Considerate, defensive cycling and taking responsibility

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Photo by Diego Martinez on Unsplash

If you’re a cyclist in London, it was hard to miss the news recently of cyclist Charlie Alliston and his conviction for hitting and killing a pedestrian. The news was a hot topic amongst cyclist circles, though mainly because of the disproportionate charge and media attention compared to when motorists hit pedestrians and cyclists. Motorists are indeed worse than cyclists, both in the frequency with which they cause crashes and bodily harm, but also the scale of damage they cause when they do it. You can find many articles and discussions about this, including this post that compares this case with coverage of vehicle crashes.

But this case caught my attention not only for that reason. In the follow up to the news, I didn’t really see much rational discussion of the responsibility that cyclists have to be safe both for themselves and others. I say rational, because in contrast to the many cyclists pointing to the damage motorists cause, there are also plenty of people who used this case to chastise cyclists. Just like all motorists don’t speak for one motorist who causes an accident, it doesn’t make sense to ask all cyclists to speak for the behaviour of one. But, I was struck by the words of defense both by Charlie Alliston himself, but also others talking about the case, particularly in this article.

As both a cyclist and a pedestrian, I can understand perspectives on both sides. As a cyclist, it’s incredibly frustrating when you have the right of way and pedestrians dart into the street in front of you not paying attention. As a pedestrian, it’s incredibly frustrating to think you have a clear path across a road and then for a speeding cyclist (or motorist!) to suddenly come charging at you forcing you to run more quickly across or to jump back. In both cases, heated words often come from both sides.

A few days ago, I was on my regular cycle commute on a smaller residential side street. I was not cycling that quickly and took note of a woman walking on the footpath talking on her mobile phone. It quickly became clear to me that she was about to step into the road without looking for cars or cyclists. She stepped down just as I was about to approach and I immediately hit my brakes, started ringing my bell like crazy and shouting “watch out!” Startled, she turned her head to see that she had just stepped into traffic (there were other cyclists around me), apologised and quickly jumped back on the footpath. What if there had been car traffic there? That street gets a lot of lorries, as it’s next to a large construction site.

The number of times a day I see pedestrians doing incredibly stupid things like that astounds me. I’ve seen parents do it with children in tow, ‘busy’ people rushing to catch a light that turned red long before, lots of people distracted by mobile phones, people darting out from behind parked cars and people who (understandably) don’t have patience for light signals that, favouring vehicular traffic, force pedestrians to wait long cycles. In this particular case, there was no chance of collision because I had been going slowly and had alerted her before she had gone too far into the street. No matter how in the wrong she was, though, if I had hit her, she would have been more hurt than I would have.

As a cyclist (and when I’m a motorist), I understand that I have a responsibility as the larger and faster of the modes of transport to act in a way that minimises risk for harm. I have the potential to hurt someone, so I should take responsibility to be careful. When I was learning to drive as a teenager, we were taught defensive driving, which is to assume that even if you do all the right things, others might not, so you have to be ready to accommodate their actions and stay safe.

I am more cautious around pedestrians and other cyclists than many. It means my commute takes a tiny bit longer than someone else’s. But, for me, getting to work isn’t a race and I’d much rather not piss off others on their commute (or worse, hurt them) than get to work five minutes more quickly. Too many cyclists I see cycling around me don’t seem to take much care for others around them, whether they be other cyclists or pedestrians. Whether they see the commute as a race or they just have other things on their mind, considerateness isn’t common from cyclists in London.

As part of the defence argued in the article, it says that the cyclist was going 18 mph, which they think is reasonable (because they’re comparing to a car) and they claim that going any slower would be more dangerous. I have a speedometer on my cycle. My speed on my commute ranges between 10 mph to 17 mph and I usually aim to keep it between 12-15mph. I am absolutely not in more danger because I go those slower speeds. In fact, I am faster than many other cyclists and see many near-collisions by the faster cyclists who weave in and out of tight quarters around cars and other slower cyclists. Many cyclists cannot go that quickly, whether that’s due to physical ability, physical build, type of bicycle, type of clothing, age, desire not to sweat (this isn’t a gym or a race, after all), etc. The incident in question happened near Old Street. I cycle there every fortnight or so. It is not an area where you cycle quickly. There are so many pedestrians on narrow footpaths, so many construction sites with barriers sticking out and a lot of vehicle traffic.

You should not have to rely on the wits and speed of others around you, let alone those using slower and smaller modes of transport, to ensure everyone is safe. Let’s not even get into the fact that this guy was riding a fixie without a front break. No one follows all the rules. Pedestrians cross against lights and jaywalk. Cyclists cycle through red lights. Motorists speed. People make mistakes, things move quickly, situations are not always clear cut. But, as the bigger entity, cyclists (just as with motorists) should take responsibility for their own actions and not try to blame the victim. If you choose to cycle quickly, without appropriate brakes in an area that has a lot of pedestrians, then you take responsibility if something goes wrong.

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What lessons can Citizen Jane share for today’s battle for the city?

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Image via Dogwoof.com

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at the ICA with fellow members of Urbanistas London.

The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.

The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.

As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.

What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.

Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.

By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.

Engagement is a two-way street: Strategies for utilities to help people help the environment

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A version of this post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Last month, I presented at the International Water Association’s Efficient Water 2017 conference. The quality of the content and people at the conference was incredibly high, better than many other events I’ve attended recently. A large part of this is due to the fact that the water sector is finally moving beyond the engineering details of pipe, pumps and membranes and into the reality of the role of people in sustainable water management. There were conversations on policy and regulations, development, behaviour change, customer engagement, demographics, incentives and market mechanisms, retrofits, strategic planning, university collaboration, home visits, apps for data sharing, certification, taxes, real estate transactions—and that only covers the sessions I was able to attend!

The positive and dynamic energy of the conference is tainted in my memory, however, by a statement one presenter made. I won’t call him or his company out specifically (though, he was white, male and works for a water utility), but what he said was a jarring reminder of how many in the industry still act, even if thinking among industry leaders has matured. He said (and I paraphrase), “I hate the word engagement. I don’t care about engagement. I just care about education.”

That may sound innocuous enough on the surface—semantics, even. But it does illustrate a fundamental problem with the way professionals (and this isn’t specific to water) all too often show disdain, for customers, the public and people in general.

So, what’s the difference between education and engagement?

Education in this context flows in one direction. It’s the all-knowing utility/city/property owner teaching the customer/public/resident about facts. Often, the theory is that X (climate change, water scarcity, waste, etc.) would be better if only people were educated about it. That’s not entirely incorrect, but it ignores the fact that people aren’t stupid and there are many reasons for why people make the decisions they make, a lack of information is only one part of it.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do, and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

Engagement, on the other hand, is two-way. It acknowledges that people aren’t passive, that they don’t necessarily respond to being told what to do as though they are children and they often offer lessons for professionals to learn, too.

The beauty of this conference was that it showed with many examples the multi-dimensional nature of, and multiple avenues for, engagement and why it matters.

Many of the sessions were about tools to help people make their own decisions, going beyond simply educating them about the problem or what to do. One panel brought together representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense, Australia’s Smart Approved Watermark, the EU’s Water Label and the UK’s Waterwise Checkmark to discuss water efficiency labelling programmes and how they can all do more to improve uptake and consumer choice. Northumbrian and Thames Water described their home visit programmes H2ecoEvery Drop Counts and Smarter Home Visits, which involve in-person, in-home water use assessments and tailored solutions for water efficiency. While the programmes already provide good outcomes, most are continuing to do more to improve the way they engage. A few speakers presented on DAIAD, an open source technology system that measures your shower water use and provides real time information to your phone to help adjust your water use.

The DAIAD technology and the rise of smart meters has shown that data can be collected on more than just water quality or utility-scale water usage, it is also being collected at the micro-scale in ways that can teach the industry more about behaviours and demographics.

An example of this came from multiple speakers who talked about how improved meters and data collection have allowed utilities and researchers to analyse water use patterns and develop new ways of classifying users. These more detailed ways of segregating users reflect how people act and respond differently due to demographics, type of dwelling, location and even what time they get up in the morning. Having this information helps utilities and water advocates understand the different actions, attitudes and approach of different types of people and how that impacts on water use (and beyond). They can then better tailor engagement to help different water users.

Too often, professionals make assumptions about other people’s behaviours based on their own, which in industries that are not particularly diverse, mean the assumptions are often wrong. With better quality engagement, we can understand water users better for the benefit of the industry, the user and the environment. Success happens when we work with people to make changes, not when we summarily tell them to make a change.

Working: Still toiling away after 50 years

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Episode 6 of the recently released Master of None has been getting a lot of attention. Rightfully so. Rather than follow the main characters of the show, the episode peeks into the lives of three incidental characters that cross paths with the people who would normally be the centre of a show. We see snippets of background story for a fancy apartment building doorman, a corner store cashier and a taxi driver (also all with added dimensions of race, nationality and disability). These are insights into jobs and the people who do those jobs that are rarely depicted in popular culture, and certainly not with the level of nuance, balance and humanity found here.

This episode reminded me of the excellent work of Studs Turkel. I had only read previously his Division Street: America, which still reads as a wonderful slice of life, good and bad, rich and poor, and everything in between, in Chicago. But this month, the Southwark Playhouse, an unexpectedly and wonderfully brilliant theatre in my neighborhood (get an astonishingly cheap pay as you go subscription now!), are doing a run of performances of Studs Turkel’s Working.

Ahead of seeing the show, I decided it was finally time to read the book. I happen to own two copies of it. One copy I bought long ago and dragged with me from Chicago to New York back to Chicago and now to London. The other copy is the graphic novel version adapted by Harvey Pekar given to me as a birthday present by my sister last year.

About two-thirds through the book, it is proving to be ever relevant even 45 years later. While many of the jobs that are discussed no longer exist (e.g. switchboard operator, elevator starter), there are many more that do still exist or can be directly translated to more modern jobs. No matter the job, however, the underlying themes remain the same. Terkel summarizes them well in his introduction. Here are a few particularly relevant quotations.

“A farm equipment worker in Moline complains that the careless worker who turns out more that is bad is better regarded than the careful craftsman who turns out less that is good.” – Terkel from the Introduction

That one reminds me of some of the stuff multiple managers of mine have said, wanting lesser quality output from me in order to churn out more and more quickly. This is as much true for modern office workers as it was then for factory workers.

“It is perhaps this fear of no longer being needed in a world of needless things that most clearly spells out the unnaturalness, the surreality of much that is called work today.” – Terkel from the Introduction

Definitely still true today, if not even more so. Between the planned obsolescence of electronics and appliances that makers use to force us to continually replace objects every couple years to the quick and cheaply made things you might buy at Walmart/Asda or fast fashion, we’re even more so now making needless things.

“Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful–not just the source of a buck–you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs.” – Terkel quoting Ralph Helstein, president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the Introduction

We’re still having the same conversation today when we talk about gender equality in the working world, debate the length of a working day/week and float the idea of a universal basic income.

“Even as a writer as astringent and seemingly unromantic as Orwell never quite lost the habit of seeing working classes through the cozy fug of an Edwardian music hall […] Simultaneously, as our ‘Alf,’ called ‘Archie’ or ‘Joe,’ is romanticized, he is caricatured.” – Terkel in the Introduction

It’s a much longer chunk of text, but here Terkel is criticizing (rather scathingly) the way journalists use the “cabdriver-philosopher” or any number of other working class stereotypes to try to romanticize their “plight” in an effort to “relate” to them, which ultimately is a perverse way of using them in the same way to make a point. I could not help but think of all the tedious “I’m traveling to the white working class heartland to understand Trump/Brexit” articles that have come out in the last year (I’m not going to even link to any…).

The stories of Barbara Herrick, a script supervisor/producer at an LA advertising agency, and of Renault Robinson, a Chicago police officer and founder of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, have struck me as incredibly insightful for their time and depressingly relevant still today in their discussions of gender in white collar environments and race in policing, respectively. I found myself underlining so much of Robinson’s interview as entirely unchanged today, such as:

“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. […] Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree. […] That’s why more young kids are being killed by police than ever before. They won’t accept dehumanizing treatment. – Renault Robinson in the Watching chapter

Interestingly, NPR and Radio Diaries dug up some of Turkel’s original interview recordings and paired them up with present day interviews of some of the people from the book. Robinson was one of those they revisited and it’s no surprise to hear the futility in his current day interview at how little has changed in 50 years.

It’s fitting I chose now to read the book and watch this play, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of work lately in my own life and more broadly.

  • How we value and don’t value certain skill sets and professions (see: the complete undervaluing of care and teaching jobs).
  • How privatization has changed the way issues that were once public benefit issues are now prioritized and valued.
  • How drives to efficiency (simultaneously innocuous and insidious) change the quality of work and quantity of output.
  • How the startup/entrepreneur culture is currently being highly revered, yet how the outputs from many of those types of companies are very far from positively beneficial to society. Plus how the ability to even start or work in those types of companies is closed off to anyone but the most privileged. Plus how its trendiness has caused governments and other funding sources to frame things through similar lenses and buzzwords, forcing everyone else to follow suit.
  • How late capitalism and neoliberalism are so ingrained in us, we don’t see how to get our messages across without translating to capital (see: some strands of feminist thinking that focus only on translating success in career for certain types of women, or the rise of natural capital, payment for ecosystem services or other ways of translating the benefits of nature into monetary terms).
  • How it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize living in a city like London, New York, San Francisco or many others without a full-time, high-paying, white-collar job, plus help from others to pay for housing.
  • How over and over again, when I see successful women, they have had to start their own businesses or go out on their own in order to get the recognition and pride of work they are looking for.
  • How freelancing and contract working and the “gig economy” is often pitched as flexible and a form of “freedom”, but in reality for many allows “clients” to take advantage of contractors (lower pay, no time off, no job security, control over people employed under compromised circumstances, no protections in case of health impacts, no provision of benefits like health care and pension) and forces freelancers to always be “hustling” for new work.
  • How people are encouraged to find work in something they are passionate in, without recognizing what it means to monetize one’s passions. Miya Tokumitsu does an excellent critique of the “Do What You Love” mantra that now pervades how we are told to think about work in an article in Jacobin.

No answers at the moment (I mean, other than moving away from neoliberalism, of course).

On the macro scale, another recent article by Miya Tokumitsu in the New Republic covers some proposed solutions out there. The article references a couple books (one of which is The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries by Kathi Weeks) and from those suggests a few options–elimination of work (via a universal basic income and stronger welfare state) and the idea of full employment (via reduced working hours and a stronger welfare state…similar to experiments happening in Sweden). Of course, either solution requires creating and living in a society that values individuals over corporations and has a centralized government with enough of a backbone to support the rights of the many.

The article suggests that neoliberalism was a revolution of capitalist thought that overtook the conventional Keynesian thought of the previous day, and so why can’t postcapitalist ideas of work be a similar revolution. Then we’re back to the fundamentals of capitalism (it’s the same conclusion Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything comes to in relation to climate change–we can finally battle it, if we completely change the way our capitalist society functions). But, those with the money have the power and this neoliberalism revolution that happened was entirely to support the enhancement of capital for those at the top, so what really would it take to either change their minds (and care about the individuals above corporations) or to take away their power?

On a much smaller, micro scale, an article in the NYTimes a few years ago about research done by consultants and academics about how to improve employee engagement and performance highlights the four reasons why people hate their jobs. Relevant to both those stories in Terkel’s Working and to present day, it points out that:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

In the meantime, I personally am trying to work a 4-day work week. It’s been eye-opening to see how much difference in my life it has made to be able to reclaim a day a week to be able to do what I want, whether fun, volunteering/unpaid work, self-care, travel, professional development or other interests. I recognize that I am incredibly privileged to be able to take the reduction in pay, have the security of work and be in a country where alternative ways of working are considered (though, who knows whether that will continue once the UK leaves the EU). But the point is that I shouldn’t be lucky to have this, it should be open more broadly.

P.S. The Centre of London has devoted a whole issue of its London Essays to Work and what it looks like in a modern day city like London. I have yet to read through them all, but yet another a good discussion of the issue.

Attempting to live sustainably every day

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In light of this year’s Earth Day (which was Saturday) and the UN’s Year of Living Sustainably, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on some of what we can do in our daily personal lives to contribute to a more sustainable planet. The UN has been publicizing their Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World, which, despite it’s patronizing title, is actually a handy list of everyday things people can be doing to contribute to environmentalism.

These things alone will not, of course, “save the world,” but it’s a start to changing behaviors that put together do have a major impact, plus it’s certainly more than many people are already doing. In my household, both Aaron and I work in environment and sustainability for a living, and while our work attempts to help address environmental issues at much larger scales, what we do at home matters, too.

The UN guide lists three different “levels” (gamification is a great tool for behavior change!) and I think we roughly meet most of what constitutes Level 3, but always more to improve! Below is a list of the activities we try to do roughly organized by category (though all the categories overlap…such is the nature of sustainability). Eventually, I or Aaron will probably write more detailed posts about some of the individual items, but for now, here’s the summary. Thoughts on way we can improve or questions about any of the items are welcome!

Water efficiency and integrated water management

Considering we both work in water, we must actually practice what we preach!

  • Low flow shower head (…sometimes I find it just a bit too low flow) and timed showers
  • Use a Samsung EcoBubble washing machine (which won a Waterwise Checkmark) and consistently use the EcoSaver setting, as well as only running a full load. People claim that it doesn’t wash as well, but we’ve never noticed a difference, only that it takes longer.
  • Use the EcoSaver setting on our dishwasher, avoid pre-rinsing and only run full loads of dishes
  • Though, as renters, we cannot disconnect our downpipes and connect them to water butts (rain barrels, for US readers), Aaron has created a makeshift water butt out of a dustbin. While it doesn’t provide any surface water management benefits, we are able to water the garden from the water collected, which reduces the amount of potable water used.
  • Our house is in an area at low risk of river flooding, but medium risk for surface water/stormwater flooding. The Environment Agency has updated their website, so it’s quite simple to check the flood risk of your address, too.
  • Aerator in our kitchen tap to reduce flow
  • Turn off taps when not actively using them (does anyone even really do this anymore??)
  • Occasionally in the summer we put the watering can in the shower to collect excess water to use in the garden. One time, a snail hitched a ride and ended up crawling across our bathroom floor!
  • Room for improvement: Unfortunately, we do not have water meters recording our potable water consumption, and because we are renters, we cannot get them installed. Not only do we not have any information on our actual water consumption, but we’re likely paying for more than we consume.
  • Room for improvement: Because we have an electric shower heater, we can’t install additional devices on our shower head that may change flow, such as the Amphiro device that records water flow and sends it to your phone (part of the DAIAD project Aaron’s working on).

Energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction

  • We both cycle as our main mode of transportation and commuting, either using our own cycles or the Santander cycle hire scheme. Our secondary mode of transportation is public transportation. We no longer own a car. Part of choosing where we live was to make sure we were close enough to central London to be able to walk or cycle most everywhere, including be within the Santander cycle hire scheme network (just barely! Our Doddington Grove station is the most southeastern station in our area). And if cycling in Central London sounds too terrifying to do (which it certainly did to me at first), I’d highly recommend cycle training, which most local councils offer for free. We took private courses through Southwark with Cycle Confident and it was game changing for my ability to cycle regularly.
  • We switched to Good Energy as our supplier, which provides 100% renewable energy for our electricity and carbon neutral gas that’s 6% biomethane for our heating. We haven’t noticed a price increase, though others have…we don’t have high energy use, though, so any increase may not be that impactful. If you’re interested in switching, let me know and I can share a code for £25 off.
  • Our biggest carbon offense is undoubtedly air travel. Considering we both live on separate continents from our families (mine in the US and Asia, his in Australia), it’s a necessary evil. However, we have from 2017 started carbon offsetting all our flights and intend to slowly offset our past flights over time. Additionally, when traveling within the UK or Europe, we try to travel by rail when possible.
  • We use an Owl energy display device to track our energy consumption. As is often the case with these types of interventions, we got the most benefit out of it at the beginning when it allowed us to notice which devices used the most energy and start changing our use patterns.
  • We have an instantaneous electric water heater in our shower to heat the shower water. I’m not sure I’m convinced of whether this is more energy efficient or not, but at the very least, since our electricity is 100% renewable, it’s using that instead of gas.
  • We’ve switched almost all of our lights to LED.
  • Air dry all our laundry (as an American, it’s taken me awhile to get used to this one…and I still miss a nice dryer for the towels)
  • Most of our windows are single-pane except for the double-pane in our conservatory. As renters, we can’t change the windows, but we’ve put in the plastic film that acts as secondary glazing to keep heat in and cold out in the winter.
  • We keep our boiler on a timer so that it’s not blasting heat unnecessarily all day.
  • The washer and dishwasher mentioned above are both energy efficient.
  • We always turn off lights, tv and appliances when leaving a room (though one of us is better at this than the other…). We’re lucky to have a good amount of daylight into our house, so we can often avoid turning off lights completely when there’s daylight in the summer.
  • Don’t pre-heat the oven or try to use the toaster oven if it’s not a large item.

Material resource efficiency and waste reduction

  • My second largest carbon offense is the amount of meat I eat. It’s not realistic for me to become a full-blown vegetarian any time soon, but I try to reduce my meat consumption, especially red meat, and when I do eat meat or seafood, I try to find sustainable/organic/free-range/etc. options. Still an area that for me needs a lot of improvement.
  • Record the expiration dates of all our perishable food on the fridge door to help use eat things on time and reduce waste. And we freeze things when we won’t be able to eat them before they expire.
  • Take full advantage of our local council (Southwark) regular recycling and food and garden waste recycling schemes. We end up putting very little (2-3 grocery bags a fortnight) into the waste bin.
  • In the garden, we use sustainable no-peat sourced compost
  • Use refillable water bottles and reusable coffee/tea mugs as much as possible
  • Always carry reusable bags in my purse and very rarely take new bags from shops
  • When we do have to get plastic bags from shopping, we reuse them as bin liners in the kitchen waste bin. Similarly, I use empty plastic packaging from toilet rolls as the bin liner for the bathroom bin.
  • Donate unwanted stuff to local charities or take to the recycling centre (though, it’s more difficult to do the latter now that we don’t have a car).
  • Use rechargeable batteries when possible
  • Reduce paper statements and cancel junk mail
  • When restaurants give out more napkins than I need, I always save the extras and we use them as our napkins at home. I’m kind of like an old lady packing these things away, but we’ve never had to buy napkins at home…and why waste??
  • We use hand towels to dry hands in the kitchen and got these reusable cloth towels to wipe up counters rather than using paper towels. When we do need to use paper towels, we only use half a sheet. For awhile, we bought those ones that were perforated into half sheets, but it was a waste. We now buy recycled paper towels and are perfectly capable of tearing them in half without perforations.
  • Room for improvement: UK groceries use a lot of packaging on things, so we end up with more packaging waste than I’d like (even if it’s recyclable, still better to avoid completely). They annoyingly wrap vegetables in plastic, so I would like to be better about buying from markets more often.

Ethical shopping

As much as it’s great to make all your own things and opt out of the consumer cycle, in a modern society, that’s not realistic. When we have to buy things, we do try to do so in ethical ways.

  • Try to buy local and independent as much as possible, including local markets and shops (like the Oval Farmers’ Market and East Street Market in our neighbourhood and shops on Walworth Road). We buy our honey from local beekeepers (BeeUrban or Walworth Garden) and our garden plants from Walworth Garden.
  • Research the sustainability practices of major retailers we use and shop with those that are better (for example, we don’t shop at Asda/Walmart and avoid Amazon)
  • Buy the organic and fair trade options as much as possible.
  • All of our cleaning products are natural or organic products. We’ve tried to make our own in the past, but realistically, we buy natural products. A large part of this is to reduce harmful chemicals in our house and in the environment.
  • We try to buy (or get through freecycle) used furniture. When we do get new furniture, we look for sustainably sourced materials.
  • We use cat litter made from wood pellets, which we can flush down the toilet. Not only does it mean less waste to landfill, but it’s a lot easier to keep clean.
  • Room for improvement: We’ve done research on ethical brands of cat food, but unfortunately, the cats are picky and didn’t like the top brand, so we stick with Hill’s Science Plan/Diet for now.
  • Room for improvement: At the moment, I use my work phone as my personal phone. This is less wasteful in that I don’t have an extra unnecessary smart phone around, but I’ve also been considering getting my own personal phone. I’ve been looking into ethical phones, such as the Fairphone.
  • Room for improvement: It hasn’t been a need yet, but if ever we need occasional use of tools or appliances, I’d like to look into using a Library of Things
  • Room for improvement: Google isn’t the best company out there, but it’s nearly impossible not to use their products. I’d like to look into more ethical email server companies in the future…but it’ll be a hurdle to move past Gmail!

Civic engagement

  • Share articles and information with others related to environmental policies
  • Volunteer with local community groups
  • Read local planning applications and formally comment through the consultation process on environment and sustainability issues
  • Vote! (alas, I cannot vote in the UK, but I still vote in the US and Aaron votes in the UK)

Moving

I find this to be one of the most excruciating life events, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. One part of it that can be really bad is the amount of waste that occurs. On our last move from West to South London, we took steps to try to reduce the impact of our move:

  • Used EcoMovers (certified ISO 14001, carbon efficient vehicles, etc.)
  • Used boxes from local shops, reused from previous moves and found more dumpster diving
  • Kept our existing things rather than throwing out and buying new (meant more effort packing and more things to move, but much less waste)

Living proof that civic engagement should start when we’re young

I was searching in my email inbox for an email from the Greater London Authority and had typed “GLA” in the search box. As I dug further and further back through my emails, I came across a bunch of emails about a different GLA in my life–the Great Lakes Aquarium.

If you don’t know my history, I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. I’ve always attributed my environmentalism to my childhood there. Furthermore, my love of water comes not only from having lived most of my childhood on the shores of the best lake in the world (I mean, it’s even in its name…Lake Superior), but also my time involved with the Lake Superior Center and its later incarnate, the Great Lakes Aquarium.

I attribute my progressive political-mindedness to Duluth, too. It mainly came from my parents (my dad in particular), but Duluth is quite a progressive political city, as well. My earliest memories of political involvement were in Duluth.

In the Fourth Grade, my school, St. Michael’s School, was growing and trying to move into a larger school building. Another school only three blocks away had moved out if its school building and the city was trying to decide what to do with the building. I remember writing to my local city councillor (I still remember the notebook, a legal pad in a cover from a drug company that my dad had given me…and writing drafts of it out on the playground across from the old school building) to argue that the neighborhood didn’t need more housing (as one of the options for the building was to convert it into condos), but that my school needed the building more. In hindsight, I’m not sure how sound my argument was from a planning perspective, but I remember feeling pride when my school eventually moved into that building.

But the early memory of mine that prompted me to write this post was a mix of both political activism and environmentalism. It was Eighth Grade at Holy Rosary and we had done field trips and class projects on limnology in collaboration with the Lake Superior Center, an environmental learning lab that if I recall was funded through University of Minnesota Extension. The Center was trying to get the funding for a new building, which would host new classrooms and laboratories for their education work, but also be a revenue-generating public aquarium. There was debate in the city council about how to fund it and the staff asked my teacher if she could speak in front of city council in support. Somehow (I don’t know, did I volunteer?), I and a few classmates ended up going and making speeches in front of city council on their behalf, as well. Eventually, the city did help fund the construction of the Great Lakes Aquarium and I ended up spending three years volunteering and another year on staff there through high school, thus launching my career in water. (We’ll ignore the bit about the construction cost overruns and financial problems at the aquarium a few years later).

So, one of the GLA emails I came across was a 2014 exchange between me and my Eighth Grade science teacher. I had come across a local magazine, The Woman Today, on a trip to Duluth that had a cover story featuring her work as a science teacher (sadly, they no longer have online archives back to 2011 or I’d link the article). It was a great article and she was one of a string of very influential teachers who helped shape who I am today, so I emailed her to tell her that. Her response back was absolutely lovely.

I often tell people one of my most favorite teacher moments is when [A.S.] asked me to speak at the city council meeting that was deciding if they would support the funding of the Great Lakes Aquarium. I asked [him] if I could bring students because they really have the best voice in the matter. […] I had you each have a written speech. I still have a copy of those speeches in a binder, see a photo of yours […] attached.  After we talked we knew we may have persuaded the city council, made a difference. I remember it being so awesome when we were driving away and we felt so good about what we said..  We were all so excited. If I were to say… That moment is first as my best teacher moment. Second was when one of my students was called and invited [sic] to meet President Obama and present at the first White House Science Fair was. So I very much remember you. [names removed]

Not only did she remember me (I wasn’t sure she would…it had been 17 years and she’d taught so many students in that time), but she said that those city council speeches were one of her best teaching memories. AND, she still had a copy of my speech!

So, here you have it, an early example of my love for political engagement, environment and urbanism from about 20 years ago.

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As you can see, I was skeptical of money and lack of government investment even then.

Answers to your questions about designing green and blue roofs

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A version of this post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Green, blue, brown roofs…whatever colour, we’ve been getting questions lately about the best ways to use roofs for sustainability. Whether it’s due to a desire to capture surface water, increase biodiversity, provide habitat, reduce the urban heat island effect, produce renewable energy, improve air quality, provide amenities to building occupants or all of the above, there’s an increased awareness about the possibilities of sustainable roof infrastructure, but for many, more information is needed to quell the concerns and take the leap.

First, let’s define what some of the various roof options are. There are many names used for similar concepts, but there are key differences that impact the cost, effectiveness and benefits of the roof options.

Green, brown and blue. Green roof tend to be the umbrella term for all different kinds of vegetated roofs, whether coloured green or not. Brown roofs don’t necessary look brown (though sometimes they start out that way), they’re a vegetated approach designed with a primary purpose to enhance biodiversity. Similarly, a blue roof doesn’t look blue, but it’s specifically designed to store water, generally for surface water control purposes. Blue roofs are not themselves vegetated, but are often paired with green roofs on top. Green roofs can also achieve a degree of water storage in the soil without the formal infrastructure of a blue roof.

Extensive and intensive. These are the key types of vegetated roofs, though many roofs fall in the spectrum between the two. Extensive refers to roofs that have a shallower substrate with less soil, have lower-lying vegetation, are often in inaccessible places and have low irrigation and low maintenance requirements once established. They tend to be lightweight and less expensive. Intensive roofs are more like gardens with a variety of vegetation, soil depths and landscape features. They are often accessible amenities, require more maintenance and irrigation, are heavier and more expensive.

Other names. Living roofs are another name for vegetated green roofs. Biodiverse roofs are another, arguably more attractive and specific, name for brown roofs, which are focused on biodiversity and often include log piles & varied substrates to promote habitats. Biosolar roofs are those where the placement of vegetation and solar panels are optimised to take advantage of cross benefits like improved panel efficiency due to cooling from planting and more varied habitats for biodiversity.

Green and blue roofs are widely understood to be beneficial; the challenge now comes in the implementation. We find that developers, architects and engineers know they should incorporate green roofs, but don’t know the various types, constraints, or details to consider. Incorrect assumptions and treating them as afterthoughts can lead to quick dismissal of options or incorrect design and failed systems.

While not a comprehensive list (more resources below), here are some key things to consider when deciding to incorporate a sustainable roof, including answers to some of your questions:

Establishment. Vegetated roofs, even low-maintenance extensive roofs, need to be maintained and irrigated properly for the first two growing seasons after installation. Many roofs fail because a maintenance regime is not properly implemented, especially in the period between installation and project handover. Irrigation systems for the establishment period need proper consideration at design stage. It may be as simple as a tap to connect a hosepipe or, for difficult to access roofs an integrated drip irrigation system.

Irrigation & maintenance. Appropriately designed extensive roofs may not need long-term irrigation, though they can’t be forgotten entirely, particularly during dry periods. Intensive roofs need to be regularly irrigated and maintained like a garden. Blue roofs should be inspected regularly to ensure outlets are not blocked and there is no damage to the waterproofing. It is essential to provide safe access to roofs for regular maintenance and inspection.

Loading. It is a common misconception that green and blue roofs cause such an increase in loading that the cost of strengthening the structure to support it makes them unfeasible. Before dismissing a sustainable roof option for this reason, it’s important to understand the range of options available. Green roofs can come with varying depths of substrate and quantities of soil and blue roofs can hold different depths of water, so they can be designed to fit the structure, whether new or retrofitted. Some manufacturers suggest weight can be offset, for example blue roofs can eliminate the need for screed.

Waterproofing. This is a key concern, especially for blue roofs, but it comes down to good detailing and installation. Many suppliers provide warranties and installation supervision. If installed correctly, there shouldn’t be any more concern than for a typical roof.

Biodiversity. This means more than incorporating a diverse set of plants, it also means different soil depths, textures, habitats (like log piles and insect hotels) and coverings. The early input of an ecologist can ensure the roof responds to local wildlife opportunities.

Thermal performance. Green and blue roofs can be installed on both warm and inverted roofs. The systems are generally separate from the thermal envelope, so are excluded from thermal calculations. They do still provide cooling benefits to the surrounding area, roof mounted solar panels and top floor units.

Location. Orientation of the roof, availability of sunlight, amount of wind and visibility will influence the design. Green roofs can be used on shallow pitched roofs and retrofitted onto existing buildings.

Soil. The type, depth, source, richness and particle size matters. Different plants require different depths and richness of soil. Variation in depth and type fosters better invertebrate habitat. Using recycled construction waste can be good for circular economy, but leaching from the reused materials must be considered for water and soil quality, and concrete rubble should be avoided.

Water storage. The usefulness of green roof substrates for water storage depends on depth and saturation, which is calculated based on season and size of storm. In addition, less compacted soil and presence of voids can help store more surface water. Blue roofs can be placed under all green roof types, as well as under decking and podiums. For blue roofs, the drainage benefit comes from the depth and design of the outlet. Smart technology is being developed to allow blue roofs to discharge in line with upcoming weather patterns. Green and blue roofs mainly reduce discharge rates, though green roofs can have limited volume reduction benefits from evapotranspiration.

Water quality & reuse. In green roofs, rainwater is filtered as it goes through the soil, providing water quality benefit for discharge or reuse. Green and blue roofs can also be linked to rainwater harvesting systems, though for green roofs, the residual colour makes the reused water suitable mainly for external use.

 

Additional resources for more detail:

Tips for sustainability on site beyond targets and trackers

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This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

It’s the last sprint on site before the finish line. Everyone is working around the clock to finish a project. The last thing the team wants to hear is that there are sustainability targets not met that no one was paying attention to until someone highlighted them as part of the contract close-out requirements. Unfortunately, it’s a situation we’ve seen often.

It’s not enough to set targets at the beginning of a project, forget them once planning is approved, then expect them to magically be achieved by the end of the project. What does it really mean to say “achieve an air permeability of 3m3/h.m2” or “ensure materials are responsibly and ethically sourced”?

Ensuring sustainability relies on early and meaningful engagement with everyone involved. That means translating sustainability in way that helps everyone be successful:

Regulators & planners: set clear requirements and understand constraints, conflicts and implications for design

Client: set clear briefs that incorporate sustainability and work with the team to reconcile conflicting priorities

Architects & engineers: ensure designs, details and specifications meet desired outcomes by understanding implications of design decisions

Procurement: ensure tender packages include details of sustainability, that the supply chain understands what they need to deliver and prices it accordingly, not losing things during value engineering

Contractor/subcontractor: include best practices within method statements, but also engage with workforce on site and provide tools, infrastructure and training to help them succeed

Honest engagement from all sides can help not only improve outcomes on site, but advance industry knowledge by identifying what does and doesn’t work. Addressing problems head on collaboratively leads to more actual sustainable outcomes, rather than closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best or ignoring contradictions and negative data to report publicly only the positive bits.

We’ve seen many projects do things well, but many also lose money and time by doing things poorly. Here are a few tips:

  • Enable everyone to take responsibility for sustainability. Spreading the knowledge helps if staff move onto different projects, prevents long-term items from being easily forgotten and increases accountability. Plus, not all projects have the budget to have a dedicated sustainability person, so it must become part of everyone’s job.
  • Don’t hide behind procedures and documentation. It’s very easy to issue a requirements tracker or bury lines in contracts, but we all know no one reads them. The result is either death by procedure or playing the blame game after the fact. Of course, documentation is needed for clarity and liability, but more can be done to help ensure the message is communicated and that proper investment in people and resources is made
  • Educate on best practice and make knowledge sharing a two-way process (not only training operatives to improve practices on site, but also sustainability specialists learning from site operatives to understand what does and doesn’t work)
  • Understand there’s more to sustainability than compliance. The lack of resources within regulatory agencies and local authorities can mean less oversight, but it also means less assistance in the case of doing something new or difficult. Plus, there is still a duty to do what is required, and the team can be held accountable if something goes wrong later.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we see teams ‘get it’. When architects, engineers and contractors understand issues they weren’t even aware of a few months before, when they ask the right questions and challenge their own designs, the outcome is not only a better project, but better designers. They look at their other projects in a different light and increase the capacity of their own organisations, which can be a differentiator when bidding for new work.

If project teams are thinking about compliance-led sustainability requirements, the sustainability specialist can do more. Rather than chasing a BREEAM credit, the sustainability specialist can spend more time pushing the boundaries and seeking innovative solutions for complex projects.

That’s the area where KLH like to be, seeking new ideas with our industry contacts while capacity is built within the organisation of project team to meet regulatory requirements. We are seeing more and more clients requesting this type of support which is great news for the construction industry, as well as those of us that thrive on implementing new ideas!

Translating climate solutions for everyday lives

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Big news in the climate change world recently! With the EU and India signing on last week, 74 parties to the Paris Agreement (and counting) representing an estimated 58.82% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the agreement. This means it will now officially enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

While the agreement isn’t perfect, its speedy ratification is great news. The momentum and united support behind it and the symbolism of global cooperation are powerful and motivating, particularly in the face of a threat as complex and massive as climate change. But for the majority of us, the memory of COP21 is likely long gone, replaced with Brexit, elections and our day-to-day concerns.

For those who live in places like the UK or the middle of the US, where climate threats are just as real, but much subtler than hurricanes, sea level rise and starving polar bears, the need to translate global goals on climate to local action may not seem as critical.

As built environment professionals, not those in front-line communities facing climate-triggered displacement, at international negotiation tables or out protesting against new mines, what can we be doing to truly “address climate change?”

KLH has done a lot of work on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to deliberately incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into large-scale development. Some of this has involved pulling together efforts that were already happening in the name of sustainability, health and comfort, energy efficiency or biodiversity and ensuring that they addressed the broader pictures of carbon impact and climate risk response. Many other measures were instituted directly as responses to anticipated climate impacts over time.

To reduce the contribution the development makes to climate change, we are massively reducing carbon emissions by designing very energy efficient building fabric and services, then further reducing to zero regulated carbon emissions through district heating, PVs and carbon offsetting in the local community. We are also reducing embodied carbon and energy of the building materials by 15-20% by using materials more efficiently, substituting materials and using recycled materials. The development also promotes public and active transportation and reduces potable water use which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

To adapt to the effects of climate change in London, we looked at the potential hazards—such as flooding, overheating, extreme wind, urban heat island effect and water scarcity—their likelihood and severity and the risk for the development. Based on that, we developed cross-cutting strategies to help mitigate and adapt to those impacts. These strategies included green infrastructure, water sensitive design principles, designing for thermal comfort, resilient construction measures and building adaptive capacity.

Even when projects attempt to address climate on site, it’s important not to overstate the impacts of those efforts. Zero Carbon doesn’t literally mean no carbon is emitted. Climate Positive doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative impacts on climate. PVs on every roof won’t help much if the building materials used to make those roofs has a carbon intensive production process. The use of some sustainable building materials may have negative impacts for energy efficiency or overheating risk. But even if one development doesn’t solve it all, the individual measures can still add up to real benefits.

Not everything we’ve instituted on our projects was driven by a desire to address climate change. There are many strategies incorporated in good design practice, which positively contribute to climate change adaption – and that’s where the real impact will come from.

It’s hard to convince some developers, designers, builders or even occupants to care about climate change as a driver. It’s important that whether by regulation, best practice design, long-term cost saving, risk management or unique selling point, measures that reduce carbon emissions and help communities adapt to more extreme weather become the norm. Only then will all developments be climate responsive projects, contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.

With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.

The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn’t easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.

The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.

With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the “bottom of the government’s in tray.” There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.

Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.

Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.

Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?

No strategy is a bad strategy

Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.

The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.

There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.

Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.

We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.