Stories tagged cities


The Science Museum of Minnesota is a partner with the University of Minnesota on its Islands in the Sun project, which is monitoring the urban heat island in the Twin Cities to find ways of lessening its effects through landscape design. More than half the global population now lives in cities and so there is urgent need to understand and mitigate urban heat islands, especially during heat waves when the risk of heat-related illness and mortality can increase dramatically.Islands in the Sun temperature sensor
Islands in the Sun temperature sensorCourtesy Courtesy Department of Soil, Water and Climate, University of Minnesota

Islands in the Sun is setting up temperature sensors throughout the Twin Cities Metro Area. This temperature network when completed will be one of the densest in the world. Would you like to be a part of this effort? Islands in the Sun is especially interested in volunteers willing to have a sensor installed on their property and who live in the following locations -- downtown Minneapolis, downtown Saint Paul, Saint Paul – east of Rice St, West Saint Paul, South Saint Paul, Mendota Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Eagan, Oakdale, Woodbury, Cottage Grove, northern Roseville, Arden Hills, and Plymouth.

Information about the sensor and its placement can be found here. If you are still interested after reviewing this information, then fill out and submit a volunteer form. Please note that your interest does not guarantee that a sensor will be installed because each site must meet certain criteria. If selected, a temperature sensor will be installed at a location on your property acceptable to you with the expectation that it will remain onsite collecting data for up to four years. A technician will visit the sensor every two to three months to download data.

Thanks for considering being a part of this ground-breaking research project.


Radiometers at Science Museum of Minnesota
Radiometers at Science Museum of MinnesotaCourtesy Patrick Hamilton
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reported a low at 6:00 a.m. this morning of 73 degrees F degrees while nearby Lakeville was at 57 – a 16 degree difference in only 20 miles. Said Paul Huttner, an MPR meteorologist, “…one of the biggest urban heat island effects today I have ever seen in 40+ years of watching and forecasting weather in the Twin Cities.”

Urban heat islands are regions of strong warming localized around the heart of a city with progressively lower temperatures as one travels away from the center – hence the name “heat island”. Urban heat islands exist because of large differences in land use, building materials, and vegetation between cities and their rural surroundings. In much of the world, cities are warming at twice the rate of outlying rural areas and so the frequency of urban heat waves is projected to increase with climate change through the 21st century.

Drs. Peter Snyder and Tracy Twine are in the midst of a four-year research project funded by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to monitor the urban heat island of the Twin Cities. The project aims to improve understanding of the mechanisms contributing to urban heat islands with a goal of finding ways to lessen their effects through landscape design.

Snyder, Twine and two graduate students installed two instrument towers at the Science Museum on Monday as part of their urban heat island research project. One is on the white roof outside of the windows of Elements Café and the other is on a nearby black roof. Both are visible if you stand at the southwest corner of the plaza outside of the Café and look back at the museum. The two towers with their arrays of temperature sensors and radiometers will collect data at the museum for about four weeks, permitting Snyder and Twine to better characterize the interactions between different roof types and solar radiation in their urban heat island modeling work.


We've probably been debating the virtues of urban areas since humans gathered in the first cities thousands of years ago. But one question we probably haven't explored much is how we can prepare our cities for climate change.

Climate and sea level have changed slowly throughout humanity's history, and we've been able to adapt. Until quite recently, humans either didn't build settlements in risky areas, or the ones they built (say on floodplains or near a sea shore) were temporary and easily moved or abandoned.

Now that we face accelerating and more extreme changes in the next 100 years, we also have some very permanent structures (and infrastructures) in the riskiest of places. Over 100 million people live in areas likely to be underwater by 2100. And even landlubbers face the challenges of more frequent extreme weather events--heavier rainfalls, droughts, etc.

St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).
St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).Courtesy John Polo

Luckily, engineers are already beginning to plan for these changes as they retrofit and build new buildings and infrastructure. Often, these engineers are ahead of city building codes and have trouble persuading property owners to invest in addressing threats that lie in the future. But isn't it better safe than sorry? Maybe we could build cities so strong that climate change barely bothers us.

And even luckier perhaps is that cities are hotbeds of innovation and creativity. We could see the efforts of these engineers as just another example of urban virtues. More people mean more ideas and more resources devoted to the cause. And in our rapidly changing world, we need that teamwork more than ever.


You think you’re safe from the dangers of the wild just because you live in a city? This video will change your view. It was shot by a guy named Craig Kuberski, who lives within the city limits of St. Paul, MN. I know some of you were hoping you'd get to see a rogue cougar or bear mauling innocent urbanites or eating their pets, but that’s not the case here. It’s just a couple of bucks on the town and in a rut trying to catch some city girls' attention.

Rutting period is the mating season for many ruminants, (i.e. mammals like moose, caribou, bison, and deer). The rut is set-off by the shortening of daylight hours during autumn and in the case of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus - which I’m pretty sure these are) can last for one to three months. During that time, male deer get all goofy and twitterpated, rubbing their antlers against trees, rolling in the dirt or mud, or battling each other – as seen in this video. Rutting season is the best time to hunt for them, and the easiest time to hit them with your car, although I don’t advise you do the latter.

As you may notice, Mr. Kubinski posted two buck fever videos on YouTube. I’ve only used the second here because it’s the better of the two, focus-wise, But if you’d also like to watch Part I, there you have it. KARE 11 also ran a story on it.


"Here's what I've lately decided: I'm the little kid in "The Sixth Sense" who sees the dead people. I'm getting really sick of being this Cassandra. I mean, it's kind of miserable."
Peter Ward, Author of "The Flooded Earth" recently interviewed Peter Ward about the future of American cities as sea levels rise. The interview was not just depressing--some of Ward's comments were downright terrifying. Regarding the possibility of ending ocean currents, he commented that with one exception, every past mass extinction was caused by volcanic global warming events. He notes:

"Ocean currents slow down. You lose your wind, everything…. Everything goes stagnant, and a stagnant ocean becomes an oxygen-free ocean, and an oxygen-free ocean breeds very bad microbes."

But perhaps the most disturbing implication in the interview was that in order to be heard, scientists have to weaken their own arguments, which in turn weakens governmental response and public perception of the danger.

"No one wants to be branded as some sort of flaming political agenda-ist. These estimates aren't going down, because the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere keeps going up. And in fact we keep shooting over the worst level projections that people were saying two or three years ago."

So what can we do? This kind of catastrophic discussion makes my weekly reusable bag use at Rainbow seem like chewing gum in a leaking dam, or maybe that first cap BP put on the well. It may make a tiny difference, but it won't avoid disaster.

After all the reading I've done the last few weeks about climate change, I've begun to think the first step is confronting the evidence as a nation (good luck, right?). The hardest part then is identifying and committing to mitigation/response plans--I say that because we are already deeply impacting our environment in ways that we can't reverse. But I also think that as Ward says, "…wherever there's challenges, there are opportunities." If we're going to make changes on a broad scale, we have to find a way to be optimistic about these very depressing facts.

In preparation for the Future Earth exhibit (more soon!), we've been working with the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP). You can read more about their research and outreach efforts on Science Buzz or on their website. The tagline on their website, "Understanding variability to anticipate change," is just the kind of proactive attitude we need as we face rising sea levels.

"I have a fundamental belief that science and education are essential to prepare our society to anticipate and steer changes."
Antonio Baptista, CMOP Director

Where do you find hope for our future? Please reply in the comments!


Think Global: photo: KnutBry/TinAgent/Think Technology
Think Global: photo: KnutBry/TinAgent/Think Technology
Think an electric car has a chance in todays market? In the 1990s General Motors spent nearly $1 billion on their EV1. Ford pumped about $150 million into an electric car known as "Think" but sold it 5 years later. As Think was in bankruptcy, Norwegian entrepreneur, Willums, picked up Think, its factory, and Ford's nearly completed design for a new-model "City" for the fire-sale price of about $15 million. His company, Think Global, has raised $60 million in funding to roll out a new and improved version of the City this fall.

$43 million battery deal with Tesla Motors

Willums, whos experience is in solar panels, went to a brainstorming session at the Googlplex in California. Google billionaires, Sergy Brin and Larry Page, had test driven earlier versions of the Think. They are also major investors of another electric car, the Tesla. Tesla will sell customized batteries to Think Global. The group also came up with these radical ideas:

  • Sell the car on the internet.
  • Never build a car before it's paid for.
  • No car showrooms or sales force.
  • Sell the car but lease the batteries.
  • Every car will be Internet and Wi-Fi enabled.
  • Components will be open sourced modules.
  • Assemble cars locally (no exporting).
  • Use the car's batteries to feed the electric grid during power shortages.
  • Car sharing companies like Zipcar and Flexcar allow trying before buying.

Batteries are separate.

By taking out the cost of the battery ($34,000) the "City" car will only cost from $15,000 - $17,000 in the United States. A "mobility fee" of $100 to $200 a month that might also include services like insurance and wireless Internet access seems to be part of the business plan. Managing a two way exchange of electricity with the electric grid is another possibility. Thousands of cars plugged into the electric grid could be tapped during energy demand spikes. PG&E plans to buy batteries that have outlived their usefulness for transportation but still retain capacity. The utility will install them in the basements of office towers and at electrical substations to store green energy produced by wind farms and solar arrays.

"Open source" modular assembly.

Willums car assembly plan resembles how Dell builds computers.

"He points to the black steel chassis of a City standing on a nearby pallet; it's shipped preassembled from Thailand. At one station, workers attach the car's aluminum frame -- made in Denmark -- and drop in a French motor. At another station, prefabricated rust-and dent-resistant polymer-plastic body panels produced in Turkey are hung on the frame of a nearly completed car."

Parts will be shipped for assembly near purchase points (like New York or California). The "Think" will do 70 mph and will have a range of 110 miles.

Update: "TH!NK GLOBAL" forum website link.

Source: CNNmoney.


My kind of town: As of 2008, more than half of the world's population will live in cities.  Only a lucky few will get to live here.
My kind of town: As of 2008, more than half of the world's population will live in cities. Only a lucky few will get to live here.

...and soon there will be about 3 billion more. According to a UN report, next year half of the world's population will live in cities. Throughout human history, most people have lived in rural areas or small communities. This will mark the first time ever that more people will live inside of cities than outside.

While life in a well-planned, well-maintained city can be quite pleasant (Minneapolis/St. Paul, anybody?), urban life does bring its challenges. Health services and sanitation systems are stretched thin, and disease outbreaks are common. The concentration of poverty often breeds crime. Having so many people in such a small area puts great pressure on local ecosystems. Since most cities are near water, those environments are especially at risk.


We're #5!  Minneapolis-St.Paul is ranked as the fifth cleanest city in the world: Photo by kevinthoule at
We're #5! Minneapolis-St.Paul is ranked as the fifth cleanest city in the world: Photo by kevinthoule at

Forbes magazine has an article on the world’s 25 cleanest cities. Minneapolis comes it at #5.

The list comes from studies conducted by the Mercer Human Resources Consulting which rate quality of living in various cities. They looked at things like producing sufficient energy cleanly, handling waste responsibly, encouraging recycling, and efficient transportation.
According to the article:

It is interesting to note that size does not appear to be a factor either in terms of size of population or physical size of the city. The most common trait in common to each is a focus on high tech, education and headquartering of national and international companies along with an extensive public transit system.

The ecotality blog notices something interesting – all of the top 25 are in industrialized democracies. Normally, we think of industry as being very dirty. But writer Bill Hobbs suggests that

“…industrialization created wealth which, in turn, buys the things (mass transit, especially) and pays for the policies that create a cleaner environment.”

I would add that, in democracies, citizens can pressure government and business to pass laws protecting the environment. The actions necessary to make a clean city require money and political will. Clearly, capitalism is good for the environment!


James Loewen, a professor at the University of Vermont, has published a disturbing new book. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism tells the story of American cities and towns which kept out – and often drove out – all non-white residents. (The title comes from the signs which were often posted at the entrance to town, saying “N*****, Be Out Of Town By Sundown.”)

Researching this topic proved to be very difficult. A few towns actually had laws and ordinances prohibiting non-whites from living in the city. But most achieved their all-white status through unofficial means – violence, harassment, and unspoken agreements not to rent or sell to minorities. (Most sundown towns excluded blacks and/or Jews, though many in the West excluded Chinese, Mexicans and/or American Indians.) Very few towns ever discussed this aspect of their history in the newspaper or in official town histories. So, Loewen was faced with a challenge: how to prove racism without official evidence?

First, he had to come up with a definition. He decided to define a sundown town as an incorporated entity of at least 1,000 people that excluded blacks for decades – that was at least 99.9% white, and was that way on purpose. “Incorporated entity” meant he wasn't going to look at sparsely populated rural areas. It also meant he was looking at an entire town that had driven out blacks completely – not simply divided itself into all-white and all-black neighborhoods. Similarly, “at least 1,000 people” limited his search and focused on towns that probably had to make an effort to exclude blacks.

Finding towns that were all-white required reading census statistics. Not just reading them, but also interpreting them. He found towns that had dozens of black families in the census of 1870, 1880, and 1890 – but, in 1900, 1910, or 1920, suddenly dropped to zero. This could be a sign that the blacks were driven out of town by mob violence – something he could often confirm by reading newspapers.

Some towns had black populations with very unusual characteristics. For example, the census might show a town had 1,508 blacks, all male, no children, and none counted as head of a household. It would turn out that each of these 1,508 were prisoners at a jail. Or the census might show 67 blacks, almost all female, few children, and again none head of a household. These he found were domestic servants. In a few towns, the census showed just one black family, decade after decade. It often turned out that, when the citizens drove out the blacks, they left the town barber alone. In all such cases, blacks may have been on the census, but they were certainly not free to live within the city, so he counted them as sundown towns.

(Some towns, especially suburbs, were established as all-white and just stayed that way, even after such laws were declared unconstitutional.)

The trickiest part was proving that towns were all-white on purpose. Few ever wrote their policies into law. Instead, he had to rely on oral history. He would interview the town's oldest residents. If several of them independently offered the same explanation, he would accept that as evidence that that's probably what happened. (Some scientists dispute his methods, but historians and sociologists have long accepted oral histories to fill in gaps in the official record.)

So, how many sundown towns did Loewen find? He has confirmed at least 1,000 towns were exclusionary at some point in their history, and suspects the total number could be as many as ten thousand across the US. Hundreds of counties were all-white. The entire state of Idaho, for a time, was all-white. Most of these towns were in the Midwest – Illinois alone had over 470 sundown towns in 1970, about 70% of all the towns in the state. Other concentrations were found in the northeast, the Ozarks, Appalachia, and Oregon. (Interestingly, the deep South had very few – Loewen could only find six in the entire state of Mississippi. But outside the South, more than half of the cities and towns in America were whites-only for some period of time.)

Are there any sundown towns left today? Hard to say. Surely, there are several hundred all-white communities in the US today. But are they all-white on purpose? Housing discrimination is illegal. Mob violence has thankfully become rare.

But low-level harassment, which is harder to document, still drives blacks out of some towns. No one will hire them, store owners won't sell them anything. Home owners and real estate agents may unofficially agree to only sell to whites. Police give them a hard time. Some towns still have “whites-only” laws on the books. Even though those laws are unenforceable, if the entire town believes they are legal, then they will act as if they are.

So, while sundown towns have been illegal since 1968, there are still hundreds of communities which still operate that way. There are reports as recent as 2004 of blacks having trouble moving into certain towns. There were still “No Blacks After Dark” signs in some areas in the 1990s. And one town in Illinois had a siren on the city water tower. They would blow it every night at 6:00 pm to tell the blacks it was time to get out of town.

They didn't stop blowing the whistle until 1999.

(To learn more about sundown towns, you can read an interview with Loewen here and a review of his book here.