Engaging for Sustainability

I know. My very title for this blog post sounds to some like yet another naïve stab at kumbaya. Well, stay with me, anyway. We are talking about solving problems in our communities, and the more people who get behind the solution, the more successful it is likely to be.

Kristin Baja, right, with Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol before her presentation.

What I am really aiming to write about, in the narrowest sense, is a morning keynote presentation by Kristin Baja at the tenth annual Growing Sustainable Communities conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on October 4. The City of Dubuque has been hosting this event from the outset, and I rather like the riverside convention center where they host it. Hell, I rather like the mystique of the Mississippi River, the very reason Dubuque exists. I’m fascinated enough that I thought the conference a good venue for meeting people who might be useful to my pet project since leaving the American Planning Association (APA) at the end of May: a two-book series on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods. Dubuque is one of those communities that understands that environmentally healthy communities are a necessary path to the future.

That is why they engaged Kristin Baja, a former planner for the city of Baltimore who was instrumental in effecting significant changes in planning that recognized the fundamental problems that Baltimore needed to address, both socially and environmentally. She openly states that Baltimore was built on a legacy of racism that must be overcome through new approaches that must complement the city’s efforts to address climate change. The poor tend to be more vulnerable to natural hazards. Recently, Baja left her city position to become the Climate Resilience Officer for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. In this new role, she is essentially bringing what she learned at the local level to the national stage.

What she seems to have learned most, and emphasized in her keynote, is the value of empathy, a quality often sorely lacking in national politics. I frankly think we are more likely to relearn its value at the community level, where we can engage directly and personally with our neighbors. Perhaps then we can reapply it to national policy discussions if we can get past the angry tweets and the noise of shouting talk show hosts.

Baja started with a display of many of the same points I have made in this blog before. The climate is changing, and we have plenty of evidence to make this point if we can get people to listen. We cannot afford to continue to confuse weather with climate, for instance, by using one snowstorm to ridicule the entire notion of global warming. “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality,” she suggested, and it is not a bad analogy for helping people to grasp the distinction between short-term and long-term trends. If we are to achieve resilience in our communities, it will be essential to understand that we must build community strength in the face of both shocks, which are sudden and unexpected changes, and stressors, those long-time problems that weaken a community’s social fabric, like high unemployment, poverty, racism, and distrust of authority. If community leaders want to overcome some of that malaise, it is critical that they foster and sustain mutual trust, be accountable, keep promises, share power, value people’s time, and focus on community cohesion. It may be a tall order, but I would add one other factor. When a community finds such leaders, it needs to honor them. Too often, the best intentions are drowned in a tidal wave of vitriol.

I will not reprise every aspect of Baja’s captivating presentation. What I want to share is the underlying logic of her approach. She first came to my attention when I learned about Baltimore’s now well-known DP3 project, which stands for Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project. DP3 resulted in the approval in 2013 of a combined local hazard mitigation plan and climate adaptation plan. Baja participated in a July 2016 webinar I organized for APA on the subject of merging climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans.

Hazard mitigation plans have been produced by the thousands by state and local governments ever since the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 decreed that they would be ineligible for federal mitigation grants, which pay for many hazard mitigation projects after disasters, unless they adopted a FEMA-approved plan. All states now have such plans, and about 20,000 units of local government have adopted them, often participating in multijurisdictional efforts. But almost universally, until a few creative cities like Baltimore began to outline a new approach, these plans have been backward-looking in identifying local hazards. Why? Because the standard approach is to project future hazards based on historical patterns. The problem is that climate change is disrupting those expectations and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. The path to resilience lies in using climate science data to anticipate the hazards of the future. Baltimore accomplished that by integrating data about climate trends into its hazard mitigation plan, thus elegantly addressing both existing and future hazards. Baja was at the center of this activity.

But her innovative style goes farther. She worked on the use of vacant lots in cities for development of green infrastructure to help remedy urban flooding. In March of this year, she attended the first of two day-long roundtables APA organized with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ways to integrate climate science into the local planning process. She was feisty and persuasive as usual, and we all appreciated her contributions.

Ultimately, what Baja discussed with the audience was not merely the policy changes that are needed to produce climate-resilient communities, but the practices of community engagement that would undergird those policies and make them stick, embed them in municipal and regional civic culture. She unleashed her own flood of ideas about how to do this, including training staff, as she has done recently in Dubuque, with training games that make the undertaking fun, such as a “Game of Floods.” The laundry list that rolled from her tongue and flowed from the PowerPoint screen included these tips for engaging members of the community and removing barriers to participation in civic meetings:

  • Go to people
  • Partner with community leaders
  • Provide transportation
  • Provide food and beverages
  • Provide childcare or activities with children
  • Consider language barriers
  • Translate signs and data
  • Insure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Collect stories
  • Approach all stakeholders with empathy
  • Provide interactive and fun ways of engagement
  • Invite participation on advisory committees

One of her approaches, used in Baltimore to give life to these ideas, was to create a community ambassador network to empower the very people who often labor to advance these ideas through small neighborhood organizations with no financial support from the city. Recognizing the contribution these people make to their city goes a long way to strengthening the trust that supports progressive policy making.

There is a method to the madness of making this all work. Baja is not the only person who has discovered the value of empowering volunteers for good planning, but she herself is now a full-time ambassador through USDN. I’d say they found the right person.

Bike tour of Dubuque’s riverfront at the end of the conference.

 

Jim Schwab

Recovery in North Carolina One Year Later

Amid the whirlwind of disasters this fall—three major hurricanes hitting the U.S., earthquakes and another hurricane hitting Mexico, wildfires in northern California—it is easy to forget that people hit by other disasters as recently as a year ago are still laboring toward long-term community recovery from the damages those events left behind. One of those places is North Carolina, which suffered flooding in several small communities in its eastern Coastal Plain from Hurricane Matthew. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), of necessity, may shift its energy and resources to new places, but the communities and states trying to recover cannot escape the realities of rebuilding their own futures.

I was in North Carolina just two weeks ago for the annual conference of the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association, in Greenville. This city of about 90,000 is just an hour west of the Outer Banks, depending on which roads are open. (Hurricane Maria was kicking up waves as it moved north out in the Atlantic Ocean while I was there.) Much of the surrounding area consists of farm country and small towns nestled in river valleys subject to flooding in major storms including tropical storms and hurricanes. In the 1990s, the area was visited by Hurricanes Floyd and Fran, both of which left their marks. I had hoped to travel the towns affected by Matthew with a colleague, but it did not work out. But I did listen to a keynote presentation by Gavin Smith, a research professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill and director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, located at UNC. I was there because I had been invited to speak at two sessions, one on September 26 on community resilience and another the next day on flood hazards and subdivision design.

Smith has worked with the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management on recovery planning in the past, and as a consultant following Hurricane Katrina, led recovery in Mississippi under Gov. Haley Barbour. He later returned to North Carolina to join the UNC faculty, but clearly is an experienced hand in this field. He has also written extensively on disaster recovery, including an Island Press book, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: A Review of the United States Disaster Assistance Framework.

What Smith served up was a primer in planning for climate change and disaster recovery with a side order of North Carolina case studies. I don’t say that to be cute, but because I have discussed at length the issues associated with the former, so here, I will concentrate on the latter. I will note first, however, that he highlighted some issues connected with disaster recovery that are worth considering:

  • Disasters tend to bring to the forefront of community planning existing conditions that may have been less obvious beforehand, but which are not new.
  • Disaster involves opportunity, a unique situation in which good planning can effect positive change. Because planners are generally interested in advancing equity, this is important, as developers are often dictating growth even when it negatively affects some economically marginalized people in the community.
  • This post-disaster environment provides an opportunity to engage in alternative dispute resolution, with planners using negotiation to help resolve difficult issues.
  • The reality of disaster recovery is time compression, the need to move quickly even though better planning may demand stepping back and investing more time in deliberation before making decisions. We can alleviate some of that pressure by developing plans for recovery before disaster strikes.

That is, in a way, all background to the simple fact that one role for planning is to help change the rules governing recovery through serious engagement between local officials, who generally better understand local needs, and those at state and federal levels of government, who generally control more of the resources needed for successful recovery. In other words, planners need to help solve the disconnect between means and understanding. Communities that passively await rescue by higher levels of government without undertaking the task of owning their own recovery may well face consequences in the misallocation of the resources provided.

The Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI) has specifically worked with eight communities in eastern North Carolina under the auspices of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory. Smith is the project director. It began with a research period that ran from February through June of this year. The project included intake interviews with people in the affected areas who were willing to pursue buyouts of their properties, which would then be maintained in perpetual open space under rules of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and discussed with them where they were willing to relocate. The program developed housing prototypes for affordable homes in the $90,000 range that would allow buyers to stay in their communities without remaining in the floodplain. One major question was whether they could endure as a community after such relocation, which is affected by area geography and topography and the ability to identify and develop suitable alternatives. It should also be noted that eastern North Carolina has been through much of this before. Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the state undertook buyouts of more than 5,000 homes and assisted in elevating another 1,000.

Camp shelter in Windsor, NC, one of the communities assisted by HMDRRI. Photo by Gavin Smith

The HMDRRI research product is a 580-page report that outlines project objectives and documents economic, housing, and other conditions in both the region and the communities specifically targeted by the project: Kinston, Fair Bluff, Windsor, Princeville, Lumberton, and Seven Springs. This documentation is critical to an accurate assessment of the challenges facing the region. For instance, the standard determinant of housing affordability is the ability to limit spending on housing to 30 percent of income. People in lower-income brackets often struggle to find such housing, and often it requires subsidies or some sort of intervention in the housing market. Within the coastal counties studied, however, the reasons for shortages of affordable housing can vary widely, as can its quality. The resilience of affordable housing in an area subject to coastal storms and flooding is important, yet the abundance of mobile and modular housing in the region offers little resilience in the face of disaster, and septic systems associated with much modular housing often make those homes even more susceptible to flooding. Thus, solutions must address both resilience and affordability to provide some semblance of social equity in disaster recovery.

The intriguing model offered by HMDRRI, however, is the systematic engagement of the academic community in what is simultaneously a practical learning experience for students and faculty, an opportunity for introducing the skills of practicing design professionals to the area, and a direct connection to state and federal officials, for instance, by allowing student and faculty teams to work in the FEMA Joint Field Office (JFO) and thus access data that might not otherwise be readily available. This included interaction with FEMA’s Community Planning and Capacity Building team, part of the larger federal Disaster Recovery Framework. The report, more readable than its length might suggest, includes a substantial section called Home Place that helps facilitate the transfer of design practices to the community level to empower better local recovery planning.

An example of this occurred in Princeville, which Smith described as the oldest African-American community founded by freed slaves. In August, HMDRRI hosted a five-day charrette with visiting architects, three-quarters of them African-American, who worked directly with the community on land-use and design solutions for relocating homes from the floodplain to a higher, 52-acre site still within the city limits. Helping the community to understand and come to terms with the land-use changes resulting from the recovery from Hurricane Matthew is critical to long-term success. The verdict is necessarily still pending in this case, but it may provide a solid case study for future efforts elsewhere. Smith also noted one other important aspect of the charrette experience: Participants were asked to check in daily to document the time they spent. Creative people that they were, the initial reaction was some resentment at being subjected to this bureaucratic procedure until it was explained that documenting their contribution of time was essential to showing a local match for federal funds supporting the project. Approximately 100 people were credentialed for the purpose. At that point, they complied enthusiastically because they understood the purpose as something more than mere bookkeeping. They were helping the community marshal badly needed resources.

It is worth noting that the report recommends that the North Carolina Governor’s Office form a standing committee to provide recommendations for policy, programming, and funding strategies for development of adequate housing in eastern North Carolina. The report also notes interest from Texas and Rice University in the model for state/academic collaboration that HMDRRI offers. This is part of the silver lining of disasters: the emergence and dissemination of positive and innovative solutions to common problems.

Jim Schwab

Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

For those who have been reading the posts I have recently done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I thought it might be of interest to see this video clip of an interview I did with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. two days ago: https://youtu.be/UFslrKPd04s 

Jim Schwab

Texas and U.S. Need Public Policy Champions

Photo by Jeff Clevenger

Justifiably, people and the news media have celebrated the heroes of emergency response in Texas during the week-long nightmare of Hurricane Harvey. Disasters often bring out the best in many people, a selfless commitment that inspires those capable to rescue neighbors and even perfect strangers, binding a community together in a time of crisis. It is extremely important that we honor such people. Other people’s lives often depend on them. And not infrequently, they put their own lives at stake in the process.

But I have a concern, especially with the current administration and especially with the political leadership in Texas. My concern is that honoring these heroes will become a way of deflecting attention from the tough questions about how Houston and other communities exacerbated their own natural vulnerabilities and what long-term recovery planning will do about the situation. Is it enough just to rescue people, or do we need also to ask why so many were in harm’s way in the first place?

In the process of planning and implementing long-term recovery from Harvey, both Texas and the nation will need an entirely new brand of heroes. These will be the people who, despite the brickbats thrown at them from those who want to avoid the tough issues and continue business as usual, will have the courage to ask the tough questions and float ideas and solutions that others may not wish to entertain. As Larry Larson and David Conrad, two colleagues in floodplain management whose work I have admired for years, stated in the Washington Post in a September 1 op-ed column, we have known for nearly a quarter-century how to ameliorate flooding, dating back to the recommendations of a federal task force report that followed the Great Flood of 1993. We just have not done it. And Houston, in particular, despite ranking near the top nationally in flood damages, paid little heed. The lack of zoning and other land-use controls allowed development to pave over wetlands and other areas that could have served as natural drainage systems.

But the tough slog for sensible solutions will not be unique to Texas. It happened in New Jersey after Sandy, in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina, in Iowa after the 2008 floods, and so on, and so on. It goes with the territory. It helps explain why we keep suffering one major disaster after another. Sometimes, advocating for change can be a thankless job. It can also make a crucial difference in advancing solutions to address natural hazards and climate change.

What we will need are public policy champions. These people will turn over rocks, examine alternatives, and ask why we cannot do a better job of protecting the natural systems that can mitigate flooding, wind damage, and other hazards. These are the people, armed with science and common sense and determination, who fought for building codes and levee management reform after Katrina, for dune restoration after Sandy, for rebuilding a green community in Greensburg, Kansas, after an EF-5 tornado, and for a charter amendment to ensure a more effective master plan in New Orleans.

Already, these people have a critical mission ahead. Just days before Harvey made landfall in Texas, President Donald Trump revoked an Obama executive order that had facilitated the adoption of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which outlined means for incorporating the science of climate change into estimations of flood risk used to determine what sorts of federal investments in infrastructure may occur in floodplains, and what standards they must comply with. This is undoubtedly part of the Trump war on the very idea of climate change, but the foolhardiness of this rush to undo the Obama legacy became clear as we watched the impact of Harvey on the Texas coast. The Trump administration had earlier proposed cutbacks in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose help in Texas is now sorely needed, and gutting the funding for the floodplain mapping program, which, if anything, needs substantial new investment of at least $7 billion to modernize and update maps that are often sorely out of date. (Note that we are now talking about recovery funding for Harvey of as much as $180 billion.) There are other hazard mitigation issues on the front burner for federal consideration, but these are central.

And amid all this drama, recovery from Harvey will unfold in Texas. The biggest disservice to the heroism of all those who rescued neighbors and strangers will be to force others to repeat such sacrifices in future storms in situations where damages and flooding could have been mitigated through better land-use solutions, better building codes, and other measures to address the current inadequacies.

I stated in my first blog post about Harvey that no city in North America could handle the amount of rain that befell cities like Houston, and that remains true. But it does not mean the problem needed to be as bad as it was. The sheer extent of the problem was in many ways the result of runaway development patterns that trampled natural defenses against flooding. We can honor the rescue heroes with more heroes who ask the big questions and insist on effective solutions. We need public policy champions who will rise to the recovery challenge.

Jim Schwab

The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

The Ostrich Paradox

As an urban planner, my entry into the world of disasters has been through the twin portals of public policy and planning practice—how we frame the priorities of government and how we carry out the tasks of community planning. One thing I have learned from years of interaction with other types of professionals is that many other portals exist that provide insights into the nature and causes of disasters, how we define them, and how we prepare for and react to them. The behavioral sciences–including psychology, sociology, communications, and economics—have played a significant role in helping us understand some of these questions. They have helped me understand that what may seem like a straight line in public policy between a problem and a solution can be laden with land mines that are built into the evolution of the human brain. We are capable, as a species, of contemplating long-term consequences of our behaviors, but only when we have opportunities to gain some distance between our immediate needs and the problems we are considering. Very often, however, life forces us to react quickly and with inadequate forethought, and our brains reach for more instinctive reactions that our species learned over millennia, even those we inherited from other species from which we evolved.

And so there is the proverbial ostrich, putting its head in the sand, supposedly to avoid seeing any painful realities. The authors of a new book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, published by Wharton Digital Press, note near the outset that, despite the widely accepted stereotype of ostriches, they are “astute escape artists” who use speed to compensate for their inability to fly. They suggest humans become more like ostriches, not less, by recognizing our own limitations and consciously seeking to address them. But first, we need to know what those shortcomings are and why, because of them, humans routinely fail to anticipate and prepare for disasters.

They start by reviewing a concept of the human brain discussed at length by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, several years ago—that of the two systems that allow us to do precisely what Kahneman’s title suggested. System 1 operates more rapidly with learned and instinctive responses to everyday situations, such as slowing down or swerving to avoid car crashes, or stepping away from snakes. The reactions are quick reflexes that are often entirely unconscious. System 2, which could never respond to the multitude of routine stimuli fast enough to allow us to cope or survive, instead helps us focus and reflect, sometimes allowing us to train our minds to react differently but also, importantly, to gain perspective on issues facing us. Planning, for instance, is largely an intellectual activity in which we process information, mull it over, and try to anticipate how future conditions may affect our community and its ability to achieve stated goals. It also takes time and does not allow us to react to immediate threats, for example, a bolting horse or the sound of gunfire. When we hear the gunfire, we don’t contemplate what it is; we duck or run for cover.

With the respective limitations of those two systems in mind, Robert Meyer, a professor of marketing, and Howard Kunreuther, professor of decision sciences and public policy, both at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, outline what they describe as the six biases of human beings in dealing with low-probability, high-consequence events “for which we have little stored knowledge.” In other words, we developed fast reactions to a car swerving into our path because we have acquired a good deal of “stored knowledge” from past driving experience. But how often do we experience a tornado? Even people in states like Kansas or Oklahoma, who may hear about such events often enough, may not have enough direct experience with them to know how best to prepare. For events like Hurricane Katrina, which Gulf Coast residents may directly experience once in a lifetime, the stored knowledge is limited indeed. The will to think about such events without having been prodded to do so by prior experience is even more limited. And so, disaster becomes not only a function of natural events, but of the human resistance to considering their possibility.

So, what are those six biases? First, myopia, the tendency to focus on the short term and more likely events at the expense of more significant, long-term dangers. Second, amnesia, the willingness to turn off or ignore more distant memories that may inform our awareness of potential hazards. Third, optimism, or the will to believe that everything will turn out all right. Fourth, the inertia bias, which could also be described as our innate reluctance to disrupt the status quo. Fifth, the simplification bias, the highly understandable difficulty we face in coming to terms with more complex situations. And finally, the herding bias, otherwise known to most people as the tendency to follow the crowd, even though our reflective minds may tell us that the crowd may be dead wrong.

Now, to be honest, I am already engaging in a simplification bias by summarizing the core thesis of an entire book in one paragraph, as I just did. But I am very much aware, as a writer, of what I have done, with the explicit aim of spurring readers to explore the more detailed explanations the book offers. Even if you do not, however, there may be net gains in awareness just by exposing you to the concept that such biases exist. Let me complicate matters just a little by repeating the authors’ assertion that these biases are not all bad, just as they are not all good. What matters is our awareness that these biases exist and that they are a shared legacy of our humanity. None of us can operate without them, but at the same time, our System 2 brains are designed to help us overcome the limitations they embody.

And thus, Meyer and Kunreuther urge us all to be more like ostriches, “not less.” The ostrich compensates for its physical limitations—the inability to fly—with speedy retreats from danger. Humans, with advanced intellectual skills, can do far more. In thinking about risk, the authors suggest, we can “develop policies that take into consideration our inherent cognitive limitations.”

That is, I must say, an intriguing thought—one that deserves more than a reflexive reaction. Think about it.

 

Jim Schwab

Hurricane Irene: Examining Resilience in Vermont

Earlier this year, the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, sponsored a student paper contest for students in urban planning programs across the country. The papers would need to deal with some aspect of natural hazards and planning. The contest involved a $2,500 prize and presentation of the award at APA’s National Planning Conference, which just occurred in New York City May 6-9. The award was announced at a joint reception of the hazard division and APA’s Sustainable Communities Division on May 8. As might be expected, numerous papers were submitted by students in graduate planning schools across the U.S..

To my surprise and great pleasure, the winner of this first-ever contest was one of my own students from a course I teach at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Emily Seiple, of Mahomet, Illinois, was in my Fall 2016 class, “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” She was one of three students who sought my endorsement to submit their papers, but there were undoubtedly dozens of others, if not hundreds, from other schools. I have not inquired as to the total submitted.

 

Courtesy of NOAA, National Weather Service

Emily’s paper is very deserving of the recognition she has now received. In her paper, written as an assignment for my class, she expertly dissected the dynamics of a challenging recovery situation for the town of Waterbury, Vermont, following Hurricane Irene in the fall of 2011. Many readers may recall seeing television footage of glutted streams rushing downhill from the mountains, inundating one Vermont community after another. The flood itself was but the prelude, however, for then followed the arduous work of organizing recovery committees, managing recovery funds, working with state and federal agencies, and finding and implementing the silver lining in an otherwise bleak situation. Resilience involves a community’s ability both to respond well to such challenges and to build back better and stronger. Emily examined that story with a remarkably clear and perceptive eye to both details and the big picture, as you will learn by reading her paper, linked here. I present it because I believe her recpaper will allow blog readers to gain a greater understanding of the many nuances involved in disaster recovery planning, which has never been a simple subject.

I took the extra step, during the APA National Planning Conference, of arranging to videotape an interview with Emily Seiple about her paper, with the help of Michael Johnson of the APA staff. It may be two or three weeks before that video is posted, but you will ultimately be able to find it on the APA website, at www.planning.org. We will also arrange to post the paper on that site. I invite reader comments on both the paper and its subject matter.

Finally, I apologize to my readers for the relative shortage of postings in recent weeks. The final months of my tenure at APA, leading to my working independently as a writer, consultant, and speaker as of June 1, have been surprisingly hectic, and I want to be sure that I leave the APA Hazards Planning Center in good hands and in excellent shape. That has taken priority, but the end is near, after which I hope to give this blog considerably closer attention well into the future.

 

Jim Schwab

Step Forward on Water Hazards Resilience

Satellite photo of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Image from NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It is time to make America resilient. The trends have been moving us in the wrong direction for a long time, but we know how to reverse them.

Planners — and elected officials — have to embrace the science that will inform us best on how to achieve that goal, and we have to develop the political will to decide that public safety in the face of natural hazards is central both to fiscal prudence and the kind of nation we want to be. America will not become great by being short-sighted.

Damage from natural disasters is taking an increasing toll on our society and our economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently the target for serious budget cuts by the Trump administration, operates the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), a vital national resource center for data. It has long tracked the number and costs of the nation’s weather and climate-related disasters, and the conclusion is unavoidable: The number of billion-dollar disasters is growing and getting worse.

APA’s Hazards Planning Center has long studied and highlighted best planning practices for addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to such disaster losses. However, the uptake into community planning systems varies, and it is often a long process challenged by resource shortages.

In recognition of Water Week, I offer the following recommendations to Congress for ways in which federal partners and planners can work together to create stronger, more resilient communities:

Maintain funding levels

Maintaining the necessary funding support for agencies like NOAA is critical for providing us with the baseline information the nation needs to track data. It’s only through the ongoing coordination, maintence, and strengthening of national data resources that federal partners will truly be able to support local planning efforts. More data — not less — is the key to creating hazards policy that prepares communities for the future.

Translate science into good public policy

It is important to find new and better ways to translate science into good public policy. This is one of the objectives for NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience program — just one of the many important grants in danger of being defunded in FY 2018.

Support America’s coastal communities by ensuring that they benefit from projects directing the nation’s scientific and technical ingenuity to solve problems related to coastal hazards. The price tag is a tiny fraction of what the nation spent on recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The program is clearly a wise investment in our coastal future.

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program expires this year. Reauthorization must include continued support for the flood mapping program so communities have essential baseline information on the parameters of their flooding challenges.

Municipalities and counties need accurate and current flood mapping and data in order to make more informed judgments on both how and where to build. Only then will the nation begin to dial back the volume of annual flood damages.

Pass the Digital Coast Act

Passing the Digital Coast Act means authorizing and enabling NOAA to provide the suite of tools, data, and resources under the Digital Coast program that have proved useful to local planners, coastal resource managers, public works departments, and water agencies in better managing coastal zones and the natural systems that keep them healthy.

Through the Digital Coast Partnership, APA has been a strong advocate for formalizing NOAA’s Digital Coast project through legislation and providing adequate federal appropriations for robust funding.

This legislation already has bipartisan support because the program shows government at its best in providing cost-effective support to scientifically informed public policy and decision making.

As APA Past President Carol Rhea, FAICP, has noted, “This legislation will directly improve local disaster response and hazard mitigation planning. This bill will help local communities minimize potential loss of life and damage to infrastructure, private property, and conservation areas. The Digital Coast Act is an important step for effective coastal management.”

Continue funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created partly in response to the sorry condition of the Great Lakes and major tributaries like the Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers. We have come a long way since then. The lakes and rivers are healthier, and the communities around them are, too. Yet the administration’s budget would zero out such programs despite their megaregional and even international impacts.

Recognize the progress we have made and renew America’s commitment to further improve these major bodies of water. Support coastal resilience along the Great Lakes.

These are not dramatic requests. Mostly, they recognize the slow but steady progress — and the persistent creativity — that has resulted from past commitments. They are, however, critical to successful water policy and to our national future as a resilient nation.

Jim Schwab

This post is reprinted from the APA Blog with permission from the American Planning Association, for which it was produced.

Natural Solutions for Natural Hazards

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

It has taken a long while in our modern society for the notion to take hold that some of the best solutions to reduce the impact of natural hazards can be found in nature itself. Perhaps it is the high cost of continuing to use highly engineered solutions to protect development that has often been sited unwisely in the first place that has finally gotten our attention. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy, however, the notion of using green infrastructure as part of the hazard mitigation strategy for post-disaster recovery began to gain traction; green infrastructure was highlighted in the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy. These approaches are also known as natural or nature-based designs. They involve understanding the role natural systems play in reducing damages and in using that knowledge to deploy such solutions as part of an intelligent game plan for improving community resilience.

But where should community planners and local officials get reliable information on the best and most proven strategies for implementing green infrastructure solutions?

About a year and a half ago, researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached me about involving the American Planning Association (APA) Hazards Planning Center in a project they were undertaking with support from the Kresge Foundation to prepare such information in the form of a green infrastructure siting guide. In the end, they also involved the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates to assist with this effort. Over the past year or more, we have all met regularly to discuss what needed to be done and our progress in making it happen. We produced case studies, strategy briefs, and other material to populate the project’s web-based resources.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last month, after all that teamwork, TNC unveiled its new website for the project, called Naturally Resilient Communities. For those interested in knowing how trees, living shorelines, dunes, coastal marshes, and oyster reefs, among other types of natural infrastructure, can help mitigate natural hazards like coastal storms and urban flooding, the website provides a serious and interactive introduction to the subject matter, backed up by numerous resources.

What is especially valuable about the website design is that it allows users multiple avenues into the specific types of information they need. Not all natural infrastructure solutions are born equal. Some are more appropriate in certain settings than others. Some work best in inland river valleys, some along coastlines, and others in mountains or high plains. Some coastal solutions work well in the rocky coastlines of California or Oregon, while others work better along Atlantic or Gulf Coast shorelines. Applying such solutions is largely a matter of learning what works best in a specific natural environment in the face of specific hazards—riverine flooding, hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other threats that communities face. It is critical to adapt the solution to the problem.

Accordingly, the website, largely the work of Sasaki Associates with vetting from the other project partners, allows users to approach the information by deciding which strategies they wish to investigate or which part of the United States is relevant. They can also look at considerations such as cost, the geographic scale of the solution (neighborhood, municipal, regional), and the type of community in question. These are precisely the frames of reference familiar to most urban planners and civil engineers who are most likely to be involved in implementing natural infrastructure projects. The emphasis throughout is on the practical, not the ideal or the ideological. A particular approach either works or does not work, but it does so in very specific settings, such as a neighborhood in a city along one of the Great Lakes or in the Southwestern desert. Context is the central question.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

Establishing context is why the project put considerable emphasis on case studies, which cover a variety of communities around the nation. Specify, for example, Rocky Mountain West as a region and riverine flooding as a problem, and the site gives you a case study from Boulder, Colorado, that examines the alternatives considered and solutions adopted for flooding along Boulder Creek and discusses the involvement of the city and the Denver-based Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to implement a stream restoration master plan. One can also find case studies from Florida, Ohio, and numerous other locations. One can also, however, explore sections of the website devoted to additional resources and funding

sources to support green infrastructure projects. These allow the user to connect to other websites and some PDFs for additional information.

Go explore. I admit to taking pride in our involvement in this effort. It is, I think, a welcome resource and great learning tool for planners, engineers, local officials, and the interested public.

 

Jim Schwab

Petition the White House on Climate Change

I was made aware yesterday of a new petition on the White House website concerning climate change. The White House website has long contained a mechanism by which citizens can initiate an online petition on an issue of concern and then seek support from others to bring that issue to the concern of the President and his staff. To get a formal response from the White House, the petition must attract at least 100,000 signatures in 30 days. The clock is already ticking. Because petitions have a word limit, the statement is brief and to the point:

  1. Reinstate the President’s Climate Action Plan and double down on your commitment to ensuring the U.S. is the leader in combating climate change.
  2. Allow the EPA to do their job and protect the waters, air, and people of the United States. This includes allowing them to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Use climate change as a lens when making decisions for our country. Don’t pit economic development against environmental protection – that is a false dichotomy.

I have discussed numerous times on this blog why climate change is a serious issue facing this nation’s future, how it affects our vulnerability and undermines our resilience to natural hazards, and the scientific basis for understanding that climate change is a real phenomenon significantly influenced by human activities. While President Trump seems to deny this reality, what he has not offered so far is any scientific evidence to support his assertions. I would go so far as to say he has offered little more than tweets and campaign slogans. It is time to get serious; far, far too much is at stake for the future of both the U.S. and the world to continue in this vein.

If you wish to sign on to the petition, just go to https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-us-worlds-leader-combating-climate-change, and enter your name and a valid, current e-mail address. We may not get the response we desire, but we can at least make our voices heard.

Jim Schwab