From Bureaucrat to Farmer: Peri-Urban Agriculture in Cuba

Earlier this month, Cuba launched an ambitious plan to surround urban areas with thousands of small farms. Urban agriculture and food security are regular themes here. But Cuba's projects are on a much larger scale than the programs that I've looked at before.

They are also the first I've seen that aim to find bureaucrats something more "productive" to do.

In the pilot city of Camaguey, the target is to establish 1,400 small farms. Collectively, they will be able to meet 75% of the food needs for the city's 320,000 residents. Beyond the scope of the program, I love it's concluding goal:

"The island's authorities hope suburban farming will make food cheaper and more abundant, cut transportation costs and encourage urban dwellers to leave bureaucratic jobs for more productive labour."

More from the Guardian article:
"Cuba has launched an ambitious project to ring urban areas with thousands of small farms in a bid to reverse the country's agricultural decline and ease its chronic economic woes.

The five-year plan calls for growing fruits and vegetables and raising livestock in four mile-wide rings around 150 of Cuba's cities and towns, with the exception of the capital Havana."

While this type of large centrally managed system is interesting. It's important to signal the opression that the Cuban government is also responsible for. See most recently the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prominent political prisoner, after an 85 day hunger strike.

[thnx imagineDurban.]

Sand and Sludge: A Day of Green Energy Innovation

The top energy news today is undoubtedly the public unveiling of Bloom Energy's new hydrogen fuel cell.

Eight years in the making, but unveiled only a bit more than a week since Bill Gates spoke on the need for energy miracles, the Bloom fuel cell is made out of a sand-based ceramic and can power 100 homes with a unit that fits in a parking spot.

Here are some of the specs:
  • cheap power: 8 to 10 cents per kWh, cheaper than average energy costs in many US states.
  • longevity: each "bloom box" has a project life span of 10 years
  • efficiency: the cell produces electricity from natural gas or biogas with 50 to 55% efficiency. That's about the same as a combined cycle natural gas plant, and well over the 30% efficiency of the coal fired plants that still supply over 50% of US and 23% of Canadian power.
  • compactness: A 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Server will fit in a parking space. That's enough power for just under 100 homes – depending on local energy use. By comparison, one large wind turbine generates 1000kW, but can't be parked quite as easily.

Green inc.
has good coverage of the promising, but still unproven nature of the Bloom Box. Large companies like
Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, and eBay have all installed "Boxes" to meet some of the energy needs of their offices or retail locations. Building up from those types of uses, this could be a technology that will help speed the transition to smart decentralized urban electricity networks.

What isn't clear is how the "Box" stacks up against established technologies like combined natural gas heat and power(CHP) systems. CHP has similar efficiencies and can be rolled out at a similar scale. That's a roundabout way to come back to a good critique of the focus on new technologies. If things like CHP are already available but not widely used, maybe we need to be looking at barriers to their roll-out and large scale adoption - not hunting for the next "miracle" technology.

From Post-Recycling Waste to Ethanol
Less glamorous, but still interesting, is news of the continued success of Quebec's waste-to-ethanol processor Enerkem. Enerkem has perfected a process that transforms post-recycling municipal waste into ethanol. Their process can use anything from sorted municipal solid waste, construction and demolition wood, treated wood, forest residues and agricultural waste as a feedstock.

The company has a plant operating in Quebec already, with others on the way in Alberta and Mississippi. In the city of Edmonton they are purchasing whatever waste is leftover once recyclable glass metal and paper is removed and will be producing 9.5 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol.

The Enerkem approach is recycling taken to a very basic level; one company rep. described is as “recycling the carbon molecules in this garbage." It also turns post-recycling waste – usually deemed worthless – into a high demand energy source. Nice trick.

Vancouver's Green Olympics: Exceptions that Change the Rules

The Vancouver Olympics are in their second week and the media has loved the "green" flavour of the games. The stunning new LEED certified athlete's village and convention centre have been the centerpiece of what is being touted as the most sustainable Games ever.

Grand claims like that always make me a bit suspicious. What's one green-roof on a convention centre (even if it is the size of four football fields) if the rest of the city just keeps chugging along the same as always?

But for Vancouver, these two super green developments are icons of a larger shift. Rather than being exceptions that prove the rules of unsustainable urbanization, these are exceptions that have helped change the rules.

Super-Green Eye Candy
Both developments have received glowing coverage. The LEED platinum convention centre has North America's largest non-industrial green-roof complete with honeybees. The building's underwater foundations have been engineered to act as an artificial reef. The centre also processes its own black water and uses a seawater heat pump to regulate indoor air temperature.

The mixed-use athlete's village reads like a green builder's fantasy with district energy and local renewables, grey water systems and a net-zero building. Inhabitat has dubbed it the world's greenest neighbourhood, the Huffington Post loves it, and it is one of only two LEED platinum neighbourhoods built so far.

All too often spectacular projects like these can distract attention from the fact that all around them the rest of the city continues on unchanged. In Vancouver, the real success of these developments is that they have helped drive the city's green building policy in ways that are transforming the city as a whole.

Changing Policy to Change A City
Just before the start of the games a new municipal policy was passed requiring all developments applying for rezoning to meet LEED™ Gold standards by early 2011. That success didn't come out of nowhere, and Vancouver’s Director of City Planning Brent Toderian has a post on Planetizen about the process that has got Vancouver to this point:

"We enjoy a rare talent-level of local architects and developers here when it comes to green, partially I think because our constantly rising bar has encouraged constant learning and improvement of skills, but ... in fact, many developers have been voluntarily out-performing the policy since 2008, going for Gold early."

Green buildings have been part of the Vancouver's sustainability strategy since 2007 when it adopted ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. That same year council also committed to have all new buildings in the city be carbon neutral by 2030. Since then, as part of the much publicized ecodensity project, the city has worked with the public and developers to identify and remove barriers to green buildings in zoning and development bylaws.

They've included new requirements for charging points for electric vehicles, and begun working with the design community to promote passive design principles that build efficiency directly into the shape of the building itself (see the policy .pdf). On the residential side there is a Green Homes program, introduced in 2008, whose requirements and by-law amendments are expected to cut energy use in newly built one and two family homes by 33%.

Exceptions that Change the Rules
None of these changes are as captivating as staring out over the new convention center's green roof, or strolling through the streets of the Olympic village. But rewriting the underlying rules that govern how Vancouver is built will have the greater effect. As flagship projects, the Olympic developments have helped make those reforms possible by embodying the city's commitment to sustainability, and catalyzing support for a deeper shift in the direction the city is taking.

Internationally, these two mega projects are seen as a symbol of the Olympics. But locally they are icons of a virtuous cycle of voluntary actions and municipal regulation that has allowed Vancouver to begin the processes of truly becoming a bright green city.

We are now all waiting to see how the city will take the next step, and move from regulating new construction, to the much bigger challenge of retrofitting what is already there. Who knows, maybe something like Portland's Clean Energy Works is waiting in the wings...

Bill Gates: "Zero Carbon 2050" TED Talk VIDEO

Last week at the TED talks Bill Gates finally came out on climate change. The video of his talk just went up. In his talk he named climate change and energy as the most important challenges that we face. His target of zero carbon emissions by 2050 has won support from many corners. But does his focus on new "energy mircales" make sense, or should we be focusing on rolling out the technologies we already have? Along with Joe Romm (who was pretty rude about Gates'"energy miracles") I'm in the second camp. There is more on the quickest way to get to zero in my post earlier this week.

But now -- without further ado -- here's Bill Gates on Climate Change and Energy Miracles:


Super Tiny Homes 2: Compact Parenting

The "tiny home" concept really catches people's imagination. With monster homes lying vacant all over North America, seeing people living simple, happy lives with a minimum of stuff makes you wonder why we wanted all that space to begin with?

Thanks to Julia for pointing me to re-nest's directory of compact living projects. It makes a great follow-up to my original post on micro-abodes. My favourite example is a young couple living with their 9 month old in a cozy looking 380sq.ft. home in LA (photos). I loved the mother's summary of how to keep things simple while parenting:

"People tell you you need all this stuff for a baby. All you really need is diapers, a place to change him and boobs."


Gates' Zero Carbon 2050: "Energy Miracles" or "Bat Shit" ?

There's a rumble on between Bill Gates and climate expert Joe Romm. At last week's TED talks, Gates came out with a new mission for his impressive philanthropic work: To reduce human carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Without addressing climate change, he pointed out, his Foundation's larger goals of addressing global poverty and inequality are more or less meaningless.

Those are big words from a big force in the world's business and development community. As Alex Steffen points out over at World Changing, just the words “zero carbon by 2050” coming out of Gates' mouth should help mainstream what is really our only sensible target.

Gates called for investment in ambitious and innovative companies to spark a burst of creativity and develop new “energy miracles:” new technologies that have the ability to dramatically change the way we produce and use energy. That sparked a fiery reply from Joe Romm, ├╝ber-blogger and former member of the Clinton administration's Energy team. “Energy Miracles” are, in Joe's words “bat guano.

His argument is that "we don’t need energy miracles, we need to address market and regulatory barriers," barriers that are blocking the large scale use of existing technologies.

Our priority should be bringing existing technologies to market as soon as possible, not waiting until we've invented a silver-bullet energy solution. Romm makes a very convincing argument, and has great examples of why regulations not new technology are where we need to be focusing our attention.

But What About Us?
I'm as sympathetic to Gates' goal as I am to Romm's vision of how we get there: Zero is the target, rapidly rolling out existing technologies is (part of) the way. But with all this focus on technology, we are leaving something out: us – the people who are using all this energy to begin with.

Since 1980, average U.S. household energy use per capita has gone up by just over 40%. In another context, you might link that to lifting people out of poverty. In North America, it's linked to ludicrously large houses and our addiction to energy hungry appliances.

Neither “energy miracles” nor existing technologies can make those things more efficient. They are inherently unsustainable. As much as we focus on technology, we need to take a hard look at the creature comforts and luxuries that we have recently come to think of as necessities. If the time I spent in Africa taught me anything, it was that the way that we define successful living here in the North becomes a model around the world.

When it comes to innovation, what counts as “the good life” is in need of as much attention as technology or regulations.

[image modified from Gates' presentation slides, photo: Nancy Duarte ]

Corrosive Oceans and the Aquatic Food Chain

Over at Yale's Environment 360, New York Times science writer Karl Zimmer has an excellent post on what carbon emissions are doing to the chemistry of our oceans. Increasingly acidic oceans have the possibility to undermine much of the marine food chain. I've touched on this before, but a few years ago this wasn't even a topic of conversation. Like the melting of the permafrost, it's another frightening example of the unexpected changes that can occur when you start tinkering with the dynamics of complex systems. I've included a few excerpts below, but the piece is well worth reading.

"The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimate that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean."

"When we humans burn fossil fuels, we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where the gas traps heat. But much of that carbon dioxide does not stay in the air. Instead, it gets sucked into the oceans. If not for the oceans, climate scientists believe that the planet would be much warmer than it is today. Even with the oceans’ massive uptake of CO2, the past decade was still the warmest since modern record-keeping began. But storing carbon dioxide in the oceans may come at a steep cost: It changes the chemistry of seawater."

"To see how ocean acidification is going to affect life in the ocean, scientists have run laboratory experiments in which they rear organisms at different pH levels. The results have been worrying — particularly for species that build skeletons out of calcium carbonate, such as corals and amoeba-like organisms called foraminifera. The extra hydrogen in low-pH seawater reacts with calcium carbonate, turning it into other compounds that animals can’t use to build their shells."

"These results are worrisome, not just for the particular species the scientists study, but for the ecosystems in which they live. Some of these vulnerable species are crucial for entire ecosystems in the ocean. Small shell-building organisms are food for invertebrates, such as mollusks and small fish, which in turn are food for larger predators. Coral reefs create an underwater rain forest, cradling a quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity."

BIXI: Bike Sharing Across Three Continents

Bixi – Montreal's innovative approach to bike sharing – just keeps expanding.

The system began in Montreal in 2009. Plans to bring it to Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Chicago, London were reported last Fall.

But it seems that Melbourne and Minneapolis have beaten at least some of them to the punch. Both cities concluded negotiations with the Montreal based non-profit that manages Bixi earlier this month. Bikes are scheduled to be rolling in Melbourne in May and in Minneaplis by June.

There are also plans to allow Bixi users from one city to use bikes in other Bixi cities. What a great idea.

The systems is based on a network of solar powered bike rental nodes that can be easily installed and moved depending on usage. The nodes also update bike availability info in realtime allowing users to check bike availability online from home, iPhones, or other mobile devices. This combination of easy installation and internet integration made Bixi instantly popular. Combined with other forms of public transportation, Bixi can be a useful component in an overal multi-modal transport strategy.

Another contributor to Bixi's hometown success is the fact that since 2000 Montreal has also added 700km of commuter friendly bikepaths.

Sustainable Disaster Relief 3: Urban Agriculture & Food Security

Weeks after the quake, farms are one of the things that are helping people in Haiti find their feet again. Urban Agriculture was a key feature in an interview that the CBC ran with one of their radio producers who is still on location in Port Au Prince.

It's a touching personal story. After hearing how unstable the situation still is the host, Michael Enright, asks him "Is anything getting back to normal,... anything?" His answer was food and agriculture. He described the morning routine of women going up to local farms on the outskirts of outside the city to bring fruits and vegetables back to market. The farms survived the quake and continue to provide food -- as well as a sense of normalcy -- for survivors.

It is a nice compliment to my earlier post on permaculture. It's also a great concrete example of the importance of local agriculture for food security. I can't help wondering how many Western cities, where sprawl has paved over productive agricultural land, would do in similar situations....

The segment is streaming here. Scroll down right down to the bottom of the page for the last hour of the show. The segment begins at 37:30 and the portion on agriculture at 39:00.


PermaCorps, Haiti: Sustainable Disaster Relief pt.2

Responding to disasters requires doing a lot with a little as quickly as possible. After my post on the use of solar power as part of the Haitian recovery, a few readers pointed me to aid efforts that are using permaculture techniques to meet pressing demands for clean water, food and shelter. There is even talk of creating a permaculture relief corps: the "PermaCorps."

Permaculture's motto is that nothing goes to waste -- which is perfect for situations where there is never enough to go around in the first place. Its community based work is also an inspiring contrast to the shock doctrine approach to emergency aid.

Modern permaculture goes beyond its agricultural roots to include everything from waste, water, and energy systems to building techniques. By looking at all of these as interlocking parts of one larger system, permaculture can use what would normally be considered "waste" from one system as input for another. Composted sewage becomes fertilizer; buildings and landscaping provide both shelter and catch and purify drinking water.

Disaster Response
Geoff Lawton is the managing director of Australia's Permaculture Research Institute (PRI), one of the world's leading permaculture organizations. In an interview with ABC radio, he described how permaculture relief differs from traditional emergency aid in meeting both immediate and longterm needs:

"Present problems can be future solutions. ... If possible, and it is usually possible, the systems that you put in are an asset to the people. That asset is in leaving living systems on the ground. You go from sanitary considerations, to systems that then go on to increase soil fertility and lead to better nutrition and more vitality to get [the population] out of this disaster and move forward."

Permaculture techniques have been used in some of the world's worst disaster zones. The PRI, in collaboration with the UN High Commission on Refugees, has worked in Macedonia after the Kosovo crisis, Guatemala following the civil war, in Northern Iraq, Sudan, and Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. They do everything from large scale planning to community built and maintained gardening systems that allow people to begin providing for themselves again.

Permaculture projects, like blackwater systems and instant gardens, are designed and built with the communities that will use them and keep them running. That hands-on approach contributes to the success and durability of the projects, but it also has psychological benefits that can't be overestimated. Amidst devastation, it provides people with an opportunity to be actively engaged with something positive and meaningful.

PermaCorps, Haiti
A variety of organizations including PRI USA were already active in Haiti prior to the quake, and have since turned their attention away from the country's deforestation and soil fertility problems to help deal with the impact of the earthquake.

Within days of the quake, work had begun outside Haiti to assemble a larger group of volunteers. Some of these are expatriates from Miami's Haitian community, where permaculturist Cory Brennan was working the weekend of the quake. Others are being drawn in from the broader international network of permaculture practitioners. But, understandibly, much of this is seems to be happening in a relatively adhoc way.

Evan Schoepke, a permaculturist, blogger and student based in Washington state, was one of the first to call for a more organized permaculture relief corps, or PermaCorps. The vision is of something that would begin in Haiti but maintain a continued presence for future disaster work. He is currently assembling two small teams who will be leaving to joining other permaculturists in Haiti in the coming weeks:

"This is a project that really couldn't have happened until right now. No permaculture organization exists that is specifically set up to respond to these kinds of events and help with relief, recovery and redevelopment."

Disaster Leapfrogging
In the short term, permaculture techniques meet the crucial needs of daily life: compost toilets reduce the risk of sewage born disease, rocket cook-stoves and gardens provide food, engineered catchments and filtration systems provide drinking water. But recovery from disasters is a longterm processes. The real promise of permaculture is in providing systems that can sustain themselves beyond the redevelopment period. Like renewable energy, they are approaches that can help rebuild Haiti on firmer footings.

Permaculture's community driven approach is also an alternative to the much criticized top down and economically driven "disaster capitalism" approach to aid and reconstruction. (See Naomi Klein's arguments at the end of last month.) In amongst everything else, these projects may be a real opportunity for some "disaster leapfrogging."

To Get Involved or Donate See:

Canada's Climate Targets: the "No, You Drive" approach

Between proroguing parliament and handing control over Canada's climate change policy to the United States, you've got to wonder what we pay these guys for. But I'll keep my snide comments to myself.

Yesterday's announcement that Canada would lower its emissions targets to match targets adopted in the U.S. on Friday was no surprise. For months the current government has been arguing that following the American lead is both our only option, and the most responsible thing to do to protect our economy.

We're a small power, the argument goes, and if we're too ambitious jobs will go South. But this approach to environmental and economic policy is anything but inevitable or responsible. We could have – and hopefully one day will – do much more.

Playing Chicken With the Economy
Underlying the government's approach is the assumption that low targets are good for our economy. Admittedly, if we were the only ones adopting strict targets we would put ourselves at a disadvantage. But by actively blocking the creation of ambitious international targets – as we have done – we are playing chicken with whole sectors of our economy, and falling behind the curve when it comes to developing new ones.

We have already seen how vulnerable parts of our economy are to climate change. Mild winters have allowed pine beetle populations to grow to epidemic proportions. By 2013, 80% of B.C.'s pine forest will be gone. So far, B.C. Forestry companies have lost $600 million, and the big question is whether or not the more than $200 million that the federal and provincial governments are throwing at the problem will manage to stop it from sweeping East across the country. Forestry is a $6 billion dollar industry and employs almost 70,000 Canadians.

New research from the UK's Met Office Hadley Climate Centre, points that worse may be on the way. With the world heading toward a possible 4 degrees of warming by the 2060s, Canada is likely to face increased wild fires, up to 40% reductions in agricultural yields of wheat, corn and other grains, and an accelerated decline in fisheries stocks. That is the course that our current targets are charting.

There is another thing: in the United States low targets are coupled with large incentives to encourage the expansion of green innovation in the energy, automobile and building sectors. Not so here. So while we are putting many traditional sectors of Canada's economy at risk, we are also not supporting the growth of new greener industry. These will be enormous markets with rapid growth, and at present it looks like we will be a very small player.

Anxiety of Influence
To those who say Canada stood no chance of influencing American climate policy, it in fact already has; athough not for the better. Canada was the first nation to base its targets on 2005 instead of 1990 levels of emissions. (Stores pull a similar trick when they increase the price of something and then put it on sale.) The United States quickly adopted that clever manoeuvre.

But there are more positive avenues for Canadian influence, should we re-embrace diplomacy and constructive negotiations. The U.S. is itself a divided house over the issue of climate change. At a provincial level, Canada is already tied in to regional carbon trading networks on both the East and West coasts. These are limited but significant successes.

They are something that explicit federal support could help build and expand. But by refusing to celebrate them or the principles they represent we effectively ceded the field to those who oppose carbon regulation in the U.S. We've left innovative American states, and the Obama administration, in a weakened position and helped to create the situation to which we claim to simply be responding.

The "No You Drive" School of Policy Making
People say that this is a partisan issue – your opinion dictated by your political allegiances. I think that's rubbish. It may be that way in the U.S. but it doesn't need to be. There are important social and ethical implications to our climate change plans. But even putting those aside climate change, and climate change policy, are going to have a defining influence over national and international economies during this century. What we are doing right now seems to me like entering the Free Trade negotiations of the early 1990s with the attitude "let's just see what the American's want to do." No government, Liberal or Conservative would have done that. But at the moment neither the Liberals or the Conservatives are doing much better.

Underlying Canada's new targets is the argument that they are both responsible and inevitable. Really, they are anything but.


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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