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Archive for the ‘Green Infrastructure’ Category

Call them the 1%, the 2%, or even generously extend the designation to 20% as Andrew Ross does, people at the upper end of the income scale are the people who can afford to be green – IF green means hybrid vehicles, solar voltaics, and LEED-certified buildings (yes, there are some exceptions). In Ross’s new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City, Phoenix is the context for an exploration of the relationship between income inequality and sustainability. Ross discussed this part of the book in a New York Times article this week titled The Darker Side of Green.  Ross cautions that a low-carbon lifestyle among the affluent will not be enough to slow climate change. The lessons that Ross uncovered in Phoenix are ones worth heeding, IMO.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent.

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The economic downturn has hastened the move to stormwater green infrastructure (GI) approaches (e.g., permeable paving, vegetative swales, rain gardens, green roofs) as a way to combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the United States. Federal policies that mandate water quality improvements in cities have commonly been met with arguments about how the new measures will not be financially feasible (even in the pre-Clean Water Act days when urban creeks might be called “bubbly” because of methane discharge from rotting waste). However, the financial argument carries weight even with regulators in today’s fiscal environment, and U.S. EPA is now signaling a willingness to be more flexible in the arrangements it makes with cities. EPA’s embrace of stormwater green infrastructure has been apparent for some time, and that trend appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Greenwire, a subscription service, reports on new guidance to regulators from EPA’s water chief, Nancy Stoner, and uses the following example of past agreements with major cities:

Over the past 10 years, EPA and the Department of Justice have sought to stop the overflows by suing cities and striking settlement agreements that require massive upgrades. As a result, at least 40 cities or sewer systems across the United States have entered into such agreements with EPA since 1999.

The agreements tend to require rebuilding pipelines, expanding treatment plants and digging underground tunnels big enough for subway trains. The tunnels act as storage tanks for stormwater that would normally pour into waterways and allow time for treatment plants to clean up the mess.

As part of its 2003 consent decree with the federal government, Washington, D.C., broke ground last month on a $2.6 billion tunnel-building project, the largest since construction of the metropolitan area’s subway system. The tunnel will be 23 feet wide and 100 feet deep and will extend 4.5 miles from the sewage-treatment plant along the east bank of the Potomac River, crossing under the Anacostia River and extending to RFK Stadium on the city’s east side. [Emphasis added.]

With eye-opening treatment options like that, it is no wonder that cities are interested in hosting GI experimentation. Hoping to head off even more tunnel construction, the Washington, D.C. Water General Manager is enthusiastic about contributing to the GI body of knowledge!

“No city or utility has ever done a sustained and large-scale pilot study of green roofs, trees and porous pavement to help in those areas,” D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said. “We hope to do just that.”

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In a comment on this post, Svend Rumbold points out that the data about bird and bat mortality is probably based on impacts with conventional horizontal axis turbines and not the vertical axis models. Digging a little deeper into the sources for the Climatewire story, I find these things:

  • Bird and bat mortalities from wind turbines are becoming more significant problems globally because of the phenomenal increase in the wind energy industry – now growing more in developing countries than in industrialized ones. (See the Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, by REN21.)
  • Curiously, the 116-page REN21 report mentions vertical axis turbines only once, and it was in relation to ocean technology – suggesting to me that almost all of the growth in wind farms involves horizontal axis turbines.
  • The American Bird Conservancy is actively promoting bird- and bat-friendly wind projects, and the organization endorses a set of recommendations that was developed in 2007 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee.
  • The 2007 advisory guidelines are all about landscape planning and say virtually nothing about technology choice. The emphasis is on landscape-level analysis and site selection, detailed site studies, site construction best management practices, post-construction mortality studies, and other monitoring. It seems that there is some degree of confidence that better site selection can lead to fewer mortalities.
  • U.S. politics enters the equation: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued new draft guidelines in July – guidelines that the wind industry applauds and the American Bird Conservancy opposes because most of the wildlife protection language has been removed.
  • The bat research cited in Climatewire is this:  Baerwald, E.F., G.H. D’Amours, B.J. Klug, et al. 2008. Barotrauma is a significant cause of bat fatalities at wind turbines. Current Biology 18 (16): R695-R696. The same authors published a study in July of this year where they document their bat migration research based on bat mortality on wind farms in Alberta, Canada.

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The roots of landscape planning and design extend into many disciplines. Just communicating what this knowledge domain entails is complicated, and new terminology seems to arise almost yearly. It is interesting to compare the rise and fall of these terms over time, and Google Ngram Viewer makes it easy, thanks to Google’s 5 million+ scanned books. Here are two comparisons I explored (click on images to enlarge):

Google Ngram Viewer

Google Ngram Viewer

Response to a reader’s question about what these graphs show: Google has digitized over 5 million books that cover a long expanse of time. All the words in those 5 million books are now searchable. The key to the graphs would be the specific books that were scanned. I have searched for some pretty unique phrases, like carrying capacity, and found that the graphs reflect my personal observations/familiarity with the literature pretty well.

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What do you do when historical data is no longer useful for predicting the future? Climate change is making the already-difficult proposition of predicting environmental phenomena even harder. Consider societal efforts to manage the flood system. The concept of a 100-year flood is based on the idea that history is useful indicator of future states and “most likely” scenarios. A 2010 paper by Gersonius et al.* tackles the question of how we might begin to plan for shifts in flooding regimes by using adaptive management strategies. This paper is at the leading edge of climate adaptation design research, and there is a need for much more.

Gersonius et al. contrast the traditional approach with an adaptive approach. They say that traditional approaches are based on the assumption “that it is possible to define a singular optimum adaptation strategy according to the ‘most likely’ or average future projection” (p.15). Big investments of public dollars are common with the traditional approach – essentially a large bet on the promise of a singular optimum strategy (one-off interventions). The paper’s authors argue for an adaptively resilient approach instead, an approach better suited to the uncertainties of climate change.

Rather than taking a traditional approach, responsible climate adaptation requires an alternative approach that attempts to assess and manage the resiliency of the flooding system for long-term future change. The aim of this approach is to keep the system within a configuration of states that give at least acceptable functioning despite the occurrence of possible changes (Walker et al. 2002**). This means that the approach acknowledges that projections are ‘always wrong’ and that it is necessary to plan for a range of possible future conditions.

The authors’ modeling results suggest that adaptation decisions that include LEARNING about future climate parameters could reduce overall costs between 5 and 17% over a single high risk traditional, or “robust,” intervention. The figure below illustrates the concept.

(a) Adaptively resilient approach contrasted with (b) traditional "robust" approach

*Gersonius et al. 2010. Managing the flooding system’s resiliency to climate change. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers ES1: 15-22.

** Walker et al. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: A working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6:14.

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In days of tight municipal budgets, all costs have to be scrutinized. The job of Parks and Rec departments across the country includes the maintenance of large expanses of lawn. This practice has long been questioned by the ecologically minded (couldn’t there be a greater mix of cover types?). For the past few years, mowing has been reduced in many places, often to a chorus of complaints, but water provision is also a consideration. For example, news from Helena, Montana (pop. ~30K) about the new Centennial Park, a traditional active rec park, being built in 3 phases on 60 acres (first phase construction began last summer):

The budget also increases water funds for the city’s parks. Of about $80,000, Centennial Park is expected to receive about $60,000 worth of water. The city  is looking to lay sod and start planting in the park soon, and Alles said he  thinks the park may be open for use by the end of the summer.

Looks like it is time to dust off the xeriscaping manuals. Public education about alternatives to lawn, and design to make the alternatives beautiful, will have to accompany changes to park planting and maintenance if ecologically beneficial changes are to take root. Otherwise, when (and if) city coffers are filled again, the default mowing and watering will make a return.

Update: A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology further supports the idea of lawn conversion in city parks.

The study recommends planting more trees on lands currently maintained as lawns. Doing this on just 10% of lawn space would increase [citywide] carbon storage by 12%. (from Treehugger.com)

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An upscale neighborhood in Hinsdale, IL has drainage problems and is considering stormwater green infrastructure (GI) solutions. The neighborhood has been around for decades, but the development boom resulted in many new LARGE houses and associated impervious surface. Now the residents have to agree to a special tax to take care of runoff issues. I found this news account (Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Patch) of how GI is being sold to be interesting:

Under the improvements that would be installed in three phases over the next six years, rain gardens and bioswales—two methods of absorbing stormwater and directing it to natural underground seams—would be installed along the public rights of way in the area. Creech said these gardens will be “tucked in between” the road and residents’ front yards.

Though rain gardens have a reputation for appearing weedy and unattractive, those installed in Woodlands would feature prairie-style, aesthetically pleasing plants.

“For this particular development, the character of the planting is going to be more formal,” Creech said.

Tanks below the rain gardens will collect stormwater and control its distribution back into the underground water seams, according to Creech, making the project environmentally responsible, or “green.”

“We’re just attempting to direct that [water] into the subsurface seam sooner just to take it off the surface,” Creech said.

Underground water seams?  And neat and tidy rain gardens. Should be interesting. But it is a green solution, and indicative of the challenge of educating homeowners. Altering their aesthetic expectations also might have to be part of this exercise.

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Tough times test us. And landscape architecture students who graduated in the last 2-3 years have been tested. The bold, tenacious ones seem to have found ways to make it, even if their motivation and sense of self-worth have been challenged along the way. When they land in a job they love, it is especially sweet. That is the case for Mark Bogdan, a BLA graduate of 2010. He has found his first good career opportunity with a nonprofit organization. (As I keep hearing about new grads being employed by nonprofits, I wonder if it is a trend.) Mark generously shares his experience here in the hope that it will help other newly minted BLAs and MLAs.

I was very worried, nervous, frustrated, almost angry about graduating in this difficult economy.  I tried to make it a point to ‘stay within the industry,’ and I used my past experiences to filter through the job search.  Since I had some construction and site design experience, I applied for everything from entry-level LA, construction foreman at a construction company, residential design/build, nursery worker (to learn more about plants), etc.  Since I had no ties, I applied to big firms who had work in China, India, Dubai, Europe (anywhere and everywhere). Still I had no bites for a job. (more…)

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Syracuse is hoping the nickname “Emerald City” sticks, and that “green” is an identity that will distinguish it from its urban competitors. In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped add substance to the claim by naming Syracuse one of 10 EPA Green Infrastructure (GI) partnership communities. The designation came in response to an ambitious effort by the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County to use stormwater-focused GI techniques (green roofs, rain gardens, rain barrels, and so forth) on an unusually extensive scale – throughout the urban watershed of the City’s main tributary, Onondaga Creek. The Save the Rain program aims to improve water quality in Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake by reducing stormwater runoff that is currently causing combined sewer overflows, a situation common in many U.S. cities. Commitment to the effort, driven by a 2009 amended consent order between NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Onondaga County, the urban context, and scale of the intervention make this an example worth watching.

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Naturally Chilled Water Project

The City of Syracuse is considering a proposal to pipe cool lake water from Lake Ontario or a smaller Finger Lake, Skaneateles Lake, to Downtown Syracuse and the eds and meds district, University Hill, to provide summer cooling to the buildings there. Toronto, our impressive big city neighbor to the northwest, already has such a system in place. The dramatically lower costs of summer cooling would be attractive to businesses considering relocation and be great for the businesses already located in these areas. Dr. James Hassett, professor emeritus of SUNY-ESF, conducted the feasibility study. According to the Syracuse Post Standard, Syracuse would be the first city in the U.S. to stop using electricity to cool its downtown and major institutional buildings if the proposal is adopted.

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