Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

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
2.  Local legislative initiatives.  In the past few years many cities and counties have put restrictions on plastic bags.  DC was an early adopter and then the Wall Street Journal suggested the sky would fall in ("Washington D.C.'s Bag Tax Frustrates Many Store Owners"). A year later they admitted it didn't ("Capital Adjusts to Tax on Disposable Bags").  More cities are adopting such laws.  Now they are moving to styrofoam.  DC enacted such a ban last year and it took effect in January.

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.

"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.
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.

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.”
New program for smaller European cities.  Launched in 2015, the EU Environmental Program created a new acknowledgement program, 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.

At Dolores Park in San Francisco, on weekends they tested a similar kind of recycling diversion as an "Eco Pop Up"  ("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.

Labels: , , , ,


At 7:00 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

A few pushback:

1) The sunEdison thing is big. Rooftop solar is a scam. That is true of the financing model -- and SunEdison isn't quite guilty of that* -- but also the connect charges. Utility companies (Properly in my view) say that customers are avoiding transmission charges. So this is big problem in Nevada.

*SolarCity is more of scam, complex what is happening with sunedison but is a liquidity problem at the core.

2) We agree the the DC sustainability is dead with Bowser. Large opportunities to get something out of the merger instead she wants $50 credits in one bill. GD joke.

3) I've learned a lot about electric car charging. I'd say the time may not be quite ripe to do electric charging stations as there is a bit of a standard war. Could have been part of merger agreements, though. In any case DC is screwing consumers b/c buying an electric car is tax free, leasing one get at 10% tax.

4) On the plastic bag ban, which I never supported, I'm not hearing of many reports of improvement. Remember, the bag ban was all about bags getting into sewers, blocking them up, and having to dump sewage into the anacostia.

5) I'd say the experiment with natural gas buses is over and e've moved to a diesel-hybrid model. As we are seeing with VW, there is no such thing as a safe diesel. From an air pollution perspective NG was always better.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Christopher1974 said...

Wonder if flushable wipes cause less use of water? One of the reasons that Japan has such fancy toilets is that the toilet is separate from the bathtub. Americans are more likely to rinse off in the shower after using the bathroom. At least allegedly and based on anecdotal evidence.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Disagree with you about the bags. As someone who systematically picks up and/or observes litter on my travels throughout the city, I definitely see much less bag litter, and studies of the trash at the annual river cleanups in DC finds a reduction.

2. I didn't want to get into the solar thing details-wise. Basically, it doesn't make economic sense to generate electricity at the scale of a single house. It only works out financially because of all the tax breaks. For larger buildings it can be a different story.

I did write in the past about how those long term leases and how they can encumber house sales. But that is a different issue from what SunEdison did, which is more about financial engineering than enabling homeowners to finance installation.

I am in the middle on the transmission infrastructure. I think that solar producers should get some money, but I do think that every household should pay towards the transmission infrastructure.

I doubt you get an individualized DC Water bill. Most of the charges aren't for water, but for the infrastructure and stormwater related matters. And DC Government charges a PILOT on the infrastructure for the use of right of way for the pipes.

I can see a separated out infrastructure charge on electricity bills. And even for those buildings/sites that generate their own energy. It's an issue comparable to how to get electric cars for paying to use the roads, which is normally captured by gas excise taxes.

-- continued --

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

3. wrt electric cars, I thought about including them as an item, but I didn't, figuring it would be better to write about these issues on the verge of the introduction of the Bolt.

I think I mentioned the Bolt in a post. There was a very interesting story about it, in how to design an electric car you really need to start all over.

+ the hype about Tesla, the 279,000 people who put a deposit down on their car, vs. the comparatively little interest in GM's Bolt.

It might be that new generations want to purchase stuff from new generation businesses, e.g., Uber over traditional taxis, and GM won't be able to make a transition.

OTOH, Tesla is going to have a hard time ramping up and manufacturing in large quantities. (Don't know if you ever read the book "The Betsy" by Harold Robbins--I didn't read a lot of good literature in my teens, but I did read schlock. It's about the process of creating a turbine powered car by a lagging car manufacturer.)

I didn't know about "the standards". I'd aver it's about how fast the charge is. Fast charging systems requiring heavier duty connections and powering infrastructure, which requires upgrades to the transmission infrastructure.

If it were simple, in car garages, you could just put an outlet at every parking spot. But it's not that simple.

... I didn't know about the tax difference between a lease and a purchase. It's yet another one of the distinctions about how laws preference "car owners". Normally I write about that in terms of the cost of parking permits for residential car owners vs. the cost to use a parking space by a carsharing firm, which is paid for by resident "car users."

Oh, and about the Tesla deposits. Some articles discussed this as an illustration of electric cars "crossing the chasm" you might say (Geoffrey Moore's application of diffusion theory to adoption of digital technologies).

I was thinking of the PT Cruiser. When it first came out, Bob Lutz said, "So what if it appeals to only 10% of the market, 10% of the market is a lot of cars."

But eventually they sold all the cars they possibly could to the 10% that were interested, and the model was discontinued.

There's only so much demand maybe.

Electric cars make financial sense in Europe, where gas costs about $7-$8/gallon because of excise taxes.

As long as gas is cheap in the US, given current conditions as well as the fact that as a major petroleum producer the US has an incentive to encourage production and use and therefore that is the pressure to keep gas excise taxes low, it will be difficult for electric cars to compete cost-wise with gasoline powered cars.

I am not an engineer but I am doubtful that it is possible to produce the kinds of battery improvements necessary to significantly reduce the cost to produce the motor technology for electric cars.

Hell, scientists have been working on nuclear fusion reactors for going on 60 years.

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

On the bags, I'll agree to disagree. I did notice a reduction in bags rights after the tax but they have increased. Also stores have gotten more lax about charging it -- the smaller and more local the store more likely to get one for free.

Electric car: yep, agree on your points. Basically it a 110 (household) vs 220 (electric dryer) vs DC (pretty expensive) vs. 3 plug types (Tesla, CCD and JD). One footnote -- the electric hybrid may take off, and that really only needs a 110 outlet to charge (smaller battery)

One other note -- I think the DC government wind power buys have driven up the price of wind power locally. I have to buy a REC from texas now..

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the last point, that makes sense... Didn't know about the three plug as a variant type.

wrt bags, I see way fewer bags (I scout for them when I am out, and when I find them, I may use them and pick up recyclables). But I do think you're right that smaller places just eat the cost (e.g., the PanAm Latino food market on 14th St. NW).

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

On cars:

Plug types:

The j1772 is what you see at most stations. I can work with 110 or 220.

But to fast charge you really need a DC connector.

Tesla uses a separate plug system and charger network. From what I gather, you can buy an adaptor for the j1172 to your Tesla but it limited to 110. (That might take overnight or longer to charge)

The cost, of course, is mostly wiring.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Speaking of building regulations, GGW calls attention to a SF Biz Journal article on new readiness requirements for solar on new buildings in SF.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know the details--there was a Current article on it a few weeks ago--but apparently the American Geophysical Union building at Florida & 20th (?) is going to be carbon neutral with its new renovation.

For the most part, sustainability is becoming yet another of those words that increasingly makes me cringe, especially when used by our government to promote its antithesis. The only way that humans can be sustained long-term on this earth is by losing 2/3 of us, and I doubt I'll still be here when that happens.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


(Which is why I am an adherent of the Green Metropolis thesis. If we focus on moving around sustainably, living in relatively dense housing that is comparatively energy efficient, and producing limited waste, all the focus on solar etc. is unnecessary.)

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I forgot to mention the DOEE report card on the Sustainability Plan.


Post a Comment

<< Home