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

Archive for March 2019

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