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The Macro Scale Discussion Panel

Published onDec 24, 2019
The Macro Scale Discussion Panel
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Discussion Summary

The Macro-Scale Panel started by discussing the interrelatedness of complex aspects of the study of urban systems using urban flooding as an example. Green infrastructure offers high mitigation potential, e.g., for the desire to increase impervious surfaces and their potential side effects. While green spaces increase flood resistance, they can also create other issues such as pollen release and its negative health impact in the form of allergies. How can we investigate this kind of issue from a systematic perspective? At this stage we know that it is difficult to use our systematic way to consider all components of a complex system. In fact, research shows that proximity to green space is actually beneficial to human health. Closeness to parks can, for example, reduce Medicare payments considerably. So while there may be pollen and other kinds of negative impacts, overall the research is pretty clear that green space creates a healthier environment to live in.

The other point of the urban/rural divide in this country is caused in part by the fact that cities no longer buy goods directly from their immediate rural neighbors. The marketplace between city and its rural surroundings is disconnected. Therefore, one of the potential concepts to include in this conference is the idea that we buy green space or we buy habitat just as we buy energy or clean water. In other words, if we do not directly buy corn and soy we, can at least buy energy or renewable kinds of products from our rural neighbors. Thus, some kind of money transfer needs to be developed from cities back to rural areas in order to achieve the kind of diversity of the land of the rural landscape that we desire.

Flood scenarios also offer good examples of the economic impacts. However, their health impacts and the distribution of these impacts are not well understood. What are the locations that are less affected? What are the locations that were more impacted and what can we learn from these differences. This information can be used for a classification of these different cities and distinguish between the generalizable and context-specific. Even if only large cities are considered, some may have had higher exposure or vulnerability than others, and more study effort is needed to uncover the reasons behind those vulnerabilities.

The big question is: what is generalizable? Which types of typologies or clustering of communities can be used? It could be a rural-to-urban region that is more highly interdependent or it could be one that is completely disconnected. Can we compare and contrast these types of settings? This type of thinking is strongly aligned with NSF’s convergence agenda: multi-city or cross-city studies rather than a single or individual cities.

The artist on the panel intervened and underscored that it is important to include community voices in all these discussions and to implement input from people who are not necessarily part of the academic study. The infrastructure issue in Minnesota can act as an example: We know that we will need upgrades to the water infrastructure (both storm water and wastewater infrastructure) in the Twin Cities and in rural communities to meet future challenges. This represents an economic opportunity for communities that need good, green jobs. But we don't often think about wastewater or water operations as offering jobs that can grow. By bringing communities to the table early, it is possible to get more people interested in these kinds of jobs and to create pathways for green careers. In addition, there is a wave of people who will be retiring from these positions in our Public Works departments. We can make an effort to fill them by including the people who are most impacted by flooding and other water-related issues. There was agreement that the social dimension is important as 50 % of the employees of public agencies will reach retirement age within the next three to five years. That will be a significant transition in our workforce.

David Peters made an attempt to relate the first three presentations across state boundaries based on agriculture and water in the upper Mississippi River watershed. Minnesota has a program to pay farmers for buffer zones and⁠—as we heard in the second presentation⁠—this approach is working well to sequester nitrogen runoff. However, the third presentation revealed that we really don't see the broader picture. The question is: why not simply mandate a 50-foot buffer zone along waterways and pay farmers for it? Crop insurance, which is heavily subsidized (60–70 % of the crop insurance premiums are subsidized in Iowa) could serve as a vehicle. Why not make buffer zone implementation a stipulation for participation in the federal crop insurance program? We talk about voluntary regulation although it is known not to work or it is very idiosyncratic: so why not rely on regulation?

Tom Fisher countered that regulation is important but there is no way that we can take the issue to scale without involving marketplace solutions. Government is never going to have enough money to do the amount of work that needs to be done. In addition to regulation, we need market mechanisms. The Minnesota buffer zone initiative showed that just telling farmers to take 50 feet of every waterway out of production will only further increase the rural-urban antagonism: “All these city dwellers telling us what to do and not paying a dime”. If we can find a way for the cities to pay rural communities to do the right thing, it could be the win-win solution. Currently, the value placed on the environment is too low.

Joshua Sperling agreed that there is a need to consider the market. Externality is always a complex challenge and needs the inclusion of an economist. Also, risk management in terms of insurance may be an interesting approach that should be part of the conversation. Currently, there are early examples of insurance agencies pulling out of providing insurance in certain locations that are higher risk or higher uncertainty in terms of exposure. Referring to a colleague from NREL, who just left to start a company in New York, he was very much interested in insurance around energy and outages after Hurricane Sandy. The approach we talked about was similar to pay-as-you-drive insurance: if you drive more you have higher exposure to risk than when you drive less. And so rather than a one size fits all it's a more dynamic lower premium if you're if you're driving less. His analogy with respect to energy was that if you have backup energy (additional solar plus storage), you have less potential exposure to risk and your business may be able to continue during an outage. This means lower insurance premiums, or you may be able to utilize the additional power during extreme events and generate new revenue. These are market-based approaches that probably need some form of regulatory input, forming an important hybrid.

Luis Rico Gutierrez (Audience) understands how the market-based systems could actually work now. They seem to work exactly the opposite way than the carbon tradeoffs that were discussed earlier. The question is: Where do you pay the cost when you want to maximize efficiency? Either you pay more or you buy from somebody else because you did not place enough importance on being more efficient. Here it seems to be the opposite. Is there a risk that these market-based system could dis-incentivize being more efficient upstream?

Tom Fisher responded that some of this work was criticized because it was argued that property owners had no incentive to take out any of their impervious surfaces. They were just paying farmers upstream. Thus, the negative side is, they did not have to change. They were happy to pay farmers rather than to convert some of their parking lots into rain gardens. So there is reason to be cautious with respect to these negative effects. How these payments and tradeoffs affect property values is another good research question.

Luke addressed one of the biggest setbacks in actually getting these science- and research-based solutions implemented to help address these really complex, interwoven environmental, social, and economic issues. The biggest setback seems to be the lack of communication between the researchers and the public or higher-level administration and government. What are the experiences, the success stories, or not so successful stories that exemplify efforts to bridge this communication gap?

Matt Liebman argued that communication is not the issue preventing change, rather it is a concentration of economic and political power and the lack of assigning costs to externalities, e.g., what happens downstream, downwind, and downhill. A lot of information exists and there has been a tremendous amount of communication, but there are also deeply entrenched economic and political interests that prevent positive changes from taking place in the landscape. The same applies to compensation for producers for providing food, environmental quality, and safeguarding our natural resources. There is also a tremendous amount of disinformation dispersed as a function of certain political and economic interests.

Doug Shoemaker had a slightly different take on the issue. As a scientist he has applied information deficit theory to his work. When scientists provide better and better evidence, they tell people about it to allow them to make better and better decisions. However, change does not happen. Possibly the best way to overcome this is to translate information into stories about people and their lives: Where they are, what they are dealing with, and how they overcome challenges. This resonates in the renewed emphasis on science writing and citizen scientists. Scientists need to start translating this evidence into compelling narratives and then start moving the needle. Constituencies have a shared narrative, which needs to be altered.

Shanai added that scientists and policy makers are not always very good listeners either. Communication is not a one-way flow of information, which was one of the major learning outcomes with the Water Bar. When the project started it was assumed that this platform could be used by scientist, policymakers, and people who know water. This new environment would allow them to tell better stories about what they are doing in a more human and personal way. In some ways that happened. But the people who were asked to be behind the bar conveyed that they actually ended up learning and listening much more than they talked. This transformed the way they thought about their role: To serve water⁠—both metaphorically and practically ⁠—to put it in a cup and give it to someone changes the power dynamic. In this interaction, someone receives something for free, which is unexpected because people always assume to be charged. All of a sudden we're in a new imaginative space.

In this kind of ambiguous way, people feel free to share their knowledge and their feelings, which is a necessary experience in the microcosm of our community spaces. We should also offer this kind of interaction in our planning spaces and our research spaces. While the research is important, we also have to figure out how to get everyone to the table. By rushing to what we think is the best solution right now, we lose input from all the available people. Without this information we recreate the same problems over time. So, learning to listen will help us communicate better

Joshua Sperling completed the thought regarding understanding how the opposition to this communication is approaching it and what their motivations are. Using personalization will help everyone realize why they should care: Is it going save me time, save me money, add certain comfort or convenience, or new job or a revenue opportunity? This is a good way to personalize for understanding the opposition and something we do not spend enough time doing.

Tom Fisher concluded that visualization is important. Scientists tend to communicate with graphs and charts that do not mean much to many people. Yet, most people are horrified when they see what their community will look like with climate change. That is a way to increase interest in the work we have to do now on the macro-scale.


This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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