Where are the people oriented suburbs?

The book Market Cities, People Cities by sociologists Michael Emerson and Kevin Smiley examines big cities in light of two ends of a spectrum: market cities follow an economic logic and people cities look out for the well-being of their residents first. In their study, Houston is the model of a market city and Copenhagen is the people city exemplar.

This got me thinking about American suburbs. Given their history and priorities, they appear to be market communities. On the whole, American suburbs emphasize single-family homes, private families, driving, and local control over resources. They are generally known as wealthier communities. Additionally, the suburbs have generated a lot of money for developers, builders, the construction industry, and communities through tax revenues. Most of this is private wealth or money that residents hope can be spent on their own lives.

So, are there suburbs that emphasize the welfare of residents over markets? If so, where might they be located? A few ideas:

  1. Inner-ring suburbs. This could be because they located near big people cities or the sets of issues facing such suburbs – often racial and ethnic diversity and more poverty – could prompt a different approach to local governance and community life.
  2. Suburbs within blue states. If this is the case, suburbs in states like New York, Illinois, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington are more likely to have people suburbs.
  3. Suburbs that have strains of political liberalism. While suburbs are traditionally associated with more conservative political stances, this has been in flux in the last few decades. With new residents in suburbia as well as new generations, some communities may view suburban life through a different lens.
  4. The rare suburb that has experienced a significant crisis – a major development gone awry, the loss of a major employer, severe budget issues – and tried to forge a new path.

If I had to guess what percent of suburbs could be considered more devoted to well-being than markets, I might venture 20% at most.

A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live

Want to pass a Green New Deal to benefit the United States? One commentator suggests it must reckon with the legacy and persistence of sprawl:

The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program. If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land-use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to jobs centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.

Where we live is no coincidence of preference. Federal policy has enforced inequities and disparities for both the environment and vulnerable people at a national scale. It’s never too late to address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live. And building housing near jobs, transit, and other housing—rather than ultra-LEED-certified parking garages—is merely a political choice. No innovation required.

This makes sense: how much can the United States truly address environmental matters if it does not reckon for the actions of roughly the last century that encouraged decentralization?

Here is what I wonder: would it be harder to address sprawl or environmental issues? On one hand, climate change is contentious and partisan. On the other hand, going after sprawl would require taking on deeply ingrained American values. When Americans value single-family homes, driving, and all that the suburban life offers, shifting priorities and funds to denser housing, mass transit, and cities may prove difficult.

The environmental movement in the United States has roots in suburbia. Rachel Carson was inspired by her suburban settings to write Silent Spring. But, truly reforming land use as opposed to making suburbs greener is a tall task. Of course, important decisions made today could address the issue of subsidized sprawl. American suburbs are neither natural or have to last forever. It would likely take decades to see the consequences on the ground.

Kotkin argues both political parties want to destroy single-family home suburbia

The single-family home may be the bedrock of the American suburbs and Joel Kotkin suggests both political parties ignore this at their own peril:

However much they might detest Trump , suburbanites are not likely to rally long-term to a party that seeks to wipe out their way of life. The assault on suburbia, both from the ultra-capitalist right and socialist-minded left, neglects the very reasons—space and privacy—people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Just as Republicans can ignore the unintended consequences of ultra-free market policies, Democrats ignore the aspirations of their own voters.

More important still, the anti-single-family campaign undermines the foundation of our democracy. The essence of American civilization has been the pursuit of a better life for oneself and one’s family. Take away the ability to own one’s home and we are well on our road to a neo-feudal society where the masses will need to rely on the state not only for housing but, without meaningful assets, to finance their retirement.

The clamor to restrict single-family homes and thus push the American dream further out of many Americans’ reach, represents an assault on what both parties once espoused. An America without widespread homeownership is no longer an aspirational country, but a place where people remain imprisoned by their class and unable to pursue what they perceive as a better quality of life.

Kotkin’s argument seems to go like this:

  1. The suburbs are the way they are because the American people wanted to live in suburbia. Both political parties supported this mission for much of the 20th century through monies and programs.
  2. Unless Democrats and Republicans cater to suburban voters, they will have a difficult future as political parties.

But, this seems to assume that this suburban way of life based around a home and emphasis on family will always continue this way. To some degree, Americans did desire land and privacy from the beginning yet the suburban experience was really made available to the masses first around the turn of the twentieth century and then even more so after World War II. Younger or future Americans could decide they would prefer cities and denser areas or even rural areas and the political parties could help lead them in that direction.

All that to say, I think Kotkin is right in that a majority of Americans continue to profess interest in living in suburbia. At the same time, this could change in the future and one or both of the political parties could start leading in that direction. Not all Americans want to be suburbanites so there is political room to suggest alternatives.

Religiosity of 116th Congress both does and does not reflect changes in American religion

Comparing the religious makeup of the newest Congress to previous Congresses shows several interesting patterns:

http://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-116/

A few patterns to note:

  1. The number of Protestants has dropped dramatically – roughly a loss of 100 from sixty years ago – even as the percent of Protestants in Congress (54%) continues to be higher than the percent of Protestants in the U.S. population (48%).
  2. The number of Catholics in Congress increased from the 1960s into the late 1970s and early 1980s and then has stayed relatively stable. There are more Catholics in Congress (30%) than in the U.S. population as a whole (21%).
  3. The number of religious others is still low and hasn’t changed much over time.
  4. As noted in the summary of the findings:

But by far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group. In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In Congress, just one person – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House – says she is religiously unaffiliated, making the share of “nones” in Congress 0.2%.

When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing number of members of Congress decline to specify (categorized as “don’t know/refused”). This group – all Democrats – numbers 18, or 3% of Congress, up from 10 members (2%) in the 115th Congress. Their reasons for this decision may vary. But one member in this category, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., announced in 2017 that he identifies as a humanist and says he is not sure God exists. Huffman remains categorized as “don’t know/refused” because he declined to state his religious identity in the CQ Roll Call questionnaire used to collect data for this report.3

In summary, Congress is overwhelmingly religious and Christian. While America as a whole is still solidly majority religious and Christian, Congress is even more so. This seems to suggest Americans still like to elect people who have a faith affiliation even if there is less information on the actual beliefs and practices of the Representatives and Senators (this data “does not attempt to measure their religious beliefs or practices. “).

When saying that Harry Reid lives in a McMansion, is this meant as a negative?

The term McMansion is rarely used in a positive manner. Yet, a recent profile of former Senator Harry Reid’s life after politics describes his home as a McMansion:

Early on the afternoon of Dec. 11, about an hour after an Oval Office meeting between President Trump, the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and the incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi devolved on live TV into a shouting match — a “tinkle contest with a skunk,” in Pelosi’s postgame grandiloquence — I pulled up to a McMansion in a gated community outside Las Vegas. I presented my ID and pre-issued bar-code pass to a security guard. Another guard emerged from a sedan in the driveway, instructed me to leave my rental car across the street and pointed me to the front door.

And a later paragraph says more about the location of the home:

Reid has decided to live out his last years in Henderson, a fast-growing and transient Las Vegas suburb. His house is in the upscale Anthem neighborhood: a fortified village of beige dwellings of various sizes and otherwise indistinguishable appearances. There is a Witness Protection Program vibe to the place, accentuated by the security detail.

The descriptions of Reid’s home draw on several traits of McMansions: an “indistinguishable appearance,” located in a gated and wealthy suburban neighborhood. Presumably, the home is large though little is said about this.

To the main point: few people use McMansion as a positive term. By saying that Reid lives in a McMansion, the writer is suggesting the home is a negative. And in the way that Americans tend to operate – what you own says something about you – then Reid himself is a negative figure. This may fit with the overall tenor of the article which suggests Reid is an unusual and odd guy:

One of Reid’s assets as a leader, when he was in office, was his willingness to feed the egos of his colleagues before his own; he was happy to yield credit, attention and TV appearances. Yet when I visited Reid in Nevada, I detected a whiff of, if not neediness per se, maybe a need to remind me that he has not been forgotten. He told me that he received a lovely call that morning from Barbara Boxer, the former Democratic senator from California. He gets calls from his former colleagues all the time, he said, and they tell Reid he is missed. He had a final conversation with John McCain over the summer, just before McCain died, punctuated with “I love you”s.

Reading Reid can be difficult. Is he playing a game or working an angle or even laughing at a private joke he just told himself? When speaking of his final goodbye with McCain, he broke into a strange little grin, his lips pressed upward as if he could have been stifling either amusement or tears. It occurred to me that Reid, typically as self-aware as he is unsentimental, could have been engaged in a gentle playacting of how two old Senate combatants of a fast-vanishing era are supposed to say goodbye to each other for posterity.

Do odd or hard-to-read politicians live in McMansions? Can a leading Senator truly be a person of the people if he lives in a McMansion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood? The choice of calling Reid’s home a McMansion at least hints at these possibilities.

 

Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Mapping county votes in the 2018 House elections

More media outlets are using maps to illustrate the results of the 2018 election. See this story from NPR that uses country level voting to show where the two parties picked up or lost House seats:

NPRcountyelectionresults2018.png

Of the 41 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue this election, 38 were suburban, according to an analysis by The New York Times. (Democrats may pick up one to two more seats, once all votes are counted and elections are certified.)

But more granular than congressional districts overall are the counties that compose them. We mapped the percentage of House ballots cast for the party that received the most votes in each suburban county, and we looked at how that compared with 2016.

This map hints at metropolitan regions swinging toward one party or another while still generally adhering to the patterns of big cities and close suburbs vote Democratic and further-flung suburbs vote Republican. Regions like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston swung entirely Democratic. Some were more split: Denver, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.