Renewable Energy Is Soaring, but Debate Rages on How Far It Can Take Us

Wind farm in Guazhou, China / Carlos Barria, Reuters via National Geographic

Renewable energy is gaining momentum. Within a quarter of a century, one third of global electricity generation will be supplied by wind and solar, according to a report from Bloomberg Renewable Energy Finance (BNEF) released this month.

BNEF, which produces long-term forecasts on the global energy sector, says wind and solar will make up nearly half of installed capacity and 34 percent of electricity generation globally by 2040, a significant increase from today’s 12 percent and 5 percent respectively. The plunging cost of renewable energy is making it cheaper than coal generation in many countries. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will fall by 66 percent and onshore wind, by 47 percent. The report predicts a $7.4 trillion investment, approximately $400 billion per year, in new renewable energy generation globally by 2040.

Meanwhile, the United States just hit a renewable energy milestone. Last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced for the first time wind and solar made up over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in the month of March.

This record-breaking share was aided by low demand, common in the spring and fall months, longer days with more sunlight, also typical of spring months, and higher winds in parts of the country like Texas and Oklahoma. Wind and solar will likely hit double-digits again in April before dipping in the summer.

Some experts argue the U.S. could run solely on renewable energy by mid-century – and that’s caused some controversy among the scientific community.

Last week, a group of over 20 researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) assessing the feasibility of that 100 percent target. The assessment is a response to a 2015 paper, also published by PNAS and led by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University, which argued that wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could meet U.S. electricity needs affordably and without risk to grid stability between 2050 and 2055.

Jacobson’s report has been both popular and contentious. It has been supported by many environmental organizations and touted by public figures, like former presidential candidate and U.S senator Bernie Sanders.

Now, researchers led by Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, are taking issue with Jacobson’s paper, arguing this week in PNAS that its analysis “involved errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.” The rebuttal contends that Jacobson’s paper does not make a sufficient argument against previous analysis holding that a diverse set of technologies beyond wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are needed in the transition to a low-carbon future, and that a target of 80 percent is more feasible renewable power generation goal.

Jacobson fired back with a counter response, also published in PNAS, and in an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he called into question his critics’ motives. “They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil-fuels advocates,” Jacobson told the online publication. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”

Those questioning a fully renewable-power U.S. electricity system say some nuclear and carbon capture and storage as well as continued use of some fossil fuel-based sources are also needed, because of the intermittent nature of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, and, as of yet, there is insufficient storage capacity.

The Trump administration is among critics who say a large-scale conversion to renewable energy could be destabilizing to the U.S. electric grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a report in the next month reviewing federal regulations to determine whether policies supporting renewable energy, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, have made the national electricity grid less reliable. Anticipating the department of energy analysis, two industry organizations released their own report this week, finding that wind and solar have not threatened the reliability of the grid.

It’s no secret President Trump supports the coal industry. Earlier this month he announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, making good on a promise he reiterated throughout his White House bid and isolating the U.S. from the 194 other countries supporting global carbon reduction efforts. Previously, he ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Regardless, the U.S. will come close to achieving those power sector emission reductions even without the federal policy. According to the BNEF report, the U.S. is expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And renewable energy sources are giving coal and fossil fuels a run for its money. The BNEF report also predicts that by 2040 coal consumption will have dropped 51 percent and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas.

New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

Screamin Ridge farm, Vermont / Screamin Ridge

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with Community-resilience.org, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

In many struggling small northeastern rural towns, the drug epidemic has ravaged communities already weakened by the loss of manufacturing jobs. But it’s clear there are also many using “creative economy” approaches to revitalize themselves. Through her organization, Hough has collected case studies of success stories in Vermont. The communities making themselves more resilient share some important values: “volunteerism, empowerment, ingenuity, creativity, cooperation, entrepreneurism, local ownership, and self-sufficiency,” Hough said, adding that “leadership is key.”

In Vermont, the farm-to-plate economy, a “state-wide but closed-loop” system, now accounts for $8.6 billion, up 24 percent since 2007. There are 7,300 farms, employing 61,000 farm workers, on 1.2 million acres of farmland. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) models have helped farms like Screamin’ Ridge Farm flourish (see image above). Screamin’ Ridge turns left-over imperfect vegetables, which are often discarded as food waste, into soups that are served in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. “They aren’t serving the metro areas.”

Other efforts to boost self-sufficiency: the Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT), a community-based group that trained 50 volunteers from the Thetford community and sent them out to educate other homeowners about weatherization and solar energy options. And on Water Street in the town of Northfield, the community undertook “flood recovery at the neighborhood scale.” A cooperative of 100 homeowners banded together to elevate the most-affected homes and turn the worst-flooded areas into a park.

Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT) project in Vermont / Vital Communities

Lynne Seeley, a community planning consultant, detailed positive bottom-up efforts in mostly-forested, half-uninhabited Maine, the “least dense state east of the Mississippi.” In Grand Lake Stream, a town of just 109 souls, a land trust was formed in 2001 to protect the renowned outdoor recreation areas where people come to fish for salmon. Some 370,000 acres of lakeshore, forest, and wildlife habitat was protected. Seeley said the trust, which has had a tough time raising money, sees their future selling their forest’s carbon credits in cap and trade programs.

Great Lake region. Downeast Lakes Land Trust / Conservation Alliance

In Lubec, a town of 1,350, which is the easternmost community in the U.S., and also the poorest in all of Maine, there’s a new community outreach center where 110 volunteers (nearly 10 percent of the whole town) provide some 1,100 hours of community service a year. An associated food bank serves 20 percent of the community. And in Deer Island, which has 1,975 people, there’s the 12th largest employee-run coop in the country, which now runs three stores, including the local hardware store. CEI helped organize the financing. “This is rugged New Ruralism,” Seeley said.

In New Hampshire, Jo Anne Carr, director of planning and economic development for the town of Jaffrey, highlighted the work of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN), founded in 1984, which has grown from a pilot with 12 low-income women and now has 1,400 members. In Bethelem, WREN got the Omni hotel to create a gallery featuring artists in their network. Downtown, there’s a retail marketplace with some 300 vendors. If a woman wants to become a “WRENegade,” they have to “agree to put themselves out there and become a vendor at a market.” WREN also launched a new maker space in the city of Berlin where women can access “WiFi, latops, CNC machines, laser cutters and printers.”

WREN Makers’ Studio / NHPR

The Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) adapted the age-old concept of a community barn-raiser to create an “energy raiser” in which members volunteer two-to-three times a year at residential solar installations, in turn learning new skills. As volunteers do the installation, they also lower the costs for the homeowner. PAREI has completed 35 energy raisers in 11 towns, including one for the local homeless shelter, which saved the organization $5,100 in annual energy costs.

Lastly, Monadnock at Home, a program for a 10-town region, provides service for 90 elderly households “aging in place,” including helping them avoid frauds and scams, providing transportation to appointments, and organizing social events to help reduce isolation. The organization has pre-screened 100 service providers that can provide small jobs around the house.

Carr reiterated that New Ruralism is really driven by “community leadership, volunteerism, and creative financing.”

D.C. Becoming More Sustainable, But Not Everyone Benefits

Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Over the Bars in Wisconsin

It has been four years since Washington, D.C. released its ambitious sustainability plan, which called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent; increasing the share of trips made via walking, biking or transit to 75 percent; and making 100 percent of the district’s waterways fishable and swimmable — all by 2032. Since then, the district government has accomplished 72 percent of the things it set out to do. And it has made solid progress on the toughest goals. Already, greenhouse gas emissions are down 24 percent, based on 2006 levels, despite four consecutive years of economic and population growth.

At the launch event of Sustainable DC 2.0, district department of the environment and energy director Tommy Wells, outlined the top 10 achievements made by the city since 2013:

#10: Over 100 partners have pledged to help reach the Sustainable DC goals, including all universities in the district and nearly 100 embassies.

#9: The city now have 80 miles of bike lanes and 420 Capitol bike share stations. Some 16.7 percent of the populace now walks or bikes to work. D.C. is tied with Boston for 4th place in this regard, but Wells is confident D.C. will eventually beat Beantown. “I mean, we have much better weather.”

#8: The East Capitol Urban Farm, a three-acre facility that offers access to healthy food and job training. The district has a total of eight urban farms, more than 60 community gardens, and 120-plus school gardens. These efforts and others have helped make 82 percent of the district population food secure.

#7: A new zero waste plan. A comprehensive study now underway will help the city reduces its waste output, which is where the Economist Intelligence Unit said D.C. need to show the greatest progress five years ago. Wells said there are now composting facilities in every ward.

#6: District sustainability awards. Each year, the district government honors those who are leading partners in the effort to achieve the city’s goals. In 2016, American University, Atlas Brew Works, Compost Cab, and others won.

#5: The district now has the most energy star-certified buildings and the most LEED buildings  in the nation on a per capita basis. And for the first time, D.C.’s new comprehensive plan includes a sustainability section.

#4: D.C. is ahead of its goals in planting enough trees to reach a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. The District is now at 38 percent, up 2 percent in the past year when 14,000 trees were planted, which together would cover 800 football fields or two National Malls. Wells gave a shout-out to Casey Trees, ASLA, and American University for helping to accelerate progress.

#3: The Anacostia River is now cleaner than it has been in years, in part due to the 2.7 million square feet of green roofs that help keep stormwater out of the river. Wells was confident the Anacostia can be swimmable and fishable by 2032, “maybe even 2025.”

#2: Sustainable DC ambassadors and volunteers. The district department of energy and the environment has trained over 125 people to go out into their communities and help make the case for sustainability.

#1: D.C. now gets 125,000 megawatts hours from regional wind power sources and 11 megawatts from rooftop solar facilities. 100 percent of D.C. government is now powered by renewable sources. The goal is for 50 percent of the entire district to be powered by wind and solar by 2032; the city’s now at 13.6 percent.

While D.C.’s renewable energy goals take us in the right direction, Hawaii has announced it will aim for 100 percent renewable energy, and Vermont, 75 percent. Portland, Oregon, also recently announced its intention to reach 100 percent renewable. Maybe it’s time for D.C. to up its game a bit?

In a panel after Wells’ announcement, Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert moderated a panel with former D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, Nature Conservancy urban conservation director Khalil Kettering, and Black Women Bike founder Veronica O. Davis, exploring how sustainability relates to resilience, inclusiveness, and health and well-being, and where D.C. needs to go next.

Tregoning said a key issue was D.C. and other big cities are no longer “producing middle class jobs; they are just creating jobs at the high-end — knowledge workers — or at the low-end in restaurants or retail.” She has a plan to resolve this: “If 5 percent of D.C. buildings were retrofitted each year, that would create more middle class jobs and grow the housing and construction economy.” Efforts like these are needed more than ever, particularly given the U.S. shed 89,000 retail jobs since the beginning of the year, and cities like D.C. are “automating the low-end jobs that used to be done by people.”

Davis focused on the need more thoughtful inclusiveness efforts, arguing that educational programs aimed at encouraging African Americans in Ward 7 and 8 to use Capitol bike share have been patronizing. “We’ve been doing bike share for years. It’s called: ‘Let me hold your bike while you go into the store.'” She also said training and education on sustainability isn’t needed in many instances, because African American residents in D.C. are really already living in a sustainable manner, walking or biking to work, or using the Metro.

And Kettering zoomed out to look at the systems-scale, arguing that when looking at sustainability, cities need to look at human health and well-being, housing, and transportation together. The relationship between all of the elements that go into sustainability are “constantly evolving. There are layers of issues and benefits” changing in tandem.

D.C. still has many challenges to overcome in its effort to become truly sustainable. According to a recent report, it’s the 17th most segregated city in the country. In 2013, some 18.9 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, putting D.C. among the top six states and territories of the country with the highest concentrations of poverty. And the poverty rate east of the Anacostia got even worse after the recession.

For Tregoning, the problem is that the federal government, even prior to the Trump administration, has told basically told cities “you are on your own,” so there is even “less federal support.” Given the market “doesn’t create fairness and equity,” cities have to be deliberate in creating policies that can. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased investments in affordable housing, but some argue the city’s efforts don’t go far enough.

Ending poverty on the east side of the Anacostia will take a sustainability plan that delivers on new green jobs. Sustainability and equality must be considered two sides of the same coin.

Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”

Saudi Arabia Plots out a Sustainable Future

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us
Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

A New Town Square for an Urbanizing Mesa

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Mesa City Center / all images Colwell Shelor, West 8, and Weddle Gilmore

Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, West 8 Urban Design + Landscape Architecture, and Weddle Gilmore have won a design competition to create Mesa City Center, a new civic space destined to accelerate urbanization in Mesa, a city of more than 450,000 in the greater, sprawled-out suburban area surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. A major investment in making this part of the country more walkable, the new 19-acre town square will be a “catalyst for the next 100 years of urban growth in downtown Mesa,” argued Colwell Shelor, the lead landscape architects. The new downtown public spaces will be financed with park bonds, approved by voters in 2012. This project, like the new Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and the Newport Beach Civic Center in California, indicates that more heavily car-centric cities are making ambitious investments in high-quality public space, because people everywhere want these amenities and are willing to pay for them.

“Today, the site is a mix of parking lots and municipal buildings. When complete, Mesa City Center will feature a signature public space that will catalyze new development and enliven Mesa’s downtown core,” said Michele Shelor, ASLA, principal, Colwell Shelor. And from design partner West 8’s Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, we hear: “Cities around the country have been shaped around their ‘village green’ or town square. These places are oases in the city. We started thinking, this is what Mesa wants — its own town square, but with a twist, so that it’s a place people from all over the state will revisit again and again.”

The new space is “characterized by generous spaces for flexible uses, inviting landscapes celebrating the Sonoran desert, and ground floor uses with public-oriented programs that draw people into and through Mesa City Center to Main Street, the Arts Center, Convention Center, and residential neighborhoods.”

plan
The center piece of the design is a new events space that will both accommodate larger festivals along with weekly events like a farmer’s market, exercise classes, and movies in the park.

The new space features a unique copper shade structure with an “evaporative cooling tower,” which will “mitigate the dry, hot climate with added moisture and a consistent, cooling breeze.” According to Colwell Shelor, “similar constructions have been shown to drop air temperatures by fifteen to twenty degrees. The surface will also host a projection screen for performances and movie screenings.”

Part of the structure is set within a pool of water. In the renderings, this undulating form will also provide the frame for swings, making this a mecca for kids.

water
And the pool will become an ice-skating rink in winter.

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An upper terrace will create have a more informal feel, with Sonoran Desert-themed gardens and smaller plazas.

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A promenade will connect the plaza and upper terrace, with a path lined with seating and trees.

promenade

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Sustainability is a focus. Allison Colwell, ASLA, a principal at Colwell Shelor, explained: “A guiding principle of the design is to incorporate sustainable measures into all aspects of the design so that the Mesa City Center will be a model for environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient development. A few of the strategies we will consider are adaptive reuse of existing buildings, an evaporative cooling tower, bio-retention planters, rainwater harvesting, solar power, use of grey water, and permeable paving.”

Furthermore, “the overarching landscape strategy is to use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for seasonal beauty, diversity, and habitats, and to use stormwater and greywater to support these plant communities.”

City Hall itself may also contribute to the the sustainability of the overall design. The team proposes a 150 kW solar parasol over the roof, creating an inviting rooftop public space with great views.

terrace
The parasol will provide shade but also generate approximately 260,000 kWh/yr. power.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 15 – 30)

pumpkins
For more LA in the News, check out
LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

Selling English Gardens to the AmericansThe Guardian, 11/21/13
“It’s all hands on deck setting up the show stand at the conference center. Each company sent their work out to the U.S. weeks before and the crates needed unpacking and putting on display, similar to a mini-Chelsea Flower show stand. We had also arranged to get plants from a local nursery to plant in the Italian Terrace pots to further beautify the exhibit. By lunchtime it was looking pretty amazing.”

Green Urbanism is the Future! Well, MaybePlanetizen, 11/24/13
“My guess is the glossy, beautifully photographed images showing built work designed by professionals attract the most attention. But for me, even though I appreciate design eye candy as much as anyone, my focus inevitably shifts to the planning and analysis category and, in particular, the student work, because it is here, in the unrealized work, that we catch a glimpse of where things are headed or, perhaps, should be headed.”

Landscape Architects “Could Enable Paradigm Shift” in Green Infrastructure Alternative to Thames Super SewerLandscape Institute, 11/24/13
“Following the recent successful adoption of green infrastructure (GI) measures in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, the ‘Clean Thames Now and Always’ campaign is proposing a similar combination of GI solutions, including porous asphalt on roads, living roofs and SuDs, as a cheaper and more effective alternative to the tunnel. And landscape architects, says the campaign’s founder Christian Sarrasin, ‘would be the enablers of this paradigm shift.’”

The Thanksgiving LandscapeMetropolis Magazine, 11/25/13
“As we prepare to sit down and stuff our collective faces, let’s take a little time to fill our brains before we fill our bellies. In preparation for the marathon shopping day that is Black Friday, Americans will spend Thursday carbo-loading with stuffing, biscuits, and pie alongside traditional turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce. So, gather ’round the table, and feel free to share these Thanksgiving facts and figures with your family and friends.”

New York City’s Largest Solar Energy Installation to be built at Freshkills ParkWorld Landscape Architecture, 11/30/13
“The Mayor of New York recently announced that the city will install the largest solar energy installation in New York City at Freshkills Parks. The installation is set to power 2,000 homes and will increase the City’s current renewable energy capacity by 50 percent. The Administration is moving forward with steps to officially map an additional 1,500 acres of Freshkills into parkland, officially bringing the total for Freshkills Park to 2,200 acres and bringing total parkland in New York City to more than 30,000 acres for the first time in history.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Image credit: Pumpkins ready for harvest / Roemer pumpkin patch 

D.C. Wants to Be the Greenest City in the U.S.

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At the Old Capitol Pump House, a restored building along the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the launch of the long-awaited Sustainable D.C. plan. The result of an amazing public outreach process that involved over 400 local green experts, more than 180 public meetings in front of 5,000 people, and 15 D.C. government departments and agencies, the plan is an attempt to make “D.C. the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S.” by 2032.

Gray said D.C. is already a model for other cities. “We are what many cities hope to become.” For example, the district apparently already leads the nation in the number of green, healthy buildings, or LEED buildings, per capita. New schools must now reach the LEED Gold standard. But even more green buildings now seems to be the goal: the district has signed on to the National Better Buildings challenge, aiming for 20 percent energy efficiency improvements across all buildings by 2020. And they may be moving faster, getting 20 million square feet greener in 20 months. With the Sustainable DC Act of 2012 now signed into law, a new Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) program is underway, aimed at improving financing opportunities for greening commercial and multi-family housing.

The district wants to be greener looking, too (literally). There’s an accelerated tree planting campaign, with 6,400 slated to be planted this season alone. The goal is a 40 percent tree canopy, which would put D.C. in the top tier of major cities worldwide. Beyond trees, the city is implementing “high standard stormwater infrastructure investments.” For example, “we are now building more green roofs than anyone,” with 1.5 million square feet now in place. Green streets, like the first green alley built in Ward 7, are also being rolled out, with more potentially coming soon in Chinatown. Green infrastructure technologies may get a local boost, too, with the $4.5 million that has been dedicated to “innovative pilot projects.”

The district already has the biggest bike share network in the U.S., but “this may not be the case for long, as other cities are catching up.” The D.C. government now purchases 100 percent renewable energy. We have become a “number-one U.S. E.P.A. green power community.” All of this action has led to a 12 percent reduction in green house gas emissions over the past year.

Gray seemed to stress, however, that going green can’t just be the agenda of educated, liberal, white environmentalists. The diverse, multi-ethnic crowd seemed to underpin this point. “We need to focus on jobs, health, equity and diversity, and the climate.” So part of making D.C. more sustainable will involve “expanding access to affordable housing and economic development opportunities” for all, so that “we have one city.” Gray said: “We can’t push people out.”

The actual plan offers some 32 goals, 31 targets, and more than 140 proposed actions. Some goals are quite bold, like “a fishable, swimmable Anacostia River in a generation.” The Anacostia is currently one of the filthiest rivers in the U.S. Other goals: implement a zero-waste plan, with a 80 percent landfill diversion rate. Expand urban agriculture, with 20 more acres of land growing food, so that 75 percent of residents are within 1/4 mile of healthy, local produce. The city wants 1,000 new local renewable energy projects, with a dedicated wind farm for D.C. government operations.

Gray said “this is about nothing short than winning the future.” For a mayor still under federal investigation, Sustainable DC offers a positive way forward and certainly paints the city in a progressive light. As the mayor said, “who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have the biggest bike share network, 100 percent renewable energy for the district government, and 400 local people involved in crafting a new vision.”

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pointed questions from the media at the launch event asked whether the mayor and city council will actually put the funds and government personnel behind this bold plan to “change our society.” In a telling comment, Gray said the District will need to wait to hear the results of the debate in Congress on “sequestration,” which could potentially result in billions being cut from the federal budget. Much of the district economy depends on federal government spending, which is why the mayor said the city must “diversify” into new sectors in his recent state of the district speech. In fact, much of the resurgence of the district in the past few years can be attributed to the new federal money pumped into the district (see a great New York Times article on this).

Perhaps Gray’s broader case is that Sustainable DC will help the district’s economy and people become more resilient to economic, environmental, and social shocks, and diversify into greener industries. This seems like smart local leadership that goes beyond the vagaries of federal spending. Grey also made a point of saying regardless of who is mayor in the future, the plan “reflects the interests of our community.” The plan goes beyond the mayor.

Still, it will be up to the D.C. government, private sector, and non-profit organizations to implement the plan at a very high standard. The race is on, considering many other top-tier cities have similar goals.

Read the Sustainable DC plan and also check out Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a Sustainable D.C., ASLA’s 30-page report produced last year, which seems to have at least inspired a few of the District’s targets and actions.

Image credit: Diamond Teague Park, Washington D.C. Landscape Architecture Bureau /Allen Russ

Whole Foods’ “Conscious Capitalism”

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Is “conscious capitalism” just a new buzzword or is it something truly different from the “instantaneous public relations hit” of corporate social responsibility efforts? In the mind of Kathy Loftus, global leader, sustainable engineering and energy management, Whole Foods, conscious capitalism is not just marketing, but reflects a “mission-driven approach” and commitment to long-term sustainability for people and the planet.

At a forum organized by The Atlantic magazine, Loftus said Whole Foods began 30 years ago, when it was called “Safer Way.” The goal was to improve the “health of communities” by selling products that weren’t created with fertilizers made of petroleum and chemicals. Interestingly, then as now, there wasn’t really a sustainability department at Whole Foods, but greening work was embedded into every team and process. “Our culture, our ethos is to follow these principles so it’s everywhere. It’s inside-out.”

Now, Whole Foods is a “shareholder-driven company” that proves you can do well and also do good. Indeed, Whole Foods does very well and is highly profitable. (There’s a reason why it’s called “Whole Paycheck.”) But Loftus seemed to argue that healthy food simply costs more because like renewable energy, the cost of environmental externalities are incorporated into the cost. Whole Foods purchases food from animals they know have been treated well. They buy products grown on lands treated well enough so they will be arable long-term. These environmental benefits are integrated into the cost. She said the only alternative is that you “can spend less on food now, but pay more for medicine later.”

But Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, wondered how Whole Foods can continue to grow as a business when its products seem to be targeted at a liberal, affluent, urban and suburban market? Loftus said a program of increased productivity and energy efficiency has led to waste reduction and lower energy use. “IT, logistics improvements have helped us reduce costs,” opening new markets.

Whole Foods has also “worked closely with partners to reduce costs,” because unlike Walmart, it’s a small company and can’t shift the market on its own. With just 340 stores, in comparison with 4,000 Walmarts, Whole Foods has to “work with farms, partners, universities, and institutions.” In fact, the firm has issued a “declaration of inter-dependence.” It was perhaps the strength of the partner network that enabled Whole Foods to somewhat rapidly respond to fierce criticism by Michael Pollan and others that the company wasn’t providing enough local produce. Loftus said the Whole Foods leadership clearly saw it as a “problem” and started growing the network of local farmers it taps and the amount of local produce it offers in stores through a new “local producer loan program.”

The firm wants to be seen as a test-bed for new ideas. Product packaging is a clear target for innovation. “We can’t just recycle. We have to get to the source of the problem.” The firm now gives awards to suppliers who reduce waste and is looking at “cradle to cradle, life-cycle, and biomimicry analysis.”

Their North Atlantic region center now uses waste cooking oil for energy and electricity. “This helped us solve the waste issue and also helped reduce our dependence on a taxed local energy grid.” Solar power purchasing agreements are in place and there are exploratory efforts to determine the combination of rooftop solar and green roofs that works best. Here, Whole Foods could indeed become a leader in large stores by making their roof spaces productive, even creating rooftop farms local farmers could access. But what wasn’t discussed was whether these stores are designed to handle the additional roof load, or even whether, given the average lifespan of these buildings, the investment makes sense. While Whole Foods seems to embed themselves in high-end developments created by developers thinking longer-term, does the average Whole Foods building really last longer than Target stores’ 50-year max lifespan? It would be interesting to see the projections.

While some stores can hopefully be further greened, where they are placed is also a matter of concern. Many Whole Foods are in dense, walkable urban areas, but just as many require a car to get to. Driving long distance to purchase sustainable, local products may not make much sense. One audience member complained that a Whole Foods became part of a new development that cleared a greenfield site. Loftus’ response seemed to say that Whole Foods finds the trade-off between accessing customers where they are and sustainability to be a tough one, but customer demand (and financial considerations) seemed to win out in that instance and others.

On the positive PR-side, Whole Foods will be adding a store in Detroit, testing out a new model that will offer lower-cost products and a more limited selection that requires fewer staff. “This won’t be our flagship store but can be lean and focus on the right products. We can put these types of operations in other places.” This is a good deed because there are a “so many under-served populations in the U.S.”

Another panel explored what some other “sustainability and energy efficiency leaders” are doing in the marketplace. Beth Keck, who is Walmart’s senior director of sustainability, said because her customers live “paycheck to paycheck,” green simply has to be “integrated into the product so customers don’t have to make a choice between green and not-green.” She said fuel efficiency efforts alone have saved the firm $200 million. By improving efficiencies, the firm has “saved customers $1 billion on fresh fruits and vegetables.” In terms of waste improvements, some 80 percent of the humungous firm’s waste is now diverted from landfill. Still, there’s much to done. As Nestle’s Vice President for Sustainability, Michael Washburn said, post-consumer recycling rates in the U.S. were just 45 percent, whereas they are closer to 80 percent in Scandinavia. Of the 20 billion plastic water bottles Nestle produces each year in the U.S., some 70 percent go to landfill. Time to set much higher targets.

Image credits: Local Food Bee

A New Park Where There Was Once a Canal

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Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard has undergone an unbelievable transformation in the past few years. What was once an isolated naval base and seedy area made up of industrial buildings and strip clubs has become home to a real neighborhood — a mixed-use mecca composed of a new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation and a residential and commercial complex, which is also a LEED-Neighborhood Development (ND) Gold project. The new complex, which is called the Yards, features a great new riverfront park by M. Paul Friedberg and innovative green streets by AECOM. These amenities are near a super-sustainable boat pier by local D.C. landscape architecture firm Landscape Architecture Bureau (LAB). Now, the neighborhood, which has seen an influx of upwardly-mobile urbanites, has the new “Canal Park,” a model neighborhood park by landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm STUDIOS that has transformed a three-block brownfield into a simple yet enchanting space.

In recent years, the space was a drain on the neighborhood, a parking lot for buses. But way back when — before it was paved over in the 1870s — the place was part of the historic Washington City Canal, which connected the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. According to OLIN, the new $20 million park is meant to evoke that historic waterway, with a “linear rain garden reminiscent of the canal, and three pavilions, which recall floating barges that were once common.”

Achieving the clear simplicity of the park clearly took a lot of effort. Lining the long, narrow park are lots of space for lounging on nice lawns, metal kinetic-feeling sculptures by David Hess, curved benches, and, in winter, an ice-skating rink.

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The rink area is flanked by a cafe covered in publicly accessible green roof. The green roof features what must be a first: signs letting people know to curb their dogs around the sedum.

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Underlying the space are some complex green infrastructure systems that help this place give back to the neighborhood on the environmental front. “Contaminated soils were replaced with a healthy growing medium and the native plant habitat was re-introduced.” A linear rain garden, which runs the length of the park, has signs saying “Water is reclaimed and recycled,” helping to explain its role to the visiting public. The rain gardens work together with deep tree pits and underground cisterns to collect, manage, and treat “almost all stormwater runoff on site” and from the neighboring blocks, some 1.5 million gallons of water each year. Treated, recycled water collected in the park is used to “satisfy up to 95 percent of the park’s water needs for fountains, irrigation, toilets and the ice skating path.”

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Also, this truly-green park has 28 geothermal wells underground to provide a “highly-efficient energy supply for park utilities,” reducing park energy use by 37 percent. And the park is there to provide sustainable transport solutions for the broader neighborhood, too: it features the first electric vehicle charging stations this blogger has ever seen in person. Two stations with spaces for four cars (we think) can be accessed with a swipe of a credit card.

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The wood structures in the park, which were designed by STUDIOS, feature “reclaimed and sustainably harvested wood from black locust trees.” Black Locust is a great alternative to unsustainable rainforest hardwoods like Ipe. The use of this wood in these pavilions is an excellent development really worth applauding.

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Additional clear-plastic pavilions scattered at the edges of the park are opaque and both there and not there. They are apparently interactive “light cubes” that can display art and photography.

OLIN says programming will be ramped up to really maximize use of the new park. “The Canal Park Development Association, in partnership with the Capital Riverfront Business Improvement District, will host numerous events throughout the year, such as movies and concerts, holiday and seasonal festivals, farmers markets, art expositions, educational and environmental programming, storytelling events, and more.” The neighborhood clearly benefits.

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Image credits: (1-3) OLIN, (4-5) Phil Stamper / ASLA, (6-7) OLIN