Very soon, the US political system will be involved in a serious debate regarding the merits of a tax on carbon emissions. The main debate will center on two issues:
- Should the US put a price on carbon emissions?
- What should that price be, both now and in the future?
Fossil fuels have long powered the Indianapolis economy
The typical tool used in a debate of this type is the Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). This type of study weighs all of the costs associated with an action against all of the benefits. Any project with a net benefit is considered worthwhile, but trying to figure out how to distribute costs and benefits is always a difficult political problem, and especially so with something as large and pervasive as a carbon tax.
A fun, graphic explanation of this CBA is found in The Cartoon Guide to the Environment (which is a good source of conceptual information for anyone needing a crash course in environmental economics, the history of environmental regulation, or human interaction with ecology):
As the illustration above points out, there is a large amount of uncertainty involved with assessing the risks and costs of a warming world. However, the atmospheric models that scientists have developed thus far all point in the same direction. Without some sort of comprehensive strategy to reduce emissions, the biosphere will warm by a small but significant amount and this will have deleterious effects on ecological systems around the world.
ASCE, along with other engineering societies, has identified climate change as a key issue and pledged to work to lower the risk and mitigate the consequences.
The US policy on carbon pricing must consider the context of our political system and the need for action. In the past, the US has managed pollution either by cap and trade markets (see 1990 Acid Rain Program), direct taxes, or by regulations. There is no reason to believe the US cannot establish or manage a carbon pricing scheme successfully in the future.
The debate on question #1, should we do it, is yet to be settled. There are many in this debate who have argued for us to do nothing. A popular argument is one presented in The American Scene “Why I Oppose A Carbon Tax“. You can summarize his argument from the first line:
I oppose a carbon tax for a very simple reason: I do not believe its benefits justify its costs.
Another such article was published in the Wall Street Jounal entitled “Time for Inaction on Global Warming“. A summary of the article is given in the subtitle:
Congress should consider the costs before passing “cap and trade.”
After reading these articles, I think these authors are deliberately confusing question #1 and question #2. The decision to set a price and the level the price is set at are two independent topics. We can set the costs of the pricing scheme at whatever level we want, once the system is in place. There is no reason for anyone to fear a carbon tax, because we will never put in place a system we can’t afford.
Clearly, these authors are willing to sell their future for a lower price than a Greenpeace advocate. But what are the values of society in general? We already know that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will lead to greater energy independence, cleaner air, better transportation systems, and a chance to become producers rather than consumers of the green revolution. Are US citizens willing to throw away rational and effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions, even when the benefits are so great?
Indy’s inefficient transportation system is another big source of emissions (Indy MPO
I believe there are more important things in life than money. The US must have policies that balance our need for economic activity and our need to manage our resources carefully. We should not squander our natural capital in search of greater financial wealth. Community health and ecological integrity deserve priority over personal wealth.
So the choice we all face, but especially those who write public policy and design our built environment, is whether or not we should take action. We know that inaction because of political expediency or high costs will be a shameful legacy for future Americans. We know that the costs of doing nothing will begin to accrue immediately. We know that any environmental costs of global warming will be borne by those most unable to cope with the changes.
I find inaction to be unacceptable. Engineers are ethically bound to prioritize the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In my opinion, a mistake is made when any engineer argues that the costs, while small, justify the destruction of our environment and an impending human crisis. At that point a line has been crossed. That is no longer the argument of a civil engineer, but something else entirely.
Many people are now familiar with the MDC hearing examiner’s recent denial of a variance. Current coverage on IBJ’s Property Lines, Huston St Racing (w/photos), and Urban Indy. This variance would have allowed a renovation of an old urban property consistent with its original and proposed use. Basically, the developers wanted to eliminate the requirement for off-street parking.
The neighboring property owners were worried this would force the tenants to park illegally in nearby surface lots. After review of the case and a private meeting with the interested parties, the Hearing Examiner concluded that no compromise was forthcoming and denied the petition for a variance.
I think the Indianapolis planning staff summarized the issue quite well in their analysis, which recommended *approval* of the petition. Here is the planning staff’s opinion:
Urban sites should be developed to the highest intensity possible. To require this site to meet the required off-street parking standards, would require the demolition of a portion of the building or acquisition of adjacent sites. A practical difficulty is met by this request since the site is fully developed. Additionally, there are several IndyGo bus routes that travel along Meridian Street and nearby streets that substantially reduce the need for parking. Finally, it is a common and preferred planning method that little or no off-street parking be added to a reuse of an inner city site. If residents require off-street parking, there are three off-street parking sites directly adjacent to the site to the north, northeast and east that could meet that need.
MDC documents are here (p. 85), results from the hearing are here (p. 3).
I think it is time that Indianapolis accepts that off-street parking requirements are the bane of true urban renewal. The minimum parking requirements are a senseless way to devalue our CBD. They are an existential threat to urban life, and therefore the core identity of Indianapolis.
Someone raised an interesting question on the IBJ website: What are the requirements for becoming a hearing examiner in Indianapolis? I suggest we remake the qualifications process, and that it only have 1 component: survive in Indy for one month without a car, and then we’ll take you. A human’s eye view of the city might do some of these people some good.
One of the commenters on Huston Street Racing offered an apology of the Examiners actions, stating:
He is a thoughtful and even-handed person, and a thorough lawyer. He is not a dolt or hack, as portrayed on the IBJ comments thread. … It appears to be his belief that someone will part with some parking spaces if offered enough money to do so.
All of this may be true, I won’t dispute it. But off-street parking should *never* have become an issue with this property. I am not sure the examiner even read the planner’s report, because it pretty clearly laid down the rationale against parking requirements and why they wouldn’t apply in this case anyways. Just in case anyone didn’t want to read the full report, or even my summary, just read the part in bold above. One sentence is all you need to know.
This situation is yet another lost opportunity for a representative of the City of Indianapolis to address the real infrastructural problems that have ruined the city. Indianapolis I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
Steel construction maintains a huge market share in the US. Structural engineers design steel buildings every day, and most never think twice about the man whose name was once synonymous with the material: Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant as industrial magnate
Carnegie did not invent steel. However, he was the first one that both realized how it would transform the world and with enough capital to do something about it. Steel, even the old-fashioned alloys that most engineers thumb their noses at today, was still such an amazing material that Carnegie became the 2nd wealthiest human ever based on his investment in steel.
Indianapolis’ Union Station structure bears his name throughout the building
Andrew Carnegie had a great business sense and knew a good deal when he saw one. But Carnegie realized that money was not all that important. He already knew that giving money to people not prepared to receive it was a bad idea. Instead of leaving a large inheritance or giving it away in a lottery, he wanted to do “real and permanent good” for people.
In fact, responsible management of charitable giving is hard work. For Carnegie, giving money away was more difficult than making it. It took a long time to give away so much money. In the end he set up many institutions to continue the process after his death. He laid out his philanthropic principles in his “Gospel of Wealth” publication.
His institutions sponsor all sorts of work even today, and his educational initiatives are legendary. The thousands of Carnegie libraries and the Carnegie Mellon University (my alma mater) are testament to the enduring power of educational efforts sponsored by his fortune.
Let’s imagine that Andrew Carnegie was alive today, with the same intense philanthropic desire to help people. What changes would a modern day Carnegie seek to effect in today’s society? What progressive programs could a person with $300 Billion kick-start, how could they usher in a new period of social growth in American Society?
I think Carnegie’s most successful charities were ones that engaged the efforts of others and resulted in secondary effects. His libraries brought great literature and books to cities throughout the US. The people who took advantage of these opportunities created the conditions that helped the US prosper in the 20th century.
But his libraries also helped create communities. The physical presence of the library cemented the status of city on many towns. The simple, institutional architecture was a visible reminder that people could build the US into a great nation.
However, the most important effect of his libraries was unseen. It was the fact that cities had to set up a permanent taxing structure to ensure support for the libraries. Without the ability to regulate taxes and set budgets, no library would be awarded. Thus, the populace willingly taxed themselves to help the common good.
So we revisit the question: What would Andrew Carnegie do today?
If we view his legacy in light of civic reform, I have some good ideas. Sponsor or subsidize the creation of some public amenity, institution, or capital improvement project and put some strict requirements on it. Maybe ask cities to bid for different projects, and instead of bidding money they bid in terms of civic reform.
Want a new university or voc-tech school? Then put in place a new zoning code that allows high-density development and mixed use space.
Want to rebuild a blighted urban streetscape? Enact an iron-clad complete streets policy and an urban growth boundary.
Want a regional High-Speed-Rail or local subway system? Maybe the cities could enact TOD requirements on top of other minor reforms.
Want a new dock or freight rail intermodal facility? I think it’s time for exclusive wildlife corridors or wildlife overpasses throughout the state.
Of course, when the cities are very thirsty for capital projects, the bidding could get even more intense. How about a health insurance exchange program for the state, or a Robin Hood educational system, or even reform of the inane and discriminatory US drug policies? I digress, but my point should be clear by now.
Carnegie’s charitable givings were great for their intended purposes, but the unintended consequence of responsible civic government were probably even greater. A few cities here in the US could use a carrot to lead them to better governance. Maybe the Carnegie Library phase of this nation is over, but it’s still a fun fantasy for any urban planner.
I am in favor of stricter building code enforcement. Especially in Indianapolis, where typically only a sample of projects are reviewed. This new department will bring stability and standardization to the review process. Hopefully any problems related to sidewalks and accessibility (which are often brought up on the Indianapolis blogosphere) will be identified early in the design process and addressed.
The department will be staffed by “building code analysts” who will thoroughly review each project. Any problems will be flagged wherein the building designers must answer the questions raised. This falls under the police powers of government and public safety should improve from the efforts.
It is important for engineers to realize that our goal is life safety, and that working with building code enforcement is a necessary step in the process. It is not criticism, it is an independent review. My neighbor in the city government says designers “have no idea how much this will change things.” I don’t know whether to be frightened or excited, but I’m leaning towards excitement.
Council Approves Office of Code Enforcement
Office of Code Enforcement
On June 29, the City-County Council approved the city’s first Department of Code Enforcement.
The current acting Office of Code Enforcement, created by Executive Order in February 2009 to streamline the city’s licensing, permitting, inspection and abatement functions, will become a permanent city department effective January 1, 2010.
“This new agency has answered the call to step up enforcement actions and tackle issues that threaten public safety and the overall health of our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Greg Ballard.
“Overgrown weeds, abandoned cars, abandoned properties, unsafe buildings and other property maintenance conditions attract crime, reduce property values and make communities less desirable. Focusing new resources on these issues will better equip us to keep our city clean, safe and vibrant and will do so using a self-funding model that will not burden taxpayers.”
The Council’s approval transfers the following code enforcement functions to the new department:
- Licenses and permits
- Building, infrastructure
- and zoning inspections
- Property maintenance
- Unsafe buildings
- High weeds and grass
- Illegal dumping
- Weights & Measures
“We have worked diligently over the past few months to streamline code enforcement processes that have been unnecessarily complicated and often outdated,” said Rick Powers, Director of the Office of Code Enforcement. “By consolidating code enforcement functions into one department and providing a one-stop shop, we are more accessible and able to provide better service to the public.”
With this new charge, the Office of Code Enforcement has been overhauling city enforcement initiatives through new, refocused measures, including:
- Cracking down on unlicensed and non-compliant businesses
- Combating high weeds and grass by cutting the abatement process time in half
- Intensifying the focus on nuisance abatement and property maintenance
- Addressing habitual violators through a new case management system and a partnership with city prosecutors to expedite priority cases
- Joining the Mayors’ vacant and abandoned properties initiatives
- Preparing the launch of mobile inspector offices to increase productivity
- Utilizing Six Sigma expertise to refine and improve processes to optimize efficiency and service
All citizen reports should be directed to the Mayor’s Action Center at 327-4MAC (327-4622). To learn more about the Office of Code Enforcement, visit www.indy.gov/oce.
On September 3, 2009, I attended the Chamber of Commerce’s Indianapolis Hobnob (Event flyer). Typically the hobnob is a chance for people to interact with their elected/appointed representatives by sharing a social hour and listening to grandiose political speeches. This year, however, was an “off-election” year which only occurs once every 12 years, so political campaigns took a backseat.
The chamber of commerce took this opportunity to host a conference on policy issues instead. The program started off with a keynote address by Jeff Speck. Mr. Speck is one of the new urbanists working with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and along with DPZ was co-author of the book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (Amazon listing here).
In addition to the keynote address, there were breakout sessions, a panel discussion, and the hobnob reception. Overall, I thought the event was very successful at bringing together people who are interested in policy changes. However, it did not appear to be successful at bringing in new people who were not already interested in such events.
The keynote address by Jeff Speck (website) was outstanding, a copy of the presentation is avaiable here. In fact, most of the presentations have been put online for public access, see the Indianapolis Hobnob 2009 for more information. The keynote really did a fabulous job of showing how policy affects cities, and why it ends up ruining our quality of life.
I ended getting a copy of his book (he was signing copies at the event) and now that I am mostly through it I can honestly say that this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in urban policy, walkability, transit/transportation issues, or real estate development. Much of the photos in the presentation are explained in detail in the book, and reading it has been a great use of my time. There are also some great quotes in the book such as “Fighting congestion by adding lanes is like fighting obesity by loosening your belt.” It is full of insight and witty observations.
Breakout session #1: Transit Oriented Development
This session focused on how transit oriented development gives an opportunity for cities to reclaim the urban dream. It also gives citizens a choice about their lifestyle. Instead of endless sprawl, people can live in dense pockets of walkable, urban environments. They are freed from the expenses of car ownership by mass transit.
In contrast to the typical nay-sayers who claim TOD is unsuccessful at its goals, this session did provide evidence that TOD residents do use their autos much less, and that the subsidies for the TOD’s do provide benefits worth their cost. There has been no presentation file uploaded on the host site, but here are two links to investigate:
Transit-Oriented Development Wikipedia
Ballston neighborhood Wikipedia
Breakout session #2: Green Redevelopment
This session focused on the redevelopment of Fall Creek Place, a formerly blighted neighborhood that is seeing a lot of redevelopment efforts. The design & construction team, along with the city of Indianapolis official in charge of the project, led the presentation discussing the challenges and opportunities presented.
I enjoyed both sessions, but it is clear that there needs to be some changes to the land-use policies currently in place before these types of developments become common. There is just so many variances and excessive red-tape involved with this construction. Even the simple act of replacing like-for-like in Fall Creek Place involves a special initiative with the city government.
The end of the conference was a 5 person panel discussion involving Jeff Speck and some local leaders. This part of the conference was unscripted, so there is no document to refer to. The questions were submitted by the attendees of the breakout sessions and of the keynote. Unfortunately, it became clear that our elected representatives did not have a thorough background or understanding of the policies being considered and debated in the conference. Being politicians, they appreciated what the audience wanted to hear but I was not convinced they knew how to get from here to there without seriously studying up on the issues.
Hobnob Social Hour
Most of the breakout sessions were lightly attended, but once the drinks and food were set up the place was instantly full and buzzing with people and conversation. I suppose if you want to attract politicians and public servants then hosting a party with free food and drinks is a good way to start.
The social event was held adjacent to the Canal in the Indiana State Museum. It was great fun, and I had the opportunity to meet and discuss the day’s presentations with many of the attendees. The chance to network and socialize with people interested in land-use policy was a great benefit of this event, and I hope that it is just as successful in the future.