Seattle Hosts the Nation’s Planners

Housing in Seattle along the harbor All photos by Carolyn Torma

Housing in Seattle along the harbor
All photos by Carolyn Torma

It appears the American Planning Association may break all its attendance records at its annual National Planning Conference next month in Seattle. The last previous record of about 7,000 was also set in Seattle in 1999, so there must be something about the city that both supports and attracts urban planners and those interested in the subject. Perhaps it is the whole Pacific Northwest that sets a tone in favor of well-planned communities; Portland, Oregon, for example, has long been regarded as uniquely progressive in this regard. But Seattle and King County, which includes the city, have been no slouches in embracing forward-looking initiatives aimed at achieving sustainable, environmentally friendly communities. Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who led many of those efforts, will be speaking at the conference, as will Julián Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Sims served with HUD as Deputy Secretary under Secretary Shaun Donovan before returning to Seattle to lead the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Board.

In planning for a plenary presentation at another conference in July, the Natural Hazards Workshop, as well as for an article assignment for Planning, the APA monthly magazine, later this year, I have been assembling data on some important changes in the interests of American planners over time as expressed in conference session attendance. I have been around long enough to recall APA conferences 20 years ago when it was difficult to muster significant attendance at sessions addressing issues connected with natural hazards and disaster recovery, and sessions addressing issues related to climate change did not exist. This year, in Seattle, APA will host an entire track of 18 sessions devoted to Planning and Climate Change, and my guess is that most of them will be well attended. And that is without counting other sessions addressing disasters without the climate change component as part of the subject matter. I will be participating in some of both, but speaking at one in the very first round on Saturday morning, April 18, on “Climate Change Projections and Community Planning.” The audience can expect a rather heady deep dive into the question of how best we can integrate data generated by the science of climate change into hazard mitigation and other community plans.

This is of no small significance to communities seeking federal hazard mitigation assistance (HMA) because the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new FY 2015 guidance for its grant programs now includes a section now includes tools and resources for climate change and resiliency considerations. Moreover, a new presidential executive order makes inclusion of climate change factors a preferred method for assessing flood risk under the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, for which public comments are due by April 6. To encourage consideration of these factors, FEMA has incorporated sea level rise into its HMA cost-benefit analysis tool. This is a major step.

Climate change also has implications in planning for drought and urban heat emergencies, and I will serve also on a panel organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office on “Coping with Heat and Drought,” which will include some valuable integration of the impacts of such challenges on public health. Elsewhere in the conference, my Washington-based APA colleague, Anna Ricklin, manager of APA’s Planning and Community Health Center, will be busy with sessions addressing the relationships of urban design and public health, such as fostering physically active communities, another vital frontier in the field of urban planning.

Vertical garden in Seattle

Vertical garden in Seattle

All of this makes an ecologically aware city like Seattle a fascinating laboratory in which to conduct mobile workshops and other conference events for knowledge-hungry attendees. At this point, I will commend fellow practitioners of my own professional for their intellectual acuity and curiosity. I have attended and spoken at many kinds of conferences over the years, but I have seen few at which the professionals involved show such enthusiasm for new knowledge. They attend the sessions, they ask questions with a passion, and otherwise demonstrate that they truly care about the work they perform in communities on a daily basis, whether as local, state, or federal government staff, or as consultants, land-use attorneys, or academic researchers. (The largest portion of APA members is and long has been employed in local government in some capacity.)

Let's see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

Let’s see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

For all the fascination with cutting-edge topics like climate change and public health, however, there will remain the traditional hard-core topics of modern urban planning such as zoning, economic development, transportation, and capital improvements programming, for these are the tools that must absorb and focus many of these emerging concerns into a means of addressing them through regulations, incentives, other public policies and better design practices. The overarching goal is to create livable and lasting, sustainable, resilient communities.

Jim Schwab

Don’t Say Those Words!

Now suppose I go to Florida but decide never to utter the word “mosquitos.” Will that make the little buggers go away?

Or suppose I refuse to say “cockroaches.” Does that mean they would never infest my apartment or condo?

Finally, let us imagine that, on my trip to Florida, I never say the word “sunburn”? Would that make it possible for me to sit on the beach all day, unprotected, without suffering the consequences?

If those propositions sound absurd, then consider the moronic dictum of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who apparently has decreed that state employees are not to use the words “climate change.” Presto. Problem solved! Climate change ceases to exist, all the science to the contrary be damned (for instance, the most recent National Climate Assessment).

The state of Florida, however, has a long and impressive history of dealing effectively and forthrightly with issues related to hazards. Not perfect, by any means, but far more impressive than most neighboring states. Florida provided significant guidance to its communities on planning for hazard mitigation, and then subsequently for developing plans for post-disaster recovery. It is the only state that enacted a requirement for coastal jurisdictions to develop such plans before disasters, called Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plans (PDRP), although Gov. Scott rescinded the mandate. Even so, the state still has encouraged local jurisdictions to adopt such plans. And before Scott became governor, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (now the Department of Economic Opportunity) produced guidance on the preparation of PDRPs. In addition, Florida issued an addendum to the PDRP guidance to address the threat of sea-level rise resulting from climate change.

Simply put, Florida has been much more proactive than most other states because Florida faces much bigger problems with coastal storms and flooding because of its peninsular geography. What the state has done has not only made a difference, but in many cases provided a model for others. In our new report from the American Planning Association on post-disaster recovery planning, we have cited it extensively, as has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in other guidance. But now the forward movement seems to have been slammed into reverse gear.

This is a shame, in part because, in my experience, Florida has enjoyed the ability in recent decades to attract high-quality public servants in the fields of environmental quality, urban planning, and emergency management. I have known many of these people, and they were top-notch under both Democratic and Republican administrations. One of them, Craig Fugate, is now leading FEMA. There is a problem, however, with retaining such people: You have to provide a rewarding work environment in which you are honoring, not insulting, the intelligence they bring to their jobs. Once you cross that line with measures such as the censorship of terms like “climate change,” the most likely result over time is a brain drain. Smart people have other places to go and better options for their careers than to be told what to think and what they can say. On the other hand, if, as has been alleged about much of the far right, the real goal is to cripple effective government and make it appear more incompetent than it needs to be in order to support an agenda that advocates a reduced government role, you may wish to foment the frustration with government that may result. I suspect, however, that the majority of American taxpayers, like me, would rather get the best public servants their taxes can buy, and one way to do that is to respect their insights into the problems they are trying to help us all solve. Scott’s response instead is to dismiss the issue from the public agenda.

The problem with trying to do that, especially in a dynamic state like Florida, is that he cannot hope to control the public debate in this way. He does not, for instance, control what can be said by officials in local government, including environmental engineers, planners, emergency managers, coastal resource managers, and others who must face problems like sea-level rise whether or not state employees are allowed to use certain words. Nor will it stop university personnel, including a wide variety of scientists, from discussing the issue. In fact, some, like David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, are describing the tactic as “Orwellian,” according to World Environment News. Sara Gutterman, of GreenBuilder, referred to it as “North Korean style censorship.” Even Newsmax notes, “The Florida policy is reminiscent of a 2012 law passed by lawmakers in North Carolina that prohibits the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions regarding sea level rise.” The article goes on to note that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged with trying to combat the impacts of a problem that it is no longer allowed to name.

Enough local officials have been concerned about climate change in some parts of Florida to form a four-county Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact in which they have agreed to pool resources and jointly tackle the issues posed to several of the state’s most vulnerable counties. Those concerns extend naturally to the impacts of hurricanes, whose destructive impact can be magnified over time by eroding shorelines and rising seas. Having heard county executives and others from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, in particular, discuss these issues, there is no way that I can foresee their backing down, in the face of the real land-use and coastal protection dilemmas they face, from confronting the reality of climate change. But they clearly must do it without state support, although for now at least they certainly can expect moral and tactical support from the federal government.

We can only hope that this wave of unreality in states like North Carolina and Florida is ultimately short-lived. The science is far too advanced for this silliness to continue, no matter how much political red meat it provides in certain circles. The only way to create resilient communities is to openly confront, debate, and discuss the truth, and that cannot be accomplished by banning words from public discussion, a tactic worthy of certain dictatorial regimes where democracy is less well developed than it should be in the world’s most powerful nation. Some policies, in fact, deserve to be treated with scorn precisely because they undercut the robust public discussion that supports both resilience and democratic government. This is one of them.

Jim Schwab

Yes, Floods Are More Frequent

If you live in the Midwest, you’re over, say, 50 years old, and you’ve had the impression that floods are happening more frequently than they used to, your memory is not playing tricks on you. A pair of researchers at the University of Iowa have studied the daily records collected at stream gauges in 14 states by the U.S. Geological Survey from 1962-2011. Four times as many stations (264, or 34 percent) showed an increase as showed a decrease during that time (66, or nine percent).

Iman Mallakpour and Gabriele Villarini published their findings, “The Changing Nature of Flooding across the Central United States,” in the February 9 advance online edition of Nature Climate Change, a scientific journal. Villarini is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Mallakpour is a graduate student in the program who served as lead author on the paper. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center, and IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering supported their work, along with the National Science Foundation.

The two authors studied the data for both changes in peak flow—the magnitude of the events—and the frequency with which floods occurred. They did not find a statistically significant pattern of increased large events, but the data on increasing frequency of flooding was quite convincing. They also examined seasonal differences and found some differentiation between the central Midwest and its perimeters, where the pattern of increased flooding was generally less pronounced. They also found an “overall good match” when they overlaid the areas of increasing flood frequency with those experiencing heavy rainfall events. Although the two authors did not go so far as to relate these results to climate change, this does not mean there is no connection; they simply chose not to speculate beyond the information provided by the stream flow data they examined. As the article states, “a direct attribution of these changes in discharge, precipitation and temperature to human impacts on climate represents a much more complex problem that is very challenging to address using only observational records.”

However, as this blog has noted previously (“Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future”), this tracks well with the prevailing theory among climate scientists that, as the atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture, resulting in more intense events of higher precipitation—offset, at other times, by an increased propensity for drought. The expected tendency is for a flattening of the bell curve of weather events—more on the extreme ends in both directions, lessening the dominance of more moderate events. The article by Mallakpour and Villarini is one more in a long string of indicators that change is afoot with regard to weather and flooding patterns. The science of climate change has not been and will not be built on one or two studies, but hundreds, if not thousands. That is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involves thousands of researchers from 195 countries. It is important to pay attention to both individual pieces of evidence and its massive overall accumulation to understand how the case for the human impact was built over time.

Jim Schwab

Solar Power and Resilient Communities

One of the most critical lifelines for survival for many citizens in a community stricken by disaster is the electrical grid. Without power, food spoils in refrigerators. Without power, one cannot recharge a cell phone, which may be a critical means of seeking help. Without power, one may freeze in the dark.

Last Thursday, February 26, I participated as a panelist in a webinar hosted by the American Planning Association as part of its involvement in the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership. With two other speakers, Robert Sanders and Stephan Schmidt, I helped explore solutions to such helplessness through what is becoming known as solar resilience. The idea is simple: through a combination of solar photovoltaic systems and battery storage for the electric power produced, critical facilities—and even homes in vulnerable neighborhoods—can rely instead on solar power that does not need to rely on a functioning grid to power the buildings to which it was connected. Instead, it can provide reliable backup electricity in a crisis for shelters, hospitals, and public safety facilities like police and fire stations. Communities no longer need to be at the mercy of an electrical power grid that can fail in an emergency, as happened in Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, Hurricane Sandy.

My colleagues certainly have done their homework. Stephan Schmidt, now a planner in San Luis Obispo County, California, researched the topic in depth while a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. He is the author of a very thorough guide for local governments, Solar Energy & Resilience Planning, that discusses the technologies, practical benefits, and financing for such projects. The publication details numerous examples of the successful applications of solar technologies with battery storage in facilities like the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City, completed in 2013 and now the largest net-zero facility in the nation. Net zero, a concept also being applied to many schools in innovative jurisdictions, means that the building’s solar photovoltaic system generates “nearly as much energy as it uses in operations.” That is to say, it draws little or no power from the grid.

The big question facing developers of such facilities has been financing. Solar power historically has involved high up-front costs, even as it has brought down the actual generation costs because of the fact its fuel source is sunlight rather than fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas). That is the expertise of Rob Sanders and the Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization working on clean energy and climate change issues. The group has created a number of resources to highlight means of financing solar electric power development. One useful guide it has produced is Resilient Power: Financing for Clean, Resilient Power Solutions. It details financing and ownership solutions to bypass systemic roadblocks that might otherwise impede progress on solar resilience. For instance, with $200 million of federal Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following Hurricane Sandy, the state of New Jersey in 2014 created the nation’s first Energy Resilience Bank to underwrite the development of resilient power at critical facilities throughout the state and minimize the potential for major power outages. It is clear that some vital lessons are being learned.

Jim Schwab