The Value of Passion

My wife, Jean, won an award a week ago. It’s not your usual award for best pie at the fair, best scout leader, any of that. It carries a certain degree of controversy with it by its very nature, and she is fine with that. The award came from the Chicago Teachers Union, in which she serves as a retiree delegate, and is called the Pioneer Award. It is bestowed at the CTU’s annual LEAD dinner, which this year also attracted Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and some members of the Illinois legislature, plus U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. In other words, the event is politically oriented, and the award, bestowed on Jean and one other individual, Gloria Mhoon, is for retiree activists.

Jean earned the award, unknowingly, by attending numerous community meetings about school closings, and by writing about them in a teacher newspaper, Substance. She was and remains vehemently opposed to the closings, in part because they force young students in poor neighborhoods to cross gang lines to get to their new schools, and in part because she feels too much money that could have gone to neighborhood schools in the Chicago system has been devoted to charter schools, many of which have no better performance than the schools for which they are supposed to be an alternative.

Jean is retired in large part because, about three years ago, she was working under an elementary school principal who pushed her and others out the door because they did not fit easily within her vision of the school’s future. She used terms like “data-driven” to describe her vision of teaching, but studiously ignored the fact that Jean has always gotten results. Jean does it the old-fashioned way. She worked very hard at getting her students to care about learning, then helped them learn. Jean’s passion did not fit in the brave new world, which lasted only another year before the principal herself was gone. If that sounds a lot like many of the “wreck ‘em and leave” CEOs who have haunted parts of the business world, that may be no coincidence. The question is what our students gain from such management.

There is room to disagree with my wife’s specific opinions on a number of education topics, as there is with all of us, including me on other matters of public policy. But there also needs to be some respect for the power of passion to make a difference, and in the three years since leaving the Chicago Public Schools as a full-time employee, that is what Jean has chosen to do. She has stood with parents who worried about where their child was supposed to go next, who lamented the loss of educational facilities in their neighborhood, who felt that those in power were not listening. Last Friday night, October 25, 2013, that is what her fellow union members attending the LEAD dinner chose to do. In front of 2,000 attendees at Plumbers Hall that night, Jean got to see that someone had noticed—and cared.

Jim Schwab

Photo from Substance website

Living Densely on the Urban Waterfront

Far too often have I heard people ask the facile question about why other people live in hazardous areas, such as along rivers that flood or coasts that suffer coastal storms. Yes, Americans do have a propensity for building in hazardous areas, and often not building appropriately for such areas, but many of the people asking the question are themselves living in areas subject to some sort of hazard. It’s just that it’s easier to spot the speck in another’s eye than the mote in one’s own, as Jesus once noted.

I teach a graduate urban planning class at the University of Iowa, called “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” To make the point that not everything is as simple as it may seem, I ask students early in the semester to name me a place with no hazards. It would have no seashore, no rivers, no steep slopes, no forests, etc., for all those features of the landscape entail some hazard. It soon becomes apparent that we have built cities in many of these places for very practical reasons—access to water and natural resources, transportation, etc. So the question is not only where we build, but how we build. Some things belong on the coast. Others do not, or at least do not need to be there. And we can no more depopulate the entire shoreline than we can Tornado Alley or earthquake-prone California. People have to be somewhere.

Moreover, we have great legacies of cities along our seashores, in part because the thirteen colonies that founded this country were, largely, along the East Coast. So today we have great cities like Boston, Baltimore, and New York, with great harbors and millions of people who enjoy their access to the ocean. It does pose problems from time to time, particularly in hurricane season, but so does life in Des Moines. I woke from a sound sleep one night in Ames, Iowa, to hear what sounded like a freight train outside the window. It turned out a tornado had swooped down a mile away, swept the roofs off seven houses, and skipped off into the darkness. Tornadoes or not, we need people in Iowa, the source of much of the nation’s beef, soybeans, corn, hogs, and, well, insurance. To help pay the bills for all those people whose homes and businesses get clobbered by natural disasters, you know.

With billions of dollars of real estate near or along the waterfront in New York City, much of it invested in tall buildings, it is perfectly clear to most sane planners that simply abandoning the waterfront is not a workable solution in such dense urban environments. Nonetheless, many of the standard prescriptions for flood mitigation from agencies like FEMA, which manages the National Flood Insurance Program, seem to assume that communities have room to clear out the floodplain and move people elsewhere. That works well when property values are relatively cheap and the buildings are low-rise. It does not work so well in remedying the flood problems in high-rise apartment buildings, yet we cannot afford to let the people who live there be marooned in the midst of storms like Hurricane Sandy.

It is thus with some relief that I learned that planners in New York, not satisfied with standard FEMA guidance, decided that the city needed to take some matters into its own hands. It is not that the city can disregard the NFIP or FEMA hazard mitigation regulations. But it can adapt them to its own needs. Over the first half of this year, the New York City Planning Department did exactly that, in the context of a city government that is already taking the challenge of climate change, with resulting long-term sea-level rise along its 520 miles of urban coast, seriously. New York cannot afford, like so many Tea Party enthusiasts in the rural South, to put its head in the sand and pretend that climate change is a scientific fantasy. Too much investment is at stake, by the tens of billions of dollars in Lower Manhattan alone. New York needs to be real about this.

The result of its efforts is displayed effectively in two documents the city released in June. Designing for Flood Risk is the shorter of the two, basically examining how good city planning and urban design principles can be employed to maintain livable, walkable, attractive urban spaces even when some buildings are floodproofing lower floors, when some homeowners are elevating them, and when adjustments need to be made for exterior stairways and ramps to accommodate residents, businesses, and the needs of the disabled. I have just written about this for the November issue of the American Planning Association’s Zoning Practice, but I recommend a look at New York’s adaptations to new flood challenges in a dense urban environment. The longer document, Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies, spends more time and illustrations on a typology of the urban coastline, discussing which solutions better fit with sheltered or natural coasts and why. It too, however, is very readable and educational and introduce readers to the realities of addressing flood and coastal storm risks in a dense urban corridor.

It has been said, very accurately, that Sandy was the most urban disaster in the nation’s recent history. It is not that such a storm has never happened before. My father, who grew up in Queens, vividly remembered the “Long Island Express,” the unnamed hurricane of 1938 that swept across Long Island and southern New England, leaving massive flooding in its wake. But over time, we forget. Sandy reminded us and also acquainted us with the growing stakes associated with climate change. Such a disaster deserves an appropriate urban remedy. New York City is actually groping for one quite effectively.

Jim Schwab