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Sims’ city: Urban America, as seen by Obama’s former HUD boss

Ron Sims.
Ron Sims.

Shortly after being nominated to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009, Ron Sims declared, “President Obama has … challenged his Cabinet to prepare for the age of global warming. Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas.”

Ah, those were the days! The following year, the Tea Party would sweep into the House of Representatives. In 2011, Sims, who held a major elected role in the Seattle metro area before his stint in D.C., would retire to Washington state, missing his family and frustrated with the slow pace of change in the nation’s capital.

Today, roughly two years after his return to the West Coast, Sims says he sees progress. Before he went to HUD, as the county executive of King County, Wash., he led the effort to prepare the region for the unavoidable impacts of global warming and worked to weave public health concerns into planning decisions. “We realized that we could predict life outcomes of children, health outcomes of adults, by the zip code they live in,” he says. “If you have a park a quarter mile from your home, your children are not going to be obese. If it’s a half mile away, you begin to see the early signs. But if a park is a mile or more away from a residence, obesity will be a problem. How a neighborhood is designed determines health outcomes.”

As deputy secretary of HUD, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations, he worked to bring this awareness to decisions at the federal level, arguing for housing, transportation, and environmental policies that emphasized dense, walk- and bike-friendly development rather than car-centric sprawl. And while these efforts hit roadblock after roadblock, Sims says there has been a shift in thinking in Washington, D.C. That, combined with economic and environmental realities, he says, is reshaping American cities.

Here, Sims talks about his work in Washington, D.C., how the bill is coming due for suburban sprawl, and why he believes we may see riots in inner cities.

Q. How much progress has President Obama been able to make on urban policy issues, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans in Congress?

A. There’s a lot of silo breaking. For example, the collaboration between the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Republicans in the House have attempted to put barriers to that, but you know, the fact is, the staff still meet, so there’s a culture created among how you look at urban areas.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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New Matt Damon fracking flick is worthy, but lacks sound and fury

promised_land_posterPromised Land, the new eco-themed Matt Damon/John Krasinski flick, hit theaters yesterday with a resounding “Meh.” Justin Chang at Variety calls it “a quietly absorbing if finally somewhat dubious drama.” “Wispy, over-earnest,” says Ann Hornaday at the The Washington Post.

But of course, this isn’t just any tale of corporate greed sullying bucolic, rural America. It’s about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of oil and natural gas extraction that is sweeping across parts of the country.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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2012: The year cities stood up to climate change — and took a beating

Manhattan, half-dark after Sandy.
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Blackout of lower Manhattan after Sandy.

A year ago, as the curtain was closing on 2011, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in front of an audience at the United Nations and declared that it would be cities, not national governments, that would lead the fight against climate change. “As mayors -- the great pragmatists of the world’s stage and directly responsible for the well-being of the majority of the world’s people -- we don’t have the luxury of simply talking about change but not delivering it,” he said.

2012 would prove Bloomberg right. It would also lay bare just how far we still have to go before cities like New York are prepared for he havoc climate change is wreaking -- and how hard urban leaders in the U.S. will have to fight to get help from Washington on this and a whole host of other issues. In the closing days of 2012, we watched Republicans in Congress balk at funding disaster relief after superstorm Sandy barreled into New York, inflicting tens of billions of dollars in damage along the Eastern Seaboard.

In the immortal words of Philip Bump: “Oh my God, some politicians are dicks.”

To put it all in perspective, here’s an overview of Grist’s cities coverage from 2012 in five acts.

Read more: Cities

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Thanks for nothing: A post-holiday report from Grist’s Grinch

Chloe scores!
Greg Hanscom
Chloe scores!

In the end, Barbie got the best of us. Despite weeks of talking and thinking about how to simplify the holiday season and put emphasis on fun times with family rather than the stuff Santa left, my wife, Tara, just couldn’t resist, as she puts it, “making a couple of dreams come true.”

This photo of Chloe, 4, probably tells you all you need to know about her feelings on the matter, but when I asked her last night, she put the Princess Popstar Barbie at the top of the "favorite presents" list. Her 8-year-old sister, Lucia, rated her Surfer Girl Barbie toward the top as well. Sigh. I’ll take some assurance from my aunt Jane, who tells me it’s just a phase: “She [Chloe] has good role models.”

Shift the Gift

Barbie domination aside, I think we managed to transform this holiday for the better.

Read more: Living

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Going, going, gonzo: A famously twisted mind tackles the extinction crisis with a wicked pen

Ralph SteadmanRalph Steadman is probably best known for illustrating the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, famous for the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson is dead and gone (per his final request, his ashes were loaded into a cannon and blasted into the air outside Aspen, Colo., in 2005), but Steadman, a Brit, is still very much alive and kicking at the age of 76.

Steadman’s latest work, a collaboration with filmmaker Ceri Levy, is a coffee table book called Extinct Boids. It’s bestiary of extinct birds, some of which are real (there’s the dodo, of course, and the great auk, and many lesser-known species) and others (the Rodrigues Blue-Back Throstle and the Mechanical Botanical Spunt, to mention a few) that hatched directly from Steadman’s and Levy’s imaginations.

Extinct Boids cover 2

It’s a strange and wonderful thing -- Steadman’s ink-splattered illustrations narrated by Levy’s comic journalings and notes. Think John James Audubon on a lot of acid. But there’s a serious message here, too -- about how little we know about the world around us, about the damage we’ve done, and the spirit and creativity we’ll need if we’re going to save a few scraps of it for the boids and other critters.

To learn a little more about the project, I caught up with Steadman and Levy last week for an hour-long video chat that ranged from trench humor to the time Steadman got vertigo while standing over a French toilet. I’ll spare you the latter tale and a few others. Hope you enjoy the rest.

Hanscom: How are you?

Levy: I’m OK. Where Ralph has got to, I don’t --

Unidentified voice: [raucous opera singing]

Levy: Ah. I’m Ceri, and the singing part of the duo is Ralph himself.

Steadman: I should have brought my bird warbler over.

Levy: Welcome to our chaotic world, Greg.

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The new holiday mantra: More fun, less stuff

empty-present
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There’s something in the air this season -- and I’m not talking about the smell of hot credit cards. People are pushing for simpler holiday celebrations -- and some of them are pushing pretty hard.

The New York Times ran a profile Saturday of Kalle Lasn, the 70-year-old mastermind behind Adbusters. The magazine surprised many of us a year ago by sparking the Occupy Wall Street protests. Now, Lasn is on a quest to convince the developed world to stop with the shopping, already.

Lasn is one of the forces behind turning Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, a major shopping frenzy -- into “Buy Nothing Day,” and he’s now pushing “Buy Nothing Christmas,” asking people to march on Times Square from tomorrow through New Years Day brandishing signs that read “#BuyNothingXmas.”

Read more: Living

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A million and one ways (at least!) to simplify the holidays

small present
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Aw man, I’m touched. Really. A couple of weeks back, I asked for ideas for making this the best Christmas ever for my wife and two young daughters -- this, after telling a national television audience that I wasn't going to buy my kids any presents, and asking my friends and family to refrain as well.

I just spent half a day reading through all the comments and tweets. The good news? You're full of great ideas. The bad news? I now have no excuses. This has to be the most memorable, non-materialistic Christmas on record, or I will forever be known as the Grinch.

So what did you all tell me? Here’s a taste:

Read more: Living

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Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.

Merry Christmas, kiddos!
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Merry Christmas, kiddos!

Oh help. I've really done it this time, guys. I wrote a column for Black Friday asking my friends and relations to get my kids nothing for Christmas. Now I know what you’re thinking: What a noble request! A father trying to introduce his children to the joys of a simple holiday! What could possibly go wrong? Well, let me tell you.

First, let me say that, contrary to what you may have read in the comment section below that column, I was not scarred by horrible holidays as a child. I grew up in a mountain town. My Christmas memories are made of snow crystals and red plastic sleds, ski days and spruce boughs. Yes, Santa came to our house, and we exchanged gifts, but the highlight of the holiday season was the time we spent outdoors.

Let me also say that my wife, Tara, and I have some rich holiday traditions of our own. We celebrate Santa Lucia Day, a solstice tradition that is strong in Scandinavia. (Our eldest daughter is named for the saint, whose surrogate appeared in my bedroom late one wintry night when I was in college, bearing candles, mugs of hot chocolate, and a tray of saffron buns.) Each year, we have a solstice fire in our backyard and host a feast for family and friends. One of my favorite traditions involves an annual running race around Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, which we follow with a great wassail-drinking fest and an off-kilter run home through the snowy streets, exchanging greetings with the local denizens as we pass.

On Christmas, Tara and I always get the whole family outside for some frolicking in the snow (or mud, which is almost as much fun) -- and yes, Santa does come to our house. Tara is amazing at whipping up holiday magic for Lucia, who is 8, and her 4-year-old sister, Chloe. The trouble, as I said in my oh-so-tactful "nothing for Christmas" column, is the sheer volume of gifts that spill from the UPS truck, er, St. Nick’s sleigh, from the far corners of the country.

To cut down on the clutter and send a message of simplicity, I have always opted against getting my kids things for Christmas. Instead, I give them experiences -- a sleep-out in a snow cave or a day on the ski hill. But come to find out, my holiday cheer leaves something to be desired. Like, a lot to be desired. Apparently, I’m a total Scrooge McDuck.

Read more: Living

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After a term of hanging around the hoops, Obama could slam dunk for cities

White House / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza)
President Obama playing basketball in Camp David.

Last March, I found myself talking to David Rothkopf, an international energy consultant and writer who was a bigwig in the Clinton White House. I was describing President Obama’s strategy for reviving American cities: Hamstrung by Tea Partiers in the House of Representatives, the Obama administration had set up what amounted to a set of demonstration projects designed to prove that smart policies on inner-city schools, transportation, and urban development could get dramatic results -- and save taxpayer money at the same time.

There was the Promise Neighborhoods program, which created “children’s zones” to give kids in some of the nation’s hardest-hit urban communities a fighting chance. The Department of Transportation’s TIGER grants funded innovative “multimodal” transportation projects (read: bike and pedestrian paths, streetcars, rail, etc.). The Partnership for Sustainable Communities brought together officials from federal environment, housing, and transportation agencies to support local smart growth initiatives.

Wise moves, I figured: If the GOP doesn’t let you play the game, at least practice your shots and show the coach (in this case, the American public) that you’ve got what it takes, so you’re ready to jump in if and when the opportunity arises.

“There’s another word for that,” Rothkopf said: “Bullshit.”

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Please get my kids nothing for Christmas

Shutterstock
They're breeding!

Dear family and friends,

I hope this Black Friday finds you well. I also hope this reaches you before you head for the mall …

I'm writing to send a heartfelt thanks for all of the wonderful gifts you've given my girls over the past four and eight years of their lives, respectively -- and to ask you to stop. Really. It's not that we don't love each and every one of these hand-picked gems. We do. It's just that at this point they have one of everything. In some cases three or four.

Read more: Living