Connecting Hazard Science and Planning Down Under

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Nearly nine years ago, when I was invited to accept a three-week visiting fellowship in New Zealand with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand (CAENZ) at the University of Canterbury, people began to ask me why the New Zealanders were so interested in me or the work of our Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. My response was to ask another question: “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”

The overwhelming majority of inquirers would say yes, and I would follow up by asking whether they were aware that the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Most were, though not all. “Look at the landscape in those films,” I would say, adding that “it ought to come to you” after doing so. Later, I wrote an article for Planning, APA’s monthly magazine, about the experience, titling it “A Landscape of Hazards.” New Zealand almost literally has it all: earthquake faults, active volcanoes, coastal storms, landslides, flash floods, and even occasional wildfires. One day, back in the states, I even learned that a small tornado had struck in Auckland. There were very good reasons CAENZ spent enough money to bring me there to consult on national hazards policy and land use.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

One serious consequence of the visit, which included my doing seven lectures and seminars around the country during that time, was that I established a number of valuable and lasting professional relationships, some of which are occasionally rekindled by meeting Kiwi researchers at conferences in the U.S. since then. One was a young researcher, Wendy Saunders, at GNS Science, who recently sent me a copy of a new report she co-authored for this crown research center, released in November. “The Role of Science in Land Use Planning: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Practice” made me realize that a common problem in U.S. planning, the introduction of scientific information related to natural hazards, is not much different halfway around the world, even under a rather different planning framework than ours.

Indeed, one other benefit of the trip was that, not only did they learn from me about the complexities and idiosyncrasies of land-use planning in the United States, but I learned a great deal about their system as well, and it broadened my perspective on how planning is practiced around the world. Things are somewhat simpler in this small nation of 4.2 million people on two islands that together are somewhat smaller than California. That led to an interesting comment from one gentleman to another in the front row of a modest crowd at the Christchurch regional council following one of my presentations. “We’re about the size of a small state over there,” he mused. Yes, I thought, we are two sovereign nations, but vastly different in size, with systems calibrated to very different needs as a result.

In the New Zealand context, the result is a system, based on 1989 reforms, in which there is no “state” layer of government between the national government in Wellington and local government at the municipal level. Under the nation’s Resource Management Act, however, a series of regional councils does provide oversight of environmental policy and reviews local decisions for compliance. Those regions are basically based on watershed boundaries, which may seem like nirvana to some bioregionalists in the U.S., but they entail their own political challenges. No system is perfect.

The challenge the GNS Science report addresses, in fact, is that of properly introducing natural hazards science into land-use policy at the local level, which is not an easy task even in New Zealand, where such hazards seem abundant and omnipresent. The report includes a case study of GNS’s own experience in intervening in a plan change in Hutt City, near Wellington on the North Island, where a major earthquake fault straddles and affects much urban development. The problem of how to introduce issues like climate and hazard mitigation into the planning process is one we have pondered repeatedly at the Hazards Planning Center at APA, precisely because that is our mission. As the GNS report notes, while local planners may complain that science is often presented In ways that lack translation into a local context, with no straightforward means of resolving conflicts between experts, scientists nonetheless “are often frustrated by the lack of uptake of their science in land use planning decisions.” Maybe Kiwis and Yankees, at least in this respect, have far more in common than we realize.

Inevitably, because there are no simple solutions that fit all cases, the report concludes that incorporating natural hazards science in land-use decision making is a “complex process influenced by numerous social levers and networks.” In the Hutt City case, economic development was paramount, but natural hazards took their place on the stage in part as a result of GNS Science’s intervention, a lesson to scientific researchers that it is important for them to find their voice even if local elected officials and policy makers may not absorb all the subtleties of scientific conclusions. It is not always a matter of scientists being poor communicators. Sometimes public officials must be better listeners. Scientists must be willing to learn more about the planning process, but planners must learn more about the nuances of scientific assessments. Public safety with regard to natural hazards risks is not a matter of stopping all development, but of using scientific knowledge wisely to make development better. We must all become better at reaching across disciplinary boundaries to reduce misunderstanding and misinformation and to receive information vital to making better decisions. The importance of this became very clear to me less than three years after my visit, when Christchurch, the home of CAENZ, was shaken by significant earthquakes from which the city is still recovering.

 

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

The American Planning Association has just posted today this article I wrote for its APA blog: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9111027/.

Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Jim Schwab

 

Regional Green Infrastructure

The subtitle to this headline for many people might be: Who Cares? As a term of art, green infrastructure may be popular with landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban planners, among a few other allied professions, but it does not often mean much to the average person. Many people may struggle to define infrastructure even without the word green in front of it.

Infrastructure generally refers to those modern systems, such as roads, bridges, and utility grids that allow our cities and regions to function effectively. Recognizing that the value of infrastructure lies in the services it provides, green infrastructure has been distinguished from traditional gray infrastructure by focusing on the use of natural systems, such as wetlands and urban forests, to protect or enhance environmental quality by filtering air pollution, mitigating stormwater runoff, and reducing flooding. It stands to reason that such natural systems are most likely to provide such “ecosystem services” well when we respect and preserve their natural integrity. It also stands to reason that, to the degree that such systems face threats from urban sprawl and urbanization, their ability to perform those services for human populations is diminished. To say that development has often helped to kill the goose that laid the environmental golden egg is to state the obvious, no matter how many people want to avoid that truth. That does not mean that our cities cannot or should not grow and develop. It does mean that, using the best available natural science, we need to get much smarter about how it happens if we want to live in healthy communities.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

I mention this because, as part of the American Planning Association staff pursuing such issues, I spent three days in Washington, D.C., last week at a symposium we hosted with U.S. Forest Service sponsorship on “Regional Green Infrastructure at the Landscape Scale.” We were joined by about two dozen seasoned experts not only from the Forest Service and APA, but from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several national nonprofits, and others to sort through the issues impeding better planning for green infrastructure. We explored major hazard-related issues such as wildfires, flooding, and coastal storms and how green infrastructure can or should function in relation to them.

This matters because there are huge costs associated with the way we choose to develop. There can also be huge benefits. Whether the ultimate ledger in any particular region is positive or negative is largely dependent on the approach we choose, and that is heavily dependent on how broadly or narrowly we view our responsibilities. Historically, in America, we have been rather myopic about the damage we have done to our environment, but our perspective has become more comprehensive over time, starting with the conservation movement in the late 1800s. But today, as always, there are undercurrents of more myopic attitudes and impatience with the more deliberate and thoughtful calculations a more long-term view requires. There is also the simple fact that understanding issues like climate change requires some degree of scientific literacy, something that is missing too often even in some presidential candidates.

But it helps to drill down to specific situations to get a firm sense of consequences. For instance, the Forest Service budget is literally (and figuratively) being burned away by the steadily and rapidly increasing costs of fighting wildfires. That is in large part because the average annual number of acres burned has essentially tripled since 1990, from under 2 million then to about 6 million now. As recently as 1995, 16 percent of the agency’s budget went to suppressing wildfires. Every dollar spent on wildfires is a dollar removed from more long-term programs like conservation and forest management. By 2015, this figure has risen to 52 percent, and is projected to consume two-thirds of the agency’s budget by 2025. Clearly, something has to give in this situation, and in the present political situation, it is unlikely to be an expansion of the Forest Service budget. At some point, a reckoning with the causes of this problem will have to occur.

What are those causes? Quite simply, one is a huge expansion in the number of homes built in what is known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), defined as those areas where development is either mixed into, interfaces with, or surrounds forest areas that are vulnerable to wildfire. The problem with this is that every new home in the WUI complicates the firefighters’ task, putting growing numbers of these brave professionals at risk. Every year, a number of them lose their lives trying to protect people and property. In an area without such development, wildfires can do what they have done for millennia prior to human settlement—burn themselves out. Instead, a century of aggressive fire suppression has allowed western forests, in particular, to become denser and thus prone to more intense fires than used to occur. The homes themselves actually represent far greater densities of combustible material than the forest itself; thus fires burning homes are exacerbated by increased fuel loads. In addition, prescribed fire, a technique used to reduce underbrush in order to reduce fire intensity, becomes more difficult in proximity to extensive residential development. A prescribed fire that spun out of control was the cause of the infamous Los Alamos, New Mexico, wildfire in 2000. The entire situation becomes highly problematic without strong political leadership toward solutions.

At the same time, denial of climate change or even reluctance to broach the subject does not help, either. It compounds the difficulty of conducting an informed dialogue at a time when increased heat and drought are likely to fuel even more wildfires of greater intensity. The recent major wildfire around Fort McMurray, Alberta, displacing thousands of people, may be a harbinger of things to come.

That is just one sample of the issues we need to confront through a larger lens on the value of large-scale green infrastructure and regional cooperation to achieve positive environmental results that also affect issues like water quality and downstream flooding. Because we could produce an entire book on this issue—and the suggestion has in fact been made that we do so—I will not even attempt here to lay out the entire thesis. Rather, it may be useful to point readers to some resources that I have found useful in recent weeks in the context of writing for another project on green infrastructure strategies. Most of these are relatively brief reports rather than full-length books, enough to give most readers access to the basics, as well as references to longer works for those so inclined.

On the subject of water and development in private forests, a Forests on the Edge report, Private Forests, Housing Growth, and Water Supply is a good starting point for discussion. Because planning to achieve effective conservation at a landscape scale requires collaboration among numerous partners, an older (2006) Forest Service report, Cooperating Across Boundaries: Partnerships to Conserve Open Space in Rural America, may also be useful. With regard to wildfires, a recent presentation at a White House event by Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a firm that has specialized in this area, may also be useful for its laser focus on trends and solutions with regard to development in the wildland-urban interface and the need for effective, knowledgeable local planning in areas affected by the problem. But I would be remiss if I did not bring readers’ attention back to a 2005 APA product of which I was co-author with Stuart Meck: Planning for Wildfires. It could probably use some updating by now, but every one of our central points, I believe, remains valid.

Happy reading to all!

 

Jim Schwab

 

Incident below the 606

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

One of the more disquieting aspects of urban life is an occasional confrontation with the irrational. I have debated telling this story, but I decided that enough other people either have had or will share such experiences that sharing it may have great value. One must be prepared somehow to handle these unexpected situations.

In my very last post a week ago, I noted my workouts with a trainer at XSport Fitness. One of those occurred yesterday, Saturday morning, at 8 a.m., after which I walked home with my gym bag, stopping for a snack and coffee at McDonald’s, after which I crossed Western Avenue by going up the ramp on one side to the 606 Trail, about which I have written more than once, and crossing to the other side. It is when I came down I encountered trouble, in broad daylight in the middle of a sunny, beautiful morning.

I was heading down the sidewalk to my home when a young man stood in front of me and demanded to know where I was going. “I’m going home,” I said in a matter-of-fact voice that was intended to suggest that the rest was no one else’s business. Nothing about his manner suggested that this was a friendly question.

“This is my neighborhood,” he asserted, “and I don’t know you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, and began to move down the sidewalk. But he moved to block my path. I moved out toward the street to pass him, and he moved again. He reasserted that he did not know who I was, and I made clear that was irrelevant to my right to continue on my way home. But he would not get out of the way, prompting me to ask, with increasing exasperation, “What is your problem?”

I had both the gym bag and a mostly full cup of coffee in my hands. Before I could truly absorb just how determined he was, I saw his punch coming toward my jaw. I moved back just as quickly, so that his swing only barely connected with my cheek, but now he had really angered me. I threw the coffee at him, and it splattered across his shirt. But I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing on my rump on the planter strip below the trail 16 feet above. He picked up the gym bag and threw it at me while I was down. I quickly got back up, but it was clear this confrontation was not over, and I might just have to throw a few punches of my own if he continued.

But by then, something else happened that I think is one of the redeeming glories of the 606. A small crowd of witnesses to the scuffle had gathered above, and it was very clear to all of them that he was the aggressor. Some began to try to talk him down, threatening to dial 911 for the police. I would have done that myself, except that it was a rare trip in which I had not brought my cell phone. “Do it,” I yelled to them, signaling, I suppose, that I did not have a phone with me. At that moment, I would have liked nothing better than to see a squad car show up. But it did not happen.

What did happen is that one of the men on the trail had made his way down the ramp to usher me away from the confrontation while the young man watched. Amazingly, considering all the witnesses to what had happened, he loudly protested that I had thrown my coffee at him, to which I replied, “Yes, after you took a damned swing at me!” In effect, I retreated at the other man’s urging, continuing further down the trail and then circling back to my home. Equally interesting, though, someone came out of the nearby building and ushered the young man inside. It was over; no one was hurt.

I subsequently made a police report at the station, cycling there after I got home. As soon as I told my story, the officer behind the desk indicated they knew who it probably was, showed me a picture, and I verified him as the individual who had assaulted me. They told me he was mentally ill. I know his name but will not share it. I know where he lives and will not share it. I have learned from detectives shortly after originally posting this that they are still looking for him. This was not the first time he had accosted someone. Moreover, they said it was consistent with his “M.O.”

One important feature of this story is that it highlights a problem we all know exists, but that our society does a remarkably poor job of confronting: the management of the mentally ill, including, in his case, the apparently violent mentally ill. I do not profess to be an expert in this area. There are social workers and psychologists who are much more conversant with all the issues and bureaucratic complications of a system that copes poorly, in part because most of us do not want to spend much time thinking about such people, let alone funding programs to treat them. Our jails and prisons are full of them. Many of the homeless are victims of mental illness. Yet, in Illinois, we have a governor more focused on union-busting than on funding needed social services, despite persistent pleadings from churches and social service agencies, and a legislature that is more focused on re-election than on finding solutions to our fiscal mess. We are at a standstill.

I am not saying, of course, that there is any foolproof solution that would prevent encounters such as mine. Mental illness is a fact of human life that may never disappear no matter how many medicines we invent. There will always be the problem of someone who needs those medicines not being willing to take them. There will always be those who slip between the cracks. It will fall to those of us with enough poise, enough mental stability, and enough judgment to try to defuse these situations. In this particular case, I am enormously grateful to all those people on the trail because, in their absence, I am not sure what else might have transpired. It was a somewhat unnerving incident in part because, rational creature that I am, it took a minute or two for me to grasp that this individual was simply not operating with the same set of perceptions that were part of my universe. In my universe, the street belongs to anyone who wants to use it, and other people’s rights end at the beginning of my nose, as they say, or in this case at the edge of my jaw. In his universe, I constituted some sort of threat merely by trying to walk past him.

If I had been more elderly than my 66 years, less physically fit, or a mother with a child, the incident could have been terrifying, and I suspect it has happened and may yet happen again. And in the process sometimes, we end up with even more of the walking wounded among us. It is a sobering thought on an otherwise sunny Sunday morning.

 

Jim Schwab

States and Disaster Recovery

Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, after Hurricane Ike, 2008

Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, after Hurricane Ike, 2008

In the U.S. federal system, states play a major role in what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called “the laboratories of democracy.” One role for state government that has unfortunately received far less attention than most others is preparation for and management of long-term community recovery after major disasters. Too often, in fact, that role has been defined in the midst of crisis rather than being considered carefully beforehand, with programs and capacity being established and ready when events occur.

That lack of attention is starting to change and certainly has received some attention with the federal government’s adoption of the National Disaster Recovery Framework. But much remains to be done. In that context, it is useful that the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina has produced a half-hour video, “The Role of States in Disaster Recovery,” available for viewing online. It is a very professional job, interviewing not only state officials but two governors and talking about the real-life challenges of state involvement in disaster recovery. Try it out. I don’t think you can fail to learn something, no matter your starting point in approaching the subject.

Jim Schwab

Symbolic Journey

Sylvia Vargas and Ben Carlisle present FAICP medallion and certificate in Phoenix.

Sylvia Vargas and Ben Carlisle present FAICP medallion and certificate in Phoenix. Photo by Joe Szurszewski; copyright by American Planning Association.

Sometimes we find ourselves on a journey whose significance is bigger than the meaning for our own lives alone. In fact, if we are lucky, we come to realize that we can make at least some part of our lives much bigger than ourselves. Two weeks ago, while in Phoenix, being inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), one of the highest honors in the profession of urban planning, it became very apparent to me that I was not accepting this honor just for myself. I was also doing it for hundreds of other planners, if not thousands, who have incorporated disaster recovery and hazard mitigation priorities into their careers as essential parts of the ethical duty of planners to help promote public safety. Collectively, our work saves lives, reduces property damage, and reduces many of the negative impacts of human activities on the planetary environment.

Before I go farther in discussing those impacts, let me provide some context for the majority of readers who are not professional planners. AICP is a designation currently held by at least 15,000 professionals who have taken a certification exam, eligibility for which is based on a combination of education and experience. Most common these days as a starting point is a Master’s degree in urban planning, but there are other entry points, and there are undergraduate degrees in planning as well. AICP members, who are also members of the American Planning Association (APA), which has about 38,000 members, must maintain their status through a minimum of 32 hours of continuing education every two years, including 1.5 hours each of legal and ethical training. Only after a minimum of 15 years in AICP are planners eligible for consideration, through a rigorous review of their accomplishments and biography, for acceptance as fellows (FAICP). Only about 500 people have ever been inducted as fellows, including 61 in this year’s biennial ceremony, the largest group to date. I had the honor of being included in the class of 2016.

The very formal ceremony introduces each new fellow individually in alphabetical order while a member of the AICP review committee reads a 100-word summary of his or her achievements, during which the fellow receives a pin, a bemedaled ribbon, and certificate. Mine described my work as “pivotal” in incorporating natural hazards into the routine work of urban planners. That pivotal work is the point of my discussion that follows.

I did not start my work in urban planning with any focus on disasters, except perhaps the industrial variety. I did have an intense focus 30 years ago on environmental planning and wrote about issues like farmland preservation, Superfund, waste disposal, and other aspects of environmental protection. My first two books focused, in order, on the farm credit crisis of the 1980s and the environmental justice movement, the latter published by Sierra Club Books. I have joked in recent years, sometimes in public presentations, that even with that environmental focus in my academic training at the University of Iowa in urban and regional planning, I don’t recall ever hearing the words “flood,” “hazard,” or “disaster” once in all my classes. But I did hear about wetlands, air quality, water quality, and similar concerns. Frankly, in the early 1980s, natural hazards were simply not on the radar screen as a primary professional concern for any but a mere handful of planners. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came into being only in 1979, and these issues were seen largely as the purview of emergency managers. There certainly was no significant subdiscipline within planning devoted to hazards.

It was 1992 when Bill Klein, then the research director for APA, asked me to take over project management for an upcoming cooperative agreement with FEMA to examine planning for post-disaster recovery. As a preliminary step to this work, he sent me on a trip to south Florida for the APA Florida Chapter conference in October 1992 in Miami following Hurricane Andrew. Two aspects of that trip made a lasting impression. First was the keynote delivered by Bob Sheets, then the director of the National Hurricane Center. At one point, he showed a slide on the huge screen at the front end of the ballroom. It was an aerial photo of damage on two sides of a highway, with one side showing only modest damage and the other massive damage with roofs torn off and homes destroyed. There was no differential in wind patterns, he said, that could explain such differences at such small distances. The only plausible explanation, he insisted, lay in differences in the quality of enforcement of building codes. Florida then had stricter building codes than the rest of the nation for wind resistance, but they only mattered if code enforcement was consistent. Here, it was clear to me, was a problem directly related to development regulations. The second involved a field trip aboard several buses for interested planners to south Dade County. At one point I saw that the roof of a shopping center had been peeled off by the winds. It nearly took my breath away. Then our buses got caught in a traffic jam at the end of the afternoon. The cause was a long line of trucks hauling storm debris to landfills. This was already two months after Andrew.

Under the agreement, we didn’t start work on the project until October 1, 1993. In the meantime, floods had swept the Upper Midwest, making parts or all of nine states presidential disaster declaration zones. I decided to jump the gun on our start date and visit Iowa while it still was under water. Local planning departments in Iowa City and Des Moines cooperated in showing me their cities and sharing what had happened. It turned out that I was undertaking this project, in which I engaged several veteran planners to help write case studies and other material, at the beginning of America’s first big decade of disasters. (The next was even bigger.) In 1994, the Northridge earthquake struck the Los Angeles area. In 1996, Hurricane Fran struck North Carolina, followed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. In the meantime, not only had our report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, been published in 1998, but so was another report of which I was the sole author: Planning and Zoning for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Floyd left much of eastern North Carolina, liberally sprinkled with poultry and hog feedlots as a result of regulatory exemptions, devastated, with hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses floating downstream. Eventually, they were burned in mobile incinerators introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Suddenly, it became apparent to me that the environmental concerns aroused by such operations and the impacts of natural disasters were thoroughly intermingled. Bad public policy was exacerbating the impact of disasters like hurricanes and floods.

At this point, I need to make clear how low the level of engagement was back then between professional planners and disaster issues. In 1995, the APA National Planning Conference, which in recent years has typically attracted about 5,000 registrants, included two sessions related to disasters, at which the total attendance was 73 people. Disasters were anything but the topic du jour. Yet the events of that decade made clear, at least to me, that something had to change in that regard.

What I did not anticipate, based on past experience, was how quickly that would happen. For one thing, the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report grew on people and became a classic in the planning field. By 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, APA published a new edition, and FEMA made boxes of them readily available in the Gulf Coast, with planners like Stephen Villavaso, then the president of APA’s Louisiana chapter, voluntarily driving through stricken towns and passing out copies to local officials. In the meantime, I had worked on several other hazard-related projects addressing planning for landslides and wildfires and providing training on local hazard mitigation planning, among other efforts. After the APA conference in New Orleans in 2001, a group formed and continued to meet over dinner at every subsequent conference that billed itself as the “Disaster Planners Dinner,” an event that has become the subject of some legends among its veterans. The growing contingent of planners taking hazards seriously as a focus of their professional responsibilities was growing quickly and steadily.

Hurricane Katrina, more than any other event, added a powerful new element to the public discussion. It made crystal clear to the national news media that planning mattered in relation to disasters, and because of that perception, they called APA. Paul Farmer, then the CEO and executive director, and I shared those calls, and I logged no fewer than 40 major interviews in the two months following the event in late August 2005. I stressed that disasters involve the collision of the built environment with utterly natural events, and the resulting damage is not an “act of God” but the outcome of human decisions on what we build, where we build it, and how we build it. Planners have the responsibility to explain the consequences of those choices to communities and their elected officials during the development process, and those choices sometimes have huge social justice impacts. Katrina cost more than 1,800 lives on the Gulf Coast, most of them involving the poor and the physically disadvantaged. Better planning thus became a moral imperative. Making that perception stick produced a sea change in public understanding of the high stakes involved.

That afforded me considerable leverage to win funding for new projects with FEMA and other entities, most notably including the 2010 publication of Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning, a PAS Report that argued strongly for making hazard mitigation an essential element of all aspects of local planning practice, from visioning to comprehensive planning to policy implementation tools like zoning and subdivision regulations. Now the focus of a growing amount of federal and state guidance in this arena, that report was followed in 2014 with a massive update and revision of the post-disaster report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, which dissected the whole process of long-term community recovery from disasters and argued fervently for pre-disaster planning to set the stage for effective recovery and resilience after an event. Those efforts came under the umbrella of the Hazards Planning Center (HPC), created by APA in 2008 along with two other centers as part of the National Centers for Planning. I have been the manager since HPC’s inception, and I was happy. We had succeeded in institutionalizing within the profession what had once been treated as a marginal concern of planners.

Along the way, that dinner group grew, attracting dozens of attendees by the end of the decade, and becoming large enough and attracting enough petition signatures to become APA’s newest membership division in 2015, the Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. They now meet as such during the APA conferences. They are no longer an informal group. They are official and at last count had at least 250 paid members. But the interest is far larger. Remember those numbers from the 1995 APA conference? In Seattle at the 2015 APA conference, almost 3,000 people attended 23 different sessions related to climate change and natural hazards. I was the opening speaker for the very first session in the climate track, and the room was full. There was an overflow crowd in the hall outside. Hazards and climate change adaptation had arrived as a primary concern of planners. A growing number of graduate schools of planning, including the University of Iowa, where I have been adjunct faculty since 2008, now include curricula on such topics.

This bar graph and the one below were developed last year for a presentation I did in July 2015 at the opening plenary of the 40th annual Natural Hazards Workshop, in Broomfield, Colorado.

This bar graph and the one below were developed last year for a presentation I did in July 2015 at the opening plenary of the 40th annual Natural Hazards Workshop, in Broomfield, Colorado.

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I want to state that, although I often had only one intern working with me at APA, I have never been a one-man show. On most of those projects, I involved colleagues outside the APA staff as expert contributors and invited many more to symposia to help define issues. Those APA sessions attract numerous speakers with all sorts of valuable experience and expertise to share. This is a movement, and I have simply been lucky to have the opportunity to drive the train within the APA framework as the head of the Center.

The night after the FAICP induction, at their division reception, members of the new APA division jokingly award me an "F" to go with my AICP. Alongside me is Barry Hokanson, HMDR chairman.

The night after the FAICP induction, at their division reception, members of the new APA division jokingly award me an “F” to go with my AICP. Alongside me is Barry Hokanson, HMDR chairman.

So let me take this story back to that moment two weeks ago when I walked on stage and accepted induction into FAICP. Before, during, and after that event, I received congratulations from many colleagues intensely interested in hazards planning, and I realized I was not simply accepting this honor for myself. My achievement was theirs too, and was literally impossible without them.

“You’ve gone from fringe to mainstream,” my colleague Jason Jordan told me the opening night of the Phoenix conference. He ought to know. Jason is the experienced governmental affairs director for APA and has a keen sense of the trends in planning and of government policy toward planning. But in order for his statement to be true, one important thing had to happen: Lots of other planners had to climb aboard that train for the journey. My success in winning this honor was symbolic for them, in that it served to validate the value of their commitment. I did not get there alone. A growing army of planners who care about public safety and community resilience helped make it happen, and I shall always be grateful—for them as well as for myself.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Our National Farce

Sadly, a national farce is underway. I first commented on the evolving phenomenon last June on this blog, but it has metastasized and metamorphosed in the intervening months, trumping all other considerations as we choose a new leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I wish I could find a reason to write about anything else, but it just keeps staring me in the face this weekend because the farce found its way to Chicago.

I could not even escape it while eating dinner Friday evening with my wife at the end of a very busy week. Because she was coming downtown anyway, I suggested that we eat at Miller’s Pub, right next door to the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue, where, it so happened, protesters were greeting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner during a Republican fundraising dinner. Given the stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the state legislature, there is undoubtedly plenty of reason for people to be upset. After all, the state still has no budget, and schools are getting no money. He insists on including some antiunion provisions in the budget, and the Democrats refuse. Checkmate. The losers are the students and teachers and the voters. But dramatic as that is, it is not my point.

Miller’s Pub is one of those busy, popular places with television screens on the walls, and while they are often filled with sports images or the usual news, Friday evening it was impossible to avoid noticing the train wreck associated with the other demonstration in town—the one at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had canceled a rally that attracted more than 25,000 people because among them were thousands of highly diverse protesters. The anti-Trump crowd consisted of young and old, black and white, Christians and Muslims, Hispanics—a veritable Chicago rainbow. In choosing the UIC Pavilion for a rally, Trump had situated himself amid Chicago’s diversity, much of which consists of populations he has insulted or offended in recent months during his rise to prominence. Many of the protesters stated they wanted to make clear that Chicago relishes its diversity and does not share his values. In my honest opinion, it is almost as if he wanted this result. The idea of actually engaging in dialogue with his critics, as most candidates do at some point, seems foreign to him, almost a sign of weakness. Only confrontation is acceptable for a man’s man. How sad.

What unfolded, however, exceeds even the bizarre standards of this year’s campaign, making it hard to stop tracking the news even on Saturday. Trump first explained that he had canceled the rally out of concern for public safety after consulting with the Chicago police. But interim Police Chief John Escalante said in a press conference that Trump had never talked to them before making that decision. Trump’s campaign claimed to have conferred with Cmdr. George Devereux, but the police said Devereux was responsible for security at Trump’s hotel, not the rally site. Is it that hard to just tell the truth?

We have a national campaign that begins to resemble a Jerry Springer television show in its ability to attract supercilious scuffles. Trump claims to want peaceful rallies, yet news reports can easily replay numerous scenes in which he has urged his followers to rough up protesters and even offered to pay their legal fees for doing so. Only a day before the Chicago contretemps, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Trump supporter had cold-cocked a protester who was being escorted from a rally by the police, leaving him with injuries around one eye. John McGraw, 78, now charged with assualt, said the protester “deserved it” and that next time they “might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? The day after Chicago, he was claiming that his supporters were “nice people” and that the protesters were “Bernie’s people,” referring to Vermont U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, one of the two remaining Democratic contenders (along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), whom Trump then derided as “our communist friend.”

If I were writing a wild fictional potboiler, the plot could not sound more contrived. I confess I am approaching a loss for words. I cannot recall a situation in my life where the leading candidate in either party has looked more like Benito Mussolini with his Blackshirts attacking those who disagreed with him. Trump has shown a complete incapacity to accept any responsibility for what Clinton rightly has labeled “political arson.”

What is sad is that a brand of political recklessness and disregard for truth that would have sunk almost any other candidacy in years past seems to buoy Trump in the eyes of his supporters. You can analyze this authoritarian phenomenon however you wish. There is little doubt in my mind that the divisive obstinacy of many Republican leaders in their reaction to President Barack Obama, in their willingness to remain silent in the face of nonsensical claims that he is a Muslim, that he was not born in the U.S., etc., has set the stage for this farce. They are now reaping the whirlwind.

Still, it was not inevitable, and it did not have to happen. There remains one man who, but for his own brand of narcissism and egomania, could take responsibility and change course. But as one commentator on CNN noted, Trump never backs down. And that is one very frightening characteristic for any potential occupant of the Oval Office. And they used to say it can’t happen here.

Maybe it can.

 

Jim Schwab

Armed and Dangerous on Campus

 

Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Many of us, in making major life decisions, experience both a pull from one direction and a push from another. We may feel conflicted, or we may feel that circumstances have combined to make the decision easy. I don’t know how much Frederick Steiner, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, felt pulled or pushed, but he is leaving Austin for his alma mater, a school that awarded him three degrees, the University of Pennsylvania. Steiner, known to friends as “Fritz,” certainly has reason to feel good about returning to his home state after many years elsewhere. As part of full disclosure for this article, I will state also that I have known him for more than a quarter-century as a fellow planning professional for whom I have high respect, and regard him as a friend. Steiner will take his new position as dean of the School of Design in Philadelphia as of July 1. His statement of resignation drew considerable attention from the press.

I also know that political events in Texas have conspired to drive him into the arms of his alma mater. Fritz does not like the new law in Texas, passed last year, which as of August 1 will allow individuals to carry a concealed firearm on a state university campus, including inside buildings, with some exceptions. He has said so in announcing his resignation, but I also interviewed him by telephone yesterday in order to gain more insight into his perspective on the matter.

The very first fact that Fritz pointed out to me was that the new law takes effect on the 50th anniversary of the Whitman tower shootings at the Austin campus. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine who, it turned out, was suffering from a brain tumor, climbed the University of Texas tower with a toolbox full of weapons and began shooting innocent victims with a rifle, killing 16 and injuring 30. Ultimately, police officers stormed the tower and ended up killing Whitman in order to stop the shooting. That irony makes one wonder if the Texas legislature and governor are truly oblivious to such perverse symbolism or just did not care. Fritz pointed out that the university’s police department opposed the new law and remains opposed.

In any event, it is important to know that Steiner is not really an anti-gun activist; he feels guns have a place, but it is not just any place and that place is certainly not a public university. “I grew up around guns used for hunting,” he told me. “I was a Boy Scout. In summer camp, we had a live shooting range. That experience taught me to respect guns and know they had an appropriate place. Safety was not to be taken lightly. But I respect people who hunt.”

What Steiner wanted to make clear in his resignation, however, was that “a college campus has no place for guns except for first responders and law enforcement.” His explanation is worth considering. He oversees a program in which students work on architecture and planning studio projects. Their hard work can be stressful, and some projects do not succeed. Critiquing such projects can be tense and emotional for students and faculty alike, Steiner notes, adding that “defending your dissertation or taking an exam can be stressful. The prospect of someone carrying a weapon in such situations is troubling. Do faculty members censor themselves if they know someone has a weapon?”

Such implicit infringement on the First Amendment rights of faculty and staff to speak freely to each other raises a larger set of questions in his mind. Gun advocates, he says, “ignore the part of the Second Amendment about a well-regulated militia,” which ought to indicate that the right to bear arms is not without limitations. In fact, says Steiner, it is wrong to read any part of the Bill of Rights in isolation from all the other rights embodied therein because they all affect each other. “In the Ninth Amendment, you can’t use any amendment to disparage the rights of others,” he notes. “The Tenth Amendment, which planners know well, makes clear that states can legislate for the public health, safety, and welfare.” In short, there is an intended balance among all these rights that “makes it more puzzling why we are implementing this notion of allowing concealed carry on campus.” I would add similar observations, for example, with regard to the First Amendment. Despite its clear language about not impeding freedom of religion, that freedom has never been interpreted as so limitless as to authorize polygamy, nor has the freedom of speech been interpreted to allow one, in the classic example from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Every right is bounded by concerns about the greater well-being of the public. So why should we entertain an absolutist interpretation as applied to the Second Amendment?

I want to make clear that Fritz Steiner’s concern about the concealed carry law is not unique within the academic community in Texas. UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, a former Navy SEAL involved in the operation that took out Osama Bin Laden, opposed the new law in a letter to the Texas legislature early last year, stating that the contemplated approach would do nothing to make college campuses in Texas safer, and in fact makes matters worse. McRaven is clearly neither unfamiliar with guns nor opposed to their responsible use. But he is concerned about the safety of his students. Moreover, faculty and student assemblies have expressed their own concerns. Steiner notes that the architecture faculty voted unanimously to express concern about the new law (although one person who was absent might have dissented). What makes it all more curious is that the law allows private universities to exempt themselves from its application, “even though they receive public subsidies.” Steiner questioned why, if this is such a good idea, it would apply only to state university campuses.

In the end, however, he wants to be honest about his own motivations. Both push and pull are at work here, and he found the prospect of returning to Pennsylvania “extremely attractive.” And, over the past two decades, state funding of public universities in the affluent state of Texas has declined from 50 percent to just 13 percent of their overall budgets while “lots of unfunded mandates” have taken effect. On balance, he ultimately decided it was time to go home.

 

Blogger’s note: Those following “Home of the Brave” have surely noticed that I am finally writing again after a hiatus of nearly three weeks. I suffer from the same limitations as other human beings, which include getting sick. The last week of January brought on a case of acute bronchitis, which took its own toll on my energy level, but I got prescriptions and began to mend, only to succumb to a gastrointestinal virus the following week that kept me at bay for several days. It stands to reason that I got well behind on the work associated with managing the APA Hazards Planning Center, where, among other things, I was busy hiring a new member of our research staff. By the time I recovered, I was on my way to Charleston, South Carolina, where I presented a new project at the NOAA Social Coast Forum. That following weekend, I mustered my last blog post before this, but I have spent most of my spare time since then catching up on the work associated with the Center’s expanding portfolio. This blog is a sideline venture for me, and it suffered from my exhaustion since mid-February. It should fare much better in coming weeks.

All that said, upon my return from Charleston, I received wonderful news that bucked my spirits after such prolonged illness. I was informed that I had been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a development also noted on the home page of this website. FAICP status is a high honor in the planning profession, in fact a recognition of lifetime achievement, as explained in more detail by a notice on the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) website. SURP has bragging rights because I am both an alumnus of their program and adjunct faculty. The induction ceremony is April 3 in Phoenix, where I will join 60 others in this year’s biennial class. I want to make clear that FAICP status bestows not only honor but obligation—to continue to help serve and advance the profession, something I already feel I am doing by teaching in Iowa City and by discussing public planning issues on this blog. I intend to sustain that obligation.

 

Jim Schwab

Drifting into Disaster

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Across the United States of America, about one in five people live under the rules and structures of some sort of private association that governs common property interests. These can be condominium associations, homeowners associations, or similar entities that are somehow responsible for levying fees and maintaining communal property. To degrees they often may not realize, the residents are thus controlled and constrained by the decisions these associations make, which often may concern themselves with details that a local government would not even consider, such as the color of aluminum siding, allowable holiday decorations, and other matters with minor impacts on the quality of life. Many homeowners associations are established by developers at the time they get permits to create a new subdivision. In some states, local governments are happy to offload responsibility for infrastructure maintenance, such as private roads, onto these associations while coveting the property taxes they will still pay.

The implications of all this were brought to my attention in the past week or two by Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). He has been working with me on material for a future report we plan to publish at the American Planning Association on subdivision design as it relates to areas with flood hazards. The issue that concerned him as he wrote a chapter on subdivision standards for local governments, which have the primary responsibility for permitting new development, is how well these private owner associations can sustain over time the financial responsibilities for infrastructure designed to protect their properties from disaster, most notably but not exclusively, flooding.

Among the items that have come to my attention is a paper by two California attorneys, Tyler P. Berding and Steven S. Weil, disturbingly titled, “Disaster! No Reserves. No Insurance. What’s Left if a Natural Disaster Destroys a Community Association?” They begin with a cautionary tale about the Bethel Island Municipal Improvement District, actually a California special district, not a homeowners association. Its mission is to maintain and improve the levees that surround the Sacramento Delta island of 2,500 residents, where the interior is seven to 15 feet below sea level. To say that their survival depends on well-maintained levees is no exaggeration. Moreover, in that part of California, the levees are subject to collapse from earthquake shaking as well as from overtopping in a flood. I have some idea of their peril because four years ago, a representative of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) took me on a six-hour guided tour of the levee system in the delta area, plying me with a number of the background studies by DWR of the overall situation. There are hundreds of such islands throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, many used for agriculture, and some developed. In their 2012 article, produced about the time of that tour, Berding and Weil note, “But the district is broke.” Voters “soundly” rejected a 2010 parcel tax measure to fund improvements, and much of the district staff was laid off. The levees were deteriorating, to some extent “suffering damage by beavers and rodents.”

It is disturbingly easy for homeowners association or other private association board members to take their eyes off the ball of maintaining adequate reserves and resources to address dangers that seem less than imminent, and even to forget why they are responsible for collecting assessments in the first place. And it is even easier for residents who must approve some of those assessments to lack meaningful knowledge of the consequences of either depleting or failing to maintain adequate reserves for unfortunate natural events like floods, earthquakes, or other disasters. Once they begin sliding down that slippery slope of amnesia and unawareness, it is not long before they have put a good deal of common and individual property at risk. The few who may be aware of the long-term consequences often may lack the ability to make their case to less concerned neighbors.

This issue is one of concern in the field of urban planning because new subdivisions, in particular, often arise at the edge of metropolitan areas in unincorporated county lands or small towns, where governance capacity may be limited and resistance to government regulation particularly high. The result is that oversight is weakest, and the desire for new development highest, precisely where the need for that oversight may be greatest. In regulatory terms, it is the theory of the weakest link. One of our motives for the new report (underwritten by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is to help shore up those weak links with stronger guidance about sound practices in reviewing plans for new subdivisions. Berding and Weil were serving a similar purpose, at least in the California context, by describing sound practices for community associations, particularly in sustaining adequate reserves for contingencies such as disasters.

But finances are only part of the problem. Sometimes, the leadership of such associations can become so focused on issues like aesthetics and conformity that they lose sight of larger issues like public safety. In the past, the National Fire Protection Association, which supports the Firewise Communities initiative, has trained its attention on the question of covenants that run counter to public safety, for example, by inhibiting well-researched methods for containing wildfire threats. Many of these techniques involve either landscaping or building design, yet some associations have rules limiting tree trimming or landscaping that would aid in wildfire mitigation. In Safer from the Start, NFPA’s 2009 study of the issues involved in building and maintaining “firewise-friendly developments,” a sidebar notes that the state of Colorado’s recently passed “Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act,” among other measures, basically invalidated a number of types of association covenants and restrictions that inhibited defensible space around private dwellings in order to advance wildfire safety statewide. In effect, the state was saying, with regard to rules that made wildfire safety more difficult to enforce, “enough.” At the same time, the publication overall provided a significant amount of sound advice about best practices in wildfire protection in rural subdivisions and new developments.

That seven-year-old NFPA advice recently got a new boost from an interesting direction: Green Builder Media just recently issued its own e-brochure, “Design with Fire in Mind: Three Steps to a Safer New Home,” in cooperation with NFPA. Green Builder Media has more of a direct avenue to influence those developers who want to build safe, resilient, energy-efficient communities.

The fact that these resources have continued to materialize on a regular basis over the past decade or two indicates, to me, that the subject of good design and homeowner association responsibility is not going away any time soon. It is the job of planners, floodplain managers, and local and state officials to ensure that those responsibilities remain on their radar screens and are taken seriously. One-fifth of the American population depends to a significant degree on the quality of their oversight.

 

Jim Schwab