Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Two Things We Are Against

Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening has often quipped that there are two things we are against when it comes to land use: sprawl and density.
The realty industry's latest survey of community preferences bears this out, as described in an Atlantic article whose title is blunt: Americans Are Very Confused About What They Want Out of a Community. It is no coincidence that a generation essentially devoid of geographic literacy is also confused about the conflicting desires for the organization of local space.

This confusion creates a feedback loop, as people arrive in suburbs and then almost immediately start demanding changes to meet expectations that are not appropriate for low-density settlements.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Internal Borders

As many readers of this space know, my favorite librarian and I spent three years in the mid-1990s living in Pharr, Texas, about as close as one can live to the U.S. border with Mexico. The town is in the center of the Rio Grande Valley, a term that could refer to much of Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico, but which really refers to the delta area of the river that forms much of the boundary between our two countries. The Valley itself is a bit of both lands, and living there was really a privilege and an important part of my education as a geographer.

A couple of hours ago I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Valley town of Raymondville mentioned by someone recounting a personal story on This American Life. It is rare to hear a story from the Valley on National Public Radio, and even more rare to hear it in the first person. Compounding my surprise was the proper use of the term Whataburger -- a Valley institution frequently used in giving directions (as DD is here in the Bay State).

As fans of the program know -- and we are definitely fans in Casa Hayes-Boh -- each week the producers select a theme, and bring listeners stories related to that them. The theme of today's show (originally aired in October 2012) was "Getting Away With It." In this case, it is a story about the running of illicit drugs, but it is told from a point of view that is not sensational, and mostly about family dynamics that could play out anywhere.

The yellow balloons on the map below indicate places mentioned in the story -- the Raymondville balloon will guide readers directly to the Whataburger -- including one mentioned erroneously. The border patrol station on Route 281 is not in Hebronville (shown with a dotted balloon), but rather in Falfurrias.

That station is quite familiar to me, as I frequently stopped there on my weekly travels from our home in Pharr to Alice High School (both shown with blue balloons). I taught an evening course there for several semesters, in return for a small stipend and gas money (which was almost as much as the stipend), and mainly for the opportunity to continue gaining teaching experience. I taught at Alice High School, but it was actually an extension program of Texas A&M University-Kingsville. When driving to campus, I always had to stop, just as if I were entering the United States from abroad. I was annoyed, but tried not to show it. I eventually learned that a necktie and a Texas A&M parking permit on the front of the car would get me through much more quickly.

For the narrator in the story above, it is clear that although the contraband to be trafficked was already in the United States, it could not get to market without going through one of the interior "crossings" in Falfurrias or Sarita.

View Take Your Kid to Work Day in a larger map

In preparing this post, I got an interesting lesson in social media. When I asked a friend in the Valley to help me confirm the location of the Falfurrias station (which I had on the wrong stretch of road), she looked it up on the Migra's Facebook page! I would never have thought of that.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Brockton Water Update

When I first moved to southeastern Massachusetts, I started learning about my local watershed, that of the Taunton River. I also began to learn about the critical water shortages in the nearby city of Brockton. Water shortages were a topic of modest concern in Bridgewater, but how could they be of such critical concern in a city so close by that it was once known as North Bridgewater?
This is a geographic question, of course. I was pleased to have the chance to explore the question at the 2006 annual meeting of the D.W. Field Park Association, leading me to offer an entire course on the geography of Brockton in 2007 and 2008.

In preparing to offer an honors section of that course in the Fall 2014 semester, I found an interesting article about the desalination plant in Boston magazine. Amy Crawford's Tapped Out explains how the desal plant that went from "pie-in-the-sky" to "under construction" in the period leading up to my first course now appears to be in the "albatross" category. She explains several factors that have converged to turn the ambitious project on the lower Taunton River into a very expensive backup plan.

Among these reasons are better-than-expected results from conservation efforts -- extraordinary among U.S. cities -- and the fact that neighboring towns have proved unwilling to participate, so that fixed costs are borne entirely by Brockton. Assuming the plant remains operable, a rapidly changing climate might very well change some of those calculations, but for now Brockton's only hopes lie in very dubious legal strategies.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Climate Foxholes

This morning I was reminded of the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Leaving the theological implications of Pascal's Wager aside for the moment, I found a connection between two island stories this morning.

Damage in Taclovan is undeniable. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP, via The Guardian.
The first is widely known, of course, as the most powerful storm ever observed arrives in Vietnam, having pushed past numerous low-lying Pacific islands before devastating many islands of the Philippines.

The visitation of such a calamity on an island country presents special challenges, as people on some islands will have few places of  refuge. A resident of Kiribati has already sought "environmental refugee" status, and entire countries such as his are considering ways to migrate as countries to higher ground. As researcher Susan Martin points out, people who migrate always do so for multiple reasons and usually do so domestically -- the internally-displaced Dust Bowl refugees known as Oakies are a perfect example -- but anybody who is concerned with international migration must include climate-driven migration in their calculations.

When Mary Robinson addressed the Association of American Geographers in 2012 she admonished us to work diligently for climate justice, because those most vulnerable and those most responsible are not the same people, and do not live in the same places. I must admit that I thought of her remarks as referring mostly to some future condition, though the fact that daffodils were blooming in Manhattan on that February day should have been a clue. It turns out that the migration, crop loss, and impoverishment are the least of the injustices of climate change. The dying has started.

A young boy from Mr. Sano's city.
Image: Erik De Castro/Reuters via The Guardian
So it that Yeb Sano has traveled from the ruined city of Tacloban to the pointless climate talks in Poland, leaving his family behind to bring his story to the banquets halls and negotiating tables of Warsaw, hoping someone will listen to his anguish. 

The complexity of our climate means that we can each deny responsibility; climate change did not invent drought, flood, typhoon, or blizzard. But the increasing frequency of "wild weather" is now far outside the bounds set by prior experience. We predicted a new normal, and statistically, we are there. Typhoon Haiyan has been compared to a Category 5 on the hurricane scale, but this is only because Category 6 had not been contemplated when looking at the storms of previous generations. A storm sustaining winds of near-tornado strength across hundreds of miles had not been imagined before this most unusual century.

Students, parents, and educators: It is sometimes difficult to find appropriate educational materials for such an event; I recommend the Philippines storm post on Listen Edition as a possible starting point for discussion with upper-elementary and middle-school learners.

Key Considerations
Closer to home is a less dramatic story about insurance and planning in the city of Key West, Florida -- a lovely place I have not yet managed to visit. Those who manage public affairs in Key West -- and especially those who set insurance rates -- cannot afford "ivory tower" arguments about whether or not the climate is changing. In the case of those with actual responsibilities, to ignore rising seas is now unthinkable. Just as governors have shown more leadership than the national government, so too have municipal authorities and private-sector planners in Key West left debates to those who still have the luxury of entertaining denial for political purposes.

View Larger Map

Incidentally, the "comments" section of the Key West story illustrates the severity of geographic ignorance. Comments on all sides of the climate "debate" reveal profound gaps in understanding of physical systems, human settlement patterns, and math.

(Posted April 15, 2014)

Image source: Climate Denial Crock of the Week
Looking for the link to my own post here, I found several other blogs that have made the same observation. Peter Sinclair, for example, focuses on reinsurers. These are pretty conservative folks as a rule, and they are not in a position to make their decisions on the basis of ideology.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Zoom In

If you use the "PLUS" button in the upper-left of this image, you will zoom in on its center, as if decreasing your elevation above the earth. You will see one very broad change, and then something small and intriguing. You can then use the "MINUS" button to zoom back out and see the context, and just how vast this visually homogenous area is.

If you click to view the larger map, you can bring the little human figure down to the scene for an eye-level view.

You can then learn the fascinating story of how this was created from ViralNova.  Several geography and geotechnology lessons are illustrated by this exercise. One is the revelation that despite the world being a crowded place in many ways, vast tracts are essentially untouched by humans. Even in this case, however, a local community is part of the story, and it is now connected to the humanitarian and military experience of people hundreds of miles away.

The exercise also reminds us that the data about the planet that is collected by satellites is indeed vast, and that the rendering of these data into images is somewhat arbitrary. Notice the dramatic differences in color as Google Maps serves imagery (which is results from the coding of streams of digital numbers) gathered from different satellites, or from the same satellites on different days. Also notice that a current copyright date is applied to the image, no matter when the data were collected.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Creative Resistance

I first learned the story of the song "Calice" from the liner notes of Luaka Bop's Beleza Tropical album, the first installment in David Byrne's legendary Brazil Classics series.

The story of this song is remarkable -- bordering on incredible -- but numerous Brazilian friends have confirmed it for me. While many outspoken artists had to leave Brazil during a series of military dictatorships from 1964 to 1985, Chico Buarque de Holanda was able to stay and still publicly protest government oppression. He did so most famously with this song, which was a rallying call for millions in Brazil. On one level, it is a religious song, in which Christ prays for his Father to "take away this cup from me" in the Garden of Gethsemane. But on another level, the word "chalice" is the same as the phrase "shut up," and this song ends by mocking the military's insistence on a silenced citizenry.

Many versions of the song continue to be posted on YouTube, including a version created for a geography class that features provocative imagery from the military period  and a more recent version that features imagery from recent protests triggered by bus-fare increases.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sergio Mendes

In this Seinfeld scene, Kramer is offended that a record reseller does not know the greatness of Sergio Mendes. It is not clear whether the writers intended for Kramer himself to be part of the joke; as important as Sergio Mendes is for bringing Brazilian music to the United States, he has not been very well known in Brazil, as he was exiled throughout almost all of the military period of 1964 to 1985, but became famous among sophisticated listeners in the U.S.

I learned of the U.S. band Black-Eyed Peas when I was walking through a book store with my mother. I noticed a display of CDs featuring their work with Mendes -- I had no idea who they were, but bought a copy without hesitation. The best known track is Más Que Nada.

The Mendes story is placed into context in the Netflix series Break It All.

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