Make No Small Memories: A Tribute to David Godschalk

You tend to know when someone is a huge influence in his field. You can sense the gravitas when they speak, and you can find the books and articles, or major projects, that trace the impact of that person’s career. Urban planning lost such a person on January 27 when Dr. David Godschalk, 86, died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It seemed not that long ago when Dave was still a looming presence, contributing major ideas and shaping the thinking of his fellow professionals, but illness intervened. I recall the comment several years ago of a former co-worker at the American Planning Association, Joe MacDonald, one of Dave’s doctoral students at the University of North Carolina (UNC), who said, “Retirement for David Godschalk is a 40-hour week.” Looking at his remarkable productivity suggests that Joe was not exaggerating.

Dave Godschalk, whom I knew personally as a friend and colleague for at least the last 20 years, left what may be his most indelible impression on the subfield of hazard mitigation planning. When Dave first got involved, sometime in the 1980s, this was at best a nascent field of interest and disasters were a long-neglected focus of the urban planning profession. As a professor of urban planning at UNC for 45 years, Dave would have understood if he had heard me say, as I have on many occasions, that as a graduate student in urban planning at the University of Iowa (UI) in the early 1980s, I never heard the words “disaster,” “hazard,” or “floodplain” once despite a concentration in land use and environment. Thanks in part to the path Dave plowed for decades, I am now an adjunct assistant professor at the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning, teaching hazard mitigation and disaster recovery and using those and related words in just about every hour of classroom time.

Rather than recite his many accomplishments, which would fill pages, I will direct those interested in the full story to Dave’s recently published Searching for the Sweet Spot: A Planner’s Memoir. I confess he died before I got a chance to order it, so I am still awaiting delivery. But I read plenty of his professional work, and I would rather use this space to share my own personal memories of working with him because he was a huge influence on my own growth and rise to leadership in planning for natural hazards.

David Godschalk with APA Executive Director James Drinan (left). All photos reproduced courtesy of UNC Department of City and Regional Planning.

For one thing, he was an easy person to learn from. I do not mean that he was not intellectually demanding. If he thought your idea was off the mark, he would tell you, but he never disrespected or condescended. There are those in this world who want you to know they are the smartest person in the room. Dave simply supplied the right idea at the right time. I know because, in my capacity as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center, I often organized and led symposia that solicited guidance from leading thinkers on the projects we were undertaking. When invited, he always delivered. For instance, in the 2008 symposium that helped develop our project outline for Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning, an effort underwritten by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, we were all looking for tools to advance the integration of hazard mitigation priorities into the local planning process when Dave suggested developing a “safe growth audit” for communities, a set of guidelines for assessing their plans, policies, and ordinances. Facilitating the meeting, I Immediately knew a seminal concept when I heard it, and jumped on the idea, inviting Dave to help us develop the concept. He followed up with articles we published and incorporated the idea into the chapter he subsequently wrote for the Planning Advisory Service Report. His chapter became a cornerstone of what became a highly influential publication that has continued to make an impact since we released it in 2010.

Such contributions to the field were regular occurrences in Dave’s long career, which began following his service in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s and included studying planning and architecture at the University of Florida, work as a local planner in Florida, earning his Ph.D. and teaching for 45 years at UNC, and publishing 15 books and hundreds of journal articles. One of his significant contributions was his involvement in the 2004 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), in which he helped reshape public thinking about the value of public investments in hazard mitigation through the finding that $1 of federal money invested in such projects produced, on average, $4 in long-term savings from reduced losses from natural disasters. In a coming blog post, I will review the recent update to Hazard Mitigation Saves, which now boosts that estimate to $6 in savings for every dollar invested. There are, of course, numerous details behind these findings, but it is not hard to understand the salient influence of this pithy projection. Dave knew how to help sell an idea.

He was a major figure in hazard mitigation long before the NIBS study. His involvement merely reflected his long-standing preeminence. My bookshelf holds two items I gathered from him as I was mastering the details of hazard mitigation in the 1990s, before establishing any significant reputation of my own. One was Natural Hazard Mitigation, a 1999 Island Press book that I am still mining for material that will help with a current book project. The other, also dating to 1997, is a substantial three-ring binder, Making Mitigation Work, for which he was the principal investigator for a UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies project supported by the National Science Foundation. Once David understood my own aspirations in this field, I could not have found a more supportive friend. He wanted to make sure that my every undertaking at APA succeeded if he could have anything to do with it.

I am sure I was not the only person who ever got such treatment. The planning field is full of people with their stories of mentoring by David Godschalk because it may well have been the aspect of his job that he enjoyed most. He took pleasure in the growth and success of those whose careers he affected. Dave understood professional success; there were many awards bestowed on him over the years. One of the more important for any planner is being inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners (FAICP). In 2015, as Robert Olshansky, professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois, another AICP Fellow, helped guide my nomination for this honor, we discussed the people from whom we could request letters of recommendation. Dr. Godschalk was at the top of that list. When I wrote to him with our request, I referred to him as a “dean of hazard mitigation.” In accepting the invitation, he stunned me with his humility. “If I am a dean,” he wrote, “you are the chancellor.”

Now, there is no way that I see my career even matching his, let alone outshining it, but I also do not think he was merely engaging in fatuous praise. There was no need for it. He wanted me to know that he believed in me. And while I did not necessarily learn this lesson from Dave, he certainly confirmed it for me: As a teacher and mentor myself, I realized some time ago that there is no better way to guarantee the continuity of your own work than to demonstrate your faith in those who will follow.

Dave’s ability to inspire, to motivate, and to guide and empower will ensure that his legacy and his contributions will continue to matter for many years to come. All those people he taught and mentored will see to it.

Those desiring to sustain David’s work have been asked to contribute online to the Godschalk Fellowship Fund in Land Use and Environmental Planning.

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