Author Archives: Jeff Biggers

Walkability: Jeff Speck on 4 Ways for the City

Urbanist and author Jeff Speck on how to get people out of their cars, and a-walking the city

In the American city, the typical American city — the typical American city is not Washington, DC, or New York, or San Francisco; it’s Grand Rapids or Cedar Rapids or Memphis — in the typical American city in which most people own cars and the temptation is to drive them all the time, if you’re going to get them to walk, then you have to offer a walk that’s as good as a drive or better. What does that mean? It means you need to offer four things simultaneously: there needs to be a proper reason to walk, the walk has to be safe and feel safe, the walk has to be comfortable and the walk has to be interesting. You need to do all four of these things simultaneously, and that’s the structure of my talk today, to take you through each of those.

Kinetic Energy: Tiles That Generate Energy When People Walk Over Them

From generating light for soccer fields in Brazil and Nigeria, Heathrow Airport or offices and shopping centers in London, British company Pavelen is transforming the energy from kinetic tiles. Here’s a clip from an article in HuffPost:

“We’re not trying to make Pavegen the sole energy source to power every city in the future,” he told Radio France Internationale. “We believe it’s going to be one of the key constituents of the energy mix of the future.”

David Horsley, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at UC Davis, told Wired that the tiles could have a place in our everyday lives.

“You’re not going to get very much for a step, considering you can get 100 watts from a square meter of solar paneling,” he explained. “But for small wearable electronics like watches, or maybe even your phone, this kind of energy harvesting makes sense.”

France Launches Solar Roadway Project

The world’s first solar highway has been opened in France, in the not-very-sunny village of Tourouvre au Perche in Normandy. The roadway is just one kilometre (0.6mi) long, but that still works out at 2,800 square metres of photovoltaic cells—enough, hopefully, to power the village’s street lights.

The road was built by Colas, a large Anglo-French construction company. Colas has apparently been working on its own solar road tech, called Wattway, for at least five years. Wattway has been tested in car parks, but this is the first time it has been used on an active road. There will now be a two-year test period, to see if Wattway can withstand the rigour of being pounded by thousands of cars and trucks per day, and whether it can actually provide a useful amount of electricity.

One of the Wattway panels up close.
Enlarge / One of the Wattway panels up close.
Usefulness aside, the main problem with constructing solar roads is their crippling cost. One of the main selling points of Wattway, according to Colas, is that each panel is just a few millimetres thick, and can thus be installed on top of an existing road, which in turn massively reduces construction costs. Having said that, the 1km road in Normandy cost €5 million (£4.3m) to build. And that’s for a single lane of a two-lane highway!

Expanding that out to €10m per kilometre for a two-lane solar road, you’re looking at a total cost measured in billions or even trillions of pounds to cover a sizeable portion of a country’s roads with solar panels. France has over a million kilometres of roads; the US has over 6 million. And that’s not counting the larger highways with more than two lanes…

Fortunately, Ségolène Royal, France’s ecology minister, has a much more reasonable goal in mind: she would like to see solar roadways replace one kilometre of every 1000 in France. Again, assuming she means two-lane solar roads at around €10 million per kilometre, the total cost would be €10 billion—not bad, assuming the panels (and the accompany electrical system) don’t need regular maintenance, and that they produce enough electricity to be worth the much higher initial outlay.

Should Cities Ban Internal Combustion Cars?

An interesting post at Green Tech Media looks at the role of cities and countries in transitioning away from internal combustion cars. Countries include Germany, Holland and Norway, as well as India.

Here’s a clip:

“The Netherlands, which has an electric vehicle penetration level of around 10 percent, voted to ban all new petrol and diesel car sales by 2025 in a motion passed in April. The move, approved by the lower house of parliament, was due to be debated by the senate last month.

Instead, the country announced plans to become “one huge Living Lab for Smart Charging of electric vehicles,” according to a press release.

The Living Lab program is light on targets and timeframes. But with a nationwide network of charging stations already in place, the Netherlands remains a major contender to become the first country banning fossil-fuel cars altogether.”

Copenhagen has more bikes than cars

As the Guardian reports, last year in Copenhagen, 265,700 bikes took to the road compared to 252,600 cars. This phenomenon is part of a long-time redesign and investment in bike infrastructure in the city.

Here’s a clip from the Guardian:

Copenhagen’s efforts to create a cycling city have paid off: bicycle traffic has risen by 68% in the last 20 years. “What really helped was a very strong political leadership; that was mainly Ritt Bjerregaard [the former lord mayor], who had a dedicated and authentic interest in cycling,” says Klaus Bondam, who was technical and environmental mayor from 2006 to 2009 and is now head of the Danish Cycling Federation. “Plus, a new focus on urbanism and the new sustainability agenda broke the glass roof when it came to cycling.”

And check out this video on the Copenhagen bike lanes:

Growth of city trees can cut air pollution, says report

The BBC had a nice report on a recent The Nature Conservancy study on the role of trees in reducing pollution in the cities.

Here’s a clip:

“Particulate matter (PM) is microscopic particles that become trapped in the lungs of people breathing polluted air.

PM pollution could claim an estimated 6.2 million lives each year by 2050, the study suggests.

Lead author Rob McDonald said that city trees were already providing a lot of benefits to people living in urban areas.

“The average reduction of particulate matter near a tree is between 7-24%, while the cooling effect is up to 2C (3.6F). There are already tens of millions of people getting those kinds of benefits,” he said.

Dr McDonald said the study of the use of trees in 245 cities around the world compared the cost-effectiveness of trees with other methods of cooling and cleaning air.”

Seattle Votes to End $3 Billion Relationship with Wells Fargo Because of the Bank’s Dakota Access Pipeline Financing

Check out this article in the Seattle Stranger on how the Seattle City Council pull its investments out of Wells Fargo bank, regarding the DAPL pipeline.

Here’s a clip:

The Seattle City Council has unanimously voted to end the city’s relationship with Wells Fargo over the bank’s financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), its financing of private prison companies, and a regulatory scandal involving the bank’s creation of two million unauthorized accounts.

All nine council members voted to take $3 billion of city funds away from the bank after Seattle’s current contract expires in 2018. The vote occurred just hours after the Army notified Congress that it will be granting an easement allowing DAPL builders to drill under the Missouri River following a presidential memo from Donald Trump.

Poplar Trees and Restoration of Contaminated Soils, Water

Check out this old article on Lou Licht, an Iowa-based engineer who works with planting poplar trees for soil remediation and water management. Licht’s trees eliminate the chemicals in wastewater. “Every drop of water passes within an inch of a root,” he said. Those roots and microbes – the tiny organisms around them – breakdown pollutants like pathogens, ammonia, spilled oil or pharmaceuticals.”

Here’s a clip from Iowa Watch:

He’s an entrepreneur with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. But in some ways, Licht still is like the dairy farmer he grew up as. Only now, he grows things. His crops are poplar trees that filter fine particles and formaldehyde from the air. When planted in swales, they retain and filter water from rain, reducing storm surges and runoff in flood-prone states like Iowa. And, they can treat sewage.

“In the case of Iowa, where we are surrounded by farmland, the right 15-20 acres can do all the tertiary treatment for a town of 1,000 people,” he said.

Licht, a native of Lowden, Iowa, lives in a North Liberty home surrounded by poplars. Wearing thin-rimmed glasses and black zip-up vest over a long-sleeved beige shirt one breezy October morning, he talked about his professional evolvement, the pollution-fighting trees and his hopes for what they could do for Iowa’s environmental problems.

As he spoke, the sun peaked through the thick forest of spindling trees that shield much of his lake from view. Topped with thin patches of still-green leaves, those trees dot the landscape of the few acres Licht calls home. Green-brown, expansive space, accented with the chirping of birds, it is the type of place where you might expect to find someone who studies trees.

But Licht doesn’t just study trees. He plants them – by the thousands each year in places like Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, and gets thousands of dollars to do it. He’s not an in-your-face ecologist who lambastes mankind for “the rape of Mother Earth.” He’s a businessman who speaks of incentives and convergence. To him, cleaning the environment isn’t a moral issue. “It just makes sense,” he said.

But why would the U.S. Air Force or companies like Tyco or Republic Waste, which is the second largest disposer of garbage nationally, want Licht’s trees? Why do scientists around the globe seek his advice?

Licht’s work is “awesome,” said Kenneth Yongabi, coordinator of Phytobiotechnology Research Foundation in Cameroon. “I have no doubt about the formidable treasure this technology has for the future.”

The trees work through a process called phytoremediation that involves tree roots, swales and surrounding microbes, and they save companies money, lot’s of it, he and his environmental colleagues say. They help clean polluted land, air and water.

One of his projects is in Slovenia, where land that once was oil refinery now is an 18-hole golf course still lined with some of the trees he planted years before.

In Iowa, Licht says his methods could help deal with poorly treated sewage. More than 700 un-sewered communities discharge 1.2 billion gallons of poorly treated sewage into state waters, according to two studies by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited in a 2005 Iowa Policy Project report. Upgrading those systems to new federal standards can cost millions.

Cities Must Be Regenerative. But What Kind of Regeneration Are We Actually Talking About?

Filippo Boselli with the World Future Council has a nice series of definitions on regeneration and regenerative cities. “The term ‘regenerative´ is becoming increasingly popular in the discussion around sustainable urban development and especially relevant now as it gets frequently mentioned within the UN discourse leading up to Habitat III,” Boselli writes. “For example, the term has recently been re-adopted in the official document of the UN World Urban Campaign as one of the 10 final Principles of The City We Need 2.0. The 6th principle explicitly states that “The City We Need is Regenerative and resilient”. The terms is also mentioned several times throughout this document as well as in other UN preparatory documents towards Habitat III such as the final Policy Paper 8 Urban Ecology and Resilience.”

But what does Regenerative actually mean?

Here’s a clip:

While the ultimate aim of a regenerative city is to be able to regenerate the natural resources that it absorbs, it is important to highlight that the concept is in fact much broader and comprehensive. It is therefore important to clarify the types of Regeneration that we would see in the Regenerative City. In summary, we can say that the concept embraces 4 key types of regenerations, all extremely important for the effective implementation of the Regenerative City.

4 Fundamental Regenerations

Regeneration of Resources (from Linear to Circular Flows)

Regenerative urban development seeks to mimic the circular metabolic systems found in nature. This will require a switch in paradigm away from the old linear metabolism (which allows cities to operate within an isolated segment of the resource cycle) to a new circular metabolism. This will mean closing the urban resource cycle by finding value in outputs that are conventionally regarded as waste and using them as resource inputs in local and regional production systems. For example, all the energy the city consumes needs to be able to be naturally regenerated by natural processes. For this reason, renewable energy is considered the only viable energy sources for regenerative cities, as it is continuously available and does not involve the consumption of a finite stock such as fossil fuels. Similarly all the material goods the city needs are not discarded into landfills but are kept in the resource loops by being upcycled, recycled, reused or by becoming a useful input in another processes such as energy production processes.

Regeneration of Natural Capital and Urban Ecosystems (From Consuming to “Prosuming”)

The Regenerative city is not only conceived as a consuming entity, but actively contributes to the production of the resources it needs and to the restoration of the natural capital and ecosystems from which it depends. For example, food supplies are complemented through urban agriculture (including vertical agriculture), energy through solar rooftops, geothermal and bio-waste, and water through storm water collection at the block level and by allowing urban aquifers to be replenished through water percolation across the extensive green and permeable areas in and around the city. This enhanced ecosystem service infrastructure within the urban area improves the city’s self-sufficiency as well as its resilience. For example, increasingly relying on urban agriculture and on food from the immediate hinterland improves self-sufficiency while extensive greener areas provide benefits in terms of pollution mitigation, CO2 sequestration, water retention, natural filtering for cleaner urban aquifers, flood resilience etc. Similarly, relying on renewable energy sources from within the city or from the immediate surroundings increases the city’s resilience to energy prices fluctuation and dependency on imports. In addition, the regeneration of the productive capacity of the city and its ecosystems will lead to a renewed, enhanced relationship between cities and their hinterland and between urban and rural areas.

Regeneration of Urban Spaces (from Sprawled to Dense)

Rather than sprawling and expanding on virgin land, regenerative urban development is about creating denser cities by redeveloping and regenerating the existing urban fabric and existing neighbourhoods (instead of simply developing new sites from scratch). Increasing density has in fact huge benefits in terms of efficient use of energy, resources, infrastructures and transport. At the same time, the focus of urban regeneration projects should be on making cities more people-centred, increasingly functional for the community, more accessible and inclusive and at the same time able to positively enhance the natural systems of the city and of the surrounding areas. Retrofitting and renovation projects are prioritized while at the same time historical and cultural heritage is also conserved and revalued. Enhancement of urban ecosystems is prioritized and it is achieved by making sure the city is rich of green areas and vegetation that, for example, help to block shortwave radiation, cool the ambient and create more comfortable urban microclimates. The latter can be highly beneficial, particularly given the risks of increase in temperature due to global warming. Improving urban ecology, promoting bioremediation of degraded areas and flora regeneration are also essential and have benefits beyond the environmental ones as they also increase the liveability and aesthetic value of the city.

Regeneration of Communities (from Passive to Active Engagement)

Local communities and local businesses are themselves regenerated, revitalized and strengthened by becoming the actual leaders and drivers of all the regeneration projects taking place in the city. Citizens are constantly engaged and are encouraged to take part in the decision-making processes and community-based activities within the city. The informal sector, local youth and marginalized groups are also involved. For this purpose, it is crucial to establish a policy framework that promotes greater citizen participation, facilitates the processes of collaboration among stakeholders and of coordination across levels of governance and actively supports innovation and formation of new activities, locally based projects, start-ups and community initiatives. All of these processes contribute to the creation of a more dynamic, lively, people-centred and inclusive urban reality.