Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.


Jim Schwab

Fix the Little Things

I am writing this story about a week after the fact that triggered the idea for this blog post because I have pretty much been on the road (or in the air) ever since, and will complete the two-week stretch of travel tomorrow with a flight to Tulsa. On Monday, September 14, I will give the opening speech there for the Disaster Risk Reduction Ambassadors Pilot Workshop of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association. It is not the biggest assignment in the world, but an important one.

The fact that I am on the move to that degree, however, has a great deal to do with the point of this story. To the extent that they can do so, frequent travelers appreciate the willingness and ability of airlines, rental car companies, and others whose clientele we are to make our journeys just a little bit easier instead of more challenging. In that context, sometimes a little bit of common sense goes a long way. I am not writing to pick on Budget Rental specifically, nor on the Sacramento International Airport, but I certainly am using them as an example of a problem because they provide a case in point.

I was in Sacramento September 3 to help deliver a pilot workshop, and then, because the rates were so much cheaper, chose to take a 6:00 a.m. flight on US Airways to Phoenix the next morning, followed by a connection from there back to Chicago, where I live. I might have liked a later flight with a shorter layover in Phoenix, but I also wanted to get home at a decent hour, it’s a long trip, and the alternatives were more expensive. Projects have budgets, and flights between Sacramento and Chicago seem to be rather costly these days. The workshop was almost 20 miles from the airport, so renting a car made sense. Budget had the best deal.

So on that Friday morning, I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m., got up and dressed, and packed, and was on the road back to the airport by 4:00 a.m. Traffic at that hour, even in California, is not much of a problem, so that went smoothly, and the GPS kept me painlessly on track. The problem arose only as I got near the rental return station, on McNair Circle, which is almost literally a circular area within which all the rental car facilities are located.

Then things went haywire. It is dark at 4:30 or 4:40 a.m., when I approached. I eventually saw a small sign along the side of the road listing all the rental firms for returns, but did not see an entrance behind that sign. I found myself circling McNair Circle, and coming in for a landing on a second try. Again, I saw the sign, but could not identify the entrance, although I had noticed an employee-only parking lot. On my third try, I pulled into that lot so that I could get off the street and call Budget to clarify the location of the entrance for rental car returns. I discovered that the envelope containing my contract had only an 800, not a local, number, but I tried it. I was soon launched into meaningless waits for no one in particular, and began to get nervous as I watched the time slip away toward 5:00 a.m., knowing that, even after I turned in the car, I would still need to board a shuttle into the terminal.

In the midst of my frustration, I saw a car enter and park, so I left my car and approached the gentleman, who was wearing a Budget shirt, and asked for directions to return my car. He told me to leave the parking lot, turn right, follow the circle, and turn right at the next entrance. I found myself skeptical but willing to try, having passed the same area twice already. But sure enough, before the sign I had seen earlier, I discovered a small entrance, somewhat shrouded in the dark by roadside foliage, and turned right. I drove back a small distance and discovered the return location and the same employee to whom I had spoken, but he did not handle the returns. In a minute, a young lady came out of the hut, relieving my anxiety because it was 5:00 by now and I was getting anxious to move on. I had carry-on luggage but still needed to go through security. One never knows how long that line will be.

As she checked the car and gave me a receipt, I hurriedly told her that the entrance was very poorly marked and hard to see in the dark.

“I hear that all the time,” she said, rather matter-of-factly. I did not argue the point, but in my mind, I thought, “And no one does anything about it?”

But my first priority by then was not to make an issue of it, but to catch the shuttle and get to the airport. I suspect most other patrons have done much the same thing. Fortunately, a shuttle was waiting in front of the main building, and I boarded. I mentioned my experience to a man sitting across the aisle from me as we departed.

“I agree,” he said. “I missed that entrance once myself.”

Now, I will confess that I have not checked further at either Budget or the Sacramento International Airport to find out who is actually responsible for the signage on McNair Circle or the visibility of the entrance for rental car returns. I have not had time, and having made myself clear at the time I returned the vehicle, I don’t feel I have to make it my responsibility. Nor did I have time to get out my camera and take photos of the entrance to make my point. My objective was to board my flight on time.

If Budget employees in fact hear this complaint as often as the young lady admitted, the problem should be obvious anyway. Whether it is ultimately the responsibility of the various rental car firms that share the space in McNair Circle, or that of the airport authority, does not matter to me. The firms and the airport officials undoubtedly talk to each other once in a while, or can. If well aware of a problem, they can put it on their agenda to fix it. But it is apparent that it may not be on any agenda if the lady at Budget hears this complaint “all the time.”

One might think that a company trying to make travel easier in order to attract customers would want to ensure that they do not leave in frustration because a problem like this goes unaddressed. I don’t care whose job it is. As I said, if they know people have experienced a problem repeatedly, they can talk to each other and find a way to resolve it.

Failure to respond is the real failure in customer service. Little things often matter in big ways. Fixing them shows that an agency or company cares. Enough said.


Jim Schwab