Saturday, August 28, 2010

Planning Profession Faces Sustainability, Climate Change and Ignorance -- How BP's Oil Crime Confronts Us All

The August issue of Planning magazine covers sustainability, the BP oil spill, how communities and governments are dealing with climate change in planning, how cities are dealing with food waste and plastic garbage, even how Pennsylvania communities are stopping sewage "sludge" from being spread on farmland, waste to energy tools, some of the new "environmentally preferable purchasing" efforts of many communities, and, finally, a story on ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.

Ahh, the planning community . . . . In many ways, environmental and social justice are far from the planner's toolbox when it comes to how cities and counties are going to be dealing with climate change, environmental challenges and the very idea of growth, their futures, and dealing with populations -- human populations.

Economic development seems to be one conduit to some sort of social justice, but in so many ways, planners and public officials and especially politicians see their jobs tied to industry, businesses and corporations -- developers being one large swath of influencers on not only a city's future but our own social justice well being.

Sustainability HAS to have the 5 e's in a synergistic and holistic fashion determining our decisions -- Education, Equity, Environment, Energy and Economy. For too many centuries, one E ruled over all others -- Economy. That form of business as usual has created the corrupt and out of balance economic engines pushing more and more people out of work, into low paying jobs, and into spiralling insecurity with part-time jobs. We have 17 percent unemployment, and for many, that fact is telling -- speaks to social injustice. Planners rarely work on that problem.

The point here is that sustainability and climate change as we see it applied in the USA now leave out Social Justice -- where that stuff comes from, who benefits, how communities actually can protect their human and non-human populations with the 5 e's fully engaged.

We sort of get it that places like Chicago and the state of Illinois are corrupt -- aldermen allowing for zoning variances for a few hundred bucks; governors indicted for higher levels of corruption; and up and down the political and government scales, any form of corruption and malfeasance is game and affects our profession, the planning profession, because we are at the whim of politicians and administrations and politics, even though our duty in our code of ethics is to the public -- for the well being, health and safety of the public. In fact, planners need to start seeing themselves as the public, in the communities they work in. Do the people of Illinois tolerate so much corruption because they still get their garbage picked up and potholes filled? Maybe. . . or maybe that relationship is much more complex, and citizens feel trapped by the political systems as we have allowed it to be co-modified and distorted.

So while the Planning Magazine for August 2010 shows some mettle in exposing the great journey we have to take to be sustainable and to move cities toward resiliency and sanity when it comes to energy and the environment and global warming, we must work hard to develop stronger tools to look at human and social justice and the very idea of the rights of nature. That issue is accessed through member sign-up. However, below is a perspective printed in it -- not too off the mark considering it's coming from a planner in a conservative field.

We still have people not understanding wind turbines -- questioning all the diesel expended on mining and smelting and milling the metals, moving the pieces, cementing in the support and projecting the lifespan of the actual turbine at 25 years as somehow more dirty, more CO2 intensive than current electric generation, i.e., fossil fuels (even hydro). More than a hundred studies have looked at the life cycle and carbon footprint and intensity of turbines. In six months of churning out electricity, the turbine more than makes up for its carbon and economic expense. Those ideas and facts, again, looking at the 5 e's of Sustainability, are important to move people beyond reluctance, fear and doubt and into acceptance and action -- the BIG E for me is, as an educator and recent graduate of a planning graduate program, is, EDUCATION. Too much out there in the minds of Fox News and tea party backers is plain rotten information, untruths and propaganda. Education is it seems key to the other four E's of sustainability. Without smart and informed people, everything else is toast.


Planning — August/September 2010

Perspectives from the Desk of APA Executive Director and CEO Paul Farmer, FAICP

Complexity, Uncertainty, Risk: Lessons from BP

BP has been trying for several years to position itself as a "sustainable" company. But even before the latest disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the company made headlines for releasing heavy metals into Lake Michigan from its Indiana refineries, and for its safety and environmental lapses in Texas and Alaska. Being a "green" oil company is tough.

While saddened by the loss of life and enormous, lasting environmental impact, I couldn't help but be amused by BP's initial public relations response to the oil spill: full-page newspaper ads without the cheery yellow and green logo that had been a prominent part of its "green" advertising display. The ads in May displayed a shrunken logo in shades of gray. Today, the cheery logo is back as BP assures the world that it will "make it right." Of course, the company has done little right, and the damage to the environment is so substantial that it will never be made right. Claiming to be a green oil company is easy.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the world must live with another global environmental disaster. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote thoughtfully recently about the inherent risks of intervening in complex systems. "There must be ways to improve the choice architecture," he said, rather than always trying "to match complicated technical systems with complicated governing structures." Try drilling at 5,000 feet below sea level and then "making it right" when something goes terribly wrong.

Faced both with nature's endless complexity and the complexity of power relationships in a democracy, planners would do well to turn to the incremental approach of economist Charles Lindblom, beginning with his seminal work, "The Science of 'Muddling Through,'" published in the Public Administration Review in 1959. He revisited the topic 20 years later in "Still Muddling, Not Yet Through." His 1977 book, Politics and Markets, is also relevant today; its publication provoked another oil company, the Mobil Corporation, to take out a full-page ad in the Times to denounce it.

Three major disasters — the Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, and BP's Deepwater Horizon — all resulted from a collision of science, engineering, business, and governance, demonstrating our inability to contain all risks and prevent all disasters, whether caused by honest mistakes, cutting corners, outright fraud, or failing to understand some aspect of a complex system. But they also resulted from our insatiable appetite for the energy that has fueled so much global progress. That appetite has led not only to singular disasters but to the well-documented, ongoing, global challenge of climate change.

In fact, climate change is one of four issues — the others are clean energy, sustainability, and regionalism — that are high priorities both for planners and for our current administration in Washington. How can planners contribute to a global dialogue in these areas? By getting smarter, promoting clean energy, defining sustainability, and advancing regionalism.

How can we get smarter and translate our expertise into leadership? Getting smarter means carefully reviewing reports and studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Princeton's Stephen Pacala, and others. It means ignoring polemics and focusing on the hard sciences and on policy sciences. Then it's up to practitioners to apply that knowledge to their private- and public-sector responsibilities, and to educators to integrate it into the curriculum — perhaps even requiring planning students to take advanced-level science and engineering courses.

Further, planners should integrate climate action plans into comprehensive plans. Sitting by and watching the proliferation of separate climate action plans seems to me to be part of a short-term political agenda rather than a long-term solution. Political leadership is good, but let's keep it where it belongs.

How do we advance a clean energy agenda on a scale that matters, while still addressing other legitimate concerns? Energy is moving up rapidly as both a private- and public-sector priority and should be part of the comprehensive plan as we take leadership in the movement toward a green economy. Earlier this year, APA President Bruce Knight, FAICP, announced a new Sustaining Places Task Force to examine the role of the comp plan in sustainability and to ensure that this key policy document provides a vision of a sustainable community and outlines steps toward implementing it, including capital spending and the broad regulatory regime. The plan should tackle the important planning issues related to solar installations, biomass, and wind farms.

Do we really know what we mean by "sustainability"? We have all seen too much BP-like "greenwashing" in plans for a "sustainable..." (you fill in the place name). "Sustainability: Planning's Search for the Holy Grail?" was the title of a talk I gave to a world planning conference in Vancouver in 2006. In it, I challenged my colleagues to think about the meaning of the word and how we as planners can change our practices in meaningful ways to establish ourselves as leaders. Four years later, I've seen more BP-like public relations and fewer actual changes in the profession. The challenge stands.

Will regional planning in the U.S. help us move toward sustainability? The weakness of decision making on a regional level is arguably a weak link in the chain of planning from local to federal. The fault does not lie with those who labor at the regional level. Rather, it is the result of a U.S. Constitution that establishes only two levels of government — federal and state — coupled with the lack of identity of metropolitan "regions" worldwide.

In the 1970s, while teaching a course on the topic, I asked eight leading regional planning directors the same question: Who are the constituents for regional planning? Six said "the federal government." Two had different answers. Doug Carroll, from the New York area, said "the media." He explained that his region encompassed 1,400 local governments and the only way to reach them was through the media. John Boland of the recently formed Twin Cities Metropolitan Council had yet another answer. He cited "local government" as the key constituent. In fact, successful regional planning pays attention to local concerns while knitting together a regional vision.

Soon thereafter, Ronald Reagan was elected president and removed much of the funding for regional planning. The loss of funding shows what happens when your constituency is the federal government and the federal leadership changes.

The same thing is happening today in Britain, where the newly elected coalition government has gutted the Regional Spatial Strategies, a key planning approach for over a decade. "Localism, localism, localism" are the three new priorities, as Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, reminded planners at a June reception in the Houses of Parliament, sponsored by the Royal Town Planning Institute. "But we reserve the right to change the order," he added with a chuckle.

Most U.S. planners would agree that getting regional problem solving right is no laughing matter. Most would agree as well that tossing new money at our existing regional institutions also won't solve the problem. We have seldom developed lasting constituencies for regional solutions or effective regional institutions and, apparently, neither have our friends across the pond.

Where does this leave planners and planning? The latest BP disaster has once again reminded planners that the private and public sectors are in this together. Global treaties, national standards, state actions, and local decisions are intertwined in the complex ways mentioned by David Brooks. Moving to a post-carbon world won't happen overnight, but still planners must persevere — learning the science, adapting old tools, and adding new ones. It's our obligation. In our ever more complex world, being a well-educated, ethical, and effective planner isn't easy, either.


Images: Dead shark on a Biloxi, Mississippi, beach. Photo Craig Gulliot.

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