Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Fire I'll take you to burn (from the lyric to the song "Fire" by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968)

It's ironic that the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police misconduct is not quite one month after the 50th anniversary of the killings of student demonstrators at the hands of National Guardsmen and/or police at Kent State and Jackson State.

-- "50th anniversary of Kent State University shootings: May 4th"



While there have been plenty of demonstrations that haven't ended in mayhem, with the rioting across the country as a part of demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd ending up in looting and myriads of property destruction in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Salt Lake City, etc., it's hard to know what to think.

I understand the rage, especially the symbolism of the burning down of the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis.

But destroying stores like Target, I don't understand. Or destroying police cars in a place like Salt Lake.  Well, I do think I understand.

From the standpoint of revolutionary practice, taking advantage of events like demonstrations to foment violence in the name of revolution is the name of the game ("An Inside Look at the Antifa Movement," NBC Bay Area).

Oakland California, May 30, 2020

Protest in Salt Lake City Over the death of George Floyd
The New Radical Chic?  Protesters climb on a flipped over police vehicle Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Thousands of people converged on downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and some demonstrators set fire to a police car and threw eggs and wrote graffiti on a police station. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Then again, there is the general rage, which builds up over time, over how policing preferences the wealthy, whites, property, capital, and rioting is at the very least, understandable ("Did The 1965 Watts Riots Change Anything?," JSTOR). From the article:
... when researchers went out and actually talked with people in the neighborhood, they found a very different story. Looking at interviews with 586 black adults who lived within the curfew zone that marked the area of the riots, Sears and Tomlinson found that 22 percent said they’d been at least somewhat involved in the unrest. Fifty-six percent said the unrest had a purpose or goal, and 58 percent expected it to have favorable effects. And, while 50 percent said their overall feeling about the riots was unfavorable, more than a quarter reported feeling favorably about them. Even among those who were unhappy that the riots happened, 75 percent described it in terms like “a shame” or “a sad thing,” while only a quarter used words suggesting blame, like “disgrace,” “unnecessary,” or “senseless.”
In Planning in the Public Domain, John Friedmann distinguishes between (1) rote work based on the maintenance of the state; (2) radical practice, which challenges convention but still respects the boundaries of government and the social contract; and (3) revolutionary practice, which challenges the boundaries of government and is willing to go beyond.
Basic Concepts, Planning in the Public Domain

There is a great essay in the Guardian, "The answer to police violence is not 'reform'. It's defunding. Here's why," by Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College professor and author of the book The End of Policing (review).

He argues that the problems with policing are systemic and structural, regardless of throwing money at change and training.  That we have criminalized many social problems and de-emphasized non-police responses, while simultaneously militarizing the police.  The book goes through ten areas of policing and he recommends that police no longer be the first responders when it comes to these matters.  From the review:
Vitale argues that policing is ‘a tool for managing deeply entrenched inequalities’ that are organised along the intersecting terrains of race, class, gender and sexuality. This convincing critique of law enforcement underpins Vitale’s view that ‘any real agenda for police reform must look to replace police with empowered communities working to solve their own problems’.The book is organised into ten chapters that look at the criminalisation of different communities, including school children, sex workers and homeless people.

In the opening chapter, ‘The Limits of Police Reform’, Vitale examines how reforming police training concerning the use of physical force ignores a deeper, ‘casual disregard’ for black lives. Police training is part of the problem, since it is highly militarised and provided by private companies that serve police and military clients. The chapter discredits the liberal assumption that a more diverse police force equals a less racist one – diversity training is pointless since racism shapes official police procedure.
The Silent Majority/White fear of unrest as a political force that favors conservative responses.  Although, like how charlie made the point that it is likely that #BlackLivesMatter and the negative response by money helped to elect Donald Trump, I fear that the current demonstrations and rioting will help to peal off white support for Joseph Biden ("Echoes of the ‘silent majority,’ 50 years after Richard Nixon’s speech," Boston Globe; "This rage isn’t just for George Floyd. It’s for every victim of the police like him.," Washington Post) and could contribute to Trump's re-election ("This is the presidency George Wallace never had," Washington Post, albeit possibly without winning the popular vote, just like last time.

This song, from 1968, keeps popping into my mind.

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Friday, May 29, 2020

D.C. cuts speed limit to 20 mph to curb pedestrian deaths: a step forward but not enough | New thoughts on a comprehensive Vision Zero agenda

Neighborhood Slow Zone street sign, 4th and C Streets SE, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Neighborhood Slow Zone street sign, 4th and C Streets SE, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. I haven't seen such a sign elsewhere in the city. I don't know if it was a pilot case.


Today, DC announced that starting next week, the prevailing speed limit -- unless posted otherwise -- will be 20mph ("D.C. cuts speed limit to 20 mph to curb pedestrian deaths," Washington Post

Currently, the prevailing speed is 25mph, and the posted speed is often 30 mph on major arterials, especially as you move outside of the core.

Interesting.

Years ago, when then Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Wells suggested that the prevailing speed be 15mph, I said that was too slow, that 20mph would make sense, especially for residential streets.

-- "A more radical approach to Vision Zero," 2019
-- "A reminder about how the entitlement of automobility is embedded into law and democratizes death by accident," 2014
-- "A "Vision Zero" agenda for DC," 2014
-- "DC and Vision Zero Revisited," 2015
-- "Updating Vision Zero approaches," 2016
-- First global benchmark for road safety in cities published by International Transport Forum," 2018
-- "Pedestrian fatalities and street design," 2019

In "Updating Vision Zero approaches" I reorganized the recommendations into categories modeled after the "6 E's" of bike and pedestrian planning, but with some modifications:

-- Planning/Placemaking
-- Engineering and Maintenance
-- Education
-- Encouragement
-- Enforcement/Traffic Engineering
-- Equity

(The Sustainable Mobility Platform concept I've been developing includes pedestrian elements.  It needs an update too.)

Now they're doing it.  Except according to the article Mayor Bowser hasn't given up on 15mph:
Bowser also announced a “slow streets” initiative through which some neighborhood roads will be restricted to local traffic only and have a posted 15 mph speed limit. The District Department of Transportation is identifying locations, Bowser said.
I have some concerns about this, especially in the core of the city, because the strength of the mobility network is the grid of blocks and streets, and if the grid gets more disconnected, this can have other negative elements.

Similarly, I've suggested that signage about the city's prevailing speed limit, which is lower than the surrounding suburbs, should be posted at entry points to the city, especially main arterials like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, and Rhode Island Avenues, 16th Street, East Capitol and South Capitol Streets, etc.

Given the new directive, it's worth listing the recommendations from the "Enforcement/Traffic Engineering" element:

Enforcement/Traffic Engineering
In this section I've added traffic engineering as an element slightly different from the kinds of infrastructure facilities typically covered under the "Engineering" E.


NYC Vision Zero ad. Suburban residents often don't realize that it is inappropriate to drive fast in urban environments.

26.  Put signage up at the major entry points into the city, stating that the prevailing speed limit is 25 mph, unless posted otherwise.

27,  Make residential street speed limits 20 mph.

28,  Change the speed limit around transit stations to 25 mph (or 20 mph).

29,  Post notification signs at locations of traffic deaths.

Image from Streetsblog.

30. Change the legal framework with regard to motor vehicle operation to require that automobiles--as the heaviest and most powerful mobility device--should be accorded the greatest amount of legal responsibility with regard to traffic accidents.

31. Up the penalties for vehicle accidents that injure, maim, or kill, regardless of intent.

32.. Retrain police officers with regard to bike and pedestrian accident analysis so that their default position is not "the pedestrian/the bicyclist is automatically at fault."

33. Legalize the Idaho Stop for bicycling.

34. Consider the development of a bicycle operators endorsement for drivers licenses.

35. Bring back the traffic enforcement division of the police department as a special unit. (Note that the Motor Carrier Safety Unit still exists, although it's probably a federal requirement.)

36. Give parking enforcement officers the training and legal authority to ticket driving infractions.

37.  Advocate to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for the inclusion as original equipment front and back lighting, and left and right turn signals on bicycles intended for urban transportation use

I guess with this change by the city, I should go back and do a re-read of the Vision Zero agenda and update it.  Certainly if the city can change the speed limit, it can legalize the Idaho Stop.

Here are two items on my mind.

Big data and targeted traffic safety initiatives.  In comments on one of the entries, charlie made that point that the big issue is really addressing in a systematic way the people who are likely to be the worst/most dangerous drivers.

While I have been derisive of "big data" approaches at times, figuring that the "gee whiz" element of big data is used when regular but systematic techniques are capable of similar "revelations," it's just that no one is focused on transformational practice, focused efforts on dangerous drivers is a big opportunity for big data ("Real-Time Data Analytics Aims to Reduce Traffic Fatalities," Government Technology).

Treating sections of streets as networks, and addressing intersections as nodes within the pedestrian network.  I have been meaning to write a piece about intersections as networks.

I have written about it here and there ("Barnes Dance Intersections as possible "solutions" to Wisconsin & M, 14th and U intersections," 2016) but now I am thinking about it more comprehensively, including the addition of mid-block crosswalks where needed (L'Enfant's plan for the city's streets made some blocks double and triple the size of a normal block).

I made the point in my writings on Silver Spring, Maryland, as point #4 in this entry, "PL #5: Creating a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District" | Part 2: Program items 1 - 9."

Create a network of pedestrian scramble intersections, where one designated signal phase is exclusively for pedestrians: on Colesville Road at East-West Highway, Second Street, Georgia Avenue, and Fenton Street; on Fenton Street at Ellsworth, Wayne Avenue, and Bonifant Street; and at the intersection of Wayne and Georgia Avenues.  And a more defined crosswalk treatment should be provided at the mid-block crossing at Ellsworth and Georgia Avenues, crossing east-west.
Pedestrian scramble, Jackson Boulevard and State Street, Chicago
Pedestrian scramble, Jackson Boulevard and State Street, Chicago. Photo: John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune.

While the road network prioritizes motor vehicle throughput, some places have far more pedestrian traffic than motor vehicle traffic.  One way to better balance movement for pedestrians is to provide a "pedestrian scramble" or "Barnes Dance" intersection treatment where one phase, including diagonal crossing, is exclusively for pedestrians.

Back when Downtown DC was the region's primary shopping and office district, DC had multiple such intersections.  More recently, one was created at 7th and H Streets NW and one is being installed at 14th and Irving Streets NW.  I have argued that DC needs multiple such intersections as a traffic safety and mobility rebalancing intervention ("Barnes Dance intersections as possible solutions").

There is also a mid-block pedestrian crossing on Georgia Avenue at Ellsworth (which doesn't continue west across Georgia Avenue) which needs a more defined crossing treatment comparable to markings for the street crossings on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.
Street crossing, Indianapolis Cultural Trail
The ICT is marked by high quality markings at street crossings, making very clear the prioritization of non-motorized mobility.

This should be added to the Vision Zero comprehensive agenda as an additional element within the section on Engineering.

For example, all of the crosswalks from:
  • the 200 block to the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE
  • on H Street NE from the 300 block to the Maryland Avenue intersection, and continuing from that point on Benning Road NE to Oklahoma Avenue NE
  • on 14th Street NW from Thomas Circle to Spring Street at the edge of Columbia Heights
  • and so forth -- e.g., Connecticut Avenue, M Street, Wisconsin Avenue, Georgia Avenue, etc.
should be treated as single networks, have special design treatments, etc.

The failure to think this way is a major omission in city transportation planning in DC and elsewhere.

Another place I've suggested this is in Takoma DC on Cedar Street from where it terminates at Piney Branch Road at the Takoma Elementary School to Old Town Takoma Park.

But there are dozens of places across the city with similar conditions and opportunities.

=========
Also see:

-- "Activists block off DC streets to create socially distant outdoor space," WTOP radio
-- "Boston 'Healthy Streets' program to include bike lanes, bus stop expansion, outdoor dining," WCVB-TV
-- Boston Healthy Streets program

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More on police misconduct as a risk management issue

Following "Where is the risk management approach to police misconduct and regularized killings of citizens?" and "How to incentivize better police conduct: pay settlements out of police officer pension funds".

Could the City of St. Paul sue Minneapolis, because of their being collateral damage in the damage fueled by unrest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis? Probably not, just as states and others suing China over the coronavirus won't go anywhere.

Additionally, Alex B. points out that the US Supreme Court has given police officers wide discretion and the ability to evade responsibility for their actions in what is called "qualified immunity" ("The Supreme Court Broke Police Accountability. Now It Has the Chance to Fix It.," Slate).

In this case, pictures are worth 1000+ words

According to the comments on this Minneapolis Star Tribune article, "Buildings damaged in Minneapolis, St. Paul after protests," listing damaged buildings in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and elsewhere in the Minneapolis metropolitan areas, the damage is much worse.


Seen from Hiawatha Avenue, a large fire burns on E. Lake St. during a third night of unrest following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody early in the week. David Joles, Minneapolis Star Tribune.


The Family Dollar Store at Lake Street and 10th Ave. burned early Friday morning May 29, 2020, in Minneapolis, MN. David Joles, Minneapolis Star Tribune.


St. Paul firefighters battled fires at Sports Dome and other businesses near the Midway Center on Friday in St. Paul. Elizabeth Flores, Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Police officer pepper spraying demonstrators, Minneapolis. Mark Vancleave, Minneapolis Star Tribune.





The Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct was set on fire on Thursday night. Carlos Gonzalez, Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Restrooms, drinking fountains, sinks, doorknobs, street crossing buttons (etc.) in the time of pandemic

Image from the Twitter feed of the advocacy group, DC Department of Transformation.

(Although this is like initiatives from Portland City Repair and the UK Road Witch project, the first Parking Day in San Francisco, which I been writing about for 10+ years.)

One of the responses to stay at home orders and the pandemic has been shifting road right of way use away from cars towards pedestrians and cyclists, both formally through actions by local governments and informally by activists ("https://wtop.com/dc/2020/05/activists-block-off-dc-streets-to-create-socially-distant-outdoor-space/," WTOP radio; "

The Washington Post ran an article, "Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine," making the point that covid19 will be with us "for a long time" even forever and whether or not there is a vaccine or herd immunity, elements of public space will have to change. From the article:
Eventually, many experts believe this coronavirus could become relatively benign, causing milder infections as our immune systems develop a memory of responses to it through previous infection or vaccination. But that process could take years, said Andrew Noymer, a University of California at Irvine epidemiologist.
Doorknobs and pedestrian crosswalks. From the article:
Communities should be thinking about installing doors that don’t require grasping a handle, and re-engineering traffic signals so pedestrians don’t have to push crosswalk buttons, said Eleanor J. Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
More elements will require redesign.  Like putting flags at crosswalks that people can wave when they cross the street.  Maybe people will have to own and bring their own flags.  Although the flag intervention is too accommodating of car-centricity.

Restrooms and sinks. We will need to wash our hands a lot more frequently, throughout the day, regardless of where we are. Do we create a "network" of sinks in public spaces? How do we keep them clean? Can they be activated by proximity sensors so you don't have to turn the faucets on and off?

Many communities don't have "public restrooms" ("Restrooms as an element of the public realm," 2018). If that changes, how do we keep them clean?  Do laws and incentives change so that privately provided restrooms such as at restaurants and hotels have to be open to non-customers?

Drinking fountains. I've argued for an expanded network of public fountains ("Why not get office buildings to install water fountains in facades as a community amenity?," 2019).  London's been doing this.  Some supermarkets even have outdoor drinking fountains for dogs.

That doesn't seem practical now. And for all the about how bottled water misuses water and creates plastic waste, especially when local water sources are often superior to bottled water, we'll need to bring our own water.

But instead of buying it, people should be encouraged to have their own containers.  Many cities, including DC and Metropolitan Washington with the "Tap It" program, have created a network of businesses that have agreed to fill up people's water bottles.

What else?  What other urban elements will require redesign?  Obviously, transit is one.  What else?

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How to incentivize better police conduct: pay settlements out of police officer pension funds

Yes, police officers and other emergency workers put their lives at risk. This is often used as a justification for particularly generous pensions and retirement policies ("Amid Funding Shortfall, Lawmakers OK Pension Boost for Cops, Firefighters," New Jersey Spotlight; "Frosting on an already-sweet pension deal," Orange County Register)

In the previous post, "Where is the risk management approach to police misconduct and regularized killings of citizens?," I forgot to mention my idea on how to "better align incentives for optimal police officer conduct" by making police officer pension funds responsible for paying out settlements for police misconduct, and concomitantly reducing pension payouts as required.

Granted, that comes at the expense of already retired officers, but then again, what better way to align incentives?

Then again, in the heat of the moment, a police officer isn't likely to think about his pension or the pensions of fellow and retired officers.

OTOH, police unions would likely agree to significant changes in training.

For example, in the UK, police officers have to get special training and ongoing certification in order to carry a gun, and it is a much more difficult and involved process compared to US police training requirements. From the wikipedia entry on Authorized Firearms Officers:
Candidates are required to gain approval from their superiors before embarking on a series of interviews, psychological and physical fitness tests, medical examinations and assessment days, before permission to commence firearms training is given. There is no guarantee of success; candidates can be returned to their previous role at any point in training if they do not meet the required standard.

Once authorised, AFOs must pass regular refresher training and retests in order to maintain their authorisation. Failure to meet the required standards can result in the officer having their firearms authorisation revoked. Health or fitness problems can also result in temporary or permanent suspension from firearms duties.

Imagine if US police officers had similar requirements. Although, like with the recent incident in Minneapolis, and past incidents in New York City, Baltimore, and others, people can be killed by use of force other than a gun.

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Where is the risk management approach to police misconduct and regularized killings of citizens?

Again, I have not yet read the new book published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertainties, although it's in my pile of "to read."

Officials and stakeholders as managers of the city's identity and "brand." In 2005 I wrote a piece about commercial district revitalization making the point that if we think of ourselves as "destination managers" we will make places great for both residents and visitors.

In 2008, I extended this concept to city elected and appointed officials and stakeholders as a community's collective of "brand managers" responsible for the brand promise of a community:
... elected officials need to take their responsibilities as stewards and managers of a community's image very seriously:
Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve as a community’s “brand managers”—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner.

That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.) and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, urban design, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning.
In 2015 I extended this argument further, that officials and stakeholders need to see their roles as the managers of a community's assets.

For awhile now, I've been meaning to do this around risk management too, although I have written about that in the context of lawsuits around policing.

Police misconduct settlements can be costly. For example, Chicago spends many tens of millions of dollars every year in settlements for police misconduct  ("Chicago spent more than $113 million on police misconduct in 2018," Chicago Reporter).

Add to that the cost of legal representation, often on outside counsel ("A hidden cost of Chicago police misconduct: $213 million to private lawyers since 2004," Chicago Tribune).

And that this might have to be financed in a way that adds to a city's long term debt ("How Chicago's financing of police-misconduct payouts adds hundreds of millions to the tab," Crain's Chicago Business).

Shouldn't settlement costs be seen as an indicator of a system failure that must be addressed?  You'd think that elected officials would take that as an indicator of a problem with the police department, and look at the need for management, process, and policing reforms, rather than merely as the "cost of doing business."

When I take on planning engagements, I look at outcomes in terms of what is desired and what in fact occurs.

When desired outcomes aren't produced as a matter of course by the system of processes that produces them, that's an indicator of a need to work backwards through the processes, to identify why things aren't working the way that's desired, and make changes.

In the case of policing, it's a clear need for different strategies and tactics and more robust training ("Policing: escalation vs. de-escalation," 2014).

Protesters hold signs outside the precinct building. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

Police misconduct can lead to social unrest.  Another potential cost derived from police misconduct is rebellion and riot.

That's happening this week in Minneapolis after the release of a video showing the death of George Floyd as a result of police use of force in his arrest ("Man dies in MPD custody, 4 cops fired; protesters, police clash," Minnesota Public Radio; "George Floyd protest turns deadly; Minneapolis mayor requests National Guard," NBC).

For example, the 1965 riots in Watts, the 1967 riots in Detroit, and the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, were each the response of fed up publics to what they considered to be unreasonable, oppressive, over-policing

More recently the same is true of Ferguson/St. Louis after the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and the development of the #Black Live Matters movement and riots and ongoing unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

And these costs in both St. Louis and Baltimore are ongoing, 5-6 years afterwards.

Ted Rall editorial cartoon.

Police unions focus on protecting police officers not improving outcomes. One of the problems in all of this is police unions. First, these unions tend to be pretty involved in local politics, funding campaigns, etc.

 Second, they work very hard in collective bargaining negotiations to provide lots of protections to officers in cases of charges of misconduct, in ways that can make it very difficult to discipline undesirable behavior.

-- "The unjust power of police unions," The Week
-- "Our Police Union Problem," New York Times
-- "The Impact of Unions on Municipal Elections and Urban Fiscal Policies," University of Pennsylvania

Fullerton California as a counter-example:  completely revamps use of force, training, and other practices after the after a police officer beat to death a homeless man.  After the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic (the city paid a big judgement to his family) rather than accept what happened as "an accident," the City of Fullerton evaluated various police processes and changed them, to reduce the likelihood of injury and death in interactions between the police and the public ("Here's how Fullerton police have improved since Kelly Thomas' death," Orange County Register).

The changes in practice were not limited to dealing with homeless people or people in mental distress, but in how all of the city's police officers interact with the public and how they are trained.

The police department has set a goal of being one of the best police departments in the country for its size, and measures its success in part   The OCR article reports on the most recent review:
The study offers a half-dozen recommendations – compared with 59 in its first review – that range from striving to use the least force necessary to more cautious foot pursuits.

.. Four years ago, OIR Group recommended that officers – when safely possible – employ less force by increasing time and distance, using cover and concealment, creating barriers, and calling and waiting for backup.

“The department,” the document says, “has substantially addressed many of the shortcomings we noted in our 2012 report.”

First, a new training room was built for officers to practice lesser-force techniques. Then, a video-based interactive training system was installed. It offers more than 200 bad-guy scenarios, and each one can be altered with the touch of a screen.

“These upgrades in training facilities,” the report concludes, “allow trainers to emphasize the importance of tactical alternatives to force, particularly deadly force.”

The training may be paying off. Citizen complaints have dropped from a high of 36 in 2014 to a low of 24 last year.

Still, the new report offers new suggestions. They include requiring incident reports to check off threat perception, least-use-of-force efforts, and adherence to reporting policies.
The process in Fullerton appears to be a national model, albeit a one-off that hasn't been adopted elsewhere, unlike the whitewashes that seem to be happening in most other cities when it comes to evaluating police departments and officers in terms of excessive force and deaths at the hands of police officers.

Britain. A commenter in one of the many articles on the George Floyd killing mentioned watching the BBC tv series, "Our Cops in the North," (episode one) and made the point that it showed how the officers were very good at dealing with conflict, arrests, etc., without guns and in a manner that didn't escalate conflict, attributing this to the level of training and usually being unarmed. I thought that was an important point.

Contrast that to reality tv shows in the US like "Cops" which show the widespread use of militaristic approaches and tactics to policing here.

Racialized social control as a structural feature of urban police departments.  I have mentioned before the biggest issue probably in the US wrt policing besides the fact that policing is the leading element of what Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness calls "racialized social control" ("Racialized social control and risk management: Baltimore," 2020).

Typically, urban police forces tend to have a majority of white officers and often they don't live in the communities they patrol.  But even in cities where a police chief may be black, like Minneapolis, or in places where a preponderance of officers are people of color like Baltimore or DC, there are still issues.

A man poses for a photo in the parking lot of an AutoZone where a fire broke out.

Video showed the AutoZone with broken windows and spray paint. One bystander was warning people against damaging the business, saying it had nothing to do with Floyd's death.

— Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune via AP

Take a risk management approach.  Regularly producing outcomes of death as a function of police processes is an indicator of an endemic, systematic, structural problem, not a series of one-off problems.  It can only be addressed through significant changes in training, hiring, and management.

By this time, most cities have an "Office of Risk Management" or a similar function as a standard element of public administration.  But probably too many communities haven't given this function the ability to think creatively and expansively.

From the report Risk Assessment and Management in Local Government Emergency Planning, by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction:
The following statement captures the essential elements in dealing with risk:

• risk is the possibility that harm may occur from an identified hazard;
• risk analysis is the process of evaluating the frequency and consequence of the hazard;
• risk control uses methods of reducing the frequency or consequences of a hazard; and,
• risk management is the ongoing process of daily decision-making given the existence of an identified hazard and that all practical and reasonable measures have been taken to
minimize any potential impacts it may have.

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Monday, May 25, 2020

"Animal City: The Domestication of America" featured on the "Living on Earth" radio show

I don't listen to radio, especially NPR, as much as I would like, because I got into the habit of listening to the radio mostly in a car, and not being particularly car-bound, that means not much radio.

But I was making a dish, Ina Garten's Corn and Avocado Salad, which requires about an hour of chopping, and I turned the radio on to NPR affiliate KCPW, and they were broadcasting the environmental topics show "Living on Earth."

One of the segments was "Animal City: The Domestication of America," featuring Andrew Robichaud, author of the book of the same title, discussing how food animals had once been a key element of cities, dairies which I knew about and "feed lots" which I didn't, and the process of removing those functions first to the outskirts of cities and then out of cities altogether.

It's definitely worth a listen.

It's an important history that still comes up from time to time, because today's zoning regulations typically restrict animals even chickens on residential properties, and forbid even small scale slaughtering and other types of food production, including craft brewing and distillation, even large scale baking, in industrially zoned lands.

This came up last year in Alexandria, Virginia.

Their zoning regulations no longer forbid animal slaughtering and some residents opposed the approval of a small halal poultry operation ("Halal slaughterhouse and shop wins approval from divided council in Alexandria, Va.," Washington Post).

Opposition was complicated.  Some was about concerns over the potential for smell and improperly handled waste, as well as anti-Muslim beliefs or anti-meat consumption.

As a small scale operation nothing like a Swift meatpacking plant, many of those concerns were overblown, or not relevant to a discussion on zoning and allowable uses.

In the episode Professor Robichaud mentions an area of San Francisco once called "Butchertown," where animals were kept and slaughtered.

It reminded me of the real life Butchertown district in Louisville, where there is a Swift slaughterhouse/meatpacking plant (still operating today) and the distinct ever present smell of animals, at least when I was there in 2004.

Back when I ran a historic preservation study on the H Street neighborhood, one of the elements covered in the neighborhood history section was how the area had once been on the outskirts of the city, that there were "market gardens," small plots used to grow produce for sale in the city, and abattoirs, slaughterhouses for animals.

Horses.  We also discussed a bit why there were stables and carriage houses, and drayage.  When leading a walking tour once, someone asked a question about "what happened to all the horseshit?" but I didn't have a good answer.

Another book on this topic is The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, which came out a few years after our study.

Issues around "the horse in the city" still comes up in the modern day.

Depending on the city, there may still be horse stables and public access to horse riding. Many police departments also have horse-mounted police units ("Long Legs of the Law : Mounted police units are valued for crowd control and park patrols--but training takes more than horse sense," Los Angeles Times) and there can be complaints about how they are deployed in crowd control.

(In DC, both the US Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department have mounted police units. The US Capitol Police had such a unit for a brief time, but Congress disbanded the unit over costs.)

Other issues I am familiar with include:

• in cities like New York City, animal rights activists fight the continuation of tourist oriented carriage rides ("In His 5th Year as Mayor, de Blasio Finally Acts on Horse-Carriage Pledge," New York Times).  These horses are still stabled in the city.

• in Baltimore, "a-rabbers" sell fruit and vegetables from horse-drawn carts and animal rights activists are opposed as well ("As Baltimore's arabbers become a thing of the past, a photographer aims to preserve the tradition," Baltimore Sun").

• and in some trail planning processes, although more in suburban and exurban areas, it is common to include access to horses alongside pedestrians and cyclists

Food animals and cities today.  And re-legalization of small scale, "backyard" animal husbandry has been an issue for awhile.  I call the opportunity to do this with your neighbors "Block supported agriculture."  Post columnist Tamar Haspel just wrote about this in the context of the rise in chicken raising as a result of the pandemic ("7 tips for raising backyard chickens, from picking a breed to having an exit strategy").

Seattle may be the most liberal city in the US when it comes to such regulations, whereas many cities aren't interested in going that far, and may or may not be comfortable with chickens.  DC is definitely a laggard on that score.

Animal agriculture and land use master planning.  Some counties have divided their land uses in ways to permanently protect rural lands.  Baltimore County, Maryland was one of the first in the late 1960s.  The way they militate against sprawl is to refuse to provide "city water" service to rural areas of the county.

Greater Portland is known for its Urban Growth boundary, although all areas in Oregon are required to urban and rural zones as part of master planning processes.

Montgomery County Maryland has a large Agriculture Reserve, about 30% of the county's 507 square miles, although as one former planning director commented, "all that did was displace sprawl past it to Frederick County" ("Montgomery seeks new crop of farmers," Washington Post).

As rural areas suburbanize there are often conflicts between new residents and extant agriculture operations ("‘Right To Farm’ Laws Allow Ag To Be Stinky And Noisy, But Some Neighbors Cry ‘Fowl’," Colorado Public Radio; "Suburban farms meet opposition as they look to change business," Baltimore Sun; "Beer-fueled fight in Fairfax prompts officials to look at state farming law," Washington Post).  Often such disputes end up in court.

Communities with agricultural land typically have an agriculture element within their land use master plans, while cities typically do not.  Although this is changing as the interest in Urban Agriculture grows.


(Not related to animals.) 

Front yard gardening.  Another issue is front yard gardening, which many people consider "messy" and many zoning codes forbid ("The Battlefront in the Front Yard," NYT).  But depending on if you have a backyard and whether or not it gets enough sun, it might be the only option people have for growing vegetables.

Related is the concept of the Edible Landscape/Foodscaping.  More about this some other time.

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DC Ward primary election races remind me of my thought that the city needs either more wards or two councilmembers per ward

DC is the nation's only city-state, except that it's not a state.

Although in this case, Congress still has oversight, but for the most part except in areas of policy where political points can be scored, it's benign.  Except for the restriction on the city's ability to tax non-residents, which even prevents the city from taxing professional athletes.

What this means in practical terms is that a State Legislature doesn't control what the city can do, often at the benefit of exurban and rural areas, and the city keeps all of its income and sales tax revenues, thereby having a more balanced set of revenue streams, compared to most other local jurisdictions which are reliant on property taxes.

There are city-states in other countries such as Mexico City and Paris, which are national capitals, and Hamburg in Germany which is an urban state, but not a national capital.

In those cases, these states are no different than other states/departments in the rest of the country.

Generally a city-state is predominately urban, so it doesn't have bifurcated policy and representation divvied up, often in unfair ways, between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

The Metropolitan Studies Center at Brookings Institution argues that "metropolitan areas" should be the primary way to organize the country at the sub-federal scale, and city-states are one of the best expressions of this idea ("Metropolitan Revolution book review," 2013).

DC is about 60 square miles (1/3 of that is federal land), with more than 700,000 residents.  While it has more residents than some states, it doesn't have voting representation in Congress.

It has an elected mayor and an elected City Council with 13 members -- 4 at large members, a Chairman elected at large, and 8 members each representing a ward.  (And an elected "state" school board which has limited oversight of actual schools.)

By comparison in a typical state, you have a lot more opportunity for holding elected office including seats on local town, city, and county councils, judges and prosecutors, school boards, state representatives and senators, statewide officials like Governor, and federal Representatives and Senators.

The set of Post articles on the primary elections in Ward 2 ("The eight Democratic hopefuls running for Ward 2"), Ward 4 ("In Ward 4 council race, incumbent Brandon T. Todd faces a progressive challenger"), Ward 7 ("Vincent Gray in Ward 7 D.C. Council race faces a long list of challengers"), and Ward 8 ("article to come") where this year even incumbents are facing a fair number of opponents, a number of which whom are worthy of consideration, makes me think of the lost opportunities in having such a restricted number of political representatives.

It could be worth having more Councilmembers, as a way to make politics somewhat more competitive, to provide more opportunities for minority party representation such as Green, Working Families, Socialist Alternative (like in Seattle and Minneapolis) or even Republican.

(Note that many commentators lament that DC lacks political competition.  That's true.  But what they mean is that there aren't Republicans holding office.  But that's not really DC's fault.  The Republican Party has changed and because the city is pretty progressive politically, that doesn't fit with the kinds of Republicans that tend to run these days, who are more out of the wack job side, which is less appealing to urban residents.)

Making DC Council bigger.  The past entry, "Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)" (2013) lists a number of transformational measures for DC City Council and elections.

Summary recommendations

1. Increase the number of wards [or]
2. Increase the number of councilmembers
3. Move the legislature to part-time service and reduced pay
4. Reduce the size of councilmember staff
5. Increase the research capacity of local government
6. Institute term limits for elected officials.
7. Change the date of the primary election to extend the electioneering period.
8. Institute ranked choice voting for local elected officials.
9. Institute additional campaign finance limits for local elections.
10. Create an elected public advocate/ombudsperson.
11. Reconstitute a school board with oversight over pre-K to 12 public education, traditional and charter schools.
12. Build civic capacity and infrastructure.

Such changes are even more relevant today because at the time it was written, DC's population was about 620,000.  Now it's 706,000.  So each ward councilmember today represents 88,000+ residents, when before it was 77,000.

Council districts will be redrawn after this year's Census.  As population has increased in the western side of the city, those districts will shrink in size, while eastern districts will continue to expand westward.

Statehood proposal.  The proposed "Constitution for the State of New Columbia" created in 2016 proposes a 21 member House of Delegates.   It basically proposes a structure comparable to that in my 2013 piece.  8 Legislative districts each with two members, one elected in each two year election cycle, with 4 at large members, two elected in each cycle, and a Speaker of the House elected at large.

There's something to be said for having a unicameral legislature in a small place like DC. But in the current form with 13 members,i t's too easy to pass legislation when you only need 7 votes.

More councilmembers per ward.  One problem with monopoly representation within a ward is that it allows the Councilmember to control much of the political discourse and activity within a ward. 

That's why I suggest that each ward have two councilmembers, each serving a four year term, with a two year overlap. This allows for intra-ward competition and polycentric politics.

If DC went to this format, then I'd recommend an increase in the number of at-large representatives too, from two per election cycle to three for a total of six.

That could be as many 23 Councilmembers including the Chair who generally only votes where there is a tie, which is a lot, but instead of 7 votes you'd need 12 to pass major legislation, and that would be a good thing. Salaries could be reduced some to save a bit of money, which would of course be redirected to having more Council staff.

More wards?
As the city increases in population, shrinking the population of wards by adding to the number could help keep wards more intimate and accessible.

An alternative would be to still have monopoly representation within wards, but to have say 11 or 13 Wards instead of 8.

By adding one more at large representative to each election cycle simultaneously, that would be a Council size of 18 with 11 wards and 20 with 13 wards.

In an 11 ward structure, each Councilmember would represent about 64,000 residents; a 13 ward structure, 54,000 residents.
Ranked choice voting graphic, Pierce County Washington

Ranked choice voting.  So many candidates in the ward primary elections is an argument for ranked choice voting ("D.C. Council?s Ward 2 election is a great argument for ranked choice voting," Post).

It's more complicated, but it allows people to indicate first, second, third, etc. choices, and as candidates are eliminated, a more diverse set of candidates can be elected--note that it's possible, not probable.

DC is most likely to elect Democrats to elected office, but the fact is that the candidates vary considerably in terms of their progressiveness, ethics- ness, raceness, etc.

So the ability to rank candidates would help more progressive candidates get elected when a typical election has multiple "good" candidates running and just one "bad" candidate, and the bad candidate has a built in advantage because his/her supporters don't split their votes.

Peirce County, Washington used ranked choice voting for a couple of elections, but it was repealed in 2009.  This diagram is from the Tacoma News-Tribune circa 2008 and is used with permission.  San Francisco started using ranked choice for local elections in 2005.

Civic infrastructure improvements will be the subject of a separate entry.

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Memorial Day musing | Repositioning failure as success: pandemic; urban revitalization; voter suppression

Seeing this tweet from President Trump:
Today's Front Page of the New York Times is the start of an article consisting of 1,000 names of people who've died from the coronavirus.

Reminded me of my reaction to an op-ed ("The seeds of the H Street ‘miracle’") in the Washington Post, where the DC chapter of LISC made out that the revitalization of H Street NE was in large part the result of the efforts of the H Street Community Development Corporation, a LISC affiliate.

It wasn't.

-- "The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?," 2013

Post riot cleanup of the 800 block of H Street NE, note the Kay Jewelers sign, Alexander Lmanian photoPost riot cleanup of the 800 block of H Street NE, note the Kay Jewelers sign, Alexander Lmanian photo

The commercial district languished for two decades while "being revitalization" (and almost 40 years since the 1968 riots), because the organizing principle of the H Street CDC was that the only value in the neighborhood was the opportunity to assemble and redevelop land that was close to Downtown and Capitol Hill.

HSCDC didn't see value in urbanism, urban design, and the historic qualities of the neighborhood.

Most of the urban renewal projects they and the city undertook had a distinct suburban character which seriously diminished the ability of the area to revive on city appropriate terms.

Eventually, the market righted itself despite the CDC, and it was supplanted by for profit actors.

Rowhouses on 8th Street NE (by Gallaudet University), Washington DC
Photo of rowhouses on the 1100 block of 8th Street NE by Elise Bernard.

(I joke that my involvement in urban revitalization was a form of "blowback" against the H Street CDC.  I was spurred to figure out why, despite upwards of $150 million in projects and new development and proximity to Union Station, Downtown, and the US Capitol and Capitol Hill, the neighborhood still languished.)

Similarly, the Federal Government's response to coronavirus has been a disaster.

The only thing that has separated the US from the UK in its similarly disastrous response--if the US had the rate of death of the UK, instead of about 100,000 deaths at this point, we'd have about 185,000--is the ability of states to act independently of the federal government.

By contrast, local and regional authorities in "England" lack this capability (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Island have devolved powers and do act independently on many dimensions).

So Trump taking credit for the independent action of states really takes the cake.

Of course, this is like the Republican Party taking credit for the end of slavery--this happened 155 years ago--in an attempt to whitewash all the negative things it does today, such as voter suppression targeting the African-American community ("America’s Relentless Suppression of Black Voters," The New Republic).
Although yes, Joe Biden ("Joe Biden's 'white kids' gaffe, and why his slip-ups matter," Washington Post) is hardly the best possible herald the Democratic Party can put up against Donald Trump, in general, or for African Americans ("Black Americans are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic party," Guardian).

That being said, Biden and Trump are in no way equivalent. It does matter who gets elected, as the families of the 100,000 dead from the coronavirus can attest.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

How far has Brand America fallen? The US as a failed state | Las Vegas gets big coronavirus test donation from the United Arab Emirates

I few months back I joked with a co-author of the book Brand America, that the new Brand America under President Trump is "Can't Do. Won't Do. You Do. F*** You."

-- "It's Official.  Brand America is Tanking," Forbes

I see that Nevada is boosting its covid19 testing capacity because of a donation of 200,000 testing kits from the United Arab Emirates ("Las Vegas needed help testing for coronavirus. Then a crown prince stepped in," Los Angeles Times; "After the end of the world: the eerie silence of the Las Vegas Strip," Guardian; "Effects of coronavirus fear hit Las Vegas economy hard," Las Vegas Review-Journal). From the article:
One of the largest mass coronavirus testing sites in Nevada has opened in Las Vegas, a move that puts the city one step closer to reopening its economy. And it might not have been possible without the donation of more than 200,000 test kits, worth as much as $20 million, from the United Arab Emirates.

Within weeks of the coronavirus reaching Las Vegas, members of the public were clamoring to be tested, and hospitals and laboratories were running out of supplies. Nasal swabs were so difficult to come by that some clinics closed, and state officials called on the federal government for help.
AP photo of an empty Las Vegas Strip in March 2020 
Help did arrive in Las Vegas. Supply chains eased, allowing hospitals to buy more tests, and aid trickled in from Washington.

But the intervention that changed the state’s fortunes was a large donation from Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, according to members of Nevada’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force, a group of business leaders supporting the state’s recovery.

Jim Murren, the former chief executive of MGM, who chairs the task force, said this week that the gift was the result of discussions with G42, an Emirati artificial intelligence and cloud-computing company. Although talks initially centered on how to bring back concerts and sports events to Las Vegas during the epidemic, Murren said his counterparts in the United Arab Emirates quickly realized Nevada didn’t have enough test supplies to help stem the spread of the disease.
Las Vegas Strip in 2017.  Photo: Atlantic City Press. 
At the time, the state could only manage to test hundreds, not thousands, of people daily. Those who did get tested endured lengthy wait times for results as their samples were shipped out of state to private labs in California or Arizona that could take as long as two weeks to deliver an answer. By the time state health officials learned someone had tested positive, it was too late to prevent them from spreading the virus. ... 
Nevada has received money and supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but nothing that approaches the scale or the speed of the United Arab Emirates’ donation. [emphasis added] According to state health officials, FEMA has equipped Nevada with 26,000 testing swabs and 25,600 testing transport components. More supplies are on the way, officials said, but the shipments haven’t arrived.

For Murren and others on the task force, the United Arab Emirates’ gift is a sign of the relationships Vegas business leaders have cultivated overseas. But public health experts, who praised the donation, said it was also an indictment of the U.S. government’s halting response. [emphasis added] 
It made me think of "the song" "The Americans" from 1973. I didn't realize originally it was an on air editorial by newscaster Gordon Sinclair from CFRB radio in Toronto.

Instead, I was familiar with the "spoken word" 45 record version by Byron MacGregor, a newscaster at CKLW-AM radio. Back then, "CK" a high-power radio station based in Windsor, Ontario, focused on serving the American market for listeners and advertisers. It was definitely the #1 station in "Detroit."

The record focused on how much the US helps others and gets derided in response.



Obviously, that's the attitude that President Trump has, which has led to his America First agenda. 

Still, it's incredibly damning that the federal government's failure to take the lead in coronavirus testing is so severe that some states are turning to foreign countries for help.

Maybe Gordon Sinclair would think it's an example of the US finally getting back the kind of help it has given to so many others.

Instead I see it as an example of the USA as a "failed state" ("We Are Living in a Failed State," The Atlantic)."  From the LAT:
The Emirati donation “is reflective of the failure of the federal government to step up to its responsibility to make sure that in a time of scarcity every community gets the resources they need to respond to this pandemic,” said Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.
One of the points made in "The Americans" is that at that time only the US made airplanes capable of long distance flights. These days, we have the Boeing 737MAX debacle that includes not just the airplane manufacturer but the failed oversight from its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration.

Another was that the US aid and expertise rebuilt foreign railways in India, France, and Germany. Now, the passenger railroad system in the US is the worst of any major developed nation.

Of course, the UAE isn't a fully benevolent actor either. According to the LAT:
In addition to offering humanitarian relief, the United Arab Emirates has a financial interest in seeing Vegas come back to life. Dubai World, the state-controlled investment vehicle of Dubai, owns half of the sprawling CityCenter complex, which when it opened in 2009 on the Strip was the largest and most expensive private development in the city.
You get what you pay for.  WRT Las Vegas, too it's somewhat ironic. Las Vegas casino operator Sheldon Adelson is a strong investor in President Trump and the Republican Party for support of reduced taxes and an ultraconservative approach to Israel and the Mideast.

The tax cuts favoring the wealthy put hundreds of millions of dollars in Adelson's pocket, which was a pretty good return on his investment in Republican election campaigns, which he continued in both the 2018 and 2020 election cycles ("Sheldon Adelson to donate $100m to Trump and Republicans," Guardian).

Now the financial losses in Las Vegas at the Sands, owned by Adelson, and other casinos because of federal government failures to respond properly to the pandemic has cost all of that and more ("Las Vegas Sands Posts Loss Amid Coronavirus Shutdown," Wall Street Journal). From the article:
Casino operator Las Vegas Sands Corp. reported a 51% drop in revenue, with Las Vegas shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic and reopened casinos in Macau struggling to recover.

On Wednesday, Sands posted $1.78 billion in net revenue for the three months ended March 31, down from $3.6 billion at year earlier. The company had a net loss of $51 million for the quarter, compared with $744 million in net income a year earlier.

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Displacing a problem doesn't solve it: an example of how restrained regulation can cost billions of dollars | Flooding in Mid-Michigan from a dam break

Scenario planning.  I have a review copy of Rob Goodspeed's Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertainties (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, April 2020) to read.

It seems all the more timely given the pandemic failure ("Covid-19: did the UK government prepare for the wrong kind of pandemic?," Guardian).

Risk management.  But there are plenty of other examples of failure such as the Boeing 737Max, the breaching of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, etc.

What it comes down to is risk management.

And government at all levels, but more accurately the top elected officials, don't appear to take a risk management perspective in their approach to governance.

There is the book The Fifth Risk by Michael which discusses risk management and the federal government ("'The Fifth Risk' Paints A Portrait Of A Government Led By The Uninterested," NPR).

It's a great read, but I don't think it is so much about risk management as much as it is about the federal government's role in science policy and programming, and how research leads to better practice that saves lives.

Although a point it repeats by a former official at the Department of Energy, about program and portfolio management as "the fifth risk" and the unwillingness to take enough chances for fear of failure or bad publicity.

Ironically this is the same reason by the Department of the Treasury appears to not be willing to lend money to corporations in the face of the pandemic ("Fear of Risk Could Diminish the Economic Rescue by the Treasury and Fed," New York Times).

The UK's National Risk Register.  Interestingly, the Guardian article mentions that the UK government publishes an annual risk assessment document, the National Risk Register.

Imagine if that document was used not just to set funding priorities, but to build a national consensus about what to worry about and how to address it.

Instead, as with the pandemic, we are having partisan debates about whether it is something to worry about versus a hoax designed to make certain politicians look bad.

From the Guardian:
Tony Blair’s government decided a completely new approach to civil emergencies was required, and established a revised and expanded civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, backed by new legislation.

The ambition was “to create something which was better suited to the way in which the UK is run”, said Bruce Mann, the director of the unit from 2004 to 2010. Civil contingency planning would cascade downwards through tiers of government, he said, all the way from Whitehall to networks of local emergency response groups. ...

the team also had a second responsibility: predicting entirely new risks and anticipating how the government might respond. Within its first year the unit drew up the national risk register, a comprehensive catalogue of all the civil emergencies that could conceivably strike the UK, which continues to be updated annually. At the top of the list – then and now – was an influenza pandemic.
Then again, governments that increasingly denigrate and ignore science make this difficult ("Trump's Response to Virus Reflects a Long Disregard for Science," New York Times).  This has been a Republican priority for some time, out of recognition that various ideologically-driven policies were unsupportable, such as how Newt Gingrich shutdown the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. 

And for awhile now, I've been mulling over a piece by Ezra Klein ("Why we can’t build: America’s inability to act is killing people," Vox) and his book Why We're Polarized about why "we" in this case the federal government, is increasingly unable to act or to accomplish anything--dealing with the coronavirus is merely one more example in a string of failures to act.

Flooding in Midland County Michigan after a dam breach.  A few days ago, in the face of heavy rains -- a so-called 500 year weather event, although the last comparable 500 year weather event in the area was experienced 34 years ago -- the Edenville Dam in Midland County, Michigan was breached in the face of heavy rains ("Thousands evacuate area in Michigan after two dams fail and governor warns one city could see 9 feet of water," CNN).

This lead to the overtopping of another dam, the Scoville, along the Tittabawassee River, and in turn flooding throughout the county, including in Downtown Midland, which had been the long time headquarters of chemical manufacturers Dow Chemical and Dow Corning.

More than 3,500 households have been displaced, and water levels are over 35 feet high in parts of the City of Midland.

Aerial photo of flooding in downtown Midland, Mich., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Photo: Kelly Jordan and Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press).

In the US, dams that generate electricity are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For years, FERC had been issuing notices to the owners of the Edenville Dam about deficiencies ("Feds warned years ago Edenville Dam couldn’t handle a historic flood," MLive).

But the owner, Boyce Hydro LLC, based in Las Vegas, didn't act.

This led to FERC taking away the dam's license to generate electricity in 2018:
out of concern the spillway couldn’t pass enough water to avert a failure during a historic flood. ... 
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) records indicate capacity issues at the Edenville Dam spillway were cited as problematic dating back to the late 1990s.

In a 2018 filing, regulators characterized dam owner Boyce Hydro as chronically non-compliant with regulatory requests to upgrade the dam. FERC wanted Boyce Hydro owner Lee Mueller of Las Vegas, Nev. to build additional spillways to reduce the risk of failure. The dam had six spillways at two sites. ...

Boyce Hydro “has repeatedly failed to comply” with regulators who wanted Mueller to “develop and implement plans and schedules to address the fact that the project spillways are not adequate to pass the probable maximum flood, thereby creating a grave danger to the public,” FERC deputy secretary Nathaniel Davis wrote.
But that didn't lead to the dam getting fixed.

With the removal of the license to generate electricity, the dam was no longer under the authority of FERC.

Oversight was transferred to a State of Michigan agency, the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

But that didn't lead to the dam getting fixed.

And DEGLE issued deficiency notices too and was getting around to dealing with the problem.  Granted unlike FERC which had been asking for action for close to 20 years, DEGLE had only been dealing with the issue for about two years.

Receivership as a model.  Not unlike how I argue with nuisance properties that instead of issuing notices, cities should initiate receivership actions ("Receivership as a strategy for notorious nuisance properties," 2017), clearly the same should go with dams, especially when the potential for catastrophic failure is significant and can cause hundreds of millions of dollars or more in damage.

Although receivership can be costly especially if the corporate entity isn't responsive and doesn't pay to correct the deficiencies.

The ideal solution.  What would have been best was for FERC to seize the revenues generated by the hydroelectricity and used those revenues to pay for repairs and other necessary improvements.


Similarly, regulatory failure in Michigan contributed to the problems with the water system in Flint.

First, Congress gave states authority to regulate intra-state water systems over the EPA.  Second, in most cases, state agencies with this authority regulate with a light hand, at least under Republican Governors.

Inadequate monitoring of the failure of a different state authority led to the failure--all they needed to do was spend $300/month on water treatment chemicals, which they did not do.

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