Trees are green, right? And green is good, right? So trees must be good, right?

How could trees be bad for the environment?

Many of us have a sense that we are not on the right path; in our bones we feel the damage we do to this planet really does matter.
And often we cling overzealously to charismatic symbols like trees and honeybees, and lose sight of the place of the symbols within the system.

Cities are trying to respond to increasing environmental pressures. For example, to reduce dependence on agricultural breadbaskets at risk of climate change-induced droughts, cities are promoting local and urban agriculture. To reduce use of climate-changing fossil fuels, cities are promoting renewable energy. These efforts are distinctly urgent as we head for 410 ppm of atmospheric CO2—remember that 350 ppm gives only a reasonable chance of maintaining a climate conducive to advanced civilization.

And trees throw shade on those efforts.

We need a Right to Light.

There is historical precedent here, and various jurisdictions have Right to Light legislation—usually used to make sure a new building does not shade your windows and turn you into a shivering ball of moss—but cities that want to be leaders need to make sure solar panels and gardens have as many rights as condo towers.

Sunshine is the renewable energy that is delivered right to your house every day, right to your vegetable patch and your solar hot water collector. Before electricity turned every building into a faceless box, architects designed both for daylighting and ventilation. Well-insulated buildings can get a great proportion of their heat and light from sunshine coming in the windows.

Unless you have a great big tree in front of you.

Street trees are more than just comforting tokens; a dense green canopy that helps us forget the moonscape clearcuts that supply us with paper and lumber. Trees do a lot for our cities; they slow and clean stormwater, they remove air pollutants, they look nice and appeal to our old evolutionary psychology, to name just a few. Urban trees should be seen as infrastructure alongside the pipes in the ground and the roads we ride on.

But the City of Victoria, where I live, protects certain native species and all very large trees—unless of course you want to put in a driveway, or build an addition on your house. You have no rights if you want to cut trees shading your solar collectors or vegetable patch, but if you want a place to park your Hummer, let the chips fly.

The City of Vancouver plans to plant 150,000 new trees, but unless a systems perspective is incorporated, they are planting 150,000 new problems and a forest of lost opportunities.

Here is how I think our urban tree system should work:

Trees are important habitat for myriad species. They look nice, and humans are hardwired to feel better, and perhaps be healthier when they can see trees. In cities they have the important job of shading asphalt to reduce the urban heat island effect. Trees can also provide tons—or on the scale of a city, tens of thousands of tons—of fruit and nuts. This would mean jobs for urban orchardists, food processors, farmer’s markets and foresters. It would also increase urban resilience to disasters by enhancing food security, and reduce the ecological impact of food transport.

And they can do all that on the south side of the street.

Let’s keep it simple by imagining a street that runs east-west. Trees planted near the sidewalk on the south side of the street will shade the blacktop, but not the garden on the north side of the street. Not the solar hot water collectors, not the windows that brighten life, not the photovoltaic panels, just the blacktop.

That is our infrastructure working for us.

This does not mean we will have fewer trees, it just means we will incorporate our Right to Light into urban design. It means we will not plant trees where they will block light and preclude energy harvesting with plants or panels for decades to come.

So, as infrastructure, when trees no longer serve the city they should be dug up, dynamited, moved or replaced. We don’t remains slavishly loyal to our old pipes and our leaking sewers. We don’t worry about hurting the feelings of our bridges and sidewalks. When our trees are preventing us from accomplishing other goals—goals much more important than a new parking spot—then it is time for them to move.

black and white threshold edited

Data wormhole for those who enjoy such things:

In Canada’s ‘Household Sector’ about 40% of our energy is burned by our cars and 60% is burned by our homes. 60% of that 60% is used for heating our homes and water. So about a third of our total personal energy use is just heating.

Of the third of our energy use that goes to heating, about 60% is fossil fuels.

-Of the 40% share of electricity, 40% of that actually comes from burning coal and and natural gas. The remaining 60% is hydro and nuclear. And nuclear is not renewable. So actually, a large proportion of the energy that keeps the lights on and keeps us warm is non-renewable.

And here is a proposal for a solar hot water system that notes trees are blocking some of the insolation.


Why Green is not Sustainable.

Garlic“An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism” crossed my desk the other day. It’s a pretty eye-catching title, pitting “An Environmentalist” against local eating and urban farming, darlings of greens and urban planners everywhere – and calling them liars, to boot. That is a pretty big brag.

But it didn’t take much reading to see Will Boisvert’s environmental vision needs a very strong pair of glasses. His myopia is in the difference between Green and Sustainable – two words that could use a little definition. (I am not picking on Boisvert for any particular reason, this sort of mistake is rampant in  “environmental” writing. His article just happened to tick me off at a time I felt like writing about it.)

Ignoring flagrant greenwashing, I use green to mean stuff that is less bad – and I chose my words carefully – for the planet and the flora and fauna that live on it.

Sustainable, on the other hand, gets beaten around the ring – mostly by people who throw their hands in the air and say, “Sustainable. What does that even mean?” Its meaning is quite simple, really.

It means able-to-be-sustained.

It means, for all intents and purposes, that whatever you are talking about can keep on doing what it is doing, and can do so essentially forever. The sun is a sustainable energy source, because it will keep rising in the east, essentially forever. A sustainable fishery is one that would give us surplus fish every year, essentially forever. A sustainable economy would keep providing for the needs of participants, essentially forever.

So, when someone throws their hands in the air, it is probably because they just don’t like the answer – the meaning is really quite easy to understand.

Now, the problem is that many green solutions sound great, but aren’t sustainable: nuclear energy, electric cars, the hydrogen highway, substituting renewables for coal-fired power, vertical farming, urban density, public transit – these are green(er), but not sustainable. Green seldom means good for the planet, or good for the environment, it means less bad.

So green can be a continuum. Burning two gallons of gas is better than burning three gallons. Burning one gallon is better than burning two gallons. But something is able-to-be-sustained – or not. Bill Rees, of EcoFootprint fame, says that sustainability is like pregnancy – you either are or you aren’t. There is no grey area.

In his critique of locavorism Boisvert makes the same mistake that underlies the most common criticisms of the 100 Mile Diet, and shows a deep lack of understanding of sustainability.

NASA is always taking new pictures, but what never changes is the starkness of that little blue droplet surrounded by deep space. What never changes is the inarguable obviousness of the edges of our planet. We live on a finite world.

Because we live on a finite planet everything that makes up our planet is also finite.

So, I googled Will Boisvert, trying to see if he understands limits. I found someone who has argued passionately in favour of the nuclear industry. Boisvert often bases his support of nuclear on decarbonization, so it seems likely he believes in Climate Chaos and wishes we could prevent that. Good for him. I can speculate he is writing his columns from the communications office of a uranium mining company, but that is only speculation. He says he supports nuclear, because it can decarbonize our power supply.

But, while he talks about carbon, which mostly comes from fossil fuels, he never talks about peak oil. Nor, in all his writing about how nuclear is the only real option, does he address the limits to the supply of radioactive materials.

So it seems like Boisvert does not get that we live on a finite planet, and that is why he totally misses the point of local eating.

Boisvert’s argument against locavorism is entirely one of how many gallons of diesel it takes to move a tonne of produce to market. This is the logic that says it is better to eat New Zealand lamb or Mexican tomatoes. Add in the coal or natural gas burnt in greenhouses to grow your tomatoes-on-the-vine in January, and the trucked-in Mexican tomato looks even – ahem – greener.

And if only we had an infinite supply of diesel, these arguments may be right – but we don’t, so they aren’t. They are all wrong. A Mexican tomato is less bad than a coal-fired greenhouse tomato, but it is still bad. Bad. Boisvert et al. have seemingly willfully misunderstood the argument, because locavorism was never about your January tomato.

Locavorism is about living within the edges of that little blue droplet. If you want a tomato in January, in August you should cut a nice, ripe tomato into thin slices, sprinkle on a little salt, and dry it in a warm but shady place. Locavorism is about the rhythms of the seasons in the place where you live. It is not about having a tomato whenever the hell you feel like, nor about eating lamb when it is not lambing season.

So yes, it may be less bad – greener – to eat a tomato from Mexico rather than a hothouse tomato grown up the street in Edmonton. But neither of these two options is able-to-be-sustained. Both of these options fail as the supply of fossil fuels fails. What does not fail is eating from your bioregion. Gorge yourself on tomatoes in harvest season or enjoy jars from your pantry, but fresh tomato year-round is not sustainable.

You can see the meaning of the word is quite easy to understand, it is just the answer we don’t like – you can’t always get what you want. The concept of sustainability is very clear, even if is hard to weed out the greens. If you want to separate the two, just try to unpack it as far out as you can. Play elaborate what-if games, imagine scenarios. Plan for the seventh generation.

And stop calling New Zealand lamb sustainable.



yellow curb
I just want you to close your eyes, and imagine a parakeet, sitting on its branch and eating seeds—wearing a tiny little collar with the cutest little tag hanging from it…

The Atlantic Cities is producing a lot of thinking points on new ways to think about urbanization. I seldom agree with them—I find their picture to be not nearly big enough—but they are definitely heading in the right direction. I was happy to see the article Why We Should Never Fine Cyclists, as it revolves around a topic I have wanted to write about for a long time—so I commented on the post and wanted to flesh out the comment here.

But first, let’s give Three Cheers for the Idaho Stop!! This law allows cyclists, when it is safe to do so, to yield at stop signs instead of stopping.

Driver’s rants about how cyclists should obey the laws so clearly come from a frustrated place where people don’t feel heard, feel they have no control over their lives, and truly hate being stuck in traffic. That is clear, because they obviously don’t want blanket laws applied to them—and in three minutes, we could figure out a pile of laws which, if applied “fairly”, would make their lives worse.

Road laws are solely designed to reduce the carnage caused by 2,000 lb. bullets hurtling around at high speeds. And that is all the laws should be applied to.

We have laws for pig farmers. Should tomato farmers have to build giant manure management systems?

We have laws for dog licensing. Should parakeets have to wear a little collar with a tiny tag?

We have laws for new drivers. Should experienced drivers be forbidden from carrying passengers or driving on the highway?

My favourite bit of hilarity though: Imagine if we applied road laws to everyone who was commuting. Should pedestrians walking down the sidewalk shoulder check twice, extend their arm to signal the direction they intend to walk, then sharply turn?

It is ridiculous to imagine that pedestrians should stop at every corner and look both ways before proceeding. It is ridiculous because pedestrians move slow enough to look both ways while still walking forward. Cars move too fast to do this safely, and the consequences of driving without caution are too grim.

Laws are designed to address specific issues. Laws are designed to be unfair, in order to balance an existing unfairness. There are so many laws regulating cars because cars kill and maim a truly horrific number of people every year.

As a driver, by virtue of guiding your missile through the streets, you agree to assume the duty of care of everyone else. You are bigger, harder and faster, and so you are responsible to everyone else, and especially those that are smaller, softer and slower—the pedestrians, cyclists, kids on skateboards and people in electric scooters.

So, calls for cyclists to obey car laws are as misguided as suggesting cars should obey bike laws, or that parakeets should obey dog laws.




Crushing the Solar Garbage Compactor

I am not a violent man—but I can be quite ‘passionate’, and today I am feeling passion about solar garbage compacters. It may seem an unlikely lens, but garbage compactors are—ahem—very juicy.

The passion precipitating post, on TreeHugger, was mostly about the compactor doors breaking, which causes mounds of trash to build up on the street:

…the trash cans have solar-powered sensors and compactors that keep the trash compressed, only calling out to be emptied via wireless communication when truly full, which results in fewer trips from city employees to empty the bins and thus big fuel savings. They apparently saved the city $900,000 in the first year and reduce the number of times the trash cans need to be emptied from three times a day to three times a week. Impressive!

Impressive? You will notice there is no ‘green’ tab on this website; I am not impressed by green. I want to talk about the bigger picture. So…

We have a problem; garbage is overwhelming municipal budgets. Garbage compactors address that problem in a very typical way, which is to assume business will continue as usual, and to ‘fix’ the problem with brute force—massive amounts of money and technology: solar panels, sensors, computer boards, motors, crushers—moving parts of all kinds!

And then, typically, we will all be shocked—shocked!—when all of the technology turns out to be less simple and more expensive than a barrel with a bag in it.

So, reducing diesel truck trips may be ‘greener’, but there are many reasons it isn’t sustainable. We all agree oil isn’t going to last forever. And so diesel garbage trucks aren’t going to last forever, right? Which means this whole approach is both temporary and unsustainable, a brute-force, end-of-pipe patch. Yet we will be left with a bunch of once-expensive, now salvage, infrastructure sitting around our city.

Let’s address the actual problem in our pattern of living.

Let’s make less garbage. It is not like it is rocket science. Garbage cans on city streets are mostly full of food wrappers, coffee cups and newspapers. McDonalds, the chain we love to hate, proved a fully composting restaurant could be successful, and newspaper means there should be a blue bin, not a trash compactor. So, let’s stop it with the expensive, cumbersome and ugly band-aid solutions. Just address the real problem—too much garbage—by actually just reducing the amount of garbage.

Three groups of people need to be much, much more courageous for this to happen: engineers must build a city for people, not diesel trucks; bureaucrats must develop systems and regulations that are outside their comfort zone; and politicians must actually regulate garbage-based business models.


Let’s Pave Streets Green

Originally published on


Would you give up your extra parking spot for a garden plot?

The asphalt will crack and erupt, and green plants and vines will sprout forth.

No, this isn’t my end of the world prophecy, this is about parking. Or gardening. Or both.

The street I live on has several apartment buildings and five houses. In other words, every person who lives on my street has underground parking or their own spot off the back lane. Yet the street is lined –choked — with parked cars. What’s the problem here? Or rather, what’s the solution?

I am not usually one to advocate for another law — in fact, I have considered running for office on a “One Bylaw Repealed Every Day” ticket. But, an easy way to free up space in our cities would simply be to require that if you have a parking spot on your property, you use it. Leave the public space for public use.

Mapping it out

So how much space is there, and what could we do with it? Google Maps shows my block is 850 feet long and a little quality time with a tape measure finds the distance between sidewalks is 41 feet, so in just one block we have 34,850 square feet to play with.

First, let’s make it a one-way street, one lane wide, with a couple of pullouts. This maintains access for emergency vehicles, taxis and mini-buses for wheelchairs. We could also throw four spots for visitors into each block. At one end we can put a half-court for basketball, street hockey, skateboarding or rollerblading so once again shouts of “Car!” will mean the players get a short break. For the rest of the block, I propose gardens. We have enough space left for 150 very nice garden plots, each about 3 by 4 metres, plus walkways.

Or, we could continue to enjoy the heat rising off the asphalt, with the rich visual stimulus of dented bumpers and the sound of car alarms.

Volunteers anyone?

Cleveland, Ohio is a hub of Asphalt Gardening, where planter boxes are put right on top of parking lots, separated from the polluted soil and oily road by a layer of wood chips. This would be a great way to try Garden Streets — do a block or two, then a couple of years later rip up the asphalt and put roots down.

I happen to live in Vancouver, where the city council passed a motion to have 2010 new garden plots by 2010. A handy graph on the linked page shows there is not even a dream of actually achieving it, even though it is a pittance by some standards. (The city-state of Singapore, for example, produces 25 per cent of its own vegetables.)

So call me the answer to Vancouver City Hall’s prayers because 2010 new garden plots is only 14 blocks of Garden Streets.

Could we start street gardening without a controversial bylaw to eliminate street parking? Sure. The city could run a newspaper ad explaining the idea and asking blocks to volunteer. Let the citizens do all the legwork of convincing their neighbours. Using bio-intensive gardening methods, my block could provide all the vegetables needed for 22 people, plus all the plant material needed to keep the soil productive — no need for chemical fertilizers here.

Tasty numbers

Arable Acres found that Vancouver could grow all its own produce by farming the existing front and back yards. Times have changed since the study was done in 1980 — there are more people living in the city, and development has eaten up space. But other things have changed too. That study suggested those gardens could produce $100 million worth of produce. That is $265,000,000 in today’s dollars. The possibilities make your head spin — 70 hectares of farm in Burnaby produce 10 per cent of the vegetables grown in the Fraser Valley. Arable Acres estimates Vancouver has about 3,000 hectares in streets and another 3,000 hectares in yards. Putting this into practice, the Edible Estates project is farming front yards in six cities across the United States, from Lakewood, California to Maplewood, New Jersey.

All of these delicious statistics beg the question whether the current trend in zoning experiments — reduced on-site parking so drivers have to fight for spots on the street — is entirely a good idea.

The idea has been: remove parking and you will remove cars, thus helping build more great places like the pedestrian-scale streetcar neighbourhoods that are being or have been gentrified all over North America. And yes, this appears to be at least a mossy shade of green.

But why should we let private cars be pushed onto the public street in the first place? Why should the taxpayers, including the pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, pay for the real estate and the asphalt underneath other people’s cars?

True cost of cars

Land in urban centres is at such a premium that each street parking spot in front of my building is worth $25,000. Add to that the fact that each car actually has three to four parking spots scattered around the city, just waiting for it (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to find a spot at the end of your trip and would be forced to drive back home, spinning like a hamster in a wheel). The total subsidy to drivers is at least $100,000. If drivers had to mortgage their street parking, they would be paying $600 per month. And to think I can’t find bike racks.

It would be easy to turn my block, with all its underground parking, into a Garden Street, but why stop there? Imagine your own block stuffed with flowers and vegetables. Big sprays of lupins, colourful mats of marigolds, nodding rows of poppies. The big white blossoms of pumpkin changing to the shiny orange of jack-o’-lanterns-to-be. Fat, red Early Girl tomatoes alongside the sweet Gold Nugget grape tomatoes.

Speaking of grapes, why not trellis a few up for summer shade and delicious juice? And, instead of the “decorative” street trees, you can have fruit and nut trees — with no cars for fruit to fall upon there is really no reason not to do it.

If what I’ve said here makes sense to you, please feel free to practice this rallying cry: A garden plot — not a parking spot — for every citizen!