Chicago City Hall Green Roof
Earlier this year, 10 mayors of large American cities announced a partnership with the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) and the Institute for Market Transformation in the new City Energy Project. The goal of the project is to improve large public and private-sector building energy efficiency to reduce energy use, and thus decrease city pollution and save residents and businesses money. If the project succeeds, the savings could reach $1 billion nationwide, and the hope is that these cities will act as a model for communities across the nation and the world.
But what does the project look like? The ten cities are as follows: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City. Some of these cities are already well on the way to being energy efficient. Boston was recently ranked first in the nation by ACEEE (American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) for being the most energy efficient city in the United States, while Chicago’s Green Roof Program has been in place for several years. Other cities have a lot of work to do. Los Angeles was ranked 28th in the nation in the ACEEE’s rankings. The common thread is that all of these cities demonstrate a commitment to becoming more energy efficient, which was why they were selected out of a group of 22 applicants.
Much of the work of the City Energy Project deals with providing cities, and their buildings, with better metrics and data around energy use, and creating policies that incentivize energy efficiency. Many of the improvements are either low-cost or no-cost. The project will also pay for a building efficiency expert to work full time towards implementation.
While making buildings more energy efficient is an important part of this project, an equally important part concerns behavior change. Personal actions like keeping computers on at night, lights on in the building, or keeping the thermostat to high or low can greatly affect a building’s energy efficiency. The hope is that building managers will be educated on best practices to conserve energy and then share them with everyone who lives and works in the building.
The project is in its first year, so we will eagerly await the results and keep checking the City Energy Project website for updates.
What can you do?
- If you are lucky enough to reside in one of the 10 involved cities, encourage your place of work to participate.
- Check out ACEEE’s interactive map that ranks the 34 largest cities in America according to energy efficiency.
- Watch presentations from this year’s Climate, Buildings and Behavior Symposium to find out the latest in building behavior change.
- Make your home or place of work more energy efficient in a variety of ways.
In a recent interview in The New York Times, the actor Alan Alda discusses how he combined his career in acting and interest in science to help start The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, located at Stony Brook University. He notes the importance of scientists learning how to effectively talk about their work:
Image of Alan Alda taken at the World Science Festival launch press conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“[...] Scientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity. They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.
If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do?”
Alda’s campaign brings to the fore the issue of making science accessible, without diluting or distorting the facts. Science journalism can easily fall prey to the risks of catering to a public with a short attention span. The facts themselves, presented without adornment, can often seem dry and uninteresting, even if they are truly important. Academic research papers do necessitate a different style of writing. However, the facts and risks uncovered through research must somehow be transmitted to a public that is often unwilling to listen.
Effective communication is clearly important for scientific discoveries and research to translate into change. The general public must be aware and convinced for any significant change to take place. Environmental issues can be especially difficult to communicate. The facts themselves are often complex, and therefore can be both difficult to transmit, and vulnerable to factual distortions. Scientific research is key to discovering solutions to the issues that endanger the environment, but those solutions cannot be put into place without public backing.
Environmental policies will rarely be pushed forward by those in power without the support of public opinion, and for that reason alone, efforts like Alda’s must be embraced. In today’s media-obsessed world, it is no longer enough for scientists to research environmental solutions – they must also succeed in conveying them to a wider public in order for significant change to occur. For example, in 2006, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was credited with greatly raising public awareness of global warming. The film won a slew of awards and was a critical and box office success, effectively packaging and communicating an incredibly important environmental issue. Today, global warming is generally accepted as fact (although it still has detractors, as well as those who dismiss that human action is even partly responsible).
Along with the importance of scientists effectively communicating their work, the impetus is also on the general public to fully educate themselves on environmental matters. This includes paying attention to the provenance of articles, double-checking sources, and calling out spurious claims. Furthermore, learning to successfully present the facts yourself is key (see this previous UNspOILed post for tips on tackling climate change deniers).
Urban blight turned into gardens (Photo credit: Bob Elderberry)
Almost one year ago, I moved from rural New Hampshire to urban, post-industrial Baltimore. I had lived in cities for most of my life, but always felt a visceral connection to the “great outdoors”. I also love to cook and am a big fan of anything DIY. This past summer I bought several herbs and vegetables for my apartment to cook with. Window space quickly disappeared, but my desire to grow did not. It became clear that I needed more space; I needed an urban garden.
But, how does one go about starting a garden with no land at their disposal? I had heard of, and seen, community gardens around Baltimore, but wanted to be part of something from the ground up. I also wanted to document my experience, both the victories and the failures, to act as a comprehensive guide to anyone who wanted to do the same thing. What follows is the first step, as I saw it, in creating an urban/community garden.
Step #1: Find a space
I did some digging (pun intended) and came across a website called Power in Dirt, a Baltimore City initiative that allows Baltimore residents to adopt vacant lots.
Baltimore City has more than 14,000 vacant lots, mostly due to the precipitous decline in the city’s population in the latter half of the 20th century. Power in Dirt seeks to turn what is normally seen as a negative quality of a city, a huge amount of vacant properties, and turn it into a positive, free space for community gardens that provide fresh produce and improve the surrounding area in a variety of ways. And Baltimore is not the only city out there doing this; Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Jersey City, New York City, Chicago and Kansas City are just a few in a long list of cities across the nation that have similar programs in place.
So what is the actual process for obtaining a lot? In Baltimore’s case, the Power in Dirt website has very simple and straightforward steps, including a short application, to obtain a lot.
The black dots represent vacant lots up for adoption, while the green and red dots represent vacant lots that have been adopted (red) or turned into gardens (green).
The first thing I did was check out the Baltimore City interactive map that shows if there are any vacant lots in your neighborhood that are up for adoption. In my case, there are three free lots within six blocks of my apartment in Charles Village. You get the lot information, enter it into the application, along with your home address, and wait up to one month for a decision. Once you have received approval via mail, you print a couple of copies out, sign them, and return them to the city.
Check back a month from now and see how I have been progressing. In the meantime, go out there a claim your own plot of land! Whether you are in Baltimore or another city, chances are, you too could be turning vacants into vegetables!
Trash bags and cardboard boxes (Photo credit: www.mnn.com)
Nothing says “Spring is right around the corner” quite like receiving multiple baby shower, wedding, and housewarming invitations in the mail. So far, in 2014 I have a housewarming and a 1-year old’s birthday party this month, a wedding in April, a baby shower in May, and two more weddings in September and November. Apparently, I may be an adult.
Besides feeling relatively old, feelings of guilt started to creep in when thinking about the mountain of wasted wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, and of course over-priced and under-used gifts these milestones could produce. According to www.RecycleWorks.org, annual trash from gift-wrap and shopping bags totals 4 million tons! As you may have guessed by now, I took my angst to the internet and began searching for practical gifts and alternative gift ideas. To my delight, my search returned several creative gift registries! My top three choices are outlined below.
First place goes to So Kind Registry. This registry is a project of The Center for a New American Dream. This platform is pretty straightforward—“So Kind allows you to create a registry focused less on stuff and more on family, fun, and friends.” You don’t have to turn down new (or secondhand) gifts but more importantly, you can receive gifts of experience, charity, and Day-of-Event Help.
Giving homemade meals, volunteer hours to local charities, and help setting or cleaning up during a loved one’s event not only has the potential to reduce waste and consumerism, it seems like a foolproof way to strengthen your relationships with the giver or receiver. Best of all, this registry is completely free!
Honeyfund Gift Ideas (Photo Credit: www.Honeyfund.com)
Second place is awarded to Honeyfund. This platform allows givers to gift you experiences too however, they’re primarily related to the recipients’ honeymoon. For example, a couple registered on Honeyfund can register for airfare, spa treatments, or maybe a private tour. While this alternative gift registry limits the personalization handmade gifts might have it still allows your guests to feel like they’re helping one of your dreams come true. Based on your destination, mode of transportation, trip length, accommodation, food, and drink style Honeyfund comes up with an amount you and your soon-to-be-spouse should aim to raise. This platform also allows givers to donate towards “big ticket items” of the newlyweds including the down payment on a house.
Many could justifiably argue that airfare, dinners, and champagne are hardly reducing the overall amount of waste our nation produces. However when you consider that according to the Greeting Card Association (yes, it exists), Americans purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, if these alternative registries only slightly reduce the amount of paper wasted we’d be taking a step in the right direction. There’s also the possibility that recipients are making reservations at Green Hotels (they exist too).
Sample Hatch My House Image (Photo Credit: www.HatchMyHouse.com)
The third and final award goes to Hatch My House. A former colleague raved about this platform after she and her husband were expected to put down more cash on their home than they initially anticipated. While Hatch My House is the least experience related platform, they illustrate just how great of an impact your friends, family, and community support a common goal. Given the huge success of crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, I think Hatch My House will enhance the virtual house selection which is currently limited to 6 styles. The bells and whistles are minimal on this platform, but it does limit the number of useless gifts a couple may receive. If you’re still not sold, they figured that and have a page on their site that addresses Is it tacky or rude? Anyway, let’s just hope after the happy couple purchases their home they create their housewarming registry on So Kind!
As we strive towards consuming less and experiencing more we may begin to see more free/ low-cost alternative gift registries. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if any of the registries listed in this post begin to tout reducing the American carbon footprint as a “selling” point.
Traffic Signal “Walk”, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pedestrian, the word evokes mundane thoughts. No surprise, as one of its two main meanings is “dull.” The other meaning is a person walking along a road or in a developed area, hardly inspiring either. This is partly because contemporary society views walking as a tedious task, something which we try to cut out of every day life with gadgets and infrastructure such as escalators or moving sidewalks. Most people prefer to take public transit, drive their cars, or ride their bikes (all faster modes of transportation). This is especially true in the United States of America, where we walk less than any other industrialized nation on earth.
Personally, I try to walk whenever possible. I work it into my schedule, trying to walk to the shops and the 30 minutes to work. On that walk I see hundreds of cars, several buses, a couple of bicycles, but only one or two fellow pedestrian commuters. In the words of Tom Vanderbilt, at times walking feels like “An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text.” Given the above, why would anyone want to walk?
Let me start off by saying this: For me, walking is a privilege. But for many people this is not the case. Many people are forced to walk through circumstances such as a lack of access to adequate public transportation or the inability to afford another form of transportation. On the other side are people who don’t even have the option to walk due to a physical disability or injury, a lack of free time in their day, or other life constraints. I am lucky; I own a car, I can afford public transit, and am able bodied. I am fortunate enough to choose, and I choose to walk.
English: Detail from photographic portrait of Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We live in the “age of instant gratification” where we want everything as quickly as possible, sometimes before we even know we want it (if Amazon has its way). What then, are the benefits of walking? First, as Robert Manning discusses in his article Long Walks, Deep Thoughts, walking not only gives us time to think, but provides our mind with external stimuli, as we pass through environments we might not otherwise interact with. Charles Dickens racked up 20 miles of walking some days in London, informing much of his work. And even when the surrounding environment is dull or boringly familiar, walking gives us the time to think upon things we would not naturally when in the midst of our day to day rigmarole.
The author Will Self, himself an avid walker, sees the act of walking as a political action, fighting against corporate control and the design of 21st century Western conurbations that isolate us from our communities. In this context the act of walking is quite similar to the slow food movement; both actions seek to turn away from globalization and isolation from our communities. It is also an act of environmental conservation, as walking consumes only human energy. While it might not be the most convenient form of transportation, many of us who walk to work, or elsewhere, do so because of an environmentally conscious decision.
At its simplest, walking provides us with a break from everything else in our lives. It gives us both a temporal buffer and a realization of a physical buffer between home and work and all other locations we frequent. When we walk we have time to reflect on who we are, where we have been and where we are going.
You don’t have to walk everywhere, but try replacing, if you can, a drive or commute with a walk sometime. You will feel the effect.
What are some other benefits of walking? Walking is not only good exercise, but has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, raise your self-esteem, reduce depression, and improve childhood education.
Why do you walk? Tell us below…
Jet streams flow from west to east in the upper portion of the troposphere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It’s been impossible to ignore talk of the polar vortex in recent weeks. Freezing temperatures, snowfall, accidents.. It’s enough to make you want to stay inside and hibernate this winter! If you’re wondering about the story behind the extreme weather, read on:
What is the Polar Vortex?
The polar vortex is a “large pocket of very cold air that generally sits over both the North and South Poles”. It is usually sequestered in this area by the encircling jet stream, keeping the cold locked in the Arctic regions. In recent weeks, part of the jet stream has shifted south over the eastern two thirds of the United States (a process called “Arctic Oscillation”).This has allowed part of the vortex to move south over central Canada, and has caused extreme weather in parts of Northern America.
The polar vortex never actually moves above the United States, leading some meteorologists to argue against the widespread use of the term as synonymous with the recent cold weather.
Is the recent weather related to climate change?
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to some that global warming could cause cold temperatures, climate change affects weather patterns in diverse ways. Climate scientist Jennifer Francis comments “We can’t say these extremes are happening because of climate change, but we can say that they’re more likely because of climate change.”
Another report suggests that similar patterns could be the result of the melting of Arctic sea ice (due to human-induced global warming).
In Baltimore, we’ve experienced snow storms, schools shutting down and bursting water mains. However, elsewhere, on January 28th, the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina all declared states of emergency, due to the weather. In Michigan and Wisconsin, normally more winter-hardy states, the governors declared states of emergency due to a shortage of propane, used for heating in rural areas. In Alabama, schools rushed to make arrangements for accommodating students, should conditions prevent them from being picked up. These conditions are expected to continue into next week.
Preparing for the Cold
In adverse weather conditions, preparation is key. Stay aware of incoming weather, keep your cell phone charged for emergencies, and keep an eye on your pipes (in southern states, pipes are typically located in areas where they are more vulnerable to freezing conditions.)
What has been your experience of the weather? How are you preparing for further cold spells?
I first learned about composting in 2009 while living in an intentional community in the upper level of a rehabbed church in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Seven of us shared one refrigerator, one common living area, and one small trash can, and one even smaller trash can. The second trash can was actually more like a canister—less than a foot high, roughly eight inches in circumference and was used for compost scraps.
There are multiple forms of composting, but the most common form for city dwellers is Backyard composting. You combine browns (fallen leaves or straw), greens (grass clippings and food scraps), and even hair with some water in a designated area. These ingredients, when combined and mixed periodically, yield compost which has lots of benefits.
But I’ll be honest, it seemed like a really terrible idea when I moved into the shared space because the smell was horrible (rotting produce, egg shells, and coffee grounds). And although we had a community garden the idea of throwing the scraps in a larger compost pile outdoors only brought back memories of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web. You may have guessed that I elected to avoid our community garden after dark, but now as a Baltimore city resident planning a community garden with some friends I have to face my fear.
It turns out there are heaps of resources on rat-proofing your compost pile. After reading several reviews online it seems that Hotbin invented by Tony Callaghan seems to be the best at keeping the scary pests away. Of course there are other tips and tricks for keeping the rats away, but with next door neighbors, I’m going to try the Hotbin and report back on my success/failure with the product.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reducing the amount of waste my partner and I send to landfills that are out of sight and out of mind, and enriching the soil of our community garden.
Have you had success keeping rats out of your compost? Feel free to comment with tips that others might also find useful.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, AER Energy Perspectives and MER.
After declining for several years in a row, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions grew by 2% in 2013. This was largely due to an increase in the use of coal by electric power plants in the U.S., after a rise in the price of natural gas.
While this still left the U.S. 10% below 2005 levels, it is a move in the wrong direction. These findings follow President Obama’s recent second term push for national action on climate change, and call for an increase in the use of renewable energy sources. This begs the question: What does the future hold for energy use in America? Let’s break it down.
Coal: The above numbers came from a study by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) which found that coal supplied about 37 percent of U.S. electricity in 2012. This rebound for the coal industry is expected to be temporary, as new pollution regulations, which affect coal the most since coal produces almost twice as much CO2 than natural gas, and necessary maintenance will make sustaining coal burning plants unfeasible. Coal’s future as a dominant energy source seems to be on the outs.
Oil and Natural Gas: The U.S. was recently named the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas in 2013. The EIA finds that the three major fossil fuels of oil, coal and natural gas are expected to dominate energy use in America for the foreseeable future, with oil and natural gas accounting for an ever increasing majority. As hydraulic fracturing booms across the U.S., natural gas costs almost a quarter of what it does in other countries. With oil and natural gas accounting for around 60% of U.S. energy consumption in recent years, and coal on the decline, it seems that oil and natural gas are here to stay.
Renewables: Obama made it clear that increasing the use of renewable energy sources in the U.S. is a priority; while renewables account for only 7% of current federal government energy use, the goal is for that number to rise to 20% by 2020. Energy consumption for the nation as a whole comes from less than 7% renewable sources. With cheap natural gas on the market, it seems that renewables would be much less attractive, but some analysts think that this could actually help the transition to wind and solar by providing an alternative when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. Also, investing in renewable energy is often just as profitable as investing in traditional energy sources, it just requires a large initial investment. Yet, while renewable energy is on the rise, it is not expected to account for more than 11% of U.S. energy use by 2040.
What can you do? Take action and learn more:
Confronting Comfort with Bjarke Ingels (Photo credit: BMW Guggenheim Lab)
When people think of environmental, green or eco-building projects they often imagine stripped down, minimalist structures, with interiors that are found lacking in functionality and comfort. But sustainable design does not have to be about giving things up and offering less to the user. Bjarke Ingels, of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), does just the opposite, with something he calls “hedonistic sustainability”.
A few years ago, BIG won an international competition to design a power plant that would convert human waste into energy in Copenhagen, Denmark. Ingels knew that the power plant would have to be some sort of man-made mountain of trash, and that Copenhagen gets a lot of snow, but has no ski slopes. He decided to give them one; the roof of the power plant would double as a ski slope. As Ingels said, “We proposed it as a brainstorm as a joke, but then, you know, it wasn’t so silly, and we started like, why would this not be a good idea?”
The result was the creation of the ‘amagerforbraending ski slope incinerator’ which is slated to be ‘an economically, environmentally, and socially profitable mainstay of the danish community by 2017‘. The structure, which recently had its ground breaking, will house factories, apartments and office space all under one ski slope roof. The smokestack, which releases a large smoke ring every time one-tenth of a ton of fossil CO2 is released as a reminder of the effects of energy consumption, was fully incorporated into the main structure to create the nearly one mile long public ski slope.
Bjarke Ingels and BIG are just one example of how innovative and non-traditional designers can create integrated, environmentally sustainable developments and ecosystems.
Check out photos of the design and ground breaking here.
As we enter the New Year, our thoughts turn to the future – from making our personal resolutions, to pondering what 2014 will bring for us, our families, and our cities.
One exciting prospect for New York City is the Lowline, an initiative to build the first underground park in an abandoned trolley terminal in the city subway system.
Lowline Tech Demo (Photo credit: mlcastle)
In an overcrowded city like New York City, space is always at a premium. Architect James Ramsey has taken on this challenge by envisioning the Lowline as a counterpart to the popular Highline, an innovative re-use of space that would otherwise be wasted. (Have a look at this video, showing details of the design.)
In order to overcome the most obvious obstacle – a lack of natural light – Ramsey designed receptors in the street above that are linked to panels in the underground park by fiber-optic cables. This allows the space to be illuminated by sunlight, rather than light-bulbs. The energy cost of this technology would be easily offset by the lack of heating and cooling required underground.
To Gabrielle Hamilton, writing in The Washington Post, the proposed space is a way to regain the ‘edgy’ New York of her youth. She writes, ‘The Lowline—smart, edgy and unique—is one of those Only–in–New York ideas, a resuscitation of the near-dead truth that New York City is a city like no other.’ However, the concept of the Lowline is not just appealing for its own sake, but as an example of innovation that could be used in other exciting and productive ways.
Direct examples include the expansion of urban farming and increased living spaces in overcrowded areas. Beyond these examples, innovation is always encouraging to witness. ‘Out of the box’ thinking like this is clearly necessary to combat some of our most pressing environmental problems.
What kind of innovative thinking do you hope to see in 2014? Let us know!