Background noise and less seismic activity caused by humans during COVID-19

Measuring seismic activity often requires locating instruments away from population centers. During COVID-19, the seismic activity caused by humans dropped a lot:

architecture bedrock bridge building

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Writing today in the journal Science, dozens of researchers from around the world show that the seismic activity from our civilization plummeted as lockdowns went into effect. This “anthropogenic seismic noise,” as seismologists call it, comes from all manner of human activities, whether that’s running factories, operating cars or trains, or even holding concerts. Seismometers pick up these activities as a kind of constant din, which actually peaks on weekdays, when more people are moving around, and falls on weekends when economies slow down. All this activity that seismometers detect mixes with the natural rumbles that scientists are really interested in, like earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

But boy, are they interested in the anthropogenic seismic noise now—or the lack thereof, as humans began to shelter in place. “We see it effectively moving around the globe as a seismic lockdown wave,” says Royal Holloway University of London seismologist Paula Koelemeijer, one of the paper’s coauthors. “So starting in China originally, then in different places in Italy, and then going through Europe. And whenever lockdowns happened in different countries, we see the effect that’s up to an 80 percent reduction in the amplitude of the seismic noise in some places.” The average was about 50 percent…

Normally, seismologists don’t bother monitoring urban environments for just this reason: There’s way too much noise muddying the signals of Earth’s natural processes. But for the past few years, citizen scientists have been collecting signals thanks to a clever little device called the Raspberry Shake, a Raspberry Pi computer outfitted with sensors to create an internet-connected seismometer. “Those instruments have been popping up more and more in people’s homes,” says Koelemeijer. “And so about 40 percent of our data stations that we looked at have been these citizen science instruments. It’s just people finding it funny, geeky, to have one of them. Like, I’m one of those people. I have one in my house.”…

But it was in a remote part of Germany where seismologists recorded perhaps the most surprising lockdown data. The Black Forest Observatory is not only isolated, and thus considered to be a reference low-noise laboratory, but its instruments are stowed over 150 meters below the surface, in bedrock. Yet they, too, picked up a small noise reduction at night during the lockdown. “Germany was a big surprise for us, because that station is very much a remote station, and seen as a very good seismic station for looking at natural signals,” says Koelemeijer. “So the fact that we saw it there was quite remarkable.”

Human activity influences all sorts of spheres that we do not often consider. Here, humans create a lot of noise and activity below the surface of the earth. There are occasionally complaints about noise pollution but most people put up with a certain amount of noise and vibrations in the places where they live.

This reminds of several different aspects of working with “background noise.” Working in radio, I often used sound effects for promotional material. The sound effect CDs we had contained a variety of background noise or din. For example, the city options largely contained traffic noise with vehicle rumbling and honking mixed together.

More recently, sports broadcasts have adjusted to teams playing in stadiums with no fans present in the stands. They often use recordings of fans where a sound technician has the ability to respond to play on the field (such as cheering for a good play for the home team or a negative response from fans). Without such background noise, the broadcast sounds very different: voices echo, the players can be heard, and a comforting or familiar element of the broadcast is lost.

All together, the background noise of our lives matters in everyday activity and in scientific measurement. If COVID-19 changes human movement and interactions, what we hear by ear and scientific instruments also changes.

The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

time lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane

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All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.

Does new housing data support the claim that people are leaving cities?

Reuters tries to connect the dots between data on housing construction and claims that people are leaving cities:

selective focus photography cement

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U.S. homebuilding increased in June by the most in nearly four years amid reports of rising demand for housing in suburbs and rural areas as companies allow employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic…

A survey on Thursday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders vaulting in July to levels that prevailed before the coronavirus crisis upended the economy in March.

Builders reported increased demand for single-family homes in lower density markets, including small metro areas, rural markets and large metro suburbs. The public health crisis has shifted office work from commercial business districts to homes, a trend that economists predict could become permanent…

Home building last month was boosted by a 17.2% jump in the construction of singe-family housing units, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, to a rate of 831,000 units. Groundbreaking activity increased in the Midwest, South and Northeast, but fell in the West.

It is widely assumed that large numbers of urban residents have left New York (and possibly) other places for suburbs and other parts of the country. If so, this could influence the housing industry. Yet, I would ask a few more questions.

First question to ask: is this activity due to people leaving cities or other factors? It would be helpful to consider other possible factors at play such as seasonal changes (more housing activity in warmer weather, more demand in warmer months) and the economy (ranging from confidence of different actors to mortgage rates to available capital to unemployment – all intertwined with COVID-19). Is the uptick in activity since roughly early March to today (when

Second question to ask: if there is evidence that things are happening simultaneously, is there more evidence to suggest they are causal patterns at play? If people are leaving cities, it does not necessarily mean they are looking for new homes. Perhaps they want to return to the city, perhaps they are living with others, perhaps they are willing to rent for a while and see what happens.

And out of my own curiosity, the reporting I have seen about people leaving cities during COVID-19 seems to primarily apply to wealthier residents. Does this mean the new construction of homes will tilt toward larger, more expensive homes? If so, this is a continuation of a bifurcated housing market where those with resources will have options while many with limited resources or opportunities will not.

There is a lot to consider here and we may not the patterns for a while yet. Even if the housing industry thinks that people are fleeing cities for good, this matters regardless of the actual data.

Publication online in Journal of Urban History: “From “God Will Begin a Healing in this City” to “Jungles of Terror”: Billy Graham and Evangelicals on Cities and Suburbs”

Yesterday, the Journal of Urban History published online an article I had worked on for a few years:

BillyGrahamArticleJul20Online

This project began when I became aware of an online archive of Billy Graham’s messages through the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Given Graham’s popularity and influence while thinking as a sociologist about how religion and place are connected, I wanted to see how he addressed the substantial social change brought about by suburbanization during his post-World War II evangelistic career. Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Graham discussed numerous urban problems and suggested solutions should begin with individual spiritual renewal. Graham proclaimed heaven as the ultimate city and did not encourage listeners to stay in cities or challenge white flight. As a respected pastor and leader, Graham’s messages highlight how evangelicals could consider cities in need of spiritual renewal but not require structural responses or living in cities as well as the limited power evangelical religious leaders have regarding contentious social issues.

The anti-urbanism common among white evangelicals has numerous roots. Graham exemplified several of these: a focus on individual action and salvation, consistent reminders of urban problems (meant to help prompt a spiritual response), and a focus on heaven. At the same time, his evangelistic efforts required holding events in major cities and meeting and talking with numerous influential leaders found in cities. I hope this study can help contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation about the mixing of religion and place and its consequences for American society.

Seinfeld on the suburbs (and city)

I have watched a few episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I recently saw the opening episode of Season 4 where Jerry Seinfeld talks with Sarah Jessica Parker that included Seinfeld discussing the suburbs:

I grew up in the suburbs, didn’t like it — always wanted to live in the city. Now, I want to live in the suburbs.

This could be the story of many Americans. Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954, the era of a postwar population boom and mass suburbia. Millions grew up in new and expanding suburbs organized around single-family homes and driving. At some point, Seinfeld was drawn to the city where I’m guessing comedy and entertainment possibilities beckoned. His iconic television show Seinfeld revolved around quirky New York characters doing city things. Yet, whether he was in the suburbs or cities, he wanted to be elsewhere.

Seinfeld’s line in the episode is enhanced both three features of the episode: the 1976 Ford Squire station wagon Parker owns and loves, the discussion Parker and Seinfeld have about their growing up in the suburbs (with Parker just outside the suburban Baby Boomers but sounding like she had some similar experiences), and they drive out of Manhattan to the suburbs.

This could simply be the case of the grass is always greener on the other side. Seinfeld and Parker seem caught up in some nostalgia about simpler times. Or, it might hint at a larger conundrum in American life for many residents: is the suburban or urban life preferable? The big city offers cultural opportunities, jobs, unique communities, and often an urban identity. The suburbs offer private space, perceived safety and opportunities for kids, the American Dream.

There may even be places that offer some of both. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other major cities offer urban residential neighborhoods that have single-family homes where urbanites can escape to private dwellings and still be close to the urban excitement. Or, there are some suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs, with denser residences and downtowns, that feel more lively than the stereotypical suburban bedroom community.

This also gets to the crux of Seinfeld as a show. While it was massively popular and helped lead to a run of popular television shows on network television in the 1990s, Seinfeld’s quote above makes me wonder: is it a critique of cities or is it a celebration of them? Just as the characters turn out in the series to now be nice people, how does New York City fare in the end? The individual characters are not happy or content people; is this because of their personalities (the types that would never be happy anywhere) or is it provoked by the setting? Jerry lives in the city but the city always presents problems, from people who get in their way to unusual settings.

Even though these might just be television shows and personal memories, how these are later interpreted – positive sentiments regarding the suburbs or city? – can later influence whether Americans pursue a suburban or urban future.

Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19

What people do and can do for recreation differs across racial/ethnic groups as well as social class:

people standing on beach during sunset

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The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done…

The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.

“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).

Four quick thoughts:

  1. That race and class matter for recreation is not a surprise. At the same time, how it continues to influence different aspects of American life – including what people do with their free time or to relax or for fun – and evolve over time is still worth considering.
  2. The article briefly mentions public spaces and I think it is worth paying attention to. Most of the activities discussed here are viewable by others. As sociologist Elijah Anderson argued, it can be difficult to find public spaces where Americans of different backgrounds regularly mix. Or, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, the United States could strengthen local public spaces and institutions with positive outcomes for all.
  3. The majority of the examples in the article come from cities. Does this play out similarly or differently in suburbs where private homes are emphasized and moral minimalism governs interactions?
  4. What is the flip side of this: what the wealthy doing for leisure during COVID-19? How possible is conspicuous consumption is an era of anxiety and pain for many?

The top US cities for Fortune 500 company headquarters, COVID-19 edition

In an article about working remotely, the Wall Street Journal included this graphic about the locations of the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies:

Fortune500HQLocations

This is an interesting topic to raise as more workers are laboring away from the office. What will happen to headquarters?

One option would be that headquarters remain even as organizational workforces scatter. There will always be a need to at least occasionally hold meetings or access resources or project a presence in a major city. Cities would like this as headquarters are a status symbol.

Another option is that headquarters move to locations more central to their workers or more attractive for workers. This is more unlikely but the same factors pushing workers away from major cities – high housing costs, traffic and congestion, density with threats of pandemics – could affect headquarters as well. It could be a big strategic move to follow workers to a city not on the list above.

The effects of either could be big for cities. Consider New York. It is the clear leader in terms of headquarters, it is a leading global city, and it is not just a center for business but also for news, entertainment, the arts, and other spheres. Even if the headquarters stay, the loss of high-status employees hurts. If the headquarters leave or become shells of themselves, there could be a loss of status.

If workers can live anywhere, does this increase or decrease placelessness?

A theme is emerging: today’s workers with technology and COVID-19 might be able to avoid going to an office. But, if they can live anywhere, what does this do for a sense of community and connecting to a particular place?

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The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.

Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.

But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.

Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.

On the side of more community and rootedness:

1. People can live in places they want to live rather than choosing a place for a job. Whether they live somewhere to be near family, find housing, enjoy the outdoors, or some other reason, workers will be inclined to invest more locally.

2. Working from home schedules can offer more flexibility, freeing people up to participate more in local activities.

3. The commute is eliminated, freeing up time as well as getting rid of the illusion that driving through an area is the same as knowing it.

4. People might stay longer in places if they can simply change jobs from afar rather than having to move when they switch jobs or careers.

On the side of less community and rootedness:

1. Spending time at a workplace can build community, both in the building as well as outside the workplace.

2. Corporate actions at the local level will connect less with employees who are not physically there and involved.

3. More businesses may have headquarters in one place (often desirable for big cities and high-status suburbs) but workforces – and all the benefits that come with it such as their spending or jobs numbers local politicians like – will be elsewhere.

On the whole, this could be good for employees who can invest more time in places of their choosing while businesses then have more tenuous connections to the places where they are officially located. In a country of suburbia (often considered non-places) and relatively easy travel, anchoring employees in places for longer could help lead to more rootedness.

Losing population in other Illinois cities

Chicago gets a lot of attention for losing population but it is not the only Illinois city facing that issue:

RockfordCityWebsiteJune1120

Rockford, Illinois website – https://rockfordil.gov/

Decatur, in central Illinois about 40 miles east of Springfield, has lost 7.1% of its population since the 2010 census, according to the recently released 2019 population estimates. That drop is the third-largest percentage loss in the U.S. among cities with a population of 50,000 or more. Rockford comes in at No. 15 on that list. The northern Illinois city, the fifth-largest in the state with an estimated 145,609 residents, has lost 5% of its population during that nine-year period.

Rockford’s total population loss of 7,676 people over the last decade places it ninth nationwide among large cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with Decatur (-5,385) at No. 15. Four of the five cities that have lost the most people since the last census are in the Midwest. Detroit has lost the most people, about 43,000, since 2010, followed by Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio…

“I think those cities are very susceptible to having populations hurt by the new service economy or the new postindustrial economy, and that’s because they have such a historical reliance, and a current reliance, on manufacturing and heavy-duty industry,” Wilson said. “And for those city economies that have not diversified, they really get hurt, they get pummeled. And what does that mean to get pummeled? People have a very difficult time living there and earning a living wage. They simply can’t make ends meet. And they become primed for thinking about leaving and trying to find something better.”…

“It’s going to create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots in places like Joliet, Aurora, Rockford,” Wilson said. “And people are going to want to leave.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. The population growth of the Sun Belt is a major force in American change in recent decades. Americans obsess over population growth and it is not in the Midwest so status and attention goes elsewhere.

2. This reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s book Look at Me where one of the main characters dreams of restoring Rockford to flourishing and growth. Yet, it is hard to imagine cities like Rockford or Decatur recapturing their past glory or entering a significant revival.

3. The narrative around population loss in Chicago often revolves around problems specific to Chicago. But, this article hints that it is a state-wide issue or a regional issue. If true, this would require a more coordinated effort across communities and groups that sometimes spend more time sniping at each other than working together (for example, feuds Illinois has with Indiana and Wisconsin rather than regional cooperation).

 

 

More on the wealthy leaving cities, San Francisco edition

The flight of some out of New York City amid COVID-19 has attracted attention. This may also be happening in San Francisco:

city skyline during golden hour

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Amid the depths of a global pandemic and financial downturn, the demand for real estate is unexpectedly rocketing in wealthy regions outside San Francisco, reports Bloomberg. Agents say that demand is soaring in affluent areas around the Bay Area such as Napa, Marin and further afield in Carmel, as people who have the means look to get away from the city. Meanwhile, the market in San Francisco and Alameda County is still well below where it was last year.

Elsewhere, Lake Tahoe has also seen a surge in real estate interest. The prospect of living out of the city on an alpine lake while maintaining a career is appealing for a new generation of young buyers, as many tech companies have signaled that remote work may be the new norm for a long time…

Meanwhile, the rental market in San Francisco has dropped significantly, with rates for one-bedroom apartments in the city dropping by 9.2% since June 2019, and hitting a three-year low.

However, buying a new home in an isolated haven in a nearby bucolic county is not an option for lower-income San Francisco residents, and some believe the trend is only exacerbating the wealth divide.

And, as noted in the final paragraph of the story, it is hard to know whether this is a long-term trend. But, this is one of the advantage of wealth and resources: residential options during times when many others are limited in where they can live. And this is not just limited to where they can live; it includes being able to travel back and forth easily, owning or renting multiple properties at the same time, and having all the resources for working from home.

More broadly, the evidence cited above is interesting in that people moving out of the city are not said to be moving very far. They are still within a drive of San Francisco/the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. Are people in the Bay Area more willing to stay close by or do they have to due to work (a need for at least some in the tech industry to be at meetings, see people and products, etc.)? Does this differ from New York City where many of those moving ended up in the suburbs while others left the metro region all together? Staying in driving distance changes the moving experience.

I am also imagining the possibility of a more significant migration than some wealthy people heading for the suburbs or other cool metro areas. What if Facebook said they want to get out of the petri dish of Silicon Valley, be a different kind of tech company that really wants to connect people, and picks up for Omaha or St. Louis or another smaller big city in the middle of the country? Clusters of organizations have particular synergies and efficiencies but if more workers are going to be at home, is there still the same need to locate near everyone else?

Related earlier post: the evidence for this happening in Washington D.C. may not be as strong.