Monday
Aug112014

Replace 6-10 Connector with Urban Boulevard

A maze of asphalt separates the neighborhoods of Olneyville and Valley from much of the rest of Providence.By ALEX KROGH-GRABBE

People decide which kind of transportation to take based on what is convenient and inexpensive. Our preferences make a small contribution to the decision, but we’re mostly just pragmatic. Due to the massive public investments in highways and car infrastructure that our federal, state and local governments have made in the past 50 years, in many places today the only safe option is cars. I think you’ll agree that having more options would be better.

We built for cars, and now deferred maintenance is coming back to bite us. In many places, bicycle and pedestrian safety weren’t considered in the construction of roads or residential and commercial development. While public transit agencies are chronically underfunded, lawmakers desperately smash piggy banks to find money for highway repair.

But as those public works maintenance bills come due and the federal money that usually pays for them dries up, many state and local governments are realizing that it’s a much better use of their transportation budget to invest in options that are lower cost than rampant kowtowing to wider highways and more flyovers.

In Providence, an estimated $500 million of repairs are needed on a small highway spur called the 6-10 Connector. This highway occupies 73 acres of land on the city’s West Side, cutting off the vibrant neighborhood of Federal Hill from the Woonasquatucket River and the neighborhoods of Olneyville and Valley. The rich legacy of Providence’s industrial past is visible in the buildings of these neighborhoods, and but for the concrete wall of exhaust fumes isolating them, they could share the vibrancy present in Federal Hill.

At the same time as state and local governments are faced with the nine-figure price tag to keep this monument to auto-dependence functional, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is rebranding its best-used bus lines as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT is a relatively new innovation in transit, based on the idea that with adequate investment, bus service can be as convenient and comfortable as subway or light rail.

Cities around the world — especially in Colombia and Brazil — have shown that strong BRT systems have increased mobility and accessibility for a relatively low price tag. As RIPTA adds to its line improvements, it would be good to see local and state government offer their support for a successful BRT system through components such as: dedicated lanes or right-of-ways; preference at traffic lights so that buses always get a green light; and bus stops more like subway stations featuring off-board fare collection, no step up to entry, real-time displays of wait time and big, well-designed maps.

Let’s get back to that ugly expensive highway that needs to be removed. Highway removal has a successful recent history across North America. The Embarcadero in San Francisco and the West Side Highway in New York are the two most-often cited examples. Other cities have seen the removal of urban highways leading to reduced traffic and economic development.

Counterintuitively, more highway lanes leads to more traffic. As Providence has seen with the land made available downtown through the moving of I-195, the opportunities for real-estate investment on former highway land are enormous.

I suggest the 6-10 Connector be removed. I suggest replacing it with a boulevard  that includes separated walking and cycling paths and dedicated transit lanes. I suggest we contact Michael Lewis at RIDOT and the gubernatorial candidates to ask for the conversion of this space to a safer urban corridor.

It’s time Rhode Island made the mature decision on transportation infrastructure and focused on more cost-efficient mobility.

Providence resident Alex Krogh-Grabbe has a master’s degree from Tufts University in urban and environmental policy and planning and served as the founding executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District before moving to Rhode Island.

Wednesday
Jul232014

Where the Wild Things Once Were

By FRANK CARINI

Climate change, global warming, or whatever phrase you want to use to label our significant impact on the planet isn’t about biblical flooding, superstorms or shifting seasons. It’s about how much we value other living things and how much we really care about future generations.

The answer is obvious. We don’t much care about either. The evidence is overwhelming, and sad. Really sad.

Every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, three species become extinct, largely because of our greed and hubris. It doesn’t have to be that way, but we seem determined to record our history on a continuous loop. We’ve shown little desire to break this destructive cycle.

By the late 1690s, with much of their forest habitat destroyed by humans, the flightless dodo was erased from the planet. Three centuries later, we haven’t stopped erasing the natural landscape.

For example, on average, from 2000 to 2010, nearly 25 acres of forestlands worldwide were lost every minute of every day. Most of this 1.3 billion or so of lost acres was cleared by humans for agriculture and timber, leaving plenty of species homeless and damaging countless ecosystems. The scars will be visible long into the future.

In the mid-19th century, the flight of passenger pigeons would sometimes darken North American skies. Such a spectacle must have been chilling. Nobody alive today witnessed it. By the beginning of the 20th century, passenger pigeons no longer lived in the wild. The last one of its kind died in captivity in 1914. We hunted them to extinction.

Our savagery against nature hasn’t diminished.

In 2011 alone, some 25,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory, according to reports. In fact, since 2002, the number of forest elephants has decreased by 60 percent. If this trend continues, they could be erased within a decade. Three of the world’s five rhinoceros species are “critically endangered.”

We arrogantly believe technology will save us from our scorched-earth march through time, and it very likely will. But the price will be staggering: the continued loss of biodiversity. It means future generations will only know tigers, polar bears and mountain gorillas as dusty, taxidermic displays behind museum glass. It means a virtual-reality future where the wild things are not.

Our collective brutality is only matched by our collective lack of compassion. Two recent examples are numbing. The United States, the presumed leader of the free world, goes to no end to make sure those who need affordable health care can’t get it.

Our elected leaders then use children trying to escape the gangs, violence and crippling poverty of Central America as political pawns to further divide a nation and win an election. Lies are spread by lawmakers and the media that these fleeing children are diseased-ridden and part of an invasion. There’s very little discussion about actually helping them. Society as a whole considers the action of the adults who yell at these frightened kids and tell them to go home as reasonable and sane.

Much of the rest of the population remains nothing more than extras in a really bad sci-fi movie, in which corporations are treated better than people, the owners of a chain of stores that sells glitter glue and feather boas is allowed to tell their female employees what is best for their bodies and health, and accepted science is ignored while lawmakers introduce standards that require educators to teach climate-change denial as a valid scientific position.

Welcome to Thunderdome, please don’t touch the stuffed dodo.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

Friday
Jul182014

Prey for Return of Atlantic Cod Population

Scientific surveys suggest the cod population in the Gulf of Maine is seriously depleted. (Pew Charitable Trusts)Diversity and numbers of forage fish available to cod and other predators has dwindled

By PETER BAKER

A recent study illustrates what has happened to New England’s once plentiful Atlantic cod population, and the findings highlight the big role that little fish play in our marine ecosystems and economy.

It’s no secret that New England’s cod are in trouble. Overfishing has so severely depleted the population that federal officials declared a fishery disaster and Congress appropriated more than $30 million in aid. But even as the bottom fell out of cod stocks, many fishermen insisted the fish were still plentiful in their nets and disputed the science supporting tighter catch limits.

Why did fishermen see a bounty while scientists in fact called it a bust?

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center say a change in the forage fish, or small prey species, the cod were eating offers an explanation.

In an article published in May in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, the authors say that around 2006 the dominant prey for cod switched from Atlantic herring to sand lance — small, eel-like fish that burrow in the sediment of the seafloor. Sand lance were abundant in an area known as Stellwagen Bank, and so cod, too, congregated there. Soon, cod fishermen focused so much effort on the bank that some 45 percent of the cod caught in a year came from just a 100-square-mile area in the region.

But scientific surveys assessing the cod population over more than 20,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine continued to show that the larger population was seriously depleted. Clearly, the abundance in one small region didn’t accurately reflect the overall status of cod. The authors say they hope the findings can “help fishery managers, scientists and the industry understand and resolve apparent conflicts between assessment results and the experiences of the fishing industry.”

While this study helps to explain the recent past, it also holds important lessons for the future of fishing. The switch in cod diet from herring to sand lance held major implications for one of the region’s most economically important fish. Over the years, through intensive fishing for prey species such as Atlantic herring and menhaden, plus the depletion of other historically important prey such as river herring and shad, the “menu” of forage fish available to cod and other predators has changed. We need a management system that better monitors and responds to the ways prey and predators interact.

Such a system is available, and it’s called ecosystem-based fisheries management. Scientists have long known that simply measuring and managing one fish species at a time is insufficient. So they’ve put decades of work into developing the ecosystem-based approach to provide a much more accurate and useful picture of what’s occurring in the water.

A good ecosystem-based fisheries management program would take the needs of predator species into account and allow managers to restore the abundance of prey, causing a resurgence of fish stocks and, ultimately, providing greater opportunity for the fishermen who depend on them.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Thursday
Jun052014

We Can't Afford to Create Next Fisheries Disaster


By PETER BAKER

Federal and state officials recently announced a plan for the distribution of millions of dollars in disaster assistance for New England fishermen who depend on cod and other groundfish. But some of these same regional officials are considering a proposal that threatens to make things worse by cutting back habitat protections for depleted groundfish species.

In 2012, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank declared a disaster after declines in the populations of groundfish forced sharp cuts in the allowable catch. A resulting framework agreement announced last month by regional officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) fisheries service would divide nearly $33 million in federal disaster assistance to six states.

Massachusetts — home to most of the region’s groundfish fleet — would take the lion’s share of the disaster money. Fishermen who qualify would be eligible for direct relief and various state programs would receive grants. A vessel “buy back” program is also in development.

As these taxpayer dollars are being distributed, it’s important that fisheries managers take a hard look at how this disaster came about, and how another one can be avoided — because New England has been in this situation before and could well be again.

Twenty years ago Commerce Secretary Ron Brown declared a disaster for groundfish after overfishing pushed cod and other populations to historic lows. Unfortunately, for most of the past two decades the New England Fishery Management Council, which works with NOAA to regulate fishing in federal waters in the region, didn’t do enough to correct the situation. The council failed to rein in overfishing, postponed the adoption of science-based catch limits and opted for weak rebuilding plans for overfished species. As a result, New England’s once-famous cod are still struggling to recover.

While some in the fishing industry say catch limits have caused their current problems, the data show that fishermen have often not been able to find enough cod to fill their quotas. New England also has the unfortunate distinction of having the most overfished populations of any fishery management region in the country.

Scientists say that one of the best ways to help cod and other depleted fish bounce back is to protect their habitat. Fish need places where they can find shelter and food, spawn, and grow. Habitat is where fish make more fish. And what New England needs is more fish.

The New England Fishery Management Council is working on a long-overdue revision to its plan for fish habitat protection and, unfortunately, it appears to be heading in the wrong direction. Industry-supported proposals before the council could slash the amount of marine habitat protected in New England by some 70 percent.

If this proposal prevails, we could be on a course to need continued disaster relief, even before this money is spent. Council members should instead stick to a strong, science-based approach to protect habitat for depleted New England fish populations. In the midst of one fishing disaster, New England officials shouldn't sow the seeds for another one.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Thursday
Jun052014

Garrahy Garage Idea Not Grounded in Reality

By ANDREW FARRELL

I have reviewed the "Garrahy Courthouse Parking Garage Conceptual Analysis" report published in February. The report, which is really four separate reports on related topics, reveals that 1) there is no need for the parking garage 2) the garage will provide parking primarily for courthouse employees and visitors 3) Rhode Island taxpayers will be subsidizing the parking of the current courthouse employees and 4) the proposed LINK parcels development projections are wildly out of proportion with historic development and future population trends for the city.

Current parking status
In the report’s executive summary the premise for garage construction is given. On Page 1 it states that, “the transformation of the current surface parking lot at the Garrahy Courthouse into a structured parking garage represents a unique opportunity to address current parking capacity deficiencies and provide a mechanism to promote economic development through highest and best use development of the nearby LINK parcels.”

However, later in the report, on Page 3 of the Nelson Nygaard Parking Analysis memo, the results of a 2010 downtown Providence parking study are reviewed. That report stated that, “although there are pockets of high parking demand throughout the downtown and within sub-boundaries on an average weekday, overall there is still an ample supply of parking available.”

Within the three downtown zones measured, there were a total of 16,777 spaces, and an average weekday utilization rate of only 66 percent, equaling about 5,700 spaces unused during peak demand. On Page 1 of the Desman Associates memo within the conceptual analysis report the observation is made that the downtown parking lots are “virtually deserted after 5:00 PM on weekdays and all days on weekends and holidays.”

With no subsequent parking studies referenced in the overall report, there is no evidence to support the statement that there are parking capacity deficiencies to be addressed.

Garage usage and revenue projections
The report also describes in some detail the financial projections for the hypothetical courthouse garage development. The structure is assumed to be seven stories and would provide 1,250 spaces. Section 7.2 of the Executive Summary breaks down by category the projected users:

The report further describes each of the user categories:

Garrahy employees are the existing 517 courthouse employees who park off-site and would continue to pay a total of $32,000 per month in parking fees, or $384,000 annually.

Early-bird parkers are described as existing courthouse visitors. The report relates that courthouse administrators estimate the building attracts roughly 2,500 visitors a day.

Evening transients are identified as being primarily attendees of the Providence Performing Arts Center for 30 performances a year. This category would be supplemented in the future by demand for new retail development in the area.

Day transients are identified as additional courthouse visitors, Brown University Medical School visitors, and in the long term new office development users.

Overnight monthly users are identified as coming from existing and new residential development in the area.

Limited and general monthly users are identified as existing and new office workers in the area.

In using the report's own figures and assumptions, only 165 parking spaces, or 13 percent of the total facility, are projected to be available for use by current or future office and retail users. At the same time, the 517 courthouse users will be subsidized by the state of Rhode Island and the other parking garage users since they will be providing only 13 percent of the facility’s gross revenue, even though they will be using 40 percent of the total spaces.

With these gross revenue assumptions and projected operating expenses, the garage is forecast to generate a net loss through the first three years of $640,000. This deficit would be funded by the state of Rhode Island or the city of Providence.

LINK parcel development assumptions
The report references that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is working with two development scenarios:

Scenario 1 envisions more than a million square feet of office and research space to be built and occupied within the district. According to MG Commercial Real Estate, based in Providence, the downtown Providence commercial real-estate market consists of 6.3 million square feet, and according the CB Richard Ellis had a vacancy rate of 16.2 percent.

Increasing the total built commercial real-estate environment by 16 percent would take a considerable amount of expansions and relocations to Providence by companies to meet this projection, which would be unprecedented given that the total labor force in the Providence MSA as increased by only 48,553 from March 1994 to March 2014.

Scenario 2 envisions 1,050 apartments to be built within the district. According to the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program’s “Rhode Island 2010-2040 Populations Projections” report, published in April 2013, the population of Providence is forecasted to increase from the 2010 census figure of 178,042 to 180,583, an increase of about 2,500 people. A recent market study conducted on the feasibility of a large multifamily project in Providence, published in January, 2013, recommended a lease-up rate assumption of 10 units per month.

The market data and population projections don’t support the development assumptions that are being used to derive future downtown parking needs. Overall, the stated reasons for building the Garrahy garage don’t match the reality on the ground as currently exists today, nor the projected reality based on the commercial real-estate market and demographic trends.

Andrew Farrell works for a national organization dedicated to community redevelopment and historic preservation through the use of public/private partnerships. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday
May212014

Commission’s Decision Saved 300 Million Menhaden

Atlantic menhaden play a vital role in marine ecosystems from Maine to Florida, serving as a critical food source for birds, mammals and valuable fish species. (Ned Drummond/The Pew Charitable Trusts)By PETER BAKER

In December 2012, I joined colleagues at The Pew Charitable Trusts and allies in the recreational fishing and conservation communities to watch a historic vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The commission was considering the first coast-wide cap on the catch of Atlantic menhaden. This filter-feeding fish is sometimes called “the most important fish in the sea,” because of its vital role as a source of prey for other marine species. The population of this fish had plummeted to roughly 10 percent of historic levels, and the commission had found that the species was experiencing overfishing.

The menhaden fishery is the largest on the Atlantic Coast, and some in the fishing industry warned that the catch limit would harm business and trigger potential cutbacks and layoffs. Despite this opposition, the commission followed the science and voted into place a cap that reduced the overall catch of Atlantic menhaden by 25 percent from the previous year.

The numbers now are in for the first year of fishing under the new catch cap and it’s clear that the commission’s action is achieving its ambitious conservation objectives. According to commission data, the total catch in 2013 was well under the coast-wide limit, leaving about 300 million more menhaden in the Atlantic, where they become food for other fish, seabirds and mammals. This in turn will support commercial fishing, recreational angling and ecotourism, such as whale watching tours along the Mid-Atlantic.

Also of note, the fishing industry’s dire predictions of economic losses didn’t come to pass. In fact, the company that catches the most Atlantic menhaden (Omega Protein) reported record profits in 2013 and expanded its fleet of fishing vessels.

The results show the wisdom of the commission’s regulations. All 15 Atlantic Coast states have successfully implemented the catch cap and the few states that went over their allotments were able to use a flexible trading system to comply with the rules.

The commissioners should be proud that they’ve established an effective management system for the largest fishery on the Atlantic Coast. They can now move ahead with confidence on a new stock assessment for menhaden and the development of tools that will ensure that enough of these critical prey fish are available for predators.

In time, we will see more evidence that these little fish are worth more when left in the water. And other fishery management bodies should take heed of this success story. Restoring healthy populations of critical forage species will make our coastal ecosystems and coastal economies stronger and healthier.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Wednesday
May212014

Proposed Garrahy Parking Garage a ‘Crazy’ Idea

By JAMES KENNEDY

PROVIDENCE — The proposed Garrahy Judicial Complex parking garage has recently garnered attention as state lawmakers confirmed its $43 million price tag. Now the proposed garage has a new critic — engineer Charles Marohn, whose urbanist podcast Strong Towns coined the term “Ponzi Scheme of Suburban Development,” called the garage proposal “crazy” in a recent phone conversation.

“Let me get this straight, you removed I-195, and your city’s plan to attract development is to build a parking ramp? That's exactly backwards,” he said.

Marohn, a self-described libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative, started his website from unexpected origins. Working in the engineering profession near his home in Brainerd, Minn., Marohn built many car-oriented projects, but the more he did the math, the more the projects had him scratching his head.

In a must-read essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” Marohn explains that he came to the conclusion that growth around suburban sprawl and urban mega-projects was illusory, because the second- and third-generation costs of infrastructure could never be paid from the surplus growth of the initial investment. Marohn has now visited 46 of the lower 48 states, observing and speaking on this problem. His views have attracted an unusual cross-section of left, right and center.

Instead of expensive, top-down investment in mega-projects, like the Garrahy Judicial Complex parking garage, Marohn said Providence needs to work with smaller pilot projects, build success and move from there.

“You may have people thinking you’re going to build a Little Boston on twenty acres overnight,” he said, “but Boston wasn’t built with huge infusions of money around big centralized projects. It was developed a little at a time.”

Asked what he might do to spur growth, Marohn recommended cheaper, higher-yield projects such as protected bike lanes. “The very best investment is biking and walking,” he said. “It’s so cheap, and produces so much genuine growth. Parking is expensive.”

Marohn doesn't oppose parking garages, but said the I-195 Commission was “skipping about twenty steps.”

“In the beginning, if anything, you want parking problems. If people can’t find a parking spot, that’s a sign of success,” he said. “Are people going to get in their cars and visit a parking ramp? No. Build a place that people want to go, and the need for a garage may eventually come about naturally.”

Marohn was critical of expecting intense high rise-style density quickly, and wasn’t deterred by reports that some I-195 plots have faced an uphill battle to develop.

“Of course density is good, but if you have trouble developing high rises, go for smaller incremental pilots,” he said. Three-story buildings are great in an urban area if you can’t get 50-story towers, Marohn said. Density can also look like Rhode Island’s walkable villages and successful urban shopping districts. Providence is more desperate than it should be, he added.

While he doesn’t think government can be an exact replica of business for a lot of reasons, he said there are still similarities. He asked if a business would throw all its money into a huge project to start? “No. Build walkable, bikeable, small projects, and you'll not only have a better city, but you'll be able to afford the city you build.”

The cost of a protected bike lane using plastic flex posts is $15,000-$30,000 per mile. The garage money — at $43 million, plus interest — could build nearly 3,000 miles of these lanes. That's quite a lot of biking for Little Rhody, where longer swaths of suburban territory already have Dutch-style bike paths. The major unconnected areas remain Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.

Saturday
May102014

Changing Climate Impacting Backyard Gardens

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM

Wrestling with myself, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m trying to understand how we are to see ourselves as sea levels rise and climate change alters our landscape, both externally and internally.

I look out my back window and I see my garden, the same garden I have been looking at for 24 years. I mark time by how often I have to cut my little patch of grass, or when the hedge requires a haircut. And I worry when some plants bloom at an odd time or earlier than they should. I wonder if, in 10 years, I will be growing more tropically inclined plants, or if my weeds will leap out of the ground, fueled by ever-increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Or if, in fact, there will be water for irrigation. So personal, one’s garden. A measuring stick of sorts, one that encapsulates a whole world. It’s a metaphor for the world outside of its gates. Understanding the new normal in and out of that sacred space is my challenge today.

As we approach spring and then summer, I think of the predictions from the Union of Concerned Scientists that say we will have more frequent and more intense heat waves. That brings to mind a more innocent time in life, before climate change was part of the vernacular, when visiting my family on the Cape meant a cool dip in Cape Cod Bay on a hot day and cool, breezy nights with a blanket at the foot of my bed.

The cool dip is still to be had, but now it’s tempered by the current bacterial count we monitor to be sure it’s indeed safe to swim. And those cool, breezy nights are in short supply, with many of the cottages now armed with air conditioners — even those along the shore.

I, who began saving housewares in the 1970s for what I hoped would one day be my own beach cottage, no longer yearn to own a place on the shore. Because the risk of owning a place on the water comes with the fright of worrying every time there is a coastal storm.

In daily life, I hear a constant drumbeat of life with climate change, that melting of the polar ice caps is speeding up, that there is ever-increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ... that we may have reached a tipping point.

May? That’s the most difficult part. We don’t know how fast these changes are coming, we can’t see them in the same way as we can observe other physical phenomena, like a flood or a heat wave. Whatever mitigation we propose as a means of adapting may be a good fix for, say 10 or 20 years, but could later create yet more problems. We must consequently learn to bend with necessity. We must recognize that today’s fix may need a fix, because the endgame continues to evolve.

Most of us do not accept change willingly or easily. Yet, flexibility even in the face of the most dire circumstances will be a demanding mistress. This kind of elasticity is critical if we are to survive what is rapidly becoming The New Normal.

Kathie Florsheim is a Providence resident.

Friday
Apr042014

To Protect Yourself and Our Valuable Coral Reefs, Be Careful Which Sunscreens You Put On Your Body

By WILL von BERNUTH

While probably not the first thing that crosses your mind when reaching for a bottle of sunscreen, studies show that the type of sunscreen you choose can have a profound impact on both the environment, particularly our oceans, and you. A seemingly simple choice for those who live in Rhode Island, aka the Ocean State, should know about.

A bit of background, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreen, and 17 ingredients are approved to protect against the sun’s rays. These are known as the active ingredients in sunscreen — 15 are chemicals and two, zinc and titanium, are minerals. Sunscreens also contain inactive ingredients such as water, oils, fragrances and preservatives. The inactive ingredients vary wildly and are too many to name in full. Thus, sunscreen comes in three flavors — mineral, chemical or a mix of the two.

How does this relate to the oceans? In 2008 a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that the small amounts of sunscreen present on swimmers can seriously damage coral reefs.  Specific sunscreen ingredients activate algae viruses that will bleach and kill coral in four days. Considering the number of divers and snorkelers out there, this can have a profound effect. Fortunately, this problem is easy to avoid, and what is good for the reefs is also good for you.

Research also shows that the chemical ingredients in sunscreens have potential negative effects on humans. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says in part:

“Laboratory studies of several sunscreen chemicals indicate that they may mimic hormones and disrupt the hormone system. Some research on animals suggests that oxybenzone and two other sunscreen chemicals — 4-MBC and octinoxate — are toxic to reproductive systems or interfere with normal development.”

The EWG goes on to state more research is needed to be conclusive on the effects of chemical sunscreens on humans, but since there are already alternatives, why not use them. In fact, in the same article, the EWG also says:

“Though no ingredient is without hazard or completely effective, on balance our ratings favor these mineral sunscreens. They do not penetrate the skin, and they are stable in the presence of sunlight.”

Back to the reefs and why they are important. For one, they are a natural living organism that sustains aquatic life. The diversity of life in the reefs ranges from small fish and sharks to turtles and eels. The economic value of the reefs can’t be overstated, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimating that in the United States alone the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million annually. Add to that the billions of dollars in tourism and recreation centered around reefs. NOAA also states that in the 1990s tourists visiting the Florida Keys generated $1.2 billion annually.

Beyond their economic value, reefs also act as natural coastal barriers, and we are just beginning to examine their potential in medicine, with scientists researching reefs’ natural defense mechanisms. You begin to get the picture that while reefs cover less than 1 percent of the planet’s surface, their value is much greater.

To do right by reefs, the study says to avoid benzophenones, parabens, cinnamates and camphor derivatives. These are often found in chemical sunscreens, and sometimes in mineral ones as well. Specifically, avoid the UV filters oxybenzone and dioxybenzone in a sunscreen’s active ingredients. These chemicals are from the benzophenone family and are found in chemical sunscreens. The second ingredient, parabens, can be used in both chemical and mineral sunscreens as inexpensive preservatives.

However, these days “paraben free” is big in cosmetics, so look for sunscreens and other products that advertise this. Cinnamates, such as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, octyl methoxycinnamate, octinoxate and cinoxate, are UVB absorbing ingredients in chemical sunscreens that should be avoided. You won’t find camphor in a sunscreen’s active ingredients in the United States — you might abroad — but you can find it in the inactive ingredients.

If all this sounds a bit confusing, the easy thing to do is stay away from chemical sunscreens — use only sunscreens that list zinc and/or titanium in their active ingredients — and be wary of words like paraben and camphor in the inactive ingredient listing on any sunscreen.

With that you'll help the reefs and yourself.

Will von Bernuth is the co-founder of Block Island Organics.

Saturday
Mar222014

Green Infrastructure Projects Create Needed Jobs

By MAX GREENE

Right now leaders throughout Rhode Island are taking a hard look at stormwater pollution — in fact, I recently was on a panel discussing solutions to the this critical threat to the health of our waterways. One especially exciting solution is green infrastructure.

What is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure uses natural processes to manage and filter stormwater. Rain gardens, for example, collect stormwater runoff and allow soils and plants to absorb it gradually so it doesn’t flow rapidly to water bodies. Bioswales are similar; they are long, narrow channels landscaped with plants to collect, absorb and filter runoff. Rain gardens and bioswales stand in contrast to so-called “gray” or traditional stormwater-management infrastructure, including large concrete pipes and basins for controlling stormwater flow.

One major advantage of green infrastructure is combating the heat-island effect: Concrete absorbs and stores heat from the sun, creating heat islands and exacerbating climate-related problems in urban environments. Green infrastructure, on the other hand, brings relief on hot summer days.

Green infrastructure has huge potential to mitigate stormwater pollution and increase our ability to withstand the effects of a changing climate. But just as important is its potential to create truly vibrant neighborhoods where they’re needed most. This means, for example, replacing vacant lots with rain gardens in neighborhoods with the highest unemployment — which are also often highly paved.

This in turn means people from these neighborhoods getting paid to create and maintain the rain gardens. On top of all this, rain gardens and other green projects create prettier streets and higher property values. Prettier streets leads to more people outside enjoying their neighborhood.

But let’s take a closer look at the question of who benefits economically from green infrastructure projects — in particular, who gets the jobs necessary to create and maintain these projects, after all, we are talking about Rhode Island, the state with the nation’s worst unemployment rate. The answer is that the greatest economic benefit flows through the communities where the projects are.

Here are some numbers for context. A report from the University of Maryland has shown that spending $100 million on green infrastructure in Lynchburg, Va., would create about 1,400 jobs. A report from the national organization Green For All notes that Los Angeles has already seen an estimated increase of more than 2,000 jobs by spending $166 million on green infrastructure projects.

What’s the best part of this job growth? Generally speaking, about three-quarters of these jobs are local. These local jobs then create a positive feedback loop that generates considerably more local economic activity: a particularly high $3.15 for every dollar spent in Lynchburg, according to the University of Maryland, and $2 for every dollar spent in LA, according to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Some of these local benefits flow from the very nature of green infrastructure projects. A rain garden, after all, will be installed and maintained by landscapers who are unlikely to travel from far away. This means that it’s important to site green infrastructure projects in communities where they can have the most impact both environmentally and economically. One way to make sure that economic benefits go to the communities that need them most is to enact a community benefits policy.

A community benefits policy ensures that green infrastructure decision-makers consider community need in figuring out where to site projects, and that community members have a say in the decision-making process. For example, the utility that administers the stormwater program for San Francisco has two complementary policies: an Environmental Justice Policy and a Community Benefits Policy. Among other things, these policies require the utility to “recognize community need for employment through continuation and expansion of workforce development strategies, including green job opportunities.” It seems pretty straightforward to conclude that when decision-makers consider community need for green jobs, projects are more likely to be sited in communities that actually need green jobs.

Another method used by the San Francisco utility is obtaining commitments in professional service contracts, ensuring, for example, that a certain percentage of a contractor’s employees are local.

All this is a long way of saying that there are many good reasons to invest in green infrastructure projects as a major part of our efforts to address stormwater pollution here in Rhode Island and throughout New England. It’s worth remembering that if we continue to approach these projects the way we’ve always done it, we’re probably missing some great opportunities to enhance our local neighborhoods and economy, not to mention local waterways.

Max Greene is the staff attorney for Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island. This piece was originally posted on the CLF blog.