Palaces for the People, Part 2: place-based rather than people-based interventions

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. For a few days, I am highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of policing, crime, and spaces, Klinenberg highlights research showing resources put into improving places can improve social relations:

The Philadelphia studies suggest that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based projects. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” write Branas and his team. Remediation programs “make structural improvements to the very context within which city residents are exposed on a daily basis.” They are simple, cheap, and easily reproducible, so they can be implemented on a larger scale. What’s more, they impose few demands on local residents, and the programs appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.000 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” their paper in the American Journal of Public health reports. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended; it’s also more expensive. (70)

Imagine vacant properties in many American cities, particularly in the Rust Belt, transformed. Keeping up the property over time could help show local conditions will not be allowed to decline. Even as residents may come and go, the community is committed to the lot.

But, I wonder how much push back there would be from the public. A typical approach to struggling communities is to argue for more job and educational opportunities. If this works, it gives people options and skills they can then use anywhere over time. Such investments are viewed as showing residents that the community cares about their lives. Would putting resources into places be perceived in the same way?

Generally, infrastructure is pretty invisible in American life. Focusing on vacant properties, very noticeable to both people in the community as well as visitors, might help reverse that.

Palaces for the People, Part 1: building relationships in physical proximity

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:

Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)

Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.

This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.

Building a town for training foreign agents

A new training center gives US foreign service agents an opportunity to learn how to move and operate in an urban setting:

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more…

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

Having a training ground seems to make sense: executing maneuvers in a stressful moment could be easier if someone has tried something similar before. At the same time…

1. How much can a training ground like this really replicate complex communities around the world? Having the physical space is one thing but then adding the layers of people and meaning would be really hard to achieve. The article hints at the ways they get at simulating an experience but I would wonder how much it matches reality.

2. It would be interesting to know how much more successful agents are after training in a facility like this versus learning through other means. How much difference does having a tangible training ground make? How many hours does an agent need in the simulated settings to feel comfortable?

3. I wonder how this setup differs from a Hollywood backlot. Did the creators of the training ground borrow from what movie and television producers regularly do?

The expansion of warehouses in sprawling locations

While the example here is from Georgia, this describes a lot of development in the United States today:

An announcement this week says that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company will anchor a new industrial park being developed on the property. The company will occupy 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space, in what the Atlanta Business Chronicle calls the “largest build-to-suit industrial space under construction in metro Atlanta.” Goodyear is expected to employ about 150 Georgians in the facility.

Individually, headlines like this represent wins. Jobs are created, and local tax bases are fortified. Warehouses, in particular, tend to bring in significantly more in property taxes than the businesses that occupy them demand in county services such as public safety. Their byproduct, however, is traffic. Specifically, truck traffic…

The middle stage of both manufacturing and distribution requires warehouses, and Georgia’s geographic position and our ports and airport logistics hubs make the warehousing industry a logical fit for the state. This extends from the Port of Savannah all the way down I-16, up I-75 into metro Atlanta, and all the way around the metro area and into North Georgia. It’s truly a statewide issue.

And much like the projected cascade of new residents, new warehouses are coming. There is a proposal to build out 1,400 acres with 18 million square feet of warehouse space in Butts county, about half way between Atlanta and Macon. Seven hundred acres adjacent to the Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, northwest of Atlanta, have also been sold to be developed as warehouse space.

To make a world of Amazons, Walmarts, and Walgreens possible, trucks are needed. Lots of trucks. The warehouses need to be in strategic locations near growing populations so that the time between warehouse and store or delivery is reduced. To make one or two day delivery possible or have real-time inventory, there need to be locations that have a lot of goods ready to go. Black Friday or the Christmas retail season cannot happen as easily without warehouses.

As noted above, warehouses provide jobs and property taxes. They are not often aesthetically pleasing as the primary goal is to store goods, not interact with the public. They often occupy key sites in and around intersections and highways. They contribute truck traffic. I would guess few people would want to live right next to one given the noise and lights involved.

All of this connects to sprawling development in the United States. American communities tend to be spread out as people seek out single-family homes of a certain size and with enough distance from communities they might find problematic. Decades of sprawl fueled by the American Dream, the federal government, and numerous other actors means that warehouses are a common part of the landscape. Outside any major metropolitan area, there are rows upon rows of warehouses.

For another example of how this all plays out, see the rise of intermodal facilities (and the negative effects these can have on communities).

A famous author mowing the lawn, giving purpose to caring for the suburban yard

As I raked most of the remaining leaves this weekend, I pondered again the task of taking care of the lawn. Should I continue to help uphold the class status of the neighborhood or let the leaves break down naturally and nourish the grass?

But, if a famous author also took the time to care for his lawn, perhaps so could I. From a recent Facebook post:


Caring for a lawn (or garden or field or yard) may just be part of the human tendency to want to cultivate the land around us. Maybe the motivation matters here: if I am more interested in raking because of the property values, this is worse than wanting to get some fresh air and participate in the changing of seasons. Maybe the quotidian tasks give the brain and body a chance to to relax and recharge. Maybe the truly inspired parts of life often follow everyday tasks. Maybe only people who keep fairly regular journals can figure this stuff out (and notice how much Tolkien did not comment on).

All that said, I would guess the average American suburban homeowner would feel better about mowing the lawn or raking leaves or caring for their landscaping if they could connect it to a purpose larger than just wanting the lawn to keep up appearances.

Could AI ever replace diplomacy?

A thought from watching the impeachment proceedings: the relationship between major countries hinges on the personal interactions of a relatively small set of people on each side. The interests of the United States, a global power with more than 327 million people, come down to personal interactions between diplomats. However deep the Deep State might be, a small set of relationships matter for all countries in how they get along with other countries.

In the world of the Internet and computers, does it seem feasible to replace person-to-person diplomacy with Artificial Intelligence? Two humorous examples suggest this could be very hard:

1. The diplomacy built in to the computer game Civilization that never seems to work that well.

2. The arduous negotiations that can occur in the board game Diplomacy over relatively simple moves.

But, imagine the possibilities. A much reduced diplomatic staff! Quicker negotiations! Being able to blame an algorithm for mistakes rather than people!

Ultimately, would governments trust artificial intelligence to put their diplomatic fate in its hands?

Two criticisms of “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall”

I enjoyed watching “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall” from The Atlantic. In a little over five minutes, the video presents a short history of the shopping mall and its impact. The connection between malls and suburbs is hard to argue; few other institutions or settings better exemplify post-World War II suburban life.

At the same time, I had two quick critiques of the ideas in the video.

  1. The overarching narrative of the video suggests malls are part of a larger mistaken American project. Early in the video, James Fallows says, “After World War II, there was this misguided ideal of the suburban goal for American life with people moving away from cities.” Later in the video, I believe it Fallows saying, “The dream of modern life is not a mall-centric, car-centric dream anymore.” These are both contestable statements. As of today, a good portion of Americans still appear to like suburban life (or at least dislike the alternatives more). Perhaps we have reached peak suburbia but this does not necessarily mean the American Dream has significantly shifted to more urban or denser communities. Furthermore, the dream of suburban life has deeper roots than just the post-war era and will likely hold on for decades more.
  2. Are all malls dead? Many are in trouble. Yet, there are two big caveats to this. A number of malls are pursuing redevelopment projects ranging from adding restaurants to public facilities to residential units. Depending on the particular project, the mall footprint may still be prominent or the shopping element may never disappear even as the use of space changes. A second caveat is that shopping malls in wealthier areas may just survive and even thrive as rival malls close down. Americans still like to shop, they still drive a lot, and they occasionally like to venture into spaces where other people are there.