The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 2)

pollution
US Embassy in Beijing air pollution monitor app / Digital Journal

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

A number of scientists called for boosting the amount of climate change adaptation funds that go to health. Of the $1.2 billion collected for adaptation by the United Nations, only 2 percent of that goes to health measures, said Dr. Kristie Ebi, University of Washington. And, unfortunately, there is almost no serious research being conducted on the health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Rainer Sauerborn, Heidelberg Institute of Public Health, made the important point that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution for climate adaptation. Every community’s challenges will be unique, which means support for local research and action is vital. He wondered why there were no researchers from the Middle East or Africa at the conference.

Public health officials made the case for increased spending on public health surveillance and early warning systems. In Beijing, for a period of time, the U.S. embassy provided the one reliable indicator of air pollution levels in the city. Its feed has spurred activism and Chinese government action to better monitor and reduce air pollution. If more developing world cities had more reliable air pollution monitoring and alert systems, those particularly vulnerable to poor air could be instructed to stay inside on really bad days. These systems also generate demand for air quality improvements.

With more funding, public health organizations can better monitor disease threats as well. For example, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) is monitoring the precursors of vibrio, an aquatic pathogen, explained Dr. Jan Semenza, and sending alerts to communities before a vibrio outbreak strikes. Testing the system against Swedish data, they’ve found “there is an epidemic signal we can predict.”

Dr. Howard Frumkin, University of Washington, a leading environmental health specialist, and co-editor of Making Healthy Places, called for doctors and scientists in the public health field to seek partners “outside their comfort zones” and reach out to those working on the built environment, like planners, landscape architects, and architects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was represented by Dr. George Luber, who explained the tools the CDC has available for communities planning for health impacts, such as the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework, which also includes technical assistance. Luber said the role of the CDC is to provide accessible scientific guidance and decision-making support tools.

But it’s important that all communities get support for dealing with their climate and health challenges in the future. Catherine Flowers, with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, said parts of Alabama were like a “third world country,” with sewage bubbling up and contaminating front lawns. “This is where environmental justice and climate intersect.”

And Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm, thinks the healthcare sector can come together as a single force for good. Given the sector accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. economy, it’s poised to play a lead role. Gundersen Health in Wisconsin, which was almost entirely fueled by coal a few years ago, now runs on power generated from wind and bio-waste. Cohen said in more than 200 cities, the healthcare sector is the biggest employer. Associations of these firms are moving to renewable energy and divesting from any fossil fuel stocks.

These companies can help shift the U.S. to a more sustainable, less polluting form of energy production, and speak out about the health risks with climate change. “If we mobilize the health community, we have a massive army at hand. Doctors and nurses are among the most trusted people in America. We will be unstoppable,” argued Cohen.

However, despite all the positive talk about how we can manage the coming challenges, many scientists at the conference agreed that there are many “unknown unknowns” looming out there. For example, there are new worries about the micro-organisms now dormant under the vast permafrost. Just ten years ago, no one knew the nutritional value of many important crops would be reduced in a higher carbon atmosphere. What other impacts are lurking out there? There is much that still can’t be predicted. 

The most important investment now may be to dramatically boost funding on scientific research, and monitoring and early warning systems.

We Can’t Ignore the Health Impacts of Climate Change (Part 1)

Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC
Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. ASLA signed on as a member of the summit’s partnership circle, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Green Building Council. In Atlanta, Gore kicked off the conference by arguing that “too little attention is being paid to the health consequences of climate change.” And focusing on coming health impacts could be a more compelling way to persuade the public that more action is needed now. We couldn’t agree more.

“We are now using the open sky as a sewer,” Gore said. The billions of tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere have a warming effect equal to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day. If unabated, the warming effect of all of this pollution will not only lead to ecological catastrophe, but a “medical emergency.” If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario, which could eventually warm the planet by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, there will be dire implications for human health.

Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). Here below are the first four impacts; part 2 will have the rest:

Infectious Diseases: “Tropical diseases are on the move. With air travel, they can spread more easily, but with climate change, there are new areas where diseases can become endemic.” As regions warm, diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, Dengue Fever, malaria, and others spread by mosquitoes, can take root. Many regions not currently affected by these diseases — places thought to be north of the “mosquito line” — should worry and become better prepared. Also, average global humidity is 4-5 percent higher than 30 years ago, and those numbers are only expected to increase. With higher humidity and heat, mosquitoes speed up their reproductive and metabolic rates, which means there are more mosquitoes biting more.

In India, “there were 39 million cases of Dengue fever per year.” Last year, a park in Tokyo was closed due a Dengue Fever outbreak. And in central China, “malaria has re-emerged” for the first time in ages.

The spread of the Zika virus in the U.S,, which the CDC considers a health emergency, has already affected Puerto Rico, Miami-Dade county, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And many scientists, Gore said, “suspect it’s now spreading up and down the Gulf Coast.” For most people, Zika causes relatively mild symptoms, such as a rash, fever, joint pain, and eye aches, for about a week and then clears up. For pregnant women, there are serious implications — the virus can cause miscarriages or fetal microcephaly and other birth defects.

Ticks, which are already vectors for disease transmission, are also moving north. “Virtually 100 percent of Canada will be within tick range in a few decades.” And we’ll also see new species — like snails — become vectors for transmissions.

Moving onto to other worrying scenarios, Gore said “runoff from increased flooding or extreme precipitation events will damage our water supplies.” With higher temperatures and more frequent storms, we will see the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases. According to Dr. Glenn Morris, University of Florida, who conducts research on emerging infectious diseases, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some 50 percent of the water supply in Haiti was contaminated by cholera.

Vibrio aquatic pathogens, which infect shorelines and also make oysters and other shellfish very dangerous to eat, are also spreading. Morris, said “vibrios are extremely temperature sensitive and every one degree temperature increase can encourage their spread.” Already, the number of cases in the north Atlantic is increasing.

Morris said even slight temperature gains can increase disease transmission. “Climate change opens up new ecological niches for pathogens. These are the unexpected consequences when people play with the environment.”

Heat Stress: While flooding from storms and heavy rains is the extreme weather event that kills the most number of people worldwide, heat stress is the biggest killer in the United States, according to Gore. Mortality rates increase by 4 percent during heat waves, which are more dangerous for the elderly, children, athletes, outdoor workers, socially-isolated people, urban dwellers, the homeless, the poor, and communities of color.

For the past 17 years, the planet has just been getting warmer and warmer. Dr. Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, said 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which at that time was the hottest year on record. Currently, New York City has about 670-1,300 heat deaths per year, with 65,000 heat emergencies. Dr. Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin, said New York City can expect triple the number of extreme heat days (up to 39 days) by 2045. Correspondingly, Dr. Knowlton anticipates heat deaths to also triple.

Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News
Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News

More broadly, higher temperatures mean reduced productivity. Outdoor workers experiencing heat stress can’t work. Knowlton said with higher temperatures, the “U.S. could see a reduction in economic output of $2 trillion; by 2100, a 20 percent drop in GDP from extreme heat.”

Many places are reaching all time highs, too, Gore explained. India hit an all-time high of 123 Fahrenheit last summer, and Sydney recently reached 117 Fahrenheit. In Iran, a city hit 165 Fahrenheit, with the heat index, in 2015. What makes this all worse: “night-time temperatures are also increasing, so there is no relief.”

Gore said in these conditions “no human can be outside for more than a few hours.” The projections show that vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are on track to reach some of these temperatures on a regular basis. “Areas of the planet could no longer be habitable. They could become beyond the limit of human survival. Mecca and Medina are in this zone.”

Dr. Knowlton said it’s time to take into consideration the health impacts of the world’s energy choices. Moving to renewable energies now may still result in a 3-4 degree planetary temperature increase, which will be “manageable,” while a 10-15 degree increase, under current fossil fuel-driven scenarios, would be “catastrophic.”

Air Pollution: Some 6.5 million people die each year prematurely from air pollution, reports the International Energy Agency. Carbon dioxide and related co-pollutants, otherwise grouped together as small particulate matter, found in vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions are behind these deaths.

Because of air pollution, the life expectancy of those living in northern China has been cut by 5.5 years. In Henan province, it’s estimated that air pollution takes the lives of 4,000 people a day. Pollution in Beijing, China’s capital city, has reached near “unlivable levels.” It’s not just China experiencing deadly air pollution though. New studies show that 99.5 percent of Indians breathe unhealthy air, as do 94 percent of Nigerians. According to one analysis, Tehran, the capital of Iran, was rated as having the world’s worst air.

Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet
Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet

Some sources of energy are dirtier than others. For example, deaths from coal-related pollution are higher than pollution from other sources. Gore said “coal creates $216 billion in health costs per year.” (Furthermore, coal burning is heavily damaging in other ways. Mercury, which is a co-pollutant that comes out of coal, has tripled in the world’s oceans. Some 16 percent of China’s cropland is also contaminated with it).

Dr. Patrick Kinney, Boston University, said “air pollution should be at the center of the discussion on health and climate.” Warmer temperatures make smog worse, as it increases the negative impacts of ozone and strong oxidant gases. Kinney also said areas impacted by wildfire, which are expected to double with climate change, will also increase harmful smoke inhalation.

Allergens: Another form of natural air pollution that will get worse: pollen, which is expected to triple in many areas by 2040. In areas with Ragweed, there will be an increase in pollen load by 320 percent by 2100.

Ragweed / Identify That Plant
Ragweed / Identify That Plant

Kinney said that in New York City, “pollen season is now coming earlier. That’s bad news for people with asthma and allergies.”

Read part 2 on mental health and food impacts.

We Can’t Ignore the Health Impacts of Climate Change (Part 2)

A farm that has been destocked for two years in Queensland, Australia / ABC
A farm that has been destocked for two years in Queensland, Australia / ABC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week.

Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). In the first part, we covered the first four — infectious diseases, heat stress, air pollution, and allergens; here, below, are the rest:

Mental Health: Gore said except for Dr. Lise Van Susteren, with the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, few seem to be studying the mental health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Van Susteren gave perhaps the most powerful speech of the conference, as so much of what she said hasn’t been in the spotlight before. She said the most negative weather impacts of climate change — flooding, storms — result not only in injuries and property loss, but a sense of displacement, which leaves an incredible “emotional toll.”

Shifts in temperatures also have a mental health impact. In higher temperatures, studies have found, there is a “40 percent increase in conflict, and 14 percent jump in conflict between groups.” There is increased unrest among all ethnic groups. She imagined a future with higher temperatures and more refugees resulting in increased conflict worldwide.

Somali refugees displaced by flooding / How Stuff Works / Brendan Bannon /AFP, Getty Images
Somali refugees displaced by flooding / How Stuff Works / Brendan Bannon /AFP, Getty Images

And in societies facing an influx of refugees, there has been a “sharp turn to the far right.” In a time of peril, “people regress and give up on their values.” In a state of anger and aggression, “systems can be easily overwhelmed. Faith in government can fail.”

More deeply, she wondered what happens to people’s unconscious psychological states when “the place they call home goes away,” when they can’t return to a place that has been irreversibly changed. She argued that the “fear, anger, sorrow, and trauma” of that experience can “push people to the breaking point” and result in “abuse, drugs, and violence.” She said more and more communities are experiencing this type of nostalgia for lost, damaged lands.

Furthermore, we will feel the loss of the natural world. With some scientists estimating that 30-50 percent of species could go extinct in the coming decades, “we will lose that the awe and wonder we get from biodiversity. The cost is our souls.”

Many people not currently directly impacted by climate change yet may still have “climate anxieties.” A group of climate Cassandras see “future disasters coming,” which takes a psychological toll. She point to children in Australia who are having a hard time focusing due to fears associated with drought and climate change. It has become so common it’s considered a new condition. In a startling statement, she then equated climate change with child abuse, and burning fossil fuels with aggression that puts people in harm’s way.

Food: Important food crops are heat sensitive. Each day corn is above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a 0.7 percent loss in yield, Gore explained. With wheat, there is a 20 percent drop with a 1 degree increase. All those crops also need water, which is becoming increasingly scarce in many places. And another little known effect of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the reduction of nutrient levels in important grains. Zinc, copper, magnesium levels drop by 10 percent of more in common grains as CO2 levels rise, Gore said. This bodes ill for the world’s poor who rely on these grains for these nutrients and can’t afford supplements.

Dr. Samuel Myers, an expert on climate and food at Harvard University, took a step back to look at the big picture. He said “food demand is the highest in history, but climate change is affecting all food systems, threatening the quality, quantity of food and where it’s produced.” Some scientists have posited climate change could have a helpful fertilizing effect by raising temperatures and humidity, but the positive impact will be “smaller than thought,” and be likely far outweighed by the negative impacts.

With rising temperatures, the tropics can expect a 15-25 percent drop in yields. On top of that, more heat is “incompatible with long outdoor labor.” Fisheries peaked about a decade ago and their capacity is falling about 1 percent a year. Fisheries will also now move further towards the north and south poles. Water scarcity threatens livestock. With all these changes, Myers predicts the world will become increasingly dependent on food trade. This hits the poor the hardest, as they are “most susceptible to food price shocks.”

Crops will have less nutritional value. A group of scientists around the world have been growing 41 cultivars over 10 years in open-field conditions, but have been circling them in a ring of carbon dioxide at the levels of 550 parts per million (ppm), which is the level expected in 50 years. The scientists found that with all C3 crops, which include beans, rice, wheat, potatoes, there has been a drop in iron and zinc values along with protein levels. “These deficiencies are already a huge problem today in the world’s population. The effect of climate change may be that 200 million more people will have a new onset of zinc deficiency, and 1 billion people will have an existing deficiency exacerbated. There will be a similar effect with iron and protein, particularly in Africa and South Asia.”

Carbon crop study / Phys.org
Carbon crop study / Phys.org

Myers argued said just a decade ago, “scientists didn’t know that food would have less nutritional value. These complex unknown effects are worrying.”

Read part 1.

Republican Elder Statesmen Propose Climate Plan

Fossil fuel plant emissions / Wikipedia
Fossil fuel plant emissions / Wikipedia

A group of elder Republican statesmen — including former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz, along with former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson — have announced a new “conservative” plan to combat climate change. In an op-ed in The New York Times, their colleagues propose a new tax on carbon emissions, which they said would “steadily increase.” All funds captured from this tax, which could raise $200-300 billion per year, would be redistributed back to the public through the Social Security Administration in the form of a check to every taxpayer. They called this a progressive tax, as it would benefit poorer Americans more than wealthy ones. The tax would replace all Obama-era regulations on the climate. This appears to the first serious proposal from any Republicans to address the looming threat of climate change.

Here are the key aspects of their proposal:

“First, the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.

Second, the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments.

Third, American companies exporting to countries without comparable carbon pricing would receive rebates on the carbon taxes they’ve paid on those products, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products. This would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt their own carbon pricing.

Finally, regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.”

In the op-ed — which was co-authored by Martin Feldstein and N. Gregory Mankiw, two former heads of the President’s council of economic advisors; Ted Halstead, Climate Leadership Council, and Harvard economist and former head of the White House; and co-signed by Thomas Stephenson, a partner at Sequoia Capital, a venture-capital firm; and long-time Walmart chairman Rob Walton  — they argue their plan would “achieve nearly twice the emissions reductions of all Obama-era climate regulations combined.”

The authors believe that “environmentalists should like the long-overdue commitment to carbon pricing. Growth advocates should embrace the reduced regulation and increased policy certainty, which would encourage long-term investments, especially in clean technologies. Libertarians should applaud a plan premised on getting the incentives right and government out of the way. Populists should welcome the distributive impact.”

A carbon tax has been a long-time goal of climate scientists and environmental leaders, like former NASA scientist James Hansen and former Vice President Al Gore, environmental organizations, and even some oil and gas companies.

Noah Kaufman, a climate economist with the environmental think tank World Resources Institute, told The Houston Chronicle: “It’s incredibly promising, the proposal itself and the fact that prominent, serious Republicans are doing the proposing. You don’t know exactly how people would respond, but it looks like it would actually cause quite a bit more reductions than (Obama’s) Clean Power Plan.”

But not everyone supports a full-scale repeal of all climate regulations. According to The Washington Post, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Rhea Suh said: “Putting a price on carbon could be an important part of a comprehensive program. It can’t do the job alone, though, and is not a replacement for carbon limits under our current laws.”

The op-eds many authors present their proposal as an opportunity to enshrine a conservative approach. “Republicans are in charge of both Congress and the White House. If they do nothing other than reverse regulations from the Obama administration, they will squander the opportunity to show the full power of the conservative canon, and its core principles of free markets, limited government and stewardship. This would be pro-growth, pro-competitiveness and pro-working class, which aligns perfectly with President Trump’s stated agenda.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Baker echoed a common Republican stance on climate science: “I really don’t know the extent to which it is man-made, and I don’t think anybody can tell you with certainty that it’s all man-made.” But he also seemed to argue Republicans have a responsibility to address the issue: “The risk is sufficiently strong that we need an insurance policy and this is a damn good insurance policy.”

It’s unclear whether their proposal will win support in the Trump administration or the Republican-controlled Senate and House. But it’s important to note Republicans are legally obligated under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions and if they seek to repeal Obama’s clean power plan, they must replace it with something else.

A number of Republican Senators and conservative groups have come out against the proposal, but former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has pledged his support. Baker just met with senior leadership at the White House, including Gary Cohn, head of Trump’s National Economic Council, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway.

But, looking to the public, Americans are increasingly clear they want action on the climate. A recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that “two in three registered voters (66 percent) support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes (such as income tax) by an equal amount – a plan often referred to as a ‘revenue neutral carbon tax.’ 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Independents, and 49 percent of Republicans support this policy.” See more survey results.

An Ice Circle, a Rare Natural Phenomenon, Captured on Film

Photojournalist Kaylyn Messer discovered on Facebook that there was a rare, naturally-occurring ice circle on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Washington, which is close to her house. She decided to check it out, and all nature lovers are glad she did.  Her videos offer a glimpse of a phenomenon most will never see in person.

Messner told This Is Colossal, “The ice circle was pretty captivating. You can hear the sound of the river flowing continuously. Sounds from the ice periodically interjected with very small sharp cracks and groans. Overall, it was a quiet experience to stand along the river watching the ice circle rotate.”

An ice circle is thought to happen in river bends or eddies. They occur in colder climates, like Scandinavia or North America, but have been seen in England and Wales. Some of the largest recorded discs were some 50 feet in diameter.

According to an article in a journal of the American Physics Society, the ice circles spin because they are melting. IFLScience writes that as the circle melts, “the water beneath the ice spirals slightly horizontally as it plumes downwards, much like when water drains down a sinkhole and sweeps around in a spiraling rotation.”

As the warmer water spins the chunk of ice, it bumps into surrounding ice and is slowly shaved into a circle.

Smaller ice circles are called ice pans, which are typically about a foot in diameter. In the River Llugwy at Betws-y-coed, North Wales, a set of them were seen in 2008.

Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet. 

Ideas Competition: Imagine a New Island

Imagination ideas competition / LA+
Imagination ideas competition / LA+

Design an island. It doesn’t have to be surrounded by water. It can be made up of any material. It can serve any purpose and be anywhere in the world. But it can’t be larger than 1 square kilometer. Why would anyone want to do this? To stretch your creative muscles and have some fun.

LA+, an interdisciplinary journal curated by the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), is sponsoring this novel ideas competition called Imagination, which is open to teams of landscape architects, architects, planners, artists, engineers — really anyone.

UPenn landscape architecture chair Richard Weller, ASLA, and chair of the competition’s jury, said: “Islands hold an especially enigmatic place in our geographical imagination. Differentiated from their contexts and as much myth as reality, islands have their own rules, stories, characters, ecologies, functions, and forms. One thing is for sure: islands are good to think with. This competition is an opportunity for designers to push back against the tide of white noise and imagine alternative realities.”

An esteemed jury will review your insular concepts, including James Corner, ASLA, head of Field Operations; Marion Weiss, principal at Weiss/Manfredi; urbanist Javier Arpa; Harpers magazine contributing editor Mark Kingwell; and Cambridge University professor of urban and cultural geography Matthew Gandy

Five winners will take home $2,000 each and the top 10 ideas will be featured in LA+’s Imagination issue in spring 2018. Submit entries by June 2.

Also, landscape architects: be sure to submit your best projects to the Azure magazine awards. Submit by February 21.

New Competition: Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge

Flooding near the Bay Bridge / KQED
Flooding near the Bay Bridge / KQED

The Rockefeller Foundation announced a $4.6 million grant for a new design competition for the San Francisco bay area. Modeled after the Hurricane Sandy Rebuild by Design competition, the Bay Area: Resilient by Design Challenge will support the creation of resilient infrastructure that can withstand “growing climate change-related threats and seismic, housing, and income disparity challenges.”

The competition is a partnership with the San Francisco Planning Department, and there are a host of bay area organizations involved, such as: Seedbank; Santa Clara Water Valley District; San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; California Coastal Conservancy; Bay Area Council; Bay Area Regional Collaborative; SPUR; San Francisco Estuary Institute; the Cities of Richmond, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose; and other local community groups.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, explained why the competition is needed: “the San Francisco Bay Area is very vulnerable to sea level rise. High tides today cause flooding on some key highway ramps in Marin County, and king tides cause waves to wash into the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco. With only 16 inches of sea level rise, sections of the main highway connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley would flood, near the Facebook and Google headquarters. So we know it’s happening, and that our region faces major risks.

We also know our infrastructure for sewage treatment and stormwater drainage is at risk from seawater flooding and rising groundwater tables. Several low income areas will be affected early in the flooding process, making our social equity problems worse. And the coastal wetlands that have been restored through several generations of environmental activism will disappear unless they are expanded and augmented with additional sediment to raise their elevation. The Bay’s ecosystems are very much at risk.”

In a release, Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities at the Rockefeller Foundation, said the new competition will “build on the three Bay Area resilience strategies that have been produced so far – in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco – and will be an important step for the resilience of the region moving forward.”

According to the foundation,  the competition will have two phases. In the first phase, teams will conduct research and engage communities for three months in order to develop initial design concepts for specific locations. (It’s not clear whether those sites will be pre-determined). Teams will “organically form themselves” and be comprised of planners, engineers, landscape architects, ecologists, architects, and others from around the world. In the second phase, teams will undertake a five-month intensive design process, partnering with residents, businesses, community groups, and politicians. The goal is to create “detailed, replicable and implementable infrastructure projects.”

Hill hopes some truly innovative projects will come out of the process: “Since we don’t have hurricanes, the competition should allow us to look at some very cool options for how to live in a wetter landscape, like new housing that accommodates flooding by floating above it on water-displacement foundations. Those foundations are actually an advantage in a seismically active region like ours. We can create housing that creates room via pond systems and canals to store freshwater floodwaters, which will continue to come from tributaries to the Bay and urban runoff. These are all alternatives to turning the Bay Area into a set of walled cities like New Orleans, slowly sinking below sea level and become more vulnerable to sea level rise as it sinks.”

The organizers are a bit vague at this stage about the timeline. Anyone interested in participating can contact the organizers.

Trump Orchestrates Major Shift on Climate and Environment

President Trump in the oval office / CNN
President Trump in the oval office / CNN

In the final weeks of his administration, President Obama made some important progress on the climate and environment. Unfortunately, much of that forward momentum is expected to be undone as the Trump administration, with its focus on rolling back environmental regulations and expanding fossil fuel extraction, begins to implement its policies. In his fourth day in office, President Trump has signed an order to revisit President Obama’s decision on Keystone XL, now allowing the 1,110-mile pipeline — which would transfer oil from the highly-polluting tar sands in Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf of Mexico — to possibly move forward, along with the Dakota Access pipeline, the source of major protests among Native Americans. His administration also removed content on climate change from the White House website. Amid a profound shift in focus, scientists have found that 2016 was the hottest recorded year on record and the third record-breaking year in a row.

To recap what President Obama accomplished in his final days before leaving office: He transferred $500 million to the UN-managed Green Climate Fund, bringing the total U.S. transfers to date to $1 billion. Increased financial support from wealthy, developed countries for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries was seen as critical to gaining the political support of developing countries for the Paris climate agreement. As part of the negotiated settlement, the U.S. committed to transfer $3 billion to the fund. The Trump administration has not said whether it will follow-through on this important international obligation and send the remaining $2 billion.

President Obama made it more difficult for future administrations to allow for offshore oil or gas extraction in the Arctic and Atlantic. The Washington Post reports: “Obama used a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia. In addition to a five-year moratorium already in place in the Atlantic, removing the canyons from drilling puts much of the eastern seaboard off limits to oil exploration even if companies develop plans to operate around them.” Simultaneously with Obama’s announcement, Canada proclaimed a ban on offshore drilling in its waters. It’s not clear whether President Trump has the powers to rescind Obama’s move, but Congress can undo the action if they have the votes.

Lastly, in the final days of his administration, President Obama sent a powerful message on conservation, vastly expanding the number of protected monuments. According to NPR, Obama set aside 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. In addition, he created the Gold Butte National Monument, which will protect 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada. In a first, these protected areas will be managed collaboratively with Indian tribes. Many state officials were angered by the move, as more than 80 percent of land in Nevada and 65 percent of land in Utah is owned by the federal government. Over his two administrations, Obama created or expanded upon 34 national monuments. The New York Times writes that President Obama has protected more than 533 million acres of federal monuments, more than any other president.

As President Trump takes power, the domestic debate over climate change and the economic impact of environmental regulations — mostly, it seems, narrowly focused on the impact on  fossil fuel industries — has reached a fever pitch. Trump’s nominees to lead administration departments have been testifying on Capitol Hill and they have made a range of statements.

Uniformly, there was acknowledgement that climate change is happening, and that humanity has played some role in that change. However, other statements seemingly downplayed climate change as an issue, conveyed that it may be difficult to make progress on the climate without hurting economic growth, or bolstered the position that climate change is not settled science, that there are still too many unknowns. None of the nominees echoed Trump’s early position that climate change is Chinese-sponsored or a hoax though, a statement from which he seems to have back-tracked. But also none committed to any serious action.

It’s important to note the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together all the world’s leading climate scientists, has found “it’s extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Also, some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and humanity is fundamentally behind the change.

Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, said “the risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken.” However, he also seemed to back track a bit when he stated: “the increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” He reiterated his previously-stated support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax and also argued the U.S. must continue to play a role in global negotiations on the climate.

Secretary of energy nominee and former Texas governor Rick Perry said the climate is changing and “some of it is caused by man-made activities.” He added that “the question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.” In response to concerns about a questionnaire, which was sent to energy department climate scientists by the Trump transition team in an effort to identify those who worked on international climate negotiations, Perry said he had no part in that, and “I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them. I will be an advocate (for the programs) … but I’m not sure I’m going to be 1,000 percent successful.” According to The Washington Post, during Perry’s tenure, Texas became the “nation’s leading wind energy state.” But at the same time, he also oversaw a great expansion in oil and gas exploration.

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, nominee for secretary of the department of interior, admitted that climate change is “indisputable” and humans are influencing the climate, but he also said: “I think where there’s debate on it is what that influence is, what can we do about it.” The department of interior has a potentially major impact on the U.S. fight against climate change, as it oversees public lands that can be used for oil, coal, and gas extraction. Zinke has issued statements supporting the expansion of energy production on federal lands, including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. One positive: Zinke is seen by some as an advocate on conservation. He has repeatedly supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, opposed efforts to sell off federal lands, and, siding with Democrats, been a proponent of “land banking.” He also made some positive statements about the National Park Service, arguing that President Trump’s plans to spend a trillion on infrastructure should also include $12.5 billion to deal with the back-log of maintenance for national parks.

According to CNN, in his hearing to be confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, said: “Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some matter impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.” Through his position in Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times, charging the agency with over-reaching in its efforts to regulate national carbon emissions. He also received some $300,000 in contributions from oil and gas companies. Under aggressive questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders and other democrats, Pruitt acknowledged the EPA indeed has an”obligation” to regulate carbon emissions. Time magazine argues this may signal the Trump administration will not try to overturn the EPA’s finding that it’s obligated to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. In fact, if Trump’s EPA seeks to undo Obama’s clean power plan, they will need to first come up with a replacement.

While Trump scales back the Obama administration’s climate and environmental ambitions, other countries are trying to pick up the slack and provide leadership. While Europe has long provided important role on the climate and environment, China has stepped up. On the Paris climate accords, President Xi Jinping recently said “all signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” China has halted development of over 100 major coal plants and pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020. According to Bloomberg, China is already the world’s top investor in renewable energy, at $86 billion per year, more than a third higher than levels in the U.S.

Watch Now: ASLA 2016 General Session Videos

Couldn’t make it to New Orleans in October? Well, the two general sessions from the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting were recorded and are now freely available. The first video, above, shows the delightful and warm session with William Johnson, FASLA, a now-retired professor at University of Michigan, and Peter Walker, FASLA, founder of PWP Landscape Architecture, moderated by James Richards, FASLA, Townscape. Johnson and Walker recalled their youth, friendship, and growth into two of the profession’s best-known practitioners and mentors.

Johnson and Walker acknowledged and embraced the differences in their styles and approach to the discipline of landscape architecture. It’s those differences, as well as their deep respect for each other, that makes them work so well together. Over their long careers, they continued to refine their collaboration.

The second video shows the ground-breaking general session on designing for diversity, and increasing diversity in design, which later spilled into a discussion in the EXPO hall. In this session, Kona Gray, ASLA, a principal at EDSA, said “the United States will be a majority-minority country by 2043.” But, unfortunately, landscape architects have been slow to adapt to this new reality, as the profession is still overwhelmingly white. Soon they must realize that “diverse firms will hold the competitive advantage.” This is because increasingly-diverse clients want to see someone who looks like themselves on the other side of the table.

ASLA’s plenary hosted a dynamic and diverse panel, with Gray, a firm principal and African American; Ron Sims, a former deputy secretary of the department of housing and urban development and African American; Mark Rios, FASLA, a founder of Rios Clementi Hale, and a “hybrid” gay man of European and Mexican heritage; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates and a Dominican who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age; and Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, a principal at OLIN and Caucasian.