Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”

This Is South Africa

Cape Town's water supply starts in this magnificent valley near Stellenbosch, north of South Africa's largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cape Town’s water supply starts in this valley near Stellenbosch,
north of South Africa’s largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider


CAPE TOWN, South Africa
— There may be no other place on Earth where the land unfolds with such breathtaking beauty, where the green waves of KwaZulu-Natal valleys and the purple summits of Karoo desert ridges have such a powerful emotional lease. From the cold blue ocean waters of Cape Town to the limitless highveld expanses of Mpumalanga, South Africa’s geographic magnificence serves to both inspire this nation — and mock its racial divisions, government mismanagement, and misguided carbon-intensive economic strategy.

South Africa has no frilly edges, no centers of juvenile mirth or artifice. There are no enclaves of hyper-intellectual, digitally-driven, fabulously confident venture capitalists investing in online apps that change the world. There are no communities that specialize in making movies like Hollywood, or music like Nashville, or baseball like Cooperstown. One of the country’s most-visited tourist destinations is an Atlantic Ocean island where black activists were imprisoned before they became president. The red carpets that South Africans talk about are not entrances to galas. They are the blood of victims of government-sanctioned massacres.

What South Africa embraces in abundance is passion. Passion for the land. Passion for progress. Passion for 22 years of liberty since the 1994 elections that ended Apartheid. Passion to prove that the endowment of optimism, the allegiance to justice that led to the election of Nelson Mandela as the new republic’s first president isn’t lost in a gout of corruption and cronyism fostered by Jacob Zuma, the nation’s fourth president. “What scares me the most in current day South Africa,” writes Solly Moeng, a communications consultant, in the April 13, 2006 edition of Fin24.com, “is the growing realization that we have placed our fate squarely into the hands of a bunch of politicians who, now faced with the growing prospects of losing much of the power they’ve taken for granted all along, might stop at nothing to retain it.”

The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider

Passion steers South Africa’s progress now. In seven weeks of travel, in talking to scores of people of all races and ages in eight of the country’s nine provinces, people expressed their deep frustration about the country’s mounting social and economic turmoil. They displayed a patriot’s commitment to understand the sources of the tumult and resolve them. And everyone marveled at the gifts that God and nature had bestowed on their beloved country.

TISA. This is South Africa. Here are other notable features of South Africa’s distinctive place on Earth:

Love — Though too many black South Africans struggle with numbing joblessness and poverty, and too many white South Africans despair at the diminished state of their country, blacks and whites share the most important human values. South Africans are generous, unselfish, and full of love. Everywhere in South Africa we were invited into homes, hugged and fed, and celebrated as new friends and not as strangers. Our experiences in black communities were especially appealing. Though millions of black families live in informal settlements with limited access to running water and decent sanitation, the grinding conditions seem not to have diminished the communal tribal culture that has developed over centuries. Families live together in two or three homes side by side, whether it’s in informal settlements, on a suburban street, or in compounds of round thatched-roof huts in the countryside. Wherever they reside, black families share resources, and rely on younger adults to care for babies and the elders. Communities also do the same. People gather in groups to consider facts and reach decisions collectively. The communal culture builds trust and produces generous volumes of love that black South Africans lavish on each other and on visitors.

A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Mongolia. Photo/Keith Schneider
A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

Despair — For nearly a century, until the practice ended in 1994, South Africa’s white Afrikaans Apartheid government bullied its black, colored, and Indian communities. Whites occupied the best jobs, the best neighborhoods, the choicest lands. People of the three other races, and especially black South Africans, were confined to designated neighborhoods and regions without liberty to travel, go to good schools, buy land, or seek employment outside of menial labor. The oppression produced viral hatred of government. The election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president in 1994, and the adoption of a constitution that stressed human rights and justice, produced waves of popular optimism about opening a new era of freedom and opportunity fostered by a competent government elected by all of the people. Two decades into the 21st century, though, South Africa is managed by an ineffective and corrupt administration making numerous poor decisions about economic development and social progress. South Africans of every race despise what’s happening to their country. One consequence is that President Jacob Zuma is under siege from South Africans and opposition parties seeking his impeachment. See Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: South Africa archive here.
Continue reading “This Is South Africa”

Parks and Promise in Emalahleni, South Africa

One of the parks in the Linville neighborhood that started as a trash-clearing project to make room for a curbside carwash. Photo/Keith Schneider
One of the parks in the Linville neighborhood that started as a trash-clearing project to make room for a curbside carwash. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMALAHLENI, South Africa — There’s enough disturbing news in the world. I’ve reported my share of it. So when a story crosses my path that is part of the global garden of embryonic hope, I relish telling it.

One of those stories, about two young guys here in South Africa who turned trash dumps into a program to build neighborhood parks, was brought to my attention by environmental activists living in Mpumalanga province, the coal mining and coal-fired power capital of South Africa.

Patrick Bodibane is 33, a wiry and slim father of three, and a member of the overwhelming number of young, smart, and modestly skilled South African men who veer from one piece work job to the next to feed their families. One of every three working age South African adults is jobless. Those without industrial or craft skills, or post-high school educations, are passed by in a poorly managed nation that is hindered by its own reluctance to invest in skills training or higher education for its young people.

Dumisani Masina, Patrick’s friend, is a year older. He is tall and slim, wears his long hair in dreadlocks, and affects an air of confidence that fits a wardrobe of fitted colorful African shirts and stylish shoes that speak volumes about his grace. He is the father of four children by four women, and pursued studies at the local technical training school sufficient to attract several big industrial companies to hire Dumi in various health, safety, and quality control positions.

Two virtues tie Patrick and Dumi together: the need to make a living, and the desire to make their places and the planet a little cleaner. The first is a daily priority. The second developed as their work attracted much-deserved public attention. Continue reading “Parks and Promise in Emalahleni, South Africa”

China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon

Shenzhen's high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city's economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city’s economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHENZHEN, China – Although it is a distinctive way to view the world, to some extent the contemporary industrial age is a global narrative of substance abuse and recovery.

Sixty years ago the basic elements at the center of political and ecological concern were uranium and plutonium. Reckless Soviet and American atomic bomb blasts put so much deadly radiation in the atmosphere that milk and water became contaminated. Nations heeded the warnings of scientists and a global treaty to ban atmospheric testing was signed in 1963.

In the 1970s and 1980s the world came to recognize the malignant hazards of chlorine and its various chlorinated compounds used to manufacture pesticides, plastics, and coolants. A hole in the ozone opened over Antarctica. An industrial accident in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people. Trace residues showed up in food, in breast milk, and contaminated groundwater from leaking toxic waste dumps. Chlorine-based products were banned. Cleanup programs were instituted. Industrial safety improved.

Today, the world is steadily coming to agreement that carbon is the chemical compound putting life and economies at risk. Rejecting the views of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies in the United States, most national governments now heed the warnings of the climate-altering capability of carbon and are pivoting away from fossil fuel, its principle source.

The shift starts with coal and is starting to encompass oil. Coal production in the United States and western Europe is declining. Oil consumption in both regions is flat. Prices are sagging. Mexico banned new water drilling permits for shale oil and gas development near the Rio Grande Valley. Wind and solar electrical generating capacity is climbing quickly. A number of nations are developing new market signals and regulatory programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil, and to encourage cleaner energy alternatives. World leaders are set next month to converge on Paris to negotiate the first international agreement to limit carbon emissions.

In the United States, in an especially telling example of the global shift on fossil fuels, President Obama this week rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and ExxonMobil is being investigated for securities fraud. The company is charged with hiding its own scientific studies about the carbon emissions threat, and spending millions of dollars to protect its fossil fuel holdings by supporting lawmakers and interest groups that marketed the false idea that climate change is a scientific hoax.

Shenzhen's public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Tilting To Cleaner Production Practices
I spent time this month in China’s Pearl River Delta as part of the Global Choke Point project I developed with Circle of Blue in 2010. The Choke Point project builds on seven years of multimedia reporting and convening that examines the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.

On the global resume of a world awakening to an era of ecological and economic reason, China’s new reckoning with the dangerous consequences of carbon stands out. Like a lover escaping the burden of a relationship that has suddenly grown difficult, China is steadily realigning its passion for coal, the largest source of carbon emissions. With an estimated 8.5 billion to 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, China produces more of the world’s carbon air pollution than any other nation. Continue reading “China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon”

Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge

China's mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider
China’s mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider

GUANGZHOU, China — Can a polluted stormwater drain newly constructed as an urban park speak for a city? Can a place of refuge, where clear water slips past slick rocks and families gather near the sound and mist of fountains, be an extension of a nation?

There’s always risk in heaping such rhapsody on a single example. Still, in the characteristically handsome Chinese design, and in the cooling embrace of its flowing water, the Donghao Chung greenway here defines something very new about this city and this nation: Ecological principles are steadily rising nearer to the top of China’s economic priorities.

Last year China’s President, Xi Jinping, visited Donghao Chung and said as much. “China wants to be known as a beautiful country. We want sustainable development. Donghao Chung is a small detail, a small part. By doing well with small parts China can paint a brilliant picture.”

Six years ago I made my first visit to China, which was still caught up in the storm of infrastructure construction, energy production, and urban development that made it the world’s second largest economy, and among the most polluted places on Earth. Though China was simultaneously building dozens of energy-efficient underground metro systems, a 10,000-kilometer high-speed rail network, and the globe’s largest wind, solar, and hydropower production sectors, top government officials did not express genuine interest in the ecological condition of their country.

A Nation Evolving
Perhaps in a triumph of rational recognition over economic ideology, or maybe it is economic rationale recognizing the painful consequences of rampant pollution, China is a changed nation in 2015. A year ago China reached a pact with the United States to reduce its climate changing emissions. A month ago, China announced it would establish a national carbon emissions trading market by 2017, a move to achieve the emissions reductions. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and other big cities regularly announce new policies and practices to clear the air of dreadfully high levels of particulates, and build new treatment plants to make the nation’s rivers and lakes safe.

The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider
The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung, runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider

A good deal of the justification for taking these actions, and for spending the $US billions that it costs every year, resides in this provincial capital of 16 million to 18 million residents (nobody is quite sure), China’s third largest city. For several years, as the rest of the world now knows, Guangzhou’s economy has been slowing and shifting, from heavy reliance on manufacturing to new layers of professional, finance, travel, real estate, banking, and service enterprises. Continue reading “Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge”