Change Is Scary, But We Will Get Through the Current Transition

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert / Utility Dive

“In a fractured, perplexing world, it’s easy to be pessimistic. But if we pull back, we can see there are deeper, more coherent forces at work. If we looked at today from 500 years in the future, we would see we are at an extraordinary moment in history. What’s really happening is the reinvention of America,” argued Peter Leyden, author of The Long Boom, and What’s Next?, at the opening plenary of the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. He added that: “no country can go through this kind of transition without experiencing major political change. There is intense polarization and paralysis at the beginning of every transition. President Trump is a classic reaction to change. Change is hard and scary; it’s very appealing to go back. But what happens next is we will get through the transition.”

The United States has experienced four eras of deep structural change, each taking a number of years to take root. “We are in the fifth transition now.” From 1800-1850, the country saw a transformation to mechanized agriculture; from 1850-1900, we shifted to the early industrial era; from 1900-1950, America moved to the urban industrial era; and from 1950-2000, we saw the rise of the post-war suburban era. At the beginning of each of these major transitions, there was political paralysis and efforts to stop change, but deeper forces pushed us towards a new economy and society.

Beginning in 2000, Leyden argued, the U.S. began the latest massive transformation, characterized by “the digitization of everything.” Connecting all computers in the world was a “world historical event.” With technology organized on a global scale, “we also started the globalization of everything.”

The “unprecedented challenges” facing the world today — climate change, mass migration, rising inequality, education system failures, and pandemics — are “the classic symptoms of systemic change.”

Leyden is optimistic we can make our way through these challenges, just as we have in the past. “I believe this story has a happy ending.”

Leyden outlined some of the deeper forces at work today:

Digitalization: Today, computers are 25 times more powerful than they were 40 years ago. In 1975, 200 mega flops cost $31 million; today, 300 giga flops costs $649, the price of a new iphone. In 1981, one gigabyte of storage cost $700,000; today, the same amount costs 4 cents. From before the birth of Christ to 2003, humans created around 5 exabytes of data; today, we create the same amount of data every two days. Before 1990, 6 percent of data was digitized; now, “data is all digital.”

In 2000, just 5 percent of the world was online; today, 40 percent are, and soon everyone will be. Already, 75 percent of the planet has a cell phone. “Soon everyone will have 4G and the entire world will be able to send videos.” And there are “more technological wonders to come, with artificial intelligence and robotics.”

But the downside is an estimated 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will be “vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years. Routine, non-creative jobs will go away.” Still, Leyden believes new types of jobs will take the place of old ones, just as has occurred in past transitions. The total number of jobs has always increased.

Globalization: The world economy and financial markets are increasingly inter-connected. People are more connected than ever, too. Some $7.4 trillion, or 10 percent of global GDP, is associated with travel and tourism, more than the share of the global economy associated with oil, which is around $5 trillion. In addition, the world’s most valuable companies today, including Apple and Facebook, are all about facilitating global communications. Amid worries the U.S. is falling behind on the innovation front, Leyden reminded us U.S. firms dominate the list of most valuable companies.

“Integrated markets and new technologies are driving global economic growth.” However, while productivity rates have increased, family incomes in the U.S. have stagnated. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Demographic shifts: In the U.S., 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. At the same time, millennials have now surpassed the boomers as the largest generation, and they make up the majority of the workforce today.

Like all up-and-coming generations, “millennials will reinvent the world. They are tech-savvy, civic-minded, collaborative, diverse, global, and green.” They are also moving into cities in great number and driving less. Today, 63 percent of the American population lives in cities; that number will go even higher. Millennials are also more diverse, and their children will be, too. “By 2050, whites will be a minority, just like they are in California today.”

Environmental change: There are now 399 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Sixteen of the hottest days on record happened since 2001. But there are glimpses of a positive, sustainable future.

“Solar and wind will soon be cheaper than oil, coal, and gas.” And while we are well into the information technology revolution, the energy technology revolution is just in its early stages. Once inter-state energy grids are rebuilt to more-easily enable the flow of solar and wind power across state lines, we’ll see renewables take over.

Leyden likened the national political dysfunction happening today to what happened in California in the 90s and 00s. As whites became a minority and the economy shifted, there was extended deadlock in Sacramento. But eventually a new consensus was reached, and California is once again leading the way forward, with the fastest and most sustainable economy in the country.

The last time the U.S. went through a major national transition right after World War II, just 5 percent of the population had a college degree. Today, more than 30 percent do. With all those extra skills, Leyden is confident our current transition will be smoother and faster. It’s the next one in 2050 or sooner that he’s now focused on — will it be nano-technology-driven?

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization, Nature. / Paul R. Ehrlich, Peter M. Kareiva & Gretchen C. Daily

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few of the success stories heard at the summit:

China Is Valuing Its Ecosystem Services: Gretchen Daly, professor of environmental science at Stanford University and founder of the Natural Capital Project, said more cities and countries are starting to put financial value on the many ecosystem services nature provides. Some success stories: New York realized that investing in the ecological functions of the watershed surrounding New York City was cheaper than building a massive filtration plant. Costa Rica has initiated a payment system for conserving nature.

And China has undertaken a massive planning effort to identify and value its critical ecological assets in an effort to become the “ecological civilization of the 21st century.” Some 4,000 officials in 31 provinces have been trained with Daly’s InVest software, which has helped Chinese policymakers identify “priority zones for carbon absorption, biodiversity, flood control, sandstorm control, and water purification.” Today, some 200 million Chinese are now getting paid to restore natural capital. Hainan has become the first “eco-province.” Daly said some 50 countries and cities are using the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service management system.

Truly inspiring, but it only happened after “China kissed disaster,” getting close to total environmental collapse. And China has decades of work ahead before its environment can be deemed healthy. Let’s hope the rest of the planet doesn’t have to get to the brink of catastrophe before it values increasingly-scarce resources.

In the U.S, Renewable Energy Is Where the Growth Is: In the U.S., all new power generation last year was renewable. Wind and solar power are the now the cheapest energy options, even when you remove the government subsidies. “This has been a huge change in the past decade,” said David Crane, Pegasus Capital Advisers. The model of financing solar panels in the U.S., which basically involving leasing someone’s roof space in return for giving them a discount on their home energy bills, made the solar revolution possible. That model has mobilized $1 trillion in capital and generated 250,000 megawatts of energy, explained Jigar Shah, with Generate Capital and SunEdison.

Renewable energy is no longer just a favorite cause of green Democrats either. Dale Ross, the mayor of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, a growing city of about 50,000, explained how he made a long-term agreement with wind and solar companies to power his city’s growth. Ross believes the U.S. will have 80 percent of its energy generated by wind and solar by 2025 if states are allowed to sell more power across borders. But Crane was less optimistic, pointing out that only 1.5 million homes now have solar panels, whereas there should be 50-55 million homes. “The power industry is a monopoly fighting rooftop solar. People need to stand up and pressure companies and regulators.”

On the positive side: GM, a fairly traditional company, just announced it will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2040. And Walmart aims for 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2025. Architect William McDonough believes these companies will help “wage peace through commerce.” The leaders of the firms decided to “do the right thing and set positive goals.” These goals would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

Food Waste Is Now on Our Radar: There is a growing momentum across the developed world to end the egregious waste from the industrial agriculture and food retail industries. Food production is by far the biggest environmental impact humans have on the Earth, with agriculture covering a third of the surface. With the global population expected to hit 9-10 billion by 2050, many argue that food production will need to increase 50-70 percent. But Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, argues that we actually already grow enough food to feed 12 billion people. Food overproduction is really the issue. As a result, we are creating not only huge amounts of waste but also producing obese populations. Globally, some one-third of food is wasted. In the U.S. and Europe, people are eating 1.5 to 2 times what they need.

Stuart said there are positive trends though, because “governments are starting to act and create measurable change.” In the UK, food waste has been reduced 27 percent since 2007. Taking on some of the “blatantly stupid waste of resources” perpetuated through the supply chains of supermarkets, his organization has used campaigns to show how waste can be reduced. For example, he convinced some UK supermarket chains to stop selling cut green beans, imported from Kenya, in favor of full beans that will not only stay fresh longer but reduce the amount of bean wasted in the process. His other company, Toast Ale, uses left-over ends of bread to craft beer. “You can get wasted on waste.”

Communities Are Organizing to Save Coastal Ecosystems: Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, said there is now a greater understanding of coastal ecosystems and how they sequester far more carbon than terrestrial forests. As such, more coastal communities are making it much harder for corporations to privatize or over-develop coasts. There is a new awareness of the importance of preserving and restoring mangroves, even though some efforts to actually restore mangroves have not succeeded. Furthermore, “oyster restoration is gaining steam,” as communities realize they play an important role in buffering wave forces and filtering water.

In the Caribbean, where Johnson focuses her coastal community development work, there is a growing awareness that conserving ocean resources is a “social justice issue.” When marine reserves are established, “fish populations bounce back.” On the negative side, only 2-3 percent of the ocean is now protected, and scientists think it needs to be around 30 percent.

Not to sugarcoat: the future challenges facing our coastal communities are daunting. With warming waters, many fisheries are expected to migrate towards the poles, threatening millions of livelihoods. It’s not clear what shifting fisheries mean for the “half of the world who depend on seafood for their protein.”

Cities Are Rebuilding Connections to Nature: The old model in which cities were totally cut off from their waterfronts — either by highways or industrial facilities — seems to be ending in the developed world at least. Damon Rich, head of Hector Urban Design, walked us through one prime example of how communities are reconnecting to their waterfront in Newark, New Jersey, which transformed some of the edges of the Passaic River from “toxic nastiness” into the site of the 20-acre, $35 million Newark Riverfront Park that uses a “symbolic system” of bright orange to “reflect this is an anti-racist space.” To accomplish something like this, Rich said you need to “bring together the conservation, organizing, and design communities together and invite them to the same party.”

Newark Riverfront Park / Smartgrowth.org

And then there are individuals who aren’t waiting around for the government to do something, but are starting their own new companies, schools, and movements. David Auerbach launched a company in the Mukuru slum of Kenya called Sanergy, which offers more sanitary restrooms than the standard pit latrine through a novel franchising model and significantly reduces urban water pollution. Users pay a small fee to the Sanergy restroom franchisee to use the restroom. Franchisees then safely collect the waste, which Sanergy picks up and turns into safe, organic fertilizer. Sanergy offers a promising solution to a “crappy problem”: 1 billion live in urban slums and 2 billion will by 2030. 4 billion live in communities where “waste is never treated.” There are 1 million deaths caused by poor sanitation each year.

At the age of 27, Murray Fisher started the public New York Harbor School, which teaches students in New York City maritime trades. Years later, the school moved to a new campus on Governor’s Island and now has 475 high school students, where they can receive credentials in aquaculture, vessel operations, marine biology, and more. After starting a new foundation, Fisher began the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to bring back that many oysters to New York City’s waters. The school engages the students in measuring the oysters the 20 million oysters they’ve planted, welding the reefs, and monitoring water quality. His goal is to “insert the local ecosystem back into the educational system” and eventually export his novel environmental education curricula to other communities who have eager students and significant unmet conservation and restoration needs. “Why can’t young people work on restoring ecosystems in school?”

Billion oyster project and NY Harbor School students / Energy Factor

And, lastly, Afroz Shah, a lawyer who lives in Mumbai, India, and was one of the most inspiring speakers at the summit, explained how he went from picking up trash by himself on the beloved beach where he used to play as a child to leading a movement of thousands who are cleaning up miles of urban Indian beaches. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls Shah’s effort the “world’s biggest beach clean-up,” with more than five million pieces of trash, mostly plastic bags, picked up.

Afroz Shah at a beach clean up / The Logical Indian

He wants everyone to ask themselves: “What are you doing to rectify things?” You can “complain on social media or sign a petition and wait for someone else to do something,” or get out there yourself and do something to make things better. “We have a fundamental duty to our oceans.”

And Some Species Have Even Found Opportunities in Suburbs and Cities: Animals are also seizing space in our cities, without waiting for an invitation. Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, explained how predatory fishers, which are like large weasels, are making a comeback in the suburbs of Albany, after being brought to the brink of extinction. Coyotes, which are hunted in rural areas, have discovered they are safer in suburbs and cities where residents are not allowed to fire a gun or run traps. Coyotes are now killing pets — “they really don’t like chihuahuas” — but they are helping to limit some pests, like geese. Wolves are now found in the Great Lakes region, mountain lions in Colorado and California, and leopards in urban India. “They are adapting to survive. If we give species a chance, they can survive.”

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 2)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few more of the success stories heard at the summit (see part 1 for the first set):

Nature Is Being Preemptively Preserved: National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala, founder of Pristine Seas, stated that marine preserves where no fishing is allowed have five times the amount of biomass as unprotected parts of the ocean. These marine reserves are like “savings accounts that everyone can enjoy.” His goal is to preemptively turn the few remaining wild areas in the world’s oceans into reserves before exploitation can happen. In marine reserves, eco-tourism increases, creating lots of high-paying local jobs. In the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia’s eastern coast, “tourism revenue is 40 times that from fishing.” Today, 3.5 percent of our oceans are protected, but less than 2 percent fully-protected. The United Nation’s goal is 10 percent by 2020, and marine biologists say 30 percent by 2030 is really what’s needed.

On land, reserves are equally as critical to maintaining terrestrial biodiversity. Sean Gerrity, former president of the American Prairie Reserve, explained his organization’s efforts to create the largest nature reserve in America, some 3.5 million acres of prairie in an east-west swath of land 250 miles wide in northeast Montana. When they have finally purchased all the land they need, the reserve will be one million acres larger than Yellowstone National Park. The reserve, which will eventually be larger than the state of Connecticut, will have no fences. Cattle ranches at the edges will be tapped to maintain biodiversity by becoming “Wild Sky certified.” Like the Sustainable SITES Initiative™, Wild Sky requires strict adherence to a set of biodiversity protocols. When cattle ranchers spy rare species on camera traps on their properties, they receive “hundreds of dollars in return.” Gerrity thinks conservation must include a profit motive for the approach to work long-term. “Why can’t we have for-profit nature reserves? We can make money, bring jobs back, and protect wildlife.”

American Prairie Reserve / American Prairie Reserve

Madagascar, the 10th poorest nation on Earth, has cut down about 90 percent of its forests, which means some 94 percent of lemurs — who are only found on the island — are now endangered. While there are immense challenges, Stony Brook professor and MacArthur fellow Patricia Wright, professed herself to be an optimist. Working in Madagascar since the 1980s, she has seen the country create 18 national parks and a national park service that guards these lovable creatures from logging. She was the driving force behind the creation of the 105,000-acre Ramonafana National Park, a World Heritage Site in the southeastern part of the country, which now attracts 30,000 eco-tourists a year and has saved multiple rare lemur species from extinction.

People Are Making Room for Nature to Travel:  Transportation infrastructure, deforestation, fuel and mineral extraction, and development makes life difficult for many species. But using an ecological approach rooted in science, people can reduce or even reverse the negative impacts and give species a chance to survive and even flourish.

Joel Berger, Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC), described how WSC has helped create room for the Pronghorn, which migrates nearly 200 miles from the Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming to the Green River Valley in southwest Wyoming and back again, year after year. Working with county commissioners, chambers of commerce, local non-profits, and newspapers, WSC helped carve out a permanent, protected path for this antelope-like mammal, which is actually a relative of the giraffe and okapi. In 2008, the path became “the first federally-protected wildlife corridor, and a bright spot” in conservation.

In Peru, exploratory oil pipelines are spreading through the Amazon rainforest. When paths are cut through the rainforest for trucks and pipelines, monkeys and other arboreal mammals find their pathways cut off, explained Tremaine Gregory, a scientist with the Smithsonian. Crossing on the ground is very dangerous, as they could more easily become the prey of jaguar. She wondered if companies left some tree crossings to connect the canopy on either side of the disturbances would be used by the monkeys? Analyzing camera traps set up on 13 canopy bridges she found that 25 species of arboreal mammals used the bridges, while just 6 would leave the trees and cross the ground. Out of 3,160 crossings by more than 150 distinct animals, just 16 were on the ground. Gregory is now in discussions with the Peruvian government and extraction companies about working canopy bridges into the regulations. “They are interested in the results; I’m optimistic.”

Forests Are Being Designed for Productivity:
In Madagascar, Wright has also focused her efforts on reforesting agricultural wastelands. “When a forest is regrown, the animals come back. We didn’t know that 25 years ago.” While there can be challenges in replanting with native plant seedlings on a massive scale, the secret was they only planted seeds “pooped out by lemurs.” Wastelands can be returned to forests. Under their canopies, high-value crops can be grown, such as vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate. “Making these forests productive again triples their value.”

Peter Marra, a scientist with the Smithsonian National Zoo, came up with a vision for how selective agroforesty can help save the world’s remaining forests. The demand for coffee is expected to grow by 25 percent by 2020 due to increasing demand from China and Latin America. If demand is met with more of the same — monocultural plantations, which require lots of water and chemicals — many forests will go under the bulldozer. Today, coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil. The economic players involved earn $173 billion a year and take up 10.5 million acres of land. Each year, some 900 billion cups are consumed worldwide. If this morning essential is grown in the rich soils of forests, it can be less destructive and even be organic.

Coffee agroforestry / Rainforest Alliance

And Jefferson Hall, with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud project in Panama, told the story of how Panamanian policymakers realized the forested park around the Panama Canal is critical to controlling flooding during storms. A national plan to reforest one million acres of degraded forest land around the canal led to a new strategy to reintroduce native hardwood species, like the rare Cocobolo, which could then be harvested in a sustainable manner. A plus: Cocobolo, which sells for $10,000 per cubic meter, grows well in the acidic soils.

The Best Communicators Are Creating “Conservation Pride”: Instead of creating more and more refined “obituaries” for the planet’s species and ecosystems, more scientists realize they must tell more positive stories to motivate action. This is because “one-fourth to one-third of all children today think the world will come to an end before they die,” said Nancy Knowlton, a scientist at the Smithsonian, and one of the co-chairs of the summit. Brett Jenks, the CEO of Rare, said more conservationists are using marketing and human behavior change best practices to create a more conservationist ethic among the general public.

He pointed to Paul Butler, who created a movement in St. Lucia in the 1970s to save the near-extinct St. Lucia parrot, which featured a catchy song and a mascot dressed as “Jacquot,” which is the local name for the parrot. Scientists thought Butler would have no chance to save the parrot from extinction, but today there are more than 500 in the wild. Jenks said there are now some 350 conservation pride campaigns worldwide in 50 countries.

Paul Butler and St. Lucia parrot / Rare

These behavior change campaigns “make behaviors observable, establish a conservation norm, make the norm clear to all, and make behavior explicit.” The idea is to change the focus of conservationists too: “they must focus on people and become human behavior change agents.” And Randy Olson, author of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs a Story, further emphasized that conservationists can only inspire positive action if they create a narrative that grabs the public. Given there are so many competing narratives, “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.”

And We’ve Learned Everyone Can Make an Important Contribution: Whether at home or school, everyone can take action to improve the environment. Where the West and Rhode rivers meet in an estuary on the west coast of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Riverkeeper Jeff Holland is convincing homeowners to play a role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Homeowners with docks within designated oyster sanctuaries are growing baby oysters or providing space for new reefs. “About 1,500 people are growing 3-4 cages, so it’s not a huge boost but it helps. Things are trending in the right direction.” Year and year, as each oyster filters a bathtub worth of water each day, the water gets clearer.

And across the Bay on the eastern shore, consultant Joanna Ogburn is linking up private homeowners for “large-scale landscape results” to tackle water quality problem areas in the Choptank and Nanticoke watersheds. Whether the homeowners she works with have an environmental ethic or not, she finds a way to motivate them to preserve parts of their estates through conservation easements. For some, it’s just about “keeping the rural character” and preventing out-of-town buyers from coming in and overdeveloping. For some, it’s about creating and connecting wildlife habitats.

Anyone with some outdoor space can boost local biodiversity. Phyllis Stiles, founder of Bee City USA and a self-proclaimed “buzzaholic,” is one of the leaders in the movement to fight colony collapse disorder among honeybees. But beyond honeybees, she said some 40 percent of all pollinator species — including numerous species of beetles, flies, native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, and bats — are at risk. Some 90 percent of wild plant species and 52 percent of our produce, covering approximately one-third of our food, depend on them. “It’s easy to point fingers at the big companies, but you can do something about it: plant natives, use less pesticides, remove exotic and invasive plants, and support local native plant nurseries.” Stiles now has 44 cities and 24 academic campuses on board to help pollinators.

And University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, well-known for his book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, re-iterated the importance of getting rid of lawn and exotic plants in favor of native trees and plants that play important roles in sustaining ecosystems. “Use plants that are pretty and support life. Conservation can the goal of our landscapes.” Native plants are the base of the food chain. Without them, there are no insects, which means no birds, bats, frogs, lizards, rodents, or mammals. But instead of trying to create change with “sticks” — through taxing lawns, which happens in dry lands out West — Tallamy wants to see local governments offer “carrots”: tax breaks if endangered species are found on your property.

Finally, an inspiring D.C. high school student Teddy Ammon, who found a grant to build indoor hydroponic farms in his school, cautioned that even with all the positive action and optimism, we shouldn’t be complacent for a moment or expect the next generation to improve on our efforts. “There are some 40-42 million 10-19 year olds. Some 46 percent of them don’t believe in climate change. And 57 percent aren’t concerned about it.” That’s a wake-up call to re-double our efforts.

Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

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The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.

globe
What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Stand Up for Our Environment

Earth from space / istockphoto.com

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requests public comment on recent executive orders to eliminate federal programs and policies that protect and preserve our planet’s sustainability, including policies to address climate change and mitigate its impacts.

Help us uphold landscape architects’ long-standing value of stewardship for the natural environment. Sign onto ASLA’s letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, urging him to reconsider recent actions that will endanger our planet.

ASLA wants to submit the letter signed by at least 1,000 landscape architects into the official record of public comments on Presidential Actions Related to Regulatory Reform.

Take action—sign the letter today!

Official Letter text:

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

We, the undersigned landscape architects, submit the following comments in response to your request for public input on Presidential Actions Related to Regulatory Reform.

As landscape architects who lead in the stewardship of our natural environments, we are extremely concerned about recent actions taken by the administration to eliminate federal programs and policies that protect and preserve our planet’s sustainability. In particular, we strongly object to activities that roll back U.S. climate policies, undermine the collection and dissemination of climate science and data, and withdraw the United States from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement. These actions not only endanger our natural resources, but they also jeopardize our vulnerable economy and threaten national security.

Recently, President Trump issued an Executive Order to review the Clean Power Plan, rescind several climate-related regulations and reports, reverse the moratorium on new mining leases on federal land, and overturn other climate-related federal activities. The order also revokes the President’s Climate Action Plan, which called on the federal government to make “climate-resilient investments” through agency grants and technical assistance to local communities. Together, these actions completely abandon the United States’ road map to achieving emissions reductions, and leave local communities vulnerable to the destructive impacts of climate change, including worsening air pollution, heat waves, poor water quality, coastal erosion, sea-level rise, wildfires, drought, and other devastations.

Landscape architecture combines science and design to plan and protect a variety of outdoor spaces, including multimodal transportation networks, water and stormwater management systems, parks and outdoor recreational facilities, residential communities, commercial developments, and more. Our profession understands the importance of and relies on credible science and data, which heightens our concern for recent administration recommendations to cut funding for critical federal scientific research and development programs, particularly climate science programs. Many of these programs diagnose the causes of the changes in the Earth’s climate system, but they also provide solutions and technologies to mitigate the risks from climate change while creating new economic opportunities for the nation.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our planet and our nation, but can also be a catalyst for great economic opportunities. Employing more green infrastructure projects and low-impact development, increasing active transportation networks, creating more parks and open spaces, using alternative energy sources like solar and wind are just a few climate mitigation techniques that also create new economic opportunities, including local jobs.

We are also concerned about recent threats to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on global climate change. This landmark accord would strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change and the ability of countries to deal with its devastating impacts. The United States should continue to honor its global commitment to the agreement and take every action possible to achieve its principles and goals.

We urge you, as the major federal official charged with protecting and preserving our natural resources, to change course and work to continue federal carbon reduction programs and regulations, fund scientific research and make it accessible to the American people, and honor the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. Thank you for this opportunity to provide comments on this critical issue.

The Atlas for the End of the World

What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Seen from 28,000 miles away, the earth is beautiful. But its beauty is deceptive. We don’t see the 5 billion tons of surplus carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, our toxic waterways or our sprawling megacities and the vast fossil fueled monocultures of cattle and corn that feed them. Most importantly, we don’t see the global archipelago of protected areas into which the world’s genetic biodiversity is now huddled. On this Earth Day, 2017 we are launching a new atlas dedicated to examining this archipelago in detail. It’s called the Atlas for the End of the World.

The first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) was published in 1570 by the famous book collector and engraver from Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius. With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy – we can now say “Holocene” – eco-regions ripe for colonization and exploitation. Lauded for its accuracy, the Theatrum quickly became a best seller.

Frontispiece of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) – the world’s first Atlas by Abraham Ortelius. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Despite its apocalyptic title, our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress. On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right” says Pope Francis.

At face value, atlases are just books of maps. The maps in the Atlas for the End of the World are however, quite specific. They specifically show the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent (global terrestrial) protected area by 2020 and what is actually today protected in the 398 eco-regions, which comprise the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

The so-called hotspots are regions agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important and the most threatened biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, much of which is also predicted to disappear by century’s end — suggesting perhaps, that the fate of nature and the fate of culture is one and the same. Many of the hotspots are also bedeviled by poverty, violence and corruption.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots. The green areas have met United Nation’s targets of protecting 17 percent of their total area the orange areas have not. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

When my research assistants and I began this mapping project in 2013, the world’s terrestrial protected area total was hovering at 13.5 percent. Recent figures (2015 data) suggest a total of 15.4 percent. That’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000 sites in 235 different countries. So, with 15.4 percent already secured, only an additional 1.6 percent protected area is needed to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. This amount might seem paltry, but 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks. That’s a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world! The research question we asked was where exactly should this additional protected land be?

To meet UN protected area targets over 700,000 Central Parks need to be added to the world’s protected area estate. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

According to the Convention, we can’t just fence off 1.6 percent of Siberia, or some other place, and then say we’re done! The crucial words in the small print of the Convention are that the global protected estate must be “representative” and “connected.” In theory, this means 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 eco-regions should be protected and connected.

The Atlantic Forests hotspot serves as an example. Currently it has only 8 percent of its territory under protection. Furthermore, when we break the hotspot down into its 15 constituent eco-regions, we find that 9 fall short of reaching 17 percent representation.

An example of one of 35 of the world’s hotspots: The Atlantic Forests / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

In total 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of reaching the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 391 eco-regions fall short. With the new Atlas, any nation can know how much land needs to be protected and where if it wants to meet its obligations under the Convention. This is not to say that blanket targets are always appropriate on the ground, but, it’s a start.

In addition to identifying these protected area shortfalls, the critical nexus this research addresses is the global tension between food production, urbanization and biodiversity. On the world map (below) are three squares. The first and smallest is the world’s current crop land. The second, in the middle, is current crop land plus current grazing land, plus what is thought to be the world’s further potential supply of arable land – a total of 50 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface area. These leave 50 percent of the planet’s land for other uses, exactly what E.O. Wilson has called for in his book, Half Earth. 50 percent seems like a lot, but remember that 33 percent of this land is desert – land which by definition is not suited to either biodiversity or agriculture. Subtracting the world’s deserts leaves 17 percent for biodiversity – precisely the amount demanded by the Convention.

The world existing and possible future foodbowl for 10 billion people / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

The bigger cause for concern is however the large square: the land area necessary to feed 10 billion people. The UN is now forecasting anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 billion by 2100, so 10 is a conservative estimate. But these projected 10 billion consumers are not “average” global citizens; let us suppose they are people like us; who shop in supermarkets and eat more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. They are average Americans; people with a food footprint of 1.4 hectares each. 10 billion people consuming at this level would require a whopping 93 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface. In this scenario, not only would all the world’s arable land be used for agriculture, but so too would the world’s deserts, plus some. After we’ve finished our burgers, a mere 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface would be left for biodiversity – for all practical purposes a mountainous zoo in the midst of a global monoculture of corn and cattle, hooked up to desalination plants.

These proportions of land-use will likely change when global population drops, as it probably will in the 22nd century due to socio-economic influences associated with urbanization. The other mitigating factor would be if the bulk of food production shifted to the oceans, and/or if meat could be produced independently of ruminants entirely. Then, ecological restoration could take place on a scale commensurate with that which is needed to partially correct the earth system’s current imbalances.

The challenge will be to get through this century’s incredibly tight ecological bottlenecks and come out the other end with some ecosystems, preferably the hotspots, partially intact.

The second major area of this research concerns 422 cities in the world’s hotspots. We zoomed into each city of 300,000 people or more and superimposed their 2030 growth trajectory (as per Karen Seto’s work at Yale ). We then plotted remnant habitat and threatened (mammal) species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. What emerges are the flashpoints between future urban growth and biodiversity.

In the circular images of the cities in the Atlantic Forests hotspot, orange indicates zones of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. Alarmingly, 383 of the 422 cities in the world’s hotspots are on a collision course with unique and irreplaceable biodiversity.

Examples of some cities of more than 300,000 in the Atlantic Forest Hotspot (bright yellow and purple indicates immanent conflict with biodiversity). / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

And we are not just talking about a little bit of sprawl. If an extra 3 billion people move into cities by 2100, as is entirely likely, it means we need to build 357 New York Cities in the next 84 years, i.e., 4.25 New Yorks per year. Much of that growth will occur as both formal and informal sprawl in Africa, India and South and Central America, much of it up against biodiversity and much of it unregulated.

As documented in the Atlas, our analysis suggests that most of these 383 cities that are encroaching on valuable habitat don’t have any semblance of as whole-of-city urban planning. This lack of planning at the city scale is also evident at the national scale: almost all the nations in whose jurisdiction the world’s hotspots lie don’t – in so far as we can tell – have national land-use plans incorporating biodiversity.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, each nation must develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In practice, these tend to be platitudinous reports and most don’t take into account the 17 percent target for protected area. Most of the nations who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are also signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which demands that they prepare national climate change plans.

The Atlas for the End of the World lays the ground work for the 142 nations who preside over the world’s biodiversity hotspots to now view climate change, biodiversity, and urbanization as interrelated phenomena and plan for the future. To do so would be a new beginning.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylania School of Design. Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang collaborated with Weller on the Atlas as research assistants.

Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

On a tour of the new town, which will add 480 homes, including some assisted living cottages, to the 1,400 that already house some 3,500 people, Serenbe founder Steven Nygren explained how his vision of wellness was inspired by the sustainable Swedish city of Malmö. He and his wife Marie traveled there, and they brought back lots of photographs, which they then gave to their planners, architects, and landscape architects.

The community now under construction is organized around common spaces set in gardens. Nygren fears a scenario in which you have two older residents out on their porches, but both are waiting for the other to invite them over. In Mado, the ground-level shared patios may create more opportunities for interaction.

Also, Nygren reached an interesting conclusion from his trip to Malmö: “They always connect streets into nature.” He decided to recreate that relationship in Mado, organizing the housing and common spaces along a central axis with ends that extend into nature trails.

Mado development plan / Rhinehart Pulliam & Company, LLC

Once this central organizational structure was decided upon, they brought in landscape architect and University of Georgia professor Alfred Vick, ASLA, who then created an innovative “food forest” to realize the concept of wellness in landscape form (see the bottom portion of the image above). It will function as an accessible outdoor living room, given throughout the space the gradient is less than 5 percent. It’s also a place where people can gather and also learn how to forage in the wider Serenbe landscape (see a close-up of its design below).

Mado food forest / Solidago Design Solution, Inc.

Vick said his vision was of a “edible ecosystem, an intentional system for human food production.” Using the natural Piedmont ecosystem as the base, Vick is creating a designer ecosystem of edible or medicinal plants, with a ground layer, understory, and canopy that also incorporates plants with cultural meaning and a legacy of use by indigenous American Indian tribes.

He imagines visitors to the forest foraging for berries, fruits, and nuts, including serviceberries, blueberries, mulberries, and chickasaw plums, as well as acorn and hickory nuts, which can be processed and turned into foods. Mado residents and chefs can harvest the young, tender leaves of cutleaf coneflowers, which are related to black-eyed susans. Or reach up to an arbor, which will be covered in Muscadine grape vines and passion flowers. Or take some Jerusalem artichokes, which were used by Cherokee Indians and today cooked as a potato substitute. Or pluck rosemary or mint from an herb circle. Vick left out peach and apple trees because they require fungicides.

“The primary goal is to engage residents,” Vick explained. There will be interpretive guides to explain how plants can be consumed, which will also “help encourage wider foraging when they are out in the Serenbe landscape.” Nygren wants everyone in the community connected to the productive cycle of nature and to know when the serviceberries, blueberries, figs are ready to be picked.

And the landscape is also designed to both provide a safe boundary — so grandparents can let kids roam — but also provide a natural extension into the rest of the landscape. While the Mado designs are still being developed, we hope that universal design principles, which call for fully-accessible seating and nearby restrooms, will be incorporated to ensure an 80-year old as well as an 8-year old can comfortably access and enjoy the landscape.

Learn more about Serenbe in this interview conducted with Nygren in 2015.

The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

Buffalo Bayou Park playground, Houston, Texas / Mommy Nearest

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

As Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the central leaders of the movement has explained in his recent book, The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there.

The three-day summit mostly focused on the human side of the human-nature interactions fostered through biophilic design principles. What was missing was a discussion by ecologists and scientists on how biophilic planning and design actually benefits species, how to best measure a city’s biodiversity and human exposure to it, and therefore determine if a city is making real progress in their path to become more biophilic. Still, there were some valuable conversations.

One panel delved into strategies for improving connections to nature among children. Nygren said it has been nearly a decade since Richard Louv’s now-famous book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was published. What has happened since then and where do we need to go?

“There has been a huge amount of progress in the last 15 years. But on the negative side, the growth of children with health issues has been enormous,” argued Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative. Indeed, today, one of out three children in America is overweight or obese because of poor diets and a lack of exercise. Children now spend seven hours in front of some sort of screen per day, and just 10 minutes in “unstructured outdoor play.”

Mikaela Randolph, director of cities and nature at the Children & Nature Network, was less positive to start, stating that not all children, or adults, enjoy nature to the same degree in their communities. In many underrepresented communities of color, there are fewer trees, playgrounds, and parks. “That’s an issue of life and death. Is that segment of the city going to live as long?” Studies have correlated tree cover and mortality rates, and the conclusions for those without daily access to nature in their communities are grim.

Moore said we must get serious about coming up with a strategy for incorporating nature into the places where children spend most of their day: schools, child care centers, and playgrounds. He called for targeting municipal, county, and state decision makers. “Changing the laws and codes is the next step.”

Furthermore, homeowners associations, which often just drop in standards created by a national organization, need to change their model, so communities can becomes “more nature and children focused,” argued Hayden Brooks, co-founder, Children in Nature Collaborative. Nygren agreed and said “developers know every rule for cars but don’t know the rules for pedestrians and kids. What if developers had to demonstrate a connection to nature?”

Randolph and Hayden explained how their organizations help local non-profits in a set of cities come together to maximize their impact. The Children & Nature Network, which partners with the National League of Cities, removes obstacles to “green school yards, early childhood education, out of school time, youth leadership, and park activation.” The Children in Nature Collaborative enables local planning processes. One successful result of their efforts is the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which was just passed by the city council of Austin, Texas.

Their efforts also yielded one of the best ideas discussed at the conference: “green school parks,” which are about first involving communities in redeveloping and greening school yards and then making them accessible to the community outside school hours. “These places are then co-owned by the communities. They have access too.”

Lastly, Moore cautioned that while green infrastructure is great, “there needs to be places for kids in it.” He pointed to Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, which was designed by landscape architects SWA Group, as a positive example of what to do. The entire park and flood mitigation system makes room for a nature playground. It’s on a steep site and periodically floods, but “it’s where we want it to be — embedded in the urban environment.”

Read part 2.

The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 2)

San Francisco sidewalk garden created by Argonne School / Richmond District Blog

The hard work ahead involves integrating biophilic planning and design into codes, “which are dry but critical,” argued Tim Beatley, professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, at the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta. Beatley said the good news is more cities are “moving from experimenting with biophilic design practices to codifying them.”

James Brown, director of biophilic codes at the Biophilic Cities Project, pointed to a few examples of biophilic codes: Toronto’s green roof bylaw, which requires green roofs on all new development; Arizona’s dark skies policies, which protect wildlife and humans from unnecessary nighttime light pollution; Denver’s view plane ordinance, which guarantees views of the Rocky mountains; San Francisco’s sidewalk landscape permits, which enable any resident to plant a sidewalk garden; and Boston’s coming stringent protections for trees.

The Biophilic Cities Project is now putting together a database of codes that can serve as inspiration for communities. He said there are many areas to cover in the built environment, but “the urban forest has the oldest set of biophilic codes — every city limits what you can or can’t do with trees.”

And we heard about efforts to enshrine biophilic planning and design in a few major cities. Stephanie Stuckey, chief resilience officer for Atlanta, is partnering with the Nature Conservancy to create a map that identifies “which trees need to be protected strategically to maintain biodiversity.”

Mary Lynn Wilhere, with the district department of the environment and energy in Washington, D.C., said “putting biophilia into the codes is the next step.”

D.C. is already doing a lot — it’s implementing a wildlife action plan, which aims to restore and create wildlife habitats, and developing a GIS map of the city’s 1,000 small parks to figure out the best way “to link them up into pollinator pathways, where people can have more biophilic experiences.”

The city recently created a green area ratio (GAR) modeled after Singapore’s, which requires developers to replace the green space they have built over on the ground in their building’s roof and facade. “We want to figure out how to use the GAR to advance biophilia.” Policymakers, planners, and “developers will want clear language on biophilia requirements,” based in the latest scientific data. Another plus to the new approach: D.C’s new stormwater runoff and GAR fees are expected to “pay for a lot of biophilic projects.”

Later, Bill Browning, a founder of Terrapin Bright Green and author of the widely-cited 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, described how WOHA, the architects of Singapore’s Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel, also known as the “jungle hotel,” took great advantage of Singapore’s GAR to maximize green space and biodiversity. “In Singapore, architects now compete to see how much greenery they can add, even going for a 5:1 ratio.”

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

And then Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech school of architecture and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, gave everyone a reality check, arguing biophilic planners and designers must look beyond cities to suburbia, which is where 67 percent or 80 percent of Americans live (depending on how you calculate).

Of the 1,400 case studies she has collected on efforts to make suburbia more walkable and sustainable, she found that, sadly, only 2 percent of projects featured “regreening.” One example in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Guthrie Green Urban Park, a geothermal and solar-powered park by SWA Group, took root over a truck loading facility. Beyond catalytic projects or code changes, Dunham-Jones floated some other ideas for how to “incentivize re-greening,” including green infrastructure banks and bonds, or a biophilia revolving trust.

Guthrie Green Urban Park / SWA Group

Dunham-Jones concluded that “regreening is not happening enough.” And if it does happen, “it’s not justified in terms of biophilia.” At least half of all suburban retrofits need to be transformed into green spaces that can boost biodiversity. “But we are nowhere near close.”

Read part 1.

New Poll Finds Widespread Support for Reforming National Flood Insurance

Residential flooding in Wisconsin / FEMA Photo, Walt Jennings

In a national survey of likely voters, there was widespread support for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which some 22,000 communities, covering more than 5 million homes, rely on for basic flood insurance. Of those polled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, some 53 percent said they had been impacted by flooding — either their home or a family member’s, or their place of work, or their community’s infrastructure had been damaged.

In a briefing, Laura Lightbody, project director for flood prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said flooding is the “most common and costly natural disaster.” She explained how since 1980, the number of major flood events per year has only increased, and more now cause $1 billion in damages. In total since 1980, flooding has caused more than $260 billion in damages to homes and infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “the risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

In return for agreeing to regulate land-use in a flood-prone community, NFIP cover the homeowners in that community up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for personal possessions. Private flood protection is often used to supplement this basic insurance, which is subsidized and costs far less than would comparable baseline private insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina and then later Sandy, NFIP fell into $25 billion in debt. NFIP, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is up for re-authorization on Capitol Hill. There are new calls to reform the program, as flooding damages will only increase with climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers NFIP a “high-risk program” because it’s essentially financially unsustainable. While Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2011 to “help strengthen the financial solvency of the program, including phasing out almost all discounted insurance premiums (for example, subsidized premiums),” just three years later, it enacted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (HFIAA), which reinstated “certain premium subsidies and slowed down certain premium rate increases that had been included in the Biggert-Waters Act.”

The GAO writes: “Aspects of HFIAA were intended to address affordability concerns for certain property owners, but may also increase NFIP’s long-term financial burden on taxpayers.” As NFIP subsidizes communities at high risk of flooding and, in turn, incurs losses, it then borrows from the U.S. Treasury, passing the costs elsewhere.

Some critics of the current subsidized approach argues it encourages development in vulnerable areas. Others argue homes affected by continuous flooding are more often those of the poor and elderly, so raising federal insurance rates too high could mean forcing out whole swaths of communities. And still others argue FEMA, which designates the flood maps that NFIP bases its rates on, has re-mapped higher-risk areas as low-risk to avoid community backlash, but has in turn created more risk because people think they are living in a low-risk area.

Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned Bill McInturff and Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies to poll a representative sample of some 1,000 voters, and found support for the following reforms:

81 percent of likely voters support a “single, national standard to ensure that potential home buyers are aware of whether or not a property has flooded repeatedly, which could mean being required to purchase flood insurance.” Currently, there is no such national standard. But Weigel indicated there is precedent for one: homeowners are now required to let potential home buyers know about higher risks of lead paint in older homes.

82 percent are for requiring the federal government to only build resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas. Any new or rebuilt infrastructure located in a flood zone should be constructed to better withstand damage. Some 86 percent of those in coastal communities “supported building to a higher, more resilient standard,” said Weigel. Overall, there is widespread support for “flood-ready infrastructure,” which “makes sense to people.”

75 percent would like to relocate homeowners in homes that continuously flood from high-risk areas in order to restore those areas as natural buffers, such as wildlife preserves, beaches, or recreation areas. FEMA would offer these homeowners in those high-risk areas the value of their home at pre-flood rates, so they could purchase a new home in a safer area. FEMA then would work with states and localities to play a role in designating areas for green infrastructure.

64 percent back the idea of requiring communities with more than 50 homes that have continuously flooded to “improve drainage, protect wetlands,” or otherwise prevent flood damage. If they don’t make these improvements, the amount the whole community would pay for insurance would go up. This proposal seems to support using landscape-based solutions to reduce the impacts of persistent flooding, where possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing funds for FEMA, which oversees NFIP, by 11 percent. The New York Times reports: “At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” No word in the blueprint for resilient design funds distributed by the department of housing and urban development (HUD).