Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Discovering Our Own Neighborhoods

Atlas Obscura is always a trove of geographic insight; the geographically curious can spend hours perusing the online or print version.

A recent contribution by journalist Lauren Vespoli offers even more to the geographically curious (including hints as to how and why we should all be geographically curious). In How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood, she describes how she has used newly-found down time to explore her own surround -- and to engage friends to do the same. This is very creative online bonding! As she makes clear throughout the piece, the history comes in many forms and so do the processes of discovery.
Geographic discovery involves inquiry about
the ordinary in our midst.
She describes several tools that are familiar to me as a professional geographer -- such as Sanborn maps -- and other fascinating tools I had never heard of. I am most excited about using the Archipedia, which has well over 100 listings in each of two cities I teach as honors colloquia -- New Orleans and Detroit. Sadly, none of the fascinating buildings of Brockton (about which I teach an honors seminar) are this database, but I have other resources for exploring that city formerly known as North Bridgewater.

Among the tools Vespoli introduces is another I learned about from a fellow geographer just recently. Mapping Inequality is an impressive online collection of the maps used by the Federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation to guide mortgage rate-setting. In the guise of managing institutional financial risk, these maps also imposed or reinforced geographic patterns of racial discrimination through the practice of redlining. For many communities across the United States, researchers can discover whether their own neighborhoods fell inside or outside of those red lines.

I will also use this in my course Environmental Regulations, because this kind of research -- while enjoyable in its own right -- is potentially quite useful in some of the detailed work necessary to protect us from environmental contamination. Because pollutants from the past can be just as dangerous as chemicals currently in use, searching for possible relict sources of pollution is an excellent application of geographic skills.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Dam Shame

I did my entire master's thesis on dams, so I feel emboldened to make more than the usual number of dam-related puns whenever the topic of dams comes up. And for the same reasons, I make sure that the topic comes up more than it does around normal people. That said, the title of this post is slightly mismatched to the topic, because the people responsible for the recent dam failure in Edenville, Michigan and for the associated toxic-waste disaster downstream seem to have exactly zero shame.

Shortly before a catastrophic failure. Image: NPR.
I am including a few items that relate to different geographic lessons about this failure. First is from a rather nerdy geomorphology perspective, but it illustrates sometihng everyone should know about dams.

Every dam has a spillway at some level below the top of the dam -- usually at least a few feet lower. This spillway defines what should be the maximum level of water behind the dam. It must be designed with a capacity to allow for ANY possible flow of water around the dam. If water is allowed to flow over the wall of the dam ("topping" the dam) failure is quite likely. This is especially true of earthen dams, but is also a danger with concrete or stone dams. Dave Petley's American Geophysical Union blog post on which I found this video includes more technical details, including some that are in the form of questions, as this system is much more complicated than it appears to non-specialists.

The failure of this dam brings immediately to mind the 1889 Johnstown Flood. In both cases, innocent downstream communities were devastated by a failure of both engineering and conscience. Wealthy owners had been warned that their structures were unlikely to survive expected rain events, but chose to risk not only their investments but also the properties -- and the very lives -- of downstream neighbors. Lee Mueller, the owner of the Edenville Dam, is doubly culpable because he has actively ignored federal and state safety regulators and he must know the history of Johnstown. He is a perfect illustration of the need for environmental regulations, and the need to empower those agencies charged with enforcing them. Sadly, at least 2,500 dams in the United States are considered dangerous, meaning that they are both in a position to cause deaths if they fail and in a state of repair that makes such failures more likely than they ought to be.

When I commented about the good luck that nobody was killed by the Edenville collapse (though thousands were evacuated and millions of dollars of damage was done), a friend and former professor of mine quickly corrected me: nobody died as an immediate result of the collapse, but the flood damage included the inundation of an inadequately prepared chemical plant downstream.

As I explain in my 2016 Houston, Too Close to New Orleans post, tanks storing hazardous chemicals are required to be surrounded by secondary containment, meaning a wall or berm that will contain the chemical in the event of flooding or failure of the tank. I know this because I have done the calculations for such containment in Puerto Rico. The inside dimensions must be adequate to contain the entire contents of the dam, plus a small freeboard capacity. Similarly, the outside dimensions (height above ground) must be high enough to withstand a 100-year flood. Tanks on Dow properties downstream from Edenville were not adequately contained, so my friend is correct that increased casualties are likely. But they will be the result of long-term, low-dose chemical exposure that will be impossible to document on an individual basis.

In the case of the Dow facility, it is not yet clear what the nature of the miscalculation was; it could very well be that the berms met legal requirements and failed anyway. This is because the regulations worst-case conditions on which regulations are based might assume only meteorological flooding, not that caused by independent failures upstream. Moreover, the 100-year flood level is no longer an adequate way to estimate flood risk. It describes a flood that would have a 1/100 probability of being exceeded in any given year in the past. As I explain in my 2018 post Not in the Cards, even in the hands of statisticians, hydrologists, and engineers who do understand precisely what the term does and does not mean (and these people are rare), existing records are not adequate to estimate flood probabilities, because climate change means that today's conditions are statistically not related to those of the past.

Ellicott City Comparison

Image: Scott Weaver
I was reminded of the flood-interval problem in the recent Save Our Town episode (s3e10) of Gordon Ramsay's 24 Hours to Hell and Back. Careful readers of this blog (if there are any) might know that "Our Town" refers to Ellicott City, Maryland, whose 2016 and 2018 floods I have written about in Flood Flash and Burying the Survivors, as well as Not in the Cards. No dam was involved in these catastrophes, but other aspects of the story are relevant.

We are not fans of reality television -- even if it pertains to food -- but of course we watched this show with great attention (and through torrents of tears, to be honest). PLEASE watch it if you can, because ultimately it is a hopeful story. Because it is not a show about hydrology, though, it is understandable that a mistaken comment about the floods was included without correction. Someone in the program said that the town had been struck by two 1,000-year floods. They did not go on to say that the odds of this would be close to one in a million, but it is implied. The reality, unfortunately, is that the floods in Ellicott City were inevitable given. climate change and recklessly inadequate regulation of upstream land use. The three blog posts above describe the details.

Incidentally, Ellicott City is still vulnerable, but engineering remedies -- including those described in Ramsay's show -- have likely reduced the risk in general terms and have removed some of the most vulnerable victims completely.


Strictly speaking, my master's thesis was not about dams: it was about soil erosion. But the unexpectedly rapid sedimentation of a reservoir behind a medium-scale dam was the motive for our study, and we examined several dozen small-scale reservoirs to study the problem. When we started the project, I could barely discern small reservoirs on aerial photos; after a full year of study, I felt as though I knew some of them personally.

I am not certain to what extent dam safety has been a factor in the decision, but I recently learned that a small dam about a mile from my house in Bridgewater is slated for removal. This will create some environmental benefits and some environmental hazards (principally from the draining of artificial wetlands and the possible liberation of long-dormant toxic sediments). I will be following that with nerdy interest!

Neighborhood Pride

The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco has long been home for many transgender people. Even in the context of a city with a strong reputation as a safe haven for GLBTQ people, however, the neighborhood has not always met the needs of its transgender residents.

Community leaders worked with city officials to create Compton's Transgender Cultural District in 2017. It is named for the site of the Compton's Cafeteria Riots of 1966, a pivotal event in the community's history, similar to the better-known Stonewall uprising in New York City three years later.

In this brief 2019 story, journalist Chloe Veltman tells the story of the neighborhood's transformation with the help of resident Honey Mahogany and city planner Brian Cheu.

Today, the district provides affirmation, a sense of place, safety, and support for economic development. The cultural projects of the district include advocacy, celebration, and education both in real-life events and online projects. The personal stories collected on its YouTube channel are a good place to learn, for people inside and outside of the community. For example, Kelly Kelly explains specifically why having this geographic space is important to her.
Map: Transgender District SF Map Page

The district's sense of place is promoted in a variety of ways, including lamp posts and of course Instagram.

A post shared by Transgender District (@transgenderdistrict) on


Any success in improving a neighborhood leads almost inevitably to concerns about gentrification: the tendency of improvements to make a neighborhood unaffordable for its residents. This can happen in a variety of circumstances. The first neighborhood I remember living in was Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia. It was rather modest when we lived there in the 1960s. My great grandparents happened to move into the same area in the late 1970s, and had financial difficulty staying when improvements were made to many of the apartments there. Upgrades have continued, so that it is now difficult to find any house in the area for under $600,000.

In many cases where the arts have been part of a conscious project of community development, property values can rise much more dramatically, often to the detriment of many of the same people who made the renewal possible in the first place. I have addressed the gentrification question in three different posts on this blog. Gentrification Outcomes (2018) is the broadest of these, drawing on excellent journalism by Linda Wertheimer. My 2016 Gentrifeination post explores the very specific role of coffee in gentrification. Most recently, Somerville Success (2020) focuses on the role of zoning in promoting the development of a city near Boston, with a link to a talk about gentrification there.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Gambling with Macau

I have long been fascinated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in my courses on Latin America, I mention the many levels of audacity it represents, starting with the vagueness of its definition with respect to the Cape Verde archipelago and ending with the fact that two guys in Europe decided that a meeting with a third guy was the way to settle their differences over how to divide up the right to subjugate much of the rest of the world. I've been so fascinated, in fact, that a visit to the site of that meeting is on my agenda for a (now postponed) family trip to Europe.
Every once in a while I am reminded that the line across the Atlantic had a counterpart on the other side of the globe, established by the Treaty of Saragossa. I found this map of both on the very informative Doctrine of Discovery page posted by Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer, a professor of history retired from Humboldt State University. Those reminders usually relate to the tiny Lusophone countries of East Timor or Macau (Macao) -- that is, coffee or gambling.

And this morning it was the latter -- the UrbanX course I am taking online features a 2016 article by journalist Simon Lewis about plummeting casino revenues in Macau. I include it here because it describes several aspects of the economic and cultural geography of this tiny country while explaining the counterintuitive finding that falling revenues might be a positive trend for its citizenry. Gambling addiction is often seen as an individual problem, but the experience of Macau illustrates the damage that can result when governments or entire economies become dependent on it.

The article includes this video from the Macao Government Tourism Office, in which historian Julian Davison explores the city, making many connections between its unique local features and its global position along what he calls the maritime silk road. We also learn that its name derives from the Portuguese spelling of the name of a Chinese ocean goddess -- this naturally reminds me of Iemanja/Yemaya. This is broadly similar to that of nearby Hong Kong, but with Portuguese rather than British connections.

How small is Macau? Even smaller than I realized. At 45 square miles, it is only twice as large as the small town I live in. I used the magic of The True Size to bring its shape to my neighborhood in southeastern Massachusetts for comparison.
Comparison: The True Size 

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