Car Free Journey: Churchill, Manitoba

June 24, 2014

Several months ago my wife and I visited the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and enjoyed a polar bear exhibit. After marveling at the bears, we read about Churchill, Manitoba: Polar Bear Capital of the World. We learned that Churchill, located in the far north of the Canadian province of Manitoba, is one of the few destinations that cannot be reached by automobile. The only ways to get to Churchill are by passenger train or air. For that reason, Churchill is our featured destination in this month’s Car Free Journey.

Welcome to Churchill

Churchill is a town of just over 800 permanent residents (according to the Canadian 2011 Census) on the west shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. The location is most famous for the many polar bears that migrate toward the shore in the autumn, leading to the nickname “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. In 1717 the Hudson’s Bay Company built the first permanent settlement in the area, Churchill River Post, which was only a log fort a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Churchill River. The trading post and river were named after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) who was governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 17th century. Read the rest of this entry »


Reflections on Gross National Happiness

June 3, 2014

On Friday, May 23rd Ecocity Builders had the pleasure of hosting Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Ms. Chhetri spoke to a packed room about her country’s development policies. She enlightened us about the cautious steps Bhutan is making to ensure development aligns with their cultural and historical values. Ecocity Builders’s president Richard Register also presented slides from his recent work in Bhutan.

Bhutan has a commitment to Ecocity principles nearly unparalleled in the world. Thanks to strong nature-respecting traditions, the government has sworn off any environmentally damaging industry. Electricity is produced from renewable hydropower. The government has just announced the goal to have 100% percent organic agriculture by 2025. Growth is strictly constrained to traditional styles and materials in carefully guarded development corridors.

Until the 1972 Bhutan remained a highly conservative nation closed off to outside influence. The progressive 4th Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was disturbed by the effects of westernization was wrecking on neighboring countries but opened the country to modernization after taking the throne. Cell phones have become available only as of 2008. Yet while many of Bhutan’s citizens were kept literally in the dark beyond their neighbors, the wisdom of King Wangchuck’s hesitancy about modern conveniences has been revealed with time. Bhutan managed to avoid the disastrous industrial rush that has so irreversibly damaged much of the world. They are now entering modernity at a time of greater reflection on the practices of development.

King Wangchuck IV abdicated the throne in 2006 and turned power over to a newly established parliament. His son, Wangchuck V, holds no executive power but exercises important influence over the country. Wangchuck V is committed to carrying on the legacy of his father, most notably, the policy of Gross National Happiness. This concept, invented by the Fourth King, was also adopted by the government of Bhutan as a foundation for all their decision making.

GNH is a simple yet brilliant concept. It states that a country’s wellbeing cannot be measured by wealth, growth, or power alone, but by the wellbeing of its citizens. Gross National Happiness asks with every economic or political decision: will this result in the best outcome for the long-term happiness of our people?

Tied into this web of wellbeing is, of course, ecological health.

GNH measures closely reflect the goals of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS): easy access to meaningful employment, healthcare, and cultural activities; clean water, air, and good food. GNH recognizes that life is full of complex systems that cannot be removed from each other. Environmental quality is integral to health and happiness. Healthy, happy people, at the same time, are more inclined and able to care for their environment and each other.

How refreshing–relieving, even–to meet with a government that gets it at a fundamental level. Meeting with Latha and hearing her stories provided all in attendance with renewed hope and drive for an ecologically healthy future. In the midst of the anger, rhetoric, and willful denial that is keeping so many nations on a track for disaster, there are indeed beautiful things being done all the time. Even better to see them at such high levels of governance.

When I asked Latha what the greatest challenge was facing GNH and the ecocity goals of her country she had a familiar answer: “The people who just don’t understand what we’re trying to do.” For example, since urban growth is highly constrained, many individuals moving to the cities now build illegally outside of the city limits (and, therefore, the approval process). This practice not only frustrates the ability of planners to protect natural resources, but puts these individuals in danger of flood and earthquake-prone zones.

At an aggregated level, this behavior is maddening. At an individual level, it’s understandable. People want to move to the cities, which they have a right to do. They have few resources, and see open land. They build. And build and build.

Again, the fundamental challenge to our survival is what has allowed us as a species to get so far in the first place: the human ego, the tendency to think short term and about the self only. This isn’t an American problem, or a Bhutanese problem. It isn’t a problem of the rich or of the poor. This is a human brain problem.

Luckily, our biology and our culture also gives us the counter ability: to be altruistic, to think long-term and globally, and to care and create close bonds with others. Some cultures such as that of Bhutan promote the bonds of family and community more powerfully. Tradition, respect, and obligation are honored in these cultures. The Western perspective, and particularly in America, promotes independence, individual innovation, and self-reliance. These are also good qualities too! Yet they lean too far to only individual considerations…to disastrous results.

I don’t want to oversimplify the cultural divide. Tradition and community respecting cultures have mostly fared no better in protecting human rights and the environment (India, China). Still, the fact that the people of Bhutan have adopted GNH in the first place perhaps does come from a place of understanding the connection between the self and the other (and nature) a bit better than we do here in the West. Still the problem of egocentric thinking remains–and the urban peripheries in Bhutan expand bit by bit.

It is a human problem.

To move forward with an ecologically and socially healthy future, both the world and the ecocity movement will have strike that fine balance between promoting responsibility to others and allowing personal freedom. We will all need to give up a little bit of the comfort of our daily lives for the greater good. Yet we needn’t give up all. The fear of that “perfect” world and society is all too obvious in the dystopian paradises of Brave New World and countless other fictions. It’s most vocal in the knee-jerk rantings of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists. Whether or not this fear is realistic, the ecocity movement must recognize that it is very real, and is its chief obstacle. Every human reacts negatively when he or she feels agency and independence is threatened. Getting past that instinct is the challenge.

The solution is education, as difficult as it may be. Importantly, people need to understand the constraints we ask them to abide by in order to agree to them. It is a simple but heavy lesson in cause and effect, of how individual actions aggregate into mass impact. But at the core of these lessons is what I think an uplifting message: the truth is that individually we are all powerful. Each individual life’s actions matter, whether you are simply using reusable shopping bags, or leading an eco-crusade. Or building or dumping illegally.

Embrace your own influence, and understand, in the words of a great American icon, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


Ecocity Insights: Regenerative Development and Ecocities

June 2, 2014

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

This week, BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment hosted a living lab design charrette in regenerative design with Bill Reed, principle of Regenesis Group (http://www.regenesisgroup.com/). Regenerative development is the process by which humans play a positive role in stewarding social-ecological co-evolution.  Because BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment is concerned with the natural environment, the built environment, and the relationship between them, we are interested to learn more about how regenerative development processes can play a role in building ecocities, cities that are in balance with nature.

To regenerate is to make new, to regrow and replace what was and to expand the scope of what could be. Regeneration moves past restoration in the pursuit of evolving potential. In ecology, which is the science of relationships among living organisms and their surroundings, regeneration is the recreation of relationships over time such that the whole system, the ecosystem, is reborn. The integrity of an ecosystem is measured by its ability to replicate itself (i.e., to regenerate) over time. Healthy ecosystems have the ability to make themselves whole, overcoming challenges that negatively impact their potential. Therefore, the process of regeneration can be viewed as a process of healing.

Development is the process of evolving, building complexity, or advancing towards a specific end point. Regenerative development, therefore, is a process of renewal that evolves or advances the potential of an organism or system of relationships towards a destination. The destination could include the ecozoic era, in which humanity lives peacefully with other species staying within the ecological carrying capacity of earth.

Regeneration moves past restoration in the pursuit of evolving potential.

Regenerative development starts with a focus on being, on paying attention to oneself and one’s impacts. Next, attention is given to the immediate system or organization of which one is a part. This could comprise a family, neighbourhood, business, or city. Considerations include how one’s being, meaning one’s intentions and interactions, impact these larger systems. Attention is then given to the cumulative impacts of both one’s being and the system of which one is a part on the whole world. It is an exploration of unfolding potential and related impacts. In sociology, which is the science of human relationships and functioning, regenerative development explores the process by which cultures and societies create beliefs, values and norms of behavior to structure institutions that advance healing relationships with each other and the world.

These concepts draw heavily from the science of living systems (Miller 1978) and permaculture (Mollison 1988) that also manifest in bioregionalism and inform urban ecology and ecocity building. Regenerative development aligns with ecocity development such that the first informs the process of evolution towards the second which is the destination. Regenerative development involves a process for how to engage oneself and the people in one’s community in evolving towards an ecologically healthy relationship with nature that manifests through life patterns, including the built environment. Ecocity development involves the shaping of the destination, a built environment that enables sustainable and healthy living in balance with nature.

References

Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. New York: McGraw Hill.

Mollison, Bill. 1988. Permaculture: A designer’s manual. Tyalgum Australia: Tagari Publications.

 

British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative


Swarms of Apps Will Turn Cities into Sustainable ‘Smart Hives’

May 27, 2014

By Warren Karlenzig. Originally posted on Sustainable Cities Collective.

The amazing growth of sharing apps promises to mark the spring of 2014 as the beginning of a new era demonstrating the power of the swarm. Just as the summer of 1998 marked the beginning of the mainstream Dot Com era and the spring of 2008 saw the advent of global social media, the April IPO of Opower marks a new digital-physical era, the collaborative economy.

The collaborative economy will make cities more convenient, less costly and more sustainable. To provide a mental model of this new world, think of cities as “Smart Hives” for “swarms” of physical activities optimized by, or made possible through open urban data schemes. Earlier this month, I presented this concept in Vienna (ranked as one of Europe’s top smart cities) at IconVienna, a Central European investment forum on smart cities and innovation.

Cities are similar to beehives as they provide the physical locations for the activities of the swarms they host. Of course, both cities and hives need to be in the right place to attract and maintain the largest, healthiest swarms. For beehives, it doesn’t hurt to have access to sunlight, water and flowers. (Admission: I’m an urban beekeeper) Swarms of bees, if they are wild, decide on locating in a hive according to consensus (15 bees must approve of the location) and then they develop optimal social structures according to simple rules and communications.

Cities or metros set laws, regulations and policies at the level of the hive. But emerging swarms, based on digital maps of locations and characteristics of “flowers,” optimize according to physical needs, desires and energy. When bees find flowers, they go back to their hive and dance to show the location of pollen-laden flowers.

Imagine if bees could compare with other nearby swarms how much energy they were using (as Opower enables its users to do), how much other swarms were gathering and the quality of their haul. Or if Airbnb offered swarms an easy way to find convenient unused hives, saving much energy and reducing greenhouse gases in the process.

More and more we humans are using rich digital maps and pricing information for sharing rental rooms, office space, cars, bikes, food, and energy use. Our pollen dance will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.

Some swarms will get smaller or even die off, while other swarms will grow until they divide and form new swarms based on emerging needs and changing conditions. Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Likewise mobility and housing availability will be based on shared uses through sharing and peer-to-peer platforms such as ZipCar, LyftUber, and Airbnb. Walkability data through Walkscore already allows people to analyze and select the most walking-friendly housing, jobs and vacations, so they don’t even have to depend (or spend!) on cars or transit. At a TEDx Mission a while back, I showed how hacktavists use open data from the Paris Velib bikeshare program to map bicycle availability in real time.

 

Gathering local food has been juiced by fruit and berry locator maps like the Urbana-Champaign Fruit Map (above), including the University of Illinois campus, being one example on the Urban Foraging site. Wouldn’t it be great if the fruit could start to pulsate on the map when nearing ripeness! An illustrative example of smart hives as a bottom-up opportunity, I doubt whether the cities or university would provide or condone this.

For energy use, besides Opower, companies such as C3 Energy and Stem provide Big Data energy analytics for businesses and industries, so they can reduce energy consumption through more intelligent use of utilities. These applications differ from sharing platforms, but still rely on bottom-up use strategies based at the level of digitized electrons—with energy being the last realm of digitization in our society, after communications, entertainment, and financial or healthcare services.

In Vienna, the hive and swarm concept I presented was met with excitement. European Union contingents of investors are planning trips to explore San Francisco Bay Area sharing economy start-ups as a result. The European Union is spending $92 million Euros on an ambitious smart city funding and strategy effort as part of its Horizon 2020 program, yet I was told that swarm-type user-centric applications have been largely overlooked so far. That omission is not surprising, as even in the US, cities such as Los Angeles are only now preparing to open up their data.

Smart Hives (cities) must offer not only the best amenities, such as high quality of life, transit on demand and walkability, but they also must reduce restrictive policies favoring business as usual in order to enable massive, easy and open access to city data.

The swarms are coming: if you’re a city leader, you can block them or anger them. Or you can accommodate the swarms and share in the eco-efficiency and abundant ‘honey’ they produce as they prosper.


 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current (www.commoncurrent.com), a global consultancy for urban sustainability planning, policy and development. He has led urban sustainability strategy with clients including the The White House Office of Science and Technology; the United Nations; the nations of South Korea and Japan; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; US Department of State; nation of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD); and the private sector. He is co-author of the United Nations publication the “Shanghai Manual: Guide for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century.” Warren wrote the original language for one of the nation’s first municipal green building ordinances (San Francisco).


Car Free Journey: Bar Harbor, Maine

May 21, 2014

Car Free Journey: June, 2014—by Steve Atlas

A favorite getaway choice in summer for many Americans is a visit to a national park. Acadia National Park, located in Bar Harbor, Maine is the only U.S. national park in the northeastern United States. While not as large as the national parks in the West, Acadia’s scenic beauty and coastal location makes it a popular choice for visitors from around the world.

Fortunately, visitors who don’t want to drive can easily enjoy Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Be sure to plan your trip here between June 23 and the second Monday in October (Columbus Day) when the free Island Explorer buses can take you nearly anywhere you want to go in Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, and other popular spots on Mount Desert Island.

Because the Island Explorer begins operating on June 23, this month’s Car Free Journey spotlights Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Read the rest of this entry »


A Recent History of Bike Lanes in the U.S.

May 13, 2014

As frustratingly slow as Ecocity change seems to be at times, good people are working on good projects all the time. Look no further than the streets of San Francisco at the astounding development of bike infrastructure there. In the past 5 years designated bike lanes, bulb-outs and the like have exploded. Riding “The Wiggle”–a winding path that avoids the steepest hills between downtown and the Panhandle–has gone from a terrifying race through speeding traffic on Market, Oak and Fell streets, to a much saner and more accessible protected bike lane route. The signature green paint and share-os of bike lanes seem to multiply every week.

San Francisco’s rapid development of cycling infrastructure is no accident, and is not simply the work of Bicycle Coalition lobbying. The Fog City is part of a network of cities organized by the Department of Transportation called PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project. The Green Lane Project creates a bridge (and funding opportunities) for bike advocacy groups and city governments to work together to improve urban biking conditions. Selected cities receive up to $250,000 of financial, strategic and technical assistance from the project for building protected bike lanes.

In cities across America, investing in bicycle transportation is transitioning from an add-on catering to few cyclist hobbyists to an essential component of citizen transportation. In the last two years, the number of protected lane projects in the country has nearly doubled, reports Streetsblog. According to the Green Lane Project, 48% of all trips in the U.S. are 4 miles or less–a perfectly acceptable cycling distance for most riders. Protected bike lanes not only protect riders, but shave been shown to reduce traffic crashes for all street users by 34%. Dividers, bulb-outs, and other road development “help to make drivers more aware of their surroundings and more cautious.”

The payoff on cycling investment continues beyond the safety and enjoyment of the cycling experience to addressing pressing needs for urban transportation in the coming years.

“When you have a swelling population like the USA has and will have for the next 35 years, one of the most cost-effective ways to better fit that population is to better use the existing grid,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a recent Green Lane Project gathering. Bikes are part of the solution to a highway trust fund that is “teetering toward insolvency” by August or September, he said.

Six U.S. cities–Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, DC–began the Green Lane Project in 2012. This April the partner cities expanded to include Atlanta,  Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

To celebrate the new city partners, the Green Lane Project has released a short film highlighting the advances in cycling infrastructure of the last few years. Enjoy!

The Rise of Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S. from Green Lane Project on Vimeo.


Ecocitizen Map Project Slideshow: Casablanca, Cairo and Medellín

April 30, 2014

See the photos from the Ecocitizen Team’s recent trip around the world – Morocco, Egypt, and Colombia – conducting trainings on community mapping. Also includes pictures from the wiWorld Urban Forum 7 in Medellín. Read the rest of this entry »


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