Drone Coverage in Napa

Readers may well be waiting for me to post something substantial soon, and I plan to compose a significant article this Labor Day weekend. It’s been very hectic for me the last two weeks, and I am currently in Washington on a round of ten meetings in two days, pursuing business new and old.

But while all that is happening, Mike Johnson from our IT department at the American Planning Association latched onto something very interesting, I think, and added it to our Recovery News blog. Amid all the debate about the proper and allowable uses of drones, Evan Kilkus in California has found one use that gives us handy new insights into the nature of damage from the recent earthquake in Napa, California. Use the link above to see his drone-filmed video of the damaged buildings from a perspective you won’t get from the street.

Recovery News is a vehicle we created to deliver news and resources pertaining to post-disaster recovery in connection with our project, nearing completion, with FEMA to prepare the Next Generation guidance on planning for post-disaster recovery. Kudos to Mike for turning up the latest innovation in this area, and to Evan Kilkus for getting it done.

Jim Schwab

Trees for Metropolitan Chicago

Would you imagine that the trees in the metropolitan Chicago region provide compensatory value of $51.2 billion? This is the calculation produced through i-Tree, a free software program provided by the U.S. Forest Service to estimate tree canopy and the ecological services it produces for our communities. This is not a seat-of-the-pants calculation. There is a great deal of science behind it, as I have learned over the last two decades in interactions with the Forest Service and the larger professional community devoted to advancing the subject of urban forestry. There is a substantial technical literature these days about the benefits of the urban forest in terms of air pollution filtration, reduction of stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, reducing urban violence by providing a calmer, more pleasant environment, and enhancing real estate values. In short, trees have serious economic value. At the American Planning Association, we cited much of this research five years ago when we released Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy, and Community Development, a Planning Advisory Service Report we produced using a matching grant from the Forest Service.

The value of that document for urban planners has made it popular, and we have participated for several years at a national level in the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition. But the important work on the urban forest occurs at the local and regional level. Think globally, but plant your trees locally.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

It was a great honor, therefore, to be invited as one of about 100 participants to the kickoff meeting July 30 of the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. The arboretum itself is the result of an environmental vision long ago by Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company, who had a love affair with conservation—and put out serious money to launch the arboretum to prove it almost a century ago. I learned a good deal about this interesting man when reading a biography of him, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, as a biography judge for the Society of Midland Authors’ annual book awards. The book was one of our 2010 finalists in that category.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Morton Arboretum is now leading this initiative with the help of numerous organizational partners and donors, nearly all of whom were present for the meeting, which lasted from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., including a working lunch.

I will not go into the Regional Trees Initiative in great depth right now, but I intend to follow it more deeply in the future on this blog. Not everything is ready yet; an intended website is not yet up, the logo is still in development, and working groups are being formed. Lydia Scott, the director of the Regional Trees Initiative, appears to have a hard-working staff behind her along with solid institutional support. One of our group activities that morning was to sit at our respective tables and hatch ideas about what was most needed to make the initiative a success. Those ideas were added to a folding wall image of trees as branches, and then leaves were added with individuals’ names after we were asked what we and our organizations were willing to do to help. The people attending represented a variety of local governments in the area, regional organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and educational and civic organizations.

What we learned over the course of the morning was the quality and distribution of information concerning the regional urban forest, which is decidedly uneven, leaving room for improvement through such an initiative. The city of Chicago, it turned out, had by far the best information concerning its urban forest, whereas in many other communities a more thorough tree census is still needed. But there are substantial resources to draw upon, such as “Urban Trees and Forests of the Chicago Region,” a Forest Service research report freely available online. The larger issues often relate to the uneven commitments, and distribution of resources, among the 248 municipalities in the region. A few have excellent plans for local forestry management, but many have none. There is room for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to improve outreach with technical assistance, but there is also a burning need for an effective outreach campaign to educate both public officials and citizens on both the importance of the issue and the best means of moving forward. For purposes like that, the Communication Work Group is one of several the initiative has established to mobilize the resources of its many partners in the effort. That is why we were all there.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children's facilities and a cafeteria.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children’s facilities and a cafeteria.

I plan to return to this subject in the future as the initiative progresses, particularly as RTI rolls out its website and other communication tools. Regular followers of this blog know that I attach considerable importance to this subject as a key element in the quality of urban life. If you live in another metropolitan area, what’s underway there to pursue similar goals?


Jim Schwab

Utah Landslide: Commentary via Google Hangout

I’ll keep this short because it’s really all about listening to a half-hour video from Google Hangout produced by the Salt Lake Tribune yesterday, if you care to watch and listen. There was a landslide in North Salt Lake, Utah, earlier this week, so the newspaper wanted to assemble some experts to talk about it and how planning might have helped. I was one of three people interviewed. If you wish to watch, click here.

Jim Schwab

Bucket List from Down Under


It was one of those summer days this past Monday when I had been working hard to compose an online presentation and needed to come up for air. At a suitable point, I took a break and left my 12th-floor office in our downtown building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, headed for the elevator, and went downstairs to the plaza in front of our building. It was a sunny day but not too hot, with a slight, pleasant breeze, and one can sit among the flowers at various small metal tables anchored in the cement, on seats that are equally anchored to the tables. It was time to smell the roses.


I looked for an empty table; it’s easier to find peace and quiet and less intrusive on someone else’s peace and quiet, though it means that five-sixths of the seats remain unoccupied when everyone does that, which they generally seem to do unless they are with someone they know. A woman was just leaving at one table, so I went there and sat down when she departed. I wanted to just look around and take in the scenery. Right now, some of that scenery involves construction on the other side of Michigan Avenue. A developer has been demolishing the old building at 200 N. Michigan for the last three months or more and is planning to build a new residential high-rise in its place. There is currently a big pit behind fences.

I was not alone for long. Looking for some place to sit, a gentleman about my age sat down, and I said hello politely. He was dressed considerably more casually and was very friendly. Somehow, a conversation began, which is not unusual for me because I am a gregarious sort, and so was he. I soon learned he was visiting Chicago as a tourist, had just recently flown in from Los Angeles, was originally form the United Kingdom, but was now living in Australia. His son was traveling with him and was somewhere nearby.

“We’re planning to drive Route 66,” he told me. I soon learned they were getting a rental car here in Chicago for a one-way trip back to Los Angeles. I had always thought of the Route 66 adventure as a uniquely American obsession, but I was about to learn otherwise.

“It’s been on my bucket list,” he said, “and now I’ll be able to cross it off.”

In contrast, I noted that I had not been to Australia, although I had been on a three-week visiting fellowship to New Zealand in 2008 with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He asked if I had seen the earthquake, and I said that regrettably, I had not been back. But I also noted happily that I had toured much of New Zealand at the time as part of the fellowship, that I had loved it, and that I woke up every morning having to remind myself that “I was actually getting paid to do this.” Then I noted that the generous Kiwis had often bestowed on me, after each presentation, a bottle of locally grown wine.

“Some of the best wine anywhere,” he said joyfully.

Then he told me that they planned to visit the Arch while in St. Louis, though he initially referred to it as “the Arches,” perhaps confusing it with those golden ones at McDonald’s, and I noted for him that there is only one, but that you can take an elevator to the top to see St. Louis from a height of about 600 feet, as I recalled. He seemed to relish the forthcoming opportunity, as did his son, who by then had joined us. Both looked slightly scruffy, but only in the manner of tourists who are enjoying a great adventure.

I said that someday, perhaps, taking a boat all the way from the top of the Mississippi River to the Gulf might be on my bucket list. “Is it navigable that far?” he asked. I assured him that river traffic moves as far north as the Twin Cities, and that by the time the river reaches New Orleans, it is typically about two miles wide.

He contemplated that thought for a minute in silence, a smile growing on his face. They don’t grow such rivers in the UK, and most of Australia is too dry to generate such a volume of water.

“The mighty Mississippi,” he finally said.

Unfortunately, I only had about ten minutes for a break before needing to join a conference call, so I excused myself and left the man and his son to their enjoyment of the urban pleasures of Chicago. They were clearly relaxed and set for their great adventure, a chance to scratch something off their bucket list. I did not learn how long they planned to stay in Chicago or when they were starting their trip down Route 66. But right about now, the two may be crossing the bridge into St. Louis from Illinois, and the old man, with his first up-close and personal encounter with Mark Twain’s highway, may be saying to himself once again, “The mighty Mississippi.”

He should have seen it when it was flooding.


Jim Schwab

Crossing One Thousand

When I first started this blog, one of the nagging questions in my mind was, “Is anybody reading this?” It is a natural enough question for almost anyone. For someone who has published books and reports and hundreds of articles in various periodicals, all with readerships in the thousands to tens of thousands, it is also a question of how best to invest one’s time. The nice thing about a blog, however, is that you can choose your own subject matter. At first, I was inclined to focus more on book reviews, but the pressures of time quickly pushed that notion into the background. I do it, but I do not always have time to do it, and I realized I had a good deal more to offer, given my lengthy background in urban planning.

I made a simple decision. I now jokingly describe the subject matter of this blog as “anything I damned well please.” In truth, it’s more than that. I focus on subjects where I can bring some depth of commentary. I do not wish to rant or ramble, as I feel too many people do in an age where access to the Internet is nearly universal. One ought to be able to offer a useful perspective. But the freedom to decide what that is, outside the constraints of more prescribed frameworks, is a pleasant feature of a personal blog.

I launched this blog in earnest in April 2013, despite having posted one inaugural message a year earlier. A great deal of the frequency and content since then has been a function of my own free time. Sometimes, with the demands of professional life, that has barely existed. Travel has often taken its toll and produced a sudden hiatus here and there where I simply was not heard from. I try to avoid that, but professional responsibilities can and should take priority. I hope that my readers understand; this is, after all, purely a sideline venture. Not only do I not earn a living from blogging; so far I have made no attempt to make any money at all. People presumably have noticed there is no advertising. I don’t promise that forever, but it simply is not important right now.

So what is the point of this missive? To celebrate the simple fact that the audience has clearly grown. I no longer ask whether anyone is reading this blog. It is clear there is an audience. In the last few days of July, the number of registered users for this blog passed 1,000. That is nearly quadruple the number just three months ago. Some sort of momentum kicked in that is sustaining rapid growth in readership, adding anywhere from five to 15 new users every day. I have no way of knowing precisely what is attracting various people, and some of you are scattered around the world, in Europe and Australia particularly. I shall continue to trust that the attraction is simply providing thoughtful, thought-provoking information and commentary on a variety of topics, but most notably how we plan our communities and the ways in which we protect them from natural and man-made hazards. In addition, the occasional review of good books, movies, and restaurants may add some spice to the mix. I want to make and keep this a place for people who believe in good writing on subjects that actually matter.

And thanks for being among the first 1,000 regular readers, and to those other readers, thank you for visiting as well. I know you’re out there. I’ve been tracking this growth with considerable gratitude and appreciation.


Jim Schwab