06 July 2010

40 Years of Earth Day: The Planet Then and Now

...due to my absence, posting a bit late for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but better late than never!

Reposted in full from the Global Footprint Network newsletter, April 2010

'On April 22, 1970, the first observation of Earth Day took place, a massive series of gatherings, demonstrations and discussions across the U.S. that many credit as the birth of the modern environmental movement. An oil spill off the California coast was the event that triggered U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to launch Earth Day – but concerns about environmental health and the detrimental effects of industrialization were growing, over issues such as pesticide use, oil spills, poor air quality, pollution, loss of wilderness to development and declining biodiversity.

Heralded as a resounding success, the first Earth Day resulted in the implementation of a number of U.S. environmental policies, and the movement quickly went global.

Yet today, the environmental challenges we face dwarf those that touched off that first celebration. And the planet we honor on Earth Day is a far different place from that of just four decades ago.

World population has almost doubled, from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion. The amount of land paved over to build houses, cities and roads has increased 75 percent, from 228 million global hectares to 400 million global hectares, according to Global Footprint Network’s 2009 National Footprint Accounts. The amount of productive forest land required for fuelwood, paper and timber products, has gone up 53 percent to close to 2 billion global hectares. The productive land and sea area we need for food – for fishing, crops and grazing our livestock – has increased 69 percent, to 5.6 billion global hectares.

But the most staggering increase is reflected in our carbon Footprint: the amount of productive land area that would be needed to absorb our carbon emissions. Since 1970, our total carbon Footprint has more than tripled, from 2.9 to 9 billion global hectares. Carbon has also gone from being a smaller part of humanity’s total Footprint than cropland, to outstripping every other area of demand by a significant margin.

The result of this ecological overspending is clear from the crises we are confronting now – most prominently climate change, but also biodiversity loss, deforestation, fisheries collapse, soil erosion and other problems. Earth has changed from a place where we could operate as if resources were limitless, to one in which resource constraints are becoming a pressing and increasingly decisive concern.

Growing Footprints on a Small Planet

In 1970, the world still had significant ecological reserves. Humanity used resources and produced carbon emissions at a rate that the planet’s ecosystems could keep up with. By the time Earth Day was 15 years old, however, humanity was in ecological overshoot: using resources and producing CO2 at a rate that exceeded what the Earth could regenerate and reabsorb.

Today, it would take the resources of 1.4 Earths to renewably produce all the resources we consume and absorb the carbon dioxide emissions we create. Global Footprint Network research shows that if we continue at the current rate, by the time we celebrate Earth Day’s 60th anniversary, we will require the resources of two Earths to sustainably meet human demands. Reaching this level of demand may well be impossible.

(Use our newly expanded personal calculator and determine your own Ecological Footprint.)

The good news is, we can change our trajectory.

Infrastructure, because of its long life, will play an especially important role in determining whether the sustainability challenge will be successfully met.

Just as the choices we made in 1970 still shape the way we live today, the energy, transportation, housing and manufacturing systems we build today will chart the course for our future.

If we invest in systems that can operate on a small Footprint, that do not have negative impacts on biocapacity, and that are flexible and resilient in the face of changing resource constraints, they will provide lasting benefits. If, on the other hand, we design infrastructure that is dependent on a high level of resource throughput, or that damages or depletes the ecological services that make its operation possible, any benefits gained will be at best short-lived.

Similarly, the way we manage agricultural, water and forestry systems will determine whether they will be able to provide an ongoing stream of renewable resources and carbon sequestration services.

In countries with rapidly expanding populations, education—especially of women— along with improved health care and access to family planning options, can help mitigate the contribution of population growth to local and global overshoot.

(Download our recent report: The Ecological Wealth of Nations: The Earth’s biocapacity as a new framework for international cooperation.)

Confronting the FutureThe first Earth Day showed that major public movements can have significant effects in shifting policies and values.

As we note its 40th anniversary, we have a choice. Do we continue with business as usual, careening toward critical limits not just in atmospheric carbon build-up, but in biodiversity, freshwater, fisheries, soil quality and other systems? Or do we begin the rethinking and retooling we need to change the arc of human demand, and bend it toward living within nature’s means?'

From Greenwash to Whitewash

...more from 'the world's gone mad' files...

Reposted in full from The Age, 30 June 2010

'In a remote corner of the Peruvian Andes, men in paint-daubed overalls diligently coat a mountain summit with whitewash in an experimental bid to recuperate the country's melting glaciers.

It's a rather bizarre sight at 4756 metres above sea level.

The man behind the idea is not a glaciologist but an inventor, Eduardo Gold, who hopes to regrow a glacier with the right climatic conditions.

His non-governmental organisation, Glaciares de Peru, was one of 26 winners of the World Bank's ''100 Ideas to Save the Planet'' competition in November last year.

His plan is to paint a total of 70 hectares on three peaks in the Andean region of Ayacucho, in southern Peru.

The workers use jugs - rather than paintbrushes - to splash the whitewash onto loose rocks around the summit.

''A white surface reflects the sun's rays back through the atmosphere and into space. In doing so, it cools the area around it too,'' explains Mr Gold.

''In effect, it creates a micro-climate. So we can say that the cold generates more cold, just as heat generates more heat.''

The idea is based on the simple scientific principle that changing the albedo (a measure of how strongly an object reflects light) of a surface by whitening it means that it does not absorb so much heat and emit infra-red radiation which takes time to leave the earth's atmosphere and warms trapped greenhouse gases.'

05 July 2010

Imagining Ecocities

Reposted in full from Ecocity Builders newsletter, June 2010

'In many ways, cities are the main things we human beings build: the homes, offices, factories, schools, streets and parks gather there, as do the vast supply lines pumping in water, food, lumber, gasoline - and pumping out waste. And yet, the way cities are built, the logic of their internal functions and their connections with resources and natural environment are virtually ignored - they are not seen as potentially whole, living organisms. We can see houses as homes, and so it should be with cities, but even more so.

Yet even many conscientious environmentalists, reacting to the negative impacts of our present cities, fail to see the great creative, social, cultural, even spiritual good that cities can facilitate.

Perhaps most people give up on building the good city before they even consider it seriously because of the sheer scale of the task, perhaps because technology and "Progress" have failed to give us a secure, humane world and we have lost confidence in the idea that we can shape our own destiny. In any case, with the exception of war, there is no issue more important for the future of our species than making cities ecologically healthy.

The City Past And Present

Imagine yourself five hundred years ago standing on a hill overlooking town - almost any town, anywhere. In Europe you see a cluster of buildings two to five stories high: houses, apartments over stores, small handicrafts shops. There's a walled section in the middle of town and surmounting it all is the church or cathedral spire, a symbol of the community's heaven-oriented religious cosmology. Overlooking the Indian pueblo in the American Southwest there is again the clustered pattern of mixed living and working habitats - this time revealing an earth-focused and seasons-conscious religious bent: kivas spotted around the communal dance floor, openings in the architecture facing south to receive - even celebrate - the warmth of the winter sun.

Now imagine looking over a good-sized present-day city or large town. There's almost no comprehensible form at all, save the tangle of streets and freeways we all know go somewhere and link some things (while also separating and dividing). The whole scattered amalgam is probably cast in a yellow-brown haze of auto emissions over which rise a few scattered, sometimes clustered tall buildings, most of them banks and insurance companies.

Towering above even the symbols of money and security, transmission antennas flash sci-fi red lights to ward off giant buzzing aluminum gnats full of jet powered people. The antennas, we all know, are beaming images directly into the houses sprinkled widely in almost random patches about the landscape. Therein people worship at the altar of diversion from nature and diversion from deeper confrontation with themselves. The altar, of course, is television, which constantly implores them in their isolation to make offerings to the giant companies, financed through the tall buildings (nobody else can afford television time). Looking over this town we again see the values and cosmology revealed in the city structure, or lack thereof, in this case.

For those few that are students of both ecology and city planning and design, standing on these fictitious hills viewing these cities reveals something way beyond, say, the benefits of solar energy, or the value of scrupulous recycling. The lessons run deeper than the significance of life- styles based on minimizing consumption and maximizing conservation. What comes to the mind of the urban ecologist looks more like this:

Lesson #1. The city must gather people for some worthwhile reasons or it would not persevere these hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Lesson #2. But the shape of the city looks connected in some way to the disastrous condition of the air, farm lands, nature in the modern city; that is, flat and sprawled seems to be a problem.

Lesson #3. If we can build cities with millions of acres of concrete and asphalt, 100 story buildings, giant metallic insects and mysterious remote control communications, then we can build anything - even a healthy, exciting, vital future replete with cities that serve both people and nature.

The City Future

Walk back up that imaginary hill again and try to picture a city that selects the best of what we have learned from science and art, a city that regains consciousness of place and conscience toward nature.

Each city according to its location and climate is unique, but many patterns are similar to each other and similar to the older towns we looked down upon earlier in this article. In radically de-emphasizing the automobile and bringing together again a cluster of many different functions - urban planners call it "mixed uses" - the city begins again to take on a more comprehensible form, more three-dimensional than the sprawled flat city. The gigantic megalopolises have broken up into smaller cities linked by speedy public transit, though far more people work and live in the same town rather than commute from one to another. Where the giant city used to cover the countryside like a one- story thick carpet with a few areas of tall buildings, now nature and agriculture has crept back in and pushed the city into a spot pattern of development, rather than a sprawled two-dimensional or strip one-dimensional pattern.

Ernest Callenbach in ECOTOPIA portrays the San Francisco Bay Area megalopolis (which includes Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Richmond and dozens of smaller, physically contiguous towns) as breaking up into a necklace of separate towns linked by very high speed public transportation, each town with its own particular economy, products and character.

Something like our view from the hill top. If we zero in with binoculars we begin to see the details. We notice creeks and small rivers removed from their underground culverts, restored to their earlier state between the inhabited "spots" and running open through cities, their courses bounded by parks and orchards, gardens and playgrounds, foot and bicycle paths. The intimate human scale is everywhere in evidence with great diversity of detail, but the human scale also includes tall buildings. But these buildings are radically different in form and environmental and social effect. The severe simple boxes of an earlier era are broken up with terraces and design features that permit the sun to warm in winter and prevent winds from becoming excessively difficult.

Most large buildings are mixed use, many apartments and condos, many work places. People live here. The kinds of places that need little natural light: theaters, photo labs, warehouses, etc., are located in the lower stories, lifting the downtown activities higher into the sun. The views are breathtaking. Occasional covered streets have the grandeur of cathedrals. Unlike their predecessors, the larger buildings of the ecocity's downtown, provide workplaces for non-commuters mainly. The hundreds of thousands who once poured into downtowns over billions of dollars of freeway in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cars, now quietly zip in and out by foot or bicycle from nearby, with a minority coming in by bus and rail. No car parking downtown except for emergency delivery and construction/maintenance vehicles.

The larger buildings sport multi-story solar greenhouses and rooftop gardens that compete with local private and communal gardens for food production and horticulture. Solar collectors and windmills glint and twinkle in the sun. The streets hum with human activity - rather than rumble and scream with mechanical noise. No air pollution or soot, and no deaths under rubber tires. Bridges link many buildings and make the rooftop cafes as lively as those below on the streets and along the water courses. Arcades, awnings and covered walkways make downtown streets negotiable in all kinds of weather. Transit shelters and posted schedules make easy work of bus, trolley and street car travel.

Night time is a great time to be outside moving about and socializing in the many lively spots - TV looks too passive and dull to these people who can barely believe that in 1983 the average American family watched more than seven hours a day. At night the sky is absent of pollution and almost all glare - stars are everywhere, astronomical observatories have begun to function properly again. In the day, song birds and hummingbirds fill the fragrant air of the "carfree zones" and neighborhoods.

In the lower-density areas that remain, streets are made narrower - almost no parking is needed since these neighborhoods are within bicycling distance of employment and walking distances from transit. The streets are generally narrowed from the north side so that gardens can be planted with minimal shading from the buildings on the south side of the street. South-facing houses frequently have retro-fitted greenhouses, north-facing ones are often peeking out from fruit trees - many of these homes have backyard greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Some streets in low density areas are removed entirely, replaced by foot paths and bicycle routes. The local "fruit and nut brigade" cares for, plants and harvests many of the street trees, making the city almost as productive as straight-forward conventional orchards, but here the distribution costs are exceptionally low.

Some lower density areas have also been transformed by the integral neighborhood idea, in which village scale arrangements function for most practical matters: workspaces approximately balance adult residential space, considerable food is produced, recycling approaches 100%, stores for everyday merchandise and handicrafts are on hand - and the rest of the city, its colleges, hospitals, movie houses, street theater, art galleries, larger employers and specialized markets are a short bicycle or transit ride away.

From the top of the hill, television and radio towers are less conspicuous. But knowing something of what goes on in town, we also know more about the quality and style of communication. Information storage and retrieval technology, once worshipped in the declining years of the industrial age, is now seen as a useful filing system in certain circumstances, but information per se isgiven no particular status. People have learned to select far more carefully the information that helps preserve and explore life. There is more discretion, less tolerance for irrelevant and degrading information and images. The whole society in deciding to build ecocities, made a commitment to bringing lifestyle into harmony with the biosphere - the process of making meaningful choices has rubbed off on everyone.

Ecocity Principles

The ecocity functions according to certain principles, which, if understood by many people, could begin influencing cities in positive directions immediately.

Small Scale - Highly Qualified

Equal population areas of Los Angeles and New York are radically different in physical size. Despite its large buildings, New York covers a much smaller amount of land, uses about 1/3 the energy per capita (despite its far more extreme weather), and has very few cars and much smaller square footage per person in asphalt and concrete streets, freeways, interchanges, parking structures, vehicles. The issue of optimum or maximum size of an ecocity has hardly been broached because most thinking on ecologically healthy alternative communities has focused on villages and small towns, while people contemplating future cities have generally not dared to believe they could be radically reformed.

The key question in issues of scale: what is the final cultural and ecological impact? If it is possible to have a high population, say one million people in a city or cluster of cities, and use considerably less resources than conventional small towns of the same population total, then that's not such a bad arrangement. But at whatever population, the scale of material consumption and waste should be much smaller than in today's cities and villages.

Paolo Soleri takes the idea of the small city to its paradoxical conclusion. This architect who is building Arcosanti in Arizona, is promoting the building of whole towns in a single structure or a tightly interlinked cluster of stylistically consistent tall buildings. In these structures, land area for human society would reach its absolute smallest with cities of 100,000 or 1,000,000 covering only tens or hundreds of acres, using almost no energy at all once built (save solar energy and human waste heat energy) and producing virtually no pollution - almost all wastes would be recycled as new resources. It would be very informative to learn how such a city would work - or why it would not, and in which ways. Unfortunately this smallest of all cities (and potentially largest of all buildings) is so enveloped in narrow criticism and so plagued with operational problems and lack of money at the one location it is being attempted, it's unlikely to be actually built within the decade or so. The price for a town-sized "arcology" as Paolo calls his ultra- compact cities, would be less than an aircraft carrier.

Access by Proximity

[This] is an important principle of ecological city building. If enough diversity is close enough, you don't need to travel a lot for life's basics: residence, job, school... The idea is to design maximum access right into the city structure. Mixed use zoning again, but the principle goes further than this. Proximity access policies could also include local hiring practices, renting apartments to people who don't own cars and who work nearby, making bank loans available in the neighborhoods from which the savings come (very often low income urban areas have accumulated savings in great excess of the loans made in those same areas, while suburban developers use those funds for anti- ecological construction). Another proximity policy: ordinances permitting increased residential construction in activity centers and prohibiting it in farther-out areas. Land trusts and public bond issues, as in Stockholm, could purchase structures in car-dependent areas and convert suburbia back to nature, agriculture, or ecologically stable villages.

Small Scale Recentralization

We hear a great deal about decentralization - but it has to be thought out well or it quickly falls into serious contradictions. Suburbia is perhaps the most decentralized form of human development behind scattered farms and ranches. But suburbia supports the most centralized establishments conceivable: giant automobile manufacturers and oil companies. The suburbanite sits decentralized in his or her little home watching a communications medium so big and centralized only a handful of companies in the whole country can afford to advertise (and decide what goes) on it. From the ecocity point of view, cities, towns and even villages should be recentralized physically and decentralized in terms of participation in community life and politics.

Diversity is Healthy

This is perhaps the largest, broadest principle of all. In cities, as in agriculture and most natural ecological areas, diversity is healthy. Some call diversity complexity and shy away from it in many aspects of life. Some are fatigued by life in today's cities and think it's because the environment is complex. but how complex is sitting in one position driving to work in a car hours each week, doing a repetitive job or conforming to dress codes and social expectations? It's far more complex to be deeply involved in your neighborhood or tending a large garden than doing most of the tiring things of life in the present city. With a closer look, the simple life isn't so simple either and the most complex activities of all are probably the choices people have to make about important moral issues. If we look toward ecology and evolution we see that the tendency toward complexity, toward environments and situations involving great diversity, are precisely those environments and situations that cause individuals and species to survive, grow and diversify. War is exactly the opposite: a convulsion that wipes the slate clean of its messy little details and leaves the ravaged place simplified. The implication of all this is that cities built with the mixed use notion are on the right track.'

Love Food, Hate Waste Launches in Australia

Reposted in full from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 2 July 2010

'The Government of the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has teamed up with retailer Woolworths, households, businesses and local councils to slash food waste - under a programme called Love Food Hate Waste, based on the original UK concept.

Council waste audits show that each year, NSW households generate 800,000 tonnes of food waste and businesses generate 300,000 tonnes. This means A$2.5 billion worth of food a year is thrown away or about A$1,000 a household.

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Frank Sartor, has launched Love Food Hate Waste - an internationally successful campaign to help thousands of households and businesses reduce growing amounts of food waste.

"Food waste makes up a massive 40 per cent of the total rubbish in our household bins; that is 315 kilograms a home," Mr Sartor said.

"It is a tragedy that we are wasting so much food - when others around the world are starving or struggling to buy the food needed to survive. There are also major consequences for the environment when we throw away food - it goes directly into landfill where it turns into methane - a gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. There are simple things we can all do to waste less food, including buying only what we need, preparing and cooking correct amounts, and storing food items properly".

Love Food Hate Waste is a partnership programme based on a successful campaign in the United Kingdom which supports households to adopt simple and easy behaviours that work to reduce food waste.

The three year campaign includes an awareness program and a partnership with business to help change behaviours. Woolworths is involved because it has more than 20 million consumers pass through its stores each week in Australia.

The NSW Government is also partnering with the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the Local Government and Shires Association.

Under the programme business and households can access:

  • a portion calculator to help them to decide on the best amounts of food to buy for their families to minimise waste
  • tips on what to buy and when
  • how best to store food
  • tools and resources to help raise awareness and adopt new behaviours to better manage food
  • nutritional recipes
  • a dedicated website www.lovefoodhatewaste.nsw.gov.au
Mr Sartor said the programme will help NSW meet its municipal waste reduction target of 66 per cent and commercial and industrial waste reduction target of 63 per cent by 2014. This target is equivalent to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in NSW by about 640,000 tonnes of CO2 per year - that's the same as permanently removing 159,000 cars off the road.

For every tonne of food waste prevented from going to landfill, 0.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide can be saved.

To better understand community knowledge, attitudes and behaviours about household food waste 1,200 NSW households were surveyed as part of the Food Waste Avoidance Benchmark Study 2009.

The survey was delivered online in December 2009 and was completed by NSW residents, aged 16 and older, who were mainly or equally responsible for buying and managing food in their household.

The Food Waste Avoidance Benchmark Study 2009 represents the most comprehensive and up to date analysis of community knowledge, attitudes and behaviours conducted about food waste in NSW.

Who wastes the most food?

While we all waste some food, the top three food wasting groups in NSW are young consumers (aged 18-24), higher income households (incomes more than $100,000 per year) and families with children. On average these groups waste $24.90-$26 worth of food per week.

Young consumers are:

  • more likely to feel that a busy lifestyle makes it hard to avoid wasting food
  • more likely to throw away food that has passed its 'best before' date (regardless of quality)
  • less likely to consider whether food will be eaten (at time of purchase)
  • less likely to shop to a set budget

Households with incomes more than A$100,000 per year are:

  • more likely to make extra just in case
  • more likely to use leftover food for other meals
  • less likely to have members of the household eat the same meal
  • less likely to consider portion sizes when cooking
Families with children are:

  • more likely to do one large shop
  • more likely to buy items on special and in bulk
  • less likely to check 'best before' and 'use by' dates when shopping
  • less likely to make meals from assorted ingredients that need using up

This Side of Paradise: Discovering Why the Human Mind Needs Nature

Excerpt from Ecocity Builders newsletter, May 2010

'...As awareness of humanity's relationship with the environment has increased in the past few decades - buoyed of late by the larger popular concern about climate change - so has empirical evidence for nature's psychological benefits. Back in 1865, Olmsted thought exposure to natural environments would prevent a "softening of the brain," "irascibility," and "melancholy." Nearly 150 years later, scientists now know that nature has a remarkable ability to restore attention, that it soothes aggression, and that it may even ease mild depression.

Reinvigorating the Brain through A.R.T.

The most significant understanding of nature's salutary effect on the human mind has come through studies of attention. The foundation of this work is the attention restoration theory, or A.R.T., set forth by APS Fellow Stephen Kaplan of the University of Michigan. The theory originated in the 1980s, says Kaplan, when he, APS Fellow Rachel Kaplan, and some of their students noticed that people had an astounding preference for scenes depicting natural environments. Kaplan and his collaborators soon discovered there was much more to nature than just a pretty face - they found that exposure to these scenes had a profound restorative effect on the brain's ability to focus.

The tenets of A.R.T were established in a 1995 paper by Kaplan. Briefly put, a person can engage in two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention is a rather effortless form of engagement with the world. Voluntary (or directed) attention, in contrast, requires a good deal of focus and energy - it plays a central role in problem solving, for instance - and is therefore susceptible to fatigue. Voluntary attention can be restored through sleep, but it can also be restored during waking hours when a person's involuntary attention becomes highly engaged, essentially giving direct attention a breather. Kaplan and his collaborators found that nature is especially conducive to our involuntary engagement.

Nature's ability to restore human attention has since been supported by a wide range of psychological studies. In a study coauthored by Kaplan and led by Marc Berman, for instance, the researchers compared the restorative effects of natural environments with those of the city (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). In one trial, 38 study participants were given the "backwards digit-span task" - an established test of voluntary attention. The participants then performed a task that fatigued their voluntary attention and were randomly assigned to walk through either downtown Ann Arbor or the city's arboretum, a substantial haven of trees and wide lawns. Afterwards, the participants took the backwards digit-span task again. Sure enough, the scores were significantly higher after the walks through the arboretum, as the researchers reported in Psychological Science."The way I think of it is that our ancestors evolved in a nature-filled environment," says Kaplan. "[Such places] should feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more like home. It's not a big leap between that and being more competent, less distracted."

In the January 2010 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Kaplan and Berman summarize 13 of the most influential A.R.T.-related papers (Kaplan & Berman, 2010). The findings (some of which will be discussed below in more detail) show nature’s impact on a wide variety of cognitive activity, from dampening road rage to boosting the spirits and attentional capacities of cancer patients. The authors also explain why nature does a better job restoring directed attention than another stimulus that might seem suited to distracting the mind: television.

Rather than lightening the load on direct attention, television actively captures it in an attempt to prevent the viewer from changing the channel (Mander, 1977). As a result, Kaplan and Berman report, researchers have found a direct correlation between the amount of time someone spends in front of the television and that person’s irritability. In the short-term, TV shows provide an escape from everyday trials, but over the long-term such escapism prevents the mind from engaging in much-needed reflection. “The fascination that seems to be important in the recovery of attention is nothing like what happens on television,” Kaplan says. “Since nature is not only fascinating in this soft and gentle way but is also pleasurable, that means you can more effectively think about things that are not comfortable.”

Positive Pockets of Green

A logical extension of attention restoration theory is that people deprived of nature will display behaviors caused by weary minds. Shortly after his influential paper on A.R.T. appeared in 1995, two of Kaplan’s disciples decided to test this conclusion. The hypothesis laid out by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois was a marvel of logic and sequence: If fatigued attention is related to irritability, and irritability leads to aggression, then perhaps people deprived of nature’s restorative qualities would be overly aggressive (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001).

Kuo and Sullivan tested their premise on 145 female residents of a public housing complex in urban Chicago. The complex provided natural control and study groups: Some residents lived in buildings that overlooked “pockets of green,” while others had a view of only bleak concrete. The researchers reported significantly lower levels of aggression and violence in residents with apartments near nature than in those who looked onto barren lands. When handling disputes with their partners, women in the nature group used fewer “psychologically aggressive conflict tactics” and fewer “mildly violent conflict tactics” than those whose randomly assigned housing unit was denied exposure to nature.

Aggressiveness has been linked to impulsivity, so it’s not surprising that in a contemporaneous study, Kuo, Sullivan, and Illinois colleague Andrea Taylor found a relationship between exposure to nature and self-control (Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2002). In studying 169 girls living in the same housing complex, the researchers found that those with greener views performed better than those deprived of nature on several tasks related to discipline. The former group scored higher on tests of concentration, inhibited impulsivity, and ability to delay gratification. “Those data are astounding,” says Kaplan of the series of public housing studies performed by Kuo and Sullivan. “That’s a miserable environment, and for [nature] to make a difference in it, that was awesome.” The findings on aggression and self-discipline appear to transfer out of the home and onto the road. In a 1998 paper, a group of Texas A&M researchers led by Russ Parsons compared the physiological responses of subjects who watched a video of driving through nature with those who watched a drive through more built-up environments (Parsons et al., 1998). Not only did the nature-road group display lower levels of stress, they also recovered more quickly from the stress they did experience.

A related study of road rage tested the ability of subjects to tolerate frustration in various roadside settings (Cackowski & Nasar, 2003). Subjects watched one of three driving videos — one with dense roadside vegetation, one with sparse roadside vegetation, and one mixed — then were asked to solve an unsolvable anagram. The task was designed to enhance frustration, and indeed, subjects whose road trip had taken them through dense vegetation worked on the aggravating task for roughly 90 seconds longer than those in the other groups.

Virtual Nature

The recognition of nature’s psychological value has informed broader discussions on public health and even inspired practical applications. Building on studies showing the psychosomatic benefits of green space, a U.K. research duo reported that populations living near natural environments had less income-related health inequality than groups living away from green space — prompting calls for greener infrastructure and community planning (Mitchell & Popham, 2008). The design of Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, an Oregon hospital rebuilt in 2008, was informed by a now-classic paper that appeared in Science in 1984: Researcher Roger Ulrich found that patients whose hospital window overlooked nature recorded shorter postoperative stays, required less potent pain medication, and evaluated their nurses more positively after gall bladder surgery than patients who looked onto a brick wall (Ulrich, 1984).

The heightened awareness of nature’s health benefits is tempered by threats to the environment posed by modernity — from the clearance of green space for buildings to the destruction caused by global climate change. To see how such changes might affect future well-being, several psychologists have begun to study whether technology can salvage some of nature’s healthful properties. Three researchers from the University of Washington, led by Peter Kahn Jr., review some of this work in Current Directions in Psychological Science (Kahn, Severson, & Ruckert, 2009). One of the outlined studies, led by Kahn, compared three types of nature interactions available in a modern office. Kahn and his coauthors conducted tests on three groups of 30: In one group, subjects sat near a glass window that overlooked a nature scene; in another, they viewed a similar scene on a high-definition plasma television; and in a third, they sat near an empty wall. The researchers measured heart-rates to gauge how quickly subjects in each setting recovered from stressors. Predictably, Kahn and his colleagues found the glass window to be significantly more restorative than the blank wall (Kahn et al., 2008). When the researchers compared the results of subjects in the plasma and blank wall groups, however, they found no significant differences in recovery to stress. This came as something of a surprise. In a previous field study involving Kahn and led by Batya Friedman, plasma screens depicting a natural scene were installed on walls in real-life offices, and workers asked about the experience over a 16-week period reported higher well-being, cognitive functioning, and connection to the environment.

When the two studies are considered together, “the plasma nature window appears better than no nature but not as good as actual nature,” Kahn and his coauthors concluded in Current Directions. Humans will “adapt to the loss of actual nature,” they continued, but in doing so they’ll suffer “psychological costs.” This conclusion was recently supported in a study led by F. Stephan Mayer, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, on whether exposure to nature aided the ability to reflect on life’s troubles (Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal, & Dolliver, 2009). Mayer and his colleagues asked subjects to consider a relatively minor problem in their lives, then split them into one of several groups. Over the course of three separate tests, some subjects reflected on their “loose end” while strolling through either natural or urban settings, and others did so while viewing videos of these settings.

The researchers concluded that exposure to nature increased a subject’s ability to resolve a minor personal problem, but that actual nature aided this resolution more than virtual nature.

“It’s not as if you can replace actual nature with virtual nature,” says Mayer, who interprets the results to mean that people have an innate kinship to the natural world. “At the same time, it does seem as if virtual nature can have benefits. Some of those benefits could be very useful, in terms of people who are hospitalized — if they’re not able to be outside, they could benefit from exposure to virtual nature.”

From Social Movement to Science

The type of work done by Mayer and Kahn falls at least partially under the umbrella of ecopsychology. Largely embraced by therapists, ecopsychology has been considered more of a social movement or worldview than a scientific discipline. But a so-called “second-generation” of ecopsychologists have emerged with a desire to ground the movement’s theories in an empirical foundation.

“As I see it, it seems as if ecopsychology had clinical aspects to it initially, maybe even to some extent a philosophical aspect,” says Mayer, who runs the Ecopsychology Research Project at Oberlin. “Then you have people coming out of a more social psychology tradition with a strong empirical basis, trying to take these general ideas and test them in a more systematic way.” This progression is apparent in a forthcoming book coedited by Kahn and Patricia Hasbach, a clinical therapist in Oregon. The volume’s title, Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species, was chosen as a deliberate announcement of ecopsychology’s empirical “re-visioning,” says Hasbach. “In sandwiching the word totems” — a reference to ecopsychology’s symbolic, experiential roots — “between science and technological species,” she says, “we’re embracing … the recognition of the place of science for furthering the field.”

Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon, who co-teaches an ecotherapy class with Hasbach at Lewis & Clark University, seconds ecopsychology’s push to embrace empirical methods. Editor of the year-old, peer-reviewed journal, Ecopsychology, Doherty says his goal with the publication is to “move away from the stereotype” of ecopsychology being a non-scientific endeavor. In the lead editorial of the inaugural issue, he wrote that the new generation of ecopsychology “recognizes that tending data sets and tending souls are not mutually exclusive” (Doherty, 2009).

Doherty would like to see more controlled studies on ecotherapy’s efficacy. “I’m primarily a clinician,” he says, “but I can’t function without research.” To date, such studies have been limited. The most promising was released in 2007 by Mind, a mental health organization in England that commissioned researchers at the University of Essex to study the therapeutic influence of “green exercise” on people suffering from mild depression. The researchers found that activities like nature strolls and gardening projects benefited several aspects of well-being more than did exercise in a shopping mall (Mind, 2007). In other words, a walk in the park does a body good — just as Olmsted said...'

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

Excerpt from Ecocity Builders newsletter, May 2010

New Village Press and The Center for the Living City have teamed up to bring you the book What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, a collection of original essays by leading thinkers that honors the late Jane Jacobs. Here are fresh and timely ideas to springboard public dialog, community activism and celebration of what's local.

On the What We See website you'll find news of forums led by the book's contributing authors, guidelines for starting study circles or conducting informal neighborhood (Jane's) walks, plus ideas for block parties, mapping community assets, and many creative forms of community sharing.

Contributing Authors:

Janine Benyus, Hillary Brown, Robert Cowan, David Crombie, Pierre Desrochers, Samuli Leppälä, Matias Sendoa Echanove, Nan Ellin, Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Jan Gehl, Arlene Goldbard, Roberta Brandes Gratz, Ken Greenberg, Nabeel Hamdi, Chester Hartman, Sanford (Sandy) Ikeda, Allan Jacobs, Daniel Kemmis, Jaime Lerner, Elizabeth Macdonald, Clare Cooper Marcus, Richard Register Mary Rowe, Janette Sadik-Khan, Saskia Sassen, Ron Shiffman, Robert Sirman, Rahul Srivastava, James Stockard, Ray Suarez, Deanne Taylor, Alexie M. Torres-Fleming, Susan Witt, Peter Zlonicky

Richard Register's essay for What We See entitled "Jane Jacobs Basics".

Ecocities: Setting the Standards

Reposted in full from GreenMoney Journal , Summer 2010

'Google the word "ecocity" and you'll get over a half million hits, ranging from "Ecocity Vehicles" to "Sex and the Ecocity." Ecocity is fast becoming a buzzword among urban greenies, both on- and offline. With climate change front and center in our public discourse, this sudden interest in urban planning and development comes as no surprise: Home to over half of the world's population on less than one percent of the earth's surface, cities consume over two-thirds of the world's energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. There is growing consensus that the path to reversing climate change must lead through cities. In many ways, this is a welcome acknowledgment of the tremendous role urban design can and must play in changing our wasteful ways and reducing our global carbon footprint.

However, as with the terms "green" and "sustainable," the rising popularity and widespread use of "ecocity" has brought with it the need to define what it actually means and what it should be used for. Not unlike greenwashing, "ecocity" used as a feel-good word for any town with a bike lane or a recycling program can hurt the cause of building and reclaiming an integrated urban ecosystem more than it helps. At what point then, does a city graduate from boasting a collection of "eco-scores" to becoming an actual ecocity?

Fortunately, a lot of footwork (pun intended) has already been done in answering this question: from when Ecocity Builders President Richard Register first coining the term in 1979 to the current development of International Ecocity Standards, the ecocity model is a well-seasoned concept already being applied in cities around the world and is on its way to becoming a globally recognized metric. After twenty years of fine-tuning and eight international ecocity conferences, urban planners and governments worldwide are poised to submit their cities to an evaluation process comparable to the USGBC's LEED ratings system for buildings.

But let's back up just a bit... What is an Ecocity?

"Eco" is derived from "Oikos," the ancient Greek equivalent of a household or family, in which everyone works together to create a functioning unit. Similarly, eco cities are conditional upon a healthy relationship of a city's parts and functions rather than just a laundry list of random "green features." While there are single categories such as transportation, buildings or industries that play important roles in defining a city, ecocities' complex living systems interact three-dimensionally and in relatively close proximity, not unlike our human bodies. The key word here is proximity. If there is a single defining feature of a lean and functioning eco-city, it would be the ability of its residents to access basic goods and services by foot, bicycle or public transportation, preferably in that order. While a complete phase-out is not realistic at this point, the staggering environmental costs associated with the automobile (ranging from the extraction of raw materials to production, road building, disposal, petroleum depletion, and CO2 emissions) should keep driving at the very bottom of this inverted pyramid. Using the analogy of our human body, the automobile is like a 5000-calorie daily diet, a burden on the system that negatively impacts all other organs and our overall health; any serious attempt at establishing an ecocity must keep car-free, pedestrian designs at its core.

“Density done well” has been a description used by many municipalities who have been working on implementing ecocity principles into their city plan. Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, Canada, also calls it “The Power of Nearness,” expressing a changing shift in perception about urban living. While a century of unimaginative urban planning has branded cities into our collective consciousness as drab and anonymous concrete jungles, a new generation of planners and architects are showing how rich and fulfilling city life can be when vital services and cultural offerings are within walking or biking distance. Think of it as a network of walkable urban villages, each one reflcting its own community’s needs and aesthetics, linked to each other and to a strong downtown by public transit, with room for urban agriculture, creek corridors and greenways.

Good for the Triple Bottom Line

In the past, a common obstacle for ecocity advocates was the conventional wisdom that anything less than direct automobile access would be bad for business. The mere suggestion of replacing a parking space with a sidewalk cafe would be enough to draw the ire of merchants and chambers of commerce. Over the last decade or so this perception has been changing drastically: With more and more cities embarking on pilot projects to close streets for traffic, businesses are seeing the benefits of car-free commerce.

For example, according to the SF Chronicle, the response to a recent daylong trial in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in which merchants could place extra tables and chairs in the parking space in front of their businesses was ecstatic. “People loved it,” said Hanna Suleiman, who owns Caffe Greco on Columbus near Vallejo Street. “There are a lot of merchants in North Beach who would like to see this happen. Having more sidewalk tables will bring more people to the neighborhood, make it even more lively,” he added. Down the street, Caffe Roma owner, Anthony Azzollini, chimed in: “My business was up 30 percent – talk about economic stimulus.” Across the bay in Berkeley, the city council has moved beyond trials and recently voted to endorse a downtown Eco-Plaza covering an entire city block between the UC campus and BART, the main metro station. After almost 20 years of planning processes backed by Ecocity Builders, the wheels are now set in motion to “daylight” native Strawberry Creek and create a pedestrian-oriented gathering space integrated with local businesses and major upcoming projects such as the Berkeley Art Museum. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin calls what could become one of the greenest corridors in the U.S. “a visionary proposal that will not only help revitalize our Downtown but will bring nature into the heart of our city and serve as a model for the region and the world.”

Instead of viewing integrated ecological design at odds with economic development, city planners worldwide are increasingly promoting urban density with a focus on community and people’s connection with nature as an automatic boost to small business and local commerce. From Freiburg, Germany to Tianjin, China to Curitiba, Brazil, this new urbanism combines the strengths of the market with the strengths of good planning and basic ecological and social principles. “We don’t let the market dictate our planning,” says Vancouver’s Toderian, a strategy that enables the city to pour money into the kind of projects that make urban living desirable, like public art and cultural facilities. What this means, of course, is not that the market is being ignored or rejected, but expanded from a one-dimensional entity based on short-term profits to a living breathing organism attuned to the triple bottom line.

With bold opportunities around sustainability, creativity and architectural risk taking, ecocities are positioned to shape policy and enact the needed structural change for transition into a post- carbon economy. With stakes this high, it is crucial then to have a comprehensive ratings system that is able to discern and reward cities’ progress toward becoming ecocities.

International Ecocity Standards

Imagine the USGBC’s LEED rating system (http://www.usgbc.org/) applied not only to buildings, but entire cities, integrating factors as diverse and complex as energy conservation, biodiversity restoration, and social justice. A set of standards and criteria so comprehensive that it would measure factors such as wealth and economic security of an entire urban area in accordance with the needs of all stakeholders, including the environment and the community; a rating system in sync with human values, rewarding collaboration and synergy as much if not more than competition. Enter the International Ecocity Standards (IES).

Currently being developed by Ecocity Builders and a host of partner organizations from around the world, IES will evaluate and judge new and existing cities’ progress towards becoming ecocities. Similar to LEED, it will rate urban development at various levels of attainment, from small neighborhoods to entire regions, using basic principles of ecologically healthy systems and designs. From ecocity mapping to human development, from urban fractals to building codes, IES measuring categories will be as integrative and multi-dimensional as the complex living systems it aims to evaluate.

For anyone familiar with the challenges of creating a fair, effective and universal ratings system for buildings, the idea of expanding the metrics to entire urban areas may at first appear daunting. However, as mentioned above, the reason for IES’ ambitious scope is that cities have the potential to become not just less damaging but “net contributors” to restoring global biodiversity, productive agriculture, and energy independence. By including larger structural indicators such as net energy and materials input/output, appropriate locations, and impact of external trade, IES will emphasize the foundation upon which an ecologically balanced and healthy city must be based.

Some countries and municipalities have already put into place initiatives that are good first steps toward creating more and better ecocities. Good examples are The Living Building Challenge (http://ilbi.org//the-standard/version-1-3), which gives certiification only after buildings have been performing for a year, One Planet Communities (http://www.oneplanetcommunities.org/), or Vancouver’s EcoDensity Initiative (http://www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca/). IES will also incorporate existing indicators of urban health established by the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), including poverty rates, food and water security, infant mortality, longevity, and basic literacy. The United Nations has expressed interest in partnering with Ecocity Builders to integrate HDI with IES.

In order to meet the potential for truly transforming urban landscapes around the world, an internationally acknowledged, comprehensive, and binding set of standards is needed, and that is the aim of International Ecocity Standards. Ecocity Builders and associates have been laying the foundation for this transformation for over twenty years; with the upcoming 2020 Global Climate Leadership Forum in Salvador, Brazil and Gaining Ground Conference in Vancouver, Canada slated to integrate these groundbreaking standards into a streamlined track, 2010 promises to be a landmark year for the rise of true ecocities. The seeds have been planted; it is now time to water them.'