Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I live in urban sprawl

Some of the nicest people I know also live in urban sprawl. We are all creatures of our culture, we like big lots, open spaces and quiet, that's why we live in areas that provide these amenities. Everyone moves to their urban sprawl neighborhood hoping things will remain open and undeveloped. The things that attracted us here in the first place attract others, so the rural beauty that we loved is inevitably gobbled up by new development. But our world is changing, and our consciousness is changing because of what we know about global warming. It's time to stop doing business as usual.

Recently, the Mayor and City Council in our fair city signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. One of the elements of this agreement, which has been signed by 400 Mayors nationwide, is an agreement to adopt anti-sprawl land use policies. It's worthwhile to stop for a moment and consider what urban sprawl is. As the Wikipedia entry on the topic suggests, urban sprawl is a loaded term, but it generally refers to single-use zoning, low density zoning, and car-dependent development. Leap-frog development is also a type of urban sprawl.

Many of the Cities signing on to the Climate Protection Agreement live in areas that are defined by sprawl: Miami, Florida, Seattle, Washington, Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia. These cities are located in regions facing huge pressures for development. If you go to the website for the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and read the Best Practices guidelines for Cities, you see that there is a major focus on muncipal building improvements, green building principles, reducing car trips, retrofitting municipal fleets, and so on. These are all excellent projects and I applaud them. It is significant, however that the Best Practices Guide does not include any examples of Cities that are boasting about their efforts to combat sprawl.

Now, my car-dependent neighborhood is facing a proposal from a developer who wants to turn farmland into 37 single family housing units, done up in the traditional way. Everything the developer is proposing conforms to the current city regulations. How would anti-sprawl land use policies deal with the prospect of future development in my neighborhood?

Here are some suggestions:
1. Put a moratorium on new development in sprawl neighborhoods, until city planners come up with zoning designations on the remaining developable land that allow for a mix of residential, commercial, office uses, and even community agriculture that can be accessed by pedestrians or bicyclists. This implies a return to mixed use neighborhoods.
2. Provide incentives for developers to cluster housing in a manner that preserves open space, allows land for bicycling, walking, parks, and community gardens. Allow for housing diversity beyond single family housing.
3. Provide pedestrian and bicycle paths on pervious surfaces. This will allow natural water flow into the ground and prevent erosion. Pervious concrete is an idea whose time has come.
4. Avoid the use of curb and gutter and utilize vegetated open swales, preferably "engineered swales" with a permeable soil base.

Urban sprawl is energy-intensive because it increases our reliance on single occupancy vehicles. If we want to live more sustainably in the future, and become less dependent on our cars, we need to find ways to encourage city planners and developers to re-think how neighborhoods on the city's edge grow.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Snow Day

My brain is on hold again. Thursday I left to visit my mother, a 3 hour drive away from here, then Friday I was forced to return home to beat the big storm hitting the Upper Midwest.

This morning my decision to return early was vindicated by 12" of new snow. It is challenging to dig out from a snowfall of that depth, even the fresh powdery kind. But I'm not complaining. It's kind of lovely to be put on house arrest due to the weather, especially when you are well stocked with food and entertainment. I also experienced the pleasure of neighborliness; as we were shovelling our driveway, a neighbor came out with his snow blower and made short work of the some of the heaviest drifts.

It was an odd snow storm in that it was accompanied thunder, which we listened to in the middle of the night as we watched the snow swirl.

Added interest was provided courtesy the National Weather Service, which has a LaCrosse, Wisconsin website with many interesting and desirable factoids on weather conditions, including snowfall totals around the region, satellite images, radar images, probability maps, drought information, and so on.

This is the most substantial snowfall I can remember in the last four years, the first huge mound of snow I created by shovelling in a long time. Its rarity makes it a pleasure, and also, thanks to the Weather Service information, the knowledge that we need this precipitation; as the map shows that most of Minnesota and Wisconsin is either abnormally dry or in severe drought conditions.

It looks like the snowfalls generated by this storm are heaviest in southern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin. I would like it to continue snowing here, but also hope some snow storms visit northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Last summer we visited Copper Harbor, Michigan for the first time. It is a lovely place, but I have never seen a more parched looking woods in my years of hiking the woods of the Upper Midwest. I found myself thinking of those woods, and wishing they would get rained on. Not only were all the lawns brown, but the forest ground cover looked collapsed and thirsty.

Now, I hope they will get some snow. Some parts of the country just expect massive winter snows, and when they don't arrive, it's odd. Check out George's Eagle Harbor Web, which reports that the U.P. is at a record low snowfall mark, and that Lake Superior is a "foot below average for early February." The good news is, extreme weather events are convincing more and more people that global warming is real. Scientists hasten to point out that extreme weather conditions do not in and of themselves point to climate change. But you can start to sort through what reputable scientists are willing to say about global warming by visiting the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The findings have been praised, parsed, and pooh-poohed all across the political spectrum. I wonder how many of the deniers have actually gone to the website to review the data as presented by the scientists. Oh well. Enjoy the snow!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Prioritize solutions, rather than problems

I recently listened to a provocative talk given by Economist Bjorn Lomborg at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in Monterey, California. I listened, of course on-line. If you go to their website,, you can listen to a whole host of interesting and mind-bending talks. When it comes to thinking about problems, says Lomborg, we have two problems: one is that we should be thinking about solutions, and the other is that we should be employing economic tools to prioritize the solutions.

Solutions to some of the pressing world problems include big ideas like providing clean drinking water, putting a tax on carbon use, eliminating communicable diseases, and so on. After looking at the top ten world problems and their potential solutions, Lomborg said the best possible solution we should be working on is providing needed micronutrients such as vitamin A, iodine and iron to malnourished children and adults. This could be done on a cost-effective basis, according to the World Bank, and it would have a big impact.

Lomborg, an economist at the Copenhagen Business School, is not popular with a lot of environmentalists. His book, the Skeptical Environmentalist (which I have not read), unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Questions were raised about the statistics used in his analysis, his more optimistic view of environmental progress, and his rejection of the carbon tax and a number of other environmental solutions. I can't weigh in on any of these matters. What I resonate with is the practicality of evaluating the cost-effectiveness of solutions. He does not deny the reality of global warming.

My focus tends to be on world problems with the context of local solutions. Global warming is a world problem that could affect several billion people, and it is a problem in which local and even individual solutions are relevant. All of the potential solutions that might be examined have social, economic and health effects. While renewable energies such as solar and wind (especially in Minnesota) need to be supported and expanded, they are expensive solutions that usually lack local applications. The biggest impact for the smallest expenditure will come from energy conservation. An article in today's Washington Post (subscription required), documents the effectiveness of California's long-term efforts to conserve energy, through regulatory changes, building efficiency standards, more efficient refrigerators, and changing the color of a home's roof.

According to the article: "Today, as an energy consumer, California is more like thrifty Denmark than the rest of the energy-guzzling United States. While the average American burns 12,000 kilowatt-hours a year of electricity, the average Californian burns less than 7,000 -- and that's counting renewable energy sources."

There are plenty of lessons in this story for us in Minnesota. In contrast to California, Minnesota gets a much higher percentage of its energy from cheap coal. Our electric rates are 7.2 cents per killowat hour, compared to 13 cents in California. "Cost drives conservation," according to Chris Cooper of the Network for New Energy Choices. Electric rates are supposed to be much, much higher in Europe, but I have been unable to find any sources documenting this. With our reliance on cheap coal, we have poor incentives for electric energy conservation in Minnesota.

What is the moral of the story I am trying to weave? It is that if you want to be part of the solution to global warming, energy conservation is the most practical, cost-effective thing you can do. Plant trees on the south side of your house, to provide passive cooling in the summer. Carpool, to save transportation costs by as much as 50%. Turn down the thermostat. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Check my other website for 101 other sustainable solutions you can explore.

Friday, February 16, 2007

How we pay attention

One of the biggest challenges when returning from a vacation is the immediacy of everyday demands and schedules that must be re-encountered, along with mounds of mail to be sorted, bills to pay, and so on. So you are penalized for the relaxation that you experienced while away, with a short period in which you try to catch up to your former self.

The other morning I woke up fully intending to blog about the transportation system in Costa Rica, but then life intruded and it never got done. So instead of the long, pithy essay I was going to write about it, I'll give you the extra short version: beware of the roads you improve, because they can lead to more tourism, which is a decidedly mixed blessing. Some of the Costa Rican roads I experienced close to the major ecological attractions are the worst I have seen anywhere in the world. They serve their purpose, which is providing access, but not to the hoards of people. It seems to be a rule in life these days: the beautiful places in the world are being loved to death by development and traffic.

Back to my post-vacation musing: it certainly does seem as though daily life quickly reasserts itself, with the half-life of travel memories fading rapidly by the minute. But the body seems to want to acknowledge the vast changes in scenery and diet, and so I am experiencing something like a sense of arrested development, not knowing entirely what to pay attention to next.

Prior to the trip I was feeling breathless with the speed with which more people are paying attention to environmental issues. The denizens of beaches, tour buses and hotels in Costa Rica and other vacation spots are paying attention to completely different things. The background chatter on the road is about logistics, beauty, expenses, opportunities, enjoyment. Who is to say that one thing or the other is what we should be paying attention to? What I know for sure is that we are what we pay attention to.

If you are in a situation like I am, where you have a choice about what you can pay attention to, rejoice! At times like these, when I am uncertain what to pay attention to, I return to the words of my favorite sages. In this case, the poet Rumi seems to capture a sense of what is necessary:

" When you do things from your soul,
You feel a river moving in you, a joy.
When actions comes from another section,
the feeling disappears.

Don't let others lead you. They may be blind,
or worse, vultures. Reach for the rope
of God. And what is that?

Putting aside self-will...

Don't insist on going where you think you want to go.
Ask the way to the Spring.

Your living pieces will form a harmony."

From RUMI: We are Three, Coleman Barks, trans.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Not living in future tense

One reason to go on vacation is not to think, to purposefully stop thinking about whatever was on your mind when you left, to see the world anew from your new perspective, on the beach at Playa Samara in Costa Rica, or as you sit in the spacious lobby of a hotel in the outskirts of San Jose.

The thinking work of travel is what to see, when to go, how to get there, and it flows into conversation with fellow travellers from Australia, Barcelona, Denmark, and Portland, Oregon, all of them coming and going, filing away their impressions, food fancies, gripes and satisfactions. The peak moments of travel arise from glimpses of beauty, sudden camaraderie with fellow travellers, the sensuous pleasures of fresh fruit or warm ocean water, all fleeting, fleeting.

It is good to spend time observing those who are not preoccupied with global warming, but are carrying on with daily life, from the boys playing soccer on a field directly across from the Catholic Church, to an old man watering his plants, to a toucan sleeping in a tree, to a tarantula hunkered in his hole.

Life will go on in some form, even if the ice caps melt. There is plenty of change unfolding in the daily rhythms of life without constantly sorting through future scenarios of gloom and doom or even of positive transformation. It is enough, once in a while, to float on the waves of the moment, content to be precisely where you are. Costa Rica has a wonderful slogan that captures this feeling: Pura Vida.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Carbon credits in action

I am writing this on the road, from Santa Elena, Costa Rica, where we recentlyvisited the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a vast preserve that protects manydifferent species of plants, animals, fungus and insects.We walked by a sign that indicated that the preservation of this particularforest preserve was funded in part, by carbon credits, funds given the CostaRican government by other governments and businesses to protect lands likethese, that are contributing positively to our carbon balance. It makes mevery curious to learn more about the financial side of how the carbon creditswork.It was good to see with my own eyes the good work that is being done in forestprotection. Our guide pointed out various plants that produce dopamine, usedfor Parkinson's disease, another one that was being explored for its benefitsin the AIDS virus, and a bee that produced honey that was supposed to be verygood for healing the eyes.

I asked if there were local herbalists who collected the knowledge about the plants and provided herbs to area customers. Our guides opinion was that the grandmothers had that knowledge, but now theypreferred to live easier lives. You can look at the forest as being a vast storehouse of knowledge, precious notonly for the carbon it is secuestering but for the healing properties that havenot been discovered. The forest is also intrinsically interesting for its beauty and diversity, the color and variety that is diminishing in most of theenvironments that surround us in the USA.

The roads that have taken us between various locations in Costa Rica range from good to horrible. One lodge owner said he hoped they would stay that way; good roads attract all the wrong kind of development. There is also an undercurrentof worry about tourism, the number one industry in Costa Rica. Since 9-11,tourism has been dropping. It is clearly a business that has its advantagesand disadvantages. The beautiful places in the world are being loved todeath--love expressed in the form of development. It is good to see theseissues being grappled with by a number of enlightened local lodging owners, whotake pains to use sustainable practices and educate their customers about thebeauty of this area.