Tag Archives: Environment

Sustainable City Betrayed?: Calgary’s Neoliberal Sustainability Politics and Its Consequences

Byron Miller  from the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary and currently Guest Professor, Institut für Umweltsozialwissenschaften und Geographie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, writes about how Calgary continues to wrestle with the issue of “sustainability” …

Over the past decade Calgary, Alberta, like many cities around the world, has promoted a wide range of sustainability initiatives as part of what While, Jonas and Gibbs have termed a “sustainability fix.”  There are certainly good reasons why Calgary might turn toward a sustainability agenda.  Long considered the poster city for urban sprawl in Canada, Calgary ranks as the Canadian City with the largest “ecological footprint,” the highest degree of socio-spatial income polarization, and one of the largest infrastructure deficits. Its politics, moreover, are dominated by fierce anti-tax sentiment, despite low tax rates.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the concept of “sustainability,” the need for Calgary to address its ecological, social, and fiscal issues has been clear for some time.   

To grapple with the perceived deterioration of quality of life in Calgary, the City began an extensive two-year “city visioning” process in 2004, called imagineCalgary.  Over 18,000 Calgarians participated in the process, which produced a surprisingly progressive and detailed document focusing on needed improvements in five systems: the built environment and infrastructure, the economic system, governance, the natural environment, and the social system.  imagineCalgary was adopted by City Council as an advisory document and laid the foundation for a new municipal development and transportation plan, dubbed “Plan-It,” which was prepared between 2006 to 2009.  

Plan-It was envisioned as a means to enhance the environmental, fiscal and social sustainability of the city and, indeed, it called for substantial changes in growth and development patterns to enhance transit service and walkability and to reduce the fiscal costs of growth.  The social aspects of early versions of the plan were dramatically weakened, largely due to restrictions contained in the provincial government’s Municipal Governance Act, and to avoid an anticipated backlash from the development industry.  Planners pressed ahead on the environmental and fiscal agendas with reports detailing the cost savings associated with Plan-It.  Public relations stressed not only cost efficiency of the plan but also consumer choice, particularly the provision of more mobility options, more neighbourhood facilities and services, and stronger local businesses.   

That city officials and politicians would anchor their arguments in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, cost efficiency, and consumer choice was not particularly surprising.  What was surprising was  the extent to which these neoliberal political tropes were adopted by many citizens and citizen organizations, including many that had been involved in the imagineCalgary process.  Indeed, many citizens’ organizations adopted the same neoliberal tropes, often for purely strategic reasons, to make their case for the sustainability agenda of Plan-It. Perhaps most  surprising of all, Plan-It was passed unanimously by City Council after early indications it would be defeated by a wide margin. The strategic adoption of neoliberal tropes to counter the anti-planning arguments of the development industry ultimately proved successful, but at what cost?  Quality of life, environmental, social justice and use-value arguments were largely abandoned, as were critiques of the federal and provincial governments’ underfunding of basic city functions such as public transit and social housing. Today, a concerted development-industry counter-attack that seeks to weaken the implementation of Plan-It relies on the same tropes and appears to be gaining traction, at the same time the provincial government further cuts funding to cities. The dynamics of Calgary’s planning politics raises questions about the merits of short term strategic adoption of neoliberal discursive tropes.  It also points to the role citizens play, unwittingly or not, in the reproduction and perpetuation of neoliberal hegemony.   To twist the words of Peck, Theodore and Brenner just a bit, “[citizens]… are not merely at the ‘receiving end’ of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above.”

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The Political Ecology of Health: Concerns over urban ‘swiftlet farming’ and communicable diseases in Georgetown, Malaysia

Creighton  Connolly, an Entitle Fellow, and second year geog PhD student in Geography, School of Environment, Education and Development, University, reflects on his on-going fieldwork …

On December 10th, news agencies in Malaysia reported the first death in the country from Influenza A (bird flu).1 Previously, Malaysia has claimed to be ‘immune’ from the bird flu epidemic which has hit neighboring countries, particularly Indonesia over the past decade. Even when the SARS outbreak hit in 2002, Malaysia did not have any recorded records of the disease (despite a higher than average number of deaths from flu-like cases). However, some suspicion was raised when the media later announced that the death was actually caused by a thyroid complication, rather than Influenza A, or bird flu. More alarming, was the fact that reports came out that three of the victim’s colleagues had been quarantined in the hospital as they had tested positive for H1N1 – of which bird’s flu is a strain.2 The question can then be asked, that if the victim who died had thyroid complications, then why did her colleagues test positive for H1N1?

This recent announcement thus caused considerable alarm amongst Malaysia’s NGOs and civil society groups, such as the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and Friends of the Earth Malaysia (SAM), who have been concerned for a number of years with the high population of swiftlets in the city of Georgetown, Penang (as well as many other Malaysian cities), which are reared in an intensive manner for their valuable edible-nests.3 The NGOs’ concerns have been justified due to a recent outbreak of H5N1 bird flu in Vietnam in May 2013, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of swiftlets and one child in the Phan Rang area of south-central Vietnam.4 This case provided the first indication that swiftlets are susceptible to the bird-flu virus, as many swiftlet farmers and biologists alike indicated that swiftlets were unlikely carriers of such vectors due to their unique characteristics.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

The PHT has been lobbying for a ban on swiftlet farming in the Georgetown urban area, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 2007 when the first government guidelines on swiftlet farming (known as 1GP) first appeared. These guidelines explicitly stated that swiftlet farming should not take place in residential areas. December 31st of 2013 marked the end of the Penang state’s three-year grace-period for the removal of all Swiftlet farms in the city of Georgetown. In a recent interview that I had with YB Chow Kwon Yeow of the Penang state government, he prepared a large document outlining for me the history of the government’s involvement in regulating the issues related to swiftlet farms in the central city area. The policies date back to 2008, when the town received UNESCO world heritage designation, and coincidently, when the current state government came into power. Since then, Chow’s government has been under a lot of pressure to clear the city of swiftlet farms, as the buildings themselves and the birds they attract have been been widely identified as a social nuisance in the town, as well as the possible source of health hazards from diseases like dengue fever and bird flu. However, Mr. Chow candidly told me that, despite having some problems early on, the number of swiftlet farming premises in Georgetown has been greatly reduced and should be down to less than a dozen in 2014.

Despite Mr. Chow’s optimistic outlook on the number of swiftlet farms in the Georgetown World Heritage Site, there are still several concerns, as addressed in a recent open letter issued by the PHT to the State Government in Penang on December 30th, 2013. The letter wanted clarification on the state’s definition of ‘shutting down a swiftlet house’, because the PHT has not been convinced that the premises have actually been ‘shut down’ in a permanent manner. For instance, it is one thing to remove the tweeters and sound systems used by swiftlet farmers to lure in potential birds (as documented in several high profile press releases), 5 but another to completely seal up the windows and entry ways until the birds no longer return. Another concern raised is the ‘true’ status of bird flu in the state of Penang, in view of the recent bird flu/H1N1 scares  discussed above; as well as rising incidence of dengue fever in Penang state.6 Finally, there are the general concerns by the PHT and members of the public alike regarding issues of transparency and responsiveness on behalf of the government – particularly in regards to public health threats and public nuissances, such as bird flu.

Hopefully now that we have emerged into 2014, the state of Penang will fulfill its promises of clearing Georgetown of most of the existing swiftlet premises. Municipalities in Malaysian Borneo, such as Kuching, which I also visited briefly during my ongoing field research on this topic, have been largely successful in minimizing the numbers of swiftlet farms within the urban area, while others like Kota Kinabalu are now following suit.7 Granted the legislative context in Borneo is different from that in Peninsular Malaysia, but hopefully cities like Georgetown can learn from these successes in the near future.

On a final note, it should be clear that the point of this piece is not to demonize the lucrative swiftlet farming industry, nor to call for an outright ban on this business in Malaysia – far from it. Rather, it is to bring the struggles over urban swiftlet farming in Malaysia, which are at once cultural, economic, ecological, and political, to a wider international audience. It is also to help push forward the calls within Malaysia for the swiftlet farming industry to be reconfigured in a manner that is more socially (and ecologically) just, and does not put Malaysia’s urban residents at risk from disease, or other socio-economic impacts.    

References 

1.    Damodaran S., 2013. ‘Police civilian personnel dies of influenza A’. NTV7. [accessed 2013 Dec 15]. Available from: http://www.ntv7.com.my/7edition/local-en/Police_civilian_personnel_dies_of_influenza_A.html

2.         Due to a host of intersecting factors, the price of edible bird’s nest, which is made almost entirely out of the swift’s saliva, skyrocketed in the 1990s, which led urban residents across Malaysia to begin converting low-rise shop houses into ‘swiftlet farms’: cave-like bunkers used to attract swiftlets (see photos 1 and 2, above), and harvest their nests in a more efficient manner than was possible previously. Swiftlets traditionally make their nests in caves throughout Southeast Asia, where harvesters would carry out the high-risk work of collecting their nests from the cave walls.

3.    Malaysiakini, 2013. ‘Woman died of thyroid complications, not H1N1’. Malaysiakini, 11 December [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/249096

4.    The Nation, 2013. ‘H5N1 virus hits birds-nest farm in Vietnam’. The Nation. April 12, 2013 [accessed 2014 Jan 6]. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/H5N1-virus-hits-birds-nest-farm-in-Vietnam-30203958.html

5.   Kaur, M and Yeoh, W., 2011. ‘Swift action on swiftlet breeding: Next enforcement on 94 operators to begin next month, says chow’. Star Metro, M4. 25 February 2011.

6.    Straits Times, 2013. ‘Malaysia sounds warning on rising deaths from dengue’. Straits Times, Dec 21. [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/se-asia/story/malaysia-sounds-warning-rising-deaths-dengue-20131221

7.    Salma, K, 2010. ‘Penang may follow Sabah in disallowing farming in urban areas’. blog [accessed 2013 Oct 15]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/site/khoosalma/the-star-news-archive/disallowing-swiftlet-farming

Postpolitics, Parks and Protest

Graham Haughton, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Planning and Environmental Management, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

A protest camp sprang up overnight in Alexandra Park in January earlier this year, in one of the coldest spells of winter. The camp was set up in response to contractors moving in their equipment to begin felling trees around the park. Tents appeared, including some in the trees. Two rallies were held in protest attracting large numbers of people. Support came from local people passing through food and others supplies for the protestors. Quickly a strong security and media presence emerged too, with media coverage in the local press and regional TV[i]. Very quickly this became a major news story in South Manchester. The council defended its actions, claiming community consultations had been extensive and had led to a welcome scheme to regenerate and revive a park, attracting people back into it.

Whilst at one level this was a protest about tree removal, it very quickly emerged that the protestors had other concerns that underlay these. Consultation had been poor, in terms of gaining public awareness and engagement.  Some felt that the consultations had focused on the positives, underplaying the loss of trees. The science was disputed too, particularly the claim that felling involved only 200 or so ‘trees’, which protestors said was an underestimate as it failed to include the undergrowth areas. What constituted a tree was very much open to question – trees it seems are a sociocultural construct as much as a natural phenomenon. For some the restoration of flowerbeds was a problematic privileging of one type of ecology, the formal gardens preferred in the Victorian era when the park was created, whilst for others overgrowth trees were seen as ecologically inappropriate, with poor light resulting in limited opportunities for other ecological niches to develop. Other concerns included whether the renovations would permanently impact on Moss Side Carnival which had been a major event in the Park’s calendar since 1972, the climate change impacts of removing trees, and whether lack of consultation was because the city leaders felt immune to criticism due to its heavy domination by one party.

The contractors continued warily with their work of felling trees as protestors sought to disrupt them, with police and other security forces brought in to provide protection. Some concessions were made to the protestors to pull back on some of the planned felling. After about three weeks the tree felling programme was largely complete and the protest camp faded away, but leaving behind a continuing sense of grievance among some in the local community that they had largely been ignored.

Cities@manchester agreed to fund us (Anna Gilchrist, Graham Haughton and Erik Swyngedouw) to examine what was going on, quickly agreeing to fund some research whilst the camp was still in place. This allowed us to visit the protestors on site a couple of times, observe the contractors and security operations at work including talking police and contractors. After the camp had gone we continued our research, meeting a range of local policy makers, from the leader of the council to officials, professional ecologists and others. There was also a major public consultation event in the park soon after the protest camp which we attended. As if to confirm the protestors view, despite the fact that one of uses the park almost daily we only saw notices about this the day before .

We have made two videos about the protest camp, with the hope that we and others would be able to use them for teaching about postpolitics. That they helped in our emerging research was a bonus. The first video was self-filmed by Graham during a consultation meeting, on a day when he was noticeably starting to come down with a cold. It is proudly amateur and spontaneous, but hopefully it captures the spirit of the event. The second video is a companion piece, again self-filmed a few months later, covering our internal discussions as we sought to make sense of what the protests, with musings on urban political ecology and postpolitics to the fore. These can be viewed on the University’s you tube channel under the cities@manchester playlist. A key question that we address here is why the protest movement lost its momentum, that is how it failed to scale up to a more substantial challenge to the city authorities. Drawing on recent theoretical work on postpolitics, Erik in particular argues that this was in part a failure to move on from the initial focus on trees to the wider issues that protestors were also animated by. This was very different to another ‘trees in park’ protest this summer that reverberated around the world, Taksim Square in Istanbul.

 


 

[i] For the unfolding story, see for instance, this ITV clip, which contains links to videocasts from its broadcast coverage: http://www.itv.com/news/granada/topic/alexandra-park/ . For the BBC coverage see:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21289875  and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21321490 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21491870 . The story as seen by the protestors themselves is powerfully conveyed on their website: http://savealexandraparkstrees.wordpress.com/ 

Boda-Boda! Rethinking Unregulated Urban Transport in the Global South

Unregulated transport is vital to billions living with poor road access in the Global South, yet is increasingly marginalised in transport policies intended to modernise cities. In this article James Evans focuses on boda-boda motorcycle taxis in Uganda to ask how current thinking in Geography might help us re-think the role of informal transport in achieving more inclusive and sustainable urban development.

It is impossible to visit the Global South without being struck by the variety of transport at street level. Rickshaws, tuk-tuks, jeepneys, minibuses and bikes appear in all sorts of motorised and non-motorised forms across cities in Asia, Africa and South America.  Kampala, the rapidly growing capital of Uganda, is no exception. Synonymous with its unregulated army of motorcycle taxis, so-called boda-bodas dodge and weave through the congested streets and alleys with passengers clinging on to the driver. Boda-boda taxis are part of African bicycle culture, originating as a way to cross the Kenyan-Ugandan border in the 1960s and subsequently spreading through East Africa as an industry with relatively cheap entry costs for migrants. In 2010 the Kampala Boda-Boda Association estimated that there were upwards of 200,000 boda riders and 5,000 stages (stops) serving an urban population that has doubled in the last 20 years to some 1.5 million people.

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Offering affordable transport to the poor, boda-bodas are more efficient in terms of fuel, space and maintenance than cars. These kinds of informal modes of transport play an essential role filling the gap left by the absence of planned transport infrastructures and have grown at the same breakneck speed as the cities in which they exist, with estimates suggesting that informal transport accounts for 80-90% of public transport journeys in medium sized cities. Manifesting what AbdouMaliq Simone terms the distinctive mobility of the African city where movement is essential to daily survival, boda-bodas support the ‘thickening fields of social relations’ that city dwellers depend on. Flexible and cheap, they contribute to the connectivity and resilience of the city, running errands delivering both goods and information in addition to providing personal transport. It is through informal urban infrastructures like boda-bodas that existing socio-economic relations find material expression in the city.

Unlike slums that are often out of sight, informal transportation permeates and often defines the experience of an entire city. In response to a national road safety crisis that has been compared to HIV in terms of its national importance and the protestations of more affluent car-driving residents of the city, the recently formed Kampala Capital City Authority is attempting to bring the unruly growth of boda-bodas under control, leading to a long-running dispute between the boda-boda operators and the city authority over perceived attempts to cleanse the city of their presence. It is the powerful versus the poor, but more than this it is battle between competing visions of the city. This is a story that we find repeating itself from Shanghai to Lagos, leading to calls for new thinking about the role of informal transport in urban development. Delhi may have famously failed in their attempt to ban motorised rickshaws in 2010, but Chinese cities have progressively banned various forms of two wheeled transport in the name of modern transport planning.

The 2013 UN Habitat report Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility, which provides the nearest thing to a template for current global thinking on the issue of sustainable mobility, argues that robust land use planning is necessary to create urban landscapes that are amenable to more sustainable forms of mobility. But local transport solutions like boda-bodas question the validity of top-down planning approaches that seek to impose Western infrastructure on the city. Because informal transport infrastructures have developed incrementally with the city, they have shaped it materially and territorially. No doubt transport needs are dictated by the ways cities are planned, but equally the existing urban landscape reflects the kinds of transportation available. Changing the material form of a city is easier said than done; to the extent that things like existing houses, streets, wells and shops are obdurate, cities are locked into certain transport futures. At the same time, informal transport is so integral to cities like Kampala that imagining a future without it literally requires us to imagine a different place. For the city to be in any sense sustainable and inclusive, informal transport has to play a part.

While the idea that informal transport is more adaptable and thus potentially sustainable is not new, few studies have attempted to understand how its social functions are materially and territorially embedded in the city. More often than not, African roads are approached as a source of either terror or fascination by writers and commentators struck (not unreasonably) by their apparent chaos. Perhaps because of its poor safety record, motorcycle transport has received relatively little academic attention despite its importance to the billion people currently living in cities with poor roads. Researchers have focused on the impact of roads and road-building projects on local communities and cultures, but specific work on the day-to-day experiences of driving and using taxis is less common.

One way to capture this relation between mobility and the city is to rethink informal transport as a materially embedded urban infrastructure. Recent research has shown how self-building technologies and sanitation in informal settlements unavoidably reflect material conditions and constitute something distinctive and different to the kinds of development that characterise Western cities. In challenging received norms about mobility, the street-level practices of boda-bodas produce a very different kind of city to the ones commonly envisaged in planning documents and strategies. Focusing on the distinctive qualities of informal transport opens up new ways to think about infrastructure provision in the city and what a transition to sustainability could and indeed should look like.

Many basic everyday questions remain unanswered about boda-bodas in Kampala. For example, how do boda-bodas connect the city? Where do bikes circulate, what is their range, where are the stages, what routes do they trace, which parts of the city do they link and what are their working rhythms? What role do they play in circulating goods, people and informal knowledge? Beyond this, how is boda-boda infrastructure embedded in the city? For example, how, where and when are bikes fuelled, stored, repaired, recycled, reclaimed and maintained? Where do the drivers live and what do they eat?

Materiality matters. Just as political ecologists have shown how power is manifested in the material resource flows of cities so it is possible to open up alternative visions of the city though materially grounded analyses. In Kampala, the city planning authority is potentially receptive, currently developing a low-carbon development plan in addition to finding itself at the centre of a major transport row. If current solutions like simply building more roads have failed as a strategy in the West then they certainly won’t solve the transport challenges faced by cities in the South, which are that much more acute. There is an opportunity to establish a new agenda for the study of informal transport and its role in achieving more sustainable and inclusive urban development. In the search for viable alternatives, the question of what we can learn from existing forms of transport like boda-bodas seems to be a valid one.

 

A peak beyond the seamlessly integrated municipal energy networks in Europe

Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow,SPRU, University of Sussex and PhD student, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Urban spaces in the EU, especially within their municipal forms, where low-carbon transition agendas at multiple scales are abundant have become sought after and crowded policy spaces. Municipalities are perceived as having become stronger units of governance due to their increasing number of managerial roles and EU support, particularly in the shape of transnational municipal networks for climate change and energy policy. In fact, municipalities have seemingly become increasingly good in negotiating responses to various policy agendas, succeeding in integrating and reconciling approaches to energy efficiency improvements, decarbonisation and climate change adaptation and mitigation within the framework of concepts such as Smart Cities and programmes such as BioRegions. Such pioneer municipalities have been hailed as achieving so much, in areas where nation states have struggled (for example in integrating strategic low-carbon transition infrastructure and services such as transportation and energy). In doing so, they are seen as isolated ‘islands’ of low-carbon living, plugged into wider policy and stakeholder networks, whose “lights” are multiplying across the EU, flickering stronger and brighter in patterns spreading beyond and despite national borders.

Although a range of transnational municipal networks work in countries like Bulgaria, where the number of pioneer municipalities could be probably capped at less than 15, the lights might never come on. There are spaces where low-carbon policy tends to whirl around its intended target, without quite getting there. This is a quick peak in one such space in Europe. The interest of Bulgarian municipalities in energy efficiency can be traced to the mid 1990s when in the midst of fiscal and political instability responsibility for public lighting was transferred from the national electricity distribution company to municipalities. In the winter of 1997 fast growing inflation meant that municipalities struggled to keep the lights and heating on for public buildings like schools and hospitals. That’s when 23 municipalities set up a ‘self-help’ municipal network called EcoEnergy whose objective was to develop municipal capacity to increase energy efficiency in public buildings in order to reduce utility costs. Ever since, for the majority of Bulgarian municipalities, energy efficiency at municipal level has been equated with reducing the cost of energy. The membership in the municipal network quickly grew and in 2003 it represented 2/3 of the total population of the country.

Although the municipal network has actively worked for over 15 years at national, regional and international level, and is integrated within a thick web of key transnational networks and programmes such as EnergyCities, Intelligent Energy Europe, ManagEnergy and the Covenant of Mayors, it struggles to develop the energy efficiency agenda of Bulgarian municipalities beyond its utility reduction focus. Although many stakeholders maintain that Bulgarian municipalities are in fact reducing carbon emissions even with their rudimentary energy efficiency projects, the extent to which this is happening needs to be explored further.

In contrast to the Bulgarian agenda of energy efficiency as a means of cutting cost, in most EU countries the energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the interest in improving energy efficiency as a means of reducing energy consumption (i.e. energy conservation). Since then interest in energy efficiency and conservation has been maintained and elevated as the most cost-effective and fastest way to meet (substantial part of the) climate change mitigation targets. Energy saved – ‘negajoules’- compared to no improvements in energy efficiency is considered a key energy source in Europe. Thus, energy efficiency projects and programmes are often implemented under the headings ‘climate action’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘sustainable energy’ or ‘green’. However, if we look deeper than the glossy new facades of public buildings and the happy endings of the before and after comparisons, we can see that in many cases the energy saving and carbon reduction agendas continue to simply circle around these spaces.

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

picture 2

Not all energy efficiency improvements result in a decrease in associated carbon emissions. Calculations of possible carbon dioxide reductions often present a skewed picture of the actual energy savings because they are based on a standardised baseline. The majority of municipal buildings in Bulgaria, such as schools, have been chronically under-heated and under-cooled, with levels of thermal comfort significantly below the EU average of 20C (even below the recommended minimum of16C) since the early 1990s. It is still a common practice for badly insulated buildings to have low annual thermal levels.

When such public buildings are retrofitted the associated carbon reduction is calculated based on a normalised baseline of 20C, rather than the actual which could vary between 11C and 16C. The calculations do not take into account that once the building is retrofitted and heated at the normalised levels it will end up not only not making any actual energy savings, but often will result in more energy being consumed. This illustrates a rebound effect, where some of the energy savings from efficiency improvements are used up in the form of higher energy consumption. In this case energy efficiency improvements serve as a means of achieving higher thermal comfort. Considering that more than 60% of municipal buildings in Bulgaria are in such condition, the gap between projected carbon savings and actual savings will grow with the number of retrofitted buildings if unchecked.

For Bulgarian municipalities implementing energy efficiency measures makes sense only if there are financial gains to be made (i.e. cutting the cost of utilities), while carbon dioxide reduction measures can mean having to choose a more expensive option. In fact, in a string of 11 interviews conducted in Bulgarian in 2011 all interviewed municipalities ranked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as least important in implementing energy projects. The question then is not only How such spaces could be engaged with the network of pioneer municipalities which exists across Europe, but also To what extent is their context of spatial variations truly understood at EU level?

Safe to breathe yet?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate Geography

Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  It’s amazing how little discussion is given now to what seemed like a major global crisis just 20 years ago, but such is the nature of the media.  A huge hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic in the mid 1980s which prompted a ban on refrigerators and aerosol sprays that contained the culprit – CFCs.  It was another example, of which there are many in recent years, of how the whole of the developed and developing world was forced to wake up to the consequences of altering the composition of our atmosphere, and the media was full of cartoons of giant hairspray cans burning a hole in the planet.  Well the good news is that the hole is repairing itself since the CFC phase-out, albeit very, very slowly but a whole generation are coming along now with no idea that it ever existed.  This brings home the fact that environmental issues, that no longer seem important, can get neglected from media coverage and thus escape the attention of the majority of people.  So what about urban air pollution?

The UK has a long history of urban air pollution, with laws introduced as far back as the 13th century to regulate the use of coal in London in a bid to reduce smoke pollution.  In Manchester in 1792, the town hall emphasised the need for industrial chimneys to reduce smoke from coal combustion.  Many of Manchester’s buildings were covered in a layer of soot and grime, which undoubtedly found its way into the lungs of Mancunians.

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s.  Engraving by Charles Roberts (Evans Picture Library)

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced as a reaction to the Great London Smog, caused by burning low grade, sulphur-rich coal in a winter temperature inversion period, which caused an estimated 12,000 excess deaths.  Since then, the quality of the air in our cities has gradually improved thanks to a switch from coal to gas, industries moving out of city centres, and improvements in the technologies that reduce emissions.  So now, air pollution feels like something that happens far away in LA with its daily photochemical smog cycle, or in the permahaze-shrouded megacities of China where coal is still a major energy source and car ownership is increasing exponentially.  Well don’t breathe too deeply when walking down Oxford Road just yet.  The reason is road traffic, which is responsible for most of the main urban air pollutants – carbon monoxide (CO), benzenes, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).  The latter consists of fine particles, smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (a human hair is about 50 micrometres wide) which can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and allowing harmful substances present such as lead and copper to exert effects.

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Car ownership in the UK is still increasing (DfT, 2009), despite efforts to convince people to cycle or use public transport, and this is offsetting the impact of vehicular emission controls.  These emissions are linked to 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and shorten our life expectancy by an average of seven to eight months.  They have also been linked to childhood asthma and even type II diabetes.  So the effects of air pollution are a bit more profound than just a blackening of bogies, personally experienced in London, a place not lightly called ‘The Big Smoke’.  Just because it is invisible, and only infrequently mentioned in the newspapers, does not mean the problem has gone away.

Monitoring stations have been set up around Manchester to provide information on the urban background air quality.  Ever wondered what that little building is in Piccadilly Gardens?  The website www.greatairmanchester.org.uk provides online access to these air quality data.  Most days the air quality is acceptable but there are spatial and temporal patterns to be aware of.  For instance, there is a peak twice daily coinciding with rush hour traffic, and this appears to be strongest in the city centre and on a Monday morning.  Also, roadsides are places to avoid being in for long periods of time.  Interestingly, a study in Lancaster found that if you are walking on an inclined road it’s better to walk on the side of the road that cars goes downhill because trees on the side of the road next to cars driving uphill were found to have higher loads of PM pollution on their leaves from the increased emissions of cars struggling up a slope (Maher et al., 2008).

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

This particle-capturing property of vegetation is being exploited to improve the air quality in cities.  Strategic roadside tree planting can remove a large amount of pollution by trapping it on the leaf surface where it is subsequently washed off by rains.  This is yet another example of the benefits of urban greenspace, which include keeping people cool in heatwaves, reducing the risk of surface flooding, and simply lifting people’s spirits and making them feel better.  Tree-planting schemes are hindered, however, by a general lack of space within cites, and the fact that there is a considerable dollar sign attached to urban land.  For example, the site of the old BBC would make a lovely park but we all know it is destined to be a glass and steel multi-purpose hotel/supermarket/student accommodation/leisure complex.  Or something.  So it would appear that air pollution is here to stay, as technologies to reduce vehicle pollution at its source seem to have stalled.

One solution is to use the space afforded by rooftops and install green roofs.  Recent research in Manchester has shown that they can make a not-insignificant dent in the PM concentrations in the city centre, with 0.2 tonnes being removed a year in a scenario that involved all flat roofs getting a sedum green roof (Speak et al., 2012).  Larger plants, such as grasses and shrubs, would have a bigger impact, but are a bit more expensive to install and maintain than an ‘extensive’ sedum green roof.  See A (Green) Roof Above Your Head? for my other blog on green roofs in the UK.

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

A helping hand also comes from that seemingly permanent fixture in Manchester – the rain.  The rain droplets scavenge pollutants from the air as they fall, and recharge the capture efficiency of urban surfaces by giving them a good wash.  This, along with frequent strong westerly winds, means Manchester’s air quality isn’t as bad as in some other European cities, especially those in central and southern Europe.  However, the European Commission recently gave the UK a final warning over failures to meet limits for PM in London.  Perhaps it’s time to see urban greenspace as more than just an optional design feature for our city centres.  When combined with a decrease in car usage, maybe then we can ‘safely’ forget about this invisible threat.

References

DFT 2009. Department for Transport: Transport Trends 2009 Edition. London: HMSO.

MAHER, B. A., MOORE, C. & MATZKA, J. (2008) Spatial variation in vehicle-derived metal pollution identified by magnetic and elemental analysis of roadside tree leaves. Atmospheric Environment 42: 364-373.

SPEAK, A. F., ROTHWELL, J. J., LINDLEY, S. J. & SMITH, C. L. (2012) Urban particulate pollution reduction by four species of green roof vegetation in a UK city.  Atmospheric Environment 61:  283 – 293.

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

by Piccadilly People / Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

As a stakeholder in the local area, I am writing to enquire whether you would be interested in supporting the following idea for the improvement to Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

For Manchester, it seems a terrible shame that the first/last and most dramatic view of the city for the majority of visitors and residents remains Piccadilly Gardens. As an area which has been existed for over a century as a Manchester hotspot and has been immortalised by Lowry, it has fallen into a rather humble existence. Although there is some wonderful architecture, dramatic water fountains and some fabulous street performers, unfortunately the most eye-catching part of the area is the drab imposing wall that splits the public space with the aim to reduce the negative effects of the bus interchange. Erected in 2002, the wall is 130m long and over 4m tall, mostly as one part curving around the central pedestrianised area, but also with another part separated by a footpath.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to significantly improve this structure by adding a vertical garden? This is a well-tested technique that has been used from Paris to Hong Kong, both indoors and outdoors. A vertical garden is also an efficient way to clean up the air and improve the general environment. In addition to the leaves absorbing carbon dioxide to release oxygen, the roots are also able to trap and help decompose pollutant particles.

The vertical garden could be trialled on the standalone part of the wall, where it would consist of a metal frame mounted onto the wall, so avoiding any root-damage to the existing concrete. The plants would grow on a felt layer built into the metal frame. The plants on the bus interchange side would consist of a range of bushy, evergreen plants. But the real treat could be on the pedestrianised side, where the garden could be planted full of vigorous growing strawberry plants that can thrive in the Manchester urban climate.

Once the trial wall was established, the remaining bare grey concrete could also be given a vertical garden cover, for the more space covered, the better the absorption of not only pollutants, but also traffic noise.

examples of vertical gardens

Piccadilly Gardens has a great potential to return to former glories. We hope that you are as excited as we are by this idea. We would appreciate if you would support this idea in some way, from pledging your support, to your time and expertise, or maybe even some funding to contribute with other partners who also wish to bring back some of the former charm of Piccadilly Gardens.

Thank you for taking the time to read this through. Let’s hope that many people support Manchester and Piccadilly Gardens so that we get it up and growing!

Kind regards,

Piccadilly People

Email: McrPiccVerticalGrdns@gmail.com

Find us on Facebook: Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Find us on Twitter:  @McrPiccVerticalGrdns

For more information about vertical gardens, go to:

www.patrickblanc.com

www.verticalgardendesign.com

www.vertigarden.co.uk