Terraform Earth

The Real Cost of the Beijing Olympics

This Friday, in Beijing, begins the 17 days of international competition that countries take years to prepare for. It is easy to carried away with the Olympics. Over ten thousand athletes from two hundred and five countries will compete for the gold in 28 sports. The games will be covered by every major media outlet in the world. NBC alone is planning over 3,600 hours of programming across its sister stations. In every sense of the word, the games will truly be a spectacle. China sees the Olympics as its official arrival unto the international stage and has been busily preparing since it was chosen to host the games in 2001. The Olympics are not often held in developing countries. 

The progress in Beijing has been dramatic as China has sought to make bold statement about the progress it has made as a country economically, technologically, and even ecologically. In anticipation of the Olympics, Beijing became a massive construction site. Its stadiums and buildings are an impressive site. A 91,000 seat stadium wrapped in tensile like steel dubbed the bird’s nest and a giant cube of plastic bubbles mimicking water molecules surrounding the Olympic swimming pool are but a couple of examples that have been applauded by the architecture and design community for their design and innovation. Architects have seen in China the chance to try anything: the chance to build the gargantuan and the outlandish, to leave an indelible impression in the history of Architecture, to build modern monuments. It works. The stadiums are well suited to the role of being China’s opportunity to promote its image abroad. But what can you truly say about an architecture that is said to be only able to exist in China, an authoritative state?

Not only did  the stadiums and other Olympic venues need to be built, but so did the infrastructure needed to support them. New roads have been constructed and old roads repaved. Sidewalks have been added and so have parks. Flowers raised specially to bloom in August and trees have been planted. Subway and rail lines have been built. New housing has been constructed and the buildings surrounding the Olympic venues and transit routes have been upgraded. Bejing looks now not like a modern city, but a city of the future, at least on the surface. What we may call progress has been made, but at what costs? Financially the cost are tremendous. The costs for the games is expected to top 44 billion dollars. The new stadium cost around $500 million dollars and the new airport over 3 billion. The costs itself is several more times the cost of the 2004 games. And though this is a small portion of China’s national economy, hundreds of millions are still mired in poverty. As spending on the Olympics has increased, social spending has faltered. “Until there is a full, accurate, transparent accounting for the full Olympics expenditures — not just estimates and budgeted figures — you can’t really argue anything about…costs being reasonable,” says Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, based in New York.

The social costs (links to PDF) too have been high. To make room for development, people have been forced from their homes and property often with little or no compensation, not enough to provide for them the life they had worked to accomplish. Evictions have been forced and often violent. The threat of violence, torture, and prison keep most from protesting. Estimates for the amount of displaced people because of the Olympics are estimated to be as high as 1.5 million. What the land is used for often profits those in power. After their homes and property are stolen, they are often demolished to build in their place more profitable developments: luxury high rises, golf courses, and shopping plazas. Those forced off the land often end up meanwhile in shanty towns.

These were to be a green Olympics. The different Olympic venues have made efforts to incorporate some sustainable building practices. China has made an effort to improve its environment. As a response to concerns about the air quality in Beijing, car usage has been limited, steel mills have been retrofitted or shut down, and factories have been relocated. They were needed efforts, if done for perhaps the wrong reasons. The scale of China’s ecological problems are huge, and exist far outside of Beijing. The majority of its rivers are polluted making potable water inaccessible to nearly half of the population. And since Beijing was awarded the Olympic games, birth defects, which many have linked to the pollution in China, have increased 40 percent. Together, it seems like a very steep price for just 17 days of the Olympic games. 

Additional Information: What will China do for the Gold?

DIY Home Energy

Quest, a science program that airs on KQED public television in San Francisco, recently ran a program featuring three Bay Area individuals whose homes make extensive use of alternative energy. Here is a summary. Chris Beaudouin, a resident of the Castro district, at the recommendation of California’s Department of the Environment, contacted Blue Green Pacific, the wind generation start-up company of another San Francisco resident, Todd Pelman, who is a marine and energy engineer. Soon to be on top of Chris’s garage (only one has been installed), looking as he describes it like two pieces of sculpture, will be two vertical wind turbines. He is anticipating that his experiment with micro-wind generation will reduce his energy bill 20-30%. The target price for one of the systems is $5000 dollars. Pelman estimates the payback period to be 8-10 years. Gavin Newsom, recently encouraged home owners to experiment with wind energy.

The second home featured is the home of Lisa and Michael Rubenstein, a 6,000 sf single level home in Hillsborough. Despite its size, the average monthly energy bill is $8. The Rubensteins wanted their dream home to be as sustainable as possible and so invested in a geothermal system as well as PV cells. The home is 41 percent more efficient than state Build It Green Standards. (The home was built before a residential LEED program was in place.) Other eco-friendly measures include: graywater recycling, reclaimed wood floor, insulation made from recycled denim, dual flush toilets, and fly-ash concrete. 

The third home was the remodeled Victorian home of Dixon Beatty and Stephanie Parrot. They remodeled the home to use solar thermal energy to provide hot water and heat to their house and photovoltaic cells to meet most of their electricity needs.

Facts About Trees #3

As we replan and improve streets we must make provisions for the inclusion of trees. Here are several more facts about the benefits of tree in the urban environment. They come from Friends of the Trees and Dan Burden’s Walkable Communities.

Trees clean our water by filtering storm runoff and preventing soil erosion. The National Research Council, in its “Oil in the Sea Report,” found that “every 8 months runoff from roads and parking lots carries as much oil into the oceans as the Exxon Valdez oil spill-10.9 million gallons.  A study in Portand, Oregon found that trees in the city “intercepted half a billion gallons of storm water to save more than $11 million in stormwater management costs.” A study conducted by the Center for Urban Forest Research at Davis, California found that for every 1000 trees planted over million dollars are saved in storm water management cost and pollution abatement. So not only do trees improve the city environment but they improve the environment of other species as well. 

Trees save us money in other ways. A tree’s shade can reduce a buildings temperature 20 degrees in the summer, significantly reducing heating and cooling costs and thus emissions. As posted earlier, Pacific Gas and Electric is funding the planting of trees at customer’s homes to reduce energy demand. And trees make us money by increasing the value of a property. Depending on the size, number, and type of tree, a homes value may be increased up to 21 percent.

The most important benefit trees provide in an artificial environment is a connection to nature. The noise of the street is reduce and instead filled with birdsong and the chattering of squirrels. Walking safely along in the dappled shade, the street then is now an opportunity for the body to relax and mind  to wander. You can look up and imagine that you were strolling in a forest and are thankful for the shady chill you get as you pass through and eagerly anticipate an upcoming cup of warm coffee. Could you imagine a romantic date without pausing to think about a shady patio area in which to sip wine, or a tree lined street to stroll along, arms entwined, perhaps pausing to kiss under a tree? Trees create the environment of the street, an environment that like many other habitats is under threat. 





Take the America’s Energy Quiz

The answers may surprise you and give you hope for cleaner and more sustainable energy. From Al Gore’s We campaign: http://quiz.wecansolveit.org/

Taking the quiz, meeting Gore’s call for supplying all of our energy from non polluting sources within 10 years seems not only possible but imperative.

Prix Pictet – Sustainability in Photography

“Can a photograph help sustain the planet? It depends on the photograph.”

“The Prix Pictet is a major new global prize in photography that focuses on perhaps the greatest single issue of the twenty-first century: sustainability. The award is sponsored by Pictet & Cie, in association with the Financial Times.” The shortlist for this year’s award has just been announced.

The theme for this year is water. The elements that demonstrates first the effects of global warming through increased droughts and floods, contamination, and rising sea levels.

Increased Food Prices, Increased Community Gardens

Several factors are contributing to rising food prices around the globe. Demand for biofuels in the US and Europe is speculated to be a major reason for the cost increases. The World Food Bank reports that 75 percent of the cost increase may be attributed to biofuel demand. The cost of wheat and corn has doubled, and rice, the world’s most consumed grained, has seen an increase in price of 217%, prompting many rice growing countries to halt exports, further exacerbating food shortages elsewhere, in an effort to feed their own populations. Other reasons for food increases are the increased cost of oil, which has affected the transportation of food and the cost of oil derived products used in growing food like fertilizers.

The World Food Program, part of the United Nations, estimated that as much as 130 million people have been pushed into poverty, due to the increased prices. The program is increasingly facing difficulty in meeting food needs around the globe. The costs for many of their supplies has doubled and reserves of cereal crops has fallen to a 25 year low. Increased energy prices has made it difficult to transport needed food aide.

In California, the rising cost of food has prompted a rise in community gardens.The California Report reported on the Stanford Avalon community garden in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a community garden created by Mayor Villaragosa’s plan to remediate the lack of public green space in poorer areas by donating vacant city properties. The Stanford Avalon garden sits on property that was owned as part of a public utilities right of way. It is underneath power lines. 

The garden has quickly become a focal point within the community. Fresh produce is now readily available and it has helped many people lower their food cost: first, by raising their own food and second, by selling excess food they have raised. The lot sizes are a very generous 200 sf. Due to its proximity to Compton Creek, it is also becoming an education center for water ecology. Sales at nurseries around the city have also increased. Even more affluent neighborhoods, like the Silverlake area, have seen increases in community gardens and backyard gardens.  For many, cost of food is a concern, but also there is a desire to grow their own produce as tasty as the fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market.  

A similar report was aired on Marketplace earlier in the year. The address of the Stanford Avalon farm is: 658 East 111th Place, Los Angeles, CA 90059 if you want to see it on Google Earth.

In the Time of Trees

Stuart Franklin was one of just a few to photograph the now iconic image of an unknown stranger, emerging from a vast crowd of protesters, to stand down the line of tanks leaving the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Soon after, Franklin moved away from news photojournalism into magazine features. He photographed 20 stories from National Geographic between 1990 and 2004. During this time Franklin, who had dropped out of school at 16, went back to school. He completed a degree in Geology at Oxford and went on to complete a Doctorate. His desire, when he went back to school, was to gain a better understanding of the workings of his subjects. Much of his work since has focused on the environment, landscapes, man’s place in it, and man’s effect on it.

To me there is a sense in his work of the same desire that led him back to school. There is the sense of curiosity and wonder of place, and there is the desire to collect evidence. Tiananmen Square for example has been denied, but the photographs provide proof.  His photographs are not quick to reach conclusions, but focus instead on scene, juxtaposition, and flux. Details are lost in the wide views his photographs provide, but the overall change in systems, those natural and those caused by man becomes apparent. His photographs provide perspective and a sense of magnitude. As if he were directing a play he casts the characters in his photographs from a distance. Many of his photos have a thoughtful quality as if he were dressing a set. Much of his recent work has looked at the stage man has built for himself and has looked at the different scenes of tragedy, flux, and scale that happen within it. He has photographed the retreating glaciers of Europe as well as the devastation of European forest. He has photographed the development of renewable energy. He has photographed human conflict: slavery in Sudan. And he has photographed trees. Always within the sense of place and change his photographs capture, narrative remains important, and though always beautiful, his work never ignores the poignant and sad. 

Much of his work is visible on his website and a photo-essay of his portraits of trees and tree related quotes is available at Time magazine.

Carbon Capturing Concrete

The most widely used building material on Earth is concrete and the production of concrete is a significant contributer of green house gas emissions. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Carbon Sense Solutions is a firm specializing in carbon capture technologies and mitigation. They have developed a method of sequestering carbon during the curing phase of concrete. In addition to curing faster, the concrete cracks less and has better overall physical properties. It is more durable and more resistant to moisture. “Freshly mixed concrete is exposed to a stream of carbon-dioxide-rich flue gas, rapidly speeding up the reactions between the gas and the calcium-containing minerals in cement (which represents about 10 to 15 percent of the concrete’s volume). The technology also virtually eliminates the need for heat or steam, saving energy and emissions.” The technology works for pre-cast concrete, so in addition to encouraging prefab design, it will reduce the carbon footprint of the concrete industry. The technology has the potential to reduce emissions in the industry by 20 percent.

Facts About Trees #2

The prospect a walking is often viewed as an unappealing option, but that depends on the design of the sidewalk. On a bright hot day, the thought of hoofing it through an overheated stark concrete landscape is not pleasant. The threat of death- by-inattentive-car-driver is another not so pleasant thought that makes a simple walk difficult. Streets and parking lots have to be crossed. But if the walk is along a wide sidewalk shaded with trees and contained between planters full of colorful flowers and small pleasant shops and populated with other strolling pedestrians, the desire to walk, to be out among others, is almost impossible to ignore, like our bodies are begging for simplicity, for the chance to operate once again at a slower pace. Though there is always this pressure and criticism to go faster to be more productive, maybe the slower pace already accomplishes this. Here are some more facts about trees from Dan Burden’s Walkable Communities and other sources.

Whether or not outdoor spaces are green and vegetated had been found to be one of leading reasons these spaces are used. The presence of trees encourages outdoor use. Several studies have found a correlation between the presence of trees and the amount of physical activity of neighborhood residents. When there are more trees, people are more physically active. Considering our nation’s record high rates of obesity and considering the rising rates of childhood obesity and the increasing prevalence of other “adult” diseases in children, like diabetes, planting trees should be done to encourage physical activity.     

Other physical health benefits of trees, in addition to reducing asthma, includes the reduction of inhalation of toxic carcinogens. Emissions from cars include VOCs, Nitrogen Oxides, Carbon Monoxide, smog causing ozone, and particulate matter so small that it can be inhaled into the lungs and even passed into the blood stream. Levels of these pollutants are significantly lower around trees.

The symptoms of attention “disorders” in children, like ADHD, are reduced by outdoor play. Children given the opportunity to play outdoors in green spaces pay attention better, are better able to complete tasks, follow directions, and score higher on tests. 

Knowing the results of this research, both physically and mentally, this makes me think that these disorders may be more a symptom of the environment we are raising children in. There is a clear link between many physical diseases in children now and the decreased amounts of physical activity. The link  between green spaces and attention disorders is less clear. One suggestion is that learning shares a region of the brain with observation of our surroundings and our brain pays particularly close attention to nature, thus engaging learning as well. Instead of treating with drugs, maybe we should address the cause of these symptoms by encouraging outdoor play and developing better more naturalistic green spaces, especially around schools.

Get a Free Tree from PG&E

As part of the Our City Forest Campaign, Pacific Gas and Electric, as part of its trial Shade and Save program, is giving away trees to select customers. The trees will shade homes and air conditioning units, reducing energy cost and energy demand. To qualify, customers must first have a central or window mounted A/C unit. Second they must submit an application through the Our City Forest website. Third, an Our City Forest representative will due a home visit to determine the species best suited for the location as well as were the tree should be placed. After signing a liability form and agreeing to care for the tree, the tree is planted. Three months later an inspector will come by to check on it.