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Archive for the ‘Policy and Regulation’ Category

greenempire

Empire State Building, Earth Day / Inga’s Angle blog

Achieving sustainability requires more than just enacting forward-thinking legislation—it also requires compliance with laws and regulations. This was the message of Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer; Emily Hoffman, director of energy code compliance; and Holly Savoia, director of sustainability enforcement, all with the New York City government, as they spoke at this year’s GreenBuild conference in New Orleans.

The three work for New York City’s department of buildings’ sustainability unit, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Informally known as “NYC’s Green SWAT Team,” the panelists and their staff are charged with helping the city meet its goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They have a tremendous task, as nearly three quarters of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the building sector.

The city’s groundbreaking Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which was enacted in December 2009, is actually composed of four laws that address benchmarking, energy codes, audits and retro-commissioning, and lighting and submetering. [To further explain, retro-commissioning is a whole-building systems-based approach to improving an existing building’s performance.] These laws have to be enforced to be effective. “We provide some incentives, but we also hold the stick,” said Bocra. “We focus on fines and violations, but the goal is compliance.”

According to Hoffman, in January 2014 the unit began inspecting all new and renovated buildings for energy efficiency. A sustainability plan examiner reviews the energy code, and an inspection team, which may include third party inspectors, ensures the building is meeting the code as it is being built. So far, inspectors have looked at 2,600 new building applications, 4,500 major alterations applications, and 60,000 minor alterations applications.

Hoffman said the inspectors often encounter a “mind boggling” number of documentation and administrative errors and other technical issues. For instance, the square footage of areas don’t add up, or the U-factors (showing how part of a building conducts heat) are thrown in without any supporting documentation. As a result, Crain’s New York reported that nine out of ten commercial and residential projects fail on their first try to get their applications approved.

According to Savoia, sustainability inspectors make objections after comprehensive review. Half of submissions were returned last year due to “minor” issues, including missing owner signatures and improperly filled out forms. However, the unit is having an incredibly positive effect: compliance with local laws governing annual benchmarking of energy use, energy audits, and retro-commissioning increased from 76 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2012.

Hoffman acknowledged that “the energy code is really complex. There are different paths to compliance for residential and commercial buildings. It’s really difficult to understand this stuff, and so we have to provide more education.”

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All photos courtesy of Line Ramstad

“Do no harm.” These are the words echoed again and again by Line Ramstad, the Norwegian-born designer who since 2009 has lived and worked in a refugee camp in a disputed zone near the border of Thailand and Burma. She sees her unique position as Norwegian woman living and working with the Karen migrants as a strength, explaining, “it is nice to travel in between, to be the bridge.” Ramstad spoke at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Ramstad studied anthropology and geography before eventually receiving a master of landscape architecture. After five years of traditional practice, Ramstad traveled with two other Norwegians to the border with the intention of using their design background to aid in development work, eventually designing and building an orphanage. When her partners returned to Norway, Ramstad stayed and founded her current design/build architecture practice, Gyaw Gyaw, with three Karen migrants.

Ramstad describes the current situation of the Karen migrants as one with few options. Possessing no official papers, the Karen have few job prospects and live largely in refugee camps. We learn about their history on Gyaw Gyaw’s website: “the Karen people are the second biggest ethnic group in Burma. Exactly how many are unknown. After World War II, Burma was granted independence from the British invasion that had lasted for 62 years. The Karen people had been loyal to the British and fought with the alliance during the war. Among other minorities, they were now promised their own state, and Kaw Thoo Lei (The Land without Evil) was founded, but the Karen people never got sovereignty of the area.”

Gyaw Gyaw, which means “slowly, step by step,” designs and builds with an ethic of sustainability. Their built work consists largely of dormitories, schools, wells and playgrounds, and frequently incorporates partnerships with local NGOs and design firms. Ramstad thinks their work creates opportunities to promote democracy and encourage self-governance, both within the organization in the camps at large. Karens learn how to design and construct buildings together and this knowledge will remain with their people.

While the organization does not accept volunteers, they do offer an annual workshop in which visitors are encouraged to participate. They only accept funds that allow them to do the work in a way that is consistent with their small-scale and specific mission; their annual budget is only $60,000.

Gyaw Gyaw builds using “traditional materials and techniques used in more innovative and sustainable ways.” Ramstad emphasizes the importance of function above all else. She speaks eloquently about the constraints of cost and material that allow the work to be driven largely by climate and environment. “It’s very liberating to not have such choice of materials.” The organization rarely works with maps or drawings, a rarity in today’s highly technical architectural world. But Gyaw Gyaw also pays attention to the details, as Ramstad takes pride in her colleague Phillipa’s innovation in crafting elegant bamboo screens. Gyaw Gyaw also carefully observes how people use these spaces: Ramstad and her colleagues live close to these buildings and as a result their design process extends to a post-occupancy analysis of the daily life of their work.

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When asked about her landscape background and her current architecture work, Ramstad readily admits her weakness in construction knowledge, for which she relies heavily on her Karen colleagues. She describes her strength in “cultural and landscape adaptation,” explaining that “to be an architect is to have an open approach to the physical space around us.”

Through events like UVA’s lecture and international design conferences, Ramstad has begun to articulate and share Gyaw Gyaw’s ethos. Ramstad co-authored In Search of a Process: Laufen Manifesto for a Humane Design Culture, which states: “We speak out to define an alternative position. We must produce spaces that counter exploitation, control and alienation, whether in urban or rural landscapes. With all our expertise, creativity and power, we need to contribute more dynamically and consequentially to the global quest for equality.”

Ramstad’s visit instigated a broader discussion within the classrooms and studios at UVA. Some students and professors raised questions about the relevance of her work, as it’s particular to a region in Southeast Asia. However, Gyaw Gyaw’s process resonated with many students who are interested in participatory design.

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As design students, we often conduct site research from afar, making our best attempt at understanding place through online research and limited site-visits. Ramstad’s work shows us another type of design model, one that relies on an intimate understanding of place, and the people who inhabit it, as essential drivers of the design process. Ramstad’s approach came across as both refreshingly personal and intentionally limited. For her, community engagement is paramount in the design process.

In every stage of this process, Ramstad and Gyaw Gyaw call for “small steps” and making absolutely sure that if one’s intention is to do good work, that one truly does “no harm.”
 
This guest post by Jenna Harris, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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blacks-in-green

Green Village Building in Chicago / Blacks in Green (BIG)

Equitable urban revitalization means new development doesn’t displace existing communities. If we agree with this definition, what’s occuring in Washington, D.C. and many other American cities can’t be viewed as fair, said a number of African American community activists at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. Many blocks in historic African American communities are becoming fraught, contested ground as they rapidly redevelop and gentrify, with huge numbers of African Americans getting pushed out to due to higher rents and property taxes. The solution seems to be more community empowerment from the bottom, and more thoughtful, respectful urban planning from the top.

For Naomi Davis, CEO of Blacks in Green (BIG), city leaders need to take a more inclusive approach, because “what’s good for the African diaspora is good for everyone.” She said “increasing household income in inner-city communities helps both rich and poor people.” To boost the long-term sustainability of these communities, Davis calls for creating “green villages” that will transform waste to wealth, create new jobs, celebrate culture, and circulate wealth among local businesses. These green villages can only be built by respecting the local culture. Given culture is highly local, “true, long-term community sustainability must be built mile by mile.” And it has to be a bottom-up process: “We can’t wait for the government to save us.”

As an example, Davis described her work in West Woodlawn, “in the hood” in Chicago. There, she engaged community members in creating a new master plan, with layers of greening programs. A new orchard has come out of “the dust of 30 years of disinvestment.” 2012 was the “year of the tree canopy,” so West Woodlawn undertook a major campaign of adding new street and park trees. 2013 was the year of the backyard garden and using “private land to feed ourselves.” There are now orchards, gardens, root cellars everywhere.

For Dominic Moulden, Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C., “gentrification is a crime. It’s violence couched in white supremacy and aimed at uprooting black communities.” His group, a “multi-issue, multi-class, multi-ethnic” coalition, aims to critique the urban development culture of D.C.

He said many of the white tenants moving into historically African American communities seek “authentic local culture, but end up destroying it, which is a violation of our civil and human rights.” Moulden argued that African American communities — like plants that have suddenly moved — are undergoing “root shock.” With a decaying local ecosystem, social networks are failing.

Moulden says the answer is “to develop people and then place.” That way, “the community controls the plan.” As part of this goal, his group is trying to stop what he sees as illegal gentrification. They sued an African American church in Shaw for trying to displace its 50 residents in large, affordable housing units. ONE D.C. also played a role in ensuring the new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the convention center spent $2 million to train local workers and hired 700 local D.C. residents as Union employees with “living wages.” Moulden said “that’s equitable development.”

Wadi Muhammad, 270 Strategies, discussed changes he has seen in Roxbury, one of the historically African American communities in Boston. As that area gentrifies, swarms of college students are moving there. There has been nearly $100 million in investment there in recent years, leading to a new luxury condo where studios go for $2,500 a month. Muhammad said Roxbury is now for the extremely rich or poor. “Where do those in the middle go?” The community is working on a new master plan, with a long-term vision for sustainability.

To add some additional perspective, David Hyra, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said we must be careful what we wish for with “the new wave of urban revitalization,” less we further destroy the communities there now. One product of revitalization is new people moving in. “And all these newcomers into inner-city communities are expressing preferences that are different from those of the existing communities.”

For example, newcomers in D.C. seem to want more bike lanes, while long-time residents are less positive about them. The majority of new bike infrastructure in D.C. has come into the historically African American U. Street and Shaw neighborhoods of D.C., creating a flash point with the old-timers. For them, these lanes are sign that a neighborhood has gentrified. “In the last D.C. Mayoral debate, none of the candidates would admit they used the bike lanes, even though I know some of them are bikers,” Hyra laughed.

In addition, it seems African Americans also avoid D.C.’s bikeshare system as well. “88 percent of bikeshare users are white; just 5 percent are African American.”

While newcomers to African American communities typically want more bike lanes and dog parks, they don’t understand these amenities may be perceived as a “threat to long-term African American residents.” Walter Fauntroy, with the New Bethel Baptist Church, who was credited as saving Shaw from urban renewal in the 60s, recently told Hyra his feelings about the new wave of urban revitalization in Shaw: “I’ve given up, quite frankly.”

To combat further gentrification, Hyra said, “we need to preserve affordable housing and community political representation and minimize cultural displacement.”

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barryfarm

Barry Farm / The Huffington Post

Cities are the place to be these days, which means big changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. While much of the urban renewal experiments of the 1940s through the 1960s have been deemed disasters, word is still out on the new wave of “urban revitalization” that began in the 1990s and continues through to today in most of America’s cities. The supporters of revitalization say rising tides lift all boats. As wealth has come back to cities, everyone benefits. But critics of revitalization simply call it gentrification, and, as one speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. said, “gentrification is a crime.” Furthermore, new discussions of turning existing urban neighborhoods into “ecodistricts” may just be gentrification in a green dress. How can cities encourage growth but also provide a sense of continuity? How can over-taxed city planning departments accommodate the forces of change while also respecting local communities and cultures?

According to Charles Hostovsky, a professor of urban planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the speed of revitalization in D.C. has been extraordinarily rapid. Every neighborhood has cranes, signifying new development. There has been a corresponding shift in the demographics of the city. In 1970, the city was 77 percent African American. Today, it’s just 49 percent. “The number of people who have been displaced equals a small town.” Indeed: in the past decade, approximately 50,000 young, white Millennials have moved into the city while 35,000 African Americans have left.

Reyna Alorro, who works for the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning, said revitalization has even spread east of the Anacostia River, perhaps the last hold out to gentrification. There, the city is supporting the redevelopment of Barry Farm, 25 acres of public housing, into a new mixed-income, mixed-use development that they hope will be an example of equitable revitalization. As HUD Hope IV funds have diminished since 2005, the District has started its own program of revamping public housing. “We want to target the areas with blight, crime, high unemployment and turn them into mixed income communities.” The theory is that reducing the concentration of the poor in communities, and relieving their isolation, will improve their conditions.

Barry Farm, a historic African American community founded by freed slaves, currently has some 400 units, with 1,200 people. The population of the housing development is 93 percent single mothers; some 86 percent are unemployed. “This is not a friendly, welcoming site.” There is only one over-priced corner store, with a bullet-proof glass wall separating the store owners from customers.

The $550 million redevelopment plan, said Kelly Smyser, DC Housing Authority, will create 1,400 public and affordable apartments at the same site. New apartments will face each other, creating open public thoroughfares that enable “eyes on the street.” There will also be a recreation center, with an indoor pool, basketball courts, and computer labs, as well as a charter school. The nearby Anacostia Metro station will get a full upgrade, with improved access to the station from the development. “We want to bring opportunity to residents. We will make the connection to Metro easier and safer.”

The District government calls this project “revitalization without gentrification,” as all current residents will be allowed to come back to the new development. “There will be zero displacement.” The city also promises it will undertake a program of “build first before demolition.” To increase the diversity of the development, some 300 of the new units will be affordable housing, rentals, or for sale. The city also wants to encourage small businesses to locate in Barry Farms. They are creating “live-work” sites that will enable people to live above their stores. “We need to get rid of the bullet proof glass.”

The neighborhood is rightly concerned about how they can preserve the best of the local culture with all the change. One example of this is the Goodman League, a basketball tournament that happens in the neighborhood every year. “People have a good time, barbequing, sitting in lawn chairs. There are no beefs on the court.” The basketball courts where this happen will remain untouched.

While Smyser was convinced this upgrade will benefit the community, one conference attendee seemed equally as convinced that with the District’s multimillion dollar investment, the city will simply be opening the neighborhood to opportunistic developers and further gentrification. Word is still out on how this urban redevelopment story will play out.

Hazel Edwards, a professor of planning at Catholic University, outlined some examples of successful revitalization without gentrification in other parts of the U.S. She pointed to Melrose Commons in South Bronx, where a group of local residents banded together in the early 1990s into a group called Nos Quedamos (We Stay) and fought back New York City government’s imposed urban renewal plan. With the help of an altruistic architect, Nos Quedamos forged their own urban design that respected the community’s unique cultural heritage. The plan and design resulted in 2,000 units of affordable housing. “There was no displacement in the community.”

In Portland, Oregon, Edwards told us about a project called Cully Main Street plan, which helped preserve one the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland, with some 40-50 percent people of color. They devised a plan to equitably bring in commercial activity to their main street while accommodating an influx of new white homeowners and preserving the neighborhood diversity.

Edwards said the key to revitalization without gentrification is “bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.” This kind of public planning process requires a great investment of time and resources by city governments, but without this investment, the only result may be inequitable, developer-led urban revitalization. “Cities have to form diverse, inclusive partnerships, foster openness, and collaborate on goals and outcomes.”

Quoting the urban leader and author, Kaid Benfield, she said, “we have to work towards a balanced solution,” and also track our progress to see whether we are living up to our goals.

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ozone

Earth’s Atmosphere / The Energy Collective

A United Nations scientific panel reports that the Earth’s protective ozone layer has begun to recover, in large part because the world has successfully phased out man-made halogenated hydrocarbons, including chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs), which used to be found in all aerosol sprays and refrigerators. These chemicals release chlorine and bromide, which destroy molecules far up in the atmosphere. The ozone layer protects the planet from solar radiation, which, in excess, leads to skin cancer and damage to plant life.

The Washington Post calls this a “rare piece of good news about the health of the planet.” This development proves that “when the world comes together, it can counteract a brewing ecological crisis.” Mario Molina, who won the Nobel Prize with F. Sherwood Rowland for anticipating the ozone problem, said: “It’s a victory for diplomacy and for science and for the fact that we were able to work together.” And former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called the treaty behind this global action “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

In 1987, the leading producers of CFCs signed on to the UN-organized Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which established a novel, phased approach for reducing the production and use of CFCs. This treaty led to the creation of a multilateral fund, which has directed funds to developing countries. The goal was to transition away from CFCs to hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), less active chemicals now also targeted for global phase-out, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are not covered in the treaty, as well as other replacement chemicals.

Now, 35 years later, scientists can confirm there has been “sustained increase in stratospheric ozone.” In fact, over the past 13 years, ozone levels climbed 4 percent. Had the world not taken action, the UN reports, there would have been an extra 2 million cases of skin cancer per year by 2030.

Still, we have a ways to go. The ozone hole above the Southern Hemisphere has still not yet fully closed, and the overall layer is still 6 percent thinner than it was in 1980. The United Nation’s Environmental Program estimates that the ozone layer will be fully repaired by mid century.

According to Scientific American, the efforts to reduce the use of CFCs have an added bonus: “The phase-out also helped slow global warming because CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases. In fact, the agreement to address the ozone hole has actually cut five times the greenhouse gas emissions as has the Kyoto Protocol to address global warming.” However, others argue the HCFCs and HFCs that have replaced CFCs are equally as harmful to the climate. These compounds are up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming our atmosphere. The Montreal Protocol will phase out HCFCs by 2030, but puts no limit on HFCs.

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ecosystem-services

ASLA 2011 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley, Milwaukee by Landscapes of Place / Nancy Aten

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international organization committed to strengthening the role of science in public decision-making on biodiversity and ecosystem services, seeks expert landscape architects, ecologists, and others with policy experience to assess its latest research. The call for more engagement was made at a recent presentation at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Washington, D.C.

IPBES explains the reason for its existence on its web site: “Biodiversity from terrestrial, marine, coastal, and inland water ecosystems provides the basis for ecosystems and the services they provide that underpin human well-being. However, biodiversity and ecosystem services are declining at an unprecedented rate, and in order to address this challenge, adequate local, national and international policies need to be adopted and implemented. To achieve this, decision makers need scientifically credible and independent information that takes into account the complex relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. They also need effective methods to interpret this scientific information in order to make informed decisions. The scientific community also needs to understand the needs of decision makers better in order to provide them with the relevant information. In essence, the dialogue between the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders on biodiversity and ecosystem services needs to be strengthened.”

To reiterate, Douglas Beard Jr., National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and a co-lead for the science component of IPBES for the U.S. Delegation, said: “It’s always better to hear from a diverse group of people.”

Established in 2012, IPBES has convened multi-disciplinary groups of experts to conduct public assessments around the globe. With 114 member countries, IPBES is dedicated to becoming the leading international organization on ecosystem services.

Assessors will help make progress on the status of pollinators, pollination, and food production; scoping for a set of global and regional assessments of the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services; and scoping for a thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration.

If you are interested in nominating someone or being nominated for an upcoming call, please contact Clifford Duke at ESA, which coordinates the U.S. stakeholders.

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What Makes a City Great? / Sasaki Associates

A new survey commissioned by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates asked 1,000 urbanites in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. what they love most about their city. The findings, which cover diverse aspects of city life, offer truly fascinating insights for urban planners, landscape architects, and architects. One example: 60 percent of residents of these cities say they will still be in the city five years from now. Here are some other highlights.

What do urbanites love most about their cities? 

More than 40 percent cited the restaurants and food; while 32 percent said local attractions; 24 percent said historic places and landmarks; 21 percent said cultural offerings; 17 percent said parks and public spaces; and 16 percent said fairs and festivals. Some 15 percent said “the people,” while another 10 percent said they like the architecture the most, and 9 percent said the local sports scene.

And when asked, “what would get you out of your neighborhood?,” the findings are largely consistent with preferences listed above: 46 would venture out for a new restaurant; 25 percent would travel for a new store; 24 percent for a new cultural event; while just 18 percent would schlep to check out a new park or green space.

Where do urbanites’ favorite experiences happen?

While only 18 percent will travel across town for a new park, interestingly, a majority of people (65 percent) remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors — either in a park or on a street. (A minority [just 22 percent] said their favorite experience happened in a building).

Of outdoor spaces, 47 percent say waterfronts are their favorite. Another 31 prefer large open parks, while 14 percent prefer small urban spaces, and 8 percent love their city’s trail system the most.

So where should cities make future investment in parks and open space? “41 percent support investment in making the waterfront more accessible and appealing; 40 percent would like to see more large parks that support both passive and adventurous activities; 37 percent wish their cities would make streets more pedestrian/bike friendly; 36 percent support adding outdoor music and entertainment venues; and 31 percent desire more small urban parks.”

What makes a city’s buildings iconic?

Some 36 percent said the historic nature of the building, while 30 percent said “great architecture,” and another 24 percent said a building’s “unique design.” A majority (57 percent) will stop and look at a historic building, while just 19 percent will do the same for a modern one.

What do urbanites like least about getting around in cities?

More than 40 percent said there’s “too much traffic,” while 23 percent cited the lack of parking. Some 14 percent said public transportation is not up to par, and 9 percent said biking is dangerous. Another 7 percent pointed to things being “too spread out,” while another 7 percent complained that sidewalks are too crowded.

These complaints reveal how Americans, even urbanites, get around: 58 percent use cars frequently, while 29 percent use public transportation. Another 10 percent try to walk everywhere and just 2 percent use bikes.

Surveys like Sasaki’s are important. We need to attract as many people as possible to cities, because urban life is central to a more sustainable future. In cities, per-capita carbon emissions and energy and water use are all much lower. But beyond the metrics, cities can just be great places if they are designed to be livable and beautiful, filled with outdoor spaces, historic buildings, and efficient transportation systems.

In keeping with Sasaki’s multidisciplinary approach, the team who put together the survey is comprised of a planner, landscape architect (Gina Ford, ASLA), and an architect, as it should be when dealing with all things related to our built environment.

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Sinking cemetery in Leeville, Louisiana / Mississippi Delta.org

Words, picture, video are used to convey the experience of change. But can they ever tell the whole story? In a world where all news seems ephemeral — with the next interesting tidbit just a click away — how can stories with deep complexities be easily understood and, even, remembered? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, a set of great communicators took the big stage to offer their stories and tips for how designers can break through all the noise.

Richard Campanella, a Tulane University-based geographer, said the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe was the “searing result of generations of problems.” So many reporters began to realize the complexities in the tale. Soon, “all these arcane topics had become part of the global discourse.” He said in times like this, the only thing an expert with something to offer can do is “heed the call and communicate. You know more than most.” Campanella soon became stuck permanently on the “media rolodex, this worldwide juggernaut.”

Immediately after the storm, the “neighborhood recovery prioritization” was the most controversial topic. Not liking what he was hearing, Campanella waded in, offering proposals that helped shape the public debate. He said the effect of his guest op-eds in the local papers was critical. His argument: “Instead of moving residents out of lower areas, why not just encourage them to go to higher areas?” Using maps, he showed how 2,000 empty parcels were above sea level, providing space for 10,000 people. His report, Higher Ground, made the cover of the now web-only Times Picayune. Through his maps and analysis, Campanella showed how just 50 percent of the city is now above sea level, but how it used to be 100 percent. “The report showed that human activity has sunk us below sea level.” The report ended up “shaping the historical development of the city.”

Experts should “only opine when you have new arguments and data. Don’t rehash. Don’t get into the passions of the moment, as you can easily inflame them further.” Messages to the public must be “consistent and judicious.” He added that “the media is fickle and interviews are potentially dangerous.” Experts have the most control over their messages when they write op-eds. He said panel discussions are also fraught with potential dangers, as “you don’t know where the conversation will go. Be prudent when speaking improvisationally.”

For Michael Pasquier, who teaches religious history at Louisiana State University (LSU), images speak volumes. In Leeville, Louisiana, there was a shot of an old cemetery sinking into the delta, outside of the levees in the red zone (see image above). “This one image led to tons of news stories.” The New York Times covered it, saying “this fits with what’s happening here.” But “that’s an oversimplification of a larger set of problems.” Pasquier called these types of journalists “parachute artists. They interview a few talking heads and kooky Cajuns and then leave. The story I’m interested in is: what happens after they leave?”

Pasquier is a historian who has become a filmmaker, driven by the desire to capture and communicate change. His film, Water Like Stone, focuses on Louisiana fisherman, a group who have been “highly dehumanized through media coverage, but who have an intimate knowledge of these places.” Pasquier focused on these people’s stories, their history, also to humanize the local scientists, placing them in the landscape. “It’s not about trying to control this place, but being of this place.”

Nancy Levinson, the editor of Places, an online journal, pulled back from the conversation on New Orleans, saying “we are living through a genuine revolution” in how we communicate. The age of the press, created by Gutenberg centuries ago, is coming to an end. “It’s hard to see the edges. New technologies are disruptive as earthquakes. The old system is crumbling, and that’s messy.” The web was once something that could be ignored, but no longer. “The digital revolution is over. It has now entered a period of consolidation. As we enter a post-revolutionary future, we must rethink the old stuff.”

Places, for example, is now online only. But Levinson said the “very format of the journal may need to be rethought.” The traditional journal for one’s peers in a technical area is now “less important,” because, with the web, “these journals can be liberated from the specialists and can spur larger discourse and civic engagement.” While there may still be some tension between writing for one’s peers or the public, really, good writing should do both.

She added that the crisis in scholarly publications is already happening, as the momentum for open, digital access grows. The traditional journal provides a “vital services to academics but a low level of service to readers.” With the global connectivity of the Internet, there can be new types of publishing. Levinson pointed to Vector, a new journal that enables peer-reviewed multimedia scholarship to be accessed by all. She concluded, “design research can’t just circulate in the discipline; every investigation needs to be a narrative to build awareness among the public.”

Lastly, Makani Themba, who runs The Praxis Project, said too many advocates think if they simply marshal the right data and package it into a sensible argument, the other side will simply say, “wow, you are right.” She said, “sadly, it doesn’t happen that way. We come to every conversation with a set of beliefs. Any issue we are confronted with is set within a history and beliefs we have built over time.” Power relationships shape those beliefs. “They are embedded. We start east and go west. We start white and go black. This is what becomes normal for us. It’s deeply rooted.”

So when we communicate, “we shouldn’t start in the opposition. Some 30 percent of Americans side with progressive ideas. Another 30 percent side with conservatives. 30 percent can go either way, and 10 percent are just not in the conversation.” She said if the messages are inclusive, we can “easily find ourselves at 60-70 percent supporting us.” That inclusive message?: “we are all inter-connected. We should invest in each other.”

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Empty lot next to mowed lot, New Orleans / Jared Green

At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, the focus was on change — and how change will impact cities’ search for social equality. Much of urban infrastructure will need to be bolstered to survive a range of shifts: population booms or busts, economic growth or stagnation, and climate change and increasingly frequent natural disasters. But as cities adapt to these changing social, economic and climatic circumstances, are the most vulnerable being heard? When cities bounce back from all kinds of disasters, are all communities in the city, both rich and poor, equally as resilient?

Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), said, at its peak in 1960, New Orleans had a population of 630,000. After Hurricane Katrina, the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” the population fell to 220,000. Now, it’s up to 369,000, still way off its peak. “We’ve been losing population for decades. Pre-existing patterns just tend to reinforce themselves in the aftermath of a disaster.” Since 1960, the population has grown in the suburbs while the core has lost density. By 2004, the number of vacant parcels was around 20-30,000. Detroit or Cleveland have a similar amount.

New Orleans is found along the banks of the Mississippi River. Land at the edges of the river is actually highest, as it has slowly accumulated there over thousands of years. Beyond these high points along the river, the city’s geography dips, forming a bowl. The French Quarter and other historic settlements are all found on high ground, meaning they are really just a few feet above sea level. Many low-Income communities like the lower 9th ward are under sea level. These neighborhoods were made possible by a pump system invented by the city. “We started building in swamps, exacerbating other environmental issues. Maybe our ancestors had it right building just on high ground.”

After Katrina struck, some 34 affected coastal parishes and New Orleans began to receive assistance through the federal Road Home Homeowner Assistance Program. As “there was no comprehensive plan, the feds took a piecemeal, local approach.” On a one-by-one basis, people could either come back to their old houses and received funds to rebuild, or got funds to rebuild somewhere else. Some 130,000 people got $8.9 billion in grants through this program. The result: “They left us with a patchwork of land.”

NORA was handed all the leftover, empty lots. They have gotten the inventory down from 5,000 to around half that. “Most of the remaining inventory is on lower ground. Some of those neighborhoods came back and others didn’t.”

So NORA initiated an innovative adaptation program for many low-income areas, with “green infrastructure, lot stabilization, alternative maintenance, and two technical assistance programs: growing green and growing home.” Hebert said these programs are about “connecting with the community about local stormwater and beautifying neighborhoods through great landscape design.”

Getting many locals in the poorer parts of the city to buy into empty lots as stormwater management systems has been tricky. “We have to change what is seen as a black eye into something beautiful that increases the quality of life and property values.” A big part of the campaign is educating many who have been there for generations about hydrology and geology. At least New Orleans is focusing on how everyone must adapt.

Roberta Feldman, an architectural activist and founder of the UIC City Design Center, then discussed how “urban redevelopment screws people,” particularly in cities like Chicago. Cities must be more sensitive to existing populations as they make way for new ones. She said Chicago’s latest housing plan will create “high-density, high-price public housing that is not socially just or cost effective.” Instead of redeveloping existing public housing complexes, the city often just tears them down and asks the poor living there to move into apartments somewhere else in the city or join in a public mixed use development. The problem is their existing community has been dismantled, “and these residents don’t want to move.” These efforts are also not cost-effective, Feldman argued, because creating new housing invariably costs much more per square foot than simply revamping older buildings. If the city had used the money more wisely, more public housing could have been developed. “The housing authority could have renovated 25,000 units for the same price as 9,000 new units.”

Cecilia Martinez, recently head of the UN-Habitat in New York, said “we must blame architects for much of the mess” we face trying to adapt cities to change. “They assume a lot. By World War II, they had initiated the Modern City movement and assumed the car would re-organize the city. Because of the car, we had super-blocks, so no one walks anymore. They said ‘let’s do low density. Let’s put towers in the middle of gardens.’” Graphed on top of this car-based system is a developer-led system, which marginalizes the poor. As a result, “Latin America is either super-highways and super-blocks or slums.” Martinez said this urban model is clearly broken because some 800 million people live in slums without access to public spaces. “While New York City, one of the world’s wealthiest cities, is comprised of some 60 percent public space — when you add in streets, parks, and plazas — the slums in Kenya have maybe 1 percent public space.” To enable everyone to adapt, “we need to focus on walking and biking, public spaces, and mixed social structures.”

“In all of the world’s deltas, large changes are taking place,” said Han Meyer, a professor at Delft University in the Netherlands who offered a broader framework for adaptation. The problem is these deltas and other coastal areas are the site of much of the world’s urbanization. There are multiple dynamics happening at once. “There are the dynamics of the natural environment. One thousand years of land-water relations change. The way deltas carry sediment changes over time. These changes have been caused by climate change since the Ice Age, and the process has been ongoing for a long time. Then, there’s the societal use of the delta. Dynamic land-uses plus nature means a very complex system that will continue to change. We need to be able to adapt both types of environments. They are at different frequencies, rhythms. The problem is nature has a different time scale for change than societies.” So his answer for how to adapt to change: “There can be no final plans. We can only build different scenarios. “

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coalplant

Coal power plant / Wikipedia

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced historic new rules that will cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Amazingly, the country’s 1,600 power plants together account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. Of these, there are still some 600 coal-powered plants running. And aging coal plants (their average age is 42) account for a disproportionate share of total emissions from the power sector. The EPA, which is acting through its authority under the Clean Air Act, will now open the rules for public comment. Once that process is complete, they intend to give states flexibility to act. The New York Times says President Obama’s new rules are one of the “strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change.”

States will be given some leeway to design their own programs to cut emissions. “Rather than immediately shutting down coal plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, and by starting or joining state and regional ‘cap and trade’ programs, in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and buy and sell permits to pollute.” This is a sensible approach as the energy mix varies widely state by state, with some states naturals for some types of renewable energy, but others not.

Environmental groups cheer the new regulations, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report stating the rules could lower the gross domestic product by $50 billion annually. Nobel Prize winning-economist Paul Krugman took apart that report in a recent op-ed. Krugman writes: “So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!”

While the debate over economic costs and benefits — particularly for coal-producing states — will continue, it’s becoming clear the regulations may boost the health of Americans. In fact, President Obama made a point of calling the American Lung Association while new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced the new effort. The Obama administration argues that in its first year the new limits will cut the number of asthma attacks by 100,000 and heart attacks by 2,100. According to The Washington Post, the EPA also estimates “the new rules will cut traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot by 25 percent…yielding a public health benefit of between $55 billion to $93 billion when it is fully implemented, with 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths avoided and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks a year avoided.”

Carbon dioxide doesn’t cause lung or heart issues by itself, but when it spews out of coal-powered plants, it comes with soot, chemicals, and particulate matter. Targeting carbon dioxide from coal is then a smart way to tackle these other pollutants as well. A study by researchers in New York City found that during days with “high levels of ozone and air pollution, hospital admissions for respiratory problems rose about 20 percent.” Already some 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, including 6.5 million children.

This is not President Obama’s first effort to reduce emissions. New vehicle emission standards for cars and light trucks produced between 2012 and 2025 will cut 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The new rules for coal power plants will remove another 500 million metric tons annually, says The Washington Post.

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