Next steps to knowing a suburb

The six steps I discussed yesterday for knowing a suburb would provide a good starting point for any resident, outsider, or student. Here are the next steps to take in the same domains that would provide explanations of how things came to be rather than just a description of what is:

  1. A community’s website often includes a lot of interesting information. It may not be easy to find – after all, the website’s front page is intended to put the community’s best image forward – but there are minutes of local governmental bodies, announcements about projects, information on local officials, and more. I would go to the City Council (or equivalent) minutes or videos to start. They are often dull documents with records of the bills the community paid and other basic work that the average resident doesn’t care about. Yet, you can see the important matters that the Council discussed. What made it to their discussions (usually moving their way up through other local government bodies) and how did they decide? Attending such meetings can also help though reviewing documents and videos can probably be done more quickly.
  2. A zoning map provides a single view of how the land in a community is apportioned. But, how did the map develop? This is where finding the minutes of the Zoning Board or Plan Commission is useful. The City Council minutes show what projects were eventually approved but the Zoning or Plan Boards will reveal all the proposals that came forward (the ones that are voted down rarely make it to the full City Council). Again, many of the requests may be fairly dull – requesting a variance for a larger sign or building a residential garage a half foot over the allowed line – but discussions about the larger projects can be very consequential.
  3. Suburbs often have an “official” local history or two published by a local historian or group. Dig deeper than this through several avenues. Search through newspaper archives (a local or regional paper); some of these are now available online while others might be present in local libraries or museums. Go to local history museums, see what is on display and how they describe the formation of the community, and ask to look at the archives. (At these facilities, there may be a difference between the deeper archives and what the public is able to regularly look at in vertical files or published sources. Finally, the local library may be the most accessible option: they often have local history material including local government publications. In either a local museum or library, look for a comprehensive plan document: this is a formal moment when the community crystallized how they wanted to use land.
  4. Talking to any long-time residents may be helpful but talking to particular residents can provide more detailed information. In particular, talk with local officials and business leaders. These are the people intimately involved with the inside operation of the community, the movers and shakers. They can often articulate the vision that leaders have of who the community is and where it should go. Some of them may be harder to talk to while others are more approachable; look for venues such as community meetings of various kinds where they are available. Don’t be afraid to talk to these leaders: they either would like your vote or business and many like to talk about the community. (Talking to leaders of other community institutions can be spotty. For example, leaders of major non-profits or churches may have a sense of what their organization is up to but not necessarily have insights into the community as a whole or have much influence over the broader community.)
  5. Walking around helps provide insights into street-level social life but spending extended time in certain spaces can be very fruitful. Such spaces could include business districts, parks, central coffee shops or restaurants, community centers, main streets, and local festivals. Not all suburbs will have such spaces; indeed, many car-dependent suburbs lack public gathering spaces. However, the advantage of extended time in these spaces allows for observations over time (throughout a day and across months and seasons) as well as an opportunity to observe and enter into social interactions with those in such spaces.
  6. Census data can provide a quick snapshot of the community now but can also provide more detailed information. Here are three options: (1) look at the data over time to see how a community has changed; (2) focus on particular geographies such as a census tract, block group, or zip code; (3) dig into certain aspects of the data further (such as race and ethnicity, income and education, characteristics of the homes); and (4) compare across different parts of the suburb or nearby suburbs to get a sense how this community differs internally and with other nearby areas. There are also a number of non-Census websites that use the data in interactive ways. For example, use a detailed racial dot map to see where different racial and ethnic residents live.

All of these options are fairly accessible to the average person as long as they know where the resources are located and have some extra time beyond what the first steps (the earlier post) require.

First steps toward knowing a suburb

Residents of the suburbs can take a few easy steps to start learning about a community and what really is going on behind the scenes. Here are six easy steps:

  1. Check out the community’s website. How does the community present itself? What words are used and what photos are displayed? There is often a wealth of information available but also a lot of stuff that may not tell you much. At the least, the website will give you an idea of how the local government wishes outsiders to see them.
  2. Look at the zoning map of the community – this is often on the website and also can be viewed at the city/town hall. This provides an overview of how the community allots its land. The colors used should quickly tell you what takes up a majority of land – typically housing – but can also reveal where other pockets of activity are located (whether commercial districts, industrial parks, institutional land, or other options).
  3. Read some local history in books, local museums or historical societies, and websites. Local histories are often pretty positive about a community – many suburbs don’t want to talk about darker moments – but they can provide an overview of a community’s broad trajectory.
  4. Talk to some long-time residents about their experiences. While such conversations can highlight idiosyncratic individuals, residents can give a sense of the feel of a community as well as highlight important communal moments.
  5. Walk around. This is highly underrated and often appears quite difficult since so many suburbs are auto dependent. Walking gives you an opportunity to slowly see what is happening at the street level. If walking doesn’t work, try biking. If neither are a good option, driving around repeatedly can still be helpful since so much of the suburban landscape is designed to be seen from the road.
  6. Look at Census data for the community. Use the QuickFacts feature to see latest estimates from the American Community Survey and dicennial data. You can quickly see demographic and economic data for the whole community.

Through these steps, someone should get a sense of what community members think separates their suburb from all the others. In other words, what is the character of this suburb? One step that almost made the list: read a local or regional newspaper. However, these don’t exist in many communities now and even if they do, the news reported is highly selective.

In a soon to come post, I’ll provide follow-up steps to the six listed above.

Locating Trump supporters and fascists in the suburbs

One columnist explores possible connections between Trump supporters and where they live:

But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEight reported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute 
bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
…

Their material security bound up in the value of their real-estate assets, suburban white people had powerful incentives to keep their neighborhoods white. Just by their very proximity, black people would make their neighborhoods less desirable to future white home-buyers, thereby depreciating the value of the location. Location being the first rule of real estate, suburban homeowners nurtured racist attitudes, while deluding themselves that they weren’t excluding black people for reasons beyond their pocketbooks.

In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety 
follows them…

If you’re looking for Trump’s implacable support, Texas trailer parks and Kentucky cabins are the wrong places to find it. Fascism develops over hands of poker in furnished basements, over the grill by the backyard pool, over beers on the commuter-rail ride back from the ball game—and in police stations and squad cars.

Linking the suburbs to right-wing politics is nothing new. And it is certainly true that the formation of American suburbs is heavily influenced by race and class. Still, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t seen much data yet on the geography of Trump and Clinton support. In recent presidential elections, candidates have been fighting over middle suburban votes: cities and inner-ring suburbs vote Democratic, exurbs vote Republican, and suburbanites in the middle could go either way. Indeed, you can even find narratives that suburban voters are breaking for Democrats.

And fascism forming in the suburbs…I’d like to see a lot more evidence.

Why Canadian communities may not have an incentive to avoid flood plains

If the costs for rebuilding in flood plains is covered by the provincial and national governments, why would communities limit building on those flood plains?

As the battle to protect homes from flooding continues across the country, questions are being asked about whether it’s time to reconsider regulations that allow developers to build on flood plains.

Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s faculty of environment, says the problem is that municipalities set zoning regulations and collect property tax revenue but do not pay for rebuilding costs after natural disasters.

“The municipality really doesn’t have an incentive to go in and use land-use planning and building codes and communications strategies to tell people that they are at risk of flooding, particularly given that most of the revenue comes from development, it comes from property taxes.” Thistlethwaite said. “So they face a real conflict of interest…

Last February, the Parliamentary Budget Office released a report estimating that over the next five years the federal government will dole out an estimated $902 million a year in disaster-related relief to provinces and territories.

I could see at least two good arguments against building in flood plains:

  1. The financial costs in the long run. Of course, the suggestion here is that local communities don’t bear the costs. But, even if they are paid at higher levels, the costs are going to get passed down eventually. Additionally, communities might benefit from property taxes but the reconstruction times and costs also would limit the property taxes they can collect.
  2. Environmental reasons: it can’t be good to have buildings and other debris from the built environment consistently washed into waterways. Limiting development on floodplains also allows for rivers and other waterways to go through natural cycles.

Either could be a good enough reason. However, as noted above, it is very difficult for communities to pass up on allowing development on desirable properties. There are similar situations in the United States.

One of the better options I’ve seen in some suburbs is to convert these flood areas to parks. This accomplishes two purposes: (1) when flooding does occur, the damage is reduced since it affects fewer buildings and (2) having a park nearby can enhance property values and the quality of life.

On the failure of the High Line

Even as cities around the world attempt to emulate New York City’s High Line (earlier posts here and here), the creator discusses why he thinks the original failed:

But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”…

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

His organization finally did launch a series of “listening sessions” with public housing tenants in 2011. What people really needed were jobs, Hammond says, and a more affordable cost of living. Residents also said they staying away from the High Line for three main reasons: They didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.

While it is easy to link such conversations to gentrification, I think this gets at a deeper issue regarding development in urban areas: who ultimately benefits? The short answer is that it is not typically the lower-income resident. Urban sociologists have made this point for decades; for example, the concept of growth machines suggests development decisions are typically made by political and business leaders who are looking to profit. In other words, developments are judged by how much money can be made (whether through the sale of property or buildings as well as through increased tax revenues) rather than by how many members of the local population experience a better quality of life. Or, see the the sociological study Crisis Cities that shows how money to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina generally went to wealthier actors and made life difficult for the average resident.

Summarizing data visualization errors

Check out this good quick overview of visualization errors – here are a few good moments:

Everything is relative. You can’t say a town is more dangerous than another because the first one had two robberies and the other only had one. What if the first town has 1,000 times the population that of the first? It is often more useful to think in terms of percentages and rates rather than absolutes and totals…

It’s easy to cherrypick dates and timeframes to fit a specific narrative. So consider history, what usually happens, and proper baselines to compare against…

When you see a three-dimensional chart that is three dimensions for no good reason, question the data, the chart, the maker, and everything based on the chart.

In summary: data visualizations can be very useful for highlighting a particular pattern but they can also be altered to advance an incorrect point. I always wonder with these examples of misleading visualizations whether the maker intentionally made the change to advance their point or whether there was a lack of knowledge about how to do good data analysis. Of course, this issue could arise with any data analysis as there are right and wrong ways to interpret and present data.

The new suburban crisis is…

According to Richard Florida, the era of cheap growth is over and suburbs will struggle to address important issues:

Suburban sprawl is extremely costly to the economy broadly. Infrastructure and vital services such as water and energy can be 2.5 times more expensive to deliver in the suburbs than in compact urban centers. In total, sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion, pollution, and the like, according to a 2015 study from the London School of Economics. The total bill: a whopping $1 trillion a year…

When all is said and done, the suburban crisis reflects the end of a long era of cheap growth. Building roads and infrastructure and constructing houses on virgin land was and is an incredibly inexpensive way to provide an American Dream to the masses, certainly when compared to what it costs to build new subway lines, tunnels, and high-rise buildings in mature cities. For much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and on into the 1980s and 1990s, suburbanization was the near-perfect complement to America’s industrial economy. More than the great mobilization effort of World War II or any of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were applied during the 1930s, it was suburban development that propelled the golden era of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As working- and middle-class families settled into suburban houses, their purchases of washers, dryers, television sets, living-room sofas, and automobiles stimulated the manufacturing sector that employed so many of them, creating more jobs and still more homebuyers. Sprawl was driver of the now-fading era of cheap economic growth.

But today, clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth. Many people still like living in suburbs, of course, but suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.

Florida is right on a number of counts: (1) many suburbs are long past their period of growth and now having aging infrastructure as well as changing populations; (2) sprawl can be very inefficient for providing basic services (from water to roads to social services); and (3) we are in a different economic era.

At the same time, it is not necessarily clear where the suburbs will go after this. At least a few outcomes are possible:

  1. A decline in interest in suburbs (either a plateauing in population or even decreasing) due to inefficiencies, costs to the environment, and a resurgent interest in urban life (particularly among younger adults). Suburban critics have predicted movement in this direction for several decades.
  2. A retooling of suburbia. This could include: older suburbs adapting to the lack of greenfield growth opportunities; an increase in retrofitting older suburban developments and making them new and exciting; and denser suburban development (from row houses to New Urbanism).
  3. The status quo: enough Americans continue to express a desire for the suburban life despite what critics say. Technology may even help as driverless cars could make commutes more bearable.

There are indeed real issues facing suburbs, the suburban life was never as idyllic as it was portrayed, and suburban communities and outcomes today are varied. But, I believe it is hard to bet against an ongoing interest among Americans for the suburbs.