Category Archives: Book review

"Bikenomics" – An Instant Classic for Planners and Bicycling Advocates


Certain books become a classic in their field of study because of their comprehensive nature (i.e. The City in History). Others do from their advocacy and groundbreaking nature (i.e. Silent Spring).  In the case of Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy, both of these reasons apply. Author Elly Blue has written “the” definitive book on bicycle planning that clearly identifies the societal, physical, environmental, and economic benefits of bicycling, while also completely debunking the myths, fables, urban legends, half-truths, and outright lies spread by naysayers and automotive apologists.

Facts are funny things. They tend to get in the way of spurious and superfluous arguments. In Bikenomics, Ms. Blue lays down the gauntlet with factual truths about bicycling and how a vibrant cycling culture can go a long way to curing many of our nation’s ills. If one could quote the entire book in a blogpost, I would.  There are so many quotable gems contained within this publication, that I could fill gigabytes of pages with them. But alas, you should read the book, so I have only provided a few of them at the end of this post.

Believe me when I say this is a book that every planning professional must read and own. It will single-handedly serve as your go-to resource on the benefits of bicycle planning in your community. Kudos to Ms. Blue providing all of us with a fantastic source of information. Enjoy!

Here are a sampling of quotes from the book:

“People who ride bicycles also pay taxes, which means they often pay more into the road system than they cost it. By one estimate, a carfree cyclist would overpay by an average of $250 a year — a few dollars more than the amount that the average driver underpays.” (page 13)

“As it turns out, gas taxes have paid for about 70% of the construction and maintenance costs of the Interstate system to date, with that percentage going down with each passing year. Local roads fare worse when it comes user funding. If you take the nation’s road system as a whole, only 51% of its cost over the years has come from direct user fees.” (page 39)

“When you brush away the rhetoric, though, even the fanciest bikeways are a screaming bargain. For the cost of one freeway interchange, you can completely transform your city and immeasurably improve the wealth, health, and happiness of its citizens.”  (page 49)

“Large road projects are often funded in a down economy because they create jobs. But roads are actually the least job-intensive of any transportation investment. Bikeways are the most, creating more jobs per million dollars spent than roads-this is because there are so few materials involved and most of the budget goes to workers.” (page 51)

“Bikes may not be able to solve our health care crisis singlehanded…But bicycling is one of the rare areas where people can directly and concretely address our own health and the health of our community, and quickly see big results. In this light, bicycling for transportation isn’t so much a lifestyle choice as it’s a form of civic action.” (page 61)

“Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars’ – Donald Shoup.” (page 89)

“In the US, 99% of trips by car end up in a free spot [parking spot]. The value of that land—and to a lesser extent, the costs of paving, sweeping, policing, and maintaining it—makes [parking one of the largest subsides going.” (page 90)

“In a car-oriented world, old age becomes a disability for many, long before it might in a more walkable neighborhood. The more car-reliant your daily life, the lower the threshold becomes for frailness, injury, or failing eyesight to be experienced as outright disabling.” (page 104)

– Rick Brown

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Filed under Book review, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Public Transportation, sprawl, the environment, Urban Planning

A literary triumph – “Nothing But Blue Skies” by Edward McClelland

It is difficult to describe how truly outstanding the book entitled Nothing But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland is to read. As a nearly lifelong Rust Belt resident, I can attest to the fact that Edward McClelland’s newly released book simply nails our industrial heritage, decline, and hopeful potential squarely on the head. From nationally known politicians like Dennis Kucinich or Coleman Young to the everyday blue-collar laborer toiling in our mills and factories, Mr. McClelland personifies the Rust Belt like no other book I have ever read on the subject. As a Lansing native, he has personally witnessed the dramatic (and sometimes catastrophic) changes just in his lifetime. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Mr. McClelland takes the reader on a quasi-chronological step-by-step sequence of events that shook the Rust Belt down it its very core.

From Buffalo and the loss of its competitive edge with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to Detroit’s dramatic fall from grace following the 1967 riot, to Cleveland’s multi-decade search for post-Cuyahoga River fire redemption, to Flint, Homestead, and other cities. Mr. McClelland whisks the reader through a series of events that spelled the disaster for America’s Industrial Heartland and gave rise to its current moniker of Rust Belt.

Nothing But Blue Skies is a literary triumph that must be read by anyone who has an interest in history, sociology, economics, demographics, geography, politics, planning, environmental protection, and many other topics. Author Edward McClelland takes the best (and worst) of our post-World War II legacy and paints a tapestry of images that is very hard to put down. I guarantee that you will empathize with many of the everyday folks identified in his book, as they are exactly the same as you and I – Rust Belters.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under Book review, Brain Drain, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Headline, Labor, Politics, Race Relations, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

Walkable City Author Jeff Speck on the One Thing that Can Wreck a City

The post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

What makes a city great? According to Jeff Speck, the secret sauce is, quite simply, walking. If your city is a good place to walk — that is, walking is safe, comfortable, interesting, and useful — everything else will fall into place.

In Walkable City, his talked-about manifesto about healthy urban places, Speck lays out a simple formula for any city to become a pedestrian haven. “Putting cars in their place,” “mixing uses,” “getting parking right,” and supporting transit and cycling are a few of the 10 principles, he says, that separate the successful cities from the rest.

A planner and urban design consultant, Speck has a few other books under his belt. In 2000, he co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and he also co-wrote the recently released Smart Growth Manual with Duany and Mike Lydon. Meanwhile, Speck has served as the director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and headed the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

In Walkable City, he lays out a powerful argument, supported by careful research and highly-Tweetable facts, that fostering a culture of walking should be a central aim of every American city.

If you’re a professional planner or advocate, Walkable City is a new, essential reference. If you’re new to the subject, there’s no better introduction.

Streetsblog reached Speck this morning for an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Angie Schmitt: You’ve taken the broad concept of civic health and boiled it down to this one act: walking. Can you talk a little about why this one activity is so important? How did you come to that conclusion?

Jeff Speck: I came to it very indirectly. I am a designer. I am a city planner. I was never focused on walking in any way, from a health perspective or a recreational perspective.

But then I started working with a lot of mayors. I oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for four years. Every two months, eight mayors and eight designers would meet. Each mayor would bring their top city planning challenge.

Listening to mayor after mayor and how they explained their idea of a successful city, it became very clear that both the best measure of a thriving place and perhaps the best contributor to a thriving place was street life: walkability. Being successful in walkablity is really nothing less than providing street life. In our age of digital connectedness, I think for a while people forgot how important it was to have a public realm where we come to gather physically. That is still in our DNA. We need that.

It became clear to me that solving the walkability problem ended up addressing all their other concerns as well. It was not a strategic choice, to reframe this argument under the realm of walkability, but I have to say it may finally be the outfit that allows this concept to sell. We can clothe it in other terms like New Urbanism, which scares conservatives, and neo-traditionalism, which scares liberals. But no one doesn’t like walking.

AS: What is the biggest mistake cities make?

JS: I’ve repeated it so much I hate to tell you the same thing, but it’s the honest truth. The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.

A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.

The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.

AS: What do the effective cities do instead?

Planner and author Jeff Speck is the former director of the Mayor's Institute on City Design and the National Endowment for the Arts' design division.

JS: In more effective cities there’s a mayor who sees that he’s more or less the chief designer of the city. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley, woke up one morning, slapped his head and said, “Oh my God, I am the chief designer of my city. I need to start making decisions that make my city more beautiful and functional in a more holistic way.”

Cities need specialists that help define what make them a great city. Is it going to make you a great city having an 18 minute commute versus a 20 minute commute? Or is it going to make you a great city to have a smaller carbon footprint and more transportation choices?

Those cities that recognize that they’re not generating the economic activity that they could because they’re not generating a street life and their population is sick, overweight, because they’re not getting enough exercise, they’re not getting a useful walk — those are the cities that are succeeding. If they decide that those are the objectives: economic health, public health, and environmental sustainability – [they] all mandate a city which is walkable city.

AS: You single out smaller, “more normal” cities as sort of the next frontier of this movement, as opposed to livability stars like New York and San Francisco. How do you reach these less progressive places?

JS: There is a lot of data from New York and San Francisco in it, but this book is firmly directed at the Clevelands, the Las Vegases, the Dallases, the Cedar Rapids. The cities that, if they’ve figured it out, they’re not showing it.

My book is part of it but it can’t be just me. My small firm only does so much work, now with my book out I’m doing much less [planning] work. I think it’s much more important to spread the message than to make more examples.

I lecture to the largest possible audience and then generally someone from the city council says, “We need you to help us.” But that is not a strategy for fixing our country. There will be, and there are, dozens of practitioners that will hopefully take this to their cities. This book will hopefully increase the demand for them, for their work as well.

There are probably 500 cities in America that have one-way streets through their downtown or a four-lane, two-way road that could get a road diet. They just need to come to understand this discussion.

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Book Review: New to Cleveland: A Guide to Rediscovering the City

Let me start out by saying the author of this book is a friend and neighbor of mine for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. Former Associated Press reporter and Detroit Shoreway resident Justin Glanville teamed up with illustrator Julia Kuo (who you will remember from 100 days of Cleveland) to produce this beautifully composed guide to Cleveland for newcomers, and old-timers looking to rediscover Cleveland neighborhoods.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book at the release party at Happy Dog last week and since then I’ve had a chance to look it over. Being that I am a relative newcomer to Cleveland (just about 3 years now) I was curious to see whether the book would take a boosterish marketing-type approach to this city.

Glanville, however, approaches his topic like a journalist and offers a very balanced and very enlightening view of the city, in my opinion. He notes some of Cleveland high points (arts institutions like the museum and the orchestra) as well as some of the low (an orientation towards sprawl over the last few decades that forces many people to drive everywhere).

I was particularly amused by some of the observations Justin has gleaned from folks who have moved to the city from larger metros (Justin himself returned to the city from a stint in New York City not too long ago).

TRUTH: Cleveland can be a bit couple-centric and single newcomers might feel a little left out. YES! When I first moved to the city I spent my first couple years hanging out with a (extremely awesome) group of people who had all married their highschool/college sweethearts. After a while, I sorta started to feel like there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t coupled up.

TRUTH: Clevelanders can sometimes seem unfriendly to outsiders. YES! Justin notes that many Clevelanders have an inner circle that dates back to their high school days. Some newcomers can find it hard to break in. In an odd way though, Clevelanders are friendly too, he notes. Maybe it depends on where you’re from.

TRUTH: Real estate is astonishingly cheap. But Justin has some good advice to give about playing it cool with respect to homeownership. He does a good job of explaining when it makes sense to buy and when it might be better to rent.

TRUTH: I like that Justin focuses on quality-of-life amenities that are important to the young professional crowd. The stuff that makes Cleveland neighborhoods livable, this book emphasizes, are walkability, transit access, cultural amenities, recreational opportunities (like yoga studios), and even (and I really like this one) diversity.

In my view Justin’s appraisal of city neighborhoods is much more honest and thoughtful that the usual appraisals we get in Cleveland, e.g. Cleveland Magazine’s “rating the suburbs” which encourages readers to adopt lifestyle choices that are liable to have their spending all their free time sitting on the driver’s seat of a car or on the couch (while “saving” a few precious dollars on taxes). Also the artwork and overall composition is just beautiful.

This book is highly recommended reading for those who are seriously considering a move to Cleveland or have recently moved here. Also, a good guide for suburbanites who are intrigued by some of the urban redevelopment efforts and want to explore from a safe distance.

Check it out further at


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Book Review: John Gallagher’s Reimagining Detroit

This post was written by Patrick Cooper-McCann of the fantastic Rethink Detroit blog. It was cross-posted with his permission.

The 2010 Census was unkind to the Rust Belt.  Buffalo, Cleveland, Flint, and Youngstown all posted double digit percentile declines in population, falling back to levels last seen a century ago.  Detroit lost a full quarter of its population.  Yet, if Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher is right, there is still cause for hope.  In his timely and optimistic book, “Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” Gallagher argues that although shrinking cities like Detroit face severe challenges, they also possess the space and opportunity to become greener and more livable, even if they continue to shrink.

The first step toward revitalization, Gallagher writes, is adjusting expectations.  At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States.  Its massive factories were booming and its streets were lined with shops and people.  Although segregated and polluted, Detroit enjoyed immense prosperity, and many people still judge the city today against this high water mark. To make any progress, Gallagher insists, Detroit has to stop looking backward and work with the city as it is now: a deeply troubled, depopulated place that urgently needs to rescale itself.

For inspiration, Gallagher turns to a host of other cities that have pioneered ways to make use of empty space and retrofit obsolete infrastructure.  In Portland and San Francisco, unneeded highways have been removed from the city center, enabling neighborhoods to reconnect to the waterfront.  In Seoul, London, and Zurich, streams that were once buried in the sewer system have been brought back to the surface, improving the environment while creating new parks and development alongside the water.  In Havana, an impressive network of urban farms, first created amidst the severe food shortages of the “Special Period,” are now providing most of Havana’s fruits and vegetables.  In Chicago, major public arts projects, like the oft-photographed “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, have attracted tourists and catalyzed development downtown.

Many of Gallagher’s best suggestions are simpler interventions at the neighborhood level.  To beautify the weed-choked vacant lots that dot the city, Gallagher recommends the model used by Philadelphia Green: reseed the lots with grass or ground cover, plant trees, and install picket fences.  To rescale Detroit’s huge arterial streets, built eight lanes wide but now carrying little traffic, Gallagher recommends widening the sidewalks and reserving lanes for bicycles and buses.  These are affordable improvements that, added together, could make a dramatic difference in the look and feel of a neighborhood.

Some of Gallagher’s ideas for Rust Belt reinvention come from Detroit itself.  One of these is urban gardening, which has taken off dramatically in the past decade.  Since 2000, more than 800 gardens have registered with the Detroit Agricultural Network, and several large-scale farming operations are currently seeking city approval.  Gallagher sees great promise in this trend.  At the community level, the benefits are undeniable: gardens beautify empty land, bring neighbors together in a common pursuit, and produce fresh, healthy food—often a scarce commodity in the inner city.

Whether urban farming can turn a profit is another question.  Gallagher is a skeptic.  He notes that Detroit’s best-known farms are actually quite small; if operated strictly for profit, they would only provide a subsistence living.  To operate more profitably, urban farms would need larger parcels of uncontaminated land, a resource that is still easier to find on the outskirts of town than in the heart of the city.  For that reason alone, Gallagher doubts Detroit’s local food economy will ever reach the scale of Havana.

For better or worse, Detroit is also on the leading edge of another trend: the shift from public to private governance.  Nearly all of Detroit’s signature institutions now rely heavily on corporations and foundations for support.  The Detroit Institute of Arts, Campus Martius Park, and Eastern Market are all run by conservancies; Toni Griffin, the lead planner of the Detroit Works Project (Mayor Dave Bing’s signature planning initiative), and Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, were both compensated by national foundations; and the first leg of the proposed Woodward light rail line will be funded by a handful of philanthropists.  A similar trend plays out at the neighborhood level, where parks and community centers depend on the labor of volunteers for the most basic maintenance, from mowing the grass to picking up trash.  Several historic neighborhoods, like Indian Village and Palmer Woods, even hire private patrols to supplement the beleaguered city police force.

Gallagher applauds this reliance on public-private partnership as a model of fiscal responsibility, and other cash-strapped cities will likely follow Detroit’s lead.  It is a dubious precedent though.  On the one hand, it is true that many of Detroit’s greatest gains, like the revitalization of its riverfront, would not have been possible without private support.  Urban farming, the most talked about trend in the city, is technically not even legal; it has spread in defiance of city codes through grassroots effort.  But Detroit is not a do-it-yourself paradise.  Volunteers do tremendous work in the city, but they cannot keep every park open nor keep every street clean.  Furthermore, while they are free to paint a mural or build a new playscape at the neighborhood school, they are powerless to keep that school open if the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager decides to close it.  Likewise, while foundations and conservancies have restored some of Detroit’s best institutions, they cannot be everywhere at once, and each time they step in, the public forfeits some control.  Public-private partnership may be necessary, but only as a complement to a robust, functioning government, not as a replacement.

With that important caveat, “Reimagining Detroit” is an excellent and inspiring book.  In clear, open language, Gallagher lays out an agenda for Rust Belt revitalization that is creative, audacious, and (one hopes) achievable.  Although he writes with Detroit in mind, his central thesis—that “a smaller city creates the canvas to become a better city”—should give heart to any city in the grip of Census-inspired despair.  The challenges are still formidable, but Gallagher makes it crystal clear that shrinking cities have a wealth of options to reinvent themselves as something new.

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The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Officials “need to know people are concerned about the Great Lakes”

Earlier this week, Rust Wire was thrilled to chat with Great Lakes journalist Jeff Alexander, author of Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. The book details how opening the Great Lakes to international shipping traffic via the Seaway allowed a number of invasive species in that have hurt the Lakes. I recommend the book for anyone who is interested in understanding more about the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem and the changes it has undergone in the last several decades. -KG

RW: “Could you start out by telling me a bit about yourself? Are you a native of Michigan? What lead to your interest in the Great Lakes?”
JA: “Actually, I’m a native of Los Angeles. I came to Michigan in 1980 to go to school at Michigan State University. I had this crazy dream of being a pro hockey player. So, I tried to walk on the hockey team. I didn’t make it, but I liked Michigan and so I sort of fell into journalism and then sort of fell into environmental journalism in the late 80s. I didn’t know anything about the Great Lakes before I moved here, and over time, you know you go camping, go to the beach on the Great Lakes, and I just sort of, developed this affection for the Lakes. And from a reporting standpoint, was just really intrigued and interested in all the science and human drama involved with the Lakes and some of the problems they face.”

RW: “As someone who reads a lot of Great Lakes news, there is so much now- Asian carp, Asian carp, Asian carp. But one of the things I really liked about your book was that it explains there have been a lot of different invasive species and a lot of threats to the Great Lakes. Could you outline some of the things that have damaged the Lakes?”
JA: “Well, the first really bad actor was the sea lamprey (pictured below), which got into Lake Ontario through the Erie Canal and then got into the other Great Lakes through the Welland Canal. That was because they wanted to bypass Niagara Falls, which was this great natural barrier and protector for the Great Lakes. The thing I found really interesting is that by the late 1940s, the sea lamprey was just doing a number on the native fisheries of the Great Lakes. And when they started to build the Seaway, no one sort of asked the question, ‘If the sea lamprey caused all these problems, by getting in through these canals, what might happen if we allow ocean freighters from around the world to come to the Great Lakes?’ As far as I can tell, no one ever raised that question or discussed it. And you know, it was 50 years ago, the science wasn’t nearly as advanced, but there was just really no thought given to the potential negative effects.”

RW: “I guess – sorry to interrupt- but is that just because there was no environmental mindset back during that time?”
JA: “Yeah that is my take on it. There really wasn’t much environmental consciousness. Things didn’t really get going in a big way in this country until the 1960s when Silent Spring was published. In the 50s, it was, you know, ‘We can put a man on the moon, We can build a superhighway, We can do anything.’ I just didn’t find any evidence of any environmental concerns or thought put into potential side effects.”

RW: “Another thing I learned from your book- I grew up in the Great Lakes region and I remember as a kid hearing a lot about the zebra mussel, but I didn’t know that there is something even worse than the zebra mussel, the quagga mussel (pictured below).”

JA: “Yeah, scientists are pretty much in agreement now that the quagga mussel is the single worst invasive species in the Great Lakes. I refer to it as a zebra mussel on steroids. Because they are a little bigger than zebra mussels, they can live in a wider variety of environments, they can cling to anything where zebra mussels require a hard surface, and they are just more efficient feeders. And so they are finding these things at depths of 700 feet in Lake Michigan. They have all but driven zebra mussels out of Lake Michigan. And they are a really bad actor, because the sea lamprey sort of changed the top of the food web, but zebra and quagga mussels change every level of the ecosystem in the Great Lakes – from plankton up to loons and sturgeon. They affect every level. They change the water chemistry. You know, some scientists are saying we are seeing the most profound ecological changes in the Lakes in recorded history, because of these mussels.”

RW: “Do you think, then, that the St. Lawrence Seaway should be closed?”
JA: “It’s a simple question but I think when you look at the issue, it’s not such as simple question. The reason is everyone agrees the only way to prevent ocean freighters from bringing in species is to close the Seaway. That is the only fail-safe solution. But the reality is that the Seaway was built by the U.S. and Canada. They own it, they operate it, they hold all the cards. It would be politically impossible to close the Seaway, barring some Exxon Valdez- type environmental catastrophe. On a personal level, I think we could close the Seaway without having much negative effect on the economy, and studies have shown that. There could actually be an increase in jobs. The amount of international trade moving on the Seaway these days is minuscule, compared to what the lake freighters carry. Economically, it is not a big player for the region and it would be very easy to stop ships in Montreal, make them offload their cargo onto trucks and trains and be done with it. But realistically, it’s not going to happen. I feel like that answer is sort of waffling, but it’s just not a very simple question when you look at everything involved.”

RW: “Going back to the Asian carp, what do you think will happen? With the suggestion to close the Chicago area locks and shipping channels, do you see that as similarly politically impossible?”
JA: “It is politically impossible. When they started talking about it last year, the politicians and the barge industry in Chicago rose up and said, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ The thing that I think is really interesting about the Asian Carp story is that it’s like a bad case of déjà vu. You know, scientists were seeing zebra mussels in ocean freighters seven years before they were common in the Great Lakes, and nobody did anything. Asian Carp are knocking on our door, and there are a lot of things being done, but it’s not slowing their progression. I mean, they are still moving up the Chicago Shipping Canal. And they are now in the Wabash River in Indiana in huge numbers. And there’s a threat that if the Wabash floods, it often goes over into the Maumee River, which goes into Lake Erie. So, the Chicago Canal is the most immediate threat, but it is not the only passage for these things to get into the Lake. There certainly isn’t the sense of urgency that I think we need to have. And the other thing that sort of disturbs me is that people seem to be really provincial around the Lakes. And Chicago is showing this in a really bad way right now with the Asian Carp. They are trying to defend their industry, which is understandable, but we’re talking about an area that is probably has 5% or less of the Great Lakes shoreline potentially impacting the entire Great Lakes. And I think one of the real problems with addressing really big-picture Great Lakes issues is that people often don’t think of the Great Lakes as one large, connected system.”

RW: “That is definitely true. And that’s actually something we try to point out a lot on our web site; just to kind of think of the whole area as a region with similar strengths and similar problems.”
JA: “It’s hard because the system is so incredibly huge. I was in Buffalo a couple of months ago for a conference. And sitting here in Michigan, I think Buffalo is hundreds of miles away and you don’t think about how it’s connected to Michigan, but it is. The one thing I really wanted to figure out with my book was, could any of this have been prevented? Or was it just the world’s worst example of unintended consequences? I think it’s pretty clear that some of these species could have been kept out of the Lakes had the U.S. and Canadian governments done their jobs. We’re starting to see this pattern of: someone finds a species bearing down on the Great Lakes, scientists sound the alarm, advocacy groups get involved, and nothing happens. We had it with zebra mussels. We’re seeing it with Asian Carp, even though they are trying to do some things, you know, the clock is ticking….These invaders have incredibly profound effects on the ecosystem. I mean, look at the Asian Carp. I don’t think it’s going to turn the Great Lakes into giant carp ponds, I just don’t think the Lakes have the amount of plankton to support large numbers, but I think in parts of the Lakes, especially Lake Erie, I think they could do pretty well, and they could do really well in quite a few rivers around the Lakes….I guess maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I don’t see how we can keep them out of the Great Lakes. It’s going to be really difficult.”

RW: “You authored a report earlier this year about sewage overflow problems with the Lakes. Tell us why that’s such as serious problem and what can be done about it.”
JA: “The thought of billions of gallons of untreated sewage being dumped into the largest source of freshwater on the planet is appalling at the most fundamental level. We need these Lakes for drinking water and we are dumping untreated sewage into them. I don’t think environmental insults get much more basic than that. I think it shows that our cities have grown, they’ve gotten older, the infrastructure has aged and we just haven’t made the investment needed to keep up. Yeah, I think it’s a very serious problem, it’s not just human sewage, there is all this industrial waste. And I had no idea that the volume was in the tens of billions of gallons every year. We figured it was about 40 billion gallons in 2009. And a lot of that is almost entirely storm-dependent, so if you have a dry year, you don’t have (these events). To me, the thought of all the sewage overflow into the Great Lakes is really disgusting.”

RW: “Is there anything else I haven’t asked about you want people to know?”
JA: “Two things: When you read about all these invasive species, or write about them, it’s easy to think the Great Lakes are hopelessly damaged or are dying a slow death. But that’s the one area where I’m actually optimistic. If we can sort of turn off the spigot of new species coming into the Lakes, the Lakes will heal themselves to some extent. They’ve show themselves to be incredibly resilient in the past. Lake Erie in the 1960s went from a giant cesspool to one of the world’s best walleye fisheries. So the Lakes can heal themselves if we would just take better care of them. I’m not Pollyanna about it. The Lakes have serious problems. But I think there is a tendency for people to give up and think all is lost. And I think we should never give up on the Great Lakes. The other thing I tell people, is that if they are concerned about invasive species of Asian Carp or the Seaway, with technology being what it is today, it is really easy to get on the Internet, find your elected official and send them an e-mail. You don’t have to know all the technical aspects. All you have to say is, ‘I want you to do everything in your power to make sure Asian Carp don’t get into the Great Lakes.’ Our elected officials in Washington need to hear that. They need to know people are concerned about the Great Lakes. There is really no excuse for apathy anymore.”


Filed under Book review, Economic Development, Editorial, Great Lakes, Headline, Politics, regionalism, the environment