Friday, December 27, 2013

Botanists Gear up for Second Phase of Red List Project

Not so mighty: The IUCN Red List in July reported that a third of all conifers are under threat due to logging and disease.
Museum scientists are planning the next stage of a study to reveal the global destruction of plant life. It is the second phase of a collaborative project between the Museum, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which began in 2005. The information from the study feeds into the Red List Index, an online barometer of animals, plants, insects and fish at risk of extinction, produced twice-yearly by the IUCN.

The first phase, completed in 2010, was a desk-based analysis of some of the six million plant specimens in the Museum's herbarium collection and the seven million at Kew to monitor the status of the world's plants.

The specimens have been collected over hundreds of years by thousands of botanists, including Charles Darwin, and are preserved for study in the collections. They provide data to show where certain plants have been living in the past.

Darwin meets Google Earth

The team then used satellite imagery, including from Google Earth, to compare the historic data with what can be seen living on the ground and used to illustrate which habitats have been reduced or destroyed altogether. Assessments of different areas then allowed them to create a map of hotspots of plant diversity and threatened species.

The researchers concluded in 2010 that more than 20 per cent of the world's plants, or one in five, are threatened with extinction, with a further 10 per cent classified as near threatened.

Truth on the Ground

The second phase of the project, for which funds are being sought, involves going out into the field, or ground-truthing, to measure the desktop assessment with the situation on the ground, to plot decline and target certain areas for conservation. Some plants on the Red List haven't been seen for 150 years.

Other species have never been seen on the ground and are only known from the scientific paper where they are first described. There have even been cases of plants newly discovered in a collection that have already gone extinct in the wild.

Loss of Habitat

The overwhelming threat to natural habitat is anthropogenic (caused by human activity), through habitat conversion to agriculture, for development or mining, or through the introduction of invasive species.

'A good example of this is the volcanic island of St Helena in the south Atlantic, where several species of a shrub, Trochetiopsis, were indigenous', said Museum botanist Neil Brummitt, who has worked on the project from the beginning.

'Local deforestation for fuel and ship-building, as well as for agriculture, disturbed the habitat, which was then put under further pressure by the introduction of goats by the Royal Navy to feed sailors stationed on the island. The goats fed on the endemic species, causing havoc to the island's ecosystem. '

Biodiversity Jigsaw

The latest Red List, published last month, assessed 71,576 species of animals, plants, insects and fish and reported that 21,286 are under threat.

'If you can't preserve everything, it becomes a value judgement deciding what to preserve,' Brummitt said. 'We're losing a large proportion of the world's biodiversity without knowing what the knock-on effect will be on other species, such as birds and insects. We're losing pieces of a biodiversity puzzle.'

Eighty per cent of calories consumed by people around the world come from just 12 species of plants.

'Plants provide the foundation for the entire world's ecosystems,' Brummitt said. 'Biodiversity is important because it's essential not to rely on a handful of species to provide the ecosystem services most developed countries still depend on, for food, shelter and clean water.'

Monday, December 23, 2013

Antibiotic Resistance Spreads to Birds, Other Wildlife

Antibiotic Resistant: New research, including a study of crow feces, provides evidence that antibiotic resistance has spread beyond hospitals and farms to wildlife. Image: Linda Tanner/ Flickr

New research provides evidence that antibiotic resistance has spread beyond hospitals and farms to wildlife

Back in the laboratory, Ellis’ colleagues combed through the feces. Testing its bacteria, they discovered something unusual – genes that make the crows resistant to antibiotics.
Drug-resistant infections are a fast-growing threat to human health, due largely to overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and livestock production, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 2 million people each year in the United States alone are sickened by infections resistant to drugs.

Now new research, including the crow poop study conducted in four states, provides evidence that antibiotic resistance has spread beyond hospitals and farms to wildlife. Some experts worry that contaminating wildlife with such genes may hasten the spread of drug resistance. Nevertheless, the consequences for human health remain poorly understood.

“We’ve documented human-derived drug resistance where it shouldn’t be – in wildlife and the environment. But we know very little about how this may impact public health. There just isn’t that smoking gun,” said Ellis, a research scientist at Tufts University’s veterinary school. In addition to crows, resistance genes have been detected in gulls, houseflies, moths, foxes, frogs, sharks and whales, as well as in sand and coastal water samples from California and Washington. The spread to wildlife is “an indicator of the wide-reaching scale of the problem. Microbes connect the planet,” said Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.

The spread to wildlife is “an indicator of the wide-reaching scale of the problem. Microbes connect the planet,” said Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.

“The danger is that we enter a post-antibiotic era in which even our last-line drugs won’t work and routine infections become life-threatening,” he said. While antibiotics have revolutionized medicine in less than 100 years, antibiotic-producing bacteria have existed in nature for millions of years. Natural antibiotics likely evolved as weapons in a biological arms race between competing bacteria. But the environmental drug resistance that Ellis and others are now seeing is different – it’s manmade.

“What has changed is that we’ve placed great selective pressure on bacteria with our use of antibiotics,” said Ludek Zurek, a microbiologist at Kansas State University who participated in the crow study. Bacteria can swap genes with one another, so those that survive can pass along the genetic equipment to withstand an antibiotic assault to unrelated bacterial strains, spreading resistance across the globe, microbe by microbe.

“Those bacteria that pick up resistance genes survive better in an environment where antibiotics are being used. They can outcompete all the other bacteria,” said Price, who advocates against the use of antibiotics in livestock.

In the crow research, scientists collected nearly 600 fecal samples in four states – Massachusetts, Kansas, New York and California. Fifteen of the crows sampled, about 2.5 percent, harbored genes for resistance to vancomycin, a drug of last resort for hard-to-treat hospital-acquired infections. Crows with the resistance genes were found in all of the states except California.

“The vancomycin resistance gene is rare [in environmental samples], so the fact that they readily found it in crows is significant,” said Amy Pruden, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who studies antibiotic resistance genes as emerging contaminants in water bodies. What’s alarming, say the researchers, is that some of the vancomycin-resistant bacteria in the crows were resistant to several other antibiotics widely used in human medicine and livestock feed. It’s very difficult to trace the resistance back to a source.

“Because birds are so mobile, it’s possible they may acquire resistance genes from multiple sources in their travels,” said Ellis. “Maybe they visit a dumpster or sewage treatment plant one day and later a farmer’s field.” The source of antibiotic-resistance cannot always be determined because many drugs are used both in human and animal medicine. However, the vancomycin resistance in the wild crows bears the signature of a human clinical source, the study authors concluded.

They speculate that waste sites may be a potential source of the crows’ bacteria. “Traditional wastewater treatment approaches may not destroy genetic material,” Pruden said. Much of the research on drug resistance has focused on hospitals and healthcare settings. The CDC estimates that 50 percent of all antibiotics prescribed to people are not needed.

More recently, researchers have begun to turn their attention to the environment as a source of drug resistance. Many more tons of antibiotics are used in U.S. livestock production – to prevent and treat disease and to promote growth – than in human medicine. An estimated 30,000 tons of antibiotics each year are sold for use in food-producing animals. “People who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections,” according to a CDC report issued in September. It’s unclear what role, if any, crows and other wild animals may play in hastening the spread of these infections or creating new ones. “Wildlife may be an important piece of the puzzle,” Pruden said. “It’s certainly an area that warrants more research.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Next Generation of Infrastructure

Shanghai, China. Image © Scott Muller
by Scott Muller

The next generation of urban infrastructure will not be built. This is to say, that a sustainable future will not come from new technologies. Urgent demand is already overwhelming adequate risk management and urban governance capacities. While indeed carbon-free light rail, driverless cars and desalination plants will be in unquenchable demand, none of it will happen successfully without a bankable environment that aggressively manages the social, political, financial and environmental risks of new infrastructure. The barriers to the next generation of infrastructure [1] are neither technical nor financial; rather they’re social and political. Effectively responding to the unprecedented need for urban infrastructure hinges on the successful process over the high-tech outcome.

New Urban Dynamics

Cities have replaced national governments as the de facto drivers of global economic growth and human development. In fact, 300 of the largest metro economies worldwide, containing just 19% of the world’s population, delivered nearly half of the global economic output in 2011 [2]. A recent analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute reveals that by 2025, more than two thirds of global GDP will be produced by just 600 cities – the majority of them in emerging countries [3].

But importantly, economic growth does not alone create stability. Spanning from the least to the most developed, the fate of cities is one of increasing vulnerability to climate change, resource scarcity and rapid population growth.


By the year 2030 world urban population will increase to nearly 5 billion persons (1.35 billion more than present), increasing the planet’s urban area by an astonishing 150% in less than 20 years. Sixty percent of the area to be urban by 2030 has yet to be built [4]. Contrary to the trend of the 20th century, the majority of this urban growth (and commensurate economic growth) will occur in developing countries and mainly in second-tier and lower cities. From now to 2030, the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million people in developing countries every five days. Their intense demand for the rapid construction of new infrastructure threatens their already challenged risk management and urban governance capacities.

Nexus Issues

Incongruous to this rapid urbanization, is the reality that current growth is no longer supported by sustainable inputs, as we are already 50% in “overshoot.” In other words, human systems are presently using 50% more than the annual productivity and assimilating capacity of the planet’s ecosystems [5]. This unsustainable consumption of ecosystem services to subsidize the growth of cities is progressing ever farther along the urban-to-rural gradient. One result is an ominous energy-water-food nexus of demand confronting city, regional and national decision makers.

As urbanization reaches farther beyond its geopolitical borders to satisfy ever-greater metabolic demands, rural communities and families are linearly assimilated into “foreign” urban economies, with marked social and cultural impacts. Families with rural legacies can be insurmountably challenged by joining an urban economy yet remaining spatially disconnected from services. In the end, urban migration is more often not so much a quest for economic prosperity, as it is a survival strategy for the rurally displaced.

Climate Change

Continued urban development is made more complex by a third, interrelated, crosscutting element: climate change. Increasing climate disruptions are changing the fundamental rules of city planning and administration. Rapid climate change is altering both the risk (threats) and the fitness (responses) landscapes of cities. Unfamiliar risks and new statistical criteria have rendered historical “business-as-usual” strategies increasingly ineffective and detrimental with direct implications on safety, quality of life and the economic performance of cities. Uncertainty is now a fundamental core element of urban development, along with non-linear growth patterns, runaway positive feedback/ cascading failures, hidden thresholds and irrevocable tipping points. The rapidly reshaping insurance industry is but one example of shifting solutions – with increased disaster intensities and frequencies, the utility of insurance to guarantee major new infrastructure investments becomes increasingly untenable.

Manchay, Lima, Peru. Image © Scott Muller

The Managerial and Policy Challenge

As urban economies mature in developing countries, and as cities become increasingly more vulnerable, their decision-making power is rising and yet becoming more complex at the same time. The speed of urbanization and the new risk landscape present a profound managerial and policy challenge for municipalities. Cities and metropolitan governments are now obligated to deal with exponential rates of urban immigration; protect and conserve the surrounding landscapes and ecosystem services sourced outside their geopolitical boundaries; ensure sufficient energy supplies for their industry and residents; finance, construct and maintain hard infrastructure; respond to the pressing challenge of sea level rise; attract private industry and foreign investment; negotiate with multilateral development banks (MDBs) and engage with foreign government official development assistance (ODA).

Spanning from the least to the most developed, the fate of cities is one of increasing vulnerability to climate change, resource scarcity and rapid population growth. The fate of the world has become the fate of cities. There has emerged with great immediacy, a revolutionary worldwide discourse on how to best make cities more sustainable: building resilience, enabling transformation and de-risking the economy.

Addressing Vulnerabilities

The thoughtful development and management of new infrastructure is a powerful way to de-risk cities. But often overlooked in the speculative, investment driven rush to build, is the fact that infrastructure impacts the sustainability of urban systems in several ways; some of them less immediately apparent to elected officials.

Infrastructure’s impact on urban sustainability includes positive performance gains, but additionally, it can also create negative pathway dependencies and the commensurate loss of “optionality.” However, thirdly and most importantly, the demand for urban infrastructure creates a unique circumstance – when often disparate socioeconomic groups briefly share an orbit around an issue involving a public good or a common pool resource. This is a critical opportunity to generate and strengthen urban social capital – the key success attribute for the next generation of infrastructure.

Estimates suggest that US$ 53 trillion must be spent on infrastructure worldwide by 2030 to adequately manage the rapid growth of cities [6]. In 2011, the High Level Panel on Infrastructure for Recommendations to the G20 pointed out that the key constraint to infrastructure development is not a lack of funding. After all, financing can technically be created to support low-risk investments. Rather, they identify the principal barrier to rapid infrastructure development as the absence of a strong pipeline of bankable projects [7]. This is to say, infrastructure projects must be low-risk to qualify as “bankable.” Infrastructure in developing countries is an asset class highly vulnerable to political, regulatory and execution risk. Therefore, managing the social, political, financial and environmental risk of infrastructure projects should be the priority when pursuing the performance gains of new infrastructure.

The most important investment a city can make today is developing integrated, cross-disciplinary capacity within the “infrastructure development process,” and the commensurate tools and methods to mitigate the social, political, and financial risks. Building this systemic capacity allows successful urban development along a range of fronts, among them the “next generation” of infrastructure.

To create goal-seeking behavior towards sustainability and avoid the development of unsafe slums and unsupportable resource-intensive path dependencies, it becomes essential that all sectors of civil society have a seat at the table to participate in the selection, design, launch, management and perhaps ownership of infrastructure projects.

Collective Actions and Horizon Lines

Cities are Human-Environment Systems (HES), appreciably comprised of common pool resources and public goods. These interact in ever-shifting equations to one day ostensibly arrive at an equitable, circular economy.

HES are considered to be complex adaptive systems because they consist of influential, interacting smaller systems that self-organize as a whole. As they grow, the challenging issues of overuse and equity must continually be addressed. More specifically, growing cities are subject to social dilemmas and the problems of collective action and inter-temporal resource allocation. Collective action challenges in cities relate to the fact that individuals and subgroups make decisions based on particular desires without considering the impacts their decisions may have for others in society. Inter-temporal resource allocation dilemmas involve individuals and subgroups making decisions locally in time (short time horizon, or equivalently applying a high discount rate) without considering the long term/ global consequences of these choices.

As a complex adaptive system, HES can demonstrate goal-seeking behavior. So it is important to point out that the rapid expansion of cities is not impeded by the absence of adequate planning, transportation, housing, finance or attention to risks. Rapid urbanization occurs whether infrastructure is planned or not; “electricity and cable are first stolen and later gentrified” [8]. To create goal-seeking behavior towards sustainability and avoid the development of unsafe slums and unsupportable resource-intensive path dependencies, it becomes essential that all sectors of civil society have a seat at the table to participate in the selection, design, launch, management and perhaps ownership of infrastructure projects. Citizen access to and participation in public decision making, along with building coalitions and multi-sector partnerships will not only significantly increase the success of infrastructure projects, it will also unlock latent circular economies and subsequently advance the sustainability of the Human-Environment System.

The Renewable Power of Shared Learning

One method to efficiently enable integrated capacity and multi-sector collaboration along the infrastructure development process is by creating peer learning environments among municipal government officials as well as civil society. Research demonstrates that the bottom-up accumulation of knowledge by professionals via peer-to-peer learning experiences is one of the most important factors in the types of projects and policies that make their way into successful strategic planning and policy proposals [9]. Peer learning builds capacities of all stakeholders and decision-makers, promoting effective functioning beyond a single project, including the next generation of infrastructure.

Over the past four years, the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) has developed a methodology for creating shared learning environments, culminating in the organization of Sustainable Community Leadership Academies (SCLA) with the explicit purpose to accelerate urban climate adaptation and sustainability [10]. These intensive three-day academies bring together 10-15 multidisciplinary teams of 5 or 6 senior level practitioners and municipal government officials from cities and metropolitan areas. To date, teams from more than 400 cities have participated in these Leadership Academies, generating a wealth of results, tools, and networks that can accessed by anyone.

Seoul, Korea. Image © Scott Muller
This past April 15-17 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Mississippi Sea Grant Consortium [11] and ISC kicked off an 8 month “Gulf Coast Community Resilience Program.” Utilizing ISC’s peer-learning methodology, leaders from 6 Gulf Coast communities created an informal network to advance and accelerate resilience. During the workshop, the practitioners shared experiences and tools, each identifying two to three key implementation ideas to apply in their communities over the summer. Tailored technical assistance within the informal network will help the participating Gulf Coast communities apply their resilience implementation ideas. In the fall, the same six communities will come together again for a follow-up Climate Leadership Academy (CLA) to share results and lessons learned, solidifying the informal network.

One highlight during the April CLA plenary was when Dr. Pam Jenkins of the University of New Orleans’ CHART [12] Program facilitated a community mapping clinic. Using a structured process, each community team identified coastal adaptation initiatives that led to “therapeutic” or “corrosive” communities. For example, after the recent Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, factions with differing interests and opinions on financial settlement options led to a “corrosive” community atmosphere. On the other hand, after recent natural disasters, many teams sponsored “therapeutic” community celebrations that featured actionable dialogue on coastal adaptation strategies. As a result of the clinic, community leaders now have the tools to foster therapeutic approaches for the design of climate-adaptive infrastructure choices.

Internationally, another contemporary example of cities using peer learning to develop the next generation of climate-adaptive infrastructure is occurring in Southeast Asia. ASEAN [13] cities are some of the fastest growing in the world, and yet at the same time, some of the most vulnerable to climate change – forcing more adaptive approaches to urban development. As a result, city practitioners across the region are designing and building more resilient, ecologically integrated urban infrastructure, engaging their populations in inclusive decision-making, and collaborating across jurisdictions. These activities are generating innovations and investment opportunities that are shaping growth throughout the region. In a partnership between U.S. cities and ASEAN member states, ten teams of senior municipal officials from second- and third-tier cities will be participating in an SCLA on Urban Adaptation next August, [14] with a primary focus on sharing lessons of managing the social, political, financial and environmental risks of urban infrastructure. After the SCLA, a selection of cities will participate in partnerships with U.S. Cities to gain more exposure to innovative approaches, good governance tools and appropriate infrastructure technologies.

The results of ISC’s Leadership Academies across diverse cities and broad geographical range, support the research that concludes shared learning environments and exchange among practitioners can effectively overcome information overload as well as resource constraints, spawning innovation and greatly increase the likelihood of policy transfer [15]. What’s more, peer learning affords practitioners the ability to not only learn from their colleagues, but also to teach them – offering a sense of empowerment. Growing and strengthening the leadership capacity of these municipal leaders builds the overall profile of the profession – the resources generated from peer learning provides a core knowledge base for city sustainability practitioners and civil society organizations.

Going Forward

So while infrastructure is a key physical and technological asset of cities – representing critical capital investment – more important is the knowledge, shared ownership and collaboration that the next generation of urban infrastructure embeds in the Human Environment System. Successful public infrastructure is a legacy to the surmounted social dilemmas, collective action challenges and path dependencies resolved leading up to its construction.

The next punctuated equilibrium will not come from advanced or new technologies. Rather it will emerge from shared learning, multi-sector coalitions, integrated planning, public-private partnerships, the skillful advocacy of civil society and good governance. This is how to best reframe urban development and economic growth to include the capacity of the biosphere.

[1]  The next generation of infrastructure is defined by its service to urban sustainability.
[2]  Metropolitan Policy Program, Global Metro-Monitor 2012: Slowdown, Recovery, and Interdependence. (Report, Brookings Institution, 2012).  Accessible at global metro monitor/30 global monitor.pdf
[3]  McKinsey Global Institute, 2012.  Urban world: Mapping the economic power of cities. (Report, McKinsey & Company, March 2011) Available at and pubs/MGI/Research/Urbanization/Urban world mapping economic power of cities/MGI_urban_world_mapping_economic_power_of_cities_full_report.ashx
[4]  Seto, Karen C., Burak Güneralp, and Lucy R. Hutyra. “Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 40 (2012): 16083-16088.
[5]  Wackernagael, M. et. al. 2002. “Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economcy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. July 9, 2002 vol. 99 no. 14
[6]  OECD, Strategic Transport, Infrastructure Needs to 2030.  (Report, OECD, March 2012) ISBN 978-92-64-16862-6.
[7]  Thiam, Tidjane -Chairman. High Level Panel on Infrastructure, Recommendations to G20 (Final Report. 26 October 2011).
[8]  Brand, Stewart. Whole earth discipline; an ecopragmatist manifesto. Atlantic Books, 2010.
[9]  Marsden, Greg, Karen Trapenberg Frick, Anthony D. May, and Elizabeth Deakin. “Bounded rationality in policy learning amongst cities: lessons from the transport sector.” Environment and Planning A 44, no. 4 (2012): 905-920.
[10]  “Sustainable Communities Leadership Forum,” Institute for Sustainable Cities. Accessed 5/22/2013 at
 [11]  NOAA, “Home” Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. Accessed 5/22/2013 at
[12]  “Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology,” University of new Orleans. Accessed 5/22/2013 at
[13]  Association of South East Asian Nations
[14]  “A Climate Leadership Academy on Urban Adaptation: From Risk Barrier to Results,” ICMA, CityLinks and USAID. Accessed 5/22/2013 at
[15]  McCann, Eugene. “Urban policy mobilities and global circuits of knowledge: toward a research agenda.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101, no. 1 (2011): 107-130.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Two Views of the Condition of American Cities

Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Jeffrey Bruce
Remarkably, the past week saw the release of two major publications detailing the condition of American cities, both from respected authors but each taking a very different view of things. Let’s compare them. (Warning: this is not a short blog post; there is too much meat in these publications to address glibly.)

by Kaid Benfield

The glass is mostly full, and it’s exciting

First up is the eagerly awaited The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, by the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. (Full disclosure: I know and like Bruce, and am a huge fan of the work that he and his colleagues have been doing for well over a decade at Brookings.)

This is a very upbeat book. It argues that, in the 21st century, metropolitan regions provide the true scale of “cities,” not the archaic boundaries that separate formal jurisdictions from each other. I couldn’t agree more: we sometimes have to work with political jurisdictions to get things done, but neither economic nor environmental factors respect those boundaries. Indeed, Katz and Bradley go so far as to argue that there is no “American” economy; to the extent that a national economy exists, it is a composite of metropolitan economies.

Moreover, the authors posit, cities and metros are the true economic leaders, especially in the post-recession, still-recovering economy. They are no longer waiting for a dysfunctional federal government or inconsistent and fickle state governments to assert leadership. Indeed, much of the new energy in our economy isn’t about political institutions at all, but rather about other kinds of leadership, about networks. The result is that cities and metros are happening, and Getting Things Done:

The real, durable reshaping is being led by networks of city and metropolitan leaders—mayors and other local elected officials, for sure, but also heads of companies, universities, medical campuses, metropolitan business associations, labor unions, civic organizations, environmental groups, cultural institutions, and philanthropies. These leaders are measuring what matters, unveiling their distinctive strengths and starting points in the real economy: manufacturing, innovation, technology, advanced services, and exports . . . They are remaking their urban and suburban places as livable, quality, affordable, sustainable communities and offering more residential, transport, and work options to firms and families alike. And they are doing all these things through coinvention and coproduction.”

Katz and Bradley cite example after example of the Creative Class – knowledge-based and new-technology workers – bringing a new era of accomplishment. The passage below, although a bit long for the usual blog post, is very worth reading to get the positive, enthusiastic tone of the book with regard to both the economy and the environment:

“With innovation the clear driver of economic growth and productivity and federal innovation funding at risk, metros like New York are making sizable commitments to attract innovative research institutions, commercialize research, and grow innovative firms. With human capital the necessary ingredient for successful firms and places, metros like Chicago are overhauling their community college systems to ensure that students are trained for quality jobs that offer good wages and benefits. With infrastructure the platform for global trade and investment and no national freight policy in place, metros like Miami and Jacksonville are modernizing their air, rail, and sea freight hubs to position themselves for an expansion in global trade.

“With companies and consumers demanding communities that are more spatially efficient and federal funding for transportation uncertain, metros like Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago are largely self-financing the building and retrofit of their own transit systems. With global demand rising and the future of federal trade policy unclear, metros like Portland, Syracuse, and Minneapolis–St. Paul are reorienting their economic development strategies toward exports, foreign direct investment, and skilled immigration.

“With the world undergoing a systemic shift toward sustainable growth (a third industrial revolution) and federal energy and environmental policies under siege, metros like Seattle and Philadelphia are cementing their niches in energy-efficient technologies. And with immigration altering the social fabric of American society and national immigration reform seemingly impossible to achieve, metros like Houston are taking innovative steps to integrate tens of thousands of new immigrants into economic and community life.”

The theme is clear: our cities aren’t deferring to other levels of government, and they certainly aren’t waiting for the feds and some states to get over their current partisan paralysis. Oklahoma City (by: Serge Melki, creative commons)Note also the references to companies and consumers demanding more spatial efficiency, and the emphasis on energy-efficient technologies. This is what Katz in Governing called “the synergy between enterprise and the ecosystem.”

I can relate to aspects of this in my own career. I began it as someone quite enamored of the potential of public policy to get things done, particularly at the federal level. Indeed, I still believe strongly in the importance of federal and state regulation to guard against excesses of business, and in government support for innovative private action. Business frequently lacks economic motivation to do the right things for the environment and for human welfare on its own.

But, if that is still frequently true, it is no longer always true. Today, in many cases business interests do align with the public interest in a clean, fair and healthy environment. Regulation, while important to prevent bad activity, has seldom been good at advancing innovation (though it has been sometimes). Today, I personally find more excitement and potential for accomplishment by working directly with the more creative parts of the private sector, on the ground in neighborhoods and metropolitan regions.

Regions, say Katz and Bradley, provide the right scale for innovation. The Metropolitan Revolution puts it succinctly:

“Cities and metros aggregate people and places in a geography that is large enough to make a difference but small enough to impart a sense of community and common purpose.”

Even in places such as Detroit and northeastern Ohio, Katz and Bradley are finding reason for optimism.

I, too, am optimistic about cities and metros, for many of the same reasons that the Brookings authors cite. I also see a resurgence in the growth of inner cities and suburbs, a slowing of suburban sprawl, and demographics that are only going to strengthen urban places. The road will be bumpy in some places, and care will have to be taken to ensure that benefits flow to all sectors of society, but all the trends are in the right direction. I confess that I haven’t yet read all of Katz and Bradley’s book – I was limited to the portions that were made available to the press in advance of formal publication – but I like what I have seen so far. A lot.

This video presents the gist in 46 succinct seconds:

The glass is draining quickly, and it’s worrisome

One gets a far less robust picture of the condition of American cities from State of the City: 5 Trends Impacting America’s Cities, released on Monday by Living Cities, a consortium of philanthropic institutions working “to improve the lives of low-income people and the cities where they live.”

Here are the five trends detailed in the report:
  • Fiscal strain is causing city governments to reduce services and scale back capital investment.
  • Failing infrastructure is inhibiting economic growth, sustainability and overall mobility of goods, people, and information.
  • Stagnant educational outcomes have implications for talent production, attraction and matching to jobs.
  • The changing economic landscape is creating unemployment and shifting centers of job creation.
  • The collapse of the housing market and the tightening of the rental market are creating material pressure on household economics and the health of communities.
In other words, where Katz and Bradley see excitement, innovation, leadership, and economic recovery, Living Cities sees declining city services, crumbling infrastructure, a failing educational system, unemployment, and struggling households.

The purposes of the two reports are quite different, explaining part of the differences in tone. The Brookings Metropolitan Center, which Katz heads, has for years been stressing that we now live in a metropolitan world, not an “urban” one, and The Metropolitan Revolution is designed, in part, to strengthen that case. State of the City (courtesy of Living Cities)Living Cities, by contrast, is focused on poverty, and only incidentally on the larger economy. And, as a philanthropic collective, it may be stressing (more by implication than direct language) where philanthropy might spend its resources to produce the greatest results from limited resources. If The Metropolitan Revolution emphasizes the creative class and innovation, State of the City emphasizes the plight of those left behind by the creative class and innovation:

“Many books and organizations have emerged touting the key role of cities in building tolerance among people, spurring economic growth nationally, and accelerating new ideas that improve how we live. The level of attention being paid towards American cities is long overdue, but noticeably absent from these conversations is the fact that low-income people face tremendous hurdles to accessing the opportunities that cities create.”

Among the more specific details cited by Living Cities are these:
  • City budgets are strained particularly by rising health care and pension costs, and rising costs for maintenance and repair of water, electric, sewer, and transportation infrastructure.
  • Our educational system is broken, its dysfunction compounded by a changing workplace whose skill needs are evolving too rapidly for schools to catch up (“the skills we’re teaching people are not necessarily the skills the global workforce demands. This skills/job mismatch trend, therefore, must be considered an extension of the education trend. We can no longer rely on the outdated education and worker training systems that no longer consistently lead to employment opportunities”).
  • At the same time as lower-income citizens struggle to afford for-sale housing, there is an undersupply of rental properties, ”as multifamily home production is at its lowest in 17 years.”

The report is surely correct in observing the near-tautology that economic hardships fall disproportionately on lower-income Americans. For the most part, it does not address environmental issues, but it does discuss inefficiencies in public transit service. And Living Cities doesn’t shy away from controversy, attacking rail transit investments as siphoning resources away from buses, for example, and asserting that “low-income transit riders tend to live further from the urban core, resulting in less access to transportation.”

As an advocate of both bus and rail transit, I don’t share the implication of the first assertion that the two are inexorably in competition for the same dollars; in fact, some research suggests that the two have synergistic rather than competitive impacts, with cities with the most rail service also having the most bus service. As to the latter, lower-income transit riders in the far suburbs do face ridiculously bad service in many cases. But it would come as a surprise to many low-income residents of inner cities that most low-income transit riders are in the far suburbs. bus transit in Culver City (Los Angeles), CA (by: Javon Stoneham, creative commons)(Maybe the author meant to say that most transit riders in far suburbs are low-income; that is undoubtedly true, if a very different statement.)

In and around Washington, DC where I live, for example, lower-income residents tend to live on the east side of the inner city and in the eastern inner suburbs, while higher-income residents live to the west, both within the city and in the far suburbs; it’s not about who lives closest to the core. These quibbles aside, I certainly don’t dispute that our nation’s dispersed land use patterns and limited public transit systems create gross inefficiencies in travel time, distance and convenience for transit-dependent Americans.

The report observes that many of the challenges faced by cites and their lower-income residents are due to or profoundly influenced by large social and economic forces, and are so fundamental that new, more systemic approaches are needed to achieve reform. Indeed, Living Cities has some sharp words for the place-based world of community development, which it seems to view as largely obsolete in today’s world. These is from the report’s lead paragraphs:

“In the decades following World War II, the challenges the urban poor have faced in the U.S. have primarily been blamed on geographic isolation in blighted neighborhoods. Conventional wisdom had it that if leaders improved such neighborhoods — by upgrading buildings, attracting employers, and delivering programs to strengthen the social fabric — residents’ opportunities and incomes would improve as well . . .

“However, the world has drastically changed over the past few decades. Jobs that once flourished in downtown factories and offices have moved beyond city limits to the suburbs and abroad; technology has changed how people interact and what defines community; and poverty is no longer concentrated solely in the urban core, with failing schools, foreclosed homes, and high unemployment rates plaguing all communities.

“Despite this reality, the community development sector has failed to keep up with these enormous changes. . . . Place-based efforts, while beneficial to some, are not sufficient to reaching the scale necessary to fix these broken systems.”

I know from personal conversations that this point of view is not limited to Living Cities. I’ve heard it from at least two other largephilanthropic institutions.

The report is less clear on what new remedies should be addressed to these new realities, though at the end of the discussion of each trend it includes brief mentions of “emerging responses” that, if not sweeping, are innovative.

The glass is murky, but maybe brighter than in the recent past?

I have really struggled with how to comment on these disparate views of cities. There is truth in both views, I think, but where does that leave us?

homebuilding for low-income residents in Payson, UT (courtesy of Local Initiatives Support Corporation)I’ll start by saying that I’m not sure the shot at place-based community development is entirely fair, even though I’ll concede that it seems to be gaining currency in the philanthropic field. While I couldn’t agree more that we require systemic change to address chronic poverty (and, for that matter, a deteriorating environment), and that the geography of socio-economic challenges is changing, in my opinion we continue to need place-based efforts as well. Indeed, it’s possible to simultaneously address places and systems, for example, through an instrument of change such as LEED for Neighborhood Development, which provides aspirational but achievable standards for better development in particular places; LEED-ND at its core is a system designed to affect positive change, but it operates in particular places. Some are using the system in its traditional (and somewhat complicated) role of certifying new development, but its greater power may lie in more creative applications, as model standards for municipalities and as an informal planning framework for distressed neighborhoods.

LEED-ND is now in the implementation stage, both formally and informally, and it is critical that it be deployed and evolved in a way that establishes models for better living conditions where poverty exists, be it in inner cities or suburbs. The establishment and spread of those models then becomes systemic change.

The same is true, by the way, for the Green Communities program of Enterprise Community Partners (disclosure: I worked on both LEED-ND and Green Communities), which sets voluntary criteria for greening affordable housing. It has proved enormously useful in providing lower-income families with healthier and more environmentally sustainable homes, but it has done so through the instrument of community development in particular places. The work that another major supporter of community development, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, has done with NRDC to reconceive low-income neighborhoods around principles of green development is enormously exciting. Yes, we’ve worked in particular places, but the idea is to establish models that can be applied more broadly. Neither LEED-ND nor Green Communities is mentioned in the report, even as “emerging trends.”

GreenMarket, Kansas City, KS (courtesy of Local Initiatives Support Corporation)Does place-based community development need to add more geographically diverse approaches, and more holistic approaches that go beyond bricks and mortar? (On the latter point, the report cites with approval HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program, which addresses the needs of communities with multi-faceted approaches.) Absolutely, and kudos to Living Cities for saying so. But let’s don’t write off the model. Personally, I see a lot of positive energy in the field right now; I don’t see it as obsolete or lacking approaches that can achieve scale.

I also think there are risks as well as potential benefits in newer, more systemic approaches. I’ve been through enough funding cycles and strategic planning exercises to know how seductive broad, systemic reform appears, promising more “bang for the buck” from limited resources. And the strategy can deliver, at least in theory, when it works and works quickly.

But sometimes putting one’s eggs in the basket marked “systemic reform” can come at a price. The environmental community was delivered a lesson in political reality as a result of our devoting a large portion of our resources to a decades-long effort to secure systemic federal climate legislation that, for reasons beyond our control, ultimately proved unsuccessful. That was followed by huge philanthropic and environmental-community investment in hoped-for systemic reform of federal transportation law. That, too, produced less than optimum results. In the end, both of those efforts, which appeared promising when initiated, carried opportunity costs. (Both outcomes also strongly support Katz and Bradley’s central thesis that the federal government is too broken to be available any time soon as an instrument of change; philanthropies and NGOs alike are now struggling with what the right non-federal approaches are.)

It has been said that life is what happens while we’re making big plans. So we had better pay some attention to the here and now, too. Frequently, the best opportunities for change are going to come in places where the right ingredients are aligning for added value to make a difference. While we may not be able to afford to be anything less than strategic in choosing the right locations, we also may not be able to afford lengthy periods of concentrating on systemic efforts that don’t pan out while largely neglecting the local level.

Boston (by: Nicholas Erwin, creative commons)Moreover, I would argue that innovation is inherently local in nature. Katz and Bradley make a very interesting point to the effect that the strengths and innovations that can emerge in Pittsburgh will likely be very different than those that emerge in, say, San Diego. How can groups like the one I work for – and indeed, Brookings, and the partners in Living Cities, too – harness that innovation to the right social and environmental ends? In a lot of cases, it will be because of ingredients that first exist in a particular place and time, and then spread from there.

All that said, it’s hard to disagree with the well-documented problems cited by Living Cities in its report. Anyone unaware that the US public educational system is horribly broken, for example, simply hasn’t been paying attention. Although I am paid to advocate for the environment first, I’m not sure there is a more important problem for either innovation or philanthropy to help solve. (Heck, I believe that inferior city education is an environmental problem.) Too many of our disadvantaged kids are losing ground compared to affluent kids, and nearly all of our kids are losing ground compared to those in other countries.

I don’t disagree with other big trends, either – diminishing municipal capacity, aging infrastructure, unemployment, household strain – but those problems are so daunting that I’m not sure they are soluble by an exclusively big-picture approach. I keep coming back to experimentation, innovation, and the propagation of models that are locally developed.

When you come down to it, the folks at Brookings know a lot more about the new metropolitan economy than I do (though I know more than a little), and the folks at Living Cities know much more about poverty and community development than I do (though, again, I know more than a little). Who is right? Should we be optimistic about the future of cities, or pessimistic? I’m notorious for being the latter – I’m always convinced my favorite sports teams will lose – but, when it comes to cities, I’m more with Brookings.

I believe the state of cities (or, if you prefer, the future of metros) has never looked brighter in my lifetime. Yes, the inequality created by wealth distribution in our country is appalling; so is our educational performance; and many people are still hurting from the recession.

Community celebration in Chinatown, San Francisco. Photo: Jeffrey Bruce
But, if you think cities are hurting now, you should have seen them 20 or 40 years ago, when whole districts were being burned to the ground and people of means were fleeing as fast as they could, taking their tax dollars and businesses with them. Crime was so rampant and scary in inner cities that smug suburbanites would have friendly debates about whose inner city was the real “murder capital” of the country.

By comparison, it’s amazing how much positive energy there is in cities (and, to be sure, in metro areas) today. Suburban sprawl has been slowed considerably. Inner cities are growing again. People of means, especially young people, want to be in cities today. While that carries its own set of challenges, I would submit that addressing the challenges of gentrification is a far better problem to have than coping with massive abandonment and rampant crime. It’s telling, by the way, that crime is not mentioned even once in State of the Cities: 20 years ago the report would have been considered hopelessly naïve without discussing it. There is a lot of good news about cities, but you’ll have to read the Brookings book to learn much about it.

On what do the authors agree?

A significant point on which both The Metropolitan Revolution and State of the City agree is that there is no longer a bright-line demarcation between “cities” and “suburbs.” But that’s because if suburbs – especially inner suburbs – are now dealing with problems once thought to be located only in inner cities, our inner cities are now enjoying a resurgence of social and economic activity once thought to be the hallmark of suburbs. To me, there’s more good news than bad in the new paradigm.

Which is certainly not to say that we can afford to ignore the very real negative trends that threaten our most vulnerable citizens. To the contrary, we should find ways to harness the positive energy in cities and metros to address the problems afflicting those left behind by progress.

My guess is that the Brookings authors and Living Cities authors wouldn’t disagree much on the underlying facts. They just each believe they have a story that needs telling. If their two stories have very different points of emphasis, they are both worth knowing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bees Hop Between Green Roofs

Green roofs aren’t just isolated islands of nature. They’re also stepping stones for flying insects such as bees, scientists have found.

While it’s clear that green roofs can boost biodiversity in cities, scientists didn’t know whether these patches could act as connected habitat. So a team studied 40 green roofs in Zurich, Switzerland, with plants ranging from succulents to meadow species. From May to September 2010, the researchers caught 48,084 ground beetles, spiders, weevils, and bees from nearly 500 species on the green roofs and at corresponding green spaces on the ground.

The team then looked for links between the arthropod communities and factors such as the size of the roof, the amount of flowers, and distance to the nearest green roof or other habitat. For ground beetles and spiders, the local environment had a big influence on the species present. But for flying bugs such as bees and weevils, “connectivity was by far the most important variable,” the authors write in Ecology.

These roof-hopping insects may help pollinate plants, the team notes. And connected populations are more likely to bounce back from disturbances.

Source: Braaker, S. et al. 2013. Habitat connectivity shapes urban arthropod communities: The key role of green roofs. Ecology doi: 10.1890/13-0705.1.