Urban Planning


Tackling Greenhouse Gases from Cars

Photo: Craig Miller

California’s regional planning authorities need to find new ways to get people to leave their cars at home.

Passenger vehicles are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in California, comprising one third of all the state’s emissions.  Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, is designed to chip away at those emissions by curbing sprawl and encouraging infrastructure that gets Californians to drive less — or at least, not as far.

This week the state Air Resources Board met a milestone (so to speak) in the implementation of the law by sending to California’s 18 regional planning organizations, greenhouse gas reduction targets for cars and light trucks .  Now it will be up to the regions to create their own strategies for linking land use and transportation planning in ways that lure Californians out of their cars. Continue reading

Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Coal, Soot and A Mighty Wind

This week in climate news: coal dollars in California, soot in the air, and wind in the desert.

1. Big Coal Donates to Fiorina Campaign

Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina received $63,000 in donations  from out-of-state coal mining interests. About a third of that money is from Murray Energy Corporation in Ohio, the largest privately owned coal producer in the U.S. Continue reading

For Roofs, White Is the New Cool

Officials at the US Department of Energy are checking their roofs for some of that “low hanging fruit” available to increase energy efficiency in buildings. A study released this week by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that “cool roofs” have the potential to offset up to two years worth of worldwide CO2 emissions and reduce the effects of urban “heat islands.” If that’s the case, increasing the albedo, or reflectivity, of roofs and pavements might be the solution to hotter days in the city.

Flying over most California cities reveals relatively few white roofs (Photo: Craig Miller)

Continue reading

Some “Low-Hanging Fruit” Still Hanging

(Photo: Craig Miller)

California’s commercial buildings suck up more than a third of all the electricity used in the state–and that’s too much.

That’s among the conclusions of a new report from the San Francisco-based think tank Next 10. The 12-page report points out that on average, such buildings could cut energy use by 30% just by upgrading insulation, and another 18-to-20% with more efficient lighting.

Though California leads the nation in its stingy use of electricity overall, the report notes that efficiency standards for new construction are “well below what is possible” and what standards are in place are not met by 40% of new buildings. Study co-author Tracey Grose says that’s partly because even if state-of-the-art equipment is installed, it isn’t always used as intended. There are no energy efficiency standards at all for existing buildings. In general, the study finds that energy use in most buildings could be cut by 80% with some basic upgrades.

The report, compiled by the consulting firm Collaborative Economics in Mountain View, and largely a compilation of existing work, also implies that there’s a built-in way to pay for some of these improvements. The authors cite studies showing that commercial tenants are willing to pay higher rents for “greener” space. The report also cites figures from the Building Owners & Managers Association, that some basic improvements in energy efficiency offer a three-to-one return on investment.

Power consumption varies widely within the commercial sector. Next 10 notes that restaurants are the biggest kilowatt hogs per square foot, followed by supermarkets and hospitals (when’s the last time you had to wear a sweater while grocery shopping because the frozen food section was chilling the whole store?).

According to the report, while raw consumption has continued to rise, efficiency in these buildings has leveled off in recent years. Overall, the nearly 6.8 million square feet of commercial space accounts for 37% of California’s electricity use, compared with 40% for commercial buildings nationwide. The latter accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report.

Next 10, which describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan organization” has been a vocal promoter of the economic benefits from greening the state’s economy.

Solar Heats Up In San Francisco

The solar industry has descended on the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco this week. Organizers of the third annual Intersolar North America Conference and Expo expect more than 20,000 attendees.

After a period of explosive growth, the current economic downturn has tested the mettle of solar businesses. Demand for products has declined and panels are sitting on shelves in Europe.

It’s expected that the industry will pick back up as individual states, such as California, and some countries, continue working toward renewable energy goals. As Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest science unit have highlighted in recent reports, California has set a goal for utilities to get a third of their electricity from clean sources by 2020.

But to put that in perspective, Germany, a world leader in solar production, hopes to reach 100% by 2050. And the recent move to cut subsidies notwithstanding, Germany might be on track to reach that goal. At the opening session of Intersolar today, Hans Josef Fell, who helped start a photovoltaic revolution in Germany and is a member of the German parliament, says it is that national commitment that has made the difference. Rooftop solar in Germany, for example, covers nearly 20% of single-family homes and, according to Fell, nearly 60% of multi-family homes and businesses have solar on the roof. During the current economic crisis, Fell says, renewable energy has been the biggest job driver in Germany.

Discussion of large-scale solar opportunities took up a big chunk of the first day at Intersolar. Market analysts, utilities and developers gathered on the dais to discuss ways to help “big solar” grow bigger, especially in California. The take-away: the biggest obstacle is not finding land or overcoming a slow permitting process, but updating transmission lines. A representative from SunPower Corporation said interconnection with the grid and more capacity are among the biggest obstacles to moving forward with medium and large-scale solar projects.

Later this week, attendees at Intersolar take up urban renewable projects and the ins and outs of doing solar business in California. The conference continues through Thursday.

Linking Sprawl and Climate Change

Mark Strozier

(Photo: Mark Strozier)

Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. So in a state where car culture rules, what will it take to get us out of our cars?

That’s the goal behind SB 375, a bill passed in 2008 that links greenhouse gases to urban sprawl. Under this first-in-the-nation policy, the state’s 18 regional planning organizations must reduce the emissions coming from vehicles through land use and transportation planning. This week, the Air Resources Board is expected to release the draft emission reduction targets that the agencies must meet by 2020 and 2035.

While the chances of getting Californians out of their cars completely are slim, the idea is to reduce the number of miles traveled through more public transit, more “walkable” communities and denser development. (Learn more about that in this Quest story about transit villages).

According to a report released today, that development approach can have some dramatic benefits, considering how California is expected to grow. By 2050, some projections put the population at 60 million, adding seven million new households.

The planning firm Calthorpe Associates looked at those housing needs and ran a number of growth scenarios, in a study funded by the California Strategic Growth Council and California High Speed Rail Authority. They compared a business-as-usual approach of low-density suburbs (30% urban and compact growth) to a “growing smart” scenario with more urban in-fill and transit-oriented development (90% urban and compact growth). While that last scenario may sound like the land of endless condos, according to Peter Calthorpe, it would still be 53% single family homes. Calthorpe calls it “a shift back to what California used to build–bungalows.”

Here are some of the benefits they found for the scenario by 2050:

  • Reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled  by nearly 3.7 trillion
  • Saves more than $194 billion in capital infrastructure costs
  • Saves 19 million acre-feet of water
  • Prevents the release of 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 25% less than business-as-usual
  • Saves California households $6,400 per year in auto-related costs and utility bills.

In-fill development can often cost more than low-density development and this report doesn’t take housing prices into account. Indeed, costs may be one of the biggest challenges for SB 375, since both the state and cities are facing budget crises  and a lull in the housing market.

Under the bill, state transportation funding will be prioritized for projects that meet the SB 375 goals. But according to Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments (one of the regional organizations doing the planning), financial incentives will be key to reaching the goals. “I think the biggest challenge is to find incentives to help cities, because cities want to do this, but they don’t have the resources to do it without help,” he said.

Bay Area Planners Get Greenhouse “Guidelines”

The San Francisco Bay Area is among the first metropolitan areas in the nation to set up local developer guidelines for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

The new rules, passed Wednesday by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, mean that developers planning anything that will produce GHG emissions above certain thresholds will face an environmental impact review. For “stationary” sources, projected emissions above 10,000 metric tons (tonnes) per year will now trigger an EIR under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). For other, “non-stationary” projects, the trigger is set at 1,100 tons per year or 4.6 tonnes per person affected, such as residents or workers.

The GHG thresholds are coupled with similar triggers for local pollutants such as particulates and for some emissions that play a role in both local air quality and warming, such as nitrous oxides (NOX). Air District spokesman Aaron Richardson couldn’t confirm that the first-in-the-nation status applied to the GHG guidelines, but that it placed the Bay Area “among the first.”

District chief Jack Broadbent said, in a release, that they “provide a blueprint for local agencies to use in making smart development decisions that protect residents from harmful air emissions and greenhouse gases.” Broadbent said the rules will be “especially protective of communities that already have significant air quality concerns.”

Exactly how they’ll be applied is something that even Air District staffers had a tough time explaining. Abby Young, an environmental planner at the District, who worked on the guidelines, explained that 10,000 tonnes per year is a benchmark that might be associated with a major expansion of an oil refinery. She said 1,100 tonnes per year is more or less the level of GHG emissions associated with a typical 50-home suburban housing development, but that vehicle trips in and out of the neighborhood would also be counted toward the threshold. “It’s a very complex, multi-layered thing,” she said.

The complete guidelines are available as a PDF download from the Air District’s website.

An Earth Day “Natural:” San Francisco’s Tree Census

San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrates how to add a tree to the Urban Forest Map (photo: Gretchen Weber)

San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrates how to add a tree to the Urban Forest Map. Photo: Gretchen Weber

A new online tool launched this week aims to enlist citizens to help catalog San Francisco’s trees.  The Urban Forest Map relies on the public, or “citizen scientists,” to observe their yards and neighborhoods and to add information to an online database that tracks  tree location, species, size, and health, throughout San Francisco.

The project’s creator, Amber Bieg, said that 17 different organizations and agencies in the city manage and track trees, but until now, they had no organized way to share information. “This map provides the ability to aggregate data in a new way,” said Bieg. “And it’s an affordable way to do an inventory because it uses citizen participation.”

Bieg developed the program with funding from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE). Created in cooperation with Friends of the Urban Forest and the City and County of San Francisco, the Urban Forest Map is designed to serve as a publicly accessible, centralized database that will help urban foresters and city planners better manage trees in specific areas, track and combat tree pests and diseases, and plan future tree plantings.

Creators also hope that climatologists will use to the tool to better understand the effects of urban forests on climate, and that students will get involved and use the map to learn about the role trees play in the urban ecosystem. “If you can’t count it, you can’t manage it,” said CAL FIRE urban forester John Melvin. “If the state is going to adapt to climate change, we’re going to have to expand and better manage our urban forests, and that starts with knowing what we have.”

Urban trees can help cities adapt to climate change by providing shade cover and by both mitigating and purifying storm water runoff, Melvin said. Studies have shown that a robust tree canopy can reduce the “urban heat island” effect by several degrees.

To underscore how easy the tool is to use, on Wednesday morning San Francisco 5th-grader Benton Liang demonstrated how to use to the software for a small crowd gathered in a small park at the foot of the Transamerica Building. In addition to providing an inventory, Bieg said, the map is also an educational tool.  The Urban Tree Key is a related interactive tool that helps citizen scientists identify common Northern California urban trees. The map’s software also allows users to calculate the benefits, such as energy savings and air quality, that a specific tree or category of trees provide using data from the Center for Urban Forests Research, said Bieg.

To learn more about the Urban Forest Map, watch a video from 2007 that KQED’s Quest made about the project.