Notes from the Near Future

We sent Boston Daily intern Lisa Lombardi to a MIT symposium earlier this week to see what the future of climate change will look like (the high today will be 83, folks), and how Boston will adapt to it. Lots of really smart people from all over the world attended. The gist: Boston isn’t as green as other cities, but thank God for the geniuses we have.

Let’s jump for Lisa’s full report.

It seemed only fitting that parts of the Mass Impact: Cities & Climate Change Symposium was held on the hottest day this spring, with temperatures hitting 96 degrees in the shade Monday afternoon, just outside MIT’s Tang Center. Cities may make up only two percent of the earth’s surface, but they house half of the world’s population and hog seventy-five percent of all resources, according to the symposium’s program. Here’s a breakdown of the best (and sometimes most bizarre) ways to greenify the Hub.

Look to Canada

We might make fun of them for curling, or the way they say “about,” but our friends to the north are doing a pretty good job when it comes to addressing climate change and ways to prevent further damage. Phil Jessup, executive director of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, has dealt with climate and cities for the past twenty years. The Fund encourages solar heating systems for water use through community grants in various Toronto neighborhoods. It has also used its money to introduce a fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles for pilot-testing. Toronto city employees get to try them out. At night those cars park in lots, which is the next thing Jessup will tackle: parking lot lighting.

Your mom used to always yell at you to turn off the light when you left a room, and Jessup’s argument is that the same rule should apply to city property and lots. Installing motion detectors would go a long way towards making public lighting more efficient…if only the Toronto government hadn’t decided that to do so is illegal. Yes, illegal.

Bureaucracy is also causing problems when it comes to switching lights from traditional incandescent florescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, due to some old-fashioned methods of measuring light power. Jessup hopes to change minds – and bulbs – by holding speed-dating sessions with interested parties. He’ll use his sparkling personality and handsome beard, but also a five-minute tutorial that expounds on the wonders of LEDs. In other words, “lasts two- to three-times longer” won’t have anything but appropriate connotations. We could do a bit more of all of this, Jessup says.

The Three B’s

New York City’s PlaNYC project is the mayor’s ambitious plan that includes 127 initiatives to improve land, air, water; transportation, energy, and climate change all to make a greener Big Apple. Yet, as impressive as New York City’s environmentally-beneficial plan is, a lot of the ideas – from hybrid taxis to mandatory building assessments – are ones that have been heard before. So, what gives PlaNYC the edge? A little thing called the three B’s.

Forget reduce, reuse, recycle; it’s all about Bloomburg, Bette, and Big Bird (okay, so it’s four). Everyone’s favorite oversized canary (and Big Bird–rim shot!) joined the mayor last October to launch the Million Trees NYC campaign, an effort to bring more trees to the boroughs. Midler’s New York Restoration Project is backing the campaign to make the city more sustainable and enjoyable. Furthermore, PlaNYC’s ad campaign, “Small Steps, Big Strides,” makes sure that New Yorkers know how they can make a difference to their city with the use of “GreeNYC Tips” posted at bus stops and in animated online videos detailing things like how to take public transportation and install compact florescent lights. This would be kind of demeaning if it weren’t for the most adorable mascot created in recent history acting as your guide. That’s not just our opinion. Emmy nominations don’t lie. Maybe an animated Gino could help Boston dance its way to a greener tomorrow?

The Smartest Guys in the Room

More locally, William Mitchell, the director of the Media Lab at MIT, presented to the crowd the City Car model, the car of the future.

Indeed, the City Car looks like something one step below flying cars: a small, two-passenger vehicle designed (similar in look to the SmartCar) that is entirely battery-powered by electronic motors placed in the wheels. When not in use, the cars can recharge at stations with energy used from solar panels. That’s where the energy-saving part comes from.

Mitchell and his students take the idea one step further to save yet another thing: space. The axis folds to tilt the car’s body upwards until, at rest, it takes up half the space it does when in use. The wheels of the car also pivot to allow the car to make a complete 360-degree turn. Goodbye, U-turn; hello, O-turn.

The Media Lab team has proposed putting stations of these cars scattered all over a city so that they are easily available to rent out for short periods of time to travel short distances, much like ZipCar’s successful strategy. When they are no longer needed, the driver can simply take it to the nearest available station and return it, no need to go roundtrip.