Slovenia as Europe’s Costa Rica: EU’s Green Capital Ljubljana and Triglav National Park

Just back from Ljubljana–the capital of Slovenia–where I met with city leaders on future smart green city possibilities while soaking in the beauty of this 2016 European Green Capital. Because of its biodiversity and strong conservation culture Slovenia could be viewed as the Costa Rica of Europe.
Costa Rica became an international model for its early preservation of its rich rainforests, mountains, scenic rivers and other natural resources. The Central American country has only 0.03 percent of the planet’s land area, yet boasts 6 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.
One’s first impression of Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana (“Lu-blann-ya”), a historic city of 300,000 that banned vehicles from its city center, is of breath-takingly poetic Renaissance streets and riverside walks, thanks to the forward-looking vision of Mayor Zoran Janković in 2007. Ljubljana as well as regional car-free districts in Dubrovnik, Croatia and Corfu, Greece, are human rhythmed centuries-old neighborhoods providing simultaneous glimpses into humanity’s fossil-free past and its fossil-free future.
Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, achieved country status in 1992 after Yugoslavia’s break-up into six nations (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia). It has about two million people.
At Ljubljana City Hall (originally built in 1484) I met with the Chief City Planner, the CIO, the Public Relations and Tourism directors, as well as the liaisons for the European Union and city international diplomacy. As a green city benchmarking study author and smart city advisor to cities and national governments, I wanted to explore how Ljubljana can leverage its accomplishments.
Even in the city, one gets the vibe of Ljubljana’s direct connection to Slovenia’s pristine heavily forested hills at the foot of the Julian Alps.
Ljubljana’s water supply flows straight from these high mountains and, since it is so pure, it is the only EU capital whose drinking water is untreated with chlorine or other chemicals. In fact, an app for iPhones helps you find 16 public water fountains around town, even art installations incorporating drinking water into sculpture.
Precipitation is plentiful and frequent: 55 inches annually in Ljubljana, averaging between 3 to 6 inches per month, but why is the water so clean?
Look to its small-scale, nature-integrated farms for the answer. Slovenia’s average farm agricultural production area is among the smallest in the EU with 17 productive acres and six heads of livestock. A typical Slovenian farm will have meadow for managed rotational grazing and a small area for crops framed by an additional 14 acres of privately owned woods.
These forests supply oxygen, support biodiversity, help clean and cycle fresh water, and are key to the nation’s ecological integrity. And, by maintaining integrated crop-livestock systems adjacent to existing native forests, Slovenia’s farmers are true stewards of the land. Additional practices like carefully managed rotational grazing, pasture cropping and silvo-pasturing (integrating trees with forage and livestock production) cause less water pollution than industrial farming or unmanaged grazing, and are ultra high-carbon-sequestering versus uncontrolled grazing and industrial row-crop production. (Conversely, cattle feedlots, non-existent in Slovenia, are one the largest life-cycle contributors to climate change).
Slovenians of all ages, visibly relish being out in nature, which explains the country’s motto: “Green. Active. Healthy.”
To explore the regional ecosystem further, we traveled by bus from Ljubljana some 50 miles to Triglav National Park, where centuries-old grazing and food production (meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, fruit and vegetables) cultures exist harmoniously within UNESCO’s Julian Alps Biosphere Reserve.
Each tiny valley town nestled in Triglav’s Bohinj region had dedicated common grazing lands up-mountain in the Alps, often with cooperative production models. Though the cattle were in the highest Alpine meadows for summer, we could see paddocks for grazing in other seasons that were woven into the small valley towns, interspersed with fruit and vegetable production.
In the Days of Horvat, Head Cheesemaster
The Alpine History Museum in Stara Fužina (pronounced “stara fu-cheena”) is a 20-minute walk along an enchanted meadow bike-ped path from the forested shores of Lake Bohinj, a large glacial lake visibly teeming with trout. The Alpine museum interprets the region’s fascinating pastoral lifestyles. Well into the 20th Century, historic eras for a dozen or so Bohinj settlements were recognized by whomever had the role as the town’s Head Cheesemaster, as in “That was during the Days of Horvat…”.
Small-scale, local-centric food production continues to pay national dividends: Slovenia’s biodiversity is palpable. Hiking up 2000 feet in elevation above Mostnica Gorge, one finds Stara Fužina’s lovely seasonal grazing meadows and rustic huts (again, the cows and their shepherds were somewhere even higher up). We saw more varieties of wildflowers (at least 40) and butterflies in this section of Triglav National Park than anywhere outside the extensive national parks of Costa Rica’s tropical jungles.
The pristine natural habitat of Slovenia is of a quality and on a scale that justifies referring to it as Europe’s Costa Rica. Besides its capital having a car-free city center and chemical-free tap water, Ljubljana has also been aiming at Zero Waste.
Not all is perfect in Ljubljana: public transport can be challenging for visitors to find and pay for (tickets are at kiosks, tourist info offices and post offices, but not on board, and non-European bank cards are not accepted). The city’s longtime bicycle sharing program was hard to sign into online as I couldn’t get past an unfriendly interface, so I rented another inexpensive bike at the city information office.
These procedural matters, however, can be sorted. The takeaway is that protection and valuation of Slovenia’s stunning natural landscape can and should be more explicitly linked to activities in Ljubljana, its green capital as well as in other Slovenian cities and towns. By illuminating food supply chain transparency, Slovenia would be well poised as both a market and model for regenerative food systems, the subject of my next post.
This post is the first in a series of two–the second post examines innovative opportunities for blockchain in certifying Slovenia’s and Ljubljana’s regenerative food system.


Planning Sustainable Cities as Smart Hives

Recently I explained how cities benefit from open data-enabled “swarms” of sustainability apps for energy, the built environment, mobility, food and more, transforming them into “Smart Hives.” The focus was on the rise of citizen-business user sharing apps and crowd-sourced capabilities emerging in the Silicon Valley as the Next Big investment wave. Let’s look at how global cities can plan capacities to attract and facilitate these emergent Sharing Economy swarms.

Metro Smart Hives need to be in the right place and affordable, with the right amenities, including convenient access to whatever the nectar may be–jobs, education, entertainment, social activities or sustenance. Since we can’t fly like our winged honeybee friends, Smart Hives will offer diverse mobility options that don’t require owning a car. The emerging car-reduced or perhaps even car-free era (Hamburg, Germany is planning a car-free central city by 2034) will require scenario planning for infrastructure that anticipates swarm apps making mobility easy, efficient and cost-effective.

We’ve known for many years that public transit planned with transit-oriented development (or vice-versa) can make cities globally competitive and locally equitable. Now we’re seeing that the future of global urbanity provides more well-planned connectivity points for low-carbon and also zero carbon forms of mobility. Guangzhou (China), for instance, provides in conjunction with its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system bike-sharing stations, secure and weatherproof parking for bicycles, and interchanges for dedicated pedestrian and bike ways. Madrid’s parking rewards transport that reduces greenhouse emissions, and more and more cities around the world are dedicating parking space and permitting benefits for shared mobility.

Upfront, the planning, design and investment in Smart Hives will require new practices to support the emerging technologies in infrastructure simulation, analysis and visualization. Energy and resource scenario planning is particularly critical with climate change exacerbating the need for cities to both reduce GHGs and to become more resilient to climate impacts.

The open data-powered swarms of apps can be complemented by scenario modeling tools that provide cost-benefit analyses. Take Autodesk’s BIM for Infrastructure and Autodesk’s Infraworks 360 engineering tools (disclosure: Autodesk is a client), which can model building energy use, potential for use of renewables and estimated impacts of green infrastructure (such as green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement) on stormwater treatment versus conventional hardscaped systems. Once data is inputted, including open source city data, these scenario planning and visualization tools have the potential to provide everyone from planners to financiers energy, water and resource impacts according to climate conditions, infrastructure options and building retrofit strategies.

Meanwhile, citizen participation will make the government-facilitated elements of Smart Hives more effective and conducive to people’s needs. NGO Ecocity Builders and local government planners and citizens produced the Medellín (Colombia) Ecosystem World Map on ESRI’s GIS platform, which shows photos and narratives of local sustainability in action by mapping useful resources and crowd-sourced neighborhood projects.

Boundlessgeo provides the technology for the US national broadband map. Enter an address and you get available broadband providers and speed of services. While to some that might sound insignificant, with this kind of information planners or community advocates can assess whether or not people’s homes, businesses or neighborhoods are living up to the 2012 United Nations’ declaration that Internet access is a basic human right, along with shelter, food, clean water and education.

Of course, Smart Hives will also provide city resource and safety managers with critical information as they monitor water delivery, water use and natural conditions, including floods, heat events and even superstorms. IBM has developed a variety of sensor-based systems including a city-wide command center that is now alerting Rio de Janeiro residents of potential pending natural disasters. (This capability was developed in response to a series of superstorm-induced mudslides in 2011 that killed 1,700 residents). Integrating 30 city agencies, the system uses weather monitoring combined with geo-location sensors to send out real-time alerts to people in harm’s way, based on neighborhoods most at risk to potential rapid flooding or mudslides.

The era of sharing open data enabling the emergence of cities as Smart Hives is only just the beginning of a global green economy that will prosper in some locations while lagging in others.

City leaders and agencies will need to be anticipatory in terms of policy and data management while remaining transparent and flexible. Los Angeles through a new chief innovation officer position, for instance, is joining Seoul, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Barcelona in opening city data access to public, private and NGO developers.

With some forethought around privacy safeguards and flexible city policies, we can prepare for new more efficient and sustainable ways of planning, managing and living in our cities. Shaping cities through efficient, creative teams of government, citizens, NGOs and the private sector will make our cities—and our increasingly urban global economy–buzz with higher quality of life and new economic opportunities.

(image: Hive City)


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



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.


Breakthrough Energy Research Funded by ARPA-E


A presentation last night in the Silicon Valley, by Mark Hartney, program director at ARPA-E, the Stimulus-funded offshoot of the Department of Energy, explained how the new agency is  trying to leapfrog existing energy technologies with wild ideas hatched in the nation’s public and private labs, maybe even a garage or two.

Creating fuel to run cars by combining CO2, water and sunlight with bacteria? ARPA-E just funded it for $2.2 million. Such “out there” innovation might be the secret recipe needed to get the nation back into the game of energy-related economic innovation that is now being played largely outside US borders. 

“We are not really keeping up with the world,” said Hartney, who pointed out that the US share of the global PV solar market alone went from 30 to 50 percent in the 1990s down to 7 percent this year. “It’s similar in fuel efficiencies and the situation in batteries is much the same.”

ARPA-E’s mandate is to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce dependance on foreign oil and increase economic and energy security. It is based on the Department of Defense’s DARPA program, started in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. DARPA funding resulted in the Stealth fighter, the M16 assuault rifle and the backbone of the Internet (or ARPANET, as it was known in the day), among other innovations.

ARPA-E was first authorized in 2007-2008 and was sprung from theory earlier this year with funding from the The American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009. ARPA-E has $400 million to distribute for “breaking the barrier–supporting high risk, high-pontential programs,” Hartney said. 

So far, as of October, a total of 37 projects were funded for a total of $151 million. ARPA characterizes the main areas funded as:

  • petroleum-free vehicles
  • low-carbon transport fuels
  • industrial energy efficiency
  • building energy efficiency
  • low-carbon power (which includes carbon capture)

ARPA-E-grants-chart.pngThe breakdown of who got funded so far: 45% for small businesses, 35% universities and 20% large companies, Hartney told the audience, which was invited by CALCEF, a clean-tech fund initiated through a legal settlement with a California public utility.

ARPA-E is putting out additional requests later this year and early next year for the remaining $249 million. The money has to be out the door by September 2010. In this year’s earlier funding round, the agency received 6,000 proposals that it whittled down to the 37 awards.

“We have strong support from the Secretary (of Energy), The President and Congress,” Hartney said. “Even so, we couldn’t handle any more funding than we have.” 

The CALCEF presentation also featured an update on California’s new 33% renewable energy portfolio standard, which Governor Schwarzenegger signed as an executive order in September. The 33% renewable rate for the state’s power supply needs to be hit by 2020. The previous renewable portfolio standard, explained the California Public Utility Commission’s Jaclyn Marks, was 20% by 2010, a level that the state is significantly short of at this point.


San Francisco’s Sunday Streets: How Vibrant Can City Space Be


Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District on July 19, 2009, during “Sunday Streets” program that opened two car-free miles of streets to pedestrians, skaters and cyclists.



San Francisco boogeyed for its fifth Sunday (the two were in 2008), marking a trend for streets to be closed to cars on weekends so people can use the space for their own devices, sans autos.

Portland, Oregon and New York City have also picked up on this approach to opening up urban space in creative new ways, following a trend that began in Bogota, Columbia called the Ciclovia, where 70 miles of the city’s streets are available to non-carbon emitting forces for the entire Sunday. Some 1.8 million take part in Ciclovia.


California Climate Change Conference: Latest on AB 32

The California Energy Commission (CEC) hosted its fifth annual confab on climate change, delving into mitigation policy and practices, as well as how the world’s eigth-largest economy is adapting to the climate change that is already occurring.

For the rest of the nation, California and this conference can be considered a litmus test of what is coming down the road (literally and figuratively) for the US transportation, energy and building industries.

“We are a nation state, and we are able to move issues along pretty well,” said CEC Commissioner James Boyd, who said the CEC put out its first report analyzing climate change impacts on state policy and resources in 1999.

Boyd outlined major policy drivers facing the state as it implements its “California Global Climate Solutions Act of 2006” (AB 32):

1. Energy security: “During the 1970s OPEC jerked our chain and the nation’s economy shuddered,” Boyd said.

2. Environmental quality/ fuel supply/ price volatility/ global climate change: “9/11 woke up a lot of people to the fact that people in other places are controlling something we are way too depandedant on.” Besides California being such a large economy, it is the world’s third biggest consumer of gasoline, Boyd noted earlier, with its transportation sector producing the biggest share of its greenhouse gases.

Dan Sperling, board member of The California Air Resources Board, gave a grim forecast of what the state, nation and world are up against in terms of energy supply and demand, and carbon emissions. 

“Over the next 10 years, the world will consume one quarter of all the oil consumed in the world’s entire history. We’re more dependent on few sources–nations are competing with one another.”

Sperling said his agency wanted the state be more proactive in preparing for these developments: “Our number one goal is to stimulate innovation in behavior, technologies and institutions.”

In terms of the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which has been subject to challenges by the Bush Administration EPA, California is proposing that gasoline-based transportation be replaced by a mix of at least 10 percent lower-carbon fuels by 2020. Sperling said the state is leaning toward advocating a mix of electric, hydrogen and biofuels.

California Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman and Stanford professor and co-Nobel prize winner Terry Root concluded the morning with climate trends and adapation measures that will be needed to cope with the state’s already shifting percipitation, rising temperatures and sea level rises.

Root summarized the loss in Sierra Nevada snowpack precipitation, the main source of California’s water supply, as decreasing up to 30 percent by the 2020s, and up to 90 percent by later in the century. She also said 20-30 percent of species are thought to be at risk by the 2020s because of climate change.