Warren Karlenzig works at SustainLane. He is not responsible for any user-generated Content or links that show up on his blog. Also, what he says represents SustainLane, and he is protected by SustainLane.
Don't want to hit the panic button, but these relentless rains and floods in the Mid-Atlantic states have me thinking we are starting to experience a new type of weather. About 200,000 people were evacuated from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as water levels are starting to crest after a non-stop deluge of up to 16 inches of rain there and in Maryland, New Jersey and New York.
Look at the areas hardest hit in this image from Intellicast.com. The orange blobs mean 12-16 inches in the past week (since Sunday or so, actually), and if you click on the Maryland region you can actually see one spot in the north part of the state, just northeast of Baltimore, where more than 16 inches has fallen. DC has been flooded as has parts of Philadelphia.
The stalled low pressure has been fed by tropical moisture. This is similar to an event in California during December 29-30 of last year when about 10 inches fell in San Anselmo, where I live, flooding the town with four feet of fast-moving water. Many businesses have not recovered from the flood yet, and the town was besieged all winter and spring with mudslides and houses slipping down steep hills, including a neighbor's house that had to be chainsawed apart before it crushed those living downslope. We had 72 inches of rain this winter at our house, with normal being about 42 inches.
During the December 30 flood, we were up in Lake Tahoe, which is at 6,000 feet, and where precip in December almost always means snow. While we were there it rained relentlessly for about 36 hours, with the snow level all the way up to about 7,500 feet. This is the high Sierra after solstice, and locals including 70 year olds, said they had never remembered rain falling more than a few hours after or before a warm snowstorm, and surely not at 7,000 feet for such an extended period.
I felt like I was in Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man on that planet where it is always heavily raining. Or was that The Martian Chronicles? Anyway, no wind, no variation in rate, just constant brain-drenching rain. The snow on the slopes began melting and running down the sides of the mountains, while ski-parka clad children played in the mud with their sleds.
We returned through partially flooded Sacramento, then made our way back to Marin, where people's ruined furniture and possessions were piled high in the streets by bulldozers. Though no one died we got our own taste of the post-Katrina order, which is random and chaotic, but not entirely unpredictable in the short term--I knew both New Orleans and San Anselmo would be flooded days before they actually were. Unfortunately I never warned the merchants of my town that they were likely to be underwater that holiday weekend. For New Orleans, our family did say a special blessing for those people the night before it hit.
Rita was another unprecedented event in modern meteorology. I watched via Intellicast how Rita grew overnight from a Category 1 storm with 105-mile winds to a Category 5 hurricane with almost 200 mile per hour winds.
I never knew my interest in the weather could extend into political, economic and cultural spheres, but it has and I fear it will even more so in these coming days.
San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom was in San Diego on Friday pitching the city's sustainability progress as the major reason it should be awarded the 2016 Olympics. The number 2 city in SustainLane's 2006 US City Rankings, Newsom argued to the US Olympic Committee that San Francisco's actions to reduce global climate warming and its green activism, combined with a clean environment, it could make the 2016 Summer Games the greenest ever if they come to the City by the Bay.
Sydney also claimed it would hold more sustainable games in 2000. After the event, Greenpeace graded the Sydney Olympics as a "C" in its Green Olympics rating. How San Francisco would fare depends on how much it wants to back the marketing hype with budgeted actions--it surely has more capabilities than any of the other candidate cities if sustainability potential is the deciding factor.
In relevant sustainability planning and practices, San Francisco could arguably outperform other potential 2016 US contestant cities LA, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia because of its expertise in recycling (highest rate for a city in the nation), renewable energy (1 megawatt of solar), a large alternative fueled city fleet (including 700+ zero emission buses) and high public transit ridership. Bay Area air quality is much better on average than the other cities, too.
The Bay Area is also home to some of the leading sustainability gurus that could fashion a plan for the Olympics if it does win the bid--Paul Hawken, Joel Makower, Sissel Wagee, Mathis Wackernagel, Peter Calthorpe, Dan Imhoff, etc.
Portland, SustainLane's #1 city in its US City Sustainability Rankings, is introducing legislation that would require that all diesel fuel sold within the city contain 5% biodiesel starting in 2007 and move to 10% by 2010. Besides ethanol use, it's one of the first times any U.S. city has attempted to truly wean itself off its addiction to oil not only on the demand side (public transit, planning, etc.) but also on the public supply side.
Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil rather than fossil fuel, and besides polluting about half as much as regular diesel fuel, it also can be homegrown from American crops such as canola and soybeans. It can also be blended with typical diesel fuel.
I just spoke with the Portland city commissioner that introduced the measure this week, Randy Leonard. "Our hope is that it does develop into an economic initiative for the state of Oregon. We will be successful if we establish a program that ends up reducing our dependenece on foreign oil," Leonard said. "The fear in this state is that the large oil corporations have manipulated the market. This ordinance will also increase reliance on the American farmer rather than on the executives at Exxon."
The five-member Portland city council made of Leonard, three other commissioners, and Mayor Tom Potter, will discuss the proposal Wednesday before voting on the measure Wednesday, July 5.
"We're digging in for an onslaught from the oil industry, which is claiming that the supply of this fuel is inadequate," Leonard said.
The availability of biodiesel is definitely an issue when attempting to legislate such supply-side approaches. But Leonard believes that the old conundrum--the chicken and the egg and which came first--applies here. "East of the Cascades in Oregon the land is ideal for growing canola. Farmers in Oregon said they would grow more of this crop for biodiesel, but the market isn't large or predicatable enough, so this builds predictability into that market."
As part of Leonard's ordinance, Portland's city fleet, about 25% which use alternative fuels including biodiesel, is also being directed to use at least 20% biodiesel in all diesel vehilces. According to Tricia Knoll at the Portland Water Bureau, her agency is shifting this summer from 20% biodiesel use to 99% biodiesel for its fleet of more than 140 vehicles. Berkeley, California previously made the switch to 100% biodiesel for its fleet of 180 trucks. They then switched back to B20(%) and now reportedly are ready to switch back to B99.
Leonard is also introducing legislation to make regular gasoline in Portland contain 10% ethanol-based fuel throughout the year. A state measure is set to expire that mandates 10% ethanol for regular gasoline throughout the city during winter months because of air pollution.
On my commute ride in to San Francisco today I was joined by mountain biking legend Joe Breeze, one of the sport's early pioneers. Breeze and fellow Marin County locals Gary Fisher and Otis Guy started in the mid-1970s tricking out their balloon tire Schwinn bikes for the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. In what history is calling the first mountain bike race in 1976, Alan Bonds won, being the only rider not crashing during the 1,000-foot shotgun descent. For fastest times over the next few years, Gary Fisher came in number one and Breeze a close second on Fairfax, California's notorious Repack. Check out these mondo photos of Joe and others racing on this dirt fireroad.
Joe was commuting this morning to his job in Sausalito, which is where his "transportation bicycle" company Breezer is located. These durable and functional bikes are equipped with racks, headlights and tailights, and mud flaps for ultra dependable bike commuting. They're built for the challenges of city and suburban commuters, not the trails of Mt. Tam, and they are hitting a sweet spot of need for gas-free transportation that many are turning to in cities throughout the U.S. Joe told me while we rode along that his company has shown 40% growth each year since they launched in 2004.
Is Breeze still living up to his name? Well, to give you an idea, I was on my skinny-tire road bike and he was on a heavier hybrid Breezer and kept pace with me until we split off in Sausalito 12 miles later.
Look for an upcoming movie featuring Joe Breeze and others from that fat-tire genesis, called Klunkerz, which comes out this summer and might be debuting at the upcoming Sundance.
Today is the first official "Spare the Air" day for the San Francisco Bay Area. With record heat and corresponding high levels of ground-level ozone, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District uses these gnarly days to get people to ride public transit, all of which is offered free in the region, including 25 different transit agencies. Luna Salaver with the District says about 31,000 people in the region have signed up for email air alerts, which I just did. Good to know when it's going to be polluted so I can limit my exercise to the early morning before it gets too nasty. Thanks, Luna.
The Air Quality Management District on these days tries to get people to not use fireplaces (as if!), gas-powered lawn mowers or other gas-powered machines, charcoal barbeques, and they advise people to fill up cars with gas in the evening if possible. Driving, filling up in the morning and doing these other things all contribute to local ozone pollution, which as I write is approaching the level of being "unhealthy for sensitive persons." Did you know that when you "top off your tank" and spill some gas, it's equivalent to driving more than a hundred miles in terms of the air pollutants that creates?
Knowing this made me stop doing topping our tank a year back. And I'm now even more smug about our manual lawn mower (free, left on the curbside), especially now that my son realizes how much fun it is to use it.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management district sponsors three Spare the Air days each year during non-holiday weekdays with high air pollution forecast during the period June to September. They get funded by federal grants, while the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission pays out $7.4 million to the 25 transit agencies to offset the fares lost during the three free days. Tomorrow is also a Spare the Air day, so free rides on all buses, subways, ferries, trolleys, etc. will be happening then throughout the nine county Bay Area once more.
My eyes are burning and we have fans blasting in our office. Imagine, those of you in other parts of the country, a 12-storey office building with no air conditioning system. Instead we use large windows that open, operate window shades and use cross ventilation to cool ourselves. It works pretty well as we have little humidity here in San Francisco. Would be so much more difficult to pull this off in NYC, Philly, DC, Chicago, St. Louis or any Southern city.
I wonder what they are doing in Atlanta right now, where the Air Quality Index ozone level of 196 was approaching the "very unhealthy" level of 201 at which "everyone may experience more serious health effects." Besides irritating the eyes, ground level ozone can irritate or even damage your lungs and upper respiratory system. Those with asthma also suffer labored breathing during times of ozone pollution. EPA's Air Now site has current pollutant levels for all US cities, along with such scary language about the dangers of air pollution. Were the impacts not so creepy, it's a cool site with time-lapsed animations of pollutant levels.
I rode my bike in all the way to work in downtown SF today from Marin County and will now get to take the Golden Gate Ferry for free back to Marin, then I'll ride from there back home after it begins to cool down and gets less polluted. The anti-commute commute, I call it.
Programs like Spare the Air are in a few other locations nationwide, such as Baltimore, Austin, Washington, D.C., and the State of New Hampshire. What a great idea. Now for the Bay Area they need to expand it beyond three days as those might be used up before we even hit July.
Last day here in Philly. Now I remember what hot and muggy do to one's brain, digestive system and general sense of being. Especially when that comes with 109 Air Quality Index, which means "Unhealthy for Sensitive People" according to the EPA. See that orange band in Eastern Pennsylvania?--that's me. And here I am in a hotel, air conditioner running full blast.
Air conditioning in Philly hotels, hmmmm. For those of you old enough to remember Philadelphia in 1976, that's where Legionnaire's disease broke out in a downtown hotel, killing 34. This was part of the totally uncool seventies, during which time I hid out the summer at my Uncle Wally's family farm in rural Indiana driving pies around to faraway neighbors, though I was well below driving age. Wait, now it comes back to me: I was trading rutabaga and rhubarb for pies! Anyway, the mysterious deaths at an American Legion Convention brought national attention for the first time to unhealthy, no deadly, indoor air quality. Yep, the "disease" came from ooze in the air conditioning system that spread through the air shafts into legionnaire's lungs. The Mutter Museum has a great display showing articles on the initial panic across town and eventual discovery of the culprit's biological profile, along with the museum's requisite skulls and petrified body parts.
More Philly, all for now, I promise:
After a Quaker service in the second-oldest Freinds Meeting House in the nation, I had some soup and coffee in the lovely Friends kitchen.
Went with architect Bob and two of his friends trying to create a green village in town, similar to Danaher & Co's Global Citizen Center being planned for San Francisco. We drove together along with these two women, forgot their names, to Fishtown, quickly toured the Greensgrow urban farm, then climbed up with Michael into the bowels of his abandoned yarn factory. Up through five storeys of decades of industrial/ homeless/ squatter detritus, being careful not to fall through holes in the rotton wood floor. To the roof, a view of smog and the Fishtown neighborhood. Perhaps one day a green roof and green city collaborative surrounded by neighborhood patrons?
Plenty to choose from: some 40,000 such vacant lots and buildings in town.
The evening ended at the National Liberty Museum where I held hands with my brothers and sisters and gently swayed singing acapella and renditions of "this Little Light of Mine" and "We Shall Overcome," which was a fitting way to feel truly connected to the City of Brotherly Love.
Juneteenth exhibit today at Philadelphia History museum, with four or five guides showing us four visitors
the historic records of the abolitionist and undergound railroad movements,
providing private and heartfelt commentary on the old diaries, dueggerotypes and
Today I took the Amtrak from Philly to DC after reading at breakfast about potential contamination of Philly's drinking water supply, up the Schuylkill River on a feeder creek. Just a "fish kill" from high level of toxicity. No problem, officials say. But people shouldn't swim or even boat in the river as a precaution. Guess I'll stick to bottled water the rest of the trip and scotch that brisk morning dip tomorrow. Just when I said the water was safe to drink at the sustainability forum. Makes me glad I have a protected water source from the slopes of Mt. Tam at our house and from Hetch Hetchy when at work in SF.
On the Amtrak train I could see chemical plants in Wilmington, Delaware, home of Dupont. Those orange windsocks and loudspeakers on the chimney and rooftops are not for a festival, but rather are there in case of an "event". Bottled water for sure.
Passed through Baltimore, city I've never visited though my grandfather Carroll "skippy" Spedden came from there. A street musician, he ended up skipping off to his own beat during the Depression never to be seen again. I can see why he left there--rowhouse after rowhouse, a number of them abandoned or burned out. I'm sure there's a better side, and one day I hope to see it.
DC presentation for governmental types interested in green building and sustainability indicators at the DC Planning Office. They said the water in DC is no longer over the EPA's legal limit for lead content, with high levels of lead reduced by water treatment and replacement of old pipes throughout the city.
After visit to Washington Post offices, back through the old DC Union Station, an architectural masterpiece with coffered ceilings emitting natural light through hundreds of octogonal cut-outs. Too bad the shops are the same old chains mostly--I could have been in Anywhere USA if it weren't for the Saint-Gaudens statues staring down at me.
Return to Philly for more of its amazing nitelife in Old Town. Lemon water ice (exactly like Chicago's Italian Ice), Yuengling, America's oldest beer, ethereal beauty of City Hall which is I was told the tallest stone building (white marble?) and tallest building with a statue on top in the world, William Penn, above the moonesque clockglow. Breathtaking.
The city has walking signs hanging over sidewalks everywhere with arrows pointing out attractions, and also a very useful map showing walking distances to different neighborhoods. Maybe Philly can improve its 6.5% walk to work rate, now the 6th highest in the nation.
History everywhere--American's Constitution was printed here--here was London Coffee House where slaves were sold. A bartender says she's glad the city council banned smoking in bars (will come into effect in January), even though she's a smoker and her best customers are. "If New York could do it, we can. New York! International City of the the World. They can do it."
A candle-lit procession of students all wearing headphones moves silently through a colonial alley, on the sidewalks hundreds of people of all races and ages, taking to the streets in a warm night of laughter, jokes, wise-guy comments, Spanish Dancers, Raggaeton musicians.
Philadelphia hosted a city sustainbaility forum, the last in a series that began at the beginning of the year. About 300 people from local businesses, government, academia attended the event in addition to many interested citizens. It was hosted by about 12 civic groups under the umbrella of Sustainable Philadelphia.
Rob Diemer, who helped organize the series and last night's event, gave an overview of where Philly is in terms of sustainability; I spoke about how Philadelphia has performed based on the 2006 SustainLane US City Rankings; and Fred Conner, a consultant and masters candidate at Temple University, discussed where the city needs to go in the future.
Rob discussed how outsiders view Philadephia--locals might view their public transit system, Septa, as one that needs lots of work and doesn't run on time, but it is one of the most used systems in the nation nonetheless. He pointed out how SustainLane ranked the city 14 in its 2005 study, how the GreenGuide didn't rank the city at all in its 2006 "Green Cities" ranking, and how this year's 2006 SustainLane rankings might surprise people.
Philly was number 4 out of 50 US cities, with excellent scores in more heavily weighted public transit ridership, walking to work, along with great marks in local food. The city is also taking the initiative in greenhouse gas emission reductions with an inventory of those emssions completed in 2005.
Not so good--recycling, with one of the lowest rates in the nation. We heard people talk last night about how at their corporate jobs they see the blue recycling bins dumped into the regular garbage and how people have a hard time knowing when or what to recycle. Thus the city's 5-6 percent recycling rate, one of the nation's lowest.
City air also rates #30 in air quality with zero percent renewable energy and a low rate of green buildings--LEED buildings use 30-40 percent less energy typically--air quality and energy security might become a more challenging issue for the city.
Audience engagement was excellent and inspiring. Besides applause for the city's local food network and Portland's free downtown transit, people asked a variety of questions about everything from using potable water for flush toilets, to how to start a City Repair type program, to developing green building incentives, to using Energy Star and local utility cut-off data in SustainLane's city rankings. They also questioned why the audeince and participants were not more representative of the city's diversity, and suggested the forum take future shows out in the road itno the neighborhoods of the city versus the toney downtown area.
Conner's student-created next steps presentation was a well-organized high-level plan for where the city needs to go and how it might get there.
But the final question was perhaps the best: What purpose will the forum serve--is it an advisory body, just a dialogue, or an action-oriented commitee?
I've landed in Philadelphia, home of the legendary Philly Sound. Already got down to "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Backstabbers" at White Dog Cafe, with its 16 local or sustainable food providers spelled out on the back of the menu. Eight Pennsylvania brews and one from over the river in Jersey. Regional splendor.
The White Dog Cafe's founder, Judy Wickes, helps lead the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE. BALLE is a national network in support of small businesses of all types in 29 cities throughout North America. The cafe is in the Univ. of Penn campus area, and hosts talks, table talks, films and other events in support of local and organic agriculture. All poultry, eggs and meat are pastured,--not pastuerized!--so the food is healthier for you and the environment, as all those wastes aren't concentrated in industrial feedlots.
Walking here was a perfect pleasure until it started to pour rain. The streets in the Old City, Ben Franklin's old stomping grounds, are abuzz with local cafes, bars, shops and foot traffic. Even a few bikes braved the cobblestones--no fancy racing bikes here. Walnut and Chestnut are fabulous urban streetscapes, popping and bopping, cars and people acheiving a nice balance with the "bulbed" intersections preventing auto dominance. An "80's Band" giving a live performance out on the sidewalk for no apparent reason. Very few chain stores spotted, one each Dunkin' Donuts and Applebees the exception. Street trees abound, parks, no parking lots, no overhead wires of any kind make the old gas lamps stand out even more.
Before the dark clouds scuttled in, the light was a good way to highlight the varigated patinas of hundreds of years of urban life. Skyscrapers do not dominate, so the city center is dense without the urban canyon effect.
Can't wait to explore more on this visit, my second. Tomorrow I will be talking urban sustainability at the Philadelphia Urban Sustainability Forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences Auditorium, 1900 Ben Franklin Parkway, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., with other speakers from the city, as well as locals from universities and citizen groups.