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Law/Urban Planning/Georgia

A Meaningful Meeting About Meaningful Things

From The Georgia Supreme Court. If your neighbor submitted an application to rezone their property would you want to know about it? Would you want to be a given a chance to make objections to your elected officials? Georgia law requires affected landowners and interested citizens be given a chance to be heard when a fellow citizen has submitted a rezoning application.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that not only do people need to be made aware of rezoning applications, but they have to be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard on the proposed zoning changes. In other words, you can’t do what Pickens County did: allow citizens to voice complaints to the planning commission during a hearing, then have the planning commission submit a short, 1-page memo on the hearing (excluding details of the complaints) to the board of commissioners, and then have the board of commissioners approve the zoning change in an unadvertised hearing several months later. This, the court said, is hardly a meaningful opportunity to be heard since only elected officials (the board of commissioners, not the planning commission) can approve of zoning changes.


Where the Sidewalk Ends

From Daily ReporterAtlanta is being sued for failing to comply with a 2009 settlement agreement it entered into with the US Department of Justice over its crumbling sidewalks. In the agreement, Atlanta is required to make necessary repairs in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit alleges that the city has done very little in the 9 years that have elapsed. A 2010 audit found that 18 percent of the city’s sidewalks and 15,000 intersections were in such disrepair that they were inaccessible to people with disabilities. A 2016 audit found that less than 5 percent of those sidewalks and intersections had been repaired.

The lawsuit was announced with Mercedes Benz stadium as the backdrop. The city was able to spend millions on a new stadium and pedestrian walkway, but has allegedly done very little to improve infrastructure for those in need. We talk about this with transit frequently – you can’t just build the big projects. You have to invest in the supplementary infrastructure, such as sidewalks, in order to make those big projects work. This is particularly troubling since we’re talking about basic infrastructure necessary for people with disabilities to get around and not simply wider or better sidewalks.

Sidewalk repairs in Midtown. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta



Federal Court to EPA: Turnover Documents Backing Up Climate Change Claims

From Scientific AmericanEPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has long claimed that humans are not the primary contributors of climate change. A Freedom of Information Act request was given to the EPA back in 2017 for documents related to the science behind this assertion and so far the agency has refused to turn over anything. Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the EPA to produce all relevant documents.

This comes in the wake of several other high-profile cases where those denying climate change or those denying the human contribution to climate change are being forced to produce actual evidence supporting their claims. Unlike the campaign trail or cable news, courts require actual evidence to support claims. While those asserting that climate change is not happening or that humans have contributed nothing to climate change may be able to convince certain voters, they are increasingly finding resistance in the federal rules of evidence and procedure. They’re also finding resistance from insurance companies, shareholders, and investors. An actuary in an insurance company likely isn’t going to be swayed by a tweet from a politician doubting climate change when their job depends on accurately assessing risk; a task that requires looking at actual data and evidence.

A recent study released by the international insurer Zurich Insurance Group, found that the best way to spend disaster-related money is not in cleanup costs and protective structures, but in environmental protection. It turns out (and who knew?), wetlands, forests, and barrier islands are irreplaceable in mitigating disaster-related damage. From a business and financial-perspective, it’s a better use of money to protect the environment than to spend money cleaning up damage or retrofitting buildings. As we referenced in a previous post, Philadelphia learned that planting trees is a significantly more cost-effective way of dealing with flooding than building massive concrete structures.

Perhaps one political party is right: government should be run more like a business. The name of that party, though, is becoming harder to identify.


Is it Hotter or Colder Than Normal in Atlanta?

We have a new tool that tracks and puts into historical context the daily and monthly weather in Atlanta. The charts on the right (desktop) or below this article (mobile) show basic temperature data including the high and low for the day, the record high and low for today, the average temperature today, and the normal average temperature for today. Records go back to 1930, the first year data was recorded at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. NOAA determines the normal temperature for the day based on recorded temperatures between 1980 and 2010. All of this information is updated on an hourly basis.

The second chart shows the temperature that must be reached each day for the current month to be the warmest or coldest on record (again, back to 1930). For instance, based on the average temperature from June 1 to June 3, the average temperature on June 4 needs to be at least 100.2°F for June 1-4, 2018 to be the warmest June 1-4 on record; but, it needs to be no greater than 1.4°F for June 1-4, 2018 to be the coldest on record. These numbers may get even more extreme. For instance, May temperatures were so far above normal that on May 31 the average temperature could be no greater than -215°F for May 2018 to be the coldest May on record. However, the average temperature only needed to reach 77.5°F on May 31 for May 2018 to be the warmest May on record (it reached 79°F and May 2018 was the warmest May on record).

The last chart shows how temperatures up to this point in the month compare to temperatures in previous years. On June 3 the chart said “So far, this month is the 14th warmest June on record”. This means that the average temperature in Atlanta from June 1 to June 3, 2018 was the 14th warmest June 1 to June 3 on record. This information will also update on an hourly basis, so the ranking may change throughout the day as temperatures increase or decrease.


Paul Newman Talks Zoning, Destroys Shadows

From YoutubeIn a video from the 1980’s, Paul Newman explains why New York City’s zoning revisions allowing taller buildings is bad for residents of the Upper East Side. The major complaint, and one we continue to hear today, is that taller buildings upend the human-scale of neighborhoods while casting large shadows over streets and apartments. As Newman states, “[tall buildings] reduce the play of sunlight on the street, which invites people out of their homes to enjoy the outdoors.” Wise words from a wise man. We need taller buildings to provide more affordable housing units, but through creative zoning regulations they can be built in ways that don’t suck the energy and light from neighborhoods.

Housing/Urban Planning

Ignoring Historical Rules, Baby Boomers Join in the Renting Craze

From The Washington PostBaby boomers are one of the fastest growing groups of renters, bucking the historical rule that says you must rent, buy a starter home, buy a better home, and so on. The main attraction in renting for older generations and younger generations alike is mobility. While older generations aren’t necessarily moving into downtown areas like millennials, they are opting for town centers and more urban areas in traditional suburban communities. Renting adds the additional benefit for older generations of providing community and eliminating maintenance and yard work.

Moreland Avenue, Atlanta. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta


US Supreme Court Strikes a Major Blow to Employees

From ScotusBlogThis will sound boring, but it’s important for both employees and consumers (aka everyone). Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that under the National Labor Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act, employers can mandate in employment contracts that employees arbitrate claims against employers on an individual basis. Meaning they can’t join a class-action suit against the employer or arbitrate a claim against the employer along with other aggrieved employees. We’re highlighting this because our recent article about tenant’s losing again in court hit on the larger issue of consumers routinely being prohibited from exercising their rights to sue in court.

If an employer improperly withheld $20 from you paycheck every month, your total damages against the employer may only amount to a few hundred dollars. This may not be a large enough sum to warrant your (or a lawyer’s) time, effort, or money in arbitrating or suing to get your money. Without federal or state regulators enforcing regulations to prevent or rectify unlawful acts, you essentially have no remedy. But, if the employer was withholding money from all their employees then all the employees could get together, hire a lawyer, and sue or arbitrate the claim together. This is a much more attractive case for both lawyers and employees. You can imagine a similar scenario playing out between banks and consumers, internet providers and consumers, etc.

The US Supreme Court, though, said that employers are free to include in their employment contracts clauses that prohibit employees from banding together to arbitrate their claims. The good news is that the ruling was based on statutory interpretation grounds and not on constitutional grounds, so Congress is free to amend federal statutes to make clear that employers are not allowed to include such clauses in their contracts.

Cover Photo Credit: Gryffindor via Wikipedia


Roanoke is Betting Big on Beer

From GoverningLots of cities, including Atlanta, have seen beer-related investment soar over the past several years with new breweries, craft beer shops, and beer-conscious restaurants acting as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization. Roanoke, though, is taking it to a new level by incorporating beer into their official economic sustainability platform. In Athens, the Creature Comforts brewery infused life into a sleepier and less-traveled portion of the downtown area.

Roanoke, VA. Image Credit: Joe Ravi


All the Transit Money Can Buy

From The AJC. MARTA recently released its plan for using the money generated by the new transit sales tax. Many Beltline enthusiasts are less-than-pleased with the result, as the plan calls for much of the funds to be used on other projects. Ryan Gravel, the architect of the Beltline, as long stated that light-rail is a critical component of the project since it was designed to move people around the city quickly. In order for the Beltline to realize its intended purpose, transit must accompany the walking/biking path. The city and region, though, need transit in other areas as well as on the Beltline.

In order for transit to really be effective, we need to increase density in the areas that will soon be served by light rail and bus rapid transit. The Clifton Road light rail project that has long excited northeast Atlanta needs to be accompanied by greater density. That perhaps could be the greatest struggle as many who generally support transit often don’t support the density around their homes that must come with the transit.

Atlanta Streetcar. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta


California to Require Solar Panels on All New Homes

From VoxThe California Energy Commission voted to require all residential buildings up to three stories to have solar panels starting in 2020. Vox provided a nice article on the pros and cons of this policy. While rooftop solar panels are one of the most expensive ways of reaching emission targets, they may force utility companies to make the changes they’ve needed to make for decades.


Panel installation on Edwards Air Force Base. Image Credit: US Air Force.


Housing Crisis? What Housing Crisis?

From The ConversationProfessor Alex Schwartz takes a look at the proposed reforms to how the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helps low-income Americans pay for housing. The proposed changes would be startling in any context, but they are particularly starting given the housing crisis occurring in most major cities. The real estate industry and policy makers have long considered housing to be affordable when it doesn’t surpass 30 percent of one’s income. That number is used for both rent and obtaining a mortgage. Accordingly, the federal government has used that number as the assistance threshold: housing recipients are generally required to pay up to 30 percent of their income on housing. Given the substantially debt almost every graduate of a public school has in America, 30 percent may be too high even for relatively well-off people let alone those living in poverty.

The policy reforms would increase rents for subsidized Americans from 30 percent to 35 percent. Those who earn less than $2,000 a year and pay the minimum $50 in rent would see their rent increase to $150 a month – an entire year’s income for those earning $1800. Elderly and disabled people would still have their rents capped at 30 percent of their incomes, but their incomes would no longer be adjusted for medical and childcare costs so the effective cost of housing would be much higher.

Remember, this comes at a time when we are in a major housing crisis. More than half of renters spend more than the 30 percent of their income on rent while a quarter spend more than 50 percent. Among very low-income renters, 83 percent spend more than the half of their income on rent. In only 12 counties across the country could someone earning the minimum wage actually afford a market value apartment based on the 30 percent affordability threshold.

New higher-end apartments in Atlanta. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta



Sweden Introduces Electrified Roads

From The GuardianA 1.2 mile stretch of roadway in Sweden is now fully equipped to charge electric vehicles as they drive. While newer models of electric vehicles have longer ranges than previous models, the major drawback for such vehicles has always been the inability to drive as far as gasoline-powered vehicles between charges/fill-ups. It also takes several hours to charge an electric vehicle to full capacity. The new roadway technology means cars can travel much longer distances without having to re-charge. This also means batteries do not need to be nearly as large, which lowers costs. Of course, the electricity used to power the cars must come from renewable sources for there to be any widespread environmental benefit.

Stockholm in the rain. Image Credit: Lex Kravetski


How to Find an Industrial Prehuman Civilization

From Scientific AmericanWhile many are looking for life and civilizations on other planets, some are focusing on Earth for signs of past, prehuman, civilizations. “Consider our own industrial age, which has only existed for about 300 years out of a multimillion-year history of humanity. Now compare that minuscule slice of time with the half-billion years or so that creatures have lived on land. Humanity’s present rapacious phase of fossil fuel use and environmental degradation, Frank says, is unsustainable for long periods. In time it will diminish either by human choice or by the force of nature, making the Anthropocene less of an enduring era and more of a blip in the geologic record. “Maybe [civilization like ours] has happened multiple times, but if they each only last 300 years, no one would ever see it,” Frank says.”

New Orleans is a sinking city, which means it’s more likely to become part of the geologic record. San Francisco, on the other hand, is rising which makes evidence of its existence more susceptible to being erased by erosion. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta

Urban Design

As Walking and Cycling Increases, So Do Hit-And-Run Incidents

From The Wall Street Journal (paywall) and AAAThe number of hit-and-run incidents has increased at a rate of 7.2 percent per year since 2009. The authors of a recent study done by AAA say this is largely due to increasing numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. In 2016, there were 1,980 hit-and-run crashes and almost 1,400 of those involved non-vehicle occupants (aka pedestrians and cyclists). Southern and western states generally had the most hit-and-run fatalities per 100,000 people.

The study is full of interesting data points, but the most interesting points might be those related to methods used to deter hit-and-run crashes. Studies have found that increasing penalties have no effect on hit-and-run crashes. A study out of California showed that hit-and-run crashes decreased once legislation was passed allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. There was little mention of how we could improve roadways, particularly in urban areas, to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The study was done by AAA, though, and AAA has a strong financial incentive to get more people driving since they’re in the business of offering driver-related services. Urban and street design that favors, or at the very least takes into account, pedestrians and cyclists could lead to fewer drivers, which might not be great for AAA.

Miami’s Brickell District. Image Credit: SustainAtlanta


President Trump’s Environmental Policies Are Widely Unpopular

From The Hill and Change Research. A recent poll done by Change Research found that by fairly significant margins, Americans oppose President Trump’s environmental policies, but they are split on whether cutting the National Weather Service’s budget puts the country at risk. You should keep in mind that Change Research is considered a left-leaning organization and 41 percent of respondents identified as Democrats while 33 percent identified as Republicans (other polls show that 44 percent of Americans identify as Democrats and 37 percent identify as Republicans). However, 47 percent said they voted for Mr. Trump while 49 percent said they voted for Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 election (Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote 48.2 percent to 46.1 percent). Forty-six percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Mr. Trump while 54 percent had an unfavorable view. This compares to FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls showing 40 percent of the country approves of Mr. Trump. So while the study was done by a left-leaning group, respondents in the study had a more favorable view of Mr. Trump than in almost every other poll.

The poll by Change Research shows that only 36 percent of respondents approve of Mr. Trump’s environmental policies with 68 percent saying solar and wind energy should be favored over fossil fuels. Only 28 percent of respondents think we are on the right track when it comes to protecting and preserving our planet for future generations. Nearly 70 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of Mr. Trump’s plan to sell public lands for mining and development. A separate poll from Public Policy Polling shows that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who is mired in wasteful spending scandals, has a 29 percent approval rating.

The numbers aren’t too surprising. Previous polls have shown similar cross-party support for environmental protections and opposition to this administration’s environmental policies. In deep-red Mountain West states like Idaho and Montana, a recent poll showed residents overwhelmingly oppose Mr. Trump’ plan to sell public lands. Despite all of this only 48 percent of respondents said Mr. Trump’s environmental policies will play a role in how they vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

Perhaps the most surprising data point comes from a question related to the National Weather Service. Only 54 percent of respondents said Mr. Trump’s proposal to cut the budget of the National Weather Service by 25 percent would put the country at a greater risk. This is surprising since 2017 was one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. Much of Puerto Rico is still without power after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas last August, went from a disorganized remnant of a tropical storm to a strong category 4 hurricane in just two days. It is tied with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record and damaged or destroyed over 300,000 structures in Texas. And then there’s Hurricane Irma, a storm that caused widespread damage in Florida and Georgia and came within a few miles and hours of striking Miami as a strong category five storm.

A drastic reduction in the budget of the agency responsible for monitoring storms and providing warnings will almost certainly hurt Americans. Your local weather station and The Weather Channel don’t produce many data themselves; they heavily rely on information from the National Weather Service.

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Image Credit: US Dept. of Defense



Everyone’s Favorite Meridian is Moving East

From WundergroundThe 100th meridian has long represented the divide between the moister eastern part of the United States and the more arid western part. Recent data suggests that this divide has shifted 140 miles east and is now closer to the 98th meridian. This means the divide between moist and arid has moved from Abilene, TX to Ft. Worth, TX. While this may not directly affect Georgia in the immediate future, it will make those areas that were safely tucked in the moister part of the country a bit more arid going forward. In the image below, the 100th meridian is roughly the line running though Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas separating the green, light blue, and dark blue from the light brown.

Image Credit: Wikipedia



It Costs Almost $12,000 a Year to Drive in Atlanta

From The AJCDriving isn’t cheap. Major recurring costs include car payments, car insurance premiums, gasoline, maintenance, and parking fees. INRIX, the company that recently told us that Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the world, has calculated that Atlanta drivers pay $11,500 annually. This ranks 8th in the country. The study noted that the average drivers spends around $3,000 a year on parking-related costs. Interestingly, it doesn’t look like INRIX included indirect parking fees; they only included those direct costs that drivers pay to park. But as we recently wrote, parking is never free. Even though you may park in a free lot, it costs money to maintain that lot and those costs are transferred in the form of higher prices for goods or rent.

By comparison, a monthly unlimited-use MARTA pass costs $95. A similar unlimited-use subway and bus MetroCard for New York City (where it’s actually feasible to not own a car) costs $125 a year. That compares to the almost $19,000 it costs each year to drive in New York City.

Atlanta Traffic


The “Scourge of the South” Resurfaces in France

From Discover MagazineAlmost 100,000 Americans, mostly in the South, died between 1900 and 1940 from a strange disease called pellagra. Recently the same disease was found in ‘cannibalized’ hamsters in France. In the early part of the 20th Century, researchers believed the disease, which had symptoms ranging from rashes to dementia, was caused by flies. It turned out that farming practices were the main culprit. As southerners began to invest heavily in the growing of cotton, they planted vegetables and raised less livestock. This resulted in high-refined cornmeal and molasses being the main food sources for many in the south. Like many other problems, beer came to the rescue: it turned out that simple brewer’s yeast prevented pellagra. You should still eat vegetables, though.

Image Credit: Kimberly Vardeman

Politics/Land Use

Public Access to Beaches is Under Attack

From The Tampa Bay Times and SeaGrant Florida. Florida recently passed a law prohibiting local governments from passing ordinances designed to protect the public’s access to beaches. Under the Florida Constitution, the state holds in trust for the public all land from the mean high-tide outward (basically the wet sand of a beach). But what about the rest of the beach? Under the customary use doctrine, which is recognized in Florida, the public has a right to access private beaches (the dry sand of a beach) that have historically been used by the public. This is a gross generalization of the customary use doctrine, but the point is that an avenue exists for the public to claim a right to some of the dry sand on a beach. Some local governments have passed ordinances ensuring this customary use right.

The Florida legislature and Governor Rick Scott passed a law prohibiting counties from passing customary use laws. This is yet another example of state governments passing laws prohibiting local governments from doing something (see North Carolina preventing Charlotte from passing a bathroom bill and the Georgia legislature attempting to ban Tybee Island from banning plastic bags). The law, though, only applies to local ordinances passed after January 1, 2016. Only Walton County, in Florida’s panhandle, passed a similar ordinance after January 1, 2016.

So why target Walton County? Comments opposing the law outnumbered comments supporting the law by an 8 to 1 margin and the law was opposed by by local governments, environmental groups. realtors, and the business community. Is it because former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and influential political consultant Karl Rove have beachfront houses in Walton County and they just happen to be of the same party as Governor Rick Scott and many of the legislators who passed the law? Could it be because Rick Scott owns a beachfront property in Naples? There’s no question that the public can cause damage to private beaches and occupy them in ways that aren’t protected by the customary use doctrine. Those issues certainly need to be addressed, but could Florida not do it in such an unpopular and seemingly corrupt way?

The United States Supreme Court is currently decided whether to accept a challenge to a California law requiring landowners to obtain permits prior to closing access to private beaches that have previously been open to the public. That discussion requires a separate article, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Miramar Beach, Walton County, Florida. Image Credit: Skye Marthaler

Urban Design

Let’s Add a Bike Lane or Two Here and…

From Kottke.org and StreetmixIf you love Sim City or any other urban planning simulation game then you’ll probably love designing a street. Streetmix allows you to customize your own street by adding sidewalks, rail, bike lanes, etc. This is a pretty neat tool, but it would be even cooler if they added some economic element. It’s easy to point out all the aspects of a street that should be changed, but it’s another thing to improve the street on a budget.


Could Ridesharing Services Help Fund Mass Transit?

From The Detroit Free PressJohn Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press does a great job summarizing the debating argument over traffic congestion and autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles. On one hand, autonomous vehicles offer the hope of fewer parking lots and more mobility, but on the other hand they could easily lead to worsening traffic. The latter argument relies primarily on the idea that if you make driving easier then more people will choose driving over other transportation modes, which leads to more traffic congestion. This is something that transportation and urban planning professionals (including GDOT) know well and it’s the reason why traffic does not decrease when roads are widened or new roads are built.

Previous studies have already shown that ridesharing increases traffic congestion in cities as more people opt for this service over walking, biking, or using public transportation. Regulators need to take this into consideration. The Georgia Legislature debated adding a tax for ridesharing services to pay for public transportation, but ultimately chose not to include that in the metro Atlanta transportation bill. This was a major mistake.

Ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles should supplement other modes of transportation, not replace them. It’s ill-advised to put all your resources into one mode of transportation; we’ve learned this over the past several decades as we’ve focused primarily on highways and cars, which has led to worsening traffic. Additionally, many states are struggling with tax revenue despite a strong economy largely because services (like ridesharing) are not taxed like goods. Since we’ve dramatically shifted from a goods-based to a service-based economy, states are taking in less revenue.

Self-Driving Car in San Francisco. Image Credit: Dllu



Cities Should Annex Suburbs

From The WeekRyan Cooper argues that cities should annex suburbs in order to create more uniform governance. While the trend has reversed over the past 10-15 years, wealthy people for decades abandoned cities for suburban communities. This left poorer individuals in the city, though wealthy people still relied on the city for jobs. City governments were therefore cash-strapped and unable to provide adequate levels of service to residents while wealthy suburbanites used city services on a daily basis.

We’ve seen this problem in Atlanta for a long while, though fortunes are changing since wealthier people are now moving into the city. That means poorer people have to live in the suburbs, though. Today the argument could be made that instead of large central cities benefiting from annexation, suburbs could now be the beneficiary of annexation. More governments, of course, necessitates increasing cooperation in order to get any regional projects approved. This is exactly what’s been happening in Atlanta. In Georgia (and probably in most states) the state legislature has to approve any change in a city’s boundaries, so even if the suburb and city agree on annexation, a legislature dominated by rural interests could veto the proposal.

Atlanta’s Boundaries in 1883. Via ScholarsBlog



The Bi-Partisan Caucus to Combat Climate Change

From The Economist. The Climate Solutions Caucus is a congressional caucus dedicated to supporting legislation to address climate change. It also has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. While some members are dedicated environmentalists, 12 of the 33 Republicans in the caucus are from districts that Donald Trump won by ten or more percentage points. What makes the caucus unusual is that congressional members can only join if they bring a member from the opposite party. Formed in 2016, the Climate Solutions Caucus is so popular that it has a long waiting list to join and currently ranks in the top tenth percentile in terms of size among the 598 caucuses in the US Congress.

This story comes on the heals of Exxon recently admitting in federal court that they knew about the impact of fossil fuels on climate back in 1988. It appears to be the case that an increasingly small group of older Republicans are the only people who don’t believe in climate change. Insurance companies and large corporations certainly aren’t questioning the overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing. The denial of climate change among Republicans is somewhat baffling. There are certainly a number of moderate, educated voters who support some of the Republican economic agenda, but are turned off by Republican’s complete disregard for evidence and the long-term vitality of the planet. Why continue to deny climate change when you could admit it’s happening and win over voters with a conservative approach to solving the problem? Very conservative voters and oil companies aren’t going to start supporting Democrats if the Republican party decides that climate change is happening.

Land Use/Environment

Sandstorms: The Tsunamis of Land

From The Atlantic. Sandstorms are both beautiful and terrifying. They can simply be a wall of quickly moving sand across the landscape or they can take the shape of a cyclonic storm spinning over the desert. Though less dangerous than tsunamis, sandstorm are similar in that they quickly inundate everything in their path.

The Atlantic put together a beautiful photo gallery ranging from images of walls of sand hundreds of feet high moving into downtown Phoenix to satellite images of hurricane-like sandstorms spinning over Africa. Several weeks ago we posted NASA’s simulation of how tropical cyclones and other atmospheric forces can spread sand, dust, aerosols, and other particles thousands of miles across the world.

Phoenix Sandstorm

Sandstorm Moving Over Phoenix. Image Credit: Alan Stark


Law/Urban Planning

Children Can Finally Walk the Streets Alone in Utah

From The Washington Post. Last week Utah passed a “Free-Range Parenting” law designed to exempt from the definition of child neglect certain activities including walking to and from school and local shops without parental supervision. Exemption, though, is based on the child being of “sufficient age and maturity” to do these activities alone. The lack of a clear definition allows the analysis of neglect to be on a case-by-case basis, which is similar to other tort laws (things like negligence, nuisance, etc.).

Utah lawmakers said they were motivated to pass the law from reports of unreasonable arrests and citations of parents in other states, though they acknowledged that such citations are rare. Despite fear-mongering from news outlets and some politicians, America’s cities have experienced historically low crime rates for many years. Children are much more likely to be injured in a car accident than to be abducted by a stranger. Drivers are likely the biggest threat to children walking the streets alone, particularly in suburban areas where intersections are larger and cars are travelling at high speeds.

Buford Highway

Buford Highway in Atlanta is probably not the best place for younger children to be walking around unsupervised. Image Credit: Thomson200



America’s Quietest Roads

From GeoTab. Speaking of roads, the data firm Geo Tab put together a list of the least-traveled roads in each state. They also created a list of the most scenic, least traveled roads in America.

Unsurprisingly, the top three most-scenic, least traveled roads are out west, but the east coast is well represented.

Colonial Parkway, Virginia

Virginia’s Colonial Parkway. Image Credit: Rogerd



Millennials Hate Fruit, But Love Eggs (They’re Also More Educated and Paid Less Than Older Generations)

From Associated Press, NonProfit Vote, The Hill, and the Bureau of Labor StatisticsAsking what Millennials think about any given issue is like asking about the Beltline in a discussion that involves Atlanta; society requires us to ask these questions to an absurd degree. There is no exact definition of the term”Millennial,” but it generally refers to those people born between the early 1980’s and the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.

While talking about Millennials has become tiresome, it is important to understand the issues and problems facing each generation. Millennials have faced harsh criticism from older generations for being lazy and buying too many avocados and bread and then recklessly combining the avocados with the toasted bread. Criticism of a younger generation by an older generation is hardly new, though. However, recent hard data and poll numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Associated Press show the criticism of Millennials to be largely without merit.

Milliennials work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than older generations. They’re more educated, have more debt (due to that education), are paid less, have higher housing costs, and are less likely to have a job with health insurance and retirement benefits compared to older generations at the same age. Interestingly, Millennials spend more on fresh vegetables and eggs than older generations, but older generations spend more on fresh fruit. Millennials do spend 6 percent more of their income on take-out food than older generations, but spend fewer actual dollars than older generations on that take-out food.

Politically, Millennials are not fans of Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, Mr. Trump did, however, receive a larger percentage of votes from Millennials than Mitt Romney did in the 2012 presidential election (though both received far fewer votes than the Democratic candidates). A recent poll by the Associated Press of Americans aged 15-34, shows that 67 percent disapprove of Mr. Trump with 47 percent strongly disapproving. Only 4 percent of respondents believed that elected officials cared a great deal about their issues.

Fortunately for Mr. Trump and incumbent elected officials, young people have low voter turnout rates. According to Nonprofit Vote, in the 2014 midterm elections only 24 percent of eligible voters between ages 18 and 29 voted. However, the AP poll asked respondents to indicate how likely there were to vote in the 2018 midterm elections using a scale of 0-10 with 10 indicating they were certain to vote. Thirty-four percent responded with a 10 while an additional 37 percent responded with numbers between 5 and 9.

Water Wars

Georgia Attacks Tennessee (Again)

Tennessee River Map

Look at all the free water just sitting there north of our border

From WABEThe Water Wars is a battle between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over access to regional water – so what does Tennessee have to do with this? Legislators introduced a resolution to explore re-drawing the Georgia-Tennessee border in an effort to make part of the Tennessee River flow through Georgia. This is Georgia’s third front in the war. Their reasoning is based on old maps showing the border to be slightly north of its current position; meaning in the eyes of some legislators, the Tennessee River should have always flowed through part of Georgia.

Re-drawing the border would alleviate the pressure put on Georgia by Florida and Alabama to reasonably use water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (ACF Basin) since Georgia could now take water from Tennessee. This is a stupid plan for many reasons beyond Georgia’s legal ability to get the border re-drawn. The Supreme Court is set to make a ruling in the Florida v. Georgia case about Florida’s right to water in the ACF Basin as early as Monday.



California Attempts Japanese-Style Zoning to Increase Affordable Housing



From The New York Times. In an effort to provide more affordable housing, California legislators introduced a bill that would allow high-density affordable housing development near transit stations by-right. The law would supersede any local zoning regulations that prevent less development in those areas. We wrote an article in 2016 about solving NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) problems by adopting the Japanese model of removing some land use decisions to a higher governmental levels. The theory being that when communities make land use decisions those decisions are often heavily influenced by small groups of activists, which often prevents sensible policymaking.

The need for more housing in San Francisco and other California cities is obvious. The problem is obvious as well: too many regulations prevent housing units from being built. Despite understanding the problem and the cause of the problem, a solution can’t be reached because local activists often prevent the solution from being enacted. Despite widespread support for more affordable housing, people organize against increased density near them even though basic supply and demand economics tells us that in order to reduce the price of housing we need more housing units. California has attempted to solve this problem by mimicking Japan’s model of having the state, not local communities, create basic zoning laws. Theoretically, this should reduce the influence of community activists. Of course, it hasn’t prevented the Sierra Club and others from protesting.


Tree Love

Trees Get Email Addresses, Receive Love Letters

Swanston Street, Melbourne

Beautiful Swanston Street in Melbourne. Credit: Alpha via Flickr

From The Atlantic. “As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”

The City of Melbourne, Australia began assigning email addresses to trees in 2013. The purpose was to allow residents to report broken tree branches or other problems that required attention from the city. Instead, people began writing greetings, love letters, and other general day-to-day thoughts to the trees.



The Combustible River and Other Niceties of Pre-EPA America

Burning Barge Ohio River

Burning Barge on the Ohio River. Credit: EPA

From Popular Science. It’s hard to believe that rivers used to catch fire in America. The most famous example is the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, but rivers catching fire used to be a rather common occurrence in America. Popular Science has a photo gallery of the environmental disasters in the pre-EPA America. It’s rarely seen today, but entire towns that just happened to be located next to chemical dumping grounds used to come down with odd sicknesses and diseases. Congress was finally pressed in the 1970’s to pass sweeping bi-partisan legislation (over Nixon’s veto) to clean up our water, air, and land.

If you haven’t seen it, the 90’s movie A Civil Action (John Travolta, Tony Shaloub, William H. Macy, James Gandolfini) is a great portrayal of why tort law is not effective in addressing environmental issues and why federal laws and regulations are badly needed.



What Does the Term “Orwellian” Actually Mean?

From Ted-EdOrwellian is a term frequently used to describe authoritarianism. It’s also often used by someone to rebut an argument that they simply don’t like. While both aren’t really correct, the latter is closer to an example of someone acting in an Orwellian manner to dismiss something as being Orwellian.

As the Ted-Ed video below shows, Orwellian is more about the deceptive and manipulative use of information than it is about authoritarianism. A certain political figure has provided a fairly good lesson in this over the past 2 years, though politicians frequently act in Orwellian ways.


Land Use

How Light Pollution Affects the Night Sky

From Sriram MuraliIn this beautiful time-lapse video, Sriram Murali shows viewers what the night sky looks like at various light pollution levels.



Atlanta Gets Serious About Transit 

From The AJC. Over the last few days, metro Atlanta has scored several major transit victories. Regional transportation bills that would dramatically increase funding for transit across the region passed both the House and Senate, MARTA named a new CEO, and the federal government awarded MARTA $12.6 million for bus rapid transit (BRT). The proposed BRT line would link Georgia State University and Midtown. A true BRT line features dedicated bus lanes with limited stops. In this scenario, a BRT line can be just as effective as heavy rail at a much cheaper price. However, the effectiveness of the line relies on dedicated bus lanes; the more you co-mingle buses with general traffic, the less effective the service.

BRT Line in Quito. Produced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy



Parking Increases the Price of Housing

Development on Highland Avenue in Atlanta

From Bloomberg View. Cities around the country are facing massive shortfalls in affordable housing. The often overlooked, though not by transit and planning nerds, is the cost that parking adds to construction. Even more overlooked is the fact that many cities have minimum parking requirements; meaning each new commercial or residential project must provide a certain number of parking spaces. It’s estimated that in Los Angeles one surface parking space costs $27,000 and one underground space costs $35,000. When two spaces are required by law for each residential unit, it’s easy to see how construction costs (and consequentially rent) can skyrocket.


Urban Planning

What Trailer Parks Can Teach Us About Good Urban Planning

From Strong Towns. Trailer parks are often the butt of jokes, but they offer a lesson in good urban planning. As Nolan Gray writes, local governments often attempt to provide little land for trailer parks, but where trailer parks do exist they are often subjected to very few land use regulations. This results in denser communities that have a more European or Japanese-feel to them. Given this, trailer parks may provide an example of how we should approach low-income housing. While Mr. Gray points out that private regulations (think homeowner’s associations) often take shape in these communities to provide order and cleanliness, homeowner’s associations can often be the cause of bad urban planning and the source of scorn among residents.



College Republicans Resurrect the Carbon Tax 

By Dave Sizer via Flickr

From The New York Times. College Republicans across the country are resurrecting the carbon tax as a way to combat climate change. This may seem strange to people under age 30 since, after all, Republicans aren’t supposed to believe in climate change. However, the phenomenon of a major political party denying the existence of climate change is a relatively new concept. The debate between the two sides used to be more focused on how best deal with climate change, and less focused on whether climate change exists.

The real take-away from the story is that young people are tired of being ruled by a generation of Americans who seem disinterested in critically thinking about issues and who fail to acknowledge actual problems. This sentiment has been voiced by young black Americans, high school students in Florida, and now by young Republicans. Many of the College Republicans believe their party is undermining future generations and repelling voters by denying science and running from problems instead of confronting them. Younger Democrats have similarly pushed their party to stop hiding, denying, and forgiving rampant sexual assault and harassment. It’s clear that young Americans – across the political spectrum – believe this country will be made great again when we start acknowledging and confronting problems with meaningful discourse and debate.

Westerners Really Love Their Public Land

Grand CanyonFrom Colorado College. A recent poll conducted by Colorado College shows that residents in the Mountain West states overwhelmingly support public land. Since most of our public land (national parks, monuments, preserves) are located in western states, it’s important to understand how people living in those states view public land. Vast support is seen across the political spectrum with those in more conservative states, such as Idaho showing similar levels of support as those in more liberal states like New Mexico.

Overall, 76% percent of residents in the Mountain West states identify as conservationists and only 26% support opening public lands to private companies for the purpose of mining and extracting other natural resources. Perhaps DC should take note since the current policy of reducing the size of national monuments and opening land for mining is premised on the idea that residents in those areas want less public land.


Want to Track a Tsunami? There’s An App For That. 

From The Economist. In additional to creating waves in the ocean, tsunamis also produce waves in the atmosphere. The U.S.’s Global Positioning Satellite system and similar systems from other countries, known collectively as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), is capable of tracking such atmospheric waves. The signal between satellites and GNSS receivers is impeded by atmospheric tsunami waves, so a network of GNSS receivers is potentially capable of tracking tsunamis. Luckily, most cell phones have GNSS receivers so the widespread use of an app could help detect tsunamis and provide an early warning system.



Uber, Lyft Are Creating More Congested Cities

Atlanta TrafficFrom The Associated Press. Despite claims from ride-sharing companies, several studies have shown that Uber and Lyft create more traffic and congestion in large cities. This is mainly due to people choosing ride-sharing services over public transit, walking, and biking – three forms of transportation that take cars off the street. In additional to putting more cars on the street (and presumably more pollutants in the air) while transporting passengers, ride-sharing vehicles congest streets when they are waiting for new customers.


Mapping the Regional Economic Impacts of Climate Change

From Governing. Well it’s not good for us in the southeast, though this data isn’t too surprising. The United States General Accounting Office produced a map showing the economic impacts of climate change and the southeast is in store for more coastal infrastructure damage and heat-related deaths. While some regions may experience positive impacts, there are far more potentially negative impacts across the rest of the country.

GAO Climate Map

 Correctly Mapping Elections 

From Vox, xkcd, and Alan Cole‘s Twitter. This map from xkcd of the 2016 US Presidential Election results circulated around the internet several months ago. It’s a good example of how maps can inadvertently (or often purposefully) provide misleading information. Traditional election result maps that color-code counties based on election results misrepresents where people actually live in this country.

Most large states in the Midwest are large, rural, and vote Republican, so they appear red on election result maps. This makes it appear that most of the country voted for the Republican in 2016 when in reality it was a close election with more people voting for the Democrat. Case in point, there are about as many Democratic voters in Los Angeles County as Republican voters in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming combined. Some maps that attempt to correct this by representing the vote by population can under-represent Republican-voters in some states with large populations. Economist Alan Cole believes the xkcd map is the best attempt he’s seen at representing election results by population.

Traditional county-based map (left) and xkcd map (right)


Visualizing Time with Isochrone Maps

London Travel DistancesFrom Atlas Obscura. You want to meet a friend across town, but neither of you can agree on the most equitable location in terms of distance and time. Enter isochrone maps. Needless to say, these are much prettier and more dynamic than the  time-distance line maps found in the back of old Rand McNally atlases.




Watch Smoke From California Make it to England

From NASA. The good people at NASA put together this beautiful visualization of smoke, aerosols, and dust circulating through the air.



Cities Strengthen Airbnb Regulations

From The AJC. Many cities across the country are tightening short-term rental regulations – here’s a local example from Sandy Springs, GA. The new regulations include fees, mandatory posting requirements, and mandatory building inspections. Even if your city doesn’t have a particular regulation for short-term rentals, you could still be in violation of the terms of your mortgage, lease, local zoning laws, or FHA regulations.


Which City Has the Most Unpredictable Weather?

From FiveThirtyEight. In what American city can you most accurately predict weather conditions days, months, or years in advance? Atlanta’s weather is fairly predictable, but not as predictable as cities in the southwest.







Mayan Civilization Had Advanced Cities Complete with Raised Highways 

Mayan LiDAR ImageFrom National GeographicLaser technology called LiDAR was used to remove the tree canopy in Guatemala and the results were a bit stunning. The imagery showed evidence of an advanced Mayan civilization comparable to ancient Greece or China.



The Icy City of Stilts

Yakutsk SiberiaFrom National Geographic. The Siberian city of Yakutsk is probably the coldest large city in the world. Photography Steeve Iunckher spent some time photographing the city, though he could only shoot in 15 minute sessions to prevent his film from freezing. Since the soil is almost always frozen, most structures are built on stilts.




Americans Overestimate How Easy it is to Move Up the Social Ladder

Statue of LibertyFrom The Economist. Americans overestimate how easy it is to climb from the lowest economic quintile to the highest economic quintile in this country (spoiler: it’s not easy). Europeans, on the other hand, underestimate how easy it is to make this move in their respective countries (spoiler: it’s easier than in the US, but it’s still not easy).



It Pays to Keep a Clean Environment

From The Bureau of Economic Analysis. Hikers, fishermen, and those who supply outdoor recreators account for 2% of the US GDP. Perhaps more importantly, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that growth in Outdoor Reaction Activity is outpacing the growth of the US as a whole.


Germany, Like Chattanooga, Looks to Reduce Pollution Through Free Transit

Berlin TrainFrom The Washington Post. Germany is going to experiment with free public transportation in an effort to reduce pollution. Chattanooga, TN has free electric buses in its downtown district paid for by parking revenue. It too decided to make the leap in an effort to reduce severe air pollution.



Tolkien-Style National Park Maps

UK National Park MapFrom Middle Earth’s Maps. Like maps? Like The Lord of the Rings? Like National Parks? Then Middle Earth’s Maps has just the right thing: Tolkien-style maps of UK National Parks.






Satellite Data Confirms Sea-Level Modeling

From Inside Climate NewsU.S. and international satellite data confirms that sea-level rise is accelerating. This is important because it shows that our observations are matching our models. The latest federal budget dedicates additional funds for resilient coastal community programs, but many federal politicians still publicly deny sea-level rise and climate change despite these observations.


Cover Photo by Steeve Iuncker via National Geographic



The NHL has an impressive environmental scorecard

Atlanta Thrashers

RIP Atlanta Thrashers

From The EPA and The Balance. Not only is the National Hockey League the only professional sports league in the United States to issue a sustainability report, it’s also the 25th largest consumer of green energy in the country. In addition to receiving the Leadership Award from the EPA in 2015, the NHL has an ongoing partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council dating back to 2008. As of 2016, 148% of it’s electricity use comes from biomass and wind energy. That 148% is not a typo.



Maybe you’ve heard: Atlanta has bad traffic

From INRIX. According to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta has the eighth worst traffic in the world. What’s most concerning is that it’s sandwiched between Paris (9th) and London (7th); cities that not only have two to three times the population of metro Atlanta, but much higher density levels as well. Somehow these cities have managed to support more people and commerce while having the same amount of traffic as Atlanta. Density and transportation diversity have something to do with it.


What’s better, a traffic circle or a 4-way intersection with protected turn signals?

From Kottke. Speaking of traffic, the developers of the game Cities:Skylines created a pretty fun video of traffic patterns at different types of intersections. While traffic circles are more efficient than a standard 4-way interchange, they take up much more land and are poorly designed for pedestrians.


Reducing property taxes will solve the affordable housing crisis

From The AJC. Opinion writer Kyle Wingfield believes that high property taxes are the culprit for the increasing lack of affordable housing in metro Atlanta. It’s a take that many can support, though it’s not the whole story. While reducing property taxes or preventing them from escalating too quickly would directly help owners, it doesn’t solve the problem of too little housing in good neighborhoods. Reducing an owner’s property taxes may cause the owner to reduce rental rates, but it may not. High demand with a lack of supply will drive prices up in an unregulated market. His point, though, is important in the ongoing debate over affordable housing.


Gerrymandering met its match in Pennsylvania

PA Congressional DistrictsFrom The Economist. Several weeks ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down districts gerrymandered to help Republicans as a violation of the state’s constitution. Pennsylvania Republicans asked the US Supreme Court to step intervene. The Court declined the invitation since the districts were struck down under the state constitution and not under the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court currently has several cases on it’s docket to determine if political gerrymandering is a violation of the US Constitution. While many Republicans may be disappointed with the ruling, it’s important to remember that both Democrats and Republicans gerrymander when given the opportunity. And that’ bad for all of us.


A Snowy Street May Lead to Better Urban Design

Converted StreetFrom 99% Invisible. It turns out that noticing where cars drive after a snowfall can lead to better designed streets. Snowfall makes it pretty clear that cars do not need the amount of road currently provided. Among various other conversions, the space not used by vehicles can be converted to lush street islands that have a traffic calming effect and encourage pedestrian activity. That’s exactly what happened in Philadelphia. We missed our opportunity, Atlanta!



Cover photo by: Onehiroki via Wikipedia Commons