Sunday, January 25, 2009

Green Alley Projects

Among developers and city planners, there is an increasing emphasis on building green neighborhoods, not just green buildings. New Urbanism has been a force within urban planning and architecture to bring the components of a village - walkability, mixed-use, neighborliness - back into North American planning. As medical sociologists, we study and document the connections between communities and human health and well-being. At the center of sustainable urbanism is an intention to, among other things, create, support or revitalize neighborhoods where the requirements for achieving a high quality life can all be met without ever getting into a car. When sustainable communities happen, they not only improve environmental conditions, but they get people exercising, experiencing nature and breathing clean air both indoors and out. As creatures of the planet, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what’s good for the planet’s health is also good for ours. Douglas Farr documents this well in his book, Sustainable Urbanism.

Green Alley Projects are one such way to increase human health and wellbeing. And they are popping up in most major cities across the United States, Canada and elsewhere. As featured on Planetizen in collaboration with grist, these projects are designed to convert concrete alleys used mostly for garbage disposal, parking, and as throughways through urban areas into shared community, green spaces. In Los Angeles, for example, the city's alleyways account for more than 900 linear miles of pavement. Research by the University of Southern California's, Center for Sustainable Cities has shown that activity occurs in alleys only about 20% of the time – and much of that activity involves either driving or walking through.

But today, city alleyways are being converted into shared green spaces that provide community space, planting areas, and for some cities, permeable areas that absorb stormwater. For the cities of Seattle and Vancouver such projects have shown to reduce stormwater flooding and facilitate groundwater recharge. In a two-year study of one pilot project, the amount of stormwater leaving the street was reduced almost completely.

South Los Angeles is home to a high concentration of alleys found in dense single-family residential neighborhoods. The city's Green Alleys Program has the goal of converting these from unsafe, dirty alleys into shared green areas. Similar to Baltimore’s Community Green: Shared Parks in Urban Blocks project that we study, the Green Alleys Program is currently in the process of establishing design and project selection criteria to begin alley conversion.

The importance of these urban alleyways to human health and well-being must be better understood. It is not only the benefits to the aethetics or the improved water or air quality of the neighborhoods, it is also the impact of these gardens on what urban planners and sociologists call social capital. By getting people walking in their neighborhoods, by encouraging participation in local economies, people become more tightly woven into their communities. In our research, we found that having social connections and meaningful bonds facilitate environmental sustainability at both an individual and a community level. In our current research and book project, Healing Green, we are exploring the health impacts of built and non-built environments.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Green Google

This week, several news sources reported on a study of the carbon emissions produced by Googling. The oft-cited analogy (strongly denied by Google) was that the carbon emissions of two Google searches is the equivalent of the emissions produced by boiling a kettle. To put this number in context, Google performs about 200 million searches a day--so, imagine the energy required to boil 100 million kettles every day. Google retorted that your computer will emit more carbon in the time it takes Google to perform your search than Google emits doing the search.

Either way (and especially if both of these things are true), there’s something eye-opening to the facts of the environmental impact of our personal computing and Internet use. The Internet, in particular, tends to seem invisible and thus, benign, in terms of resource consumption. In sociology, we call this a black box phenomena--input goes in, output comes out, and we don’t pay much attention to what goes on in between.

So, what DOES go on in between? And, more importantly, what are companies like Google doing to improve their environmental track record?

The IT industry produces approximately 2% of the world’s carbon emissions; a figure that puts it on par with the airline industry. But, while turbo jets tend to capture our collective imagination with their very obvious display of power and energy-use, our computers and Internet, while pervasive, tend to buzz along below our green radar.

In the 2008 Economist World Report, Tom Standage reports that 49% of these emissions come from personal computers and printers, 37% from telecoms networks and devices and 14% of data centers. The magic that enables us to type the name of an old friend into a search engine and be instantaneously rewarded with a list of Internet sites featuring a matching name, is magic which requires vast amounts of power and energy; it requires mind-boggling numbers of servers and computers; computers that are stored in warehouses that need to be cooled, powered and maintained. It also requires our own personal computers and the power necessary to maintain and ultimately dispose of them. All of this is after the mining for resources that will go into manufacturing electronic devices and the manufacturing itself and all of the attendant energies and waste that THAT generates. It turns out the magic isn’t magic at all but a lot of hard work and non-renewable resources.

So, what’s being done to mitigate the impact of all of this on our planet? Well, as it happens, it is particularly ironic that Google was singled out by this week’s news reports for the carbon emissions produced by their searches because they are sustainability leaders in the IT industry. Google has launched a series of green initiatives that target everything from their commitment to making it easy for their employees to commute to work, to the food they serve at their campuses, to their commitment to using recycled water onsite. Google is leading the way in the creation of zero-carbon data centers: typically, data centers are powered by dirty energy, like coal. But, because data centers for the IT industry can be located literally anywhere in the world, they can be located in places where they can take advantage of clean energy sources such as wind power or geothermal. See Amelia Williamson’s article for how Google and others are venturing into zero carbon data centers. Google is also a board member of a new coalition called Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which is organizing the industry to reduce computer power consumption by 50%.

Ultimately, while the recent news on the energy intensiveness of Google searches may have unfairly targeted the wrong company, we see the media flurry as a positive thing for drawing attention to the too-often-invisible impact of the ubiquitous IT industry on our collective carbon footprint. We know that we will be following the greening of IT much more closely from here on out.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Social Sustainability Site of the Week - Fort Mason Community Garden

Urban community gardens have long been in existence as ways to promote community and alleviate the challenges of social and economic downturns. The Bay area of San Francisco is home to a vibrant community garden movement. While many of these emerged out of the City of Berkeley's Peoples Park movement of the late 1960s, community gardens have been in existence since at least the 1890s as increasing numbers of people moved to urban centers. In her history of the U.S. urban garden movement, City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura Lawson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, details the the evolution of urban garden programs from cultivation and charity societies, to depression era food gardens, to post WWII victory gardens, to todays community garden movement.

On a windy yet sunny day in San Francisco we visited the Fort Mason community garden in San Francisco. When we arrived, we found a garden protected from the ocean and bay winds by a hillside leaving a warm, quiet valley for gardening, social interactions, and strolling through the built-in paths throughout the site. We met two volunteers, Loraine and Joel, both on the four year wait list for a garden plot to call their own. We chatted about their love of gardening and they told us that although there is a four year waiting list anyone can volunteer, meet other gardeners, and work in the dirt. Joel and Lorraine did not know each other prior to volunteering at the garden. Now they talk and work side by side on many days each month and they seem to have become friends and neighbors.

The community garden at Fort Mason was organized in the early 1970s by artists and community activists, with a goal of bringing gardening to public school children and to create gardening jobs. In a history of the Fort Mason garden written by Alexander Dixon in 1988, the story is told of the original garden as a "poet's garden", a "culinary exchange", and a budding "populist arboretum." Today the garden is well organized. It is self-supported, managed by its members, and home to over 125 garden plots. The bulletin board on site lists the names of those on the waiting list, announces activities and upcoming meetings and work days. It also announces the recent deaths of a few men and women who spent many years as members of the garden enriching their lives and clearly touching the lives of others.

We found a community garden movement in San Francisco still going strong, with more gardens being established every year. Our visit enforced for us the importance of building gardens into community development projects not only as a way to provide open green spaces, but to meet many of the differing needs of residents. Gardens provide educational opportunities for school-aged children on food sources and organic cooking as well as environmental stewardship. For adults, gardens provide both recreational activity and economic relief from food prices. Gardens enhance social sustainability as commons, meeting places, intergenerational programming, and opportunities for community involvement.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Living Small

“Better living through simplicity” is the motto for the small house society, an organization dedicated to the promotion of smaller homes. Their mission is “to support the research, development, and use of smaller living spaces that foster sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities worldwide.”

Jay Shafer, one of the groups founders, has lived in tiny houses (all less than 100 square feet) for over ten years now. On his website you can view videos of some of these remarkable spaces and hear Shafer describe what motivated him to embark on this small living adventure. Sustainability was high on his list of reasons: recognizing the impact any sized house has on the environment and wanting to minimize that impact by minimizing the space to what was absolutely necessary. He also hates vacuuming.  Shafer’s philosophy is “dream big, build small” and his company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, creates an array of models of truly tiny houses.

We saw how living in smaller spaces makes a huge difference for environmental sustainability at many of the sites we visited for our book Living Green: Communities that Sustain. Places like Los Angeles Eco-Village emphasize higher quality lives with less space. When you live in less square footage, you consume less energy and, importantly, by necessity, have less stuff. At a place like an Ecovillage or a co-housing community, the downsides of having less space (i.e., no guest room for when Aunt Mildred comes to visit) or less stuff (i.e. no table saw when you need one) are tempered by the ample shared space and shared stuff.

And, the benefits of living with less are not only environmental. A growing number of people are finding themselves drawn to the “small house movement” because of the economic implications. Less square footage and less stuff is cheaper to maintain.

Andy Thomson, founder of Sustain Design Studio has created the miniHome. In an interview by David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Thomson described how the fact that we in North America currently consume so much energy that we would need ten additional planets to sustain ourselves, led him to try and create a house that would use one tenth of the energy of a standard house--thereby reducing our consumption to a sustainable, one planet level. The result is the miniHome.  It's an off-the-grid, prefabricated, modern home that stands at just 325 square feet.  Thompson lived in one (may still live in one) with his wife and two young children. Check it out on the Sustain Design Studio website.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome Michael Meneer

We are pleased to welcome Michael Meneer to our Social Green team as our communications consultant. Michael brings to Social Green over ten years of public affairs, strategic communications and political experience in Vancouver and Washington D.C. Michael will be spearheading the book launch of Living Green: Communities that Sustain the first book to be published in our Social Green series. We look forward to working together to share our research findings about the best social practices of green building design and developments.