Saturday, July 23, 2011

Defining Suburbia

Recently I had the opportunity to attend two important events associated with greening the United States.  The first was a Brookings Institute forum on green jobs associated with their green jobs report.  The second was a conference on suburbs and the 2010 census.  I’ve already provided commentary on the first.  However, the issue that became abundantly evident to me after attending both meetings is that the U.S. does not have a good definition of suburbs.

Here’s the issue.  For classification purposes, the US Office of Management and Budget and the Census organize urbanized areas and their surrounding regions into metropolitan statistical areas that have boundaries that are county in scale.  Multiple counties can be in one metro. 

Thus, when metropolitan areas are being compared for policy purposes, it is not the cities, but the entire metro that is counted. For analytical purposes, most researchers divide the metros into urban and suburban communities.  The suburban areas are all the areas outside of the primary cities in the metro. Let’s take a look at some issues that emerge.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando Counties and is an interesting metro to examine to point out some of the issues that concern me.

Let’s first look at the character of the counties.  Pinellas is Florida’s most densely populated county.  Almost all of the land is developed.  In contrast, Hillsborough County, even though it contains the City of Tampa with over 300,000 people, contains extensive areas of agricultural and mining activities giving large areas a clear rural character.  While Pasco County has seen extensive development in the last two decades, Hernando County retains its rural character.  But, for analytical purposes, all of these rural landscapes would be counted as suburban using the definition utilized by many researchers who utilize the non-urban areas of metros as their definition of suburbia.

Another issue is one of definition of urban.  Brandon is an unincorporated census-designated place in Hillsborough County that has a population roughly equivalent to Clearwater.  However, it is not counted as urban in most statistical classifications.  Yet, the landscape of Brandon is very similar to most areas of Clearwater and is essentially indistinguishable from Tampa.  It is statistically counted as suburban even though it is more like a Florida landscape that would be counted as urban.

The problem becomes even more evident when metros are compared—an exercise that happens all the time.  Below are two maps:  one of Arizona and the other is the metros in Wisconsin.  The Phoenix metro consists of two counties, Maricopa and Pinal.  But, the county sizes in Arizona are much bigger than the county sizes in Wisconsin.  This makes the metros in Arizona some of the largest in the U.S.  Comparing the two regions is like comparing apples and oranges.  But, it happens all the time.  Due to the comparisons, there are real policy decisions that are made which means that dollars, time, and talent are associated with these decisions. 

The bottom line for me is that we do not do a good job defining suburbs statistically in the United States.  We all know what they are and what they look like, but we do not capture this understanding within the current spatial boundaries employed for statistical purposes.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brookings Institute Releases Green Jobs Report

Solar panel installation in Boulder Colorado
On Wednesday, July 13, I attended an important green jobs discussion at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C.  The institute released a new report, Sizing the Green Economy:  A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment and hosted a discussion on the state of green jobs in the United States.  An archive of the panel discussions can be seen here

The report is the first comprehensive assessment of green jobs in the United States.  Authored by Mark Muro, Jonathan Rothwell, and Devashore Saha with Batelle Tehcnology Partnership Practice, the report gathered economic activity and employment for every county in the United States and provided detailed information on the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The authors broadly define green economic activity as an economic activity “…that produces goods and services with an environmental benefit or adds value to such products using skills or technologies that are vaguely applied to those programs.”  This definition includes not only activities of business that conduct themselves in an environmentally sound way, but also those that have some benefit to the environment.  For example, an organic famer is included, but so is a bus driver.  Throughout the report, the authors refer to the green jobs as part of the clean economy.

The categories of employment in the clean economy include five main areas:  1) agricultural and natural resources conservation; 2) education and compliance; 3) energy and resources efficiency; 4) greenhouse gas reduction, environmental management, and recycling; and 5) renewable energy.  Each of these categories is further broken down into detailed segments.  While many of the detailed segments under these categories make sense (such as battery technologies and organic food and farming), others are arguably not particularly green (such as nuclear energy jobs) from a purist definition of green jobs.  While I am a realist about the current need for nuclear energy, I would not define it as a clean or green industry after the disaster in Japan.  Germany agrees with me.

Nevertheless, the report is the first comprehensive assessment of its kind and it provides a wealth of useful information.  Interestingly, the Albany metropolitan region was the leader in green jobs on a per capita basis in that 1 in 15 jobs are part of the clean economy.  A total of 26% of the jobs in the clean economy are in manufacturing, compared with 9% in the overall U.S. economy.  In addition, the clean economy is more export oriented compared with the U.S. overall.  I could provide more detail, but I urge you to read the report here.  It is worth reading and I could not do justice to the findings in this short post.

Much of the discussion at the event associated with the release of the report focused on how to grow green economies and build upon success.  It is evident that clusters of developments are key and that there are regional specializations.  Planners should consider strengths within a region and encourage entrepreneurial regional development that takes advantage of existing clean jobs and expertise.  Also, there was much discussion on the failure of the U.S. government to lead the way in transitioning into a green economy.  We do not have a modern energy policy and we are not investing in green technology and infrastructure at rates comparable to other developed nations.  In fact, the failure of the national government to lead the way in this area elevates the work at the metropolitan scale. 

Metropolitan regional development provides a model for a uniquely American approach to green economic development that is heterogeneous and centrally unplanned.  In many ways, the federal government is seen as somewhat unserious with regards to developing a green economy.  When congress debates whether or not we should have light bulb efficiency standards, it is difficult to imagine that our nation’s leaders are going to address complicated issues such as implementing clean energy standards that would require utilities to provide a percentage of their energy from green sources.  While the federal government is a player in the green economy through a variety of important initiatives, it is not the driving force.  Instead, the character of metropolitan regions seems to dictate success.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Turning Off the Light of Reason on US Light Bulb Policy

The drive to the bottom continues.

This time, several Congressmen are pushing for a repeal of US energy standards for light bulbs with the idea that the US should not set standards for light bulb energy use.  The philosophy behind this initiative is that the US should not be intrusive into private enterprise.  While this seems like a laudable idea, the reality of the modern industrial age is that some degree of standardization is useful for the nation.  Think about road building, electrical currents, fuel efficiency standards, air traffic control, and food safety.

This photo shows mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia.
We can continue to use higher energy consuming light bulbs or we can
 reduce energy consumption using new technologies.
Congress is trying to turn back the clock, requiring the use of more energy.
(Photo credit:
Let us take a look at the new standards that were enacted by President Bush.  As outlined in this New York Times editorial, the new rules require US light bulbs to reduce their energy consumption by 20-30% next year and double that by 2020.  This is not a particular difficult goal to achieve.  There are light bulbs on the market that already achieve this goal and the bill does not ban incandescent bulbs.

It is frustrating to see our nation driven into the rejection of this policy.  The light bulb rules will save tremendous amounts of energy.  We need to look to new technologies to take us into the next generation of energy.  It is only by providing standardization and guidance at the federal and/or state level that we can move ahead.

The light bulb rules were among the few significant energy conservation bills signed by President G.W. Bush.  It is hard to imagine that we may turn back the clock.  Unless things change soon, I expect we will soon be buying whale oil lamps.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Garvies Point Museum and Preserve

Celebrating Natural History on the North Shore of Long Island

Red shale on glacial outlier on the shoreline at Garvies Point.
Photo by Robert Brinkmann, July, 2011.
One of the great aspects of sustainability is the preservation and appreciation of natural landscapes.  In the tradition of Muir and Pinchot, one finds the delightful Garvies Point Museum and Preserve on the north shore of Long Island.  It certainly is more in line with the musings of Pinchot, but Muir would be pleased with the preservation of the forests.

The museum contains venerable exhibits on geologic history, mineralogy, archaeology, and other aspects of natural history.  However, it is the grounds of this site that make the visit a standout.  There are 62 acres to expore.  The landscape ranges from upland moraine to coastal with upland and coastal wetland features present. 

Beach at Garvies Point.
Photo by Robert Brinkmann, July, 2011.
For me, the standout of the visit was the presence of local bedrock (iron-rich shale) and moraine sediments along the shoreline walk.  Of course, the upland forests were rich with wonderful native vegetation.    It is worth a visit if you are in the Glen Cove, New York area..

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hard Times Come Again No More

I've always love the music of Stephen Foster.  This July 4th, I am more aware of the sentiments of these lyrics than ever due to circumstance of folks I know.  Approximately 20% of Americans under 18 live in poverty.

Hard Times by Stephen Foster

As we pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
Let us all taste the hungers of the poor.
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears:
Hard times, come again no more.
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Hard times, come again no more.
As we seek mirth, and beauty, and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door.
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say:
Hard times, come again no more.
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Hard times, come again no more.
It's a song that the wind blows across the troubled wave.
It's a cry that is heard along the shore.
It's the words that are whispered beside the lowly grave
When hard times will come again no more.
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Hard times, come again no more.