Creative Economic Development for College Towns

College towns can be as different from each other as they are collectively from most other communities. Some literally dominate the economic landscape of their communities. Others are comfortably lodged in a setting that involves a larger community or even a state capital. They have different histories, different strengths, and different outlooks.

What they tend to have in common is a high average level of education and a large number of young people and faculty brimming with new ideas. But they don’t always tap that imagination effectively, sometimes at all, and not all are good at bridging the famous gap between town and gown. So how do they chart an economic future for themselves?

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium's Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron--that was in Fenway Park in April 2011--but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium’s Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron–that was in Fenway Park in April 2011–but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

On Saturday, September 20, I was in Iowa City listening to, and sometimes asking questions of, a series of panels that comprised an all-day Midwest Creative College Town Conference. The event did not occur in isolation. It was part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, whose creation in 1964 some far-sighted folks back then thought made sense in a largely rural, agrarian state. Over time, Iowa has become considerably more urban: It was noted that the two areas of the state gaining population are the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor and the Des Moines metropolitan area. Almost all others have been losing population steadily for some time. There are reasons for those trends. I attended in a dual capacity, as both an alumnus (Class of 1985) and adjunct faculty. I teach a course each year on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” Not so coincidentally, this course became part of the school’s curriculum in 2008, following massive floods that severely affected both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The school offers a graduate-level curriculum, in which students earn a master’s degree in planning, many of them, however, in combination with degrees in other fields like law or public health. I was the oddball. I earned a second degree in journalism.

SURP Director Charles Connerly organized four panels, three to discuss economic development strategies in college towns, and a final one to discuss the role of the arts in Iowa City. Of the three, I found the panels from Iowa City and East Lansing, Michigan, to have very substantive thoughts on the subject, but was more disappointed with the panel from Lincoln, Nebraska. I will offer more on that later.

But note the differences. Iowa City, once the territorial capital of Iowa prior to statehood, lost that distinction after statehood to Des Moines, but the capitol building became the core of a state university. Old Capitol remains open as a museum that one can visit, the heart of the Pentacrest, a complex of buildings immediately adjacent to the downtown. As panelist Geoff Fruin, the assistant city manager, noted, this has afforded a “tight integration between the campus and the community,” which allows the university’s “energy to spill out into the streets.” East Lansing, on the other hand, is adjacent to the state capital, more isolated from the action in that sense as a college town, and in the middle of an older industrial area with its own manufacturing heritage. Lincoln, like Madison, Wisconsin, is a major state university within a state capital. Its primary business, in addition to the University of Nebraska, is state government.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City's Summer of the Arts.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts.

One can find many other variations not represented on any of the panels—small towns with small, independent or church-affiliated liberal arts colleges, as well as universities in suburbs of major cities, like Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As an undergraduate, I attended a truly urban institution, Cleveland State University, which occupies prime real estate in downtown Cleveland. No one would think of Cleveland as a college town, of course, but most big cities contain such universities. Every community must fashion its own strategy based on its own circumstances.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

But there were some common themes that I find fascinating because they relate to the new knowledge economy and suggest changes in the landscape of economic development that many communities are still slow to recognize. That is because, as Jeff Smith of East Lansing noted, many economic development professionals are still tied to the old “hunt and gather” approach, which he says is dying. That approach can be loosely defined as trying to find businesses elsewhere that would be willing to move to or expand into your community, if only given the right incentives. These often involve tax breaks, free land, or similar public giveaways. Ultimately, to the extent that one community’s gain is someone else’s loss, it becomes a zero-sum game. Smith’s answer: “You need to water your own garden. The momentum [from doing so] is contagious.” Smith is director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

Watering your own garden means fostering entrepreneurship, collaborating with potential business startups, and producing the conditions that will allow new businesses to succeed. It is more difficult work because it involves some serious effort to understand the economic ecosystem in which these businesses will operate. Every college town has its own unique strengths. In East Lansing, said Smith, “Our culture is we are extremely good at making things. . . . We’re engineers, we make things.” Over time, he said, the Michigan State University engineering school bred manufacturing, much of it in Michigan’s automotive industry, which grew an insurance cluster because “people got injured on jobs,” and in time that insurance cluster was followed by software development. Still, Lori Mullins, community and economic development administrator for the City of East Lansing, noted that the city had long been “content to be a bohemian town, humble for too long,” and did not harness the resources that the university offered. “We needed to change that culture,” she stated. Smith seconded that assessment by noting “a stagnant entrepreneurial climate” in which General Motors, which went through bankruptcy in 2009, laid off more employees than all other companies in the region.

The key, as highlighted by both Mullins and Paul Jaques, director of community and student engagement for Spartan Innovations, an enterprise of the university, was both that the city in 2006 was bold enough, in the face of a local culture that did not particularly favor entrepreneurialism, to invest in a hub for innovation in a former downtown department store, and to work with the university, which fostered its own ecosystem to  support entrepreneurship. The result is a series of home-grown enterprises and a gradually evolving cultural change that encourages innovation. This includes competitions and monetary incentives for new ideas, as well as classes to teach entrepreneurial skills.

Interestingly, the Iowa City speakers seconded the notion that “chasing after companies” as an economic development strategy “doesn’t work anymore,” as Fruin noted. In fact, he went further, stating that “older trained economic development professionals need to toss out everything you have learned. Older traditional models are wasteful if not harmful to cities.” Instead, the top talent is already in the community, and you need to “make sure faculty and staff feel invited to the community.” Economic development professionals, he added, need to “stop thinking like economic development professionals and start thinking like progressive urban planners. Promote high-quality architecture. Invest in memorable spaces and make them accessible by all modes [of transportation]. Let your public spaces speak for you.”

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

In short, what he was telling the audience was that quality of life will attract talent, and the answer is to “cultivate young students, faculty, and staff, and the rest takes care of itself.” David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and Associate Vice President for Economic Development for the University of Iowa, outlined a series of university initiatives similar to those at Michigan State, starting from his primary point that “innovation and creativity are drivers of prosperity.”

He was backed up by Andy Stoll, co-founder of the Seed Here Studio, which has fostered numerous new enterprises in Iowa City by holding coffees with groups and entrepreneurs, introducing them to each other and creating a network among people who had thought they were alone, but eventually comprised more than 700 people in a culture of collaboration, which he described as “the new competition.” That collaboration often needs to be between apparent cultural opposites, for example, “the tucked and the untucked,” referring to people’s sartorial habits, and the fact that those with the imagination eventually need to be paired with those with the means to invest. “You need both elements in the same room connecting energy and creativity with knowledge and experience,” Stoll concluded.

The more disappointing of the three college town panels was the one from Lincoln, though that was not entirely the fault of the panelists. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons they may have had, city officials in Lincoln chose not to participate in the panel despite encouragement. This left a noticeable gap in the discussion of economic development strategies in Lincoln compared to the other two cities represented, and the panel could only offer the observation that they would be happy not to have the city get in their way. They had their own interesting approaches from both the university and community organizations, but it still seemed that something was lacking in the absence of similar engagement from City Hall, and there was no particular explanation for that relinquishment of opportunity and collaboration.

What was encouraging, however, was that there was explicit recognition to varying degrees of the importance of anticipating the social and environmental impacts of the kinds of businesses we choose to encourage and support. This is an emerging issue within the economic realm that is changing the way many of us eat, shop, and travel. The conversation regarding sustainability could certainly have gone farther and been deeper and more substantive, but the first step is to recognize that it is a serious question worthy of debate, which may take us back to one opening comment by Dan Reed, the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and development, quoting William Gibson:

“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”


Jim Schwab

Random Thoughts on the People’s Climate March

Reportedly, about 400,000 people attended the People’s Climate March in New York City last weekend. I was not one of them, but that is not because I don’t support their objectives. I had planned to be in Iowa City, and will discuss that visit in an upcoming blog to follow this one, and I learned long ago that I cannot be everywhere that I think it might even be important to be. As I jokingly tell those who wish I could attend some event that I have declined, “I have utterly failed to clone myself.”

I am, however, glad that others were there, including those scientists, particularly climate scientists, who felt a need to speak out on this issue. I won’t even try to duplicate all the news already reported through numerous outlets like Huffington Post and the New York Times. There are plenty of places on the Internet and in print to find such reportage. Instead, briefly, I want to offer a different observation.

There are two groups of people who really need to speak at such events, beyond the citizen activists who turned out in such numbers, not only in New York but in dozens of other nations throughout the world. One group consists of the public officials and policy makers, and they were certainly represented by the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. It is their job to translate credible science into public policy. For mayors, that job has often turned into a challenge to plan both for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change at the local level. For New York City, the adaptation means crafting strategies to protect the city from the impact of natural hazards, such as Hurricane Sandy, and the increasing impacts of storm surge combined with sea level rise. In other places, it may mean planning for prolonged drought, increased wildfire intensity, or flooding from high-precipitation events. Mitigation means finding ways to reduce the degree to which a community adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that feed these changes, and can include strategies for reduced consumption of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide emissions. All this is important, but it is sad that much of this must take place in the face of inaction from Congress, where climate change skeptics abound in the face of an abundance of scientific evidence.

That brings me to the role of the scientists. Historically, many if not most scientists have been reluctant to be drawn into public policy debates, which often remove them from their comfort zone within the research community. They understand better than anyone how complex these issues can be, and often wince at oversimplifications of the underlying science. While environmental activists are perfectly capable of uttering their own oversimplifications at times, the megaphone for distortions has rested squarely with the skeptics, particularly those associated with industries that have benefited from undermining public acceptance of the science. These distortions are intentional and play upon the fact that it is human nature to seek simpler solutions than to spend the time and effort to try to understand complex problems. The campaign of distortion was highlighted several years ago in Merchants of Doubt, an excellent book on the public relations of issues like the health impacts of smoking, for which the science was settled some time ago, and climate change, a more recent entrant into the public lexicon. Their exposure of the techniques behind this campaign is troubling, to say the least. The authors are scientists who felt a compelling need to combat such distortions.

The bottom line is that very few climate scientists, or others qualified to discuss the subject, have any doubt remaining that human industrial and transportation activities, among other factors connected with modern civilization, are inducing changes in global climate patterns, for the most part producing an overall warming trend. Yet there is scientific debate about this issue because it remains and always will be complex. As Laurence Smith noted in The World in 2050, climate change involves global warming in most places most of the time, but also involves disruption of climate patterns elsewhere that result in particularly noticeable climate changes in certain places, most notably the polar extremes. The results overall are uneven. The skeptics cherry-pick selected outcomes and statistics without wrestling with the more inconvenient and nuanced overall changes that constitute the reality of climate change. Even so, there are clear trends to which honest policy makers must pay heed.

What was encouraging about the People’s Climate March was that, among those 400,000 voices, were some belonging to the very people who understand this science the best. They must continue to speak out and share what they know, lest the merchants of doubt win the day with misleading assertions based on cherry-picked data. We can no longer afford to be misled.


Jim Schwab

“We are all Steven Sotloff”

In view of American journalist Steven Sotloff’s fate—beheading at the hands of the Islamic State rebels who now control much of Syria—this is a rather dramatic statement. It came from Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York. He was speaking over lunch at a workshop, “Disasters and Extreme Weather,” at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans. His speech lay between my lunch and the panel on which I myself spoke, the first of the afternoon, which was intended to provide a toolkit of ideas for freelance and other writers covering disasters.

The point was, in part, that Steven Sotloff, however dramatic his fate, was not the first, nor would he be the last, journalist to suffer trauma or even death as a result of his work. In fact, he was the second journalist in a matter of weeks to suffer beheading by the Islamic State, following an earlier incident involving James Foley, who had already survived captivity in Libya. In typical, grisly fashion, the Islamic State terrorists had recorded and broadcast on the Internet the murders of both men. They are not seeking admiration; they seek fear.

Reaction to such trauma was the theme of Shapiro’s bold presentation. We have not always understood such reactions; in fact, says Shapiro, what understanding we do now possess is relatively recent, largely an outgrowth of the Vietnam War, after which many thousands of veterans began to suffer the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Our understanding of what we used to call “shell shock” was once so poor that only our sense of humanity, and not psychological knowledge, produced the adverse reaction in World War II when Gen. Patton slapped a shaken soldier in the hospital in Italy and called him a coward.

After Vietnam, Shapiro says, “psychologists began to notice something. Clinicians realized they were on to something new.” Patients were suffering not from the awkward childhood memories that were long the focus of Freudian analysis, but from “memories that were too big to contain.” Resulting from severe trauma in wars and disasters and from torture, these memories “intruded on the daily lives” of their victims. The Dart Center, he said, is “working on representative survivors,” who may have survived torture under dictatorial Latin American regimes, as well as combat in Vietnam or wars in the Middle East. In 1980, he noted, the American Psychiatric Association finally decided to recognize PTSD, and the term has become common parlance since then, even if not everyone grasps what it really is or its practical implications. But it goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of homeless veterans, or those who withdraw into solitary life in the woods.

“We need to understand these changes to be innovative, effective journalists,” Shapiro told the crowd. We need meaningful coverage before, during, and after disasters. People store these overlarge memories in different ways, but the bottom line is that effective responses to danger, based on inherited mechanisms of fight or flight, become “maladaptive when we’re safe.” Thus, the Vietnam veteran who is easily rattled by fireworks or loud responses that trigger learned mechanisms for reacting to enemy fire. Once stored in the body’s defenses, these reactions are hard to unlearn.

But Shapiro was not discussing this with reporters simply to make them better observers of the phenomena he described. He told them bluntly that they, too, could become victims of trauma through their work in covering disasters. Hence, the headline quote of this article. Journalists have long learned to “suck it up,” he said, but in fact that may be the wrong approach entirely, however tough or macho it may sound. The myth was that, if you could not handle it, maybe you were in the wrong profession.

Shapiro instead outlined what he considered “three basic mechanisms of significance for our work as reporters”:

1)      Intrusion. This is the unwanted presence of memories that are not going away. Intrusive memory overwhelms the mind’s memory.

2)      Biomechanical. This is hyperarousal, the inability to focus. Those suffering from it have great difficulty establishing trust and become angry. They live permanently on the “fight or flight” threshold.

3)      Numbness. Eventually, some victims avoid interaction with other humans that may arouse problems. They sink into withdrawal from society.

These impacts are not mutually exclusive; in fact, Shapiro noted the possibility of victims being “whipsawed between impacts.” This is of particular importance for journalists because, he said, “We rely on our ability to concentrate and ability to build trusting relationships as journalists. We all know journalists who are casualties.” Trauma and personal injury are of particular significance for environmental journalists because of the subject matter they routinely cover. “Psychological trauma is measurably worse when there is human agency involved,” he noted. “When human technology plays a significant role in disaster, there are more enduring problems for more people. The failures of leadership in Katrina were so profound.” Hurricane Katrina, he noted, was “interwoven with violence and urban poverty.”

Shapiro made one important point about connecting with traumatized victims of disaster, even if one must also, as a reporter seeking to reveal truth, sometimes discount some of what one hears. Instead of “pulling at heartstrings” or asking detailed or pointed questions, why not just ask, “What happened to you?” Then let the story spill out as the victim wishes to tell it.

Journalists, he asserted, need to think about themselves as well as their subjects. They can, among other things, suffer from “vicarious trauma” in covering the disasters that have befallen others. Environmental journalists often find themselves reporting on “abuses of power, the trauma of losing power and status.” People fall victim to the whim of violent actors and corrupt politicians, and “when abuses of power are involved, all those injuries become worse. Nowhere more important than on the ground of environmental issues and climate change amplified by official abuses.”

“Avoiding the subject of trauma for journalists is actively destructive,” he concluded.

The answer: Stay connected with others and believe in what you are doing. “Ethical journalism practice in the face of trauma protects us,” he told the audience. He concluded by quoting Rachel Carson, the renowned author of Silent Spring, who wrote, “Who has made the decision that sets in motion this wave of poison?”

Shapiro did not say this, but I have to wonder: Is it also possible that positive religious belief, that is, faith in a loving God, is also part of the remedy? Clearly, it is possible to have a religion of hatred, or Steven Sotloff might still be alive, but that is not a religion of healing and spirituality. Reporters sometimes like to think they are above that sort of faith, but in the face of trauma, might they be missing an ingredient for survival? I like to think there is a greater purpose in what we do. And I have seen more than a few disasters myself.


Jim Schwab


Digital Coast: A Model for Progress

In an era of congressional gridlock, with so little productive activity coming out of Washington that many people have begun to wonder if federal government is good for anything, the best models often work quietly in the shadows—and they may not even work primarily out of Washington. They work around the country, in the hinterlands, and along the coasts. They may even have odd names like Digital Coast, suggesting the marriage of digital technology with environmental and coastal planning needs. This is the story, in my own idiosyncratic fashion, of one such model.

Just last week, I spent three days in Milwaukee at a meeting of the Digital Coast Partnership, which is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Digital Coast is a program of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (CSC), based in Charleston, South Carolina. CSC is in the process of merging with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM), in order to form a single coastal operation within NOAA. OCRM has been responsible for administering the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), a piece of legislation passed in 1972 that supports a cooperative approach to better coastal resource management between the states and the federal government. But all this may be more bureaucracy than most people want to know, so let’s cut to the chase.

Overburdened local governments and regional planning agencies in coastal areas often do not have all the resources they may need to do a thorough job of planning intelligently for the future of the nation’s coastline. Under the CZMA, that coastline includes all areas along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, including estuaries and bays like the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to tens of thousands of miles of coast, this area also is home to 39 percent of the U.S. population and many of our largest cities, including Boston, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and Honolulu. In all, some 30 states and five territories are included in the Coastal Zone Management Program.

Managing coastal resources is a delicate balancing act that includes planning for many environmentally sensitive areas, economic powerhouses and attractive tourist destinations, and major ports that drive trillions of dollars in economic activity. It requires advanced planning tools, knowledge of both economics and environmental science, and an understanding of the demographics of these areas, which can be very diverse. Many of our coastal cities like New York have been historic points of entry for many of the immigrants who have subsequently built so much of the modern United States.

Providing a modest suite of online tools and resources to make that job just a little easier at the local level is the job of Digital Coast. But now I am going to dive into the truly interesting part of this whole story—the emergence of the partnership.

Early in 2010, I was approached by representatives of NOAA on behalf of the Digital Coast program to gauge the interest of the American Planning Association in joining what was then a group of five national organizations that comprised the Digital Coast Partnership. These were the original team that had been assembled to help NOAA assess the usefulness of the resources it was creating and to reach deeply into the user communities for those resources to spread the word that this online resource existed. Those five organizations were The Nature Conservancy, National States Geographic Information Council, Coastal States Organization, Association of State Floodplain Managers, and National Association of Counties. Within the first year, they determined that something was missing—contact with urban planners. So they decided to invite us to join them. By July 2010, we signed an agreement to do exactly that, and we have never looked back. At the same time, as Nicholas J. (“Miki”) Schmidt, CSC’s Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services, likes to say, they could not be happier that APA joined.

What is the point of this partnership? It is long past the point in American history where a federal agency can afford to develop a new resource for local government without having some means to determine whether what they think will be useful actually is what is most useful to practitioners. Collaboration is more the order of the day. Find the people who will have to make best use of the tools, resources, and data you want to create, and ask whether what you have in mind is as useful as it could be, or even useful at all. If those user groups can vet your product and tell you seriously that, with perhaps this change or that tweak, what you are considering developing would be beneficial to local officials, planners, and resource managers, then go for it. If not, rethink it. In the end, what emerges is a highly productive symbiotic relationship in which those who must make better coastal planning and resource management happen at a local and regional level have a voice in the kinds of tools, data, and resources that may make their jobs easier.

As logical as all that sounds, the case for this model becomes even more compelling in the context of climate change. Our evolving climate, driven by the relentless addition of greenhouse gases from modern transportation, industry, and agriculture, among other, lesser sources, has greatly complicated long-term prediction models, particularly as they affect the modeling of future natural hazards such as flooding, drought, heat waves, and coastal storms. Unfortunately, at the same time, NOAA, as the governmental entity providing or funding much of the science of climate change, has had a target on its back in some of the oversight committees in Congress, especially those now chaired by skeptics of climate change. Some of these members of Congress seem virtually impervious to the mountains of evidence produced both domestically and internationally, to the nearly unanimous consensus behind the theory of climate change among climate scientists, and to the many reports that have supported climate concerns. We live in a strange universe in which science itself has become suspect among some in the halls of Congress, even as the need for scientific insights into complex planetary processes becomes more profound, and the long-term economic consequences of any missteps become ever more frightening. Several recent reports (e.g., Risky Business) and books suggest that we are playing Russian roulette with the world’s economic future.

But again, I digress. I am trying to focus on the value of Digital Coast and the partnership that supports it.

So back to Milwaukee. Our three days there were the latest iteration of a series of twice-yearly meetings of the partners and their NOAA compatriots in an ongoing quest to advance the program and enhance its value, something the partnership has been doing for more than five years now. In the past year, we added two new organizations that have embraced the partnership with enthusiasm: Urban Land Institute, and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). The latter may sound like a mouthful; it is a relatively small organization, but it is important. Its members constitute the staff of a nationwide network of national estuarine research reserves, where services are provided to monitor and learn the value of coastal and tidal estuaries, to provide educational and environmental services, and to help us all learn what a biologically rich system these estuaries provide if properly cared for. The coast is an intricate fabric of ecosystems. NERRA members help us understand its essential value.

The first of our three days in Milwaukee was devoted to a rather intriguing experiment by ASFPM, which hosted a No Adverse Impact seminar for the Great Lakes, held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. ASFPM has been leading the development of a Great Lakes Coastal Resilience Planning Guide, to which APA contributed through research support and outreach. This one-day seminar, attended by about 50 people, allowed practitioners who were not directly allied with Digital Coast to mix with the representatives of partner organizations. It also let the partners learn how Digital Coast concepts and tools might be more useful to their members and constituents. I spoke at this seminar in the morning, offering a comparison of two Great Lakes coastal counties and their varying governance systems in an effort to assess their progress toward achieving resilient coastal communities. I also fed into a later presentation about a new “no build” ordinance in St. Joseph, Michigan, requiring that new development in a beachfront residential area be set back far enough to account for the inevitable rise and fall of lake levels and to prevent the rush to build closer to the shore during periods when the lake had retreated.

That question ties directly to one of the major differences between the Great Lakes and oceanic coasts, where sea level rise is the dominant long-term concern. Increased weather variability in the Great Lakes region, as a result of climate change, is likely only to exacerbate long-term oscillations in lake levels, not to raise water levels. Periods of drought and increased temperatures may accelerate evaporation of Great Lakes waters, with considerable variation among the lakes, while heavy precipitation may add to lake levels, and extreme outcomes like the past winter’s polar vortex may extend ice cover and raise lake levels. It is a complex picture. Climate change entails mostly warming most of the time, but with serious variations from the norm on many other occasions. If there is one thing we can count on, it is increased volatility. But that all makes regulating coastal development on the Great Lakes very tricky business because many public officials and much of the public share relatively short memories and short-term perspectives on the associated hazards. We all need a greater tolerance for complexity if we are to understand the problems that lie ahead.

With the seminar behind us, the two-day meeting (August 20-21) involved our usual packed agenda of discussions among more than 20 representatives of NOAA and the partner organizations. We discussed the improvements in the Digital Coast website, how we were going to fund future operations, how we could collaborate on future projects, and how all the work would get done. The NOAA personnel appear to have had wonderful training in collaborative leadership, in ensuring that every partner’s input is valued, and in translating the resulting information into better governmental resources to aid the practitioners who need to make crucial local decisions about coastal development, environmental protection, the protection of jobs that depend on a healthy coast, and other vital subjects. That rubs off on the partners, and the result is a rather seamless web of ideas, contributions, testing, and feedback that serves to enrich what Digital Coast has to offer. This includes tools to visualize impacts of sea level rise, coastal habitat conservation, and the economic value of coastal activities such as commercial fishing, recreation, shipping, and tourism.

So go ahead; click on Digital Coast to visit the website and test-drive the tools, data, and resources and find out why we use the slogan, “More than just data.” Oh, and did I say “we”? Yes. It’s not just another federal program. It is a federal program that wants to hear from you and actually values input and feedback. Digital Coast has taught me a great deal. It has given me reasons to be hopeful about new collaborative models for providing federal services to the public.


Jim Schwab