In the United States, green-certified building development has become more and more common. But did you know that China is actually the world’s largest green building market? In fact, China eclipsed the United States with more than 1 billion square feet of certified green, sustainable building space.
What’s also interesting is that China did this in half the time it took the U.S. – 10 years compared to 20 in America.
This is good news, considering that China is not only the world’s largest construction market, it’s also the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. With a focus on meeting green building and other environmental standards, China has the potential to make steady progress toward meeting its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Key to that is a big goal by the Chinese government to achieve 50% commercial green building certification by 2020. Big goals lead to big results. If met, China will represent half of the world’s green building floor space by 2020.
Building owners have been choosing wisely. In 2005, green buildings were just 2% of commercial construction in the U.S. Today, they are closer to 50%. We see a similar trend in China, with impressive adoption of the China 3-star rating system for green buildings.
More buildings will be needed to meet the massive influx of people moving into cities. In China alone, 300 million more people (equivalent to the entire U.S. population) will move to cities in the next 15 years. Since buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, we also know that these buildings need to be green. Clearly, the future of buildings and the future of sustainability go hand in hand.
New China Focus
This week, I traveled to China to attend the 13th Annual International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building. I learned about new focus areas from Dr. Qiu Baoxing, president of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and former vice minister for the China Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development.
Dr. Qiu has been one of China’s earliest and strongest visionaries for green building. He’s now calling for more vertical gardens to be designed into Chinese city buildings. Imagine building facades that incorporate plants and trees as tall as they rise. No matter if you live or work on floor 1 or floor 40, you would see nature outside in the form of natural vegetation. This type of design would be as much be eco-cool and eco-beautiful as it would be eco-functional. Vertical gardening would introduce nature into otherwise concrete urban centers. More vegetation would naturally absorb CO2 pollutants and convert them to oxygen and according to Dr. Qiu, help address the outdoor air pollution issues in China.
The “Human Spirit” in Green Buildings
Throughout the years, the China conference has been a valuable convening point for green buildings. This year, Dr. Qiu proclaimed that green buildings must embrace the “human spirit.” I couldn’t agree more, and was pleased to present to the nearly 1,000 people gathered that we have new scientific evidence from The COGfx Study* series that green buildings not only save energy and water, they also improve human performance – they improve the health and productivity of people working in those buildings. This research by Harvard is changing the global conversation in the buildings industry.
By focusing on the human performance benefits of green building, in addition to the valuable energy and water savings, we can greatly expand the value proposition of green buildings. This can help accelerate sustainable building development in China and everywhere else. [HuffPo]
Each year in Los Angeles, certified green buildings keep 319 million pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — the equivalent of not burning 155 million pounds of coal or having the entire city go vegan for two weeks.
These findings from UCLA researchers, published today in Nature Energy, are part of the first study to examine the effectiveness of green building certification programs on a large scale. Researchers analyzed 178,777 commercial buildings using data from the L.A. Energy Atlas, a UCLA project that combines utility data, census information and details about buildings — their age, size and whether they’re used for residential or commercial purposes.
“We found that with the labels there is a significant improvement in energy efficiency,” said Magali Delmas, an environmental economist and member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who co-authored the study with institute postdoctoral researcher Omar Asensio.
The energy supplied in buildings accounts for 8.8 gigatons of carbon emissions globally and one-third of global carbon emissions, the study notes. Compared to other commercial buildings, those certified by LEED, Energy Star and the Better Buildings Challenge saw energy savings improvements ranging from 18 to 30 percent, depending on the specific program.
That’s good news for those seeking to reduce emissions and battle climate change, but, Delmas said, it comes with a major caveat: the programs had almost no impact on medium- and small-sized buildings, which account for roughly two-thirds of all commercial structures in Los Angeles.
The one-size-fits-all, engineering-heavy approach of major certification programs may not be a good fit for small building owners, said David Hodgins, executive director of the L.A. Better Buildings Challenge. A program with options that can be tailored to individual needs might work better.
Making small business owners aware of the program is another challenge. Hodgins thinks community groups, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and small business councils could play an important role in getting more to participate. “A lot of these smaller buildings are going to be family owned,” Hodgins said. “Part of the pitch should be that we’re going to make sure the building doesn’t become obsolete so it will benefit your children and grandchildren.”
Rives Taylor is a sustainable buildings expert with Gensler, an international architecture firm. He said that even among larger buildings, less than 10 percent commit to getting certified. But when they do, it makes a big difference in the results.
“There’s absolutely no question that a third-party tool makes it happen,” Taylor said. The external requirements and the reward of getting certified provide incentives for engineers and builders. Without them, important engineering details and building materials usually get sacrificed, he said.
Firms willing to invest in green buildings often see quick returns in the form of energy savings, recouping their initial investments within a couple of years, Taylor said. Building owners have also become more interested in how sustainable buildings affect employees’ health. Such benefits can be hard to translate into numbers, but they have long-term effects for quality of life.
“You would think it would have been a no brainer,” Taylor said. “But for the last 20 years, no one would believe that improving a building’s air quality, daylight or views would do much for well-being. Only in the last handful of years have we seen data that starts to sway those who spend money.”
That’s where research like this new study can make a difference. UCLA’s Delmas said having more concrete data — including information about energy use — is the first step to get more buildings to participate in green certification programs.
“We need more transparency,” Delmas said. “If you don’t know about your usage, how can you change it? If you don’t know that your building is using 10 times more energy than the one next to you, how can you make adjustments?”
The study notes that the United Nations Environment Program and energy experts argue that the buildings sector has the largest potential to deliver long-term, cost-effective reductions.
For that to happen, certification programs will need to expand — a possibility that suffered a big setback with President Donald Trump’s recent budget plan. Experts in green business and energy raised alarm that Energy Star was marked for elimination as part of the president’s proposal to slash Environmental Protection Agency funding by 24 percent. But the budget process is just getting started, and many lawmakers expect the elimination of the popular program to face resistance in Congress, even among Republicans. [UCLA]
When the urban farming startup BrightFarms first launched, it envisioned building its hydroponic greenhouses directly on grocery store roofs and on vacant city lots. Now, it says that the smartest place to grow food for cities may be just outside of them.
The company’s newest site will be in the town of Wilmington, Ohio. With a population of only 12,459, it’s not the target market. But it’s near Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati, which together have a population over a million people.
BrightFarms also has greenhouses in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Culpeper County, Virginia; and Rochelle, Illinois—all also near, but not in, large cities. The new strategy lets the company avoid the costs and challenges of working on urban sites, while still providing a local version of foods like salad greens that would normally travel thousands of miles.
“Like most good strategies, it was driven by some painful experiences,” Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, tells Co.Exist. “Basically, we had a couple of failures. We tried to develop a giant rooftop of a building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and we also tried to develop an environmentally soiled parcel of land in the city of Washington D.C., owned by the city.”
In both cases, the landowners were eager for BrightFarms to build, and they had strong support from the communities and city leaders. But both sites had challenges. In Brooklyn, the roof needed complex engineering work that couldn’t be completed on the startup’s timeline; in D.C., the city had to do environmental remediation that also took longer that was commercially viable.
Both cities also had complex regulations that weren’t created with urban agriculture in mind. “We found ourselves dealing with a regulatory framework that didn’t understand us, and didn’t have the ability to adapt to us,” Lightfoot says. The projects were classified as “industrial” rather than agricultural, which triggered regulations that didn’t fit.
In smaller communities, the experience was radically different. In Virginia, because it was considered an agricultural project, it was exempt from the typical permitting process. “I think we got the permit in a week,” Lightfoot says. “In D.C., we spent a year getting it.”
The company realized that even if it built outside city limits, it could still stay close enough that transportation would be negligible. BrightFarms sells its produce in 150 stores in the D.C. market, and even if its greenhouses were inside city limits, it would still require driving fairly long distances to make deliveries to all of the stores.
“Being in the city center is not logistically a benefit,” Lightfoot says. “Being 30 miles out of the city is just as good as being in the city. The extra cost of building in a city has absolutely no benefit except for maybe shallow, fake marketing, but it has a real significance in terms of capital costs, and in some cases, operation costs as well, including utilities and transportation.”
BrightFarms’ greenhouses often make use of underutilized spaces: In Rochelle, Illinois, they’ve set up on an empty lot between a distribution center and a factory that was once farmland, then an industrial park.
Even though BrightFarms sometimes establishes its greenhouses near traditional farms, the startup isn’t directly competing with the other operations because it’s focused on tomatoes and greens that typically come from California or Arizona. The greenhouses grow the food with a tiny fraction of the water, and provide it fresher to customers. Less perishable crops, such as root vegetables and corn, are left to traditional farms.
BrightFarms plans to use the same model, building outside cities, as it moves forward. After closing a $30 million equity round in September 2016, it plans to open 14 more greenhouses over the next four years. [fastcoexist]
Up and down the state, property owners can receive tax breaks for allowing their unused, and often blighted, urban lots to transform into commercial or noncommercial farms under a law that went into effect in 2014. It hasn’t yet resulted in a rash of urban farming, as just four property owners in the state have enrolled so far, including one in San Francisco. But state Assembly member Phil Ting D-San Francisco, wants to extend the law so more cities, and landowners, can take part.
“Urban farming needs more time to take root and help more Californians access nutritious food in their own neighborhoods,” Ting said in a press release. “An urban farm can be an oasis. There is great interest to tame the concrete jungle with green spaces that transform blight into bounty.”
Since the law was enacted, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose and San Diego have all passed local ordinances providing financial incentives to turn unused lots into urban agricultural zones for a range of uses, including vegetable farming, beekeeping and nonprofit teaching gardens. The law expires in 2019, and with AB465, Ting proposes extending it to 2029 to allow more cities and counties — which must have a minimum of 250,000 residents — to follow suit.
One of those is Los Angeles, which is working toward passing an ordinance. Unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, as well as Santa Clara County, already offer the tax breaks.
To apply, property owners must allow farms to stay at least five years to receive the tax break and have property of 0.1 acre to 3 acres in size, with no dwellings on-site. The law assesses the plots’ property value at about $11,000 per acre, the same as irrigated farmland, which can greatly reduce the owner’s property taxes.
In San Jose, a property owner with two adjacent parcels has just turned the land over to Valley Verde, a nonprofit that gives low-income families tools and training to grow their own vegetables in planter boxes.
“It’s a win-win for the owners,” said Art Henriques of San Jose’s planning department. “And the nonprofit gets at least a five-year opportunity to do something productive for some people in the community.” [sfgate]
The New York City urban farm has moved from a scene to a movement. Foodies, growers, chefs, non-profits and artists converge to get ever more creative in how to utilize space in the city for growing fruits and vegetables. Swale by artist Mary Mattingly has taken to putting a farm out on the water. Chicago’s O’Hare airport has installed an aeroponic, or vertical, farm. From hotels to restaurants, urban farming so far has been highly specialized and for hyper-local food distribution like Brooklyn Grange’s two food markets and neighborhood CSA. “This is truly seed-to-plate agriculture, with no use of fossil fuels, people walk over from where they live, and go home with produce that was picked that morning.” says Anastasia Cole Plakias, Brooklyn Grange’s vice president and founding partner.
The main principles behind urban farming is providing local residents with fresh food, creating community around growing food, reducing concrete heat in urban areas, and encouraging people to reconnect with the earth. With initiatives like NYC’s Farm School, the urban farming movement is pushing towards democratizing the process and generating a mass grass roots support so that urban farming becomes easy and prolific. The USDA has recently introduced an Agriculture Toolkit that provides information about funding, business planning and resources for starting an urban farm. In October 2016, a new publication provides information on how to build high tunnels (the greenhouses that extend growing into the winter season) in urban areas.
Progress and growth isn’t limited to New York City. It is global – from Bangkok, Milan, Uganda, Brazil, urban farming is becoming an alternative and solution for making food available to growing urban populations.
Chicago is seeding a burgeoning urban farming landscape. Leading the charge is LaManda Joy of the Peterson Garden Project. LaManda’s bio reflects the kernel of an idea that blossomed into a mission that is now being widely recognized, and awarded, for success in the Chicago urban farm movement. She is a master gardener, author, educator and she is passionate about urban farming being a catalyst for change. PSFK caught up with her about her thoughts on urban farming and how it is progressing.
PSFK: How is urban farming different from 5 (or longer) years ago to today?
LaManda: Urban farming is certainly getting more attention that it was 5-10 years ago. It used to be more of a fringe thing but is now becoming more mainstream. It seems that it has grown from a novelty to a more viable option for food production… not that it has “arrived” by any means. There are so many issues with acquisition and use of urban land. And, my personal bandwagon, not enough people know how to grow food so there’s that. Plus urban farms are businesses so you need a grower who also has business acumen (or a partner) to make their efforts profitable. It is definitely a work in progress but it has come a long way.
An interesting side note – the famous landscaper Jens Jensen… when he was building Chicago parks at the turn of the last century (1900’s) put food gardens in each of them because he was worried that urban children wouldn’t know where their food was coming from. Ironically, most food was grown very close (even inside) urban areas at that time. So the concept of “urban farming” is really quite old and, at least in the post-industrial age, food security and awareness has always been a big concern.
PSFK: Has your approach or perspective changed from when you started?
LaManda: Community and individual food gardens get lumped in with urban agriculture but don’t get the attention they deserve. In most community gardens, the food is grown for individual use, not for retail. The needs of the urban farm and the urban garden are “exactly the same but different” – land, someone who knows how to grow food, resources. But the outcome is different. Interestingly, this hasn’t changed at all in the decade I’ve been working in this realm. Nor has my approach – I believe that teaching people to grow food is one of the best things you can do and that’s the mission of Peterson Garden Project, too.
PSFK: What do you see as the future of urban farming? What do you personally want to do, what’s in store for Peterson?
LaManda: For urban farming to really take off there has to be money behind it. We’ve seen success with various hydro and aquaponics businesses that have the funding to scale, have a supply chain, etc. For the “mom and pop” urban farmer, farming is the same no matter where you do it – lots of hard work with no guarantee of return due to mitigating factors – weather, economy, sales, etc. So, like any business, urban farming is maturing and the real potential for it is becoming more obvious. For Peterson Garden Project, we work on a nonprofit model. I’m working on a social enterprise project that will allow home and community gardeners the opportunity to grow successfully. Like many other nonprofits in this sector, we’re realizing that funding is a challenge for small organizations and creativity is required.
PSFK: What do you think people’s attitudes are towards urban farming?
LaManda: I worry that urban farming is “precious” in that – to make it viable in the current model – high-end restaurants and farmer’s markets are the biggest outlets with, often, premium pricing. I wish urban farming could be more democratic and available to everyone. That’s why I love teaching individuals and families how to grow food because it levels the playing field a bit more. There are amazing groups in Chicago and elsewhere working on urban farming and gardening as solutions to neighborhood blight and food deserts. I wish there were more, and easier, funding available for this corner of the urban agriculture world. I see a sad discrepancy in urban farming having to do with class and wealth.
PSFK: Do you think urban farming will save us in the Zombie Apocalypse?
LaManda: It is funny you say this! I have a concept I call “The Joy/Apocalypse Spectrum” – on one end (Joy) you have people who grow food purely for the joy it brings them, they have no need, no financial constraints. On the other you have the “oh shit” factor – nuclear war, civilizations falling apart, supply chains ceasing to exist. The thing is – food gardening is good on both ends! Most gardeners fall somewhere in the middle – although I know some prepper types who are closer to the apocalypse side of the spectrum. In my book, I quote Geoff Lawton (a famous permaculturalist) who said “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.” And I know, from personal in-depth experience, that this is very true.
So no matter where urban farming is going, it’s a good thing.
One thing that I think is important to address is the local nature of urban farming. Farms (and gardens) in cities really cater to neighborhoods. In our project, we have six Pop-up Victory Gardens in different Chicago neighborhoods. Even though I think of it as one big program, the gardeners think about it as it relates to them – how far it is from their house, the neighbors they know, who will help them water, etc. With small-scale urban farming, the supply chain is often whomever is close by – either a farm stand customer or a local restaurant. From this perspective, I think urban farming and gardening is tremendously important because it gives people a chance to see what growing food really looks like. You know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, well seeing a plant growing and fruiting is worth that, too. The ah-ha moments I’ve seen on people of all ages is always a joy. We, as a country, really need to connect more with each other and our food source so, as an educational/awareness raising exercise, urban farms and gardens are critical.