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Sustainable In The City

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Bicyclists travel with traffic down Broadway Street in Portland, Ore.
I’m an East Coast guy. Not that it’s any excuse for ignorance about the rest of this great country, but the West Coast is just so far away, you know? So excuse me, Northwesterners, when I say I always assumed Portland was on the ocean. The Portland with which I’m familiar, in Maine, IS on the ocean, so I guess I just transferred the attribute to that other Portland too. But come to find out, it ain’t. It’s 80 or something miles from the beach. The so-called Land of Ports doesn’t even have any (unless you count those along the Willamette and Columbia rivers). “What’s up with that?” I asked myself (as I’m sure you are now). “Where do they get off?”

But it’s OK. As it turns out, Portland, Oregon, is only so named as a tribute to the one in Maine. It could’ve been anywhere. Well that makes sense. I feel better.

What’s all this nonsense about Portland got to do with living green in the city you ask? Everything, I say! Or, actually, says SustainLane Media, which once again ranked the city No. 1 on its urban sustainability list. “Urban sustainability” may sound like kind of an amorphous concept, but SustainLane, “the web's largest people-powered guide to sustainable living,” aims to pin it down with its annual rankings. They take a scientific approach to determine what exactly defines a sustainable city, basing their findings on 16 categories, including air and water quality, land and energy use, and mass transit.

But I wanted to know just what role high-rises might play in the sustainability of a city.

“Tightly integrated vertical development clusters people and destinations into small areas, which makes for very walkable, centered, connected and dense neighborhoods which have mixed uses/destinations,” SustainLane CEO James Elsen explained. “Denser development makes building transit lines practical and economical and having transit in place allows for higher density development to fill in around transit lines.”

But, Elsen pointed out, “It is important for city planning departments not only to approve of taller development, but to make sure that buildings can be creatively used and re-used for varied purposes.”

And what about high-rise inhabitants (yes you, my dear Captivate watchers!); what can they do to help?

“Simply by living in high-rises such as in San Francisco, New York and Vancouver, residents have already decreased their annual carbon footprints,” Elsen explained. “Living together in honey comb-like buildings means more shared walls, and thus less energy needed to heat/cool space. In addition, more ground level space is made available for parks and other uses, instead being covered up by low-rise sprawl.”

As for specific actions, Elsen stresses taking advantage of those little spaces that you might normally overlook – at least if you live in a high-rise. You’re probably not among the advantaged few who has this luxury at the office:

“Occupants with even a few feet of balcony can grow a few potatoes in a planter box,” he says, “and install a small rain barrel for watering.”

And if you really want to get self-sufficient (and maybe a little stinky), Elsen adds, “On many high-rise balconies in Asia it is not uncommon to find chickens and roosters kept for food.”

Captivate Network can be found in 10 of SustainLane’s top 13 “Front-runner” cities and in only two of the bottom 13 “Trailing” cities. Hmmm. Perhaps there’s a 17th category SustainLane missed: How Captivate screens positively affect urban sustainability. Here’s a list of categories that were topped by Captivate cities:

City Commuting – led by Washington, D.C., this category covers things like public transit use and percentage of people who walk or bike to work or carpool.

Energy & Climate Change – led by San Francisco, this category includes numbers on greenhouse gas emissions and use of renewable energy and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Local Food & Agriculture – led by Minneapolis, this covers how much residents rely on locally grown crops.

Metro Ridership – led by New York City, this drills down into the nitty gritty of which regions depend on public transport.

Planning & Land Use – NYC is again on top in this category, which analyzes things like park percentage per total city land area, sprawl and how much pedestrian and bike access is available.

Waste Management – San Fran finds itself atop this category for diverting more than 60% of its landfill waste through recycling, green waste and composting programs.

Water Supply – Chicago leads in the water category, based on factors such as distance from primary source of untreated drinking water, dependence of water on snowpack, level of drought or other conflict, and consumption rate.

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The Volt Unveiled

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Chevrolet Volt
Chevy has officially unveiled its Volt plug-in hybrid. If you saw pictures of the concept vehicle you’re probably disappointed in the look of the end result, but it’s very cool anyway, especially for the average commuter: the first 40 miles the car produces no emissions as it runs totally on electric power. A flex-fuel engine kicks in for anything above 40, and GM says the Volt has the equivalent of 150 horsepower and can hit 100 mph.

But understand: Though emissions aren’t coming out of your tailpipe those first 40 miles, they are still being produced somewhere along the line. Your plug-in’s power, after all, comes from a plug. And whatever is sending power to that plug is – if you’re like the vast majority of Americans who depend on traditional power sources – spewing a constant stream of CO2 and other emissions. Research shows driving a Volt or other plug-in hybrid most likely results in reduced emissions, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking they’re zero-impact.

Volt’s U.S. production is due to begin in late 2010. Will you be among those in line to snatch one up? Let us know by commenting below.

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Counterfeit Green?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Launch of Disney's Disneynature documentary film production unit
Everybody’s hopping on the “eco” train these days (yes, you can include Green Among Gray among the passengers) which is, generally, a good thing. Awareness is being raised if nothing else.

But how do you choose which sources to trust? The more mainstream the environmental movement becomes, the more saleable it is and the more likely we are to stumble upon supposed eco info from someone who’s actually just hawking something. There are more than a few “earth-friendlies” offering advice and products with a shadier shade of green in mind.

Even that, though, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. If you can make the world a better place while pocketing some cash, more power to you.

But there’s just such a hollowness to a lot of this stuff. I’ve recently come across a few examples of this transparent type of using the green movement to legitimize an agenda. But before I get into that, I want to share an eloquent quote from William O. Douglas, a former Supreme Court Justice whom I had never heard of but just learned about – he’s described as “one of the great Green Crusaders.” In an opinion in a 1972 lawsuit to stop Disney from developing a ski resort in Sequoia National Park, Douglas said, “Perhaps the bulldozers of 'progress' will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard? Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey, and camp or sleep there, or run the Allagash in Maine, or climb the Guadalupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico Superior in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away. Those who merely are caught up in environmental news or propaganda and flock to defend these water or areas may be treated differently.”

Let that sink in.

Now for the examples:

-- So what prompted this post was a press release I read describing, in all its luxurious wonder, the CELEBRITY GREEN GIFTING CHATEAU that awaits television stars and other lucky invitees to Debbie Durkin/Durkin Entertainment’s “100% sustainable charity event” coming up in L.A. The release, which cleverly uses a green font whenever “green” is mentioned, says it will feature “spa services, celebrity gifting” (what exactly this entails I’m not sure, but the mind reels with images of a giftwrap-trussed Ed Begley sporting a big red bow), “’greening tips,’ eco-friendly paintings” and the requisite “Celebrity Poker Challenge.” To be fair, the poker will benefit the Creative Coalition. And there’s a bunch of green-sounding groups (Environmental Media Association, which seems to be pretty legitimate, Naturalight Chalina Alpaca wool scarves) associated with the event. But, c’mon.

-- "They sold their soul to the highest bidder." So says Monica Evans, in an Associated Press story published in the Los Angeles Times, about that paragon of stewardship the Sierra Club. Monica was one of a group of Sierra Club members who quit after the Sierra Club signed a profit-sharing deal with Clorox – a company with a pretty horrible environmental record – that puts the club’s logo on Clorox’s eco-friendly "Green Works" cleansers. One way to look at this is as a smart move by a longtime, unimpeachable environmental protector that happens to need money. The other way to look at it is – well I guess Monica summed it up best.

-- Onearth, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s magazine, has an excellent article on the environmental “doublespeak” and the “greenwashing” that’s going on, covering Disney’s lack of a strong environmental platform and the new slogan of the country's largest garbage company, Waste Management: “Think Green.” The piece points out the things that get swept under the rug in the rush to rebrand, like the fact that Waste Management has been fined for Superfund violations.

Recognizing that none of us is perfect – to have contradictions is to be human – share your faux, shadyy, or otherwise contradictory green encounters by posting a comment below.

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Capturing Carbon Dioxide

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

table coral
The massive volume of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels is poisoning our world. But we can’t just cut out use of coal and natural gas as energy sources – they’re too effective, cheap and plentiful, plus industrialized societies would pretty much grind to a halt if we did. So realistic save-the-environment approaches have us simply cutting back on fossil-fuel use, along with capturing and sequestering emissions. But what exactly does this “C02 sequestration” mean?

The Australian-based Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies offers a nice summary of carbon capture and sequestration, and it basically boils down to this: Emissions from electricity plants and other factories contain a mix of pollutants, including that greenhouse darling CO2. There are certain technologies (I won’t go into here since just the names themselves – like “amine absorbers” and “cryogenic coolers” – already bored me, but if you are so inclined, you can read about them at MIT’s site for its sequestration program) that separate and capture the CO2, which can then be transported to sequestration sites in either land or sea. Thus, the CO2 never enters the atmosphere, locked away in a biological vault.

There’s also the natural way of doing things, such as optimizing forests’ ability to capture CO2 (pdf).

And then we have Stanford professor Brent Constantz, who is using a process similar to how coral reefs form to make “green cement,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As coral uses magnesium and calcium in seawater to create carbonates, Constantz’s method uses CO2 and seawater to make the carbonate that comprises cement. (However, coral reefs themselves aren’t a means of CO2 sequestration, Dr. James Cervino of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute warns, because they in fact release carbon dioxide.)

The creation of typical cement creates tons of CO2, so Constantz would set up his cement shops next to traditional factories and use their emissions to create his eco-cement, which sequesters the CO2.

What do you think? Is capturing and sequestering viable? Is it even enough? Let us know by commenting below.

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Kyle Scribner is a born-again nature freak who also happens to be an editor at Captivate Network.

You know that exhilarated feeling you got as a kid when you would go down to the pond to catch frogs? It never really goes away; it’s just dormant. So I'm here to slap a mix of facts and borderline balanced opinion on you, to poke a stick at the nature freak slumbering in us all and maybe get him to once again come out and play.

And we might even learn a few things about the environment as we go.


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About Green Among Gray

How do you commune with nature or become part of the solution to the environmental crisis when you're trapped in a cement-and-glass, gas-guzzling, power-sucking, emissions-spewing metropolis 8 hours (or more) a day? How do you go 'green' in a world of gray?

Actually, there are plenty of ways, and Green Among Gray aims to show high-rise inhabitants how they can help ease the load on the environment and on their minds by exploring natural oases, conservation tips, and other ways to stay green while working in the concrete-built world of the big city.

Look for short updates on the latest environmental news along with periodic longer features on specific places and events that allow big-city workers to get close to nature.