Category Archives: Cities

Building Transformation: CO2 emissions and change

According to the US government’s new report North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle buildings in North America contribute 37% of total CO2 emissions, while US buildings correspond to 10% of all global emissions (for more see Andrew Revkin’s weblog). This fact means that improving the environmental efficiency (in terms of carbon intensity) in the US has a big potential to reduce global emissions. The summary of Chapter 9 of the report writes:

The buildings sector of North America was responsible for annual carbon dioxide emissions of 671 million tons of carbon in 2003, which is 37% of total North American carbon dioxide emissions and 10% of global emissions. United States buildings alone are responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than total carbon dioxide emissions of any other country in the world, except China.

USA CO2 emission sources

Carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in buildings in the United States and Canada increased by 30% from 1990 to 2003, an annual growth rate of 2.1% per year. Carbon dioxide emissions from buildings have grown with energy consumption, which in turn is increasing with population and income. Rising incomes have led to larger residential buildings and increased household appliance ownership.

These trends are likely to continue in the future, with increased energy efficiency of building materials and equipment and slowing population growth, especially in Mexico, only partially offsetting the general growth in population and income.

Options for reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of new and existing buildings include increasing the efficiency of equipment and implementing insulation and passive design measures to provide thermal comfort and lighting with reduced energy. Current best practices can reduce emissions from buildings by at least 60% for offices and 70% for homes. Technology options could be supported by a portfolio of policy options that take advantage of cooperative activities, avoid unduly burdening certain sectors, and are cost effective.

On WorldChanging Patrick Rollens writes the scale of expected construction in the USA. While construction contributes to CO2 emmissions, new infrastructure that is CO2 neutral or negative can substantially reduce emissions. Rollens reports on estmates that suggest that in about half of all buildings existing in 25 yearswill be new. This offers a great opportunity for both green building, but also building more green urban areas. In Remaking the Built Environment by 2030 he writes:

By 2030, about half of the buildings in America will have been built after 2000. This statistic, courtesy of Professor Arthur C. Nelson’s report for the Brookings Institution, means that over the next 25 years, we will be responsible for re-creating half the volume of our built environment.

The report has been around since 2004, but Nelson re-examined his own findings last year to see if the housing market’s downturn impacted the forecast. The sheer volume was essentially unchanged, and the mainstreaming of the green movement that’s occurred in the last two years presents a colossal challenge–and a magnificent opportunity–for the burgeoning sustainable building industry.

Nelson’s report states that the country will need about 427 billion square feet of space (up from 2000’s total volume of just 300 billion). Moreover, only a small portion of this space can be acquired by renovating existing real estate. We’re already well on our way; the U.S. Green Building Council estimates that we’re developing about twice times as fast as the associated population growth. Every new building built between now and 2030 should be seen as an opportunity to push the envelope and transform our structured world.

Mike Davis on California Wildfires

California firesPolitical ecologist Mike Davis writing on the 2007 California Wildfires in the LRB

Every year, sometimes in September, but usually in October just before Halloween, when California’s wild vegetation is driest and most combustible, high pressure over the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau unleashes an avalanche of cold air towards the Pacific coast. As this huge air mass descends, it heats up through compression, creating the illusion that we are being roasted by outbursts from nearby deserts, when in fact the devil winds originate in the land of the Anasazi – the mystery people who left behind such impressive ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.There is little enigma to the physics of the winds, though their sudden arrival is always disturbing to greenhorns and nervous pets as well as to lorry drivers and joggers (sometimes scythed by razor-sharp palm fronds). Technically, they are ‘föhns’, after the warm winds that stream down from the leeward side of the Alps, but the Southern California term is a ‘Santa Ana’, probably in ironic homage to Mexico’s singularly disastrous 19th-century caudillo. For a few days every year, these dry hurricanes blow our world apart or, if a cigarette or a downed power line is in the path, they ignite it.

…The loss of more than 90 per cent of Southern California’s agricultural buffer zone is the principal if seldom mentioned reason wildfires increasingly incinerate such spectacular swathes of luxury real estate. It’s true that other ingredients – La Niña droughts, fire suppression (which sponsors the accumulation of fuel), bark beetle infestations and probably global warming – contribute to the annual infernos that have become as predictable as Guy Fawkes bonfires. But what makes us most vulnerable is the abruptness of what is called the ‘wildland-urban interface’, where real estate collides with fire ecology. And castles without their glacises are not very defensible.

And in Mike Davis writes about the dynamics of California’s real estate “growth machine” (a sociological theory of urban devleopment) that has produced the pyrogenic landscape of California:

The imbalance of power is greater yet at the county scale. In the wake of the last round of firestorms in 2003, a grassroots alliance of environmentalists and old-time rural residents tried to slow the subdivision and trophy-home juggernaut by limiting residential density to one home per 100 acres: an initiative inspired by the famous precedent of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They were, however, utterly crushed at the polls (65% to 35%) by a flood of developer money, which disguised itself in ads on television as the voice of embattled “small farmers.”

More recently, on the very eve of the new firestorms, county supervisors endorsed a so-called “shelter in place” strategy that will permit developers to build in the rugged, high-fire-risk backcountry without having to provide the secondary roads needed to ensure safe evacuation. Instead residents would be encouraged to stay in their “fire resistant” homes while fire-fighters defended the perimeter of their cul-de-sac. As scores of fire experts and survivors have pointed out in angry op-ed columns and blogs, this is a lunatic, if not homicidal, scheme that elevates developers’ bottom-lines over human life. Those who have actually confronted 100-foot-high firestorms, driven by hurricane-velocity winds, know that the developer slogan — “It’s not where you build, but how you build” — is a deadly deception.

Meanwhile, the new fire cataclysm seems to be rewarding the very insiders most responsible for the uncontrolled building and underfunded fire protection that helped give the Santa Ana winds their real tinder. While conservative ideologues now celebrate San Diego’s most recent tragedy as a “triumph” of middle-class values and suburban solidarity, the business community openly gloats over the coming reconstruction boom and the revival of a building industry badly shaken by the mortgage crisis. And the Union-Tribune — like London papers after the slaughter that was the battle of the Somme in 1915 — eulogizes the very generalship (all Republicans, of course) that led us into disaster. …

How slow change increased California’s fire risk

California firesThe Christian Science Monitor article California’s age of megafires describes how California’s fire risk has been increased by slow changes in fire suppression (but probably not in California), climate change, longer fire season, and house construction in the wildland-urban interface:

Megafires, also called “siege fires,” are the increasingly frequent blazes that burn 500,000 acres or more – 10 times the size of the average forest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggest in California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures and news reports.The trend to more superhot fires, experts say, has been driven by a century-long policy of the US Forest Service to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. The unintentional consequence was to halt the natural eradication of underbrush, now the primary fuel for megafires.

Three other factors contribute to the trend, they add. First is climate change marked by a 1-degree F. rise in average yearly temperature across the West. Second is a fire season that on average is 78 days longer than in the late 1980s. Third is increased building of homes and other structures in wooded areas.

“We are increasingly building our homes … in fire-prone ecosystems,” says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that “in many of the forests of the Western US … is like building homes on the side of an active volcano.”

In California, where population growth has averaged more than 600,000 a year for at least a decade, housing has pushed into such areas.

“What once was open space is now residential homes providing fuel to make fires burn with greater intensity,” says Terry McHale of the California Department of Forestry firefighters union. “With so much dryness, so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almost incredible job.”

Cell-phone banking

The Christian Science Monitor has an Oct 12 article, Unserved by banks, poor Kenyans now just use a cellphone, about how Keynas are using cell phones to conduct banking. Cell phones allow Kenyans to transfer cash and conduct business across long distances. This trend is significant because mobile phone ownership is rapidly growing in Africa and today about 1/5 of Africa’s population has access to a mobile phone.

With a click of a cellphone key, Bernard Otieno makes the transfer – sending funds instantly from his residence in a sprawling Nairobi slum to his wife, who holds down their rural family farm some 250 miles away.

Mr. Otieno, a security guard who works the night shift, used to risk carrying cash on infrequent, slow trips to his hometown or pay high rates to send money through the post office.

Now, he’s one of a growing number of Kenyans tapping into a service called M-PESA – M for “mobile” and pesa for “cash” in Swahili. Launched this year, it’s one of the world’s first cellphone-to-cellphone cash-transfer services for people who lack access to conventional banks.

Indeed, the initial success of M-PESA has surprised even those who helped set it up. “We have now [the number of customers that] we thought we’d have in January,” says Gerald Rasugu, the manager for all M-PESA agents nationwide. M-PESA serves more than 450,000 customers, well over the target of 100,000 set at launch, says Michael Joseph, CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest cellphone provider, which started M-PESA. He expects to have 1 million customers by January. “I wonder sometimes if people understand how big this can be,” he says.

The potential goes beyond M-PESA and Kenya. Once poor people have more access to financial products offered through trusted banking systems, investors soon follow, creating jobs, say economists.

“There’s a very clear correlation between a more developed financial sector and GDP growth,” says Thorsten Beck, a senior economist at the World Bank in Washington.

via My Heart’s in Accra

Society and Environment (ENVR 201) reading list

This semester I am co-teaching the first year course Society and the Environment in the McGill School of Environment. I teach a diverse set of lectures that are mainly focussed on commons, urban ecosystems, and resilience, but also include cost-benefit analysis and ecological futures. My colleagues cover a whack of other topics. Below are the assinged readings for my sections of the course.

Making environmental decisions: Assessing costs & benefits (1)

  • Leung, B., Lodge, D.M., Finnoff, D., Shogren, J.F., Lewis, M, Lamberti, G. 2002. An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure: bioeconomic risk analysis of invasive species. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 269:2407-2413

Managing the Commons (3)

  • Hardin, G. 1968. Tragedy of the commons.. Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248.
  • Feeny, D, 1990. The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited: Twenty Years Later. Human Ecology. 18:1-19
  • Dietz, Thomas., Elinor Ostrom, Paul C. Stern. 2003. “The Struggle to Govern the Commons.” Science. 302(5652): 1907-1912.

Urban Ecosystems (3)

  • Davis, M.. 2004. Planet of slums. New Left Review 26, March-April.
  • Lee, K. N. 2006. Urban sustainability and the limits of classical environmentalism. Environment and Urbanization; 18(1) 9-22
  • Jannson et al 1999 Linking Freshwater Flows and Ecosystem Services Appropriated by People: The Case of the Baltic Sea Drainage Basin. Ecosystems 2(4) 351-366.
  • Colding, Johan, Jakob Lundberg, and Carl Folke. 2006 Incorporating Green-area User Groups in Urban Ecosystem Management AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: 35(5) 237–244.

Resilience and Surprise (4)

Ecological Futures (1)

Imagining Future Cites

Black Hawk DownAre there any movies, video games, tv shows, etc that have a positive visions of urban futures?

There are plenty of negative ones. Mike Davis thinks Black Hawk Down represents a new icon of the urban future to replace Blade Runner as the city of the future. From BLDGBLOG: Interview with Mike Davis: Part 1:

BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there’s a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it’s an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

And, does anyone know of any pieces of popular art that represent a positive vision of an urban future?

Lessons of Katrina

From TimeIt was roughly two years ago that New Orleans spectactularly failed to cope, technologically and socially, with Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,8oo people died, neighbourhoods and livlihoods were destroyed, and the storm is estimated to have caused over $80 billion in damage.

One of the fundamental principles of successful ecological management is learning from your mistakes, and incorporating those lessons into management practices. Two recent retrospectives, one in Time and the other in Mother Jones, on what has followed the storm indicate not a lot has been learned by the various institutions responsible the ecological management of the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

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Rooftop gardening in Montreal

Rooftop garden at McGillMontreal’s Rooftop gardening project has had a demonstration garden outside my office at McGill this summer. Montreal is very dense, it has a lack of gardening space, but many people have balconies and external staircases where they can have gardens. The rooftop gardeners aim to produce good healthy food, in a way that also improves urban environmental quality.

The Rooftop gardening project have been working with McGill Architecture’s global edible landscapes project, which is workingin Colombo, Sri Lanka; Kampala, Uganda and Rosario, Argentina, as well as Montreal. The McGill reporter had an article Garden of eating about the project in May 2007.

The Rooftop gardening project have made a film about their work Des Jardins sur les toit (Rooftop gardens) – it is in French with English subtitles.

Photos from the Montreal Rooftop gardening project and the AASHE weblog.

Ranking University Sustainability

A new report provides a College Sustainability Report Card that ranks 100 “leading universities” in North America on their campus environment and how they invest their endowments.

Schools are graded (from “A” to “F”) in seven categories. Four of the categories are on campus operations (administration, green building, food and recycling, and climate change and energy policies) and three endowment related categories (endowment transparency, shareholder engagement, and investment priorities). The report shows that while many universities are improving their operations, most schools do not have clear policies on how they invest their money.

McGill, Univ. of Toronto, and UBC were the only Canadian universites ranked. On campus policies UBC was by far the best (achieving all A’s on the on campus part of its evaluation), and was one of the top universities in North America. In Canada, UT was 2nd (receiving an A in administration and B’s in the other 3 categories. McGill was 3rd (last) with B’s in administration and food and recycling, and C’s in climate & energy and green building.

None of the Canadian universities do well in their endowment policies. However, McGill does better under these criteria (with no failing grades), while UT failed in endowment transparency and UBC failed in both in shareholder engagement and endowment transparency. Combining both these scores, UT and UBC tie, and McGill comes last – with overall grades of B-, B-, and C+.

Compared to all North American schools evaluated, UBC placed at the top, and UT and McGill in the lower middle.

Hopefully future issues of the Macleans Canadian university rankings will include evaluations of all Canadian universitiy sustainability practices and polices.

The full 120-page Report Card can be downloaded as can invidual school report cards.

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