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

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Thoughts on the urban deconstruction industry and restoration economy in Vancouver

Over the recent years many thinkers and planners have foreseen the likely transformations of our urban and suburban communities as costs related to resources, building materials and other logistics force us to think on our feet and adjust. I recall one author even wrote a book titled “The End of Suburbia”. Actually it was a documentary now that I come to think of it. As potential challenges such as peak oil, loss of arable land, energy and water scarcity and other logistical (and social) hurdles continue to present themselves on our horizon, authors like James Howard Kunstler, Jeremy Rifkin,  and numerous scholars agree that we may need to rethink our systems and our approaches and reassess much of our infrastructure and planning as we look ahead. Vancouver has been recognized as one of the more progressive and community focused cities in North America but even we may see some major physical transformations should these challenges come to a headwaters in the next 50 years. Though I do write with the focus of BOB in mind, I’m also a geographer, so I’m inspired to look at these issues very much from the perspective of a geographer.

In the case of Vancouver our physical geography and some astute urban planning has already helped to create a clean density that we’re celebrated and noted for now, and if we continue to go dense out of necessity or desire we will likely need to maximize urban spaces. Enter the deconstruction industry and the restoration economy.

A great little video on Treehugger.com about a social enterprise in Bristol UK was sent to me from Brian here at Building Opportunities with Business (who got it from Toby Barazzuol at Eclipse Awards). The Bristol Recycling Project collects donations of unused lumber, and either finds a way to put it back into the market or reconstitutes them into products like shelving and furniture. This is a service that has developed in relationship with the deconstruction industry and the restoration economy. The restoration economy is an idea put forth by author Storm Cunningham in a 2002 book entitled (you guessed it) The Restoration Economy. Along with William McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle, it was considered a landmark environmental book at the beginning of this decade. In short, or rather to summarize but a brief aspect of it, think of it like this. Instead of blowing up a building into a million fragments and trucking them off to the landfill, we can slowly deconstruct it and utilize as much of the materials as possible in other developments. It’s like my father-in-law (an incredibly accomplished engineer who has worked on numerous high profile projects around the world) always says, “The most sustainable building is the one already built”. Well, the logic of the restorative economy says the next best thing may be recycling all those materials as best as possible into a new format. Plus it creates jobs and stimulates the economy.

Reclaimed wood has been utilized by social enterprises and businesses in BC and specifically in the inner-city Tradeworks Training Society uses reclaimed wood for many of their products. But much of this reclaimed wood is from Pine Beetle infested lumber considered below market standard due to its blueish tint. Conversely, much of the wood used by the Bristol Wood Recycling Project comes from buildings that have been recently deconstructed or found lumber, and as other cities around the world begin to rethink their urban design many structures may need to come down in order for more efficient designs to go up. Buildings will also need improvements, retrofits and other maintenance, like our beautiful heritage buildings here in Vancouver. There’s little doubt that a large market potential for the restorative industry exists in Vancouver. As recent improvements along the Hastings Corridor (a result of the Great Beginnings and Hastings Renaissance Program) attest, we Vancouverites value the historical architecture of the inner-city. Many of these old buildings need a little love and elbow grease as time does take its toll, but they shine up real good.

But where is Vancouver’s inner-city in regards to a similar project like the one in Bristol? Well, it has been discussed, and there are still people in the community who believe a similar deconstruction social enterprise might be successful here. We do have a proud history as an enterprising lumber town after all.

Is it a matter of timing though?

As construction of high density buildings becomes more expensive, eating into the bottom line of those projects, and as space becomes less available in our city perhaps reclaimed materials from deconstruction will present an affordable and accessible option for developers? And that in turn may likely create more demand for deconstruction and restorative work, more space to develop, and perhaps contribute to more affordable housing prices? Someone would probably have to write a thesis as opposed to a blog post to really answer some of those questions. But this is a place for ideas and conversation after all.

It’s some food for thought as we look to the future of this city and our inner-city’s urban design. By looking at the Bristol Wood Recycling Project and other similar enterprises we can perhaps better imagine the choices that may present themselves to us down the road.

-Wes-

urban agriculture: what now?

Join other like-minded inner-city residents for a lively discussion on urban agriculture in the downtown east side.  Come share your ideas and discuss opportunities for the future of urban farming in the DTES.

Tuesday June 16th, 5:30pm

614 Alexander St, Roof-top garden, Eclipse Awards

Topics we will cover:
– identify community assets, resources, and strengths
– success stories
– ideas, suggestions, and opportunities

Please RSVP or with questions to kristina.welch@sauder.ubc.ca

Eclipse Awards Roof-Top Garden

The City of Vancouver is committed to green

Thanks to a fearless leader and the work of countless others, the City of Vancouver has just released the Quick Start Recommendations Report; the first-born child of the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT), a group of 14 ‘experts on the environment and economy’ created by incoming Mayor Gregor Roberson. The report, 33 pages in total, highlights 10 strategic areas which the GCAT feels are ripe for investment and represent areas where the payoffs to the community are significant and imminent.  The goal is to transform Vancouver into the greenest city in the world in 10 years.

Near and dear to this blog’s heart is strategic area #2 on the list, Green Jobs, followed closely by #1, the Green Economy; both of which are very closely linked.  The section on Green Jobs, while short, touches on a lot of the important benefits of green jobs. Green jobs help the environment, they provide local employment (can’t send them overseas), and they provide immense job satisfaction to the workers by enabling them to be part of a solution and a better community. I’ve been calling this a win-win-win scenario, but the GCAT have coined a better phrase:  ‘Money invested in the green economy works over-time, double-time, and even triple-time.’  Well said.

The report goes further and identifies some ways in which it foresees how these jobs will be created in the short term. One way is through the creation of a green jobs pilot project, and the other is through mandating of green building retrofits. One suggestion for a green jobs pilot project, especially if the City wants to ‘triple-time’ their investment and effort, would be to create an urban agriculture pilot project. This project addresses local food security concerns, reduces emissions from food transportation, creates local employment for people who need it most,  provides more green space and a healthier community, and offers employment that is immensely rewarding and therapeutic (important for people with barriers to employment or other social issues).  It also keeps more money in the local economy; creating a strong economic multiplier effect. That is a very long list of benefits.

The second idea, mandating green building retrofits, sounds great but might have slower adoption than the GCAT is anticipating. Given the economic issues, residents and small business owners are going to be less likely to undertake retrofits for which there is an upfront cost; even if there is long-term savings and shorter payback periods. Cities with the best record of energy efficiency retrofits are providing financing loans to residents and businesses,  whereby the City (via a lender) pays the upfront cost of the energy retrofit and the subsequent energy savings is used to pay back the loan. The loan is included in the property taxes, so if the owner decides to sell in a year’s time, he/she is not stuck paying back a loan on a property they don’t even own. This type of program removes many of the disincentives to energy retrofits, and the immediate benefit is born by the environment. Until the City decides to implement something a bit more innovative, I suspect the adoption of green building retrofits will be slow.

Check out the full report for more details: http://vancouver.ca/greenestcity/new.htm

Are you a ‘green business’?

Does your company do any of these things?  Then you might be a green business and not even know it!

  • Bicycle repair and bike delivery services
  • Car and truck mechanic jobs, production jobs, and gas-station jobs related to biodiesel
  • Energy retrofits to increase energy efficiency and conservation
  • Green building
  • Green waste composting on a large scale
  • Hauling and reuse of construction materials and debris (C&D)
  • Hazardous materials clean-up
  • Landscaping
  • Manufacturing jobs related to large scale production of appropriate technologies (i.e. solar panels, bike cargo systems, green waste bins, etc.)
  • Materials reuse
  • Non-toxic household cleaning in residential and commercial buildings
  • Parks and open space expansion and maintenance
  • Printing with non-toxic inks and dyes
  • Public transit jobs related to driving, maintenance, and repair
  • Recycling and reuse
  • Small businesses producing products from recycled materials
  • Solar installation
  • Tree cutting and pruning
  • Peri-urban and urban agriculture
  • Water retrofits to increase water efficiency and conservation
  • Whole home performance, including attic insulation, weatherization, etc

List reproduced from Urban Habitat.