Chicago has a vision to turn abandoned industrial railways into trails, as shown in these images from The Trust for Public Land / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

With New Parks Project, Chicago’s on the Right Track

With green roofs, urban forestry and other developments, the City of Chicago is a leader in several aspects of big-city sustainability.  One of its latest initiatives is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create 800 new parks, including a “sky park” to replace an abandoned industrial rail line. The figures above from The Trust for Public Land / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. show the city’s vision for a $92 million, 2.7 mile sky trail known as the “Blooomingdale Trail”.  Read more about it on Grist in a report from Chicago-based journalist Lori Rotenberk.  If your city is interested in similar projects, the non-profit organization “Rails to Trails Conservancy” is an excellent resource.

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 10.24.31 AM

Kickstarter: A tool for neighborhood funding?

Kickstarter is a tool  that allows people with a good idea or project to ask the internet world for funding. Can it be a source of funding for urban economic development — particularly sustainable development projects in neighborhoods?

Blogger Emily Badger reports that the City of Chicago is exploring the potential of Kickstarter with a website called Seed Chicago.  She writes:

As Kickstarter has grown over the past few years into the Internet’s go-to crowdfunding platform, it’s been tempting to try to apply the model to anything and everything in need of cash – to products, places, programs, public parks, potholes, you name it. But the concept has some clear limitations when implemented at the urban scale. Maybe a neighborhood could fund its own park and street improvements when City Hall can’t. But what about the communities that can’t afford to do that? Crowdfunding of community assets could potentially double down on inequality.

Check out Emily’s post here.



See her report here.


Where Americans Need Better Access to Food

Do the families in your area have sufficient access to food? Check out the Food Access Research Atlas published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Atlas’s interactive map of the United States shows where people live in “food deserts” — census tracts where a significant number of people live more than a mile away from a grocery store and rural tracts where people live more than 10 miles away. The map also shows where low-income families live 20 miles away from a supermarket and have no access to cars.

Among other uses, the map indicates where urban agriculture, farmers’ markets and other programs could best be located to ensure that all Americans have access to food.

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 12.31.01 PM

Perma Cities

Perma Cities is a free online game of permaculture and urban design. Its development team announced on March 4, 2013, that it plans to release a new open-source full-feature version in the summer of 2013.  It will include elements on resources, social welfare, transportation and buildings. Check it out. Its current website includes a sample of what’s to come.

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 7.17.09 AM

Future Bristol: Pictorial Voting

Future Bristol is a tool  to engage the public in what it means for the UK city of Bristol to be a “low carbon city”, enabling everyone to have their say and help shape the future that we want to see. The aims are to:

  • Engage the public and raise awareness about what a low carbon future means
  • Find out how people feel about two different potential futures, which features are desirable and which we want to avoid
  • Start a public discussion about how Bristol can become a low carbon city, and gather opinions, thoughts and new ideas


The project’s website offers two scenarios. They are the result of a 4 year research project undertaken by Dr Rose Bailey at the University of the West of England during the period 2008-2012, supported by Bristol City Council and The Centre for Sustainable Energy. This research aimed to explore how the Bristol city region might achieve its 2050 carbon reduction target of 80%, to help close the gap between ‘where we are now’ and ‘where we need to be’.

To do this, 140 local, influential people in businesses, charities, local councils, and universities were asked “what would you like Bristol to look like in 2050 if it was a low carbon city, and how do we make it happen?” Through a three-stage consultation process, the two different possible futures in the pictures were described, called ‘X’ and ‘Y’, and the steps that might achieve these scenarios were then mapped out by working backwards to the present.

Read more about the research here: “An exploration of the low carbon futures for the Bristol region”

To find out more about what Bristol city is doing to tackle climate change, head to the City Council’s climate change pages and the Green Capital Partnership’s site.


If you have any questions about the project please email

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 7.13.15 AM

i-Tree: Finding the Value of Urban Trees

i-Tree is a state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed software suite from the USDA Forest Service that provides urban forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools. The i-Tree Tools help communities of all sizes to strengthen their urban forest management and advocacy efforts by quantifying the structure of community trees and the environmental services that trees provide.

Since the initial release of the i-Tree Tools in August 2006, numerous communities, non-profit organizations, consultants, volunteers and students have used i-Tree to report on individual trees, parcels, neighborhoods, cities, and even entire states. By understanding the local, tangible ecosystem services that trees provide, i-Tree users can link urban forest management activities with environmental quality and community livability. Whether your interest is a single tree or an entire forest, i-Tree provides baseline data that you can use to demonstrate value and set priorities for more effective decision-making.

i-Tree Tools are in the public domain and are freely accessible.  Go to for more information and to download the software.

The next big thing in energy: Decentralization

By David Roberts

The smart energy analysts over at Pike Research — which puts out weekly reports I’d love to see but can never afford — recently published an interesting brief, and for once it’s free! It’s a high-level overview of “Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond” in the energy sector. Metatrends! (I really wanted to call this post “Metatrends Vs. Crocosaurus.” Here they are:

  1. Energy is becoming increasingly democratized.
  2. The role of government innovation funds is changing.
  3. Technologies are converging.
  4. The Southern African Power Pool is becoming the new BRIC.
  5. The role of utilities is changing.

Let’s put aside Nos. 2 and 4, fascinating as they are.

Faithful readers know that I’m obsessed with No. 1, thedemocratization of energy, which refers to more and more consumers also being producers, more and more municipalities taking charge of their own energy, and thus power over power (as it were) devolving into local hands.

But what strikes me is that 1, 3, and 5 are all aspects of the same trend — a METAmetatrend. (Take that, Pike!)

The metametatrend in energy is, for lack of a better term,decentralization. Systems that were once composed of a few big technologies and a few big companies — along with thousands or millions of passive consumers — are beginning to be replaced by recombinant swarms of small producers and consumers engaging in millions of peer-to-peer transactions with a wild and woolly mix of small-scale technologies.

It’s going to be awesome! We have lived through a revolution like this before: the information revolution. I’m old enough to remember a time when it was vastly easier to consume information than to produce and distribute it. Even the internet started as what amounted to a large library, from which individuals downloaded info. But the spread of cheap processing power and bandwidth now means that anyone can produce information — a song, a video, an app, a funny cat picture — and get it in front of millions of people, instantly and virtually effortlessly, for dirt cheap.

The same kind of thing is just beginning to happen in energy. Pike is wise on this:

As [the decentralization of the internet] took over a decade and is ongoing, the process of energy democratization will also take a long time. We will not start to see large impacts on the energy market for some time yet. At present, the democratization of energy is in a phase that is the equivalent of [the internet in] 1996 … Yet, we are cognizant of the potential of this trend in a way that users and developers of the Internet in 2006 were simply not.

This is key: We are very, very early in the process. We’ve only seen hints of what’s to come. It is far too early to know how far it might go or what changes it might bring.

“Small is beautiful” types are somewhat out of fashion these days, as it remains unclear how today’s small-scale distributed technologies could fully cover the energy needs of millions of new developing-world consumers. I’m sure in the early days of cell phones and the internet it wasn’t clear how (or whether) they’d take over the world either. But we’re starting to see adoption curves trending steeply upward, and not just for intermittent sources like solar either. Take residential combined heat and power (resCHP), whereby homeowners or businesses harness the waste heat from their furnaces to generate small amounts of electricity.

Here’s what Pike projects based on current market conditions:




Pike Research: resCHP, 2010-2022
Pike Research




Imagine if the curve bends upward at the same rate for 10 years after that, and 10 years after that. Serious stuff. In a crucial caveat, however, Pike notes that if certain policies and complementary technologies are put in place, “this could be seen as a very pessimistic forecast.”

In other words, this piece of the new energy puzzle will develop faster than projected if other pieces develop along with it. That’s what makes this stuff so hard to predict: There are lots of small pieces, interacting in complicated and sometimes nonlinear ways.

Which brings us to metatrend No. 2, technologies converging. What Pike means by this is that energy technologies (and sources) have traditionally developed independently of each other, but they are starting to combine into “integrated solutions,” pulled along by market demand.

So, for instance, where once a building owner might have bought a furnace from one company, building upgrades from another, and a backup diesel generator from another, she might now be searching instead for a provider of power services. A service provider is not selling particular technologies, it is selling heating, cooling, and/or emergency backup, which it might provide through any of a number of combinations of renewable energy, energy storage, and efficiency upgrades. Service providers compete to provide the best energy services, not the best tech or the cheapest per-kWh energy.

This has always been the promise of small, modular energy technologies, that they would enable robust markets for energy services. It’s a welcome trend because it democratizes energy markets, weakening monopolies and opening up opportunities for clever entrepreneurs who can combine existing technologies and services in new ways. (It helps if policymakers do their part as well.) Whereas one kWh is as good as any other kWh, energy services can be specialized and custom-crafted for niche markets. Service providers have an increasingly diverse array of renewable energy generators, fuel cells, energy storage, and intelligent automization solutions to choose from. The toolbox is getting bigger.

The effects of this market convergence will also be difficult to forecast, for the same reason: It involves dozens of technology, regulatory, and business practices evolving in concert, with unpredictable, emergent network and system effects.

And so we come to metatrend No. 5, the changing role of power utilities:

Electric utilities tend to create natural monopolies because of economies of scale.

However, these monopolies are eroding, and new technologies and business models are poised to take advantage. When the emergence of independent power producers (IPPs), energy service companies (ESCOs), and cooperative energy companies is combined with the growth in feed-in-tariffs for individuals, utilities are (in some cases) transformed from being the central producer, distributor, and controller to being the purchaser and aggregator of power.

That got a little jargony, but the point is, utilities used to be in the business of generating power at big power plants and then sending it to consumers over one-way lines for a set price. That basic “hub and spoke” model is rapidly becoming obsolete. There are more and more small-scale power generators and power storage nodes on the network, sending power back and forth in massively parallel fashion. Utilities cannot hope to centrally manage all those transactions. They will be forced, whether they like it or not, to move to what’s known among nerds as a more “transactive” model, in which their main job is to manage power markets, to dynamically price (value) power so that the market can react accordingly. Smart-grid analyst Jesse Berst explains:

Transactive energy distributes decision-making throughout the system. Devices can be programmed with the “price” they will respond to at different times and conditions. Then they can respond on their own when they see a value signal that matches. When done properly, distributed values incorporate prices and constraints across the system to achieve reliable results. No need for centralized intervention.

Another way of looking at this is, utilities are going to have to get used to power markets behaving more like actual markets. Conservatives ought to love it.

One fascinating aspect of the utility picture is that experimentation and evolution are happening fastest in the developing world, where electric systems are often being built from the ground up.

It is likely that electric utilities in North America and Europe will have much to learn from the utilities that mature in the developing world. In regions currently lacking a central grid, utilities will come to represent flexible and robust machines, instead of the slow-moving giants of the developed world. Ultimately, the system that grants individuals and companies the most stable and least expensive source of electricity will lead the market. This model will likely come from a fresh perspective on how to generate and distribute the electricity that is currently evolving in the developing world.

This is kind of a fancy way of saying that behemoth utilities in the U.S. and Europe are likely to be impediments to change for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, add these three metatrends together — energy being democratized, small-scale technologies converging into new solutions, and utilities being dragged into the 21st century — and you get the metametatrend of decentralization. Energy, power, and control are leaking out of their centralized repositories and spreading out into more hands.

I expect this to have salutary effects on both the pace of innovation and the strength of democracy. It’s a real ray of hope in an energy world that can sometimes seem hidebound and dismal.


(Cross-Posted from Grist)

Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 5.59.13 AM

Everything You Want to Know About Climate Communications

Want to know how to talk about climate change in your community? How to make the moral case for climate action? What the experts say about effective climate communications?

The Resource Innovation Group offers an excellent collection of resources based on listening to the needs of “climate practitioners”.  TRIG’s describes its mission this way:

A bridge between research and action. For years, we at TRIG’s Social Capital Project have been hearing from climate practitioners that this is what they need. Those in government and nonprofits trying to communicate to the public about climate change say that they often lack the time and resources to digest the latest research and incorporate it into their campaigns. Similarly, researchers wish to know more about how their findings are playing out in the field. Everyone wants to know what they need to know, and to have it available at their fingertips.

Climate Access is that bridge.

In the fall of 2011, The Resource Innovation Group’s Social Capital Project, in partnership with the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society and theStonehouse Standing Circle, launched Climate Access to provide climate communications thinkers and doers with access to the necessary tools, knowledge and people. This is all in the name of increasing public support for climate policies and engagement in programs that help people, organizations and communities change their energy and other carbon-intensive behaviors.

TRIG’s website provides links to a Resource Hub, a compilation of communications and behavior-change campaigns, a blog, roundtables and a frequently updated collection of “tips and tools”.

Check it out.

Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 11.51.16 AM

What are Your State’s Energy Programs?

States and localities are America’s traditional laboratories for public policy and that’s true for the nation’s transition to clean energy technologies. States have a wide variety of policies and programs that promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy tracks these policies on a data base called DSIRE (Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency). The data show that:

22 states offer grants for renewable energy systems;

24 states offer tax creditsPropertyTax_map for renewable energy; and

43 states have policies that allow homeowners to connect their renewable electric systems to the utility grid.

The data show what an important role states are playing in America’s move to a clean energy economy.




SW US Solar map

What’s Your Potential for Renewable Energy?

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO., offers maps that show the potential for solar power, wind power, geothermal and other renewable energy systems in different areas of the United States.

If you’re exploring the potential for renewable energy in your part of the country, check them out.

You’ll find NREL’s solar resource maps here, and its maps of the best areas for concentrating solar power here.

Other resource maps address biomass potential, geothermal energy, and wind power.

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 11.05.57 AM

Now You Can Be a Film-Maker

Would you like to become a film-maker? If so, check out Aggreg8, which calls itself a “totally new format for creating a community-based short film”. The project is inviting everyone to submit one-minute videos, the best of which will be used to make a film about the health of our oceans. The deadline for submissions is the end of March 2013.

Go to Aggreg8′s intro video for instructions.

Here is more complete information from sponsors:

Aggreg8 is a totally new format for creating a community based short film. Instead of one person making the movie, the whole community can add segments to the film, in this case, one minute of the movie will be added each week. The theme for Aggreg8′s global debut in Hong Kong is “My Ocean…….” So, one person will “start” the movie by creating the first minute, and each week, people will compete to make the next minute of the movie. The community will then vote to see which minute “joins the film.” By the end of 6 weeks, the community will have created a 6-minute film called “My Ocean…..” This will then be shown at the HK-SF Ocean Film Festival Prizes for the winner each week include a helicopter flight over Hong Kong from Helishots HK, and a free diving certification class from Splash, so you can see the ocean from below and above the water! 

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 3.29.02 PM

Make Your City More Disaster Resilient

If you are looking for ways to make your city more resilient — in other words, better able to withstand and recover from disasters — a growing collection of  handbooks is available, offering detailed advice. Here are two:

* The Center for Climate Strategies offers an Adaptation Guidebook for communities to improve their resilience to the impacts of global climate change.

* The United Nations has published a handbook  for local government leaders, with a “generic framework” for risk reduction. The handbook, written for an international audience and available in several languages, includes lists of best practices and tools. Here is a sample:

The Ten Essentials for Making Cities Resilient

1. Put in place organisation and coordination to understand and reduce disaster risk, based on participation of citizen groups and civil society. Build local alliances. Ensure that all departments understand their role in disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
2. Assign a budget for disaster risk reduction and provide incentives for homeowners, low income families, communities, businesses and the public sector to invest in reducing the risks they face.
3. Maintain up to date data on hazards and vulnerabilities. Prepare risk assessments and use these as the basis for urban development plans and decisions, ensure that this information and the plans for your city’s resilience are readily available to the public and fully discussed with them.
4. Invest in and maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, such as flood drainage, adjusted where needed to cope with climate change.
5. Assess the safety of all schools and health facilities and upgrade these as necessary.
6. Apply and enforce realistic, risk compliant building regulations and land use planning principles. Identify safe land for low income citizens and upgrade informal settlements, wherever feasible.
7. Ensure that education programmes and training on disaster risk reduction are in place in schools and local communities.
8. Protect ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards to which your city may be vulnerable. Adapt to climate change by building on good risk reduction practices.
9. Install early warning systems and emergency management capacities in your city and hold regular public preparedness drills.
10. After any disaster, ensure that the needs of the affected population are placed at the centre of reconstruction, with support for them and their community organisations to design and help implement responses, including rebuilding homes and livelihoods.

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 2.30.00 PM

Where Are the Big Greenhouse Gas Emitters?

Where are the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in your state or near your city? An interactive map from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows where they were in 2011, the first year that large sources were required to report their emission levels to EPA.

The map shows big emitters by sector, type of gas and geographic location. EPA says power plants remain the largest stationary source of greenhouse gases, accounting for about one-third of the nation’s total. Petroleum and natural gas systems were second and refineries third.

Click here to access the map.

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 10.38.30 AM

Smart, Healthy & Equitable Communities

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a report that offers “tools” on on how communities can apply smart growth strategies that:

  • Clean up and invest in existing neighborhoods;
  • Provide affordable housing and transportation;
  • Improve access to jobs, parks and stores.

The report was developed by EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and its Office of Sustainable Communities.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 11.00.06 AM

Play the Disaster Game

As we are learning more and more often around the world, disasters are no fun and preventing them is no game. But the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction is using a game to teach people how to create safer environments by assessing disaster risks and limiting damage. The UN advises that you’ll get advice while you play this game, but some of it will be good, and some will be bad. Launch the game here.

walkability photos

Learning from Snapshots

What can we learn about sustainability from our own snapshots? Seattle attorney Charles Wolfe has gained insights about urban walkability from his photos. See his post on The Atlantic Cities.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.40.30 PM

Building Energy Tools from the Department of Energy

If you design or build buildings, you’ll find a very full toolbox at the U.S. Department of Energy. It has posted a wide variety of software and calculators to help evaluate the life-cycle potential of different energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The tools help designers develop energy strategies in new or existing buildings. Some are available for free, others for a fee.

And if you’ve developed a tool along these lines, DOE invites you to submit it.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.33.59 PM

Human Development Indicators in Our Big Cities

Nearly 80 million Americans live in our biggest 10 cities. Measure of America has developed this interactive tool to show how the cities compare — and how different racial groups compare — on education, health and income.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.22.29 PM

Common Good Forecaster

We all know that education is a good thing, but its benefits go far beyond better jobs and higher pay. The United Way and the American Human Development Project have developed the Common Good Forecaster, a tool that allows you to see the benefits that education can have for your county and state. You’ll also find it here.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 1.53.38 PM

The Well-O-Meter

How well are you? The answer depends on many factors: age, exercise, habits, etc. To get a general sense of your health, check out the Well-O-Meter developed by Measure of America. It asks you 24 simple questions and takes only a few minutes.