The progeny of our ecological systems

TONIGHT (Weds., Oct. 14)

 Green Cambridge Candidates Forum
YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Ave. (across from City Hall)


I hope to touch on a few topics:

Net Zero Transportation Task Force. Building on the success of the Net Zero Task Force’s Action Plan, which was adopted this year by City Council, the aim of the Net Zero Transportation Task Force concept is to identify how the city will reduce harmful emissions from transportation sources. I am fully on board with this Task Force and hope to help drive its formation, ensure that it’s fully-resourced, and that its Action Plan is adopted and implemented.

(Can’t all our plans be “action” plans?)

The vision: A ‘complete streets’ design standard & transportation network plan that prioritizes healthy, safe, active, and sustainable transportation; a system that achieves Transportation Justice.

The toolbox: 1. a complete transit network that integrates and enhances all bus and shuttle services within our city (integration of access to transit routes, bus priority signalization, rapid bus infrastructure including dedicated bus lanes and platform stations, 10 minutes to a transit seat), 2. implementation of a complete, protected bicycle network that allows all potential users of all ages and abilities to bike anywhere in the city, 3. aggressive and visionary regional planning (Red Line extension, Green Line extension, Indigo Line creation, Grand Junction Path, Cambridge-Watertown Greenway, Prospect Street Awesomecorridor, etc.), 4. electrical vehicle charging network.

Net Zero from buildings. This means continually furthering our building standards and an integrative approach to energy, waste, etc. The Net Zero Action Plan’s adoption signals a real political willingness to get out in front of building standards, but it must be followed with meaningful actions–even when it’s tough–and continued review to ensure we are ahead of every curve. There is no excuse in our investment boom to not have the finest net zero buildings in the world. Additionally (and this is the hard part) we have to think about energy priorities for existing buildings, which is the vast majority of our challenge…and it doesn’t just mean weatherstripping and blown insulation.

Toolbox: 1. progressive smart monitoring/metering, 2. solar panel standards, 3. heat island reduction via tree canopy, better paving materials, and green roofs, 4. integrated energy distribution, 5. programs to reduce perception of need for large amounts of energy consumption (temperature tolerance, for instance). Many more.

Zero Waste. The curbside compost collection rollout can’t come sooner. We need to continue to push the shift from waste to reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting. This means bans and penalties. We need to continually phase out wasteful and harmful packaging and throwaway materials like polystyrene foam/styrofoam, single-use plastics, harmful chemicals, etc.

Why comprehensive vision is crucial. We get a lot done with mandates, building standards, regulation, law enforcement, design that encourages certain behaviors, etc. — but we get a lot more done with a tangible, actionable vision. There is some pain to take, largely in the perceived-convenience rib, to get to net zero from buildings and zero emissions from transportation and zero waste, but if the end goal is identifiable, if it makes sense, if it’s exciting and purposeful, then the pain becomes tolerable or even dutiful. Most of America doesn’t recycle on the municipal level, or any level. Let that sink in. Despite “creeping” style policy in certain parts of the country (the Northeast and the West Coast, basically) which evolved from 1. the sheer availability of recycling as an option, to 2. making recycling an encouraged option via mechanisms like bottle return fees and public recycling bins, to 3. municipal curbside pick up, and 4. here in Cambridge, technically-mandatory recycling—Americans still dump however many millions or billions of pounds of recyclable material into landfills, not to mention the many more millions or billions of pounds of non-recyclable material. There’s also common litter, illegal dumping, and ocean seep, here and around the world.

That is to say: we are doing better than most, but with the world still grossly lagging, we aren’t doing good enough within our city or in helping to set standards for the rest of the world.

Recycling is a good anecdote for greater ecological and environmental goals. Just like we no longer see recycling as just an “option” for feel-gooders that we merely accommodate, we can’t treat healthy and sustainable building and transportation practices as novelties or with timid incentives.

Better building and transportation standards lead to vastly better externalities. The more we shift away from the domination of single-occupancy vehicles, the more the city grows in health and sociability, too. Reduction of space used for driving and storing vehicles means more space and money (private and public) that can go to better uses, like housing and open space. The subsidy given to driving, via space in particular, is inarguable, and comes with a laundry list of harmful externalities: unsafe and unwelcoming streets for all users, social draining, detraction from family time and active-recreational time, negative impact on personal and public health, incidental limitations on other activities, etc.

Cars and trucks aren’t going to be, and shouldn’t be, ‘banned.’ No, [incumbent City Councilor], I’m not coming at the city with a Bike Fascism agenda that will remove all functional driving lanes and all parking, requiring the elderly and infirm to “hop on a bike.” However, the paradigm as it’s been implemented over the past several decades, and as it exists now, is ~99% vehicle-oriented. Everything else gets a margin, everything else functions around vehicle Level of Service which dictates the highest possible volume and speed of vehicle movement on every street and at every intersection. We must fundamentally reclaim the public way. Anyway, as you know, I’ve talked about this to death.

Ecology. Often lost in the “but how does it reduce our costs?” conversation is the earth generally. Our citywide plan must include a comprehensive ecological rating system and a plan to achieve ecological health—meaning a vision of integrated, everyday ecology. Obviously, it’s tough in a city like ours that’s virtually completely built, but the necessity of the goal outweighs the hurdles to achieve it. I view the Volpe wetland, for instance, as a necessity for our resiliency and ecological and human health, not as a cute idea. Generally speaking, there is much more we can do with street and open space design standards.

Toolbox. 1. proactively unasphalting the city, 2. stormwater retention via bioswales, rain gardens, green roofs, etc. 3. wild species count/species diversity goals, 4. aggressive non-native removal and native restoration, 5. restoration of natural places and corridors, particularly wetlands, and comprehensive integration with the urban landscape (see e.g. Connect Kendall Square Open Space), 5. active and passive open space network connected by healthy and sustainable modes of mobility. Many more.


Everyone should read Pope Francis’ Encyclical, LAUDATO SI’ which advances the inherent purpose of creation as cause enough for conservation, care, and human action to reverse climate change.

The progeny of our ecological systems