Category Archives: Land use & development

Adapting to Climate Change: 11 Proposals

UR_proposals

Working under the direction of University of Richmond professors Peter D. Smallwood and Stephen P. Nash, eleven UR environmental studies majors wrote papers on topics relating to the environment and climate change in Virginia. Each paper defines a problem and lays out a practical solution. All eleven papers are compiled in a document entitled, “Nature Virginia’s Economy, and the Climate Threat.” The papers are of such interest that I re-publish the abstracts below. – JAB

Seed Banks: An Insurance Policy Against Extinction from Climate Change
by Casey Schmidt

Climate change is causing the ranges of native species to shift northward at a pace that outstrips the ability of many plant species to migrate and adapt. … Although assisted migration, the process of relocating individuals or spread of seeds through human intervention, has been used successfully in some cases to preserve species, it comes saddled with potential ecological damage, and legal complications arise when these ranges cross state lines.

These complications threaten Virginia’s biological diversity, especially among rare plants and those plants from habitats affected most by climate change. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of native species before populations become isolated and inbred, this paper proposes that Virginia create a seed bank. Seed banks have been used for a variety of reasons worldwide to preserve the genes of plant species, including the preservation of crop species and for research purposes. … For this proposed seed bank, Virginia would use information collected by the state Natural Heritage Program to identify eligible species that face the greatest threat from climate change in order to preserve biodiversity, establish a genetically diverse sample for research, and potentially reestablish these endangered species in the future.

Branching Out: How Virginia Can Use Trees Strategically to Combat Biodiversity Loss
by Taylor Pfeiffer

Biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase global temperatures, decreases in the abundance and diversity of species has reduced ecosystem resiliency during these changes. … Weakened ecosystems decrease the environment’s capacity to provide humans with services like safe drinking water, fuel, and protection from natural disasters. …

The agricultural industry plays a unique role in this environmental conversation, as farmland both contributes to climate change and is jeopardized by the negative effects created by the issue in a complex reciprocal cycle. This relationship, along with the presence of 8.3 million acres of farmland in Virginia, suggests that agriculture should be incorporated into the state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. …

Agroforestry, the strategic integration of trees in agriculture to create a sustainable land-use system, has been utilized for environmental benefits in the past. … This paper proposes the creation of a statewide program that requires the use of agroforestry on large farms in order to preserve biodiversity in the wake of climate change. An alternative solution is a certification program for farmers who use agroforestry practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Economic incentives and implementation assistance will encourage participation, while funding for the establishment of this program, creation of publications, and organization of events will be sourced from governmental and private grants.

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Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

How to Reform Virginia’s Conservation Tax Credit

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia's upper peninsula.

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia’s upper peninsula.

by James A. Bacon

The state of Virginia spends $100 million a year in the form of tax expenditures to place conservation easements on land parcels around the state. Could the state get more for its investment? Amy Murphy, an environmental studies major at the University of Richmond, thinks so. In a paper presented to the  Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission Tuesday, she recommended three changes t0 make the law more effective, including a restructuring of the tax credit to favor easements that offered greater environmental benefits.

Murphy’s paper on conservation easement reform was one of 11 prepared under the tutelage of biology professor Peter D. Smallwood and journalism professor Stephen D. Nash that were packaged for consideration by the climate change commission. Each paper focused on a practical, small-bore proposal for helping Virginia ecosystems adapt to warming temperatures. While climate change was the unifying theme, it struck me that many of the proposals make sense whether you believe in catastrophic global warming or not.

Murphy’s paper, in particular, addressed concerns that I have long harbored about Virginia’s conservation easement program. On the plus side, the program provides a way to protect Virginia lands from development that is far cheaper than purchasing the land outright. Landowners receive a tax credit worth 40% of the fair market of the value of the land, with deductions up to $100,000 for the year of donation and 10 subsequent years. In effect, taxpayers pay 40 cents on the dollar to protect land from development beyond its current use, typically agriculture or forestry. Not a bad deal.

The problem is that not all land is equally worth conserving. Some lands harbor endangered species and biological diversity; others don’t. Some easements abut other easements, creating larger bodies of protected habitat; others are tiny islands, creating fragments of little ecological value. The state caps the easement credits at $100 million per year but has no system for prioritizing one easement over another.

Murphy proposes creating a statewide plan, to be administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to rank and prioritize land based on conservation value. Factors to be considered would include biodiversity, land resilience, land cover, proximity to existing lands and threat of development. Parcels would be scored. Parcels with high scores (of greater conservation value) would receive higher tax credits, while lower-scoring parcels would receive lower credits.

“Ideally, implementing these changes will result in obtaining easements on more land of high ecological importance without altering the total amount of tax credits given annually,” she writes.

A second tweak to the program would address problems created by freezing an easement in judicial stone. Static easements that prescribe specific responsibilities and expectations of future land owners can become outdated over the decades, limiting adaptation to changes in scientific knowledge and climate conditions. Murphy recommends that Virginia require the inclusion of “adaptive management plans” in easement terms. “These plans should require that the landowner manages the land in a manner consistent with preserving the conservation purpose of the easement rather than require specific management techniques.”

Finally, Murphy recommends setting up a system for monitoring easements to ensure that the terms are being adhered to. In Maine, which requires monitoring, 90% of the easements were in compliance — which implies that 10% were not. There is a cost to monitoring, she acknowledges, but the burden “may have a positive influence as [it] may force landowners to limit their holdings so they can provide proper stewardship to them. This may cause a selective pressure away from low value easements.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s conservation easement program is a valuable tool for protecting the natural environment. It’s also a great tax break for landowners, some of whom may be motivated to participate for less-than-altruistic motives. Murphy’s recommendations would ensure that this significant state investment yields maximum benefits.

McAuliffe Climate Change Commission Playing for Small Stakes

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

In December 2008, Governor Tim Kaine’s climate change commission issued a detailed action plan. In 2009, Bob McDonnell was elected governor, and work on anything remotely connected to climate change promptly ended. In January 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, and he set up a new commission to review and update the Kaine plan. What can we expect from this latest initiative?

Judging from the proceedings of a meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission yesterday at the University of Richmond, nothing breathtaking is likely to emerge from this group. Part of the reason is that the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would radically restructure Virginia’s electric power industry for the purpose of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, is so massive that everything else seems small by comparison.

But the other reason for expecting only tweaks to existing policy is that McAuliffe set politically realistic goals. McAuliffe understands that multimillion-dollar spending or regulatory initiatives to combat climate change will be still-born in the Republican dominated General Assembly. So, he has charged the Commission to develop recommendations that can be implemented either through executive action or in partnership with private groups. And it’s quickly becoming obvious that only so much can be accomplished this way.

The small-bore nature of the proposals under discussion became evident from preliminary reports of working-group chairs.  The education/outreach work group, for instance, suggested building a website to function as a authoritative clearinghouse for Virginia-related climate change and resilience information. Of course, that can happen only if resources can be found within an already over-stretched state workforce to build and curate it. Another work group is trying to identify data sources on everything from sea-level rise to the carbon sequestration capacity of Virginia forests for use in intelligent decision making. It’s not clear yet how much of this data even exists.

The public-funding work group seeks ways to leverage limited public funds with private dollars. “We don’t have a printing press here in Virginia,” quipped Walton Shepherd with the NRDC. His group is looking for opportunities to create public-private partnerships, to create “resiliency bonds” for infrastructure-hardening improvements, or to find a clever way that the up-front cost of flood-proofing improvements, such as elevating houses, can  be paid for through lower flood insurance rates. This group is thinking creatively, but it’s not clear whether it can come up with anything tangible.

The energy work group is wrestling with some of the biggest issues, like how to promote cogeneration (which utilizes waste heat) and microgrids (which better accommodate small-scale renewable energy sources). Not only would such recommendations likely require General Assembly action, however, it may be difficult to obtain consensus within the work group. As an example of the potential friction within the commission, an individual representing Virginia’s electric co-ops questioned the blithe assertion of another commission member that a warming climate will increase the frequency and severity of storms. Contrary to predictions, the incidence of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coast actually has declined in recent years.

More to the point, it is difficult to see how a commission that meets episodically over one year can master an incredibly complex suite of issues and develop solutions that meet McAuliffe’s political criteria. As Jagadish Shukla, with the Institute of Global Environment and Society at George Mason University, said at one point, the commission needs more time. “Two hour meetings don’t do justice to these problems.”

— JAB

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Non-Coal Jobs Thriving in Energy Sector

Coal MinersBy Peter Galuszka

Is there a real “War on Coal” or is it part of a natural transition to more non-polluting and less destructive forms of energy? One way to find out is to track job creation.

A new study at Duke University shows that since 2008, more than 49,000 jobs in the coal industry have been lost. But, about 196,000 jobs – or four times as many – have been created in other energy sectors such as natural gas, solar and wind.

The study suggests that all the gnashing of teeth that President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are out to ruin the energy sector by killing off coal may be off base.

This has been the cry of Virginia’s utilities, and its few coal firms, along with some members of the business establishment that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to encourage cuts in carbon dioxide by 2030 are unworkable and too threatening to employment in the coal industry since some coal-fired power plants are likely to be shut down. (Of course, some of them have been in operation for 60 years, but never mind).

Overlooked is that as coal jobs die, more energy jobs have been created in natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracking and in renewables like solar and wind which are getting increasingly cheaper.

“Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement,” says Lincoln Pratson, a Duke professor of earth and ocean sciences who is one of the report’s authors.

Hardest hit are the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Small wonder. The coal is of excellent quality but easy-to-reach seams have been mined out and abundant shale gas has undercut its price power. Coal has also taken hits in Utah, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, and Colorado. The biggest job increases are in the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West.

Where does Virginia fit in with renewables? Hardly anywhere just yet. Its neighboring states are much farther along. One reason is they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force shifts to wind and solar. Even coal-heavy West Virginia had mandatory standards although the legislature just dumped them.

Virginia is just gearing up with solar. As for wind, Dominion has plans for two turbines off Virginia Beach.

Remarkably, this vision of non-coal energy jobs growing four times the amount of coal jobs cut is left out of the debate as Dominion gets the General Assembly to freeze electricity rates and forego State Corporation Commission audits for several years on the theory that it doesn’t know what the EPA will do about carbon dioxide reduction.

And, to show you how bizarre the coal people are, and appeals court in the District of Columbia is ready to shoot down a coal-led attack on the EPA’s carbon rules. Among the plaintiffs is Robert Murray, the iconoclastic CEO of Murray Energy which has been picking up West Virginia coal properties from long-time operator Consol, which obviously is happy to unload them

During the 2012 presidential race, Murray ordered his workers to attend a rally for Mitt Romney under threat of firing. He insists that Obama is trying to put him out of business.

One problem the appeals judges have with his lawsuit is that the rules are only proposed rules. They are not official. EPA is asking for comment by this summer show it can make adjustments. So why is Murray suing?

It would be as if I were to sue Jim Bacon for an idea he might be envisioning. I know it’s a tempting idea, but it would be silly.

The Duke report was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Energy Policy.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

Exploring the World’s “Best” City

Blackbird2

by James A. Bacon

Last year Price Waterhouse Cooper crowned London as the “best” city in the world based upon a range of factors encompassing technology, innovation, transportation, tourism, livability, corporate clout and sustainability, beating out such great metropolises as New York, Singapore, Toronto, San Francisco and Paris.

With a population of 8.6 million, London is a big city. The Bacon family is spending only one week here, we’ll experience only a tiny fraction of what the city has to offer, and we’ll do so as tourists skimming the surface. But there’s still a lot to be gleaned from a superficial scan. In between indulging in typical tourista fare such as the Tower of London, the British Museum and the Eye, I’ll report my observations about land use and transportation with the thought that Virginians might have something to useful learn.

We’re renting an apartment in the Earls’ Court ward, which originated in the mid-1800s as a railroad suburb west of the city. In the 20th century, the ward went into a period of decline, earning a seedy reputation. Thanks to large numbers of Polish immigrants following World War II, the area became known as the “Danzig Corridor.” Later, after an influx of Australians and Kiwis in the 1960s, it earned the moniker “Kangaroo Valley.” Since then, according to Wikipedia, Earl’s Court has gentrified. Indeed, a remarkable number of old buildings are adorned with construction scaffolding, suggesting that investment and revitalization remain strong.

harcourt_terrace2From what I can tell  from the architecture (and I speak with no authority), this part of London was built in the Golden Age of city planning — the late 19th century and early 20th century. Even though buildings rarely rise higher than five stories, density is high. Almost all residential buildings are attached, either in row houses or apartments. As seen above, the dwellings fronting on a single block tend to have identical patterns of design; they’re not as individuated as the buildings of similar era and density in Barcelona. While a certain sameness prevails on a single block, the blocks stand out distinctly from one another. That makes it much easier for wandering strangers to remember to find their way around.

troubador

The front door to Troubador

One of the great virtues of old development over new is that older buildings have had time to evolve distinctive personalities, as their occupiers work their creativity upon them over the ages, adding a porch stoop here, a balcony there or a garden in the back. One fun place we visited the first day was Troubador, an organic-food restaurant with a music club in the basement and a postage-stamp dining garden in the rear. Inside, there was an eclectic mix of decor, including three shelves of watering cans in the front window. Old watering cans as decorative art? Let’s just say that’s something I never would have come with.

new buildingsWhen new apartments have been constructed, as seen at left, builders have preserved the human scale of the original development pattern, no more than five floors. I suspect that’s enforced by strict zoning standards, although I don’t know for certain. Real estate has gotten so expensive in London, due in part to those very same zoning standards, that developers surely would build at greater heights and densities if allowed.

mews

Redcliffe Mews, behind our apartment

From a livability perspective, five stories may be the optimal height for large-scale residential habitation adapted to the reality of the automobile. Even on a Sunday, the streets are crowded with cars. But parking is limited. I didn’t see any structured parking in Earl’s Court, as exists in older districts of New York, Barcelona and San Francisco. But that’s just one neighborhood. And many of the on-street parking spaces are permit-parking only. On Harcourt Terrace, where we are staying, it is possible to access garages behind the houses by means ofa “mews,” basically, an upgraded alleyway that would be impossible to build in the United States because it is too narrow to accommodate monster fire trucks so prevalent in fire departments today. Continue reading

The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.