Posts Tagged ‘city’

Photo: Yoav Aziz/Unsplash.
Urban trees on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv, Israel.

If you search this blog on “urban trees,” you will see many posts showing how trees in cities are beneficial both for the environment and human health. I never tire of new research on this topic. Today’s research comes from medical journal the Lancet via Forbes magazine.

Robert Hart reports, “Planting more trees in cities could cut the number of people dying from high temperatures in summer, according to a study published in the Lancet medical journal … a strategy that could help mitigate the effects of climate change as it continues to drive temperatures upwards.

“Cities experience much warmer temperatures than the rural areas surrounding them—a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect—a result of vegetation and green spaces being replaced with structures like roads and buildings that absorb heat.

“The effect is particularly problematic in summer, when temperatures can soar to dangerous levels and more people die of heat-related causes, but can be tackled by planting more trees, researchers suggest.

“An analysis of mortality data from some 57 million people living in 93 European cities in the summer of 2015—the most recent year for which data is available — revealed that 6,700 deaths could be attributed to the hotter urban environment.

“The researchers estimated nearly 40% of these deaths could have been prevented if urban tree cover were increased up to 30% (the average was 15%).

“The researchers said their study … is the first to estimate the burden associated with urban heat islands and the first to estimate how increasing tree coverage, which helps reduce temperature, could combat this.

“Study co-author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of urban planning, environment and health at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, said the findings should encourage city planners and policymakers to include green spaces in their developments, particularly as we already know green spaces have other health benefits like ‘reducing cardiovascular disease, dementia and poor mental health’ and improve cognitive function.

“The research identifies a way for city planners to combat the impact of rising temperatures, wrote Kristie Ebi, a professor for health and the environment at the University of Washington, in a linked comment. Such action is especially important as climate change continues to drive temperatures upwards and it must be combined with other initiatives like modifying infrastructure to reduce heat, added Ebi, who was not involved in the research. …

“Heat has a profound impact on our health. Extreme heat is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world every year, according to the World Health Organization, and is associated with an increased risk of conditions including heart diseasediabetes and obesity. Heat also exacerbates mental health conditions, hampers cognitive functioning and makes us more aggressive.

“Climate change, which experts say is indisputably linked to human use of fossil fuels, is set to drive temperatures higher and a slew of countries around the world have broken heat records over the last few years. This is expected to continue and extreme weather events, including flooding and major storms are set to increase in both severity and frequency as a result. Beyond the direct impact, this can help other diseases spread through water and expand the range of animals that carry them.” More at Forbes.

This 2017 post mentions John’s work with the Arlington Tree Committee to get sidewalk trees to homeowners. Another post, from 2018, says lack of trees increases depression. This 2019 post is on trees in Paris. I also wrote a 2020 entry about preserving the tree canopy in Baltimore, here.

And those are just a few angles I’ve covered. The other day on Mastodon, someone wrote that trees make her incredibly happy. I guess I am not the only one.

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Photo: Dave Burke/SOM.
Floating wetlands along the Chicago River’s Wild Mile.

Here’s an idea whose time has come. Now that we know the role of wetlands in cleaning up pollutants, why not create wetlands where they’re needed most? Having read today’s article, I’m not sure how I feel about the use of phragmites, so often considered an invasive weed. But I’m glad it’s so good at absorbing pollution.

Susan Cosier reports at YaleEnvironment360, “As cities around the world look to rid their waterways of remaining pollution, researchers are installing artificial islands brimming with grasses and sedges. The islands’ surfaces attract wildlife, while the underwater plant roots absorb contaminants and support aquatic life.

“Five small islands roughly the size of backyard swimming pools float next to the concrete riverbank of Bubbly Creek, a stretch of the Chicago River named for the gas that once rose to the surface after stockyards dumped animal waste and byproducts into the waterway. Clumps of short, native grasses and plants, including sedges, swamp milkweed, and queen of the prairie, rise from a gravel-like material spread across each artificial island’s surface.

A few rectangles cut from their middles hold bottomless baskets, structures that will, project designers hope, provide an attachment surface for freshwater mussels that once flourished in the river.

“Three thousand square feet in total, these artificial wetlands are part of an effort to clean up a portion of a river that has long served the interests of industry. This floating wetland project is one of many proliferating around the world as cities increasingly look to green infrastructure to address toxic legacies. …

“Like natural wetlands, floating versions provide a range of ecosystem services. They filter sediment and contaminants from stormwater, and laboratory experiments show that some plants have the ability to lock up some chemicals and metals found in acid mine drainage. These systems take up excess agricultural nutrients that can lead to algal blooms and dead zones, and recent research suggests they could be used to reduce manmade contaminants that persist in the environment. Though it’s difficult to quantify the exact benefits these systems offer, and they have limitations as a tool in remediating polluted waterways, they could provide another option, researchers say.

“Nick Wesley, executive director of Urban Rivers, a nonprofit working with the Shedd Aquarium on the Chicago project, believes floating systems are a natural fit for the urban environment. …. ‘We’re trying to [restore] what the naturalized river would be.’ In many cities, he continues, floating wetlands could provide a low-cost alternative to conventional infrastructure projects because they’re modular and easy to install and to monitor.

“Wesley’s group began, in 2018, with a floating wetlands project on the Chicago River’s North Branch. Called the Wild Mile, the installation aims to improve water quality and has already begun attracting invertebrates, including mollusks and crustaceans. Last month, the group expanded to the shores of Bubbly Creek. Urban Rivers, Shedd employees, and a team of volunteers bolted together polyethylene and metal frames, draped them with matting, dropped them in the water, added plants, and anchored the islands to the river bottom so they stay in place as the roots grow into the water. …

“Floating wetlands ‘are having a bit of a moment,’ says Richard Grosshans, a research scientist with the International Institute for Sustainable Development who works on the floating structures. ‘They function very similarly to a natural wetland: they have the same processes, plants and microorganisms, bacteria and algae.’ …

“Floating wetlands were first tested in retention ponds, the kind often located near developments to hold stormwater, to see if they filtered pollution. ‘The front end of it was, “Will they work? How well do they work? And what plants should we recommend?” ‘ says Sarah White, an environmental toxicologist and horticulturalist at Clemson University who has worked on floating wetlands since 2006. Partnering with researchers at Virginia Tech, White found that the wetland plants she tested not only did well in ponds with lots of nutrient pollution, but the adaptable, resilient plants actually thrived. She did not always choose native plants, opting instead for those that would make the islands more attractive, so that more urban planners would use them.

“In the early 2010s, Chris Walker, a researcher at the University of South Australia, began testing floating wetlands in wastewater, quantifying the pollutants that four species of plants took up in their tissues and improvements to water quality. Two species, twig rush Baumea articulata and the common reed Phragmites australis, showed the highest uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus of any floating wetland research to date. …

“His team also started testing the ability of floating wetlands to filter out emerging contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are not always filtered by treatment plants and are linked to elevated cholesterol levels, problems with reproductive health, and kidney and testicular cancers. The reed Phragmites australis placed in a floating wetland began absorbing the pollutant into its tissues in less than a month. …

“In Boston, Max Rome, a PhD student at Northeastern University, is attempting to quantify the benefits of wetlands that have been floating since 2020 in the Charles River, another historically degraded waterway. He found that one acre of wetland can absorb the nutrient pollution — usually dumped into the river via stormwater — from seven to 15 acres of dense urban development.

“Rome is also looking into whether floating wetlands can create small pockets of improved water quality or habitat that allow certain native species, like freshwater sponges, to regain a toehold in the river. To do that, he monitored water quality near the wetlands and compared it to other places in the river.

“ ‘The last generation did a really good job of dealing with point source pollution — and it was a huge task,’ he says, referring to the success of the Clean Water Act in reducing effluent from discharge pipes. His generation has a new job, he adds: grappling with ‘ecological restoration of these degraded water bodies at the same time that we do pollution reduction,’ something the wetlands could help address.”

More at YaleEnvironment360, here. Lovely pictures. No firewall.

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Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Globe.
Janelle Emmanuel, a Watertown resident, opted to rent out her driveway on Spacer, a parking app that’s gaining users around Boston.

When my friend Sara was a professor at Harvard and Stanford tried to lure her to the West Coast, the most irresistible thing that Harvard offered her was a parking space in Cambridge. There was a spot next to her office building that used to change hands every year among the faculty. It could be hers permanently. Sara stayed.

Although I myself always took public transportation when I worked in Boston and Cambridge, I learned that on a day when I needed a car, parking could be a real problem. There are public garages, of course, but the cost is a king’s ransom. No one who commuted to work in a city would want to pay that every day.

A new app makes it easier for someone with an unused parking space to help out someone who needs a space — and make some money at the same time. Today, using a driveway as an income generator is not just for people who live near the beach.

Collin Robisheaux writes at the Boston Globe, “Everything is pricey these days, and a little extra income can go a long way.

“Enter Spacer, an app that strives to be the ‘Airbnb of monthly parking‘ by connecting commuters in need of an empty space with locals who have an unused parking spot or driveway.

“It works like this: Someone with an empty driveway can download Spacer, input some personal information and details about the spot, and list it on the app or website for renters to reserve in month-long periods. Renters can then snag the parking spot for their personal use. …

Spacer Technologies was founded in Australia in 2015, before expanding to North America and acquiring Where I Park Inc. earlier this year. With more commuters returning to the office, parking has become a more pressing need — and Spacer has been a beneficiary, with Boston receiving more booking requests in October than any other city on the app. …

“With snow causing headaches for drivers with outdoor parking, some users may be thinking ahead, with booking requests for covered spots in the Boston area up 77 percent since July.

“Spacer said it has about 300,000 users globally, and hundreds of rentable spots in and around Boston. It makes money by taking 25 percent of transactions; the remaining 75 percent goes to the users who rent out their spaces.

“Daniel Vernick, 25, in Somerville [said,] ‘It was quite straightforward. It definitely took away some of the rent burden.’ …

“Vernick was able to net $220 per month. That kind of extra cash is what sets Spacer apart from other parking apps, according to Jeremy Zuker, chief executive of North America for Spacer Technologies.

“ ‘You can actually take something that you’re not using, like your driveway or your garage, and you can just turn that into a revenue stream,’ Zuker said. …

“Spacer is relatively new to the rental scene and has plenty of competition. Websites like Facebook and Craigslist have long served as platforms for advertising and renting out parking spaces.

“But Janelle Emmanuel, who joined both Spacer and Craigslist to rent out her driveway last year, says she feels more secure on Spacer than she did digging through Craigslist.

“ ‘I feel like with Craigslist, you don’t really always know what’s going on there,’ Emmanuel said. ‘But Spacer, I felt very safe.’

“Emmanuel rented out her driveway in Watertown, capable of fitting up to three cars, after a friend recommended the rental service as a side gig. Emmanuel said the app adds an element of separation between the renter and the host, which made her feel more secure.

“Residential neighborhoods like Allston, Brookline, Somerville, and parts of Cambridge are all popular locations on the app. Spots in the downtown and Seaport areas are fewer and pricier, but executives at Spacer hope the app can help with parking congestion in the city.

“ ‘This whole idea of efficiency is about both the infrastructure and the spaces,’ Zuker said. ‘But also just in getting people where they need to get without wasting time and fuel.’ “

All my friends in rural America must be laughing now. But you know, it’s a good thing that humans can figure out how to do what they have to do. I will say that better even than a rented parking space is an employer that subsidizes your use of public transportation. I sure missed that perk after I left MIT.

More at the Globe, here.

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There are no limits to human ingenuity. Jordan Todorov writes at Atlas Obscura, for example, about an “olfactory artist” who has been working to recreate the scents of cities for more than a decade. And why not?

” ‘Berlin smells of cigars and boiled cabbage.’ This observation comes from the 1963 travelogue Thrilling Cities by the British author Ian Fleming … But for Berlin-based olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas, who creates ‘smellscapes’ of major cities, it smells like so much more.

“ ‘Every city has an identity like we humans do. And every city is unique smell-wise,’ explains Tolaas, a half-Norwegian, half-Icelandic expatriate artist with background in chemistry, linguistics, mathematics, and visual arts. ‘The odor depends on things like climate, geography, demography etc. Inside the city, smells differs from neighborhood to neighborhood.’ …

“Tolaas is traveling around the world and mapping its cities, one smell at a time. The project, called SmellScapes, has taken her to 35 cities so far, from London and Paris to Cape Town to Kansas City (both of them).

“Tolaas started working on her SmellScapes more than a decade ago. Most of them are commissioned by either creative platforms, city councils, or universities and private foundations, and they serve an amazingly wide variety of purposes. For example, her SmellScape of Mexico City, developed in 2001 in collaboration with the Harvard graduate student teacher program, was a creative way to understand pollution. …

” ‘I walked around and [caught] in a playful manner the smells in different neighborhoods. The goal was reproducing the smell of pollution—the car exhaust, the refrigerator, the air conditioner … Then I gave the smells to people and asked them to articulate them which made them understand better what’s causing the pollution.’ …

“Tolaas collects the smell samples in a small glass tube called tennex. Then the container is sent to her research partners from International Flavors & Fragrances, an American perfumery corporation headquartered in New York City, which according to Tolaas is ‘one of a small number of companies which controls how the world smells and tastes.’…

“After analyzing the sample with a gas chromatograph, IFF sends Tolaas a formula that contains the fingerprint of the smell captured, describing all the subtle nuances in great detail. Using this data chart, Tolaas replicates the smell in her lab, combining some of the nearly 4,000 individual molecules she has at her disposal. The result, Tolaas explains, is as close as possible to the original smell.” More at Atlas Obscura, here.

I am going to start paying more attention to neighborhood scents. I know, for sure, we have pizza aroma and dry cleaning chemicals and the smell of trains grinding to a halt on metal tracks. But in spring, we also have lots of flower smells.

I may come back to this.

Photo: Atlas Obscura
Sissel Tolaas uses a nano-scale to measure the smell molecules.

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It’s so interesting to see all the different ways people are taking to farming. We’ve already covered a number of angles. Now Adele Peters at FastCoexist writes about how would-be farmers in Brooklyn are testing out “vertical farming.”

“When it opens this fall in Brooklyn, a new urban farm will grow a new crop: farmers. The Square Roots campus, co-founded by entrepreneurs Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs, will train new vertical farmers in a year-long accelerator program. …

“The campus will use technology from Freight Farms, a company that repurposes used shipping containers for indoor farming, and ZipGrow, which produces indoor towers for plants. Inside a space smaller than some studio apartments—320 square feet—each module can yield the same amount of food as two acres of outdoor farmland in a year. Like other indoor farming technology, it also saves water and gives city-dwellers immediate access to local food. …

“It’s intended for early-stage entrepreneurs. ‘We’re here to help them become future leaders in food,’ says Musk, who also runs a network of school gardens and a chain of restaurants that aim to source as much local food as possible.

“After building out the Brooklyn campus, they plan to expand to other cities, likely starting with cities where Musk also runs his other projects—Memphis, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh.”

More here.

Photo: SquareRoots

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Sometimes when I’m trying to cross a city street in traffic that’s coming from all directions, I think about how people who don’t visit cities much — Inuit people, say, or rural tribesmen in Africa  — would cope. Probably about as well as I would cope dealing with the habits of lions or polar bears. We all develop the survival skills we need most.

Birds do, too. According to Scientific American, urban birds develop skills that let them outwit their country cousins on certain tests.

Christopher Intagliata reports,”While visiting Barbados, McGill University neurobiologist Jean-Nicolas Audet noticed that local bullfinches were accomplished thieves.

” ‘They were always trying to steal our food. And we can see those birds entering in supermarkets, trying to steal food there.’

“And that gave him an idea. ‘Since this bird species is able to solve amazing problems in cities, and they’re also present in rural areas, we were wondering’ are the rural birds also good problem-solvers, and they just don’t take advantage of their abilities? …

“So Audet and his McGill colleagues captured Barbados bullfinches, both in the island’s towns and out in the countryside. They then administered the bird equivalent of personality and IQ tests: assessing traits like boldness and fear, or timing how quickly the finches could open a puzzle box full of seeds.

“And it turns out the city birds really could solve puzzles faster. They were bolder, too, except when it came to dealing with new objects—perhaps assuming, unlike their more naive country cousins, that new things can either mean reward … or danger.

“The study is in the journal Behavioral Ecology [Jean-Nicolas Audet et al, The town bird and the country bird].”

More here.

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As we have mentioned before, Detroit is finding creative ways to deal with empty buildings and loss of population.

Jay Walljasper at Shareable adds his take.

“Stories of Detroit’s emerging comeback often highlight the city’s attraction to young hipsters. According to plentiful media reports, well-educated twenty-somethings are streaming into the Motor City to test out new ideas, explore art and music projects, or launch D-I-Y revitalization initiatives.

“You can spot a number of once-dormant corners of the city now pulsing with activity thanks to young entrepreneurs. …

“While a new, more positive narrative about Detroit is welcome, there are problems in focusing entirely on idealistic young adventurers swooping in to save the city – it reinforces the stereotype of native Detroiters as hapless, helpless, and hopeless.

“The truth is, locals have been working hard for years to uplift the common good in Detroit, which drew the interest of outsiders. And newcomers aren’t the only ones stirring up excitement around town. Good People Popcorn, for instance, was started by two sisters and a cousin, all of whom grew up here. Sarida Scott Montgomery, one of the founders who is also a lawyer and executive director of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, says people are often surprised she grew up in the city. ‘Not in the suburbs,’ she says, ‘but in Detroit itself.’ …

“Allyson McLean, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs and has worked on brownfield redevelopment in Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and on strategic planning for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington D.C, is back in town aiding real estate development in low-income communities with the Community Investment Support Fund.

“ ‘Now that I am back,’ she says, ‘it’s frustrating to hear from friends I grew up with who have no plans to ever return. … They have no idea what they’re missing in their hometown.’ ”

Read more about Detroit’s revitalization here.

Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Dewayne Hurling loves Detroit and is thrilled to have renovated a beautiful old home in the Boston-Edison neighborhood of the city.


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A reason that poor children are sometimes unprepared for school is that the words they are starting to read in books may not convey meaning to them. What does it mean to park a car if you have never ridden in a car?

The NY Times has a lovely article about one NYC school’s unusual field trips, designed to fill some gaps in knowledge that textbook writers take for granted.

Michael Winerip writes, “Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. ‘I’ve been inside a bus,’ Tyler said. ‘Does that count?’

“When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets. Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office. …

“Working with Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood specialist, [Ms. Levy] has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.

“The goal is to make learning more fun for younger children. … While many schools have removed stations for play from kindergarten, Ms. Levy has added them in first and second grades. [And] several times a month they take what are known as field trips to the sidewalk. In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.” Read more.

One thinks of all the small daily interactions one has with one’s own children and the learning occurring without forethought. There are interactions and learning in poor families, too, but if the words and concepts are not what they kids will encounter in school, I think these excursions can be very helpful.

Photograph: Librado Romero, NY Times

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Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has just published a book recounting his efforts to apply the principals of his discipline to improving urban life.

The book is called The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, and it sounds cool.

Mark Oppenheimer writes in the NY Times:

“For years the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson paid little attention to Binghamton, N.Y., where he lived and taught. ‘I hadn’t joined the PTA,’ he writes, ‘attended council meetings, given blood, or served turkey to the homeless on Thanksgiving.’ …

Photographer: Jonathan Cohen

“Five years ago Mr. Wilson, the author of two popular books about Darwin, decided it would be fruitful to apply his training to the (human) animals closer to home. With colleagues at Binghamton University, Mr. Wilson founded the Binghamton Neighborhood Project to use evolutionary theory, along with data collection, to improve the quality of life in his struggling city.”

Although the work is still — evolving — the people he works with make interesting reading as do the experiments.

Oppenheinmer says that the “best chapters describe some of the preliminary work Mr. Wilson’s team has done. For example the Project gave a wide cross section of Binghamton schoolchildren the Development Assessment Profile, a survey that measures sociability, citizenship skills and the conditions that promote such traits. Students rated their agreement with statements like ‘I think it is important to help other people’ and ‘I tell the truth even when it is not easy.’

“The project then figured out where the most trusting, pro-social children lived: which neighborhoods, in other words, seemed to be breeding the most social capital. Using the technology on which Google Earth relies, the project created a krig map — a topographical map representing demographic data — for the city. The valleys showed areas with low social capital, the peaks with high.”

The results have implications for where community-building intiatives might have the most impact. Read the whole review here.

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