Our Plan: The Cities
What Cities Face
City dwellers have historically been seen as having a larger carbon footprint given the wide use of energy-intensive lights, gas guzzling cars constantly stuck in traffic, and the implementation of roads and buildings where carbon sequestering plant life once dwelt. However, cities per capita actually have a smaller carbon footprint on average than rural dwellers. This is in large part due to alternative transportation and space efficiency among other reasons. Ot is also an advantage that will continue to grow as cities plan for sustainability more and more. This is great news because in Alberta over 80% of the population lives in cities and that number continues to rise.
The major cities in Alberta have taken a proactive approach to addressing climate change as outlined earlier in this plan and for good reason too. Cities are hotter than rural communities which poses additional challenges as heat levels continue to soar. The concentration of people, vehicles, and buildings that makes cities so efficient also contributes to them being hotter and thus the onus to shift towards sustainability is all the more critical.
The plans outlined by Alberta’s major cities in tandem with continued progress on environmental legislation will go a long way in making cities much more sustainable and even carbon neutral.
Municipalities across Canada derive their power from the Province as defined by the Municipal Government Act as well as the Big City Charter (for Calgary and Edmonton). This makes it a unique form of government as some of the policies that would make sense for both Edmonton and a small Alberta town can only be done in Edmonton given its heightened powers. Because of this we have split up cities and towns into two distinct sections.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has proved to be a brilliant tool for encouraging efficiency from builders and signalling to consumers the environmental impact of buildings. Taking this concept even further, we suggest that cities in Alberta introduce minimum building efficiency standards. These would only be applied to new buildings and therefore old buildings would be grandfathered in.
Furthermore, while less easily transferable to public policy, alternative ways of making buildings need to be made available to builders and buyers alike. Providing prospective home builders with information about the cooling effect (not to mention appeal) of garden rooftops, an idea that works very well for apartment buildings, as well as passive solar heating wherein a house is designed to take advantage of solar heat in colder months and to be protected in summer months are just some examples. Even painting rooftops white is a good way to reflect heat waves and lower the effect of “city heat”.
Vertical farming (known formally as aeroponics or hydroponics) is a revolutionary concept for feeding an ever growing world with less and less space. The science behind it is remarkably fascinating but to keep matters simple, aeroponics is essentially where plants are kept suspended in rows and are “misted” with all of the nutrients and minerals they need to thrive and grow. Hydroponics follow a similar logic but are kept in water versus air. They receive controlled amounts of light and are kept in highly controlled environments to provide for optimal growing conditions. It increases efficiency by a factor of 4-6 per crop. Not to mention the greatly increased space efficiency, water efficiency (70% less used for hydroponics and 70% less used for aeroponics than hydroponics), and the sharp reduction in “food miles”. Vertical farming should be subsidized in order to help the nascent growth in the industry. It will likely be a widespread form of farming eventually, but for now requires some nurturing. This can also come in the form of research funding for vertical farming as well as direct grants for vertical farming firms. Vertical farms also protect against agricultural shortages as they are not subjected to the elements as traditional farms are. This is also ideal for keeping food supply ample year round.
Following the logic of vertical farming and its efficiency. Urban farming is another great way to maximize space in Alberta’s cities while providing food resources. Urban farming also has the added benefit of strengthening communities by supporting community farming projects and helping small businesses. Urban farms provide carbon sequestration as well (especially if they plants perennials and not annuals), another important factor for our cities. Encouraging land use for urban farms and providing credits and city support in any way will certainly help their development.
Alternative transportation likes busing, subways, biking, and walking are not only more affordable but they are considerably better for the environment. Mass transit is an obvious efficiency boon as it takes people who would otherwise be travelling in cars and puts them into one vehicle which eases congestion and emissions. Of course, until we start electrifying our buses on a larger scale biking and walking are still the most energy efficient ways to get around. Designing public spaces that are inviting for walking and biking will go a long way in making them more viable options. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that we try to make Alberta’s cities Amsterdam overnight. Our cities were built much differently and will likely never be as pedestrian oriented given their spread out nature. However, we can make the transportation hubs in our cities more friendly for alternative transportation by incorporating more bike lanes in sensible locations and by widening sidewalks, introducing some pedestrian only streets, and increasing street safety, whatever that may entail. There are many, many ideas around making cities more pedestrian-oriented. Incorporating a mix of these ideas will create Albertan cities where the question “should we bike or take the car?” isn’t as easy to answer.
We strongly encourage that cities in Alberta follow the early lead of cities like Edmonton and launch electric bus pilot projects and start to convert regular fleets into electric ones. Electric buses are more efficient than ever and operate silently and without emissions which only serve to enhance the experience of Edmontonians. This will require investment in buses as well as into accommodating infrastructure. Electric buses are obviously more efficient than buses with internal combustion engines and as Alberta phases out its coal plants and moves to cleaner forms of energy, electric buses will become an even better option than traditional gas powered buses.
Switching to the technology in transportation right now, there are a host of decisions that cities in Alberta will be making in the very near future that will have an impact on the environment. Ride hailing and ridesharing stand out among them. Edmonton was a leader in approving Uber, becoming Canada’s first major city to do so. Ride hailing firms like Uber or Lyft are more efficient than taxis because they do not require long drives to pick up customers but rather match drivers and riders based on geographical proximity. Furthermore, on the ridesharing side of things, firms like Pogo which provide cars for citizens to borrow for an express purpose get rid of the many, many hours most cars spend idly by and maximizes their usage. It saves money for would-be buyers and also weans people off of the North American notion that we need to own cars to survive. Intelligent legislation that encourages efficient transportation without over-encouraging car usage (defeating all efficiency gains) will be key.
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are quickly coming down the pipeline and by the estimates of some experts will be on the road as soon as 2020! While AVs aren’t likely to take over the majority share of vehicles until the 2030s at least, their impending presence and its widespread implications means they must be dealt with soon. AVs bring with them a raft of economic and ethical concerns that will require considerate deliberation before they be brought online. However, once these problems have been considered and solutions implemented, AVs will become a revolutionary market force. Some optimistic analysts predict they will be used widely by 2030 or earlier. While I don’t share as rosy a view, I do see their potential for convenience and GHG reductions. AVs are more efficient due to better awareness when it comes to travelling speed, braking, and optimal routes. However, if AVs revive car ownership by allowing commuters to be hands-free all of the progress they have wrought will soon be undone. This is why AV policy must be carefully calibrated. We at The Green Medium can’t pretend to have the answers to these dilemmas but we are paying close attention to the debate and suggest you do as well.
Now, the exciting world of waste management. In Alberta, as in all other parts of Canada and the developed world, we produce a disproportionately high share of waste. This contributes to our outsized carbon footprint. While reduce and reuse come first in the “3 Rs” when it comes to cities, it is recycling that plays the starring role. Cities control their waste management systems and thereby have a large role to play in containing carbon emissions and reducing landfill size. Furthermore, with ingenious sites like Enerkem we can start to actually get something back from our waste (specifically organic waste). Methane, a product of metabolizing organic waste only stays in the atmosphere for roughly 12 years but is 34 times more potent than CO2 when it does. This means waste is a far bigger contributor to GHG emissions than most people realize. This is where Carbon Capture and Sequestration systems come into play alongside the biofuel systems used at Enerkem.
Density, Density, Density
Density, the thing that taps into economies of scale and makes cities so efficient is needed to a much greater degree in Alberta’s sprawling cities. Densification policies like infill wherein owners are allowed to put more houses in the same amount of space (to simplify, lot-splitting) is one of the best ways amongst a myriad to increase density. Rezoning, or changing what kinds of homes can be built in a given space, also allows for more density. This can mean reclassifying some areas of a neighbourhood from single detached homes to duplexes or even condominiums. It is the subtle, technical, unsexy policy changes like these that will increase density long-term. Now, of course, there will by the usual NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns to counter but so long as we make sure our voices are heard and elect City Councillors with the integrity to stand up for sustainability, we will succeed.
Well thought out urban planning will be the most important factor in creating sustainable cities. This discipline encapsulates almost all of the ideas for building sustainable cities discussed earlier. So many of the solutions I have delved into tie together and involve urban planning at some level. As environmental and energy concerns become ever more important it is critical that our urban planning policies are well crafted. For my fellow youth reading this, if you have an interest in urban planning explore it is a potential university discipline, or even just take a few classes. When you vote, vote for candidates who know what they are talking about in the realm of urban planning and who stand for sustainable development.