Study suggests cities and farming began more than 40,000 years ago

A recent study suggests cities may have started much earlier:

For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people couldn’t live in tropical jungles. The environment was simply too harsh and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply didn’t look for clues of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where we have ample evidence that hunter-gatherers settled down in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period dubbed the “Neolithic revolution.” Eventually, these farmers’ offspring built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seemed certain that city life came from these places and spread from there around the world.

But now that story seems increasingly uncertain. In an article published in Nature Plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are far older than we think. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, the researchers have found ample evidence that people at the equator were actively changing the natural world to make it more human-centric.

It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that point, people began burning down vegetation to make room for plant resources and homes. Over the next 35,000 years, the simple practice of burning back forest evolved. People mixed specialized soils for growing plants; they drained swamps for agriculture; they domesticated animals like chickens; and they farmed yam, taro, sweet potato, chili pepper, black pepper, mango, and bananas…

“The tropics demonstrate that where we draw the lines of agriculture and urbanism can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly modifying environments and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were performing the extensive drainage of landscapes at Kuk Swamp to farm yams [and] bananas… From a Middle East/European perspective, there has always been a revolutionary difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunter gatherers and farmers, [but] the tropics belie this somewhat.”

Two things strike me:

  1. The article suggests that this finding just occurred now because scholars assumed it wasn’t worth examining the tropics. This happens more often than researchers want to admit: we explore certain phenomena for certain reasons and this may blind us to other phenomena or explanations. In a perfect world, there would be so many researchers that everything could be covered and research that rules out explanations or shows a lack of phenomena would be valued more highly.
  2. That cities and agriculture took a longer time to develop does not seem too surprising. The shift to more anchored lives – tied to farming and larger population centers – would have been quite a change. Arguably, the world is still going through this process with the pace of urbanization increasing tremendously in the last century and nations and cities desperately trying to catch up.

Now that scientists are looking into this matter, hopefully we get a more complete understanding soon.

Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).

Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

“People want these larger homes”

I’m quoted in a recent Zillow story titled “Upsizing on the Upswing: The Big Decision More Homebuyers are Making“:

The data corresponds with what sociologists are seeing firsthand, says Brian Miller, an associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago. Miller, who studies cities, suburban migration and culture, argues that several factors could be impacting the shift in housing trends, including the strength of the national economy.

“I see a lot about tiny houses and micro apartments in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York — these cities who are really grappling with housing issues and trying to fast-track 200- or 400-square-foot apartments,” Miller says. “And yet the overall pattern across America is that people want these larger houses.

“The economy has gotten better over the last few years,” he continues, with a nod to cities like Dallas, one of the hottest housing markets in the country. “It seems it’s enabled people to [buy large houses] again.”

Popular culture may be influencing this decision as well, Miller adds, pointing to how homes are depicted on television, in both the reality and scripted genres.

“The typical home on TV is huge. Think about the ‘Friends’ apartments, which were impossibly large,” he says. “I’m thinking of HGTV shows I’ve seen over the past few years, where the dining room seats 10 or 12. I don’t have those parties, but if you’re watching HGTV, it just seems like everything is huge.”

I think the larger story goes like this: Americans tend to like large homes and even major financial issues, such as the bursting of the housing bubble, may not be enough to reverse that trend. This does not mean the desire for large homes will continue forever. Yet, major changes need to occur to the economic system and/or enduring values need to shift for Americans as a whole to embrace smaller homes.

Related topics:

McMansions are back.

There are a limited number of tiny houses in the United States.

Why might Americans be interested in the most expensive homes?

Here is one segment of the housing market that is again doing well:

Sale prices of luxury homes in the second quarter of this year were up 7.5 percent from a year ago, the first time luxury gains have outpaced the rest of the market since 2014, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage which defines luxury as the top 5 percent of the most expensive homes sold in each city in each quarter.

While some point to the recent runup in the stock market, the real reason for the luxury recovery may be a shift in the mind of sellers. They were asking too much, and now that they’re asking less, there is more action in the market, in turn boosting prices again…

Luxury home sales have been rising steadily, causing the supply of those homes for sale to drop. Sales of homes priced above $1 million jumped 19 percent in June compared with a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. That was a much larger sales gain than in any of the lower price points.

The sales surge has caused a decline in the supply of luxury homes. Listings at or above $1 million fell 9.4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Redfin. Those priced at or above $5 million were down about the same. This after five consecutive quarters of double-digit inventory growth.

This change in the luxury market is unlikely to help many Americans though a number of these expensive properties get a lot of media attention. Come to think of it, what exactly is the purpose of media outlets regularly showing expensive homes? Here are a few options:

  1. This could be the curiosity of the masses regarding the practices of the wealthy. How does the other half (or top 10%) live?
  2. Or, is it intended as a critique of the well-resourced by holding up their lavishness up for public display? Look at those wealthy people with their ostentatious homes.
  3. Alternatively, might it encourage class conflict and social change since these expensive homes are out of reach of most Americans? For the many Americans who struggle to find decent housing, highlighting the luxury of the wealthy might serve as a reminder of the distance between groups.
  4. At the least, such regular stories might display the important place real estate and homeownership play in American wealth. It is one thing to own financial instruments but another to purchase more tangible items like property and housing.

This all might be different if the housing market as a whole was booming, particularly if the lower end of the market with smaller homes or starter houses was growing. I suppose this could be a research question: during periods of rising economic boats for all (such as the several decades after World War II), are there fewer media stories on homes and properties of the wealthy compared to homes for the average person?

Over decades, luxury housing can become affordable housing

Several examples suggest one source of affordable housing today is luxury housing built decades ago:

One of these complexes was the Timberlee in suburban Raleigh Hills, a close-in suburban neighborhood. According to The Oregonian, the Timberlee on SW 38th Place was one of the most prosperous of the 13 apartment complexes it examined in its story, with 97 percent of its 214 units rented.

The Timberlee Apartments are still around today. While none of the units are currently for rent, according to Apartments.com, rents in the area run from about $1,000 for studios and one-bedroom units to $1,300 and more for two-bedroom and larger apartments. By today’s standards, the Timberlee seems modest, and a bit dated, rather than luxurious…

New housing is almost always built for and sold to the high end of the marketplace. It was that way 100 years ago and 50 years ago. But as it ages, housing depreciates and moves down market. The luxury apartments of two or three decades ago have lost most of their luster, and command relatively lower rents. And the truth is, that’s how we’ve always generated more affordable housing, through the process that economists call “filtering.” And the new self-styled “luxury” apartments we’re building today will be the affordable housing of 2040 and 2050 and later.

What causes affordability problems to arise is when we stop building new housing, or build it too slowly to cause aging housing to filter down-market. When new high-priced housing doesn’t get built, demand doesn’t disappear, instead, those higher-income households bid up the price of the existing housing stock, keeping it from becoming more affordable. Which is why otherwise prosaic 1,500-foot ranch houses in Santa Monica sell for a couple of million bucks, while physically similar 1950’s era homes in the rest of the country are either now highly affordable—or candidates for demolition.

If this is one of the larger sources for affordable housing, then the lesson seems to be that we just need to construct lots of housing all the time. Not all of the expensive housing will filter down to cheaper prices but some will as it ages and the neighborhood or community conditions change.

In the bigger picture, this also suggests there is not an easy immediate fix to affordable housing. Once it is identified as a problem in a community or region, it may be too late. Instead, the housing built today – and even housing proposed right now often takes a while to go through the full planning, approval, and construction process – could affect conditions decades later.

Pastor: “The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom”

A pastor from South Africa describes what ministry in the suburbs should entail and then concludes this way:

The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom. A place of peace and security here on earth. As such, it is a noble endeavor, but it does it through exclusion and not through the power of God’s grace and truth.

It strikes me that this critique from a conservative Protestant may not be that different from the standard critique of suburbs since at least the early 1920s. This standard critique goes something like this: suburbia tries to make everything look pleasant – from being able to purchase a home, keeping the lawn neat and green, and having a wholesome life centered around your family – but underneath this surface are human beings striving to break free from conformity, dullness, and consumerism. Conservative Christians who critique the suburbs make a similar case that the comfortable suburban life dulls people’s senses to their need for spiritual renewal. Of course, the two groups have very different outcomes in mind: the first critique often hopes for a return to diverse and exciting cities while the conservative Christians place less emphasis on where one lives in the end and care more about their spiritual state wherever they may be.