Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

UniverCities Blogger Unmasked; Green Regionalism Makes His Commute Possible

August 16, 2011

The very first post to this blog made a cryptic reference to one Joel Batterman, “UniverCities Connection Communications Fellow.” After that, he disappeared from this blog’s pages, never to be seen again…until now.

En route to work. Item attached to glasses is rear-view mirror.

You see, I’m Joel. As communications fellow, I’ve been the voice of the UniverCities blog for more than two months now. I also study transportation at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, so I hope you’ll allow me to describe my commute from home to office this summer.

Sounds thrilling, right? In fact, getting to and from work is often a joy for me. It also illustrates one of the biggest themes of this blog: going green through regional cooperation.

I commute mostly by bicycle, and occasionally by bus. The distance from my home in Ann Arbor to the western branch office of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in Ypsilanti is just over nine miles on the Huron River Greenway Border-to-Border Trail. For me, that works out to about forty-five minutes each way.

Border-to-Border Trail in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park, along Huron River.

This is twice as long as it would take me to drive, but going by bike offers me lots of advantages, beyond the simple satisfaction of knowing I’m not contributing to climate change. I invariably arrive at work feeling more energized. I get in all the exercise I need. And of course, I don’t spend a penny on gas or parking. As metro Detroit cities are finding with their energy efficiency initiatives, sustainability and economy can go hand in hand.

There are some benefits, of course, that are harder to quantify. Traveling slower allows me to better experience the places I pass through. I’m more attentive to the changes in the air after the rain, the pace of the Huron River I travel beside, and the activity of the people fishing in Gallup Park. Few sights brighten my day more than Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine rushing by me, or the living poetry of a blue heron winging above the water.

Amtrak's Wolverine crosses the Huron en route to Detroit.

It took regional thinking to make this trail happen. Despite its name, the Border-to-Border trail actually crosses a lot of borders. The section I travel cuts across four different jurisdictions: the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, plus Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township. Not all of it is on public land, either. Portions run through the property of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and Eastern Michigan University, as well as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Some, like the trail through Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, existed decades before the vision of a cross-county connection. Bringing all the relevant entities together to link older segments and carve out new paths required years of legwork by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.

The task didn’t faze people like the Commission’s Bob Tetens, who knew the trail would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to advocate for regional connections in places where they’ve long been absent. Yet as Tetens likes to say, according to Concentrate magazine, “you don’t build a bridge for the amount of people who swim across the river. You build a bridge for the amount of people who will use it.” And people do use the Border-to-Border Trail: to get to work, recreate and enjoy some time away from the rush of motorized civilization.

Pedaling towards Ypsilanti.

To draw a larger regional analogy, greater Detroit is a region that could use a lot more bridges, bridges that traverse both physical distance and social divides. Too often, we give up and accept these gaps as inevitable, but they aren’t our destiny. We can overcome them, as the County did. Cementing bonds among people is often more challenging than laying down a strip of asphalt. But join together we must, if we’re to pull our region out of the dead end of disunity and set ourselves on the path towards a future that works.

Revolving Energy Loan Funds Pay It Forward in Michigan Cities, and Could Go Regional in Detroit

August 5, 2011

Ka-ching! Ann Arbor's fund proved a sure bet. (City of Ann Arbor)

As Jordan Eizenga’s data mining showed us, energy efficiency upgrades can save cities big money. The initial investment required can be an obstacle, though. Those lighting upgrades in Hazel Park and Madison Heights were paid for by federal grants, but how can cash-strapped cities sustain their energy efficiency campaigns after outside funds run out? Energy policy intern Jordan Garfinkle’s research has turned up an answer.

Revolving loan funds are a simple financial device for recapturing the savings recouped by energy efficiency projects. For a certain period of time, the money saved gets shoveled back into an account that will fund additional energy conservation or renewable energy initiatives, helping cities overcome the up-front costs. The money saved in the next round gets put back into the fund, too, where it can be used for more projects, so the sustainability action never stops – at least not until atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are back to normal and our cities are net generators of electricity.

How UM fund recycles the green. (University of Michigan)

Some places in metro Detroit are already climbing on board the revolving loan fund bandwagon, according to Jordan’s research. Ann Arbor started its Municipal Energy Fund with a $100,000 allocation in 1998. 80% of the subsequent energy savings went back to the Fund, and in five years it was self-sustaining. The City of Farmington Hills just made the first deposit in its Energy and Sustainability Account. And the University of Michigan’s Energy Conservation Measures Fund has been around for almost a quarter-century.

Since many of Detroit’s older suburbs are relatively small, they could see the greatest gains by joining forces to create a shared revolving loan fund. “In general,” Jordan writes, “the larger, regional funds with numerous member communities offer many of the benefits of smaller funds without the administrative burden associated with managing a revolving loan fund,” while also offering “augmented purchasing power.” Could the Michigan Suburbs Alliance’s Regional Energy Office get such a regional fund started before long? It’s too early for us to say now, but stay tuned.

Jordan Garfinkle Wants You to Get Empowered: Join Us This Thursday for Energy Action

August 2, 2011

For more than two months, you’ve been reading about our interns’ work to define a new energy future for metro Detroit. Are you ready to stand up and join them?

Jordan shows off Ypsilanti's solar panels, drawing on an energy source that never runs out of juice.

This Thursday, August 4, energy policy intern Jordan Garfinkle is hosting an open discussion about the energy challenges facing metro Detroit, policy options for local governments and how young people can make their voices heard to define a greener, more prosperous future. It’s happening at the ultra-mod Ferndale Public Library, 222 E. Nine Mile, from 7:30-8:30 pm. Find the event page here.

The event will describe ways that young people can help Millennial Mayors Congress cities work to achieve their 2015 energy conservation goals. “Our region’s youth,” Jordan states, “are in a remarkable position to effect change.” Collective action by Millennials may be the force we require to re-energize the region. Given Jordan’s years of experience with climate advocacy, and the knowledge of the region he’s gained this summer, we could hardly ask for a savvier guide.

While there are no official plans for an afterparty, Jordan notes slyly that while the event is scheduled to end at 8:30 pm, he’s reserved the room until 9, so you might not want to leave too soon. “The organic juice tap will be flowing,” he says. Meet us there to make yourself a part of the solution!

Electric Detective: In Hazel Park and Madison Heights, Intern Finds That Energy Efficiency Pays

July 29, 2011

Eizenga: bringing energy to account in metro Detroit.

Energy data intern Jordan Eizenga has been on the hunt for weeks. His quarry? Metro Detroit cities’ electrical bills of years past. It’s taken plenty of sleuthing to find them, but the search is finally bearing fruit. Data from Hazel Park and Madison Heights show that energy conservation measures undertaken by these cities are reaping big rewards for city budgets—and the planet.

In Madison Heights, the baseball field lights at Rosie Park and Huffman Park got swapped for more efficient models as part of a $124,000 federal energy efficiency grant secured by the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. City officials hoped the upgrade would give them “a good start” towards meeting the 25%-by-2015 conservation goal of the Millennial Mayors Congress’s Energy Savings Protocol.

Rosie's Park, Madison Heights. (Bill Walsh)

Jordan’s research shows that the new lights are paying off. Electrical use in Rosie’s Park has fallen by more than 25%, from 96 to 71 kilowatt-hours per day. That adds up to $435 in savings in one year. In smaller Huffman Park, the City cut energy use 15%, for nearly $100 in savings. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s just the initial return.

To the south, the City of Hazel Park also took advantage of the energy grants. There, efficiency improvements at the fire station netted 12% reductions in electrical consumption. The money saved by these upgrades could help the City hold on to its force of firefighters instead. We’d certainly choose that over heating up the atmosphere!

Fire station, Hazel Park. (Jordan Eizenga)

Once it’s collected and analyzed, Jordan says, energy savings data can help cities decide how to direct their future investments and secure the 15%-by-2015 energy reduction outlined in the Protocol, “so the benefits of doing this work and being diligent with it really compound over time.” His hard work has been essential. “With all the challenges that cities are facing right now, it’s difficult for them to focus on activities with long-term payoffs like collecting data for energy efficiency,” he says, and assistance from interns working on a regional level “really helps take a load off local governments.”

Now that Jordan’s shed some light on the subject for them, these cities will ultimately be able to lighten their energy load, too.

To Help Beat Heat Wave, Says Intern, Spruce Up Metro Detroit Streets with Shade Trees

July 21, 2011

Michigan is sweating through its fifth-warmest July in a century. Detroit and other local cities have designated libraries and other public facilities as “cooling centers” where residents can take refuge from temperatures in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, the long-term forecast offers little hope of a respite. Scientists predict that global warming could triple the number of  hot days in Detroit, posing a particular threat to the city’s elderly residents.

UniverCities Connection intern Stephanie Chueh has been researching one climate change mitigation strategy that promises relief to the sweltering streets: shade trees.

Two blocks of the same Ypsilanti street, with trees (L) and without (R).

Trees inhale some carbon dioxide through their leaves, but that‘s not their only climate benefit. By sheltering adjacent buildings from the sun, they can cut down on the use of air conditioning and reduce electricity consumption. In that sense, they serve as both a climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy, not only curbing climate change but lightening the global warming burden that we will have to bear. “I love it when things are multifunctional!” Stephanie says.

According to her research, the average street tree costs the famously leafy City of Ann Arbor something like $250, plus $30 annually in maintenance. The City calculates the estimated yearly energy savings per tree at $47.55. That’s a darn good deal, especially considering the benefits of trees for the human environment. A green canopy makes for more comfort, natural beauty, and higher real estate values, too, suggesting why new tree plantings are so often a part of streetscape improvement plans in cities’ business districts.

Turning over a new leaf: added street trees figure prominently in Ypsilanti's plan to revamp Cross Street. (City of Ypsilanti)

Ideally, Stephanie indicates, tree planting would be just one element in a suite of climate strategies applied to city streets. “A bunch of projects can work together and serve different purposes,” she says. “For example, just building more sidewalks by themselves may not reduce a ton of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, but coupled with LED streetlights that light the way and trees to shade pedestrians, we can begin to take more cars off the road and build more vibrant, livable communities.” After all, what’s a cool city if not a comfortable place to chill?

Called to Contribute: Stephanie Chueh’s Path to Climate Planning

June 17, 2011

Chueh: Looking to clear the air in metro Detroit.

Born and raised in the Ann Arbor area, UniverCities Connection intern Stephanie Chueh says she didn’t always feel a strong connection to her metro Detroit surroundings or have much familiarity with Tree Town itself. During her first semester at the University of Michigan last year, she had to call a friend from Malaysia for directions when she got lost on campus, and took two weeks to find her way through the University’s Diag.

Stephanie’s attention to national media helped her make that connection to surrounding communities. While still in high school, she’d been shocked to read an article in Time that stated less than half of Detroit’s students passed the state writing test. She herself couldn’t stand to get less than an A- on tests, while less than an hour away her peers could “barely…dream about graduating high school and attending college.” Clearly, the region faced enormous challenges. Yet at the time, she wasn’t sure what she could do to help.

At UM, Stephanie caught the student community’s growing enthusiasm for serving the metropolis. “All around me, friends at classrooms and at church constantly talked about lifting up the Detroit region,” she says. The excitement in these campus spaces, an excitement that captivated newcomers to the state as well as longtime Michiganders, spurred Stephanie to strengthen her own commitment. “If they were so dedicated to this region, then I, who have lived and been blessed here all my life, certainly had a responsibility to metro Detroit.”

Thanks to a grant to the Michigan Suburbs Alliance from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Stephanie has a chance to contribute to the region in a sweeping way: building a library of strategies that cities across the nation are using to cut pollution. Out of the library will come a guide for metro Detroit communities seeking to save money, reduce emissions and combat global warming. That work can help improve the prospects of today’s young people and generations to follow.

In less than a year, Stephanie’s come from getting lost on campus to showing the whole region the way forward, making sure metro Detroit finds the best path to sustainable prosperity. We look forward to hearing what the future will bring!