Live Maps And New Perspectives

My writer’s life occurs principally in two media arenas. One is the reporting I do for the New York Times and other mainstream press that involves structuring the gathered facts into a narrative that is purposefully designed not to have a point of view. My focus is delivering expertise in a 1,000 to 3,000 word package distinguished by studied detachment. 

The other arena is the public interest journalism I prepare for the Michigan Land Use Institute. The idea is to dig just as hard for facts and knowledge but to deploy a different part of my intelligence, spirit, and experience to the outcome. In public interest writing, unlike reporting for the mainstream media, a primary goal is develop sufficient perspective to provide understanding, to inspire, to motivate, and to tell entirely new narratives about what is possible when smart people embrace a new idea.

I find that at the ripe age of 50 I’ve attained an ease in simultaneously stepping through both worlds. What’s interesting, though, is the difference in how I start projects.

My assignments for the mainstream media generally begin with a couple of phone calls and an hour or two with Internet search engines. But with the public interest work, which involves joining land and communities, I start with a flyover on Google Earth. As a tool for discerning patterns on the land, I haven’t found one better.

saugatuckdunes.jpgLate last month I began a project with a group of advocates in the Saugatuck region that involves making the case to conserve about 20 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline between Holland and Douglas, much of it undeveloped and among the most surpassingly beautiful stretches of sand and freshwater dunes in Michigan. The first important product of the project is a white paper I’m preparing that will, among other things, make the case that conserving the natural character of the coast line is an economic imperative that helps to ensure the region’s competitiveness in this century. The other major point I anticipate making is that the natural coastline and the rural lands just inland form a logical region, and that preserving its integrity will require local governments to see it that way and collaborate. 

The essence of both points is made clear on Google Earth, especially if you have the Virtual Earth 3d plug-in from Microsoft. Sweeping across the Saugatuck region on Google Earth reveals a panorama of blue water, dun colored dunes, and green forest that surround the inviting villages of Douglas and Saugatuck. No other Lake Michigan shoreline this close to Chicago provides such a clear distinction between the natural landscape and two human communities. That’s why so many people in Saugatuck, Douglas, and the surrounding townships are intent on ensuring that this very special place retains its character. 

As part of my research I wanted to see how to better apply the Google Earth capacity, and found the Live Maps/Virtual Earth team’s blog, which describes how technicians and intellectuals and planners and others are using the technology. Check this site out for gaining insight into a tool available to anybody and not possible for ordinary Joes like me until this century.

Here’s a great application of Live Maps to display Detroit’s history and historic sites.

The point is that the American Mode Shift is under way, in part because technology is providing us with new tools to develop fresh perspectives about where we live, and what we are doing to diminish or improve our places.

On the Bubble and A Little Bit Off

Tonight Al Gore could win an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Later this year he could also win the Nobel Prize for Peace. And if he lost 50 pounds and jumped into the 2008 presidential race, he could win that, too. Ever since he published “Earth in The Balance,” his 1992 best-seller, Gore’s two issues have been global climate change and himself.

The first, global climate change, is drawing the nation inexorably to logical choices about energy, metropolitan development patterns, population, conservation, and transportation. The catch phrase here is doing much more with much less. 

The second, Gore himself, is the problem of already having much more and working really hard to do less. It’s like dragging the best trumpet player in the marching band out to perform the Star Spangled Banner. Reluctance doesn’t begin to describe Al Gore’s nearly 20-year romance with true greatness. He abandoned almost any mention of the environment in 2000. Bush’s pledge to abide by the Kyoto Protocols, which he abandoned immediately upon crossing the White House threshold, attracted more attention. al-gore.jpg

Nevertheless here Gore is again ready to take a bow for superb leadership, while the rest of us who’ve been frustrated and inspired wonder what he intends to do with his favorite issue and global prominence. The momentum to change the rules of the development game, and to frame it around battling global climate change, is so intense that even George Bush stepped out on on the White House lawn for a moment last week to tout electric cars, a kind of presidential Punxsutawney Phil moment, to see if he could cast any shadow of influence over the issue. The president looks smaller these days, more pinched and stressed and embarrassed, almost like Michael Dukakis looked in 1988 when he put on that military helmet and rode in the tank.

No so Al Gore, who commands every stage he strides across. No one knows more about global climate change than he does, and no one inspires more confidence on the issue. A few weeks ago Gore was the guest of honor in New York at the World Resources Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration, helped raise $2 million, and showed yet again the star power that green issues have attained. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the environment gained such stature and invited this much attention in economic, cultural, and political circles.

The question is whether Gore will complete the mission. As those of us who make the case and organize to shape new ideas know, it still takes government to draw the players and capital together to make big public interest ideas a reality. The federal government has the capacity to act. Its record on the environment is superb. What the United States has done to clear the air, scrub the waters, protect endangered species, encourage research and new findings, ensure natural areas, and all the while grow the economy, has few equals in the annals of public interest policy making. 

As Gore noted in 1992, and again over the last few years, the earth is in the balance. Will he take command of the Oval Office and really do something about it?   

Organizing Principles

Seven years ago New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, which explored the mix of episodic and serendipitous stages that turn a good idea into a cultural event. Gladwell’s book is as useful for explaining the genetics of a modern sensation as Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave was in the 1980s for understanding the economic and cultural consequences of rapid change.

Both books are essential reading for grasping how global climate change has so recently and quickly evolved into one of the most significant economic and social organizing principles of our time. You might find that an odd statement since it’s been almost 20 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous Congressional testimony in which he linked the fires then burning in Yellowstone National Park and the drought gripping the Great Plains to global climate changes wrought by man. I’d just returned from a trip to Montana and Idaho to cover the drought when my New York Times colleague, Philip Shabecoff, returned from the Hill and excitedly told several of us in the Washington Bureau about Hansen’s testimony. Phil, one of the fine environmental reporters of the 20th century, was certain that Hansen’s convincing testimony opened a new era of scientific and environmental research that would have consequences for every person on earth.

He was right about that. It just took 19 years for the idea to gain social currency. It gradually became clear that we were responsible for the ever more severe meteorological events of our time — a great Midwest flood in 1992, severe Florida hurricanes, the drowning of New Orleans, enduring drought on the Colorado Plateau. The tipping point, plainly, came last year with Al Gore’s courageous film, An Inconvenient Truth , that provided viewers with an engrossing narrative that joined a tale of personal discovery with a harrowing environmental journey of ruin that no longer can be denied. Gore is said to be a top candidate for the Nobel Prize. And if he chooses to run for president, he’d immediately be the front-runner and barring a meltdown of some sort, would win.  

Now that global climate change has elevated to common knowledge and popular concern, it’s just astonishing how communities are responding.  Several cities, among them Portland and Salt Lake City, are clear leaders. Portland built a fabulous light rail rapid transit system that is now attracting development around its transit stations (see pix).todportland.jpg

Since 1999, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat, has managed much of his administration around the goal of reducing global climate change gases. The city was among the first to require muncipal buildings to be constructed to LEED standards. Miles of light rail line have been constructed in and around Salt Lake City, and much more is coming. Anderson directed that every city-owned light be changed to energy-sipping bulbs, saving $33,000 a year. In all, the Anderson administration reduced the level of global climate change emissions by 36,000 tons a year, a pinch of pollution in the global context, but enough to make Salt Lake City operate more cleanly and efficiently. While pollution decreased, the city’s population has grown, reaching 182,000 and nearing the 189,000 peak in 1960.

Anderson also was one of the nine original signers of the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits those nine cities and 393 others that have signed on to reduce their global climate emssions. Traverse City, the center of our northern Michigan metropolitan region, just signed the agreement too. Every declared Democratic candidate for president in 2008, and Republican John McCain have embraced early campaign platforms linking energy security and global climate change. Governors, whether they are Democratic of Republican, are focusing ideas on energy and the environment through the global climate change frame. The two are likely to be serious issues in 2008, along with the war. All three, of course, are connected and the discussion could break through the usual campaign blather we’ve been subjected to for over a decade. 

The last point is that responding to global climate change involves the very same steps that communities already are taking to reduce congestion, conserve farmland, protect natural resources, lower municipal costs and taxes, and make their places better. The Mode Shift we are seeing all over the country is prompted by the need to  be much more efficient in how resources, land, energy, and money are used. It means applying technology — whether it’s energy efficient building designs and practices, or new modes of transportation and community development patterns — in ways that limit pollution. And those are the very same ideas we’ve been talking about since I was in the eighth grade and dragging tires out of the Bronx River on the first Earth Day in 1970. The new market signals of the 21st century are higher energy prices, higher land costs, record population growth, intense global competition, speeding technological advances, and a menacing environmental breakdown. It takes awhile. But, fortunately, we’re showing we ain’t stupid.

Why Details Matter

“The stuff that matters, especially when it comes to the environment, is not the big flashy stuff,” explained Keith Bartholomew, a lawyer who teaches planning at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It’s the small actions. Environmental damage is an accumulation of 1,000 cuts. So repairing it means applying 1,000 Band-Aids. Each one is important. It’s the many small Band-Aids that matter. Real relevance is the cumulative effect.”

I interviewed Keith last week for an article on how metropolitan regions have become the new incubators of effective environmental policy and programs. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, ever since he accepted our invitation to come to northwest Michigan to help the tiny, two-year-old Michigan Land Use Institute think through a particularly troublesome problem. The Grand Traverse County Road Commission, the business community, and several townships were desperate to build a new highway and bridge across the Boardman River south of Traverse City. We were convinced that was a terrible idea. The road and bridge was a waste of money, would make traffic worse, encourage more sprawl, and wreck a spectacular river valley so wild bald eagles nested there.keith-bartholomew.jpg

Keith knew a couple of things that made sense. As a young lawyer at 1000 Friends of Oregon in Portland, the granddaddy of non-profit American land policy organizations, Keith developed the legal and advocacy strategy that killed a $1 billion freeway proposed for Portland’s west side. In doing so, Keith helped to open a political, cultural, and economic space large enough for Portland to consider alternatives, including the regional light rail system that eventually was built. His story is an exceptional example of how clear thinking and a lot of moxie can produce a truly great outcome. Portland’s reputation as one of the outstanding cities in America has a lot to do with how its regional rapid transit system encourages more energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive, neighborhood enhancing patterns of development.

The lesson we learned from Keith in 1997 was simple. In order to beat the Boardman bridge we needed to develop a credible alternative. A decade later, the bridge is dead and the alternative is gradually taking shape in the form of a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project paid for with federal funds. Keith hadn’t heard the whole story so I spent a few minutes relating all that’s gone on in my home region since his visit, which occurred during an October 1997 week so warm and sunny that we convinced Keith to join us for a quick and chilly dip in Crystal Lake here in Benzie County. Now Keith can claim two places in America where his good ideas made things better.    

Keith isn’t as involved in municipal affairs in Salt Lake City as he was in Portland, though he recently joined the governing board of the Utah Transit Authority, the agency that is building the second largest regional rapid transit system in the West. By the time it’s completed in 2015, Salt Lake City and its suburbs will add 24 miles to the 19 miles of light rail line that are already operating, and roughly 100 miles of commuter rail. Only Denver, which is building a 172-mile system, will have more. And just as in Portland, the economy supported by the UTA trains is booming.

Keith is 46 now, the married father of a handsome young boy, and a scholar in law and planning anxious to prove himself worthy of achieving a tenured faculty position. He’s tall, slim, funny, and still loves trains. “In order to create a quality place it has to have iconic features that attract people,” he told me. “It’s hard to beat a train. Trains promote centrality, vitality, and sustainability. That’s what they represent. They make cities work better. If they’re built in the right place trains will do what they’re good at — providing efficient access to localized geography.”

Flip: Interactively Valuing Place Online

This is the second weekly installment of Flip, Modeshift’s exploration of the best examples of online tools to build connections between people and places. I’ve got several for you to see. Spend some time with these. They’re all terrific.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle produced this interactive production to explore several ancient settlements in Puget Sound. The production mixes text, audio, video, and motion graphics.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York did this wonderful interactive production for Tall Buildings that is really easy to explore and does a nice job of non-fiction storytelling. 

Fuji Film produced Forests Forever, an exploration of the biology and life cycle of forests that is set up to mimic a video game, although it includes such high quality pictures, audio, text, and motion graphics it could and should be used as a high school or university teaching tool.

The idea here is that online communications produces an entirely new means for joining people to their places. That is the connection, tying our spirit to our places, which produces, like the fresh spring buds of a Benzie County cherry tree, the fruit of new ideas that make our lives and communities better.