How Sprawling is Your Neighborhood? Chicago Metro Edition

Earlier this year Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi released the latest version of their urban sprawl index.  The first version came out a decade or so ago and the latest version uses current data and has an improved methodology.

The index came out of the fact that commentators, scholars, policymakers, and journalists would constantly talk about “sprawl” without there being an authoritative definition of the phenomenon.  Ewing and his colleagues set out to change this in 2002 by developing an index of sprawl that draws on objective data relating to population and employment density, the mixture of uses and destinations apparent, the presence of urban centers, and the connectivity of street systems.

The 2002 study defined its index at the level of county and metropolitan areas.  The current effort added sprawl scores at the census tract level for the largest urbanized areas in the United States allowing for greater detail in analyzing patterns of sprawl and metropolitan development.

The map below reflects the sprawl indices for metropolitan census tracts in Illinois.  Higher scores indicate more density and less sprawl.

There are obvious patterns of density around transit lines, however it is interesting to see the north/south differences within the City of Chicago which probably reflect disparities in mix of jobs and destinations.  Also notable are the numerous suburban centers which score high on the index.  This could be promising for thinking about the viability of sprawl mitigation policies.  Such efforts as higher-density and mixed-use development in the Chicago suburbs could take advantage of an existing social, economic and physical infrastructure to help slow sprawl regionally.

Evanston Approves Bike Share Grant Application; Modifies Station Map

After tough questioning by City Council members over the proposed placement of bike share stations to deployed as part of a pilot project to extend Divvy to Evanston, the Council gave the go-ahead to pursue the grant but significantly changed the station locations.EvanstonBikePilotLocations

The original plan to have just seven stations has been increased to eight.  The proposed station at city hall will be moved to a largely residential neighborhood six  blocks adjacent to a community center while one of the downtown stations (Sherman & Grove) will be moved  .5 mile south to Chicago Ave. and Greenleaf where Jewel Foods and Whole Foods are situated.  This station will also be a block away from a new Trader Joe’s food market.  The eighth station will be situated on the Chicago border at Howard St. and Chicago Avenue, one block from the Howard CTA stop.

The new map and the additions are an improvement on the initial effort.  However, the number of stations is still inadequate and the western part of the city is still excluded.  One thing that is not clear following the council meeting is just how the pilot is going to be evaluated.  If this is an initial foray to work out the kinks and get residents and visitors familiar with the system and that the ultimate goal is for the city to properly implement bike share, it is probably a workable map.  It’s another matter if they are going to gauge interest based on usage numbers, because the saturation is not adequate to properly assess citizen interest.

Barriers to High Speed Rail in the US

Photo of high speed rail in Taiwan by dhchen

The New York Times had an interesting article over the weekend on the state of Florida’s recent rejection of federal money to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa.

This comes on the heels of gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin and Ohio where anti-rail governors who were elected last year similarly rejected federal money.

In spite of the fact that there is strong public support for high speed rail and that rail and public transit have a positive economic impact, the development of this key infrastructure is stagnating.

What are the reasons for this stagnation–particularly when governments overseeing advanced and growing economies in Europe and Asia have less problems generating political consensus around this public investment?

My sense is that much of the problem can be attributed to two factors: 1) the lack of a real coherent national transportation policy and 2) the peculiar decision-making structure of our federalist system.

The second point is quite apparent given the outlandish power that single states have to negatively impact regional plans.   This stems from the fact that the federal government largely defers to states to determine their transportation plans.  In terms of capital improvements like high-speed rail,  states determine plans and federal money is allocated to the extent that projects conform to state plans.

This, of course, is reflective of the first point: the federal government does not have a proper “national plan” nor does it engage in the crucial decision making necessary to implement a serious national rail vision.

Sure, the USDOT develops national plans, but they are secondary to the states when it comes to rail.  In the words of the 2009 National Rail Plan [pdf], the legislative mandate for USDOT planning is “to develop the plan consistent with approved State plans” (23)–not vice versa.

This distinction is crucial.  How can you have a national infrastructure system which is the product of 50 bottom-up decisions.  We can see the impact this might have in a region like the Midwest, where states like Illinois and Minnesota will be negatively impacted by unilateral decisions made in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The feds could deal with this barrier, but it won’t be easy.  Congress would have to pass legislation restricting state autonomy–something that wouldn’t have much support in the current political climate in Washington.

Until this happens, however, high speed rail is likely to be stuck on a slow track.

Madison, Wisconsin Engaged in Zoning Reform

I don’t know the details about what is going on in Madison, but this article in the State-Journal caught my eye.

Apparently the city is engaged in a re-working of its zoning code with an emphasis on “environmental sustainability.”  Among the changes being discussed in the latest draft:

  • Reducing the minimum parking requirements for commercial buildings.  One of the reasons you see a sea of asphalt surrounding your local Big Box retailer is because traditional zoning codes often require that a minimum proportion of the lot be dedicated to parking.  New Urbanists have been arguing for years that zoning codes should include maximums, rather than minimums.  Too much parking results in a degraded environment and an expectation that automobiles should be the primary mode of transport.

    Photo of Madison: Jon Mallard
    Photo of Madison: Jon Mallard
  • Allowing for urban agriculture and gardening.  According to the article, there will be no prohibition on the siting of community gardens and special permission could be granted for small scale agricultural projects.  This is a nice effort to promote local sustainability and food security.
  • Allows for “granny flats” to be built over garages.  This is another New Urbanist staple.  It diversifies the housing stock in neighborhoods, offers a bit of income to home owners, and can enhance affordability

The process of reform is ongoing, but if this article is any indication Madison appears to be on a positive track.

Greenhouse Gases Increase in 2005, Hit All Time High

On the heels of the British Stern Report and in anticipation of next week’s climate change meetings in Nairobi, the World Meterological Organization is reporting that global emissions of greenhouse gases has hit an all time high.

The report indicates that  CO2 emissions were up 0.53% last year, Nitrous Oxide emissions were up 0.2%, while methane emissions remained stable.

Global Reaction to the Stern Report

I have mentioned a couple of times over the past week about the report officially issued yesterday by British economist Sir Nicholas Stern on the economic consequences of climate change. Sir Nicholas was charged by Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s likely successor as leader of the Labour Party, to produce the study in advance of next week’s UN meetings in Nairobi on climate change.

I thought it would be interesting to see some of the reaction globally to the report. The British paper, The Independent, considers it quite portentous. In an article entitled, “The Day that Changed the Climate,” the reporters portray the report’s unveilling in dramatic terms:

Climate change has been made the world’s biggest priority, with the publication of a stark report showing that the planet faces catastrophe unless urgent measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Future generations may come to regard the apocalyptic report by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, as the turning point in combating global warming, or as the missed opportunity.

In the Ugandan paper, The New Vision, expatriate Opio Oloya is using the report to suggest an African continental protocol to maintain and protect forested land. He also suggests that a continental protocol could also deal with the unwanted dumping of hazardous waste.

India–like China–was one of the countries who was not required to reduce CO2 emissions under Kyoto and has, in the interim, seen significant economic growth and an expansion of fossil fuel consumption. Naturally, many in India are not excited about what a post-Kyoto agreement will look like. In the Mumbai Daily News and Analysis, a pro-India commentator suggested:

“This is welcome report but we have to point out that India has already been doing a lot in managing climate change issues,” said Manoj Ladwa, MLS Chase India. “India is the 6th largest investor in renewable energy which is much larger than the UK,” he added. The USA emits 5 per cent of world’s emissions and unless they are ready to take the lead in curbing pollution there is no point in asking countries like India to get on board feel Indian analysts.

“India is in the top five of using solar energy, wind energy etc,” explained Ladwa. “It is very hard to ask a farmer in India who has just seen a glimmer of hope in economic development that they should now pay for the mess the west has created in the last 250 years,” he added.

One can understand India’s position when you consider the reaction of some of the more skeptical Western governments. In Australia, rather than changing the opinion of the government, the Stern report seems to have strengthened Prime Minister John Howard’s opposition to Kyoto. The Age is reporting that he told his MPs not to be “mesmerized” by the report. He is willing to sign on to a successor agreement; but only on the condition that India and China are also obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Secretary-General of OPEC–the global oil cartel–had the most indignant response. Reuters is reporting that the Secretary-General is stating that the report was unfounded in both economics and science.

Blagojevich Calls for Recycling of All State-Owned Electronic Waste

Perhaps he’s wary of Green Party candidate Rich Whitney’s recent rise in the polls in the Illinois governor’s race, but the Governor signed an executive order today mandating that all state agencies recycle their electronic waste in an environmentally responsible manner.
According to the Quad-City Times, Blagojevich wants the legislature to develop a comprehensive state-wide electronics waste recylcing bill in the spring.

It is amazing that there is not more stringent legislation on the disposal of electronic items, considering elements such as mercury and lead that are contained in computers and other consumer electronics.  A perennial problem has been the global trade in “e-waste” to the Global South where there is often a less stringent regulatory environment and despeerate economic conditions.  The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has been doing good work exposing the hazards this trade in waste poses for people in the developing world.
The main treaty governing the trade in e-waste, the Basel Convention, has not been ratified by the United States. Therefore, when states want to process their e-waste responsibly, they have to develop individual state laws.  A recent study by the National Electronics Recycling Infrastructure Clearinghouse has shown that there is an incredible amount of economic inefficiency and duplication that ensues due to the lack of federal coordination of the nation’s e-waste.

EU Falling Short of Emissions Targets

According to the Guardian, the European Union is off target to meet its greenhouse gas emission reductions as part of its obligation to the Kyoto Treaty.

Based on current levels of emissions, the EU will reduce emissions to 0.6% of 1990 levels by 2010.  Under Kyoto, they are obliged to reduce emissions to 8% of 1990 levels by 2012.

The countries that are most exceeding their allowances are ones that are experiencing the highest rates of economic growth, like Spain, Portugal and Ireland.  The emissions figures for each individual country can be found on the European Comission’s webpage.

Resisting Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

The New York Times has a report today on mountaintop removal and the ways in which citizens in Appalachia are organizing to resist the practice.

Mountaintop removal is a form of coal mining that has became popular and cost-effective for coal companies in the last decade. Instead of drilling into the mountain to mine the coal, this method simply takes the “top” of the mountain to create a more open pit for mining. All of the waste is then dumped into adjacent valleys.

The environmental impacts of this practice are devastating. The loss of trees increases the likelihood for flooding and hyrdological systems are contaminated by the waste.

There was a backlash against the practice in the 1990s, led by such groups as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, resulted in modest regulations during the late part of the decade. However, under the Bush administration, the rules for depositing the waste have been significantly relaxed, leading to an increase in the employment of the removal technique.

Today’s Times article frames the resistance as a “new” phenomenon whereby residents are appealing to their “faith” as a justification for resisting the practice and are using churches as the insitutional foundation for organizing. The article has a bit of the typical East Coast condescending attitude, implying that “faith” is being used in the absence of “rationality” in guiding citizen criticism of the practice.

In reality, the role of religious institutions as important civic spaces for resisting environmental exploitation is long-standing. In fact, the environmental justice movement in the United States traces its origin to strong community organizing with prominent roles filled by religious leaders. In 1982, the resistance of the predominantly African American residents of Warren County, North Carolina to the siting of a hazardous waste landfill relied upon religious institutions and the 1987 groundbreaking study on “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” was sponsored by the United Church of Christ.

For more information on the grassroots origins of the environmental justice movement, Robert Bullard’s classic study, Dumping in Dixie, still retains its relevance.

Climate Change Could Cost Countries 20% of GDP

The British newspaper, The Independent, is reporting on a meeting yesterday of Tony Blair’s cabinet where they heard a presentation by Sir Nicholas Stern–a former World Bank economist–indicating that the effects of climate change will likely have substantial negative impact on the world’s economies.

Sir Nicholas was asked by Gordon Brown to prepare a report on the economic consequences of climate change, which will be released on Monday.

According to the article, the numbers presented by Sir Nicholas were staggering. If a dramatic reversal of course is not taken in the next 15 years countries could be spending upwards of 20% of their gross domestic product on various environmental catastrophes.

Blair is hoping that the economic analysis of Sir Nicholas will convince the United States–the largest emitter of greenhouse gases–to soften its stance on joining international agreements to mitigate climate change. Whether Bush can be convinced of the severity of the issue is questionable. Nevertheless, the report is likely to be a major topic of conversation at next month’s UN Climate Change Conference in Nairobi.

The US will likely have an observer delegation in Nairobi, but I haven’t been able to figure out who will be leading it. There are some North American youth activists travelling to Africa to join with global youth participating in the conference. Follow their blog as the conference commences next month.