US needs White House Climate Change Council to protect lives and economy

ny dark

With the Zika virus spreading in Florida, it’s timely to consider how we will prepare for our increasing real-time manifestations of climate change. Once thought to be a threat in the distant future, the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident through events such as ongoing drought, extended severe heat waves, coastal and inland flooding and now possibly through what the CDC is calling an unprecedented insect transmission of a birth defect.

The year 2016 is on track to become the earth’s warmest year by a significant margin, with July 2016 being the hottest month ever recorded. Besides experiencing “Black Swan” events that might be tied to climate change (like the spreading of Zika), we have witnessed over the past year record numbers of drought-induced wildfires and deadly 1,000-year inland flood events from “rain bombs” in states such as West Virginia, Maryland and the cities of Houston, Baton Rouge and Columbia, SC.

Our public health and safety institutions, along with infrastructure, already outmoded and in need of repair, simply can’t keep up with the developing threats and pressures. It’s time for a more thorough assessment of climate change’s advancing impacts with a measured response of planning for additional resources, new technologies, public safety protocol, workforce development, as well as international and domestic security.

Without a doubt, the United States needs to further the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change mitigation with its national Clean Power Plan and become the world’s first clean-energy superpower. As essential as they are, mitigation actions are only one prong of critical over-arching policy and action needed. The other prong is to concurrently make our society, the economy and public institutions more resilient, and adaptive, to the disruptions and shocks resulting from an unstable climate.

The new president could help the nation better manage climate change risk by creating a cross-agency national Climate Change Security Council or National Resilience Council based in the White House. This council, for which retired US Marine Col. James Seaton and I are advocating, would be similar in structure to the White House National Economic Council or the National Security Council, the NSC. Seaton was an NSC staff member during the Bill Clinton administration.

The new national Climate Change Council would coordinate and prioritize domestic protection as well as foreign humanitarian and national security-related planning for climate change resilience across cabinet-level federal agencies. Key agencies would include Homeland Security and other major departments: particularly Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Labor. The Department of Energy, which is increasingly being tasked with climate change mitigation, would also participate in adaptation planning, particularly around the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to climate change.

Because climate change has a delayed impact from carbon emissions, we are only now experiencing the regional and local impacts of global emissions from decades earlier. How would the a White House Office of Climate Change Security start making our cities, regions and industries more able to cope with climate change’s apparent accelerating impacts?

The Obama administration has made a good start on climate change security with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Resilience Toolkit and climate change directives that every federal agency was ordered last month to consider. Canada has already created a Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment and its duties include climate change adaptation.

Looking beyond the Obama legacy, how do major US presidential candidates stack up on this critical issue?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denies the existence of climate change, a stance taken by no other world leaders after 195 nations formally adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, an agreement that Trump says he will not honor if elected president. This stance would endanger our national and international security.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the need for climate change mitigation; her campaign’s platform on climate change resilience or security is limited to the following declaration: “Clinton will work to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are resilient to both current and future climate risks, and she will partner with states, cities and rural communities to develop regionally coordinated, resilient infrastructure strategies.”

The incoming administration would be prudent to acknowledge that the nation’s current built environment and institutions were not designed for climate change’s increased stresses. From streets to utility sewer, power and water systems, the world’s increasingly urban population is living in cities and buildings that were designed for an era of greater resource availability, and for more benign, less volatile climate conditions.

Perhaps most critically needed is a massive program to plan metro area green infrastructure, to cool soaring urban temperatures and reduce destructive flash flood damages by capturing rainwater for storage and reuse in engineered, climate resilient landscapes. In urbanized or suburban areas, green infrastructure can include parks, transit and road rights of way, even rooftops, yards and parking lots. Green infrastructure reduces water consumption through stormwater capture and reuse, which can also significantly cut energy consumption.

The new council could champion preserving and restoring the eco-system services carried out by coastal barrier islands, wetlands, and forests. Wetlands and estuaries, for instance, provide habitat for wildlife while buffering coastal storm surges and inland flooding.

As mentioned, the energy sector and particularly our national power grid is unprepared for climate change. An influential 2014 report on the financial risks of climate change in the United States, Risky Business, estimated that the United States will require 95 Gigawatts of more power over the next 5 to 25 years to account for energy demand from climate change—equivalent to 200 more power plants. There’s also the specter of flooding, severe storms and heat waves damaging generation, capacity and transmission.

New more-resilient energy and water systems will need to be “smart”, able to use artificial intelligence, a field of scientific innovation being led by Google and others.

Smart energy systems reduce demand before critical energy generation limits are breached by climate stresses. These systems will require renewable and other energy-powered microgrids combined with battery storage to “island” affected areas from extreme weather precipitated grid failures. A White House-level council could scale these best practices at home through the Department of Labor and abroad through the Department of Commerce.

Climate change security would create positive economic impact. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs could be created through the replacement of aging and outmoded grey infrastructure with smart systems and urban green infrastructure, and through planning and constructing storm barriers and constructed wetlands. Restoration of wetlands, aquatic, riverine and estuarine ecosystems accounted for $3.2 billion in revenues and 40,000 jobs in 2013. Smart microgrids, resilient water systems and energy efficiency improvements are other big domestic job creators that can save lives during the most pressing climate-influenced events.

Numerous isolated examples of climate resilience practices already exist. These best management practices can be adapted to local climate, cultural and economic needs and replicated throughout the nation. Resilience skills and technologies will also be critical to our helping other countries faced with even more daunting climate change precipitated disasters.

Los Angeles is trying to recharge its aquifers by capturing stormwater in parking lots, streets and medians to recharge its drinking water aquifer. The city’s Department of Water and Power has utilized GIS-based 3-D imaging and cost-benefit analyses for its extensive properties, demonstrating how local rainwater can be economically captured to recharge the city’s underground water aquifers. Much of the city now depends almost entirely on faraway mountain range snowmelt that because of ongoing drought is already being reduced by climate change.

New Orleans, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco are reinventing themselves with multi-purpose public recreational-rainwater retention space in order to temper the more severe heat waves, floods and storm surges becoming more common. College campuses like the University of California at San Diego are using advanced innovation like microgrids with renewable energy sources to head off grid failures from climate change stresses while incubating exciting new smart technologies that save money for the campus and state taxpayers.

More fully-realized climate security solutions are being advocated by a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program; The Skoll Foundation Global Threats Program; the Natural Resources Defense Council’s push for green infrastructure; and the Post Carbon Institute’s community resilience program, as well as IBM, ESRI and others in the private sector.

But these efforts need to be scaled up and integrated with national planning, financing and job training.

Climate change security’s sphere of influence extends far beyond national policy at home. The World Bank said in a recent report that Asian cities in particular are “dangerously unprepared” for climate change risks like increased flooding and storm damage. Indeed, as the Department of Defense has indicated going back to the early 2000s, climate threats to food and water security—think Syria–are a serious issue for the defense of our allies and the world order (link added after Sept. 14 publication of bi-partisan US military “Climate and Security” report).

Domestic climate change security efforts have bi-partisan support. Moderate Republicans and independents in Florida are now demanding action to protect against climate change, including urban planning and infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make a trade-off with climate mitigation to reduce near-term climate change threats, risks and damages. We can and should continue the push to a Net Zero carbon economy to stave off the worst effects of future climate change. It behooves us as a species and nation to figure out how to adapt to climate change and how to steward the earth in the face of this existential threat.

Timely creation of a White House Climate Change Security Council would provide prioritized and coordinated solutions across federal agencies, as well as state and local government, to help make us better prepared and more secure for an uncertain and vastly different future.

(photo: Midnight in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, by Iwean Bain, New York Magazine)

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Our Journey from Paris COP21 to Net Zero

As the dust is settling from Paris COP21, I want to gaze back into that whirlwind, where I was pleased to participate as a speaker and delegate on behalf of Autodesk.

Warren Karlenzig presents on Autodesk's Impact 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling at the "Getting to Zero by 2050" event at the French Building Federation in Paris, on December 9, 2015

Warren Karlenzig presents on Autodesk’s Impact 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling at the “Getting to Zero by 2050″ event at the French Building Federation in Paris, on December 9, 2015

Architecture 2030 organized a well-attended Paris symposium during COP21, “Getting to Zero by 2050: How to Decarbonize the Built Environment,” where I presented Autodesk’s new Insight 360. I described how this whole-building analysis, cloud data and building information management model simulation, in conjunction with Revit or Formit Pro, can enable easier Architecture 2030 building energy standard adoption. The 2030 standard is 70 percent below national median rates for building energy use.

Impact 360, through optimization of the architectural, engineering and construction design cycles, ultimately moves the industry toward its net zero goal for operational energy by in essence game-ifying whole building systems designs, including passive and active solar, heating and cooling, and design forms.

My presentation concluded with a demonstration of how Autodesk’s Insight 360 and Rapid Energy Modeling (with compatibility on the InfraWorks 360 platform) is advancing the capacity of smart, sustainable city planning and analysis. One example included the capability for “touch-less” single-building energy efficiency analysis in New York City. I also highlighted district-scale energy renovation planning and prioritization in Washington DC’s Central Business District. After the presentation, Terri Wills of the World Green Building Council adeptly moderated our panel.

On this tenth day of the climate summit, with an international deal hovering, Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, laid out the global roadmap for built environment decarbonization in clear, compelling imagery and charts. Other speakers, including the World Bank Group’s UN Climate Envoy, Rachel Kyte, called for a “cleaner, more inclusive future” before she was off to another round of negotiations at the official UN site in the suburban aerotropolis of Le Bourget.

Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, and Warren Karlenzig of Autodesk, after the Paris COP21 event "Getting to Zero by 2050"

Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, and Warren Karlenzig of Autodesk, after the Paris COP21 event “Getting to Zero by 2050: How to Decarbonize the Built Environment”

Chen Zhen, secretary-general of China’s lead architectural alliance, who recently presided over an accord with Architecture 2030 and dozens of design firms, highlighted the necessity for carbon reductions through ratcheting up planning and design standards, including green building certification.

The need to develop better energy efficiency investment models and tools dominated the wish list of “Getting to Zero” symposium chair Benoit Labot, executive director of the International Partnership of Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC), but was likewise invoked by Mazria and Peter Sweatman of Climate Strategy Partners.

Despite the recent Paris tragedies, acknowledged with public shrines at the attack sites—and random street sorties by the French army–the city was vividly alive.

Private pageantry, global diplomacy, spirited philosophical and technical discussions, and of course Week 2 champagne flourished throughout the City of Light. From the heavily guarded, elegant medieval-era Hotel de Ville (City Hall), where hundreds of mayors met and celebrated a decarbonization pledge, to the postmodern Le Bourget airplane hangar (a modern-day Le Corbusier?), to the resolute street-side cafes of the Left and Right Banks, Paris was an ever-refined and dignified impresario.

Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) external security on December 4, 2015 during COP21 Global Mayoral Summit

Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) external security on December 4, 2015 during COP21 Global Mayoral Summit

Global mayors celebrate Mayoral Summit at COP21 in Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) on December 4, 2015

Global mayors celebrate Mayoral Summit at COP21 in Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall) on December 4, 2015

Yes, retailers in the Champs-Élysées and other fashionable districts groused about a marked disruption of prime holiday shopping caused by the passing motorcades and security gauntlets. Nevertheless, most of the city and its vast suburbs, even the now-notorious Saint Denis, were accommodating and gracious.

In terms of big picture, the best test of success can be evidenced in the reaction to the Paris Climate Agreement, which may have already produced a number of market and policy outcomes:

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Five Cities with Game-Changing Sustainability and Resilience Plans

Game-changing mega-projects in five cities promise cross-cutting impacts including low-carbon mobility, recreation, green infrastructure, societal improvements and mobile communications. By planning diverse and ambitious results, these resilient projects may take years to decades, yet they promise massive rewards.

Which are the five cities with game-changing plans or projects, and how will they do it? (in alphabetical order):

1. Atlanta BeltLine

Focus: Recreation, Mobility, Economic Redevelopment, Green Infrastructure

Timeframe: 0-20 (short to medium term)

The BeltLine is 22 miles of rail, trails, greenspace, housing and art development circling within 5.5 million population Metro Atlanta. While the City of Atlanta, with a population of 450,000, is only a small percentage of the Metro, it has taken a regional leadership role for the BeltLine under Mayor Kasim Reed–so far it appears to be paying dividends.

Part mobility solution, recreation opportunity and nature-art “acupuncture”, the BeltLine was conceived as part of master’s thesis by a Georgia Tech Student Ryan Gravel in 1999.

beltline mapBeltLine map courtesy BeltLine.org

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told Common Current: “The Atlanta BeltLine is a transformative development, bringing economic, environmental and social benefits to every neighborhood in the City. Four hundred million dollars of public investment has yielded more than one billion dollars in private investment, strengthening the economic vibrancy of neighborhoods.”

According to Mayor Reed, the BeltLine’s multiple benefits are increasingly evident. “We are already seeing the signs of renewed investment along the Southwest Trail, currently under construction. The BeltLine is remediating land impacted by decades of railroad and industrial use, bringing clear environmental improvements to the corridor. And finally, as we see families, friends, and neighbors coming together on the BeltLine each day, it’s clear that this project is strengthening social ties across the City of Atlanta.”

beltline performance

Kollaboration ATL–Kingsmen and Kavi Va: the Wizard of the BeltLine (Courtesy BeltLine.org)

Next steps are for the BeltLine to connect to the Atlanta MARTA and the city’s new streetcar systems–9 miles have been purchased for transportation rights of way and technical analysis is under way.

Debt allocation financing for the first phases of the BeltLine has been challenged as impacting other community services, including education. Boding well for the project, however, are the city’s recently improved credit rating and rising real estate market values, along with the quest of Millennials and Gen Z to ditch—or never buy–cars.

The BeltLine is a catalyzing force across sectors: non-profit groups Chattahoochee Now and Trust for Public Land are advocating that downtown Atlanta’s blighted and polluted Proctor Creek, and the area’s Chattahoochee River (one of the main sources of the city’s drinking water) watershed, be restored and integrated into BeltLine network planning.

2. Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Focus: Mobility, Economic Redevelopment

Timeframe: Now-Short term

Guangzhou is China’s newest megacity, with 10 million people. Its recent spike in traffic and smog prompted the Guangzhou Municipal Engineering Design and Research Institute, in partnership with the The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), to open the city’s Bus Rapid Transit System in 2010.

Unlike the world’s other large model BRT project, The Transmilenio in Bogota, which costs about $1 US dollar for riders, the fare of Guangzhou’s BRT is more affordable, at about 1.5 Yuan (thirty US cents). In terms of financing, capital costs of BRT systems are about half the per-mile costs of light rail and one-tenth the costs of metro lines.

Guangzhou’s BRT is exemplary not only for its 1,000,000 million daily trips (more than all of Asia’s BRT systems combined), but also because of its precedent-setting integration with zero carbon mobility including bicycling and pedestrian thoroughfares.

brt bike sharing

The system is lined with dedicated cycling lanes (a rarity in China), cycling changing lockers and other “last mile” amenities. Guangzhou’s bike sharing system was opened with the BRT in 2010 to solve ‘the last mile’ issue of BRT station access. The bike-sharing program has 113 stations with 5,000 bikes and around 20,000 people use the system every day–two-thirds of those trips were previously motorized.

Despite BRT’s rapid growth and good performance, there remain challenges in China in terms of public city street rights of way, as well as smooth integration with metro systems, light rail and other modes of public transport. Guangzhou is also planning a major extension of it metro system by 2016, trying to become one of China’s least car-dependent major cities.

Cars contribute the major source of stifling and even deadly smog in Guangzhou and Beijing, according to recent studies.

Based on Guangzhou’s lead, it’s clear that BRT can be considered as the lifeblood of a global trend toward a new urban mobility and planning paradigm.

call plus

3. Helsinki “Katsuplus” Mobility on Demand

Focus: Mobility, Communications

Timeframe: (0-10 year) (Short to medium term)

Helsinki, Finland, has realized more than perhaps any other city that most of our motorized experiences five or 10 years out will not only be intelligent, connected, and electric but they will be offered as part of a ride sharing service.

Sharing Economy amenities will increase the utility of the up to 50 percent of urban public space that is devoted to cars and car parking, while significantly cutting carbon and vehicle ownership costs.

“Call Plus,” provided by technology company Ajelo, includes car hiring services such as Uber, taxis, vanpools. Just as Uber offers rides through smart phone apps, Helsinki is ramping up a city-subsidized service where it is offering vanpool rides to anyone in the city of 620,000 at about half the price of a cab.

While 80 percent of the service is subsidized and 20 percent comes from operating revenues, those percentages are forecast to reverse as the program scales up with users while the city also builds out its “Green Network” of public transit and transit oriented development.

Expediting growth in operating revenue growth might be Ajelo’s acquisition by the Washington tech firm, Split, which plans to expand to trains, ferries, shared bikes and taxis.

Helsinki officials met for several days earlier this year with the City of Palo Alto, which is exploring mobility as a service within its highly specialized techno-cultural-education ecosystem that includes Stanford University, Zimride and Tesla Motors.

mayor garcetti Photo Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Los Angeles River courtesy of YouTube

4. Los Angeles River Revitalization

Focus: Green Infrastructure, Mobility, Recreation, Economic Redevelopment, Water Supply

Timeframe: 0-20 years (short to medium term).

Much of the Los Angeles River has been encased in a 43-mile long sarcophagus for nearly a century. Watch Grease or Chinatown and you’ve seen the sarcophagus, but not the river.  Mayor Eric Garcetti (above) wants to change that by awakening the potential of this powerful natural economic and cultural asset in the heart of the Los Angeles Basin.

With community visioning, (led by the Los Angeles Revitalization Corporation), planning, engineering and, the reawakened LA River can achieve huge wins:

  • restore rapidly depleted aquifers and filter polluted runoff, improving water quality in the river system, aquifers and the coastal waters (and beaches) of the Pacific
  • transverse jammed freeways with a human, aquatic and fauna habitat zone that acts as a low-carbon mobility corridor from the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains to the Pacific
  • catalyze untold neighborhood improvements, leading to flourishing real estate opportunities
  • help cool a city impacted by record drought and record average temperature increases

Think of the success of New York’s High Line. Now multiply that at least 100x in terms of project space, impact and dollar benefit, including potential for providing more usable water during times of prolonged drought.

Funding for the redevelopment project was boosted in spring 2014 by $1 billion provided by the Army Corp of Engineers in conjunction with state and city sources for an 11-mile “soft-bottomed” stretch between Griffith Park and Downtown.

Other financing for the project could come from California’s new Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts.

Of course the river redevelopment project will have to be phased in stages and sections. Flooding from extreme rains or the lack of river flows during ongoing drought, meanwhile, can be wild cards in designing floodplains as recreational areas and other natural riparian features.

Areas adjacent to the LA River contain important aquifers that can be recharged for local water supplies. Yet dangerous pollutants from poorly regulated military-industrial legacies–such as the persistent heavy metal Chromium 6–have also been repeatedly detected in the river or in nearby aquifers and storm drains.

ribbon park

5. Tianjin Ribbon Park and Waterway Restoration

Focus: Green infrastructure, Recreation

Timeframe: Now-10 years (Short to Medium Term)

Tianjin’s Ribbon Park (above) is the first soft-scaped, natural-edged restoration on the Haihe River in China’s arid north. The new 75-acre park restores stormwater retention in order to clean the river, cool the Central Business District and provide refuge for residents and visitors among native plants, trees and walking paths.

Tianjin (11 million), is an ancient gateway to inland Beijing from the sea, a historic port on Bohai Bay and center of industry and transportation, that includes a node on the nation’s high-speed rail line. Beginning around 1990, the city grew at a furious pace and in the process it channelized, diverted or even covered its natural waterways, just as Beijing did.

Ribbon Park is part of a national economic development plan is now attempting a green restoration on China’s vanishing waterways and adjacent polluted tidal flats. The Tianjin Eco-City, being developed by the Sino-Singaporean Development starting in 2008, is an adjacent “new city” planned for 350,000 by 2020.  The partially occupied development includes 6.6 kWh of solar power, wind power, EV charging centers and a national smart grid pilot.

Ribbon Park was designed by Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco to “slow water and encourage infiltration in one of the most engineered hydrologic basins in the region,” according to former Hargreaves senior associate Wright Yang, who worked on the project for five years.

The recently-opened 75-acre park adjacent to the downtown central business district provides stormwater and flood management through an alluvial plain that is an exemplary public park. “It’s the first park along the entire river that is soft-scaped and natural edged, said Yang, now an independent design consultant. “It is connecting people back to their land through the landscape.”

Connecting people and the cities of China back to their ecology is a timely model: China will be adding 100 million people to its cities over the next several years. The last 100-200 million new urbanites has come at great natural expense, with some cities going so far as to remove entire mountains to produce flat development surfaces.

These actions have led to severe erosion, impacted air quality from dust, not to mention urban heat island impact and endangering water supplies.

Ribbon Park and other Tianjin waterway improvements have the potential to be international lighthouse projects for eco-system services as public amenities, especially in the dense, high-value real estate districts of Eastern Asia.

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Will Urban Green Infrastructure Help Mitigate Megadrought?

Nanyang Technical University, Singapore

NASA’s new report on the likelihood of megadrought in the Central and Western United States is a harsh yet timely wake-up call for cities and the need for green infrastructure. It’s ironic but those taking the earliest green infrastructure leadership–such as Philadelphia, Portland and Copenhagen–have historically had adequate rainfall and water supplies. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and other global cities in extreme drought such as São Paulo and Beijing that at least partially depend on aquifers for drinking water, are now exploring how green infrastructure can be part of a climate-change resilient city’s main arsenal in water retention or conservation.

The joint NASA-Cornell and Columbia universities report forecasts that if we continue on our current path, climate change will fuel multi-decade droughts for the Central and Southwest US on an order of magnitude not seen for 500+ years and worse, with intensity far beyond what has already been experienced during the past several extreme drought years in California, Colorado and Texas.

On a recent 70+ degree January day–historically warm even by Los Angeles standards but becoming the norm during the state’s multi-year extreme drought–the sustainable city group from Autodesk and I met with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office along with top water officials at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the nation’s largest municipal utility. We explored how green infrastructure analytical and capital planning technologies developed by Autodesk (a client of my consultancy) and partner company, Impact Infrastructure, can model economic, environmental and social benefits. These would include recharging aquifers and preventing localized flooding in LA’s San Fernando Valley and other city districts. Autodesk is also preparing to work with Washington, DC and Atlanta on district and metro area green infrastructure modeling and prioritization approaches.

Impact Infrastructure, meanwhile, helped develop Autodesk’s new AutoCASE automated triple-bottom line project analysis software, which has been successfully used to model the costs and benefits of green infrastructure in arid cities such as Fort Worth, Texas and Tucson, Arizona. AutoCASE calculates economic, social and environmental benefits of green stormwater infrastructure, including flood prevention, reduced urban heat island impact, reduced greenhouse gases, increased public recreational values and improved air quality.

According to John Parker, Chief Economist of Impact Infrastructure, “Tucson is teaching the world that water is a scarce and precious, but undervalued, resource that is going to get scarcer and more valuable: because of its many benefits, nature’s green infrastructure is often the best way to deal with problems of water scarcity, quality, flooding, and urban heat islands.”

Megadrought and Megacities

Globally, the need for integrated development and water planning is just as urgent. In Beijing overuse of underground aquifers has caused ground subsidence–sinking–inducing cracking pavement, roads and buildings. Fresh water is rapidly being withdrawn from metro-area aquifers that have been the primary source of drinking water for the city of 20 million (full-time) to 30 million (including part-time) inhabitants. Major climate change-exacerbated drought and industry-induced water shortages have forced the city to import water long-distance (like Los Angeles does) from a national South-North water diversion project.  Indeed, Beijing is currently perhaps the most water-starved megacity in the world, but there are other cities poised to achieve that dubious status.

In 2013, Common Current advised the Beijing metro government on methods by which to systematically capture and reuse its stormwater, which often falls as rain during July and August in torrents that overflow the streets and wash off pavement into stormwater outflow systems. As the climate has been warming, much of the rest of the year is now almost devoid of major precipitation. Besides banishing the lawn for use in landscaping, (especially when used as pure decor in office parks, on freeway embankments, and around retail developments), Beijing needs to use urban planning, standards and new technologies to make low-impact development the guiding and enforceable rule so it can recharge its vanishing aquifers with fresh water, while also controlling its sometimes-deadly seasonal flooding.

Superstar Soil

Green infrastructure uses Low-Impact Development (LID) such as permeable pavement, bioswales, filter strips, rain gardens, green roofs, catchment basins and planters designed as part of the built environment to naturally filter precipitation and run-off through soil, gravel, sand, compost and other absorptive media, instead of letting pavement or rooftop run-off wash straight into storm drains.

Pollutants are naturally filtered by green infrastructure through its main component, healthy soil. Native trees or plants can be major ingredients of green infrastructure, but healthy soil is the main component of most redevelopment projects or engineered systems. Healthy non-compacted soil, in even in cities with poor soils, can be improved through the use of low-cost practices including composting,amendments and mulching. Of course trees–where they are appropriate–and native perennial plants tremendously boost soil’s water retention and carbon sequestration, while adding shade, wildlife habitat and more pleasant overall environs.

São Paulo, another megacity on the precipice of global climate-change water crisis, is facing a growing water supply shortage where taps are running dry and some of its 23 million citizens might be soon forced to abandon the city. I moderated a panel last week in the Silicon Valley with Marcelo Ignatios, Superintendent of São Paulo’s sustainable infrastructure programs, who outlined the programs the city has developed to incentivize green infrastructure with tax credits, air development rights and other innovative programs. The city has produced a sophisticated map of its soils and types of water retention qualities (see slide 13) in order to limit runoff and restore aquifers and creeks feeding reservoirs.

A biological inventory of São Paulo state concluded that 48 percent of its surface was covered by impermeable surfaces or completely devoid of vegetation. At the time of the survey, forests still covered 21 percent of the state, but they are rapidly vanishing to development. The city now is realizing that its fate is tied up with its forests and vegetation as much as are the fates of endangered local inhabitants such as the howler monkey or the red-breasted toucan: forests, vegetation and healthy soil retain water, cool cities and recharge aquifers. Indeed, recent research has posited that the ecosystem services of forests, vegetation and green infrastructure may help stabilize regional water cycles.

Singapore  “Global Hydro-Hub” Model

Nowhere else is urban green infrastructure planning and design combined with other water reuse and conservation approaches more successfully and artfully than Singapore. Originally lacking a sustainable fresh water supply as Singapore’s population grew, it was forced to import water from Malaysia, an agreement that terminates in 2060. Building upon the foundation of a visionary 1972 water master plan, Singapore launched a bold campaign about in the early 2000′s to become the world’s foremost knowledge and practicing city center for green infrastructure, smart city water management technologies and wastewater reuse. Singapore’s Utilities Board markets a bottled “New Water” product that comes from triple-membrane filtrated sewage treatment plants.

The crowning glory of Singapore’s water savvy is the engineered surface of its city, much of it designed or retrofitted in green infrastructure. Two thirds of the city–rooftops, parks, medians, sidewalks, roadways–capture rainwater and convey it via microprocessor controlled channels or tunnels to 18 reservoirs. LID in Singapore contributes 35 percent of the city’s water supply, with much of it integrated into innovative architecture as well as landscaping for pedestrian or recreational amenities. Eventually, the city has plans to turn ninety percent of its surface area into rainfall catchment.

Singapore not only demonstrates for the world the design and engineering potential of urban water reclamation through green infrastructure, but it shows how doing so can create an international center of excellence that can result in substantial economic returns in water-sensitized forms of urban planning, architecture, engineering, information technology and green infrastructure innovation (Singapore’s 2014 International Water Week event alone resulted in $11.2 billion USD in announced deals or contracts).

The rest of the water-challenged world–that includes or will include most of our cities–should take careful notes, and get very busy.

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Sustainable Cities: Past, Present, Future

shanghai greening

Eurozine‘s editor Almantas Samalavicius recently interviewed me on the evolution of sustainable cities. A wide-ranging topic, we covered everything from my 2007 book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, to other past work with the United Nations, national administrations and cities of the United States, China, and South Korea, to the emergence of the sharing economy, net zero buildings and zero-car districts. What came to light by looking back is that the concept and actuality of sustainable cities have come a long way.

Where our cities will go, nobody knows and that’s what makes this emerging field so exciting. All we know for sure is that much of the action on climate change and resilience have been taking place in cities around the world. In the expansive interview, we touch upon China’s attempt to manage its 663 largest cities using sustainability Key Performance Indicators software (that I helped Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development devise), London’s rewilding of the Upper Lea Valley, the bikesharing system of Paris, West Coast US urban fruit exchanges and Brooklyn’s Maker movement.

Twenty years ago, I could have never foreseen the seemingly limitless growth of urban sustainability-focused resources (including Sustainable Cities Collective!). With the exploding interest in the area by practitioners, educational and research institutes, business, government at all levels, and neighborhood activists, we are on the cusp of an amazing epoch in human and biological history.

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