Falling apart houses, patches of unused land, and generally neglected residential spaces can be found throughout American cities. These urban blights not only look ugly but cause societal problems as well since it’s a neglected space that nefarious activities can easily take place. Cities have found success in converting vacant lots into community garden spaces to address these concerns; however, in some cities there are too many vacant lots and not enough demand for more gardening space. Philadelphia found that just greening vacant lots by planting some sod and trees they’ve been able to improve neighbourhoods and help the city in other ways like local temperature cooling and water management.
The PHS LandCare program recognizes that while vacant lots in legacy cities greatly outnumber the organizations or individuals willing or able to turn them into gardens, vineyards, or parks, allowing those lots to remain derelict condemns their surroundings to continued blight. To address this, PHS developed an inexpensive, low-maintenance approach to vacant lots that involves only basic sodding, tree planting, and erection of simple split-rail fencing on the lot. Today, PHS, with support from the city of Philadelphia, has installed and maintains LandCare treatments on more than 7,000 vacant lots across the city.
Facing this problem, cities realized that their vacant land inventories offered an alternative. Instead of using the traditional method of channeling stormwater runoff into the sewers, the water could be channeled toward green spaces, where it could gradually filter through the ground and refill the aquifers under the city. Such a strategy would be far better environmentally and would also reduce the need for massive holding tanks and allow cities to comply with EPA requirements at lower cost. Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to turn the idea into a reality by developing a detailed plan and a 25-year implementation strategy, which was approved by the EPA in 2012.
The lush, dense, quality of rainforests instantly make one think of how beautiful and efficient they are at making fresh air (and thus suck up carbon). As a result of the obvious wonderfulness of rainforests we’ve done a lot of work to try to protect rainforests from destruction. We need to the same in our cities. In London, researchers used LIDAR technology to better understand how much carbon urban trees soak up. Trees in urban centres love to absorb that carbon! The proximity to carbon sources like automobiles make urban trees really effective at air-cleaning so much that they are comparable to rainforests.
Thank your local tree for making your air cleaner!
The UCL team used publicly available airborne lidar data collected by the UK Environment Agency, in conjunction with their ground measurements, to estimate biomass of all the 85,000 trees across Camden. These lidar measurements help to quantify the differences between urban and non-urban trees, allowing scientists to come up with a formula predicting the difference in size-to-mass ratio, and thus measuring the mass of urban trees more accurately.
The findings show that Camden has a median carbon density of around 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare (t/ha), rising to 380 t/ha in spots such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery – that’s equivalent to values seen in temperate and tropical rainforests. Camden also has a high carbon density, compared to other cities in Europe and elsewhere. For example, Barcelona and Berlin have mean carbon densities of 7.3 and 11.2 t/ha respectively; major cities in the US have values of 7.7 t/ha and in China the equivalent figure is 21.3 t/ha.
Oslo: The Journey to Car-free from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.
Oslo’s transition from car-focussed to people focussed transportation is well underway and is causing ripples around the world. Other cities are noting how the scandinavian city works with locals to get them out of their cars and onto the streets. Last year we saw how they started to ban cars downtown and it benefited everyone. Oslo is now full tilt into supporting bicycles by providing infrastructure to encourage cycling in hopes to get people out of cars and fully packed trams. If Oslo can support year-round cycling then there’s no reason other northern cities can’t do the same.
In addition to population pressures, environmental concerns are also driving the city’s newfound commitment to bikes. Norway may be famous for its pristine fjords and forests—it doesn’t take long for Aas and I ride to hit Oslo’s thick pine-tree edge as we ride along the water—but air quality in its cities can be remarkably poor, thanks to winter temperature inversions. According to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, air pollution causes 185 premature deaths in Oslo alone each year. Transport accounts for more than 60 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing more car trips with bikes would help clean that up, and in other cities too. This is why Norway is endeavoring nationally to reduce car use and fossil fuel consumption, with huge incentives for electric vehicles and a nearly $1 billion investment in bike highways around the country.
We’ve all heard about how downtowns have failed in smaller cities while big box stores like Walmart succeed; what we don’t really talk about is why and what’s the solution. First we need to establish that suburban big box stores are horrible for people and the economy (which is easy); then we need to address those core issues. The folks over at Strong Towns do exactly that and recently published a great piece exploring how the costs of running a big box operation from the perspective of a city is high. The solution then should be easy: reinforce local economies for success.
And we should also recognize where our wealth really comes from. It comes from our downtown and our core neighborhoods (those within walking distance of the downtown). It certainly doesn’t come from people driving through those places. It doesn’t come from people commuting in. It doesn’t come from tourists or developers or the potential of land development out on the edge. Our wealth — the wealth built slowly over generations — is slowly seeping away in our downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Put these things together — the need to build resilience and the historic wealth that still remains in our core — and the strategy becomes too obvious to ignore: We need to piece our economic ecosystem back together. We shouldn’t spend a penny on the mall — we should be willing to let it fall apart and collapse if the market can’t support it. But we should support those investments in the core that are already paying our bills.
And here’s the really sweet thing: the downtown doesn’t need millions of dollars of investment. There are some trying to force that down the city’s throat, but we don’t need it. It’s already the most successful area in the region. We just need to start reconnecting things.
Let’s be honest, people are bad at conveying their ideas on what streets can look like. Thankfully there’s an open source project designed to help people remix their local streets and share it with others. The web based design tool Streetmix provides a simple drag and drop interface to rethink your local roads, you don’t need an urban planning degree to figure out what should go where. Give it a try, generate some images, and go talk to your community about making your neighbourhood more people-friendly from the street up.
Why does Streetmix exist?
When city planners seek input from community meetings from the public on streetscape improvements, one common engagement activity is to create paper cut-outs depicting different street components (like bike lanes, sidewalks, trees, and so on) and allow attendees to reassemble them into their desired streetscape. Planners and city officials can then take this feedback to determine a course of action for future plans. By creating an web-based version of this activity, planners can reach a wider audience than they could at meetings alone, and allow community members to share and remix each other’s creations.
The goal is to promote two-way communication between planners and the public, as well. Streetmix intends to communicate not just feedback to planners but also information and consequences of actions to the users that are creating streets. Kind of like SimCity did with its in-game advisors!
Streetmix can be used as a tool to promote and engage citizens around streetscape and placemaking issues, such as Complete Streets or the Project for Public Spaces’ Rightsizing Streets Guide.
Check out Streetmix.