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Transition & solutions - June 24

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.

Permission to Transition: Zoning and the Transition Movement

Corinne Calfee and Eve Weissman, Planning & Environmental Law (American Planning Association)
Introduction: The Transition Movement

Communities are taking responsibil­ity for their own economic futures. In response to a growing consensus that the days of cheap oil are numbered due to any combination of declining production, environmental constraints, political instability, or increasing de­mand, these communities are seeking to buffer themselves from economic shocks by strengthening local economic ties and reducing costs of living. Much of their work is focused on unlocking the existing value of yards, homes, and rooftops by using them more efficiently. As part of that effort, these communities are generating efficiencies by allowing residents to share anything from cars to kitchens. However, these innovative projects can be blocked by existing local regulations, primarily zoning. We ex­plore below ways in which these codes can be carefully pared back to allow greater choice and flexibility in trans­portation, housing, food, and economic opportunity

Urban Agriculture
One of the simplest steps toward eco­nomic transition is to shrink the geo­graphical distance between where our goods come from and where they are consumed. The growing movement of urban agriculture in its various forms strengthens the local supply chain, re­ducing reliance on increasingly scarce fossil fuels to feed our communities.

... Amend municipal zoning codes to define and permit categories of urban agriculture by adding urban agriculture uses as permit­ted uses in existing zones, or creating new zones for specific types of urban agriculture.

When many cities in the United States first promulgated zoning codes in the early 1900s, agriculture was widely considered a strictly rural activity.5 Consequently, agriculture was permit­ted mostly in industrial zones and to a lesser extent in commercial zones, and was almost entirely prohibited in resi­dential areas.6 Today, given large tracts of vacant city land and the centrality of urban agriculture in building local econ­omies, municipal codes can be amended to accommodate, or even promote, ur­ban agriculture. City zoning policy can facilitate the broadest possible oppor­tunities for urban agriculture programs without creating a nuisance for the sur­rounding neighbors and community.
A number of cities have already taken this step.

.. Simplify permitting procedures to facili­tate the sale of local food.
A logical corollary to enabling food cultivation and produc­tion throughout a city is to allow people to sell the food they grow.21 Many cities require that people wishing to sell their crops obtain conditional use permits, which can cost thousands of dollars and involve an uncertain political process in which the local agency may never grant the permit sought.22 Thus, conditional use permits can be prohibitively ex­pensive and time-consuming for small growers, creating significant barriers to the sale of locally produced food. Given the low financial margin of most urban food production, especially in contrast to its high social value, cities can consider requiring no more than a simple and inexpensive administrative use permit for relatively small-scale food selling enterprises.

... Shared Housing

Shared housing provides another op­portunity to build community resilience and reduce reliance on fossil fuels and includes a variety of living arrange­ments such as accessory dwelling units (including granny flats, in-law units, second units, and accessory apartments), clustered homes, cohousing communi­ties, and eco-villages. These arrange­ments can reduce waste, lower energy needs, reduce traffic, increase transit use, decrease car dependence, and re­duce the need for residential and public parking.54 The policies described below can also decrease housing prices by removing regulatory requirements for larger homes and yards.
... RooftopUtilization

Another way to facilitate transition is to more fully use existing space within urban areas. Rooftops present an obvi­ous opportunity because cities generally contain acres upon acres of empty or underutilized rooftop space. Roofs have been successfully used for agriculture, water collection and filtering, and power generation. At the most basic level, planning tools can be used to reduce barriers to rooftop use. Going further, cities may make policy choices to incen­tivize rooftop utilization.

... Car Sharing
Car sharing presents an opportunity for transportation at a lower cost to indi­viduals, more efficient use of existing resources, decreased reliance on carbon resources, and less congestion. When people share cars, it reduces the cost for each individual to just a fraction of the cost of owning and operating a personal vehicle. More surprisingly, car sharing takes cars off the road, thereby decreasing traffic, reducing vehicle miles traveled, and reducing gasoline consumption, an effect amplified by the fact that many car-sharing organiza­tions use lower-emission vehicles

... Conclusion
The changes ahead mean that our laws and infrastructure, designed for another time, will increasingly place an un­necessary burden on our citizens and local economies. Strategically loosening these restraints to permit efficiency, enterprise, and sharing can give private citizens the freedom to adapt to new circumstances, and local planning ex­pertise and action will be indispensable in creating the conditions to build this new resilience.

Corinne Calfee is a real estate attorney at the SSL Law Firm in San Francisco. Her practice focuses on land use entitlements and litigation, particularly under the California Environmental Quality Act. Eve Weissman is a second-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. They extend a special thank you to Janelle Orsi and the Sustainable Economies Law Center, whose initial research and recommendations laid the groundwork for this article.
(May 2012 issue)
Suggested by Jon Freise who writes:

"An urban planner friend forwarded this article published by the American Planning Association to me about how to incorporate some of the goals of Transition Towns into the zoning code. I thought it would be very helpful to Transition Initiatives across the country to see how to translate some of the ideas of Transition into zoning language and law. And it would be great to help Initiatives recruit some zoning experts.

Unfortunately it is behind a pay wall.

I thought parts of this might be publishable on the energy bulletin as fair use. And Transition US might ask the APA if they can reprint the article.".

Happiness is a glass half empty

Oliver Burkeman, Guardian
Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success: so goes our modern mantra. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be a loser
... Failure is everywhere. It's just that most of the time we'd rather avoid confronting that fact.

Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it's our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.

Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a "negative path" to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

In the world of self-help, the most overt expression of our obsession with optimism is the technique known as "positive visualisation": mentally picture things turning out well, the reasoning goes, and they're far more likely to do so. Indeed, a tendency to look on the bright side may be so intertwined with human survival that evolution has skewed us that way.

... It doesn't necessarily follow, of course, that it would be a better idea to switch to negative visualisation instead. Yet that is precisely one of the conclusions that emerges from Stoicism, a school of philosophy that originated in Athens a few years after the death of Aristotle, and that came to dominate western thinking about happiness for nearly five centuries.

For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility – not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word "happiness". And tranquility was to be achieved not by chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences: not shunning them, but examining them closely instead
(15 June 2012)

InfraInput - A Website for Users to Report on Infrastructure

Parfait Gasana and Peng Zhou, InfraInput
Challenge: Public Infrastructure

In this new decade, the United States arrives at a critical juncture with an aging, overused, and neglected public infrastructure system from airports to water pipes. To add to this situation, the nation faces tight federal and state budgets, immense global competition, and growing population. And yet, the general public, perhaps the most essential stakeholder, being both everyday users and taxpaying owners continue to be uninformed and unengaged in the process of delivering and managing public infrastructure.

Opportunity: User Input

InfraInput is a one-stop, database-driven website for users to inform the public of their issues and ideas across an array of infrastructure facilities. Now, complaint or feedback sections of utilities, tranportation agencies, public works, state departments, and others are combined into one simple platform for documentation and dissemination. Altogether, this process will aid in the maintenance and rehabilitation of public facilities, helping to rebuild America.

Issues | Examples: Bent utility and telephone poles, foul sewer smells, underutilized transit lines, delayed train systems, functionally obsolete bridges, inadequate airport ground access, molding school buildings, abandoned parks and greenspaces, deteriorating highways ...

Ideas | Examples: electronic fareboxes, solar panel bus shelters, recycled material composites for utility poles, privatized bridge inspections firm, energy efficient HVAC systems in libraries, broadband coverage in underserved areas, high speed rail at crucial corridors ...

InfraInput also serves other objectives:

  • Allows all visitors to see other issues and proposed solutions within and between different geographies.
  • Provides real-time demand side information to public agencies and managers of operations and maintenance.
  • Begins a national conversation from the gray pavement to the legislative gavel around a critical subject matter.

Parfait Gasana is a graduate student in Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with research focus on transportation and infrastructure, a trained academic and public policy researcher, and self-taught website and database programmer.

Peng Zhou is a graduate student in Construction Management, Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with professional experience in construction management, also trained in surveyor and engineering software and tools.

(June 2012)
Parfait Gasana, one of the developers of the website, sent us a letter about it:

... My co-developer partner and I, both
graduate students at the University of Illinois, developed a web
application,, a one-stop public infrastructure reporting
site that allows virtually anyone --resident, business, utility worker,
expert-- to report issues, observations, or suggestions concerning their
public works from airports to water systems with a section devoted to
Energy (specifically, electricity, natural gas, etc.). Equipped with html,
CSV, PDF, and geocoded Google map output, now everyday users can lend their
eyes, ears, and intuition for the attention of real-time, location-specific
issues to public managers and policymakers like inefficient substations,
antiquated distribution and transmission network, costly gas supply and
delivery, and others.

The civil engineering literature asserts U.S. has an infrastructure that
is marked with aging, overuse, (in some cases) mismanagement, and overall
neglect. We believe in turning neglect into attention by engaging the core
stakeholders (general public) which ultimately evolves into investment.
Please check out this crowdsourcing platform and pass it along to
colleagues, members, your audience, or other interested parties who will
contribute. Entirely a student-led bootstrapped endeavor, with no outside
affiliation, InfraInput is free, user-friendly, available in mobile
(, requires no registration, and can begin the needed
conversation to help us live sustainably past the peak energy crisis.

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