The size and price of new American homes have increased quite a bit in 40 years

A short video shows how new American homes have changed in the last four decades. Here is a quick summary of the differences:

Americans may occasionally complain about sprawl and the growth of the suburbs, but part of the expansion of homes over the last few decades has actually been due to the expansion of the home. Animator Bård Edlund’s project for CNN Money, 40 Years of the American Home, visualizes changes in features and layout and the slow but steady increase in size and price for the average house, which starts at 1,525 square feet in 1973 and slowly balloons to 2,384 square feet by 2013, a 56% increase. Price, not surprisingly, follows a similar trajectory, rising from $64,600 in 1980 to $268,900 by 2013. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that’s a 32% increase.

I’m not quite sure why the history begins 40 years ago because you would find a similar trajectory going back into the early 1950s when the average new home was around 1,000 square feet.

The Curbed headline is interesting: “Today’s Average Home is a McMansion Compared to 40 Years Ago.” If we are just talking about square feet, this makes sense with a 56% increase. This is a pretty neutral – and therefore unusual – use of the term McMansion. But, if it is suggesting that homes are too big or luxurious today, that is another story.

“New McMansions and Disappearing Jobs: A Tale of Two Rural Americas”

Here is a brief summary of two trends in rural America: growing exurbs (which can include McMansions) yet a decline in jobs.

On the positive side of rural, Teresa Wiltz writes for Stateline, the very useful news and analysis source of the Pew Charitable Trusts, that “new census data show that for the first time since 2010, the outermost suburban counties are growing faster than urban counties and close-in suburbs.” The demographic change that Wiltz describes is the increase of 146,000 in new exurban residents attributable to domestic migration. The “vibe” of these exurbs, she writes, “is decidedly rural Americana.”

Why are the exurbs growing? Wiltz cites multiple potential reasons for this turnaround, including people moving to the exurbs for jobs (she cites Joel Kotkin, the well-known author, who believes that suburbanization is the likely route to growth around the world, to point out that “the vast majority of jobs aren’t in the cities”) and for “bigger and more affordable homes in a more wide-open space.”…

Some of the exurban growth might be attributable to the economic revival, but Bill Bishop reports in the Daily Yonder that, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, job growth in rural America stopped pretty abruptly in 2014. Between January 2014 and January 2015, rural counties lost 331,000 jobs while metropolitan counties gained 3.1 million jobs. Job losses almost always correlate with workforce and population losses; the rural workforce dropped 557,000 during 2014, which almost assuredly means that rural counties lost population as well.

It may be that these contrasting stories describe an in-migration by people who can choose to live wherever they want and an outmigration of people who have to go where there are jobs. Those in-migrants pose tough challenges for rural areas. Wiltz, for example, mentions in her piece seeing McMansions, farmhouses, mobile homes, and designer outlet stores together in the exurban area 40 miles north of Atlanta. That kind of mix of land uses can constitute a planner’s nightmare and a challenging issue for citizens groups trying to determine how residential development and open space and farmland preservation should be balanced.

There are a few confounding issues at play here:

1. This article mixes the ideas of exurbs and rural areas. The exurbs are between suburbs and the rural areas but what exactly does this mean? It is hard to know. Is 40 miles from Atlanta the suburbs or a rural area or exurbs? Exurbs often means the suburban fringe.

2. Having a rural “vibe” is also a vague idea. I assume this means big lots and smaller communities. But, a good number of Americans say they would prefer to live in “small towns” and these exurban areas may offer just that.

3. If the last paragraph is correct, the people building and/or buying McMansions in the exurbs are the same people driving the higher ends of the housing market in suburbs and cities. As the bottom end of the housing market continues to struggle, those with money can afford to move further out from the city and into big homes.

What will we all do in autonomous cars? Use 4G, wireless connections

With the rapidly approaching autonomous vehicles, how will we spend the time once devoted to driving (or backseat driving)?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 105 million Americans commute by car each day. With an average round trip of 50 minutes, that’s a whopping 88 million hours daily. “I want some of these hours back,” said Cooley. At this point, “we’re now already moving into the era of post-self-driving vision. It’s not so much about the technology of self-driving, but what will we do after that.”…

The most important groundwork, or “plumbing,” as Cooley refers to it, is for auto manufacturers to integrate 4G into vehicles. Built-in high-speed wireless connectivity makes a car much like a phone, Cooley said, allowing users to get into the habit of using maps, calls, notifications, and other interactive elements in the car.

Given today’s world, this isn’t too surprising: cars will free up even more time for Internet and social media usage. Indeed, we’ll have extra time for multitasking where we can listen to music or watch something while participating online (while being a passenger). Are there better things we could do? With all the studies on sleep deprivation (partly due to media usage), perhaps not driving should lead to more sleep. Or, employers and workers might do more job-related activities on the way to and from work.

Alas, all of these supposed time-saving devices may just keep providing opportunities to do more work or entertain ourselves further…

Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.

Trends in the slowly improving housing market in the Chicago suburbs

The Daily Herald reports on the slow growth in real estate transactions and construction in the Chicago suburbs:

Sales of existing homes were on the upswing in February, climbing 1.2 percent from January and 4.7 percent from a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The tactics of builders and developers have changed:

The result is that buyers are seeing new houses of smaller square footage loaded with amenities such as wood floors, high-end appliances, specialty cabinets, spa-quality bathrooms, upscale windows and trims, and the latest wireless communication and entertainment technology.

Two groups of buyers are driving this trend: older millennials tired of paying rising rents and ready to raise a family, and baby boomers at or near retirement and looking to downsize…

Like other developers, Pulte is focusing on building in closer-in suburbs rather than massive subdivisions on the fringes…

Toll Brothers also has a limit on how far out it will develop, said Keith Anderson, Midwest group president.

“Elgin is as far as we will go. We’d rather pay more for the land and build closer,” Anderson said.

Or, put differently, there are not enough buyers and sellers putting pressure on builders and developers to construct homes further in the hinterlands in the Chicago region. In contrast, those buying homes have different expectations as well as the means to purchase more in-fill properties. This provides more evidence – from the higher economic end of suburban homeowners – that the bifurcated housing market continues.

What motivates people to document the “urban ruins” of New York City?

There is the glittering New York City, capital of the world, and then there are the urban ruins:

From the creepy to the bizarre, Ellis’ exploration of the derelict and decrepit has lead him to document nearly 50 locations across New York City and beyond. The images chronicle forsaken schools, asylums, and forts, along with railroads and waterfronts. He updates his popular blog constantly, and a collection of 150 images has been published in Abandoned NYC.

Ellis has become somewhat of an expert at discovering the city’s hidden ruins. He gleans a lot of information from other “urban explorers” who post their findings online. He also uses Google Earth — if he sees a building with a collapsed tree outside or what look like abandoned cars, it’s a sure sign no one’s inside. In three years of urban spelunking, he’s somehow avoided being arrested. There are occasional run-ins with security guards, but he usually leaves when they tell him to and that’s that. “Getting in is easier than you think,” he says.

Wired runs stories like these regularly and you can find lots of such pictures online (particularly from Detroit). What is the appeal? My guesses at the moment:

1. It contrasts with the glittering/branded images most cities want to present.

2. It fits in with those interested in darker things like deviant activity (not necessarily illegal, but at least out of the mainstream), horror films, and post-apocalyptic stories. And all of this may be down the block or around the corner in the city! And there are such artistic opportunities!

3. It strikes me that it may be relatively easy to find these sites. Some of the pictures here are from larger sites but some could be from relatively small buildings. It may not be clear from the outside how ruined it looks inside.

4. Perhaps this is some reaction to the orderly middle- to upper-class presentation of the world where everything has to be in its right place. Sites like these present an opportunity to revel in disorder.

5. Humans can survive in such spaces? Again, we are used to seeing the more upscale settings in which the rich and famous live but seeing how the lower half lives may just be more hidden and/or blocked.

6. This is about preserving history. Without such photos, it is easy for buildings to quickly or slowly disappear.

Experimental no parking signs in LA replace text with graphics

Instead of relying on text to delineate times of no parking, a new design has emerged in Los Angeles:

LA's new proposed parking sign design, inspired by the work of Nikki

Nearly two years later, LA is rolling out a pilot program of signs that may do exactly that. Over the next six months, the city will install 100 new signs around downtown to test a design that condenses a hodgepodge of regulations into one easy-to-read grid.

You might recognize the design. The original concept is the work of Nikki Sylianteng, a Brooklyn designer whose day planner layout blew up on the Internet last year. Her design made the rounds on blogs, garnering attention from commiserating drivers and, evidently, city officials. She’s now working with transportation officials in Vancouver to create new parking signs. She’s also heard from officials in Columbus, Ohio, and some cities overseas. And she heard from Los Angeles councilman Paul Krekorian…

Husting thought Sylianteng’s design was a good concept to run with (Sylianteng wasn’t paid for the project). It smartly transformed a handful of text-heavy restrictions into a color-coded blocks of time that tell you exactly what you need to know: Can I park here? Green means yes, red means no. Subtle diagonal striping helps those who are color blind differentiate between the colors. It was strikingly simple. “I didn’t even consider it would get to this level of the city,” Sylianteng says. “I figured if it ever did someone would say, ‘This is such a naive idea and these are all the reasons why this can’t happen.’”…

As a technological backstop of sorts, the city has been attaching Bluetooth beacons to every new sign erected with the hope developers eventually create an app that makes parking signs irrelevant. Husting calls this “phase two” of LA’s parking overhaul. Imagine pulling up to a parking spot and having your phone simply say “yes” or “no.” Or better yet, having your car tell you. “What we ultimately hope to do—and I know this is still far out in the future—is we want to be able to go ahead and connect with your vehicle,”Husting says. Until then, signs based on Sylianteng’s design would be a big improvement.

It is interesting to think about why certain kinds of road signs do or don’t change much over time. Some become so recognizable that to change them might create all sorts of difficulty. (Imagine redoing the basic stop sign or traffic light.) But, many others could be up for reinterpretation. Here, the shift is away from text to visuals – does this only work now because the visual reigns supreme in American society?

As the final paragraph above suggests, perhaps this is just the last gasp of the parking sign until autonomous vehicles simply communicate with the parking indicators and refuse to let you park in certain places.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest urban Facebook fan base is Baghdad?

Melding political, social media, and urban analysis, a look at Hillary Clinton’s Facebook fans has an interesting geographic dimension:

Hillary Clinton’s Facebook pages have an unexpected fan base. At least 7 percent of Clinton’s Facebook fans list their hometown as Baghdad, way more than any other city in the world, including in the United States.

Vocativ’s exclusive analysis of Clinton’s Facebook fan statistics yielded a number of surprises. Despite her reputation as an urban Democrat favored by liberal elites, Iraqis and southerners are more likely to be a Facebook fan of Hillary than people living on America’s coasts. And the Democratic candidate for president has one of her largest followings in the great red-state of Texas.

While Chicago and New York City, both with 4 per cent of fans, round out the top three cities for Hillary’s Facebook base, Texas’ four major centers—Houston (3 percent), Dallas (3 percent), Austin (2 percent) and San Antonio (2 percent)—contain more of her Facebook supporters. Los Angeles with 3 percent of her fans, and Philadelphia and Atlanta, each with 2 percent, round out the Top 10 cities for Facebook fans of Hillary.

On a per capita basis, in which Vocativ compared a town’s population to percentage of Hillary’s likes, people living in cities and towns in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin were the most likely to be her fans on Facebook than any other American residents.

This hints at the broader knowledge we might gain from social media and should beg the question of how this information could be well used. I imagine this information could be used for political ends. Is this a curiosity? Is this something the Clinton campaign would want to change? Would this influence the behavior of other voters? The article itself is fairly agnostic about what this means.

This sounds like data mining and here is how the company behind this – Vocativ – describes its mission:

Vocativ is a media and technology venture that explores the deep web to discover original stories, hidden perspectives, emerging trends, and unheard voices from around the world. Our audience is the young, diverse, social generation that wants to share what’s interesting and what’s valuable. We reach them with a visual language, wherever they are naturally gathering…

Our proprietary technology, Verne, allows us to search and monitor the deep web to spot breaking news quickly, and discover stories that otherwise might not be told. Often we know what we’re looking for, such as witnesses near the front lines of a conflict or data related to an emerging political movement. We also uncover unexpected information, like pro-gun publications giving away assault rifles to fans of their Facebook pages.

Is this the Freakonomicization of journalism?

Are Forest Preserves really about maintaining property values and quality of life, not protecting nature?

Each day on the way to and from work I drive past multiple Forest Preserve properties. They are generally green and open, providing a relaxing scene under the rising sun or after a long day. Yet, how much are they really about preserving or protecting nature as opposed to improving the quality of life of suburbanites? Are these two goals antithetical to each other?

The DuPage County Forest Preserve – alongside others in the Chicago metropolitan region – has been aggressive over the decades in purchasing land. The pace of acquisition picked up after World War II in the era of mass suburbanization where development eventually spread throughout all of Cook, DuPage, and Lake County. See an animation here of the land acquired by the DuPage County Forest Preserve since 1920.

The mission of the organization is stated here:

As mandated by the Illinois Downstate Forest Preserve Act, our mission is “to acquire and hold lands containing forests, prairies, wetlands, and associated plant communities or lands capable of being restored to such natural conditions for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauty for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.”

The mission mentions both nature and citizens. But, one way to look at the acquisitions is that they enhance the quality of life of wealthier residents by providing green and/or open space that will not be developed, offering recreational opportunities, and raising property values for nearby housing and not just for those that border the properties but for numerous developments who don’t have to contend with more nearby developments. Of course, forest preserves and parks can be used by residents of all class backgrounds. Yet, taking away all of the land from possible development means that affordable housing – already limited in wealthier places like DuPage County – may be even less possible. Property values are always lurking in the background of development decisions in the suburbs and I suspect it is relevant here.

Additionally, “protecting and preserving” nature is a tricky business. It is not exactly in a “natural state” as human beings have been in the area for at least hundreds of years going back to the first white settlers in the 1830s and Native American groups as least a few decades before that. These Forest Preserves present a particular kind of nature, one that this is never too far from busy roads, housing developments, tricky water run-off situations, and pollution. This is made more clear in the term sometimes used of “open space” where concerned suburbanites want empty land.

In the end, do suburbanites really desire Forest Preserves for the mediated nature they provide or the enhanced quality of life they bring? The answer might be both but we rarely discuss the implications of the second reason.

Contrasting living in a McMansion and a micro-unit

Real-life tales of living in a McMansion and a micro-unit! First, the residents of the 7,500 square foot McMansion and then the 344 square foot micro-unit dweller:

The McColls lived in Arlington for years before deciding last fall that it had become too dense. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kim says, “was when I saw my kids playing in the back yard and I had to shush them because it was too loud for the neighbors.” Their five-bedroom in Loudoun County’s Willowsford development has two offices—key because they often work from home—and abundant entertaining space. Also: More than 20 miles of nearby trails means the kids have room to shriek all they want.

Williams sold most of her furniture and sacrificed proximity to family when she left her 1,100-square-foot condo in Olney for a micro-unit in a building on DC’s 14th Street, Northwest. And she has no regrets. Because she isn’t much of a cook, the sliver of a kitchen is no big deal, and she didn’t have to give up her one must-have, a bathtub. (It’s off the hallway.) Before, her closer-in friends didn’t like driving out to Olney; now she can socialize without leaving her floor. “When Scandal comes on, the neighbors down the hall cook and have people over. They have a junior one-bedroom—they have room for a couch.”

Quite the difference in housing units. This is fairly obvious from the floor plans. But, I suspect this goes deeper and Bourdieu’s theories about social class may provide some explanatory leverage. Would these two sets of residents ever cross paths? Or do their housing choices suggest such different tastes and lifestyle choices that they might never interact and if they did know each other, not spend time in the home of the other? One life revolves around work and friends close by while the other involves children and space. I would guess the decorating is different as are the leisure activities pursued by each group.

In other words, these housing choices may just be the tip of the iceberg of deeply-rooted social clusters. Would the micro-apartment dweller ever live in a McMansion, let alone even imagine it?