Saving our desert cities

December 9, 2014

The 20th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) is taking place in Lima this week, with Ecocity Builders in attendance. Lima is an obvious choice to host this gathering focused on solutions to climate change. Lima is the 2nd largest desert city, right behind Cairo, and Peru is estimated to be the third-worst affected country by climate change, after Honduras and Bangladesh, according to the  Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Lima lies in the great rain shadow of Peru, sandwiched between the Andes and the sea. The area receives less than a third of an inch of rainfall per year. The bulk of Lima’s municipal water comes from rivers fed by Andean glacier melt. But over the past decade the glaciers have all but disappeared and mountain rainfall has declined as well. Lima is poised on a precipice of a frightening future. Over the edge is imminent water shortage. City officials are looking for alternatives with increasing urgency.

We’re no stranger to drought here in California. Despite the plentiful early winter rain, cities, agriculture and industry in the lower half of the state are still threatened with running dry. While bad luck and climate change can be blamed for the shortages, there’s another human villain behind the misfortune: bad planning. Problems arise when cities don’t take into account the resource flows of the ecosystems they exist in. Problems arise when humans put their plans and values above the basic facts of the environment that needs to support them.

City bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Lima city bridge over an almost-dry Río Rímac. Photo by AgainErick, Wikimedia Commons.

Peru, with its mountains and rainforest, is rich in hydrological resources. But 98% of the Andes’ liquid bounty, including the source of the Amazon river, flows east into the Amazon basin. Why, then, does two-thirds of Peru’s 30 million inhabitants live on the arid Pacific coast?

“This mismatch began 500 years ago with the arrival of the Spaniards,” said José Salazar, president of urban water regulator, Sunass, in The Independent (2011). The massive empires of Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations built their major cities near water sources in the Andes. But because they wanted to be closer to Spain the conquistadors founded their capital on the coast: “Today, we are picking up the bill for this colonial legacy,” Salazar concluded.

Unfortunately we are left with the legacy of decisions–both deliberate and unintentional–made be previous generations. Lima, a city of 9 million, shouldn’t have been built in the 2nd driest desert in the world. But we have to work with what we’ve got.

Many cities are flocking to “smart” solutions to resource management and the scope of innovation in this area is truly exciting. However, smart solutions aren’t always the best. They can be expensive, resource depleting (rare metals used in computing are a source of devastating pollution), and not culturally appropriate. “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in the New York Times, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”
The best solutions are often the simplest. In that spirit, here are a few basic principles and tools that can help water-strapped cities survive the next decades.

1. Reduce. It comes before reuse and recycle for a reason! Reducing our need is the cheapest and easiest option. In fact, it requires you to do LESS, in some cases. Other investments such as removing thirsty vegetation, fixing leaks, and replacing old fixtures are cost saving in the long run. Responsibility isn’t all on the average citizen: big water users like industry and agriculture need to pitch in updating their processes to reduce water consumption, too.

The poorest population of the city can teach the rest of us valuable lessons. Residents of the slums, shanty towns, and other informal peripheries of cities like Lima use dramatically less resources than the more affluent areas. Materials are more efficiently used and better recycled, and water is treated as the precious resource it is.

One of Lima’s informal settlements on the outskirts of town. Photo by Håkan Svensson, Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the poorest of Lima (and elsewhere) don’t have a choice to conserve. One million of Lima’s 9 million residents don’t have access to treated water, instead paying for water delivered from privately owned trucks at enormous mark-up (watch this video to learn why the poor pay more for everything). The great challenge we face is elevating and equalizing the quality of life for all, while avoiding the adoption of upper-class waste and consumerism that often occurs with the process.

2. Decentralizing/diversifying water sources may have a great impact on conservation. Rain catchment and grey water systems at the parcel or neighborhood level reduce strain on city infrastructure and can take advantage of natural water (primarily rain and other atmospheric moisture).

David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley and author of “Water 4.0,” traces the expectation of controlled, centralized water distribution to the Roman era. The Roman’s aqueducts supplied their cities with abundant water carried from miles away. But the Roman model doesn’t make sense for large water-limited cities today (if it ever did, ecologically speaking). The millions of residents of today’s cities overburden single-source water systems, especially in times of drought.

Unlike Lima, Los Angeles (another desert city) does get a fair amount of rain in the winter. Elmer Avenue, in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles called Sun Valley, is a prototype for noded smart water management. Rain catchment systems, drought tolerant landscaping, and permeable surfaces collect and redistribute precious water at a hyper-local level, preventing floods and providing water between rains.

3. Learn from the past. Indigenous architecture has often evolved over generations to respond precisely to local conditions. The flat roofed adobe of the Americas regulates ambient temperature (both inside and out) and can be adapted to collect rainwater. The pitched roofs of European-inspired houses don’t make sense here as they are designed for northern climates to shrug off snow. Rethinking native materials and processes often conserves materials and energy over a building’s lifetime.

4. Innovate “dumb”. Low-tech water solutions abound. Warka Water and other projects that use mesh to capture atmospheric moisture and could potentially generate 25 gallons of drinking water per day. Moisture farms are well suited to Lima which, while short on rainfall, is very humid. Improved techniques for passive desalinization greenhouses could reduce water need for this thirsty sector.

These ideas will likely be implemented in the places that need them most, like water-strapped Lima or California. But every settlement should take advantage of conserving technologies and approaches. It is too easy to compartmentalize climate change, to see it happening as “elsewhere”. That is, until your city feels the impact. The truth is we are all living in ecosystems of resource limitations. We’re all stuck on this resilient, yet delicate, closed system of Mother Earth.

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Considering Impacts of Scale: Reflections on Guangzhou, China

December 9, 2014

Ecocity Insights

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

The Chinese national government has embraced the ecocity as a model for urban development. China is the third largest country by area and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a national population of 1.3 billion. China is also the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions due to the manufacture of consumable goods for export. China has instituted a one-child policy to keep its population growth in check. It has also adopted a circular economy policy that aims to reuse resources to reduce pollution and improve energy and materials efficiency. Nevertheless, many cities in China are plagued by pollution and traffic congestion problems.

For example, Guangzhou is a bustling and prosperous Chinese metropolis with a population over 14 million people. It is situated in Guangdon Province, an open economic development zone that is home to several manufacturing industries supplying global export markets. The area has seen annual increases of greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 10% per year for the last decade (Liu et al. 2014). Buildings in Guangzhou reach 100 stories. Everyone lives in some form of multi-unit residential dwelling, ranging from four-story walk-ups to large high-rise towers. Despite achieving super-high density, complete with a rapid transportation subway system, the urban development pattern in Guangzhou is dominated by automobile traffic with six-lane streets and triple stacked roadways. This is an example of three dimensionality designed around automobile dependence. The city is often blanketed by smog, sourced from motor vehicle emissions.

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou road layering

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

Guangzhou pedestrian overpass

I had the good fortune to visit Guangzhou last week. The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the environmental pollution challenges this and other cities in Guangdong province face. High density, walkable villages surrounded by green abound at the outskirts of the city. For example, just north of the Guangzhou airport are the villages of: Shiputang, Guagancun, Shangzhou, Caibian, Leping Village, Yumin New Village, Chigantu, Liantancun, Gangzai, Gangwei and many more. Yet, even in the heart of this bustling, prosperous Chinese city, hints of ecocities emerging can be found. I took a walk through part of the Guangzhou central city and found several examples of narrow pedestrian streets with shopping on the main floor and residences above, reaching an average height of six stories. Trees and greenery at corner pocket parks added to the charm of these interstitial spaces. Most people travelled by foot, bicycle or some combination thereof. Curiously, the newer high rise developments on the main thoroughfares also follow a pattern of commercial at grade (and subsequent three to four stories) with residential (up to 85 stories) above. The pattern is the same, but the scale is much bigger. Most people in the newer development areas travel by bus or private automobile; nevertheless, elevated pedestrian walkways also enable people to move around freely by foot.

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou intersection on pedestrian commercial street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Guangzhou pedestrian street

Comparing these similar patterns of development at different scales provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection. In both the old and new development of Guangzhou, the same patterns of mixing commercial and residential uses within buildings exist. However, the streetscape in the new development is expansive. Ecocity development must work at a scale designed for mobility of the human body, not the car body. This is what enables access by proximity. I found one exciting example of this approach at the Guangzhou Pearl Market. Can high rise development be designed such that the street scape remains pedestrian-oriented, at a small and intimate scale? Could different approaches to massing of buildings enable a more pedestrian-oriented environment without sacrificing density? Much research exploring these questions is currently underway and warrants further reflection and experimentation.

Guangzhou Pearl Market

Guangzhou Pearl Market

References:

Chunrong Liu, Yaoqiu Kuang, Ningsheng Huang, Xiuming Liu. 2014. An Empirical Research on Evaluation of Low-Carbon Economy in Guangdong Province, China: Based on “Production, Life and Environment” in Low Carbon Economy, 5: 139-52.

 

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

 

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What simple fix can save 3,320 lives a year?

October 29, 2014

Road diets offer cheap solution to a deadly problem

It’s only too common. A car along a four-lane road slows near a corner. The car behind it or next to it doesn’t understand why the vehicle in front has slowed. Perhaps the rear driver feels irritated and speeds up, swerving into the adjacent lane and passing the stopped car. It’s too late to see that the first vehicle has halted for a pedestrian crossing the street. Maybe the speeding car breaks in time, or passes before the pedestrian is hit. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t.

This tragedy occurred just this week in St. Paul, prompting Bill Lindeke to write a thoughtful article about the danger of 4 lane roads. Lindeke takes issue with the general consensus that these incidents are unavoidable and rare accidents. Neither statement is true.

The DOT itself reports that, when properly implemented, road diets benefit pedestrians through “reduced crossing distance and midblock crossing locations, which account for more than 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities.” Road diets could save the lives of 3,320 pedestrians a year. So what are we waiting for?

Suggestions of road re-design invariably stir up controversy, especially concerns over increased traffic, writes Lindeke.

The problem with this reasoning is that there’s no such thing as a free street. Particularly in a walkable city, achieving a high traffic volume always come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased accidents and far less safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people living in these urban neighborhoods.

Street design is always about tradeoffs. Slow speeds that are good for local business are bad for high-speed through traffic. Four-lane roads that improve “stacking” (i.e backups at an intersection) are dangerous for people on foot or on a bicycle. A turn lane that is good for throughput is bad for anyone trying to cross the street. A bike lane can sometimes come at the expense of an on-street parking spot, etc. etc. Everything is a matter of choices and tradeoffs.

Isn’t the trade-off of 3,320 human lives worth an extra five minutes on your commute? Visualizing the real cost behind this issue is the only way to break the complacency and false security with driving that powers the status-quo on American streets.


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 »


All eyes on Medellín

April 7, 2014

Medellín, the host of the World Urban Forum next week, is well worthy of the recent attention. From city blighted by crime and urban decay, Medellín has embraced innovative urban policy that has drastically improved public safety while focusing on sustainability and public transportation. Learn more about the trail blazing work that is earning this Colombian city international recognition.

Streetfilms Medellín: Colombia’s Sustainable Transport Capital

Medellín was awarded the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award. Streetfilms partnered with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to document some of the changes taking place in Medellín.

 

Further reading:

How transit and architecture have stopped crime and transformed the city

http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/global-site-plans-grid/185276/medellin-how-transportation-innovation-have-given-failing-city-chance

 

Medellín’s revolutionary public transportation infastructure

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/13/443330/medellin-metro-system-colombia-public-transport/

 

Medellín is crowned the “Most Innovative City of the Year” by the Urban Land Instute, the Wall Street Journal, and Citi in 2013

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/02/medellin-named-innovative-city-of-the-year_n_2794425.html


Learning from the European Green Capitals

April 2, 2014

by Rick Pruetz, FAICP
A Planning Practice Special Feature — Practicing Planner — Spring 2014

American Planning Association logo

Anyone interested in planning sustainable communities can gain insight and inspiration from the first five cities to win the title of European Green Capital. For each of the past five years, the European Commission has named one city its Green Capital as a way of recognizing and promoting cities aiming to reduce their ecological footprint. To win this prize, cities submit applications and are judged by a panel of experts on accomplishments in 12 criteria: climate change mitigation and adaptation, local transport, green urban areas, nature and biodiversity, air quality, noise, waste management, water management, waste water treatment, eco innovations, energy, and integrated environmental management.

This article focuses on the diverse ways in which these five winners create networks of green space and nature. In addition to the inherent value of protecting habitat and ecosystems, success in these two criteria promote success in most if not all of the other criteria. For example, greenways and greenbelts benefit water management, reduce energy consumption by offering non-motorized transportation alternatives, and can be used to shape compact cities with efficient public transportation and other infrastructure. These five Green Capitals also illustrate the importance of using green areas and nature to help create inviting cities where people want to live.
Read the rest of this entry »