Sustainability: 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. 





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 a archive of entries in the Sustainability category from September 2008.

Sustainability: August 2008 is the previous archive.

Sustainability: October 2008 is the next archive.

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