Onion: “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game of ‘Big City'”

The Onion says this about Boston:

Boston residents once again hustled and bustled their way into the nation’s hearts this week as they continued playing their adorable little game of “Big City,” a live-action role-playing adventure in which Bostonians buzz about their daily routines in a delightful hubbub of excitement as if they lived in a major American metropolis.

Inhabitants of real cities across the nation smiled in affectionate amusement as Bostonians put on their big-city clothes, swiped their Charlie cards for a ride on one of the MBTA’s trolley-like subway cars—charmingly called the “T”—and rushed downtown for “important” business meetings at the John Hancock Building, the South Boston Innovation District, and other pretend centers of global industry and commerce…

According to enchanted onlookers who live in actual metropolitan areas, Boston residents are particularly endearing when they get all dressed up for a night at the theater; eat a big, fancy dinner at the Prudential Center’s top-floor restaurant; and read The Boston Globe, whose reporters get to play a game of Big-City Journalist each and every day…

Sources went on to call the city’s darling nickname, “The Hub,” a great, hilarious touch, as though Boston were an actual locus of anything vital whatsoever.

I don’t know if Boston residents have an inferiority complex. But, the article also mentions a Chicago resident suggesting they also play “Big City.” This reference to Chicago might have a grain of truth in it; Chicago leaders and residents occasionally worry about whether the city is keeping up and is still a global city. Presumably, the only people who don’t have to play “Big City” are residents of New York City and Los Angeles – and this is perhaps how residents of the two largest US cities see it.

What happens when you let Boston residents crowdsource neighborhood boundaries

Here is a fascinating online experiment: let residents of a city, in this case, Boston, illustrate how they would draw neighborhood boundaries. Here are the conclusions of the effort thus far:

Although we talk a lot about boundaries, this post included, the maps here should also remind us that neighborhoods are not defined by their edges—essentially, what is outside the neighborhood—but rather by their contents. And it’s not just a collection of roads and things you see on a map; it’s about some shared history, activities, architecture, and culture. So while the neighborhood summaries above rely on edges to describe the maps, let’s also think about the areas represented by the shapes and what’s inside them. What are the characteristics of these areas? Why are they the shapes that they are? Why is consensus easy or difficult in different areas? What is the significance of the differences in opinion between residents of a neighborhood and people outside the neighborhood?

We’ll revisit those questions in further detail in future posts, and also generate maps of other facets of the data. Next up: areas of overlap between neighborhoods. Here we’ve looked neighborhood-by-neighborhood at how much people agree, so now let’s map those zones that exhibit disagreement. Meanwhile, thanks so much for all the submissions for this project; and if you haven’t drawn some neighborhoods, what’s your problem? Get on it!

This gets at a recurring issue for urban sociologists: how to best define communities or neighborhoods. The best option with data is to use Census boundaries such as tracts, block groups, blocks, and perhaps zip codes. This data is collected regularly, in-depth, and can be easily downloaded. However, these boundaries are crude approximations of culturally defined neighborhoods. People on the ground have little knowledge about what Census tract they live in (though this is easy to figure out online).

So if Census definitions are not the best for the on-the-ground experience, what is left? This crowdsourcing project is a modern way of doing what some researchers have done: ask the residents themselves and also observe what happens. What streets are not crossed? Which features or landmarks define a neighborhood? Who “belongs” where? What are typical activities in different places? Of course, this is a much messier process than working with clearly defined and reliable Census data but it illustrates a key aspect about neighborhoods: they are continually changing and being redefined by their own residents and others.

Transit-oriented development in the Boston area

Transit-oriented development has been popular for years now and here is an update on this development strategy in the Boston area:

“We see a huge demand around Greater Boston. We’re working in communities from Winchester to Lawrence that are all working to develop vibrant urban villages around public transportation,” Leroux said. “An overwhelming number of people want to live in these types of places, and communities that don’t create them are less competitive for residents and jobs.”

Filling the need in Somerville, where the residential landscape consists mainly of three-decker homes, is Maxwell’s Green, which will feature 184 rental units with amenities to rival many downtown Boston luxury apartment buildings.

Near completion and ready for occupancy this September, the $52.5 million development sits on 5.5 acres and is located minutes from the Red Line stop at Davis Square and adjacent to the much- anticipated MBTA Green Line Extension’s Lowell Street station…

SouthField, one of the largest transit-oriented developments in Greater Boston, is on track for South Weymouth at the former naval air station.

The first phase of the project is already complete, with residents occupying both apartments and townhouses. The total cost of the project, including the homes already built, is targeted at about $2.5 billion, which includes 2,800 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space.

The “urban village” concept has been around now for several decades. They are thought to be particularly attractive for young professionals who want to live in the suburbs or further away from the city core (partly because of cheaper prices), don’t yet want to buy a home (condos being easier to maintain), want mass transit access, and also want to be in more lively areas with some cultural and dining options.

These types of development are very popular in the Chicago suburbs are well, particularly along the railroad lines that radiate out from Chicago’s center. Many suburbs have sought to build multi-use developments (condos plus offices or small retail establishments) near their commuter train stations. While this means that the residents can access mass transit, it also provides more pedestrians and hopefully customers for the downtown. A number of suburbs have pursued these developments as part of a downtown revitalization strategy.

I would be interested to see how studies about how much these developments reduce traffic and congestion. Particularly in a suburban setting, a couple might be able to go down to one car (or none?) if both use mass transit a lot. However, while mass transit access to the city center might be great, there is often a lack of mass transit options across between suburbs.

I also wonder how much transit-oriented development succeeds because it is seen as trendy.

Regulating teardown McMansions in the Boston suburbs

The town of Sharon, Massachusetts is having a classic discussion regarding teardown McMansions:

Although any architectural style can be part of the large-house phenomenon, the typical structure that draws concern has a high roof line and sits closer to the property line than the one it replaced. Whether the problem is purely aesthetic or a more practical one of blocked views and bright outdoor lighting, some people dislike a house that dwarfs the rest of the neighborhood. Call it McMansion backlash.

A few Boston-area communities, including Cohasset and Wellesley, have imposed special regulations on new houses over a certain size, and now the town of Sharon is considering doing the same…

Typical discussion. Some people want the right to sell their home to whomever wants to buy it and people should be able to do what they want with their property. Others argue that the character of neighborhoods are changing, older residents may be priced out of the neighborhood by rising property taxes, and the bigger homes are ugly or too large.

Since this is a common story, I wonder how many communities prepare for this situation beforehand. On one hand, perhaps this seems like a waste of time – if it is not a problem, why bother spending time addressing the issue? Certain communities may never really have to deal with teardowns because the property is not that valuable and the community is far away from urban areas. On the other hand, many suburbs could be in this position, particularly with calls for redevelopment and a growing interest in being closer to work or amenities. Why not have some regulations on the books before it turns into a contentious public discussion? Once things start changing and the land is so valuable that there are people willing to offer big money for older homes, it is harder to slow the process.

An added bonus of having this discussion early on would be that it could a rare moment for community members to discuss what they really want the community and its neighborhoods to look like in the future. Without these clear plans, communities tend not to discuss these things until something drastic or large pops up and then people become passionate. Planning ahead could both save some trouble and also allow residents and leaders to be proactive in setting guidelines and ideals.

“The most closely studied troublemakers in history”

See this story for how a large study of Boston’s youths begun in 1939 sheds light on the recent arrest of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger:

It all began in 1939, when husband-and-wife researchers Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck assembled a team of investigators to go door to door through a number of poor Boston neighborhoods and collect data on boys who had grown up there. Their goal was to understand what causes some boys and not others to get involved with crime, a question which, as it happened, would be dramatically brought to life in the story of Whitey Bulger and his overachieving brother in the state Senate, William.

The Gluecks picked a sample of 1,000 boys, half of whom had stayed out of trouble while the other half had racked up records and gotten themselves locked up at one of two local reform schools, Lyman and Shirley. The boys were interviewed repeatedly – once when they were around 14, then again when they were 25 and 32 – as were their teachers, parents, and neighbors. Their world – Whitey’s world – was carefully documented, and their lives were charted as they grew from adolescents into adults…

The original researchers didn’t publish all of their data and several decades later, two criminologists dug into the data and interviewed some of the original participants. Here is what they found:

Their study earned Laub and Sampson accolades in their field for their insights into the nature of crime. But it also points to a few truths specifically about Boston, and the way the city shaped the Glueck boys while they grew into the Glueck men. It mattered a lot where these boys came from, Laub and Sampson concluded: The city had influenced them like no other city could have. Specifically, according to Sampson, it had made them cynical about authority.

All the poor neighborhoods in Boston were isolated to some degree in the 1940s: As Sampson and Laub discovered, kids who grew up in ethnic enclaves like Southie or the North End during that time did not identify with the city as a whole. Their lives were just too separate from everyone else’s, their daily routines too local. Plus, they knew the people who ran the show on Beacon Hill thought of their neighborhoods as slums, and they resented it.

This is an interesting piece as such large studies can offer a wealth of data and insights. This makes me wonder if other large datasets would benefit from teams of researchers later combing through the data to explore different areas and follow-up.

This is the sort of information that would help provide a broader context to Bulger’s case but I suspect the media will mainly stick to his mob background.

Plans for real megalopolis in China

The idea of a megalopolis dates back to the middle 1900s when people started thinking that collections of large cities, such as the large American cities on the Eastern seaboard including Boston, Hartford, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., such be considered as a larger grouping. But even this good example has cities separated by decent distances.

China is planning its own version of a megapolis near Hong Kong. The plans including merging nine cities with a combined population of 42 million:

The “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One” scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China’s manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). An express rail line will also connect the hub with nearby Hong Kong.

“The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas,” said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

This sounds like a sizable project. The article suggests that this is being done for several reasons: to achieve economy of scale in certain things (like medical services) and the ability to create unified policies for the region (including transportation and pollution initiatives). And this grouping of cities could conceivably grow even larger if Hong Kong was ever added to this mix.

The article calls this a “mega city” but I think it would fit the definition of a megalopolis perfectly. In fact, compared to most examples of a megalopolis, this one would be much better suited to the idea: the cities are relatively close and will be highly connected. Additionally, the cities are laid out more in a circle pattern rather than a line, allowing a variety of connections between urban centers.

I wonder how many planners around the world would approve of such a project. Combining certain infrastructure has its appeal as planning can be done on a broader scale and without cities constructing competing systems.

Interestingly, there are no plans to give the region a new name: “It will not be like Greater London or Greater Tokyo because there is no one city at the heart of this megalopolis.” Will future residents identify themselves as residents of the region or their specific city?

Building the “aerotropolis”

An article in the Boston Globe discusses a recently-coined phenomenon: the aerotropolis. This refers to the conglomeration of businesses and other uses that now tend to gather around important international airports:

Dulles is no longer an airport but an aerotropolis, a term coined by a University of North Carolina business professor. An aerotropolis is a city of the 21st century, built around a runway in roughly the same way that historic cities grew up around water or rail lines, with a close-in network of businesses, an outer loop of service industries, and suburbs full of homes.

Aerotropolises have emerged in places like the former no man’s zone between Dallas and Fort Worth, in suburban Atlanta, and around Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, near Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. They provide what John D. Kasarda, the UNC professor, calls “connectivity” to the global marketplace. International companies want to locate where their executives can step out their doors and be on another continent eight hours later. Firms producing the highest-value goods want to ship them to markets around the world. (“The Web won’t move a box,” Kasarda declares. “High-end products move by air.”) And businesses with tentacles around the globe want a place where all their people can fly in easily for meetings.

The story goes on to discuss how this did not come about around Logan Airport in Boston, primarily because of space issues. If space is indeed an important concern, this may be tricky to navigate – a city wants an airport relatively close to businesses and travelers can easily get downtown but at the same time, perhaps airports should be located further out as airports themselves require a good amount of land and if the aerotropolis is the goal, this takes up even more space.

This new term also suggests that airports are more than just pieces of infrastructure or places where tourists come and go but rather are important nodes in urban business networks. But some other information might be helpful to better understand the aerotropolis: does the aerotropolis provide more or less benefits than businesses that gather around other modes of transportation (highways, rail lines, seaports)? How does the business generated around airports today compare to the business generated 20 years ago? Which industries in particular benefit from the aerotropolis? How much money do municipalities gain from the aerotropolis versus other land uses?

Translating this into some other terms in use, is this simply an edge city with an airport at its center?

h/t The Infrastructurist