A fossilized Shanghai Tower

I have read numerous versions of how modern civilization might appear in the future archaeological record. However, I liked this particular exploration of what Shanghai Tower, a 2,000 foot structure, might become over millions of years.

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Almost immediately, water making its way down to the lowest levels it will react with the calcareous material in concrete, to form cathelmites – stalactite- and stalagmite-like growths that form in human-made environments. These will continue to grow for thousands of years, transforming the shopping mall into something akin to a horror movie set. If humanity is still around, most things of value will have been stripped out before the Tower is completely abandoned, but perhaps not everything. Aluminium in the ventilation system, stainless steel in the food court – maybe even a few cars in the garage levels will be left to perform remarkable transformations…

The story continues even deeper underground. The entire Shanghai Tower sits on top of a concrete raft, one metre thick and covering nearly 9,000 sq m (97,000 sq ft). Beneath this are 955 concrete-and-steel piles, each a metre in diameter, driven up to 86m (282ft) deep into soft ground. After several million years, as the weight of the sea water and sediment warps the subterranean layers beyond recognition, some of the foundation piles will fracture, twisting within compacting mudrock formations like the fossil roots of an immense, long-vanished tree.

As millions of years stretch into tens of millions, the transformations come more slowly. Rare earth minerals, leached from discarded mobile phones and other electronic devices, may begin to form secondary mineral crystals. Glass from windshields and shop windows will devitrify, darkening just as obsidian does after long burial. By now, the entire city is compressed to a layer perhaps only a few metres thick in the strata. All that is left of Shanghai Tower is a geological anomaly studded with the fossil outlines of chopsticks, chairs, sim cards, and hair clips.

All of this will be deeply buried, in some cases thousands of metres down. But geology never stands still. After around one hundred million years, as new mountain ranges begin to form, the layer of compacted rubble that was once Shanghai Tower may be pushed upwards, and revealed. 

A tower is not just a modern landfill or a single-family home; it is a monument to modern society in a similar way to the massive temples of past civilizations.

The idea that the tower would emerge again as part of a new mountain range is an interesting one. The assumption in a lot of these modern fossil/future archeology writings is that modern civilization will mostly disappear from the Earth’s surface. Many science fiction writings have the same idea: all that modern humans prize in the Industrial Revolution and urbanization will fade away just as everything else has in the past. Certainly, modern structures and infrastructure will only last for so long. What exactly is the predicted lifespan of a major skyscraper, let alone a single-family home or a big box store? Or, all of it will go away due to disaster, war, or the accumulation of garbage and self-induced environmental catastrophe.

Given how we dig and reconstruct the past, I still find it interesting to ponder that someone might come along and dig down and discover a major city that looks abandoned. What was life like there? Why did the city disappear? This was a global city?

Developers not willing to build a particular Chicago project because of affordable housing requirements?

Chicago, like many American cities, asks developers of particular projects to include a portion of the space for affordable housing. But, developers argue this may make an entire project not worth their while. Here is a recent example from proposed developments on Chicago’s North Side:

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But those fees and the sites’ location within a pilot area where there are higher affordable-housing requirements – 20%, all on-site – have made some projects difficult to finance. The 700 W. Chicago project also has been made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, which leaves a record level of vacant office space in downtown Chicago…

Omni Group appears to have been able to overcome financing challenges in part because it negotiated a lower purchase price for the site – $38 million, down from an initial $50 million deal with Greyhound – in response to the affordable-unit requirements

The firm is also known for keeping apartment buildings it develops, rather than selling them after they’re built and filled with renters. The decades-long investment strategy may help offset the 500-plus affordable units, which typically lose money for developers because of high construction costs.

The affordable housing requirements are not the only factor at work here but they are a regular part of proposals in many locations. The goal is to have some of the benefits of a new development in a desirable urban location – a valuable asset – address the important issue of affordable housing. If developers have no or little interest in constructing affordable housing on its own, the construction of desirable projects can still help lead to affordable housing.

What would be very interesting to know is how exactly the money, including financing, costs, and profits, works out with the requirements for affordable housing. Can the developers here not make any money or does it reduce their profits below acceptable levels? It is one thing if money will be lost but another if the affordable housing requirements limit the profit. How much return do they expect on a large project like this? Is the goodwill of participating in providing affordable housing worth anything (status, money down the road, favorable approaches to future projects, etc.)? While this is likely firm-specific proprietary information, I imagine some money still could be made.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Have I have seen that building before…on a studio backlot?

A recent WBEZ story highlighted the country’s first juvenile institution in Chicago. Here is the front of the building:

As soon as I saw this image, it reminded me of something I had seen on a tour years ago of the Warner Brothers backlot. Here is what I saw:

These buildings are not the same. But, their spirit is similar. They sit at an oddly-angled corner that gives the front entrance of the building a unique look. There are columns or pillars at the front. The buildings have a similar shape and set of materials even though they are slightly different. The backlot building has a subway entrance (from New York?) in front.

My experience with these structures hints at two larger processes at work:

  1. My memory is not quite perfect yet it is grouping similar buildings together. How many buildings in major American cities have this kind of look on this kind of corner?
  2. Linking to some of my research, how much do television and film depictions of place interact with our corporeal understandings of places? I can see a building on a screen, experience that same place or a similar place, and our brain and understandings then interact. Or, perhaps we may only know of a place through screen depictions and this backlot building in various forms stands in for all sorts of real settings.

I will keep looking for the Warner Brothers building on screen and continue to think through what it means for my understanding of Chicago, New York, and other places.

Naperville at #1 on several Niche.com Best Cities lists

Naperville adds to its rankings accolades with the new 2021 Niche.com lists:

Naperville was also ranked #1 for Cities with the Best Public Schools and #3 for Best Cities to Live in America. See previous posts about Naperville’s rankings: “wealthiest city in the Midwest” and “safest city over 100,000 residents.”

This ongoing praise for Naperville makes sense both for knowing the suburb as well as what sorts of communities make it to the top of these kinds of lists. Naperville grew tremendously in the final decades of the twentieth century but it also developed a high quality of life: vibrant downtown, highly-rated schools, local recreation opportunities, wealthy, and safe. The accolades have changed to some degree because the size of the community changed; for example, Naperville is the list of “cities” for Niche.com while the Best Places to Live in America tend to be smaller communities.

If you browse the Niche.com rankings just a little bit, you see wealthy suburbs from certain metro areas in the United States. That the same communities keep popping up on these lists year after year suggests they have an ongoing high quality of life but also it hints at what Americans – and people who make these rankings – think are desirable communities. Is the goal of American life to ascend to one of these well-off communities, most of them relatively white and wealthy suburbs?

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

Bears stadium at Arlington Park? Just keep the taxpayers out of it

With the announcement that Arlington Park will be for sale, ideas are swirling about how the land could be used. I have heard a few times already the possibility of the Chicago Bears constructing a new stadium there. Here is one example:

The Loop from the North End of Soldier Field

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between “Papa Bear” George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968…

The question of “How?” can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker…

Said Mayor Butts: “From my experience — and I’m talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent ‘other’ — if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute ‘will-get-done’ attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen.”

On one hand, this is a unique opportunity. It is rare for parcels of land this large to open up in suburbs developed decades ago. Filling a large parcel can be difficult; what can add to the existing community without threatening the current character? This particular location provides easy access to highways, easing travel for thousands of fans. The surrounding area is already used to sporting events on the sites. A suburb could become home to a major sports stadium.

On the other hand, the “creative and concerted joint effort” required to pull this off could become an albatross to taxpayers who often fund large stadiums for wealthy team owners. This is a tax break of massive proportions for a feature economists argue does not necessarily bring added economic benefits to a community. The stadium may provide status to a suburb but this does not always translate into financial gains. And Illinois has a history of this already: just see the state deal where taxes are still funding the White Sox stadium.

How to balance these competing perspectives? Many suburbs would jump at the opportunity as growth is good, having a pro sports teams is an important status symbol, and hearing the Bears are playing in Arlington Heights could be part of a branding strategy. But, I would recommend leaving the taxpayers out of this: they will likely not benefit economically from a new stadium.

Monopoly, racism in Atlantic City, and ongoing effects

The board game Monopoly papered over racism and residential segregation in the city and its legacy in that city and in New Jersey is ongoing:

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For white Americans, “Atlantic City, like all mass resorts, manufactured and sold an easily consumed and widely shared fantasy,” Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and the author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, told me. “Southernness is used to sell that fantasy in the North,” he explained, pointing to marketing that focused on the stereotypically white, southern luxury of hiring Black laborers to shuttle visitors around in rolling chairs, wait on their tables, or otherwise serve them. Jim Crow, Simon said, existed everywhere. Around the time that Monopoly was taking hold in Atlantic City, ballots there were marked “W” for white voters and “C” for “colored” voters, Simon said. It would take countless demonstrations and protests and a long struggle by the city’s Black residents to secure their civil rights, but the Monopoly board records a world of ubiquitous racism.

Although Black residents and tourists could work at hotels such as the Claridge, between Park Place and Indiana Avenue, they were not permitted to dine or lodge there. Some hotels even offered white guests the option of having only white workers wait on them. Black employment was largely limited to the tourist industry, as political and municipal jobs were reserved for white residents.

Atlantic City’s Boardwalk staged minstrel shows, but Black people were largely barred from attending any form of entertainment on the famed Steel Pier. Schools in the area were segregated, clerks at many hotels did not check in Black tourists, and what antidiscrimination laws were on the books were not enforced, Simon said. If Black residents were found to be on a beach that wasn’t designated for Black patrons only, “it wasn’t just like they were run off,” Simon said. “They would be arrested. The police enforced segregation in the city.”…

The impact of the decisions made during Monopoly’s heyday is still felt today. Atlantic City is a “redlined epicenter” of the state, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and it leads the state in foreclosures. The rate of white homeownership in New Jersey stands at 77 percent, but Black homeownership is scarcely half of that, at 41 percent. A typical Black family in New Jersey has less than two cents for every dollar of wealth held by a typical white family.

Monopoly is meant to be fun. Until it is not quite the same when we know more about the city behind the game. The game ignores the racial and housing discrimination elements of real life while the winner is a good capitalist who rode real estate luck and development to the top. Few, if any, games deal with this dimension of social life even as the patterns are long-established.

Similarly, the effects of these past actions are long-reaching. The wealth gap in the United States as a whole between white and Black households is roughly 9-10 to 1 so this larger gap in New Jersey is even more troubling. The state also has a long legacy of limited affordable housing as well as racial tension, illustrated in the Mount Laurel case and ongoing clashes in suburbia (see examples here and here).

Creating the antidote to Monopoly may only be able to go so far to remedy the historical record and improve conditions in New Jersey. Yet, at least knowing that there is more behind the story of Atlantic City and those who were not intended to be included in the game can help us remember which narratives carry the day – and which others could.

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.