The Environment section, produced by the Green Decade/Newton, provides vital current information about environmental science, policy and local environmental issues.

You can contact the Environment Editor, Lois Levin, at 617 527-1237,

Recent articles are after the FYI section. For a complete list of Newton TAB Environment section articles go to the archive.

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Transportation in Newton

We rely heavily on cars and trucks for transportation. According to the Newton Energy Action Plan, the Transportation sector accounts for about a third of Newton’s “carbon footprint”. Among medium-sized cities, we are not unique in this regard.

For decades, many if not most US cities have been modified - sometimes designed - to accommodate cars. As a result, the needs of non-drivers, especially children and the elderly, have often been given short shrift when it comes to transportation policy.

Enrique Peñalosa, an internationally respected scholar and urban reformer, recently spoke to an overflow crowd at the Boston Public Library. The charismatic former mayor of Bogota, Colombia is known for having created a culture in his home city where bicyclists and pedestrians are treated with considerable respect. Here is a characteristic quote: “Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted.”

In many cities, highly successful planning and development, built upon an understanding of some important principles of urban design, has given pedestrians and bicyclists greater access to public spaces and facilities. One of those principles is that increasing road capacity often fails to improve automobile traffic flow. When lanes are added to roads in urban areas, not only do more people use them to make more trips, they also take longer trips, often at higher speeds. A corollary to the principle that ‘if you build it, they will come’, is equally true, but not as widely understood: decreasing road capacity does not necessarily impede traffic flow.


When the Embarcadero Skyway in San Francisco was destroyed in 1989 by the Loma Prieta earthquake, it was assumed that traffic would clog the city streets. It never happened. The surface road handled the flow of traffic very efficiently. When ultimately a new light rail transit line was added to that surface road to accommodate more travelers, the number of cars was further reduced. And this is not an isolated example.

Urban drivers behave quite differently when traffic lanes are reduced and when there are fewer regulatory signs and signals. Drivers weaving in and out of lanes, or trying to find alternate routes, actually create bottlenecks or make them worse. According to a Jan 2009 article in Scientific American eliminating lanes and reducing traffic regulation “forces drivers to take more responsibility” for their driving behavior, to drive more cautiously and to make more eye contact with other drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. As a result, traffic flows more smoothly and people reach their destinations more efficiently. This has been demonstrated in many of the world’s cities where downtown intersections have been converted into plazas shared by cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Here in Newton, the daily traffic congestion on some heavily utilized streets is not due to inadequate space for cars. Our population numbers have not changed dramatically for decades. Our traffic problem is due to the fact that there is too much roadway space devoted to cars. When Newton alters street design to emphasize safe passage for pedestrians and bicyclists and expands, facilitates and improves access to public transit, there will be far less pressure on our roads and vehicular traffic will flow more smoothly and efficiently.

New Articles

Reforesting Haiti
By Lois Levin/Guest Columnist
June 23,2010

The shocking human tragedy in Haiti has lately been eclipsed in our consciousness by the shocking oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These disasters have a cumulative effect, and we must continue to take measures to mitigate environmental damage wherever it occurs, to slow the unraveling of the ecosystems on which we all depend.

There is reason to be hopeful about Haiti in the long run.. . .read more
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Free parking is so 20th century
By Lois Levin/Guest Columnist
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

For half a century, our government has been building more and wider roads, subsidizing the manufacture of cars, and has created more and more space for parking those cars at curbside and in municipal parking lots. Today there are almost four parking spaces for every car in the U.S. – put them altogether and you’d have a parking lot the size of Connecticut. According to Professor David Shoup in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” 99 percent of those spaces are “free.” Or are they?. . .read more
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Previous Articles

Littman: Plastic bottle recycling at Newton South. . .(Not!)?
By Annalise Littmen/Guest Column
Wicked Local Newton
July 6, 2009

For a Girl Scout Gold Award project, I conducted a survey at my high school, Newton South, about students’ plastic bottle recycling habits and their use of tap and bottled water. I had been distressed by the number of students I observed throwing away plastic bottles in trash cans, rather than in recycling bins. Among other things, I wanted to know how often students recycle plastic bottles at school, and the difficulties they experience when recycling. I hoped to use the data to educate the school community about the importance of recycling; inform school groups working on improving recycling about the impediments to recycling at the school; and help them develop a more effective recycling program. . .read more
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The "Walking School Bus": taking the next step
By Lois Levin
April 8, 2009

In Lecco, northern Italy, public school personnel are assigned to assist school children in a daily "piedibus". In Newton we call it a "walking school bus". Children are given incentives to participate, with fare cards that are punched each day and prizes awarded for participation. The routes have names; a favorite route in Lecco, through the local cemetery, is called the "mortobus". It's fun, it is significantly reducing the number of short car trips in the town, and it reinforces the children's environmental ethic. . .read more
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It's WAR - on Plant Invaders
By Katherine Howard
April, 2009

Garlic mustard, a leading plant invader, is now in your backyard, along your favorite walks, virtually everywhere in Newton! The problem will get worse and worse if we do not act. It's time for a declaration of war! Garlic mustard is only one of several plant invaders we need to tackle. The Newton Conservators Spring Walks schedule (below) includes invasives' removal sessions at various Newton parks and conservation areas. We are continuing and expanding the efforts of a group of people who have been working for a decade to control these pests at Dolan Pond and parts of the Charles River walkway. There is also much you can do about this problem in your own backyard and neighborhood. . .read more
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Emerging Diseases
By Sheilarae Lau , special to the Tab
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Epidemics associated with emerging infectious diseases are occurring in historically unprecedented numbers, according to the World Health Organization. An emerging disease is one that suddenly appears in humans, such as AIDS, Ebola and Hanta virus. Also in this category are existing diseases, like West Nile virus and cholera, which suddenly increase or move into new geographic areas. Although some emerging diseases are caused by genetic changes in pathogens, often related to antibiotic drug resistance, most emerging infectious diseases originate in animals and spread to humans. . .read more
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Getting People to use bicycle paths
By Gil Woolley , special to the Tab
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Last December, in a program at the Newton Free Library, Northeastern University Professor Peter Furst described how his students were helping Boston set up a network of bicycle paths in the city. In his introductory remarks Professor Furth presented a graph that showed that there is a very strong relationship between “stress” and the number of people who use bicycle paths. Most bicyclists feel stress when sharing a road with automobile traffic, even if they are in a marked lane. They also feel stress when a family member, especially a child or teenager, is sharing a road with auto traffic. The easiest way to avoid this stress is to avoid the situation – that is, not to bicycle – which is the solution most people choose. A bicycle program should be judged by its success in attracting people who are not athletic, who do not identify themselves as “bicyclists” and are not “brave”. . .read more
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Saving Newton's trees
By Julia Malakie, special to the Tab
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Walk down most any street in Newton, and you will see trees, many of them large and lovely. Thirty-three thousand of those trees are on public land, most on the sidewalk berms. Today, there are many empty spots where there were once street trees. In the last 10 years 5,535 trees---including 950 in the past year -- have been removed because they were dead or hazardous. These trees are often in poor condition due to age, storm damage, disease and injury, compounded by insufficient pruning. This work is done by the forestry department; the staff has shrunk over a period of 20 years from 20 to 2; today most of the tree removal is done by outside contractors, and about 60% of the operating budget is spent on tree removal. . .read more
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New solution for waste woes
By Lynn Pledger, special to the Tab
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

You're at the check-out line. The shopper in front of you has mounded her cart with cheap disposables. You think, "I wouldn't pay for that junk." But you are paying for it. Within days most of the items in that cart may be out at the curb, awaiting garbage collection and disposal supported by your tax dollars. . .read more
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Newton Composts
By Sally Zuar, special to the Tab
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Curbside recycling of paper, cans, and bottles has become a routine environmental practice for Newton residents. More recently, environmentally-concerned residents have been encouraged to practice composting, which allows for the reuse of food scraps, lawn waste, and other surplus materials. . .read more
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Dark Skies and Green Lights in Newton
By David Adams, special to the Tab
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

If the night skies seem darker lately, one reason might be the Dark Sky Ordinance passed by the City of Newton in 2006. This ordinance requires that all licensing applications for outdoor lighting projects receive "dark sky approval" by the City. The ordinance was prompted by increasing concerns about light pollution, which obscures our view of the universe, compromises research by astronomers, negatively affects human and animal health, and has other environmental impacts. . .read more
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Stormwater pollution in the Charles River: an update
By Julie Wood, special to the Tab
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A walk along the Charles River is more than just a pleasant afternoon for Anna Dukhovich, Elizabeth Cooke, Maalika Banerjee and Jenny Zhao. These Newton North High School students and many other Newton residents helped the Charles River Watershed Association conduct visual shoreline surveys of the lower 45 miles of the Charles River and tributaries, including Cheesecake Brook, Sawmill Brook and South Meadow Brook. During these surveys, trained volunteers walked or canoed along the river or stream observing and recording signs of stormwater pollution, such as erosion and discolored or odorous pipe discharge. . .read more
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Can prairie grass save ethanol?
By David Adams, special to the Tab
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

As an alternative to gasoline and diesel, ethanol has been on a roller coaster ride over the past five years. The call to promote our own natural resources propelled ethanol ahead of other options to reduce gasoline consumption, such as hydrogen, the sun, vegetable oil and electric-powered cars. Corn-based ethanol was not only touted as more commercially viable, but also embraced as a potential boon to farmers. . .read more
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Small Step, or Quantum Leap
By Guest Column /Lois A. Levin
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Local policy changes targeted at widespread environmentally destructive activities often have a ripple effect beyond the local community. These days, information spreads very rapidly, and copycat policies are common. Bicycle-friendly programs in Bogota quickly affect policy-makers in San Francisco, Sydney and Boston. . .read more
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Plant hardiness zones and global warming
By Bruce Wenning, special to the Tab
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Global warming is already here. We are experiencing prolonged droughts, flash floods and dramatically different patterns of precipitation than those we had just fifty years ago. Many life forms are affected by these changes. Daily air temperatures now vary so widely around seasonal norms that we are putting on sweaters in August as well as in February. We should not be surprised that temperature fluctuations have had a profound effect on plant ecology, because temperature impacts plant germination, growth patterns, colonization, planting dates, and harvest times. . .read more
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Alternative Energy? Newton Needs Pedal Power
By Lois A Levin
Wednesday, March 11, 2008

Most of us are over-reliant on our cars for short trips. If you look around the world, it is obvious that almost anyone can ride a bicycle or tricycle, including people with disabilities, to do local errands. Convenient lightweight bicycle panniers convert into shopping bags and readily attach with velcro. Bicycles can even be designed to haul goods, young children and equipment; as is, bicycles are convenient and cost effective for short trips, and, of course, they obviate the need of finding a parking space. . . read more

Bringing Up Baby
By Brooke Wardrop, special to the Tab
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pottos play a very important role in the African rainforest. Everything within the ecosystem is interconnected. Pottos integrate, as do all species, into the natural environment and provide balance. Zoo New England has been working successfully to build the captive population of pottos, because the species has been on the decline for years. According to Zoo New England President and CEO John Linehan, "There isn't even a good handle on how many there are in the wild because pottos are so secretive." . . . read more
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Hi-tech can help Africa
By Gil Woolley
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Africans, living in the poorest continent, have often not had the opportunity, or have had little reason, to utilize western technology. In colonial times, the overwhelming superiority of European weapons made resistance to European domination hopeless. But colonization did not bring benefits to the people of the colonies. Even textiles made in the colonies could not compete with lower cost goods made by British textile mills. And while Western medicines offer enormous benefits to people in Africa, their cost has typically been too high to make them accessible to most people there. Since gaining independence from colonial powers, African countries have received financial aid from foreign governments and international aid agencies, but little has filtered down to local populations. Low tech, high labor content, technology, like textile manufacture, has provided some low paying jobs, but has had little effect on the lives of most people. Only in South Africa is the economy sufficiently developed to support more sophisticated manufacturing - like automobiles. . . read more
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Offshore Alternate Energy Moves Forward
By Michelle Portman, PhD
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Despite all the controversy over the past years about Cape Wind's proposal to build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, the project is moving forward. A couple of weeks ago, the lead federal permitting agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), completed the draft environmental impact statement. From now through March 20, 2008, MMS will accept written comments on the project and during March 2008 it will hold public hearings. . . read more
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Reduce Carbon Emissions with Princeton Wedge Game
By Patricia Goldman
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

As we try to figure out what we can do about global warming and climate change – as individuals, as companies, and as communities – the Princeton Stabilization Wedge offers a way to visually compare the impact of our choices. In fact, resources at are being used by concerned citizens from executives to high school students as a serious type of game to help think through hard choices. . . read more
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Levin: Ancestors and Descendents
By Guest CommentaryLois Levin
Wednesday, January 15, 2008

NEWTON - Just after liftoff from Logan, I reflexively glanced down at a small cemetery in East Boston. The family plot was easy to spot from the air. My grandfather purchased this tiny piece of real estate in the early 50s, about 30 years before my parents took advantage of the free rent. Suddenly it dawned on me that that historic cemetery will become an early casualty of Arctic ice melt, as it is now mere yards from the waves lapping against the shoreline. . . read more
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Dovekie Blows into Newtonville
By Ted Kuklinski
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The exhausted Dovekie, not usually found inland, did a belly flop in the backyard of Anne Simunovik (who has a feeder and keeps count of which birds come to her feeder). . . read more
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A Trail Network based in Newton
By Gil Woolley
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In Newton the framework already exists for a citywide pedestrian and bicycle trail network, although currently there are gaps between these trails. The Charles River Path, a hard surfaced multi-use path, passes through Newton, and there are suitable paths in several city parks and conservation areas. The Aqueduct Trails provide pedestrian routes from Newton Centre to Wellesley, and there are two disused railroad tracks that could link Newton trails with those of Weston, Needham and Wellesley. . . read more
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For older articles, please see the archives.