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

Climate of Hope

For some time, it has been my intent to address the question of how we communicate about and discuss climate change, with a focus on books that have tackled the issue of how to explain the issue. Several of these have crossed my desk in the last few years, and I have found some time to read most. These include: Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, by John J. Berger (Northbrae Books, 2013), and America’s Climate Century, by Rob Hogg (2013). The latter, independently published, is the work of a State Senator from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inspired by the ordeal his city underwent as a result of the 2008 floods. I met Hogg while serving on a plenary panel for the Iowa APA conference in October 2013 with Dr. Gerald Galloway, now a professor at the University of Maryland, but formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he led a major federal study of the causes and consequences of the 1993 Midwest floods.

Another book that made it into my collection but still awaits reading is Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, 2014), an English environmentalist. To him and the others, I apologize. Many good ideas for blog posts went by the boards in past years when my occupational responsibilities at the American Planning Association sometimes kept me too busy to implement them. Whether it is still worthwhile to go back and review these works of past years is debatable, but at least I offer them up here as contributions to the literature. It is critical that we keep revisiting the issue of climate communication because, clearly, much previous communication has failed in the face of determined efforts by skeptics to sow doubt and uncertainty, to the point where the U.S. now has a president who has withdrawn the nation from the Paris climate accords, a subject I addressed here a month ago. It is imperative that we find better ways to share with people what matters most.

From https://www.climateofhope.com/

As a result, I was overjoyed to see two heavyweight voices, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, offer what I consider a serious, well-focused discussion in their own brand new book, Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Bloomberg, of course, is the billionaire entrepreneur of his own media and financial services firm, Bloomberg L.P. I confess I read Bloomberg Business Week consistently because it is one business magazine that I find offers a balanced, thoughtful analysis of business events. Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, is an environmental veteran with a keen eye to the more realistic political opportunities and strategies available to that movement and to those anxious to address the problems created by climate change. Theirs is an ideal pairing of talents and perspectives to offer a credible way forward.

This book will not seek to overwhelm you, even inadvertently, with the kind of daunting picture of our global future that leaves many people despondent. At the risk of offending some, I would venture that the most extreme and poorly considered pitches about climate change have nearly pirated for the Earth itself Dante’s line from The Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I know one person who literally suggests something close to that. I fail to see where that sort of message leads us. The harsh political and social reality is that most people need to understand how something they can do will make some concrete difference that may make their lives better now as well as perhaps a half-century from now. There are temporal factors in human consciousness that greatly affect how we receive messages, and most of us are not well programmed to respond to issues too distant in time or in space. Framing the message effectively matters.

The bond that brings these two authors together is that combination of hope and realism. They may understand that polar bears are losing their habitats, but their message focuses closer to home: Business opportunities await those willing to embrace solutions to climate change. Cities can make themselves more livable even as they reduce their negative impacts on the atmosphere. Despondency is not only counterproductive; it is downright pointless in the face of such golden eggs waiting to hatch. This is more than rhetoric. Climate of Hope provides a steady diet of details for investing in solutions, whether through public policy and programs such as Bloomberg highlights in New York and other cities, or in the business sector, which both authors do very well.

Of course, there are some very tough questions that must be addressed. The biggest involves the future of energy both in the United States and around the world. In a chapter titled “Coal’s Toll,” Bloomberg is unflinching after crediting Pope and the Sierra Club for bringing to his attention the public health costs of continued reliance on coal. He notes that pollution from coal emissions “was prematurely killing 13,200 Americans a year,” or 36 per day because of various lung and respiratory diseases, with a resultant financial toll exceeding $100 billion annually. In many other parts of the world, the figures are even higher. All this is in addition to the environmental damage of lost and polluted creeks and rivers wherever coal is mined or burned. To counter this toll, the Sierra Club, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, undertook a campaign to close outdated coal-fired power plants. It is also important to recognize the degree to which fossil fuel companies have benefited from public subsidies and relaxed regulation that has failed to account for the magnitude of negative externalities associated with coal and petroleum.

Inevitably, someone will ask, what about the jobs? The strength of Bloomberg in this debate is his understanding of markets, and he rightly notes that, for the most part, coal is losing ground because of the steady advance of less polluting, and increasingly less expensive, alternatives including not only natural gas but a variety of new energy technologies like wind turbines, energy-efficient LED lights, and electronic innovations that make coal essentially obsolete. The issue, as I have noted before in this blog, is not saving coal jobs but investing in alternative job development for those areas most affected. Once upon a time, the federal government created a Tennessee Valley Authority to provide economic hope and vision for a desperately poor region. Although the TVA or something like it could certainly be reconfigured to serve that mission today, the federal vision seems to be lacking. Instead, we get backward-looking rhetoric that merely prolongs the problem and makes our day of reckoning more problematic.

It is also essential to balance the problems of coal against the opportunities to shape a more positive, environmentally friendly energy future. In many parts of the world, off-grid solar can replace more polluting but less capital-intensive fuels like kerosene or wood for cooking. Hundreds of millions of poor people in India and other developing countries could be afforded the opportunity to bypass the centralized electrical facilities of the West through low-cost loans to build solar networks. Again, what may be missing is the vision of world banking institutions, but under the encouragement of international climate agreements, and with the proper technical support, places like India can make major contributions to reducing their own greenhouse gas output. The U.S. expenditures in this regard about which Trump complained in his announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord are in fact investments in our own climate health as well as future trade opportunities. In chapter after chapter, Bloomberg and Pope describe these opportunities for private investment and more creative public policy. The intelligent reader soon gets the idea. This is no time for despair; it is instead a golden day for rolling up our sleeves and investing in and crafting a better future.

It is possible, but probably not desirable, for this review to roll on with one example after another. We face tough questions, such as reshaping the human diet to reduce the environmental and climatic impacts of meat and rice production in the form of methane, but there are answers, and Pope explores them in a chapter about the influence of food on climate. Food waste is a source of heat-trapping methane. Both en route to our plates and after we scrape them off, food waste can be a major contributor to our problems because of decomposition, but again there are answers. The issue is not whether we can solve problems but whether we are willing to focus on doing so. There will be disruption in the markets in many instances, but disruption creates new opportunities. We need to reexamine how the transportation systems in our cities affect the climate, but we should do so in the knowledge that innovative transit solutions can make huge positive impacts. We can reframe our thinking to realize that urban density is an ally, not an enemy, of the environment, when planned wisely.  Urban dwellers, contrary to what many believe, generally have much lighter environmental footprints than their rural and suburban neighbors. They ride mass transit more, bicycle more, and mow less grass.  Lifestyles matter, where we live matters, planning matters.

Quality of life in our cities is a function, however, of forward-looking public policy. Bloomberg notes the huge changes being made in Beijing to reduce its horrific air pollution. He notes:

One of the biggest changes in urban governance in this century has been mayors’ recognition that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change.

I have personally found that, even in “red” states in the U.S., it is easy to find public officials in the larger cities who recognize this problem and are attuned to the exigencies of climate change. Mayors have far less latitude for climbing on a soap box with opinions rooted in ideology because they must daily account for the welfare of citizens in very practical matters, such as public health and what draws investors and entrepreneurs to their cities in the first place. Hot air, they quickly discover, won’t do the trick.

Staten Island neighborhood, post-Sandy, January 2013

Necessarily, the authors, toward the end of the book, come to terms with the potential consequences of failing to act. Bloomberg, in a chapter titled “New Normals,” describes the state of affairs in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that could easily have been far more destructive than it already was. For a dozen years, he was the mayor of a city with 520 miles of coastline. To its credit, New York City pursued numerous practical solutions and recognized that no one size fits all, that making the city more resilient would require implementing hundreds of individual steps that dealt with various aspects of the problem. Some of the solutions may seem insignificant, such as restoring oyster beds, but collectively they produce real change over time. Other changes can be more noticeable, such as redesigns of subway systems, changing building codes and flood maps, and rebuilding natural dune systems. The battle against climate change will be won in thousands of ways with thousands of innovations, involving all levels of government, but also businesses, investors, and civic and religious leaders.

All of that leads to the final chapter, “The Way Forward,” which seems to make precisely that point by identifying roles for nearly everyone. Bring your diverse talents to the challenge: the solutions are municipal, political, and financial, and require urban planning, public policy, and investment tools. In the end, although I recognize the potential for readers to quibble with specific details of the prescriptions that Bloomberg and Pope offer, I would still argue that they provide invaluable insights into the practical equations behind a wide range of decisions that our nation and the world face in coming years. The important thing is to choose your favorite practical solution and get busy.

Jim Schwab

 

 

New York City, Water, and Resilience

I was never a New York native, but I did not feel entirely alien, either, when I returned for the first of four visits to the area in January 2013, following Superstorm Sandy. My father lived in Queens most of his life and left only when my mother, who was from Cleveland, insisted on moving. New York City was not to her liking, and she wanted to go home. But my paternal grandparents remained on Long Island until they died in the 1960s, and we often visited. I was born in Bayshore Hospital, one of seven that were evacuated during the storm. My father had told me about living through the “Long Island Express,” the famous 1938 hurricane that also swamped much of New England. I was not a total stranger. I was certainly aware of many of the cultural traits that make New Yorkers famous (or infamous), though I think some consist more of popular stereotype than reality. But there is a certain toughness that comes from living in the Big Apple, even if it’s different from the toughness I have learned from my eventual attachment to Chicago, the alleged “City of Big Shoulders.”

Hence, despite all the vulnerabilities connected with a city of eight million people that is nearly surrounded by water, I instinctively understood the connection of the city with the concept of resilience. The city has withstood more than Sandy—this was the site of the worst 9/11 attacks, after all—and responds well to challenges. There are no feet of clay; the foundation of Manhattan is bedrock. But any map of the city makes clear that every borough but the Bronx is an island, and even that is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

What brought me to New York after Sandy was a decision by the American Planning Association to assist our New York Metro and New Jersey chapters in preparing their members and communities for the arduous task of post-disaster recovery. To be honest, ours was a contribution more of solidarity and expertise than of resources, which had to come from the massive allocations of federal funds used or distributed by federal agencies, led mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What mattered to our members was our presence, our ideas, and the time we spent preparing and delivering a series of training workshops in April 2013 on planning for post-disaster recovery. It is fair to say that, as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center and the ringleader of that training effort, Sandy recovery dominated my life for the first half of 2013. And this is all context for my observations in reviewing a relatively new book from Island Press, Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay, edited by Eric W. Sanderson, William D. Solecki, John R. Waldman, and Adam S. Parris. Contributors include biologists, geographers, and engineers, among others with a wide range of expertise that contributes to the book’s comprehensive approach. its utility is clearly greater for professional practitioners in planning, civil engineering, public administration, and allied fields, as well as for academic researchers, than for purely casual readers.

Map from Gateway National Park, National Park Service, website. https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/map_jbu.htm

The book focuses specifically on Jamaica Bay, although New York City matters greatly as the municipal government making critical decisions that affect the bay’s resilience. Jamaica Bay, however, is an interesting case study of the intersection of geographic, ecological, industrial, and urban planning factors in both weakening and enhancing the overall resilience of a highly stressed water body and the urban neighborhoods that line its shores. The book’s most noteworthy feature is not any one approach to the subject of resilience for Jamaica Bay, but the way in which it seeks to cross disciplinary lines to undertake a thorough analysis of the prospects for building resilience in an area like Jamaica Bay. Researchers there may have much to share with those examining other ecologically challenged urban water bodies across the nation.

It is important to understand the geographic context of Jamaica Bay, an area familiar to most people (including many New Yorkers) primarily as the scenery below the airplane as it makes its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The airport, in fact, has a significant impact on Jamaica Bay because it sits at the eastern end of the bay in Queens, the linchpin between the rest of Long Island and the Rockaways, a long, densely populated peninsula that stretches west from JFK and forms the southern boundary of the bay. That, in turn, means that the Rockaways, home to 180,000 people, is extremely vulnerable in a major storm like

Fire devastated Breezy Point during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Cleanup lasted for months. Photos courtesy of James Rausse.

Sandy. The Rockaways suffered some of the worst damages from the storm, including a fire that tore through Breezy Point, destroying 130 homes. Because of its isolation at the end of the peninsula, and the storm surge that inundated it, it was impossible for fire trucks to respond to the conflagration. For those curious about the origins of a fire in the midst of a flood or hurricane, it is worth remembering that a surge of salt water can easily corrode and short out electrical wires, triggering sparks. Much of New York’s subway system, well designed to pump out normal stormwater, was shut down during Sandy for the same reason.

What makes Jamaica Bay matter enough to devote nearly 300 pages to the subject? It is a great laboratory for resilience. The dense urban development that surrounds the bay stresses the natural ecosystems of the bay, whose biological composition has changed radically over time. The late 19th century witnessed the growth of a viable fishing industry, including oyster harvests, but pollution from sewage disposal and industry brought that to a sudden halt by the 1920s. The same factors reduced the bay’s recreational potential as well. Only in the last few years have there been efforts to restore the oyster beds, but like most such efforts, they will require ongoing research and attention to succeed.

Just as importantly, human communities need to become more resilient as part of a larger social-ecological system because the city is not about to disappear. There simply will be no return to pre-urban conditions. Urban stormwater drainage, sewage disposal, industrial activity, and transportation all have impacts that good urban planning must mitigate or prevent in trying to maintain a healthy urban relationship with the natural environment. Serious scientific inquiry may provide some answers. Greater levels of awareness and connectedness by area residents to the marine environment can also help, but that has often not been the case. An entire chapter explores neighborhood and community perspectives on resilience around Jamaica Bay. Few seasoned urban experts and planners will be surprised to learn that New York generally, and the Jamaica Bay watershed, feature remarkably diverse neighborhoods in terms of density, ethnicity and race, and income level, all of which influence those perspectives and influence community goals. New York is also a remarkably complex city in which residents of some areas in Queens can feel isolated from the center city in Manhattan, but may also feel more secure in their isolation. It is noteworthy that some areas at the western end of the peninsula were heavily populated by public safety personnel. All this influences people’s perspectives on proximity to, and connection with, the waterfront and public understanding of the relationship between human settlement and the ecological health of the bay, which is not always straightforward in any event. People can exert both positive and negative influences on that relationship. The good news is that the authors found that Sandy and the recovery process that followed had some useful impact on the perceptions that underlie those actions.

Given all that complexity, it will also be small surprise that the resilience of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding development is affected by a complex network of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the city and its boroughs, a variety of federal and state agencies with varying agendas and authorities, including the New York-New Jersey Port Authority (responsible for airports including JFK), the National Park Service (Gateway National Park), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (climate and coastal zones), overlay the influence of numerous private organizations and academic institutions. Add the flood mitigation and post-disaster recovery responsibilities of FEMA, and one is suddenly confronted with a multicolored collage that for some people can become bewildering.

The case of NOAA is interesting in that climate change is likely to affect the frequency of extreme weather events, which may further test the resilience of an already dynamic social-ecological system. As a scientific agency with significant meteorological and climatological expertise, NOAA has contributed to the array of modeling tools helping to analyze resilience in Jamaica Bay, although academic and other institutions have added to that toolbox. What is important ultimately is to bring together the various strands of research in cooperative efforts for integrative management. The good news, well described toward the end of this book, is that such cooperative efforts have produced the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay for that purpose, with participation by decision makers from local, state, and federal agencies to help resolve those conflicting missions and adopt a comprehensive systems approach to the challenges facing the area. Let us hope that those decision makers, and the public officials controlling their resources, have the wisdom to maintain hard-won progress. As is true of many other areas in the U.S., those responsible for the health of Jamaica Bay have much work to do. The rest of us have much to learn from what they are doing and a stake in that progress.

 

Jim Schwab

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

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.

Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

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

Making Natural Infrastructure Solutions Happen

From time to time, I contribute to the APA Blog, which consists of a variety of news and perspectives the American Planning Association provides to its members on its own website. Recently, I composed an article about an effort APA undertook in concert with several organizational partners to explore issues related to permitting of wetlands restoration projects and some of the obstacles such projects may face. For those interested, just follow the link: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9118459/.

Jim Schwab

Deepwater Horizon

I have just returned tonight from seeing Deepwater Horizon at the movie theater. It has been a while since I used this blog to review a movie, but I feel compelled. This one, I am willing to say, is well worth your time and money. Peter Berg, as director, has done an outstanding job in using special effects to recreate a realistic sense of the disastrous chaos that ensued when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately spilling more than 5 million barrels of oil over 86 days before the leak was plugged. Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, a leading member of the crew, along with Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell.

I will not dwell here on the details of what happened, which are well documented and readily available on numerous websites about the worst oil industry accident in American history. On the evening of April 20, 2010, the rig, owned by Transocean, exploded and burned as a result of a blowout deep below the water’s surface. BP owned the drilling rights in the area, known as the Macondo Prospect. Eleven men died, and numerous other workers were seriously injured. Billions of dollars of damage to the Gulf Coast environment ensued, resulting in a huge political backlash that ultimately entailed pressure from the White House on BP to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate victims including the states and communities affected by the oil pollution that spread across the Gulf.

The entire environmental and political story might make a good movie and certainly is great material for a documentary, but that is not the focus of the movie. Nor does it have much to do with my recommendation. Instead, the movie calls our attention to the intense human cost of the event among the workers themselves and their families. The value of the stunning special effects is not to make the event surreal, as in most Hollywood productions, but to make it all too real. For most of us, the events of the Deepwater Horizon spill are abstractions, and most of the television news coverage featured polluted shorelines and bayous, tarred and dying birds, and similar scenes that typified the larger impacts of the accident.

In contrast, Deepwater Horizon the movie draws our attention to the traumatic experience of actually working on the rig and exposes us to the tensions between Transocean workers and BP officials. The high human cost among the crew, involving not only physical suffering but traumatic escapes from the burning platform, are the less well understood aspects of the entire event, but the movie makes you feel those impacts at a very intense and personal level. I will admit it forthrightly: the movie left me with tears in my eyes as I began to absorb the horror that unfolded and almost surely left most of these people scarred in the deep recesses of their souls. Several, the movie indicates, never returned to sea or the oil industry again, but moved away from Louisiana and moved on to other things in their lives. It is worth remembering the high price they paid for the shortcomings of BP management.

 

Jim Schwab

Hold That Soil, Please

Photo by Suzan Erem

Photo by Suzan Erem

 

Ours has often been a profligate society in using the vast natural resources with which it was originally endowed. We’ve improved our attitudes about conservation, but we have a long way to go. Among those resources we have been prone to waste in the interest of short-term gain has been the deep topsoil that made the Midwest superbly productive. Less than 200 years ago, according to Rick Cruse, an Iowa State University researcher, Iowa had an average of 14 inches of topsoil in which grew thousands of square miles of prairie. Now that soil is about six inches deep, less than half what we inherited—or more accurately, mostly took—from the Native Americans who first lived here.

Those estimates come from an August 12 article in the Chicago Tribune that I shall credit as the inspiration for my addressing this topic. However, those familiar with my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, will be well aware that the topic is not new to me. In 1985, farmer Gary Lamb and I wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register decrying the lack of conservation and what it might do in the long term to the fabled productivity of Iowa farmland. In essence, we were saying, nothing lasts forever if we insist on killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Farmers mostly tore up the prairie to plant the corn, soybeans, wheat, and other agricultural products that now grow on the vast majority of the land in states like Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Prairie plants had deep roots that held topsoil in place and nurtured it. With prairie grasses removed, loose soil began to erode, clogging streams and rivers that feed the Mississippi River, which dumps its overload into the Gulf of Mexico, producing what has become known as a “dead zone.” This is an area suffering from hypoxia—a shortage of oxygen in the sea that chokes out life. This comes at the additional cost of stripping Midwestern farms of much of the topsoil with which they were originally blessed. We have unhinged that layer of topsoil by depriving it of the prairie root systems that once anchored it. In fact, we continue to do so.

But the problem is more serious and immediate than simply undermining the long-term productivity of the soil. Current practices also threaten the public health and welfare of people in states like Iowa. Not long ago, the Des Moines Water Works filed suit against three upstream counties for failing to control the nonpoint source runoff that is contaminating the capital city’s water supply. That suit is being met with a good deal of anger and skepticism, but it is symptomatic of a larger conflict. That conflict pits the priorities of agriculture versus public welfare, a dispute playing out in other forms in even larger venues like California. But there the issue often has more to do with drought and the protection of adequate water supplies than with polluted runoff. In Iowa, floods have been a more persistent danger in recent memory.

Lawsuits, however, are not the only rational response to such a major public policy problem. It is critical that public universities support research aimed at viable solutions, and at least some research at Iowa State University is pointing to an answer that should seem remarkably obvious: restore the prairie. The imperatives of modern food production may make it clear that we are not going to restore all the farmland in the Midwest to pre-modern conditions. But the prairie provides demonstrable ecological benefits that we can ignore only at the cost of prolonging current problems with flooding and water quality. In a sense, what we are learning about the value of restoring some prairie for the purpose of reducing runoff and improving downstream water quality is similar to what we are learning in more urban contexts about the value of green infrastructure—the urban forest, the green roofs, the living shorelines, and other nature-based features that enhance the environmental quality of our communities.

But green infrastructure is not a concept that need be limited to our urban areas. Nature provides vast ecological functions for human benefit in all sorts of settings if we are wise enough to investigate them and learn to use them.

In that sense, I think that Iowa State University is on to something. Researchers there have been demonstrating the value of prairie restoration with a project called Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS). Test sites have shown not only that these prairie strips can capture much of the polluted runoff from farms and enrich the soil, but that they provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife, restoring some of the richness of the land in the process. For instance, one research project by Lisa Schulte and others showed that such treatments doubled or tripled the presence of bird species, both in overall abundance and variety. Other research has found that wider strips of prairie serve to trap greater levels of sediment that would otherwise clog streams and reduce water quality. It is as if, having been blind to the free benefits of natural systems for so long, we have at last begun to learn to sing nature’s tune anew.

But it will take time to change attitudes and perspectives in a farm sector that has often been rather conservative about adopting such techniques. There is still likely to be a lively debate between environmentalists and dominant sectors of the agricultural industry, with varying levels of resonance in different states, but results speak volumes and gradually help to change minds. There may be more lawsuits like the one that originated in Des Moines, and there may ultimately be some meaningful legislative debates about incentives and regulations. We can at least hope that the steady infusion of research-based information on the benefits of prairie restoration will make a difference soon enough to matter. There is certainly a great deal at stake.

Jim Schwab