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Environmentalist in Residence

Environmentalist in Residence at the London Public Library

The London Public Library is excited to welcome our first Environmentalist in Residence, Gabor Sass.

During the month of April, London Public Library's first Environmentalist in Residence, Gabor Sass, will offer practical workshops and will answer your online questions.
Gabor Sass, PHD, Ecosystem Scientist and Sustainability Expert

Gabor is a recognized scientist, consultant, university instructor, writer and community builder who has lived in London with his wife for 19 years. He has worked as an environmental consultant for clients in industry, non-governmental organizations and different levels of government and as an advisor on environmental and planning advisory committees for the City of London. Gabor's community building includes leading initiatives like the Food Forests in Wood Street Park and West Lion's Park and the Pollinator Pathways Project, neighbourhood projects that have introduced residents to urban agricultural practices and current environmental concerns. Gabor and his family work at implementing sustainable practices into their lifestyle wherever they can.

Do you have a question for Gabor?

Do you have a question about environmental issues or steps you can take to sustainability? Share your question with our Environmentalist in Residence, Gabor Sass, using the form below. We'll share information from Gabor and City of London experts, based on your questions, here on our website during the month of April. We'll do our best to address as many questions as possible!

Thank you for all of the questions you took the time to write to Gabor. They've helped to shine a light on the issues on the minds of Londoners wanting to live more sustainably and wanting to live in a more sustainable city. We will close question submissions on April 30 and publish the rest of the answers. You can continue to chat with Gabor at the Love Your Greats event at Wolf Hall on April 30 or at his last workshop on May 7 at Central Library.

Take a look through some of the questions that have already been answered. Click on the question text to reveal the answer.

Your question on biomass burning goes to the heart of a very important question: How should we be heating our homes? Clearly, most Western countries have switched to natural gas and electricity to heat our homes cleaning up the air quality of our homes and of our cities. However, natural gas is a finite source of energy and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning it should pause us to start considering alternatives. For example, in London the second largest source of GHG emissions come from our furnaces. We might have cleaner air to breathe but we are burning up the planet nonetheless with our climate changing ‘fires’ in our furnaces and in our cars.

The solution is not necessarily to go back to burning biomass although we do have to consider technological advances in the burning process. In our household we are grappling with this very question since we want to go off of natural gas as a source of heat both for GHG considerations but also a myriad of environmental considerations associated with natural gas extraction. The main natural gas alternatives we are considering right now for heating are ground-source heat pumps and masonry heaters. Of course, heating with electricity is an option but it is very-very expensive. (We have already invested heavily in insulation so that whatever heating source we install in the future, we will be using minimal amounts of energy to heat our home.) Like all technologies, heat pumps and masonry heaters both have their pros and cons. Heat pumps affect the thermal environment of the area from which they extract heat plus they are still reliant on using lots of electricity. Masonry heaters burn wood very efficiently and trap almost all of the heat in their thermal mass, re-releasing it to the indoor environment. They use very little wood (compared to wood stoves) but they still use wood and release gases and particulates. The issue that you raise, the release of particulates, I think is a very important consideration which every household and city government should consider. Although right now, indoor air heating seems to have been solved by natural gas furnaces, the day will come (and I think a lot sooner than later), when we will all have to consider alternatives. I think we have to be honest about all of the technologies and weigh the costs and benefits of any choice we favour.

Yes, it is possible but only with a lot of energy inputs. Of course, everything depends on what you are trying to grow. Heat loving peppers, tomatoes, and beans will need a lot more heat and light energy than cold hardy vegetables such as kale.

So first, you need to provide enough heat for your plants. The temperature of the soil is more important to get right than the air temperature. Next, you will also need to supply the plants with light energy and the winter sunlight in Ontario doesn’t cut it, which means that grow lights are needed.

I think for us urban gardeners what is more reasonable is season extension with the use of greenhouses or hoophouses (and no or minimal input of heat and light energy). These hoophouses can be small, placed right over your raised bed for example. At the end of the growing season, plants that are started in the fall (or late summer) can be ‘grown’ inside a hoophouse during the winter. In actuality they are not doing that much growing but are in maintenance mode until you go and pick them. So the plants do most of their growing in the fall, and the winter is a bit like refrigeration while still alive.

Greenhouses also help to get the growing season started earlier. Plants that are started indoors in February can be brought out in April and be grown in greenhouses until they are producing or they can be planted out into the garden in May.

I don’t think on-demand systems would save any water as you are waiting for the right temperature. This is because the water in the pipes loses temperature irrespective of heat source. Insulating pipes will definitely help with heat loss in the pipes though. On-demand systems that are placed very close to the place of main use (next to shower stall for example) would also help. By definition, on-demand systems have no heat loss from water stored in a tank because there is none. So that’s why they can save energy when compared to a traditional system using a storage tank. If you have a system with storage (as most of us do), it is a good idea to place extra insulation around the storage tanks to cut down on that heat loss.

Getting back to the original question of water loss due to cold water in the pipes: a bigger step is to convert your house to a greywater system. Such a system would catch all water coming from showers and sinks and reroute it into the toilet system or into the garden.

They were both born in London and have known our current home as the only one so far. The environmentally friendly and low carbon lifestyle is second nature to them and they are thus totally conditioned to it. They are both confident and cautious bikers, take part in garden and house work and especially love being part of the community that has come together around our community food forest in Wood St Park. Developmentally, kids aged 0-7 are total copycats, whatever you do, they will copy, so it’s been great to see them getting their hands dirty with me in the garden and generally following me around. However, as they have grown older things have changed a little bit. The older one is a teenager now and she has her own agenda which does not always involve gardening.

Overall, they are both passionate about the environment and understand why we don’t have a car and why we live the way we do. Actually, you will be able to hear my daughter Sylvia at London Cycle Link’s panel discussion on What Moves You? on May 11th at 7pm at Baker’s dozen where she will be a panelist.

I think tool libraries are a great idea and are much needed. I believe there was a tool library started a few years back in London but it folded soon after opening. For woodworking specifically, there is the London Woodworking shop at 195 Horton St E. There is a toy lending library at Childreach, 265 Maitland. For bike repairs, there is the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Co-op where you can use the tools on site for an annual membership fee.

The good news is that the Thames Region Ecological Association (TREA) is working on a tool library. Early this summer they will be focused on gathering tools and volunteers. So please contact TREA about their plans for this tool library and how you can help out at info@trea.ca.

I turned to City of London staff for this since I am not too well versed in the details of plastic recycling. One really worthwhile question to ask is how much greenhouse gases will the recycling process (including collection and shipping the waste around) itself generate? If a lot more then straight landfilling then the utility of recycling of that type of waste stream can be questioned. We should be talking about recycling but most importantly how can we cut down on plastic use?

Yes, the boards need to be attached either with lumber or metal brackets. Here is an alternative. A good friend of mine uses wooden pallets for raised beds. He cuts them in half and stakes them into the ground. He also uses landscape fabric to line the sides of the raised bed (on the inside).

It might be a good idea to kill the weeds before building the raised beds. You can cover the entire area with cardboard and within 1-2 months everything beneath the cardboard will be dead (although seeds can survive). Alternatively you can build the raised bed, weeding as best as possible during the construction phase and then keeping on top of the weeds (if they show up) later.

Your final question about height is a good one. So the big question to answer is: why are you building a raised bed in the first place? Is it because you have poor soil underneath it? Then you should build a lot higher raised bed and bring in better quality soil to fill it up. Or are you choosing a raised bed because of accessibility? Then again you want to build it higher, maybe even two feet high. If you are mostly building it for organization and the ability to attach hoophouses or other structures more easily then you don’t need to go too high.

Fortunately, I haven’t had to fight too hard. My garden is fairly diverse with lots of different vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs and flowers. I plant the same vegetables in multiple places so if I have an attack I don’t usually lose my entire crop. Cages and fences might be able to keep some animals away but not everything, as some animals will just dig underneath the fence. Finding out what smell your particular thief is most aggravated by and incorporating that scent into your garden can be a good strategy. I have heard that soap (but only Irish Spring! go figure) is very good against deer. Ideally, we should have more predators around to keep rodent population numbers in control. Although we don’t have any pets what I have observed in my garden is that domestic cats who have been prowling the area chase squirrels away. I am not advocating for this type of approach but it shows that predators can keep things in check.

This is a very good question that is hard to answer. Try different approaches and observe what happens.

‘Backyard chickens’ was the most popular idea amongst the people who came together to work with the City on developing the City’s Urban Agriculture Strategy (UAS) three years ago. Unfortunately, even the idea of mentioning backyard chickens (let alone implementing a program) was voted down by Council so that the final version of the UAS doesn’t even mention it. So the last Council was totally opposed to this idea and I think the new one would be too. This means the backyard chickens idea is back to square one. I think Councillors, city managers and staff and the public in general need to be better educated and made better aware of the benefits of urban chickens. There is a very vocal animal rights voice at city hall who have fought this idea tooth and nail so building bridges to those organizations will also be an important aspect of the work going forward. I can definitely put you in touch with people who are very passionate about backyard chickens and would like to advocate for it, as I think we all should.

In general I can tell you that all organic substances break down eventually which means that with careful research you could figure out the way to best compost pet excrement. But I can’t give you any details since I don’t have any experience with pet excrement as we have never had any pets.

My best advice is to contact your Councillor who can look into this in more detail. There is also the Advisory Committee on the Environment where you can ask for delegation status to present your issue.

No, it won’t counterbalance the loss of snow cover. The area of roofs is not big enough. But locally in cities, white roofs can ameliorate the urban heat island effect by reflecting a lot of the sunlight away. I think white roofs can lose effectiveness when they are not kept very clean.

Green roofs work on a different principle. They cool the air by evapo-transpirative cooling which means that energy is taken out of the air by evaporating water from the green roof. I think all flat roofs should have green roofs installed on them just like in Toronto where it is now the law for new builds and also in Singapore where green roofs and green walls are a general feature of the city. An alternative form of a green roof is an urban farm where veggies are grown for consumption.

The challenge for green roofs will be provided by climate change especially for regions that will experience more intense droughts. How will we water our green roofs and green walls in the middle of epic droughts?

I haven't worked specifically with the type of composter you mention. I suspect that the problem is the lack of "browns" or carbon materials. You should try adding leaves or even shredded paper and mix it into your compost. And you will want to keep everything nice and moist. So give it one more season, keeping a watchful eye over the browns to greens (carbon to nitrogen) ratio and also the wetness of the compost. Place the composter in partial to full sun to kick start the composition process.

Even plant-based diets can have huge impacts on the environment although definitely not as high as meat-based diets. Conventional monoculture agriculture uses very large inputs of energy and water. So the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture in places such as Arizona (or any other arid community) are huge. On the other hand, organically grown vegetables and grains (in regions where regional aquifers or rivers are not depleted as a result) will have much fewer environmental impacts.

Here is a figure that compares the carbon footprint of major food categories. Of course, this graph doesn't say anything about water use and water pollution.

www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714 plant-based diet chart

If you have space on your balcony you can install a barrel composter that you spin around once a while. Make sure you are south facing otherwise the decomposition rate will be very slow.

Vermi (using worms) composting is also applicable to apartments. The food stuffs you can put in it is more constrained than for a regular composter though.

I use mulches on my garden (straw or leaves) and they are very effective at keeping the moisture in the ground for longer. If you buy strawbales make sure they are from an organic grower because conventional farmers may spray their fields with pesticides or herbicides.

You can also install drip irrigation in your beds which will use much less water than general watering.

I also water my veggies using a watering can which will ensure that water gets to my plants and water is not wasted on parts of the garden that need no watering.

I think at this point we have to leave our garbage in plastic bags by the curb. One benefit of the garbage bag is that they will contain all liquids that may have been placed in them. There are biodegradable options for the bags. Also, if you have a garbage can, you can place the smaller shopping bag sized bags directly into the can.

For more information please check out:

http://www.london.ca/residents/Garbage-Recycling/Garbage/Pages/Container-Limit.aspx how many containers is a garbage can with several garbage bags inside?

I turned to my wife for this question. "I try to drink as much warm water throughout the day, both in the form of tea and just straight up warm water. It flushes toxins from the body, and improves circulation by increasing blood flow in veins. As in the summer on a hot day, or when taking a hot shower, your veins and arteries expand allowing for more blood to flow! I wish they would stop serving iced water in restaurants when science supports evidence of warm water improving digestion as well. Thanks for the question!"

That's great, I am planning to do the same myself! Since our yard is fairly small I find that regular beds in the ground become too unwieldy and by the season's end I have a jungle with little access. So I plan to build raised garden beds out of rough ash boards about 15 inches high to introduce more organization and growing constraints into my garden. Raised beds will also allow me to install mini-hoop houses over them for season extension. I will leave 18 inches of space between the beds.

The key to any successful garden is soil texture and soil health. If you have the money you can bring in good loamy soil (make sure it is from a reputable company). If not, you can double dig your beds and layer in as much organic content as possible. Possible materials to add to the soil are finely chopped straw and leaves, seasoned manure, compost. Even if you have lots of undecomposed compost you can put it at the bottom of the raised bed. Nicely loosen up the soil. This will be the last time you dig the raised bed. After this you'll be adding compost and mulches from the top only. Annual beds should have a good diversity of bacteria and you can inoculate the soil by buying bacterial mixes. Also, consider learning about compost teas and use it to add beneficial bacteria.

Raised beds will lose water more quickly than regular beds so make sure that the soil is nice and moist. A good mulch will help to trap in the moisture for longer.

One of my favourite resources on gardening is Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway. The other one is called Teaming with Microbes. Good luck with your project. If you'd like more advice, you can take a look at the Friends of Urban Agriculture London's Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1727673107521520/

My heart always breaks when I hear of stories about the loss of yet another woodland or wetland. Across southern Ontario we have already lost so much. The current process for development applications in terms of environmental considerations begins with an environmental impact assessment and these, theoretically should identify any significant environmental features. If this happens, development can only happen with minimization of impact to the environmentally significant feature. In rare cases, development is allowed to proceed by eliminating the environmentally significant area but the proponents have to compensate for the loss of ecosystem function and structure. A great place to learn about the development process as it relates to the environment is at the Environmental and Ecological Planning Advisory Committee meetings (https://www.london.ca/city-hall/committees/advisory-committees/Pages/EEPAC.aspx). You can attend as a member of the public or you can apply to sit on the committee.

In terms of your specific area of land my advice is to first check with your councillor (www.london.ca/city-hall/city-council/Pages/default.aspx) and then speak with someone in the planning department at the City of London (www.london.ca/business/planning-development/Pages/default.aspx) and at UTRCA (http://thamesriver.on.ca/planning-permits-maps/). Also, please take your concerns to the developer directly.

I'll add that large developments are planned years in advance, so the decision to develop the piece of land was made years ago as part of a sub-division process. The City invites public input on these development matters, based on the process identified above. Please contact the City of London staff at the Planning Department or your local City Councillor for more information on the process for this development.

Wood smoke can be a very dangerous form of air pollution mostly because of the particulates it releases into the air. This used to be a big problem here a hundred years ago when most houses had fireplaces but it has been reduced substantially by the introduction of natural gas furnaces and electric/natural gas stoves. In fact, the latest wood burning stoves have to meet very strict emission guidelines so they are also fine. The sporadic open air fires and smoke from old and inefficient wood stoves don't pose as big of a threat as they used to in general across the city but may pose local problems. There is a by-law that governs open air burning. https://www.london.ca/residents/Fire-Department/legislation/Pages/Open-Air-Burning-Bylaw.aspx With respect to old wood stoves, they have been ‘grandfathered in' and hopefully the owners will eventually replace them.

I agree, this is a form of waste that is currently very hard to cut down if you shop in grocery stores. I think the easiest thing to cut out is the plastic bag in which you carry your groceries home. Always have non-disposable bags with you when going shopping. Also, consider not using any see–through plastic bags for your veggies and fruit. It can get tricky with things that need to be weighed. The Naked Store at Reimagine Co (https://nakedzerowaste.com/) sells super-light non-disposable bags for this purpose. Other ideas to consider are to cut down on plastic-packaged, processed foods and cook and eat using raw ingredients only. Buying food at farmer's markets will allow you to use your own reusable containers (for things like cheese and meat) and your own reusable bags for veggies and fruits.

If possible, separate the pine needles from the rest of the leaves as they are slightly acidic and may lower the pH of the soil. They also break-down a lot slower than the rest of the material. Other than that, please mix everything together (the leaves provide the browns or carbon and the household waste provides the greens or nitrogen and other nutrients) and you will have great compost. If you layer the two, two to three inches of one and two to three inches of the other you will most likely create the condition for fast decomposition and you should have your compost ready in 4 to 8 weeks. Otherwise you might have to wait a lot longer.

We bike or walk to the grocery store. I have big bicycle paniers to fill and I can also put bags on the handle bar. When friends and family offer we also take advantage of rides to the grocery store or market to purchase the necessities. Lately, we have started to purchase food in smaller increments which means that there is less food that goes to waste. Also, in the summer we take advantage of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)'s and shop more at local farmer's markets.

No, but we enjoy vegan cooking and probably 20-30% of our meals are vegan. The other 30-40% are vegetarian and the rest omnivorous. Our meat comes mostly from local, organic sources. I do support the idea of urban backyard hens (currently not allowed in London) for a fresh source of organic eggs and I also very much favour the establishment of good connections between urbanites and local, organic (not necessarily certified) farmers around the city. Consider linking to such farmers and buying bulk from them for you and your neighbours.

Gabor, with his son Toby and mother Ilona, on the family's Yuba cargo bike after picking up his mom at the Greyhound station downtown, with the trailer attached to carry the luggage. Gabor and his family have always lived without a car. They cycle during good weather and take public transit or walk in the winter, but do rent a car for trips out of town.

Poetree Walk in the Garden All Ages

Celebrate spring in Central Library's Reading Garden by following the rhythms of a poem, and write some of your own. Meet our Environmentalist in Residence Gabor Sass who will share what you can do to live more sustainably, and see the site of our new pollinator garden. Food by Growing Chefs Ontario and performance by Fauzia.

Small Steps to Sustainability

Join our Environmentalist in Residence, Gabor Sass, in this five-part workshop series. Gabor will explore a new theme each week focusing on ways you and your family can make small steps to living sustainably. At each workshop there will be a Sustainability Fair with local environmental groups and organizations including the City of London, London Environmental Network, Zero Waste Forest City, Urban Roots, London Cycle Link, Thames Region Ecological Association and more.

The London Environmental Book Club

Meet London's Environmentalist in Residence, Gabor Sass, and hear about some of his favourite books. The book club meets the 3rd Wednesday of each month.

For more information on what book the Book Club is reading, email: environmentlondon@gmail.com

Love Your Greats: The Search for Social & Environmental Optimism

What does it take to motivate others to actively care for their environment? In most cases, it's a personal experience and a sense of connection that creates the foundation for action. Jennifer Pate is a geographer, entrepreneur and storyteller. Through her research and expeditions on waterways around the world, she will share her vision for making water sources sustainable and accessible. Performance by Spoken Word Artist Awasis, as well as London Arts Council performance: Cycles.

Save Our Great Lakes

Celebrate the Great Lakes! Visit your library during Environmental Week to learn about water conservation and how to save our Great Lakes from pollution with upcycled crafts and interactive activities.

Go to Program Listing

More programs about the environment:

Even more events and programs happening! Take a look, there is something for everyone.

Go to Program Listing

The Hueston Family Foundation, a registered Canadian charity focusing on animal welfare and environmental issues, is pleased to support London Public Library's Environmentalist in Residence initiative and environmental events at the Library in April.