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

Archive for October 2014

In court, supporting BROKE

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After the drumming ceremony at the entrance of the courthouse

After the drumming ceremony at the entrance of the courthouse

I went to court today. There was a last-minute call for a show of support for the defendants against a lawsuit brought by KinderMorgan against BROKE (Burnaby Residents Opposing KinderMorgan Expansion), as well as against selected individuals, including SFU biochem prof Lynne Quarmby.

If you haven’t followed the story: KinderMorgan wants to expand its pipeline (current terminal Burnaby) in order to export diluted bitumen. It wants to drill through Burnaby Mountain, and has started exploratory tests, chopping down trees from the municipal park to do so. Burnaby City Hall says they must respect city bylaws (and not cut trees in a park), but the National Energy Board told Burnaby that their by-laws cannot block a national energy project.

So residents of Burnaby (pretty outraged, as you may imagine) have decided that they like their park and that they’re going to hang around there – well, precisely where KinderMorgan wants to work. Yesterday KinderMorgan served them with a lawsuit, charging them with trespassing, among other things; residents and other activists claim that since they are on public property, their actions cannot be considered trespassing.

Today was the first day in court, where the only thing that was decided was to postpone the case to give defendents time to prepare, and, in the case of two of them, to find lawyers. The lawsuit was served after 5pm, suit documents are about ten centimeters think, and one of the defendants, Adam Gold, was served through a Facebook message. But the courtroom was packed with sympatizers; I counted over 160, and found out there was another dozen outside who were denied entry because the room was at capacity.

On the one hand, one could say that the company, KinderMorgan, has been patient, and is now resorting to legal remedies in order to be able to do its work; and the activists are nimby-types who get in the way of prosperity. On the other hand, one could picture the defendants as ordinary folks bullied by a rich and powerful company who won’t hesitate to intimidate people through frivolous lawsuits.

Indeed, there was a palpable sense of indignation among the activists when they found out that KinderMorgan had re-started work on the mountain while everyone was in the courtroom. Is KinderMorgan stooping so low as to use our courts as a diversion tactic? It certainly doesn’t produce very good optics.

I know where I stand, but what if you’re new to the situation? How are you going to make up your mind as to which side your own, given the complexity of the issues?

It boils down to trust. I saw a bunch of ordinary people, which I could relate to, but there’s always the doubt that they may be earnest but misguided, somehow manipulated. But among the defendants is Lynne Quarmby, award-winning professor at SFU, an expert in unicellular algae whose research has led to an understanding of human diseases such as polycystic kidney disease. Who also cares about her students and won a teaching award. But, mostly, who is a practicing scientist, not the kind of person who can be swayed by emotional appeals and specious logic. For me, that clinches it: I trust her judgment and her values. Iif she cares about the situation enough to put her career and her research on the line, she cannot be doing this lightly. So even if I hadn’t had a chance to explore the issue throroughly myself, I know I can trust her to do the right thing – and this is where my support goes.

For me, being there helped a bit alleviate the sense of impotence I have. I support BROKE, I give a bit of money to Forest Ethics and others who oppose the pipeline; but I don’t have the time, it’s not in my priorities, it’s… – let’s be frank, I don’t know if I have the guts to sit in a blockade. But every bit helps; if a lot of people act like me, show their support, contact their MP, or contribute to a fund for court costs, those who are courageous enough to be on the line won’t feel isolated.

SFU professors Lynne Quarmby and Stephen Collis, with supporters, wait for the judge decision during a break on the steps of the courthouse

SFU professors Lynne Quarmby and Stephen Collis, with supporters, wait for the judge decision during a break on the steps of the courthouse

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Written by enviropaul

October 31, 2014 at 8:09 pm

LNG ships through the Great Bear Sea

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Stellar Sea Lion numbers are up in the Great Bear Sea

Stellar Sea Lion numbers are up in the Great Bear Sea

Friday last week I attended a book launch by Ian McAllister: Great Bear Wild. Just beautiful photos of a fascinating corner of the country (get the book! Makes a great Christmas gift!).

Get that book!

Get that book!

The well-attended event has been well summarized by Mychaylo Pystrupa in the Vancouver Observer, so I won’t repeat it here. And I’ll point everyone to the wonderful site of the Pacific Wild organisation, which has amazing photos and videos.

But I wanted to share a couple of thoughts.

First, I surprised myself in having patriotic stirrings. Of course, in the light of the double tragedy of this week, with two soldiers dead on Canadian soil, patriotism was all over the media, but its appeal left me, well, a bit jaded and cold. It felt like a political co-opting of a few personal tragedies. So I was surprised by my own reaction to the presentations: the place is just so beautiful, so wild, so…right. I found myself feeling that, yes, this is a land worth protecting. Except that the enemy, or rather the threat, is internal. I’m still trying to reconcile my feelings.

Second, I was surprised by an aspect of the coast I had never considered before, even if I think myself somewhat knowledgeable about pollution and its effects.
It’s about noise.

Currently there is an abundance of whales of various species along the coast between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii – the Great Bear Sea. And it seems that the lack of noise is one of the key reasons. Whales are well known to be sensitive to noise; excess noise leads to beaching, but lower levels of noise basically cause the whales to roam blind – whales use sound to find each other and ecolocate their preys.

(Don’t take my word for it; here’s a popular article that reports it; more in-depth stuff can be found in these articles here and here, and in this book here.)

So it seems that a hugely unreported threat to the whales is increased ship traffic. Which is exactly what the proposed pipelines would bring, whether for LNG or dilbit. Never mind the risk of spill: the real risk to the animals’ habitat is a continuous, chronic uncontrolled noise pollution. Even if the industry could indeed deliver on its promise of world class safety and spill prevention (which is dubious at best), this doesn’t begin to address the main threat.

And it’s not some romantic attachement to whales (for one thing, they stink of rotten fish). Whales are a top predator in the food chain, necessary for biodiversity, but their impact goes even beyond that. The physical churning of the water when they dive, and the fact that their nutrient-rich excrement is liquid and stays at the surface, both result in algae growing in stronger numbers than when whales are absent. The types of algae affected are the basis of the food chain, so more plankton, etc, all the way to more salmon. But the excess algae also contribute to carbon sequestration; that makes whales one of the ocean’s main defence against climate change. Who knew.

There are many reasons to oppose tanker traffic and industrialization of the central coast. Add this one: let’s keep the oceans quiet.

A spirit bear cub with two siblings

A spirit bear cub with two siblings

________________________________ __ _____________________________
Postscript: the Vancouver Observer garnered a number of comments, including pro-oil and development, as usual. Some of the comments are cogent, but I had to laugh at this one: “How many trees a year do you guys kill to get paper to print all the articles about how bad the oil industry is? Hypocrites.” Sir, the VO is a web-only publication, so, uh, no trees. You may wish to enter the twenty-first century – and, for that matter, realize that there is more to an economy than digging the ground for resources to ship away.

Written by enviropaul

October 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

John Giesy and PFOs: the narrowly averted catastrophe

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Dr Giesy expalining his role in the PFO story to a Kwantlen audience as part of the RSC lecture.

Dr Giesy explaining his role in the PFO story to a Kwantlen audience as part of the RSC lecture.

Last week Kwantlen hosted the Romanowski lecture, which is a series of public lectures created by the Royal Society of Canada to highlight advances in environmental science of public interest. This year’s speaker is John Giesy, who was discussing the toxicology of perfluorooctane compounds.

Neither the man nor the chemical are household names, and that’s a shame: Dr Giesy had a fascinating story to tell (more on that later).

I was involved in organising the event, and I was a bit nervous. In particular, I had arranged for a one-hour session between Giesy and a group of students. How was that going to work? Would students find the right questions to ask? I need not have worried. I came back after an hour to find a spirited discussion about the toxicity of the tar sands. I should know to trust students: they always perform beyond expectations when challenged on something they care about. (I was right to be nervous about Kwantlen’s AV system, but that’s another story.)

Giesy started his talk by asking how many people had eaten microwaved popcorn? How many had used scotchguard? Even if we never did (a minority), all of us have in our blood traces of exotic chemicals called perfluorooctanes, or PFOs for short.  These were the key ingredient in Scotchguard and a host of other products.

PFO sulfonate, the most dangerous of the bunch

PFO sulfonate, the most dangerous of the bunch

PFOs, like Teflon, are a family of synthetic materials based on carbon and fluoride. The basic idea is that the carbon-fluoride chemical bond is so strong, nothing in the environment can break it, so the compounds are stable, will not react with anything, so can’t possibly cause any health or environmental damage.

In the 90s Giesy had an inkling that things weren’t so simple when he learned that carpets need to be treated with scotchguard every five year or so. If the material is so inert, why is that? Well, it seems to go away. Where does it go? Nobody knew.

Through a painstaking detection process that required the invention of new chemical detection equipment, Giesy showed that the material does spread in the environment, and does contribute to cancer (it doesn’t react with DNA, but prevents the healing mechanisms from happening).

Giesy explaining how he found PFOs everywhere, including in polar bears

Giesy explaining how he found PFOs everywhere, including in polar bears

But the next part of the plot was something that none of us expected. When told that his chemicals were found in polar bears, the chair of 3M, the sole manufacturer of the chemical, didn’t prevaricate or challenge the findings. He simply said: our chemicals don’t belong there. And ordered production stopped. That was after endowing Giesy’s lab with funds to carry out the research that led to these findings.

Giesy’s lab was able to determine what causes the chemicals to be toxic – and to find a replacement (for nerds out there, the answer is that it is the eight-carbon chain that caused the trouble, because it mimicks compounds that make up cell membranes; but changing the carbon chain length does not impair the ability of other PFO-like chemicals to play their essential role in, say, the computer industry).

Giesy further shocked us with an aside (lest we get too comfortable with the idea of industry as angels) that Dupont, the chemical giant, hired a few students to spy on him and discredit him if possible.

So, a happy-end story: good, well funded science was able to detect a very dangerous situation and prevent it before it was too late. PFOs could have become the twenty-first century’s DDT story, and cause irreparable damage, but was stopped in time. When asked, though, Giesy made no bones about the current support for Canadian science: “Shameful. Unless the situation changes talented Canadian scientists should and will leave.”

The unfortunate lesson: when science works well, catastrophes can be avoided and no-one notices. From there, there’s only a short step to “no-one cares” – a step that our governments, at all levels, are only too eager to make in their frenzy to cut expenses. But letting science whither away destroys the knowledge economy and hurts our future prospects – to say nothing of our future health and environment.

These weren’t Giesy’s words, they are mine. But they are the obvious lesson from his talk. When we find future science superstars, like Giesy, we need to nurture them if we are to have any chance of a prosperous future.

One-way arterials: why not Broadway? or Commercial?

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one-way-sign

One-way arterials can handle more traffic, that’s well known (because cars don’t need to wait to turn left, lights can be synchronized, etc; see here and here). But large one-way streets don’t have a good reputation, as opposed to narrow residential streets, because the faster traffic they promote is hostile to pedestrians (faster speeds mean more noise and water splash, and accidents are worse). Vancouver turned Hornby street from one-way to both ways for this very reason.

A nice parklet on wide one-way St-Denis in Montreal

A nice parklet on wide one-way St-Denis in Montreal

But it seems that no-one ever looks at the corollary: if a one street has more capacity, then a narrower one-way street can have the same capacity as a two-way street. The same ability to move traffic at reasonable speed, while accommodating other uses: a reserved transit corridor, for instance, or wider sidewalks, or segregated bike paths.

Let’s take the Broadway-12th avenue pair, for instance. For most of its length, Broadway is six lanes wide, while 12th is four lanes wide. (This remains true when 12th turns into 10th at MacDonald; only when 12th becomes Grandview does the width increases.)

Imagine this: Broadway is now one-way west, while 12th is one way east. But six lanes going west is a bit of overkill; during the peak of morning rush hour, Broadway has three lanes west, while 12th has two. Add to that the extra throughput of one-way arterials; in effect, it should be possible to reduce Broadway to four lanes west without affecting the carrying capacity of the pair. The eastward returning traffic has ample width on 12th.

That leaves two extra lanes! This could be used for a number of things; one of my favourite is a reserved bus corridor. Since the street is one way, the lights could be programmed to minimize bus waits, and the increased bus capacity would negate the need for a costly subway. Yes, more buses would be needed, but at a fraction of the cost; or a reserved streetcar or LRT corridor could be created.

De Maisonneuve cycling path, Montreal (hey, it looks like Dunsmuir in Vancouver!)

De Maisonneuve cycling path, Montreal (hey, it looks like Dunsmuir in Vancouver!)

That’s one lane – what about the other? Take your pick: sidewalks wide enough to accommodate cafes; segregated bike paths; taxi stands; maybe all of the above. Currently, I find it frustrating to try to shop on Broadway while using the 10th avenue bike path; I always overshoot my destination, and never get to see what new stores have opened – and new stores depend on browsing traffic. Why not a Broadway bike path? German cities has extra-wide sidewalks on commercial streets precisely because bike commuters are also shoppers.

Montreal has such a combination: Ste-Catherine, the shopping artery, is one-way east, while the next street over, De Maisonneuve, is one-way west. But De Maisonneuve also now has a nice segregated bike path, with little negative effect on the carrying capacity of the street pair.

Or imagine, if you will, the Commercial Drive – Victoria Drive pair, between 18th and Powell. The streets meet near 18th, and the intersection is perfect to separate the traffic into a one-way northbound Victoria and one-way southbound Commercial. Commercial is wider, but is a shopping street; again, this would set the stage for wider sidewalks and bike paths. Yes, the Number 20 bus would need to be re-routed north via Victoria; but the streets are near, and there are shops on Victoria that would benefit. Streets for Everyone has done great work (check them out!) on remaking Commercial into a walkable, cyclable street, but which retains the two-way proposal; this is an alternative idea.

There are many pairs of streets like this throughout the city; these are just two of the possibilities. The switch is actually relatively cheap to make; signalisation is affected, little else. Compare that to the very expensive widening of street corners required to create left turn bays, no longer needed.

So we need to rethink one-way arterials. Instead of creating environments hostile to pedestrians and cyclists, wisely designed, they can actually improve walkability and enable bike lanes without sacrificing the carrying capacity of motorized traffic – which, as we know, seems sacrosanct in Vancouver.

Another view for Commercial (but with lowered car traffic capacity)

Another design for Commercial (with two-way traffic, which lowers carrying capacity)

One way streets: better for pedestrians and bikes?

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Tenth Avenie at Commercial: one of the rare one way residential streets of Vancouver

Tenth Avenue at Commercial: one of the rare one-way residential streets of Vancouver

Like it or not, people are flocking to Vancouver. In order to accommodate the newcomers, we need more housing, and that means increased density. Personally, I like it: more people to shop and eat, so more local stores, little eateries and cafes, all these things that give character to a neighbourhood. That’s what we like when we’re tourists abroad, why not embrace it here?

But with density, of course, comes the problem of moving people around: more busses (hopefully), more cars, more bikes, more pedestrians. More potential for congestion and conflict.

One of the ways that can handle all this new foot, bike and car traffic is using one-way streets. This works both for arteries and for residential streets, but it’s easier to see why with residential streets.

For instance, in the Commercial Drive area, many narrow residential streets have a continuous border of parked cars at certain hours, meaning that there is only one lane free for traffic. This silly situation means that one vehicle entering the street may well need to back-up if another is coming the other way. So far, when it happens, it’s just an inconvenience; but as neighbourhoods like the Drive densify, this will happen more often and may lead to gridlock, not a desirable outcome. And there is also a safety issue; on the well-traveled 10th avenue bike path, for instance, there are often situations where cyclists squeeze by cars who are themselves trying to get around a car coming the other way.

A one-way street in Mon teral's Plateau, with bike path.

A one-way street in Montreal’s Plateau, with bike path.

Montreal’s Plateau area (my favourite urban reference!) has long ago solved the problem by the simplest expedient: narrow residential streets are all one-way. It may be still as hard to find a parking spot, but at least cars and trucks get through. And where streets are a bit wider, the one-way system allows for a bike lane separated from traffic and parked cars, without reducing traffic flow.

Another Plateau street - note the kink in the bike path to accommodate car parking

Another Plateau street – note the kink in the bike path to accommodate car parking

Eventually, Vancouver will have to get there; this would mean alternating directions, such as 2nd avenue one way west, 3rd avenue one way east, and so on. That would make room for safer streets with separated bike lanes – without reducing the capacity of the street network to convey car traffic. It’s also kinda fun to imagine: what’s your street?

This would also nicely defuse the absurd argument that bike lanes are anti-cars. There’s room for everyone, as the group Streets for Everyone maintains.

Turning arteries into one-way streets is more complex, but that approach also has great potential to enhance walkability, if done right. That’ll be my next post.

Quebec Street: barely wide enough for a car - wouldn't a one way make sense?

Quebec Street: barely wide enough for a car – wouldn’t a one way make sense?

Written by enviropaul

October 20, 2014 at 7:34 pm

Townhomes and rowhouses

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Townhouses – homes that share one or two walls with their neighbours – are a great way to increase density without altering the character of a neighbourhood.  They have a lot of features that many first-time buyers seek: a bit of a private yard, low heating costs, and the ability to paint your door when you damn feel like it without having to check with the strata.  They are energy efficient (because there’s no heat loss through the shared walls), and greatly help develop walkability and public transit, all things that lower the energy footprint of a city. And, square foot for square foot, they are cheaper than detached houses.  (We would need a change to the BC Land Act that forbids them, though.)  Here’s a sample, from Vancouver.  They’re varied, and pretty, but the fact that they are under the Strata Act means that each unit looks like the other, unfortunately.

An oldie in East Van, recently renovated.  Each unit has three floors and a basement!

An oldie in East Van, recently renovated. Each unit has three floors and a basement!

Another set of nice rowhouses, north Grandview area

Another set of nice rowhouses, north Grandview area

Koo's corner in Strathcona, including three rowhouses with solar power

Koo’s corner in Strathcona, including three rowhouses with solar power

Street party in the Cedar Cottage area

Street party in the Cedar Cottage area

A narrow house on 8th. Note the lack of side windows. This model could be stacked into rowhouses.

Fancy townhomes, near Marpole (and unwanted by the neighbours!)

Fancy townhomes, near Marpole (and unwanted by the neighbours!)

The Woodshire on East Georgia

The Woodshire on East Georgia

A brand new development on Quebec street.

A brand new development on Quebec street.

Written by enviropaul

October 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Rowhouses are more affordable (cheaper to heat, too)

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The Cambie Rowhouse project

The Cambie Rowhouse project

Housing affordability is shaping up to be one of the key issues in this year’s municipal elections. Some blame empty houses; mayoral candidate Meena Wong has proposed a special tax to discourage the practice. But pundits like Pete McMartin and Bob Ransford point out that little can be done by City Hall; after all, it’s a matter of supply and demand, and Greater Vancouver is in high demand.

Maybe. In fact, zoning does play an important role, and that is something City Hall can do something about. But there is something else that I find particularly galling: the BC Land Title Act that prevents proper rowhouses from being built. Rowhouses, or townhomes, are fee simple houses that share a common wall; they require less land than detached houses and are cheaper to build, all things that contribute to affordability. They are also more energy efficient, since no heat is lost through the common walls. But the Act stipulates that homes that share a wall must be owned in co-propriety; and not everyone is willing to put up with condos. Strata fees, councils, rental prohibitions, and other headaches can be real deterrents for some buyers.

Take, for instance, the 2002 Cambie Rowhouse Project, at the corner of Cambie and 33rd. These are, effectively, rowhouses: each

Rowhouses on Quebec Street?  No, they are condos, says the law.

Rowhouses on Quebec Street? No, they are condos, says the BC Land Title Act.

owner has their own small lawns at the front, their own electric and gas meters, their own garages at the back (with rentable suite on top). But in order to have the houses listed as fee-simple, each unit has a separate concrete wall, and there is a physical gap of about two centimeters between each unit (which can’t be seen because cladding covers it). Planner and developper Art Cowie estimated that this legal requirement added a cost of $250,000 to the project (according to Robin Ward and Harold Kalman).

Rowhouses are energy efficient, they are more affordable that free-standing houses, and they add density without sacrificing character (think of Montreal’s neighbourhoods like the plateau, for instance). But somebody needs to tell Victoria.

Some of the beautiful rowhouses of Montreal

Some of the beautiful rowhouses of Montreal

Written by enviropaul

October 18, 2014 at 5:36 pm