My name is Maarten Akkerman, born in 1987 and I am currently following the masters program Urban Environmental Management at the Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Before that, I studied Urban Planning and Human Geography. Next to that, I like to read books about cities. This gives me some background as an urbanist. Another part of my interest is sustainability, as seems from my studies. Next to that, I have been involved in student organisations on sustainability over the last years. I have been a coordinator in student organisation Wageningen Environmental Platform and I have been involved in establishing a Green Office, an organisations that tries to connect different actors in sustainability, research and education with each other, trying to improve sustainability in the Wageningen University. Sustainability and urbanism come together in my thesis on climate change policy, and hopefully in what I am going to do in my professional life.
In Robert M. Pirsigs book ‘Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance’ the author argues at some point that nobody supports something that is taken for granted. Nobody is going to stand on a stage convincing others that it would be good if the sun came up again tomorrow. We all want that. For issues that are inherently uncertain, you have supporters, fiercely making their claims. Debates between atheists and religious people are notorious for how hot they can be, to mention an example.
In the Netherlands, I never really realised that I am pro-cycling. Earlier on I wrote an article on Cycling in Oxford. It made me realise how blessed I was, being born in the Netherlands. On my bike ride this evening I became disappointed again. The national cycling route network takes you the long way (Oxford – Bicester is 16 miles, as opposed to at around 10 miles by car) and the alternative is a path of half a metre next to a highway (and some huge roundabouts to cross). In the Netherlands cycling is so normal that there is almost always a shorter and safer alternative to the fastest car route.
Debates on cycling in the Netherlands were always about the behavioral aspect of it. Why do people take the car for short journeys? Why do cyclists not always wear a light on them? These are debates in a country with lots of cycling lanes, lots of cyclists and lots of parking space. In the Netherlands, there is actually a discussion whether there are too many bikes(in Dutch).
The things I take for granted in the Netherlands cannot be taken for granted here. For the first time in my life I am actively promoting cycling. Guardians’ bike blog and a campaign by The Times are just a few of the examples of other people arguing for more attention for cycling. A colleague of mine told me that she warned somebody who was ‘surfing a bus’ because this person harmed the cause of cyclists. Cyclists are fighting for their place and their rights.
As much as it makes me doubt about the priorities of the English, it makes me doubt about myself. Are the things that are self-evident to me really that self-evident? I only have to think of the wealth of evidence that cycling is healthy, keeps people fit, is good for the environment and air quality etc. and I realise that it is them, not me. Cycling should be like the sunrise, a certainty. But cyclists cannot be complacent. We have to make cycling like the sun. Something that nobody has to fight for, because you can take it for granted.
As you all might now I am currently working on a resource on the relationship between spatial planning and water resources in the Netherlands and England. There are numerous differences in this relationship which I hope to highlight in the article that will be the output of the research. Some of the aspects are beyond the control of spatial planning but nevertheless incredibly interesting. In this post I will highlight one of these differences: Water metering.
For as long as I can remember, we had a water meter in our house, and sometimes, we would have to open up the floor near the front door at my parents house to get access to the water meter. As far as I know every other house I have always been has a water meter, although some research told me that in the bigger cities some houses don’t have water meters. In some instances it seems to be too complicated to add water meters. In some flats there are for example vertical pipes, so that all kitchens in a block are supplied by one pipe, all toilets by another one, etc.
Nevertheless, the percentage of metered houses in England and Wales is much lower. At around one-third of the houses was metered in 2009. For me this is something that is hard to grasp. On the one hand large portions of the country are in water stressed areas, but on the other hand a simple measure to reduce the demand for water is not universally (or as universal as possible) implemented.
Indeed, there appears to be a correlation between the water demand and whether a house is metered or not. Data from the Environment Agency suggests that the water use per capita in metered houses is at around 25 Litre (10-15%) per capita per day (L/c/d) lower than it is in non-metered properties. There is a catch to this though. As long as metering is not compulsory, it remains profitable not too install a water meter if you know that you are using a lot of water. I will come back to this issue later.
There is a lot to say against the current system of not watering the water use. One critique is that there is in many cases cross-subsidisation of the rich. Rich people tend to live in houses with gardens, sometimes they own multiple cars and they might even have a pool. For them it is not profitable to have a water meter installed. But poorer people that do not have this facilities are paying for a part of their water use. This is generally seen as a perverso form of cross-subsidization.
On the other hand though, there are also a lot of families with many children benefiting from this. Apart from the fact that there is no legal framework for universal metering, only encouragement to do so. Only in areas that are designated as water stressed water companies can fit every house with a water meter. This is currently happening for example in the area of Southern Water (parts of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire).
A report by a parliamentary commission on environment, food and rural affairs, examining the White Paper Water for Life, mentions that there is a lack of urgency regarding water metering, and that is basically only encouraged. Implementing universal metering is however not as easy as one would think it is. There are many social issues associated with it. Some people have medical conditions or a lot of children (although this is arguably a choice) and would therefore be impacted by the installation of a water meter. In these case a program that equals the WaterSure arrangement could be implemented to help those that have to pay significantly higher fees for their water.
Interesting feature of the English situation is that the water companies are privately owned and that they therefore have more incentives to make profit. In their reactions on the White Paper, they mostly seem to support the installation of meters, whereas at least I would expect them not to, because without water meters they will sell more water.
Although the issue of water metering, or better, the lack of water meters, seems easy to solve, there are many sides to this problem. Nevertheless, it seems to be one of the easiest ways to influence water demand and to put up a fairer system, where everybody pays for its use.
Lately I visited some seminars given by Clive Hamilton on the subject of geoengineering. Geoengineering can be defined as (according to Wikipedia) ‘The concept of geoengineering (or climate engineering, climate remediation, and climate intervention) refers to the deliberate large-scale engineering and manipulation of the planetary environment, often to combat or counteract anthropogenic changes in atmospheric chemistry’. With the climate negotiations failing to produce any results, this option becomes ever more attractive.
Clive Hamilton is working on a book handling this subject, which is supposed to be released in 2013. In his seminars, Clive Hamilton is expressing the main ideas of the book and he hopes to improve his manuscript with ideas from the audience. The seminar thus far has been mind-blowing to me. There are a huge number of issues and potential problems related to geoengineering, that are in many cases unprecedented. I will sketch just one of these issues in this blogpost, hoping that it is some good food for thought for the readers.
One obvious problem, that is the basis for most of the dilemma’s concerned geoengineering is risk. If one is deliberately intervening in the climate system, there is the risk of unexpected side-effects. There is the risk that in an attempt to alter the temperature leads to more precipitation in one area, or less, or maybe there are other side-effects. Most important dimension to this problem is the the geopolitical one (and the other ones, I will not discuss here). Should all countries agree before we start with geoengineering? If that is the case, you end up with a negotiation process again that is likely to be not much more successful than the talks for climate emission reductions. There is also the financial issue; Who is going to pay for the execution of the techniques? Suppose that we all agree that geoengineering is an option, than a global institution should be established, as was proposed by Ken Caldeira, to govern and maintain the geoengineering systems, also in times of economic downturn. The establishment of such an institution would be without any precedent in history.
This is all fairly simple still. What if some countries do not want to engage in geoengineering, whereas some others don’t want it, because they are afraid of the risks, or because climate change is beneficial for them? Then there are completely different problems. How will countries react that are negatively impacted by geoengineering? Will they be compensated? Will they go to war with the countries that altered the climate? There is by the way also the fear that geoengineering will be used as a weapon in a war.
I know I have posed much more questions than I gave answers. This is exactly the idea of this blogpost. The debate on geoengineering will become more important over the next years and that is exactly why I am posing these all these questions. I hope that I spark your imagination as much as mine is sparked by the seminars!
Recently the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) launched an alternative package for the savings the Dutch national government has to make. One of their proposed savings was to make the Dutch economy independent from fossil fuels by 2050. While the natural gas supplies are running out and the oil price hits record heights, this is a good move. Especially for me, as an environmentalist this sounds really nice.
Immediately after this I realised the implications of this decision. Let us turn to the facts (as provided by compendiumvoordeleefomgeving.nl). In the Netherlands, 3260PJ of energy is used, of which 3,7% is from renewable sources. This is at about 10% of the electricity production in the Netherlands. Three quarters of this comes from Biomass. 0,75% of the total energy demand comes from wind energy. There are at around 2000 wind turbines (according to Wikipedia) in the Netherlands.
Should this plan be adopted, then it means that there is a huge challenge over the following years. The share of renewable energy, or nuclear energy, has to increase by 96% to be completely independent from fossil fuels. Let as assume that the population growth is equalled by increases in energy efficiency.
In the plan, there is mainly attention for wind power and biomass. Both these electricity sources have major drawbacks. To ensure a reliable energy supply from wind energy, reserve capacity is needed. This is not sufficiently taken into account in the plan, there is neither a plan for a smart grid, nor for big energy storage in the form of the so-called Lievense Plan, a big empty area in the Northsea that could be used to store electricity. Biomass is potentially competing with food production and therefore problematic as well.
If we want to execute as much as possible of the plan within the Netherlands if you have to import your biomass from somewhere, or your solar energy from the Sahara, you are still rather dependent on outside parties huge challenges are faced. To increase the wind energy to a reasonable level, say 25%, we would need an additional 64000 windmills. That is quite a lot. PV panels show more potential. They could potentially provide more than 100% of the electricity demand by 2050 according to an article on http://www.olino.org, provided that the most suitable roofs are covered with them, and that the technology advances as predicted. The production of electricity from solar panels is quite unequal throughout the year. Still, solar energy is more promising, but, then again, we also need energy for heating and for transportation. Let us also assume that there is a possibility to increase the production of energy from biomass to 10% (this assumption is not based on anything).
Then we would be able to generate about 85% of our energy with three sources. Some other sources are not mentioned. Tidal energy would be possible and there is also a potential for geothermal heat, and possibly electricity production here and there. Blue energy, energy through osmosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osmotic_power) is also a possible technique. We would at least need one more technique that is delivering a substantial part of the energy production.
We would need also some systems to store our energy or we need to have back-up capacity (not running on fossil fuels in the plan) in case there is no wind. We could get quite far with renewable energy, but every bit of energy we don’t have to produce saves us a lot. Who would want an additional 64000 windmills in the Netherlands? Who would want to cover the vast majority of buildings in the Netherlands with solar panels? Of course this analysis is far from scientific, but it at least sheds some light on the issue.
Already for a long time I have been interested in cities. When I was younger, I used to be the emperor of a fictional country, Milandia. First the country was the scene for all kinds of disasters. Bombings, airplane crashes, extreme weather, it all happened in this country. Later on, before I kind of abandoned the country, the country was a reflection of my idea on what a world should look like. In some ways it was unrealistic. There were for example vast areas of wilderness that were basically unexplored and many areas were unexploited.
One of the cities in the country was meant to be the perfect city. It was situated in the middle of the central plains in the country, almost on a isotropical surface, at the intersection of all major roads and railways in the country. It had a perfect round shape and its main roads would go straight from the city center to one of the highways that connect the city with the rest of the country. The highways would go in a large circle around the city, so as to avoid the through traffic from entering into the city. Large subways lines would lie underneath the roads radiating out of the centre and there would be a couple of ring lines, allowing for a fast connection and minimizing the pressure at the central station. Sometimes it would be completely redone if I had a new insight. I can recall having made tons of drawings of this city. I can clearly remember that I put in corridors of green spaces with cycling lanes when I realised that I forgot to think about cyclists.
It is actually a pity that I abandoned the imaginary country. I realised that while I am reading tons of books on cities and I study how they deal with one of the greatest challenges of our time. It is a very valuable thing to imagine the solutions proposed here on a tabula rasa. The one imagining like that is not hampered by the existing structures of a city, neither by money, nor does he have to care about the people that live in the city. It makes it much easier though to imagine the same solutions applied in a currently existing place.
Imagination is however an important part of city building, although a tabula rasa is hardly ever there. Before a building gets erected, an architect imagines a building that adds something to, or it least fits in to, the surroundings. The architect imagines within certain frameworks; rules and regulations, building materials, the wishes of the owner and he tries to incorporate this building into the surrounding. For a city district the game is basically the same, but on a bigger scale. The architect or the urban designer puts his imagination on paper, but his commissioner and all other people still have to translate this imagination into their own imagination.
Another tool that bridges the gap between imagination and reality are techniques like backcasting. While backcasting, one imagines a future, say a city that runs completely on renewable energy, and then tries to reason back what should happen to make this image reality. Also here one takes into account the existing infrastructures, rules and regulations etc. and imagines, or rather reasons, what has to happen in order to make the desired image reality.
The line between vision and imagination is rather small. Bilbao is a nice example of this. The Guggenheim Museum that was built in this city is said to have a profound effect on the city. It costed a lot of money but tourism in the city almost tripled as a consequence of this museum. Many cities have had similar ideas, but few succeeded. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield is an example of this. It closed only a year after opening. In the case of Bilbao it is called visionary, in the case of other cities it is called stupid.
Imagination is a powerful tool, but it has to be used carefully. Images of a future city, or a future building are necessary, but they can be called foolish afterward. Dare to imagine, but realise that you are imagining. Sometimes a vision is as realistic as my imaginary country.
As you can read in my introduction, I have always been amazed by cities. I am the kind of child who played a lot SimCity, who had a fictitious country when he was younger, and who built entire cities with Lego. I built my entire study program around cities. I love going to cities, especially the non-touristical ones; to explore them and to go out of the areas that are meant to be beautiful and nice.
Another idea that I always had was the idea to become a writer. Although I have never done actively a lot to pursue this dream, I always felt that I ‘had the mind to become a writer’. And writing has always been an important of my education, and with almost three theses being completed, I cannot say that I am inexperienced in writing.
The aim of this blog is to sharpen my pen. I have to practice in order to become a good writer. If I want to write a good book on cities one day, I have to practice, I have to find out what captures the imagination of people and what doesn’t. I have to train myself to write on a regular basis.
The motivation for this comes from two things. One of them is the bucket list from my couchsurfing friend May from the Philippines. I have been thinking whether it was important for me to make my own bucket list, but I felt that my ideas are changing too often for that. Then I realised, that there are some ideas that are recurring. These are the ones that I should go for. Writing a book about urbanism is one of these things, so from now on I should work to make this happen.
Second, and perhaps sounding as an open door, is that practice is important. Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book Outliers that nobody gets there without working. He shows that you need 10.000 hours of practice to become exceptionally good at things. I know I have almost completed three theses, but if I take all the time that I used for that, I only come to approximately 1500 hours. If I am serious about it, I have to write. I have to practice to translate the thoughts in my ‘writers mind’ to paper. In something that is worth reading and that is understandable.