Thursday, February 11, 2010

Think-and-do for greener cities

CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. There are think-tanks of all sorts. The Chicago-based non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology, CNT, has added a few words in its description of the organisation.
CNT likes to see itself as a think-and-do tank.
“The thinking part is the easiest. We like to focus even more on getting things done”, says Jacky Grimshaw (left), CNT vice president for policy, when I meet her in the organisation’s carefully retrofitted headquarters in Wicker Park, a popular and trendy section of Chicago’s urban landscape.
Located a short walk from the busy intersection of the Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues, the CNT headquarters is a top-rated example of modern sustainability when it comes to energy saving and eco-friendly design.
Anything less wouldn’t do for an organisation that has struggled for greener cities since 1978, long before sustainability became a household word.
The low-key CNT has an effective way of researching, inventing and testing strategies for a more effective use of resources, and then putting it to use in the local community.
Think and do.
For this, founder Scott Bernstein and his organisation has received many awards.
Jacky Grimshaw, who joined CNT in 1992, plays an important role in making sure local politicians and the public listens to the organisation. As an advocate for mass transit, among other things, she can make good use of many years serving on numerous boards and working in Chicago City Hall under former mayor Harold Washington.
She has also been next door neighbour with President Barack Obama and his family on Chicago’s South Side, not a bad connection for someone lobbying for a cause.
“We try to find practical solutions to a problem. We show how this will work, and then we use it to advocate for changes in laws and regulations”, says Grimshaw.
CNT is mainly involved in areas like climate, energy, natural resources, transportation and community development.
Jacky Grimshaw explains the way CNT works.
“Here’s an example from our energy program. We have the idea that there is no need for more power stations, we just need to lower our need for energy. That’s not rocket science. We turn to a utility and ask them to let us show them how lower demand can lead to lower need for production. We then turn to a big consumer and show them what happens if you switch energy hogs like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners to better models. This gives us an example for a local municipality, a big consumer and a utility how they can interact for energy efficiency.”
CNT offers everything from urban consulting to a system for membership based car-sharing.
“The big challenge we stand before in the U.S. right now is how to retrofit all these suburbs so that people can have an alternative in transportation. Today the cost of transportation is the second highest for a normal household. It has taken over second place from food”, says Grimshaw.
“We hope that we can get people to see the disadvantages with living like this in the suburbs. Sprawl versus compact urban living is a question of quality of life.”
CNT is now working for a change in the definition of affordable housing, to make it include both housing and transportation costs for consumers calculating the impact of location and transportation costs when purchasing a house.
According to CNT, there is a clear connection between high transportation costs (commuting long distances by car from suburban homes to work) and the number of foreclosures in an area. CNT developed an H+T Affordability Index which helps residents and house buyers in more than 50 metropolitan areas calculate the true cost of suburban living.
Grimshaw admits that this is a tough question for policy makers and the public in the U.S. to deal with, since suburban living with two or more cars in the garage has become the American way of life.
“But if we don’t try to improve the prospects for urban areas and aim for sustainability, then it will affect the quality of life and the economy of this country”, says Jacky Grimshaw.
And she knows that her neighbour, who now lives in the White House, is aware of this.

This is the third in a series of interviews with American urban thinkers and activists that I met in Chicago recently. One more report will follow later.

Don't forget the cost of a second and perhaps a third car.

Jacky Grimshaw in front of CNT headquarters in Wicker Park.

Copenhagen pushes for electric cars

TRANSPORTATION. Politicians in the Danish capital Copenhagen are ready to take the lead in pushing for electric cars on the city’s streets. City Hall has decided to set aside land for 500 special parking places and charging stations for electric vehicles (EV’s) in the city center, reports the Berlingske Tidende newspaper today.
“If we want to reach our climate goals we must as quickly as possible adapt our traffic, which means away from cars that run on gasoline to electric cars, bicycles and public transportation. That’s why we now want to cover the city with parking places and charging stations for electric cars”, says Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard, vice mayor for environment, to Berlingske Tidende.
The city is also urging the Danish government to make quick decisions on tax reductions for electric cars.
When mayors from cities around the world met for a summit in Copenhagen in connection with the United Nations Climate Conference in December, electric vehicles were high on the agenda. The City of Copenhagen, branding itself as the Climate Capital of the World, arranged an electric car parade through the city center, with visiting mayors at the wheels.
One of the speakers at the Mayor’s Summit was Shai Agassi, an Israeli-born former software entrepreneur who now leads Palo Alto-based EV-pioneer Better Place. His venture-backed company aims to lead global development in creating a market-based infrastructure for electric vehicles.
“We have now reached the mid-point, two years from the start of our project, and two years from the launch. We hope to have our first complete network here in Copenhagen”, said Agassi before showing a film (see below) of the battery-changing stations that Better Place hope will replace gas-stations in cities around the world in the years to come.
“You drive into the station and it will take less than two minutes to change the battery. It will be more convenient than today’s cars that run on gas. You can then drive a 160 kilometres (100 miles) without recharging”, said Agassi (right).
Better Place has formed an impressive partnership with car-makers Renault-Nissan, which has committed 4 billion Euro ($5.6 billion) and 2,000 engineers to creating a range of vehicles designed to operate with Better Place’s infrastructure, according to a story in this weeks issue of the Economist.
Sceptics question if other car makers will be interested in following the standards set by Better Place and Renault-Nissan, or if the car-industry in general will permit a small upstart like Better Place run the show if EV’s turn out to be the way forward.
In addition to Copenhagen, Better Place has also formed partnerships with a number of other cities and governments around the world. Earlier this week the company announced the opening of a full-scale demonstration center in Israel, choosing a former major fossil fuel distribution center as a symbolic location.
And Shai Agassi, on stage in Copenhagen with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson and other prominent leaders, is a firm optimist.
“Imagine a city without exhaust pipes, even the main streets for cars would become attractive again”, Agassi said to an enthusiastic audience.