Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

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

Jim Schwab

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

 

Greening Greater Racine

How often do any of us look around our communities closely enough to fully understand the extent of the greening activity that is taking place? My guess would be that the vast majority of us—and I include myself—have no idea of the sheer volume of hours and effort that is expended, particularly on a volunteer basis, to keep our cities green and healthy.

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

With Sandy and David Rhoads in the lobby of the Golden Rondelle Theater

I had the opportunity this weekend to get a glimpse of all that effort in a city of about 80,000 just an hour and a half north of Chicago, in Racine, Wisconsin, a lakefront community about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. The gift to me was an invitation from David Rhoads to be the featured guest speaker for an event on Friday evening, March 18, which set the stage for an Eco-Fest the following day at Gateway Technical College. The evening event took place at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater, a building with a flying saucer appearance on the grounds of the SC Johnson Co. in downtown Racine. I should note that this company has for years sponsored environmental programs in and around Racine and provided backing through its Johnson Foundation for the famous Wingspread conference center, often used for important policy discussions related to environmental and resilience issues.

Inside the Golden Rondelle

Inside the Golden Rondelle

My theme was “Green and Healthy: The Future of Cities,” but I did not speak about Racine because, frankly, I did not know nearly enough about it, but also because my mission was to introduce the audience to the wider range of urban forestry and green energy activities around the nation. In the bargain, I discussed the role of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning in creating resilient communities that minimize the waste of destruction from natural hazards, concluding with the examples of Joplin, Missouri, which included major reforestation efforts in its recovery from a major 2011 tornado, and Greensburg, Kansas, which engineered a green recovery that has made the town 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. In short, my mission was to paint a holistic impression of what it takes to create green and healthy communities.

But David does know very well what has been happening in Racine, which was one reason he was introducing me that evening. We have known each other for nearly 25 years since he was a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and I was chairing the Environmental Concerns Working Group for the Metro Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. David has always been intensely interested in the theology of creation and environmental stewardship. The Working Group mission became, and remains, financing and enabling energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits for Lutheran churches in the synod, which covers four counties and roughly 200 congregations. David and his wife, Sandy, also a pastor, have made Racine their home and are actively engaged in environmental activism on the local scene, including faith-based environmental awareness efforts. I was thus more than pleased to honor David’s invitation.

Because the intent of my own presentation was to “set the table,” in David’s words, for discussing the greening of Racine, I was followed by a panel of four local professionals: Julie Kinzleman of the Racine City Health Department, who spoke on healthy beaches and water supply; Nan Calvert, on environmental education centers in the area; Matt Koepnick, on urban forestry; and the Rev. Bill Thompkins, an African-American church leader, on neighborhood beautification. Without detracting from the other three in any way, I must say I was particularly taken by Thompkins’s approach. After stating that his inner-city church had asked the question “you don’t necessarily want to ask,” namely, what would happen if your church were no longer present in the neighborhood, he and his parishioners and neighbors undertook to reclaim a city park that had become a gang battleground and began to distribute and plant thousands of plants and trees. What difference does that make? As Thompkins explained, people are more likely to treasure an attractive neighborhood than a neglected one, and to begin to take responsibility for their local environment. Greening the neighborhood, in effect, was a way of restoring the social health of the people in the neighborhood. That echoed a theme I had introduced earlier, citing our APA work in Planning the Urban Forest, that trees have actual mental health benefits that have been documented in social scientific studies. A city that is green is also a city that is healthy for its people.

But what also struck me was the diversity of the efforts underway, including not one but several environmental education centers in the area, and an ongoing expansion of tree-planting efforts in Racine. David asked me for a one-minute closing observation on the program, and that was the one point I chose to make. Look around. See how much is going on around you that you did not know was happening.

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

Activity at Eco-Fest Racine, at Gateway Technical College

The entire program set the stage for a much better attended event the following morning at Gateway Technical College, a school on the lakefront that provides training in environmental technologies. Eco-Fest Racine featured more than 50 displays by groups large and small, activist and educational, including children’s activities, which attracted the immediate interest of my wife, a retired elementary school teacher. Display topics ranged from garbage disposal to recycling to energy audits to urban gardening and forestry to environmental education and advocacy. It included secular groups and Racine Green Congregations, where a woman named Margie informed me ruefully that Wisconsin, under Gov. Scott Walker, an ideological conservative, has been losing its best scientists from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources because of anti-scientific bias from the administration. In the space of just a few hours, neither my wife nor I could absorb all that was offered in this cornucopia of information, but I came to realize one thing: Such events serve a critical purpose in exposing all of us to the breadth of activity that is present in our communities. I do not think Racine is unique, though it is blessed. I think other communities might contemplate the model of this program, the first of its kind in Racine, according to David, as a way of connecting people.  We need to be more aware of the ways in which we support each other so that those at work improving their communities can feel less alone. Networking, after all, is an important form of empowerment.

 

Jim Schwab

Restoring the Chicago Area Landscape

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Chicago is not terribly old, as world-class cities go. It was incorporated only in 1837. The area was essentially devoid of European settlers until the 19th century. In the preceding centuries, the resident Indians, including the Potawatomi, had created a landscape dominated by oak ecosystems as a result of actively managing the landscape through the use of prairie fires. On the open lands of the Upper Midwest, there were few meaningful fire breaks, and the fires drifted east over vast grasslands. This North American fire regime changed the land by preventing the establishment of woody species, allowing oaks to dominate because of their thick, fire-resistant barks. The oaks in turn allowed more sunlight through their canopy and provided a thriving ecosystem for numerous species, including more than 800 species of birds and moths that eat their leaves.

The settlers who arrived in the 19th century, however, whether wittingly or otherwise, made quick work of the landscape they inherited from the natives they largely pushed out. They suppressed the wildfires in favor of plowing the prairie soils and savannas to create farm fields. Natural wildfires are few in northern Illinois; the wildfires that preceded European settlement were almost entirely a native artifact, which served the purpose of clearing hunting grounds but also served natural purposes of preparing the land for the sprouting of prairie plants. As the oaks receded, other trees moved into the void where fields did not prevent them, and in time maples and basswood took over, followed later by the invasive buckthorn, an introduced species. Today only 17 percent as much oak coverage survives as was present in the 1830s, and the landscape is highly fragmented. By the 1930s, only one oak-dominated parcel of more than 1,000 acres remained; today none remain. The numbers of various smaller chunks of oak land have also shrunk, just as steadily.

Chicago Wilderness, an alliance of organizations dedicated to open space, and the Morton Arboretum believe the metropolitan area needs to reverse the trend soon. Last August, I wrote about the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI) being led by the Morton Arboretum. On April 7, I attended a pair of meetings at the arboretum’s Thornhill Education Center that aimed at advancing the initiative. CRTI, which benefited for a period of time starting in the 1990s from federal support for some of its environmental projects, is now seeking new sources of funds as federal grants have waned, and is sharpening its focus into six areas of interest in order to clarify its mission for potential funders. Restoring oak ecosystems is one of those six focus areas. Another is landowners; most of the land that could be used to restore the fragmented oak ecosystems is private, and its owners must not only be willing to cooperate with the larger effort, but understand the reasons for it and its potential ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Economic and social? Yes. That is part of the appeal, one we laid out several years ago at the American Planning Association with the publication of Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy and Community Development, which began with an exposition of the documented benefits of the urban forest across dimensions of human health, pollution reduction, stormwater management, energy conservation, economic development, and other factors. Michael Leff, a research urban forester at the Davey Institute, has been developing a guidance document that stresses how good urban forestry needs to take a three-part approach that is as aware of the social and economic aspects as it is of the environment. Humans are essential to the success of any ecological plan, particularly in an urban setting. Public areas of nature or forest preserves contribute only a partial solution to a much larger problem, and solving that problem contributes significantly to human quality of life. It takes considerable scientific and social awareness to make the urban forest work in a highly developed setting where ecosystem fragmentation has become the norm.

Hence the social mission of CRTI: the need to share the story of the oak ecosystem with a wide variety of audiences throughout the area in an engaging manner that motivates them to take part in the initiative and participate in coordinated stewardship efforts. In addition, CRTI is reaching out to municipal public officials and staff, including planners, to provide training around the issues of municipal tree management and a model tree ordinance that CRTI is still developing for use by communities to advance the goals of urban forestry, including the oak ecosystem restoration efforts. There is also a role for the nurseries that grow trees and a need to keep them aware and involved so that they can be supportive of the overall effort, as well as for landscaping professionals, arborists, and others. I will return to this subject as the initiative progresses and evolves.

Meanwhile, I learned at the meetings of one valuable resource of which I was previously unaware: Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy, published by Timber Press. So I looked it up, and it draws rave reviews for explaining the value of native plants and ecosystems, just as people at the meeting had said. It’s probably worth a download.

 

Jim Schwab

Trees for Metropolitan Chicago

Would you imagine that the trees in the metropolitan Chicago region provide compensatory value of $51.2 billion? This is the calculation produced through i-Tree, a free software program provided by the U.S. Forest Service to estimate tree canopy and the ecological services it produces for our communities. This is not a seat-of-the-pants calculation. There is a great deal of science behind it, as I have learned over the last two decades in interactions with the Forest Service and the larger professional community devoted to advancing the subject of urban forestry. There is a substantial technical literature these days about the benefits of the urban forest in terms of air pollution filtration, reduction of stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, reducing urban violence by providing a calmer, more pleasant environment, and enhancing real estate values. In short, trees have serious economic value. At the American Planning Association, we cited much of this research five years ago when we released Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy, and Community Development, a Planning Advisory Service Report we produced using a matching grant from the Forest Service.

The value of that document for urban planners has made it popular, and we have participated for several years at a national level in the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition. But the important work on the urban forest occurs at the local and regional level. Think globally, but plant your trees locally.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

It was a great honor, therefore, to be invited as one of about 100 participants to the kickoff meeting July 30 of the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. The arboretum itself is the result of an environmental vision long ago by Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company, who had a love affair with conservation—and put out serious money to launch the arboretum to prove it almost a century ago. I learned a good deal about this interesting man when reading a biography of him, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, as a biography judge for the Society of Midland Authors’ annual book awards. The book was one of our 2010 finalists in that category.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Morton Arboretum is now leading this initiative with the help of numerous organizational partners and donors, nearly all of whom were present for the meeting, which lasted from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., including a working lunch.

I will not go into the Regional Trees Initiative in great depth right now, but I intend to follow it more deeply in the future on this blog. Not everything is ready yet; an intended website is not yet up, the logo is still in development, and working groups are being formed. Lydia Scott, the director of the Regional Trees Initiative, appears to have a hard-working staff behind her along with solid institutional support. One of our group activities that morning was to sit at our respective tables and hatch ideas about what was most needed to make the initiative a success. Those ideas were added to a folding wall image of trees as branches, and then leaves were added with individuals’ names after we were asked what we and our organizations were willing to do to help. The people attending represented a variety of local governments in the area, regional organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and educational and civic organizations.

What we learned over the course of the morning was the quality and distribution of information concerning the regional urban forest, which is decidedly uneven, leaving room for improvement through such an initiative. The city of Chicago, it turned out, had by far the best information concerning its urban forest, whereas in many other communities a more thorough tree census is still needed. But there are substantial resources to draw upon, such as “Urban Trees and Forests of the Chicago Region,” a Forest Service research report freely available online. The larger issues often relate to the uneven commitments, and distribution of resources, among the 248 municipalities in the region. A few have excellent plans for local forestry management, but many have none. There is room for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to improve outreach with technical assistance, but there is also a burning need for an effective outreach campaign to educate both public officials and citizens on both the importance of the issue and the best means of moving forward. For purposes like that, the Communication Work Group is one of several the initiative has established to mobilize the resources of its many partners in the effort. That is why we were all there.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children's facilities and a cafeteria.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children’s facilities and a cafeteria.

I plan to return to this subject in the future as the initiative progresses, particularly as RTI rolls out its website and other communication tools. Regular followers of this blog know that I attach considerable importance to this subject as a key element in the quality of urban life. If you live in another metropolitan area, what’s underway there to pursue similar goals?

 

Jim Schwab

Trees in the Disaster Recovery Equation

For the last two or three years, if not longer, I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with people from the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) about the role of trees in post-disaster recovery. Phillip Rodbell, an urban and community forestry program manager with the Forest Service’s Northeast office in Philadelphia, has been particularly diligent in pursuing the question of how we can better protect trees in urban areas from storms and other major disasters as well as how to reduce the loss of trees in the process of removing debris after disasters. Too often, in the absence of qualified arborists or other forestry professionals, the existing incentives for debris removal cause more, rather than fewer, trees to be cut down and hauled away than is truly necessary. The question is how to change that.

The fact that some trees, sometimes many trees, do in fact get blown down in storms, crushing cars and occasionally people, snapping utility lines, and blocking roads, fosters the false perception in some minds that trees are inevitably hazards in themselves. In fact, inadequate maintenance of the urban forest, including inadequate attention to those trees that really do pose hazards, creates problems that can be prevented with better municipal tree pruning cycles and pre-planning for more appropriate vegetative debris removal after big storms. However, local resources, including professional expertise, can be overwhelmed in a more catastrophic disaster such as a severe tornado or hurricane. The sheer number of trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina, for instance, was staggering, well into the millions.

Phil and I ultimately decided that, if the Forest Service could provide a modicum of money to help sponsor what we decided to call a scoping session, and if ISA and the American Planning Association (APA) could contribute more modestly to support the project, we could perhaps bring together a team of subject matter experts, representatives of relevant local, state, and federal agencies, and people from interested nonprofit associations, and we could foster a meaningful discussion of how to address this problem. In the process, we might help save federal, state, and local governments millions of dollars annually in avoidable debris removal costs.

This spring, we succeeded in bringing that package together and initiating a contract between the Forest Service and APA. The result was a two-day discussion held June 16-17 in APA’s Washington, D.C., offices, involving more than two dozen people, mostly in-person, but with a handful joining by conference call from remote locations in New York and Mississippi. A summary of that discussion, and the issues it addressed, is now available on the APA website, along with a bibliography of resources on the topic, and a series of briefing papers prepared by the invited experts. I invite my readers to check it out. To learn more, click here.

 

Jim Schwab