Energy & Resources
January 23, 2007

MORAL IMPLICATIONS OF ETHANOL

President George Bush in his State of the Union message tonight is expected to call for increased production of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. (We’ll see if that’s accompanied by a call for more fuel-efficient vehicles.) Massive expansion of ethanol plants is already underway. Therefore, it’s important to know if the following is accurate:

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive demand for fuel is insatiable. The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.

The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue. Soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in scores of lower-income countries that rely on grain imports, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mexico. The resulting political instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress, directly affecting all countries. It is not only food prices that are at stake, but trends in the Nikkei Index and the Dow Jones Industrials as well.

This comes from the Earth Policy Institute. I haven’t seen these figures elsewhere, so I’m cautious. But even if exaggerated, the moral issue is probably not: If filling up an SUV means people suffer elsewhere, possibly even at home because of higher prices for food … well, what would Jesus do?

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Thanks to Beyond Robson for picking up on the City staff report going to Council on Thursday, recommending the study of a new site for the proposed Whitecaps Stadium – now behind the Waterfront Station and over the Seabus terminal.  Much better.

And while Council is at it, maybe it’s time to be more creative about the Burrard Bridge bike lanes.  Last estimate: $20 million to widen the deck to create safe space for bikes and peds, and that’s probably low-balling it.

Seriously, how about a separate bridge – one that would connect the seawalls and allow for something truly iconic to frame the entrance to False Creek.  There’s got to be some wanna-be Calatravas who could do for Vancouver what he did for Redding, California. 
 
The Sundial Bridge cost $24 million at the time.

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Now this is fun – and quite extraordinary. 
 
The latest Beta test from Google can be found here – charts that not only display complex data in interesting ways, but then allow you to see changes over time and the interrelationships that result.  (It’s easier to see than explain.  But be sure to play around with it to understand everything that’s happening.  The Help section has other charts of interest too.)

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Vancouver is, of course, narcissitic.  And she loves being photographed.   City Eye Photography does more than cater to our fetish; it provides a service:

 City Eye Photography offers quality stock images of the livable city. Our team has over a decade of experience in both policy planning and urban design photography. By capturing the best of public space, infill housing, public art, and high, medium and low density housing, our stock images are designed to assist you in developing the vision for your development project or city plan.

Not a large collection yet, but it shows promise.  And it helps Vancouver show off.

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UBC urban-planning professor Larry Frank has been on the front lines of the sprawl debate. And the current issue of Science News has a fine cover-page story on the controversy.

Larry did much of his research in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lived for many years. After moving to Vancouver, he personally experienced the consequences of the city’s different design.

The glaring difference between the two cities’ landscapes figures in Frank’s professional life as well as in his personal one….
He and other researchers have evidence that associates health problems with urban sprawl, a loose term for humanmade landscapes characterized by a low density of buildings, dependence on automobiles, and a separation of residential and commercial areas.
Frank proposes that sprawl discourages physical activity, but some researchers suggest that people who don’t care to exercise choose suburban life. Besides working to settle that disagreement, researchers are looking at facets of urban design that may shortchange health.

The story provides good background on the “sorting versus causation” debate. The first studies (only four years ago) linked sprawl and obesity:

Residents of sprawling cities and counties tended to weigh more, walk less, and have higher blood pressure than did people living in compact communities …
In 2004, Frank and his colleagues produced additional connections among urban form, activity, and obesity. The data on more than 10,500 people in the Atlanta area indicated that the more time a person spends in a car, the more obese he or she tends to be. But the more time people spend walking, the less obese they are.

Then came the counter-arguments.

University of Toronto economist Matthew Turner charges that “a lot of people out there don’t like urban sprawl, and those people are trying to hijack the obesity epidemic to further the smart-growth agenda [and] change how cities look.”
Turner conducted a study that tracked people over time, as some of them moved from one neighborhood to another. He and his collaborators found no change in weight associated with moving from a sprawling locale to a dense one, or vice versa.
“We’re the only ones that have tried to distinguish between causation and sorting … and we find that it’s sorting,” he says. “The available facts do not support the conclusion that sprawling neighborhoods cause weight gain.”

Frank and others involved in the original research were always aware of the sorting-causation distinction. And now their latest work “could split the ideological difference.”

By surveying people in a variety of neighborhoods, he learned that people who are less inclined to be active tend to live in less pedestrian-friendly locales—evidence that people are sorting themselves. But he also found that, no matter how much people like or dislike being active, they are more active when they live in compact, walkable areas than when they live in sprawling neighborhoods.

Larry has also made the point to me: So what if people sort themselves? We need to offer people more opportunities to live in the kind of neighbourhood where they can walk if they choose. Too often our urban design discourages physical activity regardless of people’s motivations.

“The overarching message is that the built environment is an enabler or a disabler of active transportation—of walking,” Frank says.

Full story here.

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January 22, 2007

Hands up, everyone who thinks the media have already gone overboard on Picton-trial coverage.
Too late. It’ll be all Picton, all the time:

The Vancouver Sun continues its leading role in coverage of the Robert Pickton trial with a special team of reporters, photographers and editors dedicated to the case. Starting Monday, we will have extensive coverage inside and outside of the courthouse, with instant news updates throughout the day on www.vancouversun.com.

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In the next few weeks, the full force of Science will redefine the climate-change debate.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will, on February 2nd, release the Fourth Assessment
Already the media are covering the leaks and leads: that human-caused climate change is more than 90 percent certain.  They’re treating climate change will a new seriousness – mainly because the climate has changed.  Of the atmosphere, likely.  Of politics, certainly.
Our Prime Minister misconstrued the public’s concern about climate change, and, to give him credit, he did a fast turnaround and is now trying to catch up, pulling out policies and programs that were, mere months ago, dismissed as expendable. 
But the problem politically is that climate change isn’t just an issue anymore.  It’s not something that can simply be assigned to a Minister, certainly not a junior one.  Climate change could potentially require a wholesale rethinking of our assumptions about economic growth and how we live – and honestly, no politician really wants to take that on.  Talk about uncertainty.
So ‘the environment’ continues to be isolated from energy and most other big-budget policy, most of which assumes we’ll continue to blow out carbon as though it had no cost.  
Examples:  Approving coal-fired electricity plants without carbon capture.  Allocating our natural gas and water to liquify the tar sands.  Turning the Fraser Delta and most of the valley over to development, mostly car and truck dependent, to serve the port and urban expansion.  And building more roads to hurry it up.  So far those policies haven’t been reconciled with climate change.
Typically, a concern would be addressed in the way politicians are doing it now: announce a targeted program or grant in front of an appropriate setting.  But this time, there are literally thousands of scientists – some outraged that government has been unresponsive to warnings and red flags – who will not likely allow the IPCC report to be ignored or dismissed. They won’t be swift-boated.  And they’ll be back, with four reports in succession throughout 2007.  The media (and the bloggers) will be relentless.
Coincidentally (I assume), B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will be speaking to his energy strategy, and has no choice but to include reference to climate change.  Will he focus on personal responsibility for change, or will he announce new standards?  Will some incentives be provided or will taxes be shifted?
Putting the obligation on individuals just won’t cut it.  Government is the primary player for two big reasons: it sets the standards, it levies the taxes.  The politicians’ job is to calculate what the public will accept.
And that may depend in next few months literally on the weather. A few more Katrina Moments, and all bets are off.  No telling how big this might become, what new leaders might emerge, how stock markets will respond. Tie climate change in with the geo-instablity of our times, and what might seem impossible today will be imperative tomorrow.

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Roger Kemble, an architect who has worked in Vancouver, now lives in Nanaimo.  He has a very opinionated worldview when it comes to urban design, and he’s put together his personal guide  here.  Best thing: the unusual, off-the-beaten-track examples.  And the critique of Nanaimo.
Check out “Of the Stones.”

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The New York Times piece here has, as you’d expect, generated response. Here’s an email I got from the president of a neighbourhood group in Portland, Oregon:

At a meeting of the Northwest District Association’s land use braintrust last night the following article was brought to everyone’s attention. I said to the group—-it would be interesting what Gordon Price would have to say about this. So, there you go. I hope to hear from you.

My response:
This is not a new story. In fact, the City put a moratorium on any further conversion of commercial to residential in the core while they did a study – the one reported on. It raised some concern, but no sense of crisis.
While the vacancy rate is tight, there’s still not a lot of demand for office space from major tenants. (The concern is more about options for the future. ) There are still sites available; it’s just that they’re more complicated to assemble and more expensive. The market likes nice large, vacant open sites – and truly, those are gone.
Perhaps the days are over for corporate-style office towers. A lot of work is done at home in those condos by small businesses and single proprietors – a very large part of the labour force in a city like Vancouver without large employers.
There is a matter of equity when businesses start to use condos as the main work place. Because of differential property tax rates, residential property gets taxed at a substantially lower rate than commercial. It’s also one of the reasons why it’s hard to get an accurate count on what floorspace is being used for what purpose.
Some still argue that we should not constrain the demand for more residential development downtown – even if the priority is nore job creation. Philosophically, it comes down to whether you believe jobs follow zoning – and that if there are no opportunities for commercial space, the jobs will go elsewhere. Or whether you believe jobs follow people – and that if talented, valuable people are living downtown, that’s where businesses who need those people will locate, and will innovate to do so. We’ve seen some of that in the video-game industry.
Yes, there is reverse commuting, and it’s growing. The issue then is: where are the jobs located in the suburbs? If they locate along the rapid-transit lines, then reverse commuting is actually helpful; it fills some of the unused capacity of the transit system. If people have to drive, then it worsens congestion.
As the piece notes, we’re are victims of our own success – but as our Planning Director Brent Toderian comments, it’s a nice problem to have, and we’re hardly a victim in that sense.
Lesson: life (and planning) is messy.

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