Speaking and thinking a greener world into being

I had a conversation with a person whom I respect very much just this past weekend, regarding the Gulf cleanup from BP’s catastrophic well failure and the implications it might have for the near future. This friend  has worked on some impressive international projects and is a LEED AP project manager with a great company doing work that directly helps save the environment.

I,  however idealistically, hoped out loud that the BP disaster might serve as a wake up call to investors that we can (and should) contact the firms we hold shares in and ask them to not cut corners, to do things right, and to consider the very real cost of environmental catastrophes the likes of which we’re seeing off the coast of Louisiana. To be better corporate citizens. I was shot down for being naive.  I was perplexed. This person was employed in a save-the-world type industry after all.

I then alternately suggested that if we couldn’t rely on the hope that somewhere deep inside every investor, no matter how faint, there is a moral imperative, then perhaps this event would serve as a wake up call and signal the beginning of the pendulum swinging back from years of deregulation and privatization? Perhaps this could stand as the moment when government reasserted itself as a force that convenes, regulates, and intervenes in the best interests of the people and environment we depend on? Once again I was shot down for being idealistic, if not immature in my thinking.

I was hurt. Not because I was told I was naive and idealistic, but because this discourse crystallized the biggest challenge to transitioning to a sustainable and equitable economy. Our thinking.

What we think is important, and what we say even more so because it affects what our friends, neighbors and people we’ll never even meet think in response. The more we doubt out loud that government will do what’s right for the environment the less likely that reality becomes. The more we doubt out loud that investors will realize we have an obligation to demand best practices the less likely it is to happen too. And the more we think and say out loud that these challenges are insurmountable, that the human race is doomed, that governments and corporations will never change and the fate of this world is out of our hands then the more we breathe that reality into existence. I refuse to waste my breath lending legitimacy to the current model, like so many of us who claim to be realists. If you’re still reading this blog, it’s unlikely that you’re one of these people and I hope you find these encouragements fortifying. A realist can recognize major obstacles and respect challenges while remaining positive that they can be overcome.

Building better communities and a better world begins with our thinking and spreads through our words actions. So stay positive and never be afraid to be called naive or idealistic for your socially and environmentally hopeful views. It probably means you’re in the right kind of headspace, where you believe a better world is possible. And frankly, just to show that my comments weren’t that naive here are two examples of recent and proposed changes in the best interest of environment and people. One from investors and one from government.

Socially responsible investing is booming. This is also known as ethical investing or ethical funds.  Once the realm of “tree huggers and hippies” these ethical funds have finally arrived in the mainstream of markets in Europe, Asia and North America and have become one of the biggest investment megatrends in half a century. How did it start? With a change in thinking.

President Obama announced just this spring that new and more stringent regulations for the banking and financial sector are essential. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, has proposed the biggest Wall Street regulatory overhaul since the 1930s as a response to the 2008 financial crisis which was caused by greed and deregulation run amok. If it can be proposed for the financial sector, it can also be proposed for the energy sector.

For far too long people have doubted the power of our governments, whether on the provincial, state or federal level.  They’ve viewed them as inaccessible and when accessible, innaffective. On the heels of this tragedy it’s not a long shot to believe that an outraged public and a progressive government can’t push the pendulum back the other way and demand more accountability and responsibility from corporations like BP. Where does it start? With a change in thinking. What comes next? A change in our dialogue, followed by actions.  Where does it begin? In our communities, and with individuals like you and I.

So I encourage us all to be mindful of how we think and speak. Because at times our thoughts and words can shape the world we live in more than our hands.  Don’t be too insulted when a friend says you’re naive and idealistic, it should be an affirmation if anything.

Come be a part of TheChange

The push for more sustainable and socially responsible practices on the part of both business, government and other institutions has been explosive over the past decade. It’s great that so many of us are working hard to improve our lifestyles, inform our purchasing choices, produce more environmentally friendly products and develop clean technologies but at times it seems a very fragmented and frenetic effort.  Nevertheless, it’s a sea change in the way we view ourselves and our society, and now one website is slowly becoming the shell that we can put to our ear and hear the sound of that conversation.

TheChange is an incredible concept and a very user friendly online platform that bridges non-profit organizations, companies and individuals, universities and technical schools and social enterprises who are contributing to positive change in their communities and world.

Aggregating Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds it helps to integrate efforts and make connections by creating a more accessible dialogue between those of us racing to that better future. It’s an online community and an incredible place to find connections to all things sustainable, green, socially-responsible, including education, job opportunities, products and services or just cool updates and news. Here is the list of participating organizations so far.

Check it out and be a part of TheChange with us.

Green, Green, Green

This blog is overdue for an update.  I’ve been monitoring my Google alerts and RSS feeds but their hasn’t been much big news since Will Allen had to cancel and the roof top farm went South at the last minute.  I don’t have terribly much to add to those tales of woe, but here is some recent ‘green’ news.

Apparently the powers that be in Western Canada are meeting in Victoria to discuss clean energy and the green economy.  BC’s Liberals, Alberta’s Conservatives, as well as the Premiers of both Saskatchewan and for the first time Manitoba are meeting to discuss challenges and opportunities for Western Canadians and knowing politicians, how to get more money out of Ottawa.

The Gaining Ground Summit is coming around again, this time it is entitled Eco-Logical.  Invited speakers include:

  • Gregor Robson
  • Carol Sandford
  • Jared Blumenfeld
  • Mark Holland
  • Richard Branson

No word if the Greening the Inner-city Blog will get a press pass again.  The conference is October 4th through 7th.

Apparently UBC is going to help Vancouver become the world’s greenest city.  You’d think this wouldn’t be news, as UBC is the largest university in the City, in the entire Province, so it seems rather obvious they’d contribute in some way to the effort.  However if want the few details, the Vancouver Sun had a story a while back.  The Straight also covered the announcementGregor’s blog also covered the story, wonder what he’ll do with MayorOfVancouver.ca if he ever loses an election or otherwise moves on?

Well that’s all the news that is green enough to print, err type.

Urban aquaculture, coming to Vancouver soon?

I spent this weekend in Victoria where my wife and I, along with friends and family, joined the last leg of the Get out Migration. The migration was led by legendary environmental activist Alexandra Morton who set out from Sointula, 500 kilometers north of Victoria, on April 23rd to lead a human migration that honored the yearly runs of BCs wild pacific salmon. These runs have been increasingly threatened by environmental degradation and habitat destruction on BCs coast. Many leading marine biologists, sport fishermen and Morton herself believe the greatest source of degradation and habitat destruction comes from the Norwegian owned open net cage farms; breeding grounds for sea lice with as much sewage-like waste output as your average BC city.  As recent pilot projects have proven, a viable alternative exists, and this alternative may create opportunities for urban economic stimulus and job creation too.

These tanks designed by Canada's Agri Marine, can hold up to 50,000 trout

A recent study suggests that not only will we have to move to closed containment to allow our marine ecosystems to heal, but it will also be a sustainable and profitable move.  Growing Power have already proven that aquaponics is a feasible practice on a smaller and medium scale while a larger scale closed containment aquaculture project in China launched just this past December has piqued interest world wide. Canadian company AgriMarine created the technology being used for the fish farm in China where 50,000 trout are currently housed, needless to say, some Canadians are now asking why their own technology found a home in China before it did here?

Another project that Vancouver (and BC) may consider drawing inspiration from is Cityscape in San Francisco. Cityscape, an urban agriculture organization in San Francisco is looking to create market-scale aquaponics operations (that include fish) in the Bay Area -south San Francisco in particular. Restaurants, keen to include locally sourced and sustainably farmed products are apparently eager to support this initiative. Go here for a great article on Cityscape and the impossible logic of urban food production.

So can we imagine a Vancouver where urban agriculture and aquaculture contribute to our world class dining culture? I sure can. One word sums it all up for me FRESH.

It’s a fresh idea that will create fresh new jobs, and of course year round fresh food. And let’s not forget the extra fresh air we’ll all enjoy from a decreased need to truck industrial foods from one end of the continent to the other!

For more information on the exciting urban farming initiatives here in Vancouver you can also visit these sites:

SOLEfood

CityFarmer

UBC Farm

Projects in Place

Environmental Youth Alliance

A green roof economy: the fourth agricultural revolution?

Whoa Wes! That’s a bit of a stretch now isn’t it? Well, maybe, but who got anywhere by thinking small? (Aside from nano-scientists).

When one thinks of all the arable land that we’ve paved over, or otherwise rendered unusable, it might seem like a staggering amount. Concrete jungles like New York, Mumbai and Tokyo extend as far as the eye can see with parking lots, buildings and freeways, but urban development only accounts for 2% of covered arable land. (Simmonds, I G (1989), Changing the Face of the Earth: Culture, Environment, History, Blackwell, Oxford, UK.) Yes that’s right, I’m actually going to reference books in this post, shocking I realize. When one thinks about how many mega cities we see sprawling over the horizon (over 400 cities with populations above 1 million), combined with the fact that we’re seeing a continued global migration to these cities one might worry that even more arable land will come under threat; but cities are actually a far more efficient and less environmentally damaging organizational structure than many might think. They’re compact, often vertical, and efficiently designed along grids, or with clear pathways and economical correlations of related services and goods.  However, cities also act like a vacuum, sucking in resources and using vast external parcels of land to create food, rubber, clothing, energy and everything else needed to keep them running. This is what we’ve come to consider more closely over the past fifteen or so years, thanks to the creative and groundbreaking concept of the Ecological Footprint (no pun intended).The Ecological Footprint concept originated right here in Vancouver in fact,  through the research of UBC professor William Rees and then graduate student Mathis Wackernagel.

The real challenge with cities isn’t so much the 2% of land they take up, it’s that roughly 40% of the rest of the Earth’s land surface is presently used for cropland and pasture to feed these cities. This is an estimated 1.3 × 107 km2 of cropland and 3.4 × 107 km2 of pastureland. And every day the produce and livestock from this 40% takes a huge amount of energy in the form of fossil fuels (to maintain operations, to fertilize) and then gets carted away (using more fossil fuels) far away, to where an increasingly urbanized population awaits it. So where’s the most efficient place to start solving the problem? The 40% of supporting land or the 2% itself where those resources end up? I think the answer is pretty clear, and this is why the head of campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund, Colin Butfield, stated that “The battle for the environment will be won or lost in our cities“.

In the final analysis, if the reader will excuse my oversimplification of our relationship with nature, what we need from the environment is water, food and shelter (and some would argue its awe inspiring beauty!). I take this to mean that if these things we need from the environment to survive are as such, and the battle for this will be won or lost in our cities then the only battle option we really have is full surrender. We’ve proven that we can’t beat the environment, so we might as well join it. Our cities cannot just take sustenance, they have to give it, becoming the environment itself from which we draw our energy and food. The separation of urban and agricultural spaces can’t likely continue without drastic consequences. And more and more people have come to realize this.

Urban agriculture was once an idea passionately held by a few, now it’s one passionately held by many. And that support is growing fast as the aesthetic value of green roofs and quality of produce and goods grown from urban agriculture has continued to contributed to the increasing livability and enjoyability of city-life. So does this mean another agricultural revolution is brewing? Is this once radical idea now becoming the norm in western society? I’d wager to say that because of the leadership of cities like Chicago, New York, Portland and Vancouver, that is more a possibility than ever. In fact, it has been the norm in many European cities for decades now.

We’ve given a lot of attention to SOLEfood inner-city farm here on the GTIC blog lately, and deservedly so, as urban agriculture is gaining momentum in Vancouver thanks to initiatives like SOLEfood.  The build out of the 2nd SOLEfood farm on the rooftop parkade of 211 East Georgia St. (this Saturday May 8th) will create the second intensive food producing parcel of land in this growing urban network of farms, and this one is  a rooftop project.

Uncommon Ground, a fantastic restaurant in Chicago with its own 100% certified organic rooftop vegetable farm

Rooftop farms in Chicago and other major cities have also become increasingly popular, growing quality fresh food right in the middle of the market. It’s estimated that the urban spaces we’ve created can produce enough food to feed nearly 100 million people  (Simmonds ,1989) but this is a high benchmark, in reality the number would likely be smaller as not every owner of a commercial building or home necessarily wants a farm or green roof, let alone a farm roof, and not every parking lot will be transformed into cropland. It’s estimated that 30% of Vancouver’s urban space is take up by buildings, meaning 30% of its space has a potentially usable rooftop to grow green media or even food, how much brownfield and abandoned lot space can we add to that?  So maybe we can make Simmonds’ number a more realistic 30 to 40 million if we use Vancouver’s percentage of rooftop space (and an undetermined estimate of brownfield/lot space) as a benchmark.  This is a blog post, not a thesis, so forgive some of the speculation but I’m concerned with both facts and the ideas too at this point, the productive capacity of urban farming is only one component or benefit attached to these ideas.

Growing food in urban places has numerous other benefits beyond adding to total food volume on the market, that help to reduce strain on our planet and its resources.

Growing food directly where the market is situated eliminates the need for fossil fuels to be used in transportation, and it encourages growers to use sustainable organic farming techniques as crop yields are smaller, eliminating the need for industrial fertilizers, crop dusting, and other forms of agro-chemical management; which would not be allowed in densely populated areas anyhow (or so we would hope).

Because the food grown is closer to market it also eliminates the need for preservatives, waxes, wrapping and packaging and will drastically reduce spoilage from transportation or storage. Further to this, a mixed media farm roof, just like a green roof, will also reduce noise pollution, filter particulate matter in the air, cool a building in the summer and keep it warmer in the winter and make urban spaces that much more attractive. To what extent though, needs to be studied in a similar way that green roofs have recently been. And if  the transformation of our urban spaces takes place on the level it will likely need to, in order to reduce our footprints and make our cities sustainable, then massive potential for economic activity and job creation exists. Will this be the fourth agricultural revolution? A green roof economy? A new era of utilitarian urban ecology?  Some other fancy shmancy overly academic term?

Only if more people continue to get involved!

So if you’d like to get involved with urban agriculture and join the revolution come down to the SOLEfood urban farm network’s build out of the newest farming space in our city, atop 211 East Georgia Street, the afternoon of Saturday May 8th, 1:30 to 4:30.

For more information on Green Roofs.

More information on urban agriculture. And here too.

More information on green collar jobs.

For more information on Vancouver’s Innner-City

Top 5 Green Urban Initiatives

Man oh man, I told myself I wouldn’t leave the office today without posting to the Greening the Inner-City Blog but it has been busy at BOB! So without further delay I will recount some awesome green initiatives in five North-American cities that I think should inspire anyone this Earth Day. And because people love searching for top tens and top fives and bests and worsts on the internet I’ll even present them as the top 5, as the title clearly states (though there are many other fascinating and awesome programs in several other cities too that could easily make the list). And because I’m in a massive hurry to get home I’m going to copy and paste a lot of the wording right from their own websites, thanks!

5) Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) (Bronx, New York) is a community organization    dedicated to Environmental Justice solutions through innovative, economically sustainable projects that are informed by community needs. One of the many awesome programs bridging sustainable community economic development, urban renewal and workforce development is the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training Academy (BEST) which trains residents in bioremediation, wetland restoration, horticulture, water and soil quality testing and numerous other green job skills. The BEST Academy links environmental clean-up and restoration in the community to the career development and economic needs of local people.

4) Chicago Climate Action Plan. (Chicago) Chicago Mayor Richard Daley got inspired on a trip to Germany a few years back, which is hard not to do if you find sustainability and green technology particularly exciting. After coming home he decided to one up those Germans by making Chicago a global leader in environmentally sustainable urban planning. The CCAP includes best practices for ensuring Chicago is full of:

Other initiatives are also being developed such as a global building energy monitoring system which would enable the City to control the temperature at more than 500 city-owned facilities, reducing energy costs by as much as 30-40 percent, and a green collar workforce development program aimed at empowering Chicagoans with the skill sets needed for building retrofits, renewable energy and other green economic activities.

3) Growing Power. (Milwaukee/Chicago)                                                             Will Allen, CEO of growing power, has helped to raise the profile of urban agriculture to great heights and his work has inspired cities around North America (including Vancouver) to join the urban farming revolution. Growing Power transforms communities by supporting people from diverse backgrounds and the environments in which they live through the development of Community Food Systems.  His urban farming initiatives, which recently won him a MacArthur Genius Grant, have spread innovative approaches to urban agriculture, aquaculture and even beekeeping, from Milwaukee to Chicago. Empower communities and increasing food security.

2) The Portland Metro EcoDistricts Initiative (Portland Oregon)

Integrating Environmental Performance and District Scale Development and spearheaded by the Portland Sustainability Institute, the EcoDistricts Initative is a large-scale and diverse public private partnership currently underway which includes the City of Portland, Portland Development Commission, Metro, Portland State University and Oregon University System, Oregon BEST, Real estate, design, and construction industry leaders and leading urban environmental organizations who have collaborated on a framework for the development of 5 pilot projects throughout the city.

The objective of the program is to test, accelerate and eventually codify the next generation of best practices in green development and civic infrastructure that can be scaled to create neighborhoods with the lowest environmental impact and highest economic and social resiliency in the United States.

EcoDISTRICTS is a strategy to build “triple bottom line” neighborhoods with the lowest possible environmental impact and highest long‐term economic and community returns.

So basically, just when you thought Portland couldn’t get any more awesome they go and put this thing together.

1) Greenest City Action Team and Vancouver 2020 a Bright Green Future (Vancouver BC).

Surprised? Well I can say with confidence that I don’t give top placement to our Mayor’s vision and the team behind it simply out of hometown pride. The objective is clear, to be the world’s leader in sustainability and the healthiest, cleantech-savvy, robust, gorgeous, green economy powerhouse on the planet. Hard not to give top placement to an initiative like that!  Here are some of the hard targets from the GCAT recommendations and Bright Green Future 10 year plan.

Secure Vancouver’s international reputation as a mecca of green enterprise

2020 Target: Create 20,000 new green jobs

Eliminate Vancouver’s dependence on fossil fuels

2020 Target: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 33 per cent from 2007 levels

Lead the world in green building design and construction

2020 Targets: All new construction carbon neutral; improve efficiency of existing buildings by 20 per cent

Make walking, cycling, and public transit preferred transportation options

2020 Target: Make the majority of trips (over 50 per cent) on foot, bicycle, and public transit

Create zero waste

2020 Target: Reduce solid waste per capita going to landfill or incinerator by 40 per cent

Provide incomparable access to green spaces, including the world’s most spectacular urban forest

2020 Targets: Every person lives within a five-minute walk of a park, beach, greenway, or other natural space; plant 150,000 additional trees in the city

Achieve a one-planet ecological footprint

2020 Target: Reduce per capita ecological footprint by 33 per cent

Enjoy the best drinking water of any major city in the world

2020 Target: Always meet or beat the strongest of B.C., Canada, and World Health Organization drinking water standards; reduce per capita water consumption by 33 per cent

Breathe the cleanest air of any major city in the world

2020 Target: Always meet or beat World Health Organization air quality guidelines, which are stronger than Canadian guidelines

Become a global leader in urban food systems

2020 Targets: Reduce the carbon footprint of our food by 33 per cent

So happy earth day everyone! There’s lots to be excited about, now get involved in the greening of your inner-city and surrouding urban spaces.

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