Friday, September 24, 2010

Arrival Cities and green tenants

Last month, I finally read Arrival City: the final migration and our next world. It's a book I've been eagerly awaiting since it was first announced a few years ago. In it, Doug Saunders travels the slums of the world to discover what works and what doesn't, as the developing world's largely rural population rapidly urbanizes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state up front that Doug is my brother. I've watched, sometimes jealously, sometimes with concern, as he spent recent years travelling to some of the most interesting, most dangerous and most innovative places on Earth.

The book concept appealed to me from the beginning, as it seeks out the roots of much of the cultural conflict we've witnessed in suburban fringes in recent years. The riots in Clichy-sous-Bois are an obvious flashpoint.

But what does all this have to do with rental housing and the environment? Lots.

To begin with, most new arrivals from the remaining rural parts of the world will rent their housing, at least at first. And the viability of home ownership is one of the important factors in arrival city success that Doug discusses in the book. While, in the privileged west, many people choose to rent for the sake of convenience, most people still want to own their homes. The land we occupy isn't just a home, it's a potential place of business and a source of capital that can be used to develop those businesses.

Giving these migrants the resources and support they need to successfully build their urban future is absolutely vital to future peace. When we fail the migrants, we tend to create the conditions that breed dangerous extremist populations. Access to housing, education, capital, jobs and, vitally, citizenship is essential to the success of our cities. While the risk of failure is dire, the rewards for getting it right are huge. The poor migrants of today create the middle class of tomorrow. In other words, from a strictly financial standpoint, the investments in infrastructure and social programs will pay off in spades.

Obviously, there are questions about the environmental effect of mass urbanization. Really, this is not the issue. People living in dense urban areas tend to require fewer resources per capita than do rural dwellers. But we also see a rise in standard of living as people urbanize, and with that comes new consumption of electronic goods, electricity and so forth.

Some groups, particularly in the United States, have suggested that the answer is to close down borders and prevent people in the developing world from attaining our western standard of living.

That's utter nonsense. We've already seen that it won't work, and the sort of restrictions on citizenship and immigration they promote have had terrible results where they've been attempted.

It's also ridiculous because it would require the sort of national isolation that causes economies to stagnate. Oh, and there's also increasing demand for unskilled labour in most western countries, and successful economies have always been built on the strong backs of new arrivals looking for a path to a better life for their families.

What we need to do is provide a platform for success.

That means creating the framework for communities. In some cases, it will mean relaxing some of our licensing and permitting regulations to allow for businesses in places we haven't been allowing them. That will bring us to communities that blend residential and commercial (perhaps light industrial) uses. Environmentally speaking, that's a good idea, as it allows more people to live near their work.

We need to create the framework for communities where people who rent can see a way to home ownership. It is true that homeowners tend to invest in and improve their properties more than tenants do.

Right now, we have the opportunity to work on making the gateway communities ones that will work for the people who will live in them, while at the same time building in ways that will make them resource-efficient. In doing so, however, we will need to keep in mind that cost is extremely important. The migrants will not have the capital to make the sort of environmental investments we need. But many of those investments, in good insulation, energy efficient appliances, lighting, etc., will bring the operating cost of apartments down, making them ultimately more accessible. In the shorter term, however, we need governments to invest in infrastructure with a view to the long-term payoffs (through a growing middle class of taxpayers and business owners).

I have, of course, in this post moved from the book's content into my own thoughts on the subject. But Arrival City is, for me at least, a book about exploring a huge geographical phenomenon and the ways to adapt to it. It's my favourite kind of book: one that gives us a framework for discussion and the exploration of new ideas.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Installing a ceiling fan

Yes, it's September, which means the summer heat is almost over. But it ain't over yet. Where I live it's still hot and humid. The utility companies are offering an incentive ($75 in Toronto) to get people signed up for Peaksaver, a device that "cycles down" central air conditioning during peak electricity demand periods (in other words, the hottest days). The Ontario Power Authority says it'll likely mean house temperatures 1-2 degrees warmer on those days.

While this program has the obvious benefit of toning down central air use, there are some more simple, low-tech solutions. Keeping your air conditioning set just a few degrees below the outside air temperature, instead of at an arbitrary "room temperature" is a big one. The AC will still suck humidity out, which makes the biggest difference on a summer day.

But many people, like myself, don't need AC at all. When it's really hot, I've been known to sleep in my basement, which is naturally cool and comfortable all summer long.

In my bedroom, I have a ceiling fan.

Ceiling fans are great. They move a lot of air. That circulation keeps you cool in summer and helps distribute heat in winter, so they can actually save you money--something an air conditioner will never do.

Installing a ceiling fan

*Note: Electricity is dangerous. If you're not sure of your skills or are nervous, hire a professional. That said, installing a ceiling fan is usually about as difficult as installing a light fixture. That is, not very challenging*

  1. Turn on the existing light fixture. Then go to the electrical panel and flip the appropriate breaker. If the light is off when you come back, then you got the right one.
  2. Unpack the new ceiling fan and read the instructions. Read all of them. Then read them again. If they disagree with anything here, trust the instructions. If you have doubts, seek professional help.
  3. Remove the old light fixture. As you detach wires, screw the marrettes back on so you don't have potentially live wires dangling from your box. Also, the odds are good that the marrettes used by the electrician who wired your house will be better than the ones supplied with the fan. Good marrettes make live so much easier.
  4. Inspect the electrical box in the ceiling. Is it securely screwed into the ceiling joists? If not, stop and consider whether you want to properly mount the box or just give up and get a floor fan. Is the box grounded? In Canada, you'll see white, black and sometimes red wires that carry the current. There should also be a green or bare copper wire screwed onto the box (usually at the back). If it's not there, call an electrician because you may have a much bigger job on your hands. If the box is not grounded, do not proceed with your fan installation.
  5. Assuming everything is hunky-dory, the next thing to do is to follow the installation instructions. These can be simple or complicated, depending on the model you bought. Some have taken me less than 10 minutes, some have left me cursing after half an hour. Today, the fans often have a wire loop that you can attach to a hook or bar that you mount to the box. This is good, because it means you don't have to hold the heavy motor while you work. Follow the instructions and you'll likely do fine.
  6. When connecting the wires, start with the ground (green or bare copper). As long as the box is grounded, it doesn't really matter where on the box you attach this wire. But it does have to be securely attached to the box. There's usually a screw at the back of the box for this. I do the ground first because it's usually the most awkward to attach. You can also attach a wire to the box and then attach it to the fan's ground wire with a marrette.
  7. If your house is wired correctly, then the other wires are usually simple colour-matching. The white wire from the fan attaches to the white wire in the box, and the black to the black. It's just the way the old fixture was hooked up.
  8. Follow any instructions for attaching the blades, covers, shades, etc. Make sure the blades are the right way up and that you screw the bracket on the correct side. It's surprisingly easy to get this wrong. There's a picture on the front of the package. Look at it. It'll help.
  9. Once everything is secure and you've moved any tools or ladders out of the way, go and turn the power back on. Then turn the unit on. Try the light first, so you know if there's power (and do put a bulb in before trying this).
  10. Ceiling fans usually have a pull-chain to control speed, with three speeds plus off. I suggest pulling the chain three times to get it into the slowest speed, then turning the fan on. If all is well, then try higher speeds.
  11. Especially at higher speeds, your fan might wobble. If it does, make sure you installed the blades securely and correctly. Next, look for any weights the kit might have come with for balancing the blades. Adjusting the weight is a slow but (frequently) necessary process. I won't repeat the steps here, because it's already explained pretty well here.
For information on Energy Star ceiling fans and tips on using your fan, check out the Office of Energy Efficiency website.

The most important piece of info there is this: Set the fan to push air down in summer to cool you, and pull it up in winter to disperse heat more evenly. And turn off the fan and light when you leave the room.

Photos in this post come courtesy of David Hayes.