During COVID-19, there’s an environmental case for taking the stairs


Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • During COVID-19, there’s an environmental case for taking the stairs
  • The future of the Amazon rainforest
  • Cleaning forests could help fight fires — but it won’t be easy

During COVID-19, there’s an environmental case for taking the stairs

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In the pandemic age, elevators are a big challenge — they’re indoor spaces where physical distancing is often impossible. COVID-19 guidelines limiting the number of people in an elevator have led to long lineups and waits in highrises and office towers, causing problems for workers returning to their offices, prohibiting some from coming back at all and even keeping some children from going to school.

In theory, there is a better option: the stairs. They’re much bigger spaces and less prone to crowding, where people largely stay apart because they’re generally going in the same direction (or only briefly passing someone going the other way).

As with other kinds of active transportation that have increased in popularity during the pandemic (such as walking and cycling), there’s also an environmental benefit. Using the stairs can reduce the costs and energy use from elevators — which can come from fossil fuel sources — and could even eliminate the need for so many elevators, resulting in even bigger energy savings. 

Plus, the exercise has health benefits, such as the potential to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

That’s why “active design” to encourage stair use has garnered interest from architects such as Gayle Nicoll, a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. She describes it as “a movement about designing buildings to provide more opportunities for physical activity.” 

Nicoll and colleagues worked with the New York Department of Health under mayor Michael Bloomberg some years ago to put out guidelines in the city that included ways to encourage stair use. Active design advocates also promoted incentives through the green building rating system LEED (Leadership in Environmental Design).

In practice, the stairs in many modern buildings are hard to find, don’t necessarily provide access to the floors you want to reach, may trigger an emergency alarm if you exit from them — and, frankly, are often unpleasant (e.g. messy and poorly lit).

Nicoll said that has to do with stairs having become specialized for emergency use, as elevators became “more front and centre” with the rise of very tall buildings, as well as accessibility laws and a realization on the part of landlords that minimizing stairs could leave them with more space to rent out.

But she said there are some things building owners can do to make stairs usable and to take some pressure off elevators.

In New York, she and other active design advocates recommended that buildings have a designated stair for everyday use, ideally connected to the lobby of the building, with slightly upgraded finishes.

“We do know from different studies that if you make the environment more pleasant, that you are likely to signal to people that, ‘Hey, this is for you to use.'”

She also recommends making stairs more visible, possibly with a sign near the elevator to show people where they are, and remind people to let those with mobility challenges use the elevator first. 

She also suggests that companies in multi-storey buildings allow employees to use the stairs to visit employees on other floors. That may mean equipping doors with card readers for security.

Of course, the ideal is for new buildings to be designed to encourage stair use to begin with. Nicoll said that can be done by:

  • Making stairs more visible by putting them behind glass instead of a solid wall.
  • Putting them somewhere convenient, close to elevators.
  • Connecting stairs to public spaces on each floor so doors to the stairs can remain unlocked.
  • Considering options such as “skip-stop” elevators that stop on every third floor instead of every floor (except for a special one for people with accessibility needs), like the ones at the Caltrans headquarters in Los Angeles.

For now, Nicoll recommends taking the stairs when you can, but wearing a mask and sanitizing your hands after use.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Nicole Mortillaro’s story last week on the mental health benefits of experiencing nature garnered a number of emails — specifically on our choice of photo. 

“I enjoy the newsletter, but I couldn’t help but note a certain irony in the latest edition vaunting the benefits of contact with nature,” wrote David Hagen. “The photo beneath the headline looks an awful lot like the notorious invasive Japanese knotweed.”

Anna Bjarnason wrote, “Of course I absolutely agree with the article and feel better when I am in nature. However, your accompanying photo of the butterfly on Japanese knotweed is not the kind of nature that I EVER want to see ANYWHERE. It is described as one of the most critical invasive species in the world. It can only be killed by injection of herbicide into its hollow stalks so that the roots and rhizomes can be killed, etc.”

Reader Lydia Wong, who is studying climate change on pollinators at the University of Ottawa, made an interesting observation about the photo: “I find this interesting, as it reminds me of how intricate the whole ‘invasive plants’ issue is. On the one hand, the term ‘invasive’ generally brings up pretty bad connotations. Our instinct is to get rid of them, and this is certainly with good reason!… At the same time, seeing this photo of a monarch (looks to be a male) feeding on Japanese knotweed reminds me that the issue isn’t as simple as just ‘getting rid’ of plants we don’t want as some of our non-human neighbours might be using them! This could be especially true around this time of year when there aren’t too many other things in bloom and Japanese knotweed happens to be a late bloomer providing a late-season source of food. What this says to me is that if we want to get rid of invasives like Japanese knotweed, we have to replace them with something else (e.g. other late-blooming plants) — we can’t just stop at the removal part.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a What on Earth radio show! This week, guest host Lisa Johnson looks at the climate argument to eating less meat, the businesses pushing to replace it and the challenges of making that happen in Canada. What on Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, and is available any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The future of the Amazon rainforest

The health of the Amazon rainforest has been a concern for decades, as vast swaths have been developed for logging and agriculture — activities that have contributed to wildfires and generally reduced the capacity of one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. (The notion that it represents “the lungs of the world,” however, has come to be seen as hyperbole.) Then, there’s the not-insignificant fact that people — many of them Indigenous — live in the rainforest, which spans an estimated 5.5 million square kilometres and multiple countries. A study recently published in the journal Nature Communications suggests destruction of the Amazon is such that as much as 40 per cent of it could become savannah. What does that mean? Rainforests can support a much wider range of plants and animals, and their ability to sequester carbon means they play a key role in regulating climate.

(Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Cleaning the forest could help fight fires — but it won’t be easy


As John Davies walks through a burned-out forest in the hills outside Penticton, B.C., a small cloud of ash puffs up around his boots. The ground is scorched and tree trunks are blackened.

In late August, a fire ripped through this tinder-dry area. Hundreds of people living in nearby homes were forced to flee. Walking along a dirt road that snakes its way through the forest, Davies explained how firefighters made a stand.

“They were able to stop [the fire] at the road and prevent it from moving towards the other side and the homes,” said Davies, a wildfire management specialist who runs a company called Frontline Operations.

In this stand of timber, while the landscape is blackened on one side of the road, there is life on the other, where trees and grass remain untouched. Davies said this forest is a great example of how thinning out the woodlands can make a huge difference when it comes to slowing the spread of fires.

Several years ago, a crew removed the most volatile debris, including fallen timber on the forest floor and small trees with little room between them.

“They pruned the trees. You can see all the lower branches were removed around us here,” he said, gesturing at the canopy overhead. “The idea behind that is if there’s a fire on the ground, it doesn’t have fuel to get into the treetops above us.”

Greater spacing between trees and less fuel on the ground mean fires don’t advance as quickly or burn as intensely, buying time for crews trying to get things under control.

In the U.S., at least 37 people have died in this year’s fire season and California lost the most area ever to fires. Oregon and Washington state also broke records for the size and severity of fires. B.C. has had a remarkably mild year when it comes to wildfires, helped out by cooler and wetter weather than normal. But climate scientists and fire experts say 2020 is an anomaly. 

“With climate change, fires are becoming more common, they’re bigger fires and more intense fires,” said Lori Daniels, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia. 

What she’s seeing in the U.S. these past few weeks is happening earlier than she expected. “I thought those would be the scenarios in 2050, not now.”

On a number of occasions, U.S. President Donald Trump has talked about “raking” or “cleaning” forests in California. Most recently, as record-setting fires scorched the state, he said, “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests.” He made the comments while also denying climate change is a root cause of the problem.

Despite the controversy and confusion around Trump’s remarks, foresters say the idea has merit and has been practised for decades. On the ground, though, progress is slow, largely because of the cost of this labour-intensive practice, coupled with the enormous forested area in Canada.

B.C. recently announced hundreds of new jobs dedicated to the task, but the province has 60 million hectares of forest, meaning only a small fraction of the woodlands can be treated. 

Back at the burned-out forest near Penticton, Davies spots a green shoot in the ash-covered forest floor. “Look at the grass starting to come in here,” he said, pointing to a few fresh blades surrounded by black. He said it’s a sign the fire didn’t burn too hot or too deep here, which would have prolonged the forest’s recovery. 

He said new growth should take hold quickly, and many of the trees, although scorched, have survived. The difference in this spot, he said, is that it was part of the area treated to be more fire-resistant.

Greg Rasmussen

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty



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