The Fear Monger Awards

In marketing and politics, it's the basics that sway the most people... move the most product.  The basic motivations like sex, greed, and fear.  So it's not surprising to hear some of these bandied about in local politics.

For example, in public discussions several years ago leading up to burial of Westmorland Stream where it runs through the park, a few neighbors said that, if the stream remained open, children might be swept away in floods.  Because no one contradicted this nonsense, the stream was buried.

So in the interest of colorful reporting on local issues (like the Public Works Board meeting I attended last night), I'm going to hand out Fear Monger Awards to those who use the tactic.

FM 5--Warning of end of the world, comet impact, etc.
FM 4--Warning of major terrorist attack, raising the Homeland Security color code, appeal to 9/11 memory.
FM 3--Your children will be swept away by a raging urban stream.
FM 2--Your taxes will go up.
FM 1--Backyard mosquitoes will ruin your barbecue.

Now, some warnings are real, so how do we distinguish fact from fear mongering?  You get an FM award, if your warning is unsubstantiated, exaggerated, or appeals to some stereotyped fear.  Humor is often used, to plant the seed, yet pretend you aren't really serious.

Now, let's apply this rating to last night's Board of Public Works hearing:

Alder Paul Skidmore, FM 1.5  ...for implying with a colorful story that our basements might be filled with raw sewage if we don't take action in the greenway.

Mr. Ozanne, FM 1  ... for implying mosquitoes, the state bird, would carry us away if we allow dams in the greenway.

Unnamed person who complained to City Engineering, FM 1.5  ... as reported at the meeting, for saying garages might topple into the greenway's ravine if the erosion wasn't stopped.

As Winston Churchill said, "there's nothing to fear but fear-mongering itself."


Board of Public Works approves greenway plan--with no changes

The Board of Public Works in session on 4/21/10

On April 21 at 6:30, the public hearing portion of the meeting began in the City-County building, and ended at about 9:00 pm. The board actually began their meeting at 4:30 pm, considering the “non-hearing” items before 6:30. What a marathon! Hey, running the city is hard work!
Attending were seven board members (some of them Alders), about 4 city engineers who presented projects to the Board, and at least 10 citizens. There were three citizens who made statements about the greenway.

The format for review of each project was
  • Presentation of the project by an engineer
  • Technical questions by board members
  • Technical questions by citizens
  • Comments by citizens (limited to three minutes each)
  • Discussion among board members.
  • Motion to approve the project (sometimes with a few modifications), then a vote.
The greenway project is presented

Engineer Lisa Coleman (above) made a verbal presentation of the project, using the maps we have seen plus some photo enlargements. She reviewed the history of the project and the opposition, stating that the whole project began after some residents along the greenway complained about the erosion.

Lisa said that the landscaping plan was just finished, and pointed to a number of symbols on the map, showing locations of trees and shrubs to be planted. As far as I could tell, the landscaping plan involved only the planting of 79 trees and shrubs. A list of trees and shrubs to be planted is available. There was no mention of any terracing, but with a subsequent question, we learned that the “cliff”--the badly eroded bank at one place on the Upland side--would be restored by filling with earth, grading, then seeding with grass.

The original plan for four dams has been cut back to three because one resident objected--probably Mr. Ozanne, because later he commented that he was opposed to dams because of the mosquitoes that plagued his family when he was young.

One board member confirmed that it is now City policy to hold contractors responsible for damage to trees outside planned area, and Lisa confirmed that they would delimit the construction area with fencing (except for the lateral sewage lines). I believe I heard that the project will be bid for natural fieldstone riprap.

During technical questions, we learned that the Vactor trucks can work with hoses up to 600 feet long, but that they cannot operate from Upland or Hillcrest because of the 90 degree bend that would be required in a hose coming down from either street. So the gravel road to the first manhole from the east end is still required--the gravel will be covered with topsoil, as in Westmorland park (where it still looks a little ratty).

Comments from residents on the plan

Peter Mitchell asked about disturbance to residents from construction, talked about the large size of equipment, and his fears about expected collateral damage to trees. He questioned why large trees couldn’t be planted; Lisa replied that, after they lay down the riprap, heavy equipment won’t be able to come in to plant large trees. Board member Phillips agreed that he, too, is concerned about collateral damage to trees.

Mitchell said, rather pointedly, that residents were concerned that--even at this meeting--there weren’t enough details provided for residents to fully understand what was planned.

I have to agree. I still cannot understand why a rain garden at the east end cannot be built to take runoff from South Owen Drive. I have looked at the lay of the land there, and can’t see a valid reason against it.  You might say: "Citizens should just trust city engineers to do their job."  The problem is, people report that project details are sometimes modified in mid-stream, so they don't turn out as presented in public meetings.

Responding to Mitchell’s critical tone, board member Michael Rewey defended Lisa, saying twice that in the ten years he has served on the board, hers was the best presentation he had ever heard.

Alder Paul responded that, putting things in perspective, sewers were important, and there would be s*** in people’s basements if something wasn’t done. Trees were important, but it was unavoidable to lose some, and they would grow back.

David Thompson said:
  • The original cause of damage to the greenway was excessive runoff from upstream. 
  • It would be better for both the neighborhood and the city to solve the runoff problem, but this project does nothing to address runoff issues, despite the fact that just upstream is a park where runoff could be moderated. 
  • The city would be better served if runoff were solved at the source--an example being the need for an expensive project underway to prevent flooding downstream on University Avenue. 
  • In summary, the Board of Public Works should give greater weight to watershed issues. 
Mr. Ozanne said he, too, was losing trees--three to be precise. He said he approved of the project--the only improvement he could think of was to have MG&E put the power lines underground, so they would be safe from falling branches. He said that, when his grandparents owned the property on S. Owen Drive, mosquitoes were a serious problem.

The project is approved

The Board approved the project as presented, all 7 members voting in favor.

In my last blog posting, I said I expected the greenway plan would be “rubber-stamped by the board.  After seeing them in action, I don’t think the Board gives all projects a rubber stamp approval.  For a number of projects, there were numerous comments and questions from board members, and even some minor modifications requested for a project before it was voted on.

That said, the Greenway plan was passed with no modifications, and approved unanimously. Two Board members actively supported the plan in the face of criticism from residents. I suspect Board support reflects the fact that Lisa Coleman and Chris Schmidt have worked so hard on this project, going through three neighborhood meetings.

In short, all the juice has been squeezed from this lemon--there’s no more lemonade to be had.

What more can we do?
  • Work to reform the Board of Public Works--give it a greener perspective.
  • Remember and vote for Adlers and Mayors who back green infrastructure.
  • Review the landscaping plan.
  • Watch construction and sound the alarm if any trees outside the fence are touched.
  • Find out how trees along the lateral lines will be protected--that's still up in the air.
  • Make sure natural fieldstone riprap is used, as promised.
  • Attend and register to make comments at the Common Council hearing on May 4.  Let the City know the process isn't "green" enough.
  • Make sure redevelopment of the Mt.Olive Church property reduces stormwater runoff from the current levels.


Where do we go from here? Improve the process.

At the Board of Public Works hearing, on April 21, it looks as if the Board will rubber-stamp Lisa Coleman's plans for the greenway.  What else can you call the process, when the greenway plan is one of 56 items to be reviewed, and there is no written plan presented to the board to study before the meeting?

Yes, our Alder Chris Schmidt has been extremely helpful in answering questions and facilitating discussion, while engineer Lisa Coleman has done much extra work and made some important modifications to the original plan.  We are grateful for their dilligence and concern, which led to the following changes:
  • The plan for a maintenance road down the center of the greenway was shortened to just the eastern end.
  • The limits of the construction area will be clearly marked and there will be penalties for the contractor if additional trees are harmed.
  • The city will create a unified landscaping plan for the greenway.
  • The stream won't be buried in a pipe (but it will be buried in riprap).
  • Several dams will break up the monotony of the stone rubble that will line the channel.
  • Natural fieldstones will be used to line the channel (the riprap).
Yet a number of residents believe the project is still headed in the wrong direction:
  • The leafy, natural beauty of the wooded ravine will be spoiled with at least 65 large trees destroyed.
  • The natural stream that sometimes flows will be straightened and buried in ugly riprap.
  • No rain gardens will be incorporated into the eastern end.  We feel that rain gardens should be part of any city construction.
  • The biggest problem is that this project was planned in isolation.  There has been no effort to consider other plans upstream to reduce and control excessive runoff which is the cause of our greenway problems.
Watershed disease

The symptoms are higher costs for our municipal water supply, serious flooding, sediment creating "deltas" in the lakes, stinking algae blooms, along with dried up streams and springs.  With a patient as sick as Madison, remedial projects like the planned pipe under University Avenue will be very expensive, without addressing the cause of the problem.

With streams dried up or buried, children are loosing places to play, to exercise, and to learn about nature.

The present greenway plans are nothing more than "aspirin" for a very sick patient.  The only real cure is improvements to the entire watershed--involving rain gardens and other kinds of "green infrastructure."

The recent struggle over the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway shows that green infrastructure won't make much headway in Madison until we make changes to the process.

Historically, the process has been this:  City Engineering responds...
  1. To obvious problems--like persistent flooding at the intersection of University Avenue and Midvale Blvd.
  2. To complaints from individual citizens.  According to Mr. Ozanne at a recent meeting, burial of the stream at the east end of the greenway resulted from a complaint by his family that the stream was creeping too close to their house on South Owen Drive.
  3. In addition, Engineering makes inspections, deciding when current structures need upgrade or repair.
  4. Recently, there was a new wrinkle--the city must respond to a mandate* to reduce sediment washing into the lakes.
Items 1-3 above inevitably lead to an overly narrow focus on solving individual problems.  As Engineer Lisa Coleman said, "We'd never get anything done if we had to address the watershed."  Item 4 really requires a watershed approach, but it's still possible to imagine you're solving sediment problems with an individual project like our greenway.  Remember, repairing erosion in the greenway, plus upgrading the sanitary sewer, are the two motivations for our greenway project.

The planning and approval process needs to be reformed, to ensure that stormwater problems are viewed from a watershed perspective, with gradual improvements to watershed health as a key goal.

There's no question that making improvements to a whole watershed will be complicated--and will take a long time...20 years or more.  That's probably the reason why few in city government want to do anything but dispense aspirin.

Complex problems require a new approach

We eradicated smallpox... we flew to the moon.  That makes people think that taking a pill, or hiring an engineer, will solve all problems.   But increasingly, the most complicated problems seem impossible to solve--problems like global warming, health care reform, and .... city infrastructure that's both livable and sustainable.

There's one complex undertaking where we've succeeded--the construction of large buildings.  Every time I go downtown, I'm amazed by a new apartment building that wasn't there a few months ago.  Perhaps the construction industry can teach us how to attack other complex problems.

In his recent book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, physician Atul Gawande engagingly describes how the people working on construction of a skyscraper are able to handle unexpected problems.  The various professionals and workers affected by the problem consult in a timely manner.  They work out a solution together, then modify the construction schedule as needed.  The Checklist Manifesto is about how to solve our healthcare crisis, but its lessons can be applied to watershed issues.

To cure watershed disease, we need to bring together, with a new process, a variety of stakeholders and experts, including:
  • Stormwater engineers
  • Scientists who study lakes (limnologists)
  •  Contractors who do the work
  • Landscape architect, horticulturists, and environmental consultants
  • City officials, politicians, and lawmakers
  • Agencies like DNR & Dane County who enforce rules and grant permits
  • Neighborhood groups and other groups like Friends of Lake Wingra
  • People who educate the public (teachers, activists, reporters)
  • Business managers
  • Individual landowners
Steps needed to create a new process

First, the City needs to decide whether it wants to head in the direction of green infrastructure.  Philadelphia is now taking bold steps down this road.  Such a committment might by started by passing a referendum, or by creating some kind of city-wide panel.  Suggestions, please!  On the neighborhood level, there is a process that produces neighborhood plans.

Next, new laws are needed that create mandates.  This is a goal--really a requirement--to show where we are headed.  We already have some mandates.  For example, there's one that sets a goal for reducing the sediment load to our lakes.*  For new developments, there's a mandate administered by DNR and Dane County, saying that runoff after after a new residential development should be no more than it was before construction.  But unfortunately, we have few tools to improve the watershed within already developed areas.

Then, we need to pass laws creating an orderly but flexible process that will bring all the above stakeholders into the process.  Mandates alone, without a better process, don't work that well.  The mandate about sediment is pushing the city to repair the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway, but the resuilting plan does nothing to solve the underlying problem--to improve the watershed.

Finally, citizens have to be part of the solution.  We have to improve outreach, education, and provide incentives that encourage people to participate.

Yes, Madison has already made a tiny step in that direction with the City's rain garden program for terraces--the city does the construction, shares costs with the homeowner, and the owner maintains the garden.  It's a nice start, but construction projects all over the city are still taking place without any rain gardens (for example, the recent repaving of Midvale Blvd, or Keating Terrace).  Funds and guidelines for terrace rain gardens need to be dramatically expanded.

We need to experiment with other ways to encourage citizens to do the right thing for the watershed.  For example, if we have as many rain gardens in a neighborhood as we really need, the soil is going to get soggy sometimes.  A few basements per block might leak.  The city needs a program to either compensate these homeowners, or better, to help them upgrade their basements.

Next steps

It's time to start talking about how the Board of Public Works can be modified to incorporate input from more experts and stakeholders.

City officials need to exercise strong leadership, because with watershed disease, the cures aren't obvious to citizens.

Groups of neighbors need to work together to find small neighborhood solutions.  For example, there's a long history in Sunset Village of controversy about what happens to the terraces.  Sidewalks?  No way!  But rain gardens for street runoff?  Maybe.  Before the neighborhood planning process gets underway, a few neighbors could create beautiful rain gardens alongside several streets.  These would show we can improve stormwater management and make the nieghborhood more beautiful at the same time.  Unless we start demonstration gardens soon, the idea won't get anywhere in the upcoming neighborhood planning process, and green infrastructure will be postponed for 10 years or more.
*     *     *
*  Mandate: 40% Removal of Total Suspended Solids in stormwater runoff by the year is 2015.

This blog is an exploration of some complicated issues. If there's an error, or if you have some ideas, please let me know.  You can email me or post a comment at the bottom of the blog.

Citizen attendance needed at hearing Wednesday night

The Board of Public Works will hold a public hearing Wednesday night, April 21, at 6:30 pm, in room 108 of the City-County Building.  

The Hillcrest-Upland Greenway plans are item #9 on an agenda containing 56 items.  You can view the whole agenda here.

Lisa Coleman said: "I don't have a written proposal for them - I will provide a short verbal description of the project, show a display of the plan, and take questions."  Greenway resident Kathleen McElroy was surprised, given all the controversy, that there was to be no written plan for the Board to review. 

Citizens can speak about their concerns, with a time limit of three minutes.  You should register to speak before 6:30 pm.

It's important for affected residents to attend, for two reasons. 
  • To show there is continued interest, and that projects shouldn't just be rubber stamped. 
  • To make sure that the plan for the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway hasn't changed since residents heard revised plans at the last neighborhood meeting.
The Board has another meeting public hearing at 5:30 pm the same day (same room) about water permits.  The Greenway plan can't proceed without permits.  Chris Schnmidt said: "This item is a standing item on each agenda, and is for Rob Phillips to report to BPW about the permits that are required for the projects on that agenda.  It is a briefing item, basically."

Also of interest to citizens concerned about "green infrastructure" is item #29 (18122): “Waterways 2010.” This project involves various small storm and sanitary sewer projects citywide to conduct necessary repairs or alleviate drainage problems.  I am wondering--has City Engineering studied whether rain gardens could solve some of these problems in a more cost-effective way?


Upcoming meetings about the greenway

Engineer Lisa Coleman has informed us "of the upcoming schedule for meetings for project approval by the Board of Public Works and the Common Council."
  • Board of Public Works Public Hearing  4/21/10
  • Common Council Public Hearing            5/4/10

Agendas for these two meetings are available here.  Check this link before the meetings to find correct room numbers.