Building Coastal Resilience: A Podcast Discussion

Recently, the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Center, which I manage, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, began work on a new project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management (OCM), under a program called Regional Coastal Resilience. The project, “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning: Guidance for Practitioners,” was one of six chosen under FY2015 in a competition involving well more than 100 proposals. The project will focus on building resilience and incorporating climate change data into the process of planning local capital improvements in order to make those public investments more resilient for the long term.

In a recent half-hour podcast, I interviewed Jeffrey Payne, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management (OCM), and Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), about this undertaking. Listen and learn!


Jim Schwab

NOAA Provides Online Resources on Water

Watershed Assessment, Tracking and Environmental Results

Occasionally, I have used this blog to link to American Planning Association blog posts that I think some readers may find important. That is the case here: At the APA blog, I provide a brief introduction to a wonderful new resource for communities on a variety of water-related issues, ranging from not enough (drought), to too much (flooding), to not good enough (water quality), and other aspects and manifestations of the numerous ways in which water influences our lives and the way we build and move around. I am pleased to have played a role on behalf of APA in helping vet and shape this new resource.

What is it? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has created a Water Resources Dashboard for those needing timely information on water from a number of perspectives. Check it out. It is a great example of how a user-friendly federal agency can provide a great service to citizens and communities and raise the level of scientific awareness generally.

Photo from NOAA Water Resources Dashboard site

Jim Schwab

Greening Greater Racine

How often do any of us look around our communities closely enough to fully understand the extent of the greening activity that is taking place? My guess would be that the vast majority of us—and I include myself—have no idea of the sheer volume of hours and effort that is expended, particularly on a volunteer basis, to keep our cities green and healthy.

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

I had the opportunity this weekend to get a glimpse of all that effort in a city of about 80,000 just an hour and a half north of Chicago, in Racine, Wisconsin, a lakefront community about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. The gift to me was an invitation from David Rhoads to be the featured guest speaker for an event on Friday evening, March 18, which set the stage for an Eco-Fest the following day at Gateway Technical College. The evening event took place at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater, a building with a flying saucer appearance on the grounds of the SC Johnson Co. in downtown Racine. I should note that this company has for years sponsored environmental programs in and around Racine and provided backing through its Johnson Foundation for the famous Wingspread conference center, often used for important policy discussions related to environmental and resilience issues.

Inside the Golden Rondelle

Inside the Golden Rondelle

My theme was “Green and Healthy: The Future of Cities,” but I did not speak about Racine because, frankly, I did not know nearly enough about it, but also because my mission was to introduce the audience to the wider range of urban forestry and green energy activities around the nation. In the bargain, I discussed the role of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning in creating resilient communities that minimize the waste of destruction from natural hazards, concluding with the examples of Joplin, Missouri, which included major reforestation efforts in its recovery from a major 2011 tornado, and Greensburg, Kansas, which engineered a green recovery that has made the town 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. In short, my mission was to paint a holistic impression of what it takes to create green and healthy communities.

But David does know very well what has been happening in Racine, which was one reason he was introducing me that evening. We have known each other for nearly 25 years since he was a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and I was chairing the Environmental Concerns Working Group for the Metro Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. David has always been intensely interested in the theology of creation and environmental stewardship. The Working Group mission became, and remains, financing and enabling energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits for Lutheran churches in the synod, which covers four counties and roughly 200 congregations. David and his wife, Sandy, also a pastor, have made Racine their home and are actively engaged in environmental activism on the local scene, including faith-based environmental awareness efforts. I was thus more than pleased to honor David’s invitation.

Because the intent of my own presentation was to “set the table,” in David’s words, for discussing the greening of Racine, I was followed by a panel of four local professionals: Julie Kinzleman of the Racine City Health Department, who spoke on healthy beaches and water supply; Nan Calvert, on environmental education centers in the area; Matt Koepnick, on urban forestry; and the Rev. Bill Thompkins, an African-American church leader, on neighborhood beautification. Without detracting from the other three in any way, I must say I was particularly taken by Thompkins’s approach. After stating that his inner-city church had asked the question “you don’t necessarily want to ask,” namely, what would happen if your church were no longer present in the neighborhood, he and his parishioners and neighbors undertook to reclaim a city park that had become a gang battleground and began to distribute and plant thousands of plants and trees. What difference does that make? As Thompkins explained, people are more likely to treasure an attractive neighborhood than a neglected one, and to begin to take responsibility for their local environment. Greening the neighborhood, in effect, was a way of restoring the social health of the people in the neighborhood. That echoed a theme I had introduced earlier, citing our APA work in Planning the Urban Forest, that trees have actual mental health benefits that have been documented in social scientific studies. A city that is green is also a city that is healthy for its people.

But what also struck me was the diversity of the efforts underway, including not one but several environmental education centers in the area, and an ongoing expansion of tree-planting efforts in Racine. David asked me for a one-minute closing observation on the program, and that was the one point I chose to make. Look around. See how much is going on around you that you did not know was happening.

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

The entire program set the stage for a much better attended event the following morning at Gateway Technical College, a school on the lakefront that provides training in environmental technologies. Eco-Fest Racine featured more than 50 displays by groups large and small, activist and educational, including children’s activities, which attracted the immediate interest of my wife, a retired elementary school teacher. Display topics ranged from garbage disposal to recycling to energy audits to urban gardening and forestry to environmental education and advocacy. It included secular groups and Racine Green Congregations, where a woman named Margie informed me ruefully that Wisconsin, under Gov. Scott Walker, an ideological conservative, has been losing its best scientists from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources because of anti-scientific bias from the administration. In the space of just a few hours, neither my wife nor I could absorb all that was offered in this cornucopia of information, but I came to realize one thing: Such events serve a critical purpose in exposing all of us to the breadth of activity that is present in our communities. I do not think Racine is unique, though it is blessed. I think other communities might contemplate the model of this program, the first of its kind in Racine, according to David, as a way of connecting people.  We need to be more aware of the ways in which we support each other so that those at work improving their communities can feel less alone. Networking, after all, is an important form of empowerment.


Jim Schwab

Our National Farce

Sadly, a national farce is underway. I first commented on the evolving phenomenon last June on this blog, but it has metastasized and metamorphosed in the intervening months, trumping all other considerations as we choose a new leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I wish I could find a reason to write about anything else, but it just keeps staring me in the face this weekend because the farce found its way to Chicago.

I could not even escape it while eating dinner Friday evening with my wife at the end of a very busy week. Because she was coming downtown anyway, I suggested that we eat at Miller’s Pub, right next door to the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue, where, it so happened, protesters were greeting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner during a Republican fundraising dinner. Given the stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the state legislature, there is undoubtedly plenty of reason for people to be upset. After all, the state still has no budget, and schools are getting no money. He insists on including some antiunion provisions in the budget, and the Democrats refuse. Checkmate. The losers are the students and teachers and the voters. But dramatic as that is, it is not my point.

Miller’s Pub is one of those busy, popular places with television screens on the walls, and while they are often filled with sports images or the usual news, Friday evening it was impossible to avoid noticing the train wreck associated with the other demonstration in town—the one at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had canceled a rally that attracted more than 25,000 people because among them were thousands of highly diverse protesters. The anti-Trump crowd consisted of young and old, black and white, Christians and Muslims, Hispanics—a veritable Chicago rainbow. In choosing the UIC Pavilion for a rally, Trump had situated himself amid Chicago’s diversity, much of which consists of populations he has insulted or offended in recent months during his rise to prominence. Many of the protesters stated they wanted to make clear that Chicago relishes its diversity and does not share his values. In my honest opinion, it is almost as if he wanted this result. The idea of actually engaging in dialogue with his critics, as most candidates do at some point, seems foreign to him, almost a sign of weakness. Only confrontation is acceptable for a man’s man. How sad.

What unfolded, however, exceeds even the bizarre standards of this year’s campaign, making it hard to stop tracking the news even on Saturday. Trump first explained that he had canceled the rally out of concern for public safety after consulting with the Chicago police. But interim Police Chief John Escalante said in a press conference that Trump had never talked to them before making that decision. Trump’s campaign claimed to have conferred with Cmdr. George Devereux, but the police said Devereux was responsible for security at Trump’s hotel, not the rally site. Is it that hard to just tell the truth?

We have a national campaign that begins to resemble a Jerry Springer television show in its ability to attract supercilious scuffles. Trump claims to want peaceful rallies, yet news reports can easily replay numerous scenes in which he has urged his followers to rough up protesters and even offered to pay their legal fees for doing so. Only a day before the Chicago contretemps, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Trump supporter had cold-cocked a protester who was being escorted from a rally by the police, leaving him with injuries around one eye. John McGraw, 78, now charged with assualt, said the protester “deserved it” and that next time they “might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? The day after Chicago, he was claiming that his supporters were “nice people” and that the protesters were “Bernie’s people,” referring to Vermont U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, one of the two remaining Democratic contenders (along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), whom Trump then derided as “our communist friend.”

If I were writing a wild fictional potboiler, the plot could not sound more contrived. I confess I am approaching a loss for words. I cannot recall a situation in my life where the leading candidate in either party has looked more like Benito Mussolini with his Blackshirts attacking those who disagreed with him. Trump has shown a complete incapacity to accept any responsibility for what Clinton rightly has labeled “political arson.”

What is sad is that a brand of political recklessness and disregard for truth that would have sunk almost any other candidacy in years past seems to buoy Trump in the eyes of his supporters. You can analyze this authoritarian phenomenon however you wish. There is little doubt in my mind that the divisive obstinacy of many Republican leaders in their reaction to President Barack Obama, in their willingness to remain silent in the face of nonsensical claims that he is a Muslim, that he was not born in the U.S., etc., has set the stage for this farce. They are now reaping the whirlwind.

Still, it was not inevitable, and it did not have to happen. There remains one man who, but for his own brand of narcissism and egomania, could take responsibility and change course. But as one commentator on CNN noted, Trump never backs down. And that is one very frightening characteristic for any potential occupant of the Oval Office. And they used to say it can’t happen here.

Maybe it can.


Jim Schwab

Armed and Dangerous on Campus


Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Many of us, in making major life decisions, experience both a pull from one direction and a push from another. We may feel conflicted, or we may feel that circumstances have combined to make the decision easy. I don’t know how much Frederick Steiner, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, felt pulled or pushed, but he is leaving Austin for his alma mater, a school that awarded him three degrees, the University of Pennsylvania. Steiner, known to friends as “Fritz,” certainly has reason to feel good about returning to his home state after many years elsewhere. As part of full disclosure for this article, I will state also that I have known him for more than a quarter-century as a fellow planning professional for whom I have high respect, and regard him as a friend. Steiner will take his new position as dean of the School of Design in Philadelphia as of July 1. His statement of resignation drew considerable attention from the press.

I also know that political events in Texas have conspired to drive him into the arms of his alma mater. Fritz does not like the new law in Texas, passed last year, which as of August 1 will allow individuals to carry a concealed firearm on a state university campus, including inside buildings, with some exceptions. He has said so in announcing his resignation, but I also interviewed him by telephone yesterday in order to gain more insight into his perspective on the matter.

The very first fact that Fritz pointed out to me was that the new law takes effect on the 50th anniversary of the Whitman tower shootings at the Austin campus. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine who, it turned out, was suffering from a brain tumor, climbed the University of Texas tower with a toolbox full of weapons and began shooting innocent victims with a rifle, killing 16 and injuring 30. Ultimately, police officers stormed the tower and ended up killing Whitman in order to stop the shooting. That irony makes one wonder if the Texas legislature and governor are truly oblivious to such perverse symbolism or just did not care. Fritz pointed out that the university’s police department opposed the new law and remains opposed.

In any event, it is important to know that Steiner is not really an anti-gun activist; he feels guns have a place, but it is not just any place and that place is certainly not a public university. “I grew up around guns used for hunting,” he told me. “I was a Boy Scout. In summer camp, we had a live shooting range. That experience taught me to respect guns and know they had an appropriate place. Safety was not to be taken lightly. But I respect people who hunt.”

What Steiner wanted to make clear in his resignation, however, was that “a college campus has no place for guns except for first responders and law enforcement.” His explanation is worth considering. He oversees a program in which students work on architecture and planning studio projects. Their hard work can be stressful, and some projects do not succeed. Critiquing such projects can be tense and emotional for students and faculty alike, Steiner notes, adding that “defending your dissertation or taking an exam can be stressful. The prospect of someone carrying a weapon in such situations is troubling. Do faculty members censor themselves if they know someone has a weapon?”

Such implicit infringement on the First Amendment rights of faculty and staff to speak freely to each other raises a larger set of questions in his mind. Gun advocates, he says, “ignore the part of the Second Amendment about a well-regulated militia,” which ought to indicate that the right to bear arms is not without limitations. In fact, says Steiner, it is wrong to read any part of the Bill of Rights in isolation from all the other rights embodied therein because they all affect each other. “In the Ninth Amendment, you can’t use any amendment to disparage the rights of others,” he notes. “The Tenth Amendment, which planners know well, makes clear that states can legislate for the public health, safety, and welfare.” In short, there is an intended balance among all these rights that “makes it more puzzling why we are implementing this notion of allowing concealed carry on campus.” I would add similar observations, for example, with regard to the First Amendment. Despite its clear language about not impeding freedom of religion, that freedom has never been interpreted as so limitless as to authorize polygamy, nor has the freedom of speech been interpreted to allow one, in the classic example from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Every right is bounded by concerns about the greater well-being of the public. So why should we entertain an absolutist interpretation as applied to the Second Amendment?

I want to make clear that Fritz Steiner’s concern about the concealed carry law is not unique within the academic community in Texas. UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, a former Navy SEAL involved in the operation that took out Osama Bin Laden, opposed the new law in a letter to the Texas legislature early last year, stating that the contemplated approach would do nothing to make college campuses in Texas safer, and in fact makes matters worse. McRaven is clearly neither unfamiliar with guns nor opposed to their responsible use. But he is concerned about the safety of his students. Moreover, faculty and student assemblies have expressed their own concerns. Steiner notes that the architecture faculty voted unanimously to express concern about the new law (although one person who was absent might have dissented). What makes it all more curious is that the law allows private universities to exempt themselves from its application, “even though they receive public subsidies.” Steiner questioned why, if this is such a good idea, it would apply only to state university campuses.

In the end, however, he wants to be honest about his own motivations. Both push and pull are at work here, and he found the prospect of returning to Pennsylvania “extremely attractive.” And, over the past two decades, state funding of public universities in the affluent state of Texas has declined from 50 percent to just 13 percent of their overall budgets while “lots of unfunded mandates” have taken effect. On balance, he ultimately decided it was time to go home.


Blogger’s note: Those following “Home of the Brave” have surely noticed that I am finally writing again after a hiatus of nearly three weeks. I suffer from the same limitations as other human beings, which include getting sick. The last week of January brought on a case of acute bronchitis, which took its own toll on my energy level, but I got prescriptions and began to mend, only to succumb to a gastrointestinal virus the following week that kept me at bay for several days. It stands to reason that I got well behind on the work associated with managing the APA Hazards Planning Center, where, among other things, I was busy hiring a new member of our research staff. By the time I recovered, I was on my way to Charleston, South Carolina, where I presented a new project at the NOAA Social Coast Forum. That following weekend, I mustered my last blog post before this, but I have spent most of my spare time since then catching up on the work associated with the Center’s expanding portfolio. This blog is a sideline venture for me, and it suffered from my exhaustion since mid-February. It should fare much better in coming weeks.

All that said, upon my return from Charleston, I received wonderful news that bucked my spirits after such prolonged illness. I was informed that I had been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a development also noted on the home page of this website. FAICP status is a high honor in the planning profession, in fact a recognition of lifetime achievement, as explained in more detail by a notice on the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) website. SURP has bragging rights because I am both an alumnus of their program and adjunct faculty. The induction ceremony is April 3 in Phoenix, where I will join 60 others in this year’s biennial class. I want to make clear that FAICP status bestows not only honor but obligation—to continue to help serve and advance the profession, something I already feel I am doing by teaching in Iowa City and by discussing public planning issues on this blog. I intend to sustain that obligation.


Jim Schwab