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Susie Cagle's Posts


Public transit use is up — again!

America hasn't exactly turned into a train-crazed utopia just yet (have you noticed?) but we're getting there!

New data released by the American Public Transportation Association this week shows a 2.6 percent bump in transit use over last year.

“With seven consecutive quarters of ridership increases, it’s obvious that public demand for public transit is growing,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “As Congress works to resolve our country’s deficit problem, it also needs to work to resolve the transportation deficit. Otherwise public transit and highway funding will be facing an annual $15 billion shortfall in the next 10 years.”

APTA broke its findings down by location and type of transportation, some of which were bigger winners than others. Heavy rail enjoyed a 3.6 percent increase in ridership.


Light rail increases (4.2 percent!) were due at least in part to system improvements and expansions.

Read more: Cities, Living


From bike shares to urban farms, Philadelphia is on the rise

It's been a banner year for urbanism in the City of Brotherly Love.


A West Philadelphia project led The New York Times' piece on brownfields redevelopment today, and a new report released this week finds that the city's community development corporations are cleaning up blight, rehabbing houses, and adding millions to Philadelphia's tax base.

Yesterday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) officially launched a city Office of New Urban Mechanics dedicated to city innovation and problem-solving. "New Urban Mechanics will have the flexibility to experiment, the ability to re-invent public-private partnerships and the strategic vision to create real change for Philadelphia. I am excited to establish the Office of New Urban Mechanics as a civic innovation tool for urban transformation," Nutter said in a statement.

Like a lot of "urban innovation" initiatives these days, that is really vague! It could encompass everything from apps for tracking and fixing potholes to brainstorming around some of Philadelphia's big projects still in the works.

One big project: a bike share! Philadelphia wants to get one rolling. From the local CBS affiliate:

The city envisions getting a business plan together by next spring, then selecting a vendor, with the first bikes hitting the streets in 2014.

“We will need $3 million of city capital money,” says deputy mayor for transportation Rina Cutler, “then we hope to raise an additional five or six million in federal, state, and private funds.” ...

Cutler says they’re still working out how users will pay for the bicycles. Credit or debit cards might ensure that the bikes don’t get stolen, but she says they also want to figure out a cash model or cell-phone technology for payment that shows up on your phone bill, so they don’t eliminate low-income users.

Or the office could help set up a new city land bank to fight blight and grow Philadelphia's urban core. In October, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a bill paving the way for a Philly land bank. A recent surge in demand for central city housing has motivated the city -- with its 40,000 vacant lots -- to establish the bank. But there's no telling yet if the bank will give preference to big developers or small nonprofits, or put everyone on a level playing field.

Things are looking great for Philadelphia! Except maybe (maybe!) when it comes to the city's burgeoning urban agriculture scene. This summer, the city approved new zoning rules that acknowledge upwards of 350 community gardens and farms spread across 753 different parcels. From Next American City:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living, Politics


King tides give California coast a taste of warmer, wetter future

THE KING TIDES ARE COMING. Through the end of the week, California will be experiencing its highest tides of the year, the "king" kind, that come around each winter. It may be galactic gravity that's pulling the water closer, but it looks a lot like climate change! The tides will be as high as +10.1 feet in some places.


From The San Jose Mercury News:

"Flooding would be a concern if we had a storm system coming through," said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. Instead, the rising water will offer a teachable moment, scientists say. Already, the ocean off California has risen 8 inches in the past 100 years. As the earth warms, polar ice melts, and the warmer ocean water expands, increasing sea level. That rate of sea level rise is accelerating. A National Academy of Sciences report in July found that, relative to sea levels in 2000, the California coast south of Cape Mendocino is projected to experience sea level rise of 1.5 inches to 11.8 inches by 2030, and 4.7 inches to 24 inches by 2050, and 16.5 inches to 65 inches by 2100.

Just because the Golden State won't have a Sandy-sized catastrophe doesn't mean there can't still be a lesson in all this. The Mercury News calls this "a giant science project" but I call it "scaring people into better behavior." The California King Tides Initiative is collecting citizens' photos of the tides in an effort to educate the public about what higher sea levels might actually look like.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Community health centers rise up from toxic brownfields

If poor communities aren’t living in the shadow of active industrial pollution, they’re often living in its graveyard. Industrial polluted brownfields are fenced and festering from California to Maine, frequently situated near low-income residents. When developers come to clean up and build on the sites, too often they plan projects that will push out rather than benefit the people who live nearby.

A Worcester, Mass. brownfield.
Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection
A brownfield in Worcester, Mass.

But today The New York Times points to a different kind of trend in brownfields development: building health centers for low-income local residents on sites formerly occupied by meatpacking plants, gas stations, and factories. These kinds of projects stand to bolster communities, not just property values, and they’re still serious investment opportunities for health-care companies.

[There's] a nationwide trend to replace contaminated tracts in distressed neighborhoods with health centers , in essence taking a potential source of health problems for a community and turning it into a place for health care. In recent years, health care facilities have been built on cleaned-up sites in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon and California.

“These health care providers are getting good at it,” said Elizabeth Schilling, policy manager for Smart Growth America, an advocacy group. “They have internalized the idea that this is an opportunity for them.”

Because these sites are contaminated, many qualify for government tax credits and grants, providing health centers with vital seed money to build. Community health centers, by design, exist to serve populations in poor neighborhoods, where there also tend to be available but contaminated properties like old gas stations, repair shops and industrial sites.

Read more: Cities


Different breeds of urban agriculture duke it out in Detroit

On Tuesday, the Detroit City Council voted to sell about 1,500 city-owned lots to the Hantz Woodlands project to plant trees as a beautification effort.

Supporters say it's just what Detroit needs: large-scale blight removal and reforestation to reinvigorate the post-industrial wasteland with urban innovation. Detractors say it's a land grab that jeopardizes a local fast-growing urban farming movement and stands to displace low-income residents of color.

urban farm
One of Detroit's already-thriving urban farms.

Multi-millionaire money manager John Hantz now has a deal to purchase the lots from the city for $300 each -- about eight cents a square foot, which is very, very cheap, even for beleaguered Detroit.

From The New York Times:

A Web site set up by Mr. Hantz, a wealthy entrepreneur, to advance his proposal says the farm would return the city “to its agrarian roots.” The repurposed lots -- cleared of blight and planted with roughly 15,000 hardwood trees -- would establish an economic zone, raise property values and return vast tracts of abandoned land to the city tax rolls, according to Mike Score, the president of the venture, Hantz Farms. Ideally, the enterprise has signaled, it would eventually become a major source of local food ...

Saunteel Jenkins, a City Council member who favors the proposal, argues that the city needs to think in new ways. “Farming will be one of the many things that be part of Detroit’s reinvention,” said Ms. Jenkins, chairwoman of the council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. “The auto industry used to be our bread and butter, but now we have to diversify.”

But In These Times reports that about 100 people still live in the areas that Hantz plans to demolish, clean, and plant full of trees by next spring. And some Detroiters object to the plan for other reasons:

Read more: Cities, Food


Oil companies polluting aquifers with EPA’s blessing

oil barrel in water
Kind of like this, but underground.

Oil companies: They're kind of like pet cats, it turns out. They don't care what you want, they're only out for themselves, and they love to bury their waste wherever they feel like it. And thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency, they're able to bury it via aquifer injection at hundreds of sites across the country where the EPA says the water is not "reasonably expected" to be used for drinking.

In some of America's most drought-stricken communities, this practice is polluting what little drinkable water there is left. A new report from ProPublica digs into the EPA's spotty record on issuing exemption permits for dumping in the nation's precious aquifers -- starting with the fact that the EPA itself hasn't kept great records on which permits it has issued at all.

Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water. ...

Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.

Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.


Study finds ‘widespread seafood fraud’ at restaurants

Dead fish don't lie -- except for a lot of the ones served in restaurants.

Matthew Kenrick

A new study from conservation group Oceana found that 39 percent of New York restaurant fish DNA-tested by the group was mislabeled. That, combined with past studies of Los Angeles (55 percent), Boston (48 percent), and Miami (31 percent), paints a sad and even scary picture of what diners can expect when they sit down at American seafood restaurants.

Mislabeled fish was found at a range of eateries from low- to high-priced, and at every sushi spot tested. The New York Times reports:

In some cases, cheaper types of fish were substituted for expensive species. In others, fish that consumers have been urged to avoid because stocks are depleted, putting the species or a fishery at risk, was identified as a type of fish that is not threatened. Although such mislabeling violates laws protecting consumers, it is hard to detect.

Some of the findings present public health concerns. Thirteen types of fish, including tilapia and tilefish, were falsely identified as red snapper. Tilefish contains such high mercury levels that the federal Food and Drug Administration advises women who are pregnant or nursing and young children not to eat it.

Ninety-four percent of fish sold as white tuna was not tuna at all but in many cases a fish known as snake mackerel, or escolar, which contains a toxin that can cause severe diarrhea if more than a few ounces of meat are ingested.

Read more: Food, Living


Judge orders two-week halt to Keystone XL pipeline construction

We've reported before about the Keystone XL blockade activists, but the East Texans who own the land on which the pipeline is being constructed have been some of the project's most vocal, if less-often-pepper-sprayed, detractors. And today they actually kind of won for a change.

A Texas judge has ordered TransCanada to halt work for two weeks on the pipeline, following a lawsuit from landowner Michael Bishop claiming that TransCanada lied about transporting crude oil when it's really hauling tar-sands oil.

TransCanada's all, "Oil is oil, what's the big deal?" But the judge didn't see it that way. From the Associated Press:

Tar sands oil — or diluted bitumen — does not meet the definition as outlined in Texas and federal statutory codes which define crude oil as “liquid hydrocarbons extracted from the earth at atmospheric temperatures,” Bishop said. When tar sands are extracted in Alberta, Canada, the material is almost a solid and “has to be heated and diluted in order to even be transmitted,” he told The Associated Press exclusively.

“They lied to the American people,” Bishop said.

Texas County Court at Law Judge Jack Sinz signed a temporary restraining order and injunction Friday, saying there was sufficient cause to halt work until a hearing Dec. 19. The two-week injunction went into effect Tuesday after Michael Bishop, the landowner, posted bond.

David Dodson, a spokesman for TransCanada, said courts have already ruled that tar sands are a form of crude oil. He said the injunction will not delay the project.


USDA backpedals on healthy school-lunch rules

unhappy girl with school lunch trayWhiny kids and Republicans have a lot in common. For example, they both complained enough to weaken still relatively new USDA rules requiring school lunches to be more healthy. Some kids said they were still hungry after eating the new lunches, and Republican legislators (who often act like they’re cranky due to low blood sugar) said the government was meddling too much in local affairs, so now the USDA is lifting the cap on the amount of meats and grains permitted in school meals.

In a letter to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) [PDF], USDA head Tom Vilsack said the meat and grain limits had been "the top operational challenge" for states and schools in implementing the new standards, in part because they had a hard time locating the "right-sized" meats, and apparently cutting the meats into the right sizes is just too much work.

From the Associated Press:

Read more: Food, Politics


Here’s how you can get conservatives to care about the environment


Stop appealing to climate-change deniers with science and moral arguments, folks -- it ain't gonna work. Just get them worrying about their own health and the "purity" of their local environment. At least that's how I'm reading this new study from UC Berkeley published today in the journal Psychological Science.

From the press release:

A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to “protect the purity of the environment” and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog ...

“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study. “Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.”