Archive for the ‘International’ Category

In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona.  All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates.  It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post.  So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.

First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture.  True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers.  The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco.  Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s.  Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design.  The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s.  In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices.  European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly.  It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.

Paris versus Barcelona:  These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish.  Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks.  There is never a break in central paris:  no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way.  The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.

Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category.  The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm.  People, people everywhere.  Shops, shops everywhere.  Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices.  Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment.  The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?”  Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight.  Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments.  The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away.  Basically, no privacy, no quiet.  But urban energy everywhere.  I loved it. 

Typical Barcelona street

Prague versus Vienna:  These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver.   Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona.  Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks.  Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards. 

An intersection in Prague New Town

The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars.  On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses.  On quieter streets retail is more rare.  The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris.  Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit.  Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle  infrastructure.  The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.

Vienna is still under construction


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Citymusic: Cairo Edition

This edition of Citymusic honors the city of Cairo, Egypt, population 15,200,000, and its newfound freedom.  Chris Tomlin’s God of this City: “Greater things are yet to come; greater things are still do be done in this city.” (click link to listen)

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Natural gas, primarily used for building heating, constitutes 16% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Seattle.  As I noted in a previous post, a city seeking carbon neutrality can shut down the natural gas distribution system, bringing these carbon emissions to zero in one fell swoop.  Building heat and hot water can be provided by several energy sources, including electricity. 

Mini-B Passivhaus on display at the Phinney Neighborhood Center

But where will all the electricity to replace natural gas come from?  In Seattle, we are blessed with carbon-free hydropower.  But we have a limited supply, and any additional electricity would need to be purchased on the open market or come from new generation.  However, the cheapest electron is the one you never need to generate, due to energy efficiency.

Passivhaus is an emerging standard for buildings that uses up to 90 percent less energy than conventional construction; a maximum of 4.75 kBTUs/square foot/year for heating.   The Passivhaus standard uses thick insulation and high-performance windows to prevent heat losses, and recovers heat from exhausted air through a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV).  A 300 square foot Passivhaus, the Mini-B, is on display at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in Seattle.

By building new construction to Passivhaus standards and developing cost-effective Passivhaus remodeling strategies, the electric demand for building heating can be vastly reduced.  Which will leave the hydropower electricity available for other uses when we move away from fossil fuels in buildings.

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St. Petersburg trolley truck (Source: Wikimedia)

Commercial trucks constitute 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Seattle.  Moving freight without oil is one of the major technological hurdles for carbon neutrality.  Smaller local deliveries may be made in battery electric trucks such as the Newton or the Zaptruck XL.  But battery electric trucks have limitations, all related to the batteries.  The weight of the battery packs displaces cargo capacity, limiting the cargo weight to battery power ratio.  The process of recharging batteries induces electrical losses, and the batteries themselves require disposal and replacement at the end of their useful life.  Battery power is fundamentally never as efficient as a direct electrical connection.  Electrical trolley buses are the starting point for another solution for carbon neutral goods movement.  Seattle, like many other cities around the world, has a network of electrical overhead contact systems (OCS) over city streets, directly powering buses on frequent routes.  Electrical trolley buses are 100% electric and the technology has been in use for over 60 years.  Could the same technology provide power to trucks?

Siemens Mining Truck with Trolley Power

As a matter of fact, it hasMining operations, in the U.S. prior to early Bush-era cheap oil and to today in Southern Africa, utilize trolley trucks for heavy and steep loads.  Electric traction has advantages over diesel in acceleration, hill-climbing and braking.  If heavy mining trucks can be adapted for electric trolley operation, highway trucks can be designed for it as well.  Trolley-powered trucks are used in the Ukraine and Russia for urban local deliveries.  An electric-trolley powered freight hauling system has been proposed for freeway truck traffic to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Trolley trucks could be introduced in Seattle in conjunction with an expansion of the existing electric trolley bus system.  The key enabling technology is a wireless smart meter, mounted on top of the truck at the connection point to the trolley poles, which would bill the truck’s registered owner for power supplied through the trolleys (an open trolley power system).  City policies could favor the purchase of dual powered (electric trolley/battery or diesel) trucks.  For example, all large city vehicles (fire trucks, garbage trucks under contract) could use dual power systems.  When travelling on arterials with trolley infrastructure, the driver would raise the trolley poles (with the touch of a button) to directly use electric power and recharge on-board batteries.  When turning onto a local street without trolleys, the driver would lower the poles and rely on a battery backup.  Sound fanciful?  A city serious about carbon neutrality should develop an open trolley infrastructure.  In the excellent book “Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil,” Gilbert & Perl argue that in the case of oil scarcity, “grid-connected vehicles” will emerge as a solution for mobility. 

Real world scenario of how this could play out: the City has facilitated expansion of the electric trolley bus system to include all routes within city limits, and banned diesel buses.  Every Safeway supermarket in the City is now on a trolley bus route.  Instead of sending diesel-powered big rigs through city neighborhoods to supply the supermarkets, at each store Safeway could add a short section of trolley wire from the street to the loading dock.  If the Safeway distribution center was on a trolley-powered street, the company could use trolley trucks for all deliveries to its Seattle stores.  And the distribution center could be served by electrified freight rail for bulk food deliveries. 

High-speed trolley wire could also be added to certain lanes of freeways, for bus and truck use.  The Port of Seattle could also develop a program to promote trolley-truck usage for freight.  There are many possibilities such as these yet to be explored for carbon neutral movement of freight.

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Why do I write about cities?  What so attracts me to urban environments?  There are factual reasons that cities are preferable over suburbs and the countryside, often cited on this blog.  But my preference goes deeper, to a visceral emotional level.  I will attempt to put the sources of this preference into words.

Architecture.  I love the architecture of buildings (what else is architecture?).   Rural landscapes are defined by the near absence of buildings.  In suburban settings buildings are designed to be hidden, set back, subdued, never to upstage the focal point of nature, trees and greenery.  The suburban project is an attempt to merge the bucolic rural landscape with the practicalities of home, work, shopping.  It produces not great architecture by design.  In a city, however, buildings cannot be hidden.  They are the city, lending endless variety, new and old, well-kept and run-down, art deco and victorian and post-modern and modern, all on the same block.  One-story, office, six-story, condo, commercial, two-story, hotel, twelve-story, retirement center.  Always something different to feast your eyes on.

Community.  I am a shy person, easily self-entertained.  If I met one hundred thousand people, with maybe five I would click and we would become great friends.  The odds are low.  In a city constantly surrounded by people, with residents from everywhere with every interest known under the sun, the odds are slightly better.  How many people could you meet while driving home on the freeway?  How many people could you meet on a well-attended city bus or subway?  Cities aren’t designed for isolation.  Good cities form strong neighborhood bonds and support institutions.  People seek the city for its crowds, public ceremonies and celebrations, sporting events, critical masses of nightclubs, art galleries or political bicyclists.  Elsewhere people avoid crowds.  I seek them out.

Innovation and influence.  A diversity of experiences leads to new mixtures of ideas that drive every field forward.  Cities are made greater for their serendipitous interactions.  How many musical genres have been invented or transformed in New York City?  How many in the great plain states (with the same population, spread out nearly 1000 miles)?  New ideas are created in cities, and then rapidly transferred and adopted in other cities.  Slowly these innovations spread across the countryside around the world.  Cities set the cultural tone for nations, including within them most leaders and taste-makers, giving them outsized influence economically and culturally (but not always politically).

Sustainability.  Cities have been sustainable communities for millenia in all but the worst of war and societal collapse.  The larger the city, the fewer resources each resident consumes.  Cities can offer as high a quality of life as suburban areas, but its a different quality of life.  One with less travel and fewer personal resources, but with more convenient services and community support.  We live in a world of depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change (induced by our global combustion habits – i.e. burning fuel).  Spreading advances in agriculture mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm, and for the first time in human history a majority of us are living in urban areas.  But what type of urban areas?  Dense cities allow efficient living in the face of scarcity, create strong communities and give rise to the innovations we need to maintain prosperity.

The sweep of history.  Humanity started in a garden, cultivating fruit trees.  As time passed large-scale agriculture and industry and cities and trade and empires and megacities developed.  The controlling narrative in American culture, the Christian story, is about redemption and restoration of a lost idyllic paradise.  The Christian scriptures conclude with a vision of the restored people of God: the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  The story does not end with a renewed garden, but with a vision of a city described as 1,400 miles square  and 7,392,000 feet high.

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The City of Seattle has made developing a goal for citywide carbon neutrality by 2030 a priority.  In September 2010 the City held a forum in which workgroups gave presentations on carbon neutrality strategies in various disciplines.  At the time I noted a lot of incrementalism, and very little vision of a city at zero emissions.

For each significant category (>3% of the total emissions) in the City of Seattle 2008 carbon emission inventory, below I list whether reaching zero emissions is primarily a matter of government policy, culture or technology.

Cars (20% of total): Policy and culture.  Walking, biking, electric transit and electric vehicles can entirely eliminate fossil-fueled personal vehicles.

Trucks (18%): Technology.  Battery power is unlikely to be effective for freight trucks due to energy density, weight and cost.  Rails aren’t everywhere that goods need to go.

Air (18%): Technology.  Non-fossil fuel solutions to air transport are yet to be determined.  Reducing air travel is an interim step.

Natural Gas (16%): Policy.  The City can shut down the natural gas distribution system.  Users, given sufficient notice, can migrate to electric appliances and/or retrofit for energy efficiency.

Cement production (11%): Policy and technology.  Policy can force install of the best available emissions reduction processes, or fund low-carbon cement research.  But technology is needed to go to zero.

(Other sources combined are 17% of emissions.)

The City of Seattle has the capability to be carbon neutral  in several categories by 2030 through policy only.  The city is blessed with carbon-neutral hydropower for electric supply.  For neutrality, the city’s electrical demand needs to be kept within the capacity of the hydropower system, supplemented by other renewables such as wind.  The key to achieving this is to be aggressive about electrical efficiency as activities are transitioned from other fuels, such as personal vehicles or natural gas furnaces, to the electric supply. 

Technological progress is needed in three major categories to reach zero: trucks (goods transport), air travel and cement production.  I will write about each of these items in upcoming posts.

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…Cause it is “Christmastime in the City.  Soon it will be Christmas day.”

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

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