Tuesday
May272014

Bicycling Idea for a Better Boulevard

Video and text by RACHEL PLAYE and JAMES KENNEDY

Pawtucket resident Hugo Bruggeman explains his proposal for a slow zone on one side of Blackstone Boulevard in Providence. Some bicyclists still don’t feel safe biking on Blackstone Boulevard because of high speeds and quick turns made by cars. This proposal would cap the eastern side of the street’s speed limit at 15 mph and encourage only local traffic. This would create a slower, quieter and safer street for bicyclers and pedestrians. The western side speed limit would be 25 mph and would become a two-way road for cars. To learn more about Bruggeman's proposal, visit betterboulevard.com.

Providence resident Rachel Playe runs the blog Transport Providence with James Kennedy.

Thursday
May222014

A Balanced Environment, Economy and Helm

By ED CESARE

Skipper Ed Cesare of Pleid Racing as seen a lot sailing the world’s oceans. (Billy Black)Pleiad Racing, a professional short-handed sailboat race team, is competing in its second Atlantic Cup (which ended Memorial Day weekend in Newport). Between us, my co-skipper, Chad Corning, and I have competed in innumerable events across close to 100,000 miles of ocean. Sailors, particularly offshore sailors, enjoy a close connection with their environment. Weather and sea-state dictate success and failure, safety and peril. We experience climate change every day.

To us the Atlantic Cup, with its focus on environmental sustainability, is perhaps our most important event. Pleiad Racing’s mission is to blend commerce, education and sport into a wellness nexus that promotes personal and planetary wellness. The environmental theme of the regatta and, crucially, its racecourses along the western edge of the Atlantic Basin and next to the East Coast megalopolis highlight our damaged ecosystems and the hope and opportunity of an emerging wellness economy as we move into the 21st century.

Leg 1 of the event runs from Charleston, S.C., to the upper bay of New York Harbor, finishing at North Cove Marina in the heart of the Financial District. The juxtaposition of these two busy commercial seaports and the open ocean between touches us as sailors and citizens. The forecast for the leg was for easy and fast downwind sailing. Wind conditions for the start were to be in the moderate 10- to 12-knot range. As we prepared to get the mainsail up, the wind was 18 to 20 knots, gusting at 27.

A very warm, late-spring day in Charleston had pumped up the breeze. We as sailors have noticed in recent years that wind strength seems to be always significantly over the forecast. Although anecdotal, we believe this is related to climate change.

As the leg progressed, we moved into the Gulf Stream. This ocean current, driven by the sun and by salinity differences between equatorial and arctic waters, is responsible for the complex water movement clear around the Atlantic Basin. It’s humbling. It transports nearly 4 billion cubic feet of water per second and water as warm as 85 degrees Fahrenheit, enabling it to create its own weather. This trip we found a solid 4 to 5 knots of north flowing current. We also found a waterspout and 40-plus-knot squalls that knocked us on our ear for more than 5 minutes. Suffice it to say that the sailor acutely feels his connection to the environment in these conditions.

Although strong this trip, it’s our experience that the Gulf Stream, particularly as it turns east past Cape Hatteras, is far less defined than it used to be — again anecdotal but unmistakable.

The other significant juxtaposition of this leg were an unusually robust showing of schools of Atlantic white-beaked dolphin that came to socialize and the growing scourge of the coastal zones and even mid-ocean: Mylar birthday balloons.

The dolphin schools were unusually plentiful and unusually playful — treating us to eye contact while they swan around the boat, investigating our dolphin shaped bulb at the bottom of the keel and even offering a full tail fluke slapping salute on the surface of the ocean. No matter how many times you see these beautiful creatures the visits never get old.

On the other hand we’ve never seen so many of those damn balloons. It’s incredible how durable and destructive of the environment these confounded accouterments of the consumer economy are. The kitschy greetings emblazoned on them mock the grandeur of the environment they pollute.

In any event, we made it into New York and during the stopover were treated to an inspiring TedX-type talk by wellness entrepreneurs in the areas of hybrid marine propulsion, autonomous sailing vessels and green cleaning products. The passion of these business people and their elegant blend of profit and mission motivations give true hope for the future.

Leg 2, from New York to Newport, was of course shorter and less eventful.  We saw far fewer commercial fishermen than we did last year — don’t know if that was related to the state of the fisheries, probably. Our transit from Montauk to Point Judith was a real treat: a broad reach with our biggest spinnaker up in 17 to 21 knots of breeze. It’s this type of sailing that erases or at least dulls the memory of all the bad weather and discomfort we experience.

Although it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May there were few pleasure boats out, and the relative isolation of our vessel in these familiar waters had a joyous and melancholy feel to it at the same time.

Newport, the homeport of Pleiad Racing, is always a welcome landfall and we finished off of Fort Adams just after sunset. We think it’s significant that all three of the ports of the Atlantic Cup are situated in estuaries. Their delicate environments and the juxtaposition of environment and commerce existing within perfectly illustrate the balance we as global citizens need to achieve between commerce, conservation and sustainability.

We as sailors don’t believe that those imperatives are mutually exclusive. At the end of the day we make our living or our lives from the sea and recognize that with responsibility comes opportunity.

Ed Cesare is the managing director and co-skipper of Pleiad Racing. For more information about the Atlantic Cup, presented by 11th Hour Racing, click here.

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

Yukon Ho! The proposed Garrahy Judicial Complex parking garage in Providence is estimated to cost $43 million — enough money to build a protected bike lane to Alaska. (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 with Rachel Playe.

Saturday
May102014

Changing Climate Impacting Backyard Gardens

“What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed.”

— Robin Wall Kimmerer

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM/ecoRI News contributor

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.

Providence resident Kathie Florsheim is a frequent contributor to ecoRI News.

Tuesday
Apr292014

RIPTA Riders Want Halt to Kennedy Plaza Redesign

Editor’s note: This letter dated April 28, 2014 was sent to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ office by the RIPTA Riders Alliance.

Dear Mayor Taveras,

The RIPTA Riders Alliance asks you to suspend implementation of the Kennedy Plaza redesign that the city government is considering carrying out within the Downtown Circulator Project. Although the proposed changes to Kennedy Plaza include positives as well as negatives, the impact is especially problematic for Kennedy Plaza’s principal stakeholders: the transit users themselves. The Alliance believes that before this project goes forward, the serious concerns that bus riders have should be dealt with, and measures should be taken to effectively ensure that conditions are not made worse overall for bus riders than they are now. This is especially important now that Rhode Islanders are using bus transit in greater numbers than before.

First, serious disruptions during the period of construction will make it harder to transfer or access the terminal building with all its facilities that riders need. Second, the redesign apparently results in three fewer bus stops at the Kennedy Plaza hub, the most central and vital location in our bus system, unnecessarily reducing space for buses there even as ridership, and thus a need for expanding service, is growing.

Third, the redesign will disperse bus stops so that about 12 different bus lines will board further away from the terminal building, many on the other side of Burnside Park, and thus further away from most transfers, indoor shelter, bathrooms, schedules and information. Park & Rides and intercity buses will also be further away. While a healthy young male may cross through Burnside Park quickly, the elderly, those with a disability, and women alone after dark will have a tougher time. In fact, everyone will face unnecessary difficulties and risks, during periods of bad weather and snowy conditions, if they are made to walk through Burnside Park just to get to their next bus.

The area can’t easily be kept as free of snow as Kennedy Plaza now is with its current snowmelt system, which the project plans to remove in the bus stop areas. Risks of falling in the snow are likely to increase, and past experience makes us question whether funding for snow removal will be adequate into the future. Also, with stops spread over a larger area, adequate funding for security will become a more pressing concern, not just now but in years to come. Riders, and the transit system, are likely to be worse off in the future if Providence doesn’t retain the advantages of the Kennedy Plaza hub that it now has.

Importantly, it’s not clear what benefit the city gets for all this. We hear ambitious talk about remodeling Kennedy Plaza as a pedestrian space shared with buses, but it's by no means clear that funding will be adequate for the plans that have been mentioned, and riders may end up with worse service than now with little gains to the city. The fate of the proposed Heritage Harbor Museum illustrates how such plans can sometimes fall short for lack of funding. People may talk about remodeling the Greater Kennedy Plaza area as a pedestrian environment, but continuing busy auto traffic cutting through this area via Washington Street will detract from any hopes of making a true pedestrian-oriented space.

It makes little sense to worsen conditions in Kennedy Plaza for its primary stakeholders, the bus transit users, just as more people are recognizing the value of transit. Providence residents and other Rhode Islanders have been using transit more because they find it better suited to today's economy, and because mass transit is well placed to help solve our increasingly serious environmental problems. Therefore we ask you to suspend this project until the serious concerns of those who use the Plaza for its primary purpose can be addressed. It may be that the best way to address these concerns is to not go ahead with the project right away and to allow the next mayoral administration to take a fresh look. With such an important project, it's worth taking the time to get it right. The existing situation has problems, but it may well be possible to find ways to spend less money and still improve the current footprint without undue harm to transit passengers.

Thank you for your attention to this issue.

Sincerely,

Barry Schiller
for the RIPTA Riders Alliance
PO Box 28461
Providence, RI 02908

Monday
Apr282014

R.I. Needs Better Mass Transit to Move Millennials

By DANIEL BAUDOUIN and LAURIE WHITE

Recently, Froma Harrop, the Providence Journal’s syndicated newspaper columnist, accurately described the younger generation’s growing use of mass transit (“Mass Transit Service Growing Number of Young and Mobile”). The younger generation seeks out transit much more than their parents’ generation.  As a result of this trend, mass transit is becoming increasingly important to the economic prosperity of metropolitan areas. Why? Because the baby boom echo generations of people in their 20s and 30s (otherwise known as Generation Y or millennials) are about to dominate the labor force.

Varied and accessible transit options are critical to this younger, highly mobile workforce. An Urban Land Institute survey in 2013 found that 63 percent of millennials will likely move within the next five years, and 55 percent prefer areas with public transit options. The metropolitan areas that can attract and retain this generation of workers, particularly creative, entrepreneurial workers, will thrive; those that do not will wither.

Transit investment is being recognized around the country as critical to an area’s future, especially to the economy. For example, the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Saint Paul Area Chamber have designated the substantial increase in regional transit as their No. 1 public policy goal. They state that “business communities around the country have identified robust transit as critical to economic health and growth. We are behind our competitors. If we do not want to continue to lose jobs and talents to other regions, we must speed up our investment.” Despite a low unemployment rate of 4.4 percent, they are worried about their future.

The same situation exists in Rhode Island. We need to invest in mass transit for our future economic vitality. This year, the General Assembly should take the following actions:

Provide adequate and sustainable funding allowing the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to meet the growing demand for transit. RIPTA’s ridership increased nearly 11 percent in the past three years and was just ranked as the seventh-fastest growing ridership in the nation, among large bus agencies.   However, with declining state investment in recent years, RIPTA has been forced to cut service when it is most in demand.

Support the $40,000,000 bond for the intermodal/bus hub at the Amtrak Station in downtown Providence. We can create a 21st-century transportation center that allows for the expansion of buses and rail; for a seamless connection between the two; and for greater passenger amenities.

Our future economic vitality requires a strong transit system. Additionally, the other benefits of transit will be served as well. With increased public transportation, all residents will see the benefits of reduced air pollution and traffic congestion. Those who are able to forgo the cost for car ownership will save a significant amount, estimated by AAA to be an average of $9,150 a year.

Transit investment is a winner; now is the time to act or fall further behind.

Daniel A. Baudouin is the executive director of The Providence Foundation. Laurie White is the president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

Thursday
Apr172014

Keep Earth Day Spirit Alive Every Day

By ROBYN BURNS

On April 22 organizations everywhere will honor Earth Day. The Food Project will lead volunteer groups on our urban farms, and work together to cultivate and tend urban land previously vacant — just like we do throughout the growing season.

As The Food Project’s North Shore urban agriculture manager, I take my role as a steward of the land seriously, and believe that growing food in the city benefits our communities in a number of ways.

Our farms provide more urban green space and are a learning environment for people of all ages to connect to with their food. All of our urban farms host community gardeners, who work alongside myself, other staff and volunteer youth to grow food for family and friends. Additionally, The Food Project distributes our produce via farmers markets, farm shares, hunger relief donations and retail outlets.

For example, the quarter-acre Munroe Street Farm — now in its sixth year — is in the heart of downtown Lynn, across the street from the city’s MBTA station. It’s one of Lynn’s largest community gardens and provides thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables for distribution every year. The farm was built collaboratively by The Food Project’s youth and dedicated volunteers.

This farm is part of the daily fabric of the downtown community. I watch passersby get excited about the young seedlings just planted or stop a “Dirt Crew” member or myself to inquire about how they can buy some of the just-harvested produce. People often lean on the fence or sit alongside the farm as they share fond memories of a garden they have tended in the past. Cars periodically stop in the middle of the street, and a passenger shouts, “Hey, is it too early to plant my tomatoes outside?” (The answer is yes.)

So, as we celebrate Earth Day, let’s not forget that we should be caring for the land every day. Stay involved even after Earth Day ends.

Robyn Burns is the North Shore urban agriculture manager for the Lincoln, Mass.-based The Food Project.

Wednesday
Apr162014

Business Climate Mania in Rhode Island

By GREG GERRITT

Rhode Island is in the economic dumps and its politicians are pledging allegiance to economic growth, pulling out all of the traditional verbiage and a few new buzz words in the never-ending search for faster growth. The traditional methods are to cut taxes, reduce regulation and provide subsidies for those seeking to build or rebuild buildings. It’s announced solemnly at least once a week by a powerful politician that he’s working to get rid of the impediments to business.

By god we shall have a better business climate and be more business friendly. We just have to give tax breaks to billionaires and allow them to pollute. It is American as apple pie. Unfortunately for those of us who have to live with the results of their misguided policies, the expectation of and insistence on economic growth as the promised land is fast becoming a nightmare.

There is a long-term downward trend in the growth rate of old industrial cities and mill towns, and the thrashing around that we now do for growth based on the Business Climate Fantasy is doing much harm, exacerbating climate change and inequality, and breaking down our communities.

The standard measure of the economy is the gross domestic product. GDP simply measures how much money is flowing, not whether anything good is happening. Simon Kuznets, when he developed the methodology in 1934, said it was inappropriate to use it to indicate anything about the general well-being. But it has come to be The Indicator of general well-being, much to our detriment. A big part of the reason it doesn’t reflect what is going on in our communities is that GDP includes a great deal of what Herman Daly calls uneconomic growth; growth that harms communities, people and ecosystems, while transferring more and more wealth to the 1 percent.

The business climate has become iconic in the United States primarily because it has become an ideological tool for radically conservative interests that have dumped millions of dollars into pseudo studies and efforts to publicize the results.

Business climate reports come in two basic formats. One format focuses on tax rates, the lower the rates the better you rank. The other tradition focuses on a broad range of indicators, often including indicators that are both used to determine the index and touted as a result of the index. Not actually good science.

The Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Boston produces one of the more widely used indexes. But according to a University of Kansas School of Business study there is no correlation between the rankings in business climate indexes based on regulations and lifestyles and the economic performance of states. The study found a very weak correlation between lower taxes and a faster growing economy.

The New England example is low-tax New Hampshire riding high in business climate reports and the people’s Republic of Vermont ranking down in the 40s. But Vermont's unemployment rate is a full point below New Hampshire’s and one of the best in the country.

The Tax Foundation, part of the Koch brothers’ right-wing propaganda machine, produces one of the tax rate-oriented business climate reports. The Tax Foundation never met a tax it didn’t want to eliminate, no matter the consequences. Reducing corporate tax rates, all other things being equal, can improve a state's growth rate. Of course, if a tax cut causes you to defer infrastructure work or reduces the quality of your schools, those other things aren’t equal.

The University of Kansas study also notes that other factors, including economic history, such as Rhode Island last being a prime place for industrial development in the 1890s, before the automobile and electricity reshaped industrial locations, are much larger factors in determining growth rates. You can be sure the Tax Foundation has ignored any of the recent work regarding the long-term slowdown of economic growth rates in post-industrial already-urbanized regions and communities.

And I doubt the Tax Foundation has included in its ratings anything related to damaged ecosystems and how they affect the economy.

Better accounting needed
To mirror and counteract the two aspects of the Business Climate Fantasy, efforts to sustain communities have begun reporting on expanded monetary measures of the economy. True cost accounting is an approach in which the damage done is recorded on the negative side of the ledger. In theory you could compare it directly to GDP, getting from one to the other with the simple subtraction of how much damage was done and what it cost to repair. It would monetize the cost of damage to the ecosystem — or at least what are called ecosystem services like water purification, reduced runoff, a livable climate, food — and damage to the health of people and their communities and then subtract from, rather than add to, the economic output. If we used full cost accounting we would already see the global economy in decline rather than growing.

Indexes such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Social Progress Imperative include a variety of measurements to measure well-being. The United States has gone backward in the GPI since 1978, even as the GDP has grown.

Stagnation in the GPI has happened all over the world once countries reach a middle-class per-capita income. Well-being doesn’t continue to rise as environmental damage, industrial disease and the social breakdown that happens as inequality grows, harm communities and economies. Countries in which growth is still moving a large segment of the population out of poverty do see a real rise in the GPI until middle-class status is reached. Then, GPI mostly plateaus even if GDP grows.

Vermont, Maryland and Oregon have officially adopted the GPI as a key state indicator; Rhode Island might consider doing so as well.

Despite zero evidence that business climates have much of an effect on economic growth rates, these rating systems are often used in the call for reduced regulation. These attacks are often general, against all regulations, but many are specifically directed against environmental protections. But beginning with Stephen Meyer in 1991 the case that strong environmental regulations hold back the economy has been soundly refuted. No one has ever demonstrated any correlation or causation that makes the case that environmental protections harm economies.

In fact, while there is no statistically valid relationship, the evidence leans toward stronger environmental regulation being associated with stronger economies, and in a place like Rhode Island with its beaches and agricultural renaissance that is even more obvious.

Enviromentally challenged
At a recent Statehouse hearing regarding a statewide plastic bag ban, Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, said he couldn’t even begin to get his mind around the idea that strong environmental regulations can help an economy.

The senator should read a 2010 report by the Small Business Majority. The 10-page report offers these nuggets:

The Clean Air Act (CAA) has proven to be a very good investment. Studies show that the economic benefits of the law have far exceeded the costs of controlling air pollution emissions. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the total economic benefits of the act are estimated at more than four to eight times the costs of compliance.

The CAA has fostered a long period of economic growth and development by protecting public health and the environment. In the past two decades, emissions of the most common air pollutants have declined by 41 percent, while GDP has increased by 64 percent.

The CAA has spurred important technological innovations, such as catalytic converters, that have helped fuel job growth. The environmental technology industry — spurred by environmental regulations and particularly the Clean Air Act — led to the creation of 1.3 million jobs between 1977 and 1991.

We have known this for years, but still the call goes out that regulations hold us back.

A further refutation of the development model that we are being handed by the business climate is the recent report that restoring coastal ecosystems generates more jobs per dollar invested than offshore oil drilling. Another says solar energy is creating more jobs than fossil fuels these days, even with the fracking boom.

Unfortunately, the real-estate and rip-from-the-earth industries are wedded to anti-regulatory fervor. The United States was founded on real-estate speculation, backed up by armies. George Washington was a surveyor and land developer. Genocide was a tool of the trade. Today we don’t know how to talk about the future of the economy without basing the discussion on where to build.

But the fundamental reason the real-estate industry resists regulations is that people like to live by the water despite the problems this creates. These areas are prone to damage from misuse, and come with high costs when the damage inevitably comes.

When in our lack of wisdom we let people drain and fill, build in the floodplain, pave over the natural sponge, the short-term gains can be large, after all the wetlands are in prime locations, but the long-term troubles are just beginning.

The billion-dollar stormwater infrastructure that we need today in Rhode Island to keep our communities high and dry could have been designed with nature and built in from the beginning of the construction of modern roads and wastewater management systems at a much lower cost. Retrofits are expensive.

People have known how to manage waters since the very beginnings of irrigated agriculture and cities. There have always been some wise people in the community telling us not to push our luck. But the Warwick Mall still ended up underwater in 2010. And how do the people of Oso, Wash., feel knowing that 15 years ago there were reports that stated Oso was at risk of landslides, especially with the bad forestry practices being used on the top of the hill.

Rhode Island will continue to battle with the real-estate industry and its piles of cash and well-paid lobbyists despite clear knowledge that the foundation of the Ocean State economy is clean water and healthy ecosystems — not subdivisions and malls in wetlands or along the coast.

Lower taxes might speed up growth in an economy a tiny bit, other things being equal. But if your schools are bad due to underfunding, if your roads have potholes, if the buses don’t get people to work, if the beaches are polluted, if kids are going hungry, the other things aren’t equal. So what do we gain? More expensive prisons filled with the underclass? More kids sick with asthma? All we have demonstrated is that the powerful can shift costs from themselves to the less powerful and call it increased profits and economic growth.

We see this clearly in the increases in wealth at the top and the growing impoverishment of the American people. Rising inequality undercuts the economy and society, so one might think that it would be good public policy to reduce inequality if one wants to have prosperity. But the business climate approach, with lower taxes for the wealthy, less community investment, bigger holes in the safety net, more expensive health care and increased ecological harm continues to chug forward.

Rhode Island’s plan
Current Rhode Island strategy appears to be based on a few things. Much has been made of the creative-class work of Richard Florida, and how attracting the creative class is a great strategy for growth. But more recent work seems to disprove that idea. Meds and Higher Ed are high on the list of what the ruling class in Rhode Island want, though both are industries that rely on ever-higher fees for services. Student loans are burdening an entire generation. Medical costs are the leading cause of bankruptcies, something unknown in single-payer countries.

The rest of the state’s public economic development strategy seems to depend upon real-estate speculation, specifically with the I-195 land. One problem with real estate is that the rent is still too damn high and this kind of development only drives up prices. One way the growth of inequality has played out in Rhode Island is that rents are too high for the wages paid.

The last time Rhode Island lawmakers decided to jump-start growth the FIRE industries — finance, insurance and real estate — were getting all the love, until they burned down the economy in 2008.

What we can do
We can all shoot ideological arrows, but the real concern is prosperous communities. So just what should Rhode Island do to achieve a wide and sustainable prosperity? First we need to understand current conditions, one of which is that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

It has been hypothesized based on long-term trends that we may be at the end of rapid economic growth. Rapid economic growth is rare in the historical record, and it may be that rapid (2 percent and up) growth is dependent upon a specific set of conditions. There are those who believe new technologies are unlikely to be as earth shattering as the automobile, the railroad, and the technologies of mass production and communication. That set off the rapid growth spurt in the industrialized world from 1870 to 1973. Since then, growth rates in older industrial communities has gone down and so far the information technology revolution seems more likely to make jobs disappear than expand.

Immanuel Wallerstein has suggested that two of the most critical factors necessary for rapid economic growth in industrial economies are the appropriation and harvesting of forests, and rapid migration to cities by those previously living in the forests or on farms. This pattern is worldwide, and China is the latest example. China long ago ran out of much of its forests, but it has driven deforestation across southern Asia to the point where the limits and stronger pushback are being reached. In Indonesia and Cambodia forest communities are resisting.

China also now has more than 50 percent of its population in its cities. Given this deforestation and urbanization we are predictably seeing a slow down in the rate of growth in the Chinese economy. Thankfully, the Chinese government seems to understand some of this and is slowly abandoning its obsession with GDPism.

Rhode Island is among the earliest entrants to the post-industrial phase, and therefore is farther along the flattening curve. Acknowledging the long-term growth slowdown should encourage us to explore different strategies for developing prosperous communities rather than holding fast to the ideology that the 1 percent need more profits.

Rhode Island had a chance to get it right with the RhodeMap RI process, but it squandered that opportunity by specifically focusing on getting more growth, and the Department of Administration worked hard to exclude information on conditions that might lead us toward beginning a more equitable shrinkage toward prosperity.

In many ways RhodeMap was a wasted expenditure and effort, as the public outreach was based on materials that wouldn’t acknowledge that the world has changed. Predictably, attendance at RhodeMap events dwindled as it went along.

Accentuate the positive
These days everyone is talking about the “green” economy. Mostly the talk is about clean energy, green manufacturing, management of water, and reducing, reusing and recycling. All of these things are necessary but not sufficient to bring prosperity. We should definitely move rapidly to a clean-energy system and manage our stormwater better. We should use less, recycle more and compost all organics.

The only survivable future is a green one. Period. But it can’t be just a high-tech green future. It also needs to be a healthy future for those people still excluded from the benefits of American life. The rich, the powerful and the highly educated (except for the young highly educated) are getting by. They don’t need to be the recipient of economic development subsidies or action. It is economic development for the rest of us, and especially in our lower-income neighborhoods, that needs to be at the heart of our public policy and the focus of our efforts, not some real-estate speculator asking for a subsidy for the Superman building.

For that reason I want to explore what we might want to consider in lower-income neighborhoods based on what we have learned about economic development in tropical forests.

I offer to you a World Bank study on what works in economic development in forest communities. Forest communities in the tropics are among the most marginalized, disenfranchised and disempowered communities on the planet.  About 1 billion people rely on wild forest products for at least part of their livelihoods, and several hundred million live in the forest.

Those living in or near healthy forests may have little money, but they are reasonably well fed. When people lose access to the forest their economy and nutritional status plummet. The World Bank reviewed its own work to figure out what gave the best outcomes — the win for the community, win for the forest and the win for the national economy and tax revenues. They discovered it was pretty simple: protect the forests.

The digression to tropic forests is important because the neighborhoods in Rhode Island that are the most marginalized, disempowered and disenfranchised face similar situations to what forest people in the tropics are facing, and the solutions that we might ponder are along the same lines. The issue comes down to who controls the land.

In forests the people being pushed out have lived there for generations and have made a living there for a long time. Nation states tend not to recognize these traditional owners, but there really is no one else who has any legitimate claim.  Low-income communities, environmental justice communities, in Rhode Island have never owned the economically important land in places like Olneyville. The river valleys were industrialized early on and the workers, and now the immigrants facing toxic legacies with little of an industrial economy hanging on, face large brownfields owned by outside entities. Development of brownfields occasionally is turned toward creating community assets, but more often the one tangible asset available to the community is simply gentrified, forcing many to move on.

If we were serious about economic development that enhanced life in our low-income communities the model the World Bank offers is exactly the one we would follow. Make sure outsiders don’t get to suck up all of the benefits of projects, no displacement of the poor, give the community a voice and a vote, and use the land to create jobs that the people in the neighborhood can fill.

This way doesn’t fill the pockets of the 1 percent and doesn’t support those who view a high-tech future as the way to go. But if we look carefully at the trends, if we want to reduce inequality and green our society, economic democracy is the path we must take.

Providence resident Greg Gerritt is a frequent contributor to ecoRI News and the founder of the think tank Prosperity for Rhode Island.

Tuesday
Apr082014

URI Thinks Big Like General Motors

By THOMAS-ANTHONY VISCONE and NOEL RIX

KINGSTON, R.I. — The University of Rhode Island’s slogan is “Think Big, We Do,” but when the URI Foundation was faced with the choice to divest from fossil fuels or not, it chose to think small. Thinking big is a great concept, but acting on thoughts is how things get done. URI has done a lot of thinking and not much acting.

And that inaction has serious consequences. In an image-driven world it’s self-defeating to look like hypocrites to the public by refusing to abandon a destructive investment policy that contributes to climate change problems. Also, the current investment policy apparently isn’t working well, as increased tuition costs are approaching crisis levels. Bit investing in the future is always where the growth is.

URI has excellent marine biology and environmental programs, with a central focus on research. URI claims, in its own words, to be “a leader in educating the public about climate change,” but continues to invests in fossil fuels. What’s more, with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and meetings in Japan yielding a new wave of upcoming regulations with an overall “crackdown on fossil fuels,” it seems the URI Foundation has chosen to stay with its regressive investment policies — like the path chosen by General Motors, which recently recalled 6.5 million vehicles because the company ignored its own research.

URI portrays itself as a leader in preparing students to face the demands of a changing climate with careers in jobs that mitigate global warming by developing renewable, sustainable technologies. This idea is nothing short of ludicrous.

What recently happened to General Motors will end up costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars, has further tarnished its already-beleaguered image and undermined consumer confidence. Why would URI follow this example of poor judgement and backward thinking?

Investing in renewable energy practices and divesting from increasingly expensive fossil fuels is smart, forward-looking and consistent with URI's sustainable policies.

Actions speak louder than slogans, and it’s time the URI Foundation brings its investment strategies in line with the values of the university.

Perhaps a fresh look at investment policies that have an eye on the future and are in tune with the reality of a changing climate will lead to a more profitable portfolio so tuition costs could be reduced — that would be a real win-win situation.

Thomas-Anthony Viscone is a student at the University of Rhode Island and Noel Rix is a student at Roger Williams University.