Cities

Brit's Eye View: Greening our cities

How do U.K. cities stack up in terms of sustainability?

Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe. Every year more and more people live in cities. Globally, we became a majority urban world for the first time last year, while here in the U.K., nine out of 10 of us live in towns and cities. Cities are clearly important for sustainability. Although the romantic green notion of us all living on small holdings with a goat, a vineyard, and a vegetable patch is seductive, the future is much more likely to be dominated by megacities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo. We will have to learn to make such cities liveable and sustainable. Concentrating people in urban centers does make it easier to provide some social and environmental services. But the big cities also have a huge environmental footprint. London, for example, has an ecological footprint 293 times its geographical area. Cities are also important as centres of dynamism. They are where social, cultural, and economic innovation and change happens. Yet despite the undoubted importance of cities, most of the environment movement in the U.K. is still predominantly rural- and wildlife-oriented. They defend and protect stuff most ordinary people will never see. The greens haven't been very good at doing green cities. Our big cities, on the other hand, haven't done a very good job of being sustainable either. Lots of our leading cities are making green claims. Manchester is determined to become "the Greenest City in Britain by 2010," Leicester calls itself "the environment city," Bristol wants to become a "Green Capital," and London is aiming for nothing less than the status of "most sustainable city in the world." But behind such claims there is very little objective measurement of what it means to be sustainable. We certainly don't have anywhere that really stands out as an example of overall good practice. So, we at Forum for the Future decided to get stuck into the debate on sustainable urbanism. We researched and published a table ranking our 20 biggest cities.

Pedal power

Cyclists should be more involved as biking advocates

This essay is part of a series on bicycle neglect. ----- Blame me. It's my fault the Northwest does not treat bicycling with respect. How? Bear with me, and I'll explain. Cascadia is, as Washington state legislator Dick Nelson used to say, a "motorhead democracy" -- a place where licensed drivers substantially outnumber registered voters and where car-head dominates transportation thought and debate. No matter how much good Bicycle Respect would do for our health, communities, economy, and natural heritage, it won't fly in on fairy wings. Bicycle Respect is a political agenda: new traffic laws and enforcement, new budget allocations, and new street designs. So winning Bicycle Respect requires political power. When many elected leaders begin to see championing the bicycle as a path to higher office, as Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams does, we will be well on our way. When elected officials fear for their seats if they ignore the needs of the bicycle, we will have arrived.

Mass transit in D.C. is a triumph

Metro is succeeding, but like all public transit systems, it needs our support

It was a bad headline and a bad take on an important issue from a writer at a publication that ought to know better. Last week, M.J. Rosenberg, writing at TPM Cafe, penned a quick post entitled “Question for Paul Krugman: Why Does the DC Metro Suck?” In the space of a few short words, Rosenberg revealed that arguments in favor of increased public transit shouldn’t just be directed at environmentally negligent conservatives. There is a lot of work to be done winning over writers, voters, and leaders on the left as well. The source of Rosenberg’s anger was a …

Be car-ful?

Giving up car-lessness for Rob Lowe’s plug-in hybrid

This essay is part of a series on not owning a car. ----- The weekend before Halloween, my car-less family got a loaner plug-in hybrid-electric car to try. You see, the City of Seattle and some other local public agencies are testing the conversion of some existing hybrids to plug-ins to accelerate the spread of these near-zero-emissions vehicles. As a favor and, perhaps, for some publicity (this post), the city's program manager offered me four days' use of the prototype -- previously driven by actor Rob Lowe. Enthusiasm about plug-in hybrids -- like their now-almost-mainstream siblings the gas-electric hybrids -- has been running high of late. For example, the California Air Resources Board is among the toughest air quality regulators in the world. When members of the board's expert panel reviewed the evidence on plug-in hybrids, they issued a boosterish report predicting widespread adoption and fast market penetration. The Western Governors' Association is similarly smitten (MS Word doc). The tone of some popular press reports makes it seem that the vehicular second coming may be at hand. For this auto (pictured in our back yard, with our Flexcar visible out front), I wondered, would my family give up its car-less ways? Would the joy of these 100+ mpg wheels cause us to end our 21 months of car-free-ness, emulate Rob, and buy our own plug-in? The short answer? No. Plug-in hybrid-electric cars hold great promise, as long as we can fix the laws. And the technology. Oh, and the price. None of those fixes are "gimmes." Without fixing the laws -- and specifically, without a legal cap on greenhouse gases -- plug-ins could actually do more harm than good. And without the second two fixes -- working technology and competitive prices -- plug-ins won't spread beyond the Hollywood set. (Echoes of this point are in Elizabeth Kolbert's latest article in The New Yorker.) But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

Thousands of monkeys uprooted by sprawl move into New Delhi

Last month, the deputy mayor of New Delhi fell from a terrace to his death while trying to fend off a gang of wild monkeys. This weekend, rampaging monkeys attacked up to 25 people in the Indian capital. While the scenes are tragic, it would be a stretch to call them unexpected: In the center of New Delhi, monkeys scamper through buildings, bathe in fountains, and frolic in parks and on groomed lawns. “They attack patients who are being rolled inside the hospital, pull out IV tubes, and scamper off to drink the fluids,” says lawyer Meera Bhatia. Half a …

Just the big-box facts

New tool helps groups assess large retail proposals

Big-box stores have significant impacts on a community's economy, environment, and character. The Big Box Evaluator (created by the Orton Family Foundation, which offers numerous programs that aid good land-use planning) is a new online tool designed to help citizens, activists, and municipal officials get the basics on these impacts in an unbiased manner. It's interactive, and lets you plug in variables like tax rates, community demographics, size of a hypothetical big-box proposal, and much more. The outcome is a well-rounded assessment of probable impacts, the good as well as the bad, which will help its users ask important questions when proposals like this come to town.

Hear some trains a-comin'

Public transit will be necessary for CO2 reductions

At the end of October, both New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and, believe it or not, Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, passed their cosponsored bill in the Senate to allocate $1.9 billion per year for six years to expand passenger rail in the U.S. According to Parade magazine (yes, the one that's inserted into Sunday newspapers), the main goal is "to develop high-speed, short-haul rail corridors modeled on the European city-to-city routes. They could run between Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.; Portland and Seattle; Chicago and Detroit; Miami and Jacksonville, Fla." In addition, the Senate wants to give Amtrak a solid long-term financial foundation. (Imagine!) The same Parade article, entitled "A better way to travel," extols the benefits of rail: Many transportation experts insist that the best answer to transportation gridlock is efficient intercity rail travel. Trains use one-fifth less energy than cars or planes ... Amtrak ridership was up for the fifth year in a row, reaching record levels -- despite the fact that a third of trains arrived late last year ... Severe weather will further add to the transportation turmoil, leading travelers to look for alternatives to air travel. And what about global warming? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a report in September 2007, "Public Transportation's Contribution to Greenhouse Gas Reduction" which directly addresses the issue. According to their calculations, public transit, use saves 37 percent of the CO2 that would have been emitted had private transportation been used (19.2 million metric tons, including traffic congestion) instead of public transit ( 12.3 million metric tons). And that's including a lot of diesel-powered trains and buses.

Portland, Ore., will pay builders to build green

Portland, Ore., has unveiled an innovative plan to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. The city will require an energy-efficiency inspection of new homes, then levy a tax on builders who have merely complied with Oregon’s efficiency requirements. Builders who construct homes 30 percent more efficient than the state building code requires will escape the fee; those who go above and beyond, with construction that saves at least 45 percent more energy, will be paid cash rewards. Portlanders will vote on the plan in January. Hint: vote yes!

Trading, taxing, and public reconstruction

Some signs of another mitigation alternative emerging

There has certainly been a great deal of discussion of carbon taxes and various cap-and-trade and cap-and-auction frameworks among environmentalists. Recently, Nordhaus and Shellenberger used the term "public investment" as another mitigation strategy, a term which seems to refer mostly to research and development. However, another alternative is direct governmental construction of the various means of transforming economies toward sustainability -- what might be called public reconstruction. I thought I'd share three quotes from well-known writers that seem to be moving in this direction.

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