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Upcoming event – Metro Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast – The Opportunities for Urban Density November 25, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.
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WHEN – Thursday November 27th, 7:30am to 9:00am
WHAT – Metro Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast “The Opportunities for Urban Density”
WHERE – BCIT Downtown Campus.
WHY – Because urban density is a key issue in the future of the Metro Vancouver regional development.

I would have linked to the Metro Vancouver website but guess what? It’s DOWN! Argh. See you there (despite the fact that it’s going to be the second time I have to be at an event at-7.30-in-the-morning). I am SO not a morning person.


Governing water, governing ourselves July 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, water, water policy.
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Continuing on my research-related posts, I have previously talked about my research on wastewater governance, on environmental NGO mobilization, and now I’ll briefly talk about what I have studied on water supply governance.

False Creek (the Yaletown side)

I was going to leave this post all the way until Blogathon, but Arieanna’s recent post on “Canada, the water” reminded me of the relevance of understanding how water supplies and water management works (great post Arieanna by the way). Arieanna’s post calls attention to the fact that the bottled water being sold at Whole Foods was pretty much targeted towards tourist buyers.

Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

Photo credit: Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

What worries me a bit more is not so much the privatization and commodification of water, but the misconceptions of water availability on this planet. According to the 2nd. United Nations Word Water Report, between 25 and 40% of the world’s drinking water comes from ground sources (groundwater).

This fact should be scary to people, but I’m not sure that people who live in Canada and particularly British Columbia (since we are so well served by our watersheds and local reservoirs) realize the degree of water scarcity that pervades the world, even if there is a generalized perception that . Therefore, it’s not hard to think that many people have a reason to be rightfully annoyed by the increasing privatization of water supplies.

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Given the investment and capital costs that need to be covered in order to provide groundwater for drinking purposes, I would imagine that people would be cognizant of water scarcity and avoid increasing demand on water reserves, both by conserving water and by recycling grey water. In one of my research projects, I have looked at the use of common pool resource (CPR) theory to try and understand the conflicts amongst two communities who share and access the same aquifer (in Mexico).

The nature of public accessibility of aquifers makes them an excellent laboratory to study the behavior of communities who have to share a common resource that can be depleted if inappropriately managed. The purpose of my post was (as subtly suggested in the header) to indicate that in order to appropriately manage or govern water, we need to first learn to govern ourselves and control our natural consumptive instinct, in order to avoid depletion of our water reserves. Will we be able to do that? And how can we increase the visibility of the challenges of governing water when we can clearly see that other issues (such as climate change) are so high up in the environmental agenda in Canada?

More resources and materials for reading:

– The World Water Assessment Project page – Provides lots of information and good statistics. The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme is currently putting together the 3rd World Water Report.

CBC Series on Water – While I am VERY weary of pointing people out to media sources instead of academic sources, I kind of liked this series.

– The National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada – Basically focuses on freshwater, but a good resource nonetheless.

– The International Water Resources Association (IWRA).

The governance of wastewater and the culture of flushing July 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, wastewater, water.
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One of the things that has struck me a lot throughout the past five years that I have studied water policy is the absolute disconnect that exists between our understanding of the different elements of the hydrological cycle and their interconnectedness. The social sciences literature has examined in great detail issues of water scarcity, but water quality and wastewater treatment are, for the most part, absent from the discussion.

The Joy of the Mundane

Photo credit: The Joy of the Mundane

I know that I have always chosen difficult and non-explored questions for my own research, and in this regard, I have created some sort of a niche because very few people study the governance of wastewater. Amongst those very few Canadian scholars who have done work in wastewater and that I know of are Dr. Arn Keeling (whose PhD dissertation was an environmental history of wastewater in Vancouver) and Dr. Jaimie Benidickson (whose book, “The Culture of Flushing“, is a great environmental and social history of flushing in Canada, the United States and Great Britain).

My own work hasn’t dealt with Canadian wastewater, but I do have a fairly solid understanding of the way things work here. I am sure you’ll find it appalling that the city of Victoria, the capital of the province of British Columbia, does NOT have a wastewater treatment plant. The effluent comes straight into the ocean (with some preliminary screening).

Burnaby Lake Park

A recent post by Matt Collinge about water quality in False Creek reminded me of how little do people in Vancouver AND in Canada think about wastewater. This is something that is prevalent at the larger scale. Professor Dickinson indicates that this is part of “the culture of flushing”, or what I often call, the OOSOOM phenomenon (out of sight, out of mind).

One of my personal pet peeves is that both scholars and non-academics in Canada are SO focused on climate change issues that sometimes they forget other environmental problems that have NOT been solved, including solid waste management (Vancouver’s landfill is about to be entirely full) and wastewater management (we are nowhere near some of the developing countries’ technologies for wastewater treatment, hard to believe as that may be).

My research focus in the area of water policy (I’ve done research in other areas) has examined primarily the role of institutions and the types of rules found in wastewater governance, and the role of watershed councils in strengthening sanitation policy. I found, after that presentation, and having had discussions with other scholars, that I will have to pursue two separate agendas in the future: one on wastewater governance itself and one on watershed councils, and I am very excited about this.

I am curious to know if my readers do think about water scarcity more than they think about what happens once they flush the toilet. Or does even water come into their minds, with so much focus on climate change issues? What do you think?

Unappreciated beauty in North Vancouver June 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, Focus on Vancouver, North Shore, random thoughts, urbanization, Vancouver, water.
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It’s a fact: human beings take things for granted. Canadians and Vancouverites are not exempted from this. Why on Earth would people choose to voluntarily pollute their environment is beyond me. Do you want to guess what I found on this gorgeous park, right besides Lonsdale Quay (after having hung out with Arieanna for a bit at Waves on 1st. St. and Lonsdale)?

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Yeah… I found THIS…

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale


North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Does this upset me? YES. IT DOES. The mere reason why I traveled all the way from Mount Pleasant to the North Shore was to enjoy the scenic beauty (which I did), to have a chance to hang out with friends (which I did). However, I was not prepared to be taken aback by the lack of environmental awareness of what is touted as “the most environmentally-friendly city in Canada”. Well… somebody needs to remind its citizens about better environmental behavior.

/end rant.

And here is a gorgeous view that may give you a hint on why I travel to North Van for comfort.

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Supporting the UBC Farm struggles through Web 2.0 June 10, 2008

Posted by Raul in food for thought, random thoughts, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver, Web 2.0.
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At the recent Trout Lake Farmers’ Market, I was chatting with Andrew (who volunteers with the UBC Farm), and he reminded of their continuous struggle to keep the UBC Farm on location (given UBC’s recent increase in real estate development). For obvious reasons, I’ll stay out of the legal discussions but I can totally see the benefit of maintaining the UBC Farm where it is.

So what is the struggle, you ask? I asked Andrew to provide me with materials that explained this in more detail. From their brochure, I have extracted a couple of paragraphs that are relevant:

“- The Vancouver Campus Plan (VCP) is currently undergoing a review process. Campus plans have designated the Farm as ‘future housing reserve’ and downplay the value of the farm by basing their understanding of South Campus on data that predates current Farm operations.

– The UBC Farm is a unique institution necessitating a consultation process that explicitly addresses its potential contributions to regional sustainability and campus life in the future. This has not been possible within consultations designed to plan the entire campus.

– Physical layout options for South Campus will be presented in fall 2008. A final decision will be made by the UBC Board of Governors and then approved by the Metro Vancouver Land Use and Transportation Committee.”

Of course, the best way to make decisions is to be informed, so check these websites and related materials! For more information, you can go to their blog, the UBC Farm website, and the Friends of UBC Farm website.

My growing dependency on transit in the Metro Vancouver region June 3, 2008

Posted by Raul in transportation, urbanization, Vancouver.
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This past month (May), for reasons that I will not get into here, I had to buy bus tickets and spent over $60 on tickets alone. Admittedly, if I had known that the bureaucratic issues were not going to be resolved by May 2nd, I would have bought a traditional bus pass. Unfortunately, I didn’t and ended up feeling trapped. Yes, trapped is the word. I had to ask my friends to come to my stomping grounds (the Main St./Mount Pleasant area).

Moreover, when I had to head downtown, I had to be very strategic about where I was going and how many events I attended in a day. Fortunately, the week that I attended Launch Party IV, VIDFEST, Convergence and Third Tuesday I also happened to be downtown, so it wasn’t all that bad. All this comes to just remind me how dependent I am now on my bus pass and on transit in general.

I fixed these issues last Thursday, and even though I am not attending lots of events, I have been feeling incredibly free. Just the mere fact that I can commute everywhere within the Metro Vancouver area without feeling trapped by the confines of my geographical area (as I was before, not having my bus pasS) has made me gain a new appreciation for the need for appropriate transit.

I rarely talk about transit or local politics or these kinds of issues as there are many other bloggers in the Metro Vancouver area who do it (of course, admittedly, I may disagree with many of these bloggers’ views, but I still think that we need them). But for example, some local bloggers who talk transit in a much better light than I do are Stephen Rees, Karen Fung and Paul Hillsdon (who by the way is running for council in Surrey).

Despite the fact that my blog is pretty personal, I think it is important for me to highlight some issues that are of relevance (at least, to my personal life!) – and one of these is the need for good transit. I have become very dependent on a good transit system, and I am pretty good at navigating it. The other day, JT and I were roaming around Vancouver and Burnaby, and I was the one giving directions. Why? Because I’ve used the system for so long and so frequently that now I know many of my routes.

I do wish that we had a better system, including (but not limited to)
– that Translink got their act together with a line that goes through 16th Avenue,
– that Cambie hadn’t been decimated the way it was,
– that the board was more transparent and accountable,
– that the rest of the Metro Vancouver was as well covered as some of the downtown areas,
– that the fares weren’t as high (I dare Metro Vancouver and Translink to offer such low fares as those offered in the Mexican transit system),

Now, the question goes to YOU. What things are in your wish-list for the Metro Vancouver transit system and for Translink?

Upcoming event – Living Car Free – Climate Cafe May 15, 2008

Posted by Raul in climate cafe, climate change, East Vancouver, environment, Main Street, Mount Pleasant, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.
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I always knew that some day, someone would finally clue in and decide to host more environmentally-oriented events in my neighbourhood. Of course, I am pretty sure that almost 90% of you don’t know that throughout the month, Rhizome Cafe plays host to a LOT of events, many of which are focused on social justice and sustainability. But it’s only one venue. There should be MANY events in other venues. Main Street/Mount Pleasant has LOTS to offer in terms of great spaces for socially responsible happenings.

Well, it turns out that someone realized that the concept of the Philosopher Cafe could be applied now as a Climate Cafe, so via Stephen Rees, I found out about the Climate Cafe that will take place on May 20th at Bean Around the World on Main and almost Broadway. Living Car Free is the theme of this month’s Climate Cafe.

I kind of feel guilty that with all the stuff that has been happening around me, I haven’t been paying much attention to upcoming events and thus might have kept you my dear readers a bit out of the loop. I promise to be more “on the ball” next time 🙂 Hat tips to Stephen Rees for always reminding me of stuff that I probably should know about but have been insanely busy to remember. His blog is awesome!

April 22nd 2008 – Earth Day April 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in climate change, environment, EPIC 08, epic08, epic2008, sustainability, upcoming events, urbanization, Vancouver, water.

Lynn Canyon Park (North Vancouver)
Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

Earth Day is celebrated in many countries on April 22nd. Many people offer varied stories, but the most widely accepted is that April 22nd is the anniversary of the modern American environmental movement (although some people would argue that it was the worldwide environmentalism that was born that year). Other milestones, such as the 1972 United Nations Summit on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972) are so close to the year 1970 mark it as the birth year of environmentalism.

Earth Day Links offers a slight variation of the story with Senator Gaylord Nelson touted as the organizer of Earth Day. I’m not going to debate or dispute this, I just want to point out that environmental awareness increased between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Although my specialization is environmental issues, and I do celebrate Earth Day, there have been some sombre developments in the lives of very close friends that really prevent me from being overly excited about Earth Day. So, instead I offer some link love for you. Have a good Earth Day!

Lynn Canyon Park (North Vancouver)
Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

– Earth Day Canada offers 10 small steps you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. Check their suggestions here.

– Evergreen’s Earth Day Vancouver celebration will take place on Saturday April 26th at Jericho Beach from 11 am to 5 pm. Most likely, I’ll be there. More info can be found here.

– To celebrate Earth Day, make sure to check the recently completed Vancouver Sun Sustainable Living EPIC Expo 2008, and look for the HappyFrog FrogBlog coverage (I got a few posts there too!).

– If you are located elsewhere on the Lower Mainland you can look here for various listings of events. It does include some Vancouver-based events!.

Liveblogging “An Evening of Green Web 2.0” March 25, 2008

Posted by Raul in blogosphere, Downtown, environment, Gastown, social networking, sustainability, upcoming events, urbanization, Vancouver.

After a short chat with Rebecca (aka Miss604), I decided that I was going to liveblog the event. She is also liveblogging, so mosey over to her blog for another perspective.

I was quite excited about the prospect, since I hadn’t met Darren Barefoot in person, nor the other two speakers. There is a bonus guest speaker. UPDATE – Food sponsored by WriteImage, additional sponsorship by Communicopia and location sponsorship by WorkSpace.

5.58pm – Rebecca has suggested that I live-blog and I accept, and surprisingly (and happily) my laptop is not having issues. I manage to get Wi-Fi and here I go!

6:10pm Owen works for a recent start-up in West Vancouver. They are organizing an event for Earth Hour (turn off all unnecessary power and lights). He mentioned that the biggest event will be in Toronto, but there are others here in Vancouver. Owen’s company does energy information management. Currently, they are working on a project that will monitor the energy savings that will be gained from Vancouver people participating in Earth Hour. Owen’s firm is also helping UBC measure opportunities for greenhouse gas reduction (if I understood correctly).

Ron Williams @ HappyFrog.

6:15pm Ron is “the token non-geek” of the evening. He’s going to talk about “Why HappyFrog?”. Live for about 5 months. What brought Ron to do what he did? He described the larger perspective that brought him to do this. He first looked at his Ecological Footprint (a concept developed by UBC professor William Rees and his PhD student, now professor Mathis Wackernagel, that measures how much land would we need to use per capita – so you’d need a few planet Earths to sustain a world-wide North American life-style). By the way, if you want to calculate your own ecological footprint, you can do so here.

RAUL’S NOTE – I was quite impressed at the degree to which Ron understands the whole issue around the problems with non-sustainable consumption, with the fact that the planet has a limited carrying capacity, and that our consumption patterns are unsustainable.

6.23 pm – Ron’s speech continues. These non-sustainable mega-trends should make us look at the level of dislocation and disruption – when will we realize how much impact we have? So, this is how Ron understood the world, and he wanted to create an independent media project – that’s how HappyFrog came to exist.

HappyFrog is harnessing social media, creating a resource that is locally-based, it is a hyper local directory of about 2000 businesses and non-for-profit that are British-Columbia-based. It’s based on Drupal. Basically a parallel to the 100-mile diet (“the 100-mile economic diet”) – socially responsible businesses with emerging commitments to sustainability. Everything is in your own backyard, the scale is different. He also commented about Epic – the Sustainable Living Show. They’ll going to put up a team of social media.

RAUL’S COMMENTS – Ron did a great presentation that was (surprisingly) non-geeky and without a laptop. Great behind-the-scenes description of how he came to be inspired to create HappyFrog. I am glad I now know more about HappyFrog.

Rex Turgano @ The Green Pages.

6.35 pm Rex is the Creator of The Green Pages website. In a nutshell, it is an environmental, Canadian website dedicated to sharing stories and information. They’ve been operating for about 10 years now. (RAUL’S NOTE – Love the layout!). In 1996, Rex started off at Univ of Waterloo, and apparently this idea came to fruition at the U Waterloo dorm. From their website:

thegreenpages.ca is a grassroots web phenomenon that started in the dorm room of an environmental studies student at the University of Waterloo. It began with a large collection of links and then grew into an interactive portal highlighting the latest social-economic, environment-related news, events, and stories from across Canada. The site acted as what is known today as a “blog” and created opportunities for students, organisations, and community groups to voice their opinions and share information. Today, the web site is a virtual “library” of ideas, success stories, snap-shots from the past, and inspiration.

RAUL’S COMMENT – At The Green Pages, you can browse by category and by region (e.g. if you want to check out British Columbia stuff you can check it out using a pull-down menu. I insist, I love the design. It was also nice to see him describe the actual evolutionary process (e.g. how he went from composing HTML on Netscape Communicator to adding discussion groups on Yahoo! and experimenting with logos, and animated GIFs – Rex is really funny, I have to say. Very good presenter.

Rex was frustrated and tired of forwarding stuff to people who were asking him the inevitable question “hey where do I find this environmentally-related stuff?“. He commented about a website that he used to go back through time, Archive.org. Holy smokes, you can go back SO many years! In 2004, his website evolved into a portal (similar to Google).

Over the years, The Green Pages has supported a LOT of organizations (and catalogued them, with the help of a few volunteers). The site kept growing and growing, and people started sending books (Rex, can I get a few of those? hehehehe). Apparently people thought that he was this huge organization (hopefully one day, Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment gets me some free books!).

RAUL’S NOTE – It’s kind of nice to see that there are other people who have studied graduate programs in Environmental Studies (although at a different university – I confess that would *love* to be a professor at Rex’s alma mater – the Faculty of Environmental Studies at University of Waterloo). If I get a tenure-track position with FES, that’d be a dream job! Anyhow… I digress… back to Rex’s talk.

In 2003-2005 he became frustrated with information overload and partner frustration. So by then he realized that he could blog and that the social interaction was already built in. Thus began the “Greater Conversion” as Rex called it. He wanted a fluid site (RAUL’S NOTE – It is fluid, Rex, don’t change it!)

Numbers: 15 blogs, 10331 entries, 3000 links, 11,000 visits per month, circa 500 per day, 45+ volunteers across Canada. This is a part-time gig, with no funding. GreenPages as a media outlet, enviro-buddy, etc. They’re focusing on the latest technology (WordPress, Drupal, etc.), breaking down content, some social media technology (Upcoming.org, and Facebook – RAUL’S NOTE – I *hate* Facebook but *love* Upcoming.org – it links to my Google Calendar!)

Darren Barefoot – Associated with DeSmogBlog

6.51pm – It’s Darren Barefoot’s turn! Man, does he *ever* have a great voice! He should be a radio anchor, because his voice just filled this room. Very excited about the prospect of seeing him speak and meet with him in person for the first time!

Capulet (the company that Darren is a partner of) started to work with DeSmogBlog – he is NOT using PowerPoint (I’m very impressed) – using a very unusual but cool . Widgets – a widget is a “little bit of functionality on a website”. They made a desktop widget. Folks at DeSmogBlog – display the carbon footprint of the planet. Capulet helped DeSmogBlog create apparently the first carbon footprint widget out there.

Darren talked about Digg (ok, so I’m a non-geek blogger and yes I was excited to hear about Digg). It’s kind of a bookmarking service. DeSmogBlog is strongly and aggressively tackling bad climate-change skeptic PR.

They (DeSmogBlog and Capulet) have also engaged blogger outreach (I admit that I didn’t want to get involved with DeSmogBlog for a long time due to my work commitments, but now as they are shifting, I might want to get involved with them – even if climate change isn’t like full-on my research area, but I’ve studied the literature long enough). They also created a newsletter (old-school).

So it seems that DeSmogBlog also tried to do YouTube videos (but apparently didn’t really take off very much – the ones that worked, very few). According to DB, Facebook and MySpace bad for advertising (RAUL’S COMMENT – YAY Me! I don’t have to sign on to FB nor MS either – no source of revenue!!).

Question from the audience – Did you consider podcasting? – DB – Not really… they wanted to do some videos, but it is a lot more work that a blog post. 5 blog posts take less time than one podcast (RAUL’S NOTE – I agree. I love podcasts, though – but I am not sure they’d work that well at propagating climate-change stuff).

Question from the audience – what were the metrics of success of the site? – DB – Simple: more links, more visits, etc. Google Analytics, Technorati (which doesn’t seem to be all that great right now).

7.10 pm – The event is basically over. I think I’m going to stay for a bit and/or join DB at Steamworks (head over there if you feel like it!)

UPDATE – In a previous post I had already suggested that I would attend this event, but I can’t stop giving myself pats in the back for doing it because it was REALLY fun, and I got to chat to a number of people (which I’ll mention in my next post).

Review of "Two decades of failed climate change policy" by Mark Jaccard March 5, 2008

Posted by Raul in climate change, environment, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.
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First, I want to apologize because while I heard the second half of the lecture, I couldn’t take notes as my battery died half way through (actually, exactly half way through). So, the notes you’re going to read are pretty much only from the first half. Since Mark is an academic (and so am I), I think I would be making him a disservice if I wrote what I recall. The rest of my notes are pretty verbatim (I type really really fast) so I think I captured what he said.

Second, my overall assessment. I think Mark’s lecture was excellent. I know that a lot of people are going to complain about certain points that he made, or about his particular viewpoints on a number of issues (for example, on why he opposes Gateway). And quite honestly, I do disagree with some of his points as well (particularly in regards to carbon offsets). But the truth is, he really made it easy for a general audience to understand the rather conceptually complex theory behind environmental policy instruments. I think that there is a place for academics like Mark who are able to connect to general audiences and explain these concepts to them in an easy and accessible way. I know three other experts in the field of climate change in Canada who have the same ability, although they are based at UBC (not SFU).

He first started by explaining four broad categories of environmental policy tools to reduce GHG emissions from fossil fuels, based on four methods of reduction:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Switch to renewable energy sources or nuclear energy
  • Pollution control (carbon sequestration)
  • Catch-all

In Mark’s words, politicians don’t do the above. Consumers, households and industry do it. So, governments only have policy tools to lead us to change actions. The four categories of policies he suggested are:

  • Information programs
  • Subsidies
  • Regulation
  • Financial charges

Mark made a point that I found interesting – he is NOT an advocate of a carbon tax, as often portrayed in the media, but he said he was an advocate of compulsory policy because research has shown him that’s the way to do it. That’s not surprising to hear (that his research is often misinterpreted and portrayed in the wrong way on the media – that’s happened to a number of other researchers – just ask Robert Putnam and his latest research on social capital, diverse communities and ‘hunkering’)

Mark also made a point that all previous policies that had been implemented in Canada had failed to meet the target. According to Jaccard, energy efficiency is more costly than we think (what he called the second inconvenient truth), but that doesn’t mean that we ought not to do it, we still should do it.

While I have a smattering of other notes, I think that the best I can do is to just give you what were his main points. He suggests that non-compulsory policies (like subsidies, information programs, etc.) are NOT a substitute for compulsory policies.

I was a little surprised (and taken aback) that he apparently doesn’t advocate or even like the idea of offsets (as noted below)

With apologies to people who have worked very hard to establish offsets emissions. It can give us a sense that “we don’t need to put in the compulsory policy”. An offset is a subsidy from an individual to another individual. Still has the same problems with subsidy – we have to try to make sure that the money will indeed make people behave differently – how can you be sure of that?

I do like the idea of offsets because (a) at least they’re at least a first step in reducing emissions and (b) there are systems that can be third-party audited. But then again, each one of us is entitled to our own opinion.

Overall, I liked his delivery style, and it was an interesting lecture. I think that what VTACC is doing is rather important (educating people on climate change issues). I also think that they can’t stop with three lectures and they need to keep this going. You’d be surprised. I got to the Canadian Memorial Church to see a room pretty much full with people who wanted to learn more about climate change. I don’t think that VTACC should stop, they should continue the lecture series (and bring lots of other perspectives, even within the academic realm).

VTACC will make his PowerPoint slides available freely on their website (he didn’t want us to ‘read the slides’ so he only showed one or two throughout the conference). If you want to learn more about what Dr. Mark Jaccard does, you can look here.

Recognizing heterogeneity in Vancouver’s urban form – The pitfalls of EcoDensity February 19, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.

In a very recent post, Stephen Rees links to an article written by Erick Villagomez (a Vancouver-based architect, and I might add a very fine writer) on the actual urban densities in Vancouver. Making use of really nice visualization tools, Villagomez shows that East Vancouver is highly dense (despite whatever people’s perceptions may be).

Since Rees asked the question “do you think EcoDensity(R) will make a difference)?” I figured I’d answer with a short essay of my own. Furthermore, I wanted to express some ideas that relate to the concept of urban density and the realities of sustainable urban form.

First off, we need to think about what we define as urban density. The statistical figures offered by Villagomez are in dwellings per acre. While one could criticize his data for not actually including the number of people in each dwelling, these data shed some light on whether there has been an increase in urban density (as measured by dwellings per acre) or not. Let’s accept his data for the insights they provide – there are more physical units in more denser areas than there are in less dense areas. We don’t know if there are more people there, but we could safely assume that it is the case (imagine 10 houses per acre with 4 people each house, vis-a-vis 10 buildings per acre with 10 apartments each with 2 people – the ratio is 40/200 or 1/5)

Clearly, from Villagomez’s map (which you can find here) the Downtown core is the most dense area. There are some surprises with areas like northern Kitsilano having a comparable density to that of downtown (or at least so would appear from Villagomez’s map). What I find interesting is that there is now evidence to support the statement that the West Side of Vancouver needs to increase its density.

Villagomez’s point seems to be that we should look at homogeneous densification processes (e.g., achieving the same densities in East Vancouver and the West Side). That would be a good idea. The problem is that it would go against the realities of heterogeneity in urban form in Vancouver.

That is the point I am making in this essay: That we should recognize the heterogeneity of communities and populations in Vancouver. The West Side has been traditionally considered affluent and wealthy. The East Side houses more middle-income (and in some areas, low-income) population. There are natural heterogeneities in Vancouver’s urban form that have been in place longer than I’ve been on this planet. We should find rational and smart ways to address these heterogeneities, and first of all, we should recognize them.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that recognizing this heterogeneity means that we should just keep our arms crossed. Not at all! I think what we ought to do is to call things like they are and tell the politicians that we are aware that there should be a middle-ground where some single family homes may need to remain. However, that doesn’t mean that densification shouldn’t occur. The chasm between the East Side and the West Side can be bridged with smart densification strategies.

One of the problems I see with urban planning consultations is that they are very prone to problems of NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard). Sometimes, communities even go as far as to go BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). We should try to make it clear to the people living in areas that are potential targets for densification that the intent is not to bring crime to a certan area, but to reduce car trips, build vibrant communities and strengthen social capital. These would all be good objectives of an EcoDensity strategy. And to respond Stephen’s question – no, I don’t think EcoDensity is making a difference right now. But I would like it to. So, here’s hoping…

Upcoming event – Ecodensity workshops (Vancouver) January 18, 2008

Posted by Raul in sustainability, upcoming events, urbanization, Vancouver.
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It annoys me to no end that important events aren’t promoted and/or broadcasted in mainstream media. Even though I was alerted to these workshops by an email from my friend J, I didn’t see it in the news. Thus, I make it my duty to try and promote local, Vancouver-based events whenever I can. This is one of those important dates you shouldn’t miss.

Ecodensity workshops will take place in the remainder of January 2008 and February 2008. From the City of Vancouver’s Ecodensity website, here are the dates of the next workshops. If you want to meet me in person, I’ll most likely be at the January 30th (unless, of course, Vancouver Blogger Meetup is the same day – which then would mean that I’d have to attend another date for the workshop).

The workshop dates are as follows:[City of Vancouver Ecodensity website]

Saturday, January 26, 1 – 3:30 pm
Van Dusen Gardens, Floral Hall
5251 Oak Street

Wednesday, January 30, 7 – 9:30 am
Polish Community Centre
4015 Fraser Street

Sunday, February 3, 1 – 3:30 pm
Croatian Cultural Centre
3250 Commercial Drive
*Chinese facilitation available

Tuesday, February 12, 7 -9:30 pm
St. James Hall
3214 West 10th Avenue

Saturday, February 16, 1:30 – 4 pm
Chinese Cultural Centre
50 East Pender Street
*Chinese facilitation available

Please RSVP to ecodensity@vancouver.ca

Let me note that the locations for the workshops are fairly low-to-medium density. I wonder how would West End or Yaletown residents react to Eco-Density workshops. Same thing goes for areas like Shaughnessy or Dunbar. At any rate, I think you should participate, and feel free to spread the word.

The Provincial Transit Plan and Mexico City’s case January 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in Canada, Mexico, sustainability, transportation, urbanization, Vancouver.

There are lots of people raving (and some ranting) about the recently unveiled Provincial Transit Plan, with ambitious goals of a Skytrain to UBC, amongst others. Since there are other bloggers who have covered the issue much better than me (like Stephen Rees, Gordon Price and Paul Hillsdon), I figured that I should examine the issue from a different perspective, so here it is. I’m not a transportation policy expert, but I do know a few things about urban planning and sustainability.

One of the things that surprises me (to this day) is the size of the Metro Vancouver region (formerly the Greater Vancouver Regional District) and it poorly designed transit system. Compared to Mexico City, Metro Vancouver has roughly one-tenth of the population, and a GDP per capita about ten times higher. However, if you look at the Metro system in Mexico City, the latter is so much better and so much more used than the Skytrain, that it does beg the question – why is it that a city in a third-world, relatively poorer country can have such a stellar transportation system as compared to Vancouver (which is supposed to be a world-class, affluent, wealthy, first-world kind of city).

The Metro system in Mexico City [Photo credit: Wikipedia’s entry on Mexico City Metro]

Don’t get me wrong. There IS a reason why I live in this city. But it’s not its transportation system, for sure. I am well aware of the air pollution problems in Mexico City, and I also know the argument that these problems are in large measure due to the excessive number of cars (here is a link to a study that looked interesting). However, it is indeed true that the Metro system in Mexico City kicks ass. You can get pretty much anywhere within the urban core. So much that, when having conversations with residents of Mexico City, they make geographical references to specific Metro stations. For example, one of my very best friends used to live a block away from Metro Mixcoac. The bus station is at Metro Autobuses del Norte. The Benito Juarez International Airport has a station at Metro Terminal Aérea. The Zócalo has a Metro station, so does the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas is pretty much within five blocks of Metro Tlatelolco.

Having enjoyed the Metro system (and the peseras) in Mexico City less than two weeks ago (accompanied by a Canadian, indeed), I can’t help but laugh at the irony that Mexico City’s transportation system can be so much better than that of the whole province of British Columbia (in my opinion, of course … if you have enough data and a good solid argument to defeat my proposition, I’m happy to discuss it).

Viewing this issue from another angle, if you think about it, unless Metro Vancouver creates a smart growth/smart transportation strategy, its air quality going to end up much worse than Mexico City. Just think about it for a second… if it is true (I still have my doubts) that Mexico City’s air pollution is due to the excessive number of polluting cars and other vehicles, even with a kick-ass, world-class Metro system like the one it has, can you imagine what will happen to Metro Vancouver a few years down the road?

Sometimes, when analyzing policy (and creating new policies), it’s useful to look at how other cities/regions/countries are doing things, and first-world countries can learn from third-world countries too, just as much. It would be good for Metro Vancouver to look at Mexico City as an example of a solid transportation system that moves millions of people around. Thoughts anyone?

Transportation policy Hillsdon-style January 12, 2008

Posted by Raul in sustainability, transportation, urbanization, Vancouver.
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I learned about Paul Hillsdon’s blog through other bloggers, such as Miss604, Keefer, Gordon Price, Erika Rathje and Stephen Rees. I was shocked at first to hear that he was just 16 (at the time, he’s now 17). His posts are extremely well written, coherent and articulate.

Well, his readership is exploding now, in part because he wrote a really well-researched plan for transportation South of the Fraser river (I would suggest you go to Price‘ or Rees’ blogs for discussions on the matter, as Paul’s server is overwhelmed – you can also check the Livable Region Coalition blog).

The point I would like to make (since I am not really a transportation kind of guy – but I do have other strengths in urban planning and sustainability) is that instead of just complaining, Paul’s plan is making suggestions. I would like to encourage other bloggers, readers, citizens of Vancouver and the Metro Vancouver (formerly GVRD) area to write proposals and offer suggestions. It’s easy to rant and whine, and hard to research a topic and put countless hours into developing a coherent and well-analyzed report. Let’s all try to follow Paul’s example and use the second strategy. Congratulations Paul!

Upcoming event – Homelessness Action Week 2007 October 17, 2007

Posted by Raul in charities, East Vancouver, upcoming events, urbanization, Vancouver.
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The connections between urban sprawl, sustainability, extreme poverty, homelessness and unaffordability of housing are undeniable. The residential housing market in Vancouver has grwon stronger in the past few years. However, it is also undeniable that social housing is a need in the Metro Vancouver area. The Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness has designated October 15th to 21st, 2007 as Homelessness Action Week.

While there are many being organized around Metro Vancouver, you can check the Vancouver events here. There are two specific ones to which I would like to call your attention (from their website):

Friday October 19: Sandwich and Blanket Handout to Street Homeless
When: 4–6 p.m.
Where: Broadway Youth Resource Centre, 691 E. Broadway

Saturday, October 20: Under One Umbrella
A community service fair for people who are homeless, street-involved, or living in poverty in Grandview Woodlands and surrounding areas. In addition to services, there will be food and entertainment. For more information, please contact the Grandview Woodlands Drug and Alcohol Coalition at:
When: 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Where: Aboriginal Friendship Centre, 1607 E. Hastings St, Vancouver

I strongly believe that sustainability and social responsibility starts at home. Thus, I would like to invite you dear readers to partake in one or more of these events. Because everybody has a right to a life with dignity and a home.

Sustainable transportation in Vancouver September 13, 2006

Posted by Raul in environment, transportation, urbanization, Vancouver.
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Today I had a really hard time taking the 99 B-Line. Most buses went through, fully loaded with people. As someone with an environmentally-minded orientation, I should be happy. But I can’t be happy because, even though we are making more use of public transit, we are indeed over capacity. The popularity of the U-Pass (a universal bus pass for students at UBC and SFU) has made it commuting much easier (as it covers all three zones of the Lower Mainland).

Sustainable transportation should also be climate-neutral, in my humble opinion. I was talking about this topic with Marcela, who is very passionate about sustainable transportation. For example, she was suggesting that street-light coordination would be but just one of the many ways in which you could streamline traffic in the Metropolitan Zone of Guadalajara. I don’t know since I don’t work in transportation, but I’ll take her word for it 🙂

The World Urban Forum in Vancouver – June 19th to 23rd, 2006 June 17, 2006

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.
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Well, I picked up today my badge and registration package for the III World Urban Forum that will take place in Vancouver from June 19th to 23rd.

Given my interest in urban sustainability and the politics of environmental regulation, water sanitation, patterns of land use and zoning, it is fitting that this event is taking place in the city where I live now. Lucky me! I was unfortunately away from Mexico when the 4th World Water Forum took place (too bad, since water policy is one of my research interests). But at least I got to attend one megaconference in 2006.

But there is one substantial difference between WUF3 and 4WWF (that’s how they like to be called, really!) is that WUF3 was 100% free. Gratis. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Whereas, to ensure participation in the 4WWF you would have had to shell out in the realm of $ 600.00 US (six hundred US dollars). Now, quite obviously WUF will have substantial participation from NGOs, academia and the general public, simply because it is taking place here and it is entirely free!

The Georgia Straight has a full issue devoted to the World Urban Forum, which you can check out if you click here. Note that this link may disappear after WUF, but hopefully you will be able to search the GS archives. The actual website of WUF is really neat, and I am sure that there will be lots of things to be said and discussed there.

I’ll be posting some of my thoughts on WUF3 throughout the week. Besides, it is a great opportunity to network 🙂

Gentrification – The hip word for urban transformation May 1, 2006

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, urbanization, Vancouver.
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My interest in urban sustainability (and my current location) has made me reflect on the possibilities for/issues with gentrification of certain areas in Vancouver, particularly in Mount Pleasant (for a bit of history click here). I live slightly southeast of the Main and 16th Avenue area, which in recent years has become the ‘hip’ area in Vancouver. A few years ago (some people say it might be even 15), the Main St. area was considered “seedy” and unsafe. This blog has actually a nice discussion of the pros and cons of the East Side vis-a-vis West Side.

Noteworthy, I hang out around Mount Pleasant area, but I don’t live exactly there (I live more in the “Little Mountain/Riley Park” zone, according to the neighbourhoods map I saw recently). And if you look at this, you might realize that my neighbourhood isn’t that bad at all.

The sad part is that I recently learned that a Canadian, Vancouver-shot movie (Mount Pleasant) will depict this area as it used to be 15 years ago (seedy and filled with drug-addicts). I read that the director, Ross Weber, actually lives in the neighbourhood so I hope he will be very true to the current status of Mount Pleasant. I, for one, enjoy living there. And I hope that the Riley Park/Little Mountain area becomes just as hip as Main St. very soon. What scares me is the housing prices OUCH!

PS.- One of my favourite actresses, Kelly Rowan, will participate in “Mount Pleasant”… yay!