The People Affected by Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Schwab

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

 

 

“For God’s Sake, Don’t Repeal It”

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU-HCII hall.

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU hall.

“Six weeks ago,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is assistant minority leader in the U.S. Senate, “I got a call from Burlington, Vermont.” It was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who told him “we need to rally in cities across the U.S.” to preserve health care for Americans. Sanders, though falling short of the Democratic nomination last year against Hillary Clinton, showed a noteworthy capacity as a prescient organizer. He clearly anticipated the assault that the new administration and congressional Republicans have now launched against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare. And so today, five days before Donald Trump will be inaugurated the 45th President of the United States, rallies to preserve the ACA took place. Durbin spoke in Chicago at the overflowing hall of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Health Care Indiana-Illinois (HCII) unit.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

My wife and I arrived about 15 minutes before noon, parked our car in the lot behind the building, and joined a long and rapidly growing line of people seeking to attend the 1:00 p.m. rally. Limited by fire code, the SEIU staff had to cut off the number of people entering, directing the rest of the crowd to a Jumbotron behind the building. We were lucky, among the last 25 people allowed inside, and the line behind us stretched around the corner. Clearly, the Republican attack on health care had stirred a hornet’s nest, at least here in Chicago.
Durbin was the leadoff speaker following an opening by Greg Kelley, executive vice-president of SEIU-HCII. With

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

him were several Chicago area Congressmen—Reps. Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, all Democrats, along with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle. Durbin cited the statistics that reveal the origin of the angst driving the overflow crowd. He noted that some 1.2 million people in Illinois stood to lose their health insurance coverage if the ACA is repealed, roughly 10 percent of the population. The ACA saves seniors in Illinois an average of $1,000 per year on prescription drugs. People stood to lose the ACA’s protection against lifetime limits on coverage, which in the past often led to bankruptcy for people with catastrophic illnesses like cancer.

“The Affordable Care Act was the most important vote I have ever cast as a member of Congress,” Durbin concluded. “If the Republicans can’t replace it with something as good or better, for God’s sake, don’t repeal it.”

A true citizen uprising needs more than politicians at the podium, and union leaders, such as SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, health care consumers, representatives of Planned Parenthood and a small business alliance, and others, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, kept the standing-room-only crowd revved up. Tracy Savado, introduced as a health care consumer with a story to tell about lifetime coverage caps, shared that her husband had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. Fearful of lacking enough insurance, she inquired of her insurance company representative about this point, and, she said, was told that President Obama’s health care law had done away with such limits. Prior to the ACA, she noted, about half of all insurance policies had lifetime caps on coverage. She added that she had recently attended a farewell for outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Asked what might happen in the new administration, Savado said, Burwell paused and noted that the biggest obstacle to the GOP plan for repeal is “people sharing their stories” about the benefits they have enjoyed from the new law. “When people understand what’s at stake, they aren’t going to want repeal,” she concluded.

Many of the other speakers essentially made many of the same points in different ways for almost an hour and a half, until William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois, ended the rally on a boisterous note with a rousing speech in which he declared that “the only pre-existing condition the Republicans want you to have is amnesia.”

His comment is a powerful point that is worth remembering in considering how matters came to this pass. More than a few Americans who voted for Trump in the recent election are also benefiting from Obamacare. While people clearly can and do vote on issues other than health care, it remains undeniable that this constitutes some form of contradiction that requires explanation. Even amid the 2010 debate that ended with the passage of the ACA, Tea Party rallies often featured protesters with signs that read, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” What sort of stunning ignorance is required to fail to understand that Medicare was and is a creation of the federal government by a vote of Congress in the 1960s and that, absent the “government hands,” it would never have come to be in the first place?

Recent polls have shown overwhelmingly that voters favor virtually all the key features of the Affordable Care Act even as many nonetheless oppose whatever they perceive as “Obamacare.” A post-election Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found public support at 80 percent oDSCF3283r above for ACA provisions allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, eliminating most out-of-pocket costs for preventive services, subsidies for low-income insurance purchasers, and state  options for expanding Medicaid, as well as 69 percent for prohibition of denial of insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Only 26 percent want the law repealed. What we have faced since 2010, and must confront now, is not a real plan to replace Obamacare with something better, but an incredibly slick campaign of propaganda to associate the word Obamacare with something evil.

People who come to terms with the origins of such contradictions may find themselves in a better position to understand the remarkable political gall required for the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass repeal in recent days without offering a clue as to what will replace Obamacare. “Repeal and replace” was Trump’s campaign mantra, yet even he has offered no details of consequence about what that will mean even as he insists Congress will somehow do both within the next few weeks. Anyone who believes that can be done by a party that has failed to define an alternative for the last six years is truly prepared to believe in political miracles.

It would be more realistic to look closely at Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a man who advocates replacing much of current Medicare coverage with a voucher system and is devoted to dismantling Obamacare. Read his intentions closely, get angry, and organize.

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

Just an Ounce of Empathy

Free clip art from Bing.com

Free clip art from Bing.com

Disability was one noteworthy theme during the presentations Monday night at the Democratic National Convention—how we perceive it, how we react to it, how we treat those with serious physical and mental limitations. It is no small subject, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did himself no favors earlier in the year with his mocking imitation of a New York Times reporter, which the Democrats have already been using in ads to question his character. And rightly, for it does make you wonder what prompted such an immature outburst.

But I am not writing to dwell on the missteps of Trump, nor on the virtues of Hillary Clinton in this regard as extolled by speakers with disabilities on the stage in Philadelphia. That comparison is one of many people can decide for themselves. I am about to suggest a simple way of thinking about the issue that all of us can readily use even if we are not among the estimated 56 million Americans afflicted with such shortcomings.

It may be apparent to some that this blog suffered a short hiatus on my part since my last post. To some extent, that was because I found myself very busy chasing deadlines after my return from the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado on July 14, a day later than anticipated because of a flight cancellation due to storms in Chicago. I was then squeezed for time, with just six work days left until taking a vacation this week, with two of those largely devoted to participating in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency symposium on urban sustainability. Nonetheless, by last Friday, I managed with some extra effort to clear the most urgent action items from my desk in preparation for a week off.

Then it hit. Maybe I was more vulnerable because of the time pressures, or maybe it was just something that caught up with me. There is no way to know, but my neck grew tight, and by the time I got home, fever and chills set in and my wife insisted on taking me to the emergency room. After three hours of tests and x-rays, strep and tonsillitis and similar problems were ruled out, but it was clear my right-side lymph nodes were inflamed and some sort of infection had taken residence inside my throat. The doctor gave me antibiotics, which I am taking for ten days, and they seem to be effective. But the illness certainly ruined an evening in which I was going to get a haircut and shop for groceries for an outdoor barbecue party in our backyard for my wife’s birthday on Sunday. I was pretty useless on Saturday, worn down and unable to swallow or talk without considerable effort, although I did help shop for groceries, including a birthday cake. I was not good for much more, and I was growing hungry because eating was such a chore.

That remained the case for much of Sunday, though I was energetic enough by then to join the party. I did not have nearly enough energy to play grillmaster in the hot sun, so someone else took over who enjoyed the job, fortunately. But all I could eat and swallow was watermelon and some cake and ice cream, none of which excessively challenged those inflamed lymph nodes.

Why share all this? My illness will pass, but when I watched Anastasia Somoza, a quadriplegic who also suffers from cerebral palsy, discuss attitudes toward disability on stage Monday evening, it reminded me of a thought I have had before. What if the condition I was suffering temporarily were something I had to live with permanently? How would I want to be treated? How would it make me feel, and how would it affect my outlook on life? Admittedly, a viral or bacterial infection generally does not leave lasting impacts, but there are other ways all of us can at least project ourselves into such situations to begin to understand how it feels to be the perennial underdog in life.

This thought actually first occurred to me more than 15 years ago, when I suffered a debilitating herniated disk in my lower back as a result of lifting a box of books the wrong way after having our house repainted. The pain was immediate and agonizing. I had to grab the rails to ascend and descend the stairs in our three-story house. Although I never needed surgery, and I am very glad because back surgery is generally brutal and barbaric (my father underwent it in 1968), I did undergo three months of strenuous rehabilitation therapy that required the discipline on my part to do sets of exercises three times daily between therapy sessions. I was determined not to suffer permanent impacts from the injury and followed the routine to the letter, ultimately achieving release from therapy two weeks early. There is a great deal to be said for willpower, and there is nothing wrong with having the pride in one’s willpower to struggle through such a situation successfully, as I did. I soon resumed jogging, and the experience is certainly a factor in my ongoing effort to remain physically fit.

But there is a great deal wrong with thinking we are better than anyone else because of such success. There is a great deal right with using such examples to encourage others faced with similar circumstances. The one thought that stuck with me afterwards was, What if I had not been able to recover successfully? What if I had suffered a permanent injury, like many veterans or just those born with serious physical limitations over which they never had any control? I know how humbling it was even for those three months to be unable to sleep in comfort, to be wary of being bumped by anyone in close quarters, and the challenge of climbing stairs. It does not seem so hard to me to be able to extrapolate that sort of experience into some empathy for those who may never be able to function as fully as the rest of us.

So, as you listen to this whole discussion about disability rights and how we treat each other, remember that this ought not to be a partisan matter. It was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, one of my personal heroes, who introduced and fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who signed it. Harkin was motivated in part by the experience of his younger brother, Frank, who was deaf. Disabilities cross party lines and so should our empathy and understanding of what it takes to include and respect all those who face challenges. By now this should be as settled an issue as universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Let’s be human, folks. In this particular instance, it does not take much to imagine ourselves in someone else’s wheelchair. Just think of the extraordinary exertions on behalf of others of one of our famous past presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Enough said.

 

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

Chicago’s 606: Transformation of an Urban Space

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More than a century ago, the City of Chicago settled a neighborhood dispute by forcing the elevation of a railroad bed for a 2.7-mile spur line that served a variety of small factories on its North Side that provided jobs for a string of neighborhoods in or near Bloomingdale Avenue. The Burlington Northern Railroad had first built the line in the 1870s, but by 1910 it was on a collision course with the surrounding residential areas as auto and pedestrian traffic met freight cars at street grade. Within a few years, the rail cars were running about 16 feet above street level, with 37 viaducts providing overpasses above uninterrupted street traffic below. By the end of the century, however, many of the factories were gone, or were converted to condominiums, and trucks served whatever shipping needs remained. The rail spur had become an anachronism, and eventually the right-of-way reverted to the city.

Dog walkers, children on tricycles and in strollers, all along the length of the Trail. Volunteers in yellow shirts were plentiful along the route.

Dog walkers, children on tricycles and in strollers, all along the length of the Trail. Volunteers in yellow shirts were plentiful along the route.

During that time, a vision developed of a different kind of urban space, a linear park that would become the nation’s second elevated rail-trail, following the High Line in Manhattan. Funded largely with federal transportation enhancement funds,

Winding, ADA-compliant access ramps connect pocket parks, such as Park 567 here, to the trail above.

Winding, ADA-compliant access ramps connect pocket parks, such as Park 567 here, to the trail above.

supplemented by some city money and millions in local fundraising, the Bloomingdale Trail moved from dream to concept to an actual plan by 2013, and finally, on Saturday, June 6, a reality as the trail opened, complete with 17 access ramps and Mayor Rahm Emanuel surveying its length as the leader of a small bicycle troupe accompanied by a handful of police. Thousands of Chicagoans moved onto the trail, on foot, on bicycles and tricycles, and in strollers, taking in the newest amenity in town amid street celebrations and music on Humboldt Avenue and with children’s activities in pocket parks along the way. A host of volunteers in yellow shirts welcomed the visitors and directed them to the day’s festivities. Residents had waited a long time for this day. They finally realized the imaginative transformation of an urban space that long had seemed neglected. The 606 Project, originally known as the Bloomingdale Trail, became a new source of healthy recreation.

New construction is a common site along the trail. This site is near Milwaukee Avenue and parallel to the CTA Blue Line, which crosses the trail.

New construction is a common site along the trail. This site is near Milwaukee Avenue and parallel to the CTA Blue Line, which crosses the trail.

And, for some, an abiding fear of displacement. That was almost surely to be expected. Development of the trail followed the 2008 recession, with its sudden decline in housing prices, followed by a more recent uptick. For Chicago, that uptick has been nearly citywide, but there are disparities, and it has been noted repeatedly that the trail links disparate neighborhoods. To the east, starting around Ashland Avenue, neighborhoods within a mile of the trail were gentrified at least a decade ago. As one approaches the western terminus, at Ridgeway, household incomes and property values have been remarkably lower, and the percentage of renters much higher. Renters, of course, have much less control over rising housing costs than homeowners, on two counts—one, that rents can go up, but two, that affordable rental units can be torn down or rehabbed and converted into more expensive units, resulting in potential displacement in favor of newcomers with more income.

A view of my own street, North Campbell Avenue, from the trail crossing above.

A view of my own street, North Campbell Avenue, from the trail crossing above.

The trail is almost certainly accelerating those trends, but as a resident of eastern Humboldt Park since building a new home on an infill lot in 1994, at a location about one-third of the way from the eastern end, I can attest that it is not the sole source of such gentrification, which was already well underway to the east, in Wicker Park and Bucktown, even then, when the mere idea of the trail was barely a glimmer in the minds of the biggest visionaries in town. It has inexorably marched west. The question is not the direction in which trends are moving, but the pace.

No need to leave the trail if you're thirsty. Water fountains appear at decent intervals.

No need to leave the trail if you’re thirsty. Water fountains appear at decent intervals.

The question is also not whether residents of the area want such an amenity. Now that the 606 Trail and Park is open, it is unquestionably a beautiful space that offers great recreational and physical activity value to a substantial chunk of Chicago. Nearly 100,000 Chicagoans are within walking distance of the trail, depending on how you calculate that distance. (Speaking for myself, one mile is no big deal, but for others it could be insurmountable, depending on age and physical condition.) The views from the trail are stupendous and varied. What is at issue for those concerned about being priced out is whether working and low-income people of modest income and resources can enjoy the park they have so long awaited. It is a volatile equity issue the city needs to address.

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In any event, there was always the opposite question: What if we did not develop such a trail? The abandoned rail line, left unattended, would eventually become a serious liability for the city, yet the cost of tearing it down, ending up with nothing, might well have been comparable to the $95 million ultimately invested in creating something, something noteworthy and positive.  Doing nothing with this obsolete space was never a viable option. It would have become an eyesore or worse.

IMG_0089One issue that a few have feared almost certainly will not come to pass: increased crime and vandalism. On opening day, despite teeming crowds, some running, some walking, some cycling, and some with dogs and baby strollers, along the entire length as I rode my own bicycle, stopped, shot photographs, and talked with volunteers, I saw absolutely no accidents and no incidents. People on wheels respected the pace and space of those around them. The trail seemed to bring out the best in everyone; Jane Jacobs’s long-ago observation about the value of “eyes on the street” never seemed so true. People with homes adjoining the trail seemed to enjoy the presence of the passersby, some sitting on decks and in backyards waving at trail users, including the occasional marching band participating in the celebration.

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There will be time to engage in more deliberative debate about the impacts of the 606. For today, on this blog at least, I prefer to take time to offer a visual celebration by sharing some of more than 130 photos I shot that opening morning. Enjoy the views.

 

Want to just watch the traffic go by? Sit on a bench.

Want to just watch the traffic go by? Sit on a bench.

Jim Schwab

 

Or watch the street fair below on Humboldt Avenue on opening day, June 6.

Or watch the street fair below on Humboldt Avenue on opening day, June 6.

 

 

 

Seattle Hosts the Nation’s Planners

Housing in Seattle along the harbor All photos by Carolyn Torma

Housing in Seattle along the harbor
All photos by Carolyn Torma

It appears the American Planning Association may break all its attendance records at its annual National Planning Conference next month in Seattle. The last previous record of about 7,000 was also set in Seattle in 1999, so there must be something about the city that both supports and attracts urban planners and those interested in the subject. Perhaps it is the whole Pacific Northwest that sets a tone in favor of well-planned communities; Portland, Oregon, for example, has long been regarded as uniquely progressive in this regard. But Seattle and King County, which includes the city, have been no slouches in embracing forward-looking initiatives aimed at achieving sustainable, environmentally friendly communities. Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who led many of those efforts, will be speaking at the conference, as will Julián Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Sims served with HUD as Deputy Secretary under Secretary Shaun Donovan before returning to Seattle to lead the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Board.

In planning for a plenary presentation at another conference in July, the Natural Hazards Workshop, as well as for an article assignment for Planning, the APA monthly magazine, later this year, I have been assembling data on some important changes in the interests of American planners over time as expressed in conference session attendance. I have been around long enough to recall APA conferences 20 years ago when it was difficult to muster significant attendance at sessions addressing issues connected with natural hazards and disaster recovery, and sessions addressing issues related to climate change did not exist. This year, in Seattle, APA will host an entire track of 18 sessions devoted to Planning and Climate Change, and my guess is that most of them will be well attended. And that is without counting other sessions addressing disasters without the climate change component as part of the subject matter. I will be participating in some of both, but speaking at one in the very first round on Saturday morning, April 18, on “Climate Change Projections and Community Planning.” The audience can expect a rather heady deep dive into the question of how best we can integrate data generated by the science of climate change into hazard mitigation and other community plans.

This is of no small significance to communities seeking federal hazard mitigation assistance (HMA) because the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new FY 2015 guidance for its grant programs now includes a section now includes tools and resources for climate change and resiliency considerations. Moreover, a new presidential executive order makes inclusion of climate change factors a preferred method for assessing flood risk under the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, for which public comments are due by April 6. To encourage consideration of these factors, FEMA has incorporated sea level rise into its HMA cost-benefit analysis tool. This is a major step.

Climate change also has implications in planning for drought and urban heat emergencies, and I will serve also on a panel organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office on “Coping with Heat and Drought,” which will include some valuable integration of the impacts of such challenges on public health. Elsewhere in the conference, my Washington-based APA colleague, Anna Ricklin, manager of APA’s Planning and Community Health Center, will be busy with sessions addressing the relationships of urban design and public health, such as fostering physically active communities, another vital frontier in the field of urban planning.

Vertical garden in Seattle

Vertical garden in Seattle

All of this makes an ecologically aware city like Seattle a fascinating laboratory in which to conduct mobile workshops and other conference events for knowledge-hungry attendees. At this point, I will commend fellow practitioners of my own professional for their intellectual acuity and curiosity. I have attended and spoken at many kinds of conferences over the years, but I have seen few at which the professionals involved show such enthusiasm for new knowledge. They attend the sessions, they ask questions with a passion, and otherwise demonstrate that they truly care about the work they perform in communities on a daily basis, whether as local, state, or federal government staff, or as consultants, land-use attorneys, or academic researchers. (The largest portion of APA members is and long has been employed in local government in some capacity.)

Let's see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

Let’s see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

For all the fascination with cutting-edge topics like climate change and public health, however, there will remain the traditional hard-core topics of modern urban planning such as zoning, economic development, transportation, and capital improvements programming, for these are the tools that must absorb and focus many of these emerging concerns into a means of addressing them through regulations, incentives, other public policies and better design practices. The overarching goal is to create livable and lasting, sustainable, resilient communities.

Jim Schwab