the Interstate Highway System was built. It was a tangled maze of poorly maintained back roads that were rarely the fastest or the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

Fortunately, President Eisenhower made an investment that revolutionized the way we travel; an investment that made our lives easier and our economy grow.

Now it's time to make the same kind of investment in the way our energy travels, to build a clean energy superhighway that can take the renewable power generated in places like De Soto and deliver it directly to the American people in the most affordable and efficient way possible.
Such an investment won't just create new pathways for energy.

It's expected to creates tens of thousands of new jobs all across America, in areas ranging from manufacturing and construction to I.T. and the installation of new equipment in homes and in businesses.

It's expected to save consumers more than $20 billion over the next decade on their utility bills. And I know nobody minds seeing their utilities bill cut.

So that's why today I'm pleased to announce that, under the Recovery Act, we are making the largest-ever investment in a smarter, stronger and more secure electric grid.

This investment will come in the form of 100 grants totaling $3.4 billion, grants that will go to private companies, utilities, cities and other partners who have applied with plans to install smart grid technologies in their area.


Some of the projects involve modernizing old, inefficient transmission lines that just waste too much energy. And to speed that process along, nine federal agencies have signed an agreement that will help break down the bureaucratic barriers that currently make it slow and costly to build new transmission lines on federal lands.

But most of the projects that are receiving grants involve the installation of what are known as smart meters, devices that will have a direct benefit for consumers who want to save money on their electrical bills.

So we're on the cusp of this new energy future. And in fact, a lot of it's already taken place. Even as I'm here today, Vice President Biden's in Delaware announcing the reopening of a once- shuttered G.M. factory that will soon put people back to work building plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

So at this moment, there's something big happening in America when it comes to creating a clean energy economy, but getting there will take a few more days like this one and more projects like this one.

And I've often said that the creation of such an economy is going to require nothing less than the sustained effort of an entire nation; an all-hands-on-deck approach, similar to the mobilization that preceded World War II or the Apollo Project.
There are those who are also going to suggest that moving toward a clean energy future is going to somehow harm the economy or lead to fewer jobs. And they're going to argue that we should do nothing, stand pat, do less or delay action yet again.

I just want to point out, we've heard such arguments before. We've engaged in this same type of debate a lot of times through our history. People don't like change, and they get nervous about it.
It's a debate between looking backwards and looking forward, between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future.

And we know which side the United States of America has always come down on. We know that we've always been a people who were unafraid to reach for that more promising future. We know that the promise of places like DeSoto and projects like the creation of a modern electricity grid mean a continuation of that long march of progress in this country.

And we refuse to believe that our politics are too broken to make the energy future we dream of a reality.

Four Degrees Warmer: An Interactive Map

[A more complete riff on the interactive Hadley Climate Change Map (see below) has just gone up over at worldchanging.com. I've reposted some excerpts below. See the full piece here.]

Unless we act now, our children will live in a significantly warmer world. To get an idea of what the cost of inaction means for future generations, the climate research team at the United Kingdom's Met Office Hadley Centre released an impressive interactive map of what a warmer world will look like. The dollar-store summary is that a world at +4°C/7°F isn't pretty.

Where the map hits hardest is its ability to show multiple threats at the same time, many intersecting simultaneously on the same regions. For example, Sub Saharan Africa will be hit by droughts, crop failures, forest fires and suffer from a decrease in overall water availability. (1.5 billion people will live there by 2050.) North America will experience heatwaves, drought, crop failures, cyclone related damages, and fisheries collapse. The world's production of staple grains will decrease by 40 percent, thawing permafrost will destabilize settlements in the far north, and heatwaves (some 10°C hotter than usual) will scorch North American and European cities.

Imagining a world (or your particular city or country) under these conditions is a frightening thought experiment.

As these types of high-tech, global maps become an increasingly common part of all of our lives, what types of imagined communities are they going to allow us to create? What world changing types of political action will they make possible? And will they come soon enough?


Vancouver Climate Change Action: 350.org

What amazed me about yesterday's climate change protests in Vancouver was the number of young families in the crowd. Unlike protesters who braved the bitter cold in Edmonton yesterday, we had a beautiful day. A day without rain in Vancouver this time of year is like a small miracle. The north-bound lane of the Cambie bridge was packed with an estimated 5000 protesters. Everyone from the Raging Grannies to stilt walkers, poi spinners and anti-freeway activists were there. But I'd guess that close to a quarter of them were families in their mid-30s with one or two young children.

One couple with a young daughter who talked with us briefly spelled it out pretty clearly: "Since we've had the little one, we are taking all of this much more seriously. She's the one that is going to inherit all this mess." Familiar words, sure. But hearing them coming out heart felt from a young father's mouth really made me wonder how many other couples are coming to understand these issues through their love for their children. [some videos after the jump]

After the opening speeches that called for Ottawa to stop blocking progress at international climate change negotiations, the crowd marched from the bridge to Science World (at one point connecting the two sites with one long walking and rolling sea of people). I've loaded up a set of photos (courtesy of Lunatrix) on Flickr that captures some of the days highlights. They are CC licensed, so feel free to grab them and mash them up anyway you like.

Canada had the second largest number of events of any country (second only to the US). There is little word so far on an official response from Ottawa. But I'm sure I'm not alone in having low expectations. So far environment Minister Jim Prentice (who apparently has three children himself) has reiterated his catch phrase about the need to be "realistic" about environmental goals. "Realistic" in this sense seeming to mean coming up with targets that have no hope of actually achieving the goal they were put in place to achieve. I see Jim and I have a significant difference in the way we define realism ... and the kind of mess we want to leave behind our children.

But that for another time.

The finally tally of global events under the 350.org banner clocked in at over 5200. Let's hope that their are politicians somewhere with enough sense to take this popular support and turn into some real action.

Here are a few clips:
"The Crowd Heads to Science World"

"Mardi Gras Band"

"The Extinctoraptor Dances"


Interactive Doomsday Map

I'm not much into sensational titles, but I wasn't quite sure how else to put it. The UK's Hadley Centre has put out a well researched and smoothly interactive map that displays the potential impacts of a 4c average increase in global temperatures. The picture it gives is disturbing. [All the more reason to get out this Saturday for the global day of action! See post below]

We've heard many of these impacts before: flooding, drought, forest fires, crop failures and massive population displacements. But seeing them all brought together in this way is really impressive. Especially when you see how many regions, North America included, will be faced by multiple overlapping impacts. One click on the map gives you a brief summary, a second carries you through to more detailed coverage of the science behind the projections.[Map below too small? Click here to launch full screen version]

But why choose 4c? If that seems a bit high to you, take a look at an early post from Oct.2008.

Make it Happen! Sat. Oct. 24 Day of Action

A better world is possible. But one of the barriers to getting from here to there is that decision makers (whether polticians or business leaders) are skitish about proposing real change unless they know that the public is behind them. In all but my most cynical moments, I truly believe that.

This Saturday is a global day of action, coordinated by 350.org, to send a loud message that people around the world support ambitious action on climate change. Almost 4500 actions are planned across 172 countries. You can find actions near you by searching here (the text search is more reliable than the interactive map).

For folks in Vancouver, BC like me, here is the rundown of activities:

11 am gather on the Cambie Street Bridge (close to the new 2nd Ave skytrain station)
Noon: parade across the bridge, along Pacific Bvd to Science World -- bring your group's banner, come dressed as your favorite endangered animal or fossil fool!
3 pm: music, food, workshops, advocacy and celebration at Science World -- send a personal message to Ottawa, learn something new, enjoy yourself!
7 pm: inspirational speakers, movies at Christ Church Cathedral
Full details at www.bridgecoolplanet.ca

So get some friends together and get out there. (If you need a little motivation, I recommend this piece that came out of Reuters today.)

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems – M.G.


Soundtrack for a (Green) Revolution

The Vancouver International Film Festival wrapped last week, and of the movies that I saw Soundtrack For a Revolution was easily my favourite. The documentary, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, focuses on the songs that were the backbone of the American civil rights struggle.

This portrait of the way that music can bring people together and give them the strength to overcome tremendous odds may seem like strange content for a sustainability blog.

The VIFF was also packed with quality environmental content. The Age of Stupid [trailer], for example, was a big success. But at the core of Stupid, and a lot of other commentary that has been coming out about climate change recently, is the message that change will only come if we fight for it. Protest is a necessary part of the process that leads to effective legislation and cultural change. (Georgre Monbiot had some interesting diagrams to that effect in Stupid).

Through a mix of archival footage, interviews with key civil rights figures and new performances of classic struggle songs by groups like The Roots, Wycleff Jean, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Joss Stone (who gives a totally riveting performance), Soundtrack for a Revolution gives an amazing portrait of what motivates a struggle, what binds it together and what guides it. The trailer above doesn't nearly do it justice – catch it if it comes to a theatre near you.

It has got me wondering -- what are the songs of the climate struggle going to be?

A Solar Heart for Northern Homes

The home energy related posts continue... Inhabitat recently posted on a new solar system by Boulder-based Cool Energy Inc. Their SolarHeart system is a flexible solar installation that can provide hot water, space heating and electricity in cooler climates like Canada, and the northern regions of Europe and the US.

The heart of the installation is an engine design that has been around since the early 1800s.

The system uses solar thermal collectors that are similar to those used in solar hot water heaters. But as well as providing hot water, the system generates electricity using a modified version of a Stirling engine. Stirling engines use a difference in temperature between the two halves of the engine to generate thrust, which in this case is used to generate electricity. Cool Energy's innovation is to create a highly efficiency ceramic and polymer engine that can run at much lower temperatures than a conventional Stirling engine (200 °C rather than 500 °C+). (see a good discussion of the tech side here.)

The company is aiming to reach 20% efficiency and claims that the current version of the SolarHeart can provide a home with 80% of its heat, 100% of it's hot water and 60% of it's electricity. The website is a bit low specifics of how the system is set up, but it looks promising.

The solar thermal energy can then be cycled between electricity generation, or water and space heating - depending on what is needed at the time. Also, by including an insulated thermal storage tank, the system can collect thermal energy while the sun shines and save it to generate electricity at peak times. The technology works well even in indirect light conditions, which would be perfect for the cloudy winter days that we get here in Vancouver and all along the Pacific Northwest. (I wish I worked as well when it was cloudy!)

Thin Film Solar: Coming To A Roof Near You

This seems to be the week for solar roof tiles. Both DOW chemicals and SRS energy have recently unveiled what they claim to be easily installable, durable and lightweight solar roofing shingles. In SRS' case, they are pretty sexy looking as well.

On the other hand, slapping some solar on a sprawling Disney-esque McMansion (see photo left) makes as much sense as Schwarzenegger's hydrogen Hummer. But I'm not going to slam a good product for having cheesy marketing.

Both shingles rely on a thin-film solar system that is lighter and more flexible than the rigid glass and silicone sheets that are more common. What the systems loose in terms of efficiency (10% efficieny for the DOW vs. 25%+ for crystaline PV) you gain in terms of ease of installment and the ability to integrate the solar directly into the roof and cover a larger surface. DOW is also trumpeting the fact that these shingles can be installed by any professional roofer: "The solar shingle can be handled like any other shingle – it can be palletized, dropped from a roof, walked on."

While SRS's curving roof tiles is for a more niche market, DOW's tiles target the 90% of us homes that already use asphalt shingles. They are claiming that the tiles can offset between 40% and 80% of a home's electricity use. SRS casestudies (.pdf) put their installations so far at closer to 25%. The average US household uses about 10,000kWh/year. Which, by the way, is about double what the average household uses in Europe. (This might point to some easier ways to offset our energy consumption, but I digress.)

I see a competition between greenroofs and dark solar shingles looming on the horizon...


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.