Smart Growth and the Weather: What is the Connection?
By Karen O'Keefe
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?
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
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
After leaving NBC, Jones formed StormCenter Communications, Inc. in order
to provide global environmental information "products" to media partners
"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
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
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.