Archive for ecological issues

What water gives cities (blog action day post)

My Blog Action Day post…

Cities owe their existence to water. The first cities around the world tended to evolve on waterways, often at the intersections of one or more bodies of water.

  • London is on the Thames river, which connects this inland point with the ocean nearby.
  • New York is where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic ocean
  • Tenotchitlan (Mexico City) was founded on an island in lake Texcoco, connected to the mainland by large causeways on which trade and tribute flowed.
  • Mumbai emerged from 7 island fishing villages in a sheltered bay and at the mouth of several rivers
  • Cities like Sydney, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver are also built around a sheltered harbour where large ships safely dock

The waterways were and still are the lifelines of many cities.  Goods and people come and go along them.  They supply food too, including fish and seaweed.

Today, the waterways around cities also provide great recreational opportunities from boating to swimming to beach-jogging.

But cities also have used–and many still do–the surrounding water to dump waste–garbage, sewage, and other unwanted items.  For all that waterways have given humans, through facilitating urban growth and the rise out of poverty and insecurity that has come with it, you would think people would have more respect for the waterways.

That hasn’t been the case, at least not until recently.  Gradually city dwellers have become more concerned about waterways, and have started to clean some of them up.  They’ve also tried to better understand what makes a vibrant, healthy marine eco-system in order to bring that back.

And the waterways are starting to say thanks, in their own way, with unexpected gifts like a Whale in the City.

 

A whale in the city:unexpected eco-consequence

A few weeks ago a grey whale swam into Vancouver’s narrow, False Creek inlet.  It swam, fed off bottom dwelling critters, and generally delighted hundreds of spectators who came to watch it swim past the new Olympic Village and over to the condo community of Yaletown.

In my childhood, this was a dirty, aging heavy industrial zone dumping who-knows-what into the water.

No one alive here today seems to recall seeing a healthy whale swimming in urban waterways, although presumably whales visited occasionally before industrial development polluted the water.  The whale in 2010 was a miraculous site.

Environmentalists at the David Suzuki foundation believe the whale visit resulted from efforts to cleanup the False Creek waterway that were undertaken as part of the LEED-Platinum Olympic Village sustainable housing development.  In addition to building a zero-emission community, the inlet was cleaned up and a “Habitat Island” added to provide a home for marine-oriented critters from ducks to fish as well as small mammals.  A whole eco-system including food for whales seems to have evolved in just a few years.

This provides another example of how reducing emissions and pollution in our cities (including their waterways) is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it helps the planet in the long term.  It improves our quality of life–now, today.  Everyone who saw the whale felt enriched.

It’s unfortunate that questionable science about global-warming is what is motivating many policy and behavior changes, but I’m glad something is, and that we can see almost immediate results.  The whale doesn’t lie.  Nor do statistics about reduced hospital admittances for asthma when driving is drastically reduced.  The quality of life is better in cities when the air and environment is cleaner.

Metro mania

Tens of thousands of people stood in line for hours yesterday to experience the new rapid transit line in Vancouver. Such excitement has not greeted new transit options before, which got me thinking about the relationship between metro lines, a city, and its residents.

Unlike two previous routes, which primarily link suburban residential areas to downtown, this “Canada Line” links a variety of great places — real destinations — together:

  • The financial core / downtown area and nearby Granville St. Entertainment District
  • The trendy,  restaurant-rich condo-ville of Yaletown
  • City Hall and the new retail developments adjacent as well as the Vancouver General Hospital complex
  • Langara University College
  • River Rock Casino (which has a theatre that brings in great retro musical acts)
  • The Vancouver International Airport

Many more citizens can see themselves benefiting from this line, compared with the previous two which have really only served commuters from bedroom communities.  I think that accounts for the extra excitement.  That it opened three months early, and in August, also helped (not sure how many would have stood in the rainy November weather had it opened on schedule).

It will be interesting to see how ridership does.  I could see this line having much more balanced use beyond during rush hour as people go about their daily activities.

For those of you familiar with transit and metro systems,  what’s your experience?  Do metro lines connecting special places — destinations — have better ridership?  Do they mean more to you and other residents in the city?

This is not to say a debate doesn’t continue about whether this infrastructure was worth the cost (although I personally think it’s a worthwhile investment in a future, green, livable region).   I’m wanting a different discussion on what makes rapid transit work, and what makes rapid transit draw people from a variety of backgrounds. 

Lesson from India on affordable housing

In dynamic, popular urban cores there is a constant dilemma about housing affordability.  Because more people want to live in an area than there are homes, rents and sale prices can be high.

One solution is to demand a certain number of rental units or non-market units for sale when developers build out a new area (whether greenfill or brownfill).   But, government agencies involved in decisions often insist that all housing be of a certain size with particular amenities, such that it becomes more expensive to build and thus the city ends up with fewer units, and lower supply with the same demand brings higher prices.

Take this new community in India as an example of what homes need, and what they don’t — brought to you by Tata, the makers of the $1500 car.The development of Shubh Griha offers three home types ranging from 283 square feet to 465 square feet.  They’re basic, but affordable and allow many more units to be built within the same sized apartment building as would be the case in most North American cities.

No, this size and simplicity wouldn’t suit everyone.  But many families long for a well-built, simple and more affordable home in the city and would likely give up size in return for everything else.

In North America more two bedroom units might be appropriate for families who don’t all want to sleep in the same room.  But, why not on the same scale?  a 400 s.f. 2 bedroom place?

Looking ahead to an urban world with high energy prices, maybe there is room for housing that’s simpler, smaller and more ecological.  Plus, more people living in the same area provides a big enough market for frequent mass transit and offers enough customers to support more local businesses, reducing the need to drive.

Smaller homes seem like a good fit.

Special civic advocates for walking? cycling?

Cities need to offer residents and businesses a variety of transportation options to maximize livability.  Only facilitating automobile travel makes for a polluted, congested, and concrete-freeway-based environment.  Only facilitating bikes or walking in 21st century life and you hamper citizens’ ability to go any distance or carry very much while doing it.   As recently discussed, some argue that a plurality of viable transport options are what make a neighbourhood and city more livable.

So, would city benefit from a special advocate for each type of transportation option?

A professor of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University believes Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate.  Along with some other dedicated walkers, he’s frustrated by the new bicycle-friendly policy to take over a one vehicle lane and one sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge between downtown and Kitsilano.

Portland Oregon apparently has one (according to the professor) — although in googling to learn more, I could only find out about a paid coordinator for the Willamette Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, which is a volunteer-based community organization to promote pedestrian-friendly policies in greater Portland.

In looking at the dramatic swing to bicycle friendly policy with the new Vancouver city administration (the new mayor is an avid cyclist, commuting by bike to many city events), I’m inclined to think that cities don’t need single-transportation-mode advocates.  Focusing on improving the situation for just one transportation option, can result in ignoring the implications for other users, as the SFU prof notes.

I’d like to see cities embracing a position for balancing citizens’ transportation options.  The holder would be someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to all forms of getting around a city — motor vehicle, bus, metro, street car, bicycle, walking, stroller, wheelchair, etc.  And their role would be to consider the implications of any proposed policies on all of these transportation options.

Cities themselves generate volunteer-based citizen lobby groups for cycling, walking, driving, transit use, etc.  This “transportation advocate” I’m envisioning would also be their liaison to city hall, helping to turn their ideas into workable civic policy proposals that will improve the livability of the region.

Maybe a multi-modal transportation advocate position would be something CEOs for Cities could consider in their efforts to re-envision America’s cities and come up with strategies to help them emerge from this recession or “reset” ready to support 21st century economic, social and ecological needs.

Mega city pollution and swine flu

The outbreak of “swine flu” in North America is puzzling epidemiologists.  For many young Mexican adults, it’s proving to be a severe illness that may have killed 86 people, primarily in Mexico City.  Meanwhile those in the US and Canada who have confirmed cases are generally only showing signs of a mild respiratory illness or sometimes mild influenza (i.e. it’s acting like a common cold or mild flu — nothing life threatening).  Indeed, had there not been widespread media coverage, its quite possible that these people would never have even sought medical attention and thus we’d never know they had it.

One theory I heard today is that high levels of air pollution in Mexico City — which contributes to a much higher rate of chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma than the world norm — may be a reason why this flu is hitting Mexicans harder.  (CBC TV reported this, based on something a reporter heard at a news conference put on by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.)

Of course, it will take time to see if this theory holds — and apparently epidemiologists are pursuing research into this.  (There are other possibilities for the milder cases north of the Rio Bravo, including different strains of the virus reaching Canada and the US, or the virus weakening as it spreads, or just the low numbers of confirmed cases.)

Should urban pollution levels — and the resultant health issues — prove a significant factor in worsening this disease, it will be an important message for the world.  Cities are growing; the percentage of the world’s population who lives in them is growing.  Because of this, it’s important to recognize the interplay between issues such as pollution and susceptibility to certain potential pandemics.

(And for the record, I love Mexico City — its history, the people, their energy and creativity; but the pollution on a bad day is brutal).

Enough doomsday talk, focus on livability

Almost everyday in the newspaper or the blogosphere some group attempts to make headlines forecasting what we could call “eco-doom” for cities.  Whether the prediction is rising sea levels,  fires, plagues of locusts (or killer bees) the result is misplaced attention.

Here’s an example via Planetizen: Sea Levels are Rising: It’s Time to Decide Which Cities are Worth Saving.  The article goes on to insist that we should be addressing the possibility that rising sea levels will swamp the hospital, schools and other infrastructure of various cities.

Behind this alarmist headline, the article does not discuss a time frame.  Some scientific models suggest such a scenario is at least 100 years away, if it happens.  And given similar forecasting models based on oceans and atmospheric events cannot accurately predict the weather next week or often even the next day in most coastal cities, I’m inherently skeptical of anyone saying they can predict events 50 – 100 years in the future.

Instead of forecasting certain doom, or fretting about the green house gasses that others produce in far off places, what if we focused on making our own cities more livable now?  Designing public policy to plan for a possible — but not at all a certain — event 50-100 years in the future seems a wasted energy when there is so much more we could be doing now.

Air pollution causes asthma and other respiratory disease, thereby reducing the quality of life in cities.  When Atlanta had to restrict automotive use during the 1996 Olympics, hospitalizations for asthma and related ailments declined 41%.

So what if urban public policy was centered around improving air quality:  Make possible more transit and bicycle use as well as walking instead of single-occupant automotive travel.  Preserve and create more green space, that cleans the air and improves livability in cities.

Human beings were built for walking.  When we don’t walk, or get regular moderate exercise, our bodies don’t work right (heart disease, obesity, diabetes, are all signs of this).   Public policy to make walking a more natural part of the day could reduce pollution and health care costs and improve quality of life.

If policy went further and demanded office buildings and other workplaces like hospitals and schools had better air quality and more natural light, it would reduce energy consumption and make people happier, more productive at their jobs — which would boost the economy and reduce pollution in the cities, improving livability.
Instead of discussing hypothetical doom, why don’t we talk about how cities affect the health and well-being of residents now– and do something about it.

Urban Chickens or Pigs Anyone?

It looks like barnyard animals could be making an urban comeback in North America.

The Toronto Star summarized a Dutch  firm’s idea of farming pigs vertically, in multi-storey buildings.  Apparently it’s more ecologically responsible:

Proposed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, the argument is that it’s more efficient to raise swine in highrise farms than on the ground, where they take up a lot of room. According to MVRDV, if pigs in Holland were raised organically – i.e. fed 100 per cent grain – three-quarters of the country would have to be set aside to meet their needs.

By giving these pigs wings and stacking them in the sties in the skies, the land below remains free and transportation and distribution costs can be cut. Each tower could feed 500,000 people annually. The pigs would also get to enjoy well-ventilated spaces with great views.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, chickens are scheduled to make a come back (while in New York, Seattle and Portland apparently they never left).

If barnyard animals can humanely be kept in dense urban spaces, and contribute to increasing urban sustainability, without creating new, more serious problems, then I’d welcome them.

But somehow in Vancouver, which sits right next to thousands of kilometers of wilderness, I can’t help but think that chickens would simply attract and feed more bears, cougars, foxes, coyotes and other animals that really don’t belong in the city.

Do you have your own chickens? would you welcome 40 storeys of pigs moving in down the street?

Edmonton: Where Oil and Sustainability Meet?

Edmonton is an intriguing place.  It sits next to the world’s 2nd largest oil reserves and the economy is dominated directly and indirectly by the oil extraction industry.  Yet, it has also been ranked the most sustainable large city in Canada by Corporate Knights Magazine:

With the lowest unemployment rate of all cities [below 4% ] and the second-lowest unemployment rate of immigrants, Edmonton wants to be an “innovation centre for value-added and green technologies and products,” and is measuring progress by the percentage of green collar jobs created. Edmonton is also the only city in our consideration set to have inclining block pricing on water to encourage conservation.

This may be true, but I wonder if the sustainability ranking is premature.  Having just returned from there, Edmonton was definitely a spread out city that requires a car, or a truck — even a rig rocket.

That said, it’s a city where the mayor and many residents envision a lower-carbon future:  A new light rail transit system is under construction; the downtown is booming with new funky condos;  post-secondary education opportunities are abundant; and city hall has a plan to promote higher density housing and more infill rather than greenfill development.  Solar and wind energy research is also emerging as the city seeks to diversify from an oil town into an energy town.

What’s ironic, is that 10 or 15 years from now, Edmonton — where much of North America’s oil may come from — could actually become the model city for a more sustainable, even post-oil era.  Even if the plan struggles somewht, it remains  impressive is that this city of barely 1 million, centred around the oil industry,  has a plan to get there.

Transit should be an essential service

A transit strike has afflicted Ottawa — Canada’s capital city — for over five weeks.   Ottawa usually has a fairly good transit system, relied on by many people who have chosen not to have a car (or a second family vehicle) as well as those who cannot afford one.

People who have made the ecologically and/or economical choice to drive less have been held hostage by the strike, being waged during the height of winter with temperatures around -30.  Seniors, parents with young children, and others who cannot handle time in the bitter cold and use transit are stuck at home.    Presumably many people are struggling to get to work — and they will think that decision not to own a car.  The economy of Ottawa is no doubt suffering because people can’t get out.

In North America many urban planners, leaders, and  everyday citizens have been trying to reduce congestion, pollution and promote transit use.

But, if residents cannot rely on the transit,  they won’t give up their cars.  If oil returns to $137/barrel and gasoline to $1.50/litre in Canada or $4/gallon — or more — in the US, many more people will rely on transit — as will the city’s economy.

City and regional governments need to think ahead here.  Transit should be considered like electricity or fire fighting — an essential service.

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