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

A Century of Midwest Literature

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day's events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day’s events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Yesterday (May 2), a modest crowd celebrated 100 years of the Society of Midland Authors with speakers, panel discussions, and readings of authors past at the end of Society of Midland Authors Week, as declared by the Chicago City Council. Unfortunately, the event had to compete with the National Football League (NFL) draft ceremonies just a couple of blocks away in Grant Park, a contingency not foreseen when it was originally planned. While the NFL undoubtedly generates a stupendous sum of revenue even in the process of tagging star college players for professional opportunities, I would humbly argue that the literature of those celebrated at the University Center conference facility on State St. has done more to help define Chicago’s image than football ever will. Professional football shouts its presence from the skyboxes of Soldier Field. The novels, poems, and nonfiction narratives of Chicago and Midwestern writers insinuate their way into our consciousness slowly but pervasively and persuasively, like rainwater percolating into soil. Mind you, I do not dislike sports and spent Friday afternoon at a Wrigley Field rooftop party. But my understanding of real life was never altered nearly so much by a football game as by a really good book. And a few of those books were even about major sports figures.

With that in mind, I am going to divide this article into two parts. In the first, I will describe the centennial itself, which was preceded the night before by SMA’s annual book awards banquet at the Cliff Dwellers Club, which has long offered a home for many literary events, especially including those of SMA. In the second, I will describe my own small role in helping kick off the centennial as the first reader of a past author, poet Vachel Lindsay. I deliberately, several months earlier, asked the rest of SMA’s board of directors to “send me to Heaven” by letting me perform Lindsay’s art. They accommodated me, and I was grateful. The effort was part of a segment of the program in which past presidents of the society chose past SMA members and Midwestern authors whose works they would read, at short intervals between the invited speakers.

The Program

Many people save the best for last, but the best may have come first in some ways. That is saying a good deal because the program lasted from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m.

The Gettysburg panel in action.

The Gettysburg panel in action: From left, Peck, Burke, and Knorowski.

Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, in Springfield, Illinois, led the first panel discussion by describing her work as the editor of Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The foundation asked potential contributors to write essays of 272 words, the precise length of the manuscript of the famous speech that is on display in the Lincoln Library. Their essays could discuss Lincoln, the Civil War, or any other aspect of the speech’s meaning that touched their souls, as long as they matched Lincoln’s brevity. The library further challenged them to submit their work in longhand, though surely many used the word count features of their computers to guarantee the length before committing their prose to cursive writing. But many found the cursive exercise humbling in an era in which such skills have been lost to many in the younger generation. Lincoln had no such advantage except that he chose the length, which established his unique ability to say so much in so few words. Lincoln was, the panelists said, a Midwestern literary genius in his own right. In the end, Knorowski and her team at the foundation had to choose the best 100 of more than 1,000 submitted essays, some of which arrived as poems, most as essays, and which included as authors every living ex-president, one Holocaust survivor, and numerous others whose observations are well worth the price of the book, which was on sale in the back of the hall.

After her opening presentation, Knorowski was followed by two of those essayists, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, an author in his own right, who spoke later of Chicago’s storied literary history, and Graham A. Peck, associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Burke noted the political machinations of the Republican convention in the Wigwam in Chicago in May 1860 that made it possible to nominate a lesser known regional leader, Lincoln, in the face of strong national support for William Seward of New York. Without those machinations, of course, the nation would never have elected Lincoln nor grown to respect and love this unique political figure. Peck, on the other hand, noted from his essay that “wisdom, restraint, and self-sacrifice were in characteristically short supply” in Lincoln’s time, but that the true reason for celebrating Lincoln’s words are “with us still: the tentative, incomplete, and unrealized human commitment to freedom, which binds us equally profoundly today, and calls out insistently, everywhere, for a new birth in service of human dignity.”

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Such comments raise the question of exactly how we perceive that commitment in 2015. If a later presentation by 73-year-old poet Haki Madhubuti seemed at times halting, at times even stumbling, there was no doubt he was speaking with conviction and concern about the fate of young African-Americans amid the turmoil of recent events, notably the very recent controversy over the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. Asked if he had any hope after his seemingly grim presentation of the state of the black community, Madhubuti stated forthrightly that he saw it in young people of all races who had not been corrupted by the racism of America’s past.

Rounding out the morning was Rick Kogan, journalist and SMA member, who recounted much of the colorful history of Chicago literature and journalism, and said of the future of the written word, “I am hopeful but scared at the same time.”

In addition to the oration of Ald. Burke, the afternoon consisted of three panels involving reporters (Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig), children’s authors (Blue Balliett and Ilene Cooper), and novelists Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw, and Rosellen Brown. But surely, due to a conflict that took me to Chuck E. Cheese for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, I missed the treat of the day. On my way out, I personally excused myself to Dr. Martin Marty, a long-time professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, and the prolific author of at least 40 books (but who’s counting?), some of which have won literary awards. I quietly explained my circumstance as he sat in the back of the room, awaiting his turn, and with typical gracious humility as a fellow grandfather, he assured me the birthday was more important. So I asked him later what he had spoken about, and I got this third-person response, which made me laugh hard enough that I have decided to reproduce it in its entirety, with his permission:

Martin Marty, long-time member of the Society and happy possessor of a “lifetime” achievement award, used his twenty-one minutes to introduce readers to a non-existent figure, Franz Bibfeldt. He is available, amply, by the Google route; there are thousands of references to him, and he has many devotees around the world, despite his handicap: he doesn’t exist. Marty explained his light-hearted approach to demonstrate how the world of academic theology does not always take itself too seriously.

Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in “the system,” but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished. He had been scheduled to his first call to London, and that was canceled. The seminary dean had to follow disciplines, but Marty appealed to the seminary President, a kindly soul who said that instead of London MEM would be assigned to assist a senior minister of note, to be his mentor. It turned out to be Grace Lutheran in River Forest, whose call stipulated that the pastor assistant had to work on a doctorate. That is how, after a couple of years, Marty wound up at the University of Chicago to which, after ten years in pastoral ministry, he returned for a 35-year teaching career. Marty claimed to have made good on his observation that this non-existent person had greater influence on his career than anyone else.

Franz Bibfeldt? Many articles online detail his theology and fame. In a world where too many theologians and other scholars take themselves too seriously, and define things too sharply, Bibfeldt wanted to please everyone. Some would call him “wishy-washy,” but Marty & Co. treat him as someone who agreed with everyone. He knew the famous book by philosopher Soren Kiekegaard; it was called Either/Or. Bibfeldt wrote Both/And, and when criticism came, he wrote Either/Or and/or Both/And.

The book The Unrelieved Paradox has just come out in a second edition from Eerdmans. The final essay in the new edition was by Jean-Luc Marion, a fan of Bibfeldt, who flew from the Sorbonne to Chicago and back again, to deliver the annual Bibfeldt Lecture, held, of course, on April Fool’s Day.

All of which serves appropriately to prove Lincoln’s alleged observation that God must have had a sense of humor.

Kindly submitted in earnest honesty,

Jim Schwab

The Readings

Several of us throughout the day provided readings of former Midland Authors. As I noted above, I would have begged for the honor of presenting SMA founding father Vachel Lindsay, but I did not have to. The rest of the board and officers agreed almost as fast as I offered. I would also note, before going further, that SMA had founding mothers as well, among them Harriet Monroe and Edna Ferber. The list of those who saw fit to found this organization in 1915 is virtually a Who’s Who of Midwestern literary lights of the time.

But Vachel is a particular challenge for a modern presenter. A forerunner of today’s performance poets, his work was rhythmic, often accompanied by musical instruments, and so highly susceptible to public presentation that Lindsay became known for his “Poems for Bread,” which involved his bartering a reading of his work to some farm family in Illinois in exchange for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. His work was so close to the working-class fiber of the Midwest that long-time Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was a big fan. How do I know? Bernard Brommel, former SMA president and author, and long-time professor of speech and communications at Northeastern Illinois University, who wrote a book about Debs, told me so.

So how to get this right? I chose two poems by Lindsay, short enough to stay within my allotted five minutes while providing sharply contrasting views of the influence of religion in his life and career. First was “The Unpardonable Sin,” which I used as prelude to a blog post last fall. It is an angry anti-war poem written in the midst of World War One. Second was a celebratory poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” meant to honor the founder of the Salvation Army after his death. The first could simply be recited, but required entering into the mood of its creation. The second took a little more: a search of the Internet to find renditions of “The Blood of the Lamb,” the tune to which it was set, to get the rhythm and tone right. Soon enough, I discovered a podcast of a recording of the song by none other than Woody Guthrie, in many ways a contemporary of Lindsay. That gave me the best possible sense of the underlying performance style that I could acquire.

DSCF2731

That said, the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.

With that in mind, I provide links below to the two poems in their entirety for the edification and enjoyment of this blog’s readers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly; I hope you will too.

The Unpardonable Sin

General William Booth Enters into Heaven

Lindsay’s work is available in various reprinted editions, some of which I have read in their entirety. I acquired my Vachel Lindsay addiction in a high school creative writing class in the late 1960s. I have never submitted to rehab for this happy addiction, so rehab has done nothing for me.

P.S.: If this article inspires you to support the Society of Midland Authors, their website allows you to buy some great swag in the form of shirts, keychains, mugs, and tote bags. And you thought I was above this sort of appeal? 🙂

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