Monday, May 31, 2010

Obama and the Oil Spill

Why, oh why, Obama did you not respond to this with greater urgency? I want to support what they are doing, but the truth is that they did not seem to take strong enough action. Sure, they could not have stopped the oil leak themselves; however, they could have mobilized people earlier to keep the oil off the coast. Yet, they did nothing.

The Obama administration has done a number of very efficient and good things; however, he responded to this oil spill as though it was a local problem that could be resolved locally; a very big mistake.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Flood Plain Law

Flood plains are fascinating places. They turn liberals into anti government-intervention conservatives and conservatives into great babies sucking on the bottle of society. They do this because many smaller, more conservative places live within the floodplains and demand dams, levies, roads, etc, (all built at OTHER taxpayer's expense) to keep them safe, while liberals would just as soon tell people to leave the floodway and stop getting flooded and wasting money.

Yesterday in a Planning Law class I presented on the National Flood Insurance Program and hazard mitigation law among other things. What I basically said was that we subsidize bad behavior among floodplain residences and that our inability or unwillingness to require people to not continue to build in such an area is representative of the actual unwillingness of our political system and establishment to make good decisions that impact some people who are loud. There is no doubt that government can regulate floodplains by either requiring people to leave (which may require some form of property compensation), or by requiring people to elevate their homes to avoid further losses from floods. The truth of the matter in this case, though, is that property rights types get angry on a local level when floodplain regulations are enacted. While they feel that the government should stay out of their face most of the time, they whine about not being protected enough as soon as they are in danger, even though it makes more sense just to tell them to get the heck out of the way and to stop costing everyone else huge amounts of money.

Contradiction in Hazard Mitigation

First, I want to say that I have not done much solution thinking here lately. I sound more like a pundit sometimes, complaining about things. That said, I have something interesting today. It is the contradiction between two subjects I study: urban planning/urban design and hazard mitigation.

Despite our seeming obsession with risk in this country, we really do a terrible job of thinking about it in useful terms. For example, our government regularly subsidizes risky behavior by providing flood insurance to communities and people who build in the 100-year flood plain. Similarly, many techniques of urban design and planning or of some of our 'fads' like New Urbanism or the construction of weird buildings at odd angles with stupid facades, actually make us less safe. I am not saying that there has to be a trade-off, just that there often is.

Examples of this problem include narrow streets (makes response and evacuation more difficult) and close-together housing (makes fires more likely to spread), both tools of New Urbanism. Another example are the weird buildings built in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by crazy architects (these buildings are often less stable and are prone to tip over, etc). I am not saying that working in concert is not possible, just that it does not happen. There are ways for us as hazard mitigation planners and regular urban planners to talk to one another and make a conscious choice over where on the continuum between a perfectly stable building with no windows on a huge street and with no quality of life or a beautiful street with fascinating buildings prone to collapse and chandeliers that impale you while you sleep, we want to be. Since these are extremes, the answer is somewhere in the middle.