Category Archives: cities

Learning from each other

Solar Panels used as Parking Shade

(Photo credit: "Solar Panels used as Parking Shade," Flickr/Great Valley Center Image Bank")

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging muses (after a conversation with Cory Doctorow) on just how suburbs and exurbs hard-hit by expensive energy could be rebuilt into (greater) self-reliance:

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Here’s the fledgling Outquisition website.

I share the optimism about human ingenuity that is WorldChanging’s bedrock premise, and my libertarian inclinations lead me to love the idea of individuals and communities learning to do for themselves, rather than relying on large-scale systems — governmental or corporate — to sort out the hard stuff for them. A talented society is a resilient society.

The preachiness is a bit of a put-off, though, the idea that the suburbs are a kingdom of the damned who need to be shown the light by people from “the comfy bright green cities.” Most people in cities don’t know how to grow anything much or wire solar panels or filter rainwater for drinking any more than your typical suburbanite does, and the suburbanites have the advantage, mixed though it is, of generally having more land.

I suspect city folk will need to hire more than a few experts from “climate-smacked farm communities” to show them how a few things are done.

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Making transit an appealing choice

Photo credit: “Old Bus,” Flickr/Mike9Alive

Tim Haab at Environmental Economics relates an anecdote about a car-loving friend switching to a form of mass transit:

“There’s a luxury coach service that has a park and ride stop 6 miles from my house.  The bus is equipped with laptop hook-ups and comfortable seats.  It takes 45 minutes to get downtown and it drops me off at the door to my office.  And it only cost $5 roundtrip.  Also I’m working at home 2 days a week.”

So now I’m doing the math.  That’s a savings of $16.50 a commuting day ($5 in fare plus $2 in gas).  He’s saving $96.50 a week.  $4,439 a year.

This is somebody with a pretty tremendous commute, making the trip at increasingly staggering expense. And still, it’s the luxury coach service that gets him onto the bus.

You shouldn’t make public policy based on anecdotes (even if that’s what politicians do all the time), but there’s plenty of history to suggest that it’s this kind of service that’s most likely to get drivers out of their cars — not a crowded, hot, smelly old bus where they might even have to stand for much of the trip, but a pleasant luxury coach, if not an even more comfortable train. The premium people are willing to pay for comfort is very significant. With the rising cost of gasoline, more people are butting up against their limits, but it’s still not a choice based on pure financial rationalism.

So that’s the challenge for cities and regional authorities hoping to save road money, make planning more efficient, and clean up their air: they’re not just in the business of making transit available, they’re in the business of making it desirable. And in that regard, they’ve got an awful lot to learn from the private sector.

Greening the ‘burbs

Interesting story in the Sunday New York Times on efforts among suburbanites to make their low-density communities greener.

Since 2005, the mayors of hundreds of suburban communities across America have pledged to meet or even beat the emissions goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In November, Levittown, N.Y., the model postwar suburb, declared its intentions to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent this year. And a few suburban pioneers are choosing solar heating for their pools, clotheslines for their backyard, or hybrid cars for their commute.

But the problem with suburbs, many environmentalists say, is not an issue of light bulbs. In the end, the very things that make suburban life attractive — the lush lawns, spacious houses and three-car garages — also disproportionally contribute to global warming. Suburban life, these environmentalists argue, is simply not sustainable.

Where the environment’s concerned, I’m of two minds (for civic budgeting, I’m not — the suburbs are a major problem for city budgets). They’re certainly unsustainable in their current form, but they’re also where an awful lot of the famous low-hanging fruit is. If current suburbanites just went with xeriscaping instead of heavily chemicalized lawns, kitted themselves out with high-efficiency heating, went with fans instead of air conditioning, and drove fuel-efficient cars, we might find that went a long way.

I do suspect that 21st-century housing-bubble McMansions aren’t going to work, but expensive oil should put paid to those. Post-war suburbs are, I suspect, quite salvageable even in a low-carbon, low-energy future, if the owners are prepared to invest in them.

I have no research to support this, but I think we should push in that direction and see what happens. At a minimum, it’s much more palatable for a mass audience than saying everybody’s got to move into apartment blocks.

Solar-power showpieces

Radically different governments, same principle: spend pots of public money on solar power in hopes of … well, having a lot of economically unsustainable solar power.

In Ontario, the Globe and Mail reports, The Ontario Power Authority is pleased to have signed contracts for 250 megawatts of solar-power systems:

If all those who have promised to install panels follow through with their plans, Ontario will have some of the biggest solar farms on the planet, and an important “green” industry will be kick-started in the province.

Still, the solar-power generation business is essentially starting from scratch. At year-end only an infinitesimal 0.3 MW of sun-generated energy was being sold to Ontario’s power grid. The biggest completed project so far is a series of panels on the roof of the horse barn at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The industry will be “kick-started,” but the contracts call for the providers to be paid 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about seven times the going rate for electricity in hydro- and nuclear-rich Ontario most of the time. Even in high summer, the spot price for power rarely tops 30 cents a kilowatt-hour. Later in the story, a spokesman for one of the companies involved says 42 cents a kW/h is barely a break-even price for his operation.

So I guess the hope is that this subsidy, for a subsidy it is, will help Ontario-based companies work out some of the kinks in solar-energy generation and move in the direction of the going market prices.

But still — seven times the market price? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on nuclear technology, if energy’s what the government’s determined to spend it on?

AbuDhabi

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is happily announcing the imminent construction of a Dongtan-style concept town called Masdar City, which is supposed to be a carbon-neutral residence for 50,000.

Abu Dhabi sits on most of the UAE’s oil and gas reserves, ranked respectively as fifth and fourth in the world. Proven oil reserves on their own are expected to last for another 150 years.

But like most oil-producing countries, the UAE also wants to diversify to ease its traditional economic dependency on oil.

The zero-carbon city, part of the wider Masdar Initiative launched by the wealthy Abu Dhabi government in 2006, is also a flagship project of the global conservation group WWF.

Masdar chief executive Sultan al-Jaber described Masdar — Arabic for “source” — as as an entirely new economic sector fully dedicated to alternative energy, which will have a positive impact on the emirate’s economy.

It’ll have transportation pods like Star Trek turbolifts, according to Agence France-Presse, where you’ll be able to walk in and say your destination and it’ll take you there.

Cool. Practical? No. It can function only with massive ongoing subsidies from Abu Dhabi’s oil-drenched economy. That’s the opposite of sustainable.

Sticky habits

 BARTplatform
Photo credit: Flickr/JenniferWoodardMaderazo

I’m not surprised that relatively few people took the San Francisco government up on its offer of free transit rides on smoggy days. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, local governments have paid for up to four days of free service in the summer months, and they kick in when air-quality predictions are particularly dismal.

The BART people are spinning an increase of 6,700 riders compared to a normal day as a big success. It’s about a two-per-cent increase in ridership.

As a result, the additional commuters who chose to ditch their vehicles and ride BART instead, prevented more than 294,800 pounds of pollutants from spilling into the air. According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, the average commuter spews 44 pounds of pollutants into the Bay Area’s air each day.

They’re probably right. Changing how you get to work is a big deal. Aside from figuring out a different route when you’re not at your best, it means changing what time you get up in the morning, what order you do things in — if you take up biking, maybe you’ll shower at work instead of at home — and paying attention to things like bus schedules and maybe weather reports when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Chances are, it means planning for a different routine the night before.

If that’s how many people modify their commuting habits on a few hours’ notice, I bet the number would be sharply higher if they did it for a week and told people a month in advance. Could be a good marketing technique.

A failure of will

Just a brief pointer this evening, life and work having been zoological today. But it’s a good one, I assure you, the kind of single data point that demolishes an entire hypothetical view of the future.

Think we can meaningfully adapt to climate change without doing anything much to head it off? Consider what’s happening in New Orleans, post-Katrina, writes Joseph Romm at Gristmill.

… Second, a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to “adapt” New Orleans to the threat. We didn’t make the levees able to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a Category 4).

Third, even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.

Please go read. Good stuff.

Dongtan’s not working, and neither is much else in China’s new environmentalism

One of EcoLibertarian’s most steadily popular posts has been one from last April on Dongtan, one of China’s green “concept” cities. The place sounds like a nice idea, I wrote, but China seemed to envision it as a sort of non-working model, a massive subsidized eco-campus that didn’t function the way a real city does, with industry and commerce and everything:

So we’re mostly talking about a sort of Chinese version of Epcot Centre, the urbanological equivalent of a concept car or a campus, self-sustaining environmentally but not economically. Only in a controlled economy like China’s would such a thing be possible even as an experiment.

WorldChanging has followed up on the matter, tracking some Big Media coverage of Dongtan and some similar projects. They’re not working out so well.

Some of it’s a result of routine Chinese corruption and ineptitude. Newsweek:

The project appears to be a mess. Construction of the 400 houses is way behind schedule. The 42 that have been built still have no heat, electricity or running water. Walls are already cracking and moisture seeps through the ceilings. According to people who’ve worked on the project, many of the houses don’t adhere to the original specifications—meaning they could never achieve the energy savings they were meant to achieve. The biomass gasification facility meant to burn animal, human and agricultural waste, doesn’t work.

But there’s also a cultural problem, noted by the BBC. Dongtan in particular is being seen as a place where wealthy Shanghainese can get away from the polluted nastiness of the megalopolis on the Yangtze River, and where wealthier expat Chinese can keep pieds-à-terre:

But some observers, such as Professor Chen of Tongji University, think that the local planners are more concerned with raising the income and standard of living of the region than ensuring ecological development.

They say that the new ecologically-sound housing developments may not be affordable by locals and could become suburban housing for the rich.

Already many have been purchased by overseas Chinese.

Other data points: Beijing is bursting at the seams, despite the government’s effort to contain it, and 84 per cent of young Chinese people really, really want cars their government hopes they won’t buy.

Evidently the old industrialization policies have some inertia.