Urban sustainability is
the challenge of the century as more of the world’s population becomes urbanized
(50 percent in 2008, 60 percent by 2030), at an ever-faster rate. Global climate change has been caused in large
part by the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy, materials and food for
metro areas. Yet urban culture also constitutes a powerful response capability
by which to cope with the diminishing socio-economic options forced by climate
change, especially in megacities, metro areas of more than 10 million people.
Upon this tableau, I am collaborating with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
in conjunction with other UN agencies (United Nations Environment Program, UN
Development Program, UN Habitat and UN Center for Regional Development) and the
Shanghai World Expo Bureau on a sourcebook for sustainable urban management in developing
The sourcebook will consider sustainability advantages
to urbanization along with disadvantages. It will cover broad topics including
greening the urban economy, effective management, as well as solution sectors (land
use and planning, water, buildings, transportation, information and
communications technologies). Case studies will be provided to illustrate how
solutions have already overcome a host of urgent challenges, or how they may soon be able to help do so.
During the next ten
years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (pdf), 90 percent of urban population growth will take place in developing
countries. In India, for example, cities are forecast to garner 85 percent or
the nation’s total tax revenue (up from current level of 80 percent), which
will be the primary source for financing economic development on a national
scale. Seventy percent of all new jobs are projected to be created in India’s cities by 2030, though cities are expected by that date to represent only 40 percent
of the nation’s total population.
Besides the threats and risks that megacity
growth poses to global humanity and regional resources, trends in
developing nation megacities will also strongly define emerging economic
opportunities for large-scale low-carbon and resource-efficient technologies,
services and strategic approaches. Whether in Delhi or Mexico City, megacities
are devising more effective methods of integrated sustainability management using
everything from social networks and crowdsourcing, to paticipatory budgeting and comprehensive green planning.
Cities are the most powerful economic engines in the world for advances in
information and communications technologies, health care, education and energy
systems. These combined capacities have provided urban areas with
anywhere from 55 percent (developing nations) to 85 percent (developed nations)
of total national income, significantly surpassing per-capita income averages,
and trending even more upward during the next two decades of hyper-urban growth.
Megacities and urbanization, in other words,
should be the cause for global concern that needs to be tempered with concerted
strategy, actions and ultimately, hope for humanity.
The complete United Nations study is expected to be released on
1 May 2011, the first anniversary of the opening of the 2010 Shanghai World
Expo-which has a theme of “Better city, Better life.”
Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery
white sands of Florida’s beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of
The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological
and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really
screwed up. News reports and even
songs,including Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness–I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the
burning river over in Cleveland.
Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United
States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices.Earth Day was also launched within a year
and a potent social moment was hatched.The
Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation
in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight
agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent
industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated
regulations. One of the first cities the
agency “went after” when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its
We are facing the nation’s worst
environmental disaster, and it is becoming
visceral.Models from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill
will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida’s panhandle, toward
South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don’t be surprised
to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you
live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in
“The smell is the worst thing,” said NBC correspondent Anne
“Until you smell it, you haven’t
experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your
lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses
and chocolate syrup and it just stinks.”
As Pensacola’s famed white beaches are besieged by toxic
fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average
Americans are coming in, and they’re not pretty.
In the world’s consciousness, it’s one thing to have oil
wash up on a coastal Louisiana “swamp”–though scientists and the fishing
industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary
wetlands for their existence.It’s quite
another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the
beach, which endangers the Southeast’s tourism and fishing industries, along
with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their
What will happen next? I wrote on early April
that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez
spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy,
consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be
changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.
Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course
priority number one.Sunday some 10,000
barrels of oil a day were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil
Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:
The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry,
the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants,
plumbers, etc.)that could be
impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf
Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South
Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough
estimate below, there could be an
economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:
Such “full cost” accounting is now
more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental
and societal impacts.
US subsidies to oil
companies–some $15 to $35 billion a year–need to be curtailed, and
transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and
also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.
The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS’s
relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to
reform. “Obviously, we’re all part
of the oil industry,” one MMS official said to investigators
who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff
and oil officials. The feds need to create a completely independent
oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power
as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy.
The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP
because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including
being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
Higher-vehicle mileage and
alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more
miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the
development of more biofuel-burning engines that don’t use food as a fuel source.
Can this finally be the time in our history when “recreational”
cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms–at least oil and gas burning
machines–stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived
products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are
causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air
pollution, and water pollution from runoff.Measures should be instituted
so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
The United States needs to consider less-polluting
domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed
Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can–if
used for transportation–can offset some of the need for risky deepwater
drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local
water supplies, and such activities need to be monitored closely).
Here’s the most obvious
yet least discussed solution in public or the media. Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will
reduce automobile dependence. Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States,
with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities,
which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes,
plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the
gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?) transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public
non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping,
entertainment and errands.
It is time to face the sobering truth.
We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until,
we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will
unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific
than BP’s gusher.
Denial and guilt, combined
with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful
forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent
community planning–walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public
It’s time to step up the post-oil conversation while
implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and
our nation have their work cut out for them: there is a need to clean up not just beaches,
Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.
The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let’s
link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions
that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster
Big surprise for me today, as the formidable Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has seconded my analysis of how communities need to prepare for changing conditions related to the economy, climate and resource availability.
These posts were teasers for a standalone publication I wrote that is coming out very soon from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), titled, “The Death of Sprawl: Designing Urban Resilience for the 21st Century Climate and Resource Crises.”
A shorter version of “The Death of Sprawl” will also appear in the Post Carbon Reader, which is being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media this summer, alongside writings from PCI’s other 27 fellows.
I’m honored to be profiled and credited by author Kaid Benfield, who besides his affiliation with NRDC, is one of the top thinkers, doers and writers in the urban planning realm.
A few months back when I published an excerpt from a case study on Victorville, California– where sprawled finished luxury houses were demolished last year after the exurban foreclosure meltdown–I learned that Benfield was one of the first people to write about the incident in his NRDC blog, which includes graphic video footage of what may be a watershed moment in the end of exurbia.
Besides being ever-prescient, Benfield’s “almost daily” blogging provides readers a detailed perspective of what’s right, what’s wrong and what needs to be drastically improved in the way our communities have been planned, developed and operated.
Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience
planning in the face of climate change and diminishing resources (especially
fresh water and oil). Considering these guidelines, what aspect of U.S. metro
development stands out as the most ill-advised and risky? Short answer: exurban
If the “Great Recession” taught us anything, it is that allowing the
unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient communities and infrastructure is a
now-bankrupt economic development strategy and constitutes a recipe for
continued disaster on every level.
“Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car
commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive,” was the
warning the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopersgave institutional and commercial real
estate investors in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report.
I make the further case that the exurban economic model is an outright
anachronism in the Post Carbon Institute’s Post
Carbon Reader, which comes out this summer from the University of
California Press and Watershed Media.
Much of US “economic growth” in the 1990s
and early 2000s was based on the roaring engine of exurban investment speculation
with gas at historic record low prices. That bubble popped on the spike of $4 a
gallon; we now are paying the piper with abandoned tract developments,
foreclosed strip malls and countless miles of roads to nowhere. Gas prices are forecast to head over $3 this summer, and likely much higher when a forecast global “oil crunch” hits by 2014 or so.
Besides the economic risks, circa-twentieth-century sprawl has
destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable
drinking water systems at great environmental, economic, and social cost. We
can no longer manage and develop our communities with no regard for the limits
of natural resources and ecological systems that provide our most basic needs.
A shining alternative is metropolitan areas that have begun to plan
for the future by building their resilience with economic, energy, and
environmental uncertainty in mind: top U.S. metro locations include Portland,
Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Denver, and suburbs such as Davis, California and Alexandria,
Virginia. These communities are employing some of the following key strategies
that underpin resilient urbanism:
Build and re-build
denser and smarter
suburban and urban population or use densities need to be increased so that
energy-efficient transportation choices like public transit, bicycling and
walking can flourish. Multi-modal mobility cannot succeed at the densities
found in most American suburban communities today. Increasing density doesn’t
have to mean building massive high-rises: adding just a few stories on existing
or new mixed-use buildings can double population density–and well-designed,
increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic
Focus on water use efficiency and
Our freshwater supply is one of our most vulnerable resources in the
United States. Drought is no longer just a problem for Southwestern desert
cities–communities in places like Texas, Georgia and even New Jersey recently
had to contend with water shortages. As precipitation patterns become less
reliable and underground aquifers dry up, more communities will need to
significantly reduce water demand through efficiency, conservation,
restrictions and “tiered pricing,” which means a basic amount of water will be
available at a lower price; above average use will become increasingly
expensive the more that is used.
Global climate change is already thought to be melting mountain
snowpack much earlier than average in the spring, causing summer and fall water
shortages. This has serious planning and design implications for many metro
areas. For example, Lake Mead, which provides 90% of the water used by Las
Vegas (above photo) and is a major water source for Phoenix and other Southwestern cities, has a projected
50% chance of drying up for water storage by 2021.
Focus on food
Urban areas need to think much bigger and plan systemically for significantly
increased regional and local food production. Growing and processing more food
for local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while
generally reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food
to metro regions. In Asia and Latin America–even in big cities like Shanghai,
China; Havana, Cuba; and Seoul, South Korea–there are thriving small farms
interspersed within metro areas.
Gardens–whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of
buildings–can supplement our diets with fresh local produce. Denver’s suburbs, for instance, have organized to preserve and cultivate unsold
tract home lots for community garden food production.
Think in terms of
If we view our urban areas as living, breathing entities–each with a
set of basic and more specialized requirements–we can better understand how to
transform our communities from random configurations into dynamic,
high-performance systems. The “metabolism” of urban systems depends largely on
how energy, water, food and materials are acquired, used and, where possible,
reused. From these ingredients and processes (labor, use of knowledge) come products,
services, and–if the system is efficient–minimal waste and pollution.
Communities and regions should decide among themselves which
initiatives reduce their risks and provide the greatest “bang for the buck.”
Like the emergence of Wall Street’s financial derivatives crisis in 2007, if we
are kept in the dark about the potential consequences of our planning, resource
and energy use in light of climate change or energy shortages, future
conditions will threaten whole regional economies when they emerge.
Las Vegas informed its residents and tourists on one 120-degree summer day that
they would not be able to use a swimming pool or shower, let alone golf,
because there simply wasn’t any water left. Odds are that the days are
numbered for having one’s own swimming pool and a large, lush ornamental lawn
in the desert Southwest, unless new developments and desert cities are planned
with water conservation as having the highest design priority.
By thinking of urban areas as inter-related systems economically
dependent on water, energy, food and vital material resources, communities can
begin to prepare for a more secure future. Merely developing a list of topics
that need to be addressed–the “checklist” approach–will not prepare regional
economies for the complexity of new dynamics, such as energy or water supply
shortages, rising population, extreme energy price volatility and accelerating
changes in regional climate influenced by global climate change.
Next Steps? Time to fold the climate action plan into a resilience action plan, so
communities can addresses not only global climate change emissions, but also
more urgent economic risks posed by climate change adaptation and resource
With all the efforts going into urban climate action plans
and carbon reduction, will many cities and suburbs be caught unprepared for other
sustainability crises, such as acute water or energy shortages?
In carbon reduction management, should efforts such as
focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency deserve the highest priority,
when a city such as San Francisco produces 78 percent of its greenhouse gases from
transportation and only 17 percent from buildings?
These are questions that both policy makers and sustainability
planners need to consider as we move into an era of climate change compounded by either
diminishing resources and/or resources that are expected to continue to have extreme price volatility, such as gasoline.
My last post reviewed the findings of a UK industry
study, partially backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, forecasting a major “oil
crunch” by 2014-15 that could potentially mean shorter supplies and much higher prices
for gasoline. Because US cities do not use oil for electric
power generation (Honolulu is the only one that still does),
there should be much more focus in US cities on transportation and in other key
areas that will be more severely impacted by the high price of oil. Cities should look at everything from
citizen and business mobility options, to supplies such as asphalt for street paving, to regional food
At no time has effective planning, land use and public
transit been so key to ensuring economic vitality, as well as equity (access
to jobs and services with transit), environmental sustainability, climate security
and health. That doesn’t mean that increasing renewable energy and energy
efficiency shouldn’t be part of every community’s planning, projects and
budgets. It does mean that cities will need to simultaneously prioritize action
plans for carbon reduction, peaking energy and peaking freshwater, which very
few are doing, outside of those involved in the Transition Town movement.
To help illustrate the complexities of what I’m getting at, consider the following example. Water use in California accounts for 20 percent of electrical power use. This energy is needed to move water supplies
from places with water to those largely without or to treat drinking water and wastewater.
Renewable energy sources such as solar thermal generating
plants also require great amounts of water, competing for precious water
supplies that can be used for drinking water and growing or processing food.
So where do water, oil or grain shortages fit in your city’s or region’s sustainability plan? There
are no easy answers, and metro regions and cities will want to collectively consider
their own energy, water and food sources when trying to assess combined carbon reduction
goals and resource depletion risk factors.
I’ve developed some general urban resiliency rules of thumb for an upcoming chapter in the Post Carbon Institute’s Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, which is coming out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media:
Planning: Enable the development of vibrant mixed-use communities and
higher-density regional centers, that create a sense of place, allow for
transportation choices (other than private automobiles), and protect
regional agricultural, watershed, and wildlife habitat lands.
Mobility: Invest in high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit
infrastructure with easy access, shared connectivity and rich information
sources, from signage to cell phone alerts.
Built Environment: Design new buildings and associated
landscaping–and retrofit existing buildings–for state-of-the-art energy (smart
grid applications), and resource efficiency, integrated with mobility
Economy: Support businesses in order to provide quality local jobs and to meet the needs of the new economy with renewable energy and other “green” technologies and services. Support local and regional economic decision-makers in adapting to the new world of rising prices, volatile energy supplies and national demographic shifts.
Develop regional organic food production, processing, and metro-area
Resources: Drastically cut use of water, waste and materials, re-using them
Management: Engage government, businesses and citizens together in
resilience planning and implementation; track and communicate the
successes, failures, and opportunities of this community-wide effort.
These categories are not
meant to be “checklist” items for sustainability or resilience planning, but
rather lay out the relevant areas that should comprise planning for integrated
metro area systems. Each metro area and every city should be looking at these
factors together, in order to model how well they are prepared to collaboratively
contend with risks such as:
regional or local climate:
extreme heat events, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events
drought, e.g. loss of mountain
snowpacks or aquifers providing water for residential, commercial, industrial and
3.Oil crunches, including extreme price volatility; supply shocks from
wars, political events, terrorism, natural disasters
risks from high oil prices, drought,
energy-food competition (biofuels), large-scale contamination, etc.
the overlapping and inextricable problems that cities face today can be
overwhelming, especially when budgets are tight or non-existent, and people’s
time is stretched to the breaking point.
problem solving, such as climate action planning if it is done in isolation from
resilience planning, however, may lend a false sense of security for cities on the brink
of an era that promises to be very different than anything ever experienced in
One of the great challenges in urban planning and green building has been material life cycle energy use–how steel, concrete and wood products are produced and transported. Add to that the decisions people make once construction is finished, and you can rightly conclude that development standards have only scratched the veneer of total energy and sustainability impacts.
In addition to material climate and resource burdens, there are myriad consequences on life-cycle energy use that arise from commuting and transit choices, food and product consumption, and building heating or cooling.
Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have devised a tool that may soon provide governments and urban planners ways with which to model complete material, building and residents’ anticipated energy use.
After a proof of concept was applied to a Jinan, China, housing development, LBNL has integrated building life-cycle assessment (LCA) and urban form agent-based modeling tools to capture embodied, operational and behavioral aspects of urban form energy use and emissions.
With hundreds of new cities being planned or built in China, Indonesia and India, new tools such as LBNL’s will be critical in managing and reducing the energy, climate and environmental impacts of this unprecedented urban growth era.
Adding 1.1 billion people to new or growing Asian cities will produce more than half of the world’s increase in global climate change-causing greenhouse gases by 2027, according to the Asian Development Bank.
I met last week in the green hills of Berkeley with David Fridley, Nate Aden and Yining Qin at LBNL’s China Energy Group offices. The team demoed their new urban form and behavior energy analysis tool, describing how they based its performance on a variety of existing approaches in urban form-related analysis and life-cycle materials analysis.
The innovative aspect to the group’s project is that they combined these existing cutting-edge approaches with an extensive survey of 230 residental households in the Lu Jing Superblock. The researchers examined where Lu Jing Superblock (built in 2008) residents worked and went to school, how they commuted, where they shopped, what kinds of appliances they owned and how they used them, and even how much meat and what kind of products they ate.
The result was perhaps the closest-yet attempt at modeling and thus being able to forecast the complete energy needs of a segment of urban population. This allows an integrated assessment of required energy supply and expected impacts far beyond a single structure, energy type or industry.
It’s like Sim City, but for addressing real planning, energy, and environmental challenges, which is something I’ve always wanted to see.
Simulations ran through the four seasons, showing cumulative energy use based on household and individual appliance and transportation use, showing cars or buses shuttling between supermarkets, offices, schools and the Lu Jing Superblock.
Total energy use and types of energy used were continually graphed, and the final results showed a breakdown between how much energy would be used by the buildings for power, cooling and heating, as well as for transportation, food and other areas.
The group sees the tool being used by policymakers trying to prioritize energy and climate regulations in land use, transportation, planning and energy. Urban planners are another obvious group of potential end users.
One planning issue unresolved for future iterations of the tool would be how water use and supply could be added to the analytical capabilities. Or perhaps LBNL’s energy tool can be combined with a software-based supply analysis and use forecasting tool for water. Water life-cycle analysis is an especially relevant issue when planning development in areas of India and Northern China that are facing climate-related drought and water supply shortages.
Still, the LBNL effort is significant in synthesizing existing tools and approaches on urban energy use into a single model that can help guide our world as we move into what is increasingly becoming the century of urbanization.
This weekend I volunteered to warn shopkeepers and
officials in my San Francisco suburb about dangerous urban flooding potential during
the next week.
Every Friday noon in San Anselmo the “flood siren”
(not disaster siren, mind) is tested. Within fifteen minutes of the last time
it blasted for real in 2005, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, three to four
feet of water was soon gushing down the main street (see photo above) into
homes and businesses. People here are acutely sensitive to heavy rain and the level
of the town’s creek, since they are still trying to rise up from that cold watery blow
four years ago.
Up and down the California coast, metro areas
including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are experiencing a series of El
Nino-generated Pacific storms. Further inland, Phoenix will also take a big
hit. The forecasted 6-10 inches of rain over the next days will almost
certainly bring localized flooding and mudslides. Ocean storm swells will reach
20-30 feet on some parts of the coast by Thursday, lashing roads,
infrastructure and housing. (Update Jan. 22: the storms this week luckily did not flood San Anselmo, but did cause heavy rains, some flooding and infrastructure damage throughout the state and Arizona, while also reducing the region’s drought).
NOAA 5-day precipitation forecast from 1/16/10: small purple circles in California represent areas expected to receive 8+ inches.
How much of this weather and its impacts can be
directly attributed to global climate change, I will not venture. The coastal
and tidal flooding that is expected in California, however, will be one of the hallmarks of a changing climate. Another effect will be drought—which
California and the Southwest have been experiencing for three years–the flip
side of climate change’s growing precipitation impacts. Coastal
and desert urban areas in particular need to steel themselves for such a schizophrenic
Leaving things up to “officials” to figure out disaster
plans is not recommended; true community resilience will require research, networking
and knowledge sharing within and outside one’s normal sphere. In my case, I think
I was able to plug a few vital holes that may have been missed.
Most store owners in San
Anselmo (pop. 12,000) that I spoke with were savvy about imminent flood danger.
Based on their experience with the New Year’s Eve flood of 2005, a few
shopkeepers had excellent information and resources: they referred me to online
creek-level readings (“anything over ten feet and I’m out of here,” one man said), and email alerts that can be sent to email or phones from Nixle.com, a national information mass customization service that localizes updates on disasters, road
closures and crime.
Nixle, for instance, has newly
updated postings from the San Anselmo Police Department about potential hazards
for flooding and safeguards.
There’s even a local AM radio (1610) station dedicated to disaster updates for
But none of that seemed to be
enough to really prepare people. One friend, a council member from the
neighboring town that was also flooded in 2005, did not know about the severity
of the forecast weather when I chanced to run into him at a musical performance
over the weekend. He had me send him the forecast links from NOAA
showing him exactly how much precip is expected to fall.
He emailed back, “We’re trying to get our flood plain residents to batten down
the hatches. This should help.”
Other small business owners
that I spoke to were new to town, including immigrants. Unlike long-time
business owners who told me they were warned by the police (or that had vivid mud-damaged
inventory and moldy wallboard memories), the new shopkeepers knew almost nothing
about flooding dangers or where to get the free sandbags.
Those who were around in
December 30, 2005, have learned that floodgates (above, white board) for each business offers the
best protection. In actuality, these are just rails installed on each side of entrance
door where a piece of plywood can be inserted as a barrier against the torrents
of water can come crashing against and under the front shop door (usually
glass). Gates work even better than sandbags, but sandbags will prevent the
glass doors from being smashed open.
The town and surrounding
communities, even the federal government, tried to take some larger-scale policy
actions after the 2005 flood, which caused almost $100 million in property damages
county-wide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed a new local flood
risk map based on the 2005 event, and insurers offered policies that residents within
the areas were urged to purchase.
An extensive engineering study of the region’s watershed is being made,
a $125-per-property flood fee narrowly passed a controversial vote, while creek debris clean-ups have become popular all-age volunteer events each fall before
the winter rainy season arrives.
Some houses have been rebuilt
and raised above the flood-prone region along San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek. This
normally placid creek empties seven miles later into San Francisco Bay. High bay
tides back the creek up so that it can’t empty into the bay quickly.
San Anselmo/ Corte Madera Creek Watershed: San Anselmo is in center, San Francisco Bay, on right
Unfortunately, it doesn’t
take much time for San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek (watershed in brown above) to back up from San Francisco
Bay and rise in the Marin communities lining its flood plain, since it is
surrounded by steep canyons that channel rainfall off nearby hills. Asphalt
parking lots, impermeable pavement and poorly planned development have also
increased the speed by which rainwater runs off into the creek. For instance,
when I checked creek levels online Sunday the 17th, the creek was 2.9 feet, but after heavy rains Sunday night
and Monday morning the creek was already over 6 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet (update 1/20/10: after heavy rain, the creek level went from 4 feet to 10 feet in matter of five hours, before receeding slightly) .
The irony of California’s
winter storms is that they bring needed water to reservoirs and mountain snowpack,
promising to reduce or temporarily end the region’s ongoing drought, which has
been costing the agriculture industry and some cities hundreds of millions in
lost revenue and in water purchases. Marin County last year was the first in
the Bay Area to approve desalination from San Francisco Bay water, despite energy and marine environmental impacts along with a hefty $100
million-plus price tag.
Not surprisingly, the state’s residents have a
love-hate relationship with their winter weather. To make the affair even more
volatile, climate change may be swinging the status from drought to flood in a
matter of a few weeks.
Indeed, California’s coastal
metros (along with the Gulf Coast, including Florida and New Orleans) may be
the first litmus test for how to adapt to the unpredictable excesses and
scarcities of a changing climate.