Sunday, August 09, 2015

Venice on the Charles ...

... and Other Encouraging Stories
I teach about geographic problems -- political, economic, and especially environmental -- because I think the problems are important. And I teach the complexities of the problems because I think we are far beyond simple solutions and wishful thinking. I know, however, that the insights of a geographer can begin to sound like a dismal refrain after a while. As we used to paraphrase my undergraduate advisor, "We're going to hell in a handbasket."

But I keep teaching because I know that we have somehow managed to persist for three decades past those doom-and-gloom classes of my undergraduate days, and I imagine my students (and with luck myself) will be here three decades from now. And we might as well make the best of it. The very best we can.

So with today's post I share a single link to a handful of very encouraging stories about urban environments in the face of climate change. Yes, I used "encouraging," "urban," and "climate change" in the same sentence. This episode of Living On Earth is full of valuable lessons.

I was, ironically, on a long drive when I heard this program. I missed the first segment or two, but each of the rest was both intriguing and encouraging -- uplifting, even. (I'll get the bad news out of the way now. Going back to the online version, I learned that the first segment mentioned Miami, an extremely vulnerable city that is set to be the victim of both climate change and climate denial. But enough of that.)

I enjoyed learning about the work on information technologies that promise to give Helsinkians (Helsinkers?) more choices in transportation for individual journeys while greatly reducing both traffic and parking overall. Then I learned about the thorough integration of green roofs in Copenhagen, where great attention to detail provides benefits for individual buildings and for the city as a whole. Green roofs are very important for ameliorating the urban heat-island effect, which adds several degrees of heating to regionally prevalent temperatures. Then I learned that the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil has put together a compendium of suggestions for improving urban environments. His interview alone is a rich education. Rather than writing a manual about recreating the improvements in his city -- often called the best-planned in the world -- he brings together snippets of innovation from many places. His emphasis is on good ideas that can be implemented quickly. If his ideas can be implemented in Brazilian government (with a reputation for extreme bureaucracy) there is at least a little hope for those of us working in bureaucratic university environments.

The icing on the proverbial cake, though, was about the Back Bay of Boston, where I was walking with a Brazilian colleague just a couple of days ago. About 1/3 of Beantown (also known as the Hub of the Universe) was marsh or open water two centuries ago. It is among the world cities most vulnerable to rising seas, because so much of it was in the sea so recently. Some cities are erecting hard barriers, and some -- like New York City -- are working on soft barriers. The answer for Boston might be something else entirely: bringing the ocean in. Listen to the final segment to learn about a vision for tidal canals inside the city of Boston!

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