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

In the Valley of the Crooked River

DSCF3156Two weeks ago, I wrote about Cleveland’s Flats Entertainment District, where restaurants and bars now line the sides of the once filthy Cuyahoga River that now hosts boats and rowers. The Flats is but the last reach of a river that extends south into the Akron area. What has often been far less well known to outsiders than the more notorious industrial past of the river is the beautiful, forested valley that surrounds it upstream. In fact, about the time the Cuyahoga River was making environmental history by becoming a driving force behind passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, U.S. Rep. John Seiberling, an antiwar Democrat from Akron, was leading an effort to designate a new national park. By 1974, he had won authorization for the creation of what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which remains a hidden treasure for many. I have personally discovered from discussing our trip that many people outside Ohio do not even know that the park exists.

For some interesting background on the politics and commitment behind the drive to create the park, I recommend a book I read several years ago about the life of John Seiberling, A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement, by University of Akron emeritus history professor Daniel Nelson.

As for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Yosemite or Yellowstone it is not. Ohio, which became a state in 1803 and rapidly urbanized and industrialized afterwards, does not offer such massive public spaces for preservation. But it does contain gorgeous smaller valleys such as the Cuyahoga where protection of the landscape was still possible in the 1970s, and land was assembled from numerous small landowners and public spaces, woven in some cases into the fabric of the existing Metroparks system. In the area that contains the park, certain places seem to take one back in time to the 19th century, when Ohio built a canal to connect the Ohio River and Lake Erie and move agricultural and other products to markets a generation before the railroads began to dominate. Towns such as Peninsula and Boston, in the heart of the upper Cuyahoga Valley, still have the small town feel of that era in many ways, and many older homes have been preserved.

DSCF3157One, in fact, now hosts the Conservancy of the park, along Hines Hill Road just east of Boston, where one finds the visitor center. When we arrived, staffers were erecting a tent for an outdoor wedding that weekend. Curiously, we were also in town for an outdoor wedding for one of my nephews, but his was at Thorn Creek Winery in Aurora, several miles to the northeast. Although we merely stopped to investigate the scenery, and we were totally unexpected arrivals in the Conservancy office, the staff in the office treated us like honored guests, plying us with materials about the park and answering questions. Their friendliness is a tribute to the attitudes and sense of mission of both the Conservancy and the National Park Service itself.

DSCF3164The park itself is a fantastic playground for hikers, bikers, backpackers, and even skiers and sledders. This is the north, after all. Near the Boston Visitor Center is the Boston Mills ski resort, offering some modest hills but great accessibility for people in the metropolitan area. But we arrived in June, and we began to wander the Towpath trail that leads away from the visitor center back into the forest, south beyond the massive bridge that carries Ohio Turnpike travelers past the Cuyahoga River below. From the height of the turnpike, one might never realize that what lies below is a national park, although it is certainly an impressive expanse of forested greenery. Down below, however, we were treated not to nature’s silence but to its music. For one thing, it was cicada season, so the buzz was all about the woods, but so were the birds, some of whom may have been feasting on cicadas. We surely could have seen other wildlife, had we come around dawn or dusk, but we were hiking in the late morning, when the deer and the rabbits and coyotes were well hidden. It is remarkable how easy it is to get away from everything, although the trails are popular enough to keep you in touch with other passing humans. The trails seemed to attract both young and elderly, providing a great excuse to all ages to stay in shape and in touch with nature. I began to wish I had tree and bird guides with me to better understand parts of my experience. If I still lived in the area, I might revisit with those guides, but it may be a while before I return.

DSCF3169Our hiking visit occurred on a Thursday. Jean and I made a return visit on Friday, but of a different nature, and one that accommodated my sister, Carol, who lives nearby in North Royalton. She joined us at the parking lot on Rockside Road in Independence at 9 a.m. for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a fine way for first-time visitors (and others) to see the park and its valley from a different perspective. The CVSR is a passenger train that uses tracks that largely run along the edge of the river. It is mostly run by volunteers who simply love the job of educating people about the local environment and its history. Audio is available that allows you to hear some of that history along with what one crew member jokingly referred to as “some pretty bad music,” most of it evoking a sense of bluegrass and Civil War and the early frontier with the use of banjos and bass fiddles. Call it “mood music.” The train ride takes about an hour and a half to get to Akron before turning around and bringing you back to where it started. Along the way, there are several stops that allow riders to get off and explore and then wait for the next train coming through. Explorers may want to get the schedule before they wander off. The price is only $15; as senior citizens we got tickets for $13. The money supports the train and is well worth it for the scenery along the way.

Because the park is interwoven among small towns and private property, the park leases some land for sustainable farming of vegetables and sheep, goats, and chickens, with some of the products finding their way to the Countryside Farmers’ Markets. The Conservancy staff also noted for us that there is now a visitor home in the park called Stanford House, built in 1843. It is not a bed and breakfast because visitors are on their own in sharing the use of a kitchen, but rooms can be rented starting at $50 per night, and the home provides immediate access to the Towpath Trail and the railroad, among other attractions.

Ultimately, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a study in adaptation, fitting a park into the scenery of a river valley that is also at the center of the large Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area. The park has been evolving since its advent in the 1980s and will continue to evolve as conditions change. But one major contribution it has already made is to stymie the urban sprawl that has so adversely affected much of the Cleveland area and allow residents to enjoy an expanse of refreshing greenery.

One reason it has taken two weeks to return to this blog and tell the story, since we returned to Chicago on June 12, is that I left again on June 19 for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the 40th annual conference of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which was founded about the same time the national park was being organized. Today it is a growing organization of more than 17,000 floodplain managers, about 1,000 of whom attended the conference at the DeVos Convention Center, which sits along the Grand River opposite the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to which it is connected by a stone pedestrian bridge. ASFPM members have always been familiar with nature-based strategies for reducing flood damages and preserving the quality of rivers and streams, and the conference contained numerous discussions of such approaches. It occurred to me that what I had seen in the Cuyahoga Valley was one of the best possible approaches to floodplain management, the prevention of the encroachment of development to allow nature its due, preserving a natural setting that nonetheless endows humans with wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation and exercise in an age when public health authorities worry about an epidemic of obesity. We have to make our cities attractive places for people to get the exercise they need. Many factors in the Cleveland metropolitan area, frankly, work against that goal, but the park exemplifies it. It is modern floodplain management at its best with a healthy dose of environmental protection in the bargain. The fact that the park is sprinkled with outdoor attractions like the Blossom Music Festival only serves to enhance that goal by acquainting people with what the park has to offer.

John Seiberling was clearly a visionary in fighting for the creation of the park in Congress. But every city has its environmental champions. It is the job of the rest of us to make it politically possible for them to survive and to achieve their objectives. We all benefit from a better quality of life when they do.

As for the title of this blog post: The Cuyahoga River derived its name from the local nomenclature of the Mohawk Indians, an Iroquois nation, who referred to the river as “crooked” because of the way it winds through the landscape, hence “crooked river.” (The Seneca, also Iroquois, used a similar name.) Meandering is nature’s way of diffusing the force of flood waters while distributing silt into the rich agricultural soils along the banks. Ohio grew up on such wealth. Now it is preserving some of it.

 

Jim Schwab

Keeping It Sharp in the Flats

Let’s start with the fact, obvious mostly in retrospect, that I should have printed out a map of the Flats Entertainment District in Cleveland rather than relying on Onstar, the GM dial-in navigation system in our Saturn, for directions. (I could also have used my iPhone for guidance, but I hate looking at such a small screen while driving.) On this one occasion, Onstar stumbled somewhat, but a quick call to Alley Cat Oyster Bar, our choice of location for an anniversary dinner, got us to our destination a mere two blocks away. My point is that the Flats can be mildly confusing if you have not been there before. Onstar told me to go to a traffic circle but failed to detect that another traffic circle preceded the one in front of Alley Cat, but nonetheless insisted “you are near your destination.” Well, sort of.IMG_0258

That said, Onstar has generally served us very well for several years. But in certain anomalous settings like the Flats, it can fall short. The city could also improve its street signage in the area.

The Flats are somewhat anomalous in any event. Here is an area now known for high-end restaurants and entertainment venues along a river that in 1969 caught fire from a train spark and burned. When I was in junior high school in Brecksville, Ohio, in the early 1960s, our class took a field trip on the Goodtime Cruise down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie. One of my classmates asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into industrial filth that filled the river. The guide answered rather calmly that the person “would probably get pneumonia and die.” That answer haunted me into my college days, when I emerged as an environmental activist and founded the first student environmental organization at Cleveland State University.

The movement that grew out of shocking events like the burning river helped trigger the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act, which in turn steadily advanced cleanup of the Cuyahoga River, among many others. In the meantime, foreign competition hammered the once-dominant steel industry, and other industries either died or evolved. It was a classic Rust Belt story. Over ensuring decades, the Cuyahoga River changed dramatically, and the current version of the Flats grew up where industrial sewers used to reign. It is a long story that has been told many times and deserves to be understood in the current political environment because it shows that this nation can succeed in improving its quality of life and the environment when it musters the political will to do so.

IMG_0256But back to dinner at the Flats. With a sense of history that is not yet lost in Cleveland, I sat in Alley Cat with my wife, watching out the window at the nearby river, this time watching a team of kayakers row up and down, a pleasure boat docked at the Alley Cat and another across the water at Shooters, on a sunny June evening in Cleveland, just two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals would take place downtown at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing off against the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the 2015 series. The city’s attention was riveted to the fate of its beloved Cavs.

There are today about a dozen restaurants in the general area of the Flats, but I chose Alley Cat based on its online reviews, which had been stellar. My wife, not a Cleveland native (she grew up in Nebraska), left that decision to me. But we both love seafood, which is Alley Cat’s strong suit, so she was happy. I can happily recommend Alley Cat on several counts.

IMG_0253First, the food is excellent. I enjoyed a Faroe Island salmon entrée, which is draped in Vauduvan curry sauce, accompanied by black rice and yellow squash. I enjoyed it all. My wife opted for the less expensive and more predictable fish sandwich (cod), with pickles and fries, but we cross-fertilized each other’s dinner a bit. The spirits list is impressive, although predictably pricey.  The bottom line is that neither of us was disappointed. Jean, generally a Merlot fan, loved the Syrah that I picked out.

But second, and very important, the wait staff was uniformly gracious and friendly. This is a feature of Cleveland more generally that many outsiders do not appreciate until they experience it, but this is a town that has had good reason at times for a chip on its shoulder yet retains a very welcoming, congenial atmosphere. It is fun to interact with people in the Cleveland metropolitan area. They seem to prefer to enjoy life. At times, they almost made me wonder what I was doing in Chicago. Just the night before, we had met over dinner in Shaker Heights with a former co-worker of mine, now working as a planner with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, who seemed very happy with his move here from Washington, D.C. As for the staff at the Alley Cat Oyster Bar, they were extremely accommodating with our every request.

IMG_0255The final point deals with the scenery. What was once a stinking, unhealthy cesspool a half-century ago is now a remarkably pleasant setting. Our table was right by a window facing west to the river, where we could watch the rippling water pass by along with the kayakers and other floating transportation, in the shadow of highway bridges high overhead, but with a sidewalk that allows one to experience the marine milieu in a refreshing way. There is outdoor seating, but this day had been rather cool for early summer, so we settled for inside dining.

This all served to remind me that the Flats are at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It is a relatively short reach of a river that stretches upstream to Akron along a beautiful valley that is now preserved, for the most part, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the subject of my next blog post.

 

Jim Schwab