September 2008 Archives

Friday was a typical feast day in the Bay Area for sustainability events. Something had to give.

The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) held "Sustainable Communities 2008," West Coast Green did its annual show in San Jose and Gov. Schwarzenegger addressed the SF Commonwealth Club on the second anniversary of AB 32.

I spoke at West Coast Green on Sustainability Dashboards with Gil Friend of Natural Logic and Peter Sharer, CEO of Agilewaves. I've known Gil since the early 1990s, in 1997 we devised the Integrated Resource Efficiency Management Plan for Willie Brown and Mission Bay in SF. I had just met Peter at the event. We had a nice full room, good questions and no margin for error in a packed 45 minutes.

CNU's morning program was brilliant, with Peter Schwarz from Global Business Network; Whole Earth Catalog publisher and The WELL founder Stewart Brand; and Smart Growth guru Peter Calthorpe all honoring Sim Van Der Ryn, the legendary green building and community designer.


Schwartz told how a broken Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and an imploding Ferderal Interstate Highway System are leading indicators of the collapse of sprawl as the uberforce of American community design.

Said CNU President and former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist "Sprawl is the number one risk factor in real estate development," he said. "The good news is that you can retrofit sprawl and make it enjoyable."

Schwartz, who co-authored some of the leading scenarios (pre-"Inconvenient Truth") on the security impacts of climate change for the Department of Defense, said that global climate change demands something akin to a world EPA.

Calthorpe, of Peter Calthorpe and Associates, told the oft-repeated truism of how cities are leading the way with sustainability policy and thought over national government with a new twist: cities are sharing best practices by traveling around and kibbitzing with one another in what he called "lateral learning."

"The feds are last to get the message," he said, and he went on to illustrate how Sim Van Der Ryn's systems thinking (and doing) as State Architect under former California Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s--passive daylighting, active solar, social engineering, geothermal and biomass energy, and bio-retenion systems--set the stage for his firm's projects with barrier islands in Lousiana, transit villages in Los Angeles and Portland's city streets.

Most memorable was Brand's video of a just-in-time market in Mumbai, India, that is unpacked when a train comes to let it through, and then people pop down awnings, produce and wares right on the tracks seconds from when the train has rolled through.

Meanwhile, Sim table hopped, to sit with his many different admirers. Sorry I had to miss his award and hope we are able to get together soon as planned. He has been using slides from my book How Green is Your City? in his presentations, we are on some parallel paths.

And Gov. Arnold? As I said, something had to give.



San Francisco's biggest green building in scale and grandeur (410,000 sq. feet) is opening to the public this week, the new Academy of Sciences, housing a planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum. I was able to take a peek in advance as a member.



The building is pending a LEED Platinum designation, the highest grade given to the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program. It was devised by Italian designer Renzi Piano and features:

  • a huge Expo-67 like green roof, with two and a half acres of native habitat for the endangered Checkerspot butterfly
  • active solar and even more impressive, passive solar lighting and passive ventilation, featuring outdoor air supplied the surrounding Golden Gate Park "Virginia mated with Borneo" ecosystem (thanks Mark Reisner).
  • A living rainforest display with simulated rainfall, semi-free roaming birds and lots of real humidity in a self-contained orb (pictured below).
  • A bunch of eco features such as denim insulation, recycled steel structural members and guiding frogprints from points of local public transportation egress.  



I loved the covered piazza created in the center of the building. When I entered it, I was the only one in its large but cozy space. The air was fresh and cooler than the rest of the building, providing a needed respite fron the crowds of sneak peak members milling about the exhibits.

The piazza, which an attentive guide told me was created as an homage to Piano's native Italy's central public spaces, reminded me of San Francisco cafes, which have a habit of leaving their door open even on the chilliest of winter days (this was a foggy summer morning in the Sunset District, after all).

My only moment of disappointment was in the bathroom, where signs above the toilets bragged about how "these highly-efficient water conserving toilets are available for purchase for your home, too." 

Yeah, they sure are. At 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) they are required for any new construction or remodel throughout the state. Our home 0.8/ 1.4 gpf model is nearly twice as efficient, and cost only $50 after our water district rebate.

Other than that, splendissima






A terrorist couldn't have planned it any better.

Hurricane Ike and its record expected 10-27 foot storm surge is headed directly for the Houston Ship Channel and the region that provides the nation's chemicals, oil refining and natural gas pipeline operational centers, it also is a major port for Midwest grain transport.

Expect gas prices to rise for weeks or months, and don't be surprised to experience gas shortages or even gas outages in parts of the country. Gas prices surged to $5 a gallon at the pump in some locations this morning already.

Though "only" a Category 2 hurricane, Ike covers a freakishly large area, with tropical storm winds extending 550 miles and hurricane force winds covering 240 miles. This will bring a forecast storm surge up to 30 feet in parts of the Texas coast, with the highest surge taking dead aim for Galveston Bay and near La Port and Baytown where the Houston Ship Channel begins.

Dr. Jeff Masters, one of the nation's leading experts, called it this morning, "poised to become one of the most damaging hurricanes of all time."  

Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff in today's Wall Street Journal called Ike's directly hitting the Houston Ship Channel "one of the nightmare scenarios in the world of hurricane watching." He said it could damage "a lot of the energy and chemcial resources we depend on in this country."


Besides the national economic damage Ike will inflict, expect massive human health and environmental consequences from the pending disaster. The region of southeast Houston and southeast Texas is home to hundreds of chemical plants and dozens of refineries, with 89 percent handling hazardous waste. The neighborhoods surrounding the channel are largely Hispanic, some by more than 90 percent.

I wonder if local Texas officials have reached out to Hispanics through media and other ways, so that they can be evacuated from what may become the equivalent of the Ninth Ward during Katrina in New Orleans. In coastal Freeport, no special outreach was made to "undocumented" communities, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

This event portends to reshape the US energy economy, disaster preparedness and the implications of climate change adaptation (see my blog entries from earlier this week).

My hope is that people make it out of there safely while there is still time.

Ed: Click images above for full-size, updated versions.

The 5th Annual Conference on Climate Change in California wrapped up yesterday, and speakers took on the hard questions that follow on the heels of the scientific acknowledgement that at least some global man-made climate change is now occurring thorughout the world, and that includes California.

Greenhouse gases have "lifetimes of decades if not centuries," according to Scripps Institute of Oceanography's Dan Cayan, and there is likely to be ongoing impacts at every level of culture, society and the economy.

The so-called "wicked problems" the state faces--the term taken from Dan Cayan's label of "problems that are all tangled up in different processes"--are rife.

  • Water allocation, with Sierra snowpack forecast to decrease 30-90 percent from 2020 through 2090, creating a scramble for water among users. UC Berkeley's Michael Hanemann noted that the state was not measuring current diversions of water or groundwater use.
  • The costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation: How expensive will it be? Who will pay and will there be a way to allocate costs equitably? 
  • Communcation of both the nature and scale of the problem to the American populace, media and policy makers is a challenge since scientific data can be misinterpreted, misunderstood or downright ignored. "We're not good entertainers," Dr. Cayan ad-libbed to the amusement of the large audience of mainly scientists.
  • More and more data and information is needed, according to the California Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow, to better forecast and prepare for damage to human settlements and ecosystems through climate change induced flood, drought and wildfires.

So what were some of the best ideas that came forth during the Sacramento event once the caveats cleared?

Economics professor Hanemann suggested that the state come up with climate change adaptation plans similar to existing urban water management plans. Just as the water management plans do for extreme drought, climate change adaptation plans could scope what could be done by state, regional and local government to prepare for worst-case scenarios (drought, flood, heat stroms, wildfires) in land use, transportation and public health.

ICLEI's Gary Cook outlined how that international member-based organization is leading assessments and actions plans for climate resilient communities in four US locations: Keene, NH; Homer, AK; Miami-Dade County, FL; and Ft. Collins, CO.

Art Rosenfeld, longtime commissioner of conference host the California Energy Commission, spoke on day one about how cool roofs--a very low cost or even no extra cost technology--reduces cooling use by 20 percent in homes and businesses, while reducing overall urban heat islands.

This one step taken in all new construction in the world's largest 100 cities, which at the CEC's behest California is mandating for all new and rebuilt homes next year, would save 400 billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to more than the greenhouse gas emissions of all nations for an entire year.

And people would pay less on their energy bills, providing a net positive financial impact immediately for all homes that use air conditioning.

In addition to state policies like AB 32, which would reduce overall emissions by 70 percent come 2050 with myriad such policies to reduce building, transportation, government and industry carbon emissions, there is no one silver bullet. 

California is beginning to demonstrate that such wicked problems must be attacked with an almost endless arsenal of research, policy, programatic, product and management innovation. 




The California Energy Commission (CEC) hosted its fifth annual confab on climate change, delving into mitigation policy and practices, as well as how the world's eigth-largest economy is adapting to the climate change that is already occurring.

For the rest of the nation, California and this conference can be considered a litmus test of what is coming down the road (literally and figuratively) for the US transportation, energy and building industries.

"We are a nation state, and we are able to move issues along pretty well," said CEC Commissioner James Boyd, who said the CEC put out its first report analyzing climate change impacts on state policy and resources in 1999.

Boyd outlined major policy drivers facing the state as it implements its "California Global Climate Solutions Act of 2006" (AB 32):

1. Energy security: "During the 1970s OPEC jerked our chain and the nation's economy shuddered," Boyd said.

2. Environmental quality/ fuel supply/ price volatility/ global climate change: "9/11 woke up a lot of people to the fact that people in other places are controlling something we are way too depandedant on." Besides California being such a large economy, it is the world's third biggest consumer of gasoline, Boyd noted earlier, with its transportation sector producing the biggest share of its greenhouse gases.

Dan Sperling, board member of The California Air Resources Board, gave a grim forecast of what the state, nation and world are up against in terms of energy supply and demand, and carbon emissions. 

"Over the next 10 years, the world will consume one quarter of all the oil consumed in the world's entire history. We're more dependent on few sources--nations are competing with one another."

Sperling said his agency wanted the state be more proactive in preparing for these developments: "Our number one goal is to stimulate innovation in behavior, technologies and institutions."

In terms of the state's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which has been subject to challenges by the Bush Administration EPA, California is proposing that gasoline-based transportation be replaced by a mix of at least 10 percent lower-carbon fuels by 2020. Sperling said the state is leaning toward advocating a mix of electric, hydrogen and biofuels.

California Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman and Stanford professor and co-Nobel prize winner Terry Root concluded the morning with climate trends and adapation measures that will be needed to cope with the state's already shifting percipitation, rising temperatures and sea level rises.

Root summarized the loss in Sierra Nevada snowpack precipitation, the main source of California's water supply, as decreasing up to 30 percent by the 2020s, and up to 90 percent by later in the century. She also said 20-30 percent of species are thought to be at risk by the 2020s because of climate change.  


Lucky for me I was able to be in town for Labor Day weekend, and immersed myself in Slow Food Nation as well as San Francisco's Sunday Streets event.

It's so inspiring that wholistic urban sustainability is becoming a reality, and that is making carbon-reduction fun, profitable, innovative and, yes, delicious. 

My family and I took our bikes to the ferry to the sunny city and pedeled around the car-free city streets, with roller skaters, tricyclists, runners, walkers and pogo-stickers.


The Sunday Streets events was the first if its kind for San Francisco. This year Portland, Oregon, and New York City have already done the same, in the mold of Bogota, Columbia's Ciclovia. It was a big hit, stressing physical fitness at different stations along the waterfront with activities for the kids and hula hoops for everyone else. Kudos to Mayor Newsom, the department of parking and traffic that blocked off auto traffic and all the volunteers.  

Our destination was the Victory Garden in front of San Francisco City Hall, the community centerpiece of the Slow Food Nation festival.  Slow Food Nation celebrated local, organic, tasty, fair and humane American food, the largest celebration of its kind, with 60,000 attending the three-day proceedings. 


Besides the gorgeous 1/3-acre victory garden, where children and adults visibily delighted in experiencing a working food plot (200 pounds going to food banks this week alone), we went to a tasting of some of the best food purveyors in the nation Saturday evening.


Some food highlights: a truly white (clear) old vine Fume Blanc from Oregon, Rubicon's 2004 estate red, chocolate from Madgasgar, pickled vegetables, acme bread pizza, wild coffee beans from Eritrea.

I also chatted with many luminaries: Vandana Shiva, who is saving thousands of species of rice from extinction in India; John Knox, co-founder of the Earth Island Institute and Michael Dimock, of the Roots of Change fund, which helped Slow Food organize the event.

Sue Conley co-founder of the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, CA, told me that higher energy prices have made her legendary cheese business take off even more recently.  

She opined that we are at a watershed moment, when locally produced food starts to lose its "gourmet" connotations and starts to be known as the healthy, high quality way to put our money where our mouths are, which will help local economies while preserving our valuable farm and pastureland from getting paved over forever.



About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

August 2008 is the previous archive.

October 2008 is the next archive.

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