The Chicago of today influenced by 1920s zoning decisions

A new study suggests the beginning of zoning in Chicago had long-lasting effects:

Walsh and two other urban economists investigated zoning’s long-term effects in Chicago, using 1920s parcel-level data on land use and market values prior to, and immediately after, the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1923. They compared these early quilts of land use to that of the present day (or, at least, to the most recent complete dataset available, which came from 2005).

Contrary to what many economists may believe, they first found that zoning did not merely ratify existing land uses. Lot by lot, they found significant variation between the activities that predated zoning and those that came after, especially as years went by. For example, some factories and shopping areas that didn’t conform to the 1923 code were allowed to stay in their respective locations, thanks to a “grandfather” clause. But over time, the vast majority of them disappeared. The powerful force of zoning can be seen on a citywide scale, too: Whereas 82 percent of Chicago’s developed blocks had some form of commerce happening in 1922, that share had dropped by about half by 2005, researchers found.

In other words, the way Chicago looks in the 21st century tracks much more closely with the desires of its planners in 1923 than it does with the city that preceded zoning. This fact has had a huge effect on economic patterns, too. For example, the researchers found that exclusive residential zoning had a significant impact on home prices, driving up values in neighborhoods cordoned off for single-family homes. On a citywide level, they used a regression analysis to find that the zoning code of 1923 had bigger role in shaping economic patterns—i.e., where commercial and industrial activity is going on today—than either pre-existing transportation networks or geography, two factors you might think would best explain why there’s a factory by the old railroad tracks, or a shopping district near downtown…

Although the present paper didn’t explicitly analyze how Chicago’s old zoning codes have influenced racial segregation, a companion paper published in Julyby the same researchers found that the laws drawn up in 1923 were discriminatory: Areas with more black residents were zoned for higher-density housing, and “neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks or recent immigrants were zoned disproportionately for manufacturing.” Chicago consistently ranks as among the most segregated cities in the U.S., and its present-day economic divisions track closely with race (as well as with municipally recognized community boundaries). It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that zoning laws (much like housing policy) dating back a century are in some ways responsible. That’s a theory that needs investigation, Walsh says.

Zoning decisions are political ones. The suggestion here is that if the decisions are good ones, they can have positive effects for decades. The converse – particularly when used to limit options for particular groups – is also true.

The last paragraph of the article hints at recent suggestions regarding significant changes to urban zoning. It would be interesting to see what average Americans think of such ideas: would they trade predictability for flexibility? Continue with the example of Chicago: would more flexible zoning allow for the construction of more affordable housing or would it mean that more land would be converted to non-residential uses, limiting housing options? New Urbanists have touted mixed-use zoning for a long time but their vision of this is often limited to particular kinds of businesses or offices as well as nicer housing (even if it includes different price ranges).

What do those post-debate snap polls tell us?

Ed Driscoll comments on the results of some of the post-debate snap polls:

TRUMP WINS MOST IMMEDIATE POLLS: “The newspaper collected screen shots of 19 ‘snap’ polls conducted immediately after the debate, and in 17 of them, most respondents said Trump won the debate, often by a wide margin. It isn’t just Drudge and Breitbart; Trump also got more votes than Clinton in instant polls at Time, Slate, Variety and other liberal outlets. I can’t explain it, other than to say that perhaps it tells us more about how people view Hillary Clinton than about how Donald Trump actually performed.”

Well, certainly one explanation is a repeat of the “Ron Paul Revolution” days of early 2008 – but as with Paul’s quixotic presidential bid, having a large enough group of dedicated zealots to tilt Internet polls does not necessarily translate into sufficient votes at the ballot box where it counts.

It seems safe to say that Trump’s core followers are much more passionate than Hillary’s. We’ll know soon enough if there are a majority of them.

The large issue with these snap polls is that they are unrepresentative. We don’t know who answered them and in what numbers. As suggested here, perhaps Donald Trump has more active followers who take such polls.

At the same time, if there are consistent patterns in non-helpful polls like this, perhaps they can provide insights into concerted online efforts. They may not reveal much about the electorate at large but they could help us understand patterns of partisans. Why is it important to “win” such snap polls? Are there dedicated efforts to win and how are these efforts organized?

Ultimately, does this suggest that snap polls are even worse than being unrepresentative: they are regularly used by particular groups to push a message? Winning in any arena is simply too important to be left to real survey methods…

New Australian homes shrinking in size

Not too long ago, new Australian homes rivaled those of the United States. Times have changed:

The country’s homes — some of the biggest in the world — reached peak size in 2009 at an ­average of 222sq m for newly built houses and apartments combined, according to research under­taken exclusively for The Weekend ­Australian.

But the global financial crisis ­put paid to that. The average new home now stands at 192sq m, making it smaller than in 2001, senior KPMG analyst Simon Kuestenmacher found in an analysis of 15 years of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Market pressures, a shift in values to ‘less is more’ and spending on experiences rather than material goods, especially among Gen Y, has put Australia on a trajectory towards smaller homes,” Kuestenmacher noted…

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Such trends regarding home sizes can fluctuate as economic conditions, local regulations, and cultural norms change. Now that the new home size has shrunk in Australia, will this continue for a long time? Hard to tell.

I also like the extra analysis that breaks down home size by location: there is not necessarily a singular trend in a country. While much analysis of home size in the United States relies on the single figure produced by the Census each year, I imagine there are some disparate trends across cities and regions in the U.S.

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

Some problems with new LED street lights

Many communities have installed LED bulbs in public areas but the rollout hasn’t always gone smoothly:

For some, those first LED lights have been a fiasco. The harsh glare of certain blue-rich designs is now thought to disrupt people’s sleep patterns and harm nocturnal animals. And these concerns have been heaped on the complaints of astronomers, who as far back as 2009 have criticized the new lights. That’s the year the International Dark-Sky Association, a coalition that opposes light pollution, started worrying that blue-rich LEDs could be “a disaster for dark skies and the environment,” says Chris Monrad, a director of IDA and a lighting consultant in Tucson…

Lately, lighting companies have introduced LED streetlights with a warmer-hued output, and municipalities have begun to adopt them. Some communities, too, are using smart lighting controls to minimize light pollution. They are welcome changes, but they’re happening none too soon: An estimated 10 percent of all outdoor lighting [PDF] in the United States was switched over to an earlier generation of LEDs, which included those problematic blue-rich varieties, at a potential cost of billions of dollars…

Whatever their faults were, those blue-rich LED lights do save energy and money. My city of Newton, Mass., which has about 80,000 residents, expects to save US $3 million over 20 years after swapping its 8,406 sodium streetlights for 4,000-K LEDs, and avoid 1,240 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Los Angeles anticipates saving $8 million a year after installing more than 150,000 LED streetlights, [PDF] while New York City hopes to recover $14 million a year by replacing the city’s 250,000 streetlights with LEDs.

Outdoor LEDs also illuminate streets more efficiently than sodium not so much because of their superior lumens per watt but because they are highly directional, meaning that they focus light mostly in one direction. Sodium lamps are gas-filled bulbs that emit in all directions. More than half of that light must be redirected downward by reflectors or lenses, reducing the lamps’ illumination efficiency.

It sounds like the solution is already at hand: swapping early LEDs for later ones that have warmer hues. Yet, this could serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when infrastructure changes: something that many people don’t pay attention to (street lights) suddenly changes and the world (literally) looks different. Of course, the savings are tremendous but infrastructure choices shouldn’t always be made solely due to efficiency: many residents also care about quality of life and have certain expectations about how things are lit.

While on this topic, it reminds me that I would like to eliminate fluorescent lights in buildings. Rather than use them in my office, I often don’t have my lights on. Maybe I’ve fallen prey to conditioning regarding enjoying yellower incandescent light. Given the changes in bulbs across all sorts of settings, we might all prepare for a future of harsher and colder light.

Leaders of global cities coalesce around common interests

This doesn’t have to be framed as Trump versus big cities to be interesting: leaders of global cities have common perceptions about the world.

That was the important message of the visit by Khan, who arrived in New York after an earlier stop in Chicago. Like his hosts, Democratic mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Khan forcefully insists that integration, inclusion and openness to the world offer the best chance both to defuse terror and maximize economic growth.

That perspective shared by the mayors of almost all large U.S. cities and many others in Europe views immigrants as a source of economic and cultural vitality, trade as an engine of prosperity, and integration of Muslim communities as the central defense against radicalization and terror. “We play straight into the hands of the extremists and terrorists when we [say]…it’s not possible to hold Western values and to be a Muslim,” Khan wrote last week in the Chicago Tribune. “It makes it easier for terrorists to radicalize young people. And it makes us all less safe…”…

Adjusting for national differences, the mayors of global cities are largely coalescing around agendas antithetical to the Trump vision. “There are 50 cities, maybe 100, that are the intellectual, cultural and economic engine of the world,” Emanuel said in an interview shortly after Khan left Chicago. “We are all working on the same things because we face similar opportunities. We have to make our cities competitive. The jobs and companies we talk about are not only global but mobile.”

This modern urban agenda revolves around investment in infrastructure and education (ranging from expanded pre-school to tuition-free post-secondary education); welcoming immigrants; support for small business and information-age technology start-ups; promoting more dense development (Khan toured Chicago’s impressive riverfront development as a possible model for the Thames); embracing renewable energy as both an economic engine and environmental imperative; and with only a few exceptions (like deBlasio) supporting more international trade. The common theme, Emanuel says, is to create a “platform for private sector growth” while advancing equity and inclusion.

This could be used as evidence for limiting or eliminating the nation state, at least for the most powerful cities of the world. If anything, nations might hold them back from doing what they really need to do. Similar arguments have been made recently about states enacting new laws that supersede regulations from cities. See an overview here.

For the sake of public argument, it would be helpful to see the positive argument made for why cities need or benefit from states and countries. Outside of helping to balance budgets, what would Rahm Emanuel say is the benefit for Chicago of being part of Illinois as opposed to operating as an independent entity? Or, could Khan explain why London is a better place because of being in England and the United Kingdom?

High housing prices drive more people to live in vans

When housing prices are high, residents adapt in a variety of ways:

He’s not alone. Last year, 4,600 cars and RVs were used as homes, according to The Los Angeles Times…

“The main expenses are insurance for the van, which is like $60 a month,” said Hutchins. “Then, I have a storage unit for like $60.”

That puts his monthly rent at $120. The van cost him just $125 at an auction…

Hutchins works part-time at a Taco Bell to help pay the bills, and he says living in a van has slashed his cost of living by $800 a month.

He showers at the gym, cooks on a portable stove on a sidewalk (he stores his butane at his friends’ place nearby) and uses wifi at nearby coffeeshops.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. I assume this is more attractive for younger adults who are starting their careers. Even with all the buzz about tiny houses and having smaller and more sustainable settings, I can’t imagine too many people with more established careers choosing this.
  2. Traditionally, Americans like cars. This seems like a clever adaptation for people who can make it work (see #1): you have some people and it is mobile.
  3. How do municipalities view this? The article mentions that this is not against the law in Los Angeles though there may be issues with parking in different places. At the same time, how many communities would want to have significant numbers of people living in vehicles?
  4. It would be helpful to get more data on this: is this a viable option only when housing prices are really high or is this a choice made for additional reasons as well? Does the weather in LA make this easier?