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.
The top ten sustainability stories of the past
decade was my last post.
What trends are likely the next ten years? One thing for sure, 2010 through
2019 will be one day be looked at as 1.) the turning point for addressing climate change
by using effective urban management strategies, or it will be remembered as 2.)
the time when we collectively fumbled the Big Blue Ball.
1. Bikes Culture 2.0
Time period: 2010-2019
Around the world, bicycles are becoming a
potent talisman of our urban post-carbon future. The city of
Copenhagen is making noise to replace the Little Mermaid of Hans Christian
with something two-wheeled. Copenhagen residents use bikes for 37 percent of all their transit. But
bikes in Europe represent more than utility; riding a bicycle with the Velib’
bikeshare program in Paris now easily competes (42 million registered users)
with taking a spring walk along the Seine. Bikesharing abounds in dozens of
European cities as well as in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago, Chile. Look for North American burgs to continue their proliferation of bicycles-as-transit use
and bike lane expansion (NYC bicycle use is up 61% in two years).
Bikesharing on a large scale should follow new programs in Montreal, Washington DC, and Minneapolis. Note to China: time to reclaim your status as the world’s “bicycle kingdom.”
Indoor bicycle parking will be
common in commercial garages and offices
even in businesses like cafes, bars (Gastalt Haus in Fairfax, California, is pictured above), stores and restaurants. On public
transportation bicycles will be allowed access at any time. In short, bicycles
and their riders will become legit, which will influence fashion, the economies
and the design of cities in particular. As musician-turned-bike-rack designer David
Byrne observed in his surprise 2009 bestseller Bicycle
Diaries, US metro areas in particular might have to be re-engineered
completely in some cases to accommodate this massive social transformation:
I try to explore some of these
towns–Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta–by bike and it’s frustrating. The
various parts of town are often “connected”–if one can call it that–mainly by
freeways, massive awe-inspiring concrete ribbons that usually kill the
neighborhoods they pass through, and often the ones they are supposed to
connect as well.
2. Mexico City, Climate Change, and the Future of Cities
Time Period: November-December
Because “Nopenhagen” was a semi
bust, the Mexico City United Nations Climate Change conference is taking on much bigger proportions than initially envisioned.
The UN COP15 Copenhagen conference resulted in no binding treaty status among
any of the 128 nations that attended for them to reduce global
greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s late fall gathering in Mexico City is likely to set
national binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. If enacted, these
targets will set the stage the coming entire decade’s greenhouse gas reduction
strategies, including sub-national efforts at the regional and city level.
After disappointment in Copenhagen, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon lost no time in
preparing for Mexico City, calling on world leaders to sign a
legally binding carbon-emission reduction treaty
and to contribute to a multi-national fund for developing nations that will be
opened this month. Let’s hope such a fund adequately addresses sustainable
urban development in Asian cities, whose currently unregulated hyper-growth is
expected to contribute more than half the world’s greenhouse gas increases
between now and 2027.
3. The Rise of Cellulosic Biofuels
Time Period 2014-2019
Creating conventional biofuels
from corn, soybeans and palm oil as an alternative to petroleum-based gasoline
hit numerous roadblocks in the past decade. Carbon-sequestering rainforests in
Indonesia continue to be burned down for palm oil plantations; this unforeseen
consequence of biofuel demand caused the European Union to back off on large
orders of palm oil.
Another big unintended consequence emerged when crude oil prices rose to record
levels in 2007-2008. Biofuels, including corn-based ethanol created competition
for agricultural land, resulting in an increase in the cost of food staples.
Global corn prices, which biofuels caused to increase an estimated 15% to 27%
in 2007 alone, were especially impacted.
Cellulosic biofuels, in contrast,
offer the promise by the middle of the decade of creating a viable energy
source (one of many that will be needed) from waste products, such as wood waste, grasses, corn stalks, and other
non-food products. The trick will be to balance land use with energy production http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_rogers_biofuels.html
so that unintended consequences, particularly burning rainforests and urban
food price riots
(Mexico City in 2007 pictured above) will be a thing of the past. Backed by research funding from the Obama Administration’s
US Department of Energy (DOE), companies such as Mascoma Corporation
and Amyris Biotechnologies (with former Amyris founder Jay Keasling now at the helm of the DOE Joint Biosciences Energy Institute) are some
of the current leaders in the quest for a non-food biofuel.
4. The marriage of ICT and Green Cities
Time Period: 2013-2019
Called “the great digital
underbelly” of new and retrofitted sustainable cities by Gordon Feller of Urban
Age, green ICT (information and communications
technologies) holds promise for increasing the energy and resource efficiency of
most aspects of urban development. If these technologies can offset their
operating and production resource impacts (estimated to use 2-3 percent of
total industry energy used, but forecast to double by 2022),
the world could benefit from initial increased efficiencies in the 15-25
percent range (pdf). A crowded field that includes IBM, Cisco,
General Electric, Siemens and others is positioning to implement new ICT for
sustainability in cities, demonstrating applications at the pilot project level.
Cities with pilot or operating projects in green ICT include Amsterdam, San
Francisco, Masdar City (United Arab Emirates), Seoul, London, Singapore,
Beijing, New Delhi, Mumbai,
Stockholm and Oslo. The following are Green Smart City applications and
examples of companies involved:
traffic congestion monitoring and pricing
systems: IBM, Capita Group
water applications (leakage detection,
purification): IBM, Siemens
building applications (sense-and-respond
technologies to monitor temperature, light, humidity and occupancy): Johnson
Controls, Siemens, IBM
intelligent public transportation and logistics:
PwC, Samsung, Cisco
public shared offices with telepresence (pictured above): Cisco,
home and office smart appliances that can tie in
with smart grid energy applications: General Electric, AT&T, Whirlpool
smart grids: General Electric, Schneider
Electric, SAP, Oracle, ABB
data centers for cities: Google, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco
carbon inventories and carbon accounting:
5. Implementation of Carbon Taxes
Exxon Mobil surprised many in
early 2009 when it called for a carbon tax as a way to address global climate
change. Whether the former denier of global climate change got religion remains
to be seen. Carbon taxes have been proposed for oil, natural gas and coal by
many as a way to adjust former so-called market “externalities,” or impacts
beyond classically defined air pollution, which now includes greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
A handful of nations have some form of carbon tax, mostly in Scandinavia. On
the sub-national level, British Columbia and the San Francisco Bay
recently proposed some form of the tax. Costs for carbon taxes can be
passed on to consumers directly, or they could be levied on industry, which
would likely cause manufacturing and operating costs to be wholly or partially
passed onto consumers.
Currently, the costs of producing
and using fossil fuels do not take into account the vast damage these
activities do to the earth’s climate, which is gaining atmospheric carbon
dioxide concentrations at a rapid rate, endangering the stability of natural ecosystems, people’s health, and the economy.
6. The First Big Urban Climate Change Adaptation: Drought
A major effort at climate change
adaptation is underway in Californiaas well as other urban areas that are
experiencing or are likely to feel the early effects from climate change.
Prolonged droughts consistent with the impacts of climate change are being seen
in Beijing, Southwestern North America (Mexico City/ LA, etc.) and urban areas in Southeast Australia.
As Maude Barlow (above) writes in her 2008
book Blue Covenant,
cities are becoming hotspots not only for suffering from the effects of water
shortages, but in many cases urbanization may be actually creating or exacerbating the severity
Massive urbanization causes the
hydrologic cycle to not function correctly because rain needs to fall back on
green stuff — vegetation and grass — so that the process can repeat itself.
Or we are sending huge amounts of water from large watersheds to megacities and
some of them are 10 to 20 million people, and if those cities are on the ocean,
some of that water gets dumped into the ocean. It is not returned to the cycle.
Adaptation strategies will focus
on preparing government, business and citizens for extreme heat events,
wildfires (including urban/suburban wildfires), disease, and large-scale
migration of populations from impacted areas. Some of the efforts will involve
education and community outreach, such as Chicago’s effortsto alert the elderly and handicapped to
imminent heat waves, or having people check on others that may be vulnerable
when conditions warrant. Other measures will require huge chunks of investments in
urban public and private infrastructure
to prevent coastal flooding and to store dwindling seasonal water supplies,
while health care professionals are likely to be first responders to new climate
change-boosted disease outbreaks, such as dengue fever.
The military is also likely to be added to the mix of climate change adaptation
7. End of Cheap Oil/ Onset of Fossil Fuel Shortages
Besides fresh water, oil is the
most threatened increasingly imported resource in developed economies. Energy shortages
or supply disruptions are expected to continue to develop because of political
acts, terrorism, warfare and natural disasters. The issue is not that the
reserves are “running out,” but that getting at the remaining oil in a
cost-effective manner is becoming increasingly more difficult, as has been
outlined in multiple books by author Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, Peak Everything) and others. As former Shell Oil CEO Jeroen van der Veer said in a 2008 email to
employees, “Shell estimates that after 2015, supplies of easy-to-access oil and
gas will no longer keep up with demand.” Add the coming impacts of global climate change regulations to the scarce oil
equation (see Trends numbers 2 and 5 in this post), and oil will continue to be
an unpredictable flashpoint for the world economy. In 2007-2008, rapidly rising oil
prices helped trigger a deep world recession;
during the next decade oil may set off a chain of economic and civil events
that could be far more severe.
With market uncertainty for oil
prices and oil supplies, this new decade will witness the sunset of exurban-style automotive dependant sprawl in the United States
and in many overseas copycat developments, particularly Asia. The overbuilt market
for large, totally car-dependent single family homes in outer suburbia is expected
by even some developers to not be viable for almost a decade, even if oil prices and supply stay relatively stable. A prolonged recurrence
of oil prices above $100-150 a barrel will drive a stake through the heart of
the exurban car-only model of real estate speculation, and will hit many other
elements (food, imported goods, oil-based products) of the Western economy.
8. Focus on Urban Agriculture and Foodsheds
Time Period: 2012-2019
As fuel prices rise and unexpected energy shortages
occur, food prices will rise rapidly, especially for food that must be
transported long distances via airplanes, stored and processed. The alternative
is greater local and regional food production in and around cities. Existing
cities in Latin America (Havana, Cuba–pictured above–and Quito, Ecuador), Africa (Dar Es Salam, Tanzania; Kampala,
Uganda) and Asia (Seoul, South Korea), have produced significant
quantities of produce or aquaculture within their city limits.
Cities in North America that have maintained or are building or rebuilding
strong regional food networks include Seattle, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia
and San Francisco. Some newly planned cities are being engineered to produce
significant amounts of food that can also be used as a potential energy source
or rich compost nutrient. Examples include Masdar City in Abu Dhabi (United
Arab Emirates) and a supposedly scalable community plan called NewVista that is expected to be prototyped in the
United States and in Asia: both are innovating the production of food from
algae and other low-energy input nutrient sources.
9. Resiliency planning: cities, towns, homes
Time Period: 2010-2019
Resiliency is about making a
system or one’s self stronger and more able to survive adversity. As the
previous items portend, there will no shortage of adversity during the coming
decade from climate change and energy supply instability. One of the major
social phenomena related to resiliency has been the emergence of the Transition
which has grown from a few villages in the United Kingdom to Barcelona, Spain, Boulder,
Colorado, and Sydney, Australia. The founder
of the phenomena, Rob Hopkins, also a Post Carbon Institute Fellow,
has used his transition model of Totnes, United Kingdom, to devise a global organizational playbook. The purpose of transition thinking is to prepare people for potential
shortages in global energy supplies and food caused by peaking oil and climate
change. In contrast to earlier “off-the-grid” movements of the 1970s,
Transition Towns can be located in urban neighborhoods as well as in the distant
boonies, and they focus on community-scaled solutions in transportation,
health, economics and people’s livelihoods and personal skills. Tactics of
local groups vary widely, with events ranging from the familiar–clothing swaps
and art festivals to the seemingly more obscure–“unleashings,”–to
policy-laden activities, such as launching a long-term (15-20 years) “Energy Descent
Action Plan.” The emphasis is on understanding and using collective community
resources, including knowledge and skills, that people have in their own sphere
of influence, versus waiting for top-down government decrees.
10.SustainabilityMovie/ Novel /Art/ Song
There has yet to be a significant
work of popular art that I am aware of that captures the modern systemic
aspirations of sustainability. In terms of modern life, some works have focused
on environmental destruction, (Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me”), the terror
of abrupt climate change (the unsuccessful 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow),the international political subterfuge behind
oil (2005′s Syrianawith George Clooney, one of my personal favorite films), and the destruction of natural
systems (Dr. Seuss’s 1971 book The Lorax) or cultural/species depletion (James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar), but no novel, song, painting or movie has come
close to depicting a fictional world of what holistic sustainability solutions
might look like, even feel like. Any suggestions of existing or planned works
that would fit the bill?
Odds are that breakthrough art successfully depicting sustainability will feature or draw upon urban culture in some fashion. After all, cities have gone from being perceived as the opposite of what the “environmental movement” has been trying to save, to the epicenter of this new revolution that is launching in a city or neighborhood near you.
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 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
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.
Whoever thinks of Los Angeles as a car-only city hasn’t been there since gas prices started their stratospheric ascent last year.
Yesterday I visited LA’s Century City and West Hollywood for meetings, and was shocked to see pedestrians everywhere, dozens of buses (the Big Blue Bus on the Westside and the red and orange Metro Bus Rapid Transit lines), as well as cyclists in bike lanes zipping up and down Santa Monica Boulevard.
The numbers from my old pals at the Bureau of Census American Community Survey support what I experienced: from 2004 to 2006 LA commuter use of public transit increased from 9.5 percent of city residents to 11 percent, which is a 14 percent total increase! Walking increased from 3.1 percent of the city’s resident commuters in 2004 to 3.4 percent in 2006. The upshot: only 67 percent drove alone to work in 2006 compared to 70 percent that did so in 2004.
I was meeting separately with the Los Angeles Business Council and the City of West Hollywood to explore ways in which the LA area can get greener. We discussed many initiatives the city started or is planning, including its city-wide green building ordinance and a major solar power bond for business and residents backed by the behemoth Department of Water and Power, as well as a city sustainability summit at UCLA in November.
But I’m most excited about the visible change in LA that I witnessed and eavesdropped on: Hollywood business types were talking next to me at cafes about cycling and how the city needs more bike lanes, on Santa Monica Boulevard cyberkids were texting about where they were walking next, and for once no one ever asked me if I needed a ride down the block.
Blue sky, nice ocean breeze and people are getting out of their cars in Los Angeles, even editorials in the Los Angeles Times about the importance of eating local food: