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Counterintuitive solutions improve public transportation and urban design in Seattle

21 Feb

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from a study tour of the US Pacific Northwest. After describing urban planning strategies in Oregon in his first post, here he explores changing notions of social connectivity and how they play out across Seattle’s transportation infrastructure.

In a blockbuster deal earlier this week, Facebook bought messaging app WhatsApp for around €14 billion. Whatsapp, which allows people to send free text and picture messages from mobile devices over the Internet, has more than 450 million monthly users and claims that 19 billion messages are sent using its platform each day. These numbers are staggering, but the rise of Whatsapp and similar ‘chat-based’ messaging services also points to broader changes in our notion of connectivity, where even conventional SMS messages (17.6 billion sent each day worldwide) have come to be considered dated and too disconnected.

Downtown Seattle’s population grew by 4.25% from 2010 to 2012. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Downtown Seattle’s population grew by 4.25% from 2010 to 2012. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Continuous connectivity and public transit

This shift towards continuous connectivity has wide-ranging consequences, including on urban design and transportation systems. In Seattle (population 634,535), the largest city in the US Pacific Northwest, politicians and city planners are coming to terms with the rapidly changing ways by which citizens communicate with each other – using them to shift public transportation habits away from cars towards lower-emissions alternatives.

Over lunch with ELEEP members, former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn explains how mass transit policymakers in the United States are harnessing changing notions of connectivity and using them to gain acceptance for alternative transportation methods. Whereas in the past, he explains, inhabitants of a city ‘connected’ with each other by driving cars to meeting points, automobile use is now synonymous with isolation and a growing social disconnect. Public transit, in contrast, is seen more favourably in the age of smartphones, allowing travellers – by phone, text, and on the Web – to maintain social interactions throughout their journey.

When it comes to influencing policy, McGinn, known for his passion for cycling, laments that transportation challenges are not always dealt with as efficiently as they could be, with expensive, national-scale solutions often favoured over smaller, neighbourhood-level projects. This is a pity, according to McGinn, because it is precisely these smaller projects, tailored to local circumstances, that are most favourable when galvanising support for alternative transportation schemes.

ELEEP members sit down for lunch with former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members sit down for lunch with former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Biking on the rise

McGinn’s difficulty bringing biking schemes to downtown Seattle illustrates the political challenges faced by those working against the powerful US automotive lobby, where opinions are formed and decisions taken often according to political leanings rather than evidence-based policy. “The one thing worse than being in favour of bikes in this city is to be against them,” jokes McGinn.

McGinn’s mayoral strategy was grounded in a model of sustainable urban development that was successfully deployed in nearby Portland, based on dedicated neighbourhood greenways and mapped-out cycle tracks aimed at encouraging walking and biking. Although he ran into political trouble and eventually lost the mayoral election to Ed Murray in late 2013, McGinn leaves behind a legacy of a growing biking community in Seattle. The number of people biking to work grew by 42% in his first three years in office (2009-12) and interest is now high enough that the city’s first bike sharing scheme, Puget Sound Bike Share, is set to be launched later this year.

We met with the bike share’s Executive Director, Holly Houser, who walked us through the company’s ambitious goal of having 50 stations and 500 bikes up-and-running by the end of 2014, starting in the city’s densest neighbourhoods. Despite flagging direct support from the mayor’s office and red tape blocking many of the most obvious funding sources, Houser cites the city’s influential biking community itself as the project’s major strength, including ample support from city officials.

ELEEPers in front of downtown Seattle. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEPers in front of downtown Seattle. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Counterintuitive solutions

Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, a regional sustainability think tank, echoes the suggestions of our other hosts, that profound shifts in attitude towards public transportation are possible across urban areas in the US Northwest. According to Williams-Derry, past and present transportation forecasts are biased and nearly always shown to be wrong, routinely predicting dramatic increases in car-based transportation. Policy makers, he recommends, need to pay closer attention to public transportation usage statistics and the factors shaping commuter patterns.

Whereas our conversations revealed a clear tension between the automotive lobby and low-emissions transportation proponents, Mark Huppert of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’sPreservation Green Lab’ points out that the journey to sustainable urban spaces creates a new divide; between environmentalists, wanting new and energy-efficient buildings, and preservationists, who hope to maintain and upgrade older buildings of historic significance.

Like changing connectivity patterns and transportation predictions, Huppert also strives to give voice to concepts that are not always intuitive for the public to understand. As we learned on a recent ELEEP trip to Hamburg, buildings, Hubbert argues, give inhabitants a sense of responsibility toward their neighbourhood when properly cared for, housing communal memories and evoking feelings of friendliness, social opportunity, and physical beauty. Buildings and their surroundings are home to experiences and, according to Huppert, tearing them down erases memories and, more concretely, releases into the environment the carbon used to create them. A dramatically different approach compared to Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg’s entire neighbourhoods of newly built, state-of-the-art green architecture.

Mural on the wall of the Seattle Department of Transportation, showing the city at the start of the automobile area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Mural on the wall of the Seattle Department of Transportation, showing the city at the start of the automobile area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Making public transport more comfortable than driving

Like Portland, the city of Seattle is relatively progressive compared with the rest of the US when it comes to regular public transportation use. The infrastructure is growing, and King County Metro already offers an extensive bus and trolleybus network. At the same time, work is underway to bring a modern streetcar network to downtown Seattle, connecting the city’s densest neighbourhoods. One line is already running and another is set to start later this year.

However, in order for Seattle and other US cities to reach European levels of public transport ridership, mass transit systems need to offer more than just a stronger feeling of connectivity, outdoing personal cars in both convenience and price. In Europe, this challenge has been overcome by creating environments that are openly hostile to cars, making their use both expensive and impractical.

Smartphones, which former mayor McGinn suggests have flipped the relationship between connectivity and transportation, can also play a large part in making mass transit options more attractive, with dedicated apps offering real-time scheduling updates, maps, and route-planning services. To that end, Seattle is exemplary, freely offering travel information streams to third-party developers and thereby encouraging a host of transit-related smartphone apps. It is now up to Seattleites to vote with their feet.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.

Improving quality of life through urban growth boundaries, 20-minute neighbourhoods, and public transportation in Oregon

12 Feb

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from a study tour of the US Pacific Northwest. In this first of two posts, he describes the unique urban planning strategy employed by policymakers in Oregon, giving the state a leading position in the national battle against urban sprawl.

ELEEP members on the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus looking out over the city of Portland, having just experienced the city’s aerial tramway. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members on the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus looking out over the city of Portland, having just experienced the city’s aerial tramway. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the human population was living in cities. By 2050, that proportion is expected to grow to 70%. This wave of urban growth is largely seen as beneficial, offering renewed opportunities for jobs, healthcare and education to inhabitants of shrinking rural communities. However, the physical expansion of cities into the countryside, known as urban sprawl, also has major detrimental environmental consequences, damaging and fragmenting natural habitats. That said, CO2 emissions and energy consumption per capita is lower in densely populated cities.

Densely populated cities have higher per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Less densely populated cities have higher CO2 emissions per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

We recently visited the US state of Oregon, where we were shown first-hand how actions taken in the early 1970s by forward-looking policymakers helped mitigate the challenge of urban sprawl before it was too late. As a result, Portland and urban areas across the state are a unique success story in the context of what are otherwise bloated and sprawling North American cities. As urban sprawl hits global headlines, Oregon’s drastic land management strategies may become increasingly relevant in countries where the fight against urban sprawl is only just beginning.

Less densely populated cities have higher energy consumption per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Less densely populated cities also have higher energy consumption per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Oregon: a state like any other

Oregon’s progressive land use plan stems from the tireless work of Governor Tom McCall in the early 1970s, a man said to have loved Oregon more than life itself. Watching the state’s cities grow in front of his eyes, he told Oregonians they faced a choice between “sagebrush subdivisions and coastal condominiums” and towns that blended gently into the state’s stunning environment. As a result, in 1973 he signed a law requiring every urban area in Oregon to write land use plans that limited sprawl and protected farms, forests and open spaces. Cities were enclosed in strictly enforced urban growth boundaries, with the threat of heavy legal penalties for development beyond designated limits.

Governor McCall’s dramatic influence on his beloved state can today be seen on any map of Oregon’s major urban areas, characterised by the clear divisions between cities and open spaces.

Oregon’s formula for avoiding urban sprawl is remarkably simple yet highly effective, explains Robert Liberty, Director of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at Portland State University. Liberty has worked with Oregon’s pioneering land use planning program since its inception. His key message is that half a century ago Oregon was developing like every other US state – with population density within cities in decline as urban areas spread across larger spaces, and that a similar transformation can happen anywhere given the right tools for implementation. Getting over the misunderstanding that Oregon is inherently different from other locations in the US forms the core mission statement of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator, which works with other US communities to focus on implementation of land use planning programs.

High quality of life across 20-minute neighbourhoods

Several of our hosts maintain that Oregon, which is relatively poor compared with other US states, owes its success to maintenance of existing infrastructure rather than the urbanisation of untouched countryside. According to Karmen Fore, Transportation Policy Adviser to Governor Kitzhaber at the State Capitol in Salem, this emphasis on maintenance forms an important part of the state’s development strategy.

Looking forward, Fore outlines the state’s other priorities. She explains that Oregon must focus on harnessing its economic strengths, features that make it unique as a hub for business. Although a major expansion to Portland’s shipping port could be imminent, particularly for exports of coal, oil, and natural gas, the state’s spectacular natural environment and quality of life attributes remain at the forefront of such efforts.

 A streetcar in downtown Portland. The city’s streetcar network opened in 2001 and currently comprises two lines, with a daily ridership of 13,100 (2012-2013). (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

A streetcar in downtown Portland. The city’s streetcar network opened in 2001 and currently comprises two lines, with a daily ridership of 13,100 (2012-2013). (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Quality of life, according to Fore, is tightly linked to the state’s innovative urban transport systems, particularly in Portland. The city boasts a rich portfolio of commuter trains, buses, light rail, streetcar lines, and even an aerial tramway running throughout the metropolitan area. Across the state, Fore is keen to add more passenger trains, especially on short but important routes, in order to alleviate pressure on congested roads and in the densely crowded US airspace.

Comprehensive transit systems and the preservation of natural landscapes are part of Oregon’s multifaceted, targeted approach, aiming to improve general levels of prosperity and quality of life across the entire population. To that end, Eric Engstrom, Principal Planner for the city of Portland (population 603,106), describes the city’s urban planning strategy as anchored around the concept of the ‘complete community’, or ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’, where every citizen has basic services, parks, healthy food and water, and transportation within a 20-minute walking radius.

The mayor of Portland Charlie Hales meets with ELEEP members to hear a European perspective on urban planning and sustainable transportation. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

The mayor of Portland Charlie Hales meets with ELEEP members to hear a European perspective on urban planning and sustainable transportation. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Learning from Oregon

In the middle of downtown Portland, where once there was a motorway, sits one of the city’s most popular parks, named after Governor McCall. Today, the city has a tight, dense downtown area, friendly to pedestrians aspiring to reduce car use to a minimum in favor of public transportation. The atmosphere is infectious and nearby Seattle, about double as populous, started its urban downsizing in the mid-90s. At City Hall, the mood seems to be one of optimistic realism, with Mayor Charlie Hales quick to point out that the city is a national leader in reduction of urban sprawl yet it still has a long way to go to ensure a sustainable environment for future generations.

Urban sprawl is classically a US phenomenon but is increasingly prevalent across cities worldwide. In Europe, where cities are traditionally more compact than in North America, developing around densely populated historical cores, more cities are threatened with urban sprawl than ever before. By 2020, 80% of Europeans are predicted to live in urban areas, potentially undermining the EU’s efforts to meet carbon emissions reduction targets and drastically altering the quality of life for citizens across the continent. As policymakers grapple with the range of available mitigation strategies, they would be wise to learn from Oregon’s story, the foresight of Governor McCall, and the central principle of the state’s urban transformation; namely, that only a few decisions ago, Oregon was a state like any other.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.

Imaggeo on Mondays: A fly by some fantastic farming

3 Feb

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays is brought to you by Kristof Van Oost, a scientist from the Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research (UCL) in Belgium. He tells us how local organic farms are being managed to ensure a lot of carbon stays in the soil…

An aerial photo of an organic farm, taken from a kite! (Credit: Kristof Van Oost, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

An aerial photo of an organic farm, taken from a kite! (Credit: Kristof Van Oost, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

This is a picture of the organic farm Het Open Veld in Leuven, Belgium. The farm is built around an alternative agriculture model in which food is grown and distributed locally – a concept known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This means that about 200 people subscribe to CSA at the beginning of the year and pay a fixed sum of money to the farmer. The farmer does most of the work and when the fruit and vegetables are ready his clients come to the farm to harvest the produce themselves. Over 60 types of  fruit and vegetable are grown on this farm, not to mention the cherry trees, sheep, chicken and bees! The farm is conveniently located at the border of the city of Leuven, so production takes place very close to the people who eat the food – and it’s organic, seasonal and ethically sound.

The farmer is interested in improving the quality of his soil, mainly through adding carbon. The organic farm is very patchy and several different types of vegetables are grown on small plots. The kite pictures provide detailed information on the type and location of vegetables. Later, this information will be linked to measurements of carbon on the ground to understand the effect of soil management on carbon storage (SOGLO Project, funded by BELSPO).

By Kristof Van Oost, Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research, UCL

The EGU’s open access geoscience image repository has a new and improved home at imaggeo.egu.eu! We’ve redesigned the website to give the database a more modern, image-based layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Photos uploaded to Imaggeo are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be used by scientists, the public, and even the press, provided the original author is credited. Further, you can now choose how you would like to licence your work. Users can also connect to Imaggeo through their social media accounts too! Find out more about the relaunch on the EGU website. 

Imaggeo on Mondays: How sea urchins can help mitigate climate change

27 Jan

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays stars the humble sea urchin – a creature suffering from the effects of climate change, but one that could also provide a way to sequester some of the CO2 responsible…

Carbon dioxide and water react to form carbonic acid – a mixture of bicarbonate and hydrogen ions. Sea urchins bag the bicarbonate to grow bigger, stronger shells, or ‘tests’, but without a catalyst, this reaction happens fairly slowly. In fact, because the reaction is reversible, the hydrogen ions and bicarbonate can recombine, rendering the bicarbonate unavailable for the urchin. Not ideal.

To help themselves on their way to adulthood, larval urchins use trace nutrients from the water as catalysts for carbonate uptake. Catalysts to molecules are like bars are to people – interaction is much more likely to occur.

This image shows a sea urchin long past the end of its life cycle, but back when it was a little nipper, it was quite an amazing creature! (Credit: Natalia Rudaya, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

This image shows a sea urchin long past the end of its life cycle, but back when it was a little nipper, it was quite an amazing creature! (Credit: Natalia Rudaya, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

By building nickel into their tests, urchins can speed up the conversion of carbon in the water to carbon for growth because the nickel, like any catalyst, provides a site for the reaction to occur.

This fantastic feature of sea urchins is now being mimicked in a pilot process that uses nickel to help capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it as stony sediment.

The application was a chance discovery. Physicist Lidija Šiller, while working on a carbon capture project at Newcastle University, was also investigating how sea urchins convert CO2 to calcium carbonate. “When we analysed the surface of the urchin larvae we found a high concentration of Nickel on their exoskeleton. Taking Nickel nanoparticles which have a large surface area, we added them to our carbonic acid test and the result was the complete removal of CO2,” Šiller explains in a press release for the study.

The carbon capture process used to use an enzyme to speed up the conversion carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate, but the enzyme is only active for a short time and it rapidly fails under acidic conditions. To speed up the process, and prevent enzyme wastage, the scientists took a leaf from the urchin’s book. Nickel nanoparticles can used to catalyse the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into carbonate. What’s more, the nanoparticles are magnetic, so can be removed from the mixture and reused in another round of carbon capture.

While urchins themselves aren’t the key to climate mitigation, the urchin-inspired process has great potential. Watch this space!

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Reference:

Gaurav A. Bhaduri, Lidija Šiller. Nickel nanoparticles catalyse reversible hydration of carbon dioxide for mineralization carbon capture and storage. Catalysis Science & Technology, 3, 1234-1239, 2013.

The EGU’s open access geoscience image repository has a new and improved home at imaggeo.egu.eu! We’ve redesigned the website to give the database a more modern, image-based layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Photos uploaded to Imaggeo are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be used by scientists, the public, and even the press, provided the original author is credited. Further, you can now choose how you would like to licence your work. Users can also connect to Imaggeo through their social media accounts too! Find out more about the relaunch on the EGU website. 

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