Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities that can Save the Planet

Alex Steffen, the man behind the excellent inertia defying and inspiring WorldChanging blog, has just released his new book.

Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities that can Save the Planet is a short punchy introduction to some of the most important ideas that are shaping how we are thinking about, and creating, green cities.

I worked with Alex on (the now sadly defunct) WorldChanging, and I also had a chance to give some feedback on early stages of CarbonZero. After almost two years of work the book is done, and it's a real success.

Look at what discussions of "green cities" focused on in the 1990s and compare that to today and you'll see a huge shift. We've gone from talking about one-off projects (think LED traffic lights) to complex and interconnected visions of cites that are simultaneously livable, efficient, and productive (economically, socially, and environmentally).

It's been an exciting transition, and one that (finally) is getting us closer to realizing the transformative potential of city-regions. Anyone wanting a quick but still insightful flyover of this new way of looking at urban sustainability should take a look at CarbonZero.

The full text is up over at Grist, and you can also buy the digital version here.


Sustainable Urban Resilience: A Contradiction in Terms?

David Bello, Associate Editor over at Scientific American, has an interesting post up today looking at the supposed tensions between “resilience” and “sustainability”. His argument in a nutshell is that precisely the characteristics that make many urban systems resilient can also make them deeply unsustainable from an environmental point of view.

He's right, sort of. But really what's at stake here is a redefinition of how we build resilience into our urban systems.

It's not so much a contradiction as an evolution. Let me show you what I mean.

Seriously Cycling: Bikes Are Getting More Attention All Across Canada

[Here's my latest post over at @SustainableCitiesCanada ]

Anyone who has been cycling in Canadian cities over the past fifteen years knows that things are changing.

When I left Montreal for Vancouver in 2002 the city's streets were still an aggressive dance between bike couriers, cars, and cyclists who wanted to ride like couriers (I'll sheepishly admit to being one of them). Downtown cycling was only for the brave.

But by the time I returned in 2010 a sea change had occurred: in less than a decade the city had added over 600 kms of bike paths, many covering crucial commuter corridors that connect the length and breadth of the island.

It was like being in another world. Instead of weaving through traffic, I found myself in a curb separated lane with my own set of traffic signals. Cycling – in other words – had become an integral part of the city's transportation strategy.

Live in Montreal Tonight at 7pm

If you are in Montreal and would like to hear me speak, tonight is your chance!

I'll be giving a talk called "Exceptions that change the rules." I'll be using stories from cities in Canada, the US, and South Africa to look at how municipalities and communities go beyond marginal changes and help create what I'm calling "deeply sustainable" cities.

 i.e. cities that do more than make minor tweaks around the edges and start to get at more transformative and innovative goals.

It will be at 7pm, Oct. 3, at the Westmount Public Library (4574 Sherbrooke O., Westmount).  All the details are also in the poster (.pdf) Read more...

METRO MTL: The Boardgame!

Montrealer's and transit geeks will love this.  Yes, it's a boardgame inspired by Montreal's iconic metro. I discovered the other day at Chez Boris, a hip little Russian Coffeeshop that's part of Montreal's nascent 'nouveau doughnut' scene.

 The goal is simple, whoever gets to their destination and back home again fastest wins. Along the way you collect transit tickets, bonuses and penalties ("you are caught smoking, loose five transit tickets").

Rebel Gardens: Veggies that Change Policies

Last month I was interviewed by Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper about an unusual case of "guerilla" gardening.  A couple, in the nearby town of Drummondville, had transformed the grassy verge in front of their home into a stunning vegetable garden (and it really is a beautiful garden) [english coverage].

The city council was outraged.

In return for their efforts, the city threatened them with fines of up to $300 per day until they covered over their garden with what regulations said was supposed to be in front of their house... namely: grass. But the story ended well.


Hack Your City: An Interview with David Eaves

[I've turned to David Eaves many times over the past few years to swap ideas and get some insights into the goals and impact of the open data movement.  He's amazingly busy these days, but after a few tries (across multiple continents) we managed to find a time to do this interview. Thanks David!  -- originally @SustainableCitiesCanada).]

Earlier this Summer I blogged about what providing open access to public data could do for urban sustainability. Since then New York held its first green hackathon, and Montreal is set to follow suit.
The overlap between the green cities and open data movements is something of a terra incognita: there's lots of potential, but we are only just starting to explore it.

I recently caught up with open data expert David Eaves to talk about green urbanism and open data in more detail. Based in Vancouver, Eaves is an internationally recognized consultant and activist in the field. We've spoken a few times over the years. Despite being amazingly busy, I've always found him to be thoughtful and insightful. Squeezed in between back to back trips to China and Washington, our most recent conversation was no exception.

Alex Aylett: What are the best examples of what open data can accomplish in cities?

Biophilic Cities: This is Your City on Nature

[I wrapped up last week getting into research on biophilia and biophilic cities. The post originally went up over at @SustainableCitiesCanada. The impact that lush green spaces have on us is impressive. Well beyond what I would have expected. It seems, according to comments on the original piece, that even eating dirt is good for us.]
Another summer city weekend is almost here. Chances are there is a park in your future: urban parks offer the ultimate escape from the noise and the heat. Great parks are a defining feature of great cities – Montreal’s Mount Royal, Stanley Park in Vancouver, the Retiro in Madrid or whatever your favourite green spot is in your own neighbourhood.

But there is more going on than Frisbee and picnics. A growing number of studies show that time spent in natural settings measurably improves our ability to concentrate, our sense of wellbeing and even fights depression. We are, in a word, a biophylic species, hard wired to draw support from contact with the natural world.


EcoDistricts: All Green, All in One Place

[I was in Portland when the EcoDistrict project was launched and have been following it ever since.  It's still in its early days, but I think it's a great approach to speed the evolution of our cities. Originally posted  @SustainableCitiesCanada.]

You've probably seen pictures of London's BedZED , or Malmo's Western Harbour redevelopment. Showpiece green developments like those have put urban sustainability in the international spotlight.

But all around them is a larger city that also needs to evolve radically if we are going to make sustainable cities a reality. Otherwise the substance is missing; you've got the cherry on top, but no Sunday underneath.

The magic of developments like BedZED, or projects like Victoria's Dockside Green here in Canada, is that they do it all, and all in one place. Renewable energy, walkable vibrant density, multiple transportation options, urban agriculture, green buildings.... all woven together into a whole that is inspiring and effective. Rather than piecemeal interventions you get a picture of what a fundamentally different city could look like.

But how can you apply the same holistic approach to the neighbourhoods and districts that we already have? Portland (OR) is one of a small number of cities pioneering efforts to answer that question.


Canadian Cities Lead on Planning for Climate Impacts

[I was suprised to see Canadian cities come out in the lead on adaptation.  But also a bit disturbed to see just how nascent these efforts are, not just here, but globally.  We've got a long way to go... @ sustainable cities canada]

Canadian cities are world leaders in preparing for the impacts of climate change. That is according to a new report from M.I.T. [.pdf] . The report provides the first global survey of what cities are doing to prepare for a more volatile climate. But while Canadian cities may be leaders, action everywhere is still in its infancy. There is a striking gap between the serious risks cities need to prepare for and the resources available for the job.

Not long ago people didn't want to talk about adapting to climate change. In some cities – particularly in wealthy Northern countries – there was a sense of optimism and invulnerability. Discussing adaptation was also taboo; it was seen to take away from efforts to reduce our emissions. It was like admitting defeat.

But with global efforts to cap emissions failing, that began to change.

Green Cities, Open Data

[How the Open Data movement can fuel the push for more sustainable cities is something that I been mulling over for years. I finally had the chance to write something on it for Sustainable Cities Canada.]

Toronto is the least bikeable of Canada's large cities, and we've got the numbers to prove it. Released earlier this month, Bikescore is an online calculator that ranks the overall bikeability of North American cities. Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal lead the pack in Canada (T.O. comes in at 7th place, well after Saskatoon, Calgary and Halifax). With eye-catching “heat maps” Bikescore also looks inside the top 10 Canadian and American cities to show where cyclists will feel most at home.

The maps themselves are excellent and well worth a browse. But beyond that, Bikescore is an example of what is happening at the overlap of urban sustainability and another force that is reshaping how we inhabit our cities: the open data movement. [keep reading @SSC or...]

Beyond Urban Agriculture

[Here's the next installment in the ongoing series that I am contributing to the Sustainable Cities Canada site. It plays on some of the same issues that Afton mentioned in her earlier post.  But I wanted to push the accepted boundaries of what we discuss under the heading "urban agriculture" and make the case that the new interest in growing food in cities can also energize broader regional food strategies.]

Growing food in cities has become sexy. Sexy to a degree that I would never have predicted even a few years ago. The internet is overrun with pictures of futuristic farmscrapers and creatives in Manhattan are growing hydroponic lettuce in their loft windows. In parts of Montreal heirloom tomatoes are as much of a status symbol as purebred pets.

But underneath this glossy skin there is a potentially profound change in how we think about cities. Largely seen as places of consumption, more and more people are beginning to open their eyes to the productive potential of urban spaces. Spurred by concerns over food security, climate change, or just plain nutritional value, urban agriculture is maturing into an established part of cities across Canada and around the world. But its true impact is still to come. Continue reading @ SSC or...

Cities and Food Systems Planning - Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

[Recently back from Tanzania, Afton Halloran is an Affiliated Researcher in the research program that I direct for Sustainable Cities International. She has an interesting post over on the SCI blog about why cities need to engage with food systems planning, and how urban agriculture figures in that equation. A taste is below.]

“We live in cities because rural livelihoods are no longer viable, but who produces the food?”

Although the modern city provides a multitude of opportunities, we are now on our way to creating a negative feedback loop that is more visible in the global North than South – we are ignoring what fuels our society: Food. So what do we do?

Obviously, de-urbanisation is out of the question. We are now left to acknowledge the rural-urban continuum and the interconnectedness of agriculture at the regional level.

Experimental Cities

[Below is a post that I just wrote for I've been thinking about this idea that cities can function as laboratories for developing policies for a while now. It's an interesting alternative or complement to more traditional top-down approaches to planning. But beyond novelty, I think if used well it has the possibility to  push urban sustainability policies past their often modest beginnings.]

There is still a lot we don't know about building cities that are truly sustainable. Sure we've got a basic outline: effective public transit, dense mixed-use neighbourhoods, local renewable energy, green buildings...

Those are essential general principles.

But figuring out how to apply them at scale within our existing cityscapes is an enormous challenge. And even then they will only get us part of the way. We also need to ask how we can go beyond current best practices to spark even more transformative change?


Green Urban Innovation: Solarize Portland and the Power of Communities

I was in New York earlier this month to present at the Association of American Geographers big annual conference. As well as an excellent stroll along the High Line (thanks Gena!), I got to talk about Solarize Portland -- one of my favourite examples of how people can reshape their cities in unexpected ways. I've posted a slidecast below.

View another webinar from Alex Aylett
Solarize – as you can guess from the name – is a neighbourhood-scale solar energy program. I've written about it here before. It's an empowering example of what people are capable of when they work collectively in their communities.

Farming in the City: Make environmental legislation flexible!

Cities are blanketed by a mesh of rules. Some of them are well known and clearly signaled (think traffic lights). Others only become visible when you start asking questions about your city.  "Why aren't there trees on my street?" "How come there aren't any corner stores in my neighbourhood?"

On narrower streets in the Mile-End neighbourhood of Montreal (where I live) when old trees die they aren't replaced. Seems strange not to replant, until you find out one thing: to plant a street tree you need sidewalks that are a minimum of two meters wide. Now you know.

In Copenhagen other kinds of regulations are slowing the spread of urban agriculture. Afton Halloran, a researcher that is part of the SCI research network that I direct, has just come out with an interesting analysis of the situation. Writing in Politiken (Denmark’s largest newspaper) she and two colleagues from the University of Copenhagen argue that overly cautious environmental regulations are sacrificing the many benefits of urban agriculture. I've posted an excerpt after the jump and you can read the full translation of the article over on the SCI blog.

Chicago Kills Coal

Great news out of Chicago yesterday. After a two-and-a-half year campaign, a well networked citizens campaign has managed to secure the closure of two outdated and heavily polluting coal-fired power plants.

The Fisk and Crawford power plants are located in residential neighbourhoods on Chicago's Southwest Side. They are relics from a time when horses and carriages still out-numbered cars on the city's streets. Built in 1903, their emissions are the cause of high levels of respiratory illness, asthma, cancer, and heart disease. They are a significant source of carbon emissions.

Rivers Forgotten - The Underground World Beneath City Streets

I was in Toronto last week and finally had a chance to get my hands on Rivers Forgotten, Jeremy Kai's stunning book of underground photos (Koyama Press, 2011).

Kai has spent years exploring the cavernous system of storm sewers that run below Toronto's streets. Working in very challenging conditions, he has produced a book that is gritty, beautiful, and adventurous. There is something almost magical about the way he reveals a hidden world that has always been there, right beneath our feet.

Cities are in many ways a sort of illusion.

Community Scale Solar: Portland (OR) and Durban (South Africa)

[A piece I wrote is running in the most recent edition of UN-Habitat's Urban World magazine.  The article covers a gutsy and successful residential solar project in Portland (OR), and a similar project that I gave a hand with in Durban (South Africa). OK, I admit I'm a bit late putting this up. But the craziness of finishing my PhD in December meant that the edition initially slipped under my radar. You can download the article here (.pdf), or read a slightly expanded version below.]

Until recently, when we talked about urban responses to climate change, the focus was on what the city government was doing to improve its own operations. Mayors from around the world talked about the huge impact that cities could have, but concrete projects were more modest: energy-efficient traffic lights here, a few green municipal buildings there.

The discrepancy isn't hard to explain.

Yes cities have a huge footprint, but municipalities only control a small fraction of it. Really transformative change needs to happen at the level of communities all across a city – not just in city hall.


Quebec's New Electric Car Network: Therapy for Range Anxiety

Electric cars have always seemed like a natural for Quebec. Nearly all of the province's electricity comes from hydro, and 40% of its GHG emissions come from transportation. In a jurisdiction where electricity is coal-fired things are less straight forward and you end up debating the merits of running cars on coal. In Quebec electric vehicles (EVs) are a clear win. But the province had been lagging behind other spots like Oregon, California, British Columbia, or New York. 

What sense does it make that a city like Portland (where 44% of the electricity comes from coal) has electric car charging points and Montreal doesn't?  That question had been irking me for years.

But that all changed two weeks ago, when the province announced what will be the largest public electric car charging network in Canada.

Republicans and Democrats Together on Climate Florida

It's easy to forget that climate change hasn't always been  such a partisan issue. This is Mitt Romney, current Republican front-runner, in 2003: “I think the global warming debate is now pretty much over and people recognize the need associated with providing sources [of energy] which do not generate the heat that is currently provided by fossil fuels.”

Good luck trying to get him to say anything remotely similar today. The closer he gets to leading the Republicans in the next US election, the more he is distancing himself from climate policy.

But an article by Micheal Lemonick on Yale's E360 shows unlikely partnerships forming between Republicans and Democrats in the US as lower levels of government begin to tackle the need to climate proof their cities and counties.


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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