Category Archives: environment

Invisible Guzzlers, Or, Buildings and Energy Use

Right now in Utah we’re beginning to have a discussion about the damaging effects of cars. But if we really want to improve air quality, our health, and generally live in a better world, we should also consider tackling another big polluter: buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

A recent Slate article notes that in New York City 75 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. The article quickly points out that in most other parts of the county buildings produce a smaller percent of the emissions, but the point that buildings create pollution is still an important one for any region. And it’s particularly important in Utah because there’s also very little discussion about the need to build more efficient buildings.

The really interesting thing is that the article suggests retrofitting buildings to make them greener:

[…] retrofitting almost every building in the city to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer. In a nod to Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and James Q. Wilson, I’ll call it the “triple-pane windows theory” of greenhouse-gas reduction.

The article gets into some and interesting strategies that are specific to New York but that have varying levels of applicability to cities along the Wasatch Front.

And again, this is an important topic that warrants more discussion in Utah. Aside from the occasional LEED certified buildings — which aren’t always that environmentally friendly after all — few people are apparently bringing this up.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One other thing also deserves mentioning here: air conditioning. Though the Slate article mostly discusses heating, the need for air conditioning is also often accepted as a foregone conclusion in discussions about energy efficiency.

Yet air conditioning is far from necessary. Though humans have heated their living spaces for millennia, modern forms of air conditioning — and the grossly inefficient buildings it has spawned — has only been around for a few generations. Steve Mouzon calls this the “Thermostat Age” when he points out that historically,

buildings we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, starve to death, or other really bad things would happen to them.

The point is that there is one easy way to drastically cut energy usage and emissions: turn off air conditioning and, over time, build structures that don’t need it. It may seem like a challenge when those hot days come along, but in the end it’s really one of the easiest and most obvious ways to cut our individual energy consumption.

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Spending Time in Nature

Utah is a great state for nature lovers and apparently that may make us all a bit more creative.

According to KSL, a new study revealed that spending several days in nature actually improved scores on creativity tests:

The idea behind the result is that modern life taxes up an excessive amount of our attention. Ringing cell phones, computer notifications, sirens, cars and the like all distract us from a particular task we are trying to accomplish and force our brains to focus on them. It’s these sudden events that tend to drain our “executive attentional system,” [U. psychology professor David] Strayer said.

The best thing about these findings is that in Utah, and especially Provo, it’s really easy to get out into nature. From my house, for example, I can bike to several backpacking trails that can start a days-long adventure in the wilderness. If I drive, there are dozens of other nature opportunities near by. In many places that wouldn’t be possible at all, and few locations in the U.S. have as dramatic and accessible outdoor scenery as Provo.

In addition to hiking trails, Provo also has a large lake.

While the KSL article fittingly mentions Thoreau, when it comes to wilderness and the West, I prefer Wallace Stegner. Stegner spent a great deal of time in Utah, and wrote extensively about the area. Perhaps most appropriate, his famous Wilderness Letter calls natural landscapes an “intangible and spiritual resource.” It seems, to me, that Stegner was identifying something similar to the findings of this recent study; both show that there is something cleansing about the wilderness. Writing about Wayne County Utah — a place where he says one may see God — he continues,

Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers’ Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can’t even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.

These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or “usefulness” or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

Stegner’s argument is more abstract than a scientific study, and his objective is somewhat different, but both point to the importance of natural landscapes. And in Provo, those landscapes are particularly proximate to our homes.

A plaque on the Provo River Trail.

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Should Our Cities Ban Harmful Things?

Way back in May I mentioned that L.A. had just made history by becoming the largest U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags.

But Provo is a lot smaller than L.A., so does it really matter if a medium-sized city outlaws harmful pollutants?

A recent Atlantic Cities article seems to think so. The article details how a Massachusetts town recently banned styrofoam takeout containers. The town is less than half the size of Provo, but the author ultimately comes to the conclusion that such efforts might be useful because they can spill over into neighboring communities and because they are symbolic. And of course, they also have a small actual impact on the environment.

Recycling cans are becoming just as common as garbage cans in Provo. That makes a positive difference in many ways.

To that I would add that less harmful waste in local landfills actually saves money.

A local example of these phenomena is glass recycling. In July I noted that Salt Lake City is recycling glass and wondered when Provo would do the same. Six months later, Provo has followed the example of its neighbor to the north and is now working on it.

The point here is that small changes do make a difference.

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Rebuild the Gondola!

Here’s a wild, long-shot of an idea: Provo should bring back the gondola over Bridal Veil Falls.

According to Wikipedia, Bridal Veil Falls used to have an “aerial tramway” that was destroyed twice by avalanches. Apparently it was advertised as the “world’s steepest aerial tramway” until the second avalanche shut it down in 1996. Here are some historic photos, for those who never saw or can’t remember the gondola ride in action:

This dramatic shot shows Provo Canyon’s gondola nearly reaching its destination. According to BYU’s archive, it comes from the Daily Herald and was taken sometime between 1960 and 1980.

The date and source of this picture are the same as the one above. Note how happy these people are. That’s how we’d all feel all the time if this gondola was rebuilt.

The BYU archive states that this picture was taken sometime before 1970. Though hard to see, I think the gondola looks a bit different from those in the first two pictures, suggesting that it may be from before the first collapse.

Another Herald picture taken before 1980, this one shows the lower platform for the “sky ride.”

Another kind of cable car. This picture was taken before 1980.

I had the pleasure of riding this gondola as a child during one of my family’s many summer trips to Provo. Much like the people in the pictures above, it brought me great happiness.

But joy isn’t the only reason to bring the gondola back to Provo Canyon. In fact the Guardian recently reported that this sort of device can be a legitimate form of transportation. That was certainly the case in Provo, when it was the exclusive way to access the restaurant above Bridal Veil Falls. Presumably then, bringing the gondola back would open up the area above Bridal Veil Falls to new development — meaning perhaps more trails or a restaurant.

And speaking of the outdoors, I’ve written before that outdoor activity can be a significant driver of economic development. Bringing back the gondola would help Provo further capitalize on its incredible natural environment. It’s also worth noting that the population — meaning the potential customer base for the gondola — in Utah County has dramatically increased in the past 16 years. That increase is projected to continue as well. This is an idea for which the time may finally have arrived.

And in case you’re wondering what the gondola looks like today, I found this video on Youtube, which apparently was shot earlier this year:


Filed under Development, environment, mountains, restaurant

Recycling: The Fiscally Conservative Choice

Recycling sometimes gets politicized, which is unfortunate because it’s really not a political issue. Case in point: Provo has save a bundle of money through its recycling program. According to an article by my colleague Caleb Warnock, the city will save millions over the long run:

It’s also good for the public pocketbook in many ways. First, when trash trucks take garbage away to dump, the city pays a per-ton landfill fee. Provo paid $135,000 less in fees this year, because recycling diverted nearly 1,500 tons of trash.

But that is not the best benefit, the mayor said. Because opt-out recycling removed 5 percent of Provo’s trash last year, the life of the landfill is extended, which will save taxpayers millions over time. The life of the landfill also is extended by the city’s green waste program, which takes grass and yard clippings and turns them into compost, instead of filling the landfill with them.

“Now you are talking millions and millions of dollars, and that is where the real savings is,” he said.

Those savings will directly and indirectly benefit residents as they’re passed on in the form of public programs, less debt and possibly lower taxes over the long term.

A traditional black garbage can along side a newer, blue recycling trash can. Provo’s recycling program is saving the city a lot of money.

The article goes on to state that after Provo switched to an opt-in recycling program — which automatically enrolls residents — it saw a 250 percent increase in participation. It also mentions that Provo is trying to figure out how to do glass recycling, which is something I called for here.

The overall message here is that recycling is as good for the pocket book as it is for the environment.

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Orem Takes Out the Trash Trucks

More often than not, Orem shows up on this blog as an example of a city-related problem — dying malls, over-wide streets, etc. — but today Provo’s neighbor to the north is leading the way with greener garbage trucks.

According to the Daily Herald, Orem is rolling out a new fleet of natural gas trucks Tuesday afternoon:

The natural gas trucks will be the largest fleet operating in Utah. The trucks collect solid waste and recycling garbage. The trucks put out up to 50 percent less nitrogen oxide, which forms smog, and 25 percent less greenhouse gas. They also run 50 percent quieter than diesel trucks.

Utah Valley could definitely use less air pollution, particularly as we head into inversion season, so it’s great to see a larger city proactively working for better environmental stewardship. This development also offers an example for other area cities looking to be more responsible themselves.


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Parking Structures and Greenwashing

Can a project be environmentally friendly and invest in parking at the same time?

According to John Greenfield, one parking lot developer thinks so. In a post on Grid Chicago Greenfield explores an array of supposedly green innovations on an 11-story downtown parking structure. Greenfield sounds rather skeptical that the parking structure is really environmentally friendly, but lets one of his sources make the point more forcefully:

Michael Burton, a sustainable transportation activist who co-founded Chicago’s Critical Mass ride, is less measured in his critique. “A green parking structure!” he emails. “What’s next, a LEED-certified strip mine? Any infrastructure that encourages private automobile use instead of rapid transit, walking and/or biking is inherently environmentally unfriendly. Using green technology to market a new parking structure is simply cynical greenwashing.

Greenfield’s example is useful for pointing out the fundamental contradictions in many projects that tout their green credentials while simultaneously relying on cars and car commutes.

In Provo, the current Nu Skin building is just the most recent example of this phenomenon. As has been widely publicized, the company’s new-but-ugly building will be LEED certified. In a recent article by my colleague Genelle Pugmire, CFO Ritch Wood even said “we will be totally green.”

But that’s not totally true; while the building itself may be green, Nu Skin is also hard at work on an accompanying parking structure:

Construction on Nu Skin’s new parking structure.

It’s also worth noting that this parking structure is five blocks, or less than half a mile, from the new commuter rail and bus station. It’s surrounded by the most walkable area in Utah Valley. And Nu Skin is just one of the culprits. Similar criticisms apply to the Utah Valley Convention Center and some of BYU’s development, just to name a few recent examples.

The point here is that erecting environmentally friendly buildings is only part of the battle. It’s a great part and companies like Nu Skin should be commended for trying, but buildings ultimately account for a minority of our energy consumption and carbon emissions. A much more important issue is how workers commute to and from the office. In other words, being green also means not building parking structures.

As a result, calling structures with big parking lots and car orientations “green” is misleading at best. At worst, it’s deceptive and entirely misses the point of environmental stewardship.


Filed under driving, environment, parking

The Pavement Under Our Feet

The last few days have seen posts on pavement in different parts of the world, as well as on the importance of rethinking how we tend to cover parking lots with asphalt.

But while Provo and other parts of the West tend to see a lot of concrete and asphalt, those are by no means the only types of paving materials in Provo. Below, I’ve included some examples demonstrating that people in Provo are already thinking creatively about how to pave their spaces. Hopefully these examples will help us think about the potential benefits of different types of paving materials.

This European-style cobbling is one of my favorite examples in Provo. It’s a small and easy-to-overlook strip, but it’s far more interesting than ordinary concrete.

This driveway on 9th East is paved entirely in brick. I assume that this is a lot more expensive, but that’s sort of the point: it looks so much better that it presumably costs more.

Unlike the brick in the picture above, this appears to be more of a paving masonry product. Still, I think it looks great; it’s more interesting that any other driveway in the surrounding area and, significantly, adapts to tree roots. In other words, this brick could be easily removed or altered as that tree grows or is cut down. Concrete, on the other hand, would require a jackhammer.

When brick won’t work for whatever reason, asphalt can be stamped and painted to look like brick. I tend to frown on building materials — fake wood siding, for example — masquerading as something they aren’t. But in this case, the stamped asphalt breaks up the otherwise monotonous street and visually delineates, and therefore protects, pedestrian space. Of course, eventually the paint wears off and exposes the surface for what it really is.

Here, near the new bike rack, the sidewalk is broken up by a swooping design and other patterns created with brick like material.

This picture comes from Laura’s recent trip to Denver. As it was explained to me, the sidewalk here is paved with stone. The stone apparently matches the nearby homes, which are from the early 20th century. The inference, then, is that this stone sidewalk is quite old. By contrast, I was told that the nearby sidewalks that are made out of concrete have deteriorated more rapidly and need to be fixed or replaced far more frequently. If true, the stone-concrete comparison demonstrates the relatively common phenomenon wherein a larger up front investment actually saves money over the long run.

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And the Streets Are Paved In… All Sorts of Things

In Utah, it occasionally seems like there are only two options for paved surfaces: concrete and asphalt. But while those are certainly the most common types of pavement in the American West, they’re far from the only options. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to think creatively about pavement.

While I was in Spain this summer I tried to pay special attention to different types of pavement. My goal was to continue  the discussion that began with this post in July and resumed yesterday with this post. There were too many examples to mention them all here, but I nevertheless wanted to highlight a few of them:

This square outside the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid is paved with stone slabs. The improvement over concrete is similar to the difference between a huge blank wall covered in monotonous stucco — as is seen in many strip malls, cheap apartments and the Riverwoods — and a similarly-sized wall made of brick.

Modern cobblestone. These stones were laid just a few years ago when traffic in this area of Madrid was diverted underground.

This is a kind of stamped masonry product paving a pedestrian zone in Barcelona.

A playful, geometric pavement, also in Barcelona.

This old courtyard in Seville would be rather plain if paved with concrete or even ordinary brick. But here the geometric stone and brick design captures and moves the eye, making it visually engaging. It’s the same principle as, say, a Mondrian painting and it’s as superior to blank pavement as a work of art is to a blank canvas.

Imagine this plaza in Seville with uniform concrete or asphalt. It would be an utter failure. Instead, however, pavement styles are used to break up the space and guide users as they interact with the environment.

In Seville, even the bus station gets cobblestone. That’s significant because this area sees extra wear and tear due to the high volume of large, heavy vehicles. And yet they keep installing cobblestone rather than a cheaper, easier alternative.

In Segovia, they love stone pavement so much that they actually disguise their manhole covers to look like they’re cobbled.

Sometimes pavement serves a dual purpose. This piece of metal was also a map of the city. As an example of wayfinding it was pretty ineffective. But as a ground cover, it was fascinating.

Lest anyone think that this kind of pavement is a thing of the past, these guys were actually repaving the street here in Madrid.

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Provo Business Recycling Made Easier

Just a few days ago I was talking to a friend about the challenges of recycling in Provo. I argued that residential recycling in the city is fairly easy with the new opt out program, but he countered that for certain kinds of businesses it’s actually much more difficult.

This week however, the city implemented measures to begin remedying that problem. According to my colleague Genelle Pugmire, the idea — which is still in a proposal stage — would give tax credits to businesses that recycle.

Eligible businesses using recycled materials or doing recycling will qualify for a 5 percent Utah state income tax credit on the cost of machinery and equipment, a 20 percent Utah state income tax credit, up to $2,000, on eligible operating expenses, technical assistance from state recycling economic development professionals, and modest local incentives.

Apparently the program is already happening in 20 other Utah cities and can result in major economic benefits. Staffers have apparently looked into the program and haven’t found any downsides and there’s apparently a lot of interest in the program:

Jarvis added, “I was surprised at how many claimed they would be eligible, including big firms like Western Metals Recycling, Novatek and NuSkin as well as small ones like Communal restaurant and Ecoscraps.”

Jarvis added that Curtis would like to start a Provo Green Business Certification program. The hope would be to have all businesses go green.

Like many cities, there are still many areas in which Provo can improve its environmental stewardship. However, it’s also not every city where the mayor and other leadership take action and explicitly state that they want to make every business green.

Provo is beginning a program to help businesses recycle.

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