openalex: Sustainable Urban Resilience: A Contradiction in Terms?

David Bello, Associate Editor over at Scientific American, has an interesting post up today looking at the supposed tensions between “resilience” and “sustainability”. His argument in a nutshell is that precisely the characteristics that make many urban systems resilient can also make them deeply unsustainable from an environmental point of view.
He’s right, sort of. But really what’s at stake here is a redefinition of how we build resilience into our urban systems.

It’s not so much a contradiction as an evolution. Let me show you what I mean.

As Bello points out, both “resilience” and “sustainability” are hot these days. Read any recent municipal planning document or press release and you’ll find them sprinkled about liberally like some kind of magic spice. 
But what happens when the two come into conflict? Think of fail-safes like combined sewer outflows (CSOs) that dump raw sewage into local streams when storms overwhelm infrastructure, or diesel generators that protect residents and businesses from failures in the electricity grid. Both are key (and common) examples of elements that increase the ability of a system to weather a crisis, but at significant environmental costs.
I was working in Durban (South Africa) when storms ravaged the coastal city flushing effluent out along the city’s beaches and then later when the national electricity grid collapsed (due to poor management, not weather) leaving residents and businesses reliant on diesel generators for months. The tradeoffs between resilience and sustainability were glaring.
Buzzwords Old and New
So, is the current adulation of the two concepts really just a trendy contradiction in terms? That’s the lure that Bello uses to hook the reader. Contradictions are captivating. He changes tune later though, hinting at the way in which conceptions of resilience are shifting: Green roofs and bioswails can create resilience just as well as CSOs, and they purify water rather than polluting it.
But that’s where he ends. To me that’s really just the beginning.
City’s have always cared about “resilience”, even if they called it something else. It only takes one failure to make the case that systems need to have some form of redundancy built into them. The question is how you provide that redundancy. What Bello is calling a contradiction is really just one old approach to resilience rubbing up against a new one.
Holistic Approaches to Resilience
Up until very recently, urban resilience was created by offloading localized stresses onto the surrounding environment. It’s no surprise that solutions designed following that model conflict with attempts to make cities more environmentally sustainable. But the contradiction lies in the method, not the goal of resilience itself.
More recent approaches to resilience emphasize synergies between built and natural systems. Cities have moved in that direction not simply because green is trendy, but because it yields better results. Engineered natural storm water systems (like green roofs or bioswails) address multiple forms of resilience simultaneously: they protect sewage systems from flooding, and they also reduce the urban heat island effect and increase resilience to heatwaves. Choosing decentralized solar over diesel adds redundancy, while also increasing air quality. 
Definitions of resilience have also been broadened to include issues like health, food security, and social cohesion. Looking just at bricks and pipes only capture part of the story.
So can cities be both green and resilient? Yes. But to get there means changing the ways we’ve provided resilience in the past, and making the most of solutions that provide for multiple forms of resilience simultaneously. 
photo: bioswale, Greg Raisman
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openalex: Seriously Cycling: Bikes Are Getting More Attention All Across Canada

[Here’s my latest post over at @SustainableCitiesCanada ]

Anyone who has been cycling in Canadian cities over the past fifteen years knows that things are changing.

When I left Montreal for Vancouver in 2002 the city’s streets were still an aggressive dance between bike couriers, cars, and cyclists who wanted to ride like couriers (I’ll sheepishly admit to being one of them). Downtown cycling was only for the brave.

But by the time I returned in 2010 a sea change had occurred: in less than a decade the city had added over 600 kms of bike paths, many covering crucial commuter corridors that connect the length and breadth of the island.

It was like being in another world. Instead of weaving through traffic, I found myself in a curb separated lane with my own set of traffic signals. Cycling – in other words – had become an integral part of the city’s transportation strategy.

Unlikely Leaders

During that time a similar shift began in municipalities all across the country, and it continues to develop as I write. This week Toronto unveiled its first curb separated bike lane, with more to come (although simultaneous plans to remouve other routes have caused controversy). Last year Ottawa became the first city in Ontario to put in similar infrastructure, and has nearly doubled its cycling network since 2000.

Winnipeg has quintupled the amount of money it spends on active-transportation corridors and it will start work on an active-transportation master plan next year. Quebec city is about to adopt a cycling master plan. And this weekend Halifax will conclude public consultations on plans to create its first crosstown cycling corridor. All of these projects are the result of dedicated local activism combined with new interest among local officials.

Recognition that cycling is a real transit solution has spread well beyond traditional leaders. You’d expect Vancouver to be at the front of the pack, but Calgary?

This summer the municipality hired Tom Thivener as its first full-time cycling coordinator. Thivener hails from Tucson (Arizona) where he helped increase bike ridership by 58% between 2009 and 2010. Under his guidance, Calgary is poised to spend $20 million over the next three years to improve commuter cycling infrastructure.

New York city is probably the best example of this trend of unlikely leaders. Would you bike through Manhattan? Following a campaign to introduce cycling infrastructure and reduce conflicts between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians, cycling increased 26% between 2008 and 2009. Every day more than 200,000 people now bike to work in the Big Apple.

If You Build It (right), They Will Come.

Investments in cycling infrastructure is clearly linked to overall ridership. But there is still a long way to go. Only a small percentage of people in Canadian cities bike to work. The average for most mid-sized and large cities is close to 2%.

There are many reasons to do better. For starters a large portion of urban greenhouse gas emissions are transportation related. But – picking up a thread Sarah posted on earlier this week – bikes are also a great example of the type of holistic solutions that will help us build deeply sustainable cities. Increased cycling, supported by proper cycling infrastructure, has positive impacts on health, air quality, street safety, and overall liveability.

Cycling is a transit option that is accessible regardless of income level. Studies have also shown that building cycling infrastructure creates more local jobs than a comparable amount spent on traditional auto-centric roadways.

Future Cyclists: Women

So what should our objectives be?

Specific targets will vary from city to city. But understanding who cycles now is one powerful way to try to increase future ridership. Currently young men represent the dominant group of cyclists in most cities. A better metric for success is women.

Cycling researchers have highlighted female cyclists in particular as an “indicator species” for the bike-friendliness of a given area. This may have some direct impacts on how we design the next generation of cycling infrastructure. In Tucson, for example, Thivener significantly increased female ridership by focusing on the type of facilities they preferred and putting in place “bike boulevards” rather than on-street bike lanes.

One way or another, creating infrastructure that is safe and appealing to a broader demographic is our next challenge.

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openalex: METRO MTL: The Boardgame!

Montrealer’s and transit geeks will love this.  Yes, it’s a boardgame inspired by Montreal’s iconic metro. I discovered the other day at Chez Boris, a hip little Russian Coffeeshop that’s part of Montreal’s nascent ‘nouveau doughnut’ scene.      The goal is simple, whoever gets to their destination and back

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openalex: METRO MTL: The Boardgame!

Montrealer’s and transit geeks will love this.  Yes, it’s a boardgame inspired by Montreal’s iconic metro. I discovered the other day at Chez Boris, a hip little Russian Coffeeshop that’s part of Montreal’s nascent ‘nouveau doughnut’ scene.      The goal is simple, whoever gets to their destination and back

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openalex: Rebel Gardens: Veggies that Change Policies

Last month I was interviewed by Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper about an unusual case of “guerilla” gardening.  A couple, in the nearby town of Drummondville, had transformed the grassy verge in front of their home into a stunning vegetable garden (and it really is a beautiful garden) [english coverage].

The city council was outraged.

In return for their efforts, the city threatened them with fines of up to $300 per day until they covered over their garden with what regulations said was supposed to be in front of their house… namely: grass. But the story ended well.

Grassroots innovation and experimentation is a powerful thing. Citizens and community groups can roll-out programs that prove innovative concepts and show where outdated regulations are standing in the way.  I’ve seen that dynamic all over the place from North America to South Africa.

Sometimes cities intentionally work with community groups, other times the exchanges can be more confrontational. But, as I told Le Devoir, even confrontation (if handled well) can be a powerful force for shaking things up and identifying where outdated regulations are holding back good projects.

In this case, Michel and Josée’s garden did just that. Responding to a wave of local and on-line support, the municipality announced that new regulations will be introduced to allow residents to grow food in front of their homes.

I’m collecting stories like this of independent small projects that become large collective and system changing forces. So if you’ve got others, let me know.

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openalex: Hack Your City: An Interview with David Eaves

[I’ve turned to David Eaves many times over the past few years to swap ideas and get some insights into the goals and impact of the open data movement.  He’s amazingly busy these days, but after a few tries (across multiple continents) we managed to find a time to do this interview. Thanks David!  — originally @SustainableCitiesCanada).]

Earlier this Summer I blogged about what providing open access to public data could do for urban sustainability. Since then New York held its first green hackathon, and Montreal is set to follow suit.
The overlap between the green cities and open data movements is something of a terra incognita: there’s lots of potential, but we are only just starting to explore it.

I recently caught up with open data expert David Eaves to talk about green urbanism and open data in more detail. Based in Vancouver, Eaves is an internationally recognized consultant and activist in the field. We’ve spoken a few times over the years. Despite being amazingly busy, I’ve always found him to be thoughtful and insightful. Squeezed in between back to back trips to China and Washington, our most recent conversation was no exception.

Alex Aylett: What are the best examples of what open data can accomplish in cities?

David Eaves: The single biggest example remains what has been done around transit. Open data has really changed the way people use transit. A big piece of that is the fact that there is a single standard, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), for reporting the data. Transit apps can scale really well from one city to the next, because they are all built around that same standard.

But it is important not to focus just on the apps. What is interesting is what they allow people to do. The first versions of the GTFS really changed how people plan their movements in a city. In particular they change what it is like to be a visitor in a city. They are what makes it possible for you to consult Google Transit and get around a new place without always wondering “how would a local person be doing this?”
Now with GTFS 2 we are seeing cities add real time data. Schedules are great, but in most cities buses don’t run on time. They get stuck in traffic, things happen. When you take open data about routes and scheduling and add the real time positions of buses you can combine long term and short term planning really effectively.

AA: You can plan the trip you are going to take tomorrow, and then, if the bus is late, decide whether you should wait a bit more or walk down to the metro.

DE: Exactly. And the impact is that more people take transit. There is at least one research paper that shows that it really increases the number of people who use the bus.

Other great examples of what cities have done are more local. In Vancouver for example, Bing Thom Architects just released an assessment of the impacts that sea level rise is going to have on Vancouver. That work was largely built on open data.
In San Francisco they are just sharing public data, they are also asking the public to help them collect data. They have been using an open tree map to collaboratively inventory the entire urban forest. It’s part of a larger project to map all the trees in the city. People have input hundreds of trees into the system, which takes a load off of municipal employees. When they assessed the data they found that it is just as accurate as data input by trained staff.

AA: Transit, climate change impacts, urban greening… Everything you mentioned so far has been directly linked to specific areas that are critical to urban sustainability. At a more general level what do you think the overlap is between the open data movement and the challenge of building green climate smart cities?

DE: Well, If we are going to do more green things we are going to have to allocate our very limited capital as efficiently as we possibly can. You can try to do that by gut feeling. But one way that you can be more effective at that is by having geospatial information about municipal assets, emissions, traffic patterns, transit patterns… Weaving all those different types of data together can help you figure out “if we are going to invest one dollar where will it have the most impact?”

And not just public dollars, but also private dollars, and the time and efforts of civil-society groups and citizens. And here I’m talking about everything from identifying gaps in the services that are accessible in specific communities to creating more community gardens.

AA: How do you see that working?

DE: Let’s take community gardens. It would be really interesting to have all the cadastral data from Montreal and then to map all the unused or underused spaces. With that you could have a social hackathon where people help to sort the assets into different types: old railways, municipal lands, parks… Knowing the characteristics of those different types of land would let you identify sites that could be turned into gardens.

But because your are doing it at that level [the level of the whole city] you can go beyond approaching each site in isolation. Analysing the data at a city-scale gives you the foundation for designing new policies. Policies that can help transform multiple sites. Say you realize you have long stretches of old railway. Instead of doing things one garden at a time, you can put in place a policy that guides the greening of old rail assets across the city.

Using different kinds of data you could identify prime sites for green roofs across a city, or spot holes in the types of services residents can access at their local community centres.

And this doesn’t have to be all about developing apps for phones and computers. People can also sit down around a table and figure these things out with a pencil and paper – so long as they have good data to work with.

AA: What are some common mistakes that cities make when it comes to open data programs?

DE: They don’t think strategically. Often they simply release a grab-bag of different data sets and expect something to emerge from it. But that’s not really how it works. On the one hand, city’s really need to listen to what kinds of data people are interested in and then follow through on that.

But cities also need to think strategically about how they can use data to drive policy outcomes. One example that I use often is sharing restaurant inspection data. When that data is public it doesn’t take long before there is an application developed that allows people to check the record of local restaurants and make informed choices. That’s good for the people who use it. But it’s also good for the city’s goal of maintaining food safety standards because it increases the costs faced by restaurants that don’t comply.

AA: I’ve heard you say that there are important internal benefits for governments when they put in place an open data policy. Could you elaborate on that?

DE: In my experience, very often users of open data portals are actually coming from within the government itself. They are employees from one department who want data from another department, but who (before open data) didn’t have access to it. Open data policies give them that access. That in turn really reduces the transaction costs of designing smart well informed policy.

The alternative is public money being wasted. Wasted either on the time public servants have to spend in meetings to negotiate access to public data, or wasted when one level of government charges another for the ability to use its data. Open data does away with all that.

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openalex: Biophilic Cities: This is Your City on Nature

[I wrapped up last week getting into research on biophilia and biophilic cities. The post originally went up over at @SustainableCitiesCanada. The impact that lush green spaces have on us is impressive. Well beyond what I would have expected. It seems, according to comments on the original piece, that even eating dirt is good for us.]

Another summer city weekend is almost here. Chances are there is a park in your future: urban parks offer the ultimate escape from the noise and the heat. Great parks are a defining feature of great cities – Montreal’s Mount Royal, Stanley Park in Vancouver, the Retiro in Madrid or whatever your favourite green spot is in your own neighbourhood.

But there is more going on than Frisbee and picnics. A growing number of studies show that time spent in natural settings measurably improves our ability to concentrate, our sense of wellbeing and even fights depression. We are, in a word, a biophylic species, hard wired to draw support from contact with the natural world.

Research on biophilia isn’t new.  The term was coined in the 1980s by prominent American biologist E.O. Wilson and work on the theme has been ongoing ever since. I’ve been digging through some of the material recently though, and have been hooked by what I’ve found. It’s fascinating reading. More than that, it makes you wonder how what we know about the relation between green spaces and well-being could influence the way we redesign our cities.

Your Brain on Nature
Perhaps the most startling finding of studies into biophilia is that being in natural settings actually changes the chemistry of our brains. Views of a forest for example – as compared to say gray streetscapes – stimulate the brain’s pleasure systems, triggering our opioid receptors and the release of dopamine.

Beyond pleasure, a University of Michigan study [pdf]  conducted in 2008 also showed that people’s attention and memory skills improved notably after a walk through a forested park. The authors argue that lush green spaces relieve the brain of the constant multi-tasking necessary to negotiate the crowded sidewalks and multiple stimulus of city streets. Like sleep, this restores the brain’s ability to focus and function effectively.  Earlier this year the same team conducted a similar experiment with patients who suffered from severe depression. Here again participants experienced significant improvements in their level of wellbeing.

Relatively small changes to building and landscape design have been shown to have measurable effects. Even something as simple as access to natural lighting or views of outdoor trees have been shown to improve wellbeing and workplace performance. But an upcoming study in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests that for full effect nothing beats settings that completely cut off our views of the surrounding city.

These don’t necessarily have to be immense parks. Even small green spaces if properly designed can provide the experience of being immersed in nature. (As it happens, even on a small scale natural spaces with denser canopy cover also significantly increase urban biodiversity.)
The exploding interest in green roofs, green walls, urban gardening, and natural infrastructure are all  new avenues for weaving nature and the city closer together. Path-breaking work by Timothy Beatly at the University of Virginia provides an excellent look at these and other interventions. They all have multiple benefits that are relevant to everything from reducing urban heat islands to increasing air quality and food security.  But the truth is that people are also just drawn to well designed natural spaces. And it seems we have good reason to be.

Another Take on “Green” Cities
Discussions of urban sustainability often become incredibly technical. But, fundamentally, what we are talking about is reshaping what has become our primary habitat: the city. In that process we can’t  loose sight of the impact that living in cities has on us, in terms of our well being, sense of connection to each other and to the natural world that supports us.

As well as being efficient or having a low-carbon footprint green cities need to be places where people thrive. But saying that “trees are nice” isn’t very helpful when it comes to making planning decisions.  The work around biophilia gives us another strong link between urban sustainability and human health.

It also raises some interesting questions. Parks are great, but what happens when you scale up? What would a biophilic city look like?  Would it simply mean more tree canopy, more immersive parks, and greener bike and pedestrian routes? Or would it go beyond that to change the fabric of our streetscapes in more fundamental ways?

There’s a challenge implicit in the concept of biophilia. A challenge to design cities in ways that enhance our sense of self and our connection to the world around us. That’s a challenge worth taking seriously. What exactly cities would look like if we do is a wide open question.

image: SustainabilityMatters

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