Blog: Kirk Westphal

Kirk Westphal developed expertise in interviewing and video storytelling during his former career in advertising and marketing research during 12 years of living in New York City, where he interviewed thousands of people for consumer products companies. Advertising agencies and consultants used him as their go-to person for conducting videotaped "man on the street" interviews.

He brought this experience to the field of urban planning with the creation of Insights into a Lively Downtown, an award-winning 2006 documentary film capturing the essence of vibrant city blocks from a pedestrian's perspective. The 19-minute documentary has been cited as one of the best urban planning videos on the internet and is the top hit on YouTube for "urban planning". He has recently released Great Street Toolkit, a follow-up to Insights into a Lively Downtown. Since founding Westphal Associates, an urban research and video production firm, Kirk has helped organizations and municipalities research a variety of subjects.

Kirk currently serves as the vice chair of the Ann Arbor City Planning Commission and serves as its liasion to the city's Environmental Commission. He's also a member of the Downtown Design Guidelines Task Force and a member of Washtenaw Toastmasters. He received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan.

Kirk lives with his wife and two sons in northeast Ann Arbor, where his family shares one car. He rides the #2C bus four days a week, and on the weekend for kicks. A marathon runner, he is intrigued by parkour, the athletic art of hurdling obstacles in your path. The sport is particularly well-suited for urban environments.

He is nearing his 6-month anniversary of exclusively standing at his desk ever since discovering that sitting will make you die faster.

Kirk Westphal - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Why Peak Oil is the most important thing you'll never hear

In 2005, energy researcher Robert L. Hirsch produced a report at the request of the US Department of Energy (he wrote a great 9-page summary of it here). In this report, a couple of sentences particularly grabbed my attention: "Failure to initiate timely mitigation with an appropriate lead-time is certain to result in very severe economic consequences... The world has never confronted a problem like this."

Soon after, Hirsch received instructions never to talk about this subject again.

What did he and other countries let out of the bag? Here's the gist: We're entering an era of decreased oil availability, we'll need to find a way to live with a lot less of it, and the likely consequences of inaction aren't pretty.

The desire for self reliance and weaning ourselves off foreign oil makes for good speeches. But policies to achieve this have never actually been attempted in this country with any degree of sincerity, as evidenced by this excellent segment:

The part that's not funny about this situation is that it looks like we're running out of time to do something meaningful about it. And while we dither, much of the roughly $500 billion dollars that U.S. drivers spend on gasoline every year not only leaves the country, but goes to people who arguably don't have our best interests at heart.

My goal in this final post is to 1) give you a glimpse of the global energy dynamics that will ultimately impact each of our day-to-day lives, and 2) look at some things we can do to shape these changes and emerge a more successful, resilient community.

Here are the basics: Oil (and its products like gasoline, diesel and jet fuel) powers the global economy, directly or indirectly, more than any other fuel, from manufacturing products to growing food to transporting people and goods (by cars, boats, trains and planes). And demand for oil is increasing. The world population is growing, and a growing proportion of those people are acquiring an oil-intensive Western lifestyle: driving cars, getting new homes and filling them with things, eating less local food.

On the supply side, oil production is plateauing. Companies haven't been finding new oil fields (the worldwide supply curve has "peaked" or will soon, which is where the term Peak Oil comes from). And it's getting more expensive to get more oil out of the ground, whether it's because it's in deep water, in the arctic, or mixed in with a bunch of rock, gone are the days of the Beverly Hillbillies "gushers" where you poke a hole in the ground and out it comes.

So it's not that the Earth is literally "running out" of oil, it just now requires an increasing amount of energy to get to it or process it. At some point, when the amount of the energy it takes to get oil approaches the amount of energy you get from burning it, extraction logically comes to a halt because your net "energy return" is zero. Along the way, following the laws of supply and demand, oil and everything that depends on oil becomes more expensive. (Not in a gradual way, either -- smooth supply curves don't apply when you're dealing with a finite resource. What you end up with are price increases punctuated by a series of spikes and shortages.) Again, no matter how much more efficient our products or way of life becomes, oil extraction will cease when net energy return is zero.

There's not a lot of argument about what I've laid out so far. Nor is there disagreement that even a "crash course" in retrofitting will take a long time to replace the most critical parts of the world's oil-powered infrastructure to run on potential temporary substitutes like natural gas and coal-fired electricity. (While there is debate about when exactly Peak Oil will occur, even the rosier projections of when we'd need to start preparing have passed us by.) And I say "temporary substitutes" because natural gas and coal are also finite, and will increase in price as demand shifts to them.

It's also acknowledged that it is physically impossible for any combination of fully-ramped-up renewable sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric) to pick up enough of the slack to avoid severe economic consequences when oil availability slows. And while they'll certainly help, the fraction of today's energy use that these renewable resources could replace is quite small --  there just isn't nearly the reliability or energy "density" in these resources to match the energy we're accustomed to from oil.

What can we do? At risk of being unfashionable, I'll say that we could learn a thing or two from our peers around the world. Pretty much every wealthy Western country has done something about their relationship with oil, except the US. The use of taxes is one area we've been particularly skittish about: here's what gas prices look like among this group:

Economists talk about government's role in "taxing people away" from products that a society wants their people to buy less of. By inflating the price, people buy less of the "bad things", they consequently put more of their money into "better things", the societal costs associated with the ill effects of using the "bad thing" are reduced, and the tax revenues that are generated can be put to productive use. We tax things like cigarettes and alcohol, but in the case of oil, there seems to be as much talk about the "political infeasibility" of raising gas taxes as the benefits of doing so. (More on this later!)

The Economist article associated with that chart, titled "Tax Away Vulnerability", says it well: "Petrol prices in America are substantially below levels elsewhere in the rich world, and this is almost entirely due to the rock bottom level of petrol tax rates. The low cost of petrol encourages greater dependence; the average American uses much more oil per day than other rich world citizens." Our unwillingness to tax ourselves keeps the price low, enabling and strengthening our addiction, and making more of us financially vulnerable when oil prices do rise.

Even though we're late to the party, it seems to me that we would do well to implement a gradually increasing gasoline tax. And as it starts making more financial sense for people to look for alternatives, businesses here in the U.S., and Michigan in particular, that are creating products and technologies to help us ride down our oil binge would start to thrive. (The notion that such a tax would be a "job killer" is nonsensical: we already see jobs "shifting" to industries that are helping us transition to other fuels.) It takes time for these companies to grow, and our choice is between helping them grow here or waiting until the last minute and buying product from other countries because we weren't up to speed. And as for the question of what to do with the billions in tax revenue, well, I'm sure you could do less popular things than paying down our country's obscene credit card debt or shoring up Social Security.

In the event we don't see any progress on this issue at the federal or state level, the buck will most certainly stop either at your local government or your doorstep. Michigan cities don't have the state's permission to levy taxes on things like gas, so we have to improvise. How each municipality or region weathers oil shortages will hinge on many different questions: How vulnerable is your average citizen to higher fuel costs? Will they be able to get to work? (Sadly, southeast Michigan has one of the country's most vulnerable populations in terms of percent of household budget spent on transportation.) Will your businesses and institutions be able to function with higher fuel costs and lower citizen discretionary spending? How much more will it cost to run the operations of your city -- moving trucks around, piping and treating water? How will your average citizen react when they see quarter-mile long lines at gas stations or empty shelves at Wal-Mart? Are they prepared? Or resentful that "you should've done something about it?" (Following the lead of other cities, a minority of folks on the Environmental Commission thinks we should at least evaluate our vulnerability. See paragraph five of this Ann Arbor Chronicle article.)

If you're wondering why we haven't heard more about this predicament, there are very good reasons for it. Every year, there are millions of dollars spent on clouding the issue of peak oil. Oil companies are some of the most profitable in the world. Their management and shareholders survive on tomorrow's stock prices, and they do not want them jeopardized by any negativity. So they spend lots of money on lobbyists and political campaigns, not to mention gobs of advertising in magazines and on television (seen many pretty pictures of wind turbines lately?). They pressure lawmakers and reassure the public, "We're on it; everything's going to be okay." News outlets are rarely in the mood to bite advertisers' hands, with some exceptions (read "Real Men Tax Gas"). Heck, these companies even helped finance an entire anti-tax movement just to help make people feel foolish about starting the conversation about taxes. (And while the idea of more taxes isn't intrinsically appealing to most people, myself included, there's room to debate whether we're truly Taxed Enough Already or why these people in countries with the highest taxes don't seem angry about it.)

So you're on board and asking, "What can we do here, now?" There are plenty of ideas out there, but here are some things that I've done. I'd welcome other suggestions!

Call your people in the House and Senate in DC and in the Michigan House and Senate to begin, and tell them why you think a gas tax would help our energy security and benefit [insert your benefactor of choice]. You might even get a letter thanking you!

Save on heating and cooling costs at your home and business. These expenses are likely to increase along with all energy prices. Start with an energy audit and find out what the payback period will be on improvements. (We're already recouping money from ours, and the house is more comfortable!)

Practice using less gasoline: if you're thinking of moving, try not to move farther from work or day-to-day needs; try not buy a bigger car or additional one if you can avoid it (if you can afford a new one, and the majority of your driving amounts to less than 100 miles a day, consider going electric); take the bus, pump up those bike tires, dust off those walking shoes if you can make it part of your routine. (My family of four has done great with one car, plus the bus, a bike, the occasional carpool and a bunch of sneakers.)

Patronize local businesses. More of our food and products will have to be sourced locally when it gets more expensive to ship them long distances, so let's make sure to help them ramp up production now. (We like to make an event out of the Farmer's Market and pick up as much as we can before heading to the supermarket. It's the freshest and best food around.)

Speak out in support of policies locally that 1) give people more options to live closer to their jobs, families and shopping (and get around safely with less oil -- buses, sidewalks, bike lanes), 2) strengthen local businesses and industries, and 3) decrease your city government's vulnerability to higher oil prices.

Talk about these ideas with people you think should know, watch for news about it, Google around mainstream media or start from this primer by the Post Carbon Institute. If "intellectual horror movies" are more your thing, check out Collapse or The End of Suburbia.

Why not follow the federal government's advice and get a preparedness kit? (We saw what 4" of snow did to grocery store shelves.)

If you want to tap into a worldwide network of folks who have thought a lot about our energy future, have a chat with the friendly people from Transition Ann Arbor.

As I'm finishing this post, a politician appears to have successfully baited the White House on the subject of taxation: he's accusing the administration of wanting to increase gasoline prices in an attempt to make alternative fuels and efficient vehicles more competitive. The White House is responding, "We want to make gasoline as affordable as possible." What's especially disheartening is that this administration (as well as a bipartisan committee of deficit hawks) knows we need to tax gas much more. But asking people to make sacrifices just doesn't get you elected.

In the end, political rhetoric aside, I do think there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about life with less oil. The vast majority of human history had nothing to do with the sticky stuff, from the building of the pyramids to the Renaissance to the founding of this country. We have no choice but to accept our lot at the end of the Oil Age. Whether we transition with purpose --or on a prayer-- is up to us.

Post 2: It's okay―I napped through Civics too

Recently, I had a great time producing an educational video with a group of folks who are full-on committed to making sure your community looks awesome and runs well. And they watch your property tax dollars like hawks. (And yes, my renter friends, you pay property taxes through your rent, so listen up!) I also have to say, these dedicated men and women have one of the most unpredictable jobs north of a NASCAR driver.

Who are these people? Your friendly neighborhood city managers!

Cities (and other municipalities) in this country basically have one of two forms of local government structure: either the strong mayor form or the council-manager form (which, in an attempt to confuse you, is also called the city manager form). The two forms have radically different organizational charts that dictate the roles, relationships and decision making among all the elected officials and professional staff of a city. This is extremely important because just as, say, a building will perform well or poorly over its lifetime depending on the strength of its foundation and the quality of its materials, a government or any other organization needs a solid structure at its core. And the quality of this structure directly impacts the quality of the people who will work in it and how productive they will be.

For this reason, more cities in the US today use the council-manager form of government than the strong mayor form. When new municipalities are formed, most opt for the council-manager form; it's considered a "model" form of local government. Because of their age and tradition, many of the largest cities in the country use the strong mayor form: New York, LA, Chicago. But many large cities also use the council-manager form, like Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. (Fun Michigan fact: the three largest strong mayor cities are Detroit, Warren and Flint; the three largest council-manager cities are Grand Rapids, Sterling Heights and Ann Arbor.)

The council-manager form was born in the early 1900s in a response to rampant corruption in local politics. The reformers figured that a more business-like model would root out corruption, and it did! Instead of a popularly-elected mayor becoming the CEO of a city -- the person in charge of staff and the budget -- if a city chose to use the council-manager form, the elected city council would hire the CEO. The CEO in a city is called the city manager. This process is considered more business-like because the council, which is akin to a board of directors of a corporation or nonprofit, can go out and look for the best candidate for the job, someone who has been trained how to run a city. (The citizens of a strong mayor city get their CEO, the mayor, based on a popularity contest, which based on recent events not too far from here doesn't necessarily guarantee that the winner be properly trained or ethical. You're vastly less likely to have corruption in a council-manager system.)

Do cities ever change their form of government? Sometimes, but it's a big deal to do this: there's an elaborate procedure to "open up" the city's charter and tinker with it. Which leads me to my only (direct) request for you to click on something in this post: there's an excellent 4-minute video that explains the differences between these forms, produced by a city that ended up changing from strong mayor to council-manager at the top of this page. (And if you just can't get your fill of this local government stuff, by all means click on the image of yours truly just below that one and watch my brand-new video on the council-manager form, or go directly to it here. You'll see a slew of Michigan's local government celebrities, as well as my on-camera debut within the first couple of minutes!)

So this is where I tell you we need to change our form of government, right? Thankfully, no. The good citizens of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, at least, can relax: our charters are up to snuff when it comes to government structure. (Well, for the most part -- get in touch if you really want to talk more. But fair warning: I might try to get you on board to eliminate local partisan elections, publicly fund campaigns, and re-establish instant runoff voting while we're at it.)

So if we're all set, why am I still talking about this?

Because I sometimes wonder if we're taking full advantage of what our form of government affords us. For example, while hiring a qualified CEO and staff trained in gathering information and making sound recommendations has obvious direct benefits to a city in terms of quality of decisions, an equally valuable downstream impact is that our elected representatives should be allowed to focus on higher-order questions. What are the values of my constituents? What types of policies should I initiate that align with those values? Has the city manager and staff been effectively implementing those policies using best practices? Have we evaluated the cost effectiveness of these policies and of all operations relative to other cities? In short, it means freeing up our citizen officials from the thicket of micromanagement and giving them more time to look at the Big Picture; more about creating a bold vision for the community, less about getting into the weeds of how to get there.

In theory, this arrangement should also allow for a broad cross section of the community to participate on city council. I suspect we could do more to cultivate excitement around this opportunity and see if there are unnecessary hurdles to serving.

But if you're like me, after you're convinced that the council-manager form is good for local government, the troubling questions begin: Isn't the council-manager form of government really just a parliament writ small? And if it's more effective than the strong mayor system, which happens to mirror the structure of state and federal systems, is it treasonous to suggest that they may not be the most effective options either? (Yikes, just don't look here to see the company we keep when it comes to the presidential system.) Once you've got your ear to the ground about this, turns out there are plenty of rabble rousers out there. Some folks did a pretty thorough thrashing of our system and wrote a book about it. This article sums it up nicely. Even the World Bank has taken pot-shots: "Presidential systems, as opposed to parliamentary systems, raise the probability of high levels of corruption" (source). Considering our troubling worldwide standing on some measures, should we really be surprised that things at the top haven't been working for a long time?

Bringing it back to the home front, I think we're doing a good job given the circumstances. Local governments arguably impact their citizens more directly than all other levels of government combined, and relative to other communities and regions, I'd say we can be proud. But I'm equally convinced there's always room to do better. And we can't do it without a mighty army of engaged citizens: from those who help out on their neighborhood boards, take time to speak with the Mayor and their ward representatives, serve on commissions, or run for council. I've found my volunteer experience with the city to be among my most rewarding, and I'm grateful for the opportunity. It's a big tent and an uncertain future. Will you play a role?

Post 1: Why Banks And Offices Are The Bane of Downtown

For these blog posts, I'm going to write about three major revelations I've had over the past few years. (At least those that relate to Concentrate's mission; if you want to chat about the paleolithic lifestyle or Toastmasters, well, let's have coffee. I'm in downtown Ann Arbor most days.)

This first post concerns downtowns. I really like a good downtown. By extension I really like good streets. And by "street" I mean all the stuff you can see as you're walking down one: the road; the sidewalk and all that's in it: people, cafe tables, merchandise displays, trees, benches, lampposts, sandwich boards; the buildings that enclose the street; and what you can see going on inside those buildings.
It's a city's downtown streets, especially those two or three core streets that people would call the "main drag" at the center of a city (or a district within a city)that form the economic and spiritual heart of a community. It's where people shop and stroll, where parades are held, where protests or celebrations spontaneously happen, where historic buildings lend permanence and meaning to our geography.

Today, these streets are often spoken about in the context of attracting talent to an area. Young professionals (and many others) often state they want to live in or near a "real" downtown, and the language they use indicates that it's a place that's crowded, concentrated, and full of options within a short walk. The downtowns that pull this off are vibrant well into the evening, where it's possible to stroll and feel consistently safe and engaged throughout your visit.

I'll share a quick story with you. A couple of years ago, I was speaking with the manager of a business on South Main Street here in Ann Arbor. He was familiar with the documentary I had done for my masters degree. (It's called Insights into a Lively Downtown. it's a 19-minute video analysis of Ann Arborites' favorite streets, and you can watch it on YouTube here.) He said, "You'll appreciate this. The other night I was walking behind a student showing her parents around Main Street. They were heading north on Main to Washington Street, and when we got in front of Mongolian BBQ, she said, 'Main Street kind of ends here. Let's cross over.' And I wanted to say, 'Wait! My place is over there!'" He remarked that between the banks across the street and the "dark, empty offices" on the northwest corner of Main and Washington, he couldn't blame people for thinking that Main Street essentially ended at Washington Street.

See the excerpt below from my recent film, Great Street Toolkit, which talks about the importance of retail concentration and uses footage from Main & Washington as an example of how bank and office uses can hurt this goal.

So how many times can this happen in a downtown where people decide it's just not worth crossing to the next block before it's no longer interesting to walk anywhere? Granted, it's reassuring that we've got the great consecutive blocks that we do on Main Street (and State Street and South University), a fact that earned us a national award in 2009, but things can slowly change. What if a bank replaced the Parthenon restaurant? And what if offices moved into the ground floor of the Selo/Shevel Gallery?

There's no universal percentage for how many dull areas a downtown can withstand, but with each one you add, the more people will decide it's just not worth making a trip downtown. (For more about why banks are particularly insidious, see a recent report on my bank rant in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

A great piece of news is that the city is moving forward on implementing "design guidelines" for new buildings in the downtown. These will hopefully encourage a higher quality of architecture over the long term.

But let's not forget that pedestrians value buildings just as much, if not more, for what they offer on the inside. A couple of years ago, city council declined to follow the lead of some other cities and decided not to enact an ordinance that would have prevented the future displacement of retail by banks and offices (it's no secret I was a fan of the ordinance).

Perhaps this can be revisited. Because after all, don't we deserve downtown streets with both beauty and personality?

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