This Term's Writer: Olamide Olaleye by The Green Medium

Hello cool people! My name is Olamide (uh-lah-me-day) and I’m excited to be joining the Green Medium project as this term’s writer… partly because I was told there would be cookies and also because it isn’t everyday you get to engage with, and learn from peers who are very committed to making tomorrow just a little bit brighter.

A little bit about myself, I spent my early life in Lagos, Nigeria, a city rich in history, culture and character. Home to over 17 million people, the diversity of thought, character and ambition in that wonderful conurbation remains the bedrock in which my passion for sustainability and effective policy implementation reside.

My interests surround systems that involve individuals interacting with their environment or with one another...the reason being the need to understand the uncertainty present within attempts at establishing guiding principles that account for actions occurring in said systems and their subsequent real world consequences. Such systems offer a keen observer the chance to identify and predict pathways of actions or behaviours that can lead to optimal outcomes. I believe this could hold true for anything ranging from public health programs to international trade or even sporting activities. That being said, this kind of knowledge, if coupled with strategic long term thinking and a deep understanding of where our priorities as a collective lie, can effect tangible and positive change wherever we go. 

TL;DR- we can hack real life.

Well, that's my mantra anyways...

I haven't really decided on where I'll be taking you yet but I’ll probably explore topics related to energy policy, supply chains, public infrastructure and the like… I don’t know how I’m going to fill my blog allotment but I guess that’s part of the fun! I study at the JR Shaw School of Business currently and I have a little bit of a background in economics, psychology and applied mathematics.

It’s a lovely setup Elizabeth and co. have here, I hope I can contribute something nice and help spur ideas for the future.

Cheers!

Part 3: Collective action through city living: VOTE! by The Green Medium

If your neighbour installed solar panels on their house, would you be more likely to?

I’ve discussed a lot of the physical, direct effects that cities have on the environment in this series, but it is worth noting that when people are concentrated in a dense urban area, there are also secondary environmental effects. Vox ran an intriguing story last year regarding the “contagion” of solar panels: where solar panels were installed, neighbouring properties were a lot more likely to do the same (1). If you follow the link in the references, you can see the contagion of solar panels over time as tracked by the largest solar installer in the U.S., SolarCity. In some cities, the percentage of installations as a result of referrals was as high as 69%! Why does this occur? When people live in close proximity, it gives them the ability to gain information, have conversations, and alter their actions as a results of others. There is also the “keeping up with the Joneses” effect if a household does not want to be left behind as the only house on the block to lack solar panels.

The green dots show the spread of solar panels due to referrals https://www.vox.com/2016/5/4/11590396/solar-power-contagious-maps

The green dots show the spread of solar panels due to referrals https://www.vox.com/2016/5/4/11590396/solar-power-contagious-maps

This is a powerful example of the positive effect that city living can have on environmental action: if a small population is outspoken about prioritizing the environment, they are more likely to influence others and inspire collective action. As Nathanael Lauster mentions in his book The Death and Life of the Single Family House, renowned urbanist Iris Marion Young once stated that “cities, rather than suburbs or villages, offered the best hope for sustaining a socially just and engaged vision of democracy” (2, p. 53).

Besides the indirect effect that cities have on engaging people to take action on sustainable living, they also offer an opportunity for urban citizens to have a strong voice on environmental issues through a political platform. I’ve recently heard a lot of people, particularly young people like myself, complaining that there is no reason to vote in a municipal election since city government doesn’t really affect any change. I must dispel that myth right now - cities, more than ever before, are the global centres of innovation, creation, and forward thinking (3). “Superstar Cities” such as New York, London, and Tokyo have an unprecedented amount of influence on global politics, especially on such crucial issues as climate change. This may sound a bit idealistic, but consider the C40 group of major world cities, which acts as an international body similar to the G20, with Mayors instead of heads of state making commitments to such issues as Carbon Emission Reduction (4). Through organizations like C40, cities have the power to act independently: for example, despite Donald Trump’s threats of the United States exiting the Paris Agreement, over 340 City Mayors have signed on to uphold it (5).

On a more local scale, a city’s government also decides what the transit systems, energy infrastructure, and development regulations will be for the urban area it represents. These decisions can have a resounding impact on the future of cities, and when taken cumulatively, the future of over half of the world’s population.

Edmonton City Council Public Hearing http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/drugs-injection-edmonton-debate-mccauley-addict-city-1.4094432

Edmonton City Council Public Hearing http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/drugs-injection-edmonton-debate-mccauley-addict-city-1.4094432

It may feel like your individual voice won’t make a difference, but if you want to make positive change on environmental issues, your city is the place to start. So as a final word of my two weeks of writing for the Green Medium, I’d like to make a call to action based on three points:

  1. Be engaged in the everyday going-on of your city and City Council. This may be as simple as glancing at the Metro newspaper, or as in depth as watching Council meetings on live stream (http://councilontheweb.edmonton.ca/).

  2. If there is an issue you feel strongly about, speak to your Councillor: email, phone, or register to speak at a Council meeting. They do listen to citizens, as I have seen first hand by attending the Transit Strategy discussions of the Urban Planning Committee.

  3. Vote. Your Councillors and Mayor will make impactful changes to city policy, which affect municipal, provincial, and national political outcomes. On October 16, be engaged with your municipal government and turn up to the polls. The youth vote is historically low but it’s time for that to change. For more information, https://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/edmonton-elections.aspx.

~ Kaelin

 

References

  1. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/4/11590396/solar-power-contagious-maps

  2. The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, by Nathanael Lauster (2016)

  3. The New Urban Crisis, by Richard Florida (2017)

  4. http://www.c40.org/

  5. https://www.livescience.com/59758-can-urban-america-save-paris-agreement.html

Part 2: The positive effects of density: a look into Montreal by The Green Medium

Recently I travelled to Montreal, and spent a lot of time walking through the city. There’s a particular style of houses that characterize Montreal’s residential downtown: long streets of duplex, row, and small apartment housing. This is what our mayor, Don Iveson, would call the “Missing Middle” (1), medium density housing that makes up the gap between single detached houses and skyscrapers. That’s not to say that Montreal is entirely made up of medium density residential zones - it has sprawling suburbs like most other North American cities. However, its downtown is a fantastic example of vibrant, affordable, and sustainable residential development.

Montreal street, photo by Kaelin Koufogiannakis

Montreal street, photo by Kaelin Koufogiannakis

As I discussed in the first part of this series, urban areas are major contributors to human-caused environmental damage when they are sprawling metropolises which use land and resources inefficiently, promote lengthy car-based transportation, and increase energy consumption. What if we increase the density people live in, decreasing the distance between residential and commercial areas, encouraging walking and transit use, and decreasing home prices? I had an eye-opening experience in Montreal, where I could walk a few blocks in any direction and have all the groceries, entertainment, and transit services I would need in daily life. Besides convenience, what does density do for a city’s environmental impact?

First of all, density increases the viability of alternate transportation options to cars. It makes transit services more efficient to provide (because of increased ridership per area) and reduces overall commute time, which promotes walking and cycling. Interestingly, according to the 2011 Canadian census, 29.2% of working Montrealers commute by transit, walking, or biking, while only 16.5% of working Edmontonians do so (2). As can be seen in the graph below, there is an inverse correlation between density and car use when comparing many major North American cities. Montreal is at the highest level of density and the lowest level of car usage among the cities studied.

By Laimot, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 1991, research by Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Global Studies & Geography, Hofstra University

By Laimot, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 1991, research by Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Global Studies & Geography, Hofstra University

Second, as outlined in William B. Meyer’s book The Environmental Advantages of Cities, there are economies of scale which occur when people live in close proximity to one another (3). This means that with increased density, the monetary/time/environmental costs of things like water treatment, waste disposal, and energy provision are reduced, since they can be done on a large scale over a smaller area.

Third, increased density reduces the amount of land needed to house the millions of people that may live in a city. When we live in close proximity to each other, or in houses stacked on top of one another, less natural land needs to be converted to support our living space. As Meyer states, “precisely by concentrating human impact, cities contain it” (3). The amount of wetlands, erosion-prone soils, and rare species’ habitat that is destroyed to house the human population is reduced when we live in dense, vibrant cities.

Next time, I’ll look into a final positive effect of density on the environment: the creation of tight-knit communities which affect positive change.

Have a great rest of the week, and enjoy the sun!

~ Kaelin
 

References

  1. https://doniveson.ca/2017/04/19/positive-progress-infill/

  2. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-012-x/99-012-x2011003_1-eng.pdf

  3. The Environmental Advantages of Cities: Countering Commonsense Antiurbanism, by William B. Meyer (2013)

Cities: Forces for environmental degradation, or positive environmental action? by The Green Medium

Do cities have a positive effect on the environment? Your automatic response is probably no - giant parcels of land covered with concrete, sewers emitting foul odours, and overflowing landfills might come to mind. However, the seven, soon to be eight, billion people on this planet need to live somewhere, so what if we took a more optimistic view of the situation? Can cities be the best way to house our growing population? Or are they just sprawling areas of environmental decay? Over the next two weeks I’ll have a series of articles highlighting different perspectives on this issue.

Part 1: The downside of expanding cities: SPRAWL

Every time I go to the Edmonton International Airport, it seems like the sea of houses has expanded farther and farther away from our core. Do you remember when Ikea was the end of the city? This can be summed up in one word: sprawl. 

In 2008, the global population living in cities passed that living in rural areas (1). Urban areas are expanding, and by 2030 they are predicted to cover just under 10% of the planet’s land surface, doubling the coverage today (1). Urbanization is impacted by a huge variety of factors, depending on what country, region, and socioeconomic circumstances people live in. These may include economic factors (such as looking for jobs), institutional factors (such as government-mandated urban expansion), or social factors (such as moving to join family members). For the purpose of relatability, I’ll focus on the North American context.

As Nathanael Lauster explores in his book The Death and Life of the Single Family House, the mid - late 20th Century of North American urbanization consisted largely of en masse development projects, and the “treatment of urban land as a market-governed commodity” (2). That is to say, instead of individual property owners buying a lot and building a house, as was done in pre-war cities, neighbourhoods were constructed as mass development projects. Developers pursued higher and higher profit margins, without consideration for the social or environmental implications of their actions.

Now I’m not against the expansion of cities, but I think the way that it is currently being done through single use, low density areas on the edges of cities is not sustainable. Here are just a few of the environmental effects of current development:

  1. Infrastructure inefficiency: large amounts of new infrastructure (pipes, roads, power grids) must be built to support sprawl.

  2. Lifestyle effects: per capita energy usage is significantly higher in suburban single detached properties than in core areas (3). This is partially due to the fact that when a large area is covered solely by residential properties, residents are forced to travel farther, often by car, to access services, shops, schools, and offices, increasing their carbon emissions.

  3. Loss of land: sensitive environmental land such as wetlands, and valuable agricultural land, such as prairie soils, must be converted to urban infrastructure.

So that’s the bleak picture of cities, ever expanding with inefficient and unsustainable suburbs. I’ll be in the woods this weekend on a camping trip, but if I survive the bears and mosquitoes I’ll be back next week to take a look at the positive side of urbanization: the impacts of density, sustainable alternatives to sprawl, and the benefits of collective action brought on by cities.

~Kaelin

References

  1. “Urban Planet: How Growing Cities Will Wreck the Environment Unless We Build Them Right”, by Bryan Walsh, http://science.time.com/2012/09/18/urban-planet-how-growing-cities-will-wreck-the-environment-unless-we-build-them-right/

  2. The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, by Nathanael Lauster (2016)

  3. “Suburban sprawl cancels carbon-footprint savings of dense urban cores”, by Robert Sanders, http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/01/06/suburban-sprawl-cancels-carbon-footprint-savings-of-dense-urban-cores/

Aerial photograph of South Edmonton by Ryan Jackson http://punkoryan.com/2011/09/18/aerial-photos-of-south-edmonton

Aerial photograph of South Edmonton by Ryan Jackson
http://punkoryan.com/2011/09/18/aerial-photos-of-south-edmonton