Miami fights climate change with fees derived from new waterfront condos

Miami can could lose big with the consequences of climate change but in order to fight the consequences, the city needs to approve more oceanfront development:

The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes…

By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell…

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. We are going to have to get creative.”

It is hard for cities to turn down development when the luxury market is hot. Not only does an overheated housing market attract new residents, a hip reputation, and the interest of developers, it can also generate money for the city through taxes, fees, and increased spending.

Yet, development isn’t simply a game where more equals better. Whether the consequences are flooding or gentrification or a lack of affordable housing, cities tend to approve such projects that bring in money and growth. But, this ignores the bigger picture and the broader consequences that could affect everyone. The money may be pouring in now but what happens if this leads to flooding and a hampered tourist and investor economy for decades to come? What if avoiding the question of affordable housing contributes to other social problems or causes needed workers and citizens to move to other communities? As urban sociologists have asked for decades, who wins when big development takes place? Usually not the normal citizens. Instead, the growth machines – the powerful businesspeople and politicians – tend to profit.

Of course, funding to combat future problems is not easy to obtain. No state income tax in Florida helps contribute to hot housing markets. Should the federal government help pay to alleviate climate change? Should there be state or federal policies that do not allow building such expensive developments right on properties near the ocean (similar questions are raised about floodplains around major rivers)? Cities and other governments have a long way to go in order to figure out this issue.

Beijing air pollution said to be “barely suitable for life”

Bad pollution in Beijing is nothing new but a new report sounds a dire note:

Severe pollution in Beijing has made the Chinese capital “barely suitable” for living, according to an official Chinese report, as the world’s second-largest economy tries to reduce often hazardous levels of smog caused by decades of rapid growth…

The report, by the Beijing-based Social Science Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, ranked the Chinese capital second worst out of 40 global cities for its environmental conditions, official media reported on Thursday.

China’s smog has brought some Chinese cities to a near standstill, caused flight delays and forced schools to shut.

Beijing was hit by severe levels of pollution at least once every week, according to the 2012 Blue Paper for World Cities report. That was on top of a significant level of air pollution covering the capital for 189 days in 2013, according to city’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

While U.S. readers might marvel at this, it wasn’t too long ago that some American cities had a similar problem. Check out some of the pictures of 1940s Pittsburgh or read about the Donora Smog incident near Pittsburgh that killed 22 in 1948. Some of these issues persist today: Los Angeles, and other cities in California, still have persistent smog and particulate issues.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, again topped the charts for ozone pollution, and finished fourth for particulate pollution such as dust and soot, in the American Lung Association’s annual national air quality report card, released on Wednesday…

In terms of air quality, California as a whole dominated the list of the most polluted U.S. cities, accounting for seven of the top 10 for ozone and eight of the top 10 for annual levels of particulate pollution, the American Lung Association said.

Nearly 90 percent of Californians, or 33.5 million people, live in areas plagued by unhealthy air, especially in Los Angeles, the so-called Inland Empire region east of the city, the state capital of Sacramento, and the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, the group’s study found…

However, many California cities have shown steady progress on improving air quality, particularly the Los Angeles region, whose ozone levels have fallen by 36 percent since the organization’s first State of the Air report card in 2000.

See some pictures of smog in Los Angeles over the years here.

“Without Lake Mead, there would be no Las Vegas”

The 14 year drought in southern Nevada, northern Arizona, and southern California threatens Lake Mead and the water supply to Las Vegas and other communities. The ability to have such a city in the middle of a desert is quite remarkable. It rests on the construction of Hoover Dam:

HooverDamJul12

I’ve been there twice and I was impressed both times by the ability to put this all together in the 1930s. Yet, the dam is highly dependent on available water and weather patterns. Here is a look at the lower Lake Mead from the top of Hoover Dam in July 2012:

LakeMeadJul12

While this is partly a cautionary tale about the the limits of human consumption, it also presents an opportunity for human ingenuity. As the news report notes, “Las Vegas actually reuses 93% of its water.” Imagine if all cities in the world reached such levels. Thus, even with an extended drought, Las Vegas may continue to thrive:

BellagioFountainsJul12

The show must go on…

Would you rather have been a European or Native American in 1491?

A 2002 article from The Atlantic about pre-Columbian North and South America includes this fascinating paragraph:

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him—or that’s what my grandfather told me, anyway.

Some of reasons for making this choice:

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of the world’s largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán dazzled Hernán Cortés in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land was “so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people … [that] I would rather live here than any where.”

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European life. France—”by any standards a privileged country,” according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger’s constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts “like common dung” (the simile is Daniel Defoe’s) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, “merely a realistic detail.”

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson’s history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: “the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe.” Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams wrote, “they will not conclude of ought … unto which the people are averse.”

Much to take in.

A new way to fight pollution in Chicago: cement that absorbs smog

Chicago is the first American city to lay concrete that absorbs smog:

There are many sustainable technologies designers can utilize these days to make a project more Earth- and people-friendly, but smog-eating cement isn’t the most talked-about – until now. The City of Chicago is pioneering the use of a revolutionary type of cement that is capable of eradicating the air around it of pollution, potentially reducing the levels of certain common pollutants by 20 – 70% depending on local conditions and the amount of exposed surface area.

Photocatalytic cement isn’t exactly news – it was developed by the leading Italian cement maker Italcementi for the Vatican in honor of the 2,000th anniversary of the Christian faith. The Seat of the Catholic Church commissioned the construction of a new church to commemorate the event and wanted surface material that would retain its new appearance despite Rome‘s high levels of air pollution.

The cement that Italcementi developed uses titanium oxide that, when exposed to natural sunlight, triggers a chemical reaction that catalyses the decomposition of dirt or grime on the cement’s surface; thus, it is self-cleaning. What further research in Europe uncovered, however, was that this cement possessed pollution reduction properties that not even Italcementi could have foreseen, capable of cleaning up smog in adjacent air – up to 2.5 meters away – by breaking down the nitrogen oxides which are the result of burning fossil fuels.

Naturally, this makes the photocatalytic cement a perfect paving material as it successfully reduces the amount of toxins expelled by vehicles and inhaled by pedestrians. Italy and other areas of Europe have already paved many of their roads with the revolutionary material, but Chicago is reportedly the first city in America to adopt it, laying down a thin, permeable pavement for the bicycle and parking lanes on Blue Island Avenue and Cermak Road.

There might be a few issues associated with this:

1. What is the relative cost of laying down this kind of cement compared to other road surfacing material? In Illinois, I’ve read before that laying asphalt is cheaper in the short term compared to concrete but more expensive in the long term because it has to be replaced more frequently.

2. Some may not like this news because if the cement can help fight pollution, people may pay less attention to the effect of cars.

Here is more information on this concrete from an article last October:

According to Nguyen, the titanium dioxide on the cement surface absorbs UV light and uses this energy to react with water vapor in the surrounding air.

The result of this reaction is a highly reactive particle known as a hydroxyl radical.

It is these unstable hydroxyl radicals that in turn decompose a host of other compounds in the surrounding air, including nitrous oxide, a harmful greenhouse gas released in car exhaust…

David Leopold, project manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation, did say the photocatalytic cement is more expensive than regular pavement, but the city expects to see considerable improvement in street-level air quality as a result…

Based on pre-installation estimates, “on a windless day up to about eight feet from the pavement’s surface, you can see demonstrated improvements in air quality,” said Leopold. “Coincidentally, that’s about the height of a person on a bike.”

We’ll see what happens if this concrete is used more widely.

Sprawling suburbanites are out of touch with nature

The author of a new book about sprawl and wildlife describes the connection suburbanites have to nature:

Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living. They live in all kinds of houses, in or out of developments, in small dwellings or McMansions on five acre lots, in second homes, weekend places and recreational farms. I call the latter group “toy farmers.” They dabble at growing things, raising chickens or a few sheep. They keep a horse. They shop at Agway and Tractor Supply. They hire Hispanics to mow and trim and weed. Most sprawl dwellers are on the landscape but not of it.

Q: What do you mean by “on the landscape but not of it”?

A: From baby boomers forward, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural landscape, even the adulterated one where we live. Unlike our grandparents, most of us no longer have the stewardship skills needed to manage the ecosystems around us. Many of us don’t want them managed at all. These people want nature to take its course — even though they are managing the landscape around them like crazy by living in it. And we don’t have the time to deal with it. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors — in houses, offices or cars. We get our nature from movies and TV, now piped into digital screens. We see films that have been edited to make wild creatures behave like pets or people.

Q: What’s the connection between sprawl and wildlife?

A: The 19th century conservationists didn’t conceive of sprawl. How could they? No one had lived like this before. Some people say that in sprawling out, we encroached on wildlife habitat and, therefore, the problems are the fault of us not wild creatures. It’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land. But that’s only half the story. In fact, wildlife encroached right back. Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people.

Sounds about right: nature via televisions, iPads, and looking out the window.

There is a complicated history behind the suburbs and nature. In the 1800s, the suburbs were seen as a place where residents could return to nature. Cities were seen as anti-nature with their dense collections of people, factories, and infrastructure. In contrast, the suburbs offered lawns around single-family homes set back from the streets, nearby parks, and winding streets that minimized the visual impact of development. A classic example of this is Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Yet, the nature in the suburbs was carefully controlled. Lawns were manicured and landscaped as were many parks.

In the mass suburb era after World War II, nature took a backseat to development. You can find many pictures of subdivisions being prepared for construction where the ground has been flattened and trees flattened. Starting around the early 1970s, new planning techniques tried to reclaim more land in subdivisions by clustering development. New planning paradigms like New Urbanism have incorporated talk about sustainability and responsible development. However, having more suburban open space also means this space still tended to be highly controlled. For a good read on connections between suburbanization and the environment, check out Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

The legal future: climate-change litigation?

Perhaps climate-change litigation is where lots of money is to be made in the coming decades:

In the past three years, the number of climate-related lawsuits has ballooned, filling the void of political efforts in tackling greenhouse-gas emissions.

Eyeing the money-spinning potential, some major commercial law firms now place climate-change litigation in their Internet shop window…

But legal experts sound a note of caution, warning that this is a new and mist-shrouded area of justice.

Many obstacles lie ahead before a Western court awards a cent in climate damages and even more before the award is upheld on appeal…

Lawsuits in the United States related directly or indirectly almost tripled in 2010 over 2009, reaching 132 filings after 48 a year earlier, according to a Deutsche Bank report.

Elsewhere in the world, the total of lawsuits is far lower than in the US, but nearly doubled between 2008 and 2010, when 32 cases were filed, according to a tally compiled by AFP from specialist sites.

Sounds like it will take some time and some important rulings before this field comes into greater focus.

Two questions:

1. How much money could be at stake in these sorts of lawsuits?

2. Does this mean this will be the subject of the next John Grisham novel?