Tag Archives: Emily Badger

Chief Resiliency Officers Versus Antifragility

At The Atlantic CitiesEmily Badger writes about a new program from the Rockefeller Foundation called 100 Resilient Cities, focused on equipping cities with a new employee called a Chief Resiliency Officer. The program states its goals as follows:

Building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.

[. . .]

There are some core characteristics that all resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress:

  • Spare capacity, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  • Flexibility, the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound, the capacity to re-establish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense and allow new solutions as conditions change.

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from DisorderNassim Taleb defines antifragile as something that not only recovers from shocks, but becomes stronger after recovery, in line with the stated objectives of 100 Resilient Cities. Following its Great Fire of 1871, Chicago demonstrated antifragility. It rebounded rapidly from a disaster that killed 300 people and left one-third of city residents homeless, many without insurance after the fire bankrupted local insurers or the blaze destroyed their paperwork. Despite this great loss, residents of Chicago quickly rebuilt their city using private funding and private charity that was small relative to the amount of damage, but without any government funding. In rebuilding, Chicago developed safer building techniques both through entrepreneurship and with new insurance requirements and  new municipal building codes. The city invested in a better-equipped fire fighting force to lower the risk of fire damage in the future. Despite not having the telecommunications that seem critical to allowing fast disaster recovery today, Chicagoans began building new, safer buildings immediately, investing $50 million in the year after the fire, and tripling the real estate value of the burned blocks within 10 years. Its difficult to imagine a twenty-first century city allowing property owners to move so quickly through the approval process, and its difficult to imagine a Chief Resiliency Officer widening this bottleneck.

A bureaucrat like a Chief Resiliency Officer would not be able to learn the lessons from a natural disaster that the residents of Chicago did in their rebuilding efforts because this knowledge is dispersed, only to be discovered by individuals acting in what they believe to be their own best interest. Taleb describes bureaucrats as fragilistas because they do not suffer from downside risks and therefore cannot learn and grow stronger from shocks. If a disaster strikes a city equipped with a Chief Resiliency Officer and it turns out the city was ill-prepared, he or she will not be held accountable for failing to predict what may have been a very low-probability event. In fact, we often see government efforts toward making cities more resilient introducing fragility contrary to their stated intentions. For example, federal flood insurance minimizes the downside risk of owning flood-prone property. In turn, this encourages more people to live in the highest risk areas, putting them at greater risk when disaster strikes. Cities will not have an opportunity to learn from this to better prepare for future flooding because their rebuilding is subsidized; however, bureaucrats cite this insurance as a success because it facilitates rebuilding without adapting to risk.

The Transportation Security Administration offers a preview of what bureaucratic disaster prevention looks like; top down planning for low-probability events results in attempts to prevent the catastrophic events that we’ve seen in the past without realizing that we’re unlikely to see these same events in the future. As TSA critic Bruce Schneier explains:

Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, ‘Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,’” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

Likewise, preparing for low-probability natural disasters, such as 100-year storms, is not something that can be done from the top down. To the extent an event is foreseeable, some individuals and firms will prepare for it, as we saw with Goldman Sachs’ generator and sand bagging efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The disaster revealed successful preparation methods, allowing more individuals and the city as a whole to learn and be better prepared for the next disaster. Chief Resiliency Officers are unlikely to accurately foresee low-probability shocks to their cities. To the extent that they protect cities from these shocks, they will likely take away the learning process that would make cities better able to withstand larger shocks, introducing fragility instead of greater resiliency.

Is the Localvore Movement a Folly?

Pierre Desrochers, Canadian economic geographer and Mercatus affiliated scholar makes the case that the Localvore’s drive to get people to “eat-locally” is based on fanciful notions of economics and agriculture, in his book, The Localvore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile diet, co-authored with wife Hiroko Shimizu.

The book goes to the heart of an apparent motivation for food activists, that “sustainable farming” and “eating local” will help the planet. Desrochers and Shimizu disagree. They show that subsistence farming is unsustainable, back-breaking and not environmentally-superior to large-scale methods. Rather than reducing “food miles” (the distance the banana travelled into your cereal bowl) the authors instead make the case for eliminating ag-subsidies. The takeaway: eating globally gets you to a better place, environmentally, than limiting your consumption to the downtown farmer’s market.

I don’t disagree. But this review by Emily Badger at The Atlantic contains some food for thought. She suggests reading, Urban Farms, by Sarah Rich who went out and interviewed urban farmers to understand this growing movement. Here’s one of her findings, quoting Badger’s article:

Politics are all but absent from Rich’s interviews. She visits one urban farmer in Detroit who comes the closest to voicing revolutionary motives. He is concerned about a trash incinerator in his neighborhood, and he views his backyard farm partly as a defiant form of environmental remediation.

“That’s what he’s thinking about, his local garbage system and how messed up it is,” Rich says. “He wasn’t talking to me about Monsanto, or industrial agriculture.”

Throughout her 16 urban farm profiles, Rich found what she describes as very local initiatives, where agriculture just happened to be the medium for doing something positive in the city.

Rich documents many non-political motives for urban farming: a social anchor for the community, beautifying blight, jobs for the unemployed, places for children, opportunities for school kids to learn about plants and science, fresh produce in food deserts.

Does the Localvore movement have to be an either/or proposition? I’m intrigued that Rich went into the field and talked to urban gardeners to see what is driving them. Based on Ms. Badger’s article it isn’t green ideology or government subsidies, but something much more ‘organic and human.’

The pleasures and rewards of a backyard garden.

I think the policy problem Desrochers and Shimizu identify is a real one.  The more idealistic members of the “Food Activist” movement assert that local farms can (at least partially) replace global production to sustain the current population. They insist that large-scale food production is bad for the environment and take an overly romantic view of small-scale subsistence farming. That is folly. But free trade in food should not imply that urban gardening doesn’t have virtues of its own.

I confess my prejudice. Growing up in suburban north Jersey we benefitted from a subdivided acre of land that we shared with my grandmother. My siblings and I helped tend a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, berry brambles and my mother’s ever-expanding herb garden. For a period my father experimented with growing grapes for wine (a project he abandoned upon sampling the results). We learned how to grow, care for, and cook the fruit of our labors.

There is an indescribable gulf between the Jersey tomatoes we grew and the tasteless rubber ball I reluctantly buy in the grocery. We canned, froze and shared the yield of our garden with neighbors. I learned to appreciate food (i.e., not waste it), how to recycle (compost), how to cook, how to propagate raspberries, currants and gooseberries; and for a few summers to stomp on grapes.

Before I was born, my grandmother (who was raised on a farm in Białystok, Poland) kept two chicken coops. I imagine that turned into more trouble that it was worth but nevertheless it was the source of my grandparents’ dinner for a brief time. The exercise of gardening not only taught basic science and refined our palates, but imparted lessons in self-sufficiency, responsibility, stewardship, familial cooperation, gave us spells of serenity, a place of respite and imagination, and the opportunity for generosity. Non-quantifiable.

We managed to grow enough to eat well during the summer and have some to spare for the winter. It would have been tough (impossible) to survive on it alone. And, we made frequent trips to the grocery store for everything else: to buy food that was produced everywhere else. We tended to skip over the produce section between June and September and never bought a tomato.

So, yes to the economics of global food production and subsidy-free agriculture. And yes to the non-quantifiable benefits of working the land no matter how modest the effort.

 

 

 

 

Detroit’s Financial Future

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism.

After flirting with Chapter 9 bankruptcy or a state takeover of its finances, Detroit has reached a deal with the state of Michigan that will allow it to remain independently managed with a requirement for state oversight. The Detroit Free Press reports:

The city has seven days to create the positions of chief financial officer and program management director and 30 days after that to make a hire from a list of three candidates from the mayor and state treasurer. Lewis said the city is compiling a list of candidates.

“We’ve got a lot of requirements that are in the agreement,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do (with the agreement) and then getting to the work of fixing the city. Our focus is on executing the plan and getting the resources here to execute the plan.”

Snyder reiterated that the city “shouldn’t expect” a cash bailout, adding that Detroit is one of many troubled communities in the state. But he said the state would use its resources in a variety of ways to help the city.

Snyder said the agreement assures the things that need to be done will get done, describing it as a “progressive series of steps” that first allow the mayor and the council to make the decisions, and then empowers the project manager to do so if they don’t. “This is a legal document designed to deal with situations when they don’t go right,” he said.

While bankruptcy protection offers the advantage to cities of achieving a more manageable debt load, it doesn’t come without a cost. Bankruptcy would add an additional stigma to Detroit, already known for municipal financial distress, encouraging business disinvestment.

Vallejo, CA filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and as the New York Times explains, the city is still in a difficult financial position. After bankruptcy cities have less room in their budgets to provide public services such as infrastructure, parks, and schools while their tax rates don’t fall accordingly. This contributes to further erosion of the tax base as businesses and residents leave the city.

Municipal bankruptcy is always a two-sided issue involving both revenue and debt. At The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger covers the equation from the revenue side. While cities often both subsidize and enforce sprawl through road-building, parking requirements, and minimum lot sizes, these policies are detrimental to their property tax equations. She cites the positive example of Asheville, NC as a city that has taken advantage of denser downtown redevelopment to improve its ratio of property taxes to infrastructure costs:

Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)

[. . .]

All of this is also just looking at the revenue side of the ledger. Low-density development isn’t just a poor way to make property-tax revenue. It’s extremely expensive to maintain. In fact, it’s only feasible if we’re expanding development at the periphery into eternity, forever bringing in revenue from new construction that can help pay for the existing subdivisions we’ve already built.

[. . .]

“The thing is it all works fine when you have all this new growth and the new gap is met by all these new permit fees – that’s like free money,” Joe Minicozzi [of Public Interest Projects] says.

Cities should not be in the business of requiring the sort of development that is most expensive for them to support. However, this analysis ignores the debt side of Chapter 9, one that may be even more difficult to tackle politically. Despite the harm that poor financial management causes, local elected officials simply do not have the proper incentives to avoid it.

Politicians operate on election cycles, and during their time in office they generally seek to provide their constituents with the best possible services at the lowest tax rate. This leads them to put off payment on long term debt and liabilities using accounting gimmicks and fiscal evasion techniques to spend more on goods that residents will see in the near term.

A combination of debt and declining revenue has put Detroit in the position it’s in today. Its urban development strategy must be a part of the property tax revenue solution. Perhaps the new officials that the city hires will help with debt management, but this additional oversight is unlikely to overcome the incentives of election cycles.