Good ideas: Three ways to rethink parking

February 25, 2013

Like it or not, cars have, are and will be an integral part of our urban experience for years yet. Making them more energy efficient and moving them more sustainably are important issues in urban design. At the same time, this is only half the story. Well, actually, only 5% of the story. UCLA professor Donald Shoup has calculated that our cars are in motion only 5% of the day, meaning they are parked 95% of the time.

Here are three ways in which parking is being transformed from the concrete wasteland of yesterday to functional, sustainable and more user-friendly spaces. Read the rest of this entry »


Originator of the Term “Eco-City” Cites Misuse

November 5, 2009

As the person who first coined the term “Eco-city”, Ecocity Builders founder Richard Register questions the interpretation of the term in such places as the upcoming Abu Dhabi World Future Energy Summit in January of 2010. Register has been an advocate for the idea of ecologically healthy cities since 1965, and he started using the word variously spelled ecocities, eco-cities and EcoCities in 1979. According to Register, the ecocity is designed on the measure of the human being, not the car, powered by solar energy, fed by organic farming and designed to build soils and restore biodiversity and climate stability. He says we know it can be done because he knows people who are doing it.

The Abu Dhabi conference will feature engineering firm Arup’s design of Dongtan, China (on hold for three years now) and San Francisco’s Treasure Island, as well as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar eco-city.   The conference ventures to design the whole city a little differently, using renewable energy systems, better recycling, rooftop gardens and shade roofs over building in hot climates, and more pedestrian-oriented streets. Register says these goals are virtuous, but he also says that the emPHAsis is on the wrong syllAble.  The talk is more about massive new renewable energy supplies than energy conservation by city redesign ­ and Masdar’s so-called “pods” look suspiciously like a different design for cars after all.  Biofuels are also problematic, as it requires

According to Register, the Abu Dhabi conference attempts, once again, to make cars a central feature of the ecocity. Register believes this is a contradiction.  The automobile, he says, is on average about 30 times heavier than a human being and takes up about 60 times the volume standing still.  Moreover, car accidents kill a million people every year and contribute heavily to climate change. In Register’s view, the car is intrinsically incorrigible. When designing cities on the demands of automobiles, you have to invest billions of extra dollars on streets, parking lots and parking structures, freeways and interchanges, police and ambulance services, insurance, hospital bills and on and on. What if you put that money instead into designs based on the dimensions of the human body supported by bicycles and transit? Register suggests that car companies switch to a different product line building streetcars, trains, elevators, bicycles and the mixed-use cities that bring jobs, commerce and social life close together on much smaller areas of land.  “It’s a full employment, planning and intelligence-rich strategy for green jobs,” says Register.

Register is not alone in his interpretation of the “ecocity.”  The term has similarly been defined by the likes of Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner (Brazil), Chinese ecocity theoretician, Congress member and Director of the Research at the Research Center for Ecological and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Science Rusong Wang, and climate scientist Stephen Schneider who accepted the 2007 Nobel Prize on behalf of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes.

“I met Arizona architect Paolo Soleri in 1965,” Register recounts, “in the early years of his talking about the disasters of the sprawl/automobile/paving/cheap energy way of designing and laying out cities. Soleri’s comment that no complex living organism is flat and spread out like a sheet of paper or the suburbs ­ two-dimensional rather than thee-dimensional in his words ­ and that cars are intrinsically an anti-city anti-human and ultimately anti-nature invention struck me as absolutely fundamental to understanding what human civilizations should be building.”

Register calls the relationship between complex living organisms like our own bodies and the complex built environment of cities, towns and villages “The Anatomy Analogy.”  He believes it prescribes a much more compact city like those of Europe as compared with those of the United States. But he and Soleri take the idea farther in proposing cities with buildings linked by bridges and the full range of community life and economy organized in much smaller spaces, leaving much more land and water for nature and agriculture while demanding far less in resources for life in the city. The lean and frugal city is Soleri’s term for such design.

Register’s organization – Ecocity Builders – along with Parantez Fair International in Istanbul, Turkey will hold the Eighth International Ecocity Summit in Istanbul this December. The world-renowned series follows the first, held in Berkeley in 1990, and five subsequent conferences in Australia, Senegal, Brazil, China and India. Ecocity World Summit 2008 will take center stage before 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.

Information on the upcoming Eighth International Ecocity Conference in Istanbul is available at and information on Ecocity Builders in Oakland, California is at

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:

Stacey Meinzen

California Moves on Bill to Curb Sprawl and Emissions

August 30, 2008

Published: August 28, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — California, known for its far-ranging suburbs and jam-packed traffic, is close to adopting a law intended to slow the increase in emissions of heat-trapping gases by encouraging housing close to job sites, rail lines and bus stops to shorten the time people spend in their cars.

The measure, which the State Assembly passed on Monday and awaits final approval by the Senate, would be the nation’s most comprehensive effort to reduce sprawl. It would loosely tie tens of billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies to cities’ and counties’ compliance with efforts to slow the inexorable increase in driving. The goal is to encourage housing near current development and to reduce commutes to work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has not said whether he will sign the bill.

The number of miles driven in California has increased at a rate 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth for the past two decades. Passenger vehicles, which produce about 30 percent of the state’s heat-trapping gases, are the single greatest source of such emissions.

The fragile coalition behind the measure includes some longtime antagonists, in particular homebuilders and leading environmental groups in California. Both called the measure historic.

“What California is doing for the first time,” said Ed Manning, a lobbyist who represents the state’s 25 largest homebuilding companies, “is planning for housing needs, transportation needs and climate-change needs all at the same time.”

Thomas Adams, the board president of California’s League of Conservation Voters, said the changes were “all going to support a development pattern that will help the state meet its climate goals.”

The bill yokes three regulatory and permit processes. One focuses on regional planning: how land use should be split among industry, agriculture, homes, open space and commercial centers. Another governs where roads and bridges are built. A third sets out housing needs and responsibilities — for instance, how much affordable housing a community must allow.

Under the pending measure, the three regulatory and permit processes must be synchronized to meet new goals, set by the state’s Air Resources Board, to reduce heat-trapping gases.

Seventeen regional planning groups from across the state will submit their land-use, transportation and housing plans to the board. If the board rules that a plan will fall short of its emissions targets, then an alternative blueprint for meeting the goals must be developed.

Once state approval is granted, or an alternative plan submitted, billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies can be awarded. The law would allow the money to be distributed even if an alternative plan fails to pass muster.

State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said in an interview that he expected the Senate to approve the bill soon.

Mr. Steinberg, who will be the Senate majority leader in the legislative session beginning next year, said Wednesday that he met with Governor Schwarzenegger this week and received “positive signals, no guarantees.”

Environmentalists have long blamed profit-driven land-use planning around the country for creating the expansive, sometimes redundant network of roads that have carved up farmland near urban areas.

They have also praised regional planners in Portland, Ore., for that city’s clustered growth and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

The tools Portland planners have used are called urban growth boundaries, efforts to control sprawl by encouraging higher density development within an area and largely prohibiting it outside.

These boundaries have gained little traction in California, where developers have seen them as too restrictive and local governments have been jealous of their own planning powers.

Sacramento and San Diego have recently tried to build coalitions to support clustered development.

Most environmental groups strongly support the pending bill. Among them is the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major force in the development two years ago of the landmark state law to limit heat-trapping emissions from all sectors of the economy.

But some groups have expressed reservations, objecting to the relaxation of some existing environmental constraints on developers.

Jan Chatten-Brown, an environmental lawyer in Santa Monica, wrote in an e-mail message that the bill “gives up an important tool” by relaxing some requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and making it harder for citizen groups to sue developers.

Communities that take part in the process will be able to revise their housing plans every eight years instead of five; developers working with a state-approved plan will have to do less extensive environmental reviews of their projects.

Ms. Chatten-Brown also said the legislation overlapped with some of the provisions of the 2006 law committing the state, by 2020, to a 30 percent reduction in the projected level of emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters estimate that $15 billion to $20 billion in annual federal, state and local transportation grants support highways, bridges, bike paths and light-rail systems.

Because there is no assurance that regions would lose transportation dollars if their plans fail to win state approval, a few environmental groups stayed in a neutral corner.

But Mr. Adams, with the League of Conservation Voters, said that “a land-use bill of this magnitude had not been successful since the 1976 passage of the California Coastal Act.”

The New York Times

High tech to low, world’s green technology are many

July 2, 2008

This article in CNN Technology speaks about low and high tech solutions for reducing reliance on fossil fuels from using simple building materials such as straw and clay to installing solar panels on roofs. 

Sieben Linden, the village in eastern Germany, mixes high- and low-tech approaches. Some of its roughly 100 residents live in homes built with little more than clay, wood and straw.  Straw bales coated with clay are put inside the homes’ walls. The insulation reduces the need for powered heating and cooling, making the houses much more energy efficient than homes made with standard building materials, according to village resident Martin Schlegel.

“The energy you save by [using straw] is sufficient to heat this house 12 years, compared to a house built with normal modern materials,” he said.  Those who worry about the straw easily catching fire should think again, Schlegel said. He said that because the bales are tightly packed, they don’t ignite quickly.

“[Burning] a sheet of paper — it is very easy. But try to light a telephone book,” he said, comparing the bales to the book.  Straw-bale construction was used in Nebraska in the 19th century. The villagers of Sieben Linden take a more technological approach, fitting their homes with solar panels.

City Dwellers have Smaller Carbon Footprint Study Says

May 30, 2008

A Brookings Institute study released May 29, 2008, titled Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America, found that U.S. city dwellers have lower carbon footprints than the average American. 

The study quantified transportation and residential carbon emissions for the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas.  Each resident of the largest 100 largest metropolitans areas is responsible on average for 2.47 tons of carbon dioxide in energy consumption each year, 14 percent below the 2.87 ton U.S. average.  Residential density, availability of public transit, carbon intensity of electricity generation, electricity prices, and weather were all important factors in understanding carbon footprints.  The study also found that carbon footprints varied widely between cities geographically- carbon emissions are highest in the eastern U.S. where coal is the common source for electricity, and lower in the West where weather is milder and electricity and motor fuel prices have been higher.