US Climate Study: Cities Center of Risk, Opportunity

The US National Climate Assessment, a new draft study by 13 federal agencies under the Dept. of Commerce, warns that climate change is introducing to cities ample societal and business risks, but also economic opportunities. Because extreme weather is expected to increase, our changing climate is our future, especially in urban areas, where 80% of the nation lives.

The unprecedented 1000+ page draft report–the most ambitious scientific exercise ever undertaken to catalog the real-time effects of climate change, and predict possible future outcomes–came out Friday from top federal research agencies, state agencies, private industry and university experts. Today the report became available for public comment.

The report pulls no punches: “Climate change threatens the well-being of urban residents in all regions of the U.S….systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts.” And for California and the Southwest: “Snowpack and streamflow amounts are expected to decline, decreasing water supplies for cities, agriculture and ecosystems.”

In the longer term, the study asserts that sea level rise or superstorms ala Sandy will “affect coastal facilities and infrastructure on which many energy, transportation and water delivery systems, markets, and consumers depend.”

My takeaway is our nation’s most potent response will be to embark upon comprehensive urban planning, engineering and technology based on these new risks, which present almost limitless opportunities for adaptation and mitigation. Put another way, there will be a need to (as the study says) “test and expand understanding of the effects of different climate and integrated assessment model structures.”

As new investments in energy technologies occur, future energy systems will differ from today’s in uncertain ways–depending on the changes in the energy mix. This portends unprecedented opportunity, so look for some of the largest industry sector changes and resultant new business models in utilities and energy.

The National Climate Assessment cites several studies in predicting, “if substantial reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases were required, the electricity generating sector would decarbonize first, given the multiple options available to generate electricity from sources that do not emit heat-trapping gases, such as wind and solar power.”

Significant opportunities will range across planning and design, combined with public and private investment in:

  • Distributed systems of all types will proliferate: renewable energy; wastewater, water and waste reuse. These technologies in many cases will provide better alternatives to large-scale centralized energy generation or water treatment systems and their outdated regional transmission networks, which are at risk to coastal flooding, severe storm outages, wildfires, and critical drought. Smaller localized or regional power outages lasting for weeks all the way up to the large historic Northeast US power outages (2003: 55 million impacted in US and Canada) are prime examples of events that could regularly occur as a result of such threats.
  • Smart grids and energy systems incorporating system redundancy. The Netherlands grid provides an example of a circular grid (versus hub and spoke) that is almost completely ensconced safely underground.
  • Water efficiency systems and water-conserving buildings, landscapes and materials
  • Cooling technologies and heat mitigating building design and urban landscapes
  • New materials, sensors and automated feedback systems that protect against, and warn and respond to extreme events of heat, wind, flooding, drought and wildfire

In order to reduce future risks and to cope with already occurring events, comprehensive urban climate planning, management and technology approaches are needed to implement massive upgrades to vulnerable infrastructure.

Extreme weather events are already affecting energy, and energy delivery facilities. Consider the regional gasoline shortages that occurred after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike because there was (and is) only a single pipeline from impacted areas to markets in the Southeast. Cities and smaller communities are more risk adverse to climate change impacts (or other natural disasters) with alternatives to private cars such as public transit, walkability and cycling infrastructure.

Policy makers, the private sector and academia will need to jointly collaborate to better “understand the relationship between climate change, energy development, and water- dependent socioeconomic sectors to inform national and state-level energy policies.” These sweeping new policies are likely to include everything from watersheds and aquifers to land development and other agreements for metro and city general plans and utility districts.

The bottom line is that global climate is apparent across a wide range of US geographies and sectors. Global human-caused climate change is projected to continue to occur over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends on our actions now, combined with how sensitive the climate is to increased carbon emissions.

Confirmed findings of the report include:

  • U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since record keeping began in 1895; more than 80% of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. U.S. temperatures are expected to continue to rise.
  • Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
  • Heavy downpours are increasing in most regions of the U.S. Further increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for most U.S. areas.
  • Certain types of extreme weather events in some regions have become more frequent and intense, including heat waves, floods, and droughts. The increased intensity of heat waves has been most prevalent in the West, while the intensity of flooding events has been more prevalent over the East. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense in the future.
  • There has been an increase in the overall strength of hurricanes and in the number of strong hurricanes in the North Atlantic since the early 1980s. Strongest hurricane (Category 4 and 5) intensities are projected to continue to increase as the oceans continue to warm.
  • Winter storms will increase. Other severe storms, including the numbers of hurricanes and the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds are uncertain and are being studied intensively.
  • Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue.
  • The oceans are currently absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to concerns about potential impacts on marine ecosystems.
  • The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. The largest increases have occurred in the Western U.S., affecting snow-pack water supplies and related ecosystems and agriculture.

The National Climate Assessment findings mean that public policies will be of little value that are solely based on either past business or operating models, past (or even existing) resource or energy prices, as well as so-called “100-year” flood models.

This is a new game and we can’t play by the same old rules with the same teams. But we now have, for the first time, the parameters of the playing field–the geography of observed and projected impacts. The fields of industry, economics and timescales are less defined.

Adapting to the climate and climate-impacted economy of the future that we are just beginning to experience will require the emerging collective intelligence of our society through the use of collaborative technologies including social networks, which was the subject of a San Francisco TEDx talk I gave last year.

We will need to leverage our institutions, particularly our educational system, while building upon the body of global knowledge that shows that if we act now, we can successfully avert the worst impacts of climate change that are daily becoming evident in the United States and throughout the world.

(Top: Photo of Lower Manhattan blackout during Sandy by Iwan Baan, New York Magazine)

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a global consultancy based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Chicago’s amazing street trees and parkways

I recently visited my hometown of Chicago, which 25 years ago, featured many neighborhoods that looked and felt like the proverbial concrete jungle. The street trees and lush and creative parkways throughout the city now make virtually unrecognizable some of the old northside neighborhoods I used to haunt.

The city wasn’t always denuded: a massive infestation in the 1960′s and 1970′s of Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the city’s street trees (a warning against mono-species planting). That left city parkways and sidewalks bare for a few decades, and might have exacerbated the city’s deadly 1995 heat wave that killed more than 700 citizens (possibly including my grandmother, who died during the event of unexplained causes). With climate change, the urban heat island effect is a threat all cities should be preparing for with street greening, along with green roofs and white-painted cool roofs: many of those that died in Chicago were elderly residents that lived in top-story apartments under black tar or asphalt roofing. They were literally baked to death, according to cool roof expert Lisa Gartland of PositivEnergy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley accelerated a massive street and city greening campaign around that time in preparation for the 1996 Democratic convention, and the city was transformed to this day (despite having to cut down of hundreds of diseased trees again around 1999-2000 due to an infestation of the Asian Longhorn Beetle). From planted and thickly mulched medians and boulevards, green rooftops, and lush bioswales under the city’s El, Daley’s Chicago legacy is evident. During previous visits, I’ve even come across steaming piles of rich-smelling free compost that the city has left at convenient pick up points for residents.

The only thing missing would be some strategic curb cuts to better accommodate soil filtration of storm run-off. Also, Norway maples dominate the street trees, which could be supplemented with other appropriate species that do not block the understory so much, something my friend and local master gardener Martie Sanders pointed out to me.

Still, walking four miles from the Roscoe Village neighborhood to the far north Hollywood lakefront neighborhood, I was enchanted by the green urban landscape in one of the nation’s largest and most diverse cities.

Enjoy the last of the summer greenery You’ll notice that the streets are devoid of people in the photos, as they were taken during the Bears National Football League game–one of the most dependable times to explore US cities in peace.

Street calming in Uptown neighborhood

The way it used to be: Clark Street in Uptown neighborhood

Lazing on a sunny afternoon (Photos by Warren Karlenzig)

Serious mulching for young Clark Street tree

 

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My TEDx Talk: Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Cities

Warren Karlenzig at TEDx Mission

TEDx Mission recently invited me to speak at their San Francisco event on how cities are using collective intelligence approaches to address climate change and climate change adaptation. Crowdsourcing and savvy planning are producing healthier quality of life and more resilient urban economies.
The talk drew upon my experience with Common Current, which is working with governments, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) globally on urban sustainability master planning, policy and technology around energy, water, infrastructure, mobility, land use and economic issues.
An underlying premise is that as we increasingly become an urban planet, diverse cities will provide the key to sustainability innovations. Others, such as Asian Development Bank’s Guanghua Wan and UCLA’s Matthew Kahn in a report released last week (pdf), “Key Indicators for the Pacific (2012)“, have made similar observations.
Common Current is now helping Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory design indicators software for China’s Ministry of Urban Rural Development so China can better manage its 654 cities as “Low Carbon Ecocities.” China has been leading the trend toward urbanization, going from approximately 20 percent urbanites in 1980, to 53 percent now, to an estimated 70 percent by 2030. In our lifetimes, China has already experienced the fastest and largest mass migration of humans in the history of Earth.
Within this dynamic context, Common Current collaborates extensively with the United Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, as well as individual cities and communities, on green urban development policy and projects.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, effective strategy and management by city leaders is critical, but bottom-up approaches are also having surprisingly dramatic and replicable impacts that address climate change and resilience.
Climate change has been shown to be linked to prolonged drought, more frequent and damaging heat waves, record number of high temperatures (a 2-to-1 ratio over record lows in US over past decade), wildfires, record urban flooding, record urban rainfall amounts and record deadly superstorms, including violent tornadoes.
Nonetheless, on every inhabited continent, legions of talented and dedicated urban citizens (yes, suburbanites are included) are acting to slow climate change and protect us from its worst impacts through collective crowdsourcing, large-scale citizen participation and social media.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, green urbanization utilizing collective intelligence will assist a needed turnaround from our current plight. Instead of needlessly facing the brink of a volatile future completely unprepared, we are beginning to experience how the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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Census and Experts Confirm Death of Sprawl in US

The United States has reached an historic moment. The exurban development explosion that defined national growth during the past two decades has come to a screeching halt, according to the latest US Census figures. Only 1 of the 100 highest-growth US communities of 2006—all of them in sprawled areas—reported a significant population gain in 2011, prompting Yale economist Robert Shiller to predict suburbs overall may not see growth “during our lifetimes.”

We are simultaneously witnessing the decline of the economic sectors enabled by hypergrowth development: strip malls and massive shopping centers, SUVs and McMansions.  The end of exurban population growth has been accompanied by steep economic decline in real estate value, triggering a loss of spending not only in construction, but also home improvement (Home Depot, Best Buy) and numerous associated retail sectors that were banking on the long-term rising fortunes of “Boomburbs.”

The fate of these communities has been so dire that for the first time in the United States suburbs now have greater poverty than cities.

In 2009, I attributed the financial crash in these car-based communities to economic factors perpetrated by the higher gas prices that had first started showing impacts in late 2006 and peaked in 2008. Others including The Brookings Institution’s Christopher Leinberger, and William Frey, along with NRDC’s Kaid Benfield have pointed to longer term demographic shifts and societal desires toward renting in denser mixed-use neighborhoods. The looming specter of excess greenhouse gases may also be playing a role in the marked reduction of driving among younger Americans (16-39 year olds), who increasingly prefer to live where they can walk or bike to their local store, school or café.

The “Death of Sprawl” chapter that I wrote, published by the Post Carbon Institute in 2009, (and in abridged form in the Post Carbon Reader in 2010), provided a case study on Victorville, California. Located 75 miles outside Los Angeles, Victorville’s rise and crash epitomized the hangover of the go-go sprawl era.

During the financial system’s Derivative Daze, Victorville grew from 64,000 in 2000 to more than 108,000 by 2005: no-money-down-housing developments and “liar loans” fueled speculative investments that pumped up the desert city’s average home value to almost $350,000. The large numbers of workers that moved to Victorville had to commute long hours before dawn and after dark to get to work in Los Angeles, without the benefit of local public transit. There are still few options for those who wish to walk or bicycle to stores, jobs, schools or local amenities, and the average near 100 degree summer temperatures make such endeavors foolhardy.

When gas prices began to go up in 2006, real estate sales in the region began to dry up as people ran for the exits. As the doors slammed shut, foreclosures in California’s Inland Empire (Victorville and other parts of California’s sprawling San Bernardino and Riverside counties), Las Vegas and Florida began to trigger a nationwide real estate meltdown. To stick with our illustration, Victorville houses plummeted from an average of nearly $350,000 in 2006 to $125,000 by late 2009. Likewise, new home permits in Victorville went from 7964 in 2004-06 down to 739 in 2008-10: a drop of more than tenfold! The average home sale now brings around $110,000, less than a third of 2005-2006 prices.

Institutional investors and homebuyers alike have avoided for the past five years the nation’s scores of Victorvilles; the new data and pronouncements by experts such as Shiller, author of The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, likely put the last nails in the coffin of speculative, auto-dependant sprawl.

Recent US Census data confirms that the future of the United States is no longer about an economy based on the false and dangerous pretenses of unfettered greenfield development, with its unhealthy and climate-destructive sprawl-scape of fast food, big box retail and freeway-bred exurbs. National policies and investments should strengthen and improve existing cities and suburbs, including transit infrastructure, building retrofitting, clean energy, walkability, bicycle networks and neighborhood redesign–all areas where quality local job and community engagement opportunities can flourish.

Chart Courtesy Brookings Institution

We’ve known for some time that planning for more sustainable metros, both cities and suburbs, makes better sense in terms of protecting local food, water and land resources, as well as in reducing pollution and carbon emissions. Now we know that such actions have been proven to make much better short-term economic sense, while acting as tangible investments for the long term.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a global consultancy for sustainable urban planning and development.

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Death of Sprawl: Past and Future

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Seems like my chapter “The Death of Sprawl” from The Post Carbon Reader is taking on a life of its own. Friday, Christopher Leinberger had an Op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Death of the Fringe Suburb,” which built upon concepts I had published (and sent Leinberger last year) namely, that the US mortgage crisis and Recession were set off by upsidedown economics of sprawl speculation in US exurbs or “Boomburbs” and we can’t ever do that again.

The site Adapturbia also recently put together a nifty visual presentation of “The Death of Sprawl” that localized my content to provide context for sprawl issues confronting Sydney, Australia.

What’s important here is that the research and the real estate sales figures are becoming ever clearer: people increasingly prefer to live in mixed-use, transit-oriented walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over drive-everywhere bedroom communities. Those preferences will not change and we will not go back, which is affirmed by the abandoned exurban housing and development that are fast becoming the nation’s newest slums: for the first time in the nation’s history, suburban poverty now outweighs urban poverty.

One need only take a look at the foreclosure heavy areas such as California’s Inland Empire: my chapter provided a case study of Victorville, CA, one of the last gasps of the residential car-centered Boomburb economy of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Leinberger’s piece hit on the changing real estate taste in demographics (retired Boomers and upcoming Millennials) while my thesis examined how cheap energy fueled nearly 100% car-dependent exurban growth. We both concluded that denser, mixed-use metro areas are the wise investments of the future because: more people want to live that way so that is where investment will occur. Developers know that strip malls, sidewalk-less mini-mansions and business parks that cater to cars only are poison in this economy. Continue reading

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UN’s New Sustainable City Effort Starts With Asia


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2010 Shanghai Expo Closing Summit

We all need to reinvent urban planning for the 21st
century.

Never has the need been greater for integration across urban management,
systems, experts, policies and technologies.The world is rapidly becoming more urban,
especially in Asia, where hundreds of millions have begun moving to cities.This massive migration, largest
in human history, will produce colossal impacts–including innovation–in energy use, transportation,
housing, water and resource use. Economies will be impacted at every scale, especially beyond burgeoning metro areas in national and global markets.

Add climate change and adaptation issues to the development
of Asian cities, where more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emission
increases are expected to occur over the next 15 years,
and we are faced with the urgency–and opportunity–to reinvent urban planning. Planning for the
future of cities needs to now embody a process combining sustainability
strategies with information and communications technologies (ICT), supported by the
sciences (natural + social) in concert with engaged participation: from the
slum to the boardroom to the ivory tower.

Continue reading

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Urban Parklets: The New Front Stoop

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San Francisco’s parklets (left, from top to bottom: #1, Valencia Street, #2 and #3 Divisadero, and #4, Castro and 17th, bottom) are a vibrant testimony to the city’s Pavement to Parks Program, managed by a non-profit, the Great Streets Program. The city’s 15 parklets all started with two to three parking spaces, or other poorly-utilized urban space (the city says 25% of its space is taken up by streets or auto rights of way, while only 20% of the city is parkland–still one of the highest totals in the nation). With the help of architects, artists and landscapers, the asphalt is converted into living, breathing social settings.
The parklets do continue to provide parking space for the non-polluting form of transit: bicycles. I took a cycling tour this weekend of the city’s parklets, which offer cyclists a safe and convenient place to park their two wheels and take a rest with their steed.
In the Valencia parklet (top photo), which included edgy canopy steel structures, I counted 19 people hanging out, and 31 bicycles parked. The space was much livelier, more functional and attractive than any three cars could have ever been in the same space.
San Francisco is now analyzing the numbers, behind its parklets, which were started in 2010. The analysis includes the number of users, maintenance costs, and neighborhood economic benefits.
The City by the Bay admits it was inspired by New York City’s public plazas, just as it confessed using Bogota’s Sunday car-free streets Ciclovia concept for its own Sunday Streets program.
Imitation is of course the sincerest form of urban innovation these days. The beauty of such experimentation is that it can be adapted for local conditions, including climate, public tastes and zoning.
The Pavement to Parks program is one of the most exciting deployments in the trend of enabling reduced urban dependency on cars, while fostering artistic and nature-enhanced community. There are other major trends portending that the future of cities (and suburbs) is beyond cars: the increase in mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, car sharing and light rail.
To wit: adaptable use of public spaces has become a key indicator of urban resilience. (Photos by Warren Karlenzig: click on each photo for larger format view)
Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 
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