How to win-win when cutting environmental regulations and building walls

Umdenken. In German, the word means more than just rethinking; it implies changing the way you think, a philosophical re-evaluation.

For people committed to sustainability and protection of a thriving environment, the news full of headlines about budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency while money gets rerouted into building infrastructure sounds like a losing proposition. But it's a perfect opportunity for umdenken.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that whoever is left in the EPA will revisit and weaken the CAFE standards, rules requiring automobile manufactures to sell less polluting cars and trucks. This has consequences more imminent than the fuzzy shadow of global warming. In the EU, where environmental standards are higher than in the US, estimates put the number of deaths from air pollution at 400,000 per year, with uncounted more succumbing to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases -- owing not to "carbon" but to the fine particulate matter (PM) (dust small enough to get deep into the lungs) and NOx (nitrogen oxides).

So we cannot count on healthier air from better regulations. Time to think about it from the other end of the problem. Entrepreneurs in Germany are winning kudos for integrating the internet of things (IoT) technology with good old-fashioned plant biology to create a living wall, covered in hardy moss and succulents that are highly efficient at absorbing NOx and particulates from the air. They established a company, Green City Solutions, to bring their low maintenance living walls to the market.

The happiest country in the world was the first international project for Green City Solutions -- you can draw what conclusions you will from this fact. Oslo bought two units of the free-standing "city tree", a short wall with public seating at its base. "City trees" are now popping up all over the place, less as air quality fixes than as ambassadors of hope.

The technology caught the eye of city officials in Stuttgart, home of heavy traffic on the Neckartor, where creative solutions (ranging from spraying roads with chemicals intended to absorb particulates to posting interactive speed limit signs to advise drivers of the speed at which they can pass through all the traffic control lights without stopping) have not yet achieved air quality limits established as safe. Already in 2015, the investment of 400K€ ($420K) for a 100-meter long moss wall on the Neckartor was debated.

Now the vision will become reality. Stuttgart will build the moss wall between the 71,000 cars that drive by daily and the sensitive lungs of its citizens. The wall will not only improve air quality, but moss serves better at dampening the road noise, and studies indicate that the wall can reduce temperatures nearby up to 5 degrees (centigrade, so 9 degrees Fahrenheit) on warm days as water evaporates from the moist moss.

But how much effort is required to keep a living wall alive? Not as much as you would think: the wall has an automated watering system and uses the Internet of Things technology to send an email when it needs attention.

Many eyes will be on this moss wall experiment. If successful, what better way to divert regulatory budgets into infrastructure improvements than in solutions that make everyone a winner?

Tags: Air Pollution | Air Quality | Cities | Germany

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