Hurricane Irene: Examining Resilience in Vermont

Earlier this year, the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, sponsored a student paper contest for students in urban planning programs across the country. The papers would need to deal with some aspect of natural hazards and planning. The contest involved a $2,500 prize and presentation of the award at APA’s National Planning Conference, which just occurred in New York City May 6-9. The award was announced at a joint reception of the hazard division and APA’s Sustainable Communities Division on May 8. As might be expected, numerous papers were submitted by students in graduate planning schools across the U.S..

To my surprise and great pleasure, the winner of this first-ever contest was one of my own students from a course I teach at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Emily Seiple, of Mahomet, Illinois, was in my Fall 2016 class, “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” She was one of three students who sought my endorsement to submit their papers, but there were undoubtedly dozens of others, if not hundreds, from other schools. I have not inquired as to the total submitted.

 

Courtesy of NOAA, National Weather Service

Emily’s paper is very deserving of the recognition she has now received. In her paper, written as an assignment for my class, she expertly dissected the dynamics of a challenging recovery situation for the town of Waterbury, Vermont, following Hurricane Irene in the fall of 2011. Many readers may recall seeing television footage of glutted streams rushing downhill from the mountains, inundating one Vermont community after another. The flood itself was but the prelude, however, for then followed the arduous work of organizing recovery committees, managing recovery funds, working with state and federal agencies, and finding and implementing the silver lining in an otherwise bleak situation. Resilience involves a community’s ability both to respond well to such challenges and to build back better and stronger. Emily examined that story with a remarkably clear and perceptive eye to both details and the big picture, as you will learn by reading her paper, linked here. I present it because I believe her recpaper will allow blog readers to gain a greater understanding of the many nuances involved in disaster recovery planning, which has never been a simple subject.

I took the extra step, during the APA National Planning Conference, of arranging to videotape an interview with Emily Seiple about her paper, with the help of Michael Johnson of the APA staff. It may be two or three weeks before that video is posted, but you will ultimately be able to find it on the APA website, at www.planning.org. We will also arrange to post the paper on that site. I invite reader comments on both the paper and its subject matter.

Finally, I apologize to my readers for the relative shortage of postings in recent weeks. The final months of my tenure at APA, leading to my working independently as a writer, consultant, and speaker as of June 1, have been surprisingly hectic, and I want to be sure that I leave the APA Hazards Planning Center in good hands and in excellent shape. That has taken priority, but the end is near, after which I hope to give this blog considerably closer attention well into the future.

 

Jim Schwab

Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

Step Forward on Water Hazards Resilience

Satellite photo of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Image from NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It is time to make America resilient. The trends have been moving us in the wrong direction for a long time, but we know how to reverse them.

Planners — and elected officials — have to embrace the science that will inform us best on how to achieve that goal, and we have to develop the political will to decide that public safety in the face of natural hazards is central both to fiscal prudence and the kind of nation we want to be. America will not become great by being short-sighted.

Damage from natural disasters is taking an increasing toll on our society and our economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently the target for serious budget cuts by the Trump administration, operates the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), a vital national resource center for data. It has long tracked the number and costs of the nation’s weather and climate-related disasters, and the conclusion is unavoidable: The number of billion-dollar disasters is growing and getting worse.

APA’s Hazards Planning Center has long studied and highlighted best planning practices for addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to such disaster losses. However, the uptake into community planning systems varies, and it is often a long process challenged by resource shortages.

In recognition of Water Week, I offer the following recommendations to Congress for ways in which federal partners and planners can work together to create stronger, more resilient communities:

Maintain funding levels

Maintaining the necessary funding support for agencies like NOAA is critical for providing us with the baseline information the nation needs to track data. It’s only through the ongoing coordination, maintence, and strengthening of national data resources that federal partners will truly be able to support local planning efforts. More data — not less — is the key to creating hazards policy that prepares communities for the future.

Translate science into good public policy

It is important to find new and better ways to translate science into good public policy. This is one of the objectives for NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience program — just one of the many important grants in danger of being defunded in FY 2018.

Support America’s coastal communities by ensuring that they benefit from projects directing the nation’s scientific and technical ingenuity to solve problems related to coastal hazards. The price tag is a tiny fraction of what the nation spent on recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The program is clearly a wise investment in our coastal future.

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program expires this year. Reauthorization must include continued support for the flood mapping program so communities have essential baseline information on the parameters of their flooding challenges.

Municipalities and counties need accurate and current flood mapping and data in order to make more informed judgments on both how and where to build. Only then will the nation begin to dial back the volume of annual flood damages.

Pass the Digital Coast Act

Passing the Digital Coast Act means authorizing and enabling NOAA to provide the suite of tools, data, and resources under the Digital Coast program that have proved useful to local planners, coastal resource managers, public works departments, and water agencies in better managing coastal zones and the natural systems that keep them healthy.

Through the Digital Coast Partnership, APA has been a strong advocate for formalizing NOAA’s Digital Coast project through legislation and providing adequate federal appropriations for robust funding.

This legislation already has bipartisan support because the program shows government at its best in providing cost-effective support to scientifically informed public policy and decision making.

As APA Past President Carol Rhea, FAICP, has noted, “This legislation will directly improve local disaster response and hazard mitigation planning. This bill will help local communities minimize potential loss of life and damage to infrastructure, private property, and conservation areas. The Digital Coast Act is an important step for effective coastal management.”

Continue funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created partly in response to the sorry condition of the Great Lakes and major tributaries like the Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers. We have come a long way since then. The lakes and rivers are healthier, and the communities around them are, too. Yet the administration’s budget would zero out such programs despite their megaregional and even international impacts.

Recognize the progress we have made and renew America’s commitment to further improve these major bodies of water. Support coastal resilience along the Great Lakes.

These are not dramatic requests. Mostly, they recognize the slow but steady progress — and the persistent creativity — that has resulted from past commitments. They are, however, critical to successful water policy and to our national future as a resilient nation.

Jim Schwab

This post is reprinted from the APA Blog with permission from the American Planning Association, for which it was produced.

Natural Solutions for Natural Hazards

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

It has taken a long while in our modern society for the notion to take hold that some of the best solutions to reduce the impact of natural hazards can be found in nature itself. Perhaps it is the high cost of continuing to use highly engineered solutions to protect development that has often been sited unwisely in the first place that has finally gotten our attention. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy, however, the notion of using green infrastructure as part of the hazard mitigation strategy for post-disaster recovery began to gain traction; green infrastructure was highlighted in the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy. These approaches are also known as natural or nature-based designs. They involve understanding the role natural systems play in reducing damages and in using that knowledge to deploy such solutions as part of an intelligent game plan for improving community resilience.

But where should community planners and local officials get reliable information on the best and most proven strategies for implementing green infrastructure solutions?

About a year and a half ago, researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached me about involving the American Planning Association (APA) Hazards Planning Center in a project they were undertaking with support from the Kresge Foundation to prepare such information in the form of a green infrastructure siting guide. In the end, they also involved the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates to assist with this effort. Over the past year or more, we have all met regularly to discuss what needed to be done and our progress in making it happen. We produced case studies, strategy briefs, and other material to populate the project’s web-based resources.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last month, after all that teamwork, TNC unveiled its new website for the project, called Naturally Resilient Communities. For those interested in knowing how trees, living shorelines, dunes, coastal marshes, and oyster reefs, among other types of natural infrastructure, can help mitigate natural hazards like coastal storms and urban flooding, the website provides a serious and interactive introduction to the subject matter, backed up by numerous resources.

What is especially valuable about the website design is that it allows users multiple avenues into the specific types of information they need. Not all natural infrastructure solutions are born equal. Some are more appropriate in certain settings than others. Some work best in inland river valleys, some along coastlines, and others in mountains or high plains. Some coastal solutions work well in the rocky coastlines of California or Oregon, while others work better along Atlantic or Gulf Coast shorelines. Applying such solutions is largely a matter of learning what works best in a specific natural environment in the face of specific hazards—riverine flooding, hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other threats that communities face. It is critical to adapt the solution to the problem.

Accordingly, the website, largely the work of Sasaki Associates with vetting from the other project partners, allows users to approach the information by deciding which strategies they wish to investigate or which part of the United States is relevant. They can also look at considerations such as cost, the geographic scale of the solution (neighborhood, municipal, regional), and the type of community in question. These are precisely the frames of reference familiar to most urban planners and civil engineers who are most likely to be involved in implementing natural infrastructure projects. The emphasis throughout is on the practical, not the ideal or the ideological. A particular approach either works or does not work, but it does so in very specific settings, such as a neighborhood in a city along one of the Great Lakes or in the Southwestern desert. Context is the central question.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

Establishing context is why the project put considerable emphasis on case studies, which cover a variety of communities around the nation. Specify, for example, Rocky Mountain West as a region and riverine flooding as a problem, and the site gives you a case study from Boulder, Colorado, that examines the alternatives considered and solutions adopted for flooding along Boulder Creek and discusses the involvement of the city and the Denver-based Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to implement a stream restoration master plan. One can also find case studies from Florida, Ohio, and numerous other locations. One can also, however, explore sections of the website devoted to additional resources and funding

sources to support green infrastructure projects. These allow the user to connect to other websites and some PDFs for additional information.

Go explore. I admit to taking pride in our involvement in this effort. It is, I think, a welcome resource and great learning tool for planners, engineers, local officials, and the interested public.

 

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

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

Jim Schwab

Protect What We’ve Gained in Flood Loss Reduction

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

One of the ongoing, perhaps permanent, struggles in public policy in a democracy like ours involves finding a balance between enabling private sector opportunities and protecting both the public interest and the public purse. Depending on their philosophies and perspectives, people will naturally draw those lines in different places on different issues. But sometimes it is perfectly clear when the public interest is about to suffer a hit. Currently, one of those possibilities involves the fate of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

On April 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 2901, a bill that seeks to make it easier for private companies to write private flood insurance policies that can take the place of those provided by the NFIP. The NFIP was created under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 to provide insurance that was then largely unavailable on the private market, but it also set in motion the creation of a federal regulatory program that has established standards for floodplain management in more than 22,000 communities nationwide. Many of those communities, particularly smaller ones, have no other meaningful land-use regulations, unlike bigger cities and suburbs and communities in states that mandate planning, which typically have comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations. The reason is that federal flood insurance is made available only in communities that have adopted the minimum standards of the NFIP, which seek to achieve flood loss reduction, thus reducing the damages from flooding and the resultant payouts under flood policies.

It makes perfect sense. There is no good reason for the federal government to insure properties against flood losses without making some attempt to minimize those losses through sensible land-use measures. Private casualty insurers certainly make attempts within their means to reduce losses from other types of accidents and disasters. Why not the federal government?

There is nothing inherently wrong with expanding opportunities for private flood insurance coverage. But there are serious issues with HR 2901, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), an organization with which I work closely as manager of the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association (APA), has mounted an alert among its members to urge U.S. Senators to take time to examine the bill closely before taking any action this fall. It has also addressed the issue earlier in testimony before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The Senate is in recess until September 6. ASFPM would ideally prefer that Congress defer action until next year, when the NFIP is due for reauthorization in any case, in order to consider the unintended consequences of the House bill in line with the larger objectives of the NFIP. APA is in support of the ASFPM effort in this regard.

The NFIP has evolved for nearly half a century with numerous revisions and reforms over time. Like any such program, it has needed to evolve in response to new lessons and changing circumstances. Some of the most significant lessons of the past came from the 1993 Midwest floods, which spawned reforms a year later. Among numerous changes that year was modification of policies to include Increased Cost of Compliance, which allows policies to pay for building improvements in response to higher local building standards, for example, by requiring elevation of buildings above the Base Flood Elevation, which is basically the height of the 100-year, or one percent chance annual flood, as mapped on the NFIP’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps. It is in the public interest to facilitate the capacity of communities to upgrade such codes over time as new lessons are learned, and to make it financially feasible for policy owners to comply with those new standards when rebuilding after a flood.

To be sure, these maps have never been perfect indicators of flood risk, though they are getting better with current digitization initiatives. Still, only about 1.2 million miles of shoreline and riverfront have been mapped, while more than 2/3 of the miles of the nation’s waterways are not. Most of the latter are small creeks and streams outside developed areas, which clearly have always been the priority. But it also means that development can occur in less developed areas without requirements to meet standards that only apply to mapped floodplains—unless a local jurisdiction is proactive enough to require developers to map such areas before new subdivisions or other development can be considered. Mostly, that is not the case.

So what is at issue with HR 2901? For one thing, NFIP policies include a policy fee that helps underwrite the cost of all this mapping, including updates and corrections over time. It is an ongoing process in part because floodplains are not static geographic entities. They expand or contract with the impact of our development practices, which affect the amount of impervious surface in urbanized areas, which affect how stormwater and other runoff is absorbed into the ground or directed downstream. Further, according the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about 40 percent of flood-related losses occur outside mapped floodplains. Why? Because not all floodplains are adequately mapped or as yet mapped at all, and because flooding can occur outside and beyond the 100-year floodplain, and often does.  We have Certified Floodplain Managers these days because this is, in fact, a complex and technical subject.

The problem with not including policy fees in the private policies is that the burden of financing this public good of mapping floodplains and maintaining a mountain of data about flood hazards falls to those NFIP policyholders who are paying for it, or to the American taxpayer when Congress allocates money directly for the purpose. The fee also supports flood hazard reduction efforts under FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program. That creates an inequity in favor of private flood insurance. But that is not all. Although federal financial regulators have had authority to establish policies concerning what provisions in a private policy would make them acceptable as an alternative to an NFIP policy, they have not acted. FEMA legal advisors, for whatever reason, decided in 2013 they did not have the authority to issue guidance. So the House bill assigned this responsibility to state insurance commissioners while prescribing that lenders and federal bank regulators “shall accept” the standards laid out by the states. It would be small surprise to anyone knowledgeable in this field to discover that state regulation in most cases is likely to be minimal and limited. The only required equivalency in the House bill will deal with the coverage amount, which may result in much smaller private premiums with high deductibles that may be superficially attractive—until homeowners with large deductibles find they lack the resources to rebuild and just walk away, quite possibly leaving communities and the federal government holding the bag for addressing the problems of neighborhoods with spotty redevelopment and blighted properties.

All of this, at the very least, deserves some serious debate before the Senate accepts the House version, but proponents have been seeking to fast-track the Senate bill (S 1679) under a process known as Unanimous Consent. However, if enough Senators hear enough complaints, fast-track may become a less attractive option. And, as noted earlier, there are good reasons to delay this discussion and take it up as part of the NFIP reauthorization next year, so that both Senators and the public can begin to understand the full implications of what has been proposed.

In no way would this be a death knell for private flood insurance. One problem the bill deals with in two useful paragraphs is to allow the private policies to be considered “portable” for the purpose of maintaining an unbroken record of coverage for a property if the owner switches between public and private insurance. That has not been the case but is not hard to fix. ASFPM notes that there has been a doubling in the last couple of years of companies offering private insurance. In other words, the expansion of private flood insurance is already happening. There is no reason to create a whole class of private policies that are not truly equivalent to those of the NFIP and, in the process, undermine the public goods produced by the NFIP and quite likely, increase the number of property owners seeking disaster assistance after discovering they are inadequately covered.

Flood insurance policy has already entered a volatile period that began with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, passed just a few months before Hurricane Sandy. While trying to place older, subsidized policies on a path to actuarially justifiable rates, it triggered a political backlash when rates began to soar after the impact of Hurricane Sandy. By 2014, Congress somewhat reversed course but has left unresolved a number of issues concerning how previously subsidized policyholders could afford their now escalating premiums as Congress sought to reconcile affordability with a desire to place the NFIP on a fiscally sound footing. It is a thorny issue at best, and we surely have not heard the end of it.  The simple fact is that large numbers of older, poorly protected properties in or near floodplains are likely to continue to generate flood losses into the future.

We already have a flood insurance program that is $23 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury because of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which overrode assumptions that the NFIP would largely insure garden-variety disasters. Next year’s reauthorization could sensibly forgive this debt in order to begin to place the NFIP back on a fiscally sound footing, but not with the approaches in HR 2901. We need to strengthen, not weaken, a system that at least drives toward stronger floodplain management and flood mitigation. We need to get this train moving again in the right direction. Congress needs generally to be more productive than it has been in recent years, but it also needs to put more thought into this particular issue and act in less haste. The alternative is to continue to generate a long train of unintended consequences and later ask what happened and why.

Jim Schwab

Riverwalk: A New Chicago Magnet

DSCF3110IMG_0239

Chicago is already quite rich in parks and tourist attractions. What can it add downtown?

In the past, I have written about the 606 Trail in Chicago, which is experiencing its first anniversary after opening a year ago. Despite some of its well-known challenges and problems, Chicago remains a city of quality destinations. Navy Pier, now a century old, just unveiled its redesign last month, including a new 200-foot Ferris wheel, and has been the top tourist attraction in Illinois. Millennium Park has few peers among downtown urban parks and has also been a second magnet for visitors since opening in 2004, ranking only behind Navy Pier.

But below the bridges and viaducts, down near the water’s edge, another jewel is nearing completion along the Chicago River—the Riverwalk. On June 2, I joined a tour sponsored by both the American Planning Association Illinois Chapter and the American Society of Landscape Architects Illinois Chapter and listened to an explanation of both completed and upcoming changes.

Chicago has no shortage of websites and museums devoted to its own urban history, which I won’t even try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, when Haitian-French explorer-trader Jean Baptiste du Sable first encountered Potawatomi Indians (one of whom he married) at the shore of Lake Michigan in 1790, the Chicago River was still an indolent waterway barely crossing the sandbars to empty into the lake. In a little over 200 years, it has become home to one of the world’s largest cities, with all the pollution and navigation over two centuries that one might expect. In the 1890s, amid the city’s rapid industrial expansion, engineering reversed its flow away from the lake to the Mississippi River watershed, in large part to spare Chicagoans the pollution of their beaches and water supply that came with using the river as an open sewer. The river itself was not a place where you wanted to spend time unless you were in a boat, and even that was questionable. More than 800 picnickers died when the Eastland tipped over at the water’s edge in 1915. At street level on Wacker Drive, a plaque memorializes that notorious incident.

But times change, and in the 21st century, the Chicago River is once again a civic asset to which significant attention—and investment—are being paid. Over the last ten years, the first two phases of a rebuilding project have come to fruition, producing a Riverwalk that now extends on the south side of the main branch from Michigan Avenue west to LaSalle St. A third phase will extend the Riverwalk further west to the juncture of the North and South Branches. Even the term “main branch” may seem a little puzzling to non-natives because it extends only about one mile. Most of the length of the Chicago River is in the two branches, but the whole river in either direction is less than 20 miles. The Lake Michigan watershed in this instance barely reaches beyond the city and rises only about 20 feet above the lakeshore. Beyond that, you are in one of the sub-watersheds of the vast Mississippi River valley. Most people would never notice they had crossed this boundary if a sign did not tell them. The Continental Divide, this is not.

However, the controlled nature of the river and the short reach of the main branch make the creation of a downtown Riverwalk far more manageable and the experience of walking it thoroughly enjoyable. The firms of Jacobs/Ryan Associates, Sasaki Associates (with whom I have collaborated on disaster recovery issues), and Ross Barney Architects, involved in the design and engineering, have produced an experience that unfolds in “rooms” as one moves in either direction along the river, bringing users close to the water while allowing the occasional flood to muddy some steps without much damage beyond washing down the mud the next day. Phase 1redesigned and rebuilt an existing path between Michigan Avenue and the lake, an area popular with tourists as a loading zone below the stairs from Michigan Avenue down to the riverfront for tour boats. It then extended that two blocks westward to State DSCF3126Street and includes the Chicago Veterans’ Memorial Plaza, opened in 2006. One of its nice touches is a series of concrete stairs more suitable for lunch or relaxation than for climbing. It is a dignified but welcoming setting in keeping with its purpose. In Phase I, the idea began to emerge of adding river-level sidewalks that allow visitors to move from block to block without going up to street level and back down again, although some of these obviously had to intrude from the existing river’s edge into the waterway, and thus involved some negotiation among agencies responsible for navigation and safety, given the mix of water traffic still traversing the Chicago River. Congress also had to act to provide permission to allow building 25 feet into the river to create the necessary width for the new Riverwalk.

IMG_0242What has emerged in Phase II is the creation of the rooms: Marina, Cove, and River Theater, extending from State Street west. The first is opposite Marina City, occasionally nicknamed the “Corncob Towers” because of their design, and permits docking by river boats and lounging by pedestrians. The Cove, in contrast, is a favorite stopping point for kayaks and canoes, which provide a rich source of aquatic exercise for sports enthusiasts. The River Theater changes the nature of the experience yet again with the appearance of a riverside amphitheater, using a low-slope path woven into climbing stairs that can also double as points of relaxation for hikers. The theater, for the most part, is the activity on the river itself, although one can imagine a waterborne performance someday floating before the viewers. Most of this opened for public use just a year ago.

Phase III is adding a water plaza at the river’s edge; the Jetty, which places a series of floating gardens along the river edge that allow people to learn about river ecology and native plants, and the Boardwalk, providing an accessible walkway connecting to Lake Street. Although currently inaccessible at river level, one can view the construction on the final phase from street level. We were told the project will be completed by this fall.

O'Brien's is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

O’Brien’s is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

It is one thing to traverse this path with a crowd from a mobile workshop in the late afternoon. Not only does a crowd make a difference, so does timing. I returned the following morning, since my CTA Blue Line commute takes me to the Clark & Lake station. Instead of remaining on Lake Street, I walked to Wacker Drive and descended the stairway again, this time walking in the cool of the morning by myself at 8 a.m. Not that I was alone. The path was already being filled with pedestrians like me, and joggers, and even an occasional bicyclist, so I had to pay attention to those around me as I repeatedly set my camera to shoot many of the photos included here. Heat varies, of course, throughout the summer day, but one pleasant, enduring feature is the cool breeze off the water. In the morning, as well, the restaurants are not yet open, making for a slightly more solitary experience, which even a confirmed extrovert like me can enjoy in contrast to the crowds that by late afternoon are now finding their way to the

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

new bars and restaurants that are now exploiting the popularity of the Riverwalk, as intended, with more coming as the project moves along. The opportunity to sit outdoors at river level and enjoy snacks or dinner and drinks can be very pleasant, and very different from the usual experience high above on the city streets. I expect that most of these establishments will do quite well. I intend to enjoy some of them myself, with friends in tow.

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.

Slide1

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