A white roof on a Philadelphia row house.

Simple Changes and Common Sense Ideas

A white roof on a Philadelphia row house.By Robert A. Seeley

This article was first published in Robert Seeley’s weblog, Surviving the Future, Tuesday, July 17, 2007, as appears here with his permission.

It’s surprising how simple changes and common sense ideas can move us — more than we might have imagined — toward sustainability. The best-known example is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), which could prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions if it came into widespread use. CFLs have other virtues: they last far longer than conventional incandescent bulbs, and they use far less electricity, thereby saving a lot of money for those who use them.

CFLs are one simple idea, but there are many others. Here are three:

White Roofs

The traditional Philadelphia row house, which usually has party walls with its neighbors on the left and right, is an extremely efficient design for cold weather. With windows and doors only on the front and back and a black asphalt roof, it absorbs and retains heat well, thus saving fuel. In summer, however, the row house’s advantage becomes a liability. The roof absorbs heat, as it is designed to do, and the house retains it, as it is designed to do. The house becomes a heat sink.

One obvious remedy for this problem is a white roof, which would reflect heat in summer without making the row house significantly less efficient in winter. Until recently no one seems to have thought of making row house roofs white. Now two cities, Chicago and Philadelphia, are experimenting with the concept. In Philadelphia, a local non-profit group, the Energy Coordinating Agency, has created Smart Energy Solutions, which provides a number of services, including installation of white roofs. The new roof lowers the temperature in the house an average of five degrees — which, for some people in row houses, can mean the difference between life and death. White roofs save on cooling costs, which saves fuel, and make the upper floors of traditional row houses more habitable than the traditional black roof. And by reflecting heat instead of absorbing it, they should help to cut
down on the “urban heat island” effect and make cities less hot — if only very slightly — in the summer.

Car Sharing

The private car is the least efficient way to move people. Its manufacture uses huge amounts of raw materials, energy, and fossil fuels, and it would be hard to imagine a more efficient way to generate greenhouse gases than a traffic jam with thousands of car engines idling for half an hour or more.

That said, there are some trips, such as a visit to a garden shop and a return with plants for a home garden, where a small vehicle is most efficient. The problem is that car ownership is highly inefficient and expensive: it is actually cheaper to have no car (thus avoiding depreciation and maintenance costs), take a taxi where only a car will do the job, and use public transit the rest of the time. This is also a more sustainable and efficient way to get around than driving everywhere in a car whose manufacture uses resources and whose upkeep can be prohibitively expensive.

Groups like PhillyCarShare have begun to provide the obvious alternative: shared vehicles that group members rent only for the time they need them. Joining is free, and for those who use cars only occasionally there is no monthly fee. Rental rates are lower for more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. And many pickup points are at local train stops to help members get to their temporary car by public transit. It is a well-thought-out program.

Shared Tools

On our block, there is only one lawn mower. One neighbor owns it, but others on the block are free to use it, provided they return it with its cord. It is a highly efficient electric model which generates no exhaust pollution and, because most block residents use green electricity sources, a relatively small amount of indirect pollution. In all, a simple but good arrangement. By having only one lawn mower on the block, we also keep down the cost in materials and greenhouse gases of manufacturing separate mowers for each household.

This kind of informal arrangement is easy in a densely — populated city where neighbors talk across garden fences. It is more difficult in the spread-out suburbs, but it can be done. Everybody’s lawns are well-mowed in our block, and nobody is seriously inconvenienced because if the mower is in use one day, it will be available the next.

Americans, on the whole, don’t like sharing. They want their private space, their private tools, and their private cars. But sharing with neighbors, or with other members of groups like PhillyCarShare, makes life easier and more neighborly, not more difficult. Like white roofs, sharing tools and vehicles is a common sense idea that can help to build a sustainable and quite possibly more civilized future.

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