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.

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Talk, Talk, Talk: In Regions It Works

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SALT LAKE CITY – Matt Leighninger published an interesting piece this week on Tompaine.com about how local governments are finding new ways to get things done, particularly across jurisdictional boundaries. “Local leaders are recruiting large, diverse numbers of people and involving them in small, deliberative groups, big action forums and ongoing structures like neighborhood councils,” Leighninger wrote.

Leighninger’s “deliberative groups” are the same thing as “convening groups,” my term for describing the new alliances of untraditional allies that are forming serendipitously across the country. These convening organizations, which differ in their form and function from traditional civic groups — chambers of commerce, rotary groups, Lions Clubs, and the like — arise out of the need for communities to find a way to negotiate the conflicts that too often occur at the intersection of politics, commerce, and advocacy.  Their role is to help resolve big public interest issues — like traffic congestion or rapid transit or affordable housing — that cross jurisdictional boundaries and the lines between the public and private sectors.

In their form and function, convening groups are entirely an artifact of the 21st century. They are needed because government by itself, at every level, is incapable of efficiently achieving big ideas. And the new communications technology — blogs, email, Web sites, chat boards — provide convening groups wtth the ready means to communicate with themselves and to engage in dialogue in real time with folks in their communities. 

I first recognized convening groups in Michigan. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance in the Grand Rapids region, which represents businesses, local governments, farmers, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and others, formed to prevent the region between Michigan’s second largest city and Lake Michigan from becoming the Midwest’s version of Los Angeles.

In Traverse City, the Land Use and Transportation Study Coordinating Group is 34 representatives of local governments and civic organizations formed out of a hotly disputed proposal to build a highway and bridge across the Boardman River. The group is now managing a $1.36 million federally-financed scenario planning project to develop the reasoned alternative to the highway.

Here in the Salt Lake City region, Envision Utah formed in the 1990’s to help growing suburbs bring order and environmental sensitivity to third-world growth rates. An ally has been Salt Lake City’s two-term Democratic Mayor Rocky Anderson (see pix), who’s administration has been defined by Anderson’s insistence that the city take the lead nationally in curbing the production of global climate change gases. The city’s single-minded pursuit of that goal, coupled with Envision Utah’s trend setting program of land conservation and growth management has made the largest region in the most conservative state an unexpected model of how to build a clean, green, land-conserving, and prosperous new economy. It’s really something to see.

Media, Place Blogging: A Leader in Detroit

Not long before she died earlier this month Molly Ivins, the great Texas political columnist, noted that the conventional American news media had an odd business strategy: Giving customers less and less of an ever duller and out of touch product. Newspaper readership has been declining since its peak in 1992. Now, instead of individual papers going out of business, entire chains are biting it. Almost a year ago Knight Ridder, which had squeezed the intellectual energy out of Pulitzer Prize winners in Miami, Philadelphia, and San Jose, sold all of its holdings to McClatchy. 

The other side of this story, though, is the rise of independent news rooms on the Internet. They are taking many forms. Yet one of the most intriguing at the moment is the place-based blogs that are telling very different narratives about their communities, and attracting growing audiences. The place bloggers tend to be more immediate, interested in much more detail, less inclined to point cynical fingers, and much readier to probe and keep probing. Here’s a good example from Watertown, Mass.

I’m interested because one of those narratives is the Mode Shift that is the focus of this blog, the emergence of a new green, clean, energy efficient metropolitan development strategy. The new economic model is yielding authentic benefits for residents, businesses, and regions. Salt Lake City, for instance, built a LEED-certified energy-efficient Intermodal transit station (see pix) to serve as the hub of its 145-mile regional light rail and commuter rail system that is reshaping development patterns in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States.  

saltlakeintermodal.jpgA great example of how these old media/new media trend lines cross is now occurring in Detroit. If you happen to read the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, southeast Michigan’s two dailies, it’s like following an on-going regional funeral, and not only because of unrelenting bad news from the auto industry. The papers don’t appear terribly interested in digging out the new narratives of entrepreneurial activity in any sphere. I’ve worked for years in Detroit and know 50 great stories about terrifically dedicated people in business, government, law, academia, institutions, philanthropy and the non-profit sector whose work is making a huge difference. 

You’ll find some of those people, though, in Model D, a blog launched in July 2005 that looks at political issues, social and economic trends, real estate news, and the people involved in finely hewn and intelligent journalism.  Yesterday’s edition had a very solid profile of Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and one of the important researchers and strategists in American metropolitan affairs. Bruce’s group produced the Charting Maine’s Future report mentioned earlier this month in Mode Shift. 

Bruce has been involved for several years in conducting research and shaping the various strategies Detroit could embrace to improve its well-being. The Model D piece is the best treatment of him and his work I’ve read in any Detroit media. Model D’s journalism falls into the realm of “appreciative inquiry,” which is a new school of reporting that is much less cynical than the frame of the conventional media. Model D’s report highlights the promising business trends that are shaping what Detroit is now and will be in 25 years.   

The transformation of metropolitan regions in the United States into places worthy of attention and investment, places that attract the brightest minds and best companies, hasn’t received nearly the focused conventional media treatment it deserves. I’m in Salt Lake City this week, one of the greenest, most energy efficient, politically progressive cities in the United States . It has received scant attention for its good work.

One important reason this is so is that the American Mode Shift is essentially a story of change based on collaboration and optimism. It’s not a story of conflict, not about bad news.  And because it isn’t, it violates one of the basic tenets of conventional American journalism.

Jeremiah Owyang, the director of corporate media strategy at Podtech.net and one of the astute observers of social media, attended the WeMedia conference in Miami earlier this month and reported in his blog on the dynamic tension between the conventional media and the new Internet media. That growing and fractious distance is due to the speed of technological change and practices that has influenced where readers and viewers are found now. It’s also due to how the old media look at and cover the world. See Jeremiah’s postings from February 10, 2007.