Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Kendra looks at New York City’s transit situation and illustrates how one policy decision can negatively impact seemingly disconnected issues.

In New York City, where I live, if you live more than a mile or so from the school that you attend (public or private), you are eligible for a free New York City Student MetroCard. The Student MetroCard enables students (regardless of financial need) to go to and from school for free.

Unlike in other municipalities few kids in NYC above the age of elementary school or so ride the yellow school busses that are so ubiquitous elsewhere in the country. The public transport system is what New York City kids depend on to cart them to school, extracurricular activities, and even occasionally, field trips. In addition, unlike in other places kids in New York can live as far away as 90-minutes (each direction) from the school that they are attending – even when the student is attending public school.

Currently, the MTA – the body that runs New York’s Public Transport system – is threatening to eliminate student metrocards in an attempt to balance its budget (and others speculate squeeze more money out the already broke state government).

While much can be said about the MTA’s mismanagement of funds which created this predicament (ahem, 2nd avenue train line, and ridiculous executive salaries), the real issue is that by removing free student MetroCard the MTA is placing a roughly 800 dollar per student burden on New York City families.

It is in essence a school fee.

Although the issue is particularly felt by those with children of school age this is an issue that affects all of the city’s residents, and to a certain extent the country.

First, because in New York many of the kids who go to school outside of their home communities, are students of modest economic backgrounds whose local schools fail at the task of providing quality education. By denying those who have illustrated they have the drive and the capacity to excel, the opportunity to do so, we are only serving to further entrench poverty. We’re creating a bigger divide between the have-lots and the have-less.

Secondly, we are in essence sending a message that education matters only to those with the means to afford it. We’re sending a passive message that those who cannot afford transportation to school, basically, don’t count enough to be education.

Thirdly, millions of New York City school students receive free breakfast and lunch at school, often the only real food they would otherwise get. Reducing their access to education, therefore, not only limits their future, it also very much impinges upon their day to day survival and also serves to further exacerbate financial issues as families that are already struggling.

The reason I bring this up is to remind us that sometimes one seemingly disconnected ‘solution’ can cause a myriad of far more expensive problems. Eliminating student MetroCards may (and that’s a big may) help the MTA reach its budget in the short term, but it creates massive ripples that can be felt across the city – as an increase in neighborhood school overcrowding, will lead to a rise in truancy, which often leads to an increase in petty crime, some such as graffiti in the subway, which may negatively impact the MTA’s bottom line. In other words, the MTA may find that eliminating student MetroCards may actually cost them more than it saves them. It’s already cost them a great deal in the court of public opinion.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walking the Walk

One of my favorite web sites is Walkscore.com. Walkscore maps the closest grocery store, school, restaurant, and several other places you might walk to from any address in the United States or Canada. It also gives each location a "Walk Score" based on the distance to those amenities. In addition to the Walkscore for a given address, the site will also produce a "walkshed map."

I've advised realtors to use this web site to focus their inventory to address the higher gas prices that are likely to return as economies recover out of this slump, (and not incidentally focus on development that reduces energy use and emissions) and then market accordingly. Now someone's doing it! One Colorado realtor is using a home's Walkscore as a selling point along with the more typical amenities.

We had best not get complacent about the price of gas. The summer of 2008 was a harbinger of the new reality, not a quirk in the old one. No matter how much reserves the world's oil producers proclaim, the reality is that each drop of oil is harder to get out of the ground (and requires more energy in extraction) than the previous one. If the Sustainable Development community can anticipate this, we can drive some changes.

Here's the next step - We need to press developers to design and build to a Walkscore target, to get them thinking and working as if walkability mattered. They should use this quantitative tool to assess their progress. Why shouldn't this tool be turned around and used to design walkable communities?

We have a grand nexus here of commercial and environmental interests if we can take advantage of it. The nexus is that as economies recover, the price of gas will rise again. (Any developer growing complacent about the price of gas is, I believe, in for a rude surprise in the next year or two. It's already creeping up it seems.) And a "walkable" development has to hold some appeal to anyone who lived through the summer of 2008.

Environmentally, the time to stop auto emissions is obviously past. But I refuse to shrug in resignation. There's still work to do. A Walkscore-rated development will lower life cycle emissions and energy use.
So, who's on board here? We need developers interested in designing this way, and we need to approach Walkscore.com to convince them to create a tool for those developers. Who's on board? Who wants to lead and make this happen? Leave your contact information as a comment.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Peak Oil & Sustainable Development

Before the mortgage debacle hit last fall, gas prices were already playing havoc with real estate sales as the old advice to "drive until you can afford a house" took on a different meaning, and suburban/exurban home sales slowed. So, once the economy rights itself, will that earlier trend continue? Seems so.

An October 2008 survey of petroleum geologists found that a whopping 61% believe that Peak Oil has either already occurred or will occur within 10 years. This was reported in the journal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

For those unfamiliar with Peak Oil, it is the point at which global oil production gradually declines, never to return to its former levels. US Domestic oil production peaked in 1972 leading to the first oil crisis, which was mitigated only by the discovery of North Sea oil and a ramp up of our oil imports from the UK and Middle East.

Unlike some "dark green" prognosticators, I don't believe that oil will not just 'run out.' What runs out is the easily extracted oil. What happens is that more and more of the energy being extracted must be used to extract the next barrel. In the 1970s, on average it took a barrel of oil of energy to extract 25-27 barrels of oil from the ground. By the 1990s, this had decayed to where a barrel of oil of energy would extract 14 or so barrels of oil - an almost 50% decrease in the "Energy Return On Investment," or EROI. The new technologies promoted by the oil companies today result in 4-5 barrels of oil extracted for every barrel of oil of energy used. It's a losers' game.

Interestingly, because of this, economists studying Peak Oil anticipate not a steady rise in the price of gas, but a series of increasingly volatile peaks and troughs in gas prices, with higher highs and higher lows, as demand repeatedly probes the supply limits and falls back (with economic slowdowns due to the cost of energy). Last summer's oil price spike was perhaps the first, but certainly not the last.

We had best not become complacent about the price of gas. Sustainable development should focus on energy efficient homes located in walkable or transit-accessible neighborhoods. This is doubly promising since these are precisely the kinds of neighborhoods that have been shown to strengthen communities. And strong communities are the foundation of sustainable development.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Who Decides?

Does awareness of perceived injustice compel one to act?

Over the weekend I got into a debate with a colleague over who is responsible for development. His opinion is that in the case where human rights are being denied it is the obligation of those who are in a position to do so to intercede (though not necessarily militarily).

I politely disagreed.

Outside of the obvious cases such as genocide, sex trafficking, and child slavery, my argument was and is that as much as I may think that certain practices and aspects of a society are reprehensible, it is not inherently my responsibility as someone outside of that culture/country/society to do something to ‘fix’ them. First, because to do so supposes that I am coming from moral high ground, which has nasty hints of Colonialism which apprehended religious speech to justify unjust actions.  Secondly, until a certain amount of movement comes from within those nations clamoring for change, there is almost no way to sustain change – it becomes something imposed as opposed to something home grown. And finally, when speaking of developing nations we act as though the playing field is even – it is not; often those who are most in a position to act wield economic or military power over those they seek to change. Change comes, then, not from the will of the people, or out of the needs of the people but rather the needs of those interceding: be they economic needs or needs of conscience.

The risks of interceding are clearly on display in the case of Uganda and its Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. The bill would sentence HIV positive homosexuals to death for having sex, severely punish any homosexual with up to life imprisonment, and punish any Ugandan, gay or straight, who knows a homosexual and fails to report him or her to the authorities with up to seven years in prison. The bill goes so far as to repatriate homosexual Ugandans living abroad so that they can face sentencing at home.

How is this ugly bill related to the dangers of those in a position to intercede according to their moral code?

It’s simple. This bill is the outgrowth of years of several decades’ worth of effort on behalf of a US Based Evangelical Christian organization called The Family. The Family has used its power and influence in Uganda to promote anti-gay rhetoric, and a Christian agenda which promotes among other things abstinence only education. Because of their efforts Uganda’s AIDS education program once one of the best on the African Subcontinent is flailing and homophobia which was always problematic is on the rise as evidenced in this bill.

It would be easy to say that The Family and its ilk are misguided, and maybe they are. But who is to say that others acting in accordance with their own conscience are not equally misguided. As it stands now we have The Family on one side, western anti-homophobia activists on the other and The Ugandan people in the middle; their destinies shaped less by their own wills but by whichever side wields the most political influence over their government.

In addition, something my colleague could not seem to wrap his head around was that by acting on behalf of those he deems oppressed in other countries takes away their own agency. It creates a broad brush labeling and creating victims, a view that those people may not hold of themselves. What right do we have to define another individual, never mind entire groups of individuals?

His response was simply that denied education many of these people were simply not in a position to know better and in essence that it was our obligation to think for them. And yet, history is littered with the stirring actions of an uneducated minority: The United State’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln only had about 18 months of formal education, Harriet Tubman had none; Mussolini on the other hand had plenty. A hungry person is not too stupid to know that he is hungry, an uneducated person can and often is still wise enough to draw the links between their own hunger and the social inequities in the world around him or her, and to be bold enough to take action. To presume otherwise, is to laud our own intellect while degrading that of those we presume to want to help.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009


Kendra wonders how do we bring about permanent global change on fundamental levels?

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately, first because on a personal level there are some new habits I’d like to cultivate (hello running) and because on a global level, that is what sustainable development is about isn’t it?

At its core Sustainable Development is about changing the way that we as a species operate on a fundamental level.

If it were just about shifting technologies as so many economists and scientists seem to believe, then we could have accomplished it already. Witness the shift from ozone depleting chemicals to non-ozone depleting chemicals as experienced under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, the shift (of questionable environmental efficacy) to dolphin safe tuna, or the move from organic fertilizers to chemical based ones.

We are very good at changing technologies.

But if you take a step back, each of those shifts was a baby step that did little to fundamentally change how humans operated; at least not at first. Dow and other companies had discovered other chemicals that we could use to keep our aerosol cans without punching a hole in the ozone layer. Farmers lay down chemical fertilizers with no clue as to what it would do to the longer term fertility of their soil, to groundwater, to the state of modern agriculture – it was decades before the full brunt of those actions were felt. Dolphin safe tuna did not in any way impinge upon our ability to eat tuna even though by saving the dolphins we put dozens of other species at risk.

Truly sustainable development means that we have to look beyond the immediate problems (climate change, hunger, systemic poverty, cultural and linguistic extinction, biodiversity loss) and find the root causes in order to not only fix the current problem but also to avoid creating new ones.

And anyone who sits down and looks at the intersection of culture, environment, and economics recognizes that means we have to change, truly change, how we interact with each other and with the planet. It means a shift in thinking from one in which consumption takes center stage to one in which people and the environment occupy the main frame. It means creating economic systems (note the plural) that serve people, instead of people that serve a system. It means a shifting from binary thinking, from black and white, right and wrong, to one in which a plurality of ideas can coexist peacefully. It means accepting conflict, but rejecting war.

The question really isn’t do we need to change, but rather how do we bring about Cultural Revolutions in a broad and long lasting way.

Any suggestions?

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