Mayors leading the charge for tackling infrastructure issues

Who is tackling big infrastructure projects these days?

Governors have long been among the nation’s loudest advocates for pouring concrete. Interstate highways? New bridges? Major development projects? They love it. When a huge pot of federal money opened up as part of the 2009 stimulus package, states were eager to get their share of the cash and push it toward pet projects, shovel-ready or not.

And that’s what makes it interesting to see mayors taking the lead on transportation spending. At an event Monday in Boston, the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched what it says will be the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects…

All of that combines to create a situation in which mayors, rather than governors, can take over the dominant role in pushing for transportation spending. Of course, mayors have plenty of concerns of their own, especially in big cities. Major bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007 worry them, as do crumbling urban highway interchanges and failing subway systems. Here in D.C., a major parkway was snarled for much of Tuesday after crumbling masonry fell off a bridge into the roadway. Some of the mayors who are most involved in pushing for more infrastructure money are Democratic mayors in Republican-led states—like Kasim Reed of Atlanta.

The article suggests this is primarily a political Republican vs. Democrat question with Democratic mayors pushing for things that Republicans at the national level don’t support. But, I think this ignores another factor: these mayors are at the level of government that is closest to some of these issues. For them, infrastructure is not an abstract concept but rather more often about specific projects that can enhance life in their city. It is the difference between saying “America’s bridges are in trouble” versus “Boston needs an underground highway in order to free up land, improve traffic, and reduce pollution.” And Americans tend to like local government as they see it as more responsive to immediate needs. Governors can lobby for particular projects but they also have to keep in mind the concerns of multiple actors, which might even up pitting cities against each other for limited funds (i.e., is LA or San Francisco more worthy of a major transportation project). Mayors like the applicable projects that they can point to as real change. (An odd thought to throw in here: dictators often like to memorialize themselves with large-scale planning efforts that will outlive them. When municipal power is concentrated in the hands of a single figure, such as a powerful mayor, is a similar process at work?)

While the mayors may be closer to the infrastructure issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can get things done. What kind of clout do mayors have when there are other layers (like governors) to contend with?

Suburban sunbelt population soars again

Was the economic crisis just a blip in the ongoing growth of the suburban Sunbelt?

The unavoidable takeaway from the Census report is that Americans have resumed the westward suburban ho of the early 21st century, before the Great Recession came crashing down. None of the 20 fastest-growing metros are in the northeast. Rather, they’re in the sunny crescent that swoops from the Carolinas down through Texas and up into the west toward the Dakotas. Americans are back to sun-worshipping…

The story of immigration is slightly different. The list of cities with the greatest foreign-born influxes since 2010 includes some of these warm metros, like Houston and Dallas, but also filling out the top-ten metros for immigrants are areas where more native-born Americans are leaving, like New York (#1), Los Angeles (#2), Boston (#7), and Chicago (#9).

But the upshot seems to be that even as the recession sparked interest in an urban revival, the metros that seem to be winning the population lottery are suburbs of warm metros—including many of the very Sun Belt areas that seemed devastated by the recession.

Suburban sprawl continues…

And who are the people moving to big cities?

This is a tight feedback loop. The densest cities tend to be the most educated cities, which are also the richest cities, and often the biggest cities. They’re gobbling up a disproportionate share of college grads. And, as a result, they are becoming richer, denser, and more educated.

Both patterns can be going on at the same time: large numbers of Americans continuing to move to the Sunbelt suburbs while a good portion of educated young adults moving to hot neighborhoods in the biggest cities.

“We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members.”

Wired has an interesting excerpt from a new book Data and Goliath:

One experiment from Stanford University examined the phone metadata of about 500 volunteers over several months. The personal nature of what the researchers could deduce from the metadata surprised even them, and the report is worth quoting:

Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis…

That’s a multiple sclerosis sufferer, a heart attack victim, a semiautomatic weapons owner, a home marijuana grower, and someone who had an abortion, all from a single stream of metadata.

Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.

The gist of the excerpt is that while people might be worried about the NSA, corporations know a lot about us: from who we have talked to, where we have been, who have interacted with through metadata and more personal information through search data. And perhaps the trick to all of this is that (1) we generally give up this data voluntarily online (2) because we perceive some benefits and (3) we can’t imagine life without all of this stuff (even though many important sites and social media barely existed a decade or two ago).

The reason I pulled the particular quote out for the headline is that it has some interesting implications: have we traded close social relationships for the intimacy of the Internet? We may not have to deal with so much ignorance – just Google everything now – but we don’t need to interact with people in the same ways.

Also, this highlights the need for tech companies to put a positive spin on all of their products and actions. “Trust us – we have your best interests at heart.” Yet, like most corporations, their best interests deal with money rather than solely helping people live better lives.

Denver addressing common big-city problem: where are the public restrooms?

In big cities like Denver, public bathrooms can be hard to find:

Downtown Denver is a busy area and a great place to visit. But it lacks one thing everyone needs – bathrooms.

“There hasn’t been a big need for it in the past but we’re looking into it now because we’ve heard from the community that there is a big need for it,” said Heather Burke of Denver Public Works.

You’re options now are to use the facilities at the business you’re patronizing, or you could do your business at your local, not so friendly, neighborhood dumpster…

In 2014 Denver Police issued 550 misdemeanor citations for urinating in public…

“It’s definitely on the city’s radar; we have a working group that’s looking at different options for public restrooms,” said Burke.

Infrastructure may not get the attention it deserves overall but shouldn’t public bathrooms also be on the radar screen?

This reminds me of the chapter in Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalks regarding how the street vendors he is studying are treated in regards to bathrooms. The short answer is not well as they are often homeless black men and local businesses are not always inclined to view them favorably. For example, the story cited above says the Hard Rock Cafe tries to be accommodating to visitors but how would they view people like street vendors as opposed to tourists or people who appear to be more middle or upper-class?

Sociologist on the three social pillars of science

Science has its own social context and goals:

Fuller has also written a lot about science and technology studies, or STS. Flipping through his 2006 book The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, I came upon a passage–adapted from a 1998 essay—that defends the critical stance that STS scholars often take toward science. The passage reads like a comment on my recent column:

“There appears to be nothing uniquely ‘rational,’ objective,’ or ‘truth-oriented’ about the activities that our society calls ‘scientific.’ Make no mistake: it is not that scientists are less rational than the rest of humanity; rather, they are not more rational. STS researchers generally credit ordinary people with a good deal of intelligence.

“The power of science seems to rest on three pillars. One is science’s distinctive social organization, which enables concentrated periods of both teamwork and criticism, nowadays done on a global scale with considerable material resources. Another is concerted political effort to apply the results of scientific research to all aspects of society. Finally is the control that scientists continue to exert over how their history is told. Past diversions and failures remain largely hidden, resulting in an airbrushed picture of ‘progress’ otherwise absent from human affairs.

Especially in today’s world, we could use more sociology of science. Without some questioning, science tends to get a free ride in American society as one of the key promoters or carriers of progress. Yet, science is still a social enterprise and works with its own set of assumptions.

One question: where can you have reasonable discussions about science (natural and social) and its assumptions and findings?

Convenient to see the end of Pradel’s career as a new era for Naperville

The Naperville Sun/Chicago Tribune ran a long story about Naperville mayor George Pradel stepping down and what this means for Naperville:

Longtime residents and colleagues say Pradel’s style — which he, himself describes as Naperville’s No. 1 cheerleader — suited the suburb well as about 42,000 new residents brought the need for new schools, fire stations and grocery stores during historic growth.

Naperville faces a new era now, as Pradel, 77, prepares to step down after five terms in office in May. His departure leaves one of four mayoral candidates with a new task of leading the nearly built-out city through its next set of challenges, from filling empty storefronts to countering an unwanted reputation as a party town after several high-profile, alcohol-fueled incidents downtown…

Since 1969, Naperville has operated with a council-manager form of government, which uses a full-time city manager to run the community’s day-to-day operations, while the mayor serves as the city’s public face, available to grand marshal parades and have dinner with girl scouts.

It’s an arrangement that Pradel said he’s been grateful for since he won his first election in 1995, a victory that caught him by such surprise that he didn’t even have an acceptance speech ready.

This is the sort of story that can feed the “big leader” narratives of history. But does it really fit here? Pradel was an outgoing character and a cheerleader. He was very visible. He had a long history in Naperville as a police officer. Yet, the story even reminds us that the mayor was a figurehead with the day-to-day work falling to the city manager. Naperville, like many cities its size, has a large professional staff. The city has a number of business and civic leaders who contribute.

This is not intended to downplay the role that figurehead leaders can play. Perceptions matter a lot within and among communities. At the same time, larger-than-life or long-serving leaders can often get the blame or credit for things that they didn’t do. Pradel was mayor over a particular period of time that saw Naperville peak in population (at least at this point without serious efforts to grow up), continue to grow a vibrant downtown, and encounter a few issues including traffic, some crime, and thinking about how to connect disparate parts of the city. Was he responsible for all of this?

This is where a more complex picture of Naperville or other communities can help. Some people indeed have more power and influence. But, communities have more going on than just one person.

Using Chicago as a new big data laboratory

University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park once said that the city was a laboratory. A new venture seeks to use Chicago as just that:

On the heels of the University of Chicago’s $1 million Innovation Challenge for urban policy solutions, today’s announcement that UI Labs (“universities and industries”) will open CityWorks, a private R&D partnership that will be based on Goose Island, sets up the city to be a center for urban studies, technology and innovations. Founding partners Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd and Siemens will operate a bit like angel investors, according to Jason Harris, a spokesman for UI Labs. This project will seek to “level up Chicago as a center for the built environment.” The city’s mix of university and industry partners, government leadership and legacy of architecture and design innovation place it in a perfect position for this kind of incubator, according to Harris.

CityWorks wants to seed 6-8 ideas this year, focused on energy, physical infrastructure, transportation and water and sanitation, Harris says (funding amounts aren’t being released). “Our vision is that we have projects that can use the city as a testbed and try out ideas not being tested in other cities,” he says.

CityWorks will award grants to university and private researchers, with a focus on digital planning and the Internet of Things. Chicago is vying to be an important center for this potentially lucrative field. With the recent introduction of the Array of Things, a cutting-edge system of sensors that researchers and computer scientists are hoping will prove the value of real-time, open-source city data, and the recent opening of Uptake, a Brad Keywell-backed startup looking to bring custom data analytics solutions to businesses, the city is well-positioned to become a leader in the field.

I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this. It sounds like the goal the goal is to use big data collected at the city scale to find solutions to urban business issues. I do wonder if this is primarily about making profits or more about addressing urban social problems.

Some might be surprised to see such a project going forward in Chicago. After all, isn’t it a Rust Belt city struggling with big financial problems and violence? At the same time, this project highlights Chicago as a center of innovation (which requires a particular social context), a place where businesses want to locate, and home to a good amount of human capital (in both research interests and educated workers).

Innovative design in response to social needs and social conditions

The creativity in innovative design doesn’t come emerge from a vacuum: one academic explains how it is related to social forces.

“The ADA totally changed transport, architecture and every area where accessibility is important,” he says. “Design also develops out of a sense of social needs.”…

At a time when Jony Ive’s creations for Apple are as much status symbol as a technological advance, Margolin believes that the discipline’s potential lies in solving big problems and the creation of culture, not just the newest products…

He sees system design and a systemic perspective as key to innovation. Numerous modern inventions, such as Peapod and mobile banking, are built upon pre-existing infrastructure and only work well when they encompass different behaviors and user cases. Failures that ignore these perspectives are apparent every day…

Margolin also believes that innovation on a disruptive scale often requires a concept that creates a community of people around a common cause, such as the American mobilization of industry during WWII, the growth of research laboratories of mid-century American industry or the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs’ era, inspired in part by the innovations of Xerox’s PARC research division.

This is related to one thing I try to impart in my Culture, Media, and Society course: despite our images of lone geniuses developing great novels, music, art, technology, etc., objects come out of a social process. This is the argument of a number of sociological works on cultural production and includes famous ideas like Becker’s idea of “art worlds.” You can also this in case studies of certain objects that once were not very popular but became popular through a series of events, such as the Mona Lisa whose stature was heightened by theft. Of course, social forces can also limit creativity whether we are talking about Babylonian culture in the first century BC where they were more interested in preservation of their past or in current copyright law that places restrictions on using created works.

Creating a quirky and warm Twitter personality for your on-the-market housing unit

Here may be a new housing trend: personifying your for-sale home in a Twitter account.

Bob the House — a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath ranch in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect — has been tweeting about his journey on the market since October. You’ll find Bob to be a rather inspirational house, tweeting messages of positivity and hope on a regular basis, along with fanfare for the Chicago Cubs and humorous updates about his search for the right family. (“Six showings today! You like me, you really like me!”)

Here’s the open secret: It’s not really Bob who’s doing the tweeting. It’s his “handler,” Rich Burghgraef, an account executive with sales consulting firm Randolph Sterling, Inc. Burghgraef writes in a blog post that he created Bob, whose name comes from the street the house lives on, Robert Drive, as a way to get away from typical advertising tactics. It seems Bob was a hit, with showings of the home going from one or two a weekend to six and eight after the Twitter account debuted. It may have even been responsible (or at least contributory) to the ultimate happy ending, as Bob tweeted on March 1: “My new family moved in on Friday. Thank you all for taking an interest.”…

Burghgraef says that he used Bob to make a personal connection with buyers, not just to throw marketing messages of “buy me!” at them. Bob would tweet about the school that taught him to tweet (so there’s a good school in the neighborhood!); his friend, the stop sign (safety first!); and his stepson, the swing set (don’t you see your family here?). The home’s Twitter account gave buyers a new way to “fall in love with him even before stepping in for a showing,” Burghgraef says.

A clever way to use social media. The several accounts I read of this phenomena did not provide much evidence regarding the effectiveness of this tactic. Of course, social media attention is one of the currencies of today’s social realm so why not leverage it to help sell your home?We can’t be too far away from someone automating this process so that every new housing unit on the market could take advantage of Internet available information about the neighborhood and surrounding area to develop a winning personality.

I think Burghgraef is right in suggesting that this could be particularly effective with real estate since there is a high level of emotional investment. While we could imagine all sorts of consumer goods having their own online personalities, not all of those goods might have the same emotional connections to their owners.

Our lack of knowledge about the indoor biome

Science may be going to the natural frontiers on Earth but what about the indoor biome?

If you add up the area of the indoor biome in Manhattan — including its walk-ups and high-rise apartments — it’s three times bigger than the area of the island of Manhattan itself…

And yet the indoor biome remains at science’s frontier. “We know virtually nothing about it,” said Laura J. Martin, an ecologist at Cornell University.

In the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Ms. Martin and 24 fellow scientists have issued a manifesto urging serious scientific investigation of the indoor biome. We need to find out not only what is living in our homes and workplaces, the scientists say, but how they got there…

Dr. Dunn and his colleagues argue that, ecologically speaking, our houses have a lot in common with caves. In both habitats, temperature and humidity are much steadier than outside, making for stable environments. But both lack the dense vegetation that most other biomes have, so there’s less food to be had…

But our houses also have otherworldly ecological niches, like shower heads and freezers, that can support more biological diversity than you’d find in a cave.

This may be a bigger issue than ever for three reasons:

1. People have become more sedentary than in the past for a variety of reasons, which often means they are inside more.

2. The indoors has made it possible to adapt to more inhospitable habitats. (Think heating and air conditioning.) Yet, this also provides more potential for mixing organisms.

3. And the reason that might funnel the necessary money to study the great indoors: health. When is the indoor biome healthy for humans and when is it not? We know about some features of this – think exhaust and particulates in garages or from fireplaces or bacteria in the kitchen or bathroom – but do we know the whole complex story? What if the indoors was making us less healthy?