Weekend Reading 4/28/17

Margaret

There is nothing that will make you care about something as much as a little personal investment. I recently came across this amazing list titled 101 small ways you can improve your city. Reading through it, it’s more like 101 ways you can love your city. My goals: set up a little free library and install a homemade bench near my bus stop. Next year I am building a chandelier tree funded by a parking meter.

Eric

Pamela Paul makes the case that we should actively seek out and read books that we hate. In a time when information is siloed and politics are tribal, it’s especially important to wrestle with long-form arguments we disagree with.

Perhaps not unrelated, there’s more (and stronger) research-based evidence that the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.

Drawing on lessons from anti-vaccines campaigns in Australia, Vox had a great piece about how to fight fake news, misinformation, and distortions of science—and how to do so effectively.

Finally, an argument for why flirting is pro-social behavior, and that doing it well can make the world just a little better.

Alan

Some reflections on the revolution(ary election) in France (with apologies to Edmund Burke):

In France’s presidential elections earlier this week, we saw the latest evidence of the new populism that has grown influential on two continents. Neither of the two French frontrunners, who will advance to a May 7 runoff, comes from a conventional left or right party. Both are deeply heterodox in their policy platforms. As the New York Times reported on April 24:

It is not that the left-right divide no longer matters — after all, voters gave roughly 40 percent of the vote to various versions of the traditional left and right — but that it is now complicated by the crosscutting politics of globalization versus anti-globalization.

What distinguishes Marine Le Pen, for example, is not the National Front’s orthodox conservatism on the conventional issues of the welfare state. Her positions are to the left of many mainstream liberal parties including not only the French Socialists but also the Democratic Party in the United States. Here’s a quick summary of her platform, from John Judis’s lively and wide-ranging new book The Populist Explosion (which I recommend for those who want to think more deeply about the political currents sweeping the globe). Le Pen’s platform:

called for a ‘strategic plan for reindustrialization,’ tariffs and quotas to protect against ‘unfair competition,’ the separation of commercial from investment banking, a transaction tax on stock purchases, and the nationalization of banks facing difficulties, a ‘cap’ on credit card charges, opposition to cuts in social spending and to the privatization of public services, equal quality health care access regardless of income or location, and rejection of the European Union’s attempts to impose austerity.

What distinguishes Le Pen is not her economic or welfare-state ideology. It is her view of who should qualify as rightfully benefiting from French policy. It is a politics about who is in and who is out. In its bluntest statement, it’s about immigration. In fact, Judis’s book argues persuasively that immigration may be the definitive national political issue in most of the industrial democracies at present.

In times of uncertainty and stress, the better angels of our natures—tolerance, welcoming attitudes, and compassion—can be overcome by fear and in group/out group scapegoating. Plus, rapid immigration can suppress or slow the rise of wages for native-born workers, even while it speeds economic growth and makes life easier for the well-to-do.

The lightning rod issue of immigration is why conservative populism is on the rise: the definition of conservative populism, says Judis, is a three-group dynamic. Conservative populism rallies a middle constituency against both an elite (economic, cultural, or political) and an out-group (often racial, ethnic, or national). Examples: Marine Le Pen, George Wallace, Donald Trump. Progressive populism, á la Bernie Sanders or Occupy Wall Street, has only two parts in its narrative, its political pitch: the people and the elites. So far, the conservative brand of populism has been more successful at winning followers than the progressive one. Judis’s book is a valuable primer on all these movements and trends.

Serena

I spent a good chunk of last weekend devouring American War, after hearing this NPR interview with the author and quickly scooping it up from my local bookstore. The debut novel from journalist Omar El Akkad draws on his war reporting experience to paint a chilling dystopian vision of America’s future. Set 60-80 years in the future, El Akkad immerses the reader in a climate change-devastated and divided US, following the slow radicalization of a young woman who spends much of her childhood in a refugee camp. International power dynamics have reversed, with America’s “Free Southern State” receiving aid from China and a new Middle East empire, and elites from these places puppeteering the region’s politics and civil war developments. El Akkad masterfully builds the awareness of this new world order through the eyes of the main character, and I think the sensation of that dehumanizing and disempowering dynamic is what might stick with me longest from this novel.

I also read this profile of civil rights and women’s movement hero Pauli Murray, who appears to have lived ten lives in one. Her accomplishments were massive and seemingly endless, even as she navigated many intersectional identities over the course of her life.

And Sheryl Sandberg (love her or not) is at it again—book-publishing and organization-founding, that is. This time, she takes on the phenomenon of grief, building from her experience of the sudden death of her partner in May 2015 and how her community treated her afterward, for better and for worse. With Option B, she hopes to help readers develop more productive practices and conversations around grief, and her pithy style, in combination with insight from co-author and psychologist Adam Grant, should prove a similarly popular guide as her 2013 Lean In hit. (To be clear, I haven’t read the book yet, just the article linked above.)

Anna

For anyone who thought at all about the role that gender played in Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, here’s a fascinating experiment: A new play reenacts campaign debates—word-for-word and gesture-for-gesture—but with the candidates’ genders reversed. The show’s creators want the gender swap to help us explore double standards and invite viewers to question their own biases. Interestingly, the female Trump character—bold, unscripted, aggressive, and with a business background and a few reality TV shows under her belt—is more appealing to audiences than the male version of Clinton who comes across as an overly polished, over-rehearsed politician and not necessarily someone who is speaking from the heart.

And whenever you hear of something really clever and cool and sustainable and all around good for people and community, the next thing you find out is that it’s Swedish. Yep. Here’s the world’s first all-recycled shopping mall, giving new life to old stuff, keeping junk out of landfills, and creating retail and repair jobs.

A study finds that if we are distracted and don’t pay attention to something our brain’s response is to catalogue that thing as less important. I’m looking at my smart phone and thinking: does a constant state of distraction factor into us not giving a hoot—or giving fewer hoots—about the really important stuff?

Kristin

Which countries have more women in their national legislatures than the United States?

  1. Rwanda
  2. Mexico
  3. Afghanistan
  4. United Arab Emirates
  5. All of the above

Yes, all of the above. Plus 96 others, since the US is number 100 out of 190 countries.

Sadly, even forward-looking merit-obsessed Silicon Valley isn’t doing so hot on recognizing women as equals:

Studies show that women who work in tech are interrupted in meetings more often than men. They are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.

Interestingly, unfairly rewarding men and punishing women in tech may be exacerbated, not mitigated, by tech’s fervent belief in meritocracy—when people in tech are reminded that their organization rewards people based on merit, they are more likely to give higher bonuses to men.

Supposedly data-driven techies are also hampered by an irrational belief in natural genius. The extent to which practitioners in a certain fled believe that success in that field is driven by inborn brilliance (genius, giftedness, aptitude), rather than by work, skills, training, and experience, is a strong predictor of a lack of women and African-Americans in that field. In other words, women and African-Americans can work hard and gain skills and become competent lawyers or even surgeons, but physicists and mathematicians believe you need to be born brilliant, and, apparently, that means you were also born a white man.

Could 6-hour workdays lead to big healthcare savings? A two-year plot project proves that, at a minimum, shorter workdays lead to employees taking fewer sick days and less unexpected time off.

Former Portland Commissioner Steve Novick has some great ideas about how to make Portland a city that works better.

Make Athens Great Again draws interesting parallels with the current period, and how a people who thought they were great can fall apart when it turns out maybe they’re not. (Interesting tidbit: I knew a jury voted to execute Socrates, but I didn’t realize that more of them voted he should die than voted he was guilty. At least they were clear about how well their justice system worked.)

Lee Drutman published a masterful piece about how proportional representation would reduce the United States’ crippling party polarization and make every vote actually count. Our single-member, winner-take-all approach to electing representatives leads to each party trying to thwart the other arty at all costs, instead of all representatives trying to solve problems. By electing three, four, or five federal congressional representatives at a time from a multi-member districts, we could make voters matter and make Congress work.

Combating the Suburbanization of Poverty

The Pacific Northwest is an expensive place to be poor.
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“The Pacific Northwest is an expensive place to be poor,” says Scott Bernstein, who has spent much of the last three years studying trends and solutions to poverty in North America.

And in many ways the region’s suburbs are even more costly for people of lesser means, notes Bernstein, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and lead author of the organization’s Urban Opportunity Agenda. That is despite the lower rents that draw low-wage households to working class suburbs from the cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, and their rapidly rising rents.

In many suburbs, transit is sparse or non-existent, so car ownership is all but mandatory to reach the scattered jobs. And cars are costly. “People end up holding onto older cars and paying for repairs, or paying more to get a newer car,” Bernstein says. “Portland and Seattle are leaders in expanding transit, but most of that is in the core and some inner suburbs.” Services like home weatherization programs and job training, present in central cities, are often missing in suburban locales.

Nevertheless, these days more poor people are living in suburbs than the “inner city.” In Seattle, for example, the poverty rate at the last census was 13.5 percent—higher than in suburban King County at 11.2 percent—but the number of persons in poverty in Seattle, at 85,764, was lower than in suburban King County’s 140,440.

Consider the city of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. In 2016, even as the US Census Bureau found the national poverty rate trending downward, the poverty rate in Tukwila nearly doubled, to 24 percent.

A 2014 examination of poverty trends in metro Portland found “the suburban poor population is growing at a much faster rate than that in central cities,” with the poverty rate growing faster than population in every suburban municipality but one. In Vancouver, BC, the numbers of poor are rising fastest in southeast Vancouver and the suburbs of north Richmond, Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam.

Cascadia is not alone, of course. Across the continent, more people now live below the poverty line in suburbs than in the nation’s big cities, as Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube document in their 2014 book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.

Kneebone and Bernstein will be in Seattle on May 2 for a public discussion of the issue. It’s free, at Benaroya Hall, and the event kicks off the Congress for the New Urbanism conference May 3-6.

During the session, “Combating the suburbanization of poverty,” local leaders from King County and Tukwila will share how they see impacts and trends as national experts focus on policy strategies to broaden housing and transportation options, increase economic opportunities and expand services for low-income residents and communities of color.

COMBATING THE SUBURBANIZATION OF POVERTY

Sponsored by King County Green Tools, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and the Bullitt Foundation
Tuesday, May 2, 2017 from 6:00 – 8:00 PM at Benaroya Hall

Presenters:

  • Dow Constantine, King County Executive
  • Chenoa Egawa, Ceremonial Leader and Activist (Coast Salish of the Lummi and S’Kallam Nations of Washington State)
  • Rebecca Saldaña, Washington State Senator
  • Elizabeth Kneebone, Fellow, Brookings Institution
  • Scott Bernstein, Founder, Center for Neighborhood Technology
  • Charles Ellison, Correspondent, Politico
  • Kim Powe, Climate Justice Director and Acting Deputy Director, Puget Sound Sage
  • De’Sean Quinn, Councilmember, City of Tukwila
  • Gene Duvernoy, Founder, Forterra

Guest author: David Goldberg has written about transportation and urban planning for more than 20 years—for newspapers, magazines and two national organizations, Transportation for American and Smart Growth America, where he coined the term “complete streets.”

Fracked Fuel Exports Come to Whatcom County

Northwest fossil fuel export schemes have brought a flood of coal and oil proposals to the region’s shores. But the fossil export tsunami has a third wave as well: fracked fuels, including the massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export proposals in British Columbia, as well as several projects that would export liquid petroleum gases (LPGs) such as propane and butane.

In fact, West Coast propane exports have increased six-fold in the past year—most likely because a Canadian energy company called Petrogas recently expanded a fracked fuel export facility at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, Washington. The risks posed by this facility are a direct threat to the interests of the Lummi Nation, who have lived and fished in the area for millennia, and consider Cherry Point a site of central cultural and economic importance.

30,000 barrels of propane exported per day?

In two separate purchases—one in March 2014 and the other in September 2016—Petrogas acquired land, a pair of liquid fuel storage tanks, and a wharf capable of loading oceangoing tankers at the site of an aluminum smelter at Cherry Point, Washington. From about 2009 to 2014, the terminal averaged just two or three ships per year, or less than 5,000 barrels per day, of butane exported to Asia or Latin America. There is now compelling evidence suggesting that exports have increased six-fold, with the facility now exporting to Asia 30,000 barrels of propane per day refined from Canadian fracked gas.

The West Coast now receives more than a million barrels of propane and butane each month delivered by rail from Canada.

Petrogas has invested heavily in the project. The county has assessed the value of the site—including the smelter, which Petrogas did not purchase—at $67 million. Yet the company has spent at least $404 million on purchases and improvements for its fuel export operations alone—demonstrating both the value of grandfathered shoreline and tideland permits and the expectation of robust profits from fracked fuel exports.

Petrogas likely ships some fuel to the site via pipeline from two nearby refineries. But RBN Energy has reported that the site’s expansion relied on rail deliveries. Similarly, the US Energy Information Administration reports a dramatic rise in rail shipments of propane from Canada to the West Coast. The sudden increase in exports coincides exactly with the Petrogas takeover of the site, which remains the only large propane export site on the West Coast.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Official figures from the US Energy Department show that the West Coast now receives more than a million barrels of propane and butane each month delivered by rail from Canada. That works out to more than 30,000 barrels daily—roughly the equivalent of a mile-long train arriving every other day.

The West Coast context

With the acquisition of the Whatcom County facility, Petrogas has laid claim to the sole major propane export facility on the West Coast. Based on public statements by the project backers, Petrogas ships the propane to Japan for use in heating and petrochemical manufacturing. The company hasn’t revealed how much it is exporting from the site, but the US Department of Energy says that facilities on the US West Coast shipped 37,000 barrels per day in 2016, “nearly all” of which came from Cherry Point.

The beachhead Petrogas established at Cherry Point comes on the heels of three failed attempts by the industry to build out propane export capacity on the Columbia River. In March 2015, the Port of Longview rejected a proposal by Haven Energy to construct a propane-by-rail facility that could have moved 47,000 barrels per day. Shortly afterward, Portland blocked a propane train proposal backed by the Canadian energy giant Pembina that would have exported 37,500 barrels per day. Then in February 2016, Longview cut off talks with a company called Waterside that was planning a 75,000 barrel per day propane train site that would have been paired with a proposed small oil refinery nearby.

The industry has angled for large-scale propane export terminals in British Columbia, though none have yet materialized. The backers of Watson Island LNG, an export facility planned for a site near Prince Rupert have proposed shipping propane too. In fact, Petrogas’ Cherry Point facility seems to be a reincarnation of a failed LNG project of its two partners, Altagas, a Canadian energy transport company, and Idemitus, a Japanese energy supplier. Altagas originally planned two LNG facilities for Kitimat: Triton LNG and Douglas Channel LNG. In early 2016, however, Altagas halted development on Douglas Channel, and also put Triton on the back burner. Triton’s joint venture partner, Idemitsu, “suspended all efforts” on the project in mid-2016, though Altagas is apparently still planning to build a propane export facility on Ridley Island near Prince Rupert.

Safety not guaranteed

And it’s not just a theoretical risk: rail cars filled with propane exploded recently in the Sacramento area, New Brunswick, Alberta, and Tennessee among other places.

Propane by rail comes with some notable risks. It has a propensity for “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions” (BLEVEs) when it is in tank cars or other above-ground pressurized storage tanks. When breached, the refrigerated tanks release a heavy vapor cloud that can spread at the mercy of the wind. “Pools of fire” caused by propane explosions can burn hot enough to cause second-degree burns a mile away.

Accident data show that the largest propane risk areas are in pressurized storage, pressurized transport, and transfer. Moreover, LPG trains bound for Cherry Point are at meaningful risk of derailment along their journey. And it’s not just a theoretical risk: rail cars filled with propane exploded recently in the Sacramento area, New Brunswick, Alberta, and Tennessee among other places.

Transferring liquid propane—from rail cars to refrigeration units, to storage tanks, and to marine vessels—creates many further opportunities for catastrophe. At each juncture, pipes can breach, valves can fail, hoses can rupture, and even a small flaw can compound into a conflagration. In 1984, a small propane pipe leak in San Juanico, Mexico set off a chain of explosions that culminated in one of the worst industrial accidents in history, a blast that flattened parts of town, killing 500 people and severely burning more than 5,000.

What’s next for Whatcom County?

The terminal owners applied for Whatcom County permits to replace equipment in 2015 and 2016.  Their official documents do not indicate further expansion plans—in fact, the most recent application explicitly says that it would not increase total rail cars to the facility—but RBN Energy has reported rumors of Petrogas exploring a third tank, which would increase the site’s storage capacity to one million barrels.

Meanwhile, news reports suggest that propane demand could grow in Asia, where it can be deployed either as a heating fuel or as raw material for manufacturing petrochemicals used to make plastics. Energy analysts point to China in particular as a major destination for US exports, largely for petrochemical use.

At the same time, Whatcom County officials have enacted a moratorium on fossil fuel export development at Cherry Point while they move forward with more permanent zoning changes at the site. What happens there may well have a major impact not only on the health of Salish Sea, but also on the global trade in the fracked fuels.

This article benefited from editorial review and research by Clark Williams-Derry and Tarika Powell.

Weekend Reading 4/21/17

Alan

Thirty-four years ago, motivated to align my personal diet with my concerns about the environment, I stopped eating meat. Strictly speaking, I became ovo-lacto vegetarian, meaning I ate eggs and dairy, but no other animal foods. Twenty-four years ago, when I returned home to the Northwest, I added the occasional serving of fish (carefully selected for sustainability, to the degree I can) back into my diet. I did so largely because being Cascadian and never eating salmon seemed almost irreligious—like being Catholic and refusing to take communion.

For personal reasons (and professional ones!), I have therefore tried to stay up to date on the research concerning animal farming and its impacts on human health and the environment and on the growth of innovative, low-impact farming methods. I even published a Worldwatch paper on the subject myself in the early 1990s.

But I discovered how far behind my understanding had fallen when, over the past few weeks, I read Cowed by Denis and Gayle Hayes. The book is a panoramic look into the American relationship with cows. Mad cow disease and other frightening health threats, hormones, antibiotics, water use, energy intensity, overgrazing, the corruption of politics with cow money, cultural history, factory farming—all the relevant topics get their due in the book.

But the real surprises, for me, were twofold.

First, the authors’ growing partiality to the animals themselves was infectious. I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire adult life, but I’ve usually found animal rights and animal cruelty arguments too shrill or moralistic to win me over. But this book did, mostly by gently and unassumingly helping me develop a modicum of fondness for bovines themselves.

Second, unlike anything else I’ve read on the subject, it gave me a few small urges to eat beef. That was a huge surprise and, after 34 years without it, I’m not going to start. I doubt I could even digest the stuff anymore. But the book’s portraits of enterprising, innovative ranchers and farmers raising beef cattle in new (and sometimes old) ways—grass-finished, organic, humane, and in partnership with wildlife—actually made me feel a little left out. In the end, the book is not an argument for vegetarianism, but for a fundamentally, excitingly new relationship with cows. Here’s one way it summarizes its recommendation for individual eaters:

By cutting our meat and dairy consumption in half—which will result in our consuming an amount that is still more than ample to meet our needs—we can afford to buy smaller, healthier portions from well-treated cows with natural bovine diets. In 2013 an average American ate 57.7 pounds of beef per year . . . If we can pare that down to 26 pounds—half a pound a week—and limit it to the healthiest, most sustainable beef, we can reduce pollution, global warming, medical costs, animal cruelty, loss of soil, loss of biodiversity, and germs resistant to antibiotics, while increasing the amount of land and water available for other uses. It’s a dozen-for-one sale.

If I’d read that 34 years ago, rather than Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, perhaps I would have been eating the occasional grass-fed cut of organic, local beef all along. (Disclosure: I am not remotely impartial about the Hayes. They have been friends for a quarter century, and Denis has long been a mentor to me. He directs the Bullitt Foundation, which has been Sightline’s most consistent foundation supporter since Denis helped me launch the organization in 1993.)

Serena

The editor-in-chief of the not-your-usual-science-magazine Nautilus wrote a compelling reflection on the stories missing from our public discourse on climate change: those about science. And no, not to encourage shoving more data and charts in people’s faces and getting all upset when they still don’t agree with us climate advocates (as I presume most readers of this site are), but rather to share the stories of how scientists arrived their conclusions—stories that are often engrossingly non-linear and that may just have the power to plant new seeds of curiosity and engagement between participants.

Every year, grassroots environmental justice organization Got Green celebrates Green-a-thon, a community celebration and fundraiser that supports the work of working-class communities of color in Seattle to define and work toward their own vision of a just transition and climate justice. Learn more about the event, and volunteer or donate here.

Iceberg tourism? Yes, it’s a thing. And in a remote town in eastern Canada, it’s a particularly huge and close-to-land thing right now.

Not in YOUR Backyard: Cottages, In-law Apartments, and the Predatory Delay of HALA’s ADU Rules

When it comes to urban housing, it’s hard to imagine anything less threatening than granny flats. But surprisingly, in Seattle last year instill fear they did, provoking a handful of anti-housing activists to appeal proposed rule changes intended to spark construction of in-law apartments and backyard cottages. And in an exasperating turn of events, the appeal was upheld.

Of all the 65 recommendations in Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan, these homes—collectively known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in urban planner-speak—should have been one of the easiest wins. Tucked away on single-family lots, ADUs expand access to great neighborhoods for families who can’t afford a pricey, larger detached house. At the same time, they let more people live near jobs and services, shortening carbon pollution-spewing commutes and reining in sprawl.

Still, in many cities throughout Cascadia and the United States, the road to legalizing ADUs has been long. In Seattle’s case, that road hit a wall made of outdated thinking on urban development encoded in state laws that, ironically, were enacted to protect the environment. Because of the appeal, the city must now go back and conduct an exhaustive environmental review that is unlikely to substantially change the proposed ADU reforms. All it will do is squander time, postponing the fixes by about two years to mid-2018.

And every year of delay is a lost opportunity to create hundreds of new homes for people who do, or who want to, call this city home, all because a tiny minority of residents don’t want their neighbors to offer small rentals in their basements and backyards. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of what writer Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay,” in which the fossil fuel industry has stalled action on climate change for its own benefit.

There are consolation prizes available to Seattle from this damaging setback, and I’ll get to them. But first, I’ll review the policies that can unlock ADU homebuilding, then tell the disheartening story of the appeal of Seattle’s proposed ADU rule changes, and finally, lay out the flaws in the obsolete regulations that led to all the trouble.

What’s holding back Seattle’s ADUs?

In a previous article I surveyed ADUs in Cascadia’s three biggest cities, finding that Vancouver trounces both Seattle and Portland in the ADU race. As of a year ago, a third of Vancouver’s single-family houses had a permitted in-law apartment or backyard cottage, compared to only about one percent of the houses in both Seattle and Portland. Vancouver reigns supreme mostly because officials simply ceased banning ADUs. They:  

  1.       stopped mandating an off-street parking spot for each ADU;
  2.       did not require the owner to live on-site;
  3.       allowed both an in-law apartment (constructed within the main house) and a separate backyard cottage on each lot; and
  4.       provided great latitude on size, height, and placement of ADUs.
In 2016, a year when developers opened nearly 6,000 new apartments in the city, Seattle added only 156 ADUs, up from 116 the year before.

Consequently, Vancouverites have been adding roughly 1,000 ADUs per year to their single-family neighborhoods and now have some 27,000 total. Portland got it right on three of these four rules. The exception is that the Rose City still limits ADUs to one per lot. But still, it has seen the number of ADU homes ramp up considerably, as shown in the chart below. The city issued about 600 permits in 2016, and by this year’s end it will have an estimated 1,900 completed ADUs citywide, an increase of about 300 per year since 2015.

In contrast, Seattle’s current regulations fail on all four counts. As a result, despite high and rising rents (and soaring home equity that owners could borrow against to finance ADU construction), recent ADU production lags well behind both Vancouver and Portland. In 2016, a year when developers opened nearly 6,000 new apartments in the city, Seattle added only 156 ADUs, up from 116 the year before.

Chart created by accessorydwellingstrategies.com based on data collected by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Note that not all permitted ADUs are built, and some ADUs are built without a permit.

The ADU-blocking appeal

In May 2016, ten months after HALA recommended the four rule changes above, Seattle leaders released an ADU plan to implement those recommendations, with a few caveats. The city asserted that the proposed changes did not require completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), because it would cause no appreciable harm to the environment—called a “determination of non-significance” (DNS).

A month later, the Community Council of Seattle’s affluent Queen Anne neighborhood appealed the DNS. The case went to city hearing examiner Sue Tanner, who in December sided with the Community Council. The city now must conduct a full-blown EIS, a process that typically takes at least a year and costs several hundred thousand dollars in city staff time and fees to consultants.

Tanner ruled that the city’s DNS was flawed for several reasons, some of which were procedural. Here, I’ll focus on the more pertinent and meatier allegations: that the DNS did not sufficiently analyze potential impacts on existing housing and displacement, parking, and public services.

The ADU opponents have it backwards on displacement

The ruling states: “The evidence here shows that the legislation would adversely affect housing and cause displacement of populations.” The evidence in question was provided by an economist who testified that allowing both an in-law apartment and a backyard cottage would attract “outside investors” enticed by the prospect of renting three units on a single lot, who would buy older cheaper houses, demolish them, and replace each with a new house and two ADUs. An urban planning consultant added that because investors would pick off the cheapest houses first, the proposed rule changes would cause displacement of lower-income “minority populations,” accelerating gentrification and diminishing the city’s diversity.

In response to previously voiced concerns about this “outside investor” scenario, Seattle’s proposal included a requirement that the owner live on-site for a period of one year after ADU construction was completed. City planners wrote that the rule would “ensure that speculative development interests are not able to develop single-family lots with ADUs and backyard cottages.” It turns out, though, as noted in the appeal, that there’s a workaround: an off-site owner could create a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) and grant a tenant a tiny fraction of ownership.

The hearing examiner’s conclusion that the proposed ADU changes would increase displacement hinges on an assumption that this LLC workaround would be prevalent. The ruling also relies on one witness’ opinion that the proposed liberalization would push the teardown economics across a tipping point, an opinion that cannot supported by on-the-ground data because there is none. No such sordid tales of ADU speculators run amok have yet to emerge from Vancouver, though home values are even higher there than in Seattle. Nevertheless, the appeal’s de-facto community leader Marty Kaplan hyperventilates that “there would be a feeding frenzy for anybody with a truck and a nail bag to go buy homes and convert them into three rental units and displace the population.”

In the majority of cases in-law apartments and backyard cottages are added to existing homes. But for the sake of argument, assuming that some amount of teardowns through speculative redevelopment would occur, even under those circumstances, is the ruling’s contention about displacement correct?

Short answer: no. That’s because the hearing examiner—like the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses—got it backwards: building more ADUs is not a cause of displacement; it’s a cure. As I detailed in a previous article, economic displacement (caused by rising rents) is displacing far more, probably at least ten times more, people in Seattle than is physical displacement (caused by demolition of existing low-cost housing). In the (likely rare) cases when an existing home is replaced by a new house with an ADU, the net effect citywide is less displacement, because creating more homes addresses the primary cause of rising rents: not enough homes for all the people who want to live in Seattle.

Sacrificing ADUs to stop teardowns won’t help

The teardown of a low-value house might cause the physical displacement of that house’s tenants. (It also might not: the previous residents may be the owners, or the teardown may be vacant because it is unfit for habitation. In any case, Seattle’s cheapest houses are already disappearing quickly to make way for exhorbitantly expensive new houses built to the maximum size allowed.) But preserving that existing house and forgoing a new ADU (or two) will only speed the increase of rents in cheap houses by exacerbating the housing shortage that is driving up prices across the board. Low-income families will pay more to get the same low-quality housing.

Not only that, when there’s a shortage of homes, the housing market is like a cruel version of the game of musical chairs. Those with money always win; those without always lose. Across the city, every ADU that does not materialize is like another a chair taken out of the game, and that translates to a low-income family displaced. Conversely, when one home is transformed into two, even in the worst case scenario where a family gets physically displaced from the original house, those two open “chairs” mean that two low-income families elsewhere in the city will not be forced out.

I am not trivializing displacement caused by a teardown. As Seattle grows, city policies and investments can support vulnerable communities so that they can stay in place and benefit from that growth. However, there is no escaping the fact that every home not added to Seattle’s housing stock leads to one fewer low-income family that can live in the city. The people who are indirectly displaced when construction of new homes is prevented are every bit as harmed as the people displaced by teardowns.

Worse yet, the hearing examiner’s ruling not only has it backwards on ADUs and teardowns but also advances a perilous line of thinking for affordable housing in general. If teardowns for the sake of ADU construction are a threat to affordability, the same is true for any other form of homebuilding. When there’s demand for housing, any change of laws that allows larger buildings will accelerate redevelopment. And the homes that get replaced first will be the cheap, worn-out, neglected ones—the ones with the lowest rents.

But that’s not all there is to the story, because except for the case of single-family houses, redevelopment invariably yields a larger number of homes, easing competition. More players in the game of musical chairs get a seat—that is, a home they can afford in the city. The pressure pushing up rents is relieved, from the top of the market all the way to the bottom. Thus, as tempting as it may be to impose restrictions in the hope of saving low-cost homes, doing so only makes things worse for affordability overall.

Backyard cottage designed by Nest Architecture & Design, located in West Seattle. Photo by Alex Hayden Photography, used with permission.

Stopping SEPA from doing more harm than good

 
Adopted in 1971, Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) comes from an era of horror stories about polluted cities that spawned a reflexive inclination to limit urban growth. It calls for an assessment of all the negative environmental consequences of major government decisions. Will more ADUs increase a city neighborhood’s car trips, crowded street parking, local air pollution emissions, energy consumption, or noise? What SEPA doesn’t require, though, is equal consideration of positive impacts.

Building more ADUs in Seattle’s neighborhoods will:

  • modestly reduce car trips across the metro area;
  • decrease car dependence and increase transit ridership, walking, and cycling;
  • slow sprawl and thereby protect forest and farmland from development on the metropolitan periphery;
  • improve integration by class (and therefore likely by race) in neighborhoods that currently exclude middle- and working-class people;
  • allow less affluent families to live near the city’s best parks, schools, and job opportunities;
  • trim consumption of fossil fuels; and
  • reduce pollution of water and air—and therefore climate change.
Compact, transit-rich, walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income cities are critical ingredients to a sustainable future.

These benefits of compact communities—of density—are ubiquitous in the past three decades’ research on cities. Indeed, the main lesson of that entire body of work is that compact, transit-rich, walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income cities are critical ingredients to a sustainable future. Seattle officials shouldn’t have to prove this anymore than they have to prove that hydro- and wind-powered Seattle City Light electricity is better for the planet than the coal power that many rust belt cities rely on. So the fact that a handful of homeowners from an affluent neighborhood successfully used SEPA to stall ADU liberalization is, to understate the case, ironic.

If there is anything of redeeming value buried in the hearing examiner’s decision, it is the chance for the City of Seattle to complete an EIS that once and for all lays to rest the ruling’s spurious arguments and demonstrates how the net positive benefits of ADUs dwarf the negatives. Ideally, such an EIS could lay the foundation for city rule changes that would exempt infill housing construction from SEPA entirely.

The most important principle: New housing reduces displacement

First and foremost, the city can address the displacement issue directly to head off future attacks through SEPA against proposals to spur in-city homebuilding. Addressing it directly means establishing the fact that when there’s a shortage of housing across a city, adding new homes reduces net displacement, full stop. Even if the new homes are more expensive than the old ones. Because it all comes down to basic math: the bigger the gap between the number of homes and the number of people who want them, the more the competition for scarce housing floods down the market and pushes people with lower incomes out of the city.

When there’s a shortage of housing across a city, adding new homes reduces net displacement, full stop.

It follows that every time a speculative developer replaces an existing house with a new one that includes an ADU (or two), it’s a net win for housing equity. Conversely, every time a teardown is replaced with the largest, most expensive house that will fit on the lot but that can only accommodate one family, it’s the worst possible outcome for equitable access to housing. If city officials fail to unequivocally demonstrate these fundamental truths, they will lose the argument from the start.

Removing the owner occupancy requirement is key

Seattle’s HALA recommended completely removing the owner occupancy requirement because such restrictions hamper ADU production. Also, in 2016 the city conducted two community meetings on potential ADU rule changes, and public feedback was nearly 2:1 against owner occupancy rules. As noted above, planners opted for a compromise that mandates one year of owner occupancy. (Incidentally, such rules may be illegal anyway.)

Requiring the owner to live on-site removes the 20 percent of Seattle’s single-family houses that are rentals from the pool of possible new ADU sites—sites where adding ADUs to existing rental houses would cause zero physical displacement. Plus, compared to typical homeowners, landlords are more likely to have the financial resources and expertise to invest in new ADUs. For many private homeowners, financing is the biggest obstacle to developing an ADU on their own. Risk-taking investors can play a key role in jump starting ADU construction by blazing the trail and establishing the design, construction, and finance infrastructure for ADUs in Seattle that will then make it easier for homeowners to get into the game. Barring non-resident investors from building ADUs will kneecap production, stifling the potential for ADUs to ameliorate Seattle’s housing shortage.

Some cities have rationalized owner occupancy requirements as a means to “preserve neighborhood character,” based on the perception that rental units may not be well maintained. But if this argument were valid, it would also justify applying the same rule not just to ADUs but to all rental homes, including everything from single-family houses to duplexes, rowhouses, and large apartment buildings. Singling out ADUs is discriminating against renters in the most sought-after residential neighborhoods. In a similar vein, some Seattle officials hope to assuage fears that speculative developers would build “backyard cottages that don’t fit the character of the neighborhood.” Such arguments prioritize some people’s aesthetic tastes over other people’s need for housing.

No one’s parking is more important than another person’s housing

Regarding parking, yes, removing the off-street requirement for ADUs might increase competition for street parking. A 2014 study in Portland found that on average, each ADU generates 0.46 cars parked on the street. But requiring off-street parking has numerous and hefty adverse impacts. Overall, off-street parking quotas make housing more expensive and deepen car dependence—in direct contradiction to two of Seattle’s most urgent aspirations for the future.

Besides, the City of Seattle has no obligation to provide convenient parking, free of charge, on publicly owned streets, to single-family homeowners—the vast majority of whom already have plenty of car-storage space on their own property. In an age of impending climate crisis, in a city where close  to half of greenhouse gas pollution comes from cars, it’s ludicrous that a policy change as benign as allowing more ADUs can be contested through the State Environmental Policy Act over parking.

Urban infill such as ADUs makes infrastructure more efficient

The SEPA appeal ruling also cited lack of analysis of public infrastructure, but most of these concerns are based on an outdated context. First of all, as an article I will publish soon details, in most of Seattle’s single-family areas, population density has decreased over the past few decades with the decline in average household size. In other words, in the not too distant past, existing infrastructure adequately served more people in most neighborhoods where ADUs would be built. The ruling calls out stormwater management in particular, but today’s stringent regulations ensure that any new construction will not increase polluted runoff, and in fact, will likely reduce it.

Furthermore, urban infill projects like ADUs typically cost less to serve with infrastructure compared with the alternative scenario of new homes forced out to more sprawling, suburban locations. Here again, the appeal ruling ignores modern reality—in this case, that urban infill housing lowers per-capita public expenditures on infrastructure.

Backyard cottage designed by live-work-play, located in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. Photo by Cindy Apple, used with permission.

Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the foot with SEPA

That adding homes to existing cities is a net positive for both people and the planet is an utterly uncontroversial principle of urban planning. One of the gentlest ways to do that is by allowing ADUs into areas otherwise reserved for single-family houses. Yet in Seattle, Washington State’s environmental laws enabled an obstructionist minority to torpedo a policy change that would have unlocked these much-needed, flexible housing options.  

The harm of delay is real: based on ADU construction rates in Vancouver and Portland, every year Seattle’s ADU rules remain unfixed and impede production, hundreds of families are losing the opportunity to rent in-law apartments or backyard cottages. Instead, they are competing for existing homes, and as the bidding wars cascade down the market, the lowest-income families are being displaced from Seattle. Rents are rising faster for everyone. Seattle’s most desirable neighborhoods are remaining as exclusive as ever, off-limits to people of modest means. The delayed densification of the city’s most auto-dependent zones is hamstringing its progress beyond carbon.

Who is winning from the EIS delay? Almost no one, save for a few extreme NIMBYs who want to freeze their neighborhoods in amber, or who care more about street parking than welcoming new neighbors.

Who loses? All the city’s renters, who in the best case will pay a little more because of the added competition for apartments that the ADU delay is intensifying, and in the worst case may be forced to find somewhere to live in a cheaper location outside Seattle. But most of Seattle’s single-family homeowners lose, too: the majority of them support liberalizing ADU rules. ADUs not only fit Cascadians’ tolerant, welcoming values and laidback lifestyles, but they increase home values and income potential for homeowners.

Oh, and the planet. The planet loses, too.

For all these reasons, ADUs should have been the easy part of the HALA agenda. There is a potential silver lining, though. Seattle planners now have the opportunity to craft a definitive EIS that lays the groundwork for preventing the exploitation of SEPA by small numbers of entitled residents at the expense of everyone else. Priority one for the EIS is to establish the fundamental truth that regulatory changes allowing more homes are a net positive because more homes are a net positive. Optimistically, this path could lead to the exemption of all future infill housing construction from SEPA, expanding on what the city council recently approved for small and mid-sized apartment buildings in Seattle’s six official “urban centers.”

Event: Washington vs. World’s Largest Methanol Refinery

In the last several years, Cascadia has seen a tsunami of proposals to expand the region’s capacity to ship coal and oil throughout and out of the region. More recently, a third wave of proposals has emerged: fracked petrochemicals, including methanol, which Chinese companies would use to make plastics.

But methanol comes at a high cost. Sometimes pitched as green, there is no evidence to support the project’s hype of environmental responsibility. In fact, the plants that produce it require massive amounts of energy and water, even as they spew out wastewater and heavy metals and fill the air with toxic and climate-destabilizing pollution.

The proposed methanol refinery in Kalama, Washington, would be the world’s largest, opening the floodgates for fracked gas refining and export in Cascadia.

On Monday, April 24, Sightline policy director Eric de Place will speak in Seattle about fracked gas and the proposed Kalama methanol refinery. Dr. Mark Vossler, of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, and local Kalama activist John Flynn will also join in on the discussion.

Read Eric’s research here, and check out our three-minute infographic introduction to methanol in the Northwest and our Kalama methanol refinery infographic.

Event: “Explained: Natural Gas and World’s Largest Methanol Refinery”

  • Speakers: Eric de Place, Sightline Institute policy director; Dr. Mark Vossler, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility; John Flynn, local Kalama activist
  • Where: University Friends Meeting, 4001 9th Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98105 (map)
  • When: Monday, April 24, 2017, 6:30 – 8:00 PM (RSVP here)
  • Sponsor: Sierra Club
  • The event is free and open to the public; childcare will be provided.

Want to help spread the word? You can do so on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks in advance!

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

 

Northwest Coal Terminals’ Last Stand

Even before amendments come in about its environmental impacts, the last of six coal terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest is on the ropes, having been denied a crucial sublease by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. And the coal dust it would release into the surroundings may be the final nail in its coffin.

The coal dust it would release into the surroundings may be the final nail in its coffin.
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First proposed in 2012 at a projected cost of $680 million, the Millennium Bulk Terminal on the Columbia River in Longview, Washington, was designed to ship up to 48 million tons (44 million metric tons) of coal annually. As expected, terminal advocates touted the family-wage jobs it would bring to the area, while ignoring or dismissing adverse impacts such as climate change, train noise, traffic blockages, and coal dust. “If complaints continue about dust, we will know it’s a device just to deceive,” said Millennium executive Bill Chapman. “Facts do matter.”

As a Ph.D. physicist and science historian, I agree. Facts indeed matter. And when it comes to estimating fugitive coal dust—that which escapes from trains and port operations into the surroundings—I could not find very many of them when I looked deeply into the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project, which is supposed to provide detailed factual information about its environmental risks. There was unsupported conjecture aplenty, but few well-founded facts.

As I explained at length in my formal comments on the DEIS, the official analysis seriously underestimates releases of fugitive coal dust from the Longview facility by a factor of between 2.4 and 4.2. Releases from individual operations within the terminal—for example, from coal-pile wind erosion—are low-balled by factors of up to 7. And some dust-generating processes, such as bulldozing the storage piles and trucks driving on terminal roads, are completely ignored, so the underestimates must be even worse.

I had to dig deeply to get at the underlying “facts,” which were not easily accessible. The crucial calculations of fugitive coal dust emissions rates, performed by subcontractor URS Corporation, curiously cannot be located on the project’s official web site; only a summary of these calculations can be found there. For the details, I had to specifically request other documents from the Washington Department of Ecology, including several appendices in which these calculations were finally presented.

How did the environmental analysis end up with such large underestimates of fugitive coal dust? For one, the authors used unwarranted and optimistic physical parameters in their emissions calculations. Compounding this problem, they applied unjustified and unreasonably high efficiencies for dust-control measures (such as watering the coal piles). For example, URS Corporation used the lowest possible value, 2.2 percent, for the coal silt content in estimating fugitive dust from wind erosion of the storage piles rather than the US Environmental Protection Agency’s standard value of 8.6 percent for western surface coal, thereby underestimating the dust loss by a factor of 3.9. And the authors then applied a high efficiency factor of 95 percent for watering the coal piles without sufficiently justifying their use of such an optimistic number. Taken together, these unwarranted and unsupported assumptions yielded coal dust estimates that are probably low by nearly an order of magnitude.

Apparently no one involved actually checked these estimates by comparing them with operating experience at other coal terminals. There were trains loaded with Powder River Basin coal rumbling past Longview almost daily, for example, but nobody seemed to have thought to obtain a few samples of this coal and actually measure the silt content. Instead, URS Corporation engineers cherry-picked the smallest value they could find in tables published by EPA and used that number in their calculations. Good, professional engineers and scientists establish facts by comparing tentative hypotheses and calculations with real, measured data. This was not done for the Longview terminal’s fugitive coal dust estimates.

Also improperly treated in the Longview DEIS was the loss of coal and the fugitive coal dust generated during the ship-loading process. This has proved to be one of the largest sources of coal dust at other terminals I have examined, such as those in Delta and Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Duluth, Minnesota; and Seward, Alaska. As much as half the total coal losses from these terminals occur during ship loading, and almost all of those losses end up in the waters below, either drifting away with the currents or sinking to the bottom and contaminating it.

The URS Corporation calculations lumped the ship-loading losses together with other losses from the entire coal conveyor system (which transfers coal from storage piles to the ship holds) and obtained total emissions of only 5.25 tons per year, again assuming a high 95 percent efficiency factor. But when I calculated just the ship-loading losses using reasonable values for wind speeds, coal moisture content, and dust-suppression efficiency, I obtained 5.9 tons per year for that operation alone. And essentially all of that coal would drop directly into the Columbia River.

A good example of what happens during ship loading can be found at the Westshore Terminals in Delta, BC, on the Salish Sea just north of the border. That port can load up to 33 million metric tons annually, so it’s roughly equivalent in coal-loading volume to the proposed Longview terminal. And it uses similar loading technologies, with the ship-loading tube extending well down into the carrier holds to try to minimize escaping dust. But a comprehensive 2006 examination of the coal losses at Westshore revealed coal accumulations on the sea floor near the piers that exceeded 10 percent of the natural sediments found there, and the dominant portion of that coal came in grains too large to have drifted very far.

A revealing photograph of a bulk carrier being loaded at Westshore shows what actually happens during the ship-loading process. Winds blowing over the holds suck coal dust up and out of them due to the famous Bernoulli effect, which physicists and aeronautical engineers all recognize. Some of this dust is then deposited on the deck while the rest drops directly into the waters below, drifting away on the currents. Lummi Nation fishers working south of the terminal have witnessed and photographed this process, too.

Coal dust on deck of a bulk carrier being loaded at Westshore Terminals. Photo by Paul K. Anderson (used with permission).

Take a closer look at this photograph, particularly at the small pile of coal in the foreground. This is coal lost due to human error when the operator moves the ship-loader from one hold to the next, as is done many, many times during loading to keep the vessel balanced. It is coarse-grained coal just like that found on the sea floor adjacent to the terminal’s piers.

In the Longview terminal’s fugitive-dust analysis, the DEIS authors made no serious attempt to account for coal-spillage losses due to human error. From what I can tell, in fact, the URS Corporation engineers included only wind-driven dust with tiny grain sizes less than 10 micrometers. Such a glaring omission leads to another gross underestimate of the coal losses, particularly those that would occur at the piers and fall directly into the Columbia River, sinking to the bottom and contaminating nearby shorelines.

All told, including realistic wind-driven losses plus those arising from operator error, I estimate that between 10 and 15 tons of coal would enter the Columbia annually—the equivalent of a full dump truck load—if the terminal were to operate at its peak capacity of 48 million tons per year. Although that corresponds to only about a tenth of a teaspoonful per ton of coal loaded, it really adds up when loading so many millions of tons annually. And that doesn’t include losses from other kinds of mishaps, such as a carrier collision with the pier or conveyor system, as happened at Westshore in December 2012.

I estimate that between 10 and 15 tons of coal would enter the Columbia annually.
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In general, based on actual operating experience at other comparable coal terminals like Westshore, we should expect the Longview facility to release between 6 and 10 tons of coal for every million tons loaded. That’s less than a measly 0.001 percent. But if we apply those figures to the maximum Longview capacity, we obtain overall coal losses of 290 to 480 tons per year. Even if we optimistically assume that the Longview terminal’s coal-loading efficiency could somehow be improved so much that losses of only 0.0001 percent occur, or less than half a teaspoonful per ton, that still adds up to 48 tons per year. That’s more than four times as much as the 11 tons that was estimated in the draft EIS for the Millennium Bulk Terminal—and at least a quarter of that would end up in the Columbia River.

Yes, indeed, facts do matter. But there is little reason to believe that the public has been given real facts—grounded in solid evidence based on observation and measurements—about how much coal dust the Longview terminal would actually release. To the contrary, an honest, detailed examination reveals that the Longview terminal is likely to be a major source of air and water pollution to the surrounding community and especially to the Columbia River. These are the facts we should be heeding, not the “alternative facts” peddled by Bill Chapman and the coal export industry.

Michael Riordan is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Solar Home Book, The Hunting of the Quark, and most recently Tunnel Visions. He writes about science, technology and public policy from his home on Orcas Island, Washington.

Weekend Reading 4/14/17

Alan

It’s just three weeks now since Cascadia lost Alex Dold, another young man killed by the combination of untreated mental illness, untrained police, and a broken mental health care system. Alex, 29, fell into crisis and—haunted by the demons created by his mental illness—became a danger to himself and his family. Desperate to protect him, his loved ones called 911. The officers who responded, unequipped to de-escalate a mental health crisis and unfairly expected to fill the hole where our mental health care system ought to be, used their Taser. Alex died.

To be sure, we need better police training—one-quarter of people killed by police last year in the United States were in the grips of the extreme mind states caused by mental illness—but we need much more than that. We need to build a civilized mental health care system. Ten times as many Americans with severe mental illnesses are currently locked in jails and prisons as are recovering in residential psychiatric care facilities. Cascadia can do better.

To gain insight into this crisis, I especially recommend the first chapter of “My Damn Mind,” on the This American Life podcast. It is a revealing look behind the veil at the extreme states of mind that afflict about one in every hundred adults, sufferers of bipolar and schizophrenia. A young Haitian-American man named Alan Pean narrates one of his own manic episodes and the tragedy that it unleashes: he admits himself to a Houston hospital seeking care and ends up handcuffed, Tasered, and shot in the chest by untrained security guards. The New York Times did a feature on the same incident and the larger trend of shootings and mental illness in hospitals.

“Five ways to reduce racial bias in your children” seems well-grounded in research.

Serena

A fresh profile of searingly smart and politically acerbic speculative fiction author Margaret Atwood? Yes, please. The “prophet of dystopia” gets a deep and well-timed exploration of her writing, her feminism, her reflections on our dark political moment, and her hopes—yes, hopes—for our shared future.

Last summer, Rahawa Haile, hiked the Appalachian Trail. She writes for Outside Magazine about the experience of being a queer Black woman in the AT space, moving between Trump-sign-dotted and Confederate-flag-adorned towns, enduring the obliviousness of white fellow hikers, and simply making it through that physically grueling challenge. I tried to pick an excerpt to include here, but the whole thing is so great, I just recommend you read it in full.

One of The Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day picks this week was this Sherman Alexie gem, “The Powwow at the End of the World.”

Eric

Archeologists discovered a 14,000-year-old village site in British Columbia. It’s one of the oldest settlements ever found in North America.

This week, I finished two excellent books. On Trails, by Robert Moor, is anchored by his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it expands to becomes a wonderful examination of the ways that trails (and trail-making) shape living organisms and, indeed, whole civilizations.

Nietzsche once wrote that “we have art in order not to die from the truth.” That line appears as an epigraph to one chapter of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I think it captures the careful and mysterious beauty of her story. It lives up to its Pulitzer Prize-winning hype: the characters are astonishingly well-drawn and the dramatic sequences are almost hypnotic. I’m not even sure whether I regret that I listened to an audio version of it. The prose surely deserves more careful attention than listening, but the narration by David Pittu is nothing short of masterful.

Aven

As I sit down to go over the news items that caught my attention this week, the sun is shining through my window, and Seattle is gearing up for not one, but two giant protest marches this weekend. This, combined with the abundance of hopeful articles I’ve been reading, has left me feeling ever so slightly optimistic about the future—a welcome change of pace from the literal doom and gloom that have characterized the present over the last several months.

For one thing, it’s starting to seem likely that the Republican Party of the near future may actually be run by reasonable people who have a minimal respect for science. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a majority of current college Republicans both believe in man-made climate change and think we have a moral obligation to do something about it. Notably, “the University of Pennsylvania’s College Republicans called it ‘ludicrous’ to suggest the climate is not changing or that humans are not driving that change,” while Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo states: “I get thanked by young Republicans over and over again for my engagement on the topic of climate change and other environmental policies. This is the generation that’s going to ironically take us back to a time when environmental protection was not a partisan issue.” Here’s hoping.

Until then, however, thank goodness for Congressmen Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, who has filed a lawsuit seeking to delay the much-hyped US-Mexico border wall by requiring an environmental impact analysis before construction can begin. These analyses tend to take years to complete and cost a lot of money. Since Mexico is still refusing to pay for the wall, and other funding for the expensive project has yet to materialize, this might just be one less bad decision we’ll have to deal with later.

One last hopeful note: according to FiveThirtyEight, the recent attacks on the EPA may not actually mean that much for environmental protection in the long run.  Researchers who’ve studied past governments that were hostile to their own environmental regulatory agencies, including that of Ronald Reagan, have found that “these efforts, while damaging to the environment in some cases, don’t seem to have led to long-term, universal reductions in environmental quality. Instead… the results have mainly come in the form of slower progress on environmental protections and the exacerbation of regional differences as local governments respond to changes in federal policy.” All the more important to keep up the good work here so that we can provide a model for change once the federal government catches up to reality.

John

The Wildlife Services of the US Department of Agriculture uses M-44 “Cyanide bombs” to kill livestock predators in the western United States. But when a teenager near Pocatello, Idaho, accidentally triggered one device, it harmed the boy and killed his dog. That got the attention of Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad, Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen, and a coalition of conservation organizations. As a result of the public attention, the Wildlife Services agreed to remove M-44 devices from Idaho—at least temporarily. Meanwhile, the coalition of organizations seeks a national ban on the M-44 and similar devices.

In the science category, the New Yorker ran this article on two NASA engineers who decided to become politically active. On a similar topic, Grist reported that the March for Science organizers plan to continue activities after the March on Earth Day, April 22. Events on that day are now planned in both Northern and Southern hemispheres. If readers are interested, they can find an April 22 event nearby.

In a positive development in “coal’s War on the health of humans and other living things,” Grist reported that Pacific Rim Coal suspended all permitting efforts on its proposed Chuitna, Alaska, coal mine, because the company could not find investors to finance the project.

For that matter, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and Bloomberg Philanthropies maintain a running tally of US coal power plants that have been retired, or announced a planned retirement. The total has been steadily rising, with the current count at 251 coal plants. Their map and other information can be found here.

John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally submits material for Weekend Reading and other posts.

Talking Taxes: Six Tips to Shift the Story This Tax Day

We generally think of taxes in terms of “me,” not “us.”

But one thing that Donald Trump has delivered to the US mainstream is an, ahem… unusually lively conversation about taxes—even a rare discussion about why they’re important. We’ve heard everything from the so-called “genius” of high-powered business people using loopholes to avoid taxes to heartfelt declarations that taxes are a patriotic duty to the many ways the system is broken.

Bernie Sanders summed it up (of course, this was before November 8): “I have been running all over this country for a year-and-a-half talking about a corrupt tax system. And in one day, Donald Trump did more to explain the corrupt tax system to the American people than I did in a year-and-a-half. Thank you, Donald.” As John Cassidy put it in the New Yorker, the scandal wasn’t Trump not paying taxes or even not saying how much he paid; “The scandal, instead, is what he was able to do lawfully thanks to the structure of the tax code.”

The good news: Americans see taxes as a way to invest in the country and our communities (at least when prompted). Most folks also understand that things are broken when big fellas get to broker special deals.

And of course, the American tax conversation has been renewed this month with GOP rumblings about overhauling the federal tax code and subsequent questions about Trump’s own tax returns and potential conflicts of interest moving forward. Meanwhile, in Cascadian states like Washington, leaders are deciding the budget, and local taxpayers—and people in at least 140 communities around the country—are gearing up for public demonstrations on Tax Day.

Now is the perfect opportunity to share an excellent messaging resource from our friends at Fuse Washington Communications Hub. Based on extensive interview and survey research in Washington State and building on nationwide research conducted by public interest communications strategy firm Topos, these strategies reflect the real attitudes and voices of Americans.

6 Tips for Talking Taxes

  1. Start with the common good. We all benefit from taxes—but we need reminders. Focusing only on specific groups (seniors, kids, the poor) can trigger “me” and “them” thinking. Shift to“us” and “we” by starting with shared benefits and “thriving communities.”
  2. Give concrete examples of the “foundations” of thriving communities. Give examples of the public systems and institutions on which we build our health, prosperity, and quality of life: excellent schools, first responders, clean water, transit, parks, and libraries.
  3. Highlight big-picture priorities, not process. Taxes and dollars aren’t the end goals. Highlight the community benefits that taxes deliver.
  4. Play up aspirations, achievements, and local pride—not problems. Talk up achievements and goals, not shortfalls. Stir up local pride in both place and progress. Show that with the money to do it, we can do great things and make people’s lives better.
  5. Focus on cleaning up our tax code. Loopholes and special deals drain public investments that benefit everybody. Cleaning up unlocks resources, holds those at the top accountable, and shifts blame from government.
  6. It’s manipulation we don’t like, not wealth. It’s okay to be rich. It’s wrong for powerful special interests to get away with manipulating the tax code to serve themselves.

Here’s an example of how All In Washington combines these powerful messages into a concise narrative. (The text below is paraphrased. Be sure to check out the group’s explainer video for the whole story.)

We take pride in our state. There’s nowhere we’d rather live. We have proven we can do great things. We are at our best when no one is left behind. But our innovative spirit hasn’t come through in our tax code. In fact, Washington’s tax code is the most upside-down in the nation. In other words, we ask the Washingtonians with the least to contribute a far greater share of their incomes—as much as seven times what those at the top pay—while powerful special interests get a special deal. Our tax code doesn’t reflect our values.

Taxes are how we all chip in to build foundations for strong, thriving communities and do things together that we could never do alone, like build great schools, roads, and bridges, or train and pay firefighters and librarians! It’s how we create the infrastructure for an economy that works for all of us and that makes possible a strong middle class. We can unlock the resources our communities need by cleaning up the hundreds of special deals that powerful interests and the wealthy have forced into the tax code.

Tax Day is fast approaching. Let us know how you cut through the IRS sniping and partisan posturing to talk about how we all build thriving communities together!

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Would you like to have a kid in the next year?

Northwest women say that almost half of their pregnancies are mistimed or unwanted.
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In contrast with Europe and Canada, the Pacific Northwest faces an epidemic of surprise pregnancy. Northwest women say that almost half of their pregnancies are mistimed or unwanted. This causes hardship in the lives of the region’s families and makes it difficult to give children the best possible start in life. With unintended pregnancy so common and the consequences so big, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends that health care providers check pregnancy desires at every visit with reproductive-age women and, when appropriate, offer “whoops-proof” IUDs and implants that work 20 times better than the pill.

But pressures on providers make this tough. Clinicians are swamped with ever more tasks and topics to cover and ever smaller chunks of time in which to address them all. Even those who would prefer a whole-person approach often don’t know whether and when a patient might want to have a kid, which means they can’t help a prospective parent prepare for healthy babies. Now, a small Oregon non-profit has come up with a simple innovation may change that.

One Key Question

The Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health, based in Portland, developed a remarkably simple screening technique called One Key Question® (OKQ). It fits into busy schedules and can be completed by clinic assistants—or maybe eventually a waiting room app. The one key question is this: “Would you like to become pregnant in the next year?” The clinician documents one of four patient responses: Yes, I’m okay either way, I’m not sure, or No, which then guides next steps.

Patients who say yes receive preconception counseling about how they can stack the odds in favor of a healthy pregnancy by improving nutrition, avoiding toxins, and addressing chronic conditions or stress. Patients who feel uncertain or ambivalent (I don’t know or I’m okay either way) get information about preconception care as well as family planning options. A response of no leads to just the conversation about family planning. It creates an opportunity to check satisfaction with a patient’s current method and explore methods like IUDs and implants that might better fit patient goals but are less familiar. Inexpensive posters and tear sheets from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy and a color-coded medical eligibility chart from the CDC make it easy for providers to walk a patient through the options.

As shown in the figure below, of 1,847 US women asked One Key Question in a 2015 study, almost seven in ten women responded to One Key Question with “no.” Ten percent each responded with “yes,” “I’m not sure,” or “I’m okay either way.”

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Promising beginnings

Although One Key Question is relatively new, early feedback from clinicians looks promising, and it has caught the attention of experts nationwide. One example is the state of Delaware, where Governor Jack Markell partnered with Upstream USA to retool contraceptive care statewide, so that women can receive the method of their choice on the same day, free of charge—including IUDs and implants. The statewide contraceptive care upgrade, called Delaware CAN, has trained caregivers serving over 50,000 women in 60 different clinical settings.

In Oregon, OKQ is deployed in a variety of settings, from home visits and food assistance to primary care. A pilot project at One Community Health compared two major health centers, one in which OKQ was implemented and one in which it was not. After just one month, 64 percent of electronic medical records for the OKQ-practicing site documented appropriate screening for pregnancy desires, compared to 12 percent at the non-OKQ site.

Challenges remain

Even clinicians who would like to improve reproductive outcomes for their patients will need evidence that adopting a screening protocol such as One Key Question will make patient care easier in the long run, and more satisfying—rather than simply adding one more thing to an already overwhelming to-do list.

Cultural dynamics create a different type of challenge. Sexuality and reproduction can be sensitive topics for providers as well as patients. In particular, those women who are young, poor, ethnic minorities, or in ill health can feel shamed or pressured unless conversations are carefully client-centered. That said, a strong majority do not want to get pregnant in the next year, and many women say that they appreciate being asked.

Health centers that want to use OKQ in a systematic and routine way face logistical challenges incorporating the OKQ algorithm into varying electronic health records. In Oregon, OCHIN, a company providing health information technology, has incorporated the question and answers into the EPIC electronic record used across their network. But other systems use other platforms, so not all providers would get prompted to make a simple note of a woman’s pregnancy intentions.

Keys to success

To ensure program excellence and compatibility of evaluation across settings, the non-profit Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health trademarked One Key Question and asks for a signed memorandum of understanding prior to implementation. In settings that have adopted OKQ, success tends to follow a specific set of best practices. These include training the whole health center team prior to roll-out, adjusting workflow, updating protocols and referral lists for preconception or family-planning care, and building a plan to evaluate impact.

Of course, it only makes sense to ask about what people want if clinicians then have services to offer. One Key Question can reveal gaps in service capacity that require other kinds of staff training or upgrades in the healthcare system as a whole. Fortunately, several great models show how it can be done. I recently wrote about the Colorado Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy, which dramatically reduced teen pregnancy and abortion by improving access to implants and IUDs. Delaware, which once had the highest rate of unintended pregnancy in the country, is now making similar changes with help from Upstream USA. The “Beyond the Pill” program at University of California San Francisco offers onsite trainings to individual clinics wanting to upgrade contraceptive services, with grant funding for those that qualify.

No change is effortless, but some changes make life easier and better in the long run, and this seems to be one of them.

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