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City streets and sidewalks in the United States have been engineered for decades to keep vehicle occupants and pedestrians safe. If streets include trees at all, they might be planted in small sidewalk pits, where, if constrained and with little water, they live only three to 10 years on average. Until recently, U.S. streets have also lacked cycle tracks—paths exclusively for bicycles between the road and the sidewalk, protected from cars by some type of barrier.
Today there is growing support for bicycling in many U.S. cities for both commuting and recreation. Research is also showing that urban trees provide many benefits, from absorbing air pollutants to cooling neighborhoods. As an academic who has focused on the bicycle for 37 years, I am interested in helping planners integrate cycle tracks and trees into busy streets.
Street design in the United States has been guided for decades by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, whose guidelines for developing bicycle facilities long excluded cycle tracks. Now the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials have produced guidelines that support cycle tracks. But even these updated references do not specify how and where to plant trees in relation to cycle tracks and sidewalks.
In a study newly published in the journal Cities and spotlighted in a podcast from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, I worked with colleagues from the University of Sao Paulo to learn whether pedestrians and bicyclists on five cycle tracks in the Boston area liked having trees, where they preferred the trees to be placed and whether they thought the trees provided any benefits. We found that they liked having trees, preferably between the cycle track and the street. Such additions could greatly improve street environments for all users.
Separating pedestrians and cyclists from cars
To assess views about cycle tracks and trees, we showed 836 pedestrians and bicyclists on five existing cycle tracks photomontages of the area they were using and asked them to rank whether they liked the images or not. The images included configurations such as a row of trees separating the cycle track from the street or trees in planters extending into the street between parked cars. We also asked how effectively they thought the trees a) blocked perceptions of traffic; b) lessened perceptions of pollution exposure; and c) made pedestrians and bicyclists feel cooler.
Respondents strongly preferred photomontages that included trees. The most popular options were to have trees and bushes, or just trees, between the cycle track and the street. This is different from current U.S. cycle tracks, which typically are separated from moving cars by white plastic delineator posts, low concrete islands or a row of parallel parked cars.
Though perception is not reality, respondents also stated that having trees and bushes between the cycle track and the street was the option that best blocked their view of traffic, lessened their feeling of being exposed to pollution and made them feel cooler.
Factoring in climate change
Many city leaders are looking for ways to combat climate change, such as reducing the number of cars on the road. These goals should be factored into cycle track design. For example, highway engineers should ensure that cycle tracks are wide enough for bicyclists to travel with enough width to pass, including wide cargo bikes, bikes carrying children or newer three-wheeled electric bikes used by seniors.
Climate change is increasing stress on street trees, but better street design can help trees flourish. Planting trees in continuous earth strips, instead of isolated wells in the sidewalk, would enable their roots to trade nutrients, improving the trees’ chances of reaching maturity and ability to cool the street.
Drought weakens trees and makes them more likely to lose limbs or be uprooted. Street drainage systems could be redesigned to direct water to trees’ root systems. Hollow sidewalk benches could store water routed down from rooftops. If these benches had removable caps, public works departments could add antibacterial or anti-mosquito agents to the water. Gray water could also be piped to underground holding tanks to replenish water supplies for trees.
Thinking more broadly about street design
The central argument against adding cycle tracks with trees to urban streets asserts that cities need this space for parallel-parked cars. But cars do not have to be stored on the side of the road. They also can be stored vertically—for example, in garages, or stacked in mechanical racks on urban lots.
Parking garages could increase occupancy by selling deeded parking spaces to residents who live nearby. Those spaces could provide car owners with a benefit the street lacks: outlets for charging electric vehicles, which rarely are available to people who rent apartments.
Bus rapid transit proponents might suggest that the best use of street width is dedicated bus lanes, not cycle tracks or street trees. But all of these options can coexist. For example, a design could feature a sidewalk, then a cycle track, then street trees planted between the cycle track and the bus lane and in island bus stops. The trees would reduce heat island effects from the expansive hardscape of the bus lane, and bus riders would have a better view.
More urban trees could lead to more tree limbs knocking down power lines during storms. The ultimate solution to this problem could be burying power lines to protect them from high winds and ice storms. This costs money, but earlier solutions included only the conduit for the buried power lines. When digging trenches to bury power lines, a parallel trench could be dug to bury pipes that would supply water and nutrients to the trees. The trees would then grow to maturity, cooling the city and reducing the need for air conditioning.
Climate street guidelines for U.S. cities
To steer U.S. cities toward this kind of greener streetscape, urban scholars and planning experts need to develop what I call climate street guidelines. Such standards would offer design guidance that focuses on providing physiological and psychological benefits to all street users.
Developers in the United States have been coaxed into green thinking through tax credits, expedited review and permitting, design/height bonuses, fee reductions and waivers, revolving loan funds and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. It is time to put equal effort into designing green streets for bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders, and residents who live on transit routes, as well as for drivers.
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If cities are going to curb the rise of global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius, they’ll have to address the single largest contributor, by sector, to their carbon footprint: buildings. Buildings account for roughly 50 percent of a city’s total carbon emissions, and 70 percent in major cities like London, Los Angeles, and Paris.
The ultimate goal, as laid out by the World Green Building Council at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, is that by 2050—when 68 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas—all buildings will only use as much energy as they generate. And to get there, a group of large cities is first tackling a closer target. Last month, the mayors of 19 cities—including New York, London, Tokyo, and Johannesburg—declared that they will enact policies and regulations that will make all new buildings carbon neutral by 2030.
The bad news is that the larger challenge is to make existing, not new, buildings more efficient. Buildings that already exist today are estimated to account for 65 percent of all buildings in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries come 2060.
Even so, changing how new buildings are built has major implications for the future. And fortunately, raising standards for new buildings—compared to retrofitting older ones—is the lower-hanging fruit. “New construction is potentially much easier, since you’re starting from scratch,” said Ralph DiNola, CEO of the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for better energy performance in buildings. Not that there won’t be any challenges, DiNola added, but carbon neutrality “is a good and realistic goal as long as we are clear about what that requires for the buildings.”
For starters, cities need to have in place a climate action plan; robust building codes that keep up with energy-efficient technology and design; and energy-intensity targets that will guide buildings toward zero carbon emissions, said DiNola. The New Buildings Institute works with New York and other cities to develop “stretch codes”—an extra layer of local, more stringent regulations on top of the base building codes, which focus specifically on energy efficiency. Cities also need to set up a system of rewards and penalties, and give builders and developers enough time to comply.
To reach net-zero carbon, DiNola said, the energy usage of buildings will have to be cut anywhere from 50 to 85 percent—and that means addressing the main energy hogs. “Heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting are the primary loads in most buildings,” according to Maureen Guttman, an architect and green-building expert at the Alliance to Save Energy. On average, those loads account for 75 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. building sector, and 40 to 50 percent of total energy demand (not just in buildings) in the world.
As I reported last year when New York City announced a mandate to make all its existing buildings greener, features like higher-efficiency heating and lighting systems help. It isn’t a matter of finding new technology, Guttman said—rather, it boils down to designing a good building envelope to avoid heat gain over the warmer seasons and heat loss during the cold. That means good insulation in everything from the walls to the floor to the ceiling and eliminating air leakage (which, by one estimate, can account for at least 25 percent of heating load), as well as an effective ventilation system. It also means windows that reduce heat intake, or “cool” roofs that reflect sunlight instead of absorbing its heat.
Asked whether the 19 cities will reach the 2030 goal, Guttman said there’s no question they can. “Zero [carbon] buildings are being built without sophisticated materials or sophisticated equipment,” she added. “We have the technology.”
One example is Melbourne’s Pixel Building (the first carbon-neutral building in Australia), which opened in 2011. Colorful panels control the amount of light coming into the building, and “smart” windows allow heat to escape on summer nights while filtering in fresh air. Solar panels and wind turbines sit on the rooftop, generating renewable power. Canada’s first carbon-neutral building is now under construction—set to open later this year in Waterloo—and will include solar walls as well as a three-story green wall to offset carbon emissions. Both buildings incorporate many of the basic elements that Guttman describes.
Solar and wind energy are promising alternatives to fossil fuels, but generating a lot of them requires ample land space that cities don’t have. (Solar panels atop tall, skinny buildings can only go so far.) The group of 19 cities that signed the carbon-neutral pledge includes some of world’s largest and most populated cities. “That means that they have dense urban infrastructure,” said DiNola. “So they would have to have a way for owners to use renewable energy that is generated off-site, rather than requiring on-site renewable energy generation.”
So where can cities get their renewable energy? Utility-scale solar could remake the world’s energy supply by 2050. If that’s not fast enough, a 2016 report from Energy Cities, a coalition of local authorities focused on energy transition in the European Union, recommended that officials create partnerships between city centers and their surrounding rural communities. The authors call it a win-win: Urban centers need energy and may be willing to provide financial or technical support to rural communities, and those communities have land for, say, wind farms and solar arrays, but not necessarily the funding and research to develop them.
In Washington, D.C., for example, three universities inside the city—Georgetown, George Washington, and American—have collaborated on a project to supply half of their combined energy needs from a solar farm in North Carolina. This kind of partnership, when scaled up, could address the density challenge that DiNola describes and curb the carbon footprint of not just a few buildings but potentially an entire city.
Instead of technology, what cities need is training—so designers and builders know how to erect green buildings, so tenants and operators can ensure that buildings actually function at high efficiency, and so codes are enforced, and the city’s agenda is carried out. But perhaps most of all, Guttman noted, they need political will. Cities that want greener buildings will likely face a political backlash—especially in the U.S., where regulation has always been a subject of contentious debate.
If cities are serious, “everybody needs to do things differently than the way we do them now,” Guttman said. That would mean more stringent credentials and qualifications for design and construction professionals, as well as code enforcers. It could also mean changing the way we aim for the Paris target of making buildings energy-neutral by 2050.
Guttman thinks energy goals should be set on a community basis, rather than per building. “I don’t think any hospital is ever going to achieve net zero, or any laboratory. Or any restaurant, possibly,” she said, because their use of specialized equipment pushes up their energy use so much. “These are just high energy-intensive buildings that need to rely on the super efficiency of [their] neighbor.”
So, given that some buildings consume a lot of energy to perform specific, important tasks, cities could incentivize the owners of other buildings to go beyond net zero and generate more energy than they need. “It’s really got to be a concerted effort by a lot of people,” Guttman said.
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Forecasting the worst
The east coast of the U.S. is bracing for Hurricane Florence, predicted to make landfall as a category 3 hurricane on Thursday, as of this writing. Historic rainfall, storm surge, and winds threaten human life and structures in the storm’s path. Leaders in North and South Carolina and Virginia, the areas expected to bear the worst impacts, are taking the storm’s threat seriously, with evacuation orders now encompassing 1.7 million people across the region.
Emergency officials know when to sound the alarm thanks to researchers and mappers practicing the age-old science of weather prediction. Human beings have been watching and interpreting signs of rain and drought for millennia. Today, in the Anthropocene, the perilous consequences of climate change create a strong imperative for ever-more accurate weather models. In the age of big data, scientists seem to be making them.
In fact, next year, the U.S. government will officially switch over to a new model of global storm forecasting, called FV-3, in order to predict more complex storms with greater speed. Under development by NOAA scientists since 2012, FV-3 will replace the current model, called GFS, with a new level of accuracy and computational power to simulate complicated atmospheric processes both locally and globally.
Now, as this enormous storm bears down on the coast, all eyes in the weather prediction community are on how FV-3 performs compared to GFS. “Which will be right? You will know in a week,” wrote Clifford Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, on his personal blog.
Earlier this week, Mass posted a side-by-side comparison of how the two models are charting Florence’s path. Statistically speaking, FV-3 has generally outperformed GFS on accuracy tests, Mass writes. But he highlights a huge difference in their pressure and intensity forecasts for Florence, which could have major implications for how the storm plays out. I followed up with him via email.
You wrote on your blog that Superstorm Sandy in 2012 alerted weather forecasters to the need for a new national model. Say more about that?
Sandy was a wake-up call to the U.S. that our nation had fallen behind in global (and hurricane) weather prediction. We are still behind. Replacing GFS with FV-3 is an attempt to catch up, but the model is only one component of the system. U.S. operational prediction lacks sufficient computer resources—NOAA and the National Weather Service could really use 100 times what they have today. For the price of a few fighter jets, the U.S. could have vastly improved weather forecasting.
Why do we see such a significant difference in estimated sea pressure between the two models for Florence? FV-3 shows much higher pressures, which would imply a much more intense storm.
FV-3 should be a more modern, superior model to GFS, but the two runs are being driven by the same data assimilation system and analysis, so that is why their two track forecasts are similar. But disturbingly, their forecast pressures have been very different. For the forecast initialized September 9, 12z, GFS has been much better—lower pressure (see graphic). Why? That is an important question.
What will you be looking for during and after the storm to assess the accuracy of the new model?
I will be comparing track forecast, intensity (lowest central pressure, highest winds), and precipitation totals.
Why build better weather models?
The stakes are huge. Better weather prediction saves lives and property, and has immense economic implications. In a period when we are worrying about more extreme weather impacts, the first line of defense is better weather prediction.
NOAA isn’t the only one working on better storm modeling. Oceanographers at the University of Rhode Island are improving forecasts for New England’s particularly complicated storms. And Columbia University researchers are developing systems that blend data from historic weather events with gigantic storms that haven’t happened yet but could—i.e., the storms of the climate change era.
An uneven impact
No one can know for sure how hard Florence will hit the coast until it does. But one thing is certain: the damage won’t be evenly distributed. Today on CityLab, I wrote about the particular challenges that come with responding to mega-storms in rural areas, while my colleague Nicole Javorsky highlighted a selection of maps showing the likely inequitable outcomes for those who don’t evacuate. She writes:
Location is an obvious differentiator—but not the only one. Factors like socioeconomic status, age, whether a person has a disability, whether or not they own a car, and what languages they speak will also determine how easy or difficult it is to survive and recover from disasters like Florence.
A dashboard of interactive maps from the emergency response nonprofit Direct Relief shows “the range of social vulnerability in Florence’s projected path,” she continues. In the map below, warmer shades represent populations that are more likely to need support in this emergency, due to the factors Javorsky lists; cooler shades indicate areas with a lower probability of need.
Maps are a helpful way to wrap one’s head around a storm of this magnitude, whether it’s NOAA’s rainbow bright, yet dire hurricane models, FEMA’s (dangerously un-updated) flood risk maps, or maps like this, that suggest how society’s existing inequalities are primed to become more deeply ingrained in the face of disaster.
What kinds of questions do you have ahead of a frightening storm like Florence? What types of maps would you want to see in the lead-up and aftermath? Let me know.
Is where you are, who you are? A writer sifts through his location data to find out. ♦ Why is public transit in America so bad? A map-heavy CityLab opus answers the question. ♦ Don’t trust that map: it could be a vehicle for fake news. ♦ Don’t breathe that air: Google Street View cars are gathering urban pollution data. ♦ It’s in the stars: restaurant reviews can predict gentrification down to the neighborhood. ♦ Not-so-next-door neighbors: Chicagoans on opposite sides of the city find their “map twins.” ♦ Jason Derulo knows what the girls want, New York to Haiti, London to Taiwan. But how would you map that?
Stay safe out there, MapLab readers. And if you’re not surviving a hurricane, share this newsletter with a friend—they can sign up here.
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Cameron Beccario is responsible for the Van Gogh of Hurricane Florence maps, created from his map of global weather conditions. While the Category 3 storm barreling toward the Carolinas won’t be pretty, Beccario’s map in all its data visualization glory is perhaps the most elegant depiction of Florence’s potential power. The screenshot below shows his weather data visualization mapped onto the earth.
The reckoning, however, will not be the same for everyone in its path. Location is an obvious differentiator—but not the only one. Factors like socioeconomic status, age, whether a person has a disability, whether or not they own a car, and what languages they speak will also determine how easy or difficult it is to survive and recover from disasters like Florence.
More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate from the Carolinas and Virginia, but as in big storms prior, some will stay behind.
Direct Relief has created interactive maps that show the range of social vulnerability in Florence’s projected path (“social vulnerability” means the likelihood that a population will be disproportionately in need of support in an emergency). On the map below, warmer colors signify higher vulnerability; cooler colors, lower vulnerability.
Using the CDC’s social vulnerability index, Schroeder and his team also separately analyzed and mapped, at the county and census-tract level, four key factors: socioeconomics (income and wealth) shown in green, race/ethnicity (including language) shown in orange, household composition (age and disability) shown in blue, and housing/transport (including home and car ownership) shown in purple. Darker colors signify higher social vulnerability. (You can go to Direct Relief’s Hurricane Florence Social Vulnerability Dashboard and zoom in on specific areas.)
On Direct Relief’s maps, the coast is a lighter-colored strip, meaning lower social vulnerability. People living in coastal areas of the Carolinas generally tend to be more affluent and white, said Susan Cutter, who directs the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Areas inland from the coast have more people with lower incomes and more members of minority groups. Although the coastline will see greater damage from the hurricane’s storm surge and strong winds, inland areas will likely face extensive flooding, especially if the system stalls overhead for a couple of days.
Rising sea levels due to climate change create even more risk, Cutter said, and recent development in coastal areas will add to the toll of Hurricane Florence. “The greater the development, the less open space there is for rainfall to percolate down into the soil because everything’s paved over,” Cutter said. “So where’s the water going to go? Well, it’s going to run off and create a flood.”
Exposure change in region forecast to be affected by #Florence. 1,325% increase in the number of homes within the cone of uncertainty. While much of the development has been along the coast, most is inland and subject to flooding. The water that kills, not the wind. #HaveAPlan pic.twitter.com/LBjyII1IJQ
— Stephen M. Strader (@StephenMStrader) September 10, 2018
On Twitter, a disaster expert at Villanova University, Stephen Strader, also noted that development can increase vulnerability to disasters for humans and their possessions—a phenomenon called the expanding bull’s-eye effect. “Humans and their possessions are targets of these geophysical hazards like hurricanes and as populations grow and development spreads across the landscape, it creates disaster potential,” Strader told CityLab.
Animated .gif illustrating this effect via satellite imagery. pic.twitter.com/f0PCuDdJBv
— Stephen M. Strader (@StephenMStrader) September 10, 2018
Zoom in area of Myrtle Beach and Wilmington. While we don’t know exactly where or if #Florence will make landfall, we do know that development and societal growth in this region has rapidly amplified over the last 78 years. #ExpandingBullsEye pic.twitter.com/wI6li0A93y
— Stephen M. Strader (@StephenMStrader) September 10, 2018
Also, Florence is headed toward the location of America’s second-largest hog farming industry, North Carolina, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. The Waterkeeper Alliance revealed the potential for water contamination from the state’s high number of animal farms with its 2016 maps using data on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Meanwhile, as Florence bears down, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. are under states of emergency. As of Wednesday, maximum sustained winds were at 125 miles per hour. Up to 13-foot storm surges along the coast are expected as well as 20 to 30 inches of rainfall in coastal North Carolina, producing “catastrophic flash flooding,” according to the National Hurricane Center. And as these maps show, the brunt of the storm won’t be borne equally.
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Local governments often hail this tool as a way to revitalize investment-deprived neighborhoods, fix dilapidated roads, clean up polluted waters, revamp blighted property, and foster commercial activity and job creation. It’s often poorly understood by city taxpayers, but it affects them in very real ways.
I’m talking about Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a popular mechanism meant to boost economic development. Its usage is widespread: Every state but one employs it, and it’s a go-to move for many cities trying to revive struggling neighborhoods, especially in the Midwest. But how effective is it, really?
The answer, like life itself, is complicated. But David Merriman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, takes a stab at it in a new report for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. After reviewing available research on the implementation and impacts of TIF, Merriman concludes that the mechanism, while helpful in some ways, leaves a lot to be desired.
“In the end, it can be a valuable mechanism,” he said. “It’s not something I’d like to get rid of—but it deserves a lot of scrutiny because public sector dollars are being re-routed into a different task, away from general purpose funds.”
To understand what he means, let’s first explain how TIF works: When a city designates an area as a TIF district, the property value of all the real estate within its boundaries at that time is designated as the “base value.” This is the amount that, for a set amount of years after the fact, generates revenue through the city’s property tax process. Everything over and above that, through an increase in value of existing real estate and new development in that time frame, goes into a separate fund earmarked for economic development.
The city can then use this second pot of money to lure private investors with loans and subsidies for commercial projects, or to make public projects more attractive. Sometimes, private entities put money on a TIF district even before the revenue comes in, because they’re anticipating revenue from economic development. The overall idea behind TIF is: By creating these districts, cities can spark new private-public partnerships and new economic activity in a region that may not otherwise see it, and by doing that, widen its tax base. It’s economic development that, in a sense, pays for itself.
But in practice, TIF doesn’t always play out that way. Critics often charge that it funnels money out of the taxpayers’ pockets into a special fund that, by and large, works in a pretty opaque manner. While some of that money funds essential public works, much has also gone towards erecting new Whole Foods, renovating glitzy hotels, and building stadiums—the type of projects, one might argue, should not require such incentives. And the evidence Merriman analyzes suggest they may have a point. He shows that, in most cases around the country, the tool did not fulfill its main goal of boosting economic development.
“On average, [TIF] may be moving development from one part of the city to another, and changing the timing of the development, but there’s not more development than would have otherwise been made,” Merriman said.
In addition, this is a tool with several drawbacks. According to Merriman, TIFs might “capture” some tax revenue above the capped “base value” that may have been generated anyway through natural appreciation in property values if the TIF hadn’t been created. This is money that taxpayers might have otherwise paid directly towards an overlapping school district, or for public services. And while TIF is not a direct tax increase, it may lead to higher rates or service cuts elsewhere, if the city plans on bringing in the same general property tax revenue as before TIF.
“If property taxes are higher—if the rates are higher—then the TIF money has come of the taxpayer’s pocket,” Merriman said. “It’s a diversion in that way.”
In other words, TIF doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like other tax incentive programs, it may have the adverse affect of creating competition between neighboring jurisdictions in a way that is not always beneficial—all for outcomes that are mixed, at best.
Perhaps the biggest concern with TIF, though, is that of transparency, because of the way this mechanism effectively bypasses the public municipal budget process.
“Once a TIF is created, the operation of a TIF receives less scrutiny than other spending,” Merriman said.
Take Chicago, where a whopping $660 million—a third of the city’s property taxes—go into its many TIF districts. Back in 2009, Chicago Reader’s Ben Javorsky and Mick Dumke called TIF spending a “shadow budget.” They uncovered documents revealing how the administration of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley used TIF money to revamp skyscrapers and dole out subsidies to large corporations in deals made behind closed doors. Not a lot appears to have changed since then: In 2017, an investigation by Crain’s Chicago Business and the Better Government Association found that under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, $55 million in TIF dollars—ostensibly meant for fighting blight—were spent to renovate Navy Pier, a glitzy waterfront tourist attraction.
But TIF is good for sparking public-private partnerships that may help fund useful infrastructure that may not otherwise be appealing to investors, such as raising the height of a bridge tunnel so it can carry large trucks, for example. In the report, Merriman recommends several ways to use this tool more effectively, and make it easier for policymakers and researchers to evaluate. Most important: Cities needs to be more transparent about how they are using TIF. It’s not a magic free-money generator.
“It’s a concern about why those decisions are being made,” he said, “and why there’s a public subsidy for development that might have occurred even without the subsidy.”
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Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter Small towns may face some of the worst damage due to a lack of resources and insufficient communications infrastructure, especially in low-lying coastal areas. As CityLab’s Laura Bliss reports, the real measure of resilience will come as environmental and economic impacts linger after the storm. As one climate researcher tells Laura: The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms. Subway policing in New York City still has a race problem (The Marshall Project) The house that came in the mail (99 Percent Invisible) Single-family homes cover almost half of Los Angeles—here’s how that happened (Curbed Los Angeles) Waze is using beacons to help drivers navigate GPS dead zones in Chicago (Wired) The epicenter of the housing bust is booming again. That’s a warning sign. (New York Times)
More on CityLab
What We’re Reading
Small towns may face some of the worst damage due to a lack of resources and insufficient communications infrastructure, especially in low-lying coastal areas. As CityLab’s Laura Bliss reports, the real measure of resilience will come as environmental and economic impacts linger after the storm. As one climate researcher tells Laura:
The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms.
Subway policing in New York City still has a race problem (The Marshall Project)
The house that came in the mail (99 Percent Invisible)
Single-family homes cover almost half of Los Angeles—here’s how that happened (Curbed Los Angeles)
Waze is using beacons to help drivers navigate GPS dead zones in Chicago (Wired)
The epicenter of the housing bust is booming again. That’s a warning sign. (New York Times)
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The Global Climate Action summit in San Francisco began on Wednesday. This year’s goal: “Take Ambition to the Next Level.”
What is that next level? As part of the We Are Still In, Mayors Climate Alliance, and other city climate-action efforts, many U.S cities are creating their first ever climate-action plans; others are rewriting theirs to meet more ambitious goals. The next level is ensuring that these multi-year plans integrate equity considerations or risk perpetuating an unjust life for millions of already marginalized Americans.
The latest statistics on the state of urban equity in this country are mostly miserable: Gentrification is racially re-segregating cities; the urban income gap is widening, especially for people of color and women; homelessness is ruining a record number of lives and swamping local services.
Climate action can address these problems or make them worse, depending on whether the research and planning make equity and empowerment issues central to their approach.
What’s that mean? It’s easiest to explain through an example using a common climate action plan goal statement. Without equity: Collaborate to reduce the role of carbon—including from coal and natural gas sources—in a city’s electricity mix. With equity: Collaborate with utilities, customers and stakeholders to reduce the carbon content in a city’s electricity mix; mitigate any potential cost increases to low-income households by providing subsidies for energy efficiency retrofits that reduce their home energy use and its cost.
Programs to address carbon can stoke what academics call low-carbon gentrification. Cities that enacts measures to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but fail to build in equity safeguards, likely will push more low-income ratepayers out of the city.
The Austin Energy Community Solar Project is an example of climate action equity done right. Austin, Texas, had a goal of achieving 65 percent renewable power supply by 2027 including local solar. But city officials realized that, while solar installations had increased, most had been by middle- and high-income single-family homeowners. Renters and lower-income residents faced various barriers to accessing solar, yet including these groups was recognized as crucial to facilitating community-wide growth and commitment. The Community Solar program reduced physical barriers to on-site solar and the city council allocated more resources to increase solar energy adoption and access for underserved markets. This project won the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s 2018 Climate Action Award.
In Portland, Oregon, the incorporation of equity considerations in climate action plans is an effort that has been growing for the past decade, resulting in a “Climate Action through Equity” plan in 2016. This grew out of the Portland Plan, the citywide equity framework, and the Office of Equity and Human Rights we established during my tenure as mayor of the city to ensure that all programs and agencies included these considerations in their work.
In Portland, we also created a local nonprofit, Enhabit, to offer homeowners loans for residential energy efficiency upgrades, paid off with a charge on their utility bills. In a city with too few non-male and non-white tradespeople, we aimed to have the work done largely by women and minorities working with local equity partners, like the Oregon Minority Contractors Association and Oregon Tradeswomen, to make sure what we intended made sense on the ground. And, a national equity partner, Green for All, made sure we used best practices learned in other cities. Now, more national climate justice organizations stand ready to help cities integrate equity issues in their plans: Emerald Cities Collaborative, Environmental Health Coalition, WE ACT, and 100 Resilient Cities.
The movement for making equity and empowerment a central aspect of climate-action plans is growing and has taken hold in some cities as these examples show. Yet a startling number of city climate action plans still fail to include equity in any meaningful way.
In a recent study, Pursuing Equity and Justice in a Changing Climate, Assessing Equity in Local Climate and Sustainability Plans in U.S. Cities, Portland State University researcher Greg Schrock and his colleagues decided to quantify this problem, using different measurements to analyze climate and sustainability action plans from cities around the country.
One finding is that many cities, perhaps the vast majority, “ignore equity goals as part of their climate and sustainability plans, or at least treat them as secondary or tertiary goals relative to environmental and economic goals,”the researchers wrote.
We need to move climate action equity from an afterthought to the way cities go about their work. The American climate action movement can help American cities make strides in two important ways:
Develop protocols for cities to collect and report on climate equity
Data can drive action for change, as we’ve seen before in climate action. For example, before 2014, for over a decade, cities devised their own methods to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions or lacking methods, just didn’t evaluate them at all. With so many different ways of measuring (if any) it was hard to tell who was making progress and where, and what to really believe. Then, in 2014, the “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocols for Cities” were created. These protocols made it much easier a city to see how it was doing, face down the naysayers, compare to other cities, and learn from them.
We need “Climate Equity Protocols for Cities.” These goals would set measurable and more ambitious environment justice goals, be transparent, and ensure that cities measure both equity status and carbon emissions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the United States could serve as the basis for creating these city equity reporting protocols.
Recognize the cities making strides in equity-driven climate change plans
Doing the difficult climate equity work should be rewarded. Cities get certifications as things like a Scenic City, Smart City, or are recognized in the US and Canada Green City Index, as a Tree City USA, or among the Best Places to Live. Cities use these to market themselves and to attract and retain businesses and workers. But few such programs include climate equity in their evaluations. For example, trees are often a very cost-effective urban climate action. Yet, there’s a major disparity in urban canopy covers. Generally, rich neighborhoods have trees; poor and minority neighborhoods don’t. The Tree City USA program could add the equity of a city’s tree canopy coverage to its evaluation criteria.
“Environment, economy and equity” have long been mentioned as three goals of the climate-change action community, but in our plans, we have most often dropped the last “E,” equity, leaving us with paltry results in our collective mainstream environmental justice efforts. This week, as leaders from the United States and around the world meet in San Francisco, this value should infuse their discussions.
And in the United States, as cities gear up for more ambitious long-term climate action plans, we find ourselves at an urban environmental crossroads. Cities will make choices on what kind of carbon-free future they plan for. The choices we make now will shape the social equity and inclusion of America’s urban life for decades to come.
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When Hurricane Hugo—the last Category 4 storm to strike the Carolinas—roared ashore in 1989, Jack Edwards knew what he had to do. In that storm’s immediate aftermath, he and his wife, Dorothy, went out to help their neighbors in their small town of Marion, South Carolina, about 50 miles from the coast. They connected generators, hung tarps over torn-up roofs, and tried to fill in the in the gaps in the county’s emergency response, which couldn’t get to everyone who needed help in this sparsely populated area.
The Edwards have been taking on this disaster response after big storms locally and across the country ever since. In 2014, after an ice storm blacked out the power to a dying neighbor’s oxygen unit, the husband-wife team ran over to hook up their generator at 1 a.m., getting up in the middle of the night to make sure it stayed running for five days straight.
This year, personal health issues mean that Edwards, a 72-two-year old retired hospital engineer, won’t be out in the field participating directly in the post-storm response to Hurricane Florence as it bears down on the Carolinas. But he will still be coordinating a team of 22 volunteers across Marion, all from different churches. Edwards does this because, while he has had the financial resources to weather storms, not everyone in his town does. “We live in a small community where everyone knows everyone,” Edwards said. “I think you do what you can when your neighbor is down.”
The rural, often poorer parts of the eastern Carolinas that are anticipated to bear the brunt of Hurricane Florence face a triple threat in the face of this potentially catastrophic storm, which is projected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm on Thursday morning. Florence brings the threat of massive storm surges, rainfall that could top 25 inches, and devastating high winds that threaten human life and structures in the storm’s path. With as much as 10 feet of flooding projected for some areas, about 1.7 million people between South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, are under evacuation orders. Authorities warn residents who’ve weathered historic storms of the past—Hugo in 1989, Hazel in 1954—that comparisons with Florence may not be helpful. ‘‘The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen,’’ North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Tuesday.
While much of the attention is focused on the storm’s impact on fragile coastal resorts and historic cities like Charleston and Wilmington, many disaster researchers and responders worry more about the more isolated inland regions, where a lack of resources, poor communications infrastructure, and challenging geography can hamper emergency efforts.
“It’s our poor, rural communities that are often hit the hardest in events like this,” said Randy Creamer, a disaster relief coordinator for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He spoke on the phone on Tuesday afternoon as he drove west on Interstate 26 through swishing rainfall, having spent the day emailing hundreds of volunteers about what to do if power lines go down in their communities during the event. A majority of the communities represented by the network of churches that he manages are in relatively isolated parts of the state.
While rural residents might be more self-sufficient than urban or suburban communities in certain ways, some are also uniquely vulnerable. “If you live in the country, you’re more accustomed to the occasional power outage, because you know no one is coming to help you,” Creamer said. “But when you get to the economically depressed areas… a single mom working three jobs, there is not a lot she can be thinking about how to get over this all by herself.”
Adding to the challenge is the fact that parts of this region have yet to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The vulnerability is partly a factor of geography—North Carolina’s so-called Coastal Plain is low-lying and obviously closest to the ocean. But it’s also a reflection of historic economic inequity. According to reporting by the Washington Post after Matthew, roughly 50 percent of households in the Coastal Plain live in what’s termed “liquid asset poverty.” These are households that lack the money to cover short-term expenses when properties are destroyed, and couldn’t necessarily move if they wanted to.
“What I’m fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don’t have elevated structures,” Susan Cutter, the director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, told the Associated Press. “They’re in low-lying flood-prone areas and they didn’t leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there.”
That is part of the story in Princeville, the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of the town in North Carolina’s Edgecombe County was underwater after Matthew, partly due to flawed levee engineering. The inland community has barely rebuilt in the years since: The town hall and elementary school still haven’t been replaced. FEMA relief has only gone so far for many residents there and in nearby Tarboro and Greenville, and the region’s population is much smaller.
Rural poverty also makes it harder to prepare for storms. Roughly 12 percent of households in Edgecombe County do not have access to personal vehicles. There, and other parts of the state, residents are further out of reach of emergency services, transportation, and internet connections during and after the storm. There aren’t many transit options in the Carolinas for those who don’t own vehicles.
Electricity and internet connections are of particular concern to Jim Stritzinger, the director of the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina and former executive director of Connect South Carolina, a statewide broadband connectivity initiative. The continued reliance on aging DSL connections in rural parts of the Carolinas worry him in the event of storms like this. Elevated wires are connected to telephone poles and often haven’t been maintained. If power is interrupted during a storm, isolated areas could easily be without the means to communicate or get critical information for days. “Rural communities are absolutely the ones I’m most concerned with,“ he said.
The risk of environmental hazards after the storm also runs high for poor, rural communities, writes Rachel Cleetus, a policy director and lead economist for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Florence’s rains could overwhelm the waste lagoons from North Carolina’s 2,300 hog farms, contaminating water bodies with toxic sludge. In Hurricane Matthew, 14 such lagoons overflowed. In addition, coal ash ponds could get washed out, wastewater treatment plants could leak, and sewage could seep into groundwater, tainting the wells that many small towns rely on for drinking water. Black and Hispanic low-income communities are disproportionately located near such sites of industry and agriculture, and all of these associated wastes. “The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms,” Cleetus wrote.
On Tuesday, Governor Cooper promised the AP that emergency responders wouldn’t forget vulnerable residents. Advanced flood risk maps will keep the state informed about where the water is rising, he said, helping officials advise residents about when and where to flee. “The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding,” he said.
In some ways, it may help that the last disaster was so recent. In Robeson County, which has the highest poverty rate in the state and saw some of the worst flooding during Matthew in 2106, emergency managers have brought in extra generators and fuel, and are coordinating communication lines coordinated between the sheriff’s department, EMS, and the highway patrol. School buses and transportation providers are at the ready to shuttle evacuees to shelters in many of the likely affected counties.
Pasquotank County, a finger-shaped area on the northern coast of North Carolina, has four emergency operation centers up and running. The local demand-response transportation agency plans to wind down regular service on Thursday, but will back up county-provided emergency shuttle buses transporting those who don’t have family or friends to rely on to emergency shelters. “We’re a small transit agency and we try to do the best we can,” said Herb Mullen, the director of transportation at the Inter County Public Transportation Authority, which responds to requests in Pasquotank, Perquimans, Camden, Chowan, and Currituck counties.
Though they may be extra vulnerable, rural communities are not the only ones staring down the limitations of poverty in the face of a natural disaster. In Charleston, South Carolina, William Hamilton, a lawyer and political activist, runs a group called Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit. Earlier this year, he critiqued the emergency preparedness manual his state published for barely mentioning public transit resources for those who don’t own vehicles in his city.
Since then, Hamilton says that things have improved—the signs marking the stops for Charleston’s shelter-bound emergency buses are much clearer, for example. But there are still populations at enormous risk in his city, especially those living in homelessness, who have even fewer resources. “We have a better system than we had a year ago,” he wrote via email. “But I still believe far more emphasis needs to be put on evacuating vulnerable populations, as the horror story in New Orleans 13 years ago proved.”
Like many of his neighbors in Marion, Jack Edwards won’t be evacuating today. He’s expecting wind damage, at least, but hopes that his property is elevated enough to stay dry. “This old house has withstood a lot of storms,” he said. But this time, Edwards acknowledged, “we could be the ones that they’re coming to help.”
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