Changes in “countrypolitan,” exurban counties more than just political

The analysis of the 2020 election includes many analyses of suburban voters. But, there is more at stake here than just voting patterns as this look at Union County, North Carolina suggests:

Google Maps – Union County, North Carolina

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County…

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20…

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

The temptation in such stories about suburban voters is to look at counties and communities and just see political change. And it sounds like Union County has had its share comparing before the Civil Rights Era, after, and today.

The basic explanation for this recent change is new residents. The population has grown and new residents, not as familiar with the ways of Union County, have moved in. What was once a small population with low density is now much larger and in bigger cities and towns.

But, is this all that has changed: new people moved in and they came with some new political views? I suspect there is more going on here that both contributes to the political change and also exists outside of it. Here are a few possible factors at play:

  1. The suburbs and the spread of metropolitan areas are not just about increasing populations and higher population densities. The suburbs come with a particular way of life. People who seek out such locations want single-family homes, middle-class opportunities and peace for their family, responsive local government, and the ability to live in a place they chose with people who look more like them. This is different than a more rural or working-class character in communities. This desire for the American suburbs does not easily line up with either political party on all the issues but it certainly is a different way of life.
  2. The decline of agriculture, particularly family-owned farms and opportunities, could be at play here. As farming becomes more difficult or less desirable for subsequent generations, the land can be sold off and be turned into subdivisions. This is a significant change in land use as well as who lives there: farmers and those connected to agriculture versus middle-class suburbanites.
  3. Connected to #2, the economic landscape has changed tremendously in the last half-century or so, moving away not just from agriculture but also manufacturing and moving more toward retail, services, and a knowledge economy. Union County and many other locations in the United States are still trying to adapt to these large shifts that affect employment, tax bases, and local businesses.
  4. Numerous local institutions have likely had to adjust in light of growing populations. Schools need more space for kids. Local governments need to provide more services (and they might now have larger tax bases to draw on) and local officials are addressing new issues. Established churches now compete with new congregations. In sum, the civic and social institutions that may have existed for decades in roughly the same form now need to adapt. This can present challenges in any community.

In sum, this is not just about politics. A shift toward a suburban lifestyle in Union County has many consequences and politics may just be one of them.

Farmers markets nearly dead in 1971; exploding in number today

A study looking at what motivates shopping at a farmers market includes figures on the number of farmers markets over time:

Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were “doomed by a changing society” in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were “populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse,” Pyle wrote.

Yet like Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong…The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.

That is quite an increase. What is behind it?

“A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies,” states the study.

But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.

Here is my interpretation of the findings: as farming has become an industry with large corporations and selling food products has become dominated by big box stores (Walmart now has about 25% market share among grocery stores), the farmers market gives those with the resources an opportunity to retain control of where their money goes. Americans tend to like local control and this gives grocery buyers the ability to see more directly where their money goes (directly to producers, closer to where the purchasers actually like).

Wealthier communities are also likely to see farmers markets as desirable economic contributors. The markets don’t require that much space – they can even put underutilized parking lots to use – and don’t create trouble in terms of pollution or noise. The markets can attract higher-income residents who will then associate the nicer shopping option with a higher quality community as well as possibly spend more money elsewhere in the community. As an illustration of this, look where the 150+ farmers markets in the Chicago region are located.

From Chicago grain elevators to art/film space to potential spot for redevelopment

Urban properties can go through a series of changes and one set of grain elevators on Chicago’s Southwest Side have seen their share of uses:

Grain elevators’ histories are often marred with explosions (something about the dust mixed with oxygen), and one such spontaneous combustion on these 24 acres led to the current John Metcalf-designed “Damen Silos” property, formerly the Santa Fe Railroad Grain Elevator, built in 1906 at 2900 S Damen off the South Branch of the Chicago River. Keep in mind the staggering presence of 35 80-foot silos in the pre-skyscraper era. They churned out 400,000 bushels thanks to machines running on 1,500 horsepower (from steam and electricity). Unfortunately while users changed (Stratton Grain Co was up next), explosions continued…

The property’s been a fertile stomping ground for the street art and photography set for years. Brent Bandemer’s 2012 short film “Gone” documents the life of David “Gone” Brault, a 23-year-old suspended college student squatting at the Damen Silos to teach others how to survive when the apocalypse comes. (Understandable, given the silos’ arty End of Days vibe, and where Chicago apartment rents are headed.) As David’s favorite graffiti on the property says, “One day the whole city will be this beautiful.” In 2013 it was a filming location for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, whose special effects hit eerily close to home…

The state’s only remaining vacant land in Chicago, the property’s location (with Chicago River frontage and access to interstate travel) should be its biggest selling point, says the CMS spokeswoman, along with lots of land to play with for industrial redevelopment. Looking at other grain elevators around the world, you’ll find creative adaptive reuse strategies ranging from residential to office to data centers to artsy (they work well as both canvases and projection screens). A distributor who needs water and highway access would be more practical, though probably not as pretty.

Perhaps this exemplifies the shifts in the American economy in the last century or so: Chicago as an agricultural center taking in grain from all over the Midwest but then losing agricultural and manufacturing jobs as the country moved to a knowledge economy. The empty space then finds a second use as space for artists who can work with the postindustrial vibe. Now, the property offers some advantages for redevelopment with easy access to transportation (one of Chicago’s continued strengths).

At the least, this property offers some unique potential in a city known for its industrial and agricultural past.

Decrease the number of new McMansions to increase local food security

One farmer and activist suggests reaching local food security means stopping the construction of McMansions:

Salatin — a successful American farmer, former reporter and author of nine books on the food revolution — is able to produce far more food per acre than industrial-scale farms using techniques that make raising beef, chicken, eggs and even pigs palatable to the neighbours…

Putting fallow land around monster homes that are proliferating in the Agricultural Land Reserve back into production will be key to building local food security in B.C.“We call those McMansions,” he said. “It is a problem because that is agriculturally abandoned land. We can’t begin to feed ourselves with a local-centric system if we lock up land in royal manor models.”

Even urban dwellers need to consider how far their food has to travel and whether it will come at all if there are shortages, he suggested. The integrated approach he takes to food production on the farm can be applied at any scale, Salatin said.

There are a lot of things that people, even in well-established communities, can do themselves to become more food secure, said Salatin, giving examples such as keeping honeybees on rooftops, installing food-producing solariums in our homes, capturing rainwater for food production, container gardening and reclaiming some of the billions of potentially productive acres sequestered under lawns in North America.

It is rare to find a critique of McMansions that explicitly addresses food. Such homes are often criticized for being wasteful, using too much land and resources as well as providing more space than people need.

Yet, I suspect it is not quite as simple as suggesting new McMansions automatically mean less agricultural space. McMansions aren’t the only use of land. This argument seems to use McMansions as a shorthand for sprawl. The sprawl often associated with McMansion neighborhoods consumes green land and pushes farming and agriculture further and further away.

Would a middle ground be consistently using McMansion land for growing things and raising animals? I have yet to see a request from McMansion homeowners to allow chickens or livestock – though such lots could accommodate such activities. It probably comes down to property values…

 

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McMansions “bloom” in China

One fact about McMansions and one assertion: they are in China and they are “growing.”

In the Dianshan Lake region, less than 40 miles west of central Shanghai, the appetite for speculative real estate has driven developers into China’s most fertile land, the Yangtze Delta. Only about half of the luxury villas like those on the following pages, which can be as big as 6,300 square feet and sell for as much as $1.5 million, are occupied — mostly as second homes. The rest sit empty, as the housing sector staggers under a surplus. The photographer George Steinmetz, who visited the area last fall, describes the transition as converting “rice farms to high-end McMansions.” As that process plays out, the country’s domestic rice consumption is set to soon outpace rice production.

This highlights two small trends in reporting on McMansions:

1. People like to note the spread of McMansions around the world. I’ve seen articles talking about McMansions in China, Russia, and different parts of Europe, Africa, and Latin America. It is a unique American export that requires a supporting infrastructure of a wealthy upper middle-class, roads, power, and sewers, and space for large single-family homes. Outside of the United States, McMansions are most common in Australia and still limited elsewhere.

2. The idea of McMansions “growing” or “blooming” fits in with ideas about suburban sprawl as well as the land McMansions often replace. Critics of McMansions lament the loss of open land or fields, particularly when replaced by energy inefficient homes. At the same time, blooming might suggests McMansions are like flowers while some would prefer the comparison be made to weeds.

Anachronistic county fair in the midst of urbanized DuPage County?

The DuPage County Fair starts today and offers typical county fair activities:

For five days every July, DuPage County residents get a chance to step into a world dominated by monster trucks, bucking broncos and guys who like to smash their cars into other guys who like to smash their cars…

In addition to the animal exhibits, the carnival rides, the vendors and all sorts of food, this year’s fair offers shows each day, some of which require extra fees. A quick look at some of the best:

• Monster Truck shows at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; free with admission;

• Michael Lynch from TV’s “The Voice” at 8 p.m. Thursday; free with admission;

• Rodeo at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday; $8 admission;

• Demolition Derby at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; $8 admission.

DuPage County does have roots in farming and country living. First settled in the 1830s, the county was relatively unpopulated, the city of Chicago didn’t have that many people, and the railroad didn’t come until the late 1840s. But, much of the rural land disappeared after World War II as the population jumped from over 154,000 in 1950 to over 930,000 today. While the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been active in these decades acquiring land, much of this is green space, not agricultural land.

At the least, the DuPage County Fair reminds residents of the county’s roots even if the county now revolves more around white-collar businesses.

With diminishing water, privileging urban growth over farming in Arizona

If water supplies are dwindling, should cities or farmers get more of the water? One writer suggests Arizona has made a clear choice for cities:

The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.

Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.

Hopefully, future dispatches in this series about water and drought in the Southwest will begin to address the normative questions: what is the proper ratio of water for cities and farmers? Is it necessarily bad if farmers can’t produce as much in Arizona and California (could more be produced elsewhere, do farmers need to shift to new crops, etc.)? Both farming and urban growth have changed the natural water patterns in the region but does one have a stronger claim to the water in the long run?

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.

Mapping the boundaries of the Midwest

Mapping the Midwest has now become a crowdsourced project through asking “What’s the Midwest to you?”

That’s the question design and planning firm Sasaki Associates is asking visitors to its new exhibit, “Reinvention in the Urban Midwest,” which opens at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space this week. The project includes an interactive survey that contains a timeless challenge: Draw the geographic boundaries of what counts as the U.S. Midwest…

Judging by the maps drawn by others and myself, it appears Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are the states of most contention. I personally felt I had no choice but to cut some of them in half. Perhaps the correct answer is still the textbook answer: the states of most intensified yellow (at least as identified by those who’ve lived in the Midwest the longest) make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to the east, plus Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota to the west.  (As a commenter pointed out, cartographer and historian Bill Rankin has also done a Midwest mapping project, in which he overlaid 100 different maps of the Midwest and made the confounding observation that  “no area that was included on every single map”.)

So the geographic boundaries of what most Americans consider the Midwest aren’t exactly clear, but Sasaki has also included another set of maps that reveal a much less murky truth: the Midwest has urbanized in a vastly different way from the rest of the United States. The graphic below maps out the population densities found in urban areas from four U.S. regions in 2010 (a darker shade signifies a larger, denser population)…

The Midwest is characterized by small but strong urban centers that transition sharply to rural surroundings. This pattern has of course grown from the region’s historical focus on agricultural land use. Sasaki’s recent work in Iowa suggests a continued population decline in rural areas but growing population density in more urban areas. However, the growth of urban areas in the Midwest is not uniform. The firm has further identified that agricultural cities in the plains sub-region, such as Des Moines, Iowa, or Lincoln, Nebraska, are indeed growing due to factors like de-ruralization and in-migration to city centers, while traditionally heavy-industry cities in the forest sub-region, such as Milwaukee or St. Louis, are still losing population.

One takeaway: the Midwest is a fuzzily-defined entity that perhaps has more to do with perceptions and culture than it does with exact geography. This would be aided by then asking people who drew the maps to then type in words they associate with the Midwest. I like the contrasting maps between those who have spent more of their lives in the Midwest versus those who have not: there are some clear differences.

The connection between farmland and cities is a good catch. Big cities like Chicago or Omaha were (and still are) intimately connected to agricultural commodities that needed to be distributed and sold through the big cities. For example, if you look at the early railroad construction in the Chicago region, much of it was linked to shipping products from the plains, everything from wheat (southwestern Wisconsin) to lead (Galena) to then distribute further east. Or look at the trading of commodities in places like Chicago and the creation of new kinds of markets. Even though there are big gaps between the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois – they operate as very different worlds – both would strongly consider themselves part of the same region, even if they can’t speak to the deeper ties that connect them.

Trying to hold a county fair in suburban DuPage County

DuPage County now has over 915,000 people and has little open land left for development. Amidst rapid suburbanization after World War II, there has always been a DuPage County Fair. Now, there is public debate about whether it makes sense to continue having this event:

The DuPage County Board should examine the long-term viability of its county fair and how distribution of state funding for the event is handled, a consultant has recommended.

And if the fair continues, the county should consider a new location, even if it means sharing a site with another county, the consultant recommends…

The fair, held each July on county-owned land in Wheaton east of DuPage’s government center, is run by a nonprofit association that relies heavily on funding that is funneled from the state Department of Agriculture through the Fair and Exposition Authority. Transferring that responsibility to the County Board would remove a layer of government by in effect eliminating the need for the seven-member fair authority, and that would “relieve the county of any associated risk,” the firm said.

Crowe Horwath pointed to decreased funding from the state and declining fair attendance as reasons why the county should consider whether the fair makes sense at all in the long run. The fair received an average of $300,000 a year in 2005-07. The figure in 2011 was about $198,000. The firm also noted that the fairgrounds are valuable property for which a better use might be found. The fair leases the land for $1,375 a year.

It is not surprising that this discussion has arisen in an era of fiscal issues at multiple levels of government.

The best argument I could imagine for the fair is that it is a reminder of what DuPage County once was. For the first 100 years of its history, DuPage County was primarily farmland and small towns that were within the orbit of Chicago. Produce from the farms could be shipped by rail or road to Chicago, destined for eastern markets through the Great Lakes, or to the southwest, eventually bound for the Mississippi River and points due south. One farm in the county even became the focus of a television show during the early 1950s:

In the spring of 1953, the Illinois Depart­ment of Agriculture began a search for a farm and a farm family who would become the stars of a new television show on the National Broadcasting Company. One of the thirty-five farms on the itinerary was the Harbecke Farm on Gary Avenue, rural Cloverdale in Bloom­ingdale Township, operated by Harbecke’s daughter and son-in-law, Bertha and Wilbert Landmeier. Tracing their roots to pioneer German farm families, the young couple had moved to the Harbecke Farm to operate a dairy farm. They had recently installed dairy equip­ment which carried the milk in refrigerated tubes from the milking machine to cooling tanks on the milk truck, which transported the commodity to an Addison dairy. The farm also had a hay drier which was another piece of modern machinery not found on every farm in  1953. These advantages, plus the fact that the location was considered one of the best be­tween Chicago and the Fox River for beaming the television waves, made the selection of the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm ideal for the show.

Thus, “Out on the Farm” began the first of a two-year run from the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm in the summer of 1953.  During the second season the first outdoor network colorcast originating from Chicago was the pickup from the Landmeier Farm. At the end of the 1954 season, the show was over, as Cloverdale and all of DuPage County were due for rapid change.

Here is a short description of the transformation from farmland to urban county:

The DuPage County Fair is the only county fair in Illinois located in a completely urban setting. Historical research showed that when the first DuPage County Fair was held in 1955, the county was 85% farmland. By 2000, the last farm vanished as DuPage County was absorbed into Chicago’s urban sprawl.

Today, the only farms DuPage County residents are likely to know about are Forest Preserve properties such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago or St. John’s Farm in Warrenville.

In the end, it sounds like it will be difficult to reserve valuable land for a week of nostalgia and history every year.