A Response to the Closing Keynote: Rising Water Is Not Wicked

Planners should think differently about what John Englander said in the closing session at our conference last week in Phoenix.

He pronounced sea level rise to be a wicked problem. To planners, though, it is not, nor is climate change in general. Planners understand change management. While these are very big problems, they do not qualify as wicked. That term, coined by Melvin Webber and Horst Rittel at Berkeley in 1973, meant problems “that defied ready solution by the straightforward application of scientific rationality.”[i] Because urban planners deal with change every day, we know what to do about issues of climate and sea level rise: adapt.

Is the problem too big for adaptation? No. Does it require huge political will? Yes. Will it entail great human adjustment and financial sacrifice? Absolutely.

Importantly, climate change has a variety of effects on agriculture, habitat, storms, water supplies and the oceans. John Englander drew particular attention to sea level rise.

Englander’s prescription for our urban planning profession was valid and reasonable. He told us to aim for 30-year plans, and he had reasons for picking that number. He implied it has to do with financing and the concept of long-term borrowing for current benefit, a notion familiar to planners and economists.

But more so, the adaptation question is about disruption. How much disruption can society tolerate? Think first about individual disruption. Individually and in families, we are marvelously resilient. Collectively, maybe less so. Bad things happen. We don’t demand 100 percent safety; we take risks. What’s the worst that can happen? Premature death. Last year around 800,000 US citizens died prematurely from the four top disease causes, cancer being the greatest. About 100,000 deaths were due to unintentional accidents, with 30 percent of those due to motor vehicle crashes. Many of these premature deaths were to wage earners, terminating family support and causing economic upheaval in addition to human misery. What’s the level of disruption and suffering? I recall from my small hometown in Iowa a bad car accident many years ago that killed both parents of three injured children. What happened to the lives of those kids without their mom and dad? Does it make any difference that we have 30,000 separate car crashes versus one industrial accident that kills 30,000 people, including parents of young children? Is the suffering any worse in big disasters versus small? How hard would we work to lessen these incidents? Does our collective civil society react differently to one than the other? Collectively, we mandated seat belts, air bags and better vehicle engineering. Together, we invest in medical science. The result: our nation’s rate of premature death has been reduced 50 percent over the past century. Big spending brought about big change. Does this prepare us to rationalize spending on climate change adaptation?

A lesser level of upset is dislocation but it, too, is disruptive. Can we tolerate it? During the Dust Bowl, more than three million people moved out of the Plaines states. In economic terms, many of them “lost everything” and had to “start over.” It was an era complicated by the Great Depression with unemployment rates around 30 percent. At times, 500,000 people were made homeless by dust storms. Abject poverty and the attendant suffering by families and individuals were immense. They bit the bullet and moved away from vulnerable lands. To some that meant a new career in a strange place, quite disruptive.

In modern-day America, we do have wicked problems. The precipitous socioeconomic decline of places such as Ferguson, Missouri, studied by the Brookings Institution, seems to be without workable fixes. [ii] Expenditures for more than 50 years via CDBG have addressed many problems across the US but found no magic bullet. The other kinds of bullets bring us frightening murder rates in badly broken neighborhoods. Premature deaths caused by murder in the U.S. total about 15,000 per year, about half as many as auto accidents. Murder rates vary widely by community, highly correleated to socioeconomic disparities, a form of health crisis. Yet in recent decades we have largely overcome the Meis van der Rohe influence in public housing, revitalizing major pieces of inner city decay, another very expensive remedy. Socioeconomic disparities and urban blight come with complexities such that Webber and Rittle would probably let us claim wickedness is present, with no “straightforward application of scientific rationality” at hand. Fortunately, we understand climate change better.

If we had to adapt, what exactly would we do? Rising water is not a big deal if we have time to work the problem. John Englander says it’s not an emergency, and he’s right. Can we be bold? There are two ways to move, vertically and horizontally. After a 1900 hurricane hit Galveston, killing over 6,000 people, the city moved up not out. Circumstances were far from normal; pain and misery of all kinds. Drastic actions were needed. For example, the deaths, devastation and limited outside assistance caused community leaders to construct funeral pyres on Galveston’s beach. Imagine the scene, the needed adjustment in thinking, the individual resilience expected of the survivors. Motivation for change management was high. Civic leaders knew it would be foolish to hope there would be no future storms. In spite of having only 1900s technology, a hardened 17-foot seawall was built, over three miles in length. More impressive perhaps, city government was reorganized and the decision was made to raise the city behind the seawall, streets and buildings, both. Over 2,100 buildings were raised, including the 3,000-ton St. Patrick’s Church. Completed by 1904, it allowed Galveston to withstand another major hurricane in 1915. Gradually the length of the seawall was extended to 10 miles over the next 50 years.

Have other cities been raised? Of course. The old-fashioned way. Beginning in 1855, Chicago raised its streets and buildings to get out of the mud, motivated by a combination of transportation and public health problems, jacking the city upward by as much as 14 feet in a project that took 20 years, at times requiring as many as 6,000 screw jacks. While the cost was high, the need was greater. In 1854, cholera killed over 1,400 city residents. Chicago moved up. The six-story Tremont Hotel was lifted while guests stayed in their rooms. “One guest was surprised to find that windows that had been at eye level when he checked in were over his head when he checked out.”[iii] Sacramento did the same in the 1860s. Surely, a few decades later Galveston leaders were aware of transformation in Chicago and Sacramento when they faced their own mitigation challenge.

For areas of tall structures the option may include raising the street but not the building, converting the first floor to floodproofed basement uses. Such examples exist in many cities, including Chicago and Sacramento, where some such conversions begun over 150 years ago are still in use.

Can we be motivated to change? Can we insure against loss? Can we manage our risks? The evidence is quite convincing but instances of failure to take reasonable measures are very alarming. It may be difficult to keep up with the pace of climate change, even on a 30-year rolling schedule. Long-term progress against other kinds of hazards is steady, however. One of our biggest worries used to be urban fires. Worldwide, fire losses still equal about 1 percent of global GDP. We learned from conflagration, those extreme fires in the 1800s, leading to mandates for brick buildings and fireproofing, both very bold and expensive remedies. In the US, urban fire losses continue to decline, having dropped nearly 60 percent in the past 50 years because we invest still in stronger buildings and technology such as sprinklers and smoke alarms. Fire insurance rates incentivize better water supplies for fighting fires. Flood insurance rates incentivize smarter planning for flood hazard areas. Municipal finance directors are using more sophisticated tools of risk management, in concert with planners, causing growing interest in resilience and sustainability, pushed even by bond rating agencies. Bonds have been used in places such as Tulsa, Grand Forks and Cedar Rapids to invest strategically in astounding transformations that lessen disaster risk via creative acquisition and redevelopment — a source of great pride and civic enthusiasm in those three cities.

Planners need to become more conversant on the applicability of those routine processes to these new challenges. We need to tell each other what works. Each of us needs to look in new ways at how our particular specialty fits into the big picture, whether zoning, economic development, housing, health or transportation. Climate change can be considered by all 21 of our APA divisions and all 47 of our chapters. Large scale redevelopment and other bold moves should tap the talent of all planners, not just specialists in adaptation, sustainability or resilience. This will take an active dialog within APA to figure out — moving from the general to the specific, things that can be implemented at the community level, blending the involvement of elected officials and advisory groups, bolstered by cost-benefit calculations. Some of us will come from the regulatory side, some from the community development side, partnering with engineers and design professionals. Integration is the essence of what urban planners do, building an actionable agenda from among many competing priorities in local government. Our everyday work involves these essential ingredients. Planners practice rigorous plan development based on analysis, assembling the business case so that we can get crucial support from budget managers and executives. We are the experts about strategy that includes regulation, public participation, growth management, capital improvement programs, measures for environmental justice and incentives for economic development. The totality fits the planning profession, not some specialty called “climate change adaptor.”

Planners employ tools that facilitate change. One regulatory category deals with nonconforming uses. In zoning we apply amortization concepts to bring about conformance, allowing time for owners to recoup investments. In land acquisition for such things as parks, we sometimes grant “life estates” to let sellers occupy residences for the remainder of their lives. With organizations such as Nature Conservancy, we embark on long-term strategies to preserve crucial habitat with tax incentives and conservation easements, often a win-win for owners and the public interest, mitigation included. In urban redevelopment, creative financial mechanisms and tax increments make possible sizable public-private ventures. We are not without ways to convert improbable solutions into feasibility. Partners such as bond attorneys and Wall Street are part of the answer. If we have 30 years to adapt, big ideas need not be taken off the table, but we will have to harness resources in extraordinary ways, with levels of ambition seldom employed. In truth, we ourselves need to change.

Figuring out a big urban or regional initiative is the business of planners but we never do it in isolation. Our partners are engineers, attorneys, architects, landscape architects, economists, agronomists, geologists and others — as illustrated by the bold ideas coming out of the Rebuild By Design program in New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. Our largest city, New York, is actively planning what to do about sea level rise. One of our most vulnerable states, Louisiana, has likewise embarked on a multi-billion dollar scheme under the auspices of its Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. California probably leads the way with mandates that community plans deal with climate change adaptation. At regional scales, other kinds of change are possible but almost inconceivable if certain areas of the US become too hot or too dry for crops we typically produce, or so wet that mudslides such as the one near Oso, Washington, put whole towns at risk.

It will not be easy. The problem is not evenly distributed. Globally, some nations have it far worse than we do. Caring for the Florida Keys will be especially difficult, as Englander explained. Expensive projects pose risks of career ending blunders, so we need courage, too. Extremely costly projects are usually financed in creative ways. Attorneys can help. APA’s Planning and Law Division produced a newsletter article about “property assessed clean energy” as a very innovative mechanism by which planners can incentivize environmentally beneficial projects. Members of our Transportation Planning Division routinely strategize about the combination of environmental standards and massive infrastructure investments. Under the Clean Water Act, engineers and planners have organized thousands of infrastructure projects to the tune of over $100 billion in the past 40 years or so, significantly upgrading stream quality. Many of our current tools can be transformed to plans for adapting to sea level rise but we will need to ask others for advice along the way because the job will be huge. Will it be so big that societal attitudes will change with us? Perhaps. Think about photos from the early part of the last century, images of our learning experiences, such as signs on the sides of hotels and movie theaters announcing: “Fireproof.” At that time in our history, customers were fearful of fire, aware of tragic losses in large buildings, thus influencing business owners to take precautions and then advertise to potential patrons that the hazard had been addressed, many the result of local codes and standards. Maybe we can sell a new brand of “safe community” the same way.

Planners will do what? Let planners work on this? Big ambitions for a national program?

It’s been done before.

Look back to HUD 701. EPA 408. USACE 404. CERCLA 104. CEQ and NEPA. OMB A-95. Only partly in jest, maybe we need a NOAA 996 for sea level rise. EPA’s brownfields program has encouraged redevelopment planning where possible, potentially a useful model in some places that need to adapt to climate change.

The point here is not to imply a policy prescription. The literature on climate change and resilience has plenty of that. Rather, this is about how planners should react when science gives us a warning and we think we know how to work toward a solution, applying our standard skills and practices to a new challenge, in concert with our trusted partners. In all likelihood, we can translate familiar methods to new work on climate change adaptation.

How do we choose the right path? How should planners find balance, seeking a vantage point from which to scheme wisely about the scope of climate considerations for our clients, our communities—how to go about modifying our comprehensive plans? John Englander takes the long view and speaks in terms catastrophic ice melt in a warm scenario, but he urges us as planners to focus on the medium-term predictions. Our problem is that the immediate term is fraught with floodplain problems. We already have increasing frequency of disasters, from which recovery is slow and with big disparities, hurting vulnerable populations most. We already face the dilemma of false starts on flood insurance reform, yet a disproportionate chunk of our population (40 percent) chooses to live in counties with coastlines. After Hurricane Sandy, one think tank produced an article suggesting good examples to build upon, such as buyouts of nearly 4,000 flood prone properties in Missouri.[iv] In recent history we’ve bought about 40,000 properties nationwide and still our remaining flood risk, in today’s climate, is very high. Does that number need to be doubled, even quadrupled? Are massive seawalls along rivers and coastlines the better answer? Should we move our coastal populations into high-rises perched on bulkheads, a solution already suggested for parts of Staten Island. Our researcher friends in universities are trying to help us decide. Nearly every college in the nation now has a unit under the heading of climate change or resilience. Clearer answers will be forthcoming—helping us deal with what may prove to be our most complex urban planning challenge or the one with the biggest price tag. There is no option to ignore the assignment. The only viable solutions will be those that end up being embedded in new iterations of municipal, county and regional comprehensive plans. We can’t hand it off to engineers or emergency managers. For us this is a big problem yet a manageable one.

John Englander gave a good speech. He issued good marching orders for us. He just didn’t realize how we’ll go about it. We know we can deal rationally with climate change and sea level rise. These are perplexing problems but not wicked ones.

For Englander and other earth scientists, planners should explain how we apply planning principles to hazardous areas and why we appreciate the advice of scientists. For ourselves, we should agree that hazard mitigation strategies to grapple with climate change will be expensive but justifiable, not generally fraught with unsolvable problems. If we don’t, the historians from Chicago, Sacramento, and Galveston — and our contemporaries in Tulsa, Grand Forks, Cedar Rapids and other successful change managers — will admonish us and the cities and counties where we work: “Been there. Done that. Get busy. Pay up. Deal with it. No whining.”


[i] “Melvin. M. Webber.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melvin_M._Webber. Wicked problems defined by Webber and Rittle in the famous 1973 article were quite varied, 10 characteristics in all, virtually the whole field of urban and regional planning. For purposes of this comment on John Englander’s presentation, the narrower concept is used from the Wikipedia reference: a type of problem “that defied ready solution by the straightforward application of scientific rationality.”

[ii] Kneebone, Elizabeth. 2014, August 12. Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty. Brookings Institution Blog –The Avenue, Rethinking Metropolitan America, Retrieved from www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2014/08/15-ferguson-suburban-poverty

[iii] Grossman, Ron. 2015.  "Raising Chicago out of the mud." November 19. The Chicago Tribune, retrieved from www.chicagotribune.com/.  See www.chicagotribune.com/news/history/ct-raising-chicago-streets-flashback-1122-jm-20151118-story.html

[iv] “Moving out of Harm’s Way” Center for American Progress, December 12, 2013. Retrieved from www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/report/2013/12/12/81046/moving-out-of-harms-way/.

About the Author

Barry Hokanson, AICP, serves as chair of APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division but is writing here as an individual APA member, not representing the division.

April 20, 2016

By J. Barry Hokanson, AICP