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Global Roundtable


  • The Puzzle of Delhi’s Air Pollution

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    July 6, 2014

    Radhika Khosla

    The recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report on Ambient Air Pollution for 2014 showcases a variety of alarming results: across 1600 cities from 91 countries, and covering the period from 2008 to 2013, the cities with the lowest levels of urban air quality in the world lie in India. Delhi ranks as the worst globally for the highest measurement of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5 (smaller than 2.5 microns) of 153 micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air. For particulate matter with less than a 10 micron-meter aerodynamic diameter, PM 10, the cities of Gwalior, Raipur and Delhi rank amongst the highest in the world.

    These are startling results, which corroborate the anecdotal evidence that populace in Delhi are beginning to experience through the deteriorating respiratory health especially of babies and infants. There have been a range of official reactions to this statistic, including suggestions that pollution levels are being overestimated. Irrespective, the fact that air pollution in Delhi is a growing and serious problem is unambiguously understood and acknowledged by a range of experts. The graphic below shows that Delhi’s air quality is now even worse than Beijing’s, a city which has battled with high pollution levels in the last decade. It is imperative that we unveil the reasons and analysis behind Delhi’s pollution puzzle — an issue that is slowly gaining relevance amongst the government and civil society.

    India’s Central Pollution Control Board categorises respirable particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen, ozone, sulphur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, benzene and ammonia as pollutants, with national threshold values set for each. Data is currently collected at stations across Delhi by multiple agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. A first … Continue Reading

  • What Do People See in the Landscape? The Metamorphosis of Ecosystem Services After Disaster

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    June 25, 2014

    Paula Villagra

    My interest in learning about the services that natural areas provide to the community begun after the earthquake that hit south-central Chile on February 27, 2010. Though no major infrastructure damage occurred, the earthquake, tsunami and countless aftershocks caused great fear in the population, who were in particular insecure to return to their homes. For this reason, the community gathered in the open space, including natural areas. As it has been recorded in other parts of the world (Link 1; Link 2; Link 3), the open space was mostly used for camping, refuge and as escape routes, while natural areas, both inside and outside the city limits, became a source of provisioning services such as water and firewood (for heating), and cultural services, for gathering, camping and the provision of urban supplies.

    The various studies we have undertaken since 2010 have made us realize that the services provided by natural areas in particular, or ecosystem services, are context specific and are conditional to what people see in the landscape. Ecosystem services vary on one hand, on the physical attributes of natural systems, meaning their elements and organization, which in turn, affect their provisioning capacity, their appearance and the way people perceived them. On the other hand, ecosystem services vary with the socio-cultural aspects of a community, which influence the possibilities of people to value natural areas as useful for their specific needs at specific times. Our studies also support the idea that people’s perception of nature and their capacity to perceive potential uses after disaster depends on their knowledge and familiarity with the landscape. For instance, ecological knowledge can help to differentiate between water bodies useful for drinking, among others which are useful for washing only. Similarly, a high familiarity with the landscape … Continue Reading

  • The Rhythms of City Life

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    June 22, 2014

    Madhusudan Katti

    A friend once told me about the time he started finding dry dog food pellets mysteriously appearing in his pockets every time he put on a freshly laundered and dried pair of pants. Dr. Will Turner had a dog, of course, and recognized the pellets as the same kind he offered his dog in a bowl out on the porch every morning. But he wasn’t in the habit of carrying them around in his own pockets, so how did the pellets end up there, day after day? It took him a few days of detective work to figure out what was going on.

    A graduate student of urban ecology, and living in one of the burgeoning cities in the American Southwest, Will was conscientious about his environmental impact. So, among other things, he relied on the desert air to dry his laundry rather than using an electric dryer like too many urban dwellers in these energy hungry western cities. A clothesline in the yard, an oddly oft-forgotten bit of technology, is after all lighter both on the city’s energy supply and a grad student’s wallet. Will’s clothesline stretched across their yard, off the porch with the bowl of dog food.

    ScrubJay-PeanutIt took a few days of clothesline- and bird-watching to solve the mystery of the pellets in his pockets. Among the various wild creatures who shared Will’s yard was a Scrub Jay, a consummate city slicker of the not-so-wild American West. This bird, like so many of its Corvid cousins in cities all over the world, is a generalist and opportunist with a not too picky appetite for the veritable smorgasbord served up by us, both purposefully through bird feeders and wastefully when we throw out food and organic garbage. Dog and cat food make for delightful morsels for these omnivores, and it didn’t take … Continue Reading

  • Driving Social and Ecological Change: My Experiment with Guerilla Gardening

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    June 18, 2014

    Pippin Anderson

    Spurred on by some students who asked me earlier in the year what sort of personal activism I pursue in relation to my views around the importance of forwarding and preserving functioning urban ecologies, I decided to embark on a bit of guerilla gardening in the form of a seed bombing exercise.

    Quill bombingIn addition to the interest and enthusiasm of my students, and a personal desire to re-initiate some activism in myself, the exercise takes its inspiration from, and was informed by, two emerging threads in recent landscape, urban ecology and restoration ecology literatures. The first relates to the application of landscape ecology principles in a constructive, futuristic, manner to the urban context and the second to the notion of using ‘charismatic’ species to engage society, emerging in the restoration ecology literature. A third, more personal consideration, relates to the notion of activism, and in how we position ourselves as participants in a relatively young democracy in South Africa (and one that was significantly informed by activism) in response to current causes.

    And then of course there is the seed bombing itself, which was the happy culmination of these various musings.

    Dynamic urban landscapes and ‘popup ecologies’

    The landscape and urban ecology literature at the moment notes the importance of not just spatial, but also temporal shifts in the landscape (Ramalho and Hobbs, 2012). What is described brings to mind a dynamic 3D graphic of patches in the landscape changing from occupied, to unoccupied, to variably occupied, and changing in size, shape and purpose, through time. The relief of this is green and brown field sites that are connected, then disconnected, and potentially reconnected in space and time. If these historical shifts are so relevant in understanding contemporary ecological function, then why not take a … Continue Reading

  • It’s Up to You: A Vision for 90% Less Greenhouse Gases for Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street

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    June 15, 2014

    Eric Sanderson

    If Thoreau were alive today, he might move to Brooklyn, not the woods. Cities of the early 21st century are where life can be lived most intensely, the place for sucking, routing, shaving, and driving life into the corner, as Thoreau famously described the purpose of his retreat to Walden Pond. Cities are where innovations happen, and he needed new ideas.  He thrived on them. At 28, instead of cabin on the edge of town, Henry David could find the marrow of life while renting a walk-up in Greenpoint or Gowanus and exploring the ecosystems of the city. He certainly had the beard for a Brooklyn existence:  a proto-eco-hipster.

    Thoreau would come to the city to explore the possibilities. For modern day explorers, we’ve constructed a portal to help people see and shape the nature of the city: Mannahatta2409.org.

    Mannahatta2409.org is a visionmaking tool. “Visions” are composed a combinations of ecosystems, lifestyle choices, and climate scenarios, where ecosystems include buildings and streets as well as forests, wetlands and beaches. Based on these combinations, the mannhatta2409.org estimates metrics of environmental performance in four categories:  water, carbon, biodiversity, and population. In all, sixty-five measures are calculated and compared over three time points:  the user’s vision, the area of the user’s vision as it exists in Manhattan today, and the area of the user’s vision as it existed 400 years ago, before Thoreau or the city, when the island of Manhattan was called Mannahatta, an exemplar of the wilderness. (Read more here.)  The goal is to test the bounds and find consensus about what the nature of the city should be.

    Mannahatta2409.org is meant for everyone.  Since the release of the prototype in January, about 10,000 … Continue Reading

  • Blue Urbanism: Connecting Cities and the Nature of Oceans

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    June 11, 2014

    Tim Beatley

    While we are increasingly a planet of cities, we must not forget that we live and share space on the blue planet. We rarely put these two realms (or words) together, but we must begin to. By some estimates, two-thirds of our global population lies within 400 kilometers of a shoreline. As oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer, Sylvia Earle, wrote in her important book, The World is Blue, “Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea” (Earle, 2010).

    There are dangers associated with rising sea levels, of course, presenting a need to grow and plan cities in ways that better respect these increasingly dynamic edges. But we are drawn to water, to the sights, sounds, smells of marine environments, and there is a deep biophilic impulse and need at work here that visiting the seashore starts to satisfy. There is at once calmness and intensity and a mysterious world just beyond our reach. Research by Michael DePledge and his team at Exeter University demonstrates what we have always known, which is that we enjoy visual and physical proximity to water and that these settings deliver immense emotional and therapeutic benefit (DePledge and Bird, 2009; Wheeler, et al 2012).

    Our human fate here on the blue planet is, not surprisingly, intimately tied to ocean health. And oceans are suffering in many ways—acidification and other impacts of global warming, industrial over-harvesting of fish and seafood, the accumulation of the immense detritus and pollution of modern life, from plastics to chemicals to crude oil.

    Is there a chance that growing cities can muster their wealth, creativity and political influence to come to the aid of oceans? The vision of Blue Urbanism (the subject of my new book) suggests yes! From the redesign of coastal edges … Continue Reading