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.


The People’s Climate March: From Sea to Rising Sea Level. NorCal rally photo diary

September 23, 2014

by Sven Eberlein

reblogged from the Daily Kos

Impressions from Northern California People’s Climate Rally

Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Oakland, CA, September 21, 2014Peoples-Climate-Rally-Oakland_20

Yes, there was the big climate march in New York, the one that everyone has been talking about, except the mainstream media.

It was a fantastic success, with 400,000 people flocking to a place that is both the pulsing heart of the world’s most wasteful nation as well as the nerve center of the world’s governing body, to shout it from the rooftops that a critical mass of earthlings are tired of seeing their home planet trashed right in front of their eyes.

But a good movement is like a human body or any other living organism: it can’t function with just a heart or a brain. If it is going to survive and thrive, there need to be a lot of other functioning organs or parts that can provide the kind of immunity and resilience required to make it long-term through a diverse and complex ecosystem.

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So to me, going to a rally 3000 miles west of the main march was like putting my finger on the movement’s wrist and checking its pulse. Should there be signs of vitality in such remote regions of this body, I knew that this uprising was meant for the long run.

I knew right away that this would be a good day when — walking in along the lake’s shore with my sweetie and an old friend — my buddy Bill from 350 Bay Area came paddling up beside us, giving us his personal assessment of the rally’s health.

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Meandering along the lake, we encountered beautiful hand-made banners and their designers. Getting these kinds of creative, sensitive, and intelligent statements was a clear sign that this organism was getting plenty of good oxygen.

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As we walked towards the stage, we were greeted by all kinds of diverse groups of happy people. You always know that your rally’s blood pressure is in great shape when you see lots of smiling Buddhists.

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Moving deeper into the crowd though, we spotted a disturbance.

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Every functioning organism needs germs to help build up its immune system. Before we knew what was happening, our collective organism had built up the perfect antibodies to deal with this virus, in the form of these two gentlemen from National Nurses United who attached themselves to the denier bug for the duration of the rally.

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We worked our way to the side of the stage, where Andrés Soto of Communities for a Better Environment was MC’ing the event. If Andrés, who has been one of the leading voices in the fight for climate justice and against the greedy polluters of Chevron, had decided to stay in California for the occasion, it meant that this was going to be a living breathing support system.

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Not just living and breathing, but also pedaling, as the power for the stage was provided by the lungs of this organism, Rock the Bike.

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As soon as a bike became available, my buddy Johnny got to pedaling, unsolicited, to keep the peoples’ mics from going silent. A functioning support system run by an interdependent web of participating denizens.

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Bonus vision points of front row creativity for pedalers!

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We walked around the back to get a view of the whole organism.

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Great to see so many fresh cells.

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It wouldn’t be human if there weren’t some bad habits. Then again, the revolution will definitely not be televised this time around.

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It was a truly self-aware organism, calling playful attention to how unwholesome the entire foundation upon which modern life has been built really is.

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It was an organism keeping its arteries unclogged and healthy…

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and its creative veins stimulated…

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In short, it was a well balanced weaving together of strands and connecting of dots. Small and local enough to be resilient and supportive of the whole, but large enough to make an impact and stand on its own.

And that’s important, because in the end, each other and our connection to this planetary organism we inhabit is all we’ve got.

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Ecocity Insights: Healthy Biodiversity

April 1, 2014

By Jennie Moore, Director Sustainable Development and Environment Stewardship
BCIT School of Construction and the Environment

 

Biodiversity refers to the vast array of species, both flora and fauna, that populate the Earth. Their interactions create the ecosystems upon which we depend, characterized by various biomes including: deserts, rainforests, grasslands, and coral reefs (Newman and Jennings 2008).

Healthy biodiversity needs intact nutrient cycles, no net loss of soils, and no accumulation of pollutants (in soil, air or water). Although approximately 12% of Earth’s wild places have been dedicated as natural reserves, global change processes, including climate change, mean that the systemic conditions needed for these places to thrive are being undermined. Biodiversity losses are being driven in part by urbanization processes that fragment natural habitats and nutrient cycles, deplete soils and aquifers, and increase pollution levels (Newman and Jennings 2008).

To achieve the “Ecocity: Level 1 Condition” requires that the geo-physical and socio-cultural features of a city are in harmony with its surrounding bioregion (www.ecocitystandards.org). This means that indigenous flora and fauna are allowed to flourish. Equally important, ecocities do not draw down the resources or increase pollution levels in areas outside the bioregion either. This could happen through trade imbalances and/or taking advantage of global common resources, such as the waste sink capacities of oceans and atmosphere. Therefore, ecocities are concerned both with preserving and enabling healthy biodiversity in their bioregion as well as in the world generally.

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The ecocity vision includes tightly clustered development immediately adjacent to naturally preserved areas (Register 2006). This allows people to experience nature at their doorstep despite living in high-density urban environments. Ecocities also utilize clean and renewable energy and responsible resources and materials that do not contribute to the destruction of natural habitat in their extraction nor the accumulation of toxics in their manufacture, use and disposal. Finally, by ensuring healthy and accessible food, ecocities also help to protect soils while keeping citizens well nourished.

References:

Newman, Peter and Isabella Jennings. 2008. Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems: Principles and Practices. Washington DC: Island Press.

Register, Richard. 2006. Ecocities: Redesigning Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola BC: New Society Publishers.

 

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

 


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


‘Global Standards of Sustainability for Cities’ proposal advances to the final round of Rio+20 Dialogues

June 8, 2012

Ecocity Builders and the United Nations NGO Major Group’s proposal ‘Global Standards of Sustainability for Cities’ has advanced to the final round of the Rio+20 Dialogues. Please support us so that the proposal can be delivered directly to Heads of State at Rio+20. Everyone can vote directly from the link.

1. Go to http://vote.riodialogues.org
2. Click on ‘Your Vote’
3. Scroll to : Sustainable Cities and Innovation
4. Vote for: Promote global standards of sustainability for cities.
5. Share!

As the Earth’s ecosystem and climate is rapidly reaching a “tipping point” it’s becoming increasingly clear that we humans all have to pull together to turn the mothership around. Luckily, the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Rio+20) from June 20-22 (and the weeks leading up to it starting right now) is offering many great opportunities for people from all over the world to come together, build bridges, and draft a common path upon which all residents of this breathtakingly beautiful planet we call home can journey towards a sustainable and equitable future.

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Informal-Informal in New York

March 24, 2012

This week a small but poised Ecocity Builders delegation including Kirstin Miller, Naomi Grunditz and myself got to spend time at UN Headquarters in New York to witness the first round of ‘Informal-Informal’ negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.

As the issue of sustainable development, or how all humans can prosper without destroying the planet we live and depend on, is global, far-reaching and multidimensional in nature, these negotiations do not only involve governments and diplomats…

Delegates during the negotiations, Photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

but active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people – consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest, also known as major groups.

Farmers representative in the plenary, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

As such, we were invited to join the discussion on how to solve these complex problems, not only with a keen eye toward the role cities will play in the final outcome document, but also to network and exchange ideas with other stakeholders on how to ultimately translate all the talk into specific action on the ground.

We were pretty excited to see the paragraph ascribed to cities in the zero draft of the document, which is the agreed upon starting point of the negotiations:

We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response and increased climate resilience.

Of course, by the time the UNCSD delegates had gone through their first reading of Section V (Framework for Action and Follow-up), a whole new picture appeared. Here just a small sample from the third day of informal consultations, as excerpted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

On cities, CANADA supported the US proposal on sustainable transportation. NEW ZEALAND recommended maintaining resilient ecosystem services. The REPUBLIC OF KOREA introduced its proposal on including greener buildings in city planning. The EU reserved on Japan’s proposal to establish a platform to promote sustainable cities. Proposals for a new title included “Human Settlement, Sustainable Cities, Rural Development and Housing” (G-77/CHINA) and “Cities and metropolitan regions and opposed to extend it to rural development” (EU). The US suggested replacing “low carbon cities” with “sustainable cities” or “low emission cities.” The G-77/CHINA identified slum prevention and upgrading as key elements.

Delegates consulting on the text, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

It’s a little bit like a global sausage-making town hall, and actually quite amazing how courteous, efficient and fast-moving this process is, considering that it literally involves the entire world.

While the process is quite fascinating and I enjoyed my time sitting in the plenary, the real action for us happened in our major group meetings, side events, and casual meetings in the UN cafeteria, aka the Viennese Cafe. It’s in those meetings where NGOs and civic groups can get a chance to talk to some of the delegates and give their input on what should be included in the draft.

John Matuszak, US, meets with NGOs, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

There’s obviously no guarantee that any of it will be included, or if it does, it may very well get deleted again at a later point in the negotiations, but just this morning at our daily major groups briefing, Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at the UN, reiterated that civil participation is strongly encouraged and asked us to not get frustrated by the sometimes very arduous process. He likened it to a wave that kind of sucks you in and spits you back out, but ultimately will move us all forward.

There’s definitely a palpable excitement about this new commitment by the UN to include stakeholders from all walks of life and society. While most of the input may not make it into the final document, there’s no doubt that people at the highest levels are willing to listen to a broad range of ideas and let their thinking be inspired by the experiences and lessons from the ground.

For example, for us it was pretty cool to be invited, along with a group of other interested NGOs, to Swedish ambassador Staffan Tillander’s office, to discuss a possible ‘friends of the city’ network that could pool our knowledge and broaden our scope to make the voice of sustainable cities stronger.

Naomi, who is fluent in Swedish, had a chance for a photo-op with the ambassador.

This is really just the beginning of a non-stop process that will go on throughout the coming weeks, into June, and really, beyond the conference. Whatever language ends up in the final document, the real challenge will be to translate the words, intentions and treaties into action. I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks about some really exciting projects Ecocity Builders is working on for Rio and beyond, but for now, as I’m heading out of the laboratory of UN Headquarters into the field of the New York Highline, I’ll leave you with a photo of Kirstin and me, with hopeful hearts for big deeds.