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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for April 18th, 2008

Solar Panels on the Roof

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Only in the UK you say? Pity


We, a family of four, have produced 92% of our electricity usage from the roof of a century-old terraced house in south-east London – laying to rest the idea that Britain is not sunny enough for solar power.

I am fairly sure that I would have noticed if anyone was doing this round here. And, no, it is not only in the UK – the Germans, he says, are doing it even better.

The up front investment seems a bit steep – and why am I not surprised that the government there backed off sharpish once the take up rate showed thay had made it “too attractive”. Britain generates a lot of its electricity from coal and will have to start importing natural gas again as its own supply of North Sea gas is dwindling. So you would have thought that a bunch of householders volunteering to provide some additional green generating capacity would be good news.

It also seems to me to much more popular than anything to do with run of the river hydro, which was supposed to be so much better than big dams but now seems as popular as a root canal.

It has been a while since I toiled in this field, but I do recall an exhibition in Delta where the residents lined up to complain about Delta’s by laws which prevented them from even heating their water with the old fashioned black panel type solar heaters (I had one of those back in Ontario).

I thought the behavioural stuff was interesting too – but then no-one interviewed the family about Dad’s obsession with turning things off. I can just imagine the eye rolling when he talks about hair dryers. (Of course, I do not even own such a thing.)

The weather in London is not greatly different to here – although they get much less rain (it used to average 24″ a year in our school weather station). We are further south (49 not 51 like them) so that might help too. Although I do not recall snow in April in London

Written by Stephen Rees

April 18, 2008 at 5:40 pm

Posted in energy

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Making it Happen: Sustainable Smart Growth

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Gov Parris N Glendening at SFU downtown April 17

The former Gov of Maryland, he is now the President of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, which he founded.

He opened by remarking that there is a new interest in sustainability: “everyone is talking about it – even Walmart!”. However he acknowledged that it is not happening at the federal level: “Only 10 people do not understand climate change. Unfortunately they are all in the White House.”

He described how the term “Smart Growth” was arrived at. A package of bills were to be resented in Maryland, and it was essential that people did not cherry pick among them. So a term was needed to show that it was a coherent program that needed all of them. The term is in fact interchangeable with a number of others used in other places.

The population of the US is at 300m now, and will be 430m by 2050. This raises the question “Can we continue to grow the same way as we did for last 60 years? He offered Einstein’s definition of insanity: expecting a different outcome from continuing to do the same thing. The status quo does not meet any of the challenges we now face. Even a place like Vancouver is not sustainable. If every city on earth was like Vancouver we would need four planets to support it (source: Brent Toderian). That is, of course better than the Las Vegas or Atalanta models which would require 20 planets.

The problems are multiple – traffic congestion, gas prices. It started with the building of Levittown, the post war suburbs which have given us sprawl, based on the belief that you could always build more roads and keep on expanding. It is inevitable that gas prices will continue to rise and scarcity is likely sooner rather than later until many people will find themselves unwilling and unable to drive long distances every day. We have also seen the health impacts of a lack of physical activity: obesity is directly correlated to sprawl. This is due to a sedentary lifestyle imposed by the urban form that favours cars over walking and biking. In the US cars are used for 75% of trips that are of less than one mile.

It has been established that one way commutes of 12 to 15 miles cancel out the economic advantage of lower priced homes. It is aid that people have to “drive till you qualify”: in other words the size of the mortgage you can support depends on your income so you have to find the house priced at what you can buy.

His commitment to the idea of conservation stemmed from his early experiences while a student seeing the effect of development on the Florida everglade. The loss of natural environment, caused by road widening and subsequent urban expansion has now caused sever problems of water supply and drainage. In Maryland it was the widening of US Highway #1, which made it easier to buy a farm and build on it than redevelop the declining urban areas. Land use and the development pattern needs a regional framework. The conventional land use and transportation planning model is a pattern for disaster. He showed an animation of a series of maps showing development at ten year increments “The Amoeba that Ate Maryland”. As the suburbs aged the development continued to spread out because the development playing field was “tilted to subsidise sprawl” There were a number of interrelated policies – the construction of the interstate highways, the GI loan plan which guaranteed mortgages and the banks use of a “red line” for existing communities where ethnic minorities lived and mortgages would not be granted.

Some states tried an Incentive based approach to change the rules of growth. Washington and Oregon tried regulations. Maryland tried the “carrot and stick” of both. He said that while you need both regulations and subsidies, regulation alone is more efficient bit is not politically doable. In 1977 Maryland designated Smart Growth areas which would have priority for state funding which steered investment to already developed areas. “The State will not pay to subsidize sprawl” and this changed the bottom line for developers. For example, the state would not fund new schools on greenfield sites: if the developer proceeded he would have to pay for the necessary schools. The plan was not against growth – and he noted that many environmentalists are against growth altogether. The policy ensured that over 400,000 acres in Maryland have been preserved as farmland.

The policy allowed for growth and but also promoted preservation. For example there is a tax credit for rehabilitating historic buildings, which can be seen to have worked in Baltimore and its inner harbour. He acknowledged that implementation is difficult. For example, the regents of the University of Maryland wanted to build on a greenfield site outside Hagerstown. The Governor directed them to the centre of the city where the Baldwin House (an old department store) stood empty. The rehabilitation of this building and bringing students and faculty to the centre of the city created an economic stimulus of activity. The state had to rewrite the code for building reuse: like most codes it had assumed that all activity would be new build. The use of this code was tied to a requirement that there must be an increase in density.

“People don’t like sprawl and they don’t like density”

It is essential to intensify development. In cities you can use the parking lots, not green fields. However, not all density is created equal: it must be well designed, walkable, livable and fun. He illustrated this with images from Detroit ( Ugly density) and Boston to show his conviction that “it is all about design.”

He recommended the book “Visualizing Density”from which these two images have been taken.

Regular attenders at these lectures or readers of this blog will be very familiar with the material covered at the end of his talk, which emphasized design paired with density and making the connection between density and climate change. For example he talked about Green Buildings and how significant it is to replace LEED with LEED ND. It is he said, crucial to think beyond emissions for vehicles – as VMT yearly increases negate all the improvement gained by technology.

A useful source (new to me anyway) is Growing Cooler published by ULI

Chart of impact of VMT – Center for Clean Air Policy

Even if every state adopted the California emissions standards for CO2, which would have a limited impact on improving overall fleet economy for the next ten years or so, the increase in VMT more than offsets the improvement. “Why do we have to drive so much anyway?” The important thing is that the places we live in be compact, walkable – and affordable. He then cited a recent NPR program “I just wanted my life back” about a woman who moved to Atlantic Station in Atlanta GA in order to live closer to her job. He said that for most people there is an “undersupply of options” and he spoke approvingly of Sam Sullivan on EcoDensity. He recognized that this would be controversial but found a very powerful quotation.


Q – A lady from White Rock wants to replace her house on its present site with 4 townhouses but the City council won’t let her

A – Montgomery County in Maryland had faced the same issue and essentially it comes down to political will. Remember that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and they have to “connect the dots” In the long term the only option may be to “toss out the current leadership”.

Q – How have things continued since you left?

A – There have been mixed results. About ¼ of the residential development is outside the designated growth area, so we have still got sprawl but not so much as before. Basically some developers were prepared to pay for schools. His immediate successor was not a supporter, but the new governor is. Maryland’s start has stimulated 27 states which now have got Smart Growth program – even Arizona – which “wrapped it in the water supply issue” – and Wyoming! Local governments must implement the provisions or the state must take stronger action. He noted that Canadian provinces have more power over municipal governments than states do.

Q – The “metropolis expands at the cost of the hinterland” how do you prevent the “loss of farmers from land” We now have the most expensive homes in Canada. How can growth serve the people?

A – Your points are valid – agricultural land is now so expensive, it has become the farmer’s retirement account. In Maryland they transferred the development rights from the farmer to the state. Essentially the state used its windfall from the tobacco court cases to buy out the development rights of farmers but they also imposed the condition that they could not continue to grow tobacco. It is, he said, essential to protect well being of farmers.

Smart Growth can be a gentrification issue: for example in Washington DC one development was for $800,000 homes on what had been a “no go” area. He said the states must aggressively pursue “inclusionary zoning” to provide a range of alternatives: for instance the requirement that 20% of the development be what is now called “workforce housing”.

Q – What is the “mesh of priorities between the state and municipalities”. The questioner was interested in the “conversations between levels of government”

A – This is critical “how do you make this work?” Transportation drives development patterns but transportation plans are rarely linked directly with land use decisions. For example the Washington DC subway system – a very significant investment – had no linkage to land use around stations.The state must be the link between transit and land use and insist on a minimum of mixed use and density – e.g. New Mexico LRT Albuquerque where “stations must have an overlay base in place”. It is a “matter of right” – to have the station there you must have land use plans that are adjusted to reflect the change in accessibility. “If you want a station, you must meet the requirements.”

Q – Affordable housing – displaced families – requests from the community for on site relocation have been ignored (the questioner was referring to Little Mountain in Vancouver)

A – A range of tools are available – the regulatory framework adopted by Montgomery County MD was inclusionary zoning 20% of workforce housing, with the first preference of its allocation to existing residents . In Maine there is a checklist for policies which is tied to state grants: if municipalities want state funding their chances of getting it are better the more boxes on the checklist are ticked. There is no one answer. The recent collapse of the housing market will force more action in future.

Q – public education

A – yes – lots of examples – direct impact on their lives

Q – We wanted to plan for “live, work and play in same place” (LRSP). You seem to be promoting a fascist system – its is elitist like Dubai which has created a slave economy. We must talk about cheap reasonable transportation and free parks. “Everything these days is user pay”. We need development for human beings

A – There is nothing magic about the term “Smart Growth”. We do outline the type of place we want: we do see need for play, space, transit. In the US we don’t pay for roads but we raise the price of transit – that’s wrong. Living, working and playing in a community accessible to everyone is the objective. “I don’t disagree with any of your desires”. The old “projects” were concentrations of poverty, where segregation stigmatized poverty.


I must admit that I was surprised that BC is the only province of Canada to have a SmartGrowth chapter. Perhaps that reflects our view that we are not American so we cannot join an organisation called “Smart Growth America”. While much of his talk concerned US governance, there really was not a huge amount of difference in outcomes. For example, Britain did not have guaranteed mortgages, but that did not stop the Wimpey housing estates leaping over the green belts and covering farmer’s fields. The sprawl in Britain may have been railway based but it was still low density.

It is notable that affordable housing may have been renamed, but it is still a state obligation, now imposed on developers, and producing more integrated communities. Canada seems to have completely abandoned the field, and the results in Vancouver are possibly the most apparent anywhere. People may object to the term “workforce housing” – but we do not have any – and that has had and is having a very definite impact on our workforce. One of the reasons transit expansion is slow is that CMBC cannot hire enough operators.

It struck me that the audience were bringing their local issues to air in public rather than seeking knowledge but perhaps that is to be expected. Since I have now attended rather a lot of these, I am beginning to hear the same things repeated both from speakers and audience.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 18, 2008 at 9:39 am