Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cost-Effective Strategy Missing In Most Carbon Plans

Ambitious community plans to reduce their respective carbon footprints, such as the one for Durham NC, where I live, are typically missing what experts say may be “…the second most important thing we can do right now,” plant more trees, according to Jim Robbins, a journalist who writes news articles and books about science and the environment.

According to an inventory by Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, there are 156 local currently in place, 26 of which are comprehensive, 55 establishing policy and 75 dealing with climate change plans.

The most inexpensive and likely the most cost-efficient action a city and county such as Durham could take in the pursuit of the goal of reducing local government greenhouse emissions by 50% and community-wide emissions by 30% over the next 18 years is to fund urban forestry at a level consistent with the benefits provided by trees.

New and deeper research regarding trees, including studies conducted by organizations such as the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Global Ecology, shows that forests have an incredible effect on global warming, far beyond where they are planted.

The studies suggest that urban forestry must be incorporated in sustainability planning and this includes aggressive measures to foster, encourage and maintain those trees that naturally regenerate.

Deforestation, even such as the clear-cutting being uselessly conducted along roadsides in North Carolina by out-of-state billboard companies, contributes not only global warming but also to drought.  Trees are not only a critical part of cooling the earth’s surface but also pivotal to the cycle that creates and sustains and regulates rainfall.

Killing trees creates a vicious cycle.  A recent study by the Carnegie Institution for Science on the dramatic loss of Quaking Aspen reveals that during drought die-offs, trees show a 70% loss of water conductivity.

Currently Durham only budgets about $6,000 each year to purchase on average about 350 trees for reforestation which just barely exceeds the average of over 200 that are removed each year due to damage or disease etc. for net reforestation of about 150 trees.

Even when the Durham forestation budget is augmented by another $4,000 from Parks and Recreation (highly constrained to a few neighborhoods), something just doesn’t compute.

The amount being reinvested here in urban forestation is totally inconsistent with the $162,000 value per tree reaped over a fifty-year lifetime in ecosystem services (188 times the purchase price) and even more if the right species are planted and maintained in the best possible locations.

And Durham isn’t even tracking how many trees are being subsumed each year or have been lost historically to development although that information could probably be mined from development site plans or other documents and probably numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Such a metric should be available to help inform funding and residential and commercial incentives for reforestation and afforestation (planting where they haven’t already existed) in numbers that will significantly increase carbon sequestration and more than compensate for the loss of forest infrastructure.

A good first step is the funding of an Urban Forestry Strategic Plan such as one advocated by Durham’s Urban Forester, an example of which can be found at this link for Santa Monica, CA where even the original developers in 1875 appear to have grasped the importance of forest infrastructure.

A plan for Durham could include deployment of well-proven technology utilized to much more accurately measure not only tree canopy but the amount of area under development and used for roadways or parking lots as well as to identify tree deserts in low income areas and areas that could be used for reforestation.

Of course urban forestry here spearheads a process below the national average of one tree planted for every two that naturally regenerate.  The survival rate for naturally regenerated trees is probably around 1 in 20 based on a recent study.

Unfortunately, unless incented otherwise, many of the trees planted residentially or commercially are invasive species that are not large enough or of the type that will yield the full benefits trees can yield while crowding out those that do.

The value of trees, including the nation’s 3.8 billion trees found in urban areas, becomes more apparent every day as revealed by scientific inquiry.  This far transcends the huge contribution they make to the aesthetics important to property values and sense of place, leveraged into economic development such as tourism.

It includes crime reduction, healthy immune systems, energy savings, water management, removal of toxins, soil and water remediation, prevention of soil erosion and biodiversity to name just a handful.

According to the evidence put forth in the fact-filled and insightful book Robbins published earlier this year, Durham’s forestry plan should include:

  • Restoration forestry far in excess of what has or will be deforested by development, going forward and back 30 or more years
  • Reforestation or afforestation of low income neighborhoods including neighborhood streetscapes
  • Incorporating forest infrastructure along with other types of infrastructure as part of urban and suburban developments
  • Afforestation incentives to encourage planting of trees where they have not existed historically or recently
  • Agroforestry to marry agriculture and forestry to the benefit of both
  • Use of trees as a much lower cost alternative and more effective approach to removal and remediation of toxins including polluted storm water

But there is no benefit from trees more critical than carbon sequestration, valued in a recent study of roadside trees as 16.6 million metric tons per acre, per year which is why they should be included in every local plan to reduce or mitigate a community’s carbon footprint.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Through the Lens of Experienced Hindsight

In 1960, downtown Durham was still relatively bustling and held 68% of the community’s 562 lodging guest rooms, but studies were already being done to determine how to revitalize that neighborhood.

A little more than a decade later, downtown’s proportion of Durham’s guest rooms had slipped to 41% and then to 21% by the late 1970s when a study was launched to determine the feasibility of building a downtown civic/convention center to help Durham draw its share of the 10% of visitors nationwide who historically have traveled for that purpose. 2.4% of which meet in convention centers.

I’m very familiar with studies and facilities of that period including those studies conducted several years before and several years after that Durham study, to support construction of similar facilities in two similarly-sized communities during the early stages of my now-concluded, 40-year career in community-destination marketing.

“Build it and they will come” was even more epidemic back then than it is now. Economists were just beginning to stress the distinction that visitor-centric economic development is fueled by driving increased visitor demand through effective community marketing as compared to traditional supply-side, facility-driven industrial or economic development, affectionately termed  “smoke-stack chasing” back then.

Fortunately, construction of a convention center in Durham was delayed for decade following the 1977 study to enable sufficient time for a spirited community conversation.

During this delay, an effort was also mounted to get the horse in front of the cart by setting the wheels in motion to charter a community-destination marketing agency (DMO) to spearhead the attraction of Durham’s full potential from visitors segments of all types including the 10% attending conventions and meetings.

It was during the end of this period that I was recruited to jumpstart that organization and to which I devoted the final 21 years of my career as an destination marketing exec before retiring several years ago.

I use the term “fortunately” to describe the decade-long delay because the late 1970’s proposal appears to have relied, as many did back then, on earlier models that in hindsight of my experience were already becoming outdated and had not anticipated the explosive changes in tourism in general and competition for tourism as well as in Durham which was then undergoing a 172% net-expansion of guest room supply, many supporting what would become more than ten major convention hotels and not a one downtown, which by then hosted only 13% of the total.

Unfortunately, when it was decided, a decade after the 1977 study, to move ahead with the convention center project, the crucial but inconvenient step of updating the earlier feasibility analysis was omitted or likely nixed by impatient list-checking.

It was also unfortunate because DCVB was not quite yet operational and available to curate information to better inform that decision with real-time data about the actual marketplace and fresh eyes dilated to the incredible changes occurring at the time both in Durham and in tourism in general.

So constrained and with the benefit of the lens of hindsight, it could be said that Durham set about in the late 1980s to build a convention center, based on an already obsolete, early 1970s model, with far too few proximate guest rooms and shoe-horned, at the insistence of downtown developers and sycophants, into a third the size needed back then or especially even now in order to fit on a parcel much too small to either be extended outward or with walls that would  support additional floors to expand upwards.

The Durham facility was essentially stillborn in 1989 into a community with little resemblance to the one in which the 1977 study had anticipated that Durham would reap less than 90,000 convention/meeting delegate room-nights by 1990.

No one had foreseen or could detect at the time just how rapidly Durham was changing or maybe the blindness was created by only using a downtown lens.  The projections were off by more than 120%

As the now 23-year old convention center opened,  DCVB’s community-wide destination marketing was leaping into full swing, and by 1990 the community was already hosting nearly 200,000 annual meeting/event delegate room nights and soon to achieve fair market share potential for that relatively small segment of tourism.

Through aggressive, though under-funded, place-based destination marketing since then, Durham’s visitor related economic development has exploded, now generating over 7 million visitors a year, while protecting and fostering the community’s unique sense of place.

Today, several shovel-ready lodging properties under development with more in the pipeline, including two downtown, will mean this neighborhood will host 7% of Durham’s lodging guest rooms by 2015 including the adaptive reuse of an historic bank tower into a very cool 21C museum hotel across a plaza from the convention center and another in the Brightleaf District.

My gut tells me that at least two others could soon evolve and that downtown will ultimately host 9% of Durham’s overall guest room inventory, a long ways from the 68% it had 50 years ago but more on par with the proportions in other communities.

The additional downtown guest rooms have the potential to lower one of the barriers to optimizing the convention center, although  based on “gap” analysis using long and short term capital costs as well as annual operating costs and balancing them with economic impact prompted throughout the community and not just within the facility, the center has always held its own compared with other cultural facilities here.

Durham dodged a bullet by not getting caught up in the incredibly expensive and foolish, ego-fueled “arms race” among communities intent on building ever more mega-convention centers over the past two decades which are far larger than what can ever be truly warranted and during a time when the tourism segment they are meant to serve is undergoing huge changes.

There isn’t much else Durham can do or needs to do to otherwise remedy the effectiveness of its convention center or lower the remaining and even higher barriers inherent from how it came to be.  Under the circumstances the facility performs better than what could be expected.

It isn’t clear that starting over one day will be cost-beneficial since the community already performs so well in that segment and there is so much more potential in other tourism segments.

If and when Durham does consider a new convention center or any other cultural facility, hopefully lessons learned from this example will help, bring to mind that:

1) Destination marketing must be fueled in amounts consistent with driving the demand needed to justify any new or expanded facilities, not just on behalf of those  proposed but to mitigate the impact on existing facilities.

2) Never rely on outdated feasibility studies to address a constantly evolving marketplace.

3) Be extremely wary of developers who hijack cultural facilities and always deploy arms-length consultants and a system of peer reviews.

4) When evaluating the externalities or impacts of any facility, look beyond operating gaps/income and audience overlap to the potential erosion of and churn created by competition for sponsorship and underwriting.

It is imperative that communities learn from their mistakes, even when they only become apparent after decades of hindsight.  To that end, hopefully this post mortem is useful.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paying Respects To Revolutionary Roots

It isn’t unusual for Americans today to have ancestors who lived here during the Revolutionary War.  Of the 60% who do according to, 6.3 million or 2% have ancestors who fought with the revolutionaries in that War of Independence.

I paid respects to great-grandparents (3-5) on each side of my family who fought in that war during several segments of my nearly 8,000 miles of road trips this summer.  They were named McCrory, Shumway, Messersmith, Shelton and Bowman.

They were Scots-Irish, Welsh, French, German, Swiss and English.  Some were already third and fourth generation Americans when Independence was declared from Great Britain, but one took up a rifle for the cause just months after arriving in the colonies.

They represented Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and North Carolina, and coincidentally, three, two less than an hour away, making their homes not far from Durham NC where I have made mine for the last quarter century after having grown up and living until then in the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Mountains of South-central Alaska.Guard Huts for Washington's Guarde At Valley Forge

Two were militia and three served as regulars in line regiments of the Continental Army.

Two fought mostly in the northern theater, two mostly in the southern and one in the west, but they also fought side by side in some battles with at least three encamped during the turning point at Valley Forge that infamous winter of 1777 with General Washington.

One of the later even served a stint in the Commander-In-Chief’s special guard after General Von Steuben broadened rotations to include soldiers from units outside Virginia. (huts shown in this blog)

Two others who were too old to serve in combat headed local committees of safety in Massachusetts and Virginia that helped form units in which their sons served, provided supplies and adjudicated proceedings for neighbors who remained loyalists during the war.

Two served under or with other family members including fathers, brothers and uncles.  They fought with units such as the 4th Massachusetts, the 5th Pennsylvania, the 9th North Carolina and various units of Virginia Militia.

Two served much of the war, other enlisted for shorter periods or when called, and one was with the tough “over the mountain men” who marched through the Blue Ridge to fight when needed.

After research has revealed this information along with documents, I am now even more reverent at the mention of conflicts such as Bunker Hill, Dorchester Heights, Saratoga, Long Island, New York, Princeton, Rhode Island, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Trenton, Stono Ferry, Cowpens, King’s Mountain and Guilford Courthouse.

They all survived the war, one after being a prisoner of war.  They were only privates and sergeants and ensigns, although the uncle under which one served became a general.  After the war, they returned to their lives as farmers.

But they all witnessed and participated in the creation of a nation.  Some of them or their descendants moved west or south and west, often on lands granted for their service, and to settle new territories such as Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Alabama and eventually, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and California.

Eventually descendants of all five ended up at some point in time living in or along the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains with unions to each other through my parents and heritage passed down to me and my two sisters, to my daughter and her cousins and my two grandsons and their cousins, with whom I will leave more detail.

I had heard hints about one or two of these ancestors from grandparents and relatives who did this kind of research the old fashioned way.  Fortunately, the advent of the Internet and digitalization of military records, pension records, records curated for membership applications, minutes of town hall meetings, unit rosters, census records, family bibles etc. have made it possible to dig much deeper.

I am proud of what these ancestors did, but humbled is probably a better description of how I feel.  Hopefully, this gives me the courage and patience to fight through the obfuscation created by bitter partisanship, mind-numbing ideologues, anonymously-fueled ad onslaughts, repetitive sound bits and tons of misinformation.

These ancestors also inspire me to remain a political Independent, stay moderate and seek pragmatic solutions.

And to that end the least I can do pay my respects for their service is to vote my conscience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Geographic Mindfulness

I couldn’t help but pay special attention to states that begin with the letter “I” during the four cross country ventures I’ve taken during my first 30 months of retirement, always accompanied by Mugsy, my English bulldog.

When I first relocated from my native intermountain west to Durham NC, nearly a quarter of a century ago, I was amused that so many native North Carolinians still classified me as a northerner and whenever I responded, “Idaho” to a question about my origins, the reply was invariably, “oh, where they raise the corn.”

Earlier this month as I traced the path my ancestors had taken across southern Iowa 167 years ago, I indeed saw lots of what my friend and Iowa native as well as fellow-North Carolinian, Harvey Schmitt calls “sweetcorn”, as though it were one word, but I was also impressed by the beauty of the topography there where deep, tree-filled creases are carved in glacial till.

Unless you classify geography by crops and vegetation, Iowa isn’t part of the Great Plains, although a small part of that region spills into the very northwest corner from South Dakota.

Iowa is actually in what is classified as the Central Lowland Plains.

A majority of the state of Montana along with major portions of Colorado, Wyoming, both Dakotas, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and nearly all of Nebraska comprise the Great Plains.

During my trip I crossed outbound through the vast Southern Iowa Drift Plain and then back through the very flat Des Moines Lobe stretching down from Minnesota and the shallower-creased Iowan Surface regions of that state on my return.  The northeast corner stretches up toward Madison, Wisconsin in a Paleozoic Plateau.

Overall the drop from the Great Plains into the Central Lowland Plains is one of elevation.

These cross-country ventures, using largely different routes, have left me with a positive impression of the other “I” states and how different they are from my native Idaho.  Even Indiana, where during the outbound leg this month, I garnered only the lasting impression of a forest of ugly roadside billboards in stark contrast to Illinois, but the Hoosier state redeemed itself upon closer inspection on a return route.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed in retirement, besides indulging many passions beyond that of my now-concluded forty year career in community-destination marketing (demand-side economic development) has been the luxury of what psychological researcher Helen Langer termed “mindfulness” in a book published way back when I first moved to Durham in the late 1980s.

But an even better description is found in the title of her new book with updated research entitled Counter Clockwise.  In an NPR interview I listened to as I drove back roads through western Illinois on the second leg of the outward bound route of my most recent trip, Langer gave a great definition of “mindfulness” as follows:
"People often confuse mindfulness with thinking, and thinking has gotten a bad rap itself. Now, when you're being mindful, as I study it, you're simply noticing new things. Even when you're thinking…”
Continually noticing new things and listening to new things as well as  experiencing the incredible geography of this great nation and the companionship of Mugsy and time with my daughter and grandsons are all reasons I enjoy road trips.

When I consider such experiences, in addition to everything I learn through curation of this blog, I realize that I am proving Langer correct when she says they are making me grow younger in retirement.

As Dr. Langer blogged recently, “...activities are not inherently interesting or boring... If we want to find something, or someone for that matter, interesting, all we need to do is notice things about it. The more we mindfully notice, the more engaged we become...”

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tracing Routes Thousands of Years Old

Within a decade after non-natives first set eyes on the Grand Teton Mountains, in the shadows of which I was born and spent my early years, five sets of my great-great-great grandparents were already migrating westward from their ancestral homes in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

They stopped for a few years at various points along each side of the Mississippi River before continuing their migration. I’ve traced the routes they took during the four cross-country trips I’ve taken over the last thirty months with Mugsy, my English Bulldog.

But my ancestors were traveling the 1,500-mile Native American trade routes carved at least 2,000 years ago between that Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, where I was born, and the Hopewell Culture through which I traveled on the outbound leg of my most recent trip after I cut across the Ohio River on the 2,700-foot Ravenswood Bridge and up scenic US Highway 33 through southeastern Ohio to Columbus.

One of the first tasks I faced in each of the three cities I represented as a community-destination marketing executive over the last forty years in my now-concluded career was to deepen historical sketches for each place beyond the date used by the respective chambers of commerce which all began when European-Americans commenced commerce.

Bear Gulch is where I learned to ski, that is after I had proven to my father at age six that I was capable of hiking to the top of a hillside behind our ranch house and repeatedly “snowplowing” down.

The ski area had been developed in the late 1930s along the Idaho boundary of Yellowstone Park about a dozen miles from where my grandparents and great-grandparents had homesteaded to raise cattle and horses.

It had been developed by Norwegian-Americans, still the dominant ethnicity in Fremont County today and a T-bar or Poma-lift was developed about  the time I was born. For me though, my early skiing was on the Teddy Bear rope tow at Bear Gulch.

During my college years, Bear Gulch was supplanted 45 miles south along the Tetons by the development of Grand Targhee Resort just off the road we often traveled during the 1950s before cutting up over the pass to have Sunday dinner at a café in a much less pretentious Jackson, Wyoming.

A few months after I was recruited to come to Durham NC in 1989 and where I still live, the facilities at Bear Gulch burned. However, over the years, Bear Gulch, Idaho had become famous as the source of obsidian points shaped and traded by Paleo-Indians as much as 10,000 years ago and found in what is southern Ohio today.

But obsidian isn’t the only thing produced in my native land that finds its way across the Great Plains to the Midwest. Thanks to the data curated into a spectacular new book entitled, The Atlas of Yellowstone, I now understand why the area where I was born and raised is known as the “Headwaters of the Nation.”

Waters from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem drain into the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California. They fuel huge drainage basins for the Columbia-Snake, Green-Colorado and Missouri-Mississippi river systems.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Inforgraphic - Most Important Meal

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reflections On A Roadside Irony

The engineer-founder of Iowa-based Ecolotree, the headquarters of which I passed on the return leg of my recent cross-country trip, is quoted as saying that “engineers are botanically challenged” which in my experience is true of far too many at the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

But that certainly isn’t true of the engineers in the NCDOT Roadside Environmental Unit.   Over the last five decades, beginning in the 1960s, this relatively small Unit has proactively planted nearly 5 million trees along the state’s roadsides, always staying beyond the safety zone which has been scientifically defined to avoid collisions and facilitate recovery from roadway departures.

Colorful trees such as Dogwoods and Redbuds have been planted for decades along the edge of the roadside tree canopy to augment the Unit’s acclaimed wildflower and scenic byways programs and help deliver on North Carolina’s brand promise to tourists, one of the state’s most important economic sectors. A pine tree seedling was planted in memory of each of the nearly 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.

However, most of the trees are planted in league with forestry and ecology experts to either mitigate the impact of the roadways on the environment or for phytoremediation, the same reason roadside forests are carefully protected and retained during road construction.DSC01342

So residents across the state were puzzled, if not incensed, this past winter to see maintenance crews suddenly clear-cutting entire stretches of roadside trees, further curtailing the 14% national highway system right-of-ways in this state that are lined by trees.

The cutting immediately caught the attention of North Carolinians because it went so far beyond the long-standing federal and state guidelines of 30 feet behind guardrails and otherwise 40 feet, undulating for exceptions around assets such as bridges to no more than 50 feet.

Friends of mine who work in maintenance explained to me that along I 40 in Durham NC, where I live, crews cut the tree line back another 10-20 feet beyond the long-standing policy, in part, hoping to extend the number of years before they would need to do maintenance.

However, some people wonder if the increased cutting may have violated the 1978 impact agreement by the State to “maintain plantings native to the area…alleviating the possible harm to the existing environment” created by construction of that Durham stretch of I 40 a decade later.

Fortunately, NCDOT’s plan is to come back this fall and once again plant Dogwoods and Redbuds but in a transitional area between what large canopy trees remain and the clear zone.

But one must wonder if any projected maintenance savings were weighed against the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, the slain roadside trees across the State represented in public ecosystem services alone.

To put the expanded cutting into perspective the entire roadside from pavement’s edge is only about 87 feet along each side of the Durham stretch, which was established as a best practice overlay prior to construction with community-wide support including the Durham Chamber of Commerce under its then-board president Travis Porter.

The overlay was created in cooperation with roadside landowners to establish very “effective screens including trees, setbacks, landscape standards, sign standards and other elements to also preserve and protect environmentally sensitive and historical assets.”

The effort was chaired by Barbara V. Smith, a former Duke official and later a chair of the Tourism Development Authority, the governing board of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, the community’s official marketing agency, authorized by state legislation passed at that same time.

The suddenly and dramatically expanded cutting last winter wiped out fully a fifth to a third of the tree cover left as part of that overlay, leaving less than 30 feet in places.  I have been told by one engineer that Durham got off easy.  Engineers in other parts of the state were shell-shocked to witness the tree line pushed 100 feet up some hillsides, laying waste to huge trees that had existed before the roadways were built.

I truly respect and try to understand the maintenance challenge and from my friends working there, I know how much and how deeply many of them care.  However, my records show that every few years from the time I arrived in North Carolina nearly 25 years ago until I retired nearly three years ago, those original guidelines had been reiterated as policy in regular communications from various chief engineers down to division engineers across the state, stressing strict adherence.

From my reading, the original cut zones are also still clearly defined for roadway design and maintenance by AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and adopted by the Federal Highway Administration.  But something in NCDOT has changed.

It just seems so ironic, that just as new science at the national level has even further documented the crucial role that roadside forests play in areas such as carbon sequestration, in North Carolina we would do something so seemingly contradictory as if we do not understand that trees serve as our most cost effective means of climate eco-technology.

NCDOT has a huge responsibility and is often subjected to incredible external pressure including that from special interests such as those seeking to reap parasitic value at no cost or contribution to the cost of the publicly-owned roadway.

Similar to major corporations, the department is also faced with the daunting challenge of making sure there is always cross agency, as well as inter-agency, communication and willingness to leverage knowledge and expertise from those who are not botanically-challenged.

Hopefully, there is also now even more awareness of how important roadside forests are to North Carolinians and how vigilant we are to promote, protect and preserve this signature asset to our state’s scenic character.

However well meaning or logically-conceived the expanded cutting was, it may have only reinforced for those who witnessed it why by 2 to 1 now, Americans don’t believe their government is protecting the environment.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Vitality-Generator Many Places Short Change

It occurred to me while reflecting on some of the research I’ve been privy to over the past decade or more that there is something very inexpensive that even acclaimed communities, such as Durham NC, where I live, can do to enhance quality of life and vitality while, at the same time boosting commerce and economic development.

This ingredient costs a tiny of what mega-facilities or events cost but it can also better ensure the success of those facilities each of which cost communities tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate.

It occurred to me during my just-completed 6,000-mile-plus cross-country venture with my bulldog Mugsy (our fourth in 30 months using a variety of routes) because the biggest deterrent to visitors, including nearly everyone considering relocation or business expansion as well as to and existing residents is lack of context.

Navigation systems or apps help, as do Interstate exit-logo signs, as do officially-curated websites and visitor literature such as guides and maps, but these tools need one more relatively inexpensive element in order to sufficiently lower the single biggest hurdle to increased commerce and exploration from residents and visitors alike.Wayfinding Tools - Santa Cruz

The “ease of getting around” always scores as either the first or second highest need, (in the high 70s or low 80s as a percentage of visitors and residents) and yet even savvy communities, such as Durham, with a downtown wayfinding signage system rarely rate higher than the mid 40s on surveys as delivering on “ease of getting around.”

When based on these research findings, a coherent, comprehensive, community-wide wayfinding system of roadway and pedestrian signs was proposed for Durham in the late 1990s by its community-destination marketing organization, the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), it seemed like only a minor annoyance when downtown advocates, seizing an opportunity to include it in a comprehensive street project there, leap-frogged the community-wide process to secure a system exclusive to only their neighborhood.

Of course, downtown was just following a path often taken by many other entities that, given the lack of or interest in a strategic approach, have instead adopted fragmented approaches to wayfinding, e.g. Durham Parks and Recreation and the central Durham Gateway Plan.

But to me, it quickly became apparent that downtown’s impatience and single-minded focus could potentially pay off by serving as a case study for a broader system for anyone unfamiliar with wayfinding or its benefits.  Unfortunately, it may have instead lulled those predisposed to “list-checking” into thinking “one and done” was sufficient.

Now it is clear to a great many people that an isolated approach wasn’t even in downtown’s best interest.  While the system limited to just that neighborhood was very well executed, it is clear now that downtown Durham would have benefited far more from a coherent, community-wide system that would have made the ease of getting both to and from downtown much easier for visitors, residents and non-residents working here from anywhere throughout the community.

In fact the only glaring weakness in this city’s downtown system (which is a good template for a future community-wide system) is that it focuses only on getting “to” and not getting “from.”  Just ask the majority of attendees at events held in the spectacular Durham Performing Arts Center or any of the cultural facilities in Durham, 60%-70% of which are visitors, especially day trippers who just as importantly need wayfinding back to the corridors that take them home.

Ask day-trip visitors in a 50-mile radius who are either visitors or among the non-residents who hold 3 out of every 5 Durham jobs and overwhelmingly they rate the ease of getting around in Durham even lower than other communities.

The process for establishing a community-wide wayfinding system has long been outlined.  Thanks to the downtown system, much of the creative work has been done.  Durham has already distilled an overarching brand signature that is adaptable to zones, districts and neighborhoods.

And thanks to counties such as Brazos, Texas; Buncombe, North Carolina; and especially Santa Cruz, California, even the cost estimates are readily available for a county this size.

Additionally, Santa Cruz provides a glimpse into what a truly strategic approach would be including the excellent graphic shown in this blog as adapted and improved from others by consultants.

As Durham’s official marketing agency, DCVB has already created many of the other pre- and post-arrival elements of an integrated wayfinding system such as a visitor center, curated guides and maps, a hand-held-friendly location-driven website which can easily added to home screens as an app and populated online maps, updated navigation databases and implemented awareness training for front desk staffs and the 1000-strong Durham Wayfinders etc.

DCVB has also mapped a process and offered to help the City and County facilitate a task force of strategic partners including the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham and the Durham Public Information & Communications Council to map out a coherent community-wide wayfinding signage system.

Even the cost of a community-wide wayfinding signage system could be covered for Durham by apportioning a fraction of the
millions of dollars in visitor-paid lodging tax revenues that flow into the City and County general funds each year until such time as the system is incrementally completed, say over half a decade.

Or the project could be self-funded by the increased commerce and related tax collections the system will facilitate from visitors and residents and non-residents who work here who will find it easier to get to and from both commercial and non-profit facilities and events without any prior knowledge of the route.  Several before and after studies show a 15%-20% increase in attendance following implementation of a comprehensive, coherent approach to wayfinding signs.

And another significant dividend from a coherent, community-wide wayfinding signage system is the improved community appearance created by reducing sign clutter through the elimination of thousands of duplicative or obsolete roadside signs, including many in disrepair.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Compensating For The Cutting Of A Tree

The head of the association for billboard companies ended the extended remarks he was allowed to make at the end of a recent hearing held in Asheville NC by castigating trees as the cause of global warming.

Ironically, according to myriad facts found in a new book by Jim Robbins, trees sequester half of all terrestrial stores of carbon, “more than any other single source on land” and only release it into the atmosphere if they die or are poisoned or clear-cut by billboard companies, such as is newly permitted here in North Carolina.

I’m sure glad that some of the stupid things I may have said over the years aren’t captured in tapes of public hearings.  Some readers probably think I get to put them in this blog instead (smile.)Charlotte

I blogged recently that trees could be better protected if it were deemed more expensive to cut them down based both on their value and the harm brought to others than by prohibiting the same practice, a belief shaped during my reading of a book by economist Robert H. Frank during my recently completed cross-country road trip.

Some people may have mistaken this comment to mean that I was only advocating taxation when, in fact I was pointing to the fact that the two legislators who pushed through the legislation granting clear-cutting to billboard companies (one now indicted for other reasons) not only stripped out local protections at the last minute, despite reassurances during deliberations but erased the fiscal note detailing the tens of millions of dollars in destruction of public property enabled under the legislation long with elimination of any requirement to pay for this public property or to replant.

Billboard companies may represent one of the most egregious examples of unwarranted and destructive tree-cutting but they are hardly the only culprits, most of whom do it in violation of local ordinances and other laws and then claim “inadvertence” risking only a slap on the wrist or the requirement to replant trees that are worth a pittance compared to the value of the trees that were cut.

According to Robbins’ book, “over a fifty-year lifetime, a tree provides $162,000 in ecosystem services, including $62,000 in air pollution control and $31,250 in soil erosion.”  This doesn’t factor in other benefits benefits from trees such as atmospheric cooling, facilitation of rainfall, protection from radiation, reduction in crime including domestic abuse or increases to property values.

Needless tree-cutting could be dramatically curbed by placing an assessment in the amount of the true value of the trees or, in the case of a development, a reinvestment equal to the value of the trees cut back into reforestation or afforestation (places where they have not recently grown) either at the same location or very nearby.

A decade ago, The Streets at Southpoint in Durham NC, where I live, transplanted four huge trees at a cost of $10,000 each to give the then-new and now-acclaimed retail complex added value and aesthetics.  Three have survived.

Coupled with inflation, that value provides a gauge for compensatory value of reforestation or afforestation equal to the value of the trees that are eliminated either through either illegal-cutting or for development.

Here is a recent example:  After North Carolina’s new legislation a billboard company rushed under temporary regulatory rules to clear cut three dozen or so large trees along Erwin Creek in Charlotte NC where it runs along I 77.  It even reportedly had to pay $1,700 to chop down one tree because it was particularly large, probably more than 50 inches in diameter.

The cutting has greatly exacerbated soil erosion along the creek and threatens businesses and homeowners because the trees aren't there to capture and slow run off.  The billboard pays less than a hundred dollars in property taxes based only on the value of construction materials not the value charged to advertisers.

Obviously, the State should have listened to Charlotte officials and declined the permit in the first place.  The billboard company has been asked to do some replanting and I can only imagine what size those trees will be.

Truly conservative restitution using the value Robbins noted should be over $5 million.  But using just the value related to curbing soil erosion control, it should be at a minimum $1.1 million.

Only when the cost of cutting trees, legally or illegally, requires compensating the public for the detriment it brings to others will tree-cutting be inhibited and the free market be fully able to work its magic.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Discouraging Tree-Cutting And Other Harmful Behaviors

Checking into several instances of illegal, improvident or misconceived tree-cutting in Durham, NC, where I live, has reminded me of a recent survey this year revealing that:

  • 2.5 to 1 Americans are very concerned about the state of the environment,
  • yet by 2 to 1, they don’t believe that their government is working hard to make sure we have a clean environment.

There is much we don’t know about in dendrology, the study of trees, but what we know so far is that they are incredibly valuable, far beyond aesthetics, and especially as what Jim Robbins terms “eco-technology” in his excellent new book The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan To Save The Planet.

They clearly warrant societal efforts to curb deforestation and incentivize reforestation and afforestation (a little-known term which means planting trees where they have not existed.)

As a political Independent, I’ve been bugging my Republican friends  with questions designed to gain a better understanding of their party’s obsession about regulations.

I’ve been frustrated myself during the evolution of such regulations and certainly here in North Carolina where a majority of citizens believe it was a very misguided piece of legislation that passed last year in their state that suborns thousands of acres of publicly-owned roadside trees to the interests of out-of-state billboard companies, a view shared by Republican-candidate for Governor, Pat McCrory.

In 1859, as the United States of America was unraveling, only a generation after its formation, John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty provided the utilitarian rationale for when government should limit individual freedom whenever there is no other way to prevent harm to others.

One Republican friend and former elected official theorizes that regulations have become increasingly complex in direct response to the failure of executive branches at all levels of government to enforce them in the first place, creating a sort of ever-tightening feedback loop.  I can certainly see his point.

Based on my recent experiences and investigations, I’m even more persuaded though by Cornell economist, Robert H. Frank, who argues in his excellent 2011 book entitled The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good that:

“…it’s generally better to discourage harmful behavior by making it more expensive than by prohibiting it outright. Society’s interest lies in reducing the the total amount of harmful behavior, not in reducing harmful behavior by specific individuals.”

I found in examining instances of illegal tree-cutting here in Durham that prohibitions are virtually worthless because it is so incredibly easy (and inexpensive) for violators to claim the cutting was “inadvertent.” The penalties are rarely applied and when they usually involve some form of replanting of very dinky trees that will take decades before they compensate for the harm to the public.

Frank argues that taxation is a far more effective way to curb behavior when directed at things that harm society, groups and individuals vs. taxing productive activities.

By that he means activities that genuinely add value and create wealth, not rent-seeking behaviors such as those by outdoor billboard companies whose only value is parasitically-reliant on public roadways and the destruction of public property or leveraged buyouts that strip out value for private equity firms.

We need to make these and other bad behaviors very expensive.  But instead, we tax them little or not at all and far less than we do for productive behaviors.

We’ve learned the hard way that indiscriminate deregulation isn’t an answer.  But I believe Professor Frank’s overview of both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin and their insights about both the upside and the downside of the free market and consumerism is well worth a read for anyone.

But as Professor Frank famously tells students:  you should never underestimate the “power of ideology (at any point on the spectrum) to disable critical thinking.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Channeling Frank Church Into The Soul Of Idaho

On the second leg of my just-completed 6,100-mile cross country trip which began at my home in Durham, NC, I headed up into the soul of my native state of Idaho with my daughter and two grandsons for an annual rendezvous with other family members at a lake along the western edge of the Northern Idaho Panhandle.

I was born and spent my early years on a ranch in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, but I now understand why people claim that the soul of that state is an overlook just past the nearly 9,000 foot Galena Pass on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, half way between the “restortiness” of Sun Valley and the unpretentiousness of Stanley, Idaho.

The overlook, renamed a few years ago in honor of the late US Senator Frank Church and his wife Bethine, whose ancestral ranch is in that area, is perched 2,000 feet above a narrow 30-mile valley floor of ranchland that straddles the headwaters of the Salmon River as it carves its way to Stanley between the 10,000-foot Sawtooth Mountain Range and the White Cloud Peaks.

(My thanks to Dr. Joe Smyth at the University of Colorado Mineral Structures Lab for permission to use an image in this blog that he took from the overlook.)

As we stopped for the night in Stanley, population 62, the town was abuzz with crews including helicopters fighting the Halstead forest fire that had been sparked a week earlier by a lightning strike over a ridge 18 miles to the north and fueled by beetle-killed trees has now burned more than 92,000 acres of national forest.

In the mid-1970s, Tom Lucas, a long-time friend from law school days, and I had skied Sun Valley and on another occasion white-water rafted one of the forks of the Salmon River,  but because of my daughter’s suggestion this was my first time to travel this incredible stretch during daylight.

As darkness fell after a long day of skiing Sun Valley, Tom and I would head up over that same pass with another friend from school, Dick Mayberry, in my orange 1970 VW Beetle, eventually cutting across to I 15 in a mad dash back to Spokane and classes the next day.  The windshield defroster wouldn’t keep pace so Tom stayed busy keeping the view clear.

My journey earlier this month with my two grandsons, their dog (my dog, Mugsy, stayed at Camp Bow Wow in Salt Lake City) and my daughter, continued down the deep river gorge through Challis, where friends of my family had owned a dude ranch as I was growing up, to Salmon ID.

Until recently, when it dropped down a classification, Challis was a long-time sports rival to my native North Fremont County, just across the Lemhi Range and the Snake River Plain in the shadow of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons.

Then where the Salmon River takes a hard left across Idaho at North Fork to empty into the Snake, we headed up, right under the nose of the face Montana carves into Idaho, over the Rocky Mountain range at a point called the Continental Divide where the rivers flow either west from Idaho into the Pacific Ocean or east from Montana into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and into the Atlantic.

We dropped from the Continental Divide down into the spectacular Bitterroot Valley ranchland, where my parents seriously explored the possibility of buying another ranch in the late 1950s which was located between Darby and Hamilton, to Missoula of Smokejumper fame.

We then sliced west back through the gap between two national forests and over the Ponderosa-carpeted Bitterroot and Coeur d'Alene mountains of the Idaho Panhandle to our ultimate destination where we met up with family on the shores of Newman Lake.

I was growing up in an Idaho that elected Frank Church to the US Senate when I was the age of my oldest grandson now.  I realize now that Church was the only Democrat from Idaho ever re-elected to the Senate and he served until I was in my early 30s, the same age he was when first elected.

For me, Frank Church instilled pride in Idaho as he fought for civil rights and environmental protection and spearheaded the creation of wilderness areas.  He stood up to intelligence agencies and against the Vietnam War.  He was emblematic of a moderate Idaho that had elected the nation’s first or second Jewish governor and was on the forefront of the progressive movement.

It was also during his service in the Senate that right-wing extremism took hold in Northern Idaho in the late 1970s and began to frame as socialists anyone moderate or center-left, such as Church, a movement that seems to have consumed the Republican Party though it has been frequently rebranded under labels such as the religious right and now the tea party.

My arch-conservative Dad, also an Idaho native, had a point when he often repeated the joke that God had taken Florida in one hand and California in the other and shaken all of the nuts and berries into Idaho.

But seeing the great things that state had given the nation, I have faith that it will soon be part of a movement that will swing the pendulum back to the center and the middle-class values that have truly made this country great.  They may even give us another Frank Church.

Monday, August 06, 2012

My Favorite 80-mile Stretch

My next route through my native State of Idaho will take me over 10 of that state’s 32 major mountain passes, but not through the very northeast tip of the Yellowstone-Teton nook where I was born and spent my early years on a ranch homesteaded by paternal grandparents and great-grandparents at the edge of the Targhee National Forest.

The quickest route across the 74 miles of Northern Idaho (less than the distance spanning the Piedmont along I-40 from Durham, NC, where I live, to Winston-Salem, NC) is on I-90 west beginning at Lookout Pass and punctuated by Fourth of July Pass before it drops the 11 miles down to the 75-mile Lake Coeur d’Alene, just 30 miles from I began in earnest my now-concluded career in community-destination marketing.

A great 35-mile detour on that route is north from either Wallace, Idaho to Fern Falls (depicted in this blog by a recent photo created by BYU Idaho professor Darren Clark) and about the same distance back down to intercept I 90 at Kingston.  That will add an extremely scenic 3 hours to the one hour trip.

My favorite route across the northern panhandle of Idaho (if you count the Clearwater route as north but not part of the panhandle) begins on US 2 at Libby, Montana, the hometown of Kelly Miller, a friend since Alaska days, who now heads the Tampa FL CVB after a lengthy stint in North Carolina where we also worked together when I formerly represented Durham and he represented Asheville.

The highway reaches Libby following its climb up from Kalispell and the northern end of Flathead Lake along an incredible contiguous stretch along the Lower, Middle and Upper Thompson Lakes. Libby is where its namesake dam creates the spectacular 90-mile Lake Koocanusa, approximately half in Montana and half in British Columbia.

The huge lake intercepts the glacier-fed Kootenai River about 35 miles from where it flows through Northern Idaho before returning to BC, then down into the Columbia before returning to fill the 133-mile Roosevelt Lake (sixth largest in America) near Colville, WA, from which hails another friend, former Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson.

This route through Northern Idaho beginning 35 miles northwest of Libby to Newport, WA is still only 80 miles but it will take an hour and then some time reconnecting from and to I-90.

The areas I mention are natural wonders but they also hide many secrets of unbridled resource exploitation, before the time when sustainability took form, including clear cutting and toxic tailings from mining silver and asbestos.

They are also representative of a time when America invested in infrastructure and balanced it with environmental concerns vs. the partisan, ideological gridlock holding America hostage today.

It may not be wide, and I am clearly biased, but the northern-most panhandle of Idaho is well worth an extensive visit.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Infographic – Social Media Influence On Olympics

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Mapping The Benefits Of Urban Trees

According to a U.S. Forest Service analysis reported in Science News magazine, urban areas in the United States are losing 4 million trees a year due to things such as illegal cutting, clear cutting by billboard companies, disease, aging out, development and natural disasters.Tree Map

Hopefully, Durham NC, where I live, has begun to track urban tree populations with the same technology being used here to track road signs so they can be eliminated when the community finally decides to adopt community-wide way finding beyond the tease provided in some districts of downtown.

For an example of how technology can aid any urban tree plan, click on this interactive tree map of San Diego County that appeared in Kaid Benfield’s Atlantic Cities blog on urban trees.  It also calculates the benefits these trees accrue to residents there, helping to inform forest management decisions and practices and educate property owners.

Charlotte, NC has taken analysis of its tree canopy down to specific neighborhoods so it can better address the lack of canopy where the benefits are most needed including studies recently that link tree cover to reduced crime.

I blog often about the value of trees, especially in urban areas and along roadsides, but some of the more recent advantages are not yet included in this handy 2008 reference to 22 benefits.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Thinking Back To My Week With Christie Brinkley

As I was sitting, at the invitation of a friend, through a Christie Brinkley-billed performance of the Broadway show, Chicago, last night in Durham, NC where I live, my mind drifted back more than half a lifetime ago to my first or second year as a community-destination marketing exec for Anchorage, Alaska and then to an unrelated local op-ed I read last week.

My flashback occurred during the early years of a twenty-year period now marked as the golden age of fashion photography.  As typical for anyone in my now-concluded career, I had made arrangements for the photo shoots related to an upcoming spread on Alaska in Vogue magazine which was prompted as part of a state-wide cooperative marketing effort.345882026_03d978c5ba_b

My organization’s updated curation of Anchorage as a destination had recently revealed that a visitor could experience nearly every aspect of Alaska, in or within an hour of Anchorage during just a few days.

Exploitation of this realization eventually helped open up a whole new area of tourism for the state buy during that summer, our new revelation became a godsend for the editors of Vogue because it enabled me to work with local helicopter and floatplane excursion operations to simplify the logistics for the shoot and still be visually representative of the entire state.

Both the pilots and those coordinating the shoot asked me to fly along as a liaison.  Always sitting in the back of the aircraft, next to her French boyfriend at the time (this was several years before Billy Joel) was the emerging supermodel, Christie Brinkley, who was 24 years old at the time, about six year younger than me.

Ten years older than me and now a legend was Stan Malinowski, the photographer Vogue had selected for the shoot.  It had only been six years earlier that Brinkley, a self-proclaimed “surfer girl” at the time was discovered while standing in a Paris post office.

Malinowski, my friends told me (smile), was already famous for photography for Playboy and Penthouse magazines.

First we went up by helicopter into the Chugach Mountains behind Anchorage (as shown in the image in this blog.)  I remember Christie freezing in a swim suit while being photographed in a kayak on an alpine lake and then later when the pilot touched the nose of the helicopter to a steep mountain side and then flew vertically until an incredible view of the Anchorage skyline, Cook Inlet and Mt. McKinley suddenly came into view.

As attested by her scheduled performance in Durham, where I retired several years ago after being the exec for the same type of organization here, Ms. Brinkley has many other talents than modeling and no, I wasn’t invited backstage for a reunion.

She was a no-show for that performance but her role was more than ably filled by Bianca Marroquín who had made her Broadway debut in this role in 2002.

I suspect that Vogue shoot, while memorable for me, is a distant blip in in the rear view mirror of Christie’s career.

During the performance, my mind also returned to the op-ed expertly written by a friend of mine in support of City and County incentives to convert a historic bank tower in downtown Durham into the fourth location of a 21C Museum luxury hotel.

As usual my friend’s op-ed was right on point but seemingly less inclusive and much more laden than usual with references to the downtown advocacy group he leads.  This is understandable and necessary, in my opinion, in the aftermath of a polarizing struggle to establish a special-tax-levy business improvement district.

He makes a number of excellent points about the hotel project.  I was glad to see the op-ed used some benchmarks I helped curate for the author and other downtown advocates years ago during my career.  The op-ed cites only the conservative end of the range of hotel rooms needed and in my opinion a fraction of what I bet will soon emerge.

But hotels, even one as novel as this one, are all empty when they come “out of the box” as were most of the facilities mentioned as precedents in the op-ed, including DPAC, the theater I was in last night.

Folks who focus on “bricks and mortar” forget that hotels, theaters and ballparks don’t generate traffic, it is the marketing and programming of those facilities including their ability to harvest visitor demand generated in good part by the overarching destination marketing of the community that makes them successful.

Marketing the community, including fierce protection and defense of its overarching brand is also what lowers the barriers for projects such as these by not only curating relevant data for financial institutions but directly generating up to a third of demand and often up to a third of debt service.

The benefits of the marketing and programing of a facility, aligned with the overarching marketing of the community as a whole were illustrated in a Durham News Service release recently.

The value added to the Durham economy by visitor-related attendees to the theater I attended last night was curated by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) using input-output methodology to be $49.1 million during the just completed fiscal year, with $27 million promoted by the marketing and programing of the theater.

Visitors, including a vast majority who are drawn by other leisure and business purposes but never set foot in the theater, are also responsible for the majority of the high-performing facility’s debt service.

That visitor volume must be re-drawn and every one of the tickets resold each and every year through both the community marketing spearheaded by DCVB and the expert facility marketing by its contract management, a partnership of Nederlander and PFM, so the job is never done and competition from other communities is relentless.

The balance between supply (buildings and programming) and demand generated (visitors, residents etc.) is a fragile one but evidence is clear that is generating demand for existing facilities is what makes additional facilities feasible and sustainable.

Seeking to reinforce relevance in the minds of internal stakeholders, organizations on responsible for each side of the equation probably overstate their case.  However, neither supply or demand will work without the other and the best results result when there is mutual respect and cooperation.