Climbing the Mountain amid a Landslide

Where will we find badly needed leadership for climate adaptation?

The United States, under President Trump, has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords. That does not, of course, eliminate the problem of climate change, but it does create a gaping leadership void regarding federal policy support for either mitigating climate change (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions) or adapting communities and businesses to better withstand its impacts. Many cities and some states have claimed the mantle of leadership by pledging continued efforts, and a few foundations have undertaken initiatives such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. Newly emerging professional associations have emerged, notably the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and, perhaps most on point, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. Other long-standing professional associations, such as the American Planning Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers, have weighed in on the subject, and even offered professional training, while maintaining their traditional focus.

But is all this activity a concerted push in the right direction? Or is it a growing babble of voices without strategic direction? Amid it all, is there an emerging field of practice for climate adaptation professionals, and if so, how well defined is that field? What credentials should it develop or require? These are no small questions because a great deal depends on the credibility of the scientific assessments made of the problem we must confront.

Kresge Foundation’s Climate Adaptation Influencers meeting in Washington, DC, January 22. Jim Schwab was a participant. Kresge Foundation photo.

In that context, a new report from the Kresge Foundation, Rising to the Challenge, Together, is a welcome addition to the conversation, even as it stresses the urgency of both the conversation and our response to the problem. Given the steadily increasing toll of natural disasters and the increasing threat of sea level rise for coastal communities, high-precipitation storms for others, and prolonged drought and increased wildfire for many western and heartland regions, one can understand when the report, authored by Susanne C. Moser, Joyce Coffee, and Aleka Seville, states bluntly:

The accelerating pace, all-encompassing scope, and global scale of climate change converging with other societal and environmental challenges—juxtaposed with the sheer difficulty of challenging and changing thinking, politics, and institutions to close the resilience gap—leave the field rather worried about the state of adaptation efforts in the US at this time. Some fields of practice have the luxury of evolving at their own pace; in the field of climate adaptation, failure or slow adaptation could mean death and destruction. Incremental progress in climate change simply does not match the rapidly accelerating pace of climate change.”

It is difficult for anyone well grounded in the science to argue with this sense of urgency. One is tempted to fall back on the nearly cliched image of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland running to stay in place. But I’m not sure that image reflects the real urgency the Kresge report implies. A more appropriate image might be that of attempting to scale a mountain amid a landslide. That does not mean that I think the situation is hopeless. It does mean that the only solution may be to buckle our safety belts and rapidly grow our tenacity in confronting the perils that lie ahead. Tenacity is very different from panic. Later, the report states, “Crisis-driven adaptation has its limits.” Responding to crisis is reactive; tenacity requires vision. The problem, the authors note, is that the adaptation community has not yet defined a “vision for a desirable future.” What brave new world sits at the top of that mountain?

How Kresge survey respondents responded when asked to rate the status of selected sub-components of the adaptation field. All graphics provided by and reproduced with permission from Kresge Foundation.

Attendance at climate-and disaster-related sessions at the APA National Planning Conference has risen dramatically over 20 years. Credit: Jim Schwab

There is an aspect of the emerging climate adaptation field that calls to mind the origins of both the urban planning and public health fields, which most people would describe as having the maturity that this new field seeks to achieve. Both responded to urgent health crises in rapidly growing modern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of uncontrolled industrial pollution and poor sewage management, cities like Chicago, New York, and Baltimore were virtual petri dishes for disease. In time, both professions established positive visions for desired community outcomes, but those visions must now contend with the new threats climate adaptation aims to address. Thus, APA national and state conferences over the past two decades have seen dramatic shifts in content, with a greater emphasis on preserving those positive visions by addressing climate change and mitigating natural hazards. The Kresge report in its final chapter attempts to assess what the vision of a mature field of climate adaptation would be.

It is important, however, to understand the framework the report offers for the essential components of the climate adaptation (or any other) field of professional endeavor. Derived from lengthy interviews and surveys with study participants, including attendees at the 2017 National Adaptation Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, Kresge offers what it calls “the 4 P’s.” These are:

  • Purpose (why does this field need to exist?)
  • People (who should be involved with what credentials?)
  • Practice (how are best practices in this field identified?)
  • Pillars (the public policy and funding support for the field)

This framing device may be one of the report’s most important contributions to thinking about the future leadership of the climate adaptation field. I would add that it is particularly important to see climate adaptation, much like its planning and public health forebears, as a field that is less about theory, although theory remains important, than about applied knowledge, which is almost inherent in the definition of adaptation. Unless adaptation is a matter of practice, the urgency the report discusses makes no sense. That said, one crucial skill planners may be able to contribute is synthesis. Planners may have their own unique set of skills and analytic methods, but they rely overwhelmingly on borrowing technical knowledge from the sciences, engineering, and economics to make sense of the urban organism and to help shape its future. Likewise, climate adaptation practitioners, while needing a solid knowledge base in climate science, will need to rely heavily on a bevy of other skills to succeed. Notable among these will be communication and people skills. Our communities will become hotbeds of climate progress only when the public is sold on both the nature of the problem and the feasibility of the solutions offered. The ability to facilitate that dialogue will be critical. Climbing that mountain will require pervasive public support.

The question of initiating effective dialogue with a public that is sometimes skeptical (location and timing matter here) feeds into another question raised in the Kresge report—whether it is more important to mainstream the concepts of climate adaptation or seek societal transformation with climate adaptation as a driving influence. Mainstreaming refers to the incorporation of climate adaptation concerns and practices into existing institutions and procedures. One major example would be hazard mitigation plans; another would be infusing such ideas into various elements of comprehensive plans, as well as regulatory tools such as zoning ordinances and building codes. Transformation, on the other hand, involves the pursuit of systemic changes in social and political structures. If there is to be a debate on this point, it seems to me the debate must be more one of emphasis than absolutes and should be context-sensitive. Transformation depends on situational opportunities tempered by foresight and the tenacious pursuit of a longer-term vision, but it does not rule out mainstreaming. Both approaches help to build more resilient communities for the future, but each may miss the mark if it is seen as the only valid perspective.

This is not an “either/or” choice but “both/and.” Because Kresge strives to maintain a social equity focus in climate adaptation discussions, I will point out that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was both a visionary and an effective tactician. One must know which matters most at a given moment. The report also mentions the tension between urban and rural perspectives and the potential for smaller communities being left behind in the quest for resources. Here lies a huge opportunity for transformational change, given the recent political divide. God bless the politician who can construct a connecting narrative that brings these forces together behind a progressive, scientifically informed agenda.

That leads to my final point before simply recommending that anyone with a serious interest in this field download and read the report. In its final chapter, the report takes note of the pressing need to build relationships across silos, to develop a common language and shared understanding of the problem, and to use a “whole community” approach to address problems. There is much more detail, but this is enough to suggest the drift. Climbing this mountain amid a landslide is no easy task. The details can be grinding and even discouraging when things do not go well. It is important to know how to measure progress and to keep the obstacles in perspective.

Rose diagram shows a way to visualize progress toward adaptation.

Planners, particularly, should know this. We are a profession of visionaries who know that details matter.

Jim Schwab

Think Globally, Adapt Locally

In times of political hostility to scientific truth, knowledgeable people sometimes wonder how we can progress without federal support for important initiatives such as adaptation to climate change. The answer, in a vibrant democracy, is that the truth often bubbles up from the bottom instead of being disseminated from the top. When the top is dysfunctional, as it currently seems to be, it is the creativity of local officials and their communities that often saves America from itself. For me, part of the joy of a career in urban planning has been watching and sometimes abetting the great local experiments that pave the way for an eventual federal and international response to pressing urban and environmental problems. The struggle to adapt successfully to climate change is one of those urgent problems. We may indeed confront a wave of scientific ignorance among some leaders in the Trump administration for a few years, but they should be aware that they cannot halt the wave of innovation as communities work to solve real problems.

Denying that humans have contributed significantly to climate change through the Industrial Revolution and transportation driven by fossil fuel consumption will do nothing to stop sea level rise, nor will it prevent the bifurcation of extreme weather events that flattens the bell curve with fewer normal events and more high-precipitation storms and prolonged drought, which sometimes also feeds a longer and more intense wildfire season. Disasters happen, and the numbers don’t lie.

UNISDRAs a result, I was very happy a couple of years ago to be invited to join a Project Advisory Committee for the Kresge Foundation, which had hired Abt Associates to produce a report on climate adaptation at the community level. The foundation has supported a good deal of work related to community resilience and social equity in addition to making serious investments in the resuscitation of Detroit as a functioning urban community. Kresge wants to know what makes communities tick in responding to resilience challenges like climate change, and the study by Abt was intended to establish a sort of baseline for understanding the best practices in local planning related to climate adaptation.

I was thus involved in a series of all-day or multiday meetings of 16 project advisors from around the United States who reviewed and commented on the progress of the study for the consultants. Our meetings involved some serious debates about what constituted climate adaptation and resilience, and the degree to which communities needed to use such labels for what they were doing, or conversely, the degree to which we needed to recognize what they were doing as climate adaptation. Sometimes, we learned, adaptation may quack like a duck without being called a duck by local citizens and officials. What matters is what is accomplished.

Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities was officially released by Kresge Foundation in December; I will confess to being a little late in sharing the news, but at the time I was trying to recover from pneumonia. It took me a while longer to find time to read the report in its 260-page entirety, but I thought it important to do so to report intelligently on the final product. There is a difference between reviewing case studies in bits and pieces before committee meetings and seeing the full report between two covers.

I am happy to tell you that I think the nine authors who contributed to the report hit a home run. The bulk of its wisdom lies in 17 case studies spread across the nation, including some surprising places like Cleveland, Ohio, and the Southwestern Crown of Montana. I applaud Abt Associates for its work in even identifying many places that may not have been on the standard maps of leadership in climate resilience. Some of that can be attributed to maintaining an open mind about what they were looking for and what constituted innovation and success in adaptation. One thing that is utterly clear is that no two communities are the same, nor do they face the same problems. Ours is a very diverse country in spite of all that binds us together. Ours is also a nation of creative citizens who confront local problems based on local circumstances rather than “one size fits all” solutions. Perhaps that is why support from Washington does not always matter as much as we think, except in the international arena, where it is critical.

The example of Cleveland may be enlightening in this regard. While issues of social equity may not always seem like a logical starting point for engagement on climate adaptation, Cleveland is a city that was utterly battered by economic change from the 1970s into the early 21st century. The result is a community that is noticeably IMG_0256less prosperous than its surrounding metropolitan area, and has some of the lowest socioeconomic rankings among major cities nationwide. It is also a city that has lost more than half of its 1950s population, which peaked around 900,000. It is a city that may well say, in evaluating its place on the prosperity scale, “Thank God for Detroit.” That also means that no discussion of climate adaptation will move forward without a solid anchor in efforts to confront these inequities because it is hard to imagine how a community can become resilient in the face of climate challenges without also rebuilding economic opportunity for a badly battered working class. I know. I may have decamped for Iowa in 1979, but I grew up in the Cleveland area and worked my way through college in a chemical plant. Rebuilding prosperity in Cleveland has been tough sledding.

By the same token, climate change has had a direct impact on Montana, and the Southwestern Crown, a rural area of mountains and forests, has suffered the loss of timber industry jobs, which has in much of the Pacific Northwest resulted in some bitterness toward environmentalists. At the same time, nature takes a serious toll in increased wildfire damage, and at some point, if people of different perspectives can sit down for some serious discussions of reality, they can also imagine new futures for a region at risk. That has been the job of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

Pike Street MarketMentioning every case study here would not make sense. But it is worth noting that communities generally seen as not only prosperous but on the cutting edge of the new high-tech economy, such as Seattle, face other challenges that nonetheless tax local resources and resourcefulness. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) became another Kresge case study, in large part, it seems, because its management needed to find ways to bring its staff and customers into the difficult realm of defining the threat and deciding how it could best be handled. SPU is responsible for managing Seattle’s water supply. When one confronts a future that portends potential water shortages as a result of decreased winter snow pack, leading to reduced snow melt that combined with drought can leave a huge metropolitan area high and dry, the need to recalibrate the system can be daunting. This case study is not important for providing precise answers to such questions, for there are none. Instead, it emphasizes the challenge of accustoming utility engineers and managers to an uncertain future, and helping them find comfort levels with uncertainty. What needs to change to make Seattle’s water supply resilient in the face of natural hazards? How does a city on Puget Sound cope with sea level rise? What plans will be adequate for protecting water supplies two or three decades into the future? In the end, the answers revolve around changing the culture of decision making within the organization as well as communicating those challenges clearly to the public. One product of SPU’s efforts, however, is a path forward for other communities facing similar long-term challenges.

Bottom line: This report is a great resource for those who want to descend from the heights of overarching theory on climate change to the realities of confronting the problem on the ground. Use this link, download it, and read it. Few resources in recent years have been so thorough in documenting the state of practice in climate adaptation at the local level. I am proud to have been involved even in an advisory capacity. I have learned a great deal from the process.

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


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.


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


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

That Burning Smell Out West

IMG_0224Although plenty of other issues have competed for our attention in recent weeks, astute observers of the news, in the U.S. at least, have probably noticed that wildfires have been charring much of the landscape in western states, most notably along the Pacific Coast. Both California and Washington are struggling under the burden of numerous fires triggered or helped along by prolonged drought and a hot summer. While some may jump to the conclusion that this is another harbinger of climate change, and it may well have some connections to climate change, it is important to know there are other historical factors that are even more significant. We have seen them coming but not done nearly enough to forestall the outcome, which may grow worse in coming years.

Ten years ago, in Planning for Wildfires (PAS Report No. 529/530), Stuart Meck and I noted that, in the 2000 census, the five fastest-growing states all had a high propensity for wildfires. Not much has changed. Texas, which suffered significantly from wildfires during its drought in 2011, made the largest numerical gain in the 2010 census, though it was fifth in percentage gain, behind Nevada (35.1), Arizona (24.6), Utah (23.8), and Idaho (21.1). Of course, many of those people move into larger cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. More to the point, many people continue to move specifically into more rural areas with weaker development restrictions and building codes. As their numbers rise in what fire experts call the wildland-urban interface, the area where the built environment interfaces with fire-prone wildlands, so does human and structural vulnerability to wildfires. Why do people choose to live there? Social scientists, including some who work for the U.S. Forest Service, have been examining this question for at least two decades. We noted that the reasons include a desire for proximity to wildlife, privacy, nature, and the love of a rugged lifestyle.

These desires spawn problems, however, if not accompanied by considerable prudence in both how and where homes are built, as well as in landscape maintenance once a subdivision exists. Firewise Communities, a program of the National Fire Protection Association, has since the late 1990s sought to educate communities and homeowner associations on the realities of life in the wildland-urban interface, including the need for noncombustible roofing materials, eliminating a wildfire pathway to homes and other structures by maintaining a perimeter of “defensible space,” whose radius largely depends on terrain and forest conditions, and other best practices to reduce the impact of wildfires on homes. Still, we live with the legacy of prior development in many areas, and one result is that firefighters are increasingly exposed to lethal risks in trying to protect these homes when wildfire approaches. Every year some lose their lives, 163 over the past 10 years. There is a point where some homeowners must be told that more lives cannot be risked in protecting every remote structure at any cost.

And those costs are rapidly growing. Just 20 years ago, in 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget on fire management. That has climbed to 52 percent today, and the trend is ever upward, squeezing a largely static $5 billion budget of funds for other functions. About 90 percent of the firefighting expenses involve protecting houses. It would be a far simpler matter to let some fires burn, or to use prescribed burns to reduce flammable underbrush to prevent or mitigate future fires, if fewer of those houses were in the wildland-urban interface. But part of that fire management expense is for thinning the forest to scale back a problem the Forest Service itself created over the past century, and which modern fire managers have effectively inherited. Put simply, most of the western wildland forest is much denser than it was prior to the 20th century. Not just a little bit denser, but several times denser in many cases. The result is more intensive, longer-burning wildfires in those cases where the Forest Service is unable to suppress the fire at an early stage.

Full-scale suppression, however, is what brought us to this pass. Toward the end of an era Stephen J. Pyne has called the “Great Barbecue” (1870-1920), which saw some of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history starting with the nearly simultaneous ignitions of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which killed about 1,500 people, and the Great Chicago Fire, which had more to do with hot weather and conditions in the lumberyards that processed the products of the upper Midwest forests than with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the Forest Service secured its role as the nation’s wildland firefighting service. One can learn more about the Peshtigo firestorm in a great book, Firestorm in Peshtigo, by Denise Gess and William Lutz. That era was drifting toward an end in 1910, when the Big Burn killed 78 people and scarred 3 million acres and a pitched effort to fight them put the Forest Service in the limelight and won it this new role. Timothy Egan tells that story in The Big Burn. But the collective works of Pyne, an Arizona State University environmental historian who has specialized in the history of fire, can deliver more depth than you may ever desire and fill in the blanks between those two episodes and beyond into recent times.

What we have learned is that over time, as the policy of all-out suppression of wildfires took hold in the federal government, the smaller fires that historically and naturally had served to thin the forest were no longer allowed to do their job. The gradual result was a denser, thicker forest that, when it did catch fire, produces far more dangerous fires than ever before. When drought and bark beetle infestations begin to kill some of that dense forest, the result is that there is simply far more kindling than would otherwise be there. Yet, as Forest Service Chief Tim Tidwell notes, the Forest Service currently simply does not have the resources to undertake more than a fraction of the forest restoration work needed to achieve healthier, less fire-prone forests. The problem will only grow worse with a warming climate, of course, but did not arise primarily because of it, but because of past firefighting practices and a more recent history of development in wildland areas. But climate change can be counted on to produce increasing average temperatures that will vary depending on location, but possibly 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. California’s Cal-Adapt has been tracking these changes and producing a stream of research and temperature maps that provide significant perspective on the extent of the problem we face moving into the future. It’s a sobering picture we would all do well to consider.


Jim Schwab