Churchill’s words for Iowa’s future

Iowans should take this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient state that is forward facing and not just rebuilding what came before.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” — Winston Churchill.

Mass government spending and social distancing nearly everywhere is a response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Perhaps we, like Winston Churchill, writing during World War II, might find a silver lining.

There is a sense of national unity or purpose, an outpouring of selfless action by medical professionals, and a renewed sense of national urgency to “Wash your damn hands!” What is intriguing to me is the number of individuals who — if they are still working — are suddenly shifted to a work from home situation and the follow-on effects that this has had.

While not all the “dolphins returning to the canals of Venice videos” are real (sorry!), the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in China are observable and documented.[1] European cities are seeing similar reductions in GHG emissions and air pollution. A similar impact may soon be seen in the United States as “shelter in place” directives, which cut driving and factory production, take hold across the nation. The economic slowdown from the spread of COVID-19 could lead to a 9 percent reduction of emissions from the sector that is the largest GHG generator across the nation.

The transportation sector is the largest source of GHG emissions nationwide, and nearly one-third of all miles driven are for commuting purposes.[2] While only 5 percent of Americans regularly work from home today,[3] the Bureau of Labor believes that nearly one-third of Americans could do so.[4] Winston Churchill might ask: How can this be made sustainable?

From recent personal experience, working from home, especially if your partner also is now working from home, requires very few things — a comfy chair, a tub of salted pretzels, and high-speed internet. I am fortunate that I live in an area with access to broadband, but many Iowans find broadband access prohibitively expensive or lack access at any price. My own family members who live in rural areas of Iowa have experienced broadband access problems.

This disparity is well known to Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, which has encouraged the growth of broadband throughout the state through a grants program.[5] Even with this support, much of Iowa remains in a broadband desert, without access to the high-speed internet that allows for teleworking options for Iowans. The blue-shaded areas in the map below indicate areas lacking 25-megabit-per second download speed and 3-megabit upload speed, known as 25/3 broadband, in June 2018.[6]

Similarly lacking in quality are Iowa roads. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives Iowa an overall grade of “C,” with an even lower grade of D+ and D for our bridges and dams.[7] This is also not a new phenomenon, and the old joke of the Midwest having two sessions, winter and construction, points to the constant state of improvements we often find.

With these poor infrastructure grades in mind, how do we make the crisis of COVID-19 not go to waste? The federal government is passing legislation and considering more policy to provide needed financial support for workers, businesses, and the states.

While funds must first go to supporting those who have lost their jobs and for healthcare, infrastructure programs are also a way to quickly inject money into local economies once the crisis has subsided. We can even ensure some workers stay employed as we increase infrastructure construction during these economic lean times.

How? We can super-charge telecommunications investments by the state, either directly or via low-interest loans and grants to existing telecommunication firms. We can use the available public right-of-way that exists on local and state roads to lay fiber for broadband communication capacity across the state while also jump-starting road and bridge repair projects.

When telecom companies are given loans or grants, they should come with price caps to ensure that broadband service extensions are actually used by the rural public. Roads should be rebuilt with an eye less toward peak commuting travel, but more realistic travel demands in a world with expanded telecommuting and reduced motorist traffic.

In short, Iowans should take this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient state that is forward facing and not just rebuilding what came before. And, they should ensure that fair and prevailing wages are paid for all construction contracts.

This time is one full of heartbreak for families directly affected by COVID-19 and anxiety for those wondering if and when their own family will fall ill. Industries are struggling and the economy may be grinding to a halt by the swift application of painful, but necessary, distancing efforts.

But within these trying times is an opportunity to respond with the future in mind. Like Churchill said, we should not let this crisis go to waste.

 

[1] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/13/climate-advocates-hit-political-turbulence-127649

[2] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2015cpr/chap1.cfm

[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/13/people-who-work-from-home-earn-more-than-those-who-commuteheres-why.html

[4] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/flex2.t01.htm

[5] https://ocio.iowa.gov/broadband

[6] https://ocio.iowa.gov/broadband-availability-map-version-2

[7] https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ASCE_Brochure-IOWA2019.pdf

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. He has been an intern at the Iowa Policy Project during the 2019-20 school year.

Missed opportunities combatting climate change

Solar could bring several benefits beyond power generation if installed on the campus of the University of Iowa, which is missing opportunities with recent decisions.

I recently watched part of the Hancher Auditorium parking lot ripped up and repaved at the University of Iowa. With the university community well aware of the impacts of flooding, I was surprised by the missed opportunity to rebuild the parking lot with more water retention features like bioswales or permeable pavers. We know that heavy rainfall impacts in Iowa will only grow as climate change accelerates.[1]

At the same time, I realized these types of interventions are expensive and perhaps outside the routine maintenance budget. So I turned my attention to other ideas for the campus: solar power opportunities and the university’s pledge to combat climate change through renewable power generation. Surely such an ambitious proposal would have resources enough to invest in solar power generation.

In 2017, UI President Bruce Harreld announced a goal to increase the university’s use of renewable resources for power and steam production and reduce coal firing for steam and energy production, and entirely phasing out coal by 2025.[2] This laudable goal addresses climate change, makes the university’s operations more sustainable, and improves air quality in Iowa City. Why not enhance this goal with solar panels?

The President’s message noted that the university would rely on a combination of biomass firing for renewable resources to hit a target of 40 percent of energy production by 2020. The university has pursued various options of biomass to be fired alongside coal for the time being (and presumably to be fired by itself once coal is eliminated). These options are:

      • Oat hulls, the byproduct of industrial processes, currently sourced from Quaker Oats in nearby Cedar Rapids. This fuel source is readily available, and by reusing formerly discarded ingredients the UI can prevent methane emissions from decomposition while burning a carbon-neutral fuel.
      • Miscanthus grass,[3] a non-native, but non-invasive grass, is often used for biomass around the world due to its high energy content and quick growing nature. The university has planted a few collection areas and buys harvest from local producers.
      • Energy pellets, another industrial byproduct that can be fired alongside coal. Like oat hulls, adding another use to an already ongoing industrial process is more sustainable than burning a non-renewable fuel source.

On its face, this strategy seems like an innovative use of natural ingredients that are carbon neutral and close by, obtainable from regional industry and agriculture.

But it’s still only 40 percent of the plan. Where does the remaining 60 percent come from? Natural gas,[4] which is “cleaner” than coal firing for particulate matter and CO2 , is readily available, and adds a power predictability that is hard to get from some renewable resources. But should natural gas be 60 percent of the university’s energy portfolio, when renewables could play a bigger role?

The university’s Office of Sustainability mentions, but dismisses, greater use of wind power and solar power. Both are mentioned as being implemented in a limited fashion on campus as demonstration projects for research purposes, but said to be too resource intensive (land and money) to fully replace other energy production methods for campus uses.

The message is a concern. If a complete replacement strategy were a qualifying criteria, why would it not apply to biomass firing sources as well. If not, why would the UI not consider solar and wind as a smaller scale, partial contribution to the university’s energy portfolio?

Other universities, including Maryland and Michigan State[5] have both solved cost concerns with public-private partnerships and power purchasing agreements. Indeed, UI researchers already note that the kilowatt cost of solar is below that of more traditional production requirements in some states, with the implication that similar cost comparisons will become more attainable through the country.[6]

Given the similarities between the UI and Michigan State (MSU) — both large public universities in the Midwest with similar climates and both governed by a quasi-public Board or Regents — the MSU example with solar power may prove fruitful. MSU followed the lead of several U.S. universities (including UC San Diego[7]) in deploying solar panels above parking lots on campus.

Solar could bring several benefits if installed at the Hancher lot, beyond power generation. Besides vehicle protection, it could offer research opportunities on solar generation, grid distribution methods, and power storage mechanisms for engineering faculty and students.[8]

Indeed, the University of Iowa already has experience in similar solar deployments. Its Facilities Management department already operates a solar power charging station for university vehicles, just on a much smaller scale.[9] The university has many surface parking lots that could reduce ongoing university expenses by harnessing the air rights just 10 feet above existing lots.

If this isn’t incentive enough, the university is ranked eighth in the Big Ten Conference for green power generation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[10] Surely Hawkeye pride can carry us to be No. 1. Forget Hancher. Perhaps the lots around Kinnick Stadium could be ground zero for a Hawkeye solar project — with a slogan ready to go: America Needs Solar.

[1] https://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2019Research/190905-Floods-Climate.html
[2] https://now.uiowa.edu/2017/02/ui-announces-it-will-be-coal-free-2025
[3] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sites/www.facilities.uiowa.edu/files/wysiwyg_uploads/hawkeyecampusmiscanthus.pdf
[4] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/energy-environment/renewable-energy
[5] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2019/msu-helps-big-ten-achieve-largest-collective-green-energy-use/
[6] https://dailyiowan.com/2018/03/19/solar-energy-lights-up-on-campus/
[7] https://www.borregosolar.com/commercial-solar-systems/university-of-california-san-diego
[8] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/construction-begins-on-msu-solar-array-project/
[9] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sustainable-energy-discovery-district
[10] https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/college-and-university-challenge

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. He was an intern at the Iowa Policy Project during the fall semester 2019.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

Providing the same resources to communities regardless of their ability and opportunity to recover results in inequitable outcomes.

Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Public policy to deal with flooding involves a lot of big-ticket items that carry big implications for the future of communities that by choice or by economic necessity stand in harm’s way.

This issue all comes down to one of equity and equality.

Matt Kinshella graphic, source info below*

Equality would ensure every community is provided the same resources and consideration regardless of their characteristics. But, as we have discussed, providing the same resources to a community that has less opportunity and ability to recover as one that is well positioned to do so results in the outcomes we have seen: Wealthy communities become wealthier while poorer communities fall further and further behind.

Equity calls for alleviating these disparities to create the opportunity for equal recovery rates and outcomes among disparate communities.

How do you do that? The following suggestions are a few items that will work toward leveling the playing field.

      • “Rebalance” mitigation efforts with an emphasis on community impact and vulnerability rather than up-front economic loss, the latter putting higher-value properties ahead of those less able to cope on their own.
      • Put more flexibility in FEMA guidelines to ease community burdens and allow for a creative use of funds.
      • Better direct Community Block Development Grant funds to the best place for mitigation efforts — not necessarily within the damage area, but outside if needed. Flood mitigation is best placed upstream.
      • Keep state funds flowing pending the arrival federal aid, which might be delayed after a federal disaster is declared and Iowa stops processing and paying disaster claims.

While these suggestions won’t fix everything, they offer a start to a discussion that needs to start now. Policy makers and recovery agents must take into account social vulnerability and community impacts to a greater extent than they already do if we are to break the downward spiral poor communities find themselves in following disasters.

Previous:
Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

* Graphic credit: Matt Kinshella; culturalorganizing.org blog, “The problem with that equity-vs.equality graphic you’re using.” Copyright Paul Kuttner

Differences in disaster: A series of observations

A benefit-cost analysis on flood mitigation projects can miss the mark on equity if you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks. Communities already best-positioned to recover need less help doing so.

Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

In the first post about findings from my recent report for the Iowa Policy Project, I outlined impacts on low-income residents who have few options than to live in a flood-risk area, and few resources to cope or rebound.

Sand barriers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Flood Center picture.
Photo: Iowa Flood Center

So what about preventing floods? Mitigation measures are great but are usually expensive and may be best positioned well upstream of the location where their protection helps most. Most people look to state or federal grant assistance in funding mitigation projects, but with resources being scarce — and they’re always scarce — a funding criterion has been established to assure mitigation measures must protect at least as much economic value as they cost.

On its face, this benefit cost analysis sounds quite reasonable, but it has a few consequences that, even if unintended, can be foreseen.

Consequence One: If you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks, then communities that may be best positioned to recover without help are given greater resources with which to protect themselves.

Consequence Two: How do you value the cost of displacement, lost economic opportunity from missed jobs, extra commute times, uninsured property loses, community fragmentation? Some of this can be valued, some cannot, and most of it is only clear after a disaster. This makes it hard to implement mitigation when funding justifications must happen first.

Consequence Three: Assuming you justify and pay for mitigation measures, have you just increased the value of the protected land to the point that current residents are suddenly priced out? Gentrification can be spurred by improved environmental and hazard risks as much as it can through beneficial tax codes, new transportation links or economic development incentives.

Previous, Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Next, Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

A lower income family’s experience from flooding can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently

I’ve just wrapped up a paper on the different outcomes people experience following a disastrous flood destroying their world. Not only is a family’s experience different from the world they lived in prior to the flood, but depending on who they are, a lower income family’s experience can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

It’s not shocking to hear that the poor in America live in a different world than anyone else, but Americans living in poverty are more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one. Additionally, when Americans living in poverty recover, they usually recover worse off than they were before disaster struck. This is not the case for the well off. The well off tend to increase their net worth following a disaster.

Why is that? First, and most obvious, if people can afford to live in areas not prone to disaster, they usually choose to do so. Beach-view mansions in Malibu notwithstanding, people don’t usually build their home in known flood plains if they can afford to live elsewhere.

So if you’re located in a dangerous area, you usually can’t afford not to be there. Disaster strikes, the flood waters have started to recede and in preparing to rebuild you look to disaster recovery assistance to help you out. But there’s a problem. Disaster recovery assistance doesn’t come quickly, especially assistance from the federal government. This delay presents a real problem for those unable to absorb the cost of replacement shelter, replacement clothes, increased commutes to work (assuming the job is still there following a disaster).

The delay leaves people desperate for help , willing to jump on any assistance money that appears (even if doing so bars them from participating in larger programs later) or willing to sell their home or property to opportunistic investors who do have the ability to wait out assistance program delays. Having sold, or having grabbed available funds, you are worse off than you were before. Some with more resources can weather the paper storm that follows an actual one, and come out better than they were before.

Next, Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.