Proposing a stronger theory of NIMBYism

A lawyer in Austin is working on a more-encompassing theory of explaining NIMBY responses to development:

The key to any strong definition or explanation, suggests Bradford, is that it must go beyond the simplistic idea that NIMBYism aims to protect home value, full stop. If that’s the case, why do some homeowners reject development projects so forcefully while others don’t? Why is California more NIMBY than Texas, for instance, or Austin more NIMBY than Houston? Why is NIMBYism more intense now than it was 40 years ago, when home value mattered just as much to personal wealth?

Bradford builds his own central thesis around the idea that NIMBYs seek to monopolize “access to neighborhood amenities”:

“In the absence of zoning restrictions on the number of housing units in a neighborhood, neighborhood amenities would be a public good. Zoning converts neighborhood amenities from a public good (a partially non-rivalrous, non-excludable good) into a “club” good (a partially non-rivalrous, excludable good). Because “club” membership is bundled with home ownership, zoning causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices. NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of “club” membership.”…

As for realistic policy solutions, Bradford makes an initial go at these, too. Rather than trying to undo existing single-family zones, he says, an easier place to start would be for local planners and officials to stop automatically applying such zoning to new developments. “There is no particular constituency for zoning fringe greenfields exclusively for single-family use, so cities ought to stop doing it,” he writes. “This practice merely begets the next generation of NIMBYs.”

It sounds like the argument is that property values are part of a deeper desire to protect the neighborhood from use by others. People buy a property with the expectation that they will have exclusive use of particular features, whether that is parks, roads with less traffic, or nearby open spaces.

The policy solution offered above is intriguing. If buyers don’t have any knowledge of how the land nearby might be used, it lowers their expectations about what might be there some day. Still, they might object to any changes – home buyers on the fringe become quite enamored with empty fields. Additionally, this recommendation doesn’t help deal with infill or redevelopment situations.

I wonder if some developer could up the value of their properties by writing into the deed or through some other contract that the land nearby will not change for a certain number of years. Would buyers be willing to pay a premium if that land was controlled and they knew they had exclusive rights to amenities? If a developer couldn’t be sure of the actions of a municipality, perhaps they could purchase a buffer zone that they would control.

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CNBC: owning a home may be “the new luxury item”

CNBC suggests the dream of owning a home is becoming less attainable:

Almost half of those people who don’t own a home said their financial situation is standing in the way, according to a report by Bankrate.com released Tuesday. Additionally, 29 percent said they can’t afford a down payment and 16 percent said their credit isn’t good enough to qualify for a mortgage…

“A lot of people could be feeling traumatized by what happened to the housing market and are counting themselves out,” she said…

These days, first-time homebuyers, who are primarily in their 30s, are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to buy their first house — coughing up about 2.6 times their annual pay; in the 1970s, first-time homebuyers purchased homes that cost only about 1.7 times their yearly salary, according to Zillow.

Tighter lending standards and hefty down payments have further deterred some buyers.

Economic conditions and reasoning can go a long ways to determining who can access parts of the American Dream and when they may do so in life. This reminds me of other analyses I’ve seen in recent years suggesting the delayed age for marriage as well as a decline in marriage is also tied to economics: people want to be more financially secure before they marry. Similarly, buying a home is now being put off – not because Americans don’t want it but because they just aren’t set and the conditions have imposed particular restrictions.

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Using smartphones to collect important economic data

Virginia Postrel describes a new app used in a number of countries to gather economic data on the ground:

Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed “a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data,” chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

The contractors, who are paid by the usable photo and average about $100 a month, take pictures aimed at answering specific economic questions: How do the prices in government-run stores compare to those in private shops? Which brands of cigarette packages in which locations carry the required tax stamp? How many houses are hooked into power lines? What’s happening to food prices? Whatever the question, the data needed to answer it must be something a camera can capture…

The result is a collection of price indices updated much more frequently and with less time lag — although also fewer indicative items — than monthly government statistics. For Bloomberg terminal subscribers, Premise tracks food and beverage prices in the U.S., China, India, Brazil and Argentina, using indices mirroring government statistics. It gets new information daily; Bloomberg publishes new data twice a week. Premise tracks a similar index in Nigeria for Standard Chartered bank, which has made the aggregate data public. (Premise clients can drill down to see differences across products, types of retailers, or regions.) While more volatile than official statistics, the figures generally anticipate them, serving as an early-warning system for economic trends…

Premise has government clients, and it carefully positions its work as a complement to official statistics, as well as to the academic Billion Prices Project, which scrapes massive amounts of price data from online sources but can’t say what cooking oil sells for in a corner shop. Make no mistake, however: Its methods also provide valuable competition to the official data. The point, after all, is to find out what’s actually happening, not what government reports will say in a few weeks.

This is an innovative way to get data more quickly. It would be interesting to see how reliable this data is. Now it remains to be seen how markets, governments, and others will use more up-to-date information.

More broadly, smartphones could be used to collect all sorts of data. See previous posts on using the microphone and the use of additional apps such as Twitter and Waze.

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Can’t ignore race when discussing poverty in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates cites several sociologists in making the argument that white and black poverty is different in the United States:

In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be “fundamentally distinct” from white poverty. It would be much more convenient for everyone on the left if this were not true—that is to say if neighborhood poverty, if systemic poverty, menaced all communities equally. In such a world, one would only need to craft universalist solutions for universal problems…This chart by sociologist Patrick Sharkey quantifies the degree to which neighborhood poverty afflicts black and white families. Sociologists like Sharkey typically define a neighborhood with a poverty rate greater than 20 percent as “high poverty.” The majority of black people in this country (56 percent) live in high-poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of whites (94 percent) do not. The effects of this should concern anyone who believes in a universalist solution to a particular affliction…

But the “fundamental differences” between black communities and white communities do not end with poverty or social mobility.

In the chart above, Sampson plotted the the incarceration rate in Chicago from the onset imprisonment boom to its height. As Sampson notes, the incarceration rate in the most afflicted black neighborhood is 40 times worse than the incarceration rate in the most afflicted white neighborhood. But more tellingly for our purposes, incarceration rates for white neighborhoods bunch at the lower end, while incarceration rates for black neighborhoods bunch at the higher end. There is no gradation, nor overlap between the two. It is almost as if, from the perspective of mass incarceration, black and white people—regardless of neighborhood—inhabit two “fundamentally distinct”worlds.

Coates might also cite Massey and Denton’s classic American Apartheid that convincingly shows residential segregation between whites and blacks is of a different magnitude than residential segregation between other groups. Additionally, there is evidence that whites and blacks with equal characteristics are not treated equally (see a number of audit studies involving mortgages, renting, car loans, and jobs) and even that blacks who are wealthier than whites do not have access to the same opportunities. Ultimately, Coates uses these sociological findings to argue policies intended to float all lower-class boats won’t really work because they ignore the fundamental differences between black and white poverty.

Put another way, given America’s history perhaps we should require scholars and policy makers to show that race doesn’t matter in the issue they are addressing rather than the other way around.

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Berger on the religious pluralism of cities

Peter Berger describes some of his own experiences seeing religiosity break into city life and sums up with these thoughts:

Years later I took a course at the New School of Social Research under Albert Salomon entitled “Balzac as a Sociologist”. I sensed that Balzac’s novels conveyed the same experience of Paris, all its secrets hidden behind closed doors. What could be going on behind this particular door: a religious cult (Balzac was curious about esoteric cults), a great crime, an orgy, or a political conspiracy?  During my student days I roamed endlessly through New York; since I was already obsessed with religion (as a friend of mine once put it, rather pejoratively, “once a godder, always a godder”), I visited every sort of religious space—not only regular Christian churches and different synagogues, but any manner of what for me were esoterica: a brand-new Zen center, the Anthroposophical Society and its cultic offspring, the so-called Christian Community (where one could attend a quasi-Gnostic ceremony in 20th-century America), a Mormon church, Pentecostal storefronts in Puerto Rican East Harlem (about which I wrote my M.A. thesis, my hands “dirty with research”), and the Baha’i (about which faith I wrote my doctoral dissertation). I could go on. But enough. I will observe that mystery is always, minimally, akin to the core of religious experience which Rudolf Otto (in my opinion the greatest 20th-century scholar of religion) called the mysterium tremendum. Thus it should not be a surprise that cities have typically been places of religious innovation (Pentecostalism, the biggest religious explosion of our time, mainly flourishes in the intensely pluralistic mega-cities of the Global South).

While cities are often regarded as centers of secularization and financial markets, they often contain a remarkable amount of religious activity. Two books I have read recently attest to this. In How the Other Half Worships, sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara looks at a number of urban churches primarily through images with some explanation of the experiences had within the diverse church buildings. While Vergara roams far and wide in poorer neighborhoods, sociologist Katie Day examines the dozens of religious congregations along Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia in Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street. Both books hint at the lively religious life of urban residents and organizations even as other aspects of cities receive much more attention from scholars.

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Santa Clara: from small city to Super Bowl host

How did Santa Clara come to be the home to Super Bowl 50? It involved particular decisions made from the 1970s on by local leaders about zoning and land use:

Newly elected mayor Gary Gillmor and city manager Don Von Raesfeld were determined to keep Santa Clara comprised of specific sections — with residential property assigned a large but non-elastic section.

This meant buying undeveloped land in the north and east parts of the city for business and industrial purposes and building a robust tax base. McClain doesn’t recall much about the vacant land other than a dairy where families bought their milk if it wasn’t delivered.

The city already had three major highways and expressways that funneled into the undeveloped area, where high-tech companies such as Intel, Applied Materials, McAfee and National Semiconductor gradually started and became a large part of what is now Silicon Valley.

Gillmor, 79, cited three factors that helped Santa Clara maintain its preferred blueprint: a strong middle class, a huge industrial base for tax purposes and its own municipal power plant that reduces residents’ electric bills to about half of what is charged in neighboring cities…

A convention center and another large chain hotel were built in 1986, but the city’s fondness for the 49ers surfaced during the height of the team’s dominance.

The 49ers were given a sweetheart deal to move their training facility from Redwood City — 18 miles north of Santa Clara. Then-mayor Eddie Souza enticed then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. with a deal that gave the team 12 acres at $1,000 an acre with a 4 percent annual increase for 55 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Today, Santa Clara is a wealthy place as a city with over 122,000 residents: the median household income is $93,840, 53.9% of adults over 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree or more education, and Intel, Texas Instruments, and other semiconductor firms have thousands of jobs in the city. But, this sort of growth doesn’t just happen. Decisions made by civic and business leaders – operating as a growth machine trying to boost profits – often help execute a particular vision of growth. As suggested above, it sounds like land in the city was intentionally set aside for business use and the city was able to attract a number of companies. Not everything can be controlled by civic leaders but they can set themselves up to take advantage of particular opportunities.

On the other hand, having a football stadium is not necessarily a win for a city. This is particularly the case if local tax dollars are used for the stadium. The stadium might be a status symbol – note that the San Francisco 49ers now do not play close to San Francisco – but they often bring other issues.

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Soldier Field, home to religious events, Chicago Fire remembrances, and first cell phone call

Soldier Field has a long history beyond hosting the Chicago Bears:

The first football game hosted in the stadium was, indeed, a football game. Notre Dame faced off against Northwestern in November of 1924 (ND won 12 to 6) but before that, on October 9, a “Chicago Day” event was held to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The event featured a formal dedication and official opening with a mock battle, a horse-riding exhibition from the U.S. 14th Cavalry, and a re-enactment of the fire complete with a cow kicking over Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern. Ten firemen who had actually fought the great fire used the city’s first pump engine against the mock blaze in which a replica O’Leary barn was burned down. Some variation of this event was held there until 1970…

But perhaps the largest event ever held at the field was the Marian Year tribute of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It’s estimated that 180,000 attendees were inside the stadium itself while another 80,000 listened outside on loudspeakers…

In another landmark moment for Chicago synergy, on October 13, 1983, David D. Meilahn made the first-ever commercial cell phone call from the field on a Motorola DynaTAC, a major turning point in communications history. The Chicago-based handset and radio equipment manufacturer was proud to show off its new technology on home turf.

While this has clearly been a sports stadium for nearly a century, it is interesting to note the wide-ranging events that have been held on site. In many ways, this has operated as a public space where the city could come together to celebrate its past, ethnic and religious groups could hold ceremonies, and new sights could be seen. Do we have such spaces today? Most stadiums are tools of corporate power where team owners, often benefiting from public funds in the construction of the stadium, make money. Perhaps it could be argued that they serve the community in that sports can often be a large part of local culture. Yet, it is hard to imagine having large-scale stadiums today that host a wide variety of events and that tens of thousands of local residents would regularly show up to see what was happening.

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Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

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Should we take joy in photos of a dying suburban shopping mall?

One photographer has been chronicling the last days of a mall in the Chicago suburbs:

It can be a tough thing to see a historic building being demolished, but what about when a suburban mall meets the wrecking ball? After a 63-year run, The Plaza shopping mall in suburban Evergreen Park has been demolished to make way for a newer, more modern outdoor mall. While there are many like it, The Plaza was notable for being one of the early indoor shopping malls in the Chicago area, and despite its staying power, the mall had become underutilized over the last several years. So called “dead malls” are nothing new, and if anything, they’re becoming more and more common. With the age of internet shopping and the massive reverse migration of residents leaving the suburbs for the city, many suburban malls have fallen into disrepair and have few, if any, major anchor stores left. One photographer, Martin Gonzalez, has been keeping up with the demolition of The Plaza and has been posting photos over the last several months. Here’s a quick look at some of his images of the fallen Plaza mall.

The pictures suggest ruin and decay, images Americans might more commonly associate with places like Detroit rather than the suburbs. But, the question that starts this article gets at this issue: should we take pleasure in seeing the suburban shopping mall – example of American consumerism, tacky architecture, and the social lives of teenagers with nowhere else to go – destroyed? That this mall failed could be used as evidence that critics of the suburbs were right: the whole system was not sustainable. Yet, there is fallout from this: how will the land get used? What happens to those jobs? Where is the local money that used to be spent here now going? Does the demise of the suburban shopping mall lead to more concentrated and authentic spaces (perhaps the New Urbanist dream) or increased fragmentation (big box stores and online shopping)?

See posts from the last year or so – here, here, and here – about the struggles of suburban shopping malls.

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Highway sign fonts and other fixes for American roads

The use of Clearview font on highway signs is ending:

In a notice posted in the Federal Register on Monday, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a small change that has huge implications for the nation. The agency terminated an order it had issued back in 2004 approving the use of a new font in highway signs. Now those signs are going to change. Again…

Clearview was made to improve upon its predecessor, a 1940s font called Highway Gothic, at a time when an aging Baby Boomer generation meant lots of older drivers on the road. Certain letters appeared to pose visibility problems, especially those with tight interstices (or internal spacing)—namely lowercase e, a, and s. At night, any of these reflective letters might appear to be a lowercase o in the glare of headlights…

Officials in Canada and Indonesia have promoted Clearview as a standard. Transport, which was designed for U.K. roads by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, is the most famous example of a systemic transportation font standard. Clearview evolved as an outside recommendation, a best-practices approach from the private sphere, not as a regulatory shift. In the U.S., Meeker says, institutional interest in better standardization is tepid.“Traffic design is the greatest public manifestation of government on any given day,” Meeker says, “and yet it’s the most dreadful, tired, unresearched, undesigned part of the public interface with government.”

For a country that emphasizes driving, Americans can be oddly disinterested in best practices for road design. Perhaps that love of the freedom that driving offers carries over to thinking about roads: every driver for themselves. Beyond this story about moving away from an easier-to-read font, here are some other ways American roads could be improved:

Road diets – limiting or taking away lanes – would actually help limit traffic and can improve safety.

-Encouraging mass transit use (though often difficult) can help reduce congestion.

Zipper merges are more efficient for drivers.

-Paying for road maintenance now may not be thrilling or seem as pressing as other concerns but it can pay off down the road.

Synchronizing traffic signals can reduce congestion and save time.

-Certain road signs, such as those asking drivers to slow down for children, do not necessarily help. In fact, they may be ignored or even distract.

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