Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Making Cities Flow: Integration & Infrastructure

Posted in Models, Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 3rd, 2011

Source: Forum for the Future

Image: fsse8info via flickr CC

From “How to make a city flow” by Matt Kaplan & Anna Simpson:

Cities never really sleep. Even in the small hours, before commuters surge from their homes onto the roads, the things they need for the day ahead are travelling to and fro: groceries from the countryside; water down the pipes; electrons through cables; news down the wire.

In many cities, all this ebb and flow is like a relay race without proper teams: there’s no real coordination, and so the baton keeps falling between the runners. The people responsible for public transport don’t speak to the ones distributing the food; the energy providers don’t communicate with the information experts. Delivery vans make a one-way trip and come back empty; leftovers from the canteen travel, at best, to composting sites, and at worst, to landfill – while fresh and processed food is brought in from far away.

The daily frustrations of city dwellers asides, this failure to think and plan across different sectors means we waste everything from energy, food and water, to money, time and space – all critical resources that no city with a burgeoning population has to spare. By 2040, two in every three people on the planet will be living in urban areas, and providing them all with the bare necessities – never mind a seat on the bus – will be a huge challenge.

It may seem a way off yet, but less than 30 years isn’t much time in which to make major changes to infrastructure that – in some of the bigger cities – has been around for centuries. Where do we start, and whose job is it anyway? In an effort to help get things started, Forum for the Future has launched ‘Megacities on the Move‘, a new initiative in partnership with the FIA Foundation, Vodafone and EMBARQ (the sustainable transport centre). It’s set out six key priorities for action to ensure the smoothest flow of people and resources.


Read the rest of the article by Matt Kaplan & Anna Simpson – the section reproduced here is less than a quarter of it!


Burning Wood: Not So Carbon Neutral?

Posted in Models, Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 1st, 2011

Source: The Ecologist

Image: Shandchem via flickr CC

From Turning our Victorian Terrace into an Eco-Home part seven – Heating by Sue Wheat:

Sue Wheat thought a wood-burning stove was the greenest way to heat her house until a chat with authors, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke, made her think again. The biggest crisis of her eco-refurb so far? You bet it was!

With the cold weather closing in, it was time to think about green ways to heat our home.  We chose a Stovax multi-fuel stove, which we were lucky enough to get from friends.


In a city where every other house seems to be having its kitchen or bathroom ripped out, there is vast amounts of burnable scrap wood lying around waiting to go to the dump, which could instead be heating your house. Paying for wood to burn seems positively stupid when you can pick up a week’s supply from neighbours, most of whom are all too willing to let you have it. I can’t see the logic in buying wood that’s been transported hundreds of miles either, so I’ve become something of an eagle-eyed wood-spotting obsessive. We look for wood that’s unvarnished, unpainted and untreated, and either carry it home, or rope in friends with cars or vans to pick it up for us. I’ve also got a few friendly builders who drop off scrap wood to us (thus saving them dumping fees), and a supply of off-cuts from a furniture repair workshop. To build up next year’s wood store, which we made from scrap wooden pallets covered with tarpaulin, we’re planning to buy some logs from a local tree surgeon and season them for a year, by which time the excitement of dragging wood out of skips and yards may well have worn off.


As I basked rather smugly in the warm glow of our pretty, near zero-carbon heating system, for a good few weeks I was unaware that things were about to get tricky. Then with one click on the mouse, I stumbled across a website which catapulted me into my biggest eco-refurbishment crisis yet. It seems, according to some of the eminent researchers at the Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders [AECB] that burning wood is not carbon neutral after all. I was gutted, to say the least. I emailed the AECB in a panic, who put me onto the authors of Biomass: A Burning Issue, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke. Their paper concludes that while it’s true that trees do absorb carbon dioxide when they grow, it doesn’t mean that the best use for the wood biomass is burning it. Burning, say Grant and Clarke, produces more carbon emissions than burning gas. Disaster.

Instead, they argue that timber should be left unburnt, thus imprisoning the carbon, and put to other uses; for example, as structural timber, insulation material or furniture. As owners of low-energy houses fuelled by wood burning stoves, they are both gutted too. ‘We don’t want people to hate us,’ Nick told me. ‘Please don’t shoot the messenger.’ The unfortunate result of assuming that wood-burning is carbon neutral is that it has been promoted by just about everyone, which has meant, as they point out, that wood is now being burnt faster than it’s grown, leading to rising prices and unsustainable burning practices to start.

Read the full article by Sue Wheat, and check out the comments section which has some useful links posted by the author.


Sustainability: Longevity V. Maintenance

Posted in Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on February 24th, 2011

Source: Wide Urban World

Photo of Teotihuacan © K Archdeacon

From “Were ancient cities sustainable?” by Michael E. Smith:

As an archaeologist, I have a very different view of sustainability than most scholars who study the contemporary world. For sustainability today, one of the standard definitions is that of Gro Harlem Bruntland: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” There is much debate and discussion about this definition and its usefulness, but the dual components of current practices and potential future outcomes are fundamental for most writers.

Archaeology deals with human society over long time spans—centuries and even millennia. For me, a sustainable society is one that lasts for a long time. In central Mexico, Teotihuacan society flourished for five centuries or more, while many of the societies that came later were only around for a couple of centuries before collapsing. Teotihuacan was far more sustainable. People sometimes wonder why Classic Maya civilization collapsed, assuming that their society and practices must have been defective. But the Maya cities lasted even longer than Teotihuacan. My own society in the USA has lasted less than half as long as the Classic Maya, so perhaps the Maya had a more sustainable society than we have today.


Read the rest of this article by Michael E. Smith.

Dr. Vandana Shiva on the Future of Food

Posted in Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on February 23rd, 2011

Source: Permaculture Research Institute of Australia

Dr. Vandana Shiva shares a lucid discussion on Monsanto’s inexplicable view of nature as the enemy of mankind, and their determination to sell us ‘liberation’ from it. Aside from being an impossible battle, it’s also a wholly misguided one, based on a self-interested, short-term-thinking profit mentality, rather than the much needed acceptance of, and cooperation with, biological realities we need to see instead.  Films by Cooking Up A Story.

Watch the video, in three parts, on the PRI website: “Vandana Shiva: The Future of Food”

World’s first post-growth economy?

Posted in Opinion, Research by Rob Eales on February 9th, 2011

Source: Make Wealth History

Image by Matthew David Powell via Flickr under this Creative Commons licence

One of the problems with moving towards a more sustainable model for the world seems to be the current economic system which champions, and is based on, growth.  It is hard to image how the world could be like once this model has been superseded:  what will it look like?  How will I fit in to it?

Perhaps however a post-growth world is already starting to appear or in some cases is already here,

From: Japan: the world’s first post-growth economy by Jeremy

Or do we? Perhaps the world already has a post-growth society, albeit an unintentional one. […]

As far as economists are concerned, this is a tragedy and a disaster. How the mighty have fallen. Japan’s GDP is essentially unchanged since the early nineties, its share of global GDP falling from 17 to just 4%. China overtook it last year to become the world’s second largest economy, and now it limps along as a economic failed state, a cautionary tale for students of capitalism.

And yet, the lights are still on, everything still works. Literacy is high, and crime is low. Life expectancy is better than almost anywhere on earth – 82 years to the US’ 78.

(Not sure what a post-growth ecomony is?  I wasn’t… A Post-Growth Economy FAQ helps.  On the same site.)

Dispersed Cities Vs MegaCities

Posted in Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on February 7th, 2011

Via Trendwatching

Image of Mumbai by Abhisek Sarda via flickr CC

As unfashionable as it might sound, what if we thought less about the benefits of urban density and more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration?

Foreign Policy article Urban Legends: Why suburbs, not cities, are the answer by Joel Kotkin:

The human world is fast becoming an urban world — and according to many, the faster that happens and the bigger the cities get, the better off we all will be. The old suburban model, with families enjoying their own space in detached houses, is increasingly behind us; we’re heading toward heavier reliance on public transit, greater density, and far less personal space. Global cities, even colossal ones like Mumbai and Mexico City, represent our cosmopolitan future, we’re now told; they will be nerve centers of international commerce and technological innovation just like the great metropolises of the past — only with the Internet and smart phones.

It’s far less clear whether the extreme centralization and concentration advocated by these new urban utopians is inevitable — and it’s not at all clear that it’s desirable.

Not all Global Cities are created equal. We can hope the developing-world metropolises of the future will look a lot like the developed-world cities of today, just much, much larger — but that’s not likely to be the case. Today’s Third World megacities face basic challenges in feeding their people, getting them to and from work, and maintaining a minimum level of health. In some, like Mumbai, life expectancy is now at least seven years less than the country as a whole. And many of the world’s largest advanced cities are nestled in relatively declining economies — London, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. All suffer growing income inequality and outward migration of middle-class families. Even in the best of circumstances, the new age of the megacity might well be an era of unparalleled human congestion and gross inequality.

Perhaps we need to consider another approach. As unfashionable as it might sound, what if we thought less about the benefits of urban density and more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration? Instead of overcrowded cities rimmed by hellish new slums, imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities, suburbs, and towns: Which do you think is likelier to produce a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment, and a lifestyle conducive to creative thinking?

So how do we get there? First, we need to dismantle some common urban legends.


Read the rest of this article by Joel Kotkin on the Foreign Policy site for some interesting points about future suburbs (clusters of services in the places people live) and some eye-candy (if you like cities, which I do).

Sustainable Cities: Challenges for the Asia Pacific – Series podcast from

Posted in Opinion, Research, Sustainable Cities by Rob Eales on November 16th, 2010

This series of podcasts from 2008 from ABC Radio, Radio Australia.  It discusses the challenges of cities in the Asia Pacific region with a broad range of local and regional participants.  It discusses transport, infrastructure and livability along with community and identity, how they are defined, exist, can be planned for as well as how they affect the fabric of cities.

It is still current and thought provoking, with the local participants providing a broad range of technical, historical and cultural viewpoints from across the region.

How Might We Live Better Minus Oil? An Ideas Showcase

Posted in Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on September 10th, 2010

Source: Treehugger

With the BP oil spill fresh in everyone’s minds, and the call for solutions to end the collective petroleum addiction rising louder than ever, it’s tempting to just say let’s just stop using oil. But the fact of the matter is that oil has so thoroughly coated every aspect of our lives—despite plenty of personal efforts by TreeHugger readers to limit their eco-impact—that getting us off oil is a gargantuan task, one that is simply impossible to do in one step. Rather it’s a transition, a wholesale shift in the way we construct our towns and cities, how we move ourselves and goods around, how we make and package the goods we consume (as well as how many of them we purchase), how we grow our food, and more. It will take time, effort, and frankly will not be easy. But it is the right thing to do, for ourselves, for the United States, and for the planet.

Check out this Treehugger Slideshow: a thought-provoking look at how we can start this all-important transition, and how we can all live minus oil.

Criminalising Environmental Destruction: Ecocide

Posted in Movements, Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on August 17th, 2010

Source: The Ecologist

From “Ecocide: making environmental destruction a criminal offence” by David Hawkins:

Lawyer Polly Higgins is spearheading a campaign to have ‘ecocide’ recognised by the UN as an international crime against peace. But how will this work in practice?

Ecocide has always been a moral crime, but British lawyer Polly Higgins sees it differently: ‘until it is legally a crime it’s not going to be thought of as wrong. Banks are willing to put our money – public money – into some of the most destructive practices on the planet because they see nothing wrong with it.’  Higgins is leading a new campaign to have ecocide recognised by the United Nations as an international crime against peace. She defines ecocide as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.’  With population growth and climate change, ecocide is increasingly likely to lead to resource wars. Hence, Higgins argues, it is a potential crime against peace and requires international action because of its capacity to be, in legalese, ‘trans-boundary and multi-jurisdictional’.

Among current examples of ecocide are the Alberta tar sands, Amazonian logging, oceanic plastic pollution, damage from oil extraction in the Niger Delta, the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah and so on, along with more dispersed problems such as polluted waters, which Higgins claims ‘account for the death of more people than all forms of violence including war’. Ecocide is now going on all over the world on an unprecedented scale.  Luckily, she says, many of the tools needed to prosecute such cases are already in existence. ‘The International Criminal Court (ICC) was formed in 2002 to prosecute individuals for breaches of four Crimes Against Peace. They are: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression.’ A case can begin from something as small as a letter from a community or individual.

If ecocide laws are passed by the UN there will be many ramifications. The complementarity principle means that ‘once something is put in as an international law, then each member state should put in their own national law to comply with it’. The ICC will step in if there is an inability or failure (individual countries may not want to challenge their extractive industries) to implement legislation on a national level. ‘This sends a strong message that you can’t lobby your way out of the situation,’ says Higgins.  As well as the legal machinery, Higgins points to existing information-gathering networks in the form of NGOs, many of which are specialised to study and campaign on specific ecosystems. Working together they will be able to present comprehensive damage reports. Read the rest of this entry »

Converting from coal-fired to biomass?

Posted in Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on August 13th, 2010


Image: thewritingzone via flickr CC

From UK’s largest coal-fired power plant could switch to biomass within 10 years by Tim Webb:

Drax, Britain’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, could stop burning coal by the end of the decade. Finance director Tony Quinlan said the company was looking to convert all six units of the coal-fired power station so they only burn biomass, such as wood chip, within the next 10 years. “Drax is a viable business today as a coal plant,” he told the Guardian. “But the opportunity to turn it into a renewable power company is an exciting one and makes sense for the UK’s carbon targets and for our shareholders.”

The company will only go ahead if the government agrees to grant renewable subsidies to such converted coal plants. Currently only purpose-built biomass plants receive extra payouts to cover their higher costs. Drax hopes to convert the first unit – capable of generating 660MW of electricity – next year. It is thought that no coal plant of this size has been converted anywhere in the world. “It has not been done before because there hasn’t been the need,” Quinlan said.


Some environmentalists question how sustainable biomass can be – because growing energy crops can result in rainforests being destroyed or can compete for land with food production. Greenpeace energy campaigner Joss Garman said: “There’s a serious question about whether it’s sensible to use biomass in this way. While sustainable biomass is possible, the precious supplies available should be used in much smarter ways.”

Drax has biomass supply contracts in place but refuses to divulge where the material will come from, citing commercial confidentiality. Material such as wood chip pellets will be imported from North America and Africa, while UK-sourced biomass like tree stumps and corn stubble will also be used. Drax insists that all of it will be sustainably sourced.

Read the full article by Tim Webb.