Oil Spill Having Catastrophic Impact on Ocean Ecosystems

The TEDx conference on the Oil Spill in Washington, D.C. featured a full-day of world renowned speakers on oil science, conservation, and the future of energy. During the day’s discussions, one powerful statement seemed to come through: the decision to use oil dispersants, which are themselves highly toxic derivatives of oil, may have been misguided. While the dispersants helped break up some oil and may have prevented oil from slicking some wetland and other important coastal ecosystems, they are also creating a toxic ocean soup that can’t be separated into disparate parts. The oil, dispersants and sea in areas of the Gulf of Mexico are now like permanently mixed salad dressing. As a result, oil now can’t be manually scooped out, and the dispersants and oil mix will be absorbed into all nodes of the ocean ecosystems, creating catastrophic impacts for ocean wildlife.

Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue

Sylvia Earle, who has been called “Her Deepness” by The New Yorker and a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater and led more than 50 ocean expeditions. Earle said the actual Gulf of Mexico, which is the 9th largest body of water on earth, has received less attention than the coastal marshes. She showed a video of coral birth, illustrating the diversity and complexity of the ocean ecosystems within the Gulf. The Gulf’s Flower Garden Banks and underwater salt dunes provide important habitat. The Ewing Bank is a key habitat for whale sharks, and other areas provide key mating grounds for blue fin tuna, now an endangered species.

On the oil spill, Earle said it won’t be long before the loop current will pick up the oil and dispersants and move them up the East coast and towards the Gulf Stream, and then eventually towards the critical Sargasso Sea, a “floating golden sea.”

While we now have Google Earth, space observation systems, and other powerful ocean monitoring tools, she said we’ve gotten these great tools only “because we’ve burned through all our assets. It took billions of years to produce these fossil fuels.” These fossil fuels have also “driven us to a magical crossroads of understanding” — whether we use this new understanding to chart a more sustainable path using renewable energies is still not certain.

Learn more about Mission Blue, and watch an earlier TED talk on one of their expeditions.

Susan Shaw, Marine Environmental Research Institute

Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and head of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, said the dispersants will have a major impact on marine life. Worldwide, oceans now function as global pollution sinks, and more than 1/3 of all ocean mammals are in danger of going extinct. Each ocean animal is already loaded with chemical compounds. To study this, Shaw has been working on a program, Seals as Sentinels, a region-wide eco-toxicological investigation, which has looked at a range of chemicals in seals. She found that brominated flame retardants are among the most hazardous chemicals found in seal tissue. Flame retardants are used “in everything” in the U.S. (Shaw joked that at least the seals won’t catch on fire anytime soon).  

Even among the U.S. human population, chemical compounds are found at a much higher rate, some 10-40 times higher, than in Europe. “We have looser regulations than the E.U. In the U.S., most chemicals aren’t regulated properly. Each year, an additional 20,000 new chemicals are created and go through mimimal review process before they are released and used in products.”

Shaw actually jumped into oil slicked-Gulf of Mexico water wearing only a wetsuit in an effort to understand the effects firsthand. A few days later, Shaw got a wretched sore throat. From her view, she saw a “web of death as you go down the water column.” Shaw said someone decided that it was a case of wetlands vs. oceans and decided to save the wetlands by using ocean-based dispersants — up to 2 million gallons of Corexit. She said clean-up workers haven’t been passing out on boats because of heat stroke, as has been reported by officials, but because of the toxic fumes that come off of Corexit.

“Corexit is the most toxic line of dispersants. It gives off volatile petroleum fumes.” She said direct human exposure to Corexit 9527, the formula that has been used the most, “causes internal bleeding.” Now that BP has run out of 9527, the 9500 formula is now being used. “These dispersants break down lipid membranes, making it easier to pass through skin and organs in wildlife.” Shaw added that “Corexit has also been known to cause birth defects and mutations.”

The Gulf of Mexico includes 33 wildlife refuges, where protected wildlife will be impacted. “Corals will get hit hard. Corexit inhibits coral fertilization by 100 percent.” Plankton and plankton eaters, piscivorous fish, and other fish species will face catastrophic impacts. “For fish, when Corexit hits their membranes, it will feel like they’ve got pnemonia.” For air breathing mammals like dolphins and whales, the problem will be every time they come up for air they will breathe in toxic Corexit fumes. “It’s like a chemical pnemonia.”

Shaw said the U.S. needs to change its lifestyle and move towards an alternative energy system. Learn more about her research.

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

Dr. Carl Safina, a prominent ecologist and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, said the use of dispersants means that “we can’t clean, touch, or deal with this huge mess. We can’t suppress what’s going on.” Dispersants have been used to “hide the body” of the oil spill.

Safina thinks the spill will be catastrophic for marine life. He got very emotional talking about a dolphin seen by a fisherman. Apparently, the dolphin was spurting oil from its blowhole. “The dolphin came up to the boat, which they apparently never do, as if to ask for help.”

He called the spill a “hemispheric issue that will have enormous biological effects.” Safina was highly critical of the “lack of response plan and equipment,” saying that booms aren’t made for use in the open ocean. “Booming a bird colony doesn’t do it. Birds make a living by diving in the water in search for food.” Instead, ecologists should just “destroy their nests so they don’t come back for a year.” He also said it was great that birds are getting cleaned, but then they are sent back to the oil slicked ocean. “It’s like cleaning up someone coming out of a burning house and then sending them back in.”

Safina was highly critical of BP, arguing that “this was not an accident, but negligence.” He had strong words for the Mineral Management Service (MMS), saying it “failed” and was the result of a “culture of deregulation.” This is just an example of “government bought out by big private enterprise. The regulatory failures were much like those that caused the financial crisis.”

He concluded that people are “still lighting things on fire for energy,” using the same stone age-energy technology. Calling for a move towards renewable energy, Safina said “energy is always a moral issue.” 

On moving towards a new energy system, Mike Tidwell, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the 4,000 oil rigs in the Gulf that access some 32,000 wells, a “galaxy of wells,” can be replaced with more efficient offshore wind farms. In fact, the state of Virginia just concluded that its offshore wind capacity could provide energy for 3.6 million cars. Reid Detchon, UN Foundation, called for a shift in subsidies towards renewable energy. Jigar Shah, Carbon War Room, and founder of SunEdison, said “50 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be profitably eliminated with today’s technology.” Klaus Lackner, Earth Institute, Columbia University, said we can use “synthetic trees” to strip carbon from the air.

Also, of interest: Google is using its data management capabilities to support crisis response in the Gulf of Mexico. Peter Geineke, Google Data Engineer, said Google is “building tools to surface near-real time data.” Google aims to collect and publish all relevant data sets, enabling ecology researchers to share and mash-up data. “Some data isn’t available or hasn’t been made available,” Geineke added.

Lastly, the X Prize announced a campaign to raise $10 million and create a new contest for a fix for the oil spill clean up. “We are looking for clean-up and bioremediation innovation. In contrast with other X prizes, this one will be dynamic.” The X Prize is still looking for ways to frame the prize. E-mail concepts to francis@xprize.com

Go to the TED Oil Spill Web site to learn more and watch videos.

Image credit: Extent of oil spill as seen via satelitte, mid-May 2010 / NASA

How Would Nature Solve This?

“We are surrounded by genius,” asserted Janine Benyus at the TED Global 2009 conference in Oxford, England in a talk highlighting recent innovations in biomimicry and asking designers to look to the brilliance of nature for inspiration. Benyus, co-founder and board President of the Biomimicry Institute, briefly introduced the new discipline of biomimicry and explained simply why human-created design should strive to function as the natural world does: “Imagine designing spring. Imagine that orchestration. […] Imagine the timing, the coordination, all without top-down laws, or policies, or climate change protocols. This happens every year.” The focus of biomimics—those studying and implementing biomimicry—said Benyus, is function. “They ask themselves, “What if, every time I started to invent something, I asked, ‘How would nature solve this?’”

One solution grew from Galapagos sharkskin. “Hospital-acquired infections are now killing more people every year in the United States than die from AIDS or cancer or car accidents combined, about 100 thousand,” Benyus said. Sharklet Technologies has developed what they call skins for use in places such as hospitals where there is a need to reduce bacteria. The firm has also produced the innovative materials without using chemicals or toxic components. The company has copied the functionality of Galapagos shark fin denticles, which enable the animal’s surface to remain bacteria free despite the fact that it is a slow mover. Not only can human-produced patterns similar to shark denticles help Olympic swimmers break speed records, they could also potentially reduce infections—Sharklet’s Web site notes “research shows that the Sharklet pattern reduces bacteria growth by 80 percent.”

Water filtration and desalination is another important area of inquiry. According to Benyus, we currently use membranes which frequently clog and use a lot of electricity to filter water. Aquaporin, a company named after a protein which makes up the pores in membranes of biological cells that control the flow of water, is developing more efficient desalination membranes based on this natural technology. Indeed, nature knows how to minimize materials. “Trees and bones are constantly reforming themselves along lines of stress,” Benyus informed the audience. “This algorithm has been put into a software program that’s now being used to make bridges lightweight. G.M. Opel used it to create the skeleton you see in what’s called their bionic car.”

While praising recent developments in biomimicry design, Benyus urged for more research in particular areas, including materials optimization. For example, chitin—a component in many organisms, including beetle exoskeletons—embodies multiple uses. “One of the major inventions we need to be able to do to come even close to what these organisms do is to find a way to minimize the amount of material, the kind of material we use, and add design to it.”

In another example, social insects are becoming major “consultants” for smart grids. In the field of swarm technology and intelligence, the company Regen, Benyus mentioned, is “looking at how ants and bees find their food and their flowers in the most effective way as a whole hive. They’re having appliances in your home talk to one another through that algorithm, and determine how to minimize peak power use.”

Utility efficiency has been an increasing concern in recent years. Benyus referred to research at Cornell University which led to the creation of a synthetic “tree” that simulates the capillary action of actual trees, which pull water from the ground and transport it to leaves in a process known as transpiration. Several applications exist for this technology, including heat-transfer for cooling small machines or buildings without pumps, soil remediation, and, in academia, the study of liquids in a meta-stable state.

Another exciting focus for Benyus is city planning. The Biomimicry Guild—also co-founded by Benyus with Dayna Baumeister—and HOK Architects are now collaborating on urban design. In one masterplan for Lang Fang, China, under development, the idea is to model natural water self-reliance through a retrofitted landscape. Referring to related biomimetic urban plans in World Architecture News, Baumeister stressed that “the built environment is one of the most fertile grounds for biomimicry from a sustainability perspective…our greatest collective impact will come from applying biomimicry to the planning and design of buildings, communities and cities.” This collaboration allowed Benyus, Baumeister, and colleagues to ask a crucial design question: “Shouldn’t our cities do at least as well, in terms of ecosystem services, as the native systems that they replace?”

In that vein, the Biomimicry Guild and HOK partnership created a set of Ecological Performance Standards, metrics which measure “ecosystem services such as carbon fixation, water purification, air cooling, biodiversity maintenance, soil building, erosion control,” explained Baumeister. “The buildings and eco-structures will support themselves and then some, creating more fertile soils, cleaner air and water, and safe passage for native species.” With the use of these standards, we will be able to look back and say, “we have created a human settlement that is functionally indistinguishable from the local ecology.” Benyus told World Architecture News, “making a bio-inspired product is one thing; making a bio-inspired city begins to change the world.” 

This year, the Biomimicry Challenge incited some of that change through a competition which paired biologists with selected firms to answer the question: “What Would You Ask Nature?” According to Fast Company, Mexico City-based Taller de Operaciones Ambientales (TOA) took on Portland’s Brightworks problem of understanding how sustainability issues along the edges of ecodistricts in Portland—such as utilities, transport, and buildings—“could be more effectively addressed throughout each district to encourage green, sustainable growth that spread beyond its borders.” Based on observations of natural areas and in-house knowledge of fungal organization, TOA proposed an unusual funding scheme: with their new ecological mindset, the team decided to allot over 50 percent of funding to ecodistrict borders. “Most urban designers would say that a town square or Main Street would be the most vital part of a neighborhood. But the team didn’t see that pattern in nature. ‘If you think about…plants, they have edges that are made to be so colorful and attractive,’ says Rodríguez. ‘Even without knowing the exact percentage, you know that their most radical strategies happen in their border.’”

“The design challenge of our century,” posed Benyus in Oxford, is that “we need a way to remind ourselves of those geniuses, and to somehow meet them again.” She is unsurprisingly part of a team working on a way for anyone to meet these geniuses virtually. Uniting with the Encylopedia of Life, Benyus and collaborators have created a new Web site, AskNature.org, to “organize all biological information by design and engineering function.” This compilation of knowledge will facilitate innovation in biomimicry: Benyus hoped that “any inventor, anywhere in the world, will be able, in the moment of creation, to type in, ‘How does nature remove salt from water?’ And up will come mangroves and sea turtles, and your own kidneys.”

Through biomimicry, Benyus argues, “people are beginning to remember that organisms, other organisms, the rest of the natural world, are doing things very similar to what we need to do. But in fact they are doing them in a way that have allowed them to live gracefully on this planet for billions of years. And hopefully, with their help, we’ll learn how to live on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

Watch Benyus’ TED talk

This post is by Laura Kendrick, ASLA 2010 advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: Galapagos Shark /Flickr

Ending the Reign of Lawns

The Guardian (UK) reports that many U.S. homeowners are removing their “chemically-treated” manicured lawns and adding organic vegetable and fruit gardens, native plants, and other natural landscapes in their place. The movement is growing because eco-conscious consumers are learning more about the negative environmental impacts of conventional lawns. “Groups as diverse as urban garden clubs, environmental groups and wildlife protection groups are spreading the word that a big, lush lawn harms biodiversity and is an eco- disaster.”

U.S. lawns are grown from non-native grasses that use lots of water, pesticides and fertilizers. That even dark green color prized by so many actually requires the use of lots of chemicals. The use of these fossil-fuel-based derivatives are unhealthy for lots of reasons, but their production also creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Steven Saffer, Audubon Society’s At Home program, said: “Lawns contribute to climate change. The fossil fuels used in fertiliser and pesticide production add CO2 to the environment.”

As has been noted by the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the first rating system for sustainable landscapes, the total surface area of U.S. lawns is larger than any other irrigated crop.  The Lawn Institute, which represents the $35 billion turf industry, estimates that there are now some 25 million acres of lawn, which have replaced ecosystems that once provided a range of local ecosystem services. Saffier said: “The nutrient, hydrology and nitrogen cycles that happen naturally in biodiverse ecosystems are completely absent in lawns.” Additionally, wildlife like birds and many insects don’t get much out of lawns — there is no natural habitat there.

According to The Guardian, almost all birds rely on insects for their food source. These insects rely on just two-to-three types of native plants. Audubon says one fourth of all U.S. bird species are in decline. “Populations of meadow larks and other grassland species in the mid-western U.S. have plummeted 60 percent, while interior forest birds, like scarlet tanagers, have also seen a precipitous decline.”

Birds may be declining because they can’t find insects to eat, but they are also negatively impacted by all the 90 million pounds of chemicals used to treat lawns each year. “Of the 30 most common pesticides used on lawns, more than half are toxic to birds and fish, and linked to cancer and birth defects in humans, according to the environmental group, Beyond Pesticides. Eleven of the 30 are endocrine disrupters, chemicals that interfere with reproductive and other hormones in humans and animals.” All those chemicals also filter off lawns into groundwater.

While lawns remain a status symbol in many places, some communities are helping to end the long reign of turf. Food Not Lawns, one organization, encourages homeowners to rip out lawns and add “fruit and nut trees, like pecans, walnuts and almonds, as well as vegetables.” Fritz Lang’s Edible Estates has also helped popularize the yard as farm movement (see earlier post). In fact, in many urban areas, small-plot lawns have already been turned into productive garden landscapes despite the many obstacles. For instance, in many local counties, zoning rules ban front-yard vegetable gardens out of fear that they will attract rodents or be visually unappealing and decrease property values (see an earlier post for a full discussion on urban agriculture).

Read the article

Also, check out an example of one restrictive lawn-related zoning call that makes sense. A few wayward homeowners have been ripping out lawns and replacing them with fake plastic versions in an attempt to create the appearance of lush, verdant dark green lawns. The Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California reports that “today’s fake grass is made from polyethylene, a popular plastic, which is cut into ribbons. The ribbons can be custom trimmed into a variety of shapes and colors.” Local planning commissions in California are now limiting the use of synthetic turf.

Image credit: American Consumer News

The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change

At the Atlantic magazine’s “Future of the City” forum, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and panelists explored how place impacts energy use and climate change. Panelists discussed sustainable urban transportation, including technologies and strategies that will define next generation “smart transportation” approaches, as well as trends in green city development. Richard Florida, author of “The Great Reset” gave closing remarks.

Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Donovan said there was increased demand for walkable neighborhoods. These types of neighborhoods provide easier access to jobs, schools, and green areas. “However, there is still a mismatch between where we live and where we work.” Donovan said this disconnect, which forces many people to commute long distances, causes habitat loss, climate change, and increases our dependence on foreign oil. In addition, he pointed a finger at the financial industry, saying “lenders have driven the spread of suburbs, raising the cost of commuting.”

In Atlanta, the cost of transportation and housing now represents 61 percent of average household’s income. Over 20 years, there has been a 1,000 percent increase in transportation costs across the U.S. In D.C., over 40,000 affordable workforce housing units are missing, meaning that people need to “drive to qualify,” adding to the costs of congestion.

Despite the problems, Donovan thinks cities are the solution to many problems. Echoing comments made by Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor on day one, Donovan said metropolitan regions are key drivers of economic growth. In addition, cities, suburbs, and exurbs now share a common economic future. “80 percent of the U.S. population is in metropolitan regions. In Illinois, Chicago’s metro region makes up 2/3 of the state population.” As a sign of advancing urbanization, Donovan said that more people were moving back to the city.

On the negative side, the problems formerly associated with cities — homelessness, are now being “suburbanized.” While overall chronic homelessness is down by 1/3, in rural and suburban areas it’s up by 50 percent. The Federal government has put $1.5 billion towards rapid rehousing, which provide flexible, small amounts to families facing homelessness. “We now have the technology for dealing with this.” HUD aims to end chronic, veteran, and children’s homelessness in the next few years.

The HUD secretary then touched on the new sustainable communities partnership between E.P.A., HUD, and the Department of Transportation. This new partnership has new tools, including more Tiger II grants, which can encourage “more sustainable development,” and new Hope 6 grants that will enable communities to “tear down ossified social policies as well as buildings.” Donovan also announced some new $140 million in new sustainable community planning grants, saying they were the “biggest single investment in planning in a generation.” (see earlier post). During the community planning grant development process, HUD received some 900 comments from 1,000 stakeholders. In addition to the new grants, Donovan pointed to a “tools clearinghouse” that will be set up on the HUD Web site by 2011.

Given the U.S. needs to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent, we need to “collaborate on transportation and urban centers.” Through studying the emissions of various cities, we now know “the effect of place on energy use and climate change.” Where we place our homes and jobs has an impact on the environment. “Investing in transportation that’s closely connected with where people live is smart transportation.”

Smart Transportation

Scott Belcher, Intelligent Transportation Society, Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen Group, William Millar, American Public Transportation Association, and Susan Zielinski, SMART, University of Michigan, discussed “smart transportation” systems that can reduce energy use and GHG emissions.

William Millar argued that there were unlimited resources for changing the current transportation system, but limited political will. “Right now, we don’t pay for congestion. We don’t do integrated design so our communities are not walkable.” Millar added that the U.S. must invest more in infrastructure — China invests nine percent of GDP in transportation infrastructure while the U.S. currently spends less than one percent of GDP. Susan Zielinski concurred that congestion is a symptom of broader failures in policy, technology, and land-use. “We need a new systems approach.” Over the next 20 years, 2/3 of all citizens will live in cities. “We need the next system for handling this. Transportation needs to interconnect and be multimodal. The idea is to have door-to-door transportation options.”

In the near term, cities can make practical changes to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions through policy and regulatory change and new incentives. Scott Belcher said Sydney is making it very difficult to drive a car downtown. Bus rapid transit lanes have been added, taking up lanes, but also providing multi-modal transportation that offer choices. San Francisco’s new smart parking meter system helps people reserve parking spaces in advance. In terms of incentives, congestion pricing is a “good idea,” said Millar. Stockholm, Singapore, London and a range of other cities have sucessfully pushed through congestion pricing schemes. The question on pricing is: “What will people think is fair?” Millar added that “roads aren’t free, even though we call them freeways.” Belcher agreed and said electronic tolls can enable congestion pricing; in fact, they are the critical first step needed. Zielinski said accessibility, not mobility, should be the over-arching goal. “All financing strategies then follow.”

A truly smart transportation system will seem simple and seamless to users, but is actually highly sophisticated. Millar pointed to Zurich, which has put a lot of thought into creating a system that doesn’t “advantage or disadvantage either cars or streetcars.” Integrating bicycle lanes and sidewalks (“people have forgotten they have feet”) also requires careful planning. Smart traffic lighting systems, which require some engineering, have great benefits — they can synchronize traffic, reducing congestion by 20 percent and transportation-related GHGs by 15 percent. Bus rapid transit require electronic payment systems if they are going to work as well as subways. “But once these systems are in place, bus rapid transit turns out to be much cheaper than hard / light rail.” Getting to multi-modal systems may also mean using “performance-based systems” that track key indicators.

To get to smart transportations systems, mapping overlay and interconnection points is needed. For instance, through mapping, you can line up Zipcar stations with bus stops. IT-enabled systems can facilitate interconnections. In San Francisco, the BART system’s fare card conects across subways, buses, trains, etc. Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen, added that electric cars, which VW supports, need aligned charging stations and standards to expand. Zielinski argued that public-private innovation and “accelerating joint innovation” is critical.

On the very practical level, “we can’t set universal rules. The federal government should set goals and responsibilities should be met in a flexible way at the local level. Federal financing needs to enable this flexible approach,” said Zielinski. This approach is needed because 47 percent of Americans don’t have access to public transit. Only 15 percent can actually use transit everyday. “80 percent basically take cars for everything.”

In conclusion, livability was the key factor behind why so many Americans move. “It’s the reason why people move around. It’s not just about rational, technological issues” in access to transportation, but aesthetics as well.

Green Cities

Scott Horst, LEED, U.S. Green Building Council, Christopher Leinberger, Brookings Institution, Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, and Victor Rubin, PolicyLink, discussed the future of green cities, including how livability can reduce energy use and GHG emissions associated with the built environment.

Christopher Leinberger, Brookings Institution, said livability is about choice. “Most Americans don’t have any choice.” However, they are voting with their feet and want more walkable, urban places. Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, said he thought of livability more as a policy response. “It’s about leveling the playing field so we get more walkable, diverse neighborhoods with different housing options.” Scott Horst, U.S. Green Building Council, said livability must be connected with sustainability. “It needs to be connected to nature. The natural and human systems should be integrated. The wildnerness-to-city transect should be seamless.” Victor Rubin, PolicyLink, thinks livability is about creating “communities of opportunity,” that are healthy, safe, and provide access to jobs. “Livability presents an opportunity for inclusion.”

Public-private partnerships were viewed by all panelists as critical to paying for new, more sustainable community infrastructure. Phillips said new smart growth development work “had to be public-private.” In Washington, D.C., development of the new New York Avenue Metro station was catalyzed by local landowners. They knew a new metro station would “lead to an uptick in local property values.” Rubin added that non-profit and community organization developers shouldn’t be forgotten. “There are lots of types of public-private partnership.” Horst said real political leadership was needed to make these types of partnerships work. Leinberger pointed to Walkscore, which he said was a powerful tool for incentivizing compact development. “An one point Walkscore point increase leads to a one percent increase in property values.” 

On the role of LEED in creating greener cities, Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, and the moderator of the panel, said the rating system was the benchmark for more energy-efficient and climate-friendly green buildings, but has also become a “whipping boy.” Responding to earlier criticism, Horst said the latest version of LEED is “now weighted against building way out in the suburbs. Siting buildings downtown can reduce transportation related CO2 emissions by 60-80 percent. We are trying to incentivize locating in more sustainable areas.” In the future, he thinks there will be more LEED Platinum spaces in downtowns than elsewhere. (Indeed, perhaps siting more sustainably should be a pre-requisite). Horst added that another benefit of density is that buildings can share materials, reducing the need to use more building material.

On a practical level, the policy and regulatory obstacles to transit-oriented development (TOD) also need to be cleared. “Transit-oriented development is illegal in many places,” said Leinberger. “I am tired of proposing illegal things that take years to fix. It takes millions of dollars to change zoning laws.” While TOD is the way forward, high density also costs more (and is riskier). “You have to use architecture and urban design more so there is real durability. It’s as risky as can be.”

This is part three in a three-part series. Read part one, “The Future of the City,” and part two, “Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities.”

Image credit: Bus Rapid Transit Station, Curitiba, Brazil / EMBARQ

Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities

At the Atlantic magazine “Future of the City” forum, a speech by Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and two panels covered how information and energy technologies can be incorporated into cities to facilitate economic growth and enable more sustainable consumption.

Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Genachowski said the new U.S. broadband plan is “revolutionary” and an example of “great strategic planning.” The plan calls for incentivizing investment in broadband infrastructure, the deployment of municipal broadband networks, and expansion of broadband-based applications in the areas of health, education, energy, government, as well as more than one hundred other actions. A new broadband plan is critical to the future of cities. Cities spur innovation by enabling clusters of creative people to connect. Enhanced urban broadband infrastructure is then key to ensuring high-levels of connectivity.

Extending high-speed networks across the country will create economic growth. “Broadband is indispensable to the digital age. As electricity fueled the growth of appliances, broadband will lead to the growth of new applications and industries.” While the U.S. has already benefitted economically from broadband, Genachowski pointed to studies showing that the U.S. is losing its relative position — the U.S. is now ranked 15th or 19th (depending on the indicators) in broadband access. Also, the U.S. is now 6th place in broadband “innovation competitiveness” and 40th in the rate of of change in innovation capacity. “This means staying still on broadband is really falling behind.”

While 65 percent of the country now uses broadband, less than 50 percent of minorities do. “This is primarily an urban issue.” Genachowski added that the costs of digital exclusion are rising given you must have computer access to apply for jobs, network, and tap services.

Smart City Applications

Blair Levin, The Aspen Institute, Robert Atkinson, The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Sascha Meinrath, The New America Foundation, and Jim Cicconi, AT&T, explored current and potential smart city applications.

One panelist said we need to create a “broadband ecosystem” to enable the growth of more advanced applications. Through ubiquitous broadband access, cities can then become “smart” and restructure how they function. For instance, Japan is now adding instruments to their roads so traffic congestion can be monitored in real time. Bridges now have “smart sensors” embedded in them to monitor traffic and structural health. San Francisco has launched an innovative smart parking meter system which enables residents to use their cell phones to find and reserve available parking spaces. This will also help cut down car-driven CO2 emissions because some 30 percent of urban driving is associated with finding a parking spot. Additional applications would enable cell phone users to monitor urban air quality in real time.

Smart city technologies will enable faster dual-way sharing of information between “central government data sources” and residents. Residents can send data in and receive data from the government. “Emerging handheld devices, machine-to-machine systems and interconnected devices” will help facilitate these interactions.

Some of the challenges to creating the smart city were also explored. A recent survey of residents of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. showed that 100 percent could access to broadband, but many couldn’t afford the service, which means urban broadband penetration is not likely to be ubiquitous time soon. One panelist said: “This is really about computer literacy. People get broadband only if they have a computer.” Another potential obstacle relates to capacity: new smart city and smart grid applications may be bandwidth hogs so it’s unclear whether the capacity providers are developing will be enough. Lastly, there are policy and regulatory obstacles: the U.S. doesn’t have a government subsidy program like Sweden, which has invested some $32 billion to bring broadband to all citizens. In the U.S., private sector firms are expected to fund infrastructure roll-out and meet universal access requirements (but receive a range of incentives).

Cities and the Smart Grid

Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Paul Camuti, Siemens Corporation, Jim Connaughton, Constellation Energy, and F. Michael Valocchi, IBM discussed emerging smart grid energy technologies and their potential impact on cities.

Paul Camuti, Siemens Corporation, defined the smart grid as overlaying information technology on top of energy infrastructure in order to enable greater transparency. “The smart grid helps us see how energy is used.” Smart grid technology cover everything from the turbines to the end consumer. Michael Valocchi at IBM added that the smart grid is an “information platform” that should ideally enable flexibility, reliability, and comfort in energy usage. “The new platform should enable consumer choice.” Mark Brownstein, EDF, said the smart grid was a low-carbon technology that requires a price on carbon to be commercialized and rolled-out across the country. Constellation Energy’s Jim Connaughton argued that the “node in the wall” remained the key regulatory obstacle to a widespread smart grid, saying the primary remaining issues relate to policy and regulation. “The technology has already been proven.”

The U.S. is currently leading in smart grid technology development even though planned roll-outs in California and Maryland have been stymied, Camuti said. The U.S. regulatory system for energy is a “soup” of 50 different regulatory approaches, but this actually “enables experimentation. It’s better than just having one energy regulator.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), regional bodies, and state public service commissions were also described as playing key roles in facilitating or inhibiting the roll-out of the smart grid. Valocchi said this messy soup is still holding back the U.S. because no central policy has been able to emerge out of all the competing players. “Denmark is already doing a smart grid. Australia just changed their whole process in 2-3 months, enabling smart grid development. China has disaggregated the process.”

In addition to solving the regulatory puzzle and creating a clear national smart grid policy, panelists all pointed to end consumer acceptance as key to expanding the smart grid. The sell to consumers, argued Brownstein, is that the smart grid’s inherent energy efficiency will reduce the need to build more power plants. He said this is hard to put this into a political sound bite, but “it’s about saving billions nationally and avoiding the creation of new infrastructure.” Connaughton was more optimistic and said consumers will buy-in once they realize it’s about choice. The energy sector needs to be able to price home energy usage options in the same way Amazon.com prices shipping options. “It’s needs to be that easy.”

Camuti added that “people are concerned about getting too much information. They don’t want to get an energy bill that looks like their cell phone bill. They also don’t understand the concept of the smart grid — smart grid benefits need to be really clear.” Valocchi agreed, adding that “we’ve been using terms like dynamic pricing that no one understands. We need to use language consumers understand.”  Indeed, one major threat to future consumer acceptance is the AARP’s recent decision to oppose the smart grid because of fears of increased prices and bill complexity once the system gets rolled-out.

The smart grid, while moving forward, can still fail if the U.S. doesn’t put a price on carbon, FERC fails to create wholesale market rules that facilitate the growth of the smart grid, and if public service commissions are “reactive, instead of directive” on smart grid roll-out, said Brownstein. In addition, Camuti argued there were real potential security issues. With energy infrastructure IT-enabled, the U.S. energy system could effectively be hacked by cyber-terrorists. To preserve security, smart grid operators would need to focus on the integrity of the grids themselves and security of personal household data. On the flip side, Connaughton thought the new smart grid technologies would also make the system more resilient with higher response times. “With the new technology, we’ll know before a homeowner does if their power is out.”

At its core, the smart grid would also reduce CO2 emissions from electricity production, which currently accounts for 40 percent of total emissions. “The current system really is the problem.” A new smart grid would also avoid creating new coal power plants — it would enable us to “turn over capital stock.” Over time, renewable energy sources could then replace coal plants. Most importantly, a smart grid is needed if you are going to ramp up renewable energy production because wind and solar energy production is “variable.” Only a smart grid can handle that variability and still provide enough electricity to power those electric vehicles ready replace old gas-guzzlers. Valocchi said this is already happening, just not in the U.S.

Energy utilities providing electricity to cities will need to create local smart grid action plans that can enable the roll-out of smart meters and electric car charging stations in homes, businesses, and public infrastructure, including streets.

This is part two in a three-part series. Read part one, “The Future of the City,” and part three, “The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change.”

Image credit: Shell blog

The Future of the City

The Atlantic magazine put together a comprehensive, multi-day summit on the “Future of the City” in Washington, D.C. Bringing together leading policy makers, businesses, non-profits and business associations, the forum featured speeches from key Obama administration officials, including Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The forum also offered a panel with big city mayors and sessions on broadband policy, smart grid energy technologies, urban transportation infrastructure, green cities, and infrastructure funding. Richard Florida, author of “Who’s Your City?” and the “Great Reset,” made remarks at the end.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, Executive Office of the President

Jarrett said she was partial to cities having worked for three mayors, including Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. From Mayor Daley, Jarrett said she learned how important cities are to economic growth. “We need to keep cities healthy because this is where the jobs are.”

Over the past twenty years, there’s been a revolution in thinking about cities. Instead of being seen as a drain on surrounding areas, they are now viewed as hubs of opportunity. Within cities, it’s now also understood that government can’t step in to solve all the problems facing cities, but “must work in partnership with the private sector. Government is not the only solution.”

Jarrett made an interesting argument: “politics isn’t partisan at the local level. People have the same objective,” which is the resolution of inter-connected urban problems (transportation, housing, environmental quality, etc).  She said one of the her key objectives is to create a “holistic approach” to urban policy making so local citizens get comprehensive solutions. To create this holistic approach at the federal level, President Obama created the White House Office of Urban Affairs, which pulls together all relevant government agencies.  Jarrett said there’s a new “cadre of officials that get this. It’s about learning lessons from the local level and collaborating at the federal level.” She wants the federal government to also scale up the best practice approaches created at the local level. “The federal government should be a partner — a junior partner, but impetus for change needs to come from the ground.”

Opportunities and Challenges Facing Cities

Julian Castro, Mayor, San Antonio, Texas and Mick Cornett, Mayor, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing cities outlined. Cornett said jobs come to cities when they are able to create the best environment and attract the best people. He said Oklahoma city was ranked as one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the U.S. based on company start-ups, and said the local economy is diversifying into aerospace, biomedicine, and governance (in addition to the core energy sector). Castro added cities can improve their quality of life by providing a menu of options. In San Antonio, the Riverwalk and new greenways help create those options. Also critical to livability are mixed-use, mixed-income urban redevelopment projects.

In Oklahoma, Cornett, “a conservative Republican,” has successfully used a “one penny on the dollar” tax to build critical urban infrastructure. He noted that the tax wasn’t new but was phased in as another one penny tax ended. The tax has been used to invest in “education infrastructure” and bring inner-city schools back. “We’ve rebuilt all 75 inner-city schools but the level of education offered by these schools is still disappointing.” The tax has also been used to build a new central park, convention center,and jogging / bike paths. He said the tax has been critical to creating “infrastructural vitality.”

One area of “failure” in both cities has been the high obesity rates. Cornett said Oklahoma City didn’t talk about its weight problem until he launched a campaign, “This City is Going on a Diet,” which called for the entire city to lose one million pounds. So far, 580,000 pounds have been lost, including Mayor Cornett’s own 50 pounds. City residents can go on the diet campaign Web site and log how much weight they’ve lost. Cornett said “city culture was centered around the car,” so to fight obesity, he’s also led a program that has redesigned 180-acres of streets, added 50 miles of jogging / bike paths, 450 miles of new sidewalks, and a 70-acre new park. “There are also new gyms in schools and we’ve taken the junk food out.” Oklahoma City also plans to invest in a new downtown street car system so we “start the cultural shift that’s necessary.”

Castro argued that San Antonio lacks a fitness culture. “We need to inculcate a fitness culture.” The city recently won a $15 million grant from the federal government to launch its “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to get people more active on a daily basis. “This could mean just 1,000 steps a day.” Castro concurred with Cornett and said “we’ve got to address what people eat; it’s not just about exercise.” He added that city governments “can’t be paternalistic.” Cornett agreed, arguing that First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to change how people eat, if successful, “will have more impact than her husband’s health care reform.”

Both mayors highlighted the need to fight traffic congestion and invest in downtowns that can serve as attractions — San Antonio’s Riverwalk is seen as a model in this regard. Cornett said: “You can’t have suburbs of nowhere. There must be a downtown that can draw people.” To incentive urban core reinvestment, San Antonio reduced development fees, which takes “tens of thousands of dollars off the price of development.” To spur urban investment, Oklahoma City has created a “competitive marketplace” between the suburbs and downtown, but “right now the suburbs are still winning.” Both mayors also highlighted their green city programs, which aim to ramp up use of wind and solar power, and expand access to multi-modal transportation.

This is part one in a three-part series on the Atlantic magazine’s Future of the City forum. Read part two, “Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities,” and part three, “The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change.”

Image credit: San Antonio Riverwalk, Photobucket

Wildlife Crossing Design Competition

The ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition seeks to identify the wildlife crossing bridge design that works the best for both people and wildlife and also uses innovative materials and methods in a cost-effective manner. The site chosen for the competition is found where the natural and human worlds collide. It lies between the Denver metropolitan area and the resort communities of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, Colorado and is approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level. According to ARC, there’s a variety of wildlife in this patch. “The site is  identified as a critical habitat linkage in the Rocky Mountain Corridor, and home to a variety of iconic species such as black bear, cougar, bobcat, Canada lynx, coyote, elk, deer and American marten. It serves as an ideal setting for design teams to explore innovative means to safely reconnect a landscape with the charismatic wildlife that depend on and define this place.”

Nina-Marie Lister, Professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, ARC competition advisor, and noted thinker on ecological infrastructure said: “the international landscape design community is fully charged with excitement about this competition. We hope the challenge to address the needs of ecology, transportation, safety, and infrastructure simultaneously will prove irresistible to the best and the brightest designers from around the world” (read more about her comments on designing for wildlife).

The high-profile jury will be chaired by Charles Waldheim, Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. ARC writes: “jurors will be looking not only for beautiful, compelling designs that meet the needs of both people and wildlife but also the use of materials that make infrastructure more affordable and, ultimately, our roads safer from wildlife-vehicle collisions.”

The competition will have two phases: phase one, the call for expressions of interest, will examine qualifications and design approaches. In this phase, design teams must show they meet certain criteria. “For example, they must include registered, professionally-licensed landscape architects, and structural engineers, and they may opt to include professional architects as well as other specializations. The expectation is that wildlife biologists, ecologists, transportation specialists and other experts will broaden the teams’ interdisciplinary design approach.” Phase two will put the finalists from phase one through an intensive design exercise. In phase two, design teams must include at least one firm licensed to practice in Colorado.

A $15,000 honorarium will be awarded to each of the finalists selected from phase one. The winning design team from phase two will receive $40,000 and receive preferential consideration for the wildlife crossing project in Colorado.

Initiated by the Woodcock Foundation and Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, ARC has drawn additional support from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Federal and state agencies and conservation organizations in the United States and Canada are also getting involved.

Expressions of interest must be submitted in hard copy by July 30, 2010. Learn more and enter the ARC design competition

Also, check out the remarks of Nina-Marie Lister and other top ecologists and landscape architects at a recent Dumbarton Oaks symposium focused on creating a better balance between wildlife and people in urban areas.

Cairo Will Turn Its Downtown into a Pedestrian Plaza

Cairo, a city packed with cars, is remaking its downtown into a pedestrian-friendly plaza, writes TreeHugger. The city’s urban planning authority has announced that plans will be complete within a year, and implementation will take another 10-15 years.

Currently, the well-known thoroughfare Sharia Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allah as well as other parts of downtown are already “daytime pedestrian zones.” Witnessing their success, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif drove a process of expanding these pedestrian zones and asked the country’s housing ministry to generate a plan for remaking downtown for pedestrians. “[Initial] plans include building multi-story underground garages outside of the center city so people can ‘park and ride’ into downtown on streetcars, encouraging the establishment of open-air restaurants and other venues, and turning old government buildings into museums, hotels, and art galleries.” Fast Company adds that revitalization plans also include “landscaping […] and forcing people to walk or take public transit into the city center.”

The areas targeted for improved street design may benefit tourists more than local residents though. TreeHugger writes: “Some concerns have been expressed that the focus on creating a historical tourist area full of restaurants and museums could lead to downtown becoming the exclusive province of wealthy Egyptians and foreigners.” Local blogger The Boursa Exchange also said: “We hope the redevelopment plan, when implemented, creates an open space accessible to all of Cairo’s residents. While we enjoy al-Azhar Park (see an earlier post on the park), we sometimes rue the fact that it is almost exclusively the preserve of foreigners, relatively well-to-do locals and groups of schoolchildren on field trips. We also hope that the new downtown is developed with an eye toward easing pollution, not just by banning cars but also through the creation of an ‘urban lung.'”

Fast Company says car-free central plazas aren’t new phenonema. “Plenty of streets in Copenhagen restrict vehicles. Same story in Siena, Italy, and Freiburg, Germany.” In the United States, Times Square recently became a pedestrian mall (see earlier post). However, these cases still seem rare (or at least we aren’t hearing about them). Also, as Fast Company notes, the pedestrian zone will ban cars, but there is no broader plan yet to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) throughout the city so local air pollution levels as well as the climate impact of cars are expected to remain high.

Read the article

Image credit: Al-Masry Al-Youm

James Corner Field Operations Wins Cooper-Hewitt’s 2010 National Design Award

James Corner Field Operations won the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 2010 National Design Award for landscape design. Established in 1998 by James Corner, ASLA, Field Operations is a cutting-edge landscape architecture and urban design firm based in New York City. The Cooper-Hewitt writes: “With the cross-disciplinary backgrounds of many of its 30 professionals, including in landscape architecture, urban design, architecture and communication art, the firm creates high-quality design solutions for cities, landscapes and public spaces. The practice has raised the visibility and efficacy of landscape architecture in shaping and enriching people’s lives, particularly in urban environments and the public realm.”

Recent Field Operations projects cited by the Cooper-Hewitt include the High Line in New York, City (see an ASLA case study of the project), the pool decks and gardens of City Center in Las Vegas, Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island, N.Y. (learn about Field Operations and Steven Handel’s ecological restoration work on the site), Governors Island in New York Harbor (see earlier post), Race Street Pier in Philadelphia, Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tenn., and Lake Ontario Park in Toronto (learn more). 

This year’s two other finalists in the landscape design category are Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture (read an  interview with Cochran), a firm that “seamlessly integrates landscape, art and architecture,” and Stoss Landscape Urbanism, a Boston-based firm focusing on landscape architecture, urban design and planning.

The museum says nominations were solicited from more than 2,500 designers, educators, journalists, cultural figures, and corporate leaders across the country. To be considered, nominees must have at least seven years of experience, and winners are selected based on the “level of excellence, innovation and public impact of their body of work.”

In other news, the first Urban Land Institute (ULI) Amanda Burden Urban Open Space award went to Campus Martius Park in Detroit. The award, named after the current chair of the New York City planning commission and director of the New York Department of City Planning, is meant to recognize an “outstanding example of a public open space that has catalyzed the transformation of the surrounding community.”

Campus Martius Park, designed by Rundell Ernstberger Associates LLC, is known as “Detroit’s official gathering place.” The 2.5-acre space is a “vibrant central square, created from a desolate downtown parcel, [and] has become the heart of the city’s downtown redevelopment initiative” writes ULI. The park, which draws upwards of two million visitors per year, features extensive landscaping, movable seating, and an ice-skating rink. ULI says the park has catalyzed $700 million in local real estate development, including new cafes, shops, and the new Compuware world headquarters.

In an interview with Urban Land, Burden said “Campus Martius Park is an exemplary model of a creative transformation of a central city-space. It serves both as a gathering place for resident and visitors, and as a much needed catalyst to the city. This vibrant 2.5-acre green space project optimism and civic pride — quite the opposite of the dire stories and images that often characterized this city.”

Image credit: (1) Fresh Kills Park, NYC, James Corner Field Operations (2) Campus Martius Park, Detroit, Downtown Detroit Partnership

HUD Will Use LEED-ND to Select Sustainable Community Grants

At the Congress for New Urbanism, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced it will use LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) to rate the “location efficiency” of community projects applying for its upcoming sustainable community planning grants (see earlier post). In total, HUD has some $3.25 billion available in grant funds. Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary, said “it’s time that federal dollars stopped encouraging sprawl and started lowering the barriers to the kind of sustainable development our country needs and our communities want.”

After a lengthy pilot phase, the LEED-ND rating system launched in April and is now used as a benchmark for green community development (see earlier post). LEED-ND can be used to “integrate green buildings into communities, reduce sprawl, increase transportation options, decrease automobile dependence, encourage healthy living and protect threatened species”, says HUD. Rick Fedrizzi, President, CEO and Founding Chair, U.S. Green Building Council, adds that using LEED-ND will give local communities access to “alternative transportation, jobs, and an increased quality of life.”

Sustainable communities provide more affordable transportation and housing, expenses that now constitute more than 50 percent of the average American’s household budget (see earlier post). As defined by HUD, green communities are “economically competitive, healthy, and opportunity-rich.” Secretary Donovan added that the ongoing U.S. housing crisis could be alleviated by improved access to all forms of transportation, arguing that “people are voting with their feet more and more and are in search of walkable neighborhoods with transportation options.”

Read Secretary Donovan’s full remarks at the Congress for New Urbanism and learn more about HUD’s sustainable community grant program.

In related news, “Land Use and Driving: The Role Compact Development Can Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), concludes that compact development (or “smart growth”) as promoted through LEED-ND is critical to mitigating climate change. “Land use will continue to be critical to lowering overall greenhouse gas emissions by reducing driving and energy consumption.” The ULI report examines trends in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and argues that there is a potential for reducing VMT by 8 to18 percent between now and 2050, when compact development is expected to reach 60 percent of all future development.  

Image credit: 1600 Marion Street, Shaw Neighborhood, Washington, D.C. / We love D.C.