Topsoil: The World’s Urban Sponge

October 27, 2009

All those urbanites growing organic food in the city has a certain appeal for the media, but to the average person, it may feel like a temporary marginal fad at best.  So why are city governments around the world taking it so seriously?  As it turns out, this trend has the potential to solve some of the worst problems that cities face – namely, climate change and water shortages – with a simple element: Topsoil.

Over the last several decades, many of the rainforests that act as our “carbon sinks” have been slashed and burned to make way for agricultural production.  Likewise, grasslands and savannas in Africa and America are routinely burned to make space for agriculture.  The farms that consequently inhabit those places feed the world’s cities – from Buenos Aires to Anchorage, Tokyo to Sydney, and everywhere in between.  Moreover, as cities expand to make room for sprawling communities, former farmlands are converted to suburbs because land-holders typically sell to the highest bidder – developers.  Consequently, more farmland must be created and more wild places (habitat) destroyed to make room for more farms.

The global market for agricultural products has obvious implications for climate change, as carbon-sequestering forests are cleared and products are shipped long distances using vast amounts of fossil fuels.  However, what may be less obvious is the solution to feeding the world’s cities without encroaching on our wild lands and carbon sinks.

Most people know by now that forests pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, helping to fight climate change.  What might be less apparent is that soil sequesters carbon with far less risk than forests.  As temperatures rise due to climate change, bark beetles have begun to infest many of North America’s forests, killing off thousands of acres of forest and priming these vast swaths of land for massive forest fires.  Once the trees are dead, one lighting strike or one match will be all it takes to send all that sequestered carbon back up into the atmosphere.  If sequestering carbon in forests is our plan, this is quite a gamble.

Healthy topsoil, on the other hand, can soak up carbon with a remarkable rate of absorption and no risk of loss to the atmosphere during forest fires.  Collectively, tillage management and cropping systems in the U.S. are estimated to have the potential to sequester 30–105 million metric tons of carbon per year, says R. F. Follett in an abstract on ScienceDirect.  Unfortunately, we are losing topsoil around the world at an alarming rate. According to Allan Savory and Christopher Peck of Natural Investment Services, LLC, it is estimated today that our crop and range lands lose 4 tons of soil every year for every person alive. That’s 21 gigatons of soil lost to the sea, lost to productive use on land and releasing vast amounts of carbon (New Scientist, December 2006).  Thus, the problem with our current practices lies not only in deforestation, but also in our astronomical loss of topsoil to the world’s ocean because of overgrazing, poor farming practices, resulting erosion, and urban runoff.

Topsoil is not the only thing we are giving away to the world’s oceans.  Fresh water is systematically being diverted from our aquifers in an attempt to avoid flooding.  The unintended consequence of our diversion strategy is that we are depleting our aquifers and causing severe water shortages for ourselves and for species that rely on fresh water.  The water wars that happen every year in communities around the U.S. have as much to do with our ecological illiteracy as with a drought in any given year.  Our cities’ lack of permeable surfaces and topsoil to store the water mean that it’s not sinking into the ground and reaching our aquifers, nor is it being caught and stored for use in the dry season.  Instead, this fresh, drinkable rainwater is often contaminated by chemical lawn fertilizers, motor oil, and other products before hitting the asphalt and concrete gutters that will carry it to storm drains and ultimately, to the ocean.

Although the system may seem too set in asphalt and concrete to change, cities are catching on and, along with community-based organizations, pioneering a new pathway to solve many of their woes at once.   They are addressing climate change and water shortages (and epidemic obesity) simultaneously by building sustainable local agricultural systems that feed their residents on-site while acting as a giant sponge for both water (to recharge the aquifers) and carbon.

One example of such a city is Petaluma, CA.  On October 24th of this year, the City of Petaluma, along with nonprofits Daily Acts, Rebuilding Together Petaluma, and Petaluma Bounty, came together with over 200 citizens to sheet mulch 25,000 square feet of unused lawn at City Hall and install edible landscaping, community gardens, and a rooftop water catchment system.  Leaders at the event spoke about carbon sequestration in the soil, replenishing the aquifer, and providing a source of local organic food for city residents.  Large-scale private-public partnerships include the City of Detroit and Hantz Farm, which together may soon create the world’s largest urban farm, although it’s unclear what their plans are as far as sustainable farming practices go.

According to a U.N. climate change paper on agriculture last year, by 2030 an estimated 5.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year could be avoided by agriculture with about 89% achieved by soil carbon sequestration.  Cities have an opportunity to build carbon sequestering capacity, thus potentially qualifying for carbon credits while also reaping the benefits of tax revenues from the sale of agricultural products within their borders.  By creating permeable surfaces and building topsoil, cities will also begin to recharge their aquifers, avoiding the water wars with farmers that are so common in today’s system.  Perhaps those urban farmers are really onto something.

To learn more about urban agriculture around the world, consider attending the Eighth Annual International EcoCity World Summit.   A highly influential community of architects, planners, designers, policy makers, green businesses, political and nonprofit leaders, with the added participation of international experts and delegates will be convening for the conference to present papers and ideas on the EcoCity and its role in the escape from dangerous climate change.  Participants from Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Israel, France, Senegal, Egypt, Singapore, India, Nepal and more will join together in the discussion in Istanbul this December.  In addition, more than 100 papers will be presented in concurrent sessions from more than 40 countries representing young emerging and pioneering talent from around the world.

For more information, go to: http://www.ecocity2009.com

Author:
Stacey Meinzen
www.ClimateActionPlans.com


Tailpipes, Traffic and Climate Change

October 27, 2009

In the early 1960′s, International Ecocity Conference Series Founder and President of NGO Ecocity Builders’ Richard Register was living in Los Angeles when it was, as he says, “Hell on wheels, smog burning your throat and eyes and hundreds of ‘excess deaths’ a year from air pollution.”  Register has never been fond of cars, but he concedes that almost five decades later, despite millions more cars on the road, catalytic converters have done much to clean up the smog problem in LA. However, he still takes issue with car-centric cities. While no one would disagree that clearing the air of smog is a good thing, we must ask ourselves if slapping a filter on our tailpipes is enough to abate the other problems that come with lots of cars.  Nothing we add to our tailpipe can alleviate traffic, prevent car accidents that kill 40 thousand people in the U.S. every year, make our communities more walkable, or stop climate change.

While owning a car has become a common aspiration in many developing countries, those Los Angeleans who daily spend two or more hours sitting in traffic on LA freeways may wonder why anyone would want to follow suit.  According to Forbes.com, the annual delay per driver in the U.S. is in excess of 47 hours per year, creating delayed shipments and wasting more than 2.3 billion gallons of fuel each year.  Moreover, according to the Texas Transportation Institute the cost of U.S. traffic delays is, conservatively, $63.1 billion a year, based on 2003 figures.

Yet the world drives on.

In Sao Paulo, nearly 1,000 cars are added to the streets each day. Traffic in Bangkok has gotten so bad that hundreds of women over the past few years have been forced to give birth in cars. The Royal Thai Traffic Police has trained 145 of its officers in basic midwifery.  While some may admire the multi-tasking that’s inherent in such a situation, perhaps it’s time to think about creating a different kind of city.

As we approach the UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen this December, we might consider stepping back – way back – out of our cities and looking in at what has happened to them.  Could they not be better designed to meet humanity’s needs and to avoid catastrophic climate change?  Could they not afford us more time with family and friends and less time stuck in a metal box with wheels on a four-lane road?

Register believes the answer is yes.  His solution? The EcoCity.  Register first conceived of the idea several decades ago, calling it, “One stop shopping for all your solutions.” According to Register, EcoCities could not only run on one tenth of the energy that cities currently do, but also could bring on the age of bicycle and rails while reducing car crashes and supporting solar and wind energy.  EcoCities also hold the promise of reforestation and restoration of vast areas of green space and farmland recovered from urban sprawl.

Register is far from alone in this idea.  A highly influential community of architects, planners, designers, policy makers, green businesses, political and nonprofit leaders, with the added participation of international experts and delegates will be convening at the Eighth Annual International EcoCity World Summit to present papers and ideas on the EcoCity and its role in the escape from dangerous climate change.  Participants from Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Israel, France, Senegal, Egypt, Singapore, India, Nepal and more will join together in the discussion in Istanbul this December.  In addition, more than 100 papers will be presented in concurrent sessions from more than 40 countries representing young emerging and pioneering talent from around the world.

For more information, go to: http://www.ecocity2009.com

Author:
Stacey Meinzen
www.ClimateActionPlans.com


Moving in the City: A Promise For Better Health

October 8, 2009

The recent healthcare debate has highlighted many problems with the current U.S. healthcare system. Escalating costs, denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and the lack of health insurance for almost 50 million Americans all point to the need for some revisions. While some deep systemic changes are needed, the healthcare debate must also include discussion of some of the underlying causes of the widespread health problems that are taxing the healthcare system.

When we talk about healthcare we usually think of the interaction between patient and doctor when the patient is sick. However, we often fail to acknowledge that healthcare starts long before this meeting. According to a recent report in Archives of Internal Medicine, four healthy lifestyle factors—never smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and following a healthy diet—together appear to be associated with as much as an 80% reduction in the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases.

What’s truly stunning about this number is that, smoking habits aside, these factors are heavily dependent on collective structural decisions we have made about how to live together and move around. It is true that a person can choose to join a health club and work off the extra pounds from sitting idle in their office and car all day. But how did we ever arrive at a situation where little to none of our daily activities involve that most basic of human functions, moving our bodies?

The connection between city design and public health has become a popular topic among public health officials for good reason. Several recent studies show just what a toll car-centric lifestyles have taken on the American population.

A study entitled Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found this: “People living in counties marked by sprawling development are likely to walk less and weigh more than people who live in less sprawling counties. In addition, people in more sprawling counties are more likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure). Physical inactivity and being overweight are factors in over 200,000 premature deaths each year. Meanwhile, rising health care costs are threatening state budgets. Getting decision makers to consider how the billions spent on transportation and development can make communities more walkable and bikeable is one avenue to improving the health and quality of life of millions of Americans.”

Another study of nearly 11,000 people in the Atlanta area found that people living in highly residential areas tend to weigh significantly more than those in places where homes and businesses are close together. The effect appeared to be largely the result of the amount of time people spend driving or walking. Each hour spent in a car was associated with a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of obesity and each half-mile walked per day reduced those odds by nearly 5 percent, the researchers found.

“The kind of neighborhood where a person lives clearly has an effect on their health,” said Lawrence D. Frank, an associate professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, who led the study.

The CDC’s statement on climate change and public health states that “walking and bike riding are more than alternate forms of transportation; they are steps to healthier lives. Automobile traffic contributes to air pollution, which in turn means more illnesses related to breathing problems such as asthma. Furthermore, every additional car on the road can lead to increases in the numbers of injuries and deaths from vehicle crashes, which already kill more than 40,000 people each year die.”

Clearly, the way we have sprawled across the landscape is at the core of our health problems with our planet and our own bodies. High-density cities that connect housing, commerce, urban parks and farms using public transit, bike paths and pedestrian walkways hold promise for vastly improving our public health. Such an approach addresses the cause instead of treating the symptoms of our healthcare woes.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of public health in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.


Water, Power, Planning and Carbon

October 5, 2009

Recent disputes over water use in deserts that are well suited for solar thermal power plants have illustrated the need for a holistic approach to urban needs. Solar thermal plants use cheaper technology than photovoltaics (solar panels), but require substantial water because mirrors heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Similar to a fossil fuel power plant, the steam must be condensed back to water and cooled for reuse.  Typically this happens in a cooling tower and requires constant replenishment of water as the excess heat and water evaporates.  Alternatively, dry cooling can be used, but requires fans and heat exchangers and is much more expensive.

The American Southwest is currently the site of plans for dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants on thousands of acres of desert.  In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to give up water. Furthermore, some large solar projects are currently tangled in conflicts with state regulators over water consumption.

Considering the effects of power generation on the ability to provide water for a community will be crucial as water becomes even scarcer and renewable power projects burgeon to replace fossil fuel production.

Using low-carbon technologies that are not water-intensive combined with smart city planning and sound water use policies will help cities to avoid water disputes among stakeholders.  Cities around the world have already implemented rainwater harvesting policies to help address water shortages by simply catching and using the rainwater that is currently diverted into storm drains – and ultimately, into the ocean.  Moreover, California implemented a new policy at the beginning of 2009 to allow the installation or alteration of a clothes washer greywater system to be exempt from a construction permit that was previously required.  Greywater systems allow a household to irrigate a landscape with recycled water.

Employing green rooftops and community gardens in dense cities and maintaining substantial surrounding open space is a strategy for water conservation as well because the less paved or impermeable surfaces exist, the less urban runoff occurs and the more ground water can be recharged. Furthermore, water use intensity is greatly affected by population density.  According to the Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl, three households per residential acre (typical suburban sprawl) on average equates to 1,032 gallons of water used per household per day.  Conversely, 100 households per residential acre on average equates to 192 gallons of water used per household per day

Such policies will relieve pressure when citizens take advantage of them to conserve and they mean greater efficiency in the use of resources. Policies that force vital human services (such as power production and delivery of water) to compete for the same resources are unlikely to succeed.  Moreover, the monetary and environmental cost of water projects like desalinization is substantially higher than simply allowing citizens to catch rainwater or irrigate with recycled water.  Thus, tax payer dollars are better spent when policies support sound urban design and resource conservation.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of water use in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.

Author:
Stacey Meinzen
www.ClimateActionPlans.com


Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Climate Change

October 5, 2009

At the G20, President Obama said he would phase out fossil fuel subsidies as a way to combat climate change.  Recent reports from the International Energy Agency and other institutions point out the scale of those largely hidden subsidies and how they contribute to global warming.

According to Steve Kretzman of the Institute for Policy Studies, on an annual basis, globally, there are at least $250 billion dollars in global fossil fuel subsides, and some people think that number is closer to $400 billion. Kretzman believes the discontinuation of such subsidies will be quite profound for climate change mitigation.  He points to a study from OECD earlier this year that showed that if the $300 billion dollars in subsidies identified in the study were taken away, you would get a 10% – 12% reduction in global greenhouse gases.

Kretzman says that on the production side, a recent study shows $70 billion dollars going to the fossil fuel industry on an annual basis, while solar, wind, and energy efficiency get about $12 billion. That’s a massive market distortion.

Not surprisingly, politicians from oil-producing states immediately began defending such payouts to the fossil fuel industry as “tax incentives,” not subsidies.  However, upon examining the massive infrastructure required for automobiles running on gas, there can be no denying both the fiscal and environmental cost of a society based on the conventional automobile. Below are some statistics for consideration:

From the 2008 BP Statistical Review of World Energy: Americans consumed 6.5 billion barrels of oil in 2008, or 22.5% of world oil consumption.  China was second with 9.6%.

While some may argue that cleaner cars are coming down the pipe, according to the Umweltund Prognose-Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, a car causes more pollution before it’s ever driven than in its entire lifetime of driving.

According to Runzheimer International, the environmental cost of one car breaks down as follows:

  • Extracting Raw Materials: Produces 26.5 tons of waste and 922 cubic meters of polluted air.
  • Transporting Raw Materials: Causes the release of 12 liters of crude oil in the ocean and 425 million cubic meters of polluted air.
  • Producing the Car: Produces 1.5 tons of waste and 74 million cubic meters of polluted air.
  • Driving the Car: Produces 18.4 kilos of abrasive waste and 1,016 million cubic meters of polluted air.
  • Disposing of the Car: Produces 102 million cubic meters of polluted air.

Paved surfaces present another hidden cost of the car-based system.  Concrete or asphalt in roads and sidewalks create water pollution and require drilling, mining and transporting of gravel, cement and asphalt. Forty single-family dwellings require 40 times as much concrete in roads and sidewalks as a 40-unit apartment building on a single lot. Moreover, water, sewer, electrical, phone, cable and other services lie under the street and branch off into each lot, so sprawl housing uses much more of these materials.  If you consider that on

Consider that 233,333 square yards of roads and sidewalks per household are required when housing density is three households per acre.  However, only 7,000 square yards of roads and sidewalks per household are required when housing density is 100 households per acre.  That’s only 3% of what’s required for the less densely built scenario – a huge difference in needed materials and resulting costs.

When you consider that citizens living in dense urban centers without a car are heavily subsidizing car users through taxes to pay for all of the required infrastructure, it becomes increasingly clear that such a market distortion bloats costs to the taxpayers and is taking a very large toll on the earth’s atmosphere.  Designing and building cities to be dense, pedestrian and bike-friendly locales with the necessary public transport for human mobility would seem the only way to adequately address climate change and the hidden subsidies of car-centric infrastructure.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of urban density in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.

Author:
Stacey Meinzen
www.ClimateActionPlans.com


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