All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Vancouver’s River District, Lyon’s La Confluence

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Vancouver’s future River District

A few weeks ago I went on a walk along the Fraser, where the River District project is emerging from the ground.  It will be a nice complex. At a demo suite, I asked about environmental performance, and was happy to see that the real estate brochures profile some features such as district heating and water conservation.

Among the amenities are charging stations for electric cars, low VOC emissions building materials, songbird habitat restoration, rain gardens and other storm water management systems, among other things.  Waste generation was minimized from this former 50-ha brownfield site.

The power used by the complex should be quite low, compared to similar designs.  Buildings will use district heating, with some of the heat provided by a hot water pipeline from the Burnaby incinerator a few kilometers upstream. Heat recovery ventilation systems will be used to keep the air fresh, and heating and cooling will be provided by hybrid heat pumps.  High efficiency fixtures such as LED lights are used throughout. High-performance glazing and other high-tech features in the building envelope will minimize heat loss.  And there will be shops, schools and daycare.

All this is wonderful, and a positive step for real estate projects in the area.  So why did I feel a bit disappointed?

River District on the map. The main lines are car routes – but they remind me of where public transit could be along the Fraser.

Even though it is one of the larger development projects, and on a gorgeous site by the water, it feels like it is poorly linked with the rest of the city – physically, and socially.  For instance, little attention seems to have been paid to public transit, which is frustrating, since there is a rail bed, scarcely used, that could connect the complex to the Marine Drive and New Westminster skytrain stations.

Nor have I seen any mention made of preventative measures against potential flooding.  The main issue here is not rain gardens, but rather the Fraser itself.  A few lessons from developments such as HafenCity in Hamburg could have been integrated; but it seemed that the main district heating distribution centre is a sitting duck, located partially below ground.

Nor did I see any mention of subsidized or supportive housing.  For a project of that magnitude in Europe, one would expect between 30 to 40% of the housing to be non-market.

Think I’m being a utopian dreamer?  Why, then, do such projects exist in Europe? I’ve already posted about some remarkably innovative German developments (Kronsberg in Hanover, or Jenfelder Au, Mitte Altona, or Alsterberg in Hamburg), but I’d like to showcase a development called La Confluence, in Lyon, France, for comparison.

La Confluence, Place Nautique

Like River District, it is on a water’s edge former brownfield, though it is about three times bigger; and it is also adjacent to the historic downtown of Lyon.  But unlike it, the site features buildings remarkable for their avant-garde architecture as well as their energy performance; the Hikari complex, for instance, is not merely better that the standard; it will be energy positive, that is, generating more energy than it uses.  And the district energy grid is designed to be a smart grid that can redistribute excess energy, such as using waste heat from the cooling systems of office towers as a heat source for residential buildings.  And of course, rather than combining just schools and shops with the residential complex, workplaces are incorporated into the design from the start.  And yes, about 30% of the residential project has to be non-market, following strict government requirements for subsidized housing.  The complex is of course rather expensive, with prices per square meter higher than neighbouring downtown (both offices and residential), but the people who’ll be working there on lower salaries will still be able to live there.

So France, Germany, to say nothing of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc, can somehow manage to turn their old industrial sites into showcase instances of environmental development.  Why can’t we?

The energy-positive Hiraki complex

A reflection came to me as I was looking at this material.  Most North American tourists will go to Europe to visit the old historic districts, to wander the narrow cobblestone streets that saw centuries of human stories from a simpler time before cars and internet.  But it strikes me that European cities have become time machines.  Not only can one step in the past, but one can also visit the future.  Urban planners and developers, while cleaning up old industrial districts, are solving problems we haven’t yet realized we have.  In a city like Lyon, a walk takes you from the roman-era centre to an energy-positive, smart grid integrated neighbourhood.  Watch out for the whiplash – and try not to turn green with envy.

More info on River District here, here, here, or here.

More info on La Confluence here, here, or here.


Written by enviropaul

March 24, 2019 at 4:01 pm

Reflections on a bad photo from the school strike for climate march

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I went to the Vancouver march yesterday.  Compared to some participation figures elsewhere, it was a smallish event.  There were an estimated 2000 kids protesting, which is actually pretty good for typically apathetic Vancouver, but there were over 150,000 marchers in Montreal.

I took a few pictures, including this one here, taken at a distance.  There was a food truck in the foreground, called “The Frying Pan”.  (The smell of fried chicken had drawn me to it.)  It was looking for an angle, “the frying pan” being an apt metaphor for the situation the globe is in.  Naah, too cute, too silly.

But a few things about this poor photo made me think about the absurdity of the situation.

One of things that came to mind was the truck itself.  It is parked where customers are likely to walk by, and it was doing a roaring business. I bumped inadvertently into someone waiting for an order.  And that’s great; that means that our downtown has a great walkability score.  At the back of the truck was an electrical generator, quietly purring away, as is typical of all food trucks: you have to keep your lights and your fans and your fridge going in there.  But that generator was also burning fossil fuels, emitting air pollutants and greenhouse gases.  Of course, by itself, it is not a large source; even if you combine all the generators from all the food trucks, it is dwarfed by emissions from cars.

Still, there is something absurd about this.  This is a truck parked downtown in the middle of a city powered by some of the cleanest and cheapest electricity in the world, and yet it has to rely on a generator as if it were marooned on a desert road.  And it’s not just the food trucks: the large trailers of the movie industry use large diesel generators for their sets.  In fact, it seems that any outdoor activity, festival, gathering – all those things that make our city more fun and liveable – rely on generators.  It’s absurd.  And it’s only going to get worse with the coming flood of electric vehicles.  Couldn’t we have some outdoor electrical outlets?

But the car parked in front of the food truck also struck me as absurd.  It is some kind of fancy, costly, sporty Audi, a marvel of engineering, no doubt.  But as a vehicle, it is a dismal failure; it sits only two, little room for luggage, low ground clearance so it is confined to the smoothest roads.  It is little other than a status symbol: expensive and impractical.  Over a century ago Thorstein Veblen identified the walking stick as a status symbol: it “serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure.” Veblen also coined the expression “conspicuous consumption”.

The purpose of such a car is to show-off, in other words.  And that is fine, in a way – that is a fundamental human instinct, and trying to curb it is usually counter-productive. But shouldn’t fancy cars be really exclusive displays of wealth?  Shouldn’t they be subject to a very steep luxury tax?  This way, the wannabes, those who wish to appear super-rich, but who aren’t, just wouldn’t pass the grade.  And the 0.1% set could remain content in the thought that only they can afford such silly vehicles.  For them, paying a half-million dollar tax on a car worth a quarter million would be no more than an effective mark of prestige.

I can just hear the howls of indignation from here.  But isn’t it absurd to see such obvious signs of wealth displayed next door to a government building besieged by kids asking for a future, who are told that there just isn’t any money to fight climate change.  Somebody is swindling someone.

The biggest absurdity, of course, is the fact that school kids feel that they need to strike to make themselves heard.  Critics have said that they should stay in school, get a great education that will give them the tools to solve the crisis.  But will it?  Greta Thunberg asked

Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?

If anything, this is a pretty ferocious indictment of our education system.  Much of the coverage of the school strike and of Greta Thunberg (and, thankfully, there has been a lot) has focused on the element of guilt: we, the older generation, are destroying our kids’ future.  And yes, that is a large part of Greta’s message.

But lost in the shuffle is her comment that we already know how to fix the problem.  (I couldn’t even find it in her assembled wikiquotes; I had to go back to the TED Talk where she says:

Some people say that I should be in school instead [of striking].  Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can “solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved.  We already have all the facts and solutions.  All we have to do is to wake up and change.

Written by enviropaul

March 16, 2019 at 11:26 am

Silent Spring: have we learned anything?

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When Silent Spring was published in 1962, author Rachel Carson was reviled by the chemical industry, accused of being anti-progress, in the pocket of the communists, an incompetent scientist, what have you.  Yet she prevailed: her book eventually led to the ban on DDT along with several other pesticides.

DDT, in many ways, was a great scientific breakthrough.  Lethal to insects but safe for humans, it enabled effective control of insect-borne diseases such as malaria.  It was also seen as an answer to famine thanks to its ability to kill locusts, potato beetles, and other crop-destroying insects.

But of course, as we now know from Carson’s work, DDT and its chlorinated cousins had a dark side.  These compounds persisted in the environment, continuing to kill long after they were sprayed. They would kill bees and other non-target insects. They would accumulate in the environment and in the bodies of insects to amounts large enough to kill insect-eating fish and songbirds, which led Carson to the title of her ground-breaking book.  When the American authorities realized that the bald eagle, the national symbol, was on the brink of extinction because of DDT, they acted.

Fast forward fifty years: a whole new set of chemical pesticides has been developed, and the quantities sprayed dwarf how much DDT was used in its heyday. Carson is long dead, but finally a new generation of writers, reporters and scientists are following in her footsteps.  Quite a bit of it has been published in the francophone media; I thought I’d summarize some of what I’ve read recently.  The links are listed at the end.

Radio-Canada aired an interesting series based on a new report of the Quebec Ministry of the Environment.  Traces of common pesticides were found in nearly all streams sampled.  Glyphosate (found in the herbicide Roundup) was present in 97% of the samples.  Neonicotinoids (the “bee-killer” insecticides, or neonics) were found in all samples.  Two of the more common neonics were present at concentrations above acceptable norms in the majority of samples.  Many of the water wells found on farms also contained traces of the pesticides.

In Quebec, soybeans and corn are the most common crops sprayed with pesticides.  The wheat-growing prairies also show high use of (and contamination by) glyphosate.  The chemical kills the wheat crop, ensuring that it dries uniformly.  The practice is so common that Italy has decided to shun Canadian-grown pasta wheat because of the unacceptable contamination.

roundup on wheat

It didn’t help matters that Monsanto, maker of Roundup, was found to have manipulated the results of an expert study claimed to be independent.  The company claims that the product is safe and not carcinogenic; but a San Francisco court has found the company guilty of knowingly hiding the dangers of the product and liable to pay damages to farmer who contracted cancer (the case is now going through the appeals process).  In Quebec, a scientist was recently fired from the ministry of agriculture for blowing the whistle on meddling by the pesticide industry (a story that isn’t finished yet).  Meanwhile, Health Canada said that “there is no reason to believe the scientific evidence they used to approve the continued use of glyphosate in weed killers was tainted.”

Be that as it may, another study has found that glyphosate can be found in most foods that use cereal grains or flour: 90% of pizzas, 85% of oatmeal flakes and crackers, more than 80% of pastas, and 81% of cookies tested.  More than half of lentils, chick pea flour, even fruit nectars contained glyphosate.  To add insult to injury, glyphosate residues were also found in 19 out of 20 beer and wine brands tested in another study.  Aaack!

That being said, the concentrations are often very low.  What the studies show is more the prevalence of the chemical rather than the actual risk to our food supply.  But from an ecological standpoint, it is precisely that prevalence that is the problem.  A UNBC study found that glyphosate persists for a surprisingly long time in BC plants whose roots and berries are used as traditional food by First Nations, and that are also feed for wildlife.  In this case the herbicide is sprayed aerially to kill aspen and other broadleaf trees in forests to help evergreens of commercial value.  The practice has been highly criticized, not only because of contamination issues, but because copses of aspen are an effective defense against forest fires.

France is more than vineyards; it often brags of being the breadbasket of Europe, and has the highest concentration of industrial agriculture.  Unsurprisingly the country is also where traces of pesticide residues are found most often in grocery store baskets, despite more stringent regulations in Europe.  But the country is waking up to the issue; it has banned the sale of roundup in retail stores, and has banned altogether the use of neonics.

Aspen among fir and spruce

The fundamental problem, though, is the cumulative impact of pesticides on biodiversity. In France, one third of all birds have disappeared, especially insect eaters such as larks and swallows, and the drop is worse in industrial farming areas. As a whole, Europe has lost 420 million birds since the 1980s.  A large part of the reason is habitat loss with larger farm size and wild land disappearance, especially prairies with flowers and wild plants.  But the main reason is likely to the use of insecticides – fewer insects feed fewer birds.  In Germany, where one of the first systematic study was recently conducted, the number of flying insects is down by 75%.  The German government is mulling a legislation to protect insects.

Biodiversity is tied to food production, of course.  Honeybees pollinate our crops, but they are far from the only insects that do so.  And biodiversity occurs underground, too; recent studies have found a drop in the number and diversity of earthworms from pesticide use.

wild flower strips help pest control and biodiversity

And it’s not like there are no alternatives.  Organic farmers put lie to the claim that only industrial agriculture can feed the world; this is no longer controversial.  And a healthy soil, replete with earthworms, is also one that is rich in organic matter; industrial agriculture soils slowly turn to mineral dust.  But is more than just a biodiverse habitat; a rich soil under an organic farm is part of the solution to climate change. According to permaculture specialist Darren Doherty, a mere 2% increase in the organic content of the planet’s soil could soak up all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Increase the percentage, sure, to account for farm land only.  But this is precisely what happens when industrial farmland is converted to proper soil management practices that use no pesticides, but rely on organic fertilizers, good grazing management, and overall life-sustaining practices: the soil returns to health, rich in carbon.

And us city dwellers benefit: we get songbirds, not silent spring.  We also get food.  And we avoid climate change.  Most of us wouldn’t have a clue that stopping to spray poisons over nature actually helps, but yes, it’s that simple.

Sources are below; there are many more.  I also recently read a couple of books, Whitewash (on glyphosate) and Song of the Reed Warbler (on organic agriculture), which have excellent info.

Sources: pesticide residues

Sources: biodiversity



Written by enviropaul

March 7, 2019 at 3:01 pm

How to understand BC

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Recently, my friend Anne posted this request on her Facebook page:

Hello Community

It’s been 5 years that we were welcomed in Canada, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Wahtut Nations also known as Vancouver. Today, I’m shyly and clumsily asking on the resources (people, books, websites and more) to learn more about this country and province as a whole. To be able to feel that I may have my place here without being a dumbass new century colonialist (actively or passively). Thank you for your support and tolerance.

It got me thinking. I may be an eight-generation Canadian, but I also am an immigrant to BC.  What do I know about this place?  How do I know what I know?

As a new arrival, a UBC student, I found a copy of Jean Barman’s The West Beyond The West, still considered the definite history of the province. But what informed my insight into First Nations perspective are two books borrowed at random from VPL, books that have stayed with me.  Early on I read Occupied Canada, by Robert Calihoo and Robert Hunter, because the title grabbed me.  But it wasn’t one of these fiction books about, say, Nazis having won the war and occupying our country; rather, it is a first nations perspective on the European settlers occupying native land.  This is now a commonplace; 30 years ago, it wasn’t, and it changed my perspective.  This was not something I had ever learned at school.

More recently I read Up Ghost River, Edmund Metatawabin’s harrowing account of his residential school experience.  Hard to read (because of the content), hard to put down – a must.

The third edition of Barman’s book has a reproduction of an Emily Carr painting on its cover. Maybe art is a better vehicle than history to get a feel for a place. Emily Carr is a classic, of course; she was the first to translate to canvas how magnificent the coastal forests are.  She also painted reproductions of First Nations totems and buildings, working partly from photographs. Critics noted that she carefully removed any humans from her canvasses, ceding to romanticism and creating an impression of a long-departed civilization.

The first indigenous works I saw were by Bill Reid (Haida) and Norval Morrisseau (Anishinaabe Cree).  They are gorgeous and now iconic.  But they lack the bite of younger artists like Kent Monkman (Cree) or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Coast Salish).  Gorgeous, surrealistic, unsettling.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s Canada is not a pretty place

Much of what I know about First Nations issues I’ve learned from environmental news and events.  There are tons of material, of course.  I’ll just mention the movie Fractured Land, about gas in the Peace; the Winona LaDuke Chronicles, a collection of articles written by the Odjibwe activist on a number of issues across North America; and Andrew MacLeod’s That How We See It: Land, Trauma, and Indigenous Resistance, a chapter in Wendy Holm’s Damming the Peace.

Last week I was browsing VPL’s new books collection, and saw Elizabeth Hoover’s The River Is In Us: Fighting Toxins in a Mohawk Community.  One of the activists profiled in the book is Henry Lickers.  That brought back memories.  In the 70s, a group of McGill students (we had picked the corny name “ecolifestyles” – sigh!) had invited him to give a public talk about fluoride contamination issues in the Saint Regis Reserve, south west of Montreal.  He gave a straight, factual, eloquent lecture that was well appreciated.  But after the lecture we were in for a treat: Henry kept the organisers for a “chat”, as he called it.  We all sat in a circle as he explained his life trajectory, conditions when he grew up, how he decided to go all the way to New Zealand to escape prejudice while he completed his environmental science PhD, how the Mohawks look at pollution and social issues.  He was mesmerizing.

Kent Monkman’s The Daddies (of confederation)

As I was looking at the catalog I saw that Jane Barman wrote a recent book, called French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest.  (I gotta get that book.)  Like most French Canadians, I have some indigenous roots.  Eight generations ago (if not more), one of mom’s ancestors, a Menard from Poitou, married a Marie Metawetshawet, a Cree, according to our family tree.  I remember mom telling me, as a kid, that of course we have “du sang Indien” (native blood); when she was a girl, that was something of a family secret, not to be talked about – but for my generation, she said, that should be a point of pride.

I learned that a long time ago, as a little boy (she would have used a different wording nowadays).  I dunno about pride.  I certainly can’t claim that this gives me any particular insight into indigenous culture.  But, if anything, this makes it clear that dividing people into “us and them” is problematic.  I’m one of us, sure – I just don’t know what that means.

So, mostly, I’m as ignorant as a recent immigrant.  Still, Anne, here’s my contribution; I hope it helps.

Written by enviropaul

February 13, 2019 at 6:27 pm

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, environmental artist

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Hundertwasser’s Spittelau plant

The more I read about Hundertwasser, the more I’m fascinated.

Hundertwasser, born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928 Vienna, died in the Pacific Ocean in 2000.  He was a visual artist and environmental activist who incorporated nature in his art in the most unique way. His art could be summarized in the belief that nature, where straight lines don’t exist, is the guide.  As an environmental activist, he was involved in the protest against the proposed Hainburger Au hydro-electric plant in Austria.  The protest, which led to the cancellation of the project and the creation of a large natural park near Vienna, is considered a landmark in the development of environmental awareness in German speaking Europe.  He created several posters and won a variety of environmental awards, spoke at conferences, wrote manifestos.

Here are a few quotes to get an idea.

The straight line leads to the downfall of our civilization.

With German madness and German thoroughness everything is made monochrome again the minute the slightest irregularity in the colour manifests itself.  [After patching a wall] the difference in colour is an enrichment, the monotonous uniform colour an impoverishment.  You have to be grateful for every spot on the wall.  Unfortunately, now people like to do the wrong thing: if there is a spot or a hole in the wall somewhere, the whole wall, the whole house has to be repainted!  This is a typical pathological symptom of the perversity our civilization has come to…if we let nature paint the walls, the walls will become natural, the walls will become humane, and then we can live again.  We need beauty impediments.  Beauty impediments are non-regulated irregularities.  We must conclude a peace treaty with nature.  We must give territories back to nature which we misappropriated long ago.  Spontaneous vegetation, spontaneous weathering must be reinstated in their old rights, particularly on the walls of our houses

We say grace before and after our meal.  Nobody prays when they shit.  We thank God for our daily bread, which comes from the earth.  But we don’t pray that our shit be retransformed into earth.  Refuse is beautiful.  Sorting and making new use of refuse is a beautiful and joyous activity…we don’t keep our shit.  Our refuse, our waste, is washed far away.  We poison rivers with, lakes and oceans.

I have a bicycle.  Paris is big.  I want to say that the lines I draw with my bicycle through this great city are extraordinary…these lines, for which I need many hours and which form an enormous circle by the time I come back and which make me tired, are more beautiful, more genuine and more justified than those I could draw on paper.

Two years ago, there was still a nice little bomb crater on Obere Donaustrasse [in Vienna].  It had water in it, and you went around it…the bombings of 1943 were perfect automatic formalistic teachings: the straight line and its empty spaces were to be smashed and pulverised, and they were.

The absolutely straight, dead skyline is an ignominious heirloom of the Bauhaus.

The Hamburg Line

In 1959 Hundertwasser was a fine arts teacher at the Lerchenfeld Art Institute in Hamburg, where he rebelled against the rigid curriculum. With his students he started the Hamburg Line, a never-ending spiral that would “climb horizontally up the walls like sedimentary layers of rock.” This was meant to be a sort of happening event where people would witness the process.  But the deputy rector was furious, blocked access to the public, forbade (in vain) photographs from being taken, with the result that whole thing became highly mediatized.  Hundertwasser relented half way through after the authorities threatened to bring in the police.

But the artist may be best remembered for his buildings. He won a first commission for a residential complex in Vienna, which led to a number of other residential buildings such as the Green Citadel in Magdeburg or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt. He is also famous for the Kawakawa toilets in New Zealand.  What first led me to him, though, is the famous garbage incinerator in Spittelau, Vienna, which I have described elsewhere.  This was such a landmark of industrial architecture that he did an encore, so to speak, in Maishima, Japan, for an incinerator as well as a sludge processing plant.

Hundertwasser Haus, Vienna

The Green Citadel, Magdeburg

Waldspirale, Darmstadt

Kunsthaus, Vienna

Written by enviropaul

February 12, 2019 at 8:24 pm

Garbage powers Vienna

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Vienna may well be the champion of waste tourism – that is, as a place where one can see interesting and curious things related to waste management.

The visitor can tour Vienna’s sewers; the city offers frequent tours in English and German.  Vienna has an interesting sewer system, sure, but the main attraction of the sewers is that they were used as a set of the movie The Third Man with Orson Wells.  (Like Berlin, Vienna was divided in zones after the war, and the sewers were used by spies operating between the west and the Soviets.) The sewers end up at the Simmering wastewater treatment plant.  The plant itself is not included in the tour, which is too bad; with its recent upgrades, the tertiary-treatment plant has reached energy self-sufficiency, a performance that very few such plants reach (the one in Hamburg, Germany, being another).

But garbage may be the main attraction.  Vienna incinerates its waste, and two of its four incinerators are famous for their architecture.

The Spittelau plant finds itself in coffee table art books.  The original plant was built in 1971, but this is not what the visitor sees, because it was destroyed by a fire in 1987 (there is a certain irony in this).  Vienna’s mayor at the time, Helmut Zilk, decided to rebuild a new incinerator on the same location, to take advantage of the direct connections to the network heating grid.  The new plant, of course, was to use the best air purification technology available.  But Zilk also decreed that it should also be artistic, with an innovative architecture.

The design was given to artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser, a committed environmentalist, was at first reluctant to take on the work. It took his friend the environmentalist Bernd Lӧtsch to convince him to proceed. Lӧtsch told the artist that the plant would have the best emissions control technology, that burning the garbage would provide heat for 60,000 apartments, and that the city needs a garbage-incinerating plant even with the greatest efforts to avoid garbage.

Hundertwasser’s Spittelau plant

The result is a unique-looking plant, a tourist attraction, but one that produces 120,000 MWh of electricity, 500,000 MWh of heat for district heating, as well as recovering 6,000 tonnes of iron.  The city boasts that

its colourful façade, the golden ball on the chimney, roof greenery and planted trees have made the new Spittelau unmistakable and a Viennese landmark on a par with St Stephen’s cathedral and the Riesenrad Ferris wheel.

The Pfaffenau plant is Vienna’s newest, and while not as showy as Spittelau, it also got architectural kudos.  Architect Snezana Veselinovic explains:

We did not consider the technical facilities separately but incorporated them through the design of the facades and the roofscape. The materiality is calm, reduced: clear building volumes of exposed concrete, orange folding doors, planted flat roofs.

The Pfaffenau plant

It’s more than just a pretty design, obviously. The city boasts of its four-step flue gas cleaning system, which

consists of an electrostatic filter, a twin-phase wet scrubbing processes, an activated charcoal filter and a denitrification plant. The result is rock-bottom emission levels.

In contrast, the boxy Simmeringer Haide plant is unlikely to win architectural awards (though it is painted in bright colours).  But the plant processes yearly 100,000 tonnes of household waste and 225,000 tonnes of sewage sludge – it shares its location with the city’s main sewage treatment plant.

The facility also processes 110,000 tonnes of commercial and industrial waste – including hazardous waste.  That’s right, hazardous waste.  Except for explosive of radioactive waste, the city abides by its philosophy that its own waste should be processed within the city.  Needless to say, the pollution control system is remarkable.  Complete combustion of regular waste is done in four 950C fluidized bed burners, while hazardous waste is incinerated in two rotary kilns at a temperature of 1200C, after which

the clinker arising from rotary furnace lines is abruptly cooled in a water bath from over 1,200 °C to outside temperature levels. This procedure seals the clinker, preventing toxic heavy metals from escaping. The clinker is thus rendered harmless and can then be used in the construction of landfill sites.

What is remarkable is how the whole things works as an integrated system.  Household waste, industrial waste, and sewage sludge all contribute to the supply of heat and electricity for the city.  A full 328,000 households, as well as 6400 large buildings, get their heat and hot water from the district heating system, a remarkable network of 1169 kilometers of pipes that run under city streets.

The Simmeringer Haide plant

In summer, the demand for energy is lower (hot water mainly), and incineration supplies about one half of the demand. In winter, of course, heating needs are higher, but incineration still supplies a full third of the requirements.  Some of the waste can be stored to meet peak needs; up to 2600 tonnes of waste that has been compacted in large bales (one cubic meter or so), shrink-wrapped to prevent odors, can be stored for later use to balance the seasonal demand.

Since 2009, district cooling has also been provided; the cooling division of the Spittelau plant provides cooling to some large-scale facilities as Vienna General Hospital, a university, and office buildings via refrigeration pipes.


Yes, there is more to Vienna than schnitzels, much more.  But what still comes as a surprise is the extent of environmental responsibility shown by the city: waste is minimized, and any waste is dealt with locally, not exported out of the city.  Not only that, but waste is used to heat and power the city.  Vienna is proud of its record, rightfully so.  They even designed a chatbot who answers questions about the whole process.  She’s called BotTina (groan).


You can get more details here, here or here.

Written by enviropaul

January 24, 2019 at 12:41 pm

Ellen Swallow Richards, environmental science pioneer

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Ellen Swallow Richards

Ellen Swallow Richards was a pioneer of environmental science, among her many great achievements.  I am surprised it took me this long to learn about her (she’s been called the most influential scientist you’ve never heard of).  Well, better late than never; I’ll make sure to mention her to my students from now on.

Her life is nicely summarized in the YouTube video below, and there are many articles about her, such as this one by Elizabeth Durant, or by Bridget Paulus, by Sarah Richardson, or by Morgan Bettex, among others.  She is remembered the founder of home economics (or human ecology, as some call the discipline), as a pioneer in mineralogy (she identified vanadium), as an educator, or as the first female student at MIT, eventually to become the first female faculty there.  Do click the links and read, her life story is really interesting.

But I want to focus specifically on her achievements as an environmental scientist pioneer.  Before entering (unofficially) MIT, she had trained at Vassar College as a chemist.  She had many interests but kept her focus on practical applications that would improve the lives of those around her.

She felt that chemical contaminants in air, water, or food were associated with disease in one form or another.  Durant writes that

Students from the Women’s Lab helped her conduct research on nutrition, consumer products, and food adulteration, both in the lab at MIT and in her kitchen in Jamaica Plain–the nation’s first consumer-products test lab. At the time, there were no laws regulating the quality of food. In 1878 and 1879, ­Richards and her students conducted a study for the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity on adulteration of staple foods–the first such study in the nation. The results of this and further research were alarming: watered-down milk; samples of cinnamon that consisted entirely of mahogany sawdust; salt and sand in sugar; and sauces with tainted meat, to name a few discoveries. Their findings prompted the state to pass the first of its Food and Drug Acts in 1882.

The sanitation map of Massachusetts based on chlorine levels

Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 Nichols’s successor put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.

Water sampling

Richardson adds that she was instrumental in creating one of the first sewage treatment plant (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find details, other than to learn that her efforts led to the creation of the first modern sewage treatment plant in Lowell):

In 1894, convinced Vassar should be an exemplar, she used her trusteeship to help devise the school’s first sewage system, retiring the practice of using a Poughkeepsie creek as a toilet drain. The initial estimate for the job was $37,000; the version Swallow Richards implemented cost $7,500. “The quality of life depends on the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment—defined first as the family, then with the community, then with the world and its resources,” she said.

Swallow Richards’ lab at MIT (with the famous map on the wall)

Paulus concludes her article with:

Richards introduced two terms in English: ecology and euthenics. The first, originally spelled “oekology,” was thought up by German biologist Ernst Haeckel. With Haeckel’s permission, Richards brought “ecology” to America and developed the field, including the role that humans play in her definition (now known as human ecology). While the word “ecology” caught on, Richards’ vision of the field didn’t have the same success and for a long time, the subject focused only on the relationships in nature.

As for euthenics (not to be confused with eugenics), this was a word Richards herself coined to mean “the betterment of living conditions, through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings.” Due to its broad scope, this term didn’t have the same success as ecology, but it’s the one that truly sums up Richards’s life work.