openalex: EcoDistricts: All Green, All in One Place

[I was in Portland when the EcoDistrict project was launched and have been following it ever since.  It’s still in its early days, but I think it’s a great approach to speed the evolution of our cities. Originally posted  @SustainableCitiesCanada.]

You’ve probably seen pictures of London’s BedZED , or Malmo’s Western Harbour redevelopment. Showpiece green developments like those have put urban sustainability in the international spotlight.

But all around them is a larger city that also needs to evolve radically if we are going to make sustainable cities a reality. Otherwise the substance is missing; you’ve got the cherry on top, but no Sunday underneath.

The magic of developments like BedZED, or projects like Victoria’s Dockside Green here in Canada, is that they do it all, and all in one place. Renewable energy, walkable vibrant density, multiple transportation options, urban agriculture, green buildings…. all woven together into a whole that is inspiring and effective. Rather than piecemeal interventions you get a picture of what a fundamentally different city could look like.

But how can you apply the same holistic approach to the neighbourhoods and districts that we already have? Portland (OR) is one of a small number of cities pioneering efforts to answer that question.

Building EcoDistricts
In 2009 the city launched the EcoDistrict program to accelerate the transformation of five existing neighbourhoods. EcoDistricts pursues the type of neighbourhood-scale interventions that you might expect, ranging from district energy to green streets. But at the core of the whole endeavour is the insight that to operate at a district scale the challenges aren’t primarily about technology, they are about people.

Unlike greenfield developments, working with existing neighbourhoods means working with a complex mix of residents, businesses, developers, utilities and municipal agencies. The EcoDistrict process begins by building a framework that allows all these different players to work together and supplies them with resources and strategies to begin remaking their part of the city.

The Elusive “How”: People
Portland aims to make the EcoDistrict approach something that can be applied in other cities (see their upcoming summit). How well it will transfer remains to be seen. At the same time, other cities will also develop their own approach to collaboratively transforming existing cityscapes. Montreal’s Quartiers 21 and Quartiers Verts programs, for example, also use the neighbourhood scale as a place to test out innovative ideas and processes of public engagement.

In the end the specific process cities follow isn’t as important as how they frame the challenge. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the “what” of urban sustainability; the “how” has always been a bit more elusive. Portland’s EcoDistricts program shows that it is possible to mobilize the complex mixture of different people and institutions in a way that makes holistic green urbanism possible.

It will be interesting to see which Canadian city will be the first to do the same.

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openalex: Canadian Cities Lead on Planning for Climate Impacts

[I was suprised to see Canadian cities come out in the lead on adaptation.  But also a bit disturbed to see just how nascent these efforts are, not just here, but globally.  We’ve got a long way to go… @ sustainable cities canada]
Canadian cities are world leaders in preparing for the impacts of climate change. That is according to a new report from M.I.T. [.pdf] . The report provides the first global survey of what cities are doing to prepare for a more volatile climate. But while Canadian cities may be leaders, action everywhere is still in its infancy. There is a striking gap between the serious risks cities need to prepare for and the resources available for the job.

Not long ago people didn’t want to talk about adapting to climate change. In some cities – particularly in wealthy Northern countries – there was a sense of optimism and invulnerability. Discussing adaptation was also taboo; it was seen to take away from efforts to reduce our emissions. It was like admitting defeat.

But with global efforts to cap emissions failing, that began to change.

Iconic metropolises like New York and London began assessing the serious impact that an unstable climate would have on them. Late in 2010 planning guides were released in both the US and Canada to help all cities to identify their vulnerabilities and plan for new conditions.

The M.I.T. report, lead by Dr. JoAnn Carmin a top expert on urban adaptation planning, gives us our first view of the overall state of affairs. Based on survey responses from 468 cities on six continents the report provides interesting big picture conclusions, as well as more specific regional insights.

Climate Change Has Landed, But Resources Are Lacking
The first is that climate change has landed. Fully 79% of cities surveyed report that they are already feeling the impacts of stronger storms, longer droughts, flooding, and higher temperatures. This is leading to concerns over their ability to deal with increased future risks ranging from damage to municipal infrastructure, to the emergence of new diseases and declining housing safety.

Overall, despite having identified high levels of vulnerability, cities globally report that they lack the financial, institutional, and political resources that they need to respond effectively. Even basic preliminary work – like creating a vulnerability assessment – is stretching available resources. Sixty percent of cities are receiving no support whatsoever for their adaptation work. This is exacerbated by difficulty winning support for adaptation from local officials, and a perception that national governments know little about the impact that climate change will have on their cities.

Canadian Cities Leading (Minus the Feds and Business)
Canadian cities stand out in a number of ways. They report the second highest rate of engagement with adaptation planning. They also report relatively high rates of support for adaptation work from local politicians and government departments. As a result Canadian cities lead their peers in various aspects of planning for the impacts of climate change. Canadian cities also stand out for the relatively high level of financial support they receive from the Provinces.

While the Provinces may be supportive, the story is different when if comes to the Federal government. Seventy percent of Canadian cities reported that national government had only a partial grasp of the local impacts of climate change; 30% reported that the federal government had no understanding at all. The only country reporting lower confidence in national government was the United States.

Interestingly, Canada is also the only country where not a single municipality reported involving business in the adaptation planning processes. Our cities are also exceptionally unconcerned with the economic impacts of climate change. Only a small minority report being worried about potential losses of revenue, tourism, or jobs. Put those two together and it seems to me we may be overlooking both valuable partners and important risks.

Working Alone
While these last two may be troubling for Canadians, overall the report draws attention to a much bigger challenge. Cities around the world are only just beginning to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Most are conducting preliminary meetings with local government departments, doing on-line research, and forming commissions or task forces to support adaptation planning.

Going from there to creating strategies and integrating them into municipal operations will be a huge leap. Everything indicates that cities currently lack the political, financial, and institutional resources that they need to accomplish that critical work.

[I’ve covered work on urban adaptation quite a lot over the past few years. If you are interested in more, see these past articles.]

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openalex: Green Cities, Open Data

[How the Open Data movement can fuel the push for more sustainable cities is something that I been mulling over for years. I finally had the chance to write something on it for Sustainable Cities Canada.] Toronto is the least bikeable of Canada’s large cities, and we’ve got the numbers

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openalex: Green Cities, Open Data

[How the Open Data movement can fuel the push for more sustainable cities is something that I been mulling over for years. I finally had the chance to write something on it for Sustainable Cities Canada.] Toronto is the least bikeable of Canada’s large cities, and we’ve got the numbers

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openalex: Green Cities, Open Data

[How the Open Data movement can fuel the push for more sustainable cities is something that I been mulling over for years. I finally had the chance to write something on it for Sustainable Cities Canada.]

Toronto is the least bikeable of Canada’s large cities, and we’ve got the numbers to prove it. Released earlier this month, Bikescore is an online calculator that ranks the overall bikeability of North American cities. Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal lead the pack in Canada (T.O. comes in at 7th place, well after Saskatoon, Calgary and Halifax). With eye-catching “heat maps” Bikescore also looks inside the top 10 Canadian and American cities to show where cyclists will feel most at home.

The maps themselves are excellent and well worth a browse. But beyond that, Bikescore is an example of what is happening at the overlap of urban sustainability and another force that is reshaping how we inhabit our cities: the open data movement. [keep reading @SSC or…]

Open Data Dividends
The open data movement is a push to make public the reams of government data on everything from transportation use to water infrastructure. Advocacy groups like Montreal Ouvert and have sprung up across Canada and the U.S. Thanks in part to their pressure, both Federal and State / Provincial governments have embraced the movement. Cities in particular have responded to the call. In Canada alone there are close to 20 municipalities with some form of open data program. Vancouver, one of the first “open” cities, has been sharing data since 2009.

The movement claims multiple dividends, not least being increased government transparency and the democratization of access to publicly collected data (which can otherwise set you back a hefty fee). But another attraction for municipalities is the possibility of crowd-sourcing innovative applications. Bikescore, and its even more successful parent Walkscore, are perfect examples.

Crowd-Sourcing Innovation
The backbone of both services is information on urban space and transit that allows them to create detailed calculations about the livability of urban areas. To do this they combine scores based on bike infrastructure, terrain, transit access and the proximity of other amenities (parks, schools, shops etc.) . The end result is clear, insightful and directly linked to the current push to create denser, mixed-use and highly livable neighbourhoods.

Much of the underlying data may be collected by municipalities, but planning departments rarely have software engineers on staff. Making the data public can put it in the hands of people with the skills to push it to its limits. In this case a professional team that includes former Microsoft staffers working in partnership with researchers at UBC and SFU.

Cities are also using application designing contests to challenge local software developers. New York City, one of the first to try this approach, just wrapped up the third edition of their annual “Big Apps” contest. My favourite winners include a particularly elegant transit planner , and an application that helps would-be gardeners locate and negotiate access to vacant city land in their neighbourhood.

Datascape: Challenge and Opportunity
City’s are fast getting a new kind of topography, a datascape that – thanks to our mobile devices – is being layered over our existing cities and transforming the way we interact with urban spaces. The challenge of deep urban sustainability is in many cases one of unlocking innovation and making the most of available resources. I’ve long argued that that isn’t something that municipalities can do on their own. But models for truly meaningful public engagement – not just consultation – are limited. What the open data movement provides is way to change that and boost the processing power focused on the riddle of creating greener cities.

There are many open questions. Which city will be the first to have a truly multi-modal transit app, or one that helps chart tree canopy cover and reduce the urban heat island effect? Which one will be first to show residents average waste generated in their neighbourhoods, or the water and energy that is consumed there?

Finding answers will require cities to share more and better data, and developers to spot how that data can be used most effectively. Urban sustainability is a perfect challenge, and a perfect opportunity, for the open data movement. We are all waiting to see whether cities and software developers will rise to the occasion.

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openalex: Beyond Urban Agriculture

[Here’s the next installment in the ongoing series that I am contributing to the Sustainable Cities Canada site. It plays on some of the same issues that Afton mentioned in her earlier post.  But I wanted to push the accepted boundaries of what we discuss under the heading “urban agriculture”

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openalex: Beyond Urban Agriculture

[Here’s the next installment in the ongoing series that I am contributing to the Sustainable Cities Canada site. It plays on some of the same issues that Afton mentioned in her earlier post.  But I wanted to push the accepted boundaries of what we discuss under the heading “urban agriculture” and make the case that the new interest in growing food in cities can also energize broader regional food strategies.]

Growing food in cities has become sexy. Sexy to a degree that I would never have predicted even a few years ago. The internet is overrun with pictures of futuristic farmscrapers and creatives in Manhattan are growing hydroponic lettuce in their loft windows. In parts of Montreal heirloom tomatoes are as much of a status symbol as purebred pets.

But underneath this glossy skin there is a potentially profound change in how we think about cities. Largely seen as places of consumption, more and more people are beginning to open their eyes to the productive potential of urban spaces. Spurred by concerns over food security, climate change, or just plain nutritional value, urban agriculture is maturing into an established part of cities across Canada and around the world. But its true impact is still to come. Continue reading @ SSC or…

The next step is to link the energy behind the movement to a broader vision of the place of the cities (and municipal policies) in our food systems at the regional – not just the urban – scale.

Coming of Age
Urban agriculture in North America came of age over the past decade. Two big projects during those years showed that it could be more than a weekend pastime. First, working with some of the poorest neighbourhoods of Milwaukee and Chicago Growing Power – a non-profit started by ex-basketball player Will Allen – transformed vacant and industrial land into highly productive urban farms.

The farms yield thousands of kilos of fresh produce a year, and that produce is sold and distributed within the communities that help produce it. These communities had previously been “food deserts”: they had plenty of fast-food joints but suffered from a crippling lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Allen (who has since been awarded a McArthur Genius Grant) saw an opportunity to use urban agriculture to create a holistic solution to linked problems of urban blight, malnutrition, and poverty.

The second big win for urban agriculture was the opening of Lufa Farms‘ first roof-top greenhouse in Montreal in 2011. The 32,000 square-foot greenhouse is the first installation of its kind in the world. Using an advanced hydroponic system Lufa is producing high yields year round, all while increasing the building’s energy efficiency. Lufa, which has partnered with an industrial developer to expand to new sites, proved that commercial scale urban farming was more than science fiction.

These two projects are inspiring signposts in a landscape that is filling with related efforts both big and small.

Beyond City Limits
But cities will never meet their food production needs within their own boundaries. If we are serious about engaging with agriculture from an urban point of view, we need to widen our gaze to the regions that surround the places most of us call home.

Preserving the agricultural land that circles many of our urban centers is a key place to start. Paving over prime farm fields is a bad idea. But balancing the pressure of growth against the need to protect farmland is no easy task. The nearly 40 year history of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in the Vancouver region shows that it is possible, but only when municipal and regional governments and citizens take an active role in the process.

Maintaining access to land is only one part of this larger puzzle though. Equally important is ensuring the viability of our peri-urban farms. Fruit producers in the Niagara region, for example, have been hit hard by the closure of processing and distribution plants that they relied on to get their produce to market.

More collaborative and grassroots processing and distribution models like farmer’s coops and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) are one response. In the case of CSAs they also directly link urbanites and farmers, and in some cases help ease the transition years as farms work towards certified organic status. But municipal and provincial governments also have a key part to play in attracting and retaining the larger scale processors that allow local produce to reach regional and export markets.

Is that really urban agriculture?
Land reserves, CSAs, and fruit canneries? Is that really urban agriculture? That depends.

If you think that the city stops at a line on a map then no. But a city is more than a place. It’s also a web of relationships and influences that push out well beyond its boundaries. Looking at cities that way opens up a broader vision of what counts as part of the urban agriculture movement. Rather than just seeing cities as productive places, they become productive players at the heart of larger sustainable regional food systems. If we really want to increase food security or reduce food-miles that is the direction we need to be headed. And with more and more people becoming interested in urban agriculture, this is a great time to use that energy to push our engagement one step further.

image: “Dragonfly Farm NYC” via inhabitat
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openalex: Beyond Urban Agriculture

[Here’s the next installment in the ongoing series that I am contributing to the Sustainable Cities Canada site. It plays on some of the same issues that Afton mentioned in her earlier post.  But I wanted to push the accepted boundaries of what we discuss under the heading “urban agriculture”

Continue reading

openalex: Cities and Food Systems Planning – Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

[Recently back from Tanzania, Afton Halloran is an Affiliated Researcher in the research program that I direct for Sustainable Cities International. She has an interesting post over on the SCI blog about why cities need to engage with food systems planning, and how urban agriculture figures in that equation. A taste is below.]

“We live in cities because rural livelihoods are no longer viable, but who produces the food?”

Although the modern city provides a multitude of opportunities, we are now on our way to creating a negative feedback loop that is more visible in the global North than South – we are ignoring what fuels our society: Food. So what do we do?

Obviously, de-urbanisation is out of the question. We are now left to acknowledge the rural-urban continuum and the interconnectedness of agriculture at the regional level.
Read More @Sustainable Cities

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openalex: Experimental Cities

[Below is a post that I just wrote for I’ve been thinking about this idea that cities can function as laboratories for developing policies for a while now. It’s an interesting alternative or complement to more traditional top-down approaches to planning. But beyond novelty, I think if used well

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openalex: Chicago Kills Coal

Great news out of Chicago yesterday. After a two-and-a-half year campaign, a well networked citizens campaign has managed to secure the closure of two outdated and heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. The Fisk and Crawford power plants are located in residential neighbourhoods on Chicago’s Southwest Side. They are relics from

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