New Sustainable Cities Research Program - New Job, Exciting Prospects

Vancouver-based NGO Sustainable Cities International is an excellent outfit that runs a network of cities focused on green urbanism that spans the globe. The research that I've been able to do in South Africa, Canada, the States, Senegal (and other spots in between) has been in part thanks to their help.

I've been working with SCI for six years now, and in 2009 we started having conversations about increasing the amount of research going on in the network. SCI-affiliated cities include many international leaders in green-city-building like Curitiba, Durban, and Portland. It seemed to me that taking a closer look at their successes, and communicating that research to a broader audience was important work. But it was also well beyond what one researcher could do.


Green Democracy and Urban Agriculture in Montreal

We are all still trying to figure out what a sustainable city is. Yes, we've got some good ideas.  But to go beyond marginal changes and begin retrofitting, or building, cities in a way that truly responds to the challenges ahead requires ambitious changes.

What type of neighbourhoods do we live in? How do we get around? Where does our energy come from? How about our food?  For questions like that, no one has all the answers.

Tackling them means starting broad-based open conversations that help us determine the course for our collective futures. This week, making use of a new bylaw on public consultations, a coalition of community and environmental groups in Montreal has shown one face of what that process might look like.

Is Toronto Lost?

Has Toronto lost its way?  That's been the word on the street, and pretty much everywhere else, since Mayor Ford took office a little less than a year ago.

But as colourful as his first 11 months have been, it's a bit disingenuous to lay all the city's woes at his feet. In this month's issue of The Walrus, John Lorinc has written a detailed piece on the roots of T-dot's troubles. Beginning in the early 1970s, Lorinc tells a story of dysfunctional municipal/provincial relationships and “race-to-the-bottom” competitions between municipalities in the GTA. Above all, he argues, Toronto suffers from a culture of cheapness that has prevailed over municipal decisions for decades holding back necessary investments in transit, parks, urban design, and the public realm more generally. 

Cities are more than a patchwork of private property held together by some roads and sewer pipes. Neglect the common infrastructure of public services and spaces, and they begin to come apart at the seams. That, Lorinc argues, is the case for Toronto. It is an interesting article, and has some powerful lessons for anyone interested how we can build and sustain greener and more equitable cities. After reading it, I pulled together a few of my own thoughts about the city's trajectory.

Open Access Research: Cities and Climate Change

It may be an urban legend, but they say that the average academic article is read by a grand total of 6 people. That's not an inspiring thought, especially for those of us who spend our time writing those articles!

You can pin low readership on all kinds of factors. But my longstanding gripe has been the fact that many academic journals keep articles cloistered behind pay-walls and inaccessible to anyone without a costly personal or institutional subscription. In my area of climate policy research, it seems to me that it borders on unethical to keep policy makers and the public from accessing the most recent research as easily and quickly as possible.

So it was great to see this week that both UN-Habitat and Routledge have put up a small trove of open access publications.

Climate Reality

I should confess that when it first came out, I dozed off during the Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.  That's not the kind of admission you'd expect from someone who spends their days (and many nights) working on urban climate policies. But, influential as it was, there just seemed to be something missing from that first effort to communicate the urgency of responding to climate change.

What ever it was, Gore's new Climate Reality presentation figured it out. The worldwide marathon of presentations that began in Mexico yesterday and concluded in New York tonight was a true success. 24 hours and 24 presentations in 13 languages later, over 8 million viewers tuned in. Andrew Revkin, over on the NYT's Dot Earth blog makes some good points about what the broadcast doesn't do.

But while it may not solve the politicization of climate science, or our dependence on fossil fuels, it does do two simple but important things.

EcoCity 2011 - Networked Urban Sustainability: Breaking the Integration Barrier

September hit with the usually flurry of activity, which means that I'm only now putting up this version of one of the two talks that I gave at the 2011 EcoCity World Summit. The Summit was hosted in Montreal this year, and was a huge success all around.  This presentation is something I put together for a general audience. It's jargon free, and aims to get across a few key points that have emerged in my research over the past four years.

It all centers around one question: "How  can we go from small scale changes in  urban processes, to large scale sustainability shifts that take place across a city as a whole." Or, to say it another way, it is about how an English/French Dictionary, Bowling, and Duke Ellington can help citiesr espond to the enormous challenges posed by climate change. The full text is below, or you can listen to a Slidecast with slides and audio on the embedded player below.


Pop-Up Planning: Toronto, New York, & Vancouver

"Pop-Up Planning", temporary experimental transformations of urban space, gets a good profile in today's Globe and Mail.

"Pop-up" projects let cities try out new ideas without the expense - or the risk - of making permanent changes to infrastructure.  The most famous recent example is the pedestrianization of Times Square in NYC by Janette Sadik-Khan. The Globe traces the practice of using pilot projects to test out unconventional planning ideas back to Copenhagen in the 1950s (back when cars still ruled it the cities streets and before it had become the global darling of pedestrian and bike friendly cities).

If you read the Globe article, I'd recommend also reading this post that came out in the New York Times last month (I've put an excerpt below). It gives a grittier view of the way pilot projects have been used in NYC.

Montreal discovers it's not easy going green: New Economist Green Cities Index

An article that I wrote on the new Green Cities Index (.pdf) released last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit is out in today's Montreal Gazette. It was an interesting one to write.  The focus of the piece was Montreal's poor performance, and the fact that it has everything it takes to become a much bigger player on the urban sustainability scene. You can read the full piece here, or after the jump where I've reposted the full text.

Near the end I make a point that I think is worth emphasizing -- regardless of whether you are in Montreal of Minneapolis.

This index, like all indexes of this sort that I've seen, grades on a curve. It tells you which city is in the lead, but doesn't give you any sense of whether the leaders (or the rest of the pack) are moving at the right speed.

To be blunt: that's not good enough. The problems are serious enough, and current rates of emissions and energy use are rising fast enough, that I think it is time for high profile research houses (like the EIU) to design indicators that give us an idea of how cities' efforts measure up to the challenges they aim to address.

Kunstler on The City of the Future and "Yesterday's Tomorrows"

I'm no apocalypse junkie; visions of the end of days don't do much for me. But I am going to recommend James Kunstler's most recent article anyway. 

Kunstler is a major figure in discussions of both Peak Oil and New Urbanism. In the July/August edition of Orion Magazine, he lays out a nightmarish scenario of derelict skyscrapers, massive human mortality, and suburbs turned into burnt out salvage yards. (I've pasted a few excerpts below.)

I don't usually spend much time looking at grim scenarios for the future. Dwelling on catastrophe tends to shut down people's ability to think and act creatively – exactly the opposite of what this blog hopes to do.

But in a “know your enemy” kind of way, there is value in checking in with the possible future to see if what we are doing today measures up to the real scope of the challenge. And Kunstler, one of the few people writing about the combined impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change, provides a convincing depiction of what we are up against.

Solar Map of New York City

New York City's new Solar Map has gone live, and it's a beauty. With a googlemap style interface, you can zoom into any building in the greater NYC area. Click on the building and up pops  an estimate of the solar power you could generate on its roof, and what that would mean in terms of monthly savings on your energy bill and carbon emissions.

[If your city has, or is planning, a solar map please let me know by e-mail or leave a the comments below]

Playing with the map is addictive. (So far my high score is two thousand kwh from the roof JFK airport – if you find something bigger put it in the comments below!) But maps like these - already being used in other cities - are also gateway technologies helping building owners to understand and take advantage of the potential that is right over their heads.

Montreal Guerrilla Gardening: "Tour de Guerrilla" Silent Film

OuVert is an open urban sustainability lab that I'm helping to start  here in Montreal. Below is an occasionally Chaplin-esque video of our first event - a seedbomb workshop and guerrilla gardening ride - that we ran a few weeks ago.

Before the ride, we used facebook to crowd-source targets. Connecting the dots gave us a route (mapped here) that wound it's way through the Mile-End neighbourhood, and then focused on a series of semi-derelict spaces that border a freight rail line.

Post C40 Summit Cities Need to "Go Big or Go Home" on Climate Policy

[I've got a new piece running over at The Mark News. The latest Clinton C40 urban climate summit just wrapped up in Brazil, and as always there's been a flood of optimistic news coverage. I'm all for optimism.  But I wanted to provide some perspective on what it will really take for cities to have an impact on climate change.]

If you haven’t already, you'll probably see some version of the headline “Cities To Save Global Climate” at least once over the course of this week. From May 31 to June 2, representatives of some of the world's greenest metropolises were in Sao Paulo for a C40 climate-change summit hosted by the Clinton Foundation. As a result, newspapers will again be full of optimism about the environmental potential of the world's cities – and for good reason.

Over 50 per cent of us live in cities, and cities generate 70 per cent of our greenhouse-gas emissions. So far, though, few municipalities have put in place actions that are on par with that kind of impact.

Look beyond the boosterist headlines and you will find descriptions of energy-efficient streetlights, retrofitted local arenas, and showcase modifications to landmarks like New York's Empire State Building. Let's stop here for a moment. If it seems unlikely to you that energy-efficient crosswalk signals are going to do anything to curb climate change, that's because it is. [Read More @ The Mark]


48Hour Green Film Contest @ Cannes

Cannes wrapped up last weekend with the Palme d'Or going to Terrence Malick's apparently slightly sprawling epic The Tree of Life. From what I've read, the movie looks to be a mix of personal drama and a lush celebration of the Earth's beauty (trailer).  While not specifically an environmental film, it works out an evocative parallel between the evolving lives and struggles of individual people, and the larger evolution of the natural world around us.

Just as Cannes was closing, I stumbled on 5 other films that were screening as part of the festival's short-films program.  All five are the winners of this year's 48hour Go Green Film competition. Embedded above is the winning film, "Charlie The Man Who Brought Back the Sea."  Browsing the other films on the website is an excellent way to while away a few minutes of non-productive Friday afternoon time.

Bixi Responds to Flurry of Financial Coverage

Montreal news has been awash with coverage of BIXI's financial situation. After some delay, the city has approved $108million in loans and loan guarantees for the non-profit that operates BIXI.

Those numbers, as well as BIXI management's confrontational tone when dealing with the city has and angered some and raised questions about the system's financial viability. While Montrealer's have been getting a blow-by-blow coverage, the Globe and Mail yesterday published a great overview of the situation.  In response, BIXI chairman Roger Plamondon sent out an e-mail to all BIXI users seeking to clarify what is going on.  I've reposted it in full below.

The Urban Diabetes Epidemic: Green Cities & Health

I've written before about the fact that overall New Yorkers have the highest life expectancy in the United States.  Sounds odd, but research has traced those added months to the walking New Yorkers do while they navigate a city where pedestrians and transit use are the norm.  It turns out though, according to a piece by Lisa Rochon in the Globe and Mail, those benefits aren't evenly distributed.

Citing a series of studies on cities and diabetes she reveals a few startling facts: people living in un-walkable low-income neighbourhoods like the South Bronx will live about 20 years less. There are similar findings for Toronto. The culprit? The overlap of racial marginalization, genetics, and bad urban planning.

Climate Change Slams Food Production: Agricultural Investors To Rake It In

Sometimes you've just got to laugh. Tuesday's Globe and Mail led it's investment section with an article titled “Warming Trend May be Boon to Canada.” The piece focused on a new study, published in Science, which shows that since 1980 rising temperatures have reduced global yields of wheat and maize by 5.5% and 3.8% respectively. The report may be the first to conclusively show that climate change is already taking its toll on global food supplies.

The Globe and Mail's take on the situation: it's a great time to invest in Canadian farmland! If that isn't a perfect example of the situation we are in, then I don't know what is. The title may as well have been “Looming Global Food Instability A Great Opportunity!”

Jane's Walk 2011: This Weekend Biggest Ever now in 15 Countries

This weekend is the fifth year of Jane's Walk, and it is the biggest ever. Volunteers will lead 491 walks spread across 72 cities and 15 countries. What I love about the Walks, and what's at the core of their success, is their simple open-source approach.

They were founded on the gamble that if you give people who are passionate about their cities a platform they will help others discover all the hidden facets of local history, culture, and politics that make cities such captivating places to live. Clearly the gamble has paid off. Embedded below is the map for this year's walks in Montreal.  To find your city see here.

Eco-Sensual: LEED certified sensual healing in Montreal

“Eco-sensual design” – it's got a Marvin Gaye kind of ring to it [video] – but I like it.  It's Montreal architect Owen Rose's (meme-worthy) shorthand for the relationship that exists between smart ecological design and the sheer pleasure of being in a beautiful space.

Rose, who is also President of Montreal's Urban Ecology Centre, was featured in this week's Hour (one of the city's free weekly papers).  Given all the interesting projects that Rose and the MUEC are up to, the profile was disappointingly short.  All the same Rose managed to get in a few thought provoking quips about what architecture is, particularly green architecture.  His focus on the way people experience of sustainable design is key.


Jay Carson, Cities, and wait Donald Trump & Tori Spelling!

I rarely read Fortune magazine.  OK, that's an overstatement.  But it came across my desktop last week when they ran an interview with Jay Carson, disheveled CEO of the newly formed C40 Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI).

If you've been around the block, you'll know that neither the C40 nor the CCI Cities programs are new. C40 and the CCI have been collaboratively running one of the world's largest municipal climate programs since 2006.  The expanded alliance, announced earlier this month, is really more of a reorganization and streamlining of an existing partnership.

But - when I wasn't distracted by the sidebar trumpeting scandals about Donald's net worth and Tori Spelling's estate being up for sale - I thought that Carson made a few good points about why cities are such important players when it comes to climate change policy. He also gave away a few insights as to why the C40 has had only a relatively limited impact so far.


Railway Opens Tokyo's Largest Rooftop Farm

JR East railway, one of Tokyo's largest railway operators, has opened a 535 sq.m. (5758 sq.ft.) rooftop farm on top of the company's Lumine Ogikubo Building.

Part of a series of buildings linked to the Ogikubo railway and metro station, the garden is being billed as the largest rooftop farm on a commercial building in Tokyo. Althoug calling it a "farm" gives the impression that it will house commercial agriculture (like this one in Montreal). In fact, the "Soradofarm Lumine" is more like a rooftop community garden where Tokyoites who want to get their hands dirty can rent out plots. (So far I've only found this architects illustration, but I'm hoping for some photos before long.)


Small-Scale Water Systems take on Drought, Urban Decay, and Climate Change

By 2025 two-thirds of the global population will live in conditions of at least moderate water stress.  According to an interesting piece by Howard LaFranchi in last weekend's CS Monitor, community-scale systems -- not mega-projects -- may provide solutions for a thirsty world.

I've written about the value of decentralized neighbourhood or community scale infrastructure before.  When it comes to renewable energy, talking about the efficiencies that result from generating energy closer to where it's used is becoming old hat.

There's interest both in North America and Europe – where nearly 10% of electricity vanishes as line-loss as it travel from plant to plug – and in Africa and Asia, where local renewable energy systems transform lives by bringing affordable reliable power without the costs of energy mega-projects.  Many of the same arguments apply when it comes to water.


Cities Running Huge Risks by Ignoring Climate Change II: UN Habitat Report PDFs

I've been amazed at how little attention UN Habitat's Report on Cities and Climate Change has garnered since its release at the end of March.

The report (which I contributed to) makes some important points, summarized in an earlier entry, both about the risks that cities face, and the areas where municipal policies can have significant impacts. The report also targets Canadian cities for missing the boat in key areas, especially land-use planning.

I decided to repost on the report and include a link to the PDF of the abridged version, as well as the full case study that I wrote on Durban, South Africa. I think the Durban example is particularly relevant, for cities North and South, because it highlights the negative impact that institutional inertia can have effective climate policies. It shows what can happen when cities, or departments inside of cities, really encourage innovation and creativity. 


Bixi Sighting: New Ads Mark Roll Out of 2011 Bikes

Here are some of the first bixis of 2011, notice anything different? New ads, mounted above the wheel and on the baskets, have raised a lot of criticism on Twitter so far.

Most of the docking-stations around town are still empty. But bixis are starting to appear, here in Mile-End outside Café Olypmico, ahead of Friday's launch. (Andy Riga of The Gazette, has more photos.)

Canada's Crumbling Intrastructure - The Big Non-Issue of this Election

It's no secret that Canada is running a massive infrastructure deficit.  Four years ago the Canadian Federation of Municipalities pegged the price tag for renewing aging bridges, roadways, transportation and sewage systems at $123 billion. 

Writing in the Globe and Mail today, Barrie McKenna does something I've been meaning to do for a while now:  add to that number the costs for major upgrades that need to be made to keep up with increasing demands for transit and sewage treatment facilities, as well as modernizing our outdated electricity grid.

All told, he estimates we are looking at $531.8 billion in work that needs to be done to keep our cities, and our economy, running the way we expect them to. Makes you wonder why this hasn't been on the election radar so far in Canada, and why the Conservatives economy stimulus spending didn't do a better job of targeting these areas.

Looking back to the 2008 elections, you can see that overlooking cities - especially among Conservatives - is nothing new.  A few excerpts after the jump, or read the full article here.


Bixi Rolling Out for 3rd Season In MTL

If you are in Montreal right now you've seen it:  the Bixi docking stations are popping up all over the city. Sitting empty they have a strange sci-fi ghost town look.  But the bikes are supposed to be back on the streets by April 15th. Ottawa has also added itself to the  constantly growing number of cities using the Bixi system - the launch there is scheduled for May.


America's Smallest Apartment: Walkable Micro-living in NYC

New York-based writer Felice Cohen lives in an amazingly small apartment -- 90 sq.ft. to be exact. Since it was profiled in the Daily Mail, this video of her micro-abode has gone viral.  Cohen's Manhattan apartment isn't breathtaking in terms of design. Tiny homes I've covered before (here, here) definitely take the cake on that front.  I also can't help thinking that it must be pretty hard to have... what should I say ... “company” ... in that low cielinged loft bed. But Cohen's reasons for going small are what I find most interesting.

Cohen started her experiment in micro-living as a one year thing.  That morphed into three and she shows no signs of tiring.

Cities Running Huge Risks by Ingoring Climate Change: UN Habitat Report

I'm one of the many contributing authors for this year's UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements, launched in London on Monday (see also BBC). This is the first time that the report, one of the most authoritative sources for analysis on urban issues, has focused on climate change. The picture it paints isn't pretty.

Looking to the middle of this century, and overlaying our understanding of climate change on top of the rates and locations of urban growth, the report invokes a world of “unprecedented disaster, wide-scale disruption and loss face many of the world’s cities.”


New Landmark Greenroof for Montreal

Montreal is set to build a new landmark green roof on it's eccentrically colored convention center. This summer the Palais des Congrès de Montreal – better known for being clad is huge swaths of neon multicolored glass – will be inaugurating a $200,000, 536 m2 (5 770 sq.ft) rooftop garden.

Compared to the 217 000 sq.ft. greenroof on the Vancouver convention centre, this project is still small potatoes. But at its full extent, the Palais hopes to green 13 378 m2 (144 000 sq.ft.).  If they reach that level they would be in the ranks of some of the largest non-industrial greenroofs in North America. 

Carbon Zero: A Short Tour of Your City's Future - Kickstarting A New Book

Alex Steffen, the founding editor of the excellent (who I wrote for during the blog's seven year run), has announced an interesting new project. His new book-in-the-making "Carbon Zero" is being crowd-funded over at kickstarter.  If he can raise $10,000 to cover production costs by mid-April, he's promising to put out a short readable ebook on how cities can re-design themselves to go beyond the traditional limits of piecemeal urban sustainability projects.  The ebook will be release in time for Earth Day (April 22nd).  In under a week he's already raised $7,500. 

Alex is one of North America's most dedicated and insightful public thinkers.  You can see kickstarter for a full description of the "Carbon Zero" project, and to kick in a few bucks.  I like many things about the project, but I think he's really nailed it when it comes to explaining why a book like this is needed - not in general - but right now.

Flying Car Not Included: Getting Real About Urban Sustainability

I've got a short opinion piece running in the new March/April edition of Water Canada magazine.

Water infrastructure is a favourite of mine. It tends not to be as glamorous as energy or transportation, but those pipes buried under our streets can be the building blocks for some truly amazing projects. All the more so because that potential is so hidden from view.  The piece also gave me a chance to rant a little bit about far-fetched eye-candy projects that get announced with a lot of fanfare, but little follow through.

You can read the PDF of the published piece here (.pdf).  I've posted a slightly longer version after the jump.

DIrt! The Movie: Montreal Green Drinks Feb. 22

For my Montreal readers, the local Green Drinks event tomorrow will be screening the movie Dirt!  I haven't seen it yet, but the trailer looks excellent.  Particularly the urban gardening and depaving section near the end. Reminds me of a project I was part of in Portland this past summer.  All the details are after the jump.


Cities, Green Development, & Politics: Passing the Buck or Jumpstarting Change?

I've been meaning to write about Steve Cohen (director of Columbia Universty's Earth Institute) Valentine's Day piece in the Huffington Post since it came out on Monday. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the savage grilling that Climate and Sustainability policy is getting at the Federal level in the U.S., versus the political support it's gotten in New York City.

If you've ever wondered why (some) cities seem to be able to move faster on the climate and sustainability issues it's worth a look. Cohen's point is that New York has joined the magic dots between environmental sustainability and economic wellbeing in a way that still eludes Federal politicians. At the same time cities are better placed to feel the negative impacts of declining environmental quality and climate change.

"In Washington," Cohen argues, "our environmental leaders are subject to hostility and an outmoded understanding of the connection between environmental quality and economic growth. In New York, it is clear that both the Mayor and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner understand that economic growth requires environmental quality."

Sustainable Systems as if People Mattered - WEBCAST

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) is hosting a fascinating sounding lecture next week called "Sustainable Systems as if People Mattered."  Not in Vancouver?  No worries the full proceedings will be webcast here. The full details are after the jump.


The Big Picture Approach to Cities and Climate Change

It was former London Mayor Ken Livingstone who started the ball rolling in 2007 when he announced that “Urban areas are responsible for over 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, so the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change will be won or lost in cities.”

That figure – “75%” – became the urban climate factoid of the decade.  It spread like a virus popping up again and again in newspapers, mayor's speeches, and government reports. The thing was, no one knew quite where it came from. What was the math behind the meme? Was Climate Change all cities' fault – or were they going to be the new climate heros?

A year later the number got some closer scrutiny (see here) and last month a new paper (.pdf)came out that does an excellent job of sorting out how to understand cities' responsibilities and what they can do about them.

Jane Jacobs in Cowtown

Calgary's new Mayor Naheed Nenshi seems intent on shaking things up, and the Globe and Mail this weekend has a snapshot on some of the green shifts that he is pushing in the city formerly known as Cowtown.  Walkability, denisty, transit oriented development are all on his agenda.  But in Canada's most sprawling large city he's got a bit challenge ahead.  The Globe does a great job of catching the conflict interests that will influence the city's direction, as well as Nenshi's drive to really make Clagary into a thriving city.


Canadian Cities Begin to Assess Climate Risks

Writing for The Montreal Gazette this weekend, William Marsden had an excellent front page article on the challenge that Canadian cities face to adapt to climate change.  All I can say is that its about time! In the early days, discussions about climate change – at least in wealthy northern cities – focused on reducing emissions.  There was a sense of optimism, or at least invulnerability.

That started breaking down a few years ago as cities like New York and London began assessing the impact that an unstable climate would have on them. Just before Christmas, that culminated in the release of planning guides in both the US and Canada to help cities identify vulnerability and plan was to adapt to new conditions. But while the American guide was released by ICLEI with some fanfare and press attention, the updated guide produced by Natural Resources Canada didn't make a ripple in the media landscape.

The impact that climate change is going to have on our cities is one of the big conversations that Canadians are waiting to have. Marsden's piece focuses on Montreal, but it provides a good overview of the risks faced by Canadian cities.  He goes into what can be done to address them and how we are entering into an era where low-carbon, climate adapted cities will have a clear edge when it comes to attracting both residents and investment.  The piece also bring together some interesting quotes from World Bank officials and city councilors.  

We have got a big issue here.  One that cities haven't done nearly enough yet to address, and they are being let down by a federal government which itself hasn't produced a coherent national climate change strategy. Here's hoping that the Canadian media will help us keep our eye on how it develops.  [Some excerpts after the below]

“Natural Resources Canada reports that cities in British Columbia's interior have to adapt to the increased risk of wildfires because of a drier climate; Vancouver has to improve its storm sewer systems because of increased rains and violent storms; Edmonton has lost 30,000 trees to drought and pest infestations; Regina is running out of water; the increased intensity of rainfall is causing more flooding in London, Ont.; Toronto has the country's worst heat island effects; Montreal and Quebec City experience more intense snow storms, wind storms, heat waves and torrential rain than ever before; and east coast cities like Halifax and Annapolis Royal face problems relating to sea level rise, storm surges and increased extreme weather events such as hurricanes.”

“Quebec law now requires the cities establish a perimeter beyond which the city cannot expand. DeSousa said the idea is to develop around transportation hubs so that as many people as possible can be within walking distance of a metro or commuter train station.
In the United States, it's called Transit Orientated Development (TOD). The rationale is simple: Denser cities use less energy. The problem in Quebec, however, is that the politics around restricting development is fertile ground for corruption as developers and landowners vie to have their land included within the development area.”
"If we are going to make a dent and if we are going to be able to supply a coherent series of reasons to the population, we need the federal government on side," Montreal city councillor Alan DeSousa said.

"You can imagine how much simpler our lives would be if you have a coherent, cohesive message being sent by all levels of government to the population. Not only would people better understand the impact of climate change on their daily lives but there would also be a series of integrated measures across the board that are coherent. That definitely handicaps our efforts, particularly at jurisdictions at senior levels of government where we don't have any particular role, for example in industrial emissions."

[see more adaptation related posts here.]

Climate Change & Social Strife: Tales of Tree-rings

Today in Nature's new Climate Change journal a paper has come out linking climate change  to dramatic social upheavals in the early centuries of the last millennium. A team of Swiss researchers, led by paleoclimatologist Ulf Büntgen, analyzed tree-ring data to create a year-by-year profile  of Europe's climate from 500BC until today.  They then looked at how those climatic trends related to periods of social change.  Here's what they found:

NYC BigApps 2.0: Submissions Close this Wednesday

More and more levels of government are opening up their vast stores of data to the public.  Apps competitions have quickly become a popular way to crowdsource interesting applications for all the information that we now collect. New York city started one of the world's biggest apps competitions last year, and this coming Wednesday is your last chance to get your submissions in to this year's bigger and better "BigApps 2.0".

The city has put up a $5,000 grand prize and a total of $20,000 in prize money to encourage developers to come up with creative web and mobile applications using city data.  All the info and contest rules are here.  You can expect to read more about some of the submissions in a piece on urban sustainability apps that will be coming out later this Winter. Read more...

How Big Can Cities Get? A look at the ecocities of the future

Sometimes we spend so much time looking at the challenges that cities face today, that we forget to look forward into the future and imagine what cities could be.

This week What Matters, is running a series of interesting thought pieces under the banner "How Big Can Cities Get?" Contributors include Richard Register, founder of Ecocity Builders; Dr. Dickson Despommier, from Columbia University and president of the Vertical Farm Project; and Stewart Brand, co-founder of The Long Now Foundation. Not all of their ideas will be entirely new - we've all heard about "global cities" for example - but extrapolated 50 years into the future even old ideas open up interesting questions. Some of the best moments in these essays are the glimpses they provide of how cities could become - not just "less bad" - but truly positive forces both socially and ecologically. [An idea that I explore in my earlier entry on The Living City Challenge.] I've posted a few of my favourite excerpts after the jump.

From Let’s build cities for people (not cars)
By Richard Register

Today’s cities have dense urban centers ringed by ever-expanding, car-dependent, undifferentiated miles of inefficient urban and suburban sprawl. This structure is environmentally unsustainable and not conducive to pleasurable human activity. We need to break up that sprawl into a galaxy of cities, towns, and villages. Doing so would free up vast swaths of land for parks, agriculture, and wildlife, all of which would be easily accessible to people without having to resort to long, slow, polluting car rides.
Welcome to healthy shrinking cities. We in America may be at the turning point in that wave of urban sprawl that began to engulf the countryside after the Second World War, powered by US government policies including subsidized single-family housing, massive highway-building and very cheap gasoline. Over the following decades, cities sloshed ever outward, in California for example, right up against the Sierra Foothills.

A city that is designed around the dimensions of the human body [rather than those of the private automobile] and its need for clean air and water as well as healthy food holds tremendous potential to improve the lives of its citizens as well as the health of the planet. Most environmentalists believe the best we can do with cities is to make them less damaging. In fact, well-designed cities could be net contributors to soil building and biodiversity, making them a benefit to people and nature simultaneously.

From  Cities alive!
By Dickson Despommier

What is needed, in my opinion, is a radical change in urban philosophy; one that is based on natural processes and mimics the best that nature has to offer with respect to balance. The balanced ecosystem is often referred to as a “closed loop” entity: everything the system needs to thrive—water, food, energy, et cetera—already exists within it (rather than being trucked in!) and is constantly recycled. I would encourage all city planners and developers to take a long, hard look into the ways in which ecosystems behave. It is the model for how we should be handling things like water management, energy utilization, and the recycling of waste into usable resources.

In an ecosystem, assemblages of plants and animals are linked together by a common thread: the sharing of nutrients, the transfer of energy from sunlight to plants and then to animals, and the recycling of all the elements needed to ensure the survival of the next generation of those living within the boundaries of that geographically defined area. With available technologies, we can now bio-mimic an ecosystem’s best features. If cities learned to take advantage of these new technologies, then we would be well on our way to sustainability into the next millennium.

From In the markets of the meta city
By Robert Neuwirth

Most of the urban centers in these fast growing meta-cities have one very visible trait in common. Each is ringed by dense, ever-expanding squatter communities where large portions of the city’s population—and economy—reside. Squatter communities and shantytowns are now home to 800 million people and are projected to grow by 16,000 people every day for the foreseeable future.
Is this a vision of a planet gone haywire, of cities grown so big that they cross over to the dark side? What will the quality of life be like in these high-density, low-infrastructure environments? How will these increasingly dense and unnatural cities allocate resources, define development, or manage the environment? How big can they grow?

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand that it’s not size, density, or material conditions that are the true issue. The future will be determined by the extent to which these massive agglomerations take the idea of democracy seriously. Squatter cities and informal markets will represent an increasing portion of the population and the economy. It will simply not be possible to ignore them as in the past.

As S’bu Zikode, leader of the courageous South African squatter organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo put it in a recent speech: “One cannot begin any meaningful discussion of the urban crisis while the poor continue to be excluded form the conversations that are meant to build the very new urban order that is for all. This discussion can only begin once the dispossessed, those who do not count, count.” In a DIY environment, the urban future calls for deep democracy. Only then will the slipknot issues of development, land, and the environment be confronted with diligence, justice, and equity.

Bixi Wraps Up An Excellent Year: But What's Behind the Numbers?

[In the spirit of ushering out the old and showing in the new, this week I'm going to be putting up short posts on interesting stories that got lost in the shuffle during the end of 2010.] 

Bixi wrapped up an excellent year in 2010. Shortly after the last snow covered bikes were corralled into storage at the end of November a string of excellent numbers was announced:
30,000 members, 3.3million trips, $1million in profits, loan repayments to begin 3 years ahead of schedule, 7 new systems installed in major cities around the world, and $104million in loan guarantees from the municipality to help speed it's international expansion.

You can get a full breakdown of those numbers, as well as the way that BIXI (a private non-profit) works with the city of Montreal in this detailed piece by Gazette transportation reporter Andy Riga.  There is no doubt, the numbers look great.  But it's worth asking if they are measuring the right thing - are they telling us anything about BIXI's longterm future, or its impact on urban mobility?

Here are three things that are being left out:

- Transportation Remixed:  People talk about "transportation cocktails."  The term is a bit too Tom Cruise for my liking, but the idea is important. Coming up with convenient ways for people to mix different modes of transportation can help get us out of our cars, reduce congestion, and make public transit accessible in difficult to serve areas (like low density residential areas).  The question is, is BIXI helping?  Is it acting as a bridge to get people from, say, commuter trains to work?  Or from their homes to the metro?

The answer is "It doesn't look like it.  But we aren't sure."  You can see more on this here.  But the short story is that more work needs to be done to weave BIXI into the way people use other forms of transportation, and BIXI itself needs to open up its rich collection of user data so that Planners and Researchers can help figure out how that could happen.

- Money Talks: If you are interested in BIXI more generally - not just BIXI when it is at home in Montreal - then the financing of the system is crucial.  Montreal's system is largely subsidized by the sale of the BIXI system in other cities around the world.  That's great. But what about London, say, or Minneapolis?

Public transportation generally is not a money making venture. It's a cost justified by the fact that it makes our cities livable, accessible, less polluted, and generally more enjoyable places.  How does money spent on BIXI stack up against money spent on more bike paths?  Or on increased bus service? A well planned public bike system has the ability to truly expand the reach and quality of public transportation.  We've got to see it that way, and make sure we are really getting our money's worth.

-- Show Me The Data!: One of the secrets to BIXI's success is an elegant system of real time data collection. Currently though, that data is not being made public. That is a huge loss. BIXI should follow the lead of cities like Vancouver and New York in embracing the Open Data movement. Crowd-sourcing apps for mobile devices has become part of our everyday lives.  I can't think of any easier way for BIXI to expand its effectiveness and its appeal than to let people remix its data.  Could there maybe be a BIXI apps competition on the horizon for 2011?  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Heating With Sewage: Vancouver System is Hot Sh*@t

[In the spirit of ushering out the old and showing in the new, this week I'm going to be putting up short posts on interesting stories that got lost in the shuffle during the end of 2010.]

In the lead up to Vancouver's 2010 Olympics, the strangest announcement was  that the Athletes' Village was going to be heated with sewage. Or heat recovered from sewage, to be precise. In the flurry of hype about gold medals and snow capped mountains, Vancouverites unexpectedly found themselves pondering "just how hot was that flush anyway? Head in the clouds one moments, mind in the gutter the next.

It turns out though, the city was on the money. After almost one year of operation, the system is running so well that it is now charging clients less than they would pay if they were heating with electricity bought from BC Hydro (the provincial electricity utility). You can find more details on the Vancouver system here and here, as well the one in Oslo that inspired it. (Note: in first link, the rates should read 8.7 cents per kWh for electricity, 8.4 cents for sewage heat.)

These types of systems are both cheaper and easier to install than geothermal heating. Also -- although it isn't a very inspiring thought -- large volumes of sewage may also be one of the few truly urban energy sources out there. Another interesting facet to the story is that Vancouver had originally hoped to have biomass generation as well, but residents objected due to air quality concerns. Sewage heat on the other hand may not be very glamorous, but it is also unlikely to rouse any public opposition.

There are only 4 of these systems in operation world wide. But if municipalities can make a profit while still charging consumers less than they pay for electricity, I'd guess that number is going to grow.

[While working in South Africa, I blogged about another approach the sewer pipe power.]


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.

Browse Older Posts