Earth Day is Friday April 22nd
In the spirit of David Owen's book Green Metropolis, which argues that cities like New York City and the Borough of Manhattan specifically are in fact "environmentally correct" because on a per capita basis, they use a lot less energy and generate less waste, it's worth recapping some urban environmental issues in honor of Earth Day.
Cities and environmental policy. There is a nice op-ed in Crain's Chicago Business, "9 Pro-business ideas for making Chicago a greener city," on state and local barriers to business-based environmental issues. It's an interesting list, addressing:
- Wind power and state policy on renewables and opposition by the local utility
- Solar energy -- streamlining permitting, standardizing grid connections
- Energy efficiency -- supporting energy conservation practices, appliance upgrades, energy retrofits, green jobs
- Public transit -- modernize it
- Higher-speed rail -- Chicago should be the hub of a Midwest high-speed rail network
- Great Lakes -- efficient water infrastructure will leverage the competitive advantage of access to water as a source of drinking water and for recreation; suggests that Chicago should be the efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities
- Chicago River -- make it fishable and swimmable. Ensure that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District adopts best practice treatment practices as right now water discharges from their facilities diminish water quality
Dumpster filled with grit, rags, wipes, and other detritus at a water treatment plant in Green Bay. Photo: Evan Siegle/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
But it would be more effective if there could be such policies functioning at a national level, such as for compostable take out containers, and a banning of so-called "flushable wipes" which clog waste water treatment plants, because they don't break down ("Flushable wipes not so flushable," Green Bay Press Gazette).
A few weeks back I wrote ("Reformulating building regulations to promote sustainability") about how building regulations need to be updated to accommodate wastewater recycling and waste diversion in multiunit buildings.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip). Jose Romero, left, and a fellow resident make their way through floodwaters as they try to reach their flooded apartments Monday, April 18, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area.
3. Water is probably the #1 Urban Environmental Issue for 2016. Given the
- ongoing cost for cities in responding to various EPA water quality mandates
- the drought out West and the various conservation responses especially across California
- the lead in water crisis in Flint, which has brought attention to the many other communities across the country with water system quality problems ("It’s not just a Flint problem: Other U.S. cities are suffering from toxic water," Salon; "US water systems repeatedly exceed federal standard for lead," AP)
- the inauguration of the Combi water treatment and energy production system at DC's Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant
- ongoing problems in many communities from flooding, and massive rain events ("Houston flood control efforts fall behind urban sprawl," ABC25)
- the pursuit of the construction of desalination plants in multiple locations in California--maybe the plant in Carlsbad is furthest along
I would say water is the number one urban environmental issue at the moment.
Interestingly, for the most part Congress seems to have debilitated the ability of the EPA to respond to water issues within states. Part of the problem in Flint derived from the State being mostly responsible for overseeing intra-state matters, and the State's Department of Environmental Quality bobbled matters terribly.
Shooting a messenger? On Wednesday, people were charged criminally for their actions ("Workers charged in Flint water crisis 'failed us all,' official says," CNN) but considering one of those charged told his superiors that Flint wasn't ready to change to Flint River water--the people needed more training and the plant needed improvements--I wonder about the investigation process.
4. Long term, the biggest issue is climate change. According to a study last fall, climate-change-related sea level changes will impact hundreds of US cities, and of course thousands of cities across the globe ("More than 400 towns and cities in America will be lost to the sea" Telegraph). According to the article, these cities will be flooded regardless of how much carbon emissions are reduced over the next eight decades:
For millions of Americans, climate change has already passed the point of no return: no matter what action the world tries to take, their cities will be submerged by rising sea levels. Scientists have identified 414 towns and cities in the United States that are guaranteed to eventually be underwater, regardless of how much humans decrease their carbon emissions.According to the interactive map, Washington, DC is one of the impacted cities. Much of the National Mall and the Southwest quadrant will be affected.
"Historic carbon emissions have already locked in enough future sea level rise to submerge most of the homes in each of several hundred American towns and cities," said a statement on the website of Climate Central, the group who conducted the study.
Published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, the doomsday list has on it the names of major population centres, including Miami and New Orleans.
And yes, according to studies, our politics and values shape which scientific evidence and the policies that would flow from it we support ("Why we are poles apart on climate change," Nature).
5. To call greater attention to urban environmental practices, I wish the US would create a program comparable to the European Union's Green Capital program. The Green Capital program is a competition, economic development and tourism program. It acknowledges cities for their combination of multiple best practices in implementing environmentally sound and forward operating practices.
Like with the Cultural Capital program, people do visit the Green Capital to learn and see, so it is in part a tourism and economic development initiative.
This year the Green Capital is Lubljana, Slovenia and next year it's Essen, Germany. Last year it was Bristol, UK.
Even friendly "competition" can be a motivator to up your game. Many US cities need to up their game, although cities in states where the state government mandates changes have certain advantages. To the Guardian writing about Bristol, "Is Bristol a worthy Green Capital of Europe or is it all for show," I'd say "yes to both." And that's ok. From the article:
Perhaps the problem with the Green Capital is that it is viewed as an award for good service rather than an opportunity to develop green initiatives and infrastructure. But Roger Key, a transport planner with his own Bristol-based consultancy, says it’s more about the latter – providing a platform for the city to develop strategic plans for a greener future. Comparing Bristol to last year’s award-holder, Copenhagen, Key says: “They’ve been planning their cycling, rail and bus networks for decades, so the reason you can live there quite happily with no need for a car whatsoever is that they’ve got fantastic infrastructure. And Bristol, I guess, is following on because it has an ambition to become something similar.”European Green Leaf, for communities under 100,000 residents, to expand the visibility of green practice. The inaugural cities were Mollet del Vallès in Spain and Torres Vedras, Portugal.
There is a website associated with the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior that has a wealth of resources. There is a great deal of literature on behavioral change concerning the environment, but the last thing I need is a new set of journals to read.
6. Most communities are creating sustainability plans. People seem to get really engaged by the process in a way that traditional land use and transportation planning doesn't seem to capture.
Many communities have created Sustainability Commissions made up of interested citizens and professionals to push, prod and guide implementation.
In the past I've argued that DC's Sustainability Plan is more talk than action because on many of the big issues like solid waste interdiction, composting, and urban agriculture the city's initiatives significantly lag the best practices of leading edge cities.
7. Energy is a big issue always in terms of energy used in heating and cooling buildings (and for transportation). There is a lot of angst over solar and wind power. There is a movement by ALEC and others to put restrictions on economic return to solar facilities for putting power into the grid.
SunEdison ("SunEdison's Collapse Should Change The Course Of The Solar Industry") and other firms have gone bankrupt as the increased supply of cheaper natural gas has changed power generation economics.
Many cities and public agencies are signing agreements to buy power from wind and solar installations (DC did so last fall, "Mayor Bowser Announces Groundbreaking Wind Power Purchase Agreement"), putting solar power systems on buildings, etc. ("Cities and Towns Choose Renewables to Save Money," Scientific American).
Last year, DC changed the name of the Department of the Environment to the Department of Energy and the Environment.
Research finds that when residents are given information about how their energy use compares to their peers, they adopt better behaviors ("Peer Pressure is Powerful Motivator in Residential Energy Reduction").
8. Green jobs haven't quite panned out. The belief that there is a great opportunity in creating "green jobs" around energy conservation initiatives seems to have been oversold. A follow up study in New York State looked at this in great detail ("Why a Green Jobs Program Produced So Few Jobs," City Limits) and found that most of the work is captured by existing firms, and conducted by people with a wide range of skills, not necessarily specific to training in energy conservation.
On the other hand, there are plenty of initiatives and new programs. It's just that these projects are highly capital intensive and require highly skilled workers, making them less of an opportunity for employing the less skilled.
Plus cities can be tough places to locate such businesses, because of the cost of land, lack of space, etc. such as why a hydroponics greenhouse ended up locating in Northern Virginia instead of DC ("Why a bright idea for growing food in the city had to move," Washington Post). However, DC might be an outlier as most center cities have a surplus of space, especially industrial land.
About 100 Franklin High School students, community activists and union members march in late 2013 to the site of the highly contested incinerator as part of a campaign to stop its construction in Curtis Bay. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)
9. Environmental Justice: Waste to Energy Plants and Negative Environmental Impacts. DC's trash is burned in a waste-to-energy facility in Fairfax County, Virginia. The Sustainability Plan suggests that the city create its own plant. Others argue that such plants de-emphasize recycling and waste diversion.
A proposal to build such a plant in Baltimore City was successfully fought off by activists, including now 20-year-old Destiny Watford ("This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator," Washington Post) who organized fellow students at Benjamin Franklin High School in a community campaign ("Baltimore Teens Take Out the Trash," In These Times).
10. Festivals and parks as an opportunity to model better behavior and change behavior. One big problem with bringing about better environmental practices is the need for people to change how they act. DC puts recycling containers at big festivals, but they could be more effective if there were "ambassadors" at and around the containers/the festivals to educate people on the change.
The trick though is to get people to adopt and routinize better environmental practices.
Dolores Park's “Eco Pop Up” Deemed Successful," San Francisco Chronicle). From the article:
The eco pop-up, a series of large containers manned by Recology staff on weekends and holidays who help parkgoers sort trash, diverted 68 percent of waste from the park away from landfills this summer, exceeding expectations.
The pilot program was open from noon to 8 p.m. on high-volume days from June to October of 2015. Rec & Park has found that visitors can generate some 7,000 gallons of trash on busy days, and Recology staff helped people leaving the park sort that waste into the appropriate bins to ensure proper disposal. Though glass is banned from all city parks, some of the most widely collected items were glass bottles and plastic containers.
Disposal through the eco pop-up depends on park users taking their garbage with them when they leave the park and dropping it off at the pop-up. To that end, the department launched an educational campaign to encourage visitors not to litter. Rec & Park spokesperson Joey Kahn said the pop-up program and educational campaign have helped reduce the amount of trash in the park.