January 31, 2006
Still Pulling Apart
I'm a couple of days late on this, but it's still worth mentioning the new 2006 "Pulling Apart" report that's just out. Even if you're not a data-geek, it's worth a glance, as it's easily the single best source for income inequality trends in each of the 50 states. Not dying to read it yet?
Are you sure?
It's chock full of fun facts like this one:
On average, nationally, the incomes of the poorest fifth of families grew by $2,660 over the two decade period [early 1980s to early 2000s], after adjusting for inflation. By contrast, the incomes of the richest fifth of families grew by almost that much ($2,148) each year over the course of two decades, for a total increase of $45,100.
You can find out how your state fared. And you can find out which Northwest state ranked 3rd in the nation for the greatest increase between the wealthy and the middle class. But you'll have to read the report for yourself--the full version and state-specific fact sheets are here.
The report is subtitled, "A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends," which pretty much says it all (though perhaps not in the most sparkling language imaginable). It's researched and written by economists at the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
January 30, 2006
Food vs. Shelter: The Planning Debate
In the debate over growth management, it's easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it's us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.
Oregon's land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a good series on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.
Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.
Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.
And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it's important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there's scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.
I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.
But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.
A Post-mortem For Coastal Birds
Cascadians suffering through this winter's unending rain may hearken back to the balmy winter of last year, when the rains didn't really begin until spring. Last year's freak weather, however, together with changes in ocean current behavior, may have been an advance signal of climate change with decidedly unpretty results for coastal ecosystems, particularly for birds.
By summer of 2005, food was so scare that murres starved to death by the thousands on the Olympic Coast, while Washington's colonies of glaucous-winged gulls produced less than 1 percent of their annual chick numbers. Up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver Island to central California, researchers reported bizarre ocean conditions, bird die-offs (with no analogy in historical records), and extremely low stocks of some key fish.
A cadre of 45 scientists recently convened in Seattle to figure out what caused the bird deaths. It's possible that last summer's ecological catastrophe was just a freak alignment of several weather factors, but there's increasing evidence that it bears the fingerprints of climate change. Read all about it in a top-notch piece of journalism by Robert McClure in the Seattle P-I.
January 27, 2006
Interesting timing: this study (subscription only, except for the abstract), just published in the journal Science, may give a boost to the biofuels bill that's currently working its way through the Washington legislature.
The study addressed itself to the issue of whether ethanol from corn really reduces greenhouse gas emissions -- which has been an area of fairly intense interest among both supporters and skeptics of biofuels.
To me, it looks like the authors really did their homework, and have done their best to be conduct a fair analysis that takes the best points from all sides of the debate. Their final answer: compared with gasoline, filling your tank with corn ethanol reduces total GHG emissions by about 13 percent. Score a point for ethanol!
As fair as the paper seems, it probably won't end the controversy; David Pimentel, one of corn ethanol's main detractors, has already dismissed the study as "another pro-ethanol paper".
And, as with everything, the devil's in the details; and for a system as complicated as corn ethanol production there are a lot of details. For example -- and pardon me if this is getting too geeky -- I'm not sure whether the authors accounted for the 1 percent or so of nitrogen fertilizers that are applied to cornfields, but then get volatilized and released into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. NO2 is a potent greenhouse gas, about 310 more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so even small releases can make a difference. If the authors haven't accounted for that, then the GHG gains of ethanol may be substantially lower than the paper suggests -- perhaps a 3 percent improvement rather than 13 percent.
But one thing that the paper does make clear is that cellulosic ethanol -- made from woody material or straw -- at least has the potential to be lead to really substantial reductions in GHG emissions. If a modest biofuels bill can help jumpstart interest in cellulosic ethanol, it seems like it could be well worth the effort.
The Roads Ahead
A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.
A History of Selling the Suburbs
"Making Headway: A Little Logic Along Life's Journey." That's the helpful title of an advertising brochure--circa 1930 or so--promoting what was then ex-urban development in north Seattle. I thought the ad copy was so intriguing that I just had to share some excerpts...
No one who is normal can be content to remained imprisoned within the four walls of the modern stuffy apartment, with its lack of yard, grass plot, flower beds and garden for the kiddies' play and the family food.
Life to you must mean more than that. It must have freedom of both air and area to fully develop.
These, too, without the penalty of city taxes and with less expenditure of travel time than is experienced in many massed and narrowed neighborhoods.
Get your feet off the hard, distressing pavement of the city for at least the evening period of the day.
Leave behind the unattractive canyons of trade and turmoil. Rest your nerves and your soul for the next day's problems.
Do this midst your own fragrant flowers--on your own clover meadows, surrounded by the fruits of your own handiwork. THIS IS REAL LIVING.
All through life the worth-while man and woman yearns for just these things: an acre of rich, fragrant, deep meadow soil--surely a scarce commodity in Western Washington--that responds gladly to the vigorous and intelligent touch of ambitious and loving hands.
Now is the logical time to acquire that "DREAM PLACE." Values have never been so reasonable, and with real soil as the basis, your investment is sure to increase in value.
In a very few years any productive soil ten miles from the busy center will be considered choice and in great demand. VALUES WILL INCREASE considerably.
Hard surfaced highways and automobiles have brought the outer fringes of the city close enough in to suit particular people.
These tracts are but a mile beyond the city limits... YOU ARE NOT TAXED TO THE BONE.
How often have you felt that craving for the larger opportunity, the greater area for expansion, the garden of your dreams, where the wife and kiddies could relax without that dress-parade attitude, secure from public gaze?
This is hardly possible when confined to a midget city lot, and certainly impossible in a stuffy, noisy flat.
Love, health, freedom of action; an environment of lawns, blossoming trees, trailing berry vines, roses, and the succulent vegetable bed--all are a part of that dream, that yearning for better and bigger things. THEY ARE YOURS TO COMMAND.
TWENTY MINUTES in your own car from Pike and Fourth, or not more than a half-hour by comfortable auto bus, over the paved Bothell Highway, will land you at A REAL HOME.
Whether a merchant, manufacturer or salaried worker, you can live, laugh, and "be one with nature" in these fields of growing things, while less than a half-hour away by auto to the busy marts... the "maddening throng" of the stuff and noisy city will have no evening charms for you.
I'm not intending to cast aspersions. One of my favorite things about my new house, is the small backyard. The allure of outdoor space and a connection to nature, however mediated by civilization, is a strong one for home buyers. Still, it's interesting to see how the new developments were sold with promises of restorative nature; while the certainty that those green places would disappear was used to sell the homes' future appreciation. Something of an irony, I think.
(Credit for finding the brochure to Todd Burley, outreach coordinator at Homewaters Project--and former NEW intern extraordinaire. He leads walks through the now fully urbanized Thornton Creek watershed where these homes were built.)
January 26, 2006
What's the Matter with Canada?
Oh, Canada … The country that prides itself as the social-policy soul-mate of Scandinavia--with universal health care, progressive drug policies, gay marriage, and yes, even legalized swingers’ clubs, of late--has elected as its leader a former oil-and-gas man from Alberta, the Canadian equivalent of Texas. Huh?
On Monday, Canada’s Conservative Party won the majority of seats in parliament, ousting the once-formidable Liberal Party from power for the first time in 13 years. Paul Martin, who became prime minister in 2004, resigned as head of the Liberal Party.
What’s an American Cascadian to think?
Well, Canada has four major political parties (the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois), so what may look like a sudden and unexpected upheaval is actually a more nuanced election than you typically get in the United States. Mix in the biggest political corruption investigation in years (the “sponsorship scandal,” which involved widespread mishandling of a public fund used to promote federalism over separatism in Quebec), and you have a race that the incumbent Liberal government was itching to lose.
Upon closer inspection, the vote was tight, and the Conservatives, or the Tories as they’re known north of the border, are left with a minority government--only 124 out of 308 seats in parliament--which means they have to reach out to other parties and form a coalition to actually govern. In fact, they only received 36.3 percent of the popular vote.
A mandate it ain’t.
And in Canada’s three biggest cities--Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver--it was a shut out. The Conservative Party won zero seats.
In British Columbia, there was a certifiable progressive resurgence. The New Democrat Party (NDP), social democrats to the left of the Liberals, doubled their seats, largely through scrappy, narrow victories in diverse metropolitan neighborhoods like Vancouver’s Kingsway. (This follows strong gains for the NDP in the provincial election last May, when the NDP recovered from the total annihilation of 2001, which left them with a pathetic one seat in BC’s legislative assembly. In the May 2005 provincial election, many voters were reacting to the sweeping government cutbacks provincial leader Gordon Campbell unleashed on the province after he became premier in 2001.)
The Tories lost BC seats, even in rural regions dominated by resource industries. Areas like Northern Vancouver Island, the Southern Interior, and the North all elected NDP candidates.
How will the election affect environmental policy?
Campbell is still the premier of British Columbia, and most land-use planning decisions will be decided on his watch.
But with only 21 more seats than the Liberals, the Conservative party is in no position to throw out Kyoto. Many Canadians are proud of the leadership role their country has played in finding global solutions to climate change, including hosting the Montreal conference last November.
One hot BC issue is the longstanding federal moratorium on oil-and-gas drilling off the BC coast. The NDP incumbent 33-year-old Nathan Cullen, won out over Conservative Party candidate Mike Scott, who was campaigning on the promise to lift the moratorium.
Cullen campaigned to safeguard the coast from drilling, strengthen aboriginal rights and title, and battle the encroachment of fish farms. The area he represents as a member of parliament is no progressive oasis. Stretching from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way to Fort St. John, it’s full of cash-strapped communities and forests decimated by Asian pine beetles.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Canadian election is the emergence of Liberal star Michael Ignatieff. This ex-pat--a Harvard professor, frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and human rights activist--returned to Ontario at the start of this eight-week campaign to run for office and clean up the Liberals. He won a seat in parliament, and he’s now vying for party leader. Some have crowned him the Liberals’ new philosopher-king, and, perhaps, Canada’s future prime minister.
Puget Sound: Cruisin' For a Bruisin'
Washington's leaders have been making a lot of noise about cleaning up Puget Sound. Governor Gregoire wants to boost Sound restoration dollars by $42 million, or about 50 percent. It's earning the governor heaps of glowing media attention.
But the media has turned a blind eye to the astronomical number of cruise ships poised to foul local waters. A single line, Holland America, just announced that it will be increasing its cruises out of Seattle from 37 to 61. In 2006, according to the Port of Seattle, 200 cruise ships with enter and depart Puget Sound (roughly a 30 percent increase from 2005) and they'll ferry an estimated 735,000 people. Those cruise ships are potential ecological catastrophes, especially when their dumping practices are not actually, uh, regulated, as they are in California and Alaska.
What damage can a cruise ship do? According to WashPIRG:
In a day, a typical cruise ship of 3,000 passengers and crew produces 30,000 gallons of sewage, 270,000 gallons of other wastewater, and additional gallons of hazardous wastes, biomedical waste, oily bilge water, and solid waste.
You do the math. What I mean is: multiply each of those numbers by 200, then multiply again by the number of days each ship is in the Sound, and you'll find the potential environmental impact of just one year of the cruise industry. And the threat to Puget Sound is not just hypothetical. A Norwegian cruise line dumped 40 tons of human waste near Whidbey Island a couple of years ago. Oops.
At present, the cruise industry in Washington is governed with the lightest of hands--unenforceable memorandums of understanding, rather than genuine legislation. What's the solution? Real legislation to prevent dumping with real enforcement mechanisms. Levying a per-head remediation fee in advance of another "mistake" wouldn't be a bad idea either.
Adding to the list of insults, the cruise ships mostly burn low-grade dirty diesel--despite promises to the contrary--and it may be fouling the air in downtown Seattle with carcinogens. I'd welcome additional legislation regulating cruise ship emissions too.
Unfortunately there's scant reason to believe Washington will get real enforcement because the issue has been largely overlooked by the media (and hence it's invisible to most citizens). Perhaps too busy heaping praise on the Puget Sound clean-up proposals, Seattle's media outlets have pretty much ignored the cruise ship catastrophe. I could find only one mention of the Port's announcement to dramatically increase cruises in 2006--and that was buried in a boosterish article in the P-I's business section--and no mention of the additive environmental effects. Have I missed something? Or is it just being ignored?
January 25, 2006
Peak Oil in Rural Oregon
The Ashland Daily Tidings has an interesting (though brief) article exploring what, exactly, might happen in their corner of southern Oregon if oil prices keep going up. To me, it's good to see people thinking more about this. Not just because it will help people prepare for the adjustments that will be needed should oil become progressively dearer -- but also because it might help shift people's thinking about what kinds of transitions might be possible, or even desirable, even if oil prices flatten out or decline.
But I do think that a word of caution is in order -- if energy prices do continue to trend upwards, we're going to have to take a cold and steely-eyed look at our proposed solutions to help people cope. Some of them, however well-intentioned, just might not cut it.
Note, for instance, this comment by a environmentally inclined local leader in Ashland, who thinks that mass transit would be a great solution for high energy costs in rural areas...
"We [already] have a free bus service, but it doesn’t get you to where you want to go,” he said, noting that it is inconvenient to commute between Ashland and other area towns and that the bus only runs along the main transportation lines.
Most mass transit is based on high-density use, he said. But what Ashland really needs is low density use, he added. He said a system of vans that operate like airport shuttle buses could be the answer.
“Imagine a bunch of little vans zipping around town taking you where you want to go door to door,” he said. “It would be great in our town. The whole key would be a computerized dispatch system” that would alert drivers as to where someone needed to be picked up.
Sounds nice, no? Instead of driving a car, you just call a van that picks you up at your home and takes you straight to your destination -- and call another one when you need to go home. Convenient? Yes. Costly? Almost certainly -- especially if you have to pay drivers, which is one of the major costs even in dense urban areas. Energy-efficient? Not so much, I'd wager, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.
The problem is that it's really, really hard to provide cost-effective, energy-efficient transit service to a population that's spread out over the landscape. I can conceive of energy-efficient transit between densely populated villages dotting a rural landscape. (Old European farming towns come to mind.) But as a general rule, the more elbow room people have around their homes, the farther they have to travel to get to everyday destinations; and the farther they have to travel, the more energy they use to do so.
My point: high energy prices might do more than force a reconception of how we get from place to place; it may force us to redesign our places. And--especially for those of us accustomed to both to the solitude of the country and the amenities of the city--a steady rise in energy costs could force a reevaluation of whether we really need so much elbow room.
Two interesting -- and a bit disturbing -- pieces of toxics news today.
First, several news outlets are reporting on a new study, coming out of UC Berkeley, showing that mixtures of several environmental contaminants (in this case, pesticides) can be far more potent than higher concentrations of a single compound. The problem is especially bad for frog populations -- which, as frog-watchers everywhere will tell you, are in particularly bad shape.
Second, there's this new report, put together by two breast cancer groups:
As many as half of all new breast cancers may be foisted upon woman by pollutants in the environment, triggered by such items as bisphenol-A lining tin cans or radiation from early mammograms, according to a review of recent science by two breast cancer groups.
No comments here, except that, perhaps--just perhaps--the former study might help explain the latter.