New York City, Water, and Resilience

I was never a New York native, but I did not feel entirely alien, either, when I returned for the first of four visits to the area in January 2013, following Superstorm Sandy. My father lived in Queens most of his life and left only when my mother, who was from Cleveland, insisted on moving. New York City was not to her liking, and she wanted to go home. But my paternal grandparents remained on Long Island until they died in the 1960s, and we often visited. I was born in Bayshore Hospital, one of seven that were evacuated during the storm. My father had told me about living through the “Long Island Express,” the famous 1938 hurricane that also swamped much of New England. I was not a total stranger. I was certainly aware of many of the cultural traits that make New Yorkers famous (or infamous), though I think some consist more of popular stereotype than reality. But there is a certain toughness that comes from living in the Big Apple, even if it’s different from the toughness I have learned from my eventual attachment to Chicago, the alleged “City of Big Shoulders.”

Hence, despite all the vulnerabilities connected with a city of eight million people that is nearly surrounded by water, I instinctively understood the connection of the city with the concept of resilience. The city has withstood more than Sandy—this was the site of the worst 9/11 attacks, after all—and responds well to challenges. There are no feet of clay; the foundation of Manhattan is bedrock. But any map of the city makes clear that every borough but the Bronx is an island, and even that is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

What brought me to New York after Sandy was a decision by the American Planning Association to assist our New York Metro and New Jersey chapters in preparing their members and communities for the arduous task of post-disaster recovery. To be honest, ours was a contribution more of solidarity and expertise than of resources, which had to come from the massive allocations of federal funds used or distributed by federal agencies, led mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What mattered to our members was our presence, our ideas, and the time we spent preparing and delivering a series of training workshops in April 2013 on planning for post-disaster recovery. It is fair to say that, as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center and the ringleader of that training effort, Sandy recovery dominated my life for the first half of 2013. And this is all context for my observations in reviewing a relatively new book from Island Press, Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay, edited by Eric W. Sanderson, William D. Solecki, John R. Waldman, and Adam S. Parris. Contributors include biologists, geographers, and engineers, among others with a wide range of expertise that contributes to the book’s comprehensive approach. its utility is clearly greater for professional practitioners in planning, civil engineering, public administration, and allied fields, as well as for academic researchers, than for purely casual readers.

Map from Gateway National Park, National Park Service, website.

The book focuses specifically on Jamaica Bay, although New York City matters greatly as the municipal government making critical decisions that affect the bay’s resilience. Jamaica Bay, however, is an interesting case study of the intersection of geographic, ecological, industrial, and urban planning factors in both weakening and enhancing the overall resilience of a highly stressed water body and the urban neighborhoods that line its shores. The book’s most noteworthy feature is not any one approach to the subject of resilience for Jamaica Bay, but the way in which it seeks to cross disciplinary lines to undertake a thorough analysis of the prospects for building resilience in an area like Jamaica Bay. Researchers there may have much to share with those examining other ecologically challenged urban water bodies across the nation.

It is important to understand the geographic context of Jamaica Bay, an area familiar to most people (including many New Yorkers) primarily as the scenery below the airplane as it makes its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The airport, in fact, has a significant impact on Jamaica Bay because it sits at the eastern end of the bay in Queens, the linchpin between the rest of Long Island and the Rockaways, a long, densely populated peninsula that stretches west from JFK and forms the southern boundary of the bay. That, in turn, means that the Rockaways, home to 180,000 people, is extremely vulnerable in a major storm like

Fire devastated Breezy Point during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Cleanup lasted for months. Photos courtesy of James Rausse.

Sandy. The Rockaways suffered some of the worst damages from the storm, including a fire that tore through Breezy Point, destroying 130 homes. Because of its isolation at the end of the peninsula, and the storm surge that inundated it, it was impossible for fire trucks to respond to the conflagration. For those curious about the origins of a fire in the midst of a flood or hurricane, it is worth remembering that a surge of salt water can easily corrode and short out electrical wires, triggering sparks. Much of New York’s subway system, well designed to pump out normal stormwater, was shut down during Sandy for the same reason.

What makes Jamaica Bay matter enough to devote nearly 300 pages to the subject? It is a great laboratory for resilience. The dense urban development that surrounds the bay stresses the natural ecosystems of the bay, whose biological composition has changed radically over time. The late 19th century witnessed the growth of a viable fishing industry, including oyster harvests, but pollution from sewage disposal and industry brought that to a sudden halt by the 1920s. The same factors reduced the bay’s recreational potential as well. Only in the last few years have there been efforts to restore the oyster beds, but like most such efforts, they will require ongoing research and attention to succeed.

Just as importantly, human communities need to become more resilient as part of a larger social-ecological system because the city is not about to disappear. There simply will be no return to pre-urban conditions. Urban stormwater drainage, sewage disposal, industrial activity, and transportation all have impacts that good urban planning must mitigate or prevent in trying to maintain a healthy urban relationship with the natural environment. Serious scientific inquiry may provide some answers. Greater levels of awareness and connectedness by area residents to the marine environment can also help, but that has often not been the case. An entire chapter explores neighborhood and community perspectives on resilience around Jamaica Bay. Few seasoned urban experts and planners will be surprised to learn that New York generally, and the Jamaica Bay watershed, feature remarkably diverse neighborhoods in terms of density, ethnicity and race, and income level, all of which influence those perspectives and influence community goals. New York is also a remarkably complex city in which residents of some areas in Queens can feel isolated from the center city in Manhattan, but may also feel more secure in their isolation. It is noteworthy that some areas at the western end of the peninsula were heavily populated by public safety personnel. All this influences people’s perspectives on proximity to, and connection with, the waterfront and public understanding of the relationship between human settlement and the ecological health of the bay, which is not always straightforward in any event. People can exert both positive and negative influences on that relationship. The good news is that the authors found that Sandy and the recovery process that followed had some useful impact on the perceptions that underlie those actions.

Given all that complexity, it will also be small surprise that the resilience of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding development is affected by a complex network of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the city and its boroughs, a variety of federal and state agencies with varying agendas and authorities, including the New York-New Jersey Port Authority (responsible for airports including JFK), the National Park Service (Gateway National Park), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (climate and coastal zones), overlay the influence of numerous private organizations and academic institutions. Add the flood mitigation and post-disaster recovery responsibilities of FEMA, and one is suddenly confronted with a multicolored collage that for some people can become bewildering.

The case of NOAA is interesting in that climate change is likely to affect the frequency of extreme weather events, which may further test the resilience of an already dynamic social-ecological system. As a scientific agency with significant meteorological and climatological expertise, NOAA has contributed to the array of modeling tools helping to analyze resilience in Jamaica Bay, although academic and other institutions have added to that toolbox. What is important ultimately is to bring together the various strands of research in cooperative efforts for integrative management. The good news, well described toward the end of this book, is that such cooperative efforts have produced the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay for that purpose, with participation by decision makers from local, state, and federal agencies to help resolve those conflicting missions and adopt a comprehensive systems approach to the challenges facing the area. Let us hope that those decision makers, and the public officials controlling their resources, have the wisdom to maintain hard-won progress. As is true of many other areas in the U.S., those responsible for the health of Jamaica Bay have much work to do. The rest of us have much to learn from what they are doing and a stake in that progress.


Jim Schwab

Steel and Modern America

DSCF3007Let’s cut to the chase. If you have a relative on your gift list who loves the nooks and crannies of history, particularly those less well-known details behind the reality of the modern world, may I offer a suggestion? This suggestion emanates in part from the simple fact that I am a lover of history, an avid scholar of the factors that have influenced the shape and size of modern American cities—I am, after all, an urban planner—and the fact that I simply love good writing. I am, after all, also a trained professional journalist. Steel, a wonderful book by Brooke C. Stoddard, a veteran writer and former editor at Time/Life and National Geographic Books, has the kind of grand scope and vision that can fascinate the reader in your family who has an endless curiosity about the world.

Or maybe that person is you. In that case I am either helping you figure out what to ask someone else to give you, or you can just go get it. And while I think e-books are wonderful, this is one case where I highly recommend getting the hardcover, in part so that you can sit back with that tactile feel of a real book in your hands and admire the copious color illustrations that accompany some splendid writing. Stoddard is a marvelous story-teller, but the photographs do the text more than ample justice.

Steel production was part of my own background growing up in suburban Cleveland. My father was a truck mechanic in a chemical factory, and I spent three summers there working my way through college. Chemical production fed other industries, including steel, in numerous ways. Antimony, for instance, is used in electroplating, which bonds paint to the steel frames of cars, and Cleveland grew on both steel and auto manufacturing, and there was a powerful symbiosis between all of them in an industrial ecosystem that employed tens of thousands. Steel was at the core of the growth of many Midwestern and eastern cities from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is at most tangential, but I learned what rough work it could all be. I even broke an ankle that first summer before starting college when the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my leg. Such places were not necessarily for the faint of heart. I recovered, of course, and learned.

But learning from such immediacy to industry and taking in the grand sweep of its growth over time are two very different things. Writing industrial history can also be a labor of love, the financial rewards from book sales not always seeming to equal the toil involved in assembling detailed stories spanning centuries. I have read a few of these books in the past: for example, Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, about the coffee industry, also a fine book. These are really stories to some extent about the evolution of human society in modern times, and how particular products changed our cities and whole nations. But few are as central to who we are today, and what our cities have become, than the steel industry. In more ways than almost any other industry, steel has been the game changer of human history.

And like most, it started from small things that turned into larger things that eventually turned into huge things. Stoddard takes us all the way back to the Stone Age and the descent from space of iron meteorites to explain the origins of the human relationship with the element that is the basis of steel before engagingly slow-walking us through human discoveries of the various alloys and their relative strengths and advantages for both peaceful and military uses over the first few millennia of human civilization. Empires like that of the Hittites grew, for example, on the advantage of iron over bronze, and of better ways of making steel instead of cast or wrought iron. The Romans gained iron works in Iberia from the Carthaginians and then added the refinement of tempering to improve the quality of the metals they used. Just as in modern times, military success was often fed by industrial success, which also meant that a nation of inventors gained huge advantages over its neighbors and competitors. And that’s all in the first chapter.

Stoddard’s second chapter pulls us into the industrial age, starting with British refinements in the use of coal to improve steel alloys, which depend on the right proportion of carbon to harden the iron in steel to produce the metals we rely upon today. German industrialists added their own refinements, but American steel makers like Andrew Carnegie burst onto the scene in the late 1800s to create enormous gains in the scale of production, coupled with the ready access of iron ore discovered in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In a matter of decades, the United States moved into a steelmaking category that dwarfed all others. It is, as most know, a history of ruthless men, but also of the uniquely philanthropic aspirations of a few like Carnegie. Labor and industry were often locked in mortal combat. For all his hard-bitten ambition, Stoddard notes, the U.S. could have done far worse than to have its industry transformed by a man who ultimately gave away more than 90 percent of his wealth to support charities like community libraries and concert halls rather than creating one massive family dynasty.

Here I must veer off on a small tangent. Carnegie helped nurture the career of a protégé named Charles Schwab, who first helped engineer the sale of Carnegie’s business to form the dominant U.S. Steel Corp., and later became the president of the competing Bethlehem Steel, which built the huge Sparrow Works in Baltimore. More than a quarter-century younger than Carnegie, Schwab, who functioned into the 1920s, was far more prone to flaunt his wealth, building a huge mansion in Manhattan that he later found nearly impossible to sell during hard times. Stoddard reveals that Schwab, despite his German ancestry, made a fortune providing steel for submarines and other military purposes to the United Kingdom in World War I well before American entry into the war, even at times when the official American position was neutrality. One favorite tactic was to ship the parts to Canada, where they could easily be assembled into submarines before being transferred to the British Navy.

My father, born in 1917 during that war and coming of age in the 1930s, tried after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. armed forces, but was rejected for medical reasons. It turned out he suffered from appendicitis, which was remedied through surgery by a civilian doctor, and he spent the war years in New York City working in the steel mills.

His name was Charles Schwab. He used to joke that some people who did not know him thought that perhaps he was a close relative of the big guy and was learning the business from the bottom up. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. He was simply another blue-collar working stiff. He did have a rich uncle who sold uniforms to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but that is another story, one that never benefited him directly. Curiously, that was not his only brush with fame, for later in life he had to contend with Charles Schwab the broker. Well into retirement, tired of taking phone calls from misguided investors, he and my mother put the household phone in her name, and the errant calls ceased to find him. He was not related to that Charles Schwab, either. But when asked, I can at least say with a straight face that Charles Schwab was my father.

But back to the book. Without drilling down into all the magnificent details that Stoddard provides, the second part paints a portrait of what makes the steel industry function as a whole, starting with vivid descriptions of the iron ore barges that sail the Great Lakes, some of which are larger than the Titanic and the Queen Mary, yet get far less attention because they do not cross the oceans. After visiting the Iron Range, he boards one of those freighters in Superior, Wisconsin, and stays aboard across Lake Superior, the volatile lake whose nasty storm in 1975 swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald, the subject of a doleful hit folk song a year later by Gordon Lightfoot. He stays with the crew as they transit Lake Huron and Lake Erie to Cleveland, where they finally unload their cargo of thousands of tons of iron ore pellets. Along the way, we learn about the modern amenities aboard such ships, and the challenges both they and their crews face, including fitting such huge vessels through narrow locks between the lakes or braving lake effect storms. It is a world few of us imagine or even try to think about. But it is a world that makes our world possible. Without steel, we have no modern skyscrapers creating the skyline of cities like New York and Chicago. Without steel, many of our modern appliances and conveniences simply are not possible. Without steel, our cities look like very different places. Just take a look at photos and drawings of American and European cities in the mid-19th century. Just imagine building railroads and mass transit without steel.

And so the book presses on—I won’t ruin the anticipation, except to say that eventually, as he must, Stoddard leads us to the decline of the monsters of steel on the American industrial scene, due more to lack of innovation than lack of resources. Former giants of urban steel making disappeared from older industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Other, more nimble, firms like Arcelor Mittal have moved to the forefront in recent decades, and Stoddard tells us why in a closing chapter titled, “Exeunt the American Gods.” The changes that have been wrought in our major cities are not for the faint of heart. Once again, in the cycle of history, steel manufacturing has changed, and the old days will not return. But steel will continue to change our lives.

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America. Brooke C. Stoddard. Zenith Press. 304 pp.


Jim Schwab

Did We Learn from Sandy?

Two years ago, in June 2013, I participated in a day-long meeting in New York hosted by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, helping explore the coastal policy implications of Hurricane Sandy. These two organizations were hardly the only ones pursuing such questions, but they were certainly among the most prominent. RPA has been a long-time presence in the New York Metro area, and the Lincoln Institute is a highly reputed research organization located at Harvard University. Both clearly had a stake in the region’s recovery from the Superstorm, and together they had access to some of the best planning minds familiar with disaster issues.

Last year, in part as a result of that and other research sessions and forums, the Lincoln Institute produced Lessons from Sandy: Federal Policies to Build Climate-Resilient Coastal Regions. Though many of their prescriptions will look familiar to those who have followed the trajectory of post-Sandy redevelopment, this report is both worth reading and very readable. It concentrates on issues of disaster relief, insurance and flood risk management, and urban infrastructure. Its recommendations are clear and strong, starting with a series of specific ideas for addressing future climate impacts during the recovery and rebuilding process, talking about how to make programs such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, which funds the rebuilding of public infrastructure, more flexible in this regard, improving the coordination of planning before and after disasters, and development of new financing and insurance mechanisms to support investments in mitigation and resilience. It also discusses realigning federal programs to reduce risk and restore the health of coastal resources, and better data sharing to aid decision making.


Jim Schwab

Bounce Forward? But, of Course!

In recent years, there has been growing interest in and activity around the concept of resilience. For many people long involved in trying to make the world’s communities safer from disasters, the interest has been heartwarming. The underlying idea is that a community should be better positioned to “bounce back” from a disaster, recovering more efficiently and quickly. A major natural disaster—tornado, hurricane, earthquake—need not be a death sentence or leave a community flat on its back for years. There are numerous ways in which we can do better. We can prepare better, mitigate better, plan better—but to what end?

Some resilience advocates are almost scared by the current interest. After all, look at what happened to the concept of sustainability, subjected by now to years of corporate whitewash and a relentless watering down of the essential message, as originally framed, that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them with the same opportunities to enjoy prosperity by reducing our ecological footprint, taking better care of the earth’s resources. Sustainability by its very nature ought to be challenging, yet too many things are too easily labeled sustainable, and the word loses its moral authority in the process.

Could the message of resilience be watered down in the same way?

For a long time, federal and state policies with regard to disaster assistance focused on supporting no more than the replacement of what existed before disaster struck. We’ll help you build back, but we won’t help you build a Cadillac. As federal policy, particularly within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), increasingly emphasized hazard mitigation in order to minimize losses in future disasters, however, the idea behind such thinking became increasingly suspect. If you could make a community more resistant to future disasters, if you could reduce that community’s future reliance on outside assistance in managing recovery, why would you not want to make that investment? In the 1993 Midwest floods, in particular, the use of federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to buy out flood-prone properties and create public open space in floodplains at least meant removing some development from harm’s way. That opened the door to even more forward thinking. Some relocated communities, like Valmeyer, Illinois, went much farther and adopted green building codes. The “green rebuild” of Greensburg, Kansas, after its 2007 tornado built on this idea.

DSCF1844Indeed, is there really anything wrong with leaving a community better off than it was before? By the time the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued its report in 2013, this bridge appears to have been crossed. The task force answer was clearly that we want very much to rebuild communities that would be more resilient in the face of future disasters. Ideally, that would not mean that such communities would merely regain their pre-disaster status quo more quickly, although that seems to have been the goal for more than a few communities after Sandy. The bigger vision just never materialized. At the same time, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been seeking ways, most recently through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to encourage states and communities to think about improvements that, in particular, instill greater resilience among their most vulnerable populations.

The question won’t go away, and fortunately, there are plenty of people, particularly within the growing community of climate change adaptation professionals, who remain engaged. This is a very good thing because, in the face of phenomena like climate change and sea level rise, hazard mitigation faces the prospect of running hard merely to stay in place, a la Alice in Wonderland. Elevate homes, retreat from the seashore, and you find in another generation that you have gained little or nothing because average temperatures are rising and the sea is following you to higher ground. This is precisely why the latest guidance from FEMA on hazard mitigation assistance insists that states and communities must begin to account for climate change in the hazard mitigation plans that qualify them for federal grants. There is little sense in spending federal money to mitigate the same problem repeatedly when you can do it once with more foresight.

At the risk of oversimplifying the underlying questions, which can and do fill volumes of scholarly and professional analysis these days, I lay this out as the background for introducing a remarkable new document unleashed into this debate by The Kresge Foundation. Bounce Forward, a strategy paper from Island Press and the foundation, which funded the project, raises the question of what constitutes “urban resilience in the era of climate change.” At the outset, it confronts the fear I cited at the beginning of this blog post—that of losing the essential poignancy of the message of resilience. It states:

But the transformative potential of resilience is far from assured. There are several potential pitfalls. Notably, if resilience is conceived simply as “bouncing back” from disaster, it could prove harmful, by reinforcing systems that compound the risks our cities face. More insidiously, the concept of resilience could be co-opted by opponents of meaningful reform. And if efforts to build resilience do not also mitigate climate change, they will be of limited use.

I sense an echo here. For some years, at the American Planning Association and some allied organizations, we have talked of “building back better” as the real goal of disaster recovery. (See Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation.)* But resilience is about much more than effective recovery from disasters. It is also about positioning a community’s human and institutional resources to respond to all manner of setbacks, whether stemming from chronic decline and social pressures, or from the impact of nature on the built environment, to deal more creatively with those problems so as to evolve a society that can help its least advantaged sectors in responding to those threats and to become more prosperous and confident. A commitment to social justice must be inherent in the formula. A society that imposes unfair environmental burdens upon, and denies opportunities to, its most economically challenged elements cannot be resilient in any meaningful way. Such a society is merely perpetuating its vulnerabilities. A community is only as strong as its weakest link. In an “era of rapid change,” the Kresge report says, in effect, that weakest link is getting weaker, inequalities are growing and will be magnified by the impacts of climate change, and the concept of resilience means nothing or worse if it does not address these issues.

The aim of Bounce Forward is to create a framework for doing so. Stronger social cohesion and more inclusive community decision making are among the ingredients essential to this transformation. What’s more, as such reports go, this one is a very good read.

Jim Schwab

*I wish to note that, at the invitation of The Kresge Foundation, I have participated over the past year as a member of its Project Advisory Committee for a study of community resilience being prepared by Stratus Consultants, which is still being completed. I also represented APA at a Kresge Foundation symposium on resilience at the Garrison Institute, held last June in Garrison, NY. Because of our common agendas, APA has had an active interest in supporting the Kresge initiatives on this subject.

Finding Intelligent Middle Ground

If I were a major celebrity like Oprah Winfrey, I could expect immediate and fierce feedback whenever I chose to comment on a controversial issue. I am not, but she is, and on Saturday, January 3, she got such feedback after expressing doubts about the leadership of the demonstrations that have followed the deaths of various unarmed black men at the hands of police in various cities, most notably Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. It is an unavoidable feature of the new Twitter universe in which we now live that almost anything any celebrity says will be dissected and regurgitated thousands or millions of times within 24 hours, not just by the news media but by every interested individual with a social media account of some type. The Founding Fathers could never have imagined such full-throated free speech when they drafted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, such instant access to a virtual public does not at all guarantee thoughtful free speech, not even by the very public individuals initiating many of the discussions. One need only review some of the more thoughtless eruptions of Donald Trump, who some time ago, for instance, joined those who question President Obama’s birth on U.S. soil, or some of the incidents that have embroiled certain comedians in instant controversy, to see how true this is. Thoughtlessness seems to beget more thoughtlessness.

In Oprah’s case, however, she at least had a point worth considering, one she had pondered after viewing the movie Selma, which depicts the voting rights struggle in Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. There is room to disagree with her, of course, but what interests me is that such discussions often devolve into a round of accusations and defensive finger pointing. In this case, protesters stated that Oprah was one more example of a detached celebrity who had not opened her eyes to the grass roots to see the leadership that already existed. Defenders of Oprah, however, could note that this leadership, whomever it may include, was less successful than Dr. King in preventing riots and violence and in establishing a clear, moral high ground for the debate or a clear strategy for resolving the stated concerns. It may be the times. Movement debates seem to generate more invective than at times in the past, though I must also say, as a child of the Sixties, that I wear no rose-colored glasses about the ways in which some extremists back then could manipulate the direction and outcome of protests. Controlling the fringe is not a new problem. It has been with us for centuries. One need merely recall the delusional excesses of John Brown before the Civil War or the pendulum of the French Revolution. Overreaction has long been a part of human nature, perhaps far more prevalent than mature, tempered judgment.

So let me get to my real point. If the leadership of the protests wants to disprove what Oprah has to say, one way to do that would be to invite her to meet with activists directly to discuss her comments, both to determine whether there was anything they might learn from them and to challenge her to engage with those she has criticized. Oprah’s stock in trade is engaging people; that’s what made her show a success. This is a woman who moved her show temporarily to Amarillo, Texas, to confront the gags on free speech represented by charges against her there for allegedly libeling livestock farmers over the issue of mad cow disease. A local jury in the heart of ranch country acquitted her, after which she declared that “free speech doesn’t just live, it rocks.” She is exactly the kind of person who might accept a visit to Ferguson, Missouri, or New York, to discuss how strategy should evolve in the struggle for better police relations with minority communities.

I use this only as one example of what ails political communication in the USA in the 21st Century. The same principle of engagement may be the only one that is going to take us beyond the plethora of confrontations between citizens angry over police killings of unarmed black men and the police themselves, who are charged with protecting public safety in the face of widespread firearms availability and prolific gang activity, much of it centered in poor minority neighborhoods. In the rancor that follows many of the incidents that have triggered protests, we tend also to forget that, unlike the clearly unbalanced situation in Ferguson, many of today’s police departments contain substantial numbers of black, Latino, and Asian-American officers. Indeed, the two officers gunned down in New York by a man who claimed to be angry over police shootings were Latino and Chinese. Our police departments may not always be as diverse as they should be, but they are far from being the enclaves of white privilege they once were.

What must be at stake is the self-righteous sense of felt mistreatment on both sides of this debate, the need to have all the moral arguments on one side of the table, so that only the other side needs to change. What may be true in an individual case is definitely not true across the board. There are plenty of cases involving substantial ambiguity that bears serious discussion. I would strongly suggest that the truth is far more complicated. That is a good thing because it creates far more opportunity for humility and compromise and change.

Let me elaborate so that I am not misunderstood. Let me acknowledge up front that I am white and have not experienced the abuse sometimes heaped on blacks in America, but I do have biracial grandchildren and a wide range of friends and acquaintances. I can at least understand the perspective of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took heat from police after noting that he has had discussions with his biracial teenage son about how to handle any difficult encounters with police.  As I said, this story is not simple.  America is no longer black and white, like television in the 1950s. America is Technicolor in high definition, and more of us are experiencing realities that cross all sorts of racial, ethnic, gender, and other boundaries. Those realities include many of the police themselves.

So where do we start? First, there will be police in our society. They are an indispensable necessity. They do a job most of us would not want to do and may not qualify to do. Many face split-second decisions that require intense training, screening for any psychological problems that may impair their judgment, and must live with the consequences of decisions most of us are never faced to make. Those are awesome responsibilities, and those who do such a job well unquestionably deserve our respect. Our nation’s persistent failure to confront issues like meaningful gun control does not make their job any easier. Given that reality, parents, can you at least teach your children that toy guns can often look all too real in the wrong situation? Let’s start by leaving the toy guns at home. It may be sad, but the days when they were utterly harmless are behind us.

So—rather than simply disparaging or condemning the police, the focus needs to be on what reforms are needed to make policing better. That very question requires a good deal more sophistication than carrying a sign and chanting slogans. I am not saying at all that it is wrong to protest; I am saying that, in this instance, it is not nearly enough. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, in the headline to his column on December 24, may have summed up my point here most precisely: “Support police, fight bad policing.” Like any profession involving hundreds of thousands across the country, police work can be done both very well and very badly. The worst examples sometimes make it into the press; often they are simply buried and forgotten. They are not representative, but they do represent a shortcoming in a system that allows them to continue. I live in a city that has paid out nearly $85 million in claims for wrongful convictions because of the actions of one police commander, Jon Burge, who is now in federal prison, who was accused of using torture on numerous suspects (very often black) over a period of years to obtain confessions. Such activity can only continue when other police officers are afraid, or unwilling, to speak up. That is a serious problem. In every endeavor, accountability matters.

But that is an extreme case, and there are the little daily grievances that pile up. Certainly, for instance, we want the police to prevent gangs from controlling neighborhoods, and they sometimes do this by dispersing suspicious gatherings. But when is a gathering suspicious? It is a tough judgment call that requires significant powers of observation and familiarity with the beat. My wife recently interviewed an aldermanic candidate on the West Side for a teachers’ publication. The candidate noted that a young man in her ward, on his way home from work one day, stopped to talk to some friends. He had no involvement in any gangs, she said, but the police ordered the group to disperse. He objected that he was merely talking to friends and was not involved in anything illegal, but the officers arrested him because of his objections. The arrest led to nothing, she said, but it cost him a scholarship. That fact may also raise questions about the vulnerabilities of young, aspiring black students to the vagaries of such situations. If I were the one losing such a scholarship, I can imagine that my reaction to the police in this instance would be less than charitable. And I have no doubt that this sort of thing happens in the black community more often than we would like to know. Is this how we encourage young black men to get an education? Did the arresting officer even understand the consequences in this instance?

It is not acceptable for the New York police to turn their backs on the mayor, who is their commander in chief in much the same way that the President is for the U.S. military. This behavior at a funeral was both petulant and unprofessional, and Police Chief Daniel Bratton was right to call them on it. They certainly have their own right to air grievances, but it is not helpful for the president of the police union to act as if criticism of the police is out of bounds. There is a great deal about the confrontation of the police with Eric Garner to give normal people cause to wonder about the necessity of the outcome, especially when connected to such a minor offense as selling loose cigarettes.

At the same time, it must be said that the cold-blooded execution of two police officers by a man with a criminal record, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who justified it with posted gripes against the police, must understandably have set off waves of fear among the rest of the police department. How could it not? The two men shot had nothing to do with the incidents that brought out the protesters. All lives matter, especially those of officers sworn to protect the rest of us, a point their murderer seemed not to grasp.

There is a way out of all the recriminations and the mutual sense of victimization by police and protesters. All sides need to sit down, listen to each other, be willing to concede valid points when they are made, and discuss systemic solutions that will make everyone more comfortable. The police may have to give up on the idea that only they are fit to police their own ranks. Activists may have to admit that some cases are less clear-cut than they have suggested. There will be plenty of room for disagreement, no matter the outcome, but the outcome must constitute some sort of progress toward more reasonable engagement on all sides. I’d like to think that the next generation of Americans may finally begin to leave some of this rancor behind.

Jim Schwab

Random Thoughts on the People’s Climate March

Reportedly, about 400,000 people attended the People’s Climate March in New York City last weekend. I was not one of them, but that is not because I don’t support their objectives. I had planned to be in Iowa City, and will discuss that visit in an upcoming blog to follow this one, and I learned long ago that I cannot be everywhere that I think it might even be important to be. As I jokingly tell those who wish I could attend some event that I have declined, “I have utterly failed to clone myself.”

I am, however, glad that others were there, including those scientists, particularly climate scientists, who felt a need to speak out on this issue. I won’t even try to duplicate all the news already reported through numerous outlets like Huffington Post and the New York Times. There are plenty of places on the Internet and in print to find such reportage. Instead, briefly, I want to offer a different observation.

There are two groups of people who really need to speak at such events, beyond the citizen activists who turned out in such numbers, not only in New York but in dozens of other nations throughout the world. One group consists of the public officials and policy makers, and they were certainly represented by the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. It is their job to translate credible science into public policy. For mayors, that job has often turned into a challenge to plan both for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change at the local level. For New York City, the adaptation means crafting strategies to protect the city from the impact of natural hazards, such as Hurricane Sandy, and the increasing impacts of storm surge combined with sea level rise. In other places, it may mean planning for prolonged drought, increased wildfire intensity, or flooding from high-precipitation events. Mitigation means finding ways to reduce the degree to which a community adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that feed these changes, and can include strategies for reduced consumption of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide emissions. All this is important, but it is sad that much of this must take place in the face of inaction from Congress, where climate change skeptics abound in the face of an abundance of scientific evidence.

That brings me to the role of the scientists. Historically, many if not most scientists have been reluctant to be drawn into public policy debates, which often remove them from their comfort zone within the research community. They understand better than anyone how complex these issues can be, and often wince at oversimplifications of the underlying science. While environmental activists are perfectly capable of uttering their own oversimplifications at times, the megaphone for distortions has rested squarely with the skeptics, particularly those associated with industries that have benefited from undermining public acceptance of the science. These distortions are intentional and play upon the fact that it is human nature to seek simpler solutions than to spend the time and effort to try to understand complex problems. The campaign of distortion was highlighted several years ago in Merchants of Doubt, an excellent book on the public relations of issues like the health impacts of smoking, for which the science was settled some time ago, and climate change, a more recent entrant into the public lexicon. Their exposure of the techniques behind this campaign is troubling, to say the least. The authors are scientists who felt a compelling need to combat such distortions.

The bottom line is that very few climate scientists, or others qualified to discuss the subject, have any doubt remaining that human industrial and transportation activities, among other factors connected with modern civilization, are inducing changes in global climate patterns, for the most part producing an overall warming trend. Yet there is scientific debate about this issue because it remains and always will be complex. As Laurence Smith noted in The World in 2050, climate change involves global warming in most places most of the time, but also involves disruption of climate patterns elsewhere that result in particularly noticeable climate changes in certain places, most notably the polar extremes. The results overall are uneven. The skeptics cherry-pick selected outcomes and statistics without wrestling with the more inconvenient and nuanced overall changes that constitute the reality of climate change. Even so, there are clear trends to which honest policy makers must pay heed.

What was encouraging about the People’s Climate March was that, among those 400,000 voices, were some belonging to the very people who understand this science the best. They must continue to speak out and share what they know, lest the merchants of doubt win the day with misleading assertions based on cherry-picked data. We can no longer afford to be misled.


Jim Schwab

Interview with HUD’s Scott Davis

I won’t go into great detail, just enough to entice you to click the link below to watch the interview I conducted with Scott Davis, formerly director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Recovery regarding Sandy recovery operations and programs and the role of planning in creating more resilient communities. The video, taped during the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Atlanta, is on APA’s Recovery News blog, which features multimedia discussions and features on issues of planning for disaster recovery. To watch the video, click here.


Jim Schwab

Living Densely on the Urban Waterfront

Far too often have I heard people ask the facile question about why other people live in hazardous areas, such as along rivers that flood or coasts that suffer coastal storms. Yes, Americans do have a propensity for building in hazardous areas, and often not building appropriately for such areas, but many of the people asking the question are themselves living in areas subject to some sort of hazard. It’s just that it’s easier to spot the speck in another’s eye than the mote in one’s own, as Jesus once noted.

I teach a graduate urban planning class at the University of Iowa, called “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” To make the point that not everything is as simple as it may seem, I ask students early in the semester to name me a place with no hazards. It would have no seashore, no rivers, no steep slopes, no forests, etc., for all those features of the landscape entail some hazard. It soon becomes apparent that we have built cities in many of these places for very practical reasons—access to water and natural resources, transportation, etc. So the question is not only where we build, but how we build. Some things belong on the coast. Others do not, or at least do not need to be there. And we can no more depopulate the entire shoreline than we can Tornado Alley or earthquake-prone California. People have to be somewhere.

Moreover, we have great legacies of cities along our seashores, in part because the thirteen colonies that founded this country were, largely, along the East Coast. So today we have great cities like Boston, Baltimore, and New York, with great harbors and millions of people who enjoy their access to the ocean. It does pose problems from time to time, particularly in hurricane season, but so does life in Des Moines. I woke from a sound sleep one night in Ames, Iowa, to hear what sounded like a freight train outside the window. It turned out a tornado had swooped down a mile away, swept the roofs off seven houses, and skipped off into the darkness. Tornadoes or not, we need people in Iowa, the source of much of the nation’s beef, soybeans, corn, hogs, and, well, insurance. To help pay the bills for all those people whose homes and businesses get clobbered by natural disasters, you know.

With billions of dollars of real estate near or along the waterfront in New York City, much of it invested in tall buildings, it is perfectly clear to most sane planners that simply abandoning the waterfront is not a workable solution in such dense urban environments. Nonetheless, many of the standard prescriptions for flood mitigation from agencies like FEMA, which manages the National Flood Insurance Program, seem to assume that communities have room to clear out the floodplain and move people elsewhere. That works well when property values are relatively cheap and the buildings are low-rise. It does not work so well in remedying the flood problems in high-rise apartment buildings, yet we cannot afford to let the people who live there be marooned in the midst of storms like Hurricane Sandy.

It is thus with some relief that I learned that planners in New York, not satisfied with standard FEMA guidance, decided that the city needed to take some matters into its own hands. It is not that the city can disregard the NFIP or FEMA hazard mitigation regulations. But it can adapt them to its own needs. Over the first half of this year, the New York City Planning Department did exactly that, in the context of a city government that is already taking the challenge of climate change, with resulting long-term sea-level rise along its 520 miles of urban coast, seriously. New York cannot afford, like so many Tea Party enthusiasts in the rural South, to put its head in the sand and pretend that climate change is a scientific fantasy. Too much investment is at stake, by the tens of billions of dollars in Lower Manhattan alone. New York needs to be real about this.

The result of its efforts is displayed effectively in two documents the city released in June. Designing for Flood Risk is the shorter of the two, basically examining how good city planning and urban design principles can be employed to maintain livable, walkable, attractive urban spaces even when some buildings are floodproofing lower floors, when some homeowners are elevating them, and when adjustments need to be made for exterior stairways and ramps to accommodate residents, businesses, and the needs of the disabled. I have just written about this for the November issue of the American Planning Association’s Zoning Practice, but I recommend a look at New York’s adaptations to new flood challenges in a dense urban environment. The longer document, Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies, spends more time and illustrations on a typology of the urban coastline, discussing which solutions better fit with sheltered or natural coasts and why. It too, however, is very readable and educational and introduce readers to the realities of addressing flood and coastal storm risks in a dense urban corridor.

It has been said, very accurately, that Sandy was the most urban disaster in the nation’s recent history. It is not that such a storm has never happened before. My father, who grew up in Queens, vividly remembered the “Long Island Express,” the unnamed hurricane of 1938 that swept across Long Island and southern New England, leaving massive flooding in its wake. But over time, we forget. Sandy reminded us and also acquainted us with the growing stakes associated with climate change. Such a disaster deserves an appropriate urban remedy. New York City is actually groping for one quite effectively.

Jim Schwab

A Dose of Good Judgment

It is easy enough to be cynical about government, especially about its response in a crisis. Millions of Americans express such cynicism on a regular basis, if not daily. It takes a bit more fortitude to look honestly at some of the daunting challenges government must face in events like Hurricane Sandy and to conclude that some things actually get done well, and to conclude that leadership is sometimes successful. It takes a certain depth of judgment to conclude that some of that successful leadership can emerge from moments of governmental self-criticism, examining in some depth what works well and what does not, then drawing conclusions about what steps would solve the problems uncovered.

I have just spent the last two weeks pouring over the entire 200-page length of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, produced by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force since last winter and released on August 19. I would like to have blogged on this topic earlier, but I prefer on this site to be a bit more thorough in my reviews and not simply rush to judgment. I did use some material from the report in an August 20 presentation to the Chicago Metro Section of the American Planning Association, and have been seeking to wrap up work on the initial draft of our planned Planning Advisory Service Report on post-disaster recovery planning. But I wanted to be deliberate in reading the full report with its numerous recommendations, and I had plenty of distractions in the days following its release.

That said, on the Recovery News blog on the APA site, we did at least move to post quickly the link to the document without an extensive review. We thought it import ant to alert those readers to the document’s existence and provide easy access to a download. But here I want to comment a bit more on the underlying approach.

What impresses me most about the Rebuilding Strategy is the attempt to confront honestly the many dilemmas government faces in expediting recovery in the face of such a massive event. Although not at the level of Hurricane Katrina, the numbers are still staggering:

  • 200,000 small business closures due to damage or power outage
  • 72 direct fatalities caused by the storm, and 87 others indirectly connected to the storm
  • $1 billion in gas line repairs in New Jersey
  • Eight flooded tunnels, with average commute time doubled
  • Six hospitals closed by the storm
  • 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed

The litany of statistics could go on, but they are primarily associated with the fact that Sandy was the most urban-oriented natural disaster in a long time, perhaps ever, striking one of the most densely populated areas of the United States—New York and New Jersey. That, in turn, posed unique problems not always associated with hurricanes and floods, namely, that there was far less available land to which people in affected areas could be relocated because most of it was already highly developed. Amid all this, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending its new National Disaster Recovery Framework to the region on its maiden voyage, where it could work out all the kinks in a marvelous but still somewhat vague design for managing federal recovery assistance in a region containing one huge city, New York, with more planning and administrative resources than any other municipality in the nation, and a host of small townships and villages across Long Island and the New Jersey coast, many of which have only the most limited governmental capacity and require significant help from the state and federal government to begin to sort things out. This is not a recovery management challenge for the faint of heart.

The task force was the creation of President Obama, who appointed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan as its chair, with a long list of other federal agencies involved. Part of its task was not only to oversee the entire redevelopment process among the many agencies involved, notably including FEMA, but to develop from the experience recommendations for improvements in future federal efforts of this type. That is the focus of my essay here because that is the focus of the report.

There are numerous recommendations, but I find very few with which I would take serious issue. The task force seems, in my view, to have undertaken a very common sense assessment of the most significant issues connected with recovery, and made sober, sensible recommendations in the vast majority of cases. The first group, which may cause heartburn among climate change deniers but undeniably looks to the future with a keen eye, concerns the need to incorporate sea level rise into future risk assessments. This is a necessity, and the report calls for the development and use of appropriate tools to make such assessments, including NOAA’s rollout earlier this year of a new sea level rise tool. It seems foolhardy to continue to build along vulnerable coastlines in ways that fail to anticipate higher storm surge associated with such climate change impacts. Fiscal conservatism would seem to suggest a more cautious approach, even in the face of the never-ending desire to build on the beach. Yes, I know, such development can be immediately lucrative for some local tax coffers and the associated developers, but there must at some point be some public interest asserted for not imposing upon taxpayers the obligation to bail out such development when the next superstorm threatens. It is important that we rebuild our coastal communities in a more resilient fashion. The report includes, as a matter of fact, some additional recommendations for establishing national infrastructure resilience guidelines. The Sandy supplemental expenditure authorized by Congress totaled more than $60 billion. It is important that we spend such vast sums of money wisely when we rebuild.

It is not possible here to detail all the recommendations made. It is the intent to facilitate connecting readers to the report itself for such detail. But I do want to state that the report covers far more than I have just suggested, including measures for effective and timely data sharing between the states and federal agencies, opportunities for enhancing green infrastructure as part of the recovery, green building standards, and a host of good management suggestions for rebuilding affordable housing and assisting in small business recovery, among other subjects treated at some length. It is not necessary for everyone to read the report in the same depth that I did, but I suggest at least glancing through it to get some knowledgeable impression of its breadth and depth and logic. There are a few things here and there that puzzle me, including a definition of hazard mitigation that seems considerably more limited than the one in use by FEMA. I have asked for an explanation of that but not heard back yet. But by and large, I do think it demonstrates that such a task force can take an honest measure of such a large crisis and actually produce ideas that fit the challenge and may very well move the nation forward in its ability to handle such crises in the future. That is no small achievement.


Jim Schwab