Ode on Michigan’s Business-Friendly Regulatory Environment

One day, I’d like to sit on my front steps with a cup of coffee, breathe deeply, and not catch a whiff of acrid diesel exhaust. One day, I’d like to come home in an evening and not see in my bike headlights clouds of tiny particulates. One day, I’d like to not have to wipe off the table on my front porch and come away with black soot. One day, I’d like to sit out in the back yard with a glass of wine and not hear the constant jake brakes from trucks crossing Moroun’s Folly. One day.


My street in Detroit, looking south toward the River.
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Saturday Night Parking Fever

En route to the Green Task Force meeting at Walker-Miller Energy Services in New Center, I stopped at 550 W. Fort St., site of a protest against the proposed demolition of the vacant, Detroit Saturday Night building at that address. Owner Emmett Moten plans to demolish the building for– wait for it- twelve parking spaces.

The argument? The accessibility of off street parking would, he argued, add value to the condo units at the Fort Shelby Apartments, which he developed. But a new citizens’ group in Detroit is pushing back against developers like Moten and Olympia Development, who have relentlessly demolished historic property to build endless surface parking.

Nope, no parking here!

Moten was previously on record as saying he wanted to build a parking structure, but this plan appears to have been scrapped. One of the attendees at the protest explained that this was pitched as an “if / then” possibility that seemed increasingly remote as we move farther away from the original proposal. Certainly, demolition of a high-density building with full street frontage is unlikely to ever be replaced with the same, because Michigan.

At 550 Fort St., looking east-southeast across the glorious parking empire that is downtown Detroit.

The city, in typical fashion of handwringing– especially in the face of wealthy real estate development interests- says they can’t do anything about it after a recent attempt to designate the building as historic failed. Moten also has connections through his long-time affiliation with the Coleman Young regime and the Olympia Development Parking Lot Industrial Complex from his reign working for that company during a major phase of their acquisition spree that led to what critics have labeled a strategy of dereliction-by-design

Francis Grunow on the bullhorn, amicably leads pro-city, anti-parking chants at the 550 W. Fort St. Detroit Saturday Night building.

Francis Grunow, the community development advocate who co-organizes the Detroiters for Parking Reform group, points out that the site is surrounded by parking garages and lots. He argues that this space could easily be redeveloped, and also claims that residents of the Fort Shelby would prefer to keep the building there as it provides character to their block.

To be sure, running an anti-parking organization in Detroit is akin to running, say, an anti-coal organization in Newcastle. But, be it said, I’m about it. The latest from Grunow, et alia, is that their petition to city council to stop the demolition didn’t work. In a public post on Facebook, he attempted stoicism: “all I can do at the end of [these] days is revel in the fact that the sun shines on a broken world.”

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Greening Sprawl and The Limits of Incrementalism

Often, when I get excited about a discussion about sustainable urbanism or green building, the projects in question turn out to be, well, lackluster. I joke that New Urbanism is about designing sprawling strip malls where the parking lots are on the inside of the block rather than fronting the street.  Take this article that talks about clustered homes that share common walls to save costs and face a central courtyard. Revival of the Cottage Court! Not a new idea– it’s been done in the United States for centuries and elsewhere for millennia.

Sure, we’ve favored suburban sprawl– but the idea here is that we are turning a corner and starting to think that, well, maybe sprawl is actually kind of the worst. 

Masonry walls? Wow. Neat little courtyards with gorgeous brickwork and some sick framing? Awesome.

First thought: Oh, cool– where is Carlton’s Landing? Some hip new urbanist neighborhood in a city I’ve never been to?

No. Bubble: burst. Turns out it is some greenfield project in the middle of nowhere:

Seriously, where the heck? If you had no idea from looking at the map, I didn’t, either, and had to zoom out several times before I found a city I was familiar with. An hour and a half from Fort Smith, Arkansas (greater metro population of about 275,000), an hour from Muskogee, or an hour forty-five from Tulsa. Effectively, nowhere.

Now, I have a lot of love for rural areas, having spent a lot of time in the sticks for life and school. I’ve also spent a lot of time in rural Arkansas (never been to Fort Smith, though). Finally, I have a lot more love for anyone talking about rural development because very few credible planners are, while they instead obsess over, uh, Detroit or Detroit or Detroit.

But in this case, we’re talking about greenfield development.

To the developer’s credit, prices are not outrageous, and the houses are admittedly gorgeous. But this is the same thing I periodically spar with Matt Grocoff about on the Veridian Farm project in Ann Arbor, or with Kevin McNeely about when he told me about consulting on a LEED-certified sprawl project in west of nowhere, Michigan.

“If you’re going to do sprawl,” he basically said, “do it in a less destructive way.”

Well, I guess. But incrementalism is not much of a path toward structural change. Much like liberals who think they’re saving the planet because they drive their gas-guzzling Subaru to Whole Foods in a new strip mall to… buy paper straws. Make no mistake: These are professionals who know their stuff, and, at a fundamental level, they get it. But we are too beholden to the entrenched forces of markets. Urban land ownership is often complicated and tied up. And no one is going to finance a five-story, net zero energy building on Livernois Avenue on the west side of Detroit.

Why? Well, for one, bankers lack imagination, investors are risk-averse, and suburban municipalities are obsessed with growth because they’re only concerned with the short-term, and because revenue sources are so limited for things they need, like schools and infrastructure budgets. Fiscal impact analyses are predicated on unending growth to provide more services, and states fail to recognize or, indeed, regulate at all, the fact that much sprawl is just a matter of shifting populations farther from dense centers in a zero sum game at taxpayer expense. So, more sprawl, where land is cheap and people want to live somewhere far away from Those People.

Is it a less destructive model, wherein people still have to drive to get everywhere, but have Rick Fedrizzi-certified light bulbs? I simply don’t buy it. Detroit’s population could increase sixfold before it hit New York City density, and that would only require developing vacant lots.

Detroit has entire neighborhoods that are all but entirely vacant. On this issue we should stop compromising. It does a disservice to urbanism and planning everywhere. But challenging this paradigm is challenging fundamental assumptions about capitalism, as Naomi Klein did when she pointed out that it isn’t a question of “greening” everything, it’s a question of rethinking our culture of consumption.

Veridian at County Farm in Ann Arbor. Is it a streetcar suburb, or greenfield sprawl by another name. Will the revolution be televised? Will your LEED Dynamic Plaque matter if global liberal market capitalism collapses and you are unable to gas up your gas-guzzling Subaru to make that eleven minute drive to the suburbs? Can you walk anywhere from your LEED certified greenfield house? (Courtesy THRIVE).
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Monopolies Kill My Dreams Of Better Things

Today a DTE representative uttered probably the least inspiring words that one can ever hear in a volunteer workgroup meeting. “We looked into that,” Mr. Randazzo said, “and we determined that it would be too expensive.”

The place was Walker-Miller Energy and the meeting was the Green Task Force. And the subject was on-bill financing, a clever way to finance energy retrofits at minimal cost to the consumer. By tacking a small charge onto every bill, it is possible to fund the cost of even pretty invasive energy retrofits. You want to replace all of your old windows? Done. Spray foam the rim joist? No problem. Replacing the decking on a leaky roof and overroofing that bad boy with six inches of rigid foam? Hey, why not? Because of how utility regulation works, this typically has to be enabled by state statute, unless a bit of regulatory arbitrage is an option. ACEEE has studied this extensively, and it’s been implemented successfully in a number of jurisdictions. There are many ways to skin this cat.

It’s gravy on the finance side because finance pros love predictability and smoother curves. It’s gravy on the demand planning side because energy efficiency smooths out peaks, the biggest problem facing utilities. And it’s gravy on the consumer side because, of course, it saves families money. Energy waste means that money is quite literally going up in smoke.

Win, win, win! And yet.

My reply, which I tried to keep good-natured but which he clearly didn’t like, was that, “DTE has over a billion dollars in profits, on which it pays no tax. So, with all due respect, it seems like you’re going to get very little sympathy if you keep making that argument.”

“Well, we’re a big company,” he replied gruffly, “and we have a lot of obligations.”

Indeed– one major obligation being providing a healthy return to shareholders, not just going for flimsy, short-term options. (I’ll never forget the facilities engineer who ranted to me about how climate change is a liberal lie at a meeting for DTE’s Integrated Resource Plan.) I tried for a quick save by segueing into a brief explanation of how these programs can be scaled and developed into citywide, regionwide, or statewide initiatives that make use of a range of different types of partnerships.

Utilities are meanwhile stuck in the olden days of their complete lack of imagination. (Yet, while they say $2 million is too expensive to pilot an on-bill financing program, they are totally cool with spending millions to lobby against solar power). I’m not in the business of saying no, I’m in the business of saying “yes.” Or, “yes– and how can we do that?”

Needless to say, I don’t think he was too happy.

So it goes, right?

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Fall Into Detroit Flavor

(Satire, in case it isn’t apparent.)

A new season is upon us, so, naturally, our top talent at the Handbuilt Test Kitchen has been hard at work on some recipes for fall flavor. Yea, as we scrape wet leaves off our sidewalks and porches, and particulate matter off our windowsills, we try to honor Detroit’s industrial legacy and Michigan’s business-friendly regulatory environment.

Here’s what our team came up with:

1. Apple Cider Diesel Donuts. Autumn just wouldn’t be autumn without some apple cider donuts from one of Southeast Michigan’s famous cider mills. You know the ones– cash only, lines out the door, drive in behind seventy-four Fords F150 emblazoned with TRUMP 2020 stickers to park in the overflow lot. But the wizards in the Handbuilt Test Kitchen wanted to provide a uniquely Detroit adaptation.The Lewis structure of sulfur dioxide (SO2), showing unshared electron pairs.

Reduce 1 1/2 cups fresh apple cider to about 1/2 cup, simmering in a saucepan on low heat. Set aside too cool. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease donut pan with unsalted butter. Whisk together dry ingredients including 2 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 tsp baking soda, and spices—1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cardamom, and 1/4 tsp ground allspice. Add a pinch of salt. Whisk together wet ingredients including 2 tbsp melted, unsalted butter, 1 large egg, 1/2 cup whole milk, and 2/3 cup dark brown sugar and granulated sugar, adding in reduction of apple cider.

Toluol.svgNitrogen dioxide subsumed in the mixture will enrich the earthy ochres of the batter. Mix some heavy crude oil into the icing to make for that extra sticky, icky topping. Fold wet and dry ingredients together. Pour batter into donut pan and bake for 10-15 minutes until the smell of roasted, cinnamon toluene wafts through the room, causing dizziness and lightheadedness.

Related imageRelated image

2. Walkout Walnut Bread. When you’re standing out there on the picket line, you need energy to keep you going. This tried-and-true, high-octane recipe will provide energy and nutrition as you do the good work of keeping America safe from corporate greed.

Recipe: Preheat (preferably a freedom gas-fired) oven to 350F (175C). Butter an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2″ loaf pan. Whisk together  1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and a generous dash of salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together 2 large eggs, 1 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup of grapeseed (or comparable) oil, and a liberal dash of vanilla extract. Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture and fold in 1 cup of finely chopped walnuts. Pour into pan and bake for 50-65 minutes until golden brown. For extra sugary fatness, add cream cheese icing.

Scabs don’t get a piece.

Image result for walnut quick bread

3. The Business-Friendly Regulatory Environment. This autumnal cocktail, the colors of a smoggy sunset over the Rouge River, is a foul melange of flavors indeed. But though it will shorten your lifespan, you can drink it comfortable in the knowledge that it provides employment to no fewer than several petrochemical engineers who live in Ohio.

Making the drink: Fill a shaker with ice. Pour in 1 1/2 ounce bourbon– swill preferable. Add a half teaspoon of maple syrup, a half teaspoon of cinnamon syrup, and 1/2 oz. of Grand Marnier. Next, add a dash of petroleum distillate– naphtha is always preferable, but benzene will do in a pinch. Add a dash of bitters. Addition of egg white will prevent prying eyes from seeing what is in the mixture or the public subsidies going to the refinery. Muddle. Serve in a coupe glass. Season finished mixture with a sprinkling of petcoke, and garnish with a spent whippet canister from the streets of Southwest Detroit.


4. Pumpkin Spice Corporate Welfare. Fatigue over fall-themed consumer products has hit hard. You said companies were a little overzealous in making every food product in a “pumpkin spice” variety. We listened! This isn’t a food! Rather, it involves adding that same, coveted flavoring, not to a latte or Oreos, but to the ceaseless parade of subsidy packages that march out of Detroit’s city hall straight into the pockets of Matty Moroun, Mike Ilitch, Dan Gilbert, and more.

Neither you nor, most likely, your kids won’t be able to enjoy this treat. And we can’t even tell you what’s in it, because we don’t want the public to be distracted from the great work we’re doing. But, our executive chef tells us, the sweetness of the icing will actually trickle down from atop a gleaming skyscraper– well, assuming that it ever gets built.

Is it a mound of demolition backfill dirt harvested through mysterious means, the details of which the public shall never know? Or is it a mound of delicious, ground cinnamon? (AllRecipes.)

Real talk: please don’t make any of these recipes. And… please don’t ever drink petroleum distillates. They do not taste good.

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Canada Trip V – Toronto’s Vertical Suburbs

There is this old chestnut in the right wing media echo chamber that goes something like this: “Capitalism provides variety! People like variety! Socialism will limit variety!” Making the rounds these past couple of weeks is a photo of a grinning asshole in a Cuban supermarket showing off well-stocked aisles full of identical products. (Never mind how impressive it is that a communist country shut out of trade with the US can actually fully stock an entire store.) Of course, capitalists forget that markets aren’t actually ‘free’, and so maximizing density maximizes profit maximizes utility.

So, then, of course, capitalists build buildings like this:

To say nothing, of course, of suburbia itself. It is true that these glassy megaliths of homogeneity

Of course, we could avoid a lot of this homogeneity by improving capital access and allowing small developers to densify areas that are far lower density to begin with. Toronto has a large amount of really ugly building stock at the lower end of mid density (2-3 story, 2-3 apartments). It’s the kind of thing that when you aggregate it over a district, the density numbers look quite respectable. But when you average it out over parking lots, it’s pretty weak. This configuration, combined with how hard and expensive it is to actually get capital to do development in a labor-restricted market, leads to clear-cutting of entire blocks to build the above monstrosities. Which effectively amount to the urban equivalents of vinyl-sided tract housing in subdivisions.

In other words: Using zoning to restrict better lower-density development pushes development toward extremes like these bad boys.

I suspect Toronto’s housing market will dip substantially in the next recession given the percentage of total economic capitalization that is wrapped up in the unholy marriage of the stock market and the real estate market. But if we don’t improve the capital structures that make it easier to build these hideous monstrosities, we’re more likely to end up with Toronto’s Liberty Village than, say, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. Just something to think about.

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Canada Trip III – Leaving Montreal

We leave Montreal today for Toronto, where we will begin the “extension” portion of our Canada program. Our Montreal trip took us to Publicis, a French-Canadian marketing, design, and communications agency that does work in Montreal and internationally; Voxco, a developer of opinion research software, and the Jeune Chambre de Commerce du Québec, which offered perspective into public-private relations in the province.

My group’s project focused on consumer insights with regard to the proposed deployment of an electric, all-weather bike product. I came up with the idea after noticing how prevalent biking was in Montreal– but also how few electric bikes I saw. The idea of an all-weather product comes from the need to ameliorate traffic, save money for consumers, and provide a green alternative to driving in the city. Cycling rates, we noted, are more closely correlated to infrastructure development rather than to weather extremes. Though the rate of commuter cycling in Montreal is more than double the Canadian average, the city still has a long way to go to increase that rate to an ambitious target of 15%.

New construction on Rue de Bleury across from our hotel. The geography of Montreal’s highest density has pushed north-northeast from downtown in recent years toward the city’s Chinatown.

Montreal already holds major cred in the cycling world and the urban planning world alike for being home to legendary companies like Guru and PBSC. Québec indeed already has a vibrant cycling culture, and Montreal has an extensively developed network of bike lanes, but the city is also plagued by congestion. While the Montréalais(e) complain about construction during the 45-minute summer, it is, nonetheless, nice to see a commitment to infrastructure investment. A development boom in the city has also seen billions of dollars of investment in new housing, and Montreal may well even lead Toronto in the number of cranes currently dotting the skyline.

While I’m bearish of the North American glut of luxury housing, the impending collapse of the US economy will likely effect some sort of normalization of the oversaturated luxury housing market in the US and Canada. Long story short: More housing and more density mean more congestion, unless specific efforts are made to provide alternative modes of mobility. I pushed for the eBike concept after seeing how underdeveloped the bikeless Jump system is here, though the docked bikeshare system is fairly well-developed. Bixi was launched in 2009 by then-PBSC, making it the first large-scale, docked bikeshare system in North America.

Visiting Publicis, a marketing and communications agency in Montreal.

Our project was to present on consumer insights about Québecois consumers, and we focused on five elements: 1) Adaptability, 2) Resilience, 3) Diversity, 4) Sustainability-mindedness, and, what we called 5) Cautious curiosity. Québec has dueling paradigms of Montreal’s unapologetic modernity in contrast to the historical reticence and nostalgia of the hinterlands. Québec does embrace history, as perhaps best evidenced in its provincial motto of “Je me souviens” (“I remember”), but it is also exceptionally proud of Montreal (especially when pitted against those punks in Toronto), the second-largest Francophone city in the world. “Cautious curiosity” was a way of exploring Québec’s historical conservatism with embracing new media and technological change, but fitting this skepticism and reticence into the well-developed higher-education apparatuses of Montreal and the province’s leadership in mineral and resource development, technology, manufacturing, and artificial intelligence. 

Group project work in the positively sensual illumination of Tiradito Restaurant on the Rue de Bleury, where I had possibly the best ceviche of my entire life.

These paradoxes are further evidenced in the conflict between a historically very white Québec and an increasingly brown Canada. Québec’s restrictive language laws make it hard for anyone to relocate here unless they are a French speaker, which means it may well be easier (relatively speaking) for a Francophone Haitian, Moroccan, or Senegalese to relocate here than for an anglophone American. I had to catch myself a few times when speakers made references to native and indigenous peoples, saying things that did not quite add up with my own perception of reality– it seems that the anti-colonialism of the rest of liberal Canada may not have caught up with Québec.

But our argument– or my takeaway, specifically- was that the duality of language and the duality of Québec’s history, fraught with conflict between the province and the rest of Canada as a singular nation within the writ-large State of Canada, may well make it more adaptable and more resilient. The resilience of the people is similarly evidenced, we noted, in their affinity for snowsports as a way to make the most of a hideously frigid winter.

Stay tuned for the next stop, where we will hang out with Doug Ford, Aubrey Graham (Drake), and, invariably, another exciting range of diverse citizenry and companies. Read more in this series covering urban planning and culture:

V – Toronto’s Vertical Suburbs

IV – The Struggles of Canadian Ascendancy (Unpublished as of September 27)

III – Leaving Montreal (this piece)

II – Montréal and Language

I – Leaving for Toronto & Montreal

Check out more about Kogod School of Business, where I am currently enrolled, and the diverse assortment of immersion programs they offer around the world.

Walking up Mount Royal with AU’s “B” team on a perfect, late summer day.
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Canada Trip II – Montréal and Language

I arrived punctually in Montreal, relatively un-traumatized from a twelve hour train trip. I fell asleep for a power nap while listening to my audiobook on the birth of gangsta rap (highly recommended, by the way), checked into my improbably fancy hotel, and began promptly looking for food, having eaten nothing all day.

On the walk to the hotel, I found myself grinning at the novelty of again being in a place with a different language, mostly because I’m a language nerd, but also because I was punchy from sitting for 12 hours and getting up at 4am to get the train. The hotel was located on the edge of downtown, if you define downtown by large buildings. It is an ultramodern high rise with sweeping, golden wood, expansive surfaces of white, and floor-to-ceiling windows. I wasn’t sure, but I had this idea that they called it Monville as a play on “Ma Ville,” which would be “my city.”

Monville has a robot that delivers room service, and a self-serve check-in. Hospitality in the age of automation– what a time to be alive!

Lobby of the swanky, new construction, Hotel Monville in Montréal, Québec. Gorgeous space with lots of light.

My first language experience after arriving involved asking the concierge for directions:

“Ah, ok… you go right out here onto this major street…”

“René Lévesque,” I said in affirmation, pronouncing the “esk” and positively proud of my geographic knowledge. Of course I knew about René Lévesque, the great Québécois nationalist who led the charge to Frenchify the province through a failed 1978 referendum on independence and a successful, 1977 French language law, the Charte de la langue française. (Shart of the French Language? Something like that, I think.)

Le-VAICK, oui,” the concierge replied, drawing out the ‘ai’. Normally, it would be pronounced “ehsk,” but in Québécois, it’s more like “aick.” The ‘s’ has been dropped entirely. Where the hell did the ‘s’ go? 

“Pourquoi ‘aick’ et pas ‘esque’?” I asked, and he shrugged with a grin, but I suspect he appreciated me at least trying.

Québécois: 1. Me: 0.

There are plenty of examples of how Québécois French can flummox a fluent French speaker. As the descendent of a mother tongue connected through centuries of trade but separated by a giant ocean and extreme sociopolitical distinctions, Québécois retains the fundamentals of métropolitaine French, but with unique vocabulary usage– and incorrigible slang. The liberal use of contractions expresses a Québécois impatience that would make their southern neighbors in the states proud, for example, “faque…” which means, “ça fait que…” or “so, that means,” or “therefore…”

Some words are a product of Québec’s heritage– for example, the specific use of embarquer or débarquer (to get on or get off, which would use different words in Old World French depending on the vehicle) as a product of Québec’s maritime heritage. Others are anglicised French words, English loan words, or, on occasion, words adopted from First Nations languages, as we have in English. The Québécois use of the word “char” for “car” is a pretty egregious anglicisation that makes French people chuckle. But then again, they say ‘voiture,’ which bears no resemblance to ‘automobile.’ The verb ‘magasiner’, that is, to go shopping, does not exist in Metropolitan French. Rather, in Québécois, it is simply a verbization (is that a word?) of ‘magasin,’ or, ‘store’.

This page has an example of how a Québécois man said, “M’as checker ça à soir,” instead of the expected, “Je vais vérifier ça ce soir.” Je m’en vas becomes, simply, m’as. (Remember that the French, in a quest to preserve the purity of their native tongue, abhore imported words, which is why you verifier les couriels on an ordinateur instead of checker des e-mails on your computer.)

And if contractions aren’t confusing enough, some words, too, are just, well, weird: 

Enweille (or “enweye”) is a common phrase heard in Montréal. It might be shouted by a cyclist to a driver, or by someone hurrying their kids across the street. The word actually comes from “envoyer,” which means “to send,” but has made its way into the Québécois lexicon as “enweille.” (In Detroit, similarly, some of us say “yalla,” from the Arabic.)

Québécois profanity specifically derives predominantly from the province’s strong Catholic heritage. While the province liberalized substantially in the latter part of the 20th century, eschewing religion in the public sphere (as we all do in late capitalism), it is permanently engrained in the language in the form of many an exclamation. J’m’en calisse, or j’m’en sacre, “I chalice myself” or “I sacrament myself,” meaning, “I don’t give a damn.” Also common is “tabarnak” (“tabernacle”) as an interjection, often translated as “Fuck!”

The ability to construct compound, Catholic profanities is a singular function of Québécois and something to be cherished. A national treasure!

As citizens of an independent nation largely coterminous with its Canadian province, the Québécois also retain strong pride in their language. It may well be in the French DNA. While many countries will offer pictograms as signage, Québec proudly displays many signs in only French. Of course, because it’s North America, most of these are easy enough to figure out. If you don’t speak a word of French, though, you can still piece it together.

Montréal, unlike a European city, prefers verbal signage to iconographic signage. A non-French speaker could look at this and figure out what it means. Extract “trot” from Trottoir and you can get a “trottery.” What is “trotting”? Our word for when a horse walks. So, what is a “trottery”? Well, a sidewalk, of course. This trottery is barred, so you can’t walk there. These signs were ubiquitous, as Montréal appears to be undergoing some sort of deep infrastructural transformation. We don’t have infrastructure in the United States, so I wouldn’t know anything about this.

To me, language is a lot like a puzzle that shows you the configuration of the world around you. When you discover the meaning of one word, it illuminates connections to other words, and thus begins a whole process of discovery. I think of it as a sensory adventure, as well. Language is something you hear and see, but it also involves an element of tactility. When I’m learning a new language, I find myself going over words over and over again in my mouth, as though tasting some new, exotic food. Probably why I have a good ear and also can make a bunch of sounds with my mouth and repeat things, even if I don’t understand what I’m saying. It’s a certain kind of motor skill that has to be developed, and it also is good for your brain as a matter of challenge.

One of the less exotic foods that was consumed (not by me) and which I photographed. I’ll give you one guess as to the translation.

In many cases, it’s possible to deduce the meaning of a word from context. In other cases, it is possible to figure it out by way of finding a “close enough” cognate. As in the example above of Trottoir barré, it isn’t hard to understand context clues when a sidewalk is closed off with this sign. But it is instructive– at least if you want to be a bona fide language nerd- to make the connection between trottoir and trot, and between barré and barred. The Québécois call potato chips croustilles, which one might almost-translate as crusties. (The French, interestingly, do not use the word croustille.)

Of course there had to be a maple energy water booth at the Montréal Grand Prix bike race. In the complex and probably quite contentious Venn diagram that connects the Québecois to Anglo-Canadians, at the center would have to invariably be 1) hockey and 2) maple syrup. It was actually delicious.

The excitement, of course– to me, certainly, as an unapologetic language nerd- is the ability to delve into this foreign language and culture within the familiarity of a North American one. Street grids are similar, infrastructure is similar, commerce is similar, leading to an easier starting point for figuring out one’s way around a city and a language.

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Canada Trip I – Via Rail to Toronto

The Old 70 as she prepares to depart for Toronto. The Eye of Sauron, a.k.a. the gigantic, LED billboard atop the Renaissance Center in Detroit, can be seen in the distance.

I’m in Montreal and Toronto this week for a program through Kogod. The topic is marketing in a cross-cultural setting, and it’s been the first class whose content I’ve actually really enjoyed. One article– definitely the most conceptually interesting I’ve read since starting B-school- proposes a theory of “antiservice,” exploring the bizarre things that happen in consumer systems when you intentionally and systemically screw people.

Reflections on taking the 5:30 train from Windsor, I have to say that the rail trip to Toronto is a thoroughly pleasant one. The most noticeable thing looking out the windows from the train– as well as from the far-less pleasant drive up the 401- is the relative absence of sprawl and, almost universally, the absence of billboards.

Hating the 401 is as Canadian as maple syrup, Tim Horton’s, or hockey. But there is something really nice about having a corridor free of billboards promising eternal salvation, deals on RV’s, or both in the same string of ads. (Indiana, state of the great twofer!) Heck, even the Wi-Fi works on Via Rail.

What would it be like to have a civil society, where things worked, where policymakers were a smidge less enamored of austerity?

God bless America, am I right?

Follow my Twitter @nzorach for live coverage of the trip and general hijinks.

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What’s More Expensive Than Spending On Climate Change? Not Spending On It.

One morning last fall, I found myself standing in the basement of my 1895 home, watching a waterfall cascade off a brick wall in the basement. Bathrobed, beslippered, and not yet sufficiently caffeinated, I slowly realized the futility of attempting to actually do anything about it. This round was Mother Nature, 1, Disinvested Built Environment, 0. The previous owner of the home, an international power couple of absentee landlords, hadn’t bothered to replace the gutters that had been scrapped in years past. There were grading issues. And, as with any old house, there were “Even with a degree in this stuff and years of experience, I honestly have no idea what is going on here” issues. Renovating an old house in a Rust Belt city can be sort of like peeling an onion, with each layer revealing some ever more bizarre architectural forensics, until the bottom layer just turns out to be some schism in space-time that simply doesn’t add up.

Fortunately– at least as far as being able to fix the problem- it wasn’t an issue of broken public infrastructure, but rather of a broken, old house. When the adjacent homeowner rebuilt their sidewalk, they made sure that the dirt was nearly level with their new sidewalk, which meant that it was a few inches above our windowsills, hence the waterfall of rain. Thanks, suburban absentee landlords! But this was a matter of excavation and meandering of nylon liners and pebbles and drain pipes. In other words: things could have been so much worse. As a city inspector, I have seen unspeakable things– like sewage backed up to the top steps of the basement stairs- so this was benign.

Detroit, as many other cities, has begun a slow but steady push to disconnect rainwater sources from its sewer systems, meaning that in the case of increasingly severe weather, the likelihood of sewer overflow decrease substantially. Progress on this and implementation of widespread GSI has been anemic at best, and the water department remains a black box of mysterious dysfunction and poor customer service.

Indeed, when I was at the City, I was actually explicitly forbidden from making mention of stormwater disconnect ordinance violations to property owners. When I moved to Detroit, this was a huge issue, and I lost several hundred dollars of stuff in a basement flood in 2016 and also some stuff in a minor apartment flood in 2015 (insurance, both times, pulled a “gotcha” fine print moment, and I bade farewell to some coveted material possessions– though this is quite cathartic and good for movement down the spiritual path toward pervasive chill in the face of utterly ridiculous stuff happening to you).

Though they have their extremes, Great Lakes are reasonable in terms of weather. So, while a crazy thunderstorm isn’t unusual, there aren’t hurricanes, and things like major drought or wildfires are rare. Thus I am more attuned to the frequency of infrastructure failures than to the increased frequency of storms. But it got me wondering about quantifying the damages of extreme weather.

Failures of the built environment can be on a case-by case basis, or they can be on a district-wide or monumental, citywide scale. Detroit’s twin city of Windsor, in the Land of the Rising Timbit, has experienced catastrophic flooding in residential areas a couple of times since I’ve been in Detroit alone. Historically high water levels on the Great Lakes are prompting unending rounds of handwringing from politicians pestered by constituents to act, but unable to muster the courage to talk about climate adaptation. CBC Windsor reported just yesterday that unprecedented water levels and flooding have not slowed sales of beachfront property.


Because we’re isolated from the extreme storm systems that terrorize the southeastern United States every year and typically don’t see catastrophic tornados, the biggest threats in the Great Lakes are heavy rainfall and extreme cold. Northern parts of the Great Lakes region don’t even really get extreme heat at this point, but most of the Great Lakes region, flat and having been gradually stripped of wetlands, the ultimate drainage system, is prone to flooding in heavy rainfall.

But the systems are essentially the same. An illustration:

Let’s say a red state government knows that at some point within a period of a few months every year, a masked man will enter the state capitol building, parade into the governor’s office, and demand a check for anywhere from a few hundred million dollars to as much as a hundred billion. In addition to his uncanny ability to evade security guards and metal detectors, this mysterious figure also has the ability to convince the governor to cut a check every time. Every year, the masked man points out that the governor could avoid paying most of this quizzical ransom by investing a few billion dollars each year in infrastructure improvements, climate change mitigation efforts, and wetland restoration.

“I can’t spend money on that!” the dyed-in-the-wool Republican protests. “Anthropogenic climate change is a liberal lie!”

“Fine,” the stranger retorts, “I guess I’ll see you next year.”

This is a hyperbolic illustration that isn’t really that different from how it actually goes down. Politicians persist in treating extreme weather as an inevitability as opposed to a risk that can be mitigated. Dorian has already done billions in damages, and other recent storms have been far more costly.

NOAA isn’t entirely sure about the degree to which hurricanes are getting more frequent as a result of climate change, but they’re fairly sure that climate change is a major problem and is making storms more intense. Over the six years that we’ve recorded more than one Category 5 storm, three of these years have been since 2002.

Beachfront homes in the Carolinas. (Photo by Sherry Smith.)

But you need not rely solely on climate data: Urban growth along the Gulf Coast means that more damage will occur year-over-year by virtue of there simply being more stuff there. Florida’s population has increased twenty-fold in the past century and more than two hundred fold since the middle of the 19th century, while Texas, whose coast is also proximal to hurricane paths, has increased more than sixfold in the past century. Growth rates are more modest in the rest of the coastally exposed states, but the US Census Bureau nonetheless notes a near doubling of coastal population in a half century (1960-2008), with a 150% increase in population in the Gulf of Mexico region alone.

Also think that there are few dense urban centers in the Gulf Coast. A preponderance of sprawl means lots of vinyl siding and pole barn structures– things whose roofs are easily rended asunder by storms. Hundreds of billions, if not indeed trillions, of purportedly prime real estate, built without permanent protections against flooding, is exposed to potential catastrophic damage. Investment funds place protective hedges in the forms of derivatives that stand to profit or protect an underlying position from large price swings. Can you imagine not doing the same with real estate? Insurance clearly isn’t enough.

Sprawlhaven, Florida: Satellite imagery of Tampa Bay and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan statistical area, which has increased around eightfold in population since 1950. The MSA, which is a major tourist destination as well as a center for industry and shipping, frequently experiences major flooding. A planner once remarked to me on the irony that Tampa has an extraordinarily impressive stormwater management system, engineered to channel away rainwater, but that no amount of concrete could work with nature to mitigate flooding events. A few feet of sea level rise would have catastrophic effects on hundreds of billions of dollars of Florida’s beachfront real estate.

For kicks, though, let’s look at the GDP of the states typically worst hit by hurricanes. I’m defining this as Gulf and Atlantic states with the most exposed coastline, so, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The cities– if we define cities as being municipalities with more than 100,000 people- most vulnerable to hurricanes are mostly in Florida, and, in terms of population, the larger cities of Tampa and Miami regularly make lists of places most vulnerable, as does the city of New Orleans. (Florida accounts for a large chunk of the Gulf Coast states’ 1,631 miles of coastline).

Pundits indulge in unending outrage over the cost of the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP, or food stamps). This costs taxpayers about $71 billion per year and feeds millions of Americans, allowing them to, well, participate in basic metabolic processes involved with living, and, thereby, other economic processes, like contributing to the growth of the economy. Hurricane Harvey cost upwards of $125 billion in one single incident. No one really knows how much damage Hurricane Maria caused, but Puerto Rico alone shouldered over $100 billion in damages, and 3,000 people died. Dorian will be in the billions, and 59 deaths have already been recorded.

Pundits argue that food stamps are voluntary on the part of the government that provides it and on the part of the recipients that sign up. They also argue that poor people are lazy and dumb, and we can’t in any way plan for or meaningfully mitigate a crazy storm that threatens a populated area littered with stick-framed buildings and vinyl siding. What’s more, the idea that humans can meaningfully influence the planet is a liberal fantasy, right?

Think about the absurdity of this.

One recalls Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear and wonder whether America at large epitomizes or indeed embraces this imagination of disaster as part of its perpetual, paranoid fear of destruction. As the President rails against Those Refugees or Those Rapists Crossing The Border, his base eats it up. But that base– largely concentrated in poor red states that already receive the lion’s share of welfare spending– overwhelmingly stands to be among the populations most vulnerable to extreme weather events. In other words, sustainability and climate change are most pressing to the most vulnerable people, who then vote for a party and a candidate that repeatedly deny the importance or even, indeed, existence of those issues.

While the same is true in the hood– that lower-income people of color by and large stand to be screwed the most readily by extreme weather events- this is true in any scenario considering populations that lack economic resources. It’s harder to move, it’s harder to maintain a house, it’s harder to afford things in general, so it’s much harder to shoulder the burden of a storm dumping water in your basement, extreme heat, cold, or, say, an economic downturn. But cities are generally moving much faster than rural areas owing to the economies of scale associated with green infrastructure improvements.

Lay down for a moment the Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, crystals and chakras feel-good environmentalism. This can be about nothing more than dollars and cents, if that’s how we want to play it. We know that we  can plan for these events. Short of addressing the very issues of climate change and parts per million of carbon, we may be able to mitigate these events by building better quality buildings, better quality neighborhoods, and better quality urban infrastructure. We also know that, at a very real level, these events will cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and whether or not you think climate change is to blame, the number of billion-dollar events is on the rise, if as a result of unchecked, sprawling growth in the Gulf Coast and nothing else.

Some trend line here. NOAA data on the incidence of major events, 1980-2018. Note the increasing incidence of billion-dollar disasters from severe storms and tropical cyclones.

We will be forced to reckon with these effects sooner rather than later as the present overheated economy hurtles headlong the next market crash while absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in storm damage from a single year alone. Insurers will drop coverage of homes, the national flood insurance program will require a bailout from the government that gave it license to, well, insolvently insure a bunch of homes that keep flooding.

Part of the author’s rain garden, which, combined with a lengthy trench on the side of the house that leads out to the front yard, is designed to hold 15-20% of the region’s annual rainfall without flooding the basement (calculation based on hardscaping over several thousand square feet of hardscaping including roofs, sidewalks, and patios), which is equivalent to a very rare storm event indeed. Prior to the construction of this, the basement experienced light flooding in heavy rain. Total construction costs were around $10,000 and will save thousands of dollars in what had been unmitigated, ongoing damage to structural members, masonry, and random stuff in the basement.

As someone who is strongly motivated by the idea that markets can respond to climate challenges with regulatory intervention, I am not taking a doom-and-gloom approach as much as I am pointing out the fact that this stuff is getting really fucking expensive.

Solutions will necessarily be broken down into a few specific areas of focus in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation:

  1. Macroeconomic / Regulatory (Federal): Major regulation has to focus on incentivizing a shift from fossil fuels. I am not sure how aggressive it has to be, but, while I am skeptical of doom-and-gloom portrayals from many of my fellow lefties, major moves have to begin now. I’m not sure if it is a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, but it certainly involves eliminating the fossil fuel subsidies we currently maintain. Oil companies have even lobbied for carbon tax, though, critics have pointed out, these efforts are dwarfed by their lobbying against environmental regulation.
  2. Regulatory (State & Local): State and local governments have many more tools at their disposal to effect better climate resilience initiatives at local levels. Banning companies from doing stupid stuff vis-a-vis aquifers. Programs at all levels of government should prioritize incentivizing habitat protection, restoration, and imposing stringent, credit-based systems for greenfield or wetland development.
  3. Architectural: Designing buildings that can withstand hurricane force winds and storm surges. Does this mean building all new buildings in flood-prone areas on giant reinforced concrete piers? How about entire neighborhoods that can withstand flooding? Probably that, too. Whatever gets built, it has to be done better than has been done in the past. (The problem here is that engineers are wont to pursue purely technical solutions– how to design a waterproof house, for example, rather than how to mitigate flooding through making better use of natural systems.)
  4. Infrastructural: People laughed at Henry Flagler (of Standard Oil and Miami, Florida fame) when he built a railroad to Key West– and it subsequently was completely destroyed in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which killed 423 people, mostly World War 1 vets serving in the WPA. Less funny than destroying the pet project of a billionaire is when hundreds of citizens are killed, or when larger, more expensive things get destroyed and keep getting destroyed by storms.

Don’t get all hot under the collar about what it’s going to cost. It’s not some conspiracy to make money for irrelevant rich people or for George Soros And Her E-mails to take over your brain with Sharia Law. The costs are already being incurred, and they’re staggering– trillions over but a handful of years and hundreds of billions in any year, between flood insurance claims, infrastructure damage, lost productivity, congestion, waste, debris, destroyed landscapes.

We need to retool public budgets to indicate that protecting human beings from the environment and protecting the environment from wanton destruction is a major priority, and this can begin with an improved focus on how natural and manmade systems can work together to manage our relationship with the environment. Wall Street has already begun to attach marginal considerations in assessing creditworthiness and risk, suggesting that the systems must be considered in terms of not only ecologies and public infrastructure but also markets. Climate adaptation solutions are possible, expensive, and far cheaper than not spending on them.

Posted in Climate adaptation, Climate Resilience, Environment, Environmental Justice, Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment