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Who are our Planners?

Who are the people planning our cities? Where do they come from? And in what do they believe? Most people live their life outside the sphere of influence on physical and community developments issues, not realizing that there exist an actually group of professionals charged with shaping these processes and decisions.  However, the answers to these aforementioned questions are fundamental to how all of us experience the neighborhoods and cities we call home.

As planners, part of our socio-professional responsibility is to include the populations we serve to the greatest extent possible in the decision making process. But raising questions about who become the thought leaders, planners, and designers of the future (and the mechanisms by-which they get there) is often left out of the discussion. Today diversity among employees and student bodies is of great importance to most companies and institutions, but I think the consequences of a diverse (or homogenous) population among planners, more so than in other professions, significantly impacts the progress of the field as a whole. Unlike other professions that operate around a highly rigid code of ethics, the field of planning leaves much up to the intensions and perspective of the practitioner. Recognizing this, along with the public’s relative inability to ‘elect’ or influence who become these professionals puts great responsibility on the educational institutions that accept, train, and accredit these future professionals to ensure that as individuals they are represent diverse perspectives and agendas.

More attention must be paid to this responsibility that falls largely to the colleges, universities and institutes that ultimately sort through applications and decide who they see fit to become the planners that often come to represent entire generations of development. A huge challenge faced by the planning education systems is to give students access to a diverse set of viewpoints, both from their piers, and in their practice. Working on projects from a diverse set of clients (developers, government, community organizations with various goals) allows us to understand how various groups prioritize outcomes and decisions. Similarly, working within groups of piers who can empathize with various causes and represent a wide variety of socio-economic conditions, races, cultural backgrounds and contemporary issues is essential in developing a skill set based on holistic thinking. Understanding issues from only one angle fails to serve the planner and fails to serve communities whose views are inherently diverse.

The AICP/ APA Code of Ethics does set very clear expectations for the conduct of planners, but not without first acknowledging that, “as the basic values of society are often in competition with each other, so do these [ethical planning] principles sometimes compete” (p.2). One of these most important examples of competing ethics and values is in the conflict of interests that arises when a planner has a personal stake in the outcome of their professional endeavor. While I agree that having a direct, personal or financial stake in a plan must naturally be avoided, it is unreasonable to think that a planner will not have, or develop, an emotional stake in a project. While having personal monetary gain at stake can more easily be identified and avoided, it is the emotional appeal of seeing a certain ideology represented in a proposed plan that can cause an even greater amount of bias on the part of the planner.   Although we must prepare a range of options and approaches for any client, it is individual values/ biases that will shape the types of suggestions we make.  For this reason it is exceptionally important that diversity in culture, political persuasion, ideology and values be maintained within the planning community.

Planners are pulled by a multitude of forces, in often opposing directions.  Because of certain limitations such as role, ethics, and practicality, many of our guiding principles are set in place for us without regard to personal preferences or ideologies.  Our actions are limited firstly by law, political hierarchy and bureaucracy, and then by the responsibility we have to uphold the quality and reputation our profession. Then while negotiating a specific approach based on the clients needs, we must also keep in mind the impact on the larger community.  Despite these forces, the values of each individual planner are still of utmost importance, as it is these individual persuasions that will help us each to navigate these thresholds differently.


Environmental Injustice & the Two-Sided Coin

Seventeen counties, 180,000 homes and two very different sides of the same coin. Today’s NY Times article, “Roaring Waters, Deep Scars” portrayed the Colorado flooding as a common thread, linking socio-economically disparate communities together by their shared fate. This flood is a far cry from being the great equalizer.

For some, living on the riverbanks is a choice; tucked away, surrounded by nature, enjoying the simple pleasures. For others, risk-prone areas are the only place they can afford to live.

Locations that have low land values, situated in floodplains, and shoulder additional environmental burdens, are often home to low-income communities of color. Even during blue skies, a population with low median household income, or semi-legal immigration status is living in a state of vulnerability. These vulnerabilities are exponentially exacerbated during crisis. When you lack social and economic stability, your margins are thin; there is very little room error. Catastrophic flooding is a big error.

During emergencies, strength of community and social unity are profound resources, but sometimes that is not enough.  Having your green card, immigration papers or passport washed away with your trailer home is very different from having a $250,000 flood insurance plan that does not quite cover the damage to your picturesque post-modern house.

Emotional damage cuts deep, regardless of the depths of your pockets.  But when a community is stripped to bare bones, those with access to resources and capital will rebound faster, more holistically, and be better adapted for next time.

They say that hard times bring out the best and worst in people, and it’s becoming clear that this applies on the national scale as well. The Colorado flooding is a test of human spirit, bringing forth the best, most selfless, and courageous among us. However, it is also shedding light on the gross inequalities that have been built into the system. Those that need the most help getting back to their feet, are often least able to reach out for assistance.   Events like these are a wake up call, not only to the necessity of needing more aptly planned communities and better water management, but also to the chronic inadequacies of our social and economic systems,  making it increasingly hard to pull yourself up from the bottom.

When people can’t accept much needed help for fear of risking deportation, gluing together the pieces, no matter how shattered, is hell of a lot harder.


Flood Factors

There is nothing like a real-life example to bring classroom lessons to life. Last week we discussed rainfall factors and physical characteristic that influence how water travels within a watershed, and what this means for controlling and storing water.

Rainfall Factors

  • Intensity- A function of  amount (think inches) & duration (think hours) of rain.
  • Distribution of rainfall over a drainage area
  • Direction of storm movement
  • Previous rain events- Impacting level of soil saturation & water height in rivers.
  • Seasonal timing- Winter: cold ground and barren trees means runoff . Summer: photosynthesizing trees absorb more water.

Physical Factors

  • Land use within drainage area- % vegetation cover (pasture vs cropland vs forest), and % developed as impermeable surfaces.
  • Soil type- Fast draining sand, nearly impermeable clay, or a well balanced loam, soil type has a huge impact on the speed of water drainage and aquifer recharge.
  • Basin shape- Topography and slope, elevation and overall spread.
  • Lakes, pond and reservoirs- These features are speed bumps, slowing water at certain point, but can also amplify risk if they are overtopped.

The current flooding in Colorado, while tragic, has also been an instructive development to track, as much of the explanation for the flooding directly reflects the factors mentioned above:

  1. Rainfall on Sept 9th and 10th saturated the ground and increased river flows.
  2. A low pressure center with a high pressure system to the north caused the storm system to stall over the Great Basin.
  3. From Sept 9th -13th, 14.62″ fell in Boulder, with 9.08 on Sept 12th alone.
  4. Exceptionally high volumes were concentrated in several key areas. The above image illustrates the concentration of rainfall geographically. This map shows the massive variation in distribution that can occur in one rain event.

As more rain is potentially forecasted in Colorado later this week, all eyes will be watching to see if the reprieve is enough for communities to regain some stability. These floodwaters continue to course downstream, much of it eventually discharging in the Mississippi River Delta, and as this emergency situation continues to develop, I watch with curious concern to see how geography and weather patterns either amplify or dissipate the forces felt by downstream communities.


Disaster: Before or After

This week’s guest lecturer, Brandon Mitchell, works in post-Sandy redevelopment and strategic acquisition for the Mayors Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, a position that puts him at the heart of the recovery effort, and for myself, puts a much needed face of the rebuilding process.

Rebuilding is a somewhat misleading word however. In the rush to return to normalcy, economic, community and safety pressures have been driving forces in the quest for a speedy recovery. For many communities that does not, and should not, mean rebuilding. Offices like Brandon Mitchell’s  have been a part of a complicated, collaborative-web with congress, HUD, the City of New York and community members,  to establish a set of guidelines regarding the physical recovery that uses government funds. The result: for many New Yorkers recovery has been boiled down to rehabbing, reimbursement, rebuilding or leaving.  These seam at first like four neat boxes, into which all buildings and areas can be sorted. But simultaneously creating and implementing a program of mechanisms intended to help those most affected, means that finding information, sifting through regulations, consulting communities and finally sorting out what form in which ‘recovery’ comes, is a challenge of monumental proportions.  Our discussion with Mr. Mitchell highlighted our need to establish robust emergency management plans, and further emphasized our need to be physically and well as socially prepared for emergency situations.  

There is a distinct difference (and co-dependent relationship) between physical resiliency and social resiliency. Being physically resilient may take shape in our various layers of infrastructure and building systems, as well as in the geography, landscape, and ecologies that surround us. Social resiliency is somewhat less tangible, especially during times of calm. It is during times of disaster that social resiliency manifests itself as a palpable entity, critically influencing a community’s ability to organize, support  and rebound from the hard-felt blow of crisis.

Similar to resiliency, there are also two types of crisis. Physical emergencies often take the form of natural disasters: acute, relatively instantaneous.  But there are also social disasters. Chronic, and slow to develop, these disasters build over time to manifest as civil unrest, gross inequality or lack of access to basic resources and opportunity. Although divergent in impact, both are powerful erosive forces, destroying the fabric of systems and relationships upon which we depend. And in some cases, both are catalyzed by our changing climate as a common impetus.

An opinion piece I read this week in US NEWS – about the role of water scarcity in the Syrian civil war – brought to light the relationship between management of basic resources and the economic and social turmoil that grew out of a population’s inability to maintain their status quo. The massive drought that killed up to 85% of livestock and forced the abandonment of 160 villages exemplifies the important link between environmental and social stability.

The realization of drought, its impact on individual welfare, and the cumulative, region-wide affect, are all things that take shape slowly, over time.  Being aware of changes and discrepancies, as they happen is key to making incremental policy and public affairs decisions along the way that reduce the risk of a mounting crisis.  But in a world of  varying political climates, and where policy often lags far behind science, it almost seems impossible to run our political machines with enough efficiency to adapt to climate related nuances with the needed precision.

The unfortunate result is that we find it much easier to be reactive than proactive. Despite the vast challenges faced by people like Brandon Mitchell, picking up the pieces after a disaster is still far easier than preventing one.

Water Wasteland

Decisions about how the world’s water gets used  happens at such a wide range of scales –from international transboundary water agreement, to how long we let the tap run– that it is hard to wrap my mind around the simultaneous vastness and specificity of water allocation.  With a chain constructed of so many key decision points, it’s almost impressive that we haven’t totally messed it up already (not that we aren’t well on our way).  But as we chug along into the heart of the 21st Century, our finite water supply will be pulled in an ever-increasing number of directions. With everyone from suburbanites to farmers, manufacturers to fishers, conservationists  to the impoverished, wanting a piece of the pie, our pending challenge is much less about maintaining the relative success of the water management status quo, as it is about finding moments in the chain of decision making where adaptation and change can be introduced successfully.

In our climate challenged future, will our current framework of international policies, municipal regulations and local laws be designed with enough capacity to shift and contort to the various threats that climate change poses to our water security? How do we become more strict, yet more flexible? And when do we start getting real about deciding on a hierarchy of uses ?  Even of the short list of users I mentioned above, there are variations within those groups; certain farming techniques that use water more efficiently, certain manufacturers  that make more essential products. As a society I hope we are rapidly realizing that Earth is not simply our laboratory, where we are free to take from the shelves whatever we need to manufacture things we find cool or profitable.  If we don’t,  it will be a shameful day when we realize that by prematurely cashing in on our planet’s resources, we traded its health (and our future) for a fast and furious love affair with automobiles and Cola-Cola.

That is not to say that cars or bottled water are the root of all evil (though they do rank right up there in my book), but it is to say that we need to consider the future prioritization of uses and distribution in the regulatory frameworks that we build today.

One way to begin would be to incorporate robust scenario planning into water management. It seems that many transboundary water agreements only consider drought, and to a lesser extent floods, as possible scenarios.  And even these leave much to be desired. For example, in the US-Mexico agreement over the Rio Grande, Mexico is allowed to supply the US with less than the minimum flow if they are experiencing extraordinary drought, but they then incur a water debt that must be repaid over time to the US. The fact that drought parameters  are established may seem adaptive on paper, but the reality is that water is being treated as a commodity in a system where the victims of droughts are then also burdened by the repaying of ‘debt’. This type of agreement seems to reflect little understanding of natural disasters as being uninvited.  Will receiving ‘bonus’ water from  Mexico post drought really solve our problems? Perhaps a policy that leaned more towards forgiveness, assuming due diligence in conservation is done, would be more mature.

When dealing with the world’s most critical resource, the many layers of regulatory decisions create an entangling web of implications, so challenging to navigate  yet so essential to get right, we have no choice but to design in profoundly forward-thinking ways if we are to ensure ourselves a system that has enough strength and agility to meet the challenges ahead.  Godspeed.

Hello Blogger Nation

Joining the blog-o-sphere today. May my likes be many and my typos be few. Image