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

Archive for July 2013

A lazy Sunday urban outing

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Relaxing at New Westminster Key

Relaxing at New Westminster Key

Sometimes the best outings are right at your doorstep.  Last Sunday we got out of town…on the Skytrain, as far as New Westminster.

We hadn’t been at the Quay for a few years, so we went there for a brunch, exploring what’s new (wow, a new Donald store!) and discovering the wonderful Thai eatery Longtail.  

Aaah!  Sitting by the Fraser, watching the working river and crowds walking by, eating our fill of really delicious food.  Can’t be beat for relaxation.

The town has gotten a renewed urban vibe, too.  There are shops and cafes all around the New Westminster Skytrain station, at the train level as well as ground level.  It just seems so logical, doesn’t it? I wish more stations greeted you like that.

We ended up ambling up and down Columbia Street, listening to music – it was a car free day.  Well, not exactly.  Ironically, car traffic was banned because it was a car show: polished beloved antiques, and the odd modern supercar.  There was nostalgia over the old ‘vettes and caddies, but the electric cars display was mobbed.  Sign of the times – in a good way. (There will be an exhibit of electric cars in Vancouver July 20th, for those interested)

But it’s worth remembering that if it’s fun and easy, it’s thanks to the Skytrain.  We forget how much transit is part of what defines a city – and we should cherish it accordingly.

Drooling over the Tesla electric supercar - at the car free day.

Drooling over the Tesla electric supercar – at the car free day.

Written by enviropaul

July 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Laneway homes (a photo essay)

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A cute laneway home in Grandview

A cute laneway home in Grandview

After the ruckus of last week’s planning meeting in Grandview, one is left with this quandary: is it possible to accommodate growth without changing the character of an area?

Much is at stake in this debate.  Areas such as Grandview pride themselves on their unique character, with independent shops, and a combination of housing that ranges from single-family housing to small rental apartments.  But both rents and real estate prices are going through the roof, driving away the independent shops, as well as the younger people who can’t afford the area.  Yet they are needed if the character of the area is to be preserved.  What do you do, if you’re a Vancouver city planner?

One of the smarter decisions, in that context, has been the promotion of laneway houses.  Recently the city announced that it had granted over 800 permits for laneway house constructions.  Not surprisingly, this development has attracted its share of disapproval and naysayers (an example of grousing here) .

I thought I’d see for myself the results in my neighbourhood.  I explored the lanes and counted every laneway house, complete or under construction, in the rectangle bounded by Broadway, Victoria Street, First Avenue, and Renfrew Street.

I counted 23 – not a huge number, but still impressive.  There are 74 blocks in the area I surveyed.  That’s roughly one laneway house every three blocks, and maybe that’s why it gives the impression that they’re everywhere; there were none a mere five years ago.

For that neighbourhood, that’s the equivalent of one full size apartment building, with two dozen 2- or 3-bedroom suites – but one that would be totally invisible and would in no way affect the character of any street.  Not bad.

It is a success that hasn’t gone unnoticed.  The practice is now extending, albeit timidly, to the suburbs.  And Alan Durning, in his wonderful in-depth study of densification issues and counter-productive policies, hails Vancouver’s laneway houses program as a model.

Developers are on board, obviously; when a new house goes up, it’s not much more work to put in a laneway house instead of a garage, but there’s a better return on the lot.  As a result, a lot of cookie-cutter laneway houses have appeared; they’re a bit boring, but so are the houses.  However, individual home-owners are also getting in on the action, and the result is a series of wonderful and unique homes.  I’m told that the real challenge is to get City Hall’s okay (a home that takes six months to build may be tied up for two years).  In between are the contractors that specialize in these small projects (see an example here), with some cute designs.

And why not?  Well, they’re not cheap (is anything in Vancouver?); depending on size, they range between $150,000 and over $300,000 (see examples of financial estimates here, here  and here, and rents here).  But with the rent they fetch, and with the current low mortgage rates, they are a good investment.  Some see them as a path to ownership in Vancouver for young people.

But who’d want to live on a lane?  Well, in many ways it beats a basement suite.  And, at least in my neighbourhood, these little houses are much more common on corner lots, allowing for views and a less confined feeling (this is follows the logic of the ill-fated thin street proposal, with a much lower impact). Some laneway houses even face parks!  And while many lanes are sterile or unappealing, some are actually quite nice.  Vancouver has neglected its lanes, and the coming of age of laneway houses may well be a spur to improve them.

Laneway houses are not the solution, by themselves.  Even if they were to further expand – and I hope they do – there are still too few of them to make much of a dent on Vancouver’s housing issues.  But they enable densification without sacrificing character, and that’s an important part of the solution.

A cute cookie-cutter home on a corner lot.

A cute cookie-cutter home on a corner lot.

A remarkable design - and not on a corner lot, near Broadway and Nanaimo.  But city hall took 18 months before granting permits.the independant builder

A remarkable design – and not on a corner lot, near Broadway and Nanaimo. But city hall took 18 months before granting permits.

 

Behind 4th in Grandview, this cutie remionds me of a treehouse

Behind 4th in Grandview, this cutie remionds me of a treehouse

while 3 doors down is this ultra-modern one.

while 3 doors down is this ultra-modern one.

taking advantage of a wide lot in Mount Pleasant

taking advantage of a wide lot in Mount Pleasant

Laneway house on a West side corner lot, masquerading as a full size home.

Laneway house on a West side corner lot, masquerading as a full size home.

 

Nice modern combo, near Trout Lake

Nice modern combo, near Trout Lake

Some lanes have kept their old-fashioned character

Some lanes have kept their old-fashioned character

The idea isn't new: here's my favourite laneway house ancestor, on the Windsor Street bikeway.

The idea isn’t new: here’s my favourite laneway house ancestor, on the Windsor Street bikeway.

This brand new country lane, behind 37th, hosts two laneway houses.

This brand new country lane, behind 37th, hosts two laneway houses.

Written by enviropaul

July 15, 2013 at 9:42 am

A failure of the (environmental) imagination

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The Solar Tunnel, an array of solar panels covering a railroad track.  Now that's imagination

The Solar Tunnel, an array of solar panels covering a railroad track in Belgium. Now that’s imagination

Today (July 11) Margaret Wente penned an opinion piece about the horrible Lac-Mégantic derailment in the Globe and Mail.  And, true to herself, she manages to combine leaps of logic with factual errors.  Sigh.

(Before anyone slags her employer, I’d like to point out that the same issue of the Globe included two excellent guest pieces by Equiterre’s Stefan Guilbeault and University of Waterloo’s Thomas Homer-Dixon.  Well worth reading.)

Wente deplores the accident, of course, and also deplores the unseemly renewed push by pipeline promoters.  But then she continues with

Environmentalists are also using this disaster to argue that the sooner we wean ourselves from killer oil, the better…Renewables such as wind, solar and biofuel can’t possibly provide more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs, and their costs are prohibitive. After many years of heavy investment in renewable technologies, governments and industries everywhere are in retreat. For all the billions they’ve invested, they have next to nothing to show. Even if we achieve much better energy efficiency, the world’s energy needs – and its need for fossil fuels – will be soaring for decades. Anyone who tells you that sun and wind can replace our need for oil and gas any time soon is wrong.

There are important mistakes in this short paragraph.  To say that wind, solar and biofuel can’t provide more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs is factually wrong.  Not only can they – but they already do.  In Germany, for instance, a quarter of the electricity is produced by renewables; in May and June, the solar fraction itself can account for the majority of the electricity generated.  That’s a full quarter – hardly a “tiny fraction.”  To say that costs are prohibitive is also wrong; in the right location, a new wind farm is cheaper than a new coal fuelled plant of the same capacity.  To say that they have next to nothing to say, one has to be wilfully blind as a Toronto-based writer.  The largest Canadian solar farm, (for a while, the world’s largest) is in Ontario, as are several wind farms; it is in part thanks to their contribution that that Etobicoke coal plant has been shuttered, and that Ms Wente can breathe air that is cleaner than a few years ago.  Some governments may be in retreat – but that’s because of the economic crisis, not because they lost faith in these systems; they are still expanding world-wide.  Britain, for instance, will be building the world’s largest off-shore wind farm.

What I find sad about the whole exercise is not so much the misinformation but the failure of imagination.  It is easy to believe naysayers and industry shills when one cannot possibly imagine anything other than the status-quo.  Just because the twentieth-century was built on cheap hydrocarbons doesn’t imply that this is the only possible way to go.  An analytical mind knows that this is unsustainable, both from a supply and from a climate stand-point.  But this isn’t what fires the imagination.  What an imaginative mind conjures is another way, a better life that doesn’t pollute and is sustainable.  It is easy to imagine apocalyptic catastrophes (and, given the recent astounding deluge that befell Toronto,  one wonder what it will take to spur Wente’s own imagination), but it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a better life.  From Germany to Australia, and throughout the world, there are countless examples of different ways of doing things that would have been dismissed as science-fiction just a few years ago.  To say that anyone who says solar and wind can replace fossil fuels is wrong, is guilty of mental laziness.  Tzeporah Berman’s grandmother had this bit of wisdom that we should all heed:

 I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work…you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.

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One thing that It has been bugging in the coverage of the derailment tragedy in Lac-Mégantic  is the free pass that pipelines have gotten when it comes to safety.  Pipelines have produced their share of human tragedy, as a simple Google search will show:  thousands have been killed in pipeline explosions in hundreds of sad tragedies including those in Carlsbad, New Mexico,  Jesse, Nigeria, or Ufa in Russia.  The Ufa 1989 disaster managed to be both the worse pipeline and the worse train accident in Russia; sparks from a passenger train ignited a leak from a nearby gas pipeline, causing upwards of 500 fatalities.

Written by enviropaul

July 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Much ado about the Drive…

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An artistic rendering of the condo towers proposed for Broadway and Commercial

An artistic rendering of the condo towers proposed for Broadway and Commercial

This evening is a meeting of the Grandview-Woodlands association.  On the agenda: the new community plan drafted by the City of Vancouver, one that has rarely been so contentious.

The key part of the plan (available here; see map here) is a series of condo towers over and around the Broadway-Commercial Skytrain station, which would markedly increase the density of the area.  But this has created such an uproar that the plan is now dead on arrival; the city has already backed away from it.

And with good reason; as former councillor (and urban planner extraordinaire) Gordon Price wrote:

I learned as a councillor that the City never goes into a neighbourhood to say, “Hi, we’re here to help change the character of your community to accommodate the growth we are forecasting.”

As Price tells it (in his blog here):

As they get used to a declining rate of change, in fact, people who have resided in a community for some time become increasingly sensitive to any change that does occur, no matter how relatively modest it is compared to the change that created the character of the community in the first place.

In the West End, when the rental tower was proposed for Comox and Broughton, some residents condemned the ‘unprecedented’ change it represented.  Think about that: a highrise, in the West End, was felt to be unprecedented.

Towers are more legitimately the argument in Grandview…next to the SkyTrain station, where hardly any significant development has occurred since the opening of the line in 1985. Change that Burnaby wouldn’t blink at is the focus of mobilization in this community.  Already the whiff of hysteria is evident.

In an interview to the Georgia Straight, Matt Shillito, Vancouver’s assistant director of planning, Matt Shillito, said that Broadway and Commercial is “one of the most important regional nodes of transit already, so there’s an existing planning rationale for increased density in the area.”

According to the Straight, the city has forecast that Grandview-Woodland’s population, based on existing zoning, could conceivably rise from 28,380 to 37,370. The document states that this “assumes the maximum residential floor space could be built on each site”.

Shane Simpson, the area’s MLA, mentioned in an email that there are other contentious areas.

The plan calls for significant development especially along the Hastings corridor, with areas like Hastings and Nanaimo being zoned for mixed use buildings up to 8 storeys, and the area near Hastings and Commercial zoned for mixed-use building up to 12 storeys. Not only will this dramatically change the character of the community, it also raises serious concerns for the survival of many of the small shop owners along Hastings who will face significant property tax increases under this plan. I have also had concerns raised to me about potential towers and other density issues along the Commercial drive corridor.

These are certainly legitimate concerns.  It seems to me, though, that the logic is backwards; an increase in density should not imply higher taxes; in fact, if the city wants to increase livability, it should do the exact opposite.  The purpose of increasing density is to create more space, both for accommodation and for commerce.  With more shops around sharing the tax burden, the net income to the city would remain the same with lower taxes.  Or would even increase, with a tax rate that remains untouched.

Keeping a lower density is no guarantee that the character of an area remains untouched. With little retail space available for rent, landlords have free rein to gouge commercial tenants; the Little nest eatery is just one in a long list of independent shops that closed on the Drive because of high rents.  Indeed, a density increase could be part of a strategy to keep the independent shops that give character to the area around, by using lower taxes (such as a density rebate).  This would make a density increase much easier to swallow.  The fear, obviously, is to see the Drive and East Hastings turn into another soul-less Robson or Fourth Avenue.

I suppose the city planners thought that the locals would be happy, since there is no change planned for Commercial Drive itself between 8th and Venables, the area that most people think of when one says “the Drive”.  I’m not even sure that this approach makes sense.  There is a higher (six stories) block going up at 7th, where the old theater used to be, and this isn’t causing any ripples.

My main objection to the plan is transit.  It’s true that Broadway and Commercial is a key hub, but that’s precisely the problem.  The system is already strained beyond capacity, be it Skytrain or buses.  Things are better, but not much, on Hastings.  Despite the absence in the plan of high towers for Hastings, the considerable density increase would also strain transportation there.  Transportation is key in any planning exercise, but the powers to address this issue have been taken away from Metro.

Which is a shame.  Me, I actually like the plan.  I think density, if well done, brings like, amenities, and character.  Despite its character, the Drive area has a population density that is more typical of post-war suburbia, rather than truly urban.  What can I say, I like urban.

That’s also why you won’t see me at the meeting tonight.  There is so much opposition to change in my neighbourhood..and I don’t want to be run out of it.  Whiff of hysteria, Price calls it?     

Written by enviropaul

July 8, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Catching up on reading

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Finally! Exams are over and marked, time to catch up on reading.  Here are a few articles that particularly impressed me lately.

In Landscape Architecture Magazine, Kim Sorvig writes an in-depth, very personal article about fracking.  The whole article can be read for free here, but I couldn’t resist putting some excerpts:

Five and a half years ago, I learned we might lose our home to oil drilling.

Proponents of fracking say there is no fossil-fuel future without it. Fracking, they often claim, uses only sand and water safe enough to drink. Yet in 2005, Congress dubbed the ingredients of fracking fluid “proprietary” and exempt from the Clean Water Act and five other major federal laws; thanks to Dick Cheney’s involvement, this has been called the Halliburton Loophole. Sampled fracking wastes contain more than 600 identifiable chemicals. Hundreds are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (which interfere with hormones regulating most living functions: see http://www.endocrinedisruption.com).

As is well known, proprietary info cannot be accessed.  As a result, if someone gets sick from drinking contaminated groundwater,

“You have to run an expensive battery of tests because you don’t know what chemicals might be there,” Donnan says, referring to the Halliburton Loophole. No one is allowed to know what has been put down a Pennsylvania well, not even firemen or ambulance drivers. The loophole is slick: Whatever is found, it can’t be proved to come from a formula that’s secret.

“Even doctors,” Donnan exclaims. “Doctors can get information to treat a patient, but they’re gagged. They can’t disclose it to help another patient or the general public.”

But is fracking fluid, or backflow, safe?

In 2008, just 180 miles west of Capitol Hill, fluid dumped after fracking killed a half-acre of the Fernow Experimental Forest in Parsons, West Virginia, a U.S. Forest Service research station. The event made national news as “a spill,” but this was no accident. The fluid had been sprayed deliberately, a method of waste disposal (legal in West Virginia) called “land application.” Ground cover died on contact. Trees dropped leaves immediately; more than half of them died within two years… But in the noticeable absence of research about drilling impacts, even one case makes it clear that fracking fluid can kill.

How about air pollution, then?

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did tests, but by federal law, individual compressors are considered “point sources.” As long as each unit doesn’t exceed its emissions limit, the cumulative multiple-unit emissions are legal.

“So don’t light any matches up here,” Donnan says. He’s serious.

The main problem, as seen by Sorvig, has to do with regulation (or lack of), something that we in BC’s Peace area share with our southern neighbours.  Here’s an example:  

Since the 1940s, USFS has been collecting irreplaceable long-term management data in Fernow Forest. The information is critical to the agency, the timber industry, and anyone managing or designing forested sites.

In 2007, the driller returned, targeting a different forest “compartment” near the neighboring Otter Creek Wilderness. In this location, drilling would punch through limestone bat caves linked to groundwater. Two bat species at Fernow are endangered… If the might of the federal government, backed by powerful timber interests, can’t use endangered species laws to protect a research site next to a wilderness, can anything?

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While in Victoria I discovered the local monthly Focus.  (Whole issues can be read free online as pdf; click here for July’s issue.)  I was particularly impressed by an in-depth interview of newly elected Andrew Weaver – because the interviewer, Leslie Campbell, gave Weaver a chance to focus on policy.  Here’s a sample:   

Clean tech—companies involved in wind and solar power, geothermal, biomass, transportation, and energy storage—would provide, he says, far more jobs than LNG—“something like four times as many as the whole oil and gas sector. Oil and gas jobs and LNG jobs are largely construction jobs and those will be met by transient workers.” Clean tech jobs, on the other hand, would be long-term and spread throughout BC. “It’s a much better way of creating distributed job growth,” he says.

BC is blessed, he points out, with large hydro dams—“big capacitators”—that, combined with a smart grid system, can act to stabilize base demand for electricity. “We could be…providing base demand largely from the other renewables and using the dams to provide it when, say, it’s not windy…that’s how we should move forward. We don’t need Site C, for example, because we have the ability with our existing demand and all the other renewables.”

So what’s wrong with the current policies of the BC government?

We have been sold a pipe dream on natural gas. The market is simply not going to be there…Russia has more than 20 times the reserves of all Canada combined [and] has just signed 30-year contracts to provide LNG for China and…they can do it through regular pipelines. Australia has just cancelled plans to build a big new LNG facility because the market is dropping.  That’s all going to spell doom to the Liberals’ revenue-generation plans in the not-too-distant future

The July issue of Focus includes this short article by Briony Penn on orcas:

Peter Ross [formerly from DFO, the latest casualty of Prime Minister Harper’s cutbacks to the scientific community] had some good news, despite a gloomy prognosis for government support. Although orca in our waters are the most contaminated animals on Earth, from the possible 100,000 chemicals released into the Salish Sea, there are signs that some of the big poisons are declining. PCBs banned in 1977 are starting to show signs of diminishing in the lipid content of fat in orca. Dioxins are going down and much of that is due to controls on pulp mill effluent. Fire surfactants, or PBDEs, are due to be banned next year. These chemicals are hormone mimickers, which have a profound effect on reproduction.

None of these scientists are going to accept the recent dismantling of environmental legislation from Ottawa without a fight, especially in light of news that the resident orca population has declined to 82, the lowest in more than a decade. The parting words from Ross were that we ignore toxicity of the ocean at our peril, as well as that of orca.

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I also read three great articles in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine.  The whole magazine is unusually rewarding this month; go grab a copy at your library (since the articles are behind a paywall).  There is a feature on a attempt at selling water from Icelandic glaciers and benefitting from global warming by a Canadian dentist turned promoter; an article about the murder of Steven Pollock, a genius of a mycologist, Paul Stamets style, who was developing magic mushrooms into serious psycho active medicine; and a gem of an editorial questioning our whole approach to debt – why it’s lenders who should get penalized.   Here’s a teaser:

Debt forgiveness is one of the most important innovations of modern capitalism, but it is a fairly recent one. Though the Constitution gives Congress explicit authority to enact “uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States,” early U.S. bankruptcy laws were short-lived and provided mostly for involuntary proceedings initiated by creditors. Before the elimination of federal debtors’ prisons in 1833, jail was a common consequence of failure to pay. Not until the Nelson Act of 1898 did the country have a lasting bankruptcy code and thus a framework for debt protection.