Rio Aladago – The Flooded City

December 12, 2013

How well does your city move people? Chances are complaints about the inefficiencies of public transit pop up daily. After all, you interact with cars, roads, buses, and light rail constantly. At the same time, other systems of movement that go more unnoticed are essential to the functioning of the city organism. How well does your city move waste and energy? How well does it move water?

Here in Rio de Janeiro water is a constant of life. Whether flocking to the ocean, complaining of the clouds (or lack of cloud cover), or wondering when it will rain, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are surrounded by water. It doesn’t rain here as often as you might imagine, as in, say, the daily downpours of Singapore, but it is tropical. Unfortunately when the rain comes the saturated ground turns anything more than few hour’s drizzle into a potential disaster.

Tuesday night it rained as much in one night as it normally does in a month. Rio is a huge city filled with micro-climates due to the dramatic mountains that corral it. In Barra da Tijuca, a new area in the south, it seemed like a sprinkle. For the residents of the North, it was a downpour. Those living in this predominantly poor area awoke to find several feet of muddy water in their streets and homes. The extend of the flooding is astonishing. Entire neighborhoods are underwater.

With roads and the metro system flooded out, the city ground to a halt. The mayor proclaimed a state of emergency and encouraged people not to leave their houses. Businesses shut down. It was the tropical equivalent of a snow day but with disastrous consequences.

As news coverage played on repeat throughout the morning, one fact became apparent: the flooding was primarily in poor neighborhoods. “This isn’t anything new,” explained resident Fernanda. “This is a lot more rain than normal, but this type of thing happens once a month, more maybe in the summer.” The rain comes, the city stops. This time three people were reported dead. It could be more if the rain continues and starts landslides.

The exasperation of the residents in flooding areas was evident as plumes of smoke began curling up from the bairros. In the neighborhood of Novo Iguaçu people were lighting flotsam and abandoned cars on fire in protest. With whole houses practically underwater, some residents literally lost everything. This rain was the worst in some 20 years, asserted authorities in O Globo newspaper. Still, the same areas of the city had already experienced minor flooding the week before.

Protesters blocking the freeway exits.

Despite the network of canals crossing the city, Rio’s ability to deal with this predictable natural phenomenon is woefully incompetent. Or, perhaps worse, it is consciously negligent. In feverish preparation for next year’s world cup and the 2016 Olympics, half-finished construction projects litter the city. Piles of sand and concrete block drainage paths and exacerbate the already present drainage problems in the city. Scientists predict that extreme weather patters like yesterday’s rains will only become more common as a result of climate change.

What will it take to instigate real change in Rio?

Present again is what has happened when a city prepares for the global eye of a mega event like the Olympics. New bus infrastructure, new facilities and buildings crop up in one part of the city, primarily the South in Barra. But these benefits have no significance for the majority of its citizens, especially its more vulnerable parts. These are ephemeral investments responding to a one-time need. Funds that could (potentially) go to providing better services to under-served communities–real needs, like flood control–are instead going new shopping malls and athlete’s villages. And thus Rio continues to expand south, running away from its problems.

Ecocities to balance the new and the old in Bhutan

May 21, 2013

Richard is on the road again, leaving this week for Bhutan where he will meet with government officials about building ecocities in Panbang, a province of Zhemgang.

Bhutan is a small Buddhist county nestled in the Eastern crags of the Himalayas, commonly overshadowed in the news by its neighbors Tibet, Burma, China and India. Bhutan is most commonly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GHN), a metric introduced by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckn and used to measure the well-being of its citizens and guide the development of government policy. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

The GNH measures reflect Bhutan’s Buddhist foundations which emphasize the need for spiritual and moral development to coincide with material development. Bhutan is cautious about modernization, and justly so. Most countries have embraced the luxuries of modernity while degrading precious traditional values and our connection to nature.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts. Court. of Wikimedia Commons.

King Wangchuck broke with his father’s legacy and has opened Bhutan to modern changes little by little (Television appeared for the first time in 1999), hoping to adopt the benefits of new technology while avoiding the evils. The results are mixed – crime, materialism and dissatisfaction are rising, but not to the rates of most other countries. Some educated Bhutanese returning from educations in the West seek to lead the country in a unique blend of Buddhist values and Western practices.

For example, for every tree cut down they plant three new ones and claim to be the only country with proven negative CO2 production, that is, they absorb more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they put into it. Notably, English has been adopted as the universal language in Bhutan and is taught in the all free school system there (financed largely by sale of electricity from hydropower to India), a testament to the seriousness of their careful opening to modern ideas and ways.

Bhutan faces the enormous challenge of engaging reasonable change without being overwhelmed by the two gigantic countries on either side: China and India, India being their closest development partner to date. China crushed Buddhist Tibet and India ousted the Buddhist government of Sikkim, leaving Bhutan as the last country in the region with a King and traditional Tantric Buddhist religion at its core. At the same time, the King instituted a parliamentary system and has granted increasing legislative and administrative powers to a growing to date ever more democratic government.

The concept of the ecocity blends well with the philosophy of Bhutan. An ecocity is an opportunity to balance modern technology with these traditional values, blending simplicity and convergance to nature with infrastructure to support modern conveniences such as sanitation and electricity. Bhutan’s proposed ecocity will be situated near the south edge kingdom, north of the Gangiatic plane, and south of the foothills of the Himalayas. The idea is to build a leading city for “education, sport and eco-tourism” with an eye to bringing their GNH (Gross National Happiness) theme together with the leading ecocity project in the world.

Tashichho Dzong, a Buddhist monastery and seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. Court. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard’s vision is to take seriously the notion that happiness is a higher goal than maximum materialist consumption. It seems unthinkable that the general happiness and well-being of a people is not the highest priority indicator of their wealth. Yet Bhutan is the only country to explicitly say so. For the rest of us, the generation of paper and electronic numbers continues to be the applauded standard of well-being. We are left with other numbers to suggest the failings of our own gross national happiness: rising rates of disease, hospitalization, divorce, drug use and more.

Says Richard, “If we can design and build the sustainable city for a happy future – it would be such a large chunk of the solution, who could ask for anything more?”

The Ecocity Summit 2013 Program is unveiled

May 3, 2013

More exciting developments on the 2013 Ecocity Summit! After culling from over 500 proposals from 48 different countries, the summit organizers have unveiled their final program selections. September 25-27 will be packed with 100 diverse, thought provoking and enlightening lectures, workshops and presentations.

A bit about the Ecocity Summit Program:

The program organizers have used a novel grouping system to select the presenters and organize the program information. Firstly, each presentation or workshop at the summit addresses one or more of the five main themes:

- Reducing the environmental footprint

- Addressing energy challenges of the city

- Organizing and systems

- Strengthening solidarity and participation

- Mobilizing enabling factors

Presentations are further grouped under approach categories, including thinking, shaping, financing and governing. A matrix of all the planned programs enables you to searching for theme or approach so you can easily find the programs and themes you are most interested in.

You can also view a tentative scheduling of the programs here: Pre-program schedule.

Early registration is now underway for the Summit Conference and there are numerous benefits to signing up early. Visit the Ecocity Summit website to register now!


Floating cities becoming a reality

April 16, 2013

Building on water eliminates flood risk and enables expansion

For thousands of years, human settlements have clustered around flood planes, from the banks of the Amazon River to lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, to the marshes of the Netherlands. These settlements are designed to account for the seasonal ebb and flow of sea and fresh water, often by constructing buildings on raised platforms and/or building dykes, dams and canals. Yet as global climate change leads to increasing sea levels, almost every coastal city will face the challenge of encroaching waters.

Presenters at the Global Town Hall for infrastructure solutions held last week in Germany introduced innovative solutions for cities on the brink. “13 out of the world’s 21 megacities are harbor cities, of which Shanghai is most vulnerable to flood and related hazards,” said Professor Markus Quante at the town hall.

Instead of holding back the flood, several presenters suggested ways to completely re-imagine a city on the water. Rutger de Graaf from DeltaSync, a design firm that specializes in sustainable flood-proof urban development in delta areas, says cities can float on water and yet stay dry and resilient. Floating structures on water eliminate the threat of flood damage and can be a viable option for city expansion. In addition, city waste such as carbon dioxide and biowaste can be used to farm algae and in turn raise fish in urban areas.

“Urbanization in delta areas has caused increasingly severe flood. It has also added pressure on space, food, energy and other resources,” said de Graaf, adding that by 2025 the world will run short of at least 22 million km2 of land – an area equivalent to the North American continent.

Rijnhaven Pavijlioner. Images from DeltaSync

The city of Rotterdam is already experimenting with floating urbanization, building its first floating pavilion at the Rijnhaven harbor. Designed by DeltaSync, the three domed structures cover the area of four tennis courts and are not only self-sufficient, relocatable structures that purify their own waste water, but also rise automatically according to rising water levels. The city plans to add many more floating buildings, including a park, as part of the Rijnhaven harbor redevelopment master plan.

Another 1,200 floating structures are planned to open in 2040 in Stadhavens – an area designated for sustainable housing development, floating communities, recreation, and research on energy generation such as tidal energy and cooling and heating from river water.

The city of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, and other coastal cities are working with the Dutch to implement their water management expertise in their own districts. Semarang has already lost 98.2 hectares of land between 1991 and 2009 due to land erosion accelerated by climate change.

Find out more about DeltaSync’s project at their website.

A big step forward for Oakland

April 4, 2013

Growing up near downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt was never a destination for me. My family went to Fairyland once and a while, and I have hazy memories of paddle boating. I remember a lot of bird droppings and the fruity stench of stagnant, brackish water. I heard that they pulled a dead body out of there once.

Lake Merritt, surrounded by its string of pearl lights at night, is now one of my favorite destinations in the Bay Area, and I’m lucky to live right above it near the Grand Lake Theater. Oakland City Officials and residents recognized the wisdom in restoring this civic gem when they proposed measure DD, a $198.25 million bond measure that included waterfront improvements at Lake Merritt and the Estuary. In November 2002, over 80% of Oakland voters passed Measure DD and work began, slowly and haltingly, two years later.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan is an inspiringly ambitious civic vision that allocates money towards landscaping, habitat and stream restoration, improving water quality in Lake Merritt, widening pedestrian and cycling paths and building better roadways to calm traffic around the lake. Measure DD Program Manager Joel Peter calls it “the most wide-ranging and complex series of projects ever undertaken by the City of Oakland.” It’s been a long project. Over ten years later, work is still being done (and is overdue) on the Estuary connection and new 12th Street bypass. But so far it is an incredible success. Visit the lake any time of day and you’ll see a cross section of Oakland jogging, playing, walking, picnicking, and relaxing in the sun.

We take so much time to complain about what is wrong with our cities–it’s equally important to celebrate and give thanks when things are done right. These successes often fly under the radar, especially in cities with as many problems as Oakland.

Here are five reasons to be excited about the Lake Merritt Master plan:

1. Restored walking and jogging paths

The walk around Lake Merritt used to be plagued with potholes. Many parts of it have been repaved and girdled with native and drought-tolerant landscaping. Some completely new sections of the path include a packed-earth lane for joggers.

2. Bike paths

The entire lake can now be circumnavigated on bike paths. The East Bay Bicycle Coalition along with TransForm are also working on connecting other existing bike paths to the lake to serve as a bike transit hub.

4. Reduced car traffic

The four lane road around the lake has been reduced to two and complimented with generously landscaped medians. The South end of the lake used to be a 12 lane street. That’s right: practically a highway. Planners cut those lanes by half and put them on an elevated bridge, accompanied by bike lanes and an adjunct foot bridge. A small park now stands between the road and the lake.

5. Reconnecting the Estuary

Lake Merritt was originally part of a tidal flat that was cut off from the estuary to create a more aesthetically pleasing lake. The destruction of the 12 lane road at the South end has connected the lake with the neck of the Lake Merritt Channel, and in the next two years a few more culverts will be removed to finally reunite it with the Estuary. This will allow the natural tidal system to operate freely in the lake for the first time in over 140 years.

Mayor Jean Quan celebrates the opening of the Lake Merritt Channel.

“Lake” Merritt and Alameda “Island” area circa 1800.

3. Wetland restoration

Lake Merritt became America’s first wildlife sanctuary in 1870, which unfortunately coincided with the slow destruction of the wetlands that supported the wildlife. The estuary reconnection mentioned above includes plans for a park and wetland restoration. Additional landscaping around the lake is recreating marshy areas and serving as natural management systems for storm water runoff, called bioswales.

Bioswale (in the background) and living roof.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan is reuniting Oaklanders with nature and the ancient Bay environment, hopefully to the great benefit of both. Go check it out for yourself!

Read more:

Polishing Oakland’s Crown Jewel,

Oakland Lake Merritt Master Plan

Gateway to the Bay reopened,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.