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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 5 -- WINTER 2003
 

Smart Growth and the Weather: What is the Connection?

What does the public know about the environment and the impact of land use on weather?

Not too much.

Only 25 percent of Americans know where their drinking water comes from. Thirty million Americans believe that the ocean is the leading source of drinking water. Less than 1 percent of Americans can define a watershed.*

What kind of difference could development based on new urbanist principles -- the antithesis of sprawl - have on the environment, including the weather? A big difference.

How many people understand the relationship between new urbanist principles and sprawl, or the relationship between how they live -- in what types of communities - and the degradation of natural resources and human health? Not enough.

Now, say experts, is the time to help people raise that level of understanding - using the TV weather report.

At "Smart Growth: What's the connection with the weather?", a symposium sponsored in September by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), experts including journalists, broadcasters, activists and scientists agreed that the need to educate the public is urgent and that inclusion of information about the impact of sprawl on weather and the environment in the local television weather forecasts is an ideal and effective way to convey this critical information to the public.

After all, nearly 80 percent of those who tune into local news programming are doing so primarily for a weather report -- from someone they trust.

Dave Jones is a former weather broadcaster with NBC in Washington, D.C., where he was the number two meteorologist with primary duties on weekend evenings. Today he is founder, president and CEO of StormCenter Communications Inc.

After leaving NBC, Jones formed StormCenter Communications, Inc. in order to provide global environmental information "products" to media partners worldwide.

"Weather makes or breaks TV stations," Jones told the gathering of a wide variety of interested professionals (including nonprofits like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Children's Environmental Health Network and the Trust for Public Land) and experts from government groups including the National Institute of Environmental Health Science and the EPA.

Bob Ryan, a speaker at the program and chief meteorologist at Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate WRC, is considered among peers to be a national pioneer for his regular incorporation of "community-based" environmental news and information. Because of his Washington, D.C., base, his programs often feature the Chesapeake Bay watershed and its resources, a system surrounding and deeply woven within the geographic and environmental fabric of the D.C. metro area.

Sprawl-related problems he discussed included thermal heat island effects, heavy rain and impervious land surfaces, and transportation pollution. Other experts laid out a clear relationship between health and sprawl, between ozone and lung disease, between poor community design and obesity, and a variety of other things.

Often the community design ideas discussed as answers to sprawl echoed new urbanist/neotraditional principles. These included pedestrian-centered neighborhoods with primary social and economic facilities within a five-minute walk, community orientation around public transit systems, and mixed land uses within neighborhoods.

Higher-density new urban developments allow built areas to take more efficient, compact neighborhood and village forms while preserving large chunks of undeveloped land.

Obesity and other diseases are aggravated by living in environments that are not conducive to walking, said several meeting participants. New urbanist development is always pedestrian-oriented.

Weather, Ryan says, is popular -- everyone watches it. Although the on-air time is brief, when the news is on, the weather folks have the audience.

"Weather reporting is a natural venue for increasing environmental awareness," according to Jones. "It's well-known that weather is the reason 80 percent of viewers tune in to watch local television news."

In studies sponsored by NEETF, researchers find that the overwhelming number of U.S. citizens do not know the reasons for -- or grasp the implications of -- ecosystem decline, loss of biodiversity, global warming, non-point source pollution, poor solid waste management, watershed degradation and many other important environmental subjects.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly all surface water in developed watersheds in the United States is contaminated with pesticides. The public needs to know how critical the water problem is beginning with the basic facts that: All the water that has ever existed on earth, and will ever exist, is already here; only about 1 percent of all the water on earth is available fresh water; about 97 percent is saltwater in the oceans, and 2 percent is ice in glaciers and icecaps. Thought about in another way, if all the water on earth fit in a gallon container, all the available fresh water on the entire planet would fit in a tablespoon.

"This pervasive misunderstanding and/or ignorance extends to even the most fundamental needs - the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the energy we use. And, often what people think they know about the environment is out of date," according to information provided by the NEETF.

Jones assured meeting attendees that including more information, better graphics and other products about the environment -- the sort his company provides -- in weathercasts is an idea whose time has come.

"We are right on the cusp of huge growth [in] environmental report[ing], and the entrée is meteorology," he said.

People need to know how land use effects weather, said Lee Epstein, director of the Lands Program at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and how weather affects land and water. The public needs information on what happens in developed areas to runoff speed; runoff temperature; amount of water; nutrients, toxins and sediment in runoff.

Other experts talked about the "heat island" result of sprawl and the many consequences of the heat island including an increased number of thunderstorms.

NEETF has partnered with the American Meteorological Society and StormCenter Communications to develop a program, "Eyes on the Environment," which is designed to provide broadcast meteorologists with core environmental science content that can be easily conveyed to viewers.

The bottom line is that very soon the general public will begin to understand things like the impact of community design on weather -- and health. According to experts, it can't happen soon enough.