How can we do a better job of promoting investment in green infrastructure?

Image Source: EPA (

Image Source: EPA (

A Methodology for Greater Impact of Green Infrastructure Projects

The planning community has increasingly recognized green infrastructure as the most effective approach for cities to manage the environmental impacts of stormwater runoff, a major sources of contamination to urban waterways. Despite this recognition, green infrastructure has not yet achieved the desired scale of implementation, in part, because implementation produces highly variable results. However, green infrastructure pilot studies, called ‘demonstration projects,’ have been conducted throughout the United States with encouraging results.

In his thesis, Alex Marks (MCP ’15), uses the case of Boston to explore how demonstration projects can further green infrastructure implementation. Alex identifies four major objectives of case studies: (1) testing the physical performance of green infrastructure for wider use, (2) fostering interdepartmental learning to construct and maintain green infrastructure projects, (3) cultivating public awareness and support for green infrastructure, and (4) achieving regulatory compliance. If demonstration projects are designed to reflect these four objectives, they can reduce the hazards of stormwater runoff. Alex constructs a recommended demonstration project methodology to assist city planners in formulating green infrastructure initiatives. Green infrastructure can contribute to greater equity in the allocation of stormwater discharge permits. To read more, see Alex’s thesis, here.

How Can Cities Fund Themselves for Adaptation to Climate Change?

SuratDespite a growing acknowledgment for need for cities to adapt changes presented by climate change, the question of adaptation finance remains uncertain. Often unable to access global climate funds, cities must seek out alternative sources to support their adaptations to climate change.

In her thesis, Toral Patel (MCP ’14) examines the particularly challenging environment for local governments in India, where incomplete fiscal decentralization resulted in developmental deficits and resource constraints. Using Surat, Gujarat, as a case study, her research examines how cities in India might fund climate adaptation despite limited fiscal and administrative autonomy. It furthermore explores how the urban finance system might affect the implementation of climate adaptation strategies at the city level.

The study of Surat suggests that cities can effectively marshal funds from international, national and state sources to invest in climate adaptation. However, relying on external sources for funding has required trade-offs between policy agendas, resulting in a fluid understanding of “climate adaptation” on the ground. While the urban finance system appears to have encouraged experimentation in Surat, it may constrain the effectiveness of climate adaptation at the city level.

In addition, limited fiscal autonomy has hindered access to alternative sources to finance, such as public-private partnerships and municipal bonds. Combined, these factors have contributed to a project-based approach that may compromise longer-range and comprehensive adaptation plans.

To further cities ability to adapt to climate change, Toral identifies experimentation and innovation in financing climate adaptation as the crucial elements. Read more about Toral’s work in her thesis.

How Can We Limit or Mitigate Contention Over Solar Power Infrastructure Development

920x920Human reliance on fossil fuels has led to a wide range of adverse environmental and health effects. As our understanding of these impacts has grown, so has the search for other, more sustainable sources of energy. One such source is solar power. The federal and state governments of the United States have created various policies and financial incentives to encourage adoption of solar energy technologies.

While solar energy offers tremendous potential benefits, siting utility-scale ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays can give rise to strong public reaction. In her 2014 thesis, Siting solar energy facilities in New York state: sources of and responses to controversy, Casey Stein (MCP 2014) examines the controversy, or lack thereof, surrounding the siting of utility-scale solar energy facilities in New York by exploring two case studies – the Skidmore College Denton Road solar array and the Cornell University Snyder Road solar array.

Despite the large number of commonalities between these two solar energy facilities, the Skidmore College array created a much greater level of controversy than the Cornell University array. Analysis of this divergence indicates that choice of the physical site is a crucial determinant of the extent of controversy. While local impacts are an important concern, Casey demonstrates the reasons for controversy go well beyond those tangible impacts. Issues related to information, equity, and trust played roles as key sources of controversy.  By comparing and contrasting the controversy surrounding these two solar energy arrays, Casey is able to offer recommendations to limit or mitigate contention around future solar power infrastructure development.

To read Casey’s thesis, click here.

Building Stability Through Decentralization

Kathmandu-MüllabfuhrAs India continues to industrialize and urbanize, levels of consumption and waste continue to grow, placing stress on waste management systems.

Traditionally, Indian cities relied upon a combination of a formal municipal collection and processing; informal recycling, collection and processing; and waste pickers. However, urban sprawl and a lack of sites for new landfills have outpaced the capacity of traditional systems. The response has been to turn to private enterprise to manage waste, but this approach comes with severe draw backs in terms of social and environmental justice.

India’s waste pickers are vulnerable to changes in solid waste management policies. A shift towards more formal privatized systems, leaves little room for this large labor force.  Privatized waste management also hinges on maximizing profits at scale, thus leading to greater reliance on landfills. This disproportionately effects the most vulnerable groups in cities, since they do not have the political power to resist the siting of new landfills.

In her 2014 thesis, Caroline Howe argues for Indian cities to build the capacity of the informal waste management sector and to invest in decentralized waste processing. By investing in these ways, Caroline finds, Indian cities would develop a more sociall- just, economical, and environmentally friendly waste management system. In addition, by protecting a large population of workers in India, cities would be more resilient to economic and social challenges.

Read more about the potentials of decentralization in Caroline’s thesis.

What are the real costs and benefits of fracking in Pennsylvania and West Virginia?

Are the models used to evaluate the costs and benefit of natural mineral extraction reliable? Do they accurately account for the most important benefits and costs communities are likely to experience during a process like fracking?

In Sara Lynn Hess’s 2014 thesis, Extracting the Economic Benefits of Natural Resources in the Marcellus Shale Region, she highlights the key challenges associated with  valuing the impacts and products of shale extraction.   Focusing on West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Sara compares the benefits of resource extraction with their capture and distribution costs. In addition, she develops a simple framework that communities can use to assess whether their utility companies and regulators are focusing on the “right” costs and benefits prior to allowing drilling to begin.

In her case studies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, Sara illuminates the natural resource curse, wherein areas rich in resources often fail to realize the economic and social gains associated with extraction while bearing substantial immediate costs. Both Virginia and Pennsylvania have experienced severe environmental damages while realizing limited economic booms. Both states have approached shale gas mining with the hope of limiting damage and ensuring the sustainability of the natural gas industry. However, Sara’s analysis shows that uncertainties abound, both in terms of the long term commitments of the companies involved and in the ability of regulators to limit environmental damage. To learn more about these uncertainties read Sara’s thesis, here.

Can grass-roots innovation be scaled-up through the design and maintenance of social and policy networks?

Solar1*600The states are the “laboratories of democracy. ” They are often the source of new policy ideas, including new strategies for encouraging investment in renewable energy. Some of these ideas spread; others don’t. The process of diffusion is inherently a social process; implementation is achieved via a network of actors.  Ryan Cook’s thesis looks closely at the way in which Solarize, a community-based energy program has moved across the country.

Ryan Cook  (MCP ’14) examines the way policy actors adopt and adapt innovative ideas to their particular needs. Through a study of Solarize on both the west coast and the east coast, Ryan documents the way in which network structure can facilitate the spread of energy programs. He argues that policy innovations are rarely entirely original. Instead, they are often an amalgamation of ideas which have been implemented elsewhere. The pathways that new policy ideas follow lead to substantial differentiation. For example, the core elements of Solarize include competitive contractor selection, community-based outreach, public education, and limited sign-up campaigns. However, as Solarize moved around the country, there are some versions that involve multiple contractors as well as different technologies.

By analyzing the social networks underlying the process of policy adoption, Ryan has discovered that issue-specific relationships that cross multiple policy networks are important. He has also identified organizational creativity, programmatic flexibility, and a commitment to continuous learning (rather than just imitation) as important explanations for why and how policy innovations diffuse.  Read more about the ways in which grass roots innovation can be scaled-up through the design and maintenance of social and policy networks. Ryan’s thesis complete thesis can be accessed here.

Can you put a price on nature? The prospects for ecosystem services markets.

ImageThe great variety of services that natural systems provide is rarely recognized. From water filtration to flood prevention to carbon sequestration, these ecosystem services are crucial to supporting both natural and human life. The cost of preserving these services is often far eclipsed by the cost of replacing them mechanically should they be lost, a point that is rarely appreciate economic markets. What can be done to correct this and ensure that natural systems continue to provide their much-needed benefits?

In his dissertation, Tijs van Maasakkers (PhD ’13) examines one solution that has been eagerly advanced in environmental circles: the ecosystem services marketplace. Similar to other environmental markets like carbon cap and trade schemes, ecosystem services markets are based on the idea that a developer who is likely to damage the ability of natural systems to provide their full benefits would have to pay for improvements elsewhere to offset these impact. In an early example, increases in water temperatures in Oregon’s Tualatin River threatened the survival of a number of local salmon species, a problem often corrected at great expense mechanically by chilling wastewater before releasing it. Instead, the local water utility opted to offer incentives to local landowners to plant shade trees along the river’s banks, cooling the river naturally, effectively, and at a lower cost.

If implemented well, ecosystem services markets could allow for continued economic progress without sacrificing natural systems. But, as Tijs shows in his study of efforts to create ecosystem services markets in the Willamette River basin and in the Chesapeake Bay, such markets are difficult to develop and face three important structural obstacles.

First, people care deeply about particular places, and tend not to view the services that are provided in one place as transferrable to another. Second, metrics that account for ecosystem services are not yet consistent, comprehensive, and universally accepted. Third, it has been difficult to establish a consensus among effected stakeholders about what these markets should look like.

These obstacles limit the potential of ecosystem services markets, and if they cannot be addressed, it is difficult to imagine how markets can be scaled up. Read more about the promises and pitfalls of ecosystem service marketplaces in Tijs’ dissertation.

Kathleen Araujo and the emerging field of energy transitions

wind and hydropower“Energy transitions are an unmistakable part of today’s public discourse. Whether shaped by fuel price fluctuation, environmental and security concerns, aspects of technology change, or goals to improve energy access, attention regularly turns to ways in which to improve energy pathways. Yet what is understood about energy system change is still emerging.” In a recent article, EPP Alum Kathleen Araujo (PhD, 2013) explores the evolving field of energy transitions with an aim to connect and enlarge the scholarship. Kathleen discusses examples of energy transitions, while providing analysis of the core ideas on trade-offs, urgency, and innovation. She also reviews global developments in energy, related mega-trends, the sources of the data we use to analyze energy, and opportunities for further research. Dr. Kathleen Araujo is a research fellow with the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program and Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She will move to Stony Brook University, where she will work as an Assistant Professor in the Technology and Society Department, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. If you are an alumnus/a of the EPP program and have recently published or produced research, please send your notices to Takeo Kuwabara, so we can share your achievements as well.  To see a complete copy of Dr. Araujo’s article, click here.

No Idling: Parking Policy in Growing Cities

ImageThere are few urban issues that touch as many nerves as parking, which resides in the often uncomfortable overlap of transportation, environmental protection, land use, and economic growth. To determine how much parking cities should have—and where that parking should be—a wide variety of stakeholder need to interact in a complex political process. Debates over parking policy, it turns out, are rarely just about parking.

In her thesis, Cara Ferrentino (MCP ’13) took a close look at the formation of parking policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She shows how three distinct groups—the “growth coalition”, “limited growth” advocates, and “smart growth” bureaucrats—have nudged the city into adopting and reforming policies regarding parking supply.

Cambridge was forced to confront parking in the 1970s, when EPA regulations enforced a mandatory parking freeze on the city’s non-residential parking supply to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act. But, driven by concerns over the freeze’s impact on Cambridge’s commercial growth, the city lifted the freeze in 1997 and adopted instead a variety of demand-side approaches to managing parking supply. Today, Cambridge uses a number of incentives to encourage the use of alternative modes of transportation. These are often implemented in cooperation with the city’s major employers.

Cara evaluates the success of these efforts and finds that, while many employers have taken steps to encourage alternative transportation, the city nonetheless builds more non-residential parking than it uses. She notes that the city will need to rethink both the supply side and the demand side of parking policy in the near future if it is going to provide just the right amount of parking in all the right places. Read more about the past, present, and future of parking policy in Cambridge in Cara’s thesis.

The Power of Information: Unleashing Energy Consumption Data

community_mapEncouraging energy efficiency among residents and businesses is hard work, not least because of the absence of accessible and easily understandable information about energy consumption. Most people don’t understand everything on their energy bills, don’t know if they’re using more energy than they should, and have no way to compare their energy use to that of their neighbors. This information is often guarded closely by utilities, presenting energy efficiency advocates with a formidable barrier.

In her thesis, Alexis Howland (MCP ’13) sketches the possibilities afforded by better energy consumption data. She surveyed efforts across the country to share energy efficiency data. Alexis focuses on incorporating these data into mapping applications—which could lay bare the differences in energy consumption among homes and add valuable information to the housing market. These efforts could be combined to allow no-touch energy assessments that offer actionable suggestions for homeowners who want to improve their energy efficiency.

In a survey of five previous attempts at energy mapping, Alexis notes a common theme: the developer’s inability to access or make public energy consumption data at the household level. This, Alexis explains, is due to privacy concerns that have so far prevented such data from being used to its full potential.

Alexis explores ways of unleashing these data. Several cities—including Boston—have recently passed ordinances that require the disclosure of energy consumption data, and the federal government has offered a framework for voluntary energy data disclosure through the Green Button Initiative. While these efforts must overcome serious privacy concerns, they have the potential to make public vital information about the way people and buildings nationwide use energy. Read more about Alexis’ survey of the opportunities for and barriers to energy mapping projects in her thesis.


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