The Story of Co2: NYT Feature of Charles Keeling

Justin Gillis, writing in yesterday's NY Times has a captivating profile of Charles David Keeling, the American scientist who first designed methods for measuring atmospheric Co2. It's a fascinating glimpse of the meticulous man whose observatory -- perched high up on the edge of a Hawaiian volcano -- has made our understanding of the earth's changing climate possible.

Gillis uses Keeling's personal and professional life as the foundation for a larger review of the science and politics of climate change. There are also brief moments of insight and sadness that put the dry numbers of atmospheric Co2 levels (currently at 390ppm) back into their broader context. What emerges is a picture of a man with a passion for precision - not for precision's sake -- but because he understood what those rising numbers said about our relationship to the ecosystems that make our lives here possible. 

The full article is here, I've posted some of my favorite excerpts after the jump.

Perhaps the biggest reason the world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality of a single American scientist. Charles David Keeling’s son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the sidewalk and the grass.


The essence of his scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.

Some of the most important data came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom over the Big Island of Hawaii.

He quickly made profound discoveries. One was that carbon dioxide oscillated slightly according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of the world’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the winter.

He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.

A more ominous finding was that each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before. Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding electrified the small community of scientists who understood its implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others, proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.

Throughout much of his career, Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record that would withstand scrutiny.
In later years, as the scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling’s interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In an essay in 1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring that the real myth was that “natural resources and the ability of the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless.”

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

“He was a registered Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political issue at all.”

Many countries have, in principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions need to fall to nearly zero.

“It took 250 years to burn the first half-trillion tons,” Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist, said in a briefing. “On current trends, we’ll burn the next half-trillion in less than 40.”

Unless more serious efforts to convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will increase that global warming could spiral out of control by century’s end.

As he watches these difficulties, Ralph Keeling [an atmospheric scientist himself, managing the Co2 measurement program] contemplates the unbending math of carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that increase.

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “ ‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”

Cancun Climate Wrap Up

Now that the Cancun Climate Negotiations are over, you might be wondering exactly what went down. Over at the Green Party Blog, party leader Elizabeth May has posted a good summary of the events and the final agreement.  I've posted a few excerpts after the jump.  The full entry is here

From: "Copenhagen to Cancun: what just happened?"

The documents do not by themselves obligate governments to take any new steps.  What they do is build a strong foundation for agreements to be reached at COP17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

The language is strong and unequivocal.  In the LCA decision it is stated “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties.” (Kyoto Protocol text)

The decisions confirm that the science and IPCC advice is compelling.  It commits to find ways to avoid allowing global average temperature from increasing to 2 degrees C, but recognizes the need to consider that the high point should be 1.5 degrees C. For the first time in a UN decision, it mandates that all nations should immediately determine the year by which GHG emissions should peak and begin to fall. It states all parties agree “that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”  It states that industrialized countries should reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Further it states that “addressing climate change requires a paradigm shift towards building a low-carbon society that offers substantial opportunities….

It deals extensively with the need for adaptation (creating a Cancun Adaptation Framework and Adaptation committee), for financing, it creates a new Green Climate Fund, as well as funding to help arrest deforestation.  There are many detailed elements.  Not all were great. Many were disappointed to see Carbon Capture and Storage added  to acceptable technologies for the Clean Development Mechanism.

New and welcome elements were language recognizing the importance of human rights in implementing climate policy, respect for indigenous peoples, women, and gender-related issues, and a clear victory for labour in the reference to the need for a “just transition.”  Cities and sub-national governments finally get the respect they deserve as partners.

Getting Ready for the Storm [INTERVIEW]: Missy Stults on ICLEI's New Climate Resilient Communities Program

“We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won.” That's Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard speaking before a World Mayors Summit in Mexico that concluded this Sunday.  One week before the UN climate negotiations begin in Cancun, 138 mayors at the summit signed the voluntary Mexico City Pact that commits them to measurably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

For people who follow this kind of thing, the announcement will sound familiar. Thanks in large part to work by ICLEI – an international organization that focuses on urban sustainability – cities have become prominent advocates for strong climate policies. And like the Mexico City Pact, discussions of cities and climate change have usually focused on what cities can to do reduce emissions.

But last week also marked the launch of a program of a different sort.

A few days before the Mayors Summit, the US branch of ICLEI turned a new leaf by announcing that eight cities and counties have been chosen to pilot what is the USA's  first national level effort to get cities ready for the impacts of climate change. Following a growing recognition that major challenges are on the horizon, the new Climate Resilient Communities program (CRC) gives cities the tools they need to understand and plan for life in a changing climate. In an announcement yesterday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino summed up what is at stake:

“Climate change is not a distant problem, but a threat that is here and now. We have a responsibility to protect the people, the businesses and institutions, the history and the future of Boston.”

Ebrard and Menino's comments are really two sides of the same coin: cities need to cut emissions, but they also need to brace themselves for big changes.

ICLEI has created an online list of climate impacts by region (drawn from the landmark 2009 federal Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report). While not on par with the impacts expected for some of the world's most vulnerable regions, the picture still isn't pretty:

In Boston for example, sea level rise will increase flooding and erosion, extreme heat events and the urban heat island effect will take their toll on public health, and increased storms will test the city's infrastructure. Miami-Dade County can expect more frequent and severe storms, more flooding and saltwater intrusion into drinking water aquifers thanks to rising sea levels.

The new CRC program guides cities through the steps of assessing their own vulnerabilities, setting preparedness goals, selecting appropriate actions, implementing them, and monitoring success.

I spoke with ICLEI USA's Adaptation Manager Missy Stults about ICLEI's new push to get cities ready for a changing climate.

Alex Aylett: A large part of ICLEI's climate change work over the past 15 years -- almost all of it -- has been focused on reducing emissions. There was a lot of optimism that cities could help "solve the climate crisis." What does it say that we are now talking about adaptation?

Melissa Stults: Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are critically important and ICLEI members have been making significant strides to reduce their carbon footprints. However, we know that we have enough momentum in the climate system that even if we were able to halt emissions to zero tomorrow, we would still experience a changing climate. Recognizing this, communities need to start preparing for existing changes as well as future changes that are unavoidable. What's important though, is that climate adaptation and climate mitigation should not be viewed as mutually exclusive strategies. The more we mitigate, hopefully, the less we have to adapt.

AA: For cities already working on mitigation, what does it mean to begin addressing adaptation as well? Where does working the two link up, and what new demands does working on adaptation place on cities?

MS: Many communities are already doing things that would be considered adaptation strategies - they are just not calling them adaptation strategies. For example, efforts around energy and water conservation are both climate mitigation measures as well as climate adaptation measures.

ICLEI's Climate Resilient Communities program is designed to help communities integrating climate considerations and climate adaptation planning into existing community planning. By doing that, ICLEI will help communities leverage existing efforts and existing funding to be more effective in building community resilience.

AA: What are some of the short and medium term benefits (or cobenefits) that cities can expect from engaging with work on adaptation?

MS: Healthier, more socially just communities. Tangibly, this will manifest itself with financial savings (through avoided impacts), more resilient economies, reduced greenhouse gas emissions; significant advances in local sustainability; and safer and healthier communities.

AA: Putting together an adaptation strategy is going to include picking some low-hanging fruit, as well as dealing with some difficult trade-offs. What do you think is ripe for the picking, and what do you see being an issue where cities are going to have to make some hard decisions?

MS: This is a tough question to answer. Adaptation is fundamentally a local issue meaning that the strategies that localities will need to move forward with will very much depend on local vulnerabilities and local circumstance. One of the first things ICLEI recommends our members pursue is understanding how they are already vulnerable and start figuring out how those vulnerabilities could change in the future.

In regards to low hanging fruit; urban forestry has lots of other benefits (like stormwater management, urban heat island mitigation), so do energy conservation, water conservation, community/public awareness and education. Forming partnerships with scientists and others to get information on climate change and possible vulnerabilities, and integrating climate considerations into existing planning process (i.e. using the future 100 year flood for planning) are also strategies that can be effective as gaining momentum and building resilience.

AA: The central step in the CRC's 5 milestones is "making a leadership commitment."  With mitigation, we have seen that cities struggle to truly commit to ambitious policies.  [see for example this recent poll]  Do you think that focusing on adaptation will increase the number of cities that are getting actively engaged with climate change?

: Yes. There is a hypothesis in the field that climate adaptation is the backdoor to climate mitigation --- and I very much think this is true. At some point, we realize there are things that we can't adapt to and maintain the basic services and quality of life we are use to. This information is often a motivator for action.

AA: Is that because Adaptation has a more visceral side to it? That seeing the risks that your community could face down the line might have a more immediate impact on decision makers and citizens?

MS: Absolutely. Adaptation is about making sure your community is prepared for existing and future climate and weather impacts - it's about building resilience. It's about being a socially justice, vibrant, dynamic, and healthy community.


Britain's New Green Deal

The British coalition government has announced plans to retrofit the country's 26 million famously drafty homes (if you've spent any time in the UK, you know what I am talking about). Yale's environment 360 is running an interview with UK Energy and Climate Minister Greg Barker where he explains how the new "Green Deal" is going to work. I've posted a few excerpts below.

Writing from North America -- where a similar US program is under fire, and the Conservative Canadian government is irrationally opposed to any form of climate action -- it is particularly interesting to see how climate policy in the UK seems to have become a non-partisan issue.

Barker speaks with all the verve for the power of the market that you would expect from a Conservative. But then he quotes ground breaking environmental economist Herman Daly's famous zinger that the economy is "a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Barker's  main argument is that the government needs to make judicious and dependable interventions into how energy efficiency is financed, and then let the market do the rest of the work. He also pushes the idea that the UK needs to develop a full renewable energy supply chain to establish its leadership in the sector.

I'm not convinced that the type of dramatic shift we are aiming for can be brought about entirely by intelligent market regulation. If we are going to get to zero carbon, or anywhere close, more direct government intervention is going to be necessary. Carbon based fuels have dominated our energy systems and economies for 300 years, they aren't going to give it up easily. 

But smart dependable economic policies are a good way to start. And, crucially, they also seem to be something that both the centre-left and center-right can agree on. [For a surprising quote from the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, be sure to scroll down on e360 and watch the first few minutes of the video].

From the Interview:

"What we’re going to do is go away from the stop-go, government-funded programs, and through using smart regulation, open up this market to the private sector. We believe we can create a market that will bring in billions of pounds of investment into energy efficiency for homes and businesses. We’re going to create a mechanism whereby the cost of making these [energy-efficiency] measures can all be financed through pay-as-you-save models, with the finance being repaid over a period of 20 years through the bill on each individual property.

Now, that’s a big change. To date it had to be paid upfront, either by the individual homeowner or through a grant. By pinning the repayments to the bill of the property, it means it’s not a debt. It’s not even a mortgage. It doesn’t need to be credit-scored, because if the individual living in that particular home moves, dies, ownership changes, or they cease to rent, it stays on the bill of that property, just like the conventional energy bill."

"There are three things to business, which we think are absolutely essential ingredients for long-term success of the transition to a low-carbon economy. We think business needs these three things in government policy: transparency, longevity, and certainty — TLC, if you like. And too often in the past, the short-term measures have been tinkering with policy, which has sent confused and mixed messages to the investment community. What we need to see is actually fewer interventions in the market. But when we do intervene, we need to do so in a very robust fashion that is transparent, clear, and gives real long-term certainty to business."

The Good News Paradox

This year's Human Development Index (HDI) came out last week and it was full of good news. The HDI started out 20 years ago to provide a way of indexing development and progress that gives a fuller picture of human well being than GDP's shallow economic calculations. This year's report celebrates the fact that over the past 40 years “average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrolment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than $10,000.”

This is great stuff.  But the question that the HDI asks is can it be sustained?  Can we hope so see similar gains in the next 40 years?

Climate Change and Development
The main threat, which haunts the report, is climate change. By some projections, much of the already wealthy North will not directly feel the negative impacts of climate change until late in the century. But many of the areas where gains have been made in access to education, nutrition and life expectancy are also going to be the most vulnerable to climate change. As the HDI puts it:

“The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. .... The consequences of environmentally unsustainable production are already visible. Increased exposure to drought, floods and environmental stress is a major impediment to realizing people’s aspirations. .... The continuing reliance on fossil fuels is threatening irreparable damage to our environment and to the human development of future generations.”

Unrealized Urban Possibilities
Cities have an important place in all this. Beyond coastal communities that will face increased flooding, all of the world's ever growing cities are directly dependent on external supplies of food, potable water, and energy that make it possible for such a high density of people to live together in relative comfort.

With 40% reductions in staple grain crops currently expected by mid century (as well as a bundle of other climate related disasters) the spectre of resource conflicts and urban unrest is very real. At the same time, decoupling urbanization from increased energy use could play a huge part in mitigating the intensity of climate change. Unfortunately recent reports on the US and China show that this is – on the whole – simply not happening. There are some innovators.  I've written about many of them here. But they are the exception not the rule.

This contrast between how good things are and how challenging they will get is a bit of a brain twister. Even if you understand the issues, at an intuitive level it all seems slightly unreal. How can things be going so well if they are really going so badly? (something Andrew Revkin also riffs on over at Dot Earth)

The Environmentalist's Paradox
Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a close friend and recent graduate of McGill's Dept. of Geography, made waves in September with a paper (pdf) on exactly that dilemma. In the paper, which got picked up by the Guardian and a variety of other international media, she dubs this sticky situation the “Environmentalist's Paradox.” Beyond just supplying a catchy name, she and her co-author's go some way to explaining how – exactly when the HDI show that enormous gains have been made since the 1970s – reports like the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment show that the capacity of the world's ecosystems to provide key services are in decline.

Given the unprecedented burdens we are placing on the planet's resources, projecting forward from past data is tricky. But with that proviso, Ciara and her co-author's argue that on the one hand, agricultural innovations have helped increase human well being despite declines in other areas, and on the other that there is a time lag between the damage we do to our ecosystems and when we feel its impacts. In other words, it takes a bit of time before the chicken's come home to roost.

Cities of Change
Going into a century of rapid climate change with already depleted ecosystems is a frightening prospect. But, as the HDI points out, in many ways things are better than ever. To keep that going on a rapidly urbanizing globe means designing urban systems that are more resilient to climatic shocks, resource shortages (and the social tensions they create), and that also impose a lighter load on the ecosystems we depend on. 

Concretely, that means more attention to technical projects like decentralized renewable energy that increase the resilience and efficiency of our hard infrastructure. It also means continued progress on social issues like education, health, and equality that build the resilience of our societies. Change happens, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Our cities need to be ready to respond to both. Read more...

US to determine Canada's Climate Change Policies...Again

What can I say. At least the current Canadian government is consistent. As we all wait to see the results of the US midterm elections, Environment Minister Jim Prentice has announced that Canada would abandon work on cap-and-trade legislation if, as expected, the Republicans take control of Congress.

This "follow the leader" approach has been central to the Conservative approach to environmental policy. The fact that the leader isn't going anywhere doesn't seem to trouble them though - and that is worrying. Check out this post from earlier this year for a look at the economic, environmental, and political downside of letting the US call the shots when it comes to climate change. Read more...

World's 1st Commercial Roof Garden

Montreal is soon going to be home to the world's first commercial rooftop garden.  The 31,000 sqft hydroponic farm is set to open in early 2011 and is aiming to provide year round harvests.  Run by Luffa Farms, crops have been selected in collaboration with plant science and nutrition from McGill university.  Shorter transportation distances mean crops chosen for taste and nutritional value, not how long they can sit in a crate before they get funky.

The Conventional Energy Trap: Hermann Scheer [1944-2010]

Hermann Scheer, pioneering German Parliamentarian and renewable energy advocate, died earlier this month. Scheer was the driving force behind Germany's Renewable Energy Act, thanks to which Germany last year accounted for half of all worldwide solar electricity installations. I recently came across one of his last ever interviews, done by Amy Goodman over at The interview covers everything from the Energy Act, to the impact of political corruption on the transition to renewable energy, and the importance of energy independance.

After 30 years in the German parliament working on energy issues, Scheer has enormous insight into the political dynamics that surround renewable energy. I've posted a few of my favourite quotes after the jump. Scheer's life work is a great example of how change happens, not just by fighting against how things are, but by building something new that makes the current situation obsolete.

--- From the Interview (see here for a full transcript):

"The tragedy of our present civilization is that it became dependent on marginal energy sources. The marginal energy sources are fossil sources, fossil resources and nuclear, based on the raw material uranium. The gigantic energy potential is the renewable energy potential always all coming from the sun, including its derivates, like wind and the photosynthetic-produced—photosynthetically produced materials, organic materials, plants, hydro-base. And the sun offers to our globe, in eight minutes, as much energy as the annual consumption of fossil and atomic energy is. That means to doubt—the doubtings if there would be enough renewable energy for the replacement of nuclear and fossil energies, this argument is ridiculous. There is by far enough."

"It is a fight. This is a structural fight. It is a fight between centralization and decentralization, between energy dictatorship and energy participation in the energy democracy. And because nothing works without energy, it’s a fight between democratic value and technocratical values. And therefore, the mobilization of the society is the most important thing. And as soon as the society, most people, have recognized that the alternative are renewable energies and we must not wait for others, we can do it by our own, in our own sphere, together in cooperatives or in the cities or individually. As soon as they recognize this, they will become supporters. Other—this is the reason why we have now a 90 percent support against all the disinformation campaigns. They have much more money and possibilities to influence the public opinion, but they lost this. They lost this conflict. In the eyes of the people, they lost the conflict. They are the losers already."

Future City: Portland & Networked Urban Sustainability

[As part of the lead up to WorldChanging's Future City event this Friday, I put together a feature length piece looking at some of the hits and misses of climate change policy in Portland (OR).  Beyond just a summary of one city's programs, the piece gave me a chance to think through what I see as an important shift in the way cities are pursuing sustainability.  You can read the full post here, or reposted below.] 

When cities first stepped up as leaders in climate action, a few simple projects would get you noticed. For a good 15 years, just doing anything set you apart. But, almost without realizing it, we have walked into a new phase of urban sustainability – version 2.0 – where cities are being pushed to tackle the really tough issues. Retrofitting City Hall is nice, but the real game revolves around how we plan and travel through our cities, how we build and run our buildings, and how we make and use energy. “Go big” as they say “or go home.” Or in this case “go big at home.”

Like web 2.0, bright green cities are now venturing beyond programs run by individuals working in isolation to link up players from all parts of the city. This is the age of networked urban sustainability. And where it used to be enough to create exceptions that proved the unsustainable rules that shaped our cities, leading cities are now building exceptions that change those rules.

Portland (OR) is one of a handful of American cities that is really embracing the challenges of networked sustainability.Portland's success in keeping its emissions below 1990 levels owes a lot to it having defended a 1970s-era urban growth boundary that limited sprawl and promoted compact urban development. Its other early sustainability efforts focused on modest steps like decreasing municipal building energy use, increasing office recycling rates, and running public outreach programs, but in 2009 the city committed to cutting emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

That new goal has demanded systemic changes. Going well beyond just cleaning house, Portland's recent programs show what is possible when cities commit to sparking a collective and collaborative shift in how they are built and lived.

Transforming Energy One Neighborhood At A Time
Playing on the need to both create jobs and save energy, one of Portland's newest and most successful projects is Clean Energy Works Portland (CEWP) which aims to carry out residential energy retrofits across the city on a massive scale.

Existing commercial and residential buildings account for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions (46% in Portland's case). But even if increasing efficiency is technically pretty simple, a variety of things keep homeowners from moving enmasse to retrofit their homes. CEWP addresses that challenge on all fronts: it provides homeowners with affordable long term financing, it coordinates all stages of the work from the initial energy audit to final retrofit, and it provides a well trained certified workforce to ensure that the work that is getting done is done right. At the moment, 500 households are part of neighborhood level pilots, and after receiving $20million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding the program is being scaled up to the level of the state.

But CEWP is about more than just energy efficiency, and it is being led by more than just the City of Portland. There are huge economic benefits to this kind of mass retrofit program. It is estimated that the program will directly create 10,000 stable jobs over 10 years (something similar at a national scale could create up to 750,000 jobs). Those are the kinds of numbers that make municipal officials' eyes sparkle when they talk.

To make sure the jobs went where they were most needed, CEWP partnered with Green For All a national NGO that uses green collar jobs to boost people out of poverty. Together they put in place a community workforce agreement that has created living wage career path jobs among local workers, with a special emphasis on employing historically disadvantaged or underrepresented communities (people of color, women, and low-income residents). In a tough political and economic climate, this emphasis on equity and jobs has helped CEWP get the strong political support that it needs to succeed where other municipal programs have faltered.

It is common to talk about the importance of “community participation” and involving citizens in municipal projects. Solarize Portland, a home solar energy program that is spreading rapidly through the city, turns that relationship on its head. Begun in 2009 by Southeast Uplift and a resident in Portland's Mt. Tabor neighborhood, Solarize began with a simple question: “wouldn't it be cheaper to install solar panels on my house if a bunch of my neighbors were doing it too?” I met some of the families who started the project and when it all began they had modest hopes: if they could get at least 20 homes to install, then bulk purchasing and contracting could bring everyone's costs down. But instead of 20 homes they ended up with 800, and subsequent rounds in other areas around the city have brought in close to 1700 homes. All together they will generate over 1MW of electricity.

In just over a year Solarize Portland has dwarfed all other attempts to install alternative energy technology in the city. Along the way, in partnership with the Energy Trust of Oregon and the City of Portland, they realized that by bringing together all the available local, state and federal subsidies and incentives, home owners only have to pay for 10 to 20% of the total installation costs. With the success of Solarize, and the large numbers of new applicants, the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has stepped in to help out. This is no less a Portland project than CEWP, but here the municipality provides logistical and technical advice while communities lead the way.

Setbacks and Successes in Green Building
This back and forth between city and citizens defines this second period in urban sustainability. The municipality still controls key policy levers around zoning, land use planning, transportation, and economic development. But the goal now is to use them in a way that builds broad coalitions of change and enables the community not just to meet the letter of the law, but to take it to its full intent or even beyond.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. There is a perception that, given Portland's position as a leader in urban climate policy, it must be relatively easy to pass sustainability related initiatives. That is far from true. Since 2007, for example, the city has been developing a new, community-wide green building policy. But a combination of opposition from home builders and building managers, difficult economic times for the building sector and political struggles have left the policy – at least for now – floating in the water.

Putting in place far reaching and ambitious measures may be excellent for a city's long term success, but it also takes people who are ready to do the tough work of building alliances and brokering compromises. It means meetings (and more meetings). It means mediation. It means working through conflicts until you find a way out the other side. And it doesn't always work.

There are other successes in the city's green building sector though. Since 2005, developers receiving municipal funding have been required to meet minimum LEED Silver ratings on their buildings. As a result major urban renewal projects, like the city's Pearl District, have also been proving grounds for green building practices. Large developers, like Gerding Edlen, who were heavily involved in the Pearl, have increasingly defined themselves as leaders in green building and have expanded their operations to Washington state and California. Taking a page from CEWP's book, Gerding has recently branched out and established an arm that deals specifically with building efficiency retrofits. And while Portland hasn't so far been successful in its new green building policy process, the city has been a key partner in the design of Oregon's new “reach code” that will feed into an ongoing cycle of predictable revisions and improvements to the state building regulations.

Small builders have also benefited from city policies. The removal of construction fees for secondary dwelling units has created a small surge in innovative “tiny homes” around the city. Independently built or undertaken by firms like Orange Splot that specialize in compact dwellings, these new units are some of the cutest, quirkiest and most elegant residential spaces I've ever seen. They also increase density without threatening a neighborhood's original character. That's important because, yes even in Portland, adding density can stir up real debate. The more examples there are to show that “density” isn't just a code word for “drab 1970s apartment block” the better.

This innovative environment has shaken up the structure of the city's bureaucracy itself. In December 2008, the newly elected mayor Sam Adams announced the merger of the Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) and the Bureau of Planning to create a new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). The new Bureau was put under the leadership of former OSD head Susan Anderson. The merger of the two offices has taken time and effort; institutional changes are never easy. But the new office has some clear benefits. By bringing the city's sustainability and planning experts in under the same roof, it has created a broad basket of tools – from zoning codes, to strategic investment, to education and outreach – that when working in concert can help build a more sustainable city.

What's Next? EcoDistricts and the 20 Minute Neighborhood.
So what's next? While established projects continue to grow, the city is planning to move on a few other key issues. The newly established Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), is bringing together private companies, local universities, non-profits, and the municipality to create an innovation cluster that can drive the next phase of sustainability initiatives in the metro region. They are leading the way with an EcoDistricts project that is working in five areas of the city to see how we can really “do it all.” We are used to thinking about sustainability initiatives in isolation. The goal with EcoDistricts is to see how we can simultaneously roll out sustainable building, infrastructure, and governance models within existing neighborhoods. PoSI is also heading up the Portland Metro Climate Prosperity Project that aims to increase the region's stake in the green technology and design sectors.

In the past year Portland passed one of North America's most cutting edge Climate Action Plans (CAP) and an ambitious bicycle master plan. The CAP sets out an array of targets that range from a 25% increase in the energy efficiency of existing buildings by 2030, to a 10% reduction in emissions that result from Portlander's food choices (something that, obviously, lies totally outside of the cities direct control, but which links up well with recent discussions of the impacts of our food choices).

Looking for a way to bring this all together at the local level, the CAP lays out the city's plans for what they call “20 minute neighborhoods.” Since seeing the concept being developed in community workshops in 2008, I've loved its simplicity: you should be able to comfortably meet your daily needs (education, recreation, shopping, transportation etc.) within a 20 minute walk of your house. It also has a nice ring to it, and makes a lot more sense to people than talking about “dense, multi-use, transit oriented zones” or some similarly technical definition. [You can read more on the CAP here, and in an interview with Michael Armstrong, Senior Sustainability Manager of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.]

Networked Urban Sustainability: A New Beginning
If there is one common feature that links all these different projects together, it is that they all need the support of multiple partners to make them real. Early on, cities limited their attention to areas that they controlled directly. But as our understanding of the climate challenge increases – and the projections of future conditions continue to worsen – it is clear that cities need to do more. The name of the game in this second, networked, phase of urban sustainability is finding ways to spark changes well past what any one agency, community, or company can control directly.

Sustainability 2.0 gets at something that we have all known for a long time: the challenge of redesigning our cities isn't primarily about technology, it's about people. Creating the rapid shifts that we need in our urban systems means enabling broad based action of a kind that we haven't seen for decades. For local governments, that means being courageous enough to set truly meaningful targets, and then collaboratively building the policies and networks between multiple players that are necessary to reach them. Portland's recent experiences give some good examples of what that looks like.

Spot the Differences: Cities Lead the Climate Fight - Or Do They?

I hate spot the difference games.  The changes are always so arbitrary.  "Look, the cat on the right lost its tail!"  Impressive.

But I came across two headlines recently where the differences - if a bit easier to spot - are also a lot more significant. First, from the Guardian:

"Cities lead the way in action to halt climate change." 
Second, from Digital Journal:
"Climate change not a priority for US cities, survey finds."   
So, how about it --  can you spot the differences?

The Guardian piece is a familiar good news story focusing on seven inspiring projects from cities around the States.
Santa Monica, for example, is aiming to be a net zero energy city by 2020 - that's stunning!  The survey on the other hand looks at responses from 2176 American local governments.  Their results?  14% of cities have established GHG emissions limits for local government.  Programs to reduce community energy consumption are being carried out by 0.8% to 11% of cities (depending on the type of program).    Those are less than inspiring findings.

Apart from being picked up by USAToday, the survey, conducted by the US International City/County Management Association (ICMA), has received no mainstream media coverage.  A four page summary of the results is available here.  What they show, is that while we have gotten used to hearing about cities as "climate leaders" -- and there great examples of cites that truly are pushing ahead -- it's not clear how many cities are following.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I'm a strong advocate for the role cities can play in climate proofing our collective futures.  But I'm also an advocate tackling reality, not fantasy.  While I love to hear about innovative projects cities are putting in place, I think we need to take a good look at why more cities aren't out in front on this issue. 

Defending PACE's Financial Magic: VIDEO

One of the biggest barriers to home energy retrofits or installing solar is financial:  the upfront cost are high and the savings take time to add up. The American PACE program solved that riddle by integrating the repayment of the energy retrofit into the property taxes on a home. That lets you pay them off slowly, and it means the financing stays with the house if you decide to move.  It's a great system.

But the program has been brought to a standstill by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  The FHFA is refusing to allow PACE participants to refinance their mortgages until they have completely paid off the cost of their energy improvements.  Environment and Energy TV has an excellent interview with ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability head Martin Chavez.  It's well worth a look to see how the system works, what's gone wrong, and how it might be fixed.   Click here to view Read more...

World Carfree Day: TOMORROW!

World Car Free Day is tomorrow, September 22nd.  So ride with pride, and invite some friends along to join you.

Sure, Car Free Day is drop in the bucket: a small exception in the sprawling cities that lock many of us into our cars everyday for hours on end.  But it's also a great experiment in alternative-reality building.  It gives us all a chance to take the streets without noise and congestion, and to see what cities would be like if the people -- not cars -- were king.

There are events this year in over 2000 cities, and every one does it differently. Montreal this year will be blocking off a 7 block portion of the downtown [map] and running a week long "In Town Without My Car" campaign. The Montreal Gazette has a good article on how the car free challenge can be expanded beyond a single day a year and work that is being done to established new car-free zones within the city. The Montreal Urban Ecology Center has a full rundown of the week's events - including two excellent looking talks with speakers from Germany and Norway on European experiences with car-free neighbourhoods.

It's great to see organizers in Montreal coupling the chance experience a car-free downtown with events geared to help build more of these spaces into our cities permanently. That pairing is an example of something I love:  creating exceptions that can change the rules rather than proving them.

BIXI Under Scrutiny: Mixing Better Transportation Cocktails

I hadn't planned on writing about BIXI again so soon, but the results of a research study published last week has finally given us a more critical appraisal of the system's performance. The results generated a bit of discussion on an earlier BIXI related post, and not everyone is happy about what the research has revealed.

The study, conducted by 3 researchers at McGill's Dept. of Urban Planning, is about much more than BIXI. But it's the BIXI findings that have attracted the most attention. The main bugbear is the fact that of the over 2 million BIXI trips taken so far only 10% of those have replaced taxi or car trips. 86% of those trips replaced walking or riding personal bikes or public transit. Some have reacted to that by saying BIXI's overall environmental impact is much lower than official estimates that assume that all BIXI trips replace car trips.

That may be true. But I think that that critique misses the point, as well as other more important information that's in the study. What the 86% stat reveals, really, is that BIXI has successfully reached out to people who are already transit users and cyclists. That's not all that surprising, and providing current transit users with more options is a good way to ensure that people are satisfied with their transit system. I don't think we should be worried about competition amongst multiple modes of green transit. How to extend ridership to beyond people who already bike and ride transit is a more important question.

When it comes to transportation, shifting 10% of trips from cars to bikes is also a big accomplishment. Currently only 1.3% of all trips in Montreal are taken by bike (6% to 7% in central areas). Think what an impact you'd have if you could take the shift made among BIXI users and take it up to the level of the city as a whole. In fact, as we'll see in a second,  the study has some recommendations on how to keep moving in that direction.

A more unexpected findings is that the majority of BIXI trips are not combined with other forms of transit. For a system that is supposed to facilitate multi-modal transit cocktails, that's not great news.  They also conclude that more work needs to be done to provide cycling services outside central areas, especially for people using the commuter rail system.  According to the survey, that is where the biggest opportunities are for getting people out of their cars are onto a mixed modes of transit.

These may be two sides of the same coin: by not providing adequate cycling infrastructure in the suburbs, cycling in general (and BIXI use in the downtown core) may not even be on the radar of many commuters.  Providing good cycle paths and well designed on-site bike parking at suburban transit stations could open up a whole new ridership who would grab a BIXI as they step off the train at the other end.

But there's another issue here.  This study is based on an an online survey of 1,432 Montrealers.  But BIXI itself has en excellent data collection system. That data would allow for a much more precise estimate of the way the system is being used and the percentage of people who combine it with other modes of transportation. I'm not sure why we haven't seen some real analysis of that data yet, but I sure hope we don't have to wait much longer.

If you ask me, BIXI should follow the example of cities like Vancouver and implement an open data policy that allows public access to their stats and mash them up as they please. Think what a team of transportation researchers could do with that.

Conflict, Collaboration and Climate Change: New Article Out

I just got word from my publishers at Wiley-Blackwell that my most recent article on urban sustainability is now out.

It's covers a good chunk of the research that I was doing while I was living in the amazing city of Durban, (South Africa). It also takes a look at some of the things we (and the UN IPCC) may be leaving out when we think about how to implement urban climate change policy.  The bottom line:  conflict may not be such a bad thing, it may even help urban governments and citizens take real action.

I've posted the abstract and a few excerpts after the jump.  If you'd like a copy, just send me an e-mail.

Climate Skeptic - Now with less Skepticism! : Lomborg Changes Tune

For those who – like me – missed the news on Monday: the world's most well known climate change skeptic has done a dramatic about face.

Bjorn Lomborg's 1998 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” has been a pillar for critics of climate science and policy.  He has made a high profile for himself by taking a strip off of pretty much anyone – from the media to the IPCC – who has called for rapid action on climate change.  But on Monday in an exclusive interview with The Guardian, he called  climate change "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and proposed a global carbon tax to help address the issue.

If that all seems a bit fishy, it's worth remembering that Lomborg never argued that man-made climate change was a fiction. His point has been that, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, dealing with climate change is just too expensive.  You get more bang for your buck by focusing policies and money on poverty, disease, and development aid.  These in the end give you more immediate positive returns both in terms of human welfare and the environment.

"Energy Miracles" Part 2
Lomborg isn't the first high profile figure to shift his focus from global inequality to climate change.  In  February Bill Gates announced that the new mission of his foundation (whose core focus is on development and disease) would be to reduce human carbon emissions to zero by 2050.  At the time that was a surprising and inspiring move.  As was pointed out earlier on WorldChanging, simply by saying “zero carbon by 2050” Gates has helped mainstream what is really our only sensible target.  Lomborg's new position may have a similar impact. 

Also like Gates, Lomborg is calling for a dramatic investment  (to the tune of $100bn per year) in research and development of  new renewable energy technologies – an argument that he makes in more detail in an upcoming book.  (Gates proposed a $10 billion-a-year U.S. government R&D program to pursue “energy miracles.”)  And like Gates, I'd say, Lomborg has (again) got his priorities wrong.

More Results - Less Sex Appeal
Looking for a silver-bullet breakthrough energy technology is romantic and adventurous.  But the boring truth is that what we need to focus on right now is market and regulatory barriers. 

Not so sexy, I know.  I'd rather be driving a Tesla roadster too.  But as it stands, new energy technologies enter the market at a snails pace. Royal Dutch/Shell estimates that it takes “25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.” As Joe Romm, excellent climate blogger and energy expert, argued in response to Gates -- we just don't have that kind of time.  Rapid effective action depends on getting existing technologies into the market as quickly as possible.  It's from that point that practical experience drives innovation  and costs really begin to drop.  (See Romm's full post for a detailed look at this).

Pushing Deployment: North & South
For those of us working closer to the ground on these issue, the need to focus on getting rid of barriers to implementation is no surprise.  Established technologies and established institutions can have a lot of inertia – especially in a sector like energy where the market and infrastructure already in place heavily favours outdated carbon intensive energy sources.  

The extensive subsidies and financing options available in the US (but not in Canada) for home efficiency and renewable energy are one example of a way to deal with that.  Municipal programs in cities like Berkeley and Portland offer other paths. Passing comprehensive federal clean energy legislation would be another.

But there is another reason why Lomborg's narrow focus on research makes little sense.  Energy poverty, the lack of access to affordable reliable energy, is  a key factor that keeps people in poverty world wide.  Energy availability influences everything from health, to educational performance, to economic opportunities.  From an urban perspective, the search for reliable access to energy is one of the factors that drives people into informal settlements around cities in some of the world's poorest countries. 

A rapid roll-out of renewable energy technology is an affordable way to provide durable infrastructure to these communities.  The push to deploy renewable energy in developing countries has been led both by governments and NGOs; two inspiring examples can be found in the Indian Solar Cities and Barefoot College programs.

There, just as much as in North America, what we need to focus on is doing more with what we've got -- and quickly.

Bixi in London: "Boris Bike" Growing Pains

It's been just over two weeks since London opened it's version of the Montreal designed Bixi-bike sharing system.  With 6000 “boris-bikes” on the street (nicknamed after mayor Boris Johnson) it's double the size the Montreal system was when it began. All the same, it is going through the same growing pains.

From comments on the londoncyclist blog it seems like things are off to a relatively good start - with one exception: parking.  There are reports of people having to bike for blocks and then take a cab back to their destination because central docking stations are overflowing. Two geographers at UCL have produced this mash-up of traffic flow over a typical 24 hour period that shows the issue pretty clearly (red = full).

Parking shortages and other early problems in the London system will be familiar to Montrealers.  Malfunctioning docking stations, unexpected overcharges, and minor mechanical problems with some bikes are other common issues.  Londoners also seem uniquely peeved that the commemorative t-shirts given to early adopters are a bit on the tight side. All of these were quickly addressed in Montreal.  (Except for the tight shirts; I think Montrealers like their shirts a bit tight.)  

This year Bixi Montreal responded to complaints about overfull docking stations (similar to those happening in London) with an impressive increase in installed parking spots.  I chatted with Bixi's Bérengère Thériault at the end of last week and she explained to me that the magic number seems to be 100 parking spots for every 60 bikes.  They try to keep that ratio at all the stations as well: 40% of the spots free for parking at any given time.  They've also added another two thousand bikes to the system to ensure availability.

Currently London is running more bikes that Montreal, but with the same number of docking stations.  It's not surprising that they are having some congestion problems.  But I wouldn't expect the problems to last.  As a planner friend of mine noted, you can change the whole configuration of the network more or less overnight - unlike, say, a metro system.  This may be slightly more difficult in London, where the stations are wired to the electrical grid rather than solar powered. (Does anyone know why that is?)

Last week BIXI Montreal logged its two millionth trip and had over 25,000 registered users.  That is more than double the 10,000 users that subscribed by the end of the 2009 season. That rapid growth is made possible by the flexibility of a system that can easily expand and morph to meet the needs of its ridership.  Numbers may also have increased because Montreal has made a concerted effort to tie Bixi into other modes of transportation:  stations are clustered near transit hubs, and transit pass holders receive discounts on both BIXI and the Communauto car sharing network. 

Here's hoping we see similar growth in London – and that people keep mashing up the data.  There is something fascinating about watching a transportation system evolve right in front of your eyes.

Portugal Rocks Renewables: 45% Renewable Electricity by Year's End

For the past 5 years Portugal has been pushing a dramatic shift to renewable energy.  Compared to the standard “20% renewables by 2020” targets that are often brought out at press conferences, its accomplishments are impressive: By the end of the year nearly 45% of its electricity will come from renewable sources. That's up from 17% five years ago.

Elizabeth Rosenthal has written an excellent front page feature in this morning's New York Times on how they managed it.

If you think of it as a recipe, there are three key ingredients of Portugal's success:

  • 1 part opening up of the energy sector to market forces (including the privatization of energy utilities)
  • 1 part technological modernization (in particular the creation of a smart-grid able to handle diverse sources of renewable energy), and
  • 2 parts savvy country-wide energy policy (including guaranteed rates for renewables, and the EU Carbon Trading System).
But like any recipe you also need a chef, in this case Prime Minister José Sócrates who came in on a landslide victory in 2005 and pushed through energy reform.
The current system is a mixture of wind, solar, hydro, small scale decentralized renewables on people's homes (see my last post), and some power still coming from natural gas generators. The Times gives a nice snapshot of the type of “plate-spinning” necessary to keep this kind of system running.  (Not mind you, that a traditional energy grid is simple to run either.)

The financial costs seem to have been relatively minor. The state has not used taxes or debt to fund this transition. The costs are born by the private power producers and come out in the rates paid by consumers. Over the past 5 years, electricity costs have gone up 15%.That's not insignificant, but utilities are asking for similar increases here in North America, without providing any where near the kind of innovation taking place in Portugal.  All the same, voters have been unhappy about rate increases and it seems that this is at least partially responsible for Sócrates narrow victory in 2009.

I've posted short excerpts below, but the full piece is well worth reading.

“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”

Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.

If the United States is to catch up to countries like Portugal, energy experts say, it must overcome obstacles like a fragmented, outdated energy grid poorly suited to renewable energy; a historic reliance on plentiful and cheap supplies of fossil fuels, especially coal; powerful oil and coal industries that often oppose incentives for renewable development; and energy policy that is heavily influenced by individual states.
The relative costs of an energy transition would inevitably be higher in the United States than in Portugal. But as the expense of renewable power drops, an increasing number of countries see such a shift as worthwhile, said Alex Klein, research director, clean and renewable power generation, at IHS.

“The cost gap will close in the next decade, but what you get right away is an energy supply that is domestically controlled and safer,” Mr. Klein said.

Renewables In Your BackYard: On-line Tools Show Solar & Wind Potential

Is it worth it?  Figuring out if your home, office, or the public pool down the street is suitable for solar or wind power isn't a straightforward process.  Decentralized renewable energy is expanding rapidly and will be a taken for granted part of tomorrow's smart energy systems.  Thankfully a series of on-line tools exists to help you figure out what you and your community's place can be in that future.

There are two basic questions when it comes to renewables:  First, how suitable is your site – how much sun does your roof really get?  Second, how do the costs pencil out and what subsidies and incentives are available to make it more affordable?

In Your Backyard
For Americans,  “In My Backyard” (IMBY) produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is an excellent tool.  Working in googlemaps you pinpoint your roof, draw on the size and location of the solar or wind installation you have in mind and hit “enter”.  The system then uses meterological data, local electricity rates and information on state and federal incentives, to calculate how much power you would produce and how long it will take for your installation to pay for itself at currents rates.  (I confess that there is something strangely addictive about drawing solar panels all over your neighbours' roofs.)  

IMBY doesn't work north of the 49th Parallel, but Canadians (and Americans) can use  SolarRating goes a step further than IMBY, letting you get more accurate estimates by adding the slope of your roof, and trees or other buildings that may shade your panels.  A quick login is necessary at the end to see the report for your location.

Of Desire and Tax Incentives
While costs of solar have come down by more than a quarter since 2002, subsidies and incentives are still key to level the playing field with conventional energy sources.  Incentive programs are being managed by a variety of different government agencies and non-profits.  Cumulatively they can cover up to 80% of costs in some areas, but keeping track of them can be difficult.  In the U.S.  the aptly named DSIRE database, has federal, state and local incentives all sorted by state. 

The route is less direct for Canadians.  This past March the federal government cancelled their ecoEnergy program, effectively halving the amount of available subsidies.  Thankfully, many provinces and municipalities offer their own incentives.  Natural Resources Canada hosts a directory of those programs.  The Canadian Solar Industries Association also offers a good listing of solar incentives. A variety of non-profits, like B.C. and Ontario's Sustainable Energy Association, also offer support that is not listed there.

Canada Trailing
Putting together this information, I was surprised by the difference between what is available North and South of the Canada/US border.  A homeowner in Oregon can qualify for cash rebates and tax credits that can halve the cost of a $40,000 home solar electric system. In Canada, only the Northwest Territories offers direct incentives and they are caped at $5,000 for individuals (although it rises to $50,000 for communities).  Ontario's generous feed-in tariff's also act as an incentive for local renewables (recent events aside).  But in the rest of the country only solar air and water heating systems qualify for rebates, and in most cases they are under $5,000.

Until that imbalance gets addressed, Canadians are going to be trailing their US cousins when it comes to small scale renewables.

(photo CANSIA)

Cycling "Superhighways" Open in London

I've had to be in London four or five times over these past few years. Whenever I've seen cyclists there slogging through traffic under leaden skies they've always looked like a valiant but bedraggled endangered species. Something fighting to stay alive in a hostile environment. That may be changing.

On Monday London launched two new “cycle superhighways” designed to give bike commuters secure and direct access to the city centre.  Ten more will be put in by 2012 (see above link for the map).  Mayor Johnson is quoted on the BBC calling for a militant “cycling revolution.” Johnson? Militant cyclist? Really?

There is no question that we are seeing a transition in the way that cities see cyclists.  London is following in the footsteps of cities like Montreal, Portland, and New York City, that have been strategically expanding transit oriented bike infrastructure.  London is also introducing Montreal's successful BIXI bike-sharing system this summer.  In Montreal, the success of BIXI has a lot to do with a rapid expansion of high-quality bike paths throughout the city.  London's plan is attempting to recreate that synergy. 

But watching the initial videos of London cyclists using the new “superhighway” they still look a bit, well, endangered.  The most glaring problem is that the blue painted lanes are “advisory” not enforced.  There is no penalty for London drivers who cruse along in the lane; the same driver in NYC would be liable for a $115 fine (or at least some taunting from a clown). 

The city's official line is that visibility and volume of riders will keep drivers clear of the lane.  I'm sceptical, but there are other people better placed than me to judge. Andreas Kambanis who writes a prominent London cycle blog has given the system a lukewarm reception.  He, like most of the local comments I've read, is supportive of the new routes but sees them as a modest start more than the  “revolution” Johnson has been trumpeting (read his interview with the mayor).

At an ideas level, it's clear that cities are coming to see cycling as a significant mode of transportation (not just recreation).  The potential for reducing congestion and increasing air quality, while also bringing down GHG emissions, is huge.  Not to mention the fact that it's more fun that driving.

Cyclists don't emit anything (except perhaps early morning coffee-breath).  And, after you do the slightly awkward conversion from joules of energy to gallons of gas, it turns out that they get the equivalent to 653mpg (the TGV gets 500). Currently 20% of London's GHG emissions come from transportation.  To capture that potential people need to take to bikes en masse, and for that they need rights of way that are sensibly routed and properly protected. That can mean fines, curbs, or creating separate bike routes that take cyclists off of busy roads all together.  

Other cities have done it. Here's hoping that that future is the real destination of London's new blue network.
(photo: inhabitat)

Parking to Paradise: Depave Portland in Action

Asphalt – why do we love you so?  From mega-parking lots, to medians, to that little foot wide space between the road and the sidewalk -- the black stuff has oozed all over our urban spaces. In some spaces it has a purpose. But its uninterrupted reign also leads to serious problems. The dark impermeable surface is behind both the urban heat island effect and floods of storm water that overwhelm old sewers and pump waste into waterways (or, if you are unlucky, your basement). Some cities are pioneering ways to breakup the tar-scape. But I'd also heard rumours of a community based group in Portland that was taking things into their own hands.

Earlier this month I got to see Depave Portland in action and I put together this short video of a project to they were running at a local school. Starting early one Saturday volunteers started prying loose pre-cut squares of asphalt and carting them off. By the end of the day a few hundred square feet were open and ready for the gardens, play, and educational spaces the school had planned.

If you think you'd like to try something similar, Depave has put together a 9 page guide (pdf). In this case, it was the New Day School that started the ball rolling. The school took care of getting the permits to remove the asphalt and developing a plan for the space. Depave raised funds to cover costs and coordinated volunteers. A week before the event a dozen or so Depave volunteers spent a day with concrete saws cutting the asphalt into about 2 ft x 2 ft sections (affectionately known as “brownies”) that you see being removed in the video.

What caught me was how much fun it was. It may not be the quickest way to remodel a site, but there is something amazingly satisfying about getting together, making new friends and transforming the landscape. Now every time I pass an unused and unnecessary bit of asphalt, I can't help asking myself “what else could we do with that spot?” ...

Research & Publications

For those who are interested in more than what I put up here on openalex, here is list of my research publications (with .pdf links where possible).

- Book Chapters:

- Articles:

- Reference:

  • Aylett, A. (2010) “Cities for Climate Protection” in Paul Robbins and Kevin Cohen eds. Green Society Reference Series Volume 4: Green Cities. (SAGE)
  • Aylett, A. and T. Barnes  (2009) “Language,” International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography , Thrift et al. eds.   Oxford: Elsevier.

Freedom + Passion beats Carrot with its Own Stick: what really motivates people

It's been a busy few weeks, but I finally have a chance to break radio silence and put up some new content on the blog.  I've recently been introduced to the RSA's brilliant series of animated conference presentations.  These quirky hand-drawn animations are an informal way to absorb interesting ideas by some of today's big thinkers.

They have one on Jeremy Rifkin's Empathic Civilization that I blogged about earlier.  But the one that grabbed my attention is an adaptation of a talk given by Dan Pink on what motivates people - particularly what motivates them to innovate and excel in challenging circumstances.  Apart from general interest value, I was hooked by the fact that I've seen the dynamics Pink describes play out in much of my own research on urban sustainability (see here for a good example).


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Solar Sisters: The Avon Lady of African Renewables

[This piece is also running over at worldchanging.]

Solar Sisters, a new solar entrepreneur program, has taken Avon's social sales model and is using it to spread solar powered lamps across Uganda.  Avon cosmetics began as a failed 19th century book-selling venture.  It's “Avon Calling” approach, where saleswomen sold directly to other women, helped it grow into one of the 500 largest companies in the USA with annual global revenues of over US$ 10 billion. 

Both energy and cosmetics have a lot to do with gender.Solar Sisters -- like the Barefoot Solar Engineers that I've written about earlier -- uses the special place that women have as procurers and managers of fuel use to take on the social, environmental and economic impacts of energy poverty.

In the developing world women are primarily responsible for gathering, purchasing and using household energy:  wood, coal, kerosene or gas. Smoke from using these fuels indoors causes serious long term health problems. Poor households also spend a greater percentage of their income on energy than wealthier ones, and are charged more for energy. This unreliable and costly access to energy, especially electricity, is one of the key factors that drives migration from rural and semi-rural areas to expanding cities.

Now starting their first pilot projects, Solar Sisters approach to these issues is relatively simple:  they sell two different models of solar lamps (a basic model, and a larger one that also recharges cellphones).  The lamps can replace both kerosene lights and long trips into urban areas to get phones recharged. In a recent ChangeMakers article, Katherine Lucey, former banker and founder of Solar Sisters, explains the multiple benefits of the lamps:

“With solar, they don’t have to breathe in tadooba toxic fumes. When they look at the black walls of their house, they realize that if the walls are black, the inside of their lungs are black. ... Economically, it makes sense because within two months, they they'll recover the cost of having to buy kerosene. This immediately frees up 20 percent of their income.”

Last year, Oxford business professor Linda Scott argued that the Avon model might even be better then microfinance when if comes to lifting women out of poverty.  Initial results from research that she has been doing in South Africa show it to be more accessible than microcredit and well suited to dynamics of local communities.

Whether lessons learned from lipstick in South Africa will hold true for solar lamps in Uganda is an open question.  But Lucey claims that for the female entrepreneurs working for Solar Sisters, the lamps offer a rare economic opportunity and can bring in up to $US450 a year.  Solar Sisters covers the upfront costs of the women's first solar light inventory, and they then use their earnings to purchase more inventory.  

The biggest hurdle may be the price of the lamps themselves.  The two models sell for $US15 and $US45.  That may simply be out of reach for many families.  The Solar Sisters blog discusses one community that came up with a way of collectively financing their purchases (something also done for livestock and other larger purchases).

In interview, Lucey talks about the difficulty of convincing women to think of the lanterns as a long-term investment.  It is about more than a change in thinking though.  The same factors that stop women from saving money by purchasing larger quantities of kerosene or coal also apply to solar.  A lack of savings, unpredictable finances and in some cases concerns over theft steer women to purchase energy (and many other daily commodities like rice and oil) in small amounts.

Solar Sisters is a promising project – and the image of solar “Avon Ladies” spreading across across Africa is hard to resist.   Solar Sisters is addressing the same issues as the impressive Indian  Barefoot Solar Engineer program.   That program's success depended both a clear understanding of women's role as energy managers and a smart approach to financing.  That second part seems to be the one thing missing from the Solar Sisters project.  Before Solar Sisters really takes off, I have a feeling that they will take the lessons learned from their early clients' community financing arrangements and build them directly into their business model.

[images from Avon and Solar Sisters]

City Repair: (re)Building the Cities We Want

[This piece is also running over at worldchanging.]

This month's edition of YES! Magazine has an inspiring short interview with City Repair co-founder Mark Lakeman. 

City Repair, for those who don't know it, is a Portland based volunteer run non-profit.  They earned their stripes by helping communities take intersections, parking lots and other unpromising pieces of pavement, and transform them into meaningful social places.  Their Projects page has more details on “placemaking”, their excellent Depave spin-off, and other creations.

In the interview, Lakeman emphasizes the way that spaces affect how we relate to each other.  Reclaiming an intersection may at first seem to be about beautifying the neighbourhood.  But really, it is about building community:

"The power of what we do is we start with the idea and the belief that we can make it happen. If it has a social basis, if your primary goal is to build networks and relationships, then you attract all the other forms of capital that begin with the social. That's the magic. That's the key."

It's an elegant and empowering way of looking at the relationship between community and the urban landscape.

"Public participation” can often seem like a market survey.  It's done as a way to harvest preferences and opinions from the public.  But – whether it is projects like City Repair in Portland, Santropol Roulant and Rooftop Gardens in Montreal,  or Green Change in Toronto – every city has examples that show how much more communities have to contribute.  As always, the trick is knowing how to link and build up from individual projects to create larger shifts in how our cities are built and lived.

Below are a few excerpts from the interview:

"For most of the history of humanity, we lived and worked in the same places, integrated, and everything we did would deepen our relationships to each other. The greatest product of that way of life was our cultural cohesion and our stories – we weren’t isolated the way that we are now.

But our cities and places are no longer ours. We’re not building our own places; we’re not designing them to fit our own needs. Our lives are zoned like we’re a resource to be managed. We're housed here, and then this is where we work in order to pay for the housing we barely get to live in. Mixed use here. Monocultural use here. Parking garage. Maybe a waterfront here. Park. Park. It doesn't add up. None of them are really whole."

"There’s so much we need to change, but I really don’t think it's going to be all that hard. We just need to say, "There's nowhere to sit around here? Well, we need to create some places to sit. People aren't talking? Then we need gathering places." You look at the problem of a particular place and you address it. People start to get excited; the void starts to get filled. The projects are small, but they keep coming as revelations."

"When did we stop believing we had a say in our own reality? ...

The beautiful thing happening now is that dozens and dozens and dozens of people saying, "Yes, I have my power," and then creating these physical expressions of what it actually looks like."


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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