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.


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


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:

Thank you from afar

MarshallYoungAlumSignI was honored by my high school last month to receive the Marshall School Distinguished Young Alumni Award. Alas, I wasn’t able to make it to the ceremony, but my amazing filmmaker sister, Allison, was kind enough to create a thank you video for me to send to the ceremony instead!

You can watch the video here:

Thanks again to the Marshall School alumni office (and whomever nominated me) for the honor!


Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

New starts

Welcome to River & City! I have been blogging for a number of years now, but have generally done so either through work or on more personal blogs. Since I have changed not only jobs, but also city and country of residence, the time is long overdue to centralize my blogging to a main site. On here, you’ll see me blog about rivers, cities, people and everything in between. I’ll eventually move or reference the content from my past writing and may double post writing for work, but generally this will be my independent thoughts on urbanist, environment and sustainability issues. What you won’t find are personal posts, “American in the UK” type posts, though thoughts on those might be woven into posts more generally about the usual themes. Feel free to comment, repost and contact me with questions, suggestions, corrections, etc.

P.S. The name of the blog came from the Hipster Business Name Generator. I clicked through it as a funny way to pass the time, but then I actually did come across a name that was relevant for the blog for which I couldn’t think of a name. So…there you have it in all its non-ironic glory.