We use energy all the time, and not always efficiently. Often it is deliberately inefficient, like when we go to spinning classes at the gym, where we spend energy stored in our on-board biological fuel cells: fat. So some inventions try to capture that energy for use elsewhere (like piezoelectric dance floors). Here's a really clever one: a prosthetic foot that captures the user's otherwise wasted energy to give him or her a boost - a bit like power steering.
If you think urban life is stressful, you are probably right, in more ways than you realise. Scientists now believe that a few minutes on a city street can reduce your ability to hold things in memory, and affects the brain's self-control. Something about the cognitive effort needed to redirect attention from all the irrelevant signals we have to filter out. But if you can see trees, grass or other natural things - even through a window - you may experience improved brain performance and even recover from illness more quickly. [via Panopticist]
We all know that it feels good to be in a natural environment, if only as an escape from urban tensions. But a new study suggests that living in a green area can actually lengthen your life, and even that the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor shrinks among those who live in an environment with parks and trees. The research findings seem to suggest that the benefits are derived from more than just the encouragement to exercise induced by open spaces, and extend to reducing blood pressure and helping recovery from surgery.
With growing worldwide demand for plants in traditional and alternative medicine, a number of challenges have emerged concerning issues such as sustainable harvesting of naturally-occuring herbs, preservation of biodiveristy, intellectual property rights of traditional healers, international trade and patent rights. These and other issues will be discussed this week in Cape Town at WOCMAP: The Fourth World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. The week-long scientific congress, is already underway, but day passes are available.
Along with the congress is a two-day business forum and an African herbal market, both beginning tomorrow (Wednesday). Entrance to the market is free.
The Rio Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1992 laid the international foundation for the genetic resources of a country to be acknowledged the sovereign property of a nation and its people. It went further to say that the practitioners of traditional uses of such genetic resources should benefit from potential international commercialization. In South Africa, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) was promulgated in 2004, which was followed by the introduction of the relevant regulations as of 1st April 2008. The Act aims to regulate the use of indigenous plants, animals and other genetic resources, identify possible stakeholders and introduce a mechanism for a more fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from this use.
This topic has become a publicly debated issue with plants like Hoodia, which was originally used by local Khoi-San people, being used in a multi-billion dollar obesity industry. Pelargonium sidoides is another plant used locally in the Eastern Cape for the treatment of several cold-related ailments in people and livestock, and the increase in demand for the plant for both local uses and international pharmaceutical producers has stimulated research and debate about whether its rate of harvesting exceeds the plant's potential for natural regeneration.
Africa grows a vast number of medicinal and aromatic plants, and its healers use a huge array of natural healing substances in their day to day work. Despite this, very few companies either in Africa or elsewhere have used African raw materials and extracts in their pharmaceutical, beauty care and health food formulations.
International conferences like WOCMAP have highlighted the importance of promoting Africa’s medicinal plant heritage both as a way of tackling the growing health problems of the continent and to generate incomes, exports and employment throughout the region. Equally important, these meetings have stressed the need to protect the continent's natural resources and intellectual property rights. It is important that any further developments of African plants and formulations bring benefits to producers, manufacturers and consumers in an equitable manner. It is equally important that these precious raw materials are developed in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner.
The WOCMAP exhibition is designed to raise awareness of the importance of Africa as a potential source for new plant-based materials and natural remedies, and provides information on some of Africa’s most important medicinal plants and herbal medicines, and the companies and organizations that produce and promote them.
In another example of moving closer to sustainable cities, health workers who used to visit patients on foot in Delft (Cape Town) were donated bicycles on Wednesday last week, enabling them to make twice as many house calls. BikeTown Africa, an international project started in 2006, donated 108 bikes to MaAfrika Tikkun healthcare workers to help them anti-retroviral medication for HIV patients and others who cannot get to clinics. Many of these workers haven't ridden bikes before, so they've been given some instruction and guidance about road safety.
What appeals to me about this initiative, apart from the improvement in productivity resulting from the use of a zero-emission transport mode, is that it's a great way to set an example that could start to transform perceptions of the lowly bicycle. Now we just need better cycling networks to make it easier, and a strong support network to make sure this isn't a shortlived success.
The biophilia hypothesis maintains that humans have a built-in affinity for natural things, feeding our desire for keeping pets, climbing mountains, hiking in forests, and being where we can enjoy natural views. This attraction can explain why we like keeping plants in our homes and places of work, and presents an opportunity for architects and engineers to address the social aspects of sustainability at the same time as energy and health issues, through building design.
Having the right plants inside can directly improve air quality, but biophilia suggests that a whole range of design features could improve well-being through exposure to natural elements. In an introduction to biophilia in the Rocky Mountain Institute Newsletter of Spring 2004 [962 KB PDF], Corey Griffin writes:
Today, the technology and knowledge exists to create a building that touches the earth lightly during both construction and day-to-day operations. However, what has been often neglected by creators of low-impact “green” buildings is the need for spaces to be habitable. Occupants of built environments don’t want simply to work, play, eat, or sleep in a functional building. They want to be inspired, invigorated, comforted, and reassured by their surroundings. They want spaces that will make them more productive and healthy, and they want spaces in which they love to be—spaces that, as RMI’s Amory Lovins puts it, create “delight when entered, pleasure when occupied, and regret when departed.”
Biophilic design elements to achieve this could include:
the use of dynamic and diffuse daylight,
the ability to have frequent, spontaneous and repeated contact with nature throughout and between buildings,
the use of local, natural materials,
a connection between interior and exterior surfaces,
a direct physical connection to nature from interior spaces, and
direct visual access to nature from interior spaces.
Griffin also mentions previous work on the hypothesis that provides some motivation for society's choices of landscape design and urban configuration, suggesting a link with our ancestral needs for food, shelter and places to explore. Perhaps our strong tendency towards urban sprawl is an instinctive response to the unnatural aspects of the concrete-and-steel urban jungle. If so, it's vital that attempts to increase urban density to support various aspects of sustainability should incorporate biophilic design elements, lest we become like caged tigers, sapped of life and spirit. OK, I'm being dramatic, but if we need that natural connection to be happier, healthier people, then we damn well better incorporate it in our sustainable cities of the future.
[Update on 3 Dec 2007: BLDGBLOG shows us the air brain, a high-tech version of "plant filters" to clean the air inside buildings. Nice and neat and... sanitized. Not at all like going out in the garden and getting your hands dirty.]
At home and in the office, the best way to maintain air quality is to use plants to scrub toxins from the air. If you've recently installed carpets or furniture, chances are you can smell the pollutants, but they continue to be off-gased for ages. Products like particle board and plywood, often used to make shelves, desks and the like, give off formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene. If you can't avoid these products, you can at least install a few plants that thrive on the gases.
Cape Town, 1985: Tyres are burning in the streets in protest against apartheid laws.
Cape Town, 2007: Tyres are burning in the streets to extract scrap metal that can be sold to dealers for recycling.
The air pollution is horrendous, and South Africa has now published draft waste tyre regulations for comment. There are at least two possibilities for disposing of the 11 million scrapped tyres each year in South Africa. One is to grind them for use in rubber carpets, athletic tracks and tarmac. The other is to burn them in kilns as an alternative energy source.
Paraffin, coal and wood are fuels commonly used in South Afrian township homes that don't have access to electricity. But they are are relatively expensive, a common cause of house fires, and a source of respiratory problems. A company called GreenHeat in Durban is manufacturing an ethanol gel from sugar cane that is better than paraffin on all three counts. (Apparently the gel costs more than paraffin, but lasts much longer.) Sold with a stove, the gel is used either for cooking or heating.
Is this the end of the smog-fuelled Joburg sunrise?
Planners regularly cite the importance of arranging land uses to reduce trip distances. For example, if neighbourhood shops are not isolated from residential areas, shorter distances increase the likelihood that people will travel on foot. Or if apartments are close to public transport routes, more can take the bus to work. There are many reasons for encouraging this, including the need to reduce the costs of widening roads and providing parking. The December 2003 edition of the Sustainable Transportation Monitor provides a new twist to this theme. Let me explain.
There are conflicting reports on why obesity is a growing problem worldwide. In general, our weight is determined by energy intake - specifically the consumption of fat in food - and energy expenditure through physical activity. Studies conducted in several countries suggest that energy intake from fat in food has declined, while body weights have been increasing. So we must be less active, right? Maybe, but is the focus of remedial actions making a difference?
In Canada, as far as health and exercise is concerned, the focus has been on organized activity such as physical education in schools. However, for some groups of the population, the rate of organized or deliberate physical activity appears to have remain unchanged or even increased, and yet body weights continue to rise. A possible explanation relates to the role of transportation - and the associated matter of urban form. Shorter trip lengths and the use of public transport increase physical activity, because they both can include walking.
One study has shown a correlation between average body weight and geographical area. People living in the core of Toronto, with mixed land uses and good access to public transport, have lower weights than those living in outer suburbs where car ownership and dependence are higher. The implication is that it is not just leisure-time activity that affects fitness, but transportation as part of everyday lives.