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.