Posts Tagged ‘Provocations’

Pop-Up Placemaking

Posted in Movements, Visions by Kate Archdeacon on September 21st, 2011

Via Sustainable Cities Collective

Photo by John Niedermeyer via flickr CC

From “Cities rethink urban spaces with ‘pop-up’ projects” by Siri Agrell:

‘Pop-up’ urban planning gives cities the freedom to experiment with projects on a temporary basis, allowing innovative ideas a trial run without expensive commitment of taxpayer money. Cities around the world are embracing the idea, leading in many cases to permanent changes in the urban landscape.

If there is a reigning Queen of Pop-Up, it is Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York city transportation commissioner. In 2009, Ms. Sadik-Khan famously closed Times Square to traffic, transforming it into a pedestrian mall by simply throwing down some pylons and offering a smattering of lawn chairs. Although some drivers howled, Ms. Sadik-Khan was ready for the criticism, and began citing statistics she gathered by closely tracking the experiment.

The city quickly found that revenues from businesses in Times Square had risen 71 per cent, and that injuries to motorists and passengers in the project areas dropped 63 per cent. The city installed GPS units into 13,000 taxis so that the Department of Transportation could track the impact on car traffic, and found that northbound trips in the west midtown area around Times Square were actually 17 per cent faster.

The pop-up projects didn’t stop there. Ms. Sadik-Khan brought temporary public swimming pools onto Manhattan streets last summer, and, over the course of a single weekend, she turned a Brooklyn parking lot into a park by painting a white border and filling it in with green to represent grass. “It was a quick way of showing you can transform a space in a matter of hours instead of a matter of years,” she told Esquire magazine.

She performs most of her transformations without capital funds from the city, scrounging up cash and resources and avoiding actually asking permission.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has embraced the tactic, and now uses the term “pilot project” to introduce programs into other departments, including education, making them exempt from the usual approval processes.

Read the full article by Siri Agrell for The Globe and Mail.

For an interesting follow-up, read this March piece in the NY Times, outlining the difficulties faced by the city officials mentioned above. KA

Redefining apathy: Dave Meslin on

Posted in Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on May 31st, 2011

What if Nike advertised the way that local government advertises Notices of Application?

From the transcript:

How often do we hear that people just don’t care? How many times have you been told that real, substantial change isn’t possible because most people are too selfish, too stupid or too lazy to try to make a difference in their community? I propose to you today that apathy as we think we know it doesn’t actually exist, but rather, that people do care, but that we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way.

Local politics — schools, zoning, council elections — hit us where we live. So why don’t more of us actually get involved? Is it apathy? Dave Meslin says no. He identifies 7 barriers that keep us from taking part in our communities, even when we truly care. (Recorded at TEDxToronto, October 2010, in Toronto, Ontario. Duration: 7:05)

Watch the video on TED here – the video seems to run out before the end of Dave’s talk, so read the transcript to get the final few seconds.


City Density Arguments: Wicked Problems

Posted in Movements, Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on May 25th, 2011

Image: Beraldo Leal via flickr CC

“… a lot of what makes cities great is not just their efficiency, but the inefficiencies that also make them attractive and livable.”

The densification of cities and the ways to do so is an ongoing topic of interest here at Sustainable Cities Net.  This article, “The man who thinks Manhattan isn’t dense enough” by Kaid Benfield via Sustainable Cities Collective caught our attention because it shows the complexity of the issue, even among “experts”.

Here are some extracts from the article:

New York County, which comprises all of Manhattan, is the densest county in America, at 71,166 people per square mile. It is twice as dense as number-two Brooklyn (which, incidentally, is followed by two more New York City counties, Bronx and Queens, at numbers three and four, respectively). Manhattan is over four times as dense as number-five San Francisco.

This makes me wonder about Ed Glaeser, a libertarian economist who is the latest hero of some of my new urbanist friends, who have been promoting the heck out of his upcoming speech at their annual meeting. Glaeser thinks Manhattan could be so much better if, you know, we just got rid of some of those pesky rules that get in the way of building still more density. I’m not exaggerating, and I’ll give some examples in a minute.

[…] Glaeser’s current book is called The Triumph of the City. It has received a lot of attention and praise, not least because its author is an intellectual who does his homework and packs a lot of detail into his writing.

[…] He previewed the book in The Atlantic, in an article called “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City.” Here’s Glaeser’s pro-density argument in a nutshell: “The magic of cities comes from their people, but those people must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them. Cities need roads and buildings that enable people to live well and to connect easily with one another . . . in the most desirable cities, whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Arabian Sea, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.”

It’s basically about efficient use of land, and I agree with much of it, though personally I think there is a lot of room for more density in most American cities and suburbs without making it all about skyscrapers. I also agree, to an extent, with other points Glaeser makes in that article and in the book about overzealous NIMBYs and over-prescriptive zoning.  But here’s the rub: a lot of what makes cities great is not just their efficiency, but the inefficiencies that also make them attractive and livable.

[…] Before leaving the topic, I want to return to a point I made earlier, because it’s important: Glaeser is right in his central points about cities and density. They are good for both the environment and the economy, so part of me is glad that his views are getting attention. My issue is with the lack of nuance and the failure to give enough credit to the benefits of preservation and environmental protection, both of which enrich our well-being and that of cities.

Read the full article by Kaid Benfield on Sustainable Cities Collective.

How to Gauge a City’s Carbon Footprint: Linking Emissions to Affluence

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on April 12th, 2011

Source: Environmental Research Web

Image: mikecogh via flickr CC

From “Carbon emissions ‘unrelated to city density’” by Nadya Anscombe:
- When analysing the carbon footprint of a city, most research studies look at the emissions generated by the inhabitants of that city. Typically they come to the conclusion that denser cities produce less carbon emissions on a per capita basis.But Jukka Heinonen and his colleague Seppo Junnila from Aalto University, Finland, have a different way of examining this issue. They believe that emissions should not be allocated to where they are produced, but to where they are consumed.

“For example, if a television is made in a big factory in the countryside, but bought by someone living in a city, the carbon emission generated from the production of that television should be allocated to the consumer, not the factory,” Heinonen told environmentalresearchweb. “When you look at carbon consumption in this way it becomes almost irrelevant where someone lives and how dense the city is in which they live.”

Heinonen and Junnila studied the two largest metropolitan areas in Finland: Helsinki and its two surrounding cities Espoo and Vantaa; and the important inland city of Tampere, together with the seven neighbouring semi-urban cities. The seven cities around Tampere were allocated into two groups: rural cities (RTC) and urban cities (UCT).  The pair found that carbon consumption was directly linked to income and was not necessarily related to the density of the city. “Espoo is a less dense city than Helsinki, but carbon consumption per capita is higher in Espoo than in Helsinki because Espoo is a more affluent city,” said Heinonen.

To come to these conclusions, the researchers used a hybrid life cycle analysis (LCA) approach. This combines the principles of an input–output LCA – where emissions are calculated based on monetary transactions – and a process LCA, where emissions are assessed based on the energy and mass flows in the main production and supply chain processes.  Heinonen and Junnila looked at 10 consumption areas: heat and electricity; building and property; maintenance and operation; private transport; public transportation; consumer goods; leisure goods; leisure services; travelling abroad; and health, nursing and training services.
“We found that the biggest impacts on a consumer’s carbon footprint are heat and electricity; the construction and maintenance of buildings; and private transport,” said Heinonen. “Tampere is considerably more dense than the urban and rural cities surrounding it, but we found a negligible difference in carbon consumption between these three metropolitan areas.”  The researchers believe that their study is a useful model for analysing the emissions of different urban structures that could be used in urban development when low-carbon solutions are sought. They have published their research in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

This article by Nadya Anscombe for Environmental Research Web.

Beyond Food Miles: Some Types Of Food Take More Energy

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 17th, 2011

Source: PostCarbon Institute

Image: renatamiyagusku via flickr CC

From “Beyond Food Miles” by Michael Bomford:

NOTE: The following article is concerned strictly with the energy equation of the food system and is intended to stimulate questions about how best to grow, transport, store and prepare (ideally local) foods. There are many reasons to favor local food, including supporting local economies and building local food security.

A locavore is “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced food.”[1] What better diet could there be for an energy constrained world? After all, feeding Americans accounts for about 15% of US energy use,[2] and the average food item travels more than 5,000 miles from farm to fork.[3] It seems obvious that eating locally will go a long way to reducing food system energy use. Yet cracking the case of America’s energy-intensive food system demands that we look beyond the obvious.

A local diet can reduce energy use somewhat, but there are even more effective ways to tackle the problem. Single-minded pursuit of local food, without consideration of the bigger picture, can actually make things worse from an energy perspective.[4]

If you realize you’re spending too much money, the first thing to do is figure out where it’s going. Cutting back on pizza won’t make much difference if you’re spending most of your money on beer. Similarly, the first step in reducing food system energy use is to figure out where all the energy is going. That’s what a team of economists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did last year, in a report called “Energy Use in the US Food System“.

The report contains some surprises. Transportation is the smallest piece of the food system energy pie. Even farming isn’t a particularly big contributor. The big energy users turn out to be food processing, packaging, selling, and preparation. Our kitchens command the biggest slice of the pie, using twice as much energy as the farms that grew the food in the first place.


Read the full article by Michael Bomford at the Post-Carbon Institute for more information and access to the end-notes included above.


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.

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).

The Environmentalist’s Paradox: Research Paper

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on October 20th, 2010

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Image: eliazar via flickr CC

From The environmentalist’s paradox: Centre researchers analyse why humans do better while the earth does worse:

For some time, ecologists have shown that the Earth’s life support systems are declining. However simultaneously, human wealth, health, education, and life span is increasing.

The paradox not an illusion

In a new paper centre researchers Garry Peterson and Maria Tengö together with collaborators from McGill University untangled these potential explanations of Environmentalist´s Paradox. The authors present four hypotheses to why human well-being is increasing while ecosystem services degrade:

1. Human well-being is actually declining because current ways to measure this are wrong or incomplete.
2. Food production and continued agricultural growth trumps all other ecosystems because only provisioning services are important for human well-being.
3. Technology makes human less dependent on ecosystem services
4. The worst is yet to come: there is a time lag after ecosystem service degradation before human well-being is affected.

As for the first hypothesis, Peterson and colleagues argue that there is a large body of evidence demonstrating that human wellbeing, even of the worst off, has increased during the past fifty years, suggesting that the paradox is not an illusion.

Mixed support for the other hypotheses

Their assessment of the second hypothesis is that agricultural ecosystems strongly support human wellbeing. However, support for hypotheses three and four is mixed. Despite great advances in technology and social organization that have increased the benefits people get from nature, we have increased rather than decreased our use of ecosystems.

There is little evidence from the past of sustained decreases in human wellbeing caused by environmental decline, but as the scope of human use of the planet has increased there are reasons to remain concerned about the future, says co-author Maria Tengö.

There is evidence that regulating ecosystem services that maintain stable environments for people are decreasing locally, while we are also pushing the entire earth system across its planetary boundaries.

These findings do not show that the environment is unimportant but rather that people are extremely innovative and adaptive. However, the careless destruction of ecological infrastructure is leaving people worse off than they would be if we made more thoughtful investments in ecological infrastructure. We have a lot of understanding of how humanity alters the biosphere, but little understanding of how these changes impact us, says Garry Peterson.

Time to invest in ecological infrastructure

The authors argue that humanity is under-investing in ecological infrastructure, and suggest three areas: agriculture, cities, and infrastructure, where increased management, research, and governance to enhance ecosystem services could yield major gains in human wellbeing.

Major reasons for this lack of investment are disciplinary boundaries among researchers and inadequate attention to environmental governance.

Researchers often address narrow aspects of global environmental change, based upon disciplinary assumptions that are often unconvincing to researchers outside their own discipline. We need research that addresses practical questions beyond disciplinary focus as well as increased theoretical and practical attention to environmental governance, say Peterson and Tengö.


Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald and Laura Pfeifer 2010 Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why is Human Well-Being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience 60(8):576-589. doi: 10.1525/bio.2010.60.8.4

The environmentalist’s paradox

Gatecrashing the Energy Sector: Disruptive Ideas Wanted

Posted in seeking by Kate Archdeacon on September 30th, 2010

Source: Forum for the Future

Image: Icrontic via flickr CC

If we are to overcome the dual challenges of climate change and energy security we require a radical shift in how we generate, distribute, store and use energy.  History tells us that this kind of significant change rarely comes from the companies which have found success in the existing system and we have to look to the fringes or even outside for the really disruptive ideas. The automobile profoundly changed our systems of transport, our cities and our lives, but the Model T Ford was not invented by builders of horse-drawn carriages.

Forum for the Future, supported by The Tellus Mater Foundation, is launching an experimental project to find and encourage those disruptive ideas. We want to help outsiders gatecrash the energy sector and shake up its preconceived ideas. This is not about renewables versus nuclear or centralised versus distributed. This is about changing our day-to-day relationship with energy.

Help spark a low-carbon energy revolution at

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 »