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

Solar Power and Resilient Communities

One of the most critical lifelines for survival for many citizens in a community stricken by disaster is the electrical grid. Without power, food spoils in refrigerators. Without power, one cannot recharge a cell phone, which may be a critical means of seeking help. Without power, one may freeze in the dark.

Last Thursday, February 26, I participated as a panelist in a webinar hosted by the American Planning Association as part of its involvement in the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership. With two other speakers, Robert Sanders and Stephan Schmidt, I helped explore solutions to such helplessness through what is becoming known as solar resilience. The idea is simple: through a combination of solar photovoltaic systems and battery storage for the electric power produced, critical facilities—and even homes in vulnerable neighborhoods—can rely instead on solar power that does not need to rely on a functioning grid to power the buildings to which it was connected. Instead, it can provide reliable backup electricity in a crisis for shelters, hospitals, and public safety facilities like police and fire stations. Communities no longer need to be at the mercy of an electrical power grid that can fail in an emergency, as happened in Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, Hurricane Sandy.

My colleagues certainly have done their homework. Stephan Schmidt, now a planner in San Luis Obispo County, California, researched the topic in depth while a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. He is the author of a very thorough guide for local governments, Solar Energy & Resilience Planning, that discusses the technologies, practical benefits, and financing for such projects. The publication details numerous examples of the successful applications of solar technologies with battery storage in facilities like the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City, completed in 2013 and now the largest net-zero facility in the nation. Net zero, a concept also being applied to many schools in innovative jurisdictions, means that the building’s solar photovoltaic system generates “nearly as much energy as it uses in operations.” That is to say, it draws little or no power from the grid.

The big question facing developers of such facilities has been financing. Solar power historically has involved high up-front costs, even as it has brought down the actual generation costs because of the fact its fuel source is sunlight rather than fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas). That is the expertise of Rob Sanders and the Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization working on clean energy and climate change issues. The group has created a number of resources to highlight means of financing solar electric power development. One useful guide it has produced is Resilient Power: Financing for Clean, Resilient Power Solutions. It details financing and ownership solutions to bypass systemic roadblocks that might otherwise impede progress on solar resilience. For instance, with $200 million of federal Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following Hurricane Sandy, the state of New Jersey in 2014 created the nation’s first Energy Resilience Bank to underwrite the development of resilient power at critical facilities throughout the state and minimize the potential for major power outages. It is clear that some vital lessons are being learned.

Jim Schwab

The Challenge of Creating Resilient Communities

A scene from the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.

A scene from the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.

Resilience has typically been defined as an ability to bounce back from, and to withstand, shocks and crises. These can include natural disasters but also terrorist strikes, sudden economic downturns, or major industrial accidents. The term was borrowed from the field of ecology, but it has taken root in community planning and has important implications for how and where we build and for the kinds of human capital we develop. It is inherently a complex topic.

That complexity raises the question of how entities outside communities can encourage or foster greater resilience within them. Is it all up to local planners and elected officials, or is there a role for state and federal governance and perhaps private philanthropy? If so, what is that role?

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), followed up on its Rebuild by Design initiative that followed Hurricane Sandy by unveiling the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). The new effort makes nearly $1 billion in grants available to eligible jurisdictions. Details about the HUD Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) and the overall competition are available elsewhere on the APA website, on the HUD website, and on several other sites allied to or supportive of the competition (also listed on the APA page linked above), most notably including the Rockefeller Foundation. The idea was to encourage communities to develop proposals that would address community resilience needs in a holistic fashion. At the same time, because the money was tied to the Sandy supplemental appropriations for HUD’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program, the proposals needed to tie those needs back to a presidential disaster declaration between 2011 and 2013, and meet other CDBG requirements relating to vulnerable and disadvantaged sectors of the community. Those requirements establish a threshold of eligibility for states and communities that can be challenging to meet while setting their sights even higher. In all, the NOFA listed 67 eligible jurisdictions. These included 48 states (only South Carolina and Nevada had no declarations during the relevant period), and 19 other counties and municipalities, plus Puerto Rico. Louisiana and Illinois had adjacent local jurisdictions eligible in both the Chicago and New Orleans metropolitan areas.

Because only HUD can legally explain the NOFA but is unable to directly help jurisdictions develop their applications, the Rockefeller Foundation, already supporting other resilience initiatives, chose to support the competition by providing such technical assistance. It did this with extensive help from HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm, by organizing five regional “resilience academies,” in Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City, Boston, and Chicago. These provided an excellent vehicle for using the talents of at least some of the APA members who volunteered their time for our Planners Resilience Network, whose names we shared with both HUD and Rockefeller. The Rockefeller consultants enlisted dozens of design professionals as subject matter experts (SMEs) and facilitators to staff the workshops. I participated as an SME in the Chicago academy, which was held January 29-30 at the James Hotel. Both groups were assigned during the events to specific applicant teams as they worked through their ideas, but also participated in critiques of presentations by other applicants. HUD personnel were on hand to answer questions about the NOFA, and Enterprise Community Partners representatives held counseling sessions with each applicant team.

The overall idea was to help the teams refine their ideas and broaden their thinking about resilience, overcome siloes and boundaries, and collaborate with neighbors. Judging from my own experience, I would say that in most cases the applicant teams moved quite far from their initial concepts in just two days. There is a tendency in local and state government to tailor proposals narrowly to fit the needs of highly stovepiped funding sources at the federal level, which can be notoriously limiting with regard to the range of acceptable options. Even HUD in its FAQs has broadened its interpretation of its own NOFA in recent weeks.

One challenge in particular that I noted in Chicago was that many of the issues states and other jurisdictions face do not stop at their boundaries. In the Midwest, for instance, major river systems—the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio, in particular—form those boundaries, but the floodplain management issues clearly involve both sides, whether it be Wisconsin/Minnesota or Ohio/Kentucky, to name just two examples. There can be little doubt that similar issues prevail across the country. What the academy organizers—and HUD—hoped to convey was that collaboration across such boundaries not only would be rewarded but is absolutely vital to long-term regional success in creating disaster resilience.

The formula worked in part because it minimized set presentations in order to maximize team discussions and feedback. There were basic presentations about the concept of resilience, defining risks, and how to apply innovative thinking to resilience problems. More importantly, however, the academies focused their efforts on a well-considered progression of exercises throughout the two days. These exercises led participants through the identification of resilience opportunities in their target communities, to understanding the risks they face, then to expanding their approach, before the first critique, which forced each team to decide on the “elevator speech” that would communicate the key elements of their proposal in about five minutes, subject to feedback from the SMEs and facilitators. Mastering the art of identifying a handful of key bullet points about a complex proposal to increase community or regional resilience for a particular area in reference to particular hazards and disaster events is not as easy as it may sound, and it probably does not even sound easy.  It is fair to say that some master this challenge better than others, but what is important is that all went home with the experience of having to defend and rethink their ideas and how they could be tied together into a coherent strategy that met also met the threshold requirements for the HUD grants. That is no small request to make of these teams, but many were game to at least try to rise to the occasion. That is progress.

The second, slightly shorter day allowed these teams to refine their approach through a leverage and consultation exercise, followed by a post-lunch second critique, closing out with an opportunity to finalize their approach before going home. The morning also offered five topic area breakout sessions where applicants could choose to learn more about particular hazard types or about leverage and creative financing.

Although the more conceptual Phase I proposals are due March 16, allowing HUD to winnow the list for the Phase II proposals that will nail down specific projects, it is virtually a certainty that nearly every team will be meeting with its counterparts at home to take their ideas farther and respond to the challenges posed during the academies. No one ever said planning is easy. Planning with the goal of achieving community resilience is even tougher. Representatives for the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly emphasized that, even for communities that do not make the cut, the process of participating in these academies may still enrich their approaches to such issues for the future. No one should have gone home empty-handed.

Jim Schwab