Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Subdivide and Conquer the Flood

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Floods generally result from regional storm systems producing intense precipitation, from fast melting of winter snows, and occasionally from the failure of protective infrastructure such as dams and levees, often as a result of pressure from such events. We tend to think of the resulting flood damages as the inevitable consequences of these events, but they are not. Flood damages are the result of development decisions that place the built environment—and humans—in harm’s way. Most of those decisions, at least in the U.S., are made at the local level. In city halls and in planning commission and city council meetings across the nation, we have met the enemy of flood hazard reduction. It is usually us.

Tucked away from most public attention, the little decisions a community makes in approving new subdivisions are among those with the biggest influence in exacerbating or minimizing flood hazards to residential development. Cities, towns, and counties often assume that, if they simply comply with the fundamental requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), they are home free. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the program, while it can establish minimum requirements for local participation in the program, will never be in a position to substitute for local judgment on flood risk. There are too many important decisions that local government alone can make that FEMA cannot.

Less well understood by many is that there are significant practical limitations to the capabilities of the NFIP. NFIP regulations apply to mapped floodplains, but mapping floodplains for insurance rating purposes costs money, and that means higher priorities for mapping urbanized and developed areas where flood insurance will be sold. With more than 3.5 million miles of coast and river and stream frontage in the U.S., the NFIP has mapped about 1.2 million miles for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Much of the rest is in rural and undeveloped areas, along smaller tributaries, such as streams and creeks, where development has yet to occur. Subdivision, of course, is a process of dividing and developing plots of land precisely where development has not yet happened. The possibility of a new subdivision proposal including land with unmapped floodplains is a constant reality. The stream corridors involved may seem small, but when flooding occurs they can often pose serious problems. Moreover, their floodplains may well expand as a result of the creation of new impervious surface in small watersheds—that is, hard surfaces such as building footprints, driveways, and roads. These impacts expand the floodplain because such hard surfaces do not absorb stormwater, unlike open space with trees and grass, thus increasing the volume of storm runoff.

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Cover of report reprinted with permission from APA.

To address these sorts of issues, the American Planning Association in 2014 FEMA to fund the production of a report for planners that has just been released: Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas (Planning Advisory Service Report 584). It actually builds on prior work by APA two decades ago in a similar report, Subdivision Design in Flood Hazard Areas; both are being made available online as free PDF downloads and companion documents. The new report, however, goes far in bringing the subject forward and addressing contemporary realities, including the need to get ahead of climate change by anticipating potentially more extreme events and, in coastal areas, sea level rise. To amplify the outreach of the report, APA is scheduling its next Planning Information Exchange webinar in early December to address this topic.

The panel will include California attorney Tyler Berding, of the Walnut Creek law firm Berding & Weil, which has specialized in working with homeowner associations and developed an acute awareness of the problems raised when these associations inherit responsibilities for funding and maintaining flood protection infrastructure such as levees and small dams. As Berding notes, developers often sell local planners and elected officials on the idea that such arrangements, approved during plat reviews, free the municipality or county of the burden of such infrastructure. The problem arises many years later, when it becomes clear that these volunteer-managed organizations lack the expertise and also suffer from predictable downward pressure from property owners on maintenance fees, resulting in steadily deteriorating flood infrastructure that can result in disaster. Also on the panel will be Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a major contributor to the report, for which I served as general editor, and Jerry Brems, now a retired planning director of Licking County, Ohio, who lent his experience in advising the project, who has dealt with these issues. I will moderate.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

The overall point of the report is to highlight the fact that there is typically much more a local government can do to exercise vigilance in this respect than typically happens. The report outlines a number of standards communities can adopt with regard to the protection of natural and man-made features on a subdivision site, the layout and design of the site, its infrastructure, platting requirements, and watershed management. It also discusses how all this can be integrated effectively into the larger planning process of the jurisdiction. For instance, it discusses and provides a case study on the use of conservation subdivision design, which allows the clustering of structures on a site to locate them on higher, safer ground while maintaining more vulnerable, low-lying sections in common open space, which in turn allows the creation of such amenities as riverside walking paths, habitat protection for wildlife, and preservation of forested buffer areas along stream corridors. These and many other steps help reduce flood losses while creating a more resilient, safer, and environmentally sustainable community.

In short, the entire project invites communities to explore ways to become more forward-looking and creative in their approaches to flood hazards. The world is improved more often incrementally than radically. We hope we’ve brought planners’ and public officials’ attention to one more such increment.

 

Jim Schwab

Business of Changing the World

Last night I watched the CNN documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It told me much that I already knew, namely, that Jobs was a problematic figure with both a dark side and a light side, a man of genius with deep human flaws, but someone who clearly changed the world, at least on a technological level. We relate to computers and telephones today in ways that were almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago. At the same time, the movie filled in some gaps in my knowledge and made me aware of some aspects of his tragically shortened career that were less clear to me before.

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But that is not the most important part of my reaction to the story. In fact, I had this blog post in mind well before seeing the movie in part because it simply reinforced a thought that has been with me for some time: that the shape of our choices is dictated to some extent by the timing of our lives and the circumstances in which we grow into adulthood. Many of us can still change a great deal as our life moves on, but those initial choices in high school and college, in our teens and early twenties, predetermine a great deal of what follows.

I have not yet read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, though it sits on my shelf waiting for me, so I was intrigued to learn that Jobs graduated from high school in 1972, just four years behind me. But he died in 2011, and I am still here, his life ending early at 56 years of age as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Four years does not seem like a long time in a full life, but at that formative age, for baby boomers following the Sixties, it made all the difference in the world. It may have been one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history.

I entered college in the fall of 1968. In April of that year, as I was completing my senior year of high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We barely recovered from that shock when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was also assassinated in a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Before the summer was over, the Democratic convention in Chicago was disrupted by major protests that were suppressed with major police violence. It was a rather traumatic introduction to four years of higher education and was followed by numerous protests. I attended college in downtown Cleveland, and watched or participated in civil rights, antiwar, and environmental demonstrations.

I mention this because, in the many years since then, especially more recently, I have wondered if I might have benefited from taking some business courses in order better to understand some of the more progressive business phenomena that have evolved on the American landscape. There are now green businesses focused on renewable energy, food businesses catering to new tastes for healthier foods, and environmental businesses focused on cleaning up rather than despoiling the environment. When I was a student in Cleveland, however, the businesses I knew best seemed like an extensive monolith of status quo enterprises, defending the despoliation of the environment, resistant to equal opportunity, with the corner offices almost an unrelenting parade of conservative, aging white men. I may have been a young white man myself, but I most definitely wanted to live a more interesting, purposeful life than those white men.

And so I studied literature at first, then switched to political science, in a quest to change the world, and eventually, by the early 1980s, returned to school to obtain graduate degrees in journalism and urban and regional planning. I did survive three undergraduate electives in economics, which were reinforced by planning-related economics classes at the master’s level, but that is not the same as classes in marketing and accounting and business management. As I said, as I have watched a new generation of business enterprises take new approaches to engaging with the world, I have wondered whether I might have benefited from learning more about entrepreneurship and business principles. But it was not to be because the influences that bore down on me made that less appealing when it might have been more feasible. I wanted to change the world in what I deemed a positive way, and the businesses that might have employed me in Cleveland at the time did not seem like the way to achieve that. Nonetheless, I did work in the business world for several years before moving to Iowa to take the helm of a small public interest nonprofit organization, only after which I pursued graduate school.

It was only as I was completing that graduate education that many of these new enterprises—and Apple Computer, which was a provocative and sometimes perplexing blend of both old and new ideas about how to run a business—burst onto the scene. Meanwhile, I was acquiring a whole new set of skills that implanted me firmly in the public sector, although I have spent most of my subsequent career in a nonprofit professional association. Along the way, I learned that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful ally even in the nonprofit world. They too must find ways to attract money. In my case, we most often do that in a highly competitive environment, developing proposals for grants and contracts that require significant innovative thinking—the very sort of thing that would probably serve me equally well as a consultant because, in effect, that is to some extent what I have become. I am in a service business, but I have had and enjoyed opportunities to change the world in ways that matter. Small ways, perhaps, compared to the impact of someone like Jobs, but appreciable. I have helped alter the prevailing thinking about the ways in which planners can contribute to the reduction of losses of lives and property from natural disasters. That does not seem like a small thing when I think about it very hard.

My sense of entrepreneurship was enhanced by the fact that I also was writing for a living, sometimes enhancing my income from working as a planner with book royalties and article fees and honoraria for speaking. I learned some marketing because I had to learn how to hone my message and sell books. It’s not nearly as easy as it may seem. In fact, the publishing business can be downright brutal, but I learned to survive.

In the end, my takeaway is that it matters less whether one ends up working in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or public sector, or anywhere else, for that matter, and much more what we ultimately do with the skills we acquire. Entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as a skill, and what we sell matters as much as how well we sell it, but what matters more is why we want to do what we do and the satisfaction we derive from doing it well. Looking back, I have no regrets about the skills and knowledge I developed or about my accomplishments in life. They have not made me a billionaire like Jobs, but the psychic rewards have been high. I took the hand that life dealt me during a volatile stretch of history and used it to make a difference. I will not ask for more.

 

Jim Schwab