By: Shawna Stirrett
There are many benefits to be had from improving the environmental performance of Canadian cities. Residents can benefit from improved aesthetics, lower water treatment costs, higher property values, increased air quality, the attraction and retention of skilled workers and much more. General environmental benefits can include reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, improved water and air quality, less fragmented ecosystems and improved biodiversity.
And the good news is that we have a pretty good sense of how these environmental improvements can be realized. There are many different tools for, and principles of, creating more sustainable cities that individuals, businesses, communities and municipal governments can employ. Outlining these tools is the focus of Canada West Foundation’s most recent report Tools of the Trade: Urban Environmental Improvement Options.
The real challenge, however, isn’t in knowing what to do but rather in implementing the good ideas that we already have. Many people are well aware of the environmental benefits of recycling, composting, improved energy efficiency and transit-oriented development. The fact remains, though, that we are not using these tools as much as we could in Canadian cities for myriad reasons.
Let’s take, as an example, a very simple environmental tool like the use of rain barrels to harvest rainfall.
Rain barrels are used to capture and store rainwater for later use on lawns and gardens. The environmental and economic benefits of rain barrels are clear. Using rainwater is better for your lawn and garden because it is not chlorinated and contains many of the minerals that your soil needs for healthy plant growth. Rain barrels also save money as you are not paying for water to be treated, transported and metered by the city. It’s a clear environmental and economic win-win.
So, given that, why wouldn’t everyone use rain barrels?
Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess I do not have a rain barrel. I’m not trying to be hypocritical, and I would love to have one, but I live in a condo and our condo board does not allow rain barrels because they are unsightly and ruin the grass and I don’t have enough space on my patio for both a rain barrel and a barbeque.
I also find that I’m not alone in this. Using a very informal survey methodology (I asked my friends on Facebook), I have discovered that while only a few of my friends actually use rain barrels currently, almost everyone wants to use them. For those not using them, their reasons include laziness, aesthetics, cost of the rain barrel and living in a condo or apartment. The most frequently cited reason was living in a condo or an apartment building.
This raises the question for me: if we want to encourage higher density living and smaller carbon footprints, then why are we not designing environmental products that can be used by a variety of people in different types of housing?
Conventional rain barrels can hold about 45 gallons of water, are made of plastic, cost around $70 and come in a couple different colour options. While there is no question that these rain barrels work for many people, they also don’t work for many others as my survey and personal experience testifies. Rain barrels are really big, for starters, meaning that unless you have a house or a very large deck they are impractical. They are also somewhat awkward to use. The downspouts are located at the bottom and they often have to be positioned on cinder blocks so that you can access the water inside them. Finally, they are ugly and do little for the overall aesthetic of your yard and garden.
If we really want more people to use rain barrels as a way to make cities more environmentally friendly, we need to think about the full picture. It’s not going to be enough to tell people they should be using rain barrels, we need to be thinking about why they aren’t and designing solutions that are holistic and practical. We need to remember that “Good design is not about color, style or trends—but instead about thoughtfully considering the user, the experience, the social context and the impact of an object on the surrounding environment” (Inhabitat).
For a good example of how good design can change our relationship with environmental products, check out some innovative rain barrels by clicking here.