Skip to main content

Radical Confidence: Bringing More Environment to the Urban Environment

I've been in Moscow and Paris this week and urban agriculture is on my mind.

In the neighborhood of Montmartre, the street fronts are jammed with tiny fresh vegetables stands, fruit stores, butchers, cheese stores ... you get the picture.

(It's one of the small perks of a travel schedule that has me spending far too many nights on airplanes.)

The thing that's striking about all of these little shops is how local they are. I have often paraphrased former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All sustainability is local" -- and we can see it here in spades. But even here in France, the home of the artisanal cheese maker, drives for standardization and industrialization in the food industry provide countervailing pressures on the also growing locavore and slow food trends.

During my undergraduate studies, I was taking extensive courses in urban studies as well as environmental studies, which, at the time, seemed a bit contradictory. My thinking was and continues to be that we need a lot less urban in the environment and a lot more environment in the urban.

There is a hot new term in the local sustainability vocabulary, "terroir," which is a French term that essentially means "local bioregion." As urban areas spread out, covering the surrounding terroir, it seems to me that the terroir needs to cover back, of course, with the help of a few friends. Clearly, designers' treatment of roofs has received far less attention than the vertical surfaces so far. However, I am seeing strong signs that this is changing rapidly.

We are seeing an explosion of urban gardening both indoor and outdoor, horizontal and vertical, in the last couple of years. Innovative projects like the integrated fish and vegetable farm complex run by Sweet Water Organics, which took over an abandoned factory in Milwaukee and now supplies organic vegetables and seafood to the Milwaukee area. Rooftop farms like The Grange in Brooklyn and the indoor "Green Machine" wall, developed by Bronx Discovery High School teacher Steve Ritz  and Boston's Green Living Technologies' George Irwin as a way for students to not only learn about their own food, but also to empower themselves through the earning power of vegetable sales -- I was surprised to see how much money the fresh vegetables from these classroom walls could earn over the course of a year.

I am thrilled that we increasingly have something much more interesting to look at from our high-rise windows than butt-ugly roof ballast and rusting air handlers. One cool complementary idea might be locating the vertical farms atop large server buildings. The waste heat and carbon dioxide exhausted from the building could be used to condition greenhouses that could go up a few stories.

Although, if pioneers like Krista Laursen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have their way, there will be a whole lot less waste heat from these facilities in the future. As Managing Editor Matthew Wheeland reports this week, the new NCAR supercomputing facility in Wyoming achieves an impressive PUE (power usage effectiveness) of 1.1, which means that almost all of the energy going into the facility is used for computing tasks. Perhaps with an integrated vertical farm using the waste heat, we could eventually argue that the PUE can dip below 1.

I suppose it would be a "good" problem to have, but I hope it doesn't happen: fighting but between green roofs and building integrated photovoltaics. held a very interesting webinar this week on solar powered buildings, which are becoming increasingly feasible given the precipitous drop in PV costs, complemented by a steady rise in conversion efficiency. And stay tuned next month for's series of summits around its VERGE initiative.

This week's Look-Grandpa-I-picked-up-the-$20-bill-you said-was-fake-but-it's-real! award goes to InterContinental Hotels Group generally for their overall leadership in the environmental space -- they were the first hotel company to receive LEED volume pre-certification for existing buildings. I want to give a specific Grandpa shout-out to the InterContinental San Francisco for its strategic partnership with Zipcar that has helped introduce the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid to the city. With a matching charging station to boot. Integrating the Zipar with the hotel's green amenities seems like a logical progression and one that should be much more widely emulated.

The InterContinental San Francisco hotel announced its LEED-EBOM certification at the the gold level in February. The hotel has an Energy Star score of 86 -- right in the sweet spot of certified EBOM buildings -- which it increased by 10 points from the 76 in 2009 to its 2010 score of 86. Clearly, this type of performance requires a partnership between hotel management, the hotel's engineering staff and the guests, who can choose to play a role by activating an in-room ecoMODE smart thermostat and by participating in the hotel's green linen program.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user randomduck.

More on this topic