Tomorrow's Wall Street Journal OnLine Econoblog will offer some excitement. Before I turn to Tuscaloosa, I want to mention real estate prices at the Venice Canals in Los Angeles. Yesterday, we toured a $2 million home whose entire lot was 2,000 square feet. The home was 2300 square feet (it had 2 floors) and the lot was a mere 2,000. Why is the hedonic gradient demanding $1,000 per square foot of land? The Canals are Very pretty. . NO pollution, no noise, just blue canals and blue sky and cool air from the Ocean less than .5 miles away. The only disamenty is dog and duck poop. All of these dog walkers are out in force marching their wonderful creatures.
Here is my new favorite newspaper until the WSJ is published tomorrow.
Mar 17, 2008
Experts offer tips for conservation-minded cities
By Meredith Cummings
Community News Editor
TUSCALOOSA | Kermit the Frog was right. It’s not easy being green, though it can be sometimes.
For cities, being “green” — that is, reducing pollution and energy use — encompasses everything from protecting ecosystems to instituting recycling programs to getting people out of cars into public transportation, and that takes time and effort.
“Many groups will say you’re not moving fast enough,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. “And they don’t understand the progress that has been made in a short amount of time. Each one of our departments are charged with looking with ways they can be more environmentally friendly and putting those ideas in budget form. There are many things that will take time because there are definitely cost issues … but there are also things we can do pretty easy.”
Maddox is one of more than 650 mayors who have signed the 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Change Agreement, known as the “Cool Cities” agreement, which pledges to reduce emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. It was created in response to the U.S. government’s refusal to sign an international pollution-reduction accord.
Could Tuscaloosa be greener? Maddox thinks so. “I know there is much more to do,” he said.
The city of Hoover, for instance, was a finalist in a worldwide competition last year for excellence in environmental management in the category for cities with populations of 20,001 to 75,000. Among the city’s achievements were the creation of a facility that converts cooking oil into a fuel and the use of alternative fuels to run city vehicles and equipment.
The Tuscaloosa News asked some experts how Tuscaloosa could go green.
n Plant and protect urban trees. Ed Macie, regional urban forester with the U.S. Forest Service Southern region based in Atlanta warned of “urban deforestation” and said trees planted in medians for aesthetics are vital to the ecosystem, affecting everything from air quality to storm water runoff and energy conservation, even the prevalence of skin cancer.
“Even in a city the size of Tuscaloosa, you’re still getting strip malls and big-box stores,” Macie said. “As soon as there is a human footprint and we start putting in asphalt and concrete and changing drainage patterns, then you need to take action to mitigate that. Trees, by far, are one of the simplest things you can do to offset that.”
Macie said overdevelopment leads to “urban heat islands,” and trees of any size are better than no trees at all.
“When you talk about big box stores, the one thing that they do is put in parking lots that are large and flat and impact large numbers of trees. The single most important thing a city like Tuscaloosa can do is to have very strong standards to bring trees into parking lots. Parking lots are the ugliest things you can build in your communities. Plus, Tuscaloosa is a hot city. Who the heck wants to park their car in a parking lot with no shade?”
n Rethink development. “Start approving new housing without any parking and create and expand a car-free street into a car-free district,” said Richard Register, designer, builder and author in ecological city design and planning, who is organizing the Ecocity World Summit in April. “Go for higher density in the mode of very mixed-use with the sort of architectural features I talk about in my books: Rooftop and terraced gardens and cafes up there, bridges between clustered buildings.”
Register, president of Ecocity Builders in Oakland, Calif., pointed to other cities that work with their universities to create new spaces where there were previously none.
“The University of California at Berkeley has nine bridges linking 18 buildings, or in a couple of cases, the building is a bridge with a large open ground level passageway,” he said. “These features could be emphasized and buildings on campuses brought close enough together to create streetscapes in one part of town, and/or campus while opening up other areas for natural and agricultural activities.”
Move away from sprawl. Register’s group, Ecocity Builders, has a mapping system that helps identify “vitality centers” for more development where people can walk to conduct business.
“Write general plans for both city and campus that help the community find its centers and reinforce them with more development at higher density with what you might call fine-grained mixed-uses,” Register said.
An example of such a center is University Town Center on the Strip near the University of Alabama. Maddox said that while he supported the idea of building more, getting people on board isn’t easy.
Maddox said he would like to see more of that type of growth. “As someone downtown 14 hours a day, I would love to be able to walk to work,” he said, adding that after the city’s downtown revitalization plan is completed in 2010 or 2011, the “condominium market will grow for adults, and if gas is still expensive … it will almost start to have an economic benefit.”
Collaborate. Experts point to the need for a comprehensive “green” plan, both short- and long-term.
While neither the city nor UA have a comprehensive “green” plan for the short- and long-term, both have many facets of environmentally friendly growth in place. Experts suggested that the two work together to create such a plan for long-term growth so that environmentally important items don’t get overlooked.
At UA, Tony Johnson, director of logistics and support services, said he has added recycling areas on campus throughout the year, and the tons of recycled items reflect that. He recently parked a 16-foot moving truck by Coleman Coliseum to collect used cardboard — one of the most valuable recyclable items — from concessions at gymnastics meets and other sporting events. He has also instructed his employees to look for potentially profitable ways to recycle.
“They don’t mind going to a Dumpster and looking to see what’s in it. They don’t mind educating people,” Johnson said. “I think a lot more people are starting to realize that we’ve got to take care of our environment.”
Reduce emissions: In addition to signing the “Cool Cities” emissions-reduction agreement, Maddox has instituted testing on the city’s 700-plus vehicles.
David Willet, national press secretary for the Sierra Club, said the club’s guidelines encourage residents to prod city officials to do more, such as use more hybrids and other clean vehicles and provide better public transportation choices.
In Tuscaloosa, a city that uses half a million gallons of gas or diesel fuel a year, that would make an impact.
Maddox describes himself as a “moderate” environmentalist.
“I think sometimes there is a feeling that you have to be a, quote, tree hugger to protect and promote the environment,” he said. “The mainstream American wants to protect the environment. The things we are doing are a commonsense approach to protecting and enhancing Tuscaloosa’s environment. And many of the things that we do can have an economic benefit.”
n Control pollution. Matthew Kahn, a professor at the UCLA Institute of Environment and author of “Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment,” said cities like Tuscaloosa that have a strong manufacturing base, have a hard time controlling pollution. A lot of older cars on the road doesn’t help either.
Getting older pre-1975 [car] makes off the roads of Los Angeles has significantly reduced smog in this smog capital, despite the fact that Los Angeles’ population has grown and people are driving more than ever.”
If big cities can do it, so can smaller cities like Tuscaloosa, Kahn said.
”Electric utilities are major polluters,” he said. “Substituting electricity generation from dirty coal fired power plants to cleaner power plants that use renewables, such as wind and solar, would have a big impact.”
n Build sustainably. In Tuscaloosa, of the buildings being torn down to make room for new buildings — as well as green space — more than 70 percent of the materials are being recycled.
“One of the misconceptions with environmentally friendly initiatives is that it costs more,” Maddox said. “For the person that’s doing the demolition, there’s an economic incentive for them. There’s a profit to be made in recycling old materials. In many cases doing the environmentally right thing can actually be the economically wise decision as well.”
Tim Leopard, assistant vice president for planning design and construction at UA, said adaptability is the biggest challenge he has to avoid “a disposable building,” one that can’t be updated and must be torn down. The average UA building is over 60 years old, he said, but updates include higher-efficiency mechanical systems and recycled roofing.
The Sierra Club’s guidelines encourage residents to urge their cities to meet energy efficiency standards in appliance purchases and building and renovation projects and to use efficient combined heat and power facilities.
n Work with the system. Bureaucracy can frustrate conservation, as when a government requirement to accept the lowest bid gets in the way of the most environmentally friendly options for a project. Sometimes, like with the recent decision to use Alabama bricks in a UA new building, things work out.
Both Leopard and Maddox said they are beholden the taxpayers. “I’m out there to be a good steward of the university, taxpayer and student dollars,” Leopard said.
Kahn said something can always be done.
“In this age of concern about climate change, the first step should be a greenhouse gas emissions inventory,” Kahn said. “How much GHG is your campus creating? What are the key sources? Could electricity consumption and transportation be greened through public information campaigns or investments in more energy efficient products such as better lights and windows? Could any incentives, like free bus passes, be offered to green behavior?”
n Start early. The city’s best defense against bad environmental stewardship is children, which is why programs like ones promoting recycling in the schools are important.
Experts said children often help their parents learn green behavior. Maddox’s own 5-year-old, he said, recently reprimanded him for throwing an aluminum can into the trash.
Attracting other environmentalists should also be key, experts said.
“Cities that can attract more environmentalists to live there will also be greener,” Kahn said. “Environmentalists live a green life and this entails using public transit, recycling, using green space and demanding green space and voting for politicians who are willing to use the power of the state to green the area.”