“Cloak-and-dagger building deal blows up on Naperville”

An intriguing headline leads to a story of how much suburbs are willing to do to attract companies and jobs:

SKF Group, a manufacturer of ball bearings, seals and lubrication systems, approached city officials through an attorney in July 2014. The planning and zoning commission approved the project without knowing which company was putting it forward…

“I don’t want to take a chance of messing up this deal. This is the kind of deal every city wants,” Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said last year as a council member.

The 130,000-square-foot building at 1203 Warrenville Road was projected to employ 200 people whose research in materials testing would contribute to energy-saving products…

Naperville officials said they feel some disappointment that SKF changed course after all of their efforts to welcome the project into the city, despite neighbor concerns about traffic, noise and privacy disruptions. But having the company pull out before hiring local employees is not the worst-case scenario, Chirico said.

“The good news is we’re not losing existing jobs, it’s future jobs,” Chirico said. “It would have been a lot worse had we had a company that located here, hired people and then all the sudden they lost all their jobs.”

This is the sort of company that helped Naperville reach its lofty heights of population, wealth, and jobs: an international business bringing white-collar positions. Although the suburb didn’t offer them any tax breaks (the company would have received breaks from Illinois), Naperville leaders did go around their normal process to try to make this happen.

If this building sits empty for a while, things could get interesting. Naperville is not used to empty structures and any suburb would want the building and land to be a positive contribution to the local tax base.

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Selecting “The Most Overexposed Chicago Design Trends”

Curbed Chicago identified six Chicago-specific design trends that they think are now passé.

Stylized Chicago neighborhood maps [I have a t-shirt version but not a poster]

Reclaimed wood Chicago flags [Odd – no]

Stolen ‘L’ maps [A version of the stolen street sign…don’t have one]

Chicago World’s Fair prints [No – but have one of the better South Shore Line posters]

Generic Chicago skyline poster [Sort of – a real matted photograph but a similar image]

The nothing-but-a-black-leather-sofa-and-flat-screen-TV look [No]

I want to know whether these are real patterns or not: how many Chicago area residents have these features? How does this compare to residents of other cities? Someone could create a bot to scan real estate listing photos or the list could have emerged from a set of in-the-know interior designers. Alas, we have no idea what methodology Curbed Chicago employed which perhaps indicates that it wasn’t very rigorous.

All of this hints that decor trends are driven more by “feel” than hard data. What’s “in” these days could be tracked in a variety of ways yet it often seems that a class of gatekeepers – professionals, the media, corporations – gets to dictate when these trends begin and end. For example, are we past the era of stainless steel appliances and granite countertops? The average resident or seller is looking to others to signal the latest trend.

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Did the F5 Plainfield tornado contribute to suburban growth?

Some Plainfield residents feel like the destructive 1990 tornado contributed to the suburb’s later growth:

In the years after the tornado, Plainfield grew from a town of just over 4,000 to more than 41,000 residents today. Some say the tornado and subsequent attention helped put the tiny village “on the map.”

“I think a lot of people saw the community spirit and what a wonderful place this was, and I think that really prompted some of the growth,” said Kathy O’Connell, a lifelong resident who served on the village board.

She and others shared stories of how Plainfield residents pulled together to help one another. In the case of the Kinley family, one resident came forward to take in Don, his wife, Sharon, their son and his family while they rebuilt their homes.

This hints at a feature of suburban communities that many residents and leaders will discuss: their suburb has a lot of community spirit. I am skeptical of such claims for two main reasons:

  1. The people making the argument are often closely connected to civic organizations (local government, charities, business groups, etc.) where there are active community members. This is what they regularly see but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the broader population.
  2. A lot of community spirit compared to what? Would other suburban communities not respond and help if a major tornado hit their community? There is little baseline for levels of community spirit outside of personal experiences and anecdotes.

The case of Plainfield may be different: the response of people to a major natural disaster is likely more forceful than responding to daily suburban life.

Yet, I would argue the tornado just happened to occur right before Plainfield would have grown anyway. The growth was impressive: 186% growth between 1990 and 2000 (4,557 to 13,038 residents) and 204% growth between 2000 and 2010 (13,038 to 39,581 residents). But, Plainfield was not alone. This southwest sector of the Chicago region saw tremendous growth across communities. Naperville was a “boomburb” between 1980 and 2000. Aurora recently became the second-largest city in Illinois. Joliet, losing population through the 1980s, had nearly 40% growth in each of the next two decades. A bit further east, I-355 was extended south from I-55 to I-80. In other words, the open land and easy access to Chicago and other nearby locations (major train lines, major highways) prompted the growth.

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US average of 3 hrs 40 min a day on mobile devices

A new report shows that Americans are spending more time on their mobile devices:

U.S. consumers spend, on average, three hours and 40 minutes each day on their mobile devices, an increase of 35% from a year ago in the second quarter of 2014. And that time spent on mobile devices continues to increase, said Simon Khalaf, senior vice president of publishing products at Yahoo.

Globally there are 280 million “mobile addicts,” who use apps more than 60 times daily. Effectively, “these folks are conducting their lives on mobile,” Khalaf said. Regular users access apps up to 16 times daily, Flurry’s research found.

Over the last six months, the average time consumers spend on their phones or devices has increased by 43 minutes, or 24%, he said. “This is the mobile revolution,” Khalaf said. “There hasn’t been a single industry that hasn’t been disrupted by mobile and its applications.”

Khalaf revealed the findings Wednesday at Yahoo’s mobile developer conference in New York. The new data, also posted on the Yahoo Developer Tumblr page, came from mobile analytics company Flurry, which he was CEO of when Yahoo acquired Flurry in July 2014, and other sources including comScore and NetMarketShare. Flurry tracks 720,000 apps across two billion mobile devices.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. If the time on mobile devices is up so much, what other activities decreased in time? Perhaps some users have shifted time from other devices – like television or computers – but this data also might be based on double counting time (watching TV and on a mobile device). More multitasking with phone in hand might be the culprit here.
  2. The phrase “mobile addicts” seems odd here. Typically when we refer to addictions, we are referencing something that negatively interferes with other areas of life. However, attendees at a mobile developer conference might see this addiction as a good thing (more customers!) and Khalaf says people “are conducting their lives on mobile.” Is this addiction (probably not) or just a new normal?
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More road traffic due to a recovering economy

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute suggests traffic has increased due to an improved economy:

America’s traffic congestion recession is over. Just as the U.S. economy has regained nearly all of the 9 million jobs lost during the downturn, a new report produced by INRIX and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) shows that traffic congestion has returned to pre-recession levels.

According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours – 42 hours per rush-hour commuter. The total nationwide price tag: $160 billion, or $960 per commuter…

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that Americans have driven more than 3 trillion miles in the last 12 months. That’s a new record, surpassing the 2007 peak just before the global financial crisis. Report authors say the U.S. needs more roadway and transit investment to meet the demands of population growth and economic expansion, but added capacity alone can’t solve congestion problems. Solutions must involve a mix of strategies, combining new construction, better operations, and more transportation options as well as flexible work schedules.

I’d love to know whether the average driver would prefer a depressed economy or more traffic. This could be an example of competing interests: a depressed economy could have ramifications for jobs and retirement savings but many people may not have to think about it if they have a job. Yet, if you have a job, an increasingly lengthy commute makes few happy. This might lead to people wanting the economy to be better but not wanting those people to drive. (If only all the new jobs could be telecommuting workers!)

Is the real story about the economy or is it about (a) an increasing population (though the population growth rate may be quite low, the US still added over 2 million people in 2013) and (b) cheaper gas over the last year?

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Using the neighborhood email list for good and not ill

If many neighbors can’t get along (examples 1, 2, and 3), how do people go about making the neighborhood email list helpful?

Crime reports are a major part of why residents get in on the email list action. Like being part of a Neighborhood Watch, they feel safer knowing what’s happening outside their doors. But there’s a limit. Nashville resident Leah Newman says a woman on her neighborhood group is notorious for listening to a police scanner 24-7 and, like a court stenographer, jotting down everything she hears and relaying it. What she considers being vigilant, the rest of the community might view as overzealous…

But that frenzy—and the 400 messages batted back and forth—probably didn’t help matters. Instead, the better course of action is to exercise restraint and not get carried away posting incidents in real-time or suggesting that neighbors take matters into their own hands.

What might be the benefits?

For starters, many people simply won’t show up to an in-person meeting. Or, those who do might not feel comfortable mentioning personal gripes the way they could digitally…

Signing up for the neighborhood dispatch can also help recent transplants feel more rooted in their new community…

Elizabeth McIntyre, who runs D.C.’s Columbia Heights Yahoo group and website, also cites the powerful way these digital means can mobilize residents who are unhappy with something happening in their area…

Electronic mailing is also a great equalizer. No matter a resident’s age, education level, or technological savvy, most anyone can check and send email.

It is interesting that the article leads with the example of alleged criminal activity – what might better bind many American neighbors together than the idea that their collective quality of life (and attached property values) is threatened?

This could be a worthwhile subject for study in today’s world. There is evidence that American sociability has declined in recent decades and there are endless anecdotes of neighbors in fairly well-off to wealthy neighborhoods fighting over inconsequential things. As Baumgartner wrote in The Moral Order of a Suburb, suburbanites tend to get along by leaving each other alone and avoiding open conflict. Yet, the use of email could focus the attention of neighbors on common interests without having to get too involved with each other’s lives. At the same time, such conversations could easily get messy if there are feuding parties, differing opinions, or the typical aggressive behavior found in many online comment sections.

In the end, do such email lists enhance community life, not have much effect (since they probably aren’t very deep and focus on particular topics), or lead negative effects? Also, I would guess that the likelihood of a neighborhood email list goes up with social class.

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Homeownership continues to drop, housing costs rise

Twin trends in American housing: homeownership is down while housing costs increase. First, on homeownership:

Only about a decade ago, in 2004, 69.2 percent of all homes were occupied by their owners; the home ownership rate has since fallen to 63.4 percent, the lowest in almost fifty years despite some of the most attractive mortgage interest rates on record. In part this is due to the difficulty young couples have in qualifying for a mortgage, as once-burned, twice-fined and increasingly risk-averse banks, looking over their shoulders at their regulators, raise their lending standards.

But even a further loosening of credit standards that have already been relaxed for “jumbo” loans (in excess of $417,000 and $625,500, depending on the region) is unlikely to change the trend towards renting rather than owning, last month’s increase in construction of single-family homes notwithstanding. Jordan Rappaport and Daniel Molling, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, find that adults in their 20s and early 30s, so called millennials, are not alone in preferring to rent rather than buy. Ageing baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, have tired of mowing, hunting for plumbers, fixing leaky roofs and coping with the nightmares that accompany realization of the one-time American dream of home ownership. They have accounted for the bulk of new renters, and are likely to continue to “be the main drivers of multifamily [apartment] construction as they age through their senior years,” conclude the Bank’s economists.

Second, on housing costs:

Consumer prices rose modestly in July, and according to the U.S. Labor Department those gains were largely due to a 0.4 percent increase in the cost of shelter—the government’s measure of housing costs. This was the largest increase in the shelter index since 2007.

While inflation for other Consumer Price Index (CPI) basket items has been decelerating, the inflation of shelter has only been going up since 2010. Compared with July of last year, shelter prices are up by 3.1 percent. In the coming months, shelter inflation is expected to continue…

Rising housing costs, paired with stagnant wages, are a big concern for most Americans because not only is rent often already the largest part of monthly expenses—it is increasingly becoming more expensive. One study found that half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Interestingly, this is getting very little attention from politicians. Let’s say a politician wanted to appeal to the masses in the United States. One traditional way of doing this has been to push homeownership, a strategy pursued from Presidents since the 1920s. Owning a home might be the modern equivalent of a chicken in every pot for Americans. Since owning a home has been viewed as an essential part of the American Dream, most politicians want to be viewed as in favor of expanding this opportunity. (Of course, there are other reasons for pushing homeownership including boosting the economy and fighting communism.)

Perhaps other issues are more pressing at the moment. Or, I suspect few leaders really know what to do about reviving housing given the efforts in the early 2000s to expand homeownership that contributed to a big economic bust. Yet, since most major politicians today want to appeal to the middle class (and they don’t pay much attention to the poor – another story for another day), this would be one easy way to go if they could just figure some sort of plan.

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Four options for road diets

Watch planner Jeff Speck explain how four different road diet strategies might work. Here is an example of one approach:

40-footer lane insertion


(Jeff Speck / Spencer Boomhower)

This time we focus on a 40-foot street with two 12-foot lanes of opposing traffic and two parking lanes at the curb. Many cities have adopted 12-foot lanes with the assumption that they move more traffic; in fact, as Speck has argued at CityLab before, they present a major safety hazard for cities by encouraging faster driving. He recommends slimming them down to 10 feet—a design configuration that leaves room for a bike lane and makes the street safer, even as it more or less preserves traffic flows.

This is a reminder of some of the paradoxes of road design. Provide bigger lanes and more lanes and cars tend to drive faster and traffic increases. Narrow the lanes and drivers have to slow down and pay more attention, leading to improved safety. And all of this might actually free up space for other uses – like bike lanes or more pedestrian space.

If you want more on such techniques, read Speck’s Walkable City.

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The culture wars have moved online

The culture wars may be raging most furiously in a new space and this has consequences:

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman’s culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.

If this is the case, it has altered the culture war landscape in multiple ways:

1. Increased the speed of battle. Now, new issues can pop up all over the place through text and videos on multiple platforms. Who can keep up with it all?

2. The old gatekeepers – traditional media like television, newspapers, and radio as well as politicians – have to scramble to keep up. This means they may race to the bottom or endlessly cycle through everything to stay relevant.

3. The culture wars don’t have to be about big issues but rather can be a larger series of micro battles. There may be no big “culture war” but rather an endless number of skirmishes involving small numbers of participants.

4. Anyone can participate with the possibility of being part of a larger conversation behind their smaller sphere. However, it is hard to know which of these skirmishes might blow up.

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Call for changing sex and gender questions on major surveys

Two sociologists argue that survey questions about sex and gender don’t actually tell us much:

Traditional understandings of sex and gender found in social surveys – such as only allowing people to check one box when asked “male” or “female” – reflect neither academic theories about the difference between sex and gender nor how a growing number of people prefer to identify, Saperstein argues in a study she coauthored with Grand Valley State University sociology professor Laurel Westbrook.

In their analysis of four of the largest and longest-running social surveys in the United States, the sociologists found that the surveys not only used answer options that were binary and static, but also conflated sex and gender. These practices changed very little over the 60 years of surveys they examined.

“Beliefs about the world shape how surveys are designed and data are collected,” they wrote. “Survey research findings, in turn, shape beliefs about the world, and the cycle repeats.”…

“Characteristics from race to political affiliation are no longer counted as binary distinctions, and possible responses often include the category ‘other’ to acknowledge the difficulty of creating a preset list of survey responses,” they wrote…The researchers suggest the following changes to social surveys:

  • Surveys must consistently distinguish between sex and gender.
  • Surveys should rethink binary categories.
  • Surveys need to incorporate self-identified gender and acknowledge it can change over time.

Surveys have to change as social understandings change. Measurement of race and ethnicity has changed quite a bit in recent decades with the Census considering changes for 2020.

It sounds like the next step would be to do a pilot study of alternatives – have a major survey include standard questions as well as new options – and then (1) compare results and (2) see how the new information is related to other information collected by the survey.

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