The Pope as urban critic

The latest encyclical from Pope Francis includes commentary on large cities in the third world:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the pope’s new encyclical on climate change is its commentary on the rapid growth of cities in the developing world, a phenomenon the pontiff lacerates as dehumanizing.

Early in the document, the pope observes: “Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

He blasts “green” neighborhoods that are open to the privileged, not the poor. “Frequently,” he writes, “we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”…

As if offering an alternative to the vapid isolation of the trophy skyscrapers of China and Dubai, the pope’s encyclical springs from the idea of “integral ecology,” which argues that care for the environment and the welfare of human beings are inseparable.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,'” the pope states, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Megacities in the developing world often do have huge environmental problems – see Planet of Slums for an evocative look at the use of land and where waste goes. The Pope’s comments regarding nature and cities seem to be rooted in economic inequality. If you are wealthy, you can purchase small pieces of nature, escape harmful environmental effects (like living new power plants or polluting uses in American cities), and afford a life of consumerism where the waste you produce in a “throwaway culture” (a phrase Pope Francis has used before) is sent somewhere else. Yet, does this speak to a broader lack of interest in big cities where people are “deprived of physical contact with nature”? A more sprawling city that provides more space for nature may exacerbate economic inequalities (it can be more expensive to live near the core) as well as reduce the economics of scale that modern big cities might provide (using less land and energy per person with higher densities).

Taxing McMansions and other buildings by roof size to cover stormwater costs

Want a McMansion or another building that covers a lot of ground in Mississauga? You will have to pay more for stormwater costs:

In a move that’s a first for the GTA, Canada’s largest suburb and its sixth largest city will soon charge home owners and businesses for storm water costs based on how much of their property is covered. If you have a very small house that causes little run-off water, you will pay nothing. But if your home is in the highest of five size categories, it will cost $170 in 2016 for your share of the city’s storm-water management costs. It’s an approach that Toronto is also looking at ahead of its 2016 budget process, according to a city spokesperson…

Councillor George Carlson, council’s resident environmentalist, has championed the innovative approach since it was first examined in 2011. He recognizes the impact of climate change, but said development trends are also at the root of the problem. “You can’t use pipes the size of Dixie straws when we need massive concrete culverts,” he said after the meeting. “There were streets in Mississauga that looked like Venice in July of 2013 (when a major storm event wreaked havoc across the GTA).”

“But look at all the asphalt and parking lots and McMansions in this city. All of that covered land is sending more and more run-off water into pipes that were probably already too small. I can see the king and queen needing to live in a castle, but does every third person have to?”…

Charges to businesses will be based on a formula that measures the total covered amount of space, but they will be able to save up to 50 per cent of their fee by putting in measures such as catchment basins and permeable material to prevent storm run-off.

It will be interesting to see how this works out. The Councillor quoted above said he thinks this could have an impact on building sizes down the road. Communities with lots of sprawling development often have water problems and solutions range from permeable pavement to green roofs to taxes like these. But, many of these solutions are after the fact which can get quite costly (just see the massive Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago area).

If the real estate pressure is there to build McMansions, I wonder if there are ways around such a fee. (To be honest, $170 a year doesn’t sound like much for the types who buy McMansions.) What if people built underground to get extra space and to minimize the roof size (a la the luxury underground facilities in London)? Presumably there are height restrictions in the community that would limit building up.

What you can make from giving up your lawn in the West

There are some growing incentives in California and other Western states to replace your lawn with something else:

Even before Brown’s order, some of California’s 411 water districts offered rebates — now as much as $3.75 per square foot — to persuade homeowners to give up on grass.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $1.50 per square foot of lawn replaced with desert landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet. After that, it’s $1 per square foot. Arizona and Utah also have lawn rebate programs…

In addition to paying rebates, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sponsors landscaping contests and offers homeowners free, downloadable designs, divvied into categories, such as “pool-friendly” and “child-friendly.”…

Las Vegas officials say they have removed nearly 4,000 acres of grass, with plans to rip up 3,000 more. In Los Angeles, officials want to take out 25 million square feet of grass by year’s end.

But there’s push-back from the $25-billion-a-year grass industry, which says lawns are good for the environment, producing oxygen, preventing soil erosion and dissipating heat.

Lawns are part of the American Dream and go along with owning a home and having private space. That grass industry is big and many Americans seem to like the status of having a well-kept lawn. Yet, when this dream comes up against ecological realities – as the article goes on to note, LA gets 15 inches of rain on average a year versus 50 inches in New York City – the lawn may just have to go. This isn’t something new; see this earlier post about painting the lawn.

I like the idea of landscaping contests because that would allow homeowners to still fight for status but in more sustainable ways. Perhaps some businesses would even want to sponsor these or offer discounts to those competing. At the same time, I do wonder how neighbors might view some of these new yards, particularly if they are front yard vegetable gardens (one illustration in the article).

Trying to revive wood skyscrapers

The idea of constructing high-rises out of wood and other sustainable materials may just be gathering steam:

This week, an ambitious proposal for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper was unveiled in Vienna, Austria. The 275-foot, €60M timber building will be built next year, and follows in the low-carbon footsteps of recent timber structures in Canada, Australia, and England. The idea of fashioning tall towers from the earth’s natural materials, and not concrete or steel, first began gaining traction in 2013, when the Canadian architect Michael Green introduced the concept to the wider world via a TED talk that has now been viewed more than a million times. “I believe that wood is the most technologically advanced material I can build with,” Green said in his talk. “It just happens to be that Mother Nature holds the patent.”…

Unlike concrete and steel, synthetic materials that together represent eight percent of man’s greenhouse gas emissions, wood has the opposite effect: it takes in massive amounts of carbon dioxide, an obvious upside when cities are growing ever denser. “One cubic meter of wood will store one tonne of carbon dioxide,” Green explained in his TED talk…

At the time when Green gave his talk, the world was home to at least two existing timber structures that could have been considered towers: the Stadthaus residential building by Waugh Thistleton Architects in London, which has nine stories, and the Forté apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia, designed by Lend Lease developers with ten floors. Both buildings were made from panels of cross-laminated timber, which is a form of engineered wood that was originally developed as an alternative to stone and masonry. Unlike typical 2-by-4s, these panels made from many pieces of wood glued together are enormous, around eight feet wide and 64 feet long…It’s also fairly difficult to get cross-laminated timber to catch fire, which appears to be the main concern of supervisory bodies in cities where architects are attempting to use the material in their buildings. Vienna, which will soon have the tallest structure of this sort, has instructed its fire service to conduct special tests on the new building, which will already be required to install more sensitive sprinkler system than those required for other towers.

As the article notes, the main feature appears to be the reduction of carbon use compared to construction with cement and concrete. But, this might also draw the attention of architects less interested in the sustainability but intrigued by another medium with which to innovate. It could be fascinating to see the mix of mediums within a single skyline – imagine the glass skyscrapers of today next to wooden structures that have a entirely different feel.

“How solar power and electric cars could make suburban living a bargain”

New technologies may help the American suburbs live on for decades:

[A] new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Magali A. Delmas and two colleagues from the UCLA Institute of the Environment suggests that recent technologies may help to eradicate this suburban energy use problem. The paper contemplates the possibility that suburbanites — including politically conservative ones — may increasingly become “accidental environmentalists,” simply because of the growing consumer appeal of two green products that are even greener together: electric vehicles and solar panels…

Installing solar panels on the roof of your suburban home means that you’re generating your own electricity — and paying a lot less (or maybe nothing at all) to a utility company as a result. At the same time, if you are able to someday generate enough energy from solar and that energy is also used to power your electric car, well then you might also be able to knock out your gasoline bill. The car would, in effect, run “on sunshine,” as GreenTechMedia puts it.

A trend of bundling together solar and “EVs,” as they’re called, is already apparent in California. And if it continues, notes the paper, then the “suburban carbon curve would bend such that the differential in carbon production between city center residents and suburban residents would shrink.”…

The reason is that, especially as technologies continue to improve, the solar-EV combo may just be too good for suburbanites to pass up — no matter their political ideology. Strikingly, the new paper estimates that for a household that buys an electric vehicle and also owns a solar panel system generating enough power for both the home and the electric car, the monthly cost might be just $89 per month — compared with $255 per month for a household driving a regular car without any solar panels.

Read on for the discussion of how both solar panels and electric cars are becoming cheaper to purchase and operate. Yet, I’m sure environmentalists and critics of sprawl would argue these costs aren’t the only ones incurred by suburban life. Other factors include using more land, spreading out services (from police to shopping centers), the resources needed to build and maintain individual properties, and the loss of community life.

This is another piece of evidence that the suburban based lives, the space where a majority of Americans live, is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Designing an “eco-elegant home”

Interior designer Trudy Dujardin discusses what it takes to have an “eco-elegant home”:

Q. What is an eco-elegant interior?

A. I’m glad you asked! Our favorite saying at Dujardin Design is “A healthy home is the ultimate luxury.” All of us spend most of our time in containers — a house, office, school, bus, car, museum, restaurant. We feel strongly that all of these spaces/containers should support one’s health and well-being. They can be beautifully designed, but if they are not also “eco,” meaning having excellent indoor air quality, to me it’s a contradiction in terms. With every project we do, we strive to show that you can have a beautiful home that is also healthful for you, your family and the planet.

Q. My home is probably the opposite of eco-friendly, but I want to change that. What are some easy things I can do and where should I start?

A. Here are my top five suggestions to make your home eco-friendly: First, try to eliminate as many chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, etc., as possible. When chemicals are used on your lawn, they are tracked into your living space. Second is energy conservation. We can all begin to switch to LED lights over time. Caution: If you are using compact fluorescent bulbs, which is what we have all been told to do for energy conservation, dispose of them with extreme care. They need to be separated and sent to the dump as hazardous waste. Third, use water-based, latex-free, no-VOC paints and floor finishes, such as Benjamin Moore’s Natura and Basic Coatings’ StreetShoes floor finish. Even though it’s water-based, it’s highly durable and is used on basketball courts. Fourth, recycle. Fifth, check on your insulation, to reduce fuel consumption in the winter months.

Greener homes have some appeal these days, particularly for those who want to cut costs (energy is a big issue) or those with health concerns. It remains to be seen how much appeal all of this would have for the general public if they had to pay more for it. Perhaps the best way to do it is to simply build it into the house in the first place rather than having to make expensive retrofits.

Illinois gas tax receipts down $380 million between 2007 and 2014

Going green for transportation is good but it does hurt gas tax receipts:

In 2007, Illinois collected $1.59 billion in gas tax receipts, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data adjusted to 2014 dollars. In 2013, that had ticked down 24 percent, to $1.21 billion, adjusted to 2014 dollars.

One reason: People are driving less. Vehicle miles driven per capita on Illinois roads has fallen 6.5 percent since its peak in 2004, according to Federal Highway Administration and Census Bureau data. The recession was a factor, but studies suggest that the change in driving habits is likely to stick, particularly among younger people who socialize via technology rather than driving.

Those who do drive also are using less gasoline. So far, government analysts say that’s not a huge factor in driving down gas tax revenue. But with new government standards expected to boost average fuel efficiency of new vehicles from 29.7 miles per gallon to 49.6 miles per gallon in 2025, such improvements in fuel efficiencies are expected to increasingly tamp down gas tax revenue.

At the same time, more people are turning to vehicles fueled by electricity or natural gas or are opting for other forms of transportation. Nationwide, bike commuting grew 61 percent from 2000 to 2012.

Chicago more than doubled its rate of bicycle commuting from 2000 to 2012, according to the Census Bureau. Half a percent biked in 2000 versus 1.3 percent in 2012…

The changes in how people are traveling is not good news for Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure. Illinois received a C- rating on the 2014 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. For roads, the state got a D+, with the society claiming that 42 percent of Illinois’ major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.”

Taxing gasoline is not a “sin tax” in the same way as taxing cigarettes but the concept is the same: to ensure a steady flow of revenue, consumption has to stay the same (and even then inflation eats away at this) or increase.

I haven’t heard much lately about taxes based on miles-driven rather than gas consumption. But, the article notes that it appears Congress isn’t going to address the issue so we may end up with a bunch of different regulations as states and municipalities look for ways to replenish these funds.