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

The Fine Art of Stepping Down

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people,” or variations thereof, is a quotation that has been attributed to many, including the late French President Charles de Gaulle, but according to Quote Investigator, actually belongs to an American writer Elbert Hubbard in 1907, using the phrase, “people the world cannot do without” and the word “graveyards.” But QI notes numerous sources over the years, many of which may well have borrowed from or built upon the other. The point is clear: None of us lives forever, and the world finds a way to move on without us. We can make an impact, but so can others. And we can come to terms with those facts long before we arrive at the cemetery.

Although it was not made public until January 9, I decided a few months ago that it was time to leave my post at the American Planning Association as manager of the Hazards Planning Center. There are two other such centers at APA—Green Communities, and Planning and Community Health—each of which has had at least three different managers since the National Centers for Planning were established in 2008 as a means of making clear APA’s commitment to certain leading-edge topics in planning. I have so far been the only manager for Hazards.  More importantly, I built that center’s portfolio atop an existing legacy of work in the field of planning for hazards dating back to 1993, when I agreed to manage a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that led to publication of the landmark report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. I did not at first foresee the ways in which that effort would forever alter the arc of my career in urban planning. Looking back, there was nothing inevitable about it. While I was http://www.statenislandusa.com/heavily involved until then in environmental planning, almost none of it involved disasters. Once I sank my teeth deeply into the subject matter, however, there was no letting go. The Blues Brothers would have said that I was on a mission from God. Increasingly, I became aware of the high stakes for our society in properly planning our communities to cope with natural hazards.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

That quarter-century tenure in the driver’s seat of APA’s initiatives regarding disaster policy and practice made me, in some people’s minds at least, almost inseparable from the position I now hold. Perhaps in part because I was comfortable in working with the news media, I became the public face of APA in the realm of hazards planning. That may have been amplified to some extent by the fact that, until last year, the only APA employees working directly under me on a regular basis were interns, most of whom were graduate planning students. It’s not that I was a one-man show. I enlisted staff within the research department for specific projects with assigned hours. Given the expertise needed in this area, and my own willingness to listen to and learn from the best, most experienced people available, it was generally productive to contract with those people on a consulting basis or through partnerships with other organizations. Because APA is a professional organization with a membership of almost 40,000, those resources were readily available. I could marshal expertise far greater than any we could have hired for most of those years. Last year, however, we came to terms with growth and added research associate Joseph DeAngelis, who joined us after leaving the New York City Planning Department, where he had worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery on Staten Island. He has become a great asset to the organization.

His ability to span the transition to a new manager was one of several preconditions I had in mind over the last two or three years in contemplating my retirement from APA. More important, but a factor in adding him to our staff, was that I wanted to leave my successor with a center that was in good shape. This meant having projects underway, and funded by agreements with sponsors beyond the immediate few months after my departure. By late last year, we had won project grants from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will all end between July and December in 2018. That gives my successor, whoever he or she may be, more than adequate opportunity to complete those ongoing projects, maintain APA’s credibility in the realm of hazards, and explore new options and opportunities that will sustain the legacy that is already in place. I understand that people like me sometimes move quickly to another organization, firm, or government agency because a huge opportunity opens on short notice. With retirement, however, there is no need for such haste. We can take time to plan well.

That leads to another precondition in which I can say that I am greatly aided by the management philosophy of APA’s current executive director, James Drinan. He believes that, when possible, we should seek a managerial replacement who can join APA in the last two or three weeks of the tenure of their predecessor. This allows the opportunity for the outgoing person to share how things are done or even answer questions about how they might be done better or differently. I recognize, for one thing, that my own package of skills is unique and unlikely to be replicated. That is fine because someone new may well be much stronger in some other areas than I ever was. And if so, I am happy for them. It is a fool’s errand to seek replacement by a clone. Ultimately, the hiring choice will belong to APA’s research director, David Rouse, but my input on what credentials and experience are most useful is likely to have an impact. We hope to see resumes from some high-quality candidates in coming weeks.

So what is next for me as of June 1? I look forward to an opportunity to explore some new options that simply have not been feasible until now. Elsewhere on this website, I describe my intended work on some future book projects, most immediately focusing on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods, but there are other ideas waiting in the wings. APA would like to use my consulting services as needed to aid the transition beyond my retirement, and I have agreed, but there are and may be some other offers. I will certainly continue teaching at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, at least as long as they wish to continue that relationship, which has been very fruitful. And it should surprise no one if people find me on the speaking circuit from time to time. In fact, I may be much freer to accept such invitations if I am not managing a research program for APA. Finally, I shall have considerably greater free time to devote to this blog. In less than four years, its following has grown from virtually nothing to more than 14,000 subscribers as of this week. It has been a great pleasure to share what I learn through that forum.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

But those are all activities that somehow involve work. I may well involve myself in some volunteer activities with APA divisions and its Illinois chapter, the Society of Midland Authors, and other outlets that I may discover. That too sometimes sounds like work, so let me try harder. I have written about the wonderful 606 Trail near my home; I expect to walk and bicycle there and in nearby Humboldt Park. I may well take a great novel to one of the trail’s benches (or to my front patio) and read in the middle of the day. My wife and I may travel, both as we choose and as we are invited. Anyone reading this blog must already know that I love to get around. Despite all its flaws, the world remains a fascinating place, and I want to explore it while I can. I may never get a gig (or want one) like that of Anthony Bourdain, but I will see enough. And, yes, like him, I love to explore different cuisines—in part so that, as an amateur gourmet chef with new time on his hands, I can try them out for guests at home or elsewhere. Like I said, the world is a fascinating place. Explore it while you can.

Jim Schwab

Hold That Soil, Please

Photo by Suzan Erem

Photo by Suzan Erem

 

Ours has often been a profligate society in using the vast natural resources with which it was originally endowed. We’ve improved our attitudes about conservation, but we have a long way to go. Among those resources we have been prone to waste in the interest of short-term gain has been the deep topsoil that made the Midwest superbly productive. Less than 200 years ago, according to Rick Cruse, an Iowa State University researcher, Iowa had an average of 14 inches of topsoil in which grew thousands of square miles of prairie. Now that soil is about six inches deep, less than half what we inherited—or more accurately, mostly took—from the Native Americans who first lived here.

Those estimates come from an August 12 article in the Chicago Tribune that I shall credit as the inspiration for my addressing this topic. However, those familiar with my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, will be well aware that the topic is not new to me. In 1985, farmer Gary Lamb and I wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register decrying the lack of conservation and what it might do in the long term to the fabled productivity of Iowa farmland. In essence, we were saying, nothing lasts forever if we insist on killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Farmers mostly tore up the prairie to plant the corn, soybeans, wheat, and other agricultural products that now grow on the vast majority of the land in states like Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Prairie plants had deep roots that held topsoil in place and nurtured it. With prairie grasses removed, loose soil began to erode, clogging streams and rivers that feed the Mississippi River, which dumps its overload into the Gulf of Mexico, producing what has become known as a “dead zone.” This is an area suffering from hypoxia—a shortage of oxygen in the sea that chokes out life. This comes at the additional cost of stripping Midwestern farms of much of the topsoil with which they were originally blessed. We have unhinged that layer of topsoil by depriving it of the prairie root systems that once anchored it. In fact, we continue to do so.

But the problem is more serious and immediate than simply undermining the long-term productivity of the soil. Current practices also threaten the public health and welfare of people in states like Iowa. Not long ago, the Des Moines Water Works filed suit against three upstream counties for failing to control the nonpoint source runoff that is contaminating the capital city’s water supply. That suit is being met with a good deal of anger and skepticism, but it is symptomatic of a larger conflict. That conflict pits the priorities of agriculture versus public welfare, a dispute playing out in other forms in even larger venues like California. But there the issue often has more to do with drought and the protection of adequate water supplies than with polluted runoff. In Iowa, floods have been a more persistent danger in recent memory.

Lawsuits, however, are not the only rational response to such a major public policy problem. It is critical that public universities support research aimed at viable solutions, and at least some research at Iowa State University is pointing to an answer that should seem remarkably obvious: restore the prairie. The imperatives of modern food production may make it clear that we are not going to restore all the farmland in the Midwest to pre-modern conditions. But the prairie provides demonstrable ecological benefits that we can ignore only at the cost of prolonging current problems with flooding and water quality. In a sense, what we are learning about the value of restoring some prairie for the purpose of reducing runoff and improving downstream water quality is similar to what we are learning in more urban contexts about the value of green infrastructure—the urban forest, the green roofs, the living shorelines, and other nature-based features that enhance the environmental quality of our communities.

But green infrastructure is not a concept that need be limited to our urban areas. Nature provides vast ecological functions for human benefit in all sorts of settings if we are wise enough to investigate them and learn to use them.

In that sense, I think that Iowa State University is on to something. Researchers there have been demonstrating the value of prairie restoration with a project called Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS). Test sites have shown not only that these prairie strips can capture much of the polluted runoff from farms and enrich the soil, but that they provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife, restoring some of the richness of the land in the process. For instance, one research project by Lisa Schulte and others showed that such treatments doubled or tripled the presence of bird species, both in overall abundance and variety. Other research has found that wider strips of prairie serve to trap greater levels of sediment that would otherwise clog streams and reduce water quality. It is as if, having been blind to the free benefits of natural systems for so long, we have at last begun to learn to sing nature’s tune anew.

But it will take time to change attitudes and perspectives in a farm sector that has often been rather conservative about adopting such techniques. There is still likely to be a lively debate between environmentalists and dominant sectors of the agricultural industry, with varying levels of resonance in different states, but results speak volumes and gradually help to change minds. There may be more lawsuits like the one that originated in Des Moines, and there may ultimately be some meaningful legislative debates about incentives and regulations. We can at least hope that the steady infusion of research-based information on the benefits of prairie restoration will make a difference soon enough to matter. There is certainly a great deal at stake.

Jim Schwab

Business of Changing the World

Last night I watched the CNN documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It told me much that I already knew, namely, that Jobs was a problematic figure with both a dark side and a light side, a man of genius with deep human flaws, but someone who clearly changed the world, at least on a technological level. We relate to computers and telephones today in ways that were almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago. At the same time, the movie filled in some gaps in my knowledge and made me aware of some aspects of his tragically shortened career that were less clear to me before.

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But that is not the most important part of my reaction to the story. In fact, I had this blog post in mind well before seeing the movie in part because it simply reinforced a thought that has been with me for some time: that the shape of our choices is dictated to some extent by the timing of our lives and the circumstances in which we grow into adulthood. Many of us can still change a great deal as our life moves on, but those initial choices in high school and college, in our teens and early twenties, predetermine a great deal of what follows.

I have not yet read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, though it sits on my shelf waiting for me, so I was intrigued to learn that Jobs graduated from high school in 1972, just four years behind me. But he died in 2011, and I am still here, his life ending early at 56 years of age as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Four years does not seem like a long time in a full life, but at that formative age, for baby boomers following the Sixties, it made all the difference in the world. It may have been one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history.

I entered college in the fall of 1968. In April of that year, as I was completing my senior year of high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We barely recovered from that shock when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was also assassinated in a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Before the summer was over, the Democratic convention in Chicago was disrupted by major protests that were suppressed with major police violence. It was a rather traumatic introduction to four years of higher education and was followed by numerous protests. I attended college in downtown Cleveland, and watched or participated in civil rights, antiwar, and environmental demonstrations.

I mention this because, in the many years since then, especially more recently, I have wondered if I might have benefited from taking some business courses in order better to understand some of the more progressive business phenomena that have evolved on the American landscape. There are now green businesses focused on renewable energy, food businesses catering to new tastes for healthier foods, and environmental businesses focused on cleaning up rather than despoiling the environment. When I was a student in Cleveland, however, the businesses I knew best seemed like an extensive monolith of status quo enterprises, defending the despoliation of the environment, resistant to equal opportunity, with the corner offices almost an unrelenting parade of conservative, aging white men. I may have been a young white man myself, but I most definitely wanted to live a more interesting, purposeful life than those white men.

And so I studied literature at first, then switched to political science, in a quest to change the world, and eventually, by the early 1980s, returned to school to obtain graduate degrees in journalism and urban and regional planning. I did survive three undergraduate electives in economics, which were reinforced by planning-related economics classes at the master’s level, but that is not the same as classes in marketing and accounting and business management. As I said, as I have watched a new generation of business enterprises take new approaches to engaging with the world, I have wondered whether I might have benefited from learning more about entrepreneurship and business principles. But it was not to be because the influences that bore down on me made that less appealing when it might have been more feasible. I wanted to change the world in what I deemed a positive way, and the businesses that might have employed me in Cleveland at the time did not seem like the way to achieve that. Nonetheless, I did work in the business world for several years before moving to Iowa to take the helm of a small public interest nonprofit organization, only after which I pursued graduate school.

It was only as I was completing that graduate education that many of these new enterprises—and Apple Computer, which was a provocative and sometimes perplexing blend of both old and new ideas about how to run a business—burst onto the scene. Meanwhile, I was acquiring a whole new set of skills that implanted me firmly in the public sector, although I have spent most of my subsequent career in a nonprofit professional association. Along the way, I learned that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful ally even in the nonprofit world. They too must find ways to attract money. In my case, we most often do that in a highly competitive environment, developing proposals for grants and contracts that require significant innovative thinking—the very sort of thing that would probably serve me equally well as a consultant because, in effect, that is to some extent what I have become. I am in a service business, but I have had and enjoyed opportunities to change the world in ways that matter. Small ways, perhaps, compared to the impact of someone like Jobs, but appreciable. I have helped alter the prevailing thinking about the ways in which planners can contribute to the reduction of losses of lives and property from natural disasters. That does not seem like a small thing when I think about it very hard.

My sense of entrepreneurship was enhanced by the fact that I also was writing for a living, sometimes enhancing my income from working as a planner with book royalties and article fees and honoraria for speaking. I learned some marketing because I had to learn how to hone my message and sell books. It’s not nearly as easy as it may seem. In fact, the publishing business can be downright brutal, but I learned to survive.

In the end, my takeaway is that it matters less whether one ends up working in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or public sector, or anywhere else, for that matter, and much more what we ultimately do with the skills we acquire. Entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as a skill, and what we sell matters as much as how well we sell it, but what matters more is why we want to do what we do and the satisfaction we derive from doing it well. Looking back, I have no regrets about the skills and knowledge I developed or about my accomplishments in life. They have not made me a billionaire like Jobs, but the psychic rewards have been high. I took the hand that life dealt me during a volatile stretch of history and used it to make a difference. I will not ask for more.

 

Jim Schwab

Stars Stars Again

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Nearly two years ago, in what was only my third blog post on this site, I reviewed what I thought was a class-act restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. I have been to this fascinating historic city several times in recent years, mostly due to involvement in the Digital Coast Partnership, a creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center, which has now been absorbed into NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management after merger with another section of NOAA. In that time, the Digital Coast Partnership has grown from six national organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represent, to eight. Just last year, the Urban Land Institute and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association joined. I later discussed the value of this unique enterprise in an article I posted here on September 1, 2014, “Digital Coast: A Model for Progress.”

Much of the Digital Coast Partnership was represented at the 2015 Coastal GeoTools Conference, held in North Charleston March 30-April 2. In addition to being a devoted, professional crew dedicated to making geospatial technology more widely available and valuable for potential users, this is a fun group that socializes well, which leads to the real point of this article. About 20 of us, including the NOAA staffers, visited Stars, the restaurant I reviewed two years ago. Wondering whether I may have overestimated the place after seeing some customer reviews online, I was prepared for possible disappointment. Sometimes restaurant service declines over time, or the kitchen becomes less imaginative. Excellence does not always last forever.

I am happy to report, however, that excellence is still alive and thriving at Stars. Both my good friend and colleague Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), and I ordered the pork chop off the evening’s special menu, accompanied by roasted cauliflower and corn in an unbelievably tasty sauce. There appeared to be numerous other options, many involving seafood, that satisfied other palates at the table. I was soon engrossed in one of the best meals I had had in months, when Chad, having polished off his, turned to me in an almost ecstatic mood and asked:

“Was that the best pork chop you have ever had in your life?”

Chad Berginnis and I discuss what we both agreed was a superb meal.

Chad Berginnis and I discuss what we both agreed was a superb meal.

I quickly agreed. I had to. I spent six and a half years of my life in Iowa, a place that knows pork chops with a passion, and have been back many times over the subsequent 30 years, and I still could not recall a pork chop even there that could pass the high bar set by the chefs at Stars. But the story does not stop with the food, or even the wine, for which Stars had outstanding suggestions.

It continued with the service, personified by our own server, Austin Doyle, who was not only engaging and enthusiastic about his mission, but visibly anxious to ensure he was doing as much for us as he possibly could. I am almost embarrassed it has taken me another month to produce the review I promised him, but I am sure he will feel his patience has paid off. I learned that he was leading an operation to train other restaurant servers (#serverchopped), an indication that he indeed takes his calling seriously.

Austin Doyle (to my left) takes a moment to pose with his customers at Stars.

Austin Doyle (to my left) takes a moment to pose with his customers at Stars.

It is always a pleasure to find such a restaurant in a city that itself is so charming. You can see much of it from the rooftop bar at Stars, if you need to bide time before your table is ready, or just want to enjoy the weather on a pleasant night. I understand that, before the sun goes down, the rooftop can become rather toasty on a warm summer night, perhaps even a bit much to handle, but it’s worth a visit to check out the skyline, even though Charleston is, for the most part, a relatively low-rise city with many buildings in its commercial core dating back to colonial or at least antebellum days. Few serve the same purpose, as many have been converted to storefronts or other restaurants, but the street grid and many of the facades survive, even as the city has added other attractions such as the South Carolina Aquarium and several quirky and idiosyncratic museums. At the same time, a number of historic churches survive and still serve their own intended functions.

Digital Coast advocate Allison Hardin, a planner for Myrtle Beach, S.C., enjoys a laugh amid the views on the Stars rooftop.

Digital Coast advocate Allison Hardin, a planner for Myrtle Beach, S.C., enjoys a laugh amid the views on the Stars rooftop.

It is a city fascinating enough that I persuaded my wife that we should spend our upcoming 30th anniversary there. For her, the visit will be her first, but she was sold when I showed her online what Charleston has to offer. I will be interested in her reaction when she actually gets to walk the streets of the historic quarter and judge for herself. I already understand why Travel Advisor recently rated Charleston the nation’s third most attractive city for tourists, right behind New York and Chicago, quite an achievement.

 

Jim Schwab

Yes, Floods Are More Frequent

If you live in the Midwest, you’re over, say, 50 years old, and you’ve had the impression that floods are happening more frequently than they used to, your memory is not playing tricks on you. A pair of researchers at the University of Iowa have studied the daily records collected at stream gauges in 14 states by the U.S. Geological Survey from 1962-2011. Four times as many stations (264, or 34 percent) showed an increase as showed a decrease during that time (66, or nine percent).

Iman Mallakpour and Gabriele Villarini published their findings, “The Changing Nature of Flooding across the Central United States,” in the February 9 advance online edition of Nature Climate Change, a scientific journal. Villarini is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Mallakpour is a graduate student in the program who served as lead author on the paper. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center, and IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering supported their work, along with the National Science Foundation.

The two authors studied the data for both changes in peak flow—the magnitude of the events—and the frequency with which floods occurred. They did not find a statistically significant pattern of increased large events, but the data on increasing frequency of flooding was quite convincing. They also examined seasonal differences and found some differentiation between the central Midwest and its perimeters, where the pattern of increased flooding was generally less pronounced. They also found an “overall good match” when they overlaid the areas of increasing flood frequency with those experiencing heavy rainfall events. Although the two authors did not go so far as to relate these results to climate change, this does not mean there is no connection; they simply chose not to speculate beyond the information provided by the stream flow data they examined. As the article states, “a direct attribution of these changes in discharge, precipitation and temperature to human impacts on climate represents a much more complex problem that is very challenging to address using only observational records.”

However, as this blog has noted previously (“Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future”), this tracks well with the prevailing theory among climate scientists that, as the atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture, resulting in more intense events of higher precipitation—offset, at other times, by an increased propensity for drought. The expected tendency is for a flattening of the bell curve of weather events—more on the extreme ends in both directions, lessening the dominance of more moderate events. The article by Mallakpour and Villarini is one more in a long string of indicators that change is afoot with regard to weather and flooding patterns. The science of climate change has not been and will not be built on one or two studies, but hundreds, if not thousands. That is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involves thousands of researchers from 195 countries. It is important to pay attention to both individual pieces of evidence and its massive overall accumulation to understand how the case for the human impact was built over time.

Jim Schwab

Creative Economic Development for College Towns

College towns can be as different from each other as they are collectively from most other communities. Some literally dominate the economic landscape of their communities. Others are comfortably lodged in a setting that involves a larger community or even a state capital. They have different histories, different strengths, and different outlooks.

What they tend to have in common is a high average level of education and a large number of young people and faculty brimming with new ideas. But they don’t always tap that imagination effectively, sometimes at all, and not all are good at bridging the famous gap between town and gown. So how do they chart an economic future for themselves?

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium's Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron--that was in Fenway Park in April 2011--but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

The SURP 50th anniversary dinner took place after the conference at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box. The photographer posted photos from a reception on Friday night at the downtown hotelVetro on the stadium’s Jumbotron. It was not my first appearance on a Jumbotron–that was in Fenway Park in April 2011–but that is another story for another time. With m in this image are Professor John Fuller and my wife, Jean.

On Saturday, September 20, I was in Iowa City listening to, and sometimes asking questions of, a series of panels that comprised an all-day Midwest Creative College Town Conference. The event did not occur in isolation. It was part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, whose creation in 1964 some far-sighted folks back then thought made sense in a largely rural, agrarian state. Over time, Iowa has become considerably more urban: It was noted that the two areas of the state gaining population are the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor and the Des Moines metropolitan area. Almost all others have been losing population steadily for some time. There are reasons for those trends. I attended in a dual capacity, as both an alumnus (Class of 1985) and adjunct faculty. I teach a course each year on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” Not so coincidentally, this course became part of the school’s curriculum in 2008, following massive floods that severely affected both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The school offers a graduate-level curriculum, in which students earn a master’s degree in planning, many of them, however, in combination with degrees in other fields like law or public health. I was the oddball. I earned a second degree in journalism.

SURP Director Charles Connerly organized four panels, three to discuss economic development strategies in college towns, and a final one to discuss the role of the arts in Iowa City. Of the three, I found the panels from Iowa City and East Lansing, Michigan, to have very substantive thoughts on the subject, but was more disappointed with the panel from Lincoln, Nebraska. I will offer more on that later.

But note the differences. Iowa City, once the territorial capital of Iowa prior to statehood, lost that distinction after statehood to Des Moines, but the capitol building became the core of a state university. Old Capitol remains open as a museum that one can visit, the heart of the Pentacrest, a complex of buildings immediately adjacent to the downtown. As panelist Geoff Fruin, the assistant city manager, noted, this has afforded a “tight integration between the campus and the community,” which allows the university’s “energy to spill out into the streets.” East Lansing, on the other hand, is adjacent to the state capital, more isolated from the action in that sense as a college town, and in the middle of an older industrial area with its own manufacturing heritage. Lincoln, like Madison, Wisconsin, is a major state university within a state capital. Its primary business, in addition to the University of Nebraska, is state government.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City's Summer of the Arts.

The University of Iowa Pentacrest (green area) is literally across the street from the downtown business district (background). Here, Clinton Street is closed, and booths set up, for the Iowa Soul Festival, part of Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts.

One can find many other variations not represented on any of the panels—small towns with small, independent or church-affiliated liberal arts colleges, as well as universities in suburbs of major cities, like Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As an undergraduate, I attended a truly urban institution, Cleveland State University, which occupies prime real estate in downtown Cleveland. No one would think of Cleveland as a college town, of course, but most big cities contain such universities. Every community must fashion its own strategy based on its own circumstances.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

Setting the stage for the Iowa Soul Festival. Among the visiting performers was Al Jarreau.

But there were some common themes that I find fascinating because they relate to the new knowledge economy and suggest changes in the landscape of economic development that many communities are still slow to recognize. That is because, as Jeff Smith of East Lansing noted, many economic development professionals are still tied to the old “hunt and gather” approach, which he says is dying. That approach can be loosely defined as trying to find businesses elsewhere that would be willing to move to or expand into your community, if only given the right incentives. These often involve tax breaks, free land, or similar public giveaways. Ultimately, to the extent that one community’s gain is someone else’s loss, it becomes a zero-sum game. Smith’s answer: “You need to water your own garden. The momentum [from doing so] is contagious.” Smith is director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

Watering your own garden means fostering entrepreneurship, collaborating with potential business startups, and producing the conditions that will allow new businesses to succeed. It is more difficult work because it involves some serious effort to understand the economic ecosystem in which these businesses will operate. Every college town has its own unique strengths. In East Lansing, said Smith, “Our culture is we are extremely good at making things. . . . We’re engineers, we make things.” Over time, he said, the Michigan State University engineering school bred manufacturing, much of it in Michigan’s automotive industry, which grew an insurance cluster because “people got injured on jobs,” and in time that insurance cluster was followed by software development. Still, Lori Mullins, community and economic development administrator for the City of East Lansing, noted that the city had long been “content to be a bohemian town, humble for too long,” and did not harness the resources that the university offered. “We needed to change that culture,” she stated. Smith seconded that assessment by noting “a stagnant entrepreneurial climate” in which General Motors, which went through bankruptcy in 2009, laid off more employees than all other companies in the region.

The key, as highlighted by both Mullins and Paul Jaques, director of community and student engagement for Spartan Innovations, an enterprise of the university, was both that the city in 2006 was bold enough, in the face of a local culture that did not particularly favor entrepreneurialism, to invest in a hub for innovation in a former downtown department store, and to work with the university, which fostered its own ecosystem to  support entrepreneurship. The result is a series of home-grown enterprises and a gradually evolving cultural change that encourages innovation. This includes competitions and monetary incentives for new ideas, as well as classes to teach entrepreneurial skills.

Interestingly, the Iowa City speakers seconded the notion that “chasing after companies” as an economic development strategy “doesn’t work anymore,” as Fruin noted. In fact, he went further, stating that “older trained economic development professionals need to toss out everything you have learned. Older traditional models are wasteful if not harmful to cities.” Instead, the top talent is already in the community, and you need to “make sure faculty and staff feel invited to the community.” Economic development professionals, he added, need to “stop thinking like economic development professionals and start thinking like progressive urban planners. Promote high-quality architecture. Invest in memorable spaces and make them accessible by all modes [of transportation]. Let your public spaces speak for you.”

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

The Iowa City panel included, from left to right, Nick Benson, moderator, Geoff Fruin, David Hensley, Eric Hanson of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Andy Stoll, and Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District.

In short, what he was telling the audience was that quality of life will attract talent, and the answer is to “cultivate young students, faculty, and staff, and the rest takes care of itself.” David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and Associate Vice President for Economic Development for the University of Iowa, outlined a series of university initiatives similar to those at Michigan State, starting from his primary point that “innovation and creativity are drivers of prosperity.”

He was backed up by Andy Stoll, co-founder of the Seed Here Studio, which has fostered numerous new enterprises in Iowa City by holding coffees with groups and entrepreneurs, introducing them to each other and creating a network among people who had thought they were alone, but eventually comprised more than 700 people in a culture of collaboration, which he described as “the new competition.” That collaboration often needs to be between apparent cultural opposites, for example, “the tucked and the untucked,” referring to people’s sartorial habits, and the fact that those with the imagination eventually need to be paired with those with the means to invest. “You need both elements in the same room connecting energy and creativity with knowledge and experience,” Stoll concluded.

The more disappointing of the three college town panels was the one from Lincoln, though that was not entirely the fault of the panelists. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons they may have had, city officials in Lincoln chose not to participate in the panel despite encouragement. This left a noticeable gap in the discussion of economic development strategies in Lincoln compared to the other two cities represented, and the panel could only offer the observation that they would be happy not to have the city get in their way. They had their own interesting approaches from both the university and community organizations, but it still seemed that something was lacking in the absence of similar engagement from City Hall, and there was no particular explanation for that relinquishment of opportunity and collaboration.

What was encouraging, however, was that there was explicit recognition to varying degrees of the importance of anticipating the social and environmental impacts of the kinds of businesses we choose to encourage and support. This is an emerging issue within the economic realm that is changing the way many of us eat, shop, and travel. The conversation regarding sustainability could certainly have gone farther and been deeper and more substantive, but the first step is to recognize that it is a serious question worthy of debate, which may take us back to one opening comment by Dan Reed, the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and development, quoting William Gibson:

“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

 

Jim Schwab

Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future

It was just five years ago that Iowa was awash in flood water. Many people are familiar with the dire scenes from Cedar Rapids, where record floods forced the evacuation of 10 percent of the city’s residents on June 13, 2008, swamping the downtown and causing extensive damages. Plenty of other Iowa communities suffered as well, however. Cedar Falls, 90 miles north of Cedar Rapids along the same Cedar River, struggled to contain flood waters that overwhelmed its north side and almost overtook its downtown. To the southeast, Iowa City watched the Iowa River flood major University of Iowa buildings like Hancher Auditorium and the Iowa Memorial Union and learned, maybe, that the university had invested in too much real estate on the riverfront. Across the state, the rivers swelled and dozens of small towns coped with mud, pollution, and lost memories.

On Friday, May 31, I joined a panel on water management policy at “Five Years Out,” a one-day conference at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids that examined Iowa’s past and future with regard to these issues. As if on cue, nature responded by sending a line of thunderstorms to assault the area the day before, accentuating the moisture in soil that had already become a huge, wet sponge throughout the spring. The Dubuque St. entrance to downtown Iowa City from I-80, always a flash point because it closely parallels the Iowa River, was closed before the day was out. As Yogi Berra would have said, it seemed like déjà vu all over again. Fortunately, the sun triumphed on Friday, and Iowa got a reprieve. Summer could still be challenging.

What I found most revealing was the information shared by William Gutowski and Rick Cruse of Iowa State University. Gutowski teaches in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences and has been tracking data on Iowa’s changing climate for some time. He discussed the seeming contradiction of Iowa suffering both increased propensity for extreme precipitation events, leading to flooding, and increased propensity for drought. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive or contradictory, however. Higher average temperatures lead to a situation in which the atmosphere is capable of containing higher amounts of moisture because warmer air can hold more moisture before being forced to dump its load. That also means that storms become worse when they do occur. Gutowski showed that average annual precipitation in Cedar Rapids had increased between 1890 and 2010 from 28 inches to 39 inches per year. If global warming pushes that trend even further, Cedar Rapids and the rest of Iowa can expect more extreme weather of both types over time. That means, in part, that the so-called 100-year flood event, or that flood having a repetitive one percent chance of occurring each year, may well become more frequent. The record-breaking flood of 2008 could well become more common. The only thing saving the city in the future is the fact that it has given the Cedar River “room to breathe,” as various speakers put it, through the city’s acquisition of more than 1,300 flooded parcels in the floodplain since 2008, thus removing a good deal of vulnerable housing from the prospect of future damage. Rick Cruse, an agronomist, accentuated Gutowski’s data with significant data on how land use and land cover affect water infiltration into the soils and water tables. Forcing increased runoff with vegetation or impervious surfaces that do not hold the water as well serves to increase our propensity for flooding. As it turns out, woodlands do the best job of absorbing rainwater, while ubiquitous Iowa crops like corn and soybeans have a more questionable track record. The result is that Iowa may need a serious debate about farming practices, including crop choices and rotations, in order to confront its flood threat adequately for the future. That will not be an easy debate because it affects serious economic interests in the state. Yet it may be the most important debate Iowa can have about its climate future.

The University of Iowa Public Policy Center, which presented the conference, will be posting the PowerPoint presentations and videotapes of the sessions on its website in coming days. For those the least bit serious about exploring the implications of these issues, I urge you to follow the link above and check it all out.

Jim Schwab