Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category


The GrowOnUs floating island prototype floating in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States. The 1.8 mile long, 100-foot wide canal, which is a SuperFund site, has historically been home to many industries that contaminated it with heavy metals, pesticides, and sewage from combined sewer overflows. While efforts are underway to clean up the industrial sites surrounding the canal, a new experimental project, GrowOnUs, by the New York-based landscape and urban design firm, Balmori Associates, uses a floating landscape to decontaminate the canal’s water. It was launched last week behind the Gowanus Whole Foods, adjacent to the Third Street Bridge, and will eventually move to a final location near the 7th Street Basin.


GrowOnUs locations / Bamori Associates

GrowOnUs transforms metal culvert pipes, once used to bring polluted runoff and sewage waste to the canal, into 54 floating “test tube” planters that will clean the water through phytoremediation, a process that features cleansing plants; desalination; and rainwater collection. Each of the planters will be irrigated from one of three different types of water, according to Jessica Roberts, a designer at Balmori Associates. “Some of the planters collect rainwater in reservoirs made from recycled plastic bottles, some use canal water distilled from solar stills that allow condensation to collect,” she said. Buoyant construction material, such as bamboo, coconut fiber, and recycled plastic, allows the planters to float.

Designed by the firm’s experimental branch, BAL/LAB, the prototype draws on a year of experimentation with different plants and water types that not only have the potential to decontaminate the water in the canal, but can also adapt to rising sea levels and storm surge events.

The team will continue to monitor the prototype over the next few years through frequent site visits, according to Noemie LaFaurie-Debany, leader of the Floating Landscape BAL/LAB, and explore its full potential as a productive landscape. “We want to find out if these plants can also be productive as wildlife habitat.”


Some of the floating plants are intended to clean the water, while others are wildlife habitat or could be used to produce dyes / Balmori Associates

Lafaurie-Debany has many hopes for future floating landscapes. “Floating landscapes can do lots of things: They can protect the canal edge against erosion of surge, produce food and be productive, and absorb energy from the wave or the current. What interests us the most — what we really want to be able to do – is create an island that will have public space where people can go to play, to read a book or to use just like a regular green space, but in the canal.”

While the current prototype does not include public space, Roberts noted that people have been able to interact with the floating landscape. At the launch event, “fifth grade students from the Brooklyn New School participated in a series of demonstrations explaining how the island functions. It has also been fun for us to see a few people canoeing and kayaking by it. It could become such an active place,” she said.


Members of the BAL/LAB team installing the floating landscape on a canoe in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

This is not Balmori Associates’ first experiment with floating landscapes. In 2005, the firm collaborated with the Whitney Museum and the Smithson Estate to build a floating island on a 30 by 90-foot barge that was towed by a tugboat around the island of Manhattan. According to the firm’s website, “the barge was visible to millions of residents, commuters, and visitors along the Hudson and East Rivers.”


Smithson’s Floating Island was pulled by a red tugboat / Balmori Associates

The firm has also been working on a project in Memphis that consists of a series of landscape islands on the Mississippi River. Each of the islands will provide different public attractions, including a “river overlook, a children’s play area, a performance space and wetland gardens.”

After monitoring the success of the current island on the Gowanus Canal, Lafaurie-Debany said the team is interested in finding other locations for creating new floating islands on a larger scale. “An island in the Hudson River could be more productive than one in the Gowanus. We will have to see.”

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parking day

ASLA PARK(ing) Day, Washington, D.C. / ASLA

On September 18, landscape architects and other designers celebrated PARK(ing) Day. Founded in 2005 by landscape architecture firm Rebar, PARK(ing) Day is an annual event in which metered parking spaces are transformed into miniature parks, or parklets, for the day. The event demonstrates the value of designed public spaces, even ones just 130 square feet. PARK(ing) Day also shows just how much of our shared space has been taken over by cars — about 30 percent of the total surface of our built environment — and how many of those spaces could instead be used to strengthen local communities.

ASLA asked landscape architects to share how they transformed a parking space with #ASLAPD on social media. Here are a few highlights:

The theme of Mahan Rykiel Associates’ parklet in Baltimore was “Back to Basics.” The firm simply created a parklet for the public to use as they pleased, exemplifying how flexible urban public space can be. The firm used the parklet for yoga in the morning, a place to eat for lunch around noon, and a game of cornhole in the afternoon.

Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. celebrates PARK(ing) Day with some cornhole / Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc.

Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. celebrates PARK(ing) Day with games / Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc.

The landscape architecture and horticulture department at Temple University in Philadelphia and volunteers, including local architects, landscape architects, horticulturalists, artists, and citizens, created a two-day parklet in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This space offered live music, story time for kids, and other activities. This parklet, and the hundreds of others across the country, brought communities together, showing the countless uses made possible through welcoming public space.

Story time on PARK(ing) Day / PARKing for People

Story time on PARK(ing) Day / PARKing for People

Other parklets sought to raise awareness of environmental issues. SWA’s parklet in Houston educated the public on importance of urban pollinators, like honeybees, bats, and butterflies. Part of 13 parklets that took up an entire block, SWA’s space featured pollinator-themed benches, educational signs, and pollinator-friendly plants.

SWA Group's Houston PARK(ing) Day urban pollinators parklet / SWA Group

SWA Group’s Houston PARK(ing) Day urban pollinators parklet / SWA Group

In Los Angeles, Rios Clementi Hale Studio illustrated the benefits of capturing stormwater, which is vitally important in the midst of California’s historic drought. Their team calculated a single parking spot could capture 1,344 gallons of water annually. To put that figure into perspective for the public, the firm created a cloud of balloons above the space that showed the amount of water required for a daily task — 105 gallons for five load of laundry, 30 gallons for one bath, etc.

Photo: Rios Clementi Hale Studios

A single parking space could collect 1,344 gallons of water annually / Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Landscape architecture students from the University of New Mexico created a space that visualized the effects of climate change — melting polar ice, and rising sea levels. Students suspended blocks of ice in their parklet that melted throughout the day.

Blocks of ice to demonstrate climate change / University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning

Blocks of ice to demonstrate climate change / University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning

To see more PARK(ing) Day parklets, check out our #ASLAPD Tagboard.

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Pope Francis addresses Congress / ABC News

In June, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, an encyclical designed to build the moral case for fighting climate change, protecting the environment, and moving towards a path of sustainable development. In his first two days in the U.S., Pope Francis gave a speech at the White House, and then, this morning in front of a joint session of Congress.

In a speech at the White House, Pope Francis reiterated the central arguments of his encyclical — that climate change and environmental degradation are crises that must be addressed today if we are going to create a more equitable world. To President Obama, he said:

“I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our ‘common home’, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about ‘a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change’ (Laudato Si’, 13). Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them. Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities, and our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

To Congress, Pope Francis reiterated some of these points:

“A central theme of the encyclical I wrote is the need for a dialogue about our common home. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge — and its human roots — affect us all. Courageous and responsible efforts are needed to redirect our steps. We can address the most serious effects of environmental degradation by human activity. We can make a difference, I’m sure.”

But he also increased pressure on lawmakers to act on climate change, saying: “I have no doubt this Congress has an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous action.” He added that “the tireless pursuit of the common good is the chief aim of politics. Political society endures when it meets common needs.”

He believes American technology will also play a critical role in restoring the planet to health. “We have the freedom to direct technology. We can develop intelligent ways to limit our power. Technology can put be into service to achieve human progress. America’s universities and research institutions can make vital contributions in the years ahead.”

To perhaps counter the American critics who have called him a Marxist, Francis gave a blessing of sorts to business, if it’s working towards the common good as well. “The path of great power is to create wealth. The right use of natural resources, appropriate use of technology, harnessing spirit of enterprise. This leads to an economy that is modern, inclusive, and sustainable. Business is a noble vocation directed at producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity. It creates jobs, which is an essential part of its service to the common good.”

In his speech, Pope Francis also called for greater assistance with the migrant crisis in Europe, banning the death penalty worldwide, combating religious extremism in all forms, and ending armed conflict.

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VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se

VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were created through an open, global process over the past two years, will be adopted by United Nations member states later this week. The 17 goals, with their 169 targets, will guide nations towards a more sustainable pattern of development that favors diverse life on Earth. Global transformation on multiple levels is the end goal.

Establishing a transformational agenda for 2015 to 2030, the SDGs begin with a compelling vision statement:

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable. One in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.”

It’s impressive that the world’s 200-plus nations, through a UN process fostering peace and mutual respect, can articulate a global agenda for working together. As the document explains, “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda.”

Learning more about the SDGs is worth the time of landscape architects. We can help the world make progress in solving the inter-connected problems we collectively face.

Let’s back up a minute and recall that sustainability was defined in 1987 as achieving a long-term balance between three equal pillars — economy, society, and the environment. The publication of Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, coined the term “sustainable development” and popularized these pillars. To be sustainable today, a consideration of these three pillars is central. (In my own landscape preservation work, I favor a model that also integrates culture, which permeates all the facets of sustainability and plays a role in whether we can achieve inclusivity, equity, and justice). Then, in 2000, world leaders agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which laid out 8 goals for the world to pursue from 2000 to 2015. And then, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, all countries agreed to create a new set of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs left off.

A landscape architect looking at how to work towards the new SDGs might focus on goal 13, which deals with climate action, goal 14, which focuses on life below water, and goal 15, which looks at life on land, but looking deeper at all the goals and their specific targets helps us to understand how we can contribute as individuals and collectively to the many other important goals and targets as well.

Landscape architects can contribute to reaching goal 2 — which seeks to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” — by working with agricultural communities to increase the productivity of small farms and create better access to markets, as detailed in target 2.3. Landscape architects can also help communities create sustainable and resilient agricultural practices, maintain ecosystems, and strengthen the capacity to respond to climate change, as detailed in target 2.4.

In goal 3, which calls on governments to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages,” we find target 3.6, which aims to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries for road traffic accidents.” Landscape architects are already working on designing better intersections, green complete streets, and multi-modal corridors that contribution to achieving this important target.

ASLA and each of us its members can contribute to goal 4 — which calls on nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — by teaching everyone about sustainable development and how to become global citizens who act from that awareness and commitment in their daily lives.

Goal 6, which calls on nations to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is perhaps the most direction contribution to the goals made by landscape architects. We can help reach global goals on water quality, including protecting water resources, counteracting pollution, and restoring water-related ecosystems, which are included in targets 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

What about goal 7, which calls on nations to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all?” Target 7.2 asks that countries, “by 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global mix.” I have had the opportunity to site two solar arrays. Other landscape architects can then certainly become engaged in growing the share of renewable energy.


Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont, a 1,400-acre National Historic Landmark, installs solar array / Patricia O’Donnell

Or perhaps consider the important target 8.4 that seeks to “improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavor to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.” This decoupling process will result in better quality landscapes that provide ecosystem services.

Addressing goal 11 — “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — is well within the realm of landscape architecture. And many of us are already helping to achieve target 11.7, which seeks to provide universal access that is safe and inclusive, to public green spaces. Landscape architects can play a role in achieving target 11.2, which seeks to create more sustainable urban transportation systems, and target 11.7.a, which aims to “support  positive  economic,  social  and  environmental  links  between  urban,  peri-urban  and  rural  areas  by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Cities, which are expected to contain 75 percent of the world’s people by 2030, are fertile ground for the skills of landscape architects working collaboratively with other planning and design professionals.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

The last goal — goal 17, which calls for nations to “strengthen  the  means  of  implementation  and  revitalize  the  global  partnership  for  sustainable development”– is a fitting capstone to this ambitious effort. Cooperation is needed to build momentum and create measurable change toward a thriving Earth, with all its diverse life forms and resources.

The overarching goal is to halt and then reverse the degradation of the Earth. I urge you to learn about these goals and apply your skills as a landscape architect toward achieving these goals from now through 2030. Registering SDG initiatives is one way to join this pivotal movement toward a sustainable planet.

This guest post is by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, preservation landscape architects and planners. She is committed to sustainable living and using heritage as a platform for a vibrant today and tomorrow in her work and volunteer activities. 

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african girls school

African girls in school / Girls Changing Africa, Batonga Blog

Later this week, the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of ambitious goals and targets designed to get the world on a more sustainable future course. The SDGs pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year, left off. Much like Pope Francis’ encyclical, the SDGs call for a new approach that enables economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy, greater environmental protection, and a more sustainable use of increasingly limited natural resources. The SDGs will create a path for the next 15 years, up until 2030. They are important in getting governments, non-profit organizations, and the socially-conscious private sector behind a common set of objectives.

The SDGs came out of an intensive two-year process involving negotiators from both developed and developing countries. Among the many goals, the SDGs call for ending poverty and hunger in all forms; improving health and well-being; achieving gender equality; sustainably managing fresh water resources; restoring terrestrial and ocean ecosystems; combating climate change; and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDGs are said to more clearly reflect the input of developing countries than their predecessor, the MDGs.

Improved rights and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, but particularly in least developed countries, is a major theme in the SDGs. As Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, educating girls and women is key to a sustainable future. Sachs believes that future sustainability is only possible if population growth rates are reduced. The current world population is 7 billion. The total carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to be around 10 billion. Over the past 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a hundred million to 1.1 billion today. If high fertility rates continue unabated, Africa will double its population by 2050 and eventually reach 4 billion, sending the world past its uppermost carrying capacity. Sachs argued that a sustainable future will be impossible if Sub-Saharan African women continue to have 5 children, which is the average today. Even a middle school education helps dramatically lower fertility rates, so educating African women and girls really is central to the fate of the planet.

The SDGs also seek to link economic growth that can yield benefits for all with greater resource efficiency and environment protection. As many world leaders are beginning to understand, long-term growth is impossible if there are no natural resources to underpin that growth. At the same event at the National Book Festival, world-famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson called for setting aside 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for conservation purposes, banking resources for wildlife and also future generations. Currently, only about 15 percent of the planet is protected from development. He said reaching 50 percent is possible if the vast middle of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were protected from industrial fishing. Then, fish stocks, which are down to just 2 percent of their historic levels, will have a chance to recover for the long-term. In addition, Wilson called for everyone to become a vegetarian, arguing that the world’s one billion cows, which require so much land and water and have been a major driving force behind deforestation, are incompatible with the approaches needed to create a sustainable future on a planet with 10 billion people.

Earth’s resources are finite but economic growth needs to somehow continue to provide opportunities for the billions more soon to join us. While this seems like an incredible challenge, Wilson has faith in human ingenuity and technology. In agreement with SDG target 2.5, Wilson calls for diversifying crops away from the dozen or so that the world’s farmers primarily rely on today. He said there are potentially thousands of other crop plants that could provide greater nutrition and improved yield. And it’s important to keep these other crops as real options given climate change can wipe out yields for many of the crops we rely on today.

Urban leaders rejoiced that cities are the focus of a goal and whole slew of targets. World leaders now recognize that the world’s population is predominantly urban, with more than half of the world in cities, and the urban population is expected to hit 75 percent by 2050. These trends are a good thing. Those living in cities have lower per capita energy and water use and give off fewer carbon emissions than those living in suburbs or rural areas. However, issues abound in cities: Not every urbanite has access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, low-cost public transportation, or green spaces. One SDG target, 11.7, amazingly aims to provide “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces.” Creating a more sustainable plan for the world’s cities will be the focus of Habitat III, a major conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, next year.

There are fears that the SDGs, with their sprawling 17 goals and 169 targets, are too idealistic and will not be as easy to achieve as the MDGs, which strategically targeted eight goals, and still came up short. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the MDGs the “most successful anti-poverty campaign in history.” And according to The Financial Times, there was significant progress on achieving the MDGs since 2000, when they came into effect. “On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6 million.” But China and India, development experts argue, were responsible for the bulk of the poverty reduction. Without China’s gains, the effect of the MDGs would be negligible, given Sub-Saharan African countries, which are the among the least developed places, missed their goals. For example, in the sub-continent, it will still take another decade for the child mortality rates to fall by the target of two-thirds.

And there are critics of the overall effort. William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and long-time detractor of Western aid agencies, told The Financial Times: “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics. It’s not about western saviors, but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.” Furthermore, he added: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

There are also concerns about whether governments can accurately measure and then track progress on all these squishy goals and targets. A UN working group is now devising the means of measuring all these items, but, according to the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council, “less than a third of the SDG goals were ‘well developed’, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.” Solid data is expensive and time-consuming to collect, particularly in less developed countries. For example, The Economist reports that only 74 countries out of the 193 currently have the capacity to track the SDGs’ nutrition targets. But perhaps the SDGs will spur more countries to boost investment in their statistical services to measure gaps between where they are and where they need to be, which can only be a good thing. New satellite, drone, and GPS technologies should be put to greater use.

Still, never has such an ambitious global agenda been put in place. Sachs told The Financial Times: “Whether it can work out is an open question. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

Read Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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Global Biocapacity / Global Footprint Network

Humanity is placing inordinate demands on nature, and it just keeps getting worse. In 2000, humanity had exceeded its “ecological budget” by October. This year, “Earth Overshoot Day” was August 13, according to the Global Footprint Network, a California-based environmental think tank. Earth Overshoot Day marks the moment “when humanity’s annual demands on nature exceed what Earth can regenerate that year.” This is yet another wake-up call that sustainable global development hasn’t taken root despite two decades of effort. Humanity currently needs 1.6 Earths to cover what we take from nature each year.

Global Footprint Network doesn’t quantify how the accumulated deficits have impacted the long-term ecological health of the planet, but they say they are a cause for alarm. “It is not clear whether a sustained level of overuse is possible without significantly damaging long-term biocapacity, with consequent impacts on consumption and population growth.” In other words, damaging Earth’s long-term capacity to provide ecosystem services could result in lower levels of overall services, and that means fewer crops, fish, trees, and less fresh water.

The biggest cause of the overshoot is, of course, skyrocketing carbon emissions, which demand that nature sequester carbon at far higher rates than is possible. The group says that carbon sequestration make up more than half of the total demand on nature. Other demands take the form of energy, fishing, timber and paper production, food and fiber, and settlements.

Global Footprint Network includes settlements because they believe once land has been developed, its basic ecological functions have essentially been made “non-productive.” While sustainable design practices can help make even developed land restore some its original ecological productivity, the group is largely correct because these practices are still not widespread. Estimates put the total share of green buildings worldwide at just a few percentage points, if that, and there is no data on worldwide sustainable designed landscapes.

The costs of “ecological overspending” are also clear. As carbon dioxide levels exceed the Earth’s absorptive capabilities, the excess enters the atmosphere, warming it. On the ground, the ongoing struggle between the expansion of human settlements and expanding agricultural production results in deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and reductions in fresh water availability. Cropland, grazing land, and developed land all tax nature’s ecological carrying capacity as they reduce its regenerative abilities. “All these demands compete for space. As more is being demanded for food and timber products, fewer productive areas are available to absorb carbon from fossil fuel.”

The think tank offers a smart interactive map that shows each country’s per capita biocapacity alongside its ecological footprint, measured in global hectares (there’s also an alphabetical list of all countries). Biocapacity per person is calculated each year based on a range of factors, including ecosystem management approaches; agricultural practices, including fertilizer use and irrigation; ecosystem degradation; population growth; and weather. And ecological footprint per person is calculated according to the amounts being consumed and production efficiency standards.

According to these charts, the biocapacity of the U.S. has been falling while the ecological footprint, with periodic jumps up and down, has largely held steady. But this really means that the deficit between the available biocapacity and the U.S.’s ecological footprint is only growing. China’s biocapacity has largely held steady, while it’s ecological footprint has exploded beginning around 2000, only expanding the gap. Japan now requires 5.5 Japans to support one actual Japan each year: Its biocapacity continues to shrink while its ecological footprint has only increased. But, interestingly, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s biocapacity has actually grown dramatically — one of the few positive environment outcomes from that oil and gas exporter — while its ecological footprint shrank but is now creeping up again.

How many countries 2015 v4

National biocapacity / Global Footprint Network

As part of the interactive map, the organization lists all the countries that are a “biocapacity reserve,” meaning they produce materials and consume resources far below the levels that tax nature’s abilities. These are mostly developing countries in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, along with developing countries with huge environmental bounties like Brazil.

Biocapacity Reserve / Global Footprint Network

And then, also the countries that have biocapacity deficits, meaning they consume and produce far more than their natural environments can sustain. These countries are wealthy, urbanized countries like Singapore, Japan, and Israel.

Biocapacity Deficit / Global Footprint Network

These compelling tools demonstrate what many environmentalist believe — that the Earth’s ledger is out of balance. As the famed biologist E.O. Wilson wrote in The Future of Life, one of his best books, “the constraints of the biosphere are fixed.” This means that either the earth’s biocapacity needs to be increased, or human consumption and production need to be decreased to reach a sustainable balance.

Already, the Earth has 7 billion people, with the numbers just growing each year. E.O. Wilson and other scientists have pointed to the number 10 billion as the ultimate maximum capacity. While techno-utopians believe there will be a new green revolution that will only increase the productivity of agriculture, what about the never-ending growth of grazing animals? They are not ecological assets. Wilson argues that “if everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people.”

And what about forests? What new approaches can increase forests’ capacity beyond a commitment to protecting them and planting more trees? A new special report in Science argues that the world’s major forest biomes are struggling despite the best efforts of dedicated forestry officials around the world.

Global Footprint Network experts see the rise of renewable energy sources like wind and solar as one of the most positive steps in helping to keep every country in its ecological budget.

Explore the interactive map and learn more at Global Footprint Network.

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les tower

Cooperative Village, Lower East Side, NYC, apartment complex / Beyond My Ken – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

What makes a strong community? If you’ve read Jane Jacobs, an image immediately comes to mind: side-by-side row houses, corner stores, parks you can see across. But the experience of life with climate change— in its early innings, anyway—suggests that this classic model may need an overhaul. A resilient neighborhood, that is, may not look very pretty.

Take my corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It generally lacks awnings and stoops, and provides a view of boxy towers and empty lots for five city blocks. These features bear the legacy of top-down planning, the kind that Jane Jacobs vilified in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But my experience after Superstorm Sandy suggests density can support the formation of urban community.

Superstorm Sandy left lower Manhattan without heat or power. My cluster of brick towers, set back from the street and hulking in a manner that would make Jacobs spit, fairly glowed with civic spirit. Men in their sixties made it their business to climb stairs in the dark, checking on older neighbors. Once we had all swung back into daily life, young families organized donation runs to flooded neighborhoods in Queens.

What about the design fostered civic spirit? I’d offer three overlapping categories: pathways, networks, and scale. Gracefulness had nothing to do with it – not outwardly, at least.

High-rise developments like mine have a limited number of pathways through them. People knew each other’s routine paths, so they happened to see each other coming and going. This made it easy to keep track of who was waiting out the power failure, who had access to supplies, and who needed a check-in.

Pathways became lifelines during the crisis. A much-used community room became a relief station with big jugs of water. A sidewalk became a phone-charging outpost. The two-way street that bisects our complex became headquarters for updates.

Density can support extensive networks—virtual and otherwise. People created digital communities on Facebook and other platforms so they could organize relief runs and share updates across the city. During the outage, this entailed a certain amount of complaining, but it also prompted a trove of donations to truly devastated communities near the ocean, which neighbors delivered for weeks after power returned.

The last benefit of density is scale. For example, our apartment complex employs a large staff, made economical by a sizable tenant population. During Sandy, that meant many hands were available to coordinate volunteers and tend to emergencies. And there can be safety in numbers: Crudely, going where more people have already chosen to go often means you’ll be safer.

Of course, density has downsides, as well. One is visual. Jacobs’ ideal championed narrow streets with small buildings against Robert Moses’ vision of burly highways-spanning broad skyscrapers. She held, courageously and eloquently, that cities’ character flowed from their randomness. Make a city into a maze of spires, she insisted, and you make it a sterile pod for the elite.

She was right, if the enemy was a boundless zeal for shopping malls and superhighways. But, as America reckons with the true cost of fossil fuels, urban density becomes more defensible—even desirable, as my friend Andrew Blum pointed out years before Sandy.

Policymakers and designers must take care to craft that density in a way that protects everyone, not just the highest bidders. Today, the cost of fortifying my neighborhood against storm damage begins at $335 million and will only climb. Philanthropy and government have unveiled creative, phased ways to fund the cost of including all residents in the planning. But as costs and danger mount, I can’t promise the lucky folks uphill, where it’s drier, will voluntarily share the till to protect everyone.

Danger also lies in designing big swaths of cities to depend on cloud-stored apps and automatic elevators. These dangers become clear in a power failure. When mechanical systems fail, a high-rise cluster must include ramps, rescue crews, and backup on-site power for seniors who can’t easily manage staircases or darkness (or both).

Human contact becomes more important in cities as climate change advances and sea walls and cooling centers proliferate. That may seem a romantic notion in today’s world, in which much of our contact with others takes place online. Jacobs’ street sweeper might work several neighborhoods via an app today, and her full-time parent might be inside tapping on a screen. But in dense urban developments, you have to work pretty hard to miss noticing your neighbors.

Life in a hulking high-rise might not be the graceful “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs extolled. But in an era defined by climate change, density might hold our neighborhoods together.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

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University of Toronto students protesting / Rabble.ca

Leading up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in December, the question is: can the heads of the world’s governments get it together and create a real game plan to stave off a 2-degree increase in global temperatures? At an event organized by the Center for American Progress and The New Republic in Washington, D.C., government and international organization leaders concluded there’s a lot more work that will need to be done leading up to Paris, and even after the summit, because any agreement reached there will only cover 2020 to 2030. The goal at Paris is to get a sense of what all countries’ national pledges to limit emissions mean in terms of hard numbers, which will then serve as the baseline upon which “ambitions can be ratcheted up” every few years.

At this point, pledges by governments fall far short of what’s needed to get on a pathway to a 2-degrees-or-less temperature increase. A 2-degree increase in itself will “not be benign,” as the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte explained. With a 2-degree rise, island countries will be consumed by rising seas, and people living across the Sahel in Saharan Africa will find they can no longer grow food. But it’s even worse, under current business as usual scenarios, the world is heading towards a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures, with hugely destructive impacts worldwide. To date, the world’s temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees due to human-caused climate change, with those in the Arctic already up by nearly 2 degrees.

Janos Pasztor, assistant-secretary general for climate change at the United Nations, explained what will happen in Paris. The talks will have a few key parts. All countries will put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs),” which are bottom-up, voluntary pledges for cutting carbon emissions. Pasztor explained this what countries believe they are “able and willing to do.” At the same time, local governments, companies, and non-profits will put forward an “action agenda” comprised of innovations around the world that governments can refer to for ideas. As part of this, there will be a senate of global mayors, led by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. There will need to be an agreement on financing. Developing countries will need help getting access to money from the wealthiest. And there will need to be a legally-binding agreement on the rules “for how governments are going to ratchet up pressure to move up levels of ambition.”


COP 21, Paris Climate Summit / COP 21

For Kyte at the World Bank, what’s at stake at the next UN summit is “how ambitious do we dare to be? What will this cost? Who will pay for it?” The end-goal needs to be a zero-emission global economy. “Emissions need to peak earlier and earlier — that’s what we are looking for.” Kyte also echoed arguments made by Pope Francis with his encyclical: at Paris, the wealthiest countries have a responsibility to help the poorest. The World Bank, she said, realized it can’t end poverty, its stated mission, with climate change occuring. As countries attempt to develop and achieve their own aspirations, “climate change pulls the rug out from under them.” This is happening to everyone — “rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.”

The World Bank is ratcheting up its own efforts, administering large climate financing funds that can move dollars from the U.S. and Europe to the least-developed countries. They have also decided to stop financing any new coal power plants worldwide, except in exceptional circumstances in which a poor country has no other cost-effective energy option available to them. She added that the end of coal is simply a fact of life, part of the grand transition that will occur over the next few decades. “And this will cause dislocation.” But she argued this transition needs to start happening soon, as “it will only become more difficult and costly later.” To speed this transition, she called for further divestment in coal companies.

The world can’t forget the poorest, who, “through no fault of their own, have come into harm’s way. As they build their resilience, we have a responsibility to help them.” Many communities are planning for “continuous change, but what about discontinuous change?” For example, coastal communities may soon have to ask themselves, “can we afford sea walls, or should we cede parts of our community back to the sea?” Some coastal communities have to figure out if they can become a “saline economy,” producing food and goods in brackish water. Just as some coastal communities will need to need let some of their land go, some mountainous communities will need to move further up the slopes. “So many communities have already had to pick up and get up out of the way.”

But Kyte was optimistic the world can make this difficult transition. She said the Industrial Revolution is an example of a global transitional process that succeeded. And in just the past few decades, there has been a shift from from state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) to private ownership of production almost everywhere. The future challenge will be not to just find the $100 billion least developed countries need to adapt, but the $1 trillion the world economy needs to make the shift. “The challenge is to build an economy that is low carbon and competitive.” To do this, countries need to undertake a few steps now: “end fossil fuel subsidies, put prices on carbon, and then set long-term prices for carbon.”

One audience member asked whether all these countries’ INDCs can be used to create a “race to the top,” a sort of environmental Olympics between countries in which they compete to see which country has achieved the most significant carbon reductions. France’s Ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud, there representing the summit’s host country, said “using peer pressure is a great idea, but we aren’t there yet. At Paris, we need to set the baseline and go from there.” When asked which countries would win the gold in this race, he pointed to France, with its stated goal of having 50 percent renewable energy by 2030; Denmark, with its success in hitting 100 percent wind power; and Costa Rica, with its smart efforts to preserve its rainforest and invest in renewable energy.

And, lastly, Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, reiterated that President Obama has made fighting climate change his priority, and reaching a global agreement at Paris will be at the top of the list. In a partisan speech focused on mostly domestic climate politics, McDonough said Obama would not back down with new regulations that limit emissions from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s upcoming Clean Power Plan, which will be released in August and will reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution, will move forward despite “Republican scare tactics.” McDonough said Republicans have been using the same tactics for 40 years, since President Nixon created the E.P.A. and signed the Clean Air Act. “They say environmental regulation will kill jobs, raise prices, and lead to power failures.” The reality, he said, was “the U.S. has cut pollution by 40 percent and grown the economy by three times over the past 50 years.”

McDonough said climate change is not only a national security threat — “it’s a threat multiplier” — but it will also disproportionately affect the poorest in the U.S. and everywhere else. Already in America, “African American children are twice as likely to have asthma and four times as likely to die from it.” This is because too many African American children grow up near polluting power plants and busy transportation corridors. Climate change, which raises temperatures, only makes ozone and surface-level pollution worse, raising the threat to low-income communities. Obama also aims to bring more solar power to low-income communities so everyone can benefit from lower energy bills.

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SuperPope Francis graffiti in Rome / NPR

Last month, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, a powerful encyclical designed to build the moral case for improving the environment and fighting climate change. He calls the climate a “common good” and decries the “abuse” of the environment that supports all of humanity. The Vatican published the encyclical in advance of Pope Francis’ just-concluded tour of South America, his September tour of the U.S., and the critical UN climate change summit in Paris in December. At each stop in his South American tour, he made the case for environmentally and socially-responsible development, arguing that it’s the only way to save both the environment and help the poor. For example, in Ecuador, he said: “The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.” Pope Francis join hands with the environmental movement, rallying the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pressure global leaders to act.

Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to weigh in on environmental issues. As he writes in the encyclical, Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.'” And his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth that have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment,” essentially calling for a new, sustainable approach to development.

However, Pope Francis goes further than his predecessors. He writes: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He backs the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change. He blames over-consumption and rampant capitalism for our predicament. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Pope Francis doesn’t just focus on climate change; he also addresses the health problems associated with pollution, the growth of non-biodegradable waste, the lack of fresh drinking water, the loss of biodiversity, and, finally, the “decline of human life and the breakdown in society” caused by environmental degradation.

He blames the lack of global action on the environment on money-driven self-interest and campaigns of disinformation led by special interests. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

To create a sustainable long-term solution, Pope Francis calls for a new relationship between humanity and nature. As Naomi Klein writes in The New Yorker, it may be one of the most radical policy changes by a major religion ever.

Klein writes: “Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.”

She adds: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”

Beyond the new understanding of nature as an ecological system is a renewed focus on the world’s poor. Pope Francis believes the rich have an obligation to aid the world’s poor, who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. This is the crux of the moral argument for action.

He writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”

To be Catholic now is to be an ecologist and activist. This can only be a step in the right direction.

But Pope Francis will face tough critics in the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Congress, where he has been invited to speak in September. Already Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have dismissed his efforts, inviting him to “stay out of politics.”

It’s too soon to tell the impact of the encyclical and the Vatican’s broader efforts on climate change, but Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says in The Guardian that “you should never underestimate the soft power of moral arguments.”

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ready red hook

Red Hook Community Emergency Readiness / Ready Red Hook

When I think about climate change, I like to look at a photo of my daughter and her two dear friends—not just because of their sweet smiles, but because the photo offers an important clue to how we can design cities to thrive in uncertain times. We don’t know exactly how climate change will play out, but two things are clear: Parts of our cities are in for severe stress. And we will have to get through it together.

Back when this picture was taken, I thought of the riverfront of New York City as a place to play; I often took my daughter and her friends down to the repurposed docks for concerts and picnics. That was before Superstorm Sandy slammed into the city and the East River busted its banks. That storm refined my thinking about life with climate change.

We had it radically easier than thousands of other New Yorkers—we only lost power for four days. But we shared with them a sense of uncertainty: When will lights come back on? What system might conk out next?

And now there is a larger sense of uncertainty about the future. Climate change has become a part of our lives, and we’re likely to face a series of crises: storms that whip our coasts and droughts that parch our heartland—though we don’t know when, or where, or how severely. It’s this constant uncertainty that we will have to address in our urban designs.

We do know that, in times of crisis, friends and neighbors can play a vital role in helping each other cope. Like many New Yorkers, we did what we could after Superstorm Sandy—donating supplies to families in the Rockaways, and dropping off food at the public housing community down the block.

Urban design can support that kind of community spirit, by bolstering connections among neighbors. The peninsula community of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, responded to Sandy this way. The community plans to raise the usable space of waterfront buildings above street level, creating new space beneath those buildings for people to gather, get help, and simply socialize. (My daughter, who was six at the time, had offered a similar idea, but then she listens to me daydream a lot.)

In uncertain times, urban design should make public places more flexible, more reassuring, and more public. This is in tune with the history of urban experimentation. Cities are places where unlike-minded people share limited space. Their innovations—parks, skyscrapers, farmers’ markets, Foursquare–result from experiments that tried to squeeze maximum benefit from a crowded place.

Even big-budget projects are trying to design in human connections to manage uncertainty. For example, the federal Rebuild by Design process commissioned design teams to work with neighborhoods on ways to make Northeastern cities’ coasts less vulnerable to storm surge. The “BIG U,” the project that drew the biggest plug of funding, is underway, creating a series of berms and slopes that serve as public parks while blunting wave action.


The BIG U / Rebuild by Design

If this plan succeeds, the water will be something to explore and adore, not something to fear. And if the fear quotient goes down and the sense of public comity goes up, perhaps people will be more willing to invest the dollars—and make the hard choices—necessary to face an unstable climate.

And if that’s right, then decades from now people can take pictures on the scenic bluffs overlooking the East River. And perhaps those pictures will show kids with the same peaceful confidence that comes from knowing you can count on your friends and neighbors.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

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