Sustainable Cities: Past, Present, Future

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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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Open data, swarms of sustainable apps to make cities smart hives

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The amazing growth of sharing apps promises to mark the spring of 2014 as the beginning of a new era demonstrating the power of the swarm. Just as the summer of 1998 marked the beginning of the mainstream Dot Com era and the spring of 2008 saw the advent of global social media, the April IPO of Opower marks a new digital-physical era, the collaborative economy.

The collaborative economy will make cities more convenient, less costly and more sustainable. To provide a mental model of this new world, think of cities as hives for “swarms” of physical activities optimized by, or made possible through open urban data schemes. Earlier this month, I presented this concept in Vienna (ranked as one of Europe’s top smart cities) at IconVienna, a Central European investment forum on smart cities and innovation.

Cities are similar to beehives as they provide the physical locations for the activities of the swarms they host. Of course, both cities and hives need to be in the right place to attract and maintain the largest, healthiest swarms. For beehives, it doesn’t hurt to have access to sunlight, water and flowers. (Admission: I’m an urban beekeeper) Swarms of bees, if they are wild, decide on locating in a hive according to consensus (15 bees must approve of the location) and then they develop optimal social structures according to simple rules and communications.

Cities or metros set laws, regulations and policies at the level of the hive. But emerging swarms, based on digital maps of locations and characteristics of “flowers,” optimize according to physical needs, desires and energy. When bees find flowers, they go back to their hive and dance to show the location of pollen-laden flowers.

Imagine if bees could compare with other nearby swarms how much energy they were using (as Opower enables its users to do), how much other swarms were gathering and the quality of their haul. Or if Airbnb offered swarms an easy way to find convenient unused hives, saving much energy and reducing greenhouse gases in the process.

More and more we humans are using rich digital maps and pricing information for sharing rental rooms, office space, cars, bikes, food, and energy use. Our pollen dance will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.

Some swarms will get smaller or even die off, while other swarms will grow until they divide and form new swarms based on emerging needs and changing conditions. Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Likewise mobility and housing availability will be based on shared uses through sharing and peer-to-peer platforms such as ZipCar, LyftUber, and Airbnb. Walkability data through Walkscore already allows people to analyze and select the most walking-friendly housing, jobs and vacations, so they don’t even have to depend (or spend!) on cars or transit. At a TEDx Mission a while back, I showed how hacktavists use open data from the Paris Velib bikeshare program to map bicycle availability in real time.

For energy use, besides Opower, companies such as C3 Energy and Stem provide Big Data energy analytics for businesses and industries, so they can reduce energy consumption through more intelligent use of utilities. These applications differ from sharing platforms, but still rely on bottom-up use strategies based at the level of digitized electrons—with energy being the last realm of digitization in our society, after communications, entertainment, and financial or healthcare services.

In Vienna, the hive and swarm concept I presented was met with excitement. European Union contingents of investors are planning trips to explore San Francisco Bay Area sharing economy start-ups as a result. The European Union is spending $92 million Euros on an ambitious smart city funding and strategy effort as part of its Horizon 2020 program, yet I was told that swarm-type user-centric applications have been largely overlooked so far. That omission is not surprising, as even in the US, cities such as Los Angeles are only now preparing to open up their data.

Hives (cities) must offer not only the best amenities, such as high quality of life, transit on demand and walkability, but they also must reduce restrictive policies favoring business as usual in order to enable massive, easy and open access to city data.

The swarms are coming: if you’re a city leader, you can block them or anger them. Or you can accommodate the swarms and share in the eco-efficiency and abundant honey they make when they prosper.

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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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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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Mountain Biking, Teens and Suburban Cultural Shifts

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Yesterday, Sir Francis Drake High School, from suburban San Francisco, took the California State Mountain Biking Championship. The teenage girls and boys (my son is one of them) beat dozens of competing schools from around the state in a series of four dirt races.

What do suburban teen mountain bikers have to do with urban sustainability? If we are to successfully transform our metro areas into being more sustainable and healthier, it will require sweeping cultural changes in suburbia as well as in central city neighborhoods. 

The majority of North Americans live in the suburban belts surrounding big cities. Altering the design, mindset and practices of suburbia–where people need to drive or be driven to get places–means that the focus on “green cities” needs to be expanded to “sustainable urbanism.”

Think of all that oil that has gushed into the Gulf. It’s primarily used to power the cars and trucks serving suburbia, not inner cities. Youth–particularly teenagers–should be at the center of planning for an alternative future that provides a way to burn calories, not carbon.

Drake High School is set in Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Thanks to the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, Marin County is one of the foremost North American suburban locations promoting cycling as an alternative to automobile use for commuters, students and citizens. The county bicycle coalition helped Marin get selected as one of four communities nationwide as part of a federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program.

The Marin Bicycle Coalition implements a successful Safe Routes to School Program, with more than 50 schools and preschools participating countywide. After being started in 2000, the Marin program became the model for a national program that has spread from the West Coast to the East Coast. 

Central Marin County was the birthplace of mountain bike racing and, arguably, of the modern mountain bike itself. One of the originators of the mountain bike and a participant in the world’s first organized mountain bike races in the 1970s was Joe Breeze, whose son Tommy is a sophomore on the Drake team. Back in the Day, Joe battled it out with Gary Fisher on the trails of Marin County. Now Joe helps keep the Drake Team bicycles in racing shape, after successfully launching and selling a Marin-based mountain bike and commuter cycling company, Breezer Bicycles.

The mountain bike has become an important feature of not just recreational biking, but also  cycling for transportation. This type of bicycle, which has a heavier frame and thicker tires, is used for urban transportation worldwide, particularly where roads are rough. In San Francisco, mountain bikes provide upright bike riders greater visibility and afford more traction in crossing slippery cable car tracks and potholes. In Hanoi, people use them to haul construction material or carry goods to and from the city markets.

Kids and teenagers like riding mountain bikes and can tolerate being seen riding them, so they can still be thought of as being “cool,” at least until teenagers start driving. Now, however, the popularity of mountain biking at Drake has reached the point where cycling may even have more cachet.  

Drake High School is located centrally in San Anselmo, and many of its students walk or ride bikes–invariably mountain bikes or cruisers–from around town or from neighboring Fairfax to get to campus. There are numerous bike-pedestrian lanes and bike-safe routes that have been implemented in the area. Perhaps that’s why I see far more students commuting by bike or walking to Drake than I see doing the same to other Marin high schools.

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Drake students even go on field trips to neighboring towns by bicycle. Such activities reinforce the bicycle as a bonafide means of transportation for students, their parents, and for every driver that sees dozens of students riding together.

This past school year, mountain biking became Drake’s most successful sport in terms of enrollment, with 49 students in the program during the 2009-2010 season. Winning another state championship won’t hurt the club sport’s future popularity: the names of all team members will be displayed in the school’s gymnasium alongside its state championship rosters in basketball, baseball and other more traditional high school sports.

The mountain bike team’s coaches demonstrate for student riders trail and road safety, as well as etiquette, in addition to supervising a regimen of brutal conditioning. According to assistant coach Neil Doucet, riders climbed 130,000 total feet during the twice-a-week November to May team rides this year–more than four Mt. Everests in verticality. Still, no matter how exhausted, every rider provides right of way to other trial users, enthusiastically greeting them with a cheerful “Howdy.”

Bicycles of all types are becoming a major cultural force in the cities and suburbs of the United States. Economists are even tallying the resulting economic impact in communities where cycling is becoming a significant form of transportation. In Portland, Oregon, the leading US city for cycling, for instance, almost $90 million in cycling-related sales and services were generated in 2008, according to an Alta Planning study cited in Joan Fitzgerald’s Emerald Cities.

In places such as San Anselmo and Fairfax, where Drake students live, the popularity of bicycles also translates to jobs. With a combined population of about 20,000 the two towns have a bicycle co-op and five full-service bicycle shops, including Sunshine Bicycle Center, the official sponsor of the Drake Mountain Bike Team. 

Because Central Marin is such a strong magnet for mountain biking and road cycling, there is also a significant impact from “bicycle tourism” in local restaurants and cafes. The Gestalthaus, for instance, is a Fairfax cafe that features sausages, suds and indoor bike racks (see photo below) for its visiting riders.
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In terms of its greenhouse gas emissions, Marin County’s largest con
tributor by far is personal transportation
. The adoption of cycling culture and the growth of cycling advocacy is a leading wave that could help other car-dependent suburbs significantly reduce their contribution to global climate change, and reduce their addiction to oil.

My wife and I moved to the suburbs from the city just over ten years ago, with the proviso that we would be able to cycle to work and other destinations most of the time. We have been able to fulfill that wish. With the success of the Drake Pirates cycling club, meanwhile, our goal of seeing bicycles gain even more prominence in the lives of our children (who have been biking or walking to school since Kindergarten) has also come true.

With time I hope to see a nation transformed so that all that want to ride for fun, sport (Go Pirates!) or mobility, are able to do so without fear, limitation or social stigma, wherever they live.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
author
of
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post
Carbon
Institute
.

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Prius Freeway Chase: An OJ Moment for Hybrids?

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Just watched a video of the new runaway Prius episode in Southern California from last night. The scene and its aftermath reminded me of the OJ Simpson Ford Bronco chase that was televised live after the former football star was accused in 1994 of murdering his wife and another man.

With the Runaway Prius, according to the news reports, the car accelerated by itself to 90 miles an hour and wouldn’t stop, until a California Highway Patrol (CHP) car gave the driver instructions from a loudspeaker and then got in front of the car, helping brake it to a stop.

“I was on the brakes pretty healthy, it wasn’t stopping or doing
anything, it just kept speeding up,” said the driver, James Sikes. The panicked driver called 911, and as a responding CHP pulled alongside him, he said, “I was standing on the brake pedal
looking at him.”

The power of such a cultural meme, happening on a greater LA freeway, starring CHPs as supporting cast, has all the memorable and dramatic emotional ingredients that can do even greater damage to Toyota, its Prius hybrid, and possibly even the alternative transportation movement.

Toyota has recalled eight and half million vehicles worldwide and six million in the US, because of unexpected acceleration, lack of braking and other safety issues. Other Toyota models are included, including non-hybrids.

In the Prius, though, we have perhaps the most known mass consumer market item that screams “green” to newbies as well as sustainability technology experts. Just a few months ago in picking the top 10 stories of the past decade in sustainability, I chose the rise of the Toyota Prius (from 2001 onward) as the green icon of the era, largely because Hollywood types such as Leonardo DiCaprio adopted the Prius as their leading eco-chic indicator.  

From the OJ chase, one lasting impression was that 24-cable news became a major media
force that day
, as CNN scored big audiences and even bigger mindshare
in its constant coverage of OJ’s cruising white Bronco, which remained as a small
live inset while the network covered other news. I also recall that was the first instance I had ever heard of the word “cell phone”–they were actually called “cellular” or mobile phones before that–which OJ was talking on with the media, his mother and the police.

What will we collectively remember from the Runaway Prius event? That those newfangled green technologies are inferior to good old, safe 100% internal combustion engines? That Japanese cars are good on gas mileage, but unreliable, or worse, may have potentially fatal defects?

Only time, the whims of the general public and the marketing savvy of Toyota and its auto industry competitors already having or introducing new (Honda, GM, Nissan, Ford) hybrid models will tell. (Update: As of Tuesday night, Toyota placed a video ad claiming that it was “Committed to the Right Fix” directly before the NBC news video of the Runaway Toyota, which demonstrates a well-targeted and timely response)

OJ was eventually acquitted in a trial, but his Bronco chase firmed up
the beliefs of many that he was guilty of murder, as charged. The federal government announced late
Tuesday
that they will be investigating Monday night’s Runaway Prius incident. 

For those who want to see more fuel-efficient and innovative transportation in this country, they have to hope that others will not categorically see things as James Sikes put it, “I will never drive that car again, period.”

***UPDATE March 15, 2010

Toyota Disputes Sikes

Maybe more to the story?

***UPDATE March 17, 2010

CHP Supports Sikes

There are three sides to every story!

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
of
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon
Institute
.

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New Report of Green Job Growth for California by Region and City

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Next10, a research organization in San Francisco, released last week an analysis of green job growth rates in California by sector and region, “Many Shades of Green”. Looks like Golden State green job growth has outpaced other job growth since the mid-1990s into 2008 and the great recession.

Overall job growth in California’s continuously expanding green sectors was 36% between 1995 and 2008, with traditional job growth at 13% over the same period. When the recession hit California in 2007, green jobs continued to grow into 2008 at a 5% pace while the rest of the job market actually decreased 1% in the state.

The nitty-gritty:

  • The statewide region for green job growth was the Sacramento area, with an 87% percent growth rate.
    Sacramento experienced the highest-level employment growth (157%) in air and
    environment jobs (2.5 x 1995 levels). Energy generation employment grew by 141%.

  • California’s total green job growth leader is the San Francisco Bay Area with 41,674 green jobs. Bay Area trends include the largest number of energy generation jobs
    (roughly 7,000). Energy generation grew by 20%, with the high concentration in
    solar.

  • In the San Joaquin Valley, total green job growth was 48% with the highest
    concentration of jobs in wind energy. Concentration in alternative fuels represent
    three times the state average. The number of jobs in green transportation grew 211%.

  • In the Los Angeles area, energy generation jobs
    grew by 35% and energy efficiency jobs grew by 77%. In Orange County green
    transportation jobs grew 1,875% including alternative fuels and motor vehicles
    and equipment. Energy generation jobs grew by 176%

  • According to Next 10, The Inland Empire’s energy generation jobs grew by 85% with the highest
    concentration in solar and wind. Energy efficiency jobs grew by 91%.

Next10 is focused on innovation arising from the intersection of environmental, economic and quality of life interests. The non-profit was founded by venture capitalist F. Noel Perry.
 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute
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