Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.
The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.
The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!
Continue reading The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum
A good short profile of the city of Freiburg, Germany, and their many sustainability initiatives. Freiburg is a little more than double Boulder’s size — both in population and area, so it has a similar average population density. It’s also a university town with a strong tech sector locally. The whole city was re-built post WWII, but they chose to build it along the same lines as the old city, with a dense core, and well defined boundaries. Today about half of daily trips are done by foot or on bike, with another 20% on public transit. They have a local energy efficiency finance program, on top of the national one administered by KfW, and higher building efficiency standards than Germany as a whole. Half their electricity comes from combined heat and power facilities that also provide district heating and hot water. It seems like they’d be a good model city to compare Boulder to, and learn from.
Vaclav Smil on the the scale and difficulty of executing an energy transition for the civilization. “Calculate with me!” he says, before diving into a bunch of order-of-magnitude demonstrations that this is all much harder than we might like to think. He’s very pessimistic about the large-scale integration of intermittent resources, and also about humanity’s ability to initiate a change voluntarily. Would like to understand those positions better… and still continue to disagree with them. The talk is long and rambling, but he’s so clearly engaged and emphatic that it doesn’t matter.
With this year’s expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and our Climate Action Plan (CAP) tax, the city of Boulder is looking to the future, trying to come up with an appropriate longer term climate action framework, and the necessary funding to support it. To this end there’s going to be a measure on the ballot this fall to extend the CAP tax. I’m glad that we’re talking about this within the city (and county), because at the state and national level, the issue seems to have faded into the background. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. This year’s wildfires, the continuing drought that’s decimating the corn and soybean harvests, and the phenomenal 2012 arctic melt season are just appetizers. If the last decade’s trend holds true, we’ll have an ice-free arctic ocean some September between 2015 and 2020.
The major sources of emissions, broadly, are electricity generation, transportation, the built environment (space heating, cooling, hot water, lighting), agriculture, and industry (the embodied energy of all the stuff we buy, use, and then frequently discard). The extent to which local government can impact these areas varies. We interface with embodied energy most directly when it comes to disposal and at that point, the materials have already been made. Similarly, most of our food comes from outside the region. Our most ambitious project so far has been the exploration of creating a low-carbon municipal utility. We’ve also potentially got significant leverage when it comes to transportation, land use, and the built environment, since cities and counties are largely responsible for regulating those domains in the US.
Continue reading Energy Intensity and Boulder’s Climate Action Framework
How important is Location Efficiency? Median US home price: $175k. With a traditional 20% down 30 year mortgage, total loan payments amount to about $350k. Utilities over the same timeframe are around $75k. And the cost of commuting from suburbia? Roughly $300k! This is in general agreement with the energy (as opposed to financial) analysis recently published by the EPA.
Seville, Spain has gone from 0.4% (essentially zero) to 7% bicycle mode share in 5 years. Boulder’s bike share is something like 9% and we’ve been at it for 20-30 years. This suggests to me that we are being too timid, and that we have no reason to rest on our laurels. Seville did this on the cheap, and they did it fast, by taking a small amount of space from cars, and giving it to people, while also physically protecting the people from the cars.
According to this EPA study, regardless of the type of housing, living in an area with good transit access saves more energy than building a “green home”. Of course, living in a mixed use, transit accessible apartment that’s also energy efficient uses the least energy, but it’s important to realize how limited the potential for cost-effective energy efficiency is in a sprawling suburban context.
The Boulder Blue Line has a short post entitled This Law Cannot Be Repealed by Albert Bartlett, who is an emeritus professor of Physics at CU, and who is most well known for speaking about the absurdity of “sustainable” growth and what exponential growth really means. He’s also one of the original architects of Boulder’s “Blue Line”, which has limited growth beyond certain boundaries within the city and county.
I agree with Bartlett on a lot. Unconstrained population growth is undoubtedly, in a global context, an epic disaster. In his collection of essays Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley noted of overpopulation that “Unsolved, that problem will render insoluble all our other problems.” Similarly, the unconstrained geographic growth of towns and cities is a catastrophe, resulting in very low-density, car-dependent development which exacerbates the consequences of population growth by increasing the amount of resources that each individual consumes, in terms of land and energy and material goods.
Urban density and good public space make scenes like this possible.
Continue reading Population Growth vs. Migration in Boulder and the World
A good piece from The New Yorker on what makes dense urban areas intrinsically better for the environment than suburbia or back-to-the-land fantasies. More people closer together need less transportation to go about their daily lives. High density buildings need less energy to stay comfortable inside because they have less surface area for the enclosed useful space. More resources can be effectively shared when lots of people are close together. The author, David Owen, has a whole book on the topic, entitled Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. Cities have their problems, but often they aren’t the result of density directly. Poor air quality in cities, for instance, is almost entirely the fault of motor vehicles.
A great look at the geography behind the Republican demonization of mass transit. To a large degree in the US cities are democratic and the exurbs and hinterlands are republican. Since so much of our transportation funding gets funneled through the federal government, this means cites spend a lot of time getting screwed. Policy decentralization would help a lot.