Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

With USPS Informed Delivery, I can see my bills and junk mail sooner

I recently signed up for Informed Delivery with the United States Postal Service. In theory, this is a cool service as you can preview your mail and packages earlier in the day. Each morning, I get an email with scanned images of my coming mail.

Yet, my experience with it is not that fun. I get to see the pieces of mail I do not like – bills and junk mail – ahead of them arriving in my mailbox. Thus far, I have not seen an exciting piece of mail ahead of time. I can look forward to the latest politician who wants to send me a glossy flyer

This is not the fault of the USPS. I need to get involved in streams of more exciting mail. But, it also hints at what the mail is used for now: personal letters and cards can go via email, packages largely go through deliveries to doors rather than mailboxes, and what is left is largely less interesting.

Quick Review: High-Risers

I recently finished Ben Austen’s High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

As I have studied some of what Austen details, I want to highlight main themes from the book:

  1. The way that Austen recounts the history of Cabrini-Green helps highlight the community, social life, and humanity present at Cabrini-Green. He does this through tracing the lives of several residents and their families throughout the larger narrative about Cabrini-Green and public housing. Cabrini-Green became a symbol or abstraction for many Chicago area resident and for the country but these stories help humanize the place and those who lived there.
  2. Public housing in the United States never had much of a chance. It was difficult to get implemented in the first place, decisions about design, locations, and maintenance were not always made with the best interests of the residents in mind, and the number of public housing units has declined in recent decades with former residents pushed out and a switch to voucher options. If this is the front line to a fight over a right to housing, it is hard to find much hope that the right will be established any time soon.
  3. The Chicago Housing Authority did poorly including locating public housing units in already segregated areas, failing to maintain buildings, and not following through on the Plan for Transformation, For a government agency that was supposed to help people, its legacy is not a good one, even by Chicago standards.
  4. Pairing this book with the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth would provide a good education on the topic of public housingfor the general public. Both have a compelling storyline/presentation based on particular housing projects and enough connections to scholarly conversations on the topics involved for people to dig deeper.

Imagining self-driving car underground tunnels under major American cities

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars to operate in tunnels under Las Vegas appears close to becoming reality:

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On Tuesday, Musk announced on Twitter that, after a full year in the making, The Boring Company’s first operational “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is “almost done.”…

The Boring Company built a test tunnel in 2018 near its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. A year later, it landed a commercial contract in Las Vegas to build a loop tunnel system for public use. According to The Boring Company’s proposal, the final system will be able to shuttle passengers in self-driving Tesla cars between any two destinations in Sin City within minutes.

Construction of the initial twin tunnels near the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) was complete in May. The system is expected to be ready for public use for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2021. But the event has been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, The Boring Company won a county approval to expand its LVCC transportation Loop to include an underground station at the new Resorts World hotel located at the north end of the Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the company aims to connect all major tourist destinations along the Strip, as well as two terminals of the nearby McCarran International Airport and downtown Vegas.

This location makes sense when tourism is in full swing in Las Vegas. While the airport is relatively close to the strip, it is not necessarily close time-wise and a quick, automated car ride could please a lot of visitors. It is also fun to imagine this in other cities. The tunnels bring to mind memories of playing the Lower Wacker track on Cruis’n USA. Chicago has some of this infrastructure already in place while other cities might be able to convert or expand existing tunnels.

How this could positively affect streetscapes is fascinating. Imagine major American cities with less traffic in their denser areas, more room for pedestrians, more space for properties to extend past the building. Cars would still be in use – just moved to a different plane – but the emphasis on vehicles would be reduced. More streets could be closed, the scale of social life could change (though the towering buildings in some districts would still loom), and the streets would be safer. (I imagine taxis and others might not be pleased to have the business moved underground.)

This is likely a long project to pursue in any city; making big changes underground in many locations is very difficult. It does keep cars around (just more out of sight) and both the money spent to put the system in place and the ongoing commitment to the system could continue to inhibit other options such as promoting mass transit.

Survey data on wealthy New York City residents thinking about leaving the city

New survey data looks at what New York City residents making more than $100,000 think about leaving the city:

We found that 44% of high-income New Yorkers say that they have considered relocating outside the city in the past four months, with cost of living cited as the biggest reason. More than half of high-income New Yorkers are working entirely from home, and nearly two-thirds believe that this will be the new normal for the city…

Of those considering leaving New York City, 30% say that the possibility of working remotely makes it more likely that they will move. Of New York City residents who earn $100,000 or more annually, 44% have considered moving out of the city in the past four months (see Figure 4). Looking ahead, 37% say that it is at least somewhat likely that they will not be living in the city within the next two years…

The cost of living, more than any other factor, contributes to the likelihood of leaving New York City (see Figure 5). A total of 69% of respondents cite cost of living as a reason to leave the city; that figure is even higher among black (77%) and Hispanic (79%) respondents. Other reasons cited by respondents considering leaving New York City include crime (47%), desire for a nonurban lifestyle (46%), and the ability to work from home (30%)…

Only 38% of New Yorkers surveyed said that the quality of life now was excellent or good, a drop by half, from 79% before the pandemic (see Figure 2). Most believe that the city has a long road to recovery: 69% say that it “will take longer than a year” for quality of life to return to normal.

Finally some data on New Yorkers leaving the city! (Of course, this is more about attitudes than actual behavior.)

If I am interpreting the data above correctly, it sounds like COVID-19 has brought some other issues to light. This includes:

(1) If I can work remotely, do I value city life enough to stay there even though I do not need to be close to work?

(2) If the city is not what it was – and it is not clear when it might return to normal – because of decreased social activity due to COVID, the cost of living may not be justifiable.

Ultimately, is it worth living in a global city – with all that comes with it for high earners including jobs, cultural amenities, and a high cost of living – when the positive features of this city are muted during a pandemic?

Debating the connection between larger houses and fewer children present

A working paper from an Australian researcher investigates what happens to children who grow up in large homes with relatively few people inside. Here is some of the debate thus far:

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“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…

Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.

About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…

Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.

I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.

How much of this issue might be related to technology? I am thinking of Jean Twenge’s argument regarding the introduction of the iPhone and its affects on teenagers and young adults. It is not just about private space; it is using that space to interact virtually or in a technologically mediated way rather than having face-to-face interaction. (Or, for a previous generation, having a television in the kid’s bedroom limited interaction around the family television.)

And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?

Patterns in suburban Chicago rallies for in-person schooling, sports

The suburbs are not typically considered hot spots for protest activity. Yet, in the Chicago region, in the past few weeks several suburban rallies have taken place in support of a return to school. The latest one on Monday in Barrington:

Holding signs like “Schools not screens” and “Stop playing politics, start playing ball,” more than 200 parents and students in Barrington Area Unit District 220 took part in a rally Monday evening asking the district to allow in-person schooling and sports…

A survey conducted by the district earlier this summer showed 70% of parents wanted their children in school, he pointed out. “So why are they not in school?” he said, getting applause and cheering from the crowd.

This comes less than a week after a protest with a similar theme in Wheaton:

As students across the Western suburbs begin the school year with remote learning, hundreds of parents and students rallied in a downtown Wheaton park Tuesday night to demand a total return to classrooms and sports…

The gathering in Wheaton’s Memorial Park drew participants from as far away as Mokena and Orland Park, Western Springs and Huntley.

Along with students, some teachers and coaches, parents at the rally made the case for reopening classrooms, arguing that the loss of social interaction in schools hurts their children’s emotional, mental and social well-being.

A few thoughts on these protests:

  1. Given how COVID-19 has been politicized, would it be fair to characterize as these rallies as a conservative response to current conditions? If so, this could join a pro-police rally in Oak Brook a few years ago. This is in contrast to “liberal” suburban rallies in Naperville (example here) and in other suburbs. (NIMBY protests in the Chicago suburbs may be bipartisan.)
  2. Do suburban protests tend to take place in wealthier suburbs? I have made the case that Naperville draws particular attention for protests because it is large and has a lively downtown. Would suburban protests in more working class communities draw the same attention?
  3. Do we know if there is a recent (last five years or so) increase in suburban rallies and protests? We would need to have a baseline of collective activity over time and then compare. If there is an increase, it might be due to multiple factors: increasing diversity in suburbs and changing communities as well as ongoing battles for suburban voters.

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.

“Zoom towns” better have good Internet capabilities

“Zoom towns” are areas of the United States that are gaining residents due to people trying to move away from COVID-19 cases:

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Like a lot of other vacation destinations — the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Aspen and so on — the Truckee housing market is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s up over 23% since last year, according to data from Redfin, a real estate brokerage. Truckee is part of a trend that realtors and journalists are calling “Zoom towns,” places that are booming as remote work takes off.

There are numerous ways that these new full-time residents might transform their new communities, particularly if they are people with more resources.

But one issue for these growing communities involves infrastructure: how prepared are they to host more Internet traffic? Since March, much activity has moved online: work, school, social gatherings, public meetings, etc. Are there some places better equipped to handle all of this increased streaming? Are “zoom towns” the kinds of places that have robust Internet capacity? This might not be a big problem in suburbs of major cities (such as New Yorkers headed out to New Jersey) or for people who move from major city to major city (from San Francisco to Austin) but it could be for others who head to smaller communities or vacation towns.

What the COVID-19 pandemic could do is help remind Americans of the need to improve networks that enable computer, smartphone, and tablet activity. We do not just need to maintain what already exists; this pandemic has highlighted what was already going to happen: an increased need for streaming and conducting activity online. Without good infrastructure development in this area, future opportunities may not exist. Or, particular locations or kinds of places can be harmed or left behind, leading to or growing digital divides. From rural communities to poorer communities in and around cities, residents need decent Internet speeds to live during COVID and flourish afterward.

The two best pools I have seen in California

I have made a number of trips to California, usually visiting family or for vacation. And while I do not typically seek out pools on my vacation, with the end of summer I was reminded of two pools I really enjoyed seeing.

The first is at Hearst Castle. The house is fun to tour with its unique features and location up on a hill that offers great views all around. The indoor pool is impressive but the outside pool is even better:

Columns, large pool, a sunny day. Although it was the first thing on the property we saw on our tour, I could stopped there.

The second pool is further south at The Getty Villa. In what looks like a Roman villa filled with art, there is a long courtyard with this:

While this pool is only a few feet deep, I could still imagine floating around in this great setting surrounded by palm trees and art.

It may not be a coincidence that both pools are surrounded by classical columns. This is not just swimming, this is fun in the water surrounded by the aura of history (even if these buildings are relatively recent constructions that evoke tradition and opulence). The contrast here would be some of the ultra-modern skyscrapers topped with infinity pools; they sell a pool at the top of the urban world amid steel and glass.

Or, perhaps the lure of the pool knowing that visitors cannot swim in them helps make them attractive. They are part of the scenery – even as they likely cost quite a bit to maintain – that cannot be touched. And with visitors coming on a number of hot days, these pools look refreshing.

In the end, I would be happy to go back and sit by these pools. And if there is ever an event that allows people to use them, I would be interested.