Republican scandal-mongering is now a perpetual motion machine

Grist.org - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 19:55

As you may have heard, members of Congress have launched an investigation into EPA’s “collusion” with the Natural Resources Defense Council in the development the agency’s new carbon rules for power plants. Specifically, the investigation is being undertaken by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), best known for having sex with prostitutes while wearing diapers, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), best known for stealing cars. These guys are sick of ethically dubious conduct, y’all.

(Vitter’s the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Issa heads the clown show that is the House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform.)

Rep. Darrell “Grand Theft Auto” Issa.Kent Williams

Much has already been written about the letter Vitter and Issa sent to EPA and NRDC, which verges on self-parody. It is filled with dark insinuation but bereft of evidence; it stops short of claiming any law-breaking but insists that there’s something improper about the fact that EPA met with NRDC several times and drew on its ideas when developing regulations. The lawmakers call this relationship, which is utterly standard between rulemaking agencies and nonprofits in D.C. and has been for decades, “collusion.” Of course, EPA met with some 300 groups, including dozens from industry, in addition to holding public hearings attended by more than 2,700 people, but the relationship with NRDC, Vitter and Issa say, was “far cozier.” This is all, as NRDC has pointed out, absurd.

Sen. David “Diapers” VitterDerek Bridges

Vitter has been leaking emails exchanged between EPA and NRDC a few at a time, each time repeating the ominous insinuations, desperately trying to keep this “scandal” in the news, but the emails themselves are almost hilariously bland. “Thanks for meeting with us.” “Look forward to working with you.” Cozy, I tell you! Cozy!

As far as substance, what happened is this: EPA was looking for a way to reduce carbon from power plants at low cost. NRDC came up with one — a really good one! So EPA took the idea, modified (which is to say, weakened) it considerably, and implemented it. That’s it. Really. There’s nothing more. It’s just dumb — see LeberBenen, or Chait for more mockery.

What’s notable to me is less the details of the investigation itself than what it says about how Washington works these days. Republicans started launching serial investigations back when Clinton was president. Remember that? Whitewater? The travel office? Vince Foster? The completely off-his-rocker Dan Burton, who used to head Issa’s committee? Republicans were crazy back then too, but those investigations were high-profile and, to a limited extent, effective. Some of them drew blood; hell, they got to impeach Clinton! It was habit-forming.

So the minute Obama entered office, they started again. But Obama hasn’t obliged them with any real scandals. So it’s been one strenuously pumped-up fake scandal after another: Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Solyndra, the IRS thing, on and on. They spend taxpayer money on endless show trials. They work overtime to create the atmospherics of scandal, explicitly to damage Obama’s approval rating. Investigations of the president have become less a reaction to events than simply part of Republicans strategy, a matter of habit, politics as usual.

This EPA investigation is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this strategy. It contains all the same portentous language, all the same grim insinuation, all the same atmospherics, but there is literally nothing underneath. It’s as though they are holding up an apple and saying, in scary-movie-announcer voice, “this apple reveals the lawlessness that has overtaken this presidency …” They don’t seem to care that it’s just an apple. The press doesn’t seem to care that it’s just an apple. “It’s just an apple!” shout liberal groups, but no one seems to care about that either.

Republican no longer need any more than an apple. Once they wave it around, the institutions of modern Washington creak into gear. Congressman makes charges; agency and group deny charges; media reports charges and counter-charges. Congressman waits a few weeks, leaks another email, repeats charges, agency and group repeat denials, media reports the exchange. People in the right-wing bubble believe that there’s another scandal. The rest of the public more or less ignores it except as one more bit of friction, one more sign that politics isn’t working.

The machine has been built and it no longer needs fuel, no longer needs actual evidence of misconduct, to run. It’s now a perpetual motion machine, just part of the background noise in Washington. Nobody seems inclined to rethink their role in what is now an almost entirely pro forma set of rituals. It just runs and runs, wasting time and money, alienating the public, giving journalists something to do, sucking up the time and energy of liberal activists.

It’s just an apple. But we all play our roles anyway. And so it goes.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

The Chinese people care more about the environment than Americans do

Grist.org - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 18:21

Those who oppose action on climate change in America are fond of complaining about how futile our own efforts to cut greenhouse gases are when China doesn’t give a hoot about its own emissions. But a new poll finds that the Chinese people do want action to cut pollution — even more than we do in America.

The Pew Research Center asked people around the world to rank five global threats. A full third of respondents in China think that issues related to “pollution and the environment” present the greatest danger to the world. Compare that to 15 percent of Americans. (We Americans, according to Pew, are most concerned about inequality — which, incidentally, is a related issue because inequality both makes climate change harder to tackle, and will be made greatly worse as poor communities and nations face the brunt of a climate run amok.)

And increasingly, the Chinese people are making their voices heard. This summer, Stephen Vines reported for Al Jazeera on the growing number of environmental protests in China:

The latest official State of the Environment report recorded 712 cases of “abrupt environmental incidents” in 2013, up 31 percent from the previous year. Many of these “incidents” are in fact protests, and the level of protest in the current year is, if anything, on the up. Yang Chaofei, the vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, told members of the powerful Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that environmental protests have been growing 29 percent annually from 1966 to 2011.

Maybe the folks running the country with the world’s highest greenhouse gas emissions and some of the filthiest air are starting to listen to their people. This June, just a day after the U.S. announced its own plans to cut power plant emissions, a Chinese government advisor stated that, for the first time, his country would limit its emissions. And China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli outlined the country’s plans at the U.N. summit in New York last month. Mashable’s Andrew Freedman writes:

China has a goal to reduce its carbon intensity, which is a way of measuring the carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by up to 45% by 2020. Zhang said that China will reveal its goals for reducing emissions post-2020 during the first quarter of 2015, as the United States also intends to do.

Zhang said that in 2013, carbon intensity dropped by nearly 29% from the 2005 level, and that installed renewable energy capacity increased significantly as well.

“Responding to climate change is what China needs to do to attain sustainable development at home,” Zhang told the throngs of dignitaries, corporate titans and representatives of civil society groups at the U.N.

So not only have the Chinese beaten us in emitting, they’ve beaten us in being concerned about what those emissions do. Will they now beat us in doing something about it?

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

How to get Republicans to stop using the “I’m not a scientist” dodge

Grist.org - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 17:35

In 2012, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was asked by GQ how old the Earth is, he demurred, “I’m not a scientist, man.” This was not a smooth move. It made him sound like a dumb frat boy. You don’t need to be a scientist to know the Earth is roughly 4.54 billion years old, any more than you need to be a scientist to know the Earth is round or it revolves around the sun. All you need to know is what scientists have determined, which Rubio, who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, should know.

What Rubio feared, of course, was alienating the religious extremists in his party, who believe the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old because the Bible, if taken literally, says it is. As Juliet Lapidos of The New York Times observed, “Mr. Rubio surely knows that, according to Gallup, … 58 percent of Republicans believe in creationism … Mr. Rubio probably figured that these same Republicans have no truck with geologists … But if his response was more proof of cunning than idiocy, it was still ludicrous.” Luckily for Rubio, GQ did not also ask whether he thinks the Earth is round.

But in May of this year, when Rubio was asked about climate change by ABC’s Jonathan Karl, he expressed no such reluctance to weigh in on matters beyond his area of expertise. “I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate,” Rubio said. Why the difference? Rubio is positioning himself to appeal to the right-wing fanatics who determine Republican presidential primaries. On the Earth’s age, he must merely avoid admitting the scientific consensus. But on climate change he must deny it, lest he incur the wrath of Rush Limbaugh.

Even though the “I’m not a scientist” dodge that Rubio pioneered went over poorly at the time, other Republicans have been recently imitating it when asked about climate change. The ones who have done so — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (Wis.) — are currently running in general elections. The more moderate general electorate requires them to simultaneously feign deference to science for the benefit of independents, while not admitting climate change is happening, so as not to alienate their base.

Writing in The Atlantic, David Graham does a good job of explaining why it is ridiculous for politicians to take the “not a scientist” dodge. Graham observes: “McConnell isn’t an economist, either, but he has strong views about the economy; nor is he a health-provider, but he has ideas about health-care provision.”

So how can journalists avoid letting Republicans give this asinine answer? By asking the right questions. If you ask a non-scientist whether human activity is causing climate change, “I’m not a scientist” has a surface validity as a response. But climate change isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of scientific consensus, just like evolution or gravity. One should not ask whether politicians believe in climate science or evolutionary biology, just as one wouldn’t ask whether a politician believes that gravity causes apples to fall from trees. Instead, the question should be whether they accept climate science. The phrasing could be, “97 percent of papers published by climate scientists  in peer-reviewed academic journals have found that human activity is causing climate change. Do you accept those findings?”

One reason Rubio may have actually taken a position against climate science in his interview with Karl is that Karl asked the question as follows: “Miami, Tampa are two of the cities that are most threatened by climate change. So putting aside your disagreement with what to do about it, do you agree with the science on this?”

Sometimes the “I’m not a scientist” dodge can create what we might call “teachable moments.” For example, a number of Florida scientists offered to educate Scott on climate change in response to his evasions. In August, Scott met with some of them, but he did not make any comments or ask any questions after their presentation. This has all been pretty politically embarrassing to him.

But, ultimately, the media should not treat climate science as an open question. Rather, journalists should send a clear message that they are people who deal in matters of fact, and they expect politicians to do the same. Climate science is well established; the question is whether leading Republicans accept it.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Construction Begins on Echo Spur, Park City, Utah's First...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

Seven Luxurious, “Green” Homes in the Heart of Old Town Present a Rare Ownership Opportunity as Vail Resorts Acquires Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort Acquires Solitude Mountain Resort

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12247989.htm

Categories: Environment

SNOA Sleepwear Supports Eco-awareness and Polar Bear Habitat...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

One of the most respected pioneers in eco-friendly sleepwear is taking steps towards bettering the environment.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12253930.htm

Categories: Environment

SAE International Increasing Discoverability of Journals Articles and...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

SAE International announces partnerships with Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC), ExLibris and EBSCO Information Services to share its full complement of journals and technical papers.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12255951.htm

Categories: Environment

True Goods Urges Consumers: “Think Before You Pink”

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

Top marketplace for toxin-free everyday products embraces Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but alerts consumers to marketing

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12256549.htm

Categories: Environment

Top10BestSEOHosting.com Now Unveils The Best Reseller Hosting...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

The leading review website, Top10BestSEOHosting.com, has recently compared many top hosting companies and announced that GreenGeeks, FatCow and Hostgator are the best reseller hosting suppliers in...

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12257434.htm

Categories: Environment

New Jumbo Wheels for Envirosight's ROVVER X 400 Crawler Answer...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

New jumbo wheels give Envirosight's ROVVER X 400 crawler the weight and traction necessary to navigate large interceptor lines with high flow.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12256408.htm

Categories: Environment

Dimension One Spas Invites Customers to “Beat the Chill” with a Hot...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

Retailers Offer 0% APR for up to 36 Months

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12256793.htm

Categories: Environment

Global and Europe CNG Vehicles Market 2014 – 2018 Analysis in New...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:13

Global CNG Vehicles Market 2014-2018 and CNG Vehicles Market in Europe 2014-2018 are new research reports added to ReportsnReports.com store.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/cng-vehicles-market/global-europe-2014-2018/prweb12257599.htm

Categories: Environment

Major Milestones and New Look for The Climate Trust

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Veteran climate solutions nonprofit announces refined business model and bold new website

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/TheClimateTrust/MajorMilestones/prweb12255645.htm

Categories: Environment

Zepyor Parseghian Announces A Groundbreaking Solar Energy Option

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Zepyor Parseghian and her renewable energy company Solar Servicing Center is adding to its repertoire of options that Southern California consumers can use to get solar panels installed at their homes...

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12257208.htm

Categories: Environment

The Best SEO Hosting Companies Unveiled By Top10BestSEOHosting.com

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Today, Top10BestSEOHosting.com, the well-known review website, announced that GoDaddy, Arvixe and iPage are the best SEO hosting companies in 2014.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12257418.htm

Categories: Environment

Best Cheap Hosting USA: Web Hosting Pad, InterServer and Bluehost Are...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Recently, Best Cheap Hosting USA has compared many web hosting companies and announced that Web Hosting Pad, InterServer and Bluehost are the best suppliers for the webmasters.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12257476.htm

Categories: Environment

INDIGO Offers NF-kB Assay Systems

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

New Assay Critical to the Study of the Human Immune Responses and Cancers.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12251857.htm

Categories: Environment

Michael McDermott's Big Wind Sends Shivers Down Opposition Spines,...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Michael McDermott - running on the Libertarian line of the New York State Governor's ballot - has made the most of endorsements lately. Candidate McDermott is attracting voters and ballot support...

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/10/prweb12256664.htm

Categories: Environment

Global Solar PV Market and Solar Thermal Market in Europe 2014-2018...

PR Web - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:13

Global Solar PV Market 2014-2018 and Solar Thermal Market in Europe 2014-2018 are new research report added to Sandlerresearch.org store.

(PRWeb October 17, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/global-solar-pv-market/eu-solar-thermal-market/prweb12257435.htm

Categories: Environment

This graphic novelist tells the true story of climate change

Grist.org - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:00

If Philippe Squarzoni knows one thing, it’s that a book can’t change the world. When the French graphic novelist — whose work tackles such hard-hitting topics as the Zapatista movement in Mexico and homicide rates in Baltimore — decided to put together a 500-page tome on climate change, he did so, he says, not out of any kind of activist agenda, but because “je ne pouvais pas ne pas le faire” — “I couldn’t not do it.”

He never thought it would alter the trajectory of things, change anyone’s mind, or make people care. Nope: He claims it was simply because the problem was so vast and so all-encompassing. The more he learned about it, the bigger and scarier it got, and he just couldn’t to put it down.

“It’s climate change that chose me,” he says. “I didn’t choose anything.”

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science was published this spring in the U.S. The original French title translates as “Brown Season,” which refers to that lifeless, muddy interval between winter and spring, and, as Squarzoni told OnEarth Magazine, “I feel like humankind is in a similar state of transition.”

The hefty illustrated primer is a sort of memoir, tracing Squarzoni’s own process as he learns about climate science and politics. Along the way, he weaves in personal moments with his life partner, his dog, his travels, and his favorite movies. He explains and depicts everything from atmospheric science to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from climate disasters to renewable energies, adding in his own reflections and ruminations about it all. Squarzoni is interested in political discourse, but he’s not taking sides. He’s not an environmentalist or a scientist or a policy advocate.

“I present myself very modestly to my readers,” he says. “These questions are new to me, but they’re not new questions — the environmental movement has been asking them for 40 or 50 years. I think that if this book works for the reader, though, it’s precisely because I’m in this position: I myself am discovering things.”

The book is thoughtful and ponderous, dense and poetic, and approaches climate change from the perspective of someone who cares, and is afraid and angry, but who, like all of us, can’t possibly care and be afraid and be angry every single minute of his life. It won l’Academie Francaise’s 2012 Leon de Rosen prize, an environmental award given to a book or essay; this is Squarzoni’s first book to be translated and published in the United States.

I chatted with Squarzoni about his motivation for the project, his current views on climate change and political will, and his very, very faint glimmer of hope for our future. Below is a translated and edited version of what he had to say:

So, why climate change? 

Well, I would have loved not to have done this book, I would love for this problem not to exist. I discovered it while working on my previous book, which was a retrospective on what [former French president] Jacques Chirac had done during his time in office. In the process of trying to assess his administration’s environmental action — or rather, lack of action — I realized that when it came to climate change, I had a very superficial understanding. I knew next to nothing. And I started to do a little research, and when I started to realize the nature of the problem and its gravity, I realized that I couldn’t do it justice in a few pages; it was an enormous problem that touched every aspect of our lives. And that gave birth to the book. Almost in spite of me, really.

Climate change is an enormous problem; it supplants all the others. Everyone has heard about it, but we really don’t know what it means. And there are all different kinds of solutions that all mean something different politically. Certain solutions are dead ends, certain solutions drive a vision for society that I don’t really agree with, and certain solutions drive a vision for society that I do agree with, but that still causes climate change. That’s what I wanted to explore. 

It’s a tough topic. You spent six years working on it. Was it hard to keep going? 

There were difficult moments. There were moments when I was so saturated with negative information. And I’m like everyone: There are moments when you’re working and you don’t have your mind on your work. You’ve got to do all these pages on global warming but you don’t have your mind on global warming. You have other personal problems, other worries. There are days when global warming keeps me from sleeping. And there are days when I want nothing to do with it.

It’s what I tried to say in the book: The problem with global warming is that you simply can’t be afraid all your life.

I put myself in the shoes of the climate scientists who work every day on this stuff, and I say to myself, “Those people have to learn about all this bad news, and after dozens of years to see that nothing has changed… I wonder how they do it!” Every day they learn that emissions are increasing, that the situation is getting more and more complicated, and worse than we thought, because the projections about the consequences of global warming are getting more precise, to the point where there isn’t any more doubt, but… what is going to change?

But at least for you… ? Did this process change anything in your own life?

Everyone wants to know that, because everyone wants to know what they can do about this — what they can change in their daily lives. And there really isn’t anything I do differently except that I almost never take airplanes anymore. There’s not a lot that one can do. In my life, anyway, there isn’t much to change. I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t have a car, I work at home. The are certain dilemmas I can avoid. But if I had to drive to work, I’m sure after writing this book I would have started taking public transportation.

What changed for me really is that I realized to what extent this theme is absent from political discourse. When I think about big political questions, I know that I have to add in questions about the climate, but it’s enormously absent in France right now. It’s a topic that has totally disappeared because of the subprime mortgage crisis, because of the public debt crisis, because of the European financial crisis, et cetera. People only talk about boosting economic growth. And then the old-school drivers of the economy are the ones polluting and creating global warming! Converting our energy systems, reducing energy consumption… Those are words you never hear, never, never.

When Al Gore’s film came out, when the 4th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, people were talking a lot about the climate; now, it’s a topic that’s pretty much disappeared from public discussion. And I’m terrified.

Publishing a book is talking about it, at least a little bit, right? You don’t think that makes any difference in the global conversation? 

I’ve never seen that happen! The arts are a reflection of the culture of an era and if we are discussing global warming, then the artists are going to investigate that, too. And there will be films, and there will be books, and there will be comic books. But I don’t think that a film on its own, a book on its own, is going to change things. Al Gore’s film is unfortunately proof of that. People were talking so much about him! A lot of people saw it. In France it was screened at the National Assembly, in front of deputies, who the next day told the press, “I didn’t know things were so bad.” And then, three days later, everything went back to its place, and the [economic] machine started turning the wrong direction all over again. So, no, I don’t think that a book or a film on its own can change things. But it’s not to change things that I did this book.

OK, OK. But isn’t there any kind of hope here? Please tell me that all this research gave you a little something to hold on to. 

One surprise for me is that although the wall we’ve got to climb is very, very high, we can still climb this wall. The caricature of the environmental movement is like, “Oh, you want to go back to candles, you want to stop using cars,” et cetera. But we’re wasting so much energy that we could basically be at our same standards of living, we could reduce our energy consumption without it having a huge impact on us. (Well, in the U.S., you’d probably have to change a lot of things because the energy consumption is really incredible there…) But in France, we can, without reverting to the Middle Ages, just by using more efficient systems, by paying attention, we can in fact reduce our levels of energy consumption to levels that would work for the climate.  The bad news is that we’d need to bring in so many more liberal politicians that it’s very unlikely that we’d put them in place in the time we’ve got left… before things start becoming very complicated.

That doesn’t sound much like hope. 

What does give me hope is that it’s possible. It is not too late. That’s really what the book says. The book doesn’t say we’re all gonna die, it’s too late, and so on. The book says that it’s possible to change things. It’s possible to reduce our energy consumption and it’s possible to minimize the effects of global warming. If people start running — because the warming has started and it’s going to last a long time — we can probably avoid the worst scenarios, the gravest consequences. That is the message of hope. Where the book gets a little pessimistic is: Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. And I hope I’m wrong! I hope we’re going to do it. It’s possible. It’s possible.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Environment

Meet the man who re-energized NYC parks — and wants to do the same for yours

Grist.org - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:56

Adrian Benepe is a one-time New York City park ranger who went on to lead the Big Apple’s parks department through what the Times calls “the most ambitious program of building and refurbishing New York City’s parks since the era of Robert Moses.” He now directs the city parks development program for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. But most importantly, he’s this guy’s father.

That’s Alex Benepe, one of the characters who started real-world, collegiate Quidditch in the mid-aughts, when he was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. Today, Alex is the commissioner of the International Quidditch Association, which throws the annual Quidditch World Cup, an event that draws hundreds of players, and thousands of spectators, from colleges around the country. (Alex tells the story himself in this TEDx talk, where he reveals that J.K. Rowling dreamed up Quidditch when, in a spat with her boyfriend, she decided to invent a sport that would drive men crazy because its rules make absolutely no sense. Mission accomplished.)

Why is this father-son relationship so important, you ask? Because it explains Adrian Benepe’s response to our first question in a game of “Vs.” he played with us during a recent visit to Grist’s Seattle HQ. That’s when we give our visitors two somewhat related things, and make them choose their favorite. Watch lawn bowling get the shaft for the sake of familial relations:

Lest you think it’s all Nimbus 2000s and Leslie Knope fanboys around here, let me say that our conversation with Benepe (the senior) went far, far beyond all that.

Benepe took us through an abridged history of urban parks, starting with the pioneering landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (Central Park, Prospect Park, etc.), the City Beautiful movement (an odd attempt to recreate the splendor of ancient Rome), and the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (under which the much-maligned freeway builder Robert Moses tripled the area of parkland in New York City). He told us about the decline of urban parks during the late 1960s and early ’70s, as people high-tailed it for the suburbs — and their recent rise from the ashes.

Benepe credits the recent urban parks renaissance to Quidditch, naturally. Actually I made that up — but it’s not too far off! He says that the “hidden, unspoken change” that happened in the early 1990s had a lot to do with baseball and soccer. Specifically, young people decided they wanted to stay in the city, rather than follow their parents to the ‘burbs, when the babies started arriving on the scene.

“These people said, we don’t want to go back to New Rochelle, or Manhasset, or Ho-Ho-Kus. We like New York too much,” Benepe said. “But they wanted a place where their kids could play little league baseball and soccer.”

And truth be told, they wanted a place where they could play soccer and ultimate frisbee, and no doubt Quidditch, themselves. “It’s the Peter Pan syndrome,” Benepe said. “No one wants to grow up anymore.”

Combine all that with Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to provide equal sports opportunities for both girls and boys, and you’re gonna need to find a whole lot more parks.

That, in a nutshell, was Benepe’s job as Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s parks commissioner. Under his leadership, the department put parks in schoolyards, parks on old industrial “brownfields,” parks on derelict railroad spurs. Just about anyplace they could find to put in a patch of green space, they did. All told, they added 730 acres of new parks, and spruced up many more acres of existing open space, spending roughly $3 billion in public money in the process.

This all would never have happened without the help of many volunteers and private donors who buoy up the Big Apple’s park system. New York City pioneered this type of public-private partnership, which has taken the form of “conservancies” that raise money for, and effectively run, many of the city’s parks. It’s this model that Benepe is promoting on a national level in his new role at the Trust for Public Land.

Interestingly, this type of partnership was also the source of the most contention during Benepe’s stint as parks commissioner. Critics claimed the Bloomberg administration was “privatizing the parks,” and that the model allowed parks in wealthy neighborhoods to thrive, while those in poor neighborhoods fell into disrepair.

Benepe takes exception to both claims. Wealthy conservancy donors have no say in park management, he says, and private funding for Central and Prospect and other parks allowed the city to focus its budget elsewhere.

“What I think has happened with these conservancies is that they have raised expectations,” Benepe said. “People say, ‘I want my neighborhood park to look as nice as that. I want my playground to look as nice as the playground in Central Park.’ And in fact, the city of New York has spent a lot of money investing in just the regular parks.”

Of course, what worked in New York will not necessarily work elsewhere. Nonetheless, Benepe says we’re seeing park revival and creation on a scale we haven’t seen since the days of the Works Progress Administration — and it’s happening all across the country. “I think most mayors and city councils understand,” he said, “that you can’t have a great city without great parks.”

Filed under: Cities
Categories: Environment