All things environmental

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

Archive for June 2018

Julia Wertz’s Tenements, Towers & Trash

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I love browsing in the “new acquisitions” section of the downtown Vancouver Public Library.  This week I borrowed a new book by Julia Wertz, Tenements, Towers & Trash: an unconventional illustrated history of New York City.

What a delight.  She has been working for the New Yorker magazine on “then & now” type feature, rendering old photos into illustrations and accompanying them with illustrations of the same spot in its current state.

There are also more conventional historical features, such as illustrated bios on journalist Nellie Bly, abortionist Madame Restell, and Typhoid Mary, or essays such as “micro-living: real estate biggest scam”, or “the great pinball prohibition”, and lots more, all quite fun.

Of greater relevance to this blog, though, is the surprising amount of material of an environmental nature.  The topics are diverse, from the six-page spread “from horses to electric cars: a history of street cleaning in New York City”, to the invention of toilet paper, Staten Island boat graveyard, the Fresh Kills landfill and 911’s impact on it, to a long spread on Bottle Beach.

This last one, subtitled “Vintage trash and horse bones”, is particularly interesting.  Bottle Beach is on Barren Island, facing Dead Horse Bay, in Brooklyn (what names!), on an island that was a centre of rendering.  Dead cattle and pigs, but mostly horses (ubiquitous in NYC before the advent of cars) were rendered into fats, soap, and glue; whatever remained of the carcasses was thrown into the water.  A fish oil processing plant and a landfill added to the mess.    Fast forward one hundred years, and the beach is now an ugly mess of trash eroded away from the old landfill, but also a collector’s paradise, since the trash is all, well, vintage.  A tree near the beach is festooned with old bottles tied there by collectors (most were lost after Hurricane Sandy went through). On the last panel Wertz portrays herself saying “it’s just so beautiful!  This disgusting heap of garbage is making me have all the feelings!”

My favourite may be the one-pager entitled “In the Drink”.  I’ve reproduced it below.  And no, we don’t have copepods in Metro water (but yes, they’d be kosher if there was any).  Between UV and ozone disinfection, and secondary chlorination, the poor little critters don’t stand a chance.  A shame, maybe?

More illustrations, and info about the artist, can be found here, here, or here.


Written by enviropaul

June 24, 2018 at 10:12 am

Israel and its environment: sun and city

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Tel Aviv and its beach

I mentioned in an earlier post about Israel that I found there a confusing mix of inspiring initiatives and baffling, self-destructive policies.  That post was about water, where the paradox is most evident; this post is about how energy and urban development policies play out in Tel Aviv.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Ibn Gabirol, a large commercial avenue.  On every roof you can see hot water tanks connected to solar collectors.  This didn’t surprise me; they are the result of a policy that dates from the 60s, that requires every household to have its own solar hot water unit.  The energy savings are substantial, but I was a bit puzzled; there were no photovoltaic cells to be seen anywhere.  (These are now so efficient that it is cheaper to heat up water using the electricity from a PV unit than from a thermal collector.)  I asked Amitai, our tech-savvy host.  He sighed.  He said it was absurd, but not only are there no subsidies but the national electricity company won’t allow individual homeowners to connect to the grid.

Hot water on the roofs (not my photo!)

This, in a high-tech country that has developed remarkable large solar farms in the Negev desert.  There not only field-size arrays of conventional PVs, but also some pioneering concentrating solar systems that produce electricity overnight (I missed being able to visit one of them by a few months, dang).  Still, for all that, renewable energy represents less than 2% of all the electricity generated.  Amitai explained that the company is afraid that rapid adoption of solar would threaten the large investments in coal and gas plants.  I saw some rooftop PVs here and there, but only on institutional buildings.  (This may be changing, though; the country is considering re-introducing a Feed-In Tariff for rooftop PV.)

The old power plant by the beach

The same goes for wind energy.  According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, there are only two wind farms in the country, for only 6 MW, barely 1% of the solar PV capacity.  A recent project in the Golan Heights has been canceled.  Local environmentalists opposed it, because it threatened a local species of buzzard; but the decision ultimately came down to the Air Force, afraid of being impeded in what is still technically a war zone.

This is a paradox: in a country that has created the conditions for industrial creativity to thrive (Israel is now a by-word for start-ups), energy management is top-down and stifles creativity.  Whether it is because electricity is a mature industry, or because it has inherited the leaden bureaucracy that originally characterised the new nation, hard to say.  But the same heavy-handedness is shown in its treatment of Palestinians, where it takes a downright scary, punitive tone.  For instance, Israeli authorities confiscated a PV system in the Palestinian village of Jubbet Ahd Dhib, in the West Bank south of Bethlehem, because the villagers “did not get the proper permit”.   Best of luck getting the permit.

Ah, let’s get back to happier topics, such as Ibn Gabirol Avenue in Tel Aviv.  This is a street full of cafes, restaurants and independent retail stores.  This is where I discovered the rather unique way used by the locals to get around: electric power on two wheels.  There is an extensive bike path network in the city, facilitated by the fact that sidewalks on streets like Ibn Gabirol are quite wide.  A great many people of all ages use these paths (watch when crossing a street!).  The majority, though, do not use their leg power; rather, what seemed most common are electric bikes.  Almost as common are little scooters.  Far from being kids’ toys, these powerful little contraptions are used by everyone from businessmen in suit and ties, shoppers, to couples that fit snugly on the small foot platform.  I was entertained watching them go by while nursing a drink in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops that line the sidewalks.  There were also the occasional cargo bike, tricycle, even a motorized unicycle that looked like a stripped-down Segway.  It’s a high-tech place.








Of course, Tel Aviv is ideal for bike (and scooter) commuting: it’s mostly flat, and mostly sunny.  But I suspect that there is another incentive at work.  Every Shabbat, from sundown on Friday and most of Saturday, there is no public transit.  None.  No buses, whether local or intercity.  No trains, either, despite the nice new network along the coast.  And the subway under construction won’t run either.  Most Telavivi resent the situation, and blame Jerusalem for this predicament.  But try as they may, there is no way to move the government to reverse a law passed long ago to appease the religious parties.  This law is more than an annoyance; it has severe economic consequences such as delaying vital infrastructure projects (there can be no construction on Shabbat).  And, of course, it negatively affects Israel’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But to get back to Ibn Gabirol – the avenue has something else to offer, a characteristic that, to my knowledge, is unique in the world but totally unappreciated.  It has a unique set of arcades that are nearly fully continuous for over the two kilometers of length between City Hall and the Yarkon River.  Despite the traffic on the busy six-lane avenue, the arcades make for a very inviting pedestrian experience.   Restaurants and cafes spill out on the sidewalk under the arcade overhang (we spent a good deal of time just chilling out at many of them), and protect you from the sun (and the occasional rain – even from hail, which we experienced once!).

The arcades are nothing fancy; they are created because first floor of the buildings that line the street extend over half of the sidewalk, supported by columns.  The buildings are otherwise quite non-descript and utilitarian, built as low-rise apartment buildings that were originally quite affordable.   There are clones of these buildings all over the city; what is unique about Ibn Gabirol is the continuity, which create this continuous, arcade-like safe space shared by pedestrians and café tables (the bike lanes are on the other side of the columns).

We were visiting Tel Aviv when the Toronto van attack that killed ten pedestrians took place.  I couldn’t help but notice that such an attack could not have happened on Ibn Gabirol.  The space under the overhangs (the arcades, so to speak) is protected by the concrete columns that hold up the building overhangs.  But further, on the outer side of the sidewalk is a row of obstacles between the street and the bike lane; the row of trees is not a surprise, but the space between them is taken up either by solid bike racks as well as sets of facing chairs bolted onto the sidewalk.  These amenities are well used; the bike racks were mostly full, and on many of the chairs were people occupied in a lively conversation.

But this was not meant for protection; Tel Aviv is full of public spaces and public amenities such as these chairs: little parklets, spaces for kids, and well-used fitness equipment, to say nothing of all the beaches and waterfront boardwalk, all publicly accessible.  This was certainly a pleasant surprise to see in a country with a right-wing government that seem to have little patience for community-minded initiatives.

A woman we met (a lefty artist who grew up in a kibbutz) told us:  yes Ibn Gabirol is great, a wonderful and unique design!  But it was never copied, and she was at a loss to explain why.  So I still can’t figure out this country.  I’ll leave you with a few photos of Ibn Gabirol (and a video, not taken by me).  Including one that features a major flaw in the bike lane design – a metaphor for the country, maybe?

A cafe under the “arcade”

An overview of Ibn Gabirol











Well, the vendor booth was there first…



A good view of the continuous sheltered path under the overhangs








Written by enviropaul

June 10, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Israel and its environment: water

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Tel Aviv

I spent a couple of weeks recently in Israel, a purely touristic trip.  But of course, I can’t just let go of my interest in the environment; here are some of my disorganised thoughts about what I saw.

I say disorganised, because the environmental record, like the whole of the country, is a bit of a paradox: how can a country so progressive in its culture, a country that could be a ray of hope for the whole middle east, adopt policies reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, apartheid, and an Iran-like theocracy?  And the environmental record is no different: amazingly good in some cases, weirdly and unexpectedly bad in others.

Israel is, of course, world renowned for its water conservation initiatives.  This is not something you see as a tourist; all you know is that the tap water tastes good, is completely safe, and is abundant.  But I knew where that water was coming from; before leaving, I made sure to read Seth Siegel’s 2015 book Let There Be Water: Israel’s solution for a water starved world.  According to Seagel, water saving technologies as diverse as the dual flush toilet and the drip irrigation system were all developed in Israel – including sewage recycling, using membrane filtration technology (after standard treatment).

So I knew that what I was drinking was recycled sewage; and somehow, knowing that, instead of producing an ick reflex, made me feel strangely smug.  Hey, watch me flush guilt-free; it won’t pollute, it won’t make someone sick, it won’t even waste water – it’s coming back, closing the cycle, and fully clean.

The membrane filtration is the same technology that is used for ocean water desalination, which is also used and was pioneered in Israel.  But filtering treated sewage, as opposed to filtering sea water, uses much less energy.  And that remains true even though Israel’s sewage is ironically the saltiest in the world (due to the extensive use of salt and brines in classic kosher cooking).

You don’t see any of that as a tourist, but you see some of the results: in Tel-Aviv, the beaches are clean and full of swimmers, surfboarders, and small-craft sailors.   And yet, the city struggles with periodic coliform contamination of its beaches.  This is because the cycle is not, despite all intentions, fully closed.  The sewers that bring wastewater to the treatment plants also convey rain water; and during major storms, they get overwhelmed and overflow (they is little storage capacity in the network).

Still, the pollution numbers are not all that different from, say, English Bay in Vancouver.  But you’ll find in Tel Aviv something you don’t find in Vancouver:  an app that tells you exactly where the pollution is, what beaches are closed and why.  This is typical for this computer start-up mecca.

Since I mention the sewers, I can’t resist posting this little video about the artwork on manhole covers.  You get the real relaxed, California-like vibe that permeates the city, so different from Jerusalem – and notice the bike paths, they are everywhere.

As a tourist, you can also stroll along the Yarkon River that bisects the city, along a wonderful linear park across Tel Aviv itself and extends into the suburb of Ramat Gan.  The park is used by cyclists and joggers as well as kayakers, or by anyone looking for an oasis of shade. Despite being Israel’s second longest river after the Jordan, the Yarkon is less than 30 km in length; Israel is a small country. It used to be an open sewer; but after an extensive clean-up program, the small stream was declared fit to swim in 2011. This was a very pleasant surprise; during an earlier visit (in 1980) I remembered this part of the city as distinctly unpleasant.  Hard to believe that as recently as 1997, four athletes died and sixty were acutely sick after accidentally falling in the river; this was the result of a severe fugal infection contracted from aspiration of the polluted waters.  At the time, some of the smaller towns along the Yarkon didn’t even have a sewage treatment system; that the river is now clean, a mere twenty years later, shows how fast the progress was.

The Yarkon River in Tel Aviv

On the bus between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I was amazed by how the scenery had changed in nearly 40 years.  Israel is famous for having “made the desert bloom” – or rather, for having planted tree seedlings over land that was dry and damaged.  What looked like a distant green fuzz all these years ago now looks like a deep green forest.  I was pretty speechless looking at this forest that wasn’t there before, and that went on for over an hour.  This forest, along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor, is the most famous: six million trees were planted in 1951, one for each of victims of the Holocaust.  And this forest, remarkable as it is, is only one of many such plantings.  The largest, the Yatir forest north-east of Beersheeva, is truly amazing, a biodiverse assemblage of drought resistant species that has rolled back the desert despite an average yearly precipitation of less than 300 mm (this is only about 20% of Vancouver’s).  This was accomplished in part by cleverly modifying the landscape; small embankments slow surface runoff and ensure that rainfall recharges the groundwater.  (Basically, Israeli water managers have done the equivalent of what beavers do: small dams everywhere, making the land work like a sponge.  This is not a new technology; archaeologists have discovered abandoned water impoundments that date from the Byzantine era, but the modern scope is unprecedented.)

Salt concretions on the Dead Sea shore

But this feeling of elation was a bit dashed when I arrived at the Dead Sea, a few days later.   I knew that the Dead Sea had been receding (after all, it is one the main topics of Canadian environmental writer Alanna Mitchell’s book Dancing at the Dead Sea) but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.  I had stayed at the Ein Gedi oasis, in a little youth hostel near the shoreline; next to it was a fancier spa (that I couldn’t afford) and a few other facilities for tourists that come for the beneficial effects of the Dead Sea mud.  All these facilities are now abandoned ruins; the sea is now too far below, having dropped by about a meter every year since 1970.  The road itself has been rerouted; sinkholes have appeared at random (including under the old road) because the groundwater is now so low.  The sea level is dropping because the waters lost to evaporation are no longer made up by the flow from the Jordan River, which is fully diverted for irrigation in Israel and Jordan.  And the sinkholes are largely due to pumping of groundwater by a local water bottling company.

Well, at least the wilderness around Ein Gedi, and the two small canyons that have year-round flow, are now protected into an ecological reserve.  Silver lining.

But there are plans afoot to replenish the dead sea.  Israel and Jordan may cooperate on a large project to bring waters from the Red Sea, at sea level, into the Dead Sea, which has the lowest elevation in the world, 430m below sea level.  This drop could be used to generate electricity, and the electricity produced would power a desalination plant, boosting the amount of water available for irrigation to both countries.  And the brine could be dumped into the Dead Sea, raising its level with few environmental impacts (the Dead Sea has little life in it, hence its name, and its salinity is about the same as that of the brine rejected by a desal plant).   This may raise the sea to its original level, saving the few shoreline marshes that were used by migrating waterfowl.  This is not without risk, though; apart from the obvious issues of cost, the chemistry of the Dead Sea waters is quite unique and different from sea water; the proportion of bromine ions is much higher (which supposedly account for its therapeutic properties) than that of sea water brine.  What the consequences would be for the mineral extraction industry at the south end of the sea are unclear.

Problems in Israel, environmental or otherwise, are never simple.  According to 2009 statistics, 1.9 billion cubic meters of water are consumed yearly, half of that for irrigation, leaving a comfortable 137 liters per day per person for domestic consumption.  But of that total, only a very small fraction (about 5%) is available for Jordan and the Palestinian territories, combined.  Lack of water in the occupied territories may be the biggest aggravation faced by the Palestinians, making any prospects for peace ever more elusive between water-rich Israel and its parched, desperate neighbour.

I spoke to an engineer, an Jewish immigrant from Russia who was able to leave after the communist regime fell.  Needless to say, he had seen his share of strife and absurd political decisions.   He explained to me that Israeli politics are essentially reactive; nothing happens, nothing gets done until there is a clear emergency.  He pointed to the country’s water politics; there had been little investment in techniques such as desalination,membrane filtration, and groundwater recharge until the country nearly ran out of water – then things moved quickly, and “the problem was fixed.”  This was in response to my question about the environmental situation, not the occupied territory politics, but I expect the answer would not have been that dissimilar.  He was fairly cynical about politics, shrugged his shoulders a lot in a disabused fashion.  But he was not pessimistic; he said that the country seems to eventually always muddle its way through to a solution to its problems.  Here’s to hope for the long run.


Books mentioned:

Siegel, Seth 2015.  Let there be water: Israel’s solution for a water-starved world. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Mitchell, Alanna 2004.  Dancing at the Dead Sea: tracking the world’s environmental hotspots.  Toronto: Key Porter.

Written by enviropaul

June 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm