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Pour it on: How Dutch cities are soaking up rain and reducing flooding

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This is the fourth nstallment of a Times-Picayune and Advocate series exploring how the Netherlands’ climate change adaptation strategies could be a model for the Louisiana coast.

The series was produced in collaboration with WWNO New Orleans Public Radio and Climate Central, and is part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines 

By Tristan Baurick, The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and Climate Central

ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands Eveline Bronsdijk knew she'd done her job when the people of Rotterdam began debating whether pigs should be allowed on rooftops.

In 2012, Bronsdijk, the city’s sustainability adviser, was trying to promote green roofs, thin layers of plants that make buildings cooler, the air cleaner and — most importantly for Rotterdam — gutters and storm drains drier.

At first, she touted how much rain the roofs can absorb, and how they could play a role in reducing the city’s increasingly chronic flooding problems. “But people don’t care about those technical aspects,” she said. “They thought it’s nonsense. Why invest in something above your head that you can’t see? Duh! End of story.”

Then she showed them the flowers and vegetables they could grow, and the tiny rooftop farms they could create with beehives and chicken coops. That’s when the city’s voluntary green roofs program took root. “People said ‘OK, we have chickens, but now can we have pigs?' Some people hated that idea. When local groups started to fight over pigs, it was proof of success. They had embraced the fact that the roof was not empty space.”

Now Rotterdam has more than 100 acres of rooftop greenery. That’s enough to coat nearly every roof in New Orleans’ Central Business District with rain-absorbing vegetation. Rotterdam’s green roof initiative is one of a growing number of projects in Dutch cities that aim to capture and store rainwater while also making urban life more livable.

“We are now in an orchard, and before we were in a field,” Bronsdijk said while walking through a park on top of an old train station. The long roof boasts at least 50 apple and pear trees, several community vegetable garden plots and a large lawn used for festivals.

For lunch, she stops at a restaurant on the top of a seven-floor office building. The artichoke in the soup, the edible flowers in the salad and the honey in the tea all come from the rooftop farm outside, one of the largest in Europe.

“You have to show what’s possible,” she said. “And you have to have a fun approach and then people will really embrace it.”

Like New Orleans, Rotterdam is coping with heavier rains and bigger storms brought about by changing climate. Over the past century, precipitation has increased by more than 20% in both the Netherlands and the American South, and the rain is tending to come down in heavy bursts that overwhelm old drainage systems. In New Orleans, it's becoming clear that the city’s century-old pumps can no longer keep up with today’s downpours, causing increasingly routine flooding in areas that had little trouble draining a few years ago.

New Orleans architect David Waggonner has for years been calling on the city to find more ways to hold or slow the rain temporarily until the pipes and pumps can catch up.

“The idea that you’re going to pump this city out — I don’t think people hold that anymore,” he said.

Waggonner helped write the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, an ambitious, Dutch-inspired series of strategies for creating public green space, opening up more canals and other upgrades aimed at retaining or slowing water to give drainage infrastructure time to catch up.

Nearly a decade later, the plan, which lacks a funding source, has inspired a smattering of small improvements — a few rain gardens and strips of porous pavement. In Dutch cities, similar efforts that began around the same time have been systematic and wide-reaching.

Becoming 'a bathtub’

Rotterdam has always been a heavyweight in the battle against water. A greater share of Rotterdam than New Orleans sits below sea level — some 80%, and some of it by 19 feet. On all sides, water is trying to get in. The Rhine, Schedlt and Meuse rivers merge in its city limits and flow to the North Sea, less than 20 miles away. River flooding and storm surges have been adversaries since Rotterdam was founded nearly 800 years ago, and yet it’s grown into the Netherlands’ second-largest city and Europe’s biggest port.

Rotterdam’s levees, floodwalls and the immense Maeslant Barrier, one of the largest moving structures in the world, are effective in keeping out water from rivers and the sea, but not from clouds.

“We have made ourselves into a bathtub, and now it’s filling up,” Bronsdijk said. “We have a lack of space underground to increase our (drainage) system, so have looked up at our roofs.”

Rotterdam’s green roofs initiative started with subsidies that required a certain amount of rainwater retention, usually about 4 gallons for every 10 square feet of green roof, for a reduction in taxes and other fees. The city offers guidance in green roof design and educational events. The largest event, Rotterdam’s annual Rooftop Days festival, draws thousands of people to more than 60 green and multifunctional roofs.

The green roofs have become numerous enough that they are promoting themselves, allowing the city to up the ante for subsidies. Starting this year, a qualifying green roof must be designed to retain twice as much water — about 8 gallons for every 10 square feet — as when the program began in 2008.

“When you have roofs like these, you can invite people and show them it catches rain and say, ‘See the yellow flowers you can grow,’ ” Bronsdijk said. “And they say ‘Yes, well, I like pink. Can I have pink flowers on my roof?’ ”

Likewise the jump from chickens to pigs, which the city did eventually decide to allow on rooftops. In a concession to animal rights groups, the pigs have to be kept away from the roof edges so they’re not spooked by the heights.

Rotterdam’s 100 acres of green roofs have boosted the city’s water storage capacity by at least 1.6 million gallons. That’s the equivalent of about 40,000 bathtubs.

The city plans to more than double its green roof coverage over the next decade. With the higher water storage demands that began this year, the city could retain upward of 5 million gallons of rainwater in its rooftops by 2030. That represents a small fraction of the rain that might fall on the city during a storm, but the goal is to ease pressure on the drainage system, not catch all the city's precipitation.

Besides storing rain, green roofs are credited with a host of other benefits. They provide habitat for plants, birds and insects that might otherwise have limited natural space in urban areas. They improve air quality thanks to plants’ ability to filter pollutants. While traditional roofs and other hard surfaces, like streets and parking lots, raise temperatures, green roofs have the opposite effect, cooling ambient temperatures by 5 degrees and cutting summer air conditioning costs by 7%.

Increasing the number of green roofs can reduce the ‘heat island’ effect that makes gray, hard urban areas several degrees hotter than the greener, softer spaces outside cities.

“Green roofs have a real cooling effect, which could really be useful for a warmer place like New Orleans,” Bronsdijk said.

Louisiana may be better-suited for green roofs than the Netherlands. That’s because green roofs perform best when rain is followed by warm, sunny periods, which increases the rate of evaporation, according to a Hague University of Applied Sciences study. This ideal pattern of rain and sun matches New Orleans weather better than the cloudy and cold climate of Rotterdam.

And yet, New Orleans has only a few green roofs. One of the most prominent ones covers the Sewerage & Water Board headquarters on St. Joseph Street in the CBD. It was proclaimed the city’s “first public green roof” when it was installed for $324,000 in 2016. But it’s off-limits to the public right now: The S&WB declined a recent request to see it. An official said it is undergoing replanting and won’t be available for viewing until spring.

‘It’s the way to go’

Rotterdam isn’t leaving the job of catching and holding all the city’s excess rainwater entirely to its roofs. Another widespread rain-retention strategy has been to build dual-purpose public water plazas. The recessed, below-grade sections of the plazas temporarily collect and store runoff during heavy rains. On dry days, the plazas are basketball courts, school playgrounds and skate parks.

It’s most prominent is Benthemplein water plaza, sandwiched between two schools and a church. It can store nearly 480,000 gallons of water channeled from a parking garage and several roofs — nearly one-third the total that Rotterdam’s green roofs can store.

The city has built 10 water plazas in recent years, and five more are planned by 2023. It’s now standard practice to consider installing them whenever the city rips open the ground to improve drainage.

“We replace pipes every 60 years,” said Johan Verlinde, Rotterdam’s climate adaptation manager. “When we tear it all up, we think, ‘How will this area handle future storms?’ And then we ask citizens in that area, ‘What do you want here?’ Sometimes it’s a soccer field; sometimes a schoolyard.”

In the end, neighbors get new pipes and a new amenity that also happens to reduce flooding.

These concepts, which the Dutch collectively call ‘living with water,’ don’t come cheap. Building everything in the New Orleans water plan would cost upward of $6 billion — 36 times what the Sewerage & Water Board, which manages New Orleans’ drainage system, spent on capital projects last year. Such an undertaking wouldn’t be as hard in the Netherlands, where citizens pay high taxes and have strong faith in local government.

New Orleans water managers enjoy neither of those advantages, said Ghassan Korban, the S&WB’s executive director. He recently toured Rotterdam’s green roofs and water plazas. He liked what he saw, and he says he loves the New Orleans water plan, but the only way to come close to paying for it is with a new stormwater fee.

“It’s the way to go,” Korban said. “I think it’s the only steady and long-term way to fund a robust and reliable drainage system in the city. But we’re at a point where we need to gain (the public’s) confidence.”

Korban took over the beleaguered S&WB during a rough time. Several top-level staff were fired after misleading the public about the number of broken and inoperative pumps during rain flooding in 2017. The pumps are still having problems. A turbine powering pumps exploded in December. Catch basins and drains are reliably clogged. When a car was pulled from an underground drainage canal in August, it made national news. Most New Orleanians shrugged.

Korban knows his agency’s reputation isn’t stellar. The S&WB needs more money, but it doesn’t have the public support to ask for it, Korban said.

“We need to grow it,” he said.

A large share of New Orleans’ drainage woes stem from a reaction-based approach to basic maintenance and inspections. Pipes aren’t checked unless they clog. They aren’t fixed until they fail.

Bronsdijk’s face clouded with confusion when told of this approach.

“That is an interesting way to do things,” she said. “But why do you do this? If you cannot care for what you have, it is hard to do anything more. You are always fixing old problems.”

WWNO New Orleans Public Radio reporter Tegan Wendland contributed to this story.

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GE Workers Protest: We Want To Build Ventilators, Let Us Build Ventilators

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On Monday, General Electric factory workers staged a mass walk-off to compel the company to start mass-producing medical ventilators.

Mass Protest

On Monday, General Electric workers staged a mass protest and walked off the job.

Their demands for the company: stop going about business as usual and start mass-producing ventilators for coronavirus patients, according to The Independent. Ventilators are in extremely short supply, especially in cities hit hardest by the pandemic, so the GE workers reasonably posit that the country needs them more than their usual output of jet engines right now.

War Effort

President Trump has invoked but not actually used the Defense Production Act, which grants him the authority to compel manufactures like General Motors and General Electric to manufacture whatever is needed in a crisis. In this case, that would be medical ventilators and other supplies for overburdened hospitals.

Meanwhile, GE, which The Independent reports stands to benefit from the government’s $2 trillion bailout, recently announced that it was laying off 2,600 factory workers and half of its maintenance staff in a bid to save money — an unfortunate display of priorities in the face of a global crisis.

All Hands

“If GE trusts us to build, maintain and test engines which go on a variety of aircraft where millions of lives are at stake, why wouldn’t they trust us to build ventilators?” union leader Jake Aguanaga said during a press conference, per The Independent.

It’s reassuring to know that the nation’s factory workers are ready and willing to get to work manufacturing the supplies hospitals need, but equally unfortunate that the company’s leadership still hasn’t gotten on board.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: GE workers walk off the job and demand they build ventilators [The Independent]

More on ventilators: Experts Say Putting Multiple Patients on one Ventilator Is Unsafe

The post GE Workers Protest: We Want To Build Ventilators, Let Us Build Ventilators appeared first on Futurism.

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I’ve got a old-fashioned link-blog, Pluralistic, where I post a daily list...

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I’ve got a old-fashioned link-blog, Pluralistic, where I post a daily list of links with commentary and analysis. If you’d prefer to get it as a newsletter, you can subcribe to the Plura-list. Both are free from surveillance and advertising.

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People Behave More Cooperatively During Disasters

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I’ve been wanting to write something about this for a few weeks now, so I was glad to find this short but meaty Twitter thread by Dan Gardner about how people react in a crisis: they get more cooperative, not less.

Please remember: The idea that when disaster strikes people panic and social order collapses is very popular. It is also a myth. A huge research literature shows disaster makes people *more* pro-social. They cooperate. They support each other. They’re better than ever.

But the myth matters because it can lead people to take counterproductive actions and adopt policies. The simple truth is we are a fantastically social species and threats only fuel our instinct to pro-social behaviour.

Incidentally, this point is made, and is forgotten, after every disaster. Remember 9/11? Everyone was astonished that snarling, greedy, individualistic New Yorkers were suddenly behaving like selfless saints. No need for surprise. That’s humanity. That’s how we roll.

A reader suggested I check out Rebecca Solnit’s writing on the topic, and indeed she wrote an entire book in 2010 about this: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Solnit recently spoke to CBC Radio about her research.

I had learned by reading the oral histories of the 1906 earthquake, and by reading the wonderful disaster sociologists in a field that begins in part with Samuel Prince, looking at the Halifax Explosion in 1917 … that actually in disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous and deeply creative in rescuing each other, creating the conditions for success of survival and often creating these little disaster utopias where everyone feels equal. Everyone feels like a participant.

It’s like a reset, when you turn the machine on and off and on again, that our basic default setting is generous and communitarian and altruistic. But what’s shocking is the incredible joy people often seem to have, when they describe that sense of purpose, connection, community agency they found. It speaks to how deeply we desire something we mostly don’t have in everyday life. That’s a kind of social, public love and power, above and beyond the private life.

I’ve put this 2016 episode of On Being with Solnit on my to-listen list.

The amazing thing about the 1989 earthquake — it was an earthquake as big as the kind that killed thousands of people in places like Turkey and Mexico City, and things like that. But partly, because we have good infrastructure, about 50 people died, a number of people lost their homes, everybody was shaken up. But what was so interesting for me was that people seemed to kind of love what was going on.

That same year in the aftermath of the election, she wrote an essay called How to Survive a Disaster.

I landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, shortly after a big hurricane tore up the city in October of 2003. The man in charge of taking me around told me about the hurricane-not the winds at more than a hundred miles an hour that tore up trees, roofs, telephone poles, not the seas that rose nearly ten feet, but the neighbors. He spoke of the few days when everything was disrupted and lit up with happiness as he did so. In his neighborhood all the people had come out of their houses to speak with each other, aid each other, to improvise a community kitchen, make sure the elders were okay, and spend time together, no longer strangers. “Everybody woke up the next morning and everything was different,” he mused. “There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to media. The consequence was that everyone poured out into the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once-it was a sense of happiness to see everybody even though we didn’t know each other.” His joy struck me powerfully.

More reading material on this, via Gardner: Disaster Mythology and Fact: Hurricane Katrina and Social Attachment, Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies, There Goes Hurricane Florence; Here Come the Disaster Myths, and 5 Most Common (and Most Dangerous) Disaster Myths.

Note: A version of this post first appeared in Noticing, the kottke.org newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Tags: A Paradise Built in Hell   books   COVID-19   Dan Gardner   Rebecca Solnit
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Yes. Most people are not sociopaths - just CEOs.
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Pathogen Resistance

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We're not not trapped in here with the coronavirus. The coronavirus is trapped in here with us.
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We're not not trapped in here with the coronavirus. The coronavirus is trapped in here with us.
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Well said!

What If We Nationalized Payroll?

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the US Congress appropriated a whopping $2 trillion budget to tackle it (about 10% of GDP). The focus was on expanded unemployment benefits and cash assistance to families, as well as grants and loans to small firms and large corporations in hopes that they will halt the torrent of layoffs.

Across the ocean, Denmark took a different approach. The Danish government announced that it would cover 75–90% of certain worker salaries for the next 3 months. However remote the possibility here in the US, it still inspires the question: Could we have followed suit? How shall we think about such a policy?

The Danish approach only covers workers in virus-hit jobs. However, suppose the US government decided to pay the entire wage bill for the economy during the months of radical social distancing. This would amount to an effective nationalization of the payroll, making the government an employer of first resort.

What would be the required budget for such a program? In 2019, total labor compensation was a little over $11.4 trillion (including $9.3 trillion in wages and salaries and another $2.1 trillion in pension and insurance contributions) (bea.gov). Still, there were millions who were unemployed, so we should enroll them in a Job Guarantee program with stable living incomes. The additional cost of employing 15 million people with a living wage would be $500 billion.

Nationalizing total payroll would amount to 53% of 2019 GDP. Covering wages and salaries only would be 43.4% of GDP, which is approximately what the US government spent per year during WWII. The deficit would be smaller, since the government would continue to receive tax payments. During WWII, the deficit peaked at 27% of GDP, while during the Great Financial Crisis it topped 10%. In both cases, it shrank dramatically as the economy recovered.

If the government paid 100% of total labor compensation for 3 months, it would be spending $2.85 trillion. The $2 trillion budget it just appropriated would have covered much of that expense. Instead, the current package does little to protect or heal the labor market, which means that mass unemployment will be with us for a long while, without a doubt necessitating another stimulus to deal with the repercussions. The St Louis Federal Reserve estimates that unemployment may reach 30%, higher than what we experienced during the Great Depression.

As is already abundantly clear, “paying for” the subsidy is not a problem. We will do well to dispense once and for all with the trivial question: But can we pay for it? Of course we can. No taxpayers or foreign lenders were consulted before the coronavirus stimulus was passed. That’s not how Congress operates. Not in the midst of a pandemic, not in normal times. Congress votes the funding into existence and the Fed and Treasury pay all bills. No government checks bounce.

But the question remains: Even if we can pay for it, should we nationalize payroll, and how?

It is easier to keep people in their jobs than to create jobs once layoffs have occurred. Worse, unemployment has a terrible way of self-perpetuating and inflicting enormous costs on society. On the heels of this epidemic will come another—of mass defaults, bankruptcies, and “deaths of despair.” We no doubt have the tools to tackle a deep downturn. We have done it before. Taking inspiration from FDR, we can deploy large-scale public investment and public employment programs to lead the recovery. And we may well have to do that anyway. But the task ahead would be far easier if we could protect payrolls at all possible cost.

Payroll nationalization à la Denmark is one way to go. But we should remember that the US labor market is far more precarious and unequal than that of our Nordic counterparts. Furthermore, the private sector vastly underpays some workers, grossly overpays others, reproduces the gender wage gap, and robs workers of overtime pay and other earned income, to name just a few problems.

If the government nationalized the payroll, it would be reproducing these inequities or, at a minimum, it would be validating them. Why should bankers get their exorbitant paychecks when the median income for almost half of workers in the U.S. is $18,000?

What if, instead, the government proceeded with a blanket fixed wage subsidy per worker? There were 157 million people who were employed in the United States in 2019, earning a median income of $63,700 (Census). If the government paid out that amount to each employee, the total cost would be about the same ($10 trillion for a year or $2.5 trillion for 3 months). Such a policy, however, would be far more equitable. That would mean a significant pay increase for the vast majority of workers, creating a bubble up stimulus once the pandemic is over. The fixed amount could be set at a different level, but at a minimum, the government should ensure a living wage for all workers.

If the government nationalized the payroll, it would bear the absolute responsibility for pursuing wholesale reforms in the labor market and shoring up the broken safety net that fails to protect Americans even in normal times.

Indeed, the government has that burden now. After all, it is already keeping the private sector on life support through its extraordinary monetary and fiscal policies. The strings attached for these lifelines should include requiring employers to provide living wages with guaranteed benefits, such as paid leave, right to bargain, healthcare, and other.

In sum, the budget for such a sweeping wage-replacement program for 3 months is comparable to what the US government already appropriated. And it has become abundantly clear that we can always fund our policy priorities whatever they are and however large a budget they may require. The challenge is to ensure that these bailouts lead to comprehensive public policies, including labor market reforms that ensure more just and equitable employment and pay conditions for all.

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