Category Archives: Land use & development

Measuring the Impact of Complete Streets

complete_streets

“Complete Street” projects that make streets more hospitable to pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit have a multitude of benefits, concludes Smart Growth America in a new report, “Safer Streets, Stronger Economies.” In a study of 37 projects, the authors found that complete streets tend to result in higher property values, fewer traffic accidents and injuries and more walking, biking and transit usage.

Previous studies of complete streets tended to focus on the health benefits associated with encouraging people to walk and bike more. People who live in walkable neighborhoods get 35 to 45 more minutes of moderate physical exercise each week, reducing their incidents of obesity. Youths who walk or bike to school tend to focus more and perform better in classrooms. The Smart Growth America report focused more on the economics of Complete Streets. Among the findings:

  • Fewer collisions. About 70% of projects studied experienced a reduction in collisions, and more than half a reduction in injuries. That translated into $18.1 million in lower collision costs in a single year for the 37 cases studied. “If a Complete Streets approach was used strategically … the savings over time could run into the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.”
  • More walking, less driving. Among projects that tracked pedestrian and biking activity, 12 of 13 projects showed an increase in walking and 22 04 23 showed an increase in cycling. Among those that tracked driving, 19 of 33 projects had fewer cars than before, 13 had more, and one did not change.
  • Positive impact on local economy. Although results were mixed, the redesigned streets tended to report an increase in the number of businesses and the number of people employed. Of the ten projects that reported before-and-after data for property values, eight reported an increase in property values while two reported no change. In two-thirds of the studies for which comparable data was available, property values outpaced that of the city as a whole. In one project, Dubuque, Iowa, property values increased 111%.
  • Lower construction costs. The construction cost of upgrading streets to “Complete Streets” costs less per mile than average arterial cost per lane mile.

Not all Complete Streets are created equal, however. As with roads and cars, streets that add to pedestrian, bicycle and transit networks create more value than stand-alone projects. States the study: “The real value of a transportation system is in creasing an interconnected network, whether designed for people in cars, on transit, walking or bicycling. Building facilities without connecting them reduces their utility.”

The study did not calculate the Return on Investment of Complete Streets versus conventional road-building projects. Nevertheless, it concluded: “For transportation professionals the clear implication is that Complete Streets may be one of the best transportation investments they can make. These projects should be allowed to compete and be evaluated against other projects on the bsis of their low costs and the benefits they provide.

– JAB

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Economic Un-Development

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

I was planning to blog today about the sad fate of Tarek Hezam, a New Yorker who moved to the Richmond region and opened a convenience store in the Oak Grove neighborhood of the city in 2013. After neighbors complained that the store became a magnet for trash and crime, the City of Richmond revoked his certificate of zoning compliance, suddenly discovering that, oh, so sorry, they’d overlooked the fact that commercial zoning for the site had expired back in 1975. Between rent, startup costs and lawyer fees, Hezam is out $160,000.

But Bart Hinkle at the Times-Dispatch beat me to to the commentary — and he did a fine job of it, so I’ll just quote liberally from his column.

The city administration talks a good game about economic development, Hinkle writes, and it’s more than happy to work with the big boys on grandiose projects like the Shockoe Bottom ballpark, the Redskins training camp and the Stone Brewery development. But what does it say to small entrepreneurs who aren’t rich and politically connected? “Drop dead.”

Malcontents are worried about trash in the streets. But who is responsible for that? “Five bucks says Hezam doesn’t spend his spare time throwing garbage around the neighborhood,” writes Hinkle. “Nor, for another five bucks, do people drive in from North Side or Westover Hills to toss their empty chip bags and soda cups on the ground. If litter is a problem, then the solution is to tackle littering head-on.”

Some in the community also complained that Hezam was peddling the usual junk food fare found in inner-city convenience stores. Rosa Jones, president of the Oak Grove Civic Association, suggested he should bring a shoe shop “or something we can use.” As Hinkle observes, “Jones hasn’t sunk tens of thousands of her own dollars into the project. Until she does, she has no business telling the person who has invested his own money what to do with it. If she really wants a shoe shop in the neighborhood, then she’s welcome to open one herself — if the city will let her, that is.”

There is a crying need for jobs and investments in inner-city Richmond, but city officials have shut down one small entrepreneur who would create both at no expense or risk to the taxpayer. What kind of signal does that send to others, Hinkle wonders.

Hezam offered to change his retail format to a takeout restaurant serving fried chicken and fish but no alcohol. The planning commission shot him down. He plans to sue the city for relief. “If a judge in their right mind tells me I don’t have a claim,” he said, “then I shouldn’t be in Virginia.

– JAB

Celebrating an Architectural Classic

bacons_castle

  Bacon’s Castle — history lost in the mists of time

by James A. Bacon

Bacon’s Castle, a 17th-century brick plantation house in Surry County, is vaguely known by Virginians for playing some kind of role in Bacon’s Rebellion, the first rebellion in the North American mainland against the English crown. Despite my passing interest in the conflict, I knew little about the building — other than the fact that the man it was named for, Nathaniel Bacon, never set foot in it.

But the story behind Bacon’s Castle is a fascinating one, I learned this morning during a tour of the building hosted by Preservation Virginia in connection with its 350th anniversary. All Virginians learn the story of Jamestown and its cast of characters from Pocahontas to John Rolfe. We revere Virginia’s founding fathers and the plantation aristocracy from which they sprang. We worship our Civil War heroes (well, some of us worship them). But there is a century-long gap between founding of Jamestown and the glories of Williamsburg about which we know almost nothing. Bacon’s Castle is a window into that forgotten era.

Built in 1665 Bacon’s Castle is one of the most architecturally significant buildings in Virginia. It is the oldest standing brick edifice in the English colonies. It also happens to be the only surviving example of Jacobean architecture on the North American mainland. (Barbados has two surviving structures.) The building was laid out in the form of a cross and it boasted spectacular triple-stacked Flemish gable chimneys. But the “castle” is more than bricks and mortar — it’s a place where history was made.

Preservation Virginia told that story as part of a fund-raising effort tied to the 350th anniversary of the building’s construction. Dedicated to preserving Virginia antiquities, the organization purchased Bacon’s Castle in 1974, made critical repairs and opened it to the public. Sad to say, it’s not one of Virginia’s hottest tourist attractions — it doesn’t exactly rank up there with Monticello, Mount Vernon or Williamsburg — and it’s showing signs of wear and tear. Over and above the flaking window paint and separating wood joints, the structure needs a new roof, repointed mortar and rehabilitation work on an 1820s-era smokehouse and a slave cabin. The total of repair bill amounts to $500,000, but Preservation Virginia hopes to raise $350,000 for the 350th anniversary.

Arthur Allen, a wealthy Englishman, arrived in Jamestown in the 1630s and obtained land across the James River in Surry County, where he cultivated tobacco. His enterprise prospered and by 1665 he completed construction of the building. By 1676 the Allen family’s land holdings had increased to 1,000 acres. Surviving documents listed eleven indentured servants and four African slaves in the household around that time.

Jennifer Hurst-Wender with Preservation Virginia talks about a romanticized stained-glass portrait, circa 1900, of Nathaniel Bacon.

Jennifer Hurst-Wender with Preservation Virginia desribes a romanticized stained-glass portrait, circa 1900, of Nathaniel Bacon.

Allen’s son, Arthur Allen II, was known as one of the wealthiest planters in the colony. The house is said to be the seventh largest in Virginia at that time, and it was possibly the first to have a formal English garden.  (There are only archaeological traces of it now.) Allen cultivated the native Norton grape and was wealthy enough to import from Germany glass wine bottles embossed with his initials. He served in the House of Burgesses and was a confidante of Governor William Berkeley. When the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon broke out, Allen sided with the Governor.

Bacon, like the elder Allen, was the son of an aristocratic English family, although he apparently left the old country in some ill repute. The father of his bride, Elizabeth Duke, disapproved of the marriage and disinherited them both. Bacon settled in eastern Henrico County, then the Virginia frontier, around 1674. Family connections allowed him entre into the highest levels of colonial society, but he soon came into conflict with Berkeley over Indian policy. The Susquehannock Indian tribe was migrating south to escape the marauding of the Iroquois. At some point the Indians raided one of Bacon’s plantations and killed an overseer. Bacon organized other frontiersmen — mostly small farmers also suffering from Indian raids — and carried the battle to the Indians. That set him in direct conflict with Berkeley, who counseled peace with the Indians.

Nathaniel Bacon -- he was one dapper dresser! Once revered as a revolutionary predecessor to the founding fathers, Bacon now is reviled by progressive historians projecting 21st-century sensibilities into the 17th century, as an anti-Indian racist.

Nathaniel Bacon — he was one dapper dresser! Once revered as a revolutionary predecessor to the founding fathers, Bacon now is reviled by progressive historians, projecting 21st-century sensibilities into the 17th century, as an anti-Indian bigot. Simplistic history forced into a mold. Preservation Virginia tells a more nuanced story.

Bacon then marched on Jamestown, the capital, collecting assorted indentured servants, free blacks, slaves and other disreputable elements, chased Berkeley to a refuge on the Eastern Shore, pillaged plantations and razed Jamestown. Although many historians have portrayed the rebellion in class-warfare terms, the picture was more complicated. While Allen sided with Berkeley, other Surry planters joined Bacon against the Governor, who had raised taxes to defend against the Dutch while neglecting the frontier.

Allen evacuated with Berkeley to the Eastern Shore, and Bacon dispatched some 70 rebels to occupy his home. It was that association that led to the name Bacon’s Castle.

When the rebellion collapsed the Allen family reoccupied the plantation and, like other planters, shifted to a slave workforce. Bacon’s Rebellion marked a turning point in the nature of slavery. Before the rebellion, there was little formal difference in status and rights between slaves and indentured servants. After the rebellion, the industrial revolution began sucking up the landless laborers from the English countryside and fewer signed up as indentured servants. Planters turned to African slaves to work their plantations and codified the law establishing race-based slavery.

Among other notable characters to live in the Allen house was Elizabeth Bray, who married Arthur Allen III. She resided in the house six decades, out-living three husbands as well as her children. She was an accomplished businesswoman, not only running the plantation and updating Bacon’s Castle with a Georgian-style makeover but she lent money to other tobacco planters. She also was a shrewd negotiator. She signed a contract with one of her husbands providing for her estate to be left to her children if she died, but she inherited his estate when he died. Which he did.

Get on down to Bacon’s Castle to hear those stories and many more. And while you’re at it, chip in a few bucks to restore a national historical treasure.

The Center-City Job Resurgence

job_shift

by James A. Bacon

After decades of losing jobs to the metropolitan periphery, the nation’s downtown employment centers have been recording faster job growth since the recession than areas located further from the city center, according to a new report, “Surging Center Job Growth,” by Joe Cortright, president and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis.

Cortright compared job growth between city centers (defined as within three miles of the center of a metropolitan region’s central business district) and outlying areas. During the go-go years of the 2000s-era real estate boom (2002-2007), the periphery enjoyed rapid job growth while city centers stagnated. Since the recession (2007-2011), city centers have gained jobs while the periphery has lost them.

Those  numbers represent a composite of 41 of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions for which Cortright could find comparable data. The national trend does not apply to all metropolitan regions. Indeed in two of Virginia’s largest metro areas — Hampton Roads and Richmond — the periphery continued to out-perform the city centers.

richmond_hr

What’s going on? The big-picture story is that the industry mix of the national economy is changing, and that shift increasingly favors central business districts.

In general, knowledge-oriented industries that require considerable face-to-face interaction are clustered in city centers, while goods producing and moving industries are more decentralized. Knowledge-oriented industries tend to use land much more intensively than goods producing and distribution centers.

The biggest construction declines occurred in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which tend to be located on the periphery. Those sectors have been slow to rebound during the recession, but if and when they do, Cortright said, the compositional disadvantage of the periphery might diminish. (By “compositional,” he means the advantage of disadvantage conferred by industry mix.) However, he argues that center cities will continue to enjoy generalized “competitive” advantage.

These factors — the growing preference of well-educated  young adults for urban living, the shift of companies to city centers to tap this labor pool, the growing pull of the “consumer city,” the growth of “eds and meds,” the continuing relative decline of manufacturing and distribution, and the waning of major investments in new highway infrastructure — all give us reason to believe that the shift toward city center growth is not a temporary anomaly.

A closer look at Virginia metros. How do we explain the departure of Hampton Roads and Richmond from the larger, national trend? Remember that the “national” trend is derived from composite numbers that include a lot of variability. The trend does not apply equally everywhere.

Hampton Roads is a special case because its economy is so dominated by military spending, and military employment is concentrated in military bases. The military makes its decisions where to grow and contract based on different factors than the civilian economy.

As for Richmond, my sense is that downtown living and employment has surged since 2011, the most recent years cited by Cortright. The competitive advantages of central business districts apply to the Richmond region as well, and we’ll see the proof in more recent numbers. Another possibility is that the three-mile definition of “center city” does not fit Richmond, one of the smaller metros surveyed. The economic vitality of central districts like Shockoe Bottom and Manchester may be offset by declining employment in the 2- to 3-mile band, which are really aging suburbs.

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low.

So, to take Hampton Roads, which I have written much about recently, resilience planners need to take into account not only which areas are flood-prone, but which urbanized areas have land values high enough to make them economically justifiable to protect.

It’s going to be gut-wrenching and agonizing, but local officials must come to grips with the reality that much of the development that has taken place is fiscally indefensible. The region cannot possibly afford to protect every low-density subdivision in every flood-prone region — much less the roads and bridges providing connectivity for them — no matter how loudly unhappy homeowners howl at the prospect of being abandoned. The sooner local officials begin making these determinations, the sooner developers will stop building in indefensible areas and the fewer the naive homeowners who will be harmed.

As a practical matter, Hampton Roads municipalities will have to evolve to a pattern of denser development on higher land. Where development exists in flood-prone areas, there will have to be sufficient density to justify spending millions of dollars on protective measures. Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt. But it needs to begin now — when complex and painful decisions must be made, decades can slip away in no time at all.

– JAB

The Non Global-Warmist’s Case for Resiliency Planning

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by James A. Bacon

The key to building a strong resiliency movement — making communities more adaptable in the face of natural and man-made disasters — is finding common ground. So argued Steven McNulty, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southeast Regional Climate Hub, in addressing the launch event of Resilient Virginia this morning.

Fear of rising temperatures, droughts and sea-level rise is a major impetus behind the increasing emphasis that all levels of government are placing on resiliency. But political views about climate change are highly polarized, McNulty said. “Are you a fear monger, or are you a denier? We need to get beyond that.”

Most climate scientists believe that man-made climate change is a cause for concern. But the forestry land managers McNulty deals with do not. In a recent survey, he said, “only 10% of Southeast foresters thought that climate change is man-made and real. The agricultural community is almost as disbelieving.” As it happens, their perceptions are not without basis, he added. Rising temperatures in the Southeastern U.S. have been far less pronounced than anywhere else in the country.

It’s hard to mobilize people who don’t believe in catastrophic man-made global warming to change the way they do business. “Don’t talk climate change; you’ll lose a lot of folks,” said McNulty. But flip the issue to climate variability, and the conversation takes on a different tone. Everyone acknowledges that temperatures and precipitation fluctuate, and everyone would like to protect themselves from those fluctuations. “You don’t need global warming to have big disasters.”

McNulty was one of several speakers Thursday morning who made the case for resiliency planning. The resiliency issue hasn’t made big inroads in Virginia but Resiliency Virginia, a non-profit group of state and local government officials, environmentalists and private companies, hopes to change that. The group has a mission of educating the public, sharing best practices and encouraging people to take action.

In Virginia, the most pressing resiliency issues are in the low-lying Tidewater region, especially the Hampton Roads metropolitan area where thousands of people and millions of dollars in private buildings and public infrastructure are exposed to flooding. As Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, told the gathering, a one-and-a-half foot sea level rise would inundate 82 square miles of dry land in Virginia, 15 miles of interstate highway, miles of railroad track and significant port acreage.

While there is plenty of controversy over how rapidly the sea level is rising in Hampton Roads — not everyone accepts the prediction that the sea level will rise 18 inches by 2050 — few would deny that between subsidence (partly caused by the draw-down of aquifers, partly by the shift in tectonic plates) and the slow-but-steady sea level rise seen over the past century unrelated to man-made climate change, flooding will become increasingly severe.

Flooding in low-lying areas is not the only potential disruption to Virginia communities. Flash flooding is an issue in urban areas where the ground has been covered by asphalt and the ground has lost is capacity to absorb rain water. Ice storms, snow storms and drought are recurrent concerns. Some worry about the impact of massive solar flares that could overwhelm the electric grid. There are man-made issues as well, such as potential terrorist strikes against critical infrastructure, particularly the electric grid.

In Chicago urban flooding is a significant issue, said Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute. When city officials began mapping where the insurance claims were occurring, they expected them to cluster in the flood plains. The traditional response to flooding had been to bring in the engineers, build some levees and build some dams. But close analysis showed that many claims were occurring outside the flood plains. “All that concrete has created a new ecosystem, creating flash flood hazards,” said Martin. “The way we’ve built this community is fundamentally non-resilient. More concrete is not the answer. Taking out some of the pavement may be the most productive thing to do.”

Another problem is rampant developing in vulnerable coastal areas. An analysis of 77 counties along the Gulf Coast (not including Florida) showed $2 trillion in asset value. “Even without climate change,” said Martin, “the way we’re building our communities, we’re creating risks where we didn’t have them before.”

People have a lot of ideas of how to prepare for another Katrina-scale hurricane, said Martin. But which options offer the greatest protection for the least cost? Building up beaches offers a high payback, as do building codes mandating construction standards to withstand higher winds. (Sixty percent of Katrina’s damage came from winds, not flooding.) Mandating higher home elevations is on the borderline of being economically justified; other proposals offer a very low return. As long as coastal communities continue to permit development, they need to address these issues.

Bacon’s bottom line. As I’ve made clear repeatedly on this blog, I’m not convinced that human-caused climate change is a cause for alarm, much less an excuse to re-engineer the economy. But you don’t need to be an apocalyptic environmentalist to value resiliency. Disasters happen. They always have, always will. We don’t protect ourselves from disaster by burying our heads in the sand and pretending they can’t possibly happen. We protect ourselves by anticipating possibilities, weighing probabilities and setting priorities. That kind of thinking is making inroads in Virginia, but we have a long way to go. I applaud Resilient Virginia for highlighting the issue. Check out the Resilient Virginia blog here.